Wow, so working full time actually, you know, takes up a lot of time. Who knew?
Anyway. On the subway today, I reread Bruce Coville’s The Dragonslayers, probably for the first time since I was twelve. And it’s just as awesome as I remember. It’s about a spunky redheaded princess named Willie (it’s short for Wilhelmina, but an appropriate name, as she’s “the most willful person in the kingdom”). Willie wears army boots under her frilly dresses, and is outraged at the notion that she should get married before she has a chance to go out and have an adventure. So when a dragon appears, she runs away to slay it on her own, and does so with the aid of an aged Knight named Elizar and a brave young squire, Brian. They all want to slay the dragon, though it’s Willie who eventually does so. It’s a cute story for kids, with a truly rockin’ heroine. It was one of my favorites for years.
Which got me thinking. Basically everything Coville wrote was one of my favorites at some point. Right back to one of the very first books I can remember reading. Because the thing was, unlike the rest of my family, I was slow to learn to read. I didn’t have the patience for it, and I have very clear memories of how frustrated I was in first grade, struggling to read a worksheet. And then sometime in second grade, someone handed me a copy of Space Brat, and I tore through it. It’s the first time I remember reading something easily or eagerly. It was also the first time I thought it might be interesting to try and write a story. And it was my first introduction to science fiction and fantasy. In other words, Bruce Coville had an almost absurdly large influence on me, and, not surprisingly, is still one of my very favorites today.
Now, as an adult, I also appreciate them on another level. As a kid, I didn’t realize how hard it can be to find dynamic female characters, and girls I can identify with. But Coville novels are chocked full of them. Willie, obviously, is a good example. But glancing at my bookshelf (yeah, I own a few and am slowly acquiring more — first the ones I had as a kid, and then, hopefully, the many I missed before rediscovering my love of them in college) I see quite a few with girls in the lead (all of whom are ripe with personality and quirks of their own) and even in the books which center around guys, there are usually a few girls in the background. (It’s also not just that he writes female characters well; his books also tend to place high values on honesty and fairness, and have also dealt with self-acceptance and occasionally sexuality.)
So here are my quick rundown of a handful of his books, which I feel are among the most excellent.
The AI Gang
I think I may be just about the only person who has ever heard of this trilogy, but even though I haven’t read it since middle school, I remember most of it vividly. Most vividly of all I remember the female characters. It’s about a group of kids whose genius parents have been gathered on a former military base on an island, to work on a top-secret project. The kids are geniuses themselves and quickly realize their parents are there to create genuine artificial intelligence, and decide to beat the adults at their own game. Meanwhile, a shadowy villain is trying to gain control of the AI for himself.
I think the group was six kids, though it may only have been five. Two of them were female, but, like I said, I remember those two really clearly. Rachel was one of the nicer of the group, and she and her twin brother had built their own robotic head and programmed it to tell bad jokes. She loved music. And she kind of dated one of the boys, which I thought was fantastic, because the boy was also one of my very first fictional crushes. And there was Wendy, who was exceptionally awesome. Like me, she was short, messy, and had an extreme fondness for oversized sweatshirts. Her specialty was miniature robotics, and she had turned all of her dolls into talking alarm clocks that valiantly tried (and usually failed) to get her up in the morning. Her full name, if I remember right (sadly, I haven’t been able to find copies of these books yet) was Wendalyn Wendal III. When asked how she could be the third, given that women usually change their names upon marriage, she answered, “I come from a long line of strong-minded women.” Wendy was smart, she was outspoken, she was unconcerned about her looks (again, dirty sweatshirts — and a tendency to regularly eat hamburgers the size of her head), she was stubborn, and she was all kinds of awesome. (She was also, you might guess, my favorite.)
The Nina Tanleven Ghost Series
An awkward title for another trilogy (The Ghost in the Third Row, The Ghost Wore Gray, and The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed), but these are about the only ghost stories I’ve ever really enjoyed. I also think that this is Coville’s best series — especially The Ghost Wore Gray, where the ghost is a southern Civil War soldier, and as the book goes on you learn his story and how he ended up overcoming racism. And it brings you that message without being trite or after school special-y. And it makes me cry.
Anyway. The trilogy is about two girls, Nina (“Nine”) Tanleven and her best friend Chris. They meet at the beginning of the first book, having both been cast in a local musical, and quickly become best friends. They also develop the ability to see ghosts, and spend the three books finding tragic spirits, solving mysteries, and letting the ghosts finally sleep. I love both characters, and I love their relationship. I also love Nine’s relationship with her father — her mother walked out on the family, and she and her father are extremely close. Overall, it’s a series with rich characters and amazingly powerful back stories.
I think these are the best known Coville books; they faded away for awhile, which is a shame, but are now being reprinted with kicky new covers, which is awesome. And though the first book is largely just a wacky story about a girl saving her sixth-grade class from what they think is an alien invasion, the series gets darker and much deeper as it goes on. The kids discover that the reason aliens are snooping around Earth is fear — they’re worried because humans are the first species to develop extremely destructive technology, and to be close to space travel, without having reached a planetary peace. No one knows why humans have such an urge to kill and harm one another, but the aliens are afraid that their sickness will spread if they stumble on to the secret of faster-than-light travel too soon. They’re so scared they’re considering blowing up the planet to avoid the potential dangers. The fourth book is the protagonists’ quest to find proof that humanity is inherently good, that it can become peaceful, and is worthy of survival and respect. In other words, really heavy stuff, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker human impulses: aside from finding beautiful things humans have created, the kids visit war zones, torture camps, and areas of poverty and starvation. I won’t spoil the end for you, but I will say that it’s fucking amazing, and to this day, I still mentally compare every science fiction novel I read to the conclusion of the My Teacher series. (And not that many measure up.)
The Magic Shop
The Magic Shop series reminds me of old fairy tales and fables in that just about every book has a lesson to it; a kid with an obvious flaw will stumble upon the mysterious Magic Shop (run by the even more mysterious Mr. Elives) and end up with some kind of magical object which sparks an adventure. Through the course of the adventure, the kid learns to cope with whatever his or her flaw is. They also often draw upon traditional tales and mythologies in their backstories. These books are all excellent and charming, but I’d have to say the best, hands down, is Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. I adore this book, partially because of the sarcastic talking toad, but mostly because it’s a book about a girl who is unattractive and has low self-esteem, and the story is notably not about how she gets beautiful — it’s about how she comes to value herself for her personality and not her looks. She’s offered the chance to be compellingly beautiful and extraordinarily powerful, and her struggle — her longing to finally feel worthwhile by becoming beautiful — is moving and compelling, and makes the ultimate payoff (that Jennifer is special and smart, and that’s more important) even better.
(In terms of issues that are near and dear to my heart, I’d also give a nod to The Skull of Truth, where a kid who’s a compulsive liar ends up in possession of a skull that forces people within its influence to tell the truth. This causes general havoc everywhere he brings it, but also an interesting scene at a family dinner when his uncle, after many years, comes out to the family. The kid’s reaction is well done; he’s confused and unsure of how to interact with his uncle, and eventually comes to the conclusion that, well, he loves his uncle, who really is the same as he always was, it’s just something to get used to.)
Okay, so, in conclusion… I don’t think I can think of a single other male author — and very few female ones, for that matter — who so consistently writes so many dynamic girls. For anyone out there who might be looking for good, positive books to pick up for a niece/cousin/daughter/young girl who would like to read about someone female, I’d definitely recommend any of the above. Or just about anything else he’s written.