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

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Anne turns 100

There have been all sorts of celebrations and recollections of Anne of Green Gables this year, the 100th anniversary of her first appearance. This one by Margaret Atwood is particularly thoughtful and interesting, I think--I especially like her recognition about Marilla. (A student of mine is writing a timely honors thesis on orphan girls in fiction; Anne holds a central place in her work.)

(Link from Jenny Davidson at Light Reading, who gets to everything before I do! And I'm grateful to her for it...)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Once upon a time...

Most of you already know this, but in case you don't--you can read an excerpt from Philip Pullman's forthcoming Once Upon a Time in the North right here. The book comes out April 3 in the UK, but we have to wait until April 22.

Children's Lit Book Group

This month I read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books and write about vampire love in my Literary Mama column: "Vampire stories are . . .perfect for teenagers. Vampires stay out all night, scare the respectable citizens, take crazy risks, and live, seemingly, forever." You can read more about the books, and my take on vampires, here.

Friday, March 21, 2008

teaching and tae kwon do

At first I didn’t mention it at work. I think I felt a little silly about it: a middle-aged woman — an English professor! — taking tae kwon do. But then one day a colleague asked about a small bruise on my arm and, unthinking, I told him I’d blocked a kick with my forearm. It hadn’t been a smart move in tae kwon do, but as I told him about it, I could see the respect in his eyes. I began to think I should bring in my broken boards, leave them in the office, maybe mention how easily my palm had just gone through the wood. It couldn’t hurt.

Read the rest here..

(Cross posted at Midlife Mama)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Everyone already knows what a good book Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is, right? After all, it won the Caldecott medal (the longest book ever to do so). So I'm, as so often, late to this party, but I still have to say: it's a really good book.

I'm not a big fan of illustration.* This is not to say I dislike it, only that I don't know a lot about it and don't require it in the books I read. But Selznick came up with a way to tell a story through words and pictures that works perfectly, evoking the feel of the early motion pictures to which the book serves as a kind of homage. The story--a mystery, an orphan tale, and a little bit of a chase--carries us into the past, but a past that is recognizably important to our own present. Magic, dreams, and mechanical invention all come together. It's a lovely book, a read-aloud worth dwelling on with younger kids as well as a satisfying solo read.

*Nonetheless several of my favorites lately: The True Meaning of Smek-Day, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Un Lun Dun, and now Hugo Cabret, are all illustrated novels in which the illustrations form an integral part rather than simply feeling like decoration. So I may have to revise my statement above.

Revisiting old loves

Do you still love the same literary heroes and heroines that you used to? Helena Frith Powell does--but I'm not at all sure I do. She still loves Heathcliff, for example--but since I never really did, I'm not sure that comparison is fair. And while I do, still, love Darcy, I find it harder and harder, over the years, to forgive him breaking up Jane and Mr. Bingley, or misreading Elizabeth. He never learns!

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, Gone with the Wind was an embarrassingly important book to me in my early teens. I have to confess, I've been afraid to read it again recently, for fear 1) that it would no longer matter to me or 2) that it would. So that's another test case out the window, even if I were willing to admit I loved Rhett, which I'm not. I did love Lord Peter and still do, though I think he might annoy me a bit in person.

This is harder than I thought. Perhaps the real issue is that, when I think about the books I loved as a teenager or in my twenties, I think less about whom I loved than whom I wanted to be--not Scarlett or Catherine but, yes, perhaps Harriet or Elizabeth. I wanted to be Jo, which made Professor Bhaer more appealing to me than he should have been (but then Gabriel Byrne played him and all was well).

Who were your literary crushes? Are they still the same?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Meme: Passion Quilt

The amazing Tricia Stohr-Hunt, my friend and colleague who blogs at The Miss Rumphius Effect, has tagged me for a meme. Here are the rules:
  • Think about what you are passionate about teaching your students.
  • Post a picture from a source like FlickrCC or Flickr Creative Commons or make/take your own that captures what YOU are most passionate about for kids to learn about…and give your picture a short title.
  • Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt” and link back to this blog entry.
  • Include links to 5 folks in your professional learning network or whom you follow on Twitter/Pownce.
I'm tackling this meme the day after following Tricia through some doors, and I couldn't help but notice that she posted pictures of open doors, for the most part, whereas the three I posted were all closed. Hmm. And Tricia's signature line on e-mails reads, "Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself. -- Chinese Proverb." Hmm, again.

So, here's the thing. I noticed while we were in Oxford how many closed doors, locked gates, and forbidden entrances there were throughout the various colleges of the university. It began to seem like a metaphor to me: there is knowledge being created, disseminated, and shared here, it said to me, but only among those who have the keys, the right credentials. Now, I realize that credentialing is necessary; we want our pilots to know how to fly, our engineers to understand bridge-building, our doctors to be up on the latest about disease and prevention. But I work in a field where the baseline credential is simply the ability to read. Too often, I'm afraid, we English professors scare our students with technical jargon, complex terminology, arcane knowledge; when we do that, we say to them, "this door, this book, is closed to you." How much better if we showed them an open book, an open door; if we talked about the pleasures of the text, the additional doors that reading a book can open? How much better if we acknowledged that not everyone comes to the text with the same tools, the same experiences, and if we tried to make some more tools available? Some of those tools are indeed theoretical ones, some involve arcane knowledge--but they should be all about increasing access, not denying it.

I stand by my closed doors. Quite literally, I think--some days what I want to do as a teacher is simply to stand by a closed door and indicate that it can be opened. Like Alice trying to get into the beautiful garden in Wonderland, or Mary Lennox trying to find the door to the Secret Garden, or Lucy finding the door to Narnia and then losing it, or Will cutting doorways into other worlds, we all know that doorways can lead us to amazing adventures. Closed or open, the very first step is knowing that they are there.

So here are three more doorways, all in their own way representative of my hopes for my teaching.

Keep the doorways clear .

a poem is a doorway

keep the book open

I'm thinking of several teacher types to tag, even if most of you don't blog about teaching or aren't currently employed as teachers. So, Caroline, Susan, Dawn, Lilian, and Jo(e), feel free to take this on. But you can also consider yourself tagged if you're reading this and are involved in teaching--as a parent, a workshop leader, a teacher, a librarian, or just a wide-awake person. There are lots of kinds of teaching, after all.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Doors around the world

I saw Tricia's doors today and had to join in; there are blogs all over the place with pictures of doors today. They're amazing! Check out the Marrakech doors, and these from Finland, and Frank Gardner's Mexican doors (scroll down for a great one advertising a service...). Sara Lewis Holmes at Read*Write*Believe contributes thoughts on doors, too. Mine are doors in Oxford, doors that made me realize how realistic Alice's Adventures are, in some ways. The beautiful garden door, for example, was locked all summer long while we were there--like Alice, we stood looking at the door, wishing we could get in. (We could not, however, shrink ourselves to fit.)

this is the gorgeous blue door of the house we lived in during our stay in Oxford.

I can't remember exactly where this door is; near the Oxford Museum, anyway.

this is the (locked) door to the garden at St. John's College, Oxford.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mole! (And Rat, and Badger, and Toad)

Somewhere in the world (or, more likely, on the internet) I'm sure there's a personality test featuring the characters of The Wind in the Willows, which was first published 100 years ago today. And, much as I would like to claim for myself one of the minor characters (maybe Portly, the baby otter? I love his name!), I have to confess I'm most like Mole--nearsighted, fascinated by adventure but most comfortable at home. I haven't quite achieved the level of misanthropy that Badger exhibits, though I sympathize with his crankiness, and I've never been as exuberant or as irresponsible as the Toad. (His antics are more delightful to read of than to experience, I'm sure.)

The Guardian celebrates the book's birthday today with a lovely brief piece, and a link to a longer, more disturbing one.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


I just finished Larklight, by Philip Reeve, and I am kicking myself for not reading it sooner! (Of course, the advantage of waiting is that the sequel, Starcross, is already out. The third book comes out in November.) It's been on my TBR list forever, but somehow I was easily discouraged when I didn't find it the first time I looked for it. Then I was in the library looking for something entirely different (um, Eclipse, hangs head), and there it was.

And here's what's in it: Victorian space travel. Giant spiders. All kinds of amazing aliens. The Crystal Palace. Space pirates. The British Empire, extended into space. Orphans. Or maybe not. And a Victorian brother and sister who start out fulfilling their stereotypical roles, and end up...not. Oh, it's wonderful.

Now off to find Starcross...

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Edge of the Forest

The February Edge of the Forest is just up--another fabulous labor of love from the wonderful (and, I believe, overworked!) Kelly Herold. I've only just skimmed the surface--but make sure you read Little Willow's defense of YA literature. (It sounds a little like the rant I went on the other night at Knit Night...I hope I didn't scare off my fellow knitters!)