Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fanfare 2006

For your delectation and debate, the Horn Book's picks for the best books of this year.

Another Tango in the News

The gay penguins are in trouble again, but here at the Horn Book we're marveling at this manifestation of the butterfly effect, courtesy of our publisher Anne Quirk's 1997 middle-grade novel Dancing with Great-Aunt Cornelia.

Here Is Why the Deliberations Are Supposed to Be Secret

National Book Award judge for fiction Marianne Wiggins spills pretty much all in this LA Times piece; for a more discreet recap see Linda Sue Park's notes on being a judge for the young people's award.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Prizing Graphic Novels

With award season upon us, I'm beginning to think about just how graphic novels might fare in January's ALA Awards.

While I'm sure we'll see them on various Notable and Best lists, the odds are against them when it comes to the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz.

Here's the problem: the Newbery Medal is for text; the Caldecott is for illustrations. In neither case is the award for the whole book. (Each award goes to the author or illustrator who created the text or pictures for a book, not to the book itself, and is not shared with the author of a picture book or the illustrator of a Newbery winner.) This situation is of course thought goofy by all right-minded people, and while discussion of changing the award criteria comes up periodically, easier--far, far easier--said than done.

You can see how graphic novels are excluded from the Newbery, since the text without the pictures and placement would be unreadable. The Caldecott, though . . . . That, I'm guessing is going to depend upon any given committee's reading of ALSC's definition of "picture book." ALSC defines it as a book "that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised," and adds that picture books appropriate for older children (through age 14) are eligible. Sounds like graphic-novel territory to me.

The Printz throws a different hurdle in the graphic novel's path. Although the criteria hang considerably looser (and I wish somebody would finally get around to copyediting that page) than those for the ALSC awards, there is that sticky designation of eligibility: "To be eligible, a title must have been designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as "young adult," i.e., 12 through 18. Adult books are not eligible." To my mind, this excludes the National Book Award finalist American Born Chinese, whose publisher, First Second, does not give age or grade ranges to its titles. (And good for them.) While some graphic novels are firmly established as being for children (such as the wonderful Babymouse series), most of those read by older kids and teens are published without regard to age. If the Printz award wants to be meaningful in a fluid publishing era, it has to get rid of its "published for teens" clause, ill-considered when its rules were made and bound to become ever more increasingly out of touch.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

News Flash: Girls are smart

“It’s time we got teenage girls reading comics,” said Karen Berger, a senior vice president at DC Comics. Why? I mean, why not, but why?

Berger goes on to say that teenage girls are "about more than going out with the cute guy. This line of books gives them something to read that honors that intelligence and assertiveness and that individuality.” Well, it's about time.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An apology

I really should apologize for my earlier post suggesting cynicism on the part of HarperCollins' marketing department.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Books for Unfit Mothers

At ALA last year I screamed intemperately at a perfectly nice young woman from Ten Speed Press for publishing this, now it looks like I'll have to go after HarperCollins for this. If only these books that are funny precisely because they fly over the heads of their putative audience could be made to hit the actual audience right in the eye, corner first. Parents should laugh on their own time.

Friday, November 17, 2006

When you want it NOW

Not to get too personal and therapeutic on you all, but my psychiatrist and I have been exploring the possible long-term effects of the prescription of bronchodilatory inhalants for young asthma sufferers in the 1960s. After years of waiting for ingested medicine to take effect, or enduring the terror of an adrenaline shot at the doctors, an entire generation of asthmatic children learned the relieving pleasures of . . . instant gratification. Yay!

While asthma is long behind me, I ponder what the enthusiastic use of what I called "my spray" has done to the way I read. Case in point: The Book Thief. After the first twenty pages of Death's meditations stymied me three times, Martha suggested I try the audiobook instead, allowing me to get through Death's opening remarks less painfully--no pages to force myself to turn. And she was right: once the story itself gets going, it's pretty unstoppable. But those first twenty pages made me so resentful I wanted to give up. Where's my spray?!

I'm of several minds here (perhaps as a result of other abuses of the instant-gratification reflex). One, maybe it's just me--impatience is a subjective experience. And two: as Natalie Babbitt told me (after fielding many letters from children who struggle with the opening chapters of Tuck Everlasting), a writer needs to write the book the author needs to write. And three: sometimes (as Natalie said children also told her) the patience required in the beginning is amply rewarded in the end.

But I'm also reminded of what former NY Times "women's news editor" Charlotte Curtis was told by her first boss, at the Columbus Citizen: "Curtis, you didn't get your clothes off fast enough!," meaning her stories took too long to get to the point (quoted in The Girls in the Balcony by Nan Robertson). In our recent "What Makes a Good Book" special issue, Richard Peck offers plenty of advice for writers on how to begin a book:

It's far too tempting to warm up on your reader's time. I regularly find my first line somewhere on the sixth page, after five pages of starting too early and walking in circles and pleading with the reader. I've learned to pitch those first five out.

(I would add that writers should NOT start as if they took a writing manual's advice "to immediately engage the reader's five senses" far too much to heart, as in opening with "James could still taste the breakfast marmalade on his tongue as he piled grimy handfuls of dirt on the fresh corpse while the scent of magnolia from Grandmother's farm drifted across the sky along with the sound of the circling vultures screeching overhead.")

But (a) what advice do we give to readers? and (b) does it make a difference if the reader is a child or an adult? Martha suggested this morning that what readers need from a beginning is "to know that they are in good hands," that perceived confidence on the part of the writer can inspire the same feeling in the reader. I like that. I remember Hazel Rochman blithely telling her high-schoolers to skip the first chapter of Wuthering Heights. Right on (remember The Rules). And I know I just have to become more patient--but I do love a book that from the first page makes me feel like I've finally gotten some air.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Don't hate me 'cause I'm pretty.

The new PW has an interesting article about the future of the Children's Book Council, and it's something of an eye-opener for those of us nurtured in the institutional end--schools and libraries--of the children's book biz. Take a look.

Not online is their end-of-the-book "Soapbox" column, which this week bemoans the curse of being good-looking. Nora Ephron wrote a long time ago that if one thing bored her more than the problems of big-breasted women, it was the problems of the pretty. Courtney E. Martin has written Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body and is well aware of the irony of worrying about her looks in her attempt to sell her book about worrying about your looks, but "crudely put, no one wants to read a book about the overvaluation of beauty by an ugly girl." Martin claims that publicists came to all of her proposal meetings to "check out the goods," and she must have passed, as Free Press will be publishing the book in April. "And now for the author photo, the publicity campaign, the book tour . . . the beauty pageant of the book world. Ugh."

Ugh my flat ass. If one thing bores me more than the complaints of writers about their author photos, publicity campaigns and book tours, it's the complaints of those who claim to endure it all for the sake of the Greater Good and above all, the kids: "I am not above buying an expensive suit if it means that even one teenage girl in Topeka, Kan., questions why she is spending more time thinking about her waist than the war in Iraq." And with the right shoes and bag, world domination could be just around the corner.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Debating the A-word

Most of my phone call this morning with old pal Betty Carter revolved around gossip, grandchildren and the pleasures of being a Scorpio in an unsuspecting world, but Betty did advance a question that I thought might be of interest here. "Have you noticed," she asked, "that most of the book debate this year has been about allegory?" and went on to mention The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Gossamer, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It's true that each of these titles has inspired strong reactions; also true that what's often being debated is "the lesson" of each story, both its nature and effectiveness. All stories have lessons, of course, but these three seem particularly fixed upon "the representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form," my digital AHD's definition of allegory.

Betty also included Jeannette Winter's picture book Mama in this group, but I'm not so sure about that one. Fable, maybe, except it's practically nonfiction. (And, jeez, that's another discussion. While looking back over the year's books for our Fanfare list, we're finding many whose adherence to a given genre seems distinctly optional.) But like the novels above, it's brought the knives out. Why is that? I'm all for a little sharp carving, but I'm wondering if there's something in the nature of allegory itself that prompts the strong response.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Go to the movies

Okay, it's not The Queen, The Departed, or even Marie Antoniette, but you can catch the all-dancing, all-singing Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards ceremony right here.

The spammers are getting better

The email subject line read "Remember the fairytale about Cinderella?"

Inside: "With Ultra Allure Pheromones women will do anything just for your sake."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Irony of It All

I'm sorry to have been neglecting you all; at work we've been doing performance evaluations (everybody passed), which always involve a flurry of concomitant schedule and workflow and management plans, all of which put my head into a different space, man. But two items therein of interest to you: we've hired Elissa Gershowitz as the new managing editor of the Horn Book Guide, and Kitty Flynn, formerly Guide Executive Editor, is now Horn Book Web Editor (that's the provisional title; we're also considering Webatrix) so I guess in some ways she will now be The Boss of Me. Kitty will be responsible for overseeing all of our electronic avenues of publication--website, blog, digital reviews--and she's going to be great at it.

I have taken some time out to enjoy another birthday present (more exactly, a present I picked out for myself because the intended present--the Die Hard trilogy--was so perfect I already owned it), Spy: The Funny Years, a history of my third most-favorite magazine, which includes the best piece of cultural theory from the 1980s, "The Irony Epidemic," by Paul Rudnick and Kurt Andersen.

There was recently a discussion on childlit about the definition of irony as presented in Karen Cushman's recent novel The Loud Silence of Francine Green, and novels such as M. E. Kerr's Gentlehands, Brock Cole's The Facts Speak for Themselves, and Chris Lynch's Inexcusable depend upon young readers being able to detect an ironic stance, a narrative strategy not all teen readers are ready for. (I've always maintained that Catcher in the Rye is popular with teens and deadly celebrity stalkers because they don't Get It.) But forget innocence as an excuse to misuse irony, "The Irony Epidemic" looks at what such a powerful weapon becomes in the hands of heterosexuals:

Victims of the Irony Epidemic do not dread commitment--they fear uncoolness. When Bob wears his garish shirts or his black-rimmed nerd glasses, he implicitly announces, I am aware enough to appreciate the squareness of this shirt and these glasses; I don't like them--I get them.

And history--and Elvis Costello's glasses--has proven Rudnick and Andersen's thesis that such easy irony has neither sting nor staying power: "As this decade began, Bob and Betty thought kidney-shaped coffee tables were amusing monstrosities; as the decade ends, Bob and Betty consider them merely stylish." The article is sidebarred by some of the hilarious compare-and-contrast boxes that Spy pioneered. "Camp Lite: Watching a videocassette of One Million Years B.C., starring Raquel Welch as a cavewoman. True Camp: Working out to Raquel's exercise video and wondering if Tahnee, Raquel's daughter, is a happy girl."

I need to tear myself away from Spy and you to go proof Guide reviews for a while. But, for discussion, I'll leave you with Paul Rudnick's puckish thoughts, printed elsewhere in Spy, on poetry: "Poems are Laura Ashley prints for the mind, unicorn dung. . . . Emily Dickinson never left her cottage in Amherst, and with just cause: no one asked her to. Don't invite Emily, she might recite one of her things."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Here's a cheerful thought

Well no, but salutary nonetheless. From Bill Bryson's recent memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (a birthday present from a friend who apparently knows my taste even better than I do myself, as it's not a book I would have ever picked up on my own yet I loved it):

Each year the teacher held up my pathetically barren [U.S. Saving Stamps] book as an example for the other pupils of how not to support your country and they would all laugh--that peculiar braying laugh that exists only when children are invited by adults to enjoy themselves at the expense of another child. It is the cruelest laugh in the world.

Forty years later it is still too painful for me to put my own example of this laughter here; suffice it to say that it involved a teacher announcing to the class just what book I had purchased that month from the Scholastic book club. No wonder I'm such a freak about reading privacy.

Monday, November 06, 2006


as my grad school roommate would call them, are consuming a great deal of my time just now, as we read and read in preparation for selecting our annual Fanfare list to be published in the January issue. More than a dozen of the titles on the longlist are first volumes, middle volumes, last volumes--the question is, how do you fairly judge them? Need they "stand on their own"? (For a Newbery, they do.) Can a first volume be comprehensively assessed without the reader knowing what the author has in store for the next? Octavian Nothing, for example, seems to stand alone--but what if volume two reveals it all to have been a dream? Or what if I feel like the last Bartimaeus book stands on its own, but someone who has read both of the preceding volumes assures me I am missing a ton? Should an excellent middle book not stand alone?

Then there are the books you thought were over at one blow but NO. Like The Giver. And surely there are those (examples, anyone?) that never see the finish, like TV leaving us with the aliens taking over Florida (Invasion) or the hunky psychiatrist screaming at the sky (Huff). I hope when Lemony Snicket called his last book The End, he meant it.

Friday, November 03, 2006

November-December Horn Book

The latest issue is out and, partially, up. But do subscribe. This blog don't pay the bills!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ten Rules to Read By

Walker UK is bringing back Daniel Pennac's The Rights of the Reader, and I hope it will make its way over here, too. Walter Mayes gave me a copy years ago that seems to have gone astray, but I've not forgotten its maxims (at least in my private life!), including "the right not to finish a book" and "the right to skip." You can see Pennac's ten rights, deftly illustrated by Quentin Blake, on a downloadable poster from Walker.

In the mail

Excavating my desk today, I find two items of note. First, an invitation to the NYPL's Anne Carroll Moore lecture, free and open to all comers and given this year by Patricia C. McKissack. 10:30AM, Monday November 13, at the Donnell Library Center, 20 West 53rd Street. Do go; I hope to.

Second, I've received a brochure touting the NEH and ALA's annual "We the People Bookshelf," with this year's theme being "the pursuit of happiness" Rick Santorum wants you to forswear. (Take that, Founding Fathers!). Get information about how to apply for the collection of fifteen "classic" books here; I'll just sit here and whine about the poetic injustice of turning "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" into a picture book. Count me in with Ethel Heins, who, in reviewing Susan Jeffer's edition of the poem in 1979, wrote "it is often questioned whether an explicit line-by-line pictorial representation of a lyrical--not a narrative--poem may constrain a child's imagination and interfere with his or her response to poetic ambiguity--the spontaneous formation of images in the mind."