18 July 2012

The Influence of Middle-Grade Fiction on Wes Anderson

Movie director Wes Anderson, born in 1969, grew up reading the children’s books that librarians praised in the 1970s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

That influence was clear the moment that the narrator of The Royal Tenenbaums tells us that two of the siblings had lived surreptitiously in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just as in E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Newbery winner for 1968. That scene took less than a minute, as I recall; any longer, and it would have moved from homage to outright theft.

Anderson of course adapted Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, published in 1970.

According to Hollywood.com, Anderson had some more fantastic middle-grade models in mind for his latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom:
…Anderson returned to many of books and movies he loved as a kid. Anderson recalls Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time [Newbery Medal, 1963], Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (which the director suggests shaped the characterization of his young hero Sam Shakusky) and Susan Cooper’s ’60s [actually 1965 and 1973-77] fantasy series, The Dark Is Rising [Newbery Honor in 1974, Newbery Medal in 1977].

Anderson calls the first book in the saga, Under Sea Under Stone, “a tease,” in that at the core of the epic tale was a touching family story. But that didn’t stop him from immersing himself in the more fantastic elements as a kid.
Anderson was right in detecting something different about that first volume: Cooper didn’t envision the more fantastic sequels when she wrote it. In the US it even came from a different publisher. The epic qualities arrive in the second volume:
“There’s a poem that includes all these different symbols and talisman, and there’s this whole sort of mythology associated with it,” Anderson fondly remembers. “But it does not have the complexity of Tolkien. It’s young adult novel feeling, from the ’50s, ’60s, so there’s a sort of simplicity at the same time that there’s a very fleshed-out fantasy world. I remember carrying and wearing objects that I was imbuing with the powers of these talismans that were in the series.”
I don’t think the term “young adult” applies to any of those books, however. (Even Huckleberry Finn is either middle-grade or adult.) They’re all middle-grade novels, most about finding capability instead of finding identity. But of course “young adult” is a hot term today.

TOMORROW: The greatest influences on Moonrise Kingdom.


Monica Edinger said...

I think yet again we are seeing the use of YA to encompass all books that aren't picture books. My feeling when I see the term used so generally is that the writer is completely uninformed about books for kids and teens and have no clue there is a difference.

Was that tongue-in-cheek re Huckleberry Finn as a middle grade novel? I did laugh when I saw it mentioned. Just because kids read it doesn't make it a kids' book!

Look forward to the rest of what you have to say about this. I'd toyed with trying to contact Anderson for more about those imaginary books. Someone spent a lot of time and care creating them. They are incredibly clever, I think.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't really think Huckleberry Finn is a middle-grade novel, even though it's narrated by a boy of the right age and hits on a lot of common middle-grade themes. But I really don't think it's young adult. If we have to categorize Huck Finn as a children's book rather than a novel for adults, then I think it fits better among midgrades than YAs.