Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Friday, September 29, 2006

why women are unhappy at work

Here's what I read this morning:

"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

Kids in Danger

In case you didn't hear the lovely interview with Maurice Sendak this morning on NPR, you can listen to it here (click the "listen" button at upper left). And the audio slide show that accompanies the interview is glorious, too.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Banned Books Week

It's Banned Books Week again. Feels like it was just--well, last year, in fact. In honor of Banned Books Week our library hosts a read-out; last year I read In the Night Kitchen (nudity). This year I think I may read the Easter passage from Bridge to Terabithia (religious content, language). I am always astonished at the children's books that make the list, but it does stand to reason: we think children are more susceptible to influence, and thus more in need of protection, than adults. If you want to find the rationales for banning, you can--look for, for example, Parents Against Bad Books. (I'm not linking, because they don't really need the publicity.) They helpfully excerpt lots of the dirty bits from books they don't want your kids to read. Um, perhaps counter-productive? (But pretty amusing, nonetheless.)

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

latest read

I just finished Terry Pratchett's Truckers, and I can't wait to find Diggers and whatever the third book in the Bromeliad Trilogy is. (Umm, Wings.) Pratchett, like Diana Wynne Jones, is ridiculously prolific, very funny, and English. Neither one is as well known in this country as either Philip Pullman or J.K. Rowling, and I'm a bit mystified by that fact--unless it's that they're too prolific? I certainly can't say, as I can of either of the latter two, that I've read all their books (or even all their books for kids...I think I've missed an early Pullman novel). But Pratchett is well worth the read. I think I tried to say so once before, but then got sidetracked.

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

boy and girl books

One of the great pleasures of teaching children's literature is introducing "girl books" to male students. Invariably there is a surprised pleasure in their response to a book like, say, The Secret Garden, when they find out that it speaks to them just as much as, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

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

Off-Duty Disney Princesses, the play

This post is from last February, but Roger Sutton just linked to it's a taste, but click the first link for the whole thing.

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

Library Thing

Attentive readers (hi, there!) will have noticed the new link over on the right to my library thing. Who has time for this? I am a complete library nerd; I worked in the interlibrary loan office of my college library for a couple of years, and then for a library automation company in the early 80s, so I come by this honestly. But I've never tried to catalog my books before, and to do so at this late date seems, well, crazy. Nonetheless compelling.

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

Who loves Harry?

I'm sure there's more to say about this, but it will have to wait for another time:

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

Alice, again

I never get tired of teaching Alice in Wonderland and its companion novel, Through the Looking-Glass. (Maybe you guessed that from the title. And no, the links aren't definitive, just random...) Today was our third day, in the Intro to Children's Lit class, on the Alice books, and we have one more. Every time it's different. This time, no one is really complaining about Alice herself, for example, though there was a time when my students seemed to find her annoying. Now I'm wondering if it had anything to do with me. That is, I was parenting a seven-year-old (or just out of that stage, I think) when my students found seven-year-old Alice annoying. Did I unconsciously lead them to the more annoying aspects of her personality?

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

The Princess Problem

[9/13: small edits to add some links]

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

New column

Here's my latest, on Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, and 9/11.

Susan Sontag's Journals--no, they're not children's lit

I really want Becca's take on Susan Sontag's journals, since she knows so much more than I do about journals and diaries and other forms of life-writing. But what really intrigued me about the journal excerpts reprinted in yesterday's New York Times was the sense that she knew she was not recording a life, but inventing a self. That her writing gave her a space in which to experiment with identity, and that the identity was not something that pre-existed the writing.

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.

just to get some content here

Why Hemingway Is Chick-Lit -- In These Times: "“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan in the Guardian last year. The British novelist reached this rather dire conclusion after venturing into a nearby park in an attempt to give away free novels. The result?

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.)

Friday, September 01, 2006

More about the blog

This is a blog about children's and young adult literature. I write about children's/YA lit every other month at Literary Mama, in the Children's Lit Book Group. But that isn't always enough, so I'm going to try blogging here as well. Or maybe instead.

About the title

Chapter 9, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. See, especially, Uglification and Derision.