30 June 2009

Popular! I’ll Help You Be Popular!

Josie Leavitt at Shelftalker recently wrote about young customers asking for books that they know are popular, but--she suspects--won't hold any other interest for them:

School let out on Friday and since then I've had four nine-year-old girls ask for one or more books in the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Now, don't get me wrong, I think Twilight is a fine series. I enjoyed it immensely when I read it. I am forty-four, not nine. I'm not sure what to do with this current phenomenon. I don't like to judge purchases by anyone in my store, but this troubles me.

These bouncy, pigtailed nine-year-olds seem to have no reason to read these books other than "my friends are reading it." They don't even like boys. I find asking them "Do you like boys?" is a great weeding-out question for some of the younger set. A giggle, and a sheepish "no" can usually sway them away from any book, except Twilight.
Because Twilight is so popular, and perhaps even a marker of maturity.

This reminds me of a story I read on the Child_Lit email list a coupla years ago. A school librarian had noticed that a bunch of young boys were taking out different Harry Potter books each week. She knew their reading skills weren't up to finishing those books, certainly not at the speed they circulated. The boys just wanted to have the popular books in their hands.

She heard those boys sitting around a table, discussing the books. Not what they had read, of course. No, they were comparing size: "I've got the biggest one." Girls might compete to be the most mature, but boys compete to be the biggest.

Of course, we book-lovers outgrow the need to be seen reading the popular titles, right? Mature book bloggers would never be racing to announce that they've already read Catching Fire, would they?

29 June 2009

Parading One’s Vocabulary

At the start of this month, I read in the local paper about a school "Vocabulary Fair." I'd never heard of this tradition. What are those crazy schoolkids up to, I thought, now that they've gotten past Pi Day?

The little boy to the left is carrying his mask for the word "prehistoric." The little girl staggering across the stage below is "discombobulated." (Both photos by Mark Thompson for the Newton Tab.)

There were prizes in each grade for "the most memorable word or costume, the most original word or costume and the costume or performance that best matched the word," plus Best Overall Noun, Verb, and Adjective. (Showing up as "underneath" would, I suppose, be a losing preposition.)

With some Googling, I discovered that the tradition also exists in the form of a "Vocabulary Parade," as in this example from Alpharetta, Georgia, archived by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and this from Mrs. Gorham's Second Grade Class. And here are a couple of sets at Flickr.

Cute as the results are, I imagine that parents sometimes perceive vocabulary fairs as just another burden. Come up with a costume that your child likes to illustrate a word that child probably hasn't heard of yet! Yes, your originality and craftsmanship will be on display for all the other parents. (And did we mention it's time for your child to bring in 100 of something?)

Sometimes these lexical events occur near Halloween, when kids are already focused on dressing up. In those cases, some parents seem to have chosen the better part of valor and found a word to fit the already-chosen costume.

Apparently, this new tradition owes a lot to author-illustrator Debra Frasier, who has instructions for such an event on her website promoting Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster, published in 2000.

In particular, I note that there's a costume for the word "effervescent" in Frasier's gallery that I've seen replicated at a couple of Vocabulary Fairs, in at least one case winning a prize. So does that costume actually represent "plagiarism" or "cliché"?

Now I must go envision a way to dress up as "verisimilitudinous."

28 June 2009

Robin Changes His Sense of Humor

The last two weekly Robin installments discussed how the Boy Wonder offered refreshing comic relief in the early Batman stories, and how the jokes he inflicted on the magazine's bad guys became an explicit part of his personality.

But as time went on, that characterization became embarrassing--especially after Burt Ward's "Holy hand grenades, Batman!" portrayal of Robin on TV. Superhero comics in the 1970s swerved away from that camp, trying to show heroes with deeper and more realistic personalities (even as they continued to find themselves in unrealistic situations).

Furthermore, when Dick Grayson had solo adventures or led the Teen Titans, he stopped being the comic relief. Sure, he still had a sense of humor, but in the New Teen Titans series of the early 1980s the character who cracked lame jokes was Garfield Logan, a/k/a Changeling (previously and later called Beast Boy). So what could scripter Marv Wolfman do with Robin's famous puns?Punning became a trait and symbol of Dick Grayson's departing youth. When Dick gave up his identity as Robin in New Teen Titans, #39, he not only took off his mask, but he also set his juvenile jokes in the past.

There was a new young Robin at the time, the first Jason Todd. He tended to be more serious than Dick Grayson had been in previous decades, but superhero comics overall were more serious. More interesting shifts in Robin's sense of humor began with the introduction of the second Jason Todd after DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-86).

As the panel to the right shows, scripter Mike W. Barr had a very traditional view of Robin, and wrote Jason as the humorous half of the Dynamic Duo. But his collegues Max Allan Collins and Jim Starlin and editor Dennis O'Neil saw more dramatic potential in making Jason an angry Robin. His sense of humor shrank, and the tone of his jokes was bitter.

In short, Jason Todd's character stopped embodying some of the traditional "Reasons for Robin." And in late 1988 comic-book readers decided to kill him off.

The next Robin, Tim Drake, was also more serious than Dick Grayson. But instead of angry, he was endearingly uptight. As his comrade and occasional girlfriend Spoiler notes in the panel to the left, when Tim acts tough and shoots off snappy jokes like Dick, it comes across as trying too hard.

Tim Drake as Robin still lightened Batman, but with emotional openness, not with broad jokes. On his teams, first Young Justice and then a reconstituted Teen Titans, Tim's Robin tended to be straight man. It's unclear how humor will play a role in his new identity as Red Robin.

Meanwhile, yet another Robin made his debut this month, little Damian Wayne. As I've discussed before, the moral and emotional dynamic of Batman (now Dick Grayson) and Robin has been reversed.

What sort of humor can Damian brings to the Batman magazine? So far it all seems to be at his expense; we readers are encouraged to snicker at Damian's ego and excesses. Can he avoid the fate of the second Jason Todd?

NEXT WEEK: What Robin's jokes have come to mean for Batman.

27 June 2009

Gathering in the Fold

CFP Week as Oz and Ends ends with a CFFC--a Call for Foldy Comics.

Late last month I wrote about a single-sheet form of comics developed independently by Kenan Rubenstein and Jon Chad. Each surface (and thus potentially each panel) is twice as large as the one before.

Kenan has now launched a website devoted to this form at FoldyComics. I believe he's using "foldies" as the generic term while titling his own series of semi-autobiographical examples as "oubliettes."

And he's invited other comics creators to send in their examples. So far there are some from Reid Psaltis, including "The Naturalist," which takes advantage of the expanding form. It's virtually inspiring.

26 June 2009

Dr. Greystroke, I Presume?

And from Twilight we move to another exploration of the border between the wild and the civilized, between animal instinct and noblesse oblige. Profs. Michelle Ann Abate and Annette Wannamaker are soliciting essays for a collection tentatively titled From King of the Jungle to Cultural Icon: Tarzan at 100. Their CFP says:

Since its debut in serial format in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ narrative about an orphaned white boy being raised by a band of black apes in the African jungle has become a transnational literary classic, frequent cinematic, film and comic book icon and powerful--as well as problematic--cultural archetype. This collection will allow critics from a wide range of disciples to explore the past place, present status and future importance of Tarzan in popular print, visual and material culture.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:
  • Tarzan and (de)construction of gender, boyhood, masculinity and sexuality
  • Homosocial and/or homoerotic readings of Tarzan
  • Primitivism, race, and colonialism in Tarzan
  • Tarzan in popular print and visual media: comic books, graphic novels and video games as well as cinematic, theatrical and television adaptations of the Tarzan story
  • Tarzan as convergence culture [buzzword alert! This refers to Henry Jenkins's notion for the overlap of old and new media, audiences and storytellers.]
  • Tarzan on the Internet
  • Tarzan and/as children’s literature
  • the life of William Charles Mildin, the supposed factual model for Burroughs’ fictional character
  • the Disneyfication of Tarzan
  • Tarzan and the origins, history and evolution of the “boys’ book”
  • Tarzana, California
  • Changing visual representations of Tarzan
  • Tarzan and the feral boy story, both past and present
  • the presence of Tarzan in non-Western literatures and cultures
  • Tarzan Clubs, fan culture, and “the cult of Tarzan”
  • Johnny Wëissmuller [shouldn't that be Weißmüller?] as the popular face of Tarzan
  • Tarzan’s influence on other texts, parodies of Tarzan, and allusions to Tarzan
  • Tarzan as myth and icon
  • Tarzan and British identity, nationalism and culture; Tarzan and American identity, nationalism and culture
Proposals should be 1-2 pages in length (roughly 250-500 words). Please send abstracts plus a CV electronically as Microsoft Word attachments to Michelle Ann Abate or Annette Wannamaker.

The author’s name, email and postal address should appear in the message that accompanies the submission. Proposals should conform to the Modern Language Association bibliographic style. See the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed., for procedures regarding in-text citations and Works Cited. Deadline: November 1st, 2009.

25 June 2009

Historicizing and Problematizing Twilight

Nancy Reagin, professor of History and Women’s & Gender Studies at Pace University, has issued a call for proposals for a collection on “History and the Twilight Series.” Her CFP:

We are currently accepting proposals for essays to be included in an edited collection with the working title of “Twilight and History,” to be published by Blackwell Publishing in June, 2010. We’re looking for essays that historicize Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, examining individual characters or aspects of the series against a historical backdrop, or analyzing how popular historical understandings inform the series.

The collection is aimed at a broader audience than is the case for many scholarly collections, and seeks to make visible or problematize the use of historical contexts or events within the series. We welcome work from historians or those in cognate disciplines, including gender studies, Native American studies, religious studies, or cultural studies.
I hope the finished book will explain the value of its contributors' attempts to "problematize" in "cognate disciplines." Otherwise, it's not going to reach that "broader audience." (Remember when we enjoyed that sort of jargon in It's Always Fair Weather? Me neither.)
Possible topics include, but are not limited to:
  • masculine honor and gender roles in Edward’s world and Bella’s
  • more than a generation gap: marriage and courtship in Edward’s youth
  • Twilight werewolves and werewolves in historical legend
  • essays that examine Jacob, Emily, Leah, Sam and their people against the history of the Quileutes and Northwest Pacific native cultures
  • Carlisle and witchcraft persecutions in Early Modern England
  • Alice Cullen and the (mis)treatment of the insane in 19th century America
  • The Amazon coven and South American native cultures
  • The Cullens and European vampire folklore
  • the Volturi, art patronage, and politics in Italian history
This collection will be published by Blackwell Publishers, which will pay contributors an honorarium of $350.

Please email a 500-word proposal, a one-page c.v., and contact information to Nancy Reagin by July 10, 2009. Notification of accepted proposals will be made by July 15, 2009. Chapter drafts of approximately 5,000 words will be due by Sept. 15, 2009.
Proposals should be in .doc or .rtf form, and should include the author's name and contact information.

24 June 2009

“Graphic Narrative and Its Links to Jewish Identity”

Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies is planning an issue devoted to Jewish comics, slotted for Summer 2010. Its call for papers begins:

The scholarship surrounding comics and “graphic novels” has proliferated over the past several years, as has [sic] studies focusing on particular comics themes or visual texts created by certain ethnic communities. Indeed, over the past three years alone there have been at least six critical studies investigating the links between comics and Jewishness.
I thumbed through one of those new books in the library on Sunday. But a superhero is never daunted by overwhelming numbers, and the journal forges ahead:
The scope of this volume will take in the theoretical, literary, and historical contexts of graphic narrative and its links to Jewish identity and discourse. Possible topics could include, but are certainly not limited to:
  • The ways in which comics have articulated the American Jewish experience
  • Comics and the Holocaust, as expressed in such narratives as Maus, Auschwitz, I Was a Child of the Holocaust, We Are on Our Own, Mendel’s Daughter: A Memoir, and Yossel: April 19, 1943
  • The contributions of Jews in the history of comic strips and comic books
  • Images of Israel in the works of Joe Sacco, Rutu Modan, Ari Folman, Miriam Libicki, and the Dimona Comix Group
  • Jewish identity through superheroes and villains, from Superman to The Spirit to Shaloman
  • The form of the contemporary “graphic novel” by Jewish writers/artists such as Kim Deitch, Joann Sfar, Miss Lasko-Gross, Ben Katchor, and Aline Kominisky-Crumb
  • Graphic adaptations of Jewish texts and legends
  • Immigration and ethnic urban landscapes in the works of comics artists such as Will Eisner and Ben Katchor
  • Comics, the Diaspora, and Jewish internationalism
  • Jewish identity and world conflict, from the world wars to 9/11
  • Jewish autobiographic comics (e.g., Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and Will Eisner’s autobiographic fiction) as well as graphic biographies of such figures as Franz Kafka, Emma Goldman, Houdini, and Anne Frank
  • Representations of the Jewish gangster in comics
  • The uses of the golem and its relation to the superhero
All essay submissions should be between 5,000 and 8,000 words, including notes. Contributors should format submissions based on the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, and use footnotes. Authors will be responsible for securing copyright permission for all images used.

Address all inquiries, and submit all completed manuscripts, to the guest editor, Derek Parker Royal. Please include the words “Jewish Comics” in the subject heading. Deadline for final manuscript submission is October 2, 2009.
My early-morning thought: Is there tension between the prohibition in some forms of Judaism on visual representations of the human form (based on the Second Commandment against "graven images") and the basic act of visual storytelling?

Shofar is published for the Midwest Jewish Studies Association, the Western Jewish Studies Association, and the Jewish Studies Program of Purdue University by the Purdue University Press.

23 June 2009

Magical Money

The end of the academic year has brought a bountiful crop of CFPs, or calls for papers. I'm going to feature some of my favorites on Oz and Ends this week.

On 1-3 Oct 2009, the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg will play host to an academic conference on “Fairy Tale Economies.” Its call for papers wins the award for most thorough use of bullet points; just when you think you're out, they pull you back in:

Mindful of our own global economies, this colloquium addresses economies in fantastic literature and culture. We shall identify economy both as a theme within literatures and as a way of thinking about the value of fantastic literature itself. . . .

We encourage scholars to think creatively about this conference theme, and invite papers on topics including but not limited to:

Economy of fairy tales
  • As a genre: the brevity of its narrative, the economy of its words, the size of its books.
  • The economy of fairy tale publications and adaptations: the market for fairy tales, production and consumption costs (both literal and figurative), the careers of writers.
Economy in fairy tales
  • Economic systems within fairy tales
  • The worth of people and things
  • Economies of the body and social body
  • Discourses of poverty, wealth, and class status
Economy and fairy tales
  • Ideas of worth and value associated with the fairy tale
  • The fairy tale as a renewable resource or recycled form across genres and eras.
  • The ways in which various (current or past) economic discourses have been shaped by fairy tale structures, motifs and themes
Even more broadly, we invite proposals that investigate ideas of “value,” “worth,” “profit,” as well as “conservation,” “sustainability,” and “recycling” with reference to:
  • Book history and genre adaptation
  • Narrative “unrealism”--the Gothic, supernatural, or uncanny
  • Fantastic and uncanny bodies of all kinds
Proposals should outline topic, as well as theoretical and disciplinary framework. Please send proposals (300 word maximum), together with a brief biography that indicates academic affiliation and scholarly activity by June 30, 2009 to Dr. Molly Clark Hillard. (We also invite proposals from graduate students: please indicate status in your biography.)
One of my own favorite fairylands doesn't use money--but of course it still has an economy. Yet the most widely repeated economic interpretation of that fairyland remains worthless.

(Picture above courtesy of Old Book Art's posting on John R. Neill's color plates for The Marvelous Land of Oz. It shows the Scarecrow at a time when he was stuffed with money instead of straw.)

22 June 2009

Truly Revolutionary Reading

A Facebook group called "Literacy Is Revolutionary" is recruiting people to read to a child on 25 July. Its pitch starts: "Did you know that World Literacy halved from 1970 to 2005? Let's do something about it!"

Actually, world illiteracy was cut almost in half over that period, according to UNESCO. And that happened even though literacy is defined by context; knowing how to read has become more important in more societies, so the literacy bar got raised.

I'm all for reading to kids. But this is not a good example of careful reading.

[ADDENDUM: Since this posting, the Facebook page has been changed to read: "Did you know that World Illiteracy halved from 1970 to 2005? Let's do something about it!" Which is more accurate, though normally we "do something about" a problem, not a good trend.]

From 1 to 2

At the start of the month I mentioned Sterling's contest for Richard Scarry books, celebrating his ninetieth birthday this month. I couldn't find much on the company's website about the contest for non-librarians and non-booksellers, but I tooks my chances and sents in my contact info.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a copy of Richard Scarry’s From 1 to 10, published by Sterling last year. This board book reuses some of Scarry's art to, well, count to ten.

The book is now with a toddler. Her grateful mother is from France, and her father from America. I think Scarry, who was born in Boston and lived much of his life in Switzerland, would have approved.

21 June 2009

What’s So Funny About Robin?

This weekly Robin carries on from “Reason for Robin, #8: Comic relief,” analyzing how the first decades of Batman comic books mixed humor and the character of Robin.

I've previously mentioned Robin's early tendency to fall down at inconvenient times (Reason for Robin #5), enabling the Batman writers to turn their plots into roller-coaster rides. But those writers never used Robin's stumbles for humor. Nor did anyone make fun of his bafflement at the mystery of the month, which was so useful for showing Batman as a master detective.

This was a contrast to how the 1940s Batman magazines and comic strip used Alfred's foibles as he stumbled into catching crooks; readers were expected to laugh at the eager butler's errors and good luck. And the difference is even starker when we compare how sidekicks appeared in other superheroes' stories. Robin made jokes, but he was very rarely the butt of jokes.

(Two exceptions were the few moments when Batman made Robin dress in female clothing and when both Batman and Robin were caught up in a comic story.)

I link that pattern to Reason for Robin #3--younger readers were supposed to identify with Robin. And no one likes people to make fun of him.

I see another interesting pattern emerging when I look at the early Superman stories, which showed the Man of Steel serving out wisecracks with his punches. When the immensely strong, nearly invulnerable Superman did those things, he came across as a bully (and a product of Jerry Siegel's unresolved anger issues). The jokes made him seem less likable, and eventually faded.

In contrast, part of Robin's character is being the littlest guy in the fight. That stature let him get away with adding insult to injury as he attacks grown-up crooks. Yes, he's still a bit of a bully, but he's not a big bully.

The latest Batman comic books, appearing this month, feature a new Robin, Damian Wayne. And he changes that dynamic. Scripter Grant Morrison has established Damian as a well trained and potentially sociopathic little assassin. Robin's smaller than ever, but he's no longer the least dangerous, most vulnerable, or most innocent person in the fight.

Not surprisingly, the humor has changed as well. Damian's attempts at jokes are few (Morrison doesn't give him many, other writers just a few snarky insults). And the scenes encourage us readers to laugh at this little Robin's excesses. Our sympathies are still with Dick Grayson, but now he's the one in the batsuit.

A third pattern in how the Batman writers found humor in Robin: he tended to spout puns of the lamest sort, based on whatever was visible nearby. In many of those panels, we can sense the desperation of writers on deadline.

Robin's puns were so obvious, in fact, that within a few years of his debut in 1940, other characters were commenting on that habit. And once wordplay became an explicit part of his characterization, other writers had to continue the pattern.

Thus, in the 1960s Batman TV show Burt Ward's Robin spouted "Holy —————!" exclamations. (Here's a whole passel of them.) And that trait was carried on with Casey Kasem's Robin in the 1970s Super Friends cartoons. Even as the comic-book writers tried to move away from that self-parodying characterization, they couldn't leave Robin's sense of humor behind.

NEXT WEEK: So they found deeper meaning in it.

20 June 2009

"I like when Dorothy landed in Oz"

Last December young comics reviewer Liam's even younger brother Ethan explained what he liked about the first issue of Marvel Comics's Wonderful Wizard of Oz adaptation:

I like how Dorothy was playing outside with her dog and a big tornado was coming and the farmer told her to get inside so Dorothy went inside and the house got picked up and thrown away. I like how the house was flying around in the air and the dog almost fell out of the bottom of the house and Dorothy had to catch him.

I like when Dorothy landed in Oz and the good witch came out and showed her that the house crushed the bad witch. I like how the bad witch was crushed and the sun made her legs turn to dust and all that was left were the silver shoes.

I like when the munchkins came out and they were all happy that the witch was dead. They wanted to celebrate because the witch was dead and they were happy because they said that Dorothy killed the witch because she had the silver shoes.

I like when Dorothy met the Scarecrow and he woke up and winked at her and started talking. It was funny that the Scarecrow said that he doesn’t have a brain and wants to find the wizard with Dorothy and maybe he’ll get a brain. And the Scarecrow says because he is made of straw he doesn’t get hurt and he doesn’t get tired.

I like the pictures a lot. I like how the meaner wicked witch is drawn and I like the way the munchkins are drawn and I think it’s cool how the dead witch was drawn under the house and then how she was drawn only with the shoes left.
It's no dishonor to scripter Eric Shanower to point out that every single narrative detail that Ethan liked first appeared in L. Frank Baum's book. Eric did a thorough and successful adaptation. And of course Ethan also liked Skottie Young's art.

I can't resist quoting the brothers' thoughts on the new Robin:
Ethan: Damian is a real jerk to Alfred.

Liam: He’s a jerk to everyone. It’s funny that he tells Dick that he can become Batman himself and not have to be Robin. He thinks he’s the best hero ever and he really doesn’t do much. But he is good with building things, at least. I think that the only reason that Dick is letting Damian be his partner is because he's Bruce's son. He has to be nice to him for that reason. . . .

Ethan: I like that in the preview for the next issue it shows Robin getting beat up and all bloody.
(Original tip from the Batman Examiner.)

19 June 2009

The Road to Oz at 100

At next month's Winkie Convention in Asilomar, California, the theme will be The Road to Oz. That's the Oz novel authored by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by John R. Neill a century ago this year.

To the right is the cover for the convention program, created by organizer David Maxine, also editor of Oz-Story and the Hungry Tiger Press. Beyond the cover art by Michael Herring, the booklet features illustrations by Skottie Young, Steve "Ribs" Weissman, Joe Phillips, Eric Shanower, Tommy Kovac, and Jed Alexander, and essays on The Road to Oz by Gregory Maguire, Peter Hanff, Judy Bieber, John Fricke, Edward Einhorn, Anil Tambwekar, Paul Miles Schneider, Michael O. Riley, Shanower, and (ahem) me.

On Wednesday I mentioned my recent article on the big plot problem in Baum's previous Oz book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. That adventure puts Dorothy and her companions in terrible danger, then rescues them magically with no preparation.

In The Road to Oz Baum avoided the same mistake by barely putting Dorothy and her friends in danger at all. Yes, they all get lost, but only one member of the group seems to care. Little Button-Bright is inconvenienced by having his head transformed; Baum apparently liked that plot point so much he had the same thing happen to the Shaggy Man. About two-thirds of the way through the book, those problems are solved, and it becomes evident that Ozma is looking after Dorothy every step of her journey and will send her home whenever she wants to go.

And yet I love The Road to Oz. And I've seen other Oz fans also say that it is (or, when they were children, was) one of their favorite books in the series. My essay is on how that could possibly be.

18 June 2009

Humbugs Inside the Earth

Yesterday I mentioned my article on Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz in the latest Baum Bugle. Here is a passage from the book itself, as L. Frank Baum has his usual fun with authority figures.

Dorothy Gale and her cousin Zeb have fallen through a crack in the earth into a subterranean kingdom full of glass buildings, and receive a cold welcome.

The Sorcerer, hearing the laugh, looked toward the little girl with cold, cruel eyes, and his glance made her grow sober in an instant.

“Why have you dared to intrude your unwelcome persons into the secluded Land of the Mangaboos?” he asked, sternly.

“’Cause we couldn’t help it,” said Dorothy.

“Why did you wickedly and viciously send the Rain of Stones to crack and break our houses?” he continued.

“We didn’t,” declared the girl.

“Prove it!” cried the Sorcerer.

“We don’t have to prove it,” answered Dorothy, indignantly. “If you had any sense at all you’d known it was the earthquake.”

“We only know that yesterday came a Rain of Stones upon us, which did much damage and injured some of our people. Today came another Rain of Stones, and soon after it you appeared among us.”

“By the way,” said the man with the star, looking steadily at the Sorcerer, “you told us yesterday that there would not be a second Rain of Stones. Yet one has just occurred that was even worse than the first. What is your sorcery good for if it cannot tell us the truth?”

“My sorcery does tell the truth!” declared the thorn-covered man. “I said there would be but one Rain of Stones. This second one was a Rain of People-and-Horse-and-Buggy. And some stones came with them.”

“Will there be any more Rains?” asked the man with the star.

“No, my Prince.”

“Neither stones nor people?”

“No, my Prince.”

“Are you sure?”

“Quite sure, my Prince. My sorcery tells me so.”

Just then a man came running into the hall and addressed the Prince after making a low bow.

“More wonders in the air, my Lord,” said he.
Who should float down onto the kingdom, descending slowly in a circus balloon, but our old friend the Wizard of Oz? After Dorothy greets him, the Prince of the Mangaboos takes the old man back into the palace.
“Come with me,” said the Prince to him. “I wish to meet our Sorcerer.”

The Wizard did not like this invitation, but he could not refuse to accept it. So he followed the Prince into the great domed hall, and Dorothy and Zeb came after them, while the throng of people trooped in also.

There sat the thorny Sorcerer in his chair of state, and when the Wizard saw him he began to laugh, uttering comical little chuckles.

“What an absurd creature!” he exclaimed.

“He may look absurd,” said the Prince, in his quiet voice; “but he is an excellent Sorcerer. The only fault I find with him is that he is so often wrong.”

“I am never wrong,” answered the Sorcerer.

“Only a short time ago you told me there would be no more Rain of Stones or of People,” said the Prince.

“Well, what then?”

“Here is another person descended from the air to prove you were wrong.”

“One person cannot be called ‘people,’“ said the Sorcerer. “If two should come out of the sky you might with justice say I was wrong; but unless more than this one appears I will hold that I was right.”

“Very clever,” said the Wizard, nodding his head as if pleased. “I am delighted to find humbugs inside the earth, just the same as on top of it.”

17 June 2009

Dorothy and the Wizard at 100

The winter 2008 issue of The Baum Bugle celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. This was L. Frank Baum's fourth Oz book, and the first which few people pick as a favorite. Indeed, the magazine's editorial staff had such difficulty finding someone to write an appreciation for the book that they ended up with...me.

In my essay I tried to note the book's strong points--such as John R. Neill's art, the return of the Wizard, and lots of furious action--without shying away from its weaknesses. The book is one of Baum's darkest; not only does much of the story take place underground, but that tone doesn't change much even after Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City.

And then there's the plot issue. Baum literally wrote his characters into a hole, and then got them out by having Princess Ozma wish them to Oz with her immensely powerful Magic Belt--a dea ex machina. She had, after all, promised Dorothy she'd look in on her at the end of the previous Oz book.

In a sidebar to the article, I shared a way (developed independently by many Oz analysts) that Baum could have turned that circumstance into a storytelling asset. I even had the presumption to draft a few paragraphs in an attempt at Baum's style:

“We won’t be down here with the Mangaboos forever,” Dorothy explained. “My friend Ozma looks for me ev’ry Saturday morning in her Magic Picture. This Saturday, I’ll give her my signal, and she’ll wish me out of here, and then I’ll ask her to bring you to the Em’rald City, too.”

Zeb frowned and looked around at the glass city. “It’s only Monday now.”

“And I don’t think these mangelwurzels will keep us around till Saturday,” grumbled Jim.

“Plus, how will you know when it’s the right time to signal?” asked Zeb. “The suns down here don’t work like the real one, up above.”
A clear challenge, a ticking clock--and the plot is rolling.

This issue of The Baum Bugle also includes a historical analysis of the earthquake that sets off the plot of Dorothy and the Wizard, and the usual fine complement of bibliographic reports and reviews. The journal is published three times a year by the International Wizard of Oz Club.

16 June 2009

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog

Say Goodbye, Toto is a new play by Amy Heidish, in production by the Ark Theatre Company and Playwright 6 and scheduled to premiere in Los Angeles on 29 July. Its preparation is being chronicled on a blog written in Toto's name.

This play promises a modernized version of the Oz myth. For instance, the Munchkins love too much:

One of the themes behind Say Goodbye[,] Toto is “What is the true meaning of love?” Because most of the characters have wrong ideas about what love is.

The Munchkins think love is utter devotion in the form of blind worship. And they think anything new is worthy of their praise. So whenever anything new shows up in Oz – a mild mannered guy in a hot air balloon, a house falling from the sky, a dog – they instantly pledge their utmost devotion to it.

But since they’re two of them (or there will be, after this last round of auditions) they’ve got a ragingly competitive streak to them. They want to be the BEST worshipper, which results in hopefully amusing ways as they constantly seek to outworship the other one.
The blog offers an "Ask Toto a Question" feature. One of the earlier questions was "What Do Munchkins Taste Like?" Meanwhile, the troupe has found it difficult to cast Munchkins. I wonder why.

15 June 2009

The Creativity of L. Frank Baum

Tonight, while I'm at one of my writing groups, Evan I. Schwartz will be speaking at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, about his new book, Finding Oz. There will then be a screening of the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie.

Here's an extract from Schwartz's interview with the Boston Globe this weekend:

A. He [Baum] had this dream when he was a kid of being a great writer, and life got in the way. The amazing thing is that he got back to it. He followed his path to his true self. That's what gives the yellow brick road its true magic, that Baum really lived that journey.

[reporter Dan Aucoin:] Your last book was about Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television, another pioneer who faced a lot of travail in his life. Are you drawn to those kinds of stories?

A. I'm fascinated by stories of great creativity and the struggle to get there, and where do these ideas come from, and also how one person with one idea can change the world.
I've written about how I fear Finding Oz finds too many connections, with evidence too tenuous. But I think the central thesis is sound. Baum was an American visionary interested in finding a new mix of magical and modern in stories, and also in different ways societies might govern themselves. His later Oz books reflect the Gilded Age's interest in utopias, as in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards. His Chicago was the city of the first skyscrapers, the Columbian Exposition, and George Pullman's company town.

14 June 2009

Reasons for Robin, #8

DC Comics is making big changes in the lives of its most popular Robins, who have of late both been weighed down with angst. That's a big change from the character's early years, as discussed in this part of my ongoing exploration of what Robin brought to Batman stories.

Reason for Robin #8: Comic Relief!

In the early issues of Action Comics, Superman cracks wise as he beats up crooks. This took advantage of the comics form's mix of visual and verbal information. In real life, of course, it would be tough to get off one-liners in the middle of a punch, even if you were Superman.

Naturally, Batman started to do the same in his first appearances in Detective Comics. But humor--even grim humor, spat out at criminals in righteous anger--didn't seem right for the character.

Robin, that laughing young daredevil, could joke without spoiling the Dark Knight's vibe. Indeed, as writers strained for wit under deadline, they discovered that no pun was too lame to come from Robin's mouth.

Such comic relief allowed for more varied moods and tones within each story. In Batman and Me Bob Kane, who was really at his best in funny comics, wrote: "Robin lightened up the mood of the strip and he and Batman would engage in punning and badinage as they defeated their adversaries." Robin's puns were the verbal equivalent of his brightly-colored costume, providing variety and excitement.

By the late 1940s, Batman himself lightened up and joked, usually in response to something Robin said. The Batman magazine, with three or four stories per issue, often included a humorous tale, such as those featuring Ally Babble, along with the usual crime stories.

Some Batman fans judge such humor from a bouncing adolescent in a bright costume to be inappropriate for the noirish tales. But in the early 1940s all superheroes were getting comic relief. If Batman hadn't taken Robin as a partner, I suspect he could have ended up with someone really embarrassing.

Such as the Three Dimwits, comic relief for the Flash. Or Doiby Dickles, a wrench-wielding cabbie who spoke Brooklynese and hung out with the original Green Lantern. (The second Green Lantern had a young Inuit mechanic nicknamed "Pieface"--as in "Eskimo Pie"; the world had advanced so far by 1960.)

Plastic Man, who was comedic to begin with, had an oafish pear-shaped companion named Woozy Winks. Captain Marvel and his magically powered companions had to look out for Uncle Marvel, an old fraud. Wonder Woman had a jolly fat friend named Etta Candy, who can still incite debate.

The most embarrassing comics sidekick of all appeared in The Spirit, distributed in Sunday newspapers. For most of the '40s, the hero's laughable companion was a grotesque caricature of a young black man named Ebony White. Creator Will Eisner eventually grew embarrassed enough to take the character out of the stories. Eisner's defenders argue that Ebony grew into a respectable assistant, despite his racist facial features, but DC's Best of the Spirit compilation contains as little of him as possible.

Batman himself later picked up some ethnic comic relief: Alfred, the butler at Wayne Manor. As originally created, Alfred had a broad English accent not actually recognizable among all the types actually found in England. He fancied himself a detective, but most of the time he simply bumbled his way through investigations, succeeding through luck or caped intervention.

Gradually Alfred became more dignified, but he remains tied to the mansion, going out on crime-fighting missions only on exceptional occasions. If Batman didn't have Robin, however, he might have had to take Alfred along on all his adventures instead--as comic relief.

13 June 2009

Different Types of Writing Groups

This month I've mulled over two different models of how writers share their work with others. Author Janni Lee Simner said this in an interview at Cynsations:

I remember wondering if I really needed a critique group, which seems hilarious now. I learned so much the two years I was with the [group] Alternate Historians--as much as any MFA program could have taught me.
And critic Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker about the basis of such MFA programs:
The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart.
Ironically, this sort of graduate writing program often encourages people to write very personally--just the sort of material that would be most painful to hear "torn apart." Not a surprise that this format was developed by men, and overlaps a lot with psychoanalysis.

Amateur critique groups, on the other hand, often have an ethos of not being too critical out of fear of hurting a member's feelings--even if the work at hand isn't personal or autobiographical. In fact, I think amateur critique groups should guard against offering too much praise for work that needs serious rethinking and revision. We are, after all, there to learn.

11 June 2009

“Essential to Myth”; or, All Publicity Is Good Publicity

In February 2008, the New York Times assigned a writer to profile Margaret B. Jones, author of a memoir about gang life in Los Angeles. This article wasn't for the Arts section. Instead, it was for Home section, a type of coverage that publishers call "off the book page"; publicists like it because it reaches beyond the usual arena.

It turned out Jones was actually Margaret Seltzer, and that her memoir was actually fiction. The Times freelancer didn't uncover those facts. She accepted what her assignment editor had told her, and that editor had accepted what the publisher and author had said. Only after the story ran did people call in with corrections.

Well, you can't fool the Gray Lady twice. Last month savvy journalist Joyce Wadler went out to Wyoming to interview mystery author Craig Johnson. Once again, this assignment was for the Home section, and the focus was to be on how he'd moved to Wyoming after being a New York cop, "working out of the 25th and 23rd Precincts in upper Manhattan."

The story Wadler filed offers hints of what's to come from the first paragraph: the phrase "essential to myth," "conflicting stories...about how old he was when [Johnson] first visited Wyoming," details about his clothing boutique there "not mentioned in his publisher’s literature."

And in the last columns Wadler dropped the bomblets:

Spokesmen for the New York City Police Department, the Police Benevolent Association and the New York City Department of Personnel are unable to find any record of Craig Johnson having worked for the police department.

At a request from The New York Times for documentation, Mr. Johnson, before leaving on a trip to France, where one of his books is being published, sends a photo of an award plaque inscribed to “Special Officer Craig Johnson.”

A special officer in New York City, according to Jason Post, a spokesman for the New York City Mayor’s Office, is a civil service title with “peace officer” powers. Such an officer might work for city departments like health and hospitals services or the Department of Sanitation, Mr. Post says, but he would not be a member of the N.Y.P.D.

Responding to questions about these discrepancies by e-mail, Mr. Johnson at first ignores the issue of what he did in the 25th and 23rd Precincts and suggests dropping any reference to his law enforcement career.

In later e-mails and one long conversation, he explains that he took classes in the New York City police stations that were “civil service oriented and was constantly recruited by the police department,” but that after a knee injury he chose to work as a special officer attached to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since he “carried a gun and had a badge, and all my paraphernalia had the logo of the N.Y.P.D.,” Mr. Johnson says, he was “under the impression it was a detachment of the N.Y.P.D.” His work at the 25th and 23rd Precincts, he says finally, was for community services and the Police Athletic League. “I had no intention of misleading anyone,” he says.

He also writes, petulantly, that it was his belief that this story was to be about his return to a place he first loved at 19. (Nineteen? Not 18 or 22?)
Moral: Do not tell tall tales that a reporter can check on without even dialing long distance.

Meanwhile, the New York Times Book Review praised Johnson's latest Walt Longmire mystery, The Dark Horse. The man can, after all, tell a good story.

10 June 2009

Oh, What Can It Mean?

The Monkees' "Daydream Believer" video is a nearly perfect deconstruction of an art form from within.

Of course, it helps to start with good raw material: a fine pop song by Kingston Trio veteran John Stewart which spent four week at #1 on the Billboard singles chart. Add the groovy psychedelia of late 1967, before the trend went sour.

But what makes the video great is the Monkees themselves: four young performers starting to chafe at the limits of the television personas that have made them famous, rich, and creatively unfulfilled. So they chip away at the very nature of the music video, revealing that they're only pretending to play their instruments and then competing to lip-synch the lead vocals. But they've become such practiced comedians that they can do that without destroying the enjoyment.

All that makes this literal version of the "Daydream Believer" video simply redundant. It's already deconstructed itself. The result is like listening to people recite Monty Python routines at length.

I find "literal" remakes work best with music videos that are pretentious and hint at a narrative thread amidst all the imagery, such as a-ha's "Take On Me" and Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Those deserve deconstruction. The Monkees--they already did the job forty years ago.

09 June 2009

Sleestaks and Other Monsters

Here are two things which never meant as much to me growing up as the media implied they should:

  • The Sid and Marty Krofft TV show Land of the Lost, shown on Saturday mornings from 1974 to 1976. Sure, I watched more episodes than was healthy, but it wasn't really that gripping. We shouldn't use "classic" as a synonym for "anything we remember from when we were eleven."
  • The supposed dirty play of the Detroit Pistons' Bill Laimbeer. According to the Boston press in the 1980s, he was the second coming of Attila the Hun. That same press had little to say about, for example, Larry Bird being the nastiest trash-talker in the league.
But the fact that Laimbeer played one of the antagonistic Sleestaks on Land of the Lost as a college job, as documented by the Pantopticist--that I find very meaningful.
The current publicity about the underperforming big-screen remake of Land of the Lost its second run on television in 1991-93. That cast included one of my high school classmates, who probably was watching the original Land of the Lost on the same Saturdays that I did. Since he hung out with the athletes, he might have cared about Laimbeer.

08 June 2009

The Value of Bricks and Mortar

From a comment by Book Hound after Edward Champion's interview with Sherman Alexie over his emotional overreaction to the Kindle (since qualified):

One time, I was in the indie bookstore near my apartment in NYC, and the clerk handed me a copy of “Flight,” and he was like, “This book is amazing, you have to read it. The author has enjoyed an amazing career.”

And I was like, “OK, how much does it cost?”

And he was like, “$14. Plus tax.”

And I was like, “But I can get it on Amazon for $10 with free shipping.”

And he was like, “Oh.”

Then he covered my hand with his and said, “But can you get this amazing human interaction on Amazon?”

And I was like, “Stop being so tactile and eccentric.”
(I'm reading the verb “like” here to mean “say something of nearly the same meaning and emotional tenor, but probably not expressed quite so pithily, or at least think of saying it within a few minutes afterwards.”)

07 June 2009

Batman, Robin, and the “Much-Maligned Sound Effect”?

The first issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Batman and Robin magazine went on sale this week. One of its features, according to Morrison, is a novel treatment of sound effects. In an interview posted on the IGN comics site on 11 March, Morrison said:

I've asked him [Quitely] to re-introduce the much-maligned sound effects to superhero comics but in a way that integrates them more closely with the art.
And eight days later an interview on the CBR site quoted Morrison on the same point:
And he’s producing things like sound effects, because nobody does sound effects anymore. Everybody has given up on them, so what we’ve done is incorporate them into the artwork. When someone hits water, the water rises up and makes the “splash” effect. It just looks fantastic.
And this is how it looks.
Here's the sound of explosions during a high-speed chase.
And in Quitely's Gotham City, the sound of the new flying Batmobile firing a missile inside a highway tunnel is "BWKSSSSssssss."
But is the sound effect truly "much-maligned" in superhero comics these days? Has everyone indeed "given up on them"? A peek into DC Comics's other superhero magazines shows that's not so. It's true that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen did without sound effects, and that's the platinum standard for superhero stories--but it's also more than twenty years old. 

Perhaps what Morrison meant (besides hyping his upcoming work, as such interviews are supposed to do) is that comic-book sound effects have been the domain of letterers, now created with computer fonts rather than by hand. He and Quitely are clearly doing sound effects differently, incorporating them into the art from the beginning.

As for the other aspects of this magazine, I was a little disappointed. Parts were great fun, such as an opening chase scene that alludes to Mr. Toad's wild ride, and a new skyscraper headquarters for the new Batman/old Robin. We sense the friction between him and the new Robin that will define the arc of this series. But the story seems disjoint enough that I wonder if it was chopped up and stitched back together in different order.

Six pages from the end we see Commissioner Gordon up on the police station roof, shining the bat-signal into the sky. His men are skeptical this will work since Batman hasn't been heard from in a long time. But then, plunging through the skylight's beam come Batman and Robin! What a dramatic moment!

Except that we've already seen Batman and Robin in action on ten earlier pages. They've already delivered a criminal to the cops. And the previous page has shown us that they're up in the sky, about to test their new parachute-capes. 

The only surprise, therefore, is for Commissioner Gordon--and we never see his reaction. (Maybe in issue #2.) We readers are left wondering if Batman and Robin just happened to be out skydiving when the bat-signal was turned on. 

Furthermore, Quitely's and colorist Alex Sinclair's full-page image of the Dynamic Duo's descent (Robin in the lead, as shown in thumbnail here) lacks the deep, black shadows that have dramatized Batman stories for seventy years. What was no doubt intended to be a great moment left me, as I said before, a little disappointed.

06 June 2009

Representations of Race, Realities of Publishing

Various folks have been discussing the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in American children's books. This commentary has focused on such matters as writing across culture and race, and whether the rules of the Coretta Scott King Award are still apt.

This spring's SCBWI New England conference had the theme "Many Voices," and after my workshop I grabbed the opportunity to attend presentations on ethnic inclusivity by Mitali Perkins and A.C.E. Bauer. (Click on their names for their blog entries about those workshops.) I also attended a presentation on publishing for minority audiences by editors Louise May of Lee & Low and Bobbie Combs of Two Lives, and a panel they were on alongside illustrator Floyd Coooper and agent/bookseller Jennifer Laughran.

But in all that discussion, I haven't heard many acknowledgments of some big realities about the publishing industry today. Namely:

1) American children's-book professionals have never been more ideologically open to books for and about children of color. There are more people of color in the industry, and at higher levels, than ever before. Most publishing pros are ready, even eager, for books about children of color; they're almost all intellectuals from coastal cities, after all.

Of course, it's still possible for people to have unrecognized biases. The publishing world is still disproportionately non-Latino white. But on the conscious level, book editors and other "gatekeepers" aren't trying to ignore authors of color, or stories about people of color. They love finding a profitable market for those authors and stories.

2) Children's books have never been more widely distributed. The superstore expansion of the 1990s means that metropolitan areas which used to have bookstores that stocked 10,000 titles are now served by stores with 30,000+ titles. "Big box" stores and discount warehouses stock children's books as a loss leader; that inventory brings in mothers to shop. And of course Amazon, BN.com, BookSense, and other online retailers (such as Oz and Ends's favorite, Powell's) can make hundreds of thousands of titles available within days.

3) The book industry has never had better data on what is selling well. Publishers once relied on anecdotal feedback about what titles were actually selling out of bookstores, hoping for reorders instead of returns. Now BookScan, Ingram, and Amazon sales figures are available each week. The big chains closely track their inventory. Publishers can find out which stores in which neighborhoods and states are selling their books best.

4) The big US publishing companies are wings of large, publicly traded multimedia corporations which are designed to, and by law required to, maximize profit for shareholders. They're not entirely efficient. But a corporation competing on the stock market doesn't have the luxury of leaving easy money on the table. A corporate publisher isn't out to publish for the greater good, nor to reflect its founders' biases. It exists for one reason: to sell books at the highest profit. The organization is basically set up to keep individual employees focused on that goal.

What do those realities mean to the question of publishing more books about children of color?

I think they mean that exhortations to publishing professionals to put aside prejudices or worries aren't going to have much effect. Most book editors know that "the market has changed" since we were young; after all, many of them were young much more recently than we were. Book editors already know there are families seeking books about children of color.

The challenge isn't convincing individual gatekeepers. The challenge is convincing those editors' corporate employers--and the corporations they work closely with, such as the chain booksellers--that there's enough money to be made from those families to justify publishing more books than they already are.

Yet, as I said before, those corporations know more about where in America particular books are selling than any of us do. They're in the business of reaching book customers and selling books. And the reach of bookselling is as deep and wide as it's ever been. If there's a big untapped market out there, then they have every incentive to spot it, and to develop more titles for it.

On the other hand, those corporations have every incentive not to expend extra effort on segments of the market that have been limited or unprofitable. Especially when other storytelling media compete for everyone's attention, large portions of the overall American population read few books, and book sales are at a plateau.

What could make a profit-seeking publishing corporation wary of adding more titles of any particular sort? A smaller potential market. Less money in that market. Higher costs to reach that market. Adequate success in that market with existing products and sales channels. All of those factors are in play here. And those are the real obstacles to tackle.

05 June 2009

Celebrity: “a weird sort of energy”

One of the most common laments among children’s book creators and fans is that publishers put out too many “celebrity children’s books.” Which I think highlights both the appeal of those books and the problem with them: even from critics, they command more attention and emotion than their numbers really deserve.

One of the best ways to think about celebrity came to me from Michael J. Fox, who should know a bit about the topic. He’s called celebrity a “weird sort of energy” which draws people’s attention as gravity draws mass. Fox has been trying to use that energy to bring attention to Parkinsonism.

Attention is something most books don’t get, and can’t get enough of. So it makes sense for publishers to be pleased with books that bring their own attention-getting “energy” with them.

We’re almost all susceptible to the pull of celebrity. If an Englishwoman you never saw before showed up at your door and offered to read her children’s book to your kids, would you invite her in? Probably not. If you recognized that Englishwoman as Julie Andrews, you’d invite her in and call the neighbors and take photos and post them on your blog...

Celebrity also has its downsides, of course. Just as we look more closely at books by celebrities because we “know” them from TV, so we feel entitled to criticize their books in ways we’d never treat other beginners--without reading them, for example. Again, celebrity “energy” breaks down normal barriers.

Publishers justify issuing popular but unliterary books of all sorts by saying that the revenue they bring lets the firm publish poetry and first novels--i.e., books that don’t sell well, or are risky investments. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t really that simple.

One factor is the evolution of privately owned publishers started by book-lovers into book divisions of publicly held multimedia conglomerates. In that world the law requires executives to focus on returns for shareholders, not literature, even though book executives recognize that good-quality literature can be most profitable in the long run. If book A is very profitable and book B is less so, then one way the company can maximize its profit numbers is by not publishing book B at all.

The most profitable book, however, is the sleeper: small advance, big and long-lasting sales, grateful author, impressed colleagues. That's why even big corporate publishers keep taking their chances on little-known authors. No one can be sure what books will hit and what will miss, even with celebrity authors.

Celebrity books often impose costs on other authors, not just on literature with a capital L. Many celebrity authors siphon disproportionate time and attention from promotional staffs. Usually a firm arranges TV interviews, events, tours, and arranging such promotion for people used to Hollywood publicity standards takes more resources than publishers usually have. Being published at the same time that one’s publicity department is working on a celebrity book isn’t a good spot to be in. That “weird sort of energy” takes over and alters the normal workings of the firm.

Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld hosted a TV special on celebrity before he himself became such a big one. The program was coproduced by the long-defunct magazine Spy, which shows how long ago this was. Among the show’s explorations of celebrity was an “experiment” that started with leading people on a movie-studio tour into a large bare room. A small square box was painted on one corner of the floor. A hidden camera overhead tracked the movement of the people, randomly milling about.

Then the experimenters introduced a celebrity--Ricardo Montalban!--into that environment. He stood in the square and chatted politely with anyone who wanted to talk. And the camera recorded that:

  • As soon as Montalban entered the room and stood still, the people formed a tight crescent about three feet away from him. It was like watching iron filings pulled into lines by a magnet. A “weird sort of energy” indeed!
  • After Montalban left, no one would enter the square where he’d stood--except one woman, who did so for just a second and as a self-conscious lark.
I’d like to think that publishing personnel have some immunity to celebrity energy from seeing how the media machine operates. But about ten years ago I was at a publishing sales conference, presenting the new books I was editing for the upcoming season, and word spread like lightning that there was a celebrity in the hotel.

By a strange coincidence, the celebrity was...Ricardo Montalban! I still remember seeing him far across a lobby, a very tan man in a very white suit, moving slowly and gingerly on the arm of a companion. I remember the discreet buzz that passed among the editors as we spotted him.

I don’t remember what books we published that season.

04 June 2009

Confirming the True History of Harry

Back in 2005, I set forth a hypothesis about how Scholastic's purchase of U.S. rights in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone produced extra press attention in Britain, which gave the book an aura of magic and helped to make the American firm's gamble into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I repeated that thesis here in 2007.

I was pleased to see that Harry, a History, a chronicle of the Potter phenomenon by Melissa Anelli of The Leaky Cauldron, confirms my understanding of events. The following passage starts on page 54, just after Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic bought the U.S. rights to the first book for a $105,000 advance.

The auction was huge news in Britain, and hardly anyone failed to notice it, least of all Bloomsbury [the London publisher]. The Sun, the British tabloid to whom the racy New York Post would be considered a modest cousin, offered Jo Rowling big bucks for her life story. She didn't sit with the tabloid, but Bloomsbury did want her to tell her story, preferably to the mainstream press in an attempt to get the Harry Potter story seen as a breakout hit that shouldn't be relegated to the children's review pages and specialty magazines like Carousel and Books for Keeps.

"Partly because we loved the book as grown-ups, and partly because of the very newsworthy sales of the book, we took the view that this was a story that we could place in the news pages," said Rosamund [de la Hey, marketer]. "We were very confident that here was something a bit special, so it gave us the brash confidence to go for the moon."

Two days before publication, the Herald in Glasgow published a story in a way that would become very familiar: "Three years ago Joanne Rowling landed in Edinburgh with a baby under one arm and dog-eared manuscript under the other." A few days later Eddie Gibb in the Sunday Times ran a story called "Tales from a Single Mother." In the first week of July came Nigel Reynolds's story on page three of the Telegraph in London: "$100,000 Success Story for Penniless Mother." . . .

The truth combined with assumptions and romance minted her as an icon for struggling young mothers everywhere, whether she liked it or not. . . .

Press around the auction ensured that the first printing of 2,500 paperbacks and 450 hardbacks wasn't enough; the books went into a second printing only four days later.
The small first printing is why those first hardcovers are so valuable today. When it came time to set a print quantity, Bloomsbury was still cautious.

That doesn't take away from the effect the first book had on its readers, as opposed to people reading about it in the press. Anelli also describes (without specific dates) how Bloomsbury began to take in fan mail for Rowling. Some of those letters began "Dear Sir," so--assuming they weren't junk mail--those readers had enjoyed the book without seeing any of the welfare-mom press coverage.

03 June 2009

Closing the Circle with Cathy's Ring

The Cathy's Book trilogy by Sean Stewart and Jorden Weisman is about to come around to the end with Cathy's Ring. It feels like only a short time ago I was writing on the SCBWI New England email list about the first book, which was controversial because the authors had made a deal with an advertising sponsor.

Lost in the kerfuffle was how Cathy's Book promised to interact with readers in new ways, with a website, telephone messages, and other digital media tied into its fictional mystery. That book became a bestseller, but such is my demographic that I can't recall ever having actually seen a copy.

Which needn't stop me from writing about it, right? Publishers Weekly reported that the third book comes or is marketed with:

  • "Cathy’s actual ring"
  • a glow-in-the-dark poster
  • a video trailer
  • an original song, “I’ve Lost My Way: Cathy’s Song”
  • the Cathy’s Ring website with
    • discussion forums
    • activities
    • a MySpace page
    • a Facebook page
    • a Flickr page
And that's not all! The magazine adds:
To promote Cathy’s Ring, Running Press enlisted the help of Expanded Apps to create iPhone apps for the series, which will contain the text of the books and utilize the iPhone’s phone and internet access, as well as touch/motion sensitivity (phone numbers, Web sites and videos will be embedded within the text in the apps).
So that means this "book" required writers, artists, and the usual book production experts, plus a jewelry designer, a video director, video crew and actors, composer, musicians, music producer, software app designers, and website designers. Have I left anyone out?

Once upon a time, an author could create most of the original content of a book by sitting in a room and typing for a long time. Of course, there were always many more people involved in producing that book and bringing it to the attention of readers (i.e., publishing it), but the core creation was solitary.

That's obviously not the case with Cathy's Book and its sequels, or other interactive, multimedia "books" that will follow its model. A lone author is unlikely to create all that stuff. This is authorship by studio. In the future, we authors will have to learn to come out of our rooms. For now, I suspect many of us are hiding under the beds.

02 June 2009


Sterling, the book-publishing wing of Barnes & Noble, has republished eight of Richard Scarry's books. These aren't his best known titles, which are still under contract with Golden. But they all fit into his trademark "Busytown" mode of anthropomorphic animals and crowded pages.

My favorite among them is Richard Scarry's Find Your ABCs--one of the best alphabet books out there, with an ingenious use of colored type. That stars of that book are the inept detectives Sam Cat and Dudley Pig, and Richard Scarry's The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries collects three more stories about the pair.

Sterling's website offers a long account of the man's life, from Boston to Gstaad. An even longer, less reverent, and yet apparently accurate bio appears at rotten.com.

Alan Taylor used Flickr to document how Scarry updated his Best Word Book Ever to keep up with social mores after a quarter-century had passed. I understand some stories that played on ethnic stereotypes have dropped from Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy World, one of my childhood favorites, for the same reason. But cost-cutting might also have factored into that change.

Scarry would be ninety years old this year, so Sterling is promoting their eight titles with giveaways. The first stages are open only to people "employed by a school, academic or professional library, or retail store." But Publishers Weekly also said:

The second giveaway, 90 Books for 90 Birthdays, will be a one-day sweepstakes held on Friday, June 5 (starting at 12 a.m. EDT and ending at 11:59 p.m. EDT), and is open to any Scarry fans. Those who wish to enter can submit their names and addresses to sterlingkids@sterlingpublishing.com.
But darned if I can find anything about that on Sterling's website today.