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

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

And you call yourself an English professor?

The NYTimes list of 100 notable books for 2006 is out, and I have not read a single one. Not one. What do I do all day?

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

chain letter, or academic research? You decide:

Here's the scoop: a graduate student on a panel on blogging at the MLA is trying to figure out how quickly a meme spreads. So here's a link to his post. You can link to it too (follow his directions about the whole technorati thing, which is a little mysterious to me), and then one day we will all be famous.

Or, you know, not. But in the meantime it's a quick post.


I just finished the third Tiffany Aching novel by Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith, and I can only hope there are more. (Check out the great review of all three books here.) I'm starting to think that a lot of children's fantasy is implicitly about gifted education: you take these "special" children (often with magical powers) and figure out how to help them use their gifts. Tiffany learns to be a witch in A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith, just as Harry is learning to be a wizard in the Potter series and Lyra has to learn to read the aletheiometer in The Golden Compass. (I could go on: Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising, Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, various kids in the Chrestomanci books, the protagonists in Lowry's Giver series, Reason in Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons, etc.) I'm not quite sure what to say about this, except that the methods of education are quite different in all of these, and I'd be curious to know if the books appeal more to gifted than to other children, or whether there's any correlation at all between an appetite for fantasy and an interest in pedagogy.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Three movies

Astonishingly, I've seen three movies over the last few days. Two in a theatre, even. And, even more surprisingly, all were good--in very different ways.

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

Reading and viewing (or, maybe, just reading)

I keep my reading and viewing lists over at the other blog, because that's where I started them, but I think really they make more sense here. So I may move them. In the meantime the two latest additions are worth some brief commentary, no?

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

and another list

This time I'm just going to link to this great list of essential children's/YA novels, for aspiring writers or editors in the field. I think I'm in pretty good shape on this one: I haven't read anything by Paula Danziger, and I don't think I've read anything by Richard Peck, either, though I did hear him speak once. I've also missed a few of the "Modern YA classics" and two from the fantasy list--Tale of Despereaux and anything Redwall--but in general I feel pretty good about my general knowledge here. (And, like the typical "good student" I've always been, I want to note that, yes, I've read several of the extra credit books as well.) What makes me a little sad, though, is the complete lack of anything 19th- or earlier 20th-century from this list. Shouldn't modern children's writers/editors know Alice in Wonderland, if not The Princess and the Goblin or The Secret Garden or The Wind in the Willows? No Anne of Green Gables, Little House, or Winnie the Pooh? Ah, maybe I'm just recreating that first list now...but I'd be sorry to learn that modern children's writers weren't at least somewhat aware of the history of the field going back more than a quarter century.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another list: 50%

Excellent! In lieu of actual content, I give you another list, this time of (mostly) fantasy books that Michele of Scholar's Blog thinks are worth reading. Looks like I've read half, liked fewer, though I didn't mark any with a minus sign for overt dislike. Looks like fantasy goes down a little easier for me than other genres? Or that Michele has good taste?

* 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

Read more

M.T. Anderson talks about didacticism in books for children and young adults (and other things):

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

100 best books: 82

Found this at Fuse#8 and couldn't resist:

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

teaching to the unenthusiastic

One of the great things about teaching children's literature is that usually the students like the books. This is no small thing, especially when one usually teaches Victorian literature (which seems, strangely, to be an acquired taste for some) or, worse, a required course. Nothing in a required course, naturally, can be enjoyable. I cheated last year by teaching a children's novel in my required course (the syllabus is the same for everyone, but we each get to add one text), and it was almost everyone's favorite book for the course. Competing with Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Augustine, etc. Well, to be fair, it was my favorite, too. Not that I think the others aren't worthwhile, but there was a little less pleasure in the assigned reading. (By the end most of us did truly enjoy several of the texts--and learn a lot about more of them--and I'm always glad to go through the drill again when I do it. But it's hard, hard work at the beginning.)

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

Cheaper by the Dozen

...was one of my favorite books as a kid. I read it over and over again, especially during summer vacations at my grandparents' house. I think that book, along with its sequel Belles on their Toes, a collected Louisa May Alcott, and a collected Mark Twain, made up the "appropriate for kids" library in the old farmhouse we used to move into for the month of August. So I was saddened to learn today that Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, co-author of the books and daughter of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, had died last week.

Don't watch the movie(s). Read the book.

(first seen over at Fuse 8)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

hot off the presses...

"Parents who engage in the age-old tradition of picture-book reading are not only encouraging early reading development in their children but are also teaching their toddlers about the world around them, according to a study in the November issue of Developmental Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA). This finding shows that interactions with life-like color pictures can aid in children’s learning."

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

a new column

check it out here, and leave me a comment!

And, then, go vote. Or, you know, vote first. The column will still be there when you get back.

(And, yes, this post is a duplicate of the one at my other blog. I'm busy today, ok?)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Celebrity children's books

Again. (Sigh.) This is a good piece, but haven't we already talked about the issue?

(Warning: shameless self-promotion in that second link.)

Friday, November 03, 2006

not about children's literature, but...

Brilliant: "instead of a t-shirt reading Carpe Diem, I need one that reads Carpe The Next Five Minutes, Then Nap."

read the whole post, titled "Reason #782 why depression sucks."

Writing yourself into the story

I have really never once since leaving the fifth grade wanted to be back there. Not that fifth grade was bad--in fact, I had a fabulous teacher who had colored contact lenses to match her outfits (this in 1971), and I thought she was great. It was a whole lot better than sixth grade, now that I think about it. Still, I was one of those kids who wants to grow up, the sooner the better, and I've rarely if ever had the nostalgic impulse to return to an earlier stage of me.

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!

Read McSweeney's

for this little amusing gem:

Stories that would have turned out differently if the protagonists had had cellphones.