Tuesday, December 27, 2005

P-town reading lists . . .

. . . are more or less complete, but as any reader knows, temptation lurks until the door is closed. Richard is all set with his Christmas book (the new Scott Turow) and his Hanukkah book (Schickel's bio of Elia Kazan). I'm bringing Colm Toibin's The Master, Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi, Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Kipling's Kim. Miss Pod is contributing the new Sue Grafton and Jane Dunn's bio of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Any bets as to what will be finished and what will be completely ignored? I hope everyone has a great New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Awards: who needs 'em?

I'm bumping up this comment from a previous discussion because I think it brings up questions we can all usefully ponder. The mysterious shewhousually doesn'tdothistypeofthing wrote:

Suppose someone took it into her head to rank the dying and give awards for best last days or near to last days based on certain well thought out criteria, culminating in lots of sugarplums and press and endless discussion. How would that remove us from the experience? How would it remove us from the immediacy and all it might offer us. How would it remove the dying from it, distracted as they are by the possibility of this last big award? It is a toxic practice. There was a writer in East Germany who wrote there before and after the wall came down. Afterward everyone told her how wonderful that she had the opportunity now for artistic freedom, success, money. She said she had more freedom before the wall came down when she simply wrote, knowing her readership would be there, working in peace, nothing to aspire to. Now she had the great seduction of success, competition, it removed her from the freedom of the work. Suppose you could read books without having the distraction and removal to the level of judging them against each other. Then we would see what was there. Each its own experience because of what it is not because of where it is in the line up. Moving freely from book to book. I will not participate in these Newbery talks again. They are only a chance to say look how smart I am. I can tell you what is good better best. They have nothing to do with the truth. They have nothing to do with the artists' intent. Merry Christmas to all and to all a still night.

I don't know if I can read without judging, or at least comparing to what I've read before. (This got me kicked out of one those human-potential workshops once. The group leader said I was too judgmental. I asked her if she knew what I did for a living. Saved by literature once again!) And while I appreciate that the stakes being set up by prizes, or even reviews, can kill good writing, I also worry about a wafty world where all is "experience," there is no worse or better, each work of art is a distinct expression, la, la, la. Don't we write (or paint, etc.) in the first place to throw into relief those flashes of experience that, for us, are the important ones? Isn't living a process of making distinctions among choices? These are genuine questions, not rhetorical ploys, and I thank She... for bringing them up. Her example of the East German writer reminded me of a friend who was moving from the States to Mexico at a time (late 70s) when the Mexican government was cracking down on press freedoms and political dissent. My friend said "here I can wave my arms and say anything I want but nobody listens. There, at least, political speech matters."

Never Be Cross or Cruel

Caitlin Flanagan has a piece on P. L. Travers in the recent New Yorker, found (for the moment, anyway) online here. Although I have doubts about nannies "as a force in American life," a premise than can resound only in the Conde Nast building and the women's pages of Salon.com, Flanagan thankfully forgets this opening thesis and instead cobbles together an assortment of intriguing facts about Travers and the Mary Poppinses of books and film. My favorite anecdote concerns Travers buttonholing Walt Disney at a party after the film's premier, and telling him that the animation sequence had to go. "'Pamela,' he replied, 'The ship has sailed.'"

I was one of those sixties kids who adored the movie and went on to love the book, too, even recognizing their distinctions. I'm dying to see the stage musical--any reports?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Vote for the Newbery!

No, not really, but Oakland, CA children's librarian Nina Lindsay is running a mock Newbery discussion in January that sounds like it is going to be a lot of fun. So, for those of you in the area, the details are: Saturday, January 7 from 1pm to 5pm at the Oakland Public Library, 125 14th Street (near Lake Merritt and 12th St. BART stations. You must RSVP to Nina at nlindsay@oaklandlibrary.org (phone: (510) 238-3615, and (I love this part) read the official criteria for the Newbery Award, which can be found here. I love that Nina is asking you to read the criteria because too often these mock discussions have no ground rules, and you thus gain no idea of how the Newbery is actually selected.

You will also need to have read the eligible books Nina has chosen for discussion. They are:

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth
by Elizabeth Partridge
The Penderwicks
by Jeanne Birdsall
Criss Cross
by Lynne Rae Perkins
Harry Sue
by Sue Stauffacher
Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue by Julius Lester
Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
The Game of Silence
by Louise Erdrich
The Old Country
by Mordicai Gerstein

This is a savvy and excellent list (I guess by that I mean that my choice for the Newbery Medal is on it, and, no, I'm not telling).

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Seasonal finery

Hey, look what I'm wearing for the Horn Book Holiday Lunch today:

Do you think Bill O'Reilly would approve? We're having Middle Eastern, which I'm sure would bring out his not-so-latent schizophrenia. (Thanks to Richard for the early morning photograph.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Christmas Code

Has anyone here successfully cracked the code for giving books as gifts? As I'm sure any librarians who are reading this will agree, the nature of our profession makes us, in the public's eyes, expert gift-book advisors, when we know that selecting a book for an unknown-to-us "ten-year-old girl who LOVES to read" is a complete crap shoot. I always advise people, when possible, to make the present into an outing: take the kid out for chocolate and a trip to the bookstore (in whichever order you find most effective) and structure the book buying however you want: the kid's choice, a joint choice, one of each, etc. And go to a nice, sensible bookstore where they won't shove you up against the latest grandma-trap or try to convince you that "the next Harry Potter" is the ne plus ultra of children's book criticism.

Buying for the known has its own challenges. My guy Richard is not a big reader, but for the fifteen or so years we've been together I've been charged with presenting him with a book to read over the Christmas-New Year's break. Last year, I knew he wanted the new Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, which he loved but then proceeded to hound me to read for myself. And me, Roth, eh, not so much. The point is that when you buy a book for a loved one you live with the consequences, for good or ill. I have a couple of candidates for this year's choice and will let you know how it all works out. I'm still in the delightful agony of assembling my own reading list for our week on the Cape--any recommendations?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Don't Listen

It was my friend Pam Varley who got me hooked on audiobooks, and you can read why she thinks they are so terrific here. These days I get most of my audiobooks from Audible.com, and I can spend hours poring over their website, adding and subtracting books from my "wish list," and selecting my allotted two audiobooks each month. (The last round brought me Sense and Sensibility, which I'm finding hard-going, and Michael Connelly's The Narrows, which is a little more procedural than I like my detective novels, but I'm not ready to give up yet. If I can get through Memoirs of a Geisha, I can listen to anything.) But while I number myself among Audible's biggest fans, I have to say that their latest ad campaign, "Don't Read," has me seriously steamed. The campaign's posters mimic the American Library Association's venerable "Read" series, making a joke that it depresses me to realize probably most people won't get. And I think that the people who will understand the reference are also those most likely to be offended by the joke.

Some will be offended by the campaign's smart-alecky digs at reading (from the site's mock FAQ: "Should I burn my books? No, a stack of burning books pollutes the air, and worse - it kinda thumbs its nose at the First Amendment") but I think you have to take yourself awfully seriously to get ticked off at what is a harmless if sophomoric joke. What bothers me more is the campaign's nose-thumbing at audiobooks. By playing up how much easier and hipper listening is than reading, emphasizing the difference between the two experiences, Audible is inadvertently buying into a line that we audiobook fans hear often and hate heartily: listening to an audiobook is not really reading. As Pam rather more elegantly and eloquently argues in her article, them's fightin' words.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Lock Up Your Daughters

Candlewick Press' editorial director Liz Bicknell contributes to the op-ed page of The Baltimore Sun today, writing in support of The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler, which has been removed from all the schools in the Carroll Country system by the superintendent, Charles I. Ecker.

As Liz points out, the fact that Mr. Ecker acknowledges that he has only "skimmed" the book is true too often of those who censor. My contempt for Mr. Ecker is so ingrained by my education and experience that it is probably too reflexive to even be called outrage; what really kills me is that the man is clueless enough to not only admit to the media that he hasn't read the book, but that even in face of the subsequent controversy, and even while saying that he is reconsidering his decision, he still, according to the Sun, has "no plans to read the book in its entirety." Clueless and lazy. (Add nervy: on the occasion of his recent 77th birthday Ecker told a reporter, "'I went to the doctor for my physical. Doctor said, 'You're in such good shape, I bet you feel like a 30-year-old.' I told him, 'Where is she?'")

The Lion Roars and Thus Sounds the Horn

Gosh, that title makes me feel like I'm channeling Christopher Paolini, but I simply wanted to tell you that Anita Burkam's review of the new Narnia movie is up on our website.

And maybe Laurie Piper can play her in the movie

I was entertained by this anecdote from Faux News guy John Gibson's new book The War on Christmas (cited in"The So-Called War on Christmas" by Adam Cohen, a NYT "Select" article, so I can't link to it, sorry):

Mr. Gibson takes up the cause of Sherrie Versher, the mother of a 10 1/2-year-old public school student in Plano, Texas. For her daughter Stephanie's birthday, Ms. Versher brought 24 brownies to school, to which she wanted to attach pencils that contained the message: "Jesus Loves Me This I Know Because the Bible Tells Me So." When the principal asked her not to distribute the pencils, she walked through the school building saying, "Satan is in the building."

Boy, do I feel for Stephanie, but this incident is just waiting for Richard Peck or Chris Crutcher to get busy.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

My Own Private Narnia

I haven't seen the movie yet but the recent snowstorm turned a small stretch of my jogging route into a reasonable facsimile.

And Horn Book marketing mavens JD and Anne, along with design empress Lolly have been putting together a C.S. Lewis page on our website with reviews of the series from our archive. Take a look.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Whisper Who Dares?

I see from a message posted by Monica Edinger on the childlit listserv that the Mouse that roars has new plans for the Hundred Acre Wood, replacing Christopher Robin with an as-yet unnamed but confirmedly red-headed girl. The Disney Channel's Nancy Kanter says "we hope people will fall for this new tomboyish girl. The last thing we want to be is the ones who brought the franchise down." Heavens, not that. Sometimes you do see the Mouse chew with its mouth open and it's not pretty.

Christopher Franceschelli, publisher of Handprint Books and former publisher of Dutton Children's Books, the U. S. publisher of Milne, once told me that relations between the Milne Pooh and the Mouse Pooh (oops) were exceedingly complex. He made it sound as if nations might have fallen the day the baker proudly delivered, for a Winnie-the-Pooh birthday party Dutton was hosting, a cake gorgeously designed to look like The Other One.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Tookie Williams

When Stanley "Tookie" Williams published his first round of children's books, "Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence," I was asked for comment by Newsweek, and my negative remarks subsequently earned me a series of phone calls from men who described themselves as Mr. Williams' "associates." My mistake, by their lights, was to divorce the quality of the books (which I thought were clumsy and padded in the extreme) from the authority of the author--because Tookie knew whereof he spoke, his books were de facto effective vehicles for keeping kids out of gangs.

We see this call to authority all the time in children's books, and in Tookie Williams' case, it's wedded to celebrity, a different but related situation in which who the author is is at least as important as what the author has to say. (I'm reminded of that famous old Kirkus line: "As a writer, Barbara Bel Geddes is a marvelous actress.")

Today is Tookie Williams' latest day in court, as California's Governor Schwarzenegger, himself married to another children's book expert, hears his plea for clemency. So now the authority and celebrity that obtained in Williams getting to publish his children's books in the first place is meant to work in reverse: because Williams has published children's books against gang violence, he should be allowed to avoid the death sentence.

What do we all think? I am against Williams being put to death because I am against the death penalty, but I'm not sure how I feel about the p.r. strategy employed on his behalf. It is shrewd, though. Incidentally, Williams later wrote a much better book, Life in Prison, a simply written chapter book about what it's like behind bars.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Weighty concerns

I am not exactly sure what Edward Rothstein is saying in his column in today's New York Times, "Reading Kids' Books without the Kids." He begins with a rather easy poke at YA fiction, true enough as far as it goes but failing to recognize either YA's breadth or its origins. He has a very nice paragraph on the role of the parent in reading aloud Where the Wild Things Are, but goes on to make rather too much of the role of parents in childhood reading, ignoring the fact that one of the great things about reading is that it allows you to forget that you actually have parents and can begin to stake out an imaginative life of your own. His ultimate point has to do with the new Norton Anthology of Children's Literature (which is also reviewed in the paper today) and how the academic shape and context of the book somehow misrepresent the literature in a way that does not happen in a Norton Anthology of Something Else. I think he might be saying that scholars of children's literature read children's books differently from children, and that YA pulp isn't as good as Alice in Wonderland, neither of which observation is untrue, original, or useful.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Fanfare 2005

We've just posted Fanfare, the Horn Book's choices for the best books of the year, on our website. It will also appear in the January/February issue of the Magazine.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Practice before you preach

Resident Horn Book movie reviewer Anita Burkam alerted me to a new "parents-rights" group, Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools, in Kansas, concerned with the curricular reading choices of high schools in the Blue Valley School District. Their website is singularly unfocused, taking a more-is-more approach to the problem at hand that leaves the reader more overwhelmed than enlightened. Here's what I can figure out: they don't want books with profanity, sexual references or "occultism." They really don't like Toni Morrison. Their lists of recommended reading are heavily weighted with the middlebrow classics of three generations ago (The Good Earth, and Act One, for example), as well as Dickens, Eliot, and Cooper. The one ringer on their list is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which stands out by virtue of being published in the last thirty years. I wonder if the Citizens actually read it, though.

I would dearly love to give these Citizens a pop quiz based on their recommended books. My guess is that they are not readers, and that they approach reading with equal amounts of awe and superstition. As they do the internet--blogging is another of their concerns, and their grasp of how it works is about on a par with their grasp on felicitous writing: "As long as young eyeballs spend time on the Internet, there will be Web sites whose sole purpose is to capture big chunks of their time and attention." If this is a demonstration of literary standards, give me Toni Morrison.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Stars Redux and Marilyn Sachs

I'd like to refer readers back to the post on book review stars, where there's something of a discussion going in the comments section among writers and editors. The mentions of Chris Lynch's Inexcusable, a finalist for the National Book Award, and starred in the January 06 issue of the Horn Book, remind me of another book fabulously unreliable in its narrator, Marilyn Sach's The Fat Girl, published in the mid-80s by Dutton. The Horn Book does not seem to have reviewed it, but I remember being a member of ALA's Best Books for Young Adults Committee then and we were all just mad for it. It's a very dark retelling of Pygmalion about a boy, Jeff, who decides to make-over the school fat girl, Ellen. He succeeds to such an extent that she rejects him, and even on the last page, Jeff never realizes the folly of trying to remake another human being--the last line is something like "my mother was right. People just let you down." It's BRILLIANT. I put a copy in the YA collection of the library where I was working at the time and perhaps a year later was looking at it again, and discovered that someone had anonymously written a lengthy note on the endpapers--"Dear reader: I was a fat girl like Ellen, and I met a boy like Jeff. Never let what happens in this story happen to you. . . ." Brrrrrrr.

Kudos for Lolly

The Horn Book's own Lolly Robinson, in her role as curator of the Beatrix Potter exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum, gets a great review from the New York Times's famously fierce Grace Glueck today. The exhibit is up through this Sunday and is definitely worth a visit.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Fern puts her finger on it

Richard has had Michael Nyman's The Piano Concerto going pretty much nonstop in the Honda, so I should not have been surprised that when the movie popped up on TV last night we stayed in to watch it. Despite the presence of so many good things--great scenery, great score, Harvey Keitel naked--I loathed this movie when I saw it years ago in the theater and I can't say a second viewing improved it. The ponderous camerawork, heavyhanded symbolism only Monique Wittig could love, that damned cartwheeling . . . but I was tickled by a children's book reference I hadn't seen before. It comes when Anna Paquin, much to her subsequent horror, rats out Holly Hunter to Sam Neill. She might as well have taken the words right out of E. B. White's mouth.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A Note from the North

Was on the phone with Apple support today, getting some help for my beloved Miss Pod. The tech I was talking to was a nice mother-of-two in Prince Edward Island, born and raised there herself. I was very surprised, scandalized, almost, that she had never read Anne of Green Gables. She did say that she had twice seen the play adapted from the book, which is presented on the island (Island?) every summer, and had taken visiting friends and relatives to the Anne tourist sites. I figured it would be like their Hatchet or The Giver, read by every fourth or fifth grader until entire generations were heartily sick of Anne and her puffed sleeves, but no.

I guess I should have known. The only time I've ever intentionally walked the Freedom Trail was when I first moved back to Boston, and got lost in between the subway and the office, then located on Beacon Hill. The red stripe led right to the door . . . .

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Stars, they come and go . . .

While I confess to sharing Janis Ian's ambivalent and semi-despondent take on the whole star thing, here are the books whose reviews will be starred in the January/February 06 issue of the Horn Book:

An Innocent Soldier; written by Josef Holub, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Levine/Scholastic)

Inexcusable; by Chris Lynch (Seo/Atheneum)

Skybreaker; by Kenneth Oppel (Eos/HarperCollins)

The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow; by Kaye Umansky (Candlewick)

Prehistoric Actual Size; written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Houghton)

Re my ambivalence and semi-despondency: I can't speak for Janis Ian, but it bugs me that we've all gotten so hooked on stars. Authors and illustrators love 'em (and think that they're the only reviews worth getting); publishers often make their advertising decisions based upon them; librarians confess that, pressed for time, they are the only reviews they read. And review editors like them because sticking a star on something is both a shortcut to popularity and an easy out from the responsibility of actually being articulate about why and how a given title is so terrific. We're all in the business of words, so why don't we trust them?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Memoirs of a Geisha (see post below) is starting to indulge in something that would drive my late friend and mentor Zena Sutherland completely around the bend. The narrator-protagonist has started doling out facts about geishas by the handful, and while I'm listening to the audio version, I can see that the information is contained in lengthy expository paragraphs that my eyes would skip right over. We used to see this a lot in the YA problem novel of the seventies and eighties, where a teacher or counselor, or most baldly, a pamphlet the characters find on a table or bulletin board, lays out all the facts about whatever pathology or disease the book is exploring. Zena's favorite example was from a book in which the main character (and readers) learned all about whatever disease it was the character had via a conversation between two nurses in the hall.

At home, Richard and I are watching Fortunes of War, an old BBC miniseries based on a series of books by Olivia Manning I read a hundred years ago. The director and screenwriter have found a very effective way of getting historical information in by making the character played by Emma Thompson all nosy and blunt and new to the scene (1930s Bucharest), and asking the questions viewers will have about the politics of the time and region. We get the context we need at the same time Thompson's character is being developed--quite canny.

Monday, November 21, 2005

I bet it doesn't have an index, either

Via Achockablog, I learn that Brent Hartinger's funny and real Geography Club has been banned from the senior and junior high schools in University Place, Washington. Not because of the gay content, mais non, but because the boys meet on the dreaded Internet. I am once more reminded of the librarian who removed the notorious Show Me! from her collection because "it didn't have an index."

Three Craziest Days

This short week is the most intense in the Magazine's annual schedule. Because of heavy holiday mailing, all of our deadlines for the January/February issue arrive about two weeks earlier than usual, while at the same time we are readying "Fanfare," our choices for the best books of the year. I hope to be able to have some news of that list for you before Thursday--right now we are still arguing over the last handful of titles.

But throughout this hectic time I've been listening to the audiobook of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, wanting to have read it before seeing the movie. What a story--and it is inadvertently reminding me of something that seems to too frequently go missing in children's books of the "worthy" kind. By these quotation marks I mean novels that announce that they are going for higher stakes than entertainment, that seek to shed light upon some overlooked social or historical injustice or other. Too often, these books forget to tell a story, opting instead for (sometimes quite vivid) portraiture or scene-painting, trusting that the rightness of the theme is enough to carry readers along. It isn't.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

NBA Winner . . .

. . . has been announced; see Carolyn Shute's review for the Horn Book Magazine here. Unless things have changed since I was a judge in 1999 (Kimberly Willis Holt's When Zachary Beaver Came to Town was our choice), the voting procedure is both more casual and more dramatic than the exquisitely ritualized Newbery and Caldecott voting: the five judges, having previously come up with a shortlist of five titles, meet for lunch the afternoon of the award ceremony and pick the winner. Theoretically, no one but the judges know who won until the committee chair makes the announcement from the podium. The NBA tends to go toward the YA-ish end of children's books, and The Penderwicks seems solidly middle-grade to me; how do we find its chances for the Newbery?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

More about the Moon

A woman I met at the Carle Museum told me that there was precedent for censorious fiddling with Goodnight Moon, set by Ursula Nordstrom herself. I confirmed this hot tip in Leonard Marcus's Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon:

"On Nordstrom's instructions, the udder of the Cow Jumping Over the Moon was reduced to an anatomical blur so as not to disarrange the fragile sensibilities of some librarians--the 'Important Ladies,' as she called them."

But, alas, at least one "important lady" was not to be budged--and the Horn Book Magazine never did review Goodnight Moon! It's kind of sad that Miss Nordstrom did not give us (librarians) more credit, though.

NYT Party

The Times party for the Best Illustrated winners was quite lively, and served equally as a grand sendoff for retiring editor Eden Ross Lipson, honored with gracious tributes by Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus and Children's Book Council Chair Simon Boughton of Roaring Brook Press (who also gave Eden a piece of original art from Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers). Most of the winning artists attended, although I'm sorry the talented (and dishy) Mini Grey could not be there, nor Jon Agee. When I spoke at the Carle Museum on Saturday I read Agee's Terrific aloud to the audience and was impressed all over again with what a, uh, terrific picture book it is. The pace is spot-on, as are the page-turns, and at the party Jules Feiffer was showing me how much emotion Agee gets into the postures of the characters.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

At the Carle

I'm back from my talk at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. It was my first visit there and the place is mightily impressive--three galleries, an inviting small library, a hands-on studio filled with paper and media and ideas for pictures, and a first-rate bookstore run by Andy Laties, who used to own the fabulous Children's Bookstore in Chicago. (Incidentally, Andy has published his bookselling memoir/manifesto, Rebel Bookseller, which I'm taking with me for my trip to New York tomorrow.) You can read Lolly Robinson's account of the museum's dreams, goals and activities here.

Above's a picture of my favorite place in the museum, the entrance hall with "wallpaper" (his term) by Eric Carle. I'm with Rosemary Agoglia, the museum's Curator of Education.

I think the talk went pretty well. While I had intended to give my How Thomas Locker Sold the Soul of the Picture Book harangue, instead I talked a bit about how we review picture books at the Horn Book and a bit more about my governing faith: if we proceeded as if we realized that children read the same way grownups do, children's books and the world would both be better off.

More Tuesday--I'm off in the morning to New York for the Times reception for the Best Illustrated winners. I'll report back.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

No smoke, plenty of fire

I've been trying to get to the bottom of the story about the Stalinized illustrator photo of Clement Hurd on the back of the newest edition of Goodnight Moon, in which the cigarette in Hurd's hand has been replaced by ... well, nothing. I'm told HarperCollins is "preparing a statement" and I will submit to you any received forthwith. But is the outrage genuine or is it, as Anastasia Krupnik once said, "just a thing kids do to be cool"? I mean, had they simply swapped the photograph for another, no one would have made a peep. I personally get more exercised about the fact that the trim size of the book seems to keep getting larger--the darn thing is supposed to be cozy, not plasma-screen-sprawling. Anyway, HarperCollins is (are, I guess, is how Chairman Murdoch would put it) already going to hell for colorizing Charlotte's Web, so, really, how much lower could they go?

But the whole dust-up makes me miss the late Bill Morris, Harper children's books library promotion director, terribly. Bill adored smoking, and I'm sure this is giving him a good laugh. Goodnight, Bill.

The dog barks twice at midnight

"Lady and the Tramp is Disney's most enduring animated classic ever."--from Planet Dog, by Sandra and Harry Choron

Weenie O'Poindexter and Douglas McDweeb

Now that the NY Times has finally lurched its way to deciding what to do re Judith Miller, I think it's time they toss Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, the Freakonomics authors, who have a regular column in the Sunday magazine. Last Sunday they discussed the irrationality of voting, constructing an argument that was logical only because it was so tiny. In a Horn Book editorial a few months back I questioned both the math and the integrity of their argument that reading aloud to a child has no effect on that child's educational achievement. Their strategy there took the same pattern: make the playing field very small and move the goalposts very close together.

I just had a waking nightmare about what it would be like to be married to one of these guys. You're finishing dinner together, chatting about the day, when hubby dearest straightens his tie, prissily dabs at his face with his napkin, purses his lips and makes a small smile to himself before saying, in that tone you've come to know and abhor, "well, my dear, you're just not being very logical. Let's examine your prem--" when the brass candlestick, so long denied, comes down on his pointy little head.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ambiguity's reward, punishment

In her NYT obituary of John Fowles today, Sarah Lyall recounts a great story about the famously open-ended Magus:

He once told an interviewer that he had received a sweet letter from a cancer patient in New York who wanted very much to believe that Nicholas, the protagonist of "The Magus," was reunited with his girlfriend at the end of the book - a point Mr. Fowles had deliberately left ambiguous. "Yes, of course they were," Mr. Fowles replied.

By chance, he had received a letter the same day from an irate reader taking issue with the ending of "The Magus." "Why can't you say what you mean, and for God's sake, what happened in the end?" the reader asked. Mr. Fowles said he found the letter "horrid" but had the last laugh, supplying an alternative ending to punish the correspondent: "They never saw each other again."

Children's books rarely leave us guessing in this way, although there has been something of a trend for ambiguity in books for teens (see Patty Campbell's "So What Really Happened?" in the July/August 2005 issue of the Horn Book). Lois Lowry kept us guessing for a while there as to whether The Giver's Jonas lived or died, but she apparently later decided to go on the record as allowing that he survived. See, his sled took him deep into the snowy woods where he met a boy with a hatchet . . . . Okay, no he didn't, but with their sequels that aren't really sequels, both Lowry and Gary Paulsen sure do keep a fellow confused.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Sentence of the day

Busy editing reviews today, and the Prick Up Your Ears Prize goes to Horn Book reviewer Betty Carter, for this line from her review of Denys Cazet's A Snout for Chocolate:

"By story’s end, big red dots still cover Barney, indicating this series isn’t over even when the fat pig screams."

Friday, November 04, 2005

NYT Best Illustrated List

Along with librarian Starr LaTronica and author-artist Jules Feiffer, I was a judge for this year's New York Times Best Illustrated Books list, and (retiring) children's book review editor Eden Ross Lipson has graciously given me permission to post our choices here. Choosing the list is a very enlightening procedure-- the jury is always made up of a critic, someone who works with children as a teacher or librarian, and an illustrator. The battle of standards, criteria, assumptions, and personal tastes inherent in any book-prize committee is given an additional spin in the Times's case because of the calculated diversity of professional expertise, and Eden tells me that the artist member of the jury is always the one who "shakes things up." Yes, Jules, the trouble with you is that you just wouldn't listen. ;-)

Here's the list:

By Cari Best; illustrated by G. Brian Karas.

By Anu Stohner; illustrated by Henrike Wilson.

Written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

By Gary Soto; illustrated by Susan Guevara.

Written and illustrated by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart.

By Norton Juster; illustrated by Chris Raschka.
(di Capua/Hyperion)

By Barbara Jean Hicks; Illustrated by Alexis Deacon.

By Bruce McMillan; illustrated by Gunnella. (Houghton)

Written and illustrated by Jon Agee. (di Capua/Hyperion)

Written and illustrated by Mini Grey. (Knopf)

Incidentally, I'd like to acknowledge Eden Ross Lipson for her twenty-some years of children's book coverage in the Times Book Review (and her good work in bringing children's-book coverage to other parts of the paper as well) and wish her the best in her retirement; the Horn Book Magazine will be featuring an interview with Eden in an upcoming issue.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


The opening sentence of a Publishers Weekly review of Piotr Naskrecki's The Smaller Majority: "It's often said that you should buy books of gorgeous, light-saturated photographs for the images alone." Okay, maybe not often said by the likes of you or me, but surely there must be someone out there for whom that sentence has meaning.

Speaking of Allowances . . .

When I made a pitch just below for small, cheap books for small hands and minds, I had no idea that toddlers already had their allowances otherwise committed:

"Kids get older younger now,'" said Bob Chapek, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment. "When I started in this business 12 years ago, kids entered into the Disney Classic range at 6. Now, at 2 to 3 years old, kids are buying the Cinderella classic DVD."

The NY Times today gives us the not exactly startling news that little girls want to pretend to be princesses. The reporter, Jodi Kantor, bemoans the fact that girls prefer Cinderella in her post-transformation mode as belle of the ball rather than as the "cruelly oppressed wretch" she is at the start of the story. But come on: wouldn't you? And more to the point: didn't Cinderella?

Bring on the Pixis

A number of people have asked about the "Pixi" books I mentioned in this month's editorial; here's their spokesperson, silent but eloquent in his appeal:

This little guy (I speak without reference to gender) has Germany covered, standing in the corners of bookstores, drugstores, stationers and grocers every where I went, proffering a bucket of small paperback picture books priced at just under one euro each. I wish we had them here--while the publishing trend these days is for ever-longer hardcover fiction, surely we can find some room for "small books for small hands," as Ursula Nordstrom remarked about Sendak's Nutshell Library; not to mention small allowances.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Girls Gone Wild

I've never been a big fan of the American Girls empire, so when I learned it was the subject of a boycott I at first cheered, even while suspecting that the reason for the boycott probably had little in common with my dislike of the expensive and glossy version of American history that the brand markets so aggressively. But when I learned that the company was being accused of being pro-choice and pro-lesbian, I had to rethink my position. Those darned American Girls are bringing their touted feistiness to a whole new level! Good for them.

Dicey Tillerman, Downer?

Gawker gives us our first children's-book laugh of the day:

"You'll have to forgive Intern Alexis if she seems a bit sluggish today-- it's just that this week's edition of the Times Book Review is the most depressing thing she's read since Dicey's Song. "

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Janet MICKDonald

Janet McDonald just wrote to ask me to correct the spelling of her name in a previous post so as to more accurately reflect her heritage. I'm so embarrassed--and me mother a McNally! It's done, deirfiur ma cher (she might be Irish but she lives in Paris).

Friday, October 28, 2005

Silvey in St. Louis

Just got word that former Horn Book editor Anita Silvey will be speaking at Washington University in St. Louis on November 9. Her topic: "100 Best Books for Children: Our Greatest Children's Books and the Stories Behind Them." From the press release: "The event is free and open to the public and begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, in McMillan Cafe (Room 115), McMillan Hall, located on the university's Hilltop Campus. Seating is extremely limited. For more information or to reserve a seat, call (314) 935-5576."

Be sure to take a look at Anita's book of (almost) the same name. Her taste in books is impeccable (breeding will tell ;-) and for each of her selected titles, she gives a lively and illuminating "story behind the story."


Boy, is that an ominous word or what? Our deadline for review completion is next Tuesday, for the January/February issue. This deadline is particularly fraught, as in the January issue we also publish "Fanfare," our best books of the year list, and thus must by then have dealt with each of the books published in 2005 one way or the other. There's a bit of catch-up involved, and I always worry that we're going to miss the Newbery or Caldecott, (which will be announced on January 23rd next year). It's one thing to miss a prizewinner with forethought ("I don't care if this wins the Newbery, Caldecott, Printz AND the Pulitzer, I still don't like it") and quite another to simply miss it.

The Horn Book Magazine reviews mostly books it likes a lot, which comes to about eight hundred titles a year. But if you look at the Horn Book Guide, which reviews all (the good, the bad, and the ugly) new hardcovers from established publishers, you'll see that there are maybe not thousands, but at least a thousand more books we think are just fine in any given year. The line between the good and the very good is the hardest one to define, I think--and don't even get me started on the great.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Indiscretion? No, she'll probably get a promotion.

In the NYT today, Jennifer Bergstrom, publisher of Simon Spotlight Entertainment, had this to say in praise of her staff: "The thing that impresses me most about our editors is that they understand that it's not all about the book. It's about the money you can make from that book."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Remembering Rosa Parks

Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and director of the Women’s Leadership Institute at Mills College. She sent the following reminiscence of Rosa Parks to the child_lit listserv today, and has graciously allowed the Horn Book to reprint it here. Daphne Muse can be reached at msmusewriter@aol.com. R.S.

Everyday, history is made by people whose names remain unknown as well as those who become eternal icons. In May of 1980, a woman who forever changed our country spent a week in our home. The East Bay Area Friends of Highlander Research and Education Center joined with founder Myles Horton to honor two of the Civil Rights Movements most courageous pioneers: Rosa Parks and Septima Clark. Clark broke ground as a pioneering force in citizenship training and voter education. The two women met at Highlander in 1955, a place where my own mother-in-law Margaret Landes was trained during the 1930s.

Founded in 1932, Highlander is a civil rights training school located on a 104-acre farm atop Bays Mountain, near New Market, Tennessee. Over the course of its history, Highlander has played important roles in many major political movements, including the Southern labor movements of the 1930s, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s-60s, and the Appalachian people's movements of the 1970s-80s. Through books in our home library, her teachers and my own work as a writer, my daughter Anyania knew about the role Ms. Parks played in changing the course of history.

Like millions of other African Americans, Mrs. Parks was tired of the racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws of the times. Through her commitment to freedom and training at Highlander Research and Education Center, her refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, spawned a movement. Parks took a seat in the section of a Montgomery city bus designated for whites. She was arrested, tried and fined for violating a city ordinance. Mrs. Parks, a seamstress, often had run-ins with bus drivers and had been evicted from buses. Getting on the front of the bus to pay her fare and then getting off going to the back door was so humiliating. There were times the driver simply would shut the door and drive off. Her very conscious decision turned into an economically crippling, politically dynamic boycott and ended legal segregation in America. A three hundred and eighty two day bus boycott followed her morally correct and courageous act.

In the course of preparing for her visit, Ms. Parks noted to members of the committee that hotels just didn’t suit her spirit and she preferred the tradition extended through southern hospitality of putting people up in your home. She then asked if I would mind if she could be our guest during her week long stay in Oakland. She made only one request of us: that we keep her presence a secret. She and her long time friend Elaine Steele were eager to be in a place where they could relax, listen to music and eat great food without being disturbed. The disturbed part was my greatest concern for between the bullet-blasting drug wars and the press, I was concerned about how to maintain that part of the agreement.

Our modest home in the Fruitvale community of Oakland, California had served as a cultural center and refuge to many writers, filmmakers, artists and activists including Sweet Honey in the Rock, novelist Alice Walker and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Although we’d never even met, when Rosa Parks walked through our front door, she instantly became family. She and Anyania melted into one another’s arms like a grandmother seeing her grandchild for the first time. One morning as Anyania was about to take off for school, the button on her dress popped off. It was a jumper filled with multicultural images of children my mother had made for Anya. Ms. Parks asked if I had a sewing box, threaded the needle and sewed the button back on. My spirit spilled over and I just burst into tears.

Anyania was so good at keeping the secret. I, on the other hand, wanted to blurt out to my family, friends and students at Mills College “Guess who’s sleeping in my bed? A few months ago, a former neighbor came by to pay a visit and started searching the scores of photographs hanging on the walls in our living room. She stopped, turned around and blurted out, “No that isn’t.” I instantly knew the photograph to which she was referring. Along with pictures of Fannie Lou Hamer, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Jim Forman hangs a very precious photograph of Rosa Parks surrounded by my then seven-year-old daughter and her playmate Kai Beard. Dottie was simply undone that in all the years she’d come into our home, she like so many others simply thought the woman sitting next to Anyania was her grandmother. A few weeks after she returned to Detroit, Ms. Parks sent Anyania an exquisite portrait of her painted by Paul Collins. That portrait now hangs in Anya’s home in Brentwood, California where my grandchildren Maelia and Elijah live, read and play everyday.

--Daphne Muse

Monday, October 24, 2005

How to Get Published, Two . . .

We've just received advance copies of the November/December issue of the Magazine, with one of the more luscious covers Lolly Robinson has designed for us. (Speaking of Lolly, who designs every page of the Magazine and the Guide: she is the curator for "Beatrix Potter in America," an exhibition of original art, paintings, sketches, letters, and first editions appearing at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art through December 4th.)

Appearing in this issue is an article by Jon Scieszka, "What's So Funny, Mr. Scieszka?" based on his Zena Sutherland Lecture, which he delivered last May in Chicago. Along with publishing the acceptance speeches for ALA's Newbery, Caldecott, and Wilder Awards (in every July-August issue), and those for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards (every January-February issue), the Horn Book frequently publishes articles that first saw light on a podium. While the award speeches are published virtually verbatim, all others are subjected to the necessary and sometimes full-on transformation from oral speech to written article--what works for the one frequently falls flat in the other. So: if you do have a speech you think might make good reading for the Horn Book, make sure it graces the page with the same eloquence it had from the microphone. To reproduce comic timing, for example, is really hard--Jon lost a couple of his jokes. And you can't let italics do all the inflecting.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Thank you

Thank you all for reading and sending suggestions for this new Horn Book blog. I hope it will be entertaining and useful. Many colleagues have been helpful, especially Sharyn November, Judith Ridge, and Anastasia Suen, and I've been getting to know some of the children's book blogs, including Judith's, and Kids Lit (very helpful links) and Gail Gauthier's (informed and opinionated, and she loves the Horn Book ;-).

In an essay published in the New York Times this week (but God knows where and when exactly, as the "Times Select" articles-for-pay don't seem to include that information), Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg says that "writing means allowing yourself to think while paying attention to what you think as you think it." The self-reflexivity of blogging tempts one to go a step even beyond that, and I fear we may all be headed to meta-meta-land.

But maybe it's just me. In any case, this weekend I face the wood-pulp plugs and white laminate of Ikea, Inc. in the form of about a dozen cd towers waiting to be put together. God bless the Swedes.

A cosmic tangent

Perhaps inspired by the Ipod playlist I was listening to on the train this morning (a smartlist consisting of songs that had in common a question mark in the title, from "Is that All There Is?" to "What'll I Do?" to "Ain't It a Pretty Night?"), my thoughts turned philosophical, and I started musing on my (almost) ten years here at the Horn Book. It doesn't feel like a long time at all, but then I started comparing it to the same span in a child's life, where it seems--is--enormous. That would be first grade to tenth grade. I think time seems to go faster for adults because each year we add becomes an increasingly smaller part of our lifespan as we age (I am really proud to have figured out that math all by myself ;-). I wonder how writers for children rethink themselves into such a profoundly different apprehension of time--it's more than the excruciating waits we can all remember for Christmas or summer or a birthday, it's an entirely different scale, but one whose balance is constantly gaining in one direction. It was Richard Peck who put me on to the idea that kids can be as nostalgic as adults, but in their case it can be just last summer that brings forth the bittersweet!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Harriet the Sly, Part Two

My day began with Martha P. expostulating, rightly, over the "further reading" page in the forthcoming Harriet the Spy®, Double Agent by Maya Gold. Facing the title page, it is headed "Other books featuring Harriet the Spy and her friends," and then lists Harriet the Spy, Harriet Spies Again, The Long Secret, and Sport. Alphabetical order be damned: as the song says, one of those things is not like the others. And, as Reeve Lindbergh says, WHEN WILL WE OPEN OUR EYES?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

How to Get Published in the Horn Book: Notes toward a manifesto

The other Magazine editors (Claire, Jen, Kitty, and Martha, to be specific) and I were going through article submissions today, and it made me think we need to get a little more articulate in our submission guidelines, which can be found here. I thought I might try out some ideas on you.

Many of the unsolicited manuscripts we see are college or grad school term papers, most often unrevised for publication. Think: when was the last time you willingly read beyond "In this paper I shall prove" in a magazine article? Certainly, academic work can be the basis of a fine article--Horn Book reviewer Vicky Smith's "A-Hunting We Won't Go," an essay about anti-hunting bias in children's books, appeared in the Magazine in 2004 but first saw light as a paper for the Simmons' children's literature degree. But in rethinking the piece for us, Vicky boiled down the survey into an argument. We love a good argument, and I don't just mean the bristling sort of debate Marc Aronson and Andrea Pinkney had in our pages a few years back. I mean an article--whether research-based or speculative--that has a reason for being, that wants to tell us something new and convince us it's worth our attention. Hey, I think I'll extend this criterion to the book review section!

Thank God for the "e"

from a customer's review on Audible.com of Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle: "The heroine grew on me, though, so I felt hooked enough to continue listening."

My own favorite catch, in a draft of a Horn Book Guide review, was "this book follows sixteen-year-old Karen, a stalking victim." Then there was the time we almost printed Magid Fasts for Ramadan (a picture book by Mary Matthews and E.B. Lewis, about a Muslim boy who wants to join the adults in the Ramadan fast) as Magid Feasts for Ramadan . . . .

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

But does she love tomato sandwiches?

Wonkette has a bit of children's book fun today with an item on the Supreme Court nomination: "Harriet the Sly."

Robert's Snow

In other local news, I've been asked to alert you to the Robert's Snow project, a fundraiser for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/The Jimmy Fund. Founded by Boston-area writer and illustrator Grace Lin and her husband Robert, the project solicits hand-painted wooden Christmas tree ornaments from children's book illustrators for auction on eBay. (I can hold forth* for some time on what happens when you hang book illustration on a wall [or tree] but when it comes to eBay, you're on your own.) Information about the project, the illustrators involved, the auction details, and a list of galleries that will be exhibiting the ornaments are all available at the project site.

*and will, on November 12th, at the Eric Carle Museum.

Make Way for Mudslinging

Robert McCloskey's fabled ducklings have waddled right into the middle of Boston's mayoral race, with challenger Maura Hennigan airing a TV commercial apparently (I haven't seen it) animating and mimicking the style of McCloskey's work. Her message? "Make way for Tom Menino [the current mayor]. He's ducking the issues again." Menino supporter Nancy Schon, sculptor of the famous (and perennially-snatched) duckling figures which pay tribute to McCloskey's book in its real-life setting, the Boston Public Garden, is outraged.

Friday, October 14, 2005

I Love Laura

Ingalls Wilder, and am thrilled to chair the committee that will select the 2007 recipient of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children for the American Library Association. The Wilder Medal "honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." This biannual award last went to Laurence Yep in 2005; a list of previous winners can be found here. I welcome your suggestions for the committee's consideration; please email them to me here and be sure to put "LIW" in the subject line. The winner will be announced in January, 2007, but nominations close at the end of 2006, so get busy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Homework Help

I thought I had left behind the misery of the mass-homework assignment--my favorite example of which being the local seventh-grade teacher who sent thirty-five students to my tiny branch in search of copies of God Is My Co-Pilot--when I left public library work. But no. I have an annual crop of library media students (grownups, I emphasize, for anyone who thinks it's only kids who try to weasel out of assignments) who all want to know how the Horn Book Magazine "acknowledges the winner of the Caldecott Medal." The phrasing in the query is always the same, as is the question from year to year, as is my answer: the Horn Book Magazine reprints the Medalist's acceptance speech and runs a profile of the winner in every July/August issue. But sometimes I am tempted to tell them that each July/August issue comes packaged with a shot glass and a bottle of the winner's favorite hooch, and that the game is to down a shot each time you read the phrase thank you.

National Book Award nominees . . .

have just been announced. And, last night, Publishers Weekly's inscrutable Quills were bestowed.

More awards

I'm enjoying thumbing through Ruth Allen's Winning Books: An evaluation and history of major awards for children's books in the English-speaking world, published in the U.K. by Pied Piper Publishing (ISBN 0-954638-45-X). Although the lack of running heads makes the book a bit difficult to use for reference, it's a very browsable paperback, with complete lists of just about every English-language children's-book award complemented by histories of each award, shrewd observations about trends and choices, and the occasional anecdote. I've just been reading Allen's account of Lucy Boston winning the 1961 Carnegie Medal. Boston had madly prepared and memorized an acceptance speech, only to be then told that a simple "thank you" was all that was required--or wanted: "I lost my temper and hit the table till the cups danced. I poured out my rage at the wasted time and nervous exhaustion, the nights of fear. With rage came adrenalin and I knew I could address thousands without turning a hair, that I was in fact all agog to do it and mad at being defrauded."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Booker Prize

The announcement of the Booker Prize makes me think about the relative circumspection with which we promote children's book awards in the U.S. The fact that the chair announced that he had cast the deciding vote for the winner is in such contrast to our well-bred Newbery and Caldecott committees, which pledge confidentiality unto death. What you get instead, though, is gossip: x won because the committee was torn between y and z (an outcome that is in fact mathematically very difficult, given the way the balloting works); a Caldecott garnered on the strength of clever endpapers; a "Butterfield 8" Newbery, in which the winner is being recompensed for not having won for an earlier, better book (the term comes from Elizabeth Taylor's first Oscar). So which is better publicity: a relatively forthright explanation of how the voting went, or the inevitable whispers which will surround a confidential debate?

Friday, October 07, 2005

BGHB Pictures

Norton Juster (with Chris Raschka) looks surprised!

Phillip Hoose (in the hat) accepts his award for The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Kroupa/FSG). Photos by Richard Asch.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Coming in November

I think we're finally finished with the November/December issue of the Magazine. It has something of a Hans Christian Andersen focus (2005 marks his bicentenary), with a cover photograph of one of his paper-cuttings, an article by Brian Alderson about editions and translations of Andersen through the years, and a report by Elena Abos about a symposium held at the International Youth Library on illustrating the birthday boy. In addition, we have Jon Scieszka (it has taken me many years, but I can now spell Scieszka right on the first try ;-) on being funny, an article adapted from his Zena Sutherland Lecture of last May in Chicago; and Janet McDonald on bringing high and pop culture together in books for teens.

My editorial gamely tries to play along with our main theme by bringing in my trip to the IYL last spring in the company of Elena A., but what I was really interested in was what that trip taught me about what American children's book people mean when they call a book European. Hint: it's not a compliment.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Forbidden Children's Books

Still working on those BGHB pictures . . . there is one up of Neal Shusterman on our website at the BGHB link to the right.

I'm just back from a couple of days in New York, staying with my dear friend Elizabeth. We met twenty-five years ago as students in Zena Sutherland's children's literature class at the University of Chicago, and now she is a children's book publisher in New York. What has perhaps sealed our friendship even more than our vocation has is our shared devotion to the Off-Broadway revue "Forbidden Broadway," an evening of speedily-paced parody songs and sketches burlesqueing the current Broadway season and spoofing theatrical stars of today as well as yesterday's legends (there is always an Ethel Merman or a Carol Channing moment). We thought the highlight of last night's performance was a showdown between "Cherry Jones" and "Kathleen Turner," each in character from her most recent performance, Jones as Sister Aloysius in "Doubt" and Turner as Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The climax of the number was Jones exhorting Turner to "DOUBT!" to the tune of "Shout!"

It made me think about when children's books make fun of themselves, as in the Lemony Snicket Books, The Happy Hocky Family, or A Fate Totally Worse than Death. (There are also those books whose status as parody is debatable, but I'll let you name your own choices there.) I also recall what I think was a Sheila Greenwald novel in which the young heroine is being fed a diet of Judy-Blume like novels, including one blissfully, perfectly, named, Life Goes On, I Suppose. Thirty years or so ago, the ALA's Gay and Lesbian Task Force (as I think it was called then) performed a skit at annual conference, underlining all the cliches of the then-young gay-themed young adult novel. The skit ended with a car crash--the defining moment of books including Trying Hard to Hear You, I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, and Sticks and Stones (that last by the wonderful Lynn Hall. Where is she?) While we can still acknowledge the grievance, I always thought that criticism failed to concede that the car-crash-climax was by no means limited to gay-themed novels--the books about teenaged alcoholics worked exactly the same way. Before you all start stepping on my head for equating homosexuality and alcoholism, just . . . wait. Have a drink, darling. I know, I know, that's not funny, and we were talking about humor.

Another place I see children's books being needled (car crashes figured in the drug books as well, btw) is in those lists of parody children's-book titles (One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fish) or creatively redesigned children's book covers--the one I can think of at the moment has Eminem superimposed upon the great green room for a book called Goodnight, Bitch. Hee. I love this kind of demonstration of the place children's books can take as cultural markers in the big world. The country she-done-me-wrong lament that goes, " . . . now I'm the one who's caught in Charlotte's web," presupposes that the listener knows Charlotte's Web. I think that's great.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards

The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were bestowed last night at the Boston Athenaeum (see link to the right for a list of the winners). It is the 39th year of the award (an arithmetical fact I could only work out by writing out the years since inception: 1967, 1968,1969, etc.; what is the formula for that?) and my tenth year as m.c. I’ve never been a judge for BGHB, but I’ve always thought that this award frequently goes to unexpected but good choices, probably because a three-person jury can more nimble (and quirky) than one with fifteen (like the Caldecott and Newbery). The fact that each award committee is surveying books published from the fall of one year through the spring of the next means a different pool of possibilities from that of the calendar-year awards, practically guaranteeing different choices from the Newbery and Caldecott. (There have been a few trifectas, with the same book winning Newbery, National Book Award, and the BGHB award, most recent example being Holes.) Another difference is the inclusion of books originally published in another country and/or language, and dividing the award among fiction and poetry, nonfiction, and picture book categories means a fairer shake for each genre (although the joining of fiction and poetry is an awkward one, and different years have seen different juggling). A third distinction—and one where I think we have it all over the Caldecott—is that the picture book award goes to both the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the cited book. (The Blogger spell-checker queried Caldecott, wanting to replace it with coldest. I’m sure there are many picture-book writers who would agree!)

The ceremony last night was quite lively, with a couple of hundred from Boston’s children’s book crowd on hand. My partner Richard took pictures, and I’ll post some here as soon as we figure out how it all works. The acceptance speeches and excerpts of the judges’ remarks will be published in the January/February issue of the Horn Book; the cover illustration is being created by this year’s Picture Book winner Mini Grey.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Pithy Publisher

That Rick Richter (Simon & Schuster Children's Prez). First he gave us a line that I steal all the time, about the once-ubiquitous genre of "I-love-you-more-than-that-other-book does" books; in the latest PW he has this to say about the allegation that backlist books are a cash cow: "That's an overstatement. It's a critical part of our business. If you don't spend any money on promotion, it's a cash cow, but the rent on the barn is still high." I do admire a man who understands the need to keep metaphors--like cows--herded in the same direction. (For an example of someone who does not understand this need, have a listen to Barbra Streisand's new song "Night of My Life," which randomly spouts off about merry-go-rounds, roller-coasters, love being a river, rivers becoming oceans, love being a color, going to the wall, climbing to the top, and radar.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A little more about stars

We've finished choosing the stars for the November issue, and they will be posted on the www.hbook.com site in a couple of weeks. One book that occasioned a lot of discussion was Joseph Delaney's The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch, published by Greenwillow in September. It had originally been passed over for review by the Magazine, but then Anita Burkam, who had been asked to review it for the Guide, suggested it was good enough for reconsideration. Amen. While the book looks like fairly standard fantasy/horror series fiction, the writing is spare and vivid and the story is uncompromising in its depiction of supernatural evil. I've been bothered by a tendency in genre writing to superficially ape the diction of bygone fiction (sorry), with, for example, flowery authorial passages that would be at home in E. Nesbit. Lemony Snicket does this sort of thing to be funny, but I'm thinking of books like Taylor's Shadowmancer or Paolini's Eragon, which both indulge in a self-conscious archaicness that achieves an effect more coy than majestic. The Last Apprentice is written with immediate and transparent prose. I would have eaten it up as a ten-year-old.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Our launch of this Horn Book blog coincides with a very busy week. We are in the last throes of the November/December issue--checking edits and layout with Lolly Robinson, our designer, deciding which book reviews will be highlighted with a "star," and writing the editorial. And, of course, LOTS of busywork to avoid the last; years ago Betsy Byars said that the hardest part of writing was sitting down to the keyboard, but what she wasn't reckoning with--then--was all the temptation offered by the Internet, such as Mini Putt. Please understand that I provide that link only as an exercise of my nascent ability to construct same.