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

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Future of Reading - ‘Reading Workshop’ Approach Lets Students Pick the Books - Series -

The Future of Reading - ‘Reading Workshop’ Approach Lets Students Pick the Books - Series - "For years Lorrie McNeill loved teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Harper Lee classic that many Americans regard as a literary rite of passage.

But last fall, for the first time in 15 years, Ms. McNeill, 42, did not assign “Mockingbird” — or any novel. Instead she turned over all the decisions about which books to read to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade English classes at Jonesboro Middle School in this south Atlanta suburb."

(click the link above to read the rest)

A dear friend of mine has been teaching English this way to her middle-schoolers for several years. I've met with her students and they are fantastic--thoughtful, engaged, widely read. But, it's true, she's teaching in a small independent school, with motivated students--and parents who chose a non-traditional curriculum. I wonder how this would work in a larger setting, with kids who aren't strong readers? I've got to believe it might be worth a try...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Terry Pratchett: State of the Nation - 8/24/2009 2:10:00 PM - School Library Journal

"What about children do you find compelling as characters?
Children as a whole are more interesting as main characters because, by definition, there is lot that they don't know, and at the beginning of the book there is a lot that the reader does not know and so they can learn together."

read the rest here:
Terry Pratchett: State of the Nation - 8/24/2009 2:10:00 PM - School Library Journal

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The White Horse

The White Horse of Uffington appears to be about 3000 years old, and is part of a complex of ancient sites in the Vale of the White Horse. The horse itself was probably constructed by digging trenches and then re-filling the trenches with chalk blocks; it needs to be cleaned regularly to remain visible. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, a remarkably similar location exists:

There were odd carvings in the chalk, too, which the shepherds sometimes weeded when they were out on the downs with the flocks and there was not a lot to do. The chalk was only a few inches under the turf. Hoofprints could last a season, but the carvings had lasted for thousands of years. They were pictures of horses and giants, but the strange thing was that you couldn't see them properly from anywhere on the ground. They looked as if they'd been made for views in the sky. (The Wee Free Men, 119)

The image appears on pre-Roman British coinage, and while there has been some debate as to whether it is really mean to be a horse, it has certainly been referred to as such since at least the 11th century. In A Hat Full of Sky, the sequel to The Wee Free Men, Tiffany reports that Granny Aching said, “Taint what a horse looks like, it's what a horse be." While there don't appear to be other carvings of similar age still extant [edited to add: in England; my brother reminds me of others in Peru] (the Cerne Abbas giant, for example, seems to date back only to the 17th century) , this may be because other carvings were not maintained as the Uffington White Horse has been.

Near the White Horse is the site of Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hill-fort. Also nearby is the “Dragon Hill,” reported to be the place where St. George slew the dragon. In The Wee Free Men, Tiffany walks to the top of “Arken Hill”:

There was a flat place at the top where nothing ever grew, and Tiffany knew there was a story that a hero had once fought a dragon up there and its blood had burned the ground where it fell. There was another story that said there was a heap of treasure under the hill, defended by the dragon, and another story that said a king was buried there in armor of solid gold. There were lots of stories about the hill; it was surprising it hadn't sunk under the weight of them. (52)

I took my class to the White Horse during the last week of classes. It was a warm, sunny, day and the wind blew along the ridge as we walked up the hill towards the carving. Then we sat up above and looked down at the flat-topped hill and thought about the people who lived on this land, and carved the horse, and buried their dead. Sheep graze on the hillside now and tourists come and walk among them.

Monday, June 22, 2009

In defense of Holden Caulfield

John Green is annoyed by the recent NYTimes piece on how Holden Caulfield is irrelevant today, and he blogs about it.

(Has anyone else noticed that he's blogging more lately?)

(For the record, I mostly agree with Green, but I love the cover of Catcher that the Times used to illustrate their piece...)

Friday, June 19, 2009

you read it here first!

Nancy Pearl loves E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Of course she does! (I did, too. Last year.)

late to the party

I know Louis Menand's piece on the creative writing workshop (ostensibly a review of Mark McGurl's book, The Program Era, which sounds fascinating) has already been discussed all over the place. After all, it came out three weeks ago, and in internet time that's an eternity. But I am getting to my New Yorkers late, and I have a bizarre aversion to reading them online, so I just finished the piece this morning.

As someone who occasionally teaches a creative writing workshop (in nonfiction, I hasten to add!), I suppose I have a dog in the fight--though, as Menand presents it, in the end it's not much of a fight. Creative writing workshops are doing something, and they're not going away, so whether or not creative writing itself can be taught actually turns out to be sort of beside the point. But there's almost a throwaway line in his piece that I found very helpful, actually: "Creative-writing courses follow naturally from the 'learning by doing' theories of progressive education: they add practical, hands-on experience to traditional book learning" (109). I've been thinking a lot about progressive education lately, and this rings true to me. It also suggests that maybe in literature courses we ought to be making our students, say, write a sonnet or attempt some fiction. (I think this might be the Bennington approach--Terry?) It's an approach I have to admit I've resisted, because it's 1) not the way I was taught and 2) therefore would have me teaching something I'm not sure I know how to teach. Always a tricky thing.

But, as Menand's next-to-last paragraph reminds us, workshops can "teach [us] about the importance of making things, not just reading things"--and that is, I think, an increasingly valuable skilln(112). Matt Crawford might not think of fiction-making as the same kind of soulcraft that he identifies in manual labor, but there is a satisfaction to making, even making sentences and paragraphs, that I think it's important to acknowledge. And sometimes when students try to write something themselves, they gain an awareness of their reading as made object; they start to be able to look into the craft of it. And that, in turn, can improve their writing as they pay more attention to their own craft.

Sometimes in my children's lit class I've had students do a project taken from Molly Bang's Picture This! How Pictures Work, in which they have to make a picture that tells a story, using cut paper in only four colors. They laugh at themselves for enjoying such a kindergarten assignment so much, but it does give them some insight into what the illustrator's craft requires. I may have to revive that one, and maybe play around with some other hands-on assignments, this time through.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

time change

in case you were wondering, here's why the time stamp on my blog is currently set to Tehran time. Seemed like a fairly easy way to try to help out folks who are trying to get information out to the rest of the world about their predicament--I can only hope it helps.

Neglecting the blog, again

I've been writing elsewhere, though.

Here's my last column for Literary Mama.

And here's today's installment at the Mama, PhD blog at Inside Higher Ed.

Nick's last day of school is today--and I thought I'd post this picture here, since the tattoos are, yes, Dreamdark tattoos. Very cool. The whole concept was his idea; I was just his stylist. (The hair is a spray-on color that washes right out, unlike Mariah's pink hair...)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Is the Kindle elitist?

From the first time I saw a Kindle, I wanted one. It was an irrational desire, a visceral one. I couldn't explain it, though I tried to talk about saving my back (from the weight of all those books), more access, etc. Really it just looks like a cool piece of technology and sometimes Iwant them. But here's an interesting counter-perspective on the technology, from an interview with Sherman Alexie about his hatred of the Kindle:

Books saved my life, Edward. I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books. And all of my senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste-come into play when I think and read about books. Books are tactile and eccentric. An eBook will always be a gorgeous but anonymous box. It will also be just a tool–perhaps an amazing and useful tool-but I don’t want it to replace the book. And I’m worried that many people don’t care about the book itself, and see the eBook as a replacement. And I’m worried that Amazon and other eBook distributors will completely replace bookstores. The careers of nearly every successful writer are based on the amazing human interaction between bookstore employees and readers.

read it all here

Why I Do Research

In the middle of writing a conference paper, it's helpful to stop and think about why I'm doing it.

Blog U.: Mothering at Mid-Career: Why I Do Research - Mama PhD - Inside Higher Ed

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist - Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal -

Op-Ed Columnist - Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal - "“Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”"

Hmm. I'm fascinated by this claim, and somewhat skeptical of it as well. I'm writing a paper right now on the ways in which teenagers are represented as learning in various YA novels, and this may be something I need to think over further.

Editorial Observer - Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader -

Editorial Observer - Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader - "The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger."

(Click the link to read the whole article, which is quite lovely.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Famous Fictional Characters

The Guardian books blog poses the question today: who is the most famous fictional character? Apparently Penguin is promoting a new edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories this fall, and, according to The Guardian--"Sherlock Holmes," it is claimed on the promotional material, "is not only the most famous character in crime fiction, but arguably the most famous character in all fiction."

That's a big claim. The comments section over there suggests some interesting alternatives (Satan? God?), but I thought I'd bring it over here. I've long thought that children's lit provides many of the most famous fictional characters--Peter Pan, Alice, Mr. Toad, Winnie the Pooh. The nineteenth century offers us some important ones: I'd add Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and Scrooge to Peter and Alice, for example.

It seems to me, too, that "famous" here means "detachable from their original context." That is, many of us encounter these most famous characters long before we ever read their stories--if we ever do. So while Wilbur or even Harry Potter are obviously well-known, I'd say they're not as famous as Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, whose names have become bywords. Wilbur and Harry still come in their original contexts, with stories attached, even if we meet them first in film rather than literature.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dreamdark: Silksinger

I read Laini Taylor's Blackbringer just about two years ago, when my wonderful Penguin rep gave me an ARC and insisted that I'd love it. She was right. I loved Magpie, Taylor's fierce and determined main character, and I loved Talon, the faery prince who can't fly but can knit. I loved Magpie's crow brothers and I loved the central premise of the novel, that humans, a more recent evolutionary development than faeries, were inadvertently releasing demons into the world, and that the faeries--along with their crow friends--had to stop it.

I no longer have that wonderful Penguin rep, but Penguin has not forgotten me. (In fact I recently discovered that the Tim Travaglini, senior editor at Putnam in the Penguin Young Readers Group, is a UR graduate--though he graduated the May before I started there.) So I was delighted to open up a package recently with the new paperback of Blackbringer, and the ARC of Silksinger, the next book in the Dreamdark series (due out in September).

It does not disappoint. (Side note: check out Neil Gaiman on entitlement today, and on what series devotees say about them. He's so right, as always.) I reread Blackbringer before starting Silksinger--I wanted to reimmerse myself in the world of Dreamdark, and it had, after all, been two years. I found myself right back in the world Taylor has created--sometimes it can take me a while to enter an alternate world, but Taylor has a knack for making her landscape legible, her characters real, her concerns vital. I care about Dreamdark because it is our world, after all. We are a small part of its concerns, and for the most part a difficult one, but --well, we invented chocolate, so we're not all bad.

Silksinger picks up where Blackbringer left off, with another djinn to recover and another evil to do battle with. It adds new characters--Whisper, the Silksinger of the title, and Hirik, the would-be champion of the lost djinn Azazel--and reuinites us with the old ones as well. The gifts her characters have are ingenious--Taylor weaves magic out of everyday activities like knitting and singing, and even manages to make insects a vital and necessary part of the interconnected world.

Reading Dreamdark, I feel almost as if I did while first reading the Lord of the Rings series--I love this world. When we were kids, my best friend and I inhabited Middle Earth, acting out the journeys of Frodo and Merry and Pippin, imagining ourselves engaged in the endless battle to save Middle Earth. I can imagine kids like me doing that with Dreamdark--with the significant difference that they won't have to cross-dress to do so. Whisper and Magpie, Hirik and Talon, offer up all their skills and talents to their interlocking quests--boys and girls are equally valued, equally needed, in this brave new world. The quests are real, meaningful, and dangerous. The new villain is particularly pernicious, and attractive (it's always a problem when the bad guy is just bad--you wonder why anyone would join up!--not so with this one). The stakes are high, and the solutions ingenious.

My son Nick took over the Dreamdark books before I got to them this time around. He's already decided to wear the tattoos on the last day of school (they are pretty awesome), and he eagerly awaits the next volume. So do I.*

*but we don't feel entitled; I know Laini Taylor has something else growing right now as well as her books.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The multiple glories of Diana Wynne Jones

From The Guardian, my favorite newspaper for book news:

Diana Wynne Jones has a unique record of producing books you can't forget. Her intelligent, imaginative brand of fantasy is, at root, down-to-earth – heroes win humanly, by acknowledging their weaknesses and playing to their strengths, and by behaving nicely to other people and giving them the benefit of the doubt even when they appear to be revolting. The fact that the heroes in question might be nine-lifed enchanters with power over space and time is incidental.

Read the rest:
The multiple glories of Diana Wynne Jones | Books |

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Book Review: Liar

I started following Justine Larbalestier's career when Jenny Davidson mentioned the Magic or Madness books on her blog, about three years ago. I loved the Magic or Madness trilogy, which takes place in contemporary New York and Sydney, mostly, but which has a sharp fantastical edge to it. I was hooked by her writing, so I started following her blog, which is one of the must-reads in YA blogging. (And, no, I'm not going to name the rest as I'm sure I'm missing some, but if you start with hers you'll find links to many of the others as well.) I was then able to get my hands on a copy of How to Ditch Your Fairy before it came out, and was equally pleased by it--equally, and in an entirely different way. Where Magic or Madness is, in places, dark and threatening, HTDYF is mostly pretty light; both, though, manage to weave fantasy into what feels a lot like realism. Magic exists in these worlds, but it's not what defines them.

I've just finished Larbalestier's latest, Liar, which is due out from Bloomsbury in October, and all I could say when I put the book down was, "wow." Really.

It's hard to review this book without giving too much away, and while I generally don't care much about spoilers, because I value rereading, I do think it would be unfair to give much away about this novel since it's not even out yet. And since figuring out what's going on in the novel is central to its many pleasures.

So here's what I can say. Micah Wilkins is a liar. And yet she is also the narrator of this novel, and I think in the end she's a pretty reliable one. Except when she isn't--but she always tells us when she isn't. So then again in the end she is. And she lies because she has a secret, a secret that's not hers alone, a secret that she can't reveal. Though eventually she does. Maybe.

But she's got a big problem. Her boyfriend is missing--actually, dead--and the police seem to think that maybe she has something to do with it. She tells them what she can, and she tells us what she can't tell them. And that's where the novel really takes off, for me. Because how does someone who's been lying all her life keep the lies straight from the truth? How could we tell? What does it mean, anyway, to tell the truth if the truth is unbelievable--if, in other hands, it might seem more like a lie? Or if it's--yes, I think this is where we have to go--a fiction?

While I might be making this sound like some kind of postmodern metafiction (and while at some level I think it is), Liar is also a compulsively readable mystery. The fact that the detective may know more than she's telling us keeps us guessing throughout. Set in a recognizably contemporary New York City, in an "alternative" private high school where the teachers go by their first names and the students still don't fully trust them, Liar is about family bonds and family stories, about love and desire and need. I couldn't put it down. Trust me.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Children's Classics?

Apparently if you ask the former Children's laureates (British) to come up with a list of "greatest children's books of all time" you get a list that's heavily white and, um, old. (Was Ballet Shoes really from 1936? Shocked me...) I can't really complain about too many of the books on the list, but I could certainly come up with a few newer ones. How about you?

What are the ‘classics’ of children’s lit? |

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Goal Setting, Research Productivity, and the Associate Professor Survey

A friend asked me yesterday if I had goals. Not just "things I'd like to do some day," but articulated, specified goals. With a timeline.

In short, no.

All the career advice I've ever read suggests that goal-setting is an essential part of an integrated, successful career. And I do have "things I'd like to do some day," don't get me wrong. But writing down goals...well, for whatever reason, I haven't done it. One reason, I suspect, is that I'm a little uncomfortable with taking myself quite that seriously, with putting myself forward, in the way that goal-setting suggests. When I write it down here it sounds ludicrous, but there it is.

But here's the thing. I spent some time yesterday with the MLA's Associate Professor Survey, and I wonder if I'm not alone. The key finding for me, that women in private independent institutions (like my own) spend on average 9.6 years at associate professor before advancing to full, was sobering. (Especially since I'm already right at that mark, if not a little beyond it.) But even more telling was the paired statistic that in the same institutions, men are advancing on average three years more rapidly. (That's the largest gap between men's and women's advancement that the survey found.)

I wonder if women are less willing to label themselves career-focused than men are. I wonder if those women aren't articulating their goals, aren't naming them, and are therefore falling behind on them. I think in institutions like mine this could be a particularly insidious trap, as we are sought after and rewarded (up to a point) for our service and our teaching, and can make a pretty good career on them alone. So I wonder if when women like me say, "I'm too busy for my research," they really mean, "I haven't made it a priority." I wonder if they haven't made it a priority because they see that it's not really that highly valued, or because they truly prefer their teaching or service work, or because they have trouble carving out time for it at home. I am not at all ready to discount institutional and/or systemic discrimination against women, either--I know that the research work I do is, on occasion, measured and found wanting, at least in part because my field (children's literature--a female-dominated field) is not taken as seriously as, say, Renaissance literature. But such discrimination may fall into a larger pattern of discounting women's work that women themselves participate in. What would it take for us to claim our own work, our own value?

Or, on the other hand, are we choosing the saner course by pursuing more integrated lives? Sometimes that's what I think, and it does make sense. I have great autonomy in the classroom already; I do the research that interests me in the time frame that I can make work for my family, and that means an emphasis on conference papers and articles rather than on a monograph. (Psst--I prefer to read articles anyway, and suspect that they're more influential in most cases. But that's another story...maybe.) In my essay for Mama, PhD I call for us all to insist on the value of our work, to hold our senior colleagues and administrators to account when they pay lip service to teaching and service and then reward only original scholarship. I do think the work I do is valuable, but a small voice inside me also says, "you're not doing enough research." Maybe if I put some goals in writing I could measure my work against them and silence that voice. Maybe.

We think of these things when the semester ends and the research program hasn't quite ramped up again--or I do. Here's what I wrote yesterday about that survey, taking things in a slightly different direction:

Mothering at Mid-Career: The Associate Professor Survey - Mama PhD - Inside Higher Ed

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Note: when I went to post this, I wanted to tag it for future reference and discovered that I have never used a tag for either "research" or "scholarship" before. Hmm.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

McSweeney's Internet Tendency: Internet-Age Writing Syllabus and Course Overview.

All semester I've been chairing a committee to review and revise our first-year curriculum. One big part of most universities' first-year curricula is, of course, some kind of expository writing course. Maybe this one?

ENG 371WR:
Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era

M-W-F: 11:00 a.m.–12:15 p.m.
Instructor: Robert Lanham

Course Description

As print takes its place alongside smoke signals, cuneiform, and hollering, there has emerged a new literary age, one in which writers no longer need to feel encumbered by the paper cuts, reading, and excessive use of words traditionally associated with the writing trade. Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era focuses on the creation of short-form prose that is not intended to be reproduced on pulp fibers.

truly, read the rest. I find myself guilty of several days on the syllabus...

McSweeney's Internet Tendency: Internet-Age Writing Syllabus and Course Overview.

Posted using ShareThis and first seen, of course, at The Miss Rumphius Effect
(I'm sending you to her main page rather than to this specific link because I want you to see all the fabulous poetry-makers she's featuring this month. It's a treasure trove over there, really!)

McSweeney's Internet Tendency: Classic Nursery Rhymes, Updated and Revamped for the Recession, as Told to Me by My Father.

McSweeney's Internet Tendency: Classic Nursery Rhymes, Updated and Revamped for the Recession, as Told to Me by My Father.

Try this one, for starters:

Humpty Dumpty

Sure, in a perfect world, we'd all help put Humpty Dumpty back together, whether we were on the king's payroll or not. There's no question about that. But the world isn't lilacs and lollipops anymore, kid. I can barely afford all your mother's pill ... pillows, all the pillows she insists on sleeping with at night.
[it goes on...]

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first seen at The Miss Rumphius Effect

Monday, April 13, 2009

watch the president read

President Obama read Where the Wild Things Are to children at the White House egg roll. OK, so maybe there are better Easter picture books, but it's one of the best read-alouds of all time, and he looks like he had fun doing it. What a great moment!

Monday, March 23, 2009

How Children's Literature Changed my Life

Wow, that sounds portentous, doesn't it? But I mean it quite literally. I have a very different life--ok, a sort of different life--than I had before I was teaching children's literature. One big difference is that these days I occasionally--even, often--write about living authors. One of the big perks, frankly, of being a Victorianist is that the authors are all dead. I mean this in the nicest possible way. They died many years ago, most of them of natural causes, having already written many wonderful (and sometimes not-so-wonderful) books, and I don't have to feel bad about anything I say about them because they don't know I've said it. (Or if they do, I think I'm safe in assuming they don't care.)

When you write about living authors, however, you can't just irresponsibly say whatever you want. (Not that I ever did that, of course...) You feel responsible. You can even occasionally wonder what they think. And, sometimes, you can even find out. Now, so far, this has actually been all good. I still have the message on my voicemail that John Green left me after he read my review of Paper Towns. (Yes, I'm a nerd that way. Or maybe a nerdfighter.) (He liked it. That's why I kept the message.) And the other day Neil Gaiman linked to my column on Coraline (scroll down), and said he liked it, and that made my day.

So actually of course I'm really glad to be writing about living authors. It's exciting and unpredictable. And it makes me feel like part of a community.

I'm giving a talk about Stephenie Meyer this weekend. Do you think she cares?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Small Rant

I try to support my kids' schools, I really do. I have volunteered at fundraisers, donated money, donated time, and--especially--overseen homework projects even when I have some questions about them. I never once asked why Nick should make a biography "cube" with six facts about his subject on the six sides (silly gimmick?); I sat with him while he researched women mathematicians and scientists well into the night (good idea; not enough direction); and I coached him through the "Christmas shopping" project so he found things on sale and calculated the reduced prices, figured the sales tax, and kept within his budget (great project; he just procrastinated on it). But lately I've been pushed close to my breaking point.

The culprit was the project on identifying clauses. OK, fine, he's learning to identify different kinds of clauses. I'm all in favor of that. But did he really have to write each one out on a separate piece of paper, rather than just marking them in the article? Maybe he did. But did he really have to separate out the adjectival and adverbial ones? OK, fine, it's important to make distinctions, and he really does seem to have figured something out here about how to modify subjects and verbs. But did he really have to make a graph of the ratios of adjectival to adverbial clauses? And independent to dependent? Ah, yes, math across the curriculum. All right, I can live with that, too. And then writing a paper on his process? Well, fine, reflection is good, even if his process was mostly "Mom, I think this one is an adjective clause, right?" (Actually, it did get better than that...) I'm not sure I would want to read a paper on this process, but I'm not the teacher. If she wants to read these, more power to her. The fact that he was doing the project mostly over the snow days, and that there seems to have been some missed communication on the due date, well, these things happen. I guess that's OK, though if you tell a kid in an e-mail that a due date has changed, and then change your mind, well, you can expect some angst, right?

But it's March, and as far as I can tell, he hasn't yet read a book in this class. I'm not sure I can forgive that. If language arts is all labeling parts of speech and making graphs, I think it may have lost its soul.

[edited to add: Nick is 11, in sixth grade. The projects in the first paragraph were in elementary school, except for the "shopping" one, which was just before Christmas.]

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Kids' books for adults

I had the pleasure today of leading a discussion on "children's classics for adults" at the West End branch of the Richmond Public Library. A committed group of grown-ups gave up the most beautiful day in months--well, an hour of it--to talk about Bud, Not Buddy, Becoming Naomi Leon, A Single Shard, and The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. We talked about art, families, agency, and finding a home--and left all kinds of things unsaid.

Which is just as well, as there are two more meetings, over the next two Saturdays, at two more branches (Ginter Park and Belmont, for those of you in town). I'll have a different group at each discussion, but some folks today said they wanted to come to the others, too. I hope they will--I want to hear more from them!

A fascinating sidelight: three out of the four books have important scenes in libraries. My favorite is in Bud, Not Buddy: the title character's first impulse when he's in trouble is to seek out his local librarian, a Miss Hill, who has (to his dismay) just married and moved to Chicago. I hadn't known this before, but a little research revealed that Miss Hill is in fact a historical figure, Charlemae Hill Rollins of the Chicago Public Library. I'm sorry I hadn't known about her sooner; read a little more about her here, and here, and you'll see why I'm glad to know about her now.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Poetry Friday!

I heard a poem last night that so touched me I had to find and read it again. It's William Stafford's "Ask Me," and it begins like this:

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life.

You can read the rest of it here
--why don't you go do that now?


I have been thinking a lot about time, and whether "what I have done is my life," which is just a wonderful--and difficult--question. But it speaks to me now in the context of all the life-balance questions I keep blogging about over at IHE; this week's post seemed particularly to hit home with some readers, one of whom comments, helpfully, that "time itself has no flexibility--it passes." That might sound depressing, but I actually find it helpful in thinking about how I want to experience the passing of time (hmm, I'm about to break into a James Taylor song here).

So that's my poetry Friday post; there's a round-up at Anastasia Suen's Picture Book of the Day.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Secret Keeper

I so wanted to review Mitali Perkins' Secret Keeper, a copy of which I received thanks to the author herself (I believe) some time ago. I read it over the weekend, when I was sick, and it kept me engaged and occupied (actually, it had me riveted!) as well as keeping my mind off of my increasingly nasty cold. So all is good.

But (you knew there would be a but) I should have reviewed it Monday. The week has intervened, a week full of committee meetings and class meetings and financial aid forms (not to mention tax forms) and recovery, and I just completely lost momentum.

So I'll leave you not with a review but with a question: is it a happy ending if the main character gets one thing she wants by giving up another? I am still struggling with the ending of this novel, which strikes me as more realistic than the endings of many children's and YA novels (but especially children's). There's just not a smidge of wish-fulfillment in it that I can see--tough choices and some significant pain, rather. But, still, (or, maybe, therefore?) it troubled me.

Do read it. I'd love to talk about it further, and maybe then I can write a real review.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thinking about the Other Mother...

Sometimes my friends and I joke that we need clones—one for work and one for home, perhaps? Wouldn't it be great, some days, to have someone else to help raise the kids—someone who wouldn't be bored by the endless play with Lego, who would miraculously make healthy meals they'll eat, who would come up with rainy day activities that are fun for the whole family? Of course on bad days at work I want the clone to sit at the computer while the "real me" goes off to play with the kids. It's all a matter of perspective.

Read the rest in this month's Children's Lit Book Group column....

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Does Effort Equal Achievement?

Here's a great piece from the NY Times about grades and grading these days. One student puts it this way:

"“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”"

At least one commentator suggests that the focus needs to be on capturing the students' interest so that they have in intrinsic motivation to do the work rather than the extrinsic one of grades. But that can be especially hard to achieve in a required class. I'm thinking about these issues right now as I am currently serving on a curriculum review committee charged especially with looking at our first year curriculum, which is where grading complaints are, I think, especially prevalent.

Read the whole thing here: Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes -


I'm just back from a meeting with some fabulous librarians about a program I'm doing for them next month. They've planned a wonderful opportunity for adults to talk about children's books, and I'm delighted to be facilitating the discussions. There are three of them, at three different branch libraries--here are some details.

“A Family Affair: Children’s Classic for Adults”
“A Family Affair: Children’s Classic for Adults” Dr. Libby Gruner, Associate Professor of English, at The University of Richmond will lead our discussion based upon the selected books: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E.L. Konigsburg, A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, and Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan **Registration is required.**

The sessions are from 2-3 on three successive Saturday afternoons: March 7, 14, and 21 at the Belmont, Ginter Park, and West End branches of the Richmond Public Library. There are details here, along with a number to call for more information.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


The Cybils Awards have just been announced, and there are some great ones--check them out! Unlike last year, I wasn't on a judging panel this year so have been watching the doings from a distance--I'm glad I didn't have to make some of these decisions, I can tell you! I'm especially pleased to see the Middle-Grade Fantasy award winner, the Elem/Middle Grade Graphic Novel winner, and the YA Fiction winner are all books I've really enjoyed.

And speaking of that M-G Fantasy award winner, check out tomorrow's NYTimes Book Review, too!

Congratulations to all the nominees and to today's winners!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Teaching and Research

I'm blogging about Jill Biden, my new role model, over at the Mama, PhD blog at Inside Higher Ed. And trying to get to work on my column. Remember that? I do still write it, but only every other month these days. While I'm away, though, you might check out Mama at the Movies, writing about the lovely oldie, Fly Away Home. Back later!


Thursday, February 05, 2009


Seen on Fuse8, the most amazing bento box ever.

Monday, January 26, 2009


OK, so I'm on twitter, though I can't do it from my phone and I'm really not quite sure what the point is but it's fun to catch up with people in these little tiny slices-of-life bits that they usually seem to post. So today several folks were twittering (is that really the right verb? or tweeting?) the ALA Midwinter meeting, because the big children's/YA lit awards come out today. And I was following tweets directly from the ALA Youth Media awards, and from John Green and Mitali Perkins and Susan Marie Swanson and Neil Gaiman. And then actually I had to go to a meeting and I wasn't online right when the big awards were announced, but...

well, check this out

Also this

I really loved The Graveyard Book, and I'm so excited that it won! (Hurriedly thinking about whether I can include it in my English Children's Fantasy course this summer if it has won an American award...) (Yes, I'm teaching that course at Oxford again...what fun!)

I also need to get The House in the Night on my TBR list, stat!

There were more awards, and you can see the whole list here. I'm excited about the awards, don't get me wrong, but I'm also fascinated by the means by which we are all learning about them these days... (2nd Life? Are you kidding me? I am too old for some of this stuff...)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration thoughts

I was delighted to watch the inauguration with my students yesterday. We started out watching the feed (with the Facebook updates) but it froze and we switched over to TV instead. We found the Facebook updates interesting but a little unsettling; one student astutely noted that they must be filtering, because nothing nasty or "inappropriate" was being shown. It's sad that he assumed that it was being said, if not shown, and perhaps sadder that we all agreed.

We tuned in just as the invocation was wrapping up, and got to see and hear Aretha Franklin lead us in with song; class was ending just as Joseph Lowery was giving the benediction, and only one student stayed to the end of that, but I think she and I were both glad we did. Having grown up among preachers, whose everyday speech often incorporates snippets of scripture, familiar poetry, and well-loved hymns, I loved the way his prayer did the same thing.

I can't say I was as enthusiastic when I heard Elizabeth Alexander read her poem, but looking it over later I find myself moved by it, by its evocation of the everyday, its pleasure in precision, and its comprehensiveness. It's worth reading with the line and stanza breaks preserved. I like that both Alexander and Connecticut's Marilyn Nelson wrote praise songs for the day.

President Obama's speech also had that comprehensive reach, and I loved its inclusiveness. I was saddened to hear that the official Chinese press cut off their transmission of the speech right at this point: To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Finally, the children's lit link, from Rebecca Traister's report in on the festivities yesterday. "Happy Inauguration Day!" they said as they passed, greeting each other with a level of joyful familiarity typical of days on which Voldemort has been defeated.

Suddenly I'm back in that scene from the opening of the first HP novel, and I know just what it was like. Wow.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Revolutionary Moments

I'm teaching a new course this semester, and I blogged about it for IHE today. I felt a little badly that I didn't have an inauguration post for IHE, but it just didn't happen. I'm not there, I'm here--and in fact I'm teaching from 11:15 to 12:30, right when the action will be happening. But then it occurred to me--my course is about revolutionary moments, moments when things changed in some significant way. And so I've decided that we'll take a little break in my class to watch it live, just so we can say we, too, saw the moment. Maybe we'll even think about analyzing the rhetoric of the speech, if we have time.

Check out this gorgeous photo essay here, too.

And there's lots of great children's lit/inauguration blogging going on, too. I probably won't find it all, but don't miss Monica Edinger's link to her earlier "Letters to Obama" post. And Betsy Bird has some great stuff up at Fuse#8. The incomparable Julius Lester has an inspiring post (ok, it was from yesterday). There's more, but that will get you started.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Book Art

Many years ago a friend gave me a copy of A Humument, a "treated book by British artist Tom Phillips based on the Victorian novel 'A Human Document' by W.H. Mallock." In those pre-internet days, what she gave me was a bound paperback book, a reproduction of, I believe, one of the first books Phillips treated. It was not really readable as a book, but was an astonishing work of art, something one could return to again and again.

A year or two ago my daughter told me she was interested in "altered books," and I eventually figured out she meant the same thing that Phillips had done. She began working on one, and I gave her my copy of A Humument to explore. Then a student showed me a piece she'd done in a mixed media workshop that similarly altered and revised published work.

But nothing I'd seen before prepared me for some of these new uses for books. Like Betsy at Fuse8 (where I originally saw this), I especially like the tea party. But some of the furniture and sculptures are well worth checking out, too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I'm a winner!

Jeanne from Necromany Never Pays passed along a cool award to me a while ago, and I hadn't gotten around to posting about it here. So here it is. Yes, that does say "for the coolest blog I ever know," and yes, everyone else who's gotten it--including Jeanne--has commented on the bizarre (ok, wrong) grammar there. Whatever. I'm still happy to have the award, especially because I've been so lax at posting lately. (Ah, is this her secret plan? To get me to post more often? Or, perhaps, to reward me for not posting? Hmm...)

I haven't posted much not because I haven't been reading, but because I've been too busy reading--and preparing for my new semester--to comment on what I've been reading. And I'm afraid that state of affairs may continue for a while yet, but I can still find time to reward some other great blogs that make me think. These aren't all children's lit blogs--in fact, they mostly aren't--but, hey, it's my blog and I can do what I like.

OK, so here are the rules:
1. Put the logo on your blog.
2. Add a link to the person who awarded you.
3. Award up to ten other blogs.
4. Add links to those blogs on yours.
5. Leave a message for your awardees on their blogs.

I'm terrible about following bloggy rules, but I think I can manage those.

So here are my awardees:

Monica Edinger at Educating Alice offers great reports on reading and teaching from a fourth-grade classroom that makes me want to go back to elementary school.

Speaking of elementary school, my daughter spent second grade in Room 204, and now her former teacher is blogging! Write Now in Room 204 is third grade the way it should be.

Susan's blog, Reading Writing Living, is inspiring me right now to be more organized and to make more time for my writing.

Laura at 11D is another of my must-reads. She finds news that I haven't seen yet, and comments on it so intelligently and clearly that I feel as if I've figured something out all on my own.

I've just recently discovered Outside Voice, and it's another one that's quickly made my must-read list. The tagline says it all for me: "In which motherhood and academia are juggled. Barely."

There are lots more I could hand out awards to (including all the ones I gave the Thinking Blogger award to almost two years ago), but I'm going to stop here and let the rest of you come up with some more must-reads. (Or, not. Like Jeanne, I'm not going to come after you if you don't follow the rules.) Have fun!

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Poetry I teach doesn't often make it into the news, but apparently Blagojevich finds solace in the words of 19th-century British poets. He really should have quoted Robert Browning, of course: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?"*

*From "Andrea del Sarto," and of course heavily ironic in context. The speaker is at best a hack, at worst a crook, and lamenting (sort of) his own failure of ambition. I see this passage quoted often, unironically.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ready, Set...

...things are changing around here. New semester, new courses, and --the biggest change of all-- Mariah heads off to CA for the rest of her gap year, any day now. I blog about that today at the Mama, PhD blog at Inside Higher Ed.


Friday, January 02, 2009

I miss this, too

I think I shifted my academic focus to children's literature in part because it put me back in that state of abandonment that reading had once been for me, but that graduate school had killed. In this I share something with Andrew Martino, whose piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (subscription required) I mentioned some time ago. I also share something with Michelle Slatalla, then, who sees in her daughters that kind of reading that she, too, has now left behind: "they allow a novel to carry them so effortlessly from one place to another that for a time they truly don’t care about anything else," she writes, and I remember it. I've been there again recently, in books like the Twilight series (yes, even as I criticized them, they took me away--ok, except the last, which didn't), or Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (so much better than Twilight et al that I hesitate to mention them in the same sentence) or any number of fantastic YA books I've read lately. But right now I'm in the midst of a spate of professional reading, and while the books are truly engrossing, educational, well-written, and all that, I find myself infinitely interruptable--indeed, seeking interruption!--as I read my way through them. I'm eating my peas, not my dessert, and I'm just a tiny bit resentful, even though I do, really, quite like peas.

Back to it.