Tuesday, February 4, 2014

ChildLit Cartography: The Glass Puzzle

With winter break firmly behind us, it's time to dive right into a new year and a new semester. I for on would like to recommence with my exploration of maps found in children's literature. Since I basically posted about it ONCE last semester, I think it deserves a bit more attention this time around, particularly because of the underscored prevalence of these images throughout children's books.

Many maps in literature, children's or otherwise, fall under a typical structure meant literally to map a terrain, to guide a reader visually, and to give concrete value to the intangible world emerging from words. For some, this is a burden of information, but for others, this is a necessary element to understanding the story. When we consider that reading includes much more than words on a page, but can address and appeal to all the senses, then the visual stimulation of a map unfolds numerous interpretations and significances.

And yet, admittedly, I do find that a number of texts seems to include maps solely because of the genre they fall under: fantasy. In fact, I came across a blog post by fantasy author J.S. Morin concerning Amateur Cartography, or how to conceive of mapmaking for a fantasy story. In it, he traces the two general mental processes engaged in the creation of a fantasy map: "writing to the map" or mapping as you write. This is all hunky and dory, but what struck me most was what he dubbed the "Reader's Bill of Rights": what a reader can and should expect of an included map.  Legibility, consistency with the text, physical sensibility, and relating to the story are perfectly understandable, but I wondered about one issue he raises, specifically in relation to a novel I read last year, The Glass Puzzle, By Christine Brodien-Jones.

The story itself suffers from an incessant need to explain every characteristic of the young heroine, Zoe Badger. It also takes on too much, leaving the author overwhelmed by the end to wrap up too many threads and details. In brief, the young girl and her cousin visit their grandfather in the town of Tenby, Wales, and unwittingly stumble upon a glass puzzle that opens a portal to a parallel universe (or rather, an alternate timeline). Blunder after blunder result in their homeland overrun by possessing spirits and a damaging force hellbent on domination. Much like the author's previous book, The Scorpions of Zahir, this story relies on the redemptive powers of the young girl; though the story struggled to engage me fully, I did appreciate the author's attempt to create a worthy girl role model. But I was honestly most engaged by the map. 

My first reaction to it: It looks like a claw! The map seems to grown out of the upper left corner in an attempt to unfurl and grab the far reaches of the scroll itself. Roads widen, shorelines tremble and dig into the sea. The perspective it offers is almost threatening, or at least ominous. A welcome change from the standard issue of maps.

And yet, it's so packed with information, only forty percent of which I think exists within the story itself. Trying to find a location while reading led me to scour the entire map over and over again, sometimes getting completely lost. So when Morin says that a map should include more information than is included in the story, does he imply that the map should overwhelm the reader's senses? Does this map fail in that regard? Or is this case of inundation intentional, much like the suffocation that the town suffers when overrun by threatening forces? Does the city therefore invite what it displays? And if I take this one step further, are we then complicit in our own near-destructions? Certainly I'm reading too much into this, but I can't help but wonder about the ethics and implications of the map.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking a look at the intent of maps in fantasy literature.

    In my post on authors' duties as mapmakers for the stories they write, I do mention that the map should contain more than strictly required for the story. I don't intend for mapmakers to aim for the level of detail of a New York city street map, or a real-world atlas. What it needs is a sense that it is a real map, not just an agent of the story. At the front of a novel, you don't want to see a picture of some geography and a handful of markers that serve as a checklist of the places the story will visit. Instead, you want a map that makes an effort to define the area so that the reader gets a sense of scale and realism, while also conveying the information they'll need if they want a reference.