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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why I do what I do

Sometimes my students ask me if authors really think about "that stuff" (symbolism, metaphor, allusion, intertextuality) when they write their books. Here is the unequivocal answer: yes.

John Green rocks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

YA books for adults

The line between YA and adult books is, for me, very blurry. And apparently for some publishers, too, which is why (for example) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is only one of many books published in both categories. Now the School Library Journal blog (link from Kids Lit) takes up the question, listing nine books for teens from the last year that would be equally at home in adult reading rooms. I've only read two (The Graveyard Book and Octavian Nothing, II) but I wholeheartedly agree about them. Then again, I'm an adult who routinely reads YA fiction, so I would, right? And Pratchett (another listee) and Gaiman already cross over all the time between children's, YA, and adult fiction, so they're no surprise. My husband thinks Octavian Nothing is categorically not for teens (we have these arguments periodically; they're fun); it is, certainly, a denser read than many books we typically think of as YA. But now I need to read the rest of the books on the list and figure out why they're there and not, say, Paper Towns, which was one of my favorite YA books of the year and far more engaging than, say, Prep, which also has a teenage protagonist but was published for adults.*

Categories are hard. Necessary, I guess, but hard.

*One (cynical) reason is marketing. It's also true that Paper Towns has few if any interesting and well-developed adult characters--they're just much less important to the story--while The Graveyard Book and Octavian Nothing each has several. For my money Prep** has no interesting characters of any age, but that's maybe just me.
**Yes, I'm aware that Prep didn't come out this year and the other books I'm talking about did. I couldn't think of a more recent "adult" fiction title with a teenaged protagonist.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pre-reading Favorites

The Guardian Book Blog, one of my favorite reads on my feed reader, poses a fabulous question: What were your favorite books before you could read? I actually mentioned two of mine in my last post: Madeline, and Nomi and the Lovely Animals. I think that my dad began reading The Hobbit to me before I could read, too--I was just a week shy of my fifth birthday. I don't remember any others, but those are still lodged somewhere deep in my memory. When all is else gone, I expect those will still remain.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Favorite Childhood Reading

I mentioned in my last post that we've been discussing favorite childhood reading on the child_lit listserv, so I thought I'd repost here the message that I sent. (I've made some tiny edits.)

Like another reader, some of my favorite books (especially in fourth grade) were biographies. My earliest reading memories, though, are of my father reading me Madeline and, my very favorite, Nomi and the Lovely Animals, a book I haven't thought of in years though I can recite large parts of it by heart (and I had no idea, until just now, that it was by Louis Slobodkin). My father also read me the entire Lord of the Rings series, though I only really remember him reading The Hobbit; later I read them all myself and virtually inhabited that world for a while. The Chronicles of Narnia, the Little House books, the Streatfeild "shoes" books, and anything by Madeline L'Engle were also favorites that I read over and over again. There was also a collected Twain and a collection of similarly-bound Alcott novels in my grandparents' house, where we spent some summers, so I read those over and over as well. And does anyone else remember Thee, Hannah? That was another one from my grandparents' shelves...

There are more, of course, but I'll stop after mentioning the Moomin books, which I also remember reading over and over at around the same age (somewhere under 12).

Some of my old books are at my parents' house and I've enjoyed introducing them to my children as my mother must have enjoyed introducing her old books to me. What a pleasure to remember all of these!

Edited to add: here's a piece from the Times Online with some writers' favorite childhood reads.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

'tis the season

As the holiday gift-giving season approaches, articles about children's books to give and receive are sure to start turning up. An early entry is this one by Joseph Bottum in First Things (I got the link from Neil Gaiman's blog), which I expect to see discussed in the kidlitosphere or on the child_lit listserv pretty soon.

I don't at all disagree that this is a golden age of sorts for children's literature, and I like his idea that we read some books (the Harry Potter series, for example) simply because others read them. Or as Bottum puts it: "their sharedness has become their most important quality." While I disagree with his judgements about certain books (Winnie the Pooh, Little Women, Summerland) I'm enjoying thinking about how living in a certain cultural moment can make good writers better. Is this what happened around the turn of the 18th-19th centuries with the Romantic poets, perhaps?

I'm also just delighted to see someone else sing the praises of My Family and Other Animals, a book I loved while growing up and should really read again. We've been talking on the child_lit listserv lately about our favorite childhood reading, and that's one I'd forgotten to mention. But I adored it at the time.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Winter Blog Blast Book Tour

It started today--and goes on all week, a series of interviews with children's and YA authors at all your favorite children's/YA lit blogs. Here's the list, borrowed shamelessly from Colleen Mondor of Chasing Ray*:


Lewis Buzbee at Chasing Ray: "The other part of the question: because I was so formed, in some way, by Steinbeck, I have always had an urge to write about him, but non-fiction never felt the right venue for me. His letters are so good, there are several fine biographies, not to mention Benson’s brilliant epic biography, and I know that I am no biographer. When I first started writing this book, I thought it was all about the libraries, but for me it was all about Steinbeck, in the end, trying to pay tribute to the power of his words. That part of it kind of snuck up on me."

Louis Sachar at Fuse Number 8: "When Stanley first sees some of the other boys, their race is part of their initial description, but after digging all day, they were all the color of dirt."

Laurel Snyder at Miss Erin

Courtney Summers at Bildungsroman: "Maintaining an online presence takes a certain level of time and commitment, true, but I'm down with it . . . and yes, I'm totally guilty of using them as a means to procrastinate sometimes. But if it wasn't them, it'd be something else. Not to brag, but I'm a FANTASTIC procrastinator."

Elizabeth Wein at Finding Wonderland: "The symbolism of bells are wonderful, though—they ward off thunder and the devil, they warn of fire and flood and invasion. They're always female (a bell is a "she," not an "it") and they all have individual names. Some of them are also very old. I used to thrill to ring a certain bell in Magdalen College, Oxford, because it predated Columbus's discovery of America. Most musical instruments that old are in museums, not in public use."

Susan Kuklin at The YA YA YAs


Ellen Datlow at Chasing Ray
Tony DiTerlizzi at Miss Erin
Melissa Walker at Hip Writer Mama
Luisa Plaja at Bildungsroman
DM Cornish at Finding Wonderland
LJ Smith at The YA YA YAs
Kathleen Duey at Bookshelves of Doom


Ellen Klages at Fuse Number 8
Emily Jenkins at Writing and Ruminating
Ally Carter at Miss Erin
Mark Peter Hughes at Hip Writer Mama
Sarah Darer Littman at Bildungsroman
MT Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Mitali Perkins at Mother Reader


Martin Millar at Chasing Ray
John Green at Writing and Ruminating
Beth Kephart at Hip Writer Mama
Emily Ecton at Bildungsroman
John David Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Brandon Mull at The YA YA YAs
Lisa Papademetriou at Mother Reader


Mayra Lazara Dole at Chasing Ray
Francis O'Rourke Dowell at Fuse Number 8
J Patrick Lewis at Writing and Ruminating
Wendy Mass at Hip Writer Mama
Lisa Ann Sandell at Bildungsroman
Caroline Hickey/Sara Lewis Holmes at Mother Reader
A.S. King at Bookshelves of Doom
Emily Wing Smith at Interactive Reader

*note that there are links and excerpts for today's posts, since some are already up. Links for the rest of the week just take you to the blog in question, but you can always check out Colleen's post at Chasing Ray for the most up-to-the-minute details.

Monday, November 10, 2008

When did fairies get cute?

Many years ago my daughter dressed up for Hallowe'en as (her choice, her words) a "princess-fairy-angel-bride."* Friends teased me about "gender girl's" choice. But the part I remember best about it is the wings she insisted on having, that made the get-up a "fairy" or an "angel" rather than just a pretty girl. When did fairies get cute?

Today my students read and discussed several "stolen child" poems from the nineteenth century, including "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (Browning), "The Fairies" (Allingham), and "The Stolen Child" (Yeats). It's not clear what, exactly, the Piper is, but he has fairy-like qualities: he dresses funny, he has magical powers, and he steals kids. In the other two it's even clearer: fairies are weird and dangerous, though not (perhaps) actually malevolent. They live in relationship to the human world, but they do not love it. And they can do things that hurt us, though their intentions are not entirely clear.

In some recent novels that I loved (Blackbringer, How to Ditch Your Fairy), it's really clear that fairies aren't particularly cute or even helpful; they do what they do, and there are consequences for us but that's not their primary concern. Tinkerbell (the original, in Peter and Wendy) is actively hostile to Wendy, if not to the other children. So are the cute fairies derived from fairy godmothers? (Though, as I recall, the one in Disney's Cinderella is dumpy, not cute at all.) Are they derived from the Disney Peter Pan? Or am I missing something here? Because, really, the cute fairy is as bad as the rainbow-colored unicorn--a perversion of the mythology. I know the YA authors may come after me for defending the unicorn* (a glorious and scary creature, really, much better than a zombie). But what about fairies?

*She hates for me to tell this story, but it's totally true.
**(Diane Peterfreund does that much better anyway)

Friday, November 07, 2008

More on YA

Yes, it's been talked to death. But I asked my students today what they thought characterized YA literature, and they pretty much agreed with Jen & MR in comments, below. Age of protagonist, teen--check. Subject matter, a little edgier, deeper, more emotionally intense than children's lit--check. They also think of YA literature as more realistic, longer, less illustrated, and more complex than children's literature, although we were able to think of many counter-examples for all of those qualities. Finally, they believed that YA literature was less clear-cut, more morally ambiguous, or less structurally "closed" than children's literature. They pointed to Weetzie Bat's rejection of "happily ever after" as a primary example. Again, though, I can think of some children's books--The Giver comes to mind--that are also a little less closed than, say, a fairy tale.

The issue then is, what's the difference between adult and YA literature? Does it really have to boil down to the age of the protagonist? My students were unwilling to call Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Dickens's Great Expectations, YA. But they agreed that they fit the criteria they had themselves outlined. They also talked me into listing The Lord of the Flies as YA, though I still resist the label. Again, why?

I love YA literature, and I think I know it when I see it. But at the moment I'm cribbing John Green's characterization of it from a recent blog post: "smart teenagers who talk fast and do stupid shit." That leaves a lot out, I'm sure, but it also brings a lot in, and for the moment it will have to do. (By the way, the whole post--about manic pixie dream girls--is fabulous.)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Back to your regularly scheduled blogging

Except I don't have a regular schedule. But I do feel as if it's been all election, all the time here and at my other blog for a while, and while I'm not sorry about it, it's time to get back to the business at hand, which is kids' books.

I'm in a quandary right now. Colleen Mondor over at Chasing Ray pointed out a recent piece that raised, yet again, the question of YA literature. She vowed not to get involved in that particular question again, but I do have to ask it. That is, what is it? I am currently teaching Introduction to Children's Literature, and I teach some YA literature in the course. But how is it different from children's lit? Or is it? I struggle with these questions.

This week I've asked my students to struggle with them as well. But what about you readers? Do you distinguish between YA and children's lit? Between YA and "adult" lit? (That always sounds vaguely obscene to me...) Note that I'm not asking if the category should exist, or if teens need different books, or if YA is somehow "lesser" literature. The category does exist, teens read all kinds of books and I think YA should be part of the mix, and, um, no. It's not lesser. But the definition in the piece cited above--"YA literature is distinguished by change, evolution, development, identity, and/or the search for self"--doesn't help me much, as there's all kinds of literature distinguished by those characteristics. I'm leaning towards a mix of thematic and structural elements for my own definition, but I'd love to hear yours as well.

And, if you comment, you can become part of Mother Reader's Comment Challenge, too! Check it out--and participate!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Kids Rock the Vote

Did you know that the Weekly Reader election poll has correctly predicted the winner of the national presidential vote 12 out of 13 times? This gives me hope this morning, as I get ready to go out and vote, and then volunteer, in the rain.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

On running for office

While I'm deeply invested in the outcome of this election, I have to admit I'm tired of the campaign. Running for president seems to me almost nothing like being president, and I'm tired of the minute-by-minute scrutiny of folks doing a job that isn't the job we're electing one of them to do.

This month my column at Literary Mama takes up some books in which children learn a similar lesson. These are books that implicitly say: democracy is hard. You might not actually want to be a leader. Gone are the inspirational stories of my own childhood, in which children embrace leadership and optimistically look forward to making the world a better place. These stories are, in fact, a little depressing in their realism about presidential politics.

Read the rest here...

(cross-posted at the other blog)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Blog the Vote

(edited to add link & image)

Colleen Mondor over at Chasing Ray has a wonderful post up about teaching and voting; go read it.


OK, are you back? Doesn't that make you want to vote? And, for that matter, to teach history?

Her post is part of an effort she started called "Blog the Vote," in which bloggers are encouraged to blog about voting, in a non-partisan manner, over the next few days. It's a great effort.

It's hard for me to be non-partisan about voting. Frankly, at some level, if you don't agree with me I don't want you to vote. I've been heard to joke about telling people who don't agree with me that Election Day is the 5th.

Then I found out it wasn't a joke. In Virginia--and perhaps in other parts of the country as well--folks have been getting an official-looking email that tells them that people registered in one party will vote on the 4th, and the others on the 5th.

In Virginia we don't have registration by party, so this couldn't possibly be true--that's how absurd this is. And yet, I can easily imagine a first-time voter or an infrequent voter receiving this message and believing it. It looks pretty official; it seems to speak to a real problem (ie, turnouts may be high and lines may be long). But it's a lie--an effort, like so many others, to keep people away from the polls on election day. Just like voting, voter suppression has a history.

Since the experiment we call democracy got started, there have always been rules about who votes and who doesn't. I teach Victorian literature, and the Victorian period traditionally begins in 1832, which is not the year Victoria became queen (that was 1837), but the year the first Reform Bill passed. This legislation, the first extension of the franchise in England since the seventeenth century, extended the vote to one in five Englishmen. That's right, after the passage of this great reform, still only 20% of men could vote. (And no women, of course.) The bill is thought of as marking the beginning of the political ascendancy of the middle class--a group we've heard a lot about in this election, a group that now, I think, takes its political power somewhat for granted. Over the course of the century the franchise gradually expanded, until by the end of it there was (nearly) universal male suffrage. But it started very small.

I think often my students and I take our voting rights for granted, but most of them would not be voting if this were only forty years ago. The voting age wasn't lowered to 18 until 1971, after all. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictions persisted here in the south until well into the 1960s as well.

My daughter votes in her first national election this year. Her one still-living great-grandmother was born before women had the vote. Remarkably, democracy begets itself. That is, people who have the vote have repeatedly voted to extend that privilege to others. We don't only vote our self-interest; we vote for the common good, which we keep redefining and redefining as our boundaries expand.

There are always those who want to narrow the boundaries. Don't let them. Make your voice heard. Vote on November 4th.