31 January 2007

Definitely a Dead Mother Book

Publishers Weekly offers some interesting remarks from Susan Patron about how she came to write her Newbery-winning novel for the middle grades, The Higher Power of Lucky:

The genesis for Lucky goes back a number of years. Patron recalls a dinner at an ALA midwinter conference given by Dick Jackson, who had edited her earlier books. "Amy Kellman [one of the librarians at the dinner] asked me, "What are you working on?' I thought, 'Here's my chance to pitch this book.' I told them about it and they laughed at all the right places, and Dick said, in so many words, 'Send me some chapters and I'll send you a contract.'"

Pretty speedy path to publication, right? Well, not exactly. Patron says she ended up working on the book for 10 years. "Dick was very patient. Each time I'd send him a draft, he'd say, 'Not ready, not yet.' So I'd take another stab." Patron found a new direction for Lucky after her mother passed away. "I had this sense of being unmoored--it was a very surprising feeling. That gave the book its heart."
The Washington Post also reports on Patron's creative path: "For a long time she had the characters in her head but didn't know what they would go on to do. After her mother died a few years ago, she realized that her title character 'was really dealing with losing her mom.' The writing started to go faster at that point."

30 January 2007

Art Out of Its Mind

Without doubt the weirdest things I’ve read for months (and bear in mind I’m reading fantasies for the Cybils and mystical visions ascribed to George Washington) are some of the comics collected by Dan Nadel in Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969.

Some of these comics bear out the rule that when there is seemingly unquenchable demand (“too many customers”), publishers expand their offerings. This can produce great innovation as well as mediocre and even horrendous work. Thus, in the early 1940s, when publishers couldn’t print comics fast enough, there was a market even for Fletcher Hanks’s Stardust the Super Wizard. It’s crappy on so many levels--storytelling, dialogue, draftsmanship--yet impossible to get out of your mind.

Similarly, the late 1960s underground comics seem to have printed anything, even Rory Hayes's nightmarish visions, which I can best summarize as “Snuggle the softener bear goes to Hell.” If only these hadn’t actually been published, connoisseurs might look at Hayes’s addictions and oddities and decide these pages qualify as “outsider art,” and are worth much, much more.

Most of the work collected in this volume comes from sane, talented artists who simply pushed the boundaries of the medium, either as those boundaries were becoming established and after they had become cliché. For example, in 1903-04 Gustave Verbeek drew a series of Sunday comics which started a simple story in panels left to right, top row to bottom—and then the reader turned the page upside-down and read the same panels from the new left to the new right, the new top to the new bottom. Nadel does a nice job of sorting out the comics by their area of greatest innovation: surreal storytelling, unique draftsmanship, humor, etc.

But even as the book analyzes those hard-working professional artists, there are touches of deep strangeness. Garrett Price’s Western newspaper comic sported not only a distinctively spare graphic style but also the title of (wait for it) White Boy. Norman E. Jennett got his start in North Carolina at a local newspaper called The Caucasian.

My favorite items in this collection reflect my fondness for Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland strips. Since many other people loved that comic page at the time, rival newspapers commissioned imitations from talented artists, and three appear in this book.

  • Naughty Pete, by Charles Forbell (1913); only eleven episodes survive, all of them reprinted here
  • Monkey Shines of Marcellus, by Norman E. Jennett (1905-1910), if only for its draftsmanship
  • Harry Grant Dart's The Explorigator(s) (1908)—the most obvious Nemo imitation, and yet the one I want to see more of
The Explorigator lasted only fourteen episodes, so the book reprints 29% of its entire run. (Here, in fact, is 7%.) Unlike Nemo, who’s a bit colorless, each of Dart’s boy heroes has an outsized ambition to match his hat: Admiral Fudge, the Grenadier, Teddy Typewriter the journalist, Rubbersole the detective, et al. True to his name, Dart absolutely soared as an illustrator of the new age of airships.

Check out the Comics Reporter for some Art Out of Time preview pages and comments from Nadel. Reviews from Paul Gravett and the LA Weekly and an interview at The Comics Journal offer more sneak peeks.

Beyond the scope of Art Out of Time is another McCay imitation, Frank King’s Bobby Make-Believe, which I think suffers from condescension toward its young hero. Steve Moore and Eric Shanower created a latter-day homage to McCay and Dart with “Little Margie in Misty Magic Land” in 2003.

29 January 2007

A Look into the Future Tomorrow

The Foundation for Children’s Books will host the following event tomorrow night at Boston College:

Roger Sutton of the Horn Book magazine talks with a panel of senior editors from publishers small, medium and large--Judy O'Malley of Charlesbridge Publishing, Elizabeth Bicknell of Candlewick Press and Margaret Raymo of Houghton Mifflin--about the changing nature of publishing books for children and youth. Topics will include the reign of fat fantasy, the decline in picture books, and the future of the new kid on the block--graphic novels. Where will we go from here?
Admission is $15 if you’re not already a member of the FCB.

Speaking of “fat fantasy,” a word about Beka Cooper: Terrier (unless that should be Terrier: Beka Cooper--it’s the first in a coming series), by Tamora Pierce. This book is 581 pages long, blocky enough to stand up in a moderate wind. Random House achieved that full heft in the typesetting; I think the technical term for the book's type size is “honking big.”

As I said about the U.S. edition of The Pinhoe Egg, this book could have been printed on considerably fewer pages without looking cramped. It was by no means short to begin with, but the fashion in fantasy today is thick as a pound cake. So designers are using a little magic to make moderate manuscripts into behemoths. After all, it's only trees.

28 January 2007

Not Thinking of a Rhinoceros

Last night I went to my mom’s first recorder recital, and fell into this conversation with a stranger.

Six-year-old there to hear his sister play: I know something you don’t know about elephants.

Me: How do you know I’m not an expert on elephants?

Pause for thought.

: This is something you don't know about elephants.
But I know when I’m licked.

27 January 2007

Seeking a Sense of Hope at the Oscars

Earlier this week I remarked on how the Newbery Medal (granted this week) and the Oscars (nominees announced this week) both tend to go to Serious work, as our culture defines it. Pirates of the Caribbean movies don't win Best Picture Awards, even when they’re very, very good.

I also opined that this year’s Newbery honorees match most other current Serious children’s novels in offering a “sense of hope.” That doesn’t mean the protagonists succeed at all they’ve set out to do, but the books end with those young people (and, presumably, young readers) looking up again at the road ahead. Does the same apply to Serious movies these days? Or are movies for adults (like novels for adults) able to leave their audiences with feelings of resigned acceptance, ennui, cynicism, fatalism, etc.?

Now whenever we consider how books or movies leave their partakers, we have to talk about how they end, so this posting will be nothin’ but *** SPOILERS ***.

Let’s consider The Depahted. (I use the indigenous pronunciation out of respect for my Boston neighbors.) What “sense of hope” does that movie leave us with? That a rogue ex-cop can exact revenge for his colleagues and escape his past as a white rapper? That Alec Baldwin is still alive and available for 30 Rock? That a really great Beacon Hill apartment has suddenly come on the market? That's not much hope.

And yet The Depahted is considered one of the more commercial, crowd-pleasing movies in this Best Picture lineup. For one thing, it's in English, almost. It has a lot of plot twists and gunshots. But it sure doesn’t end with assurance that all is well.

For adults, it seems, catharsis can be enough to complete a story. Plot resolutions don’t have to be wrapped up with a hopeful ribbon. As for the road ahead, it would be hard to imagine a movie in which more major characters end up dead. But then there’s Letters from Iwo Jima. (And, I suppose, Hamlet.)

The Queen is a terrific drama or social comedy, depending on your mood, but it’s like visiting your grandparents and realizing how you accommodate all their strange habits just because they’re your grandparents. At the end I felt closer to all the main characters, but I felt no hope that any of them can become better people.

I think Babel is a “sense of hope” movie in the most modern sense, making the case for global connections even in the face of global divides. And the comedy Little Miss Sunshine certainly throws hope at viewers: reassurance that when you put your little daughter in a hotel room with your junkie father, he may die but she’ll still learn to dance like a stripper when it counts. But of the five Best Picture nominees, I think a majority don't offer a “sense of hope” as a main ingredient.

That’s not to say that Oscar-winning movies are less bound by traditions and expectations than children’s literature. Indeed, as I noted before, I think the tradition of honoring mostly Serious work is even stronger in cinema than in kids’ books. But at least right now movies for grown-ups aren’t measured by their “sense of hope.”

26 January 2007

Poetry Friday: And You Don't Know It

The illustration to the left, titled "Mr. Peter Piper sees a shark," comes from a well-known American poet. Indeed, this artist was without doubt the most popular American poet of the late 1800s, when people quoted verse to express their emotions the way we now crank up popular songs.

This little drawing comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of "Paul Revere's Ride," "The Children's Hour," Hiawatha, Evangeline, and much more. He drew Mr. Piper and his fishy friend in a tale he wrote for his children (he had six, five of whom lived to adulthood). The Houghton Library at Harvard University, which owns former professor Longfellow's papers, opened a display on his life and work this month. Its online component consists of these drawings and similar ones about "Mr. Peter Quince," who has trouble with a balloon.

Longfellow was born on 27 Feb 1807, so this year is his bicentennial, with various events planned around the country. He wrote for a wide audience, but his work has come to be associated with children, for a number of reasons:

  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s thousands of American children were taught to memorize long stretches of Longfellow poetry. (Sens. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd can still recite all of "Paul Revere's Ride.")
  • Rhyming, metrical verse was deemed old-fashioned by modernist poets, but still dominates in children's literature, for good reasons.
  • Some of Longfellow's shorter poems have been illustrated and published for children in fine picture-book editions.
But in his lifetime, Longfellow was the poet for everyone.

Indeed, Longfellow was such a dominant literary voice that he coined several phrases that seem to have come down to us from the heavens: "Ships that pass in the night"; "Into each life some rain must fall"; "All things come round to him who will but wait"; "Peace on earth, good will to men." Yes, somebody actually wrote those.

Another little item Longfellow created for his children, specifically for daughter Edith after a bad hair day, was:
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
Longfellow never meant this to leave the household, but after it got into print he admitted to writing it. Using a parental metaphor, he lamented how juvenile verses "cling to one's skirt with a terrible grasp."

25 January 2007

Go for My Personal Point of View

Choices in narrative voices kept haunting me this week. On the Child_Lit email list we discussed the intrusive narrative voice from Vanity Fair to The Bad Beginning. I sent a copy of the brochure I'd prepared for an SCBWI New England workshop on the topic to this year's Kindling Words retreat.

In Wednesday's writing group, we reassured one member that the first-person voice she'd chosen for a project--well, that we'd forced on her last year--was still working well. (It's a story about shifting identities, so the first person makes sense both thematically and technically.) Then we encouraged another member to try combining her two drafts of a story into a version that uses both narrators. (I think the result could be surprisingly powerful, each voice casting the other into high relief.)

But the true haunting started with a guilty secret. On Monday, I went to a writing group to hear people's responses to the start of a new project, an opening chapter I'd sent out late on Friday. On Saturday morning I'd woken up to the realization that that story had to be in a first-person voice, not third-person. So my colleagues had read and analyzed something I was planning to rework in a significant way. That situation always makes me feel awkward, no matter which side of it I'm on.

Fortunately, no one loved the third-person voice per se. Since I'm quickly rewriting that chapter, I can immediately incorporate the group's suggestions and snip off all the loose ends they found. And I think the first-person voice will help get out aspects of the main character's personality that I don't think were apparent before--namely that the original narrator's cynicism is actually his own. To whit:

I had been on six field trips to the Clifftop Museum of Vital & Physical Sciences--one trip for every level of schooling. I had even gone along when the museum opened specially for my Ma and Da and older sister Mazie. And each visit was almost exactly the same as the one before.

The long lever always lifted more poundage than the short one. Feathers always fell like rocks in the evacuated tube. Each year after lunch my level sat on the carpets of the Theater of Vitality and watched a staffwoman in a cotton smock walk around with a silver gigapede draped over her shoulders. Half of us squirmed, and half of us laughed, and two of us got to pat the animal as it wriggled and say it didn’t feel slimy at all. In fourth level I was one of those two, so I didn’t need to pat a gigapede again.
I rarely insert episodes from my own childhood into my stories, at least knowingly, but in this case I plan to do so. (Not that I've ever patted a gigapede.) And maybe that's another reason I think first-person is the way to go.

24 January 2007

Ducking Stereotypes in Abadazad

As I've discussed before, the Abadazad series of graphic novels/novel novels plays off the the Oz books and other series from decades past. One of the nifty ways its creators re-imagine those forebears is that "Little Martha," the heroine of the fictive original books about Abadazad (i.e., the equivalent of Dorothy Gale), was in fact African-American. But of course a black child wasn't marketable a hundred years ago (unless reduced to a comic stereotype, like Sambo, Epaminondas, or Herman in Penrod).

On an Oz discussion list, I once speculated on what might have happened if L. Frank Baum and John R. Neill had portrayed Betsy Bobbin, heroine of Tik-Tok of Oz, as black. As it is, she's simply a stand-in for Dorothy; her thin personality in that book fades to nothing after she reaches the Emerald City. But if Betsy were black, the book might have won a new audience in the 1960s and 1970s when librarians and teachers sought out stories with non-white protagonists--a new audience just as the Oz books started to fade from public consciousness behind the bright rainbow of the MGM movie. But of course Baum and his publishers couldn't have seriously imagined such a protagonist in 1914. The creators of Abadazad can.

At the same time, their characterization of Little Martha strikes me as dangling on the edge of a modern stereotype. Unless Martha Vaughn develops well beyond what I see in the first volume, she's a print example of that modern movie cliché, the "magical Negro."

I quote from Wikipedia (and promise I didn't make up this text there in order to quote it here):

When he first encounters the (invariably white) protagonist, the magical negro often appears as someone uneducated and in a low station of life, such as a janitor or prisoner. The black character is depicted as wiser and spiritually deeper than the protagonist, and the magical negro is often used as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, and to help the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them.
Other explorations of this narrative trope are available from Noel Wood, Rita Kempley, Spike Lee, and Audrey Colombe.

Obviously, the character in Abadazad doesn't serve a white male--excuse me, White Male, as most "magical Negroes" in movies do. But Martha is a crucial supernatural helper for the story's young white heroine; she provides Kate the magic necessary to reach Abadazad, and guides the girl there. Martha does appear first as someone in a lower station: an addled elderly neighbor ("totally senile," as the Abadazad website expresses Kate's thoughts). She's obviously going to help Kate recognize her faults and overcome her problems.

But it's not clear why Little Martha is doing any of that. I think that's the main giveaway of a "magical Negro" or similar sacrificial characters: they don't have motivations or desires of their own. Why besides wise altruism does Little Martha help Kate, and what will happen if their interests diverge?

23 January 2007

Time for Some Serious Awards

Here's the American Library Association's complete list of winners of its 2007 Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, Sibert, King, etc. awards, announced yesterday.

Yesterday I posted about the Newbery shortlist's Seriousness, but I don't actually disagree with the judges' choices. All the winning and honored books of this year that I've read are indeed excellent (with one exception, and that doesn't reflect on the area of the honor). I suspect the list above offers a good guide to fine children's literature of 2006.

But it also offers more evidence of this rule in life:

Big Awards Make People Very Serious.
Readers and critics who love humor, parody, alternate worlds, and reading simply for pleasure become much more Serious when it comes time to give the biggest and most prestigious awards in their fields.

For the Newbery Medal for children's literature, that means contemporary and historical fiction about Overcoming Hardships, societal or familial, almost always prevail over humor, adventure, and fantasy or science fiction. Stories that bring us into Other Cultures also have an edge, as long as those cultures are real. Of course, there are exceptions, like 2004's Tale of Desperaux, but the pattern holds up generally over several decades of winners. It's just the way our culture tends to think.

This isn't confined to the Newberys, of course. It's probably even more pronounced in the awards for other artistic fields, such as the Oscars (nominations announced today). How many people still think that The English Patient was a better movie in 1996 than Fargo or Jerry Maguire, two other nominees that year? Heck, for effective filmmaking it's hard to top that year's box-office champ, Independence Day; any movie that can make you accept alien invaders and Bill Pullman as President has succeeded in suspending your disbelief.

But The English Patient was Serious historical fiction, based on a literary novel and performed by British and French actors. How much more classy can ya get? The others movies I mentioned were--how shall I say this?--enjoyable. It took an three-year worldwide box-office rampage for the fantasy saga The Lord of the Rings to win a Best Picture Oscar--and then only when it was clear the quality wouldn't sag.

The same attitudes also affect acting awards. The best acting performance(s) of 1996 came from Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, and he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar then. He was a comic actor in a broadly comic movie, but what made that story work was the humanity Murphy gave to its central character, Sherman, even through all the makeup.

This year Murphy appears to have a good shot to win a Best Supporting Actor award because he's given a Serious performance in Dreamgirls. As with Red Buttons and Robin Williams, Academy voters might honor a respected comic in the supporting category rather than as a lead.

22 January 2007

The Diversity of the 2007 Newbery Honorees

This year's Newbery Medal recipient and Honor Books were announced this morning. And as usual (though not always), they're very serious books.

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron: dead mother.

Penny from Heaven, by Jennifer Holm: dead father.

Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson: dead mother and father.

Rules, by Cynthia Lord: autistic brother.

This year, the honored books are also all about girls. And I'm betting that each and every one ends up offering a “sense of hope.”

21 January 2007

Divided by a Common Language at Ptolemy's Gate

This week's example of an untranslated British term comes from Ptolemy’s Gate, by Jonathan Stroud. Contemplating the prospect of entering a human’s body, the genie Bartimaeus says: “Well, I'm not too enamored of being encased inside your earthly gunge.”

The Miramax/Hyperion edition has changed the British spelling of “enamoured,” but left in “gunge.” The word’s unsavory implications are evident from Bartimaeus’s attitude, not to mention the way the word sounds. But what exactly is “gunge”?

As British slang, “gunge” dates only to the 1960s--far less
ancient than Bartimaeus (but one hallmark of his narrative voice is that he uses contemporary idioms more than anyone else). Worthless Word for the Day has explained that “gunge” means:

any messy or clogging substance, esp. one considered otherwise unidentifiable; also, general rubbish, clutter, filth
The word gained its popularity through the modern media--specifically, television. UK-based experts trace the phenomenon to the comic genii of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and their 1965-70 TV series Not Only...But Also:
Moore and Cook set about developing sequences of lively comedy sketches linked by musical interludes and other set-piece events variously featuring themselves or guests. Among the most successful of these latter items was Poets Cornered, in which invited comedians were required to compose (without hesitation) instant rhyming poems, or risk being plunged into a vat of gunge--the first appearance of the so-called “gunge tanks” that became such a feature of zany quiz shows and children's programmes in the 1980s and 1990s. Among those to brave the gunge were Frank Muir, Spike Milligan and Barry Humphries.
British gunge came to the US via Canada, but under a different name. In the mid-1970s an Englishman named Roger Price created some Thames Television comedy sketch shows for kids with semi-professional young actors called You Must Be Joking and You Can't Be Serious. Then he moved to Ottawa, that center of culture, and recreated the formula with a show eventually titled You Can't Do That on Television.

Ah, you remember that, you children of the 1980s! Price’s odd, low-rent series became the first big hit on the Nickelodeon cable channel. It featured gunge falling from the ceiling, but under a new name: “slime.” That word and substance then became a hallmark of the Nickelodeon brand, inspiring a “slime fountain” in Orlando and shows like Slime Time Live. So when Bartimaeus says “gunge,” Americans should think “slime.”

Gunge apparently continues to be a staple of British children's television, leading to this curious adjudication, which I came across while Googling--excuse me, researching this topic. In 2004 there was a dispute over a BBC TV show called Dick and Dom in da [sic] Bungalow:
James Walsh, who is 11 years old, was one of a number of children competing for prizes in this programme. During the programme, James was “gunged”, that is covered in food. He lost the final word memory game to another contestant, who was given a second chance by the presenter after getting a word wrong. This resulted in James losing the entire competition.

Mr Michael Walsh, James’ father, complained on his behalf that his son was treated unfairly in the programme.
And they say we Americans are litigious.

20 January 2007

Picture Book with a Lesson Least Likely to Be Given as a Graduation Present

I Found a Dead Bird, by Jan Thornhill, published proudly by Raincoast Books of Vancouver.

19 January 2007

Choose Your Own, part 1

You read a Publishers Weekly report about the re-launch of the Choose Your Own Adventure series that filled B. Dalton shelves with small white paperbacks starting in 1979.

You recall sampling those paperbacks as a literary-minded teenager, noting their similarity to your friends' Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. You recall discussing them as a rare use of a second-person narrative voice at last year's SCBWI New England conference. That voice let the books' protagonists be genderless, though the line art often put specific features on that young person. You note with a little surprise that "More girls [than boys] read the books by only one or two percentage points"; you'd have thought it was the other way around.

You note that Chooseco, the awkwardly spelled publisher putting these books back on the market, was started by R. A. Montgomery, author of the earliest books in the series, and his wife, Shannon Gilligan, working out of their home in Vermont. In addition to updating and reprinting some original titles, they're also expanding up and down in age range:

  • Choose Your Own Adventure: Dragonlarks series for ages 5 to 8 will feature full-color art.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure: The Golden Path for young adults will be an "illustrated, interactive seven-book fantasy epic starring eight continuing characters."
You're pleased to see that to market these interactive books Chooseco is taking advantage of newer interactive technology: a website with games (under "Secret Online Endings") and iPod downloads. But you wish the website didn't start out by telling kids these books are "different than" others rather than "different from."

You notice there's a free download of The Abominable Snowman, the series' very first book, in audio form. It will be available until 26 January. What do you do?

If you choose to download, go here.

If you choose to read something else, go here.

Choose Your Own, part 2

The Abominable Snowman audio file you download for your Mac turns out to be 57 megabytes--and that's before it's unzipped. Once you open it, your system doesn't recognize its files at all. The documentation implies it won't work with your version of iTunes or your older iPod.

You go back to the site to sample the author's reading in a .wav file instead.

You decide that a professional voice actor might have had an easier time producing the proper level of suspense for these books. You remain curious as to how the market will respond to them today.

18 January 2007

Evil Plans Made Easy

And speaking of online resources about how to take over the world, Neil Zawacki, author of How to Be a Villain and The Villain's Guide to Better Living (better for the villain, that is), offers this webpage on How to make an Evil Plan.

Unfortunately, those plans don't come with guidance on which Classic Supervillain Mistakes you should make. Review your plan out loud for henchmen who know it already? Keep your arch-enemy alive in order to enjoy the spectacle of him/her helpless to stop you? Push your sniveling assistant one step too far? Get involved in a land war in Asia? I'm not sure I'd want to try to take over the world without a complete game plan.

War of the Cover Designs

Via the Child_Lit email list, Kim Alexander of the Baltimore County Public Library alerted me to Dr. Zeus's online exhibit of covers of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds over the decades.

It's no surprise that the early covers are rather plain--that was the style for nearly all books over a century ago. But even as early as 1899 the translated edition to the left showed a tripod, art obviously created just for that cover.

But where's a movie tie-in edition with cover boy Tom Cruise?

17 January 2007

Everything on a Waffle

No, not Polly Horvath's novel, which I chose not to finish.

This is a quick note about Mosaic Cuisine & Cafe, a very nice restaurant in Rockville, Maryland. Tasty, informal, filling food. Excellent, attentive service. And almost everything really does come with a waffle.

(Can you tell it's time for my lunch?)

16 January 2007

Living to Tell the Sea Fairies Tale

It's been a while since I posted something Baumian, and even longer since I simply quoted a choice passage from one of L. Frank Baum's books, so here's a bit from the first chapter of The Sea Fairies.

After Baum brought his first Oz series to a close after six books in 1910, he started a new fantasy series about a little California girl named Trot and her one-legged sailor friend, Cap'n Bill. Dorothy usually travels to fairyland on her own or is the most experienced traveler in her group; she also tends not to worry over how and why things came to be. In contrast, Trot looks up to Cap'n Bill and his wisdom--though, as this passage shows, her habit of thinking deeply about what he says can make for some awkward moments.

The little girl was thoughtful for a moment. "But why do folks dive in the water when the mermaids smile an' wink?" she asked.

"Mermaids," he said gravely, "is the most beautiful creatures in the world--or the water, either. You know what they're like, Trot, they's got a lovely lady's form down to the waist, an' then the other half of 'em's a fish, with green an' purple an' pink scales all down it."

"Have they got arms, Cap'n Bill?"

"'Course, Trot; arms like any other lady. An' pretty faces that smile an' look mighty sweet an' fetchin'. Their hair is long an' soft an' silky, an' floats all around 'em in the water. When they comes up atop the waves, they wring the water out'n their hair and sing songs that go right to your heart. If anybody is unlucky enough to be 'round jes' then, the beauty o' them mermaids an' their sweet songs charm 'em like magic; so's they plunge into the waves to get to the mermaids. But the mermaids haven't any hearts, Trot, no more'n a fish has; so they laughs when the poor people drown an' don't care a fig. That's why I says, an' I says it true, that nobody never sawr a mermaid an' lived to tell the tale."

"Nobody?" asked Trot.

"Nobody a tall."

"Then how do you know, Cap'n Bill?" asked the little girl, looking up into his face with big, round eyes.

Cap'n Bill coughed. Then he tried to sneeze, to gain time. Then he took out his red cotton handkerchief and wiped his bald head with it, rubbing hard so as to make him think clearer. "Look, Trot; ain't that a brig out there?" he inquired, pointing to a sail far out in the sea.

"How does anybody know about mermaids if those who have seen them never lived to tell about them?" she asked again.

"Know what about 'em, Trot?"

"About their green and pink scales and pretty songs and wet hair."

"They don't know, I guess. But mermaids jes' natcherly has to be like that, or they wouldn't be mermaids."

She thought this over. "Somebody must have lived, Cap'n Bill," she declared positively. "Other fairies have been seen by mortals; why not mermaids?"

"P'raps they have, Trot, p'raps they have," he answered musingly. "I'm tellin' you as it was told to me, but I never stopped to inquire into the matter so close before. Seems like folks wouldn't know so much about mermaids if they hadn't seen 'em; an' yet accordin' to all accounts the victim is bound to get drownded."

"P'raps," suggested Trot softly, "someone found a fotygraph of one of 'em."

"That might o' been, Trot, that might o' been," answered Cap'n Bill.
Baum wrote a sequel to The Sea Fairies called Sky Island, one of his very best novels. But the Trot stories didn't sell as well as the Oz books, so in 1913 Baum returned to writing about Oz. With The Scarecrow of Oz he merged the two series by bringing Trot and Cap'n Bill to the Emerald City to stay.

15 January 2007

One Letter Makes All the Difference

I couldn't fall asleep last night, so I gave my mind over to Lisa Yee's Bodacious Book Title Contest: change the first letter of one word of a well-known children's book to create a title with a significantly new meaning.

When I woke up this morning, I saw that the contest had ended just about the same time I was trying to sleep. But why should that stand in the way of a blogger desperate for material? My candidates:

Ellen Raskin, The Vesting Game.
A mysterious corporate tycoon summons two dozen seemingly unrelated people and offers them a challenge: remain employed long enough to maximize the value of your 401(k).

William Pène du Bois, The Twenty-One Walloons.
A retired professor returns from a round-the-world journey with outlandish tales of a small utopian community hidden somewhere in Belgium.

Laura Joffe Numeroff, If You Give a Mouse a Wookie.
Once you start making Star Wars movies entirely on computers, no matter how annoying they get you'll never be able to stop.

14 January 2007

Divided by a Common Language in Silver City

On the Cybils shortlist for Fantasy & Science Fiction are two British novels, as well as two American and one translated from the Italian.

Of course, British novels often also need some translation as well. I suspect that an editor at CarolRhoda carefully changed "bags of crisps" in the UK edition of Silver City, by Cliff McNish, to "bags of chips," as the phrase appears in my edition. Because in Britain, of course, "chips" are what we Americans call "fries."

However, the US text still describes boys arriving on the scene in "vests." One imagines children dressed like little waiters. And that image is even odder since the text makes clear that other children arrive in pajamas, nightgowns, T-shirts, and other casual dress.

And now what only seems like a digression...

A few years ago, my godson and his brother were going to be ring-bearers at the wedding of their longtime babysitter. I was privy to a conversation between her and their mother, both Americans, about what the little boys should wear. The boys' father, who's largely English, came in.

"Honey, we have an idea for the boys' outfits," his wife said. "Vests!"

"Riiight," he said.

I'm still trying to learn how to say "Riiight" the way this fine fellow can. With his excellent English education, he can make the same syllable mean either of these things:

  • "What a fascinating and original idea; already I'm deep in thought about its implications."
  • "You are an utter loon; excuse me while I go guard the children."
Of course, that same English training prevents him from actually expressing either response.

Fortunately, at that moment I happened to recall that what Americans call "vests" are what the British call "waistcoats" (pronounced "weskits," but that's another story). Once I explained that, it came out that what the British call "vests" are what Americans call "undershirts"--in particular, the sleeveless kind. That makes more sense in Silver City, doesn't it?

13 January 2007

Maps, Footnotes, and Other Historians' Fantasies

There are books on my reading table that together add up to 1,516 pages. Of those pages, over 141 are reference material, including:

  • 12 maps
  • multiple glossaries
  • multiple tables of names
  • footnotes
Are these the Revolutionary War history books that I study? No, of course not! Academic historians must beg for a budget that covers maps. And as for footnotes on the same page instead of endnotes stuck at the back of the book (if they're stuck in at all)--well, only Bartimaeus has the power to make that possible.

Yes, the books I've dissected are all fantasy novels for young readers:
And yes, each of these thick-enough-to-stand-in-a-high-wind books is also merely one installment in a series. There are thousands of more pages about these worlds on the shelves or in the works, quite possibly with hundreds of more pages of reference material. In fact, Monster Blood Tattoo started as notebooks of non-narrative reference material and only later turned novelistic (a journey I don't think it's completed with full success, but that's a topic for another day).

Creating a verisimilitudinous world is one of the joyous responsibilities of fantasy writers who set their stories in other universes. A map can ease that task and excite readers with the possibilities of life in that world beyond the borders of the book. But dictionary entries just aren't that much fun to read, especially when one must read them to understand a story, when they duplicate information in a story, or when they give away bits of the story--which some of these reference materials threaten to do. At the very least, they make the historian in me jealous.

One dissection of fantasy literature that reads exactly like a collection of dictionary entries--because it is--is Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland, republished last fall in trade paperback form. Originally that book was a mass-market paperback in the US, so it had to be reset and redesigned for this edition. It looks like that task was handled by a designer with the geographically evocative name of Tony Sahara.

Unfortunately, a major casualty of the shift to larger pages was the old-fashioned map in the first edition. It's been replaced with a mere thick-lined representation of a map, like something one would found on the back of a cereal box. No, no, no! Fantasy novel maps are crowded, antique affairs full of stippled mountains and far too little farmland. If this genre of fiction must include reference material, those pages should look right.

12 January 2007

Font Fantasies and Typewriter Realism

In keeping with its combination of pictures and words, comics and novelistic narration, reminiscences and diary entries, Abadazad uses a variety of fonts--but in rather odd ways.

Most of the book's novelistic (as opposed to graphic-novelistic) pages appear in a font called CG Whisper. It sits somewhere between an ordinary sans-serif book font and a handwriting font, apparently to signal that we're reading Kate's diary.

Every so often we see pages supposedly from the original Abadazad books by Franklin O. Davies in a more traditional serif font, though the leading is much bigger than in one of the real models for that fictional series, Reilly & Britton's Oz books.

And then there are three pages at the front and back of the first volume, plus the back cover, set in a typewriter font. Not a common Courier, but a typeface with variations among letters as if they had been set down by steel keys hitting a cloth ribbon permeated with a gradually decreasing supply of ink. (Of course, there are no typos on this page, and the typeface includes an em-dash instead of two hyphens.)

I call this design touch "Typewriter Realism": it creates a page that looks much like it's been typed on an old machine. It's supposed to add authenticity to printed page--in this case, to make those three pages look like Kate has typed them out to introduce her diary. Of course, I chose a similar look for Oz and Ends. And the Class of 2k7 uses the same idea sonically at the end of their trailer.

But that allusion may be outdated, and thus decreasingly realistic. Manuscripts haven't needed to look like typed for years. Some aspiring writers assure others that manuscripts must be in Courier font. But at least fifteen years ago I was editing books in Times Roman and other standard proportional fonts, and my only complaint came when there was no digital file. Indeed, as The Rejecter recently noted, Courier is harder to read than older, proportional fonts. Typewriter style wasn't an improvement over the style developed for lead type; it was a collection of compromises necessitated by technology, and we're now free of those limitations.

In particular, does Typewriter Realism hold much meaning for young readers today? Kate is fourteen years old. Where did she even get a manual typewriter? How did she learn how to use it? (I don't mean keyboarding, which even preschoolers pick up. I mean more esoteric knowledge we've been able to set aside, like how to know when you're approaching the bottom of a page or how to make an exclamation mark out of an apostrophe and a period.)

Adult writers and illustrators and designers and editors may infer some authenticity from a page that looks like it rolled out of a typewriter, but does that appearance mean anything special to Abadazad's target readers?

11 January 2007

The Post-Modernization of Fairy Tales?

Yet another children’s-literature conference coming here to Boston, and here's an interesting call for papers:

The Children’s Literature Society of the ALA seeks abstracts for its panel on “Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature” at the American Literature Association Conference to be held May 24-27, 2007, at The Westin Copley Place in Boston, MA.

Fairy tales have long been a staple of children’s literature, both in and of themselves and in the way they are used throughout the body of children’s literature. For this reason, the Children’s Literature Society of ALA is looking for proposals for papers that discuss the way fairy tales continue to play an important role in children’s literature. Papers or panels are welcome and can address any facet of fairy tales and American children’s literature, including, but not limited to the following:
  • Novel retellings of fairy tales such as Zel, Beauty, Ella Enchanted
  • Picture book retellings such as in David Wiesner's The Three Pigs
  • More subtle ways uses of fairy tales, as in Lois Lowry's Number the Stars or Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins
  • The post-modernization of fairy tales
  • Fairy tales and children’s films
Please send panel proposals or paper abstracts (250-500 words) to:
Michelle Pagni Stewart
[mstewart and the at-sign msjc and then a dot and edu]
Department of English
Mt. San Jacinto College
28237 La Piedra Rd
Menifee, CA 92584
Deadline for proposals and abstracts: January 25, 2007

10 January 2007

Making Excuses for Abadazad

J. M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog launched Abadazad as a comic book, and then turned it into a hybrid of novel and graphic novel--small trim size and paper-over-board covers, like the Lemony Snicket series, but full-color printing and a variety of page designs inside.

That shift seems to have prompted the DeMatteis and Ploog to explain how all the book's elements came together. A somewhat hysterical note to readers from the narrator (well, she's fourteen, so of course she's hysterical) says:

...things are going to get a LOT strange. Like with the pictures. I'm not talking about the old photos I've taped into the book...y'know, the ones of me with my brother or mother or Gramma Esther. I'm talking about those OTHER pictures. THE ONES NOBODY EVER TOOK. THE ONES THAT JUST APPEARED THERE LIKE MAGIC.

You think THAT'S STRANGE? Wait.

You're gonna see--REALLY SEE--a lot of the things that happened to me. Kind of like watching a TV show or a movie of my life jumping across the pages. And not JUST the stuff that happened to me. Every once in a while you're gonna see stuff that happened when I WASN'T EVEN AROUND.
In other words, Abadazad is going to tell its story as comic books have been doing for decades. Comics always include pictures, of course. They also commonly shift scenes, like movies, to reveal things that their heroes don't know. Thought balloons let comics creators reveal the thinking of several characters at once (not that they always use that technique). Folks who read comics are so used to those conventions that we don't really notice them.

Of course, novelists could do the same things, too, and many have done so. But since Henry James or so, our fiction has become more and more narrow in point of view. That trend is especially strong when it comes to stories narrated by one character--we readers are never supposed to read anything that the narrator doesn't know. It's possible for a narrator to remark on things he or she learned later, but that shifts what I call the perspective of the story and might give away upcoming events.

I doubt Abadazad's apologia is really necessary. It just isn't that "STRANGE" for young readers to find pictures on a page, or to see comic books revealing what the villain is up to. And the claims raise as many questions as they answer. Why, for instance, do the "photos" Kate has pasted into her diary appear in exactly the same style as those magically appearing "drawings"? Why does her diary never describe the events we see in the magically appearing comics pages? If they're independent narratives, they should overlap. Those questions wouldn't occur to most comics readers without the authors' attempts to explain the hybrid form.

If characters and story are compelling enough, I think, most readers accept the form(s) in which they come to us. And if we see more comics/novel hybrids like Abadazad and Agent Boo, then readers will get even more used to that form's conventions and possibilities.

09 January 2007

Fantastic Word of the Week

From Anu Garg's venerable A.Word.A.Day at Wordsmith.org, the multiple definitions of "malkin":

1. An untidy woman; a slattern.

2. A scarecrow or a grotesque effigy.

3. A mop made of a bundle or rags fastened to a stick.

4. A cat.

5. A hare.
With several fantasy authors using real but somewhat obscure words as the names of their characters (e.g., Frances Hardinge, D. M. Cornish), it should be only a matter of time before a hard-to-believe persona gets the name Malkin. Of course, it's really just a nickname for "Mary," like "Molly," and all the dislikeable definitions above reflect our culture's old misogyny.

08 January 2007

A Bad Adolescence and Abadazad

At the outset of the first volume of J. M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog's Abadazad (in book form, not comic form), our heroine and usual narrator Kate describes herself as a "FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD MALCONTENT." Which seems fair.

Kate's grumpy. She's grumpy about the disappearance of her little brother, Matt, five years before. She's grumpy about her father leaving the family twelve years before. She's grumpy about her mother for what the storytellers suggest are the signs of bipolar disorder. She's grumpy about going to a psychotherapist. She's grumpy about going to school. She's grumpy at herself for letting Matt disappear. And she's even occasionally grumpy at Matt for having been a sickly-sweet child.

What does Kate like? She used to like the Abadazad books, though now she's mostly grumpy about them not being true (she thinks). She likes her diary, though she's a bit grumpy about having to call it that. She likes a rock band called the Thrashing Plague, which apparently reflects her grumpiness, but I don't recall her ever listening to music. She likes sitting in her closet--'nuff said.

But does Kate like writing? Does she like sports? The movies? Cell phones? Chinese food? Jon Stewart? The color purple? We never know. The Abadazad website includes toggles for games, computer wallpaper, and a text-messaging club, but there's no sign that Kate herself would take any pleasure in such things.

I had many moody moments in my teens, to be sure, but neither I nor any of my friends were quite so grumpy as Kate. I have no doubt that some people go through early adolescence more grumpily than others. But I suspect the real appeal of this common portrait of a teenager is that it lets readers vicariously experience their own desires to be grumpy to all people all the time. It's like having a super power, or being outside parental control. However, the result, to my tastes, is a flat and unappealing protagonist. I wouldn't have spent much time with Kate when I was a teenager, and I'm not sure I want to spent much time with her now.

Which is okay, since Kate obviously wouldn't enjoy spending time with me.

07 January 2007

Wisest Thing I've Read Today

Ursula K. Le Guin in the New Statesman last month:

Many of us have at least one book or tale that we read as a child and come back to now and then for the rest of our lives. A child or grandchild to read aloud to provides a good excuse, or we may have the courage to return, quite alone, to Peter Rabbit, for the keen pleasure of reading language in which every word is right, the syntax is a delight in itself and the narrative pacing is miraculous. . . .

Curiously enough, most of these "lifelong" children's books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche. When there began to be such a thing as books written for children, in the mid-19th century, fiction was dominated by the realistic novel. Romance and satire were acceptable to it, but overt fantasy was not. So, for a while, fantasy found a refuge in children's books. There it flourished so brilliantly that people began to perceive imaginative fiction as being "for children".

The modernists extended this misconception by declaring fantastic narrative to be intrinsically childish. Though modernism is behind us and postmodernism may be joining it, still many critics and reviewers approach fantasy determined to keep Caliban permanently confined in the cage of Kiddie Lit. The voice of Edmund Wilson reviewing J R R Tolkien is still heard, bleating: "Oo, those awful Orcs!" There should be a word - "maturismo", like "machismo"? - for the anxious savagery of the intellectual who thinks his adulthood has been impugned.

To conflate fantasy with immaturity is a rather sizeable error. Rational yet non-intellectual, moral yet inexplicit, symbolic not allegorical, fantasy is not primitive but primary. Many of its great texts are poetry, and its prose often approaches poetry in density of implication and imagery. The fantastic, the marvellous, the impossible rode the mainstream of literature from the epics and romances of the Middle Ages through Ariosto and Tasso and their imitators, to Rabelais and Spenser and beyond. . . .

Realism comes in three separate age categories, fully recognised by publishers. Didactic, explanatory, practical and reassuring, realistic fiction for young children hasn't much to offer people who've already learned about dump trucks, vaccinations and why Heather has two mommies. Realistic "Young Adult" novels tend to focus tightly on situations and problems of little interest to anyone outside that age group. And realistic fiction for adults, with its social and historical complexities and moral and aesthetic ambiguities, becomes accessible to adolescents only as and if they mature.

As for "genre" fiction - mystery, horror, romance, science fiction - none of it is for children; they begin to read it as they approach their teens, but not before. The only kind of fiction that is read with equal (if differing) pleasure at eight, and at 16, and at 68, seems to be the fantasy and its close relation, the animal story. . . .

The Harry Potter phenomenon, a fantasy aimed at sub-teenagers becoming a great best-seller among adults, confirmed that fantasy builds a two-way bridge across the generation gaps. Adults trying to explain their enthusiasm told me: "I haven't read anything like that since I was ten!" And I think this was simply true. Discouraged by critical prejudice, rigid segregation of books by age and genre, and unconscious maturismo, many people literally hadn't read any imaginative literature since childhood.
Thanks to Janni Lee Simner's Desert Dispatches for the push.

06 January 2007

Why I Love the Word "Verisimilitudinous"

Last month I inveighed against the clumsy and unneeded word "excitedly." So it's only fair to discuss a word I deeply admire and enjoy. As I announced to an entire international SCBWI conference a coupla years back (a long story), one of my favorite words is "verisimilitudinous."

Just listen to it (or its root). It starts with a cascade of five soft consonants paired with five short vowels. Then there's a sonic climax in the percussive yet not at all harsh syllable TOOD: hard consonants, a long vowel, a break into the dactyllic pattern. But then the wave settles back with two more soft syllables and a trailing sibilant. Verisimilitudinous.

And the word's very useful for writers. Not for use in actual stories, mind you, especially for young readers. But its meaning is vital for us, especially when it comes to fantasy. We're trying to create a similitude of reality, a situation that feels real, rather than to recreate reality.

We don't have to write with veracity to every detail, but we do have to write with verisimilitude. The two words have the same relationship as "truth" and "truthiness," the latter being what people want to believe. We need to convince our readers to accept what we write as true--as long as the story lasts.

05 January 2007

"You have to draw the gopher fairies!"

At various times in his writing, L. Frank Baum described animals fairies who share the shape of the creatures they look after, just as his more traditional fairies did for humans. In John Dough and the Cherub, for example, the heroes escape to the realm of the fairy beavers behind a waterfall.

Although Baum called The Discontented Gopher an "animal fairy tale," no fairies actually appear in his story. The gopher fairies who leave a special gift for Zikky remain off-stage.

However, this new edition's designer, Mark Conahan, told the artist, "You have to draw the gopher fairies!" He could offer such advice not just as the designer but also as the artist's friend and spouse. According to her KOTA radio interview, Carolyn Digby Conahan had been struggling to find the right tone for the art, and drawing those gopher fairies (as shown on her website) provided the magical touch that got the project rolling.

Likewise, Baum never mentions Zikky and his fellow gophers living and dressing like humans, but Conahan takes advantage of picture-book conventions and does some anthropomorphizing. Zikky's wealth is not simply a lifetime's supply of corn. Conahan shows how he's arranged those kernels and ears into a stately sitting room.

In the first half of the book Zikky wears blue overalls, like his down-to-earth brothers. But after he becomes wealthy, he switches to a three-piece suit, like any gentleman of his time (including Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad in The Wind in the Willows). The overalls reappear on the boys who cut off Zikky's tail and on the ordinary gophers he meets at the end.

Some of Conahan's most striking illustrations convey the small gopher's point of view: looking up at a massive plowhorse, for example. Page 25 shows what must be one of the rare illustrations in children's literature of a large, angry rabbit, with little Zikky dwarfed in the background.

Conahan's work transforms Baum's hundred-year-old magazine story into a fine modern picture-storybook, adding new dimensions and appeal.

04 January 2007

What Makes the Gopher So Discontented?

Baum's story for The Discontented Gopher is a tale with a clear, even obvious moral. It starts with three gopher brothers choosing nuts to find which one gets a special gift from the gopher fairies. The youngest brother, Zikky, lucks out, and the other two scamper away, never to appear in the tale again.

Zikky receives a choice between contentment and wealth. He chooses wealth, figuring he can therefore buy contentment. His mother sees trouble ahead but seems rather sanguine about it all; perhaps she knows him too well.

The year before Baum published "The Discontented Gopher", he finished his Marvelous Land of Oz with Princess Ozma telling the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman:

"You are both rich, my friends,...and your riches are the only riches worth having--the riches of content!"
So it's pretty clear that Zikky has chosen, as the old man at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade intones, "poooorly."

The events that follow don't make up a smooth plot, but rather a psychological portrait in discontent. They show how Zikky is never satisfied, even after the fairies have brought him great gopher wealth in the form of a lifetime supply of corn.

Zikky finds a home near one of those new places called "farms," where people with horses and machines literally spew corn onto the ground for him to pick up and store away. But of course he can't be content to remain in his safe, well-stocked burrow. He must explore the home of men, and that produces nothing but trouble. A series of painful encounters with men, dogs, and gophers' natural predators render Zikky wounded and bedraggled.

Finally, two boys find Zikky close to death and cut off his tail to earn two cents from the authorities, as this edition's introduction explains. That prompts an odd authorial intrusion:
(Two cents apiece for Gopher tails! That means a Gopher's life. Is it really worth while, I wonder, to write so much about one of God's creatures whose life is worth only two cents?)
It was much more common in magazine stories of this time, including Baum's own "Juggerjook" for St. Nicholas, to go on about the sacred value of all creatures. But here he's being bitterly ironic, and ends up reflecting Zikky's own concern with wealth.

As it happens, Zikky doesn't lose his life along with his tail. Badly wounded, he struggles back to his burrow and gradually recovers. But of course he can't recover from his original choice of wealth. He can't be content with having escaped. Ashamed of his tailless state, he never ventures outside his burrow again, and other gophers decide he's "stuck-up, and conceited!" There's no redemption in this tale, no second act for Zikky. He is, and will always be, the discontented gopher.

"The Discontented Gopher," "Juggerjook," and all of Baum's published short stories are available in a single volume from the International Wizard of Oz Club.

03 January 2007

The Discontented Gopher in Book Form

Back in November, I described hearing about a "New Baum Picture Book" called The Discontented Gopher. Having now received a copy of the book, I realize I should recategorize it as a "picture-storybook," that hybrid form that comes up mostly when new authors don't want to cut their picture-book manuscripts. (As in, "But there's something called a 'picture-storybook,' isn't there?" "Yes, but we still need to write very concisely.")

The Discontented Gopher has the complete text of the "animal fairy tale" that L. Frank Baum originally wrote for The Delineator magazine in 1905. The style of his time was more discursive than our post-Hemingway prose, so this book has a lot more text than a typical picture book. This edition is about 7 x 8.5 inches, 32 pages long, with color art on every page spread, printed endpapers, and a nice dust jacket.

The book starts with a three-page introduction on L. Frank Baum's life in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and the struggle between the region's farmers and gophers in the early 1890s. There's no name signed to this introduction, but I suspect it was written by Nancy Tystad Koupal, editor of this series for the South Dakota State Historical Society and also compiler of Baum's Our Landlady columns and the articles in Baum's Road to Oz.

That introduction is quite impressive: it's written at a kid's level yet offers historical background valuable for readers of any age, starting with how the arrival of European farmers in South Dakota changed the environment for gophers and other local fauna. Baum's son Robert was among the many Plains boys who recalled collecting gopher tails for the two-cent bounty, which figures in the story.

The last page of the book is also useful: a glossary of words that appear in Baum's text, some unfamiliar simply because nobody talks like that anymore ("anigh," "smote," "illumined"), and some because he was really writing for mothers and children together ("vainglory," "spasmodic," "tenacity").

In my next posting I'll discuss Baum's text, and after that Carolyn Digby Conahan's illustrations for this edition. Folks wanting to hear more about the genesis of this book can check out KOTA's radio interview with Conahan and Koupal.

02 January 2007

An Oaf Is an Elf's Embarrassing Relative

From Michael Quinion's most excellent World Wide Words website comes this eye-opening article about the origin of the word "oaf":

There's an intimate connection between oafs and elves. In ancient legend, elves weren't the noble creatures portrayed in Tolkien's stories but powerful and dangerous supernatural beings more likely to harm humans than to help them.

Their name says so: it comes from an ancient Germanic term for a nightmare, a close relative of the first element of the modern German "Albdruck" with the same sense. Among other nasty habits, elves were thought to bring humans bad dreams and to steal their children, leaving changelings in their place.

It's from that belief that "oaf" first appeared in English, in the seventeenth century. Originally an oaf was an elf's child, one that had been left in a poor exchange for a stolen human one. In popular superstition, such children were assumed to be ugly or stupid. The first forms to appear were "ouphe" and "auf", the former turning up several times in Shakespeare's plays, though he used it to mean an elf or goblin. "Auf" appears in 1621 in the Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton: "A very monster, an aufe imperfect".

By the end of the seventeenth century it had settled to the modern spelling and "oaf" had moved to mean "idiot child" or "halfwit", then later took on the senses of a large and clumsy or a rude and boorish man.
But "Oh, you great clumsy elf!" doesn't have the same ring, does it?

01 January 2007

Cybils Shortlist for Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Cybils shortlists were announced this morning, and the nominees for the Fantasy and Science Fiction category are, in alphabetical order:

Further descriptions of each book have been provided by the Cybils Fantasy and Science Fiction nomination committee, who generously read nearly 90 submissions in this category. Many thanks to Sheila Ruth, Michele at A Scholar's Blog, Gail Gauthier, Miss Erin, and Kim Bacciella.

In addition, there are fantasies nominated in some other Cybils categories, such as Linda Medley's Castle Waiting (graphic novels, age 13+) and Markus Zuzak's The Book Thief (young adult fiction)--and I count all those picture books about anthropomorphic animals as fantasies as well.

And now to bed (with a nominated book).

Studio 360 Goes to Oz

The Public Radio International program Studio 360 reran its examination of The Wizard of Oz in many forms last weekend. I caught some familiar voices from Oz fandom, as well as some new observations from writers. The show's website has a resource page on each of its segments, along with a RealPlayer download, and the episode can be downloaded for a fee from Audible.com.

Shown above are the Russian equivalents of Dorothy and her friends. In Alexander Volkov's translation of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy became Elli; the Tin Woodman became the Iron Woodman (the better to rust); and the Scarecrow, named Strasheela, is only as large as the Munchkins whose clothes make up his body.