Friday, October 29, 2010

Degree of Difficulty, pt. 2

When given the hypothetical choice between the superpowers of flying and invisibility, I have always, without hesitation, chosen invisibility.  Although flying would be wonderful during rush hour or late at night when subway service is spotty, there's something both profoundly appealing and alluringly disturbing about knowing what people really think of you -- what they say when you're not around.  It's partly for this reason, I think, that I have always loved the writing workshop.  Although most (or at least some) participants act aware of the writer's presence and her feelings when discussing a story draft, the conceit of most workshops I've attended is that the writer is in "the booth" for the period of the discussion.  Though she can see and hear the conversation, she can't take part in it, can't spring to her work's defense or agree with a certain reader's interpretation.  The purpose is not for the writer to intrude into the reader's experience of her story, but to eavesdrop on it: to find out what exactly the piece communicated, and what it failed to get across.

Writing workshops have been an invaluable part of my development as a writer. Probably the best two years of my life were spent in grad school, where my fiction was alternately attacked and devoured by a ravenous pack of wild intellectuals; I still wear their scars with pride.  So, as part of a self-imposed campaign not to drown myself in the Central Park reservoir before I turn thirty, pockets weighed down with candy corn, craft beer caps, and zip drives containing my unpublished oeuvre, I recently decided to sign up for an extracurricular writing class conveniently located in my nabe.  I lucked out big time: it's an excellent group, and the reads on my work have been generous and thorough.  But returning to that Conference Table of Broken Dreams (because that's what a flawed story is, isn't it? a broken dream?) after three years' absence has gotten me thinking about difficulty again, and the way it's addressed in the academic environment where so much debut fiction starts.

The writing workshop is, by its nature, biased in favor of the short story.  A short story can be submitted in a lone chunk, read in one sitting, and discussed in its entirety during a single session.  Although the draft of a story may be rough and the reading experience may involve an overtly critical approach (line-editing, etc.), the experience of reading and talking about a short story in a workshop is basically pretty similar to the way students would read and talk about a short story anywhere else.  To workshop a novel or novella, on the other hand, requires a bigger leap.  Split into twenty or thirty page chunks, the story is automatically digested differently than if it were presented in whole.  A major factor in my experience of a novel, for example, is, "How fast did I feel compelled to read this?"  The speed with which I'm propelled through a book isn't necessarily proportional to my enthusiasm for it (I read Room and The Magicians each in under two days), but it is a major part of the experience for me, something I nearly always mention when describing a book.  Yet this large-scale momentum isn't something that can even be considered in the workshopping of a novel.  And neither are other "macro" factors, like themes, image patterns, arc, or -- perhaps most important for our discussion here -- formal structure.

Because that's where the question about difficulty comes in.  Like the Philistine who stands too close to a pointillist painting and then complains about seeing nothing but dots, a workshop student may find himself stymied by excerpted sections of a novel that, viewed in the context of the entire work, might serve an obvious structural purpose.  Then again, they might not.  But given simply an isolated span of pages, he has no way to know.  So novels, regardless of the extent to which they're innovative, are frequently perceived in workshop as more "difficult" -- more mysterious, unknowable, tougher to judge -- than even experimental short fiction.

This is of course a fascinating contrast to the perception of difficulty by consumers of books, who (as the publishing industry knows all too well) seem to regard short stories with the same enthusiasm they normally reserve for spam email, but who occasionally deign to set aside their magic glowing Etch-a-Sketches for tomes like Freedom. (Those who aren't reading it on the Etch-a-Sketch, that is.)  Maybe the reason for short stories' unpopularity isn't difficulty per se, but it's certainly something akin to it.  Short stories, as a form, are characterized by qualities like compression and elision.  For them to hold together, every element, sometimes even every word, has to serve a function.  Stories, in other words, present a conundrum for many modern readers, in that their "blink-and-you-miss-it" aesthetic requires intense concentration.  Although stories take much less time to read than novels do, they demand a different kind of time, ideally uninterrupted and sustained, and a reading style that hones in on detail and language over plot.  And when you add formal experimentation into the mix, many readers will panic, thinking they've picked up a book of contemporary poetry by mistake. 

Don't let this be you.

But I don't mean to make fun.  Reading a short story is an intellectual sprint, and not every jogger is good at sprinting.  (I can enjoy a nice leisurely power walk, myself.)  What I find interesting, though, is the fact that many readers, who are not writers themselves, who would never pick up a short story anthology or collection or a literary journal, or even flip to the fiction section in the New Yorker -- let alone formulate impassioned opinions about what was printed there -- manage to tackle and (in book clubs and other forums) actively discuss contemporary, formally complex novels like The Time Traveler's Wife or Middlesex.  By keeping their focus on the big picture, these non-writer readers glide over and see beyond the smaller stumbling blocks that become the exclusive and intensely debated focus of so many workshop discussions...and that sometimes derail authors midway through a manuscript.

Difficulty certainly is in the eye of the beholder -- that's an obvious enough point and one that I made in my previous post about this subject.  But difficulty is also in the means of transmission (short sections versus the complete manuscript) and the speed at which the work is consumed.  Plus, there are doubtless other factors, too.  So tell me, kind readers, what adds to your perception of difficulty in a piece of writing?  What takes away from it?  And if you could either fly or be invisible, would you still bother with reading at all?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Child Neglect: Some Thoughts on Emma Donoghue's Room

Kids say the darndest things -- especially in contemporary literary fiction, where they have a tendency to shoot their mouths off on every subject from 9/11 to their own rapes and murders.  As a device, child-narration can be tough to pull off, but when it works, it's equally tough to resist.  In his introduction to the Vintage Book of Amnesia, Jonathan Lethem cites amnesiacs as a natural subject for fiction, since invented characters, by their very nature, come to us without pasts, assembling themselves before our very eyes: "Conjured out of the void by a thin thread of sentences, every fictional assertion exists as a speck on a background of consummate blankness."  Child characters are the same way, newly arrived and bewildered in a realm of unexplored possibility -- with an added bonus, too: as young creatures with still-developing minds, they are by nature curious, full of wonder and energy and the potential for intense joy or sadness over the most seemingly insignificant things.

Yet, when child-narration succeeds, it succeeds not because the child in question stays a blank, an innocent, but because she rapidly acquires her own specificity: because we see the adult person within her forming and transforming, struggling to get out.  In his 2005 masterpiece Tideland, filmmaker Terry Gilliam tells the story of a lost child, Jeliza-Rose, who finds herself orphaned in a run-down farmhouse on a featureless plain when both of her parents die from drug addiction.  Despite these dire circumstances, she subsists on her imaginings, and her beautiful visions of sentient Barbie doll heads, talking squirrels, floods, and rabbit holes share equal time with the setting's increasingly grisly realities (her neighbors include an overzealous taxidermist, and the subject of a botched lobotomy with a stash of dynamite under his bed).  In a wonderfully weird introduction to the picture, Gilliam explains, that he's finally found his inner child, "and she's a little girl."  It's clear from watching the movie that this is true.  Even amid disaster and horror, Jeliza-Rose quickly reveals she is no tabula rasa for viewers to project their own child-selves onto.  Like Gilliam himself, she has a distinct, idiosyncratic sensibility that would be recognizable no matter what world we saw refracted through her eyes.

It isn't just what she sees, but the way she sees it.

Emma Donoghue's novel Room starts with a similar premise.  The novel's narrator is Jack, a five year old boy, who is growing up in a grotesquely disturbing home environment: an eleven-by-eleven shed in a maniac's backyard.  His mother, we learn, was kidnapped and imprisoned there at age nineteen, and since then, she's been raped almost daily by the psychopath (referred to only as "Old Nick," not his real name), who keeps her alive on a meager diet of frozen foods, canned goods, and pain pills.  But, like Jeliza-Rose, he's never known a normal life, so to him, "Room" is the world: magical at some moments, frightening at others, but never monolithically vile.

In my opinion, the best moments of this novel unfold in this setting, a place at once otherworldly and plainly, grittily observed.  It's clear that the story is set in the contemporary era -- Jack watches Dora the Explorer on TV -- yet the touches of pop culture, rather than grounding us, make the situation seem even more surreal and impossibly removed.  Room is a realm where the traditional categories of realism versus fantasy no longer clearly apply.  Divorced from the context of larger civilization, Jack and his mother are forced to construct their own society, their own rituals and meaning, and although these behaviors often seem escapist and deluded, confronting their daily deprivations would not just be unlivable for the mother, but incomprehensible for Jack.  Instead, she teaches him to live in life as they know it, without an inkling of anything beyond the contents of their cork-lined cell.

A person's world is defined, we begin to see in Room, not by objective "truth" or even the sum total of knowledge available to humans somewhere, but by the knowledge passed down by authority figures within his particular community.  The whole of North America was once unknown to Europeans; the whole of Europe was once unknown to North Americans.  And Jack's mother doesn't speak Spanish, so to Jack, Spanish is not a "real language."  For him, food or books or toys don't exist until they get inside Room; the idea of their manufacture or purchase is just as mind-boggling as a time before the universe's creation.  He has no idea that Old Nick's nightly visits to his mom's mattress had anything to do with his own conception.  And fairy tales are just as real as anything on the evening news.  This is not magical realism, but reality as the speaker knows it.  And, if Donoghue lingered for longer in Room, allowing Jack to engage with this reality as he grows up (or even just grows a little older), we would come to learn just as much about the particularities of his character as we would about a kid, say, in the Middle Ages, who treats bloodletting as a hated inevitability in service of a greater good (like modern orthodontics), but who still has other qualities, other traits and interests, that make him distinct.

Unfortunately, just as Jack is beginning to come into focus, rebelling against certain of his mom's restrictions (tellingly, his first disobedient act is to come out of the wardrobe where he sleeps at night to take a good look at his father/captor) while continuing to accord with others, Donoghue suddenly moves the plot in a whole new direction.  Jack's mom begins to dismantle the ideas she's imparted to him since birth, fessing up that other boys and girls, sky and trees, are not "just TV," but real things, just past the door.  And SPOILER ALERT, she's planning an escape.

It's at this point that, for me, Jack as a character begins to recede.  His first experiences with the outside world, including a chase sequence where he leaps out of a moving truck, are page-turning stuff, and Donoghue makes a good point by showing him as more terrified and homesick than anything else as he encounters people and situations that just weeks earlier would have seemed as strange to him as taking a trip to Mars.  But after a few pages of listening to him wax nostalgic about Rug and Sundaytreat (the one special item they got to ask Old Nick for each week), I realized, with a sinking feeling, that Donoghue really had no idea who this kid was.  Jack's actions and interactions, his desires and fears, are profoundly predictable, scars left by his confinement.  But there's nothing more personal under them, no sensibility at work that we could recognize even if his experiences had been different.

And so Donoghue switches gears.  Jack becomes a passive observer of his mother's struggle to re-acclimate herself, and the story suddenly becomes something I'd flip past on Lifetime.  In what's easily the worst scene I've read in awhile, Jack throws a temper tantrum just before his mother is supposed to be interviewed for TV -- so she brings him with her (to which I must say: WTFFF?), and he sits, silently listening and hardly commenting even in his narration, as she delivers seven and a half pages of exposition and directly stated thematic material.  This is a disaster for the novel, not just because of the laziness of the fictive technique, but because it betrays the novel's central conceit: that Donoghue is at least attempting to relate this from the perspective of a plausible five-year-old.

OK, I get that Jack is smart, and that he's been trained to parrot back what people say on talk shows (it was part of how his mother taught him vocabulary back in Room).  But being able to parrot back what a person said is a far cry from understanding it, or even finding it interesting.  And, with the swirling newness of everything that would go into this event -- the lights, the cameras, the wires, the boom mike, the tech guys, the clipboards, the makeup -- I find it completely absurd to suggest that Jack would sit there, attentively listening to every word spoken, without ever becoming distracted or having a strong reaction of any kind.  Donoghue has completely lost interest in him as a character, and it really fucking shows.  If he were a real child, the treatment the author gives him in this scene would be akin to forgetting to pick him up at day care and leaving him there for four days.

The book never recovers from this huge misstep, in my opinion, not even with its lyrical tearjerker ending (though I'll admit that passage, a callback to Jack's mother's favorite storybook Goodnight Moon, is crudely effective even in its obviousness).  And once I shut the cover, I found myself wondering why it all had to go so awry.  Donoghue created a wonderful kid in the early chapters.  It's just criminal that she let him die of total neglect.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dying of Consumption: Bookstores, Libraries, E-books, & Guilt

I used to think that libraries were virtuous.  When I was a kid, trips to the library were akin to trips to church.  Both environments were silent, hallowed, with soaring ceilings and an occasional homeless person.  Both felt like sanctuaries for a certain kind of knowledge, a knowledge yoked together with duty and obligation: the sanctity of the Word.  Both filled me with a strange, humbling sense of my own insignificance.  I was not the first to read these pages, be they Bible or hymnal or storybook, and I would not be the last.

The bookstore was nothing like either of these places.  Growing up, I did most of my book shopping at Chapter One, a strip mall storefront conveniently positioned just a few doors down from a Baskin Robbins.  They sold activity books with paint sets and Koosh balls attached to their covers, pop-up books whose complex origami had not yet been crushed by the mashing paws of other schoolchildren, Far Side collections like vast scrapbooks of hallucinations, chapter books bursting with educational mysteries whose answers were printed upside down at the end of the book, and later, lean bumpy-covered books printed on newsprint and published bi-monthly that told tales of man-eating hamsters, werewolf camp counselors, and brave young girls who faced burning at the stake when their proto-feminism was confused with witchcraft. 

I was an only child, and spoiled when it came to reading material.  I read a new book every few days, and these books were usually my own.  I burned through paperbacks the same way a Franklin stove devours wood shavings, entirely indiscriminate, and yet, even in the midst of this consuming passion, I saw and vaguely regretted my own decadence.  A nobler person than I wouldn't be tugging her mother's arm across the parking lot in the mad pursuit of more Encyclopedia Brown or Cam Jansen.  She'd be going to the library.

It was only in college that I began to recognize a library's unique appeal.  It probably helped that our campus library was far closer than any decent bookstore; also it was free, allowing me to read as promiscuously as I always had and still have money left over for late night nachos, theme party costumes, ironic Walmart impulse buys ("Oh my God, a My Little Pony with an American flag tattooed to its ass!"), and bad blockbuster movies at the local cineplex.  But there was more to it than that.  In my growing up years, the library was overstocked, unnavigable, daunting, and once I found whatever I was looking for, I was eager to leave.  In college, the library was a place to linger.  I snuck in cups of coffee and wrote papers and stories in an armchair, snug between the stacks.  I went in for twenty minutes between classes to check my email or read a magazine.  I checked out videocassettes from their large, idiosyncratic collection (they had Weekend and Eating Raoul but not Jaws, which suited me fine) and watched them on my roommate's TV; I even figured out how to use interlibrary loan, which if anything was faster than Amazon.

All this prepared me for grad school, where I had a vastly superior library at my disposal, and which meant that for a total of six years, I bought very few books, beyond the ones required for my classes.  I was, finally, virtuous, unencumbered by the rampant consumerism that had for so long contaminated my reading life.  And then one day in workshop, while talking about giving readings on a book tour, my professor said as an aside, "And you know what just kills me.  When I give a reading, and someone comes up to me afterwards from the audience and says, 'I loved what you just read.  I'm going to go check it out from the library.'"

I am no economist, to be sure.  But still, it's surprising that, for so many years, the thought never truly struck me that authors might not be such big fans of libraries -- that they might, actually, like to receive royalty checks within their lifetimes.  "Maybe," I tentatively offered, "those people don't have that much money?"

"Oh please."  My professor batted away the question.  "I mean, sure, if someone really can't afford it, I understand.  But most of these people can.  I mean, I'm talking about readings in mall bookstores, where the person already has a shopping bag.  In coffee shops, where a cappucino's four dollars.  In bars, here in New York.  If you can buy a drink, you can buy a book."

I fell silent.  During the time I'd been in grad school, I had bought many drinks.  Many, many, many drinks.

I did not change my book buying habits overnight.  But after grad school, although I got an NYPL card, I didn't find myself using it much.  Instead, I found myself spending more time in the independent bookstores, even sometimes Borders or B&N, where glossy covers glistened, face out on the shelves, luring me with that old seduction.

I think physical books are on their way out, and I don't resist that change; I think it's inevitable, and fighting it will only make writers lose time and opportunities to connect with an audience that's still hungry for the same things literary fiction has alway provided: beauty, truth, intellectual challenge, humor, wisdom, sex scenes.  In some ways, physical books are themselves an obstacle to some of the most important core qualities of literature.  When I moved apartments over the summer, I did a major purge of my bookshelves, eliminating not just a lot of books for long-completed courses but also some novels that I'd bought for pleasure, read once with interest, and then doubted I'd ever read again.  With each title I eliminated, I literally weighed the book in my hand, thinking, "Is it worth it to haul this?  Is it worth the space on my shelf?"  It's strange that a book's thingness makes me evaluate it in these crass physical terms -- that the mode of transmitting ideas, scenes, language weightlessly from mind to mind is so goddamn heavy, a brick.  That is not, in my opinion, anyway, what makes books worthwhile.  That's an inconvenience.

Yet, it's an inconvenience that has been a part of my reading life for as long as I can remember, and as such it's linked inseparably to the thing I care most about in the world.  Maybe one of these days I'll get myself an e-reader.  But right now, I'm just shopping on my bookshelf, slowly working my way through all the fiction I bought the old-fashioned way.  Which is to say, guiltily.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I am a double agent for the KGB, pt. 2

Check out my new review on the KGB Bar's website!  This time I'm writing about Pirate Talk, the new novel by Terese Svoboda.  Here's the link:

Monday, October 11, 2010

It's a Zoo in Here: Animals in Fiction

When I was a child, one of my earliest lessons about fiction was on the component parts of a story: the primary ones hit upon were conflict, setting, theme, and characters.  Our teacher explained that "characters" were the "people" in a story, the actors who either caused the action or suffered the consequences of it.  I immediately raised my hand to ask if stories that featured only animals were then in fact stories at all.

Obviously, as my second grade teacher explained to me then and as I am well aware now, personified animals or even inanimate objects (from Toy Story's Woody to Asimov's robots to Pynchon's Byron the Bulb) can just as easily function as the protagonists and antagonists in fiction as actual living humans can, and many great stories, especially for kids, feature relationships between humans and non-humans front and center.  In stories of this kind, the enchanted creatures become the child's imagination externalized, made flesh, and tend to either mirror the child's thoughts about the adult world (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth), provide fantastical tests for real-life moral quandaries (The Chronicles of Narnia, the film The Labyrinth), give the child the opportunity to reverse roles and take on the duties of protector or parent (The Indian in the Cupboard, the films The Iron Giant or ET), or supply reliable friendship and comfort while allowing the child to explore his identity outside of the confines of family (Winnie the Pooh, the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes).  In all of these cases, though the creatures themselves certainly have independent goals and motivations, we see them through the child's eyes, and ultimately, we judge them in terms of the effect they have on the child in question.  As much as a reader may like a talking faun or a lovable robot, it's clear she's not meant to locate herself in those characters.  By definition, they are the Other.

We're aware that we see this character through the child-character's eyes.

For that reason, something odd tends to happen in stories where people and their civilization are conspicuously absent: we are forced to identify with someone inherently dissimilar to ourselves.  As a kid, my first exposure to stories of this kind was in Aesop's fables.  Interactions between a fox and a raven or a cat and the mice it pursues were unsettling, not just because of the unmitigated cruelty and violence (no second chances here), but because these animals, unmoored from the context of my world, were deeply unpredictable to me.  One story in particular, the fable of the scorpion and the frog, was especially creepy: a scorpion hitches a ride on a frog's back to cross a fast-flowing river.  The frog is uncertain if it should trust the scorpion not to sting it, but as the scorpion points out, if it stings the frog mid-journey, they will both sink and drown.  Still, in the middle of the river, the scorpion stings his companion anyway.  Why?  "It's in my nature."

What does this mean, "It's in my nature"?  Is the scorpion good or bad, active or passive?  Does a scorpion have free will?  Even as a young child, I knew that humans are sometimes slaves to their own biological imperatives: the need for a bathroom on a road trip, the need for a puke bucket during flu season.  Was the scorpion's need to sting akin to these exigencies?  Or was its need to sting more like the other, less uncontrollable urges I experienced: the temptation to palm a roll of Lifesavers from a convenience store or to break my toys in the midst of a tantrum?  If the scorpion had been placed in a story with a little girl, it would have been clear where my sympathies should fall -- the scorpion would be a villain, or, simpler than that, a mere danger, like a lit stove.  But in Aesop (whatever he may have intended), this clarity was lost to me; try as I might, I couldn't locate myself in either character.  Although the altruistic frog was certainly more lovable within the context of the story, the scorpion's needless cruelty raised questions about him too.  If a scorpion's nature was to sting, then what was a frog's nature?  And if that nature was just a matter of instinct, genetics, not something chosen, then wouldn't his potential for goodness or badness entirely depend on whose perspective the reader chose to adopt?  After all, if a story were told about the frog from the point of view of a fly, the frog would seem inherently evil too.

One of the big complicatons in stories entirely about animals comes with personifying more than one species of animal at a time.  I call this the Animal Farm effect.  In the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell (which does, in fact, briefly feature humans as well, though not in the same way as the kids' stories I described above), a mass revolt against an unjust farmer leaves the animals in charge.  Yet, over the course of the story, the pigs -- originally placed in a management role because they are the smartest of the animals -- take on more and more of the qualities of humans in their interactions with the other barnyard creatures, until finally they are living almost exactly as their human masters once did, inhabiting the farmhouse and walking on two legs while others serve them.  The rules of the farm, which once represented the interests of all, are now reduced to one simple credo: ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. 

Orwell, who was using the story to make a statement about Stalinist Russia, clearly meant for us to reject this maxim: the barnyard animals are all sentient, all capable of speech, and thus all equal on the novel's terms.  But I think that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" does reflect something that's frequently true about the use of animals in fiction.  When creating a world dominated by animals, something must still be regarded as the Other in order for the animals' social order to be comprehensible to us -- in order for their life to at all resemble the relationship of human society to the natural world.  Even in Animal Farm, rats, songbirds, and rabbits play this role: the other animals attempt to "tame" them (signalling to the reader that "tameness" is the "humanity" of animals in this scenario) but without success.

The mid-90's Disney film The Lion King, for all its many embarrassing faults (if I never hear the saccharine song "Hakuna Matata" again, it will be too soon), succeeds in this one respect, at least.  With the exception of a meerkat, a wild boar, and a toucan -- all of whom are treated basically as servants and comic relief -- all of the speaking characters are predators, and the prey are basically de-personified.  In one memorable scene, a herd of bison trample a lion to death, not out of anger or a desire for revenge, but because they literally cannot be reasoned with.  They are running out of blind, unarticulated animal fear, seemingly unable to understand or even hear the cries of the main character for help.  For some lions to be "good" and some "evil," for the choices of a lion to have any moral weight, we must first establish that the central nature of a lion qua predator is morally neutral.  And we must do that by making it clear that the story is told from a lion's perspective.

I got to thinking about all these issues over the weekend, after seeing Zack Snyder's fun, gorgeous, and intermittently disappointing kids' feature, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole.  After Watchmen (particularly the magnificent, absurdly ambitious, aggressively postmodern ultimate cut version, which I wrote about here, here, and here), I doubted he was going to top himself with a picture about magic talking owls, and unfortunately I was right.  However, moments of this picture are still fucking glorious, beginning with a sequence at the beginning when an owl swoops down to snatch a mouse off a branch and then continues effortlessly in its flight.  There are a few ornithological non-sequiturs throughout (one plot thread asserts that owlets can be turned to zombies by being forced to stare at the moon as they doze off -- a weird idea, considering that the laws of nature and even the film itself firmly establish that the little dudes are nocturnal), and a feel-good musical montage that made the Lion King soundtrack seem as edgy and smart as Sweeney Todd's in comparison.  But the movie's best moments come when we see owls' own natural behaviors unexpectedly invested with emotional import. 

"Branching," when owlets glide from branch to branch while learning to fly, is a little like athletics, a little like driving lessons, yet not exactly like either: it occupies a space in an owl's life not quite equivalent to anything in ours.  And an even better scene (easily my favorite moment in the film), comes when the little sister of the two main owlets hawks up her first owl pellet, a solidified mass of mouse bones and fur that resembles something fossilized.  Panting and traumatized, spittle dripping from her beak, she stares in horror at the thing her body has just unwittingly ejected, while her nursemaid, a dippy snake, bustles around saying things like, "Oh, it's a beautiful day, the day of your first pellet!"  "You mean," the stunned chick replies, voice quaking with trepidation, "it's going to happen again?"  Vomiting up an owl pellet is a little like menstruation is to humans, yet it also happens to boys; it's a bit like losing a tooth, but it never stops, not even in adulthood.  At heart, it's a thing that happens only to owls, and it isn't transformed to parallel directly with human experiences -- but the way they respond to it, socially and personally, seems more or less the way people would, if people were owls.

Sure, they look real cute... until you see the gunk that comes out of their mouths.

In this sense, stories about animals or other non-human characters can be deeply subversive, and not just because they allow the author to veil controversial opinions under the guise of fantasy.  Rather, these stories are subversive because of the way they allow readers or viewers to set aside their own perspective to emphathize with one that, by its very nature, is profoundly foreign, even disturbing or grotesque.  Especially for kids, but really for all of us, that's a lesson that can't come soon enough.