Monthly Archives: October 2012

Are Children’s Books So Stylistically Different from Books for Adults?

Just saw the following in a NYTimes review of J.K. Rowling’s new adult novel.  So I’m wondering — is this really so true? Seems rather an overgeneralization to me.

Rowling has not been able to shed certain stylistic features that are acceptable or even expected from children’s authors. Juvenile literature often uses physical metaphors to highlight emotional states because in children the two tend to be so closely allied. “The Casual Vacancy” has various characters feeling guilt “clawing” at their “insides,” a “hollowness in the stomach,” fear “fluttering” inside the “belly,” a “queasy” stomach, a “lowering in the pit” of the stomach, a “knot” in the stomach. In adult fiction, it isn’t necessary to load so many actions — or objects — with adverbs and adjectives. Children thrive on heavily signposted plots, on moral exposition masked as dialogue. Adults don’t need or want such direction.

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Something About Frank Cotrell Boyce

“Being read to at school changed my life. I really became aware of that during the Olympics because we were all of us in that room drawing on stuff we’d read as children and none of it was stuff we were examined on, it wasn’t anything measurable. It was stuff that people had shared with us that we went on to share. If you look at that ceremony and what was in it, it was a sense of wonderment in storytelling. We found we had this common heritage – Mary Poppins and so on.”

Lovely Guardian profile of Frank Cotrell Boyce.

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Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF on stage

The novel, which follows a poor German girl, the thief of the title, whose family hides a Jewish man in its basement, is also getting a life off the page. Brian Percival, who has directed several episodes of “Downton Abbey,” has been chosen to direct a film version. And last week a stage adaptation, written by Heidi Stillman, made its debut as a young-adult production here at the venerable Steppenwolf Theater, where it runs through Nov. 11.

Read more about the stage production in this New York Times piece.

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Celebrating Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

It was dusk — winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.

So begins Joan Aiken‘s wonderful The Wolves of Willoughby Chase which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. I first came across it when I was twelve, browsing the shelves at Foyles, London’s legendary bookstore, and fell for it hard, reading it many times over the years. A grand adventure with wonderfully spunky characters set in an alternate Victorian world, I reread it recently and can say that it is as marvelous as ever.

At 7 PM this Friday, October 26th, the anniversary will be celebrated at New York City’s Bank Street College with a panel moderated by children’s lit scholar Michael Patrick Hearn featuring Betsy Bird and Aiken’s longtime agent Charles Schlessiger among others as well as a multimedia presentation and reading by Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter and a professional actress.

Horn Book editor Martha Parravano is raving about the new audio book narrated by Lizza (for a taste go here) and AudioFile thought highly enough of it to give it their  2012 Earphone’s award.  For some recent appreciations of the book check out Michael Dirda’s Washington Post piecethis one with the great suggestion that Peter Jackson turn it into a movie, and this post by a children’s librarian who first read and loved the book as an adult.

It still is a hit among kids today, boys and girls alike. One 6th grader I gave it to recently concluded that it was “…an exciting story about bravery, loyalty, and friendship.”  A 5th grader commented that it was  “…a suspenseful adventure that I could not put down! It was a fun and exciting read, some parts were sad and scary, other parts made me laugh. I thought it was a great book.” And another 6th grader noted that “….this is a book with some humor, adventure, and a great ending. I recommend this book 100%.”  And this 6th grader managed to capture the essence of the book in a few short sentences:

An evil governess, hungry wolves, a boarding school that’s more like a concentration camp. Now Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia must escape. Especially when the servants are dismissed, the furniture is boxed away, the mansion turned into a boarding school, and Bonnie’s parents ship sink. This book was filled with all different emotions, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a must read!

This past August I visited Lizza in her lovely London home. At the bottom of her garden she has an enchanting small structure build in the style of a Cape Cod house (honoring her grandfather, the American writer Conrad Aiken) that she has turned into a Joan Aiken museum. And so to end, here are a few images from that amazing place:

The charming Joan Aiken Museum

Lizza Aiken

Joan’s typewriter

First page of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Early ad for the book.

A British edition of the series.

Joan’s notes on the illustrations.

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Middle Grade Science Fiction

Someone on facebook asked for middle grade sci-fi titles and so I went through my goodreads list and came up with the following.  These are only those I’ve read and enjoyed. (ETA And that I’ve seen kids read and enjoy in the last couple of years.) There are certainly many other titles out there and I do hope you will add your favorites in the comments. I stayed with titles that seem to me to be clearly science fiction as opposed to books that mix sci-fi with fantasy (e.g. Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series) or have just a smidgin of it. I also decided not to include YA books that my 4th graders read such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Orson Scott Card’s  Ender’s Game.

Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday.

Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood.

Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Richard Reeve’s Larklight series.

Rebecca Stead’s First Light.

Lissa Evan’s Horton’s Miraculous Mechanisms (and its sequel).

Eleanor Davis’ The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook.

John Hulme and Michael Wexler’s The  Seems series.

Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad Trilogy.

Jill Paton Walsh’s The Green Book.

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Philip Pullman’s Once Upon a Time

From Philip Pullman’s Tales from the Brothers Grimm.

Paper illustrations by Cheong-ah Hwang: http://www.papernoodle.com/
Animation by Matthew Young: http://www.mymymy.co.uk/

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Adam Gidwitz on Spooky Spooky Fairy Tales

Halloween’s just around the corner which means All Hallows Read is too. When Neil Gaiman first proposed this idea of giving books for Halloween I offered some suggestions, among them Adam Gidwitz’s fairy tale debut, A Tale Dark and Grimm.  Now Adam is back with In a Glass Grimmly, as macabre and entertaining as his first book, and I thought it would be fun to see what he had to say about fairy tales, their reputation, and other related topics.

For those readers unfamiliar with your two books, how about a twitteresque description. Not too much more than 140 characters that is!

Two children travel through the funniest, weirdest, darkest Grimm tales, facing horrible parents, cruel peers, and other monsters. And—most painfully of all—themselves. (147! I’m a champion!)

Since you are a sort of fairy tale nerd (as am I) what is your take on my impression that for the general public fairies and fairy tales continue to have an image problem. Seems to me that for all the urban fantasy out there (in books, movies, and television shows), many still associate fairy tales with sparkly teeny tiny women flitting about with wings, pink, and Disney.  Would you agree? Disagree?  

I agree. And most of these adaptations don’t really help the cause at all. Most of the current adaptations of Grimm fairy tales take details from the original tales and use them as a jumping off point to tell their own story and to do their own thing. They toss the form and the style of the fairy tale out the window. I think this is a great waste. Fairy tales have endured not only because of the stories they tell but also because of how they tell them. Fairy tales are told simply, matter-of-factly; they are brief; they deal with the deepest of emotions–pain, humiliation, betrayal, lostness (if you will)–without any hyperbole or drama. The Grimm fairy tales in crystalize our most essential emotions. These modern adaptations, for the most part, have nothing to do with our deepest human emotions. They miss the point of fairy tales altogether.

Another criticism fairy tales get is that they are violent yet you seem to have embraced that idea and run with it. Why? 

The real fairy tales are indeed quite violent. But the violence is not gratuitous. On the contrary, it is essential to fairy tales’ task. One of fairy tales’ methods of speaking to the readers’ deepest emotions is a technique I like to call “tears into blood.” There is a wonderful Grimm tale called “The Seven Ravens,” in which a father loves his one little daughter so much more than his seven boys that he wishes they would turn into birds and fly away–which they promptly do. When the little girl discovers that her brothers’ disappearance is due to her father loving her more than he loved the boys, she runs away from home to find them. She is given a chicken bone by the stars (yep, you read that right), and told that it will open the Crystal Mountain where the boys are trapped. The little girl journeys to the mountain but, upon arriving, realizes that she has lost the chicken bone. At this moment, any real child’s feelings of guilt would be extraordinary. Not only was it indirectly her fault that her brothers were turned into birds, but in losing the chicken bone she has lost the ability to save them.

Now, do a little thought-experiment with me. Imagine that “The Seven Ravens,” at this critical juncture, abruptly changed genres and became adult realistic fiction. What would the little girl do? She would live out her days trying to come to terms with her guilt, failing in the majority of her relationships and wondering what could have been. Right? Very depressing. Now, let’s imagine that “The Seven Ravens”, at the moment when the girl discovers the loss of the bone, switches from fairy tale to middle grade adventure novel. In this scenario, the girl would remember a little piece of wire that she received in the first chapter, and she would pick the lock on the door to the mountain and free her brothers. Either that or the bad guy would show up and she’d have to fight him.

But “The Seven Ravens” is a fairy tale. So what happens? The little girl cuts off her finger. And then she slides it into the lock on the door to the Crystal Mountain, and, without any further explanation, the door opens, and she sets her brothers free. This solution raises a series of questions (why the heck does her finger open the door? for example). But what this solution does for the reader is that it takes all the guilt the girl was feeling–about the transformation of her brothers, about the lost chicken bone–into blood. It turns emotional pain into physical pain. It turns tears into blood.

But why is this good? Because every child has cut himself. Every child has been bruised or bled. And so every child knows that the blood stops eventually, the wound scabs over, the bruise yellows and fades. Fairy tale violence teaches the child that emotional wounds heal. That salty tears dry. That no matter the pain, victory is possible.

In your first book you stuck pretty closely to several Grimm fairy tales. This time you branch out a bit.  How did you end up with the tales you did retell and what made you move farther into your own original ones?

Thematic considerations and practical ones. First, the thematic: The emotional journey of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is the children’s evolving relationship towards parents. The journey of IN A GLASS GRIMMLY is about peers. There were certain tales–“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” for example, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”–that dealt with issues of peers and peer-pressure beautifully, that I really wanted to include. The practical consideration was that I had settled on calling the children Jack and Jill, mostly because that was another folkloric pairing (like Hansel and Gretel) that kids would recognize. (I briefly considered the Grimm Jorinda and Joringel, but I just didn’t think those characters have the same instant name recognition, you know?). So, once I settled on Jack and Jill, that suggested the famous Jack stories, such as the gruesome “Jack the Giant Killer” and the popular “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

I’m curious about your research. In addition to presumably reading a ton of fairy tales, what other research have you done? 

I spent most of 2012 living in Europe–mostly in France. My wife was doing her dissertation research in medieval history. I, on the other hand, was eating a ridiculous amount of bread, writing in the mornings, and traveling on the weekends. I explored the Black Forest. I found the Crystal Mountain (well, I think I did). I walked under white cliffs along an endless beach (see the chapter “The Giant Killer” in IN A GLASS GRIMMLY). So I certainly did some geographical and scenic research. I also play with language in my books, particularly regarding characters’ names. So I had some German friends I consulted with on the name of the giant salamander that appears near the end of IN A GLASS GRIMMLY, and I spent a lot of time buried in the Gaelic dictionary developing the names of the giants. Finally, I read a fair amount of secondary material on the fairy tales, to ensure that I was honoring their traditions as well as their content.

Your books are being rightly recommended as fun Halloween-related horror.  Do you have any others that you might want to recommend to go with them?  

I love Laura Amy Schlitz’s SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS –very creepy, very Victorian, and very dark. It’s got a witch, a magic amulet, a murderous puppeteer, and a little girl who has to visit a graveyard every year on her birthday. What’s not to love?

The other day one of my students who loves your books was railing about the oddity of fairy tales. Why, she ranted, does Gretel have to use a bone for a key in the first book? Why can’t she just just a carefully constructed object that doesn’t involve..let’s see how to phrase this so as not to spoil things….nasty personal stuff?  How would you respond to her and others like her?

Fairy tales don’t make any sense. That’s the wonderful thing about them. Their strangeness is their beauty. Also, it’s hilarious.

What’s next? 

One more Grimm book. This one is about a boy named Coal and a girl named Ash. Coal is based on the simpleton character that recurs throughout Grimm’s fairy tales–the boy who everyone thinks is stupid, but turns out to possess a special wisdom. Ash is short for Ashputtle. Also known as Cinderella. If you know the Grimm version of Cinderella, you know this book will be just as strange and dark as the two that preceded it.

And to end, for fun, a few questions that Proust also had to answer (and Vanity Fair has taken-off from for years).

What is your idea of happiness?
Writing in my pajamas in the morning; a huge, rare cheeseburger for lunch; an afternoon with my wife and friends; and an evening with just my wife.

What is your idea of misery?
A world with no introspection. For this reason, I fear for our society. Who needs Big Brother and thoughtcrime, when self-awareness is obliterated by a constant stream of chattering screens?

If not yourself, who would you like to be?
An astronaut.

Where would you like to live?
Most of the year in Brooklyn, and then the month of June in Paris. Or the White House. They have a bowling alley, a basketball court, and a private chef. As long as I didn’t have to do any of that annoying work that the dude who lives there has to do.

What is your favorite food and drink?
My favorite food is a huge, rare cheeseburger. My favorite drink is not for kids, so I’ll leave it out.

What is your present state of mind? 
What did Proust say? Bored because of these questions? No. Hungry, because I keep talking about cheeseburgers.

Also at Huffington Post.

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Eliot Schrefer’s ENDANGERED

I absolutely did not want to read this book. The advance reader copy sat on my shelf for months untouched as I assumed it was yet another book offering a simplistic view of Africa, one that focused on the plight of an exotic animal while barely acknowledging the complications of the people who lived around it. Having lived in Sierra Leone for two years in the 70s, I’m techy about how the continent is represented, especially by well-intentioned outsiders who focus on its animals at the expense of its people.  That said, I know that it is very, very hard to even begin to present to anyone, much less to a young person, the horrible complicated conflicts such as what happened in Sierra Leone a decade ago and what is still happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Still it was only when I saw that the book was a finalist for the National Book Award that I finally picked it up.  And then did not put it down again until I was done.

The story is from the point of view of Sophie, the product of a Congolese mother who runs a sanctuary for rescued bonobos and an American father. When her parents split up, because schooling would be better in the States she returned there with her father, coming back during vacations to be with her mother. As the book begins Sophie is traveling to her mother’s sanctuary when she spots a young bonobo with a trader and buys him, recklessly ignoring the Congolese sanctuary worker who tells her they never do that, it will cause problems, that they only rescue those that are brought to them.

At the sanctuary Sophie works to save the young ape whom she names Otto. It takes no time at all for the two of them to become permanently connected, Sophie functioning as the young bonono’s mother. Schrefer quickly and effectively gives us a sense of the sanctuary, of Sophie’s mother, the other workers, and the specifics of the bonobos who are the closest of the great apes to humans.  Schrefer, without sentimentality, again and again throughout the book shows readers this commonality, making readers think hard about ourselves as humans and our relationship to others in this world.

Shortly after Sophie’s arrival the war arrives at the sanctuary.  Schrefer does not shy away at his depiction of the horrors of this. In fact, it was this that won me over completely. For I followed closely the conflict in Sierra Leone, a place I knew well long ago, and there are many commonalities to what has happened in the DRC;  the drugged child-soldiers, the frightened villagers, the many dreadful things that have been reported from both regions are all too familiar to me. Schrefer presents them truthfully, at times terrifyingly, and sensitively all steadfastly through Sophie’s eyes.

Unable to abandon Otto, instead of leaving the country with the UN, Sophie flees with him.  At first she stays with other bonobos, but eventually she has to leave them too and sets out on a difficult journey to find her mother who had been releasing bonobos back into the wild in another part of the country when the war began.

Sophie is a remarkable character, full of grit and gumption, and readers are bound to be riveted as her efforts to save Otto and herself are tested again and again as they make their journey.  Schrefer does an amazing job communicating their physical and emotional hardships, giving readers a feel for the community and ways of the bonobos and how they link to us humans, and also a straightforward view of the way the conflict affects humans as well, both the victims and the transgressors.

By the end, I was completely won over. Schrefer has crafted an outstanding work about Africa, about bonobos, and about the complexities of the relationship we humans have with the world around us.

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Felix Baumgartner’s Next Stunt

After Felix Baumgartner has a snooze, a bite to eat, and some mingling with family and friends he will, no doubt, want to think about what he can do to top his 24 mile fall to Earth. Well, I’ve got a suggestion — how about biking to the Moon?  Mordicai Gerstein‘s How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers isn’t out till April, and I normally wouldn’t mention a book so far before its publication date, but I just read an ARC of this comic-like book for young readers and am unable to resist pointing out the uncanny possibilities for Mr. Baumgartner. I mean:

  • Both feats involve the number 24. That was the number of miles Mr. Baumgartner fell to earth and it also just happens to be the number of steps Mr. Gerstein provides for getting to the moon by bike.
  • Both require space suits. Mr. Gerstein gives potential moon cyclists a sample letter requesting one of NASA, but Mr. Baumgartner already has his.
  • Both require agreeable family members. I’m guessing Mr. Baumgartner’s are good with anything he does, but if not Mr. Gerstein offers some tips to get parents on board.
  • Both adventures are faster on the return trip. We saw that with Mr. Baumgartner breaking the sound barrier and Mr. Gerstein assures us that “… the RIDE BACK will seem A LOT FASTER.  I don’t know why, it just ALWAYS does on any trip.”

I’m sure you’ve all see the video of Mr. Baumgartner’s fall. For a taste of Mr. Gerstein’s plan you will need to click on amazon’s Look Inside feature to see a few pages.  And then be sure to keep an eye out for the finished book this coming April as it is a lot of fun indeed.

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Jacqueline Woodson’s EACH KINDNESS

Bully Prevention Month has me reflecting as a veteran classroom teacher on the variations of meanness, cruelty, and hurt that children find to inflect emotional pain on each other. Not only have I observed it, but recollect well my own firsthand experiences with it as a child. Sometimes the meanness is temporary and due to hurt feelings, lack of knowing, or something where the children being mean truly don’t realize what is happening.  In such cases, once they are made aware, they easily change their behavior and the hurt is gone. But sometimes it is more complicated, sometimes things aren’t made perfect, aren’t fixed no matter how much we try. It is this sort of situation that Jacqueline Woodson captures so perfectly in her new picture book  Each Kindness illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

Taking the tight first person perspective of elementary student Chloe, Woodson has us peer out through her eyes and mind as she devastatingly ignores, dismisses, and is out-and-out cruel to her new classmate, Maya. Chloe’s emotional slights and hurts are excruciatingly real, building up day after day.  While we only have Chloe’s perspective we can only imagine Maya’s.

And then comes Chloe’s epiphany thanks to her teacher who offers a simple lesson featuring the tossing of pebbles into water and watching the ripples go out, a gentle non-judgemental way to help both the fictional Chloe and the real child readers consider how their smallest actions have consequences. Finally aware and ashamed of her behavior toward Maya, Chloe wants to make amends, but discovers that it isn’t always so easy to do that.  Woodson lets her child readers know that actions are not always reversible, sometimes you have to live with your mistakes.  But she also makes it clear that you can learn from them. The hopeful message from this stark tale is that — you can always do better the next time.  For while Chloe may not be able to fix and make right her actions toward Maya she is less likely to do the same sort of hurting again.

In exquisitely spare and poetic prose, Woodson’s story is perfectly complimented by Lewis’ art. His depiction of the way the children stand and behave in their small, but enormously hurtful acts of cruelty and exclusion as well as Maya’s poignant responses are perfectly beautifully represented. Among the many well-intentioned books featuring issues of exclusion among children of different ages,  Each Kindness is for me the most transcendent with Woodson and Lewis taking this far-from simple issue to a profound place of emotional depth and truth.

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