31 August 2007

The Sayings of J. K. Rowling

When it was announced that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have an epilogue, I, for whatever reason, expected it to be a comprehensive rundown of many characters' futures. I thought Rowling would compile a complete "Where Are They Now?" special, with discrete paragraphs for each major name.

Instead, it's a single scene set nineteen years after the rest of the book, paralleling Harry's own first departure for Hogwarts in HP1. Without going into specifics (yet still at the risk of spilling ***SPOILERS***), the epilogue lets us see that:

  • Harry has found a loving family to replace the one he lost as an infant.
  • The home away from home that Harry found at Hogwarts School remains much the same as it was before.
  • Harry's four most prominent classmates--Ron, Hermione, Neville, and Draco--and Ron's sister Ginny are doing fine.
The epilogue has become just as notable in what it doesn't tell. We don't see Harry's actual home, his profession, or the profession (if any) of more than one of his peers. We don't learn about the future of any series character besides the ones I've already named, and we don't learn much about them. The epilogue offers a thematic conclusion to the series, not a factual one.

But it's clear from the questions that fans had for Rowling that they wanted facts. Rowling's interview with NBC, parceled out on the Today and Dateline shows on 26 July, produced these revelations:
  • "Harry and Ron utterly revolutionized the Auror Department in...the Ministry of Magic. . . . And by the time [of the epilogue]--19 years later--I would imagine that Harry is heading up that department."
  • "Hermione, I think she's now pretty high up in the Department for Magical Law Enforcement."
  • "Luna Lovegood...is now traveling the world looking for various mad creatures." [This tidbit appears only in an article promoting the Today interview.]
Then in an webchat through her British publisher on 30 July Rowling elaborated further:
  • "Ginny Weasley stuck with her athletic career, playing for the Holyhead Harpies, the all-female Quidditch team. Eventually, Ginny left the team to raise...children....while writing as the senior Quidditch correspondent for the wizarding newspaper, the Daily Prophet."
  • "Hermione Granger, Ron's wife, furthered the rights of subjugated creatures, such as house elves, in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures before joining the magical law enforcement squad." Furthermore (this is the only loose end in the whole book that bothered me) "she brought [her parents] home straight away."
  • "Luna...ended up marrying...a fellow naturalist and grandson of the great Newt Scamander (Rolf)!"
(Is the man's name Rolf, or was this a typo for "rofl"?)

Already there have been difficulties and differences in how to interpret these remarks. For example, some Child_Lit readers took Rowling's statement to NBC that "McGonagall was really getting on a bit" as meaning that professor never became headmistress of Hogwarts. However, the context shows Rowling was answering a question about Hogwarts at the time of the epilogue, not immediately after the preceding book. Prof. McGonagall may well oversee the rebuilding of Hogwarts ("The Slytherin common room will be reserved for Peeves for the next five years").

As another example of overeager interpretation, this site interprets Rowling's webcast statement that George Weasley has "a very successful career, helped by good old Ron," as meaning that Ron went to work in his brother's joke shop instead of in the government. Of course, someone like George would probably benefit from the help of good old relatives in law enforcement.

There are also some gaps. I don't think anyone in Rowling's audiences asked about Hagrid, for instance. (After all, his personality is so consistent that it's pretty easy to figure out what he'll do in any given situation.) And while people asked about the Dursleys, nobody really seemed to care.

I'm most intrigued by the question of how Rowling's remarks fit into the Harry Potter "canon." Those factual statements aren't in the books, at least not yet. She colored her first remarks with a tinge of doubt: "I would imagine...I think..." Some of her later statements about characters' futures seem to have been developed to assuage fan disappointment with her earlier ones, as in giving Hermione a civil-rights career before "the Department for Magical Law Enforcement." I suspect that Rowling realized between these two dates what sort of things her fans wanted to know, and became more definite in her answers. And how could she be wrong about her own creation?

Based on the early response, I anticipate that Rowling's fans will take all her remarks of this sort as authoritative. They'll be catalogued on websites and perhaps in books, and Harry Potter fan fiction will have to adhere to these statements to be considered deuterocanonical.

The best analogy I can think of is the Islamic hadith, sayings and anecdotes attributed to Muhammad and written down a century after his death. This body of literature is not the Qur'an, which Muslims believe was dictated by God. However, some adherents consider some hadith to be directly inspired by God, though expressed by Mohammad, and most Muslims (though not all) take the hadith as essential teachings of their faith.

30 August 2007

Harry Potter Altogether

As I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, only months after Potter movie star Daniel Radcliffe had won good reviews for his performance in Equus on the London stage (publicity photo at left), I couldn't help noticing that J. K. Rowling had written a couple of nude scenes for Harry. Or at least for some reflections of Harry.

The first moment is in Chapter 4, when six of Harry's friends have taken on his form in order to fool the Death Eaters:

He watched as his six doppelgangers rummaged in the sacks, pulling out sets of clothes, putting on glasses, stuffing their own things away. He felt like asking them to show a little more respect for his privacy as they all began stripping off with impunity, clearly much more at ease with displaying his body than they would have been with their own.
And that theme returns in Chapter 35, with Harry's soul free of his body in "King's Cross":
...Harry became conscious that he was naked. Convinced as he was of his total solitude, this did not concern him, but it did intrigued him slightly. . . .

It was a pitiful noise, yet also slightly indecent. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was eavesdropping on something furtive, shameful.

For the first time, he wished he were clothed.

Barely had the wish formed in his head than robes appeared a short distance away. He took them and pulled them on.
Was this motif in the book merely coincident with Radcliffe's theatrical performance? That seems unlikely. Radcliffe's contract to appear in Equus was announced in late July 2006, with headlines that played up the character's/actor's nudity. Rowling famously finished writing her Deathly Hallows manuscript in the Balmoral Hotel in January 2007, months later.

Harry is also self-conscious about being naked in Chapter 25 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Moaning Myrtle visits him in the prefects' bathroom. And Radcliffe had spoken somewhat self-consciously about filming that scene in 2005. But that incident didn't have the same sense of letting it all hang out as the two passages from HP7. They read like a bit of a joke between author and actor.

29 August 2007

Reexamining More Harry Potter Predictions

Yesterday I started a post mortem of my Deathly Hallows predictions by noting that it wasn’t as much of a post mortem as some fans had feared: none of the Harry Potter series' three main characters died. Now for my more detailed predictions, stated on 14 July 2006. Once again, this posting contains ***SPOILERS***.

To start with, I didn’t hit what I'd called the "grand slam, run-the-board perfecta." That prediction would have had to be completely correct to pay off. Of course, if I'd been right, the reward would have been enormous: the castle in Scotland, a slice of the movie grosses, several hundred action figures, etc.

But I did fairly well on individual predictions, if I do say so myself.

1. One of Harry's dead father figures (his father, Sirius Black, Dumbledore) will be resurrected in a form that lets Harry have a meaningful conversation with him, if only to say goodbye.
The only flaw here was understatement. Four of Harry's dead father figures come back and have meaningful conversations with him (chap. 34-35). That's even more dead father figures than he had going into this book. Plus, there's a final conversation with Dumbledore's portrait.
2. Harry will have the chance to kill one of his worst enemies (Voldemort, Snape, a Malfoy, a Death-eater he learns was directly responsible for his parents' deaths), but will refrain from doing so because, he realizes, he's better than that.
In his fight to escape from Malfoy Manor (chap. 23) and even in his duel to the death with Voldemort (chap. 36), Harry uses stupefaction and disarming spells instead of fatal ones.

In the earlier chapter, Harry even tries to save the life of one of his enemies (see prediction #3). In Chapter 32, Ron rightly tells Draco, "that's the second time we've saved your life tonight, you two-faced bastard!"
3. Another of those worst enemies (not including Voldemort) will refuse to kill at a crucial time, also showing that he's better than that. His refusal will most likely cost him his own life (that's where Voldemort comes in), but by saving a good person's life he will redeem himself.
Peter Pettigrew in Chapter 23. (Narcissa Malfoy also redeems herself by sparing Harry's life in Chapter 36, but doesn't lose her own life because of it.)
4. A major enemy will die as a consequence of his own or another enemy's actions, giving Harry (and us) all the satisfaction of seeing him die but none of the guilt. Because we want to see the bad guys die, but have to believe that we're better than that.
Vincent Crabbe in Chapter 31. Even more so, Voldemort in Chapter 36.
5. Harry will believe that one of his closest friends has been killed, but either that will turn out to be a mistake or the friend will be magically resurrected in a process that proves crucial to the outcome of the overall conflict.
I made this prediction under the influence of Lloyd Alexander's The Arkadians and T. H. Barron's The Lost Years of Merlin. In both of them, the hero's comic companion appears to die near the end of the book, only to be happily resurrected in better form a chapter or two later. I guessed that might happen in Deathly Hallows as well, with Dobby, Hagrid, and Ron as the most likely near-death experiencers. Which, of course, left me waiting for 200 pages for Dobby to pop back up out of the grave.

That didn't happen.

Instead, J. K. Rowling faked me out by using this motif with Harry himself. Instead of Harry believing Hagrid has died, Hagrid believes Harry has. And instead of Harry being so angry at seeing a friend's corpse that he attacks his enemies with new vigor, that role goes to Neville Longbottom. Clever.

28 August 2007

Reexamining My Harry Potter Predictions

On 13 July 2006, I posted these predictions of what would not happen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Having now read the book, I'm going back to those comments to see how J. K. Rowling matched and didn't match my expectations. This posting will therefore contain some ***SPOILERS***.

I wrote in confident capital letters:


Some people have written that dying would be a fitting end for a tragedy--but the Harry Potter books aren't tragedies. And unlike some callow heroes, Harry doesn't need to experience death in order to mature. He's suffered loss his whole life. He can grow up only by getting beyond that.

I'm not saying that Harry should or shouldn't die for the sake of young readers, or literature, or commercialization. I'm saying he won't die. He just won't.
And he just didn't. At the same time, however, Rowling got to explore the series' theme of death by having Harry prepare to die (chap. 34), and even enter a state between life and death (chap. 35). So this was a bet that no one could lose.

In all the Harry Potter books, boys get beat up more than girls. At the end of HP1, Ron and Harry are knocked unconscious while Hermione is left unscathed. Harry has been to the infirmary for serious injuries in practically every book. Hermione has gone there for cosmetic problems: teeth and, um, fur. . . .

Rowling's values are, at bottom, traditional. She has created smart, athletic, powerful female characters, and then largely protected them. Though she sends boys out onto the firing range, she doesn't write so comfortably about violence against girls.
Hermione survives as well. But what about the larger pattern of the author shielding her and other female characters from physical violence? Chapter 23 shows Bellatrix Lestrange dragging Hermione by the hair and holding a knife to her throat hard enough to draw "beads of blood." We hear Hermione's screams of pain as Bellatrix tortures her with the "Crucio" curse.

But in the same chapter Harry suffers an "excruciatingly painful face" and a choking attack; "Bellatrix hit [Ron] across the face"; "Dean [appears], his face bruised and bloody"; and "Draco doubled over, his hands covering his bloody face." You see a pattern here?

The boys suffer more physical (as opposed to magical) violence than Hermione. They suffer within the scene while her worst treatment is off-stage. No males attack Hermione; only another female does. Rowling still seems more squeamish about violence against her girls.

This statement may be a little more iffy than the last two, but I'm still betting the odds. Ron will be put in terrible danger, be injured, and lose a relative or two. (There are so many, after all.) But he won't die, either.
And indeed, Ron has one fewer living relative at the end of chapter 31.

It's interesting to consider that, as many fans as that relative had (did I mention ***SPOILERS***?), he was really just one-half of a joint character. That's the wonderful thing about identical twins--an author can use them to put more people into a scene without having to come up with two independent personalities. (No resemblance to actual identical twins is implied.)

Rowling told NBC that she portrayed those twins differently: "George is slightly gentler. Fred is normally the funnier but also the crueler of the two." But that was news to me. Fred and George never act separately. Rowling said she mourned with the survivor of the pair, yet also that she had planned the other young man's death from the beginning. She developed the twins over six books in order to kill off one in the seventh. There were so many of them, after all.

So on those basic, "won't die" predictions I was three for three. But those weren't the hard ones.

TOMORROW: Gauging my predictions of what would happen in HP7.

27 August 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Phrasing

I'm making this Deathly Hallows Week at Oz and Ends. For the next few days, or as long as my interest holds out, I'll focus on the now-complete Harry Potter series. After all, I usually write about fantasy literature of the past, and it's been over a month since volume 7 was published.

To start off, here's a link to linguist Mark Liberman's Language Log analysis of this sentence from page 655 of the US edition of HP7:

"My wand of yew did everything of which I asked it, Severus, except to kill Harry Potter."
As Liberman notes, most people would say something like "did everything I asked of it." Liberman diagnoses anxiety about the old shibboleth against ending a sentence with a preposition, which might have been particularly acute if J. K. Rowling's first-draft phrasing was "did everything I asked it to."

The story behind this long-disregarded and lately discarded "rule" of English grammar involves a rivalry between poets Ben Jonson and John Dryden, even though the former was long dead. Liberman and his colleagues tracked down Dryden's original complaint, in which he confessed to having made the very same "mistake" himself. All in all, the prohibition seems to have more to do with Dryden's ego than Jonson's or anyone else's style.

But Dryden was tremendously influential as a poet and critic, and some people still believe that they'll be judged by his rule and therefore overcompensate against it. A similar example of grammatical overcompensation appears in Alberto Gonzales's resignation letter: "I believe this is the right time for my family and I to begin a new chapter in our lives." (Us think so, too.)

We could even argue that the tortuous speech pattern above is part of Rowling's characterization of the man speaking those words: Voldemort, that insecure, social-climbing pseudo-aristocrat. In that case, it wasn't she or her many editors who were too concerned about "asked of it," but He Who Must Not Be Named himself.

Liberman calls that the "more charitable interpretation."

26 August 2007

How Do You Say "Kalidah" in Japanese?

Passed on from the Gjovaags' Wonderful Blog of Oz is this look at Oz in Japan by "Michael Sensei," an overseas Canadian.

This particular image from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz shows Dorothy and her companions being menaced by a Kalidah. The Cowardly Lion describes Kalidahs like this:

"They are monstrous beasts with bodies like bears and heads like tigers, and with claws so long and sharp that they could tear me in two as easily as I could kill Toto. I'm terribly afraid of the Kalidahs."
And what's worse, in the English text there are two of them.

The Japanese artist drew only one Kalidah, but made it twice as large as the Lion, with tusks and horn and a striped tail besides.

The Kalidahs return memorably in The Magic of Oz, one of the first Oz sequels I read. It gives us the further information that they:
  • are the "most powerful and ferocious beasts in all Oz."
  • "attack all other animals and often fight among themselves."
  • "can swim like ducks."
Needless to say, I found Kalidahs very scary when I was growing up.

The best Kalidah literature I've read is Eric Shanower's short story "Gugu and the Kalidahs," available in Oz-Story #1 and The Salt Sorcerer of Oz, both published by Hungry Tiger Press.

25 August 2007

Why Children's Book Week Is Rising Up in the Calendar

Late last year the Children's Book Council was shaken up by budget cuts, a new Executive Director, and a change in strategy. My analysis focused on how the organization was trying to shift from promoting children's books because they're a Good Thing to promoting children's books because its bills are paid by companies that publish children's books.

I quoted this line from a Publishers Weekly article about the new strategy:

The consensus from members [i.e., children's-book publishers] is that they want it first and foremost to be a trade association, with a mission of supporting its members' business.
Now the CBC has made a quite visible outward manifestation of those changes: shifting its Children's Book Week reading promotion from November to May in 2008 and future years. And that's kicked up some concern from children's librarians.

Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8 shares the CBC's rationale for the change, which mentions some difficulties the November timing had created for some teachers and librarians. Note, however, the message's mentions of "entire children's book community" and "all constituencies." I read that as hinting, "You know, we have to think about other people besides librarians."

Publishers and booksellers already have a lot of promotions slated for November. That's when they push their big holiday books: titles directly tied to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, and so on; glossy gift books; handsome reissues of childhood classics. November and December are already busy times for retailers.

May, on the other hand, has only Mother's Day as a promotion. Placing Children's Book Week there can give publishers and stores a chance to promote Summer Reading to families at a time when sales are typically slow. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

24 August 2007

Mapping Mystery Manor

Thanks to Strange Maps, I visited the Culture Archive's collection of maps that appeared on British endpapers, a most evocative ingredient in books. The same site archives a variety of other fictitious maps from literature and advertising, including charts from Arthur Ransome's books.

The thumbnail at left comes from the endpapers map from Mystery Manor, a children's novel by Mary Evelyn Atkinson in 1939. The illustrations, including this map, are by Harold Jones.

The title Mystery Manor is, of course, intriguing. What story lurks behind the details on that map? Who are the four children pictured in the endpapers? (Two boys and two girls, naturally.) Why is the cat named Lady Archibald?

Some Googling brought me to reports from a British homeschooling family who read this book last fall. And I'm even more confused now. In fact, it almost sounds like a writing exercise: can you create a plot that takes readers from this beginning to this end? Here's how the book starts:

Oliver and Bill, the main children in the book, go spying on Mr Hugh, the main suspect. It starts at Mr Hugh’s cottage, where he shows them his fly fishing equipment and tells them all about it. He then goes off saying that they can’t come with him. Of course they don’t believe he is really going fishing him, so they follow him. But much to their surprise he really does go fishing...
That blog characterizes the male leads as "Oliver the bookish boy studying for exams or Bill, the lively one that prefers to dig in streams and climb trees and for whom maths is a mystery." The endpapers show Oliver in necktie, jersey, and socks pulled up, and Bill in a casual shirt with no socks at all. The blog offers no word on the girls, Jane and Anna.

And this is what happens at the end of the book:
The children finally found the tru[th] about what had been going on, but there was just one thing that puzzled Oliver, the eldest. He still didn’t understand why Mr Hugh had attacked Bill while he was wearing the red school tie. He knew at the time that it was something to do with communism, but really didn’t understand it.

M.E. Atkinson often uses the lack of knowledge in her characters to inform children about current affairs, and communism was a current affair in 1937. So over the last two pages of the book Oliver explores communism...
What an exciting finish! From a fisherman who actually goes fishing to two pages on Communism in the late 1930s. We just don't write mysteries like that anymore.

23 August 2007

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Last July I hiked up Little Crow Mountain in the Adirondacks, as documented here.

This August the same crew--me, godson, twin brother, their dad, and friendly professional photographer--tried Baxter Mountain.

Click on the picture for more of the view.

And here's the path down. I gave these boys their first Red Sox T-shirts in 2004, and, as you can see, the moral influence of the godfather is lasting.

22 August 2007

On the Way to the Emerald City

From Bookshelves of Doom comes a peek at this Japanese cotton canvas fabric.

The same series of fabrics seems to include other stories I don't recognize, and some I do.

21 August 2007

Nancy Tystad Koupal Receives Baum Memorial Award

Every year the International Wizard of Oz Club confers its L. Frank Baum Memorial Award on an individual who has "made an outstanding contribution to the work and purposes of the Club." And the purposes of that club, now fifty years old, are:

to (a) educate and encourage the interest of its members and the general public in the writings of L. Frank Baum and other authors about the Land of Oz; (b) facilitate the collecting of works related to Oz and its creators; (c) promote research about authors, illustrators, critics, and other matters related to Oz; (d) encourage original writing and other forms of expression about Oz; and (e) provide forums for people to meet and share their interest in the phenomenon of Oz.
As Eric Gjovaag reported last month, this year's winner of the Baum Memorial Award is Nancy Tystad Koupal, who has done more than anyone to shed light on Baum's experiences in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in the early 1890s. These years, which ended in economic and personal depression, were the inspiration for Baum's picture of "the great gray prairie" where Dorothy lives in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Among Nancy's contributions to Oz scholarship have been:

20 August 2007

Lionboy Trilogy Originally a Biology?

I can't find any external evidence for this theory, but I suspect that Zizou Corder (actually Louisa Young and her daughter Isabel) originally wrote her Lionboy series as a single large book, or two volumes, and added a third volume on the recommendation of the publisher or agent.

The book deal that made news in early 2003 was for three connected books, but as late as that August Young admitted that the series, "as it's a three-parter, [wasn't] even finished." Does that hint that a two-parter would have been finished by that time?

The first book, titled simply Lionboy, ends at a positive but inconclusive moment. Young Charlie Ashanti and his lions have outdistanced their pursuers and found at least a temporary refuge and powerful friend. But none of them is home, Charlie hasn't found his parents, and those villains are still on the move.

In contrast, second volume Lionboy: The Chase ends with nearly all the plotlines from the first volume resolved. Charlie's family has been reunited. The lions are home in Africa, and even Primo the saber-tooth has found a place where he is loved. The two main villains have been dispatched in different ways.

Yes, there's still the rapacious Corporacy steering the Rich World from its Gated Village Communities. But as far as the damage that occurs in Charlie's own life at the start of volume one, all has been repaired. Together, the two volumes make a most satisfying adventure, albeit one with unanswered questions and the seemingly extraneous (easily added, easily removed) minor character of a chameleon.

That makes the beginning of Lionboy: The Truth, the requisite third in the trilogy, a difficult challenge. The first several chapters grind a little as the vast machinery of plot moves again, like an ocean liner leaving the dock.

Characters who appeared to be left to the fates they deserved, either good or bad, must find reason or freedom to escape from those holes. Supporting characters who've had their time upon the stage and left, such as the king of Bulgaria and the circus folk, must be reengaged. And, though it requires a fair dose of stupidity, Charlie must let himself be kidnapped once more ("He'd been a fool--he knew it immediately"). Then another chase is on. And this time the little chameleon is crucial to the plot.

The third book also introduces a couple of minor plotlines that aren't fully developed or, in the case of the king trying to learn Catspeaking on page 116, ever heard of again. Though the problems problems that fuel this leg of the journey are long-standing and worldwide, they seem to get resolved in a rush, in contrast to the well-paced conclusion of book two.

But three is a magic number; who ever heard of a two-book fantasy series? As the Book of Armaments commands, "thou shalt count to two only shouldst thou immediately proceed to three."

19 August 2007

It Won't Be Too Novel

This morning I woke up to a somewhat blah NPR interview of William Gibson, coming away slightly less groggy but no more energized.

However, at the end of the day I had the pleasure of reading Gibson's pithy Q&A with the New York Times Magazine, including these fine exchanges:

Do you feel that you’ve transcended the science-fiction genre in your work?

My roots are in a genre. That is the funny thing. Novels are called novels because, ideally, they provide a novel experience. But in genre, you’re sort of buying a guarantee that you are going to have essentially the same experience again and again. It’s a novel. It won’t be too novel. Don’t worry.
. . .
Although you’re known as the father of cyberpunk science fiction, your new novel, Spook Country, is set in the post-9/11 present and endows the whole culture with a noirish gloom. At what point did American life become stranger than science fiction?

If I had gone into a publisher in New York in 1981 and told them I wanted to write a novel that is set in a world where the climate is out of whack and Mideast terrorists have hijacked airplanes and in response the U.S. has invaded the wrong country--it’s too much. Contemporary reality is like an overlapping set of dire science-fictional scenarios.

18 August 2007

Mysteries of the Summerland Cover

One of the biggest surprises of Michael Chabon's Summerland for me was the cover art.

The book is about a boy whose father is a dirigible designer, and as he sets off on his adventure the hero has the family car attached to the family's backup dirigible. There's also a heavy baseball theme, including enthusiastic miniature players with some connection to Native Americans.

All of which certainly explains why artist William Joyce and the Reel FX design shop centered the cover image on a small car hanging below a blimp, carrying a man and a boy and some little men in old-fashioned baseball uniforms with feathers in their caps. This image appears to be part photo collage, part painting.

But the book says many times that the family car is a rusty orange Swedish station wagon, not a yellow miniature convertible. The book says many times that the father is plump and bearded. The little ballplayers are supposed to have faces like playing cards. The father, son, and those little people are never all in the car together, at least not without several other characters.

Young readers supposedly care about such details--about making sure the color of the main characters' hair matches what the book says, and so on. "Your students may be fascinated when you show them books with inaccurate or misleading covers," Leigh Ann Jones wrote in School Library Journal in June. This article is about getting students to look past covers they don't like, with the lesson that covers may--amazing!--not accurately reflect the books they decorate. Clearly the students' fascination would arise from seeing something unaccountably wrong.

Perhaps the only people who care more about making the details match are authors.

Yet Summerland's cover art obviously doesn't match the book it covers. What's the story behind that art? Obviously, William Joyce is a very big name in children's books--big enough for Miramax's page for Summerland to include a bio for him, though he was involved only with the cover art. (Brandon Oldenburg of Reel FX provided the interior illustrations.)

Did Joyce receive no more than a brief memo on the image Miramax wanted for the cover? ("It's a book about a kid and a dad, and there's this blimp, with a car hanging from it...") How much work did Joyce do, compared to Reel FX? (The artist and firm have also worked together on Aimesworth Amusements and a short movie called "Man in the Moon.") Did Miramax decide to run with whatever came in because the artist was, after all, William Joyce? How did Chabon feel?

And do kids notice? Do they really care?

17 August 2007

A Wrinkle in Time in Its Own Time—and Ours

Square Fish, the new paperback imprint of Farrar, Straus and its corporate cousins, sent me the "Special Teacher's Edition with Bonus Material" of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, part of a promotion that includes a dedicated website.

This reissue includes Anna Quindlen's thought-provoking five-page appreciation of the book at the front. Quindlen reminds us how A Wrinkle in Time grew out of the cultural concerns of the early 1960s:

The identical houses outside which identical children bounce balls and jump rope in mindless unison evoke the fear that so many Americans had of Communist regimes that enshrined the interests of state-mandated order over the rights of the individual.
Yet within the next ten years, American youth would see the danger of conformity coming from quite a different direction: from within American society itself. That theme of the book remains powerful over four decades later, even as our notions of sameness continue to evolve.

The heroine Meg's personal geekiness is another way that A Wrinkle in Time proved to be a leading indicator of changes in our culture. She was smart but not socially adept, scared but insistent. And of course she was a girl in a novel with more than a dollop of science fiction, a genre then considered for males only. Meg presaged many changes in children's literature, and remains resonant today while most female protagonists from other forty-year-old books seem historic.

Indeed, about the only important detail that feels dated in A Wrinkle in Time to me is the shame Meg and her family feel about local whispers that her father has abandoned them. Divorce no longer being such a taboo and anathema, I suspect that the community would react differently today, even if the family felt the same.

As a last, minor illustration of L'Engle's prescience, the great villain of the novel is IT, a "cold and calculating disembodied intelligence." In 1961, when L'Engle started to write, who could have foretold that forty years on we'd all be in thrall to Departments of I.T. and their machines?

The other bonus material in this Special Teacher's Edition is:
  • an interview with L'Engle (also available as a PDF download from this page)
  • L'Engle's Newbery acceptance speech from 1963 (also available here)
  • a cast of characters for her two main series (Murrys and Austins), with intertwined family trees
  • a Discussion and Activity Guide, with web resources

16 August 2007

More Bad News for Bookselling Business

In February, Publishers Weekly carried the unhappy announcement that the U.S. Census Bureau estimated bookstore sales fell 2.9% in 2006, compared to the previous year. December holiday sales tumbled 8.8%. Those declines happened even as sales for all retailers rose 6% in the year.

The latest comparable report, issued this month, carries the story through the first half of 2007.

Sales declined every month in the January through June period, resulting in a 4.6% drop in bookstore sales at the midway point of 2007. For the entire retail sector, sales were up 4.0% for the first six months of the year and were ahead 3.8% in June.
All the monthly figures for 2007 are laid out at Bookselling This Week.

The continued growth in other retail sales means that Americans are still buying things. We’re just not buying so many books, at least through the retail stores that the Census Bureau tracks.

That downward trend isn’t due to the big chain outlets pushing out independent bookstores because the chains are hurting, too. Barnes & Noble and Borders both acknowledged disappointing performances last year, as did some large regional chains. Borders announced several new strategic initiatives, including selling more technology and “carefully trimming” the inventory--meaning that it will stock fewer titles.

These trends may be part of a long-term leveling off or even shrinking of the US book industry. Back in March, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything offered a graphic glimpse of the long-term problem, also based on census data. Even though the population and economy continue to expand, total book sales haven’t risen as fast, and in fact have gone down in the last two years. Publishers still saw revenue rise only because prices went up.

The July bookselling figures will be anomalous, boosted by a particularly popular and expensive title. But beyond that the future for bookstores doesn’t look good.

Then again, that decline may only be expected since written information is:
  • easily digitized, and thus easily delivered online.
  • easily mailed, since a codex is compact, durable, and not prone to spoil.
  • competing in our culture with other sources of stories and facts, many of them requiring less consumer effort.
Stories aren’t going to go away. Writing isn’t going to go away. But frontlist retail bookstores may be the travel agencies of tomorrow.

15 August 2007

Tried to Find the Key to 50 Million Fables

Fox has changed the title of what we've been calling "The Dark Is Rising movie" to The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising.

According to a message quoted at ArtsandFaith.com, the stated reasoning is:

As the film is based on a sequence of 5 books and THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING is inspired by the second book. The focus of this story is on the character who is referred to as The Seeker and his quest to "seek" and collect signs hidden throughout time to right the balance between dark and light. THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING more accurately describes the focus of the film.
Irate online movie fans point out that these days a movie series' name usually goes first, as in the mellifluous Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones. But that's the sort of thing only online movie fans get irate about.

The title change might indicate that the studio sees enough potential in this movie to position itself to make sequels: Greenwitch: The Dark Is Rising, and so on.

Then again, it might just be that children around the world have come to associate the position of "Seeker" with exciting action sequences, and the studio knows the Dark Is Rising fan base has already given up.

14 August 2007

No More Tom, Dick, and Harry

Last week I quoted from Joelle Anthony's article on recurring motifs from recent YA novels, including her warning that authors should beware of "showing their age by naming characters with names they grew up with (i.e., Debbie, Lisa, Kimberly, Alice, Linda, etc.)."

I decided to test that by using NamePlayground.com to look up the most popular American boys' names of 1965--i.e., the names I think of as defining normal. They are:

1. Michael
2. John
3. David
4. James
5. Robert
6. William
7. Mark
8. Richard
9. Thomas
10. Jeffrey
And a more normal, almost boring bunch of guys I could hardly imagine.

In contrast, here are the most popular American boys' names of 1997--i.e., what will seem perfectly normal to a twelve-year-old reader in 2009.
1. Michael
2. Jacob
3. Matthew
4. Christopher
5. Joshua
6. Nicholas
7. Brandon
8. Andrew
9. Austin
10. Tyler
Michael keeps his perch on the top of the stack, but every other name from 1965--including my own--had fallen out of favor. (They hadn't fall far, though: they were all still in the top 100.)

Instead, the parents of 1997 were choosing some names that weren't even in the top 300 when I was born: Jacob, Joshua, Brandon, Austin, and Tyler. So to me some of those names feel so unusual as to carry faint connotations that would be appropriate for some characters but not others. But to today's ten-year-olds they're just like Tom, Dick, and Harry. (Tom and Dick, at least.)

Here's another telling statistic that I calculated from NamePlayground's data: in 1965, 29% of American boys had one of the top ten names on the first list above. In 1997, only 17% of American baby boys received a name from that year's top ten. In other words, regardless of what specific names are most popular, parents are now choosing a wider variety of names for their boys than before, apparently seeking more individuality.

And for today? Nicholas, Brandon, Austin, and Tyler have slipped off the top ten to the I Love the 90s circuit, and William is back--along with Ethan, Daniel, and (bada bing!) Anthony.

13 August 2007

Woodturners in Oz

Through Eric Gjovaag, I learned about an exhibit at the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon, called "Return to Oz." It promises "Poppy fields, wicked witches, tornadoes, and flying monkeys as never before seen through the eyes of talented woodturners." Above is an image of the promotional postcard; it might get bigger if you click on it.

Oz fans are gathering at the museum for a potluck picnic on Sunday, 19 August, at noon. For more information, contact Karyl Carlson through the email address here. The exhibit closes on 16 September.

I must admit I had no idea there was a Forestry Hall of Fame. The nomination process seems mighty open. Perhaps it should include the creators of the Paul Bunyan tales, if anyone is willing to sponsor their entry.

12 August 2007

Good Old Beautiful Phoenix

On my five-hour bus ride last Friday, I learned that my godson's five-year-old first cousins on his mother's side some fine children were enjoying E. Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet. And that put me in mind of one of my favorite passages from that magnificent character study:

"I've been here all the time," said the Phoenix, yawning politely behind its claw. "If you wanted me you should have recited the ode of invocation; it's seven thousand lines long, and written in very pure and beautiful Greek."

"Couldn't you tell it us in English?" asked Anthea.

"It's rather long, isn't it?" said Jane...

"Couldn't you make a short English version, like Tate and Brady?"

"Oh, come along, do," said Robert, holding out his hand. "Come along, good old Phoenix."

"Good old beautiful Phoenix," it corrected shyly.

"Good old beautiful Phoenix, then. Come along, come along," said Robert, impatiently, with his hand still held out.

The Phoenix fluttered at once on to his wrist.

"This amiable youth," it said to the others, "has miraculously been able to put the whole meaning of the seven thousand lines of Greek invocation into one English hexameter--a little misplaced some of the words--but
'Oh, come along, come along, good old beautiful Phoenix!'
"Not perfect, I admit--but not bad for a boy of his age."
I especially admire Nesbit's insertion of the word "shyly."

[ADDENDUM: Indeed, I realized after posting this passage that every adverb in it but "impatiently"--in other words, every adverb modifying something to do with the Phoenix--brings a little irony. The Phoenix's yawn isn't polite, the bird isn't shy about seeking compliments, Robert's plea isn't miraculous, and the 7,000-line invocation isn't just "rather long." The adverbs draw attention to themselves and the qualities they describe only to make us reexamine what's really going on.]

11 August 2007

Classifying Fact as Fiction

This summer Publishers Weekly ran an article on how the publishing industry on the European continent treats some memoir, autobiography, and other books that might be called "literary nonfiction" as fiction.

In France, it is "the literary character and the novelistic dimension which define a work as 'fiction,'" explained Fabrice Piault, deputy editor-in-chief of the book trade magazine Livres Hebdo. . . .

[Orhan Pamuk's memoir] Istanbul, as Piault notes, "absolutely has its place on a fiction list as a novel" because it is not the result of learned research but "an intimate vision of a city, hence a work of literature."
Yet many continental lists also classified John Grisham's The Innocent Man, which was researched rather than remembered, as fiction.

The magazine cites Olivier Nora, head of the firm Grasset, as noting that there's a big incentive to classify books as fiction in France: book prizes drive book sales, and some of those prizes are open only to fiction.

Bernhard Fetz, an Austrian author, claims to see longstanding cultural differences:
"While Germany or France have a mostly idealist tradition in culture, Britain, and hence the U.S., have always had a more pragmatic approach." Essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Goethe always combined factual accounts with personal intuitions and self-reflections of the author, giving autobiographies also a political angle by defining a life story as exemplary for a nation. The Anglo-Saxon tradition was instead much more and much earlier influenced by science, and therefore supposed to rely on facts and less on intentions, Fetz said.
So where does that leave James Frey's A Thousand Little Pieces? Would the European literary world be as upset about the confabulation of that "memoir" as America's was?

Or do we see the European attitude slip out in the way some Americans refer to any book of a certain length, whatever its literary genre, as a "novel"?

10 August 2007

Discounted Irregulars

Rue Morgue's review of The Irregulars, posted by publisher Dark Horse (of all people), sums up a recurring flaw of this 128-page comic for me: "the black and white medium often times works against [artist Bong Dazo's] busy paneling."

Put another way, I had a hard time telling whether the mustachioed, heavyset man in panel A was the same as the mustachioed, heavyset man in panel B, particularly on pages with several mustachioed, heavyset men. Ditto tall, thin men with no facial hair; boys with round faces and caps; and so on.

As for the story by Steven-Elliot Altman and Michael Reaves, it seemed a little too eager to set up a series for Sherlock Holmes's mudlark assistants. There are episodes introducing their special talents, but those don't all play a role in this book. The core story itself doesn't rise much above a warm hash of its sources (Doyle, Lovecraft, more Doyle).

Indeed, one lesser-noted possible reason that comics haven't gotten the critical respect that their fans think they deserve is that many are based on previously-created characters and storylines. Not that there's anything wrong with offering new takes on established legends and characters. But our culture usually values creative originality over creative derivation.

09 August 2007

Cooper in Cambridge

I'm pleased to pass on the news that author Susan Cooper will be speaking twice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this fall. The timing of these appearances is no doubt tied to the upcoming release of The Dark Is Rising movie, but the scope of the discussions looks far more promising.

“Unriddling the World”: Fantasy and Literature
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
7:00 P.M.

Roundtable discussion about fantasy and literature in books for children and adults with:
  • Susan Cooper, author of The Dark is Rising, The Boggart, King of Shadows and Victory
  • Gregory Maguire, author of The Hamlet Chronicles, Wicked, Son of a Witch, and What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy
  • Roger Sutton, Editor-in-Chief, The Horn Book Magazine, as moderator
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Room 10-250, 77 Massachusetts Avenue
[ADDENDUM: In September Roger Sutton posted an alert that the venue for this event has changed to MIT’s wacky Stata Center, and that one should write to the Cambridge Public Library for one's free tickets.]

That's one. And the next day:
“Unriddling the World”: Fantasy and Children
Thursday, November 15, 2007
7:30 P.M.

Talk presented to the Cambridge Forum by Susan Cooper

What are the sources of the fantastic? George Emlen and Tony Barrand from The Revels explore the rich tradition of riddle and magic songs and lead the audience in singing to set the tone for Susan Cooper's exploration of fantasy in children's lives and literature. How do children understand fantasy? What does it add to their lives? Why do adults often find fantasy in children's literature objectionable, even threatening?

First Parish in Cambridge, 3 Church Street (Harvard Square)
Both events are free and open to the public. The sponsors are the Cambridge Forum, Cambridge Public Library, Horn Book, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cooper's talk may eventually be available on the WGBH Forum Network.

08 August 2007

The New YA Clichés?

The July-August SCBWI Bulletin features an article by Joëlle Anthony called "Red Hair's Not as Uncommon as You Think".

Based on her intense and dedicated reading of apprximately 300 young adult novels, Anthony came up with a "countdown of things that show up repeatedly in YA fiction." Some extracts:

#20 - References/analogies to favorite picture books from childhood - especially Horton Finds [sic] a Who
#16 - Authors showing their age by naming characters with names they grew up with (i.e., Debbie, Lisa, Kimberly, Alice, Linda, etc.) [a form of authorial bleed-through]
#14 - Using coffee, cappuccino, and café latte to describe black people's skin.

#13 - Main characters named Hannah and making a point of it being a palindrome
#6 - Characters who chew on their lip or tongue in times of stress - usually until they taste blood
Duly noted.

I don't think Anthony's article is available on the web. (Well, actually it is, but I don't think it's supposed to be available on the web unless one is a member of SCBWI.) Eventually it may appear on her nonfiction webpages, which now feature some of her other articles about writing.

UPDATE: Book Book Book reports that Anthony has now posted her article on her blog.

07 August 2007

The Goblin King Sings Songs of Love

Late in 2006 Jim Fath at the Phat Phree shared his "Ultimate 11 Least Intimidating Movie Villains," which included:

David Bowie as The Goblin King Jareth in Labyrinth

Director [that would be Jim Henson]: David, this just isn't working. I'm just not buying you as a terrifying, wicked villain right now. Do you have any ideas?

Bowie: Well, I guess we could put more glitter on me.

Director: Good. That could work.
When I look at the rest of the list, it becomes clear that Fath's measures villainy largely by the potential for violence and destruction.

But the Goblin King isn't about violence. The Goblin King is about sex. Labyrinth is a movie about an adolescent girl, after all. So Jareth isn't supposed to be "intimidating." He's supposed to be seductive and scary in ways that the heroine has never experienced before.

(Click on the pic above for Danél Turner's contrasting take on the strengths and weaknesses of Labyrinth.)

06 August 2007

Punching Out a Tyrannosaur

Bookshelves of Doom alerted me to this delightful product: a paper Tyrannosaur kit. A moving paper Tyrannosaur, yet.

My favorite piece of copy on this Flying Pig models website? "Includes free anachronistic cave man for your T.Rex to eat."

My least favorite part of the site? This instruction for the downloadable Logic Goats kit: "Download each model, print it onto thin card then cut out and assemble following the clear, fully illustrated instructions. You'll need some small coins to act as weights, PVA glue (white school glue), scissors, ruler and a sharp knife."

At my house we have a motto for any project that involves both glue and a sharp knife: "This will all end in tears." Fortunately, some kits (such as the Tyrannosaur), are available pre-cut.

05 August 2007

The Most Exciting Part

I'm off to visit my godson and his brother and cousins. They're all reading now.

04 August 2007

Sticking Together

It took mighty good material to make ventriloquist Edgar Bergen a star on radio since nobody could see his lips not move. So imagine the challenge of demonstrating the chemistry of how two things stick together over the airwaves. Luckily, my dad was on the case.

From National Public Radio: "What Makes Sticky Things Stick?" Try this activity at home, kids!

(Today's illustration, courtesy of Physorg.com, relates to the other, non-chemical part of the new adhesive--the part that's based on the tiny setae on geckos' feet.)

03 August 2007

Somebody Stop That Sentence!

While reading a recently published book, I stepped on a sentence that crunched so badly it made me cringe. (Not my first such experience.) In the American edition it appears on page 93:

The room was just as messy as it had been all week; the only change was that Hermione was now sitting in the far corner, her fluffy ginger cat, Crookshanks, at her feet, sorting books, some of which Harry recognized as his own, into two enormous piles.
Crookshanks is said to be part kneazle, which might explain why he's intelligent and hard-working enough to sort books like this.

Even before that ambiguous modifier, the sentence's fourth word "just" had also appeared in the previous sentence with a slightly different meaning, producing a bit of verbal discord. And anytime a modern novelist sees a semi-colon in a manuscript, that should be a warning to consider breaking up the sentence instead.

Which might produce something like this:
The room was no cleaner than before. But now Hermione was sitting in the far corner with her fluffy ginger cat, Crookshanks, at her feet. She was sorting books, some of which Harry recognized as his own, into two enormous piles.
And you know what? The second version's six words, or over 12%, shorter. In a book over 700 pages long with over ten million copies in print, that can add up.

02 August 2007

Anachronisms and Authorial Bleed Through

There are two kinds of anachronisms--things out of time--that writers have to watch out for. The more common pops up when we write about the past without sufficient care or research, and include a detail that doesn't belong in that period.

One example that struck me while reading Happy Birthday, Hero!, the first volume in the Caped 6th Grader series. On her twelfth birthday, young protagonist Zoe Richards starts to manifest superpowers. Her kindly grandfather, who was also a superhero before going into the dry-cleaning business, loans her the training manual he received two generations ago when he was twelve. That book tells Zoe that, until she passes her superhero tests, she should "dial 911 immediately" when she sees an emergency rather than trying to fix the problem.

According to a history of the 911 system, however, the very first 911 call was placed on 16 Feb 1968, in Haleyville, Alabama. It took several more years before 911 was a nationwide emergency number.

Grandpa is probably fifty years older than Zoe, so his training manual shouldn't mention calling 911. This common type of anachronism projects a contemporary detail back into the past, where it doesn't belong.

The opposite problem is moving a detail from the past forward to our time where it equally doesn't belong. I suspect this is a particular danger for people who write for kids because we draw ideas from our own childhoods.

An example of this from Happy Birthday, Hero! appears on page 3, when Zoe says that she admires a comics superheroine because she doesn't use "aerosol hair spray--bad for the ozone."

This EPA factsheet reminds us:

Consumer aerosol products in the US have not used ozone-depleting substances (ODS) since the late 1970s because of voluntary switching followed by federal regulation. The Clean Air Act and EPA regulations further restricted the use of ODS for non-consumer products. All consumer products, and most other aerosol products, now use propellants that do not deplete the ozone layer, such as hydrocarbons and compressed gases.
The choice of whether to use certain aerosol hair sprays so as to help preserve the upper atmosphere was significant for girls in the late 1970s--when, I presume, author Zoe Quinn was growing up. (I also presume that name is a pseudonym.) But fictional Zoe Richards and her readers have never had to confront the moral dilemma of hair sprays.

When we write about kids, especially if we don't live with kids of the right age, I think we have a tendency to project our own childhoods into our stories. This is a form of what author Janni Lee Simner recently called "Authorial bleed through". The result is a detail that may seem very significant and resonant to us, but mean next to nothing to our target readers.

01 August 2007

Thomas the Tank Engine's Special Connection?

Recent reports from the British Daily Mail and the Canadian Broadcasting Company (alert by Book Moot) have discussed the popularity of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and toys for children with autism.

I know a couple of little boys who have been fascinated beyond reason (at least my reason) by Thomas, so I thought this was an interesting report. But the more I looked into the news, the less it looked like news and the more it smelled like marketing.

News outlets have carried stories about a “special connection” between the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and children with autism since 2000, if not before. Websites cite an article that appeared in the New York Post that year on 26 July, headlined “Autistic Kids Make Connection with Thomas.”

The National Autism Society undertook a survey about Thomas the Tank Engine in the summer of 2001. It worked through Aidan Prior Communications, a London public relations firm; Prior is listed as coauthor of some other NAS reports. The NAS issued this study in February 2002, and its four-page summary can be downloaded from the group’s webpage. However, the actual data from the survey and information about the methodology aren't included.

This survey heard from 81 parents of children with autism--not a large sample. There’s no indication of a control group of parents whose children don’t have an autism diagnosis, so as to set a baseline for comparison. The summary doesn’t explain how researchers determined that respondents were even typical of parents with autistic children rather than self-selected Thomas fans.

The survey was undertaken based on an “assumption from anecdotal evidence that children with autism spectrum disorders associate far more strongly with Thomas the Tank Engine than with other children’s characters.” There’s no indication that the researchers tried to protect their results against that assumption from the start.

In April 2007, the NAS conducted a new survey “with support from HIT Entertainment, producers and rights-owners of Thomas & Friends.” This survey had a larger sample: “748 U.K. parents of children under 10 with autism,” the CBC reports. (The Daily Mail says 750, but that’s close enough for a tabloid.) Its summary can be downloaded here.

Here are the top findings from the 2002 report:

Children on the autism spectrum associate with Thomas before any other children’s character (57%).

These children maintain their association with Thomas longer than for other characters, commonly two years longer than their typically developing siblings.
The latest report echoes the earlier findings with uncanny precision.
58% of parents reported that Thomas & Friends was the first children’s character their child liked.

Almost 39% of parents reported that their child’s interest in Thomas & Friends lasted over two years longer than siblings’ interest in the character.
So a survey of 81 parents in 2001 and a survey of 748 parents in 2007 produce the same answer to the same question within a single percentage point? Is that how social science usually works? Blogging Autism shares my skepticism.

Of course, the NAS doesn’t claim that these surveys are scientifically valid. Instead, there are signs on the group’s website of a mutually beneficial publicity relationship between it and HIT Entertainment, owners of the Thomas brand. On its page seeking corporate support, the NAS lists among the advantages it offers, “Experience of managing high profile campaigns including Barclays, HIT Entertainment, House of Fraser, Supercook, Tesco, T-Mobile and Vodafone.”

HIT has allowed/encouraged the NAS to use its popular characters in fundraising. In return, the page thanking HIT Entertainment also tells us, “There are now two new characters to collect, Mavis and Percy, who will join Thomas, James, Henry and Gordon in this highly collectable series.”

In May 2006, the NAS recommended a new picture book titled How Do You Feel, Thomas? The NAS’s page of “Ideas for toys and leisure activities” singles out “train toys (especially Thomas the Tank Engine)” and “videos, especially Thomas the Tank Engine,” along with other products from Tomy, Duplo, Lego, Disney, Microsoft, and other corporations.

And speaking of Lego, in February the NAS announced:
LEGO UK has donated LEGO construction sets to The National Autistic Society (NAS), the UK's leading charity for people with autism, as part of a year-long partnership. The venture will see the company working closely with the NAS in a variety of ways to help raise awareness of the disability. . . .

Products including LEGO Classic House Building and LEGO Quad Bike have been distributed to NAS services around the UK, as well as to each of the Society's six schools.

A research project is also currently underway by the Cambridge Autism Research Centre into 'LEGO Therapy'.
Should we expect press releases about the effectiveness of "LEGO Therapy" for children with autism in a few months?

Now I have nothing against Thomas the Tank Engine stories and toys, though I don't personally feel the appeal. Millions of kids have gotten lots of pleasure out of those books, models, videos, goodness-knows-what-else. In the UK, the Thomas show is a mainstay of the BBC children's programming. It's possible that most British children, regardless of their brain chemistry, like Thomas first.

Naturally, some of those young Thomas fans would also have conditions on the autism spectrum. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if a disproportionate fraction of them did. And if some of those kids learn to read emotional facial expressions from Thomas and his friends, the more power to them. Similarly, the National Autism Society apparently does good work, including funding solid research and treatment, so I don't begrudge the organization its corporate sponsors.

But to posit a “special connection” between kids with autistic conditions and a specific brand should require a more scientific basis than these surveys. In particular, to suggest that that brand's books and toys are especially helpful for autistic kids may create false hopes for parents, or needless worries if their kids feel drawn to other characters or topics instead.

Furthermore, the notion of a “special connection” carries the implication that children who get all excited about Thomas might have some sort of autism spectrum disorder--another possible source of needless worry. Perhaps getting excited beyond reason about the world of a TV show is a common part of modern early childhood. Without a control group and a real study, we can't know.