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

Friday, January 26, 2007

more where these came from

Googlereader freaked out on me and gave me all sorts of older posts from some great blogs today. So I found this at Brooklyn Arden: a collection of quotations about writing for kids. She posted it in September, 2005, but there are still many worth recalling:

"I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value." – R. L. Stine
“Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Having reminded my students that they should be writing every day, have I been?

In a word: no.

Much to do, much to read, much to think about, but no writing.

Time for that to change. Soon. Maybe tomorrow. But maybe, again, not.

This post brought to you by the second week of the semester, now almost over.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

not done yet

Zadie Smith has more to say about reading!

My favorite sentence (so far; I need to read it all again) from this week's installment:

"Fiction confronts you with the awesome fact that you are not the only real thing in this world."

I talked about part one of this essay briefly here.

Now I have to go read her novels, obviously.

(edited to fix the link)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Tough Love

I'm not crazy about the academic who writes as Thomas Benton in the Chronicle. He strikes me as a bit conservative, curmudgeonly, and --yet-- at some level contented, since he has a tenured position in English, the job for which he trained. But he writes well, and sometimes it's hard to argue with his conclusions. This week is a case in point. He takes on the recent MLA report on "Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion" and notes that it focuses all its attention on people who, maybe, don't need it: those who already have tenure-track jobs. After all, as he notes (and as the MLA report acknowledges), the tenure rate is about 90%. The big problem in the academe is not that we are eating our own young on the tenure track (though it does happen, and though a discussion about standards for evaluating scholarship is, truly, long overdue). The problem is that we are producing too many PhDs and not enough of them are getting tenure-track jobs. The stunning statistic in Benton's piece is not that 90% of tenure candidates achieve it, but that tenured faculty now make up less than 25% of all faculty members. Contingent faculty are far less involved in faculty governance, in making curricular and hiring decisions, and in scholarship, than tenured faculty, but they are doing the bulk of college teaching. They are good teachers, most of them--that's not the problem. The problem is that they have little job security and little incentive or opportunity to control the conditions of their own employment. As work-for-hire faculty, they are far more subject to the encroaching corporatization of the university than are their tenured colleagues (like me).

I don't know what to do about the problem. I don't encourage many students to go to graduate school, and when I do, I try to make sure they have alternatives in mind right from the start. I still think the process can be rewarding (it would be more so if dissertations didn't have to be drafts of books, to get back to the MLA report), and valuable in its own right: but we need to figure out a way to protect the academic freedom of college faculty, to improve working conditions for contingent faculty, and to find other employment options for PhDs who don't land one of the increasingly-elusive tenure-track jobs. I don't think just shrinking the size of graduate programs, as Benton seems to suggest, will help much.

And here is where the MLA report could have done some good: the increased demands on tenure-track faculty over the past generation have in fact reduced the time and energy they have to commit to faculty governance, with the result that the increase in contingent faculty has gone on with little awareness or comment--except probably relief that someone else is teaching those pesky introductory courses. If we resisted the use of adjuncts to teach our classes--even though that would mean denying casual employment to very good graduate students and unemployed PhDs, and even though that would mean producing less publishable work--could we raise the status of all of us in the profession? Could we force a re-examination of the two-tiered academic system that pays lip service to students but rewards avoiding them? Could we re-invigorate faculty governance and academic freedom? Or is it too late, as Benton seems to suggest?

Monday, January 15, 2007


(edited to fix the link)
From the lovely essay by Zadie Smith in last Saturday's Guardian:

"Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing - I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own, hard-won, skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her."

I love the image of reader as musician, interpreting the text in front of her with whatever skills she has. In fact, I am going to share it with my students. The essay as a whole repays close attention, in fact; I need to practice reading it, read it again, think about it more. This is just a start.

Linked from (among others, no doubt), Light Reading and educating alice.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Having finished the entire PD series I can now report that, while I wouldn't quite say, if you've read one, you've read 'em all, it's close. There's a hint, though, at the end of VIII, that things might change in the next one. I'm really dying to find out (well, not dying exactly, but...) whether she really will end up with the boyfriend she first falls for in v. I. I'm betting yes, but I'd prefer it to be no for my argument. Though, really, it's moot, since I'm going to finish the article before the next book comes out. (Cabot's fast, but she's not that fast: v. VIII just came out on the first.)

Friday, January 05, 2007


For reasons that are becoming less and less clear even to me, I've spent the last two days reading a series of pink-covered novels that goes on and on. I had read the first three some years ago for a talk, and am now expanding that talk into an article about how fairy tale motifs and inventive narrative strategies can be an empowering combination in YA literature for girls.

Really. The Princess Diaries. Empowering.

Well, in my defense, I thought so at the time. The first PD book gives us a smart and snarky narrator--ok, she's failing algebra, but she is still pretty smart--with an even smarter and snarkier best friend. She resists transformation into a princess, making it obvious to her girl-readers that such a transformation is a painful and often humiliating process. Her first-person narrative exposes what the omniscient and detached third person narrative of most fairy tales obscures: what the heroine herself thinks about the transformation. And getting to be pretty is just, well, not pretty, in this book.

It was a good talk.

So then I read Speak and Weetzie Bat and decided that similar things were going on in all three of them. The narrative voice is different in WB, and the overt references to fairy tales go under cover in Speak, but in all three a detailed (perhaps obsessive) focus on the trials of female adolescence makes manifest the issues that fairy tales seem to ignore: the pain, the humiliation, and the seeming never-endingness of it all.


I do have to say that the now eight-plus* volumes of the PD weaken my case a bit. Oh, I can really expand on that whole never-ending thing--not one of these novels manages a real "happily-ever-after," after all, and the PD series, by going on and on (and on! She's not even finished her sophomore year yet!) does underscore that point nicely. But the pink covers** and, even more, the annoyingly Bridget-Jones-ish lack of self-confidence and, I have to say, decreasing intelligence, of the main character are wearing on me.*** Melinda and Weetzie, in their novels, aren't rocket scientists, but they do take charge of certain aspects of their lives and move on. Mia, on the other hand, is stuck in the endlessness of the diary format. I really have begun to wish she'd lose her journal and start blogging or something, just to break things up. (And, maybe, to move things along a little faster? Because even the obsessive Mia would have a hard time blogging moment-by-moment, which is how she journals.)

I think there are still interesting things to say about the series. There's actually an amusing Shamela-ish-ness (yikes! her debased vocabulary is rubbing off!) to the moment-by-moment stuff, every now and then. And a funny self-referentiality, as when, in volume VI, she complains about the movie's lack of fidelity to her "true" story. And a clear recognition of the ways that pre-existing narratives form our interpretations of our own realities (the part in volume IV where she tries to take Jane Eyre as a model for her relationship with her boyfriend is a nice effort, though it's pretty weakly done).

But the pink covers are beginning to get to me, as is the fact that there is still one full novel and a couple of "half volumes" that I feel the need to read before I can write about this. Except, of course, for writing about it here, which is helping.

*There are now, I believe, eight volumes and three "half" volumes: the half-volumes seem to detail only about a week or so apiece, whereas the volumes can cover ...well, actually volume seven only covers about a week, though the first few seem to cover a month or so each. The "half" volumes are shorter--about fifty pages--and cheaper.
**About those covers: I bought volumes II and III from a few years back, when I was writing the talk, because they were already in pbk in the UK and even with the shipping charges it turned out to be cheaper to buy those than the US hardcovers. And they are not pink! The titles are different, too, but they are quite clearly the same books. I'm curious as to why they aren't pink in the UK, though not enough to research the issue too deeply.
***The first Bridget Jones delighted me: the whole Pride and Prejudice rewriting, the obsessive detailing of minutiae, all of it. But she's such a dope in Edge of Reason I could barely stand to read it. Anne Elliott is no idiot, but Bridget... I don't know if I can bring myself to read the third one, though I could, maybe, be convinced.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year's column

According to Philip Pullman, "There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book . . . . We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” In 2007, I want more stories to read, to share, to talk about, to teach. What about you?

Read the rest here, and leave me your suggestions as well!