Monthly Archives: December 2012

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Gets an A+ Next To This One

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My Not-So-Happy Response to The Hobbit Movie (You’ve been Warned)

Some of you may recall my earlier rant about the way the term “young adult” is more and more being used to describe books that are for children.  Well, I think there is something of that same sensibility going on with the new Hobbit movie trilogy.  The source material is a children’s book, The Hobbit, written long before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and with the style and tone of a book for kids.  There is a narrator that makes little comments now and then, a classical fairy tale bumbling hero who turns into something more, moments of cleverness that are typical of fairy tales, plenty of whimsy and humor to mediate the scary moments, and a — yay!– dragon.

I like fairy stories, especially those known as literary fairy tales of which The Hobbit is very much one.  Such books for me are different than those of high, high fantasy — those that seem to follow heroes like Arthur, Beowulf, or Odysseus.  Stories like The Hobbit are smaller, set on smaller stages, with smaller stakes, and smaller protagonists (literally in the case of The Hobbit).  Say trying to get one’s family gold back from a dragon versus saving the world from a ring that will destroy everything.

My appreciation of Tolkien’s fairy tales goes all the way back to high school when I fell in love with one of his called “A Leaf By Niggle.” So much so that I made around thirty drawings of it (as I was an aspiring illustrator back then).   Sure, I read Lord of the Rings, but it never did for me what Tolkien’s smaller stories did for me. And so when I began teaching decades ago I also shared The Hobbit with my students.  I had them read it, but more and more I read it to them, with enormous pleasure on all sides.  Recently, in preparation for seeing the movie, I took a quick refresher read of it and enjoyed it once again.  Now I do know that Tolkien, years after first writing the book, after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, was interested in reworking it to be more a prequel to that epic. But for me it still reads as a story along the lines of the Narnia stories, those by George Macdonald, and other literary fairy tales for children.

So I went to see the movie with a fair amount of baggage, but also with an understanding that movies are not books and that there is no need to stick overly closely to the original text when making a movie. Filmmakers do need to be free to make their own art after all.  And I knew that there was a huge LOTR fan base to make happy. So I thought I was prepared and expected to like, if not love the movie.  However, I  ended up highly disappointed, to the point where I have no enthusiasm about seeing the next two movies (well maybe the last one just to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug). Perhaps it works for the LOTR fans and those who enjoy epic stuff. Unfortunately, even with my expecting changes, it didn’t work for me, a member of a presumably teeny audience who would like to have seen a film adaptation of what is truly a delightful children’s book for children, not young adults. Oh well.

The original story is that of Bilbo, a very reluctant hero, a lovely stand-in for child readers. And so I did like the brief glimpses of that character in the movie, say in the early scenes with the dwarves barging into his tidy and comfortable hobbit hole, the absolutely splendid “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Gollum, and a few teeny tiny ones peeping out among all the ponderousness, added exposition, and battles.  Too bad other opportunities were squandered. Say when Bilbo in the book, eager to prove to the dwarves that he can be their burglar, tries to pickpocket one of the trolls with very unfortunate results: the wallet calls out a warning and Bilbo is caught. Equally frustrating for me was how that situation was resolved. In fact, it sort of typifies the way movie is altered from the book. In the book Gandalf throws his voice so that each troll thinks one of the others is insulting him and so they begin to fight, lose track of time, and turn to stone when the night is over. But presumably to accomodate viewers looking for awesome instead  of fairy tale cleverness there is Gandalf magically cracking open a rock that lets the light in.

And, oh, that lovely time they have with the elves at Rivendell, the Last Homely House.  It always sounded so peaceful and fun. But in the movie a tension has been created between the dwarves and the elves so it becomes something very different. Not to mention all the talk about …political…stuff.  And Gadriel and… well it sure ain’t the Last Homely House of the book, a place of pleasant refuge. I mean, just look at that name! Then there are, sigh, the orcs. I admit I hated them in the earlier movie series so more of them was absolutely not for me.  Ugh.  I found the endless battles with them tedious beyond belief. And they also made the other battles that are in the original book — those with the goblins and wargs— also endless for me as they probably wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t so sick of battles after all the orc ones.

I could go on and on, but there is no point.  This Hobbit movie series is simply not for children.  It is yet again another situation of a children’s book being taken and turned into YA.  Sure, there are kids who will love the movie just as there are kids who love LOTR and World of Warcraft. But there are many who will not, who won’t even be taken to this.  And so, indeed, here is yet another case of something that is still very much for children being turned into something else.

A variation of this is also at the Huffington Post.



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Reading Aloud The Hobbit

For years one of my favorite books to read aloud to my 4th graders was The Hobbit.  Tolkien’s narrative voice, the adventures, Bilbo, Smaug, the riddles, the wit, everything about it was just great fun.  The last time I did so was when Jackson’s Lord of the Ring movies were starting to come out so it has been a while and I’d been debating to do so again.

Regarding that movie, having not seen it yet (though I will later today) I’ve been trying very, very, very hard not to be harsh about what Jackson is doing with the story — adding in stuff from elsewhere, stretching out the one novel into three movies, changing what is a lovely singular adventure story into a massive epic…and so on.  But still…there is no way it is going to be the charming story I remember. I do get that it is what Tolkien later wanted — to rework what was originally a plain children’s story into a prequel for the LOTR, but to mind something is lost by doing so.

And so what a pleasure to come across (via Mr. Schu) Mark Guarino’s article, “‘The Hobbit’ is a tale that begs to be read aloud.” Guarino and those he interviewed capture beautifully what indeed made the book such fun to read aloud, notably that slightly intrusive omniscient third person narrator.

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Heavy Medal Guest Post: Jonathan Hunt on SECOND CHANCES

Another guest post from Heavy Medal blogger, Jonathan Hunt:

Did we discuss a book before you had the chance to read it?  Or maybe we covered it, but didn’t give it its just due?  Well, here’s your second chance to chime in on some of the books we’ve mentioned earlier.

 CROW by Barbara Wright . . . We lumped this book with THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK and WE’VE GOT A JOB for a civil rights-themed post, but perhaps this one was deserving of its very own.  It remains the hardest luck title in terms of best book lists (0-5 with Bulletin the sole remaning possibility), but it has a devoted bunch of fans.  I’m not sure if this one will win the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, but I have to think it’s a leading candidate, and the past two O’Dell winners have fared very well with the Newbery committee.

THE FAIRY RING by Mary Losure . . . I was really snarky about this title, but it was named Top of the List in Nonfiction by Booklist, and I’m really enjoying Losure’s next book, WILD BOY, so I think this is probably just a case of my personal taste in subject matter clouding my judgement of the author’s skill and craft.  I still think this one has a hard row to hoe with such a crowded field, but it might if the committee perceives this as being a better juvenile book.

THREE TIMES LUCKY by Sheila Turnage . . . This book has a lot of recommend it, and I like it quite a bit, although I think the perception is that I do not.  I’d need to reread this to figure out how serious I could get about this one.  If the mystery part of the novel adheres to the conventions of the genre, that is, if I can actually figure it out by clues rather than a series of surprises, then I can be very serious indeed.

TITANIC by Deborah Hopkinson . . . I think this is the leading candidate to win the YALSA Nonfiction Award.  I’m not saying it should win, or even that it will win, but I think YALSA may have goofed when they listed the finalists, inadvertently tipping the committee’s hand.  But that’s just a conspiracy theory so don’t pay it any mind.

TWELVE KINDS OF ICE by Ellen Bryan Obed . . . This one has acquired fans as more and more people get the opportunity to read it.  I reread it recently and found that it holds up quite nicely.  I’m sure this is a title where the committee will discuss the appeal factors–abilities, appreciations, and understandings.  It’s another book that doesn’t fit neatly into any one category, but if the committee can appreciate the book on its own terms, then I can easily seen this one being recognized.

WE’VE GOT A JOB by Cynthia Levinson . . .  So far this one is running neck and neck with MOONBIRD in terms of leading the nonfiction pack when it comes to best of the year lists–they have four apiece.  Like CROW, this one was probably deserving of its own post.  It’s already a YALSA Nonfiction Award finalist, I wouldn’t be surprised with Sibert recognition, and Newbery recognition could make it one of the more decorated books of the year.

WONDER by R.J. Palacio . . . Okay, Wonderheads, take a deep breath and tell me why this one is more distinguished–according to the criteria–than BOMB, LIAR & SPY, and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.  Go!

Jonathan Hunt
Heavy Medal


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Jacqueline Kelly’s Return to the Willows

I was very dubious.  I’m such a fan of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows with Ratty, Mole, and Toad and their adventures.  The book has always seemed a sort of old boy’s adventure, “old boy” in the sense of those of a particular class and who went to British boarding schools and messed around in the countryside just as those delightful characters do on the riverside.  So when I heard that Jacqueline Kelly was working on a sequel my immediate reaction was why?  Those original characters are perfectly fine as they mess with their boats, so don’t mess with their book, I thought.  Leave ’em alone.

And so I open Kelly’s Return to the Willows, intending to just take a quick look, but I kept reading intrigued and before long I’d read the whole thing. And guess what, reader?  I liked it.

First of all Kelly clearly knows and loves the original and manages, as few have before her, to pay homage while creating something new at the same time. She perfectly captures the nature of the three original heroes: Ratty, Mole, and Toad and even manages to bring out gruff old Badger a bit. And then she successfully adds in two new characters: Toad’s nephew Humphrey and a female baker rat, Matilda. Both work within the well-recreated world of Grahame’s as well as open it up for today’s young readers. I think, in fact, their additions are very sly and smart. Humphrey offers someone for young readers to latch on to as they might not our original three heroes. And Matilda — I admit I was very skeptical and a bit hostile to her at first as the original book feels so much about a bunch of school boys, but I was won over completely. She makes such good sense within that world, is lightly introduced, and then plays an important part near the end. Very nicely done indeed.

Kelly delightfully maintains  that particular world of comfort, pleasant days, and slight adventure. It has been a while since I read the original, but it felt like Kelly was somewhat channelling its structure. There are smaller events to start, then a removal for Toad and another trip back (even involving a revisit to his former place of encarceration), a jolly battle yet again with those weasels and stoats, and finally a satisfyingly hearty ending.

One of the reason it works so well is that Kelly has done a very fine job with the language, somehow lightly maintaining Grahame’s style in a way that will be accessible for readers today. (One way is through her footnotes — I do wonder though if kids will bother to read them. Though I guess they did with Snicket and those are just the sort of readers who will gravitate to this book.) And, I should say, it is funny in the same way the original is. Especially, just as in the original, Toad.  Kelly gets his voice spot on.

Ultimately it is Kelly’s clear love and appreciation of Grahame’s text that makes this shine. Lovely little touches such as the Chief Weasel and Under-Stoat seeing that Toad’s nephew Humphrey gets a lavish picnic lunch even as they are about to kidnap him (and seeing he continues to be well-fed throughout his ordeal). Toad’s stint at Cambridge, his unfortunate taste for vehicles of every sort, and so forth.

Three cheers for Ms. Kelly for doing so well by Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, and that whole riverbank world.


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Heavy Medal Guest Post: Jonathan Hunt on UNDER THE RADAR

When I saw that one of my favorite seasonal blogs Heavy Medal was having an emergency hiatus, I invited them over here until they were able to resume operations.  They liked the idea and so here is Jonathan Hunt with his latest:

December can be an interesting month because you might get the impression that we think there are only a dozen books worthy of discussion as we go back through our shortlisted titles.  But, not to worry, there are still many books out there that we have not taken the opportunity to discuss, so I’m lumping a dozen of them here, and we’re going to depend on you, as always, to chime in and help us separate the wheat from the chaff.

BEYOND COURAGE by Doreen Rappaport . . . There are several very good nonfiction books, what I would call reference books, not because they are written as such, but because I think that is likely to be their primary purpose: BEYOND COURAGE, HAND IN HAND, and DISCOVERING BLACK AMERICA.  The former book has gotten the most attention with five starred reviews and three best lists so far.  A comprehensive look at Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, it’s an important book, and well written, but I found it too difficult to keep the parade of names, dates, and places straight.

CHILD OF THE MOUNTAINS by Marilyn Sue Shank . . . This one has had a small presence during each round of nominations.  I have not read it yet, but did glance at the preview on Amazon, and found the Appalachian voice quite striking: “My mama’s in jail. It ain’t right. Leastwise, I don’t think so. Them folks that put her there just don’t understand our family. My mama’s the best mama in the whole wide world. Everbody used to say so afore the awful stuff happened. Even Uncle William. And he don’t say much nice about nobody.”  Hmmm . . . Does this remind anybody else of DOVEY COE?  I’m already on record as not being completely floored by every last Southern/country/folksy voice that comes along.  Does this one have more to recommend it?

THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer Nielsen . . . We’ve mentioned this one in the comments here and there.  It’s the book that my twelve-year-old self would probably vote for the Medal.  Yes, it’s reminiscent of THE THIEF and THE HUNGER GAMES, too, but I found it a good book in its own right.  The reason that I can’t build a stronger argument for this one is SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.  I may not be able to vote for that book, but it would be wrong of me to rank my personal favorites ahead of it.

IN A GLASS GRIMMLY by Adam Gidwitz . . . While I liked A TALE DARK & GRIMM quite a bit, I found the charm of this one wore very thin very quickly.  I particularly didn’t care for how this one veered farther away from the original source material than its predecessor, nor did I appreciate the additional length.  I’m inclined to recommend FAIRY TALES FROM THE BROTHERS GRIMM by Philip Pullman instead.  And yet, the book does have three starred reviews and three best lists.

KEEPING THE CASTLE by Patrice Kindl . . . A lovely homage to Jane Austen with a dash of Cinderella and I CAPTURE THE CASTLE, this is yet another example of a book that looks stronger in the Newbery field than it does in the Printz.  To be sure, it’s a book for grades 7-9, but I think it would be perfectly at home with the other romances in the Newbery canon.  Three starred reviews, three best lists.

ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mulally Hunt . . . Despite our best efforts to dismiss this one as guidance counselor fiction, it remains at #6 on the goodreads poll, and it’s also maintained a small, but decent presence during each round of nominations.  I haven’t read this one yet, but if you’re a fan, then here’s your chance to plead its case.

REMARKABLE by Lizzie Foley . . . This one got two starred reviews and has maintained a small group of fans through each round of nominations.  Another one that I haven’t read yet, but it seems light and fun–always a welcome relief from the heavier stuff that we often gravitate toward.  Pitch this one to us as a Newbery contender.

SEE YOU AT HARRY’S by Jo Knowles . . .  We compared this one and ONE FOR THE MURPHYS with WONDER early in the year in terms of how each book played to the reader’s emotions.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing when it’s done well–and this one is.  Despite its lone starred review and best list, this one remains at #9 on the goodreads poll.

SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman . . . Here’s another one for grades 7-9, and while some people will want to dismiss this as a better fit in the Printz field, the Newbery committee has to pretend like that other award doesn’t exist.  It’s arguably the best fantasy in the field with STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY being the other strong candidate.  I would definitely want this one on the table, especially so that we can compare it to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.  Schlitz does some amazing stuff with 400 pages, but is it more impressive than what Hartman does for a slightly older audience with slightly more pages?

THE SEVEN TALES OF TRINKET by Shelley Thomas Moore . . . I find the premise of this one intriguing, and I’ve started it a few times, but keep getting sidetracked.  It does have three starred reviews, though, and both MOON OVER MANIFEST and DEAD END IN NORVELT also had three stars, running in the middle of the pack before sprinting to victory in January.

THE SPINDLERS by Lauren Oliver . . . Is there such a thing as a sophomore slump?  Well, we’re not discussing THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRYLAND, IRON-HEARTED VIOLET, or THE SPINDLERS very much this year (in contrast to THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK, and LIESL AND PO last year), but at least Oliver’s book has maintained the same level of critical praise.  It’s a great riff on the changeling story with nifty prose and good storytelling.  I’m not sure that it’s enough to break into the top five books of the year, but a worthy read–and, thank heavens, a relatively short one, too.

WHO COULD THAT BE AT THIS HOUR? by Lemony Snicket . . . Can Daniel Handler follow up his Printz Honor for WHY WE BROKE UP with a Newbery Honor for this one?  It’d be very interesting to compare this one to THREE TIMES LUCKY and MR. AND MRS. BUNNY to see how they each play with the conventions of the mystery novel.  Those two have gotten more Newbery buzz, but this one strikes me as a book that grows in appreciation on multiple reads.

So which of these dozen books are contenders?  And which are pretenders?  And which under the radar books, not on this list, should we be paying more attention to?

Jonathan Hunt, HEAVY MEDAL


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The BEST Way to Teach Classical Writers and Books

I love today’s Nerdy Book Club post, Melissa Williamson’s “Tales of Adoration $ Appreciation.”  In it, Melissa describes her passion for Edgar Allen Poe and how she successfully communicated that passion to her students.  While as teachers we want to encourage our students to find their own passions as readers I feel there is a place to also model and share ours with them just as Melissa did with her students. She used her own enthusiasm, comics, visuals, public speaking, and more to excite her own students with the work of this classical writer.

I do something similar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That is, through my excitement and the activities I do, my students become as infatuated with that book as I am. I read aloud the book, stopping along the way for my class to try out a quadrille, play a bit of indoor croquet, and explore various logic and mathematical tricks along the way.  And we always end with a project. For  years it was a new kid-illustrated and annotated version, then we did toy theater puppet shows, and last year we did book trailers.

I encourage other teachers to do this as well.  What may appear old and tired can come alive with the personal passion of a creative and talented teacher!


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Really, really, REALLY interesting piece on narrative nonfiction

Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction” over at the New York Times today, by a writer of adult narrative nonfiction, addresses the same issues we grapple with when considering narrative nonfiction for youth (and are especially considering it over at Heavy Medal).  Be sure to read the comments.



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NYT on ‘Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm,’ by Philip Pullman –

“Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm,” then, is effectively an album in which a gifted contemporary composer covers classic songs. As Mr. Pullman notes, an enormous relief and pleasure “comes over the writer who realizes that it’s not necessary to invent: the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician.” And his repertory is undeniably first-rate. These stories, honed through generations of tellers, are the survivors of literary evolution. They are here because they work.

Recognizing this, Mr. Pullman keeps his touch light, lending the stories a plain-spoken, casual voice and respecting the strange transformations, reversals of fortune and patterns of three that give them their power. He concludes each tale with a brief analytical note — praising or criticizing the story, pulling out a piquant detail, sometimes suggesting improvements. This is shoptalk, essentially — an expert narrator pointing out the storytelling triumphs or missteps of his forebears — and it is fascinating.

From an excellent New York Times piece on Philip Pullman’s new fairy tale collection. Highly recommended.

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What to Tell the Children

My heart goes out to everyone affected in the horror that happened yesterday in Connecticut. Like others I feel a profound sadness, a sickness of the spirit.

Seeing discussion about what and how and if this should be discussed with children elsewhere I wanted to provide my perspective for I’ve had a couple of firsthand experiences helping my 4th grade students through something unfathomably horrible. The first was 9/11 and the second was when a high school student jumped out of a 12th floor window of the school directly into the street where we were having recess.  That he did not land on any child was a miracle, but some were very close by (as was I), so close one was covered in blood. The sound of the impact was so loud those children who didn’t actually see it thought it was a gun shot, made scarier when we told them to run to the nearest cross street, wanting to get them away from the body as soon as possible. It was only when we were around the corner that I was able to reassure them that it wasn’t a shooting. Not knowing for sure what happened I told them there had been an accident. In fact, my mind wasn’t able to process for some time what I’d seen. I’m not sure I still am able to completely.

In both cases we were careful and cautious. While some children needed to know more others wanted nothing to do with discussion.  In the case of 9/11 I found that Charlotte’s Web and a focus on heroes was the best way to go along with an effort to provide a comfortable return to normalcy as much as possible in that scary time. With the more recent suicide we looked at our curriculum and made adjustments, were in close communication with parents, and were helped by caring professionals.  Since they told us there were similarities to having to deal with a school shooting I’m guessing they will be considering how to help us best address this new horror, especially for those in our community for whom this triggers memories of what happened to us a few years ago.

Because of these experiences as well as others less horrific, but sad as well (a sudden unexpected death of a classmate or a teacher), I have learned that what is important is to proceed with great care, keeping in mind that each child is going to process this differently. One child might be curious and barrage adults with questions about every aspect of what happened while another might be overwhelmed and terrified by any sort of questions and those answers. I have to say I can’t remember the specific conversations we had after those other tragedies as much as I remember being so cautious and careful.  Anything we said and did needed to provide comfort not elevate anxiety.

And so I can’t say what to tell your children since you know them and I don’t.  To me that is key — do what you know works for your children.  The best you can.  That is what I will be doing on Monday.


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