Saturday, March 25, 2017

In Praise of a Good List

I love book lists. You know, like 50 Novels Everyone Should Read Before They Die. How could I resist an offering like that? How many can I tick off, or at least boast some familiarity, and therefore feel validated in my life choices? Will I be reminded of a classic I now feel ready to tackle, or find a new suggestion so intriguing I’ll actually track it down and dive in? Besides, lists don’t take much time commitment, so the enjoyment-to-effort ratio is pretty high.

Sweetpea at two years old, perusing I Love You, Stinky Face

But lately I’ve had new reason to go trolling book lists, specifically for picture books. I need quality bedtime reading material for Sweetpea. Early intervention is essential to ensnare her in a web of fiction addiction develop a soul-nourishing love of art and literature. Sure we’ve got two shelves worth of picture books, just a few of my favorites, and we haven’t read all of them yet (some are still too old for her, and some we’ve tried but need to circle back around to later). But what about others that I love, that mustmustmust be part of her childhood, but that slip my mind the moment I walk into the library? Not to worry, just search Top 10/25/100 Best Picture Books, and we’ve got our next three library visits covered.

Product Details
The book dominated conversation for a week. Plus the song got stuck in our heads.

Plus, my internal picture book database has grown stale. It’s been years since I kept up with the field, and even longer since I worked at the bookstore. I realized I’d slipped out of the loop last year when Sweetpea came home from preschool raving about a new favorite: Pete the Cat. There was a song and everything. I’d never heard of it. It’s a whole series that everyone in kidworld knows, apparently, except me. What else have I been missing while comfortably relying on Blueberries for Sal and The Paperbag Princess?
Product Details
It's a classic for a reason. If you haven't read it recently, go check it out.  

We’ve discovered a few recent must-reads through conversations with friends or chance encounters at the library—things like Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious (I know, they’re not that new—now you see how dire the situation is). But it was a good old list that helped us find Ladybug Girl. And the Best Books of 2016 that helped us get super current with The Airport Book, The Bear and the Piano, The Artist and Me, Have You Seen Elephant, Leave Me Alone!, and My Favorite Pets. Some we’ve gone meh, some we liked ok, some we loved.

Cover art
A superhero we can all relate to.

Which brings up a contrary point—lists are not magic, just one person’s opinion (or a bunch of people, if it’s an opinion poll or a best seller list). But someone read books and thought about them enough to pick some over others. Or maybe didn’t read all the books, just copied someone else’s list. Slacker! But at some point someone read these books, which is more than I’ve done. And I probably won’t agree with all their choices. Maybe on my own I’ll find a gem that never made the list. But it’s like my shopping list—a way to focus on some things and bracket out others so I can get started in a somewhat systematic way. (In contrast to my to-do list, which has only a tenuous connection to my actual life, or any objective reality.)

Cover art
We loved the subplots woven through the illustrations.
So lists aren't perfect. Who is? They're still useful and in some vague way satisfying. Long live lists!

Monday, September 30, 2013

What's "current"?

Artemis Fowl (Artemis Fowl, #1)Here's a list of "Current Trends in Children's Fantasy" that I put together about 10 years ago as part of a class presentation.

Wizard's HallYou may ask, how was I so lucky as to be in a class that would require such a presentation. Well, the English department offered a one-time, team-taught course on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Three of us in the Master's program said, "Hey, we want in!" But it was an undergraduate level course, so the trick was to somehow make it work for our program. After a little negotiation, the powers that be decided that if we wrote especially long, rigorous papers we could count it as a graduate-level elective. Success!

Moral of the story: with a little creativity and a little chutzpah, you can make the education system fit your needs.

But I digress.

The point is, these were the trends as I saw them in 2004. Could they still be called "current"? What on the list now looks dated (other than the titles I pull as examples), or what would you add?

Trend 1: New Stories from Old
Dragon of the Lost Sea
"Transforming the tales and redirecting their messages, especially about class and gender, without losing their integrity and power. Characters, events, images, storytelling voice, and peasant audience are still in place, but our perceptions of their relationships have changed." Brian Attebery
  • Apply fairy tale forms or patterns
    • Holes (Louis Sachar): realistic with fairy tale conventions--ie. curse, refrain (Stanley's repeatedly "no-good, dirty-rotten, pig-stealing great, great grandfather"), "eucatastrophe" ending (a sudden, unexpected, dramatic change for the good).
  • Combine story forms or genres
    • Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer): heist & police action film with fairie folk
    • Wizard Hall (Jane Yolen) and Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling): school story with magic
  • Draw on multi-national, non-European source texts
    • Iron Ring (Lloyd Alexander): from India
    • Dragon of the Lost Sea (Lawrence Yep): from China
  • Tell with unexpected narrators
    • Spindle's End
    • I Was a Rat (Philip Pullman): Adventures of Cinderella's rat now turned to a boy
    • Spindle's End (Robin McKinnley): Fairies who raise and rescue Brier Rose
  • Set in a new time or place
    • Beast (Donna Jo Napoli): Beauty and the Beast, in which the beast is a Persian prince
  • Explore new implications
    • Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine): a spunky Cinderella is cursed with obedience
Trend 2: Adult Cross-Over
  • Adult-audience authors writing for children (with varying success)
    • Summerland
    • Summerland, by Michael Chabon, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner awards
    • City of the Beasts, by Isabel Allende
  • Children's books marketed to adults
    • Narnian Chronicles (C.S. Lewis) and His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman): new editions shelved in grown-up Fantasy section
  • Exploring meta-narrative themes
    • Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket): language use and abuse
    • Arcadians (Lloyd Alexander): story process
Trend 3: Reflecting Realities or Attitudes of Modern Life
  • Realistic details or setting 
    • So You Want to be a Wizard (Diane Duane): modern, urban setting
    • Devil's Arithmetic (Jane Yolen): grim holocaust
    • Weetzy Bat (Francesca Lia Block): alternative lifestyles, set in modern L.A.
  • Feminist themes, strong female characters
    • Sabriel (Abhorsen,  #1)
    • Squire (Tamora Pierce): becoming a female knight
    • Sabriel (Abhorsen #1) (Garth Nix): woman guards magic, deals with Death
  • Protagonists friendly to the dark side
    • In the Forests of the Night (Amelia Atwater-Rhodes): teen vampires

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Powerful Shadows, part 2

So when we left off talking about Where the Wild Things Are, I'm sure you were left with a burning question: "Why would anyone write in this dry, dense, academic language?" No, ha-ha, (eyes shift nervously), I'm sure that wasn't it. I'm sure you were actually wondering, "Yes, but how does Sendak attend to both a child and adult audience?"

Of course the book appeals to kids--I mean, big monsters, a wild rumpus, and lush illustrations, what's not to love? Plus, Max isn't exactly a model child, and rebellion is fun. On top of that, he's in control. What kid doesn't want to be in control?
Sure, when Max begins “making mischief of one kind and another” he finds himself facing unwanted and restricting social control (Gross, 146), being sent to his room "without eating anything." 

At first Max scowls at the door, but in the next illustration he takes charge, as shown by his closed eyes, his contemplative (but still willful) expression, and the trees sprouting around his room. Finally, smiling, he sails away. So he may have to obey his mother and physically stay in his room, but he refuses to remain restricted and uses his imagination to assert his agency.

When he gets to the land of the wild things, he becomes even more powerful. He faces monsters and takes over, directing the fun and leaving when he wants to.

Finally, there's the comforting ending--Max doesn't have to be strong and independent all the time. After the adventure he returns home to a hot meal, where all is forgiven. But it's low key and doesn't dissolve into mushiness.

So all this appeals to kids, and you could say it appeals to adults by reaching the kid inside us. Because even grown-up we can delight in imagination. We still relate to unwanted restrictions, the need for fun, the need to feel powerful, the need to feel cared for.

But it's more than that. According to Melissa Gross, Wild Things continues to be a top seller fifty years after publication partly because, despite Max's willfulness, the book has “something to say to children that adults and the culture at large feel they need to hear” (145).

("Where the Wild Things Are" author Maurice Sendak, from

For one thing, Sendak  affirms two opposite and very grown-up values: (1) the humanity of the individual in the face of social control and (2) the need to work within social bounds. Through the story he offers two tools to make those opposites work—imagination and persuasion.

At the beginning Max is all about destruction and threats, and he gets the expected consequence, at which he pouts. The only options he's using are "violence or silence." Not what you'd call socially acceptable or productive.

But then he gets to work practicing his skills as a social being. For one, he uses up all his violent, anarchic energy in imagination.

And during his adventures, Max experiments with persuasion--at his own level, of course. When he meets the monsters who “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws,” Max counters this threatening violence, not with more violence, but with negotiation. He says, “BE STILL!” and uses non-verbal discourse through his “magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.” Here is an argument the wild things can respond to, and they make “him king of all wild things.”

Then he finds common ground as he declares “let the wild rumpus start!” So even though the wild things are frightened at Max’s powerful rhetoric, they're willing to build a relationship with him, and at the end declare “we love you so.” When Max wants to return home, he has to renegotiate. While the wild things use threats (“we’ll eat you up”) and their usual violence, again Max responds with words (“but Max said no!”) and non-verbal rhetoric (he “stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye”).

Now Max is ready to return to the land of people, to a quiet home life, where "someone loves him best of all." He even pushes back the hood of his wolf suit, stepping away from his own wild persona. At least for now.

Gilead, Sarah. “Magic Abjured: Closure in Children’s Fantasy Fiction.” PLMA 106 (1991): 277-293.
Gross, Melissa. “Why Children Come Back: The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Where the Wild Things Are.” Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. Ed. Margaret Mackey. Lanham, Maryland: Children’s Literature Association, 2002. 145-158.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Little Birthday Magic

My birthday is coming up--yay me! It's not a milestone birthday, nothing with a zero in it, but it's got me thinking of birthdays and milestones, and cake.

For kids, every birthday seems like a milestone. But some promise bigger changes than others. Like turning five and going to school. Or, in our church, turning eight and getting baptized or twelve and moving out of primary into young women's--or receiving the priesthood if you're a boy. And who doesn't count down the days to a 16th birthday, and the prospect of a driver's license?

Besides looking towards big things to come, on our birthday we blow out candles and make a wish. There's magic in birthdays.

An event so momentous has to find its way into kids' books. In fact, just about every picture book series includes a birthday story (Arthur, Clifford, Angelina, If you give a ___ a ___, Max & Ruby--you name it). I like the Berenstain Bears' Too Much Birthday in which, during an over-the-top birthday party, Sister Bear comes unglued. It's a great cautionary tale for the pitfalls of any big fun, as parents who have taken kids to Disneyland (or World) can attest.


Another picture book that revolves around a birthday is Graeme Base's The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery. Like all of Base's books, this one has lush, fantastic, over-sized illustrations. The premise is that on Horace the Elephant's eleventh birthday all the animals come for a grand party; by the end, however, the birthday feast has disappeared. What happened to it? The solution is in the clues sprinkled through the earlier puzzle-packed pages. The theme of time is pretty strong throughout, appropriate to birthdays. My brother and I spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon once working through the puzzles and solving the mystery. We were in college at the time. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The Harry Potter books kick off with a birthday, too. Actually, dreaded cousin Dudley's. But then Harry's letter to Hogwarts, along with Hagrid and the story of Harry's background, arrive on his own eleventh birthday. Talk about life-changing.

On Will Stanton's eleventh birth, which happens to be the Winter Solstice, he also discovers his magical identity in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, one of my favorites. Ever. I'm not sure why the eleventh birthday is showing up so much. Maybe because, while one is still a kid at eleven, it's the beginning of one's second decade. Of course in Harry Potter, that's the year they start secondary school and leave home, so that's a natural.

Dark Is Rising

The thirteenth birthday gets a few books of its own. In the collective society of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the kids don't get individual birthdays, but in their 13th year they finish school and begin apprenticeships in their assigned occupations. Of course for Jonas, this end of childhood is heightened as he learns difficult truths that even the rest of his society is protected from, or refuses to acknowledge.

The Giver

Another great metaphor-laden birthday story, this time of the storms of puberty, is Savvy, by Ingrid Law. When members of  Mib's family reach their thirteenth birthday they discover their unique savvy, or great power that they spend their teen-age years learning to control. Her brother does hurricanes, for instance.


Like I said up top, there's magic in birthdays. Maybe that's why all these chapter books lean towards the fantastic. Or maybe it's just because I'm picking them, and I lean towards the fantastic. But 13 Gifts, by Wendy Mass, is more realistic. It has a hint of magic, but it's small. And the birthday comes at the end, as a way to wrap up the lessons Tara learns over the summer spent with her aunt and uncle in her parents' hometown (which turns out to be even more adventurous than traipsing around Africa with her parents).

13 Gifts

Clearly, there's a lot of story potential in birthdays, from a special day or a special gift, to celebrating a particular individual, to marking the passage of time and the changing stages of life. Do you have favorite books that revolve around a birthday, or include a great birthday scene? For myself I'm mostly looking forward to eating cake. Yum.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Powerful Shadows: Child and Adult Audiences in Where the Wild Things Are

Wayne Booth describes literature as a relationship, an offering of friendship, between an implied author and an implied reader. This rhetorical relationship, however, can have a third party hovering in the background—an eavesdropping or shadow audience, not specifically invoked by the author but privy to the conversation and exerting a greater or lesser influence on both the author and the rhetorical situation.
Sometimes this secondary audience has greater power than the invoked audience in the world at large, which gives the author a practical and potent incentive for attending to it. For instance, as we spoke about in class, a female rhetorician like Virginia Woolf spoke directly to a female audience but had to be aware of messages she was implicitly sending to men as well. As another example, the genre of children’s literature highlights the interactions of a shadow audience with the implied author and implied audience.
Children’s literature presents a world created for and about children where adults are present but often pretend they’re not—a classic case of “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” As Zohar Shavit points out, while “by definition, children’s literature addresses children,” in fact “always and without exception, [it] has an additional addressee—the adult, who functions as either a passive or an active addressee of texts written for children” (83). 
Not only do adults write the children’s texts, they also do the publishing, reviewing, promoting, and often buying and award-giving. At each step, adults act as audience with power to grant or withhold approval. As Shavit continues, the children’s writer must court adult sanction to reach a child audience at all (84).
("Keeper of the Gate," from, winner of weekly MYFX Forum Challenge)
Balancing relationships with two audiences who may not have the same desires or interests can get complicated. How does the author attend to and  stay ethical to both? In children’s literature, one answer might be: forget the adults, this story is for the kids. But even if that were practical, as Jill Paton Walsh asks, is it ethical when speaking to children for the author to “[put] down the adult’s burden of knowledge, and experience” (212)—or, I would add, to disregard the concerns of a caring adult audience who has the children’s interest in mind, though viewing it from a more mature perspective? 
One classic story that balances these elements and concerns is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak effectively and ethically attends to both audiences by appealing to the values of a legitimately concerned adult audience while keeping the story firmly within the perspective of the implied child audience. 

So that's the introduction, ending with the thesis, as all good little composition students know. What books have you noticed seemed to be balancing two audiences at once? Are they successful, or does it come out awkward?
Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: Towards an ethic of literature.
Mills, Claudia. “The Ethics of the Author/Audience Relationship in Children’s Fiction.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 22 (2000): 181-187.
Shavit, Zohar. “The Double Attribution of Texts for Children and How It Affects Writing for Children.” Transcending Boundaries: Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults. Ed. Sandra L. Beckett. New York: Garland, 1999. 83-97.
Walsh, Jill Paton. “The Rainbow Surface.” Suitable for Children? Controversies in Children’s Literature. London: Sussex UP, 1976. 212-15.

"Yeah, readin's my passion"

I like browsing blogs, though these days I mostly find them through Pinterest. There are the tips from cleaning, organizing, and money saving blogs, which I might even put  into practice some day. I've tried a recipe or two from the cooking blogs, though to me it's mostly food porn, especially the cake decorating.

But I've neglected my own blog to the point of abandonment.

Because, here's the thing: for a blog to keep rolling along, it has to be about something. It needs a focus. Cooking is a focus. Fashion in a focus. Political analysis is a focus. Raising a family is a focus. Focus is not a strong feature of my make up.

Then recently I came across children's lit blogs. There are hundreds of them. Of course there are. The School Library Journal ( hosts at least a dozen. How did I not notice this before? And I thought, Pshaw! So there are hundreds. There's always room for one more.

There's my focus.

A cat who needs no introduction--very worth writing about.

Sure, I could write more conscientious reviews on Goodreads (I like reading those, as well), but I want a broader discussion. Trends, motifs, comparisons, commentary.

Reading it through the first time is only half the fun.

To get things rolling in this new direction (and because I'm lazy), I'll start with a reprint of a paper I wrote in school. It was for my rhetoric class. I know, boring, right? But I wrote it on "Where the Wild Things Are," and that kept me from putting it off to the night before (I was always telling my students to use research papers to personalize their education, write about something they cared about, something they actually wanted to learn about and spend time with. So few listened.)

There's a reason--many reasons--it continues to be a favorite.

It's long, so I'll put it up in sections. And it's academic. Sorry, can't do anything about that--or at least if I did, that would mean a lot more work, which would undercut the benefit to my lazy self.

So that's it. Let the wild rumpus begin.