31 August 2006

Kids Can Press Leader Steps Down

Today's entry is a congratulatory message to Valerie Hussey, who's stepping down after building Kids Can Press from a small young publisher into one of North America's most respected children's-book houses.

Kids Can Press began in Toronto in 1973 as a feminist cooperative, and six years later Valerie, who had a US education in Education, took charge. Former librarian Ricky Englander joined her as Marketing Director in 1981. Valerie once told me a piece of wisdom for children's publishers that they took comfort in: if the company could just stay in business long enough for the kids who read its first books to have kids of their own, then the backlist would live on and sustain another full generation of new books. Just as helpful, at my first ABA Convention Valerie assured me that it was perfectly normal to look around at the hundreds of booths and wonder, "Why would anyone ever think of publishing another book?"

Valerie and Ricky kept publishing because they wanted their home market to enjoy kids' books as good as those published in the US or UK or anywhere else. The team was small and enthusiastic enough to work together in supporting projects from idea to publication and beyond. Valerie and Ricky guided Paulette Bourgeois's young turtle Franklin into print; he now has his own TV show. Titles like this year's Scaredy Squirrel, by Mélanie Watt; David Smith's eye-opening If the World Were a Village; and Canadiana like Till All the Stars Have Fallen all show Kids Can care (not to mention my own Soap Science, edited by Liz MacLeod over a dozen years ago).

Just this month, the guys on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday raved about Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee." The Kids Can Press edition of this classic of Canadian narrative poetry saw an immediate jump in sales, which was no surprise. The important fact is that Kids Can had turned that poem into a picture book and then kept it in print for twenty years.

30 August 2006

The road that led to Treegap...

A coupla years ago I sat in on a session about writing fantasy at Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children program. One speaker was Natalie Babbitt, author of the now venerable Tuck Everlasting.

As Babbitt noted, her novel has a rather leisurely start, even for 1975: an entire chapter of scenery description. There's only a hint of human characters ("the Fosters"), and no sign of a young protagonist, conflict, or action. You can read it for yourself, courtesy of Amazon.

Sometime in recent years, Babbitt told us, she asked her editor whether that opening would have kept Tuck from becoming as popular if the same book were published today. (As she'd noted already, most new readers now come to it through school assignments, and thus have an outside push to get through any slow spots.)

"Natalie," her editor answered; "With that opening, it wouldn't even be published today."

29 August 2006

More Censorship in Lake Los Angeles

In July I delved into the history of school library restrictions in the Wilsona (California) School District. Back in 2000, school board member Sharon Toyne told the local Antelope Valley Press, "In our district we are trying to promote character with programs like Character Counts, and I don't see how the book [a little title that starts Harry Potter and the] promotes that. I think it could arouse a child's imagination and curiosity of the unknown, of the dark side."

Toyne has since become school board president, and, after a brief drop into rejecting some books arbitrarily, helped institute a policy about which book recommendations from parent-teacher committees would be acceptable.

The Book Moot blog has spread the alert about the latest development, reported in the Los Angeles Daily News. In an article titled "Wilsona scrutinizes book list", the newspaper says that the school board has removed about a dozen books from two schools' recommended lists and "sent them back to be re-evaluated in light of new book selection guidelines."

Not surprisingly, about half of the challenged titles are fantasies:

The school board also demanded reconsideration of six books about religious holidays, a series that includes Hanukkah and Kwanzaa alongside major Christian holidays. That choice is interesting since in 2002 the school district board voted narrowly to have religious invocations at the start of its monthly meetings, and the first such "nonsectarian" prayer "invoked Jesus Christ...and asked the Lord to look down upon the people's wickedness and sought forgiveness for banning prayer in public schools." Have board members objected to standalone Christmas and Easter books?

The oddball among the books sent back to the Wilsona School committee for review was Becoming Naomi León, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, a realistic contemporary novel. Here's one of the publisher's descriptions. Can you guess the objectionable content?
From the Pura Belpré and Jane Addams Peace Award-winning author of Esperanza Rising comes a riveting novel about family and identity, drawn from Pam Muñoz Ryan’s own Mexican and Oklahoman heritages. Naomi Soledad León Outlaw has had a lot to contend with in her young life.

But according to Gram's self-prophecies, most problems can be overcome with positive thinking. Life with Gram and her little brother, Owen, is happy and peaceful until their mother reappears after 7 years of being gone, stirring up all sorts of questions and challenging Naomi to discover who she really is.
Another bit of copy says, "Luckily, Naomi also has her carving to strengthen her spirit." I suspect that phrases like "self-prophecies" and "carving to strengthen her spirit" got Toyne and her school board allies worried about "the dark side."

For the record, Becoming Naomi León is a Schneider Family Book Award winner, Parents' Choice Silver Honor, and Powells.com staff pick.

28 August 2006

Ormondroyd and the Phoenix

Back when Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was in cinemas, I told friends that the movie had convinced me those dinosaurs were real, but when I watched the human characters carefully I could see that they were artificial. They just didn’t speak and act like real people. I got a similar sensation from Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix, originally published in 1957 and resurrected by the reprinter Purple House Press.

Ormondroyd is in the school of E. Nesbit, L. Frank Baum, and Edward Eager, describing fantastic creatures within the real world his readers recognize rather than setting his story in a fairyland or parallel dimension. The Phoenix and many of his compeers (such as the Eeyore-like Sea Serpent) come to life through strong personalities and lots and lots of concrete detail. Sometimes Ormondroyd even uses the Rabelaisian technique of very long lists of objects in the scene. How can we not accept such a precise image?

But I never believed in David, the boy who trips across the Phoenix on a mountainside and is taken under the bird’s giant wing. He's a blank. What was his life like before that moment? How did he do in school? Did he like sports or games, music or art? Did he build things or tell stories? Did he have a gang of pals or one or two close friends? Is he tall for his age, skinny or fat? What does he want to be when he grows up? We never really find out.

For some young readers, that blankness might have been a virtue. It let them project themselves onto David. But it also leaves us little chance to imagine him as a real person, and thus to sympathize with his larger desires and anxieties. Of course, an author can overload the young protagonist of a simple, fun adventure story with psychological problems to work through. But giving a character some individual personality and history (i.e., character) makes any story more emotionally rich.

David's family and community are, similarly, simulacra, with details chosen to make the story more exciting rather than to reflect real life. The book starts with the family moving into a new house; within about a week, that house is filled with “fruit crates” and “old boxes” just right for David to hide things behind. A neighborhood blackout brings police, fire, and repair vehicles almost immediately. The main antagonist, a scientist referred to imaginatively as "the Scientist," wants to shoot the Phoenix rather than study it; that's a poor portrait of science, even by 1957 standards, but it raises the stakes in the story.

27 August 2006

What's Russian for Kalidah?

Out of the Munchkinland blue, I got an email from Ross Boundin asking me to publicize his father's illustrations for a Russian edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Yeah, yeah, I thought. I've never been as interested in what Soviet Russia did with Baum's book as some other Oz fans, nor in unsolicited email, but I'll look at the link.

And then I saw this dramatic picture of Dorothy and friends escaping from the Kalidahs. I also liked Boundin's picture of Oz as a giant head, which is creepier than Denslow's disembodied floating head. His Dorothy seems to have stepped out of comic strip, and some of the other compositions didn't please me as much, but they're well worth a look.

The artist, Victor Boundin (1926-2000), was the son of a rural carpenter who, the website says, obtained his first pencil by trading horns and hooves left over from soapmaking. He was drafted into the Red Army at seventeen and doesn't seem to have entered art school until his mid-twenties. Then he did a lot of work for children's publishers as well as other parts of the industry. In October, there will be an exhibition covering Boundin's whole career in St. Petersburg.

This edition of The Wizard of Oz was translated by Alexander Volkov, who took liberties with Baum's text and then spun off several sequels all on his own. I've read that the book was immensely popular in the USSR, and there have been post-Soviet sequels as well. Ironic that what's often called the quintessentially American fairy tale also struck such a deep chord in America's chief 20th-century rival.

26 August 2006

Last word on Pluto

As of this week, Pluto is no longer listed as a planet.

But Pluto was never a planet. We thought Pluto was a planet. We also thought it was bigger than it's turned out to be. We thought Charon orbited Pluto, instead of both objects whirling around an empty spot between them. We thought Pluto was the biggest object at its general distance from the Sun. All those thoughts led us to consider Pluto to be like the previously spotted planets, and all those thoughts turned out to be wrong.
Astronomers have developed more knowledge of Pluto and similar objects, and a better understanding of what sets planets off from other objects in the solar system; Pluto doesn't match those criteria.

So we discard the errors and think more accurately. That's how science works. No one's arguing that we still have to study the cosmic aether or the spike-nosed Iguanodon or the disease of nostalgia because people once believed in them, too.

25 August 2006

Hollywood inks contracts for Inkheart

Variety reports that New Line Cinema has cast Brendan Fraser as the dad in Inkheart, based on the novel by Cornelia Funke, and Paul Bettany as the juggler and fire-eater, Dustfinger.

I had some questions when I first read that news on Child_Lit. Not just about the casting (Is Fraser physically too imposing? vocally too mild?) or how those actors will go about their jobs (Bettany learned to play the cello for Master and Commander; will he now learn to eat fire?). Rather, I wondered if casting this story's good guys first was going about the task the right way. Inkheart needs to have frightful villains--not just cinematic thrill providers, but what-am-I-doing-sitting-here-in-the-dark? terrifiers.

But then I thought about the best villainous performances (adjusting for genre) that I recalled from recent years. The American Film Institute has its top 50 villains, but these are names that occurred to me:

  • Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet
  • Kevin Spacey in Seven
  • Alan Rickman in Die Hard
  • Vincent D'Onofrio in Men in Black
  • Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs
  • Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct
  • Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List
What did all those performers have in common? Most are excellent actors. Most had years of experience in movies or on stage. But they weren't stars. Heck, Stone had done Police Academy 4. The closest to star status was Hopkins, who'd been the lead in Magic; his status as minor celebrity in 1991 fit the role of Hannibal Lecter, notorious killer, while Ted Levine played Lambs' real menace to the star. In sum, the casting of these actors wasn't the sort to be announced with fanfare in Variety. Which meant that when we saw them acting evil on screen, we couldn't reassure ourselves that they were just movie stars.

In fact, those roles--often career breakthroughs--tended to spoil the actors' scariness as villains afterwards. Hopper in Blue Velvet was deeply disturbing, rising from the depths of career banishment and addiction and bringing what looked like total derangement up with him. Hopper in Speed and Waterworld was simply a Hollywood villain, almost as much a parody of Hopper as Spacey's voicing of the villainous grasshopper in A Bug's Life.

So it's still vitally important who will play Capricorn, Basta, and the Magpie in this Inkheart movie. But, I realized, I'm better off not knowing who it will be.

24 August 2006

Billina and Her Chicks

Billina the Yellow Hen is Dorothy's small animal companion in L. Frank Baum's Ozma of Oz (1907), the girl's first adventure after returning from Kansas. Compared to little Toto, Billina is talkative, opinionated, and independent--more like an eccentric aunt than a pet.

Dorothy goes back to Oz yet again in The Road to Oz (1909), and Billina has exciting news to share:

"I've hatched out ten of the loveliest chicks you ever saw."

"Oh, how nice! And where are they, Billina?"

"I left them at home. But they're beauties, I assure you, and all wonderfully clever. I've named them Dorothy."

"Which one?" asked the girl.

"All of them," replied Billina.

"That's funny. Why did you name them all with the same name?"

"It was so hard to tell them apart," explained the hen. "Now, when I call 'Dorothy,' they all come running to me in a bunch; it's much easier, after all, than having a separate name for each."
But in the next book, The Emerald City of Oz (1910), Billina reports that things have not turned out as she expected:
"I must show you all my Dorothys. Nine are living and have grown up to be very respectable hens; but one took cold at Ozma's birthday party and died of the pip, and the other two turned out to be horrid roosters, so I had to change their names from Dorothy to Daniel."
Baum, a chicken-raising expert in his youth, knew that it's notoriously difficult to tell the sex of a chick.

In between those books, I imagine Billina pronouncing this limerick:
"One of my Dorothys can’t be a hen.
I finally get them all sleeping, and then
This particular one
Starts to crow at the Sun
And wakes up her sisters all over again!"

verse copyright (c) 2004 by J. L. Bell

23 August 2006

Watered-down Farce in Flush

Of all the successful adult novelists who've taken up writing children's books in recent years, Carl Hiaasen has had the most additional success: bestsellers plus a Newbery Honor for Hoot. I thought that the elements which made his adult comic thrillers work--off-kilter characters, humor, farcical plots--would translate well for kids, and indeed gain more respect than they command in the world of adult literature.

But I found Hoot to be a bit disappointing. Its plotting didn't differ much from what other children's writers have been offering for a long time. As for Hiaasen's latest kids' novel, Flush, it's more realistic, more emotionally grounded--and even a little bit less enjoyable for me. In shifting to a first-person point of view (instead of one that jumps among characters as needed, section to section), Hiaasen seems to have given up even more of the potential for farce.

Hoot takes Hiaasen's usual colorful Florida characters and setting, adds young protagonists, hides the sex and the worst of the violence, and lets us all learn a valuable lesson about protecting the natural environment. Flush does much the same--plus we learn a valuable lesson about sticking together as a family.

I like the natural environment. I like my family. But the earnestness with which Flush assured me those were good things got a little wearisome. These books are well-written, to be sure, but they didn't surprise or excite me or make me think in new directions.

Come on, Carl--how about the story of one of those stupid bullies instead of one with stupid bullies pestering the admirable young protagonist? How about a protagonist who realizes that preserving part of the natural world means sacrificing something he (or she) wants, instead of something the cigar-smoking adult villain wants?

22 August 2006

If It Weren't for the Honor of It...

My weekend posting about Charlotte's Web and interesting discussion about it with Monica Edinger made me look closer at the seal on that book cover. No, not the "MAJOR MOTION PICTURE" circle that gets top position these days. The silver seal at the bottom right.

In 1953, Charlotte's Web was a Newbery Honor book. Everyone now agrees it's a classic. It came from an established writer, meaning the common wariness about a first book didn't apply. So what title did the Newbery Medal committee think was more deserving that year? I just had to look that up.

Answer: Secret of the Andes, by Ann Nolan Clark.
Highlight the line above or click on the link.

Fairly or unfairly, seeing that Newbery Medal winner took me a back a few summers to when I vacationed with my dad's family. My younger sister, Allison, had a summer reading assignment, with a long list of middle-grade novels to choose from. She'd spent an hour or so in a bookstore comparing all those books--to find the shortest. And what did she end up with?

Shadow of a Bull, by Maia Wojciechowska, weighing in at 176 pages! What is the story in this Newbery Medal winner for 1965? (It's not a good sign when even the publisher's page has nothing to say about it.) Shadow of a Bull follows a Spanish boy conflicted over whether to train as a bullfighter. (Wikipedia offers a slightly longer summary.) It would be hard to find a topic less intriguing to my sister, and I recall that she had a lousy time getting through the book.

Allison would probably have enjoyed reading Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy more. It was eligible for the 1965 Newbery, but not honored. (Back in 2001 E. J. Graff complained at length in a Salon essay.) But for Allison's purposes, Harriet is nearly 300 pages.

Now I get rather bored with any complaints that contemporary prejudices about what's worthy influence which books (or movies, or cheeses, or anything) win awards, rather than (a) what people most enjoy, or (b) what people turn out to most enjoy twenty years later. That's like complaining about the second law of thermodynamics. It's just how the world works.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to consider why Newbery committees thought Secret of the Andes was more worthy than Charlotte's Web, and Shadow of the Bull clearly superior to Harriet the Spy. Both Newbery winners are about boys, for one thing. Did that matter in pre-feminist days? Or do books about contemporary girls get more fondly remembered because there are more women in children's literature?

Actually, I think the significant factor in those two Newbery winners is that they're realistic stories about different cultures. They were multicultural literature before the term was coined. The librarians on those Newbery committees--and many others in mid-century, if we look at the list of honorees--seem to have striven to bring the world to young Americans through books. And what have young Americans ended up preferring instead? Mostly stories about other young Americans.

21 August 2006

Cowardly Lion Hogging the Popcorn

Since a picture's worth a thousand words, and since I want to taste the blueberry pie I just made, I'll forgo my usual blathering and direct Oz fans to David Lee Ingersoll's nice image of Dorothy and her Emerald City friends viewing a new sort of Magic Picture at his Skook blog.

20 August 2006

Some Opening: Charlotte's Web

Through McSweeney's, Ann Asher offers a discarded passage from Charlotte's Web, featuring the previously unrecorded character of Louis the Turkey. Louis has the instincts but not the hard-won tact of an editor: "I see where you're going with the 'Some Pig' thing, but don't you think it's so vague that it's not even worth writing? . . . "

And speaking of tactless editing, the first line of Charlotte's Web is often used as an example of a sterling opening for a novel:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
That one sentence introduces little Fern, it sets the scene in time and space, and anything involving Papa and an ax is intriguing even before Fern's question forces us to think about the mystery.

But frankly I'd like to retire this example, for two reasons. First, it's getting old. Not the book itself; Charlotte's Web more than half a century old, but timeless. The example just feels shopworn. Hasn't everyone writing for kids for over a year already heard it? And since editors believe that today's young readers want novels to begin even faster, with more action and intrigue, there must surely be more recent examples of opening lines to learn from.

The second reason involves some of the things the start of Charlotte's Web does wrong, or at least should only be attempted by writers with E. B. White's experience and skill, if then. In the third paragraph, the narrator tells us that Fern didn't understand the ax and its connection with the newborn pigs because she "was only eight." CLANG! Condescension alert! Don't try this at home!

More important, the opening puts the focus on Fern, the girl. But in chapter 3, White shifts his point of view to Wilbur the pig. He and the other animals can talk to each other. Fern can't talk to the animals, but chapter 8 depends on her understanding them--and then shows us a conversation between her parents that she's not privy to. For the whole book White jumps between the overlapping but not intersecting worlds of animals and humans. In the last chapter Fern makes only a token appearance, her mind entirely on (gasp!) a boy, while the relationship of Wilbur and Charlotte's children carries all the emotional weight.

Now it would have been next to impossible for White to write the first scenes from Wilbur's point of view because the pig was a fragile newborn. For similar reasons, no doubt, Dick King-Smith started Babe from Farmer Hoggett's point of view. (An example of a novel written from a human newborn's point of view is Butler's The Incubator Baby, but that's social satire for adults.)

In recent decades, children's book reviewers and editors have emphasized a more tightly controlled point of view than White used. A book can have multiple points of view, but they tend to switch obviously one to another, not fade into each other. That trend will go out of fashion sooner or later, but for now Charlotte's Web and its Fern-centered opening for a Wilbur-centered novel may not be the best model for new writers.

19 August 2006

Baum descendants' apology in South Dakota

L. Frank Baum's great-granddaughter Gita Dorothy Morena (also author of The Wisdom of Oz: Reflections of a Jungian Sandplay Psychotherapist) and great-great-grandson Mac Hudson have expressed plans to apologize for their ancestor's genocidal remarks of 1890-91, according to Tim Gebhart's Progressive on the Prairie blog, National Public Radio, and the Syracuse Post-Standard.

In the midst of the "Ghost Dance" movement and just before and after the killings at Wounded Knee, Baum wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer that his fellow white settlers' "only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians." Prof. Waller Hastings's website offers full transcriptions of the remarks. [ADDENDUM: Link now broken.]

NPR's suggestion that Baum's statements "may have helped inspire" the killings at Wounded Knee is misguided. A small, failing weekly magazine of literary reviews and local gossip published in Aberdeen didn't influence US cavalrymen 350 miles away. Baum's remarks were simply symptomatic of a widespread racism in American society. And Wounded Knee is only one example of soldiers killing noncombatants whom they perceive as (a) a separate kind of people, and (b) supporting an insurgency, as mass killings at Lancaster, My Lai, Haditha, and other historical examples show.

The only reason we pay attention to Baum's statements is that his later books, particularly The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, became a beloved part of American culture. Most people who edited small-town weeklies--or even big-city dailies--over a century ago aren't read today at all. But thanks to the internet, far more people have read Baum's anti-Native remarks in the last decade than read them as originally printed.

I think it's important for Americans to know that Baum published those genocidal comments, and to consider what they reveal about the US campaign against Native American ways of life. I don't know of any scholar who has presented them well in the context of Baum's life and work. Katharine Rogers's biography of Baum relegates them to an endnote. The index to The Baum Bugle indicates that the journal has never published an article about them. But I think the web articles that reprint Baum's remarks but say little about how they fit into the rest of his writing and life don't serve readers, either.

Baum also wrote on his Lakota neighbors in mid-1890 in his "Our Landlady" columns, a popular feature of the Saturday Pioneer. These have been compiled by Nancy Tystad Koupal for the University of Nebraska Press. They show the same mix of humor, cynicism, and sympathy that Baum used to report on other locals, including himself. His first remarks on the "Ghost Dance" appeared in those columns, and suggested that, contrary to settlers' anxieties, the Lakota deserved to worship as they chose. While reflecting his society's racist images of Native Americans, Baum's columns argue for tolerance. So why did he change his tone so strongly at the end of 1890? Eric Gjovaag and I discussed the possibilities in an entry of his Wizard of Oz FAQ.

Hardly ever noted in discussions of Baum's editorials is that the "Ghost Dance" movement was itself based on hopes to (to echo Baum's words) "wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth"--those untamable creatures being white Americans. Genocidal sentiments are unfortunately quite widespread in history.

17 August 2006

Looking ahead and back at Looking Glass Wars

Dial is preparing to publish The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor, which has already been fairly successful for Egmont in the UK. The property's UK website and US website and other publicity (Beddor, with his background in show business, has generated a lot) offer some interesting remarks.

According to Publishers Weekly this month:

Beddor says his first spark for the idea of the book came seven years ago when he was visiting the British Museum and saw a deck of illuminated cards. It was his first real introduction to Carroll’s oeuvre, as he says he was “definitely not a fan” of Alice as a boy.

Once the spark was lit, Beddor locked himself away in an old Art Deco building in Los Angeles. He commissioned a visual artist to help flesh out the world he was imagining, and after two years of research and five years of writing, he had the first volume in his planned trilogy.
Back in July 2004, Beddor offered the Independent an additional reason for rewriting the Alice stories:
I guess I didn't realise how beloved Lewis Carroll's classic was. I was just seeking revenge. My grandmother and my mother made me read this book when I was 10 or 11 and I thought it was a terrible girls' book. This is my revenge; I wanted to rewrite it as a book boys would also enjoy.
No matter that Alice in Wonderland has been continually popular with many (but not all) children for over a century. "A book boys would also enjoy" seems to mean:
  • violence--lots and lots of violence
  • a graphic novel version on the way
  • good versus evil rather than Alice versus nonsense, which isn't really the same thing
On SF Site, Nathan Brazil wrote this review of the British version:
Clearly writing with the movie and game versions in mind, Beddor dispenses with complexities like characterisation and devious plot twists. Instead, what is presented is a tale where everyone is exactly who they seem. Black and white, good and bad with no shades of grey to trouble readers.
Contributors to Wikipedia and this video mashup on YouTube note similarities between The Looking Glass Wars and the American McGee's Alice videogame, which as of April was said to be becoming a movie for Universal Studios. There's also a John Le Carré novel called The Looking Glass War, of course.

Off to Work They Go

Today, a diversion from fantasy to historical fiction. The two genres have a lot in common, actually: both tell stories in worlds unfamiliar to readers, adding an extra layer of challenge for the author (and of potential interest for the reader).

One of the toughest aspects of writing historical fiction for today's young readers, I think, is conveying the drudgery of most children's lives in the past. Most of them worked for their bread, they worked at unskilled jobs, and they worked six days of the week and for most of the day. And they liked it! Or else, in most cases, they went hungry and might be beaten.

That reality is so far from the circumstances of young readers in the industrialized West, especially the USA, that it's hard to convey. All us readers want excitement in books, after all, not hard labor. So we writers often end up writing about privileged children who don't have to do such work, whether we mean to or not. Or we focus our stories on periods when a child's life is disrupted by a crisis, freeing him or her from normal drudgery; that's often good for the story, but may not convey such an accurate picture of the past.

One recent historical novel that did a very good job of portraying the reality of repetitive toil is Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard. It won the Newbery Medal, and the committee even mentioned the "months of drudgery" it depicts. Park never loses touch with what that labor means for her hero, Tree-ear, even as he slaves over gathering firewood, digging clay, moistening clay, and so on. The first line of the book--"Eh, Tree-ear! Have you hungered well today?"--establishes that the boy goes through life hungry, like most children in history, and food plays a big role in the drama. (The Newbery committee, to be sure, called the book "an extraordinary story of courage and hope"--we must have that "sense of hope.")

Park also does a good job of showing how superstition can rule people's behavior, another aspect of the past that we now see as odd and irrational. Tree-ear hides overnight from a supposedly demonic fox. This episode turns out to play no role in the novel's resolution, so it holds no valuable lesson for the hero to learn. Rather, it's a lesson to us readers in how what might seem like foolish beliefs could hold great meaning in other cultures.

And then there's Paul Bajoria's The Printer's Devil, set in Victorian London. Last week I slipped the cassette of this first novel into my car stereo, awaiting a story like Leon Garfield's Smith. About twenty minutes later, I'd heard a great deal about young Mog, and the job of printer's assistant, and how Mog spends every midday break at the nearby tavern, and the atmosphere of the time, and the same-old-same-old of steady work justified by hot meals. But I was still waiting for a plot to kick in.

I understand from reviewers that The Printer's Devil has quite a lot of plot eventually, full of twists and betrayals, the sort I like. But I doubt I'll get there. I had an even longer audiobook awaiting my ears, and though I appreciated Bajoria's ability to recreate a life in the past, I also wanted something important to happen.

16 August 2006

Big Peter and Little Peter

Pittsburgh professor D. L. Ashliman has assembled a terrific online collection of European folktales, including several versions of some stories for comparison. One that struck me on a recent visit was "Big Peter and Little Peter," a Norwegian trickster tale set down in 1859. Here's an extract of its heartless picture of sibling rivalry:

But when [Big Peter] got home again he was not very gentle; he swore and cursed, threatening to strike Little Peter dead that very night. Little Peter stood and listened to all this. After he had gone to bed with his mother, and the night had worn on a little, he asked her to change sides with him, saying that he was cold and that it would be warmer next to the wall. Yes, she did that, and a little later Big Peter came with an ax in his hand, crept up to the bedside, and with one blow chopped off his mother's head.

The next morning, Little Peter went into Big Peter's room.

"Heaven help you," he said. "You have chopped our mother's head off. The sheriff will not be pleased to hear that you are paying mother's pension in this way."

Then Big Peter became terribly frightened, and he begged Little Peter, for God's sake, to say nothing about what he knew. If he would only keep still, he should have eight hundred dollars.

Well, Little Peter swept up the money; set his mother's head on her body again; put her on a sled, and pulled her to market. There he set her up with an apple basket on each arm, and an apple in each hand. By and by a skipper came walking along; he thought she was a market woman, and asked if she had apples to sell, and how many he might have for a penny. But the old woman did not answer. So the skipper asked again. No! She said nothing.

"How many may I have for a penny?" he cried the third time, but the old woman sat there, as though she neither saw nor heard him. Then the skipper flew into a rage and slapped her, causing her head to roll across the marketplace. At that moment, Little Peter came running. Weeping and wailing, and threatened to make trouble for the skipper, for having killed his old mother.

"Dear friend, keep still about what you know," said the skipper, "and I'll give you eight hundred dollars," and thus they made a deal.

When Little Peter got home again, he said to Big Peter, "Old women were bringing a good price at the market today; I got eight hundred dollars for our mother," and he showed him the money.

"It is good that I came to know this," said Big Peter. He had an old mother-in-law, and he killed her, and then set forth to sell her. But when people heard how he was trying to sell dead bodies, they wanted to hand him over to the sheriff, and it was all he could do to escape.
For folklorists, "Big Peter and Little Peter" is an example of Aarne-Thompson type 1535. For more literary types like myself, it's interesting to see how Hans Christian Andersen cleaned up the story as "Little Claus and Big Claus": the mother became a grandmother who was already dead, so only her corpse got mutilated. No nightmares for children there! In another episode of the same story, Andersen changed an implicitly libidinous priest into a merely ugly sexton, thus avoiding another type of awkwardness.

15 August 2006

"Dorothy's Reproductive Capabilities"?

Among the offerings at this December's Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia is “Gales Will Be Gals: Dorothy’s Reproductive Capabilities and the Birth of Murder,” by Jon Hodge of Babson College and Boston University.

This paper will be part of a panel titled "
Concepts of Badness in Children’s Literature," which will also include:

  • “The Pippi Perplex: Badness and Contemporary Children’s Literature,” by Jennie M. Miskec
  • “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Resistance and Complicity in Matilda,” by Kristen M. Guest
  • “Bad-Girl Best Friends: The Consequences of Rebellion in African American Girl’s Fiction,” by Gwen Athene Tarbox
What does it say about the study of children's literature today that all these papers focus on bad girls?

Decades ago, the bad boy was a literary archetype: The Story of a Bad Boy, Peck's Bad Boy, The Real Story of a Real Boy, etc. Do we now have a shortage of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails?
Has the figure of the "bad boy" gone the way of the buggy whip? Artemis Fowl and his Dreamworks marketers would surely differ. But perhaps the people who study children's lit, even more than those who consume it, lean toward the female.

All that said, last year I published an essay called "Dorothy the Conqueror" in The Baum Bugle, so I certainly agree that Dorothy Gale is a dangerous little girl to cross. I just don't think Baum's character has much to do with the concept of "badness."

14 August 2006

Eric Shanower and the Empire State

I did a most uncharacteristic thing at the Munchkin Convention last weekend. I bought a collection of material that I already owned. I bought a special hardcover edition of a book on sale for significantly less in paperback. I bought a book that weighs as much as a laptop. I hardly ever do this. But then I hardly ever see a book as crowded with gorgeous art as Adventures in Oz, by Eric Shanower. And my copy now includes an extra picture of the Scarecrow, hand-drawn on the title page. (No, not by me! By Eric.)

You, too, can buy Adventures in Oz and have it autographed this Wednesday, 16 August, at Jim Hanley's Universe in Manhattan, across from the Empire State Building. The store seems to be promoting this as a visit from Eric Shanower, author-illustrator of the Age of Bronze series, published by Image. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I don't see the event on Image Comics's website and it's prominent on Adventures in Oz publisher IDW's website, so if there's any co-op money changing hands I have a good guess about which publisher it's coming from.

But enough about an event I'll miss. Back to me. I bought the deluxe edition of Adventures in Oz for the extra signatures in the back, which contain Eric's essay about how he came to write and illustrate his Oz graphic novels of the 1980s, as well as early versions of the stories, character sketches and color studies, undeveloped scripts, other miscellaneous Oz art, and many other goodies. Both paperback and hardcover editions offer excellent printing of those graphic novels, with strong colors on high-quality paper to match the painstaking draftsmanship.

Nearly a decade ago now, when Eric was still co-editing the anthology Oz-Story, I sent him a manuscript for a short Oz comic. But I didn't know the format for comic scripts. I'd grown up reading Stan Lee's ever-buoyant descriptions of the "Marvel method," which I now understand to have been Lee spinning out ideas in his office while Kirby or Ditka takes notes, then goes back to his desk to lay out the story in panels and solve plot holes, gradually becoming possessive and resentful of the whole product. I was also used to the rules in picture-book publishing: author is responsible for text only, and cannot communicate graphic ideas directly with illustrator on pain of excommunication. So I made sure not to assign dialogue to panels or describe more than the most minimal of actions.

Eric set me straight, and through a chain of circumstances, foreseen and unforeseen, ended up drawing a couple of illustrations for my story "Jack Pumpkinhead's Day in Court" in Oz-Story 5. Now, in Adventures in Oz, I can study some scripts linked to the best Oz comic stories around. If only I could draw.

13 August 2006

Going to See the Incubator Baby

My presentation on L. Frank Baum's 1906 fantasy John Dough and the Cherub was received warmly on Friday night, and I'm grateful. The topic that seemed to most surprise and intrigue people was the historical basis of Chick the Cherub, the Incubator Baby. That's the small child in pajamas who appears on the right side of the book's cover. With help from Dr. Ray Duncan's neonatology.org, here's more background on incubator babies in early 20th-century America.

In 1906, incubators for premature babies needing constant warmth were a relatively new thing in American medicine. Though simpler machines had been around for decades, and had been used in hatching chicken eggs, a modern style of incubator made its debut at the
Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1898. "Infants Incubators with Living Infants" proclaimed the sign above the front door of an exhibition building. "A Wonderful Exhibition / Infant Incubators / LIVE BABIES".

This exhibit proved popular enough that an even more substantial hall was set aside for the "INFANT INCUBATORS" at the
Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. There was also an exhibit at the St. Louis Fair of 1904 and, for many years, at Coney Island in New York and other urban amusement parks and exposition grounds.

Why were premature infants in incubators put on display at fairs rather than nestled in hospitals? First of all, hospitals were just beginning to add departments for mothers and newborns. A century ago, well over 90% of American babies were still being born in the family home. Therefore, as long as a baby had to be driven somewhere for extra care, it might as well be an exposition. The exhibits let the doctors promoting the new incubators maximize the number of people who learned about them. And they helped pay for themselves by attracting crowds.

The result was a surge of public interest in "incubator babies" in the first decades of the 1900s. The fairs, of course, encouraged such coverage as
"The Incubator Baby and Niagara Falls" (Cosmopolitan, 1901); "Three Tiny Girls in the Incubators" (Buffalo Evening News, 17 July 1901); and "The Incubators at Wonderland Park" (Minneapolis Journal, 20 May 1905). In 1906, the same year Baum published John Dough and the Cherub, the humorist Ellis Parker Butler published a comic novel called The Incubator Baby, which had run nationally in magazines the year before.

Reading that coverage at neonatology.org puts me in mind of more recent articles on "test tube babies," prenatal surgery, and speculation on human cloning, as well as long-ago writing about anesthesia in childbirth. Most of these writers seem happy for the infants and parents who have been helped by the new technology, but express an almost atavistic worry about whether changing such a fundamental biological process can be healthy, physically and morally.

Baum's character of Chick shows no ill effects of being raised in/by an incubator, aside from a worry about eating anything besides oatmeal and cream. (When stranded on a desert island, Chick eats fruit with no digestive difficulty, so even this worry might be overblown.) Of course, Baum never mentions whether Chick is male or female. In the nature v. nurture debate about what determines a person's gender expectations and behavior, Baum seems to come down solidly on the nurture side, writing Chick to be as genderless as an incubator itself.

11 August 2006

People, places, and things in The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief, by Texas author Rick Riordan, is a mighty satisfactory read--perhaps a little too satisfactory for my comfort. Acquired by the Miramax Books imprint and published by Disney's Hyperion wing, it will be an even more satisfactory movie since a lot of its scenes seem to have been composed with that medium in mind.

For example, narrator Percy Jackson tells us about a bus careening through a tunnel, scraping the walls and shooting out sparks behind--so cinematographic a scene that we might forget that Percy's inside the bus and shouldn't be able to see those sparks. There's a fight scene in the St. Louis Arch that offers great opportunity for special effects and stunts, but for the life of me I can't recall why on their world-saving mission the characters stopped in St. Louis.

But that's not the end to the book's reassurance for readers. Percy announces at the outset that he's been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. He has a horrible family life, most of his teachers dislike him, and minor calamities and accidents seem to plague him.

The Lightning Thief soon reveals that all these things result from Percy being a son of a Greek god. He has trouble reading English because he's a natural at reading ancient Greek. (It's not clear whether this means the right-to-left script that's even more ancient than classical Greek.) His ADHD comes from having superhuman awareness. Riordan's website offers a tongue-in-cheek "Ten Signs You Might Be a Half-Blood" with the same message.

Furthermore, monsters have been after Percy his whole life, causing those calamities. One of his teachers really is out to kill him, and his mother stays married to a louse to protect him from other monsters. Even Percy's self-destructive impulsiveness (i.e., being a wise ass), he eventually decides, is due to his deistic/genetic heritage. (Hey, maybe that's a sign that I'm a half-blood, too!) In recovery-movement parlance, Percy can fob off all his troubles as "people, places, and things."

And that's not all. The book offers similar reassurance to Americans as a whole. In this fiction, George Washington was actually a son of Athena, and the Allied leaders in World War 2 were mostly sons of Zeus and Poseidon. In contrast, Hitler, the other Axis leaders, and (at least by implication) Osama bin Laden were sons of Pluto, god of the dead. Bowing to modern western sensibilities, this book portrays Pluto and Ares as scary and evil (and, in the latter case, stupid), though to the people who created them millennia ago death and war were inevitable parts of human existence, neither good nor bad though often regrettable.

To top it all off, the USA is now the heart of "western civilization," the current site of Mount Olympus and the other sites of the Greek gods. No matter that "western civilization" after the Roman Empire moved to Constantinople was for several centuries a repudiation of the Greek classical tradition, and that Arab scholars preserved the great Greek writings while Europeans knew them only as legends. Or that several western countries would probably acknowledge America's military and economic strength, but question our cultural leadership. We are, after all, the country of Diet Coke and Double-Stuff Oreos, and The Lightning Thief assures us that those are foods fit for the Greek gods.

10 August 2006

Feiffer on comic books

In 1965 Jules Feiffer, cult cartoonist for the Village Voice and illustrator of The Phantom Tollbooth, published a volume called The Great Comic Book Heroes. The book reprinted several "Golden Age" superhero comics, including material from both big surviving companies, DC and Marvel. It appeared before Stan Lee launched his Origins series, before DC started mining its library with quality reprints, before anyone else had written about superhero comic books between hardcovers in a respectful way. Feiffer mixed artistic and storytelling insight, recollections of reading comic books as a child, and his own experience working for Will Eisner. I have a copy of the book's first paperback edition.

(Fantagraphics has republished Feiffer's text with fewer illustrations "in a compact and affordable size," the publisher says. In marketing, that's called "bugs into features." The book is smaller and more affordable because it doesn't include all those reprinted 1940s comics. The rights to them are no doubt far more expensive now that the first edition helped prove the market. But since I'm not selling my copy, the reissue might be the best way to enjoy Feiffer's insights.)

When Feiffer began to write his own children's books in 1993, he started with the theme of comic books. The Man in the Ceiling is the story of a nascent comic-book artist, with such raw emotions it often feels like autobiography. The timeframe doesn't feel like the 1940s, though, but it doesn't feel like the 1990s, either.

With Meanwhile..., Feiffer returned to the same territory in picture-book form. The hero is once again a young comic-book reader. But this time his biggest problem--he thinks--is that his mom is calling him before he's finished reading his story. He creates a magical text box that says, "Meanwhile..." in order to change his scene, only to find himself in increasingly worse trouble. I thought the hero should have cried, "It's not fair!" one or two fewer times, but otherwise this is a gem.

09 August 2006

Rolling in John Dough

On Friday evening, I'll speak at the Munchkin Convention in Princeton, New Jersey, about John Dough and the Cherub, L. Frank Baum's fantasy novel for 1906.

More peculiarly, I plan to speak about the roots of this book in:

Can I pull this off? Come to the Munchkin Convention and find out!

The new phone book's here!

The folks at Writer's Digest Books were nice enough to send me a copy of the 2007 Children's Writer's & Illustrators Market, so I'm grabbing this chance to acknowledge that fact and to repeat the good advice that every writer for children who's submitting manuscripts needs an up-to-date market guide like this one.

Alice Pope at CWIM has also started a blog, with detailed reports about the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators annual meeting in Los Angeles last weekend.

08 August 2006

Not so funny when someone loses his eye

Last Friday, the New York Times crossword puzzle had "Like Polyphemos," or something similar, as one clue. "I just heard someone talking about Polyphemos at the house where I was visiting," I thought. "Yes, I remember: it was Justin. I could get on the phone and ask Justin what 'Like Polyphemos' might mean."

Justin is five.

I decided to save my pride and work out the answer for myself. (My recurring problem with remembering Polyphemos is that "famous" doesn't seem like the most appropriate name for that mythological figure. In fact, he doesn't seem like the sort to have a proper name at all.)

Even before I visited Justin and his family's house, I'd heard that he's now a (metaphorically) huge fan of the Greek myths, so one of my presents was It's All Greek to Me!, the Time Warp Trio's visit to Olympus. Since Justin already knows the straight stories, I figured he'd appeciate Jon Scieszka's silly take on those characters. His mother told me that on at least one night since she found him asleep with the book fallen from his limp hand, so it seems to have been a hit.

However, I kept mum about how there's now a Time Warp Trio TV show. The elaborate Time Warp Trio website promotes that PBS series. Curiously, it doesn't promote the books. You can find an occasional TWT title by looking under "Books and Links" for an episode based on one of those books, then scrolling down the long list of auxiliary reading--but there's still no easy link.
The books aren't even listed under "Stuff to Buy"; instead, there's a hint that TV spin-off books might be coming, which usually isn't a good thing in terms of quality. And this from an author who founded Guys Read.

07 August 2006

Fantasy spans the Globe

In Sunday's Boston Globe book review half-section, Chris Abouzeid, author of Anatopsis, reviewed six recent fantasy novels:

  • Peter and the Shadow Thieves, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  • Fly by Night, by Frances Hardinge
  • Murkmere, by Patricia Elliott
  • Pucker, by Melanie Gideon
  • Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling, by D. M. Cornish
  • Ranger's Apprentice, Book Two: The Burning Bridge, by John Flanagan
This was a round-up review, so each title received only a paragraph or two of attention. But it was also the lead review of the issue, showing the elevated status of fantasy novels for young people today. Can we imagine that sort of treatment ten years ago, before HP?

Abouzeid offered his own general observation on trends:
When I was a young adult (way back in the 1970s), fantasy was Tolkien and Lewis, L'Engle, Le Guin, and Alexander, and once you'd run through this magical canon, there was almost nothing else. Worse yet, the difference between young adult and juvenile fantasy was only the reading level. Adolescence didn't seem to exist for fantasy authors.
Of course, that's one reason fantasy is so popular with young adults.

The Sunday Globe also included two items about the "Wonderful Art of Oz" exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.
  • In an AP dispatch, Adam Gorlick reported on the exhibit and how portrayals of Oz's main characters have changed over the years. "'Baum's Dorothy was more aggressive and independent," said Michael Patrick Hearn, the guest curator of the exhibit... 'She doesn't cry all the time like Judy Garland's Dorothy.'" Indeed, Dorothy hardly cries at all in Baum's books--only twice, that I recall.
  • Jan Gardner of the Globe also noted the exhibit, and wrote, "Members of the International Wizard of Oz Club made a strong showing at the opening."

06 August 2006

New Muppet to fill an old hole?

Today's New York Times Arts section reports on the creation and deployment of Abby Cadabby, a new little girl Muppet for the upcoming season of Sesame Street. She'll appear on The Today Show later this week. If that sounds like a marketing campaign, it is. Sesame Workshop announced Abby's coming in this June press release, and the Times article makes clear that writers didn't just set out to create a character--they wanted to create a star.

Abby's pink color, big eyes, pompom hair, and status as a fairy in training were all givens. Unlike some previous female Muppets, she wasn't designed to counteract feminine stereotypes; she embodies them. "On the set the joke was about the new toy on the block," the Times reports, "...a dig at the obvious marketability of the new pretty-in-pink creature."

The Muppet and Sesame Street writers have long been criticized for not coming up with enough strong female characters. This trend was especially obvious on the prime-time series Muppets Tonight, whose only major new female character was Spamela Hamderson, a one-note parody that would have been at home in Playboy magazine, circa 1970. But the Sesame Workshop writers have a point that depicting exaggerated traits in males carries less danger of echoing gender stereotypes; a girl monster as trepidatious as Telly could seem sexist, while a boy monster as tough and strong as Herry raises no complaints (and can be used to show boys' soft sides).

The irony here is that there have always been strong but feminine little girls among the Sesame Street Muppets. First was the character of "Betty Lou." She evolved into Prairie Dawn, who retained the original's interest in directing pageants but is also eager to be a news reporter. You do not want to get in these little girls' way. Yet they never gained the merchandising power of Big Bird, Elmo, or Grover. Were they too much like ordinary girls, with no wings or magical powers? Or were they too competent to win sympathy?

05 August 2006

Alfred Hitchcock's .00003 Investigators

On Fuse #8's recommendation, I checked out the Book-a-Minute website, offering summaries of classic books boiled down to the density of a neutron star.

For instance, the site's distillation of one--heck, every--Three Investigators mystery novel runs to 94 words, and that's one of the longer ones.

But it's woefully incomplete! This summary says nothing about two of the three boys getting captured by the bad guys while the third rushes back to the salvage yard to bring the big Swedes. Honestly, you'd think the summarizers had never read forty of these books.

04 August 2006

Harvey Fierstein is Mr. 101!

Today's New York Times brought news that Harvey Fierstein has replaced Chris Elliott as Heat Miser in this year's remake of The Year Without a Santa Claus. To which the only reasonable response seems to be...


Granted, the 1974 Rankin-Bass stop-motion filming wasn't the best of that studio's TV movies. In other words, it was no Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or even Rudolph's Shiny New Year. The only thing most people remember about Year Without is the duel/duet of Heat Miser and Snow Miser, and I, at least, have trouble remembering exactly which holiday special those scenes appeared in.

But did that 1974 version leave unanswered questions? Does Phyllis McGinley's 1957 novel have scenes that the filmmakers just weren't allowed to show young audiences during the Nixon administration? Does stop-motion animation not appeal to kids who want the sinuous movement of computer animation?

No, I bet the key to NBC's green light lies in the original's appeal to adults who were kids back then. Hence the cast of celebrities from adult comedy shows, starting with John Goodman as Santa and Carol Kane as Mother Nature.

The director, Ron Underwood, did the fine Mouse and the Motorcycle and Runaway Ralph TV adaptations back in the pre-CGI 1980s. (The latter starred young Fred Savage.) So perhaps this remake will outshine the original. But still, it seems like the child audience might in fact be an afterthought.

03 August 2006

From the Grimms to the Oneidas

Lately I've been reading a scholarly study of Oneida storytelling by historian Anthony Wonderley. It examines the largely unpublished stories collected in the early 20th century by Hope Emily Allen from women who helped maintain the Oneida Community Mansion House, particularly Lydia Doxtater and Anna Johnson.

At the time, the Oneida community in central New York was in difficult legal disputes over whether they still existed as a nation, or whether their lifestyle had become so Europeanized and their traditions so attenuated that they no longer deserved court recognition as a collective entity. This played out in court battles over land, naturally: were mortgages and deeds signed by individual Oneida people valid, or did those individuals not have the power to sell or mortgage tribal land? (On top of that dispute is one that has reappeared more recently, and more significantly: were any agreements between the Oneidas and other Iroquois nations and the state of New York valid after the adoption of the US Constitution? And, given that the law clearly says no, what is the remedy for the people whose ancestors lost land rights as a result of those invalid agreements?)

Some of the stories that Allen collected from her neighbors in 1916-1926, Wonderley shows, are versions of European wonder tales documented decades before by the brothers Grimm. No such tales are previously documented from Iroquois or related sources. Some involve technology that's not only Old World, but modern. For instance, there's one that strikes me as a summary of the more outlandish version of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, balloon and all.

However, Wonderley also points out how the Oneida storytellers' versions of these tales incorporate details from their own traditions: red osier swtiches, for instance, and the balloonist's sharpshooter companion using a bow and arrow instead of a musket (as in the Terry Gilliam movie and other versions of Munchausen). Thus, the stories document both the influence of the surrounding Europe-based culture on the Oneidas and the survival of their own cultural traditions.

02 August 2006

Smallest of the "Greatest Generation"

Greg Fishbone alerted me to a recent tempest in a teapot (well, actually in Kansas City) over whether Mickey Carroll is "the last living Munchkin" from the MGM movie or (as he and the Kansas City Royals accurately stated all along) "one of the last living Munchkins." The Deadspin blog provides a roundup of the affair and the last word.

In a week I'm off to the Munchkin Convention, so named because Munchkinland is the eastern part of Oz and this event has taken place in the eastern US for decades. Occasionally one or two MGM movie veterans speak there, which usually means Munchkins since all the principal performers have died. Several Munchkin performers who are still alive and healthy have created retirement careers for themselves making personal appearances in and out of costume.

Those surviving Munchkin performers tend to have been in their late teens in 1938, when they shot their scene. That means they were about twenty years old when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into World War 2. The young men therefore faced the question of how to serve their country. But because of their height, they were all classified as 4-F, ineligible for military service.

If there's a Q&A session at a convention, I ask the men about their experiences of the war, and the answers are usually quite interesting, as well as fresh to folks who've heard all the stories from the MGM set. Some of these young men stayed on their jobs, especially on farms, where the work was deemed vital to the nation. Others found ways to serve the war effort outside the military.

For example, Meinhardt Raabe, who played the Munchkin coroner, trained pilots as part of the Civil Air Patrol. He was, he says, the smallest licensed pilot of the time, and ended up flying more types of airplanes than he would have in military service. Raabe discusses that work, and other parts of his career, in Memories of a Munchkin, which turned out to be a better book than I expected. It sounds like a hodgepodge, but it really does hang together, and the production values are excellent. Raabe is also one of the most dedicated marketers I've ever met.

Another ex-Munchkin, Texan Clarence Swenson, worked on repairing the radar equipment in planes at airbases in the US. He found that his small size gave him an advantage in reaching inside the nosecones, letting his crew avoid the delay of having another team come out to remove those cowlings and thus to cut the planes' time out of service. [Swenson and his wife were at the 2006 Munchkin Convention, allowing me to update this paragraph.]

01 August 2006

Carnival of Akkordionspieler at last!

Back on 11 July, I issued a call for entries for an online Carnival of German Kids Playing Accordions in Tents. I supplied a graphic model.

Fuse #8 produced an image from Don Parrish's trip to North Korea. Parrish writes, "We also attended the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace, were we saw the propaganda kids, the ones routinely photographed by tourists. They were supposed to smile as they played musical instruments or embroidered." And what musical instruments? Accordions, of course! No Germans, no tents, but by the large number of kids and accordions (and the small number of alternatives) I say this qualifies.

Becky commented, "My Canadian mother-in-law (of German extraction) plays the accordion, and after 12 years it still gives me the willies..." So there's an untented German-Canadian example--also a stretch, but beggars can't choose.

Even I, with all my interest in this important topic, couldn't come up with blog items that fit all the criteria. But some webpages came reasonably close.

The Accordion Orchestra of Maisach sponsors a Pupils' Orchestra for musicians aged 8 to 14. Again, the large number of kids and accordions makes up for the lack of a visible tent.

In May, Legoland Deutschland hosted a concert with "Ensembles from more than 7 nations...demonstrating that the accordion can be used to interpret all kinds of music." Rap-polka fusion, for example.

In a situation that cries out for analysis, the Jewish Museum Berlin has illustrated a page on Freud's theory of "drive/trieb" with a figurine of a blond boy playing the accordion.

And although technically he hails from Austria, not Germany, I must acknowledge the "jungen Akkordeonspieler Lukas."