Friday, March 30, 2007

Still Baking

I know I promised another post re chicklit earlier today, but my thoughts never got quite where I wanted them. I was pushing an enormous book-truck's worth of the stuff back to the Guide after rejecting it for review in the Magazine and I found myself thinking, I bet old Michiko never has to do this. That the grown-up book world recognizes distinctions between literary, commercial, and genre fiction that we barely observe in children's book publishing. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Or is it a bad thing for Literature, but a good thing for Children? But my thinking is still half-baked so I'm not ready to offer any conclusions. Feel free to draw yours, however. I would appreciate being beaten to the punch.

Posting sporadically until Wednesday as my beloved Limoliner is taking me and a bagful and an earful of unread adult books to New York, where I'll be attending the Scott O'Dell Awarding to Ellen Klages for The Green Glass Sea, interviewing Ellen for the Horn Book podcast which is to debut in May, I think, and hanging out with Elizabeth. We're seeing Company, and she is going to explain to me the mystery of Sanjaya, and I also hope she--or someone here--can point my in the direction of a good classical cd store, as we have lost all of ours in Boston--you can get El Divo and Andrea Bocelli at Borders, but that's about it. But E and I also hope to send some posts your way. I hope you all have swell weekends, too.

Cheryl? It's Not Just the Manuscripts.

Levine/Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein has a funny post up of a picture-book manuscript she created as an intentionally bad example of a submission that had "no child appeal." "Cheering up Cheryl," a model of its kind, is a chicklit novel (more about them later today) in picture-book form, but it does everything a bad picture book does except rhyme.

But here's the thing. While Cheryl and other editors I know often share the rules of picture-book writing with hopeful authors at SCBWI conferences and the like, why, oh Lord, why, do we keep seeing published picture books that positively revel in breaking these very same rules. No, revel's not the right word, because there are great, great picture books that break the rules in service to a Higher Good (that would be Literature); what I mean are books that indulge in stupid rhyming couplets, age or format inappropriateness, preachiness, and lists, lists, lists (Cheryl's parody is hilarious here) that serve only to give the illustrator time and space to indulge him or herself in a series of pretty paintings. These are books that presumably have been accepted by some editor somewhere (and it's not just the MorningWood HappyBear small presses; it's the big guys), thus rendering your "show-don't-tell" workshops a mockery. If you don't want people to submit crap, stop publishing it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Well, you do know it's going over the net.

I like the commenter on Alison Morris's new ShelfTalker blog at PW (welcome, Alison) who says that the cover for the new Harry Potter looks like our lad is serving a tennis ball.

Maybe if I had read Harry while imagining he looked like Roger Federer I might have gotten further in the series than 2.5. And there's a Higher Power of Lucky joke somewhere in here but I can't seem to get my hands on it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Maybe they do things differently down under

A childlit reference today to a blog post last year on Michael Thorn's Achockablog revealed a semi-juicy scandal heretofore unknown to me involving the excellent Australian writer Alyssa Brugman, who complained to her publisher that Thorn was selling an ARC of her book Being Bindy on eBay. The publisher, Faber, dutifully if thickheadedly wrote Thorn to tell him to cease and desist, or they would stop sending him advance copies for review. Apparently the blogosphere was thick with reproof, because Brugman wrote a rather stern note about the matter on the home page of her website, saying that ARCs are the property of the publisher, not the reviewer, and therefore Thorn had no right to sell them.

Personally, I think Brugman might better torture herself by contemplating the fact that Thorn had no desire to keep his copy of her book, but the fact remains that the book was his to sell; at least it works that way on this side and end of the pond. Publishers don't lend books to reviewers, they simply hand them over. Thorn very carefully made the point that he does not sell ARCs as new books (which would be fraud) or indeed before their publication dates. The publisher is certainly within its rights not to send Thorn (or anyone) review copies if they don't want to, but this would rather defeat the purpose of review copies. (And, contrary to what one irate publisher told me, no one needs permission from the publisher to review a book.) I imagine that Faber knows this, too, and is banging its corporate head repeatedly on the table for being caught between author and reviewer on this one.

For the record: after the Horn Book has finished with its reviews, and the publishing season has passed, we cherry-pick titles to keep in our collection (everything reviewed in the Magazine and a culling from the Guide), give some away, make "creative art" projects out of others, consign some to a Wall of Shame, and sell the rest as a lot to a used-book wholesaler.

But if anyone knows: is this standard operating procedure among our fellow nations?

When the Isms Really Need to Sit Down and Talk

The blog Prometheus 6 led me to this story in the LA Times about two teachers fired for supporting students who wanted to read from Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath for Emmett Till at an assembly honoring Black History Month:

Teachers and students said the administration suggested that the Till case — in which the teenager was beaten to death in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman — was not fitting for a program intended to be celebratory, and that Till's actions could be viewed as sexual harassment.

So I guess he was asking for it. But, wait, what was she wearing?

May/June '07 Stars

Here are the books receiving starred reviews in the May/June '07 issue of the Horn Book Magazine:

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (St. Martin's) by Linda Lear

The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County
(Kroupa/Farrar) written by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Shelley Jackson

Who's Hiding?
(Kane/Miller) written and illustrated by Satoru Onishi

Pictures from Our Vacation
(Greenwillow) written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins

Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories
(Porter/Roaring Brook) written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

One Whole and Perfect Day
(Front Street) by Judith Clarke

The Red Shoe
(Porter/Roaring Brook) by Ursula Dubosarsky

The Wolf
(Front Street) by Steven Herrick

Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings
(Harcourt) written and illustrated by Douglas Florian

The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr
(Groundwood) written and illustrated by Nicolas Debon

Dogs and Cats
(Houghton) written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Monday, March 26, 2007

Feeling Peckish?


Then get on over here for information about Simmons College's Center for the Study of Children's Literature's 2007 Summer Institute, Food, Glorious Food, held July 26-29. I've participated in several of these events and they are always enlightening, spirited, and impeccably managed. PLUS: Susan Bloom, Professor Emerita of the Center and I believe still mistress of the Institute, is one fabulous hostess and chef, and you know, given the theme, that she will be forced to outdo herself. So come for Alice Hoffman and stay for the cupcakes.

For those with more than a weekend's time on their hands, Deborah Stevenson, editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, will be leading the summer graduate-credit course that leads up to the Institute. Deborah is the smartest person I have ever known, and the fact that she will always be two steps ahead of your question before you've even asked it should not deter you from taking this class. She's as funny as she is formidable, too.

One more point re food, children's literature, and Deborah. When we worked together at BCCB, Deborah figured out exactly what kind of book I liked to read while eating my lunch. I would hear her call "lunch book!" while waving a galley at me from across the office. I was thinking about this last week while watching a Law & Order re-run and eating pretzels. It was a good episode, and one I hadn't seen before (murder among Iraqi emigre caviar dealers), but as soon as I ran out of pretzels, I ran out of interest, too. It's the same with lunch books: they are books I can read only when I'm eating. As soon as I'm done eating, whammo, I'm done reading. It happened recently with a new Alias-knockoff teen paperback original. I guess it has to do with how much attention a book requires, and it explains why people who watch TV get fat--there's nothing on that would get between me and my food.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Six million what?

Lois Lowry recently posted on her blog a letter from a teacher who was having his students collect and tie together six million centimeters of shoe lace to "represent the 6,000,000 Jews who were killed in the Holocaust."

Lois seems all for this idea ("It is always such a pleasure to hear of and from imaginative teachers like Doug Greener in Maple Grove who do more than just assign a book, and whose students will always remember what they have learned in his class") but I have my doubts.

Oh, okay, I'm flat-out scandalized. What bothers me the most about this project is its profound anti-intellectualism. Through repetitive tasks (collecting shoelaces and tying them together) and the sheer accumulation of material objects, the point of the exercise is--what, exactly? That six million is a whole lot? Sixth-graders don't know this? What will the participants understand about the Holocaust that truly challenging assignments--in history, literature, and the arts--could not teach them, better and with more nuance? I assume since the teacher was writing to Lowry, author of the frequently taught Number the Stars, that this shoelace-tying is but part of a larger curriculum on the Holocaust, but when it comes to "students remembering what they have learned in class," I fear that what these students are going to remember is "sixth-grade, the year we tied together six million centimeters of shoelaces."

What bothers me most about this project is that it fools kids think they have learned something about the Holocaust; hell, it fools them into thinking they have done something about the Holocaust. But what such a project does--at best--is makes kids feel something about the Holocaust. But that feeling is unearned; worse, it seems earned, because the kids have devoted so much (useless) labor to it.

But just tell me, please, that it's not a curricular tie-in (heh) with a math lesson.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Susan Patron has company.

from the copyright page of Sweet!: The Delicious Story of Candy (Tundra, 2007):

This book is dedicated to the sweet memory of our mother [name redacted because otherwise mine would come down from heaven and KILL me], who liked her black balls two at a time.

Can Linds come too?

Here are some more Readergirlz for you: Join Kati, Jeni, and Posh in their new club!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

. . . or we will shoot this dog.

Note to book publicists: don't put stickers like this on ARCs. Reviewers don't want to know how you're going to spend the money.

Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves

There's been some discussion recently about blogging and inclusivity that came to mind when I read this article Martha showed me about kids and their cliques. Marion Hawthorne lives.

As Monica Edinger pointed out in the post linked above, it's not just kids. As Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote of her adolescence among the Greenwich Village Beats, "when I came of age in the 1950s, everyone one knew was an Outsider, and proud of it; and every Outsider belonged to a privileged Inner Circle of Outsiders, and then we grew up." But not really: when, decades later, Harrison reviewed Beat poet Diane Di Prima's memoir for the NYTBR, she devoted her entire review to proving that Di Prima hadn't been one of the cool kids, really. It never ends. I'm not sure it can, heck, I'm not sure it should. As I once pointed out in a different context, this is how we got Protestants.

And today I read that kids are compiling hit lists of their enemies. Should we worry or be relieved that the Times chose to run this as a "Fashion & Styles" story?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Being an American Can Be Fun

SLJ this month runs a short, vague article on possible changes to ALSC book awards criteria. Fuse8 has a pretty good discussion on it going; over here I'd like to consider the larger implied question about American children's literature. SLJ attributes to K.T. Horning, 50, the idea that the Newbery and Caldecott have "accomplished their mission . . . to encourage U.S. publishers to seek out high-quality literature and picture books for children by American authors and illustrators." Like this is something that gets finished? The Newbery and Caldecott are among the shiniest, sharpest prods we have to encourage U.S. publishers to keep seeking out "high-quality literature and picture books."

The decision to limit the awards to Americans, of course, is of course worth discussion. Nationalism in literature is something we tend to value only when other nations do it, but I think the questions are worth asking: do we have and do we nurture children's literature that speaks to "being an American"? There is Munro Leaf's Being an American Can Be Fun, and Lynne Cheney's various droppings, but I'm wondering more along the lines of contenders for The Great American Children's Novel--books that speak to the theme of how being an American is different from not. In my recreational reading, I'm on something of a Turkey kick right now, reading novels and histories by and/or about Turks, and always lurking in my head is "oh, so this is what it's like to be a Turk." (You already have my take on Canadians.)

So what children's book could you give to an outlander that conveys a sense of Us? I've argued for Sachar's Holes as a G.A.N., steeped as it is in the American tall tale tradition, and placing the roots of its story in our mythic Wild West. It seems, too, that a lot of the recent immigrant literature, by presenting a protagonist "settling" in a new land while carrying along the old (usually in terms of parents and grandparents) does a sort of microcosmal version of the idea of America as a nation of pioneers, while Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House and Game of Silence provide a "we were here all along" corrective to Wilder's Little House books, themselves indisputably G.A.N.s in my view. If somebody asked you for a children's book that "tells what it's like to be an American," what would you give them?

Who says kids can't appreciate irony?

I wonder what it would be like to be their mom.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Reading along

Yesterday I was having one of the few unalloyed pleasures of my job, where I was asked to read a book merely for another opinion. We were beyond the yea-or-nay stage of reviewing it--the reviewer and Martha agreed it was really good--and I was just reading it to Keep Up.

See, the problem with being a professional reviewer is that you know that following even the most pleasurable read is a deadline. You have to 'splain yourself, Lucy. It's going to turn into work. And I'm in the camp that believes it's harder to review a book you love than it is one you don't. So the more you love something, the greater the challenge rises (is it because I was reading on a Sunday morning that I'm starting to feel like a Unitarian minister?).

All of this is just preamble to the fact that I like to listen to music when I read "for fun." (Never when I'm reading to review, or when I'm writing.) A psychologist I know says that we never actually do listen and read at the same time, more like one activity takes over during lapses in the other, but I like the landscape the music puts me in. Call me crazy, but I sometimes put music on when I'm going out, ostensibly for Buster's enjoyment but really because I secretly believes it means the house will be a better place for the experience--back from vacation, so to speak,*--when I return.

Dork alert: I try to program music that goes with my book. I have, for example, a cd of music Jane Austen liked that's good for when I'm reading her. Villa-Lobos for magical realism. Elgar for epics of Empire. Tense mysteries get tense music. Spy stories set amidst neo-Nazis in the Antarctic--you'd be surprised how much music the cold continent has inspired.

I had read a bit of my assigned-but-no-strings book already, and I remembered that it had lots of eccentric characters, an elliptical narration, and not much of a plot--in other words, it was Canadian. So I cranked up the Gavin Bryars only to realize the novel was in fact set in Australia, and that Bryars himself is only marginally Canadian, so my theory of geographical affinity went completely to pot. So As African American mezzo Shirley Verrett said, upon walking down the hall of a music school and hearing what she thought was a black singer singing spirituals "like she was from deepest Mississippi" only to open the practice room door to see a Korean girl going phonetically through "Deep River," "there goes that."

Having now finished the book, Judith Clarke's One Whole and Perfect Day (Front Street), I see that I should have gone with Mozart. Bee-yoo-ti-ful counterpoint, and it's a book about happiness.

*(For an entertaining take on this very notion, look for The House Takes a Vacation, a picture book by Jacqueline Davies and Lee White, published this month by Marshall Cavendish.)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Children's literature's defining phrase,

I've decided, is "disguised as a boy." This phrase is necessarily used twice in our May book review section (and don't worry, Mitali, yes, one is yours and, yes, we like it) but the fact that it's such an established trope (a word I never speak aloud because I can never remember how many syllables it has) in children's books must Say Something. But What?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Just Don't Go Out So Much

Kelly Herold's blog led me to this piece by Meg Rosoff about why she doesn't like to write negative reviews. I have to say that I don't find writers to be the best reviewers, because they tend to be too sympathetic and too focused on being "encouraging," as if the author were the primary audience for the review rather than the potential reader. There is also a tendency in the allied children's book fields to be "nice," which isn't good for literature and can also unfortunately short-circuit when the strain of being friendly and polite all of the time becomes too much and what might have been simply a quiet demur instead gets ugly. But Rosoff's example of a reviewer feeling bad after meeting the author of the object of her scorn is just plain chicken. Far more than in adult literature, there's a lot of contact between children's book authors and their reading communities, which I think leads to a lot of soft-pedaling--I've had reviewers turn down assignments of mediocre books by authors they will be having dinner with, and I remember a fellow member of a book prize jury deflecting criticism of a particular book because the author, the previous evening, had explained to the member --while they were dancing--why the book was the way it was. The author-reviewer relationship is unavoidably adversarial: one is judging the other. To have it otherwise means we should just all go work in publicity.

Being It

I've been taking this singing class--oh, let's just get it all the gay out there and say I've been taking this cabaret singing class, and at each session we begin with vocal warm-ups and some kind of improvisational exercise. Last night one of the members, a teacher, suggested a game of assassin, saying she played it with her students. The Wikipedia description linked above seems far more elaborate than what we played, which involved sitting in a circle with our eyes closed, and somebody tapping selected members on the head to designate them as assassins or victims. Then we would open our eyes and--well, I still can't figure out what was going on, with people asking each other random questions about daylight savings time until somebody either fell over in a dramatic "death" or somebody pointed a finger at somebody else saying "You're the assassin!" I felt like a visitor from another planet, as everyone else seemed to get right into the spirit of things while I sat clueless and In Hell. Can anyone explain?

I guess kids smarter than I could have a great time with this, but I kept thinking about what a handy vehicle it could be for playground victimization. (All together, sing: "Memories / light the corners of my mind . . . .") Better even than dodgeball, because Assassin seems to offer far more interesting opportunities for psychological torture. I guess any game that involves someone being it has that potential.

On a book-related note (heh), I was able to help another student who has a young child living temporarily in the Philippines and was trying to solve the problem of intercontinental bedtime stories. I suggested using the International Children's Digital Library, where electronic editions of books from around the world can be read in a variety of ways. I didn't know if it could work synchronously, but Jeff told me that he and his kid were able to log on at the same time and turn the pages together while talking on the phone. (I guess that should really be "turn" the "pages" "together.") All very Jetsons, yes?

One last thing: being in that class reminds me what a salutary experience it is for those of us who teach to be the student once in a while. You can forget how things look from that end.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I just sent back one like this, marked RE DO

I know it's trendy to knock Michiko Kakutani, but, honestly, her column today about two new biographies of Leni Riefenstahl was just the laziest kind of reviewing. In a favorite Times technique, she spends most of her space restating the scoop on Riefenstahl she read in the books she was reviewing, in a tone that implied she already knew this stuff. She devotes one very brief paragraph to comparing a single difference between the two authors' points of view. She makes no evaluative judgment of either book, let alone vis a vis each other. I have no idea what one book does differently from the other; I have no idea which one I would rather read. Why review a book if you're not prepared to give an opinion? Why review two together on the same subject if you're not going to compare them?

Blow THIS.

While it was nice to see my picture in the pages of School Library Journal this month, I really need to whine about their over-generous application of quotation marks. Hell would freeze over before I would say, as I am quoted as doing in the March SLJ, "If we didn't have a blog and Web site at Horn, I'd feel threatened, too." The sentiment, I'll take full credit for. But Horn? Horn?? The only people I have ever heard call the Horn Book Horn are overambitious young publicity assistants trying desperately to show how intime they are with the whole, you know, biz.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Distant early warning

For those of you who enjoyed the profile of Gregory Maguire in the NYT yesterday, please put November 14 on your calendar, when I'll be conducting a public interview with Gregory AND Susan Cooper, about writing, fantasy, and the state of the world, in Cambridge, MA, location to be determined. Susan will also be giving a public lecture the next evening for the Cambridge Forum.

I'm also very happy with Gregory today because he's graciously agreed to donate a signed copy of Wicked for a benefit auction my man Richard's company is running tomorrow night for the BPL.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Grandma was right

Stick to the path, she said. But she didn't have Buster with her this morning. Dragging her off the path. Into the deceptively spring-like woods that concealed floors of ice. Causing me to fall three times (seven, if you count the slips I kept having trying to arise from the last one). I'm thinking of buying stock in Advil. Or at least better shoes. Oh so helpfully, the little bastid (as we say in these parts) barked at me from a safe distance. Good dog.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Keeping Up

It's an unfortunate fact of life-in-print that books get overtaken by events, and Horn Book editors have been busy blue-penciling reviews of all the astronomy books that haven't caught up with the events of August 26th of last year, a day that shook the solar system.

But a new--and gorgeous--book is hep to the zeitgeist:

Pluto was a planet.
But now it doesn't pass.
Pluto was a planet.
They say it's lacking mass.
Pluto was a planet.
Pluto was admired.
Pluto was a planet.
Til one day it got fired.

From Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian, to be published by Harcourt next month and reviewed in the May/June Horn Book Magazine.

We had a Young Visiter Yesterday

Standing: Mara, Bridget, Rachel, Flat Stanley, J.D., Kitty.
Seated: Alison, Elissa, Martha
Tabletop: Will and Mister

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Martha sent me this,

and it's a far funnier variant on this joke than we usually see. Thank God for gay people (Paul Rudnick, I mean, not Martha).

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Did you really think that invitation was because they liked you?

I really like Gail Gauthier's take on Jenna Bush's book deal. Let's wait to see the book (which will be about a Panamanian teen single mother with HIV) before we trash it. I for one am grateful it isn't a picture book about self-esteem (the inexplicable praise given Jamie Lee Curtis notwithstanding), and in fact, sounds like something that teens might find both interesting and valuable.

I can't even get worked up about the rumored six-figure advance. Anyone who believes that had HarperCollins not given a lot of money to Bush for her book, they would be putting it into more (equally unproven) "real" writers, hasn't looked at the HarperCollins catalog lately, nor at that of any other large publicly-held publisher. They are giving that money to Jenna Bush in hopes that it will return threefold, in some form or another (whether from sales or other business opportunities the book and/or author may generate or suggest).

Any librarian or bookseller or reviewer who has ever accepted free food from a publisher should really think first about his or her own place in the publishing economy.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Second verse, same as the first

A commenter asked yesterday on the blog about the news that the Hamas government has banned a book of Palestinian folktales, Speak, Bird, Speak Again, from West Bank schools because of sexual references. And this is different from U.S. schools banning It's Perfectly Normal or The Higher Power of Lucky because . . . ?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Where the world was as blue as an orange

If not the world, then the University of Illinois, where even the damned goldfish gracing the tank in the Illini Union come in the school colors. (As does this blog, I suddenly notice. It has to be the ugliest color combo I've ever seen, and now I know I'm going to see it everywhere.)

But last Friday the colors were accented with green, as the students celebrated Unofficial Saint Patrick's Day, wearing green hats and t-shirts and Mardi-Gras beads and getting drunk beginning at 7:30 AM when the bars opened. And this wasn't like skipping school and getting drunk; the whole idea was to get drunk and stay drunk during the whole day of classes. I saw one young woman getting arrested; a faculty member at the library school stumbled onto a passed-out student in the parking garage. And my speech entailed a bouncer at the door. My goodness--why couldn't they just get quietly stoned off their asses the way we did? (One of my college lit. professors, the late lamented Ellin Ringler, told us that was the best state in which to read The Waste Land.)

The speech went well, I thought, and you'll be able to decide for yourselves when it's published in the May issue of the Horn Book. I spoke (er, yammered) about the last forty years of YA literature and librarianship, starting with my own teen reading and ending with the Printz Award. I lunched with the youth services doctoral students and faculty from associated universities, spoke to a YA class, and got to spend a lot of time with my most esteemed friends and colleagues Betsy Hearne, Christine Jenkins, Deborah Stevenson and Boyd Rayward. (The first three you probably know from their publications in the Horn Book and elsewhere, the last is the world's leading expert on this guy.)

Blue and orange and green and vomit not withstanding, Illinois has one first-class library school. You should all go--and can, thanks to their LEEP program. I don't think there is any other school that has such an amazing confluence of faculty and resources, and such an array of interests and talents among its students.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

March-April Horn Book Magazine

Selections from the new issue of the Horn Book are up at our website, including a survey of Fredrick and Patricia McKissack's work by Barbara Bader, Jonathan Hunt on the Printz Award, and me, in both an editorial and a review, explaining just why we need to make a big fuss about The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Check out the web extras and webwatch as well.

I'll be away until Monday, yammering on about the last forty years in YA literature at the Center for Children's Books at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign. Come on down.