Monthly Archives: December 2013

Playing with the Past

A few days ago I wrote a post about recent movies that play around with original texts. I was partly inspired after seeing American Hustle and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as they are both playing with something from before. I’d been delighted with the cautionary statement at the start of American Hustle that “some of this actually happened” and suggested it might be good to do this more often with movies that fiddle with the past and/or with iconic texts like Tolkien’s (saying at the start that “this is inspired by the original book” rather than submerging it, if it is there at all, at end of the credits).  Having seen a lot of dismay about Saving Mr. Banks in this regard I mentioned that as well. I also pointed to several articles where more is explored regarding the fictionalizing of Travers’ and Disney’s past as far as the creation of the Mary Poppins movie is concerned.

Yesterday I finally saw Saving Mr. Banks and ended up enjoying it while also seeing how much history was altered to fit a particular fictional story arc.  My enjoyment was very personal –the Mary Poppins movie meant a lot to me as a child. It came out while we lived in Germany and I, a massive Julie Andrews fan (still affronted that she had been snubbed by the My Fair Lady movie folk), had good reason to fear I would not get to see it. Not only did movies not go as far and wide as they do today, but in 1964 there were no DVDs, video stores, or tons of movies on television. Once a movie was no longer in theaters you were pretty much out of luck. Fortunately, my family spent the Christmas holidays in Amsterdam where I was thrilled to discover the movie showing in a gorgeous theater. What joy and what relief. (I also, by the way, enjoyed Travers’ book — that they were completely different didn’t matter to me at all.) And so my viewing yesterday was completely colored by my memories. Of being with my parents who are no longer around, my little sister, and about a very different time in my life.

My unexpectedly emotional response to the movie made me think once again about how much we are influenced by our own experiences when responding aesthetically. Because of this, it made me again feel so strongly that we need to be straight and honest all the more when we artistically fiddle with the past whether it is about the creation of a children’s movie or a crazy scam to entrap politicians.  In both cases the fair and honest statement to begin with is “some of this actually happened.”  Too bad they only did this with the Abscam adult movie and not the one about the kid author.

I admit I’m obsessed with this because of my own book. I tried and tried and tried to make it nonfiction and when it became fictionalized it was very important to me to make that as clear as possible. Why can’t movie makers do that too?



Filed under Africa is My Home, Movies

Africa is My Home: New York Times Podcast

I just discovered this New York Times Book Review podcast in which editors Pamela Paul and Sarah Harrison Smith discuss the paper’s 2013 notable children’s books including mine at 9:51.  So cool!

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Some of this Actually Happened And/Or Is in the Original Book: Movies Involving Children’s Stories and Their Creators

The making of movies is a tricky thing  when it comes to children’s stories.  Especially when those children’s stories are deeply rooted in adult viewers’ memories.  This season brings two such movies — Saving Mr. Banks and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

“Some of this actually happened.” As far as I know that disclaimer was not provided for Saving Mr. Banks, a movie I haven’t seen yet (ETA I have now*), but one based on the true story of Mary Poppins‘ author Pamela Travers in Hollywood during the creation of the Disney movie. Rather, that quote comes from the beginning of a very different movie, one also based on a true story, but absolutely not for children, American Hustle. I loved seeing that disclaimer and wish more filmmakers would start with some variation of it as it would be more honest of them. Certainly, it sounds like it would make Saving Mr. Banks go down a lot better with those who are not pleased with its fiddling with what actually happened. Now, again, I haven’t seen it so can’t comment, but I do think it is interesting how people are bringing their own childhood experiences with Mary Poppins to their viewing in a unique way.  That is, many only know her from Disney and those who later came across Travers’ version don’t seem to much like her.  So I’m guessing many are more sympathetic to Disney than to the author in this fictionalized movie version. For those interested in knowing more about the real story and Travers check out the following:

And then there is The Hobbit for which there is no disclaimer although there should be one along the lines of “Some of this actually is in the original book.” After seeing the first movie last December, I forcefully expressed my dismay about Peter Jackson’s decision to turn Tolkien’s charming book for children into something completely different in this HuffPo post, “Another Children’s Book Turned Into Young Adult: My Take on The Hobbit Movie (s).”  So my expectations were minimal when I went to see the second movie a few days ago. And, yep, it was pretty much what I expected — even more epic-izing of a children’s original fairy story and a whole lotta horrid orcs.  While I was happy to see Biblo here and there, especially with Smaug, I sure would have liked to see more of his clever repartee (say with the spiders). The pandering seemed even more pronounced this time — to fanatic Jackson LOTR fans (I agree with those who call this fan fiction),  to those who wanted a kick-ass female in Tolkien’s totally male world with a Gale/Peta or Jacob/Edward (take your pick) quandary in store, and to those who can never get enough battling orcs.  As for the final movie, I suppose some of it will have been in the original book — the battle and …no spoilers here…what happens to the dragon.

* I’ve now seen Saving Mr. Banks and my opinion about being honest when playing with historical fact hasn’t changed. I enjoyed the movie because it played on my nostalgic sensibilities big time (was tearful by the end), but can imagine how irritating it could feel to those who knew the players and the facts firsthand.


Filed under Film, Movies

In the Classroom: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp Come Alive (sort of).

My 4th graders enjoyed my reading aloud Kathi Appelt’s latest, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (my take on it is here) and so when some of them were at loose ends, having finished a big project their peers were still working on, I suggested they make a mural of the book.  (I love making book murals! See the one we did of The Graveyard Book and this one of When You Reach Me.) After talking through a few ideas, I left them to it. After a… er…redolent day when they used undiluted  mod podge to create  a swampy background, they drew and cut and researched (old cars) and just had fun sticking in their favorite elements of the book.  For a bit more about it and Kathi’s visit to our classroom, check out this post on our public 4th grade project blog.


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Fans and newcomers to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have something really special in store this season. This is Alicewinks, a remarkable ebook edition.  A labor of love by creators David Neal, William McQueen, and Brittney Owens, the edition took years, but the result is spectacular.  It is a beautiful and sensitive presentation of Carroll’s book featuring the art of twelve pos- Tenniel illustrators.  The ebook can be enjoyed as a conventional read (on a tablet, that is), you can peruse the art alone, listen to the story read it, but best of all are the animations. These take the story to a new place. The creators have taken the work of some older (time-wise) illustrators, some of whom to be honest were not my favorites, and in a manner of speaking, have refurbished them. The animations are elegant and subtle, all in all, beautifully done. Here’s a brief taste.

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RIP Peter O’Toole

One of my favorite less familiar Peter O’Toole performances is as the unhinged Earl of Gurney in The Ruling Class. The movie starts out light and then gets crazily darker and darker, but it is the first part with several surreal musical comedy numbers that I liked the most.  Unfortunately, I could only find the below blurry youtube video that gives a weak taste of them. (I should also mention that the Earl is totally bonkers and, in the first part of the movie thinks he is Jesus and later on, Jack the Ripper.)

Another is his performance as god-like director Eli Cross in The Stunt Man.

And then there is always and forever the glorious Lawrence of Arabia.

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Africa is My Home: A Couple of Things

This is still sometimes an old-fashioned web log where I document stuff, say items related to my book. Having it all here means, hopefully, I won’t lose it.  And so here are two cool photos that folks tweeted to me yesterday.

1. A 5th grade reading and writing teacher in the Boston public schools,  @Ms McGlone, tweeted:

We have just begun #africaismyhome Students fascinated! Comparing as we read Equiano’s autobiography.


I love what this teacher is doing with the book and hope to be further in touch with her and her class about it.

2. A former colleague now teaching 4th grade at another school, @jennykirsch, tweeted:

Look what I stumbled upon at the bookstore! So exciting!


Jenny told me that it is from a midtown Barnes & Noble. Since the book published I’ve only been to the Bank Street Book Store and so this is my first indication of it elsewhere.  Cool!

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Learning About Africa: Congratulations to Joseph Opala


Historian Professor Joseph Opala receives
Sierra Leonean Passport

Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to the United States of America H.E. Bockari Kortu Stevens today presented Americo/ Sierra Leonean historian, Professor Joseph Opala with his Sierra Leonean passport. The impressive ceremony took place at the conference room of the Sierra Leone Embassy in Washington D.C.

On 20th May 2013, Professor Opala was sworn in as a Sierra Leonean citizen by H.E. President Ernest Bai Koroma. This was in recognition of his role in documenting the historical link between the Gullah people in the United States of America and Sierra Leone, and for his outstanding contribution in preserving Sierra Leone slave castle of ‘Bunce Island’ as a heritage site . The esteemed historian was also awarded Sierra Leone’s Order of the Rokel by President Koroma in 2012.

Welcoming the recipient, Ambassador Stevens narrated the excellent historical work and research conducted on the Atlantic slave trade in Sierra Leone by Professor Opala thereby drawing significant interest in the subject, particularly the direct historical connection between the Gullah people of South Carolina and the people of Sierra Leone. The Ambassador congratulated Professor Opala on his numerous achievements and hoped that he would use his Sierra Leone citizenship to serve as a Goodwill Ambassador for that country.

Responding, Professor Opala thanked Ambassador Stevens for taking the time off his busy schedule to present him with his new Sierra Leone passport. He noted that he was very proud to carry the Sierra Leonean passport and wished his Sierra Leonean wife, Fatmata, was there to witness the epoch occasion. He thanked the members of the Bunce Island Coalition and the Friends of Sierra Leone for honoring him with their presence.

Professor Opala was accompanied by a fifteen member delegation drawn from colleagues, family and close friends; some of whom came from as far away as Oklahoma City, Atlanta and New York. Before concluding, he presented the Ambassador with gifts and historical artifacts for display at the Embassy.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

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Thoughts on Newbery: Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott

In case you don’t regularly follow Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott, I suggest that if you are interested in the two awards or just in thinking deeply about children’s books, you might want to reconsider. I do know it can be challenging to read hard-hitting critical analysis of books you adore, but the moderators of these two blogs are really only putting out in public what happens during both committees’ deliberations in private.  Right now there are a couple of posts that are particularly thought provoking, at least to me.

First of all, there is Jonathan Hunt’s guest post over at Calling Caldecott, “In defense of graphic novels.” Now, of course, as it is Jonathan he is being provocative, but he is making some very powerful points. I thought he’d convinced me until today when commentator Brandin took Jonathan on sufficiently well to make me step back a bit and rethink the whole thing. That is, I’d been all behind Jonathan’s argument for GNs being Caldecott contenders until Brandin made some very good points on how different they are from picture books.

And then there is Nina Lindsay’s post over at Heavy Medal, “It’s an Honor,” in which she addresses the way some (Jonathan, for one) who comment that they think a particular contender would be a great honor book, but not the medal. I wrote:

Hear, hear. I am completely in agreement with you, Nina. When I was on the Committee I nominated seven books I felt deserved to win — gold or silver, it didn’t matter. However, of course, there is also strategy going on (as Jonathan has written about when describing his decisions for mock nominations here) and so what ends up where is a result too of individual strategy and working toward consensus. I have never been able to understand how someone could go into the process already having decided something is an Honor but not the Medal.


Nina, I always remember something you said to our 2008 Committee regarding the oppositional tension we needed to have — to both be fierce in our passionate love and arguments for our nominees and equally open to letting them go without misery as we worked toward consensus. My personal goal (which I achieved) when on that Committee was to be happy with our choices. I just wonder how you can do that if you go in having two tiers of books.

Good comments on all sides of the issue there too.

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Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables

 … this is a romp that balances Ibbotson’s trademark whimsical humor with understated opinions about outsider and animal rights.

Read my whole Horn Book review of this entertaining title here.

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