Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Whither Jackie Paper?

While showering this morning, I recollected for no good reason the fact that, as a child, I always thought that Little Jackie Paper died. And now I'm reading John Green's marvelous An Abundance of Katherines, and am pleased to have found another child for whom fables were not all that: "if only he'd known that the story of the tortoise and the hare is about more than a tortoise and a hare, he might have saved himself considerable trouble."

And if children's writers would just stay away from the fables, already, they would save us ALL considerable trouble. Making a story (The Gift, by Robert Morneau) about transubstantiation into one about pumpkin pie enlightens us about neither subject. Making a story (Bravemole, by Lynne Jonell) about the World Trade Center and terrorists into one about molehills and dragons demeans all concerned. It shouldn't come as a surprise that so many celebrity-amateur books (Madonna's Mr. Peabody's Apples; Patricia Cornwell's Life's Little Fable) indulge in this sort of thing, because the financial model for a successful picture book is The Giving Tree. But the thing is this: The Giving Tree never was a book for children; it was a book for adults charmed by thinking themselves sophisticated for finding such "wisdom" in a kiddie book. Idiots.

What brought this on? I'll tell ya. I'm reviewing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a novel-length fable about the Holocaust. And once I hit the first instance of the word Auschwitz rendered in irony-laden lisping babytalk ("Out-With") I knew we were in trouble all over again.

23 comments:

Ann said...

Thank you! Reading this post was like opening a window and feeling a breeze of fresh air enter a stale room.

fusenumber8 said...

I'll second that "thank you" and raise you a "thank God". Not only for putting "The Giving Tree" in its rightful place, but also for the opinion on "The Boy In the Striped Pajamas". Unfortunately this post has made me somewhat curious about "Bravemole". It seems like such a bad idea that I feel inclined to seek it out.

JeanneB said...

What the heck is transubstantiation and why do children have to know about it?

JeanneB said...

And I just went looking for AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES, and it's not available to the rest of us until late September. Roger, you tease!

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, I just finished THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS yesterday, after hearing much about it on CCBC-NET and BBYA.

Roger, I'll be curious to see if you think, like THE GIVING TREE, it's a book for adults. Obviously, Knopf is marketing it as a young adult book (it's about a nine-year old, but it's not a book *for* nine-year olds, says the jacket copy of the ARC). Actually, I found it read like a book for nine year olds more than a book for middle and high school students (well, okay, I would probably say this is for 4th-8th grades if you pressed me on it), not that it would necessarily be beloved and widely embraced by that audience. I can see a small child audience for this book, especially those with some Holocaust background knowledge from school, reading, film, or family experience.

It's not hard to see why Knopf has marketed it as a young adult book, however. It will have a hard enough time making it past the gatekeepers as a young adult book, and it would never, ever make it past them as a children's books.

The Out-With/Fury thing is too cute for its own good, and it might have been okay coming from a first person narrator, but definitely not third person.

I enjoyed the book, and found it an interesting, but controversial treatment of the Holocaust (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, anyone?) but don't have strong feelings for or against it.

Jonathan

Anonymous said...

Thank God someone else dares to say he didn't like BOY. I took a galley with me when I took my computer to be serviced, and I was at the computer repair store for four hours with nothing but that damn book. I was reduced to reading "windows for dummies" and a strategy guide for a computer game I'd never seen because I just couldn't stomach the "novel's" tone.

That being said, many writers I respect think it's hilarious when people mispronounce "big" words. From Anastasia Krupnik's discussion of "the bockle" (she misheard debacle) to Tony Soprano and his son talking about Nitch for Neitsche, it's never funny. I can only think of one time in books when the use wasn't disingenuous. When poor Ramona Quimby thought of the Star Spangled Banner as "the mysterious Dawnzer song" I believed she was just as confused about the national anthem as everyone else who went to kindergarten in that era.

Monica said...

Holocaust background or not, this book is just plain icky. Boyle evidently drank from the same well of earnestness that fueled Benigni into making the also icky "Life is Beautiful." I'll take my genocide history straight-up, thank you very much.

While I am generally leery of fabling of this sort, I did very much like Mordecai Gerstein's THE OLD COUNTRY as did my nine-year-old students.

Lynn said...

I have an advance reader copy of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas from the publisher's exhibit at ALA in New Orleans. After reading the book I was very disturbed, for want of a better word, by the addition of fable on the title page. While I think the book has an intriguing premise, calling it a fable is a stretch. Though fables often deal with difficult issues/lessons and have morals to teach, I am not convinced this is indeed fable in the traditional sense.

This is not to say I found the book lacking any worth. On the contrary, it presents a very different viewpoint from what we usually see and could be a valuable teaching tool. The audience for this book is difficult to determine. It is NOT a children's book and placing it in a juvenile collection would be a mistake. However, I have trouble seeing it as a YA book.

This morning I read a review in Booklist and briefly wondered if we had read the same title. Waffling about purchasing the title for the library, I look forward to reading your review (and checking back here to see additional comments). Thank you.

Monica said...

PS My apologies --- it is Mordicai Gerstein.

PPS Thanks, Roger, for stirring things up again. It was getting way too tame in the children's lit blogosphere!

Roger Sutton said...

Jeanne--transubstantiation is the Catholic belief that the priest actually changes bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. It doesn't seem so icky when you've grown up with it ;-)

I'm going to reserve further comment about the Boy in the Striped Pajamas until I've finished the review--which is just what I'm supposed to be doing right now, as a matter of fact!

But one thing regarding mis-hearing: my family loved hearing me ask for the song about "the little orgy." Can anyone guess?

Jane said...

Well, we had a huge imbroglio a few years ago on another children's book list about ARLENE SARDINE and I feel as Roger does about THE GIVING TREE. But Walter Mayes, whose passionate opinions I usually admire, adored ARLENE SARDINE.

I guess Mileages really do vary.

Jane

Andy Laties said...

Eric Kimmel wrote a hilariously scathing bio entry about Shel Silverstein in that St. Martin's Press reference work that was I think entitled Twentieth Century Children's Writers.

I think Shel was one of those writers who simply didn't care so much who his readers were. It was the book establishment that pigeonholed him. Sure, he was misogynist. Hell, he was friends with Hugh Hefner. But he sure had a ferocious sense of humor.

None of my copies of the reissued DIFFERENT DANCES has sold (picked it up a few months ago). People these days just don't dig solidly nasty but personally direct humor. He really did write it the way he saw it.

Andy

Robin said...

Thanks, Roger--and I can't wait to read your review of The Boy In Striped Pajamas, a book I truly disliked.

It was hard for me to think it was a fable at all; I was too distracted by the supposed innocence of the main character. How could any son of a Nazi officer not know how to pronounce Der Fuhrer? Please. And, once corrected, why didn't he remember it? He was a boy, not a toddler.

Bruno's suprising lack of knowledge of the world around him was equally astounding: the world was at war and his country was at the center of the war. Naivete is one thing--being unconscious is another. (I mean--really--Bruno has spent an hour a day with Schmuel for a year, knows enough to steal food for him and he still expects to see cafes and a farmer's market in the camp??)

I have read a lot of Holocaust books lately (Yellow Star, The Book Thief, and Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You (Rwanda)) and, especially next to these, the Boyne book was plain-ol' creepy.

I understand what the writer was trying to do with the two, almost-mirrored, same-birthday boys but the weaknessses in the story were terribly distracting and insulting.

Anonymous said...

Roger, I've got a good guess what you meant as a kid when you asked for a song about "The little orgy"

Was it "The little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay?"


I once published a book called The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang. I thought it had amazingly vivid and compelling scenes of what it was like to be in a cattle car, transported to a death camp. But...the heroine was 12 years old and lived in the basement of a house with her grandmother. Her parents had gone to the "dentist" a few years before and never come back and sent her letters that seemed to come from a typewriter exactly the same as the one in the basement. The girl didn't wonder about any of it, including why she was living in the basement and couldn't go outside. That drove me CRAZY--no one in the world would be so incurious and the girl was a mentally able 12-year-old--but the rest of the book was really compelling. Anyway, I remember Hazel Rochman starring it and that the book was named a Bulletin Blue Ribbon.

Elizabeth said...

That was me, Elizabeth, who posted the above. Clicked on the wrong thing by accident, sorry.

lili said...

I read Boy in the Striped Pyjamas about a year ago, as an ARC.

This particular ARC didn't contain the word "fable". And I thought it was a fantastic book.

I wonder how much of the dislike directed towards it relates to the use of that word???

Lynn said...

Yes, a lot of my issues are directed to the use of the word fable in the title and with the LC cataloging info included. I feel it misdirects the reader and takes away from any potential the book would have standing alone as fiction.

Robin mentioned concerns with Bruno being "unconscious" about the world around him. I can believe some cluelessness of his surroundings to some extent since it appears he was spoiled and sheltered, but I do wonder why he didn't grow more as a character. If Bruno intuited the necessity of denying he knew Schmuel (when he was in the house cleaning), he knew something was wrong.

Lynn said...

I remember Arlene Sardine from the late 90's! Chris Raschka did the fabulous artwork and the story was literally the life of Arlene ... birth to sardine can. Another disturbing title, It caused a few issues in the public library where I was working at the time.

rindawriter said...

The painful question to wonder about all of this is WHY so often the #!%&##!!!###!! things sell so well--the "Giving Tree" rip-offs, I mean. Clearly, publishers are publishing them not for alturistic reasons. Clearly, publishers see a buying public out there, a rather large one, of adults. THAT's what un-nerves me a bit to wonder about.

I like that "Kitten" book of Kevin Henkes a lot; I mean it looks like a fable type book on the surface...but I don't feel that it is. It's funny, endearing. Kitten is a flawed kitten, a silly, stupid kitten, albeit adorable. She has an adventure with a satisfying end.

I've never been a fan of Seuss's picture books. Like his easy readers a bit better.

But my opion, that I so, SO dislike PREACHY, TEACHY books for children probably doesn't weigh a qark in the wider world...God help me though to never write one...and His help might be needed in my case! We are only human after all...and prone to blindness about ourselves.

Miss Katharine said...

As the child of German immigrants, I was very moved by The Boy in Striped Pajamas. I understand some of the objections, but I was pulled into the story so deeply that things like "The Fury" did not bother me at all. As for Bruno not understanding what was happening... My grandmother was a pre-teen in Germany during that time and lived in a small village where she says she had *no idea* about the death camps. She knows that her father wouldn't let her join the Hitler Youth, but she didn't understand *why* (she so wanted the pretty uniform and to go to meetings and on outings!). So, honestly, I can understand how a child can be so sheltered that they just don't understand what the heck is happening. Plus, children can frequently be self-absorbed not notice things that aren't all about them. (A line from an A.A. Milne poem comes to mind, "Do you think the king knows all about me?") Add to that the fact that children were not so inundated with media of all manner the way they are now...

So do I believe that it is possible for a 9-year-old boy living in Hitler's Germany to be unaware of the atrocities around him? I do. I was absorbed in the book until the final pages, when I gasped in horror and began crying on the bus...

Anonymous said...

I am with Miss Katherine on this in that it is plausible for a not-so-bright 9-yr old who was sheltered and home-schooled with hardly any contact to the outside world to be naieve.

But that point has been made, and even so I felt compelled to add my view, because I felt that many of the posts complaining of the naievity, the description of the book as a 'fable', or the out-with/fury puns have slightly missed the point of the book. Those are the things that remind you at every page that this is a story, that that world could never happen have occured, could it? Those are part of the things that make the book (as Monica pointed out) "icky".

It is not a book to 'enjoy', but I found it a fantastic book. Very worthwhile, very thought-provoking, very disturbing.

Cat_Starr said...

I read 'The Boy...' when it first came out and it wasn't being called a fable at that point, atleast not on my copy. I think it is an awful book. As a stage writer I have done a massive amount of research into, in particular, Rudolph Hoess and his time as Kommandant at Auschwitz. I agree with many things people on here have said such as Hitler not stooping low enough to meet with Hoess, it's true, Hoess answered to Himmler. I also find it incredibly arrogant and patronising of the author to think he can get away with writing things like 'Out- With' and 'Fury' and expecting the reader not to feel resentful for being treated like an idiot. When I realised what he was trying to do with these childish phrases it made me seriously dislike the book before I had even really started. The thing that angers me more than anything is the fact that Bruno has a relationship with Schmuel for about a year. No child would have lasted more than a few days once they reached Auschwitz. Why would the Nazi killing machine, horribly effective and efficient keep children, who are useless to the war machine even in terms of foced labour, alive? Answer: they didn't. It offends me that someone who calls themselves an author, and takes all the authority that goes with that title, could write a book so flawed in terms of historical accuracy and literary terms. I cannot express just how much I dislike this book, mainly because I can't bear the thought that children are going to read it and think that they now understand what happened.

Anyone thinking of buying this book for their children- don't. Buy Waiting For Anya by Michael Morpurgo instead, it shows much more literary talent and ultimately, humility.

Anonymous said...

I had to read The Boy in the Stripped Pygamas for our book club.
The author is in my veiw a Mark Haddon wannabe, who seriously and patronizingly misses the mark. I LIVED through The Curious Incident...and at the end I cried, something I had not done since Jane Eyre at 13 years of age. Where has Bruno been all his life - in a cupboard? He did not know, depite the German love of the fatherland, what a farm was, but had know trouble identifying barbed wire. How dare the author use this terrible period of human suffering to write this sentimental drivel.I LOATHED HAVING TO FINISH THE BOOK.