I’ve been a fan of Gene Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge since he first initiated it. But I have to say my friend Roxanne Feldman’s recent post,”‘Read a book about a character that doesn’t look like me’ as viewed by an East Asian parent” was revelatory as it pointed out how what seems to be a great way to expand horizons for young readers can, in fact, be yet another narrowing form of privilege. It reminded me yet again that privilege comes in all shapes and sizes and we need to be aware and open to considering that. I urge all of you to read Roxanne’s post and share it if you feel it is important (as I do:).
Today, there are constantly fantastic new publications featuring children’s literature. These are generally digital and focus on a variety of audiences: children, parents, educators, librarians, collectors, book sellers, and others who are deeply engaged with this literature. There are also some venerable older journals such as School Library Journal and The Horn Book Magazine (both of which I’ve contribute to).
One of my absolute favorite all-time journals featuring children’s literature is The Riverbank Review which was active between 1998 and 2003. It was physically stunning as well as totally engaging in every way. It was a labor of love originally and now there has been another labor of love — every issue has been digitized and placed on a beautiful new site.
You can learn more about the journal’s history here, access every single issue here, enjoy the covers (by such luminaries as Jules Feiffer, E. B. Lewis, and Lois Ehlert), and more. (And you can read my two essays for them if you wish — “Adventuring with Alice” and ““Off to See the Wizard,“) What a special and wonderful gift to all of us!
Here are some tidbits I’ve collected on this blog over the years celebrating this artistic genius.
From We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993). Many thanks to Michael Patrick Hearn for bringing it to my attention.
The following is a brief, but amazing interview of the young Maurice Sendak just after he won the Caldecott for Where the Wild Things Are.* Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended.
It was at one of the wonderful Children’s Literature New Englandconferences that I saw Gregory Maguire in conversation with Maurice Sendak, someone who had been so incredibly important to me growing up as a reader (my iconic Sendak childhood works are the Little Bear books), as an aspiring children’s book illustrator (I studied and studied his masterful use of crosshatching), and as a lifelong member of this world of children and their literature (I followed all his work and commentary and learned more every time even if I didn’t always agree with him). It was at another of those conferences that I met children’s literature scholar Michael Patrick Hearn; when he recently expressed to me his own profound sadness on the passing of this man who meant so much to him I offer to post anything he might wish to write. And so here without further ado are his thoughts on Maurice Sendak:I don’t know why I’m so sad. I knew it would happen–and soon. Maurice had not been well for a long time but he somehow survived triple bypass, pneumonia and probably a dozen other ailments that would have been immediately fatal to anyone else. It was a stroke that did him in. He even survived The Colbert Report. He was not going to take any guff and seized control of that show through sheer will. Nobody was going to upstage him! He always had to be the center of attention.But it was all a performance, a final Oscar-worthy stunt. I could hear in his voice on the phone how frail he was getting. Not in his thoughts, never in his thoughts and opinions, just in the articulation. His mind was as lucid and barbed as ever. I suspect we got along over the years because I actually listened to him. Almost every conversation began with the kvetching. Oh the kvetching! It was not a word I really knew until I met Maurice Sendak. He was constantly upset with this and that, with that person and this person. His anger fueled him. Look in the dictionary under the noun kvetch and you will find:
- A chronic, whining complainer.
- A nagging complaint.
- Maurice Sendak, American picture book artist-author.But once he got that off his chest, he was the funniest person you could ever meet. Another reason why we got along was we could laugh together. Not everyone shared his peculiar sense of humor. Many people took him too damn seriously. They bored him. Often he took himself too damn seriously too. But when he felt comfortable he would say the most outrageous thing and wait for a reaction. He could not do that with everyone. He was constantly testing his friends and colleagues and many came up short.It is extraordinary the outpouring of affection for him and from so many people who really did not know him. Could anyone really know him? He was so complex and complicated. His neuroses were endless and fed his art. He ran hot and cold. He was constantly making and breaking friendships. He thought nothing of tossing anyone aside who had unknowingly offended him in some unidentified way. He was in constant fear of betrayal. I never could keep up with all the people he was currently feuding with. I was never part of the Inner Circle. I will never know exactly what he thought of me. Maybe I do not want to know. I am sure his opinion changed with the weather. From time to time I would hear second hand the most bizarre things he told others about me. And I never thought I was that important to him for him to bother gossiping about me. He loved gossip and to gossip. Not about himself of course. I had to be careful with some of the wild stories he related. Many were only to produce an effect, maybe some discomfort or shock. He loved being the provocateur.He was emotionally needy. His vast ego demanded constant nurturing and I have never been a master at that. Maurice was difficult. God knows he was difficult! And yet he had the uncanny habit of making complete strangers feel like he was their oldest and dearest friend. His last self-lacerating conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross is almost unbearable to listen to. He bared his soul to her and she hardly knew him. He told her such intimate details that I am not sure he was always aware that he was speaking live on the radio. You can hear in her voice how taken aback she was but she handled it beautifully.He often told me things that were not really any of my business. He once stopped himself in mid-sentence, “You know I don’t really know you very well.” Of course that was nearly twenty years after we first met. But knowing me or what I felt or thought was never really an issue with Maurice. It was always all about him. Yes, he did want to know my opinions and we often exchanged information. He was well aware that I wrote on children’s books and he obviously brought me into his confidence to tell me personal things for the record. A few years ago I went backstage after one of his public presentations to congratulate him and he greeted me with a tirade against another children’s book illustrator in front of everyone else crammed into his dressing room. He was furious at what the other artist had said about him in The New York Times. I am not sure why he felt he had to express his outrage to me in particular and in front of all those people. I was not the other illustrator’s most intimate friend. Evidently he thought I was. Maurice continued to stew over the matter and several weeks later he called me up out of the blue to tell me to never, never repeat what he said.Maurice was a connoisseur of illustration and an avaricious collector of original art by artists he admired. He also envied those he most adored and shamelessly took from them whenever it suited his mood. I was one of the few people he knew who could talk with him about all the obscure illustrators he reveled in. Awhile back I was offered some unpublished preliminary sketches by Randolph Caldecott for The Queen of Hearts. I could only afford one so I showed the others to Maurice. “I’m too old to buy anything more,” he moaned. But he fell in love with a little drawing of the Knave running away with the tarts. He just could not resist it and bought it anyway.He was also an astute critic, but he was never comfortable with it. He preferred to make art rather than to write about it. Drawing was a joy. Writing was a chore. I tried to encourage him to write his memoirs or at least sketches of the many people he knew throughout his eighty-three years. He was not in the least bit interested. Writing what he remembered would just bore him, he said. Yet he never hesitated to talk about them. We knew many of the same people so I was one of the few people left who could talk with him about many now sadly deceased mutual friends.Where the Wild Things Are is of course his masterpiece and most enduring work. But it proved to be a burden as well as a blessing. In a sense he was always competing with its enormous success. No matter how many other directions he went into and how far he grew as an artist, everyone wanted another Wild Things. Once a book was published, he was through with it. He did not go back. He never wanted to repeat himself. He was constantly evolving. He called Wild Things the first in a trilogy that also embraced In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. But their artistic connection is dubious. What they did have in common was that Maurice was working out his therapy through them. The traumas of his childhood came out as metaphors. The books are fraught with Freudian symbols. He did produce a sequel of sorts. He told me he had always wanted to illustrate Ruth Krauss’ Bears, originally published in 1949 with pictures by the long forgotten Phyllis Rowand. Maurice finally got around to it in 2005 when he invented a new challenge for Max to conquer in one of the most delightful of Sendak’s books in many years. Then it was almost universally ignored by the reviewers and the public.He was constantly frustrated with his publishers and the children’s book business in general. He finally took a semi-sabbatical from picture books in the 1970s and early 1980s to design for the stage. He was appalled by the general lack of care in the writing and illustrating of all the kiddie books then being spoon-fed to little girls and boys. “Who is out there making a real difference?” he demanded. “Well,” I said clumsily, “there’s Chris van Allsburg and–” “Who’s out there making a real difference?” he repeated. He was frustrated with HarperCollins, the successors to his old house Harper & Row, and under the thumb of Rupert Murdoch. “No one knows me there any more,” he complained. Of course that was not entirely true, but they did not kowtow to him as had his editors in the old days. He told me last fall that HarperCollins rejected his latest picture book. They told him that “it was not for children.” “Well, what the fuck did they think I’ve been doing the last sixty years!” he fumed. I tried to assure him that he would have no trouble getting it published elsewhere. He said he didn’t care. He told me he had put it aside and immediately started another picture book.I saw him less and less in the last few years because his declining health discouraged him from leaving his beautiful house in Connecticut except on rare occasions. He was perfectly content just to work at home and to walk his dogs. Maurice mellowed considerably during that time. I have to admit now that he proved to be exceptionally warm, kind and generous to me. Of course I could never tell him that! He would not allow it. But whenever I asked him about something or to do something, he just did it. No kvetching, no negotiations, no strings attached. He just did it. He was a mensch. After all those years I think he finally realized that I was not there to betray him. Our conversations on the phone usually went on for an hour at least and he always ended by saying, “Goodbye, my friend.” Goodbye, Maurice.
Michael Patrick Hearn
May 16, 2012
Betsy Bird’s forgotten favorites post immediately made me think of one of mine, the sorely overlooked Iremonger Series by Edward Carey. To my mind it has some of the same quirky and originality of Frances Hardinge, D. M. Cornish (Betsy’s forgotten favorite), Lemony Snicket, and — most of all — Mervyn Peake (as Gormenghast seems a certain inspiration for Carey’s books). The first book, Heap House, got stars from PW, Kirkus, SLJ, and many best of the year accolades. The second and third seemed to get less attention, lost in the ether for some reasons as I think they are strong follow-ups to the first book.
I am surprised not to see more about Edward Carey’s Iremonger Trilogy, the last of which — Lungdon — has just been published. I first learned of it after reading an enthusiastic New York Times review for the first volume, Heap House. (I see now that it got several starred reviews and ended up on many 2014 best of the year.) I got my hands on it right away and then couldn’t wait for the second which came out this spring. Having just finished the final book, I can say that the whole trilogy is terrific.
The story is of the Iremonger family, who live in the huge and sprawling Heap House, outside of London, in an alternate Victorian steampunkish, gothic, fantastical universe. This singular and snobbish family oversee the heaps, piles of trash from the city of London (or Lungdon as they call it) from which they are exiled. They are a harsh family with a very odd aspect — all have “birth objects,” things they must keep near them at all times. Among them is Clod who has a unique condition — he can hear the objects. His birth object, for example, a universal bath plug, repeatedly mutters “James Henry Hayward.” And into the world of the Iremongers comes Lucy Pennant, a girl from the city who arrives to work as a servant at the House. Over the course of the three novels, the world of the Iremongers and the residents of London are changed forever.
Told through a variety of voices, the story is rich and compelling. Carey’s world building is superb. These Iremongers and Heap House reminded me again and again of the equally weird world of Mervyn Peake’s marvelous Gormenghast books. The characters are similarly strange, the language ornate and original, the place fabulously described, and the plot riveting. In addition to being a terrific read, the books themselves are gorgeous, full of Carey’s art. Dark at moments, emotionally charged at others, this is one superb series.
I’m delighted to be the first stop on the blog tour for Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life (which happens to be shortlisted for the 2017 Carnegie Award, similar to our Newbery). I’ve a long history with Frank starting with a long-ago Skype visit with my class when he had to go to a neighbor to do it. A few years ago, we met at the Edinburgh Book Festival. That was a golden moment for me!
Additionally, Frank did a stellar job as our final SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Books Judge in 2013 (under very challenging personal conditions, as I recall.) My favorite book of his to date (Sputnik is giving it a running) is Cosmic, one I’ve read aloud to my class every year. It is the only contemporary book I reread this way; however, this year I may read Sputnik instead.
Frank was kind enough to answer a few questions for me and for you. Here are the questions and the answers.
Monica: Prior to Sputnik’s Guide to Life my favorite of your books has been Cosmic. In both books the themes and ideas are beautifully extrapolated from the idea of the cosmos — of something beyond ourselves on earth. What is it that so appeals to you about space?
Frank: I guess mostly it’s because I’m off that generation that came into consciousness just as man was first walking on the Moon. I genuinely thought that once Neil and Buzz had walked there, we would all get to go. Growing up for me was largely a slow realisation that I was not – after all – living in the Space Age. The mobile phone age seems a poor substitute for jet packs and space stations. I write about space purely so I can carry on playing astronauts in my head
Monica: First a tangent — a child in the 1960s, my family had a Dalmatian called Spotnik for obvious reasons. Now, did your idea for this Sputnik start from the real Latka? That it would be an alien presenting as a dog? Do you have a dog yourself? Wondering about how you made Sputnik so doggy , so wry (and funny), and so wise in a spiritually-important-sort-of-way.
Frank: I don’t have a dog! And I’ve never had one! This is another case of me using writing as a way of grabbing hold of the things which life has cheated me of! Can I say by the way that Sputnik is an utterly brilliant name. Whoever came up with that should have a cake named in their honour. I always thought about Laika and how lonely she must have been. I also had that thought – if you met a dog in a rocket you would naturally assume that the dog built the rocket, wouldn’t you? And if you came to earth and found that dogs had large biped mammals who washed them and fed them and CLEANED UP THEIR POOOH!! You would DEFINITELY think dogs were the dominant species.
Monica: There are more and more books for children featuring aging relatives with Alzheimer’s. What I especially appreciated about this one is that it is positive and moving in a realistic way. Can you speak to this without giving too much away of the plot?
Frank: My Dad has dementia and I’m spending a lot of time with him. Obviously it’s very sad to see him so confused most of the time. But I’m also aware that when he is trying – and failing – to make sense of things, he is being very creative. When he tries to put the sights and sounds of his day together into some sort of order, it is very like the process of writing a book. So we have something very much in common. He’s also very focussed on trying to be happy. He’s very refreshing to be with in some ways. And of course we’re spending more time together than we have since childhood. I’m more his son than I ever was before. We must become as little children and that’s what’s happening. So I wanted to celebrate that.
Monica: I love your portrayal of parents. There is that idea that, in children’s books, you have to get rid of the parents so the kids are able to do it all themselves. While your young characters do it for themselves, the kind adults around them, often parents, are active too. They don’t just disappear. I was struck by the foster family in Sputnik; they are wonderful, sensible, knowing, and caring. What inspires these parental representations for you?
Frank: They’re obviously self-portraits! You’re completely right about parents in children’s books – they nearly always die or go to war in order to get the adventure going. Remember James (in the Giant Peach)’s parents being “eaten by a rhinoceros”. One of the things I loved about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is that the adults are on the adventure too.
I enjoyed my children’s childhood more than I enjoyed my own – so why shouldn’t I drop them off the list.
Monica: Lastly, you seem to have a sweet spot age-wise with your young protagonists. They all seem similar in age. Am I wrong? Sorry if so. Otherwise, I’d love to know what attracts you to the age of your protagonists. Any thoughts on doing something YA or a picture book?
Frank: I guess they all are the same age. I never noticed that. Now you’ve shone a light on it, I will probably run away and hide and I’ll never write about it again.
Monica: No, no, no!!!
Thanks so so much, Frank, for answering these questions. Some day I hope we meet again!
Here’s more about Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth:
Award-winning author Frank Cottrell Boyce returns with another one-of-a-kind story of heart, humor, and finding one’s place in the universe.
Prez knows that the best way to keep track of things is to make a list. That’s important when you have a grandfather who is constantly forgetting. And it’s even more important when your grandfather can’t care for you anymore and you have to go live with a foster family out in the country.
Prez is still learning to fit in at his new home when he answers the door to meet Sputnik—a kid who is more than a little strange. First, he can hear what Prez is thinking. Second, he looks like a dog to everyone except Prez. Third, he can manipulate the laws of space and time. Sputnik, it turns out is an alien, and he’s got a mission that requires Prez’s help: the Earth has been marked for destruction, and the only way they can stop it is to come up with ten reasons why the planet should be saved.
And here are all the dates and stops for the blog:
|June 5||Educating Alice|
|June 6||Walden Media Tumblr|
|June 7||Litcoach Lou|
|June 8||Novel Novice|
|June 9||The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia|
|June 11||Librarian’s Quest|
|June 12||Next Best Book|
|June 13||Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook|
|June 14||Book Monsters|
This Wednesday I had a great time at SLJ’s Day of Dialog where, among other things (e.g. moderating the fabulous YA panel) I heard Megan Whalen Turner give a fascinating and wonderful talk on creating a map for her fictional world. I go way back with Megan, the person and the writer, and so we arranged to get together yesterday after her Books of Wonder signing. While I’d thought perhaps going somewhere quiet for drinks after a long (and happy) day at Book Con, it turned out what Megan really wanted to do was to see Wonder Woman. And so we did; I can’t think of a better person with whom to see that very entertaining movie. It was so much fun! (And I won’t be ashamed to acknowledge that we managed to pretty much finish up that popcorn:)
Coming back into this world was fabulous. Turner’s writing is simply stellar. I enjoyed so much descriptions, wit, and more. She has that world so clearly imagined it is amazing. This is a journey story, but also about war, politics, slaves, empires against small nations, and individuals. You definitely don’t need to have read the other books for this one, but easter eggs and more are fun for those who have. (I’m assuming that all who read will wonder, for example, just who the Attolian is:). Bravo, Megan Whalen Turner — worth the wait!
As soon as we die, we enter into fiction. Just ask two different family members to tell you about someone recently gone, and you will see what I mean. Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted. When we remember – as psychologists so often tell us – we don’t reproduce the past, we create it. Surely, you may say – some truths are non-negotiable, the facts of history guide us. And the records do indeed throw up some facts and figures that admit no dispute. But the historian Patrick Collinson wrote: “It is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Because, of course, 99% of the evidence, above all, unrecorded speech, is not available to us.”
As someone seeped in history, who has written (and is writing) historical fiction this remarkable Guardian essay from the award winning author of the Wolf Hall trilogy resonated deeply. Highly recommended.