Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Monday, December 29, 2008
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Erica Perl says what I've been trying to say (and not me alone, by any means, but I'm too lazy to link right now) about the sorta fake Newbery controversy. A breath of fresh air.
Friday, December 19, 2008
The season tells me wait: for grace, for love.
I hope, and wait, and watch, but sometimes all
Seems lost, It is, I know, a season of
The worst of excesses. A heavy pall
Falls over me. I aim for joy, for gifts
That mean the most, that answer to a call.
But as the day approaches, lost in “ifs”
And “ands”, and “buts”, and “had I but the time”
I cave, surrendering my hope to bits
Of colored glass, and trinkets, for their shine.
The glitter cannot last, I know; it fails
To give the deep-down joy of love. I dine
On disappointment mingled with the tail-
End of my hope. And then--a child, a toy, a light!
We make a moment: briefly, whole and hale.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
This is why I discourage my students from pursuing Ph.D.s in English. Time to think of alternate careers for all these wonderful literature scholars!
OK, that's the money quote, and I think it's already (rightly) been ridiculed. As if one award is single-handedly preventing kids from becoming readers? In a culture where reading is not valued, where celebrity children's books and TV tie-ins dominate bookstore shelves (how many children have Madonna, Jenna Bush, and Jeff Foxworthy turned off reading?), how can the Newbery be keeping millions of children from becoming readers? It just doesn't make sense.
On the next page some actual teen readers get their say--briefly--and they note that one thing that dampens their enthusiasm for reading is having it assigned. While this annoys me, I think it may also have some truth, and of course there's an overlap between assigned reading and the Newbery, though it's by no means the only criterion teachers and curriculum developers use.
This semester some of my students spent a few hours working with middle school students at an innovative private middle school for girls. The girls they worked with have almost no specific assigned reading; rather, they are assigned a number of hours of reading a week. They write journal entries and book reviews, and they discuss the books with each other and with their teacher; they are thoughtful about their reading choices, and many of them challenge themselves with books like Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and The Life of Pi (though, yes, others spent many hours last year working their way through the Twilight series). In a larger school the logistics of such a program might be daunting, but it clearly works: the girls read a lot, and they're articulate about their reading choices.
At the end of the semester I ask my (college) children's lit students to write a research paper. One option for that paper is for them to revisit a book they loved as a child. I haven't worked out the statistics (hey, I'm an English professor, remember?), but my sense from doing this for many years is that the students split their choices fairly evenly between books assigned for school (books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Giver, Catcher in the Rye) and books they picked up for pleasure (this year, Redwall, The Phantom Tollbooth, and James and the Giant Peach, for example). I guess I'll have to start keeping records on the awards won by the books they choose. In the meantime, I'm really not going to worry about the Newbery award. Those librarians know their business.
*MotherReader takes the piece on here, with a hilarious list of fake controversies.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
First up is Andrew Martino in the Chronicle, (re)discovering his love of children's books: "By spending several months reading children's and young-adult fiction, I rediscovered not only what made me a reader in the first place, but also something essential about myself: my imagination. Reading "for fun" should not be just for children, but required of us all if we want to hold onto what makes us essentially human — our imaginations." The essay feels very familiar to me--it actually describes the process I went through on my first sabbatical, when I effectively converted myself from a Victorianist to a children's literature specialist. I had always been a somewhat addictive reader, losing myself especially in genre fiction (I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Dorothy Sayers). But I'd lost a good deal of the pleasure of reading through years of graduate school and the pressures of the tenure track. I hasten to add, I love analysis; I can find deep pleasure in unpacking a complex text. But the addictive pleasure of speed, of plot, and of the freshness of experience, still stays with me. (I'm still trying to figure out, though, what "second-person" texts he read--any help on this on?)
I also recently enjoyed this piece by Gary Kamiya in Salon.com (click past the ads) about The Wind in the Willows. I can't remember the first time I read this novel; it seems I've always known it. And I think Kamiya really gets at the twin pleasures of the novel: the madcap adventures of the irredeemable Toad and the nostalgia, even melancholy, of the reflective Rat and Mole. As a family we used to watch the wonderful stop-motion version of the novel* (yes, it skips the "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" sequence, but is really quite lovely nonetheless), and we used to try to sort out which of us was which character: was Mark really Badger, despite wishing he was the Rat? Am I Mole? And isn't every toddler Toad? Just thinking about it all makes me want to read it again, or at least to revisit the Christmas carol scene.
*there was also a series, and some of those episodes picked up episodes missed from the novel adaptation, while others were new. All good, really.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Tedra Osell gives advice to someone considering academe.
I follow up with some ideas about career ladders and lattices (original NYT article here).
Dana Campbell chimes in.
Laura McKenna at 11D joined the conversation about now; she also noted that ProfGrrrl, Professing Mama, and GeekyMom had more to say.
[edited to add] Wendy at Outside Providence has made her own luck, and talks about it here.
Tedra and I each blogged about it again the following week, and Aeron Haynie's next post also brings up a relevant point about including the dads.
Whew! After all that, do you think we've solved the problems of the universe yet?
Yeah, me neither. And now I need to grade some more papers.
Monday, December 08, 2008
Listen, I haven't read the book. But these are twelfth-graders. I hate to break it to anyone, but these kids already know about sex. And someone thought they should read this book--not selections from it, but the book. And now they can't. Personally, I find underage marriage and suicide pacts offensive, but that doesn't mean high schoolers shouldn't read Romeo & Juliet. And so on.
Link from Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
John Green rocks.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Categories are hard. Necessary, I guess, but hard.
*One (cynical) reason is marketing. It's also true that Paper Towns has few if any interesting and well-developed adult characters--they're just much less important to the story--while The Graveyard Book and Octavian Nothing each has several. For my money Prep** has no interesting characters of any age, but that's maybe just me.
**Yes, I'm aware that Prep didn't come out this year and the other books I'm talking about did. I couldn't think of a more recent "adult" fiction title with a teenaged protagonist.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Like another reader, some of my favorite books (especially in fourth grade) were biographies. My earliest reading memories, though, are of my father reading me Madeline and, my very favorite, Nomi and the Lovely Animals, a book I haven't thought of in years though I can recite large parts of it by heart (and I had no idea, until just now, that it was by Louis Slobodkin). My father also read me the entire Lord of the Rings series, though I only really remember him reading The Hobbit; later I read them all myself and virtually inhabited that world for a while. The Chronicles of Narnia, the Little House books, the Streatfeild "shoes" books, and anything by Madeline L'Engle were also favorites that I read over and over again. There was also a collected Twain and a collection of similarly-bound Alcott novels in my grandparents' house, where we spent some summers, so I read those over and over as well. And does anyone else remember Thee, Hannah? That was another one from my grandparents' shelves...
There are more, of course, but I'll stop after mentioning the Moomin books, which I also remember reading over and over at around the same age (somewhere under 12).
Some of my old books are at my parents' house and I've enjoyed introducing them to my children as my mother must have enjoyed introducing her old books to me. What a pleasure to remember all of these!
Edited to add: here's a piece from the Times Online with some writers' favorite childhood reads.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
I don't at all disagree that this is a golden age of sorts for children's literature, and I like his idea that we read some books (the Harry Potter series, for example) simply because others read them. Or as Bottum puts it: "their sharedness has become their most important quality." While I disagree with his judgements about certain books (Winnie the Pooh, Little Women, Summerland) I'm enjoying thinking about how living in a certain cultural moment can make good writers better. Is this what happened around the turn of the 18th-19th centuries with the Romantic poets, perhaps?
I'm also just delighted to see someone else sing the praises of My Family and Other Animals, a book I loved while growing up and should really read again. We've been talking on the child_lit listserv lately about our favorite childhood reading, and that's one I'd forgotten to mention. But I adored it at the time.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Lewis Buzbee at Chasing Ray: "The other part of the question: because I was so formed, in some way, by Steinbeck, I have always had an urge to write about him, but non-fiction never felt the right venue for me. His letters are so good, there are several fine biographies, not to mention Benson’s brilliant epic biography, and I know that I am no biographer. When I first started writing this book, I thought it was all about the libraries, but for me it was all about Steinbeck, in the end, trying to pay tribute to the power of his words. That part of it kind of snuck up on me."
Courtney Summers at Bildungsroman: "Maintaining an online presence takes a certain level of time and commitment, true, but I'm down with it . . . and yes, I'm totally guilty of using them as a means to procrastinate sometimes. But if it wasn't them, it'd be something else. Not to brag, but I'm a FANTASTIC procrastinator."
Elizabeth Wein at Finding Wonderland: "The symbolism of bells are wonderful, though—they ward off thunder and the devil, they warn of fire and flood and invasion. They're always female (a bell is a "she," not an "it") and they all have individual names. Some of them are also very old. I used to thrill to ring a certain bell in Magdalen College, Oxford, because it predated Columbus's discovery of America. Most musical instruments that old are in museums, not in public use."
Ellen Datlow at Chasing Ray
Tony DiTerlizzi at Miss Erin
Melissa Walker at Hip Writer Mama
Luisa Plaja at Bildungsroman
DM Cornish at Finding Wonderland
LJ Smith at The YA YA YAs
Kathleen Duey at Bookshelves of Doom
Ellen Klages at Fuse Number 8
Emily Jenkins at Writing and Ruminating
Ally Carter at Miss Erin
Mark Peter Hughes at Hip Writer Mama
Sarah Darer Littman at Bildungsroman
MT Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Mitali Perkins at Mother Reader
Martin Millar at Chasing Ray
John Green at Writing and Ruminating
Beth Kephart at Hip Writer Mama
Emily Ecton at Bildungsroman
John David Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Brandon Mull at The YA YA YAs
Lisa Papademetriou at Mother Reader
Mayra Lazara Dole at Chasing Ray
Francis O'Rourke Dowell at Fuse Number 8
J Patrick Lewis at Writing and Ruminating
Wendy Mass at Hip Writer Mama
Lisa Ann Sandell at Bildungsroman
Caroline Hickey/Sara Lewis Holmes at Mother Reader
A.S. King at Bookshelves of Doom
Emily Wing Smith at Interactive Reader
Monday, November 10, 2008
Today my students read and discussed several "stolen child" poems from the nineteenth century, including "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (Browning), "The Fairies" (Allingham), and "The Stolen Child" (Yeats). It's not clear what, exactly, the Piper is, but he has fairy-like qualities: he dresses funny, he has magical powers, and he steals kids. In the other two it's even clearer: fairies are weird and dangerous, though not (perhaps) actually malevolent. They live in relationship to the human world, but they do not love it. And they can do things that hurt us, though their intentions are not entirely clear.
In some recent novels that I loved (Blackbringer, How to Ditch Your Fairy), it's really clear that fairies aren't particularly cute or even helpful; they do what they do, and there are consequences for us but that's not their primary concern. Tinkerbell (the original, in Peter and Wendy) is actively hostile to Wendy, if not to the other children. So are the cute fairies derived from fairy godmothers? (Though, as I recall, the one in Disney's Cinderella is dumpy, not cute at all.) Are they derived from the Disney Peter Pan? Or am I missing something here? Because, really, the cute fairy is as bad as the rainbow-colored unicorn--a perversion of the mythology. I know the YA authors may come after me for defending the unicorn* (a glorious and scary creature, really, much better than a zombie). But what about fairies?
*She hates for me to tell this story, but it's totally true.
**(Diane Peterfreund does that much better anyway)
Friday, November 07, 2008
The issue then is, what's the difference between adult and YA literature? Does it really have to boil down to the age of the protagonist? My students were unwilling to call Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Dickens's Great Expectations, YA. But they agreed that they fit the criteria they had themselves outlined. They also talked me into listing The Lord of the Flies as YA, though I still resist the label. Again, why?
I love YA literature, and I think I know it when I see it. But at the moment I'm cribbing John Green's characterization of it from a recent blog post: "smart teenagers who talk fast and do stupid shit." That leaves a lot out, I'm sure, but it also brings a lot in, and for the moment it will have to do. (By the way, the whole post--about manic pixie dream girls--is fabulous.)
Thursday, November 06, 2008
I'm in a quandary right now. Colleen Mondor over at Chasing Ray pointed out a recent piece that raised, yet again, the question of YA literature. She vowed not to get involved in that particular question again, but I do have to ask it. That is, what is it? I am currently teaching Introduction to Children's Literature, and I teach some YA literature in the course. But how is it different from children's lit? Or is it? I struggle with these questions.
This week I've asked my students to struggle with them as well. But what about you readers? Do you distinguish between YA and children's lit? Between YA and "adult" lit? (That always sounds vaguely obscene to me...) Note that I'm not asking if the category should exist, or if teens need different books, or if YA is somehow "lesser" literature. The category does exist, teens read all kinds of books and I think YA should be part of the mix, and, um, no. It's not lesser. But the definition in the piece cited above--"YA literature is distinguished by change, evolution, development, identity, and/or the search for self"--doesn't help me much, as there's all kinds of literature distinguished by those characteristics. I'm leaning towards a mix of thematic and structural elements for my own definition, but I'd love to hear yours as well.
And, if you comment, you can become part of Mother Reader's Comment Challenge, too! Check it out--and participate!
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Sunday, November 02, 2008
This month my column at Literary Mama takes up some books in which children learn a similar lesson. These are books that implicitly say: democracy is hard. You might not actually want to be a leader. Gone are the inspirational stories of my own childhood, in which children embrace leadership and optimistically look forward to making the world a better place. These stories are, in fact, a little depressing in their realism about presidential politics.
Read the rest here...
(cross-posted at the other blog)
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Colleen Mondor over at Chasing Ray has a wonderful post up about teaching and voting; go read it.
OK, are you back? Doesn't that make you want to vote? And, for that matter, to teach history?
Her post is part of an effort she started called "Blog the Vote," in which bloggers are encouraged to blog about voting, in a non-partisan manner, over the next few days. It's a great effort.
It's hard for me to be non-partisan about voting. Frankly, at some level, if you don't agree with me I don't want you to vote. I've been heard to joke about telling people who don't agree with me that Election Day is the 5th.
Then I found out it wasn't a joke. In Virginia--and perhaps in other parts of the country as well--folks have been getting an official-looking email that tells them that people registered in one party will vote on the 4th, and the others on the 5th.
In Virginia we don't have registration by party, so this couldn't possibly be true--that's how absurd this is. And yet, I can easily imagine a first-time voter or an infrequent voter receiving this message and believing it. It looks pretty official; it seems to speak to a real problem (ie, turnouts may be high and lines may be long). But it's a lie--an effort, like so many others, to keep people away from the polls on election day. Just like voting, voter suppression has a history.
Since the experiment we call democracy got started, there have always been rules about who votes and who doesn't. I teach Victorian literature, and the Victorian period traditionally begins in 1832, which is not the year Victoria became queen (that was 1837), but the year the first Reform Bill passed. This legislation, the first extension of the franchise in England since the seventeenth century, extended the vote to one in five Englishmen. That's right, after the passage of this great reform, still only 20% of men could vote. (And no women, of course.) The bill is thought of as marking the beginning of the political ascendancy of the middle class--a group we've heard a lot about in this election, a group that now, I think, takes its political power somewhat for granted. Over the course of the century the franchise gradually expanded, until by the end of it there was (nearly) universal male suffrage. But it started very small.
I think often my students and I take our voting rights for granted, but most of them would not be voting if this were only forty years ago. The voting age wasn't lowered to 18 until 1971, after all. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictions persisted here in the south until well into the 1960s as well.
My daughter votes in her first national election this year. Her one still-living great-grandmother was born before women had the vote. Remarkably, democracy begets itself. That is, people who have the vote have repeatedly voted to extend that privilege to others. We don't only vote our self-interest; we vote for the common good, which we keep redefining and redefining as our boundaries expand.
There are always those who want to narrow the boundaries. Don't let them. Make your voice heard. Vote on November 4th.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
So why am I annoyed with her? Annoyed might be too strong. Her new book, Chains, is a terrific read--a really engrossing tale of a young slave girl, Isabel, who gets caught up in the Revolutionary War in New York City. Promised her freedom by her mistress, she finds herself instead taken from her home in Rhode Island to a Loyalist stronghold in New York by her mistress's nephew, who won't honor his aunt's wishes. Isabel is a beautifully drawn character--at first relatively ignorant of the political situation, she is disgusted by the hypocrisy of both sides, who are willing to manipulate and even endanger her for their own purposes.
So, again, why am I annoyed? Because the book is the first of a two-volume series, and I didn't know it would leave me hanging. Sometimes a book leaves you hanging and you forget about it, thinking maybe you'll pick up the second one if and when you think of it--but I spent the weekend talking about this one, recommending it and then adding a brief warning. It's how I felt when I finished The Golden Compass--I turned the page and nearly cried out loud at the irresolution of it all.
But, really, I shouldn't be annoyed. I loved the book, and it really does stop in a logical place. And I think it's a terrific book for middle schoolers, especially ones who are interested in historical fiction. I'm passing it on to Nick next--he loved reading about the Revolution two years ago in his social studies class and is eager for more. But I also recommended it to adults I was talking to over the weekend--we had just seen a documentary, Traces of the Trade, about a New England family coming to grips with its own history of slave-trading, and this novel takes us through some of the same scenery, confronting some of the same issues, as the film. The film takes up the modern legacy of slavery; the novel gives us the contemporary reality of it. I recommend both, highly. And I retract my annoyance, though if the next one doesn't come out soon, I may start feeling it again.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
First up was The Graveyard Book. What is there to say that hasn't already been said? I heard most of the first chapter of this read by the author himself almost a year ago, at the Fantasy Matters conference. It was so chilling, a large auditorium full of people just sat in silence, gasping occasionally, as he read. Since then he's read the entire novel, a chapter at a time, to different audiences on his book tour--and you, too, can listen and watch! I have heard about a chapter and a half so far, and it's absolutely spell-binding. But I can read to myself quicker than I can listen, and I can do it in bed, so I finished the book the old-fashioned way, page by page. I was at war with myself over whether to read faster so as to find out what happened, or more slowly so as to enjoy the experience longer. In the end faster won out, as it always does with me--but as soon as I can, I'll reread it so I can linger over the sentences again. I want to write about it more fully at some point, but for now--read it! (Oh, and apparently like everyone else, yes, I had trouble finding it in the bookstore. I checked YA, Fantasy/Sci Fi, and new YA--but it was in the children's section in a display all on its own.)
I also picked up Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist when I got The Graveyard Book, because I was planning to see the movie and wanted to read the novel first. But then I didn't. So. I enjoyed the movie, which has a great feel to it of one of those semi-aimless evenings where nothing happens but everything does. Then I read the book, which is really even better. Episodes get switched around in the movie, and heightened for dramatic effect--and I can't complain about that, as the drama is enjoyable--but the book, with its chapters alternating between Nick and Norah's voices, really is a compelling read all on its own. Again, others have already said much more than I, but I'm glad I read it (though I did stay up too late last night finishing it. Sigh).
The other books were all picture books dealing with elections, and I'll have more to say about them, I hope, in my next column. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, October 08, 2008
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
(cross-posted at the other blog...)
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Fiction Picture Books
Non-Fiction Picture Books
Middle Grade/Young Adult Non-Fiction
Middle Grade Fiction
Young Adult Fiction
Last year I served as a Sci-Fi/Fantasy judge, and it was a blast. I didn't volunteer this year because, much as I loved it, I simply couldn't figure out how I'd have time. (I am already on the Children's Literature Assocation's Book Award committee, and I can't do two book awards in one year when I'm not on sabbatical.) This year's panelists and judges look fabulous, and I'm sure they'll have a great time sorting through the wonderful books that have been published this year.
Check out the FAQs for the Cybils here, and then go back to the Cybils blog to nominate books in your favorite categories. Remember, you can only nominate one per category, so choose wisely!
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
(I scored 9 out of 13, which is only so-so. Two or three of them I could have looked up right here in the office and done better, but I didn't cheat...)
In the meantime, I'm still writing every week, on Tuesdays, for the Mama, PhD blog at Inside Higher Ed. I'm enjoying the community of readers over there, so why not click over and join us?
[cross-posted at the other blog]
Monday, September 29, 2008
For more on book challenges and the like, check out Little Willow's great post over at Bildungsroman. And let me know your favorite banned/challenged book.**
*Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, #65.
**I think mine from the most recent list would be the His Dark Materials trilogy, though there are many great contenders.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Oh, I lied. Or, more likely, repressed. We did take a bunch of kids to see Star Wars: the Clone Wars for Nick's birthday, which I somehow forgot to list. (And, well, I slept through the middle of it, so maybe it doesn't count?) OK, so one movie since the third week of July. What have I been doing instead?
The reading list isn't much better. I did get a bunch of ARCs and read some of them at the end of the summer, but since school started in August it's been all re-reading, all the time. This weekend it's the Twilight series, since I have an idea for a talk--and an abstract due on Tuesday. But otherwise I'm re-reading for classes. And that's all fine--I don't teach things I don't like--but it still cuts into the time available for new books.
So, to recap: I don't get out much, and from August to May I don't take in much that's new, either. But it was fun to go out last night and laugh at the silliness of Get Smart.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
But don't stop there. In Capital-P politics, as you already know, there's a lot going on right now. Literary Mama columnists Ericka Lutz (Red Diaper Dharma) and Shari MacDonald Strong (The Maternal is Political) have terrific columns up now about the election, both telling different, but important, stories.
Two more columns at Literary Mama tell stories that don't feel political at all, stories of farewell. But Rebecca Kaminsky (Down Will Come Baby) and Vicki Forman (Special Needs Mama) know well how their stories of love and care are connected up with larger concerns--of how we treat women's particular health care needs, how we care for disabled children, how our families form part of a larger community of love and care.
The first time I ever wanted to take a political action was when, six months pregnant with my first child, I went to a meeting about doing clinic defense. Heavy with a chosen and deeply-loved child, I knew in my bones, my joints, my aching muscles, just how important it was for all mothers to have that same choice, to know their children were chosen as well. Organizers wiser than I dissuaded me, realizing that my condition would be a distraction, a potentially dangerous one. I've mostly stayed behind the scenes since then, hoping that my words and example in the classroom would be seen as the political statement I knew them to be.
This year I've been a little more mobilized--in July I walked a precinct with my newly-registered-to-vote daughter, and we signed up new voters together in the summer heat. She's spending part of her gap year doing more of that, registering voters and phonebanking and trying to be a part of something bigger than she is. Yesterday she finished working on a voter guide for a local progressive organization, and I saw the pride in her eyes as she told me of sending it off and getting it approved. "People will use my work to help them decide how to vote!" Seeing her and other young people get excited about this election is one of the things that gives me hope for the future--as does this new project, YA for Obama (check out Judy Blume! check out John Green!).
Listen to the stories around you--tell your own--you'll make a difference.
(cross-posted at the other blog)
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
In other news, I'm working at home today while I wait for the Verizon installers. The question of the day is, will I finish my grading before they arrive?
(cross-posted at the other blog)
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
- My new column is about growing up, and Peter Pan--who doesn't.
- I'm also blogging about Sarah Palin today at Inside Higher Ed's Mama, PhD blog.
- Even if you don't read my post on Palin, you must read the two excellent op eds over at Literary Mama, by Rebecca Steinitz and Nicole Stellon O'Donnell. Truly, these are must-reads: informative and opinionated in the best ways.
- I linked to this in my blog post, but in case you miss it: the best coverage I've seen on the Sarah Palin/book banning story is in last Friday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Thanks to Betsy at Fuse8 for the link.
I'm sure there's more, but that will have to do for now.
(cross-posted at the other blog...)
Sunday, September 07, 2008
Quentin Jacobsen (Q) is a teenager like many others, on the outskirts of high school popularity and relatively comfortable there. He doesn't have a girlfriend or a date for prom, much to his parents' consternation, but he has a group of friends--"band geeks," they call themselves (though Q himself is not in band)--and that's pretty much enough. He does, though, have one thing most band geeks don't have--a history with the most popular girl in school, Margo Roth Spiegelman. She and Q are next-door neighbors, and once in elementary school--before the demands of popularity became quite as pressing--they discovered a dead body in a park while out bike-riding. Although Margo Roth Spiegelman (almost always referred to by all three names) no longer rides bikes with Q--or seems, sometimes, even to know he exists--the incident somehow still defines both of them.
John Green has been publishing smart, funny, and poignant novels about teenagers for three years now, and fans of his previous two novels, Looking for Alaska (Printz award winner for 2006) and An Abundance of Katherines, will not be disappointed by Paper Towns. Margo Roth Spiegelman has a certain resemblance, for example, to Alaska Young, in that they are both young women who become objects of both adoration and speculation. Becoming an object, though, turns out to be a problem for both the girls who are adored and the boys who adore them or speculate about them: we are all more complicated, Green's novels remind us, than the stories others tell about us. Adoring someone from afar may give us a sense of purpose or meaning, but in the end it minimizes both the object and the adorer, who can lose sight of himself in his obsession. Margo Roth Spiegelman, unlike Alaska, both embraces and resists her objectification. She's known all over school for her adventures, most of which seem larger than life, and she delights--or so it seems--in her reputation. But when she enlists Q in one last big adventure, then disappears, she leaves in her wake a mystery that teaches Q and his friends as much about themselves as it does about her.
As in his previous novels, Green here centers his novel on a compelling group of quasi-misfit characters who nonetheless manage not to seem like outsiders or losers. They're folks who have decided--as so many of us do--that high school social hierarchies are not going to do them any favors, so they (mostly) opt out. Realistically, they are also delighted when, on rare occasion, they find themselves invited in: Q's friends' reactions to their sudden popularity late in the novel is as convincing as it is amusing. I love Q's friend Radar--whose nickname is hilariously inappropriate but sticks, as such things often do--who, despite his relative acceptability in the social hierarchy, fears that he can't quite live down his parents' record-setting collection of black Santas. And his friend Ben, obsessed with girls and videogames but childishly delighted by his own outrageous braggadocio. More than once reading the novel I found myself laughing out loud. But as often as it made me laugh, it made me think, and the persistence of Whitman's Leaves of Grass throughout the novel formed an important part of that thinking. Margo Roth Spiegelman uses Leaves of Grass as part of a clue to her mystery, but Green uses it as well to comment on the process Q goes through in finding Margo Roth Spiegelman:
'I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,' Whitman writes. And then for two pages he's just hearing: hearing a steam whistle, hearing people's voices, hearing an opera. He sits on the grass and lets the sound pour through him. And this is what I was trying to do too, I guess: to listen to all the little sounds of her, because before any of it could make sense, it had to be heard. . . . I tried to hear, inside a song I'd never heard before, the voice I had trouble remembering after twelve days. (ARC, 196)
Like Whitman, like Q, Green tries to make us hear those voices: the voices of those whom we admire as well as those we avoid. In Paper Towns, he makes them come alive, in all their ridiculous adolescent angst as well as their honest and poignant earnestness, in their pleasures and their pains. Margo Roth Spiegelman may remain something of a cipher, but at least Q realizes that she is, and why--and that, in itself, is a big step for the boy who has called her his "miracle."
Reading over this review I find that I make it sound somewhat painfully earnest, which it is decidedly not. Or, at least, not only. I don't object to earnestness in fiction, and Q is an earnest type--as are his predecessors Miles and Colin. But he's also funny. Still, I'm afraid you're going to have to read it to find that out for yourself--what's funny in context often isn't, out of context, and all the quotes I pulled sound a little silly in the middle of my prose. Trust me, they work really well right where they belong.
(I read an ARC of Paper Towns which I received from the publisher after mentioning on the blog that I didn't have one yet. Thanks, Jillian!)
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
And then Maureen Johnson weighs in on Bristol Palin in the best possible way, by reminding us of the need for comprehensive sex education in schools. (She tells funny and sad stories while she's at it, so go read!) My daughter, who just graduated from high school, helped give a great presentation at her school last year about the same subject because they provided only the briefest sort of "Family Life Education"--uninformative at best, counter-productive at worst. So I'm with Johnson on this one.
OK, back to your regularly-scheduled programming. I think I have a couple of book reviews coming up, if I can just find my notes. And, um, the books. Getting on it, really.
ps to Sarah Beth Durst, who I hope will google her name and read this: I would really love you to take on The Black Bull of Norroway in your series on obscure fairy tales. I just taught it today and it is so mind-bogglingly weird, we barely skimmed the surface. A little bit Beauty & the Beast, a little bit East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and a whole lot of weird, with two burned-up women at the end. Ick.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Madam President offers us a girl moving through her presidential day, from kissing babies to state funerals (a pet frog), photo ops to negotiating treaties (she makes peace between a dog and cat). She selects an admirable cabinet--Mr. Potatohead as Secretary of Agriculture, a sock monkey as Secretary of Naps, and a piggybank as Secretary of the Treasury, for example--and still makes it through a fairly ordinary schoolday (mostly by exercising her veto power, over tuna casserole in the cafeteria and other indignities). Sly visual jokes permeate the pages, from the portrait of Susan B. Anthony on her wall to the books--about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Teddy Roosevelt, among others--under her bed. And under the Frederick Douglass book is what appears to be a copy of Smith's other political contribution this season, Big Plans.
Big Plans leads with a somewhat scary cover image, at least to me in this political climate: a grinning youngster in what appears to be a skunkskin cap treading purposefully atop the globe. He's got big plans--even though, as the story opens, he's sitting in the corner of the classroom, staring at a map. (The visual jokes continue here: the bookshelf next to him includes a U.S. Atlas, a book about rocketry, a collection of tall tales, and a book about the presidency.) As the boy outlines his plans, he dreams bigger and bigger. Enlisting a mynah bird as his second-in-command (and eventually picking up the president as the mynah bird's assistant), he moves from business to politics, politics to space exploration. In my favorite line, he announces that he will "blast off into uncertainty"--and then returns, back to his corner, free to continue exploring his "Big Plans."
If there were an election pitting these two against each other, I'd vote for Madam President, whose heroine appears to me to have a slightly more realistic grasp of the position of president. The "Big Plans" types make me a bit nervous, frankly--but we've got enough of them around, this year, that we may need both books to keep us grounded throughout the coming months.
(I received both books as pre-publication unbound copies from the publisher. Both books are in bookstores now.)
Sunday, August 24, 2008
I think it's a false dichotomy. The so-called canon is full of works that are thoroughly "relevant" to today's teens. Walden confronts them with a slacker environmentalist, Romeo and Juliet with love-struck teens, Catcher in the Rye with a teenager yearning for authenticity, and so on. The problem is not with the books but with how they are taught: as the article goes on to say (and here's where it's much smarter than its title), teens are turned off by "The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes." Exactly.
I didn't know how true this was until I had a daughter in public high school. Her overworked teacher was covering material unfamiliar to her; she wasn't pedagogically innovative; her students had already "learned" that English was boring. So she resorted to quizzes and paper topics that merely skimmed the surface, in part because she had probably not gone much beyond that herself. When Mariah got excited about a text--Beowulf, say, or "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"--she found herself alone, without support from either teacher or peers. And yet these are texts that have inspired teenagers for generations--Wikipedia cites at least nine rock/pop songs that reference Prufrock, and without Beowulf we wouldn't have The Lord of the Rings or "Dungeons and Dragons." It's criminal--but, sadly, all too common--that these texts can be made boring by high school English. But it's not the texts' fault.
When I teach children's literature I use a fabulous textbook titled The Pleasures of Children's Literature, by Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer. Nodelman and Reimer have taught me how to focus on pleasure in the context of analysis--how to help students understand that "picking texts apart" can actually increase our pleasure when we do it thoughtfully and carefully, and--especially--when we are given the right tools. I don't have a secret decoder ring for poetry, but I do have some techniques that can help make it make more sense--and that, in turn, will make it more enjoyable. I try to remember these lessons, as well, when I'm teaching so-called "adult" or canonical literature--pleasure is, after all, why I do what I do, and if I can't convey that to my students I'm not doing my job. I'm only sorry that it often takes this long before they hear that message.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
But the larger question, as Tricia notes, is this: "Why do we still confuse the need for literacy with the experience of reading, and even more important to some, loving a canon?"
I think this goes back to something I've talked about before. It's actually not at all clear to me that all reading is good. Yes, everyone (in our culture) needs a certain level of baseline literacy, in order to fill out forms, read the fine print, use the computer, etc. But I think it's also pretty clear that certain kinds of reading--novel reading, for example--are associated with success in school. Is this because we haven't yet figured out how to test and/or reward other kinds of literacy, or because novel-reading actually makes you smarter? As an English professor, I'm inclined towards the latter view. It's certainly the case that novel-reading makes you a better writer (and the "better" the novel--the more complex, the more challenging the vocabulary, etc.--the better). I think it makes you a more thoughtful, empathic, creative, and subtle person as well, but I'm not sure I can prove that. I'm all for developing literacy, in other words, but I am not at all satisfied to stop there.
Now, that said, I don't think reading Shakespeare is necessarily the way to go, especially with teen readers. There are plenty of terrific, challenging, thoughtful novels for teen and younger readers that will both foster a love of reading and develop their intelligence. And, as Louise Tucker suggests, maybe they should also go see a play every now and then.
Monday, August 18, 2008
There's been an interesting discussion on the child_lit listserv about the conference and why more folks from the child_lit community weren't there. The call for papers was posted to the listserv, and several listserv participants were in fact there (Cheryl Klein is one; I'm another, but we weren't the only ones), but it's true that the conference was more fan-centered than centered on academe. That's fine with me--I think there's room for both. But it's also true that of the academics who were there, not all are children's lit scholars; they are literary scholars who happen to have written a bit about Harry Potter, or they are scholars in other fields entirely (philosophy, psychology, etc.).
Perhaps more than other fields, children's lit scholarship has a problem with boundaries. If you're not a physicist, you probably don't go to physics conferences. Random folks don't generally hold forth on chemistry. But everyone has an opinion about children's books. So if you write about Harry Potter, you might be a psychologist or a religion scholar or a mom or a book blogger or a fan--and some or all of those categories might overlap. Usually I think this is just fine, but some folks "out in the world" (i.e., not in academic literature departments) may not have the research skills or access to research materials that insiders have. This can create a situation where the "outsiders" are reinventing the wheel (not knowing it's already working quite well on the "inside") or repeating already-discredited theories, advancing analyses that have already been advanced, etc.
I didn't actually see that happening at Terminus, but I do see that anxiety come up on the listserv occasionally when someone from "outside" gets publicity for writing about something "insiders" have known about for a while. The resurgence of YA literature (or is it just a surge?) is one example; the Harry Potter phenomenon itself (especially in the earlier days) is another. Children's lit scholars are always annoyed by articles that begin "oh my goodness, there are some good books for kids out there, what a surprise!" or by ones that take as their premise the general badness of books for kids in order to demonstrate the virtue of one new book or series. Such articles demonstrate a general ignorance of the field, and may seem to diminish the value of the work we do.
In the end, though, I'm not so worried about boundaries. I like the exchange of ideas across boundaries, and I think there's room for all of us. And in the end, I like knowing that people in all different professions, businesses, fields are all taking children's literature seriously.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Travel website TripAdvisor has come up with a list of the world's top 10 literary spots, according to its editors. So, in order: London, Stratford-upon-Avon, Edinburgh, Dublin, New York, Concord in Massachusetts, Paris, San Francisco, Rome and St Petersburg.
I've been to 7 of these spots (not Paris, Rome, or Edinburgh), but I've only made a point of seeing the literary sites in Concord. (Well, I went to a play in Stratford-upon-Avon, but I didn't actually do a tour.) For sheer beauty and saturation of literary associations, I'd choose the Lake District in England, myself--in addition to Wordsworth and Coleridge you get Ruskin and Arthur Ransom, author of the Swallows and Amazons series, and some of the most glorious scenery in England. And then, as one commenter has already noted over on the Guardian blog, you could also choose Haworth and the Yorkshire moors for its Bronte resonances. How about Oxford, home of Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Philip Pullman, and setting of my favorite Dorothy L. Sayers novel, Gaudy Night?
Where would you go?
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
As usual, there's lots of great stuff at Literary Mama, so when you're done with my column, go on and check out the rest of the site.
And then go check out my latest little thing over at the Mama, PhD blog. I hope I'm not the only person who remembers Gilda Radner!
Monday, August 11, 2008
The story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is being made into a TV drama. Desperate Romantics will follow the vagabond group of English painters, poets and critics who rebelled against the art establishment of the time. The BBC2 "colourful and rude gang drama" will see the men strive to find fame, fortune, success, love and " quite a bit of sex along the way". The six-part series will be set among the alleys, galleries and brothels of 19th century industrial England.
I love the PRB; I teach them in my Victorian lit classes all the time, and one of the highlights of my recent trip to Chicago was seeing Beata Beatrix, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, at the Chicago Art Institute. (Though, truth be told, the Frank Lloyd Wright stuff was even more to my taste...) I'm not even above a little gossipy stuff when I teach them--how can you not talk about Ruskin's failed marriage to Effie Gray (who later was very happy with a younger member of the PRB, John Everett Millais) or, even more sensational, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's exhumation of his wife Lizzie Siddal when he decided that, actually, he did want the manuscript of his poems that he had thrown into her grave? But I fear a bit that this BBC production will emphasize these and other sensational points to the exclusion of the really quite remarkable art and literature they produced. Seeing Millais's "Mariana" in person at the National Gallery some years ago was a revelation to me: the things he could do with light and color! (The reproduction doesn't do it justice.) And Rossetti's poetry--and, even more, his sister Christina's poetry--is stunning. So if the BBC2 production makes it here, I'll no doubt watch it--but I'll be worried as I do.
Here's one of my favorite Christina Rossetti poems. (She also wrote, among many other things, "Goblin Market," and the Christmas carol "In the Bleak Midwinter.")
In an Artist's Studio
One face looks out from all his canvasses,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
A saint, an angel; -- every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyfull as the light;
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
My talk is tomorrow and then I need to head out of town fast, so that's all for now.
Then lunch, where I heard the lovely and talented Cheryl Klein give a terrific talk about what we can learn (about writing) from the Harry Potter series. Turns out there's a lot, all about character development and plot and theme. Good stuff, and she's a great speaker.
I skipped out from the conference for a bit after lunch to see and hear John Green speaking at the Chicago Public Library, with his special guest, Hank Green! Nerdfighters galore! (There's a pretty large overlap between the Harry Potter fandom and Nerdfighteria.) John read from his forthcoming novel, Paper Towns (why has no one sent me an ARC of this yet?), and answered questions in his best "Question Tuesday" style. My favorite line from his answers: "having nerdy parents is a tremendous blessing." Are you listening, kids?
Then back to the conference for more talks, the best of which was a fascinating examination of Severus Snape as a character who is "coded feminine" -- that is, who occupies a position in the literature more typically occupied by a female character. Fun stuff.
Friday, August 08, 2008
[edited to fix insane punctuation...]
========possible spoilers below============
I spent the travel day reading Breaking Dawn. I wasn't thrilled about bringing a big book with me--I even left my copy of HP & the Deathly Hallows, the subject of my talk, behind--but I had to do it. I've been avoiding all discussion of it since last weekend, and I can't keep my head in the sand much longer. And, I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. I was really hoping that the literary allusions of the earlier novels (read the comments), especially to Wuthering Heights and Romeo & Juliet, meant that Meyer had a little more distance on the central couple than, in the end, I think she did. There's just an awful lot of deus ex machina (or, ok, hybrid ex machina) in the working out of the plot. I need to think about it some more, but that's my initial response.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Saturday, August 02, 2008
I saw this on Mother Reader, and I'm such a sucker for a list, I had to play. The list is from a while ago (spring of 2007), but I doubt the rankings have changed much. As explained in The Guardian, 2000 people were asked to name ten books they couldn't live without; these are the top 100. I'll bold those I've read; I actually did a version of the survey myself, so while I'm at it I'll note any overlap. And, like Mother Reader, I'll mark those I really love with an asterisk. And by "really love," I mean, have read more than once and expect to read again, and look forward to reading again. I re-read so much, professionally, that I lose my love sometimes, or I start to flirt with other books. So the asterisks here are used relatively sparingly, for books that I cannot imagine never reading again, with pleasure. For example, to take one at almost random, I like The Woman in White a lot, but I think if I never got to read it again I'd be ok with that. Not so Alice in Wonderland. (This is why I switched from specializing in Victorian lit to specializing in children's lit, by the way.)
1 Pride and Prejudice* Jane Austen (I listed Persuasion instead, though if I could cheat and have all six of her novels bound as one, I'd choose them all)
2 The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre* Charlotte Bronte (also on my list at #4)
4 Harry Potter series* JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
6 The Bible (also on my list, though I can't claim to have read the whole thing)
7 Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
=8 Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
=8 His Dark Materials* Philip Pullman (also on my list at #8)
10 Great Expectations* Charles Dickens
11 Little Women* Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the d'Urbervilles Thomas Hardy
13 Catch-22 Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare William Shakespeare (I'm pretty sure there are one or two I've missed, but I'm close)
15 Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong Sebastian Faulks (OK, so if you're counting, I got to #17 before there was one I hadn't read)
18 Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler's Wife Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch* George Eliot (on my list at #6)
21 Gone With The Wind* Margaret Mitchell (I know, it's embarrassing, but there it is...
22 The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House* Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams (is it possible that I've never read this? There was a period when everyone I know was reading it, so I probably at least opened it, but I have zero recollection of it, really.)
26 Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh (I love funny Waugh, but never read got into the whole Brideshead thing...)
27 Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland* Lewis Carroll (on my list at #5)
30 The Wind in the Willows* Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia CS Lewis
34 Emma* Jane Austen
35 Persuasion* Jane Austen (on my list at #1, though now that I think about it I'm not sure my list was ranked...)
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin Louis de Bernières
39 Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh AA Milne
41 Animal Farm George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown (this is the first one on the list that I have no intention of ever reading; I may not get to the others, but I'm not ruling them out.)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney John Irving
45 The Woman in White Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables* LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies William Golding
50 Atonement* Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi Yann Martel
52 Dune Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm* Stella Gibbons (and can I just say that Dune followed by Cold Comfort Farm is my favorite juxtaposition on this list?)
54 Sense and Sensibility* Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon (this is the first one I haven't even heard of!)
57 A Tale Of Two Cities Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
62 Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road Jack Kerouac (another one that I've probably at least tried to read...)
67 Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary* Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist Charles Dickens
72 Dracula* Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden* Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession* AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol* Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web* EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory Iain Banks
94 Watership Down Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl
100 Les Misérables Victor Hugo
OK, so I have read 75 out of the 100, a perfectly respectable percentage. I'm terrible on French literature, though, aren't I? Maybe that's what I'll remedy on my next sabbatical...