Friday, May 18, 2007

Lloyd Alexander 1924-2007 An Appreciation

Sometimes prospective writers consider writing juvenile literature as a way of breaking into the business. Writing for children well is a lot harder than it sounds.

Young readers do not have patience with long, rambling setups where the author clumsily expounds everything he thinks the reader might need to know, before letting his characters do anything. It's important to get things moving fairly quickly.

On the other hand, this advice can be taken too much to heart, with frenetic but ultimately dull results. It is possible that some authors, after the layers of exposition have been stripped away, don't have anything interesting or important to say.

But a few, a very few, have the gift to produce true children's literature. John Bellairs. C.S. Lewis. Katherine Patterson. And Lloyd Alexander.

What puts Alexander among the greats of this field is not easy to put your finger on. Craft and economy, certainly these are requirements to create passable works. But this doesn't capture what makes a children's author great. I've heard some say that Alexander's works are founded in a profound and humane philosophy. But while I think such a philosophy might be created from the raw material of Alexander's writing, it is only a by-product of Alexander's true gift.

Lloyd Alexander's gift is that he writes as somebody who still experiences things like love, anger, pride, and loss in the vivid springtime colors of youth. Even so, he understands them with the gravity of experience. He is Taran and Dallben at the same time.

My feelings on Lloyd Alexander's death are not entirely ones of unmixed sadness. Wonder is what predominates. That he could continue to write over so many decades without the well running dry. That he could have run such a long race and died within two weeks of his wife of many decades.

It pleases some people to think that age gives them an automatic claim to wisdom, or at least authority. They are fond of saying things like "if I only knew then what I know now." Lloyd Alexander teaches us by his example and through his writing, to turn that dull and absurd notion on its head. What we should be saying is, "if we only knew now what we knew then." Only then can we unlock the secret of seeing the world and the people in it as new, and abounding in possibility.

I cannot feel very sad in a world so full of hope.