30 April 2007

International Grimm Award—Who Knew?

This morning, via the Child_Lit listserv, I read for the first time about the International Grimm Award for Research into Children's Literature. It was established in 1986 and is given every odd year, thus alternating with the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

The Grimm Award goes not to an author or illustrator, however, but to someone who's contributed to the study of children's literature:

One who has performed outstanding work in research into children's literature and picture books, or one who has contributed remarkably to such research and to the promotion of such research.
And where does this award, named for the brothers Grimm, come from? Japan.

Specifically, the International Institute for Children's Literature in Osaka grants the award, based on a fund established by the Kinran-kai Foundation, the alumni association of Osaka Prefectural Otemae High School. The prize is a million yen.

So now I have to revise two of my beliefs about the field of children's literature. First, that the US is unique in naming its major awards after people with no connection to the country. Second, that there's no money in it.

Incidentally, this year's Grimm Award winner is Prof. John Stephens of Macquarie University in New South Wales, Australia.

29 April 2007

Getting the Details Right

Yesterday I attended a signing by Jacqueline Davies for her new middle-grade novel, The Lemonade War. Some other writing-group friends and I prevailed on Jackie to do a second reading even after most young customers had disappeared and the chairs were cleared away. Coming home, I got to thinking about the challenge finding the details of everyday life for kids today.

The Lemonade War was inspired by a lemonade-selling rivalry between two of Jackie’s own kids. During the reading, she mentioned how a passing episode that ends poorly for a bike helmet had really happened as well. She even named the perpetrator (so, kid, don't think you're getting away with anything; the grown-ups are onto you).

One of the novels I'm now writing is like Jackie's: set in the contemporary world that its young readers are supposed to recognize as their own. But I don't have kids, so not only am I not forced to know all about today's middle-school society, but I'm somewhat stymied at finding out the gloomy details.

Keeping up with technology is relatively easy because it's so new and obvious. I can pick up that some kids have cell phones and others want them, that the oral report is being replaced by the Powerpoint presentation, and so on.

But what about the minor but telling details of wardrobe? I must take care not to dress my young characters the way I dressed at their age. When I was a boy, all boys' socks were white, tubular, long enough to cover the calf, and striped at the top. The big choice was red stripes or blue stripes or, like the young gentleman to the left, a snazzy combination of both. As for shorts, they were short--hence the name.

Now boys' shorts are actually Capri pants, with extra pockets (for what?), and boys' socks have shrunk to hide inside shoes. Back in my youth, we had little socks, too, but they had pompoms at the back, and only girls wore them. (There does seem to be a conservation law at work here, though. Boys in shorts still bare the same amount of leg; it's just moved ten inches closer to the ground.)

So my hero wears little socks, and when his jeans get wet in the rain, they'll slap coldly against his shins. And he'll have to wear a bike helmet, right? My generation thought those were a good idea--in theory. Now kids actually seem to wear them.

Wrist bands? I grabbed that detail for another character when I met debut novelist Karen Day's son and realized he had more rubber on his arms than my old car had on its tires. Flip-flops? In my youth, kids didn't walk around in flip-flops unless they were actually in Hawaii or carrying a surfboard, but they seem ubiquitous now--and will no doubt spread further as the climate warms. But what other crucial details am I missing?

27 April 2007

Prick'd Out for Women's Pleasure

After yesterday's grumbling, I might as well observe Poetry Friday with William Shakespeare's sonnet 20:

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all “hues” in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

26 April 2007


One of National Public Radio’s talk shows today had a discussion on Shakespeare in daily life, inviting people to share their favorite quotations from the bard. So I might as well express my gratitude for this most handy exchange from Henry IV, Part 1, act 3, scene 1:

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
Meanwhile, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has issued a report complaining that at some colleges English majors can graduate without having to study any Shakespeare. In the spirit of Hotspur, I must ask, But will they skip Shakespeare when they're allowed?

As someone who made a point of reading all of Shakespeare's plays in and shortly after college [The Two Noble Kinsmen is surprisingly good], I'm skeptical that anyone who wants a career in writing, criticism, drama, teaching English, etc. would actually never read Shakespeare. Of course, I suspect some English majors have no higher ambition than to go into public relations and issue dubious political reports.

ACTA, formerly the National Alumni Forum, is an offshoot of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, founded in 1953 to give William F. Buckley, Jr., his first platform. ACTA last made headlines by issuing a report lambasting American academics who had dared to suggest that Osama bin Laden should be put on trial for the kamikaze terrorist attacks of 2001. That was back when the U.S. administration still appeared to be serious about trying to capture bin Laden.

ACTA has apparently moved beyond that matter as well to the burning issue of the modern English major. But I suppose it's good to find a conservative political organization insisting that undergraduates read some of the English language's finest poetic expression of homosexual love.

That's the Shakespeare they mean, right?

25 April 2007

When My Name Was Ohkwa'ri

I read Joseph Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse as part of a research project on Iroquois history. Bruchac is Abenaki (among other nationalities) in ancestry, but lives in the upstate New York region once inhabited by the Mohawks and thanks “Mohawk friends and neighbors” for their teaching and assistance with this story.

A map early in the book implies that Bruchac has set his novel in the “late 15th century”--i.e., in Columbus’s lifetime, probably before he sailed across the Atlantic from Spain. Europeans have no role in this story.

In reading the book, I was struck by Bruchac’s choices in presenting his characters’ names to readers. There are two young protagonists, girl and boy twins. The girl is called Otsi:stia, the boy Ohkwa’ri. The text doesn’t pause to translate those names or give us pronunciations, though we can find them in a glossary at the end.

The first chapter also introduces several older teenaged males as antagonists for the boy. Their names are presented as Grabber, Greasy Hair, Eats Like a Bear, and Falls a Lot. Only on page 64 does this 146-page novel state that those are “unfortunate nicknames they had earned” by their behavior.

So our heroes have untranslated, “real” Mohawk names while their rivals have English names, which seem less authentic without being any more familiar as proper names. Furthermore, those antagonists’ nicknames show them to be greedy, greasy, gluttonous, and clumsy. The moral lines are about as clear as in an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

As Bruchac introduces adult characters in the following chapters, he usually presents their names in English, but those names are never as pejorative as the antagonists’. The twins’ mother is Herons Flying, their grandmother She Opens the Sky. Sometimes Mohawk and English names appear in parallel: “Shoskoharo’wane, The Big Tree”; “Dagaheo’ga, The One Who Has Two Ideas” (also called Two Ideas).

There’s some discussion on pages 112-3 of changing Otsi:stia’s name:

Big Tree laughed. “My sister’s daughter,” he said, “we are going to give you a new name. Otsi:stia, ‘The Flower,’ is not a good enough name. Maybe you should be ‘Watches Everything.’ What do you think, my sister’s husband?”
However, no one adopts this new name or nickname for Otsi:stia by the end of the book.

Ohkwa’ri’s name is never translated within the story at all, I believe. Only in the glossary can we learn that it translates as Bear. Which raises some questions since the story has several other bears as well:
  • Ohkwa’ri and his sister are part of the Bear Clan.
  • A visiting Anen:tak (Abenaki) healer is named Ktsiwassos, or Great Bear.
  • Earlier, Grabber wanted to have the name Walks With the Bears.
  • On the last page of the story, Grabber takes the new name Bear’s Son in Ktsiwassos’s honor.
So as far as I can tell, Ohkwa’ri is from the Ohkwa’ri clan; he meets a man whose name means Big Ohkwa’ri; his rival once wanted to be called Walks With Ohkwa’ri, and in the end that older boy takes the name Ohkwa’ri’s Son. And none of that overlap seems odd or confusing or psychologically loaded to him.

Does that pattern simply reflect how Mohawk attitudes toward names differ significantly from those we’ve inherited from British culture? Did Bruchac choose to use Ohkwa’ri instead of Bear throughout his story precisely to avoid such confusing perceptions?

24 April 2007

London Scientist Finds Kryptonite?

According to this BBC report, a mineral found in a Serbian mine has been identified as "matching [the] unique chemistry" of kryptonite.

According to Dr. Chris Stanley, "Associate Keeper of Mineralogy" at London's Natural History Museum, he analyzed the chemical makeup of the white powdery crystal from Serbia and then (I'm reading between the lines here) Googled the result. The news report quotes him:

Towards the end of my research I searched the web using the mineral's chemical formula -- sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide -- and was amazed to discover that same scientific name, written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luther from a museum in the film Superman Returns.

The new mineral does not contain fluorine (which it does in the film) and is white rather than green but, in all other respects, the chemistry matches that for the rock containing kryptonite.
Hang on a minute there, doctor! A compound that contains fluorine is chemically different from a compound that doesn't. We don't say hydrogen gas "matches the exact chemistry" of water except that it's missing the oxygen--H2 and H2O are different chemicals that behave in different ways. And the color is usually a sign of some chemical differences.

Dr. Stanley and his colleagues seem to acknowledge that fundamental fact by naming the mineral "jadarite," after the region where it was found, in a paper to be published in a future issue of the European Journal of Mineralogy. They've tested the mineral under ultraviolet light, which makes it fluoresce, but I see no sign that they've exposed plants to it.

Why do I suggest that test? Superman fans know there are multiple forms of kryptonite: the original green (harmful to refugees from the planet Krypton), and several forms either altered by natural processes in space or created in laboratories. True white kryptonite harms plant life on all known planets.

22 April 2007

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut

The Exploratorium shares this interesting version of a classic fairy tale as part of a lesson by language professor Howard L. Chace on how we communicate. You can read the text online, but you'll need RealPlayer to truly appreciate it. It begins:

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist.
For more examples of such writing, see Chace's Anguish Languish. And here's a bit of an interview with Chace about the genre.

21 April 2007

Bunches of Carnegie and Greenaway Medals

Last month I wrote: “In 1993, the Booker organization in the UK designated a special award for the best Booker Prize-winner of the previous twenty-five years. That went to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, winner in 1981. . . . Would the same process work for Newberys? Of all the Medalists (and Honor Books, if one chooses) from 1983 through this year, which shows the most quality, influence, and staying-power? If you had to choose one title as the Newbery of Newberys in this period, could you do it?”

Unknown to me, the judges of the CILIP Carnegie and Greenaway Medals in Britain were working on a similar question, selecting the top ten winners of each medal over the past seventy or fifty years, respectively.

I can't help noting some patterns in the selection of some medal-winners for extra praise. The Greenaway Medal has been given for fifty years, yet half of the specially-honored titles come from one decade in that half-century: 1976-1985. There's no title chosen from the next ten years. Was that a golden age of picture-book art in Britain, followed by a period of scarcity?

In contrast, the Carnegie Medal choices lean toward recent years, with four of the ten nominated titles published since 1995. Otherwise, they’re spread out almost evenly across the decades. Does that reflect an increase in literary quality, or the influence of recent tastes?

The final selection process for the "Carnegie of Carnegies" and "Greenaway of Greenaways" seems to rest on an odd combination of professional judgment and popularity. Both the original awards and these shortlists were chosen by CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, professionals applying their ideas of literary and artistic excellence. The British children's-publishing industry has other awards based on popularity, which is where we find the name "Rowling."

Yet the final choice of this process is open to anyone. With a click of a mouse I could vote without being British, without having read all of the books, in fact without having read any of the books. That sort of process seems to cast aside all the careful reading and evaluation that has led up to these shortlists. It's almost as if these lists were nothing but (gasp!) publicity efforts.

20 April 2007

Whatever a Spider Can

Coinciding with a cover story on the new Entertainment Weekly and much other publicity for the upcoming third movie, Marvel broke silence today about a reading of a stage musical version of Spider-Man this July.

According to Playbill, Glen Berger will write the book (Neil Jordan having dropped out), and Julie Taymor will direct. Music is due from Bono and the Edge ("You know we're the talented ones because we don't use our real names") of U2.

All I can say is whoever remains with this project must understand that Spider-Man is not musical comedy material.

Spider-Man is opera.

19 April 2007

Misha's Straight Talk for PW

I enjoyed this Publishers Weekly interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov about his new picture book, Because. Why?

Because he resolutely disavows much credit for the book, which has his name above the title, deferring all praise to nominal illustrator Vladimir Radunsky.

Because PW's earlier review of the book passed judgment on “Baryshnikov’s buoyant foray into picture books” and “Baryshnikov’s casual text.”

And because its interviewer shows a starry-eyed determination to maintain that illusion--

PW: I think you're being overly modest.

MB: No, I'm telling the truth.

18 April 2007

Julius Lester's Perspective on Children's Literature

A coupla weeks back, Julius Lester has posted the text of his speech at last month's University of Massachusetts children’s literature conference. In it he relates some telling stories about his career as a reader and a children's author, and makes observations like this:

One of the oddest things in this odd country we live in is how children are regarded as if they are another species of humanity. Most adults speak of children as if they themselves were never children. When politicians want to justify something, they claim they are doing it for the “sake of our children.”
Other observers have argued, however, that adults are comporting themselves more like children, or at least teenagers. Meanwhile, in terms of supervision and care some parents seem to treat teenagers as more like children and children like toddlers, yet in terms of discussing important issues in their own lives they treat children as more like adults. Perhaps it’s just an odd country.

Lester also mentions having written the manuscript of a novel “about a lynching told from the point of view of a fourteen year old white boy.” I had such an idea myself after reading about some of the souvenir postcards from lynchings sold in this country in the early part of the 20th century. I wrestled unsuccessfully with how to structure a story so that a boy’s involvement in a lynching could be a revelation. I never cracked that nut. I hope Lester’s project is published so I can see how he managed.

16 April 2007

Starting in the Middle with The Silver Child

I read Cliff McNish's Silver City as part of the Cybils Science Fiction/Fantasy Award shortlist. I found it a haunting novel, but wrote: "As a novel Silver City suffers from what I call Empire Strikes Back syndrome. . . . it’s the middle of a trilogy. It doesn’t introduce its central characters or their situation, and it doesn’t resolve any of the stories."

At that time, I imagined that the first book in the sequence, The Silver Child, had introduced the main characters by depicting their previous lives and desires before the action heats up. I resolved to read the whole trilogy, writing:

One of the qualities I’ll look for in those other volumes is how well they portray the individual kids with their own personalities, hopes, and choices. In this volume, they act under some compulsion larger than any of us. . . . Over and over we read that the kids have to do this or that, though they don’t know why.
For the first volume, I pictured Milo, Walter, the twins, and others moving across the English landscape, gradually gathering, before they found their appointed spot in the blasted industrial wasteland of Coldharbour. I thought the book might show them deciding to take on their cosmic missions, or at least show us all they were leaving behind.

But no. The Silver Child plays out much like its successor. The action threads start with Milo suddenly leaving home, Thomas already living in Coldharbour, the twins and Walter having undergone their tremendous physical changes. The setting is already bleak, stormy, and claustrophobic. We see Helen and her father at home, but then her father is part of the group in Silver City, too. Thus, we learn very little about the children's previous lives.

Furthermore, I realized as I read this volume, the two children who alternate as first-person narrators--Thomas and Helen--are the two who change the least physically. The narrator closely follows Milo in the third person, but the twins and Walter appear only through the others' eyes. And in many ways those three are not only the most changed, but also the most self-sacrificing and perhaps interesting.

Once again, the characters are under supernatural compulsions to act in certain ways. For much of the book, Thomas doesn't want to help Milo--but he can't help doing so. The kids' compulsions scare them, rather they don't reveal or fulfill them. The result is a story that strongly emphasizes characters' reactions, but rarely offers decision points that test and illuminate, and I don't think the result adds up to a character-driven book. Or, as Matt Berman wrote on Common Sense Media: "That's not to say that the characters have much depth, but just that the changes they're going through are described at some length."

One detail of the young characters' backgrounds seemed more apparent in this first volume: their class differences. I've previously quoted Jonathan Stroud on how "all British books, certainly all British children’s books, you can look at in terms of the class system." (That's from this interview at the State Library of Victoria.)

Thomas drops hints in his early chapters that he's from the suburban middle-class, not used to the rough gangs of Coldharbour. Once the others come to look after him, he quickly falls into the habit of ordering them around. All in all, he's much whinier than he appears in the second volume. In contrast, the twins seem set apart not just because they crawl around like lizards and occasionally speak in rhymes, but because of their broad working-class accents. I suppose if I were British I might have picked up that detail right away.

The Silver Child is still haunting, though it held less surprise for me than Silver City; that's what I get for starting the story in the middle of things. I still plan to read the final volume, Silver World. But I can't help wishing that McNish hadn't started quite so much in the middle of things himself.

15 April 2007

The Ear, the Eye, and the Heart of Africa

Periodically I write about how a fantasy novel reflects the values and anxieties of the author's nation. Knowing nothing about Nancy Farmer, I wasn't sure whether her The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm would do that. It’s set in Zimbabwe, but is she Zimbabwean? (Her name implies that she doesn’t come from its ethnic majority, at least.) Was she writing from within that culture, or reflecting the outlook of another nation projected onto it?

As it turned out, Farmer makes that sort of analysis easy. Not only does her book --

I can't go on without acknowledging ****SPOILERS**** ahead

-- address the question of national spirit, but it turns that spirit into a supernatural character. At the end of the book, the evil spirits of Gondwanna, in northern (but still sub-Saharan?) Africa, do battle with the spirit of the Zimbabwean Shona. As Farmer explains in her appendices:

A mhondoro, or lion spirit, is concerned with a land and its people as a whole. Because the Shona people are actually made up of several tribes, each one has a mhondoro and a lion spirit medium. In Zimbabwe of 2194, I have combined these into one.
So Farmer is actually more nationalist in her depiction than the traditional, tribal system.

And then there's Resthaven, a stop in the young protagonists' flight that also explicitly embodies a culture. The children's father says:
"Much of Africa was being overlaid by European customs. It seemed--then--that our culture would be destroyed by the outside world. And so Resthaven was created."
This area is not simply national in spirit, but continental. Its appeal extends beyond Zimbabwe. Again, the children's father:
"...it's Jerusalem, it's Mecca, it's the Hindu city of Ayodhya. Every culture has one place it will not allow to be touched. This is ours. As long as Resthaven exists, the Heart of Africa is safe."
And what is Resthaven? It's a preservation of pre-colonial village life, sheltered behind immense walls and continent-wide taboos. Its inhabitants are by and large ignorant of the modern world outside, with its mile-high skyscrapers and hovering limousines.

Farmer doesn't mince words about the drawbacks of living in Resthaven: sexist division of labor, infanticide, accusations of witchcraft, no modern medicine, the sheer boredom of watching cattle. Nevertheless, the narrative seems to imply that there's value in preserving such a culture from change. That brings up two questions.

First, as Farmer's discussion of the nineteenth-century arrival of Matabele/Zulu in Zimbabwe acknowledges, African history includes great change over time. And what about variation over space: how much does traditional Zimbabwean culture share with traditional Ghanaian, or Kenyan, or Nigerian? I don't know, but I doubt an unchanging peasant village from the medieval Holy Roman Empire could be presented as the "Heart of Europe."

Indeed, would a Western author be so favorable in depicting an effort to freeze-dry a culture? Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time takes on that situation, starting with the "Heart of America" as a frontier farming town, and treats the effort as largely sinister. But does Resthaven simply reflect a greater pan-sub-Saharan-African respect for ancestral traditions than America has?

The penultimate episode of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm shows us another culture within this futuristic Zimbabwe: that of the English tribe. As the appendices remind us, the British ruled the country (as Rhodesia) for a little less than a century, 1890-1979. That culture is represented by Mrs. Beryl Horsepool-Worthingham, a householder who both shelters the children and refuses to let them leave. She saves her best food for her pets and populates her yard with ceramic gnomes. She cares only for her garden club, snips at the children's manners, and tries to squeeze money from their parents.

The book includes some more sympathetic British-Zimbabweans, including the Ear and Mrs. Horsepool-Worthingham's son, but none is so immersed in a separate English culture as she. And, interestingly, none is female. Although The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm doesn't make such clear statements about the English national spirit as it does about mhondoro and the "Heart of Africa," there are plenty of hints that we should take Mrs. Horsepool-Worthingham and her coterie as typical or essential of English colonials.

I doubt an American novel published today would depict any group besides the British quite so one-sidedly or negatively. Or am I reading too much into Farmer's portrayal of the Englishwomen of Zimbabwe? After finishing the book, I found this interesting interview with her, which covers her twenty years in Zimbabwe, how she came to write this book, and how she published it only after returning to the USA. Among other comments, Farmer says:
I never got along that well with white Zimbabweans, especially the women. They considered me a mannerless, low-class American and I thought of them as rotten, mean-spirited fascists.
Okay then.

13 April 2007

Longfellow’s “The Witnesses”

A sample of American protest poetry from the middle of the nineteenth century:


In Ocean's wide domains,
Half buried in the sands,
Lie skeletons in chains,
With shackled feet and hands.

Beyond the fall of dews,
Deeper than plummet lies,
Float ships, with all their crews,
No more to sink nor rise.

There the black Slave-ship swims,
Freighted with human forms,
Whose fettered, fleshless limbs
Are not the sport of storms.

These are the bones of Slaves;
They gleam from the abyss;
They cry, from yawning waves,
"We are the Witnesses!"

Within Earth's wide domains
Are markets for men's lives;
Their necks are galled with chains,
Their wrists are cramped with gyves.

Dead bodies, that the kite
In deserts makes its prey;
Murders, that with affright
Scare school-boys from their play!

All evil thoughts and deeds;
Anger, and lust, and pride;
The foulest, rankest weeds,
That choke Life's groaning tide!

These are the woes of Slaves;
They glare from the abyss;
They cry, from unknown graves,
"We are the Witnesses!"
--Henry W. Longfellow

11 April 2007

Rookie Author

Adam Gopnik’s essay “The Rookie,” originally published in The New Yorker and reprinted in his 2003 book Paris to the Moon, is one of the finest essays ever written about the appeal of fantasy for children, and the power of storytelling for adults.

So when I learned that Gopnik had jumped onto the children's fantasy bandwagon with The King in the Window, I figured I should read it. As usual, I didn't get to the book until considerably after it was published, but now I'm pushing through. And it is a push.

Gopnik pulls details and plot twists out of the air when they become useful, which means they accumulate like cat hair. I counted eighteen short flashbacks in the first chapter (though, technically, half of those are flashbacks within a flashback). Young protagonist Oliver's behavior seems to be consistent with his character only when that won't interfere with what he must do to bring on Gopnik's next scene.

But finally, at page 134, Psmith shows up. Okay, he's not calling himself Psmith. He's calling himself Charlie Gronek of Allendale, New Jersey, and his fashion sense has changed greatly; he dresses as a skater boy with digital gadgets stuffed in every pocket. But I can recognize an old friend as soon as he opens his mouth--at this particular moment, opening it to explain the word supportive:

"It's--uh--it's an American word that means, sort of, you may be nuts but you have a right to be nuts in your own way. Hey, I like your thinking on this, Ollie. We had to do something like it for credit in symbolic archetype class--that's what they used to call English, but Randi decided to change it. Now we do archetypal symbolic analysis. I mean, we each had to create our own myth, and draw our own mandala and everything. And then we had to, like, analyze everybody's archetypes. Personally, I'm thinking of becoming a Buddhist. They worship lettuce."
Compare and contrast.

10 April 2007

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arc

For years now, my writing-group friend Mordena has been urging us all to read Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. And now I’ve actually done so. (Special points for me! And probably a big surprise for Mordena.)

And I liked the book. Of course, it was a Newbery Honor Book in the fantasy/science-fiction genre, so I should like it or there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

I think what makes The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm so refreshingly original is its setting: Zimbabwe in the year 2194, precisely two centuries after the book was first published. Farmer thus combines three ways of taking Americans to an unfamiliar place: a foreign country, a technologically advanced future, and a world with fantastic elements (in this case, ancestral spirits). Her novel stands alongside the previous American children’s books set in a futuristic sub-Saharan Africa, which were... Well, you get the picture.

The book has two separate trios of protagonists:

  • siblings Tendai (aged 13), Rita (11), and Kuda (4). Chafing against the boundaries set by their powerful, protective father, they set off on what they expect will be a one-day scout trip--and end up being kidnapped.
  • detectives named the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. Mutants born after plutonium contamination, they respectively have enhanced hearing, sight, and sensitivity (both of touch and of emotion). But their powers also make them vulnerable misfits.
Tendai, Rita, and Kuda’s parents hire the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm to find their children.

The plot humps along, which produces a lot of action but not necessarily a lot of progress. The children are held captive by strict but not totally evil people who show us something about Zimbabwean society in the future (and today). After weeks or months of captivity, the kids realize that they’re in even greater danger than they thought and manage a breathless escape. Meanwhile, the detectives have had a few lucky breaks and figured out where the kids are, arriving only hours or minutes after those kids have moved on. Whereupon the children are kidnapped again.

And this happens not just once but three times.

Among the siblings, eldest brother Tendai does the most growing up. That makes sense since he starts on the verge of adolescence. Farmer narrates many scenes from his point of view. The two younger siblings are what E. M. Forster called “flat” characters--interesting in their quirks but essentially unchanging.

I expected more equalized attention for the detectives since they’re introduced as a trio. However, it quickly becomes clear that the Arm is the leader of the group. He has the most interesting capacities, and he undergoes the most change over the course of the book. The Ear contributes to the hunt but remains much the same, and the Eye does rather little, actually. Thus, of the detectives, only the Arm has his own arc.

09 April 2007

Everything We Need to Know About the US and UK

<--- This is how American road signs say, “Keep to the right.”

This is how British road signs say, “Keep to the right.” --->

Which nation has the more optimistic outlook on life?

07 April 2007

The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman

These days, most Americans know L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as the source for the 1939 MGM movie musical, but in his lifetime most Americans probably knew it as the source for a stage musical that premiered in 1903 and continued to tour for years. And the biggest stars to come out of that extravaganza were Fred Stone and David Montgomery, playing the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman.

How popular were they? Baum's first sequel to Wizard was fully titled The Marvelous Land of Oz: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, and it doesn't even include Dorothy or the Cowardly Lion. (They reappeared only in the third book.) Baum adopted the Tin Woodman's pre-metallic name in the stage script--Nick Chopper--for his books.

The emotional high point of the first half of Land is the reunion of straw and tin men (shown here). They have been separated by their responsibilities to rule the Emerald City and Winkie Country, but at the end of that book, the Scarecrow cheerfully abdicates his throne and says, "We have decided never to be parted in the future."

In succeeding books, however, the pair does separate. The Tin Woodman moves into a new castle made entirely of tin. The Scarecrow commissions a palace shaped like a giant corncob, about equidistant between his friend's home and the Emerald City.

Baum didn't leave his stars living apart, however. The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918) opens with them reunited:

The Tin Woodman sat on his glittering tin throne in the handsome tin hall of his splendid tin castle in the Winkie Country of the Land of Oz. Beside him, in a chair of woven straw, sat his best friend, the Scarecrow of Oz. At times they spoke to one another of curious things they had seen and strange adventures they had known since first they two had met and become comrades. But at times they were silent, for these things had been talked over many times between them, and they found themselves contented in merely being together, speaking now and then a brief sentence to prove they were wide awake and attentive.
Baum never mentions the Scarecrow's own castle in this book; inconsistency rarely bothered him.

The plot of Tin Woodman has the title character tracking down the young woman he was engaged to marry back before Wizard, when he was an ordinary woodchopper. That engagement ended after Nick Chopper found he no longer had a heart, and then he rusted in the forest. But now that he has both a heart and an oil can, a wandering youth asks him, don't you have a obligation to marry that young woman?

So the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the youth set out to find the fiancée. Nick admits he doesn't love her--his heart is kind but not loving, he says. But he feels confident she's still pining for him, so it would be unkind to deprive her of his company. In the end, after many difficult adventures, it turns out his premise is mistaken.

But is Nick really incapable of loving, or is he simply incapable of loving that woman? After losing his chance for a show marriage, the Tin Woodman gladly returns home with what the book calls his "chosen comrade": the Scarecrow. "The two friends were sure to pass many pleasant hours together in talking over their recent adventures," Baum assures us.

To quote a Winkie on page 15:
"Perhaps our Emperor is queer," admitted the servant; "but he is a kind master and as honest and true as good tin can make him; so we, who gladly serve him, are apt to forget that he is not like other people."

06 April 2007

Chapter Book Ripped from the Headlines

Many newspapers around the world are carrying the news that a single gene, turned on or off, seems to be responsible for some dog breeds being very large, others small.

The survival of that gene means that both its forms have evolutionary advantages for dogs that didn't exist for wolves. (Those ancestors of dogs are all pretty much the same size, like most species.) And since humans have bred dogs for 10,000-15,000 years, that advantage probably has something to do with what dogs could do for us.

Which leads me to this plot for a middle-grade novel:

Gara, a nine-year-old girl, helps to find the clan's top housewolf, Shona, after she has trotted away from the clanhouse to give birth. Among the pups in Shona's litter is one much smaller than the rest. To Gara's eyes, this little pup is just as energetic as the others, so she finds him a teat for nursing. Gara's siblings and cousins say she shouldn't have done that, but she refuses to listen and impulsively names the pup Runt.

Gara's mother, Bista, already has her hands full caring for a large field of grain and convincing the clan to stick to her plan to live near that patch for a whole season instead of moving on. Bista has insisted that this grain-gathering strategy will help the clan live out the lean parts of the year. She is pleased that Gara has helped find Shona, who helps guard the clan while the hunters are away, but isn't excited about Runt.

Gara's father, Truff, returns from the hunt, in a good mood because the men have downed a small, old antelope as well as the usual rodents and lizards. He tells Gara she can keep looking after Runt, and she's delighted. But the next day Gara overhears Truff telling his second wife, Lavla, why: if Runt grows as big as the other pups, he could be a good huntwolf or housewolf. If not, the clan can eat him in the winter.

Gara hustles to get Runt more food than the other pups so he'll grow faster. But although the pup shows hunting instincts and a lot of vigor, he remains small. Meanwhile, she has chores to do for her mother. Sometimes Runt helps, as in scaring birds away from the grain field. But sometimes he gets in the way, as when she and all the clan children are set to weaving sacks.

As the days grow shorter and colder, Bista announces that the grain is ready for harvest. All the women and children of the clan set to work gathering the crop, sifting and hulling the seeds into the sacks. The clan ends up with more grain than they have ever known. Many of the women congratulate Bista on her foresight, and she looks forward to Truff's next return.

But the following morning, Gara discovers holes in two of the sacks: rodents have chewed through the weaving in the night, stealing and ruining some of the grain supply. Bista repairs the damage as well as she can. That night she makes Shona the housewolf and her larger pups sleep near the sacks. Gara takes Runt to her mat so he won't feel lonely.

The clan awakes to furious barking. In the dim light of a crescent moon, they see the big pups dashing off, clumsily snapping at quick-moving shapes on the ground. But now the grain is unguarded, and more rodents arrive to gnaw through the sacks.

Bista and Lavla argue about retrieving the housewolves or lighting a fire to scare away the rodents. Gara feels Runt scramble out of her arms. He rushes toward the grain sacks and springs onto a small shadow beside one of them. Then he trots into the moonlight, deposits a dead rodent at Gara's feet, and dashes back. By the end of the night, when Shona and the rest of her pups return to the clanhouse, Runt has killed five rodents and scared off the rest.

The next afternoon, Truff and the hunters arrive home, only three lizards and a hedgehog to show for their work. Truff insists that it's time for the clan to move on to better hunting grounds. He's pleased to see Bista's grain supply, though worried about how to transport it. Bista shows how the larger dogs can drag it behind them on sticks. Truff agrees, then says that since Runt's too small for that task, it's time to kill him for food.

No! says Gara, coming back from the cookfire. She shows her father the rodents that Runt has killed, now nicely roasted. She points out how fast little dogs are good at protecting the grain in the clanhouse--and they can even bring in meat, too.

The next day, Gara's clan sets out to the south with Runt proudly trotting and dashing around the line of dogs dragging the grain sacks. And we all learn a valuable lesson about life.
Of course, the illustrations would have to show Gara and all her clan in the nude. You think that might be a problem?

copyright (c) 2007 by J. L. Bell

05 April 2007

A Grimm Situation

I had The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives, by Michael Buckley, on my to-read pile, but I moved it up after a young reader told me she liked it a lot.

So far it seems to be from the same mini-gothic world as A Series of Unfortunate Events, a world in which not only are there orphanages, but their workforce seems to consist exclusively of people who hate kids. And the only people signed up to be foster families are sadistic loons. At that rate, pixies and giants seem like a refreshing splash of realism.

I also can't help noticing that the younger Grimm sister, Daphne, is the more sensible one. And that the reader who recommended Sisters Grimm is also the younger of two sisters. Hmmm. Of course, I'm a younger sibling myself, so that portrayal doesn't surprise me.

04 April 2007

SCBWI New England Conference Coming Up!

The New England regions of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators have opened registration for their conference on 18-20 May 2007 in Nashua, New Hampshire. Registration forms in PDF format can be downloaded here.

This year's keynote speakers are agent Stephen Fraser, author and audiobook producer Bruce Coville, Newbery-winning author and humorist Sid Fleischman, and adult and young adult author Cheryl Zach. There will be at least two panel discussions, and a whopping 46 workshops offered over three days. (More about those later.)

Because SCBWI New England combines the resources and membership of three regions, and because we're close enough to New York to bring in a plethora of publishing professionals, this is one of the largest regional SCBWI conferences.

As for those workshops, one is my own, to be offered as part of the Sunday program for novelists:

Beyond ‘He Said, She Said’: The Do’s and Don’ts of Dialogue

Dialogue is a powerful tool for fiction writers, but it’s a big challenge to depict conversation clearly yet unobtrusively. This workshop offers a systematic approach to the mechanics of dialogue, addressing tags, punctuation, interruptions, distinctive modes of talking, mixing speech with action and thought and how to say goodbye to common mistakes.
Mistakes like designing a workshop for sixty minutes, and then agreeing to expand the topic to fill 105 minutes. Still working that one out...

03 April 2007

Little Captain Jack

There's something creepy about this dress-up costume, and not just because it makes you wonder why this kid isn't wearing eye shadow.

Rather, it’s how the description says: “From The Pirates of the Caribbean movie comes the great looking pirate costume of Captain Jack Sparrow. Includes shirt with vest attached, fabric sash, belt with attached buckle and boot covers. (Hat with attached braids and pants not included). Child size (4-6).”

There’s no mention of the facial hair, included or not. Which implies that it came with the child model. He must get very specialized work.

In related news, I found a whole blog of bad Capt. Jack impersonators, but it seems to be becalmed now.

02 April 2007

Spelling It Out with Piers Anthony

I read A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony, because a well-read writing-group friend noted some similarities between its premise and the situation I was exploring in a new project. I hadn't read any Anthony before, though I knew the name--which says little about my knowledge, considering what a striking pen name it is.

A basic challenge for any fantasy writer is imagining and then conveying how the magic works in a given story. Like a building constructed with visible struts, this novel makes that task one of its running themes. The protagonist, Bink, is constantly meditating on and discussing how animals, vegetables, and minerals in his homeland use magic; whether limitations on magic are biological or merely cultural; what magical powers are useful and what merely decorative; etc.; etc. Indeed, at the end of the book, protagonist Bink gets the job of researching the land, called Xanth.

Most of Bink's conclusions involve magic as a survival tool, developed through natural selection. Yet many of the book's magical details are based on puns rather than such biologic logic. For example, centipedes five times larger than normal are nickelpedes, though that would make sense only in an American context. (Then again, characters say "okay" and eat chocolate-chip cookies, and you can't get more American than that, right?) As a fan of the Oz series, however, I can hardly complain about episodes shaped around puns.

I can complain about the portrayal of women, however. I hadn't read the complaints about sexism in Anthony's novels until I'd reached the end of A Spell for Chameleon and reached my conclusions. But I see from web postings that such criticism has been voiced for decades now, perhaps since the book was published in 1977. And based on this one volume, I think the pattern goes beyond sexism (discriminating on the basis of sex) to full-blown misogyny, portraying women as essentially changeable and conniving.

Three female characters appear in many scenes throughout the book:

  • Sabrina, Bink's longtime girlfriend. She's pretty and smart, and Bink starts out devoted to her. It's hard to see why, however, since Anthony never really portrays her or their relationship in a lively way. That makes it harder to empathize with Bink when they break up. And how does that happen? He suddenly realizes that she was only interested in his magic. So after returning, magic and power intact, he fobs her off to a woman-hating friend.
  • Iris, a magician with immense power in creating illusions. She's very beautiful (whenever she wants to be), smart, and extremely ambitious. She tries to seduce Bink to gain power. When he stands up to her, she becomes his enemy. At the end she marries someone else to become queen, but since her husband likes Bink, she acts friendly, even fawning, toward him.
  • Chameleon, a woman whose physical attractiveness and intelligence wax and wane according to (I'm not making this up) her menstrual cycle. I really think it's hard to depict a trait as more fundamental to women than tying it to female biology. Did I mention that Chameleon can be either very beautiful or very intelligent, but not both at the same time? Or that when she's smart, she's especially clever at deceptive tactics? Or that when she's very beautiful, she's mindlessly devoted to Bink? Of course, he chooses her to marry.
So the book's three major women are all either deceptive or completely mutable.

There are some more fleeting female characters as well, without those particular traits: Bink's mother, a widowed mother he meets, another manly hero's dead wife who also happens to be a mother,... You get the picture. A female centaur lets Bink cop a feel and yet remains anatomically unavailable; she's the one female who can be both pretty and smart without being fundamentally unreliable.

Other critics have noted details that I let pass: the sex scenes that make A Spell for Chameleon adult rather than YA fantasy (and make it obvious that Anthony's definitely a breast man); a trial that seems to excuse what we'd now call "date rape"; how, according to readers of later books, all three major women above become shrewish wives. Nor would I require Anthony to show women as warriors, as Tamora Pierce does, or authority figures (Iris has ambitions to rule, but the land's magical landscape itself works to prevent that).

Indeed, I think it's clear that Anthony portrays his major female characters as naturally capable. The problem is that they're all naturally capable of alluring deception.

01 April 2007

Thinking Blogger Cannot Be Ignored

Back in February, my other blog, Boston 1775, got tagged with a Thinking Blogger Award. That designation, originated here, is based on the premise that someone who blogs thoughtfully also blogs thought-provokingly. Not necessarily the case, but a nice thought.

As the original arrangement stipulated, I designated five other blogs for their own Thinking Blogger Awards, explaining my rationale. I aimed for variety, and my designee in the children's-lit world was Monica Edinger's Educating Alice.

I forgot to say, "No backsies!" though, and Monica tagged back here at Oz and Ends. But I was so exhausted by making those five selections that I did nothing in response but thank her. The damage had been done: the "Thinking Blogger" meme had been loosed into the children's-lit-blog world.

No one can hide forever, and in the last couple of weeks Oz and Ends has been deemed "Thinking" by Fuse #8, Mother Reader, Original Content, and Minute Marginalia (which I hadn't even found yet). So once again I'm flattered and grateful, and I really must pick myself up and pass on the honor. I've decided to jump entirely outside the worlds of children's books and publishing, though.

Separated by a Common Language is a linguist's ongoing analysis of how English and Americans use different words, or use the same words differently. I especially admire how she notes parallel terms as she goes along. I don't think she's gotten to my favorite example yet: the verb "to table." In Britain it means to bring a topic up for discussion; in America it means to end that discussion. I've been in a business meeting between American and British executives using the term. That was a lot of fun.

Strange Maps offers glimpses of, well, strange maps. I'm impressed by the variety of offerings, and how this topic takes advantage of the web's capacity to combine graphics and words. For children's-lit content, see the map from Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark (the book on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis).

Heads Up is about news publishing rather than book publishing, so it slips into today's criteria. It combines the attitude that Correct Punctuation Is a Moral Issue, which I can get behind but have trouble convincing other people to adopt, with sharp-eyed analysis of how the news media's little mistakes can add up to real changes in meaning.

Damn Interesting is just that: a collection of weird but still significant stories, mostly from the last hundred years, of the sort that I devoured as a twelve-year-old boy.

Finally, The Year ’Round, Yesterday's Papers, and this growing Flickr archive of illustrations from St. Nicholas offer curious words and pictures from the century before last.