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

Monday, February 26, 2007

Umm, what??

Dear Customer,

We've noticed that customers who have expressed interest in Wuthering Heights have also ordered Thunderbolt P-47s Over Europe Deluxe Edition on DVD. For this reason, you might like to know that Thunderbolt P-47s Over Europe Deluxe Edition is now available on DVD.

(OK, this makes a little bit of sense out of it. But only a little:
Filmed in Technicolor, Thunderbolt was the last of Major William Wyler's wartime directorial efforts on behalf of the US Army Air Corps. As in his previous WW2 documentaries, Wyler himself participated in the mission that he depicts herein on film... Adding poignancy to the film is the knowledge that several of the extremely young American participants, here shown smiling and waving at the camera, did not survive the battle. --Hal Erickson, New York Times)

Sad Books

SuperBowl Sunday. We're sitting on the couch, nine-year-old Nick between Mark and me. I'm knitting, Nick is reading; only Mark is giving his full attention to the game. At some point, I look over Nick's shoulder and see the arresting illustration from Bridge to Terabithia: a silhouette of Jess's father holding his shattered son, who has just learned of his best friend's death. I put my arm around Nick.

"It's sad there, isn't it?"

read the rest over at

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Fear of Failure

I broke two boards in my tae kwon do test yesterday (green belt!): one with the palm of my hand, another with my elbow. I didn't expect to break them. I knew I could break one with a kick--my legs are pretty strong--but I didn't think my upper body strength could match that.

I also thought that, because I didn't think I could break a board, I wouldn't be able to. Self-fulfilling prophecy and all. But in fact it was easy; I broke each one on the first try.

I think the reason it worked had almost nothing to do with strength, and nothing at all to do with confidence. I broke them because I wasn't afraid of failing to break them.

I'm not afraid of failing at tae kwon do. This is a new experience for me. I like to do things well, and I mostly don't do stuff that I don't do well, or at least well enough for my standards (they are lower in many things--say, cleaning?--than others). I know what it is to fear failure, in other words. But I practice tae kwon do because it's fun, it's good exercise, and it's a way of doing something with Nick, and I don't worry a whole lot about being really good. The teacher is very kind, and he makes it easy not to worry about failing, too--although he corrects me (often!), he does so after praising me, after telling me what I did right. I messed up my patterns (memorized sequences of movements) in my test yesterday, adding extraneous moves to even the most basic one, stalling for a moment in both of the others--and he just had me do them again. Calmly, easily. And I did them fine the second time, and then I broke the boards. No sweat.

The flip side of my success yesterday is another experience, though. I've been grading papers this past week. I have good students this semester, for the most part: they have taken English classes before, they like to read, they contribute well to discussion. And many of their papers were really quite good. The ones that weren't, though, seemed to suffer not from an inability to read the poems, or to analyze them, but from a fear of getting something wrong. They were too cautious, too plodding, too slow; they said little that was right, for fear of saying something that was wrong. They spent four sentences where one would do, trying to "prove" an idea that was apparent at first glance. They made obvious (and, mostly, perfectly accurate) points, but didn't take any chances, go out on any limbs, to make more interesting claims, to push their arguments a little further.*

These aren't bad students, as I said. But their caution weakens their writing.

So, a paradox: I succeed by not fearing failure; they fail to succeed (by their terms--we're talking B- and C+ papers here, mostly) by fearing to fail. They wouldn't say they fear failure, of course, so much as they desire success. But the paradox is clear, at least to me: the desire to avoid failure prevents success. They need to be able to take a risk, to flirt with failure, in order to achieve.

How can I get them not to fear failure, though? Nothing's riding on my tae kwon do class, after all; if I don't progress, it's my problem and my problem alone. If they fail English (or even get a B, some of them), they stay in school longer, or don't get into grad school, or disappoint their parents, or don't get the job they want...etc. It's hard to convince them that it's worth taking a risk when they think the stakes are so high--and when, to be honest, they don't really know how to take those risks.

I've got my work cut out for me.

*One of the poems they could write about was Browning's "Andrea del Sarto," which is all about this. In class, almost no one got that the poem's subtitle--"called, the faultless painter"--represents a criticism, not a compliment. Andrea is good at what he does, but he doesn't try to do anything harder or more interesting; he knows that's not quite enough, but he's afraid to take risks, and that makes him "faultless" but not, as he recognizes, great. The essays about this poem were particularly weak, now that I think about it. Hmm.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Happy Birthday, Cat in the Hat

We're long past the Dr. Seuss years, but I think I can still recite several of his books from memory. We read them that often, and they're really that good.

And now, if you wish the Cat a happy birthday, Random House will send a free book to First Book, a literacy organization. Go do it!

Monday, February 19, 2007

libraries, censorship, and the Newbery

You already know about The Higher Power of Lucky and how it uses a big bad word on page one, thereby sneaking nastiness into the minds of impressionable youth. So all I'm doing here is pointing you to some of the best responses to the kerfuffle.

Here's the NYTimes' silly report on it.

Roger Sutton notes that parents aren't always the best folks to monitor kids' reading.

Scott Westerfield is sorry he wasn't informed of the scrotum-sneaking children’s literature conspiracies.

Justine Larbalestier is sceptical of the claim that children's authors are trying to offend us.

Monica Edinger gives us a teacher's viewpoint on what kinds of things are hard to read aloud, and why.

J.L. Bell feels lucky, and has a lot more links.

And, for the record, the librarian quoted at the end of the NYTimes piece as saying that “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature . . . At least not for children” saves herself a tiny bit with that final qualification, but still misses the boat: the genitalia in question belong to a dog.

introducing the book

(Thanks, Mom! And Judy!)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

something to read

I got lots of great birthday presents this year, but right now this is the one I'm spending a little time with:

Sarah Kinson interviews Philip Pullman

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

ten books

Well. Michele at Scholar's Blog says World Book Day is coming up soon in the UK, and that they want to know what ten books you couldn't live without. That's a tough one, but I'll give it a shot. This list is a mix of personal and professional books--professionally, I also can't live without M.H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms, or the Norton Anthology of English Literature (or, currently, the Broadview Anthology of British Literature, take your pick), or the lovely MLA Approaches to Teaching Children's Literature. This semester I can't live without some Anne Lamott and Stephen King on writing, or without Tennyson. But this more mixed list would hold me through a sabbatical as well as a teaching year, I think.

(Also seen at: The Miss Rumphious Effect and Big A, Little A, so far.)

Persuasion, Jane Austen (but if I could have all six Austen novels bound together, I'd take them all)
A good study Bible.
The Book of Common Prayer (especially the one I have, which also has a hymnal in it)
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Middlemarch, George Eliot
Grimm's Fairy Tales
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
Gilead, Marilynn Robinson
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak

Even as I get ready to push "publish" I wonder, would I rather have Great Expectations than Jane Eyre? Adam Bede rather than Middlemarch? Could I recite the Sendak book and save that spot for Dickens? Where's Charlotte's Web, which I have called--more than once--a perfect novel? Pullman made the list because he inspired my current research project, but would I really rather read Pratchett? I'm not taking this to be the only books I'd ever have, just the ones I most need, for whatever reason. But enough. I'd probably do it differently tomorrow, but this is today's list and it's done.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

teaching and learning

I've never had a knitting lesson, and it shows. I can do the basic stitches (wrong, as it turns out, until fairly recently), and I can count (sometimes), but changing colors or actually shaping anything eludes me. This is fine with me, at the moment, though I'm starting to feel the itch to do the work better. Practice helps, but a lesson would help even more. I know it in my bones.

My brother sat down with my daughter not too long ago and told her the same thing. He's self-taught on guitar, and has always enjoyed just playing around. "But every lesson I take," he told her, "I get almost exponentially better." Sometimes it just takes five minutes for someone to show you how to do something you've been struggling with for hours, maybe years.

Mariah is taking voice lessons now. Voice lessons always seemed like a luxury to me. Everyone knows how to sing, right? It's like talking, only a little more interesting. It's not as if you have to learn where to place your fingers on the keys, or strings, or frets: it's almost magical, how the voice finds its way.

Only it's not, of course. Learning anatomy and breath control and projection and phrasing can make a huge difference. Being self-taught can be personally satisfying, but study can increase both satisfaction and quality.

Teaching writing is a little like teaching voice, I think. The people who study writing, like the people who study voice, have already been doing the thing for some time. They know how to manipulate words, to put them together on the page; they read a lot (or they should--as the voice students listen to music) and they've picked up a lot just from being around words all their lives. Sometimes writers resist learning new things, as musicians do, fearful of losing the unpracticed spontaneity that has served them so well so far. Sometimes the exercises feel forced, the practice is boring. It's the easiest thing in the workload to blow off, if you're already good at it; you figure you'll skate by, as you always have, on talent.

Studying tae kwon do has taught me a lot about learning. It's something I came into with no prior knowledge. Oh, yes, I know how to stand upright and to walk and sit down, but kicking and punching are foreign notions. I felt awkward and slow for months after I started going to class with Nick (for whom, I must say, kicking and punching seemed a lot less foreign).

The other day, though, we played dodge ball in class and I learned that I do know something useful for tae kwon do. I was great at dodge ball in elementary school. I have brothers, after all: I know how to get out of the way. And it all came rushing back to me in our small studio space, as we dodged a pair of balled-up stinky socks. Through two rounds, I remained untouched, still standing after everyone else was out. Carytown champion of dodge ball.

It helps to know you know something when you're trying to learn. It was nice to know my instinctive dodging was actually a valuable skill. But it also helps to practice with some humility, to know what you don't know. A friend told me the other day about "white belt excellence: The ability to let go of everything you know and be open to something else." When I began to study tae kwon do I paid attention, I watched what everyone did, I even asked Nick to break things down for me at home so I could practice again. I can break a board with a kick, now. I have a decent roundhouse and a pretty good front snap kick. I've got some techniques beyond instinctive dodging, and I couldn't have gotten them without studying, practicing, making mistakes. I have a long way to go, too, and it's only going to get harder.

Writing's like that, too. It often feels instinctive, especially for readers. Too often words just flow out and they seem right because they made it to the page. Most of them, though, are just instinctive dodging, unpracticed knitting: they work, for a while, but they're not very polished and they won't get you far.

This piece is itself unpolished and raw, of course. I've got some metaphors, maybe too many, some thoughts, but I haven't assembled them as I'd like. I need to do some research, I think, and mull over this more, but I'm (as always) both impatient and rushed, and this will have to do for now.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Peter Pan and street kids

I read today an interesting Q&A in about violent youth street culture. Here's a bit of it:

Street kids in families are very loyal to their leaders. Their leaders are identified as Mom and Dad. The youths identify each other as Brother and Sister. There are very strict codes of conduct, a highly developed hierarchal system. Like gangs, these kids have a very strong identity just to that particular group. And there are very savage punishments if you break their code.

There's been a discussion going on at the child-lit listserv about Peter Pan lately, mostly about the racist depiction of Indians. While one can certainly debate the sources and the implications of Barrie's depiction of the "redskins," however, what seems beyond debate to me at the moment is that the kids in Peter Pan sound precisely like the kids described in this piece: homeless, often from middle class families, living in an invented family structure, playing violent fantasy games, racist and sexist.

So these are the thoughts I posted to the listserv today:

I've often wondered about a connection between the children in Peter Pan and the child gangs in Oliver Twist. Was juvenile crime as big a topic when Barrie was writing as it was when Dickens was? Is it going too far out on a limb to suggest that Peter Pan romanticizes child violence and child crime? Is the phenomenon described in the Salon article really all that new?

(And is the Salon piece another example of how we objectify and demonize children when they don't conform to our expectations, or is it detailing a real problem?)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

because that's what I do

We are watching the end of Ella Enchanted, Mariah and I. Nick has given up when it looks as if Ella might actually have to kill the prince. (When does an awareness of narrative conventons kick in? We know she won't have to kill the prince...) It is the final scene.

Mariah: Oh, Edgar (villain) isn't dead. He's just gone crazy.

Me: (disgusted) Right, because it's a G movie. No one can die. Except, of course, the mom. Not the evil uncle.

Mariah: Go write an article, Mommy.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Does YouTube hate me?

Twice yesterday I tried to post this video here, because I thought it might be an example of Creative Nonfiction. (My class and I are having trouble, as always, with definitions.) I dutifully signed up with YouTube and told them where my blogs were, etc. They informed me that it would be appearing on the blog soon. That was around noon yesterday, so I'm thinking "soon" is a relative term--or, I did something wrong.

In any case, you can see the video by going to YouTube as usual. Truly, the machine is using us. Sigh.

Friday, February 02, 2007

HPVII: 21 July 2007

And, yes, I have already pre-ordered it. ( has a way lower price than the retail quoted in this article.)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

public and private losses

I'm thinking a little about how we memorialize public figures--and private losses--these days, having spent last week teaching Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H.. Ericka Lutz navigated that public/private divide beautifully in her column about her grandmother, Tillie Olsen (also memorialized as a more public figure on the LiteraryMama blog, by Marjorie Osterhout). Would Tennyson have used pictures, if he'd been writing for Hallam today? I think he might have blogged, publishing fragments of his mourning at a time, though perhaps not. [edited to add: or maybe a hypertext?] It took him 17 years to write In Memoriam; a young man when he died, Hallam would have been 40 by the time Tennyson published his elegy. Would it have had more impact in fragments, in pieces as they came out, or less? Did Tennyson share them along the way, getting comments from family and friends? The poem reads as if he did, as if he were responding to his critics when he incorporates their voices, like comments: "He loves to make parade of pain,/That with his piping he may gain/The praise that comes with constancy.'"

Tennyson lets the comments stand, but finally moves beyond private grief to public accountability and hope: "Ring out a slowly dying cause,/And ancient forms of party strife...Ring out false pride in place and blood,The civic slander and the spite;/Ring in the love of truth and right,/Ring in the common love of good."

We're not there yet, over 150 years later. But those words are just as good a memorial to Molly Ivins as any, I think.

Emperor of What?

From Terry, this amazing piece of spoken word poetry. Watch it now. I mean it.

The Chronicle had a less-optimistic take on education and the internet. But check out the video first, really.