Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Delilah Dirk' and Transitional Reads


I've mentioned a couple of times that I work as a nanny in my day job - because as much as I love blogging it pays exactly zero bills - and I take care of two awesome kids. The younger one is four. He loves Wild Kratts and telling long convoluted stories about his toy cars and he absolutely hates getting his ears wet. The older one is nine. She adores Harry Potter and writing comics about oddly short supervillains and she absolutely hates when I tell her that something is too "old" for her.

Like, I cannot stress enough that the older kid absolutely loathes when I tell her that something isn't appropriate for her age level or is too intense or is of too high a reading level. I mean, she's a great reader. She reads chapter books, she's gone through the entire Harry Potter series probably four times by now (at least), and in general she's well above her age group. 

So, understandably, she's started to find that the books available for her age group, the "young reads" she finds at the library, are boring. They're not intellectually stimulating. She's read the stories over and over again and there's nothing new.

It's a problem that I remember facing as a kid too. What do you do when you're clearly smart enough to read grownup stories, but you're not exactly mature enough to handle the content in most of them? In my case, I just ended up reading anything and everything, and while that really did work out okay for me, it's different when I can see this kid looking like she's about to dive off the same cliff. So I've spent a fair amount of time trying to find a balance for her. Stories that don't make her feel condescended to as a kid, but that are also of an appropriate maturity level for her. And I think I've finally hit the sweet spot.

Admittedly the sweet spot is currently only the size of one actual book, but we're working on it.

All of this brings us to today's topic, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. It's a graphic novel by writer/artist Tony Cliff, and it tells the fictional story of Delilah Dirk, fantastic, swashbuckling adventurer, and her sidekick, a young Turkish man named Selim. 

The book, which is the first in a series*, gives us the origin of Delilah and Selim's relationship, showing how they met, how Selim was ensnared into traveling with her, and ultimately how they became best friends. It's a really good book no matter what age you are. But, most importantly for our topic today, it somehow manages to straddle that line of being just mature enough to be interesting without making me have any conversations I desperately don't want to.

The story starts with Selim, actually. He's the main character of the series while Delilah is more of a "central figure" or "primary character." When we meet her she's already the person she wants to be and the emotional journey we follow is Selim's not hers. Still, this doesn't make her any less awesome. We first meet her in a Turkish prison cell, having been arrested while trying to steal a couple of rare scrolls from the Sultan in Constantinople (Istanbul, but, appropriate to the time period that's not the name the story uses).

Selim, as a lieutenant of said Sultan, is the one tasked to go in and interrogate the prisoner. What he finds, over an interrogation that's really more tea and cookies than whips and flails, is that Delilah Dirk has the kind of backstory superheroes drool over. She's the daughter of an English ambassador and a Greek artist. She's lived all over the world, learned secret fighting techniques and special abilities wherever she went. She has a ship that can fly, can escape any jail cell, and goes about the world making her fortune as a "retrieval specialist" and general madcap adventurer.

Selim is pretty impressed with Delilah, as he should be, but it's not until she escapes the cell and he's blamed for letting her go that his fate becomes entwined with hers. The Sultan declares him a traitor and decides both he and Delilah must be killed, so Selim's only real choice is to chase after Delilah and try to get away with her. Which they do, on her flying boat.

Since Selim insists that he find a way to pay Delilah back for saving his life, he refuses to abandon her in her adventures, becoming her functional sidekick. And what could easily have been either racially uncomfortable or sexist in the hands of a lesser writer is pleasantly subverted here. Selim is from a completely different culture and racial background than Delilah, but he's never made to seem less than her. 

He's polite and kind and enjoys good tea and chatting with people, while she would rather get in a fight and steal something just to break the boredom. But neither of them is presented as being "damaged" or "wrong." They're just two very different people sharing an adventure and becoming friends. It's not very far into the story that Selim decides he no longer owes Delilah anything at all, but he sticks around anyway, at least for a while.

Towards the end of the book, Selim actually parts ways with Delilah for a bit. They find a calm, wonderful town where the people love them, and when Delilah leaves Selim doesn't. He falls a little bit in love, finds a family, and lives a nice quiet life, the one he's claimed to have been missing all along. Then he decides that the nice quiet life isn't for him anymore and goes back to Delilah, finding her just in the nick of time.

And that's really all there is to the story. I mean, there are adventures and daring escapes and lots of arguments about propriety and tea, but the basic emotional arc of the story is this. Selim is a man who seems to only want a life of security and stability, but when he loses that he finds that what he'd rather have is the chance to make his own life, a life where no one can tell him who he is or what to do.

See, that's the underlying theme of the story. Delilah is like a lot of female heroes in that for a long time we're not told any particular reason why she goes on adventures, but the actual reason behind it makes sense and gives the book more weight. As a member of the English nobility, she feels stifled in her "official" life. The people she's supposed to socialize with look down on her for her "ethnic heritage" and unusual upbringing, and back home all that's expected of her is to marry a nice nobleman and have lots of little noble children who will be raised by nannies and never know the freedom she did. Delilah hates everything about her potential future.

Becoming an adventurer was less about her desire to fight people and steal things - though she definitely enjoys both of those activities - and more about her desire to subvert the world's expectation of her. She's supposed to be a sweet, demure Victorian lady. She's not supposed to be a swashbuckling action hero. Moreover, she's stuck in a culture that views women as delicate and in need of protection. I think more than anything else Delilah wants to live a life where she knows for a fact that she can protect herself.

Which is what makes her relationship with Selim so interesting. It's not romantic, thank goodness, but the arc of their friendship shows her coming to trust Selim and even rely on him. For a woman horrified by the idea of depending on anyone but herself, that's says a lot about how Selim changes her just as she's changing him.

As for Selim, well, his story has a lot of class connotations. He's clearly a learned man and a very well cultured one, but he's not of the noble classes. He's Turkish and a Muslim and he clearly loves his heritage and religion, but he doesn't agree with all of it. He's curious and poor and not in a position to really do much with his life before Delilah comes. In fact, one of the first scenes we get is about how Selim is a kind wonderful man who the world is just waiting to swallow whole. He needs to learn how to take care of himself and he needs to learn to stop caring what other people think of him. Selim needs an adventure.

But not in that obnoxious "he needs an adventure" way that stories about young men meeting manic pixie dream girls always tell it. Delilah is no MPDG. She's all business all the time. She doesn't so much teach Selim how to live as she does throw him headfirst into her world and see if he survives. When he does survive and actually contributes useful things to her world that she couldn't have achieved without him she starts to realize that there might be something to this. Theirs is a partnership of equals, by the end at least, and it's fantastic to see it grow.

So why is this on my list of good "transitional literature" for the budding reader who still needs stuff appropriate for kids? Well, obviously it works because it is mature material. It handles complex racial, cultural, religious, and class issues very well, sometimes so subtly that it might slip past the reader. The story gives us a kickass female hero with all the epic backstory of your average Batman and none of the angst, which is rad. It's a story with no romance or sex or even particularly gratuitous violence. 

More than any of this, though, it's a story about two people realizing that the best friendships are the ones that change you and make you a better person. It's about a man who loves tea and conversation and a woman who thinks best with a sword in her hands going around Turkey fighting bad guys and redistributing wealth. And it's about the idea that you don't have to take the identity society gives you. You have room to find a new one, to find a real way of living that might not be what anyone expected but is absolutely what you want.

The funny thing is, that's a message that a lot of literature for "young readers" deals with. It's just that most of those books frame it in contexts that the kiddo already understands. Oh look, a story about a fourth-grade girl dealing with what happens when her family moves to a new city and suddenly she's the outcast at school. Oh, here's one where the preteen boy deals with his family's expectations of him by drawing silly comics and hoping he can go to art school. It's not that these stories are bad. They're not. It's just that at this point the kiddo knows what to expect from them. She's kind of tuned them out.

And for all that they talk about figuring yourself out and not accepting the box society wants to put you in, a lot of those stories rely on boxes for their framing. They assume things about their audiences, like whiteness and living in the US, and that the box you escape from is just a small box inside a bigger box of society that you should be perfectly content to live in.

I'd rather have Delilah Dirk because this is a story largely without boxes. It's a story where anything is possible, even a flying boat. And not "anything is possible" like the laws of physics don't apply or everything is magic. More that it's a world where there's an adventure just waiting for you. I want the kiddo to live in that world. Or, at the very least, to know that it's an option.


*One book is currently only available online while the other is set to come out next March.

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