There’s a sweet little line somewhere in Harry VII when Dumbledore, instead of telling us once again that Voldemort never saw the importance of love, tells us that he never saw the importance of children’s stories. Dumbledore explains: had Voldemort read the Tales of Beedle the Bard, he would have sought immortality through the Hallows, a much healthier route than Horcruxes. The underlying message is that children’s books teach us how to live well, and I agree, even if I’m a little dubious of JKR’s conviction that teaching us how to live well involves making us think a lot about eternal life or life after death. In any case, her little plug for the genre in which she herself writes is charming.
I’ve just finished the much touted Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. It was also sweet in its way, and I’ll admit I found it hard to put down, but I’m afraid it was awfully formulaic. Like Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series, it aims to appeal to Potter fans with fast-paced action set in a school for children of exceptional abilities, the difference being that in Benedict and in Bone, unlike in Harry, the schools (the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and Bloor’s Academy, respectively) are brainwashing prison-camps fronting for Evil, and the children have to subvert or destroy the schools to beat the bad. In Bone the bad is magical; in Benedict it is technological – the villain, Ledroptha Curtain (Iron Curtain maybe?), is trying to take over the world using subliminal messages delivered in children’s voices filtered through a machine called ‘the Whisperer.’
Which leads me to back to Dumbledore’s advice to super-villains: do your reading! Had Ledroptha Curtain read Charlie Bone he would know that a school for children with exceptional abilities is a bad front for evil because the children Have Exceptional Abilities (duh!) and therefore three or four of them can put their heads together and defeat you. And only slightly more cultural awareness – say, of Spy Kids, or Pinky and the Brain – would have told him that the old subliminal message gag fails every time. Sweet, like I said. But also boring.