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

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.