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

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Recent reading

It's hard to believe that the same person wrote I Capture the Castle and 101 Dalmations. Yes, both were made into successful movies, but I'm pretty sure the resemblance ends there. Smith was a successful playwright before moving into novels with I Capture the Castle in 1948. It's a terrific story of a blocked writer and his family--including two daughters who have a Jane Austen-like marriage plot. The opening line: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" is enough to hook the reader in, and the narrator (and second daughter) is a consistently engaging voice. A writer herself, she and her younger brother conspire to break her father out of his writer's block while she and her older sister and stepmother work on the courtship story as well. The allusions to Austen are pervasive, but the novel also meditates on modern fiction, poetry, and the place of both ritual and writing in modern life. My copy came off the table at Barnes & Noble where they put things they're trying to move for summer (3 for the price of 2), with a blurb from J. K. Rowling on the cover, but other than the romance of the crumbling castle there's little to connect it to Rowling. (I just noted that Amazon recommends Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm and Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse for fans of Castle, and that seems just right...)

101 Dalmations (1956), on the other hand, Smith's first novel specifically for children, is--how can I put this kindly?--not as engaging. The limited omniscient narrator gives us--mostly--the point of view of the Dalmation parents, Pongo and Missis, and they are a pretty twee pair, honestly. Pongo is, we are repeatedly told, one of the brightest dogs in Britain (not only does he understand human language and concepts like right and left, he can read English as well), while Missis is more Barbie-esque: cute but dumb. Pongo's feelings for the surrogate parent-dog, Perdita, apparently caused Smith some concern--when Missis can't nurse all fifteen puppies, the Dearlys (their owners) fortuitously find another Dalmation mother who has lost her puppies to nurse half the litter, and Pongo, we are told, thinks of her as their second mother--though not as his second wife but rather a beloved younger sister. Yeah, because I was worried about that. Well, obviously she assumes kids would be, but it's a bizarre detail to go into, isn't it?

Throughout, the dog characters are far more interesting than the human characters, but it's really the secondary characters--the spaniel whose owner is too elderly to go out, the sheepdog whose charge is a two-year-old boy--who are the most intriguing, while Pongo and Missis seem like pure stereotypes: self-sacrificing parents, the strong handsome male and the loving beautiful female. There's an implicit pro-animal-rights message, of course (the bad guys are all about fur), but there are some big problems as well. For example, the evil Cruella deVil is consistently depicted in stark black-and-white, as if to suggest that the polarity itself is evil. But the novel engages in the same kind of polarity--Dalmations good, Cruella bad--reinscribing the black-and-white worldview that it might have seemed to reject. And don't even get me started on class, both with the treatment of servants among the humans, and mixed breeds among the dogs (we are told they're just as lovable as the purebreds, but we don't meet a single one).

Monica Edinger had a great post on animal fantasies a week or so ago in which she asked commenters to consider what makes a good or great one. I'd say this one uses the animals mostly as humans stand-ins (they marry, eat human food, read, and communicate in sophisticated ways--although that latter caveat may simply reveal my species-centrism) and the kind of humans they stand in for are rather simplistic and stereotyped. So, not great.

It's a quick read, and I remember enjoying the animated movie as a kid, but it's not in Castle's class. There's a sequel--The Starlight Barking--but I think I'll skip it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

things to read

Roger Sutton on didacticism in literature. (But read through the comments, too, for the proliferation of anonymi, for the difference between theme and didacticism, and for Tobin Anderson's interesting take on the issue.)

And then more on the same topic from Monica Edinger, over at Educating Alice. As Monica says, "Since I'm a teacher, I'm didactic." Amen! (But she has lots more to say, and more for you to read, really.)

If you haven't been reading Tricia's posts from China you could start now. The pictures alone would be worth the link. Later this summer I'm going to Japan, and I can tell you right now you won't get nearly the great posts from me that you're getting from her. It's hard for me to have an experience and document it at the same time. But she's doing a great job of it.

And then if you want to see some images from the graphic novel version of Coraline, you can. (I'm really excited about the movie, with "PC" from the fabulous Mac vs. PC ads, as the dad.)

Yes, I do need to read something other than blogs or magazines so I can talk about it here. I did read I Capture the Castle, noted over in the sidebar, and decided that it's probably not really a children's novel. Maybe YA. I found it on a table at B&N with Virginia Woolf, Khaled Hosseini, Alexander McCall, and plenty of other grown-up authors. It's got a front-cover blurb from J.K. Rowling, though. And the author, Dodie Smith, is perhaps best known for writing 101 Dalmations, next on my list...

when should I start?

With HP VII coming in less than two months, is it time to start re-reading the series so I know where I am when it arrives?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Good night, mush

According to the Writer's Almanac, today is Margaret Wise Brown's birthday. Brown began her career as a children's book editor, and she seems to be best known both for her insistence on making books that kids actually could--and would--use: investing in high quality paper and bindings, using bright colors, etc.

Everyone remembers Goodnight Moon--or they should--but my favorite of her books may actually be Wait Till the Moon is Full, illustrated by Garth Williams. "Once upon a time in the dark of the moon there was a little raccoon," it begins, and it goes on to tell the story of a little raccoon who wants to go out at night but must wait...well, you can figure out why. It's a lovely quiet story, not quite as sleepy as Goodnight, Moon, but fun to read (and sing!) to little sleepy ones as well.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

copyright and fair use

What would I do without child_lit? This morning this gem came through the listserv; enjoy!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Rest in Peace, Lloyd Alexander

From the child_lit listserv this morning came the news that Lloyd Alexander had died at home in hospice care this morning. His wife of 62 years died two weeks ago.

I had literally days ago recommended his books yet again to a fantasy reader. I recommend the Chronicles of Prydain more often, probably, than any other series--they are by turns funny, serious, silly, thoughtful, and always entertaining. The central figure, Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran, probably owes something to Frodo and Bilbo Baggins--the humble figure who turns out to be the key figure in the quest--but he also owes a lot to Welsh folklore and all those fated orphans in so much of the folk and fantasy world. He and his princess, Eilonwy (who can outshoot him and is smart and funny throughout the series) were my ideal couple for many years.

Which may tell you more about me than you need to know.

Alexander wrote many other books for children, and Nick savored many of them over the years. He particularly liked Time Cat. I remember liking the Vesper Holly books as well--Alexander wrote heroines as well as he wrote heroes, and I remember being grateful to him for that. I never got to tell him so, so I will now: Thank you, Lloyd Alexander.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Odysseus. Jacob. Hermes. Bilbo Baggins. Robin Hood. Pretty Boy Floyd. Danny Ocean.

Why do we love thieves?

There's a revision of the old folk tale Jack and the Beanstalk that disapproves of our love of thieves. Jack is met at the top of the beanstalk by a fairy who lets him know that everything the giant has really belonged to his father--presto, Jack's not a thief!

This is a very boring story, naturally.

While we can justify our love of Robin Hood with the old "redistribution of wealth" claim, it seems that not every version of even Robin Hood's story includes that justification. And we can hardly make the claim for Pretty Boy Floyd or Odysseus. Bilbo is hired to reclaim the dwarfs' property from Smaug, of course, but even he comes to suspect this isn't entirely true; and certainly the Ring is no more his than it is Gollum's.

As a child with more younger siblings than older ones I always thought Jacob was an out-and-out thief; I had way more sympathy for Esau, even if he was a "hairy man."

Still, we like stories about thieves. And the Jacob story may give us a clue as to why: we're supposed to think, I think, that the wealthy, the privileged, the first-born, deserve to lose their property or their position. We don't mind if they suffer a little--they have so much. And the thief is smarter, quicker, funnier, than his prey. He's romantic, dashing, clever, more cultured than the property owner. Somehow he deserves to win.

Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia trilogy (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia) exploits our sympathy for the thief: we root for Eugenides, her thief, but we also know, I think, that our sympathy has its root in a romantic fiction. He is indeed well-born, for example, just as much as his victims (and as his name would suggest). He's a thief for hire, it seems--but a thief with a history, a family, a background. Over the course of the trilogy he's also a thief who has to come to terms with living out in the open, with a public life rather than the privacy he's cultivated so carefully. To say more would be to give too much away, but the fact that I finished them last week and am still thinking about them is a good sign--most books just float through my consciousness and fade away before I get around to talking about them.

The plot twists in the series are astonishing, but it's the subtle characterizations that fully engage the reader. These books are terrific. And they made me think about thieves in a while new way--though I still have every intention of locking up every night and holding on to my own stuff. (Thanks to Light Reading's Jenny Davidson for pointing me in their direction.)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Little People

Several of the last few books I've read have featured little people of a sort. I know others have thought about this issue (hi, H), but I'm not thinking now about angry little dwarves but the other kind--helpful elves, brownies, fairies. In Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad series, the nomes are not precisely helpful to humans, but they're not unhelpful either. In fact at least some of them worship humans--specific ones, not humans in general--and the relationship between big and small is at the heart of the books. His Nac Mac Feegles can be either mischievous and helpful, depending on their mood, but they definitely are a boon to the earth in general, even if they steal from individual humans. In Blackbringer Magpie and her companions are trying to save the world for themselves, which will mean saving it for humans as well. In both, the little try to stay out of sight of the large; one of the profoundest taboos in the little world seems to be self-revelation to humans.

I think others have approached this question through the issue of audience: children want to identify with other small fry. And I think there's something to that, though since I'm increasingly thinking that most children's lit is read by adults, I'm not sure that's all there is. Perhaps we all want to identify with underdogs, whether we are children or adults, and small folk are so literally under that they qualify. (Though the fact that most of them--though not, it seems, the nomes--have magic may diminish their underdog status.)

Taylor's faeries remind me a bit of Philip Pullman's little people--the Gallivespians. They are fierce little warriors, short-lived (like Pratchett in the Bromeliad books, Pullman scales time down with size), and they use their size to their advantage. Pullman's Gallivespians are spies; Taylor's faeries know much more about the human world than humans can ever know about them. It's fun to think about the advantages of smallness; most often, I think, we focus on the disadvantages. (This is one of the weird--or fun, depending on your mood--things about reading Stuart Little, which is all about the difficulties of living in a human-scale world when you're a mouse.)

I do think scale is inherently fascinating: what changes, what stays the same, when size shifts? It's a question older than Alice and newer than Blackbringer.

(Next up: thieves and why we love them, too.)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I've been meaning to post about Laini Taylor's new novel Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer since I finished it last week, but I just couldn't find the time during the mad grading rush. So now the grading is done (alleluia, alleluia!) and of course I am having trouble recalling what I wanted to say. Sieve brain.

First of all, I wanted to say it's better than I thought it would be. I know that doesn't sound very good, but given the title and the fact that Laini Taylor was previously best known for "Laini's Ladies," a line of greeting cards and ornaments, I was concerned. (So was Betsy Bird, over at Fuse#8, but she got over it, too.)

The fact that it's first in a series gave me pause, too, especially since the whole series isn't available yet. (I'm remembering those bleak years between The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, for example; let's not even talk about the HP waits.)

Nonetheless, the lovely Penguin rep who visited my office last month had really strongly recommended it, and sent me an ARC (advanced reading copy--it's not quite out yet), and I was looking for diversion, so I started it.

And read pretty much straight through until I finished.

These are not those fay little fairies of, say, Flower Fairies (lovely though they are, I might add). Nor are they the somewhat unnerving compensations for childhood sexual abuse that turn up in Francesca Lia Block's I was a Teenage Fairy. They are both small and winged, but the comparison ends there. Fuse#8's got a pretty good review, so I won't go into details here, but I will say that what I really liked the toughness of the main character, Magpie, and her supporting cast of crows. She's a warrior princess of sorts, Magpie is. She's also, to my great relief, not an orphan (though we don't meet her parents, we are told about their whereabouts). And the central conceit of the novel--that humans are opening up bottles hoping to find genies, but releasing demons into the world--is priceless. Sounds just like what we do to me. The demon Magpie is after in this novel, the Blackbringer, is a figure of uncommon destruction: it envelops its prey in its darkness, its nothingness. It's surprisingly scary, and when Magpie goes up against it, you're not quite sure she can win. The stakes seem real in the book, in other words.

And then there's knitting. Of a sort. So, really, what more could you want?

Friday, May 04, 2007

don't ban books

I'm too busy to blog, really--I have a stack of grading that is not getting any shorter. (The fact that I am not actually reading the exams might have something to do with that.) So I must address that.

But in the meantime, read about Maureen Johnson's novel, The Bermudez Triangle, which I now want to read (after the exams, of course) and why some people think you shouldn't read it (scroll down on that last one for the mention of pusillanimous twerps; keep going to read about some particularly, um, interesting Utah Republicans). Three cheers for librarians!

(Note that all above links are anti-book-banning. I do not link to book-banners.)