Over at the Cybils Fantasy/Sci Fi nominations page, author Alex de Campi commented today:
Hey, I hate to be a pain (I've just posted a similar request for a book I wrote in the Graphic Novel nominations) but AGENT BOO is really a co-effort between me and the illustrator Edo Fuijkschot, and I was wondering if you would mind putting his name on the nomination as well?Agent Boo is a graphic novel. (Though the label may irk some Oz and Ends readers, Fuijkschot's page at the Word-Factory website describes it as one of "a series of manga chapter books" from an Australian artist now working in China and an English writer now working in, um, England.) So I assume it's a nearly equal creation of author and illustrator.
Most of the Cybil-nominated titles are novels, so there's a natural bent toward giving primary credit to their authors. However, writer-artist collaborations long predate graphic novels. W. W. Denslow was such an important part of creating two best-sellers with L. Frank Baum, Father Goose and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that the two men shared the copyrights. (That income stream came in handy for Denslow when he drank himself mad on a Caribbean island, but that's a story for another day, children.)
Baum never worked that closely with an illustrator again, not in creating his books and certainly not in sharing his royalties. And the law was on his side. In the early twentieth century, Peter Hanff once explained to me, the law presumed illustration to be derivative of the text it illustrated. As a result, John R. Neill's illustrations for Baum's later Oz books were treated as legally part and parcel of the text. They went into the public domain based on Baum's death date, not Neill's. (In England, the system was already different; H. R. Millar long outlived E. Nesbit, so his artwork for her Psammead novels is still protected there while her texts are not.)
I suspect that this legal situation is why books--even picture books and graphic novels--continue to list authors before illustrators, even when the illustrator is a bigger name. That doesn't necessarily reflect the creators' economic value, but then that's what advances are for. (Royalties still tend to be split down the middle for those formats, though in theory creative teams can split royalties to as many decimal points as their publishers' royalty systems could accommodate. When I was a book editor, I had a pair of authors who seemed to enjoy devising ways to share their money that would stymie the Accounting Department.)
This doesn't come up, of course, when a single talented person creates both text and pictures, whether the format is an illustrated novel like Monster Blood Tattoo (in which the full-page drawings are mislabeled as "plates") or a literate graphic novel like Age of Bronze.
But what will happen as books become more multimedia, with art, online, audio, and even video components? Usually that requires several collaborators. If they eventually all work together instead of in sequence, how many of them will share credit, copyrights, and/or royalties? Will the writer retain primary credit or, as in movies, will someone else become the auteur?
And now that I'm muttering about such things, why is the biggest photo on most audiobooks the actor who recorded the words, not the author who wrote them? I presume the actors' head shots are more convenient and more attractive, but I'd still like to see the principal creators get equal visual billing.
Where was I? Oh, yes. As for Agent Boo, I'm sure its Cybils listing will be updated in a reasonable time.
30 November 2006
Over at the Cybils Fantasy/Sci Fi nominations page, author Alex de Campi commented today:
29 November 2006
The latest issue of The Baum Bugle is the Int'l Wizard of Oz Club's tribute to L. Frank Baum, the author who created Oz, during his sesquicentennial year. It contains several articles about different aspects of his life and writing:
'Tis my retreat my worldly care;
My one desire, indeed,
Is that within my garden fair
I'll some day go to seed.
Finally, the Bugle offers its usual reviews of books, DVDs, and other Ozzy offerings; reports on events commemorating Oz; and news roundups, including a mention of Oz and Ends.
Editor Sean P. Duffley, production manager Marcus Mébes, book review editor Joe Bongiorno, and the rest of the volunteer staff did a fine job on this extra-sized issue.
28 November 2006
Jude sends news from Dark Horizons and The Movie Blog about the Sci-Fi Channel preparing a miniseries inspired by The Wizard of Oz. The network's description promises that Tin Man will be "sometimes psychedelic, often twisted and always bizarre." Among the executive producers are the Halmis.
Some people will be terribly disappointed in the new Disney/Walden adaptation of Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, to judge by its website and trailer. The movie will either be quite different from the trailer, disappointing moviegoers, or quite different from the book, disappointing its many readers over the years.
The studio's synopsis calls Bridge to Terabithia a "fantasy/adventure story of friendship, family, and the power of imagination." That writeup highlights how "the world of Terabithia is brought to life by the amazing Academy Award®-winning visual effects wizards at Weta Digital." Such an emphasis reflects, of course, the recent box-office domination of other fantasy adventures, such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Narnia franchises.
But all those books were true fantasies to begin with. Terabithia is about the appeal of playing at magic within the real world--a world that sometimes contains great sadness. It's a realistic story about friendship, family, and the power of imagination, and it's realistic for kids to create imaginary worlds.
That approach is better reflected in such low-key adaptations as this staging at the Great Big Theater Company, or the 1985 adaptation for television. (Is it just coincidence both of those productions came from Canada, not Hollywood?) Obviously, CGI and a bigger budget can make the land of Terabithia look like it's been "brought to life." But that's not the point of Bridge to Terabithia; the book is about life itself.
27 November 2006
The South Dakota State Historical Society is publishing a new picture book based on L. Frank Baum's short story "The Discontented Gopher." (That's he to the right.)
The full-color illustrations are by Carolyn Digby Conahan (who alerted me to this book). After Trina Schart Hyman and Jean Gralley, Cricket chose her to draw the little creatures in the bottom margin of the magazine.
Baum's "Gopher" tale originally appeared in The Delineator, a woman's magazine, in 1905. (It was common then for such magazines to include stories for readers to share with their children.) At the end of his life Baum hoped that it and his other "Animal Fairy Tales" would be published in a single volume, perhaps even as an Oz book, but that didn't happen until the stories entered the public domain. Then the International Wizard of Oz Club put out an Animal Fairy Tales collection, followed years later by Books of Wonder.
The South Dakota State Historical Society promises more picture books in this "Prairie Tales" series, but I don't know if any will be by Baum. The next is Zitkala-Sa’s Dance in the Buffalo Skull.
26 November 2006
Sheila Ruth's Wands and Worlds alerted me to a very interesting "what I read in 2006" essay by Newbery-winning author Linda Sue Park. What's so interesting is that Linda Sue was a judge for this year's National Book Awards (Young People's Literature category). Out of 280 books nominated by publishers, she and her colleagues had to assemble a shortlist of five.
Eliminating the first fifty was easy, she writes. But then there were many perfectly competent novels that caught her up as she read, but didn't last:
At this stage, I found that several titles I loved *while I was reading* faded from mind fairly quickly. I couldn't remember quite how the story developed, or I'd get a character from a book mixed up with one from a different book. As a panel, we were at this stage for several weeks, but we finally got the list down to around 20 books.This addresses one of the questions I've had about awards like the NBAs and the Cybils: Does the judges' work of reading so many novels so quickly, with the prestige of the award on the line, affect how they read and evaluate?
To judge [!] by Linda Sue's experience, the answer is yes, and that's a good thing. The shortlist (or even what British book awards have taken to calling the "longlist") ends up with titles that have truly stood out from the crowd, even when that crowd is pushing and shoving in the worst way for readers' attention.
PERMANENT LINK: 4:53 PM
25 November 2006
Showing their keen eyes for publishing trends and American youth culture--of twenty years ago--the editors of the New York Times broke the news today of "Graphic Novels' New Readers"!
"For Graphic Novels, a New Frontier," says the headline on the front of the Arts section; "Teenage Girls." Yes, folks, you read it here first (as long as you hadn't read anything else in a long while): teenaged girls read manga.
In fact, the story is simply DC Comics marketing its new effort to publish manga for female readers, this time in partnership with Alloy Entertainment. Close reading reveals that DC tried a similar thing in 2004--but that apparently escaped the notice of the Times.
PERMANENT LINK: 10:11 PM
24 November 2006
Jackie C. Horne, former book editor and now professor at the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College in Boston, has issued a call for panelists at the Modern Languages Association (MLA) conference in 2007. This panel would be sponsored by the Children’s Literature Association. Horne's CFP states:
Beyond Harry Potter: Theorizing Fantasy for ChildrenHorne suggests that in the 1970s, theories about children's fantasy were treated as applicable to all of children's literature. Now, apparently, we know better. But what theories arose while fantasy was in a sales doldrum, and are they applicable to fantasy, or do different types of literature work in completely different and separate ways?
In the 1970’s, when the study of children’s literature first began to be regarded as a serious academic pursuit, fantasy held a privileged place in the children’s literature canon. Much of the earliest theoretical work in the field focused on key Victorian works of fantasy, and emphasized the importance of the imaginative worlds such books created for child readers. Yet much of this criticism, relying as it does upon Romantic constructs of the child, fails to persuade the post-Romantic critic.
With the reemergence of fantasy as a privileged genre in the wake of the popularity of the Harry Potter books, many articles and books have been published on individual fantasy titles, but few works that attempt to theorize children’s fantasy as a whole have emerged to take the place of earlier, often dated, ideas. How can we as a field begin to theorize the genre of fantasy, rather than simply analyzing individual titles?
This panel will examine new theoretical approaches to the study of the genre of children’s fantasy. Papers that address the following are encouraged:
Papers that look broadly at the genre, rather than narrowly at individual books, are most welcome.
Submit 1-2 page abstracts or 8-page papers by March 1, 2007 to Jackie DOT Horne, followed by the at-sign and the domain name Simmons DOT edu. [I render her email address in that unhelpful way to fool the spambots.]
23 November 2006
22 November 2006
I can't tell if internet filmmaking owes a great debt to people just wanting to test software, or whether "I was just fooling around" is just a modest, self-protective trope when introducing your cinematic creation to the wide world.
Thus, for example, Håkan "Zap" Andersson, auteur with three very blond sons of "Kid Wars", assures us:
This film was not planned. It started out as various tests in compositing 3D graphics with live action footage, and grew from there. Even then, it was only planned to be a simple test-flick, but suddenly the kids took creative control. "Daddy, add this", "Daddy, fix that", "Daddy, film me doing this"Usually Swedish films put me in an Ingmar Bergman mood, but not this one.
Greg Tatum describes his computer-animated "The Tin Woodsman", based on L. Frank Baum's story of the origin of the Tin Woodman, as a similar type of tech run:
The animation was an attempt by myself to blend many different types of processes together into a cohesive style. More importantly I was interesting in telling a nice story in the short animation format. I enjoyed figuring out how to juggle all of the different programs and processes in order to achieve my goals.Tatum is working on a new Oz film as well, which seems to include Tik-Tok the Clockwork Man, vegetable people like Baum's Mangaboos, and some entirely new elements.
PERMANENT LINK: 3:23 PM
21 November 2006
Bantam is getting a fair amount of industry press for advertising Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series during the CSI TV shows. Given the price for a commercial during a top-rated series, that advertising effort is probably well beyond the entire marketing budget for an average trade title.
Of course, Koontz is already a bestselling author, and has been for years. We might say he doesn't need the advertising dollars, but in fact he's one of the few authors for whom high-expense advertising might make sense.
Among the biggest challenges in marketing an individual book is that a family can buy a lifetime supply of that product for $10-$40. In fact, a well manufactured book can last for generations. That severely limits the potential return from advertising an individual title.
The return on investment in advertising can be higher for big-price items, like cars, and for products that people buy and replenish over many years, such as a particular soap or cereal. With soap and cereal (and cars as well), marketers try to build "brand loyalty," in which the same family keeps buying the same product. An individual bar of soap costs much less than an individual book, but a few bars every few months over several years builds up into real money--while that individual book sits on the shelf, just as satisfying as it was before.
Which brings us back to Koontz. He writes lots of books, and they're rather similar. Not identical, of course, but more like different scents of detergent than like a bottle of detergent and a bottle of antifreeze. As a result, Bantam has lots of Koontz books it can sell to the same customers. That's how I think these TV ads are meant to work: they aim to create Koontz "brand loyalty" so that one or two or even three books won't be a reader's lifetime supply.
Another interesting aspect of Bantam's ads is that they don't make clear until the end that the product they're selling is (gasp!) books. They might thus intrigue people who like stories, but feel nervous around books.
20 November 2006
Button-Bright first appears in the Oz books in The Road to Oz as a little boy, perhaps kindergarten age, who perplexes the Scarecrow and others with his frequent answer, "Don't know."
L. Frank Baum brought the boy back, older and smarter, in Sky Island, one of his best and most original fantasies. And finally he decided to move Button-Bright to Oz permanently in The Scarecrow of Oz, his book for 1915. In that book and from then on the boy seems to revert to his original character, clueless and contented. He has a knack for being in just the right place at the right time, with neither ability nor desire to explain how he got there.
That pattern is established as soon as Button-Bright makes his entrance in chapter 8 of The Scarecrow of Oz:
The little girl went to the window and looked out. The air was filled with falling white flakes, so large in size and so queer in form that she was puzzled.And here's a fine picture of how Button-Bright might look today by David Lee Ingersoll.
"Are you certain this is snow?" she asked.
"To be sure. I must get my snow-shovel and turn out to shovel a path. Would you like to come with me?"
"Yes," she said, and followed the Bumpy Man out when he opened the door. Then she exclaimed: "Why, it isn't cold a bit!"
"Of course not," replied the man. "It was cold last night, before the snowstorm; but snow, when it falls, is always crisp and warm."
Trot gathered a handful of it.
"Why, it's popcorn?" she cried.
"Certainly; all snow is popcorn. What did you expect it to be?"
"Popcorn is not snow in my country."
"Well, it is the only snow we have in the Land of Mo, so you may as well make the best of it," said he, a little impatiently. "I'm not responsible for the absurd things that happen in your country, and when you're in Mo you must do as the Momen do. Eat some of our snow, and you will find it is good. The only fault I find with our snow is that we get too much of it at times."
With this the Bumpy Man set to work shoveling a path and he was so quick and industrious that he piled up the popcorn in great banks on either side of the trail that led to the mountain-top from the plains below. While he worked, Trot ate popcorn and found it crisp and slightly warm, as well as nicely salted and buttered. Presently Cap'n Bill came out of the house and joined her. . . .
Suddenly Trot heard [the Bumpy Man] call out:
"Goodness gracious--mince pie and pancakes!--here is some one buried in the snow."
She ran toward him at once and the others followed, wading through the corn and crunching it underneath their feet. The Mo snow was pretty deep where the Bumpy Man was shoveling and from beneath a great bank of it he had uncovered a pair of feet.
"Dear me! Someone has been lost in the storm," said Cap'n Bill. "I hope he is still alive. Let's pull him out and see."
He took hold of one foot and the Bumpy Man took hold of the other. Then they both pulled and out from the heap of popcorn came a little boy. He was dressed in a brown velvet jacket and knickerbockers, with brown stockings, buckled shoes and a blue shirt-waist that had frills down its front. When drawn from the heap the boy was chewing a mouthful of popcorn and both his hands were full of it. So at first he couldn't speak to his rescuers but lay quite still and eyed them calmly until he had swallowed his mouthful. Then he said:
"Get my cap," and stuffed more popcorn into his mouth.
19 November 2006
I loved Bartography's picture of the early stage of Cybils judging in the category of Nonfiction Picture Books. As a judge in the Fantasy & Science Fiction arena, I hope to emulate Chris Barton's eldest in being able to set aside three titles as not quite up to snuff. Of course, since I'll only have five to choose among, that would get me considerably closer to a vote.
Cybil nominations are open for just a few hours more!
PERMANENT LINK: 8:39 PM
Apropos of ice dragons instead of fire dragons, fantasy scholar Ruth Berman tells me that E. Nesbit wrote a story called "The Ice Dragon" in her collection The Book of Dragons, also titled Seven Dragons. That tale originally snaked through the June and July 1899 issues of The Strand magazine.
A standalone edition of The Ice Dragon was published in 1988, with pictures by Carol Gray. Though the text is in the public domain, the only free version I could find on the web is this audio download, which requires registration.
Son of a gun! Over at the Unshelved comic strip, I could see when Bill Barnes started to use his new drawing tablet. This gives me a great feeling of techno-envy, and I don't even need a drawing tablet.
If you want to test your eyes, it happened between 23 October and 6 November, and I think it really shows up in the rendering of Dewey and Mel. (Merv, of course, never changes.) The crucial date is revealed in the Unshelved blog.
PERMANENT LINK: 2:55 PM
18 November 2006
This wasn't what I expected to write about today, but I've just been flabbergasted by news from Michael Quinion's World Wide Words that children older than my mother never had a chance to do the hokey-pokey.
Quinion writes of that song and dance:
Its history is bedevilled by accusations of plagiarism, but the original seems to have been that composed by Jimmy Kennedy in the UK in 1942, which was referred to during the War years variously as the cokey-cokey, the okey-cokey and the hokey-cokey.The term "hokey-pokey" had two meanings documented in the 1800s:
The US version under the name hokey-pokey is usually attributed to Larry LaPrise in 1949.
- cheating of some sort, probably derived from a conjurer's "hocus pocus."
- cheap ice cream, probably derived from milk.
A very familiar verse about putting limbs in and out and shaking them all about appeared in Edward Deming Andrews's The Gift to Be Simple, a 1940 collection of Shaker songs, still available in a Dover edition. Another such dance is reportedly described in Robert Chambers's The Popular Rhymes of Scotland, first published in 1826. (I've seen only the 1870 edition, and wasn't looking to put anything in or out at the time.) So children of yore were probably not as deprived as I feared.
17 November 2006
On Wednesday the Boston Globe published an article by David Mehegan headlined "A Love Story", about the future of books in a world of digital information. This is one of the few popular articles about book format I've seen that recognizes how the bound codex we're used to was not simply granted to humans by the gods along with fire and chocolate, but was a historical invention--late Roman Empire, to be exact. That means it came along well after some books we still read today, such as the Hebrew Bible and Plato's Symposium.
Like most other discussions of the codex's appeal, the article talks a lot about the "tactile" experience. Yes, turning paper pages is tactile. So is pushing a little button to shift the screen image on an electronic book, or wearing earbuds to listen to an audiobook. So, for that matter, is stubbing your toe.
I don't think the smell of leather, glue, ink, and slowly rotting paper is naturally appealing to humans. Rather, we book lovers learn to enjoy that sensory experience because we come to associate it with the experience of getting lost in a book. If I were a Victorian scribe working ten hours a day copying real-estate records from big leatherbound volumes, I probably wouldn't feel such good associations about the look, smell, and feel of those codices.
The engineers of the latest highly marketed electronic book machine, the Sony Reader, have spent a lot of time recreating some tactile aspects of paper books: immediate accessibility, a big display, page views rather than scrolling, and the general size and shape of a book. But they seem to have left out one of the biggest advantages of a digital book: searchability. Recreating a weakness of paper books is no way to make this new format work.
(In my remarks on the Reader, I'm relying on Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam's review from a few weeks ago, which combines his usual exaggerated fuddy-duddy approach with a clear eye to what would make a non-Sony reader switch formats.)
Mehegan's article points out a related disadvantage of digital books: losing one's place mentally.
"There's a feeling that you're moving through something," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, who calls the Sony Reader "underwhelming." "I'm reading a fat book now," she said, "and I'm 280 pages into it. The process of accumulating pages under my left thumb gives me a clear sense of having traveled a certain distance. It's as if I'm halfway through the world this author has created." . . .Which reminds us that something else that can really interfere with the enjoyment of reading is academic prose.
"I read Dracula in electronic form," said Timothy Shanahan, professor of urban education at the University of Illinois and president of the International Reading Association, "and when I would come back to it, I would not remember where I was as well as I expected. I rarely have that happen with a book."
His experience has research support. A March 2005 French study cited in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies compared retention in readers who used "a mobile e-book device" to those who used a book. The result: "The e-book presence hinders recall of assimilated information whilst the presence of the paper support [i.e., the book] tends to facilitate it."
I wonder if people are a little more apt to lose their places in digital books because they're reading in smaller snatches, and thus don't focus so exclusively on the page. That said, I do believe that knowing what proportion of a book one has read is a crucial part of our reading experience.
We can see how many pages are left in a printed book at a glance, though sometimes long Endnotes and Appendices have thrown me off. Such knowledge doesn't depend on the tactile "left thumb," though. Many digital readers (like my Palm) provide the same information to two decimal places.
I don't have those visual cues when I'm listening to audiobooks on my displayless iPod Shuffle, and I've found it makes a real difference not to know how many more pages an author has to wrap up the plot.
PERMANENT LINK: 3:43 PM
16 November 2006
When the National Book Award nominations were announced earlier in the fall, Gene Yang's American Born Chinese received extra attention because it was the first graphic novel to receive that honor. Not all that attention was favorable, and Wired's "Luddite" columnist Tony Long complained:
...as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.I have tried writing "a real novel" or two or seventeen in my time, and I've tried writing and drawing a couple of "real comic books." They are indeed two very different media. But if the level of difficulty is the criterion for judging their value, I'm taking the easy road by sticking to prose.
If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award,...is exceedingly difficult.
In a most classy move, Yang replied on his publisher's First Second blog with praise for...another nominee! (And yesterday's eventual winner, Octavian Nothing, by M. T Anderson). Yang wrote:
One of the most intriguing aspects of the book (for me, at least) is Anderson's use of visual storytelling devices. For example, Anderson uses different fonts and font styles to communicate time, place, and emotion.My only quibble with this argument is that, while "modern printing technology" makes the mix of prose and art much more cheap and flexible than it's been in times past, that novelistic technique is about as old as Anderson's Octavian character, if not older.
There are other, more striking, examples. In an early chapter, the protagonist opens the door to a forbidden room and is startled by a sign hanging on the wall, a sign that reveals the secret behind the peculiarities of his existence. That sign is DRAWN in the middle page. It slaps you in the face on the page turn, much as it does Octavian when he opens the door.
Toward the end of the book (here comes a spoiler, so go away until you've actually read it), after Octavian suffers a gruesome personal tragedy, entire passages of the book are scribbled out with what looks to be a crow quill pen. The pages of angry lines and ink splotches communicate as much or more about Octavian's state of mind as the paragraphs that came before.
No one would argue that M.T. Anderson's book is not a novel, but does Anderson's inclusion of graphic devices diminish the "novel-ness" of Octavian Nothing? Does it make Anderson less of a "novelist"?
Not to me. To me, it shows that he committed to the telling of his story above all else, and that he is willing to use whatever devices modern printing technology affords to communicate effectively.
As this online exhibit from the Glasgow University Library shows, Laurence Sterne interrupted what little story there was in his Tristram Shandy with such devices as a marbled page, a black page, and a crooked line like this:
And how about that stately, plump S at the start of James Joyce's Ulysses? I'm pretty sure Tristram Shandy and Ulysses are "real novels" within the English literary tradition. But they're not plain prose.
PERMANENT LINK: 2:59 PM
15 November 2006
Another extract from Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny By Papa, Nathaniel Hawthorne's diary of looking after his five-year-old son, Julian, in the summer of 1851.
This is part of the entry for 6 August:
Julian was remarkably uneasy in the village; insomuch that I came away without purchasing some loaf-sugar, which we have wanted ever so long. He was so restless in his movements that I suspected him to be, in his technical phrase, "uncomfortable"; but he positively denied it.Look back here for another, less soppy extract.
We stopt at Love-Grove; and there again I made inquisition as to this point; but he still said no. He was so restless, however, that I advised him to go home before me, and he accordingly started at a great pace.
I came up with him, on the ascent of the hill, on this side of Mr. Butler's. I heard him squealing, while I was some distance behind; and approaching nearer, I saw that he walked wide between the legs. Poor little man! His drawers were all a-sop. It is a positive cruelty to the child not to put him into such a dress that he may have nature's freedom, at any moment.
14 November 2006
When it comes to Ellen Raskin mystery novels involving word games, multimillion-dollar inheritances derived from household products, inappropriate engagements, assumed identities, sudden deaths, an epilogue stretching years into the future, and children and adults detecting together, I'm fondest of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Yes, I like it better than The Westing Game.
I'm not claiming that The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is clearly better than Raskin's Newbery-winner. The Westing Game is more sophisticated. Its cast is bigger, rounder, and more diverse, with tougher issues to deal with alongside the mystery. There are more layers to its narrative and its mystery (in large part because it's a puzzle deliberately crated to deceive rather than a set of mysterious circumstances). The Westing Games can also boast a swell online archive of Raskin's notes and manuscript, which the University of Wisconsin set up a few years ago.
Nevertheless, I have strong nostalgic feelings about The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). As I commented on The Magic of Books months back, I think the many devoted fans of The Westing Game could do a lot worse than to check out her first novel. What precisely makes me prefer the earlier book?
1) THE TIMING. My paperback copy of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) was printed in 1973, the year I became a "middle reader." The Westing Game was published in 1978, the year I became a teenager. So the first book became available just when I was ready for it, and the latter as I was growing out of kids' mysteries. I liked it, but it didn't grab me and hold on.
Furthermore, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is very much of its time--of my childhood's time. It takes place in a New York City when a bunch of shaggy-haired, jeans-wearing hippies are ready to protest at the drop of a hat. Not that I've ever lived in New York or ran with such a crowd, but I liked the idea that they'd be available if ever I needed someone sprung from a pesthole of a jail.
2) THE GRAPHICS. Until this book, Raskin had been creating delightful picture books in her unique graphic style: Spectacles, And It Rained, Nothing Ever Happens on My Block. As part of her transition to novelist, she created drawings to start each chapter of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel).
Furthermore, those drawings incorporate typographical elements, which have long fascinated me. The characters' bodies are made up of words and phrases important in the following chapter. The central character's flowered dress and upholstery are rendered in asterisks.
3) THE FOOTNOTES. Reading the book last week, I realized that they're a forebear of Lemony Snicket's authorial interjections.
4) THE FARCE. The plot of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is undoubtedly silly, the central character undoubtedly flat (in E. M. Forster's sense) and immature. In real life, she'd never get to adopt twins; she'd be referred to therapy instead. But now that we're all adults, do the characters in The Westing Game behave any more realistically, especially Mr. Westing himself? At least The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) doesn't take itself so seriously.
13 November 2006
From Chris Dulabone of the Tales of the Cowardly Lion and Friends comes word Superfly Monkey, a new flying monkey toy. Well, it's more of monkey slingshot, with the little creatures' front limbs yanking out like Stretch Armstrong's to launch them into the air. In the words of the Wicked Witch of the West, it won't be so much fun after someone loses an eye.
Eric Gjovaag turned up another version of the same toy. This one screams as it flies! Just the sort of thing an irrepressible uncle-type like myself might choose for a stocking stuffer.
In the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum wrote of the "Winged Monkeys." The 1939 MGM movie's screenplay changed that to "Flying Monkeys," producing the phrase that's more famous these days. These toy monkeys may or may not fly (they more plummet), but they definitely don't have wings. Instead, they wear little hoods, capes, and masks, available in a variety of colors.
PERMANENT LINK: 11:24 AM
12 November 2006
Folks who work in publishing know that book reviews are important, but book advertising is even more rare and therefore often more revealing about companies' priorities and plans. Today's New York Times Book Review included its pre-holiday roundup of top children's picture books for the year and a fine crop of ads. Among them:
And then an unusual ad caught my eye: a quarter-page notice inviting editors and agents to HenrySparks.com, a website offering an unpublished fantasy manuscript for middle-grade boys. The author, Keith Lewis, seems to be a natural entrepreneur--former sports trainer and financial executive. And he seems to have jumped into the children's-book biz with the same gumption and willingness to invest up front.
Unfortunately, his synopsis--or maybe his manuscript--doesn't offer much plot to sell. As far as I can tell, ingenious eight-year-old Henry builds submarine with "slow," seventeen-year-old Homer. They meet an electric eel named Ernie, who proves telepathic and chummy. Then they all go back in time to encounter the most red-hot adventurers of recent years, pirates! But not to fear, there's also a pirate chaser with an allegorical name slightly more subtle than a John Bunyan character.
What drives Henry? What are his foibles? What challenges does he face? What defines Homer apart from his fondness for Henry? What motivates Ernie's friendliness? What conflict will grab readers' interest? Where are the moments of suspense? What do Henry's family, the space program, and fuel cells (which pop up in the synopsis's last paragraph) have to do with everything else? And what does it say about our society's class aspirations when "Plebian" is the name of a villain?
Lewis's ad invited serious inquiries only, so obviously it's not for me. But looking at how much money he's willing to invest already, between this website and the NYTBR ad, I suspect he'll get a lot of inquiries from people who are very serious about offering their services. Self-publishing services. Manuscript marketing services.
Nevertheless, just like publishers' ads, this ad might be revealing about the future. In the current slushy environment, we authors may no longer be able to let a manuscript speak for itself. We might have to be entrepreneurs while publishers act as venture capitalists with the money and manufacturing and marketing expertise. But we still have to have an excellent idea for our start-ups.
11 November 2006
This weekend the Pennsylvania Library Association starts its annual meeting. Part of its business is to award Elizabeth Allen, director of the Schlow Center Region Library in State College, Pennsylvania, a certificate of merit for "making outstanding contributions during the last five years in Pennsylvania."
In those years, Allen oversaw a major physical expansion of the regional library--a huge fundraising, construction, and logistical job. (See a video of the work here.)
Elizabeth Allen is also my Aunt Betsy. Back in the summer of 1976, when I was ten, I discovered that the Schlow Library had an unusually fine collection of Oz books--including several I hadn't seen even at Harvard's Widener Library. (Hey, I was a determined little ten-year-old.)
I took my first trip away from home and my first airplane flights as an "unaccompanied minor" to visit Aunt Betsy and her library. She thus made an "outstanding contribution" to my growing up (such as it is). Central Pennsylvania is very lucky to have her.
PERMANENT LINK: 4:38 PM
10 November 2006
Language Log offers a graph from Blogpulse of the number of times bloggers have used the phrase "ding dong," as in "Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead." There was a big spike on 7 June, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, and another right after Election Day.
PERMANENT LINK: 6:07 PM
There's a tradition of "poetry Fridays" among some children's-lit blogs, which I usually remember about Saturday morning. But today I'm in time to contribute this acrostic in honor of Polychrome, the Rainbow's Daughter, from The Road to Oz and other books by L. Frank Baum.
Rainbow daughter, dancing light
On an arc that sails the skies,
You enchant our earthbound sight,
Gladdening our misty eyes.
Brave the fog! Defy the night!
If it’s dry, put off good-byes!
Verse copyright (c) by J. L. Bell
09 November 2006
Roger Sutton just wrote about the issues provoked by sequels and series, asking how reviewers and prize judges can evaluate them. Must one know the ultimate ending of the series to gauge the first volume? Must readers have read the foregoing volumes to appreciate a later entry? And if part 2 is better than part 1 or part 3 (The Empire Strikes Back, anyone?), can it satisfy without a true beginning or end?
As one example of the quandary, on the Child_Lit email list, Charlie Butler started a list of classic twentieth-century British children's books with E. Nesbit's Five Children and It. For my money, the first sequel, The Phoenix and the Carpet, is superior because of the superior character of the Phoenix (pictured above, at least according to the BBC). And the third book, with its look at mankind's past and future, has more philosophical depth than the first. Clearly, the sequels couldn't have existed without the first book, but the series as a whole outweighs that beginning. In the end, I think it's best to consider this Nesbit series as a whole.
As I discussed in this posting about Diana Wynne Jones's The Pinhoe Egg, sequels that closely follow a preceding book offer a pleasure different from standalone books. They offer variations on the familiar rather than the thrill of discovery.
Series also sell differently, of course, as we see in how children's bestseller lists now routinely separate series titles from standalones, lest the latter be crowded out entirely by volumes of The Magic Tree House. Of course, that can make it awkward when a successful single title spawns gobs of sequels--what was once respectable enough to merit a place on the main list might get shunted off to the category of books that sell too much.
Only some series are planned from the beginning (Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Percy Jackson), and others forced into separate volumes by length (The Lord of the Rings, Octavian Nothing). But most series start out as standalone titles, and they evolve into series because of that most powerful motivator for writing: ready money.
Book 1 sells a bundle. More readers means more people wondering, "What happened next?" (even if, as in Wicked, the main character is D-E-A-D, dead). Publisher and agent drop hints about the wisdom of revisiting that well. Author can't help but think gratefully of those characters and that world. And before we know it, as Bobcat Goldthwait said about the need for Police Academy 4, "There were so many unanswered questions!" crying out to be addressed.
Sometimes sequels really do address questions that the original volume couldn't touch. Bruce Coville's My Teacher Is an Alien started as a catchy title suggested by packager Byron Preiss and grew into a series with depths that its beginning never hinted at.
L. Frank Baum's Oz books managed to be all types of sequels: incremental, planned, and then ground out endlessly. They come in four layers, defined by how long he imagined his series to be when he wrote:
The sequel phenomenon may be especially strong in children's books because there's such a tradition of series, many very good and even more beloved. Of the past twenty-five years of Newbery winners, I count at least half a dozen that inspired sequels or were sequels.
Compare that to Pulitzer-winning novels in the same period. In serious adult fiction, an author may already have to be at the top of his game (as in Updike, Roth--and I do mean "his") to get away with such a commercial move as writing a sequel. Larry McMurtry's sales remain high, but was his literary star higher before he started writing sequels to Lonesome Dove?
08 November 2006
A while back I linked to a couple of lists of cliché situations to avoid in fantasy because, those writers said, they're overused.
Last month, Agent Kristen's Pub Rants offered a list of cliché phrases to avoid in a fantasy synopsis.
Oddly enough, it doesn't include the word "unwitting."
PERMANENT LINK: 10:08 PM
07 November 2006
In the video "trailer" for his new children's book, The Ice Dragon, George R. R. Martin posits that he is, as far as he knows, the first fantasy author to imagine a dragon that breathes out cold instead of fire.
Ruth Plumly Thompson created such a creature in Ojo in Oz (1933). Colored blue and puffing out frost, it runs endlessly around Crystal City, keeping the inhabitants frozen solid. Ojo is one of Thompson's better contributions to the Oz series, but there's no reason for Martin to know of it. And I don't know if Thompson was first with the ice dragon idea, either.
The detail of Martin's interview that caught my attention is that he originally wrote his tale over twenty years ago, as a short story for an anthology. What has changed? His name has become much more famous, and the market for children's fantasy has exploded. Now a short story can be republished, with big type and lots of illustrations, as a 100-page novella.
PERMANENT LINK: 4:36 PM
06 November 2006
Yesterday's discourse with M. T. Anderson about "new wave fabulism" and fantasy prompted some more thinking about what the bounds of fantasy literature are.
As in any taxonomic discussion, this may simply be a matter of lumping and splitting. I may prefer a broader definition of "fantasy" than others, one that incorporates all of the following groupings:
Does "magical realism" or "new wave fabulism" or whatever one wants to call it confine itself to the fourth subgrouping above? That does allow "Less emphasis on the construction of coherent alternative worlds" as Anderson wrote, and more attention to the response and/or origin of the anomalous fantastic element.
How much does fantasy literature have to explain or justify its unreal elements? I operate on the basis that as long as the story remains enjoyable and engrossing enough, it can keep ahead of the logic police. But of course adults are often more skeptical than young readers, and some adults more than others--sad to say.
Is "escape" a necessary part of fantasy literature, particularly those forms that involves journeys to different worlds or dimensions of this world? And does that in turn make fantasy an inherently optimistic, comedic (in the Aristotlean sense) form (while science fiction can take up the cause of pessimism)?
Does the implication that "it was all just a dream" or a psychological projection make an unreal story more real, or less of a story? (Answer with reference to "The Secret Sharer," Alice in Wonderland, and the MGM Wizard of Oz.)
And, as I've asked before, can any definition of "magical realism" or "new wave fabulism" logically exclude E. Nesbit's "Deliverers of Their Country"?
PERMANENT LINK: 2:17 PM
05 November 2006
Back on 8 October, Jessica Winter wrote in the Boston Globe's Arts section about "a new literary movement based in Northampton," Massachusetts. The article, "Make It Weird," describes "writers who are currently staking out ground between mainstream literary fiction and the more specialized domains of science fiction and fantasy."
This reported literary movement goes by various names:
- new-wave fabulism
- the new weird
- weirdass fiction
- kitchen-sink magic realism
I see the same anxieties and shiftiness at work in this new trend. Winter quotes Bradford Murrow, the novelist and anthologist who coined the term "new wave fabulism," as defining it like this:
"A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm," says Morrow. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that, he adds, "would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall."So "new wave fabulism" differs from all previous science fiction and fantasy because, well, it's different.
It has "transcended the conventions," Murrow says. But by definition fantasy literature already transcends the most rigid convention of all, real life. Of course, the science fiction and fantasy genres have developed conventions. All genre literature does; that's how genres function. (And no one is more ruthless in pointing out clichés than genre authors.) But not all science fiction and fantasy fits within the limits of genre, just as not every novel that contains a murder is a mystery.
Murrow says the new work has entered a "new literary realm," higher (hence "lifting") than its conventional counterparts. What defines "literary"? The article singles out the work of Kelly Link, especially in Magic for Beginners:
With endless permutations of the wry, the enchanted, and the quotidian, Link employs fantastical elements as thrilling ends in themselves, but also as the means for expressing her characters' emotions and private dilemmas.Stories with emotional depth are called good fiction. That quality has nothing to do with the presence or absence of "fantastical elements."
What really distinguishes "new wave fabulism" from the fantasy novels that started to rewrite US bestseller lists a few years ago? The intended audience. Winter starts her article with Link's story "Lull", which involves a phone-sex line. We just don't see phone-sex lines in fiction for young people; older teens may want to chat about sex, but, unlike adults, they haven't given up the ambition of doing so for free. Similarly, calling a movement "weirdass" signals that you're not telling stories to fourth-graders (or else you could never be heard over the hysterics).
So, my Northampton neighbors, write your stories! Explore the depths of adult emotional dilemmas! Break the conventions of genre--because that's what fantasy lets writers do! But address your creativity to your fiction, not to coining new, multi-verbal labels for what sort of fiction it is.
04 November 2006
This week Publishers Weekly took note of "the Class of 2k7," a grass-roots movement of writers whose first novels for young people debut next year. They're hoping that as a group they can gain marketing and review attention that debut novelists don't usually enjoy.
I was ahead of the curve on this news, but only because I'm in writers' groups with the 2k7 class president, Greg Fishbone (The Penguins of Doom), and member Karen L. Day (Tall Tales).
So today I pondered the question: What do those two middle-grade novels have in common? They both have young female narrators, they're both contemporary, and...they'll both be printed on paper. That's about it. 2k7 is a very diverse class.
PERMANENT LINK: 10:39 PM
03 November 2006
Here's more of my thinking about The Pinhoe Egg, this time with no concern about giving away the ending. So I start with the ***SPOILER*** label.
Diana Wynne Jones's portrait of senile dementia in Gammer Pinhoe is frighteningly true to life, even if Gammer can also use magic to root herself to the ground and cloud people's minds. This produces an opening as claustrophobically scary as any of her previous starts. Those scenes also establish how one of the book's two main, intersecting plots (Marianne's story) will play out within a family.
As for the end, I think endings are usually the weakest parts of Diana Wynne Jones's novels. Often the action seems to slow down instead of speeding up. In Witch's Business, for instance, the kids are all frozen in place for a while. In Conrad's Fate, there's a long wait for a creature to shamble out of a magical distance.
The Pinhoe Egg has a big, riotous battle between two magical families, as in The Magicians of Caprona, but then the real plot resolution comes with Chrestomanci gathering everyone in a room like suspects at the end of an Hercule Poirot mystery and talking a lot. Chrestomanci likes talking, of course, but that's no reason to indulge him. And then follows a chapter of all the kids ending up in a happy place, as I discussed on the 1st.
Furthermore, for all his talk about who did what when they shouldn't have, Chrestomanci doesn't address the emotional depths of the family betrayals. Of course, that's not a topic he's good at addressing (and we see why in The Lives of Christopher Chant). That makes the end seem a bit perfunctory, fizzing out after the real issues have been dealt with but before they've been resolved.
It would have been nice to see Cat, who knows a bit about family betrayal, talk this over with Marianne, just as he told her about her powers. As it is, she has discovered that her father and many other relatives have been involved in horrible family dysfunction--at the level of early Greek myths, that bad--but seems to move straight from the horrified first reaction to pleasure at being able to go to a different school. The book's two main protagonists might have benefited from working through their feelings together. But then we don't know what the future holds for Cat and Marianne, do we?
One final observation: Chapter 1 mentions three magical clans in this part of Chrestomanci's England, the third being "the Cleeves in Underhelm." But all the action seems to be played out by Pinhoes and Farleighs alone. I kept waiting for the Cleeves to play a bigger role. Are they still out there?
18 May 2006: whispers of a new Chrestomanci book.
10 Oct 2006: first impressions.
12 Oct 2006: enter the horse.
14 Oct 2006: Joe bears watching.
16 Oct 2006: Cat escapes a cliché.
19 Oct 2006: enter the griffin.
31 Oct 2006: a Gump in the works?
1 Nov 2006: how it stands in a series.]
02 November 2006
This posting is a little late, and not just because I'm postdating it from Friday. A few weeks ago a buncha Children's and YA Book Bloggers decided to launch a literary award for favorite books of 2006. In a vaguely acronymic way, the awards are called the Cybils. And I agreed to serve as one judge in the category of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
All readers are invited to go to the Cybils Award site to nominate one book or fewer in each of the categories: Picture Book Fiction, Picture Book Nonfiction, Middle Grade Fiction, etc., etc.
The Cybils are in many ways a response to the Quills, the new Bowker-owned awards that are a sort of "People's Choice" for literature. Those awards are an industry joke and will continue to be until they somehow turn out to drive sales--which will be impossible to tell since they go to books that are already bestsellers.
Ever since literature lost its perch stop public entertainment (if indeed it ever was there), it's disdained popularity as the measure of quality. We use the Latinate "literature" instead of the Germanic "book," after all. Literary awards have always been about getting above the din of popular taste. That's why it's so hard for the judges when a popular book is also a Very Good Book; award-givers don't think they're doing their job if they can't tell the public that no, really, they should be directing their attention over here. But all that is speculation; the Cybils are the first award I've helped to judge outside of Oz Club conventions.
Unlike Ms. Bird at Fuse #8, who's going to be on the Newbery Committee, I'm not removing any reviews or comments about recent books posted here to avoid "even the appearance of partiality," as the politicos say. I tend to be catching up on books published ten or 110 years ago. So I fully expect the five nominated titles to all be on either my "I really should read that someday" list or my "I never heard of that" list, and I'll spend January gulping them down.
In other bloggerdom news, the Eighth Carnival of Children's Literature is up at Scholar's Blog. As you'll see, I've finally mastered the process of submitting entries.
01 November 2006
I realized I should get around to some remarks on Diana Wynne Jones's The Pinhoe Egg, or else people might think I'd never finished it.
This is the first true sequel in Jones's Chrestomanci series of novels--the first to pick up shortly after a previous volume (Charmed Life), and to reuse a young protagonist from that volume (Cat). The Lives of Christopher Chant was a prequel, Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona are set far from Chrestomanci Castle (in so many ways), and Conrad's Fate fits in the middle but doesn't immediately follow or precede any title, not to mention having a very different narrative style. Only some of the short stories in Mixed Magics are closely tied to the same time and place as Charmed Life and The Pinhoe Egg.
And The Pinhoe Egg makes me think more strongly that we have to consider series novels considered differently from standalone novels. In this book Jones assumes that her readers will know about Chrestomanci's job; about Cat's difficult family history and peculiar sort of sinister magic, so much stronger than his classmates'; and about Lady Chrestomanci's immense powers and mothering skills. She wastes no space reintroducing them.
Furthermore, The Pinhoe Egg offers the pleasure of the familiar more than the pleasure of the new discovery. Chrestomanci appears not as an intimidating stranger or a last-ditch rescuer but as an eccentric father and guardian. We learn nothing new about him or his wife--but that's all right. In this sort of sequel, the pleasure arises in the reassurance that they're the same.
In this context, annoying behaviors can become beloved quirks. Of course Roger would think that because he had the idea to patent Cat's mirror game that he can claim to have invented it, and of course Cat keeps quiet. Similarly, in the Oz books Button-Bright is endearingly dim. We don't need these characters to grow and change. We don't want them to change!
Similarly, the plot echoes the basic structure of past Chrestomanci novels: Young person is oppressed by family/society, turns out to be immensely powerful magician, gets to learn even more magic in Chrestomanci Castle. In a like way, most of the Oz books finish with a party in the Emerald City. Who could complain?
Well, that castle classroom is getting awfully crowded, isn't it? Cat, Roger, Julia, Janet (despite having no magic), Marianne, Joe, and a griffin who can be expected to grow to dinosaur size. Of course, the only danger in that pattern is that there might not be room for another sequel.
18 May 2006: whispers of a new Chrestomanci book.
10 Oct 2006: first impressions.
12 Oct 2006: enter the horse.
14 Oct 2006: Joe bears watching.
16 Oct 2006: Cat escapes a cliché.
19 Oct 2006: enter the griffin.
31 Oct 2006: a Gump in the works?]