04 October 2008

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.

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