The news of a second book from the previously most famous one-off author in the world, Harper Lee, put into sharp focus our conflicting feelings about tinkering around the edges of a classic. While part of the book-o-sphere went nuts with joy and began ordering their share of the two-million book print run that Harper Collins was putting out for Go Set a Watchman, another faction worried that Lee had been, perhaps, coerced into publishing what is said to be the parent to one of the most beloved books of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird. And even if Lee is putting out her new book willingly, there is another, perhaps unspoken, concern: that the second book might mar the patina of the first.
There’s the rub of the sequel we love – we want more but only if it’s just right. Otherwise, it might put a blot on the story that has a place in our hearts. It’s easier to keep things just so, than to risk imperfection; it reminds me of a Far Side cartoon, showing a luckless stonemason looking over the fallen nose of a sphinx. His friend scolds (and I’m paraphrasing here), “It was fine. Good nose. But you had to hit the chisel one more time.”
I’m afraid of the one more time.
Perhaps that was the draw of Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s recently released autobiography, which shocked some (but not true Bonnetheads) by a demand that put its modest publisher, the South Dakota Historical Society Press, into overdrive. Pioneer Girl let us have the best of both worlds: we keep the fictionalized Ingalls family intact, while allowing us to learn more about the author.
What makes some extensions more accepted than others? We seem to have an insatiable hunger for anything Harry Potter, perhaps because it has always been a series. I adored Harriet the Spy, and have read it multiple times, I recently struggled to read the Louise Fitzhugh estate-authorized Harriet Spies Again, by Helen Ericson. While there is much to like, occasionally I would find what I felt was an off-note that was not true to the original Harriet. At the bottom end of the scale is Twilight Barking, the almost-unkown sequel to another favorite of mine, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is by all accounts, a trippy detour into a world with extraterrestrial dogs.
For writers, I think it must take trust in oneself as well. For my money, one of the gutsiest moves of all time in the-first-one-was-great-land was Gennifer Choldenko’s decision to release not one but two sequels to her Newbery Honor-winning Al Capone Does My Shirts. Al Capone Does My Shirts has, in my opinion, one of the most perfect endings in middle-grade books, and once you add a Newbery sticker, it must be tempting to say, there, that’s enough. But to take the risk and finish the stories you want to write – that’s pretty darn cool in my book.
And maybe that’s where I have to take all my trepidation about these other books, whether they are sequels or some extension; if the author, whether original or successor, has enough guts to put another story out, maybe I should be willing to read it in that spirit. Eoin Colfer, heir to the cult-status Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, had a visitor at ComicCon who perhaps put it best. “I’m gonna read this new book before I hate it,” he promised Colfer, holding a copy of Colfer’s contribution And Another Thing. And perhaps, once we read it, we won’t need to hate (or fear) it at all.
Wendy Shang’s second book, The Way Home Looks Now, is not a sequel.