Thursday, March 30, 2006

May/June Stars

Listed below are the starred (starring?) books in the forthcoming May/June issue:

The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon
(Knopf)
written and illustrated by Mini Grey

What Do Wheels Do All Day?
(Houghton)
written by April Jones Prince, illustrated by Giles Laroche

Hardworking Puppies
(Harcourt)
written and illustrated by Lynn Reiser

Max’s ABC
(Viking)
written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells

Day of the Scarab:
The Oracle Prophecies, Book Three
(Greenwillow)
by Catherine Fisher

Thumb on a Diamond
(Groundwood)
by Ken Roberts

Mama: A True Story in which a Baby Hippo Loses His Mama during a Tsunami, but Finds a New Home, and a New Mama
(Harcourt)
written and illustrated by Jeannette Winter (page 351)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Singing Our Song

On our way to work today, Miss Pod randomly chirped up with Carole King's "The Snow Queen." It's a pretty intriguing song, moving from Andersen's heartless, scornful Queen; to the girl in school who won't let any of the boys near her; and ending up somewhere in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" territory, all set to to a sixties jazz-waltz beat.

What other songs have been tilled from our field? The only one I can think of offhand is "Charlotte's Web" ("Now I'm the one who's caught in . . .") by the Statler Brothers.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Keeping the unicorns at bay

Last week on childlit, Monica Edinger mentioned Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist, an English fantasy novel for adults first published in the 1920s. I remember this book from my teens in the mid-seventies, a time when lots of long-forgotten "adult fantasy" was being republished in the wake of Tolkien's resurgence. My friends and I read tons of it--William Morris, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, Mervyn Peake, and E. R. Eddison. We were all chasing the Tolkien dragon, only occasionally finding it in these books that had frequently been forgotten for a reason, dated by style as much as anything. A lot of them went half-read, but I encountered enough books I enjoyed on their own terms to make their adherence (or lack thereof) to Tolkienism irrelevant. (One of my favorites was Jane Gaskell's trashy The Serpent and its sequels.)

But I don't think I could read any of them today to save my life. I love the Wee Free Men stories by Terry Pratchett, and recently enjoyed Julie Hearn's The Minister's Daughter, but the vast majority of invented-world high fantasy makes my eyes glaze over--and if your taste in spelling runs along the lines of faery, don't sit by me. While this of course says more about me than about the books, it has me interested in how, as adults, we reject books or genres that spoke so clearly to us at an earlier age. Interests change, certainly, and dare I say, mature. But I wonder if there is also a subconscious rejection going on, a determination to separate the grown-up self from the child self. It's different from rejecting genres/authors/themes because of indifference; I'm talking about the books from which we run screaming precisely because they meant so much to us at a different time.

I don't think I'm alone in this, and there's plenty of room on the virtual couch. How does the dynamic I describe work in/for/against you all as adults invested in books for children?

Watch the, uh, hands; they tell the story

ALA's Public Library Association is convening this week in Boston, and last night I had the pleasure of attending a dinner for Jarrett Krosoczka and Jon Scieszka (where were the pierogies?). A good time was had by all as we enjoyed each other's company and Jon's stories--particularly hilarious was an anecdote he shared from an autograph session yesterday morning, where a sixty-ish woman, while having Jon sign her book, told him about the time back in her nudist colony when her nudist husband entertained the folks with his rendition of Jon's True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf. In sign language.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Free speech v. speech that mints money

While the New York Times seems to be pitting artistic expression against the FCC (with the WB network in the middle) let's just hazard a guess as to why the now-excised scenes "that depicted two girls in a bar kissing on a dare and another of a girl unbuttoning her jeans" were to be found in the new show "The Bedford Diaries" in the first place. Hint: it's the same reason we keep seeing Bill Paxton's bared bum on "Big Love."

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Do My Work for Me?

Sorry to have been neglecting you all; I've been trying to wrap my mind and keyboard around my editorial for the May issue (which is looking just fine without me, but nevertheless). Lillian Gerhardt, former ed-in-chief of School Library Journal, once advised me to always keep one speech and one editorial in reserve for those times when the brain runs dry. (She also said that her method for coming up with a topic was to read the newspaper and get cranky about something.)

I do have a topic, though--the Naomi Wolf article has me thinking about where the intersection between criticism and practical application should be. So we determine that book is racist, sexist, materialist--objectionable in one way or another. How do we go beyond pointing that out? Or is pointing that out the limit? For example, I am almost completely with Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in their analysis of how pornography works. But their solutions? Not so much. Anyway, your spirited comments on the Wolf have been a big help to my thinking and I thank you.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Quicker Picker-Upper

I just finished listening to Lisa Scottoline's new mystery, Dirty Blonde, and am confounded by one of the plot points. (Spoiler.)

Cate Fante, a newbie Philadelphia judge, has a little problem with stress, and has been relieving it once a month or so by picking up rough trade at seedy bars and bedding them in no-tell motels. In the course of a high-profile court case, her secret life comes out and is splashed all over the news and papers. It's actually rather daring of Scottoline to give her heroine such an icky compulsion to deal with; the problem is the tidy way in which the novel cleans it up: early on, Cate confesses her latest indiscretion to her best friend, swears never to do it again, and, apparently, never does. Why give a character such a interesting dark side only to solve the problem by switching on a light? Why raise demons only to exorcise them so easily?

Of course, had Dirty Blonde been a YA novel, we might have been subjected to endless scenes of cutting, OCD, and Cate's sessions with her court-appointed (and long-winded) psychologist, so maybe I should count my blessings.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Update: Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf answers questions about her Gossip Girls essay here. She should have quit while she was ahead.

Gossip in the Stacks

Neatly tying the last two blog entries together, I see there has been some discussion, prompted by Naomi Wolf's Times article, on the PUBYAC listserv about the inclusion of the Gossip Girls books in public library YA collections. (PUBYAC is "an Internet discussion list concerned with the practical aspects of Children and Young Adult Services in Public Libraries, focusing on programming ideas, outreach and literacy programs for children and caregivers, censorship and policy issues, collection development, administrative considerations, puppetry, job openings, professional development and other pertinent services and issues.") One defence made of NOT purchasing such titles was, secondhand, from a book review editor: "most libraries do not have an abundance of money to spend on questionable purchases."

Questionable was left undefined, as it usually is (like offensive). Questionable meaning, "I don't have an audience in my library for these books," fine. But questionable as "in questionable taste," or as in "I'm gonna get in trouble," not so fine. As well, the "we only have a limited amount of money" argument is no defense, either: if you only have a limited amount of money, don't you want to spend a large chunk of it on books that kids already want to read? When I was in library school, Zena Sutherland took the line that libraries needn't buy Nancy Drew, etc. (I see I'm dating both Zena and myself!) because kids could buy them for themselves, and indeed such books were published with both eyes on the mass market, not on institutional sales. But then I went out and worked with kids who could not (or would not) buy books for themselves. In my opinion, the stocking of mass-market paperbacks in a public library is a signal to kids that their interests are represented and respected. Why should a kid respect my recommendation of, say, Francesca Lia Block, if I don't respect the kid's enjoyment of Gossip Girls? (Note: I don't think you have to have respect for what somebody is reading in order to respect her right to her own taste.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

One makes sense, the other doesn't.

Children's book people tend to get awfully prickly when non-specialists venture opinions on our field, whether it's Madonna thinking she's a writer, or Harold Bloom taking down Harry Potter. So my quills quivered when I saw that Naomi Wolf was writing about YA fiction in the Times Book Review, but, I have to say, the girl talks sense. Her critique of the Gossip Girl books and their ilk keeps the moral outrage in perspective and demonstrates how these books break faith with what makes YA literature valuable. Have a look.

I was much less convinced by a recent piece in Slate, "The Little Men Who Love Little House: Why Boys Like Girls [sic] Books" by Emily Bazelon. The first problem is that the article doesn't speak to its title; in fact, the case being made seems to be precisely the opposite of what is premised. Her sole evidence that boys like girls' books is that her six-year-old son likes some of the same books she does (but she never says what they are). She also claims that Nancy Drew outselling The Hardy Boys proves the same thing, but . . . no. Ultimately, Bazelon seems defeated by her own question, concluding that boys don't read because we aren't doing enough to publish and promote books they would like: boys' books.

Friday, March 10, 2006

While Cathy Adores the Minuet

Richard has gone to the movies tonight with our friend Pam. They're seeing "Tristram Shandy." I stayed home and watched a rerun of "Will and Grace," the one about the hydro-bra. I'm interested in how children's book people negotiate differences in taste--not just with their loved ones, but with their colleagues and with the young people they serve, either as individuals or in the aggregate, in a day to day situation or in the abstract or at a remove.

Although I'm only sporadically (or subliminally!) aware of this negotiation, it's going on all the time. Magazine exec. editor Martha or Kitty, her opposite number at the Guide, and I regularly disagree about books: how do we decide what the "Horn Book opinion" will be? Similarly, all our reviewers have their own considered opinions. And the result? It seems to go a different way with each book, which is good.

While this kind of book debate goes on in many contexts, I think what's most interesting about the children's books community is that we are having our debates on behalf of someone else: the child reader, either on the other side of the desk at our teacher and librarian jobs, across the dinner table at home, or as an imagined or projected audience. We're always negotiating the difference between what we like and what they like (or in the happy instance where professional and child audience are in agreement, between how we like a book and how it is enjoyed by the young.)

Maybe, though, we are only ostensibly mediating the distinction between children and ourselves. Maybe we are always reading (or writing) for ourselves. The child-as-other idea, God knows, is fraught with problems literary, educational, and political. I believe that children read for the same reasons adults do (and both groups, of course, are made up of distinct individuals). But woe betide us (meaning those who take part in bringing children and books together) if we forget the stewardly nature of our work.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Duck and cover!

People in Oklahoma must have awfully short memories, as demonstrated by the following usage of the word emergency:

AS INTRODUCED

An Act relating to libraries; providing for withholding of certain state funds under certain circumstances; providing for codification; and declaring an emergency.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF OKLAHOMA:

SECTION 1. NEW LAW A new section of law to be codified in the Oklahoma Statutes as Section 2-110 of Title 65, unless there is created a duplication in numbering, reads as follows:

The Oklahoma Department of Libraries Board shall not grant or distribute any state funds that are allocated to libraries on a formula basis to any library, library district, or library system unless the library has taken action to place all children and young adult books and materials that are homosexually themed or sexually explicit in an adult or special area in the library and the library has a policy in place to limit distribution of such books and material to adults only.

SECTION 2. It being immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety, an emergency is hereby declared to exist, by reason whereof this act shall take effect and be in full force from and after its passage and approval.

50-2-7819 KB 12-13-05

I'm not sure what moving King and King to a restricted shelf in the adult department is going to do for "the public peace, health and safety" but maybe Oklahoma doesn't have enough to worry about. Here's the story.

Both teams are blessed,

but should my cheerleading sweater have a big L or a big N ?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Today's (anyway) Trends

To borrow a word from one of our reviewers, I am faced this week with a veritable panoply of book reviews to edit. As is increasingly usual, there is a lot of high-stakes fantasy, a genre that seems to grow ever more political in its themes (or maybe it's just the fantasies we choose to review), but there's also some entertainingly snarky realistic fiction, including that Rosy-Cole-channeling-James-Frey novel I mentioned previously, and some fresh nonfiction, like Stompin' at the Savoy (Candlewick), a uniquely inflected memoir of Harlem jazz dancer Norma Miller as told to Alan Govenar. And I'm loving Boston Globe-Horn Book winner (for Traction Man Is Here!) Mini Grey's The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon (Knopf), about just what happened after those two ran away together: "The Dish got a taste for the high life."

I frequently field questions from reporters wanting to know about "trends" in children's literature, but, honestly, once I swear I've spotted one, another comes along to displace it. So disregard what I said about high-stakes fantasy, I guess.

Monday, March 06, 2006

In Bed with WHO?

Although it's going to take me forever to get through the academic prose of James F. English's The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Harvard, 2006), it has some heady arguments that I'm enjoying engagement with. One of English's key points, for example, is that "modern cultural prizes cannot fulfill their social obligations unless authoritative people--people whose cultural authority is secured in part through these very prizes--are thundering against them." A delicious paradox that both makes me feel a lot better for disliking Harry Potter, and consoles me for last night's loss for "Goodnight and Good Luck," I mean, "Brokeback Mountain."

But. But. Listen to English on the Adult Video News Awards, an award program for porn, with such categories as "Best Anal Sex Scene." In considering the financial impact of the AVNs and other porn awards, English writes, "purchasers of porn videos tend to be drawn with particular force toward award-winning titles. There are few fields of cultural consumption (children's literature is one) in which prizes have a more direct and powerful effect on sales." Mercy!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Wisdom or Hooey: a Poll.

"Where am I? is the first demand the wailing infant makes of the world he arrives in. Calmed and comforted, you stop asking after a while, and are soon so adjusted to reality (an adult invention) that you forget the question."

--Peter Conrad, Behind the Mountain: Return to Tasmania (Poseidon Press, 1989)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

God help these kids because their parents won't.

I'm happy to see that the students in Utah have dodged a bullet--you know, as I typed those words the potential bad taste of the cliche started to worry me, what with our concern for Safe Schools and all, but then I realized that kids are far more likely to suffer educational damage from their elders than they are gunshot wounds from their peers. As in this latest nonsense from California. (Thanks to As If! for the link.) In explaining why the school trustees removed twenty-three books from the Vista San Gabriel Elementary School, board president Sharon Toyne said, "with this ever-changing society, we have to just stick back to the traditional thing of what kids are supposed to be learning." One assumes she isn't talking about "traditional things" like proper sentence structure. Or coherent thought.