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

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Movie Minutes

I've seen three movies in theaters in the last two weeks--this must be some kind of record! (And, hmm, yes, I was pushing to meet a deadline, why do you ask?)

  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Having been pleasantly surprised by the first installment in this series, I was really looking forward to the second. Yes, I'd been warned, but I was still hopeful. Alas, I should have heeded the warning. I didn't find the racism as bad as it was in the book--but that's small praise, really, as it is in this one, The Horse and His Boy, and to some extent The Last Battle, that Lewis's pro-Northern biases really come through. And I didn't find it as sickeningly violent as Kelly did, either, though that may reflect more on me (and my tolerance of violence in movies) than on the movie. Certainly there was a higher ratio of battle scene to character development than I would have liked, though. Reepicheep, Trumpkin, and Nikabrik are all barely developed; even the kids are far less developed than they are in the first movie. Caspian is, of course, movie-star handsome--but did we need a hinted-at romance between him and Susan? Why, no, we did not.
  • Baby Mama: No, it's not a kids' movie. It's not even really about kids--it's about the desire for kids. That aside, it's a fun, smart, silly update of Working Girl. (I love the Sigourney Weaver role in Baby Mama, which is just completely ridiculous.) I could talk about the cultural construction of motherhood and the ways in which the film deploys its stereotypes of the working class without really deconstructing them--but, to be honest, I laughed too hard to make that any fun.
  • The Visitor. Again, not a kids' movie. But the best movie I've seen in a long time. Probably the most honest depiction of professorial burnout I've ever seen (sigh), as well as an extended meditation on what it means to be "home" or "away" (two central concepts in children's literature, after all). This is a slow-moving, meditative movie, not "entertaining" in the Hollywood sense, but beautifully done. See it if you can.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


The June Carnival of Children's Literature is up! Lots of great stuff about fathers in/and children's literature, including lists of books! Great stuff...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Two Losses

Last week Tasha Tudor, the children's book writer and illustrator, died at the age of 92. Tudor's illustrations for A Little Princess and The Secret Garden are part of my childhood, part of the way I will always read those books. Reading about her life I found myself intrigued and at the same time distanced; much as I love, for example, Victorian literature, I am always grateful to have been born in a time of indoor plumbing, women's rights, and (for all I curse it) the internet.

Yesterday George Carlin died at the age of 71, and as I think about his impact on my life I'm again glad not to have lived in the 19th century, for then I would never have had George Carlin's humor. His wordplay was of the best kind: funny and thought-provoking, silly and serious at the same time. Some of his phrases have simply passed into my lexicon, no longer attributed--and I've never been able teach about oxymoron without using his examples ("jumbo shrimp," "military intelligence").

King Kaufman and Joan Walsh both recall Carlin in today; Walsh also links to an interview he did with Heather Havrilesky earlier this year.

It's hard to imagine Carlin and Tudor together--one looking backward, with love and nostalgia, the other looking right at us, dead-on, with clarity and biting wit. Both enriched my life.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fathers in Children's Lit

I know Father's Day was almost a week ago, but I think I still have a few hours to make it in under the wire for the Carnival of Children's Literature, and I still have a few things to say about fathers in children's lit. So there. I don't, however, have a nice unified post in mind, so I'm going to bullet-point a bunch of stuff and hope some of it sticks.
  • I wrote about writer dads last year for Father's Day, and I still like the two books I wrote about, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle and Noel Streatfeild's The Painted Garden (Movie Shoes, for US readers). These are two very flawed dads, for sure, but they are writers and they inspire their children in interesting ways.
  • My own father is a writer dad, and was while I was growing up--though he also had a more-than-full-time day job. He's the person who read me the entire Lord of the Rings series (starting with the Hobbit, when I was almost five); he also used to tell me fairy tales at bed time but leave off the ends for me to "dream." I never could actually direct my dreaming, but I did like coming up with endings to tell him the next night. I blame--and am equally grateful to--him for at least some of my current preoccupations. (Mom introduced me to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and mystery novels, but that's a subject for another post. Or two.)
  • A while ago a student of mine pointed out that two of my favorite fantasy books, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass (not to mention the second book in the series, The Subtle Knife) are plotted around the search for the missing father. Even more interestingly, finding the father doesn't really solve anything, though in all three cases the child hopes it will. Are there other fantasy books with this structure? In the Harry Potter series, Harry does eventually get to meet his (dead) father, sort of, but much more of the series revolves around 1) learning who his father was and 2) learning it again. The first time he learns only the good stuff; the second time around he learns James Potter had feet of clay. It seems to me this is a common theme in coming-of-age novels--learning to differentiate from the parent--but these three series handle it differently.
  • Neil Gaiman has an interesting dad in Coraline, one who makes "recipes" (which annoy his daughter), works from home, and seems both loving and a bit distant--or maybe just preoccupied--at the same time. Gaiman's own blog has been focusing on his daughters lately, which is fun to see.
  • Finally, I'm pretty sure I linked to this before*, but if you love His Dark Materials but for some reason haven't read the piece in The Independent about Philip Pullman's father, you should.

*If I did, I can't find it maybe I didn't, after all!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I requested E. Lockhart's YA novel, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks from the library after I read the discussion of it over at 7-Imp (make sure you read the comments, too). It's gotten good reviews everywhere, of course (I especially liked Little Willow's), but the discussion at 7-Imp, which focused on Frankie as a feminist heroine (an ambiguous one, at that), was what really grabbed me. I'm really glad it did--what a fun book! I'm starting to compile a list of contemporary boarding school novels, too--having loved Looking for Alaska* (and then of course there's that long series of books that mostly take place in a boarding school, albeit a slightly strange one), I am wondering if there's a little mini-renaissance of the form going on. It's in many ways a perfect setting for a novel--after all, you've got lots of adolescents, few adults, rules, traditions, and the intense relationships that develop when adolescents live together. And yet the boarding school novels that I've read are all quite different. In this one, our heroine is a sophomore, and the novel begins when she is "chosen" by one of the coolest boys in school to be his girlfriend after she develops over the summer. What I love about Frankie is that she both 1) knows and 2) resents the reasons for his interest, but also 3) really likes him so goes along anyway. That is, she's smart, but realistic. And the novel keeps getting better as she analyzes and questions the traditions she's a part of, while also finding them intriguing and maybe even worth perpetuating. Can I just say how cool it is that she is inspired by a teacher who cites Foucault in class, and that the panopticon becomes a governing metaphor for her? Yes, she's a geek, but she's a geek in the popular kids' world, and that generates the conflict that motivates the novel. I can't say any more without giving too much away--so I'll stop. But read it.**

*so why didn't I review it? Doh!
**Second, more gratuitous John Green reference: Frankie would make a great girlfriend for Colin, of An Abundance of Katherines. Or maybe their shared geekiness would just be too much. But between her wordplay and his pleasure in anagrams, I thought they'd be a good match.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Middle Readers

Earlier this year I read an ARC of Steinbeck's Ghost, a middle reader by Lewis Buzbee coming out in September. It's a wonderful novel, a mystery and a ghost story and a love-letter to the Salinas Valley (and to books!) all in one; I think boys and girls from 10 to 14 will love it.

In Literary Mama this month, Lisa Harper interviews Lewis Buzbee about his writing and his parenting. It's a fabulous interview. Here's a great passage on "growing readers:"

Parents need to provide households where they read to themselves for pleasure, and have books around, and then kids will come to it when they come to it, in whatever way they come to it.

This is something I learned as a bookseller. I used to have parents come in and say, I want you to pick out three or four classics for my daughter because all she reads are those horrible babysitter books, or all he reads are comic books or books about lizards, and I want them to have literature. I feel like that’s a great way to kill books for children. On one occasion I was standing there, picking out Dickens and Kidnapped and Louisa May Alcott for the parents, and the girl was sitting on the floor reading the newest The Babysitters Club book as fast as she could because she knew she wasn’t going to get it. For me it’s a rule: if a kid wants a book, you buy them the book.

Read the rest here...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Books for Babies

I went to buy a book for a colleague who had a new baby recently...

As I picked up each book, the anonymous big-box store faded away as the memories flooded in: sitting in the frayed armchair with Nick in my lap, late one night, reading Little Bear's Visit until we reached the part we wanted to hear. Initiating the call-and-response of Eric Carle's Do You Want to Be My Friend? with Mariah, and hearing her echo back the text. Laughing together over the smart dog who travels along with the safety officer in Officer Buckle and Gloria. I could outfit a different library for a new baby every day of the week, if I had money enough and time, and all the libraries would be good.

Read the rest here...

(Cross-posted here, as usual)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How to Ditch Your Fairy

Isn't that a great title? I took a break from the wizards yesterday to read Justine Larbalestier's new book, How to Ditch Your Fairy (due out in October--thank you, Bloomsbury, for the advance copy!), which I remember reading about in her blog as The Ultimate Fairy Book and, before that, as "the great Australian feminist young adult Elvis mangosteen monkey knife-fighting cricket fairy novel." Although, sadly, Elvis seems to have dropped out of the book somewhere in the revision process (or there's a subtle association that I completely missed--also quite possible), it's still a really fun book. I fell in love with Larbalestier's* previous heroine, Reason, in the Magic or Madness series, and I fell in love with her very different, but equally compelling, heroine Charlie in this book, too. I also fell in love with the premise: in this world, people (but not all of them) have personal fairies. The fairies are sort of like fairy godmothers, invisible presences who look out for you, but with a twist: they specialize. So Charlie's best friend has a clothes-shopping fairy (think: fabulous vintage dresses for five bucks); her mother has a knowing-what-your-kids-are-doing fairy (which could be a problem for a fourteen-year-old); and she has...a parking fairy. Yes, if she's in a car with you, you will find a fabulous parking spot. Not, of course, that she can drive.

The girl she likes least in school has a fairy that makes all the boys her age** find her irresistible. Not surprisingly, Charlie wants to ditch her fairy for a better one. How she goes about doing that, however, might be a bit of a surprise, so I won't spoil it. Let's just say that complications ensue.

But of course there's more. I really found this world fascinating. The slang was fun ("doos" for "cool" or "good" was one of my favorites), the mild bi-coastal tension was intriguing, and the imaginary sports academy that Charlie and her friends attend was nightmarishly on-target. These teenagers live in a world I don't inhabit, but they're still recognizably teenagers, with all the trivial and serious concerns (clothes, romance, sports, and school) that the teenagers I know share. The "new kid" has Charlie questioning some of her assumptions, but so do the other changes she's going through; life is realistically complicated, in other words, for these characters.

I've seen (on her blog) Larbalestier's comments on how hard it is to write a trilogy, so I won't wish that on her--but I really, really hope there are more books set in New Avalon with Charlie and Steffi and the rest. Satisfying as I found this book, I have a lot more questions about them.

*I really want to call her "Justine," because I read her blog, but when I write reviews I generally refer to authors by their last names, and I don't want to fall in the trap of calling women writers by their first names and men by their last. (You know, like "Hillary" vs. "Obama." What was up with that?) So she's "Larbalestier," which is, after all, a pretty cool name.

**Even the ones who like boys. One of the pleasures of the novel was that there are boys who like boys as part of the landscape, but they go relatively uncommented-upon. That struck me as pretty much like teenage life now--nice.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Young Wizards, again

OK, so I've finished the last of the Young Wizards books (so far--another comes out this fall) and I stand by my earlier comparisons. I think they're just as good as Cooper or L'Engle's books, and engaged in much the same issues. There's an intriguing "problem" of time with them. The first book, published in 1982, takes place in a pre-PC world--no internet, no cellphones, not even the glimmerings. And that's all fine; the magic works, and it's no more jarring than reading, say, Cooper or L'Engle. But Duane has continued writing about these kids, and their world has increasingly become our world; the computer that arrives in the third book is an Apple IIIc+ (which didn't, as far as I can tell, ever exist, but like other personal computers of that vintage it's got a floppy drive, etc. Later it appears to evolve into something like a PowerBook, though with powers far beyond any I've ever owned.), the DVD and satellite TV enter the picture, everyone has a cellphone, and by the most recent book it's also clear that the towers have fallen in New York. This is all fine--except that the kids haven't finished middle school yet, which they'd just started in the first book. So the world has aged a good twenty years, but they haven't.

Still, it's easy to get over that. The characters in the Charlie Brown comics never aged, either, and the kids in the L'Engle books aged inconsistently, especially when you tried to match up the Austins with the Murrys (as L'Engle herself eventually did). The early books may seem a bit anachronistic to kids reading them today, but maybe not; I'm not sure these time "problems" would have bothered me as a child reader.

In many ways the books strike me as being almost as much s/f as fantasy. There is magic, but magic appears in some ways to be--as it often is for L'Engle as well--simply a higher understanding of the laws of physics. I like the way Duane brings in Celtic mythology in A Wizard Abroad, and I also like the way she deepens the relationships between and among her characters as the series progresses. I especially appreciate that she works hard to balance a sense of the costs and the pains of wizardry (and, for that matter, of life) with a generally optimistic sense that good can prevail. For example, the climax of the latest book, Wizards at War, recalls the encounter with IT at the end of A Wrinkle in Time, but the resolution is nowhere near as easy or as quick--it is not always easy to know what the right thing to do is, and even when the kids do know, it's not always easy to do it. As the books progress, more characters keep being added--this seems to me in keeping with the increasing scale of crises they have to face, and the overall theme of interconnectedness that animates the books. There is a deeply religious sensibility here, I think, though not perhaps a conventionally Christian one.

I've just done a quick read-through of these novels--all eight in one week, give or take--and I'll need to consider them further. But for now, I can see recommending them to kids who've enjoyed the Harry Potter series, or who have read and enjoyed L'Engle, Cooper, or Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. Nick, at the moment, is rather resisting most of my recommendations (this happens periodically and I just wait it out; he usually comes around), so I'll take these back to the library for now and see if he gets interested some other time. He's all about dragons at the moment, though--so if anyone's familiar with the Chris D'Lacey books, let me know what you think.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Educating Wizards

I'm working on a project right now on education and fantasy literature and it's taking me in some interesting directions. So I've spent the past couple of days catching up on a series I'd never encountered before--the Young Wizards books by Diane Duane. The first novel came out in 1982, and the most recent one, Wizards at War, which is the eighth in the series, came out in 2005. (A ninth is due out this fall.) She's also the author of two other fantasy series and several Star Trek books. Yes, she's prolific.

So I'm halfway through the Young Wizards series, and so far, I'm intrigued. Like J.K. Rowling--and, of course, before her--Duane imagines a world in which wizards and non-wizards live side-by-side, the wizards often working in secret and hiding their powers from the non-magical. She intriguingly imagines the effect this might have on family life--her protagonist Nita (and, later her sister Dairine) has to reveal her wizardry to her parents, and their reactions are comically apt, I think. Hard enough to deal with your kids growing up--the Callahans have to deal with two magical daughters who are as likely to be on the moon as down the block having an ice-cream sundae. There is an established wizard hierarchy, but young wizards are often the most powerful: lacking the experience (or fear?) to know what can go wrong, they're likely to barge in and act first, thinking about what they've done only later. So far, in the first four books, this approach mostly works, though there are hints that it won't always.

The novels are a nice blend of genres: some of the magic (particularly Dairine's) seems more like science fiction than fantasy; there's plenty of comedy; and the whole is underpinned by a religious sensibility that's comparable to Susan Cooper's or even C.S. Lewis's: it's a syncretistic system in which Christianity blends with ancient pagan myth, vaguely New Age-y spiritualism, and the like. Light and Dark, good and evil, are--as in so many fantasy series--at war, though the goal is reconciliation and balance rather than (as in Lewis) the destruction of what we call "evil." So there's some LeGuin-ian leaning in there as well.

I missed these books in my own childhood because they started appearing the year I graduated from college, but I'm curious to know why they're less well-known* (or are they?) than Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet, or Cooper's Dark is Rising series, or LeGuin's Earthsea books. Less poetic than LeGuin and less overtly Christian than L'Engle, they seem to me comparable to all three nonetheless. Is it because they're comic that--like Diana Wynne Jones's similar works--they've been ignored? I'm intrigued...and I have four more books to read.

*The MLA Bibliography lists 359 citations for Ursula Le Guin as a subject, 25 for Madeleine L'Engle, 20 for Susan Cooper (that's once you remove the Susan Fenimore Cooper citations), and 24 for Diana Wynne Jones. There's one for Diane Duane.