Terry Pratchett's latest book, Wintersmith, is the third in the Tiffany Aching series, written for children of all sizes. In it, Tiffany, a trainee witch who's now almost thirteen (she started the series at nine years old), accidentally joins a dark and ancient dance, attracting the attention of the title character. Since nothing witches do is allowed to be "accidental" and the Wintersmith's interest turns out to be amorous, Tiffany must correct her mistake quickly. She also has to deal with the normal problems that come with growing older: the departure of an elder, competition with another girl, and a burgeoning ... friendship with a boy she rescued in a previous installment of the series. Fortunately, she's got help, especially (as in past books) from the Nac Mac Feegle, a tribe of small, blue, filthy, and good-spirited brawlers who are sworn to protect her, and in the person of Granny Weatherwax (usually "Mistress" here), one of Pratchett's two favorite characters. His delight in and knowledge of her charcter and the characters around her, and of this world he has fully realized, make the book a joy, one that shows him at the top of his game.
But while joy is important, it's not all there is to be had from Wintersmith. It's clear that Pratchett sees writing for children as no reason to forgo all the issues confronted in so-called adult literature. This book sees Tiffany deal with the passing of someone close to her, and although the sting is somewhat lessened by the appearance of Death—a fan favorite—and the victim chatting with him and having prepared for it in advance (and thus in some sense looking forward to it), it is still sad and a little creepy, and presages great change. Responsibility is also a big theme, but it's never conveyed in a moralistic or patronizing tone. Pratchett, like Lucretius and Mary Poppins, knows that a spoonful of something sweet will make a lesson go down easier; his humorous books are often lauded as containing "stealth philosophy." Invocation of the first-century AD Epicurean is not inapt: Pratchett also works to free our minds from superstitition, or at least explain why it works, and his interest in ethics and how to lead a moral life are very much in evidence here—and are nothing if not the work of philosophy. Tiffany has hard decisions to make and must accept their consequences, good or bad ("This I choose to do. If there is a price, this I choose to pay," she says on p. 11; a similar mantra can be found near the end of the book, on p. 309). Life can be sacrifice and duty, but because those are right things to do, there is a kind of joy in them.
So why tackle these heady themes in a book for this audience? Why make kids confront them in a story before they have to in the real world? For Pratchett, these issues, these facts of life, are not what should distinguish adult from children's literature. He's often asked whether it's easier to write a kids' book than a "normal" book; this answer, taken from a March 2003 interview, is typical:
Harder, if you do it right.... With kids you have to be aware of what they are not likely to know about. You have to be a bit more careful with the language, you have to put in chapters which you don't do for the adult books. Ultimately, you have to write the books in a different way, but I can't really tell you what it is ... I just know how to do it.
You don't take out things that everyone has to deal with, in other words, you just use different language to describe them. Earlier Discworld books have introduced the concept of headology, the method of using people's superstitions, beliefs, and fears to get things done one's own way, used to great effect particularly by Granny Weatherwax. This is not a hard concept to understand, but for that particular term to make sense, you need at least to have heard the word "headshrinker" and have some idea of what Sigmund Freud was up to. It's not a stretch to imagine that most thirteen-year-olds don't have this knowledge. So Pratchett here introduces the concept of Boffo, and I won't spoil the joke by explaining its etymology. Suffice to say it does the job of "headology," and with particular appeal to its target audience. This isn't pandering—it's making things relevant.
And the concerns tackled are relevant, for Pratchett is after nothing less than what it is to be human. Besides growing up, accepting more responsibility, and learning to deal with other people—or probably because of these—a large part of it, according to Pratchett, has to do with telling stories. Perhaps this will strike some as self-aggrandizing: the author championing his very stock in trade as fundamental to the human condition. But to see it that way is to get things exactly backward. Pratchett is a writer because he sees story as important; he doesn't see story as important because he writes. So Granny sees at once that Tiffany's dance with the Wintersmith is a story as old as time, and a problem that can't be solved without the right ending. Miss Treason, the witch Tiffany is apprenticed to, uses Boffo and the scary stories told about herself to command the respect of the villagers she's responsible for. But there has to be some truth behind them for the stories to work. Annagramma, a little older than Tiffany but far bossier and not as good a witch, uses Boffo to similar effect, but only after she has been taught by the other young witches how to do the real work that is expected of her. The tricks do their job, but only if you do yours.
This, then, is what the Wintersmith fails to understand. He is also a story, told to explain the coming of his eponymous season, and as a creation of humans—an elemental, not quite a god but certainly not a mortal—he shares many of their traits. He believes the stories. He believes in romance—another kind of story—thinks he is in love with Tiffany, and tries to become a man. As an elemental he never had to think, so his attempts when he does are logical but wrong. Cracked, even. He listens to children reciting a rhyme, "These Are the Things That Make a Man" ("Iron enough to make a nail ... Water enough to drown a dog, Sulfur enough to stop the fleas ... Poison enough to kill a cow," 92), and—well, you can probably guess what he decides. These children make something of the same mistake, chanting the lines in answer to his question about what special dust makes human innards. If only they had been given facts in addition to the stories. (Pratchett knows there is a place for stories, but he wants us to see the reality behind them.) Tiffany is able to escape this trap through the common sense she developed while living on a working sheep farm. She has seen every disease, birth, and death that a sheep can go through. Her reading material of choice is a dictionary. (Her friend Roland, incidentally, is also a great reader, of nonfiction manuals on sword fighting and tactics, but trapped in a castle, he's unable to marry knowledge to experience. There's only so much a book can teach you, after all.) Through the course of the book and in response to the danger she faces, Tiffany learns more of the stories that she has not had time for (even selecting Chaffinch's Mythology as a going-away present). This eminently sensible girl must allow some fancy into her life to continue to live it—and all because she gave in to a whim.
There are terrible things that life brings, but also joy and laughter and satisfaction. This book has them in spades. More than thirty books into the Discworld series, Pratchett is a proven master. His ability to make moral issues relevant and interesting is matched by his facility in disguising the fact that that's what he's doing. His writing on every level—word, sentence, chapter, book, plot, character, description, joke—is never less than perfect, and his technical brilliance never fails to astound. But it's the characters who stick with you—fully realized, flawed, and yes, human. Even when they're not quite. Children's book or not, this is literature for all ages.