Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's the Most Wonderful Time of Year

Yes indeed, late August and surrounded by holiday books. We Do It Now So You Don't Have To Later. Perhaps the most eccentric title in this year's pile is, depending on how you punctuate the title page, It's a Wonderful Life for Kids, or "It's a Wonderful Life": for Kids, due next month from Dutton. Written by Jimmy Hawkins, who played little Tommy Bailey in the movie, it retells, in the form of a sequel, the scenario of It's A Wonderful Life as it might have been experienced by Tommy: in his case, Tommy loses the envelope containing money for the library fund, and in his despair runs to the local bridge, where he meets . . . Arthur, Angel Second Class, sent down by ol' Clarence who once helped out Tommy's father. And, likewise, Timmy gets to see what life in Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born. Talk about the sins of the fathers . . . .

Still, ka-ching! I wonder who got his wings for this one?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Who needs Judy Miller?

The children's-book beat at the New York Times does just fine without her. Last year, they somehow got an early copy of the last Harry Potter into Michiko Kakutani's hands; now reporter Dinitia Smith has broken into S&S/Margaret K. McElderry headquarters to swipe a copy of the "embargoed" Peter Pan in Scarlet.

Actually, I imagine there is a copy of the manuscript in Times children's book editor Julie Just's office just as there is in mine. Unlike the Harry Potter books from Scholastic, S&S sent out review copies of Peter Pan in Scarlet with the proviso that no coverage appear before the pub date in October. (They wanted a signed agreement to that effect, but didn't get one from us.) That's fine by me: however "authorized," a sequel to Peter Pan is not exactly breaking news--unless your news is breaking the embargo. Emma Dryden, you evil genius.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Heady reading

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer takes a different spin on the topic of YA's reading adult books, that is, adults reading YA books (thanks to Bookslut for the tip). God knows they will find some good reading, but I wonder if it's damning with faint praise to say, as B&N bookseller Lisa Santamaria does, that adults may want "something a little more entertaining or fluffy, so they come to the kids' section, only to find out that these books are not necessarily fluffy at all. Like Harry Potter - it makes you think." If it were up to me, I'd replace Harry Potter in that sentence with . . . --I was going to give an example from any number of candidates, but then I was stymied by the possibly half-baked notion that YA literature is on the whole more interested in making us feel than think. Some do both (Aidan Chambers' novels come to mind) but so many more aim for our emotional investment in a character and situation, rather than (or also) occasioning readers to ask questions about themselves and their beliefs. Shall we compile a list, or am I overreaching?


Pluto's off the list, so never mind the song. And the anti-Castro forces in Miami are going for broke: this will bring the money the Board of Education will spend on the case to at least half a million dollars. Let's not even think about how many books that money could buy; certainly they haven't.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Getting under the covers

First, I happened upon a message board where young readers speculated madly on how the (now-defunct) movie of Gossip Girl should be cast. ("Yohomeboy" said "they should totally find unknown stars to play all the people cuz if they pick a old person like lindsey lohan then everyone is going to have bad thoughts about them already they should totally be new peeps who are perfect for the parts biatch not lindsey lohan!!!!")

Then I found a lengthy rumination on the closing of the fabled Cody's bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley:

Those were the years when just having a copy of a certain book could mark you as hip. Howl, say, or Das Kapital or Steppenwolf or The Rubyfruit Jungle or The Monkey Wrench Gang--carried face-out, of course, or read at a cafe table, it could get you kissed. Buying such a book in Berkeley infused it, and its buyer, with cachet.

But books don't mean what they once did. For those who write and read and publish and sell them, that's sad. But it's reality. When street mayhem broke out on Telegraph in the first years of the new millennium, the thieves stole shoes, scooters, CDs. No one looted the bookshops.

Did Telegraph kill Cody's? Hut Landon of the Independent Booksellers' Association certainly thinks so: "I wouldn't walk that street at night." He lived on Channing and Telegraph as a student in the 1970s. "Yes, there were wackos then but they weren't aggressive," he says sadly. "They weren't all hustling me for stuff. Cody's didn't do anything wrong. Cody's was a victim of its surroundings."

Less willing to blame the neighborhood, Andy Ross speaks darkly of something subtler but more devastating: a cultural shift. They're both right, of course. It's all part of that death by a thousand cuts.

First, America's book-buying demographic changed. Yes, people still buy books, but who are they? In fact, today's customers are the same as yesteryear's--the exact same customers. They're the Rubyfruiters and Monkey Wrenchers of yore; they simply grew up. They're now parents, homeowners, above-average earners. The typical American bookbuyer is a woman thirty to sixty years old. To her, and her male counterpart, books still mean what they always did. The right book can still be a status symbol, a social signifier. But things are different now for the young, including today's Telegraph habitues. The shattering of a monoculture into myriad microcultures has made it impossible for any single book to broadcast: Behold: This is me.

What books once did, tattoos now do.

While I'm certainly hoping that a copy of Gossip Girl doesn't say "Behold: This is me," I'm not sure that a unicorn on the ankle says that either. As the Gossip Girl message board demonstrates, books still do offer community, even when it's one of a more populist, even manufactured, design than the entre nous, "underground" kind that surrounds cult classics. (The article ignores the fact that those for whom Steppenwolf worked as a pickup ploy were always part of a microculture, anyway. Anything with "cachet" always is.)

The thing that's always kept me from tattoos is their permanence. Who wants to be stuck, at fifty, with what you thought was cool in your twenties? Do people look at that yinyang thing on their shoulder and cringe? But with books, you can reinvent yourself more often than Madonna. And I think that the book-as-personal-flirtation-device still has possibilities. (It probably doesn't even matter what you're reading, just the fact that you are ensures a certain degree of self-selection among the passersby.) Provided said book is closed, it's certainly an invitation to talk. But even this old-fashioned strategy proves vulnerable to corporate manipulation: I'm told that Pearson/Penguin commuters have been instructed to carry a copy of the Loren Long edition of The Little Engine That Could this Thursday in support of their company's sponsorship of Read for the Record Day. So if your idea of a good time is someone who whispers "I think I can, I think I can, I think can," then get yourself a copy.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who's Your Favorite Little Woman?

I used to want to be Amy, but not anymore.

Putting the A in YA

Last night we watched "Autopsy Room Four," an episode in TNT's Stephen King series Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Entertaining if too artificially drawn-out, the show was about Richard Thomas watching helplessly as doctors prepare to autopsy his body as if he were dead rather than a victim of snake-bite paralysis. Showing my age, I suppose, I was shocked that the happy ending relied on John-Boy getting an erection while the lady doctor was feeling his leg. On free cable. (I've long gotten used to the naughty bits on the premium channels.) They didn't show it, just everyone's reaction (including that of his fiancee, happy that her boyfriend's back and happy that the impotence problem that's plagued him in the past has at least been temporarily banished).

It was perfectly legitimate tv drama, but I was surprised to see it where it was. (Just as I was always nonplussed that my beloved Friends was shown during "family hour" at 8:00PM.) I'm similarly surprised about a great new book, Thomas M. Yeahpau's X Indian Chronicles: The Book of Mausape, coming out this fall from Candlewick. It's a stunning, mordant collection of linked short stories about young Indian men in "NDN City," a myth-shot modern city of gangs, booze, drugs, and sex, where the atmosphere of alienation and disaffectedness is anything but cosmetic.

But it's really, really (brilliantly) raunchy, and I'm having trouble seeing it as YA, although I'd love to be argued otherwise. It's not that it won't appeal to teens, quite the contrary, and Candlewick grades it for 14 and up, rather than the standard 12-up, so they're acknowledging the sophistication of the material. But why not publish it as an adult book? (This is not a question for Candlewick, which doesn't publish books for adults.) One, I'm afraid a lot of adults (and teens who feel themselves beyond YA) are going to miss it; and, two, I'm afraid that the children's buyers and librarians aren't going to know what to do with it. It's one of those books--again--that has me pining for the old lost cause: adult books for young adults. One of those books that deserves being discovered by a young reader rather than presented to.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Paradigm shift

Three new verses, pronto!

To be sung to the tune of "Farmer in the Dell."

Monday, August 14, 2006

Sell-by dates

I went to New York this weekend to take Elizabeth to see Mamma Mia! for her birthday. (She's such a good sport.) Looking for something to read on the Limoliner, I went over to the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center (I'm dating myself; it's called something like Millennial Square Plaza Exclusive Shops Arcade now) to do some browsing. I serendipitously remembered that I had never read my pal Janet McDonald's first book, Project Girl, and, figuring I could never find it in their spectacularly anti-intuitive system of classification, I asked a salesperson where I might find it. (Yes, reader, I found a salesperson in B&N. I know.) She checked the computer and said they could order it for me but didn't stock it because "it was published in 2000, and we don't usually carry books that old." So if you want to get something at B&N, uh, hurry.

I did find--it's only six months old--and gambled on Sarah Waters's The Night Watch, a novel described on the jacket as being about women in wartime London. While the book did not turn out to be like Maeve Binchy, but with lesbians, I still enjoyed it tremendously. Early on, one of the characters mentions her fondness for going into a movie when it's halfway through, because speculating on peoples' pasts is more interesting than imagining their futures, and likewise the book proceeds backwards, beginning shortly after the war and then going back to two points in the midst of it. The way the time periods and the characters intersect has the effect of a puzzle, almost, but the realism of the relationships and, especially, the evocation of the blackouts of the bomb-battered city keep things from getting too cerebral. I'm thinking I'll try Waters's previous novels now--I hear they're like Leon Garfield, but with lesbians.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Walking after Midnight

When I can't think of anything in particular I want to listen to on the subway for my morning commute, I ask Miss Pod to play a random selection of songs that I haven't yet heard, an easy task since my accumulation of music is more vociferous than my listening to it (the juvenile stamp-collector retains his habits). So after hearing "Hail! Great Parent" from The Fairy Queen and "All This Time (Black Mix)" by Jonathan Peters, all of a sudden I'm listening to Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," something I'm convinced Miss Pod downloaded on the sly, and probably on company time. But God bless her--what a great poem.

(But nobody beats Hazel Rochman for classy headphone listening. Her favorite in-flight entertainment is an old tape of Eliot's Four Quartets.)

One might think that Coleridge's wintry imagery might have put me in the mood for the morning's task: Martha and I are assigning holiday books for review. But just imagine how different English literature might look if the person from Porlock arrived with seven different (albeit alike in their utter lack of necessity) versions of The Night before Christmas in hand. Not pretty at all, no.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Betsy Halbrooks, R.I.P

Betsy Halbrooks was the mainstay of our office for many years, and I'm sorry I never had the chance to meet her. This obit gives a good idea of what she was like, and her own reminiscence of her Horn Book career was published in our 75th anniversary issue.

September Stars

Here are the books that will receive starred reviews in the September/October issue of the Horn Book Magazine, arranged in the order they will appear in the magazine:

The Cow Who Clucked
written and illustrated by Denise Fleming

One Potato, Two Potato
written by Cynthia DeFelice, illustrated by Andrea U'Ren

Boo and Baa Have Company
written by Lena Landström, illustrated by Olof Landström, translated by Joan Sandin

An Abundance of Katherines
by John Green

Porch Lies:
Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters
(Schwartz & Wade/Random)
written by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by André Carrilho

by Terry Pratchett

Aggie and Ben:
Three Stories
written by Lori Ries, illustrated by Frank W. Dormer

Notes from the Midnight Driver
by Jordan Sonnenblick

by Susan Vaught

Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow
written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes

Freedom Walkers:
The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
by Russell Freedman

It's NOT the Stork!
written by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley

Friday, August 04, 2006

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Abridge too far?

In proofreading the Fall issue of the Horn Book Guide today, I came across a series published by Sterling called Classic Starts, a series of--well, let's not here get into a discussion of the term "classic," we'll instead go with "famous and copyright-free"--novels abridged and retold for young readers. Titles include Huck Finn, Little Women, Call of the Wild--the usual suspects. Each volume contains an afterword by Arthur Pober, not, as you might think, pointing out the virtues of each title, but rather supplying the rationale for the series. It's the same in each volume and it goes like this:

Even for a gifted young reader, getting through long chapters with dense language can easily become overwhelming and can obscure the richness of the story and its characters. Reading an abridged, newly crafted version of a classic novel can be the gentle introduction a child needs to explore the characters and story line without the frustrations of difficult vocabulary and complex themes.

Reading an abridged version of a classic novel gives the young reader a sense of independence and the satisfaction of finishing a "grown-up" book. And when a child is engaged with and inspired by a classic story, the tone is set for further exploration of the story's themes, characters, history, and details. As a child's reading skills advance, the desire to tackle the original, unabridged version of the story will naturally emerge.

Oh, sure. Here's what it really wants to say:

Attention Walmart Shopper: For only $4.95, you can buy this hardcover version of a book you have definitely heard of but have probably never read. And not just any old famous book but a classic, the kind of book your third- or fourth- grader should be reading rather than wasting his or her time with an easy and probably demonic "children's book." This book used to be a grownup book, which means your child will be smarter and more advanced after reading it. And think of the sense of pride and satisfaction you will have that your child read a classic. Go ahead and brag. You've earned it.