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

Saturday, December 29, 2007

More on Enchanted

Tricia pointed me to Mitali Perkins' great post on Enchanted (read the comments, too). I began to write a long comment but instead of highjacking the thread I thought I'd just post it here.

(Caution: Many, many spoilers ahead...)

It's absolutely true, as I think I noted, that Enchanted has its cake and eats it, too. It deconstructs the love-at-first-sight motif only to reconstruct it in the end, for example. It also deploys the damsel-in-distress motif but then reverses it, putting the hero (briefly and not very seriously) at risk while the heroine struggles to save him. From a feminist viewpoint, I thought, well, meh. Giselle does end up with a job (while her rival, Nancy, who's apparently been a successful businesswoman, gives hers up). The Marie Curie story is shown to be just as much of a fairy tale as Little Red Riding Hood. Giselle even speaks up for stepmothers--a good thing, since by the end she will become one. But apparently shopping is the most significant form of female bonding, and a credit card is better than a fairy godmother (or, apparently, than remarkable skill with drapes, scissors, and thread). Disney will never, ever deconstruct its consumerist fantasies.

Perkins notes that the film deploys some noxious stereotypes (both racist and ageist) as well--in a way, again, fairly typical of Disney films. I think, though, that those stereotypes are somewhat mitigated by the fact that they are deployed by someone evil: that is, both the Narcissa (evil stepmother) character and Nathaniel (her henchman) are so tied up in their version of a fairy tale world that they can't think beyond deploying those stereotypes. Narcissa transforms herself into a crone because she thinks crones are evil; Nathaniel (badly) impersonates various immigrant types because that's who he imagines would do Narcissa's dirty work. They both fail. So while Perkins is right that there are images of bad first-generation immigrants in the film, the really bad characters are only impersonating immigrants. The "real" working class and/or immigrants depicted in the film are for the most part "good" people (the bus driver, the steel drum band, etc.). Now, true, they are only in minor, supporting roles, so there's still that problem, but they're not evil--far from it. And Giselle, for what it's worth, engages with everyone on equal terms: homeless people, shopkeepers, and high-powered lawyers.

I have to confess, I didn't like Nancy--not because she wasn't awesome (I didn't see enough of her to decide) but because she hung around for five years with a pig! She was obviously McDreamy's rebound girlfriend (his wife left him and his daughter when she was one year old or younger, right, if she was six in the movie and he'd been dating Nancy for five years?), she'd been the only adult female in Morgan's life all that time and still didn't know her well enough to know the whole "girlfriend" routine wasn't gong to work, and she was still mooning around for him after finding him with a towel-clad babe in his apartment? If I'd believed for one second in their relationship I might have felt bad for her--but the whole thing was a setup from the start. The one I was curious about was Morgan's mother--but then, I'm always curious about the mom (maybe those are my bifocals?), especially when she's not on screen at all. Frankly, I was surprised and a bit heartened to discover that she wasn't dead--that would have been the usual Disney move.

I've probably spent way more time on this than it deserves--the movie is entertaining, the production numbers are a hoot, and it doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as I just have. On the scale of Disney movies, it seems better to me (wearing my feminist, mom-ist lenses) than most. But is it either great art or ideologically pure? Well, in a word, no.

I have to confess that It's a Wonderful Life actually made me feel more uncomfortable, on many of these grounds, than Enchanted: the comic African-American maid! The Italian immigrants referred to as "garlic-eaters," and depicted with uncountable children--and a goat! Of course it was made in less "enlightened" times...and it still made me cry to watch it...but at the same time this other little voice was reminding me of its failings. And so it goes.

Friday, December 28, 2007


In case you've forgotten I blog here, I thought it was time for a quick post. And all I have to say is, I found Enchanted enchanting. I didn't really want to, and I'm sure there are things to say about how it both undermines the Disney magic and completely buys into it, but I still loved it. No tears, just pure pleasure at formula done right.

Nick enjoyed it just as much as Mariah, if not more.

(Oh, and by the way? Susan Sarandon should play a wicked stepmother more often. She looked like she was having so much fun!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

December Carnival of Children's Literature

If you haven't finished your Christmas shopping yet (please tell me you haven't), you may find some great tips here. And if you have, then you deserve a little treat for yourself, don't you think? All sorts of bookish-holiday goodies going on at the December Carnival.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Terry Pratchett...

...has recently become one of my favorite authors. I'm late to the Discworld (and other intriguing worlds) party, I know, but I have been working my way through the oeuvre and have not yet been disappointed. Confused, yes, but not disappointed. I am an especially big fan of the Tiffany Aching books (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith) and am looking forward to more.

Apparently Pratchett is, too, but this news does worry me--for the unwritten books, yes, but also for the man and the life he's living. Still, you've got to love a man who can talk about an Alzheimer's diagnosis like this:

He told fans the statement should be interpreted as "I am not dead".

"I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else," he said.

"For me, this may be further off than you think. It's too soon to tell.

"I know it's a very human thing to say 'is there anything I can do', but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


From the Horn Book, on The Golden Compass:

Indeed, the primary failing of this adaptation is its reductivity. Where the book was a series of questions, building upward, layer upon layer, the movie is all about the answers — starting with an opening-credits voiceover that explains many of the central truths of the trilogy, truths Pullman teased forth over the course of the whole story. Without those mysteries to draw viewers forward, the story seems merely to skate the surface (and while a shorter run time is usually indicative of responsible editing, here the film could really have borne expansion). In some ways the early explanations make the rest of the story more confusing, raising topics not explored until later volumes and eliminating, in the process, some brilliantly propulsive reveals.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas and books

Christmases in my family have always involved books. The packages telegraph their contents by their solid heft and neat rectangles--even the sloppiest wrapper can make a book look good under the Christmas tree. But just as Christmas often involves books, many books--both Christmas-themed and otherwise--also involve Christmas. My own list of "Christmas books" is idiosyncratic, no doubt; I recall not only the charming tales of happy families but also the clear-eyed evocations of loss and ambivalence. Together they make up my own personal Christmas reading list.

read the rest here...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Golden Compass Movie: A Brief Review


So, I finally saw it. Really, it was only the second day the movie was out, but it felt like "finally" as so many folks seem to have seen it in previews, and the reviews and the "controversy about religion" stories have been out for a while.

And, meh.

Well, not quite "meh." It's visually quite stunning. I spent the first few minutes saying to Nick and Mariah, "do you remember that place? Look, there's the Bodleian Library! There's Christ Church Meadow! Look, look!" As Mark said, it made Oxford lovelier than it seemed when we were there, all the while also making it quite familiar.

And the unfamiliar was striking as well. The CGI didn't bother me--I believed in Stelmaria and Pan, and most especially in Iorek. I loved seeing witches fly, and bears fight, and zeppelins and airships and daemons and dust. I didn't find the music intrusive (which for me is about as good as it gets) and I thought the casting--especially Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby--was inspired. (Oh, yes, I liked Tom Courtenay, too.)

But it was less than I'd hoped, and many of the changes, to my great surprise, seem to me to increase rather than decrease the possibility of religious controversy. The movie seems much, much more clear-cut in its depiction of "villains" and "heroes," and locates almost all guilt quite squarely in The Magisterium from the beginning. One of the things I most liked about the novel, particularly on first reading, was the ambiguity. Was Asriel heroic, or demonic? Were Lyra and Pan right about Dust, or were they wrong? Where did the Master of Jordan's loyalties lie?

By making Fra Pavel, rather than the Master of Jordan, Asriel's intended assassin, and by having Asriel focus on Dust with no mention of intercission or trepanning, the movie makes Asriel far more heroic than he is in the book. (I don't mind leaving off the end of the novel; that makes narrative sense for the film, but it does contribute to this sense of Asriel as potential hero.) And making Asriel heroic makes the Magisterium the only villain. Now, it's never called the Church, as in Pullman, so perhaps the movie seems less overtly anti-Christian, but I still think that the novel complicates things fruitfully by suggesting that the Church is not the only source of corruption in the world. That seems to me lost in the movie.

My other objection is to the frequent discussion of free will and doing what one wants. The conversation between Mrs. Coulter and Lyra at the High Table, for example, suggests that the big problem with the Magisterium is that it tells you what to do. (Never mind that Mrs. C. is actually working for them anyway.) But in fact the question of free will is far more vexed in the novel, as a conversation between Serafina and Lee towards the end of the tale makes clear.

Mariah, I think, said it best: she thought they got the characters right, but not the story.

It has given me a lot to chew on over the last twenty-four hours, and will probably continue to. But I think I realized something this evening when I compared my reaction to this film to my reaction to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I absolutely loved despite my strong reservations about the book. Much of what I love about His Dark Materials is the language, the beauty of the prose, the clarity of description, the absolute refusal to talk down to the audience. The film loses all of that, and in so doing magnifies the occasional incoherencies and contradictions that are present in the book, but which I can overlook in favor of the inventiveness of the language and plotting. I don't find much to admire in Lewis's language, and his theology seems incoherent to me. But the film built in some narrative coherence that I quite liked (the emphasis on World War II, which is completely lacking in the book), changed some of the most distasteful parts of the story (the sexism is reduced, if not reversed), and completely omits Lewis's often-annoying narrative voice--leaving behind a ripping good adventure yarn.

I've more often than not been disappointed in film adaptations of much-loved movies, starting with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which (for me) was a sad come-down from a novel I'd loved. As a kid, I was all about faithfulness to the text. As an adult, I'm perfectly happy to see adaptations as interpretations, and to enjoy a film for its daring departures from a book as much as (or more than!) for its fidelity. But there all interpretations are not equal, and alas, this one falls far short.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

I need to see this movie now!

Because I am just gorging myself on stories here, there, and everywhere on The Golden Compass, and I'd really rather just be re-reading the novels or seeing the film. And with the way our schedules are this weekend, it looks like we may not get to it until next weekend. Sigh. Still, these are all worth reading. My favorite, from the CS Monitor ("everywhere") is this:

Indeed, Pullman's God is not the God of religion, but the didactic, authoritarian voice of adulthood. It's the Authority that pays lip-service to free thought, but then limits free thought within the narrowly defined parameters of what it judges comfortable and acceptable. It is this Authority – and not the God of the Bible – that Pullman silences.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Golden Compass

I've mostly kept quiet about The Golden Compass movie that's about to open. I want to see it, I think the bear looks amazing, Nicole Kidman as Marisa Coulter is inspired casting, and beyond that I don't have much to say. Lots of other people in the world do, though, and here's a terrific, thoughtful, balanced response to some of the hysteria I've been reading about. (You may have to sit through an ad; sorry!)

Here's a taste:
I want my children to understand that human beings and institutions are fallible. That sometimes those who claim moral authority can traffic in corruption and abuse. I want them to be angry at every wrong perpetuated in the name of God. To question authority. To be feisty troublemakers for positive change.

Me, too. So we're going to the movie this weekend, if we can coordinate all the schedules (two concerts, two parties, an art opening...and a strong desire to sit in front of the fire and knit). I'll let you know what I think.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

And now for Alcott...

...whose birthday was also last Thursday. There are so many wonderful meals in Little Women I don't know where to start: the Christmas breakfast for the Hummels? The "young lobster" and "old asparagus" Jo buys for the lunch the girls prepare for Miss Crocker? The blanc mange Meg sends over to Laurie when he is ill? Amy's luncheon for twelve that ends up only serving one guest? As I look over the novel, though, I find I'm drawn to more solitary scenes:

"Jo! Jo! Where are you?" cried Meg, at the foot of the garret stairs.
"Here," answered a husky voice from above; and running up, Meg found her sister eating apples and crying over "The Heir of Redcliffe," wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa by the sunny window. This was Jo's favorite refuge; and here she loved to retire with half a dozen russets and a nice book, the enjoy the quiet and the society of a pet rat who lived near by, and didn't mind her a particle. As Meg appeared, Scrabble whisked into his hole. Jo shook the tears off her cheeks, and waited to hear the news. (ch. 3, p. 23)
Books, solitude, and apples (though no rats) marked my childhood as well; it came as a great shock to me in graduate school and beyond to discover that there were women who did not identify with Jo--who chose, in fact, Amy or Beth or Meg instead. Not me--and scenes like this were why.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Belated Happy Birthday C.S. Lewis, whose birthday was yesterday. Here's another great food passage, from (as promised) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

Lucy thought the Beavers had a very snug little home though it was not at all like Mr. Tumnus's cave. There were no books or pictures and instead of beds there were bunks, like on board ship, built into the wall. And there were hams and strings of onions hanging from the roof and against the walls were gum boots and oilskins and hatchets and pairs of shears and spades and trowels and things for carrying mortar in and fishing rods and fishing nets and sacks. And the cloth on the table tho' very clean was very rough.
Just as the frying pan was nicely hissing Peter and Mr. Beaver came in with the fish which Mr. Beaver had already opened with his knife and cleaned out in the open air. You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mrs. Beaver said, "Now we're nearly ready." Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs. Beaver to dish up the trout, so that in a very few minutes everyone was drawing up stools (it was all three-legged stools in the Beavers' house except for Mrs. Beaver's own special rocking chair beside the fire) and preparing to enjoy themselves. There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes and the children thought--and I agree with them--that there's nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago. And when they had finished the fish Mrs. Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle onto the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment. (69-71)

I love the breathlessness of the catalog here, the listing technique that L'Engle used as well (E.B. White is the master of this). I remember this scene vividly from childhood--even though I didn't much care for fish and was decidedly opposed to marmalade, the whole scene resonated for me with warmth and comfort and pleasure. Children's writers who write food well always speak to me.

A birthday celebration for Alcott is up next...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm flattered...

Pirate Monkey's Harry Potter Personality Quiz
Harry Potter Personality Quiz
by Pirate Monkeys Inc.

I usually come out INTJ on the MBTI so this was a little bit of a surprise.

Thanks to Liz B. for the link.

(I haven't forgotten about the birthday celebration; it will go on for another couple of days..)

children's lit trifecta

Today is the birthday of Madeleine L'Engle, C.S. Lewis, and Louisa May Alcott. How great is that? I'm throwing them a party with excerpts from each of their most famous works. First, two meals in A Wrinkle in Time:

[this one's in Camazotz, and it haunted me for years...]
The table was set up in front of them, and the dark smocked men heaped their plates with turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy and little green peas with big yellow blobs of butter melting in them and cranberries and sweet potatoes topped with gooey browned marshmallows and olives and celery and rosebud radishes and--
Meg felt her stomach rumbling loudly. The saliva came to her mouth.
"Oh, Jeeminy--" Calvin mumbled.
Calvin took a bite. He chewed. He swallowed. He looked at Meg. "If this isn't real, it's the best imitation you'll ever get."
Charles Wallace took a bite, made a face, and spit out his mouthful. "It's unfair!" he shouted at the man.
Laughter again. "Go on, little fellow. Eat."
Meg sighed and sat. "I don't think we should eat this stuff, but if you're going to, I'd better, too." She took a mouthful. "It tastes all right. Try some of mine, Charles." She held out a forkful of turkey.
Charles Wallace took it, made another face, but managed to swallow. "Still tastes like sand," he said. (p. 119)

and later, on Ixchel:

"Meg!" Calvin said gaily. "You've never tasted such food in your life! Come and eat!"
Aunt Beast lifted Meg up onto the bench and sat down beside her, then heaped a plate with food, strange fruits and breads that tasted unlike anything Meg had ever eaten. Everything was dull and colorless and unappetizing to look at, and at first, even remembering the meal Aunt Beast had fed her the night before, Meg hesitated to taste, but once she had managed the first bite she ate eagerly; it seemed that she would never have her fill again." (p. 170)

This is a book full of food, from Mrs. Murry's Bunsen burner stews to the sandwiches (liverwurst and cream cheese, lettuce and tomato, tuna fish salad) eaten at midnight when the family first meets Mrs. Whatsit. When the travelers return at the end of the novel, moreover, they land in the broccoli in the twins' vegetable garden (to my mind, a better use of broccoli than more conventional ones). Next up, a meal or two from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (once I find my copy...)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

November Carnival of Children's Literature

Need a tip on growing a bookworm? Book reviewing on your blog? Giving books to babies? Writing more interesting fiction? Check out this month's Carnival of Children's Literature, ably hosted by MotherReader, chock-full of all sorts of useful tips.

My favorite? More elf!

quick update

I got my laptop back and all is well.

(But I'm vowing, yet again, to be more diligent about backing up...)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How Little Women really should go...

Meg Cabot rewrites it for us...

(I always thought Jo was way too nice to Amy.)

seen over on Read Roger and A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy.

in which I am just a bit pedantic

I just finished reading Veronica Bennett's Cassandra's Sister, and in many ways I liked it very much. Cassandra's sister is of course Jane Austen (she spends a good bit of the novel trying to get people to stop calling her "Jenny," and is in the end successful) and she is a charming main character, much like her own Marianne Dashwood or, perhaps even more, Elizabeth Bennett. The novel details her life from about 1794 to 1802, ending before the publication of any of her novels but after the major composition of Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey--and, perhaps more importantly for the novel, after the two "love affairs" with which she is credited.

I am no Janeite, but I do love the novels and the characters, and I'm always happy to spend some time in Austen's world. Unfortunately, this novel kept throwing me out of that world with minor details. One particularly annoying detail was Mrs. Austen's habit of referring to her husband as "the Reverend," which seemed unlikely to me. In Austen's novels, wives always refer to their husbands by their formal names (Mr. Elton, Mr. Bennett, etc.). If they are ordained they are still "Mr.," not "Reverend" (which, as my father always reminded me, is an adjective and thus not suitable for direct or indirect address--it would be like calling someone "Honorable" or referring to him as "the White-haired"). Even the annoying Mrs. Elton, in Emma, refers to her husband as Mr. Elton (or, to Emma's chagrin, her "caro sposo").

The other thing that threw me out of the time period was "Jenny's" anxiety about originality--she worries that her fiction is taken too directly from life. But in an age when mimesis was the reigning aesthetic, would that really worry her? It seemed unlikely to me, and more of a device to demonstrate that her novels really did have their roots in her own life. That point, however, is amply demonstrated by the novel without that odd intrusion of anxiety.

I did enjoy the consideration of the material conditions of a young woman's life at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century, the recognition of the restrictions but also some of the freedoms she might have had, and the evident affection the author maintains for her characters--much like Austen's own. But I couldn't give myself over to it fully, and that annoyed me.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A.S. Byatt on Edwardian children's literature

Reading about all these people, grown-up boys with a sly interest in cruelty, incompetent grown-ups attracted by an imaginary world in which real horrors lurked, clubmen reproducing in their fastnesses the stodgy food of the schools where they had tortured and been tortured, the bright Edwardian nursery frieze can be seen with real goblins and greenteeths, wurricoes and strangling willows just visible behind the bright-cheeked children in their aprons with their nice apples and dolls.
read the rest here....

Sunday, November 25, 2007

catching up

I'd seen a couple of blog posts by Donna Freitas defending Pullman's trilogy over at Idol Chatter, but this piece in the Boston Globe makes an even more convincing case for a theological reading of His Dark Materials. Here's a snippet:

The universe of "His Dark Materials" is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings - the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now.

I'm not fully convinced that it's God--it's definitely not the Christian God--that permeates the trilogy, but it is certainly a loving intelligence. And Freitas is a far more informed writer on this subject than many.

thanks to Kelly for the link...


I took the week off from blogging so that we could travel to CT for Thanksgiving. (And, in all honesty, because my laptop died* the day before we left and I couldn't take it with me. Just as well, I suppose, since the connection at my parents' house was overtaxed with all the various laptops we had going. At one point there were four, and one desktop computer, all going at once. The connection was not happy.)

Now that I'm back I'm catching up on all sorts of things. So note, over in the sidebar, that the second Robert's Snow auction will be starting tomorrow. And also, that the Cybils nominations have closed. See that cool widget over in the sidebar? It is highlighting YA and fantasy/science fiction nominees. I'm on the fantasy/SF judging panel, so I'll have lots of fun reading in January when the finalists are announced. In the meantime, you can check out all the fantasy/SF nominees here.

*I still don't know the status of my laptop but I am trying not to let this worry me. No, I am not really good at backing up...

Saturday, November 17, 2007


I heard Neil Gaiman today read a part of the first chapter of The Graveyard Book, the new children's book he's working on. If the rest is as good--creepy, funny, absolutely engrossing--as the bit I heard today, it will be well worth waiting for. He's a terrific reader--did great voices for the characters, and rolled easily with the very bizarre and random lighting effects he was getting as he spoke. (Was someone leaning on a rheostat?)

He also gave part of a talk--a terrific part of a talk--on why and how fantasy matters, and what he says to people who ask him when he's going to stop writing fantasy and write a real book. (He's much more polite about that than I think I would be.) Among other things (and no, this is not the answer to the previous question), he said he has written three different riffs on Beowulf over the years, in part because he's so fascinated by Grendel's mother--both the fact that there's a monster with a mother, and the fact that there's such an important character who doesn't get her own name. Both, it seems to me, great reasons to keep writing about someone.

It's been a fascinating conference so far and there's more to come, but I had to say a word or two about Gaiman before it's all over--so far, definitely the high point, and well worth the trip.

(Oh, yeah--my talk went fine, too. Though I must say that 8 am Saturday morning is not the absolute best time to deliver a talk...)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Two for Two

Last year I read and blogged M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life... in October, and in November it won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. This year I read Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and blogged it, in November--and today I heard that it, too, has won the NBA for YPL.

What will I read next fall?

p.s.: (do you notice a certain similarity in the titles?)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


(cross-posted at Midlife Mama)

Today is the birthday of Astrid Lindgren, creator of one of the most daring girls in children' s literature, Pippi Longstocking. So it seems a fitting day to be talking about the new Daring Book for Girls, by Andi Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. (Full disclosure: I worked with Andi on Literary Mama, and, after reviewing Miriam's book for LM, have corresponded with her as well.)

My copy of The Daring Book arrived a couple of weeks ago and I put it on top of a stack of things to take care of later, as I (far too often) do. Nick (10) saw it first. "The Darling Book for Girls?" he asked. Then he corrected himself, but I thought the misreading was telling. Does he think girls are darling rather than daring? (Um, in a word--no. Not yet, anyway.)

He started flipping through it, immediately seeing the similarities to The Dangerous Book for Boys, which he received as a birthday present this year. "Hey! We didn't get instructions for how to make a volcano! Why didn't we get that?" He continued to turn pages, noting how many things "they" got to do that "we" didn't. "And why does it say 'no boys allowed' on the back? Mine doesn't say 'no girls allowed'!" He's not really one to be put off by prohibitions like that, but I was intrigued by his response. He found stuff he liked, and he didn't like being told it wasn't for him.

But then it got buried in the stack for a while and by the time I pulled it out again he was engrossed in a science project and didn't have time to check it out for a full review. So I handed it to Mariah (17) instead. She started by getting annoyed with the book. Too many games and jump-rope rhymes. "A lot of this is stuff that people think kids don't know but they do. Like, 'how to have a sleepout"?" So, it's a bit on the--perhaps unnecessarily--nostalgic side. But once she got past the games, she found a lot more to like: interesting stories about real princesses, crafts (she wants to go back and do some of those), Spanish and French vocabulary, Greek and Latin root words, more stories about interesting women..."Did you know Julia Child was a spy?" This is the kind of stuff she loves. She was a bit annoyed by the science sections--not because she doesn't like science, but because she does: "this seems like they thought, 'oh, girls don't like science, so we should put it in,' but they didn't even make it interesting! I think the periodic table of the elements is incredibly cool, but they made it boring!" So, on balance, she found things she likes and would go back to, but found the whole package a bit condescending. Well, she's 17--everything seems condescending to her. (Including, no doubt, that sentence. Sigh.)

So now both kids have had a crack at it, but I haven't even turned a page! Now, I'm a sucker for narrative, so what I go for are the stories: queens of the ancient world, unlikely spies, explorers (alas, I'm still waiting for the fascinating Isabella Bird to turn up in a book for kids...). These are all nicely done: short, readable, and intriguing.

Like Mariah, I am less fascinated by the handclap games and the jump-rope rhymes; those things really are still passed down on the playgrounds in my neighborhood, and one of the great pleasures of them is learning them from other kids, not from adults. But they take up a small enough section of the book. The page (!) on boys is blessedly sensible, and seems to take on the comparable section in the "Boys" book quite directly: while the "Boys" book starts with the premise that girls are different (because, apparently, they "do not get quite as excited by the use of urine as a secret ink as boys do"), the "Girls" book reminds girls that the generalizations they know about girls tend not to hold up, so the ones about boys are likely equally suspect. Nice work on that one, women.

Of course therein lies the essential paradox of this book: it exists only to demonstrate that it doesn't need to, trying to send the message that there's no reason girls and boys couldn't be equally daring and dangerous. I'm happy to read the message, and to shelve both books next to each other for both my kids to consult. And maybe, just maybe, we can look forward to a second, combined edition that dispenses with the particularity altogether.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I re-read a lot of books. Being both a skimmer and a teacher requires it; I forget a lot, and I need to refresh my memory when I teach. So when I saw this list of Britons' most re-read books over at Raising WEG, I had to play. I've italicized the ones I've read, bolded the ones I've read more than once. What this tells me is that almost anything I find worth reading, I find worth re-reading.

  1. The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling (I have not re-read the seventh one yet, but all the others)
  2. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
  3. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  4. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  6. 1984 by George Orwell (It seems likely that I read this more than once, but I can't remember now...)
  7. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  8. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis
  9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  10. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  11. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  12. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  13. Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews
  14. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  15. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  16. The Bible (well, there are bits I've re-read, and other bits I've never read...)
  17. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  18. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
  19. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  20. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Blogging for a Cure

This is the last week of Robert's Snow blogging throughout the kidlitosphere; the auctions start next week. So take a look over on the sidebar to find out which illustrators will be featured, and start thinking about which snowflake(s) you'll be bidding on. Remember, you can see all the snowflakes over at the main auction page!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Absolutely True...

I'm not generally a big fan of adult writers writing for kids. Oh, sure, some writers are just terrific writers, but too often when a writer known for his/her work for adults writes for kids, s/he just starts talking down to them or otherwise annoying me. (And, yes, this is all about me, isn't it?) So while I'm perfectly happy to read Adam Gopnik's New Yorker essays (some more than others, but we're not going there today), I thought The King in the Window needed at least one more editorial pass and maybe more help than that. And we won't even speak of Patricia Cornwell, whose picture book (which seems to be mercifully out of print) is a permanent blight on my daughter's generally happy memories of elementary school.

All of this is just to say that I didn't have the highest hopes for Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I like his short stories, which is really all of his that I've read before, but they didn't tell me he'd be a natural for writing for kids.

He is. The voice in The Absolutely True Diary is right on: smart, funny, sad, right in tune with the ups and downs of adolescents. Junior (also known as Arnold) is a completely compelling character, one I'd follow through any number of stories. This particular one is terrific. Junior, a Spokane Indian, lives on the reservation, where he has already been to forty-two funerals. Poverty, death, and alcohol mark his life, but so do curiosity, determination, and talent. Junior's a cartoonist, a basketball player, and a kid who realizes that he's worth more than his surroundings are telling him. To say any more would be to spoil a great read, so I'll stop here.

Oh! But the illustrations by Ellen Forney--representing Junior's cartoons--are also great; they're a big part of what makes this book work so well. It's not a graphic novel, but the illustrations are integral to the story. Well done all around, then.

For more Alexie, you can read interviews with him here and here.

(Review copy source: I read a library copy of this book and then went out and bought my own. That's how good I thought it was!)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Because Kate asked...

Kate wants a list of good YA reads. What a great idea! Here's one list: the nominees for this year's Cybil award in YA. I can't vouch for all of them--I can't even vouch for more than one! I have read, and can recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (in fact, I plan to review it soon). (I will also try to rectify my pitiful lack of knowledge of recent YA by reading at least the finalists, once they are announced...)

So here are other YA titles I've enjoyed over the years. Most are relatively recent, but I included a couple of older titles just for fun--

Good Times/Bad Times, by James Kirkwood. I am always sorry not to hear this mentioned along with A Separate Peace and Catcher in the Rye. It was my favorite boarding school novel when I was in boarding school.

Looking for Alaska, by John Green. And his An Abundance of Katherines. Katherines is funnier, both are fabulous. (Here are all my posts on John Green...)

Feed, by M.T. Anderson, and also his The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party. I talked about Anderson here and here.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. I wrote about Speak here. (I haven't yet read Twisted, which came out this year.)

Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block. Or you could try Dangerous Angels, which is all the Weetzie Bat books in one. I talked a little about Weetzie Bat here.

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. I need to read more of his books.

The Attolia trilogy by Megan Whalen Turner. Historical fantasy, and gripping. I said a little about them here.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (of 101 Dalmations fame!). Older YA, a wonderful read. I wrote about it here.

The Way I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff. Amazing post-apocalyptic story.

Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville. I just loved this subversion of the heroic quest narrative. I said a little about it here...

This list is pretty random--I just skimmed through my old reading lists and pulled the titles that still resonate for me. I may pull a few more in the next few days, but this seems like a pretty good start. Anyone else want to join in and nominate another few great YA novels?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Edge of the Forest

October's Edge of the Forest is up and as always there's all kinds of great stuff. I haven't gotten very far with it yet, but I've already bookmarked Pam Coughlan's piece about whether funny books can be taken seriously. (Do I especially love this because she gives John Green the last word in it? Why, yes!)

Friday, November 02, 2007

"Kid-Friendly"? Take One

I asked Nick to tell me why he liked Michael Chabon's Summerland recently. I'd read it when it came out, and while there were aspects of it that I liked, I remember thinking that it was not kid-friendly--that I didn't know any kids who would like it. I can't remember now if it was the nostalgia for baseball or the wordplay or what that made me think that. (Not the wordplay, though, what could I have been thinking?) Anyway, I asked him why he liked it. And then I mentioned that I was thinking about what made books "kid-friendly." And he said he didn't think Summerland was kid-friendly, even though he'd liked it, because (I think this is right) there were occasional "bad words" in it.

So we need to back up a bit. To one kid, at least, the very term "kid-friendly" is clearly an adultist term, one that has to do with what adults want kids to read rather than what kids really read. (I think he's influenced by the use of the term "family-friendly" all over the place, which usually does mean "devoid of any controversial content.") Now, I know that's not how the Cybils folks mean it--far from it, as is clear from this terrific post.

Unfortunately our conversation got side-tracked and he didn't tell me why he liked Summerland, so I don't know yet why I was wrong about it or how to define "kid-friendly" in a way that works for both him and me. More on that another time!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What I'm doing this month

Later this month I'm going to a conference on fantasy. I've never done that before, and I have to say I'm intrigued. And excited: the two keynote speakers are Neil Gaiman and Jack Zipes!

However, in order to go, I have to write a paper. It's called, "Teach the Children: Education and Knowledge in Recent Children's Fantasy," and it's about how magical children learn. Or how they are taught. Or not taught. Or something.

So I'm working on it, and reading all kinds of interesting things. My primary texts are Harry Potters I and VI, A Hat Full of Sky, and The Golden Compass, though so far I have also already made mention of The Dark is Rising and A Wizard of Earthsea. I'm sure there are more books I could talk about but I'm already over my page limit and have hardly said half what I want to about the Pratchett and Pullman books. (Of course much of what I have will be junked before the conference, as is the way with my writing, so no worries there.) I'm really digging into this work right now, and it's a lot of fun, but I'm also at that stage in the paper when I'm convinced nothing I've written so far is any good but I probably won't have time to make it better, so this will be the conference where I finally and thoroughly embarrass myself. (Since I go through this stage every time, and since it hasn't happened yet, I'm handling it ok. I think.)

Because I am working on the paper, I have not yet posted on kid-friendliness in children's books, though I am thinking about it a lot. I'm also not joining NaBloPoMo or NaNoWriMo, much as I was tempted. I am, however, knitting when I'm not reading or writing. Christmas is coming, after all!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Go Look!

This is one of those "cool links" days I mentioned last time. Just go look at this lovely snow angel over at 7-Imp. And then, as always, check out the others in the sidebar...

When I first heard about the Particles of Narrative conference in Toronto, I checked out airfares to see if I could go. Philip Pullman! Megan Whalen Turner! Tim Wynne-Jones! Linda Hutcheon! Then reality struck and I reluctantly deleted the saved fare over on travelocity. I did my best to forget it was happening.

Then it happened, and those who were there have been reporting on the child_lit listserv, and on blogs, and I'm really sorry, all over again, that I couldn't go.

That's all for now.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Blog Focus Angst

That's the phrase Jen Robinson used in a discussion of children's lit blogging that came up when both she and Kelly Herold blogged about their blogs. It seems that after the kidlitosphere conference a lot of folks started thinking about their priorities for blogging, and both Kelly and Jen (to name the ones I read most and that I know about) have decided to refocus their energies a bit, making sure they cover what they're passionate about and letting the rest go. I really learned a lot reading their posts, especially because I was having a little tiny bit of blog angst over in my corner, too.

I don't know about you, but there's no way I could read all the children's lit blogs that are out there. So I don't mind if they duplicate each other a bit or if they overlap--I know I'm missing a lot of them anyway.

But I do come back to read the ones that are smart, funny, well-informed, and focused. (And no, I'm not going to name names right now, because I know I'll forget one and then feel bad.) It's not necessarily that they cover a "niche" so much as that they convey their particular and specific interest in their work in almost every post (we all get a day or two of "here are some cool links," don't we?).

So what can you get here that you can't get anywhere else? Or that even if you can, it's worth checking out? What I am most interested in right now is my research, which is on fantasy literature and faith (fairly broadly conceived--right now faith is bleeding into pedagogy, in a kind of weird and interesting way*), and YA literature, to which I am a late convert, and how and why children read. I review new books occasionally for The Edge of the Forest, but I don't really want to expand that--there are actually too many not-new books that I haven't read, and still want to read, for me to keep up with all the new. And while I'm happy to join an occasional good cause (see: Robert's Snow), I'm not really good at doing stuff on particular days just because that's the day everyone does them. That's why I've never joined in on Poetry Friday (that, and, I am just much more fiction- than poetry-oriented), and why contests and such are not a big part of what I do.

I don't see much changing around here as a result of this introspection (and, if you've read this far, thanks for your patience!). What I do see is a shift in attitude, and perhaps posting frequency. I'll post when I have something new to share. I'll try to have something new reasonably often to make it worth your checking back here, and I may still occasionally give a book away (perhaps not every month), but the focus is going to be on the big three above: fantasy literature, YA literature, and kids' reading.

Up next: I join in the discussion of what makes a title "kid-friendly." Stay tuned. (Probably after the weekend, though...)

*According to John Dewey, this is a natural connection. See "My Pedagogic Creed":
I believe that education . . . is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. . . .
[ . . .]
I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.
I believe that the moral education centers upon [a] conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of work and thought. The present educational systems, so far as they destroy or neglect that unity, render it difficult or impossible to get any genuine, regular moral training.
[ . . .]
I believe that the teacher's place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis. The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.
[. . . ]
I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing restructuring of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.
[. . . ]
I believe . . . that the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Robert's Snow, week two

I think I may have forgotten to mention that there are many more snowflakes in the auction than are being featured in blogs. Some came in too late to be assigned--but you can check them all out at the Robert's Snow auction site. (I also forgot to mention that if you want to bid on the D.B. Johnson snowflake I featured last week, it's up in week three. Maybe I just didn't want to bid against you?)

I'm doing my best to keep the sidebar up to date, but your best source for the full list with links to the blog features is over at 7-Imp.

And here, for your viewing pleasure, is a lovely slideshow of snowflakes! Feast your eyes...

Friday, October 19, 2007

weekend reading

While I'm doing my best to keep the snowflake sidebar updated (and I know it's up-to-date through today!), I've had a hard time keeping on top of various other obligations lately. Luckily with writing the results turn up weeks or sometimes months after I do my part--and that's the case this week. My column on critically reading children's books is up at Literary Mama right now, even though I couldn't have written a column this week to save my life. It's like magic!

Here's a taste:

I admit to being troubled by Babar. Not only does he seem to forget about his mother almost immediately after her death, it's pretty clear that buying stuff is how he does it. Then there's the arresting image of the two "naked" elephant mothers running behind the car as Babar, Arthur, and Celeste return to their home in the forest. Why don't they get to sit, too? Why don't they get clothes? Babar has clearly, to use contemporary critical language, assimilated the values of the oppressor, and thus becomes the next ruler of his people. It's a neo-colonialist fable. (read the rest here...)

Just for fun, check out this other take on Babar, too! (Source unknown, but it was too good not to share...)

There's lots more fabulous stuff at LM this week, too. Check out "Wanting, Waiting" by Violeta Garcia-Mendoza, and Susannah Pabot's heart-wrenching "Hope."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blogging for a Cure: Henry's Snowflake

I first encountered D.B. Johnson's "Henry" books when Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon took turns reading one of them aloud on NPR's Weekend Edition. That means that, oddly, I encountered this wonderful picture book artist without pictures--though with Simon and Pinkwater's descriptions of the pictures, which were a good start.

I can't remember now which of the books it was I heard that morning, but some time later I encountered the first three books in Cody's Books in Berkeley. There I bought Henry Hikes to Fitchburg for my husband, for whom--as for Johnson--Thoreau has been an important influence. The Henry books (there's now a fourth, Henry Works) all draw on episodes from Walden, illustrating them with gentle humor and glorious color.

When I saw Johnson's name on the list of snowflake artists for Robert's Snow, then, I was delighted to be able to feature his work on this blog. We are well past the days when I read three, four, five picture books a night to a lap-sitting child, but there is still a significant shelf of picture books in my study, and the Henry books have an important place among them.

Johnson, who has three picture books out in addition to the four Henry books (the most recent, Four Legs Bad, Two Legs Good! takes off from Orwell's Animal Farm--how cool is that?) agreed to answer a few of my questions the other day--you can read our brief interview below, then go look again at his gorgeous snowflake (and all the others!). Also make sure you check out Johnson's own site, where you'll find another interview, a lovely explanation of how he makes his art, and how important Thoreau is to him.

1.How did you get involved with the Robert's Snow auction?

I respect and admire Grace Lin's books and am amazed by the dedication and devotion she has given to her husband's illness and to cancer research. My heart goes out to her loss. Any small thing I can do to help this cause I am happy to do, both for her and in memory of Robert.

2.Did you ever tell the Henry stories to your children? Or any other stories? If so, did that condition how you developed your Henry stories?

We have three grown children. When they were very young my wife and I decided to give up television and replace it with books. We read everything to our children, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Mark Twain and lots of picture books too. At that time I was a full time freelance illustrator working from a studio in our home. I did editorial art for newspapers and magazines around the country. I loved children's books and knew a couple of children's book artists in the area where we lived, including Trina Hyman, but I was not yet doing any books myself. My wife Linda is a writer and worked for a time in the children's department of the Dartmouth Bookstore. She introduced our family to the best books for kids.
My Henry stories grew out of my love for Thoreau and my desire that kids should know that there are other choices they can make besides TV, computers, video games and lots of stuff. I realized from my own children's experience as well as my own childhood that what kids experience and are exposed to in the first 8 or 9 years will have an enormous effect on the decisions they make the rest of their lives. My children are budding artists and writers who love adventure in no small part because of the choices we made as a family when they were very young.

3. It seems to suit Henry's somewhat solitary, occasionally curmudgeonly nature that you depict him as a bear. How did you know he had to be a bear?

Henry is a bear because I realized from the beginning that if I wanted to reach kids with the Thoreau philosophy, I had to present it through a character they could love and identify with. One of the problems most people have with Henry David Thoreau is they think his standards are impossible to reach today or that they just don't work in our modern world. But really people don't get him because they've lost their innocence and sense of wonder --their childhoods are scheduled to death and their heads are filled with the sales pitch of mass culture. So the philosophy of living a simple life close to nature needs to come in early and under the radar. The bear is my vehicle for that.

But that's not the only reason he's a bear. When I first had the idea for Henry Hikes to Fitchburg I came across a couple of descriptions of Thoreau by people who knew him. They described him as a bit of a rustic with a weather beaten face that reminded them of some animal's--a philosophical woodchuck, perhaps...or a magnanimous fox. But I knew Henry loved to roam widely in the woods and a woodchuck would not have done that. Would any kid believe a woodchuck could hike thirty miles in a day? And I thought a fox was just too flamboyant with that slyness and flash of red to ever be Henry. So I made him a bear and gave him Henry's long face and alert eyes, his broad-brimmed hat, long coat and sturdy boots, and set him off down the road to Fitchburg.

4.Walden is hugely popular in Japan. Have the Henry books been translated into Japanese? (or any other languages?)

I'm happy to say that all four Henry books have been translated into Japanese as well as Chinese and Korean. Henry Hikes to Fitchburg was also translated and published in France.

5. Can you say anything about your forthcoming non-Henry book? I know it's about a boy named Eddie who likes to draw...[here is where your blogger demonstrates her ignorance, and the artist is more than gracious]

Now you've made me realize how negligent I've been in updating my website since I have all four Henry books on it but none of the books I've written and illustrated since. That's one of the most difficult things for me--to balance the schedule for doing my next book with keeping my website current. If I could only learn how to write that html myself.....

I've done three non-Henry books since Henry Works. Eddie's Kingdom is a story about a boy who loves to draw and is inspired by the work of the Quaker painter Edward Hicks who created the "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings in the 1800s. But my story takes place in an apartment house in the present day. Last year I illustrated a story my wife Linda Michelin wrote called Zu Zu's Wishing Cake. This is a wonderful story about a very creative girl who makes gifts out of ordinary materials to give to the new boy who has moved in next door.
And this September my newest book was published by Houghton Mifflin titled Four Legs Bad, Two Legs Good. In this book I've imagined what George Orwell's Animal Farm might be like after all these years being run by pigs who learned to walk on two legs. In my humorous telling the duck brings about a revolution in the barnyard! Booklist called it "filled with quirky, quacky fun!" In these last two picture books I've been experimenting with telling the stories using comics style panels and voice balloons as a way to help kids master reading (more pictures to illustrate what's being said, as well as fewer words).

I am currently working on the final art for a new Henry book that will be published in Spring 2009. It's based on Henry's moonlight walks in the woods and is filled with night paintings!

6.Is there anything else you'd like readers to know about your art, or your snowflake?

I enjoyed doing the snowflake. I've never done a story of Henry in the winter but Thoreau talked often in his journals about skating on the rivers in Concord. It seemed like the perfect subject. The buyer of this snowflake should also know that I am not selling any of the art that appeared in my Henry books and have done only a couple of additional images of Henry that people have purchased. So this is a rare chance to own an original of Henry.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A winner! And more snowflakes

Keep checking the sidebar--I'm updating the links daily to take you directly to the snowflake posts. You'll probably discover some great new blogs, too--I know I am!

And congratulations to Alexia, who won my book giveaway this month. One copy of The Noah Confessions will be headed out to her tomorrow.

My snowflake post, on D.B. Johnson (yes, that D.B. Johnson) will be coming up Thursday...stay tuned!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Robert's Snow blog-a-thon begins

As I mentioned last month, children's lit bloggers from all over are joining forces for the next month or so to raise awareness for the Robert's Snow snowflake auction. Writer and illustrator Grace Lin and her husband Robert Mercer founded this charity auction three years ago to raise money for the Dana Farber Cancer Center. Sadly, Robert Mercer succumbed to Ewing's sarcoma earlier this year. In his memory, then, the auction will continue this year, with contributions from over 150 children's book illustrators and authors--and with all kinds of bloggers featuring the artwork and promoting the auction. I'll have my little Robert's Snow posting coming up later this week; look in the sidebar in the meantime (and for weeks to come) to find out about all the other fabulous illustrators.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Pay it Forward Book Exchange--October

This month I'm giving away a copy of The Noah Confessions, which I reviewed (scroll down) for The Edge of the Forest last month. It's a young adult novel that explores the importance of history and family, and the difference between privacy and secrets.

For those of you who weren't paying attention last month, here are the details on the Pay It Forward Book Exchange, as originally described by Overwhelmed with Joy (whose idea it was):

Most all of us love to read and get “new-to-us” books, right? And if you’re anything like me, you love winning things (what a rush), not to mention getting fun stuff in the mail! So here’s what this book exchange is all about:

1) Once a month I'll pick a book to give away to one lucky reader (you don’t have to have a blog to enter). It may be a book that I’ve purchased new or used, or it may be a book that someone has shared with me that I really like. It’ll probably be a paperback, just to make things easier, but no guarantees.

2) Details on how you can enter to win will be listed below.

3) If you’re the lucky winner of the book giveaway and you have your own blog I ask that you, you in turn, host a drawing to give that book away for free to one of your readers, after you’ve had a chance to read it (let’s say, within a month after you’ve received the book). If you mail the book out using the media/book rate that the post office offers it’s pretty inexpensive. If you're a non-blogger who has won the book, please consider donating the book to your local library or shelter after you're done with it.

4) If you’re really motivated and want to host your own “Pay It Forward” giveaway at any time, feel free to grab the button above to use on your own blog. Just let me [that would be Overwhelmed] know so I can publish a post on my blog plugging your giveaway and directing my readers your way!

Leave me a comment by next Monday, October 15, if you want a copy of The Noah Confessions. And check out all the other great PIF book offers at Overwhelmed by Joy.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

At least I'm in good company

Well, that bit about mandating happy endings turns out to have been a hoax. It was a marketing ploy for Lemony Snicket books, apparently, which were (after all) the only books mentioned in the piece. So, fine. Lots of us bit at this one, so I don't feel to bad for being taken in, especially when (as I noted) it's so similar to so many other complaints.

Friday, October 05, 2007


Since I'm not at the first annual kidlitosphere conference this weekend (snif!), I figure I have to get some content up here to make up for it. So, shamelessly stolen from Betsy Bird at Fuse #8, I bring you the latest trend in publishing for kids/adolescents: new covers on old classics! So far the comments on her post are pretty opposed to these covers, which are seen as "tricking" kids into thinking that, for example, Meg Cabot has written a new novel just for them.

I'm not sure I agree. I don't hate these covers. They amuse me a bit, and I'm not sure they'll work, but they are part of a long and --can I say it?-- venerable tradition of repackaging the classics for a contemporary audience. In grad school I knew someone who had a great collection of pulp fiction which included a pulp-y cover of Pride and Prejudice that was, for the purist, far more offensive than this one. (And much more of a bait-and-switch, if you ask me.)*

The thing is, no one's going to read these books just because of the covers. Sure, they may check them out of the library or buy them because of the covers, but once they crack open the book and start the first page, it still says "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." (Or, in the case of Frankenstein, the far-less-arresting, "To Mrs. Saville, England...") In the end, it's Jane Austen and Mary Shelley inside those covers, and that's what will (or, perhaps, won't) hook the reader. If it takes a little extra marketing to get to some of those readers, I'm not sure I'm opposed.

*I've just searched for this and can't find it, but I know I saw it once. Here are a couple of others, though, that don't strike me as much better than the new one above.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Didn't I just talk about this?

OK, it's not enough to write columns about kids having to read too many depressing books, now someone wants to mandate happy endings.

Can I have the job of defining "happy"? Because for me, The Little Mermaid (yes, even the Disney version) would be right out.

seen first at Big A, little a.

again with the complaints

Apparently The Christian Science Monitor hasn't been keeping up. Now it's their turn to publish yet another complaint about how kids are being forced to read depressing books.

Didn't anyone else just revel in depressing books as a kid? I know I did--nothing like a good cry over a book rather than your real life. And for a professor of creative writing to admit to not actually reading the books in question...well, the argument fell apart right there for me. If not before.

Ah, well, at least she's not just making a list of the dirty words. (Why, yes, it is Banned Books week! And no, I'm not linking to parents against bad books in schools, though I do find their website highly amusing...when I don't find it scary.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

More free books

Overwhelmed with Joy is hosting another Pay it Forward book exchange, and this month she's giving away two books, both of which I want: Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Even though I want to win one of them--and therefore should be trying to keep the number of entries down--I want you to have a chance, too. So go on over and check it out!

Then come back here next week, when I'll be giving away The Noah Confessions, by Barbara Hall.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Here Come the Cybils

Nominations for the Cybils open today. The Cybils are a blogger-run literary award for books published for children and young adults, and this year I am on the judging panel for fantasy and science fiction (scroll down to see the other panelists--it's a great list!).

Cybils are awarded in seven categories: poetry, fiction picture books, non-fiction picture books, middle-grade fiction, young adult fiction, non-fiction (MG/YA), fantasy/sci-fi, and graphic novels, so there's something for everyone. If you have a favorite book published in 2007 in any of those areas, head on over to the nominating page and leave a comment.

Friday, September 28, 2007

John Green in Richmond

Tricia has summed up last night's talk so well, I'm just going to point you to her post. Eventually, I'll be writing up my own report for The Edge of the Forest, but it will be hard not to steal from her!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Writing Meme

Tricia tagged me with this and I've been mulling it over all weekend, and on into the week. The idea is to identify my strengths as a writer. Hmm. My first thought was simply to replicate Tricia's list, actually--it's a good one, and other than the persistence (I have the attention span of a grasshopper) I have it pretty well covered. But this is supposed to be about me. So here are some of my strengths as a writer:

  • I like to write. Truly. It's fun for me. I've never understood the writers who find it painful. Revision can be painful--my desk chair can be painful--rejection is terribly painful. But actually putting words on paper--or, more often for me these days, on the screen--is really something of a pleasure: just seeing them form up there, and reaching for the right one, and being surprised by what comes out--that's all fun. I don't really remember ever not liking it. Don't hate me for this. I can't say that it actually makes it easier to finish anything, honestly.
  • I have a terrible memory. An odd strength, to be sure, but it means I have to write a lot of stuff down. Just recently I found some scratchings on a scrap of paper--things Nick said about his pre-K classmates. (He's in fifth grade now.) I had completely forgotten them, but seeing them brought them right back to life. I find lists, beginnings of stories, paragraphs cut from articles, and random quotations in my notebooks and on my hard drive all the time--and, sometimes, those scraps make it into something I'm working on, striking a new chord when they reappear. I also, because of my bad memory, have to do a lot of re-reading, which I find endlessly helpful as a writer. I get to see how books are put together, how writers work themselves through various situations (how do you get that character to the door? how do you segue from anecdote to analysis?), over and over again. It sinks in, even when I think it doesn't.
  • I lived abroad for six formative years: 1st through 6th grade. I like to think this has given me a bit of an outsider's perspective, even if it was now over 35 years ago. (Gulp.) I was an outsider in Japan, sure, but I was also an outsider when we moved back to the States. It's given me a sensitivity to language, an attention to difference, and a pretty good case of wanderlust, all of which seem to me pretty useful for writers.
  • I had teachers in both high school and college who insisted on frequent, brief, quick writing. My 11th grade English teacher used to walk into the room and say "Twenty minute shot" and then name a topic. She's leave to go smoke a cigarette and we'd write. I learned to be concise. I also learned to write my way into understanding a topic--if I didn't know what to say, I just started anyway, and often ended up crossing out the first paragraph and/or moving the last one up to the top. It worked surprisingly often. In college I had more than one class that required frequent one-page papers, and another one in which assignments were given at the end of lecture and due three hours later. I still love writing to deadline.
  • I come from a family of writers. My father writes a letter to all the family members who aren't at home every Sunday. I've been getting these letters since the fall of 1974, when I went away to boarding school. (And, yes, I have kept all the paper ones; the e-communiques are, I hope, archived on various hard drives and flash drives, though I can't swear to have them all.) Not surprisingly, his second (post-retirement) career is as a writer. His sister was a writer. My sister is a writer. My grandparents kept up voluminous correspondences and wrote prayers, sermons, lectures, talks--you get the picture. We might, some days, need to scale back the textual communication--sometimes a phone call really does work better--but writing is, for better or worse, what we do.
I'm tagging Caroline with this one, because I'm curious to see if hers are different from mine, and Susan, and anyone else who wants to play.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A new review

Over on the child_lit listserv there was some discussion recently of a generalization made by a New York Times reviewer. The generalization was, roughly, "The secret lives of parents are uninteresting to kids"--and several child_litters took issue, claiming that parents are indeed important to children and to their literature. I agree that parents are important--as a parent myself, I'd like to think I matter!--but I still maintain that many children simply don't recognize their parents as individuals, with their own motivations, their own secrets, their own desires, and that children's literature therefore often simply removes or marginalizes the parents. That's as it should be.

In YA literature, however, parents can start to matter in different ways, and that's at least partly the subject of The Noah Confessions--and of my review of it (scroll down), now up at The Edge of the Forest. Check it out--and if you feel like it, take sides, go ahead!

Friday, September 21, 2007

in 200 days...

For immediate release on Friday 21st September 2007

David Fickling Books to Publish New Philip Pullman Story

David Fickling Books is delighted to announce the worldwide publication of Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman, a beguiling and intriguing new episode from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials universe

A new and completely original episode from Philip Pullman’s bestselling His Dark Materials universe will be published on 3rd April 2008 by David Fickling Books Ltd, part of The Random House Group in the UK. The book, Once Upon a Time in the North, opens another extraordinary window into the universe of His Dark Materials, and is Philip’s first new work for five years.

Once Upon a Time in the North will appear under the David Fickling Books imprint in the UK and will be published in association with Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books in the USA.

Once Upon a Time in the North is a companion volume to Lyra’s Oxford (though about double the length of that story) and, like that work, set in Lyra Belacqua’s world and not our own.

The events of Once Upon a Time in the North happen before Lyra was born and in it we meet two of the most popular and enduring of Philip’s characters, the tough American balloonist Lee Scoresby and the great armoured bear and Lyra’s guardian, Iorek Byrnison. The story recounts the very first meeting of these two heroes, an encounter eagerly awaited by all Pullman fans. Lee Scoresby and his hare daemon, Hester, crash land their trading balloon on to Novy Odense, a port in the far Arctic North, and so find themselves right in the middle of a political powder keg that threatens to explode into a street-fight. Honour is at stake and Lee is not a man to duck a matter of honour. And this is the very first time that Lee gets to use his trusty and celebrated Winchester rifle . . .

Like Lyra’s Oxford, the story is presented as an exquisitely designed cloth-bound book and includes many other teasingly authentic memorabilia and clues from the His Dark Materials universe gathered together, it seems, by Lyra herself. This includes photographs, newspaper cuttings, bills of lading and an exciting and gorgeous Arctic Balloonist Board Game, Challenge the Wind, all beautifully illustrated and rendered by master engraver John Lawrence.

Philip Pullman says, “Writing this story was a matter of pure enjoyment. The two characters at the heart of it, Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison, were old comrades-in-arms when Lyra met them first in Northern Lights. It was obvious that they had a history, and it was my son Jamie who first suggested that I should write about it. When David Fickling had the idea of doing that in a similar format to Lyra’s Oxford I leapt at the idea at once. I hope readers will enjoy this tale of the first meeting between these two honourable but down-at-heel adventurers.”

Philip Pullman is one of the most highly acclaimed authors of our time. Worldwide sales of over 15 million copies reflect the enormous global appeal of His Dark Materials. He has won the Whitbread Book of the Year (The Amber Spyglass), Carnegie Medal (Northern Lights) and the Guardian Prize (The Amber Spyglass). He is also a recipient of the Eleanor Farjeon Award for Services to Children’s Literature and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s largest children’s literature prize.

He is the author of over 20 books and two plays. He lives near Oxford, England.

David Fickling says, “A brand-new, completely original piece of Philip Pullman storytelling is one of the most exciting publishing events imaginable, and doubly so this time because with Once Upon a Time in the North Philip is on absolutely top form.”

A major film of The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman will be released by New Line this autumn.

Once Upon a Time in the North will be published in the UK by David Fickling Books on 3rd April 2008 and in the US by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers on 8th April 2008.

Lyra’s Oxford will be published into paperback by Corgi on 1st November 2007 at £4.99, and is currently available in hardback from David Fickling Books.

For further information please contact:
In the UK – Philippa Dickinson tel: 020 8231 6628
In the US – Judith Haut tel: (212) 782-8626