Monthly Archives: May 2007

Children’s Books and Cultural Stereotypes

Thank you, Uma Krishnaswami, for directing me to Radhika Menon’s essay, “Questioning Cultural Stereotypes Through Children’s Books.” Menon, an editor at the Indian children’s publisher Tulika, makes some incredibly insightful observations in this piece. Highly recommended.


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Now, children, let me tell you how to …

Since I’m a teacher, I’m didactic. And I’ve thought a lot about what that means over the years. I’ve decided that what I do best as a teacher is to express and model my passion for certain topics and so I admire writers who do that successfully in their writing. I write “successfully” because there are many books that exhibit passion, but in a way that makes you feel you are being hit on the head and not in a good way. Greatness is being able to get a grand idea across, one you the writer care about enormously, in a way that gets the reader to care about enormously too.

The above is part of my comment to a post on didacticism at Read Roger that has provoked intense discussion. And because the original commentator had things to say about Octavian Nothing, Tobin Anderson has joined in.

I’m very glad he did because I think Tobin is an excellent example of a writer who is passionate about communicating big ideas in his books, something I think he did brilliantly in Octavian Nothing, less successfully in Feed (I know I’m one of the few who feels this way:). In the former the big ideas are carefully built up through the novel for readers to react and respond to strongly. The characterizations are beautifully delineated, the setting impeccably researched, the plot is tight, and the writing sublime — as a reader I felt I was traveling with someone who was taking me on a wild ride of emotions, provocation, and thought. Feed doesn’t work as well for me — I loved the writing and setting, but by the end felt that the author’s beliefs and passions were breaking through and that I was being preached to.

Writing for children is an imaginative act; writing for children so that they think deeply beyond the book requires a tightrope act that is very, very difficult to pull off. My hat’s off to all who try — it is risky to put yourself out there, to show your passions and beliefs, to strip yourself bare in front of those child readers even as they lose themselves (hopefully) in your story, and to hope that (trite this may be) you’ve made a difference for these future adults whose world this is to become. That’s my kind of didacticism.

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Coraline, the Graphic Novel

P. Craig Russell is doing the illustrations for a graphic novel version of Neil Gaiman‘s Coraline (an amazing book to read aloud to the right group of 4th graders) and Neil Gaiman has a sample page here and some others here. I went looking and found a few more here. Make Dave McKean’s illustrations for the original book positively tame!

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Another day, another list

I seemed to have missed (how could I?) the Guardian’s request that readers vote on  “which books best defined the successive eras of the 20th century”. Well, the votes are in and here are the results.   Happily I can say I’ve read them all except for the 1910s choice, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.  Huh?

Interesting that with one exception (the one with the protagonist’s weight provided at the start of each entry) the rest have become standards in many English syllabi.

So, would it be possible (or has it been done already?) to come up with similarly defining children’s books of the various 20th century decades?

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Owls, Stamps, and (who else) Harry

Would someone explain to me what the big deal is about the forthcoming Harry Potter stamps? (Other than the Royal Mail doing a splendid job promoting them, of course; that I get.) I mean, how many kid readers use stamps anyway? Are they writing letters by the gazillions these days? Is stamp collecting still a hot hobby? (And does the intended audience of the final Harry Potter book — kids, that is —- even talk about hobbies or is that a word for us ancients?)

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Thoughts on Newbery: Animal Fantasies

Kids love animals; ergo, there are lots of children’s books centered around animals. And many kids also love fantasy, ergo, there are lots of children’s books with animals sounding and acting like people.

So when are such books great? When are they not? And why?

Let’s take a brief gander at one I think is not great. Now, if it was eligible for Newbery this year, I’d have to do better than I’ve done to date. That is, I have tried several times to read Brian Jacques’ Redwall and always have given up a few chapters in. I find nothing at the sentence-level of the writing impressive enough to want to read more of it, the setting bores me (Camelot with rodents), the characters seem stock and simplistically developed (Cluny is BAD, Martin is GOOD), and the plot (as least in those first few chapters) is tedious (war! battles! swords!). Yet, these books are beloved by many children, go through waves of popularity, and are often well-reviewed.

Recently on child_lit there was an interesting thread about the works of Tamora Pierce; were they good or great? Cheryl Klein commented (and then reposted the comment on her blog):

I draw the distinction between great and good based on a work’s depth — the emotional and thematic/philosophical levels it strives for and succeeds in reaching. Tamora Pierce and Eoin Colfer are entertaining and good; Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling are not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) — and therefore great.

I think this is a brilliant distinction and one I hope to keep in mind when thinking about potential Newbery contenders. For I’m not looking for a good book, but a great book.

But returning to my topic, if Redwall is arguably “entertaining and good” what is an animal fantasy that is “….not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) — and therefore great.”?

Charlotte’s Web, anyone? Let’s see:

  • “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” You want tension? You want to keep the pages turning? The more I read and reread this book the more I consider it the great American novel. I mean just look at this sentence — the whole theme of the book, life and death, is right there. That ax. That breakfast. Fern. A mother. Love. Absolute perfection.
  • Character development. It is gorgeous. Wilbur’s growth from selfish baby pig to the wise pig of the barn for evermore. Or Fern’s growth from little girl looking into her small world of the barn that includes Wilbur to older girl looking into a bigger world that includes Henry Fussy. Or those at the other end of life, the sheep and, of course, most of all Charlotte. Remarkable, remarkable, remarkable.
  • The plot. A quest. A journey. A comedy in the Greek sense. About the biggest questions of all — and all for children.
  • Style. It is beauty itself. The exquisite language, descriptions of the seasons coming and going, of children at play, of animals doing what animals do, of Americana circa 1950, and on and on. The master of style is in his element here. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself:)

So, it didn’t get the Medal, but the Honor in 1952. Whatever. It is THE American animal fantasy in my most humble opinion.

So, now I’m done. What about all of you, dear readers? What do you think about animal fantasies? Is there one out this year that you think is particularly strong (or weak)? Have your say in the comments!

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Thoughts on Newbery: Wha…?

“What the — I’ve never even heard of the book.”

“Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!!!!”

“Jeez; another book adults love and kids won’t touch.”

“Oh, it only won because it is so popular with kids.”

“My class is going to be thrilled; it was their favorite book this year!”

“My class is going to be so upset; it was their most hated book this year!”

“I knew it! As soon as I read it I figured it was the winner!”

 

In January, the 2008 Newbery Committee of which I’m a member, will select a winner. Some of you will be elated, some miserable, and still others will be totally flummoxed. I mean, for all the carefully constructed terms and criteria, there is just no way everyone is going to agree on the best book of the year anymore than the best Broadway musical of the year, the best bagel in New York City, or whether Melinda Doolittle deserved to go. You’ve all got your own personal ideas as to what makes something great just as I and my fellow committee members do.

But that isn’t stopping us, as we read, from thinking hard about what the particular qualities are that make a children’s book distinguished, considering carefully what makes this one special and that one not, and wondering what it means for us former children to be reading books meant for an intended audience that we no longer are. It is a daunting and elating journey, one we have only just begun.

To help me along my own particular Newbery road, I planned on using this blog to work out my ideas about what a great book really is, more specifically — what a great American children’s book really is. I thought I’d do this with eligible books, but the recent controversy about award committee members blogging has me skittish; therefore, I’m going to use older books instead —- previous winners and honor books, other books I think perhaps should have won or been considered, and just any older book I admire and think is distinguished. However, even if I don’t write about eligible books in these Thoughts on Newbery posts, you can certainly write about them in the comments. Please, please do —- your thoughts on this year’s books will be incredibly helpful to me as I continue on my perhaps quixotic quest to find the best children’s book of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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