by Ursula K. LeGuin & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ncomiums have been heaped on the shoulders of J.K. Rowling for single-handedly making America love books. (Or else by tag-teaming with Oprah.) Rowling is, presumably, the ladder they kick away behind them on their way to becoming transcendently literate. And it's true: There's something in the nature of fantasy that naturally appeals to the young. It describes worlds as alien and fascinating as the strange and terrifying world that children are actually born into. What's more, fantasy is upfront with its strangeness and terror; it gives it to you outright, the way a child actually experiences it. In its own way, it's as honest as it comes.
But it doesn't do its job if it lies to you, if it papers over the lives of the people in those foreign places, if it ties up their loose ends too neatly or makes morals come cheap. The most adult things I read in the fourth grade -- the truest, the most real -- were Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series.
Contra Rowling and her (admit it) often simplistic moral universe, Portland author Le Guin peoples her worlds with mutable characters motivated complexly, humanly, not by inner wellsprings of grab-bag good or evil. Her newest, Powers, is part of her second series to be written expressly for children (age 11 and older). Osten-sibly the story of an escaped slave and his gift for "remembering," the book primarily documents protagonist Gavir's discovery of the various forms of bondage and trust, as he moves from the house of an aristocratic family to a clandestine village of escaped slaves, then on to his homeland to perhaps discover his identity.
The story, of course, is in the form of a Bildungsroman, a progression of an exceptional boy from innocence to something else. Gavir doesn't find greatness or revelation, however, but a means of suspension in his own rootlessness. Le Guin has written a book for those who believe that fantasy should be something that broadens life rather than allowing escape into a sanitized version of it.