Friday, October 30, 2009

Enter Three Witches...

Part One

It's Halloween, so we really should address a burning question: Who are the best—or rather worst—witches of all time in children's literature? Obviously, we have to turn to fairy tales to get started. (Sorry, William! No bards allowed, despite the post title.) This move quickly produces the top two: the nameless Hansel and Gretel witch and the Russian witch, Baba Yaga.

Oh, wait, there's a broomstick jaggling across the sky, writing in hideous smoky letters, and it's not spelling out "Surrender Dorothy"; it's making a bid for number three. Well, the Wicked Witch of the West is number one in American culture, but in children's lit, she has to settle for number three. The movie Wicked Witch of the West is such a powerful image that she seems to have overtaken the print version originally created by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Besides, I give you two words: gingerbread house. It's right up there with glass slippers and poisoned apples as a fairy tale icon. The witch's trickery is scary in and of itself, but so is the juxtaposition of two stereotypes, kindly old grandmother who cooks for you with evil old witch who wants to cook you. The best retellings of Hansel and Gretel I've seen are James Marshall's classic and Paul O. Zelinsky's 1985 Caldecott Honor winner. Another intriguing version is Anthony Browne's—he's an illustrator perhaps best known for characters who are melancholy monkeys and gorillas. I also like Michael Morpurgo's lengthy retelling of the folktale, beautifully illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. Morpurgo is the former Children's Laureate of Britain, and he adds some unusual twists to the story. Another impressive version is Newbery award-winning author Cynthia Rylant's retelling, illustrated by Jen Corace.

Now, some people might argue that Baba Yaga can't snag the number two spot on our list of witches because she's not especially well known, but instead, let's consider the criterion of scariness. Please include the cannibalism factor, which, you will note, is shared by the H&GW and Baba Yaga. Not by the Wicked Witch of the West. She just wants to kill people and take over the world—which happens regularly on prime-time TV, whether you're watching cop shows or the nightly news.

But eating little kids? Let's all shudder in unison!

Though I bow to the familiarity aspect of the witch from Hansel and Gretel, I personally like Baba Yaga for number one. This witch is scary-cool. She has iron teeth and flies around in a giant mortar, steering with the pestle. What's more, she lives in a hut that walks through the forest on chicken feet. When it stays in one place, the fence around her house is made of human bones topped off with skull torches.

For this story, I recommend Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, a retelling by Marianna Mayer with illustrations by Kinuko Y. Craft. The art's gorgeous, though I have to say, the portrait of the witch is so scary that the artist added a little joke at the bottom to lighten it up. The story basically consists of a wicked stepmother sending Vasilisa into the forest to borrow fire from the witch. Neither the stepmother nor the witch knows that the girl has a magic doll, a gift from her dead mother, that will help her prevail. Mayer's version includes the second part of the story, in which, having escaped Baba Yaga's clutches, Vasilisa makes a shirt for the tsar and ends up marrying him.

Another book I adore is a shorter variation that includes different fairy tale conventions: e.g., kindness to animals—and gates—pays off, and a flung mirror turns into a lake. (The same version of the story is the centerpiece of a 1997 film called Lawn Dogs, featuring Sam Rockwell and a young Mischa Barton.) Bony Legs is the title, and it's also the name of the witch in this easy reader, though the house on chicken feet and interest in eating little girls clearly marks her as Baba Yaga. Kids in K-2 and struggling older readers really like Bony Legs. Part of the fun is that the witch instructs the girl to take a bath so that her dinner will be nice and clean... but the cat helps our heroine trick old Bony Legs.

I also own an out-of-print book called Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll, retold by Hiawyn Oram and illustrated by Ruth Brown. The Vasilisa character in Oram's version is much younger, and she is called Too Nice. By the end of the story, she learns not to be quite such a pushover. [Update: Check out this post by author Lucy Coats about Baba Yaga at Seven Miles of Steel Thistle.]

So the Hansel and Gretel witch, Baba Yaga, and the Wicked Witch of the West are my top three. And, speaking of poisoned apples, Snow White's stepmother is number four. (She should probably be tied for #3, but witches aren't much for sharing.) There are a lot of versions of this one, but I like the one retold by Josephine Poole and illustrated by Angela Barrett. Nancy Ekholm Burkert's version won a Caldecott Honor in 1973. Charles Santore's Snow White is really lovely, too—take a look at the painting of of the princess fallen on the floor of the dwarfs' cottage, for example. The inimitable Trina Schart Hyman has also illustrated Snow White, with the retelling done by Paul Heins.

Number five is probably the witch in Rapunzel, who confiscates the baby of a salad thief. When the child is older, the witch imprisons her in a tower, with the only access the girl's long braid. Upon discovering that a prince has been visiting her charge, the furious witch dumps Rapunzel in the desert and then ambushes the girl's suitor, pushing him from the high window. He ends up being blinded on the brambles at the foot of the tower. Eww. See Paul O. Zelinsky's Caldecott-winning edition. (Or try a spoof, Leah Wilcox and Lydia Monk's Falling for Rapunzel. No witch, but very funny!)

For number six, let's say the sea witch from Hans Christian Anderson's story, The Little Mermaid. I don't have a favorite edition, though Charles Santore and Lisbeth Zwerger have both illustrated it.

Since I felt the ghost of Walt Disney breathing down my neck with numbers four and six, for number seven I'll pick an obscure witch from the Brothers Grimm tale, "Jorinda and Joringel." The crone hobbles around the forest turning young girls into birds, which she collects in cages in a huge room inside the tumbledown castle where she resides. When a courting couple walks too close to the hag's lair, Jorinda is turned into a nightingale while Joringel is frozen helplessly in place till moonrise. It is only by means of a dream that the boy eventually finds the key to freeing his love—and all of the other girls trapped in the castle. ("The Blue Light" or "The Tinderbox" is another Grimms' story with a witch in it.)

For number eight, how about a witch from Isaac Bashevis Singer's original Jewish folktale, The Fearsome Inn? Doboshova is an innkeeper who, with her devilish husband, enchants and robs travelers. She also keeps three young girls prisoner to serve guests. But the new guests are no ordinary youths... This story, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogrian, won a Newbery Honor award in 1968.

I'll admit I'm partial to wicked witches, but the good ones deserve a turn here, too. Number nine can be Strega Nona, Tomie DePaola's cheery Italian creation.

Witch number ten is another nice one. We meet her in The Talking Eggs: A Folktale from the American South, retold by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. I read all the great picture books I could get my hands on to a first grade class one year, and I kid you not: This 1990 Caldecott Honor book beat out every single one of the others. Maybe it's because the strange old woman in the woods is able to take off her head and set it on her lap to comb her hair, or because the eggs out in the henhouse can talk. Also, the mean sister gets her comeuppance. (The original Grimms' tale is "Mother Hulda," by the way. Since the woman in that story is in charge of snowfall, she strikes me as a minor deity as much as a witch.)

And because every Top Ten list should have a number eleven, I'll add Audrey and Don Wood's Heckedy Peg to my collection of witches. She's the title character in an original "folktale" that involves—you guessed it, a cannibalistic witch. As is typical of the Woods' collaborations, the illustrations in Heckedy Peg are simply glorious. A witch kidnaps seven children while their mother is away and turns them into food. She is just about to start her feast when the mother shows up. Then a rather unusual guessing game begins.

Part Two

Of course, other than The Wizard of Oz, I haven't even touched on middle grade fiction, where we find countless wonderful and horrifying witches. I'll mention several, though I'll stop with the rankings already. To begin with, pointy black hats off to the witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The White Witch is a standout, not only because she stars in a classic, but because she memorably uses Turkish Delight to bribe young Edward into treachery. (She is also reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson's cool-as-ice Snow Queen, a witchy character I probably should have listed above.)

My own favorite witch in middle grade fiction is Tiffany Aching from Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith. Pratchett's best witch ever is actually from his Discworld books for grown-ups, and Granny Weatherwax makes cameo appearances in the Tiffany Aching books. Tiffany seems like a young Granny Weatherwax at times, but I do think she holds her own in these books for young readers, a strong character in her own right.

Another notable witch in middle grade fiction is Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The woman is eventually revealed to be the mother of our heroine, Lyra Belacqua. Mrs. Coulter's greed and evil are only tempered by her secret love for her child. (I'll admit that Mrs. Coulter may not technically be a witch, but she is awfully witchy!)

And who can forget the title characters from Roald Dahl's book, The Witches? Dahl does something fresh with the idea, of course, giving us witches who can smell children—and hate the smell. The witches have no hair, so they must wear wigs, and they wear gloves to disguise their clawed hands. They have no toes, either. Perhaps most deliciously creepy of all, witches have bright blue saliva. As a group, Dahl's witches are dedicated to destroying as many children as they can, in an organized campaign.

Considering the Harry Potter books have been vilified for having witches in them, I can hardly neglect to mention them. Not counting talented young witch Hermione Granger, the best of the good witches is no doubt Minerva McGonagell, with Sirius Black's evil cousin Bellatrix Lestrange "winning" as the worst of the bad witches in the series.

A book that should make you laugh is Eva Ibbotson's Which Witch, about a wizard named Arriman the Awful who is in need of a wife. What follows is a mixed-up version of the Dating Game, complete with magic, cheaters and nefarious behind-the-scenes plotting.

Eleanor Estes' The Witch Family is a cackling classic. Though bits of it may seem cloying to today's readers, the good parts are really good. In other words, certain second and third grade girls will eat this up. It's the story of two girls inventing an old witch who is so scary that she takes on a life of her own, but eventually she is tamed by the addition of a witch girl and even a witch baby to her household. This one's just plain cute!

I might as well throw in Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which won the Newbery in 1959. Even though the book is only about an accused witch, it skillfully raises the specter of the Salem Witch Trials, showing us how easily someone who's a little different can be flagged as a witch. Plus it's a really good story, albeit a little dense for today's rush-rush young readers.

And let's not forget the Witch of the Waste from Howl's Moving Castle, a book I talked about in last week's post on Diana Wynne Jones.

A few more witchy picks, mostly picture books: editor Daisy Wallace and Trina Schart Hyman's Witch Poems, The Witches' Supermarket and The Witch's Walking Stick by Susan Meddaugh, Guess What? by Mem Fox and Vivienne Goodman, and Shake Dem Halloween Bones by W. Nikola-Lisa and Mike Reed. So there you have it, a cavalcade of witches plus a non-witchy bonus (Shake Dem Halloween Bones, a very fun read aloud). Please feel free to suggest other good witch books in the comments section!

By the way, I spent this morning carving pumpkins with my students, a thoroughly satisfying endeavor. The kids are planning to be zombies, vampires, and green Barneys for Halloween. Their favorite candy seems to be a tie between Reese's and Snickers.

Here's witching you a Happy Halloween!

Note for Worried Parents: If witches are offensive to you for religious reasons, then this post simply isn't for you. If they aren't, you may still find some of the books a little alarming. For example, the other day I overheard a parent worrying that Hansel and Gretel might be too scary for their child. What I've found, say, in reading Bony Legs to first graders, is that they just peg the witch as a bad guy and cheer for the girl as she makes her escape. I guess my point is, most kids don't seem too concerned that tomorrow they will run across a house on chicken feet inhabited by a cannibal witch. But if your child is very sensitive, you know best! (I would say that if the Disney witches scare your child, then so will these books. If not, then not.)

Update: Two more classic witches in the picture book category are Patricia Coombs's Dorrie and The Witch Next Door by Norman Bridwell, the creator of Clifford, the big red dog. Patricia Coombs is no relation, though I was once mistaken for her! I also read a review that reminded me of a middle grades classic, The Wednesday Witch by Ruth Chew, so look for that at your library.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Queen of Children's Fantasy

Aha! You thought I was going to say J.K. Rowling, didn't you? J.K. Rowling is, rather, the queen of Harry Potter's world and also of England, the latter thanks to a bloodless coup in June 2006 (bloodless except for an accident involving one of the corgies). Diana Wynne Jones, though she does deign to reside in England, reigns over the world of children's fantasy. Terry Pratchett is not her royal consort, though it may seem like it at times. That would be Neil Gaiman.

Suffice it to say that if you haven't read any of DWJ's books, your life and your education are sadly lacking. The author's 2007 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement should slap your hand sufficiently to drive this point home. And yes, one of her books has been made into a movie: Howl's Moving Castle (2004), from respected Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Diana Wynne Jones is famous for her fresh, convoluted plots and for the invention of a character called Chrestomanci. She is also known for skewering sword-and-sorcery conventions, e.g., in books like The Dark Lord of Derkholm, which postulates that all of the characters on a particular fantasy world are actors, performing their roles at the behest of a greedy corporate entity for the benefit of a group of tourists. Even better, perhaps, is the companion book, a wry encyclopedia of tropes called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which purports to be a tour guide (cover shown is from first edition). Here's a sample entry, one of my favorites:

STEW (the OMTs [official management terms] are thick and savoury, which translate as "viscous" and "dark brown") is the staple FOOD in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out. Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in CAMP you are likely to be attacked without warning...and in an INN prone to be the centre of a TAVERN BRAWL, Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak. But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food. The exact recipe for Stew is of course a Management secret, but it is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables. Do not expect a salad on the side.
Yet much as I love The Tough Guide, it is ultimately a book for grown-ups, and although Diana Wynne Jones's books are often funny, satire is too small a window through which to consider her work. Let's turn instead to her many marvelous books for children, beginning with the Chrestomanci titles.

Diana Wynne Jones envisions a series of parallel worlds related by differing causalities, or alternative outcomes of key events, and one of the worlds is our own. (Read about Hugh Everett and string theory for quantum mechanics-based thoughts on the concept.) In these worlds, magic is a commodity that is often misused by the criminal element. The most powerful enchanter in the related worlds, recognizable because he has nine lives, is appointed director and policeman over magic in all of the worlds. His title is Chrestomanci, and he can be summoned by repeating it three times in magical emergencies. (Click here for an A-Z Glossary of the Related Worlds as compiled by Helen Scott on the official DWJ website.)

The most important Chrestomanci books are The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life, which tell about the current Chrestomanci and his young successor, respectively. Christopher Chant is raised by a lovely, negligent society wife—or rather, by governesses. No one realizes for years that his powerful magic is constrained by the touch of silver. Meanwhile, he is walking the parallel worlds in what he thinks are dreams. As he is used by his avaricious uncle to smuggle illegal magical supplies, Christopher begins to lose his nine lives at an alarming rate. The tangle eventually gets untangled, but in the meantime, Christopher aids and abets a young runaway who happens to be the goddess of Asheth, along with her menace of a temple cat. To give you an idea of the kind of humor in Jones's books, the goddess wants nothing more than to be a British school girl, like the ones she reads about in a series of dippy books Christopher has brought her because she is bored.

In Charmed Life, Christopher is a grown-up now married to the Living Asheth, who has renamed herself Millie. He rambles about Chrestomanci Castle and indeed, the known worlds, in embroidered silk dressing gowns—of course, he does tend to be summoned unexpectedly to put out magical fires. The castle is partly a training ground for Chrestomanci's children and for his successor. When Cat (Eric) and Gwendolyn Chant are brought to live there, it takes the grown-ups a while to figure out that Gwendolyn is using her little brother's magic to fuel her own ambitions.

Another key book about Christopher Chant/Chrestomanci is Conrad's Fate, in which you can see the enchanter and Millie as teens. The rest of the books set in this series of worlds give us a Chrestomanci who simply makes cameo appearances, usually in the role of a rather tongue-in-cheek deus ex machina. But never fear, the young characters in these books do work out their own magic-related dilemmas. The Magicians of Caprona, The Pinhoe Egg, and Witch Week are also Chrestomanci books, and Jones has written four short stories involving her nine-lived enchanter, as well. Of these titles, I particularly like Witch Week, a tale that plays out in a world where witchcraft is forbidden. The setting is a school called Larwood House, and the book begins,

The note said: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH. It was written in capital letters in ordinary blue ballpoint, and it had appeared between two of the geography books Mr. Crossley was marking. Anyone could have written it. Mr. Crossley rubbed his ginger mustache unhappily. He looked out over the bowed heads of Class 6B and wondered what to do about it.
The world of Witch Week considers such a note to be more than a prank; it's an accusation. But Mr. Crossley hesitates to inform his boss, who will probably call in an Inquisitor, a man authorized to use torture to root out and destroy witchcraft. As the school is rocked by magical happenings, including flocks of birds flying through classrooms and the sudden disappearance of every shoe in the entire school, the students in Class 6B try to uncover the identity of the resident witch and save each other from the forthcoming attentions of the Inquisitor.

Of course, Diana Wynne Jones has written many books besides her Chrestomanci titles. The most well known is probably Howl's Moving Castle, a book I dearly loved even before Miyazaki made it into an animated film. In this world, fairy tale rules tend to apply, so as the eldest of three sisters, Sophie knows she is destined to fail if she sets out to seek her fortune. But even working quietly in a hat shop, Sophie manages to offend the Witch of the Waste, getting herself turned into an elderly woman for her troubles. Deciding she has nothing to lose, Sophie hobbles out into the world, where she encounters a floating, traveling castle belonging to the wizard Howl and moves in, looking for adventure as well as answers. Howl is vain and moody, but he has met his match in practical, cantankerous Sophie. Pretty soon the two of them overcome their differences to deal with the growing threat of the Witch of the Waste, not to mention the problem of the fire demon who powers Howl's castle. Jones has written a couple of sequels to Howl's Moving CastleCastle in the Air and House of Many Ways, the latter being her most recent book (2008).

Most of the author's stories are rambunctious and sometimes mysterious adventures, but one of her very best books is quieter and often poignant. Dogsbody tells about a girl who is being raised by her aunt and uncle after she is orphaned. The story is told from the point of view of a puppy named Sirius, who gradually becomes aware of how badly Kathleen is treated in the household, especially by her aunt. Yet Sirius has his own enemies and his own past. He is no mere puppy, but the dog star himself in exile, falsely convicted of a crime he did not commit. As allies and enemies converge, both Sirius and Kathleen fight to claim their selves and their futures. Dogsbody is astoundingly unique, well crafted, and in fact, just plain lovely.

Diana Wynne Jones has a knack for mixing ordinary life and magic that reminds me of Joan Aiken's work (e.g., the recently published collection of Armitage stories, The Serial Garden). Other than Aiken, I don't think anyone besides Jones has ever achieved the blend quite so beautifully—or with plots that escalate quite so madly. For example, consider Archer's Goon, another DWJ book I like very much. It begins:

The trouble started the day Howard came home from school to find the Goon sitting in the kitchen. It was Fifi who called him the Goon. Fifi was a student who lived in their house and got them tea when their parents were out. When Howard pushed Awful into the kitchen and slammed the door after them both, the first person he saw was Fifi, sitting on the edge of a chair, fidgeting nervously with her striped scarf and her striped leg warmers.
"Thank goodness you've come at last!" Fifi said. "We seem to have somebody's Goon. Look."
Howard looked the way Fifi's chin jerked and saw the Goon sitting in a chair by the dresser. He was filling most of the rest of the kitchen with long legs and huge boots. It was a knack the Goon had. The Goon's head was very small, and his feet were enormous. Howard's eyes traveled up a yard or so of tight faded jeans, jerked to a stop for a second at the knife with which the Goon was cleaning the dirty nails of his vast hands, and then traveled on over an old leather jacket to the little, round fair head in the distance. The little face looked half-daft.
Howard discovers that his father has been writing two thousand words of nonsense and sending them to Town Hall every month for some inexplicable reason. This month, the pages are missing. Howard gradually learns that there is more than one person trying to get their hands on the pages, and that each of these individuals is a kind of sorcerer who "farms" part of the city arrogantly and sometimes criminally. The mystery takes still more twists and turns before Howard learns the complete truth, and all along the way, the Goon looms just over his shoulder.

Aside from many wonderful standalone titles and several story collections, one other group of books is worth mentioning: the Dalemark Quartet. Here Jones delves into more serious and traditional fantasy. Dalemark is split between the freedom-loving earls of the North and the tyrannical earls of the South, so war often breaks out between the two sections of the land. I am especially fond of the first book, Cart and Cwidder, which begins with the murder of a musician who has been driving around the countryside with his children, putting on performances. But there was more to Clennen than meets the eye, and his children discover they must carry out his last mission while evading the reach of the ruthless earls of the South. Like many of Jones' books, this is a good example of the way the author draws a realistic picture of the bickering and support between siblings even as her plot takes us on an adventure colored by magic.

I will mention that Eight Days of Luke draws on Norse mythology, and that The Ogre Downstairs unites a quarrelsome group of newly minted stepsiblings when the kids are given magical chemistry sets and start getting themselves into trouble—there's a whiff of Edward Eager in that one. The Magicians of Caprona features two warring magical houses reminiscent of the Montagues and the Capulets. The Homeward Bounders works with the idea of parallel worlds in a more ominous way than the Chrestomanci titles do, creating a solitary and iconic young hero by book's end. Note that both Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock are Young Adult books, with a more mature sensibility. (I also recommend DWJ's adult fantasy, A Sudden Wild Magic, which has one of the funniest resolutions I've ever read in my life.)

Other notable books include The Merlin Conspiracy, A Tale of Time City, Wild Robert, Power of Three, Aunt Maria (U.S. title), The Time of the Ghost, and The Game, along with short stories in the author's own collections and other anthologies. I especially like "Chair Person" from Stopping for a Spell and "What the Cat Told Me" from Unexpected Magic.

Diana Wynne Jones had a strange childhood, which might explain in part how she turned out to be such an interesting person. You can read a brief but fascinating autobiography on her website, but I'll just quote from an interview on BookBrowse here:

I started writing children's books when we moved to a village in Essex where there were almost no books. The main activities there were hand-weaving, hand-making pottery, and singing madrigals, for none of which I had either taste or talent. So, in intervals between trying to haunt the church and sitting on roofs hoping to learn to fly, I wrote enormous epic adventure stories which I read to my sisters instead of the real books we did not have. This writing was stopped, though, when it was decided I must be coached to go to University. A local philosopher was engaged to teach me Greek and philosophy in exchange for a dollhouse (my family never did things normally), and I eventually got a place at Oxford.
At this stage, despite attending lectures by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, I did not expect to be writing fantasy. But that was what I started to write when I was married and had children of my own.

As a children's fantasy writer, I am sometimes asked who my influences are. Since I suspect interviewers don't want to hear a list of a hundred-plus books, I reluctantly narrow it down. And yes, Diana Wynne Jones is on my shortlist, more than anything because her work reminds me to use my own imagination boldly.

You may rejoice to hear that the latest DWJ drought is almost over: the author has a book called Enchanted Glass coming out in April 2010. Her website says of the book, "A stand-alone book, not part of any series, there are the expected magicians, but it also includes giant vegetables, revenge by cauliflower cheese (?!) and fortune-telling using racing tips." So yes, rest assured—Diana Wynne Jones is as unusual and funny a thinker and writer as ever.

I will end with one more quote from the author, also from the BookBrowse interview. The interviewer asked Ms. Jones if she prefers writing for children or adults, and what the differences are. The author replied, "Writing for adults, you have to keep reminding them of what is going on. The poor things have given up using their brains when they read. Children you only have to tell things to once."

To learn more about Diana Wynne Jones, visit her website, or click here to read an excellent Publishers Weekly interview from June 2006. See either her website or this nice Wikipedia article for a list of the author's books and short stories.

Note: I was inspired to write this post because I am hosting a book club discussion of The Lives of Christopher Chant on the Enchanted Inkpot fantasy blog tomorrow. You are welcome to join us.

Update: Read this lovely article about Diana Wynne Jones and her books at Under the Green Willow (July 2010).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Review of The Whole Green World by Tony Johnston and Elisa Kleven

Since I'm already in poetry mode this week, let me share with you a picture book that's a poem. Like many of my favorites, this one's out of print, so look for it at your library.

I had been a fan of poet Tony Johnston's An Old Shell: Poems of the Gallapagos for a few years when I came across The Whole Green World, which is one of those books people tend to call "a celebration of life." Each spread is composed of a stanza of the poem on the left, displayed inside a circle of items representing the theme of the stanza (watch especially for the circle of ladybugs and ants!). Then on the right-hand page, you find a series of illustrations of a child planting a little garden, accompanied by her dog.

The poem seems to ramble, including topics like shoes and cake as well as seeds, but it all combines wonderfully and deliberately to capture a child's meandering, light-filled view of the world. Here's the first stanza:
I've got a little pair of shoes.
(Comfy, cozy little shoes.)
Got a little pair of shoes
to walk the whole round world.
And you see the girl putting her shoes on, a book about gardening beside her and her dog peeking in the window along with the sun. She talks about her dog and the stick she digs with, then we get this stanza about seeds:
I've got a little sack of seeds.
(Fat and slick like glassy beads.)
Got a little sack of seeds
to plant the whole round world.
Far too many poetic picture book texts out there are mere verse, but Tony Johnston is the real deal, and it shows. The poem is beautifully crafted, a cheery and tongue-pleasing read. On top of that, the choice of Elisa Kleven to illustrate it is simply inspired. If you haven't seen Elisa Kleven's freewheeling art before, you're in for a treat. I suppose I'm biased: the one piece of original children's book illustration I've ever bought is a small Kleven work depicting kids cartwheeling among autumn trees. It hangs in my office where I can see it when I write, and it lifts my heart to look at it.

I just visited Kleven's website, and I learned two things: one, that she uses watercolor, colored pencil, ink, crayons, and collage to make her artwork, and two, that her style represents a vision of the world worth mentioning here. Listen to how the illustrator (often author-illustrator) talks about herself:
"I write and illustrate picture books because I've never outgrown a deep childhood urge to enter a magical world. As a child growing up in Los Angeles I used to wish that my huge, congested city were more like the places in the books that I loved - places where forests grew and seasons changed, where animals talked and anything was possible."
Somehow, Tony Johnston's poem and Elisa Kleven's art come together in this small book to recreate the world, making it more magical and happy without resorting to sticky sentimentality. Share Tony Johnston and Elisa Kleven's picture book with your own child, and learn to "dance the whole green world"!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Best Etymology Ever

Today I looked up "pumpernickel" because it appeared in a list of shades of brown in Roget's Thesaurus, and I need a lot of color words for the book I'm writing. I happened to glance at the etymology and had to laugh: I had figured the word was German, but I never would have guessed that it comes from roots roughly translating as "goblin farts"! Apparently the bread had quite a reputation for being indigestible...

Poetry Friday: Worthy Poems

If I could only have one book of children's poems by a single author in my library—well, of course that's an obnoxious question. Why limit yourself? But I do know the answer: the book would be All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth, with the added bonus of pictures by Natalie Babbitt.

The truth is, collections of poems are a lot like short story collections, which are typically comprised of a couple of clunkers, several average entries, and two or three successful pieces. In the same way, even the best poets tend not to have books simply packed with breathtaking poems; they will give us books with a number of very nice poems along with a handful of stunners. I find this is true even of books of selected poems—because who can possibly keep up the pace for page after page?

Valerie Worth's book is the exception to the rule. So many of the poems feel like miniature planets of meaning, making you sit back in your chair and smile, sit back and dream. Remember learning about the "platonic ideal" of an object? Worth can make you see the most ordinary objects as whole and new and true. What's more, she accomplishes this in a calm, quiet way, without resorting to theatrics. Her table of contents, wisely set entirely in lowercase letters, sounds like its own kind of poem, an ode to simplicity. It begins like this:


Let's read Poem #3 together:


Zinnias, stout and stiff,
Stand no nonsense: their colors
Stare, their leaves
Grow straight out, their petals
Jut like clipped cardboard,
Round, in neat flat rings.

Even cut and bunched,
Arranged to please us
In the house, in water, they
Will hardly wilt—I know
Someone like zinnias; I wish
I were like zinnias.

Besides a tidy description of the flower itself, Worth gives us a wry portrait of a particular person and even some insight into the poet's personality, which is not at all zinnia-like. (For that "someone," I'm picturing a precise and pompous zinnia woman, are you?)

"Sun" is often anthologized, as is one of the most perfect poems ever written, "Magnet," along with "Dinosaurs," "Tiger," and perhaps "Safety Pin," but some of her less well-known poems deserve our attention, for instance, "Crab."


The dead crab
Lies still,
Limp on dry sand,

All strength to crawl
Gone from his
Hard shell—

But he keeps a shape
Of old anger
Curved along his claws.
These poems are mostly descriptions, but they make you feel like no one has ever looked more closely at a thing. For example, Worth tells us that "Turtle" is "Shawled/In the shade/Of his shell." Or look at her horse:


In the stall's gloom,
His back, curved
Like a high sofa,
Turns on unseen
Legs, looms closer,
Until his long
Head forms above
The door, his face
Of thin silk over
Bone: to be stroked
Carefully, like
Fine upholstery
On a hard chair.
Aside from her surprisingly apt furniture analogy, note how the horse's legs are unseen, his head "forming" above the door in a way that is absolutely accurate but made newly mysterious by the way the poet presents it to us. Worth's "Dog" is another elegantly delineated portrait, and her "Rosebush" manages to be bleakly philosophical in just nine lines. Or consider the chicken and her egg, which you may never think of in quite the same way after reading this poem:


Somehow the hen,
Herself all quirk
And freak and whim,

Manages to make
This egg, as pure
And calm as a stone:

All for the sake
Of a silly chick,
Another squawking hen.
Valerie Worth's small poems remind me of Emily Dickinson's work in that at first glance they might appear slight, mere fragments of thought. But each one contains much more than the hen's egg contains, the way this book contains far more than you might expect.

Poems are quoted from All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, Valerie Worth and Natalie Babbitt, A Sunburst Book from Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1994. Valerie Worth was born in 1933 and died in 1994.

Today is Poetry Friday! To see more poetry posts, visit host Laura Salas's blog.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Five Great Out-of-Print Read Alouds

Some of the best books in my collection are out of print, but thanks to the Internet, not to mention your local library, it's pretty easy to get your hands on less well-known titles these days. Of course, you have to scout around—for example, I saw one of these books for $4.00 in one spot and for $150 in another.

What makes a great read aloud? The best ones are almost always stories with humor and surprising plot twists. A good refrain and other types of ear-pleasing language also help a book grab a young audience.

Not This Bear! by Bernice Myers

This is an oldie but a goodie. I've been teaching Shakespeare to one of my teenage students, and as we've tried to figure out what comedy is, we've discussed the humorous possibilities of mistaken identity or disguise. So in Not This Bear! we have little Herman, who gets off the bus and walks through the woods to visit his Aunt Gert, but is waylaid by a bear shouting, "You must be my Cousin Julius!" It is a very cold day, and Herman has tucked himself deep inside his fur coat and hat. Dragged home to the bear's den, he tries telling the ursine clan that he is a boy, not a bear, but they won't listen. When he demonstrates his unusual abilities, Papa Bear merely says, "See what happens...when a bear has a chance to go to the big city and learn a trade." But Herman shows a strange reluctance to hibernate, and the bears start to wonder if he really is their cousin... Then just when you think Herman has made his escape, there's a nice little near-miss of a twist!

The Revenge of the Magic Chicken by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger

Lester and Munsinger are best known for Tacky the Penguin. Their book, The Wizard, the Fairy, and the Magic Chicken (right), is still in print, but I prefer the sequel, The Revenge of the Magic Chicken, which has gone out of print. Our story begins with the wizard, the fairy, and the magic chicken (who has a pickle wand) arguing over whose shoes are the most beautiful. Tempers rise, and soon the fairy turns the wizard into a cow wizard and the wizard turns the fairy into a blueberry muffin. When the magic chicken laughs at them both, they turn him into a Ballerina Chicken.

The Magic Chicken goes off in a huff, then comes back with a vengeful spell involving scary creatures appearing in the tree above the unsuspecting cow's and muffin's heads. Although he has second thoughts, the Magic Chicken can't remember the spell to call off his attack team. Young readers will enjoy saying the spell, which goes like this: "Pickle, pickle, bright and GREEN,/Make me something very MEAN." We get monsters like Gnarly Gnitbats, who scream, "Eeyipes! Eeyipes!" and Awesome Alligators, who roar, "RrrrG, rrrrG." Not to mention an Enormous Elephant. Kids will enjoy setting the Magic Chicken straight, since the problem with his cancellation spell is that he keeps getting the color word wrong.

The Magic Chicken is a great comedic character, and Lynn Munsinger is a genius!

The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man by jill Wright and Glen Rounds

You may have figured out that starting in kindergarten, if not before, a lot of young readers like scary stories. This one turns out okay, but the character of the Willy Nilly Man is, as the author informs us, "scairy."

He lives in a house in the middle of the wood but it's not like a house regular folks would live in. It's all made up out of pieces of tin and old cans and boxes and junk he's found down along the railroad tracks. And it has a cow skull hangin on it and an old goat skull and a lot of skinny dogs are slinkin around outside growlin.
An old woman goes to visit the Willy Nilly Man because every night, her shoes get up and dance, keeping her awake. When she gets to the Willy Nilly Man's house, he is banging on an old drum, singing, "Clothes, wash yourselves...clothes, wash yourselves." And his laundry is doing itself! The Willy Nilly Man slyly agrees to help the old woman, but his cure only makes things worse, and she is determined to pay him back. This Appalachian folktale will be an unusual and slightly shivery read for your children, but it is also laced with humor.

I will add that the illustrator himself was a real character. According to his obituary in the New York Times from September 2002, when he died at the age of 96, Glen Rounds "was born in a sod house near Wall, S.D., and worked as a mule skinner, cowboy and carnival medicine man before beginning a long career as an author and illustrator....

Reaching New York in 1930, he took night classes at the Art Students League. In the mid-1930's he visited publishers' offices in late morning, somehow getting a good lunch even if his drawings seemed too coarse. Once he began to be published, however, he proved indefatigable....

In 1989 severe arthritis in his right arm forced him to stop drawing. 'Rather than take up horseshoeing,' he said in an interview, he used the summer to learn to draw left-handed and went back to work."

If you'd like a preview, here's a link to storyteller Judy Peiken's retelling of The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man.

Beware of Boys by Tony Blundell

I love this crazy British story! A large but hapless wolf captures a small boy taking a shortcut through the forest and brings him home to eat for his supper. "Silly boy," the wolf says. But the boy is neither silly nor alarmed. He immediately begins proposing recipes the wolf can use to prepare him so that he will be a truly delicious repast. The first of these, "Recipe for Boy Soup," includes the following ingredients:

--One boy (medium-sized)
--One large iron pot
--One ton of potatoes
--One oodle of onions
--One wooden tub of turnips
--One cartload of carrots
--One packet of fruit chews
--One well-full of water
--One barrel of bricks
--One trowel

Sharp-eared readers will notice that the string of recipes (because the boy keeps suggesting different ones) always include treats for the boy, are designed to wear the wolf out, and have cooking instructions which don't include any actual cooking. The verbs that accompany the wolf's efforts to gather each set of ingredients are fun to repeat, and at every turn, we find the refrain, "Oh, silly wolf, you have forgotten the salt!" Watch for the random recipe ingredients to come together as boy defeats wolf in a series of moves worthy of a Loony Tunes cartoon. (Actually, this kid could be a young version of Bruce Willis' Die Hard character, between his unshakable confidence and his ability to manipulate the villain into a corner while quipping!)

Blundell's illustrations are colorful and cartoon-like, with plenty of enjoyable details. They remind me of Colin McNaughton's style.

Mr. Semolina-Semolinus: A Greek Folktale retold by Anthony L. Manna, Christodoula Mitakidou, and Giselle Potter

The authors give us a different take on the traditional fairy tale in which a damsel in distress needs rescuing. Greek princess Areti doesn't like any of her suitors, so she decides to make her own. She literally cooks up a boyfriend out of almonds, sugar, semolina, and prayer. The result is Mr. Semolina-Semolinus, who is "five times beautiful and ten times kind, and his name [becomes] known the wide world over."

Unfortunately, a wicked queen from a far-off kingdom hears of this wonderful man, and she travels across the sea in her golden galley to kidnap him. After that, Areti follows in the pattern of northern European fairy tales such as "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" and "The Seven Ravens" by wearing out three pairs of iron shoes in her search for her lost love. She is given gifts in nutshells by the Moon, the Sun, and the Stars, but it is only the smallest star who can tell her where to find Mr. Semolina-Semolinus. At last Areti is able to rescue him. A nice little post-script is what happens when the evil queen tries to cook up a man of her own!

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the authors is to make the love between Areti and Mr. Semolina-Semolinus seem tender and true in just a few words. For example, when at last she can talk to him again, we learn that "To the princess he now appeared ten times beautiful and twenty times kind, for that is the way love is."

Giselle Potter's distinctive illustration style also makes this story a unique read.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Author's Name Link

I'll admit this is an oddball thing, but there's a website for teachers which lets students hear how authors pronounce their names. The authors can also tell little stories about their names--so I did. You can even have the dubious pleasure of hearing me sing, since my name comes from an old song. Here's my Kate link! (The picture to the left is me as a first grader.)

I would note that you can then browse the site to hear about other authors and their names... kind of fun! Actually, the whole site, TeachingBooks, is a nice resource for finding out more about authors.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Giveaway Winners and a List of Dragons

And the winners are... Susan and Infant Bibliophile! (I will be e-mailing you shortly about sending you each a signed copy of The Runaway Dragon.)

For the rest of you, hey--we came up with a nice little list of dragons while we were at it. Here are some favorite dragons or dragon books:

--The Reluctant Dragon, by Kenneth Grahame; illustrated by either Ernest Shephard or, more recently, Michael Hague
--Puff the Magic Dragon
--Kazul from Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles
--Kitty from Tamora Pierce's Wild Mage quartet
--the title character from Boni Ashburn and Kelly Murphy's picture book, Hush, Little Dragon
--the dragons in Harry Potter, Books 1 and 4
--The Last Dragon by Silvana de Mari
--the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey
--the dragon at the end of Hannah's Winter by Kierin Meehan
--Bruce Coville's Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
--the dragon in Margaret Mahy's picture book, The Lion in the Meadow
--Eustace when he turns into a dragon in C.S. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader
--a British TV series, Jane and the Dragon

I'll add a few more dragons I came up with:

--the dragon depicted by Trina Schart Hyman in St. George and the Dragon
--the baby dragons in Shelley Moore Thomas and Jennifer Plecas' Good Night, Good Knight and other books in the easy reader/picture book series
--Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like, a picture book by Jay Williams and Mercer Mayer
--the dragon who gets tickled in David LaRochelle and Richard Egielski's clever backwards fairy tale, The End (picture book)
--the sexy teenage dragon/boy from Vivian Vande Velde's YA, Dragon's Bait
--the dragons in the Eragon series by Christopher Paolini
--and of course, the marvelous Smaug from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

Please feel free to post a comment about any other terrific kids' lit dragons you might think of...

Even more dragons and dragon books from the comments:

--Jessica Day George's books, Dragon Slippers, Dragon Flight, and Dragon Spear
--the dragons in E.D. Baker's Frog Princess series
--The Tale of Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash

P.S. In other giveaway and dragon-related news, I was just interviewed by author Linda Gerber on her website in honor of The Runaway Dragon's release. She is also giving away a copy of my book! (You have to note what your magical power of choice would be by 9/9/09 to get in on the drawing.)

A Review of NERDS by Michael Buckley

I suppose it's inevitable that some of today's children's books would resemble TV writing, particularly the kind you encounter in Saturday morning cartoons of the post-Scooby Doo era. I first noticed this in Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant, and I recently encountered it again in Greg Taylor's book, Killer Pizza. Another example is H.I.V.E.:Higher Institute of Villainous Education by Mark Walden. Now we see that shiny commercial quality in Michael Buckley's new book, NERDS. (Buckley is best known for his previous series, The Sisters Grimm.)

Of course, the trend is entirely understandable—not only are young readers familiar with the plot devices and characters from TV shows, but these same kids grow up to be people who write books. Having grouped the authors I just mentioned stylistically, I took a look at their backgrounds, assuming a couple of them would turn out to be screenwriters. I was oddly gratified to learn that every single one of them started off writing for film, television, or—in one case—video games.

Years ago, I talked to a producer of children's television programming because I had the clever idea I could write for TV, not to mention she knew my father. She kindly explained that most children's TV shows start out with the toys, not the plots and characters. The premise was always a packaged commodity which preceded any actual storytelling.

So you will probably know what I mean when I say that I suspect the team of fifth grade superspy nerds in Buckley's book came before his main character, Jackson Jones, or the plot of this first book in the series. Here's a description of the nerd crew from the flap copy:
Duncan "Gluestick" Dewey. He's a paste-eater who can stick to walls.
Ruby "Pufferfish" Peet. Her allergies help her detect danger and dishonesty.
Heathcliff "Choppers" Hodges. He controls minds with his buckteeth.
Julio "Flinch" Escala. His hyperactivity gives him super speed and strength.
Matilda "Wheezer" Choi. Her inhalers enable her to fly and blast enemies.
Then we have the new recruit: Jackson "Braceface" Jones, a popular kid who picked on the school nerds relentlessly until he got braces and became one of their number in a matter of hours.

Except that Jackson falls into their midst by accident, and they don't like it. Forced to train him, the nerds exact their revenge (movie allusion not necessarily intended!). After a lot of misery for our guy Jackson, in which he bumbles the training routines and ruins a couple of missions, to boot, the other kids sort of begin to consider him as one of the team. Only that doesn't happen till the tail end of the book, which means we spend a lot of page time on payback before zeroing in on the supervillain and his evil plans.

"Popular boy learns to be nice to nerds" is almost as overdone as "popular boy learns he underestimated the nerds." Here we have both. But—sigh—a lot of kids are going to like this. It may be that only cranky old fantasy readers like myself will roll their eyes at the predictability of the plotting.

Because there is a place for rollicking, TV-esque books in today's children's section, and NERDS is kinda cute. Did I tell you what NERDS stands for, by the way? That would be "National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society."

Now that Buckley has established his crew of young superspies, I hope his next book in the series will relax and introduce some surprises, along with more character depth. Clever plotting is not a bad place to begin, but even the most adventurous stories need to give us characters who really capture our hearts.

Note for Worried Parents: Though some of you may be pleased that the nerds are cast as superheroes, their weaknesses turning into strengths, others may be troubled by the strong stereotyping of nerds based on certain physical characteristics.

A Review of The Doom Machine by Mark Teague

Very few picture book illustrators end up writing middle grade fiction. Mordicai Gerstein gave it a shot with his The Old Country a few years back, and Kevin Henkes has written some well-regarded books such as Olive's Ocean and Bird Lake Moon. But it's uncommon enough that I did a double take when I saw the name of the author on this book jacket. Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, Pigsty, and Funny Farm are a few of the author-illustrator's best-known titles in recent years. He is also the illustrator of Jane Yolen's How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? and sequels.

What is unsurprising, considering his picture books, is that Mark Teague would write something funny. The Doom Machine is set in a small town called Vern Hollow in 1956, and its hero is a boy who can fix just about anything, though he's prone to getting in trouble. Of course, Jack wouldn't have to spend so much time fixing cars for his Uncle Bud if the man weren't playing mad scientist in his garage laboratory. Uncle Bud is a prime example of Teague's cast of colorful characters: he built a wonderful rocket a few years back, but he financed his invention by robbing banks, so the government was not happy with him.

When a flying saucer appears in Vern Hollow, most of the residents flee in a panic (which explains the date: today everybody would get out their cell phone cameras and try to get footage to sell to Entertainment Tonight). A prim and proper scientist named Dr. Shumway has the misfortune of coming into town with her daughter Isadora just a day or two later, right before the U.S. Army shows up. Dr. Shumway initially sniffs at the idea of alien invaders, but Isadora is more open minded.

Pretty soon Jack and Isadora , along with Uncle Bud, Dr. Shumway, and the unpleasant cop Sergeant Webb and his even less pleasant son Grady, are being kidnapped by aliens. Turns out Uncle Bud's secret invention is a hot item in certain interstellar circles.

Teague gives us a good look at his spider-like skreeps, most notably Commander Xaafuun—whose ruthlessness is only surpassed by the skreep queen's. There's a lot of bickering among the aliens, which creates an amusing counterpoint to the main narrative. Jack and Isadora's madcap space adventures include encounters with other alien races on hostile planets, but ultimately they must confront their enemies on the skreep home planet.

Teague has a very good time with all this. And he offers readers a bit of a message. You may find that his portrayal of the skreeps sounds familiar, since they go around literally trashing any planet they get their claws on. They also think that they are superior to every other being they encounter, all of whom wind up working in the mines or fighting in arenas to entertain the skreeps. Ugly as they are to human eyes, the skreeps consider themselves very beautiful. Dressing to kill takes on a whole new meaning here.

The Doom Machine is an entertaining ride, especially because of characters like Jack and his uncle. Isadora is not quite as strongly drawn, which gives her sort of a sidekick feel. There were a couple of plot twists that were so over-the-top they didn't work for me, but then, the tone is pretty much tongue-in-cheek, so what the heck! This book reminds me of Philip Reeve's Larklight, except for being set in 1950s small-town America-plus-spaceships instead of Victorian England-plus-spaceships.

Like NERDS, The Doom Machine contains echoes of TV writing, but I liked it better. For one thing, the book evokes old black-and-white sci-fi movies in addition to Saturday morning cartoons. For another, The Doom Machine is simply more fresh, with funny surprises peeking out from around various corners. If your kids like adventure and humor, they just might relish Mark Teague's first middle grade novel.