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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Book Banning? No!

John Green, author of the fabulous, award-winning Looking for Alaska (and the equally wonderful An Abundance of Katherines), finds himself in the odd position of having to explain that he is not a pornographer. Check out his video, below, and then write a letter, if you feel so inclined.

For what it's worth--as I wrote to John myself a few minutes ago--I read James Kirkwood's far edgier boarding-school novel Good Times/Bad Times in high school. I also read Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, to pick three almost at random. All have far more "edgy" content--premarital sex, unwed motherhood, suicide pacts, rape, and the like--and no one uttered a word of complaint, as far as I know. Edgy content, after all, is what teenage life is like. And the point in Alaska, as John makes clear in the video (and as is blindingly obvious to anyone who has read the book) is that physical intimacy is no substitute for emotional intimacy. In fact it can detract from it.

John is not a pornographer. Don't ban books. Period.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Why Children's Literature & Culture Matters, Reason #5238 (or so)

From yesterday's New York Times crossword puzzle:

1 across: Literary elephant
36 across: Wally's TV brother, with "the"
45 across: First word of "Jabberwocky"
16 down: "Finding _______," 2003 film
73 down: Fabled race loser

I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but I finished this puzzle in (for me) record time.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Boy Books and Girl Books

This month I remember my past, and look at my son's future...

When I was in the tenth grade our English class took on "coming of age" novels. We read The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, and (one of my favorite, though still under-read, boarding school novels) Good Times/Bad Times. All three are set in single-sex boys' boarding schools, and there are few women or girls in them. My (male) teacher, I remember, told us we should be able to "identify" with these characters because they were teenagers like us.

Did I mention that this was an all-girl class? Did I even notice, at the time, that we had read not one novel about a girl?

This column may not actually go in the direction you expect it...let me know what you think!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dreaming of Other Books

I'm doing a lot of required reading right now. All of it is good, but --as always when confronted with requirements-- I find myself day-dreaming about the non-required reading I could be doing. My current fantasy is that on my next sabbatical I will read all the novels of Terry Pratchett in sequence. (Of course, then, I would have to read them, and I would begin to resent the project. But never mind that right now.) In the meantime, here's someone else appreciating Pratchett:

Here is Pratchett describing a very grand piece of furniture: "Probably the last remaining tree of some rare, exotic species had been hewn to make the chairman's desk, which was an object of desire and big enough to bury people in." Very nice, with a touch of nastiness. And let us see if the same page where this appears contains another good one. Yes, near the bottom: Mr. Fusspots, an ugly lapdog, resembles "those goldfish with the huge bulging eyes that looked as though they were about to explode."

(Thanks to Jenny Davidson for the link.)

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Edge of the Forest

The new Edge of the Forest is up, and as always there are some wonderful things to read. I just finished this lovely interview with Jane Resh Thomas, and I am energized just by reading her words. (Check out her "six admonitions" for the writer. I'm putting those above my desk, and in the front of all my writing notebooks.)

Then there are, as always, the reviews of all sorts...including mine of The Name of this Book is Secret (scroll down; two of us reviewed this one!). (And when can I get my hands on The Sweet Far Thing?) And if you've been worried that kids aren't reading, check out the Kids' Picks. I was also delighted to find this interview with Holly Thompson, whose new book, The Wakame Gatherers, sounds fascinating.

There's more, but that should get you started--enjoy!

Sunday, January 20, 2008


The January Carnival of Children's Literature is up, and it's an awards show--fitting in this month between the ALA Youth Media Awards and the Cybils. Nothing from me, as I somehow couldn't find anything to say about awards last month, but there's plenty of fabulous stuff to read.

Friday, January 18, 2008

shun the non-believer

There's an ongoing debate in the YA world--flames fanned by, at least, both Justine Larbalestier and the Brotherhood 2.0 guys, who have sadly stuck to their one-year commitment* and gone dark since January 1--between the unicorns and the zombies. Charlie may actually be a unicorn that zombie-lovers could embrace.

Thankfully foul-mouthed unicorns are not on my reading list (as far as I know) for the Cybils SF/Fantasy award. But if they were, I hope they would be like Charlie.

*But! They do have a new social network for nerdfighters!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Award Announcements

The American Library Association has announced the winners of the 2008 Caldecott, Newbery, Printz, and many other awards for literature for children and young adults. You can read all about them here. I am chagrined to realize how few of these books I've read. One honor book (Repossessed, by A.M. Jenkins) is on my TBR list for the Cybils Science Fiction/Fantasy award, and I'm sure I'll read many of the others, but for the moment my time is occupied with reading for other awards, and I need to get back to that, now. Congratulations to all the award winners and honorees; I look forward to some great new reads.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

is all reading good?

Another phrase that came up fairly frequently in the discussion on Jen Robinson's PBS Parents posting was "let them read what they like. " The idea is that all reading is good, and that as long as kids are reading, it doesn't matter what they're reading. My students say this all the time.

The thing is, I don't think it's true. Now, to be fair, the context for the discussion I mentioned had to do with reluctant readers, and I do think that to get kids started in reading and reading comfortably, it's probably best not to censor or judge their choices.* But when my students say it, they tend not to provide that context. It usually comes up as a defense of Goosebumps or Harry Potter (which they seem to think needs defending) or the series books they loved as a kid.

Well, fine, I say. But do you think kids should read really scary books? Or violent books? Should they read books based on violent video games (especially if, as in our house, they're not allowed to play them)? Should they read Playboy? (This question usually stops them short.)

Here's another way of thinking about it: if we believe that the ideas in books are powerful**, and that kids are likely to want to be like their heroes (role model criticism is very popular among my students, as it is among parents, for obvious reasons), then mightn't there be some bad ideas that we'd prefer our children not imitate?

Here's another way of thinking about it: if we prefer that our children not encounter or imbibe stereotypical ideas*** about women, men, the disabled, the poor, etc., etc. (and, again, such thinking is very popular)--should we let them read, say, Little Black Sambo? Traditional fairy tales? The Berenstain Bears (which, in addition to rather noxiously conformist gender ideology, have terrible artwork)?

I can't really answer these questions. I tend--as I've said before--to prefer to discuss rather than censor. And there were certainly books I wouldn't or didn't read to my children (Little Black Sambo, the Berenstain Bears), just as there were toys I wouldn't buy for them (GI Joe, Barbie). If they encountered them elsewhere--and they did--then we talked.

In my classes, I often encounter the "let them read whatever they like" sentiment early in the class, when I'm asking about the misogyny in traditional fairy tales. Many students are deeply invested in fairy tales and don't want to think that the stories contain harmful ideas. Later in the semester, though, when we read books like Weetzie Bat or Speak or Feed, they begin to express rather different sentiments, claiming that "kids"**** shouldn't encounter the ideas or the language that characterize those books. When I point out the (potential) contradiction, fruitful discussions ensue. These are difficult issues, and I don't have all the answers. But I sure do have questions.

*I need to say, again, that nothing I say here is meant as a criticism of the great work Jen did to pull together tips for encouraging reluctant readers. But I'm trained as an academic, and we can't help nibbling away at the edges of things...

**But see the Stanley Fish piece I just linked to; Fish is skeptical that reading about goodness will make us good, and it's a question that remains unresolved by research.

***Periodically the Little House books, or Babar, or any number of "classics," come up for reappraisal, and I think they should. But how can we square the claim that kids should read whatever they want with our anxiety about them imbibing racist or sexist ideologies from their reading?

****These three are all "young adult" novels, so no one's suggesting that, for example, eight-year-olds are reading them. But that's part of the problem: we're not quite sure who we mean when we say "kids" or "children." But that's a subject for another post--or several!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Too old? Too young? Just right?

I've been involved in an interesting conversation about reluctant readers, started in the comments on Jen Robinson's PBS Parents Post, and continued on her blog. One thing all the commentators seemed to agree on was that kids need to find their own level, read the books that speak to them rather than what seems to be popular. And, of course, I agree.

But. I also think reading above one's level is actually a fine thing--if one is the kind of kid who stretches rather than shrinks when confronted with new things. I was that kind of kid, and I read War and Peace when I was twelve, after seeing the Masterpiece Theatre production. I can't say I understood it, but it gave me great pleasure, nonetheless, to cart it around and do my best.

Now A.O. Scott chimes in with a similar, but perhaps even more revolutionary, suggestion--that you let your kids watch movies "above their level." Again, speaking from personal experience, I'm with him: I know I watched things that I wasn't "ready" for, emotionally or intellectually, but that I nonetheless stretched and grew as a result. Of course this all has to do with knowing your own children--Nick found both Harry Potter and The Princess Bride "too scary" the first time he tried to watch them, so we let him stop and he came to them on his own time. But Mariah started watching PG and PG-13 movies long before she was 13, if we thought they were right for her, and Nick has certainly seen his share as well. Perhaps of R movies, too, though it's hard to remember.

Books don't come with ratings or warning labels (usually), of course, but I think the issue is analogous. Share what you like, know your child, and enjoy.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Important Questions

You can always count on Stanley Fish to ask important questions, and to answer them in a counter-intuitive or even an annoying way. Here he is today:

Do the humanities ennoble? And for that matter, is it the business of the humanities, or of any other area of academic study, to save us?

If you've read any Fish before you won't be terribly surprised by his answer:

The answer in both cases, I think, is no. The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so.

In many ways I think Fish is right--that there is no particular justification for the humanities, and certainly that they do not necessarily ennoble (sad to say). The humanities are, as Fish says, their own justification--and in this day of outcome-based education and anxiety about skills and tests and who knows what, that's bad news for us. And yet I still believe--though I fear it is elitist to say so--that reading and writing and thinking deeply are indeed good in and of themselves; that participating in these practices is both pleasurable and valuable for their own sake.

(I also believe that learning to read critically is still an essential skill, but I'm not going to argue with Fish about it because I take his point, that justifying the humanities from outside the humanities is giving in to an outlook that, in general, I do not share.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

More Cybils finalists

The rest of the Cybils finalists have now been announced:

Young Adult Fiction

Nonfiction Picture Books

Graphic Novels
(as with science fiction/fantasy, this one is two lists, one each for YA and MG)


You can also listen to a podcast with the nonfiction picture book panelists, and also check out Jen Robinson, Cybils committee member and organizer, over here at the PBS Parents website, talking about children's books.

So much Cybils-related goodness! Enjoy!

Friday, January 04, 2008

One more thing

Apropos of the last post, my column "Sad Stories and why we read them" was highlighted as an editor's favorite over on the latest Literary Mama update. Go and check out all the other great reads you may have missed last year!


I usually like the book news from The Guardian--I like it enough that I added it to my feed reader. But this just seems clueless: Just a few short years ago, while teen sex had long been OK-ed and drug use was creeping in "for authenticity", death was cited as the last taboo. Now, death seems to positively stalk children's books, with characters confronting the grave with sometimes alarming abandon.

I'm not going to argue about whether there's a lot of child/teen death in novels for kids and teens right now--I haven't read enough to know whether it seems excessive. But the notion that it had previously been a taboo just seems bizarre and ahistorical to me. Child death is the central topic of much early literature for and about children, as some of the commenters on the Guardian blog have already noted. And canonical authors for kids and teens in the latter half of the twentieth century--Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, John Knowles, to name only three--certainly deal with child death in their works. Where has Julia Eccleshare been?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cybils in the news

The International Reading Association has the scoop.
I already linked to the Fantasy/Sci Fi short list; here are the rest:

Fiction Picture Books

Middle Grade Novels


Kudos to the nominating panels, by the way, who read a long, long list of books and pulled together these short lists during a very busy time of year. My hat reading glasses is are off to them!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

My first goal for 2008...

...will be to read the Cybils nominees in fantasy and science fiction. This is my first time as a Cybils judge and I'm pretty excited--and a little anxious. I don't think ten books in just over a month is an issue--but I have another short list to read through as well, for the ChLA book award, and between the two I expect to have a busy reading month.