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

Monday, February 25, 2008

Smek-Day and the Cybils

My new column is up over at Literary Mama. In it I talk about why I liked our fantasy/sf winner in the middle-grade category, The True Meaning of Smek-Day, and what intriguing commonalities I found in the books we read. Here's a taste:

the story [of Smek-Day] is as action-packed and adventurous as [several of ] the others . . . which feature plot twist after plot twist, fascinating superpowers (invisibility and flight are the best), and intriguing ways of engaging with technology -- hovercars, a super-reinforced Mercedes, cellphones, convenience stores. These are not, that is, "sword-and-sorcery" fantasy novels, but books fully engaged with modern life and imagining how magic or the supernatural might interact with our technologically-enhanced world.

Read the rest here...

Friday, February 22, 2008

Favorite Kids' Books--UK edition

Do British newspapers cover book news--including, or perhaps especially, children's book news--better than American ones? I go to The Guardian for book news all the time; now The Daily Mail is getting in on the act. Here are the results of a recent poll about favorite children's books; I've bolded the ones I've read. I think an American list would look quite different. (Well, yes, it does--not quite the same thing, but I posted about an NEA list some time ago.)

1. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle
3. Famous Five, Enid Blyton (The admin. asst. in our office--who is British-- is always asking me if I've read Blyton; she says her teachers sneered but the kids loved them.)
4. Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne
5. The BFG, Roald Dahl
6. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (I wonder why just this one?)
7. The Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
8. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
9. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
10. The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson
11. The Tales of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter
12. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
13. Matilda, Roald Dahl
14. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
15. The Cat in the Hat, Dr Seuss
16. The Twits, Roald Dahl
17. Mr Men, Roger Hargreaves (I know I've read at least one of these)
18. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
19. The Malory Towers series, Enid Blyton (I have heard talks on these books so often it feels as if I've read them, but I don't think I really have)
20. Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
21. The Railway Children, E. Nesbit
22. Hans Christian Fairy Tales, H.C. Andersen
23. The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
24. The Witches, Roald Dahl
25. Stig of the Dump, Clive King
26. The Wishing Chair, Enid Blyton
27. Dear Zoo, Rod Campbell
28. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Judith Kerr
29. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Jan Brett
30. James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
31. A Bear Called Paddington, Michael Bond
32. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell (Do kids really still read this?)
33. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
34. Aesop's Fables, Jerry Pinkney (I'm not sure I've read this version; same with the Goldilocks, above)
35. The Borrowers, Mary Norton
36. Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling
37. Meg and Mog, Jan Pienkowski
38. Mrs Pepperpot, Alf Proysen
39. We're Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen
40. The Gruffalo's Child, Julia Donaldson
41. Room on a Broom, Julia Donaldson
42. The Worst Witch, Jill Murphy
43. Miffy, Dick Bruna
44. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
45. Flat Stanley, Jeff Brown
46. The Snail and the Whale, Julia Donaldson
47. Ten Little Ladybirds, Melanie Gerth
48. Six Dinners Sid, Inga Moore
49. The St. Clare's series, Enid Blyton
50. Captain Underpants, Dav Pilkey

(seen first at the Kids Lit blog)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Do you sometimes worry that a movie can't live up to a book you love? How many times have you been disappointed? My first time was with, of all things, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I'd loved the book (by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame). It was funny and smart and rude (the car had buttons that lit up and said, "Push Me, Stupid!"). The family wasn't gorgeous. There was no "Truly Scrumptious" (though that is a Bond-ish name, isn't it?). The whole thing wasn't just a dream. The movie was an utter disappointment, so great that I have actually never seen it again.

And yet I keep going to see movies made from books. Some work, some don't; some improve on the book, some are just interesting interpretations. Sometimes I can forgive major departures from the novel; sometimes I can't. Sometimes the casting is so right, or so wrong, that it colors your reading of the novel forever. (A tween girl I know is already worried about the casting for the upcoming Twilight movie...)

Persepolis works. And now you can read Caroline's great column about it, too.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Cybil for Fantasy/SF

I had the great privilege of serving as a judge on this year's Cybil award for Fantasy/SF. First of all, the nominees were so good that the nominating panel asked to split them between Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction so that we could honor at least one more book. Our judging panel quickly agreed (more books! more books!), and we set to work reading the ten nominees-five in each category.

The winners couldn't be more different, but both are fantastic. Here are the details, shamelessly borrowed from the Sheila at Wands and Worlds:

Elementary/Middle Grade:

The True Meaning of Smekday
by Adam Rex
Nothing has been the same since the Boov invaded Earth and re- named it Smekland. But things get even weirder when twelve-year-old Gratuity Tucci embarks on a journey to find her missing mother--accompanied by her cat (named Pig), a fugitive Boov (named J.Lo) and a slightly illegal hovercar--and realizes that there's more at stake than just her mother's whereabouts. A terrific satire with a touching ending and spot-on illustrations by the author, the novel is heartwarming and hilarious at the same time. Gratuity's narrative voice as she struggles to define "the true meaning of Smekday" will draw readers in.
Nominated by jennifer, aka literaticat.

Young Adult:

Book of a Thousand Days
by Shannon Hale
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
On her first day as a Lady’s Maid, Dashti finds herself locked in a tower for seven years with her Lady, who is being punished for refusing to marry the Lord of a neighboring land. Thus begins a life-and-death battle against evil and time. Lyrically written and set in ancient central Asia, this novel retells a little-known Brother’s Grimm fairy tale with desperate, heart-wrenching emotion. Readers will be drawn in by the beautiful language and fighting spirit of Dashti, whose faith, spunk and ingenuity affect not only the darkness of her tower, but also the hearts and futures of kings.
Nominated by Sarah Miller.

Sheila served as our intrepid organizer, making sure we got our books (mostly on time), keeping us on task, and ensuring that we had a secure chat room for our final deliberations. The rest of the committee was also wonderful--I really enjoyed working with them:

Gwenda Bond, a writer and critic
Chris Rettstatt, YA author of the Kaimira series
Janelle Bitikofer, YA/Children's writer
Michele Fry, Independent scholar and writer

And here they are!

The Cybils winners have been announced--and they sound terrific! I've got some reading to do, again.

Look for brief reviews of the fantasy/sf books here in the next few days...

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Cybils are coming

In this season of voting and awards shows, don't forget that the Cybils announcements are coming up on Thursday, Valentine's Day. You'll find some great gift ideas on the list!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Six More Words

Check out today's New York Times.

(Cross-posted at Midlife Mama.)

Happy Birthday

It's the birthday today of both Charles Dickens and Laura Ingalls Wilder,* two writers who are so essential to my idea of literature that it seems oddly fitting that they share a birthday.

There's lots of controversy about Wilder, and I won't rehearse it here. Yes, the books celebrate a kind of independence that her family didn't really share--that was, in fact, never really true. And yes, they represent an attitude towards Native Americans that is--and was--reprehensible. For me, though, the books were about being the brown-haired one, messy, irresponsible one and still being the heroine (I didn't know it, but maybe Laura was channeling Maggie Tulliver). And, as I'm pretty sure I've said before, they were about food. I have a hard time reading them now, I confess. But they were such a part of my childhood reading--they taught me so much about narrative and development (and food) that it's hard for me to abandon them entirely.

Dickens, too, is about food and scarcity and all kinds of appetites. I didn't read him at all until high school, though I'm pretty sure I was familiar with A Christmas Carol before then. And he wasn't really a children's book writer--but his ideas about children are so formative, still, that he can't be ignored. Dickens predates Freud in his emphasis on the significance of childhood trauma in adult psychology--and while Dickens can't be credited as the first to recognize the connection (we can look to Wordsworth's "the child is father of the man" for another neat literary articulation of it), he certainly participates in developing the ideology of childhood that we still inhabit today.

*It's also the birthday of Sir Thomas More and Ashton Kutcher, but I have nothing to say about them. Isn't astrology wonderful?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Six-Word Memoir Contest!

So here I am in this book with my six-word memoir.* And I'm in some pretty illustrious company, let me tell you! Including at least two fabulous children's authors, Mitali Perkins and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket). Handler's memoir reads like this: "What? Lemony Snicket? Lemony Snicket? What?"

Now, here are six other memoirs, one of them mine. Match them to the right writers, and you may win your own copy of the book! (If more than one person gets them right, I'll choose a winner at random.) You can leave your answer in the comments or email me (address over on the right, in "About Me"). Get your answers to me by this time next week--Tuesday, February 12 in the early afternoon--and I'll notify the winner as soon as possible. Have fun!

The Memoirs

1. New Jersey to California. Thank God.
2. Fight, work, persevere--gain slight notoriety.
3. Learned reading, writing, forgot arithmetic.
4. Started small, grew, peaked, shrunk, vanished.
5. Here: Macaca! There: American! Where, beloved?
6. Me see world! Me write stories!

The Memoirists:

A. Me!
B. Ayelet Waldman
C. Mitali Perkins
D. Elizabeth Gilbert
E. George Saunders
F. Harvey Pekar

*It's a good thing I've had other things published. Otherwise my new memoir would read: "Finally, I'm published! My name's misspelled." Sigh. Luckily I'm used to it.