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

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.