29 August 2017

No Need to Visit Skull Castle

Seeing Dirk Gringhuis’s 1964 Mystery at Skull Castle in David Maxine’s collection made me curious about it. Fortunately, David has already shared a thorough review that answers nearly all my questions about the book and its connections to the Oz series.

Just a taste:
The boys [Bram and Piet] are secretly saving money to purchase a new buggy for Piet's uncle. They move their savings to the old burnt-out castle for safekeeping. While at the castle they find a stash of jewels and seconds later meet Major Willoughby, supposedly the long lost heir to the man who built the castle, and his East Indian servant, Singh. The Major cons the boys into leaving their money in the same niche that the jewels were in and tells them to keep quiet about the discovery. . . .

Bram and Piet are stupid and oblivious. They are gullible to every idiotic suggestion and notion the Major tells them. They ignore the truth even when little Bertram is telling them flat out he just watched the Major steal the jewels. Even after they manage to escape their bonds in the castle they don't run for help in town but allow themselves to be cornered on the shore of Lake Michigan where they cower until Piet's uncle solves the mystery (he recognized the red mud of the castle grounds on the major's wagon wheels) and comes down to the shore where he hears the commotion and shoots the Major. In a children's mystery, shouldn't the main characters be the ones to find the solution?

Not only do Bram and Piet not solve the mystery, their primary goal at the beginning comes to nothing, since the uncle has no interest in a new buggy.
Kirkus Reviews was no more complimentary in 1964: “An incredible, poorly plotted story . . . In the story which amounts to little more than a wild chase, the boys and lesser figures are paper thin.”

28 August 2017

An Upsetting Tap on the Shoulder

In a conversation with novelist John Le Carré arranged and recorded by the New York Times Book Review, the espionage historian Ben Macintyre spoke of being recruited for the British secret service MI6 by a man calling himself “Major Halliday”:
It was the typical sort of tap on the shoulder. It was quite amusing, really. A don that I didn’t know terribly well came barreling up and he said, “What are you doing after university?” I said, “I don’t really know.” And he said, “Well, there are some parts of the Foreign Office that are different from other parts of the Foreign Office. In a sense, they are different from the Foreign Office itself.” He went on for about five minutes. Of course, I knew exactly what he was saying, although he never actually said it.

So I went along to Carlton House Terrace [where MI6 had an office]. And there was very clearly more than one Major Halliday, because other people I know were recruited by a completely different Major Halliday. Mine had on socks and sandals, which was quite upsetting at the time.
Le Carré’s new novel is A Legacy of Spies. Macintyre’s latest is Rogue Heroes.

26 August 2017

Picturing an Author-Illustrator as Her Book

Here’s a nice quote from John Rocco, artist of the upcoming picture-book biography Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton, written by Sherri Duskey Rinker. Burton was known to friends and relatives as “Jinnee.”

At first it was hard to wrap my head around the idea of illustrating a book about another children’s book artist without just showing her drawing…

But a lot of Jinnee’s personality came through as I went through her sketches and books. I suddenly realized that she was the embodiment of The Little House. She had an appreciation for technology and moving forward, but was much more closely tied to a simpler life. To portray her symbolically as her book’s little house, which was surrounded by daisies, I pictured Jinnee wearing a skirt emblazoned with daisies.

And when I learned that she was a dancer, I wanted her dancing across the page as she created her art, and tried to capture the sense of flow and movement across the pages of her own books, and to pay homage to her meticulous sense of design.
Rocco is quoted in this Publishers Weekly article about the new book and reissues of two of Burton’s picture books, including The Little House.

14 August 2017

“Dark stuff for 8–12 year olds”

Highlighting Patrick Hogan’s essay “A Children's Book About Aliens Turned Me Into a Socialist” at Splinter, about the My Teacher Is an Alien series by Bruce Coville:
When I spoke with Coville over the phone, he said the social justice bent of the series was a bit of an accident after the surprise success of the first book, which was intended to be a one-off adventure novel. His other novels (and he has written a lot of novels) rarely indulged in politics, but he was inspired to add an element of social criticism the Teacher is an Alien series after reading the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol.

“The pleasure of writing about aliens is they could see our nonsense from the outside,” Coville told me. “It’s an insane way to live.”

In the final book, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, the child protagonists of the first three volumes are given the task of convincing the Interplanetary Council to not blow Earth up (the planet having, as the title hints, flunked its alien evaluation). As part of the assignment, their alien teacher, Broxholm, takes them on a tour of Earth and asks them to answer for humanity’s behavior. They hit up war zones, impoverished cities and, most notably in my memory, a refugee camp . . .

That’s dark stuff for 8–12 year olds. It was dark for Coville, too, who said the research he conducted for the segment of impoverished and war-torn areas of the world was harrowing.

“I got away with it because it was the fourth book of the series,” he said. “That book sold a million to a million-and-a-half copies but I feel like a lot of it was a secret between me and the kids who read it.”
Hogan recalls only one other title in his school library with a waiting list: How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.