Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Runaway Princess in Japanese

I'll confess I had forgotten all about this, so it was a very happy thing to come home from work and find a box full of books: The Runaway Princess is now available in Japanese! (Thank you, FSG and Babel Press.)

What's more, the new illustrator did some fun spot art. This is, of course, the only part of the book I can actually read... Here are a few samples. And if you're in Japan, well, have at it!

Book cover. The back is now the front, of course.

There's a cool little frog icon at the start of each chapter.

Vantor's not happy.

Cam turns into a magic box. Yikes!

Homage to Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Green

Seeger’s beautiful picture book is a poem, did you notice? But her greens inspired me to write some poems of my own, occasionally rhymed tercets that describe each spread. I figure that will speak to you more greenly than an ordinary review would.

forest green

Trees’ knees
lead eyes high
to a hushed green sky. 

sea green

Sea turtle flows
by with fish
like a briny wish.

lime green
Bright lime
yells on tongue:
“Summer time!”

pea green

They line up
like green soldiers,
then fall out.

jungle green

Leaves and vines
everywhere but
shade-striped eyes.

khaki green

Lizard storms
desert, hides where
rock spot warms.

fern green

Forest curls unfurl
to sway
in green array.

wacky green

Green stripes
like a spearmint cane—
zebra’s refrain.

slow green

This green inches
over petals to measure
the lengths of leaves.

faded green
Like an old t-shirt,
soft washed,
never lost.

glow green

Darkness falls,
but mini nightlights
call hellos.

shaded green

Pages turn
in the cool breeze
under shade trees.

all green

From a single pea
to a sweeping sea—
everywhere green!

never green

Opposite green
is stop. Don’t go.
Not even slow.

no green

Winter white
and green’s asleep,
hidden deep.

forever green

We plant seeds.
Spring comes,
hopeful with green.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Review of Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

It’s been a sad year, but a hopeful one as well. On the one hand, we’ve lost amazing writers like Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones. On the other hand, we’ve seen the arrival of new voices that promise to add something unique and wonderful to the canon of literature for children and teens. These newcomers by no means take the place of the voices we’ve lost, but they do bring their own magic to the field (which makes me think of the field of care in DWJ’s Enchanted Glass). This book is a good example of what I mean. Like Rachel Carson’s debut, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, another Rachel’s debut novel, Seraphina, has grabbed me and won’t let go.

I should confess that I am not big on dragon books as a genre. I only got through the first Christopher Paolini book, for example. But Seraphina is more about inter-species and international politics, not the care and feeding of dragons. In Seraphina’s world, dragons are a lot like the Vulcans in Star Trek. They are highly logical, math- and science-oriented beings who despise and even fear the influence of human emotions. They are also musically gifted, though their performances may lack nuance because of their lack of emotional expression. The dragons can take human form, though most are required to wear bells in public as a way of acknowledging what they really are. To call the truce between Seraphina’s kingdom and the dragon kingdom uneasy is an understatement.

As for Seraphina, she has a huge secret to keep. In a society that is dangerously anti-dragon, she is the ultimate abomination—the child of a dragon and a human. Most people don’t even think it’s possible for the two species to mix. There are ways in which Seraphina’s dual nature betrays her, certain procedures she must follow to protect herself. Her love of music has led her to become the assistant to the royal music master, but this puts her at even greater risk. On top of everything, she is developing feelings for a member of the royal family, and he is off limits for more than one reason.

Hartman’s depiction of dragon society and its interaction with the humans is skillfully drawn, as is main character Seraphina with her complex struggles. We learn that Seraphina has a cast of characters in her head that she must manage or she will lose her mind. At the very least, she will have headaches and seizures. Is she mentally ill because she is part dragon, or is there another meaning to her carefully cultivated garden of odd beings? Seraphina has named each character and learned ways to keep them under control. Here’s an excerpt showing a visit to the mind garden:
Sick and exhausted though I was, I could not put off dealing with Fruit Bat. I hauled my bolster onto the floor, threw myself down, and tried to enter the garden. It took several minutes before my teeth unclenched and I relaxed enough to envision the place. Fruit Bat was up a tree in his grove. I prowled around the trunk, picking my way over gnarled roots. He appeared to be asleep; he also looked about ten or eleven years old and had his hair in knots, just as he had in the vision. My mind had apparently updated his grotesque to conform to new information. I gazed up at his face and felt a pang of sadness. I didn’t want to lock him away, but I saw no alternative. Visions were dangerous; I could hit my head, suffocate, give myself away. I had to defend myself however I could.
Those who hate the dragons along with the dragons themselves become increasingly aware of Seraphina as she is drawn into the rising conflict. I will add that her relationship with her tutor is intriguing and poignant, especially considering his own difficulty finding out where he stands when it comes to Seraphina and the dragon kingdom.

The palace intrigue reminds me a little of the politics in a Megan Whalen Turner book, while the murder mystery ratchets up the suspense as the possibility of a rogue dragon turns a diplomatic mission on its head. You'll find plenty of plot twists in this one. Most of all, though, Seraphina is satisfying because its main character draws you completely into her strange world and her even stranger troubles. And isn’t that what Young Adult fiction is all about, whether it’s set in a modern high school or a distant palace in a land where there are dragons?

I’m not crazy about the book trailer, but you might want to watch it.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens and has a rather mature feel to it. There is some talk of affairs, along with violence, especially hate crimes.

Update: Check out this interview with Rachel Hartman at Enchanted Inkpot!

A Review of Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

This book has been compared to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and it does have a similar voice. But I am also reminded of books like Tom Angleberger’s Horton Halfpott: Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset, not to mention Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. There’s a droll, tongue-in-cheek feel to this book. Keeping the Castle is a parody of Pride and Prejudice and other, lesser Regency-era romances, but it also draws on Cinderella and any book you may have read in which the female main character is far more pragmatic than her plot might imply.

As our story begins, it’s a beautiful  spring morning and lovely narrator Althea is walking in the castle garden with a young man who is about to make her an offer of marriage.
     “I love you, Althea—you are so beautiful,” murmured the young man into my ear.     Well, I was willing enough. I looked up at him from under my eyelashes. “I love you too,” I confessed. I averted my gaze and added privately, “You are so rich.”
Unfortunately, she murmurs the words just under her breath, and the young man has sharp hearing. He is immediately offended. Althea explains that it’s a pretty sensible tradeoff, her looks for his money. When he asks if she would stop loving him if he lost all his money, she responds readily:
     “If I became ill,” I countered, “so that my hair fell out in clumps and my skin was covered with scabs and I limped, would you still love me?”     “Egad!” He stared at me, evidently attempting to picture this. He turned a little green.
The discussion goes downhill from there as the suitor tells her that when a young man admires a woman’s beauty it’s an artistic, spiritual thing, but when a woman admires a man’s money “it is mercenary and shows a cold heart.” The no-longer-a-suitor leaves in a huff.

Hmm, Althea thinks, didn’t like him much anyway. Now who can I snag? We learn that the castle is a fake castle, a monstrosity her foolish grandfather built perilously on the edge of a cliff. The place is falling apart. Althea and her mother want to rebuild it for her four-year-old brother because it’s all that’s left of the family fortune. In order to do that, Althea must marry into money.

In fact, for you English majors out there, the fake, falling-down castle makes a good metaphor for all of the artificiality inherent in a system of genteel poverty, aristocratic morning visits, and social hierarchy. Kindl skewers these things gleefully, especially the morning visits. When wave upon wave of neighbors descend on Althea’s household, she resorts to reusing the tea leaves, toasting the last bit of stale bread, and sending the scullery boy out to fish for minnows in the moat. The aristocrats’ names are also in for a fine bit of mockery.

Kindl throws in two selfish stepsisters straight out of Cinderella. Prudence and Charity try to hide Althea’s beauty from any young men they might encounter. They are the only ones in the family with any money at all, so they try to out-dress Althea, too, with mixed results. One of them even borrows a little from one of my favorite parts of Huck Finn:
[Prudence] was the elder, with a broad, flat face and figure, and few pretensions to beauty. Her favorite pastime was collecting quotations on the subject of death and mortality. She wrote them out in an elegant hand, decorated them with sketches of weeping willows and mourning urns, bound them up in an album labeled “Memento Mori,” and then gloated over them. “He seemed in a bit of a hurry. I trust you did not chase him away with that indiscreet tongue of yours, Althea.”
I particularly liked reading about how Althea goes to elaborate lengths to wring money out of her stepsisters.

Then there are the newly arrived young men in the neighborhood: sweet, handsome, Lord Boring (yes, Boring!) and his rude cousin, Mr. Fredericks. Althea sets her sights on Lord Boring, but then Mr. Fredericks seems to take an interest in her. Though the author hints rather broadly that Boring doesn’t actually have the money, Fredericks does, Althea is oblivious for much of the book. Mr. Fredericks is far more ill-mannered and abrupt than, say, Mr. Darcy, but he is clearly the man for Althea. As he himself eventually points out, he and Althea should marry because they like quarreling with each other. As for Lord Boring, he is just as wimpy but not nearly as reliable as Austin’s Bingley.

Althea really does remind me of Stella Gibbons’ Flora in that she is not greedy, ambitious, or unkind, simply highly practical. And though she does misjudge Mr. Fredericks a la Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, she certainly has her reasons.

The humor in this book is at its height in the early chapters, after which the laughs are more occasional. But it’s fun to read a spoof of a favorite genre, and Kindl remains witty, if not hilarious, to the end—when, rather than kissing Althea, Fredericks shakes her hand, well pleased with her response to his proposal.

Keeping the Castle is a cheery, entertaining read from the author of other wonderful books including Owl in Love and the fairy tale sendup, Goose Chase. Recommended with a grin and even a guffaw.

A Review of Secret Letters by Leah Scheier

This one reminds me of the Agency series by Y.S. Lee. Some people might connect it to Laurie R. King’s adult mystery series about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, but I don’t know if I’d go that far. Secret Letters is the story of a girl who finds out she is not her father’s daughter; she is actually the daughter of Sherlock Holmes. In the first chapter of the book, Dora Joyce travels to London with her cousin, Adelaide (AKA Lady Forrester). Supposedly they are going to enlist the great detective’s help in getting some letters back from a man who is blackmailing Adelaide, but of course Dora wants to meet her birth father. She has actually been reading Dr. John Watson’s accounts of her father’s adventures and has taken up detecting in her country home, to the bewilderment and dismay of her relatives.

Unfortunately, Dora arrives at 221 Baker Street on the very day it is announced that Sherlock Holmes is dead. Dora swoons at the news. She is revived by a young detective named Peter Cartwright who appears to know something about Sherlock and maybe even about her. Dora and Peter are a classic clashing couple after the manner of Hepburn and Tracy. They begin to match wits, and later Adelaide hires Peter and his bumbling senior detective, Mr. Porter, to work on the blackmail case. In the meantime, Peter takes on the case of a missing young woman, Lady Rose. With some reluctance, he agrees to let Dora go to Hartfield Hall to pose as a maid and get some answers about the girl’s disappearance.

So that’s the setup, and Dora plays detective to her heart’s content, putting herself in great danger along the way and occasionally sparring with young Peter, to whom she is increasingly attracted. This is a fun read, but I found it less convincing than Lee’s series. The characters seem like actors in a play rather than real people, at least in parts of the book. At times they make choices that seem out of character. The most glaring example is when Dora sings and dances on a table in a country pub. Even though we are shown that Dora is a bold girl, her background does matter, and this particular incident seems forced and unnecessary. The breathless not-quite-romance and banter between Dora and Peter didn’t quite work for me, either. I also feel like Dora, while portrayed as a girl of action, is fairly ineffectual compared to Peter. Or rather, she gets herself into trouble being impulsive and determined, so then Peter and others have to rescue her. I expected her to be a little more cool-headed in certain ways, I suppose.

Here is a sample passage in which Peter is worrying about sending Dora off to the manor house:
When I re-entered the sitting room, Peter Cartwright was pacing by the window, chewing alternately on a cinnamon pastry and his thumbnail. The tension in his face had not eased at all; he appeared more distant and uncomfortable than before. I curtsied casually, but he stared helplessly at me without responding to my smile; even when I lisped out, “Well, Your Lordship?” [in character as the maid] he did not move.
     This was not the careless boy I knew; he seemed so awkward now, so raw and restless. I wanted to call out to him, to bring him back, to shake him, to be bold and silly so that he might mock me one more time. This creeping quiet troubled me, not just because it was unnatural for him but also because I was beginning to suspect that I was actually the cause of it. Was he doubting my abilities? I wondered suddenly. Was he going to change his mind and send me home?
Still, Secret Letters is not a bad read. I think a lot of people will enjoy it very much. And it will be interesting to see what Scheier does with Book 2, especially considering that, as most readers will be aware, Sherlock Holmes is not actually dead. I liked a cameo appearance by Dr. Watson near the end of the book, by the way (he goes unnamed).

If you’re up for this premise and don’t mind a middle grade read, you might also try Nancy Springer’s books about Sherlock Holmes’ much younger sister, Enola Holmes. They’re very good.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens, and there is some talk and a little peril having to do with seduction and unwed mothers.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Reflections, Observations, and Inspirations: Authors Speak


Unwilling to wait for September, I recently ordered from the UK Reflections on the Magic of Writing, an upcoming collection of the late Diana Wynne Jones’s thoughts on life and her writing process. I began considering a post about books of essays on writing, and then The Enchanted Inkpot came out with a great post on books about writing fantasy for children and teens, so I’ll just refer you there for those (including my quick note on DWJ’s book). But really, the books I’m thinking of are a little different. They’re the books that have inspired me as a children’s writer, and they’re not how-to books. They’re one of two things: interviews with and stories about children’s book writers or essays and lecture transcripts from notable children’s book writers.

Apart from Reflections, most of these books are a little older. I figured I must have simply missed the boat and that there had been other such essay collections since I acquired my batch of inspirational writing about the making of children’s books. Well, as it turns out, not so much. There’s one I missed and have now ordered: On Writing for Children and Other People by Julius Lester. In addition, I will point out that Leonard S. Marcus has become the de facto chronicler of the world of children’s literature. His latest is Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators. Marcus’s Dear Ursula: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom and Golden Legacy, a history of the little Golden Books, are just fascinating. And as a fantasy writer, I love-love-love his book, The Wand in the Wood: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy. Some day I’ll read the others. They all look good.

But why haven’t more children’s book writers come out with collections of lectures and essays in the past decade or so? One thought, of course, is that the market doesn’t support such books. Another is that most children’s book writers are too busy writing books for kids to spend time compiling books for older readers about process and craft. It may be that this task is left to elder statesmen and/or really big names in the field. All of which explains more or less why the incredibly lovely books I’m about to share are mostly out of print.

These are books for people who are absolutely nuts about children’s books or the works and thoughts of certain authors, or those who are children’s book writers themselves. They are also a way of getting to know some very fine, idiosyncratic creative minds. Reading these books won’t just give you ideas about writing for children, it will give you ideas about life and what it means to be human.

Reflections by Diana Wynne Jones

Oh, sure, you can read a really long analysis of Tolkien’s work called “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” in this book. I’ll admit I faltered a bit there, though I read “Reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia” and even her letter to the editor of The Times Literary Supplement titled “The Value of Learning Anglo-Saxon” with some relish. But most of the essays in this book are about writing, and many of them incorporate stories from Diana Wynne Jones’s childhood. You will find some repetition, of course, since writers tend to use the same (very good) anecdotes when presenting at different conferences, and more to the point, certain experiences really do shape us as individuals and as writers.

Reading Reflections is like getting to know Diana Wynne Jones (why does one hate to say simply Jones? But DWJ works!), and she is just as you might expect from reading every one of her books—brilliant, creative, a little acerbic, dry in a bright and witty way, and reluctant to allow the world to be simply ordinary.

You will also discover, if it’s something you didn’t already know, that DWJ had a pretty horrific, neglected childhood that somehow contributed, not only to her imagination, but to her skill with character. Have you noticed that all of DWJ’s characters feel so real because they are flawed, and that her adults in particular (and I do mean in her children’s books) tend to be flawed in amazingly honest, complex, and selfish ways?

Diana Wynne Jones also explains that her own approach to writing is almost never to outline, though the mythological bases of Fire and Hemlock were so intricately layered that she did relent and outlined part of the book sometime after completing a first draft. In fact, when you hear how many myths DWJ alluded to in writing Fire and Hemlock, you will be vastly impressed; I know I was, though I have read the book more than once.

I can't forget to mention the wry humor in Reflections, most notably when DWJ describes the worst of her school visits: hair-raising! And yes, though it isn’t funny, the semi-hanging incident in The Time of the Ghost comes from DWJ’s childhood, when she and her next sister came within inches of hanging their younger sister, who wanted to play Peter Pan in the rafters. (Their parents were nowhere to be found. They hardly ever were, including when it came to feeding and clothing their offspring.) And in Aunt Maria, the manipulation of feminine power was surely drawn from DWJ’s mother, who was jealous of her own daughters simply for being girls.

Another interesting aspect of some of these lectures and essays is that they trace the evolution of fantasy, showing how it became more common in the years following Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books and, though often filled with odd rules, eventually opened up—though one reason DWJ mostly stuck to writing children’s fantasy was that it seemed much more inclined to accept an “anything goes” approach, at least in comparison to what was being more rigidly expected of adult fantasy writers. (See “A Talk about Rules.”) Diana Wynne Jones was a rule breaker, or perhaps more accurately, a rule ignorer. She was busy traveling new ground even as she carried a bundle of myths like useful herbs in a fantasy healer’s pack.

DWJ speaks of writing for children as a great responsibility because of the power a good children’s fantasy book can have in a specific child’s life. She tells of the heroic ideal and her own odyssey. She offers hints on writing and reviews a book by Mervyn Peake. She creates an apt and beautiful analogy in “The Children in the Wood,” comparing the games of let’s-pretend that children create to writing fantasy. And she warns children who want to write: “Most teachers will tell you that you need to make a careful plan of your story before you start. This is because most teachers do not write stories.”

I’ve said before, as have others, that the best children’s books are subversive. Look at Maurice Sendak, for example—a born mischief-maker. And you just know that Mo Willems is partly his character, Pigeon. The best books surprise and challenge young readers, demanding that they see the world aslant, whether in beautiful ways or perfectly silly ones. DWJ's books are certainly among them.

I’ll just close with what came to be the most influential motif from DWJ’s childhood, a locked garden:
The garden that everyone saw was pleasant enough, though somewhat boringly laid out around a large square of grass. The Other Garden was quite different. It was like that garden in fairy tales where the king has counted all the apples. It was across a road, walled away from everyone, a blaze of manicured lawn leading to a tunnel of roses ending in an inlaid wood summer house, where espalier apple trees of types that are no longer grown surrounded plots of fruit, flowers, and vegetables. The bees had a plot of their own because they did not get on with the visionary gardener. Something about this garden caused him to build little shrine-like places in the wall niches and ornament them with posies and old Venetian glass.
     My father would not let anyone go there. He kept the large, old key to it in his pocket and it often took several days of pleading to get him to release it to me, grudgingly, for an hour or so. When I got there I simply wandered, in utter bliss. I talked to the bees, who never once stung me, although they pursued the visionary gardener once a week, in clouds, and occasionally turned on my father too; I ate apples; I watched things grow; and I never once connected it with the garden in the piano-playing picture, though that was more or less what it was.

Meet the unusual, delightful, and thoroughly subversive Diana Wynne Jones in her book, Reflections

Note: UK cover shown above.

Other Books from or about Children’s Book Writers


The ABCs of Writing for Children, ed. Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff

This book is a kind of encyclopedia of quotes—mostly 1-3 paragraphs—from children’s writers on a variety of topics. It’s just decadent with ideas!

Quote from Marilyn Singer under "Pacing":
When you’re doing a novel, it’s a mistake to follow a quiet chapter with another quiet chapter. When people talk about books being too quiet—a book can be about emotion and not be quiet. If one chapter is more dramatic, then the next chapter can be more quiet.

Origins of Story: On Writing for Children by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire (yes, that Gregory Maguire!)

These essays started out as Children’s Literature New England lectures given between 1988 and 1996. The writers include such luminaries as Sharon Creech, Maurice Sendak, Susan Cooper, Tom Feelings, Madeleine L’Engle, Virginia Hamilton, Margaret Mahy, Ursula Le Guin, and Katherine Paterson.

Quote from Sharon Creech’s essay, “Leaping Off the Porch”:
When I begin a book I feel like that “smoothbeautifulhorse” of e.e. cummings’s poem “the little horse is newlY.” I know nothing, but feel everything. All around me is perfectly a strangeness of light and smell, of a world that is welcoming me in, a world full of smoothbeautiful folds in which lies the breathing and silence of that someone—that character who is about to break her silence.

Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, ed. William Zinsser

Long essays from six marvelous authors: Jean Fritz, Maurice Sendak, Jill Krementz, Jack Prelutsky, Rosemary Wells, and Katherine Paterson. This is the book which told me that Maurice Sendak’s wild things were based on his Jewish relatives, for example.

Quote from Rosemary Wells’s essay, “The Well-Tempered Picture Book”:
I had written a picture book that summer. I put every ounce of love, wit and lyricism in my jittery soul into that book. It was a real loser. I had wanted to write about an old woman who digs in her heels and hangs on to her house in the face of avaricious developers who wanted to tear it down. It wasn’t that this was a poor idea; it’s just that writing about anything is a mistake. The only books that work are those which fly through the air—the ones you let happen, not make happen.


Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children by Susan Cooper

This book is a collection of essays from the author of the Dark Is Rising sequence.

Quote from her 1976 Newbery acceptance speech, “Seeing Around Corners”:
[Cooper was writing “a family adventure story” for a contest.] I invented three children called Simon, Jane and Barney, and a rather vague plot about villainy and hidden treasure. I wrote a first chapter in which they traveled down from London to Cornwall by train for a summer holiday, as my brother and I had done as children.
     And then a funny thing began to happen. The story, somehow, took over. My children were met at their destination by a very strange great-uncle named Merriman (why did I call him Merriman? I didn’t know) and before I quite knew what I was doing, the plot began to change completely. I forgot all about the E. Nesbit prize and the family adventure story—and the deadline. And I found I was writing a fantasy, full of images which had haunted me since childhood but which I’d never thought to put into fiction. In the final version I even cut that first deliberate chapter.

Dear Mem Fox, I Have Read All Your Books Even the Pathetic Ones and Other Incidents in the Life of a Children’s Book Author

The title says it all, doesn’t it? This is largely an autobiography of the vibrant teacher, reading advocate and author of Possum Magic, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, Time for Bed, and many other picture books. Some of the later chapters do address craft, however.

Here’s a quote from the chapter called “Growing Up in Africa”:
There used to be a thorn tree near the bus stop, where people would gather for the meager shade. I heard unearthly sounds coming from there once—it was close to our house—so I leaped onto my bike and raced round to see what it was. A small crowd of Africans had gathered to watch a woman writhing at the base of the tree, to which she had been tied with strips of cloth. White froth spat from her mouth as she moaned and screamed.
     “What’s happening?” I asked.
     “Never mind, Merri,” said one of my friends. “She’s having a fit. She’s mad but she’ll be all right soon. You go home now.”
     I couldn’t go home. I was transfixed.

The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson

Paterson grew up in China as the child of missionaries, and her work is influenced by themes from the Bible, e.g., in her book Jacob Have I Loved, which is about sibling rivalry and envy. See also her books of essays The Invisible Child and A Sense of Wonder. (The latter consists of two previous books, The Spying Heart and Gates of Excellence.) Note that Paterson has been criticized for her imperfect characters (e.g., the title character of The Great Gilly Hopkins) and difficult themes. Her books have won every major award you can think of, including two Newbery medals and a National Book Award.

This is a quote from a chapter (and lecture) titled “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?”
It was, therefore, with fear, alarm, and timorousness that I sidled up to the title of this lecture, “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” Certainly not. I hardly dared disturb my springer spaniel. But, then, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was looking at quite a different universe from the one Prufrock was referring to. The universe that confronted me was no sleeping spaniel. It was a universe already greatly disturbed. What could I do, puny creature that I was, that would make a perceptible stir in such a whirlwind? Better, I thought, to gather my children about me, double-lock the doors, bolt the windows, and huddle together against the elements. The trouble with this metaphor is that I knew full well that my husband and probably my children would be out there somewhere battling the storm. I have never figured out just how Chicken Little managed to get herself married to the Man of La Mancha, but there you are…. Perhaps writing a book is a form of timidity.
     The irony, of course, is that try as I may, I cannot escape the universe. And in the end, the books I write must mirror it in all its terror as well as its grandeur.

Telling Time: Essays on Writing by Nancy Willard

Nancy Willard’s 1981 collection of poems, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, won the Newbery and the Caldecott. Willard has written poetry and adult fiction in addition to children’s books.

This quote is from a chapter called “High Talk in the Starlit Wood”:
The fear at the heart of the ghost story is the fear of meeting our own fate; shall we not all, in the end, lie down in darkness and leave nothing behind but our bones? When I was a child, I used the word spooky to mean “terrifying.” I used it, for example, to describe my encounter in a dark church one night before a Christmas pageant in which I was to play an angel…. One by one, the children had been picked up by their parents, and I was left alone to wait for my father while Miss Blaine, the Sunday-school teacher, turned off the lights. I stood barefoot on the stone floor before the altar in my cardboard wings and thin white gown, waiting. Both of us had unsteady nerves. Neither of us knew that sickness would keep me out of the pageant and out of school for a month. Neither of us knew that Miss Blaine was on the verge of a nervous breakdown that would send her to an institution for a long recovery. A ghastly light from the street filtered in through the dark windows, which at this hour showed me none of the friendly saints whose company I enjoyed on Sunday mornings.
     Suddenly Miss Blaine took my hand. “Cold hands,” she observed. “I love little girls with cold hands.”
     In that moment she seemed to me a ghost come from the grave to take me with her, acknowledging that I, with my cold hands, was a willing victim. The cold floor, the darkness, the unsettling presence of a woman on the verge of madness—these natural phenomena I erroneously called spooky. I would not call them so today.

Take Joy: A Book for Writers and Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood by Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen has written poetry, picture books, middle grade, nonfiction, novels, anthologies, and young adult fiction. She is known for her fantasy and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 World Fantasy Awards. I especially like the premise of Take Joy, in which she argues against what the flap copy calls “the cult of the despondent writer.” Then there’s the enlightening way she discusses the tropes and traditions of fairy tales, folktales, and fantasy in Touch Magic, e.g., the idea of what she calls Tough Magic: “It is the old bargain principle. One cannot receive without first giving. Every miracle requires an initial disaster. Magic has consequences. That kind of wisdom can be found in the best of the old tales….”

And here’s a quote from Take Joy:
Even when it is not being taught in the classroom, a children’s book is teaching its young reader something. Ursula Nordstrom, the great editor at Harper, said something instructional to a new writer worried about writing what had already been written. “The children,” she said, “are new, though we are not.” 
Everything in a good book (perhaps even in a bad book) is a new truth, a new revelation to a child whose experiences are, as yet, so limited. Therefore writers for children need to be extra careful about preaching, about filling in those empty spaces for the child.

Now, you may be thinking I chose the above quotes very carefully, they’re all so good. But no, I flipped a few pages and picked something easily from each book because they are simply chock-full of quotable quotes, rich ideas and wonderful anecdotes. You may have to track these books down at the library or order them used on Amazon, but however you manage to find them, you’ll be glad you did.

Update: Jennifer of Jean Little Library has two more books to add—Eleanor Cameron's The Green and Burning Tree and E.L. Konigsburg's Talk Talk. Thanks, Jennifer!

Update #2: Catherine of Cath in the Hat has two, too! Celebrating Children's Books, ed. Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye (essays by Lloyd Alexander, Paula Fox, Arnold Lobel, and more) and The Zena Sutherland Lectures, 1983-1992, also edited by Betsy Hearne. Thank you, Catherine!

Update #3: Ruth Donnelly recommends Library of the Early Mind, a documentary about children's literature that includes interviews with the likes of Maurice Sendak and Jack Gantos.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Review of Oh No! Not Again! by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Dan Santat

She’s back! And by she I mean the young girl who’s a scientist—okay, a mad scientist—in Oh No! Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World. This time she’s worrying about her history grade. There’s this one question about how the prehistoric cave art in France got there. It’s the only question she missed on her A-earning history test. And, being a perfectionist, she is determined to change that. “Luckily, there’s a simple solution.”

You know right there the solution isn't going to be simple! YMS (for Young Mad Scientist, though she’s not actually named in the book) goes home and builds a time machine. Her plan? “Change history so I am right.” (Which just may be the best phrase in the whole book.)

If you’ve read any Greek myths, epic poems, and plays, you’ll know that such an attitude is called hubris and YMS is in for it. Sure enough, after she gets to prehistoric France, she tries to get the cavemen to paint the walls, and they won’t. Nothing daunted, YMS starts painting the walls herself—with very funny results. (She brought spray paint and everything.)

But that’s nothing compared to what’s happening behind her back as the two cavemen go joy riding in her time machine. The ending of the book is not necessarily happy, but it’s definitely funny.

I think the jokes here may be a bit subtle for kids, but they should get a kick out of the basic plot and those cavemen. Their parents may appreciate the more complex implications. Once again, Mac Barnett and Dan Santat are a gleefully giddy team. I hope there’s a Book 3! Let’s also thank these two for making an elementary school girl a science whiz. People feeling dour about the state of the U.S. on the  current global scene should think about encouraging kids, especially girls, to go all out with math and science.

Teachers and parents might also want to have a discussion about what would happen if you really went back in time—the idea that even small changes you made could have far-reaching effects, as in Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” which spawned the term “the butterfly effect.” You could also talk about the drawbacks to perfectionism.

As in the first book, Dan Santat's exuberant illustrations suit an exuberant story. Santat's style gives a nod to animation while calling out plot points and oddball extra details in its own brash voice. Some of the artwork seems a little rougher around the edges than in Book 1, but I get the feeling that's a deliberate choice to match the rougher topic of prehistoric men.

By the way, be sure to check out the final spread with its looping time travel map, the endpapers with their time machine blueprints, and the poster on the other side of the book jacket. Even the bios on the back flap are funny. And check out the book trailer of Oh No! Not Again! (Or How I Built a Time Machine to Save History) (Or at Least My History Grade).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mac Barnett and Dan Santat, along with Adam Rex, are the new young guns of picture books, especially when it comes to fresh and funny. Keep an eye out for their books—they may just destroy the world, but you’ll be laughing all the way.

A Review of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

After William Joyce’s short film by the same name won an Academy Award, he turned it into a picture book. I actually read the book first, then watched the film on YouTube. (Here are a couple of links, but there are more.) So how does the book compare to the movie, and how does it work as a stand-alone?

I am happy to note that this story is an homage to the joy of reading that covers the roles of the reader, the librarian, and the writer. It’s a fantasy, but it has the feel of a fable or magical realism.

We begin with a man named Morris Lessmore (Less is more?) who is writing a book. A terrible windstorm not only blows the book away, but blows the letters from the pages. This happens to others, but it’s especially upsetting to Morris, who has been writing that book for a long time and loves it dearly. He follows the book into the storm and winds up in a strange land where everything appears to be black and white until he sees a woman in the sky being wafted along by a couple of dozen books that act like a cross between a bunch of helium balloons and a flapping flock of geese.

The woman drops him a book that acts as both character and guide in the form of a friendly Humpty Dumpty who uses flip-book techniques to communicate. Morris follows the book to a building that appears to be an abandoned library. There books nest and fly aimlessly around till they meet Morris. They rope him into reading and repairing them, even dancing with them. Morris becomes the librarian and starts giving out books to the black-and-white people, who take on color as they read. The books come to life, too, as Morris cares for them and reads them. Most important, Morris writes his book, which we come to understand is a metaphor for his life. After he finally writes “The End,” Morris himself is finished. He flies off with a flock of books just as his predecessor did long ago. He is young again now, but he is going away. A new reader will come to take his place and even read his book.

That was the film, which I just watched. Now I’ll revisit the book…

The illustrations are excellent, just as you would expect, and carry the story along. William Joyce worked with Joe Bluhm on creating them. Unfortunately, the film is so visually  effective that Joyce succumbs to the temptation to simply describe the story on these pages. It would have been hard to back off, I can imagine, but it needed to be done. There’s too much telling, summarizing, and explaining in the book, where the movie was entirely wordless, carried along by a simple tune, “Pop Goes the Weasel.” For example, on the very first page of the book, Joyce explains the metaphor: “His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page after another. He would open it every morning and write of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.” No, no, no. (Note the abstract phrasing!)

So, while the book is lovely, its language doesn’t do justice to the tale. The words should have been mysterious and poetic, like the film. Sigh. You really should watch the short film of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. It is just about perfect.

A Review of Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart, ed. Mary Ann Hoberman

When my grandmother was a child, one of the tasks of a schoolgirl or boy was to memorize poems. She knew dozens of them by heart. Today we tend to scoff at the idea of memorizing and reciting poems, but there’s something nice about carrying certain poems, not just in your pocket, but in your heart.

Mary Ann Hoberman’s collection of poetry returns to the idea of memorizing poems. Still, even if that’s not your goal, you’ll find that these poems are just right for reading aloud. Either way, Hoberman has put together a strong collection. She has divided it into 11 sections:
  • The Short of It
  •  One and All
  •  Beautiful Beasts
  •  Delicious Dishes
  •  It’s about Time
  •  Happiness Is
  •  Weather and Seasons
  •  Sad and Sorrowful
  •  Strange and Mysterious
  • Poems from Storybooks
  •  The Long of It

I like that Hoberman’s topics provide for a pleasing variety of poems. She also includes some suggestions for memorizing poems at the end of the book, which is useful.

Hoberman is herself a noted children’s poet and includes 13 of her own poems. The collection contains more than 120 poems in all, which makes it a rich smorgasbord. Some of the poets included are Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Wise Brown, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Barbara Esbensen, Kristine O’Connell George, Douglas Florian, Nikki Giovanni, Nikki Grimes, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Langston Hughes, Bobbi Katz, Karla Kuskin, David McCord, Eve Merriam, Walter Dean Myers, Jack Prelutsky, Christina Rossetti, Alice Schertle, William Shakespeare, Shel Silverstein, Marilyn Singer, Gary Soto, Robert Louis Stephenson, Judith Viorst, Nancy Willard, and Valerie Worth. (A complete list appears on the back cover.) As you can see, Hoberman wisely draws on contemporary poets as well as classic ones.

Michael Emberley's illustrations are light and loose, picking up themes and running with them. For example, on a spread about food featuring Carol Sandburg's "Soup," "My Father Owns a Butcher Shop" by Anonymous, and Walter de la Mare's "Miss T," Emberley shows us four characters eating at a diner counter and, in two cases, peering sideways at each other over newspapers with alarm and annoyance. Two of the characters are monsters of some kind. It's all very fun to look at! Many of the illustrations catch one aspect of a poem and leave other aspects for kids to imagine, which is nice.

While most of the poems are rhymed, the editor does include some free verse and haiku. You will certainly find frequently anthologized poems within these pages, but you will also find less familiar poems. Here are a few of them:

Summer Grass

Summer grass aches and whispers.

It wants something; it calls and sings; it pours
out wishes to the overhead stars.

The rain hears; the rain answers; the rain is slow
coming; the rain wets the face of the grass.

—Carl Sandburg

Old Man Ocean, how do you pound

Old Man Ocean, how do you pound
Smooth glass rough, rough stones round?
Time and the tide and the wild waves rolling,
Night and the wind and the long grey dawn.

Old Man Ocean, what do you tell,
What do you sing in the empty shell?
Fog and the storm and the long bell tolling,
Bones in the deep and the brave men gone.

—Russell Hoban

Of course, I really like atmospheric, shivery poems like these two. Forget-Me-Nots gives us plenty of light and funny poems, as well.

Tit for Tat

I often pass a gracious tree
Whose name I can’t identify,
But still I bow, in courtesy
It waves a bough, in kind reply.

I do not know your name, O tree
(Are you a hemlock or a pine?)
But why should that embarrass me?
Quite probably you don’t know mine.

—Christopher Morley

I own a number of poetry collections, and my concern is always for the overall quality of the poems. Forget-Me-Nots offers up a high-quality selection of poems worth sharing with young people, whether you encourage them to memorize the poems or just to listen to the magic of this peculiar, satisfying, compact creative form. A cover sticker indicates that Mary Ann Hoberman was children's poet laureate for the Poetry Foundation from 2008 to 2010. I can certainly see why.