Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
But I really popped in here today to recommend that you read this interview with Anderson, who appears to be an alumnus of the same high school as my sister. Small world!
Monday, December 18, 2006
Thursday, December 07, 2006
But I can't agree with her (or, to be fair, her character's) assessment of Summerland, which for me falls into the same category as Adam Gopnik's The King in the Window, of books written for children by authors who usually write for adults that I really didn't like even though I wanted to. Yes, that category. I actually (like the character in the story before she reads Summerland) haven't read any other Chabon, either. I've looked at the covers and thought I should, I've read his wife Ayelet Waldman's novels, I've even gone so far as to look at Chabon's novels in libraries and think, yes, when I have time, I should read that. And maybe I still will. But Summerland...well, it's been a while. But, really. I love books where kids save the world as much as the next person and, really, probably much more. I did just teach a whole class on the topic, more or less. But Summerland just didn't quite work for me. Is it because baseball was the instrument of salvation? I don't think so--actually that's quite a nice conceit. I think, though, as with Gopnik's book, that I simply didn't trust the author's sense of his audience. Now this is tricky. I loved C.S. Lewis as a child, but as an adult I find his attitude towards his audience offensive. At some level this shouldn't matter, as I am no longer that target audience. That is, when he condescends to children, and I find that objectionable, how could it matter when, as a child, I didn't find it objectionable? I don't know, and I don't know if I would have liked Summerland (or The King...) when I was a child. (Though is it fair to add that Mariah, who is closer to childhood than I am, was also underwhelmed by the Gopnik novel? I don't think she read Summerland. Also I should note that I do like Summerland better than The King in the Window, though I'm not sure why I think I should note that. I didn't, that is, hate Summerland; I just kind of went "eh.")
This issue of audience is vexing, and I wish I had a better set of tools to approach it. I feel as if I'm relying on generalizations and feelings that I can't support. I may try Summerland again; I may not.
[edited to add: I don't mean to say that either Gopnik or Chabon actually condescends to his audience in the books I mentioned in the way that Lewis does to his. But I do think they both bear some trace of the author thinking "this is not my usual audience," a trace that somehow for me diminishes the reading experience.]
Monday, December 04, 2006
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Don't answer that. I do, of course, read, and I even read new books on occasion. I used not to read very many, when I was mostly a Victorianist, but now that I work more on children's literature I do read some books the year they come out. This year I read Wintersmith, Clay, and Octavian Nothing, not to mention Clementine and Notes from the Midnight Driver--all brand new books, really!
And it's not that there aren't books on the list I'd like to read. From the nonfiction list, I've got my eye on Eat, Pray, Love and on Fun Home, Heat, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Self-Made Man, and The United States of Arugula. (Sorry, too lazy to link. Check them out through the NYTimes link above, ok?) From the fiction list, After This, The Dissident, The Emperor's Children, The Inheritance of Loss, Intuition, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and The Uses of Enchantment all piqued my interest when I read the reviews...and I am sure there are more as well. But, when?
Don't answer that one, either.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Or, you know, not. But in the meantime it's a quick post.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
I probably shouldn't have watched Etre et Avoir while knitting. After all, I don't speak French, and you need to be watching the screen pretty consistently for subtitles to be truly useful. Nonetheless I enjoyed the movie: a slow-moving documentary about a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. The film begins in the winter and ends in early summer, so we take the kids (some 12-15 of them) through about half the school year with their teacher, Monsieur Gomez, who is a year from retirement. I had thought maybe there'd be some drama about his upcoming retirement, or about the multi-cultural makeup of the classroom (one child is Chinese or Korean, another may be of Arab descent--or may not), but really, it's just about going to school and the kind of relationship a teacher can have with a small group of students. I was sad to learn there's some controversy about the film, but it's still worth seeing: a quiet gem.
Then, Happy Feet: the antithesis, maybe, of Etre et Avoir, but still a lot of fun. Too much plot right at the end--suddenly it's all about not only the environment, but immigration, fundamentalism, and freedom--but it all works out eventually. And the soundtrack, especially for viewers from my generation, is hilarious, including the best rendition of "Somebody to Love" ever.
Finally, Stranger than Fiction, which Mark and I went to see last night. (Two adults! Who have children! At the movies! By themselves!) I didn't think I liked Will Ferrell, but this is one funny, and smart, movie. I'm not sure I really have anything smart to say about it, but I think it says some interesting things about literature and free will. Are we bound by the conventions of the genres we (think we) inhabit? Can plots go wherever they want? Can I have Queen Latifah as my assistant?
Oh, and can I have Dustin Hoffman's version of the English professor's job, where you teach five classes a term but are free to meet with random folks off the street any time, and have plenty of time left over to write books and serve as the "faculty life guard"? That's one great job.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
First, David Almond's Clay. I read Skellig a year or two ago when I wanted to update my children's literature syllabus and I was immediately enchanted. A homeless man in a garage with wings sprouting from his shoulder blades? Who eats mice, flies, and leftover Chinese food? What's not to like? It's a little parable, I think, this novel: it tells a story of a brief encounter, seems to suggest some ways to live, but also unsettles much. Are dreams real? Is evolution spiritual as well as physical? Are there angels? It refuses to answer any of these questions, leaving the reader to puzzle them out, but by raising them it re-enchants the world in the way Tolkien asks fantasy to do. I had one student who thought it was a little clumsy in one place, and the rest of the class got immediately defensive--so I didn't have to. That's always good.
But I was supposed to talk about Clay, a more recent, and more disturbing, book. This one, perhaps like Skellig as well, seems as if it's going to be an allegory. The book has a creator figure much like Caliban's Setebos in Browning's poem: a malevolent creator whose creation exists only to express his own anger and pain. But there's more, and--again like Skellig--I think the book ends up simply unsettling our categories. Yes, there are malevolent creators (and creations) but they are not the whole story. I haven't really settled for myself how good this book is--I didn't enjoy it as much as Skellig, but that may be because the main characters are not as open, as curious, or finally as optimistic, as Michael and Mina in Skellig. That doesn't mean it's not a good or important book, just that it's a little tougher read (and for an older audience, too, I think).
I need to stop here. Next up, Etre et Avoir.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Monday, November 20, 2006
* The Chronicles of Prydain - Alexander, Lloyd
Carrie's War - Bawden, Nina
Death of a Ghost - Butler, Charles
Ender's Game - Card, Orson Scott
Summerland - Chabon, Michael
King of Shadows - Cooper, Susan
* The Dark is Rising sequence - Cooper, Susan
Stonestruck - Cresswell, Helen
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Dahl, Roald
* Matilda - Dahl, Roald
Ingo - Dunmore, Helen
* The Sea of Trolls - Farmer, Nancy
Madame Doubtfire - Fine, Anne
Corbenic - Fisher, Catherine
Inkheart - Funke, Cornelia
* The Thief Lord - Funke, Cornelia
The Owl Service - Garner, Alan
Happy Kid! - Gauthier, Gail
Stormbreaker - Horowitz, Anthony
Whale Rider - Ihimaera, Witi
*Finn Family Moomintroll - Jansson, Tove
* Fire and Hemlock - Jones, Diana Wynne
* The Phantom Tollbooth - Juster, Norton
The Sheep Pig - King Smith, Dick
Stig of the Dump - King, Clive
A Wizard of Earthsea - Le Guin, Ursula
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - Lewis, C S
The House at Norham Gardens - Lively, Penelope
Goodnight Mister Tom - Magorian, Michelle
The Changeover - Mahy, Margaret
The Stones are Hatching - McCaughrean, Geraldine
The White Darkness - McCaughrean, Geraldine
* Beauty - McKinley, Robin
Sabriel - Nix, Garth
The Borrowers - Norton, Mary
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - O'Brien, Robert
Z for Zachariah - O'Brien, Robert
A Dog So Small - Pearce, Philippa
Life As We Knew It - Pfeffer, Susan Beth
* A Hat Full of Sky - Pratchett, Terry
* His Dark Materials sequence - Pullman, Philip
* How I Live Now - Rosoff, Meg
* Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Rowling, J K
* Holes - Sachar, Louis
The Foreshadowing - Sedgwick, Marcus
Marianne Dreams - Storr, Catherine
When the Siren Wailed - Streatfield, Noel
* The Bartimaeus Trilogy - Stroud, Jonathan
* The Hobbit - Tolkien, J R R
* Charlotte's Web - White, E B
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Anderson: I think we all, as children’s book professionals—authors, librarians, children’s booksellers—are antsy about the idea of children’s books teaching a lesson. We disavow that intention left and right—but then we insist (for example) that books for children end on a note of hope. Our books for teens tend to have an underlying motion towards centrism, normalization, integration and socialization. So firstly, I think all writing has an ethics and a politics installed in it, whether people want to admit it or not. And secondly, I think we do deeply care about the message of our books—and for god’s sake, that’s not inappropriate.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Mark the selections you have read in bold. If you liked it, add a star (*) in front of the title, if you didn't, give it a minus (-). Then, put the total number of books you've read in the subject line.
*Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
*The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
*Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
-Love You Forever by Robert N. Munsch --I don't care if I sound like a bad mother; I hate all these "I'll love you no matter what" stories. This one represents a smothering mother, if you ask me.
-The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein --if anything, this one's worse than LYF. "I'll love you even if you turn me into a stump." Self-sacrificial motherhood is just not my style. Ick.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
The Mitten by Jan Brett
*Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown --I could read this one over and over and over again. Wait a minute, I did!
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis --is there a way of marking that I used to like something and don't so much any more? I loved these books as a child, and I still find them very powerful in ways, but they no longer satisfy me in the ways they did.
Where the Sidewalk Ends: the Poems and Drawing of Shel Silverstein by Shel Silverstein
*Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson --my students got me to read this one by asking me to teach it. It still makes me cry, every time.
*Stellaluna by Janell Cannon
-Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss --but he did so much better! This one is just...blah.
Strega Nona by Tomie De Paola
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? by Bill Martin, Jr.
*Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl --my mean second grade teacher read this out loud to us. Maybe she wasn't quite as mean as I thought?
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
*A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by John Archambault
*Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder --my favorite was Farmer Boy, though.
*The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
The BFG by Roald Dahl
The Giver by Lois Lowry
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien
*Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
Corduroy by Don Freeman
Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
Math Curse by Jon Scieszka
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White --I think I liked this better than Charlotte's Web when I was a kid, though now I think differently.
*Are You My Mother? by Philip D. Eastman
-The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis --It gets a minus for The Last Battle, which I now find almost unreadable.
*Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss
*The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
*The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The Napping House by Audrey Wood
*Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss
Basil of Baker Street, by Eve Titus --I haven't thought of this one in years!
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Curious George by Hans Augusto Rey
Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox
Arthur series by Marc Tolon Brown --All? no. but enough!
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder --but I don't really think they deserve three separate entries!
*The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
-The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown --aargh! another one of those smothering mother stories!
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater
My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
Stuart Little by E. B. White
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The Art Lesson by Tomie De Paola
Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
Clifford, the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch
These are apparently the 100 best children's book on the National Education Association's page from 1999--though really, they list individual titles in series and then the series themselves a couple of times, so there aren't really 100. And of course there have been a lot of great books published since 1999!
Monday, November 13, 2006
But today I taught a novel in my children's lit class that most students seem not to like. This happened last year as well and I made a teaching moment out of it (why don't you like it? what do those qualities suggest? why might someone deliberately write a book like that?), so I decided to risk it again.
It worked even better this year. The students were quite articulate about what they didn't like: the narrative doesn't follow the usual cause-and-effect logic, the characters are underdeveloped and lack interiority, the chronology of the narrative is confusing (the main character is in high school at one moment and raising a child almost the next), the magic seems out of place or unearned, the characters make bad decisions and seem not to face any consequences. Great stuff! I put it all up on the board and asked them if they'd read anything else this semester that shared these qualities.
Turns out that these qualities are rife in children's literature, particularly fairy tales. Snow White is a child in scene one, married at the end, for example. Jack is a thief and a fool but when the beanstalk comes crashing down we're on his side. The narrative logic of most fairy tales is "and" rather than "therefore." We really don't know what Cinderella thinks about what happens to her--no one ever tells us. And most fairy tales heroes and heroines do little if anything to deserve the magical help they get.
Oh! And Weetzie Bat and fairy tales are both age-inappropriate: teen sex is in both, but fairy tales often also involve incest, cannibalism, theft, murder, and mutilation. By comparison we might find Weetzie Bat tame. This raises the question of audience, and it turns out that the whole concept of YA literature is a bit difficult to grasp: my college students are pretty censorious about what they think teenagers should be reading. Hmm, I say.
Of course, I told them, they don't have to like it just because I teach it. But they do have to know what it is they're claiming not to like, and to be able to make some analytical claims about it. And, on the evidence of today's class, they can do that.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Don't watch the movie(s). Read the book.
(first seen over at Fuse 8)
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
I personally think there are other good reasons to share picture books with kids (it's fun, they like it, etc.) but it's nice to have this confirmation, no?
Read the whole piece here.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Monday, November 06, 2006
Friday, November 03, 2006
But if I were to be in fifth grade again, I'd want to be in Lelac Almagor's class at the National Cathedral School for girls in DC, if only to do this exercise. What a great story!
Stories that would have turned out differently if the protagonists had had cellphones.
Monday, October 23, 2006
The more we read, the harder it is to surprise us. We understand how certain plots work, and we look for the ways in which they undercut their own structure, their own generic constraints. I was talking with a student today in my office and tried to explain it this way: genre and series novels please us by conforming to our expectations; great literature pleases us by subverting them.
That's not enough, but it's a start. And my most recent YA read, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, volume 1, satisfies in this regard. To call it a historical novel is to suggest that it dramatizes events and characters from history, and it certainly does so. But it does so in such surprising ways as to make the label seem limiting (though still, not inaccurate). The title character reveals himself so slowly, so carefully, that we are hooked before we know where we're going, and when we get there it seems absolutely inevitable that we would be there even though we could predict none of the turns along the way. If all you know of M.T. Anderson's work is Feed (and if you don't know Feed, you should), this book will surprise you simply with its setting: instead of the future, Anderson has chosen to imagine and realize the past. His love of language, though, remains: he is always looking for the ways in which we bend and shape the language to our own uses, and the limits that our language places on our ability to express--and even to think for-- ourselves. This novel also shares with Feed a concern with disease, with the importance of the body to the mind. And both novels question how democracy can really work, given the limits of the people in whom it (appears to) vest power.
But all that is simply to say that it made me think, and that it's going to keep making me think for a while.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
I don't. I used to go to scary movies, as a teenager, but I could only take them in a large group, with lots of editorial commentary to keep us all laughing. I still remember going to see The Omen with a group of friends and having someone break some incredible tension by whispering, "Did you know many parts of the pine tree are edible?" Trust me, it saved the moment. We all collapsed in laughter, and I don't really remember the rest of the movie.
I was a nervous kid. I was the babysitter who checked behind the shower curtain, who put a hand on a sleeping kid's back to make sure he or she was still breathing. I was the kid who had to have a light on in the hallway, who couldn't sleep with the door closed, who spent time considering whether it was better to fall asleep facing the door (and the light, and the source of potential threats) or facing the wall (thus perhaps buying me a few more moments of oblivion before the threat materialized). I didn't need to read or watch scary stories; I had enough of them in my head.
I didn't really find too many books scary, though. This was before Goosebumps (no, I'm not going to link!), after all. I didn't find fairy tales scary, or adventure stories, or fantasy/quest novels. In all of them, as Lewis says, there's the acknowledgement of evil, but also the sense that it can be overcome. G.K. Chesterton says, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." I think maybe that's what I got from fantasy tales as a child.
But I also missed a lot in my reading. Teaching "Hansel & Gretel" the other day I was again reminded of how selective we are as readers, how much we willingly ignore or forget. All my students remembered the candy (or gingerbread) house that Hansel & Gretel encounter in the woods; few remembered why they were there in the first place, which is because their parents abandoned them in the woods deliberately, fearing starvation. Fairy tales tell the truth about human life: it is, as Hobbes would have it, nasty, brutish, and short. But it can also be altered for the better, as Hansel and Gretel discover. They eat the candy house, they outwit the witch, and they return home with her wealth to discover that their (step) mother, the brains behind the abandonment plan, is dead.
It's a scary story. But it's also a reassuring one. Sometimes we have to wait for that reassurance (the last novel I taught, Coraline, is a case in point), but if it's there, then the scariness has a purpose, even a value.
In other cases the scariness isn't quite scary enough. In my seminar the other day we were talking about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then again yesterday about A Wrinkle in Time, and in both of them I think the authors may pull their punches a bit. Lewis wraps up Aslan's death and resurrection in a matter of hours, after all (does it bother anyone else that Edmund doesn't even know of it?), and then has the lion rally the troops by suggesting that they have to "defeat the witch before bedtime." Nothing deflates the threat of that battle like the homely reminder of the nursery. And in Wrinkle--which in many ways I like quite a bit--the conclusion is so rushed that we forget exactly what the scary thing was. Meg gets her father and Charles Wallace back, yes, but what about IT? What about the Dark Thing? In all of the Time Quartet books, in fact, a cosmic threat is replaced by a personal one. And that's fine--L'Engle is clear throughout the novels that the micro- and the macro- can and should be considered together--but we too rarely return to that cosmic level to see exactly what's happened and how the personal story has reframed or defused that cosmic threat.
It's a delicate balance, and one that each reader and each writer, no doubt, must find for him/herself. I have students who recall being scared out of their wits at Where the Wild Things Are, and others who demanded a nightly reading. And I've already written about Nick and Finding Nemo. (He'll hate me for this later, won't he?) I'll keep avoiding the thrills for their own sake, but I'll just have to test the waters with the scary stories again and again.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
"Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can't bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense."
"Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make" (74-75).
From an interview with Philip Pullman published in The Lion and the Unicorn (23:1):
"People talk to me, or talk about me, as if I were a fantasy writer, and then expect me to know all about other fantasy writers. Northern Lights [The Golden Compass, in the US] is not a fantasy. It's a work of stark realism."
[edited to add one more bit from Tolkien:]
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it" (87).
Monday, October 02, 2006
"If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. . . . If written with art, the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms. But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people."
For "fantasy," read "imagination" but also "strangeness." For "recovery," read "defamiliarization." And for "consolation," read "grace." For Tolkien, as for Chesterton (more on him another time), fantasy's primary value is spiritual: it offers a kind of hope that realism frequently cannot, by virtue of its imagined flights (escape!) and its promise of something better.
There are fantasies that end with the death of the hero (Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy is a surprise entrant in this one), or with separation (think His Dark Materials), or loss (I think they all do this). But the impulse to continue to invent, to imagine, to tell another story, that is implied in the best of fantasies, is profoundly optimistic even in the face of loss.
One thing that makes for bad fantasy, then, is loss that doesn't matter, or consolation that feels unearned--too easy, too quick. I have to admit I can feel this way about C.S. Lewis's fantasy novels: Aslan's death lasts only a few hours, and isn't even known to most of the characters, after all. And to refer to death as "the holidays," as he does in The Last Battle, seems to cheapen the deaths that have led up to this end. But again, more for another time.
I re-encountered fantasy, after a hiatus of at least twenty years, when my daughter was small. We read the Narnia books, and I didn't much care for them any more. I read her the Tolkien trilogy, ditto. (I did, and do, love The Hobbit, but the trilogy, with its faux-medievalism and its high seriousness, not so much.) I rediscovered Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander, and those went considerably better for me than the earlier ones. Then we discovered, nearly simultaneously, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. And somehow the floodgates opened, and I began teaching children's lit, and I read The Giver and A Wizard of Earthsea and The Neverending Story (that one I do remember from late adolescence) and, more recently, Skellig and the Chrestomanci books and some Terry Pratchett.
We are living, it seems, in a golden age of children's fantasy, perhaps the third one ever. The first was of course inaugurated by the Alice books and followed up by George MacDonald and a host of other writers; the second, by Lewis and Tolkien. Now we have Gaiman and Pratchett, Pullman and Rowling. Notice the connections? I've got one woman on that list, and not one American. Even if I add LeGuin and L'Engle and Cooper, still it's a list dominated by white British men. And, as a student of mine noted today, it's white British men writing about little (white British) girls--just as in the first "golden age."
Things are, of course, more complicated than that. Many of the books I mentioned are about boys, in fact, and their gender politics are more complicated than mere protagonist-identification could suggest. Britain now isn't Britain then, and the same could be said for little girls.
But this has gone on too long and I haven't even gotten to my point, which is how much bad fantasy is out there now. Has it always been, and I just didn't notice? And how do I distinguish between bad fantasy and good? Here's a start:
The best children’s novels are those that make the real magical and the magical real.
(from a review by Amanda Craig in the Times)
So, the question for the day is: how do children's fantasies make "the real magical and the magical real"? And can domestic realism do the same?
Friday, September 29, 2006
"Men usually bond when things are going well, whereas for women it's almost the opposite," said Aukland University of Technology psychologist Rachel Morrison, who works in organizational psychology at the business school. "Women actively go out and seek friendships when they're stressed and experiencing drama. They're probably more likely to tell others of their discontent, because they're motivated to get support by disclosing what's going on." So now we have scientific proof: Women are black clouds over the water cooler. Gosh honey, who funded your research grant -- Wal-Mart?
But actually, Morrison's research may indeed cast light on one of those invisible force fields that distinguish female and male workplace experiences. Women's inclination to bond over bad experiences may foment workplace negativity, but couldn't this be a classic case of blaming the messenger? Couldn't it be that women are sharing bad workplace experiences (and use commiseration as a survival strategy) because they have, well, a hell of a lot more of them to share?
(Carol Lloyd, in Salon's Broadsheet)
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Sunday, September 24, 2006
I don't think I'm currently teaching or reading aloud anything off these lists, but they certainly appear on my syllabi.
It's always useful to remember, too, that books are challenged for a variety of reasons. I may feel that the challenges to BtoT and In the Night Kitchen are absurd, but the challenges to Huck Finn, Little Black Sambo, and Little House on the Prairie come from the "left." I don't agree with any of them--I've read Sambo, for example, and I would share it with a child, though not without some discussion. Some people don't agree: they don't want to have the Little House books on library shelves, as the attitudes towards Indians in them are certainly offensive and potentially damaging. I don't know how to answer that, except to say that the problem isn't in the book but in the attitude, and we can't change attitudes without studying them. That sounds a bit lame as I type it, but it will have to do--I have to go read a non-controversial book to my son now. Good night.
Friday, September 22, 2006
The premise of the Bromeliad trilogy is that there are nomes (not gnomes)--four-inch-high humanoid creatures--living in spaces humans don't notice. In Truckers a small group of nomes leaves their home in a truckstop, where they are increasingly in danger from various predators, and moves into a department store where, to their surprise, they encounter an entire society of other nomes. These nomes have lived in the store--Arnold Bros (est. 1905)--for as long as they can remember. So long, in fact, that they don't really believe there's anything outside the store. So long that they have developed a religion based on this premise. Their sacred texts are signs and commentaries on signs in the store, thus:
III. And Arnold Bros (est. 1905) said, Let there be Signs, so that All within shall know the Proper Running of the Store.
IV. On the Moving Stairs, let the Sign Be: Dogs and Strollers Must be Carried;
V. And Arnold Bros (est. 1905) waxed wroth, for many carried neither dog nor stroller...
XXI. But Arnold Bros (est. 1905) said, This is the Sign I give you:
XXII. If You Do Not See What You Require, Please Ask. (99, 111)
But it's not just a satire of fundamentalism. The store nomes are sympathetic (if flawed) characters, and they know a lot of things the outside nomes can use. It's a funny but also thought-provoking tale, in fact, in which science and faith come to be very similar, and which seems to me to expand our notions of what it means to be human. (Something similar also happens in The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.)
I've been looking for something to read next to Nick--we're about to finish the Bartimaeus Trilogy, about which I'll write another time--and this may be it. (Dad, I'm working on him for Beyond Beowulf, but he insists that he has to hear Beowulf first, and he and Mark haven't gotten there yet.)
Thursday, September 21, 2006
It's possible that The Secret Garden is a bad example here. After all there are plenty of significant male characters in it; in fact, a common complaint of feminist literary critics is that Burnett gives up Mary's story for Colin's halfway through. Although this is accurate--you can see it in the chapter headings, in fact, when Mary's pleading "Might I Have a Bit of Earth?" gives way to "I Am Colin"--it never felt that way to me as a child reading the novel. Indeed I continued to give Mary pride of place, even when the novel didn't, by recognizing that she engineers Colin's recovery, his new importance in the novel. She never goes away, she just has to share. It's not all about the protagonist, of course: plot lines (romance vs. adventure, "relationship" vs. "action") are usually trotted out as part of the explanation for how books get gendered as well. But if we read novels to "experience other minds," then at some level all novels are relationship novels, and we should just give up on giving them to boys.
I am of course unpersuaded that there really are "boy" and "girl" books. Marketing strategies that put floral covers on some books and monsters on others would suggest otherwise, but if you get beyond the covers, both books I just linked to have both male and female protagonists, and seem as if they could appeal equally to readers of both sexes. Let's not even get into the heterosexist assumptions behind some of this marketing...though I might for the record note that it's the book with the monster cover that seems to me to be suggesting a romance-plot-outcome (Nick and I haven't finished it yet, so I can't be certain).
The thing is, of course, a well-told story should appeal to any reader, and the canard that boys won't read girl books does the boys, above all, a disservice. Girls will read boy books (I could get into a long digression here about feminist standpoint theory, and may do so another day, but for the moment it's enough to say that, take my word for it, girls will read boy books--sometimes because they have to, sometimes because they can), but boys are often dissuaded from reading girl books, and it's too bad.
One year Mark claimed that Little Women and A Little Princess were the two best movies he'd seen all year (one in a second-run theatre; I know they didn't come out in the same year). Both stories were a complete revelation to him; both films told them well (again, we can debate their merits as adaptations another day--they worked for us); and I felt sorry that he'd gone so long without knowing them. But I have to acknowledge that Nick has so far evinced little interest in either, and I haven't yet pushed to read them to him. So what am I waiting for? He did give up on the Little House books (despite having heard one of them read aloud in class) with me, so maybe I just stopped trying at that point. And, while I'm at it, do parents of girls read "boy books" to them? There are very few books I've read to Nick that I didn't at some point read to Mariah (except the Bartimaeus trilogy and a few others that just weren't available when she was small), so for myself I think the answer is "yes," but I'm probably not the best example. I won't read what I think of as "trash" to either of them, so I gave up after one book in the Warrior series with Nick just as I never read a Babysitters' Club book to Mariah. And I think it's the "trash" books and series (oh, another topic for another day!) that are the most deeply gendered, so maybe a commitment to literary quality can (almost) obviate this problem. But not entirely.
Ah, too many digressions, not enough time! I'll have to come back to this one.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Snow White: Did you know Gaston was in rehab a few months ago? Sex addiction. But apparently he beat it.
Cinderella: What about the steroids?
Snow White: I hear he kicked those too. One of the busty blonde French serving wenches was in here the other day. She said he’s doing great—yoga, macrobiotic diet, a lot of charity work for Disney Characters Without Mothers. He’s a new man.
Cinderella: I admire that. I really do. (pause) Do you think they’re online? That organization you mentioned—
We missed the worst of the "Disney Princess" madness, thankfully--Mariah had to make do with the pretty little pony/centaurs from the original Fantasia, much of the time--but this still had me laughing out loud.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
I've only added the books right next to me on my shelves to the library thing so far. And I'm not sure how many more I can, realistically, try to add in. Others seem to have done it, and I bow to their more organized minds, their more thorough natures. I am so far just playing with it, and I may not get very much further. But imagine the possibilities: actually to know which editions of various texts I own! Actually to have access to them! What a concept.
Saturday, September 16, 2006
THE Harry Potter stories are the most popular books in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre's library, the Pentagon has revealed.
JK Rowling's tales of the young wizard were the most requested by terror suspects held at the high-security camp from among 3,500 titles available.
Read it all here
Friday, September 15, 2006
I don't think so, but it could be. It is true, though, that I focus on different aspects of the book(s) depending on my own interests at the time. I used to talk a lot about the food and eating scenes. Why doesn't Alice really get to eat? She ingests transformative food throughout the first book, but is denied the food she wants (tea, tarts); in the second book, she's offered food that doesn't satisfy--a biscuit when she's thirsty, hay when she's hungry, and then a feast that she can't eat because she's been introduced to it. There's also the promise of "jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today." Why is food such a source of frustration? Two years ago I decided it was because it is, for so many kids. When you don't get to choose your own meals, you frequently don't get what you want. There are critical speculations about eating disorders and such (I'd link, but the critical literature seems to be by subscription only--so trust me), but I think it may be simpler than that.
Still, today it was all about games and play for me, not food at all. The games in the Alice books are so annoying: the rules keep changing, there are no winners (or maybe everybody wins, as in the Caucus Race), and they just end when they end. But again, how much is this like children's real experience? Rules are arbitrary, after all, and they often do change from game to game and day to day; winning may be less important than just playing (oh, I'm sure there are lots of links here, but I'm running out of time); and (case in point) games often end just because it's time for lunch, not because you're finished.
And it's time for lunch, so I'll leave this, unfinished though it is.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
I'm just back from a long class on George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin. What, you say, you didn't grow up on this? Or maybe you did, but you forgot it, because it was long-winded and prosy and had an intrusive narrator. Or you saw it at Barnes & Noble (or somewhere else) but wouldn't buy it because it came packaged with a necklace (which should have been a ring, but whatever...)
But I love it, and I can't fully explain why. I know one reason is that the version I read (which is not always the version you can buy in stores, but sometimes it is)* has not only an intrusive narrator but an interrupting child as well, who figures out the story (sort of) ahead of time. As when the narrator reports that the princess of the title has come to a room where a woman sits spinning, and the child interrupts, "Oh, I know this story! It's Sleeping Beauty!" (not an exact quotation; my book's in the office). I loved that kid when I read the book; I was that kid, or I wanted to be.
But I also loved the princess. My father told me princess stories at bedtime, usually involving impossible quests to be performed by suitors who were, almost always, unsuitable. (We can talk about that another time, as well as my memory that my sister got bunny stories when her turn came around...) So I loved princesses in general, but this one in particular was worth loving, or so I thought. She got to save the miner boy who thought he was saving her, for example, and she also got to take a bath in a bottomless tub with a starry ceiling above her, and to wear a fire opal ring. It all sounded good to me.
I didn't keep the princess stuff away from Mariah. No-Nym has a guest post up right now at Dr. B's that is anti-princess, and I get why one should be anti-princess, but I wasn't, and it's too late now. (Though for what it's worth Mariah is pretty anti-princess as a teenager, so we didn't fail too miserably.) In P&G, the narrator insists that a "true" princess is humble, egalitarian, and a worker. (She's also polite and truthful.) So she's not the entirely negative role model that one might think a princess would be. (Most "princesses" in 19th-century novels are in fact not royal, and are indeed quite good role models. But, yet again, I digress.) But that still leaves open the question of why she has to be a princess at all--in many ways, the novel would work if she weren't, but not in every way.
More problematic for me as adult reader is the fact that, like Mary in The Secret Garden (which I'm teaching next week), the Princess Irene of P&G just gives up her story part-way through, and it becomes the boy-hero's story instead of hers. I didn't really notice that as a child, and there are still ways that she's important, but not as important as I'd like her to be. That actually doesn't happen to Sara of A Little Princess (another "charming classic"!), but it's not as uncommon as you might think. And it may just be the lot of princesses.
My non-princess is waiting for me so I'll have to leave that hanging. What do you think about princesses?
*The Puffin edition I linked above is based on the first book publication, which cut out the interruptions. I hear that the "Charming Classics" edition, however, includes them--they are from the first publication, which was a serialization in Macmillan's.
Monday, September 11, 2006
In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.
The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.
I have to get back to work thinking about The Princess & the Goblin right now, but I want to remember Sontag when I look again at Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, one of the novels I'm (supposed to be) writing about this fall.
Only one “sensitive male soul” took up his offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same."
Click the title above to read the whole article. The take-home message: women read to "experience other ‘minds in action’—which is another way of defining ‘empathy’." Or maybe the take-home message is, the novel is already dead, since men don't care about it. (Shades of the nineteenth century, when novel-reading was derided as an effeminate pastime, as Chaudhry points out.) Men, by the way, do read: they just read non-fiction, according to the article.
I want to think about this more, especially since when I teach children's literature women are (slightly) less likely than men to have an interest in fantasy, which most people think of as the polar opposite of non-fiction. Hmm.
(Yes, I posted this on my other blog a couple of weeks ago, but it's still interesting.)