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.