31 May 2007

He Could Not Play with the Other Boys of Pingaree

Sherwood Smith was commissioned to write Trouble Under Oz as the second in a series of four latter-day Oz adventures assembled by packager Byron Preiss and published by HarperCollins. The next two titles may never appear, a frustrating situation I described back in February.

Smith’s first title, The Emerald Wand of Oz, revisited scenes and characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This one draws its main inspiration from a couple of later L. Frank Baum novels: Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908) and Rinkitink in Oz (1916, but based on a lost manuscript written about 1905).

More specifically, Trouble brings back Prince Inga, the hero of Rinkitink, to help the young American heroine on her quest. I think Smith does a fine job with his character, which could be difficult. Not that Inga’s difficult. No, he’s a sterling prince, dedicated to truth, justice, and the Pingaree way.

Here’s how Baum himself described Inga:

Inga was often left to amuse himself, for a boy could not be allowed to take part in the conversation of two great monarchs. He devoted himself to his studies, therefore, and day after day he climbed into the branches of his favorite tree and sat for hours in his “tree-top rest,” reading his father’s precious manuscripts and thinking upon what he read.

You must not think that Inga was a molly-coddle or a prig, because he was so solemn and studious. Being a King’s son and heir to a throne, he could not play with the other boys of Pingaree, and he lived so much in the society of the King and Queen, and was so surrounded by the pomp and dignity of a court, that he missed all the jolly times that boys usually have. I have no doubt that had he been able to live as other boys do, he would have been much like other boys; as it was, he was subdued by his surroundings, and more grave and thoughtful than one of his years should be.
A quick note to the fictional characters out there: If your author has to assure readers that you’re not a prig, you’re a prig.

But Baum ascribes Inga’s seriousness to his upbringing. (Baum was always a “nurture over nature” man.) Indeed, Inga seems unique among Baum’s fantasy heroes in being heir to a throne. Other young people become rulers unexpectedly: Tip in Marvelous Land of Oz, Bud in Queen Zixi of Ix, Trot in Sky Island. And there are princes who have been deposed (Pon in The Scarecrow of Oz) or who, through a quirk of immortality, will never succeed their parents (princes in The Magical Monarch of Mo). But Inga is the only Baum protagonist who’s preparing himself for major government responsibilities, and that’s shaped his character.

Smith picks up on that side of Inga’s personality without turning him into a caricature. Some readers have developed little crushes on Inga because he’s such a paragon of brave princeliness, but Smith’s American heroine realizes that, conscientious and cheerful as he is, his idea of wild fun is rather stuffy. He makes a good foil for this series’s bad boy, an ambitious young Nome named Rik. But, alas, we may never learn whom our heroine would choose.

The Adventure Begins

Lemonade Mouth author Mark Peter Hughes's first audio postcard on becoming a full-time YA writer ran on NPR's All Things Considered this week. Listen here.

30 May 2007

Silver World Class

I read Cliff McNish’s Silver Sequence out of order, zipping through the second title, Silver City, as part of the Cybils Awards judging and reading the first, The Silver Child, some months later.

After those two books, I expressed some disappointment that McNish hadn’t shown us more about his young characters before their lives and their bodies are changed by some supernatural, extraterrestrial force. They change without intending to and often feel compelled to act in certain ways, so we rarely see these characters decide to do things. And tough decisions are key to understanding who characters are.

Now I’ve finished the third volume, Silver World, and found it a powerful ending to a haunting trilogy. We still don’t know much about the children’s lives before the novels begin (more thoughts about that someday). But we do see them struggle with tough decisions in this volume. Their long-threatened confrontation with the interstellar monster called the Roar becomes a strategic chess match, each side trying to anticipate the other’s moves and lull the enemy into traps.

McNish raises the stakes immediately by removing Hannah’s father, the only adult, from the little community of guardians. The Roar starts screaming louder. Animals join the children of the world in the little haven of Coldharbour. Millions of creatures on the other side of Earth perish. And now the kids have to find most solutions for themselves, with time running out. It’s a gripping read.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t still have unanswered questions: about the kids, about how those Unearthers’ drill hands are supposed to work, about how the enemy is ultimately trussed up, and so on.

Most important, I’m not sure who created the Barrier around Coldharbour. At the beginning of Silver City, narrator Thomas explains that it’s appeared since the last volume, excluding adults from the area where children feel compelled to come. The series offers four possible sources for such supernatural phenomena: the Roar, her underground child, Earth’s Protector, and the kids’ own evolving powers.

In Silver City a boy named Tanni says of the adults, “I reckon they’re being kept out for their own protection,” which implies the Barrier reflects a benevolent force. But later there’s reason to suspect Tanni’s judgment. The Barrier expands as more kids arrive at Coldharbour, implying it's linked somehow to their needs and powers. Yet as Silver World begins, mind-reading Hannah thinks the Roar has subtly moved the Barrier, implying that monster also created it--but why? Or does the Barrier arise from how all those unearthly forces push against each other? Do any Silver Sequence fans out there have an answer?

29 May 2007

Meeting John Dough and the Cherub

Hungry Tiger Press has just announced the publication of its centennial edition of John Dough and the Cherub, written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by John R. Neill. This edition comes with a new, full-color cover; black and white reproductions of all the original illustrations; and an introduction by, well, me.

When Baum wrote John Dough and the Cherub in 1906 (yes, the math for a centennial edition doesn't quite work out, but the book was a production headache), he had written two Oz books and didn't expect to write any more. But his publisher persuaded him to return to the land of his most popular books the next year.

That in turn opened up the exciting possibility of cross-marketing. In The Road to Oz (1909), Baum brought the rulers of many of the other fairylands he'd invented to the Emerald City. No matter that such a gathering left no room for a plot in that part of the book. No matter that some of those earlier books implied that the rulers had grown up and perhaps even passed on. Everyone got an invitation to Ozma's birthday party. (And for me as a young reader, the result was one of my favorite books in the series. Someday I'll figure that out.)

The illustration on the cover of the Hungry Tiger Press edition comes from the interior of Road to Oz, for the first time rendered in vivid color. It shows, left to right and foreground to background, John Dough, the American-made gingerbread man; the gender-neutral Incubator Baby named Chick the Cherub; Para Bruin, a bouncy rubber bear; and loyal subjects from Loland and Hiland. To learn how they all met, you'll just have to read the book.

28 May 2007

Divided by a Common Language in Lionboy

The circus proprietor in Lionboy is named Major Maurice Thibaudet, pronounced Tib-uh-day. (Every novel should have a circus proprietor, don’t you think? It would have made all the difference to Crime and Punishment.)

The major speaks “French, but with an accent Charlie [our young hero] recognized to be southern Empire.” The trilogy never identifies that Empire straight out, but a powerful clue appears on page 110 of the first book:

”Hey there, Lionboy!” called a voice from the deck behind him. It was Major Tib. “Y’all better get back on board right now. We don’t do shore leave without leave. Get back in here and help Maccomo. There’s plenty of work to be done.”
The “Ya’ll” is a giveaway that Major Tib comes from the American South--and that author Zizou Corder (Louisa and Isabel Adomakoh Young) does (do) not.

Major Tib is using “y’all” to address one boy. But “y’all” is a second person plural form.

Centuries ago, English had different pronouns for the second person singular and the second person plural. The singular forms were thou, thee, thy, and thine. The plural equivalents were you, you, your, and yours. The first group has fallen by the wayside, kept up into the last century by traditional Quakers but no one else. In both Britain and America, people use you in both singular and plural contexts.

(Similarly, in French the plural vous also serves as a formal singular form, with tu reserved for intimates and children. Though I recently read that past president Jacques Chirac and his wife still use the vous form with each other.)

American Southerners apparently realized that there’s grammatical value in distinguishing between second person singular and second person plural. So they’ve recreated the plural form as you all or y’all. We Yankees and English-speakers from other countries (who think all us Americans are Yankees) usually don’t realize that, and get y’all all wrong--as in Lionboy. We think it’s just those quaint Southerners being ungrammatical, but this word reflects a more sophisticated grammar than the rest of the English-speaking world uses.

Americans from outside our South use “you all” as a synonym for “all of you”--i.e., everyone I’m addressing now. So if Southerners understand “you all” to mean y’all, how do they signal when they’re addressing an entire group?

“All y’all,” naturally.

(A final note: Lionboy’s reference to the USA as an “Empire” makes an interesting contrast to our depiction as rebellious colonies in other recent British fantasies that revive the British Empire. Unlike those books, Lionboy is set in the near future, after a petroleum crash.)

27 May 2007

Come Un Dun

I read only about 100 pages of China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun before I had to take it back to the library to fulfill someone else’s request. (All the more reason to put off reading new books for a year or three, I say.)

I was most impressed by Miéville’s combination of verbal and visual imagination. Often authors seem to have one or the other. AUTHOR%20Alan Snow, for instance, has striking character images but flat prose. Cliff McNish creates terrific descriptions of moods and relationships, but I’m not always sure what things look like. Miéville, who also illustrated his own novel rather well, takes punnish inspiration from both verbal and visual cues. Inventive details pop out of every page, practically every paragraph.

I have trouble understanding Miéville’s approach to section breaks within a chapter. Most authors use those to elide from one scene to another, signaling the passage of space or time. But Miéville often plops section breaks within scenes, with the action and conversation taking up just an instant after it left off. They seem more like especially emphatic punctuation (“Think about that now!”) than like storytelling conveniences.

Details and blank lines aside, the story in Un Lun Dun is conventional--so far. Two young people, wisecracking Zanna and loyal best friend Deepa, are sucked into a strange world. It’s like London, but--get this!--everything is different.

Well, not everything. It’s not as if in this universe water contracts when frozen, thus becoming denser and ending up on the bottom of the ocean where it's never thawed, giving water-based life no chance to form on the planet. It’s not as if the weak and strong nuclear forces don’t apply, fundamentally changing the nature of matter. No, things in UnLondon are different in a picturesque, occasionally disturbing but usually entertaining way, with dangerous giraffes and affectionate milk cartons and double-decker buses sprouting wings and legs.

The people of that society have all sorts of rules and customs and expectations by which they live. But--wouldn’t you know?--our heroes don’t know what those rules are! Laughs galore ensue. And here’s the kicker: everyone in UnLondon treats Zanna and Deepa as special, as Chosen visitors whose Coming has been Prophesized because it is Very Important to the Future of Both Worlds.

And did I mention the huge, malevolent, disembodied force of evil, here called the Smog? You were already expecting one of those, I bet.

I understand from reviews of Un Lun Dun that Miéville’s book ends up deconstructing those modern fantasy clichés. Which could be a lot of fun, especially with his imagination and his prose, so I look forward to snatching the book away from some other library patron and finishing it. But that shift hasn’t happened yet.

26 May 2007

My Teacher Is Bruce Coville

One of the main speakers at last weekend's SCBWI New England conference was Bruce Coville, and I was delighted. Not just because I'd heard him speak before, at a main SCBWI conference in LA, so I knew how entertaining and encouraging he was. I also greatly admire him as a writer, and here's why.

(I'm going to tell this story as I understand it from my memory of speeches and articles. If I get little details wrong, I apologize and welcome corrections. If I get big details wrong, I'm going to sulk because I want to preserve my illusions.)

In the late 1980s Byron Preiss, the visionary book packager, approached Bruce with a proposal that he write a middle-grade novel called My Teacher Is an Alien. Bruce was then a struggling children's writer who'd shown a knack for fun science fiction and fantasy stories, and he had also been a struggling schoolteacher. So he was a good candidate for turning Preiss's title into an actual book.

In Hollywood terms, My Teacher Is an Alien is "high concept": all the information you need to grab readers is in that five-word title. Clearly, the book was shaped for maximum market. It was paperback product. Writing to fit a packager's title is the children's-literature equivalent of, say, basing a movie on a theme park ride.

Bruce made My Teacher Is an Alien into a fun, tight little story, not only giving us the entertainment we wanted but also the surprises we might have had no reason to expect. And readers responded. My Teacher Is an Alien was a hit. So Preiss asked Bruce to turn that one book into a sequel. I'm not sure whether that offer came with the implication that if Bruce didn't want to, Preiss would find another writer who did. The company owned the book's copyright, not the author.

And this is where I stop admiring Bruce Coville's luck and talent and start admiring his values as well. Because he didn't want to write the same teacher-is-an-alien plot over and over. He wanted to find more meaning in the situation he'd set up. And he did.

For each of the three sequels--My Teacher Fried My Brains, My Teacher Glows in the Dark, and My Teacher Flunked the Planet--Bruce chose a different narrative voice. He addressed different personal issues. He took us out of the classroom into alien cultures, and then back to Earth to view it through alien eyes.

Furthermore, the series gains depth with each volume. It gets into questions of bullying, intelligence, education and moral guidance, war and peace, responsibility for other species, and whether human nature is inherently good or destructive. All without ever leaving behind the humor and neat stuff that filled the first book.

According to Bruce's essay in Something About the Author, reprinted here, this series

remains a secret between me and the kids, since not many adults have paid attention to it. Indeed, a startling number of teachers and parents have told me they had not read My Teacher Is an Alien specifically because of the title or the cover, and were startled to find, after a child had urged it upon them, how much they actually enjoyed it.
Yes, this series is the equivalent of a movie based on a theme park ride and its market-demanded sequels. But some movies based on theme park rides are very good movies. (Well, so far one has been.)

25 May 2007

Distinctive Dialogue

Last Sunday, in my workshop on dialogue and dialogue tags at SCBWI New England's annual conference, I promised to post some material from one of my PowerPoint slides here on the blog. And now, five days after I started this entry, I'm finally finishing it.

I propose that the key to creating distinctive speech patterns is to focus on little things: habitual sentence structure, word choices, exclamations and questions. If we make those touches distinct for each character and keep them consistent, then readers will pick up characters' speech patterns and be able to follow a complex conversation, even with several speakers and changes in the emotions or opinions that individuals are expressing.

I put up a slide listing several ways that speech patterns often vary. Some involve the content of a character's speech (what she says) and others the form (how she says it):

  • Contractions v. Full words
  • Metaphors v. Plain language
  • Originality v. Clichés
  • Grammatical constructions v. Non-standard
  • Long sentences v. Short
  • Anglo-Saxon words v. Latinate expressions
  • Complete sentences v. Sentence fragments
  • Interruption and apposition v. Directness
  • Sarcastic v. Sincere
  • Joking v. Serious
  • Negative v. Positive
  • Hemming and hawing v. Smooth speech
  • Slang v. Formality
  • Qualifying (e.g., rather, quite, very, sort of) v. Bald
  • Overstatement v. Understatement
  • Direct address (i.e., using the other character's name) v. None
  • Repetition v. Terseness
  • Catch Phrases v. Generic language
This is by no means an exhaustive list. These variables are just those I came up with as I prepared my talk, probably far too late at night. But I hope it's a useful starting-point.

One workshop participant talked about having three characters who are all scared--which in certain scenes makes sense. How could each character's dialogue sound individual when they're all expressing the same emotion? One might be prone to overstatment ("We're all going to die!"), another to sarcasm ("Oh yeah, yelling will help."), and the third to asking questions ("But what are we going to do?"). If readers recognize those traits from calmer times, then they'll remember when the tension rises.

I must admit to getting a special kick out of distinctive speech patterns, particularly in my somewhat elevated if not exactly "high" fantasies. I just looked at chapter 10 of one of my manuscripts, and I see seven speaking characters:
  • A cross little dog, all snappish interjections and barks.
  • An old-fashioned American farmgirl, prone to saying things like "Gracious" and "I’m jes’ fine, ’member?"
  • A corporal who speaks so tersely he tends to leave the subjects and articles off the start of his sentences. Doesn't need them. Gets along fine.
  • A contented hippopotamus with his mouth full. “Oo ehuh ahh oo hi ih!”
  • A cottonmouth snake with a lisp.
  • Two alligators who speak in a somewhat formal style, frequently addressing each other as "brother" and "sister."
Those speaking styles send my word processor's "Spelling and Grammar..." tool into a tizzy--nothing but red and green underlines. And for a more realistic, serious story, such a variety of speech patterns might well be too flashy. But I guarantee you, readers won't lose track of who's saying what.

24 May 2007

Pulling It Out with Lemonade Mouth

At last weekend's SCBWI New England annual conference, Mark Peter Hughes, author of the teen novels I Am the Wallpaper and Lemonade Mouth, offered an energy-filled workshop on character development. Now his website offers the character-building exercises from that workshop.

Mark also served as conference registrar, and he lent me his laptop for my Powerpoint presentation on Sunday morning, helping me set up and--even more important, as it turned out--close down.

I'm a Mac person, so I've been trained to eject every data storage device on the desktop before daring to touch the hardware, at the risk of damaging the device, or the computer, or the fabric of the universe. Therefore, at the end of my session, with my sister's college graduation an hour away (both by the clock and by the highway), I was stuck, trying to figure out how to tell Mark's PC to stop thinking about my flashdrive. That's so easy on a Mac, so hard on a PC--because you don't actually have to do that on a PC. Finally, Mark came over and yanked out my drive, for which I'll always be grateful.

This summer Mark and the whole Hughes family (stars of the Friday night dance party) embark on 28-city van tour to promote Lemonade Mouth. As I understand it, public radio will give us regular updates. And I'm sure that trip will build character in many ways.

23 May 2007

Breaking the Frame with Hong Kil Dong

One highlight of last weekend's SCBWI New England conference for me was hearing from author-illustrator Anne Sibley O'Brien. First there was the cabaret act she performed with Charlesbridge Editorial Director Yolanda LeRoy and pianist Marilyn Salerno. I hadn't expected such professional-quality singing. Don't miss them if their tour takes them through your convention!

The next morning I attended O'Brien's workshop on new graphic novels for kids, and specifically on how she created The Legend of Hong Kil Dong with Charlesbridge editor Judy O'Malley and art director Susan Sherman. This legend of the "Korean Robin Hood" features a hero with some superhuman powers, so using the comics format made artistic/literary sense.

At the same time, some of the creative team's practical decisions seem to have led to trouble. The book's trim size and 48 pages make it look like a standard picture book, despite the panels on the cover. Some reviewers and librarians have had trouble categorizing the book: graphic novel or picture book? Just recently Booklist threw its weight behind the former category, including it in the Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth for last year. It’s really a hybrid of the two genres, I think, and more power to it.

Behind the scenes, O'Brien decided to draw all the speech and thought balloons into her art. That no doubt helped with composing the pictures and giving all the art the same line quality. (Korean-style brush work, not pen drawing, by the way.) But the text eventually had to be rewritten to fit well into those inflexible balloons.

I was sitting next to another old fanboy, Greg Fishbone, during the presentation, and we both knew that for decades comic-book publishers pasted the speech balloons onto their panels. Now most comics artists go digital at some stage, another way of solving the same problem. But O'Brien didn't feel confident of her computer abilities, so she and her team were reinventing the wheel with a kink in it.

Now Charlesbridge has the challenge of selling foreign rights in the book with the news that any translated text would have to fit into those same spaces. This sounds like a job for someone with superhuman powers!

22 May 2007

"New England Voices" Tonight at Boston College

Tonight I have the honor of moderating "New England Voices," a public event for the Foundation for Children's Books featuring three local authors. Since I've known all three for years, I know it will be a fun evening with some fine writing and art on display.

The featured authors will be, in alphabetical order:

"New England Voices" will take place in Vanderslice Hall on the campus of Boston College. See the FCB's website for more detailed driving directions. The event will start at 7:30, and part of my job will be to ensure that it ends by 9:00.

21 May 2007

Charles Darwin Argues Away for a Good While

The New York Times alerted me to the Darwin Correspondence Project out of Cambridge, which includes the biologist's first surviving letter. Its recipient can't be identified, but the 1822 date indicates that Darwin wrote it as a twelve-year-old just back from his boarding school.

Young Charles complained about a heated conversation with his older sister and tutor, Caroline. Their relationship seems not unlike the relationship of many other sisters and brothers:

My Dear friend

you must know that after my Georgraphy, she said I should go down to ask for Richards poney [unidentified], just as I was going, she said she must ask me not a very decent question, that was whether I wash all over every morning no

then she said it was quite disgustin then she asked me if I did every other morning, and I said no

then she said how often I did, and I said once a week, then she said of cour you wash your feet every day, and I said no,

then she begun saying how very disgusting and went on that way a good while, then she said I ought to do it,

I said I would wash my neck and shoulders,

then she said you had better do it all over

then I said upon my word I would not,

then she told me, and made me promise I would not tell,

then I said, why I only wash my fett once a month at school, which I confess is nasty, but I cannot help it, for we have nothing to do it with,

so then Caroline pretended to be quite sick, and left the room, so then I went and told [older brother] erasmus, and he bust out in laughing and said I had better tell he[r] to come and wash them her self, besides that she said she did not like sitting by me or Erasmus for we smelt of not washing all over, there we sat arguing away for a good while.

I remain your affectionately
The epistolary editors add that to understand "the sanitary arrangements at Shrewsbury School in the early nineteenth century," we should consult James Basil Oldham, A History of the Shrewsbury School (Oxford: 1952), page 155.

See also the Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online, source of the picture above of Charles and his younger sister Catherine in about 1816.

20 May 2007

Changing with the Demographics

The good news is that today's Nashua Telegraph published an article on our SCBWI New England conference (from which I've just returned). The not-so-good news is that the paper quoted me this way:

John Bell, a presenter and regional advisor for SCBWI, agreed that the picture book genre is booming.

“There’s a lot going on in the industry,” he said.

“Things are always changing with the demographics. It’s the end of the (Harry) Potter era.”
The words between quote marks are accurate, but I apologize to anyone who be misled into thinking on my authority that publishers are seeing a boom in picture book sales and want more manuscripts. I'm not sure how that came to be on paper. It's still pretty much a doldrum there, and most big publishers just want funny.

My actual thought on demographics and picture books goes like this. There was a boomlet for picture books in the mid-1990s; a burst of interest in middle-grade novels in the late 1990s through 2000, coinciding with the explosion of Harry Potter; and for the last three or four years a flowering of publishing for teens.

Those are the same kids growing up! There was a little blip in the US birth rate that's moving through the years like a hamster inside a snake. You know what's next? A lot of books about being in college and searching for meaning in one's early twenties. Get on that bandwagon now!

18 May 2007

Hitting the Road

I'm about to depart for the SCBWI New England conference. This afternoon I'll moderate a panel on marketing with four publishing professionals.

Tomorrow Sarah Aronson and I will be the readers for a "First Pages" panel with three more editors.

And Sunday morning I'll lead a workshop on "The Do's and Don'ts of Dialogue."

By that point, I expect, I'll be mostly conferred out. But then it will be time for Clark University to confer a diploma on my sister!

Publisher Does Market Research - AMAZING!

Speaking of SCBWI New England, over at the organization's blog, I've posted comments about the recent launch by the British publisher Egmont of an imprint called 2Heads.

17 May 2007

Picture Books and Gender: The Latest Snapshot

A few weeks back news of a new study of gender representation in picture books made a brief splash. At the time I was asking how the researchers chose their sample, and the news stories didn't answer that question. Since then, top news source Fuse #8 has come to the rescue with a link to Centre College's full press release on the study, conducted by Mykol C. Hamilton, David Anderson, Michelle Broaddus, and Kate Young.

The researchers explain:

Our sample included the 30 Caldecott Medal winners and honor books for 1995-2001. However, in order to draw from a larger and more representative collection of widely read picture books, we located 155 best-selling children’s books that had not won Caldecott or Newbery awards but were listed as top sellers in 1999-2001 by the New York Times, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or Publishers Weekly. Also included were nine additional best-selling Little Golden Books and three non-overlapping books from the 2001 New York Public Library list of books everyone should know and the 2001 Funorama.com top 10 picture books.
The study doesn't say if those bestsellers from 1999-2001 included titles published years before but still selling, like Goodnight Moon and Oh, the Places You'll Go!. I suspect that the researchers excluded older books because they seem to focus on what publishers are producing, not what books families are consuming, though the latter determines what's a bestseller.

Some pieces of good news from the study:
  • "Neither sex, contrary to the hypothesis, was more likely than the other to be portrayed as active or as passive. In fact, both male and female characters were portrayed more often as active than as passive". This was a considerable change from the results of studies published in 1985 and 1987.
  • "There was no significant gender-related difference in our sample for assertive/aggressive behaviors."
  • "Male and female characters were equally likely to perform rescue behaviors in our book sample," as was also true in a 1987 study.

On the other hand, by the numbers female characters showed up less often, had a smaller range of jobs, were indoors more often, and so on. "Female characters in our sample were much more likely than male characters to perform nurture behaviors; the ratio was 3.3:1," and, furthermore, that ratio rose since the 1980s.

The researchers write:
The fact that we found only one borderline significant difference in the degree to which Caldecott vs. other picture books under-represent female characters suggests that Caldecott books may represent the overall category of children’s picture books well.
But that "borderline significant difference" is a basic one: the bestselling sample portrayed 1.5 males for every female, the Caldecott sample 2.6 males. In other words, the honored picture books, as chosen by a committee and within a profession where females outnumber males, were actually more male-dominated than the books individuals and families were buying. Why would that be?

16 May 2007

China, Tall Tales, and a Sense of Hope

So the night after I brought home Un Lun Dun from the library, Roger Sutton's post directed me to author China Miéville's recent essay in the Guardian:

There's nothing like the constant sage cliché that polemical politics has no place in fiction to make a person hanker for a bit of agit-prop. The cruder the better. Of course a lot of agitproppy art is crap, true, but then so's a lot of everything.

Irritated by the insipid and disingenuous separation of politics and art? Be reassured that it's never too early to corrupt young minds with tendentious reasoning smuggled into narrative. Fortunately, there's no shortage of political discussion in children's and YA fiction, sometimes camouflaged, often not.
In fact, I'll go further and note that children's and young-adult fiction is often judged by the values it imparts, far more often than serious adult literature. And what are politics if not values writ large?

Miéville went on:
The worst propaganda works aren't those (relatively few) books that actually do what the critics of political fiction claim it does (foreclose discussion and replace it with hectoring): they're those books which pretend -- perhaps to their authors too -- that they are above and unsullied by political concerns. What better way to naturalise all sorts of unexamined prejudices?
Unexamined prejudices like, say, the need to leave readers with a sense of hope. Which brings me to Mitali Perkins’s interview with our friend Karen Day, whose Tall Tales has just come out. Speaking of her editor, Wendy Lamb, Karen said:
She thought I left the family too vulnerable and wanted to see a happier outcome. She said she’d look at the novel again if I made these changes, but I wasn’t sure. I wanted to be realistic. I couldn’t see how to change it and stay true to my realistic conception of the novel. I fretted over this for months until finally I found a solution that satisfied me but also, I hoped, would satisfy Wendy.
As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with giving young readers a sense of hope. Tall Tales is a hard-hitting picture of a troubled family, so it's natural to want better for those kids. But it's worth examining whether our culture has a prejudice about how children's books must end. Does our model of the modern "problem novel" function like the books Miéville discusses, which claim not to be political yet reflect and reinforce unexamined political beliefs?

15 May 2007

Grievous Harm

From Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's Yarn Harlot (as if most of you haven't read it already):

My nephew Hank is seven now and spent the weekend here, and there is no end to the things he taught me during that time.

1. I had been under the impression that the most painful thing a mother can step on (after careful research and years of experience) was a four-hole square lego piece. I was wrong.

The smallest of these "Star Wars Fighting Guys" hurts so much to step on that you don't even feel the emotional pain of your nephew screaming "don't hurt my guys!" while you slowly extract an extremely small lightsaber from the fleshy part of your instep. . . .
Which brings up the question of why little children never seem to step so painfully on their own toys, even when vulnerable and distracted.

14 May 2007

A Ratbridge Too Far

Here Be Monsters!, written and illustrated by Alan Snow, embodies a number of trends in modern fantasy publishing.

1) It's British. Snow lives in Bath, and the book manages to combine two abiding concerns of rural England: outlawed fox-hunting and cheeses.

2) It's illustrated. After many years of having illustrations confined only to novels for the youngest readers, publishers are laying out money for interior art again. Early exemplars were the US Harry Potter books, Tale of Desperaux, and Lemony Snicket series. Now even realistic novels such as The Higher Power of Lucky are getting visual, and fantasies like Larklight have even more drawings. In the Spiderwick series, author and illustrator worked together from the start. Writers are creating simple art (Greg Fishbone's Penguins of Doom) and artists are creating novels (Ruth McNally Barshaw's Ellie McDoodle). For this book, Snow has drawn an illustration or map for nearly every page. Which brings me to...

3) It's massive. Here Be Monsters! is over 500 pages long. The sizable type and leading show that the publishers wanted a book that thick. Furthermore, Atheneum has shelled out for an embossed dust jacket and pages with deckle edges (a supposed sign of luxury that I think makes books less easily read and thus less appealing). This book is, after all, merely the first volume of the promised Ratbridge Chronicles. And there's the requisite website, with games, animations, and screensavers [do any screens really need saving anymore?].

Snow's art reminds me of the great Quentin Blake's, and most of the fun of the book starts with them. Indeed, it looks like the whole story grew from the illustrations, and Snow was creating animations alongside his manuscript. Some of those short videos can be viewed at the book's homepage, or this page from Atheneum.

And that may be a reason I just wasn't turned on by Here Be Monsters! It feels like the scenario for an animated movie. In that format, the whimsical plot and characters could play out without interference from the prose. The actions are nifty and new, but the descriptions of those actions are flat and the depictions of emotions even more so. (Page 48: "...Willbury asked in a puzzled voice." Page 49: "Arthur looked sad.")

Here Be Monsters! also suffers from a quality shared by a number of classic animated movies: a dearth of significant female characters. By page 100, we've met young foundling Arthur, his grandfather, his powerful and eccentric protector Willbury, four little refugees from the underground, two even tinier refugees--and they're all male. We've glimpsed a secret society of cheese-hunters--also all male.

Sure, there's a woman who swipes at Arthur's artificial wings when he steals bananas from her greenhouse (a quickly vanishing antagonist). There's an unintelligible sea-cow separated from her children (a purely symbolic mother figure). Willbury mentions a female colleague. And the "Taxonomy of Trolls and Creatures" in the frontmatter hints at the eventual arrival of "Rabbit Women," sort of: "Very little is known about these mythical creatures..." Well, that's the problem, isn't it?

Page 110 finally brings the first extended glimpse of the women of Ratbridge:

There were an awful lot of ladies doing an awful lot of cackling. And as they cackled, they tottered slowly down the streets, their bottoms wobbling behind them. Arthur had not seen bottoms like these before. From the way the ladies paraded their derrieres, it seemed that to have an interesting behind was very much the thing!
These ladies are in thrall to a "Fashion Princess" who's obviously a nasty con artist, and just a little less obviously the male villain in drag. And by that point I'd stopped reading.

12 May 2007

Roaring Start for Lionboy

Now that is a fine opening chapter. Right off the mark Lionboy establishes young Charlie's deep affection and admiration for his extraordinary parents without becoming syrupy. His mum accidentally cuts her leg while gardening, and Charlie proudly goes into her lab to fetch the Bloodstopper Lotion.

"Thank you, sweetie," she said, and was just about to lift the lid and drip a drop of the lotion onto her still-bleeding wound, when she hesitated.

"Bring me a pen and paper," she said suddenly.

Charlie fetched one of the strong swirling glass pens that they used for every day, and the green kitchen ink, and a scrap of envelope.

"Proper paper," she said, and he brought a piece of heavy clean parchment from the drawer.

Mum pulled herself up, and as she did so the movement made the blood bubble a little more from her shin. She took no notice. Instead, she lifted her leg, and laid it along the kitchen table, as if she were doing her yoga, or ballet. The parchment lay on the kitchen table; the ink was ignored. Mum took the Venetian pen and cautiously dipped it in the beading blood of her wound.

Charlie stared.

"Don't worry," she said to him. "I just thought of something I've been meaning to do for a while."
What a powerful combination of the quotidian (the pen "they used for every day," the items Charlie knows just where to find in the home he loves) and the almost monstrously strange! And that opening chapter ends thus:
He forgot all about the parchment written in blood, and didn't think about it again until six months later, when he came home to find that his parents had disappeared.
Were Penguin to make that chapter available on the web, it would be a great selling tool.

Instead, the multinational continues to promote the Zizou Corder team as "Already being compared to J. K. Rowling." That's more than disingenuous. As the BBC surmised in 2005, "Almost every first-time children's author published since the Harry Potter books first had global success has been dubbed 'the next JK Rowling'." It's like "the new Dylan" for American music companies in the 1970s. The ravenous British press needs new icons.

And to her credit, Louisa Young, the older half of Zizou Corder, saw through this phenomenon herself in her terrific 2003 article for the London Guardian:
Tragically, I am no longer the New JK Rowling. I read in the paper that one Jonathan Stroud is the New New JK Rowling, and so my brief but glorious reign is over - before, I may say, the book that won me the title is even published. Or, strictly, as it's a three-parter, even finished.

You may think that being the New JK Rowling is an experience granted to few, of little interest to the general reader - but you'd be wrong. New JK Rowlings are ten a penny (which must be galling for the Actual JK Rowling). There was Georgia Byng, Eoin Colfer, Lemony Snicket, Lorraine Kelly and that vicar, and the guy whose mother saved his manuscript from the bin. . . .
(Not to mention Matthew Skelton.)
Basically, I'm pretty sure I was the New JKR because I am being paid what could (though not accurately) be called a Million-Pound Advance - following the logic that whatever six figures your six figures may be, six figures is nearly seven figures, and seven figures is a million quid and a million quid is a headline.

11 May 2007

Muggleton and Poots

The "zombies besiege a green zone in London" movie 28 Weeks Later opens in the US today, and as my eyes flowed across the reviews they were caught by the names of the two actors playing the refugee children:

Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots

Those names sound more like secondary characters in a Dickens novel than like actual children, even child-actors, so I had to investigate. (Other people have also been struck by those names.)

It turns out Ms. Poots appeared in V for Vendetta and other moving pictures. Wikipedia reveals that her nicknames are Imi and Imo. "Imi Poots"--even more out of this world.

28 Weeks Later is Mr. Muggleton's first movie, and he's so unknown that IMDB.com thinks he's an "actress" rather than an actor. (The haircut doesn't help.) I found one interview, with a single quote: "...I think I would stay clear from monkeys."

Muggleton was only twelve when he was cast, so he's lived since age two in a world where Harry Potter has provided a new layer of meaning for "muggle." Growing up with the name Mackintosh Muggleton was thus probably even more striking than his parents had planned. But he seems to be off to a good start with it.

10 May 2007

I'll Rest When I'm Dead?

New this spring is this biography of race car driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr., with Matt Christopher's name at the top.

Earnhardt died in 2001. Christopher, however, died in 1997.

Not that you'll find anything about the author's death (from complications following brain surgery) on his official website. The "About the Author" page is a splendidly sly combination of an old interview and references to Christopher as author of the most popular sports books for kids--which of course he still is.

I know Christopher was prolific, writing scores of middle-grade novels based on America's most popular sports. But surely there are limits to his productivity.

The Amazon page for the new book credits Glenn Stout as another writer, the only one who could actually have done the writing. Stout's name also appears on Amazon's pages for other "Matt Christopher Sports Biographies." I recognize him as a commentator on the Red Sox and desk editor of the Best American Sports Writing volumes, and he's written on other subjects. But I sure don't see his name on that book cover.

(Ironically, I started on my path through these Christopher websites after receiving a message about Skullduggery Pleasant, which only pretends to be a story by a dead man.)

09 May 2007

Mad Money

I much enjoyed Book Moot's report from the front lines of the school book fair:

My favorite money is "kid money" because it comes from under the bed, from the piggy bank, or from down in the sofa cushions. This is wadded-up, folded-up, scrunched-up and twisted-up currency in bills, quarters, dimes and pennies. It comes through the door in ziplock bags or from inside their shoes.

You haven't lived until you've watched a child shake money out of the toe of their Nikes which they then hand you to count.
The mere mention of money gives me an excuse to quote what The Emerald City of Oz (1910) says about the economic system of L. Frank Baum's magical country:
There were no poor people in the Land of Oz, because there was no such thing as money, and all property of every sort belonged to the Ruler. The people were her children, and she cared for them.

Each person was given freely by his neighbors whatever he required for his use, which is as much as any one may reasonably desire. Some tilled the lands and raised great crops of grain, which was divided equally among the entire population, so that all had enough. There were many tailors and dressmakers and shoemakers and the like, who made things that any who desired them might wear. Likewise there were jewelers who made ornaments for the person, which pleased and beautified the people, and these ornaments also were free to those who asked for them.

Each man and woman, no matter what he or she produced for the good of the community, was supplied by the neighbors with food and clothing and a house and furniture and ornaments and games. If by chance the supply ever ran short, more was taken from the great storehouses of the Ruler, which were afterward filled up again when there was more of any article than the people needed.

Every one worked half the time and played half the time, and the people enjoyed the work as much as they did the play, because it is good to be occupied and to have something to do. There were no cruel overseers set to watch them, and no one to rebuke them or to find fault with them. So each one was proud to do all he could for his friends and neighbors, and was glad when they would accept the things he produced.

You will know by what I have here told you, that the Land of Oz was a remarkable country. I do not suppose such an arrangement would be practical with us, but Dorothy assures me that it works finely with the Oz people.
Gallons of ink (and now millions of pixels) have been spilled trying vainly to wrest a coherent politico-economic allegory out of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, yet critics pay little heed to what Baum went on to write about how a utopian society works.

08 May 2007

What Not to Write

Author Darcy Pattison went to an Arkansas SCBWI meeting and took helpful notes on Dial editor Liz Waniewski's most-often-received picture book topics. They should look familiar to anyone who's handled the slush pile at other children's publishers, or newcomers' submissions at an SCBWI conference. To whit:

  • First Day at School
  • Cleaning up your room
  • Tooth fairy
  • Christmas/Halloween
  • Wanting a pet
  • Dealing with a disability
  • "Hi! My name is. . . and I am seven years old!"
  • Visiting Grandma and Grandpa
  • New baby
  • Barnyard stories
  • Bedtime stories
  • Personal hygiene
Darcy responded cheekily by naming classic picture books on each of those topics. But the fact that there are classics out there just raises the question of whether we need more. If every American family already owns a copy of Goodnight Moon and every Canadian family a copy of Love You Forever, don't we have a lifetime supply?

What I find most striking about this list is how boring most of the topics seem, not simply from the perspective of a junior editor shoveling away the slush, but also from the likely perspective of a preschooler. "Daddy, why can't I read about personal hygiene? All we have are princess and pirate books." "Trucks are boring, Mama! I want a story about cleaning my room!" "I don't care about talking to Grandma on the phone. I want you to read to me about visiting someone else's Grandma!"

Of course, there are still plenty of good, entertaining stories that would fall under Waniewski's topics. Darcy's own Nineteen Girls and Me happens to be about starting kindergarten--but it's an exaggerated, imaginative tale, and the hero has an unusual reason to be anxious that stands for more common kindergarten anxieties. It's not "what exactly will happen and how much fun you'll have when you start school next week."

Even such dramatic topics as wanting a pet or not wanting a new baby (never seems to be the other way around, does it?), which hold great interest for kids at particular times, seem to stem from the lessons that adults want to impart. And the appearance of barnyard stories on a list created by a largely urban society hints that people are submitting stories based on what they think children's books should be about.

Honestly, grown-ups, when was the last time you enjoyed a book on dental care, the first day at a new job, or turning thirty-five? How often do you browse the Animal Husbandry section at Borders?

07 May 2007


Even experts in concocting fantasies can go too far and come up with magical devices that no one would believe in but themselves. Take this dispatch today from the Associated Press:

An odd-looking Canadian quarter with a bright red flower was the culprit behind a false espionage warning from the Defense Department about mysterious coins with radio frequency transmitters, The Associated Press has learned.

The harmless "poppy quarter" was so unfamiliar to suspicious U.S. Army contractors traveling in Canada that they filed confidential espionage accounts about them. The worried contractors described the coins as "filled with something man-made that looked like nano-technology," according to once-classified U.S. government reports and e-mails obtained by the AP.

The silver-colored 25-cent piece features the red image of a poppy--Canada's flower of remembrance--inlaid over a maple leaf. The unorthodox quarter is identical to the coins pictured and described as suspicious in the contractors' accounts.

The supposed nano-technology on the coin actually was a protective coating the Royal Canadian Mint applied to prevent the poppy's red color from rubbing off. The mint produced nearly 30 million such quarters in 2004 commemorating Canada's 117,000 war dead.

"It did not appear to be electronic (analog) in nature or have a power source," wrote one U.S. contractor, who discovered the coin in the cup holder of a rental car. "Under high power microscope, it appeared to be complex consisting of several layers of clear, but different material, with a wire-like mesh suspended on top."

The confidential accounts led to a sensational warning from the Defense Security Service, an agency of the Defense Department, that mysterious coins with radio frequency transmitters were found planted on U.S. contractors with classified security clearances on at least three separate occasions between October 2005 and January 2006 as the contractors traveled through Canada.
And the poppy was presumably a sly saboteur's reference to the first President Bush's nickname.

New Way to Read The Wizard of Oz

Looking for Oz content, I'm taking a tip from Blair Frodelius's Ozmapolitan update and highlighting this unusual version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

It's a hand-drawn artwork depicting the main characters of the MGM movie on their way to the Emerald City, composed entirely of the letters of chapters 1-11. At the right is a blurry thumbnail of the upper left corner, where the book begins. The artist cleverly avoids the discrepancy of the book's silver shoes and the movie's ruby slippers by not showing Dorothy's footwear at all.

Most of the other posters created in this format address adult concerns, but there is a page of nursery rhymes.

06 May 2007

Kidlitting the Blogosphere

Elizabeth Bird's article "Blogging the Kidlitosphere" appears in the May 2007 issue of The Horn Book and, most appropriately, online. She includes remarks from many fellow bloggers, some of whom know how to be succinct and some of whom, well, don't.

05 May 2007

Legion of Frankensteins—but no Peter Boyle

David Lee Ingersoll offers a step-by-step look at how he created his Legion of Frankensteins drawing. Blogs working as they do, you can start at the top and work backward in time, or focus your eyes somewhere else, scroll down to the bottom, and catch his thoughts on Mary Shelley's novel before moving upwards to the art.

04 May 2007

Writing for Youth Isn't All Pretty, Either

From the local newspaper, here's an article about Karen Day (the pretty part of this photo by Mark Thompson) and our writing-critique group.

Karen's first novel, Tall Tales, comes out next week. Among other members of the group, Mitali Perkins has a new picture book, Rickshaw Girl, and the first of a new series of novels, First Daughter. Steve Smith's working on a junior version of his fun board game, Word Sweep. Laya Steinberg is trying novels after her picture books Thesaurus Rex and All Around Me I See. And there will be more to come!

03 May 2007

Alice Doesn't Live There Anymore

In The King in the Window, Adam Gopnik appropriates Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. I don't mean he alludes to the earlier book, or brings in some details in homage the way Cornelia Funke's Inkheart makes use of Tinkerbell, or even creates a sequel like the several about Peter Pan.

Rather, this fantasy purports to tell us the truth behind Carroll's Alice stories. That seem superfluous, but could be entertaining if executed gracefully. Alas, the Carroll connection is just another ingredient that seems tossed clumsily into an overly flavored stew.

On page 165 we discover that young hero Oliver goes to sleep to the sound of Lewis Carroll's Alice books because he's an insomniac. On page 22, Oliver does have trouble falling asleep. That would be a perfect place to establish his insomnia and listening habit, but Gopnik skips the opportunity, leaving the impression that his protagonist is unusually sleepless because of the magical events he's just experienced. Oliver falls asleep with no problem on page 99 and page 134.

On page 131 Oliver notices that his elderly friend Mrs. Lucy Pearson has a spoon with the initials "LL" engraved on it. She also reads Through the Looking-Glass in French. After many episodes, on page 269, he guesses that her name was originally Lucy Liddell, and she confirms, "Yes, I am Alice's granddaughter."

This opens the door to revealing, supposedly, what the playing cards and Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty actually were. Naturally, Gopnik tells us that the "truth" is darker than the books that Charles Dodgson wrote in an attempt to soften Alice's traumatized memories. As in The Looking-Glass Wars, the unsettling power of nonsense isn't allowed to exist on its own; there must be malevolence behind it.

But that's not all. In Chapter 12 Mrs. Pearson returns to the small house near Oxford where Alice Liddell and she had both grown up. By going through the mirror there, she actually meets her grandmother, returned to a catatonic girlhood.

As long as we're talking about what actually happened, Alice Liddell and her sisters grew up in the deanery of Christ Church College, Oxford. (She spent summers at a house in northern Wales.) I've had the honor of staying overnight in that deanery. It's not a house; it's part of a massive stone building with its own crenellated towers. Check out this virtual tour of the college.

But for the purposes of this novel, I can accept that Gopnik's fictionalized Alice is different from the real Alice, just as the girl John Tenniel drew doesn't look like young Alice Liddell. As long as The King in the Window has an internal logic, then it can stand on its own as entertaining fiction.

But the story doesn't have an internal logic. If Lucy Liddell changed her last name to Pearson when she married, then her grandmother Alice and her mother would have changed their names, too. Mrs. Pearson would never have had the last name Liddell, and Oliver would not be able to deduce that she had. Dodgson was an expert in both logic and nonsense, and he would never have stood for such a mix.

02 May 2007

Cracks in The King in the Window

In his dedication of The King in the Window, Adam Gopnik thanks his son for giving "the author the finest piece of editorial advice he has ever been given: 'Just bring the cool bits closer together.'"

That is fine advice, but I wish Gopnik had received a couple of other types of editorial support. First, for a high-profile book from an established house (Miramax), The King in the Window has a dismaying number of typographical errors, especially in punctuation (pages 42, 166, 252, 272, 280, 311, 394).

Second, Gopnik should have pruned his ideas; many imaginative and energetic authors need editors who say, "This is interesting, but save it for your next book." The King in the Window has much too much to keep track of. Its details don't fit together, and in a fantasy that supposedly reveals the unseen way the world works, in the end all the details should fit together with a satisfying click.

Instead, on page 332 our young hero Oliver sees past the villainous Master of Mirrors's disguise because "He couldn't use a metaphor. He couldn't even understand one." But back on page 226, that same Master of Mirrors told his followers:

"The terrible burden of wanting that sat inside you, burning like a coal in your brain--it is gone! . . . You have been released from this parasite, this tumor, that filled your life with the pain of longing and wanting. . . . Feel the lightness of your liberty!"
I count three metaphors and one simile in those sentences.

Oliver himself suffers from inconsistent or unrealistic characterization. Born twelve years before in America, he's lived with his parents in Paris since he was three, going to French schools. Yet his "best friend" is Charlie Gronek from New Jersey. How many real children sustain a close relationship with a preschool playmate into adolescence--when they're separated by three thousand miles of ocean? (There's no hint the boys are cousins or the like, regularly thrown together.) And even after nine years in France, Oliver feels so alienated that he's made no friends at school--how troubled is he?

Well, he is a weird kid. On page 6, Gopnik says Oliver wished he "walked home every day arm in arm with a chain of very fashionable people." Twelve-year-old boys don't care about "fashionable." They care about "cool," which is determined by a much smaller, closer set of people. (Unless, perhaps, Oliver has truly turned French.)

On page 99, Oliver sends Charlie an email that says, in passing, "The chess move is QXE4. I think that's checkmate." That's the first mention of chess, and it comes a bit late for a new theme (even in a 400-page book). Chess periodically pops up again in the book, and on page 314 the narrator tells us Oliver "had always been bad at chess." So Oliver chooses to play an older, savvier boy at chess, and beats him, but has "always been bad"? How bad must Charlie be?

On page 191 Charlie from New Jersey is surprised and upset that Parisians don't serve Coca-Cola with ice cubes. That's a perfectly fine observation about the backwardness of Europeans in general, but since Gopnik has told us that Charlie had visited just the year before, he really should have noticed that custom already.

There's a strange moment on pages 168-70 when Oliver has been told off to find "the mirror of Luc Gauric," and he doesn't even know what it is. He's surprised to learn hear Neige, the daughter of his building's superintendent, say:
"It's in my room. . . . You seem surprised. Why? Because I'm a girl? Because I'm the gardienne's daughter? . . . I am a crystallomancer. I see into glass, and use my crystal to fight the master. . . . But you looked right past us. . . . We were poor and servile and you never guessed."
And Gopnik tells us, "Oliver sighed again at his own stupidity."

But it isn't stupidity, or class prejudice, or sexism, to be surprised that the magical thing you must find but can't even identify happens to be in the building where you live. After all, that sort of fortunate coincidence only happens in fantasies or badly plotted novels. And since Oliver's never heard of a crystallomancer, there's no logical reason why he should have figured out Neige was one.

Oliver certainly doesn't need to learn valuable lessons about respecting a girl with less money. Through the whole book so far, he's been moping about being in love with Neige and not being able to talk as they used to. Nothing he's said or thought has hinted at prejudice. Yet here he must sigh "at his own stupidity."

This little lesson on the danger of class prejudice is even stranger given the scene that immediately follows. It tells us that all the clochards of Paris ("old men, with long beards and matted hair, who live on the streets. They drink a lot.") are part of a mystical order of guardians who deliberately keep themselves dirty and stinky. So not to worry about them--they like it!

And when we reach the point where everything should click together, page 405 brings us this summation from Oliver:
"I think I figured out why everyone involved--you know, the Watchful, and the Witty, and the Wise--why they all begin with a 'W.' . . . It's Double-U. Double you. It's what you see when you look into a mirror or a window. A double you: the part that's really there plus this other you that lies beyond. . . ."
That would seem more meaningful if this story hadn't taken place in Paris, based on French monarchical history, with most of the conversations conducted in French. Not only do the words Watchful, Witty, and Wise not begin with W in French, but the rare French letter "double-vais" doesn't lend itself to the pretentious pun.

As I said, someone should have sat down with Gopnik and said, "Save some of this for your next book."

TOMORROW: Alice doesn't live there anymore.

01 May 2007

Little Griffin

I read Saving the Griffin, by Kristin Wolden Nitz, because for several years I've been working and reworking a novel (originally a cycle of stories, hence the reworking) that would share two of its three Library of Congress cataloguing-in-publication subjects:

1. Griffins--Fiction.
2. Brothers and sisters--Fiction.
3. Italy--Fiction.
Nitz's website discusses her inspiration for the book during a stay in Italy (also the setting for her first novel, Defending Irene). Although she doesn't say it, I suspect that observations of her siblings and/or kids were also crucial. The psychological dance among sister and brothers of different ages is nicely observed, and the strongest part of the book.

On the fantasy side, there's almost no magic besides the baby griffin. We see a portal to the griffins' world, but don't enter it or learned why it opened. The plot about what kids do when they find a strange creature is straight from E.T., but those kids are never in real danger and never have to sacrifice much. What Ellen Howard has called "the price of fantasy" is very low in this tale.

At one point protagonist Kate critiques her little brother Michael's choice to name the little griffin "Grifonino"; she says that's like calling a young cat "Kitty," a generic term. That's also an apt metaphor for Saving the Griffin. It's an undemanding tale, pretty much exactly what one would expect.