Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sandman and the War of Dreams, by William Joyce

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know that we take our Christmas here very, very seriously, so it is with great delight that we announce that prolific author, illustrator, animator and filmmaker William Jocye (born 1957) has released the next prose novel in his ongoing Guardians of Childhood series, Sandman and the War of Dreams.  It is, in a word, marvelous.

For those of you who came in late: Joyce has undertaken to create a series of books – both picture books and prose novels – that chronicle the origins of the great heroes of childhood, including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Man in the Moon, and the Sandman.  In doing this, he does not fall into the trap of presenting the mixture as before, but, rather, creates a whole new persona and background for each classic figure, making it wholly his own.  (Did you know that the Easter Bunny is the last of a race of brilliant warrior rabbits?  Or that Santa Claus was raised by Cossack brigands?  If not, read on….)

Brazenly, Joyce ends his novels with edge-of-your-seat cliffhangers.  In the last book, Toothiana Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, the heroine, Katherine, was kidnapped by Pitch (the Bogeyman) and his daughter, the beautiful and dangerous Mother Nature.  Our heroes return to the magical land of Santoff Clausen to regroup, convinced that Katherine may be lost to them forever.  However, just when things look their darkest, out of the night (literally) comes the newest Guardian to join their ranks, the Sandman.

Or, to be more precise, Sanderson Mansnoozie.  Awakening from a sleep of eons, Mansnoozie is one of the last of a great race of star-faring Star Captains.  Or, as Mansnoozie explains, As a star pilot, I belonged to the League of Star Captains, a cheerful brotherhood devoted to the granting of wishes.  We each had a wandering star that we commanded.  In the tip of our star was our cabin, a bright compact place, much like an opulent bunk bed.  We journeyed wherever we pleased, passing planets at random and listening to the wishes that were made to us as we passed.  If a wish was worthy, we were honor-bound to answer it.  We would send a dream to whomever had made the wish.  The dream would go to that person as they slept, and within this dream, there would be a story…

The book combines Joyce’s taste for swashbuckling adventure with his usual goofy humor – almost as if Soupy Sales were writing Robin Hood.  Chapter titles include The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of, The Sandman Cometh and, my favorite, Do Be Afraid of the Dark.  And while the story further complicates and expands the overarching story, Joyce never loses sight of what makes his characters tick.

Sandman is part of an ongoing effort by Joyce to make a children’s cosmology, and has, within the pages of these books, created a fully-realized fantasy world.  It has pep and zest and a zany sense of humor – and is more reminiscent of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories than any other contemporary series that I know. 

Sandman is the darkest book in the series, thus far.  In it, we see the horrific events that turned one of the great leaders of the lost Golden Age into Pitch, and how violence and hatred can warp even the most noble souls.  The book also resonates most deeply on the sense of a passed Golden Age, an Age of Wonders.  Children’s books are often the inkblot test upon which we see a multitude of meanings, and I cannot help but think that Joyce – consciously or not – is mourning for the marvels of the 20th Century, the Great American Century, now passed forever.

The book is wonderfully designed.  Joyce provides a series of charcoal and pencil drawings (so different from his lush, colorful, classic Americana paintings), and the middle third of the book (a flashback) is on black paper printed in white type.  The images here have a certain magical quality that seems far removed from most fantastic fiction for children; they are more primal and have a sense of … urgency that is usually missing from Joyce’s work.  Sandman is not a book to be forgotten quickly.

It is perhaps not surprising that the strongest entries in the series have all been about the “second tier” figures of the kiddie pantheon: to most children, the Tooth Fairy or the Sandman or the Man in the Moon are little more than names, but free from other conceptions of the characters, Joyce makes them startlingly original and alive. 

In the previous novel, he created a Tooth Fairy that was a figure of otherworldly delicacy and beauty.  With the Sandman, he creates a figure of surpassing strangeness.  Mute (he communicates through dreams and symbols), Sandman is of benign and beatific aspect.  But he also strong, resolute and brave – equal parts Harpo Marx and John Wayne.  As such, he is a wonderful creation and a worthy addition to the Joyce canon of children heroes.


lyle said...

at what age group is the series appropriate? is it too dark for younger children?

James Abbott said...

Not really too dark for younger children. This series would really be good for six-year olds and up. Of course, adults can read them with satisfaction, too. I would recommend reading the series, though, rather than just reading one of them, as they form a connected narrative.