Tuesday, February 27, 2007

If They Could Turn Back Time

The Boston Globe's David Mehegan takes a look today at the evergreen topic of boys and reading, focusing on a pair of Houghton Mifflin veterans who are repackaging, for Sterling Publishing, the old Random House nonfiction Landmark Books series for a new generation of boys. We'll see. Leonard Marcus is quoted as being a little doubtful; thinking back to my parents' attempts to interest me in the Tom Swift books of their childhood, rather than the Danny Dunn books of my own makes me wonder, too. Times change. So do boys.

And who says that boys don't read? How soon they forget the wizard knob.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

"Dammit, Chloe," Take Two

I will be eternally grateful to Audible.com for solving my New Yorker problem. The magazine has always hung heavy over my head with its oh-so-urbane humor and "wry" cartoons (somebody gave us a coffee table book of rejected New Yorker cartoons I enjoyed much more than the ones that made it in) causing me to avoid the thing in its entirety, including, unfortunately, much excellent journalism. But my audio subscription allows me to skip the cartoons entirely and usually includes the meatier articles. Plus, I have a little audio-crush in one of the readers, who I imagine to look like a slightly older Henry from Ugly Betty.

The New Yorker's recent article about Joel Surnow, the producer of 24, has me in a tizzy. 24 is my favorite tv show. I also think George Bush should be impeached. I was generally happy in this inconsistency, watching Jack Bauer torturing terrorists while secure in my belief that, in real life, it is our president who poses the greatest threat to my safety. But this article not only made me confront the company I keep--

In fact, many prominent conservatives speak of “24” as if it were real. John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the Bush Administration’s “torture memo”—which, in 2002, authorized the abusive treatment of detainees—invokes the show in his book “War by Other Means.” He asks, “What if, as the popular Fox television program ‘24’ recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?” Laura Ingraham, the talk-radio host, has cited the show’s popularity as proof that Americans favor brutality. “They love Jack Bauer,” she noted on Fox News. “In my mind, that’s as close to a national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.” Surnow once appeared as a guest on Ingraham’s show; she told him that, while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, “it was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better.” Surnow joked, “We love to torture terrorists—it’s good for you!”

--I was also horrified by the world-view of the man whose pocket I am lining:

In [Surnow's] view, America “is sort of the parent of the world, so we have to be stern but fair to people who are rebellious to us. We don’t spoil them. That’s not to say you abuse them, either. But you have to know who the adult in the room is.”

I am reminded of a young teacher on child_lit who had been enthusiastically sharing her love for Roald Dahl's books with her students until she read his biography. But while I might argue that this teacher has a duty to introduce students to Dahl, my watching of 24 is strictly optional, if compulsive. The show itself is moderately non-partisan (torture for all) but I'm still going to hate myself in the morning.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

From the Man Who Did This Already, Already

Did anyone catch the shoutout to Maurice Sendak on The L Word this week? He didn't, but allowed to me this morning that Jennifer Beals nekkid would definitely be worth drawing (I'm not being gratuitous; see the recap).

In any event, he was far more worked up about Susan Patron's problems with a few librarians, having been there himself, and wanted me to tell you all how disgusted he was by the whole controversy. "This is such a putdown to those of us who spend our lives creating art for children. It's acutely embarrassing to adults, and shows a complete lack of respect for children and their books, especially when you know children's fascination with and candor about the body. Bravo for the lady who put it on the first page."

A correction and a repeated complaint

Re the Printz Award: I posted a while back about how I thought American Born Chinese, published by First Second Books, was not exactly eligible for the award, since it did not seem to me to be expressly published for young adults, an explicit criterion. But I have since heard from the award Chair Cindy Dobrez, who explained to me all the evidence the committee took into account in deciding the book's eligibility. I'm convinced.

But while I'm again on the subject, let me whine just one more time about how wrongheaded this criterion is. By limiting the eligible pool to books designated by their publishers as being young adult books and specifically announcing that "adult books are not eligible," YALSA puts the job of determining what a young adult book is into the hands of publishers rather than those of librarians. It essentially limits eligibility to books published by juvenile publishing houses or divisions, as they are the only ones to give age designations to their books. It rewards a very specific (read: large) kind of trade publishing, as a small press does not have the kind of resources that would allow it to designate a book as young adult if it thought the book could reach an adult market as well.

What has always interested me about library work with young adults is the way it blends materials for children and those for adults in service to an audience poised between the two. But YALSA--which derives a lot more financial support from children's publishers than it does adult--has become too beholden to the juvenile end of things. The annual Best Books list became so disgracefully bereft of adult books that the organization had to add a whole new award program, the Alex Awards, to make up for it--rather than making Best Books the kind of "best of both worlds" list it should be. (It seems that whenever ALA's youth divisions are called out for overlooking one kind of book or another, the solution is found in creating yet another award.)

I think teens want to read adult books. Why don't we want to honor that?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

Martha P.'s review is here.

P.S. re grownup movie news: go see Breach.

Hell with the Chief

I see that the University of Illinois is--finally--retiring its octogenarian mascot, Chief Illiniwek. If you need to be convinced of how this is related to children's literature, take a look at some of Debbie Reese's work, which includes a Horn Book article from 1998 that can be found here.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Oh, those sneaky sneaks!

The New York Times weighs in with what is quite possibly the most inane comment yet on Lucky's scrotum:

"Authors of children’s books sometimes sneak in a single touchy word or paragraph, leaving librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book over one offending phrase."

Friday, February 16, 2007

Bagging our principles

Fuse 8 led me to Susan Patron's defense of The Higher Power of Lucky's Scrotum at PW online, and while it is admirably articulate and refreshingly undefensive, I am bothered by one line: "If I were a parent of a middle-grade child, I would want to make decisions about my child's reading myself."

So would I, because the world would run far more pleasantly if everyone just did things my way. I do dislike it when librarians and ALA place the censorship debate into the hands of parents like it's a gift: "we encourage you to come to the library with your child and select books that both of you blah blah blah." We don't really mean it--at least I hope we don't. Libraries should be a place where children can run happily afoul of their parents fears, aspirations, protection and authority. What better place to learn to think for yourself? I was pleased as punch when the Conservative Christian Resource Center years ago lifted from one of my editorials for their "Quote of the Week," labelling it a really scary viewpoint: "Just because parents have the legal right to control their children’s reading does not mean that we should encourage them to do so."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

If Anne Frank lived

I'm working this week on a speech about the shifting sands of YA literature (to be given at the Center for Children's Books on March 2, come on down) and the latest news about Anne Frank has me thinking about how central her diary has been to YA. Do you think we would have even had such a flourishing genre of Holocaust memoirs and novels had it not been for that book's impact? I wish someone more knowledgeable than I could tell us if, as I suspect, such books have a longer and richer history in YA and children's than they do in adult books. In this country, anyway--a colleague speculates that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas won more unreserved acclaim in the U.K. than it did here because our young readers expect more sophistication from books about the Holocaust.

The irony of the news of the Franks' attempt to emigrate to the U.S. is, of course, that if they had, there would be no Diary, and thus, no news.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A reader requests . . .

. . . a "children's lit. guide to Boston." She'll be visiting from Australia next month and wants to know what children's-book places she should try and see. I don't get out much, but of course you can't miss the ducklings, and while you're there you can see the original address of the Horn Book at 270 Boylston Street. Some excellent contemporary bookshops for boys and girls include The Children's Book Shop in Brookline Village and the Curious George store in Harvard Square.

J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 could probably be called upon to point out some of the more historical connections; I'm personally grateful to the Freedom Trail for the time I got lost on the way to work and it led me right to the Horn Book's (former) door.

Moving a bit further afield, don't miss the Little Women stronghold in Concord, and I would urge a day trip to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst--catch up with dear, demented Emily while you're there.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Can a duck swim?

Well, in a word, yes, but a book that (misguidedly) showed up for review this week is showing me that it's a more complicated question for some. Ian Stuart-Hamilton's An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) explains that the question is "a sarcastic reply to a question to which the answer is obvious; for example, it might be the appropriate reply to the question 'would you like to be incredibly wealthy?'" The book similarly defines thousands of "everyday phrases that must be interpreted symbolically rather than literally"--a difficult process for people with autism spectrum disorders.

Not to mention the rest of us. I especially admire the way the author manages to define these allusive phrases with absolutely no employment of figurative terms himself and with appealing directness: "Go suck an egg: A forceful request to stop interfering and/or to leave." Each entry is marked with one, two or three asterisks to indicate the degree to which the idiom may offend. Because the book has a British slant, I've finally learned what it is to "go tits up" but I'm afraid I still need to see "taking the piss" used in a sentence.


The Irish News has been ordered to pay 25,000 pounds restitution to a restaurant it "defamed" in a negative review. Could it happen here??? (I never did hear back from the publisher who threatened us with a suit, by the way.)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Reviews in a word

I've been submerged with Guide proofreading, a semi-annual communal exercise in eyestrain and Twizzlers and chocolate-fueled mania; yesterday I couldn't stop calling everyone "enthusiasts" after reading the word one too many times. The eternally unsolved question about typos also came up: should a review mention their presence in a book even when they are few or solitary? Publishers prefer that we not mention them at all, of course, asking us instead to notify them so a correction can be made in the next printing. But our readers will probably be considering the first printing--and if we tell them of a typo they might not buy it, meaning that a second printing becomes questionable.

This is not unassociated with the problem The Higher Power of Lucky has been having with its scrotum.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Three agree

The three publishers I interviewed at the Foundation for Children's Books event at Boston College last Tuesday were more alike than they were different, we concluded--at least when compared to the New York behemoths Random House, HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster. I had always thought Houghton, represented at B.C. by children's editorial director Margaret Raymo, was the most New-Yorky of the Boston crowd, because of both its Clarion outpost there and its old-school reputation. But its celebrity books are all children's-book celebrities, most notably Curious George (whose recent incarnations seem more Hollywood than New York anyway). Liz Bicknell, editorial director of Candlewick, said that they had tried a celebrity book but it bombed. Charlesbridge, there in the person of executive editor Judy O'Malley, has fed us M&Ms, but it's peanuts compared to what Kit Kats are doing for Harper. (Oh of course I'm kidding. But, do you know, I always thought that M&Ms donated their likenesses to the charitable purpose of educating children in the service of arithmetic and consumerism and the self-serving purpose of free advertising, but former Charlesbridge guy Dominic Barth told me that Charlesbridge was the paying partner.)

I began the evening by asking the publishers their roads into the Wild Wood (Liz, happenstance; Judy, fashion magazines; Margaret basically grew up at Houghton) and then we talked about how publishing looked different today. M-O-N-E-Y. We also discussed i-n-t-e-r-n-e-t, the (relative) dearth of picture books (all three published have been publishing them in consistent numbers), and agents (Liz said you don't need one, but only Houghton and Charlesbridge are accepting unagented submissions).

In this kind of a program it's always hard to judge what the audience already knows, what they want to know, and what is just insider baseball and/or gossip. I hope we respected the balance, but I think I talked too much.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Jilted quilts

Martha P. just sent me a link to an NYT op-ed piece by Fergus Bordewich about the history and, more pointedly, the myths of the Underground Railroad. Pretty juicy stuff. His expose, of course, does not make the true stories of slave escapes any less dramatic--I really like the new picture book by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson, Henry's Freedom Box (Scholastic), about a slave who had himself mailed North.

There was a time--the 1980s--when it looked like children's literature was going to be smothered with quilts, not just as maps for escaping slaves but anytime anyone needed a symbol for intergenerational understanding. It was too easy, and just another way of tucking children in. Throw OFF your quilts, I say!

Bordewich is also the author of the similarly myth-busting Killing the White Man's Indian, which took on the Chief Seattle/Dances with Wolves view of Native Americans and revealed a far more complex picture than many want to see. His autobiography, My Mother's Ghost, is good, too.