Monthly Archives: January 2007

Daniel Radcliffe’s Johnny

The second season of the HBO series Extras is underway with a very hilarious episode this past Sunday featuring none other than the very-randy Daniel Radcliffe. The creator and star of the show is Ricky Gervais who also created the original BBC series, The Office. Extras is about the movie business; each episode involves dour Andy (Gervais’s character) and his close friend Maggie working as extras on a movie. Like The Office this series is parody that is very close to real life — one minute you think they are over the top, the next you are squirming with discomfort, and still the next you are feeling unbearably sad for Andy or Maggie.

In this episode Radcliffe is starring in an adventure/fantasy as some sort of overgrown Eagle Scout. Hilariously he comes on to thirty-something Maggie in the most arrogant-celebrity-adolescent way you can imagine. There are many wonderful scenes, but I think my favorite is his etiquette lesson with Dame Diana Rigg. And someone put them, where else, on YouTube here. Enjoy!

On the show’s website you can vote on “Who has a better chance of doing it with a girl, intercourse-wise?” My choice is definitely Radcliffe in a scout uniform!

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Grappling with Greatness

The bestowing of awards and honors always raises the issue of greatness. As soon as the latest American Idol is revealed, the league’s Most Valuable Player celebrated, or the Newbery medal announced the debates begin — were these winners truly great?

When I was a distance runner it seemed pretty easy to determine greatness in that sport — someone like Greta Waitz who won nine New York Marathons would have been easily agreed upon. In the higher echelon of overall sainthood-level greatness, few would disagree with, say, Nelson Mandela. But what about books and their creators? Are there any that most of us rabid readers would agree are great? And does it matter if it we are adults determining this for an audience of children?

To me it doesn’t matter. In fact, I’m generally wary of placing too much value on child response. (Sorry, kids!) I’ve had fourth graders who were familiar with a lot of books (usually because they were avid readers themselves, but sometimes because they had been read to a lot), thoughtful readers and listeners and valued greatly what they had to tell me about the books they read. But I’ve also had fourth graders who had not yet read widely, who were just becoming readers, and had simplistic notions of greatness who still were very comfortable telling me what made one book great and another not (“boring” being often the kiss of death — more likely I suspect a synonym for “too hard” not that they’d admit that.).

Quite a few of my students right now, for example, if asked would call Eragon a great book. Why? Some (the avid readers) would give reasons related to their engagement with the story, the characters, and the world Paolini created. But others (for whom this may be the first book of this length they have ever read) have spoken to me of their admiration of it because the author was sixteen when he wrote it, because they made it into a movie, and — most significantly — because it is popular.

Popular. This issue is quite the sticking point when it comes to book awards and the bestowing of the crown of greatness. This year I’ve watched Eragon read by children who would otherwise read realistic fiction, prefer sports stories, and who would otherwise never take on such a long book. These readers work their way through it proudly — for them simply being able to do so and then become part of the crowd that read the book is what makes it great. Illogical? Perhaps, but this is the way of the classroom, the way children often make decisions about what to read and what is great. In other words, popularity often rules among children.

And that is to be expected. The social issues of childhood —- popularity, inclusion/exclusion, best friends (anyone see the latest episode of Monk?) cliques are front and center in the lives of these books’ intended readers. And if that is the case, all things being equal they may well gauge greatness by popularity. As do many adults who work with children, understandably. That is, how great can a book be if only a few kids like it?

Pretty great, I think. “When we are confronted with a delicate, odd little novel, that pretends to no encyclopedic knowledge of the world, that offers no journalistic signposts as to its meaning, that is not set in a country at war, or centred around some issue in the papers, we seem to have no idea how to read it.” writes Zadie Smith in her wonderful Guardian article, “Fail Better.” Last year’s Newbery winner Criss Cross anyone? It is the fact that we can’t fall back on our tried and true ways of reading, that we are challenged to create new maps for reading, that I am made to think beyond the immediate scope of the book — these are some of the reasons why I think Criss Cross is great. Popularity has nothing to do with it.

And despite all our fervent belief in choice, in the individual, in personal viewpoints, Smith points out that we are mostly reading by system. That a particular ur novel comes into being and then there are bunch more just like it — once we know how to read a particular one, all is copacetic. I think here of A Series of Unfortunate Events. That snarky intrusive narrator (new to child readers if not to adults familiar with Sterne, Dickens, and their ilk) is now quite common (dare I say popular?) in children’s books — having read Snicket it is easy to read others in that system— A. N. Bode’s Anybodies say or M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales. (Oddly enough, Snicket’s a case of popularity being damning. Oh how inconsistent we adults can be — dismissing Criss Cross for its small child readership on the one hand while dismissing A Series of Unfortunate Events for the opposite reason.)

Coincidentally, cartography is also referenced by Deborah Stevenson in her September/October 2006 Horn Book article, “Finding Literary Goodness in a Pluralistic World.” Notes Stevenson, “….that just as one learns writing by writing, one must learn reading by reading. We each of us have an individual map of literature, constantly being redefined on multiple axes every time we read…. A new book gets slotted into the constellation according to its relationship to what’s already there, ‘good’ is a book that’s in some ways like the books of its kind that have already been judged good, and not so much like books of its kind that have been judged lacking….” (p. 514.) Stevenson both recognizes the experienced adult reader and the importance of the intended child reader in her article. “…the adult-child gap, though, isn’t so much the forgetting as the additional knowing, the broader awareness of literature and art as well as the inuring through repetition to many life events (using the potty is no longer a cause for household celebration once you’re an adult, and really that’s just as well.” (p. 517.)

I’m running out of steam here, but this is a topic that is going to be at the front of my mind as I read a lot of children’s books this year, try to figure out which one I think is the greatest, and then try to persuade 14 other people to agree with me.

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Sleepy in Seattle

“Go home” were the welcome words of one of my companions after tiring of watching me try desperately to stay awake through dinner Saturday. And so, passing on Campagne‘s clearly scrumptious desserts, I did. Back at the Grand Hyatt Seattle, I groggily pushed the switch that electronically lowered the shades (can I tell you that is one very cool hotel?) and was out like a light.

Jet-lag aside I had a fabulous time in Seattle attending Midwinter ALA. Years ago I attended one of my first NCTE conventions there and discovered that it is one of the best cities around for conventions. The weather (compared to NYC) made walking pleasant, the eating is wonderful/fantastic/extraordinary, and the downtown is just a very cool place to be at any hour.

My congratulations to all the ALA media award winners and to the committees that chose them. I was so happy that I had read and very much enjoyed Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky (and in fact have to congratulate the long-forgotten person who urged me to get the ARC last summer at ALA as she had pegged it as Newbery caliber way back then) and so had a copy to show my students upon my return. Having also read Rules, Hattie Big Sky, and Penny from Heaven, I can say that all three well deserve the honor. All four are books that are very accessible to children and will be read, I’m hopeful, year after year. I must admit I was most excited when the Sibert winners were announced — all are very cool books, but I was especially enamoured with Team Moon and absolutely thrilled that it won.

Since our flight on Monday didn’t leave till almost midnight (seemed like a good idea when we booked and a horrible one while waiting for it at the airport), Roxanne and I had lots of time to play in Seattle and we did! After the press conference a bunch of us got crepes from a place outside the convention center (didn’t I tell you the eating is amazing?) and then found a corner to chat about all that was going on. After some made final circuits of the exhibits we headed to the one and only Pike Place Market and then on the Pan Africa, a restaurant I had found online and was eager to try. It was terrific — while the West African groundnut dish wasn’t quite what I’d have gotten in Sierra Leone, it was still very tasty as were the other dishes as well.

After gelato nearby, Roxanne and I ambled over to Pioneer Square where we followed a guy wearing one into the Utilikilts store. Anyone who knows her will not be surprised to learn she bought one and wore it for the rest of the day. After a quick wander through the inviting Elliot Bay Bookstore we went on BILL SPEIDEL’S UNDERGROUND TOUR . I had done this years ago and I recall it a bit differently (say a more obvious street and a more teasing ghost situation), but it was still fascinating and fun.

By this time my sleep deprivation was kicking in. We hiked to the Red Lion Inn to go to the ALSC/YALSA/AASL reception, then back to the Grand Hyatt for a bite before the airport. There we both conked out for an hour, got on the plane, slept until JFK. (My neighbor by the window noted that the fact that all three of us took Ambien may have presented a problem if we had indeed had to do our exit row duties.)

I picked up a ton of 2007 ARCs and shipped them home — and so my year on the Newbery begins!

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Zadie’s Smith’s matter of morals

Part II of Zadie Smith’s brilliant Guardian essay, “Read Better” is now available here. Thanks to Linda Lowe for the link.

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The Diamond Age miniseries

Well, I thought the following was exciting:

From GalleyCat: “Among the programs in development at the Sci-Fi Channel for 2007: a six-hour miniseries based on Neal Stephenson‘s The Diamond Age. Stephenson will be adapting his “post-cyberpunk” novel, which won the 1996 Hugo for best science fiction novel, for executive producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov (who previously collaborated on the TV shows K Street and Unscripted, as well as the motion picture Good Night and Good Luck)”

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Zadie Smith on the best way to fail

I am besotted with Zadie Smith’s essay “Fail Better,” in yesterday’s Guardian.  The woman thinks, reads, reflects, reads some more, and continues to ponder while writing with incredible depth, intelligence and panache.

In this piece Smith addresses some of the most fundamental truths of fiction writing  — lifting the veil so to speak, on some of the most difficult realities of her art.  She points out the contradictions inherent in the very attempt to write, factors in failure, considers the revelations of self, craftsmanship, delusion, myopia, talent, and selfhood to name just a few in her thought-provoking article.

After much bluntness about writing and writers, she ends with a focus on readers and reminds us that “A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing – I really believe that.”  Me too.

With the ALA book awards to be announced a week from tomorrow, various Mock Newberys being decided,  and other lists of the best children’s books of 2006 being produced, this essay really hit home for me. That is, it reinforced my belief that what makes a book great and award-worthy is something that goes beyond audience,  something that has more to do with the relationship developed in the act of reading between a talented writer and a talented reader whatever their age.  As Smith notes, “The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer’s style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park.”

A long and  demanding read, but well worth it.  Highly, highly, highly recommended.

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Teaching with Blogs: Children Commenting

After each child posted to his/her blog, we invited them to comment on each others’ blogs. They had some idea of this already from the comments most had received on their amazon reviews (thanks, Chris!), they had written them in their journals, and so I felt confident that they would write them thoughtfully and sensitively.

But a different problem arose almost immediately — the social dynamics of the classroom being replicated in the commenting. That is, some children were getting multiple comments while others were getting none. As soon as I noticed this, I wrote each child a comment and arranged for each to comment on three other blogs; thus, each child will eventually have at least four comments on their first post.

This made me think about this interesting tension between our desire to give the children more freedom to write when and as they wish while also needing to be aware that by doing so we also give them the freedom to exclude by simply commenting on some blogs and not others. The children are aware of how to write the comments, they are kind and supportive. But this lifelong issue of inclusion and exclusion is much trickier, one I’m sure I’ll be grappling many times as I explore blogs in my classroom.

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