Saturday, March 29, 2014

YA Fiction: Howl's Moving Castle

Another in my series of YA fiction reviews. Check out my list of warnings from the first post.

Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. Published by Greenwillow, 1986.

I want to like Diana Wynne Jones. Her work has been recommended to me by a number of people whose opinions I trust. She's an engaging, witty writer, and she creates wonderful characters, but she seems to have a weakness in plot development. I enjoy the first 3/4 of any book, but she wraps all of the unique, quirky charm of her stories into oddly conventional endings that clash awkwardly with the whole. Howl's Moving Castle was a particularly egregious example of that problem. The ending felt like a traditional wedding topper placed on a naked-mohawk-baby-carrot-jockey cake.

The main character, Sophie, is one of my favorite heroines in YA fiction. While working at her hat shop, she is turned into an old woman by an evil witch's curse. Freed from the social constraints placed on pretty young girls, she becomes independent, cranky, strong-willed, free-spoken, and thoroughly delightful. She teams up with a wizard named Howl, who is another example of Jones's genius for character development. Howl is so vain that he spends hours in the bathroom with magic beauty potions, and so egotistical that he'll mope for days if he's slighted. A number of minor characters add to the charm, including an animated scarecrow, and a dog that keeps changing breeds.

Ultimately, Sophie and Howl defeat the witch, and Sophie is returned to her normal state. In fact, it turns out that Sophie had been subconsciously maintaining the spell herself, because old women have more interesting lives than conventional girls. But the message that youth and beauty are less interesting than independence was rather undermined by the book's ending. Howl, the self-centered diva, assumes Sophie will marry him, and she agrees. After I read the last chapter to my daughter, she stared at me for several moments before saying, "Wait, why does she want to marry him?" Good question.

Overview:

Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: Yes. Like 90% of all YA fiction, the main character forms a significant relationship (in this case, actually gets married) at a far younger age than I'd like my daughter to think is normal. But, if I reject any book in which the main character finds her soul mate before the age of 20, then my daughter would have nothing to read.

Positive gender roles?: Yes. I love Sophie, and the secondary female characters are well developed. The male characters are also complex and not limited to stereotypical masculine traits and roles.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: Not really, unless you count the Welsh.

Final verdict: I read this to my daughter, and we both enjoyed it (until the ending). Even the ending was good, in that it generated conversation. My daughter decided not to marry a self-absorbed, messy, moody, hysteric who expects his wife to hold his life together while he runs around being brilliant and adored. Good plan.

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