31 October 2008

Overheard Tonight in East Cambridge

Man has opened his front door to trick-or-treating teenagers. He's wearing a floppy dark wig, horn-rimmed glasses, and long moustache.

Teens: What are you supposed to be?

Man: Um, how old are you?

One teen: I'm eighteen.

Man: Okay, I'm a '70s porn star.

All teens: Ohhhhh!


From Alison Morris's Shelftalker, here's an homage to the Tin Woodman by Drew of the Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley. It's made from a pumpkin, a funnel, and lots of duct tape.

The assignment for Drew and his fellow fourth-graders was to "to decorate a sugar pumpkin to represent their favorite character from their summer reading."

See other creations here.

30 October 2008

Notes on Camp Babymouse

Camp Babymouse is the sixth in a series of comics for the early grades created by the brother-sister team of novelist Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. It's also yet another of the 2007 Cybils nominees I'm trying to catch up on.

Babymouse always wants to be the best: the best camper, the star of the musical, and--in book #1--"queen of the world." When she starts out each adventure, "the best" usually means the most popular. Sometimes she's a bit over the top. (Rather like the addition of music to Random House's Babymouse! website--but at least it can be turned off.) But in the end her enthusiasm and persistence pays off, and we all learn valuable lessons about life.

The fun in the Babymouse books is the trouble she gets into along the way, and for me the real fun is her reactions to that trouble. ("Typical!" is a, well, typical response.) You can't take these stories too seriously, a feeling helped by the fact that the drawings seem to have been done with a couple of Sharpies.

Of course, the crude simplicity of those graphics is a bit deceptive. The cartoons work very well for the energetic story, and Camp Babymouse shows some sophisticated uses of the style. For instance, the fantasy sequences not only start and end with the cloudy borders of thought balloons, but they also take place on a field of pink.

The most novel touch for me was the narrative voice that appears in the captions. It doesn't just keep us readers up to date; it carries on a running conversation with Babymouse.

Now back to that pink. Let's face it: Babymouse is a girl. She wears a hair bow, the universal cartoon symbol of a female animal. All her books have pink as the second ink (except for this season's Babymouse: Monster Mash, which has orange). The page numbers appear in little hearts. Camp Babymouse is even more feminine than usual since Babymouse leaves her family and school for an all-female environment.

But it's not a girly book. Babymouse is an heir to no-nonsense cartoon heroines like Marge's Little Lulu, and should be enjoyed and admired by lots of people.

29 October 2008

A Sticky Challenge

I read about this scientific discovery first in C&E News, and was surprised to find a much more detailed report in the New York Times. And here's the overly dramatic but necessary video from Nature.

The discovery? If you unroll 25 meters of sticky tape at 3 cm/second in a vacuum, it emits enough X rays to create an image on the small squares of film that dentists use.

Even in ordinary office conditions, unpeeling sticky tape can produce flashes of light. So how can we use this in fiction?

Sketching Out The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

No other form of literature seems to give as many behind-the-scenes tours as comics. I suppose it's a response to fan demand, but practically every other "graphic novel" comes with some "making of" features: character sketches, scripts, transcripts of discussions among the creative team, retrospectives on those heady days of creation many months ago.

Case in point: Alongside its adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, scripted by Eric Shanower and drawn by Skottie Young, Marvel is issuing a separate Sketchbook next month. UGO Entertainment has an exclusive online preview.

28 October 2008

Flight into Adulthood

I'm determined to finish discussing all the graphic novels I read as a judge for the 2007 Cybils Awards before I have to start reading middle-grade novels for the 2008 awards. So today's entry is about Flight, volume 4, an anthology of short stories in comics form edited by Kazu Kibuishi.

With well over 300 pages of color comics, this book offers a sampling of many styles and sensibilities from up-and-coming author-illustrators. Most of the stories have some fantastic element, but not all do.

If I had to pick out a favorite, I'd choose Ryan Estrada's "Mystical Monkey." It's a summer-camp story with a difference, since this camp involves meditating to meet one's "power animal." Tyrone discovers his animal guardian "is a jerk."

A close second is Lark Pien's "Story of Binny," another tale of a troublesome animal. The binny even has the audacity to insist, "You read too many books."

In the Cybils judging of Graphic Novels for Young Adults, I think Flight, volume 4, suffered from being an anthology up against long unified stories (i.e., novels), which had more room to spread out. It also suffered, in my mind, from not really being a book for Young Adults.

Kibuishi's own story, "The Window Makers," is about working your first full-time job and seeing your future in an older co-worker.
J. P. Ahonen's "And Hope for the Best" is about a couple wondering about whether to become parents. Pascal Campion's "The Storm" follows a drunken lover, Neil Babra's "The Blue Guitar" shows a musician attempting suicide with a gas stove, and Clio Chang's "To Grandma's" is a meditation on Little Red Riding Hood in the context of child-molestation fears.

I'm not saying that Young Adult literature can't consider suicide, sex, alcohol, and other "edgy" topics. Books written for teenagers have been handling those topics since before the term "Young Adult" was invented. But they do so from a teenager's perspective.

Those stories and others in Flight, volume 4, clearly reflect the interests and development of twentysomething adults, not teens. And while other stories, such as "Mystical Monkey" and Raina Telgemeier's "Dinosaur Egg" speak to the sensibility of pre-teens, I don't think we can just average them all out and call the result "Young Adult."

I suspect that if Flight were an anthology of prose stories with the same plots, instead of being an anthology of comics, no one would even consider labeling it Young Adult literature. But our culture still associates comics with kids, so that skews the expected readership of Flight down a few years.

27 October 2008

One Fine Day about James Marshall

In August, Publishers Weekly published appreciations of author-illustrator James Marshall from Susan Meddaugh, Nicole Rubel, Jack Gantos, and Marc Brown.

Next month, on 18 November starting at 7:00 PM, there will be a celebration of Marshall’s life and work on the MIT campus in Cambridge. Roger Sutton of The Horn Book will moderate, and Meddaugh and Anita Silvey are expected to speak.

All this comes in connection to what looks like a reissue of the George and Martha omnibus originally published on the 25th anniversary of those hippos' literary debut in 1972.

26 October 2008

25 October 2008

The 2008 Cybils Award Nominees

Here's the complete list of nominees for the upcoming Cybils Award in the Middle Grade Novel category.

My favorite pairing is Mary Hershey's 10 Lucky Things That Have Happened to Me Since I Nearly Got Hit by Lightning and Danette Haworth's Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning. Who says lightning doesn't almost strike twice?

Here are the nomination lists for Middle Grade Graphic Novels, Young Adult Graphic Novels, Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction, Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction, and all the other categories.

24 October 2008

Going Green in the Bookstore

Last night I attended one of M. T. Anderson's readings of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, volume the second. Also there were Gareth Hinds, creator of the Merchant of Venice graphic novel; Liza Ketchum, author of Where the Great Hawk Flies; and Anindita Sempere, co-director of next spring's SCBWI New England conference.

Not there, at least in great numbers, were Young Adults. Which is curious, given that Octavian Nothing is officially a Young Adult novel, and will soon appear on the New York Times bestseller list for children's books. It was a school night, to be sure. But it was also a work night, and there were enough of us Old Adults to leave folks standing in the aisles. Perhaps in future the Octavian Nothing saga will be considered adult literature.

But back to the here and now. At that event I also had the pleasure of meeting Alison Morris of the Wellesley Booksmith and the Shelftalker blog. I've had her post about "green" books in my to-think-about pile for a week. She wrote:

I've been noticing a marked increase in the number of publishers who claim to be "going green" in one way or another. For many of them "going green" has meant creating a new imprint that uses eco-safe materials and/or donates money to environmental causes.

DK, for example, has a new line called "Made with Care." They claim that these books are their "greenest books ever, made with the most ethical and environmental processes [they] could source." Meanwhile Simon and Schuster's Little Green Books "will be made from recycled materials, and the storylines will cover subjects such as improving the environment, learning about endangered animals, recycling, and much more."

I have mixed feelings about initiatives like these that ultimately just create more "stuff" even if that "stuff" is being created out of recycled materials. Rather than create a new line of books that are specifically more eco-friendly, why not just make ALL of your existing, or at least forthcoming books more eco-friendly?
Most likely there isn't enough recycled paper of the proper quality to make it possible to print all books on it and maintain either (a) the current supply of books in stores, or (b) the current prices on those books. So better to use that paper on titles whose target audience cares most about the effort. Will publishers or the larger audience be willing to make the sacrifices required to go all-"green"? Or, to put in more slangily, what kind of "green" do people care most about?

One of the Shelftalker commenters touts electronic books as the environmental choice. I'd also be interested in seeing an environmental-impact study of print-on-demand publishing compared to traditional printing. POD promises fewer unwanted copies, but does it come with other costs?

23 October 2008

Scared of What Little Fluffy Rabbits Might Do

The Oregonian of Portland is reporting on an individual's attempt to have The Book of Bunny Suicides removed from the local high-school library.

In fact, Taffey Anderson has already refused to return the book, threatened to burn it, and threatened to steal replacement copies as well.

The Oregonian reports:

Two weeks after students at the school discussed the First Amendment as part of Banned Book Week, Principal Julie Knoedler said Anderson's challenge is timely if not frustrating.

"I understand her feeling very strongly about her rights, values and responsibility as a parent," Knoedler said. "But I'm disappointed that she is forcing us to buy another copy before we can review the book."

The 2003 book by British author Andy Riley is a collection of black-comedy cartoons showing adorable white rabbits trying to end their lives through a variety of methods. . . .

Anderson could not be reached for comment Monday. But her short and pointed answers to questions on the Central Linn Schools' "Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials" forms left no doubt about her disgust with the suicidal bunnies, although she was short on specifics.

For example, the paperwork asks petitioners to list what they believe "might be the result of using" the offending material. Anderson's answer: "All different kinds of things."
I'm not sure Anderson would be pleased to know she has kindred spirits in China, according to this article from the Times of India. Shanghai has apparently seen a spate of adolescent suicides. Experts noted several factors in those deaths, such as academic pressure and family tensions--not to mention biological depression. There's no evidence that the young people had ever even seen Bunny Suicides. But the Bookuu Book City store decided to stop selling Riley's book (and the inevitable Chinese rip-off of it).

The store might simply have said its staff thought the books were in poor taste, under the circumstances. But instead, a spokesperson claimed, "We took the 'Bunny Suicides' cartoon books off our shelves because we're worried that children might try to imitate some of those ways of killing themselves." By, um, fighting Darth Vader. Or using the Star Trek teleporter improperly. Or breaking the shark tank at the aquarium. Or going to war.

As those links show, anyone who wants to sample Bunny Suicides can find scans all over the 'net. And we've managed to survive Bond's 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (1981), Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), and Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children (1907), to name some earlier books in the same mode.

A couple of corrections: the Indian newspaper misidentifies cartoonist Andy Riley as an American, rather than British. (Look at the electric plugs on the cover above.) The Oregon newspaper identifies The Book of Bunny Suicides as a "graphic novel," but it's mostly a collection of single-panel cartoons.

ADDENDUM: After this was written, the Oregonian reported that Anderson has regretted threatening to keep and burn the book. The suicidal bunny hiding inside that copy also voiced regret.

FURTHER ADDENDUM: On 12 Jan 2009, after long debate, the school board in Halsey, Oregon, decided to keep The Book of Bunny Suicides at the high-school library.

22 October 2008

The Stardust of Yesterday

Stardust has been called Neil Gaiman's "first solo prose novel," but its original form was not that of a traditional prose book, as previewed here.

Rather, Stardust first appeared in 1997 in four magazines from DC Comics's Vertigo line for adults, with Gaiman's prose alongside Charles Vess's color artwork. Usually Vertigo publishes stories in comics form; Gaiman's Sandman comics were among the first to move under that umbrella when DC launched the imprint in 1993. A year after the magazines, Vertigo issued all four parts of Stardust in a single volume, which is still in print.

Stardust was therefore created and published by people used to working in the comics form, and I think the result is a hybrid between prose novels and comics. To be sure, Gaiman's prose has proven that it can stand on its own (just as Vess's artwork can make lovely notecards). But in its original form Stardust used a technique common in comics but rare in prose novels: the page turn.

Gaiman's story follows multiple point-of-view characters, and its plot is made of several intertwining threads. (It's quite lovely the way that some of those threads twist together.) The storytelling shifts frequently from one scene and character to another. In the usual prose novel, those shifts are signaled through chapter breaks or section breaks within chapters, if not within the prose itself.

The original Stardust offers readers another signal as well: a page turn, with a new section starting atop a new page and often an illustration of the new character or setting as well. Some section breaks fall in the middle of pages, but those almost all signal a jump in time for the same character, not a shift from one point of view to another.

In the whole book, I spotted only two examples of a section break in the middle of a page in which the narrative shifts from inside one character's mind to inside another's. On page 143, those two characters are at the same place at the same time, so there's no change in setting. On page 126, Gaiman catches us up on the activities of two villains we haven't seen in a while; that page includes Vess's portraits of those two villains as further clues about whose thoughts we're reading now.

Thus, Stardust readers become accustomed to shifting from one plotline to another when we turn a page and find the initial capital of a new section. The page turn becomes part of the rhythm of reading the book.

Positioning almost all section breaks at the top of a page is basically impossible in a standard, unillustrated prose book; the author would have to write and edit to fill space. But Gaiman and Vess conceived of Stardust with illustrations in mind. I suspect the Vertigo designers laid out the text to make each installment fit into a magazine issue and most sections start on new pages, and Vess filled the rest of those pages with his art.

This interview with Gaiman by the Onion, posted on Gaiman's site, recalls how different publishers had difficulties with different aspects of the project:

So we put together a big presentation for publishers at the World Fantasy Convention in 1993. All of the big ones were there, and we did this pitch, this presentation, of Stardust with illustrations and lovely original paintings, and we said, "This is what it'll be: a big, illustrated, beautiful book." And we waited for the big pile-on when the auction started. And nobody bid at all! They all said that they were scared and troubled by the fact of all those pictures. They couldn't cope with it.

And DC Comics said, "We are not scared or troubled by pictures! We've been doing pictures for ages!" So we negotiated a deal with them. But not for the print rights--I got a whole prose novel because DC didn't think anybody would really read one!
The companies used to publishing prose novels couldn't fit color pictures into the way they worked (and budgeted). And the company used to publishing color illustrations and words together couldn't imagine anyone wanting to read an illustrated story without the illustrations.

21 October 2008

The Future of Book Entertainment?

Earlier this month, Motoko Rich filed a dispatch for the New York Times which suggested that the future of reading might be intimately linked to videogames. It started:

When PJ Haarsma wrote his first book, a science fiction novel for preteenagers, he didn’t think just about how to describe Orbis, the planetary system where the story takes place. He also thought about how it should look and feel in a video game.

The online game that Mr. Haarsma designed not only extends the fictional world of the novel, it also allows readers to play in it. At the same time, Mr. Haarsma very calculatedly gave gamers who might not otherwise pick up a book a clear incentive to read: one way that players advance is by answering questions with information from the novel.
Haarsma's books are the Softwire series from Candlewick.

Can books compete with interactive games? The "beanpole thin 12-year-old" interviewed on why he likes the Haarsma's game-novel combo compared it to another videogame (Call of Duty). He's shown in the photograph above playing yet another (Guitar Hero). As for his other favorite reading, the article didn't say.

20 October 2008

The Fastest-Paying Freelance Writing Job Around

Via Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, I found and enjoyed Nick Mamatas's article on writing college term papers for hire. Among his other admissions and observations:

Over the years, several of my friends wanted in on the term paper racket, and most of them couldn't handle it. They generally made the same fundamental error--they tried to write term papers. In the paper mill biz, the paper isn't important. The deadline, page count, and number of sources are. . . .

Another friend of mine spent hours trying to put together an eight-page paper on magical realism in Latin American fiction. At midnight she declared that it was impossible to write that many pages on books she had never read. She was still weeping, chain-smoking cigarettes, and shouting at me at 2 a.m. I took 20 minutes and finished the paper, mostly by extending sentences until all the paragraphs ended with an orphaned word on a line of its own.
Here's the Book Slut interview with Mamatas about his novel Under My Roof, and his review of the Library of America's H. P. Lovecraft collection, which starts with those intriguing words: "One of the more annoying things about readers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror..."

19 October 2008

Robin in Plastic, Pixels, and Pastry

Down the mean streetsIn 2006, Lego started to issue Batman toys for kids and collectors, the designs based on a combination of standard Lego style and the Batman comics, TV cartoons, and live-action movies. Wikipedia has the complete rundown of what figures, vehicles, and locations come in what boxes--you don't find that info in the Britannica!

Robin's scuba jetRobin was originally just a supporting player in the "Batcave" set, as Nightwing was in the Arkham Asylum collection. But in 2008, Lego issued "Robin's Scuba Jet: Attack of The Penguin." In an all-bird battle, those toys sent Robin up against the Penguin and two little gun-toting hench-penguins.

keychainLego Batman has now been issued in four different suits. There are two Robins, both wearing the 1990-2006 costume, with slightly different plastic hairstyles. And there are ancillary products like this Lego Robin keychain.

Earlier this year, Lego took its redesigns of the Batman characters into a new dimension: the videogame. That's the source of the image at top, showing the Dynamic Duo on the mean streets of Gotham City. The game features several characters not yet available in plastic.

I collected a couple of images of Lego Batman months ago, but didn't have anything to say about them. They're cute, and show how the characters shifting into new forms, but the leap from comics to videogames through toys doesn't seem that striking.

Then M. T. Anderson sent me to this blog entry about a Lego Batman cake created by Elisa Straus, author of Confetti Cakes for Kids.
Batman cakeThis is an edible recreation of the Lego Batman game. Check out the Cake Wrecks blog for close-ups of the exquisite detail of Gotham urban decay.

Straus's own Confetti Cakes blog offers more details:

  • Weight: nearly 300 pounds.
  • Flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and red velvet.
  • Preparation time: twelve days.
There are videos of the cake's assembly and disassembly.

So let's go back to "characters shifting into new forms." As Mongoose noted in the Cake Wrecks comments:
the critical part of my brain finds it weird that there is a cake representation of a Lego representation of a game representation of a movie representation of a comic book.
The Lego representation preceded the game representation, but Mongoose has indeed listed all the stages. What better way than this cake to show how classic characters like Robin eat through the barriers between media?

18 October 2008

Astronomy as a Moral Issue

Confirming how you can find anything on the internet, here are pages about unscientific depictions of the Moon in children's books, and another page of accurate depictions. Clement Hurd's pictures for Goodnight Moon rise to the top of the class.

Meanwhile, over at Apostrophe Catastrophe, the debate rages on about Margaret Wise Brown's missing comma and whether "goodnight" should be two words.

Events We Did Attend

The New Yorker website offers a baldly factual report on last weekend's Int'l Wizard of Oz Club convention in Fayetteville, Manlius, and Syracuse, New York. This blog entry won't appear in the printed magazine.

There was also a documentary filmmaker there, so footage might surface on the Smithsonian Channel next year. (I didn't even know there was a Smithsonian Channel.)

Because this convention fell during the school year, the attendance was all grown-up, as the NYer's correspondent noted. Kids often come to Oz Club events in summer. Indeed, I attended my first club gatherings as a young teenager, and they were my first experience of interacting with adults who treated me as a peer, for which I'll always be grateful. So I'm sorry young people couldn't have such experiences at this month's convention, but it was fun for me and other "considerably older" folks.

17 October 2008

Turning Books Inside-Out for Boys

In an article on single-sex schools, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted American physician and psychologist Leonard Sax as saying:

books that were considered to be more suited to girls, such as Jane Eyre, could be taught in a way that engaged boys.

"Start in the middle of the story and then work from the beginning," he said. Doing that created a sense of mystery and engaged readers and made them want to read on to find out more.

"Homer knew about it, Hollywood scriptwriters know about it," he said. "If you want to engage boys in any great book you start in the middle."
So let's check out that theory. Here's the start of Chapter 1 of A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett:
Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

She sat with her feet tucked under her, and leaned against her father, who held her in his arm, as she stared out of the window at the passing people with a queer old-fashioned thoughtfulness in her big eyes.

She was such a little girl that one did not expect to see such a look on her small face. It would have been an old look for a child of twelve, and Sara Crewe was only seven. The fact was, however, that she was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to. She felt as if she had lived a long, long time.
And the start of Chapter 8 (of 19):
The first night she spent in her attic was a thing Sara never forgot. During its passing she lived through a wild, unchildlike woe of which she never spoke to anyone about her. There was no one who would have understood. It was, indeed, well for her that as she lay awake in the darkness her mind was forcibly distracted, now and then, by the strangeness of her surroundings. It was, perhaps, well for her that she was reminded by her small body of material things. If this had not been so, the anguish of her young mind might have been too great for a child to bear. But, really, while the night was passing she scarcely knew that she had a body at all or remembered any other thing than one.
Of course, that's a novel from 1905. Shall we try the same test with a "boy's book" of the same approximate vintage? Chapter 1 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

No answer.


No answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You Tom!"

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service--she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll--"
That opening's all about mystery, humor, and suspense rather than, as in the Burnett extracts, mood. And just for completeness, here's Chapter 17 (of 35) of Tom Sawyer:
But there was no hilarity in the little town that same tranquil Saturday afternoon. The Harpers, and Aunt Polly's family, were being put into mourning, with great grief and many tears. An unusual quiet possessed the village, although it was ordinarily quiet enough, in all conscience. The villagers conducted their concerns with an absent air, and talked little; but they sighed often. The Saturday holiday seemed a burden to the children. They had no heart in their sports, and gradually gave them up.

In the afternoon Becky Thatcher found herself moping about the deserted schoolhouse yard, and feeling very melancholy. But she found nothing there to comfort her. She soliloquized:

"Oh, if I only had a brass andiron-knob again! But I haven't got anything now to remember him by." And she choked back a little sob.
Some boys might say that both those books would be improved if only you took out the girls entirely. That would make A Little Princess much shorter, to be sure, but we must make some sacrifices for the sake of education.

Of course, these days everyone who writes for children is told to get into the story as fast as possible, even if that means starting off in the middle of the action and doubling back with a flashback. It's a tough feat: too many explanatory flashbacks in an opening chapter prevents a book from building up any momentum.

16 October 2008

Brisingr? Seriously?

Last month Publishers Weekly reviewer Rose Fox looked at the made-up language in Christopher Paolini's Eldest. When an essay is subtitled "Random Diacritical Marks," you know it's not going to be complimentary. Though it will be a little more comprehensible if you know that "SVO" is linguisticians' jargon for "subject-verb-object."

Publishing Firms Trying to Reinvent Themselves

This week has brought so many news stories about publishing companies having to remake themselves that it's hard to choose just one.

As reported in the New York Post, the media company that owned the Weekly World News sold the property to a group of investors named Bat Boy LLC. (This has nothing to do with Batman's sidekick Robin.) The new owners aren't chasing newsstand sales, which have been tanking ever since we started to find all the kooky, unreliable "news" we can stand on the internet.

Rather, Bat Boy LLC sees value in the intellectual properties that WWN staffers created, such as Bat Boy himself (already a Broadway star), the Aliens involved in the 1992 presidential race, and the general vibe of the tabloid itself. And since you can't lick the internet, WWN has launched its own website of badly faked photos.

Also this week, Ad Age reported that TV Guide was sold for the nominal sum of $1.00. In fact, the seller, Macrovision, loaned the buyer $9.5 million on generous terms just to get the property and its liabilities off the books. The deal didn't include the TV Guide Channel, leaving me to wonder how the magazine is supposed to make money these days.

Back in the last century, TV Guide was one of the most immensely profitable magazines in America, the basis of Walter Annenberg's fortune. But somehow, now that we have more television than we know what to do with, we don't want a magazine guiding us through it anymore.

Finally, Publishers Weekly reports that the how-to publisher F+W (in much better shape than the two companies I just mentioned) has restructured itself around markets/communities of interest. Rather than have a book-publishing wing and a magazine-publishing wing, each also potentially running online supplements and in-person events, the company will organize itself around topical departments.

Thus, for example, there will be a Woodworking group to publish woodworking magazines and books, maintain online communities for woodworkers, and sponsor conferences on the topic. The other F+W communities are:

  • Fine Art
  • Crafts
  • Genealogy
  • Writing (e.g., Writer’s Digest)
  • Antiques & Collectibles
  • Automotive
  • Sports and Construction/Trade
  • Numismatics
  • Design
  • Horticulture
  • Log Homes
  • Outdoors
  • Scuba Diving
I'm struck by the thought that Sports and Construction have so much overlap in their market as to fit into one department, but Log Homes is separate.

15 October 2008

The Clerical Strain in British Children's Literature

While in London last summer, I visited the Science Museum's exhibit on British technological progress in the 1950s and 1960s, which was "branded" with the characters of the Dan Dare comics series.

I didn't think the exhibit made a good case for linking the comics' sci-fi with the creation of radios only slightly larger than shoeboxes, even if they did appear at the same time. But I suppose the familiar faces made the exhibit more interesting for people who grew up reading Dan Dare.

The thought that struck me hardest as I learned about Eagle, the magazine that published that comic, is how the line of British fantastic literature for children includes several notable books from clergymen:

  • Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. (I should note that Dodgson worked as a college professor rather than a minister, but he was ordained.)
  • George McDonald, author of The Light Princess and The Princess and the Goblin and a Congregationalist minister.
  • Marcus Morris, vicar and founder of Eagle magazine.
  • W. V. Awdry, vicar and creator of Thomas the Tank Engine.
  • G. P. Taylor, retired vicar, author of Shadowmancer and numerous press releases.
In addition, these British authors of Very Important children's novels also published widely read books of theology: And there might be more.

I can't think of any equivalents in American children's literature. I'm not thinking about people who wrote religious books for captive young audiences, but authors who were either religious professionals or respected theologians and also created books that a significant number of children from other faiths have enjoyed.

13 October 2008

Oz Convention in Kansas, 2009

The Program in Children’s Literature at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, will host the International Wizard of Oz Club’s Annual Convention on 2-4 October 2009.

The convention will run conjunction with OZtoberFest in near-by Wamego, Kansas. The thumbnail photo here shows the annual Yellow Brick Road bicycle ride through Pottawatomie County, one of the OZtoberFest events. Other sponsoring organizations include the Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (ChALC) and Hale Library at Kansas State University.

The event's featured speaker will be Prof. Mark West of University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who compiled Before Oz: Juvenile Fantasy Stories from Nineteenth-Century America.

Eventually, this webpage will contain information about the convention--including events, registration, housing, and transportation.

For now, the program committee has issued a call for submissions for fifteen-minute presentations on “Recreating Oz.” Possible topics include:

  • Adapting Oz for stage and screen
  • Marketing and commemorating the Oz books
  • Assembling the histories of Oz creators
  • Teaching Oz
  • Archiving Oz
  • Re-reading the Oz books and earlier critical interpretations
  • Re-imagining the world of Oz for contemporary audiences (Maguire’s Wicked, Stauffacher’s Harry Sue, the mini-series Tin Man, comics and graphic novels)
Send abstracts of 300-500 words as attachments to conference organizers by 20 April 2009.

12 October 2008

Reason for Robin, #3

As I discussed last Sunday, the team producing Batman stories in 1940--artist Bob Kane, writer Bill Finger, and assistant artist Jerry Robinson--have disagreed on who had the idea to give the Dark Knight Detective a kid sidekick. But they all agreed on why that idea made good marketing sense.

Reason for Robin #3: Younger readers can identify with Robin.

Kane, who tended to describe his creations (and those of his colleagues when he claimed them for himself) in grandiose terms, stated in his memoir Batman and Me:

Robin evolved from my fantasies as a kid of fourteen, when I visualized myself as a young boy fighting alongside my idol, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. I imagined that young boys reading about Batman's exploits would project their own images into the story and daydream about fighting alongside the Caped Crusader as junior Batmen.

I thought that every young boy would want to be like Robin; instead of having to wait to grow up to become a superhero, they wanted to be one now. A laughing daredevil--free, no school, no homework, living in a mansion over the Bat Cave, riding in the Batmobile--he appealed to the imagination of every kid in the world.
Kane's colleagues agreed with this underlying thought. Finger recalled: "Bob called me over and said he was going to put a boy in the strip to identify with Batman." Robinson added: "it enlarged the readership identification. The younger kids could then identify with Robin, which they couldn't with Batman, and the older ones with Batman. It extended the appeal on a lot of levels."

To be sure, many young readers preferred to identify with Batman. I've already quoted Jules Feiffer's resentment of a kid sidekick who was far more athletic than he was. And in 1989 longtime Batman artist Norm Breyfogle said: "When I was a kid I never really identified with Robin. I still liked him, but he was just the 'sidekick'."

In Manufacturing Desire: Media, Popular Culture, and Everyday Life, Prof. Arthur Asa Berger wrote:
Like many other super heroes, Batman provides youngsters with a young sidekick hero to identify with--Robin, though it is Batman who captured the imagination of children the most. . . . During the Batman rage of a number of years ago [presumably the mid-1960s], many children in my neighborhood used to tie a towel around their neck and play Batman. It was always the youngest and weakest children who were forced into the Robin role.
But Robin's status as the littlest guy in the fight might actually increase the character's appeal to some children, especially the "youngest and weakest."
David A. Zimmerman, author of Comic Book Character, chose to dress as Robin for Halloween around age six, for example. Nostalgist Don Edrington recalls:
My favorite superheroes were Batman and Robin. I especially liked them because I could identify with Robin--I was sure he was exactly my age. I was positive of that when I first started reading the comics at about age nine, and I was still convinced he was my age when I was fourteen or fifteen.
And, as I noted back here, Jim Jacobs even modeled his physical training on Robin.

According to Bob Kane, the sales of Detective #38, introducing Robin, were much higher than previous issues. I don't trust Kane's anecdotes, but that one accords with some undeniable facts. Robin remained at Batman's side for three straight decades, appearing on almost all covers of Detective, Batman, and World's Finest comics during that stretch. And shortly after his first appearance, many other adult superheroes acquired kid sidekicks as well.

Obviously, the idea of giving younger readers a character to identify with worked. A lot of comic-book fans apparently enjoyed looking at Robin and seeing something of themselves.

11 October 2008

Is Latin Becoming More Popular with Kids?

This week the New York Times reported that more kids are learning Latin in schools, based on a couple of examples from greater New York and these national statistics:

The number of students in the United States taking the National Latin Exam has risen steadily to more than 134,000 students in each of the past two years, from 124,000 in 2003 and 101,000 in 1998, with large increases in remote parts of the country like New Mexico, Alaska and Vermont. The number of students taking the Advanced Placement test in Latin, meanwhile, has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, to 8,654 in 2007.
As one possible factor behind this trend, the newspaper noted that Latin is the basis for the spells in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. That series appeared in the US in 1998.

However, participation in the National Latin Exam rose steadily from 1977 to 2006, with no notable bump from the Harry Potter books or movies. Likewise, in 2004 the Deseret News reported, "The number of students taking Advanced Placement Latin nationally is nearly double what it was a decade ago" in 1994. So that test's rate of growth didn't accelerate in the Potter period, either.

Furthermore, the number of students taking standardized Latin tests might not actually indicate that the language's popularity is rising at the same rate. Six years ago, CNN noted:
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reports that in 1990, there were 163,923 public high school students--or 1.5 percent--studying Latin. Ten years later, 177,477 public high school students--or 1.3 percent--took the language.
Thus, even though there were more students in Latin classes in 2000 than in 1990, the percentage of all high-school students taking those classes had declined slightly. And that decade overlaps with the periods when more and more students took the NLE and AP tests.

So why the rise in the number of students taking those standardized tests? Well, such tests are what American schooling is all about these days. What's one more exam to smart kids trying to get into top colleges? Indeed, tests are so important to modern American education that one of the most popular arguments for taking Latin now is the promise of doing better on standardized tests of English vocabulary.

10 October 2008

“More Powerful than England?”

Linda Buckley-Archer's Gideon the Cutpurse goes on my list of Recent British Fantasy Novels for Children that Display an Interesting Ambivalent Attitude toward the United States.

(Previous examples include Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, Corder's Lionboy books, and Reeve's Larklight and Hungry City Chronicles.)

Buckley-Archer is obviously enamored of eighteenth-century Britain, where much of her time-travel story takes place. The pages are full of landed estates, highwaymen, macaronis, and stays. (But no repetitive agricultural labor, of course.) She hangs up her narrative for a detailed description of London's Covent Garden, and there's an encounter with Dr. Samuel Johnson that I don't recall having any bearing on the plot.

That part of the book is set in 1763, when Britain has just bested France in the Seven Years' War and the American colonies haven't started to rebel. In other words, the British Empire was at one of its heights.

In contrast, the book's present-day scenes depict America as looming over the two young protagonists' lives. Peter Schock's mother has left to work in Hollywood. Scientists from NASA lean on Kate Dyer's father to keep his research secret.

And then there's this passage. After 300 pages, Peter and Kate reveal that they've been cast back in time to a friendly parson and a knight.

Sir Richard was, in fact, too shaken to take in the enormity of what Peter was saying to him. He just stared blankly at the space where Kate had been a moment ago. The parson, however, was paying more attention.

"Which country will become the most powerful on earth?" he asked.

"You wouldn't believe me, Parson Ledbury. Anyway, I don't think I should tell you in case it makes you do something that changes the future."

"I undertake, on my honor," replied the parson, "not to believe a word of what you tell me. I shall tell no one, nor shall I act on anything I hear within these four walls. Will that do, Master Schock? I should like to know before I wake from this dream."

"Oh, all right, then," said Peter, who could not resist seeing the look on the parson's face. "England will soon lose control of America and it will become the richest and most powerful country on earth. By our time, America is the world's only superpower."

"America? Nonsense! No, I cannot believe it!" exclaimed the parson, becoming very red in the face. "More powerful than England?"


"More powerful than France?"

"Oh, yes. Much more."

"Ah, well. That is some small comfort. . . . Upon my word . . . America! . . . I should not dare tell anyone, in any case, for fear of being lynched."
America has dominated things English even more than Buckley-Archer knows. No parson would have used the word "lynched" in 1763 London. It's an Americanism, probably derived from events of the later Revolutionary War.

09 October 2008

Wonderful Weekend of Oz in Fayetteville, NY

Today I start a journey westward to the Wonderful Weekend of Oz in Fayetteville, New York, outside of Syracuse. This convention on 10-12 Oct 2008 is co-sponsored by the International Wizard of Oz Club and the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.

Gage (1826-1898) was a pioneering feminist and the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum. She's credited as one of the three editors of the first three volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1887), along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. However, as I learned at a seminar by Prof. Lisa Tetrault last February, Gage was dismayed to find her material largely rewritten. Anthony and Stanton seem to have wanted to draw on her archive of early feminist literature, but had their own ideas on how to portray the political movement.

Gage broke with Anthony and Stanton in order to write Women, Church, and State, an examination of how many religions relegated women to subordinate roles and made God solely masculine. She composed such passages as:

To the theory of “God the Father,” shorn of the divine attribute of motherhood, is the world beholden for its most degrading beliefs, its most infamous practices. Dependent upon and identified with lost Motherhood is the “Lost Name” of ancient writers and occultists. When the femininity of the divine is once again acknowledged, the “Lost Name” will be discovered and holiness (wholeness) of divinity be manifested.
Challenging religious precepts was too radical for Anthony, who was trying not to alarm mainstream America with the notion of women voting.

Gage lived in Fayetteville, and raised her daughter Maud there. L. Frank Baum grew up in nearby Chittenango and Syracuse, son of a wealthy lubricant manufacturer. He met Maud when he was a mildly successful actor and playwright, and they married in her mother's house. Later Matilda Gage moved west to live with her daughter and son-in-law, and family tradition credits her with encouraging Baum to write down the magical stories he told his sons.

08 October 2008

Newly Assembled Wizard of Oz

Today the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London was going to host a panel discussion on this topic:

So many of us find powerful significances and lost worlds within The Wizard of Oz, both the film and the book. Why is this story still so important and so resonant a fable?
Among the scheduled speakers were Graham Rawle, illustrator of a new edition of The Wizard of Oz; Susie Boyt, author of My Judy Garland Life; and Rebecca Loncraine, "author of a forthcoming biography of L Frank Baum." (British style eschews not-absolutely-necessary punctuation, like the period at the end of an abbreviation.)

But that description has disappeared from the museum's website, though related events (a screening of the MGM Wizard of Oz movie and "visuals and music inspired by The Wizard of Oz from Punkvert") are still on. I don't know if that change was a computer glitch or a cancellation. Since I'm three thousand miles away, it doesn't really affect me.

I came across Rawle's edition of Wizard in a bookstore last week. It contains Baum's full text, including (as Soft Skull's cover copy notes) episodes that never made it into the movie.

But the book didn't contain a lot of charm, at least for me. As you see in the cover image, the part of Dorothy is played by a doll with an oversized head, and Toto by a little figurine on a little handcart. Rawle's website offers many images from the book and its making. He's a "collage artist," though these illustrations seem to be a combination of dioramas and collage, with perhaps some digital manipulation as well.

I think that approach works for some of the characters. The Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are already assembled creatures, after all. But seeing Dorothy as a grotesque cutesy doll with an unchanging face erases her charm. Dog Art Today called the result like "The Lonely Doll, crossed with Tim Burton." Which doesn't help if you find The Lonely Doll and many Tim Burton movies creepy.

07 October 2008

Where I Went on My Summer Vacation, part 4

I'm running out of year in which to review my last summer's travels! Today I'll discuss Stirling Castle, built on a crag in the middle of Stirling, which in turn is a city in the middle of southern Scotland.

Although a British flag flies over the gate, I was struck by the pervasive feeling of Scottish nationalism. Stirling was home to a series of late medieval Scottish kings, almost all of whom seem to have come to violent ends. Young James VI was crowned in the nearby kirk, the castle's historical exhibit says. But then he went south to London to do something less important, and the history ends.

One fantastic detail of Stirling Castle is a twelve-year project to recreate seven Unicorn Tapestries, based on the set that hangs in the Cloisters museum in New York City. All the talk of "restoring" the unicorn tapestries to the castle, and the general undermurmur of nationalist resentment and pride, made me wonder for a minute if the Cloisters tapestries had originally been at Stirling. But no, they came to New York from France.

It seems that a late medieval Stirling Castle inventory shows it contained another, lost set of unicorn tapestries. The Cloisters has the best preserved unicorn cycle in the world. So the West Dean Tapestry Studio has taken those as the models for the tapestries its artists are weaving now.

Modern tapestry weaving seems to require iPods. The studio might even be able to get an Apple sponsorship out of how many of the weavers were listening to music that way. No photography is allowed in the workshop, so I'm borrowing these pictures from the West Dean Tapestry Studio website to give you a peek at the work.

06 October 2008

Newbery Negativity

Last week the School Library Journal published an article asking "Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?" The top award in American children's fiction can still sell lots of books. But the essayist wrote that for some titles that sales bump wasn't lasting. And why?

She reported:

First, a librarian at my local public library confessed that she had no interest in learning “what unreadable Newbery the committee was going to foist on us this year.” Then, a few weeks later at an education conference, I was startled to hear several teachers and media specialists admit they hadn’t bought a copy of the Newbery winner for the last few years. Why? “They don’t appeal to our children,” they explained patiently.
These complaints aren't new, but what makes them notable now is that Anita Silvey--former editor of The Horn Book, former editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin, author of guides to children's literature--is voicing them.

Among recent Newbery winners, Silvey counts these as successful with young readers, teachers, and "small-town public librarians":
  • Holes (1998)
  • Bud, Not Buddy (1999)
  • A Single Shard (2001)
  • The Tale of Despereaux (2003)
(The parenthetical dates are when the books were published; they won their medals in the following year.)

The medal-winners from the same stretch which Silvey describes as not becoming popular successes are:
  • A Year Down Yonder (2000)
  • Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2002)
  • Kira-Kira (2004)
  • Criss Cross (2005)
  • The Higher Power of Lucky (2006)
  • Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (2007)
Interestingly, with the exception of Crispin, that's also a sort of recent Newbery winners that have male protagonists from those that don't. Hmmmm.

05 October 2008

Who Gave Batman a Kid Sidekick?

While preparing my next "Reason for Robin" entry, I discovered there's a historical dispute about who came up with the idea of giving the Batman a kid sidekick.

As I recounted back here, Batman writer Bill Finger wanted some sort of partner for the Caped Crusader. In his 1989 memoir Batman and Me, written with Tom Andrae, artist Bob Kane quoted that recollection from Finger and offered no disagreement.

But Kane went on to take credit for the idea of making that partner a boy who fought crooks alongside Batman:

Batman departed even further from the vigilante image when I created Robin, the Boy Wonder, to be his partner. . . . Robin evolved from my fantasies as a kid of fourteen, when I visualized myself as a young boy fighting alongside my idol, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. I imagined that young boys reading about Batman's exploits would project their own images into the story and daydream about fighting alongside the Caped Crusader as junior Batmen.

I thought that every young boy would want to be like Robin; instead of having to wait to grow up to become a superhero, they wanted to be one now. . . .

I named him after Robin Hood, whom I loved as a kid, as played on the screen by Fairbanks. Both Robins were crusaders, fighting against the forces of evil. . . . I even dressed Robin in the tunic, cape, and shoes of Robin Hood's era, and drew his trunks to look like chain mail. . . .
Oddly enough, when I brought the idea to my boss, Jack Liebowitz, he didn't want Robin in the book. He said that Batman was doing well enough by himself and felt we shouldn't tamper with it. Jack also thought that mothers would object to a kid fighting gangsters. He had a point. I said, "Why don't we try it for one issue. If you don't like it, we can take it out."

But when the story appeared, it really hit: the comic book which introduced Robin (Detective Comics #38, April, 1940) sold almost double what Batman had sold as a single feature. I went to the office on Monday after we had gotten the figures and said, "Well, I guess we ought to take Robin out--right, Jack? You don't want a kid fighting with gangsters."

"Well," he said sheepishly, "Leave it in. It's okay--we'll let it go."
There are a couple of problems with that story. First, Bob Kane had a habit of claiming he’d had all the good Batman ideas, and done most of the drawing. To this day Batman stories are legally required to carry the credit "Batman created by Bob Kane." By the date of this memoir, Bill Finger's contributions were already well known, so Kane and his coauthor had to acknowledge them, but he left out someone else.

In 1940 Kane had an assistant, Jerry Robinson, who became a highly respected cartoonist in his own right. In interviews Robinson has made a strong case that he came up with the name Robin, modeled on Robin Hood, and added the medieval details to the Boy Wonder's costume. Robinson has pointed to a specific book of N. C. Wyeth illustrations as his visual inspiration. And unlike his former boss, Robinson has consistently credited Kane and Finger for their contributions to Robin and the rest of the early Batman mythos.
Therefore, it's significant that Robinson believed that Bill Finger was the first to suggest Batman have a young assistant. In a 2005 interview with Gary Groth published in The Comics Journal, he recalled the team's discussion this way:
ROBINSON: I'm sure it was Bill's idea for adding a boy. That I would attribute to Bill without question. When I came in they were already discussing possible names. So I joined the discussion of the creation. There was nothing on paper yet, nothing but the idea of adding a sidekick. And I know that was Bill's idea to add a sidekick, from the discussion that ensued.

The impetus came from Bill's wanting to extend the parameters of the story potential and of the drama. He saw that adding a sidekick would enhance the drama. Also, it enlarged the readership identification. The younger kids could then identify with Robin, which they couldn't with Batman, and the older ones with Batman. It extended the appeal on a lot of levels.

GROTH: And you're sure it didn't come from Bob Kane?

ROBINSON: No. He fleshed it out, as we all did in discussion, but the idea of adding that character was Bill's.
Kane's reputation for taking credit for Bill Finger's ideas makes it tempting to accept Robinson's version. However, in this case I think Kane was accurate. In his ground-breaking 1968 interview with comics historian Jim Steranko, Finger said: "Bob called me over and said he was going to put a boy in the strip to identify with Batman. I thought it was a great idea." Since that interview was all about uncovering Finger's contributions to the Batman mythos, he had no impetus to give Kane undeserved credit.

There are a couple of other details in Kane's favor. He had already put a young sidekick into his humorous comic Peter Pupp. And Kane was always the most business-savvy of Batman's two creators, so it makes sense for him to have been thinking about their target market.

I therefore think Robinson misunderstood the conversation about a kid sidekick when he entered: Finger had been the first to advocate giving the Batman a partner of some sort, and probably had the most to say about what sort of partner would produce the best stories, but Kane brought in the idea of adding a kid.

All that said, I'm going to put forward yet another possible source for the idea of adding a kid to Batman's story: Jack Liebowitz, Kane's "boss" at Detective Comics, or one of his colleagues. According to Kane, Liebowitz actually resisted the new character. The resulting story--Bob Kane shows DC he knows more about what appeals to readers!--certainly fits with the artist's usual sense of grandiosity.

However, Liebowitz and his DC colleagues had the best information on who was buying comic books and what retailers were asking for. Their job was to guide writers and artists to create comics that produced maximum sales. DC owned the Batman property, not Kane and crew. They gave the orders. If Liebowitz was really spooked by the very idea of Robin, why did Detective #38 make such a big deal of "the Sensational Character Find of 1940"?

At that time, Kane was the only member of the Batman team dealing with DC. Finger and Robinson had no way to know when Kane came back from a meeting with his "boss" whether he was bringing his own idea or Liebowitz's idea. There's no evidence that Liebowitz asked Kane to beef up the Batman stories' appeal to younger readers, but--given Kane's habits--I think it remains a possibility.

04 October 2008

And for the Series Finale, We’ll Kill the Kid’s Parents

And now for something completely different about Robin: Variety reports that the CW (it's almost like a television network, really!) has approved a pilot for a TV show called The Graysons. It's inspired in some way by the character of Dick Grayson, the first Robin. The only differences are:

  • He's named not Dick, but "DJ."
  • He hasn't yet lost his parents to a sabotaged trapeze, met the Batman, or become Robin.
  • It's not even clear from the article whether the show's Graysons will be a family of traveling circus flyers, as they were in the comics.
All that's clear is that the CW wants something like Smallville.

(Meanwhile, the Robin pictured beside the Variety article is Tim Drake, the fourth Robin. You can tell because he's wearing pants and his cape is yellow only on the inside.)

From The Horn Book

Yesterday I attended the Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards, sitting amidst Dave Elzey, Boston Athenaeum children's librarian Suzanne Terry, and a bunch of folks from the Foundation for Children's Books. These ceremonies are getting more high-tech and visual, with images and videos projected on the Athenaeum's big screen, nearly always at the right times. I think that's a good idea when we're celebrating picture books.

Among the awards this year was a "Special Citation" for The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. Back at the beginning of the year, Dave and I and three other Cybils judges wrestled with whether to name that as one of the year's best graphic novels. The big sticking-point was the age of its readership. It's a wordless book (younger) with a complex visual language (older) telling a simple story (younger) that depends on knowledge of modern immigration patterns (older). Scholastic published the book for "12+," so we finally stuck with that categorization. It looks like the Horn Book judges felt The Arrival deserved an honor, but weren't certain how to classify it either.

Everyone at the ceremony received a copy of the latest issue of The Horn Book, for September/October 2008. This issue contains my first review for that journal, an evaluation of the picture book biography The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.

I liked a lot of things about that book while disliking a few touches; see the magazine for details. Its narrative arc left me with questions on the challenge of fitting a real life into 48 illustrated pages in a way that produces a satisfying story.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is without doubt the most successful and influential thing L. Frank Baum ever wrote. It's tempting, therefore, to treat its successful publication as the climax of his life story, the reward for his many failed ventures.

But Baum actually became a best-selling children's author the year before with Father Goose, a forgotten book of comic verse that this biography doesn't mention. And what made him really famous and rich for a while was the stage version of Wizard, now largely forgotten, which followed in 1903. Neither book nor show saved Baum from more business failures, as Krull has to acknowledge in an afterword. But would all those messy details mess up the basic story?

I just noticed that although my shorthand for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is Wizard, to distinguish it from all other Oz books, the Horn Book's abbreviation is Oz, to distinguish it from all other wizard books.

03 October 2008

Avoiding the Dreaded Prologue

A while back, Alison Morris at Shelftalker quoted this passage from E. Nesbit's The Treasure Seekers. It comes to us in one of the finest narrative voices that any writer has ever conceived, the self-effacing chronicler Oswald Bastable:

I shall not tell you anything about us except what I should like to know about if I was reading the story and you were writing it. Albert’s uncle says I ought to have put this in the preface, but I never read prefaces, and it is not much good writing things just for people to skip. I wonder other authors have never thought of this.
Coincidentally, that very morning I'd noticed how Gail Gauthier's The Hero of Ticonderoga starts with eight pages about heroine Thérèse's first stab at an oral report about Ethan Allen, and then moves on to...chapter 1.

I looked back at the first page of the story. There's no label saying "Preface" or "Prologue" or "Please, please, please read this even if you never read any introductory material." Since not every book design includes chapter numbers, a reader like Oswald Bastable could easily be fooled into thinking that was chapter 1, and read it unawares. Clever.

02 October 2008

Last Year’s Most Overlooked

The San Francisco Bay Guardian offers a long story on Sonoma State University's annual report on the "top 25 stories the mainstream media failed to report or reported poorly." These were nominated by "worldwide alternative news sources," evaluated by Project Censored, and are discussed at greater length in the new book Censored 2009.

The newspaper notes that "the stories were not necessarily overtly censored. But their controversial subjects, challenges to the status quo, or general under-the-radar subject matter might have kept them from the front pages." Another factor is the complexity of the some of these developments, which makes them tough fits for a headline-news approach.

The article discusses the top ten in Project Censored's latest volume and lists the remaining fifteen. Here's part of #8:

The Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice has been issuing classified legal opinions about surveillance for years. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) had access to the DOJ opinions on presidential power and had three declassified to show how the judicial branch has, in a bizarre and chilling way, assisted President Bush in circumventing its own power.

According to the three memos:

"There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous executive order. Rather than violate an executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it";

"The President, exercising his constitutional authority under Article II, can determine whether an action is a lawful exercise of the President's authority under Article II," and

"The Department of Justice is bound by the President's legal determinations."

Or, as Whitehouse rephrased in a Dec. 7, 2007, Senate speech: "I don't have to follow my own rules, and I don't have to tell you when I'm breaking them. I get to determine what my own powers are. The Department of Justice doesn't tell me what the law is. I tell the Department of Justice what the law is."
Whitehouse concluded, "When the Congress of the United States is willing to roll over for an unprincipled President, this is where you end up." The bill in question involved surveillance of Americans traveling outside the US, but the principles those memos violate involve the basic rule of law.