Monthly Archives: February 2008

The 2008 Tournament of Books

I came across this event a few years and, ever since, have had a blast following it. Here’s a description from the organizers about its creation:

Artistic awards are like wet kisses from your Aunt Mabel. You should be gracious when you get one, but actually seeking one out is kind of unseemly. And yet every year, our most esteemed, and especially elderly, writers crank out novel with important theme after novel with important theme in the desperate pursuit of the Pulitzer or National Book Award or Nobel. And then a bunch of guys in a conference room halfway around the world go ahead and give the thing to Doris Lessing. (Like the Nobel committee, I too once pretended to understand what Canopus in Argos was all about.) Anyway, it’s enough to make Philip Roth cry and we are not in favor of anything that makes Philip Roth cry, which is why we are also against the unexamined values of the middle class and the songs of Harry Chapin.

A few years ago some of us were up late and we were talking about this very thing, about how much we enjoy literary awards in spite of the fact they are also silly and arbitrary. The idea that we should accept the word of any small group of people—people in most cases whose names we don’t even know—about a topic so subjective as the best literature of the year is pretty ridiculous, and forcing authors to compete against each other is just stupid on its face. We were also drinking quite a lot, which I mention because by the next morning we had the rough outlines of something called The Tournament of Books, in which we would seed the year’s most celebrated works of fiction in a March Madness-type bracket and pit those novels against each other in a “Battle Royale of Literary Excellence.” In honor of our favorite character in contemporary literature, David Sedaris’s brother, aka “The Rooster,” we decided to present the winning author with a live chicken.

Don’t worry. No live chickens have been awarded to date. But the smart silliness is very present. And so here are this year’s books and here are this year’s judges. What is fun about it is the wit of the judges; doesn’t really matter if you’ve read the books (at least it didn’t to me). They have commentary, betting, the works. It starts next Friday. Check it out!

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LA Times Book Prize Finalists

The finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize have been announced. Here’s the YA list.

Young Adult Fiction

Sherman Alexie, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN (Little, Brown)
Geraldine McCaughrean, THE WHITE DARKNESS (HarperTeen)
Walter Dean Myers, WHAT THEY FOUND: LOVE ON 145TH STREET (Random House)
Kenneth Oppel, DARKWING (HarperCollins)
Philip Reeve, A DARKLING PLAIN (The Hungry City Chronicles) (HarperCollins)

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Whad’Ya Know? (with Apologies to Michael Feldman)

They are at it again. Teens are all going to hell in a hand-basket. According to today’s New York Times, a “Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions.”

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492.

But guess what? According to historian Sam Wineburg in his sensible article, “Crazy for History” (Journal of American History, March 2004) there were comparable results when Texan students were tested in 1915-1916:

Across the board, results disappointed. Students recognized 1492 but not 1776; they identified Thomas Jefferson but often confused him with Jefferson Davis; they uprooted the Articles of Confederation from the eighteenth century and plunked them down in the Confederacy; and they stared quizzically at 1846, the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico war, unaware of its place in Texas history. Nearly all students recognized Sam Houston as the father of the Texas republic but had him marching triumphantly into Mexico City , not vanquishing Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Jacinto.

Please read Wineberg’s article, Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn’s History on Trial:Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, Roy Rozenweig and David Thelen’s The Presence of the Past for more about this perennial issue.

And, please, those who are worried — calm down. It was ever thus.

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A Brief (Or Not So Brief) History of the Graveyard Book

I posted a few quotes from Neil Gaiman as he blogged about his writing of this book. But someone else has now assembled them all into one post: A Brief (Or Not So Brief) History of the Graveyard Book.

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The Job of Language

Words can tell us who we are. But the words that really matter are the ones that tell us what we think.

Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog – books: Of course language offends: it’s doing its job

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Fact Busters!

My librarian colleague Roxanne Hue Feldman (aka fairrosa) has been doing something very cool with our fourth graders during her library periods with them. It involves Snapple caps, facts, and a kid-edited wiki.  Read all about it here.

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Migraines, Creativity, and Lewis Carroll

I keep stumbling across intriguing new blogs at the New York Times. There is one, I just discovered, about migraines. And yesterday contributor Siri Hustvedt considered how and what migraines have to do with the creative process, focusing in on my favorite Victorian children’s writer, Lewis Carroll:

“‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” says Lewis Carroll’s Alice after experiencing a sudden, disorienting growth spurt.

While she meditates on this philosophical conundrum, her body changes again. The girl shrinks. I have asked myself the same question many times, often in relation to the perceptual alterations, peculiar feelings, and exquisite sensitivities of the migraine state. Who in the world am I? Am “I” merely malfunctioning brain meat? In “The Astonishing Hypothesis” Francis Crick (famous for his discovery of the DNA double helix with James Watson) wrote, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are, in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Mind is matter, Crick argued. All of human life can be reduced to neurons.

There is a migraine aura phenomenon named after Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s (Lewis Caroll’s) story of myriad transformations: Alice in Wonderland syndrome. The afflicted person perceives herself, or parts of herself, ballooning or diminishing in size. The neurological terms for the peculiar sensations of growing and shrinking are macroscopy and microscopy. Dodgson was a migraineur. He was also known to take laudanum. It seems more than possible that he had experienced at least some of the somatic oddities that he visited upon his young heroine.

Read the whole piece here: Curiouser and Curiouser – Migraine – Opinion – New York Times Blog

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The Yggyssey

I enjoyed tremendously reading Daniel Pinkwater’s The Neddiad online serially. Every week a new chapter was posted complete with some very cool small primary source illustrations. There was a very active forum as well where the Grand Poobah (aka Daniel Pinkwater) participated with enthusiasm. I was glad to see Esme’s enthusiastic review of the book and can add that one of my colleagues has been reading it aloud to her class and those kids are loving it. On Friday PE was canceled because of snow and I walked by her room (my kids were watching a video of no importance) and noticed them completely absorbed as she read and read and read. And I’ve just discovered (a litttle late, but so what) that he plans to do the same with the sequel called, what else?, The Yggyssey.

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In the Classroom: Sarah Margru Kinson and the Amistad

Our classroom theme for the year is immigration. We begin by discussing the children’s own metaphoric migration from a small lower school to our very large middle and high school building. We move out to oral histories — they interview people they know about their own experiences coming to America. Along the way we see movies, go places (Ellis Island, Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Walking Tour, Museum of Chinese in America), read works of historical fiction, and more. (This year, for example, we had a wonderful time with Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.)

We then move back to the time of forced immigration from Africa, the time of slavery in America. Because of my two years in Sierra Leone, I like to do a lot with the African connection. And because the captives were mostly Mende and because they went home to Africa, I love teaching the Amistad story. In fact, I’ve been working on a book for children about Sarah Magru Kinson, one of four children on the ship. Last year I put it on a blog for my students to read; this year I made it available to the other fourth grade classes. It has been wonderful to get their feedback. Here is this year’s introduction for my class. Here, here, here, and here are some of their posts about the story.

After reading and writing about the story, I showed the children a series of poems about enslavement and/or the Amistad.  I then showed them the poem the class wrote last year with Natasha Trethewey and invited them to write their own.  These will be integrated into collages like these from last year and posted on their blogs.   Their poems are wonderful and I can’t wait to see them completed!

I’m also incredibly touched and moved by the emails I’m getting from the children in other classes.  I have to thank Laura Amy Schlitz for making me brave enough to give the story to them. Last year I felt skittish about even letting my own class read it, but now that I know that Laura wrote her plays for students in her school originally I somehow felt much more relaxed about my work being used in my school.

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Queen for a Day

Spotlight: Monica Edinger – A Fuse #8 Production – Blog on School Library Journal

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