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. "