31 October 2007

A Picture Book That Could Not Come from America

Little Vampire Goes to School was published in France in 1999. Its story and drawings are by Joann Sfar, with the text translated by Mark and Alexis Siegel. I picked it up to examine the melding of comics and picture books, but was struck more by the book's foreign sensibility. It discusses religious differences, a topic many Americans tend to avoid. Even more startling, after raising some tough religious questions, this picture book leaves them unresolved.

The story starts with Little Vampire wishing to go to school and learn, only to find that the local school (which looks tres français) is empty at night. He ends up sharing a desk and notebook with a boy named Michael. Eventually Little Vampire invites Michael home to meet the ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and monsters.

The leader of those ghosts, called the Captain, asks Michael to swear an oath of secrecy. The dialog balloons go like this.

Michael: I swear to devote my life to protecting the dead and keeping their memory. And if I break my word, may a thousand curses befall me.

Captain: Now do the sign of the cross.

Michael: No. I can’t do that.

Captain: It would give more strength to your oath.

Michael: But I’m Jewish, Captain. The cross doesn’t mean much to me.

Captain: Do the sign of the star in that case.

Michael: We don’t do that either.
Captain: You should think about all that some more. Sad times often open miraculous doorways.
The next panel shows Michael and Little Vampire alone.

The book doesn't treat Michael's lack of faith or gratitude in God, or the young characters' mystification at the Captain's remarks, as problems to be solved. They're just there, part of being human (or vampire), and the story goes on.

30 October 2007

Grimms and Gilded at Harvard

In a borrowed copy of the latest issue of Harvard Magazine I found a profile of Prof. Maria Tatar, known for her work on the Grimms' fairy tales.

Craig Lambert's article "The Horror and the Beauty" states:

Tatar is trying to escape the adult perspective on children’s literature. (“The psychosexual readings have become predictable,” she says.) “I’m trying to capture what happens in the child,” she explains. That’s an ambitious goal, because children themselves are not particularly articulate on such matters, and adult recollections brim with distortions and idealizations. So Tatar also goes directly to the literary texts, mining her insights from words on the page, an admittedly speculative enterprise.

This approach has led her to consider magical thinking and how stories teach children that you don’t need wands--just words--to do things. The so-called classics are classics for a reason: they have powerful language, and use not just sparkle and shine but also gothic gloom to get children hooked on a story and on reading. The marvels that tumble thick and fast through these narratives lead readers to wonder not just about the world of fiction but also about the world they inhabit.

“The radical view is that it doesn’t matter what story a kid reads,” she continues. “In some ways, children’s literature is pulp fiction: it’s melodramatic. John Updike called fairy tales ‘the television and pornography of their day, the life-lightening trash of preliterate peoples.’ Children who read escape not just from reality but into opportunity: they learn how to navigate in the larger world; they become more connected and curious, energized by the propulsive wonders of Narnia, Oz, or Never Land.”
Also in this issue is a very intriguing article illustrated with photos about an exhibit now at Harvard showing how Greek statuary probably looked when it was all painted and gilded. In a word, different. (For Oz fans, the technical term for that style of sculpture was "polychrome.")

28 October 2007

Rowling's Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

I'm finishing this past Harry Potter Week (and a Day) with an observation I've been musing on for a while. Author J. K. Rowling's recent remark that she considered Prof. Albus Dumbledore to be gay adds another example to a pattern of how her books have been progressive on the surface but undercut those themes in how their larger story plays out.

Rowling is clearly progressive in her politics. She went to work for Amnesty International right after college. Since 2000 the British press has tried to peg her as a supporter of Gordon Brown, now Prime Minister for the Labour Party. She's used her celebrity to support aid for single parents.

That progressivism shows up in her books' messages of inclusion, particularly at Hogwarts School. Both that school and the quidditch played there are for girls and boys equally, contrary to the history of British (and most other) schools and sport. The student body reflects the modern UK's multi-ethnic population, with no visible tensions. The headmaster is Dumbledore, so far the most important figure in children's literature identified by his creator as gay. The books also have a progressive attitude toward notions of aristocracy.

From the start inclusion and exclusion has been a major theme. In the family or under the stairs? Muggle or wizard? Rich or poor? Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin? On the quidditch team or off? In the Triwizard Tournament, in the Order of the Phoenix, in Dumbledore's Army? In Hogwarts itself?

The overarching story is a battle for inclusiveness against aristocratic racists who want to exclude "mudbloods," "half-breeds," and other undesirables. The final battle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows turns out to have its roots in a similar battle against fascism before 1945, and to require the combined forces of wizards, elves, centaurs, giants, and other creatures.

Fantasy lets authors depict evil in embodied form, and we readers expect that evil to be vanquished by the end of the saga. That victory can restore an old order or give rise to a new one with more promise. Consider the government reforms under way at the end of the Bartimaeus and Lionboy trilogies, their outcomes undetermined. Consider the breakdown of theocracy itself in His Dark Materials.

Rowling chose a different path. Her story is one of restoration, not reform. No part of the wizarding world is more tradition-bound than Hogwarts School, which becomes Harry's true home. In each book, Hogwarts is threatened and rescued. Its restoration includes the traditions that Harry comes to love because they define Hogwarts culture. The epilogue assures us that the Sorting Hat and house rivalries that divide the school remain intact, and there's no hint of pedagogical change. Thus, however much the books espouse progressive values, their primary narrative is a regression to the past.

Another overarching plot follows Harry's desire to enjoy a happy, intact family of the sort he briefly knew as an infant. The epilogue to HP7, set years after the rest, shows him with his wife and three children, his best friends with their children. (And his old school rival with his children, too.) Support and love outside the nuclear family structure, as the Order of the Phoenix provided in the middle of the series, is not apparent. And there are no single-parent families of the sort that Rowling supports in real life.

And what about the books' inclusiveness? Dana Goldstein's "Harry Potter and the Complicated Identity Politics", published in The American Prospect, suggests that the fantasy genre itself complicates any message of tolerance and mixing:

Rowling's ideology cannot simply be described as anti-racist, for as strongly as she condemns racially-motivated violence, Harry Potter remains a classic work of fantasy. And fantasy is a literary genre intent, above almost all else, on the reassuring order of classification and categorization, of blood lines and inheritances.
I think that's too reductive. Just as fantasy authors don't need to show a return to "reassuring order," they don't need to emphasize categorization and inheritance. But Rowling chose those strains within the fantasy genre, and I think they ended up working against her stated themes. Again and again, we see the action of her books undermining the values that Harry learns.

Stated Value: Inclusiveness for all ethnic groups. Action: Harry, his two closest friends, apparently all of his teachers, his godfather, and all but one of his mentors and protectors appear to be white and English. The British learn to appreciate French and Bulgarians as relatives and friends--but they still talk funny.

Stated Value: Equality of the sexes. Action: Boys get beat up a lot more than girls.

Stated Value: Appreciation of other species. Action: In HP7 Griphook snatches up the Sword of Gryffindor because goblins believe artworks never stop belonging to their makers. But later the sword magically pops into Neville's hand; a human idea of property not only prevails but receives magical endorsement. House elves start out enslaved to the human owners of their homes, and end up more loyal than ever. Centaurs want nothing to do with us, but come around to seeing that attitude as a mistake. Humans don't have to compromise their lifestyles or their values.

Stated Value: Respect for differences. Action: The books assure us that it's okay to be a werewolf like Lupin, and it's okay to marry one, as Tonks does. It's okay to be a free house elf like Dobby. It's okay to be gay like Dumbledore. But all those characters are violently killed. Killed by the racist villains, to be sure, so the books don't endorse their murders. Nonetheless, they're all still quite dead.

For me this amounts to a recurring dance of two steps forward, one step back. That does leave us a few steps forward. But Rowling might have been able to create a more thoroughly progressive narrative by choosing a different structure and details that better reflected her themes.

Circling around to the announcement that spurred this week of Oz and Ends postings, I suspect that Rowling's identification of Dumbledore as gay will become a milestone in children's fantasy literature. However, it's such a limited picture of gay humanity that within a generation it will seem no more progressive than the portraits of African-Americans in Uncle Tom's Cabin. We'll have to struggle to remember just what an impact Rowling had.

27 October 2007

Quotation Do's and Don'ts

For folks who were at my Rhode Island College presentation on "Do’s and Don’ts of Dialogue" this morning, here is my list of ways to create distinctive speech patterns for characters.

And, just for laughs, the Blog of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

A Resemblance I Don't Believe Is Coincidence

Harry Potter Week continues, even though I'm off at Providence College speaking about dialogue tags. (It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.)

Today, on the left, a publicity still of Imelda Staunton as Prof. Dolores Umbridge from the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

On the right, the cover of a magazine from Uruguay, displayed on the web by the US Embassy in Montevideo.

Click on either picture for a closer look.

26 October 2007

Manly and Expressive

Yesterday I wrote about how the Harry Potter books depict the Continental Powers, especially in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Tonight I’ll backtrack to a pattern I've noticed even since the first or second book in the series, about deeply-rooted stereotypes within Britain's wizarding society.

But haven't I already written about how J. K. Rowling has taken pains to include young wizards from many ethnicities within modern Britain? That's true, but in one area Rowling still reflects old--very old--cultural fault lines in British culture.

Almost all the English Hogwarts students in Harry's generation have first names that today's young readers would easily recognize. In the recent past, some wizarding families used such names, too: James and Lily Potter, Arthur and Molly Weasley. But many other families favored old-fashioned Latinate given names: Albus, Sirius, Remus, Severus, Minerva, etc.

The nice characters with Latinate given names have Anglo-Saxon family names, like Black. Many of the good guys' surnames connect to rural life, as in Lupin (a plant, though also wolfish), Dumbledore (bumblebee), and Granger (farmer or farm steward). This pattern fits well with the books' preference for life in Britain outside metropolitan London.

In contrast, the nastiest characters have Latinate or French surnames to go with their Latinate given names: Bellatrix Lestrange, Lucius Malfoy (shown above, as impersonated by Jason Isaacs). Harry's class rival is Draco Malfoy, which translates as "dragon bad-time." The series' chief villain was born Tom Riddle, a solid Anglo-Saxon name, but--showing his villainy--demanded that people call him something that sounds deadly French and aristocratic: Lord Voldemort.

That pattern reflects an old Whig preference for the Anglo-Saxon yeomanry over the Norman aristocracy. I quote from Scott's Ivanhoe:

At court, and in the castles of the great nobles, where the pomp and state of a court was emulated, Norman-French was the only language employed; in courts of law, the pleadings and judgments were delivered in the same tongue. In short, French was the language of honour, of chivalry, and even of justice, while the far more manly and expressive Anglo-Saxon was abandoned to the use of rustics and hinds, who knew no other.
It would be hard to find a more "manly and expressive Anglo-Saxon," working-the-good-English-earth name than Harry Potter.

25 October 2007

Harry Potter and the Bulgarian Invasion

My favorite single shot from the Harry Potter movies appears in the fourth, when the ship from Durmstrang school bursts out of the lake beside Hogwarts, its furled sails shedding water like a mallard's wings.

That image comes directly from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and appears to the right as illustrated by Mary GrandPré.

Much as I like that sight and how well the CGI-effects crew brought it to life, something about the idea nags at me. This ship is basically a submarine from a European power surfacing off the British shore. And where in British literature have we encountered that motif before?

In invasion literature, of course! I've discussed this genre before in connection Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker, which wears its xenophobia on its sleeve. It may seem incongruous to bring it up in regard to the Harry Potter books since they try so hard to be inclusive.

Yet Rowling also plays off traditional British xenophobia, especially in HP4. Invasion literature could never figure out whether the UK's sneaky enemy would be Germany or Russia. Durmstrang is cleverly located in Bulgaria, at a longitude between those two powers. There's something sinister about that school: its students study the Dark Arts, ostensibly to protect themselves, but you never know about foreigners, do you? Durmstrang's champion, Viktor Krum, turns out to be a muscled, brooding fellow lusting after an Englishwoman.

And then there are the other foreign wizards in HP4: students from Beauxbatons of France. They're represented principally by Fleur Delacour, who's one-quarter Veela--a magical temptress of men. Ooh la la!

Obviously, Rowling is using the shortcut of cultural stereotypes. Viktor and Fleur are painted in broad strokes and familiar colors so they make easy rivals for Harry (and dear, noble, doomed Cedric) in the Triwizard Tournament.

Then Rowling turns the tables by using those same characters to provide lessons in how We Can All Get Along. Fleur becomes engaged to Bill Weasley, and in one scene her concern for him and her blunt indignation wins over her future in-laws. (Of course, she's still French. Why do you think she has that outrrrrrageous accent?)

Similarly, in HP7 Viktor returns to show how he as a good Bulgarian is even more upset by old fascist symbols than his British hosts. Yes, now We Can All Get Along. ("So it's all forgotten now and let's hear no more about it. So that's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Herman Goering and four Colditz salads. . . . No, wait a minute...I got confused because everyone keeps mentioning the war.")

That's two John Cleese quotes in one posting, but they seem appropriate because Rowling plays the same game as the Monty Python gang: portraying ethnic stereotypes for both their familiarity and their shock value, their rudeness and their reassurance that we enlightened folks can see them for what they are.

Still, we don't see many different types of Bulgarian men in the Harry Potter books. Or many different types of French women.

24 October 2007

Credit Where It's Due

J. K. Rowling's recent statement that her character Albus Dumbledore is gay has produced a chorus of wishfulness. I've seen people wishing that Rowling had been clearer in her intended clues about Dumbledore, that she had depicted him as more open, that she had identified other adult characters as gay, that her Hogwarts students had keened about same-sex pairings as loudly as they do about opposite-sex pairings. Basically, these critics wish that Rowling had written different books.

But let's not neglect the books Rowling has written and what she's now said about them. What other children's fantasy writer has been as explicit about a beloved, admired character being gay?

Sure, there's now a fair amount of contemporary fiction for teens about being gay or having gay friends or relatives, as well as some in which homosexuality is present but not central. But Rowling has "outed" an authority figure and beloved mentor in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, a book for and about eleven-year-olds. Dumbledore is a major character in an ongoing series of multimillion-dollar movies, with his own articulated action figures (shown above, courtesy of The Collector Zone). Has any other children's novelist come close to giving a gay character that positive exposure?

Wikipedia's "List of LGBT characters in modern written fiction" now includes Albus Dumbledore. What other characters from children's literature does it include? What other children's author has contributed to that list?

Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence, Marion Dane Bauer's 1994 anthology, contains stories by Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, Gregory Maguire, and other fine fantasists. Coville's Skull of Truth from 1997 has what Wendy Betts calls "a fairly minor subplot" about a gay uncle (which was still enough to get it removed from school shelves in one Illinois town). But a targeted anthology and a subplot just don't have the heft of Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his age.

I've written about the close relationship of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman in L. Frank Baum's The Tin Woodman of Oz, and about Glinda the Good's appreciation of female beauty and lack of interest in men. But Baum would have surely disavowed any interpretations of his characters as homosexual (or sexual, for that matter).

I've noted the same-sex couple who mentor the kids in Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard, a portrayal of a relationship that's less fraught with tragedy and cliché than Rowling's. But according to Tsukara, Duane's response to questions about Tom and Carl's partnership is: "It's their business, so why should it matter to you?" Rowling has certainly not been that coy.

Only in comics have I seen writers do more to include gay characters in fantasy stories meant (at least in part) for young readers. And of course those efforts are far from bullet-proof against criticism.

For the people who have complained that Rowling wasn't forward enough in portraying gay characters, who among children's fantasy writers is ahead of her?

22 October 2007

Damned If She Does, Damned If She Doesn't

J. K. Rowling's recent announcement that she conceived of Prof. Albus Dumbledore as gay has produced a lot of critical comments. I'm not talking about knee-jerk homophobic bigotry, which largely deserves pity. I'm talking about complaints from people who would otherwise welcome the news that a major character in a bestselling children's fantasy series was gay.

Those complaints seem to fall into three categories:

  • The Harry Potter books didn't offer readers enough clues or indications that Dumbledore was gay.
  • Dumbledore is sexless, perhaps closeted, as well as doomed, and thus an all-too-common literary type.
  • The books don't have enough other gay characters, especially among the Hogwarts students.
All these complaints point to the conclusion that Rowling didn't have the courage of her convictions, that she wanted to make her novels more inclusive than they actually turned out. I'll come back to that basic thought later this week. But first, I want to point out a damned-if-she-did, damned-if-she-didn't quality to such complaints.

If Rowling had clearly "coded" Dumbledore as gay, then she would have been perpetuating stereotypes, and would have deserved criticism for that. Many readers have in fact engaged in just such profiling to interpret other Harry Potter characters as gay: Severus Snape, Remus Lupin, and even the little-known Justin Finch-Fletchley. I recall complaints that the unfortunate Quirinus Quirrell reflected queer stereotypes, though his sexuality never came up. This whole situation reminds me a bit of the old joke about a person telling his psychoanalyst after a Rorschach test, "Doc, you're the one with the dirty pictures!"--except that this time folks want to see more dirty pictures.

The next complaint is that Dumbledore was too discreet about his sexuality, that it never became part of Harry's story. Of course, if Rowling had taken that route, then people could have complained that Dumbledore couldn't just be incidentally gay, but that his sexuality had to be dragged in to aid the straight hero.

I can easily see an opening for Dumbledore to speak clearly to Harry about his past. They do, after all, talk about both love and mistakes. But none of my gay high school teachers came out to me (in the early 1980s), even when they were "out" with colleagues. And it makes sense for Albus Dumbledore as an individual to be discreet.

According to other out-of-book comments from Rowling, Dumbledore was born in 1881 or earlier, which means he graduated from Hogwarts in 1899 at the latest. Four years earlier, in real Britain, Oscar Wilde had been sent to jail for "gross indecency." England didn't repeal its laws against sodomy until 1967, Scotland (where Hogwarts apparently is) until 1980. For most of the last century, most gay men in Britain were in denial or in the closet at some level. Of course, the history of Rowling's "world" doesn't have to match that of ours, but we usually assume it does.

Furthermore, Dumbledore's first deep love ended badly: something about a world war, deadly duels, and having to lock up his inamorato for life. Readers seem happy accepting that Snape never had another love after his frustrated infatuation with Harry's mother, Lily. Why must Dumbledore behave differently? Given all those personal experiences, it's not hard to accept that the headmaster is private about his private life.

As for the complaint that Dumbledore--sexless and doomed--is the only gay character in the Harry Potter books, I think that's valid, but all we can say for sure is that he's the only gay character Rowling has identified. She usually reveals her unpublished thinking in response to questions from fans, so let's see if anyone asks her about others.

More specifically, people have criticized Rowling for not portraying any of her young characters as gay, thus ensuring that readers would know that homosexuality isn't just for old men. But we don't see most Hogwarts students past the age of eighteen. In March the Advocate reported on a recent study of US men, finding that on average those born since 1970 "came out at 19 before having their first serious relationship at about 19 and a half." Britain's Queer Youth Network wasn't founded until 1999, two years after the Harry Potter series began. Hogwarts is drawn as a tradition-bound school in a traditional segment of British society. It's not hard to think that its students might not come out until after graduation, and that Harry himself has other things to think about than their love lives.

TOMORROW: Credit where it's due.

The Wizarding World Beyond the Books

Back in August I discussed J. K. Rowling's pattern of revealing additional information about her characters during interviews and author appearances. Her statement last week about Dumbledore's love life, as well as similar remarks about Neville Longbottom marrying and lesser details, obviously extends that behavior.

Rowling has made most of these statements in response to questions from her readers, not spontaneously. And she's often prefaced them by saying some variation on "I think...," perhaps hinting that the words that follow aren't as authoritative as those she's authored on paper.

Nevertheless, I think that it will be very hard for fans or interpreters of the books to ignore Rowling's statements, to insist that if a particular "fact" about characters isn't in the novels themselves then we can ignore it.

That's because Rowling has produced two overlapping accomplishments.

  • The first consists of her seven novels, plus two ancillary books. In the terminology of current literary criticism, these are the "texts," and they stand above all.
  • Rowling has also created a "world," mostly through those books but also through her collaboration with filmmakers and artists in other media, and through her public remarks about the characters and places in her books.
Indeed, I think Rowling has been more successful in imagining her "world" than in getting it down on paper--hence the need for these interviews to address unanswered questions.

Rowling is obviously aware that her "world" stretches beyond her books, and in some ways beyond her control. Right after her Dumbledore revelation, she said, "You needed something to keep you going for the next 10 years! ... Oh, my god, the fan fiction now, eh?" (I don't know when she became Canadian.) There are already thousands of unauthorized, unofficial stories about Harry Potter characters, including probably every variation on romances and sexual relationships that one would want (or not want) to imagine. There are Harry Potter movies and video games enjoyed by people who have never read or plan to read the books.

I see three qualities of Rowling's work making her "world" more important to fans than the texts which convey that "world":
  • She wrote in the fantasy genre. As in science fiction, her "world" doesn't have to match the objective world, making it an independent universe to explore.
  • Her storytelling style relies on a large cast of characters, myriad details, and complex storylines. At the same time, her prose is straightforward and often undistinguished, not drawing attention to itself.
  • When the first Harry Potter book arrived, the internet was waiting. It allowed fans to create a worldwide community that no previous new fantasy series had enjoyed.
Other authors before Rowling have clearly felt the wish to say more about their characters than got into their books. That is, after all, the motivation for sequels. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a great deal of tedious background material, and his family continues to squeeze books out of those manuscripts. More recently, Philip Pullman has, like Rowling, published a small guide to part of his Dark Materials world, and clarified his intentions and thoughts in interviews.

Other authors before Rowling have also seen their fantasy worlds become widely known through avenues other than their books. My favorite fantasy universe, Oz, is an obvious example. A century ago, more Americans probably knew of it through a wildly successful stage extravaganza than through L. Frank Baum's books. For the last few decades, it's best known through the 1939 MGM movie. Both of those adaptations made significant changes from Baum's original, but the books' core mythology remains intact.

But the clearest analogues to what Rowling has created, I think, are George Lucas's Star Wars universe and the two "universes" created over several decades by DC and Marvel Comics. (The Star Trek universe might fit the bill as well, but I'm not as familiar with it.) All of these "worlds" exist in many media: movies, comics, prose stories, TV shows, video games, and more. All contain many stories, indeed many somewhat contradictory or alternative versions of stories. But each has a core of characters, settings, and "rules" defined by the creators/copyright-holders.

Under this approach, Rowling's books are merely one manifestation of the "world" she's created. On the one hand, we can admire that "world" and how she produced single-handed what's previously taken a large corporation or two. On the other hand, a good measure of Rowling's books might be how well they reveal that "world": imperfectly at best.

In any event, I suspect that understanding the difference between "world" and texts will only become more important in our multimedia world. We critics and interpreters of fantasy literature will have to get used to the idea that universes aren't contained within two covers, or even (in this case) fourteen covers.

21 October 2007

Harry Potter Week Revealed

I'd been saving up some comments on the Harry Potter series for the future, but J. K. Rowling's recent comments on Prof. Dumbledore have prompted me to toss my vague schedule and bring Harry Potter Week out of the closet.

The Associated Press offered the highlights of Rowling's appearance in New York on Friday, but the Leaky Cauldron had the most comprehensive report, naturally. Here's the exchange that everyone's talking about:

Q: Did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?

JKR: My truthful answer to you... I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. [ovation] ... Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. To an extent, do we say it excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extent? But, he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. Yeah, that's how I always saw Dumbledore. In fact, recently I was in a script read through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script saying I knew a girl once, whose hair... [laughter] I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter: "Dumbledore's gay!" [laughter] If I'd known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!
Many fans are pleased; some fans and critics are dismayed, for different reasons. I think Gail Gauthier at Original Content has, as so often, gotten to the heart of the matter:
To me what was interesting about J.K. Rowling's announcement last night that Dumbledore is gay is not that he is gay but that she had to tell us that he is. Does that suggest to anyone else that she didn't show us in the books?
Indeed, Rowling had to tell the screenwriter for the next movie, Steve Kloves, about how she conceived of Dumbledore--and he's written four previous Harry Potter screenplays. If after turning those books inside out he hadn't picked up any clues that Dumbledore wouldn't have gotten dreamy over a girl, then perhaps those clues weren't really there.

For the next few days I expect to muse on what this revelation says about the Harry Potter series. How does Dumbledore's sexual orientation play into the seven-book saga? Does the late revelation reveal ambivalence on Rowling's part, or difficulty in managing all she hoped to accomplish? Has the nature of storytelling in an internet age gone beyond books to authors' remarks and supplemental writings? How does Dumbledore's love life relate to the history and cultural stereotypes of gay men? And, of course, that other Harry Potter stuff I've been saving.

20 October 2007

Quills Awards Produce New Bafflement

The Quill Awards ceremony has always exuded the desperate desire of a party designed in the hope that the cool kids might come, if only for ten minutes. The cool kids are the bringers of "Hollywood glitz," as the awards' website says. Cleaning up at the end of the evening, trying not to think about whether they've compromised their standards, publishing pros can tell themselves that books really are cool after all!

Even so, there was something baffling about this week's report from Publishers Weekly:

Winning the Quill Variety Blockbuster Book to Film Award is Universal’s Jason Bourne trilogy. The action blockbusters, all based on Robert Ludlum’s series, were selected for the honor by a committee of Variety staffers.
This is a new award. (Come to our party!) It's selected by Hollywood people for other Hollywood people. (Come to our party!) It seems to reward making hit movies, which is usually reward enough in itself, but the real aim is to show that hit movies can be made from actual, yes, books. (Come to our party!) Even though the hit movies have little in common with those books besides their titles and a premise.

The Bourne movies are known for being very good action-spy thrillers, and for deviating tremendously from their source material. The first movie started that trend, and each sequel has moved further away from Ludlum's storylines. (Carlos the Jackal is just not hot news anymore; no one would come to a party just to see him.)

Indeed, here are the sort of critical blurbs that the second movie in the series, The Bourne Supremacy, really gets in the "Blockbuster Book to Film" category:
  • "Tony Gilroy's screenplay [is] adapted liberally from the potent novel by Robert Ludlum!" --Cincinnati Enquirer
  • "...has a completely distinct (and contradictory) plot to the novel!" --Wikipedia
Of course, the character of Jason Bourne does make books look cool--by using one as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat! He also fights with magazines and pens. (See More Than Fine's Top Five Jason-Bourne-Improvised Weapons list.)

I suspect the real target of this award is the actor who plays Bourne, Matt Damon. He actually reads books. He recommends them to the public. He options them. And he's a good-looking Hollywood celebrity.

Come to our party!

19 October 2007

Credits Will Do Fine

It's only October, and already I've started my holiday wish list, thanks to an article in today's New York Times arts section. It's a "diamond-encrusted gold brooch" priced at a mere $30,000, from Wartski of London.

18 October 2007

Mining for Metaphors in Predator's Gold

It took me about halfway through Predator's Gold, the second in Philip Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles books, before I realized what a dab hand he is with a metaphor. He's got some similes that P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler would be proud of. And they work thematically, both in individual moments and with the watery setting of the book (on ice, undersea, on a remote island). Some samples:

"The explorer's face had turned the color of expensive cheese..."

"A few hundred feet below the Jenny Haniver's gondola, vast rough pans of sea ice were sliding by. . . . Tom and Hester, looking down from the flight-deck windows at the never-ending whiteness, felt as if they had been flying forever over this armored ocean."

"Not that there was anything there to see. Only a broad circle of open water, and the waves slapping and clopping at its edges with a sound like sarcastic applause."

"The pain came in like the long, gray breakers at Rogues' Roost, steady and slow, each wave fading into the next."

"She saw pine trees on the heights, and birches holding up handfuls of last summer's leaves like pale gold coins."

17 October 2007

Robert's Snowflakes Piling Up

The ladies at 7 Impossible Things have started a page that aggregates all of this month's blog interviews with picture-book artists who have contributed to this year's fall of Robert's Snow snowflake ornaments.

And here's the story behind the Robert's Snow fundraiser straight from the Dana Farber Center's Jimmy Fund website:

Own a piece of art from your favorite children's book illustrator while helping to fight cancer. Participate in Robert's Snow: for Cancer's Cure, a unique fundraiser for cancer research. Since 2004, this online auction has raised over $200,000 for Dana-Farber, and with your help, we can continue this holiday tradition in 2007.

"Robert's Snow" is a children's story about a mouse not allowed in the snow. Children's book illustrator Grace Lin wrote the book, which was inspired by her husband Robert's battle with Ewing's sarcoma. After the book was published, Grace gathered artists from all over the children's book illustrating community to create special snowflakes to be auctioned off, with the proceeds benefiting sarcoma research at Dana-Farber. These snowflake auctions became known as the event "Robert's Snow."
The auction will take place in three periods, from 19 November to 7 December, with different snowflakes up for bid in each. Get a peek at the artists' creations starting from this page.

16 October 2007

The Cold War Reaches Knight's Castle

Edward Eager wrote Knight's Castle in 1956, and the anti-Communist ideology of the day even seeped into details of what otherwise seems to be a purely escapist fantasy for children.

The novel's young protagonists enjoy life in a big, upper-class house, with the best in toys and hobby equipment. Aunt Katherine and Uncle John have a cook and a "poor maid," as well as an "art collection." Knight's Castle leaves that wealth unexamined. All that might be part of Eager's homage to E. Nesbit, of course. Her families never seem to be without servants of some sort, even when Father is In Disgrace.

The root of all evil in this adventure turns out to be the novel's chief villain, Prince John, as borrowed from Ivanhoe. But here he turns into a tyrant who calls himself "the Leader." At one point he declares, "making pictures [photography] behind the iron curtain...is punishable by death."

Four pages later we learn that "Prince John had rounded up all the deer in the forest for a collective farming experiment," causing starvation. Like "iron curtain," that's an obvious reference to contemporary events. The children suspect that the prince's "terrible new ideas...leaked in from the outside world."

Usually when economic issues enter into a story with Prince John as the villain, he represents the rapacious aristocracy. Robin Hood fights him by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, and all that. But in Eager's Cold War-era refashioning, this medieval hereditary monarch became a stalking-horse for the Soviets.

14 October 2007

Lionboy's Unflattering Picture of America

It's ironic that Zizou Corder's Lionboy trilogy became a bestselling series in the US since the books are, with little padding to soften the blow, anti-American.

Oh, sure, they say that The Simpsons will still be showing in the near future, when these books take place, and The Simpsons are a great gift from America to world culture. But the USA in these books appears mostly as "the Empire Homelands" looming on the west of the Atlantic.

That geopolitical picture is especially striking when I compare this series with other recent British fantasies:

  • In Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy the British Empire is still powerful, and the rebellious province of America its bleeding weak spot.
  • Philip Reeve's Larklight also revives the British Empire, in Victorian terms, and expands it across the solar system; there's a passing reference to American rebels.
  • Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles presents America as simply wiped out by nuclear war while Old World cities battle it out for survival.
(In contrast, the hottest American fantasy series these days, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books, makes the US is the center of western civilization, and thus home to the Greek gods.)

We never actually see the "Empire Homelands" in the pseudonymous Corder's trilogy. The closest we come is in the third volume, Lionboy: The Truth; it takes us to a Caribbean island run by the Corporacy, which in turn is run by Americans.

But we get glimpses of the Empire in action, such as this TV news report from the start of the second volume:
The Empire soldiers had had to shoot up a city in the Poor World, and lots of civilians had been shot and there were no medicines available. There were pictures of children with dirty bandages on, looking terrified and hungry.
Alas, we don't have to imagine the near future to think of such events, given recent reports on aerial bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia.

Empires abound in fantasy literature, of course, but attaching the word "Homelands" to that designation seems a clear hint that Corder's picture of America was inspired by the administration that created an office of Homeland Security only a few months after it needed to concentrate on, well, homeland security. (We used to call securing the homeland "defense," but for over half a century the US Department of Defense has been busy in other people's homelands.)

Indeed, Corder seems to have chosen details that would needle the current administration and its leader. Volume 3 offers a glimpse of Fidel, the "ruler" of Cuba, "an old but strong-looking man in a beret, with a rather fine beard"; yes, he's still around. As far as I recall, the one American city mentioned by name is that administration embarrassment, New Orleans. And of course the whole story takes place in a civilization that's had to adapt to a petroleum crash and global warming.

I have no problem with the Lionboy books portraying a future American government as bellicose, heartless, and entwined with rapacious corporations. (It's unclear whether the Corporacy controls the Empire, or the Empire governs the Corporacy, or if that even matters.) For one thing, I enjoyed reading Corder's adventure story.

More important, a good fantasy story, even one subtitled The Truth, isn't supposed to be taken as the truth. (Something that William Donohue needs help to recall.) Fantasies help us imagine how a world might be, which can then spur us to think about how this world to be. We can still get off the road to the Empire Homelands.

But I call the Lionboy series "anti-American" rather than "anti-right-wing America" or "anti-corporate America" for two reasons:
  • As I've already written, the books mangle American speech patterns badly. The American characters are clearly inspired by stereotypes, not real people.
  • There are no sympathetic American characters to counter all those blustering, power-hungry, and relentlessly cheery authority figures. We don't see if, for instance, Americans actually voted for a different Empire government by a small but significant margin. We don't see if any Americans distrust the Corporacy as much as the Ashanti family does.
If a bestselling series portrayed another familiar nationality in such a one-sided way, I suspect American readers might have been troubled by the caricature. But we may be oblivious to the possibility of a fun book portraying us--us!--in a poor light. Or we may sense that nothing this British children's author writes could seriously affect our power in the world. Which in the end might show that Corder's portrayal isn't that far off.

13 October 2007

Heard at the Horn Book Awards

Last night I attended the Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards ceremony at the Boston Athenaeum. Here are some remarks from the acceptance speeches that struck me.

Loree Griffin Burns, author of Honor book Tracking Trash, on childhood reading: "I dreamed great, big, Carolyn Keene dreams."

Sid Fleischman, author of Honor book Escape!: The remarks Sid sent about switching to nonfiction were funny, but nothing struck me as much as something he said at the SCBWI New England conference last spring: "You need two ideas to make a story."

Nicolas Debon, author-illustrator of Award winner The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr: "Athletes and artists are both trying to bring to perfection one gesture."

Joëlle Jolivet and Jean-Luc Fromental, author and illustrator of Honor book 365 Penguins: "A ‘Globe’ Award for a book about global warming seems fairly perfect."

Emily Gravett, author-illustrator of Honor book Wolves: no special quotes, actually, but I couldn't resist buying the book.

Laura Vaccaro Seeger, author-illustrator of Award winner Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories and bringer of the night's handsomest entourage: "I objected [to putting three stories in one book], but Neal [Porter, editor] convinced me that an eight-page picture book wouldn't sell very well."

Sara Pennypacker, author of Honor book Clementine, illustrated by Marla Frazee: "Humorous writing is always about human frailties. When we're laughing, our guard is down and we can say, 'Me, too.'"

Tim Wynne-Jones, author of Honor book Rex Zero and the End of the World: "It's awful to hear something called historical fiction when it's your own life."

M. T. Anderson, author of Award winner The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, yadda yadda yadda, The Pox Party: "If I had not read of Centerburg, Ohio, I could not a few years later have been so haunted by Winesburg, Ohio."

The Horn Book's web content coordinator told me that an audio or video record of the ceremony will be posted on the magazine's website within weeks. So that's how long I have before people can hear the speakers' words for themselves and realize what a poor transcriptionist I am.

[ADDENDUM: Even faster than I thought, the Horn Book has posted its video record.]

As usual, I was struck by this award's sweep across the US borders. Four of the nine honored books were originally published in other countries. Among presses, I think the big winner was Groundwood Books of Toronto, who published the nonfiction Award winner and a fiction Honor book.

The Athenaeum's catering was almost stereotypically Brahmin: dry cheese, dry crackers, dry drinks. But oh, its books! In the hour before the ceremony I found some delicious stories about George Washington's arrival in Cambridge in 1775, which I'll soon post on Boston 1775.

12 October 2007

Matthew Arnold at the Boston Public Library

In September 1887, the magazine Book-Lore quoted liberally from a New York Herald interview with the head of the Boston Public Library. The resulting article was titled "Library Lunatics," and shows that the antics of patrons in Unshelved are not recent phenomena.

One of the librarian's anecdotes involved a leading voice of British literature, who G. K. Chesterton said was "even in the age of Carlyle and Ruskin, perhaps the most serious man alive":

Mr. Matthew Arnold was greatly struck by this democratic government of our reading-room when he was in Boston. He came in here one day and saw a little barefooted newsboy sitting in one of the best chairs in the reading-room, enjoying himself apparently for dear life.

The great essayist was completely astounded. "Do you let barefooted boys in this reading-room?" he asked. "You would never see such a sight as that in Europe. I do not believe there is a reading-room in all Europe in which that boy, dressed as he is, would enter."

Then Mr. Arnold went over to the boy, engaged him in conversation, and found that he was reading the Life of Washington, that he was a young gentleman of decidedly anti-British tendencies, and, for his age, remarkably well informed.

Mr. Arnold remained talking with the youngster for some time, and, as he came back to our desk, the great Englishman said: "I do not think I have been so impressed with anything that I have seen since arriving in this country as I am now with meeting that barefooted boy in this reading-room. What a tribute to democratic institutions it is to say that, instead of sending the boy out to wander alone in the streets, they permit him to come in here and excite his youthful imagination by reading such a book as the Life of Washington! The reading of that one book may change the whole course of the boy's life, and may be the means of making him a useful, honourable, worthy citizen of this great country. It is, I tell you, a sight that impresses a European not accustomed to your democratic ways."
And now, especially since it's Poetry Friday, it's time for our yearly reading of Arnold's "Dover Beach," courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.

11 October 2007

Bombast Launched against The Golden Compass

William A. Donohue, president and sole voice of the politically conservative Catholic League, has proclaimed a crusade against the upcoming Golden Compass movie, claiming that Philip Pullman wrote the His Dark Materials series in part to "denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism."

Donohue's crusade takes the form of issuing press releases and speaking bombastically on television, which is his normal business (as detailed by Media Matters and Talk to Action). He's also selling a "booklet" (size unknown) of his opinions on Pullman's books for $5 apiece, or ten for $30. As of 2005, Donohue's salary was over $300,000, and that money has to come from somewhere.

The Golden Compass takes place in a fantasy world, with people's spirits manifest as companion animals, talking polar bears, and tree branch-riding witches. That world also contains an oppressive church, called the "Magisterium," which the book does indeed portray in a poor light. (Something about killing kids to obtain their spirits--you know how books can blow these things out of proportion.)

In a 2004 interview on the BBC show Belief, Pullman acknowledged taking some of the Magisterium's terminology from the Christianity of medieval western Europe, but said:

we're talking about another world, remember, and we're talking about a world in which the Catholic church develops in a very different way, because [John] Calvin became the Pope in the history of Lyra's world.
He also spoke of the emotions that motivated this story:
it's a deep anger...and yes, horror at the excesses of cruelty and infamy that've been carried out in the name of a supernatural power. And it's not only the Catholic church that is guilty of this, of course. The Protestants were just as guilty of burning the Catholics and their town, and of hanging the witches. And both sides are guilty of persecuting the Jews. And then you get Moslems killing Hindus, and Hindus killing Moslems, and Sikhs killing Moslems and Hindus. . . . .

I think it was a physicist [Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg], who said the truest thing about this. He said, good people have done good things, and bad people have done bad things without the help of religion, but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
That's the kind of fair, rational thinking that gets Donohue angry enough to go on television and sell booklets at $5 apiece, ten for $30.

It seems more than presumptuous for Donohue to think that the Magisterium in Pullman's make-believe world is the same Roman Catholic Church that he's appointed himself to defend in the US. Wouldn't he be better off insisting that there's no connection or similarity between his own church and an oppressive institution based on imaginary power? But apparently he sees an insult there, or an opportunity.

For myself, I'm really looking forward to seeing Iorek Byrnison in action. There's a character who truly fights for people's rights.

10 October 2007

Thanks to the People of Seven Up

Last night I watched Michael Apted's 49 Up, the latest installment in the long-running Up Series of documentaries. Starting with Seven Up in 1964, these films check in on several British citizens every seven years. (There's a more general review of this movie and the series at documentaryfilms.net.) I think I came across these movies when its subjects were twenty-one or twenty-eight years old, which means I've been checking in on them for half their lives.

A recurring theme in the recent documentaries, including the latest, is how much of an imposition it's been to participate in the series. The interviewees were chosen over four decades ago by their headmasters because, I suspect, they were a little more open and articulate than the average seven-year-old. And now they've been asked to examine their lives before the English-speaking world every seven years. Some people have dropped out of the filming, temporarily or permanently, while others shield parts of their lives from the cameras.

So I feel I should express my gratitude to those brave people. I've enjoyed watching them because their lives and interviews have offered such insight into what it's like being human. Since I'm a few years younger, I've been able to watch them age and foresee my own changes. It's reassuring to see these strangers build families and find fulfillment, sad to hear about their losses, worrisome to see them taking risks. Naturally, a two-hour documentary every seven years can show only slices of their lives, but these slices are also a slice of humanity as a whole.

As to this installment, among its major themes seems to be real estate. A number of the interviewees have invested more of themselves in their homes (or second homes). It was also interesting to hear the dissatisfaction with Tony Blair's government at the time the film was shot, coming from both the left and the right. What will life bring at fifty-six?

09 October 2007

Library of Congress Uses Oz to Promote Literacy

The Library of Congress has launched a simple online game called "Storybook Adventures" that draws heavily on knowledge of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for its first round.

And by that I don't mean the more basic story of The Wizard of Oz as it's been popularized by the MGM movie. The game's questions, like those on "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" in the following rounds, are obviously designed to test people's knowledge of the written versions of those stories rather than the most popular movie versions. They ask about details not in the films.

The game isn't immediately easy to find. You can start here, wait for the animation, and then click on the box marked "Play!" Or you can go straight to the game, watching the countdown to start. At the end there's an e-card reward or something.

And of course every book today, even one published 107 years ago, needs a book trailer.

08 October 2007

Ministers Redefining the Meaning of Halo

Only two days after inkygirl revealed an anti-unhappy endings group featured in a British tabloid to be a marketing hoax, the New York Times published a front-page dispatch by Matt Richtel that seems equally ridiculous--and yet I have no doubt it's true:

Across the country, hundreds of ministers and pastors desperate to reach young congregants have drawn concern and criticism through their use of an unusual recruiting tool: the immersive and violent video game Halo. . . .

Those buying it must be 17 years old, given it is rated M for mature audiences. But that has not prevented leaders at churches and youth centers across Protestant denominations, including evangelical churches that have cautioned against violent entertainment, from holding heavily attended Halo nights and stocking their centers with multiple game consoles so dozens of teenagers can flock around big-screen televisions and shoot it out. . . .

Complicating the debate over the appropriateness of the game as a church recruiting tool are the plot’s apocalyptic and religious overtones. The hero’s chief antagonists belong to the Covenant, a fervent religious group that welcomes the destruction of Earth as the path to their ascension.
So some ministers are trying to turn underage teens into apocalyptic zealots by offering them the chance to pretend to kill apocalyptic zealots--all in the name of a religion that counsels peace and love. Yeah, that "complicates" things, all right.

07 October 2007

A Girl's Guide to the Superhero Life

NON-COMICS WEEK (and a day) at Oz and Ends comes to a close with a look at a superhero genre novel aimed at girls. Zoe Quinn's Caped 6th Grader series starts with Happy Birthday, Hero! I've already discussed two types of anachronisms in this book, but today I'm comparing this book's approach to the superhero life with that in similar novels about boys, such as William Boniface's The Hero Revealed.

Both books take place in a world of full of superheroes, with families passing down extraordinary powers. Kids collect comic books and other artifacts about grown-up heroes. (The Hero Revealed explores the marketing of such artifacts while Happy Birthday, Hero! has more fun at the mall: among the earring stores its protagonist visits are the Piercing Post, Hoop De-Doo's, Pierce-sonal Preference, The Stud Farm, and Lobe-and-Be-Holed.)

Both books have big, energetic illustrations, and Happy Birthday, Hero! also uses big type for sound effects, as in comics. I can't tell whether readers are meant to see a reference to straightening the Tower of Pisa as an allusion to Superman III, but clearly its readers are supposed to know the traditions of superhero comics.

When it comes to superheroing, Happy Birthday, Hero! puts a lot more emphasis on secrecy than The Hero Revealed. After Zoe hears that she's developing superpowers, she doesn't immediately try them out. (Think of "Will" in the critically lambasted Dark Is Rising movie, asking "Merriman" if he'll now be able to fly; a lot of fans of the book have criticized that moment in previews, but it's exactly what an American boy would do.)

Instead, Zoe wonders, "Is everything going to have to change?" The big drama for her is the secrecy of swearing to follow the superhero code, particularly keeping the secret from her mother. Overall, her view of superheroing emphasizes the emotional side:

But as far as I was concerned, the thing that made her [Lightning Girl] truly heroic was the fact that she never pretended she wasn't scared.
I don't think that concern shows up in any of the boy-superhero books.

In fact, while I criticized The Hero Revealed for putting only one token female on its superhero teams, I found Happy Birthday, Hero! to be even more colored by gender stereotypes. And by "colored," let me start by pointing out this is the pinkest book I've read in a long time. Beyond that:
  • Zoe's first sign of trouble from her encroaching powers is when she can't get her ears pierced.
  • On page 64, she uses her new powers to choose an outfit for school.
  • Page 97 brings Zoe her first crime to thwart: a robbery in a jewelry store.
And here's the moment that shows how superpowers can be so embarrassing:
Feeling brave, I decided to try one of the cute gestures Emily's magazines were always recommending: I tilted my chin and gave my hair a little toss.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a superpowered turbo hair toss, and the sweeping motion of my flowing locks created a gust of wind that toppled the prop table.
By the end of the book, Zoe hasn't gone far in her superhero career; this is just the first in a series, and it's slim. But she has discovered that other girls made unauthorized alterations to a costume for a school play. Oh, the villainy!

Maybe those details sprang out at me more forcefully because I'm a former boy rather than a former girl, or because they stand out in the superhero genre, which has traditionally been dominated by a masculine sensibility. But I think this is probably an example of mass-market fiction playing off society's dominant attitudes rather than daring to challenge them.

06 October 2007

Looking for the Great American Superhero Novel

A few days ago, toward the start of NON-COMICS WEEK, I posited that the increasing respect for comics in our culture has opened the door for "literary" novels about comics creators, both children and adults. Another, less high-falutin' result of the same trend is more prose novels about superheroes. Not just characters with special powers, like Harry Potter, but characters whose fantastic powers and worlds are based on American superhero traditions.

In American literary publishing for adults, we have Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) as the most prominent example. For kids, the trend seems to be largely confined to mass-market series, such as Dan Greenburg's Maximum Boy and Greg Trine's Melvin Beederman, Superhero.

Which brings me to William Boniface's Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy series, starting with The Hero Revealed. Boniface is actually Jon Anderson, who worked at Penguin and now heads Running Press. He comes by his superhero knowledge honestly: he was once buyer of graphic novels for Barnes & Noble.

For more background, see this video interview at First Book. And according to an interview with Anderson's hometown paper, the Argus Leader:

"Ordinary Boy" was written during a four-month period when Anderson devoted himself to his story full time. He sold the manuscript to the first publishing house he approached. But the whole process screeched to a halt with the arrival of a movie about another superhero family. "'The Incredibles' has been haunting me," Anderson says.

In spite of being written nearly two years before "The Incredibles" took center stage, HarperCollins decided to delay the release of "Ordinary Boy" so as not to appear to be riding the coattails of the hit animated movie. Even now, as Ordinary Boy takes his turn in the spotlight, "Incredibles" comparisons persist.
(That article is no longer on the Argus Leader website; I pulled it from a Google cache.)

That worry about "riding the coattails" seems to be missing the point of all of today's superhero books, movies (e.g., Sky High), and TV shows (e.g., Heroes), not to mention the current state of superhero comics publishing. It's all self-referential. Everyone is chasing each other's coattails. Readers are expected to spot cross-references and allusions. So let's hear no more about the genre being derivative; that's the point.

The Hero Revealed exemplifies a number of trends in recent superhero novels for kids. It takes place in a world with a plethora, a veritable surfeit, of superpowered criminals and crime-stoppers; these books tend to be inspired by the DC and Marvel "universes" rather than individual hero legends. The protagonist is a growing member of that society; in The Hero Revealed, Ordinary Boy is special because he doesn't appear to have any powers.

The genre emphasizes comedy, finding it in the awkward disadvantages of superpowers. These books usually have a lot of illustrations in an energetic, humorous style. The Ordinary Boy series is part of the subcategory--maybe half of the genre--that plays off the marketing of superheroes to kids.

The Hero Revealed is on the long side--almost 300 pages. But it's not terribly tight. On pages 132-3, for instance, OB spends five paragraphs reviewing the mystery and his feelings about it for us readers. And then he tells his parents exactly the same things in one big paragraph on page 134.

The book starts slowly, with 30 pages before "an enormous muffled explosion" inaugurates something like a plot. Up to then, Boniface has simply filled us in on Superopolis society with a maps, trading card-like character profiles, and backstory. It's possible to be too self-referential.

One big, old-fashioned flaw in this book, not shared by all others in the genre: as in the earliest versions of Superfriends, each group has a token female. The main crime-fighting organization, the League of Ultimate Goodness, includes one woman, and her sole job is to make the leader feel good about himself. (I'm not making that up.) Does Ordinary Boy's club do any better? No, they, too, have only one female member.

TOMORROW: A superhero novel from a female point of view.

(Publishers who are looking to get into the superhero novel genre should ask Greg Fishbone for a look at his How to Be a Superhero manuscript.)

05 October 2007

The Weight of Hugo Cabret

Yesterday I discussed how I think the illustrations and text of The Invention of Hugo Cabret work together cinematically, unlike pictures and words in picture books, traditionally illustrated novels, or comics. Today I'll discuss how well the book worked for me.

The story surely qualifies as a novel, but it's no more complex than a lot of other middle-grade fiction. As a story it's fine but not great. The prose is often prosaic, and not just because I see my least favorite word, “excitedly,” on page 115. The point of view can suddenly shift (“Isabelle's foot felt like it was broken,” page 298), and a French boy comes out with, “OK.”

I will here acknowledge the obvious, that the prose in Selznick's first novel is much better than my drawings will ever be. And those drawings do make The Invention of Hugo Cabret a more interesting project to study, both as a reader and as someone who works on books. As an object, the book is undeniably impressive.

In the end, however, I kept wondering whether this novel was worth its extra weight in paper. It's 300+ pages longer than a typical middle-grade, but the story didn't seem more full. Furthermore, that paper is extra-thick and extra-white to preserve the rich blacks of Selznick's art. The binding, Selznick said at this winter's SCBWI conference in New York, is an innovative type that lets the book lie flat, with nothing swallowed into the gutter (more like a movie screen).

All that paper produces a thick brick of a book. Both Hugo Cabret and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are 2.1 inches thick, according to Scholastic’s web catalog, and about the same weight. But HP5 is 870 pages, and Hugo Cabret 544. (The official page count is 533, but the real count must be divisible by 16.) That means the same shelf space contains two-thirds the number of pages for storytelling.

Furthermore, many of those pages are, as I discussed yesterday, pictures meant to be looked at for just a second. Some might say that each picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case a lot of the pictures repeat information because they're inspired by a cinematic model: one image zipping by after another. At the end, for example, there are fourteen pages of the Moon fading; those spreads produce an impression, to be sure, but they're not the informational equivalent of 7,000 words, or even fourteen book pages. All-black pages punctuate scenes
, like a movie fading to black. Again, that storytelling technique works by evoking cinema, but it also adds to the book's heft without adding much to the content.

As a result, for me Hugo Cabret seemed a little inflated. I won't be surprised if Hugo Cabret becomes a landmark in book design and graphic storytelling, but I kept wondering if it will turn out to be a children's favorite.

(Despite its size, Hugo Cabret is not burdened with a high price. Its $22.99 is about two-thirds of the jacket price of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for about two-thirds the pages. Looked at in another way, it's about the normal cost of an adult novel that's half as long. How is it economically possible for Scholastic to produce this book at that price? Hugo Cabret was printed in Singapore.)

04 October 2007

A Real Graphic Novel: Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, is a graphic novel. Unfortunately, in a bid for literary respectability a couple of decades ago, comics genius Will Eisner coined the term "graphic novel" for what was in fact a collection of his comics. Thus, when we now hear "graphic novel," we think "comics over 48 pages long that take themselves seriously."

But Hugo Cabret actually has the length, plot, and undeniable weight of a novel. Its graphic elements are a crucial part of the storytelling, both in content and theme. It's therefore a graphic novel. But it's not comics.

The pictures in Hugo Cabret don't work like the pictures in comics. They're sequential, to be sure, but only one image is visible on each page spread. We move from one to the next through by turning pages, so we can never take in two images at once.

Furthermore, those pictures don't combine words and images the way most comics do. In fact, the pictures are almost empty of words. One shows a sign over an old man's toy stand which says, "JOUETS"; most American readers won't be able to read that. Another picture shows an automaton signing the old man's name. In all the rest, including scenes in the train station and in a bookstore, there are no signs or titles to read. On page 143 Hugo reads a note, but we readers never see an image of that note, even one created typographically.

Hugo Cabret actually tells us what storytelling model it's based on. On page ix the yet-unnamed narrator asks us to imagine that we're in a cinema, with the curtain opening on a screen. To reinforce that point, the book contains several stills from movies, such as Safety Last and A Trip to the Moon.

After the young characters sneak into René Clair's The Million, the text tells us that Hugo “thought every good story should end with a big, exciting chase.” And sure enough, two hundred pages later there's a big chase through the tunnels of the railroad station with the background blurring to convey the speed. (This is a technique from Japanese comics as well as cinema.) At the end of that chase Hugo gets caught and locked up, but no matter; on page 458 he escapes again, so that pursuit seems to be in the book just for the excitement.

Selznick's pictures work like movie shots, not like comics panels or picture-book spreads. Sequences of drawings narrow in on details, track moving characters, cut and dissolve from one image to another.

Furthermore, we're really supposed to look at each image only once before moving on to the next. The pictures don't reward close examination or reexamination. In a scene of Hugo making his way across the crowded train station, for example, his face is the only one that's clearly rendered, focusing our attention on him just as good Hollywood lighting and cinematography would. There are no important details to collect after your first impression. These images are like frames of a film, each a burst of visual information rather than a landscape to visit at your leisure.

TOMORROW: So what does that all add up to?

03 October 2007

A Lunch Money Date

Yesterday I wrote about how Andrew Clements's Lunch Money uses comic books to explore the issue of commercialism in kids' lives; I posited that comic books' place in American culture makes them uniquely appropriate for that theme. Choosing comics as the field on which his characters maneuver lets Clements explore another theme as well.

Traditionally, American comics have been a gendered medium, with some titles published for girls and others--the greater part--for "fanboys." Now female readers drive the sale of "manga," but that simply reinforces the same divide. We even have imprints like Minx targeting just one sex.

Some categories of books display a similar gender divide, but that's a matter of content (sports, romance, trucks) or style (pink, which characters are on the cover) rather than format. (I'm not saying these divisions are firm, strictly enforced, or a good idea. But they exist.)

Lunch Money divides characters along that traditional gender line in portraying how they think about comics as they enter the story. The fans include:

  • Greg's father, a comic-book collector
  • Greg himself, who occasionally buys comics as investments and draws his own, also to make money
  • Ted and Roy, Greg's customers in the sixth grade
  • Mr. Z, the math teacher
The characters who start out cool or hostile to comics are:
  • Maura, Greg's across-the-street neighbor and rival since kindergarten. After she's drawn a picture book, Maura tells Greg, "I know you said mine isn't a comic book, but I don't really get what that means. Prob'ly because I haven't looked at comics books much. Tommy has some, but I never got into reading them."
  • Principal Davenport, who tells Greg: "This is a comic book, and in my view, comic books are practically toys, and bad toys at that. This is hardly what I would call a book."
The gender divide is mighty clear, isn't it?

Lunch Money can thus be not just a story about money, but also a story of crossing that gender gap, with comics as the bridge. Maura reads McCloud's Understanding Comics, and starts drawing her own comic books. They're still about unicorns and princesses, but they use the hitherto male language of panels, speech balloons, and sound effects. And eventually the school principal admits she's "read comic books for the first time in my life."

We also see another bridge between the sexes getting built. ***SPOILER*** Near the end of the book Clements drops the news that Greg and Maura have made "one awkward attempt at holding hands." And all because of comic books.