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

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Not at the MLA

I'm delighted not to be at the MLA convention this year. Though I love San Francisco, and the opportunity to catch up with old friends is one I'm sorry to miss, still I prefer spending Christmas and New Year's with my family, and without a convention in between them. Still, I'm glad Caroline is at the MLA and reporting on it for Inside Higher Ed--check out her insights here. (I'll be back blogging for IHE next week.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas in the country

We're headed south today, leaving my parents' rural retreat and heading back to the city. But my Christmas column is all about the joys of the country Christmas, and of The Wind in the Willows. Enjoy!


Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Last Word (I hope!) on the Newbery "controversy"

Stop picking on the Newbery Medal, the premier award in children's literature. - By Erica S. Perl - Slate Magazine: "literary awards should do more than simply affirm books that are easy to love and would likely find fans regardless of a medal. They also serve as inspiration for authors to take creative risks, push boundaries, and even reinvent the form. In 2007, American Born Chinese became the first graphic novel to receive the ALA's Printz Award for Young Adult literature. The award recognized the author, Gene Leun Yang, for his funny and edgy trilogy of comic-style stories, but it also demonstrated new respect for the rapidly evolving field of illustrated narratives for teens."

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

Blog Carnival of Children's Literature

Jen Robinson has an amazing collection of posts up at her blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page. There is enough reading about children's literature here to get you through the rest of the month, and then some. The Carnival is a "best of" this time around: bloggers nominated their best posts on children's lit of the year, and they came up with some terrific ones. So go on and check it out!

Poetry Friday: Terza Rima

I never do Poetry Friday posts, and I never participate in Tricia's Monday Poetry Stretches, either. Well, never say never. Here's my attempt at a poem in terza rima, a little Advent piece.

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

Literature Scholars Face Steepest Drop in Jobs in Decades -

Literature Scholars Face Steepest Drop in Jobs in Decades - "Those looking to land a job as a faculty member in English language or literature will have 22.2-percent fewer openings to look at during the 2008-9 academic year, compared with last year, the MLA projects. The expected number—1,420 jobs this year versus 1,826 jobs last year—is still above a historic low of about 1,000 job offerings back in 1993-94."

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!

Critics Say Newbery-Winning Books Are Too Challenging for Young Readers -

Critics Say Newbery-Winning Books Are Too Challenging for Young Readers - "'I can't help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids,' said Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College and a professor of children's literature."*

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

A little children's lit love

It's the season for appreciating children's books. Holidays connect us profoundly with our childhoods, with their traditions that call us back to our families of origin even as we forge them anew with our own children. Years ago in a graduate seminar I had a professor gloss the difference between diachronic (clock-time, linear time) and synchronic (recurrent, cyclical) time through holidays: they are synchronic in being always the same, even as the particulars change. And so here we are, moving forward into December but backwards into our childhoods at the same time, and for some people that means appreciating the books that link us to our past.

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 (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

and again...

Which is worse, ripping the pages out of a book but still providing it to students, or removing it from the curriculum altogether?

(The latest is about Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.)

Talk amongst yourselves

Posting has really fallen off here this week--and, if I'm honest, all semester. I've had a hard time keeping up with any outside reading and that leaves me less to talk about here. That said, I'm blogging elsewhere, and I realize I've forgotten to link to the discussion here. So if you want to read up on the shape of academic careers, and the difficulty of balancing work and family, here's a list of links for you. Discuss.

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

Are we really talking about this again?

Here's the latest in the book censorship wars: a teacher in New Rochelle, NY (very near to my former hometown) has removed a section of Girl, Interrupted from students' copies of the book because the material was "of a sexual nature that we deemed inappropriate for teachers to present to their students."


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

Why Academics should blog

I think maybe this post should be required reading for academics and the administrators who don't know how to "count" blogging...

(link from Geeky Mom)