Sunday, October 19, 2008

Susan Cooper

Born May 23, 1935 in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, England

Whether you "enjoy" the genre of fantasy or not, it is the genre in which children frequently encounter a world where the boundaries between Good and Evil are most clearly delineated and where the eternal struggle is painted most clearly. It is ironic that that should be so because as we grow, age, and sometimes become wiser, one of the skins of childhood that we shed is that clear certainty of where Good lies and where Evil lurks. Unless we think deeply and reflectively, it often seems that a world of clear light becomes befogged with shades of grey. We return to fantasy to capture that clarity; where we can know the good guys from the bad and where we can carry moral certitude as a "strange device".

Along with other noted practitioners such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alan Garner, and latterly J.K. Rowling, Susan Cooper is one of the premier practitioners of storytelling in the realm of Good and Evil. Like these others, she has mined the languages and legend of the British Isles for her images and atmosphere in her five book Dark Is Rising series. Fortunately, and it is one of the distinctive features of her writing, Cooper is not a preacher or a simplifier. She acknowledges Good and Evil and the quest of her characters to understand these two extremes and their desire to discover on which side they will stand their ground. But she is also an apostle of the ambiguous and a priestess of the Golden Mean. Things are not always what they appear in her books and it is that ambiguity and uncertainty that imparts a tension, thrill and veracity that sometimes is absent elsewhere.

The quest to understand Good and Evil shows up early in our cultural heritage, the continuing navigation between the Us and the Them, between the Light by the fire and the Darkness out there. The roots of moderation are nearly as deep, with the Greeks (of course) already counseling that "Moderation is best" (Cleobulus) and that we should pursue "Nothing in excess" (Aristotle). In fact, even before the philosophers, the very first storytellers are speaking this counsel. Homer has Menelaus (brother of Agamemnon) in the Iliad say "I would disapprove of another hospitable man who was excessive in friendship, as of one excessive in hate. In all things balance is better."

Cooper's achievement in The Dark is Rising series is to treat serious themes seriously but deftly. She is a powerful writer who engages, almost regardless of theme or topic, and she has a near perfect pitch for dealing with themes of moral exploration and self-discovery for young readers. In dealing with serious issues, she exposes herself to criticisms of one sort or another - too ambiguous, too nuanced, too magical, etc. I would argue that Cooper is just what bright young children need - someone that helps them engage, not in some pedantic way, but at an emotional as well as intellectual level, with the conundrums of life. She is a catalyst to deeper thinking. One of the things that I enjoy about her writing is that while, as an author, she always counsels against the extremes that lead to bad actions from good intentions, she also does not fall into the fatal trap of moral equivalence - the argument that all actions are equally good/bad.

Born in 1935 in Buckinghamshire, England, Cooper was a young girl through the six years of World War II and she has identified this period as a significant influence on her thinking and writing. Her father worked for the famed Great Western Railway and was a lover of music and drawing while her mother was a teacher and a reader of poetry. Cooper was drawn to books early on but also to other aspects of story-telling including theatrical productions and BBC radio dramatizations. She took her degree at Oxford University where she was able to attend lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Graduating from Oxford, Cooper initially pursued a career in journalism back when it was really a profession. She worked for The Sunday Times for seven years, learning the journalist's craft of tight prose, getting to the point, working against deadlines, etc. While at the Times, she worked for a period under the editorship of Ian Fleming of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and James Bond fame.

In 1963 Cooper married an MIT professor with three children (she was to later have two children of her own as well) and moved to the USA. She has resided in the US ever since, though her books are all set in Britain. Cooper's first marriage ended in divorce in 1982. Cooper continued her career in journalism, producing a body of columns commenting on the points of commonality and distinction between Britain and the US. These essays were collected together and published as her third book, Behind the Golden Curtain: A View of the USA in 1965.

Cooper's first book, Mandrake, an adult science fiction dystopia, was published in 1964, a year after her move to the USA. In 1965 she published her second book and what was to be the first in the five books in The Dark is Rising series, Over Sea, Under Stone. The other books in the series are The Dark is Rising (1973), Greenwitch (1974), The Grey King (1975) and Silver on the Tree (1977). Each book, from Over Sea, Under Stone onwards, has been very well received, in terms of popularity, in critical terms and in terms of awards. The Grey King, viewed by some as the best in the series, won the Newbery Medal in 1976.

Over the years, Cooper has demonstrated a remarkable range of authorial talent across the thirty books she has written. In addition to the five Dark is Rising series, she has, as noted, published collections of essays (her own with Behind the Golden Curtain, and of others with her collection of J.B. Prietley essays which she edited as Essays of Five Decades), a biography (J.B. Priestley: Portrait of an Author), juvenile historical fiction which was also semi-autobiographical (Dawn of Fear), further children's fantasy but for younger readers, Broadway plays, retellings of British Isles folklore (such as The Silver Cow: A Welsh Tale and The Selkie Tale), and humorous fantasy for independent readers (The Boggart and The Boggart and the Monster). She has also turned her hand to television screenplays. It was through her work in theater and television that Cooper met her second husband, Hume Cronyn.

For all the versatility and range of writing achievement, Cooper's reputation is firmly tied to the success and effectiveness of the fantasy series The Dark is Rising. The seed for the first book was planted when the publisher Ernest Benn offered a prize for a family adventure story in the vein of Edith Nesbit. Cooper was taken with this idea (it "offered the irresistible combination of a challenge, a deadline, and money, and I dived at it in delight.") but soon left the prize behind as her own work headed in its own direction. A character she created in the first chapter, Merriman Lyon (a modern day uncle of the three protagonist children but in actuality Merlin from the King Arthur legends), hijacked her reality-based story. According to Cooper, "Merry took over. He led the book out of realism, to myth-haunted layers of story that took me way past a 'family adventure' and way past my deadline. Now I was no longer writing for a deadline or money. I was writing for me, or perhaps for the child I once was and in part still am."

Over Sea, Under Stone tells the story of three children, on holiday in Cornwall with their uncle. They discover an ancient map which in turn leads them to the Holy Grail which in turn plunges them into the struggle Good and Evil. Over Sea, Under Stone was rejected by more than twenty publishers before finally being accepted and published by Jonathan Cape. In the subsequent books, Uncle Merriman Lyon returns with a different cast of characters. The protagonist is Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son. His journey of self-discovery and then crusade against the Dark forms the backbone of the rest of the series.

Cooper's childhood was closely bound not only to the quintessentially English county of Buckinghamshire but also to the Celtic fringe of Britain with summer holidays in Cornwall and a grandmother from North Wales and where her parents lived for the last twenty-five years of their lives. It is the rich tapestry of England and darker Celtic myths that so enriches the Dark is Rising series. Natalie Babbitt (author of the wonderful fantasy Tuck Everlasting) reviewed The Grey King in the New York Times Book Review and concluded "It is useless to try to recreate the subtleties of Susan Cooper's plotting and language. Enough to say that this volume, like those preceding it, is brimful of mythic elements and is beautifully told." Indeed.

If you have access to The Horn Book Magazine, there is a wonderful article in the May/June 2008 edition by Susan Cooper, Unriddling the World, which well repays an attentive read. The following are snippets from that essay. These can in no way substitute for the pleasure and insight of the full article, but like hors d'oeuvres, they might whet the appetite.

Writers of my kind try to unriddle the world through fantasy. In the childhood of mankind, this was the job of myth. Once we human beings began to think, we tried to make sense of this beautiful puzzling perilous place we live in, and so we began to invent stories. . .

In all cultures of the earth the myths developed, to deal with the five great mysteries that we still try to understand today: life, death, time, good, and evil. The myths are the archetypal stories, the basis for everything that's come after them. You learned about them in grade school: all the earliest beliefs, that great splendid stew of Greek and Roman, Norse and Celtic, Apollo and Zeus and Venus and Mars and Thor and Loki, and on, and on. And you were taught to use the word mythical to mean unreal. But though myth, like its grandchild fantasy, may not be real, it is true.

Today's educated adult doesn't give a great deal of thought to the myths. He or she may have religious beliefs, depending on faith rather than on reason, but in general prefer fact to metaphor. The last two hundred years have seen such an explosion of discovery and knowledge that we've come to feel science and technology will solve all the riddles, in the end. Problem-solving and unriddling, however, are not quite the same thing. . . .

. . . If you ask yourself rational straightforward questions about a story or an image, you can find yourself facing a blank wall. A storyteller has to be irrational, indirect, in order to help young readers cope with this eternally puzzling world – because facts alone are not going to resolve the riddles for them, not without the help of the imagination.

. . . The riddle of good and evil is at the heart of nearly all the fantasy novels read by children not only in this middle range, but on into adolescence; we aren't thinking about sex all the time even when we're sixteen. These are times when story is particularly valuable, to stretch the muscles of the imagination. It teaches without intending to. God forbid that it should be consciously didactic; a lot of the Victorians wrote perfectly terrible didactic books that must have bored children rigid. But inevitably in writing fantasy we show good, we show evil, we show the powers of each – and, I suppose, we show how to choose. And the young reader is paying attention simply because he – or she – is, like us, inside the story. He's more completely inside this kind of story than an adult can be. It's not that we lose touch with our imaginations when we grow up, but by then experience has hardened our opinions, assumptions, beliefs, and to some extent they get in the way. The young reader hasn't any of these; he's still looking, questing. And inside the story, the quest of the hero is a metaphor for the reader's quest for adulthood.

She's a marvelous writer - try any of her books but certainly, make sure your eleven to thirteen year olds are exposed to her Dark is Rising books.

Picture Books

The Magician's Boy by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Serena Riglietti Suggested

Independent Reader

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper Highly Recommended

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper Highly Recommended

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper Highly Recommended

The Grey King by Susan Cooper Highly Recommended

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper Recommended

Dawn of Fear by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Margery Gill Suggested

The Boggart by Susan Cooper Suggested

The Boggart and the Monster by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Suggested

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper Suggested

Green Boy by Susan Cooper Suggested

Victory by Susan Cooper Suggested

The Seeker by Susan Cooper Suggested

Susan Cooper Bibilography

Mandrake written by Susan Cooper 1964

Over Sea, under Stone written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Margery Gill 1965

Behind the Golden Curtain: A View of the U.S.A. written by Susan Cooper 1965

Essays of Five Decades written by Susan Cooper 1968

Dawn of Fear written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Margery Gill 1970

J. B. Priestley: Portrait of an Author written by Susan Cooper 1970

The Dark Is Rising written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Alan E. Cober 1973

Greenwitch written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Lianne Payne 1974

The Grey King written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Michael Heslop 1975

Silver on the Tree written by Susan Cooper 1977

Jethro and the Jumbie written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Ashley Bryan 1979

Foxfire written by Susan Cooper 1980

Seaward written by Susan Cooper 1983

The Silver Cow: A Welsh Tale written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Warwick Hutton 1983

The Dollmaker written by Susan Cooper 1984

The Selkie Girl written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Warwick Hutton 1986

Tam Lin written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Warwick Hutton 1991

Matthew's Dragon written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Joseph A. Smith 1991

The Boggart written by Susan Cooper 1992

Danny and the Kings written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Joseph A. Smith 1993

To Dance with the White Dog written by Susan Cooper 1993

Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children written by Susan Cooper 1996

The Boggart and the Monster written by Susan Cooper 1997

Don't Read This! and Other Tales of the Unnatural written by Susan Cooper 1998

King of Shadows written by Susan Cooper 1999

Frog written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Jane Browne 2002

Green Boy written by Susan Cooper 2002

The Magician's Boy written by Susan Cooper 2005

Victory written by Susan Cooper 2006

The Seeker written by Susan Cooper 2007

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