Category Archives: Neil Gaiman
My great thanks to Judith Ridge for pointing me to this report of the conversation that happened between these two in Oxford last week. They were meant to have had the conversation last fall, but circumstances kept it from happening. So happy the two finally got together and do so so wish I could have been there (especially as I was just in Oxford a few weeks before).
I was delighted to find a podcast of it and now, having finished listening to it I can say that it is brilliant — you can just sense how much these two incredibly smart and creative men enjoyed the time they had together. There is lovely talk of classical children’s books (say the bizarre chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in The Wind and the Willows), comics, mystical belief, dreams, and much more. Just wonderful and highly, highly recommended.
After receiving an advance reader’s copy of Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk, I asked my class if they’d like me to read it aloud. Now keep in mind that while Neil Gaiman may have a huge adult fan base, he isn’t particularly well-known among young kids. Actually, I’d say he isn’t known at all. My 4th grade students were way too young when The Graveyard Book won the Newbery. As for Coraline which is even older, a couple said they’d found the movie scary and none knew the book. And so they were wary. At their request I read aloud the flap copy which intrigued them and so they decided I could proceed.
The author rightly describes the story as “very silly.” That it is! The basic premise is that a father goes out to get some milk for his children’s cereal and has a spot of trouble ….well, quite a bit of trouble to be honest…before making it home. There are dinosaurs (and I was very appreciative of those students who helped me to correctly pronounce their names), bodily fluids, a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier, wumpires, aliens, and a very intrepid dad.
The class really liked it. Many of them really, really liked it! Enough to beg me to read more and more of it over the next few days until I was done. (It was a quick read — I believe it took three or four sessions to finish it.) I had thought it might be a little young for them, but I was wrong. In fact, this shaggy dog of a tale ended up being perfectly calibrated to read aloud to nine and ten-year-olds. Not that they would notice or care, but it felt a bit in the tradition, humor-wise, of Dr. Who, Douglas Adams, or Terry Pratchett while being very much its own thing.
I tweeted to Neil that I was reading it and he asked if they were laughing and I was able to assure him that they were. There were chortles, snorts, and bursts of glee. And so I can say for sure that it is loads of fun. (And this was without the art as the ARC has mostly sketches.) For some enthusiastic student responses please go here.
Today is Litworld’s World Read Aloud Day. As someone who has always read aloud to her class it is a celebration I can totally get behind. Right now, in preparation for Jack Gantos’ visit to our school in May, I’m reading aloud to my fourth grade class his Newbery winner Dead End in Norvelt. Earlier in the year I read aloud Carman Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s The Cheshire Cheese Cat with great success so I’m delighted to see it as a finalist for the E. B. White Read Aloud Award. Here are a few favorites of the many posts I’ve done on this topic:
- Reading Aloud Hugo Cabret
- Reading Aloud as Community Building
- Reading Aloud When You Reach Me
- Reading Aloud Redux
- Reading Aloud The Graveyard Book
- Reading Aloud the Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming
- Reading Aloud Casey at the Bat
- Reading Aloud Alice in Wonderland
- Reading Aloud The Tale of Despereaux
- Reading Aloud Coraline
Betsy Bird and I had so much fun making our Last Gasp Summer Reading Video we decided to do another one — this time to promote Neil Gaiman’s fantastic All Hallow’s Read initiative. So it is now done (with another contribution by our sometimes silent partner) and you can see it for yourself at All Hallows Read: A Few Spooky Suggestions.
I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan. Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.
While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”
She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”
For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar, “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”
A very interesting read.
Stacy over at Welcome to my Tweendom has asked:
So, I have a question that I ‘ve been wondering about for the past while. I’ve been thinking deeply about tween reads and what makes them great. I’ve also been thinking about the idea of tween / middle grade as a category. My question(s) to you are as follows…What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of the past 10 years (and why). What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of ALL time (and why)?
Since I teach 4th grade I’m smack dab in the middle of that tween/middle grade group* all the time and figured it would be easy to answer Stacy’s question. But actually, it is hard. First of all, no way can I do just one. Secondly, I have very particular tastes which mean my favorites are not necessarily the most popular among the intended age group (and they are mostly novels). That said, I couldn’t resist coming up with a FEW (of many I’m having to leave out) favorite titles to help Stacy.
For her first part of her question (although I’m cheating as several of these are more than ten years old):
- Rita Williams-Gracia’s One Crazy Summer because Delphine’s voice is spot-on and all three sisters are beautifully rendered. The sentence-level writing is gorgeous and I love the way Williams-Garcia tells history, but doesn’t overdo it. Yes, it is a time and place many readers are unfamiliar with, but she keeps the story of the sisters and their mother front and center.
- Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me because it is captivating, original, and set within a place that is very familiar to middle-grade readers. Trying to untangle the mystery even as Miranda tries to is right up their alley. The writing is clear, accessible, and elegant — I think it is a book that will stand the test of time, an instant classic.
- Kate Dicamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux because it is beautifully written, moving, funny and still works well for this age group. I read it aloud last year for the first time in years and it was as fresh as ever.
- Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic is a recent favorite. I’ve read this aloud for the past four years and will probably again this year. Kids of both genders love this book and often go read it again on their own. The kids, their relationships with each other, the thoughtful-but-not-heavy-handed exploration of what it means to be a father, the fun aspects of preparing and experiencing space travel, and Liam’s emotional growth (moving into his physical growth) works beautifully for this age group.
- Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. These are both unique and absolutely riveting reads. I’m listing both because as of this writing Wonderstruck isn’t out yet and so I have not yet seen middle grade readers engage with it. However, I have seen kids over the years read with great pleasure Hugo Cabret and had a great time reading it aloud to them last year.
- More than ten years old is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which may be for the stronger readers in the age range, but nothing beats it for a fun and exciting adventure. The books may go up in age range as the series goes on, but this first one feels solidly middle grade to me.
- Also more than ten years old is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; creepy indeed, but for those middle grade kids who like spooky this one is terrific.
- Jon Sciezcka’s Science Verse or Knucklehead, can’t decide, but he’s got an instinctual feel for a particular sense of humor that works perfectly for this age group.
- Another more-than-ten-years title is Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, still my favorite of all his books. It is moving, hysterically funny in spots, and disturbing too.
And for the second part — my all-time favorite? There I can go with just one, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I’ve been teaching it since 1990 and I’m just more wowed by it every year. As are the kids. The writing, the themes, the characterizations, it is one of the most perfect books ever.
*I’d define it as grades 4-6 more or less.
Not the dog (although that would be a pretty great surprise too). The lamppost. Now in its rightful place in Neil Gaiman’s snowy Narnia-ish backyard. I’m now imagining how cool it would be to come across one tomorrow morning here in Riverside Park in NYC as we are hunker down for a blizzard. Of course we have some pretty neat lampposts already so it might not stand out as it does here.
Everyone, myself included, wants the Newbery winner to be popular. That is, we all want to see kids, lots of kids everywhere, making a run for the book when they see it, to rave about it to each other, to return to it again and again. Even more than classics like Newbery Honor Charlotte’s Web we all yearn for the winner to be popular NOW, sort of like Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Twilight, right?
Yet not only is that not the charge of the committee, but it turns out that previous winners that have been dubbed “not popular” or “popular” are not necessarily so. Here’s what children’s librarian Betsy Bird, in a recent interview, had to say about two of these:
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz is sometimes considered one of these books that don’t speak to young people. That’s the theory anyway, and I reckon it comes from adults who didn’t want to read it themselves. However the book has been amazingly popular in my library, in part because it’s found a great deal of life with kids trying out for plays and needing to give monologues in auditions. My aunt’s forensic team in California won some huge awards because they used the speeches in this book. On top of that if a kid has to do something on a medieval village it’s the funniest, drollest, most amusing book you’ll ever find on the subject.
Now let’s look at The Graveyard Book, a title that supposedly was more kid friendly. I can tell you honestly that I have never had a kid ask for that book. Never. It’s by Neil Gaiman, and I’ve had plenty of children ask for his other title Coraline. But The Graveyard Book is, surprisingly enough (and unlike Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!), a bit of a shelf sitter. It gets assigned in school, so kids check it out for that reason, but so is that old Newbery winner Secret of the Andes, for crying out loud.
Reading that Schlitz’s book is attractive to kids, is being checked-out from a public library, is being read and used makes me understandably happy. I’m especially delighted to learn from Betsy that it is being used for its theatrical aspect as it is first and foremost a collection of monologues that are absolutely marvelous for kids to perform. As for The Graveyard Book I too am not seeing kids snapping it up. While I personally adore it and was thrilled when it won, I’ve always felt that its apparent popularity was and is because of Gaiman’s adult fans rather than kid readers who don’t know him from…er..Rick Riordan.
The moral of this is — popularity is very much in the eye of the beholder. What may appear unpopular in one situation may be surprisingly popular in another. And vice versa.