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Interview: Philip Pullman on his Retelling the Grimm Fairy Tales

Philip Pullman is one of the most thoughtful and creative writers of our day. Best know for the brilliant trilogy His Dark Materials, the former middle school teacher is also a longtime reteller and creator of fairy tales. While I’m partial to his lively online version of “Mossycoat” (first published as a picture book) and the original story I Was a Rat! because of my work with Cinderella, I’ve found all his fairy tales whether retellings or original to be utterly delightful. And so when he told me a few years ago that he was working on a new collection of Grimm fairy tales I was not surprised. Over several magical meals (I’m honored to call him a friend) we talked intensively about his research for this project and I couldn’t wait to read the final version. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is now out and it is as excellent as I had hoped. Happily others feel as I do and it is being enthusiastically received by adult and children’s book reviewers alike.

There are a number of terrific interviews with Philip about this project, but I thought that one focusing more on young readers and those who work with them might be of interest. Philip was game so here are my questions and his answers.

To start, I’m intrigued that the UK title is Grimm Tales for Young and Old while the US is Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Why the change? 

Publishers like to put their stamp on titles. I have never fathomed why. Arthur Levine (I assume it was him) even changed the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which made sense, into HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which made no sense at all. I can’t actually remember being consulted about Grimm. I have to say I prefer the UK title, but I tend to shrug about these things.

You have always been such an advocate of storytelling. I can remember you urging teachers like myself to learn stories to tell to our students, something I know you did a lot of.  And I also recall feeling guilty as I never did this, preferring to read aloud. I could absolutely sense your pleasure in selecting, retelling, and tweaking these stories. How do you think your background as a teacher and teacher of teachers came into this work?  If you were teaching today would you read or tell some of these tales? Or how about to your grandchildren? Any in particular?  Do you see any limitations due to age or anything else?

All kinds of things come into play when we think about reading versus telling. Maybe reading has a greater sense of ‘authority’ – it comes out of a book! It’s been published! But maybe telling has a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy. If I were still a teacher I’d make a point of learning a dozen of these stories well enough to be able to tell them without the book – probably not the most gruesome ones: for that you probably need a mixed audience so the younger children can hide their faces in a parent’s shoulder. But facing a class I would, as I say, make a point of knowing them well enough after many private rehearsals to do without the book and then begin to make little inventions here and there to bring it even more vividly to life.

What really struck me reading these is how playful you are in your alterations and embellishments. Say the hilarious commentary of the three little men of “The Three Little Men in the Woods” or having the wife in “The Fisherman and his Wife” call her husband a defeatist. I especially enjoyed how you upped the ante in “Hans-My-Hedgehog.”

The Grimms:
The king had ordered that if anyone should approach who was carrying bagpipes and riding on a rooster, that he should be shot at, struck down, and stabbed, to prevent him from entering the castle.

Yours:
The king had given strict orders that if anyone approached the palace playing the bagpipes and riding on a cockerel, they should be shot, stabbed, bombed, knocked down, blown up, strangled, anything to prevent them from entering.

Any thing you’d like to say about these delightful touches? Where you place them and why, perhaps? Or anything else you’d like to tell us?

I’m glad you like them! Another one I enjoyed was having the giant say “Respect!” to the little tailor, and the frightened soldiers protest that they couldn’t fight him because having killed seven at a blow he was a weapon of mass destruction. And so on. I thought that if a story was light-hearted enough to start with, it could bear a bit more fooling around. The story I call “Farmerkin’, which is normally rendered as ‘Farmer Little’, is another example. But I wouldn’t have thought it right to play about with ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example, or ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Wrong tone altogether.

I don’t think I did any of that stuff with deliberate forethought, though. It just leapt into my fingers as I wrote. If the story-sprite laughs, then I laugh too.

How did you select the tales?  I can certainly see that some are personal favorites, but some are quite odd, not always likable, and you even say that in your notes. Yet you included them. Why?

The only one I actively dislike is “The Girl Without Hands’, but I put it in because there were some things I wanted to say about it. I had a completely free hand when it came to choosing the stories, and I was very glad of it. I felt I had to put in all the famous ones – though actually there are fewer than we think of those – because people would expect them to be there, and it would be silly to leave them out. I would have put them in anyway, in fact, because they are so good – they’re famous for good reasons. As for the others, they were there because I found them interesting to talk about, such as ‘The Goose Girl at the Spring’, or because I found them powerful and strange, like ‘Hans-my-Hedgehog’, or because I was just fond of them, like ‘Lazy Heinz’ or ‘The Moon’.

Your notes are simply wonderful. As I told you before, I think nothing beats your suggestion of what to do with Thousand Furs’ father, but you’ve got others too. Say your consideration of Disney’s Snow White film, how it is such a pull on any new telling of the original tale, and most delightfully that his dwarfs are “toddlers with beards.”  Or how you resolved the dilemma of how many pieces to cut the snake in “The Three Snake Leaves.” Given the clear depth of your background reading, how did you decide what to put into these notes? Is there anything you reluctantly left out that you might want to tell us now?

Thank you. I’m always glad when people praise my notes, because I think they do say things that I think are worth saying. I was certain from the beginning that I wanted to follow each story with a few paragraphs (or less, or more) of commentary, and I wanted it to come immediately after the story and not tucked away at the back. The editors were happy to let me do it – in fact they were remarkably non-interfering throughout the whole process. I didn’t want to overburden the notes with scholarly stuff, because others – Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar – have done it already better than I ever could, and because my emphasis was always on how the story worked. I don’t think there’s anything important that I left out, but as I continue to think and talk about the stories I might think of a few more things to put in.

For those in particular who work with children and/or their books is there anything in particular you would want to say to them about these tales, about the Grimms, or about storytelling in general?

The one thing I’d emphasise to the most important people in this situation, namely students who are going to be teachers (most important because it’s in the early stages that we form all our habits), is this: whenever you can, don’t read stories like this to children: get them firmly into your head and tell them, face to face, without a book in your hands. These tales are not literature, which is written, they’re something else. I know it’s nerve-racking to put the book down and just tell, because the book is a protection in many ways (not least: if the session fails, you can blame the book instead of yourself). But it doesn’t really take much memory-effort to learn a story like The Little Tailor or The Three Little Men in the Woods. I don’t mean learn all the words by heart – far from it. I mean get the events in your head so you can relate them easily and confidently. If every young teacher could take the trouble to get two or three dozen stories in their head so they could tell them at a moment’s notice – and they’re not very big, they pack down very flat, there’s plenty of room for them in your brain – then they would never be at a loss how to fill that odd ten minutes at the end of a day, or how to calm down a class if they’re fractious and over-excited during a day when it’s raining and they can’t get out to run around, or if they want to start off a new project. And what’s more they last like nothing else. When thirty or forty years later you meet by chance one of the kids you used to teach, the one thing they’ll remember is that story you told that Friday afternoon about Orpheus and Eurydice, or The Goose-Girl, or Hades and Persephone, or Hansel and Gretel. They’ll forget Pythoagoras’s theorem or the names of the first five American Presidents or the principal exports of Brazil, but the story will still be there, and they’ll be grateful for it. Nothing is so valuable, so lasting, so deeply loved as stories. Why would anyone not seize at once, with both hands, the immense privilege of telling stories, when it’s so easy to achieve?

Oh, Philip, clearly you won’t let me off the hook and so I will now try to get past my self-consciousness and attempt to learn some tales to tell to my own students. Certainly yours are the perfect source material for that. My great thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.  

To end, this lovely book trailer with a taste of Philip’s storytelling prowess:

also at Huffington Post

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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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Screenwriter Geoff Rodkey on his New Children’s Book, Deadweather and Sunrise

Writing a children’s book seems to be a popular endeavor among those better known in other areas.  Models, iconic musical comedy performers, television stars, and comics have all taken a stab at it with varying results.  Now along comes screenwriter (of Daddy Day Care among others) Geoff Rodkey with his first book for young readers, Deadweather and Sunrise, the first volume in the Chronicles of EGG.  Admittedly skeptical of yet another Harry Potteresque series, I ended up enjoying it tremendously as have many others including Rick Riordan who described it as “…Lemony Snicket meets Pirates of the Caribbean,with a sprinkling of Tom Sawyer for good measure.” And because the book was so much fun I figured an interview with its creator would be fun too.

How would you describe your book to those who aren’t terribly interested in it or you? That is, to those folks taking a quick look at this post and wondering if they should read on. What can you say to encourage them?

“This is the greatest book supposedly written for kids since Roald Dahl kicked the bucket.”

Too much?

How about, “if you loved The Princess Bride–not matter how old you are–you will love this book, too?”

I’d go with “Buy this book! We went to college together!” But at this point, I’ve already made that appeal to everyone I went to college with. And high school. And elementary school. Say what you will about Facebook–it’s a very effective tool for forcing things on your friends. Or, in this case, your friends’ kids.

What was the inspiration for the book (beyond the mercenary one)?  What led you in the direction of an alternate past, islands, and pirates, and grand adventure? Instead of, say, a contemporary story about an…er…cute kid turning into a dog? Or just a story about a cute dog?

For one thing, I’m allergic to dogs, which means my kids can’t have one–and if I wrote a story about a dog, I’d just make them angry, and I take enough abuse already when we walk past pet store windows.

But I’ve also never been all that interested in the magical or the supernatural, either as a reader or a writer. I’d rather create a world that’s just slightly more screwed up than the real one (which is increasingly challenging, considering the state of the real world).

In the case of the book, an idea popped into my head for a character who was a pirate, and I just sort of followed that where it led, which was to the Caribbean of the 17th and 18th century. But as I researched that era, the reality of it quickly became constraining. Not only did I not want to deal with issues like African slavery and epidemic disease–both of which were rampant and incredibly depressing–but early on, I came up with a plot point involving a hot air balloon, and those weren’t invented until the 19th century.

So I figured I could save myself a lot of grief by just making everything up. And while I’d like to think it makes the book more fun for the reader, I’m certain it made the book more fun to write. I was able to cherry-pick the best parts of the historical research I did without killing myself trying to answer questions like how much a leg of mutton cost in Port Royal in 1675, which would have felt like homework, and probably read that way on the page.

What are some of your favorite books for kids?  Favorite books in general?

There are way too many to list…but as far as kids’ books go, some of my favorites growing up were The Westing GameThe Pushcart War, E.W. Hildick’s McGurk mysteries, and a biography of Geronimo that I must have checked out from my elementary school library at least five times. And Bridge to Terabithia, which wrecked me emotionally when I was 11 like nothing else I’ve ever read. I was inconsolable for days after I finished that book. Which, now that I think of it, may not be an endorsement. But it was definitely an experience that stayed with me.

As an adult, three novels that stand out over the past few years were David Benioff’s City of Thieves, Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper, and Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist.

One thing many have noticed about the book is the excellent pacing — do you think your screenwriting background helped with this? Are there other aspects of screenwriting that helped or hinder you when switching to this form of writing?

My screenwriting experience was invaluable. If you take away the dialogue, scripts are just pure structure. So when I finally sat down to write a book, I had fifteen years’ worth of story structure pounded into my head, and that made it a lot easier to keep the plot on the rails.

But there’s a downside risk, which is that if you plot a novel too carefully, you’ll not only create something that feels formulaic, but you’ll stifle the input of your subconscious, which is where all the best material comes from. Stephen King wrote a memoir (On Writing) in which he talks about this at length–while it’s possible, and maybe even preferable, to start a novel without knowing where you’re going, I’d never try to write a screenplay without outlining a three-act structure in advance.

When I wrote the book, I tried to split the difference–I had a general idea of where I was going to end up, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there. For example, there’s a (somewhat mysterious) treasure the villain in the book is looking for, and I was halfway through the first draft before I figured out what it was.

I was particularly intrigued by the occasional mentions of the indigenous people of this alternate world of yours, those natives who were toiling away in the far off silver mine. I’m eager to see where you take this in the next book and wondering if you are finding any challenges as you do.

The biggest challenge with the Natives has been reconciling the constraints of writing for a middle grade audience with the reality of what indigenous Central American cultures were actually like. By modern standards, the Aztecs were just ridiculously violent–their whole religion was centered around human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of children–and they oppressed the lesser tribes in the area so ruthlessly that when the Spaniards showed up, a lot of the tribes not only welcomed them but allied with them to overthrow the Aztecs. It didn’t wind up working out so well for the other tribes–the Spaniards were no prize, either–but that’s what happened.

And while the world of the series is an imagined one, I wanted it to be fairly realistic–and I particularly wanted to avoid turning the Natives into some kind of noble savages, when the truth was that they could be every bit as unpleasant as the colonialists. And it’s an adventure story, so human sacrifice seemed like a real plus.

But when you’re writing for ten-year-olds, people get very skittish about things like ritual disembowelment–not so much the kids themselves (who I think not only can handle that kind of thing but are eager to read it), but the adult gatekeepers, from editors and booksellers all the way down to parents. So the challenge has been to write a story I think is faithful to the setting while rendering it in language that’s oblique enough that it won’t offend more delicate sensibilities.

I had a similar challenge with the pirates in Deadweather and Sunrise. I wanted them to act like actual pirates rather than some sanitized, Walt Disney version of pirates–and while I mostly managed to do that, there was one chapter in particular that I must have rewritten eight times. I never changed the fundamentals of what happened, but each time, I made the description a little less explicit and more indirect, so it’s possible to read it without fully grasping what’s going on.

Now I actually remember eating ugly fruit years ago, but I bet few who read your book will know they are real. What attracted you to them — the name? And pirates, why them?

The name was 95% of it. A grocery store near my house used to stock ugly fruit (technically, it’s Ugli fruit, which I believe is trademarked), and it seemed like an appropriately absurd-sounding-yet-real plantation crop. Plus it’s indigenous to the Caribbean, so there’s that.

The pirate thing just sort of happened–like I said, I had an idea for a character who was a pirate, and everything went from there. Oddly enough, that original character isn’t in the book. He was pirate who all the other pirates thought was cursed, so they wouldn’t let him on their ships, and the only work he could get was as a waiter in a pirate-themed restaurant. I still really like that idea, but as the world of the book developed, it got much less jokey and more realistic, so in the end, there just wasn’t a place for a pirate-themed restaurant.

Tell us a bit about your three central kid characters. What was your thinking as you shaped Egg, Millicent, and Guts?

I don’t know. My original idea for the main character was a snotty, obnoxious, recently orphaned rich kid. In the couple of years I spent thinking about the story off and on, he somehow turned into Egg–but I can’t remember how or why. Part of it must have been that it’s tough to build an engaging series around a main character who’s a jerk.

Guts is the same way–looking back, I’m not sure where he came from. I’ve definitely never met a one-handed, semi-deranged cabin boy with undiagnosed Tourette’s.

Millicent’s easier–she’s the girl I would have fallen in love at first sight with if I’d met her when I was thirteen. Which is not to say she’s perfect–in fact, in a lot of ways, she’s a pain in the neck. But so are most thirteen-year-olds.

The book is chock full of one escapade after another, almost non-stop action. Did you have more ideas for these than you were able to put in the book? Any favorites that had to be ditched? And if so, why were they cut?

There’s very little in the way of action sequences that got cut–mostly because I’m not that good at coming up with them, so almost everything I thought of got thrown in. But a lot of dialogue and little jokey bits got cut, because those are not only much easier to write, but tend not to be important to the story–so if you cut them, nobody notices, and the story moves that much faster.

What sort of research did you do and are you doing for the series?

I’ve done a lot of reading about that period of Caribbean and New World history. Some of the better books I’ve come across are Charles Mann’s 1491 and 1493 (about the pre-Colombian Americas and the consequences of European colonization, respectively); Michael Wood’s Conquistadors (about the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas); Henry Kamen’s Empire (a history of Spanish colonialism); and Matthew Parker’s The Sugar Barons (covering British plantations in the Caribbean).

As for books about pirates, the best recent one I’ve read is Stephan Talty’s Empire of Blue Water. David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag and Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates are also very good.

As it is a series you will be busy writing it for a while, but once you finish do you have any other ideas for kid books?

I have a lot of ideas, including a few for extending the Egg series beyond the current trilogy. But they’re all more vague aspirations than concrete plans at this point, so they’re probably best left undiscussed for now.

Anything else you want to communicate to this blog’s readers before we finish?

Thanks for reading this far! Feel free to click over to the celebrity swimsuit slideshow now.

And please buy my book. You won’t regret it.

Also at the Huffington Post

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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 this:nydailynews.com/blogs/pageview…

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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