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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