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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Picturing Politics

I spent most of last week rapt in front of one political speech or another--the Democratic convention offered all kinds of delights for the sometime political junkie. (I don't follow politics as closely as many, but election years do get me going.) As I watched the speeches and the reactions of the crowds, I kept thinking of two picture books I just finished--Big Plans, by Bob Shea (illustrated by Lane Smith), and Madam President, by Lane Smith (also illustrated by the incomparable Lane Smith). In both, we get a child-sized view of the political world.

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

Again with the literacy debates!

I'm linking to Tricia again, but this time it's just because she got to this article on high school English before me. When I read the article last week (titled: "We're teaching books that don't stack up") I found myself nodding in agreement with the article, but really frustrated by the title. As happens so often, the debate is framed as one about the canon: defenders of the canon are cast as woefully out of touch, forcing irrelevant works on their defenseless (and bored) students. And hip young teachers--or not-so-young ones--are cast as the proponents of relevance, teaching works to which their students can "relate" so as not to lose them to reading altogether.

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

Back to School

Tricia over at the Miss Rumphius Effect posted a link to this funny Onion back-to-school story: Six-Year-Old Stares Down Bottomless Abyss of Formal Schooling. This one depicts the existential tragedy of hours spent in classrooms. But for those of us teaching college, there's another one that may elicit a rueful giggle: First Night of Freedom Spent Alone in Dorm Room. Read it and weep.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Literacy, Literature, and the like

Tricia called our attention this morning to yet another article in The Guardian on boys and reading, this one focusing on the difference between fostering literacy and fostering a love of literature. It raises a provocative question: "What good is the Bard to book-shunning boys?" But I think "the Bard" is something of a red herring here. The article suggests that trying to interest boys in Shakespeare through comics is a missed opportunity, since live performance is really a better way to promote an interest in Shakespeare (or any other playwright). Point taken.

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

Terminus 2008, redux

Cheryl Klein, senior editor at Arthur Levine books and Harry Potter fangirl, has posted her talk from the Terminus 2008 conference. As you can imagine, she got a great response from the audience; now you can see why.

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

Literary Holidays

A post in the Guardian's Books Blog today asks, "If you were choosing a vacation destination on the basis of its bookish associations, where would you go?" You might not find the answers that surprising:
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

Watching Me, Watching You

I've got a new column up at Literary Mama; in it I talk about secrecy and surveillance and two books I really liked recently, Little Brother and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

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


From The Guardian:

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

More Breaking Dawn

OK, I should be firmly in the Potterverse right now, but instead I'm somehow all about Breaking Dawn. Check out "Edward Cullen helps me review Breaking Dawn"--a link I found in the Amazon discussions--and Alkelda's rewriting of it over at Saints and Spinners (link from What Adrienne Thinks About That). Adrienne also linked to John Green's comments on Team Edward and Team Jacob, which still seem appropriate. (It takes him a while to get to it, but you won't mind...)

My talk is tomorrow and then I need to head out of town fast, so that's all for now.

How I spent my Friday

So here I am at Terminus, and yesterday was a busy day. I took a long walk in the morning (waking up on Eastern Time when you're living in Central Time gives you these opportunities) then went to hear a talk on parenting in the Potterverse. I love when people don't think Mrs. Weasley is a model mom, I'm just saying.

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

quick update--and potential Breaking Dawn spoilers

So here I am in Chicago at Terminus, where the fans by far outnumber the academics (and, yes, most of the academics are fans, but we're not all dressed up in House robes...), the weather is lovely, and I've already caught up with a couple of friends.

[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

getting ready

I leave Thursday morning for the Terminus conference, where I'll get to hear Cheryl Klein speak, I'll give a paper, and I'll probably cut out from the conference for a bit to go hear John Green speak as well. Usually as I prepare for a conference I make lists for my family so the house doesn't fall apart in my absence; after years of doing so, however, I have finally realized that, really, they're pretty competent, and I'm probably not the one who's keeping the house together. So I'm eating peaches instead.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Books you can't live without: the top 100

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...

Friday, August 01, 2008

Two links..and a short note

So it's possible the newest Disney princess movie could have racist elements? I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked. (Or maybe, as the article suggests, classist? Which seems even more likely...)

I love The Guardian's coverage of literature. This little piece on a new contract that requires children's book writers not to misbehave is a classic. Read the comments, too.

Today is Nick's birthday, and he is currently happily engrossed in a volume of Asterix stories that his sister gave him. He acquired one in French, while we were in France, and the volume she bought includes that one in English. Go, Mariah! He has also--so far--received copies of The Little Prince, The Magician: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel (he finished The Alchemyst yesterday), and The Discworld Graphic Novels. And all this is before today's mail has arrived...