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Review: Banned book

There was a big flap recently at my son's elementary school. Apparently, one of the teachers had been reading aloud to her 5th and 6th graders from Gary Paulsen's The Transall Saga, something she'd done many times before in her classes.

This time, though, some of the parents decided that even though it was written for and has been reviewed for readers in this age group, it was nonetheless too violent and mature (quote "for their girls" endquote). So they went to the teacher and asked her to stop. In the end, the whole thing ended up in the newly-installed Prinicipal's office. Unfortunately, rather than tell the parents to take a hike, the Principal "left it up to the teacher." Faced with this fairly explicit show of non-support, the teacher, though upset to the point of tears, backed down.

So of course, when my parent/friend and I heard of all this, our first reaction (even though our children were not in the class in question) was to obtain and read a copy of this piece of banished fiction. It was hard for us to imagine any merit in the claims of inappropriateness, but we thought we knew an easy way to find out…

Spoiler alert: I briefly review The Transall Saga later on in this post. If you plan to read it and don't want it spoiled, I recommend that you stop within the first few paragraphs of that review.

The end result somewhat surprised us. We still believe the parents' and Principal's actions were inappropriate, and wish that the teacher had stood her ground. However, we also believe that the book in question is inappropriate for children people. It stands as one of the stinkiest pieces of writing we've read in a long time. Inappropriate violence and sexuality might have helped it, but sadly there wasn't nearly enough of it. On second thought, I'm not sure anything would have helped this piece of…fiction. Apparently The Transall Saga is very popular for juvenile readers. I have to believe that this would be a great explanation for the decline in the desire to read in our nation's children.

[I'm feeling bad right now, because the author inevitably finds and reads these things. I'm sure Gary Paulsen is a good person, and that he's written good stuff elsewhere. Besides, the market has spoken, so what does my opinion matter?

Nonetheless, I recommend you avoid this book like the plague.]

The Transall Saga begins with an introduction to Mark, our protagonist and the only character in the story that reaches even two dimensions. We are told that Mark is thirteen years old, that "hiking and backpacking were Mark's one obsession", and that he is out on his first-ever hike alone, through the old Magruder missile range. That's pretty much it for the back story.

Suddenly, about 1200 words into the novel, Mark falls into an utterly unexplained shaft of blue light and is instantly transported to another world.

You might expect that the mystery of the blue light will be a central theme of the book, and that it will be explained at the end. If so, you would be wrong. Mark's interest in the light is that if he can find it and fall in it again, it'll take him home. It is never explained why he believes this. Good thing it won't take him somewhere even more mysterious, or just kill him, or that it's not in evidence in this new world any more than it's ever been before in ours.

Anyway, our protagonist now becomes a human pincushion for the remainder of the novel. He's crushed, defenestrated, shot with arrows (more than once), and on and on during his process of learning of the mysterious flora and fauna and the mysterious races of humans who inhabit the mysterious world of mystery he has encountered.

Does it surprise you to find out that this apparently alien world is ruled by someone called "the Merkon"? Can you guess how the Merkon might have got to this mystery place, or where he came from? Does it surprise you that in mid-story Mark happens to find all the ingredients for gunpowder right together just as he's in trouble, and knows a recipe for its manufacture? Does it surprise you that near the end, Mark finds artifacts with English writing on them?

If so, you are easily surprised. Apparently you need to go back and watch the really bad episodes of original Star Trek again. (Bonus points for being able to name both of the episodes referenced above. Hint: They are regarded as two of the worst episodes of all time.)

Anyway, after some adventures, Mark, now fifteen, proposes marriage to another fifteen-year-old. (Shockingly, this young woman is a spitfire with a heart of gold, a girl of aristocratic background who learns kindness toward the common man.) Just before the marriage is to come off, Mark, now a lean, mean fighting machine, has to flee town. He's just got the situation in hand when…

Lo and behold! The blue light, for no apparent reason, appears again and deposits Mark back in a shopping mall near his home town!

The epilogue is perhaps the worst ending I've read for any piece of fiction in the last ten years. I won't try to relive the horror, but suffice it to say that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I suppose another way to put that is that it continues the theme of this novelette.

Sadly, describing the plot doesn't do justice to the problems with this book. The writing is utterly flat and listless. (And don't give me that "juvie language" excuse. As everything from The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter to A Wrinkle In Time and The Dark is Rising demonstrate, it is plenty possible to write well with a constrained vocabulary.) The characters, including Mark, are mere placeholders for the wretched plot. The world of Transall is the biggest and best-developed character, and it's Burroughs-esque [Edgar Rice, not William] at best. (Why is Transall called that? We never find out.) The whole thing reads like the first attempt of a promising thirteen-year-old novelist.

Perhaps it is.

I urge folks to push their local school districts to ban The Transall Saga. Of course, a substitute would be helpful. I mentioned four of them earlier in this post. But perhaps the best substitute of all would be Heinlein's juvenile novels. The good friend who loaned me Transall (with a full forewarning) says that Citizen of the Galaxy was what got him hooked on reading as a kid. I say give that one a shot. Fob

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Comments

Found on the most excellent wiki TV Tropes: Planet of the Apes Ending.

More about TV Tropes is planned for a subsequent blog entry.

Ok. I am there age and we are getting read to this book. i think it an awesome book and u need to stop just freaking out. it may be bad to u but EVRYONE in my class loves this book........

Of course I'm glad you're enjoying the book. I wouldn't have chosen it for you, obviously, but reading anything (within reason) is a good thing!

Have you tried some other SF books, though? Maybe some of the ones I recommended above? I think you'll be surprised by how SF can be even better than what you're enjoying now! Also, as you read more SF, you'll start to find the stories, themes, and characters Paulsen "borrowed from" to make his book. I don't know about you, but this bugs me—I think authors should write their own books as much as possible.

Anyway, my freakout was intended mainly for adults who choose books for kids, not so much for the kids who read them. I'm sorry it bugged you, and I hope your class will continue to enjoy the story. Thanks much for leaving your comment on my blog. I really appreciate it. Fob

I'm sorry about what happened at the school, and even more sorry that you had to read this book and not like it, but you need to take into account that all you are advertising is you OPINION on it.

I've read this book three times, and have enjoyed it each time, not worrying about "why the guy is called Merkon". It's a name, just like Joe or Fred or Luke. You need to take a step back and look at the whole picture, not the little unimportant things, because if you do, the only thing you'll enjoy is the dictionary.

As for the parents that were upset with the book, they needed to let the teacher do the teaching. Those kids are 11 and 12 years old, and I'm sure the teacher had a good sense of judgement. The Transall Saga is fine, and those parents needed to let their kid's grow up unsheltered, or else they are going to be in for a shock when they get to high school.

I hope I'm not being to blunt with this comment, but please understand that a lot of people enjoy this book, and those who don't shouldn't continue reading it.

Thanks

Thanks much for your thoughtful comment! Feedback is always welcome.

The antagonist is called the "Merkon" because he's "American", I'm afraid. It's more obvious when you say it out loud than when it's spelled funny. The thing is, this is a science fiction writing trick that goes clear back to H.G. Wells. It's the kind of thing that makes people who know science fiction laugh out loud when they see it, and not really in a happy way.

I read a lot of books when I was a kid. I mean a lot of books; something like three or four a week between the ages of nine and eighteen. Some of those books have stuck with me for a long time, generally because they were well-written and interesting. The characters were realistic and the plots made sense. It takes real talent to produce a book like that; one that kids enjoy reading and that later in life as adults they enjoy reading again. For example, I re-read Madeleine L'engle's A Wrinkle In Time recently (I'm 45 now). It wasn't as good as I remembered, but it was pretty good.

My opinion, and the opinion of my adult friend who has also read The Transall Saga, is that it is not such a book. There is no real plot beyond the protagonist's crazy plan to get home, the characters are so flat you could fry pancakes on them, and it uses every cliché ever invented. This last thing is probably a big part of why adults hate it so much more than kids—you just haven't read enough thousand books yet to know how much of The Transall Saga is just outright stolen from other writers' work. There is almost nothing original in the book, but maybe you've never read anything like it before.

Anyway, it's not like I don't want you and others to like the book—I'm really glad you do! I just want you to understand what truly cool writing there is out there. If you liked this, you'll love some of the other stuff I pointed you at.

One place we can definitely agree is on the censorship angle. I think some of the situations and themes in The Transall Saga are a bit mature for the intended audience, but I agree that it's nothing that a smart kid shouldn't be able to handle. I let my boy of 11 years read whatever he wants. I don't think it's damaging him any.

Well, this comment got pretty long. Bottom line: keep reading. Read anything and everything. Read The Transall Saga. Read Derek Landy's Skullduggery Pleasant series. Read Harry Potter. Read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Read Jef Smith's Bone. Just keep reading. It's a love of my life. It has made me smarter and a better writer. It has taught me how other people see the world.

Again, thanks for your comments. Fob

BTW, this epinions.com review claims that Mark is basically a Mary Sue. They seem to think that's pretty neat, even.

Just so you know. Fob