Tuesday, February 27

Boys and Books

I know these waters aren't easily forded, but today a couple of ideas came together and gave birth to an interesting idea. To me at least.

First up, this article in the Boston Globe (registration may be required) starts off talking about Flying Point Press and their work toward bringing non-fiction to 10 to 15 year old boys. Despite their deal with the devil in working with Sterling it seems like they're doing admirable work in giving boys something to read that isn't fantasy.

I have to admit, shortly after fourth grade I drifted away from Harriet the Spy and Island of the Blue Dolphins and began reading things like The Guinness Book of World Records, books on magic and a variety of things from Martin Gardner like Perplexing Puzzles and Tantalizing Teasers. I picked up a strange book put out by Reader's Digest that was a sort of hodge-podge of puzzles, stories, histories and biographies that included a telling of a cross-country road race and the tragical history if the Hindenburg. And when I wasn't reading I was tearing apart my old Schwinn Stingray, hacking the seat and the handlebars with a hand saw and inventing (though I didn't realize what I was doing) the first lowrider bike in my neighborhood. I took an old rollerskate apart and attached the wheels to a two-by-four in an attempt to create a five person skateboard. I found some wagon wheels and boards and hammered them together to make a very rickety, dangerously fun tow-cart (I grew up in the flats of Los Angeles, any sort of a downhill racer would have to be towed by someone on a bike).

Did I miss out on some vital book reading at the time? Maybe. Did my reading actually slide onto the back burner for a few years? Sure. But I wasn't really finding anything at the time pulling at me. Fantasy novels and realistic fiction couldn't do for me what an afternoon tinkering in the garage with some neighborhood kids could. I would check out books from the library on slot car racing but was always disappointed they never explained the science, or better yet, how to make your own. I wanted action! And the non-fiction that was out there (like the Random House Landmark Books series being brought back by the previously-mentioned Flying Point Press for example) just didn't really strike me as exciting enough.

Then today, at work, all of this came flooding back to me. A woman came in looking for something for a boy who loves tearing things apart and building something new with them. He's down in the basement tearing apart old computers and toaster ovens and whatnot and could really use something that shows him how things work.

Oh, and he's just about to turn 7 and isn't a strong reader yet.

There were a couple of things to recommend, like Cool Stuff and How It Works, which gives x-ray schematics of things like iPods and high-tech sneakers and shows their various mechanisms. Very cool even for adults. And, naturally, the classic in the field, The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay. But even as I'm looking through the books on science fair projects and lamenting the cost-prohibitive "cookbooks" from the San Francisco Exploritorium I'm thinking This kid doesn't need these books, he needs to learn how to read schematic drawings for electronics!

One thing leads to another (in my head) and I start envisioning a whole new imprint somewhere of books for boys that shows them how to perform basic electronic wiring and soldering so they can hack a Roomba and turn it into a battle robot. I'm, not making that up, people are doing it all over the place. O'Reilly, a publisher of books primarily on computer technology, also has a magazine called Make that basically is a teen and tween boy's dream. They also have a website and a blog where you can learn things; like how to make a Leyden Jar (an early form of capacitor/battery) from at 35mm film canister; how to make a simple, elegant vase out of an old light bulb; how to turn ordinary matchbox cars into dangerous rockets on wheels... just a random sampling of things I've seen.

Next, my head fills with those days when every family garage had lots of old, dead electronic devices that our dads salvaged with the intention of fixing, or at the least tore apart for the hardware. Basic power and hand tools on simple, often hand-made, cluttered work benches vied for space among soldering irons, baby jars filled with capacitors, coils of colored wires and strange parts from motors and toys awaiting a new life. In those post-war days it would be unheard of to see household appliances on the street on trash day; they'd disappear into the garage and be recycled into something new. Nowadays who has the time and space for all that?


They see the gadgets in Bond Movies and read about them in the Stormbreaker series and try not to act excited when they say "cool." They'll take their Lego's and build not just a catapult but a serious trebuchet, armed with little balloons filled with paint aimed at an old wall to test both the distance and the beauty of their handiwork. Their parents are tossing out old laptops and cell phones and they're hammering them open, trying to figure out how to repurpose the guts for their own ends.

I could never pull something like this together, but someone ought to create a series of books aimed at these lost boys aimed to harness the spirit that moves them and the materials surrounding them. 7 cool things you can make from old transistor radios. 5 electronic projects from things you can scrounge for next to nothing. Not a huge omnibus project, but small books with low price points, big on illustrations and easy on the text, a resource series aimed at getting boys who are into tearing apart and building things. This is the world of Popular Mechanics scaled down, but if they were done as instructive narratives, in an appealing graphic format, with perhaps a bit of history or biography built in, I think it could be a winner.

A doesn't necessarily follow B in this case, I don't pretend to imagine such a series of books will draw boys into reading more non-fiction, but it seems like there's a huge gulf in books aimed at these boys that could be filled in a variety of ways. And maybe a few grown boys who might still like to get into the garage now and then and see just how to resuscitate the mechanics from old toys.

Wednesday, February 21

Artwork TK: a jeremaid

While reading through any number of Advance Reader's Copys (ARCs) of children's literature it isn't uncommon to come across a blank page or inset box with the phrase "artwork TK" on it. In the strange patois of publishing and editing the abbreviation TK means "to come", which apparently originated in journalism and is somehow more phonetic than TC.

Today while reading an ARC for review purposes it occurred to me that this practice seems unusually stupid in children's publishing. I get taken to task at home for using the term stupid and idiotic but since discovering this is a common practice in children's ARCs I find it especially so.


I have always understood that an ARC represents an unfinished work-in-progress, a chance for reviewers, critics, booksellers and assorted by-readers a chance to see a book prior to it's official release. All these books come with disclaimers that they are unfinished, unedited and as such cannot be quoted without final consultation with the released edition. Very well.

But if you are including art, comics, photos and what-have-you into the book, and more importantly, if you are incorporating that art into the book by making specific reference to it in the text, why and how would you expect someone to make an informed opinion without the illustrations? If those illustrations are not important enough for review then they must not be important enough for the book, and that's going to cause me to wonder if they are being used as some sort of diversion for the intended reader, a slight-of-hand to draw away attention from the perhaps flaws in the text or storytelling, or maybe just a lack of faith in the reader's ability to enjoy the book without them.

Would a publisher ever send out an ARC with missing chapters, whole chunks of pages marked "chapters TK" and fully expect reviewers and critics to just accept that they can review the book with what they've been given? Final reviews may be fact-checked for accuracy but do the reviewers ever really go back and double check on the missing pages to be sure they didn't miss something crucial?

I suppose part of this questioning on my part would have come up (or at least not now) if I hadn't been reviewing a book where (I feel) the illustrations were integral to the text and half way through were replaced by pages of TK. I can understand that the artist might not have had them ready in time for an ARC but I'm currently looking at a book where my opinion about its success is partially determined by how well the illustrated pages are carried through to the end. And my review is due before a finished version of the book can be obtained.

Do I review it assuming all is well or take caution and give it more non-committal coverage?

Recently another very good book was released, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which I had the good fortune to read as an ARC back in November. In its recent release there has been much discussion and praise over this book, deservedly, including an interview with its author on NPR. But the ARC had two whole sections where there was artwork TK, perhaps a dozen pages in all. Given that the book is a mixture of text and art, maybe a 20/80 ratio in 540 pages, that's not a lot of missing art but I did wonder at the time just how crucial they were to the story.

Crucial or not, there were many in the blogosphere who reviewed the book from those ARCs. Here's where I go off on a tangent.

There's an American movie from the early 1970's directed by Francis Ford Coppola called The Conversation. Fantastic movie. In it Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert hired to follow and record the actions of a businessman who may be plotting to do harm. Said conversation reveals an interesting section of dialog that is buried in background noise and eventually brought to the surface through the wonders of the technology of the time. Things happen, things go haywire, nothing is as it seems. While the text of the conversation was correct there was a single point, a single word, whose shifted emphasis takes everything that came before and turns the entire story on its head.

One word.

If a single word, properly placed, can change the emphasis of an entire movie plot, why shouldn't it be possible for a couple pages of artwork to change the look and feel of an entire book? Did those out in the blogosphere go back after Hugo Cabret was released and double-check the TK sections to make sure nothing crucial was missing from the first time around?

Would a kid enjoy a book without pictures the way were supposed to review them without pictures?

My personal sense is that the publishing industry is moving too fast for itself. Books don't get the time and attention they deserve when it comes to proofreading and fact checking, publishing schedules are cranked up like the bonbon factory from an I Love Lucy episode, and in the end its just assumed that the pictures don't matter to adult readers because, well, they're there for the kids anyway.

I'm one person, one voice, and I'm probably alone in this wilderness, but if the publishers don't feel the illustrations are integral to the book then they shouldn't include them at all, ARC or otherwise.

That's just me you hear barking at the moon. Artwork TK.

Monday, February 19

Dimity Dumpty

The Story of Humpty's Little Sister
by Bob Graham
Candlewick 2007

Dimity stopped. Her hands to her face
She took a deep breath...

then removed her shirt

and bandaged Humpty's leakage.
That's page 23, and probably the point where this book turned from a little weird to all the way out there.

The Dumpty family are circus performers, acrobats, to be precise. In a human circus, mind you. They travel from town to town in a circus wagon made from an old egg carton, which is cute, pulled by a chicken, which is weird when you think about it.

While the other members of the family fly through the air with the greatest of ease, Dimity prefers to sit and play her little flute to the animals of the woods. Aw. Humpty, on the other hand, is a handful of a boy, graffiti-ing the wall of his egg carton and running off to tag nearby walls.

Oh, so that's what he was doing up there in the first place, he was off to do a little graffiti! So there goes your messages: graffiti leads to serious leakage.

Okay, so Humpty recovers and returns to the circus life where he's jumping around on the backs of horses for the delight of many who may be secretly wishing for another great fall. Much like there are people who watch auto racing for the accidents.

I'm going to save a lot of people the trouble of calling me on this and say I'm using my adult brain to over analyze an otherwise unusually unique book. I suppose it's reassuring to kids that Humpty only suffered a cracked shell and that his gentle sister was able to save him from fatal leakage and salmonella. It might even be the perfect book to open up young minds to questions about the dangers of climbing walls and how you can't let your fear of falling keep you from a life in the circus.

It still leaves a weird taste in my mouth.

Sunday, February 18

The Friskative Dog

by Susan Straight
Random House 2007

Sharron has a toy Golden Lab puppy she named The Friskative Dog. On one level she knows it is a toy but it's a comfort to her to think of him as real. The dog was a gift from her father, a long haul trucker, who one day left and never came home.

Sharron lives with her mother, with weekly visits from her grandmother, both of whom let Sharron believe that her father is just lost, that he'll return home some day. Her grandmother suggests her son has insomnia, though she means amnesia, which only confuses Sharron even more; How can a grown adult suddenly forget where he lives and that he has a family somewhere?

At school Sharron brings in The Friskative Dog to share whenever she can. Some of the kids give her a hard time for treating an obvious toy like a real dog, especially a pair of snootier girls named Paige and Piper. Another girl, Eboni, probably the closest thing Sharron has to a real friend, treats Sharon and The Friskative Dog with understanding and respect.

Sharron's mother works at a local bodega. She's making ends meet as best she can. One night her mother-in-law comes with news that her son has applied for a drivers license in another state.

Sharron overhears this but she doesn't understand.

A chance encounter with a guide dog for the blind in training, coupled with a school reports on careers, gives Sharron a focus and a purpose. She is now training The Friskative Dog to be a guide dog. Paige and Piper think Sharron is ridiculous and mock her for treating a toy like a real dog. And even though it is against school rules, Sharron brings The Friskative Dog to school in her backpack to teach it how to be patient and obey.

One day The Friskative Dog disappears from Sharron's backpack. First her father and now her beloved toy. Despondent, she stays at home alone while her mother goes to work.

A phone call, a stranger has found The Friskative Dog in her garbage. Heading out to claim her dog Sharron gets a fortuitous ride with Eboni's mother who was delivering her daughter's forgotten lunch. Rescuing The Friskative Dog it becomes apparent that Paige and Piper were behind its disappearance and disposal.

A return of child and toy to home. A confrontation at school. A terse letter from a lost father. A new house. The promise of a real dog.

There was this strange sensation I had while reading The Friskative Dog, a combination of deju vu and a bad dream. Then I realized they were related sensations stemming from the same memory.

I was in a grad level creative writing workshop suffering the weekly evisceration of story criticism. Every couple of weeks we'd submit a story to the group, the following week everyone took turns demolishing both the story and its author's ego, then we'd get a couple weeks to return the favor before going through the whole process all over again. Highly entertaining, emotionally draining, thoroughly unnecessary.

The Friskative Dog only covered the last two feelings.

But there was this one person in the workshop, an older woman who stood out from the rest of us twenty-something author-wannabes. She was old enough to be our mothers and she held every single story she read in such disdain that we all feared she was secretly a professional writer or editor who knew the secrets we were hoping to glean like a flash in a miner's pan. Then came the week for her story and we suddenly bolted to life.

Hers was a story of a small child who was trying to reconcile the loss of a grandparent, struggling with limited language, finally pointing to the blown-out pilot light on the stove to convey her understanding of the loss. And after a collective sigh in silence the author laid a preemptive strike against any possible criticisms we might have, something along the lines of If you people actually read the kind of fiction real people read then you'd understand this story, but as it stands I doubt any of you have the compassion necessary to appreciate what I've written.

Yeah, we tore her a new one after that. What our most articulate classmate finally proffered as a parting insult was to suggest that her story was best suited for Family Circle or The Saturday Evening Post... circa 1971.

Which brings us to The Friskative Dog.

If I were to make the same suggestion does it mean I'm lacking compassion, or that I'm still that same twenty-something grad student who hasn't gotten beyond that arrested state of tearing down other people's works for fun and grades? What is it about this book that reads so much like a workshopped short story? Is it that desperate pull for meaning and emotion? Is it the deliberate way Sharron speaks, the affectation of a fiction writer's idea of a young girl trying desperately to connect the dots in her little world? Why do I imagine well-healed mother-daughter book groups -- perhaps the target audience -- enraptured by this heart-tugging drama while sipping mint tea and eating designer scones?

Then there are the little things that bother me -- that a fourth grader can both be studying algebra and still be so emotionally stunted that she caries a toy dog around. That the snotty rich girls were cut from the same sheet of recycled cardboard. Or that Eboni and her mother are nothing more than a second tier Julia straight from 1960's television, right down to their power-positive single-parent messages and up-lifting moral lessons. God-helps-those-who-help-themselves-lite.

Basically, the story felt like a thousand other stories a la mode. If it weren't so short I might never have finished.

Tuesday, February 13

Hours of My Life I May Never Retrieve

It has been a long time since I've seen a movie that made me yearn, nay ached, to to have those precious lost minutes returned to me.

I watched The Devil Wears Prada two nights ago and I'm still feeling the loss.

Years ago when I was reviewing movies for fun and non-profit there were whole seasons filled with dread as Hollywood found ways to fill the calendar year with movies they could not justify throwing into the trash. The early months of January through March are a sort of wasteland while the industry readies itself for the annual gift of collective log rolling which is the Academy Awards. As spring comes into view movies tumble out of the festival circuits and into the movie houses where some writer-director's self-indulgent wanking gets confused with art. And foreign films, mustn't forget those, as they poke their heads up from behind the hedges hoping not to get slaughtered in the pre-summer movie blockbuster assault.

And when you're watching three to five new movies a week your bound to come across things committed to celluloid that could make you weep for those precious lost minutes. Much the same way you can occasionally pick up a book and weep for the tree that gave up its life for results that insult its memory.

Under most circumstances I would never have chosen to see The Devil Wears Prada. I did so with a reluctance that I cannot touch or name except to call it The Sixth Sense. The way a child sees dead people I can see a dead movie. I don't actually have to see the movie in question, in fact I can see as little as 30 seconds of a preview on television, or read the testimonials in a newspaper ad, and I know there's a little brown shark in the bath water.

I suppose, if pressed, I could say that I remember seeing the book in stores when it was first released and, after a glance at the cover art, could have predicted the premise if not the entire plot. So, yes, that could have prejudiced me against the movie. But the curiosity factor was still there, a clever device created by studios and casting directors whereby they lure actors into these movies specifically to fool people like me who should know better.

Why would Meryl Streep be in this movie if there wasn't something to it? And Stanley Tucci, he's never really done something strictly for the paycheck as far as I can remember...

Ah, but see how cleverly they have worked their Hollywood pixie dust! By cloaking Ms. Streep in fine Italian sheepskin they have created a situation where, indeed, she does seem Oscar worthy.

But only compared with the rest of that movie. She isn't even a candle's wisp against the raging gale force wind that is Helen Mirren or the class five hurricane that is Dame Judi Dench. A good actress, yes, but an Oscar nod for a one-note smolder? Please. My best guess is that the Academy felt a little funny not putting up at least one token American, but that goes into politics and would further take me off my already diversionary course.

Afterward there wasn't even the regret that I might have better used the time reading or cleaning my shower but an actual loss, an emotional depression.

And the next night I realized that after all these years it was time to finally give up on 24. Jack Bauer and the CTU gang have lost any pull they once had and I can no longer justify giving them the space of an hour a week. I had hopes that Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 might serve as a soothing balm after 24, a nightcap as it were, but like that mislaid glass of champagne you find several hours after the party has started the show has quickly grown flat, tepid and leaves an aftertaste like Old Spice.

I never used to watch this much TV, in fact I went through most of the 1990's without using my television as anything more than a monitor for movie watching. Strangely, I didn't seem to miss much. I found I could keep in touch with popular culture through Entertainment Weekly and sound intelligent around the water cooler and at parties and no one was the wiser.

And I got a lot more reading done.

Perhaps, if I'm very lucky, over time I can recoup my losses through a strenuous regimen of reading. A minute here, another there, and slowly the essence of those missing minutes will be reconstituted into a rough approximation of time regathered. A leap day, as it were, as compensation for my industry and dedication.

Until the next ARC of a middling young adult novel crosses the transom, then it starts all over.

Sunday, February 11

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little

by Peggy Gifford
Schwartz & Wade Books/Random House 2007

Indeed, Moxy Maxwell loves anything but reading the single book she was assigned to read before the first day of school. After a full summer of procrastination Moxy finishes her vacation with a last-ditch attempt to keep her from reading Stuart Little: She's decides to grow a peach orchard to fund her college education, thus proving she is far too intelligent to read the book while saving her parents the burden of paying for education.

But rather than plant the orchard herself Moxy gets her friend and her sister to do it, thus flooding her mother's prize dahlia garden with the garden hose leaving the dog's a giant mud pool to eagerly dig into. Overtaxed from eating several peaches (how else to start the orchard?) she settles into the backyard hammock fully intending to read Stuart Little. But the book's not there. She hasn't see the book in days, and her mother has finally lost all patience.

Later in the day Moxy is to join her synchronized swimming class for their final presentation in which she will play a flower petal. There is a party planned for afterward but Moxy's luck has run out and the much-promised "consequences" are being enforced. Instead of going to the party she is forced to read the book, staying up late the night before the first day of school in order to pass her test on her summer reading. Turns out, once she starts the book, that she doesn't, indeed, like it. In fact, she doesn't understand why she put it off for so long.

I think any parent with a child who has summer reading will relate, and perhaps so will some of those young readers. Moxy gets off easy with only one book -- my kids had one required and four or five "elective" books to down during their summers before third grade -- and there's no sense of Moxy reading anything else. She spends the summer carrying the book around to read when "in case" situations appear, but they never seem to materialize. Again, this is a foreign idea in our house, but I suspect there are plenty of Moxy's out there.

The book is a much faster read that it appears, given that some chapters have titles longer than their accompanying text (Chapter 7, In Which Moxy's Mother Says No is followed simply with the dialog "No."), and it certainly is much lighter in subject matter than most books that appear on summer reading lists. Were it not for the artificial chapter breaks and rambling distractions the book could be condensed into a very good, humorous short story. A beach read for the third grade set, perhaps?

Actually, this is more like one of those confections a child gobbles while they are killing time in the library. Easily taken in one sitting, there isn't even the need to check it out much less own it. Perfectly acceptable for the gooey, summery marshmallow fluff it is.

Due out in early May.

Saturday, February 10

Mail Order Ninja - Another Take

Well, it was nearly a week and finally someone in the house picked up Mail Order Ninja and read it without prompting or suggestion. Afterward, I asked my eldest, age 10, to give me her brief review.
Today I read Mail Order Ninja, and it was better than Millions but not as good as Al Capone Does My Shirts.

The thing I really liked about this was how at the end the Ninja's fights came together with the boy's life.

What would have made this better is if the fights were easier to understand and those little bio cards were kinda funny at the beginning but eventually got kinda annoying.

I would recommend this book if someone were looking for a quick and funny graphic novel that was in a series.

*****1/2 (out of 10)
For the past couple of weeks she has been driven to read from the Massachusetts Children's Book Award list -- at least 25 books total by the end of this month -- and the most recent two books she's read were Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. It's interesting that she compared this book only to her most recent reading and not other graphic novels she has read. She really didn't like Millions (didn't say why) and she really loved Al Capone (ditto). In the graphic novel category she really really loved Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and wanted more like it; I wasn't exactly comfortable with her reading that but that wasn't for me to say.

The bio cards she makes reference to are meant to introduce major characters and I have to agree, they could have been humorous but they were annoying.

She didn't ask if the second book in the series was available or indicate any interest, but to be fair she still has about 10 more books on her list to read by the end of the month.

And rumor has it there's a galley copy of a certain third book in a particular series floating around the house that must take precedent over others.

An Abundance of Katherines

by John Green
Dutton 2006

So I finally caved and read it. My reasons for not reading it for so long were irrational. It's the math. I wasn't born with the math gene and anything even remotely smacking of math kindles rocket fuel in my stomach and makes my adenoids itch.

Yes, I know the math isn't relevant to appreciating the story, no matter how accurate.

I'm going to be up front about this and admit it's going to take some easing into in order to find the groove for this review. And, honestly, what's holding me down is that in thinking about this book, as a reader and a writer and as someone who occasionally writes reviews, I can't help feeling that books like this require an entirely different approach to discussion. I'm in the shower thinking What this book really needs is a new kind of criticism, the likes of which we haven't seen since Lester Bangs was pounding down NyQuil and frothing about the carpet.

As a further prefatory note there were moments when I wasn't sure about the audience for this book. Is it home schooled prodigies looking for a window into (or out of) their self-torment? Are there sixteen year olds out there who aren't addicted to social websites on the internet, who are intelligent and not at all nerdy, who not only still read but can enjoy the plight of the prodigy and his best friend on a road trip to nowheresville so they can do a little navel gazing before heading off to college? And can they laugh at all the right places without malice? I'd like to think they're out there, I really would, but just how big is that army?

The mind drifts, images of hyper-literate Ronin holed up in boho coffeehouses reading An Abundance of Katherines at a single sitting fills my head. I see seniors, their personal essays nailed, their college apps already in the mail, pausing to reminisce lightly over foolish pranks and late summer nights in local make-out sanctuaries, the burn of long-since renounced fast food burning the back of their throat, coughing and chuckling at the same time.

No, wait, those aren't teens, those are twenty- and thirtysomething hipsters and artsters, the incommunicognoscenti that drift among the sudoku-mad salarymen and women on public transit, peering into the windows of their youth with grins as wry as their martinis. And in the corner, standing alone with closed eyes and humming to himself is Colin Singleton, child prodigy, anagramming the title of his book:

Ken refuted a cabana nosh-in

Unfreshen a cabana to kin, Ed

Ed frees a cabana to inn hunk

Why can't he get away from the cabana? Could a cabana hold the key to happiness? And who, exactly are Ed and Ken, and so on.

Trolling the barren vistas of Tennessee, Colin and his best bud Hassan (introducing himself by saying "I am not a terrorist", and the people laugh) are out on that great post-high school metaphor, the road trip in a vehicle called the Hearse. The roadside lure of the final resting place of Franz Ferdinand leads Colin and Not-a-Terrorist like a divining rod to Gutshot, a company town that manufactures tampon strings.

Yeah, the book's funny like that.

Improbably fun they hit it off well with the backwoods locals, in particular a reluctant likely-prodigy-in-hiding named Lindsey. They pick up a job locally recording oral histories in advance of the town's demise and crash with Lindsey while they sort through their issues. Colin in particular is haunted with understanding why he keeps getting dumped by all the Katherine's he's dated going so far as to develop a mathematical theorem dedicated to determining the length of a relationship. Silly boy! The reason they don't work out is because he keeps dating women named Katherine! Ah, but that's too easy, and would make for a much shorter book.

I tied that once. Or twice. Dating Katherine's, that is. They didn't have much in common beside their name. And the fact that they both dumped me for other guys. And they lied to me about their ages (like I cared). It only took me two, but I got off the ride before I hurled. Totally true.

Meanwhile, back in the sticks, Hassan-the-Not-a-Terrorist consumes Hardee's Monsterthick Burgers by the gross (1420 calories each) and serves as another of literature's great fat sidekicks, part Hotei, part Pulcinella. When he isn't eating or mooning over Judge Judy on television Hass (I like to think of him shaped like the avocado, but with man tits) continues to put off his college education in the mistaken belief that by not doing something with his life he is doing something quite profound. And he gets the local hottie! That is until she relinquishes her opportunity at his Monsterthick-fed Thunderstick over a tryst in the cemetery.

Over my dead body!
Franz Ferdinand might call out from the great beyond. And he'd be right.

In the end, as the smog of Gutshot sinks heavily into the rear view mirror, Colin finally breaks the cycle, forsakes his Katherine Wheel, and picks up a extra passenger on his way out of Gutshot and into Whatever is Next.

It's a crappy summary, but accurate where it counts. If it counts at all.

Thursday, February 8

The Higher Power of Lucky

by Susan Patron
illustrations by Matt Phelan
Simon & Schuster 2006

I'm just not feeling this one.

What is it Chekhov famously never said: If there's a scrotum in the first act it had better pay off in the third?

People are falling all over themselves with this book, generating all kinds of comment and opinion and flame wars on blogs, and in that sense perhaps the Newbery committee was right in choosing it. Perhaps. I'm not convinced yet because I'm still working on the honor books.

I'm not going to present a summary here, just some thoughts I had, things that have been gnawing away at me for the last couple of weeks.

My problem with Lucky is that the pieces don't add up for me. Lucky appears to have sprung out of the Mojave fully formed. That she never saw her father growing up, okay, I can understand why she didn't recognize him. But she was old enough to have memories of her mother, old enough to know what she had, yet she makes little to no mention of those memories and those would be the compelling fixtures that would be keeping her from letting go of her mother.

All this Higher Power business is little girl shorthand, but for what? I'm all for letting readers put together the various pieces but we aren't really given the whole puzzle to work with here. I can see Lucky's insecurity in her survival kit, but the catalyst that causes her to run away is her fear that her guardian Beatrice is going to leave her. That ought to dredge up some fears and memories, tap into some of the more repressed anxieties. Has Lucky's attachment to Beatrice supplanted memories of her mother, and if so, why is so quickly to release her mother's ashes before fully understanding Beatrice's desire to formally adopt her?

And that's another thing, that Beatrice. From Lucky's point of view all Beatrice does is complain about the situation she has gotten herself into, with nary an indication of any warmth that isn't token toward Lucky. She misses France, she hates the desert, she wants to see the California that is Los Angeles, a mere 45 minutes away but cannot and hasn't. How does a person so close to the beaches of Southern California not have the ambition to take Lucky on a trip to the beach but can muster an on-line culinary degree and set up a restaurant in a dead-end desert town? And with her ex-husband's (Lucky's dad's) money?

That's when it all fell apart for me. The guy pays for the funeral and hands Lucky the ashes but doesn't introduce himself. Okay. He sends Beatrice child support and helps her to legally adopt Lucky and lends her the money to set up the restaurant... so, what, he'll make sure that his daughter from one marriage and his ex-wife from another are taken care of so long as they remain in the desert far away from him? What kind of a message is that?

Here's the thing, I didn't start out hating the book from the word scrotum, as many others have. A few chapters in I was looking for a Saroyan My Name is Aram sort of thing, a bunch of collected vignettes of a small community hung together with a thread named Lucky. I'd take the quirky characters and situations and in the end I'd get a crazy quilt of an experience that left me feeling as if I'd drifted in and out of Lucky's little world.

Nope. No such luck.

Vignettes gave way to chapters and a story rose off the asphalt like bug-killing heat. As I tried to corral and assemble the fragments I felt like I was sorting through Lucky's bug collection -- haphazard and randomly assorted with missing information and incorrect assumptions. And when it was over, yeah, that scrotum reference hit me as an odd framing device especially when it didn't really add any meaning or texture to the story. If the story had included more odd and colorful (but not obscene) language I might have felt better about what some refer to as mood-setting language.

As for the Newbery, it's probably best to view it much like any horse race, like the Oscars or the Grammys or the Tonys. The test of time is the ultimate award. My only hope: they repackage it with a different cover when it comes out in paperbook to look a little less Lucky's Higher Power isn't the award itself.

Wednesday, February 7

Purple and Brown Distraction

I was going to tackle The Higher Power of Lucky today but something in me said it could wait.

I don't normally like to cross-pollinate my various interests without some sort of connection, but this I had to share. Aardman Animation, recently dumped by Disney (good for them) has been producing these little gems for Nickelodeon. They are addictive, incredibly silly, and perhaps occasionally offensive.

And I loved them. Really perked up my afternoon. Enjoy Purple and Brown at your own peril.

Tuesday, February 6

Today and Today

Haiku by Kobayashi Issa
Selected and illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Scholastic Press 2007

Drawing from many translations of haiku from the 18th century Japanese poet, these illustrated little gems celebrate the small moments found in nature. The book is divided into four seasons with each spread dedicated to one or two haiku. Some of the illustrations are straightforward in their representation while others add a delicate layer of mystery or texture to the poem.

One poem in particular captured both the essence of the poem and reinterpreted it in a way I might not have considered were I only reading text.
Calm, indifferent
As if nothing's transpired --
The goose, the willow.
Having read that what would you imagine for an illustration? A goose and a willow, naturally, but calm in the face of what, indifferent to what goings on?

The illustration for the poem takes place in the fall, two children looking out the window at a goose by a small pond near a willow. But the building's only marking is a red and white sign, the symbol of a hospital or an infirmary. What really has transpired here? I could spend whole days imagining scenarios, a whole world of stories opened up by the marriage of word and image.

Karas' illustrations are composed on textured papers and directly onto wood panels that showcase their grain, maintaining their link with nature, celebrating nature in the spirit of haiku. The book shows a great deal of care without feeling precious, simple and sweet without the taint of manufacture. Of course the idea that a slick, commercially produced book appears to have simply created itself is an illusion, just as the simplicity of haiku is an illusion for it contains the ability to startle and focus our attention in a few short syllables.

Indeed, as if nothing has transpired. Yet it has.

Monday, February 5

Mail Order Ninja

Volume 1
Written by Joshua Elder
Illustrated by Erich Owen
Tokyopop 2006

I'm going to be up front about this so you can read this post through whatever prism you prefer: I don't get Japanese manga, or manga-style comics, or anime.

I say this at my own peril as I have come face-to-face with people who would have extracted a pound of my flesh for even daring criticize manga comics. I say this knowing that manga is a billion dollar industry and, as we all know from living in a capitalist republic, billions of dollars cannot be wrong.

That said, I still venture into the worlds of anime and manga with great hope that I have yet to discover gold, that I just haven't found the proper vehicle to awaken my senses, that I have just been plain wrong in my thinking for a very long time.

I also venture into the world of manga because I have two girls in the house, ages 8 and 10, who are discovering the joys of the graphic novel as a nice supplement to their steady reading diet. Please note, that the mention of graphic novels in the previous sentence should not be construed to mean that I beleive or accept manga as graphic novels. I don't. Graphic novels and manga are as different to one another as soap operas are to theatre; just because they use the same dramatic language does not mean they are interchangeable. My use of the term graphic novel to describe my girls' current reading trend is a shortcut meaning "graphically sequential story-telling media". A bit long winded, doncha think?

I checked out Mail Order Ninja because I was searching for something suitable for my third grade girl that wasn't merely comic strip adventures, something a little more substantive than the Babymouse books (which she gobbled in a single sitting, all of them) but not quite The Baby-Sitter's Club or Time Warp Trio or even Goosebumps. (And why these particular adaptations from publishers? Is there really little else out there to adapt at this age level?) I had come across a review of Mail Order Ninja over at Big A little a a while back and was curious. More than curious, really, as Kelly's review spoke of a level of humor and adventure my girls have been craving of late (James Bond and Indiana Jones movies in particular). Bullies and ninja and stuck-up rich girls and everything. Sounded swell.

First I had to get over my gag reflex. It's a visceral thing that happens when I see the big-headed kids with supersized eyes that is the manga style. This angularity of style has never sat well with me, and has never felt either "random" or "whimsical" as the literal translation of the word manga. That done, I settled in and read about Timmy MacAllister and his mail order ninja. After the obligatory opening action scene with black and white ninjas (very subtle: the roles of good and evil are reversed in color!) we meet Timmy, his soccer mom, distracted dad and conniving evil little sister. Just as quickly it's off to school where the local bully and his underlings have set up a toll booth for extracting and tormenting their prey. After a brief exchange where Timmy's sister sells him out for a cut of the profits it's on to school where we meet Felicity Huntington, the aforementioned stuck-up rich girl with her suck-up minions and fashionista name-dropping of Armani and Versacci and...

That's when I had to stop. Not for good, just to take a gut check. If this were a regular book with ninja and extreme bullies and stuck-up rich kids all made out of cardboard would I continue reading? Certainly if I was reading straight text I doubt the all the characters would be described as having large, adorable heads, with glassy eyes and (for the girls) model thin bodies with model perfect wardrobes to match. This for me is the first problem with graphic storytelling, the idealized forms that send shorthand messages about body image to young readers. This is much easier to get around with anthropomorphic images because no one is going to hold their image of a house pet or farm animal up to the images of a comic drawing. But with young minds already bombarded with television and magazine images of what is popular, cool and "ideal" I don't know if we can just gloss over the representations as "just a comic book" any more than we'd overlook stereotypes in traditional fiction because it's supposed to be humorous.

Text offers the reader an opportunity to put themselves into the book, into the minds of characters and settings. With graphic storytelling the viewer or reader is always on the outside. Even in POV representations there's always the sense of just visiting and never the problem of getting lost in the story or the emotion. The lack of realism within the drawings doesn't allow you to forget that you're looking at drawings. Even the most fantastic CGI effects in a movie, equally man made in every respect, has the ability to mimic reality to the point where grown adults can't tell the difference. That really can't be said with graphic novels, even less so with manga.

I soldiered on, trying to put the rest of the story into context with what I would have wanted to read as a fifth grader and with what I would want my girls to read. I tried to reconcile my discomfort with these manga kids seeking their nerd revenge through martial arts and the fact that my own girls don't see anything like this level of bullying or fashion consciousness in their daily lives. Reading Mail Order Ninja my girls aren't any more likely to understand Armani than they do the sexual innuendos of Bond films, so why am I more hesitant to let them read this lightweight book than I am to cave to their movie hunger?

In the end, yes, it's because I do hold books to a higher standard. Not that a book can't entertain or be lightweight in subject, because I certainly don't feel like everything one reads should be Literature with a capital L. But if we're looking at the current phenomenon of the graphic novel -- and all the comic books, manga and strip collections that are lumped into the same category these days -- and we're going to legitimize them with awards for younger readers then I think we need to slow down, learn the language of graphic storytelling, and not give books a pass because they amuse us to the extent that we don't notice how substandard they may be as literature.

Yak yak yak. I sound like a cranky old man. I'm going to leave Mail Order Ninja out on the kitchen table and see if either of my girls pick it up and read it. And if they read it I'll see if they like it enough to seek out part two.

And I'd be surprised if they do, on either count.