30 September 2007

Someone Called. I Don't Know. Someone.

Back in June, I declared COMICS WEEK at Oz and Ends. Now, after months of preparation, I'm declaring this will be NON-COMICS WEEK. Which is to say, for the next few days I'll post about things that have something to do with comics, but aren't comics.

And what do I mean by "comics"? I'm largely adopting Scott McCloud's definition in Understanding Comics and Making Comics, while recognizing its limitations. (Indeed, I recommend reading Dylan Horrocks's fond critique of McCloud's approach, "Inventing Comics.")

McCloud's definition requires a sequence of images and thus excludes single-panel cartoons, even though those share a lot of visual language and history with comics. So I'll start NON-COMICS WEEK with one of my favorite single-panel New Yorker cartoons of recent years. It fortuitously appears on the cover of The New Yorker Book of Kids Cartoons, so I can share it here without any copyright guilt.

The little boy with the model airplane is telling the phone in some annoyance, "Uh-huh. . . Uh-huh. . . Uh-huh. . . YES, I'm writing it down!"

29 September 2007

Chabon Legs It Out in Summerland

Both Michael Chabon's Summerland and Adam Gopnik's The King in the Window are fantasies written by established authors for adults and published by Miramax Books. Both are about boys who must rescue their fathers from being hollowed out by their work--psychologically in Gopnik's book, both psychologically and literally in Chabon's.

I found The King in the Window to be needlessly long and complicated, hobbled by an internal lack of logic, and too enamored with its own ideas. And for quite a while I worried that Summerland would sink into the same morass.

The book is 500 pages long, and the first hundred pages are a slow wind-up. Four different characters summon Ethan and his father to the fantasy world, where each is, in different ways, the Chosen One. (Later we learn that there was yet another messenger years before, a pixie with ideas of ballooning.)

Some logical glitches arise from a surfeit of Neat Ideas. For example, we watch the miniature ferishers communicate with their oracular clam using a scroll covered with mysterious letters. Yet when protagonist Ethan picks up a ferisher guidebook to playing catcher, it's written in English.

Giants have kept the smaller creatures of the fantasy world in fear for ages. But on page 427, a character named Cutbelly reveals that he can "scamper" into another dimension and return through a most terrible giant, killing her. Why did none of the many characters who can "scamper" do this to giants before?

And, as I wrote before, I don't understand the resolution of the book's cosmic conflict or how that fits with its stated themes.

Nevertheless, despite its stumbles right out of the box, Summerland gains traction and becomes a solid literary adventure, its heart and imagination lightening its weight. I thought the story took hold when Chabon turned from using wimpy, self-doubting Ethan as his only point-of-view character and started to follow his teammate Jennifer T. Rideout as well. She has fresher worries; more important, she tackles her problems, which Ethan must first learn how to do before he can really be a hero.

The narrative voice also comes into its own, turning more intrusive and even self-referential after sixty pages. It tells us, "This this were a work of fiction, the author would now be obliged to have Ethan waste a few moments wondering if he had dreamed the events of the past few hours."

Finally, I like Chabon's style. Page 6 mentions "a Rodrigo Buendía baseball card." That surname is, of course, an allusion to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Chabon eventually brings Buendía himself into the story, an aging, sore-kneed power hitter who needs the same magic as Ethan and Jennifer T. That could be a cheap literary/baseball stunt, but it works.

28 September 2007

Raptures for John R. Neill

Last month at Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Diane Rios made her case that John R. Neill was “The Real Wizard of Oz”:

I sank into these books, into another world, and was throughly immersed by the brilliance of John Rea Neill's illustrations. Neill uses pen and ink to create natural, yet wildly opulent characters and fantastic creatures. He has an ability to show movement and gesture along with draftsman-like technical perfection.

He can draw early century "Gibson" girls with tiny royal circlets on their heads, long robes and intricately carved sceptors. From a fashion standpoint, his art is seminal. I saw my first "snood" on Glinda the Good!

Neill can also illustrate crazy characters such as the Patchwork Girl, a full-sized stuffed doll animated by "Living Powder" [Powder of Life]. Or Ruggedo, the Gnome King who looks like an Evil Underground Santa.
Thanks to the Daily Ozmapolitan for the link, and Mamluke for posting the snoody art above.

27 September 2007

Did Faludi See the Same Movie?

Today's New York Times Arts section contains an article about Susan Faludi and her new book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. According to the article, Faludi says that in the 2005 War of the Worlds movie Tom Cruise plays a “deadbeat divorced dad emasculated by his wife, reclaiming his manhood by saving their little girl.”

I think that's a profound misreading of the movie. While the War of the Worlds is indeed a story of a male looking after a female, it's more particularly the story of a parent looking after a child.

Cruise's character, Ray, is far from "emasculated" at the start of the movie. He's operating a huge, phallic crane; the script says he "sits comfortably in the seat, working the controls of the crane with two joysticks." The other guys in Ray's neighborhood like and respect him. He's behind on his child-support payments. He's doing what he wants, when he wants. Ray is completely immature--and he's got two kids to look after on the weekends he can't weasel out of. Now that's scary.

In fact, Cruise's performance in the first half of War of the Worlds is why I've told my mother it's too scary for her. Not because of the huge aliens burning people into dust. Not because of Tim Robbins as a crazy man. Not because of little Dakota Fanning enduring one violent wreck after another. No, it's because Tom Cruise does such a convincing job at playing the Worst Dad in the World.

Like 95% of Cruise's other movies, War of the Worlds is about his character realizing he has to grow up. By looking after his daughter, Ray doesn't "reclaim his manhood" in a masculine/feminine sense. He reclaims it in a adult/juvenile sense. He becomes a man, not a boy. And all it takes is one massive alien invasion.

The Times article says, apparently still reflecting Faludi's interpretation, "At the end of that movie, Mr. Cruise’s character cradles his daughter in his arms." Ray holds his daughter in his arms many times in the movie. But the final scene shows him sending her off to be embraced by her mother, and then hugging and reconciling with his teen-aged son, who'd lost respect for him because he was (a) such a bad parent, and (b) not aggressive enough in fighting the aliens.

Faludi rightly sees the parallels with The Searchers that producer-director Steven Spielberg and screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp put in War of the Worlds. Both movies end with a family reuniting in a doorway, for example. But while John Wayne's Ethan is excluded from that family and left outside alone, Cruise's Ray has earned his link to it.

I thought Faludi's op-ed piece a few weeks back drawing a line between the North American frontier conflicts of the 1600s and 1700s and the terrorist attacks of 2001 made some interesting points. Interpreting War or the Worlds against the backdrop of those attacks could also be provocative. Indeed, it's almost impossible to watch the movie and not consider recent history. But doing so requires seeing what the movie actually shows us, not just what fits a pre-existing concern.

Yes, War of the Worlds has a male hero and a female in need of protection. But it doesn't carry the message that in a crisis a man must "reclaim his manhood." It says that dads have to look after their children. Significantly, Cruise's character doesn't go after the alien invaders (much less aliens from another planet who are easier to find). For the sake of his children, Ray tries only to escape and hide. Finally, when we consider the message of War of the Worlds, we have to remember H. G. Wells's ending: the aliens die a natural death, not due to anyone's manhood.

26 September 2007

American Food, Seen from a Distance

Contrary to national stereotypes, good British food is very good indeed. But most British fast food is loathsome. Especially British fast-food breakfasts, which often feature fried eggs swimming in clear grease, cold toast, a charred unripe tomato [pronounced "toe-MAH-toe," of course], and baked beans. But if that's what our allies across the Atlantic want to subject themselves to first thing in the morning, so be it.

British fast food gets positively insulting, however, when it starts labeling its offerings as "American." The "American breakfast" usually means "no beans or tomato, and double everything else." The toast has still been set in an English bedroom for an hour so as not to scald anyone's mouth, even a snowman's. And the bacon is a salty strip of porkbelly that actual Americans wouldn't recognize. (The term for American-style bacon in the UK, I learned that from the invaluable Separated by a Common Language blog, is "streaky bacon." Little Chef has started to provide it in its "American-style" breakfasts.)

Now Separated by a Common Language has alerted me to a new affront: what American Fried Pizza & Chicken in Poole is calling an "American Chicken" pizza:

  • Cheese
  • Tomato ["toe-MAY-toe" since it's on an "American" meal?]
  • Chicken
  • Sweetcorn
  • Mushrooms
  • Pineapple
That's not American cuisine; that's cause for a diplomatic protest. And I bet the portions are extra large.

25 September 2007

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Wand?

The first Maguffin in Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard is a pen. To be fair, it's the heroine Nita's favorite pen: "Her space pen, a present from her uncle Joel, the pen that could write on butter or glass or upside down, her pen with which she had never failed a test, even in math. . . . Silver barrel, grooved all around the lower half to keep the user's fingers from slipping. Her initials engraved on it. Hers, her pen."

Around the time Nita learns she can be a wizard, the leader of a gang of girls who regularly beats up on her steals this pen. So naturally Nita's first thought of how to use her magic is to get her pen back.

That brings her in contact with Kit, another young wizard, who agrees to help. They conjure up Fred, a small portion of a white hole from another dimension, who also wants nothing more than to help retrieve the pen. It is, after all, a space pen.

Fred sucks the pen away from the bully, but it goes down the wrong way, causing him to belch up bits of inexplicable matter, such as a fighter plane and gold bricks. The only way Nita and Kit can help their new extradimensional friend--and retrieve her pen--is to go into the neighborhood's requisite spooky house.

That house turns out to be the home of a nice same-sex couple who tell the kids they have to go into Manhattan with Fred and, at precisely the right time and place, read another spell. Then and only then will Nita have her pen. (There may well be stationery stores in Manhattan or on the way that stock the same pen, but that possibility doesn't arise.)

In Manhattan, unscheduled construction has changed the only location where Nita can get her pen out of Fred. That spot is now hovering in the air above Grand Central station, higher than the Pan Am Building. So Nita, who's only been a wizard for about a week, decides to create a staircase out of air up to the sweet spot, heights or no heights. Then when she and Kit are halfway up, some werewolves roar after them and they have to choose whether to duck through their portal into another reality.

Meanwhile, I'm yelling at the book, "It's a PEN! It's JUST a PEN!"

To Duane's credit, near the end of the adventure Nita uses her pen to do a crucial bit of magic. She's not writing on butter or glass or upside down, but the pen doesn't simply disappear from the plot when it's back in her pocket.

Thematically, the pen also fits into the book's overarching theme of the power of books and reading. In the very first scene, Nita takes refuge in a library. Copies of a book titled So You Want to Be a Wizard snag the two kids into magic, and contain the spells they must read. The older wizards also consult books. The two Maguffins that follow the pen are The Book of Night with Moon and The Book Which Is Not Named (But Is At Least More Grammatical). So a writing implement has extra importance in this universe.

Still, it's just a pen.

24 September 2007

Before She Was a Star

Barefoot Boy was a short feature from Monogram Pictures. Made in 1938, it played off James Whitcomb Riley's poem and good old American nostalgia. Its copyright has lapsed, so it's available (in somewhat jerky form) through archive.org.

The picture's cast began with Jackie Moran as the title character, already typecast after he'd played Huckleberry Finn. In 1939 he went on to a small role in Gone With the Wind.

However, the most recognizable performer in the movie today appears on the left in the thumbnail above. Her name's Terry, and she's a little Cairn terrier. Her big job in 1938-39 was playing Toto in The Wizard of Oz.

23 September 2007

Marketing "Paul Revere's Ride" in 1860

Last week I got to hear Charles Bahne analyze the publication of Henry W. Longfellow's famous poem "Paul Revere's Ride." (Thoughts on the historical aspects of that talk here at Boston 1775. Book cover from the edition illustrated by Christopher Bing.)

"Paul Revere's Ride" is usually called an Atlantic Monthly poem. Longfellow worked on it with that magazine's editor, James T. Fields, and it appeared in the January 1861 issue, which went on sale on 20 Dec 1860.

However, Charlie Bahne shared the news (and gave me a photocopy to confirm it) that the Boston Evening Transcript of 18 Dec 1860 printed the poem first. "Paul Revere's Ride" appears on the left side of the front page, the only item on that page that's not an ad. It's prefaced with this remark:

(The charming poem which follows is taken from the advanced sheets of the Atlantic Monthly for January. It is from the pen of Mr. Longfellow, who we are glad to learn, will favor the readers of the Atlantic with frequent contributions.)
Why, I wondered, did the Atlantic share its "advanced sheets" with this newspaper, and thus let itself be scooped?

Charlie said something else that provided the answer: at the time, all contributions in the Atlantic were anonymous. Longfellow was immensely popular, so a new poem by him would help sell a lot of magazines--if people know about it. By letting the Evening Transcript print "Paul Revere's Ride" with the Longfellow name attached, the Atlantic could get the word out that its new issue was worth looking for. [ADDENDUM: Charlie's lecture can now be downloaded as an MP3.]

This Wednesday, 26 September, there will be another free lecture on Longfellow in the Boston area, at the First Parish of Cambridge, right in Harvard Square. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, will share thoughts on Longfellow's legacy as an American poet. The event starts at 7:30, and is part of the Cambridge Forum.

22 September 2007

Divided by a Common Language in Lionboy, books 2 and 3

Back in May I discussed how in Zizou Corder's Lionboy a circus impresario from the "southern Empire" of America uses "y'all" incorrectly. Major Thibaudet doesn't use "you-all" any more correctly on page 29 of the second book. But that's just the start of the problem.

Accents usually reveal where you're from, not just in geography but also in class. The British are usually thought to be experts in this sort of assessment. But Corder has trouble sorting out the accents on this side of the Atlantic.

In the trilogy's later books Corder again tells us how Major Tib "drawled in his lazy southern Empire voice." Usually he sounds like a Louisiana gentleman, but he can suddenly drop a few pegs on the class scale and say, "that ain't a problem, don't ya think?" Or turn British by telling an employee, "You're creakin' sacked." Or pull out the Yiddishism "no-goodnik."

Then there's the Head Chief Executive, another American. He sounds like this:

"Good to see ya, good to see ya. . . . And the football team--well, wow! All a' them! But of course the prize of the lot--Maccomo, you pulled it off! The Catspeaker! What can I say? You prarbly know we had a little trouble over in Yurp with the parents. . . But thanks to you that's all over. They'll be here licketysplit I'll bet, and we'll have all the ingredients we need for a fine a profitable noo season a'research."
The HCE says "y'all," too (correctly), and "ain't."

But every so often the HCE's folksiness sounds forced, like Fred Thompson playing a presidential candidate, and out comes a clunker like, "He can join the program along of all the other folks, and I daresay he'll be far the better man for it." In the end I decided the HCE's lines are best read the way the Monty Python gang used to do outrageous Amurkan accents, all Rs and round vowels.

There are no real Americans in the Lionboy books. In the final scenes, Sally Ann from Tennessee, working on an Atlantic island totally run by the American-rooted Corporacy, offers everyone "biscuits" instead of cookies. And all those folks, not just the ones from Yurp and Africa, want tea instead of coffee, Coke, or sweet tea.

21 September 2007

It So Wants to Be a Movie

I missed Diane Duane's breakthrough novel, So You Want to Be a Wizard, when it was first published. I was busy doing other things like graduating from high school and learning how much more work there is in college. I didn't stop reading fantasy literature in the mid-'80s; I took courses on each of the three parts of Dante's Comedy and wrote my undergraduate thesis on The Hunting of the Snark. But I didn't have time to dig into anything new.

After finally reading this first novel in the Young Wizards series, I had a thought that I couldn't have had back then: it feels like a Robert Rodriguez movie waiting to happen. No, not the style that producer-director-writer-editor-etc.'s used for El Mariachi and Desperado and the recent Grindhouse. Rather, this is a movie for Rodriguez in his kid-movie mode, as in the Spy Kids series (and the lamentable Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava-Girl).

Consider the affinities:

  • There are two protagonists, boy and girl. Even in his quarter of Four Rooms, Rodriguez followed a boy and a girl.
  • Those kids have Latino heritage, like the main characters in most of Rodriguez's original screenplays. The boy, Kit Rodriguez (no relation), still speaks with a Spanish accent. The girl, Nita, is blonde and named Callahan, but her full first name of Juanita, which has got to mean something.
  • The kids' magical companion is a bobbing point of light, easily created using CGI. Rodriguez owns his own CGI shop in San Antonio, Troublemaker Digital Studios.
  • The heart of the book--from the fifth to the ninth chapters--takes place in a dark, skewed version of Manhattan, where dragons lurk in subway tunnels and cars are animate creatures. Again, that just cries out for CGI. And the artificiality of the result, which made parts of Spy Kids off-putting, would actually enhance the sense that there's something wrong with this Manhattan.
And did I mention the werewolves? Surely Robert Rodriguez likes werewolves.

On the other hand, someone would have to convince Rodriguez not to move the story to Texas, where he's set most of his movies. The New York area and Manhattan in particular are crucial to the character of the book.

In fact, some folks might be working on a So You Want to Be a Wizard movie right now. Back in January, Duane revealed that she was once again in talks with possible producers. She even posted some of her screenplay, showing how she had adapted the book's psychic conversations, which work perfectly well on a page, so that on screen they won't look like two actors staring into space. There's no producer-director-writer-editor-etc.'s name attached to this deal yet, but I can hope.

20 September 2007

The Secret of "Destination Weddings"

I love it when one of my pet theories gets confirmed. A few years back, a dear friend invited me to his wedding on another continent. "Must be where the bride's from," I thought, but no--she's from Ohio. That's when I dug around and found the new term "destination wedding."

My friend's festivities were in a medieval mansion and included fireworks, so he wasn't stinting. But neither was he having to be nice to second cousins and the bride's father's old business partners. Destination weddings, it struck me, were a good way to invite everyone who'd be offended not to be on the list without the danger of most of them actually showing up. "We'd love to see you in Bamako! You have had all your shots, right?"

And last month the Boston Globe's word column reported:

At least one wedding guidebook recommends a far-flung celebration as a way for couples to pare expenses: "Destination weddings tend to attract fewer guests, meaning you'll be paying less" to entertain the friends who do make the trip.
That quote seems to come from this article, but the same idea has appeared on CNN.com, WeddingChannel.com, TripHub, and elsewhere.

What does this have to do with fantasy literature for kids? Nothing. I just love it when one of my pet theories gets confirmed.

19 September 2007

Problematizing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Prof. Waller Hastings has issued this call for mini-papers to be presented at a special session of the Children’s Literature Association conference in Bloomington, Illinois, on 12-15 June 2008. (This is not Bloomington, Indiana, site of the Oz Club's centenary conference.)

Interrogations of Oz

Proposals for short papers problematizing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are solicited for an experimental session at the Children’s Literature Association. Rather than fully developed papers presenting an argument about the text, this call seeks short presentations (5-10 minutes maximum) that lay out a question or problem about the text. These short working papers should elicit contributions from attendees at the session, generating a collective examination of the points that are raised.

The idea is to develop a different sort of conference session where problematics of a text are worked out collectively by presenters and attendees.

Please send proposals by December 10, 2007, to:
A. Waller Hastings
Visiting Professor, LIS
School of Communications, Information and Library Studies
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
4 Huntington Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1071
Prof. Hastings's home website at Northern State University does the valuable service of sharing L. Frank Baum's editorial comments on the Sioux from 1890-91. These certainly present a problem for fans who wish to see Baum as gentle-hearted at all times and in all aspects of life. At the same time, far more people have probably read those words on the web than saw them in Baum's failing weekly newspaper, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. (See my earlier Oz and Ends thoughts on those editorials.)

18 September 2007

They Do Get Woolly, Because of All the Stress

The title of Three Bags Full when it was first published in German was Glennkill, after the Irish village in which it takes place. The author has an original name as well since "Leonie Swann" is a pseudonym. Apparently she was working on her doctorate when she wrote this murder mystery, and it may not have helped her academic stature to be known for writing a novel--let alone a genre novel--let alone a genre novel about talking sheep.

I should be clear that these sheep don't talk to humans. Though they understand what humans say to each other, they talk only to themselves. And this book isn't for kids. But there's nevertheless a fantastic dimension to this novel. Let's face it: sheep aren't known for their intelligence.

In fact, it takes more than the whole herd to assemble the brainpower they need to find out how their shepherd George has died. A lively ewe named Miss Maple handles the logical thinking. A fat ram named Mopple manages the memory. The black ram Othello, guided by a maverick loner, discovers his potential as a leader. And other sheep contribute in their ways, even if only as background color.

Anthea Bell's translation is deft enough to include puns ("meet" and "meat," for instance) and literary allusions. Along the way there are enough comical misunderstandings and surprises, for both the characters and us, to make the ambling journey entertaining.

This is not traditional rural Ireland, but rather a contemporary Ireland that's trading on its traditions for tourism, and the picturesque sheep are unknowingly part of that effort. They also turn out to be ****SPOILER #1**** part of a hashish smuggling scheme, though I still don't see the advantage in secretly moving grass from one out-of-town meadow to another. Given the lack of police in Glennkill and the village's penchant for keeping secrets, the smugglers could have hauled their stuff in an open wheelbarrow.

As a mystery, though, Three Bags Full was eventually less than filling. ****SPOILER #2**** Together the sheep find an explanation for George's death and set out to communicate it to the people of Glennkill in a most dramatic fashion. However, their explanation is wrong. Their actions prompt a character to reveal what really happened on the night George died, but that's sheer luck.

Furthermore, ****SPOILER #3**** when the herd have heard that admission, they can't understand it. The human emotions and concerns involved make no sense to them as sheep. (Another ram, whom we've never seen before that scene and who spends a lot more time hanging around in pubs, tries to explain it to them, without success.) Three Bags Full is therefore a mystery novel told from the point of view of investigators who are congenitally unable to solve the mystery. That's unavoidably unsatisfying.

In addition, I thought Three Bags Full, though by no means slim, left a number of loose threads. What happens to the winter lamb? Why does Tess the sheepdog play so little role in the herd's thinking? How will the sheep find the Continent? (Yes, yes: go to London, then turn right.) It was an interesting read, to be sure, but it left me itching for a little more.

16 September 2007

American Fantasies from between the World Wars

Yesterday I promised remarks on some American fantasies for children written in the 1920s and '30s. All of these books have gone out of print, but some had built enough of a following to be brought back.

First, loyalty forces me to mention that there was an Oz novel published every year from 1921 to 1942, first by Ruth Plumly Thompson and then by John R. Neill. A few of those books are even good enough to share with people who've read a Baum Oz book or two but aren't already avid fans, such as Thompson's Speedy in Oz, Ojo of Oz, and The Wishing Horse of Oz.

Another series that went out of print but retained enough fans to return is Walter R. Brooks's Freddy the Pig books, published from 1927 to 1958. Unlike other books about animal communities, such as Rabbit Hill and Charlotte's Web, the premise of the Freddy books is not simply that animals can talk to each other while going about their usual business, but (after book four) they also talk to humans and undertake a lot of human business as well. The books brought Freddy into contact with Santa Claus, robots, and space aliens, raising the fantasy quotient. It's good to have them available again.

Now to the truly forgotten. William Bowen's The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure was one of the very first crop of Newbery Honor books in 1922. I've never seen a copy, but I'm intrigued by this summary from Your Kids Library:

Freddie is warned not to touch the tobacco, which is stored in a porcelain container shaped like the head of a "Chinaman." He puffs away, drifts off into a cloud of smoke, then joins his friends on the quest. They survive a shipwreck, bloodthirsty pirates, leering sailors, boring pedants, and the like before returning home.

If you sat down and got really drunk and tried to come up with a children's book that had absolutely no chance of getting published today, The Old Tobacco Shop would probably be it.
Put that on my list to track down!

Finally, a trio of fantasy books from the 1920s that I've never seen anywhere but on my own shelf. And I didn't inherit those books, or receive them from a dotty relative. As a lad I came across one in a used bookstore for a cheap price and was intrigued, reading it several times. Later I hunted down the other two in the series, but never got around to reading them, probably fearing they'd turn out to be much worse than I remember.

This trio is the Diggeldy Dan series by Edwin P. Norwood. From what I glean on the web, Norwood was a p.r. man for the Ringlings, and he wrote many books about the circus world, such as The Other Side of the Circus (nonfiction) and Davy Winkle in Circusland (shown above). Norwood also seems to have been enough of a hack to write Ford: Men and Methods about the company's River Rouge plant.

Norwood's Diggeldy Dan tales appeared first on the Children's Page of the Christian Science Monitor, and then were printed with fine three-color plates by A. Conway Peyton, which tend to be bunched early in the volumes so they look more numerous. There are three books:
  • The Adventures of Diggeldy Dan (1922)
  • In the Land of Diggeldy Dan (1923, with some stories copyrighted 1920-21)
  • The Friends of Diggeldy Dan (1924)
Each is a collection of interlaced stories, based on the premise that old clown Diggeldy Dan lets the circus animals out of their cages at night for them to have conversations and adventures.

But that doesn't really give a feel for the surreal, sickly sweet nature of these books. So I quote:
And once, when Dan had been a clown for a hundred years and a day, the Pretty Lady with the Blue-Blue Eyes came to him in a dream one night, came on her White-White Horse right out of the skies. And touching Dan with her slim little whip, she told him of a meeting that had been held by all the animals in Jungleland. . . .
The "slim little whip" adds a tang to the scene, doesn't it?

And here's a summary of the one book I've read, In the Land of...:
Kangaroo wins a game of hide-and-seek in the Spangleland circus tent, and gets to visit the whip-wielding lady. She takes him to the Land of Sunset in the clouds, telling him to get around by rolling lest his pointy feet and tail poke through the floor. But the next morning Kangaroo forgetfully hops out of bed and plunges out of the sky onto a sailing ship crewed by twenty other kangaroos, each wearing a fez, and twenty roosters.

This crew is chasing after the path of the Moon on the ocean, figuring that its golden color means there must be treasure on an island at the end. This quest isn't going well. Kangaroo has the bright idea of sailing the other way around the world and catching the Moon from behind. Sure enough, soon the ship reaches the island, which is inhabited by monkeys.

The whole group--kangas, roosters, and monkeys--unearths an iron treasure chest full of candies and plum puddings, packed with a cloud to keep things from cracking or drying out. Kangaroo takes one of the puddings, jumps on the cloud, and floats back up to the Pretty Lady with the Blue-Blue Eyes.

After some minor complications, Kangaroo gets back to the circus. A tug-of-war among the animals the following night causes Little Black Bear to sit on the plum pudding, squashing it. It turns out that pudding is only clay, with a message written on a paper inside:
If the finder will go to the great tree that stands near the windle-well and hang by his tail he shall see what he shall see. Signed: Shadow-Sho.
That message sends Monkey off on an adventure...
And so on. The prose is quite atrocious, but there's a straightforward strangeness to the imagery that makes it stick in my brain like chocolate syrup.

What other American fantasy novels for children do people remember from the 1920s and '30s?

15 September 2007

American Fantasy Before the War

In a comment on yesterday's posting about Knight's Castle, Fuse mused:

It recently occurred to me that Eager is one of the rare American fantasy authors aside from Baum that are still read today. Obviously he owes much to Nesbit, but when I was trying to come up with American fantasy pre-60s that's still popular, I found myself oddly stuck.
I think this question is directed at the classic Baum/Nesbit model of novels for kids of primary or middle school-age involving fantastic events, either in a fairyland or in an America their readers recognize. I can think of a handful of other American fantasy authors from the 1940s and '50s whose work remains widely available:
  • Robert McCloskey's Homer Price (1943) and Centerburg Tales (1951). Tall tales more than full-blown magical adventures, those stories nevertheless do often defy the laws of nature.
  • E. B. White's Stuart Little (1945). Unless one believes babies can be born in the form of mice.
  • William Pène du Bois's Twenty-One Balloons (1947), because of its Newbery Medal (I was surprised to find his Peter Graves from 1950 out of print). An homage to Verne, perhaps an unknowing progenitor of steampunk.
  • Betty McDonald's Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle titles (1947-1957). Moralistic magic from America's Mary Poppins.
  • Ruth Stiles Gannett's My Father's Dragon trilogy (1948-1951). Dragons--what more can I say?
But that simply pushes back the timeframe for Fuse's question. What was going on in American juvenile fantasy in the years between Glinda of Oz (1920) and Homer Price? Who in America was writing children's fantasy novels in the 1920s and '30s? And where did those books go?

Tomorrow I'll discuss some forgotten or nearly forgotten fantasy titles. But for now I'll note some other places where young American readers could have gotten their recommended dose of magic in those decades.

First, there were British fantasies--and fantasies that seemed very British, even if they were written in America. Hugh Lofting composed his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-1948) in Connecticut, but he set them in his native England, and in the past. Likewise, Margery Williams was an English emigré, and her Velveteen Rabbit (1922) retains the feel of Victorian or Edwardian children's literature.

This might just reflect what the ALA committees of the time loved, but there seem to have been lots of collections of legends and fairy tales. Among them, Ella Young wrote such story cycles as The Unicorn with Silver Shoes (1932), retelling and building on Celtic legends. (All I know about her I learned from Ruth Berman.)

And we have to consider literature that not everyone liked to consider as literature. The 1920s and '30s saw a proliferation of American daily newspaper comics with fantastic elements: among them, Dick Tracy, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Buck Rogers (the last spun out of magazine stories). Then in the 1930s and '40s came comic books, including the superhero and monster genres. Comics in both forms could feed young readers' interest in fantasy without bogging them down in novels.

Dime novels gave birth in 1910 to the Tom Swift series, nascent science fiction for young readers by whoever was writing as Victor Appleton that week. Amazing Stories magazine appeared in 1926, and competitors soon afterward. Although these magazines weren't marketed to young readers, they had older juvenile readers, and some contributors, such as Robert A. Heinlein, later wrote for teens.

Finally, a bunch of American fantasists in the early 1900s created books or characters that are still going strong, though they didn't write for children: Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Lester Dent (creating Doc Savage under the house name of Kenneth Robeson). So it was not an unfantastic time.

TOMORROW: Forgotten American fantasies?

14 September 2007

Eager Stands on the Shoulders of Giants

No one wore his influences more proudly on his sleeve than Edward Eager, that highly enjoyable if not deep mid-20th-century American fantasist.

Eager wrote Knight's Castle in 1956 as a sequel of sorts to his own Half Magic, providing a new story for the children of the heroes of the earlier book. It's clearly inspired by E. Nesbit's The Magic City, which gets quite a name-check in the early chapters. And it explicitly plays off Ivanhoe, both Walter Scott's novel and the 1952 movie version. What's more, this passage even starts out with an echo of Alice in Wonderland.

"I'm not afraid of you!" he [Roger] cried. "You're not even real! You wouldn't even be Bois-Guilbert, if I hadn't said you were! You're nothing but a lead soldier!"

"What?" cried Bois-Guilbert, his face deathly pale and his voice a mere whisper. "What didst thou say?"

"Lead soldier!" Roger repeated wildly. "That's all any of you are! Lead soldiers, lead soldiers, lead soldiers!"

Bois-Guilbert fell back shuddering before him, and the fighting men dropped their swords and all the people fell on their knees, and a murmur of awe ran from lip to lip among the crowd.

"The Words of Power!" cried some, and "The Elfish Charm!" cried others, and "I said 'twas no mortal boy!" cried Lionel.

And Roger jumped down from his perch and pushed his way through them, and as he did so they seemed to grow paler and dimmer, and as he ran down the stairs the walls of the castle seemed to grow fainter, the way the picture on your television set does when a tube is ailing and your mother has to send for the man.
That television metaphor shows how modern Knight's Castle was--for 1956. Like Nesbit and L. Frank Baum, he made his young heroes' shifts into fantasy all the more plausible by mentioning contemporary details. But time has moved on. What details in this passage would today's children understand without great exertion on the part of an adult?
  • easy allusions to the villain in Ivanhoe?
  • toys made entirely out of lead?
  • television sets with tubes and repairmen who come to the house?
Nonetheless, Eager always seems effortlessly charming.

13 September 2007

Crocs in Picture Books?

Today's photo comes from Publishers Weekly, and it captures the launch of Hugh Brewster's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, about the John Singer Sargent painting. But the photo shows a detail that I don't recall from the original: at least two of these lovely little girls are wearing those big-toed, pastel-plastic Crocs shoes. Kinda changes the period feeling, doesn't it?

Four years ago, a British friend turned to me during a summer visit to the States and asked, "What is it with 'carbs'? Why is everyone here so angry about 'carbs'?" That moment passed, and then in the summer of 2006 she asked, "What's with these big plastic shoes? Why are all of you wearing big plastic shoes?"

I myself wasn't wearing such shoes, and I'd already been drawing a blank on the same question. Crocs shoes seemed to appear out of nowhere and pop onto people's feet, especially young people's feet.

Crocs have stuck around for over a year now, so I suppose they fall under a corollary of my--

"Gourmet Cookie Rule": the more a cookie looks like it was scraped off the streets of New York in 1895, the better it tastes--because the bakery couldn't keep selling such an ugly cookie unless it tastes really good.
Similarly, Crocs couldn't sell every American household footwear that looks like a cross between rubber erasers and the iron clogs that Snow White's queen danced herself to death in unless those shoes were actually comfortable.

Nevertheless, I doubt I was alone in wondering if Crocs would disappear as fast as they came, not to be seen again until some future episode of VH1's I Love the '00s. I imagine illustrators and art directors were shy to include them in picture books, with their long lead time, lest that detail turn out to date the book.

So here's a question to those who keep up with the latest and newest: Are Crocs shoes appearing in picture books yet? If not, please keep your eye out for the first sighting and report it here!

12 September 2007

For Worse

In June I wrote about my pleasure in Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse comic strip. I was therefore saddened and dismayed when I went to the strip's website last night to find out why it seemed to be in reruns, and discovered two pieces of big news about the artist.

If I read Johnston's plans correctly, she'll continue to draw some new strips, particularly on Sundays and when she has ideas she wants to share. But the characters will no longer age--one of the elements of the strip that made it so rich.

Still a Few Bugs in the System

This morning I received the following alert from Amazon, from which I've ordered Starcross, Philip Reeve's sequel to Larklight:

As someone who has purchased or rated books by Philip Reeve, you might like to know that Aircraft Communications and Navigation Systems: Principles, Maintenance and Operation for Aircraft Engineers and Technicians will be released on September 24, 2007. . . .

This book provides an introduction to the principles of communications and navigation systems. It is written for anyone pursuing a career in aircraft maintenance engineering or a related aerospace engineering discipline, and in particular will be suitable for those studying for licensed aircraft maintenance engineer status.
But will it teach me how to pilot a spaceship in the shape of a Victorian mansion through the aether?

11 September 2007

Fuzzy Resolution

T. K. Welsh took on some daunting narrative challenges in writing The Unresolved, published by Dutton (which sent a copy to me). The novel begins with the fire and sinking of the steamboat General Slocum in the East River in 1904, a disaster that cost more than a thousand lives and was New York's worst until six years ago. Within two pages, furthermore, it becomes clear that the novel's narrator is the ghost of one of those victims.

Those choices present some difficulties in structuring a narrative. The story has already passed its most dramatic scene, the narrator's life is over, and there's no mystery about her new state. Where can you go from there? Well, Mallory wants justice for herself and the other victims, including members of her family. She wants her boyfriend not to be blamed for the disaster. And of course she has to adjust to being a ghost. So there is story potential.

The hidden problem for the narrative is that Mallory becomes omniscient. She's able to watch living people in different parts of the city, to discern hidden thoughts and feelings. She can see deep into the past and far into the future. That creates an intriguing narrator, but it turns out to be the undoing of the story.

Mallory can suddenly calculate business profits, which she never cared about before. She notices that almost everyone involved in a coroner's proceeding is male. "Such a thing would never have preoccupied me previously," Mallory tells us. We're no longer reading the voice of a 1904 teenager, nor getting to know that personality.

On page 23 Mallory's narration tells us:

I can still taste the zebra mussels that he [Arvin Brauer] had pined for as a young boy every Tuesday evening back in Schlüsselburg, with the flavor of wild onions, and the briny broth Arvin reduced over his potbellied stove in their small house by the Weser River, only a stone's-throw distance from the castle of the Weser Hills, founded by the Minden bishop Gottfried von Waldeck in the fourteenth century. How do I know all this?
Well, she knows it because she's a ghost. The bigger question is why we have to know it. This is a well-written passage, evoking many sensory experiences, but it's not clear why all these facts matter.

Every writer of historical fiction must fight the temptation to cram all of his research into the book. It's just so interesting, and he's put so much work into gathering it. But readers aren't interested in historical details for their own sake. Often a first-person narrator is a good check on an author's wish to share all his research, but what happens when that character has no limits on her knowledge?

The Unresolved contains briefings on the Haskalah movement of Enlightenment Judaism, the purchase price of Alaska, King Gillette's safety razor and other major world events of 1904. Looking into the future, Mallory discusses New Delhi and the surprise success of Manhattan Melodrama (1934).

But as vast as Mallory's ghostly knowledge and wish to share it appear to be, they're not consistent. She withholds information on what she's done and what she knows, including what caused the fire on the General Slocum. Despite her ability to see the future, she lets the book's villain sneak up behind her. These moments seem inserted to add drama to the story, but it's an artificial drama.

I was also left confused about what powers Mallory had to intervene in the world. Starting on page 99, or about two-thirds of the way through the book, she starts to make herself known to people. She expends a lot of effort to get her sister to go to her boyfriend to convince him to leave the safety of his hiding-place and confront the steamboat company's accountant. Why doesn't Mallory just haunt that accountant herself? She haunts other characters.

In the end, I found the language of The Unresolved to be its strongest point: poetic, interesting, and evocative of the turn of the last century. The writing and imagination were strong enough for me to put Welsh's second historical novel for young people, Resurrection Men, on my list of books to read. But in the end, I didn't think this novel succeeded at telling its story fairly and well.

10 September 2007

Across the Great Divide

This summer I spent nearly a week in a house with two six-year-old twins and two five-year-old twins. It was probably my biggest dose of twee since I was just a little older than that age myself. All the kids really did pronounce a lot of their Rs and Ls like Ws.

I heard that this habit had proved to be a problem in the past school year when one of the gang got excited about an American history book he'd read--in fact, the one shown here, written by Candice Ransom and published by Lerner.

He did a show-and-tell on one of its central figures:

the expwowuh Mewiwethuh Wewis.

Unaccountably, his classmates were unable to grasp what all the excitement was about. Of course, they were Engwish.

09 September 2007

Home Runs Are Fascist

Saying Michael Chabon’s Summerland has a baseball background is like saying the Harry Potter books take place in and around a school. Baseball suffuses the novel, providing its setting, its metaphors, and its values.

On page 248, Chabon strongly suggests that the designated hitter is an invention of Satan. (I figure any rule that puts David Ortiz in the lineup is just fine.) Page 222 hints that Roberto Clemente is a hero on par with those "poisoned by the blood of centaurs."

Toward the end of its long playing season, Summerland offers this lesson for the young protagonists, and apparently for us all:

They noticed that there was more to baseball than hitting the ball as hard as you could, than waving your glove in the general direction of the ball and hoping for the best. They took pitches, turned double plays, and hit the cutoff man, and instead of trying to cream it every time they got up, they just did their best to advance the runner.
In particular, the novel is the story of young Ethan learning to appreciate, love, and play the game in the important position of catcher.

However, Chabon doesn't show us Ethan Feld learning to read batters' proclivities and calling pitches, watching for a runner on first steal to second, calling for an outfield shift. His big play in the field is holding onto the ball in a collision at home plate, which requires dedication and brute force rather than thought and teamwork.

From the start, Ethan struggles at the plate, having the unproductive tendency to close his eyes while swinging. Later he carves a bat from the piece of the original tree (don't ask), but a bulge in the grip blisters his hands. And there's no hint he can hit for power.

But Ethan doesn't get around those problems by learning to bunt like Scooter Rizzuto or poking drives into the opposite field where they ain't. Instead, at the climactic moment of the book he hits a home run.

And it's not just any home run. I'd thought the end of The Natural--the movie directed by Barry Levinson, not the novel by Bernard Malamud--presented the apotheosis of the four-bagger, with stadium lights exploding in a ludicrous shower of slow-motion sparks. Summerland goes beyond even that.

Ethan's home run literally tears a hole in the sky. And somehow that leads to the antagonist's defeat. Don't ask me how--I've read that passage three times now, and I still can't figure out exactly what's supposed to happen. I suppose I should call this a ****SPOILER****, but I can't give away what I don't know. All I can say is that the ball not only flies into left field, but the whole scene seems to come out of left field. The game ends. And how does that approach advance the runner?

08 September 2007

Finding the Horror in Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a fair number of grisly moments: the Tin Woodman chops off 41 animals' heads and kills two Kalidahs, the Scarecrow twists the necks of 40 birds, the Cowardly Lion decapitates a giant spider and offers to kill a deer for Dorothy to eat. In his later Oz books, however, L. Frank Baum moved his fairyland closer and closer to a paradise, and its potential for scary stories became more limited.

The country turned out to be protected on all sides by the Deadly Desert, made of sand that turned any flesh to dust. In The Road to Oz (1909) and The Emerald City of Oz (1910), Baum stated that people in Oz are immortal. (Earlier books had mentioned people dying.) Ozma and Glinda extended their hegemony over all of Oz, using their Magic Picture and Great Book of Records to keep track of potentially everything that goes on. In particular, they clamped down on unauthorized magic, driving away wicked witches and such. There is no want. Given that edenic situation, is it possible to write stories about Oz that are scary in any way?

Baum faced the same difficulties when he returned to the Oz series in 1913. In that year's comeback novel, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, he used several ways to jump out of the corner he had painted himself into:

  • Start the story far from the Emerald City and other parts of Oz where Princess Ozma's authority holds sway.
  • Give the characters a reason to hide from her, such as being involved in illegal magic.
  • Use the country's abundant wilderness areas, fearsome beasts, and isolated communities.
That approach provided the model for many of Baum's subsequent books and his successors'.

But so much of horror literature involves death, either as a threat or a condition. How can storytellers exploit that force in a land of immortality?

Again, Baum created the opportunities. The same Deadly Desert that protects Oz and its immortal inhabitants can turn them into dust (presumably--we never actually see that in the series). In Daniel Gobble's "The Wailing Witch of Oz," the opening story in Oziana 2006, the spirit of a witch has lived on after her body has been thrown onto the sands. The tale's setting is thus a ghost town both literally and metaphorically. And, true to Baum's model, that town is an isolated community far from the Emerald City with a good reason to keep a low profile.

Ozian-style immortality is not without problems, furthermore. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodman survives having all his body parts hacked off, one by one. What happened to the pieces? The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918) tells us that the tinsmith Ku-Klip has glued parts of the woodman and another man together to make a third, as shown above. But he found he had no left arm. (Yet a right arm was left, Prof. Wogglebug would remind me.)

Those missing arms hold great potential for a horror story, especially if its young protagonists:
  • live deep in the Munchkin woods, far from Ozma.
  • are being raised by a supplier for illegal magicians.
  • must beware of Kalidahs and other beasts.
For me, the outcome was "The Axman's Arm," also in Oziana 2006.

07 September 2007

When Oz Turned Dark

Yesterday I posted about the latest issue of Oziana, the creative magazine of the International Wizard of Oz Club, which has the label "The Haunted Issue." It features a ghost story, a poem about Dorothy's three companions' resentments, and a horror tale of children finding a live, disembodied arm. As the editorial me warns on the back cover, it may be "troubling for sensitive children--and adults."

Exploring the darker side of L. Frank Baum's Oz isn't new. Though we can see roots of such reconsideration in Philip José Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz (1982), I think deliberately dark images of Oz first reached significant audiences through comics. Oz Squad (1991-93) featured fiery explosions and gunplay, though the good guys were still the good guys. Oz, later retitled Dark Oz and The Land of Oz (1994-99), featured war in Oz, with many of Baum's characters twisted versions of themselves.

Since then, there have been more examples from the comics world:

There are more than I can keep up with. (And I haven't even mentioned the TV series inspired by Oz in the last decade.) Check out David Lee Ingersoll's rundown.

Many of these comics are written with deep knowledge, even fondness for the Oz books (or the MGM movie), just like Gregory Maguire's Wicked. But often they seem to follow simple formulas of inversion. The Scarecrow isn't a crinkly, floppy, fun-loving, king or counselor in the royal palace, but a homicidal maniac! The Tin Woodman isn't a kind, stiff, polished gentleman, but a killing machine! The Wizard isn't a good man, though (at first) a very bad wizard; he's a very bad man!

Ah, but it's the different kinds of homicidal mania and power madness that make these comics so interesting for all Oz fans, no?

Not really. Once I suspect that the writers and artists are just trying to push my buttons, their reconceptions lose power after a couple of looks. Dorothy as an alehouse hooker? A space-age assassin? A Goth teen? Ho hum. For me, those characters are usually less interesting to watch (and less dangerous for bad rulers to meet) than Baum's little girl.

That attitude guided my thinking on "The Haunted Issue" of Oziana. Can we create stories about Oz that are thrilling and scary and, yes, DARK, but don't require distorting all of L. Frank Baum's universe and characters?

06 September 2007

Oziana 2006 - The Haunted Issue

Oziana, the creative magazine of the International Wizard of Oz Club, features the best in new Oz short fiction, each piece fully illustrated. The latest installment, Oziana 2006, is “The Haunted Issue,” exploring dark questions of life--and death--in Oz. It may therefore be troubling for sensitive children and adults.

“The Wailing Witch of Oz” is a ghost story written by Daniel Gobble and illustrated by John Mundt, Esq. News of a death in Oz has brought Dorothy, the Wizard, and the Sawhorse to the very edge of the Gillikin Country. On the high bluffs they find a town haunted by the past, its people hiding a secret as deadly as the desert below.

“Rivals,” a biting poem by Adrian Korpel, reimagines the feelings of Dorothy’s three companions as she leaves them for the first time. David Lee Ingersoll supplied the dramatic artwork.

“The Axman’s Arm,” by J. L. Bell with drawings by David Lee Ingersoll, is a horror tale from the dark Munchkin woods. When Ku-Klip built a new man from the chopped-up body parts lying around his tinsmith’s shop, he discovered that there was no left arm. What could have happened to the left arm of a bewitched woodchopper?

On the front cover is a photograph by Peter Huoppi titled “Monkey on the Roof.” For more about the monkey in this image, see Monkeys with Wings, in particular the work of sculptor Steve Larrabee.

($5.00, 24 pages, 13,000 words. Write in order code O06 on the Oz Club order form.)

05 September 2007

Oziana 2005 - The Countryside Issue

Oziana is the creative magazine of the International Wizard of Oz Club, featuring the best available new Oz short fiction and poetry. The magazines contain original stories and poetry, fully illustrated. Oziana 2005 was “The Countryside Issue,” offering three tales set outside the Emerald City.

In “Jinjur’s Journal,” by Loralee Petersen with drawings by Kevenn T. Smith, General Jinjur describes settling down on a dairy farm after her swift retirement as queen, as chronicled in The Marvelous Land of Oz.

Peter Schulenburg’s comic poem “The Patchwork Girl’s Pet,” illustrated by Pratt Institute graduate Sheena Hisiro, follows Scraps on a quest for a special friend.

“The Red Desert of Oz” is an exciting adventure from Nathan M. DeHoff, with artwork by John Mundt, Esq. The Scarecrow and Button-Bright’s journey through the desert kingdom of Aldehydea turns dire as they discover a plot against Glinda--and cobras that can suck the magic out of anyone, even her!

Rounding out this issue are puzzles and wraparound cover art by Kevenn T. Smith, colored by magazine art director Marcus Mébès.

($5.00, 28 pages, 10,000 words. Write in order code O05 on the Oz Club order form.)

04 September 2007

Oziana 2004 - The Twilight Issue

For the next few days, I'll talk about Oziana, the creative magazine of the International Wizard of Oz Club. The club launched the magazine in 1971 as a way for members to share their fictional work. It thus appeared near the beginning of the “fan fiction” movement (back when this form of writing might still be called “pastiche”).

Each annual issue of Oziana features the best available new Oz short fiction and poetry. Lately the magazines contain at least three original stories, fully illustrated in black and white, and a colorful cover.

As my bio to the right says, I’m currently the editor of the magazine. So while the Oz Club website is being revamped, I’ll use this blog as a platform to promote the authors and illustrators who’ve contributed their talents to recent issues.

Oziana 2004, “The Twilight Issue,” opens with “A Bungled Kidnapping in Oz,” an award-winning story by David Hulan with lively illustrations by John Mundt, Esq. Late one night, a mysterious figure breaks into the palace and renders Princess Ozma helpless; can the Glass Cat foil this villain?

“New Moon over Oz,” illustrated by Alexi Francis, is M. A. Berg’s a glowing prose poem about how different folks in the Emerald City view the crescent moon.

“Evrob & the Nomes,” which I wrote myself, follows a young prince of Ev down into the Nome Kingdom during a period of confusion after The Emerald City of Oz.

On the cover is “The Road through Oz,” wraparound artwork by Don Marquez portraying dozens of Oz favorites. So many he provided a key to all the characters for the magazine’s last page.

($5.00, 28 pages, 13,000 words. Order code O04 on the Oz Club order form.)

02 September 2007

Harry Potter and the Imperial Legacy

I've discussed how Jonathan Stroud's magnificent Bartimaeus trilogy and Philip Reeve's lotsa-fun Larklight reflect, in different ways, on Britain's imperial past. What about the British fantasy series that now towers above all others in bringing the world's wealth into the kingdom? How do the Harry Potter books treat the legacy of the British Empire?

To begin with, J. K. Rowling is quite inclusive in her portrayal of Britishness. Hogwarts students include Seamus Finnigan, Cormac McLaggen, Parvati and Padma Patil, Dean Thomas, Lee Jordan, Blaise Zabini, and Cho Chang. As children of Irish, Indian, African or Afro-Caribbean, and Chinese descent, these characters reflect both the scope of the British Empire at its peak and the multicultural society that Britain has become.

After the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling told fans that Kingsley Shacklebolt, a black man who wears a hoop in one ear, becomes Minister of Magic. In the movies, Shacklebolt is played by a George Harris, born on Grenada and educated in Barbados. Thus, it appears that in Rowling's Britain a man "of color" from one of the old West Indies can become the nation's highest-ranking wizard.

Critics have questioned the grace with which Rowling introduced these characters of color, and their usually minor roles in the stories. Nevertheless, it seems clear that she was trying to make a point of/by including them as Harry's peers. There are also several short-lived romantic pairings between students of color and students of pale English ancestry. Racial classification among humans based on physical appearance never becomes an issue in the series. As Rowling depicts modern Britain, all the children of the old Empire get along.

What about the legacy of the British Empire that I have the most feeling for: the USA? It basically doesn't exist in Rowling's books. As far as I can tell, there are only three brief mentions of the entire New World:

  • a "Salem Witches' Institute," which hopeful American fans have taken to be an equivalent of Hogwarts.
  • Brazil, where one of Ron's brothers had a penpal.
  • A portrait of a Native American that Harry remembers when he looks at pictures of Dumbledore's family.
Unlike other recent British fantasy series, the Harry Potter books offer no clue about how America fits alongside Britain in this world. There's no nagging American rebellion, as in the Bartimaeus trilogy. No dominant American Corporacy, as in the Lionboy trilogy. No nuclear wasteland across the Atlantic, as in the Hungry City Chronicles. Britain, not the USA (nor India), appears to be the world's most powerful English-speaking nation. This is ironic, given how important American money was to shining a spotlight on Rowling when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was first published.

But that silence is a good sign of how the Harry Potter series really grapples with Britain's imperial legacy. It doesn't. It shows a modern British student body containing young people of many ethnicities, but doesn't go near the history that produced that diversity, nor any of the tensions or inequities that may linger from it. But not examining the legacy of the British Empire makes it much easier to write about how wonderful the British countryside is.

01 September 2007

Harry Potter's Guide to Britain

Periodically I muse about how certain children's fantasy novels reflect national cultures or interests: hyperpower America in the Percy Jackson series, technophile Ireland in Artemis Fowle, post-colonial Britain in the Bartimaeus trilogy.

I've been wondering how J. K. Rowling's books fit into that model. What self-portrait of Britain has this most lucrative of British exports created?

Rowling herself is English, by ethnicity and early upbringing; she was born and grew up in Gloucestershire. She started planning the books while living and working in London. They're published by a London press named after a London neighborhood.

On the other hand, Rowling's family moved to Wales when she was nine. She went to secondary school near the Welsh border, and university at Exeter, in England's southwest.

Rowling has also shown an international outlook at times in her life. She worked in London for Amnesty International, a global non-profit, and then moved to Portugal and married. Returning to Britain with her baby, Rowling settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she famously completed her first novel. Now, with all the money she could need, two of her three houses are in Scotland.

Thus, many of Rowling's most important experiences took place outside London, outside the nation's center of establishment power.

In the US, we have many centers of power: New York is the capital of print media and finance, but Washington is the capital of government, Los Angeles the capital of mass entertainment, and so on. For the UK, in contrast, London is the capital of all those things and more. For centuries British society has experienced tensions of various sorts between the metropolis and the country.

I see that dynamic at work in the Harry Potter novels as well, with the British countryside coming across as a lot more appealing and homey than London. Harry has felt at home in only three places:

  • the secluded village in western England where he lived with his parents as an infant.
  • Hogwarts School, a long train ride to the north in Scotland.
  • The Burrow, the Weasleys' home in the village of Ottery St. Catchpole, apparently in Devon.
In addition, in HP7 Harry finds refuge in the seaside Shell Cottage and in a magical tent pitched in various forest clearings, far from urban areas.

In contrast, the series' metropolitan London contains:
  • the Dursleys' awful house in a bland southern suburb.
  • Diagon Alley, a crossroads of good and bad magic and mailing address of the unreliable Daily Prophet.
  • the besieged Black mansion, a refuge that's hostile even at the best of times.
  • the feckless and then oppressive Ministry of Magic.
  • King's Cross station (as shown above, via Flickr thanks to the Pang family)--which is most notable in being a gateway out of London. It's never as much fun coming back.
In sum, the London of the Harry Potter series is, like the London that we know, the center of British commerce, media, and government. But you really wouldn't want to live there. It's not nice.