Monthly Archives: December 2006

Lyra, Ofelia, and Alice

Yesterday I saw Guillermo del Toro’s film PAN’S LABYRINTH. In front of me in the ticket buying line were a group of older women, one of whom began talking about beginning to read and then quitting HIS DARK MATERIALS in preparation for a religious lecture/discussion on the series versus Lewis’s. “It starts with a girl falling asleep in a wardrobe and she is still asleep in the third book.” she said with a little smile. Then she held forth on the religious themes of HDM, at least those she had heard of it — the fall, the daemons, angels — pretty much all completely wrong, but she had her companions totally interested.

As for PAN’S LABYRINTH, it is quite something. Young Ofelia travels to an isolated area with her pregnant mother to join her stepfather, a captain fighting the rebels in 1944 fascist Spain. Ofelia like Lyra is on the cusp of adolescence, a child who seems to try to lose herself in fairy tale books — at the very start her mother tells her she is getting too old for them, that they are not real life.

Her mother is right; they aren’t real life. But they might be something else. Right away Ofelia encounters a fairy and soon is deeply involved in a fairy realm where she is evidently a lost princess. At one point a housekeeper in the real world of her stepfather’s military outpost gives her a dress and pinafore for a special party. When Ofelia heads off to the fairy realm, down, down, down — she looks exactly (consciously I’m guessing) like Alice.

As scary as that fairy realm is, the real world of fascist Spain is much, much worse. The film’s most graphic scenes of violence are of torture, maiming, killing and more in that real world. The stepfather is a complete sadist, the mother dies (of course), there is a baby brother for Ofelia to save (she does at great expense), a helper in the guise of a housekeeper who is there as a spy for the partisans, and so on. Ofelia goes off on a classic fairy tale quest — first to save her mother and then her brother.

I left the theater thinking it was too hard a film for me to watch — too violent. However, the more I think about it the more I’m glad I saw it. This is not really a Bettelheim view of fairy tales, but something more complex and original. And so I do recommend it with a warning that if you are not good with graphic violence prepare yourself — it is telegraphed ahead of time so you can turn your head away (or, as I did, cover your eyes so you can just read the subtitles without seeing what is happening above them).

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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Golden Compass

Charlotte’s Webbish

I picked up Charlotte’s Web: The Essential Guide in the bookstore yesterday, took a brief look and then a much longer one as I searched unsuccessfully for the name of the humble and radiant author of Charlotte’s Web, the original book that is. It was pretty evident from the photos and text that it was meant to be the essential guide to the movie, not the book. So how about making that clear in the title then? How about mentioning the original book somewhere, anywhere? And maybe the original author too? (If it was there, it was very very hidden as I sure missed it.)

The Essential Guide (published by DK, by the way) made me wonder about the original book’s publisher’s own movie tie-in books . And so I took a virtual field trip to the HarperCollins website and found a bunch (scroll down the page for the movie tie-in editions). They’ve got Charlotte’s Web: The Movie Storybook (which I also looked at in the bookstore and am relieved to report that White and his book are mentioned in it), coloring books, sticker books, and a few other things.

Other things like a couple of picture books (Charlotte’s Web: New in the Barn and Charlotte’s Web: The Perfect Word) written by Catherine Hapka with photos from the movie and two I Can Read Books (Charlotte’s Web: Wilbur Finds a Friend and Charlotte’s Web: Wilbur’s Prize) written by Jennifer Frantz and illustrated by Aleksey Ivanov. I’ve gotta say I’m a lot more comfortable with the movie photo illustrated picture books than with the two I Can Read books with new illustrations.

Interestingly, one book is completely missing from HarperCollins’ Charlotte’s Web page (although it is available elsewhere on their site, of course). This is Some Pig!, a picture book consisting of the complete second chapter of the original book illustrated by Maggie Kneed. Roger Sutton recently wondered what young readers would make of the abrupt ending of the chapter and concluded, “This [is] why you have to be careful when messing with the classics–it’s not because they’re holy, but because they’ll go on strike: they won’t work.”

As I’ve written before, I think the movie does work. But all these other books? I’m not so sure.

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The Neddiad Online



I’ve known about it since it started, but haven’t had time to read it properly till this weekend, it being Daniel Pinkwater’s online serialization of his new novel, The Neddiad . And let me tell you, it is very, very cool. I love the mix of text, image, and oral storytelling, but most of all I love the readers’ forum. The exchanges there between Pinkwater and his readers are just the sort that I would imagine would occur if we were all sitting at his feet listening to him tell the story. We’d comment, interrupt perhaps, and make references as the story went on. Terrific idea to use an ancient form (the Homerian epic) in the telling and then present it initially in a 21st century way.

Here’s a sample October 15th post to give you a taste (chosen because of the recent Christmas present from Ms. Rowling):

A reader inquires:

Dear Mr. Pinkwater,

Did you use the name the “Hermione Hotel” for all those “Harry Potter” fans out there, or was it just a coincidence?

And Pinkwater replies:

Nothing to do with Harry Potter, and not a coincidence.

Have some time between all that eating and partying this holiday season? Have a computer with broadband handy? Want a little something that might remind you just a tad of Jean Shepard (best known these days for the movie, A Christmas Story)? Then check out Pinkwater’s online ode to Homer, train travel, shoelaces, old hotels, parakeets, ghosts, and eating in hats.


Filed under Reading

Alice in Second Life

I joined (if that is the right word) Second Life some time ago, but didn’t have the time to really fiddle with it much till this morning. I quickly (too quickly perhaps) finished with the basics, and dove (er, flew) in.

For those unfamiliar with it, Second Life is described by its creators as “… a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by a total of 2,142,455 people from around the globe.” Now, I’ve never been much of a gamer, but this sort of world-building is right up my alley and I knew it would be something I’d enjoy (and a time-sucker as well). Unlike earlier online environments like MOOs and MUDs, Second Life isn’t as text-dependent; in fact, its events and commidification made me think a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse.


After cleaning up my appearance a bit, dashing through the Orientation Island activities (no doubt a mistake, but I was impatient), I’ve been attempting to get the lay of the land. That means I’ve been in the water a lot and having a mighty hard time getting where I want to go. At one point I saw a really pretty garden with fountains, was unable to get to it (my navigating and teleporting skills being pretty sad), and somehow lost it completely. At that point I realized that I finally could truly empathize with Alice when she wanted so badly to get into the beautiful garden, but was too big to do so.



And so for now, I expect to have my very own adventures in a virtual wonderland; do you think it includes a White Rabbit or, better yet, a Mock Turtle?


Filed under Children's Literature

Kid Reviews on Amazon

Last Friday Fuse#8 visited my classroom and gave us a fantastic overview of reviewing. (She is currently one of their top 100 reviewers.) At the end, she helped us polish and post a review for Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, a book I’d recently finished reading aloud. (In case you want to read it, our review, “The Unknown Flat” was posted on December 15th.)

As a follow-up, this week my students have been writing their own amazon reviews on books they had previously written about in journal letters to their classmates. Throughout, I have wanted them to think about audience — going from writing journal letters to an audience of one (me), to an audience of 18 (their classmates and me), and now to an audience of of unknown size.

Tremendously inspired by Ms. Fuse’s presentation, my students have been following her lead by first drafting their reviews in MSWord and, after revising and polishing them, posting them on If anyone reading this blog would like to view them, here are the books they are reviewing as the children are eager to see if anyone will comment or otherwise indicate that they found the reviews helpful. (I will update this post as the reviews become available on amazon.)

X’s review of Framed, dated December 18th, is titled “Art and Crime.”

H’s review of Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism, posted on December 19th, is titled, “The Molly Moon Adventure.”

L’s review of Molly Moon Stops the World, posted on December 19th, is titled, “Stopping the World.”

A’s review of Alabama Moon, dated December 20th, is titled, “Alabama Moon.”

C’s review of Ella Enchanted, dated December 20th, is titled, “Eall Enchanted.” (The title typo is my fault — my apologies — it is a great review, please read it!)

M’s review of Pish Posh , dated December 19th, is titled, “Spoiled is all she is.”

J’s review of Airborn, dated December 19th, is titled, “Amazing and Exciting.”

A’s review of Eager, dated December 18th, is titled, “21st.”

B’s review of Shredderman, dated December 20th, is titled “Shredin Shredderman.”

O’s review of So B. It, dated December 20th, is titled, “Sad, yet Thrilling So B. It.”

E’s review of The Road to the Majors, dated December 20th, is titled, “The Big Road.”

M’s review of Drift House, dated December 22nd, is titled, “A Crooked House.”

S’s review of Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, dated January 9th, is titled, “Wayside School.”

O’s review of Eragon, dated January 9th, is titled, “From a Kid to a Rider.”

F’s review of The Sea of Monsters, dated January 9th, is titled “The Sea of Monsters.”

S’s review of Pippi Longstocking, dated January 9th, is titled, “The book Pippi Longstocking is a pretty funny book.”

Z’s review of Peter and the Starcatchers, dated January 9th, is titled, “The Mysterious Star Stuff.”


Filed under Reading, Teaching, Writing

Those Friendly Barn Critters

So yesterday we took the fourth grade to the first showing of Charlotte’s Web at our local cinema and I’ve got to say that I can’t think of a better way for an adult to see a movie for kids — surrounded by the intended audience. We were eighty-nine children and eight adults (seven teachers and one poor member of the public sitting sensibly way in the back) in that auditorium. The children applauded appreciatively at various points in the film and overall were pleased. I was too, mostly.

First of all, I very much liked that it was live action rather than animation. The book is nominally termed a fantasy because of the talking animals, but White places them in such a real world (albeit a nostalgic one) that a successful film version needed to have real people and real animals (versus animated ones) for it to work for me. White’s images of the barn, the changing seasons, the fair, and the rest of the setting of the book are absolute perfection — and the filmmakers did a splendid job evoking them. The animals looked all quite real to me and I was completely fine with their voices — that some were big-name celebrities didn’t really matter much.

For most of the film I liked the way they so carefully and gently used White’s words and kept very very true to his spirit. The small changes and alterations worked just fine. In fact, I almost think they improved the book in one place — they broke up the Dr. Dorian chapter into a couple of different scenes— nice work that.

The Arables are all just right. Mr. Arable is nicely established from the start as a caring farmer — about his livelihood and his daughter. Beautifully done, I thought. Similarly, Mrs. Arable is worried appropriately about Fern. Avery is perhaps a little toned down, but not too much. As for Dakota Fanning, she is terrific and captures the Fern of my Charlotte’s Web just right.

As for the animals, Wilbur is just fine — he is the stand-in for the child viewer/reader and functions as that in the film. The animals are fine too — didn’t see why they felt the need to add in a horse, but whatever. The crows were another addition; they seemed to function as did the mice in Babe, that is mostly as amusing connectors between scenes. Sadly, the one animal that seemed a tad lacking was Charlotte. Part of that is the nature of trying to represent a spider, part of that was perhaps Julia Roberts, and part of it was the script — I mean, Charlotte’s wonderful “Salutations” just didn’t have the punch that it has in the book.

The images are just lovely — the barn, the children swinging, Templetons’ lair, the fair, the Arable’s kitchen, the town — all just right, to my mind. A hint as to what sort of nostalgia the filmmakers were aiming for can be seen in the book Fern reads to the animals —- I think (and please correct me if I’m wrong) it was Make Way for Ducklings.

So what wasn’t radiant? To my mind, things started to weaken at the fair. I felt till then that the filmmakers were sticking straight and true to the themes of the book — those of life and death — without getting too sweet or moralistic. That changed during the fair. The book’s chapter, “The Hour of Triumph” is complete comedy. Called to the grandstand to accept a special award for Wilbur, the humans and animals bumble and tumble about. Wilbur faints, Templeton bites his tail to revive him (which is the example my students give for his being heroic, by the way), Lurvy attempts to douse him in water and gets Mr. Zuckerman and Avery instead, Avery cavorts, and so on. The movie dispenses with this completely and replaces it with Mr. Zuckerman giving a perfectly straightforward speech on the wonder of Wilbur. No longer a bumbler, that Zuckerman. Too bad.

At the end the filmmakers get carried away overmoralizing about friendship — how the animals in the barn all were friends, etc. etc. Not White. He wrote “As time went on , and the months and years came and went, he was never without friends. Fern did not come regularly to the barn any more. She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen. But Charlotte’s children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, year after year, lived in the doorway.” See? In White’s book, Charlotte’s descendants are Wilbur’s friends not the barn animals. That’s important. Wilbur’s and Charlotte’s friendship was special; the book was about that, not a homily on friendship in general. And so, lovely as the imagery is at the end, the narration and sentiment is watered-down White.

Quibbles like that I aside, I would recommend it and (unlike the 1973 film) plan to use it with my class in the future. As for this year’s students, I’m giving them the last words of this review:

J thought it was, “…a great book and a great movie….The movie was so very terrific that I would definitely see it again.”

F thought it was, “…cool that they showed the process of Charlotte dying and it was cute that the ballooning baby spiders said, ‘Whee!’ and ‘Bye!’ in tiny, high voices.

M felt it was “really good” and that just as in the book she felt “sad at some parts and excited at parts.” Like myself she would have “added in the part where Templeton bit Wilbur’s tail to make it more funny.”

A felt “It really expressed the ideas (life and death) that the book was trying to tell you about.”

E “…enjoyed it as much as the real book. The movie was so very terrific that I would definitely go see it again.”

H felt that ‘the movie went along too fast” and that “Wilbur was the cutest animal.”

L felt it was “…an awesome movie. If I could see it again I definitely would.”

X’s “total opinon of the movie was good” and he gave it 4 stars.

Z, as I did, admired their portrayal of Doctor Dorian.

Aa particularly liked Templeton who he thought was “very very funny.”

Sh liked the addition of new animals and thought the movie was “funnier than the book.”

O wrote that “Wilbur looked and seemed so innocent” and that she almost cried,”… when Charlotte died. It was a powerful book and a powerful movie.”

Another O, on a second viewing, felt that they “covered the book very well.”

C agreed with her classmates that “this movie was really funny; also it was really sad in a way…”

B liked that it “wasn’t too long, but it wasn’t too short.” and gave it four stars.

S gave the movie a thumbs up and five stars and felt it was “full of excitement.”

L gave it five and a half stars. He felt they “included the most important lines and scenes.”

And finally, another M paraphrased White’s memorable final points, “It is not often that you come across a good writer and an amazing friend. Charlotte was both.”


Filed under Reading, Teaching, Writing

Celluloid Charlotte

For almost twenty years now I’ve begun the school year with a study of Andy White (aka E. B. White). That means I’ve read Charlotte’s Web countless times and, let me tell you, it never gets old or boring. With each rereading I’m blown away again by White’s genius. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one to have this experience. In his recent Los Angeles Times essay, “‘Charlotte’s Web’ Returns,” David L. Ulin writes about reading the book over and over to his young son and how that experience solidified his appreciation of the book and the author.

As a result of my longstanding relationship with the book, along with many others, I have been anticipating with dubious anxiety the new Charlotte’s Web movie. The fart joke in the first trailer I saw certainly did nothing to reassure me nor did all the big names in the cast. The 1973 animated movie, in my opinion, is a travesty and I refuse to show it in school, telling my students they can watch it at home. As for the new one, I feared that the impulse towards sentimentality and lowest-common-denominator humor would win out.

However, over the last few weeks there were some encouraging signs. One of my students went to a screening and assured us that the movie stayed true to the book. Some child_lit subscribers also returned from screenings expressing positive feelings about the movie. By the beginning of this week my feelings had changed; now I was eager to see the movie for myself.

At this moment the film, opening today, has an 85% approval rating at rottentomatoes and a very enthuisastic review from A. O. Scott in the New York Times. Thank goodness, since we decided earlier this week to take the whole fourth grade to the first showing today. We told them yesterday and boy were they excited! I am too; as I wrote their parents, what could be better than seeing the movie with an auditorium full of E. B. White experts?

I’ll be back soon with our review.

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Teaching Dilemmas: Journals or Blogs?





Journals are bedrocks in my teaching practice. On the first day of school I give each child a composition book and a letter from me that begins like this:


Welcome! I am very excited about our year together and hope you are too. We are going to do all sorts of interesting things and I hope very much that you enjoy them. One of these will be corresponding in this journal. That is, we will write letters back and forth to each other. So, let’s begin by introducing ourselves to each other. I’ll go first.

Every week or so after this the children write to me in their journals and I write back. These letters are about personal stuff, thoughts that arise out of our literature discussions (e.g. “Who is heroic in Charlotte’s Web?”), responses to prompts related to the curriculum, suggestions on how to resolve classroom problems, and about their independent reading.

I love these journals. They are safe places for children to communicate with me, especially those children who might be too shy to approach me directly. In them I advise, recommend books, and just connect to my students. They are such great teaching environments, places for my students to develop their basic writing skills as well as their intellectual ones. In these letters they learn to organize paragraphs, to argue effectively, to write a concise summary of a book, to critique effectively, and more. As time consuming as it is for me to write substantial letters back to each of them (as I promise them that if they write a good letter to me they’ll get one back from me), it is worth it.

Last week, feeling a need for something new, I changed the rules. Instead of writing me, they wrote to the class. And now, instead of my writing back to them, they are all writing back to each other. And — duh — I realized that I’d just had them do paper blogging. Those responses they are writing to each other — a form of commenting, of course! And so I began thinking about having them move from their composition books to the computer — to start them on blogs. Only one thing held me back. You may laugh when I write this, but here it is — handwriting.

Yes, handwriting. Pretty much all the other writing my student do is on a keyboard. They are fortunate to each have a Alphasmart to use for the year, a small portable word processor. We also have access to a cart of laptops and so just about all writing is on keyboards. The one place they must write by hand is in these journals. What, I’ve wondered, would happen if they no longer had even that to do by hand. Would their handwriting atrophy before it had even solidified? What would happen to them in the future if they had to compose by hand? Would they even be able to do it if we did not force them to occasionally? However, after speaking to my colleagues, I’ve decided to move forward with the blogs. They reminded me of other places where the children will still be writing by hand. Besides, moving from the journals just seems like such a natural next step now.

I’ll continue to fret about cursive, script, print and whether they will, in the future, be able to write legibly and comfortable using those increasingly obsolete articles — paper and pencil. But if I’m having a blast blogging why shouldn’t my students have a chance at it too?






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Babble about Bibliographies

Evidently Norman Mailer has provided a 126 title bibliography for his new novel, The Castle in the Forest, causing such a stir in the book world that the venerable New York Times weighed in with an editorial yesterday, concluding:

But readers of, say, William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central have every reason to be grateful for his lengthy bibliography — not as a talisman against plagiarism or a sign of his own learning but as a guide to further reading. In fact, the only real risk we see in a bibliography for a novel is that it will come to be a kind of obligatory disclosure. As far as we’re concerned, novelists are obliged to disclose nothing besides the art of the stories they have to tell.

Hmm…and so how about fiction for young people? Ideally I’d say, no difference. However, in the case of historical fiction, I’m on the fence. I’ve written and spoken frequently about my ambivalence on using these books to teach and learn history. But so many people do promote and encourage educators to use these books in just this way — to inspire, excite, and promote an interest in a particular historical event or period. Because of this and because of my own personal passion for the teaching and learning of history I can’t help but wonder about the research behind such books.

In some cases a bibliography may actually hurt a work of fiction. Some time back, in a bookstore, I looked at the bibliography of a new historical fiction work for children on a topic I know a lot about. The bibliography was so problematic that I was completely put off the book, didn’t buy it, and have yet to read it despite the generally favorable and sometimes glowing reviews.

While I admit that the lack of any sort of information about the author’s research makes me uneasy, I don’t necessarily need an an extensive bibliography for reassurance. Here are how the authors of four recent books of historical fiction I admire do it.

First up is Julius Lester’s Day of Tears. This highly original and moving work is based on a real event, the facts of which seem hard to imagine today and so I appreciate the details and list of references Lester provides in his author’s note. The references are solid, mostly primary sources, and reassure me that he got the details right.

Next in the pile is M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. I’ve already written here about my admiration for this book which gives every impression of being meticulously researched, reinforced by the author’s note. Yet Anderson has made a presumably deliberate decision to forgo a bibliography or any specific references and ends his author note by advising readers, “The origin of the Revolution is fascinating and I recommend that those interested in exploring it further go beyond my brief precis of circumstances to examine the documents themselves and historians’ interpretations of these momentous events.”

My third book is Alan Gratz’s Samurai Shortstop. I was completely drawn into this intense story about life in a late nineteenth century Japanese boarding school. Knowing nothing about the topic I greatly appreciated the author’s extensive notes and bibliography at the end. Without them I suspect I’d have been left uneasy about the historical underpinnings of the book.

My final book is Katherine Sturtevant’s A True and Faithful Narrative which regular blog readers know I adore. While the author does not provide a bibliography in her author’s note, she does provide some primary source references and a sense that, like the others mentioned here, she did copious research.

Interesting, right? One tentative conclusion for me is that novels that take place in unfamiliar cultures and/or involve controversial and sensitive topics work better for me when I’m assured via an author note that the authors have done ample research. Readers, young and old, who want to know more about the history they encounter in a work of fiction should take Anderson’s advice to heart; that is, they should seek out and then “…examine the documents themselves and historians’ interpretations of these momentous events…”


Filed under Historical Fiction, Reading, Writing

Learning About Africa: Second in a Series




Many of the children’s literature bloggers have a tradition of posting poems on Friday. And so in the spirit of the day, here is a lovely book of African poetry. Selected and illustrated by Veronique Tadjo, the poems in Talking Drums give a sense of the vast variety that is Africa.

From the Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) herself, Tadjo writes in her introduction, “Let me tell you a secret; this selection of poems is in fact a story, the story of Africa as told by some of its very best poets.”

The poems are from all over the continent and their subjects are equally wide-ranging from animals to people to death and more. Some of the creators may be familiar names (for example, the Nigerian Ken Saro Wiwa who was executed some years ago), others less so, and then there are some poems with no named authors — traditional poems from a range of cultures. Here’s one:


The European

In the blue palace of the deep ocean
dwells a strange being.
His skin is white like salt
his hair long like plaited seaweed.
His dress is made of fishes,
fishes more charming than birds.
His house is built of brass rods
his garden is a forest of tobacco leaves.
His country is strewn with white pearls
like sand on the beach.

Traditional, Gamma





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Filed under Africa, Children's Literature, Reading, Teaching