I knew a guy in college named Avi. He was a friend of a friend, but he didn't like me very much. The nicest thing he ever said to me (after I gave him a two hour ride home at Thanksgiving) was, "You know, you're not as flaky as I thought you were."
I try not to hold this against the renowned and prolific children's author Avi. According to his website, he's published about 64 books so far, and I've been reading them on and off since they were age-appropriate, or at least just after. I've long thought of him as an author I like, but after this week's disappointment, I've been thinking back over his books and trying to think about why.
One of his first books that I ever read was The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. I read it in college, actually, since it was a childhood favorite of my roommate that was lying around the common room for a while. I think this is why I became an Avi fan, and it's stuck with me for a long time. This is a great book. First of all, I'm a sucker for a seafaring tale; secondly, girls doing things that are only for boys are pretty much all winners with me. And yeah, the premise that Charlotte, ladylike passenger, would end up leading the sailors when the captain is overthrown is pretty unlikely, but in a book intended for 12-year-olds, you can see the appeal. So yes, Charlotte Doyle, big fan.
Now there's a big window of years here where I could have sworn I'd read and enjoyed a few more Avi books, but looking at the list on his website, I can't see that. All the books on that list that I've read have been in the past three or four years. And I didn't love most of them. Crispin: The Cross of Lead was great, full of history, danger, and adventure, but the sequel, Crispin: At the Edge of the World was, I would say, one tick shy of mediocre. Shy on the down side.
I'd say the same about Seer of Shadows--or maybe it's straight up just-all-right. This was about an apprentice photographer in the early 1900s whose dishonest boss wants to start selling bogus spirit photos. This part was kind of great. But it turns out that the family he's selling his story to is really being haunted--also a promising twist. Haunted by their daughter who they abused in a positively cartoonish way, losing all the power of the story.
I've been looking back over the Avi experience because I just finished the book Bright Shadow, an older book of his. And my God, was it bad! A young girl inherits the last five wishes in the kingdom, along with the warning to use them wisely and not to tell anyone about them. She has no other information. The cruel king knows the wishes are out there and needs to find the person who has them to prevent an uprising. Morwenna (our "heroine") is one of the most passive, indecisive, useless people I've ever had to read about. And this is not about her learning to have strength--she remains passive and undecided right up to the very end, while the action of the story takes place around her. Her only proactive moves are to occasionally try to flee--not from the bad guys, but from responsibility. At no point does she step up, become empowered, or even experience a glimmer of usefulness.
So yeah, I hated this book. And it made me look back and wonder where I got the idea that I liked Avi so much. But you know what? I'll give him The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and I'll give him the first Crispin book. And heck, I'll even read the third one. But I'm going to resist his clever titles from now on. I know my limits.