Category Archives: Huffington Post

Interview with Elizabeth Wein

I’ve an interview with Elizabeth Wein, author of the spectacular Code Name Verity, over at the Huffington Post today.  (My review is here.)

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A Wrinkle in Time Celebration

Yesterday’s Wrinkle in Time’s 50th Anniversary Event was excellent. Symphony Space, Macmillan, Betsy Bird, Bank Street Bookstore, and everyone involved did a fantastic job. The place was packed with a lovely range of kids, parents, and adult admirers of the book (now out in a gorgeous 50th anniversary commemorative edition) and its author, Madeleine L’Engle. The event was part of Symphony Space’s author series, the Thalia Kids’ Book Club. Next up — Carl Hiassen.

The program was a lovely mix that, I think, appealed to this wide audience range. It began with James Kennedy‘s video “A Wrinkle in Time in 90 Seconds.”  After an introduction by one of Madeleine L’Engle’s grandchildren Betsy Bird moderated a wonderful conversation with Lois Lowry (wow), Katherine Paterson (wow,wow), Rebecca Stead (wow, wow, wow), and R.L. Stine (wow, wow, wow, wow).  I hope someone else blogs about this as I didn’t take notes.  (There are some tweets though.) I do remember Betsy saying she didn’t think a Newbery Committee today would select the book because of its religious content. Having been on a recent Committee I beg to differ.

Next was one of the absolute highlights of the afternoon — Jane Curtin reading from the book. She was amazing, amazing, amazing.  After her was another excellent performance by a group of high school students.  Children’s literature expert Leonard S. Marcus (who has an adult biography of L’Engle coming out this fall) provided closing remarks, featuring a wonderful story about one of L’Engle’s performances.  Between the different presentations were lovely videos and images including the new book trailer and others of L’Engle and her book.

Personal tidbit: for many years I lived a block away from L’Engle and often went with my elderly father to Henry’s, a restaurant in the ground floor of her building. Because my mother had been in a wheel chair for several years before her death I was always aware of elderly women in wheelchairs and often noticed one when we dined there.  Years later someone told me it was Madeleine L’Engle. Last night, hearing this story,  one of her granddaughters told me she loved the place and would go often.

It is hard to do an event about a beloved iconic author and book that speaks to a range of ages, but yesterday it happened. Bravo, Symphony Space, Macmillan, Betsy Bird, and everyone else involved.

(N.B. Among my handful of tweets yesterday during the event I mentioned that I’d loved the book so much as a kid that I’d done some illustrations for it.  @bankstreet replied, “@medinger Oh, please show them to us!” So I am — the above being my teen take on Meg Murry.)

A truncated version of this post is also up at Huffington Post.


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Teaching Kids, Books, and the Classics

My  Huffington Post blog post earlier this week on Walter Dean Myers generated some tweets including this one from NYDNBooks:

over at @huffpostbooks, teacher MonicaEdinger calls WalterDean Myers remarkable. Wonder what she’d think of…

So what did I think about Alexander Nazaryan’s blog post “Against Walter Dean Myers and the dumbing down of literature“? My first response was that it seemed so intentionally designed to ruffle feathers that I’d take the high road and ignore it. The tweet seemed clearly a ploy to gain traffic and controversy and I didn’t want to be a pawn in that. Besides, I knew others would take on the gauntlet and they have on twitter, in the blog post’s comments, and elsewhere.

But I’ve changed my mind after reading some of the responses because what makes this slightly different for me is Nazaryan’s description of his students’ responses to the “classics.”  I teach younger kids in a very different sort of school, but I do agree with him that the classics, taught right and well as it appears he did, can be absolutely remarkable learning experiences; I’ve even written a book about it.  But where Nazaryan and I part ways is that I don’t think  that classics are the only thing to teach. In fact I think that there can be (and should be) opportunities for students to read and respond to a whole variety of books including those by Myers and other contemporary YA writers, exciting engagements with classics (such, as a matter of fact, those described by Nazaryan) being just one of them.

Reading to me is many things and so I think we teachers need to provide many different experiences with reading and books.  My fourth grade students read all sorts of material on their own, for themselves, for all sorts of reasons. In fact, for much of the school year  they chose the books they want to read, not me. But at a couple of points we do consider a classic together, say E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  We grapple with it, look at the writing, the theme, and much more.  The kids do think hard and are challenged in the ways that Nazaryan challenged his students. Years ago I taught older kids The Iliad and it was an amazing experience too. And so I’m absolutely in agreement that done right kids absolutely love this. (Done poorly and you create new cohorts of people who end up hating the classics and/or think that teachers are book killers.) And so I’m with Nazaryan about providing such opportunities for kids in every sort of classroom in every sort of neighborhood. And not with him in feeling that you can do that and also encourage and support kids in their reading of Myers and other contemporary writers.

Bottom line: our classrooms are filled with all sorts of readers and need to be filled with all sorts of books, all sorts of writers, and all sorts of reading experiences.


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Happy 50th Birthday, Phantom Tollbooth!

Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth with illustrations by Jules Feiffer, is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. To honor this grand classic of children’s literature, Random House has come out with a new edition annotated by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus who was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project.

I love that you keep the creators up front and center throughout, but now I want to know —what is your own relationship with The Phantom Tollbooth? When did you first read it, what did you think about it, and what about your son’s relationship with it? (I’m especially curious since you dedicated the book to him.

I was 11 years old when The Phantom Tollbooth was first published, and therefore just the right age to read it—but I didn’t know about the book then. In fact I did not read The Phantom Tollbooth until after I’d become interested in writing about children’s books as history, literature, and art. When I finally did so, I could not escape the thought that The Phantom Tollbooth was the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland of our time. I thought this because of its brilliant word play and wit and because of the lightly held mastery of ideas that course through the book, teasing readers into thinking freshly about all sorts of things. And of course Jules Feiffer is a satirical illustrator in a league with John Tenniel.

I met Norton Juster a number of years ago because his architectural firm designed the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, MA, and I was (and continue to be) one of the museum’s trustees. When I decided to compile a collection of interviews with comic writers for kids for a book called Funny Business, I interviewed Norton. As we talked, it became clear to me that he had lots of stories to tell and ideas to expand on. So when I realized that The Phantom Tollbooth’s fiftieth anniversary was just a few years off, my idea for an Annotated edition began to take shape.

As for my son Jacob, who is 19 and a college sophomore, he read the book for the first time just recently, in the Annotated edition! Jacob has always done things in his own time and in his own way, which is why it seemed so right to dedicate it to him.

I mark-up books myself, of course, but doing an annotated edition is a whole different thing.  Can you tell us a bit about your process?  How did you begin?  How did you decide what to annotate? Did you have a set of types of annotations?  How long did it take?

I re-read the book until I felt I had “internalized” it: that is, until I knew it at an almost instinctual level. That was the first step.

As a historian, I was always on the lookout for points of connection between the book and the cultural and social history of the period it came from—the background of the Cold War, middle-class America’s flight to the suburbs, the post-war concern that corporate culture would lead to mass social conformity, among other themes.

At the same time, one of the things I love best about annotated editions is the element of unpredictability in the choice of subjects singled out for comment. So, I also watched for chances to write about offbeat topics: the history of the letter W, for example, and (in part because Tock is a watch dog) the history of clocks. In a book literally riddled with word play, I knew that etymologies and the origins of idiomatic expressions were also going to be a focus.

And I wanted to annotate Jules Feiffer’s illustrations by pairing particular drawings from the book with images from the history of art that had some specific relationship to them—and to Feiffer’s life work as a satirist and cartoonist in general. The range of visual references and influences that I identified is really pretty wide—everything from Gustave Dore to Winsor McCay to James Thurber to Will Eisner to George Grosz—and each of these artists has a solid claim to being there. I think their presence points to the true depth of Jules Feiffer’s illustration work. By implication, it also suggests how much more than meets the eye may be present in the work of any illustrator.

I spent about a year and a half on the research and writing but I was drawing on ideas and material I’d been gathering, for other reasons, for years and years. So it’s not really possible to say how long it took to write the book. Once when I asked Norton Juster if his father had been an influence on him as a writer, he replied, “Well, everything that happens to you in life is an influence.” I think he was right about that.

Several personal favorites of mine came up a number of times in your annotations.  I was expecting Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz but I wasn’t expecting Charlotte’s Web and The Wind and the Willows. I loved all the insights you provided regarding these books and some other familiar childhood works and wondered, were they completely informed by your reading of the book, did they come up in your conversations with Juster, or somewhere else?

The literary comparisons operate on different levels. There are the “affinities”—indirect, zeitgeist kinds of associations–which I think are fair game to speculate about in an informed way; these flowed from my prior knowledge of Charlotte’s Web, Voltaire’s Candide, and some of the many other books I cited. Claims of direct “influence,” on the other hand, call for reliable confirmation, whether from the author or another source. I was lucky of course to be able to go straight to the author and illustrator with questions of this kind. To my knowledge, this is the first annotated edition of a work by a living author and artist. Other annotators have not had this luxury.

You have annotations related to psychology, physics, music, art and so much more.  What were some of the most memorable journeys that you took to create the annotations in these non-literary directions? 

I became fascinated with the phenomenon that neuroscientists call synesthesia. This came into the story both because Norton Juster had told me about his childhood impulse to associate numbers with colors, and because in The Phantom Tollbooth he writes about an orchestra that generates color instead of sound. I read up on the subject in the scientific literature and in biographical accounts of well-known synesthetes such as Vladimir Nabokov.

Tracing the publication history of The Phantom Tollbooth led me back to the book’s editor, Jason Epstein, whom I interviewed in his lower Manhattan apartment. Epstein is one of the great innovators of modern American publishing: the creator of Anchor Books and the Library of America, and a co-founder of the New York Review of Books, among other ventures. No wonder he found an adventurous book like The Phantom Tollbooth well worth publishing, even though he was not in the business of publishing contemporary children’s books at the time.

I loved finding out the derivation of expressions like “short shrift” and “to make ends meet.” Almost as a bonus, Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster were both living in the neighborhood where I now live—Brooklyn Heights, New York—at the time they collaborated on The Phantom Tollbooth. So I got to do some historical time travel and learn quite a lot about what life in the Heights was like a half century ago.

I’m guessing that there was no way you could use all the annotations you did, for space reasons.  What were some of your favorites that had to be left out?

Actually, I didn’t leave out a single detail that I thought worth including. In any case, I wasn’t interested in recording every last fact that might be unearthed about the making of the book. In the spirit of the original, I thought it more important to keep things a little light and playful, and to focus more on evocative connections, for instance the Marx Brothers movies of Norton Juster’s childhood as an inspiration for his own outrageous puns. I guess it might have been fun, in the note about “infinity,” to have gone on forever…

My one real regret with regard to omissions is on the illustration side, and is due to the sometimes excessively high cost of permissions. As an illustration for the chapter about Dr. Dischord, I wanted very much to show a photograph of Groucho Marx as Dr. Hackenbush in A Day at the Races. (Jules Feiffer grew up loving the Marx Brothers too.) But MGM controls the rights to the films, and the cost of reproducing even a single still was prohibitive. I also wanted to show a photo of W.C. Fields side by side with one of the first Humbug illustrations, but could not get the Fields estate even to respond to my request. “The Annotated Phantom what…?” But Fields himself was inspired by P. T. Barnum, and the Library of Congress has a perfectly fine public-domain photo of him on its web site, available for downloading.

It must have been wonderful talking with the creators about their book, study all the materials associated with it, and then start to put it all together.  Are there any special stories or experiences that you want to tell us about?

This is a big question because I spent so much time with Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, and in doing so got to know them both very well. Jules has a vivid, seemingly photographic memory for his childhood and early creative years. My conversations with him also led to a companion project, an exhibition of his children’s book art that will open at the Eric Carle Museum, in Amherst, on October 25th. The show is called “Growing Every Which Way But Up,” a title meant to reflect his idea that there is no one “right” way to do anything, least of all to learn to think and feel for oneself. During the research phase for the annotated edition and exhibition, I was able to locate several of the “long-lost” original drawings for The Phantom Tollbooth; as a result of that detective work, eleven of the drawings will be on view in the show; and a number of the unpublished outtakes are included in the Annotated edition. One of the drawings, as it turned out, had been stashed away in Jules’ own apartment—which is a kind of King Tut’s Tomb of more than six decades of accumulated art—all along.

Both Jules and Norton are generous people and fun to be around. They are also both dedicated book people. Jules tends to be a bit disorganized whereas Norton is a major list-maker. When Norton was writing The Phantom Tollbooth he made list after list of unusual-sounding words, synonyms, and evocative idioms that he thought he might incorporate somewhere in the book. In fact, he constructed entire scenes around some of these lists, many of which can now be found in the collection of his papers at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. It amazed me that he could start with such basic materials—like the bins of letters and words at the market in Digitopolis—and spin them into a fantasy of such scope and cleverness and originality.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently completing a book about Madeleine L’Engle, called Listening for Madeleine. It’s a “portrait in many voices” of the author A Wrinkle in Time, presented through a series of interviews with fifty friends, family members, and colleagues who knew her well. Rather than write a conventional biography, I decided to let a picture of this many-sided novelist, memoirist, and visionary emerge from a kind prism of vivid memories. My guess is that no two readers will come away with quite the same impression.

Thank you, Leonard Marcus, for this insightful interview.  And to end here’s a delightful video with a bit more from Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer, and Leonard S. Marcus.  

Also at Huffington Post.


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A Few Spooky Suggestions for Neil Gaiman’s All Hallow’s Read

Betsy Bird and I had so much fun making our Last Gasp Summer Reading Video we decided to do another one — this time to promote Neil Gaiman’s fantastic All Hallow’s Read initiative. So it is now done (with another contribution by our sometimes silent partner) and you can see it for yourself at All Hallows Read: A Few Spooky Suggestions.




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Fun with Nursery Rhymes!

I’ve the following review over at my Huffington Post blog along with a slide show of some of the panels:

Nursery rhymes tend to be relegated to the realm of the very young, remembered by adults as cute little bedtime ditties. Well let me wake you all up – First Second Books’ Nursery Rhyme Comics is indeed cute, but it is also funny, clever, and highly entertaining, filled with traditional rhymes made fresh and new. Edited by Chris Duffy (who also contributes), with an informative introduction by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus, this delightful volume consists of 50 topnotch cartoonists — among them Roz Chast, Jules Feiffer, Kate Beaton, Lucy Knisley, David Macaulay, Patrick McDonnell, Tony Millionaire, Craig Thompson, Gahan Wilson, and Gene Yang — each giving their own take on a rhyme. It is definitely one of those books for all ages — parents can enjoy reading these with toddlers on their laps while older kids are bound to enjoy poking through the book on their own. Check out the slide show to get a taste!


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Some Great Adult Listening Books

I live in a city and haven’t driven in a million years so I only began listening to books when I figured out that I could do so while running. While slow of foot I’m a speedy reader and have discovered that certain books work better than others listening-wise. I think one reason is that I can’t skim, can’t dash through it as I usually do when reading, and so if the book doesn’t grab me at the sentence level I drift and stop paying attention. Another important element is the narrator and I now understand when people talk with avid enthusiasm about individuals they like.Finally, a well-realized setting and a tantalizing plot (mysteries seem especially appealing in this form) also work well for me.  That said, here are a few adult titles that I’ve found especially pleasurable. Hope you add your own recommendations in the comments.

  • Charles Portis’s True Grit. Excellent. Donna Tartt’s narration and essay (written originally as an introduction to a 2005 edition) are also both terrific. Thanks to the Coen brothers and the various recent articles on Portis for drawing my attention to the book. I think because I was so NOT a John Wayne fan back when the earlier movie came out nor, especially, a Western fan, I somehow missed this book completely.
  • John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.  I read this many years ago and decided to revisit it after being in New Orleans in June, this time by listening to it. It was SUPERB. In fact, I think I appreciated the sentence level writing even more today than I did years ago. The way Toole uses language is outstanding. And for me, Ignatius J. Reilly, is one of the all-time great characters in literature. I can only imagine what he’d have to say about such IM speech as OMG.
  • Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  I’m a huge Dickens fan, but had avoided this title because I didn’t think I wanted to read about the French Revolution.  Boy, was I wrong.  I was sobbing so much at “It is a far better thing I do…” part that I had to stop running and sit on a bench till it was over.  (I’ve listened to a bunch of Dickens’ titles and they are pretty much always excellent. The only one I’ve taken a break from and I do plan to finish it eventually is Dombey and Son.)
  • Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.  Surprisingly wonderful. After listening to it I wrote:  “I believe it is the ur-country-house-British-mystery. I loved the different narrators, I loved the plotting, the settings, the characters — tremendous all around.” I also recommend for listening The Woman in White.
  • Graham Moore’s The Sherlockian.  Since I’m part of a literary sub-culture (Carrollians) that overlaps those who love Holmes, I totally got this book. Moore captures the intensity of literary society types very well and generally created an entertaining story.  Went on to listen to a bunch of the original stories, including A Study in Scarlet (which I inadvertently began with the second part and was mighty puzzled about all the Mormon stuff until I figured out my error).


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My Year at the Huffington Post

I started blogging at the Huffington Post last August and I’ve enjoyed writing for their broader audience; experimenting with interviews, slide shows, and videos; and figuring out what will be of particular interest. Looking back through my archive, a few posts stand out to me for one reason or another.

Not surprisingly, celebrities and controversies got the most attention:
I’ve appreciated having a chance to get the word out about authors and books, these among many others:
As I move into my second year blogging at the Huffington Post, I’m intrigued by the directions new book editor, Andrew Losowsky, may take it. Here’s an interview with him:

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Some Sure-Fire Last Minute Summer Reading Suggestions

Check out this video Betsy Bird and I did over at the Huffington Post featuring a passel of tried-and-true titles for kids still finishing out their summer reading (and also for those back in school).

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In the Classroom: A Young Teacher

I’ve been a classroom teacher for a long time now and am grateful to be in a school that supports and values my way of teaching. It makes me very happy to spend my days with children who are talented, creative, and eager to learn. It also makes me very happy to work with a cohort of talented and committed colleagues, veterans like me as well as those relatively new to the profession. And it is the latter I worry about when I read yet another diatribe against our profession on how we educators are failing America one way or another. Will these newer to the profession, in this time of tests and standards and accountability, still be creative teachers?  Will they be able to ignore the calls for simplistic and limited teaching?

Yes.  Yes, they can.

I think today of a young woman who came to my school five years ago as an associate teacher, working in five fourth grade classrooms. She made her mark immediately, embracing every aspect of her position. Grammar?  Deadly, right?  Not with this teacher who thought hard about it and came up with creative and innovative lessons. During recess she was eagle-eyed, paying particularly close attention to the most vulnerable students.  And when a head teaching position opened up, there was absolutely no question that she would be the one to fill it.

Over the next four years this young teacher, while being a remarkable teacher for her own students, also brought so much to the fourth grade curriculum in general.  For our study of forced immigration she developed a unit on the Gullah who have been shown to be directly linked to the people of Sierra Leone.  At her suggestion and with the school’s financial support she and another teacher went to the Gullah’s annual Heritage Days celebrations.  And she didn’t stop with that, but kept thinking and considering the way we taught immigration through the year.  At our meetings and informally she spoke about her ideas, ways of adjusting and tightening our overall social studies curriculum.  Thanks to her it is now clearer and tighter.  Connecting to language arts to the immigration theme she developed an intriguing journey assignment which she presented at the 2009 NCTE convention. Additionally, she considered and added immeasurably to other aspects of our language arts curriculum and our math as well.

Moving beyond the fourth grade this extraordinary young teacher embraced other opportunities at the school — chaperoning high school students on trips for foreign language and service learning, taking on the high school cheerleaders and making them a force to be reckoned with, and heading up the 4-6 math department among much more. Recently she received a Spirit Award from our parent association for all that she did for the school community.

And now she is —  this bright light in education — moving on.  Happily getting married this summer she is relocating and will be joining the staff of another school –fortunately one that also encourages creative and innovative teaching, one that does not ascribe to the harsh rhetoric of the times. We at my school will miss her terribly and envy her new colleagues and students who will be the recipients of her thoughtfulness, creativity, and joyful approach to learning. Still I’m gratified to know that this superb young educator will continue to prove the pundits and naysayers wrong — with her America’s children will be in good hands for years to come.

Thank you, Ms. Lesley Younge (on the left with the poet Elizabeth Alexander and myself).

Also at the Huffington Post.


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