31 December 2006

Year's End in the Emerald City

Another year is almost gone.
It’s time for annual letters
On how the kids are moving on,
Dad’s health is so much better,
And great-aunt Amelie’s passed on
(Just so we don’t forget her).

In Oz they never have such news
Amassed since New Year’s Day,
For Ozians don’t age or lose
Their health the mortal way.
What year-end greetings do they choose?
What can they find to say?

Some few report on parties, balls,
Parades, and state occasions;
Some minor king’s deserved downfall;
The odd detransformation;
And how the Wizard has forestalled
The latest mad invasion.

But from the countryside we hear
Of crops, and herds, and family,
How hale and happy all appear--
Not even one anomaly.
It all will be the same next year.
I soon would miss Aunt Amelie!

Verse copyright (c) 2002 by J. L. Bell

30 December 2006

High Point in 2006

This summer I took a hike with my godson, his twin brother, their dad, and--what every family needs--a friendly professional photographer, up Little Crow Mountain in the Adirondacks.

I found this nice overlook where we could have the all-important SNACK.

I'm the fellow who seems to have wandered in from the nineteenth century.

29 December 2006

Barging Through Fantasyland

The orphan has taken a river barge to the big city, only to discover that its crew are smuggling illicit goods. Escaping from that danger, the orphan sets out along the river road on foot, soon meeting a horse-drawn vehicle carrying an enticing upper-class woman--who turns out to be even more dangerous.

Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night? No, it's D. M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling. But a lot of MBT1 is seeming familiar, like a case study for Diane Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

27 December 2006

A Royale with Cheese

The new James Bond movie, Casino Royale, is correctly billed as a return to a simpler, less self-parodic telling of the Bond legend. Like Batman Begins, it picks up our hero early in his storied career. It's a bit more down-to-earth in its plotting, and there are few fantastic gadgets and machines.

However, at least one traditional rule still applies: All bombs that have been timed to explode must have a highly visible blinking light or countdown clock to make it easy for our hero to find them. The possibility of, say, masking those displays with duct tape still hasn't occurred to our villains.

Daniel Craig does a fine acting job as a Bond carrying some class resentment along with his weaponry. However, he still looks more like Vladimir Putin than a quintessential Englishman. As he comes out of the surf for the first time, I think we're supposed to be thinking, "What bulging muscles!" But I found myself murmuring, "What protruding ears!"

Back during the Bond franchise's difficult transition from Roger Moore through Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan, I had the idea that the next film's villain should be played by Moore himself. He was, after all, used to playing a larger-than-life caricature, as the villains then were. Part of his plot could be pretending to be James Bond, which he was easily able to do. Now I can recycle that idea so that when Craig retires from the series the next film's screenplay could reveal that James Bond has been a Russian spy all along.

26 December 2006

Forecast for Concise Style Looking Deathly

As broadcast immediately around the world, last week J. K. Rowling announced the title of the seventh and last Harry Potter novel: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

It's at the very least bold for an author who's been criticized for overusing adverbs to include an "--ly" word in her book title, even though "deathly" is an adjective (like "kindly" and "friendly").

There's nothing wrong with adverbs per se, of course. The problem with too many adverbs is the "too many" part: unnecessary words explaining what good details and verb choices often convey very well already, thank you. And in that respect, the upcoming book's title doesn't give confidence.

The archaic noun "hallows" means "saints," and it appears these days only as the root of "Halloween." It was my understanding that all the official saints are beyond "deathly" and in fact quite "dead," raising the question of whether the qualifier "deathly" is necessary. Are there any non-deathly hallows?

But perhaps in Harry's world there are. After all, I've already predicted that the seventh book will include some conversations between Harry and one of his growing group of dead father figures. And perhaps, as in the third volume of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (and the first of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series), the final book will involve a visit to the realm of the dead. Or at least the deathly.

24 December 2006

Nefarious Plots

So last night I was reclining in my hotel room in darkest Delaware, reading The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen. And it put me in mind of a comment from author M. T. Anderson to the Boston Globe's David Mehegan earlier in the week:

The editor who accepted [Anderson's first] book "suggested some revisions," he said. "Mainly that I add a 'plot.' Apparently people like those. I spent the next year revising the book and making something actually happen in it."
This struck me as interesting since Anderson's most award-festooned novels, Feed and The Pox Party, aren't plot-driven. They evoke unfamiliar worlds with an accumulation of provocative detail, narrative commentary, and language, and big things definitely happen to the central characters; but those young men aren't go-getters who set out to win the big game, find the buried treasure, or put on a show in the old barn.

Anderson seems, in fact, to have saved up a lot of plot points for The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen and its fellow "thrilling tales." These novelettes have all the turning-points that a middle-grade reader with a busy TV schedule and a short attention span could want. Whether or not the parodic humor of Linoleum Lederhosen is to one's taste, there's no denying that something actually happens in it.

23 December 2006

"The Child and the Fantastic" in Kerala, March 2007

My friend Mitali Perkins sent me this notice of a conference on fantasy literature in India a coupla weeks ago. Since I haven't found an easily readable version on the web, and since I'm eager for easy new material this season, I'm taking the step of posting it myself.

“The Child and the Fantastic: readings in children’s fantasy literature”, Children’s Literature Association India (CLAI) International Conference

Hotel Trichur Towers, Thrissur, Kerala, Southern India
March 26 to March 28, 2007
Conference Organizer: Anto Thomas, St. Thomas College, Calicut University, Kerala, India

Children are enchanted by the alluring worlds and characters of British writers like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows of Kenneth Grahame, C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, the Oz novels of the American writer L. Frank Baum, or, by P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins.

Fantasies now top the bestseller lists all over the world: Harry Potter series (UK), Lemony Snicket series and Eragon series (USA), the works of the German author Cornelia Funke, Margaret Mahy’s books from New Zealand, Australian John Hanagan’s fantasy fiction, etc.

Lately children’s authors from India too are faring well with their fantasy fiction, such as Chatura Rao with Amie and the Chawl of Colour, Suniti Namjoshi with the Aditi series, and Vandana Singh with Young Uncle Comes to Town, a book which has invigorated the US reading world recently.

The examples above are limited to writings in English. Yet each country has fantasy stories to share. What’s your story?

The newly-formed Children’s Literature Association – India (CLAI) and St. Thomas University in Kerala invite your participation in the first international Children’s Literature Association – India conference March 26-28, 2007. CLAI hopes to provide a platform for scholars in children’s literature from all over the world to share their experiences of reading or teaching fantasy.

The keynote address will be by Alida Allison, Professor, Children’s Literature Program, National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, San Diego State University, USA.

The fantastic entertainment at the conference will be a performance of Alice in Wonderland transformed to the Kathakali art form. Conference questions include:
  • Why do children love fantasy so much?
  • How does fantasy literature for children vary culturally?
  • Lewis Carroll was a professor of math. Vandana Singh is a teacher of science in a college in Massachusetts. Why are some scientific-minded people drawn to write fantasy for children?
  • How is a fantasy transformed when it is translated to another culture?
To facilitate a broad spectrum of topics, papers can include but are not limited to:
  • contemporary interdisciplinary theories about fantasy for and/or by children
  • literary theory and children’s fantasy
  • high fantasy for children
  • science fiction for children
  • fantastic picture books
  • children’s fantasy films
Proposals for presentations, panels, or posters should be emailed to ANTOCT then the at-sign then YAHOO.CO.IN before January 15, 2007. Kindly follow these submission requirements:

1) Proposals should be a maximum of 500 words

2) Electronic submission should also include:
a) Name
b) Institutional affiliation, if any
c) Complete mailing address with zip code, phone number and email id
d) Audio-Visual requirements if any

3) Kindly type “CLAI Conference” as the subject for email submission

The venue of the conference will be Hotel Trichur Towers, Thrissur, Kerala. CLAI cannot fund travel or participant costs. All presentations of papers must be made in English. Participants will have to be invited members of CLAI and pay the conference fee. Hotel accommodations can be arranged as per request. Conference registration material, payment information, and details regarding accommodation will be sent to participants later.
Now I must admit I haven't felt the invigorating effect of Vandana Singh's Young Uncle Comes to Town, but it looks like a charming book and Prof. Singh teaches at a nearby college, so I'll put this on my list of titles to check out.

22 December 2006

Most Fantastic Quote of the Week

From a Bloomberg News dispatch that ran in the New York Times:

“If female dragons can on occasion help out by virgin births, more power to them,” said Trooper Walsh...
For the full story, visit the National Geographic website.

Today I set off for holiday visits, so I may skip a few days of blogging over the next week. By the time I return, I expect I'll have seen every parent, grandparent, uncle, and aunt that I have.

21 December 2006

Humanity's Wish List

At last night's writers group, several of us had different discussions about whether a particular way of looking at a story made it a fantasy. The discussion heated up; I blame a particular member (John) and the evening's moderator (John). But be that as it may, it got me thinking about fantasy at its most basic level.

As I've written before, I don't think stories have to be set in magical realms or concern magical creatures to be fantasies. For me it's just as fantastic for humans to achieve some widely desired but impossible powers, such as:

  • living forever, remaining or becoming young again
  • curing loved ones of disease or injury
  • seeing into the future
  • reading other people's minds
  • seeing distant or hidden things
  • making one's inamorata quickly fall in love with you, or controlling other people's behavior in any other way
  • being invisible
  • going back into the past with the power to change things
  • (for kids) becoming an adult or gaining adult powers overnight
  • creating or finding unlimited wealth or food
  • discovering perpetual motion, or any other system that produces more energy than it takes
  • having immense strength or resilience
  • flying like birds
  • swimming like fish
  • conversing with animals and/or beloved objects
  • having a child after that had come to seem impossible, or having a child of a particular sort
  • changing our physical shape to be either unrecognizable or more beautiful
  • making machines to do our labor
What more have I forgotten? I guess there's a whole ’nother set of fantasies which involve things we fear, and gaining power over them: fierce animals, ghosts, the weather, etc. But let's stick to powers.

Human beings have been trying to do all these things, or fantasizing about being able to do them, for millennia. Many religious leaders have promised their adherents some variation on these desires. But, at least until very recently, we've never succeeded in attaining them, at least consistently and reproducibly. Wishing to do these things and not being able to thus seems to be a basic part of the human condition.

Naturally, there are many stories, new and old, about what it would be like to attain each of those desires. To me, those stories are inherently, undeniably fantasies. And it's interesting to consider that a lot of them are cautionary tales about the downside of actually getting what one wished for. By downside I don't mean what I once heard Ellen Howard (I think) call "the price of fantasy": the cost of something magical that keeps a story interesting. I mean a real "Be glad you're an ordinary human" type of story.

Flying? We've got Superman, and we've got Icarus. Machines to do our work? On the one hand, Tik-Tok the Mechanical Man; on the other, the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Cassandra, Dorian Gray, Midas, Gilgamesh, Tom Hanks in Big--storytellers have created a slew of characters who show us how hard it might be to actually attain one of these human desires.

In recent decades (a mere blip as far as the human condition is concerned) we've come a lot closer to achieving some of those desires, particularly those I left to the end of my list. We may thus start to live in a fantasy world. Will those discoveries change what it means to be human?

For example, remember when a pregnant couple didn't know that they were having twins, or the sex of their child-to-be? That was once part of being human. Henry VIII split his church out of frustration at not having a legitimate son; George MacDonald's The Light Princess starts with a king voicing the same complaint ("I feel ill-used."). But now technology can promise a couple that they'll have a boy or a girl. Doctors warn that using fertility technology that way would be unethical, but perhaps it would be merely inhuman.

20 December 2006

Dancing Around And Tango Makes Three

America's penguinmania continues to such an extent that Happy Feet, George Miller's first fully animated movie, beat the latest James Bond entry at the cinema box office.

Yet there's a tempest in parts of the increasingly inaptly named "heartland" of America over the nonfiction penguin picture book And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and illustrator Henry Cole.

This book describes the behavior of chinstrap penguins Silo and Roy of the New York Aquarium, who were observed trying to hatch a rock. Normally that wouldn't be seen as a sign of wise parenting, but zoologists gave Silo and Roy another pair's extra egg, and in time Silo and Roy hatched and raised a little female named Tango. So what's the fuss? Silo and Roy are both males.

As AS IF! has tracked, some adults have complained about the book. The Chicago Tribune reported how one parent stopped reading to her kindergartner halfway through "when the zookeeper said the two penguins must be in love." Yes, you wouldn't want to expose your little girl to love.

In March, librarians in the Rolling Hills' Consolidated Library of Missouri responded to a parental complaint by moving the book from the "young readers" section to the nonfiction--presumably adult--section. In contrast, the Shiloh, Illinois, elementary school is keeping the book in an elementary school library.

And today a McClatchy Newspapers dispatch reported that in Charlotte, North Carolina, the school superintendent ordered the book removed from elementary schools before any parents complained, and without following the system's rules for reviewing a book. Why? Because, after reading something about the book, "Republican County Commissioner Bill James had e-mailed him."

And of course we only hear about libraries that already have the book. As coauthor Richardson told Publishers Weekly, some librarians and teachers feel unable to buy the book at all because of fear of offending people. And it's about penguins!

Baptist Press News columnist Michael Foust has claimed that the coverage leaves out a more recent development in Silo and Roy's story: one of the pair, after several seasons together, left to hatch an egg with a female partner. Of course, that behavior couldn't be part of the book because it happened after the book was published.

Foust quoted Warren Throckmorton, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania who specializes in "sexual orientation change" from a religious perspective:

Throckmorton said neither side of the "gay marriage" debate should "read too much into" the relationship between Roy and Silo--whether the two penguins are together or apart. Indeed, there are reports of other "same-sex penguins" in the Central Park Zoo. . . .

"What we shouldn't do is commit the naturalistic fallacy that if it's natural then it's morally acceptable," Throckmorton said.
Of course, the point that Throckmorton and Foust ignore is how for many years such people as Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee have criticized pairings they disapproved of as "unnatural." If And Tango Makes Three really has no lessons for human behavior, then it shouldn't arouse so many people.

19 December 2006

Excruciating Correctness

From the New York Times "For the Record" section correcting inconsequential mistakes:

A film review in Weekend on Friday about “Charlotte’s Web” misspelled the title character’s surname. She is Charlotte A. Cavatica, not Cavitica.

18 December 2006

Why I Dislike the Word "Excitedly"

I always cross out "excitedly" when I'm giving writing-group colleagues the benefit of my opinion on their manuscripts. I did so today, which is why this weighs so mightily on my mind.

It's not just because "excitedly" is an adverb. Though some writers tend to overuse adverbs out of laziness or nervousness, that part of speech can often be useful.

Rather, my dislike stems from two traits specific to "excitedly" itself. One is the construction of the word: an adverb built on a past participle born from a verb, one prefix and two suffixes stuck onto a root with their consonant edges bumping. The word looks and sounds like an architectural mess.

The second reason is that "excitedly" is almost always unnecessary. Excitement is usually apparent through action, dialogue, facial expression. It's not one of our more subtle emotions that might need spelling out for readers. And we even have a punctuation mark whose sole function (outside of mathematics) is to show excitement!

So I shall continue to mark excitedly in 'most every manuscript I get.

17 December 2006

Values in Fly By Night

I've mentioned Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night twice on this blog, both times in the sincere belief that it was a fantasy. But it's not. Sure, the actions of Saracen the goose are a little convenient at times, but no laws of physics are harmed in the telling of this story. That must be why it's nominated for a middle-grade fiction Cybil but not in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category.

Rather, Fly By Night is an alternate-reality story. In this version of England in the late 1600s or early 1700s, the society is still in shock from the short, bloody rule of fundamentalist Puritans. While nominally still one country, it's actually a collection of feuding mini-states, each loyal to its own military leader. They are loosely united by the rules of well-meaning but often ineffectual guilds. (Think Afghanistan, with those guilds in place of NATO.)

The realities of daily life are equally alternate. For example, Restoration and Georgian London had coffeehouses tied to shipping through the early insurance business. But Hardinge's city has coffeehouses that actually ply up and down the river to find customers. And of course giving those floating cafés sails for propulsion would be too normal; no, the boats in this book are drawn by kites.

To go with such strikingly fresh images, Fly By Night is gorgeously written, with startling metaphors and delight in vocabulary that extends to characters' names (especially the middle-aged men: Eponymous Clent, Mabwick Toke, Linden Kohlrabi).

The plot is complex, but weak enough that it rests on accepting that ***SPOILER*** after a girl has climbed into a printing press, lain there for a while, and slithered back out, her apron and arms will be imprinted with perfectly legible words. Printers' apprentices had to spend years learning not to smudge ink, but our heroine Mosca Mye seems to come by the secret naturally.

For an Anglophile American, it's fun to pick out the bits of English history that fed into this vision: medieval guilds, the icon-bashing changeover of church leadership under Henry VIII, the bearpits of Jacobean London, Cromwell's protectorate, a writer in rural exile with his daughter like John Milton, the wigs and watermen of Augustan London, the tobies of the Georgian heath.

Yet despite this tale taking place in what the Guardian called "a demented England that never was," Fly By Night reflects the nearly universal, almost undebatable values of today's fiction for young people. And what are those, folks? As I spelled them out in this iteration of this pet theory, those values are:

  • Maintain a sense of hope in tough situations.
  • Be yourself instead of trying to fit into what your family or your society wants you to be.
  • Literacy is important.
  • Girls can do anything boys can do.
  • Tolerance is good.
With a female protagonist in a traditionalist society, points two and four go together. From the start, Mosca insists on wearing breeches under her skirt, and eventually ***SPOILER*** rejects a safe future as teacher and wife. In between, all the male guild leaders and conspirators underestimate her because she's a girl (with one possible exception--the idealistic but naive radical, naturally). And in the final chapter she spells out the value of tolerance for anyone who's missed it.

HarperCollins US, faced with a big challenge in appealing to American children (not all of us were watching Masterpiece Theater at age ten), chose to play up the third point above: the value of free reading. As shown here, the US cover design for Fly By Night invites young readers to:
Imagine a World in which All Books Have Been
(The UK edition, shown above, took flight on goose wings instead.)

In fact, not all books have been BANNED! in this Fly By Night world, only those not approved by the Company of Stationers, out of fear that they might open religious or political divisions. Yes, the Stationers have gone too far and also take steps to maintain their own sway. But given their nation's history of massacres and civil war, it's understandable for these people to feel skittish about books. Faith in the free press is a modern value.

Fly By Night also takes place in a society in which monotheism, and thus religious freedom, has been BANNED. Travel on boats not controlled by the watermen's guild has been BANNED. Independent schools have been BANNED. Females going out without bonnets are, if not BANNED, at least looked askance upon (that one's based on actual history). But you can't grab so many American readers by asking them to imagine those threats. To make kids check out a book, raise the possibility that they shouldn't be allowed to read it.

16 December 2006

"Search All Blogs" No More

There are still a few bugs in Blogger's Beta programming. One of them involves returning to a blog's settings for normal line spacing after a bulleted or numbered list. I just figured out how to fix one of yesterday's postings so the line spacing remains constant (it involves going into "Edit HTML" mode and removing the "slash-span" coding before each bulleted point).

Another feature that Blogger hasn't replicated for its Beta Blogger templates is the "Search All Blogs" toggle. That was a standard feature atop every blog in the Alpha Blogger mode. Now one must go to the main Blogger Search page, or perhaps the corporation's Google's Blog Search, but that's less convenient.

Some Blogger bloggers who haven't made the switchover, like Read Roger and GottaBook, still have "Search All Blogs" atop their pages. Which means I can travel there and have the capacity even if I don't have it here and can't get it back.

Perhaps folks with older blog formats could even take advantage of this. They could invite folks to visit their pages just to start searches, and then sell advertising to all those eyeballs. No need for new content, either--the "Search All Blogs" button could be all they'd need for thousands of hits per day.

15 December 2006

Wisest Thing I've Read Today

From Guy Dammann’s June posting on the Guardian's Culture Vulture Blog about the continuous revision of Enid Blyton’s UK-ubiquitous novels:

Although there was once a time when both genres [fiction for adults and fiction for children] were seen as vehicles for moral education, with the emergence of the novel as an autonomous artform these values have more or less completely disappeared from adult literature. But for children’s fiction the scheme remains pretty much intact - albeit with the model of moral education by and large replaced by a concern with psychological development.
In American children’s literature, I think this attitude is particularly reflected in the importance that reviewers put on "a sense of hope."

14 December 2006

Editors on a Diet

Gregory K. as GottaBook has provided a fine versified introduction to book editors for the respiring author.

What I Don't Want for Christmas

Publishers Weekly reports that Callaway Arts & Entertainment has shipped some very special children's books this season. They're:

  • oversized (14" x 17")
  • limited editions (10,000 copies of each)
  • expensively produced (color printing on special paper)
  • overpriced ($85)
Callaway says it’s targeting "a new luxury niche in the children's book market." But I suspect this part of the children's book market does not involve actual children.
"Mummy brought you this book about The Little Engine That Could because Mummy loves you very mu--Don't touch!

"Have you washed your hands? Let Mummy see! Show Mummy!

"All right then. Now shall we read this book together? Mummy will hold the book in her lap, and you sit beside us. A little further away, dear.

"No, Mummy will turn the pages! This is special paper, only for Mummies, okay?

"'A little steam engine had a long train of cars--'

"Darling, must you breathe toward the book like that?"

Visiting the Far North

The producers of the first Golden Compass movie, due in late 2007, have unveiled the necessary website.

To heighten the sense of being in an strange parallel word, explore the site in an unfamiliar language, such as suomi. (That is, assuming you don't already know suomi.)

Unfortunately, the site does not respond to the Bork Bork Bork! add-on for Mozilla for added boreality.

Maybe I'm not taking this movie pretentiously enough.

13 December 2006

Jones's Tough Guide in Trade Paperback

Penguin boasts: "Now this cult classic is back, and readers can experience Diana Wynne Jones at her very best: incisive, funny, and wildly imaginative. This is the definitive edition of The Tough Guide [to Fantasyland], featuring a new map, an entirely new design, and additional material written for it by Diana Wynne Jones."

This 2006 edition of Jones's guidebook is also in trade paperback format, making it more durable than the 1998 mass-market edition for those difficult journeys from castle to hovel to cave lit only by unexplained glowing rocks.

12 December 2006

More Wrinkles about A Wrinkle in Time

Back in September I wrote about the legend of how A Wrinkle in Time came to be published, and how much publishing has changed since then. Here are some more thoughts about that book's initial reception.

Powell's shares the "Special Message" from Madeleine L'Engle printed in the book's recent paperback editions, and in it she discusses what she perceived as a difficult path to publication. She wrote:

A Wrinkle in Time was almost never published. You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. And there were many reasons.

One was that it was supposedly too hard for children. Well, my children were 7, 10, and 12 while I was writing it. I’d read to them at night what I’d written during the day, and they’d say, “Ooh, mother, go back to the typewriter!”

A Wrinkle in Time had a female protagonist in a science fiction book, and that wasn’t done. And it dealt with evil and things that you don’t find, or didn’t at that time, in children’s books.
Now anyone who's been in publishing for a while knows that the fact that an author's own children or other relatives like a book carries no weight with editors. L'Engle, a published novelist, would have known that as well as anyone. (Surely someone had told her something like, "My children love our old family stories. Won't you recommend them to your agent?")

A book one's children love could be a good book, or they could be good children, eager to support their beloved parent. The book could speak to all children of those ages, or it could speak a special family language. That doesn't mean there aren't relatives ready to rip a story apart because of different tastes or honest criticism or some Freudian resentments. It simply means that editors can't know whose kids fall into what category, so "My kids like it a lot" is meaningless to them. (The same rules apply to parents.)

As for L'Engle's next two reasons, they really boil down to the fact that A Wrinkle in Time was a revolutionary book. It broke the widespread assumptions and expectations of its era. It came out in 1963, basically the last year of the 1950s--before the feminist movement, before the youth culture, before the counterculture, before widespread interest in non-western beliefs and innovative spiritual seeking. It's very hard for a book to be both truly revolutionary and a good commercial bet.

I find it significant that the 1963 Newbery committee balanced out L'Engle's rules-breaking science-fiction fantasy with not one but two undeniably serious and traditional Honor Books:
  • Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland, by Sorche Nic Leodhas (pseudonym of Leclaire Alger)
  • Men of Athens, by Olivia Coolidge
Both those titles are out of print now. The first made The Brookeshelf's "Forgotten Books" list last month. The latter has earned one comment at Amazon. They basically reflect a world of traditionalist children's literature that A Wrinkle in Time helped wipe away.

10 December 2006

Dorothy on a Proper Diet

In Ozma of Oz (1907), a yellow hen named Billina serves as Dorothy's animal companion instead of Toto. And they reach fairyland through a storm at sea rather than a cyclone. But the biggest difference may be that Billina speaks, and doesn't stand for lectures, from Dorothy or anyone else.

Here's a discussion between the hen and the little girl over what's proper to eat.

It did not take the castaways long to reach the shore, you may be sure. The yellow hen flew to the sands at once, but Dorothy had to climb over the high slats. Still, for a country girl, that was not much of a feat, and as soon as she was safe ashore Dorothy drew off her wet shoes and stockings and spread them upon the sun-warmed beach to dry.

Then she sat down and watched Billina, who was pick-pecking away with her sharp bill in the sand and gravel, which she scratched up and turned over with her strong claws.

"What are you doing?" asked Dorothy.

"Getting my breakfast, of course," murmured the hen, busily pecking away.

"What do you find?" inquired the girl, curiously.

"Oh, some fat red ants, and some sand-bugs, and once in a while a tiny crab. They are very sweet and nice, I assure you."

"How dreadful!" exclaimed Dorothy, in a shocked voice.

"What is dreadful?" asked the hen, lifting her head to gaze with one bright eye at her companion.

"Why, eating live things, and horrid bugs, and crawly ants. You ought to be 'shamed of yourself!"

"Goodness me!" returned the hen, in a puzzled tone; "how queer you are, Dorothy! Live things are much fresher and more wholesome than dead ones, and you humans eat all sorts of dead creatures."

"We don't!" said Dorothy.

"You do, indeed," answered Billina. "You eat lambs and sheep and cows and pigs and even chickens."

"But we cook 'em," said Dorothy, triumphantly.

"What difference does that make?"

"A good deal," said the girl, in a graver tone. "I can't just 'splain the diff'rence, but it's there. And, anyhow, we never eat such dreadful things as bugs."

"But you eat the chickens that eat the bugs," retorted the yellow hen, with an odd cackle. "So you are just as bad as we chickens are."

This made Dorothy thoughtful. What Billina said was true enough, and it almost took away her appetite for breakfast.
I love the "almost" in the last line. After all, a little girl's gotta eat.

09 December 2006

Someone's Been Sleeping in My Story

W. W. Denslow was L. Frank Baum's partner for Father Goose, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Dot & Tot in Merryland, the first two titles becoming bestsellers. But the pair broke up over royalties and credit for the blockbuster 1902 stage adaptation of Wizard, and over personalities--Denslow was a talented but difficult man.

Baum and Denslow shared the rights to the characters of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, and both men started newspaper comic pages about them. (Denslow's has lately been adapted into book form by Hungry Tiger Press.) Both also created several more children's books in the first decade of this century; Baum excelled in novels, Denslow in picture books.

Three of those picture books appear in the
International Children's Digital Library, and they show both Denslow's talent at comic art and design, and his lackluster storytelling. Denslow's Three Bears is a good example. In this version, a little girl named "Golden Hair" stumbles into the forest home of "Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Tiny Bear." She sees three soup bowls of different sizes. A couple of details differ from the tale we know, but it's basically familiar, right?

Then Golden Hair decides what she really wants to do is clean the house. Bears, we must infer, are not very tidy. The bear family comes home, and they're so happy to have free maid service that they invite Golden Hair to share their soup. (The book says nothing about what bowl she uses.)

The bears and Golden Hair have such a good time playing "hi spy" that all four walk off to visit the little girl's grandmother. Then all five characters eat supper, "with tea for the elders and nice sweet milk for Golden Hair and the Tiny Bear." Grandmother and the Bears decide to live together, with Golden Hair apparently doing all the housekeeping, and other children come to play with the jolly bears. The end.

Denslow's drawings for this tale are delightful; I especially like the picture of one bear holding Grandmother's yarn while she knits. But Denslow removed every trace of conflict from his source. He doesn't even acknowledge the potential conflict between what he describes and readers' expectations, as in some subversive takes on traditional tales. Denslow's Three Bears contains nothing but jollity, which means there's really no story at all.

08 December 2006

Dorothy, "symbol of bold America"

At Bookslut, Colleen Mondor reviews Illusive Arts' comic/graphic novel Dorothy, along with some other reimaginings of classic children's lit:

Re-envisioning Dorothy not as Judy Garland’s sweet heroine, but as Masterson sees her, as a symbol of bold America, the reader can understand better the transformation Dorothy has undergone in the new CG designed story. With amazing and realistic art that leaps off the page, Masterson’s Dorothy makes no allowances for the strangeness of her surroundings and instead plows ahead with the same steadfast determination that made her search for a good time rather than spending another lonely night on the farm. (Something Baum’s heroine understood as well.)
Thanks to Gail Gauthier for the original tip.

Little House in the Doldrums

Publishers Weekly reports on booksellers' mixed reaction to HarperCollins's reissue of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder with new, photographic covers and no interior art.

What was the problem with Garth Williams's drawings? Apparently, they betrayed the fact that these books take place in...history.

The magazine quotes Kate Jackson, Editor-in-Chief at HarperCollins, as saying, "But Laura Ingalls was a real little girl, not a made-up character. Using photographs highlights that these are not history but adventure books." Hence the series sell line at the bottom of the cover: "Little House • Big Adventure."

So photographs = real = adventure, but real ≠ history.

What's really "real," I suspect, is that after years of selling the Little House books and then reselling them through abridgments, prequels, sequels, anniversary editions, and every other type of spin-off, HarperCollins has seen sales drop. Fantasy has pushed aside historical fiction as the way young readers--even girls--prefer to try out different societies.

But eventually that will change.

07 December 2006

Blue Sky Over Oz

Back in October, Blue Sky Studios artists challenged themselves "to illustrate a character from the world of the Wizard of Oz." Most of the results are inspired by the MGM movie, naturally, but some depict episodes only in the book, and many get to the essence of Baum's characters (or to their opposite, dark sides).

I think my favorite, from a graphic perspective, is "Dorothy at the gates of Oz by Jake."

06 December 2006

Cheshire Crossing, part 2

The Cheshire Crossing webcomic I mentioned back in July, with adventures for Dorothy Gale (movie version), Wendy Darling, and Alice, now has a second installment.

Click on the sample panel below to go straight to that issue. I know the panel's Planet of the Apes reference isn't subtle, but dammit, I chuckled.

Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World

I've long considered The Who to be a monumental rock band, but I didn't realize they could exert some sort of gravitational effect. The two surviving original members are now touring the USA, and that seems to be close enough to change the behavior of my iPod Shuffle.

Of all the songs in my regular digital music library, 2% are songs by The Who. I load my iPod Shuffle randomly from that library. Yesterday afternoon 6% of the songs that went onto the device were Who songs.

The iPod, in turn, plays its songs randomly. Yet over the past day, 15% of the songs it played were by The Who, including the last two I heard last night and the first this morning.

Just imagine what laws of probability might bend if The Who, who are missing their bass player and drummer, get together with the bassist and drummer who are the only surviving members of a contemporary group.

05 December 2006

If I Were King

Profiles in History of Beverly Hills has announced a combined live and eBay auction "crowned by the magnificent Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr in the timeless MGM film, The Wizard of Oz." Estimated price of that item is $400,000-$600,000.

Also on the block: Elvis Presley's wedding ring and a large collection of cinema posters and photographs.

Thanks to Chaucerian for the tip!

Internet Takes on John, Paul, George & Ben

Over at Boston 1775, I've posted my analysis of Lane Smith's new picture book about some American Revolutionary leaders, John, Paul, George & Ben.

To add some fantasy content, here's a link to Snopes.com's discussion of a supposed angelic prophecy to George Washington at Valley Forge, printed in 1880 in the newspaper of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans' group. And here's a taste of the original text:

". . . 'Son of the Republic,' said the same mysterious voice as before, 'look and learn.' At that moment I beheld a dark, shadowy being as an angel standing, or rather floating, in mid-air between Europe and America. Dipping water out of the ocean in the hollow of his hand, he cast some on Europe. Immediately a cloud raised from these countries, and joined in mid-ocean. For a while it remained stationary, and then moved slowly westward until it enveloped America in its murky folds. Sharp flashes of lightning gleamed through it at intervals, and I heard the smothered groans and cries of the American people. A second time the angel dipped water from the ocean and sprinkled it out as before. The dark cloud was then drawn back to the ocean, in whose billows it sank from view. . ."
Naturally, this crazy story has gained a new life on the internet.

04 December 2006

Relative Blockage

In its early days Oz and Ends highlighted a sculpture of Han Solo in carbonite constructed entirely from Lego Blocks.

In the same spirit, here is Andrew Lipson's rendition of M. C. Escher's "Relativity" print contructed in Lego.

Earlier, I wondered if there were unofficial Lego artists keeping ahead of the Lego law. Lipson apparently is one, so his fine work doesn't come with the endorsement of the Lego company but does have the permission of the Escher estate.

Thanks to
Michael Joseph on the Child_Lit list for the tip.

03 December 2006

Biblical Episode Least Likely to Make a Good Picture Book

The Second Book of Kings, chapter 2, verses 23-24, in the translation commissioned by King James I of the Great Britain:

And he [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord.

And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

02 December 2006

MGM Wizard Rated as Overrated

Premiere magazine recently issued a list of "The 20 Most Overrated Movies of All Time". This actually consisted of twenty different people's answers to the question of what movie is most overrated, followed by rebuttals from twenty fans. So there was no debate over whether The Greatest Show on Earth is a worse Best Picture winner than The English Patient, though I think it's clear which would win: like a lot of these lists, this roundup leans heavily toward recent examples.

But of course people can also disagree about the "classics":

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Judy Garland's appeal is undeniable, Bert Lahr ought to have been in more pictures, and most of the tunes have earned their places in the Great American Songbook, but a lot of this monument to studio piecework is an overcalculated self-promo for the dubious brand of enchantment it's pushing. The candy-coated art direction, highlighting Technicolor at its most garish, provokes insulin shock, and the Lollipop Guild, Glinda's damned voice, and Frank Morgan's "folksy" Wizard all give off the pungent aroma of neglected cheese. The film's reputation as kitsch-that-transcends-kitsch precedes it; a new viewer unaware of that rep might see kitsch, plain and simple. --F.S. [presumably a regular critic, but not one I can identify]

REBUTTAL: The fact remains that Oz is one of the most influential films of all time. Without it, there is no Star Wars or Harry Potter. Oz is enchanted land, where the scenery is as Technicolor as the characters who inhabit it—and a bright and purposeful contrast to Dorothy's gray reality. Kitsch? Perhaps, but the movie offers life lessons for even the most cynical of us big kids--it's just a matter of having the heart, courage, and brains to find them. --David Schlow, former deputy art director
My own opinion falls somewhere in between these poles.

Thanks to Scott Hutchins for the first alert.

01 December 2006

To Label or Not to Label?

Blogger is going to push all of us users into its second-generation "Beta" format soon. (I think the pun of "Beta Blogger" would have been more amusing if "beta" didn't already mean "software that offers a lot of bugs in exchange for the thrill of being the first person in the world to have it shut down your computer in that particular way.")

One of the real advantages of the Beta format is that it includes the chance to assign "labels" to every posting. Outside Blogger, those are called "tags," and some blogging programs have had them for quite a while. They're useful for designating and finding all postings about, say, movies or Susan Cooper or Button-Bright.

I shifted my other blog, Boston 1775, to Beta last month in order to take advantage of tagging. But that's a different type of blog, and I'm not sure labels will be as useful here. I checked out some of the Blogger users on the Oz and Ends blogroll, and most don't seem to use labels--but perhaps they would if they could.

So my thinking about labels has boiled down to--

Con: The search function still works.
Pro: It's not as efficient for users as labels.

Con: I'd have to go back and add labels to 200+ entries.
Pro: If I decide in another three months that labels are a Good Thing after all, I'd have to go back and add labels to 300+ entries.

Con: I'd have to find a place to put the labels; on Boston 1775, that meant hacking the Blogger template to create three columns, learning quirks of XML and Blogger's "widgets" programming on the fly.
Pro: Stick the labels down below the links, stupid! If most people don't need them, then it won't matter if they don't see them right away.

Any comments? Preferences? Inner wisdom? Experience to share with tags/labels on your own blogs?