Thursday, May 31, 2007
Fred Stays with Me! (Little) written by Nancy Coffelt, illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Orange Pear Apple Bear (Simon) written and illustrated by Emily Gravett
Follow the Line through the House (Viking) written and illustrated by Laura Ljungkvist
Starring Miss Darlene (Porter/Roaring Brook) written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz
Jack Plank Tells Tales (di Capua/Scholastic) written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt
The Plain Janes (Minx/DC Comics) written by Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Jim Rugg
Pure Spring (Groundwood) by Brian Doyle
The Wednesday Wars (Clarion) by Gary D. Schmidt
The Lion Hunter (Viking) by Elizabeth E. Wein
May I Pet Your Dog?: The How-to Guide for Kids Meeting Dogs (and Dogs Meeting Kids) (Clarion) written by Stephanie Calmenson, illustrated by Jan Ormerod
Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold (Houghton) retold and illustrated by James Rumford
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
I came into the Horn Book late in the last century on a tear about the then overuse of "humorous" as a more respectable variant of "funny." I mean, when was the last time you told a friend to read a book or see a movie because "it's very humorous"? Later I got crazed about "artwork" to mean "illustrations." Deborah Stevenson of The Bulletin spotted a good one in an article she wrote for us some years ago: feisty, as an adjective to allegedly praise a heroine "who is nonthreatening and totally unserious."
Now I'm getting bugged by "endearing." Adults might feel "endeared" to a book or character, but kids' attachments tend to be more robust. And I think the term also holds the same kind of implied threat as those "Mommy loves you best books," that the book or character is somehow acting in a way that inveigles approval--rather than alliance--from the reader. Ick.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
We also had our July/August star meeting today. Those choices will be yours within a couple of days. Let's just say it was lively.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo court, build a nest, and raise their (adopted) daughter Tango. Highly anthropomorphized to maximize the sentimental but noteworthy lesson on family diversity, the story gains depth from the biological reality of same-sex penguin partnering. Gentle illustrations of the smiling penguin family add appeal, if not scientific accuracy, to this book based on a true story.
Tango is, for me, an example of a book that is didactic but On My Side, that is, a book that says something I think all children should hear. While you might think reviewers would go easy on a so-so book that speaks to their own values, I wonder if the opposite is true--that in order to combat even the suggestion of boosterism, we give them a harder time. But, as I recall, I couldn't take the smiles.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Speaking of the good stick. There's something I'd like you to measure -- heavy handed instruction -- when an author sticks something into the text that clearly doesn't fit in order to model some lesson-- girls are just as smart as boys, or racism = bad, or it's okay to be yourself. Heavy handed moralizing is the best reason to return a book to the library unfinished, I think. What I really like is insidious invisible moralizing that is going to creep unreflected into the reader's head and take root!
Wait. No! Bad moralizing! Down you insidious lesson, you!
When you review a book, how do you judge the didacticism? Subtle is okay? Heavy handed, not? Or is the divide between didacticism that is currently accepted vs. didacticism you think is misguided?
Is subtle didacticism better or worse than the heavy handed? is insidious didacticism okay if it's on the side of the angels?
I mean the deliberate kind. I don't mean the unreflected reinforcement of cultural norms like Enid Blyton -- those things that stick out like sore thumbs when the culture changes.
I've moved the comment to here, because it's really a different topic, plus, this was the week of my return to the musical stage (it went fine, thank you) and I haven't had time to prowl around for something new. Although I think you can discern very different editorial styles among the seven of us who have been editors of the Horn Book, one thing we will agree upon when eventually gathered together in reviewer heaven is that we all hated didacticism, even while we might have had different definitions of the word and varying degrees of tolerance for it. But here I will only speak for myself. I think one could make a case that all literature is insidiously didactic, attempting to pull you into an author's view of the world. I have no problem with that.
And the problem I do have with overt didacticism is less with its frequent technical clumsiness, where swatches of sermons or lessons are just slapped into the story, then it is with the way it reminds readers Who Is In Charge. Having someone in charge is good for a lot of things--to return for a second to my singing class this spring, I loved the fact that the teacher, Pam Murray, knew more about singing than I did and could thus tell me, clearly and effectively (and diplomatically!), how to become a better singer. That's what I want in a teacher. But I don't want to hear it from a writer, especially when I think of myself as a child reader, being reminded, once again, that grownups are the ones in charge. Books are a great place for kids to escape from being told what to do. They are not a place where a reader wants to hear, "I know better, so listen up." As a reader, I want to feel that a book is a place I can explore, or even a place where the author and I are exploring together. Didacticism shuts that right down.
Didacticism can also bite the author right in the ass. Think of Go Ask Alice. It was clearly intended to be a moral instruction about the dangers of drugs; instead, it was a wild ride through a crazy, exciting world. (I'm now remembering a comment years ago by a librarian colleague, Pamela, who said "these stupid anti-drug books with all their blather about 'peer pressure' and 'self-esteem' aren't going to mean a thing until they acknowledge something else: drugs are fun.")
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
There are four chapters on reviewing children's books (including one from our own Ethel Heins, and another from my friend Barbara Elleman) but I was most intrigued to find out from George Woods's piece that he once ran dueling reviews on the same page of the New York Times Book Review. The book was Wild in the World (Harper, 1971) by the late John Donovan, longtime director of the Children's Book Council. Donovan is most remembered for I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, generally credited as the first children's book to allow the love that dare not speak its name to, well, not speak its name exactly, but at least roll around on the floor. But Wild in the World, a folklorically spare story about a boy who sees his entire family die one or two at a time, then befriends a wild wolf (or dog), only to die himself in the end. Barbara Wersba's review topped the Times's page, headlined "One of the most moving books ever written for children . . ." and below followed June Jordan's: " . . . . or just another horror story told in monotone?"
Woods explained this gambit in his essay "Reviewing Books for Children":
There is no objective yardstick that one can place against a book and say, "The good stick says this does not measure up." Good or bad, success or failure is measured largely in the reviewer's responses and mind. I think of John Donovan's Wild in the World, which was reviewed intentionally in The Times by two eminent critics in two separate reviews running on the same page on the same Sunday. One said it was the worst book ever written for young people; the other said it was the finest book ever written for young people. Who was right? Who was wrong?
While granting Woods's point about informed subjectivity, I would in fact turn the question over to him: was it right or wrong for the Times to refuse to take an editorial stance on a book? It's true that the Times's daily book critics are often at odds with the Sunday reviews, but that's a long-standing distinction, and no one thinks of Maslin's or Kakutani's weekday reviews as being "what the Times thinks" the way the Sunday reviews stand alone, apart from their reviewers. If anything, Woods's experiment demonstrates the need for dueling publications, and an audience that knows it can't find everything in one place.
We regularly battle within the office about which books are going to get reviewed and how. But one side always wins, if with a victory tempered and informed by the debate. We work out the stars, and the annual Fanfare list the same way. Certainly, a book that doesn't do a thing for me can still get starred, because its proponents had the better argument than my "if I have to read one more intricately chess-game-like fantasy novel I'm going to scream" point of view. I'm less concerned with readers knowing what I think than I am with them having a grip on “what the Horn Book thinks." I definitely don’t want them to feel like we couldn't make up our mind.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
The book's discussions' about the future of the fictitious Lady magazine made me think: What could the Horn Book Magazine do better, or more of, or more interestingly? I always have this question running around in my mind (this is not necessarily a sign of dedication; it stems as much from my default anxiety as anything else) and I've come up with plenty of ideas that usually involve money we don't have. Like becoming a monthly, or printing in color, for example. Some ideas don't cost anything, but they do collide with Tradition: changing the logo, say, or making the magazine a standard size (which would actually save money).
And while book reviews remain the number one reason people subscribe to us, more and more of our readers access them electronically, either through our own hornbookguide.com or via our licenses to the various wholesalers who sell books to schools and libraries, who provide their customers with ancillary databases of reviews and bibliographic information. So I think print book reviews, ours and everyone else's, will become less and less important to the school-and-library audience that is our mainstay.
So what should the Horn Book--the print Horn Book--do? My enthusiasm for The Invention of Hugo Cabret in great part stems from how it's so necessarily a book. It needs ink on paper to do what it does; it needs to have page-turns to convey the story. There's plenty that the Horn Book, Inc. can and does do electronically to "blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls," (our sturdy mission statement since the 1920s) but what will keep our print-self necessary? What can we do with the Magazine we can't do online? Who can we reach, and what would they want us to tell them? Yes, they pay me to answer these questions but they pay me to ask them, too. So, I'm asking.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Lloyd Alexander is one of my favorite writers of all time, as well as one of my most influential. As a child and young adult, I read the Chronicles of Prydain at least once a year. I often slept with one of the books in my bed, so that it was the last thing I read at night and the first thing I read when I woke up. I don’t mean to over-analyze it, but those books had everything for me--good plots, a character I wanted to love and cuddle (Gurgi), a girl I wanted to be (Eilonwy), a friend I wanted to have (Fflewddur, after whom I named a cherished stuffed animal), and Gwydion, who seemed as glamorous to me as the teenager down the street who starred in all of the high school plays. (Years later, I still have a crush on Taran. Where, oh where, is the man who would sleep all night on the floor outside my door just to protect me?) Most of all, the books created a completely convincing, layered world that I wanted to be a part of.
Professionally, I learned an enormous amount from a piece Lloyd Alexander wrote years ago in the Horn Book, “The Flat-Heeled Muse.”:
Once committed to his imaginary kingdom, the writer is not a monarch but a subject. Characters must appear plausible in their own setting, and the writer must go along with their inner logic. Happenings should have logical implications. Details should be tested for consistency. Shall animals speak? If so, do all animals speak? If not, then which—and how? Above all, why? Is it essential to the story, or lamely cute? . . . (from “The Flat-Heeled Muse, Horn Book Magazine, April 1965)
I have quoted again and again from my dog-eared Xerox of that article in editorial letters. The point of the piece was that every fantasy world has an internal logic it must follow. Yes, it’s a pain for a writer to work that logic out, and to stick to it, but without it the writer’s story will feel fake and too convenient.
On a personal note, I send my thoughts to his now-retired long-time editor, Ann Durell. It was Ann who read the manuscript for The High King, intended to be the 4th and last book in the Prydain Chronicles, and said to Lloyd, “There’s a book missing here.” She saw the piece of the saga that Lloyd himself hadn’t yet seen, the book that became Taran Wanderer. That’s the greatest kind of editor/author relationship.
I’m so grateful to both of them.--Elizabeth Law
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
But mind their strict guidelines: "Sorry, we don’t accept poetry or pornography." And whose pride, poets' or pornographers', do you think that hurts more?
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
spareness of line
The company Live Ink believes this in fact is a more efficient way to read prose. Look here to see what they've done with Moby-Dick.
Monday, May 14, 2007
The strange side effect of today's meta-stories is that kids get exposed to the parodies before, or instead of, the originals. My two sons (ages 2 and 5) love The Three Pigs, a storybook by David Wiesner in which the pigs escape the big bad wolf by physically fleeing their story (they fold a page into a paper airplane to fly off in). It's a gorgeous, fanciful book. It's also a kind of recursive meta-fiction that I didn't encounter before reading John Barth in college. Someday the kids will read the original tale and wonder why the stupid straw-house pig doesn't just hop onto the next bookshelf.
We certainly see relatively few straightforward folk- and fairytale retellings among new picture books, save for a couple of publishers, like North-South and Barefoot Books, who specialize in them. The glitzy '80s saw lots of lavishly illustrated traditional retellings of familiar tales, the '90s brought more cultures into the mix, but the 'aughts are twisting and turning. Northrop Frye told us this would happen.
Friday, May 11, 2007
I'm reminded of two things, make of them what you will. The first of them is a story I read, in a children's writers' newsletter, which had as its hero a little boy named Bennigan. Named, the author said in a note, in honor of a delightful little family restaurant she lunched at while visiting some friends out of town.
The other thing takes me back to the mid-seventies, when my friends and I were all going off to college, and my friend Susan told me how she quickly realized she had to hide her Carly Simon albums at the back of her Smith College dorm closet.
Hell is other people. Just look in the mirror.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
It made me remember a sumptuous picture book edition of Aida by Leontyne Price and the Dillons, trumpeted by the publisher as a retelling, via Verdi, as an African story. Nope, pure Italiano, based on a scenario by a French Egyptologist. And Turandot is about as Chinese as I am. These operas make me think about our own field's stern requirements for cultural authenticity and against Orientalism. Bizet, Verdi, and Puccini would be banished from the shelves. I guess I should be grateful they are operas, not books, and thus subjected to grown-up criteria that acknowledge the presence and even perniciousness of stereotyping without making it the trump card of evaluation.
Monday, May 07, 2007
Below, Richard Peck with CPL Children's Services Director Bernie Nowakowski:
Thursday, May 03, 2007
From the NY Times:
When asked his favorite novel in an interview shown yesterday on the Fox News Channel, Mitt Romney pointed to “Battlefield Earth,” a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. That book was turned into a film by John Travolta, a Scientologist.A spokesman said later it was one of Mr. Romney’s favorite novels.
“I’m not in favor of his religion by any means,” Mr. Romney, a Mormon, said. “But he wrote a book called ‘Battlefield Earth’ that was a very fun science-fiction book.”
Terrible taste. Lousy grammar.
Has anyone read Elizabeth Peters' two mysteries about the romance-writers circuit, Die for Love, and Naked Once More? Hi-larious.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
I'm with him on the "knowledgeable, experienced long-term editors" part (he says, anxiously patting his paycheck). This is what newspapers and the traditional review journals have, but it's not the fact that those media are disseminated on paper that gives them their value. It is simply that their authority was built in an era when book news came on paper. That is becoming less and less true. But the real distinction is not between paper and bloggers; it's between editorial authority and unsifted opinion. That's where the fight will be.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Besides, I remember attending a ceremony at the State House, in tow with Elizabeth Law, where I thought we were naming Make Way for Ducklings the State Book or something. Oh, wait, I just checked and that was the Official Children's Book. Jeez, this field is getting more crowded than the Grammys.