Posted by: markfender | August 16, 2011

William Sleator

William Sleator recently died. He was 66.

There are very few books I remember reading from my childhood. For one, I was a voracious reader who would often check out 14 or more books from the library – every week. So I read a lot. There are things that recall reading, things that I remember fondly, and other things that I recall thinking “I don’t get the big deal about this.” I distinctively remember getting annoyed that most the Newberry Award winning books were “important” novels that I, as a child, had no interest in reading. Yes, the 60s were an important time for race relations, but as a white person growing up in an affluent suburb of Chicago, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry didn’t look like a very interesting book.

But I remember William Sleator’s books. Because they haunted me.

House of Stairs is probably his most well-known book. It describes a dystopian future where five children are placed in a house made up of a maze of stairs. They are then programmed/brainwashed by a series of programmed lights that dispense food when the children perform the tasks the lights demand of them. You’ve seen movies like this (probably inspired by this book) and you’ve read similar Lord of the Flies-type of stories before, but the way Sleator describes the children descending into feral creatures really resonated with me. While I didn’t believe that these events could transpire in my lifetime, I could understand the motivations of the characters and feel their descent.

After reading House of Stairs, I sought out all the other books I could find by him. I read a lot of his stuff (I can’t believe there hasn’t been an Interstellar Pig movie yet), but my favorite novel of his is Singularity. It, too, dealt with sci-fi themes but ended up doing what great sci-fi always does – tell a human story. In it, two boys, twins, discover the endpoint of a singularity has appeared in the shed in their backyard. Things are coming out and time moves slower around the singularity than anywhere else. One of the twins, tired of living in the other’s more popular shadow, decides to spend the night in the shed. That night is like ten years for him, but only an evening for everyone else. So, when he emerges the next morning, he’ll be ten years older than his brother. It’s a pretty crazy decision, but one that Sleator does well. Most of the book is the description of the twin spending the night in the shed and how he manages to not go insane living in a shed for ten years. That sort of dedication and struggle wasn’t familiar reading for me while in the 6th grade, but it had a big enough impact on me to look back fondly on the book when I heard the news that Sleator had died.

I have no plans to go revisit his catalog. I’m a lot older now and would probably find the writing not up to my adult standards. Nor am I recommending that you go back and find these precious gems from my childhood. But I do feel that people overlook the children’s book market a lot and only care when a runaway success like Harry Potter explodes out of it. And I do think there are important works of sci-fi hiding in the field that are often overlooked. Ender’s Game gets a lot of (deserved) praise as an important young adult book, but I would put many of Sleator’s books in that same category. It’s been interesting to see the eulogies written over the past few weeks and all the people describing their hidden love for his books. So, here’s another one.

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