At the end of Oz and Ends's first COMICS WEEK, I'm circling back to Oz. It might be possible to track every major thread of American popular culture through versions of Oz. Within a decade after L. Frank Baum and W. W. Denslow published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, it had already inspired a blockbuster Broadway show, movies, records, and--what else?--comics. In fact, looking at the earliest Oz comics offers a window onto how that medium developed.
The first entry was the Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz comics page, written by Baum and illustrated by Walt McDougall, an established newspaper cartoonist (more samples here and here). That comic was created to publicize The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), and built around that book's grotesque characters: the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Jack Pumpkinhead, Sawhorse, Gump, and Woggle-bug. But those gentlemen and animals weren't in Oz. No, they were traveling around America, learning our strange ways.
To fill a page in each Sunday's paper, Baum wrote a short story and McDougall illustrated the tale with a series of panels packed with characters and speech balloons--some echoing the dialogue in Baum's prose, some new. Each episode ended with the thoroughly educated Woggle-bug about to answer some mystery the tale had brought up. In an interactive feature, readers were invited to mail their local papers the answer to the weekly question, "What did the Woggle-bug say?" Queer Visitors was therefore not quite a comic, and its stories were not quite stories. It lasted not quite half a year.
[ADDENDUM: Some panels from Queer Visitors reproduced in color can be found by scrolling down in this page from the BCF archive of Oz book discussions.]
Shortly afterward, Baum's erstwhile collaborator W. W. Denslow, who shared the copyright in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, spun its most popular characters into his own comics page, Denslow's Scarecrow and Tin-Man. He, too, brought the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, as well as the Cowardly Lion (whom Baum was neglecting), to America for rollicking adventures. They even meet Dorothy again, though (as shown above) she's much more frilly than before. Denslow's bold, rounded style matches modern tastes in cartooning better than MacDougall's, but his storytelling tended toward the "let's crash vehicles together" style. He also told his story through long captions, not speech balloons. Denslow's comic page lasted twelve installments.
By the time of the next Oz newspaper comic, in 1932-33, the medium had settled into the form we know best today: a short strip of black and white installments in each daily paper. Walt Spouse's The Wonderland of Oz adapted five of Baum's titles into this style. He followed the original stories closely, and based many of his pictures on John R. Neill's illustrations for the books. Spouse's comics still had no word balloons; instead, long prose captions beneath each panel told the stories. Among today's popular newspaper comics only Prince Valiant seems to follow that style. When some Wonderland strips were reprinted in a comic book called The Funnies in 1938-40, they were retrofitted with balloons.
In the last few years Hungry Tiger Press (also publisher of the John Dough and the Cherub pictured at right) has repackaged all three of these Oz comics in book form. Each book's format differs from the original publications, and from the other two, reflecting the strengths of the three sources and modern tastes.
Hungry Tiger Press has turned Queer Visitors into The Visitors from Oz, basically a volume of Baum short stories without McDougall's artwork. Instead, the book has art by the young Eric Shanower, before he received two Eisner Awards (and before his hair turned white).
Denslow's newspaper pages have been reformatted to make a picture storybook, The Scarecrow and the Tin-Man of Oz. That reprints all of Denslow's art, though only in black and white.
Finally, Shanower wrote a new script for Spouse's strips, using short speech balloons and short captions--thus turning those cartoons into more like what we expect from all comics today. Hungry Tiger Press has issued three volumes in the Wonderland of Oz series.
And Oz continues to be adapted into the latest trends in comics. In 2005 David Lee Ingersoll produced this thorough listing of Oz comics from the previous fifty years. And this month over at the Wonderful Blog of Oz, Eric and Tegan have shared news that The Land of Oz will soon be adapted in manga style.
30 June 2007
At the end of Oz and Ends's first COMICS WEEK, I'm circling back to Oz. It might be possible to track every major thread of American popular culture through versions of Oz. Within a decade after L. Frank Baum and W. W. Denslow published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, it had already inspired a blockbuster Broadway show, movies, records, and--what else?--comics. In fact, looking at the earliest Oz comics offers a window onto how that medium developed.
29 June 2007
Hours of fun may be found at Mister Kitty's Stupid Comics. The panel above, for instance, comes from 1989's Guardians of Justice & the O Force. Wonder why comics don't get more respect in our culture? Look at the sloppy, venal, and derivative work archived and mocked here.
If that's not enough, this month Fantagraphics will publish I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks. Fifteen crappy yet utterly unforgettable comics starring the likes of Stardust and Fantomah. Or, as Jules Feiffer has delicately blurbed, "It's a pleasure to see this first published edition of his puzzlingly effective work."
The volume also includes an interview with Fletcher Hanks, Jr. In this Lehigh alumni profile, he recalls his father as "the most no-good drunken bum you can find," a volatile, paranoid child abuser. Which, frankly, is not a surprise after you've seen his comics.
28 June 2007
My comments yesterday about the minority of comic strips that have their characters age reminded me that for months I've been meaning to declare that the greatest Canadian storyteller of our time is not Margaret Atwood, nor Rohinton Mistry, Douglas Coupland, Farley Mowat, and other talented writers.
It's Lynn Johnston, creator of the comic strip For Better or For Worse.
For the first three years or so of the strip, Johnston's characters didn't age--a phenomenon most apparent in the kids, of course. Since then, however, everyone's grown older in "real time," and the storylines have expanded along with them.
The fact that the saga is being created in "real time" with daily reader feedback means that Johnston can both set up developments years in advance and change course or pursue new ideas as she goes along. That creates a new kind of storytelling, even apart from the graphic dimension.
Reader interaction has become even more public since the strip began because of the internet. Johnston and her staff maintain an extensive website that offers "Q & Eh" [it is Canadian, after all] and discussion boards. Elly's blog is the current site for reader feedback. Current issue: Does the character of Shannon have any function besides enlightening April and her classmates about people with disabilities?
Web-only features even offer information not found within the panels of the strip, as well as helping occasional readers catch up, as in monthly letters from characters like Michael and Elizabeth.
The site also includes, for fans of all ages, a step-by-step guide to how Johnston and her staff create each strip. It contains such insights as, "For Lynn, it's important to begin inking her character illustrations with the eyeballs."
And for Oz and Ends's Divided by a Common Language feature, I quote from the short section on "Canadianisms":
Bags of Milk: OK, it only appeared once, but this also confused even most of Canada! In Ontario and in some parts of other provinces, you can buy your milk in convenient plastic bags that slip into a jug. You snip off one corner of the bag and voila, you go with the flow! In one strip, Farley punctures a milk bag, streaming milk all over. We received many letters asking: "what the heck was that all about?"I seem to recall hitting the same problem reediting Toronto-published children's books for the US market years ago. Bags of milk? Is that proper talk for a children's book, or a daily newspaper?
27 June 2007
From Philip Sandifer's "When Real Things Happen to Imaginary Tigers," in InterText:
Let us begin more simply – with a straightforward observation about Calvin and Hobbes. The observation is this: Hobbes is imaginary.Why wasn't anyone around to tell me this in 1985?
Actually, I found this essay straining alternately to say too little and too much. Setting aside the lit-crit language, it aims to illuminate our expectation in reading Calvin and Hobbes: that each morning we'd find a small joke that could be part of a small weekly story but wouldn't greatly change the characters and situation, so that the next morning we could have the same experience; but, ironically, that the characters and situation portrayed would have a fluid relationship with the physical and biological world.
When Bill Watterson started Calvin and Hobbes, focused on two supporting characters from another proposed strip, he offered an "origin" story that creates a beginning to the strip's reality:
However, as Watterson later noted, that first strip ran in so few newspapers that hardly any readers saw it in "real time." Almost all of us came to Calvin and Hobbes while the story was already going on. And we didn't mind because we're used to figuring out most comic strips that way.
Sandifer's essay briefly acknowledges another model of comic strip in which characters age and change over time: Gasoline Alley, Doonesbury, and Jump Start, for instance. And that's not even getting into other forms of comics, such as monthly magazines and standalone graphic novels.
I think it might be more illuminating to consider how such different types of strips portray time and space. As it is, an essay on Calvin and Hobbes must conclude with little more insight than:
As for reading too much, Sandifer's argument puts great emphasis on a character who appeared for one week:
In fact, the reader is often expected to specifically forget things – for example, the character of Uncle Max, who Watterson admits was a mistake to introduce, and of whom he says simply "Max is gone" (Watterson, Tenth 76). This is telling – the audience is expected to forget Uncle Max. He is gone – not a part of the strip.Twice Sandifer insists we readers are supposed to "forget" Uncle Max. But Watterson never insisted on that. He simply wrote in an anthology:
After the story ran, I realized that I hadn't established much identity for Max, and that he didn't bring out anything new in Calvin. The character, I concluded, was redundant. It was also very awkward that Max could not address Calvin's parents by name, and this should have tipped me off that the strip was not designed for the parents to have outside adult relationships. Max is gone.Max never appeared again in Calvin's house or in the strip, but we readers didn't have to wrote Max out of out memories. That week of strips kept being reprinted. Just as Calvin mentions grandparents who are never seen, so Uncle Max remained available off-stage if Watterson ever found a use for him. In the meantime, there was a new strip each morning, so we never had reason to miss him. And that's all we asked for.
26 June 2007
Clubbing, by Andi Watson and Josh Howard, is a Minx graphic novel published in the US but set in rural England. (See yesterday's posting for how I found myself an owner and then reader of a preview copy.)
For the benefit of the comic's American readers, page 4 offers the following announcement, in the voice of the teenaged heroine from London:
"The coppers have nicked my corned beef hash and Yorkshire puds and bogged off down the motorway."Only problem is that three-page glossary doesn't contain entries for "coppers," "corned beef hash," or "motorway." There is a full explanation for corned beef hash inside the comic. However, since the American equivalent is "corned beef hash," I'm not sure why that was presented as an example of a British term needing translation.
Don't have a clue what I'm talking about? Consult my Lexicon on pages 147-149 to translate English slang into fluent American.
The lexicon does include such opaque Britishisms as "Butlins" (old-fashioned holiday camp), "top herself" (commit suicide), and "Wellies" (rubber boots). There are also useful cultural references: Glastonbury, F1, Ruskin. (I suppose the closest Yankee equivalents to those would be Woodstock, NASCAR, and Emerson.)
But the Clubbing lexicon also includes several terms that, while they have their roots in British culture, should be familiar to most Americans: bedlam, bonkers, namby-pamby. And there are a few terms that aren't particularly British at all, and appear in any dictionary: septuagenarians, compost, frock.
Meanwhile, the glossary doesn't include several true Britishisms that appear in the comic, such as:
- pensioners - senior citizens
- paper round - paper route
- nobby-no-mates - someone with no friends
- Laura Davies - English golfer on the women's tour since 1988
- kippers - bony breakfast fish (see Sir Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses)
If you want to see that plot played out for far more laughs, action, and emotion, I heartily recommend the movie Hot Fuzz.
25 June 2007
For reasons as untraceable as a mistake in a sodoku puzzle, I find myself on the mailing list for Minx, DC Comics's imprint for graphic novels aimed at adolescent girls. Not being an adolescent girl, I haven't known quite what to do with these advanced copies. Every so often I would peek inside one and then tiptoe away, as if I'd accidentally started to push open the door of the wrong restroom.
Then one volume caught my eye for the wrong reason (maybe tomorrow), and it contained an appealing sneak peek at another book, and I found I had a copy of that, too, so I read it.
And enjoyed it. That comic is Re-Gifters, by Mike Carey, Sonny Liew, and Marc Hempel. The story involves a martial-arts tournament in a multiethnic, working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. Heroine Jen (Dixie) Dik Seong is a black belt with an unrequited crush on a boy in her dojo and a dose of attitude for everyone else.
I didn't care for a similarly grumpy adolescent in Abadazad, but the preview that caught me up included a healthy dose of wisecracking best friend for perspective. The illustration style also intrigued me. It wasn't big-eyed manga wannabe, nor jaded realism, nor deliberately distorted underground, nor musclebound superhero, nor any other style I could easily classify.
One provocative aspect of Re-Gifters is that none of its creators is from Los Angeles. In fact, two aren't even American. Writer Mike Carey is a Londoner. Penciler Sonny Liew is a Malaysian with English and New English education who now lives in Singapore, and inker Marc Hempel is in Baltimore. And Carey told Newsarama last week, "I’m so far from being an expert on any of the martial arts stuff that it isn’t even funny. . . . As a Brit writing about Southern California, I’m never going to get all the details right. Can I capture the Korean-American experience? Of course not! I couldn’t even make a decent fist of the Korean-British experience."
And as to Liew and Hempel's graphics, Carey said:
Sonny was reluctant to let anyone else ink his stuff on [previous collaboration My Faith in] Frankie, but when he saw Marc’s sample pages he was really pleased with how it worked. He does very detailed pencils, and to some extent Marc abridges some of that detail, but he captures the essence and the essence is absolutely beautiful. It’s one of these fortuitous pairings that seems inevitable in retrospect.Now my real challenge: figuring out whom to pass Re-Gifters on to. Because with that title I really shouldn't keep it on my shelf.
(From that first batch of Minx comics, I later read The PLAIN Janes, written by Cecil Castellucci and illustrated by Jim Rugg. It was fine, but I didn't feel it added up to a full meal--more a graphic short story than a graphic novel. Here's the Tea Cozy Interview with Castellucci.)
24 June 2007
This will be COMICS WEEK at Oz and Ends since I’ve built up a bunch of thoughts on that topic and have nowhere else to put them.
To start, here are two links related to recent comics uniting Dorothy Gale of the Oz books, Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, and Alice from Lewis Carroll's dream adventures.
ImageText, an online journal of "interdisciplinary comics studies," has released an issue on Comics & Childhood. Among the items is a roundtable discussion of Lost Girls, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Melinda Gebbie. Contributions from moderator Philip Sandifer, Kenneth Kidd, Chris Eklund, Charles Hatfield, and Meredith Collins include sexually explicit language and topics, of course.
Hatfield concludes about Lost Girls:
Many who merely hear about it will be offended by the very idea. But, to be honest, the novel's revisionist and erotic take on Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy isn't that radical. This kind of take has already been prepared for – even in comics, where revisionist if not erotic treatments of Alice and Oz are common to the point of dullness. . . .The other responses are more admiring of the enterprise. Everyone likes Gebbie's art.
Unfortunately, as a novel Lost Girls strikes me as fundamentally unpersuasive. It seems to me that Moore & Gebbie have trouble getting beyond the titillating "novelty" of reinterpreting their source stories pornographically, and I can't escape the feeling that, for all its smarts, handsomeness, and high hopes, the project is a boondoggle. . . .
Yet from a novelistic viewpoint, I think Lost Girls obviously, spectacularly, fails. It fails to do something genuinely subversive with the art of pornography, that is, it fails to tell a credibly human story. Instead of such a story, it offers a baroque monument to the idea of sexual-cum-spiritual freedom – pursued naively, unrelentingly, and at exhausting length.
In less high-falutin' news, the third issue of Cheshire Crossing is now available on the web. Click on the thumbnail above to go right to it. Writer-artist Andy Weir is shifting among the three heroines with every switch of a page. Interesting that in this digital medium the single page is the defining unit, as opposed to the page spread.
23 June 2007
Yesterday I wrote about a passage in Lionboy: The Chase that impressed me as a good example of how authors can plant information and occasionally remind readers about it, preparing us for the moment when it will become crucial to a plot. Today I turn to an example of how not to do this. Namely, not even trying.
Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker introduced the world to the young Alex Rider, a surprisingly capable teenaged espionage agent. "Surprisingly" not just because he's fourteen years old, but because whenever Alex needs an unusual skill, Horowitz reveals that he already has it.
For instance, page 21 tells us:
He had started learning karate when he was six years old. One afternoon, with no explanation, Ian Rider had taken him to a local club for his first lesson and he had been going there, once a week, ever since. Over the years...Six sentences follow, describing Alex's black belt and how he'd use it to deal with bullies at school. Unfortunately, that long flashback paragraph comes in the middle of what's supposed to be a fast-moving fight scene, just after a junkyard guard has confronted Alex. So the explanation slows down the action as well as making the contrivance of the plot inescapably obvious.
This defect is especially regrettable since establishing Alex's skills could fill another big hole in the book: the lack of detail about the life he enjoyed with his uncle Ian, the life he's lost with his uncle's death. The book opens with Alex learning that Ian Rider has died. Horowitz thus has a grand opportunity to mention Alex's memories of special times with his uncle. Going to karate lessons, for example. Such specifics would make Alex's loss more real and thus more touching, and lay the groundwork for the junkyard fight.
Instead, over and over Stormbreaker springs new information on us. On page 56 we discover that Alex is an expert pickpocket--after he's picked someone's pocket. The book never provides a reason for a boy to have learned this skill, which even he should have found remarkable.
On page 61 the book reveals that Alex has "lived abroad so he now speaks French, German, and Spanish." Yet there's no mention of such long foreign sojourns or languages back on page 3 when Alex thinks briefly about traveling with his uncle.
Page 166, ridiculously late for a 192-page book, tells us that Uncle Ian has made sure that Alex knows how to drive. And wouldn't you know it? There's a jeep available!
Horowitz makes a great deal of how the MI6 spy agency doesn't train Alex in using a gun; in contrast to all that information he leaves out, he repeats this fact so we can't miss it. But, as it turns out, Alex can fire a pistol so accurately that from many metres away he can hit the Prime Minister in the hand rather than the chest, and knock a computer plug out of a wall. At just the crucial moment, of course.
22 June 2007
On page 124 of Lionboy: The Chase, Zizou Corder inserts what seems at first glance to be an extraneous paragraph. Young hero Charlie Ashanti is trapped with his lion friends in a Venetian palazzo, wondering where his parents are.
At that moment the novel brings up someone else entirely:
He thought about them in bed that night, wishing that Julius was asleep on a bunk above him. Julius knew so much, he would have been able to help. But he had never been able to tell the truth to Julius, because he was a circusboy and would not have understood how the lions had to escape. That didn't stop Charlie from missing him, though. He wondered if he would ever see Julius again.This paragraph seems to have nothing to do with the preceding scenes. We last saw Julius in chapter 1, when he and his fellow circus performers on board the Circe discovered that Charlie had absconded with their lions. The narrative hasn't shifted back to the circus ship since page 31.
Furthermore, there's no sound logic to Charlie's thinking. Julius's expertise lay in knowing how the circus worked; he'd have little to say about the politics of Venice. So this passage tells us about Charlie's emotional state, but does it serve the narrative in any other way? In short, what's it doing in the book?
I think it's there so that sixty-five pages later when Charlie's parents have found their way to the Circe to talk to the circus boss, and "a curly freckled boy ran up to them," we readers quickly think, "Yes! It's Julius! Julius is Charlie's friend! Julius will help!"
Without that reference on page 124, we readers would be more likely to have forgotten Julius and how nice and knowledgeable he was. But just a little reminder, which seems to be nothing but Charlie moping before going to sleep, can be all it takes to tie things together.
I think Corder (actually author Louisa Young) does an excellent job through most of the Lionboy trilogy in doling out those hints and reminders and details from her several plot threads. The small exception involves the ending of volume the third, Lionboy: The Truth, and thus the ending of the whole trilogy.
******* SPOILER ********
The dénouement depends on Charlie having extraordinary computer skills. Page 208 reminds us: "Months ago, in Major Tib's cabin [on the Circe], he had listed among his strengths 'good at computers.'" But by that point Charlie's already started hacking into a worldwide corporation's main system, which goes well beyond being "good" at typing and videogames. A little damage is done, therefore: Charlie's skill appears more convenient, and thus contrived, than it has to be.
I think Corder could have inserted a few more references to Charlie hacking computers over the course of the book. Yes, that could be a challenge since he's usually on the run and kept incommunicado. But there are opportunities, given all the little computers he meets with: a boat's autopilot, cell phones, etc. Just a few references, every sixty to eighty pages, and his special skill would have been no surprise.
21 June 2007
Usually I use the "Divided by a Common Language" heading to discuss difference between American and British English. But there are also language gaps within a nation, and one of those might become a challenge as young people discover Sarah Beth Durst's debut novel, Into the Wild, published today.
The premise of Into the Wild is that the force behind fairy tales has escaped from under the young heroine's bed (where else?) and taken over a swath of central Massachusetts. A recognizable swath, in fact. The fabled discount and salvage store Spag's (now under new management) is the lair of a pimply young wizard. The Higgins Armory Museum is an ogre's castle. Folks from the author's home town of Northboro’, Massachusetts, will no doubt recognize even more locales.
I live in the next county, but close enough to offer help with a difficult word at the beginning of Chapter 15:
On the Route 290 bridge over Lake Quinsigamond, the griffin sunned himself. He stretched, exposing his lion stomach, across three lanes. Shortly beyond him, the bridge ended in mid-air. Blueness stretched on and one into the horizon.One place name in that passage is hard for people from other places to pronounce correctly. No, not "Quinsigamond"; that sounds just like it looks, with the accent on the "sig."
Julie tried to sound casual. "You know, Worcester used to be on the other side of this bridge." Even to her own ears, her voice sounded weak. "I also don't recall a griffin last time I was here."
The hard word is "Worcester." It looks like it should contain three syllables, two of them ending with R-sounds. Instead, there are two accepted pronunciations:
20 June 2007
Yesterday Oz and Ends reader and friend Ruth Berman responded to my remarks on Diary of a Wimpy Kid, whose narrator warns us, “don’t expect me to be all ‘dear diary this’ and ‘dear diary that.’” Ruth wrote:
As regards the girlish habit of writing to "Dear Diary" -- I wonder if any girls ever actually did that. Since it's taken for granted in so many fictional diaries that they do, probably at least a few have done so, after having read the fictional diaries.So I turned to one of my favorite resources, Google Book, and asked it to search for the phrase “Dear Diary” in its Full Text (i.e., mostly pre-1923) files.
It's an odd convention. I'm not sure if it's meant to suggest that the diarist needs the pretense of communication with someone in order to get permission to be so egotistical as to write about self, or that the diarist is so hungry for a friendly correspondent as to cast a few bound pages in the role (or so crazy as to think that the diary actually is a friendly correspondent?), or just what.
I found that one real American girl who wrote “Dear Diary” was Helen Keller, at least according to how American Anthropologist quoted her 13 Oct 1893 entry. But was that already a literary convention?
Indeed, it was. F. C. Phillips’s novel As in a Looking Glass (1889) takes the form of its heroine’s journal, and as narrator she occasionally addresses the book as “dear diary.”
Furthermore, an actually good American novel, William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer uses the convention even earlier, in 1886. (Howells was a major editor of his time, and I think this novel is the one time he reached the level of Edith Wharton; he’s certainly more fun to read than Henry James.) Of his ingenue Howells said:
This time she wrote to a girl with whom she had been on terms so intimate that when they left school they had agreed to know each other by names expressive of their extremely confidential friendship, and to address each other respectively as Diary and Journal.Imogene then writes a letter starting, “Dear Diary,” which also addresses the recipient as “Di.” She signs her letter “Journal” and “J.”
They were going to write every day, if only a line or two; and at the end of the year they were to meet and read over together the records of their lives as set down in these letters. They had never met since, though it was now three years since they parted, and they had not written since Imogene came abroad; that is, Imogene had not answered the only letter she had received from her friend in Florence.
So in 1886 Howells depicted these young American women adopting and slightly parodying the “Dear Diary” convention, which means it must have been well established in the US by then. We also see that people understood that convention to signal an “extremely confidential friendship” with the diary, albeit a totally symbolic one.
Pushing further back, I find the phrase “Dear Journal” in E. Prentiss’s novel Stepping Heavenward (1873) and in “Leaves from the Journal of a Poor Musician” in Putnam’s Magazine for 1868. And deeper into the past! Future British schoolmistress Hannah E. Pipe wrote in her journal on 17 Feb 1848: “My dear Diary--I have to apologize for my great neglect of you latterly.”
So young diarists who do write, “Dear Diary,” in their journals, and our fictional Greg Heffley who says he won’t, are playing off a literary trope that’s over a century and a half old.
19 June 2007
Last weekend I attended a history conference on diaries in New England from pre-Revolutionary times to the late twentieth century. At one point historian Lynne Bassett asked for thoughts on why diary-keeping seems to have become a feminine activity.
I piped up with an allusion to the first paragraph of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, now appearing both on the NYTBR bestseller list and on FunBrain.com:
First of all, I want to get something straight: this is a JOURNAL, not a diary. I know what it says on the cover but when Mom went out to buy this thing I SPECIFICALLY said to make sure it didn’t say “diary” on it. So don’t expect me to be all “dear diary this” and “dear diary that.”This is followed by a cartoon of a bully punching our narrator while yelling, “SISSY!” The gendered implications could hardly be clearer.
How did we get from Samuel Pepys keeping a daily record of his work as Navy secretary, marriage, genteel social life, and sexual dalliances to young Greg Heffley insisting he doesn’t keep a diary, no, not him?
In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, both men and women in America and Britain kept diaries. In fact, because literary rates were higher for males, men wrote more diaries than women.
In the early part of that period, diaries weren’t necessarily private documents. Gentlemen might invite their friends to read their records of important events, or copy out entries to send to relatives. Some men, such as William Byrd of Virginia, kept private diaries for what they wanted to keep confidential and public versions to share.
In addition, those diaries tended to be records of events: the weather, business matters, dining partners, the receipt of news, and so on. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that people commonly made their diaries the repository of their deepest feelings. That turned diaries into private documents for the writers and trusted loved ones, leading eventually to diaries being marketed with locks on them. In general nineteenth-century men expressed their emotions in their diaries as freely as women did.
But then post-Victorian culture started to shoo men away from sentiment, and everything that had come to be associated with it--including diaries. Especially diaries of the “dear diary this” kind. And for American boys in seventh grade, like the fictional Greg Heffley, questions of masculinity and femininity are very important.
So Greg tells us that “I think Mom has this idea that I’m going to write down my ‘feelings’ and all that, but she’s not actually allowed to read it so I figure I’ll just write what I want.” Ironically, the secrecy that once shielded expressions of emotion has become his shield for not expressing his emotions--at least outright. (In fact, it’s mighty clear how Greg feels about things.)
I’m not sure how our current gendered distinction between “diary” and “journal” arose. The terms are synonymous, both going back to the same Latin root as in “diurnal.” But it’s so widespread that Simon & Schuster took care to label their My Name Is America books for boys as “journals” while the older Dear America series for girls remain “diaries.”
18 June 2007
Anthony Horowitz's first Alex Rider spy adventure, Stormbreaker, drops a lot of brand names: "Gap combat trousers," "Condor Junior Roadracer," "Kawasaki four by four."
In doing that it follows the model of the James Bond tales. Ian Fleming, too, characterized his hero through brand names, and the Bond movies are awash in product placements.
Even considering that precedent, Stormbreaker goes further into exalting brand-name products than I'd ever seen, in this exchange from chapter 3:
"Please, Alex. Sit down," Crawley said. He went over to the fridge. "Can I get you a drink?" So not only is our untrustworthy MI6 recruiter burdened with the name "Crawley," but he tries to foist no-name cola onto our young hero under the noble name of "Coke." No wonder Alex is so grumpy and alienated throughout the book! Fortunately, "he poured the cola into a potted plant" before it could harm him.
"Do you have Coke?"
"Yes." Crawley opened a can and filled a glass, then handed it to Alex. "Ice?"
"No, thanks." Alex took a sip. It wasn't Coke. It wasn't even Pepsi. He recognized the oversweet, slightly cloying taste of supermarket soda and wished he'd asked for water.
It baffles me to see Wikipedia say, "Due to primarily being spy fiction, the series is compared to James Bond and Rider is often referred to as a youthful version." The series is compared to James Bond because Horowitz makes the comparison inescapable. He titles one chapter in the first book "Double O Nothing." Other hints of influence include Alex's first alias being Felix Lester; Bond's CIA contact is Felix Leiter. It would be hard to get more explicit about modeling your series on Bond without inviting a lawsuit over stealing someone else's brand.
And then the Alex Rider books did so well that a few years later the Fleming estate had to commission its own teenaged Bond.
17 June 2007
I used to smirk at my mother's complaints about Molly, the American Girl doll representing the 1940s. Molly has pigtails, glasses, plaid skirt, and of course a spunky wartime attitude. "They've made me into a doll!" Mom would say, though she's a few years less historical than Molly must be.
Then one of my sisters got glasses at a very young age, and the Molly doll was one of the few that came with glasses, too, so she became acceptable. But I digress.
This week American Girl Publishing announced that it will launch a new series of historical stories written by Megan (Judy Moody) McDonald about "Julie Albright, a lass living in San Francisco in the 1970s."
Yes, that distant era shrouded in mist and legend, "the mid-1970s"! The website takes us back: "America is trying to switch to the metric system, and school sports teams sometimes include a new kind of player--girls!" Copy for the Julie Tells Her Story volume promises, "The 'Looking Back' section explores school life in the 1970s," presumably with grainy photographs of a mimeograph machine and a 16mm film projector.
Soon we'll learn about such quaint old-fashioned pasttimes as memorizing all the ingredients of a Big Mac; painting fire hydrants red, white, and blue; and standing up to change the TV.
Okay, I'm not blonde, I've never lived in San Francisco, and I've never been an American Girl. But they've made me into a doll!
15 June 2007
Tuesday’s Guardian enthused:
Publisher claims to have found Potter successorThat editor would be Barry Cunningham, now of the boutique imprint Chicken House, and he was touting Tunnels, originally self-published in the UK by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams.
Editor who was first to spot the potential of JK Rowling's boy wizard tips fantasy tale about boy archaeologist as next big thing
But on this side of the Atlantic another "new Rowling" was seeking to become the latest big thing in British-isles children's fantasy. Sunday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer gasped:
'The Alchemyst' could be the start of something Harry big in young-adult fantasyIrishman Michael Scott is touring North America for The Alchemyst, the first of six books in a series he's mapped out and sold to Random House.
Meanwhile, after an anemic holiday period and several months of sales below last year's levels, the US bookselling industry gazes desperately to 14 July and the publication of the old J. K. Rowling's seventh Harry Potter novel. The clouds within that silver lining are that each book in this series has sold a larger percentage of its total during the first week or so, and that there's no eighth novel in the offing. In other words, after the end of July it's downhill for the foreseeable future.
But of course Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows won't be the last book from Rowling, given her imagination and storytelling talent. Four years ago she told the BBC that she's worked on other manuscripts that she might well publish under a pseudonym, a sentiment she repeated two years ago. Rowling wants her books judged on their own, not snapped up simply because she wrote them nor dismissed because they aren't like her Potters.
Which means that one of these days the new J. K. Rowling could turn out to be...J. K. Rowling.
14 June 2007
I stumbled onto the strange and unusual Judge a Book by Its Cover website this week. It declares itself "the internet's premier website for book reviews and synopses based totally on the book's cover. . . . none of our highly qualified reviewer even read the books they review."
For instance, about Maurice Gee's The Fire-Raiser, reviewer Christine Brown writes:
The Fire-Raiser is a book about a young boy named Alex, who lives in the South West with his Uncle Sam raising horses. Though he seems normal in the beginning of the book, you later find out he has some mysterious powers.The Fire-Raiser actually describes a small New Zealand town about a century ago dealing with an arsonist. But some kids would probably prefer to read this version, with Alex's fiery eyes. Won’t they be disappointed!
Alex enjoys being with the horses and hanging out with his friends. Everyone gets along with him unless he gets mad. When he's mad it seems as if he is going to burn things to pieces with his eyes. Nobody understands why or how he gets so mad. . . .
The Fire-Raiser is a strange and confusing book. Maurice Gee, the author, uses a lot of Sci-fi drama to confuse readers. It is a strange book because the author doesn't explain how the characters gets control of their powers.
2 out of 5 stars.
Perhaps Judge a Book by Its Cover exists as plagiarism bait. Teacher who get book reports cribbed from it can be certain that the students haven't read the books and simply stumbled into the same insights and opinions as found on the web.
PERMANENT LINK: 9:33 PM
13 June 2007
Here’s a little exchange from the first chapter of Sky Island, L. Frank Baum’s fantasy novel for 1912. Baum had introduced this book's heroine, a California girl nicknamed Trot, the previous year in Sea Fairies. This conversation has little to do with the plot that follows--it's just two kids getting to know each other.
The boy sat down beside her on the flat rock.The boy turns out to be Button-Bright, whom Baum introduced in The Road to Oz, now older and more articulate but no wiser.
"Do you like girls?" asked Trot, making room for him.
"Not very well," the boy replied. "Some of 'em are pretty good fellows, but not many. The girls with brothers are bossy, an' the girls without brothers haven't any 'go' to 'em. But the world's full o' both kinds, and so I try to take 'em as they come. They can't help being girls, of course. Do you like boys?"
"When they don't put on airs or get roughhouse," replied Trot. "My 'sperience with boys is that they don't know much, but think they do."
"That's true," he answered. "I don't like boys much better than I do girls, but some are all right, and--you seem to be one of 'em."
"Much obliged," laughed Trot. "You aren't so bad, either, an' if we don't both turn out worse than we seem, we ought to be friends."
Though he has some heroic moments in Sky Island, when he reappears in Baum's later Oz books Button-Bright embodies what I suspect Trot and Dorothy find to be exasperating masculine traits. Button-Bright "don't know much," and the problem is not that he thinks he does but that he doesn't care whether he does or not. Furthermore, he rarely gets emotional about anything. He doesn't worry about other people's worries. And of course he never asks for directions.
12 June 2007
From the children's publishing world come news releases of three new ventures--two involving book/film combos offered over the web, the third a plea for funds.
The Associated Press picked up this announcement from Scholastic:
Scholastic is officially launching BookFlix, an educational Web site pairing short films based on popular picture books along with nonfiction e-books that allow early readers to follow the text online.And the syndicate paired that with similar but different news from Disney:
Meanwhile, the Disney Publishing Group plans a similar project later this year, making favorites such as "The Jungle Book" and "Cinderella" available online. While Scholastic, for now, is sticking to the school and library market, Disney will offer books to general consumers, charging a fee, still to be determined, for downloads.One company offers nonfiction ebooks on an "educational" site. The other promises a new channel for enjoying its narrative brands. That, my friends, is the difference between a company with its roots in school book fairs and school-library publishing, and a company with its roots in the movie business.
Meanwhile, Publishers Weekly brings a story from the Southwest:
The University of New Mexico Press has initiated a "Friends of the Press" campaign to establish a $5-million endowment that will be used to fund two new series of children's books...a multicultural children's series and a children's science series.Now this fund is also supposed to help the press's "future growth and development," so it may be pushing the children's series front and center because people are more willing to give money for cute kids than for editor's offices and another dozen scholarly monographs. Once again, that approach to increasing revenue shows UNMP's roots, as a non-profit organization.
11 June 2007
Mark Dominus at the Universe of Discourse blog has provided an economic analysis of A Bargain for Frances, by Russell and Lillian Hoban. He finds that the book might be too sophisticated for his two-year-old to understand on first reading. Which I'm sure is true. Sometimes I think the emotions in the Frances books, especially the later ones, are both too subtle and too raw for me.
After discussing the concept of "backsies," Dominus adopts his wife's suggestion that Frances's friend Thelma is actually thinking of herself when she says:
I know another girl who saved up for that tea set. Her mother went to every store and could not find one. Then that girl lost some of her money and spent the rest on candy. She never got the tea set. A lot of girls never do get tea sets. So maybe you won't get one.Thelma could indeed be speaking of herself and her mother. But I think she's also cleverly playing off Frances's anxieties, softening up her friend for the hard bargain that Thelma knows will bring her that tea set. We know from A Birthday for Frances that our little badger sometimes can't help herself around candy. Thelma's words will make her worry about being able to keep saving her coins. Why not go for the immediate gratification of Thelma's plastic tea set?
09 June 2007
Ruth McNally Barshaw's Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel is a fun example of a new genre which we'd call "graphic novel" if only status-conscious comic books hadn't already grabbed that moniker.
Like Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which started out here on FunBrain), this first Ellie McDoodle story combines art and text, word balloons and narrative prose. The deceptively simple artwork doesn't simply illustrate the story, nor is the text simply explanatory captioning for the art. The drawings and text are inseparable, and they add up to an artistic young narrator's "voice."
Ruth unknowingly developed this genre while attending SCBWI conferences to study the picture-book form. She documented those events, as she'd recorded other trips in her life, in her sketchbooks. (At the last meeting she even recorded a meeting with me.) Then an editor saw those online sketchbooks, and invited her to create a novel for young readers in that form.
In addition to its story and a perhaps-unnecessary "Things I've Learned" at the end, this first Ellie McDoodle story contains about a dozen car and camp games that should keep kids happy even after they catch onto how there are no prizes in the Quiet Contest.
The Institute of Children's Literature just posted an interview with Ruth. It nominally focuses on humor, particularly how kids and adults often differ on what's funny, and authors and publishers always do. Would you be surprised that a publisher with the oh-so-literary name Bloomsbury edited out with fart jokes?
Ruth's observations on what sorts of jokes different kids like:
Body humor is still funny to boys that age [ages 10-13]. Double entendres and dirty jokes. Boys that age are sort of in between the potty humor of little kids and the potty humor of adult men. As compared to girls, well, girls think some of that stuff is funny, at that age, but they're likely to be embarrassed by some of it, whereas the boys just think it's hilarious.Ruth also says of her own kids, "they argue over who is the inspiration for Ellie." And here I'd thought Ruth herself fit that bill. There are several points of similarity. Both she and Ellie are talented cartoonists who travel with their sketchbooks. In fact, Ruth told the ICL, "The first trip I have recorded is a camping trip with my family." And both have a Mc____ surname.
jitterbug: What is humorous for girls?
Ruth: Embarrassment humor, they still like potty jokes and fart humor, but are sometimes more covert about it, word play, sarcasm... you name it. I'm not sure there's a huge difference in what boys and girls find funny. My book is aimed at girls but boys have told me they think it's very funny. Gross out humor is universal. ;)
Jan: A lot of girl humor is relationship oriented too...so part of the humor is the response to it in the group.
Ruth: yes, very good point, Jan! and boys play to an audience, though sometimes girls do also.
And then there are the details that hint that this story actually occurs a generation ago:
Ruth's most recent camping sketchbook documents such devices in the wild today. (It may be easier to read this sketchbook from the beginning through the Ellie McDoodle blog.)
Yes, Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel also has some way-we-live-now touches, mostly new labels for things that have been around a while: a graphic novel instead of a comic book, a souvenir water bottle instead of a canteen, camouflage cargo pants instead of, well, pants.
The lack of cell phones is the giveaway, I think. Ellie and her little brother are away from their parents, yet there are no calls back and forth. There aren't even any thoughts of calling if only the family weren't camping so far away from cell towers. Will kids be so caught up in the story that they won't wonder about that?
Of course, cell phones are a big plotting challenge for writers today; they make lots of classic problems go away. On the other hand, cell phones also open up new opportunities, as in Zizou Corder's LionBoy series, not to mention Lauren Myracle's ttyl. Either way, today's middle-grade readers probably can't remember a time without them.
08 June 2007
From a Boston Globe interview today with deejay Laura Wilson of WMBR.
Q. Goth is a subgenre of rock, but now there are subgenres of Goth.Good to know.
A. It can get really confusing. There's ethereal, there's darkwave, there's Goth ambient, and Goth industrial. Some people consider industrial to be Goth, but I don't. Goth has to be dark, melodic. If it's straight-up headbanging industrial, it's not Goth.
I was scrounging around on Simon & Schuster's website, finding this page for William Boniface's Adventures of Max the Minnow. And my eye caught on the message to the left:
There are no other ways to refine.That seems to be the S&S search-engine's jargon for "This author has only one title in print from us, so you can't narrow down your search any other way." But the connotations of that line go so much deeper.
PERMANENT LINK: 4:59 PM
07 June 2007
Last weekend Michael Cader’s Publishers Marketplace website offered a kid's-eye view of the Book Expo America convention through the blog of sons Jacob and Jonah. These guys were early on the Eragon bandwagon a few years ago, as I recall. So for better or for worse, what J&J find exciting in fantasy might be well worth knowing about.
The blog contains occasional gushing, as in the end of a report titled “Interview with Holly Black (famous author)”:
Spiderwick is an amazing bestselling young readers' series. I loved the first series and I hope the second will be just as good. It was awesome to meet Holly Black. Reading a series and then meeting the author and asking her questions was just amazing.But it also has occasional signs of a clear-eyed, almost cynical understanding the symbiosis between marketing departments and the press:
After we were enticed by HarperCollins' great pitch to us involving food and titles that went with them, ("We wanted to make them hungry for good books," said Nicole Mathieu of Harper) it is only fair to talk about some of their upcoming publications.I don't know which attitude from young people is more unsettling.
But finally I came down on a third candidate for that designation, the young gents' report on MiYu Magic Stones:
This is extremely big in Holland right now. It’s a collection of stones that come in a pouch or a small chest-like box. Most people want to try and collect all three of their birthstones first, and then you want to collect all the rest -- 40 in total.Yes, those crazy Dutch, the world's tallest nation. Whose idea of entertainment includes collecting rocks and watching endurance contests between people hanging onto bluejeans over a canal.
06 June 2007
In his online summary of The Silver Child, British author Cliff McNish writes:
Six children leave the comfort of their homes far behind. They are drawn to Coldharbour--an eerie wasteland of wind, rats, seagulls and rubbish tips.Rubbish what? A food what?
Emily and Freda, the twins, scuttle bright-eyed and insect-like in search of the others. They find Thomas half-starving on a food tip.
What British call a “tip” is what Americans call a “dump.” The origin comes from the same act: it’s where people tip/dump their rubbish/garbage. Similarly, a “dump truck” is a “tipper” when the steering wheel’s on the right.
Harder to explain is why an American “Dumpster” (a brand name obviously derived from “dump”) has the British equivalent of a “skip.” And why what young Thomas is doing to survive on that “food tip”--Americans might call it “Dumpster diving”--is called “totting” in Britain. But them’s the terms.
It looks like the editors at Carolrhoda caught on to those lingual differences. The US edition of The Silver Child speaks only of dumps.
05 June 2007
An anonymous commenter calls our attention to this dispatch from the set of The Dark Is Rising, which states that among the upcoming movie's changes from Susan Cooper's book is "the addition of a love interest for The Walker."
The winners of this year's Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards have been announced, including an Oz and Ends/Boston 1775 favorite, M. T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party. Expectations for the acceptance speech are high.
Among the honor books in the nonfiction category is Sid Fleischman's Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini. Which I'll take as an excuse to quote a pearl that Sid dropped at last month's SCBWI New England conference:
You need two ideas to make a story.Two ideas rubbing against each other like dry sticks. Two ideas rolling toward each other like bumper carts. Two ideas repelling each other like refrigerator magnets held the wrong way.
04 June 2007
03 June 2007
I updated my Blogger template with a semi-permanent place for my new children's-lit publication and some new links to other blogs I've been visiting for a while. (5 minutes)
After the requisite struggle, I also managed to adapt the Blogger template for this page to display links one has recently visited in a different color from the rest. It took me a while to realize that the original design didn't offer that basic feature, and that that was why I kept being surprised at how much or how little time had passed since I'd visited some other sites. (8 minutes)
Then I had to figure out how to make that template change without messing up other formatting. (20 minutes)
PERMANENT LINK: 10:22 PM
02 June 2007
When I first read M. T. Anderson’s Strange Mr. Satie (actually, heard it read), I thought, "What, did the guy have Asperger syndrome?"
Erik Satie's combination of social dysfunction, odd personal habits, and unprecedented musical taste added up to an strange life, to be sure. But might that life also fit within a since-recognized psychiatric diagnosis?
In 2003, the same year that Anderson's picture-book biography came out, Prof. Michael Fitzgerald of Trinity College in Dublin floated the autism/Asperger's idea in a paper titled "Erik Satie: An Autistic Musical Brain," at the Social Brain Conference in Goteborg, Sweden. He later discussed Satie as a likely candidate for an Asperger diagnosis in The Genesis Of Artistic Creativity: Asperger's Syndrome and the Arts.
Fitzgerald seems to make a habit of identifying people with autism-spectrum diagnoses, and/or identifying creative people's emotional or social difficulties as connected to such a condition. His suggestion that Satie, who proposed to his first and only girlfriend on the day they met and later threw her out a window, had severe difficulties with social relations is far more convincing than his similar suggestion about Beethoven, who could be grumpy.
Historians have been reluctant to apply such psychiatric diagnoses to people of the past because those labels have changed greatly, and often reflect the values of the society that comes up with them. But as we learn more about brain science, those diagnoses may well become more rooted in biochemistry and measurable phenomena, less in subjective judgments. Just as historians don't write about smallpox epidemics without applying our knowledge of the virus that caused them, so they might have to consider neurology in assessing individuals' behavior.
Such psychiatry may affect how the life of a person like Eric Satie or Alexander Cruden gets told. When is "eccentricity" or "originality" not an artistic choice but a mental condition? Was Satie "irreverent" and "childlike," as the dust jacket of Strange Mr. Satie states? Did he set out to cast a "bohemian brilliance" (Publishers Weekly)? Or was he simply unable to fit in?
Actually, Satie's society might have been unusually welcoming for him. He happened to live during the flowering of the Modern, when Picasso, Cocteau, Braque, Stravinsky, Man Ray, and other men were reinventing their art forms. That world took Satie on, but would a person of similar musical invention living at another time have been shunned instead?
01 June 2007
Jacqueline Davies’s The Lemonade War is, I thought, a surprisingly dark book. Not that it’s truly dark in the “edgy” sense. But in a middle-grade novel about two siblings feuding over lemonade, I wasn’t expecting to find intractable problems that can’t be wrapped up. The book has a nice tight plot, but some situations don’t lend themselves to nice tight plots.
Most striking for me, young Jessie is academically smart enough to skip a grade, but also needs tips from her older brother Evan on interpreting face and body cues. From my adult perspective, it’s clear she’ll still have some tough times at school even though she can handle all the math easily. The Lemonade War is a rare book featuring a kid with those gifts and challenges.
And then there’s the book’s business lesson. I’m not talking about the kid-sized demonstrations of marketing and management concepts that pop up throughout (e.g., joint venture, underselling, crisis management). I’m talking about the bottom line--which in literary terms means ***SPOILERS*** will follow.
I did the math, and here’s how the young lemonade sellers approach the job and what they appear to end up with at the end of the book.
Paul, Jack & Ryan - spend one day helping a buddy sell more lemonade than his pesky little sisterThat can’t be right, can it? It’s a realistic picture of how the world works too often, in the elementary-school years or in business, but who wants the real world in middle-grade? I demand a sequel! Something like Scott Gets Crushed Like a Bike Helmet Under the Tire of Life.
Evan - work your tail off selling lemonade, make a bad choice, confess to your sister, share what you’ve learned
Jessie - work your tail off selling lemonade, make a bad choice, confess to your brother, share what you’ve learned
Megan - be cute enough to attract guys, help the little new girl in your grade, sell lemonade for a couple of days to benefit charity
Scott - steal whatever cash you see when you’re not being observed