Monthly Archives: November 2011

Thought on Newbery: Third Person Omniscient Narration

I’m fascinated by strong narration in books, especially narrators that are characters. I’m not talking first person narration, but the sort known as third person omniscient narration. The sort Philip Pullman thinks of as a unique part of the narrative.  Here’s a quote from his website:

No. I write almost always in the third person, and I don’t think the narrator is male or female anyway. They’re both, and young and old, and wise and silly, and sceptical and credulous, and innocent and experienced, all at once. Narrators are not even human – they’re sprites. So there are no limits, no areas, or characters, or sexes, or times, where these sprites can’t go. And they fix on what interests them. I wouldn’t dream of deliberately choosing this or that sort of person, for political or social or commercial reasons, to write a book about. If the narrator isn’t interested, the book won’t come alive.

Last year I wrote a post, “Whatchamacallit Narrators” in response to some interesting discussions about the one in Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm.  I admitted there and will here again that I am a fan of third person narrators who insert themselves occasionally into the reader’s consciousness. Sometimes it is very overt as in the case of the Gidwitz or Lemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Events books, but sometimes it is far more subtle as in the case of Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  (If you want to know just how I see it in Pullman go read the whole post.)  Now I’m back on the topic because I think it is relevant to the discussion going on at Heavy Medal about Gerald Morris’s The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True.  That is, something that hasn’t really been raised there yet (or if it was I seemed to have missed it and if so, my apologies) is the character of the narrator.  He may not be quite as in your face as Gidwitz’s, but he is there for sure — commenting all over the place. Sometimes it is stuff that the intended audience won’t care about in the least (the controversial economies aside on page 37), sometimes it is a bit moralizing as would be true for any storyteller, and sometimes it is just helping the reader along just as Gidwitz’s narrator does in his book.  This is a very opinionated narrator and that seems just fine to me.  I can imagine him standing on the side of the stage at a mike with the action going on next to him (sort of like the one in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods).

He’s there, folks, in Sir Gawain the True, that sprite of a third person omniscient and I hope that when the book is further  considered in terms of the Newbery criteria that he (for some reason he does feel male to me, but you are welcome to disagree) be taken into account.

 

 

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My Impressions of Hugo

Last year I began my year-long study of Charlie Chaplin by reading aloud to my fourth grade class Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I  wasn’t sure what it would be like reading aloud a story that depended on so many pages of pure art, but it worked out beautifully.

I wondered even more how Martin Scorsese would manage to pay honor to such a special sort of storytelling and last night I got my answer. Scholastic most kindly invited me to a screening and I can assure you:  Hugo is absolutely lovely. Fans of the book (like me) have nothing to be worried about — Scorsese and the others involved have embraced the theme, the feeling, the delight of the book in a cinematic way that compliments the story in the most wonderful way.

There is much to consider about the movie, say the way it celebrates film, early film, those works of George Méliès in particular.  But it also beautifully brings out themes of connecting as people, of fixing (clockworks, toys, automatons, people), as well as the pleasures of a certain time and place.  In fact, for all the remarkable imagery (3D at times), there is something quite old-fashioned about the movie. I loved the way Scorsese managed to translate some of the dramatic and exciting series of drawings in the book into film; each is its own thing, but both provide similar emotional drama.  What struck me as from an older time cinematically (say the time the movie is set — 1930s) were the quieter moments — especially the lovely ones showing loving relationships: new and old — the more I think about it, the more I love those as I think they ask viewers, especially children, so used to speedy story telling, to slow down a bit, here and there.

An absolute delight.  A beauty. Go.

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The Exquisite Conversation: An Adventure in Creating Books!

For those in the Boston area, this looks fantastic!

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, along with the Cambridge Public Library and MIT, are sponsoring The Exquisite Conversation: An Adventure in Creating Books! with Katherine Paterson, MT Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Susan Cooper, Timothy Basil Ering, Steven Kellogg, Patricia MacLachlan and James Ransome at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium,  Dec 3, at 1 p.m.  After the presentation, NCBLA is hosting a fundraiser at the Student Center–tickets are available at thencbla.org.

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Historical Fiction Featuring Real People

The Heavy Medal discussion here and here involving Jefferson’s Sons has me wondering if one of the complicating factors is that all the book’s main characters were real people, a number of them highly familiar to us adult readers. (Given the lack of history instruction these days in elementary schools I can’t say they would be particularly familiar to child readers, I’m afraid.)  I’m always jittery when reading historical fiction or viewing films about real people. I suspect it comes from my father who was very on guard with a German academic who made his life work my family — writing books and articles about them.  These were academic works, but even then the academic had opinions about my grandparents and great-grand parents, some of which did not sit so well with my father.  One of the reasons I had a great deal of trouble with Sharon Dogar’s Annexed was that she was going into the mind of a real person and it felt to me intrusive to make-up feelings for someone who couldn’t. (See my HuffPo post, “Fiction about Real People” for more of my thoughts on this.)

This has been a longtime challenging situation for me personally as I grappled for years with how best to tell the story of Sarah Margru Kinson, one of the children on the Amistad.  I tried very, very, very hard to make it nonfiction, but there just wasn’t enough for me to work with so finally, with baby steps, I crossed the line into fiction, going so far as to write the book in first person.  We’ll see what you all think when the book comes out in a couple of years (the illustrator has just gotten to work on it and I have to say what I’ve seen so far is very wonderful).

Looking back through the Scott O’Dell winners I see mostly works set in real historical periods with imaginary main characters. A book I admire tremendously, M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing, has been mentioned in the Heavy Medal discussion, but the characters in that book are also all fictional. I’ve been trying to come up with a successful work of historical fiction for children that has real people as main characters dealing with something as difficult as the issues in Jefferson’s Sons.  The only one that comes to mind just now, is Julius Lester’s extraordinary Day of Tears.

And so, I ask:

1. Can you think of some other successful works of historical fiction for children with real historical figures as the main characters  addressing a difficult historical and moral situation like the one  in Jefferson’s Sons?

2. What are your thoughts about Jefferson’s Sons being based on real people?

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Thoughts on Newbery: Historical Fiction, Slavery, and Didacticism

I’ve been teaching a unit on the forced immigration of Africans during the time of the transatlantic slave trade for many years and can say that it is definitely the hardest topic I teach and, for many of my 4th grade students, the hardest for them to learn. The idea that living people took other living people in bondage, treated them as less-than-human, kidnapped young children from their families without a thought, were complicit in acts of murder and violence, and more is very hard for my 9 and 10 year-old students to take in. As is understandable at their age, they put themselves in the position of the children they are learning about. And so, when reading The Kidnapped Prince, Ann Cameron’s adaptation of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography or the draft of my forthcoming Africa is My Home: The Story of Sarah Margru Kinson, students will ask with such pain — did his parents go after Olaudah? Did they try to get him back? And what about Sarah — did she ever see her parents again? Or, most heartwrenchingly — would my parents come after me?

Reading a huge variety of primary and secondary sources on the topic as well as a variety of historical fiction over the many years I worked on Sarah’s story made me incredibly aware of the challenges we adults have as we figure out how to communicate to young children such difficult historical truths. Especially when we choose to tell them as historical fiction as Kimberly Brubaker Bradley did for Jefferson’s Sons, the story of  Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally HemingsHaving firsthand experience with research of this period I can say that I have tremendous admiration and respect for Bradley’s research and her efforts to tell this story for children. She does an excellent job giving young readers a sense of life in Monticello at the time. Considering her young audience, she is judicious in communicating horrors —the whippings and the selling.  By doing so she creates scenes that pack incredible emotional punches. The ending, in particular, is absolutely harrowing.

But. As a teacher, someone who spends her days giving lessons, the book seemed one big lesson to me. Beverly, Maddy, and Peter felt familiar to me — not as children of their time, but as children of my time, asking the questions my students would be asking, speaking as they would, responding as they would (in a 2011 vernacular and sensibility rather than ones more in keeping with the actual historical period). And then there were the teachers in the book acting as my colleagues and I would, earnestly and honestly attempting to answer the children’s questions as clearly and thoroughly as possible.  Mostly this was Sally,but there were others  too — say Beverly when he is older, Miss Ellen, Uncle John, and Jefferson himself (in an oddly removed way).  Over and over it felt like the child characters were standing in for the 2011 readers, asking their questions as they would rather than as someone in 1805 would (and would probably not because these seem to me to be 2011 questions not 1805 questions anyway). And the answers felt 2011 too, caring adults like ourselves patiently explaining a situation to 2011 readers more than the actual 1806 children. At least that is how it felt to me. Here are a few examples:

“She [Miss Martha] loved to come to Monticello and act like the boss of everything.”  (5)  Very 2011 vernacular.

“This was news to Beverly.  ‘Are you a slave, Mama?'” (22)  While I can certainly imagine my 2011 students asking this question I have a hard time imagining Beverly being so surprised in 1805.

“Mama,” Harriet said, “why are we slaves?” (33) Sally responds with just the sort of lesson I might do or a parent might today.  (This is just one example of what happens often in the novel. Sally is usually the one responding with the lesson, but others do on occasion too.)

“Enslaved people,” Mama said. “That’s what she [Miss Martha, Jefferson’s daughter] meant. Don’t worry about it.” (53)  This really stuck out for me for the 2011 language in addition to being an explanation for the 2011 intended audience rather than her 1805 son.

“But I’m the same people she is,” Beverly said.  “I’m her brother.”  (53) Again, this is more a 2011 child speaking as it seems very unlikely to me that he’d voice this idea of being Miss Martha’s brother in such a way in 1806.

“If you and Master Jefferson got married,” he asked Mama, would you make Miss Martha stay away?  (68)  What, I wonder would make Beverly possibly imagine that Jefferson, president of the United States, would marry his mother?  Another question that I’d expect of my 2011 students more than of an 8 year-old boy living in 1806 Monticello.

“If she acts prissy,” said Beverly, “I’ll punch her.”  (74) That last bit — totally for the 2011 child audience. Would a child in 1806 speak that way?  I can’t imagine it.

“…France never allowed slavery.  In France, people with dark skin aren’t automatically seen as inferior to people with light skin.” (105)  Hmmm… I am very dubious that there weren’t racist people in Paris when Jefferson and Hemings were there. And France was quite active in the slave trade elsewhere into Napoleon’s time.  And Sally’s language — she sounds like a teacher yet again. Was she schooled by Jefferson to speak this way?

“It’s Greek,” Miss Ellen said.  “Aristotle. Know who he is?”  (136) in Maddy’s section we get Miss Ellen (one of Jefferson’s grand-daughter’s) as another teacher in addition to Sally.

“…but all I’m allowed to do is get married and have a dozen babies.  Like I’d want babies, or a husband. It’s stupid.” She [Miss Ellen] glared at Maddy.”  (138)  Yet again this is language and a view point for 2011 children not 1812 children.

“You want to know if great people can own slaves?” Uncle John asked. “Can a person still be great and still participate in evil?” He tapped on Maddy’s shoulder. “That’s what you are asking?” (255) Another lesson for the 2011 young readers, this time from the father-figure, Uncle John.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Newbery, Writing

New York Times Special Section on Children’s Books

This weekend’s New York Times has a completely glorious collection of children’s book reviews and art. There’s a slide show of the already-announced best illustrated picture books of the year (and may I say — I’m delighted with the choices!). Betsy Bird is on hand with reviews of a couple of intriguing NYC mysteries, fellow-NYC-private-school-faculty-member Jennifer Hubert Swan makes her debut with a smashing review of The Scorpio Races, and yay to Lisa Brown also I believe (correct me if I’m wrong, Lisa) debuting with a look at a couple of unconventional animal stories. Down-the-street-from-me Bank Street librarian and blogger Lisa von Drasek is back with a consideration of Lauren Oliver’s Liesel and Po, just-married-and-back-from-an-amazing-sounding-honeymoon Roger Sutton considers some superheroes, and Susan Gregory Thomas contemplates Lauren Snyder’s Bigger than a Bread Box.

But there is more!  NYC-online-friend Marjorie Ingall (whom I hope to meet in person one day) looks at several biographies, the brilliant Leonard S. Marcus examines a new version of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (placing it in historical context which I love), Walter Dean Myers reviews Kadir Nelson’s impressive Heart and Soul, and Meg Wolitzer looks at Chris Raschka’s first novel, Seriously, Norman.

And still more, too much to possibly mention here so please go check it out yourself. It is fantastic!

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This Saturday: Fall Meeting of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America

This coming Saturday, November 12th, the Lewis Carroll Society of North American will be having its fall meeting at the New York Institute of Technology. And guess what — the Saturday events are free and open to the public! From the society’s website here is an overview of the day (the complete agenda is available here):

Speakers include Morton Cohen on Carroll’s epiphanies; Adriana Peliano, founder of the Lewis Carroll Society of Brazil, on the metamorphosis of Alice in illustrations and art; Alison Gopnik on her discovery of the Iffley Yew and how Dodgson’s real life affected his works; Emily R. Aguilo-Perez on film adaptations; Jeff Menges, editor of Alice Illustrated (coming from Dover in October), on illustrators; and James Fotopoulos, an artist and film-maker who made an avant-garde film called Alice in Wonderland and will also display related art.

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