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

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!