Thursday, April 26

Grimmoire 32: Clever Hans

I'm digging "Clever Hans." There's something about the way it reads like bad drama and a repetitive nursery rhyme all at once.

Hans and his mother have a series of conversations. They conversations are identical except for the lesson learned and the way it is applied the next time Hans goes out. Mama asks where Hans is going, he always replies "To Gretel's." She bids him to take care, he says good-bye. At Gretel's, after a cordial greeting she asks if he has anything for her. "Didn't bring anything. Want something from you," he says in his best clipped Bavarian.

And every time Gretel gives him something and sends him on his way.

Whatever Gretel gives him Hans mismanages. She gives him a needle, he stores it in a hay wagon. He tells his Mama and she tells him he's stupid, that he should have stuck it in his sleeve. "I'll do better next time," our Mama's boy says. But the next time Gtetel gives him a knife and he sticks that in his sleeve, like his Mama told him. And it continues, Mama pointing out what he should have done, Clever Hans following his mother's instructions the next visit despite the fact that the item changes and require different care and treatment. Gretel gives him a goat and he stuffs it in his pocket. She gives him bacon and he drags it home on a rope. She gives him a calf he wears it on his head.

Finally Gretel gives herself to bring home to his mother (more on this in a moment) allowing herself to be tied like an animal, taken to the barn and have grass thrown at her. When he reports this to his mother she once again admonishes his behavior, telling him he should thrown friendly looks at her. What does he do? He goes to the barn and cuts out all the eyes of the cows and sheep and throw them at her. Gretel has finally (!) had enough and leaves.

"And that was how Hans lost his bride."

First, I love that this is 99% dialog. The repetition, the constant set-up and pay-off for each of Clever Hans' exchanges with Gretel has a feel of a campfire story, a very contemporary one at that. I also like that Hans (or Hansel) and Gretel seem to be archetypes of German boy and girl pairings, like Jack and Jill or Dick and Jane.

But here's a funny story about a thick-headed boy who is sent by his mother to court this girl and she is going along with it. Is Hans is the village idiot? Is Gretel getting something out of the arrangement far greater than a husband because she seems to put up with this fools behavior all the way to the very end? The girl always asks what he has for her and he's always empty handed, asking for something in return, and she gives him a trifle, a token, something designed to force his mother to send him back.

I really don't want to tread too far out on the ice on this one, but am I reading too much sexual tension in this story of expectation and unfulfilled desire? Everyone seems so keen on getting this dummer Kopf to give something to Gretel until finally, exasperated, she has Hans drag her home so that perhaps she can get some friction with the guidance of his mother. Even that sounds weirder than I'd intended, but there it is.

And then you get the title: Clever Hans. Is it ironic, or is Hans playing the fool, refusing to take part in this arrangement? There's no mention of Gretel being beautiful or to his liking and perhaps Hans has no intention of giving in to the arrangement made between the girl and his mother. It would better explain why Gretel would put up with his foolishness if she was getting the better part of the deal, and why the mother would keep encouraging her boy despite his willful ignorance. Finally, his mother gives him the perfect out, to throw adoring eyes at her, and he performs his gross act in a masterstroke of deal-breaking. Being tied to a stable and having grass thrown at you might be a small price to pay, but then to witness the butchering of livestock and be pelted with their eyes, that'll send anyone running.

Yeah, I could have dug this around the campfire when I was a Boy Scout. I don't know what that says about me, but there it is.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

by Louis Sachar
Harper Trophy 1978

They got it wrong when they built Wayside School. It was supposed to be one story tall and thirty rooms wide, but instead it's one room wide and thirty stories tall. Sorry about that, say the builders. It's a weird building (with a lot of playground as a result) that has a lot of strange stories attached. And with that we're off on 30 short stories (one for each of the building's floor, though they all concern the occupants in the class on the top floor) of all the strange goings on at Wayside School.

It's taken me a while to get to reading this book because it seems beyond review. Just shy of being 30 years old the book has obviously proven itself over time with kids, and given its age I'm sure there is a generation bringing this book home to read whose parents read it when it was still a new book. But I missed it, being that I was in high school working on my AP English when it was initially released.

Each of these incredibly short interconnected stories usually focuses on one individual and is made up of complete nonsense. Their first teacher turns students into apples when they misbehave until she herself is turned into an apple and eaten by the playground supervisor. One boy becomes class president and is responsible for turning on and off the lights but loses his position one day when he is late for school and finds the class working in the dark because no one else knew how to turn on the lights. Utter absurdity, pure entertainment.

This is one of those books that flies under the radar with parents, one of those books kids read and like and the parents just go "They really liked those wayside books" but never read themselves. Having transitioned from series books like Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Tree House or Jon Scieszka's Time Warp Trio parents my just write off the Wayside books as more gobble-em-up stories, books aimed at a very hungry readership that reinforce reading without challenging them either in content or vocabulary. I'd like to suggest that there might be another reason kids are drawn to these stories, something beyond the familiarity factor.

A little over a year ago I caught my girls working on a secret project in a notebook. Caught is a relative word here, they only hid it from me when I casually went to check on why they were being so quiet. The notebook, it turned out, was a collection of individual stories about various "characters" in their school, friends whose names were changed only slightly in order to distance themselves from being accused of making fun of their classmates. I smiled, remembering how me and some friends had made a similar collection of stories when we were their age, sharing them in secret on the playground or at lunch.

I don't remember the source of inspiration for the character studies we made back then, and I can't be certain that the Wayside Stories were the inspiration for my girls, but the timing makes it plausible that the two are connected. Even if it's a coincidence there appears to be something deeply rooted in the exercise of children inventing nonsensical stories once they have a feel for the telling of stories. The freedom of being able to write whatever you want, coupled by the excitement of actually inventing stories is just too irresistible. The appeal of a book that does the same thing probably equally so.

Fiesta Fiasco

by Ann Whitford Paul
illustrated by Ethan Long
Holiday House 2007

Conejo, Iguana and Tortuga stop by the market on the way to their friend Culebra's party to purchase birthday gifts for him. Iguana thinks Culebra would like a globo but Conejo convinces him that a sombrero would make a better gift. Similarly when Tortuga considers a fine tazon Conejo insists on a camise. And when Iguana and Tortuga point out that their friend would like a nice libro Conejo instead thinks pantalones make more sense.

Conejo, being a trickster rabbit, knows that his friend Culebra is a snake and his excuses for each of the gifts -- "He can wear the pants once he grows his legs" -- allows him to appropriate the useless gifts for himself once they are opened at the party. Dressed in Culebra's hat, shirt and pants he is expelled for being a rude friend while Culebra, Iguana and Tortuga continue to enjoy the fiesta.

Shame-faced Conejo returns with proper gifts, the book, bowl and balloon originally considered at the market. Snake is happy and while the four friends settle in for some fine birthday torta they discuss whose birthday comes next. Mine! Shouts Conejo excitedly, and everyone knows exactly what to get him: a touristy outfit of a sombrero, camise and pantalones.

Telling the story with Spanish words peppered and reinforced throughout with pictures allows for an easy immersion lesson in bilingualism. It feels a bit awkward up front as the characters settle in at the market but quickly the words become familiar as the story gains it's momentum and pacing. The bright-colored cartoon illustrations are warm, humorous, and give very solid contextual clues about how the characters feel and what they are talking about.

There's a fine line between a book like this which feels like a tale told from the Mexican desert and the deliberate teaching books of Dora the Explorer. Whenever I see anything Dora I get this hinkey feeling climbing up my back, as if the books were intended to help gringo children better communicate with the children of their nannies and housekeepers. There's something that rings just a tad false about all that PBS bilingualism, even while I know that it's really intended for the Spanish speaking children in the audience. The wording and the lessons feel so deliberate in a way that the other educational programming doesn't and it sits poorly with me.

Not so much in Fiesta Fiasco, where the limited and simple vocabulary (with a pronunciation guide for parents on the copyright page) are aimed at playfully at introducing new language to readers for whom all words are new language. Like I said, it's a fine line, but one I think is well handled here in a non-pedagogical way.

Tuesday, April 24

dot dot dot

I don't generally traffic in kidlit news as I find others out there do it much better and more frequently, but this story from The Walrus hit my radar while checking out information on Grimm tales. The Grimm reference is almost tangential, the story is about the disappearance of childhood and the audience for books to go with. In particular I chortled at this particular quote:
If picture books are on the wane, Young Adult fiction is thriving. “You should write YA,” a publisher told me. “That’s where the money is.”
What kind of money are we talking about, exactly?

Actually, there's a nice little breakdown on how the children's book market has changed under the weight of big bookstores (perhaps nothing new, but good to remember) and I'm always a sucker for an article that references Neil Postman's work. I am, admittedly, a product of his Soft Revolution.

Monday, April 23

Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy

A twentieth-century life
by Marc Aronson
Viking 2007

Part of a new series of biographies put out by Viking I was really looking forward to this one on RFK. I was hoping we had finally come to the place where the history of the latter half of the twentieth century would balance out the tri-war arc (Revolutionary, Civil and Second World War) that tends to dominate in textbooks. While Marc Aronson's contribution to this correction might have been welcome the book suffers from trying too hard to do too much.

In telling RFK's life story Aronson goes for a big-picture approach, attempting to give the scope and scale of RFK's world as well as his world view in attempting to define the man. In and of itself this isn't a bad thing but it takes a deft hand to draft a portrait that is both clear and contextual, and it takes greater caution with the way that information is supported. A person's life isn't always encapsulated in easy-to-understand chapters but like any good story it has a beginning, middle and end and, unless the subject has invented a time machine, generally moves in a forward direction through time.

No, I'm not suggesting that the only way to tell a person's life is a narrative a-to-b sequence of events, but the narrative being told needs to feel like it's moving forward in a way that will make sense to the reader and in the end provide them with a clear portrait of the subject. There are moments where history is condensed, where events months apart are casually referenced as taking place one after the other. Where dates are necessary they are given, but often they are presented as reference for other events in a way that provides both milieu and is deceptive.

Let's also be honest about the fact that most biographies written for children are provided as resources for school lessons, not likely pleasure reading, and in that light require a certain level of comprehension so that they can be used in reports. They can even be biased (and Aronson shows hint of his love of Bobby every time he makes sure to underline the man's faults, like an apologist) so long as they honest and clear in their appraisals.

Aronson's picture of RFK is presented deep within the soup of history that belongs to the Kennedy clan, alternately zooming in and out to show Bobby's place and influences. At times, especially in the first half of the book where his older brothers are showcased as foils, the book feels more like a biography of the Kennedy's than an examination of RFK. The book is muddled and slow to gain momentum: you could easily skip the forward, introduction and first two chapters of the book. Chapter One is designed to be one of those book-ending vignettes of Bobby on the presidential campaign trail just before he is assassinated but it presumes a reader born at the end of the Clinton administration has enough historical knowledge to appreciate the tension of this pending event. Aronson makes those sort of assumptions throughout which I think is a mistake.

In an attempt to keep the text breezy Aronson traffics in the unsupported statement, or sentences that must be taken on face value but still raise questions. At the democratic convention he reports that Lyndon Johnson and his aids were disorganized and inefficient, compared to Bobby and his crew, but doesn't explain in what ways or how this was crucial to the process. Further on he makes cursory mention of the buying of delegates in advance of the convention assuming the reader both understands how convention politics works, to say nothing of the electoral college. Throughout Aronson presents information in a way that only makes me want a second opinion, which if nothing else is a distraction from the story at hand.

He also makes spotty use of the attempt to make the book relevant to modern readers that tend to make it look silly. To bolster the idea of RFK coming from East Coast wealth but able to make himself empathetic with farm workers and civil rights activists Aronson points to the tough talk in rap music, to rappers who talk about "keeping it real", while raking in wealth and fame that pull them far from the real streets they rap about. In trying to discuss how unmoored RFK was following his brother's assassination he uses Phillip Pullman's example of what happens when a character in one of the 'His Dark Materials' books loses their animal daemons. What Aronson fails to point out in all this "relevance" is that while RFK was shrewed about his public image it was only after his older brother was assassinated RFK and he was finally free of the insecurities he had been held under since birth, that what he lost was also a personality pegged to always trying to prove he was as good as his brothers, to himself, to his father, to the world. I think that might have deserved a paragraph.

In the end I do think Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy can serve as a catalyst for a history-loving teen or tween to use as a jumping off point for delving into the 1960's. One look at the bibliography full of adult titles proves that there's a need for more age-appropriate materials but that shouldn't prove too much of a hindrance to the hungry.

There are other books in the Up Close series -- I'm looking forward to seeing what Ellen Levine does with Rachel Carson, and another on Johnny Cash by Anne E. Neimark that I might check out -- so I'm going to hold out hope that this was an anomaly.

Every Friday

by Dan Yaccarino
Henry Holt 2007

Every Friday and boy and his dad trundle down to the diner in town to have breakfast together. Rain or shine, they stop and window shop along the way (each of the boys has their favorite shop window, toys for each), waving at shopkeepers and strangers along the clean city streets. Once at the diner they order breakfast ("Let me guess, pancakes" says the waitron) and talk and continue their people-watching. Their ritual complete the boy cannot wait until next week to do it all again.

Yaccarino explains in a note at the front of the book that it is based on a routine he and his son follow. I suspect the actual event is more substantial than the slim story treatment it is given because we are given only the outward appearances of the ritual. As an idea the author encourages, taking a child out for a special ritual like a weekly breakfast can be a great thing. I only wish it were more possible than the mere suggestion that parents try to do the same. I think of all the families I know, how difficult it is just to get everyone out the door and on their way in the morning, and I don't think I know a single family who could add such a ritual. The sheer logistics of it, the amount of extra time it would take in the morning, isn't practical. And forget it if you have more than one child and have to deal with the parity issue. Even saying it like that makes me feel like I'm a bad parent for not figuring out a way to add an extra hour or so to the morning routine. What parent wants to feel like that after reading a book?

Logistics aside, the idea of hanging out with a parent over breakfast talking and people watching would have greatly benefited from a little more show and a little less tell. What do the boy and his father talk about? What have they learned about the regulars they see on their walks each week, what sort of things do they see while people watching? It's all very well and good to talk a good game but sometimes you need to see how the game is played, especially with kids. Modalities of learning and all that.

Visually it hearkens back to a sort of 1950's nostalgia that is difficult to replicate today. Valiant effort but it left me wanting.

Thursday, April 19

Jack Plank Tells Tales

by Natalie Babbitt
MDC/Scholastic 2007

Set on the island of Jamaica in the 1720's, Natalie Babbitt's first new book in a quarter century is the story of a former pirate looking for a new vocation after getting kicked off his ship for not being pirate enough. Jack doesn't have the stomach to plunder or rattle swords and would rather cook soup and keeps his fellows company, and for a while the crew of the Avarice were fine with the arrangement. But times for pirating were lean and Jack was set ashore with his belongings and enough florins to get him set up on land.

Checking into a local boarding house his charm wins him an audience among the borders who are slightly excited to have a reformed pirate in their midst. Daily Jack sets about with the landlord's daughter to find suitable work but each day encounters a problem that prevents him from taking on the enterprise. At the end of each day when the members of the boarding house sit down to sup Jack recounts a story relevant to why this job or that isn't suited to him, thus justifying his inability to find employment.

These tales all center around the things he's seen during his days as a pirate, tall tales for the most part of the kind that make for good nautical folklore: The sailor that takes the shape of an octopus during the full moon; The man who bakes a cake to successfully woo a mermaid; The sailor whose prize possession of a mummified hand of king lures a ghost to the ship. There are also the less supernatural yarns, of alligator charmers and gold-fever, and a sailor so enamored of his beard he refuses to cut it off despite having a dead crab lodged within it. Each of the stories ends with a short discussion by the boarding house audience and an agreement that after hearing such a tale Jack's aversion to a particular vocation is justified.

(Non-spoiler alert: I'm not giving away the ending, though I think it can be easily guessed.)

In the end Jack realizes he can no longer afford to stay at the boarding house, but the answer has been staring them in the face the entire time. Arrangements are made and Jack manages to stay, utilizing his skills to the fullest.

In the same vain as a shaggy dog or campfire story, Babbitt's stories don't really justify Jack's inability to find work so much as link a fanciful hornpipe of nautical tales. It's clear from the start that Jack is a master of avoiding work and his amiable ways are what keeps him in good company, if not fed, housed and clothed. When the landlord suggests "Stories aren't much, of course, but on the other hand, they're not so little, either" it echoes an old expression I've often seen credited to Barry Lopez but heard comes from the old Yiddish saying that "people need stories as much as food." It's that hunger for the spirit that comes alive in the telling, the ability to be transported to another place, see through another's eyes, experience adventure.

There's the odd sense I had while reading these tales, a feeling of displacement. Not quite ghost stories, they have that feel of a collection of supernatural tales that would be better suited for Halloween. Not quite campfire stories, because of their nautical settings, they beg to be told by an old salt on the docks of a fishing village to the kids who congregate there, not the parlor setting of Jamaica in the 1720s. To be as genteel about this as possible: the pirate setting almost feels calculated to ride the recent wave of popularity in all things pirate.

As a collection, the stories vary only slightly in quality from one another, and the exercise as a whole feels about three stories too long (there are eight stories total) and we could argue which three could go. (If anyone who has read the book feels so inclined to list their three least favorites in the comments I'll check in with mine). Overall, a not unpleasant option for teachers and the lovers of tall tales, or as an alternative to usual tales told in October. Just not stellar.

Wednesday, April 18

2 by Gregory Rogers

It seemed impossible to talk about the most recent of Gregory Rogers wordless picture books without talking about the earlier book. Not that the two books can't stand on their own, but they also seem so much a part of one that I'm doing them together.

The Boy, the Bear, the Baron and the Bard
Neal Porter/Roaring Brook 2004 (US)

A Boy in modern England kicks a soccer ball through the window of an abandoned theatre. Once inside to retrieve his ball his attention is diverted by costumes, which he feels compelled to try on. He kicks his ball through the curtain and, going after it, finds himself transported onto the stage in Elizabethan England. The Bard in the wings, furious that his play has been interrupted by this rapscallion, gives chase.

From here out it's a Shakespearean action movie. While hiding out the boy befriends and frees a caged Bear and together they outwit and outrun the Bard, help an imprisoned Baron escape, entertain on a Lady's barge, and in the end go their separate ways. The Bear is set sailing down the Thames in a small punt while the Boy, at the last minute, is transported back through time to the modern day.

Midsummer Night
Neal Porter/Roaring Brook 2007 (US)

Picking up where the previous book left off, Bear is still floating down river, only now he is out of the city and into lush forest. A buzzing bee wakes the slumbering Bear, alerting and leading him to the presence of honey in a nearby tree. Chased by the angry hive Bear discovers a tree with a door in it and, after a cursory knock, barges through to a tunnel in the trunk. Coming out the other side Bear discovers he has been shrunk to the size of nearby mushrooms in a land of fairies.

The Boy appears, this time as a helpful sprite, offering to introduce him to his king. Once at the palace the Bard takes them to the court where he accuses them of some sort of treason. Imprisoned they find themselves in the same cell as the King and Queen (the Baron and the Lady from the previous book) and make a plan to escape. More chasing, some swordplay, and in the end the Bard is arrested for his misdeeds. Bear receives heroic honors from the King and Queen and is led back to his boat by the Boy where he is free to continue floating on.

Expertly paced, both books have true cinematic arcs to their storytelling that make them a joy to follow. That Rogers is using the same cast of main characters to tell these stories make them more like a repertory group putting on their latest production, which is hardly accidental. More only criticism happens in the first book where there is a clunky transition between the two worlds -- almost as if Rogers was unsure the reader would understand what was happening -- that he doesn't use in the second book, which I was happy to see. I think children can make a lot of solid connections in well "explained" pictures and Rogers has what it takes to make those connections visually smooth.

In the introduction to the first book Rogers admits that everything clicked for him the moment he discovered that Shakespeare's plays began at 4 in the afternoon, suggesting a late afternoon reverie. In the the more recent book he speaks to his love of Elizabethan costumes and that love is clear in both books.

In thinking about these books, and in similar books like Polo -- books with panels of action and no dialog, sequential stories -- I'm thinking we may need to consider coming up with a new term if not a new genre. It doesn't seem right to call them graphic novels when they're meant for the picture book crowd, no matter how appropriate the name may be. And to call them picture books seems to imply they aren't different from the traditional word-and-illustration books we understand to be the picture book. One thing is certain, they are a far cry from comic books and a far cry from the uncomplicated pre-reader picture and board books.

I guess if Rogers is keen on continuing with his company of players, the next ought to figure the Baron as the main character with the others in support, then the Bard in the last book. After that I guess we're on our own, which is sad in advance of the fact that there's no proof any further books are even being considered. And while I'm speculating, it would be nice to not only see a day with four books in print but of a single bound edition containing all-in-one.

I think if the world of book publishing is hoping to build a solid graphic novel base then they need to start weening their audience early on. More like this, please.

Tuesday, April 17

Animal Poems

by Valerie Worth
pictures by Steve Jenkins
FSG 2007

Nearly two dozen poems about animals in this lovely collection that showcase the poet's sharp eye for the telling detail and the beauty of poetic brevity. It's so nice to pick up a book of poetry for young readers that doesn't condescend to the notion that young readers need poems that rhyme.


Only compare
Our kitchens
And bedrooms,
Our lamps and
Rugs and chairs,

To the bare
Stone spiral
Of his one

Sparse, evocative, and concrete enough for even younger readers to understand the power of good poetry. In these posthumously published poems Worth isn't afraid to make the experience personal, in this case concerning Cockroaches:

One that I can't
In the least abide
Is the cockroach: not
So much that it

And Bristles, and glues
Its slippery eggs in
The cracks of books, but
That it looks so clever:
As though it knows
My particular horror...

Jenkin's illustrations, in his usual torn and cut paper collages, seem almost sterile alongside the text. Not to take away from the artistry of what he does, but the mere portraits of the featured animals convey none of their spirit or expressive characteristics. It's a beautiful book, but sad when the words have to carry all the weight.

Monday, April 16

Grimmoire 29: The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs

This one is so choc-a-block with stuff I'm almost at a loss for where to begin.

We start well enough in familiar Grimm territory with a king whose superstitious of omens and a separate prophecy to a family that their son who was born with a caul will marry the king's daughter by the age of fourteen. The king, traveling through the village in disguise (because most people in the villages never saw their kings up close back then anyway) hears about the caul and the prophecy and becomes determined to prevent the prophecy from happening.

Silly king, do you not know the story of Oedipus?

Clearly he doesn't because he offers the boy's parents a metric tonne of geld for the boy, promising him the care they couldn't possibly give him due to their poverty. Typical politician, always throwing money at the problems of the poor rather than examining the root cause. Anyway, he gets the boy, lays him in a small box and sends him down the river in the box not realizing it was like sending off lifeboat number six from the Titanic. Downstream the box coasts to the collection pool of a mill where a man thinks he's found riches. Nope, only a child, but Mr and Mrs. Miller don't have a child so the man gives it to them as a gift, for which they are grateful. From there the Millers raise the boy good and honest and virtuous.

Fourteen years later and the king is off on business but caught in a thunderstorm he takes shelter with the Millers. My, what a fine boy you have, the king notes. Yup, say the Millers, floated down the river right into our hearts about fourteen years ago. The king puts 2 and 2 together and realizes this was his doing. Thinking quickly the king pulls a trick he learned from Hamlet and sends the boy back to the castle with a message to the queen that says "have this boy killed before I return home."

But it's still tunderstorming and the boy is making bad time so he stops at a cottage and asks if he can stay the night. I want to pause for a moment to consider this point because it appears a bit in these older stories and it brings up an interesting idea about what life used to be like. Imagine, it's raining, or you're lost, and you see a house and you approach and ask if you can spend the night. People always have their reasons for acting put-out by the intrusion (unless they're magical trolls) but in the end their reasons are never enough to prevent them from performing acts of pure kindness. Could you imagine trying to pull something like that today? How small a community do you think you'd have to find before you'd stumble onto that kind of kindness today?

So, anyway, the woman in the cottage tells the boy that he's made a bad call because the cottage belongs to some robbers who will, when they come home, quick-as-winking chop him into beefsteak tartar. He doesn't care, he's tired, and he'll take his chances. He falls asleep on the bench and it's a deep sleep because he never hears the robbers come home, doesn't hear the conversation they have with the old woman. The robbers open the king's letter, see what it says, tear it up, and write a new letter informing the queen that she is to marry the boy to their daughter.

Okay, in case anyone was worried about my Oedipus reference at the beginning, no, he doesn't end up marrying his mother, nor does anyone pull their eyes out. The king will get his, but not just yet. Some riddles to solve, but no Sphinx, and they're not as fun.

The queen marries off her daughter to the boy and the king comes home, stunned and horrified. In order to remain married to the princess the king orders the boy to go to hell (literally) and fetch three golden hairs off the head of the devil (Hmmm, a lot of hair in these stories). No sweat, says the boy, and off he goes. What's that sound, like a generator on high? Oh, it's Homer spinning in his grave.

The road to hell may or may not be paved, but there are at least three checkpoints along the way. Because three, it's a magic number. First stop is a gated city where the gatekeeper asks the boy his trade and what he knows. "I know everything," the boy says, as only a fourteen year old could say with any sort of conviction. The gatekeeper mentions that the fountain in town used to flow endlessly with wine but now it's all dried up, why is that boy-who-knows-everything? "I'll tell you on my way back," the boy says, using the oldest bluff in the book. And so he gets a pass.

Second city, same situation, only the problem here is the city's magic tree that bears golden fruit. The boy plies the same bluff and presses on. The third stop isn't a city, but a river, with a boatman. The boatman wants to know why he has to spend the rest of eternity ferrying people back and forth across the river which, standing between the boy and the devil makes it the River Styx, or Sanzu, or maybe the Rasa. The boy promises and answer on his return and is ferried.

Reaching the gate of hell we get a description of it being dark and sooty and the devil's not home. But his grandmother's home.

Yes, the devil has a grandmother. Doesn't that just totally tear apart any other concept of who and what the devil is or where he came from? I mean, this just makes the gyroscope in my head go off kilter a bit.

The boy explains his story to the devil's grandmother and she turns him into an ant, to hide in the fold of her clothes, while she helps extract the hairs and answer the riddles. Now, see, the devil's grandmother isn't so bad, she actually wants to help the boy! So the devil comes home and he's basically a giant with a bad temper. He goes all "fee fi fo fum" because he smells a human and his grossemuti says I just cleaned this place and you're tearing it up! You're always smelling humans... just a total grouch.

Soon the devil fall asleep with his head in her lap and she yanks a hair from his hair. When he wakes she says it was dream that caused her to pull his hair, something about a dried up fountain. The devil explains that he's got a toad under a stone in the fountain blocking the flow. Again he falls asleep, and she tugs, this time she says she dreamt of a tree that stopped growing apples. The devil chortles and says, yes, there's a mouse at the root of the tree that will kill the tree if it isn't removed soon. One more time, one more hair, and this time the dream is about the boatman. The devil explains that all the boatman has to do is hand off his pole into some unsuspecting traveler's hand and he's free of his servitude. Three hairs, three mysteries solved, the devil's witchy grandmother returns the boy to his non-ant form and sends him back home.

He relates what he has learned to the boatman (after crossing back!) and the gatekeepers, thus keeping his word, and for his troubles is given four donkey loads of gold (which are big ass loads) to bring home with him. In the boy's triumphant return the king finally gives up, but he's curious to know where the gold came from because, as we have learned, the opposite of a kind king is a greedy one. The boy tells him the gold is lying on the shores across the river leading to hell. Too good to be true, the king sets off to claim all the goad he can eat, but when he reaches the river the boatman hands off his pole to the king and runs free.

"Is he still ferrying?"
"Why, of course. Do you think someone's about to take the pole away from him?"

See, I promised you the king wouldn't die, but he got his nonetheless.

Sunday, April 15

Grimmoire 28: The Singing Bone

Beware! Wild boar!

Yes, there's a wild boar menacing the people of the kingdom and whomever can catch or kill the dang thing will win the king's daughter for marriage.

The king's daughter, that would make her a princess, right? So in all these stories where you either have a princess in need of rescuing, or a princess as a prize, the notion that there is no greater hope for a girl than to be a princess must be fairly depressing for those girls in their little cottages hearing these stories. But to have no choice, to be married off to the first person that can kill a menacing boar, that must really chap their hides a bit. While I'm off on this tangent may I say that I think I'd like to see one of these stories where the prize of a princess is offered and a noblewoman goes off hunting and comes back to claim her reward. There had to be plucky lesbians in those days who wouldn't have minded a princess all their own. Let's have that story for once and lets see what sort of questions come up when we tell our little girls that version.

Meanwhile, back in the Grimmoire, a pair of brothers born to a poor man have taken it upon themselves to capture this deadly boar. The older brother is called cunning and claims to be doing it for pride. The younger brother is an innocent, off to kill the boar out of the goodness of his heart. Hmm, which brother seems most likely to win the girl in a Grimm story? All that's really up in the air is exactly how it's going to happen.

Like this: the younger brother befriends a dwarf in the forest who gives him a spear owing to the goodness of the boy's heart. The younger brother kills the boar and is on his way to claim his reward when he runs into his brother carousing in a bar. After hearing of his brother's accomplishment, and just to prove how cunning he is, he convinces to help his younger brother back to the castle. Yeah, help him by knocking him dead from behind, dumping him over the side of a bridge where and burying him in a shallow grave. Now that's what I call cunning!

Older brother returns with the boar, gets the girl, and when asked about the whereabouts of his brother says "I guess the boar got him before I got the boar." The end.

No, wait! Many years pass and one day while a shepherd is driving his flock across the bridge he sees a bit of bone. His first thought is "My, that would make a good mouthpiece for my horn!" and so he takes the bone and carved it into a mouthpiece. His first attempt to blow some joyful noise breathes life into the bone, which recounts the tale of his horrible brother's deed. Startled by a magic horn, the shepherd takes it to the king, where it puts on a command performance. The king has the ground under the bridge dug up, finds the bones, and confronts his win-at-all-costs so-called-cunning son-in-law who does not deny what he did. The king has the older brother sewn into a sack and drowned while the bones of the younger brother are interned in the churchyard. The princess has no husband, the poor man lost two sons, the boar was killed, the only person who came out on top was the king. Oh, and that shepherd, who gave up tending his flock and now has his own touring show where he and the bone horn pack them in five nights a week with a matinee on Saturday.

(Okay, I made up that last part).

As a cautionary tale, this one almost goes the distance for me. I think the king should have been filled with some sort of remorse over marrying his daughter off to a killer, or at least had something more than a boar be the public nuisance. I guess from the old mythology dragons were downgraded to boars, but that aspect of the story is just a device to get into the brothers and the idea that justice prevails. It would obviously be a while before DNA testing would replace singing bones but the idea is the same, that somewhere along the way a bad deed reveals itself no matter how carefully tended the crime. The idea was (and is, I thought) to present deterrents to those who think themselves so smart they think they can get away with murder.

I'd still like to see at least one story where the princess has to marry a girl.

Saturday, April 14


by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin 2007

What a disappointment.

A bored, lonely boy attempts to amuse himself one rainy day when he discovers a key under the furniture. Trying all the locked places he can think of he eventually finds its mate is a trunk that contains a ladder that leads underground. Following the underground tunnel he emerges on an island containing a lighthouse and a group of children and sunshine. They play together, eat together, and let the boy take a turn lighting the beacon. At the end of the day he takes his leave and returns to his dull home life.

At night he can't shake the image of the day's events and the next morning he ventures back into the tunnel only to be met by the children from the island who dared to venture to visit him. They return to his home and in the end happily play in his room.

There is a very weird class thing going on here that makes me uncomfortable. The boy is shown eating alone at one point in front of a formally set table, servants at the ready, dressed in a tie and a little boy suit. He may be the classic boy trapped in the tower of luxury but in the end he doesn't escape, he merely invites he new (and always shoeless) playmates into his home. That the boy is white and the playmates are represented by minorities doesn't help.

The question is, if the tunnel has always been there, if these children have always had a way to escape the island, why didn't they find the boy first? Could these be the children of the servants? When you get a wordless picture book you get to make the story up yourself, but you must use the clues available to you. So what is it Lehman wants us to read into all this?

Where Lehman previously gave us the parallel universe of The Red Book it all it's wordless glory, and the Museum Trip gave is a magical daydream, Rainstorm gives us a rather dull tale of privileged boredom and no mystery or fantasy whatsoever.

I'm not just hard on the book in comparison to Lehman's other books; it's difficult to not set this up alongside recent wordless picture books that are more clever (Adventures of Polo) or more detailed in their fantasy (most David Weisner books, especially Flotsom). Fantasy and escape don't need concrete explanations, but the questions they raise should invite equally fanciful interpretation. There isn't a lot to hang onto here, much less interpret, beyond the little dot of a moon in the night sky that actually belongs to the beacon and is as easily missed as it can be ignored.

It also isn't a question of the fantasy, the pacing of the book feels labored and pointless. Easily a third of the pictures could be removed and the story would retain its integrity. But a book with one third fewer illustrations would be very thin, and the story's shortcomings would be readily apparent.

The exercise feels as distant, closed off and cold, sheltered and empty

Grimmoire 26: Little Red Cap

I'm starting to get deja vu. Not the pleasant kind of dejavu where I go Yeah, I remember this but the kind where I'm beginning to feel that story elements take on a mix-n-match approach. Take one girl, put her in a forest, have her meet a wolf...

Yes, this is Little Red Riding Hood. How she got her nickname is going to sound familiar to any parent: she loved her little hooded cape so much she'd wear it as often as she could. Boys get their lucky shirts and socks and whatnot that are essential for sports, girls like that one pair of jeans that they'll share with their friends four summers running, Red likes her hoodie.

No real revelations in the story itself this time, this chestnut's as old as they come. Innocent Red goes to granny's and the crafty wolf eats her just as he's already eaten her feeble old granny. The huntsman comes along, hears "granny" sleeping off her food coma, discovers it's the wolf and, well now, wait a minute. While the wolf sleeps he cuts open his belly and removes both granny and Red without waking him? He swallowed them whole? Then they fill his belly with heavy rocks and sew him back up? And he wakes up, goes into shock and dies then?

Sounds a bit like those urban legends about people who wake up in their bathtubs with a note and a cell phone telling them they have half an hour to call 911 because their kidneys have been kidnapped. I know I've read this about the belly being refilled with rocks before and it strikes me as both cruel and unusual punishment. What is the logic or reasoning behind not just killing the animal up front and releasing the prisoners within, why go through all that just to let the animal die with the shock and recognition? It isn't like they need to interrogate the wolf for information vital to national security (thus justifying their torture).

Interestingly, the story doesn't end there. The Grimm's continue with "There is also another tale..." where Red is on her way to granny's again, but this time she is all the wiser. She sees the wolf and races ahead to warn granny. This other wolf, older and craftier, waits on the roof of granny's house to pounce on the occupants when they come out. Granny suggests Red take the water that the evening's sausages were cooked in and dump it in the water trough outside. Unable to resist the smell the wolf edges toward the roof, slips and falls into the trough where he breaks his neck and dies. It's a pretty lame coda, and no wonder that version isn't generally known.

The one little detail that I like in all of this is that whenever granny is sick her daughter sends Red to visit with some cake and wine as medicine. I have long thought that sometimes the best way to cure a sick body was to shock the immune system into reacting. Everything we do -- drink plenty of fluids to hydrate and flush the system, alternately feed and starve the fever, vitamins and medicines -- all seems like closing the barn door after the fact. If a person has the stomach for it, why not a nice rich cake and some vino. It's medicinal properties can be argued, but making the sick person comfortable with food can't hurt the psyche. I'm not going to change any science with this thinking, but I honestly don't think it could hurt to try.

Friday, April 13

Rootabaga Stories

by Carl Sandburg
illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham
Harcourt 1922

Poet Sandburg was called to create these stories to amuse his own children, and in doing so gave birth to a kind of American fairy tale centered on the ways and manners of the prairie folk at the early part of the 20th Century.

The stories are set in Rootabaga Country, a place at the edge of the grasslands far from the city where the railroad tracks zigzag and villages float with the wind. Real life hardscrabble folk with names like Rags Habakuk and Blixie Bimber run up against talking blue foxes and mystical corn fairies, and inanimate objects like skyscrapers beget railroad trains as offspring. Sandburg the egalitarian gives a beggar like Potato Face Blind Man the same wisdom and dignity as he gives Fire the Goat who knows the secrets of the shadows that walk along the horizon during a sunrise. Throughout, the poet's ear for country vernacular is infused with choice invented words of his own that beg to be read aloud to children who will understand them as they do "adult" words they have never heard before, simply through context.

What is immediately striking about these stories is how much resonance they hold with Baum's Oz books. But where Baum removed his wholesome heroine from her American soil for a land only reached by balloon or tornado, Sandburg offers us a place just off the edge of the map that one can purchase a ticket for... after first selling off all your worldly goods. And the wiggly line-drawn illustrations by the Petershams convey both the era and a sense of whimsy. Baum and Sandburg's tales are cut from the same country cloth and it's a shame that Sandburg's tales seem to have not garnered an equal popularity.

Rooted in the heartland of America they speak with a folksy cadence, centering on the daily events of life or dwelling in a mythical world as imagined by a farm hand two or three generations removed from city life. Innocence walks arm-in-arm with wisdom as youngsters explain the world to their adult uncles and the blind man pities those who have sight but cannot (or will not) see.

The fantastic is celebrated in these tales much the same as they are in Lewis Carroll's works and with equal success. Composed for children, they retain the same appeal in their nonsense while giving children an alternate view of the world that is no less real than the one they confront on a daily basis. I only wish I'd come across these stories when I was younger.

Thursday, April 12

Vonnegut's Vonnegut

Regular blogging will continue tomorrow.

My Vonnegut

It occurred to me at some point in the last year that I should be thinking about writing a personal obituary for Kurt Vonnegut. It wasn't that I thought his passing was inevitable, I merely wanted to be prepared because I knew the moment I heard the news I probably wouldn't be able to articulate my ideas and feelings. I kept putting it off, occasionally convincing myself that it was ghoulish to believe the man didn't have more years in him, that I still had plenty of time.

Looks like I missed the deadline.

It started in my garage. In my early teens the garage became one of those in-house sanctuaries for exploration and time alone. It was there that I discovered boxes of private things my dad owned. This didn't initially strike me as odd as my parents clearly held different personal and political views and to prevent discord they defaulted to abstinence. Politics were not discussed because they supported different parties. We owned more music than books but because they had different tastes (mom dug Motown, dad was a country-folkie) it was never played. Apparently there were books belonging to my dad that didn't belong with what few books we owned in the one bookcase in the living room.

It wasn't personal taste that caused the segregation of those books, but the dangerousness of their subject matter -- Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) by Dr. David Reuben and Welcome To the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It might have seemed rational with my hormones raging that I would have gravitated to the book about sex but a quick glance at its contents scared me. The book made repeated references to the sexual practices and activities of men and women, and to my teenage mind that meant adults, which included my parents, and I didn't want any unsavory mental pictures. That left me the Vonnegut to puzzle out, which I did over the course of a month's worth of bathroom visits. The bathroom was my other sanctuary and allowed me to read the book in secret. My parents probably thought I was masturbating.

The advantage of a short story collection is that you get a sampling of an author's voice and talents. While there were stories that I appreciated -- "Harrison Bergeron", "D.P." and "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" -- I wasn't quite satisfied. I felt like there was something more, something I wasn't really getting. It was time to go to the library.

This Vonnegut person had a good smattering of books on the shelves, the most promising of which was Cat's Cradle. I pulled it down and found a nook at the edge of the adult reading room and began reading. The chapters were short, like an early chapter book, but the story was told in an almost glib voice, staccato phrasing and disjointed. I didn't get it, mostly because I was unfamiliar with the style. I put the book back and gave up on Vonnegut.

A month later in a casual conversation with a classmate named Po I found another person who'd heard of Vonnegut. No, she hadn't just heard of him, she was practically an apostle. Her older brother had hipped her to his books and she was fan enough to recount all their plots in great detail. What she told me not only rekindled my interest but was exactly the confirmation I needed to know going in: "He's a cynical bastard, Elz, you'll like him." I think that's what she said. She might have actually said "you're like him."

As luck would have it in these situations Vonnegut had a new book out called Breakfast of Champions. I had no idea what I was in for but I was determined to figure out what this Vonnegut person was all about. There were raised eyes from the ladies at the check-out counter of my library but nothing more. I had planned to wait until I got home to start reading but curiosity got the better of me. And there I was, standing in the middle of the sidewalk reading the words and looking at the pictures (pictures! juvenile scrawl in the author's own hand!) thinking: I can't believe they would publish this.

In his own way, Vonnegut casually begins his book on matters that seem tangential to the story, or offered up as background. What he's actually doing is setting up his leitmotifs and his riffs, a verbal overture if you will meant to fool you into thinking that the story's coming, soon, sooner, just wait. In Breakfast of Champions there is talk of stories being published in nudie magazines, wedged between beaver shots, and for those who might be confused he offers his own drawings of what those photos would look like followed by a drawing of the animal it is compared with. I might not have been ready to deal with the realities of sex, but this I could understand!

And then a funny thing happened: I started liking books again, started liking reading. Over the course of seven years of formal education I had slowly had the joy of reading drained and beaten out of me. The initial flush of excitement that comes from being able to read for yourself had slowly been choked by endless worksheets full of directions, SRA booklets and Ginn & Co. readers with serviceable, workman-like stories designed for comprehension questions. The encouragement to read was still there, the library talks and the individual recommendations from teachers, but the joy had been deadened. By seventh grade the materials we were being introduced to had importance and carried weight as classics (or at the very least culturally significant) but there was little fun to be extracted from the exercise of reading, much less from the subject matter.

Vonnegut gave me hope. There were adults in the world writing books that were as outrageous as the British comedy that was being exported to PBS, full of the absurdities of mankind told with a dry acerbic wit. I got it, enough to send me back to Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. It sent me to the drama section for a script of a PBS television adaptation of his stories called Between Time and Timbuktu. I reread the short stories with a new eye. By the time I was in eighth grade and had to write a book report/personal narrative in long-form (over 12 pages) I not only wrote in my version of Vonnegut's style, I made him a character in the report. I used to say Vonnegut taught me how to write but that's not true; Vonnegut gave me permission to borrow his voice until I could find my own, and he gave me a few hints about where to find it as well.

Vonnegut's name attached to a review in either Newsweek or Time made mention of Joseph Heller and Philip Roth. I read Catch-22 and Portnoy's Complaint as a result. Comparisons to Twain were made, but as much as I appreciate Twain's wit I never cared for the style. Understanding this didn't make it easier for me to find the kinds of voices I was looking for in literature but it did lead me down some unusual paths. I was too impatient to actually learn the finer points of craft in my own writing -- I would race to tell a story but skimp on details, butchered spelling, sucked at editing for clarity -- but I didn't let piddling details stop me. Another friend once referred to some poetry I attempted as Ginsburg-esque, an insult at the time because I wanted to be forward-looking, not beatnik. When it came time to head off to college I brought along two treasured authors: Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski.

Perfect for art school.

I suppose the death watch on Vonnegut officially begins in the mid-1980's. In the same year he published his last great book (in my opinion) Galapagos and attempted suicide. There was, in the back of my mind, a hope that one day I might be able to meet the man, that I would be in a place where we would both have something to talk about to each other. More than fanboy idolatry and perhaps something close to peer. Or master and student. But if my onset of puberty happened on-time my creative maturity has taken somewhat longer and the thought of ever being even a fledgling desciple long past. A

t a certain point when my beloved creatives began to shuffle off this mortal coil I realized my time with each of them was precious and limited. In the ever-present question of whom I would invite to a fantasy dinner for conversation the list of possible names on the roster keeps getting shorter. Up until yesterday Vonnegut's name was at the head of the table. Robert Altman was at that table until last year. Something tells me J.D. Salinger is going to bow out before I can send the invitation.

In the end I figured Vonnegut would play the wise old cuss until the very end. For all his doom and gloom he held in his heart a place for the redemption of humanity, no matter how much he argued for the other side. That is until recently. The election and re-election of George Bush and the policies and actions of the Bush administration finally broke his resolve. Here is a man who, as a US Infantryman, survived the fire bombing of Dresden in World War II and witnessed all of human history for the second half of the 20th century and could still find glimmers of hope that we weren't headed for self-destruction as a species. But for the last six years he has had that hope whittled away until finally, in his essays for In These Times (later collected in Man Without a Country) he had concluded there was no longer any reason to hold out hope.

In short, George W. Bush killed Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut had anticipated dying from his addiction to cigarettes. He considered it an elegant form of suicide. Even twenty years after his official suicide attempt he was still going strong, still smoking, still unable to kill himself. Much like his faith in humans to not blow themselves into smithereens, that optimism that informed his cynicism kept him alive. Like many of us, we want to know how the movie is really going to turn out. The minute he began to feel all was lost was when he began to give up. I know he died from brain injuries suffered after a fall in his home, but somewhere in that brain the switch to fight for survival had been flipped to the off position.

In time, as with all writers, all that remains is the voice. For those who have left us many years ago the sting of that loss is dulled, if present at all. Those born today will not miss Vonnegut the person for lack of the intangible sense of having walked the Earth at the same time he did. Somehow, being alive at the time of a writer gives their voice a certain meaning, a sense of something shared. In the end the voice still carries on, in books, in recordings, in memories of speeches given. The voice is time-stamped, dated. He has said all he will ever say.
“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music." —Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a County
Good-bye, Blue Monday.

Wednesday, April 11

Grimmoire 23: The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage

What's not to like about animals and inanimate objects setting up house together?

This is one of those stories where the members of the house trade jobs and find they never really appreciated what the others did. Only instead of a farmer and his wife (as in Wanda Gag's Gone is Gone, among others) we have a Mouse, a Bird and a Sausage. Bird's job was to bring back wood for the fire, Mouse ported water back to their home and Sausage did the cooking.

Only the logic of a fairy tale would allow a sausage to slide through the stew just before mealtime to make sure everything was salted and seasoned. And exactly how long could a sausage be called on to flavor a meal before it was little more than flavorless meat in a casing?

After a trade of duties Sausage goes off to fetch firewood but is eating by a passing dog. When Sausage doesn't return from his chore Bird fetches the firewood, found out the dog ate her housemate, and flew back to tell Mouse. Distressed the attempt to carry on, Mouse tending the cooking. Just before serving Mouse slips into the pot to season the meal but never slips out, having become one with the stew. Bird didn't see this, and distracted at having lost two friends, inadvertently sets the house on fire. Going to fetch water Bird is dragged down the well with the bucket and drowns.

There's your cheery bedtime story, kiddies. Now sleep tight.

Grimmoire 21: Cinderella

Most decidedly not the Disney version.

No fairy godmother.
No pumpkins, no coaches, no mice.
The ball was a three-night gala.
No clock chiming at midnight.

The glass slipper was made of gold.
Cinderella's step-sisters each cut off parts of their feet in order to fit the slipper.

All these things that just get left behind in all the retellings, all this wonderful and weird and rich detail!

I cannot tell you how many times a week I see girls go straight to the princess books, many of them are under the age of five, all of them able to name the Disney princesses on sight. I think there ought to be a law that says you cannot buy young girls any books about princesses until after you've read the source material to them. Aloud. Fully explained.

Yes, tell them that when her rich father went on a trip that his stepdaughters requested he bring them back pearls and dresses but that Cinderella requested only a twig from a far-away tree that she would plant on her dead mother's grave where it will grow into a tree (explain how roots work, dearies) and how the tree grew and housed a bird that granted her wishes and prayers.

Read these small girls the story and point out that her father is rich -- she didn't need to dress in rags -- and that her self-sacrifices and obedience to her stepmother and stepsisters are what gave her strength of character. Remind them of these traits when these little princesses throw tantrums because their mothers will only buy them one or two princess books and not all of them. Point out that Cinderella only became a princess after a lengthy indentured servitude with a cruel stepmother who would make her pick out lentils thrown into the ashes of the fireplace. Maybe suggest that if these little princesses would like some more princess books they could volunteer to pick out a bowl of lentils themselves so that they know what it means to become a princess.

And here's a nice detail: In order to prevent Cinderella from running away after the third night of the gala festivities he has his servants coat the stairs with tar. This is how she loses her gold (not glass) slipper. Be sure to pause thoughtfully when relating the part about the stepsisters chopping off parts of their feet to fit the slipper they know isn't theirs. And for their wickedness and malice these stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by pigeons before and after the wedding ceremony.

Underscoring the ghastly behavior of the stepsisters equal to the story of Cinderella herself. Cinderella cannot be who she is (or becomes) without the adversity presented to her, and it is her reward, her cosmic justice if you will, that she not only gets the prince but that her sisters are deformed and mutilated for their actions without her wishing it upon them. These are not small lessons and if all a girl knows is that Cinder's stepsisters were ugly brats then there is little to learn from the tale other than "in the end she gets to wear pretty clothes all the time and dance" as one little girl I heard summarized it.

Yeah, that's what that story is all about.

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

by Lauren Tarshis
Dial 2007

There's a crackling funkiness to this book that hooked me early on, the hissing anticipation of a very long fuse on an unseen firecracker. You watch and wait for that fuse to reach its powder keg and at the last minute it just stops.

From that you might assume that I was disappointed or that I didn't like this book. Generally that would be a correct assumption. Here though, the longer this book sits with me the more I'm beginning to believe that it very nearly achieved that difficult balance between a perfect anti-climax and a missing last chapter.

Emma-Jean is the deliberate, deceptively simple seventh grader who views life with the cool detachment of a scientist. She inherited her mannerisms either genetically or behaviorally from her father, a math professor, who has been dead a few years now. From her rational viewpoint everything can be studied and puzzled out, all problems have a logical solution.

In the bathroom a girl she is acquainted with named Colleen (she has no friends by her own admission, and none the worse for it either) is having a panic attack because her best friend Kaitlin uninvited her to a weekend ski trip to invite the queen bee Laura along instead. Emma-Jean takes in the information and the casual challenge that Colleen utters when she wishes something could be done about the situation. Emma-Jean sets about to lure Laura away from the trip so that Colleen can be re-invited. The plan is to create an official-looking document from the school inviting Laura to perform at a special ceremony for the basketball team, appealing to Laura's pride and vanity. By the time Laura figures out it was a prank the other girls are already well on their way and Laura is out for blood.

In her own subtle way Emma-Jean finds herself fond of one of these basketball players, a boy named Will, who one day she hears being slandered by a spiteful teacher. In no time she is on the case, solving the mystery behind this teacher's rage and setting about to help clear Will as well. At home, Emma-Jean and her mother have taken in a housemate named Vikram, another scientist, who may or may not have affection for Emma-Jean's mom. This idea comes to her later after she has set about finding Vikram a suitable mate in the form of her very understanding English teacher at school.

Emma-Jean's problem solving begins to turn when Laura deduces who was behind the prank and threatens to get both Emma-Jean and Colleen in trouble. The stress of having to face the wrath of Laura makes Colleen physically ill and, in an attempt to help, Emma-Jean has an accident that explains the book's title.

This is where things get dicey, as all the story elements begin to come together it is obvious that things will get cleared up and everyone will be happy. Except for Laura, who gets a good dose of Colleen's newly acquired self-confidence and is turned down at the school dance by Will. Emma-Jean does not get in trouble, Will is suddenly no longer the brunt of his teacher's anger, Vikram may or may not be the replacement for her late father, and the janitor who knows some of Emma-Jean's secrets and is himself one of her protectors lets her know that he is about to retire.

Badly handled, all of this would play a little too pat, but it doesn't make for a truly satisfying ending when all along you're waiting for things to blow. It isn't until Emma-Jean has her accident, and Colleen is dragged to her minister for a little confessional time, that I sensed things might be as satisfying as I'd hoped. After a short pep-talk, Colleen is finally able to move forward with confidence and that bothers me. Though it's Emma-Jean's story -- and she does get a little lesson in when not to meddle in others lives and how to accept the fact that she's a little distant -- it's Colleen who must make the greatest growth and (here's the problem) it doesn't come from within. Yes, she is helped to understand the idea of not being perfect, and that weakness is what being human is partly about, but to have her sudden strength given to her is a little too much like the Cowardly Lion's courage. We know it always had to be there, deep inside, but if it doesn't come out naturally then it isn't really a change of character, it's a device of plot.

I do think that Tarshis manages to capture a unique personality type in Emma-Jean, the "special" girl with the analytical abilities far beyond her emotions. The hints at a growing self-awareness within Emma-Jean would make for a fascinating character study once she's off to college, but for this book it's more quirk than anything. For seventh grade girls who deal heavily with the queen bee/wannabe social dichotomy the idea of a world outside the clique will seem foreign and weird. I don't imagine this book is for any of them but for those who may be on the cusp of having to decide whether they are in, out or beyond.

I think more than a few sixth grade boys could benefit from this story as well.

Tuesday, April 10

Grimmoire 19: The Fisherman and His Wife

Another classic tale, another Grimm story first introduced to me via the magic of the "Fractured Fairy Tales" feature on the Rocky and Bullwinkle program.

I'm sure the memory I have of it being three wishes instead of the six demands the wife makes comes from that cartoon's warped telescoping of the story, but the odd little message at the end of the Grimm version gives pause.

To recap: Fisherman finds an enchanted flounder who once was a prince in the sea. Or was he a talking flounder who was once an enchanted prince? Either way, he's a flounder, a prince, he talks, and he's enchanted. Makes me wonder about his backstory, but maybe we'll get to that tale in time. Fisherman sets the flounder free then tells his wife who upbraids him for not knowing the rules of Fairytale Land and insists he go back and demand his reward. Oh, and in case we weren't clued in that she married a dullard, wifey tells him what to ask for: a better cottage to live in. He does, and he does, returns home to find the wish granted, but it's not enough. Now she wants a castle so the fisherman returns and makes another request on behalf of his wife, and then another. After the castle she wants to be king (Not queen? Hmmm.), and after she's queen she wants to be emperor (really?) and then she wants to be pope (Pope Joan, perhaps?) finally to be like a god.

Like a god. Not god, but an incredible simulation.

This is not insignificant, because what the flounder says in the end is Go back home. She's sitting in your hovel again. For a woman who wasn't satisfied with fine homes and refined titles she got a little lesson in happiness; she and her fisherman husband aren't punished though they may believe they have been. The flounder has shown them the way of the Buddha, to live simply and humbly and not want beyond their needs. That the story is about a fisherman carries its own religious symbology and that he asks for nothing himself underscores that because the wife demanded the granting of wishes that she was in need of the lesson, which the wise, enchanted prince of a flounder was more than willing to provide.

I must confess, one of the things that comes to mind with this story is the Hope-Crosby vehicle The Road to Utopia. There's a scene where the boys are ice fishing and Bing keeps pulling out fish after fish while Bob gets nothing. After Bing leaves Bob looks down and there's a fish looking up out of the hole. Fish: Hey, where'd your buddy go? Bob: Oh, he just took off with Dorothy. Fish: Well, tell him number sixteen was here. Bob double-takes. The fish slips away. I love just love talking animals, they always seem to be smarter than humans, even when they seem to be throwing their own lives away in the process. At least in this Grimm tale the fish stays a fish and lives.

Monday, April 9

Life As We Knew It

by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt 2006

What could be more benign than the moon, cycling through the night sky, orbiting Earth and inspiring song and romance.

Bringing with it the end of life as we know it.

Miranda's journal entries quickly bring us up to speed. Her parents are separated, her father's remarried and his new young wife is newly pregnant. Her older brother is finishing up his first year at college and her younger brother thinks of nothing but baseball. Among Miranda's close friends she counts a girl enamored with her Born Again minister. Another friend died in an accident last year. Due to an injury Miranda has had to give up ice skating for swimming but she still follows the rise of a local boy on his way toward the Olympics.

Then there's all this talk -- excited talk -- about an asteroid on a collision course with the moon. The scientists have made their calculations and deemed the event historic but safe. The face of the moon has shown a history of asteroid damage and this current event promises to be spectacular, viewable with binoculars if not with the naked eye.

Miscalculation. The density of the asteroid was greater than anticipated. The moon is knocked from its orbit, closer to the Earth. Tides erupt into tsunamis all over the world. Earthquakes. Volcanoes awaken. The shoreline of every continent is swallowed. News vanishes from coastal radio and television networks. The moon sits uncomfortably close to the horizon.

Panic sets in. Miranda's mom has preservation instincts enough to grab as much cash as she can and go shopping for perishables. Miranda, her younger brother Jonny and their close family friend Mrs. Nesbit all help stockpile goods for the pantry. Miranda feels it's all a bit much, but then everyone is doing it so maybe her mom knows what she's doing. Families start to leave town, kids stop going to school. News comes in spurts from landlocked cities: rolls of the dead are read. The electricity begins to falter. The sky is covered in volcanic ash, the temperature rises, then falls sharply. How long with the heating oil and gas last? What kind of a winter is coming?

How long will Miranda and her family last?

As a member of Gen X (or the tail end of the Boomers, depending on where you set your marker) I'm one of those who have never had to learn first hand what bad times could be like. We've suffered depressions, but not like in the 20's and 30's. We've seen wars, and war protests, but it never really challenged our daily lives the way World War II brought on rationing and home front sacrifice. The Holocaust is something in history books, not living memory. I've seen my fair share of earthquakes (1971 and 1989), watched the hurricanes and tornadoes on the news, read about famine and disaster the world over. But the members of The Greatest Generation have done their job a little too well by cocooning the rest of us from the realities they vowed never to suffer again. We have not, as sheltered Americans, as world citizens en masse, had the personal experience of knowing what we would do when pressed to our limits.

Which is why some of us like reading about Earth shattering events that provoke those corners of our brains to ask "What would I do in that situation?" I couldn't make a steady diet of books and movies like that, like Life As We Knew It, but I could consume my fair share. I think many teens do, and for similar reasons -- because we want to compare our own emotions and reactions with those of the characters. We want to be right, and where we're wrong we want to know how and why. The book, movie or play become personal, we judge the characters and evaluate the situations and run a parallel narrative in our heads. Yes, hoard as much as you can, share with no one, and think about what you do when people get desperate. Can you second guess the medical concerns, the biological variables, the emotional trauma? When the food runs scarce who eats less, who eats more and who gives up all together?

I think Pfeffer has put together a great little story here, one that opens itself naturally to questions of morals and values. That alone probably prohibits it from use in the classroom (because morals and values aren't measured on standardized tests) but it shouldn't prevent whole-hearted recommendations to teens. I have a few questions and items I wish were addressed in the book -- political information, how the governments survived and some of the social mechanics of community, particularly after the first winter -- but perhaps that means I can look forward to a sequel. Honestly, there probably isn't any way to include the political in a journal reporting on a closed system like a single family's survival, still one can always hope.

Hope. Yeah, that's in there as well. The hope that Miranda can one day go to the prom, that the worst is over and that, with some adjustment, life as she once knew it will one day return.