31 October 2006

Gump in The Pinhoe Egg?

So what's Diana Wynne Jones's latest fantasy doing on the right, the spot I usually reserve for Oz-related images? And why is that the British cover of the book instead of the American?

Today I received a comment from Gili in Israel. She wrote:

I take it you read the American edition of this book, and I don't know if that contains the chapter heading illustrations drawn by Tim Stevens. But if it does, go back to the illustration for chapter 18. Look! It's the Gump!!
The Gump, for the unitiated, is a character from L. Frank Baum's The Marvelous Land of Oz. Originally it was a wild horned ruminant, like an elk with a goat's beard, but then it heard a loud noise and all went black. When the Gump regained life and consciousness, it found that its body had been replaced with a roped-together hodgepodge of sofas, palm leaves, and a broom for a tail.

Here's a picture of the Gump by John R. Neill, the moosy version from the Return to Oz movie, and a latter-day image.

But I can't see the image by Tim Stevens that Gili wrote about because his illustrations aren't in the US edition of The Pinhoe Egg!

29 October 2006

World's Shortest Oz Book

In the spirit of Wired's six-word short stories (e.g., "Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time" --Alan Moore), I thought I'd try an Oz book in six words. (Ahem)

Lost. Made friends. Bested Foes. Home.

28 October 2006

"My Grandchildren Love It"

YouTube offers everyone a look at Wolf Blitzer's questioning of Lynne Cheney about her husband's endorsement of drowning as an interrogation technique, her adult novels, and her latest picture book. Note how many denials she makes. Note how little evidence she offers to back them up.

Thanks to M. T. Anderson for the original alert.

27 October 2006

Questions about the Dark Is Rising Movie

The good news is that Walden Media and 20th Century Fox have made a deal to adapt Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising into a movie, scheduled for release in a year.

The disquieting news is that the director is David L. Cunningham, director of the recent TV miniseries The Path to 9/11, widely criticized for being historically inaccurate, politically slanted, and rather unexciting.

This PDF download quotes Cunningham saying in 1991, at the age of twenty, that he felt a “call to be a missionary to Hollywood. It was a plan to create an independent film company whereby he could both influence the Hollywood film industry and produce major motion pictures which would carry a Biblical, values-based message.” In 2004, Cunningham and fellow alumni of the University of the Nations (an unaccredited institution founded by his father) started a non-profit organization called The Film Institute. It describes itself as

dedicated to a Godly transformation and revolution TO and THROUGH the Film and Television industry. TO it, by serving, living humbly with integrity in what is often a world driven by selfish ambition, power and money – transforming lives from within, and THROUGH it, by creating relevant and evocative content which promotes Godly principles of Truth married with Love.
All well and good, but Cunningham’s highest-profile project showed little concern for “Truth,” at least the historically accurate kind. There were so many distortions in The Path to 9/11 that ABC recut the footage after sending out review copies, added disclaimers, and has now wiped mentions of the movie from abc.com and the pathto911.abc.com subdomain.

Most of the miniseries’s distortions seem to stem from Cyrus Nowrasteh’s screenplay, but at least one was the director’s choice. In one scene the actor playing National Security Advisor Sandy Berger hung up his phone in the middle of a (fictional) CIA operation. The actor improvised that business. Rather than stick to documented “Truth,” Cunningham included that scene in his final cut, which was sent to TV critics and right-wing commentators. After nationwide protests and threats of legal action, ABC edited out the scene.

The first drama from Cunningham’s production company, Pray for Rain Pictures, was the WW2 prison camp drama To End All Wars. Its source in the memoir of a Christian clergyman was no doubt part of its appeal to Cunningham. DVDreport.com reviewer Joel Pearce wrote:
Unfortunately, the lack of subtlety with which these [allegorical] scenes are handled threatens to destroy everything good about To End All Wars. The first few times there are scenes of personal sacrifice, we understand where they are heading. By the fifth time, we are starting to get tired of being hit with it over and over. By the seventh or eighth time, I found myself stunned by the overtness of it all. It also strains believability, which is so important for historical films.
Why does this matter when it comes to The Dark Is Rising? A fantasy novel has no historical record to adhere to, after all. But it’s still quite possible for a director to distort source material by imposing his own world-view on it. I wonder how Cunningham will handle this scene from the book, immediately after the Old Ones have driven off an attack of the Dark:
The rector stood up, his smooth, plump face creased in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. “Certainly it has gone,” he said, looking slowly round the church. “Whatever--influence it was. The Lord be praised.” He too looked at the Signs on Will’s belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smile of relief and delight. “That did the work, didn’t it? The cross. Not of the church, but a Christian cross nonetheless.”

“Very old, them crosses are, rector,” said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. “Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.”

The rector beamed at him. “But not before God,” he said simply.

The Old Ones looked at him. There was no answer that would not have offended him, so no one tried to give one. Except, after a moment, Will.

“There’s not really any before and after, is there?” he said. “Everything that matters is outside Time. And comes from there and can go there.”

Mr Beaumont turned to him in surprise. “You mean infinity, of course, my boy.”

“Not altogether,” said the Old One that was Will. “I mean the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. Yesterday is still there, on that level. Tomorrow is there too. You can visit either of them. And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for. And,” he added sadly, “the opposite, too.”

“Will,” said the rector, staring at him, “I am not sure whether you should be exorcized or ordained. You and I must have some long talks, very soon.”
Cooper depicts the rector, a well-meaning voice of Christianity, as completely out of his depth in her novel’s war between Light and Dark. He strains “to make sense of the incomprehensible,” and shows “an almost childish smile of relief and delight” when he spots something that lets him explain events through his pre-existing beliefs. Some Christians have been troubled by this aspect of Cooper's novel, and its general use of motifs from pre-Christian Britain.

How will Cunningham, with his professed mission to spread "a Biblical, values-based message" and his track record for straining both accuracy and believability in dramatic films, handle this novel’s challenges to his own beliefs?

[ADDENDA: Further news on this movie:

26 October 2006

Real Teens and Rainbow Party

Anita Silvey wrote an article called "The Unreal Deal" for a recent School Library Journal, discussing how young-adult literature has broken out of the "problem of the week" template that first defined it. Folks who've kept up with the genre seem to have been underwhelmed by some of Silvey's observations: Teens read genre literature as well as serious stuff!

Of course they always have. And for many years they reached into the adult shelves to find those books. Now more publishers are coming to teens with books of all sorts, including those that don't put a premium on being "real." And why is that?

I think the article is missing a crucial term: "demographics." The recent rise in teen literature has occurred alongside a rise in the number of teens in the population, just as the first burst (late 1960s through 1970s) coincided with the peak of the Baby Boom turning fifteen. Publishers go where they see higher sales, just like any other business.

Silvey does offer a fine link to David Lubar and Dian Curtis Regan's kit to "Create Your Own Young Adult Novel" of the older sort. (Also seriously useful in that regard: Claire's article "OMG! My BFF is Crushing on My Hottie!" at Media Bistro.)

But my favorite comment from Silvey was about how the adult media, and by extension the larger adult culture, approach teen literature in an even more unreal way:

The mainstream media seems to delight in presenting what is contemptible, rather than what is praiseworthy, in young adult books. For instance, everyone--except teens, that is--desperately wanted to discuss The Rainbow Party, a novel that trumpets adolescent promiscuity.
And now the worries over teenagers' "rainbow parties," as breathlessly discussed in Rainbow Party, by Paul Ruditis, have faded away like a rainbow after a storm. It seems worthwhile to trace how that storm blew up in the first place.

1) In Oct 2003, Oprah Winfrey ran a show called "Is Your Child Living a Double Life?". On it, O magazine writer Michelle Burford said she'd interviewed about 50 teenaged girls and parents about sex, and described "rainbow parties" as one discovery from those interviews. It was unclear how many of the interviewees had described such activity. As far as I can tell, Burford hasn't yet published an article about the topic. But with Oprah having 30 million viewers per week, that guaranteed coverage.

2) The next appearance of the meme was a Nov 2004 episode of the cable-TV comedy Huff, titled "Lipstick on Your Panties."

3) Also watching the Oprah episode was Simon Pulse editor Bethany Buck. She conceived of the idea of a teen novel around the idea of a "rainbow party" in order, she later told USA Today, to "scare" young readers into safer sexual habits. Buck recruited Ruditis, who had written several books for the teen market, from series novels to Sabrina the Teenage Witch: the Official Episode Guide.

I think it's crucial that Rainbow Party wasn't inspired by its author's own experiences, or by the experiences of teenagers he knew. It was a multimedia conglomerate's response to a TV show. It was a media creation from the beginning.

4) In 2005, the book was ready for publication, and it kicked up the predictable outrage that Silvey notes. The multicolored national newspaper USA Today gave the book its first big publicity in May 2005. Some commentators needing a source of outrage for a column bit, starting with Michelle Malkin and Joe Scarborough.

5) The skeptical pushback appeared five weeks later with a prominent New York Times article, asking "Are These Parties for Real?" The paper of record couldn't find a single sex expert or teenager who said they were. That was followed by Caitlin Flanagan's takedown in the Jan 2006 Atlantic, preserved at Powell's.

6) But, like a zombie, the "rainbow parties" rumor keeps shambling on. Wikipedia now documents mentions in several 2006 episodes of TV dramas.

(And now for the best available evidence on reality. The Center for Disease Control has found a decline in youth sexual behavior since 1991, with the big drop among preteens. A clear majority of students are not sexually active. Most who are use condoms. We now return to our regular discussion of fantasy literature.)

To be fair to Ruditis's novel, all its talk about a "rainbow party" turns out to be as empty as that real-life media tempest. The teenaged characters discuss such an event, but none ever takes place. After all the titillation, Rainbow Party ends up reminding us alumni of the real facts about real high schools: everyone thinks that everyone else is having more fun.

25 October 2006

Revising "Hansel and Gretel" Over Time

"Hansel and Gretel" has always been a story of infanticide. Not just the witch fattening up Hansel before eating him, but also the children's parents trying to get them lost in the woods because the family doesn't have enough food for everyone.

But infanticide has become increasingly distasteful in our culture. (And, I hasten to add, this is a Good Thing.) That has made the traditional opening of "Hansel and Gretel" increasingly awkward.

Earlier this month I read a paper on stepfamilies in the early American republic by Prof. Lisa Wilson of Connecticut College which started by citing how even the Grimm brothers revised "Hansel and Gretel" to make it more palatable. UPitt professor D. L. Ashliman's webpage on the story shows the significant difference between the first and final editions.

The 1812 version, based on an 1810 manuscript:

The two children were still awake from hunger and heard everything that the mother had said to the father.
The 1857 version:
The two children had not been able to fall asleep because of their hunger, and they heard what the stepmother had said to the father.
By turning the "mother" into a "stepmother" (a change that first appeared in the 1840 printing, Ashliman reports), the Grimms offered an acceptable explanation of that woman's wish to abandon the children: they were never her biological children to begin with.

A new picture book called Hansel and Diesel, by David Gordon, makes a further revision. This change may have appeared in other recent retellings as well, but I don't recall having seen it. (And did I mention that in Gordon's book all the characters are trucks?)
Hansel and Diesel were hungry. Fuel was getting low.

"We're running out of gas," said their father.

"I don't know how we'll make it through the winter," their mother agreed.

Hansel and Diesel were listening from their room.

"I think we should go out to look for some fuel," said Diesel.
Gordon thus has the children themselves take the initiative (and blame) for going out into the woods. That lets the parents come along afterward and help their children escape from the witch character, with no hint of parental infanticide of any kind. The only bad guy in this story is a stranger from outside the family.

This change also turns the Hansel and Gretel characters from mere victims at the outset into the story's drivers [!]. Again, that reflects our modern tastes in story structure.

(Over all, however, Hansel and Diesel didn't please me. It left out most of the parts of "Hansel and Gretel" in which the kids think their way out of problems. Everything is instead resolved through force. But perhaps that's how trucks always work.)

24 October 2006

Back to Journey Back to Oz

Today is supposed to be the official release date of Journey Back to Oz on DVD. This was an animated movie made in the 1960s, after The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) had gone into the public domain, and it rewrites that book with Dorothy as its heroine, decades before Return to Oz did something similar.

The most notable aspect of the movie is that for the voice of Dorothy the makers turned to the young daughter of Judy Garland, who had played the role in 1939. When she recorded her lines and songs in the early 1960s, Liza Minnelli was no star. Years later, after she'd won almost every type of award and Journey Back to Oz was finally released, Liza got top billing. And that in a cast which included Mickey Rooney, Margaret Hamilton (this time as Aunt Em), Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Danny Thomas, Paul Lynde--practically an entire Donny and Marie special!

23 October 2006

For Folks Who Think the World Needs More Smurfiness

A report from last week's Publishers Weekly:

Last year Steve Syatt, a public relations veteran who helped launch children's brands including Bob the Builder, decided to launch a brand of his own called Shushybye, with stories about dreams and sleeping. He self-published the first book, Shushybye: Snoozles Saves the Night, and sold over 3,000 on consignment at Borders stores throughout California.

Last month St. Martin's Press announced a worldwide rights deal for books from the Shushybye brand. . . .

Inspiration for self-published authors? Not really. For one thing, the Shushabye.com webpage says that this company has been around since January 2004, so Syatt has been working on his vision at least twice as long as the Publishers Weekly article implies. And it's clear that the company's goal is to create a brand, not to tell stories. Books are only one part of a product mix that includes DVD, TV show, sleepwear, toys, music, and a concert tour.

Remember how the Smurfs had only one, stereotyped female character when they began? Take a look at the "Meet the Shushies" page. Out of five characters shown and two more named, all but one is male. But don't worry--a little obvious reverse sexism should make that tokenism go away, right?
DOZIE is a girl Shushie, so she has all the smarts (of course!). DOZIE is always coming up with great ideas. She also loves to dance and has a bit of a crush on SNOOZLES. Children can always rely on DOZIE for the most wondrous dreams - and for her sweetness and joy.
I'm not sure I'll sleep better tonight.

22 October 2006

Maguire and More at Concord Author Fest

Part of the ongoing Concord Festival of Authors this month is a "Wizard of Oz Family Party" at the Concord, Massachusetts, Scout House on Walden Street, Saturday, 28 Oct, 2:00 to 4:00. "Costumes Encouraged!" say the announcements. There are games, crafts, readings, trivia tests, and the chance to "Paint your face green."

Gregory Maguire will be on hand to read from and sign some of his best-selling books, including the Oz-inspired Wicked and Son of a Witch. It's always fun at these events to see Gregory, a good father and still in many ways a good Irish Catholic boy, squirm at the sight of small children in his audience as he reads from what are, after all, novels for adults.

Also part of this festival are appearances by these children's-book creators:

21 October 2006

Gift for a Word Person: Word Sweep

Sometime last year my writing-group friend Steve came up to me after a meeting and said something like, "I have a feeling you might be a word person. Are you?"

I said, "I subscribe to two online word newsletters and think The New Yorker and The Atlantic went downhill when they stopped printing puzzles. Why do you ask?"

"I've got a board game for you to try."

Now when Steve said a board game, he didn't mean a game he'd bought off the shelf. He meant a game that he'd invented himself and was developing with the Intellinitiative Game Company and Merriam-Webster's. Steve wasn't just looking for another word person; he was looking for a word guinea pig.

So of course I said I'd try his game. And I was bundled away to a lab and locked in a room with a big mirror along one wall, forced to play round after round of...

No, of course not. Steve had me and a bunch of other nice people over to his house to try out the game. I like to think our feedback helped improve it a little, but it's so beautifully simple in concept that there wasn't a lot of room or need for improvement.

Now Steve's game has come onto the market, and it's called Merriam-Webster's Word Sweep. You can buy it through eToys, Target, Barnes & Noble, and other right-thinking retailers. Playing is simple: you're given a letter and definitions for three words beginning with that letter. Those words come one after another in a Merriam-Webster's dictionary. It's up to you to figure out what they are.

There are a few additional rules governing harder and easier word series, moving around the board, point-stealing, and so on. The rules are also written to let kids and adults compete against each other fairly, and I can attest that that worked. I can also attest that being a word person makes Word Sweep more fun, but it doesn't make it easy.

This page offers a sneak preview of the game. And here's a story on Steve's creative process from his local newspaper.

20 October 2006

G. P. Taylor Loses a Wheel

The Rev. G. P. Taylor, author of Shadowmancer and other books, has gotten a bit of press (in the Christian market, at least) from telling the Daily Star tabloid that enemies sabotaged his car. (Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the first alert.) As passed on by the Spero News and the Assist News Service, Taylor reported that a wheel had come off his chauffeured car, but he and his driver escaped injury.

Taylor told the tabloid's eager reporter: "I'm the victim of an insidious hate campaign among some adults who don’t like my books. These people flood the web with messages inciting harm towards me and one recent posting read 'should we want to kill him.'" Yet despite the news that such messages have "flooded the web," the only example of that quoted phrase that Google could find for me was this very news article. Taylor's near-death experience on the highway is apparently too big to confine to his blog, or even to mention there.

A year ago, folks may recall, Taylor got "120 pupils aged 12 and 13" riled up by using words like "bum, bogey, fart and pee" in an author talk at a comprehensive school. Teachers stopped him halfway through, and someone--who could it have been?--called the papers. Of course, Taylor would have had no reason to expect that using such vocabulary in a school presentation would have caused a fuss, would he?

At that time Taylor told the Guardian that he was merely speaking up for such fine literature as, well, Shadowmancer. He agreed that he'd "said television was 'crap' compared with books," and that "Harry Potter was not 'the only gay in the village'," a catch-phrase from the Little Britain television show. (This was reported around the world as if Taylor had said Harry Potter is gay; English may be our universal language now, but that doesn't mean anyone understands the English.)

Why do I get the feeling that Taylor manufactures his own publicity? Consider this article that appears on Taylor's webpages and nowhere else:

New York Times best selling author GP Taylor has vowed that he will be giving up writing his Shadowmancer series of books as he has been branded as the new CS Lewis. . . .

Due to the popularity of the Shadowmancer series, it is believed that Taylor has been offered 'an incredible' deal to produce a sequel for the millions of fans worldwide by Faber and Faber. It is also believed Lawyers have also gagged Taylor from revealing the amount of the contract in public as it is said to be a 'never before done deal'.
What journalist ferreted out all that secret information about Taylor's book deals (and edited it so poorly)? None other than Bob Smietana, Taylor's collaborator on his autobiography. Yes, Taylor is one of those rare authors who need a ghost writer for their own memoirs.

And speaking of that autobiography, perhaps it will clear up how old Taylor is. This Spero News review of the book reports he was born in 1958. Yet in 2003 he told the Guardian that he was 43, and the recent Daily Star article apparently states that three years later Taylor is only 44.

Worst Use of Fantasy Literature of the Week

This week Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), trailing in his race for reelection, told the Bucks County Courier-Times that America's ongoing war in Iraq is the equivalent of Aragorn's attack on the gates of Mordor:

As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else. It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the US. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States.
Naturally, websites are illustrating this quote with photo-composites of Santorum and the Gigantic Lighthouse of Evil from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. For a knowledgable dismembering of the Tolkien analogy, see Scott Rosenberg's analysis.

19 October 2006

Progressing Still through The Pinhoe Egg

Oh, it's a griffin story.

Cat, who in Charmed Life had the painful realization that the only person he thought loved him really didn't, now has two animals eager for his company.

Pleasant as that is to see, the griffin's arrival leaves me with mixed emotions. Because I have a baby griffin story in the works myself. The broken speech, the appetite, the quick growth--they all seem strangely familiar. Of course, I'm sure I could find all those elements in other books about magical creatures, and there are a lot of differences between Jones's approach and [ahem] my own:

“Amy! Roger! I brought home a surprise!” Aunt Mattie called from the front door. In one hand she carried her keys, in the other a brown paper sack. With her snow-covered sneakers she was pushing a big cardboard box.

Amy glanced up from drawing a cartoon of her sixth-grade teacher. A small fuzzy head poked over the edge of the box and looked back. The head had shiny gold eyes, a hooked beak, and sharp twitchy ears. Amy said, “Yow!” She dropped her sketch pad and hopped off the sofa to see the whole animal. It was the size of a cat, but skinnier. It had four legs, a thin frisky tail, and a small pair of silver wings growing from its feathery shoulders. “Aunt Mattie! What is it?”

“Whatever it is, we can’t keep it!” Amy’s sixteen-year-old brother Roger yelled from the laundry room. He jogged up the basement stairs to the front hall, then slouched against a wall. “So--what’s the surprise this time?”

“I closed the store early and bought a special dinner for all of us.” Aunt Mattie held out the bulging sack from Takimoto’s Restaurant. “Sashimi! That’s Japanese fish. Surprise!”
[Past postings--
18 May 2006: whispers of a new Chrestomanci book.
10 Oct 2006: first impressions.
12 Oct 2006: enter the horse.
14 Oct 2006: Joe bears watching.
16 Oct 2006: Cat escapes a cliché.

More Online Reviews I Have Refrained from Reading--
Word Candy]

Story opening copyright (c) 2006 by J. L. Bell

18 October 2006

Reconstructing the Imagery of Social Heroism

At the International Conference on the Book to be held here in Boston this upcoming weekend, Prof. Jill P. May of Purdue will present a paper on "American Fantasy for Youthful Audiences." The conference website offers this preview:

Using four books published with a youthful audience in mind, this presentation will discuss the ways that four American authors reconstructed the imagery of social heroism for their contemporary readers. These authors span a hundred-year period in American publishing, and they demonstrate ways that religious, social and political ideals have been embedded in American children’s and adolescent literature.

The public acceptance of their fantasies details how American publishing has re-shaped certain images concerning the ideal of heroism and the social implications of culturally established gender roles within books designed for a contemporary youthful audience. All four authors were inspired by earlier socially established literary patterns that depicted social and economic justice and cultural memory as found in published editions of European folklore and literary fantasy books. Two, Howard Pyle and Lloyd Alexander, reshaped the hero’s journey, turning to the economic and ethical issues embedded in social change in their careful depictions of characters forced to understand and accept (or reject) mythical ideology and economic power. Two, Natalie Babbitt and Edith Patou, have revisited gender imagery in traditional European folklore and have detailed the significance of young girls within a traditional society in their rewritings of published nineteenth century folklore for youthful readers.

This paper will consider whether these U. S. authors consciously reshaped earlier depictions of war, gender, social and economic justice, and memory in their writing and how their writing was received upon its publication, suggesting how authors write literature that reverses contemporary attitudes about culture and power and demonstrating that audiences often accept these literary re-writings best when they fail to overtly consider the underlying ideals found in contemporary publishing for youthful readers.
Kinda takes the magic out of fantasy, doesn't it?

Now May knows what she's writing about. She's on Purdue's list of great teachers, she literally wrote the book on Alexander, and even her textbook with the daunting title Children's Literature and Critical Theory starts out with an evocative, personal passage on how reading can transport:
When I was a child, I was a continual reader and dreamer. I read about Pochahontas and then role played her life, using the tall corn rows in our garden as her forest; I read about Robin Hood and his merry men and I became a part of his merry band, wandering the forest land behind my farm home; I heard of Dorothy's trip in a cyclone to a magical land and imagined I was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, spreading newspaper across the living-room and dining-room floors to make my yellow brick road.
I'm intrigued by how fantasy writing for children can challenge prevailing economic ideas, as long as the challenges don't become overt. At least, that's what I think I draw out of May's summary above. But the academic prose alternately puts me on edge and puts me to sleep. And if you're writing about childhood play, why use "role played" as a verb (and a non-hyphenated one at that) when "pretended" is available? Or would simple language be too overt?

17 October 2006

Booksellers and Baristas

From the London Times, via POD-dy Mouth through Bookseller Chick through Fuse #8, comes Brian Appleyard's essay on how print-on-demand technology will affect bookstores. Appleyard, a journalist, critic, occasional novelist, and all-around opinionator, offers this vision of future bookselling:

You will go into Starbucks, slip your credit card into a machine, order a book and grab a latte, which you will finish just as your book completes its printing and binding process.
That particular convergence of paper and coffee has been happening for years now. No respectable large bookstore can open in North America without a coffee bar. Even new public libraries, like those in Princeton, New Jersey, and Watertown, Massachusetts, have small bakeshops built into their architecture. On the other side of the equation, Starbucks has its own publishing program.

Just today, Publishers Weekly reported that Lightning Source, the almost monopolistically dominant print-on-demand manufacturer, is adding capacity. Once books were digitized, they started to fall under Moore's Law, meaning the price of storing and transfering their content gets cheaper and cheaper.

The only thing holding back the total book-coffee convergence Appleyard describes is, I suspect, the smell of the book-production process. And maybe the coffee will cancel that out. (I'm a tea drinker myself.) Back in July I wrote that "within our lifetimes I predict that most novels will be printed" with POD technology.

Studying the eighteenth century helps remind me that the bookselling environment we're used to is a recent invention. Back when Thomas Hancock (shown above) and Henry Knox were selling books in Boston, they:
  • carried many other goods in their stores, and
  • bound books as customers requested them instead of filling their shelves with finished inventory.
Nostalgia for our current system of pre-printed books arrayed en masse might turn out to be like nostalgia for the Linotype machine, or hand-set type. Will the changes Appleyard describes really matter to the reader?

A store built around the print-on-demand model can offer advantages for readers, in fact. For instance, stores (and libraries) usually shelve all their inventory of one title in one place, unless they create a special display (charging the publisher for the privilege). But what about books that appeal to both adults and kids? Or touch on both business and spirituality? Or have large portions of both history and biography? Online listings don't have to be as limited as shelf space: one title can pop up in many searches.

The main problem I see in the POD model is how we readers would find the wonderful book that we don't yet know to look for: the new title by a familiar author, the additional book on a subject that turns out to be better than the one you came in for, the impulse buy, the gift for someone else that you'll know once you see it. But you could probably work around that problem once you have a cup of coffee.

16 October 2006

Progressing Onward through The Pinhoe Egg

Around page 200 of The Pinhoe Egg (US edition), young Cat realizes that the castle's in a total tizz because Chrestomanci is missing. So he decides to go find his teacher. On his own. Without telling anyone. Even though he has a friendly, supportive, immensely powerful adult protector in Chrestomanci's wife Millie, not to mention others in the castle.

This is a classic set-up in children's books. Usually it ends with the bold child getting in trouble that he only just manages to get out of, and we all learn a valuable lesson about life. In fact, Harry Potter would have only about half the dangerous adventures he does if he only told Dumbledore what was on his mind! L. Frank Baum based a whole short story on the Wizard trying to teach Dorothy a lesson about going off on her own.

So naturally I expect Cat's decision to send him into trouble. But instead, he manages to do what he set out to do: he finds Chrestomanci. Of course, it's not as easy as he thought, and some other things happen along the way, but this turns out to be a small episode in a more complex book. Cat's rash decision isn't the crucial fulcrum of the whole story. And even after 200 pages 60% of the novel lies ahead.

[Past postings--
18 May 2006: whispers of a new Chrestomanci book.
10 Oct 2006: first impressions.
12 Oct 2006: enter the horse.
14 Oct 2006: Joe bears watching.

More Bloggers' Reviews I Have Refrained from Reading--
Sea Change
Reader Rabid]

Analyzing All Forty-Plus Oz Books

For ten years, starting in 1997, Oz fans on successive email lists called the Ozzy Digest, Nonestica, and (currently) Regalia have discussed each Oz book in turn, along with related titles by L. Frank Baum and his successors. Those discussions now total more than 992,000 words, and comprise the largest bulk of critical commentary and scholarship about the Oz series that I think has ever been committed to digits.

Atticus Gannaway has now bravely compiled these discussions and, with Ivan Van Laningham's help, posted the record for all Oz fans to peruse. This archive is called the "Books of Current Focus." (That name was an attempt to avoid curtailing discussion of other books at the same time, or forcing each focused discussion into a certain month or other time unit. Of course, having undecipherable jargon like "BCF" is one way an online community distinguishes itself.)

I think the most important concept for understanding the BCF discussions is the following distinction:

  • Oz-as-history: Imagining Oz and its neighbors to be real countries, with the Oz books as imperfect histories of those countries. In this approach, one tries to reconcile contradictions and explain illogical acts by determining what the most likely "real" events were. This can lead to ascribing motives to Oz characters that authors for children would have glossed over.
  • Oz-as-literature: Examining the books as stories created by a series of American writers seeking to entertain their changing audience. This approach treats those same contradictions and illogicalities as clues to the authors' changing visions, or to simple carelessness. Oz-as-literature also considers how the series reflects America's politics and social environment.
I came upon and came into these discussions in September 1997, and rarely shut up after that. Now folks can judge for themselves whether that was an improvement.

15 October 2006

Can You Hear Me Now in City of Ember?

When I first remarked on the content of City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, the better-read Elizabeth Bird of Fuse #8 commented on the similarities of its setup with three other books:
The Wind Singer, by William Nicholson
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Below the Root, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

In all four books, she remarked:

Child turns 12 and will now have the job they will carry for the rest of their life. Child then discovers the ugly underbelly of his/her otherwise perfect society. . . . If the child is a boy, as in The Giver and Below the Root, then the job he's been given is extra special. If the child is a girl, as in The Wind Singer and City of Ember, the job requires running around a lot.

To which I could only reply:
It struck me how Lina's job as messenger ("running around a lot" indeed) might reflect some modern stereotypes about girls. She gets to be active, yet her activity (as opposed to the boy Doon's) involves communication and personal relationships rather than machinery.
Carol Gilligan would be proud, in other words. Of course, it helps a plot for any young hero to be privy to news and secrets, and thus to be at a communication nexus (such as Fuse #8). I think that's why Johnny Tremain went to work for a printer back in the 1940s--or 1770s, if you prefer.

What about stereotypes of boys? Doon is ambitious, hot-tempered, fascinated by bugs, and technically oriented. And as for males getting the extra special jobs, these books need some grounding in reality, right?

Looking back (down?) on City of Ember from its conclusion, I can't help thinking about how carefully DuPrau chose technology to open up the messenger job for Lina. Her dystopic society is set in the future. The city is lit by incandescent lightbulbs (patented 1880) and heated with electric burners (1889). But it has no telephone (invented 1876) or telegraph (1830), so for communication from one block to another the city relies on adolescents running back and forth and reciting messages.

14 October 2006

Progressing Further through The Pinhoe Egg

Diana Wynne Jones's last Chrestomanci novel, Conrad's Fate, was a departure in being written in the first person, and thus exclusively from Conrad's point of view.

In The Pinhoe Egg, Jones is back to using the third person with the point of view shifting among the various children in the story: mostly Marianne Pinhoe and Eric (Cat) Chant, but also Janet, Roger, and Julia. Even Joss Callow, a young man, gets a passage. Only one child has been left out so far: Marianne's brother Joe.

Therefore, Joe bears serious watching.

[Past postings--
18 May 2006: whispers of a new Chrestomanci book.
10 Oct 2006: first impressions.
12 Oct 2006: enter the horse.

More Bloggers' Reviews I Have Refrained from Reading--
My Lady Tongue
La Guinevere

Audiobook Immortality Slips By

Yesterday afternoon I sat down in the reading room atop the Boston Athenaeum with two old volumes of the Huntington Library Quarterly to peruse. But first my cell phone was quivering in its attention-seeking way. Someone had called me at 12:25, when I was incommunicado in the subway, and the phone didn't recognize the number.

So I thought no more about that and dove into the world of Dr. Thomas Young, the Rev. Isaac Backus, and young Benjamin Thompson--i.e., pre-Revolutionary Boston. About 5:15, I packed up and went downstairs.

And I ran smack into the Horn Book Awards crowd, almost flooring a man as I opened the stairwell door. (I made up for it by telling him where to find the restroom.) I twisted and torted myself through the crowd toward the exit, only to be greeted by advertising manager J. D. Ho with name tags. Earlier in the week she'd emailed me that there was no more seating at the ceremony, so I refrained from identifying myself as one of the names still on the table and resumed threading my way out.

Editor Roger Sutton passed by, marching honorees up to the podium. Normally corraling authors and artists is like herding cats, but it helps that Roger's two meters tall.

Finally I retrieved my checked bag and turned to the outer door--and bumped into past honoree M. T. Anderson. "How did the leech get into the bed?" I asked him.

"It was on my leg to begin with," he said. [This is a common problem for travelers in Nepal, apparently. Add another region to my list of Places I'm Happy to Read About, Thank You.] "You know, I tried calling you early this afternoon."

It turned out he was my missed call. Anderson's National Book Award-nominated novel Octavian Nothing contains a letter about hiring a horse which, in eighteenth-century style, has dashes in place of a man's name. The audiobook publisher didn't want to leave a Nixonian gap there, so it asked Anderson to provide a name, any name. And since I'd helped to vett the book's historical details, he thought it might be fun to insert my name--if I approved.

But we didn't connect in time, so that horse dealer in the audiobook will now sport another name. Fame is so fleeting.

13 October 2006

The Purple Dragon Did Not Want to Be Destroyed

L. Frank Baum published other books in 1900 besides The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The longest was a collection of fairy tales titled, derivately, A New Wonderland. Baum had written these stories before the manuscript he at first called "The Emerald City." They offered a lot of magic and humor, but they didn't have the unified plot, emotional depth, or determined young American heroine of Wizard. And they didn't sell as well.

A few years later, after Wizard was a huge hit and Wonderland wasn't, Baum rewrote the latter book. He now titled it, derivatively, The Magical Monarch of Mo. And it stayed in print for many years.

The land of Mo gets mentioned in The Patchwork Girl of Oz and then visited in The Scarecrow of Oz. In both countries, animals talk and (eventually) people are immortal. But in Mo the winds are scented, snow falls as popcorn, the ground is candy, rivers can be made of treacle or needles--the whole country is so much more whimsically magical that it can give you a headache, like certain types of candle stores.

A little of Mo can go a long way, but a little can also be a lot of fun. This is the start of the first story in the collection, in its second version.

A good many years ago, the Magical Monarch of Mo became annoyed by the Purple Dragon, which came down from the mountains and ate up a patch of his best chocolate caramels just as they were getting ripe.

So the King went out to the sword-tree and picked a long, sharp sword, and tied it to his belt and went away to the mountains to fight the Purple Dragon.

"The King had a terrible fight with the Purple Dragon."

The people all applauded him, saying one to another:

"Our King is a good King. He will destroy this naughty Purple Dragon and we shall be able to eat the caramels ourselves."

But the Dragon was not alone naughty; it was big, and fierce, and strong, and did not want to be destroyed at all.

Therefore the King had a terrible fight with the Purple Dragon and cut it with his sword in several places, so that the raspberry juice which ran in its veins squirted all over the ground.

It is always difficult to kill Dragons. They are by nature thick-skinned and tough, as doubtless every one has heard. Besides, you must not forget that this was a Purple Dragon, and all scientists who have studied deeply the character of Dragons say those of a purple color at the most disagreeable to fight with. So all the King's cutting and slashing had no effect upon the monster other than to make him angry. Forgetful of the respect due to a crowned King, the wicked Dragon presently opening wide its jaws and bit his Majesty's head clean off his body. Then he swallowed it.

Of course the King realized it was useless to continue to fight after that, for he could not see where the Dragon was. So he turned and tried to find his way back to his people. But at every other step he would bump into a tree, which made the naughty Dragon laugh at him. Furthermore, he could not tell in which direction he was going, which is an unpleasant feeling under any circumstances.

At last some of the people came to see if the King had succeeded in destroying the Dragon, and found their monarch running around in a circle, bumping into trees and rocks, but not getting a step nearer home. So they took his hand and led him back to the palace, where every one was filled with sorrow at the sad sight of the headless King.
See the rest of the story, with Frank Ver Beck's illustrations, at this Project Gutenberg page. Also, in Mo's final tale the king and his advisors decide they have to do away with the Purple Dragon once and for all. (So there's a bit of a unified story.)

12 October 2006

So Few Kid Details in So Few of Me

Peter H. Reynolds, in addition to being the illustrator of Megan McDonald's Judy Moody series and other books, is president of the Fablevision animation studios. And several of his own picture books strike me as being written for other managers. They look like picture books for kids, with attractive art and design and few words. But they're really adult advice books in a less scary format.

The latest, So Few of Me, comes with a blurb from the host of the Simple Living TV series. Reynolds's author bio focuses on his experience with a time-management seminar. The front flap copy concludes that the book is "a timely meditation on a very modern affliction." Clearly, those aren't details to grab young readers.

Inside, the text starts, "Leo was a very busy lad." The art shows a barefoot, tousled kid. But Leo doesn't act just like a kid. His activities include washing windows, heating food on the stove, and grocery-shopping. His to-do list on the front endpaper includes such adult tasks as "Cancel meeting," "Buy newspaper," "Send forms," and "buy organizer"--not a word about "homework."

It would certainly be possible to write about an overscheduled American kid today. But So Few of Me's vocabulary and marketing reveal that it actually addresses those overscheduled kids' parents (and likely overschedulers). Reynolds's artwork, here reminiscent of Quentin Blake, is a lot of fun to look at. [A few years ago I bought an original Reynolds sketch for my godson's christening present.] But the artwork can't change the real audience for this book.

Now there's nothing wrong with giving adults "picture books that celebrate the creative process," as So Few of Me, The Dot, and Ish are designed to do. Peter's in a unique position to convey that message, as a children's illustrator who's also an executive. But books like these show the prejudices and limits of our publishing culture.

We assume that 32-page illustrated books with short texts must be for kids. That they must therefore be about kids, like young Leo. That they must be shelved in the children's section of bookstores and libraries. Will the adults who would benefit from So Few of Me find it there?

Of course, those may be the only places where they'll be open to its message.

Progressing through The Pinhoe Egg

Oh, it's a horse book. Delicious.

[Past postings--
18 May 2006: whispers of a new Chrestomanci book.
10 Oct 2006: first impressions.

Bloggers' Reviews I Have Refrained from Reading--
It's Far a Future on PLANET
Floating Down to Camelot
Have Fun Go Mad
Unknown Entity]

11 October 2006

Visiting Storybook England

A little over a decade ago, I made my first visit to good friends in England. They were living in an apartment in Christ Church College at Oxford, and they arranged for me to sleep in a spare room in the deanery below. That's the same deanery where Alice Liddell, daughter of Dean Henry Liddell, grew up.

My bedroom window overlooked the garden where Alice and her sisters had played, including a tree said to be the model for the Cheshire Cat's. In a common room nearby was a fire screen that the Rev. Charles L. Dodgson used to introduce youngsters to his Hunting of the Snark (on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis). And to light my way to the bathroom at night, the most convenient lamp was the little one over a Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII. It was a most impressive arrangement for an Anglophilic visitor.

Now the UK's National Tourist Office has recognized that children's literature is one of the country's most valuable exports, and has created a new website to lure travelers: StorybookEngland.com. It offers pointers to scores of sites around Britain associated with children's literature. For instance, Dorney Court was the childhood inspiration for Susan Cooper's Huntercombe Hall in The Dark Is Rising.

I have a few grumbles about this site. It seems impossible to navigate around without stumbling back into the annoying animated introduction. There are two non-overlapping lists of authors, both alphabetical by first name; then the Bookstore section is alphabetical by last name. Finally, I once backed into the "First Page," only to find that its lists of authors and works was completely "undefined." In short, there are still more than a few bugs to be shunted away.

More worrisome in the long run, a lot of the locations recommended for visiting aren't where great books were written, set, or inspired, but sites where those books are commemorated (such as the statue of Paddington Bear in Paddington Station) or where TV or movie adaptations were filmed. We move closer and closer to a culture in which nothing really matters unless it's been on TV.

For example, the only E. Nesbit sites are where The Railway Children was filmed thirty-five years ago, and that's the only Nesbit novel in the bookstore. I don't particularly like The Railway Children. [And I will sneer at all emails from fans of that soppy tale of upper-middle-class deprivation and trainspotting, reading them aloud in a high, twee voice for my own amusement.]

Surely in all England there must be a worthwhile site associated with Nesbit herself, such as the church where she's buried, and her superior fantasy and humor novels. Is there no sandpit where the Psammead might have buried itself? Or estate with statuary that inspired The Enchanted Castle?

(And as long as you're heading to Storybook England, check out the new ride at the Tate Modern!)

10 October 2006

The Shape of Fantasy Novels Today

Working at a book publisher spoils one's pure enjoyment of books. When publishing vets open new volumes, they don't start off by reading. That would be too natural. Instead, they look at the copyright page for printing data, scan the acknowledgments for familiar or unfamiliar names, sniff to see if it's a POD copy (yes, they have distinctive smell--not that there's anything wrong with that).

So yesterday I bought my copy of The Pinhoe Egg, the latest Chrestomanci novel by Diana Wynne Jones. And the first thing I noticed wasn't the focus
on adolescents having to work as household servants (continued from Conrad's Fate, the last in the series) or on sibling relationships (continued from practically all Jones's books). No, I looked at the leading.

"Leading" is book-design jargon left over from the era of type set by hand. Between each line of words printers placed a thin strip of lead to keep the letters in place. The more strips or the thicker the lead, the more space appeared between lines. That amount of space is called the "leading" (rhymes with "sledding"). The term has survived because typewriting's "line-spacing" isn't quite as precise.

The Pinhoe Egg has a lot of leading. It also has a slightly larger size of the same typeface--Granjon--that Harper used in its 2001 reissue of The Lives of Christopher Chant. As a result, the older book has 4.77 lines per inch while Pinhoe has 3.66. Furthermore, the new book has a smaller trim size, so its text block (the amount of space covered by the main text) is smaller. All of which means that a novel which might be about the same word count as its predecessor fills over 500 pages instead of 330.

Not too long ago, publishers thought readers would balk at the bulk and expense of such a thick book. That's why Christopher Chant is a tall, willowy volume, relatively speaking. But now in this post-Rowling world, fantasy readers seem to want thick books that they can dive into, and leading is one way to indulge them.

09 October 2006

Too Many Pies

I received a nice response to an essay I posted to the Child_Lit list last week [thank you, Jim Thomas!], so I'm posting it here, too, in the interests of widening the exchange of thought and, of course, saving myself work.

Having become dismayed after reading such recent fantasy novels as D. J. MacHale's Pendragon and Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's Beyond the Deepwoods, list member Fairrosa wrote:

Is there hope for a better future of fantasy novels for young readers? I wanted more fantasy for years since there was such a dearth of this genre, but then now we have opened the floodgate and the pearls are now being washed away or buried under the large quantity of junk-like substances.
And I replied...

Painful as it can be for us literary types, it helps to think of these trends in terms of economics. Imagine you're a publisher. In the US, that means you're working within a capitalist system. Your job is to produce profitable books for your employer. Along the way, you hope to create lasting literature, but you can do that only if you pay the electricity bill.

For complex and perhaps unfathomable reasons, children's fantasy novels suddenly become the books that sell more than any other kinds--more even than adult thrillers and love stories. In fact, some of those novels rewrite everything we knew about publishing, such as national boundaries, sales patterns, and how much a ten-year-old is willing to read at a sitting.

So naturally you look for more children's fantasy novels to publish. You see higher potential for profit in books that in other years you might have passed over. Some of those books are okay but not great, others very complex, others very long, etc. In the new environment, a lot more children's fantasies get a chance. This produces both some wonderful breakthroughs and some dross.

Meanwhile, other types of books aren't doing so well, so you become more choosy there. You pluck only the most likely to be profitable: those from experienced authors, from celebrities, the very best, and the very easiest to sell.

Now imagine that you're an author or hopeful author. You see fantasies for children earning much more respect, and much more money. Even without crass opportunism, you can't help but see more potential in that field, too. Where ten years ago you might have filed away a fantasy idea in the back of your mind, now you think it sounds like a fun project to work on. So we have children's fantasy novels from experienced authors in other genres like Adam Gopnik, James Grippando, Rick Riordan, et al. And we have a lot more first-time authors, or hopeful authors, of fantasy.

There's a rule for small business: "You always have one of these problems: too many customers or too many pies." (This is a rule I heard from my mother, who learned it from her business professor Neal Yanofsky, who's now President of Panera Bread and putting his bakestuff knowledge to good use. In a mind-twisting turn of events, Yanofsky and I turned out to have had the same first-grade teacher. But I digress.)

Right now there are so many fantasy customers that publishers don't have enough pies. So they're shipping some pies that aren't quite as good as they could be, or simply aren't quite as good.

At some point, the cultural tide will flow away from fantasy for young people and toward some other literary genre or form of entertainment. And then pretty good fantasy manuscripts will go begging for publishers, and very good ones will go begging for readers. There will finally be enough pies--in fact, the field of pies might on average be much better than before--but there won't be enough customers.

So the sad economics answer to Fairrosa's question might be that we'll see publishers be more choosy and demanding about fantasy novels when all those kids she tells about good fantasy books have for a while been insisting on something else.

08 October 2006

Change at the Children's Book Council

This past week the venerable Children's Book Council announced a big change in strategic direction. That was no surprise; when the organization recently replaced its Executive Director, it made clear that it was gearing up for a different mission.

Publishers Weekly reported on a consultants' study that the CBC had commissioned about itself to guide the transition:

In essence, the study found, the CBC operates as a charitable foundation despite being constructed as a trade association. The consensus from members is that they want it first and foremost to be a trade association, with a mission of supporting its members' business.
As I saw it, the CBC was one of the last major outposts of the Way Children's Publishing Used to Be:
  • library-based, rather than consumer-based
  • promoting childhood literacy as a public good rather than a commercial necessity
  • viewing the field almost as a public service instead of a business
In sum, the CBC promoted books (and itself) as a Good Thing--hence my adjective "venerable" above. And there's nothing wrong with that. It just doesn't necessarily pay.

For many years the CBC helped pay for itself by selling posters and other materials that promoted reading, particularly Children's Book Week. But then publishers started producing tremendous quantities of promotional material that promoted reading particular books, and giving it away free. (I have several boxes of such stuff in my basement, left over from SCBWI New England events.) That left the CBC with less revenue. And the big publishers who filled the holes started to wonder what their big dues were buying.

Now the council's role is supposed to be clearer: in the words of Roaring Brook Press Publisher and CBC Chairman Simon Boughton, "to be the visible spokesperson for the industry." Will that mean speaking up against challenges and for larger library budgets? Or lobbying for longer copyright terms and broader work-for-hire contracts? After all, it's the big publishers paying the bills.

(Also in the PW article was a report from a Penguin executive that "Target was crushing Wal-Mart in children's book sales," and the larger chain wants to do something about that. I predict that Wal-Mart will be publishing its own down-market children's books within ten years.)

Thank goodness there'll always be an England

On 3 October the Manchester Evening News reported that the Marks & Spencer department store apologized to a parent and refunded her money for baby pajamas with a picture of two giraffes under the label:


Good show all around, I apostrophize. After all, what's the good of producing the language that dominates the world if nobody knows its most elementary rules?

07 October 2006

Tik-Tok Stops Thinking

It's been over a week since my last Oz-related post, which seems far too long. So I'm sharing one of my favorite passages from The Road to Oz.

This is from the chapter in which all tension drains merrily from the book. Though Dorothy and her companions haven't gotten home yet, none is now under enchantment and it becomes clear that her powerful friend Ozma is looking after them. In other words, there's no reason for readers to worry about them any longer. Yet it's only chapter 14 out of 24, so what can possibly draw us through the rest of the book?

Despite that apparent weakness, The Road to Oz was one of my elementary-school favorites, and I've heard several other people mention it as a favorite as well. I think the key to its appeal is that, no longer worrying about plot, Baum focused all his attention on bringing out the vivid personalities of his characters. The Emerald City favorites never seem more real than in the final chapters of this book because Baum displays their foibles and failings as well as their strengths; we can weigh both and feel reassured of their appeal.

One example of how Baum added new layers to established characters appears in this little exchange between Dorothy and Tik-Tok, the mechanical man. Introduced a couple of books earlier in Ozma of Oz, Tik-Tok has separate mechanisms for thinking, speaking, and moving. Throughout that earlier book he had a tendency to freeze, calling for help until his speech failed. But Dorothy is pleased with him nonetheless.

"This," [Dorothy said,] turning to her traveling companions, "is Mr. Tik-tok, who works by machinery 'cause his thoughts wind up, and his talk winds up, and his action winds up--like a clock." . . .

The copper man bowed low, removing his copper hat as he did so.

"I'm ve-ry pleased to meet Dor-o-thy's fr-r-r-r---" Here he stopped short.

"Oh, I guess his speech needs winding!" said the little girl, running behind the copper man to get the key off a hook at his back. She wound him up at a place under his right arm and he went on to say:

"Par-don me for run-ning down. I was a-bout to say I am pleased to meet Dor-o-thy's friends, who must be my friends." The words were somewhat jerky, but plain to understand.

"...how did you happen to be here, in the Country of the Winkies, the first of all to meet us?"

"I'll tell you," answered Tik-tok, in his monotonous voice, all the sounds of his words being on one level--"Prin-cess Oz-ma saw you in her mag-ic pic-ture, and knew you were com-ing here; so she sent Bil-lin-a and me to wel-come you as she could not come her-self; so that--fiz-i-dig-le cum-so-lut-ing hy-ber-gob-ble in-tu-zib-ick--"

"Good gracious! Whatever's the matter now?" cried Dorothy, as the copper man continued to babble these unmeaning words, which no one could understand at all because they had no sense.

"Don't know," said Button-Bright, who was half scared. Polly whirled away to a distance and turned to look at the copper man in a fright.

"His thoughts have run down, this time," remarked Billina composedly, as she sat on Tik-tok's shoulder and pruned her sleek feathers. "When he can't think, he can't talk properly, any more than you can. You'll have to wind up his thoughts, Dorothy, or else I'll have to finish his story myself."

Dorothy ran around and got the key again and wound up Tik-tok under his left arm, after which he could speak plainly again.

"Par-don me," he said, "but when my thoughts run down, my speech has no mean-ing, for words are formed on-ly by thought."
If only my iPod Shuffle were that easy to reboot when it freezes.

06 October 2006

Updates to Past Entries

Philip Reeve's A Darkling Plain, the third and last sequel to Mortal Engines, has won the 2006 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Is it just me, or does Britain have too many children's-book awards to keep track of? There's the Whitbread, the Carnegie, the Kate Greenaway, the Smarties--no, wait, the Smarties changed its name...

M. T. Anderson phoned in an interview about The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One, The Pox Party to Publishers Weekly. Of course, he was in Nepal at the time, so his use of the telephone is understandable.

And to the list of recent children's fantasy books that prominently feature (in this case, start with) a scene of children being sorted, I can add Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember.

Grown people did their work, and younger people, until they reached the age of twelve, went to school. On the last day of their final year, which was called Assignment Day, they were given jobs to do.

The graduating students occupied Room 8 of the Ember School. On Assignment Day of the year 241, this classroom, usually noisy first thing in the morning, was completely silent. All twenty-four students sat upright and still in the desks they had grown too big for. They were waiting.
Why do such scenes resonate with young readers today? (We know why they don't appear in old fairy tales. "Grunda, you're going to be...a dirt farmer! Hamnet, you're going to be...a dirt farmer! Pepin, you're going to be...a dirt farmer! Anna,...")

05 October 2006

Delicate Subjects in and out of Schools

In Harrisonburg, Virginia, School Superintendent Donald Ford has banned a high school library's display of "Banned Books." I looked up the story in the local Daily News Record courtesy of Bookshelves of Doom. It quotes the superintendent's reasoning this way:

We are not going to send a message to kids encouraging them to read "banned" books. Our message should be to read books, a wide variety of books. But I don’t think we should tease kids into reading a book by trying to say, "there might be something juicy or controversial in this book. Therefore, it would be a good one for you to sneak home and read."
The high school's principal recalled that the dismantled display included such "juicy or controversial" titles as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Fahrenheit 451, The Diary of Ann Frank, and the Bible. And we don't want teenagers sneaking home to read any of those, do we?

As silly as that situation seems, it didn't arise in a vacuum. For one thing, the American Library Association has reported that challenges to books have gone down since it started tracking and publicizing the problem. In 1982, the organization reported over 200 books pulled from library shelves; last year, the number was 44. Attention seems to have helped. Americans don't like book-banning. So why would the superintendent squelch this modest display?

Last year Ford was caught up in a political controversy over Harrisonburg High School's Gay-Straight Alliance club. The Virginia legislature passed a law letting school bar clubs that "encourage or promote sexual activity"; its main sponsor was the local Republican delegate, and his comments showed he had the Harrisonburg club in mind. (This was back when the GOP thought homophobia was a winning issue, before the current crisis in the US House leadership.)

After the bill passed, the Daily News Record quoted Ford as saying:
In my estimation as a school administrator, the issue of whether gay-straight alliance are allowed is settled law. . . . If we allow one [club], then we have to allow [the GSA]. If I didn’t already believe that the issue was settled at the federal level it’s unlikely that this particular club would be at Harrisonburg High School right now.
The paper added, "Ford stressed that his position does not necessarily reflect his 'personal views' on the issue which he declined to discuss." I think his personal views are clear in the remark above.

Regardless of those views, however, Ford spoke up for civil rights and obeying the law. He might therefore feel under scrutiny from local bigots and social conservatives. The school board renewed his contract early, but shortly before the new school year a special-ed teacher at Harrisonburg High was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer in a park. In that circumstance, Ford might have thought that displaying Banned Books was a potential headache he couldn't afford. Still, squelching the display was the wrong move.

In Frisco, Texas, meanwhile, according to a story in the New York Times, the school board suspended an elementary-school art teacher after a parent complained that during a museum field trip a student had seen "nude statues and other nude art representations.” The administration insists they have other unspecified issues with the teacher. She insists that she's had good evaluations in previous years.

That news story brought up questions I've wondered about since seeing the Auguste Rodin sculpture gallery at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago. It displays several studies for Rodin's monument to the novelist Honoré de Balzac. The finished version shows Balzac draped in a robe, his hands inside the garment. Rodin's preliminary study of "Balzac as an athlete" shows what the figure is doing under that robe, even in a photograph taken at the most delicate possible angle.

The website for the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, benefactor of the museum gallery, explains:
In this controversial image Rodin associates intellectual and artistic creativity with sexual prowess for which Balzac was equally well-known.
More precisely, Rodin showed the novelist masturbating to symbolize his prodigious literary output. For the final version, the sculptor draped a coat around the figure. Even so, some people didn't like it--imagine!

Now for my questions: When New York kids go on field trips to the Brooklyn Museum, do they visit that Rodin gallery? Do they have questions about the Balzac sculptures on their little clipboards? Or are there limits even in New York City?

04 October 2006

Bestir Your Stumps!

Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892) was an American painter, musician, and author. His father was a district court judge, and his grandfather was a Massachusetts official during the Revolutionary War and brother-in-law of Abigail Adams.

William Wetmore Story (1819-1895) was an American sculptor and author. His father was a Supreme Court justice, and his grandfather was a Massachusetts regimental surgeon during the Revolutionary War and an occasional colleague of Samuel Adams.

With all that the two men had in common, it was natural for them to become friends. Here's a letter that Story sent to his pal in Europe on 18 April 1856, soon after Cranch had his biggest publishing success with a children's fantasy adventure called The Last of the Huggermuggers. Story was basically acting as Cranch's literary agent, critique group, and friend all in one:

I have only a minute and a half to write to you, but I have a matter of moment to communicate and will not let the steamer go without it. I have promised on your behalf to Phillips, Sampson & Co. that you will write them another story with illustrations of about the length of "Huggermugger," and send it to them in July. So bestir your stumps.

Now I am going to advise you. Take it kindly, for it is so meant. Your "Huggermugger" was a considerable success in certain quarters, but your friends did not think it up to your mark. We all know that you can do much better if you choose to put your energies to work; and now you must do so.

You must invent a new story, and tell it in a livelier and sharper way. Make the sentences tingle. Don’t get lazy over it, and think it will do itself. Brace up your faculties, and think you touch gold thereby. Here is a chance and a field for you. "Take the instant way" and don’t let the golden apple slip through your hands.

I pray you on my knees, oh! Cranch, wake up to this and do it well. Put as much fun as possible into it. Be gay! You have got humor and we know it. Now dig it up and send it over to us in lumps. Be lively at least in your story, and set about it to-morrow.

Don’t begin till you have settled all your plot in your mind; and if you can, let it hold a double story, an internal one and an external one, as Andersen’s do, so that the wiseacres shall like it as well as the children. Read "The Little Tin Solder" of Andersen’s, "The Ugly Duckling," "The Emperor’s New Clothes." You can do this and you must. Your "Huggermugger" is a little too lachrymose and it isn’t new enough. Still, it has had success. . . .

Now, having made an entering wedge, split open the log. You see the thing is worth while. Had the book been given to Phillips, Sampson & Co. six weeks earlier, all the edition would have been sold at once during the holidays. So you must be beforehand with this new work, and the publishers must have it by the end of July, certainly. You must make the illustrations, and be sure to draw them carefully. That is my advice. I have only your good at heart. You have made your pedestal--now put your statue on it.