27 February 2007

New Old Oz Discussion List

Troubles at a Salt Lake City internet company this month shut down the Regalia mailing list, one of a handful devoted to discussing the Oz books. But now it’s back online at a new domain.

Because the archives are unavailable, list organizer Ivan Van Laningham can’t track down folks who were subscribed before but haven’t posted for several months. And, of course, the list welcomes all new fans of the Oz books.

To subscribe or resubscribe, go to the Pumperdink page.

26 February 2007

The Great British Punctuation Shortage

Today I started to read Larklight, by Philip Reeve, with illustrations by David Wyatt, published simultaneously in the UK and US by Bloomsbury.

Other British fantasies of late—Rowling’s Harry Potter, Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Jones’s Chrestomanci series, Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy—have been reset by their American publishers. In the notorious case of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Scholastic even retitled its edition for American readers, lest we be turned off by the idea of philosophy. Resetting those books allowed the publishers to change certain words (though others remain untranslated). But as Bloomsbury published the heavily illustrated Larklight in both countries, it evidently chose to avoid the expense of resetting the whole book.

As a result, Larklight follows the modern British convention of using single-quote marks around dialogue. And that brings up a typographical mystery that has nagged at me for years: the Great British Punctuation Shortage.

As far as I can tell, through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries British and American publishers followed the same general rules about punctuation. Even as spellings deviated (favourite, cheque, programme), publishers on both sides of the Atlantic used the same conventions:

  • double-quote marks at the start and end of ordinary quotations: “To be or not to be.”
  • serial commas: Tom, Dick, and Harry
  • M-dashes—the width of a capital M
  • periods after such common abbreviations as “Mr.”
Thus, this page from an early edition of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby shows double quote-marks and “Mr.”, as does this page from Dombey and Son, this 1913 Spectator review, and this 1914 Daily Telegraph review. Similarly, in 1837 Bentley’s Miscellany was using the serial comma: “pitch, tar, coals, and rope-yarn.”

My copies of The Strand magazine, published in London in the early 1900s (the first appearances of E. Nesbit’s fantasies), follow the same punctuation style as copies of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books published in Chicago at the same time.

In the last fifty years or so, while Americans have continued to adhere to those conventions, British publishers have adopted a different style:
  • single-quote marks: ‘That’s the ticket, guv’nor.’
  • no serial commas: blood, toil, tears and sweat
  • n-dash – the width of an n, with spaces on either side
  • no periods at the end of some abbreviations: Mr, Mrs, Dr
I first noticed these differences in P. G. Wodehouse Penguin editions unavailable in the US. Neea Paatero saw the same pattern comparing the original US Great Gatsby with a more recent Penguin paperback. Harry Potter fans have tried to puzzle it out. All these changes seem to head in one direction: using less ink.

When exactly did this style take hold? What was the rationale? I’ve looked for answers, but people don’t seem to want to talk about it, at least on the internet. The Chicago Manual of Style mentions the national differences, but doesn’t explain them. People spill lots of ink and pixels over the relatively minor question of whether commas and periods should go inside or outside quote-marks, but hardly anybody addresses the form of the quote-marks themselves.

I’ve therefore been forced to come up with my own theory: postwar rationing. Without enough periods or commas (regular and inverted) as in the glory days of the Empire, mid-century British publishers cut back on their use of punctuation while making minimal fuss about it.

25 February 2007

Kids Saying the Darnedest Things

National Public Radio’s Weekend America went to kids at a library in Tucson to ask them what they thought of the opening of The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron. Those paragraphs include the word “scrotum.”

Several of the kids, like ten-year-old Lucky, didn't know what the word means. As neither did I at their age, as I recalled earlier. So this report saved me from a residual qualm of that great fear of adolescence: that everyone else is more sophisticated and having a better time than you.

People who object to the word appearing in the book would presumably say that kids should be ignorant at that age. Others would counter that we’re too prudish about select body parts already, that learning the word “scrotum” along with Lucky is not only harmless but beneficial. From an artistic point of view, it’s clear, Susan Patron has accurately portrayed the knowledge and curiosity of a child.

(Thanks to Diane Mayr for the tip about this broadcast.)

24 February 2007

Life and What I Make of It

It’s an icon for my generation of Americans, a TV commercial that debuted a couple of years before my family got our first set and ran through my college years. Mikey (played by young John Gilchrist) unexpectedly eats a bowl of Life cereal as his older brothers watch. High drama indeed!

Now the message of this cereal for moms is clear: Life® is good for kids, but even the pickiest young eaters will like it anyway.

But the internal logic of the commercial always nagged at me. The experiment that Mikey’s older brothers design is, they acknowledge early on, unlikely to achieve their aims. So why, besides the dictates of Madison Avenue, do they behave as they do?

As I saw it, Mikey’s older brothers have two goals in regard to this strange new cereal that Mom says is good for them:

  • To get out of eating it.
  • Barring that, to find out how bad it really is.
If Mikey “won't eat it” because “he hates everything,” then putting the bowl in front of him won’t make the cereal disappear. Furthermore, the boys expect Mikey to have a negative reaction, which wouldn’t tell them a thing about whether they might actually like the cereal. So I never found this little vignette entirely verisimilitudinous.

Meanwhile--and this is the important thing to those of us who still eat Life--the cereal is getting soggier and soggier! Life is not a cereal that survives soaking well; it’s best consumed fresh and slightly moistened.

22 February 2007

Buzz Marketing Books to Teens

Publishers and book reviewers have been interacting pretty much the same way for many years. Publishers send the reviewers at big newspapers and magazines free copies of books. Reviewers choose which to review and what to say about them. Publishers extract the phrases they think can sell the book. Reviewers try to find time to write their own books.

There are little frustrations on all sides:
Why is no one reviewing this book?

Why do they keep sending me such dross?
Why didn't he say nicer things about it?
How did they make it look like I liked that book?
Why are review copies showing up at the Strand?
How can anyone make a living reviewing books?
But both sides share the same understanding.

With blogs, suddenly everyone's a critic. Some bloggers already have the influence of newspaper and magazine reviewers--especially in children’s books, which the big periodicals touch less often. But are publishers and bloggers (and their readers) working under the same understanding that's prevailed in print media? For bloggers excited to learn that anyone cares about their opinion, does getting review copies change their attitude toward those books? Does it confer an obligation to review those books?

I don't yet see evidence of the system changing, or being abused, among adult bloggers. As a Cybils judge, I received free copies of all five nominated books; a friend on a Cybils nominating committee reported receiving many, many more. But the Cybils organizers have pointed out that the publisher of one of the winning titles didn't supply any free copies at all.

However, Publishers Weekly recently ran a story on how Penguin is marketing its YA novels to teens which made me wonder if the previous understanding is buckling. Is the online review process turning into cheap buzz marketing? The article says:
About a year ago, the publisher began sending galleys to school newspapers and teen Web sites for possible reviews. Emily Romero, v-p of marketing for Penguin Young Readers, says of the campaign, "We know that teens are heavily influenced by their peers and we thought that in some cases, they might be more likely to read a book their friend recommends. We thought of it as a grassroots way to create buzz about Penguin's teen titles."
Nothing unusual there: publishers have always offered free books to bonafide reviewers. It's nice that they're acknowledging where teens themselves review books. But then this approach starts to become more.
Penguin has collected names of teens at events such as library and education conventions over the last year as well as through the company's Web site. Those who sign up for Penguin's online teen newsletter can opt to receive a galley, which members are encouraged to review.

The marketing department can track how many reviews have been written because reviewers are asked to send in a copy of their review or a link to it on their blog or Web site.

If they do, they get to choose between three paperback books, one of which will be sent to them for free. Those who don't have a blog or Web site set up are asked to post the review on other teen Web sites.
The company is making an explicit link between reviewing a book and receiving more stuff. Normally reviewers choose not only what to say about books, but also what books are worth saying stuff about. If they ignore a book, they're not risking future review copies from that publisher (or at least that would be an extraordinary step for a publisher to take).

The article makes clear how Penguin aims to turn those targeted teens into an unpaid arm of its marketing:
Romero says that response to the campaign has been good, and they will continue to work on getting the word out. "We are developing a ‘big mouth’ list of teens, which consists of teens who seem to have the greatest reach, and can almost work for us in terms of spreading the word and creating buzz about our titles."
All those "big mouth" kids who "almost work for us" are getting for their efforts are some free paperbacks. But maybe having those paperbacks before their friends is reward enough.

That’s just the way buzz marketing works with adults, after all. The firms in the field have found that people are willing to spread the word about the free products they receive simply for the thrill of being the first at the barbecue with the new type of sausage, or whatever it is. We are a strange nation.

21 February 2007

"Bold Take" on Oz Coming to Chicago Stage

Scott Cummings has spread the word about The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, a new adaptation of Baum's novel by Phillip C. Klapperich to be staged this March in Chicago. The Northlight Theatre's website says:

The House Theatre of Chicago is at its best with this bold take on the classic novel and film. Though filled with familiar characters and quandaries, this wildly entertaining piece is infused with a cache of surprises that turn the show into a rich, lively and sometimes dark fairy tale!
Performances are scheduled to run 1-11 March. The website promises photos, videos, a production blog, and other goodies. Right now some images appear in the downloadable PDF study guide (the words “study guide” always say “fun night at the theater” to me). There’s also an interview with playwright Klapperich in which he says:
Our Oz is definitely darker than the MGM, but it's much closer in tone to the original Baum novel. Dorothy plops down in Oz at the top of the show and is immediately given a new name by the inhabitants of Oz: Dorothy Witchslayer. This is an identity Dorothy is not comfortable with and it runs contrary to everything she believes about herself and her identity.

I've treated the trio of companions as realistically as I could, really playing with the ideas of their flaws and trying to make them live those flaws: Scarecrow is very brainless, the Lion is very scared, and the Tin Woodsman is as heartless as we could possibly get away with.
Scott has invited fellow Oz Club members and friends to gather on Saturday, 10 March, to watch the 3:00 production of the show and have dinner afterward if they want. Email him at pla tin 8oh (all one word) then the at-sign then hotmail dot com.

20 February 2007

Somebody Never Read the Book

After seeing the trailer for the new Bridge to Terabithia movie, I wrote, “Some people will be terribly disappointed. . . . The movie will either be quite different from the trailer, disappointing moviegoers, or quite different from the book, disappointing its many readers over the years.”

Well, fans of the book have responded to the movie with pleasure. And Gregory Kirschling at Entertainment Weekly is apparently not one of them. Instead, his short review implies he was more enchanted with the trailer:

Wouldn't it blow your mind if you discovered an enchanted CG kingdom in the woods behind your house? In Bridge to Terabithia, the two middle schoolers who stumble onto a whole new world don't seem all that wowed. And the movie — which never decides if it's a fantasy or coming-of-age story — spends a lot of time away from Terabithia; that also leaches out the wonder. The boy seems more excited that Zooey Deschanel is his hottie music teacher than he is to see tree men in the forest.
Not enough tree men in Terabithia, too much coming-of-age, a C+ grade--someone didn’t get this book assigned to him in middle school.

EW also has an interview with filmmaker David Paterson, showing that at least one person at the magazine has read his mother’s book--and really, really wants to warn potential viewers about a crucial plot point.

19 February 2007

Not Crushed by Farmhouse After All

Bit of a scare yesterday to see a photo of Meinhardt Raabe on the front page of the New York Times under the headline “Cause of Death: Crushed by Farmhouse.” Ten years ago, Oz fans learned that Raabe and his wife had been in a car accident, and she didn’t survive. More recently, another former MGM Munchkin was hurt in a tractor accident. So I first thought Raabe himself had been killed. The headline turned out to be a supposedly wry allusion to Raabe’s cinematic role in declaring the Wicked Witch of the East sincerely dead.

I thought Dan Barry’s profile of Raabe (perhaps only available to Times Select subscribers), while laudatory, didn’t reflect his lifelong go-getting initiative. Raabe not only worked as the Oscar Mayer spokesperson “Little Oscar,” but he created that role to make a place for himself in business. Too short to serve in the US armed forces in WW2, he became a Civil Air Patrol pilot, training men for those forces. So of course he’d still be granting interviews to the Times at age 91. He does, after all, have a book out. (See my earlier comments about it.)

18 February 2007

Are You Feeling Lucky?

The children's book world is buzzing over some librarians’ complaints about this year’s Newbery Medal winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, and its use of the word “scrotum” in chapter 1. As Monica Edinger wrote at Educating Alice, “How very, very sad that it wasn’t winning the Newbery that propelled Susan Patron to the front page of the New York Times, but a bunch of jittery librarians.” For exasperated grumbling rather than regret, see AS IF.

My own personal take: Lucky, this book’s heroine, learns the word “scrotum” at the age of ten, from hearing about an unlucky dog’s rattlesnake bite. Despite actually having the body part in question, I don’t recall hearing that word until I was a few years older.

Of course, I knew multiple words for its contents--an anatomical word for polite conversation, an everyday word, and a somewhat impolite slang term--so I got along just fine. As Lucky says, the word “scrotum,” with the grinding consonants at its start and its neuter ending, sounds like it should refer to something else. So the book might end up having educational value.

Incidentally, according to Colonial Williamsburg, when John Newbery himself sold copies of his Little Pretty Pocket-Book, boys could ask for their copies to come with balls.

17 February 2007

Very Important Book

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat is a new illustrated mystery for beginning readers by Chris Riddell. The first five pages are downloadable from Pan Macmillan in the UK, and Macmillan published the book here in the US this month. I haven’t read it. But (and this is the important thing) I hear my godson just finished reading it “all to himself”--his first “grown-up book.” So I figure it deserves some recognition.

An Elegant Art Collection

Mamluke has kindly scanned some of John R. Neill’s art for Kabumpo in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson (1922), and posted it for the world on Flickr. The collection includes several pictures of Kabumpo the elegant elephant himself, undergoing various indignities. (On adventures his robes always end up tattered, and he usually meets a giant who makes him feel small.)

There are also a handful of color plates, not printed in most copies of that book. (The Books of Wonder reprint has them; the Del Rey paperback still available from the Int’l Wizard of Oz Club does not.) Probably the best is this image of Ruggedo, the former Nome King, grown into a giant with Ozma’s palace stuck on his head.

16 February 2007

Bartimaeus’s Voice and Ptolemy’s Gate

Many of the good reviews for Ptolemy’s Gate mention the voice of Bartimaeus the djinni: potent, boastful, and not entirely reliable; complaining and condescending in equal measures; serving up a stew of modern idioms and ancient allusions, spotted with footnoted asides for the (supposed) benefit of our ignorant mortal selves. Author Jonathan Stroud has provided an extra helping of that voice in a short story on his website.

Stroud remarked on his choices in narrative voices in a fascinating interview with author Michael Pryor that the State Library of Victoria, Australia, has made available in both podcast and transcript forms. Stroud told his audience:

I realised quite early on that I think of Bartimaeus as a voice, if that’s possible. Rather than as any kind of physical form. I realised that when the Miramax Disney people, who were hoping to make a movie out of it, asked me who I saw playing Bartimaeus. They wanted Bartimaeus to be played by an adult, so when he takes on the form of Ptolemy as a 12 year old, in the film it would be Ptolemy as an adult. So they could get a famous person playing it. Once I got my head around that idea, which I can see makes commercial sense, I found it really hard, and I’m still quite puzzled, who would I choose?
Bartimaeus’s lack of physical form, even in a Disney movie, makes sense of another nifty element of the narration in his sections of the books: it’s both first-person and third-person. The djinni speaks of himself quite proudly as “I,” but often refers to the earthly forms he assumes as if he weren’t actually inside them: “the crow,” “the boy,” “the frog,” and so on.

And then there are the sections of each book about young Nathaniel and Kitty, both humans. (There’s also a single chapter in the second volume from the point of view of a lesser spirit named Simpkin; Bartimaeus would assure us that we needn’t think any more about him.) Many books have multiple narrators, but usually each can be identified as a character, both to preserve parallelism and to avoid raising questions in readers’ minds. In that approach, Nathaniel would have narrated his own experiences from book one.

Instead, Stroud chose to tell the boy’s story in the detached third person. That not only gives us a respite from Bartimaeus’s mouth (letting absence make us fonder), but it also seems to reflect Nathaniel’s clinical, almost heartless approach to life. In Stroud’s words:
I soon realized that I couldn’t have the whole series in Bartimaeus’ voice because although he is quite charismatic and an attractive guy to be with, if he was talking at you for page upon page upon page you quickly get a bit peeved. A bit like being trapped by an over-excitable guest at a party, you would want to slip away eventually. And it was quite important to bring in Nathaniel’s side of things where it is done in the third person and its much more kind of cool, a bit detached.
I had a little trouble with that shift at first; was Bartimaeus narrating Nathaniel’s story, I wondered, and if so where were all his footnotes? But I adjusted quickly enough. And that approach works excellently at the end of Ptolemy’s Gate when some of the narrative threads we’ve been following will come to an end.

15 February 2007

Yes, Ptolemy's Gate Is That Good

When I agreed to be a judge for the first Cybils Award for Fantasy and Science Fiction, I rather hoped that this new blogocentric process would produce a gem that had been overlooked by other awards. I think the organizers did, too, since they were inspired in part by dismay at Bowker’s Quill Awards, which seem designed to reward established popularity rather than literary quality.

Maybe we’d honor an excellent book from a small publisher that hadn’t broken through in stores yet. Or a fantasy that had great literary merit but was passed over for prestigious honors because it was fantasy and thus didn’t quite fit the profile of the sort of book that deserved such recognition. Cybils to the rescue!

But we ended up giving the award to a book that’s already been a bestseller around the world, on the lists from the New York Times Book Review, USA Today, and Book Sense. A book that was called one of the best of the year by Child magazine, Booklist, and The Horn Book. A book that won the CORINE Youth Book Award (that seems to be big in Germany--who knew?). A book that was even nominated for one of those Quill Awards.

I see a couple of reasons for that. With Fantasy and Science Fiction getting so much more attention from publishers, critics, and readers these days, it would be hard for a good book in that category to fly under the radar. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cybils honorees in other categories include undiscovered gems--at least titles that aren’t yet bestsellers.

The other reason is that Ptolemy’s Gate deserves every award it gets. Man, it’s good! It was my clear favorite not only among the Cybils nominees in this category, but among all the novels I recall reading in the past year. As far as I can tell, almost every other member of the judging and nominating committees ranked it at or near the top of their lists as well.

Ptolemy’s Gate is the third book in a trilogy, and I hadn’t read the first two. So I lined up a young Bartimaeus Trilogy expert to help me when I got lost. But Jonathan Stroud’s writing enabled me to pick up the details of his world as I went along; I called on my expert about only one point after I’d finished the book--I didn’t want to stop.

Now I’ve bought the first two books in the series, The Amulet of Samarkand and The Golem’s Eye, and started to read from the beginning. And I’m even more impressed by how Stroud introduced his world and his first two main characters, and slipped in foreshadowings of the third book’s crucial moments. Yet the third story also takes place at a different level from the first: the characters are older, there’s more at stake, there’s a higher playing field.

Ptolemy’s Gate is more than good--it’s brilliant. And I don’t just mean the British “brilliant.” I stumbled into this example of our nations being divided by a common language a few years ago when I stayed in a house in Oxford. I mentioned having done some minor task on my way there, and my hostess responded, “Right, brilliant.”

Brilliant? I thought. It really wasn’t amazing, I reminded myself, trying to maintain what little modesty I command. But after a bit I realized that in American my hostess would simply have said, “Okay, great”--quick assent and approval, nothing special, now let’s move on.

So when I call Ptolemy’s Gate a brilliant fantasy novel, I’m writing as an American. It’s luminescently smart and inventive, it’s a nifty idea wonderfully realized, it’s an exciting read that also makes you think, it’s a wonderful example of how to structure and narrate a complex story. It’s that good.

Now if only I’d listened to my expert’s praise for this series years ago.

14 February 2007

Cybils Award for Fantasy/Sci Fi to Ptolemy's Gate

Today’s official announcement from the Cybils site:

Ptolemy’s Gate receives the first Cybils for Fantasy and Science Fiction for its richly imagined fantasy world, strongly realized and unique characters, delightful language and well-honed plot. As a concluding volume of a trilogy, it delivers everything a final volume should do, taking the story arc to its peak with a climax that is both action-packed and emotionally charged. At the same time, Ptolemy’s Gate stands alone as a story and will inspire readers, children and adults alike, to seek out the previous installments and revisit the world of Bartimaeus over and over again.
Here is author Jonathan Stroud’s website. Here is Hyperion’s website for the series. I’ll post more of my thoughts on this book in days to come, but right now I want to thank the Cybils organizing committee and the Fantasy/Sci Fi nominating committee for making me read it at last, and my fellow judges in this category for an insightful discussion of all the nominated titles.

13 February 2007

New York Name-Dropping

Sufficient time has passed for me to collect my thoughts and links about last Friday’s children’s-lit cocktail parties in New York.

First I went to the SCBWI conference’s gathering for faculty and volunteers. There I collected enough food to make a meal, introduced author Robie H. Harris to author Linda Sue Park, and managed to not to soak anybody in Diet Coke.

Just outside that ballroom I met Monica Edinger, who was heroically holding herself together against a germ attack; Roxanne Hsu Feldman, a fellow Cybils Fantasy/Sci Fi judge; and fuse8nik Betsy Bird. At one point I went looking for someone who was looking for me. I took a step back inside the ballroom and hit that proverbial “wall of sound.” Until then I hadn’t realized quite how painful it was. AND HOW I MUST HAVE BEEN SHOUTING AT MONICA.

Betsy bundled Roxanne and me into a cab headed west to Ninth Avenue and the KidLit party she’d helped to arrange at Bar Nine, the bar with a website far more complex than it deserves. There the chatter was already at high volume while the room remained at low volume. I’d promised California illustrator David Diaz that this gathering would be the equivalent of the hot tub at SCBWI Summer’s conferences; given the number of people crammed into a small warm space, I think I was right.

Among the names I recall talking to were haiku-sporting Pamela Coughlin from MotherReader, editors Lisa Findlay and Alvina Ling and Cheryl Klein, Greg Fishbone and Sarah Beth Durst from the Class of 2K7, and representative Barry Goldblatt.

There were also other interesting people whose names didn’t stick with me even though I enjoyed chatting about customized online publishing for kids, hospital administration in Maine, the New York city subway system, and other complex topics. The conversation remained at a Silver City-like roar, so introductions came across like this.

Nice woman: Hi, Jo#¢§, I'm ¶¥†ƒth º∞££¢w8ell™£ Bar∂ßåaw.

Me: Hello,...Ellen? I’m happy to meet you.

Nice woman: ≠∆¬∆µç≈ §∞∂å∑i§÷¶leߪm and I ¶ªå™∑@rstwhi^7 }O∂å‰ÍÅÔ∆∆ on ¥$∞7‡6=•.

Me: Ha ha! I mean, I’m so sorry. I mean, really?
That nice woman turned out to be Ruth McNally Barshaw, author-illustrator and cartoon chronicler of such conferences. She was telling me we’d met online years ago, which I certainly recalled. (I always remember people who can draw, usually with envy.) To make the intros a little easier, I’d kept my dorky conference name tag around my neck, but it’s hard for a tall guy to bend down and stare at other people’s chests.

There are evocative photos of the night online from Massachusetts artist Barbara Johansen Newman, Galleycat, and the 2K7 Blog. I’ve even seen two photos of me, but you’ll have to search all the links to find them.

11 February 2007

Woke Up Sunday Morning

Early this Sunday morning I left the apartment building I'm visiting on the Upper East Side to attend the last day of the SCBWI Winter Conference. And I quickly realized that I'd forgotten my dog. Not that I have a dog, but practically everyone else on the street at that hour had a dog.

Usually a little dog. Sometimes a little dog wearing a little cape or coat. And in the case of the first example I met, a little dog wearing a little coat and little nylon boots on all four paws, trotting shwit shwit shwit shwit shwit shwit down the sidewalk.

10 February 2007

Missing Turnstiles

New York calls itself "the city that never sleeps," but that doesn't mean it ignores time cycles. It enforces its own cycles pretty ruthlessly, it seems. There's the infamous alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules, for instance, and the secondary and tertiary subway schedules that people learn for late evenings and weekends.

All of which leads up to that fact that on each of the past two nights I've had to walk across central Manhattan from 9th or 7th Avenue to Lexington in order to find an open stop for a subway headed in the right direction. Tonight I even had a British family ask me for advice on where to go since the 55th and 7th station had a gate chained across its turnstiles. Usually the only place British people ask me for directions is London, and they back away in embarrassment when they hear my accent. The family tonight had no idea what trouble they were in.

08 February 2007

In the Big City

There seems to be a trend in New York hotels, at least those within cannon's shot of Times Square, to be illuminated from the outside in neon-colored accents. The lights on one building near Random House even change color every half a minute.

I'm not sure who decided that Manhattan buildings benefit from looking like the undersides of Los Angeles muscle cars. Maybe next year their revolving doors will also pump out thumping bass reverberations. Greg Fishbone and I agreed, however, that if hotels start bouncing up and down, that would definitely be a step too far.

Bundling Up

This morning I head to New York on the Lucky Star Bus in the company of Greg Fishbone, to attend the SCBWI Mid-Winter Conference, drop by KidLit Drinks Night on Friday, and visit with dear friends of twenty-five years’ standing.

Whatever will I wear?

07 February 2007

The True History of Harry

Back in December 2005, Publishers Weekly reported:

Earlier this week, members of the child_lit listserv have been having a lively conversation about the Harry Potter books. The discussion began with questions about how many times Rowling’s first manuscript was rejected before it got published, then went on to cover when and under what circumstances the U.S. rights were sold. Members are now discussing how the books became so popular--was it marketing and hype, or word-of-mouth among children that grew to reach adults? As one poster wrote, he's looking to sort out the historical truth of Harry Potter.
Well, reader, that poster was I. On the 15th I’d sent a message to Child_Lit with the subject line “Rowling’s US rights sale - how significant?” It noted:
...the US rights deal occurred and was publicized just as HP1 hit stores in the UK. Those news stories brought unusual attention to this unknown author and her new book. How much, I wonder, did that attention itself influence the first book’s early success? In other words, how much did Scholastic's big gamble on US rights turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Since then, the Potter fan site Accio-Quote.org has archived more of the early British press attention for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the summer of 1997. And it’s even more obvious how little of that ink was expended on reviews, and how much of it on Rowling’s sudden financial turnaround. The earliest stories are:
This is how Harry Potter made its newspaper debut, in the Glasgow Herald:
THREE years ago Joanne Rowling landed in Edinburgh with a baby under one arm and a dog-eared manuscript under the other. Apart from the proverbial battered suitcase, she owned nothing else. . . .

Rowling recounts those dark days as she sits in a sunlit cafe in Nicolson Street, and already they have an aura of long long ago. In the previous few days two American publishing houses had been bidding for the American rights to that manuscript, now her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, published in Britain this week by Bloomsbury at £4.50. The bidding was well into six figures.

Dollars not pounds, says Rowling in that sort of wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) manner which also characterizes her writing. OK, but this is still very big bucks indeed for a first book, a children's one at that, written by a lone mum for whom less than three months ago, the prospect of a £2500 grant from the Scottish Arts Council was manna from heaven. . . .

If this sounds like the stuff of fantasy, it is and it isn't. Joanne's own story is for real, even if just now it feels like a dream she is afraid to wake from. Harry Potter's story is a fantasy but one leavened with enough everyday life to give it an authentic feel.
The Scotsman started its article with a rave review for Harry’s story, but then it quickly got into that rags-to-riches backstory for his creator:
IF you buy or borrow nothing else this summer for the young readers in your family, you must get hold of a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowley [sic] (Bloomsbury, £4.99). This is a book which makes an unassailable stand for the power of fresh, inventive story-telling in the face of formula horror and sickly romance.

The story of the book's origins is a fairy-tale all of its own. This first novel from an Edinburgh-based author has just received a six-figure advance in America. Yet it was written in snatches by an unemployed single mother. Joanne Rowling arrived in Edinburgh penniless following the break-up of her marriage.
The other articles’ headlines make clear how they focused on Scholastic’s six figures (“dollars not pounds”) and Rowling’s status as single mother. Thus, most British newspaper readers learned about her book primarily not as a great story for kids, but as a source of sudden wealth for an adult.

Why is this significant? Because Harry Potter came out with an aura of magic. Not the physical magic that appears in many other fairy tales for kids. Rather, the financial magic that people dream of when they play the lottery. Harry Potter had made someone rich overnight (or so the articles implied, not noting how slowly money moves in publishing).

In contrast, the stories behind most other books are quite similar, and quite boring: a rather quiet person typed for a very long time, and then some other people read the typing and liked it. That was how Rowling earned her book contract. That was how Arthur Levine of Scholastic and several other US publishers came to bid on her manuscript. But then the ground shifted, with the concatenation of the US rights auction and the UK publication date. After that, people didn’t have to read J. K. Rowling’s words to believe that there was something magical about them.

06 February 2007

Allowed Out in Public

Roger Sutton has posted his view of the recent Foundation for Children’s Books panel on the Future of Publishing--his view being from up on the platform, managing a clip-on microphone that had nothing to clip onto.

This panel was made up of three editors who generally work in the “old school” style, speaking to an audience largely made up of that “old school”: the librarians and teachers who used to represent the bulk of the children’s book market. (There were also more than usual numbers of aspiring authors and artists in this crowd.)

The panel didn’t include a voice saying, “It’s not schlock if it gets kids reading!” Or, “Zack & Cody books helped pay for our last three Newbery Honor titles.” Or, “Kids today don’t see any difference between their television, their websites, their ringtones, and their books, so why should we look down on media crossovers?” So we didn’t hear a lot of disagreement about literary priorities.

As talk turned to the importance of marketing, Sutton asked:

What about the dweeby little genius who writes like a dream but shouldn’t be allowed out in public? Is there still a place in publishing for him?
(None taken, I’m sure.)

Margaret Raymo of Houghton Mifflin acknowledged that having an author who could speak for his or her book and get readers excited was a plus, no question. Judy O’Malley of Charlesbridge noted that getting out in public, in the form of school and library visits, is often a major source of income for children’s authors.

But it does seem that authors are becoming responsible for more of their marketing. Author websites are now almost required. Book trailers are becoming the norm. And both tend to be the responsibility of an author, especially a beginning author.

Which means that authors don’t simply need to know the art and the business, but also need a few contacts among techies. It used to be wise to marry money. Now it seems wise to marry money plus have kids who grow up to know HTML and video editing.

In other remarks, Liz Bicknell of Candlewick noted a relatively new pressure on children’s publishers: to tie every title to a holiday, meaning to a bookstore chain’s promotion schedule. Fourth of July leads into Back to School, which leads into Halloween and Jewish Book Fairs, which leads into Thanksgiving, which leads into Christmas and Hanukkah, which leads into MLK Day and Black History Month and Valentine’s Day,...

05 February 2007

The Dreaded Sequel

Word on the street in Boston is that William Monahan, the screenwriter of The Depahted, is working on a story for Mark Wahlberg’s character. Both men have been nominated for Oscars, the movie was a hit, and, frankly, it didn’t leave a whole lot of other sequel potential.

On the down side, Wahlberg portrayed a flat character, according to the dichotomy E. M. Forster proposed in his most enlightening Aspects of the Novel:

A “flat” character, according to Forster, can be summed up in a single sentence and acts as a function of only a few fixed character traits. “Round” characters are capable of surprise, contradiction, and change; they are representations of human beings in all of their complexity. Forster’s aim, however, is not to elevate the round at the expense of the flat, although he admits that the round is on the whole always a more interesting creation. Instead, he argues that there are compelling artistic reasons for a novelist to employ flat characters.
Can a flat character carry a movie? (Well, a good movie?) Or will Wahlberg’s role have to be filled out with (gasp!) a personal life?

This Hollywood news made me think of US Marshals, the 1998 vehicle created for Tommy Lee Jones and his supporting cast after The Fugitive brought in so much money and an Oscar for Jones. Marshal Sam Gerard, Jones’s character, was also flat in Forster’s sense, obsessed with chasing down his quarry, but Jones delighted us with unexpected details.

Once those details had become expected, however, the delight faded. The sequel smelled stale right out of the box, even though it was years ahead of its time in depicting Wesley Snipes on the run from federal agents.

Still, US Marshals has one line that is useful in many situations.
Robert Downey Jr character reacting to something Tommy Lee Jones character has done: Is this guy crazy?

Joe Pantoliano character: No, but he’s a carrier.

04 February 2007

Latest Baum Bugle Flies In

Suddenly free from reading fat fantasies for the Cybils Awards, I’ve been flopping about like a fish that’s forgotten how to swim, trying to get back into my ordinary reading rhythm. So I was fortunate that the latest Baum Bugle, journal of the International Wizard of Oz Club, arrived at my house last week.

The bulk of this issue, and its main attraction, comprises Marcus Mébès’s profiles of Sherwood Smith and William Stout, author and illustrator of the recent Oz novels The Emerald Wand of Oz and Trouble Under Oz. Fact-filled and occasionally gushing, those articles provide inside perspectives on the difficult creation of these books, assembled by the pioneering packager Byron Preiss Visual Productions for HarperCollins.

In addition, this issue of the Bugle provides a showcase for Stout’s art better than those books. The cover is his glowing picture of a winged monkey carrying a girl, larger than it would have been on the cover of The Emerald Wand of Oz, its intended place. (This image, and the working title The Winged Monkeys of Oz, were deemed too frightening for middle-grade girls.) Inside the magazine are pictures of Nomes and Mangaboos far better reproduced than they appear in Trouble Under Oz. Mébès is also production editor for the Bugle, so he’s produced the quality of these graphics.

The prospect of further publications in this series seems iffy. I found Emerald Wand in a bookstore, but never saw a copy of Trouble on a store shelf. Both Smith and Stout lamented small sales and limited exposure beyond the Oz community. Stout never received payment for his work on Trouble because the packager went bankrupt after its founder died in an auto accident, making his involvement in future books less likely.

Readers of these two books (however few we are) would be disappointed if Harper chose to discontinue the series because plot threads remain dangling in a serious way. Unlike L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books and the sequels commissioned by his publisher, these were conceived with a plot arching over four titles--something to do with Dorothy being lost and a malevolent cloud over Oz. Smith has written her third installment in the series, and outlined a fourth. But the whole project apparently awaits decisions from HarperCollins and Boylston & Company (also Brick Tower Press), which ended up with the Preiss company assets.

Also in this Bugle issue are Jane Albright’s report on the “Art of Oz” exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art last summer, network ads for showings of the MGM movie over the years, and reviews of the latest Oz-related books and DVDs.

03 February 2007

Pulling the Woolsey Over Visitors' Eyes at Yale

On 24 January, the Boston Globe ran a story titled "Learning the lay of the land at Yale," which guilelessly reported: “On the way out of Old Campus, everyone rubbed the foot on the statue of Theodore D. Woolsey, president of the university from 1846-71, for good luck, a campus tradition.”

That’s pure, unadulterated bulldog. I spent four years at Yale, snatching all the luck I could get and doing plenty of stupid things, but I never adhered to this “campus tradition.” I never even heard of it. As the Yale Alumni Magazine reported in 1998:

One of the most striking testaments to the mythmaking powers of tour guides is Theodore Dwight Woolsey's toe. Some time in the last ten years, someone invented a "tradition" of rubbing the toe of the Woolsey statue on the Old Campus for luck, explaining that students employ this practice before exams. Similar traditions exist at many other institutions [i.e., Harvard, but we don't mention them], but it's difficult to find an alumnus over the age of 30 who has ever heard about President Woolsey's toe. Nevertheless, tour guides spread the story diligently, inviting visitors to give it a try themselves. As a result, the statue, the rest of which is a dull gray-green, has a left toe that has been rubbed shiny, and the story seems for all practical purposes as old as the statue itself.
Let me also point out the clunky “from 1846-71” in the Globe story. If one writes out the “from,” simple fairness (i.e., parallel structure) says one should write out the “to” as well. If “from 1846 to 1871” is too long, then go with “1846-71.” Moomph moomph moomph.

02 February 2007

So Far From Dover-Sherborn

Yesterday Newbery-winning author Linda Sue Park wrote about how she had learned of heated discussions on Yoko Kawashima Watkins’s So Far from the Bamboo Grove in a Massachusetts school from being invited to speak at that school about her own When My Name Was Keoko.

Understandably, Linda Sue had mixed feelings about her own novel about children’s experiences on the Korean peninsula in the 1940s potentially being treated as a response (and refutation?) to Bamboo Grove--especially since she admires Watkins’s book. She asked the Child_Lit email list about people’s thoughts on the situation. I replied there, and (always eager for blog material) have somewhat amplified my remarks here.

This discussion has been developing for a couple of months here in the western suburbs of Boston. Many of the news stories about it have been in the local sections of the Boston Globe, so it hasn't gotten wider coverage.

For several years, as I understand it, Watkins has visited the upper-class suburban schools of the Dover-Sherborn district to talk about how her early life fed into her writing of So Far from the Bamboo Grove. The lesson plan included little historical context for understanding her work, which is about a Japanese family’s experiences leaving occupied Korea at the end of WW2. The lesson was only about autobiographical writing--in the language arts curriculum, not in social studies. Because Watkins has spoken every year, it’s a shared experience for kids in this town.

Some parents, including some Korean-Americans, were upset at the book’s portrayals of Koreans, the lack of context for understanding the conflict in the 1940s, and some reported teasing of Korean-American kids in the school with references to the book.

From a larger demographic perspective, I think this protest will one day be seen as evidence of the Korean-American population on the East Coast growing in number and growing more vocal. And it’s a reminder of the complexity of multicultural literature: when this book was first included in the curriculum, I suspect administrators saw it as “Asian,” without a whole lot of regard for how different Asians might view the same events.

Folks (including me, explaining one side of the issue in a discussion with a writing colleague) have made an analogy between that lesson plan and reading a story about a German family escaping from occupied Poland at the end of WW2, and then being surprised if students come away with a bad impression of Poles and Russians. Of course, this past season we did see a fable about the Holocaust written from the point of view of a German child: The Boy in Striped Pajamas.

Everyone agrees that Watkins herself speaks of her life and the book from an anti-war perspective, and that her visits have been well received. The school administration first decided to suspend the Bamboo Grove lesson plan because there was no immediate way to provide kids with more context. But all along I’ve seen administrators and teachers talking about how they were looking for a way to include the book again. There are serious concerns on all sides of the issue, and so far everyone seems to recognize others’ concerns.

More comments on the issue are available from Bookshelves of Doom, the AS IF blog (twice), and Monica Edinger's Educating Alice. Some of the comments about Bamboo Grove’s historical inaccuracies seem to miss the fact that the book is historical fiction, not memoir. On the other hand, part of its appeal, especially in the context of Watkins’s school visits, is its close link to the author’s own childhood experiences. That’s the sort of wrinkle that makes this controversy both sui generis and interesting in wider ways.

01 February 2007

One Month Away

Booklist says:

Educated at home and sheltered from the world, Hayley has grown up with her unloving grandmother and inaccessible grandfather. She is suddenly sent to stay with a more freewheeling, affectionate aunt in Ireland. There, her many cousins want nothing more than to play "the Game," which sends each one off on a separate quest in the mythosphere, a magical yet easily accessible place peopled by characters from myths and legends. Events grow stranger and more dreamlike as Hayley, introduced as an orphan, discovers that her parents still live in the mythosphere and, perhaps, she can reunite with them there.
Family relationships continue to be absolutely central to Jones’s work. Even her orphans are hardly ever without families, and her families hardly ever without tensions.

(Thanks to Fuse #8 and Misrule for the tip.)

In other pub date news, Bloomsbury and Scholastic have blinked at the competition from Greg Fishbone's Penguins of Doom and moved the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows two weeks back from its rumored date of 7 July.