31 January 2008

Kids “Universally” Dislike Clowns?

This month, the Reuters wire burned with a new scientific finding: Kids hate clowns. The dispatch stated:

The news that will no doubt have clowns shedding tears was revealed in a poll of youngsters by researchers from the University of Sheffield who were examining how to improve the decor of hospital children's wards.

The study, reported in the Nursing Standard magazine, found all the 250 patients aged between four and 16 they quizzed disliked the use of clowns, with even the older ones finding them scary.

"As adults we make assumptions about what works for children," said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university.

"We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."
This prompted complaints from clowns who visit hospital wards, as a follow-up dispatch reported:
Unhappy clowns from around the world say a study that reported that children didn't like them has wiped the big smile from their faces, and have been falling over their large shoes to put their case. . . .

In a deluge of emails to Reuters, they say they misrepresent just how popular they really are.

"The 'universe' of 250 children used for the Sheffield University study was miniscule compared to the 250,000 one-to-one bedside visits made by Clown Care to hospitalized children annually," said Joel Dein, director of communications at the Big Apple Circus in New York.
I can’t read the original article without a Nursing Standard subscription, but I have doubts about any study that surveys fewer than 300 English children and then prompts a declaration that “clowns are universally disliked.” Social scientists rarely speak in such absolutes.

On the other hand, amidst all the caterwauls and chuckles, the news media lost track of the confines of the original study. The Sheffield team didn’t research kids’ thoughts on actual clowns; they’re studying how to design and decorate children’s hospital wards. As HospitalHealthCare.com reported, the lead researcher “said that children preferred colourful spaces and references to contemporary culture.”

Well, of course they do. This study basically asked kids aged four to sixteen in a social environment (i.e., where there was every possibility of peer pressure to be cool) how they’d like their bedrooms decorated. How many kids today are going to demand a circus theme? But that doesn’t mean kids, in hospital or not, dislike the clowns who come to entertain them once in a while.

(Creepy image of card-playing, cigarette-smoking child clowns above by artist Ron English, available as a poster. Now that’s decorating!)

30 January 2008

Reignited Candelabra

Marcus Mébès’s Pumpernickel Pickle press has announced the availability of a reprint of L. Frank Baum’s By the Candelabra’s Glare. Baum self-published this small book of verse in 1898, setting the type himself.

By then, Baum had made friends among Chicago’s artistic community through editing the trade magazine The Shop Window, so several notable illustrators contributed decorations for the book. Among them was W. W. Denslow, Baum’s collaborator in 1900 on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Characteristically, Baum begins his foreword with some self-deprecating wordplay:

A friend of mine, who has attained eminence as a critic, once found me glancing through a book of verse.

“What are you looking for?” he demanded.

“His excuse,” said I.

“My dear boy,” returned the eminent critic, frowning severely, “there can be no excuse for a book of verse.”
It looks like all the illustrations and decorative pages of the original have been reprinted, and the poems have been reset for easy reading. The collection is broken into sections of “Semisentimental Verse,” “Cycling Verse,” “Children’s Verse,” and two sections of miscellany.

I figure many people are as unfamiliar with the genre of cycling verse as I am, so I’ll quote a short example:
I catch a flash from merry eye--
I see a wave of golden curl;
And then there swiftly passes by
Upon her wheel, a pretty girl!

I know my seat is not secure,
(I’ve only had my wheel a day,)
And yet one glance I must procure
Before the vision speeds away.

Vainglorious fool! Upon my head
I land, nor see the sight I sought;
For down the street my charmer’s fled
And I’ve a header had for nought!
By the Candelabra’s Glare has always been one of the rarest of Baum’s books, especially when we set aside his early work on stamp-collecting and chicken-raising. I believe this is the first reissue ever at an affordable price, made possible through Mébès’s enthusiasm and print-on-demand technology. It’s available in hardcover and digital editions.

29 January 2008

Why Western High Art Disdains Speech Balloons

Andy Konky Kru had an article on his comics history website titled “The Evolution of the Speechballoon”, and it’s left traces on other people’s blogs, particularly Karl Jones’s. However, neither Google nor I can find the original.

Other resources (i.e., Wikipedia) explain that the convention appeared first in Mayan art in the Last Classic period (600-900 CE); those graphics have come to be known as “speech scrolls.”

Something similar appeared in Western art in the 1200s. Ribbons of writing unspooled from people’s mouths to show what they were saying. Those ribbons got the name of phylactery, borrowed from the Greek word for the containers for small scrolls of Hebrew scripture. The example shown above comes (via Wikipedia) from Bernhard Strigel’s Saint Anne and Angel, circa 1507.

But this posting isn’t about the long history of speech balloons, but about why they became unfashionable in our civilization’s high art, eventually relegated to the mass popular art of cartoons?

I’m pinning part of the blame on Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1555. That gossipy, opinionated, and highly influential history of Italian art included this anecdote about two fourteenth-century painters named Bruno di Giovanni and Buonamico di Cristofano, called Buffalmacco. (There are various translations, and I’m quoting from Mrs. Jonathan Foster’s, published in London in 1851.)

While employed on this work, Bruno complained that his faces had not the life and expression distinguishing those of Buonamico; when the latter, in his playful manner, undertook to shew him how his figures might be rendered, not life-like only, but even eloquently expressive.

He then bade Bruno paint words proceeding from the mouth of the woman who is recommending herself to the saint, with those which the saint utters in reply proceeding in like manner from the mouth of the latter; which Buffalmacco had seen done in the works of Cimabue.

And this method, as it pleased Bruno and other dull people of that day, so does it equally satisfy certain simpletons of our own, who are well served by artists as commonplace as themselves. It must, in truth, be allowed to be an extraordinary thing, that a practice thus originating in a jest, and in no other way, should have passed into general use; insomuch, that even a great part of the Campo Santo, decorated by much esteemed masters, is full of this absurdity.
Vasari was mistaken about the genesis of this technique, as other scholars noted, and how widely it was accepted. Nevertheless, his critical message was clear: only an untalented (and gullible) artist would resort to such an “absurdity,” and only “simpletons” would enjoy it.

I suspect Vasari’s harsh criticism helped to shape fine artists’ and connoisseurs’ tastes in the following centuries. Meanwhile, painters became more interested in capturing realistic images than in imparting a message, then in replicating the effects of light, and finally in expressing the unphotographable. Phylacteries and speech balloons floated out of paintings. They survived in political cartoons, popular engravings, and finally comic strips--but that only cemented the technique’s association with “low” art rather than “high” art.

28 January 2008

Authors in Profile

Yesterday's Boston Globe featured an article about Mitali Perkins and Karen Day; I'm lucky enough to be in a critique group with both of them.

Mitali has a new series called First Daughter, about a teenager adopted from South Asia whose father, a respected military veteran, becomes a leading candidate for President of the U.S. And would that ever happen?

In the newspaper article, Mitali talks about the inspirations of her own childhood as an immigrant encountering various parts of America.

"My stories come out of the things that I experienced when I was in middle school," said Perkins. "About being between cultures."

Perkins was 7 when her family emigrated from Bengal, India, to the Flushing section of Queens, where she felt comfortable since "nearly every nation was represented," she said.

But when they moved to California, Perkins found herself surrounded by whites who had all been born and raised in the United States.

"Not one kid spoke to me for two months," said Perkins. "The principal introduced me as 'a new student from Asia.'"
Mitali also has a story about her school's Trekkers that's simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking, which I hope she'll one day build a novel around.

As for Karen, I tease her about being a jock, but her athletic background and discipline are a big part of her writing. There's at least a little sports in almost all of her books, even if it's just the family bowling nights in Tall Tales. Karen's upcoming No Cream Puffs is about the first female pitcher in her town's Little League.

Until reading the Globe article, I didn't realize that Karen's athletic career led to her writing in another way:
Day was playing baseball with boys and traveling on an elite tennis circuit at a time when the world was taken with Billie Jean King.

Being a much better athlete than all of the boys left her isolated, said Day.

"I really didn't have anyone to talk to," she said. "I kept a journal - writing has always been a part of me that felt really safe and good."
The first draft of Tall Tales that Karen shared with the group was in diary form. Eventually she chose a different narrative voice, but I now understand how natural it was for her to start from that form of writing.

27 January 2008

Robin Breaks the Fourth Wall

This weekly Robin highlights a striking example of what I've called the comics style's freedom to "show the invisible" in ways that traditional book illustration usually doesn't.

These panels are from Robin, #112, published in 2003, with script by Jon Lewis and penciling by Pete Woods. (I cut an intervening panel, so the layout below doesn't look exactly like the magazine.)

In the lower panel, narrator and title character Tim Drake addresses us readers directly in the captions. We know those are Tim's words not just because he tells us, not just because the captions' green border matches his jacket, but because he apologizes for being impolite--a characteristic remark for Tim. (It's also characteristic that when Tim disguises himself and adopts another persona, he acts like a boor. But that's a matter for his writers or his analyst to work out.)

Tim's words reveal that he's undercover as a young hitchhiker looking for "hippie chicks." The art shows him winking to us. And most interesting, all the physical elements of his disguise--fake ponytail, false eyebrows, earrings, and stick-on soul patch--pop off his head for an instant.

Of course, that doesn't really happen, even within the reality of the comic book. But in comics art, we readers are allowed to see what remains unseen.

26 January 2008

Free Play

I enjoyed Jenna Russell's interview in the 20 Jan 2008 Boston Globe's Ideas section with Roger Hart, CUNY professor of environmental psychology. It's headlined, "Sheltered lives: When did kids stop playing outside?"

As a graduate student in 1972, Hart visited a Vermont town to study how children played. That led to a series of short documentaries with filmmaker John Marshall. (Flickr set of images from those movies here. For Americans of my age, I suspect there's a definite Zoom vibe to the whole project.)

The Globe interview included this interesting exchange:

HART: Back then, there wasn't this tight intermeshing between parents' and children's lives. On weekends, especially Sundays, there would be greater locking in, but the rest of the time, children came home from school and went straight out.

IDEAS: And now?

HART: There was a question the children would jump to, this time, when I asked it, which was, "Tell me the times when you're just with other children, without adults organizing you." No one has ever asked them that before, but they immediately know the answer, and it's important to them. They'll say things like, "Oh, before football practice, when we're just hanging around, before we start, and then when we're on the school bus." So they know these settings where there's a chance for them to invent their activities with one another, and it's very rare.

IDEAS: How did they get so busy?

HART: There has been too much hype from psychologists in the last decade about how crucial it is to push children when they're young, and not many saying what they should be saying, which is that there are also benefits to children having free play.

IDEAS: Are the changes affecting the skills children develop?

HART: A sizable number of my parents say they're concerned their children are not as imaginative as they were, not as able to invent activities without the script being given to them. Parents say their kids often say to them, "What do I do now?" If the parents ask them to go outside and play, the kids say, "Come and play with me."

IDEAS: Are there any positive changes?

HART: There are. Almost all the parents feel closer to their children than their parents were to them. That's fascinating -- it's the flip side of children having less freedom.
The American Psychological Association website offers another article on Hart's work from 2006.

25 January 2008

WAVE, TOSS: Another Way to Show Movement

During this month's COMICS WEEK, I commented on how producing digital images had given artists a new way to show movement: by drawing as crisply as usual, then blurring the result with Photoshop or a similar program to replicate the effect we see in photographs.

That posting listed some pre-digital methods to convey motion. But since then I've noticed quite a few examples of yet another method that I'd left out: simply labeling the action.

The top example here comes from from Paul Gilligan's daily comic strip, Pooch Cafe, for 21 Jan 2008. The words "WAVE WAVE" are obviously not sound effects, not spoken words, not words that would actually appear in the scene. They simply tell us what the lady across the street is doing. Probably if newspaper comic strips didn't have to be so small Gilligan could have conveyed the same information with motion lines around her hand. [ADDENDUM: Or maybe not. Today's strip uses the same technique despite having more space available.]

The previous day, I'd seen another example in Jim Pascoe and Jake Myler's "manga-style" Undertown, running in Sunday newspapers. It showed a boy clutching his teddy bear, with the word "CLUTCH" drawn beside him.

The example on the right is from Sara Varon's graphic novel Robot Dreams (a Cybils nominee). In addition to the parenthetical "toss," she shows the movement with the dashed arrow.

I suppose I should count this technique among other ways that comics artists show the invisible in their drawings, along with speech and thought balloons, sound effects, established symbols for collisions and emotions, and the like. But it seems more like telling, not showing.

24 January 2008

You Never Know What You Might Find

It all started when a friend and colleague alerted me to the Toronto Public Library's Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, which now contains some of our correspondence, of all things. Then I noticed that that collection is also the repository of papers from author Susan Cooper, and a finding aid for Cooper's papers is available for downloading as a PDF file.

So I downloaded and saw some intriguing items. Series 1, Box 3, contains "The Gift of Gramarye [1973?] / Original typed manuscript with extensive corrections (354 p.)." That manuscript eventually became The Dark Is Rising.

I wondered how widely known Cooper's working title was, so I Googled that phrase. That search led me to this guide to writing Dark Is Rising fanfiction. It hadn't occurred to me that people would be writing such stories; I guess Cooper's cycle always struck me as complete in itself, and not (like the Oz books, for example) encouraging further exploration.

But if inspiration ever strikes, now I know this site contains such valuable information as this, from a profile of Will Stanton:

When "undercover", he can look faintly stupid. He smiles amiably, mutters vaguely, and avoids fights. Jane thinks that he is sometimes like an adult in the way he behaves.

Mary says that he's pompous sometimes.

Jane notices how he manages to deflect arguments - e.g. when Simon is trying to pick a fight. She thinks that he's like a grown-up sometimes.
I found a more pithy characterization of Will at a website linked from that one, DarkIsRising.net:
Ordinary. So ordinary and unassuming you may feel the need to kick him. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, pleasant, voted most likely to blend in. Occasionally has a habit of seeming a fair bit older than he is. And more commanding. And take charge. And knowing everything. Please try to ignore his other habits of controlling magic, time-skipping, living forever and being what's basically the main avatar of the Light.
And that website in turn holds this archive of Dark Is Rising "slash" fanfiction (i.e., focused on gay, usually male love affairs and relationships among the established characters). Again, I'd never imagined there was such.

As I wrote in connection to King of Shadows, and as Cooper herself said in her talk at the Cambridge Forum last fall, she prefers to write about preadolescents because they don't have the hormone problems of teenagers. Nonetheless, the fanfiction archive shows some fans must like writing about romantic and/or sexual pairings among her characters, with the overwhelmingly popular option being Will/Bran.

I have no objection to the hobby of "slash" fanfiction. I do have a strong objection to stories composed without enough commas or plot, which prevents me from enjoying a lot of fanfiction, and I haven't looked at any of these examples. Just knowing that they're there is enough to think about.

This trail of digital bread crumbs does lead to one dead end. In June, the moderator of the slash fanfiction website added a new category just for people who were inspired by the movie adaptation, The Seeker. That area remains empty.

23 January 2008

Weekly Dose of Surrealism from Winsor McCay

I think Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland comic pages are one of the great sustained masterpieces of twentieth-century art. At the same time, I've never been sure how to take in the words in those cartoons--the balloons in which Nemo offers a never-ending supply of "Oh!" and "Mama!" and "I'll get out of here, I will," and the like. Those words are often so distant in tone from the extraordinary scenes and action around them that I've wondered if we should take them as an ironic signal of Nemo's blandness.

Award-winning political cartoonist Ted Rall offered a more helpful perspective in a recent column:

...cartoons need great writing more than they need great art. Which is why Gary Larsen is better than Winsor McCay. "Little Nemo" was high art. "The Far Side" is hilarious.
In other words, McCay's words aren't pungent with hidden meaning; they're simply the big weakness in his work.

With that suggestion in mind, I took a fresh look at McCay's Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. The following five panels all come from different 1905 installments of that strip.

Occasionally, the "ironic" reading seems appropriate.

In other cases, the panels would be better off without the words, or at least so many of them.

When the words do add to the images, they often undercut the prettiness of the surrealism. Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend was created for adult readers; McCay even used a pseudonym on this strip so as not to separate it from his work for children. So these are supposed to be true nightmares, not exciting sleepytime adventures. There's even a hostile tone to some of the most meaningful word balloons. All the more reason, I finally decided, to read only the first panel's words to understand the set-up, and then let McCay's art alone tell the rest of the story.

(Thanks to Sam Riddleburger for the link to Rall's column.)

22 January 2008

Girls Dominate Online Content Creation

Last week the Pew Internet & American Life Project issued a report about "Teens and Social Media." I learned about it from a Publishers Weekly article that turned out to be a barely rewritten version of the study abstract, so I might as well quote the original:

Content creation by teenagers continues to grow, with 64% of online teenagers ages 12 to 17 engaging in at least one type of content creation, up from 57% of online teens in 2004.

Girls continue to dominate most elements of content creation. Some 35% of all teen girls blog, compared with 20% of online boys, and 54% of wired girls post photos online compared with 40% of online boys.

Boys, however, do dominate one area - posting of video content online. Online teen boys are nearly twice as likely as online girls (19% vs. 10%) to have posted a video online somewhere where someone else could see it.
It's indeed rare to find videos of girls skateboarding into walls, shutting themselves in refrigerators, or doing the other stuff that gets onto YouTube. (I wrote that sentence first, then went to YouTube to find examples. It took three minutes.)

Notably, both the study and its subjects define "content creation" to include commenting on other people's content.

The study abstract concludes (warns?):
There is a subset of teens who are super-communicators -- teens who have a host of technology options for dealing with family and friends, including traditional landline phones, cell phones, texting, social network sites, instant messaging, and email. They represent about 28% of the entire teen population and they are more likely to be older girls.
I've got a character like that in one of my current writing projects, and I'm worried about keeping up with her. Already I'm out of my depth on texting abbreviations, and I haven't signed her onto any of the social-networking sites yet.

(Clicking on the picture above takes you to Mark Glaser's essay "How Cell Phones Are Killing Face-to-Face Interactions," or "Perpetuating Generational Stereotypes in Only 1,400 Words." Tonight PBS's Frontline series premieres a show called “Growing Up Online.”)

21 January 2008

Hulk Cuddle!

How could I not share this image? It's a one-of-a-kind plush Hulk from Monster Factory. Click on the picture for a more Hulk-sized view.

This is part of a tribute to Stan Lee at Gallery 1988. The artworks can be viewed (all at once, oddly) at the gallery's blog. Or you can go straight to my other highlights through Photobucket: a papier-mâché Thing, by Alex Kirwan, and Spider-Man in stained glass, by Chris Roth.

Thanks to Jimmity Squiff for the link.

20 January 2008

Superheroes as Escape Mechanism and More

This panel appeared in Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead comic strip last month. In the next panel, Griffy (the voice of the cartoonist, or at least the more intellectual side of him) elaborates:

"Sick in th' sense that escape & fantasy only prolong th' avoidance of trying to figure out th' real world in all its fascination & complexity! Fantasy equals permanent adolescence!"
This from a man still working out his issues with a father figure who takes the form of a giant toad. But that aside, Griffith is on target in treating superheroes as merely one form of fantasy popular with adolescents and younger children. They just happen to be a form first sold and still associated with cheap, thin magazines rather than thick, expensive books. Which brings me to a story.

When our hero is young, his mother and father are murdered by ruthless, power-hungry people. He escapes the same fate, but must leave his family home for a harsh, unloving environment.

As our hero approaches adolescence, he meets a powerful mentor, a bachelor who acts both paternally protective and frustratingly distant. This man welcomes the hero to a new home, a rambling castle-like building with hidden spaces and extraordinary resources.

The boy develops his innate powers and dedicates himself to fighting the evil that killed his parents. He also finds friends his own age who have their own powers; they are in some ways stronger than he, but they recognize him as their leader in the fight.

The hero's new life brings dangers and pain, sacrifices and annoyances, yet also excitement and a sense of purpose. He moves beyond his hunger for personal revenge to use his abilities to aid his society, growing up into a full hero.


Modern fantasy readers will recognize this as the basic story of Harry Potter. It's also the story of Dick Grayson, the first Robin, as told in Robin Annual #4 (1995).

(That comic book is one of several overlapping versions of Dick Grayson's beginning as a masked hero. It added details to Detective #38 [1940], Secret Origins #13 [1987], and Batman #436-439 [1989], among other notable accounts. There were subsequent retellings in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #100 [1997], Batman: Dark Victory [1999-2000], and elsewhere. But all versions agree on the core story: orphan, mentor, new home, powers, yada yada.)

We can also find elements of this story in the tales of Jason Todd and Tim Drake, the later male Robins. A lot of other young fantasy heroes have traveled part of this path, too, even Dorothy Gale.

What does that similarity say about Griffith's complaint that "superheroes are an escape mechanism"? In depicting a world where people--particularly the protagonist--can do far more than readers can, all fantasy is essentially escapist. (So is much strictly realistic fiction in that it depicts a world with more order than our own, but I digress.)

It's no surprise that stories about heroes with extraordinary powers appeal to readers who are feeling "powerless and unimportant." And when it comes to those feelings, well, kids are like that. But is wishing not to feel powerless and unimportant really "a sick need," or a natural human desire?

More important, does reading fantasy literature in any form necessarily "prolong th' avoidance of trying to figure out th' real world"? Isn't it often a way for readers to tackle just that task? In particular, fantasy literature that takes the form of a hero's journey, as traced above, makes readers think about the nature of heroism. Which, after all, ain't a bad thing.

[Oz and Ends is mighty proud that Occasional Superheroine noted the last weekly Robin posting. Valerie D'Orazio brings a valuable inside-outside perspective to superhero comics as a female fan and former editor.]

19 January 2008

Taking a Pencil to the Stories

The 24-31 Dec 2007 issue of The New Yorker contains (in addition to Caleb Crain's article on post-literacy) a peek at the working relationship between author Raymond Carver and his frequent editor, Gordon Lish (shown here, courtesy of Phillips Academy Andover).

I read the letters between the men with interest, not that Carver is among my favorite writers. When I took college writing courses in the 1980s, his short stories were the latest model in literary fiction, and we young hopefuls were implicitly urged to adhere to the "minimalist" style he represented (though he disclaimed that label). The New Yorker material promised some of the story behind those stories.

I also looked at the correspondence between Carver and Lish from the perspective of a book editor. In my experience, as an editor you adjust your methods to the needs and likes of every author. Sometimes you write in pencil on the manuscript. Sometimes you use stickies. Sometimes you send a memo delicately cajoling certain small improvements. Sometimes you send a whole rewrite. And the tone and content of your editorial feedback has to vary, too.

Even editing two different manuscripts from the same writer can be significantly different because each project comes with its own demands. Sometimes the topic or genre is different. Sometimes the author is in a different place. Often those demands are external: publishing schedules, market pressures. And, much as editors try to avoid it, their moods and workloads are factors as well.

Much of the attention to this New Yorker has focused on Carver's long 8 July 1980 letter, in which he complains about the changes Lish made in the story "Beginners." Lish had cut it by more than a third, composed a new final paragraph, and retitled it "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Carver objected, in part because some of his writer friends had seen "Beginners" and would figure out that Lish had made the new changes.

My editor's eye went to the letter just before that one, the one that apparently accompanied the manuscript. In that 10 May letter Carver wrote:

For Christ's sweet sake, not to worry about taking a pencil to the stories if you can make them better; and if anyone can you can. I want them to be the best possible stories, and I want them to be around for a while. . . . So open the throttle. Ramming speed.
This is not a letter any writer should send to an editor if he's going to be sensitive about whether his friends will spot changes in the text.

By that date, Lish had been working with Carver's manuscripts for years. He had bought Carver's first major magazine publication, at Esquire in 1971, and had urged McGraw-Hill to publish Carver's first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? He had edited many of the stories in that volume, and finally as a book editor at Knopf had signed Carver up for the collection they were working on in 1980.

Obviously, when Lish had gotten Carver's 10 May letter urging him "not to worry about taking a pencil" to the manuscript, he went at it with gusto. Perhaps he misjudged what Carver was ready for. Perhaps Carver's expectations had changed (he had made significant changes in his life since the two men had started working together, and developed a reputation to protect). Perhaps Lish, who had literary ambitions of his own, really did impose his own artistic vision on Carver's manuscript.

Whatever the case, given Carver's May invitation, Lish must have been surprised to read the long 8 July letter suggesting they cancel the whole book. I can imagine him quickly trying to recalibrate his feedback in letters, faxes, or phone calls (not published in this New Yorker). By 14 July Carver was again "thrilled about the book," ready to defer to Lish's advice on some decisions, and (most important) focusing on specific changes rather than all the changes as a whole.

To my tastes, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is a better story than "Beginners"--tighter, sharper, less sentimental. Not that either version grabs me, or that my tastes aren't shaped by broad fashions (and college education). It's notable that Carver himself included the edited "What We Talk About..." in his final collection, Where I'm Calling From, though he had the chance to return to "Beginners."

Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, has now published the first versions of his stories and his correspondence with Lish. And I've reached a clear conclusion: Lish made Carver into a significant, award-winning writer. Without Lish, we would never have heard of Raymond Carver. Maybe we should call the published work "Carver-Lish." Carver was probably right in saying he wasn't a minimalist, but Carver-Lish was, and Carver-Lish became the author we young people of the 1980 were told to emulate.

18 January 2008

The Roots of “A Ring of Roses”

The Child_Lit email list has been discussing the legend that the nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosy" (or "Ring Around the Roses," or "Ring a, Ring a Rosy") refers to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Iona and Peter Opie and other folklorists have looked into this hypothesis and found no evidence to support it. Though some details of some versions of the rhyme can be interpreted as referring to aspects of the plague or remedies against it, those details can also be interpreted in other ways, and those details don't appear in all the versions--particularly the oldest.

In fact, no one has found a hint of the rhyme before the late eighteenth century. Scholars said the earliest print appearances occurred in the 1880s:

  • Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose, or the Old Nursery Rhymes (Routledge, 1881--University of California Press edition above).
  • William Wells Newell's Games and Songs of American Children (Harper, 1883), which dates one version (without source) to New Bedford around 1790 and another version to Connecticut in the 1840s.
  • Georgina F. Jackson and Charlotte Sophia Burne’s Shropshire Folk-Lore (Trubner, 1883).
  • Sidney Oldall Addy’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield (English Dialect Society, 1888).
  • Henry Carrington Bolton’s The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children (Appleton, 1888).
However, through the magic of Google Books, I found a version of the rhyme published in 1855--a quarter-century before these citations. It appears in The Old Homestead, published in New York (Bunce & Brother) and London (Sampson Low, Son & Co.). The author of this novel was Ann S. Stephens (1813-1886) of Connecticut.

Her epigraph for chapter 23, “The Festival of Roses,” reads:
A ring--a ring of roses,
Laps full of posies;
Awake--awake!
Now come and make
A ring--a ring of roses.
Later in that chapter, Stephens writes:
Then the little girls began to seek their own amusements. They played "hide and seek," "ring, ring a rosy," and a thousand wild and pretty games...
This version offers no more support for the plague theory.

(This is the second time this week I’ve found a word or phrase used earlier than what a standard reference book says about it. Google Books's keyword search is changing the world.)

17 January 2008

Why Do We Work So Hard at Telling Lies?

Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik is the author of The Scientist in the Crib (and also sister of occasional fantasy writer Adam Gopnik).

She has spoken and written about the appeal of fantasy literature for children, including this Slate article from 2005 which debunked some traditional notions and put forward her own ideas:

There is no evidence that fantasy is therapeutic or that children use fantastic literature to "work out their problems" or as "an escape." . . . Even the very youngest children already are perfectly able to discriminate between the imaginary and the real, whether in books or movies or in their own pretend play. . . . Children may have such an affinity for the imaginary just because they are so single-mindedly devoted to finding the truth, and because their lives are protected in order to allow them to do so.
But that still leaves some big questions unanswered. More recently, on the Edge's Third Culture discussion site, Gopnik offered further theoretical thoughts on the evolutionary advantage of storytelling:
The greatest success of cognitive science has been our account of the visual system. There's a world out there sending information to our eyes, and our brains are beautifully designed to recover the nature of that world from that information. I've always thought that science, and children's learning, worked the same way. Fundamental capacities for causal inference and learning let scientists, and children, get an accurate picture of the world around them - a theory. Cognition was the way we got the world into our minds.

But fiction doesn't fit that picture - it's easy to see why we want the truth, but why do we work so hard telling lies? I thought that kids' pretend play, and grown-up fiction, must be a sort of spandrel, a side-effect of some other more functional ability. . . .

I still think that we're designed to find out about the world, but that's not our most important gift. For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room you're sitting in. Every object in that room - the right angle table, the book, the paper, the computer screen, the ceramic cup was once imaginary. Not a thing in the room existed in the pleistocene. Every one of them started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone's mind. . . .

In fact, I think now that the two abilities - finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds - are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don't just tell us what's true - they tell us what's possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels.
I would have gone with the theory that stories aren't real, but they're a way of putting what's real into an understandable form. Life doesn't always fit that mold, but some parts of life do, and it's useful to understand those parts of life.

In looking around that room, we're not only seeing things that didn't exist in the Pleistocene. We're also not seeing every little detail, or at least not processing it entirely in our brains. We're organizing sights into categories (my books, all the light bulbs as one system, cat different from carpet). Telling stories--with their beginning, middle, and end, their logical causation, their emphases on characters driving action--is another way to organize the nearly chaotic events of the world.

In a way, therefore, fictional storytelling is an exercise, an experiment to gauge what seems like a plausible explanation of the world. The fact that we know those stories are fictional may indeed make such exercise a "spandrel," an unnecessary side effect of our brains' power to find order in facts. But practice makes perfect.

16 January 2008

Traditional Fortune Cookie History Crumbles

Food historians have long known that the fortune cookies dispensed in nearly every Chinese-American restaurant are not a Chinese custom. Indeed, they were unknown in China until the last couple of decades.

Culinary histories instead called fortune cookies a California invention of the early 1900s. The story I recall reading attributed them to David Jung or Tsung, owner of the Hong Kong Noodle Company of Los Angeles, with fortunes written by a Presbyterian minister or his wife around 1918. Googling tells me there's a rival claim from the family of Makoto Hagiwara of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, working a few years earlier.

Today's New York Times reports on the research of Yasuko Nakamachi, a food historian earning her doctorate at Kanagawa University, who found antecedents for the American fortune cookie in Japan. Reporter Jennifer 8. Lee writes:

As she researched the cookie’s Japanese origins, among the most persuasive pieces of evidence Ms. Nakamachi found was an illustration from a 19th-century book of stories, “Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan.” [Detail from the illustration show above, courtesy of the Times.]

A character in one of the tales is an apprentice in a senbei store. In Japan, the cookies are called, variously, tsujiura senbei (“fortune crackers”), omikuji senbei (“written fortune crackers”), and suzu senbei (“bell crackers”).

The apprentice appears to be grilling wafers in black irons over coals, the same way they are made in Hogyokudo and other present-day bakeries. A sign above him reads “tsujiura senbei” and next to him are tubs filled with little round shapes — the tsujiura senbei themselves.

The book, story and illustration are all dated 1878. . . .

In a work of fiction by Tamenaga Shunsui, who lived between 1790 and 1843, a woman tries to placate two other women with tsujiura senbei that contain fortunes.
The American fortune cookie is smaller than the kind now baked by specialty firms in Japan, with more vanilla in the dough and the printed message is inside the wafer instead of tucked into the outer fold.

Nakamachi argues, and persuasively so, that Japanese immigrants brought the recipes and equipment for that sort of cookie to California. Japanese-American cooks often worked for Chinese restaurants, which were more numerous and successful than Japanese restaurants, and the cooks and restaurateurs developed the fortune cookie we know for American tastes. So the treat is definitely a Californian hybrid, but one with even more complex roots than people had thought.

Fortune cookies continue to evolve, of course. In my childhood, I don't remember them offering anything but fortunes. Our culture's increased acceptance of gambling and greater interest in Asia mean that now I never see fortunes without "lucky numbers" and some "learn Chinese" phrases as well.

15 January 2008

Not Withholding Information

I mustn't withhold a link to Janni Lee Simner's "Revision lessons." Among her hard-learned reminders:

You know those writers who withhold information from the reader for no good reason? And how you thought you weren't one of them? You were wrong.

14 January 2008

Today's Newbery and Caldecott Mélange

This morning the American Library Association and its various unfathomable caucuses and divisions announced its awards, the most influential honors in US children's publishing.

The Newbery Medal, which usually goes to a middle-grade novel, was awarded to a picture book, albeit an unusually long one: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village, written mostly in verse by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Robert Byrd.

The Caldecott Medal, which usually goes to a picture book, was awarded to a middle-grade novel: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick.

Not only were the medalists untraditional choices, but both those books expanded the bounds of their genres. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! takes some elements of the recent flowering of nonfiction for young readers and adds fictional characters to produce an even more lively mix. Hugo Cabret broke new ground in its use of visuals within a novel (more so than in its writing and story, so Oz and Ends is happy that it popped up in the Caldecott category).

Among the lesser-known but eminent awards, the Robert F. Sibert Award for "the most distinguished informational book" went to Peter Sis's The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. What makes this choice interesting is that Sis was a runner-up for the Caldecott, and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has more than a bit of "informational" in it, so it could have traded places with either medal-winner.

Orson Scott Card won the Margaret A. Edwards Award for "lifetime contribution in writing for young adults."

13 January 2008

“What would Robin do?”

While Jules Feiffer (born in 1929) was growing up in the Bronx and hating Robin, the Boy Wonder, a boy born in 1930 was growing up on the opposite side of the country and coming to the opposite stance. This weekly Robin quotes a reminiscence from Jim Jacobs of Los Angeles:

I always pretended that I was Robin, the Boy Wonder. Superman I admired, but Batman and Robin were human; and everything athletic that Robin did, I tried to do.

He threw a boomerang. I learned how to throw a boomerang. Robin was an excellent tumbler, and so I would run off diving boards to practice double flips. Robin swam underwater for two minutes...[so] I learned how to hold my breath underwater. Before long I could swim underwater for two minutes. I didn’t want to admit that Robin could do something I couldn’t do.

Being Robin, the Boy Wonder, was a tremendous help to me in sports. All of us are susceptible to our emotions when under stress, and when I was younger I would think: What would Robin do? Instead of succumbing to nervous apprehension, I would transform myself into this other character who was emotionally unaffected.
Jacobs was a jock, not a scholar nor (like Feiffer) an artist. He made himself a champion in the sport of handball. In 1966 Sports Illustrated suggested he was the top American athlete then competing; he certainly dominated his sport like no one else.

Jacobs is in the Handball Hall of Fame and the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, source of the image above. He’s also in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, having co-managed the successful part of Mike Tyson’s boxing career and those of three other champions. (The quote above comes from Peter Heller's Bad Intentions, about Tyson’s rise and fall.)

Robert Slater’s Great Jews in Sports (368 pages, in case you wonder) adds, “Over the years, Jacobs amassed half a million comic books, said to be the largest collection in the world.” When he died of a form of leukemia in 1988, the New York Times reported that Jacobs owned “more than 800,000 comic books.”

12 January 2008

Ultra-Man Keeps Us Out of War

American comic books entered World War 2 well ahead of the USA's declaration of war in December 1941. The Shield appeared in January 1940, Tex Thompson became Mister America to battle Nazis in February 1941, and the longest-lived patriotic hero, Captain America, debuted in his own magazine in March 1941.

I figured that there must also have been some American comic books advocating isolationism, since that political sentiment was strong enough to keep the US out of the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor. And indeed, in the first issue of All-Star Comics, summer 1940, I found this example of two-fisted isolationism!

Gary Concord, the Ultra-Man, was not only a superhero; he was also "High Moderator," or chief executive, of the government of 23rd-century America. He was created by "Don Shelby" (a pseudonym, apparently for Jon L. Blummer) and appeared first in All-America Comics.

I'm especially impressed with the first panel's combination of violence and anti-violence. It's like all the child-beating in the pacifist Japanese comic epic Barefoot Gen.

Readers of mid-1940 would probably have had little trouble decoding this 23rd-century war between "Toutonia" and "Balkania." The Toutons (Teutons) stood for Hitler's Germany, the Balkanians for all the parts of eastern and southeastern Europe that Germany was invading, including Stalin's Russia.

Ultra-Man failed to catch on, and the series ended in October 1940. That hero's futurism, which owed a lot to Buck Rogers, may not have been as exciting as other comic-book heroes' adventures in the present. But I wonder if the political winds were changing, too.

11 January 2008

A Meaningful Pause in Castle Waiting

Back in November, I listed the use of repetitive images to show the passage of time as an illustration technique that's a hallmark of comics, with their multitude of images (and tight deadlines), but rare in picture books.

Here's an example of that technique I enjoyed in Linda Medley's Castle Waiting. In this flashback to bibliophile Lady Jain's childhood, the volume she's reading may even be an Oz book.


Jokes are all in the timing, after all.

10 January 2008

Recent Accomplishments in Batman Research

The Cybils have put me in an award-giving mood, so I'm recognizing the best Batman research of recent years. No, it's not Lorendiac's list of all the heroes, villains, and bystanders in the DC Universe privy to the closely guarded secret that Bruce Wayne is Batman, as much labor as that must have taken.

Rather, the prize goes jointly to:

  • Anthony Tollin and Will Murray, for identifying the source of Bill Finger's first Batman story.
  • DSK of the Vallely Archives, for noting the model of Bob Kane's art in the first telling of Batman's origin.

The 1972 Steranko History of the Comics quoted Finger admitting, "My first [Batman] script was a take-off on a Shadow story." But no one knew which story, or how clear the influence was.

That first, hastily concocted Batman tale, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," appeared in Detective Comics in 1939. Tollin and Murray spotted its resemblance to Theodore Tinsley's "Partners of Peril," published in the 1 Nov 1936 issue of The Shadow, a pulp magazine forerunner of superhero comics. They published their discovery in volume 9 of a series of reprints of Shadow and Doc Savage tales, available through the Shadow's Sanctum.

One detail of that story had long struck me as odd: When trapped inside a giant glass dome filling with poison gas [don't you hate when that happens?], Batman plugs the gas jet with...his special bat-rubber-stopper? Bat-gum? No, an ordinary handkerchief. I know a gentleman never leaves home without one, but that detail didn't seem very Dark-Knight-Detective.

It turns out that handkerchief, like the glass dome and the story's overall plot, comes directly from "Partners in Peril":
Dial B for Blog presents several more story parallels.


The equivalent of this feat of research on the artistic side of early Batman was achieved by DSK, who maintains a blog devoted to the work of Henry E. Vallely (1886-1950), illustrator of many Big Little Books.

Starting in May 2006, DSK shared several examples of Vallely's influence on cartoonist Bob Kane, none more meaningful than this panel from Detective #33, published in November 1939. That was the first comic book to relate how Bruce Wayne was inspired to become the Batman after seeing his parents killed by a mugger. The pictures below Kane's panel come the Big Little Book Gang Busters in Action, illustrated by Vallely and published in 1938.
Kane didn't directly trace Vallely's drawings, but he obviously studied them as he composed and drew his panels. DSK has identified some other examples of Kane's borrowing, and Dial B for Blog went farther (sometimes too far, I think). Soon after this issue, Kane began to hire assistants and subcontractors to supply his art for him.

Thanks to Dial B for Blog for rounding up this important information.

09 January 2008

KRAK! POOM! A New Way to Show Movement

In one of his instructive books on comics--sadly, I forget which--Scott McCloud shows different ways that artists have developed to show a character moving fast. Naturally, the artists behind Flash were especially creative in this area. It's one way that comics-style illustrations, unlike drawings in other genres, show the invisible.

Among the choices are:

  • motion lines, of two sorts: either paralleling the outline of the moving character or parallel to the direction of movement. The latter has led to some drawings showing a crackling path left behind by the character as he or she moves really, really fast.
  • blurring the back of the character while keeping the front crisp and recognizable.
  • multiple images of the same character in a single panel; sometimes all but one are "ghost images" to indicate where the character just was.
  • keeping the character in focus, but blurring the background as if it's zooming by--a technique favored in Japan.
All these are based on the technical requirement that the black line in comics be crisp and black.

I noticed last week that Photoshop and similar programs have made yet another technique available to artists. It appears in this detail from art by Alé Garza from Ninja Boy: Faded Dreams, published in 2003.
It looks like Garza and his colleagues first drew the character Nakio and his little target crisply, with motion lines, on one layer of a Photoshop image. Then they blurred Nakio's fast-moving fist and foot, and much of the little creature he's punching (I don't remember why), to replicate the effect of fast movement in a photograph.

The sound effects of "KRAK" and "POOM" were apparently created as a separate layer in the image, and thus remain crisp. (They're another example of comics showing the invisible.) The background may also be its own layer.

At the upper left you can also see how blurring and/or layering creates the illusion of hazy sunlight on this gentle scene.

I'd welcome better insight from anyone who's used this technique or others like it.

08 January 2008

Tintin Out of the Congo

In recognition of the announcement of the Cybils Graphic Novels finalists, this will be another COMICS WEEK at Oz and Ends: varied commentary on the comics form.

Last fall, as reported by Publishers Weekly, Little, Brown announced that it had halted its plan to bring out Tintin in the Congo in the US. Britain's Commission for Racial Equality had deemed the same book racist in July. Some US booksellers had raised objections to the title, and Borders had decided to shelve it among graphic novels for adults rather than with the other Tintin comics in the children's section.

Little, Brown's original catalogue announcement had said:

With Herge's centennary upon us in 2007, we are now releasing these three previously unreleased titles. We believe they will be a big hit with avid Tintin fans who have been searching for these titles overseas to complete their collections.

In this adventure, Herge brings Tintin and his faithful dog, Snowy[,] to Africa, where they explore the Belgian Congo. (Note: this particular title, one of three originally unpublished in the U.S., may be considered somewhat controversial, as it reflects the colonial attitudes of the time it was created. Herge depicts African people according to the stereotypes of the time period, but in this edition it will be contextualized for the reader in an explanatory preface.)
Apparently that "explanatory preface" was to be the same that appeared in Egmont's British edition, issued in 2005.

The problem with this "graphic album" is obviously its depiction of Africans as nearly identical, goggled-eyed, thick-lipped, ignorant savages. Such an offensive portrayal isn't surprising, considering that Hergé first created Tintin in the Congo in 1930-31, closer to the period when Belgium brutally instituted the "Congo Free State" as a colony than to us today.

Just as obviously, the choice not to republish this book reflects our present political sensibilities. But the Tintin series was political from the beginning. Hergé's publisher commissioned the first, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1929-30), to promote its anti-Communist politics.

Furthermore, we mustn't assume that the book that Little, Brown had planned to release was Hergé's original. The artist himself redrew and colored the book for republication in 1946, and at the time changed some references to Congo as Belgian territory. According to Tintinologist, Tintin in the Congo was further changed in 1975 to erase how Tintin killed a rhinoceros by "by drilling a hole in its back, filling it with gunpowder, and lighting it" after complaints from Scandinavian publishers. So Hergé had adapted his book for contemporary tastes all along.

I wouldn't be surprised if some publishers in 1975 wished they could alter the racist caricatures as easily as they could ask Hergé to revise that rhino episode. But Hergé's versions of Africans appear in many panels on many pages, and he would probably have had to rethink his whole approach to them.

I favor the "explanatory preface" approach to republishing books that reflect old racism, even children's books. However, Tintin in the Congo calls into question how effective that approach would be in a "graphic album." Its problem isn't just some words, which are easily revised, or one or two illustrations, which could be altered or dropped. In a comic with lots of African caricatures, the problem becomes pervasive. And art has a faster, stronger effect on readers than a bit of prose at the start might be able to counteract.

For anyone who wants to own Hergé's Tintin in the Congo as the artist first envisioned it, Last Gasp publishes the original--in black and white, naturally.

07 January 2008

Cybils 2007 Graphic Novel Finalists

Last week I mentioned how I'm not a Cybils Science Fiction & Fantasy judge this year. And here's why: I'm a judge for the Graphic Novels categories. That's one reason I've been studying comics form and history for the past few months.

Today the Cybils organizers announced the shortlists for Graphic Novels published in 2007. So I'm passing on that announcement, links and all, as I prepare for some intense reading.

The hardworking Graphic Novels panel has narrowed down the nominees to five finalists at the teen/young adult age level and five at the elementary & middle-grade level, for a shortlist that's truly dazzling as well as diverse: fantasy, manga, animals, humor--there's a little bit of everything. Oh, and robots. You gotta have robots.
--Sarah Stevenson, Graphic Novels organizer

Teen/Young Adult:

21svxqjnfl_aa_sl160_ The Arrival
written and illustrated by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books
This is the story of the strangeness that an immigrant encounters no matter where he moves: there are barriers of language, food, and finding work; there is loneliness, isolation, and longing for loved ones. But at every turn, there are those who will help, and those who have their own stories of leaving, abandonment, and exile. The most amazing thing about this intricate and subtly nuanced graphic novel is that it is silent: No words whatsoever.
--Mary Lee, A Year of Reading
Buy from Amazon | Buy from BookSense (your local independent)

211lkkipyl_aa_sl160_ Flight, volume 4
edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Villard
From full-color manga to rollicking comic adventures to imaginative childhood tales, Flight 4 has something for everyone. Flight 3 fans will be happy to see some familiar faces, and a myriad of beautifully crafted new stories, full of depth and life. The volume is consistently high in quality throughout; each story has a well-realized visual world, strong characters, and tight and compelling storytelling. Readers new to graphic novels will find many reasons to read more in this genre.
--Elizabeth Jones
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21aiokue92l_aa_sl160_ Laika
written and illustrated by Nick Abadzis
First Second
Before men walked on the moon a little Russian dog named Laika was sent to orbit the Earth. Her story is a mix of political moves, attempts at scientific advancement and heartwarming personal connections. Nick Abadzis looks at each of those angles in his version of Laika's story and the result is a powerful and touchingly told account of a moment in history.
--Katie, Pixie Palace
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21tpyyvdxl_aa_sl160_ The Plain Janes
written by Cecil Castellucci; illustrated by Jim Rugg
Minx
Jane has just moved to the suburbs, and is caught up in the boredom of her new school. Things start to look up when she meets three other girls named Jane. Eventually they decide to form an art-appreciation club called the Plain Janes. Cecil Castellucci's graphic novel debut has a distinctive art style and great characterization--it's a story about exploration of self-expression that is sure to appeal to teenage girls.
--Alyssa, The Shady Glade
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21hkbxs1dgl_aa_sl160_ The Professor's Daughter
written by Joann Sfar; illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert
First Second
The Professor's Daughter is bizarre, well told and completely wonderful. The sepia-toned illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, depicting Victorian London in a way that makes the pages look like an old book from that era. Lillian is charming, elegant and such a lady, while Imhotep IV is elegant, gentlemanly and a bit dysfunctional. His relationship with his father, for instance, is like any normal father and son's misunderstanding and angst--with the added quirk of being dead mummies wandering around London.
--Gina, AmoXcalli
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Elementary/Middle Grade:

21fv7sxv6ml_aa_sl160_ Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel
written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin; illustrated by Giovanni Rigano and Paolo Lamanna
Hyperion
Artemis Fowl, Butler, and all of the characters from the underground fairy world of the 2001 hit novel come to life in this graphic novel adaptation of the story. Readers new to the series will be drawn into Fowl's schemes, while those who have loved the Artemis Fowl books will be able to revisit them in this new format.
--Mary Lee, A Year of Reading
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31eetul4btl_aa_sl160_ Babymouse #6: Camp Babymouse
written and illustrated by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Random House Books for Young Readers
Babymouse is back and off to summer camp in Camp Babymouse. Her bunkmates are initially less than impressed with Babymouse's attempts to be the perfect camper and earn them points, but with the right mix of skill, humor and luck Babymouse might just win them over! This addition to the Babymouse series is smart, funny and adorable.
--Katie, Pixie Palace
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21ys75qxocl_aa_sl160_ The Courageous Princess
written and illustrated by Rod Espinosa
Dark Horse
Princess Mabelrose of tiny New Tinsley is happy with her life--until she attends a ball in a neighboring kingdom and learns just how small and unhip her own kingdom is. When a dragon kidnaps Mabelrose and holds her for ransom in his faraway castle, the princess takes matters into her own hands and escapes from his hopelessly inescapable domain--and that is where the adventure really begins. A vividly realized world, charming characters and an unpredictable, interesting plot make this a great read for all ages.
--Elizabeth Jones
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21coffhajl_aa_sl160_ Robot Dreams
written and illustrated by Sara Varon
First Second
Robot Dreams tells a wordless but eloquent tale of friendship, mistakes made, abandonment and reflection. It's the story of a dog who builds a robot in order to have a friend. On a happy beach trip, the robot rusts and gets stuck. The dog leaves but thinks often of the friend he left behind while the robot dreams and struggles with his immobility. Seasons change in marvelous, muted but vibrant colors and after many adventures, real and imagined, both robot and dog find their own path.
--Gina, AmoXcalli
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21uttifmrnl_aa_sl160_ Yotsuba&!, volume 4
written and illustrated by Kiyohiko Azuma
ADV Manga
Yotsuba is a green-haired girl with a taste for getting herself into humorous situations. This volume follows her zany adventures as she gives advice on boys to a neighbor, goes fishing, and takes on the issue of global warming. Rather than following an overall plot, each chapter takes a new story and allows us to see the world through Yotsuba's innocent eyes. A great graphic novel that's humorous and heartwarming at the same time.
--Alyssa, The Shady Glade
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06 January 2008

Robin, the Littlest Guy in the Fight

A month ago I quoted Jules Feiffer's explanation of why he hated Robin, the Boy Wonder:

One need only look at him to see he could fight better, swing from a rope better, play ball better, eat better, and live better. . . . He had the build of a middleweight, the legs of a wrestler. He was obviously an "A" student, the center of every circle, the one picked for greatness in the crowd--God, how I hated him.
In this passage, Feiffer seems to have been imagining Robin sauntering into his schoolyard in the Bronx. And of course the comic-book character would stand out from all the other young teenaged boys. He was a paragon of American youth.

But that's not the context in which comic books usually showed Robin, of course. Instead, readers saw him accompanying Batman on crime-fighting patrols. And in that context Robin wasn't the "center of every circle, the one picked for greatness." He was always the littlest guy in the fight. He was repeatedly getting beat up, screwing up, or feeling clueless. In perhaps one in every twenty stories Robin got a chance to shine and save the day.

Among DC's major comic-book heroes, Superman and Wonder Woman can do practically anything. The Flash, Green Lantern, and many others have superhuman powers. Batman has none, but he's the scariest, smartest guy around, as well as immensely rich. Robin is just a sharp, athletic kid with neat toys and guts.

(Yes, Robin has the advantage of being friends with the scariest, smartest guy around, but that means having to live with the scariest guy around and to measure up to the smartest guy around. Those tensions were only implicit in the first decades of Batman comics, but have became abiding pressures for the Robin characters in the last quarter-century.)

Feiffer had trouble identifying with Robin because he was about the same age as the character and knew that he hadn't developed the Boy Wonder's athletic or detective skills. But for other readers, Robin's youth and lack of powers have made him more compelling. He has to struggle with what comes easily to older, more powerful superheroes. He makes mistakes and loses fights (the little guy must have suffered more concussions than an NFL lineman). He learns and keeps plugging.

Which of course makes Robin's triumphs--those one in twenty Batman stories, his adventures on his own or with fellow teenagers--all the more improbable, and all the more satisfying.