30 September 2006

Curious George Becomes a Senior Citizen

Today the Boston Public Library celebrated Curious George's sixty-fifth birthday, no doubt encouraged by his publisher, Houghton-Mifflin.

A while back I treated myself to the omnibus edition of the Curious George books--the original picture books by H.A. and Margret Rey. Nothing else has ever been so powerful at making me feel four years old again.

I was able to note some of my responses to the books. I found I preferred the Reys' later stories, when George was more of an active toddler and less of a jungle-loving monkey. My memory had amalgamated the two different hospital visits, and though I recalled many other episodes (i.e., page spreads) vividly, I didn't remember so clearly how they fit together. George's limited attention span means that any given story can go in practically any direction. So it almost was like reading those books for the first time.

George has a new TV show on PBS this season, following the style of the recent movie, but my favorite spin-offs are still low-tech. Louise Borden wrote The Journey That Saved Curious George about the Reys' journey to America ahead of the Nazi army. My friend Vern had the T-shirt of George after sniffing ether, which I recall prompting suspicious questions at toll booths. And finally, there's this "oddaptation" of the entire series by Gregory K. at GottaBook:

George is a monkey who’s always quite curious,
But if you did what he did your folks would be furious.
He complicates life, making messes quite frightful...
Yet things turn out fine in the end.
How delightful.

29 September 2006

Next Rowling Morphed into Next Dan Brown

Back in January 2005, Penguin UK issued a breathless press release about a new fantasy novel it had acquired, Endymion Spring. That release is preserved on Michael Thorn's blog for 21 Jan 2005:

For the past two years Matthew Skelton has been living out of a suitcase in a borrowed room, surviving on £12 a week whilst writing his debut novel, Endymion Spring. Just before Christmas 04 a furious bidding war began between five of the UK's leading children's publishers to acquire the rights to his debut novel which was plucked from the slush pile of an Oxford agent for its outstanding originality of style and content. Puffin's Fiction Publisher, Rebecca McNally, finally clinched the deal, offering Matthew Skelton a life-changing six-figure advance...
As you can see, Penguin's press release said nothing about the book's content, even while proclaiming that its "style and content" are what made it stand out. Instead, Penguin played up the author's life and the money it was paying.

But that was quite enough to catch attention. In February, Canada's National Post breathlessly echoed the press release in its own reporting. Skelton did, after all, grow up in Canada:
An impoverished Canadian academic who wrote a children's book while "living out of a suitcase" is set to become a literary sensation.

Matthew Skelton's book Endymion Spring has been bought by the world's most respected children's publisher for a huge sum, translated into 14 languages, and the film rights have been sold to Warner Brothers.
Ordinarily newspaper articles stick to facts rather than uncritically repeat such opinions as "world's most respected children's publisher" or "set to become a literary sensation." But Skelton's story was apparently too good to pass by.

And by "Skelton's story," I again mean his recent biography, not the novel he wrote. Like Penguin's press release, the newspaper had little to say about the unpublished book itself and its quality. The article was about how much money Skelton was going to make, and how that would change his life.

Reading further reveals, however, that "living out of a suitcase" meant having a doctorate in English literature from Oxford and working at various untenured, short-term teaching posts of the sort familiar to most English-lit doctors. (Skelton's previous publications include such work as "The Paratext of Everything: Constructing and Marketing H. G. Wells's The Outline of History.")

The blog for Canada's Quill & Quire magazine wisely noted the familiarity of the storyline that Penguin UK was really selling:
Call us cynics, but we can’t help but notice how certain parts of Skelton’s story – the enormous advance he received for a fantasy novel that’s just waiting to be YA’s next big thing and, more importantly, his underplayed middle-class background and overemphasized recent poverty – seem strangely reminiscent of the biography of a university-educated, former short-term welfare-mom cum multimillionaire named J.K. Rowling.
The fantasy being promoted here wasn't the universe of secrets and magical books inside Endymion Spring, but the fantasy of becoming an internationally famous multimillionaire for writing fairy stories. As much as the world is pleased with Harry Potter's rags-to-riches tale, more adults yearn for J. K. Rowling's success.

Then Random House bought the US rights to Endymion Spring, and added a new twist to its marketing. In the company's canned interview with Skelton, a publicist asks, "Some readers are calling ENDYMION SPRING 'The Da Vinci Code for kids.' Any thoughts?" Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is, after all, a Random House book.

And sure enough, the US media rose to that bait, too. USA Today headlined its article on the author "Children's novel has an aura of 'Da Vinci Code'." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer used the same journalistic shortcut:
Some are calling "Endymion Spring" a "'Da Vinci Code' for kids," a term that seems to have supplanted "the next Harry Potter" as a catchphrase for promising children's fantasies.
There's only a touch of recognition that those still unidentified "Some" are repeating a marketing catchphrase. But with promotion like that, it's no surprise that Endymion Spring has become a bestseller in the US.

Now I should say I'm looking forward to reading Endymion Spring. I figure any big fan of Susan Cooper deserves a look, and no first-time author is responsible for how his publishers choose to sell his book. But if any fantasy author should be sensitized to the "Constructing and Marketing" of a high-profile book, it's Skelton.

28 September 2006

Prelutsky the Children's Poet Laureate

A few years back, the American poetry world was abuzz'd with news that a reader (and unsuccessful submitter) had left Poetry magazine a large bequest. I believe the poetic term for the amount was "jillions." The previously threadbare organization set up the Poetry Foundation to manage that money and find worthy ways to spend it promoting poetry in America.

Earlier this month, the foundation announced that every two years it would confer the title of "Children’s Poet Laureate: Consultant in Children’s Poetry to the Poetry Foundation" on a writer as recognition for "a career devoted to writing exceptional poetry for the young child." The honor comes with a $25,000 award, or approximately $24,950 more than most poets ever earn from their work.

That announcement having gotten some headlines, at least in the children's lit world, the foundation has now announced the first awardee: Jack Prelutsky. And it's set up several nice webpages discussing Prelutsky's style and career, with many examples and a downloadable interview.

Here's one taste of Prelutsky's oeuvre:

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.
How does this end?

27 September 2006

Trot's Mother Makes Her Cry

After laying his Oz series to rest (as he thought) in 1910, L. Frank Baum started a new set of fantasy novels featuring a new little American girl: Trot Griffith. Unlike Dorothy Gale, an orphan raised on a Kansas farm by her (great?) uncle and aunt, Trot lives on the southern California coast and has two parents. But her father is away at sea all the time, and her mother is busy keeping house, so Trot's best friend and adult mentor is a one-legged sailor named Cap'n Bill.

Trot is different from Dorothy in another way: her home life is more volatile. Dorothy's is gray but steady--almost too steady. Trot's mother, on the other hand, has a real temper. We see that clearly in this early scene from Sky Island, the second novel of Baum's short series about Trot. The scene begins with young Button-Bright, who says he's flown in on a Magic Umbrella, asking a favor:

"...Do you s'pose, Trot, your mother would let me stay here all night?"

"Course she would!" answered Trot. "We've got an extra room with a nice bed in it, and we'd love to have you stay just as long as you want to, wouldn't we, Cap'n Bill?"

"Right you are, mate," replied the old man, nodding his bald head. "Whether the umbrel is magic or not, Butt'n-Bright is welcome."

Mrs. Griffith came out soon after and seconded the invitation, so the boy felt quite at home in the little cottage. It was not long before supper was on the table and in spite of all the bread-and-butter he had eaten Button-Bright had a fine appetite for the good things Trot's mother had cooked. Mrs. Griffith was very kind to the children, but not quite so agreeable toward poor Cap'n Bill. When the old sailorman at one time spilled some tea on the tablecloth, Trot's mother flew angry and gave the culprit such a tongue-lashing that Button-Bright was sorry for him. But Cap'n Bill was meek and made no reply. "He's used to it, you know," whispered Trot to her new friend, and indeed, Cap'n Bill took it all cheerfully and never minded a bit.

Then it came Trot's turn to get a scolding. When she opened the parcel she had bought at the village, it was found she had selected the wrong color of yarn, and Mrs. Griffith was so provoked that Trot's scolding was almost as severe as that of Cap'n Bill. Tears came to the little girl's eyes, and to comfort her the boy promised to take her to the village next morning with his magic umbrella, so she could exchange the yarn for the right color.
Baum wrote a lot of female scolds into his fantasy books, usually as wives of equally disagreeable and sometimes ineffectual men. These women can be attractive, such as Jinjur and Nimmie Amee, but they have very sharp tongues and sometimes even descend to violence.

It's rare, however, for Baum to portray a parent as so hot-tempered. It seems notable to me that, while Dorothy refuses to stay in Oz as long as Uncle Henry and Aunt Em are back in Kansas worrying about her, Trot never even thinks about her mother after she reaches Oz in The Scarecrow of Oz. She may have known a better situation when she saw one.

26 September 2006

Robert Lawson's Revere

In the interest of efficiency, I'm using today's entry to point to the postings at Boston 1775 about Mr. Revere and I, by Robert Lawson, and what it says about the American Revolution.

Robert Lawson was one of the giants of 20th-century American children's literature, winner of both a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Medal. He also displayed the biases of his time, particularly in the portrayals of indigenous peoples in Captain Kidd's Cat, I Discover Columbus, and They Were Strong and Good. The first two books seem to have gone out of print while the latter lives on, probably because it was one of his Medal winners, but its faults become more obvious. Of course, we can't expect an American born in 1892 and writing about his own ancestors to display the sort of understandings that comfort us today, however well he drew and wrote.

25 September 2006

Julian Hawthorne and Giant Despair

For about three weeks in the summer of 1851, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne was left alone with his five-year-old son, Julian, and a pet rabbit. Well, alone with only the housekeeper and other servants to look after them.

Hawthorne kept a diary of their days together for his wife Sophie to read on her return. A few years ago Paul Auster extracted those diary entries in an absolutely delightful little book called Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny By Papa. Here are three excerpts that show Julian's five-year-old imagination at work.

On 31 July 1851, Papa wrote:

Then we made our way along the tangled lake-shore, and sitting down, he threw in bits of moss, and called them islands--floating green islands--and said that there were trees, and farms, and men, upon them. By and by, against his remonstrances, I insisted upon going home. He picked up a club, and began over again the old warfare with the thistles--which we called hydras, chimaeras, dragons, and Gorgons. This we fought our way homeward...
At the time, Nathaniel was working on A Wonder-Book and Tanglewood Tales, retellings of Greek and Roman myths for children. They're full of slashing battles of just this sort.

Like the Alcott sisters fictionalized in Little Women, Julian was obviously raised on a diet of Pilgrim's Progress and based some of his play on it. This from 11 August:
Thence we turned back, and rested ourselves on some logs, a little withdrawn from the roadside. The little man said that one of these logs was Giant Despair, and that the old giant was dead, and he dug a shallow hole, which he said should be the giant's grave. I objected that it was not half large enough; but he informed me that Giant Despair grew very small, the moment he was dead.
But the giant is not so easily killed. Here is a ***SPOILER*** from 16 August:
On entering the bathing-room, I peeped into Bunny's box, within something like a foreboding of what had happened; and sure enough, there lay the poor little beast, stark and stiff. . . . Julian seemed to be interested and excited by the event, rather than afflicted. He imputed it, as he does all other mishaps, to the agency of Giant Despair; and, as we were going for the milk, he declared it was the wickedest thing the giant ever did.

Julian Hawthorne grew up to be a writer, like his father, though not as successful or as happy at it. Late in life he was jailed for fraud.

24 September 2006

Gerald and the Phoenix

Back in August, I commented on David and the Phoenix, a gentle 1957 fantasy by Edward Ormondroyd reissued in the 1990s by Purple House Press. In this 2004 Daedalus article, Washington University in St. Louis's Merle King Professor of Modern Letters Gerald Early wrote of his fondness for the book. His mother gave it to him while he was in third grade, and he feverishly read and reread it.

Early says:

The phoenix was especially appealing to me, since it personified resurrection, thus making death not death at all, but some sort of cosmic learning experience. (One feature of some American children's literature is its third-rate Emersonianism, its remarkable mixture of childhood angst and the regenerative power of pluck: Americans seem to insist, more than they have any right to, that even the most tragic situations must yield to a frightfully unreasoning optimism, so that all boats, in the end, are 'uplifted.')
(Yes, don't we all want that "sense of hope"?)

Early picks up the story when he was in college, listening to black-consciousness music:
In a spirit of racial holiness, I heard Doug and Jean sing, "Those that were lost shall surely be returned"—and out of nowhere I recalled David and the Phoenix. I knew that book as well as I knew my own name, but as a child I could not, for the life of me, explain what it meant to me. But when I heard Doug and Jean's song, I realized that David and the Pheonix had taught me two contradictory yet complementary truths about childhood. First, that some things about childhood are lost beyond recovery, and we are pained rightly or wrongly by the loss. Second, and more profoundly, that most children's literature is about lost children returning home.
Early's comments struck me in two ways. First, I wrote before about how I found David, the young hero, to be a blank, but wondered if that could help young readers project themselves into his story. Early was a black child born in 1952, and thus had little chance to read or view stories about other black children. This book's pictures show David as a white boy, but his otherwise generic character may have helped young Gerald identify with him.

Second, the theme of death and rebirth that Early found so powerful as a child and young man is actually a very small part of David and the Phoenix. The novel is episodic, and the conflict running through most of the book is the Phoenix's rivalry with a Scientist. Only in the last couple of chapters does it become clear that the Phoenix is about to immolate himself. Of course, if you know the legend of the phoenix going in, and especially if you're rereading the book for the fifth time in a month, then that fate hangs over the character all along. I think that's the experience that Early remembers, the dread of moving toward the end of the book, when he knows the Phoenix must die and be reborn. A "cosmic learning experience" indeed.

Next month, Phi Beta Kappa will give Prof. Early a special award for "for distinguished service to the humanities."

23 September 2006

Smells like...Plasticity

From Chemical & Engineering News comes word that earlier this year Demeter Fragrance Library added a new scent to its product offerings, which already include Vanilla Cake, Baby Powder, Beet Root, Devil's Food, Orange Cream, Lobster, New Zealand, Glue, Funeral Home, Laundromat, Graham Cracker, Earth Worm, Mildew, Salt Air, Wet Garden, Stringbean, Turpentine, Banana Flambé, Parsley, and Rye Bread.

22 September 2006

Crying Artemis Fowl

Early in chapter 1 of his first Artemis Fowl book, Eoin Colfer offers this description of the title character: "A pale adolescent speaking with the authority and vocabulary of a powerful adult."

How could wish-fulfillment like that not find a worldwide audience? Plus, Colfer gives that pale adolescent boatloads of money, high-tech weapons and surveillance toys, and a loyal manservant to handle all the dangerous physical work. What more could videogame players want? Sure, Artemis's father is missing and his mother insane, but pale adolescents half-wish, half-believe they're in that situation already. As Gregory Maguire's review for the New York Times said, the novel may have only faint charm to go along with its thrills, but it does what it sets out to do.

I don't know how Penguin published Artemis Fowl in the UK, but Miramax Books did a fine job of positioning it in 2001 as the anti-Harry Potter, darker and older. Plus, just as news of the US book deal boosted Potter at its publication, Miramax crowed about the movie rights it had also bought. Since then, of course, the Harry Potter books have gotten dark as well, but Colfer gained his necessary toehold in North America.

As I read Artemis Fowl and things exploded and burst and farted around me, I found myself thinking about the book as a nationalist statement. Colfer is an Irish author who, until this book, hadn't been published outside Ireland. He portrays his home island as particularly beloved of the ancient fairies, but also extremely high-tech. Colfer's 2003 interview with C.M. McDonald hints at his feelings:

McDonald: His books also give us a sense in America what has happened because of the technology industry in Ireland. Have you found your corner of Ireland changing quite a bit?

Colfer: Very much so. People still have this Quiet Man vision of Ireland, and that does exist to a small extent, but Ireland has the largest growing economy in Europe and we have more computer plants per capita that I think anywhere else in Europe, as well. There’s a lot of American big business in Ireland--Mac and Dell and all these companies are there. A very high percentage of people are working in computers and are computer graduates. There are a lot of Porsches and BMWs driving around now that you never would have seen twenty years ago.
Indeed, in 1987 the per-capita income of Ireland was only 63% of that in the UK, but in 2004 the Irish measure passed Great Britain's. To some extent the picture of Eire as a high-tech hub is exaggerated. EU statistics show Britain still ahead of Ireland in internet access and use, and the level of poverty in Ireland remains higher. But Artemis Fowl emphasizes futuristic, not nostalgic, Ireland.

Compare Colfer's use of technology to what we see in the Harry Potter books. Rowling's wizards are determinedly old-fashioned, using quills and candles. Only the muggles have modern technology, which fascinates Mr. Weasley, but Harry's poverty and preference for the wizards' world leaves him without a PC, Gameboy, or cellular phone. His idea of high tech is a new flying broom. Artemis has much better toys, and his world's magical beings have also upgraded.

Perhaps later Artemis Fowl books, such as The Arctic Incident, don't have quite such an undercurrent of Ireland and what it means today. But I doubt Colfer has left that theme behind. He is, after all, author of The Legend of Spud Murphy, about a potato-blasting librarian.

21 September 2006

Schoolyard Insults

Roger Sutton of The Horn Book earned his keep today by spreading the word of a kindergarten controversy in Maine, as reported in the Bangor Daily News.

A private organization supported by the governor and his wife distributed 18,000 copies of Schoolyard Rhymes: Kids' Own Rhymes for Rope Skipping, Hand Clapping, Ball Bouncing, and Just Plain Fun to kindergartners. (Its illustrator is from Maine, probably not a coincidence.) As Sutton notes, the Horn Book review of the book said, "Those who know childhood humor will not be shocked that many of the poems do feature underwear and insults."

Such as:

Girls are dandy, made out of candy.
Boys are rotten, made out of cotton.
Girls go to Mars to get candy bars.
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.
(And I thought girls were from Venus, boys were from Mars.)

About two dozen parents and teachers have stated that this material is inappropriate for such young children. Wait until they're fourteen years old and start saying "Bangor Daily." Heh heh.

20 September 2006

Sic transit gloria fonzi

A coupla years ago I was at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles when Henry Winkler spoke about the Hank Zipzer books that he had started co-writing with SCBWI President Lin Oliver. The first two titles had just come out.

I was working the book sales table along with some of the teenagers Lin corrals for that duty. Two girls about thirteen years old pointed to Winkler and whispered to me, "Um. Who is he?"

"Henry Winkler?" I said. I had to pause. "When I was a couple of years younger than you, for American boys this man embodied everything that was cool in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE. Do you understand?"

"Um. No."

Another pause. "He's an actor. He was in The Waterboy and Holes."

"Oh, yeah! We recognize him now."

19 September 2006

Reading Out Loud

An even more Ozzy link for the day is to the free audiobooks from LibriVox. There are five L. Frank Baum books available for downloading in the Children's Literature section, and more promised:

  • Rare book expert and history professor Judy Bieber recorded L. Frank Baum's Sky Island, one of his best and most original fantasies; and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.
  • Kara Shallenberg, featured as a LibriVox volunteer in the New York Times, has recorded Baum's The Road to Oz--one of my childhood favorites, and yet a nearly plotless wonder.
  • A volunteer named Maddie has recorded Little Wizard Stories of Oz.
  • Paul Harvey read The Marvelous Land of Oz, and says he's working on Ozma of Oz.

Reading Right to Left

Eric Gjovaag's Wonderful Blog of Oz offers wonderful news of Gili Bar-Hilel's nomination for a Geffen Award for best translation of a fantasy book into Hebrew, for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. (This posting is really an excuse to thank Gili for her link back to הבלוג של ג'ון בל.)

Gili is also the Hebrew translator of The Annotated Wizard of Oz, by Michael Patrick Hearn.

18 September 2006

Christopher Fowler's Fantasy Award

Bantam, part of Random House, has been promoting author Christopher Fowler on its dust jackets for his US editions and on its website as having won a World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Full Dark House.

In fact, that book won the August Derleth Award for Best Novel in 2004. That honor is sometimes called the "British Fantasy Award" because it's given by the British Fantasy Society. But it ain't the World Fantasy Award, given at the World Fantasy Convention. Fowler's own website has it right, as does his British publisher.

I suspect this misunderstanding crept into Bantam's copy years ago and just got replicated from one file to another. It's the sort of glitch that some poor junior editor and production associate will have to fix on every cover, and then see pop up again in some future memo.

A bigger question is: How exactly is Full Dark House a fantasy?

17 September 2006

Secret of the Flying Monkeys

The ever-supportive Fuse #8 blog alerted me to Brooklyn comedy writer Dan McCoy's tongue-in-cheek preview of the Wizard of Oz DVD on his Whither Laffs? blog:

Commentary Nuggets:
  • The Flying Monkey effects were created by taking real monkeys, and forcing them to swallow whole snow owls. . . .
  • If you watch carefully, you’ll notice this continuity gaffe: at different times during the movie, Dorothy’s hair appears to be three different lengths. This is because Judy Garland is a witch, and was born without a soul. . . .
Deleted Scenes:
  • The alternate ending where Dorothy stayed in Oz rather than returning to dustbowl Kansas--the studio feared that it would make children unsatisfied with their hard life of bitter struggle, and teach them that it’s okay to reach for their dreams.
Folks on Oz discussion lists know I've been grousing for years about how much the MGM script undercuts Dorothy's ambitions: "if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!"

Only one problem in McCoy's entry: He makes the common error of transposing L. Frank Baum's initial initial into the middle of his name.

16 September 2006

Mitali Perkins at Wellesley Library

Tomorrow, 17 September, my friend and fellow writer for children Mitali Perkins will speak at the fine Wellesley, Massachusetts, Library (ample parking!) at 2:00. Here's the library's description of the event:

Life Between Cultures
Sunday, September 17, 2006
2:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Wakelin Room 1

Mitali Bose Perkins was born in Kolkata, India, and immigrated to the United States with her parents and two older sisters. The Bose family lived in Cameroun, Ghana, Mexico, and New York City before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. Using a personal, humorous slide show, Mitali shares candidly her experience of growing up between two cultures, explores some of the tensions immigrant kids face, and introduces some of the richness of her Bengali heritage. This family program is suitable for upper elementary and middle schoolers. Kids are encouraged to ask questions, and discussion throughout the presentation sparks lively responses from participants. Free and open to the public. Co-sponsored by the Friends of the Wellesley Free Library and World of Wellesley.
Earlier this month, Mitali shared with our writing group her publisher's copy for one of her upcoming novels. Its heroine is a teenaged girl, and the text included that oh-so-trendy word "makeover." It reminded me how one of the least tenable charges against Kaavya Viswanathan was that her How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life had imitated makeover scenes in earlier "chick-lit" novels--not specific phrasing, as in the more substantial complaints, but the very idea of a makeover scene and a young heroine feeling ambivalent about it.

The emptiness of that complaint lies in how a makeover scene has become de rigueur in a certain type of novel. It's like a fight scene in a thriller; yes, it's cliché, but if you don't want to see such a scene you should read another genre. The female makeover scene has a long history: little women have been cutting their hair short in American novels at least since Jo March. Makeovers may be especially acute in novels about young female immigrants like Opal Mehta and some of Mitali's because the immigrant experience so often includes concerns about "becoming American" and "looking American."

The next question: What's the equivalent of the makeover scene in novels for adolescent boys?

15 September 2006

Modern Values in Arkadians Time

In a discussion on the Child_Lit email list this spring, I offered some examples of values that strike me as pervading today’s children’s fiction--even fiction set in past societies where some of those values weren't much in evidence.

I decided to test my statement against Lloyd Alexander’s The Arkadians (1995), set in a comic version of mythological Greece. How well does that book match up to my list of contemporary values? In no particular order they were:

Hopefulness is, to an extent, necessary for any plot to proceed: there's no fun for readers if the protagonist just gives up. But the author affirms or casts doubt on that hope by how well the protagonist actually succeeds. The Arkadians is a comedy, and it has a comedy ending: not just one marriage but three. Plus, we have the promise of a complete rebuilding of a burned city, total reconciliation between warring cults, and the resurrection of the one major character we've seen killed. With that sort of atmosphere, it would be hard not to maintain hope.

  • Be yourself instead of trying to fit into what your family or your society wants you to be.
The female protagonist, Joy-in-the-dance, defies her mother. The little boy comic relief, Catch-a-Tick, defies both parents. The hero, Lucian, has no family to speak of, but at the outset of the novel he becomes a whistle-blower at his job, and has to flee for his life and then find his calling. Everyone is being himself!

  • Literacy is important.
Lucian decides to become a storyteller. He convinces the high priestess of the feminine cult to write down its wisdom and found a school. A little wild boy's father decides to send him to that school. Score several more points for literacy. (Of course, for a book author to pooh-pooh literacy is like expecting a shoemaker to recommend that children go barefoot.)

  • Girls can do anything boys can do.
The backdrop to The Arkadians is that hypothetical time in pre-archaic Greece when male-dominated warrior and hunting cults were driving out female-dominated nature cults. The rivalry of male and female therefore runs through the book like hormones through high school. And guess what? The female power is reaffirmed alongside the male. Plus, the main female character (come to think of it, the only female in the adventuring band) is a strong, capable young woman with no expectations of a second-class or domestic future.

  • Tolerance is good.
And everyone gets along at the end. No Trojan War or feuds among gods here. Those cults are reconciled. Isolated peoples are made into friends.

Now I have nothing against all those bulleted values. I rather like 'em, in fact, and my own writing tends to affirm them. But they're not the way the ancient Greeks or most other societies on this planet have lived their lives. Our society today is exceptional. Again, I think that's all for the good. I also suspect that it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for a mainstream children's book--even one set in the past and meant to reflect a past society--to contradict many of those values today.

14 September 2006

L. Frank Baum's "Mary-Marie"

The short story form wasn't ideal for L. Frank Baum. Magazines and newspapers fiction rarely gave him enough space for his powers of characterization to take hold, and made his haphazard plotting more obvious.

But a little-known tale called "The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie" strikes me as epitomizing Baum's approach to traditional fairy tales. It offers a strong, sensible heroine on a quest with lots of modernized magic. It rejects traditional ideas of witches as evil, saying magic is only as wicked or good as the people working it. Plus, [spoiler ahead] it includes the gender-crossing that shows up in several of Baum's novels from the early nineteen-oughts.

So, saving further ado for later, here's the start of "The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie":

Mary-Marie wanted something to do. Her mother had died years before, and the cruel king had commanded her father to join the royal army and march into far-off countries to do battle. She could not even guess when he would return; indeed, few of the soldiers of the king's army ever did return from the fierce wars. So the girl lived through many tedious days in her lonely little hut, and gathered nuts and berries from the forest to satisfy her hunger. But her one gown was getting faded and shabby, and Mary-Marie could not think how she might manage to get another.

The hut stood beside a path that wound up the mountain side and away into the kingdom of Aurissau that lay in the valley beyond, and one day as Mary-Marie sat before her door an aged traveler came up the path and paused before her. The girl brought him a cup of water and in answer to his questions told how lonely and poor she was.

"But what can I do?" cried she, spreading out her arms helplessly. "I can not hew down trees, as my father used; and in all this end of the king's domain there is nothing else to be done. For there are so many shepherds that no more are needed, and so many tillers of the soil that no more can find employment. Ah, I have tried; hut no one wants a weak girl like me."

"Why don't you become a witch?" asked the man.

"Me!" gasped Mary-Marie, amazed. "A witch!"

"Why not?” he inquired, as if surprised.

"Well," said the girl, laughing. "I'm not old enough. Witches, you know, are withered dried-up old hags."

"Oh, not at all!" returned the stranger.

"And they sell their souls to Satan, in return for a knowledge of witchcraft," continued Mary-Marie more seriously.

"Stuff and nonsense!" cried the stranger angrily.

“And all the enjoyment they get in life is riding broomsticks through the air on dark nights," declared the girl.

"Well, well, well!" said the old man in an astonished tone. "One might think you knew all about witches, to hear you chatter. But your words prove you to be very ignorant of the subject. You may find good people and bad people in the world; and so, I suppose, you may find good witches and bad witches. But I must confess most of the witches I have known were very respectable, indeed, and famous for their kind actions."

"Oh. I'd like to be that kind of witch!" said Mary-Marie, clasping her hands earnestly.

"It's easy enough," answered the stranger. "I passed a witch's cottage about five miles down this path, and there was a sign on the door which read:


"Were I you, my dear child, I would seek this cottage and learn to be a witch, for then you would have a busy and a happy life."

Saying these words the traveler rose and resumed his journey up the mountain, and Mary-Marie looked after him thoughtfully until he was out of sight. Then she jumped up and walked down the path, saying to herself:

"I'll go to the witch's cottage, anyway; and if I can coax her to give me lessons without cost I will learn her craft and become a witch myself." So, singing and dancing along the steep pathway, she covered the five miles in a space of two hours, and so came to the very cottage the stranger had mentioned.
You can read the rest of the tale here or here. A version on actual paper with modern illustrations appears in the Books of Wonder edition of the Baum collection American Fairy Tales. "The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie" is also illustrated in the International Wizard of Oz Club's new Collected Short Stories of L. Frank Baum.

13 September 2006

Celebrating Roald Dahl

September 13 is Roald Dahl Day, apparently sponsored by his estate and its publishers in the UK.

My favorite Roald Dahl book is My Uncle Oswald.

Gather around, kiddies! John is about to read you a Roald Dahl story you haven't heard before. Just be sure you don't tell your parents...

12 September 2006

So you folks like books, huh?

My sole idea of decorating is finding enough bookshelves.

I'm a few years behind on that project.

But in my mind, this is what my house looks like underneath.

From Libraries by German photographer Candida Höfer.

Published in English by Thames & Hudson.

Tip-off and bootleg images provided by thenonist.

11 September 2006

Avoid Clichés and Other Cliché Advice

Earlier this summer, Scottish author William Meikle placed an article titled "Writing Fantasy Fiction: Six Cliches to Avoid" with the Institute for Children's Literature website. Among them are "Receiving tutoring from the old wise man" (who actually seems like one of the better sources for tutoring). Meikle also says nae-nae to "Discovering hidden family truths," which he calls "The 'Ugly Duckling' gambit." I'm not sure I understand Meikle's specifics, but I share his wish to avoid clichés.

More recently, Janni Lee Simner's Desert Dispatches offered "Eleven things I will strive never to put in a fantasy novel unless I am trying to undermine them, and in fact could do without entirely from now on, thanks," plus "Three things I'm not quite willing to promise to leave out, even though I possibly should." Again, the same impulse to explore new ground, or at least keep off the territory that's already been ground into formless mud.

So here's one cliché that I'd like to avoid. The young hero (male) meets a [gulp] girl (female); she comes across as:

  • knowledgable and at home in the magical world, in contrast to his feeling like a naive fish out of water.
  • endowed with powers or knowledge that seem magical to him, particularly skills involving extrasensory communication, anticipating what others will do, or making them do things.
  • possessed of incomprehensible emotions, suddenly angry or exasperated with him for reasons he can't understand.
  • nonetheless needing rescue.
Examples I've seen lately are Rhea in T. H. Barron's The Lost Years of Merlin, Joy-in-the-Dance in Lloyd Alexander's The Arkadians, Annabeth in Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, and the 22nd-century girls added to the Time Warp Trio TV show.

It doesn't seem like a coincidence that all the authors of those books are male. I can't recall this archetype popping up in fantasy books by women. But that pattern shouldn't be a surprise because this female character is nearly every twelve-year-old boy's image of girls.

Any other clichés we should head off at the pass?

10 September 2006

The Azkaban-Bagram Link

I was struck by one detail in Bookselling This Week's interview with Moazzam Begg, author of Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar: "I read the complete Harry Potter series in Guantanamo--including The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I enjoyed, but there really was nothing else to read!"

Begg is a Briton of Indian ancestry who was seized in Pakistan in February 2002 and imprisoned by the US government for just under three years. He has described being tortured and seeing prisoners' bodies at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan before US personnel moved him to Guantànamo Naval Base in Cuba. The Bush-Cheney administration felt that it had enough evidence to bring Begg before an unconstitutional military commission in Nov 2004, but after two months sent him back to Britain instead. There the Blair government questioned Begg for a day and found no cause to detain him further. The US government continues to connect Begg to al-Qa'eda.

Begg's statement above came in response to a question about what books he'd read in captivity that related to being imprisoned. It highlights something I've pondered before about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. A major plot point of that book, which came out in 1999 (as well as the 2004 movie version), is that Harry's godfather Sirius Black has been unjustly imprisoned. The beings who guard prisoners and are hunting down Sirius, called the Dementors, are hideous. And millions of people in the US and UK have read the story. Has it affected people's attitudes toward imprisonment? the need for fair trials? prison conditions?

Or, as Justin Taylor wrote in a Counterpunch review of HP6:

The Ministry of Magic, though working overtime to catch the real Death Eaters, is also preoccupied with saving public face; they issue inane lists of precautionary steps citizens can take to protect themselves,...and they occasionally arrest innocent people to appear as if they're accomplishing something.

Is this starting to sound familiar yet?

09 September 2006

A Little Something about Octavian Nothing

To conserve effort, I point to today's posting on the brilliant Boston 1775 blog about The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation--Volume One: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson. This isn't a fantasy novel, to be sure; it's historical fiction. But its elevated prose and the gothic events it portrays--even within the context of the most strenuous efforts for historical accuracy--make it more than simple realism.

08 September 2006

Adult Theme in The Fairy Rebel

Many reviewers called The Fairy Rebel, written in 1985 by Lynne Reid Banks, an old-fashioned fairy tale. By that they seem to mean that its narrative voice is omniscient and its depiction of fairies derives from the Victorian. What struck me most about this book, however, was how an adult point of view prevails for much of the story.

Normally children's books provide readers with a young person to identify with or a reasonable substitute, such as an animal or toy, and they give those characters problems and ambitions that children can relate to. This book, however, starts out by focusing on an adult woman, Jan, with what strikes me as an exclusively adult problem: infertility.

Random House's teachers' guide offers a handy extract from the start of the book. Here's a sample of the issues that Jan and her husband, Charlie, face:

"Stop worrying," he told her. "The accident only damaged your leg. There's no reason on earth why we can't have a baby."

But it seemed there was a reason, though nobody could discover what it was.
Jan puts on weight, doesn't leave the house, and sinks into what looks like clinical depression:
Now Jan was beginning to cry in the nights when she thought Charlie was asleep. . . . One day, Jan was sitting in the garden under a pear tree. There were sweet ripe pears above her head and around her on the grass, but she hadn't the heart to eat one. She was just sitting there crying, all by herself.
That's a sharply etched emotional portrait. I wonder if such feeling comes from the author identifying closely with Jan. Like her heroine, Banks was an actress earlier in life. Her first book, the adult novel The L-Shaped Room, also revolved around pregnancy.

But I suspect that young readers, to whom The Fairy Rebel was marketed, can't fully understand Jan's problem. Of course, they can understand the words, but are the concerns and feelings they describe--not being able to have a child with your beloved, sinking into despair and anomie--what kids are ready to empathize with?

I note that students from Germantown Academy reviewed the book, and one stated the conflict this way:
In Fairy Rebel there is a woman named Jan who wants to have a baby very badly, but is afraid that the baby could inherit her leg problem. Her husband, Charlie, worries about this, too. So they do not have a baby, although they would like one very much.
That reader was clearly trying to make sense of what the book said, but she couldn't. Maybe in another twenty years.

07 September 2006

The Scarecrow meets Button-Bright

This passage from The Road to Oz has long been one of my favorite exchanges from L. Frank Baum's books. Even as a little kid, I could empathize with the Scarecrow when faced with an even littler kid.

For those unfamiliar with the Oz saga, the Scarecrow is the famous straw man, his powerful brains intact. Button-Bright is a young lost boy Dorothy has brought to Oz with her on her fourth journey. Button-Bright's young brains are not powerful.

While they waited, the Scarecrow, who was near the little boy, asked: "Why are you called Button-Bright?"

"Don't know," was the answer.

"Oh yes, you do, dear," said Dorothy. "Tell the Scarecrow how you got your name."

"Papa always said I was bright as a button, so Mama always called me Button-Bright," announced the boy.

"Where is your mama?" asked the Scarecrow.

"Don't know," said Button-Bright.

"Where is your home?" asked the Scarecrow.

"Don't know," said Button-Bright.

"Don't you want to find your mama again?" asked the Scarecrow.

"Don't know," said Button-Bright, calmly.

The Scarecrow looked thoughtful.

"Your papa may have been right," he observed; "but there are many kinds of buttons, you see. There are silver and gold buttons, which are highly polished and glitter brightly. There are pearl and rubber buttons, and other kinds, with surfaces more or less bright. But there is still another sort of button which is covered with dull cloth, and that must be the sort your papa meant when he said you were bright as a button. Don't you think so?"

"Don't know," said Button-Bright.

06 September 2006

Bunyan's Progress

On 10 August, the governor of Michigan celebrated Paul Bunyan Day. I regret to say I missed that news entirely, instead writing about Jules Feiffer and driving to New Jersey (not at the same time).

Why did the state choose 10 August? Because that was the one-hundredth anniversary of the first published Paul Bunyan tale, according to recent claims from a small Michigan newspaper. (Other regions, such as Minnesota, have also laid claim to being a source or setting of Paul Bunyan stories, but Michigan's claim has the best documentation.)

The Straight Dope column is one of the more reliable sources around, and certainly one of the most enjoyable. Its discussion of Paul Bunyan traced the first printed Bunyan story back only as far as 1910, to a story in the Detroit News. But that was in 2002.

Since then, the Oscoda Press has trumpeted itself as the original source of the "Round River" story later reprinted with some changes in the Detroit News. The article appeared on "an inside page of the Aug. 10, 1906 edition," the paper reported about itself. I'd like to see an image of that page or a transcription of the article. (Call me a skeptic. It's part of my job.)

Michael Gilleland has transcribed the 1910 Detroit version here, with some format changes.

Scholars still debate about what parts of the Paul Bunyan stories we know were based on actual loggers' tales, and what was massaged or completely made up by reporters and publicists. James McGillivray, putative author of the 1906 story and bylined author of the 1910 version, worked in lumber camps. So did William B. Laughead, who wrote pamphlets about Bunyan for the Red River Lumber Company from 1914 through 1922. But they weren't folklorists; they were working writers out to entertain. And that they did.

05 September 2006

Wrinkles in the Legend of A Wrinkle in Time

One of the legends in modern children's publishing--perhaps American publishing in general--is how Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by dozens of publishers before Farrar, Straus & Giroux took a chance on it. The number of publishers varies a bit with the telling: "forty-odd," according to L'Engle's "Special Message" in recent paperback copies; twenty-six, according to most webpages.

Whatever the numbers, the tale serves to fill authors with hope. It reassures us that ground-breaking work may have trouble from short-sighted gatekeepers, but will eventually find acclaim. All we have to do is persevere through those years of rejections.

But the details of the story, now more than forty years old, may not offer that much hope to today's writers. To begin with, L'Engle was a published novelist with a literary agent, Theron Raines. She wasn't an unknown sending her manuscript out herself, like most hopeful authors then and now.

Then there's the question of timing. L'Engle finished her manuscript in 1960. It was published in 1962. L'Engle has spoken and written of a frustrating "two years of rejections," though that was the same amount of time it took her agent to find a publisher for Meet the Austins (1960). I know a lot of writers who've been trying longer than two years to sell a book they believe in.

And let's divide the number of rejections by that time span. Twenty-six rejections in less about two years is approximately one a month. ("Forty-odd" rejections would come closer to one every two weeks.) Of course that stretch would be frustrating and painful for any writer, and I don't begrudge L'Engle an ounce of her pride at being vindicated. But with publishers' turnaround times at six months to a year these days, it's a rare writer who can expect to hear from so many publishers so fast, good news or bad.

Finally, here's how A Wrinkle in Time finally found a home at Farrar, Straus & Giroux in L'Engle's own words:

We gave up. Then my mother was visiting for Christmas, and I gave her a tea party for some of her old friends. One of them happened to belong to a small writing group run by John Farrar, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which at that time did not have a juvenile list. She insisted that I meet John any how, and I went down with my battered manuscript. John had read my first novel and liked it, and read this book and loved it. That’s how it happened.
So an excellent manuscript is necessary--and any manuscript that causes a firm to expand the types of books it publishes must be excellent. But in the end the sale of A Wrinkle in Time depended on a visit from Mom, one of her friends, and a personal introduction to the co-owner of a publishing company.

04 September 2006

Beowulf and the Brontosaurs

"Grateful" isn't really the best word for my reaction to reading, through Blogenspiel and the latest History Carnival, the following article: "Beowulf: Fiction or History?", by Ruth Beechik [click off the annoying pop-up]. But it was thought-provoking. Reinterpreting the Old English monster-fighting epic, Beechik declares:

Details are embellished to make the battles more intense, the animals more scary, and the heroes more heroic. But the basic story is historically true, and the animals are zoologically real. They are not called trolls or other fantasy names. They are described by their big jaws, their sea-cave dwellings and other scientifically accurate depictions.

Why, then, do so many literature critics say that Beowulf is fiction? It is because they do not believe that dinosaur creatures lived at the same time men lived. Their evolutionary worldview says that dinosaurs lived long ages before men evolved on the earth. Therefore, in their minds, this all must be fiction. But with a Biblical worldview, we can see that dinosaurs entered the ark with Noah--land species at least--and they lived on the earth again after the Flood. But the post-Flood earth was not so hospitable to large creatures and they eventually became almost extinct.
Yes, that's right: Grendel and Grendel's mom aren't monsters or enemy warriors, but dinosaurs or similar animals. We think of them as prehistoric and extinct, Beechik says, but to creationists there is no prehistory. It's all in the Bible.

Beechik's source for her statements is a book called After the Flood, written by British creationist Bill Cooper and published in 1995 by New Wine Ministries. Cooper apparently does most of his work through the Creation Science Movement in the UK. Here's an extract labeled "Beowulf and the Dinosaurs". Both Cooper and Beechik complain that translators inaccurately describe Grendel as a "troll"; it's a measure of their own accuracy that many translators don't use that word.

The main argument of Cooper's book is not that Grendel and his mother were dinosaurs, but that he can trace genealogies from Beowulf and other sources straight back to the first books of the Bible:
Virtually every edition of the Beowulf epic and virtually every commentary on the poem, will take pains to assure the reader that what he is reading is NOT an historically accurate account of events or personages. Beowulf is described as a moral tale composed several centuries after the times of which it treats, a good yarn, and so on and so forth. What it does not do is embody real history. However the best test for historicity that can be applied to any document from the past, be it chronicle, epic poem or prose narrative, is the test of its genealogies and personal names. Are the men and women mentioned in the work characters who are known to us from other contemporary sources? Can the genealogies be verified? If they can, then we are dealing with an account that we can rely on as history.
And not, by any means, historical fiction, or a good yarn.

Given Cooper's interest in
Biblical genealogy, I have to wonder how he reconciles his identification of Grendel and his mother as dinosaurs with what the Beowulf saga explicitly says about their ancestry: that they're descendants of Cain.

03 September 2006

John R. Neill in Illustration Magazine

Sean Duffley, editor of The Baum Bugle, sends word that Illustration magazine issue #17 features the work of John R. Neill, illustrator of most of the Oz books. The issue contains more than twenty full-color pages showing Neill's work. Cost for a copy shipped to a US address is $9.00. Order information here (look for issue 17) and order form here.

02 September 2006

Not enough hours in the day

The surest sign of television's respect for 24 is not this week's Emmy, but this year's imitators. Entertainment Weekly's roundup of the new TV season offers several shows that are uncannily reminiscent of 24, and two that come with direct comparisons. Of a Hollywood sort.

Jon Turteltaub, Executive Producer of Jericho, said of his post-nuclear apocalypse show, "It's an odd mixture of 24 and Little House on the Prairie. To which you go, 'What? That's the worst thing I've ever heard!' But it's not."

And Craig Silverstein, creator of FBI drama Standoff, reported, "When I first told the studio about it, I said, 'It's kind of like 24 meets Mad About You.' They said, 'Okay, don't ever say that.'" But he just did.

01 September 2006

Cover Art of Rin

In 2001, HarperCollins published Rowan of Rin, by Australian Emily Rodda. The hardcover jacket art shows young Rowan looking trepidaciously at a magical map that only he can read. Why is he feeling anxious? It's not clear from his gaze, though close examination shows a looming mountain and dragon-shaped cloud behind him.

The jackets for the next three in the series followed suit, showing young Rowan in the foreground, usually looking a bit nervous or under threat. Only Rowan and the Travelers showed a cocky boy. (The first paperback edition of Rowan of Rin had different art, also emphasizing the young title character.)

In 2004, Harper reissued Rowan of Rin in paperback as part of a series given that name. The book now has quite different cover art, showing the frosty dragon at the end of the quest. Rowan himself has disappeared. The other new paperback reprints also emphasize monsters as sensationally as a Marvel comic book from 1960.

(The hardcover jacket for the series's fifth title takes the same approach but sneaks Rowan, now an adolescent with locks of hair falling rakishly down his face, into an inset.)

On the Child_Lit list, New Mexico librarian and college instructor Linnea Hendrickson recently wrote:

We had the first Rowan title on our Battle of the Books list, but I had a hard time getting kids to check it out. When I'd show them the cover with a sweet, baby-faced Rowan on the cover, they'd decline, even after they had expressed an interest when I gave them a brief synopsis of the story. . . . Then, I saw the new paperback editions of those books, with marvelous dragons and monsters on the covers. I shamelessly downloaded and copied covers...over the old ones, on both paperback and hardcover copies, and put up an 8x11 picture of one cover over the new books display. Suddenly, these books were so hot!

Of course, the original, "baby-faced" cover art reflects the first book exactly. Rowan is a fearful boy, forced to go on a dangerous quest for the sake of his village. Over the course of the (somewhat programmatic) adventure, he reveals and then realizes that he has a backbone of steel. That's what makes Rowan of Rin special. Lots of fantasy adventures have dragons; only a few have a hero so dubious about his own capabilities.

But young fantasy readers apparently don't want to know they're reading a book about a rabbity little boy facing up to monsters. They prefer to see the monsters.