Monthly Archives: April 2011

One of My Favorite Saints

As a young person I loved Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and recall memorizing one of the title character’s monologues for some forgotten reason. It was the time of the Vietnam War to which I was passionately opposed and so I was quite obsessed with Shaw’s pacifism. Around that time I also became a lifelong fan of Tom Lehrer, the witty mathematician at the keyboard. And so thought of both when I saw the following clever video of a song from a very worthy project described by one of its participants here.

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Lucy Knisley’s Vision of Harry and Co

Above is a tiny taste of Lucy Knisley’s delightful compressed comic renditions of the first four Harry Potter books.  Via the very sharp-eyed Phil Nel.

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Suzy Lee’s Alice

Thanks to Phil Nel for pointing me to this post about Suzy Lee‘s Alice in Wonderland.  As soon as I saw it I realized I had the book, but had it long before I’d seen any of Suzy’s fabulous picture books (such as Wave and Mirror). Now looking at it I recognize her style completely.  Delightful, of course. And eerie, of course, too.

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Peter Hessler on Mortenson

For years, I’ve found it hard to talk about Mortenson’s books. They often come up in conversation, because I’m a former Peace Corps teacher who lived in Asia for more than a decade. And yet that experience made me wary of any simple narrative that involves an American helping people overseas. Like many volunteers, I often felt overwhelmed and ineffective; it took two years of diligent study just to gain a decent facility with the Chinese language. I was still making cultural mistakes up until the day I left. If anything, I felt most positive about the Peace Corps experience because my impact was limited—I left without building anything, or changing the culture, or revolutionizing classroom patterns in my school. I always viewed it as an exchange: there was some value to my teaching, and in the meantime I learned a great deal from my students, colleagues, and friends. It seemed a tiny part of an incremental, long-term process, as China engaged with the outside world. And the key element was that the Chinese remained in charge—it was up to them to improve their country.

The above sentiments are excerpted from the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler’s thoughtful piece “What Mortenson Got Wrong”.  My own Peace Corps experience in Sierra Leone has caused me to feel similarly and I also struggle with the way so many are inspired by charismatic outsiders when they choose to contribute.  (As a child I was very inspired by outsider Albert Schweitzer.) One of the many things I appreciated about my Peace Corps experience was being forced to do it for two years, not one or a few months. As Hessler points out it takes a long time to even begin to get a handle on a culture so different from one’s own.

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Cosmic Skyping

Yesterday my class and I had a fabulous Skype visit with the delightful Frank Cottrell Boyce.  I was a big fan of his book Millions and then became an even bigger fan of his latest book, Cosmic.  I love reading it aloud and can say with complete assurance that the three classes I’ve read it aloud to are as enthused about it as I am.

While I was excited about yesterday’s opportunity I also was nervous.  It is one thing to Skype with one person, computer to computer, and quite another to do it with a whole class.  Also, I’d finished reading the book a while ago — what if the kids had forgotten it or had lousy questions for Frank?

Turned out I had no need to fret.  One of our wonderful school tech folks set everything up and used a camera to zoom in on the different kids as they questioned Frank and saw to it that all went smoothly. And the kids’ questions — they were excellent.  Frank told us all sorts of great things about his development as a writer, much about the inspiration and writing of Cosmic, and a bit about his newest project — a sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He showed us the cover and it looks fun. While I’m always a bit skeptical of this sort of thing (another author taking over something from a deceased author), I’ve liked so much of what Frank has done to date that I’m hopeful.

We recorded the session and, once it is edited down, plan to put it up on the school’s website.  In the meantime do read my students’ virtual thank you notes. My thanks to Frank and Walden Media for this great experience.

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The Complexities of Help

My experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone in the 1970s, my work there and subsequently with a variety of NGOs, a graduate degree in International Education, my later travel to various needy spots in the world, my work as an educator, and my observations of the way well-intended outsiders (adults and children) respond to humanitarian issues world-wide has made me very aware of the complexities of help. And so reading Jon Krakauer’s piece on Greg Mortenson had me saddened to see such well intentions go so far astray, but also hopeful that it will be a wake-up call to others who mean well and want to help.

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Ease on Down to Wonderland

Last night Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd’s musical version of Alice in Wonderland arrived on Broadway.  Now I am indeed quite a Carrollian, but a fairly selective one. That is, I don’t go to stage versions or buy book adaptations that do not seem likely to fit my tastes.  And so I’d held off going to this version based on the videos I’d seen which left me completely cold.  Charles Isherwood’s review in today’s Times only reinforced that feeling. He writes:

The model here appears to be the Broadway behemoth “Wicked,” which recast L. Frank Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as a moral-dispensing tale of exceptionally gifted young women (hitherto known as witches) finding common ground in girl power. Unfortunately “Wonderland” reminded me even more strongly of another latter-day iteration of the Baum story, the bloated 1978 movie version of the Broadway musical “The Wiz.”

You’ll recall — or maybe you won’t — that in the film the teenage Dorothy of the stage version became a grown-up, put-upon New York schoolteacher played by a saucer-eyed Diana Ross. The adventurer in “Wonderland” is also a harassed New York schoolteacher, Alice (the capable Janet Dacal), who aspires to write children’s books. Recently separated from her unemployed husband, she has moved to the “kingdom of Queens” with her daughter Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar, a good actress and an almost preternaturally skilled singer).

The problem for me is that Baum and Carroll’s stories are so different. The first has a driving quest plot — Dorothy wants to get home, but Alice hasn’t a similar wish in her original book — the only vague plot thread is her desire to get to the beautiful garden.  The heart of Alice’s story is the wit, the language play, and the episodic encounters with odd creatures.  I have no problem with someone figuring out how to strengthen the plotline as long as they maintain the humour and wit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  (Nor was it, for that matter, in last year’s Tim Burton effort.)  And so Alice as Dorothy-in-the-Wiz just doesn’t work for me. (And by the way, Whoopie Goldberg already did an urban Alice for kids years ago.)

One film that does, I feel, give a sense of what Carroll was all about is Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild which is currently and frustratingly not available on DVD.  It does seem to be on youtube in bits so here is the first part so you can get a taste:

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Happy Birthday, Charlie!

Some here already know of my affection for Charlie Chaplin. I’ve been showing his movies to my students throughout my career and am now working on a book for children about his films. This year my class has been doing a year-long study of Charlie which is culminating in a “Charlie on the Mayflower” movie, now in production.  (Our final social studies unit of the year is on the Pilgrims.) Today’s Charlie’s birthday and here is Google’s clever celebration of it (although I do have to say my kids are channeling the Little Tramp and company better than these folks — wait and see!):

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Thinking Further About Nonfiction

Jim Murphy has a post up over at I.N.K., “Battle Cry Freedom” in which he further considers aspects of the conversation Marc Aronson’s “New Knowledge” article provoked.  Jim is rightly concerned about problematic research and other questionable methods of creating nonfiction (say invented dialog) as well as the critics, reviewers, and gatekeepers who are unaware and thus support what Jim calls”rogue” books.  He wonders:

Which brings us to the most important element of the discussion: our readers — kids of varying ages and depths of learning and sophistication, who read (sometimes reluctantly, sometimes happily) and absorb the printed word as gospel. When a rogue book gets out (whether it’s a willful act to grab attention or build drama in a text or an honest attempt to re-interpret the historical record) who is going to pick up the pieces?

I wonder about this too.  Jim writes further:

Is it fair to expect librarians and teachers to constantly patrol and explain these problem texts to scores of young readers? And in case you think any errors might be minor in nature, please remember that recent Virginia textbook where the author informed young readers that thousands of slaves happily signed on to defend the south and its traditions during the Civil War. That text (and its historical implications) was floating around in schools for weeks and months before the error was caught and the books recalled. There’s no reason to assume something just as egregious couldn’t happen in trade books.

Whether they are as serious as this example, I’ve seen errors in lauded books of nonfiction that troubled me greatly and which were pretty much dismissed by those who already had decided these were terrific books. And even before Jim raised this issue I was wondering about it when doing my own debating with Marc.  Since I’m smack dab in the middle of the intended audience and see how they respond to books and ideas, I have similar reservations to those Jim has expressed.  Marc has responded here and he, Jim, and others have continued the conversation in the comments.

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New York Times’ Children’s Book Editor Pamela Paul

Recently, Pamela Paul, the new children’s book editor at The New York Times Book Review chatted with me about her background, books, and some of her plans. In the course of our communications, Pamela asked me how I found the time to blog as a full-time teacher and I responded that I wondered the same about her. The author of three well-received books, and articles for a variety of publications including The Economist, Time Magazine as well as the New York Times, Pamela is also the mother of three very young children. Count me as impressed. 

“Going back to my origins” was Pamela’s answer when I asked her what made her want to take on this new role. These include a stint at an international school in Thailand where Pamela taught kindergarten, high school, and ran the library and another at Scholastic involving parent book clubs. When she moved into journalism Pamela’s first focus was on the arts. And so she has indeed, “circled around this whole world” coming back to children and their books.

Going back further, Pamela spoke to me of the pleasure she took as a child visiting the library that was close to her home. Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume were among the many authors of fiction and nonfiction that she read and loved making her understandably delighted to be able to interview the latter two for an essay in the latest Book Review. Her children are a  “built-in focus group,” especially her oldest who will examine the books she brings home and occasionally suggest that Pamela “… bring this one back to the office.”

Pamela sees the audience for the Times’ children’s book reviews as not only parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers, and others looking for great books for the children in their lives, but adults looking for their own reading material as well. As she pointed out last year in her essay, The Kids Books Are All Right, more and more adults are enjoying and appreciating books written for young people. Pamela gave Ruta Sepetys’ novel about life in a Siberian prison camp, Between Shades of Gray, as an example of a book that would be equally appreciated by teens and adults.

One of Pamela’s first new acts was to begin a weekly online picture book review as she feels strongly about their importance. In order to make it easier for readers to find books on a particular topic and to further highlight books for younger and middle grade readers, Pamela is reframing the monthly Bookshelf (consisting of several shorter reviews) as a thematic feature; the latest is on the environment. She is also adding a new Back to School special section in August and planning to expand the children’s books part of the Times’ Notable Books of the year from 8 to 25.

Pamela’s enthusiasm, varied background, and commitment has me optimistic that under her watch children’s books will continue to be a valued and respected part of the New York Times Book Review.

Also at the Huffington Post

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