Monthly Archives: November 2010

Megan Whalen Turner Reflects on Fairy Tales

Megan Whalen Turner considers fairy tales, in particular her responses as a child and more recently to The Provensen Book of Fairytales.

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Fairytale Reflections (11) Megan Whalen Turner.


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A Tribute to My Colleagues in Public Schools

It seems that everywhere you turn these days we educators are being maligned and demonized, disrespected, not allowed to practice methods of good teaching,  repeatedly questioned and belittled, and generally presented in the public consciousness in very ugly ways .  Every time I see another such nasty mention I again feel incredibly grateful to be teaching in a private school where I am respected and where I am able to teach in ways that keep me intellectually and creatively happy. And so I am in awe of my public school colleagues  who manage to continue, in the face of all this negativity, to fight the good fight and continue to teach creatively and inform others about this too.  Teachers  like classroom teacher Mary Lee Hahn who touched me deeply yesterday when she thanked me in this giving thanks post, for for doing something that made a big difference in her professional life.  I responded with the following comment and decided to post it here too:

Mary Lee,

I’m incredibly touched and honored by your mention of me. I am incredibly grateful of your work too.  In particular my admiration knows no bounds for your staying in the classroom and fighting on behalf of good teaching and good learning. Being in a private school it is much easier for me and so I admire and respect all of you who manage to continue to teach creatively, with books, and so intimately in this time of high-stakes tests and standards.  Thank you so much for all you do.



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Turkey Legs and Lurkey

Happy Thanksgiving, those in the US celebrating this day.

1.  Someone (can’t remember who) at NCTE commented to me that the huge turkey legs available at theme parks were just too massive to be real turkey.  Wanting to see for myself I made sure to look out for them when I went to Universal Studios earlier this week and was very disappointed.  The ones I saw for sale were puny and no one seemed to be walking around with them Fred Flinstone-like.  Shucks.

2. Roger Sutton randomly posted this a while back and since it seems apt for today and I find it oddly addicting, here you are.

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Sid Fleischman’s Sir Charlie: The Funniest Man in the World

I wasn’t going to post here about Sir Charlie, but having found it difficult to comment cogently about it on this Heavy Medal post, I’m going to attempt to try to do so more clearly here. As I’ve noted here already I’m a long time fan of Charlie Chaplin, have shown his movies to my 4th graders for decades, and for the last year have been researching his life and art for my own book.  As a result I read Fleischman’s biography of Chaplin (several times by now) with a whole lot of background of my own.

But before offering my reservations about this particular book, I want to express my admiration for Sid Fleischman who was in a class by himself as a writer for children.  While I was well aware of his status as a wonderful writer of fiction, it was as a biographer that I came to know him best.  I was completely charmed by Escape: The Story of the Great Houdini in which Fleischman, a practicing magician himself who knew Houdini’s widow, gives a very personal and engrossing account of the remarkable escape artist. And then, having been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain, I delighted in The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West, Fleischman’s energetic and entertaining take on that witty man of letters. Having enjoyed these two so much I am sorry that I am unable to bring the same enthusiasm to Sir Charlie.

First and most of all, I feel that Fleischman does not succeed in communicating to his intended audience of young readers exactly how and why Charlie Chaplin was the “funniest man in the world.”  I can imagine potential young readers seeing that subtitle, enthusiastically diving into the book, and then being lost as to why this man was supposedly so funny. Sure, many people including Fleischman and myself think he is funny, but the challenge is to write in a way that makes young readers, those who know absolutely nothing about him,  think so too.

I realize that humor is very subjective, but does this make you laugh or want to check out a Chaplin movie?  Fleischman on page 58:

In his drunk act, Charlie enters to seat himself in a theater box, pausing first, with great dignity, to peel off a white glove.  Moments later, too hazy to remember, he again attempts to remove the glove.  He tries to light his cigar from an electric light.  When a stooge in the next box lights a match for him, Charlie reaches for it with his cigar and falls out of the box.

Charlie’s gift for constant invention reveals itself.  He climbs back into the box, only to balance out and hang on again, feet dangling.  The audience gasps.  Physical humor is triumphant. At the climax, the diminutive drunk finds himself onstage wresting a huge and terrible villain. (Fleischman, page 58.)

While it certainly is an appreciation of  Chaplin’s gags expressed by a sincere and true fan, I don’t think it succeeds at helping a young readers unfamiliar with Chaplin get that this is really funny and even make them eager to see for themselves. Having read many descriptions of Chaplin’s gags I feel that some of the best come from the man himself.    For example:

I entered with my back to the audience…I looked immaculate dressed in a frock coat, top hat, can and spats — a typical Edwardian villain.  Then I turned showing my red nose.  There was a laugh. That ingratiated me with the audience.  I shrugged melodramatically, then snapped my fingers and veered across the stage , tripping over a dumbbell. Then my cane became entangled with an upright punching bag, which rebounded and slapped me in the face.  I swaggered and swung, hitting myself with my cane on the side of the head.  The audience roared. (Chaplin’s Autobiography, pg 101)

Here are two more contrasting examples.

Fleischman (page 71) describing Chaplin as he launches the Little Tramp in Kid Auto Races in which Charlie plays a spectator who is obsessed with getting in front of the cameraman who is filming the race.

Every time the director moved the setup, in shuffles the tramp to mug for the camera.  Soon Charlie is almost run down by racing cars, only to duck a cop policing the crowd.  He goes from improvisation to improvisation until the cameraman delivers a swift kick to launch him out of the shot and the picture.

Versus this excerpt from Chaplin’s own version (describing Mabel’s Strange Predicament which was released after Auto Races, but may have been filmed first):

In all comedy business an attitude is most important, but it is not always easy to find an attitude.  However, in the hotel lobby [the setting of Mabel’s Strange Predicament] I felt I was an impostor posing as one of the guests, but in reality I was a tramp just wanting a little shelter.  I entered and stumbled over the foot of a lady.  I turned and raised my hat apologetically, then stumbled over a cuspidor, then turned and raised my hat to the cuspidor.

Then there is the writing. While I like much of it, I also agree with the commentator on Heavy Medal who complained that some of it veers into purple prose. (“…insolent as a cannonball” from page 1, for example.)  Additionally, there are moments in the book where Fleischman puts one sentence next to another in ways that require young readers to fill a dauntingly huge chasm in between.  Here’s an example when he is writing about Chaplin’s discovery of reading:

Later and offstage, he could almost always be found struggling through a book.  His ambitions had taken a profound shift. Performing was necessary for fried bread and haddock.  He would spend a lifetime pursuing a closeted aspiration to become well educated.  An intellectual. (Fleischman, pg 32)

Seems to me that young readers could do with something after that mention of bread and haddock to make the point that he was also looking for intellectual nourishment. Not to mention, I don’t think this is true of Chaplin as performing for him was definitely more than a way to make ends meet. I also don’t at all feel his wish to be an intellectual was closeted.  Far from it — he loved to befriend intellectuals, writers, and such and writes about them in name-dropping profusion (which Fleischman does indeed note) throughout his autobiography.

Fleischman does a good job with Chaplin’s harsh early life, but I did find some odd moments. For example, in “Chapter Four: Life With Father” I feel he sets the stepmother up as a complete villain even though Chaplin doesn’t himself in his autobiography. In it he shows how she was horribly abused by his father and how that clearly was the reason for her unhappiness. In fact he writes of his horror and shock when the father knocks her unconscious, “I was shocked at Father’s action, such violence made me lose respect for him… She loved Father.  Even though very young I could see it in her glance the night she stood by the fireplace, bewildered and hurt by his neglect.” (Autobiography, pg. 37)

Then there is this flippant comment of Fleischman’s about poor Charlie’s purchase of a Latin-English dictionary: “One can only guess what he intended to do with it.  Hit Karno over the head with Ovid in the original language?” (Fleischman, pg 50) Actually I feel that Chaplin’s mention of this in his autobiography is a poignant example of his life-long effort to educate himself.  Given the profound class differences in Britain he well knew that knowing Latin was a sign of status. Fleischman does note other examples of Chaplin buying and reading challenging texts such as Schopenhauser — it seems to me very possible that Chaplin thought he might be able to teach himself Latin as he’d done with other things.

I also disagree strongly with Fleischman’s statement on page 85 that “As an actor he had to learn not to look at the camera.” and then the note on page 245 where he comments that “Chaplin was not a genuis of consistency.  Sometimes on a reaction take or shot, he’d gaze directly at the camera.”  Actually this was very intentional.  Dan Kamin in his excellent book, The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin, spends several pages considering Chaplin’s way of engaging with the film audience.  “One of the most striking things about Chaplin’s film performances was that he seemed to relate to the world outside his films — he was aware that there was an audience out there watching him, and he looked directly at the camera to acknowledge it.” (Kamin, pg 14)

Finally, I’m highly uncomfortable with Fleischman writing in a note for page 66  “… Chaplin, writing in an earlier autobiography, Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1916, cited in McCaffrey’s Focus on Chaplin, p. 31…”  (Fleischman, pg 243) The problem is that this is a totally bogus autobiography.  Rose Wilder Lane (yeah, that Rose Wilder Lane who helped her mother write the Little  House books) interviewed Chaplin in 1915 for the San Francisco Bulletin. After the original publication the manuscript was juiced up with all sorts of made-up stuff and then published as Charlie’s autobiography. He was outraged when he encountered it.  After quoting from it, David Robinson in Chaplin: His Life and Art,  writes, “The book is full of such romantic and misleading nonsense, which has nevertheless continued to supply and confuse gullible Chaplin historians for seven decades.” (pg. 182)

There’s more, but I’m not on the Newbery Committee so I’ll stop now.  Good and decent book — yes.  Newbery quality — no, at least not in my opinion.

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The Stucco Snow was to Die For

So my bucket list is now down one — I’ve been to Wizarding World, had some butterbeer, and lived to tell the tale.

Is it as fabulous as other visitors have told me?  Yes and no.

Yes, the look is delightful —the moving portraits, the lovingly created emporiums and castle, the noises and movements of creatures and books and such, as well as employees-I mean-characters telling you to “move aside, Muggles.” The Forbidden Journey ride was as exhilarating as promised, the butterbeer icily head-ache-producing, but believable,  and it was great fun to see young fans so excited to be there.

No, at least yesterday, because the crowds became overwhelming and then it felt like all you were doing was waiting, waiting, and waiting to shop.  Ollivander’s wand shop, for example,  is a brief sweet performance and then a long shopping opportunity.  Now I am not a snot about merch by any means, but some of the lines I waited in for a very long time (probably 90 minutes for that wand shop) and the payoff just didn’t seem worth it.  I’d expected more amusing entertainments to keep us occupied while waiting, but they weren’t there.  Well, other than the two ladies in line behind us (not park employees, mind you, and not attired in purchases from the park) who were rather intimidating in a way all of the young uns in their Hogwarth robes were not.

Note to Universal Studios: I only noticed the snow was stucco when right up against it during the long and tiring wait for the wand shop.  My recommendation — give us something more fun to look at.


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A Few Fine Fairy Tale Films

While waiting for next week’s Tangled, Disney’s take on Rapunzel, I’ve been mulling over what makes a successful fairy tale movie for kids.  There are a lot of ephemeral ones out there, more out all the time it seems.  The ones that work for me are those with a bit more heft — some are updated, some are not, but all have wit, charm, and depth.  Here are four of those, one of which will be very familiar and three others that may be less so.  Do add your own suggestions in the comments.


Ashpet.  This is a delightful independent, small-budget, film, a Cinderella set in the rural South.  It is one of Tom Davenport’s From the Brothers Grimm series; the others are excellent too.


Enchanted.  Okay, this is the familiar one, but it is really clever and charming and holds up on multiple viewings.  The gentle digs at all sorts of classical Disney films are extremely funny if you know the originals and still extremely funny if you don’t.


Unfortunately I can’t find a trailer for the very sweet and under-the-radar I Was a Rat! (although I did notice the whole thing is up in parts on youtube — probably illegally so I’m not linking to it).  I regularly read aloud Philip Pullman’s book, a witty and elegant fiddling about with Cinderella, and find this movie to be a very faithful rendering of it.


Penelope.  This is a very interesting contemporary take on Beauty and the Beast, fun, different, and a tad surprising.


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Thoughts on Newbery: True Popularity

Everyone, myself included, wants the Newbery winner to be popular.  That is, we all want to see kids, lots of kids everywhere, making a run for the book when they see it, to rave about it to each other, to return to it again and again. Even more than classics like Newbery Honor Charlotte’s Web we all yearn for the winner to be popular NOW, sort of like Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Twilight, right?

Yet not only is that not the charge of the committee, but it turns out that previous winners that have been dubbed “not popular” or “popular” are not necessarily so.  Here’s what children’s librarian Betsy Bird, in a recent interview, had to say about two of these:

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz is sometimes considered one of these books that don’t speak to young people. That’s the theory anyway, and I reckon it comes from adults who didn’t want to read it themselves. However the book has been amazingly popular in my library, in part because it’s found a great deal of life with kids trying out for plays and needing to give monologues in auditions. My aunt’s forensic team in California won some huge awards because they used the speeches in this book. On top of that if a kid has to do something on a medieval village it’s the funniest, drollest, most amusing book you’ll ever find on the subject.

Now let’s look at The Graveyard Book, a title that supposedly was more kid friendly. I can tell you honestly that I have never had a kid ask for that book. Never. It’s by Neil Gaiman, and I’ve had plenty of children ask for his other title Coraline. But The Graveyard Book is, surprisingly enough (and unlike Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!), a bit of a shelf sitter. It gets assigned in school, so kids check it out for that reason, but so is that old Newbery winner Secret of the Andes, for crying out loud.

Reading that Schlitz’s book is attractive to kids, is being checked-out from a public library, is being read and used makes me understandably happy. I’m especially delighted to learn from Betsy that it is being used for its theatrical aspect as it is first and foremost a collection of monologues that are absolutely marvelous for kids to perform.  As for The Graveyard Book I too am not seeing kids snapping it up.  While I personally adore it and was thrilled when it won, I’ve always felt that its apparent popularity was and is because of Gaiman’s adult fans rather than kid readers who don’t know him from…er..Rick Riordan.

The moral of this is — popularity is very much in the eye of the beholder. What may appear unpopular in one situation may be surprisingly popular in another. And vice versa.


Filed under Neil Gaiman, Newbery

Harry Potter: Now and Forever or Never More?

With the seventh movie of the first part of the seventh book about to open in the US and the second part to follow this summer — what does the future hold for Harry Potter?  His creator J. K. Rowling excited her fans recently by hinting that she wasn’t ruling out the possiblity of writing more about that world, dismaying Daniel Radcliff who told Sky News:

“Oh God, she promised me categorically that there wouldn’t be another book involving Harry,” said Radcliffe, who has been playing the wizard since he was 11.

Asked whether he wanted to be a part of any future film, he said it was “very doubtful”, adding: “I think 10 years is a long time to spend with one character.”

Ten years is a long time indeed and while Radcliffe may be done what about his character and his story? When the final book came out Rowling, who spent way more than ten years with the character, seemed pretty set that she was done with Harry and his world.  But now she seems to be having second thoughts telling Oprah that “I could definitely write an eighth, ninth, tenth… I’m not going to say I won’t. I don’t think I will … I feel I am done, but you never know.”  At the U.K. film premier she clarified that any further books were unlikely to have Harry as the central character.

If there is another book it, with or without Harry, certainly won’t be out for quite a while and so once the last movie is out it will be interesting to see what happens to our boy wizard.  Will he fade into obscurity or stay in the public consciousness for some time to come?  Will future generations of young readers latch on to his story as enthusiastically as those who grew up with him?  I’m guessing yes. After all there is that theme parkMuggle Quidditch on campusesfan fiction, conventions, and a huge online fan base.  Most of all,  the books are still very popular among younger kids; my fourth graders, for instance, are reading them with great enjoyment and agree with me that they will never go out of style.

So whether or not Rowling ever writes another book (ignoring those debating whether she should or not), I think the series will endure. Harry will hang around because he is one of the great characters of children’s literature and because his stories are good.  Really good.  The sort that will become classics of children’s literature.

Also at the Huffington Post.


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Supercalifragilistic Surfer

Porpoises rescue Dick Van Dyke.


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In the Classroom: Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm

At Dalton we do a major study of Cinderella that culminates with the children writing their own stories. This year, after meeting him last summer, I invited Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grimm (a book I’ve already raved about here and elsewhere) to come and work with the classes on these stories in January.  I began reading the book aloud in September and last week when I introduced the unit by asking  “What is a fairy tale?” the children’s answers (in the comments) made it evident that it had made a very strong impression.  On Monday instead of my reading the last chapter to my class Adam did.  You can see a video of Adam reading and interacting with the kids (and he learned all their names in about two seconds!) here.   Not only does it show what a charismatic individual Adam is, but it also shows how strongly the book resonates with this age group.   I can’t wait for him to return to work with my students on their stories!

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