Thursday, May 31

Memo to Acquisitions Re: Superhero Fiction

Stop. Immediately.

Hollywood may be awash in all sorts of superheros, spies and pirates but attempting to ride their gravy train in publishing has been a huge mistake. And from the looks of the titles in my review stack there are many editors who just don't get it, especially with the superhero stuff.

I am referring to stories about the boy (always a boy) whose powers are lesser, or non-existent, yet another underdog defeating the cardboard adult villain who has never been successfully felled by other adult superheroes. Or those series where the superhero is a sidekick who tells us flat out that were it not for his (always his) intervention the main hero would not have triumphed in the end.

While we're at it, why do these books always tell us how they will end in advance? Are you afraid that the reader will abandon the book unless they know up front how it will end? And once they know, what on earth could be the reason for wanting to actually continue?

No, they are not humorous. No matter how many references to butts or flatulence or belching or body odor. The witty repartee is more hackneyed than the worst Hollywood movie, far from being clever or witty, farther still from being humorous. Dav Pilkey "got away with it" because he was performing a meta parody on the superhero, comics and gross-out prankster boy genres. Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series is clever despite it's potty humor not because of it. Dav Pilkey gets it and he gets it right.

Listen, I can understand that you want to try and capitalize on the latest trends in pop culture, and competing with Hollywood is a major factor. But if you do not fully understand what they are doing you can't begin to hope to catch a glimmer of that lightning in a bottle. Hollywood didn't pluck random screenplays out of the slush pile, or purchase pitches from some hot new talent with a well-connected agent, they went with franchise material that's several decades old. They hired name actors and screenwriters and directors with proven records and sank tons of money, time and pre-production into making them blockbusters out the gate.

But where's the money in purchasing someone else's franchise? Why would any book publisher actively attempt a novel form of a comic book character that already exists in a printed format? They wouldn't, which puts you, publishers and editors, at a disadvantage when it comes to the genre. How, then, to capitalize (as we are capitalists here, yes?) on the superhero genre without looking derivative?

You don't. Spandex-clad superheroes have their place and appeal but it isn't in fiction, otherwise why didn't it originate there? The popular comic superhero has been with us since the 1930's but only in recent years have we seen original fiction concerning caped crusaders that didn't previously exist. This isn't a question of a dormant, untapped market, it's a simple fact that superhero fiction doesn't work. It doesn't work because the artifice of the world it inhabits begs for visuals, and once you begin to introduce visuals you might as well be making a graphic novel or a straight-up comic book.

So do us a favor, Dear Acquisitions Person: If you (or your boss, house, or division) are clamoring to try and capture the superhero market, and you find a worthy manuscript, push like you've never pushed before to have it converted into a graphic novel. If that makes you uncomfortable, if you don't think it'll work in an illustrated format, if it's just too long or you can't imagine the market for such a book, then perhaps it doesn't work as fiction either. If you (your boss, house, or division) are not committed to doing comic-formatted works, then perhaps you shouldn't be pushing the superhero genre.

Personal note to the geniuses at HarperCollins Children's Books:

What possessed you to make a "storybook" version of the new Spider-man 3 movie? The film is rated PG-13, the text of the book talks about "acing college classes" and job security and sexual jealousy and revenge, and yet you think this is appropriate for kids as young as 3 years old? For you I say: Double-plus Stop.

Monday, May 28

Pippi Longstocking

by Astrid Lindgren
Translated by Florence Lamborn
published in Sweden in 1944
Viking Press edition 1950

Pippi scared me when I was young. It had nothing to do with the books at all, and certainly nothing to do with some sort of threat to my prepubescent masculinity of this scrawny little Amazon, but it had everything to do with the 1960's movie based on the book.

Funny how memory is. I can see these images as part of my childhood vividly like they happened a few years ago, but I have to remind my kids that I first encountered Pippi back in the days before there were DVD's, before videos, and in this case even before my family owned a color television. In that blue-green cathode haze Pippi held a strange power that made me watch with my face half turned away in fear. I knew girls like Pippi, girls that could womp a baseball better than I ever would and wouldn't think twice about jumping down an open manhole cover, but they didn't scare me like this.

Because Pippi was the first movie I ever saw dubbed into English.

How and why did they talk like that? Their mouths and the sounds they made didn't sync up and worse; The way they were dubbed, stilted and forced like bad community theatre thespians trying to read Shakespeare into whimsy, had me feeling there was an invisible presence in the room that had turned down the sound and was making up the dialog for all the characters as they went along. And because of all this I never read Pippi Longstocking until I was a full-grown adult and felt I could handle it subject without the fear of those early memories rushing to accost me.

How nice it was to finally get Pippi in her correct form, a spunky and precocious 10 year old with a pet monkey and a horse that lives on the front porch. She lives by her own rules and with total abandon, and can foil crooks just as handily as Homer Price. That adults are dolts and can be outwitted by a wild child like Pippi is cake for a young reader . That Pippi actually doesn't even care about any adult besides her father is the icing.

Lindgren -- in a fashion that must be a genre unto itself by now -- originally wrote these tales for her own children. Writing to please children may seem obvious but many who try tend to fail because they impose their adult logic and adult world onto the proceedings. Logic alone is enough to kill a good story. Not that children don't long for and crave logic, because they do, but it's the logic they create that's important. When you think about what we do as developing humans, how we take raw data and information and learn to craft connecting ideas, thoughts into images into ideas into logic, the whole of it more impressive than anything we claim as adults. As adults we manipulate the hardware and the software of the brain to make sense of our world; As children we build the hardware and software from scratch and call it the world.

At the core of the Pippiverse are two innocents who serve as our grounding, Tommy and Anika. They provide the necessary balance that allows the Pippi books to endure because they counter the desire to "be good" with the twined desire to explore without rules. When challenged, even to the brink of hysterical danger, everything works out in the end because deep down Pippi has total unspoken faith that it will. I don't think it would take much to apply the lessons of Pippi into some warm-and-comfy self-help impulse item sitting on the counter at your local chain bookstore. Here's hoping no one thinks this is a good idea.

Many books for children feature troubled families and it's an odd comfort we find in seeing that others might have it worse than we readers do. I know I'm not the only person who felt like his family was severely dysfunctional while viewing other equally dysfunctional families as more "normal" than my own. That sense of "other" aside, what tripped me up while reading was that I didn't believe Pippi when she said her father, The Captain, would come home one day. I committed the adult sin of doubting a child. No matter how fictitious, I'm sure that as a child myself I would have taken Pippi at her word or at least given her the benefit of the doubt where my adult mind tried to force the story to conform to my own adult sense of what was "right". What a joy -- an honor, really -- to be bested by Pippi like all the other stubborn fools she's encountered.

The Shark God

by Rafe Martin
illustrated by David Shannon
Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine Books 2001

In this adaptation of a native tale from Hawaii, two children, a boy and a girl, find a shark tangled in netting on the shore. Their attempts to get adults to help them are met with derision so the decide to free the shark themselves. The shark can sense the children mean to help and once freed gives them a bit of a nod of thanks before disappearing into the ocean.

Jubilant at their rescue, the children run through the edges of the jungle, stumbling on the king's sacred drum. In their excitement they long to sound the drum, to announce their achievement to the world, but to do so would be kapu (forbidden). But they're kids, they lightly tap the drum anyway, under the watchful smirk of the king who sees it all. Having waited until they have hit the drum the king then calls out his guards to seize the children and have them held for punishment.

Their parents plea to the king, hoping to appeal to his softer side, but his heart has grown cold to the entreaties of his people. Likewise, appeals to the other members of the community are cold and the parents decide that they must make their case elsewhere.

Seeking out the cave of the Shark God they place their lives on the line as the mountain-sized god swoops them up for a snack. After hearing their story the Shark God agrees to help and sends the parents home with instructions to prepare a canoe filled with goods and to wait for a sign.

The Shark God brings about a massive wave that floods the village and frees the children from their cells. The parents, having seen the sign they were waiting for, launched their canoe before the wave hit and were well at sea when their old village was destroyed. They quickly found their children (with the aid of a friendly shark) and the king's drum and with it sail to anew island where they hoped to find (or start) a new community, one with an open heart.

The author points out in an afterword the differences between the original folk tale and the modifications made for this version. The differences mentioned appear slight and motivational and make a good case for maintaining the essence of the original. A little casual Internet research shows that this story has many variations across the South Pacific and not all of them pleasant. In one, "Kauhuhu, The Shark God of Molokai," the children belong to a priest and they are killed for beating on the drums when the chief is away, no mention of freeing a shark. There are greater details about the ordeal necessary for avenging the children's deaths and the wave brings a hoard of sharks who feast on the cold-hearted villagers.

So on the one hand we have these tales collected by a couple of German brothers that are filled with all sorts of strange dismemberings and transformations and gore, and despite there being no solid evidence they were meant for children we consider them as such. On the other hand when we get a story from a non-Western culture we see a need to make it more palatable and perhaps soften the rougher edges? True, many a Grimm tale are themselves softened to the point of innocence though they are far from their original spirit and, for the most part, have been co-opted by Disnefication. But where we have the original tales in translation for ready comparison such isn't always the case and a lesser-known tale like The Shark God, without research, becomes practically gutted and filleted from the original to a piece of nicely presented same at a sushi bar.

In the end, I'm not taking a stand on this book either way. No, really. I read it knowing nothing about its origin and enjoyed it. Had there not be the author's afterword I might not have gone searching for the original story and not known what had been changed. I think I would prefer that when we introduce stories from another culture to children -- especially if there is little to suggest they will one day be taught it's true origins -- then I guess I'd like that "one shot" to be an accurate one. I wouldn't want any child drawing all their knowledge of ancient Egypt from watching mummy movies and don't like the thought of children learning about the culture of our island state in such a sanitized manner.

Sunday, May 27

Johnathan Livingston Seagul

by Richard Back
photographs by Russel Munson
Macmillan 1970

Is this a book for children?

I received this book as a gift when I was a boy, I believe as a birthday present, possibly from a family friend who was also a librarian. I might have been twelve, the memory is hazy, but I didn't remember reading it.

So I read it.

Jonathan is a seagull unlike the others in that he would prefer to perfect and test the limits of flying over scrounging for food and fighting among the flock. His unique spirit and singular focus upsets the elders in the flock and as he reaches the physical limits of his speed diving experiments he is cast out of the flock.

Free of his societal constraints he flies off alone, only to be joined by two ethereal gulls who guide him to another place, a place where he will be understood and embraced.

"So this is heaven," Jonathan thinks, having found the home of gulls who have freed themselves of weight of the physical world. He meets another gull named Sullivan who becomes his flight instructor and guide, showing him the levels of perfection he had previously only dreamed of. Quickly Jonathan learns and surpasses his instructor to the point where he is introduced to the new flock's elder, a gull named Chiang. Chiang may be the eldest but he has so perfected his abilities that he can actually transport himself through time and space without flight, the ultimate in enlightenment. He takes on Jonathan as his pupil and in short order Jonathan has become a master in his own right.

Because he is still young and idealistic Jonathan decides that mastering flight isn't enough, that he hears a higher calling. Despite the confusion of his new flock he decides to return to the old world, to his old flock, and to show them the way and the light. The elders of his old flock are not impressed and insist that those who even speak with Jonathan will themselves be outcast. But Johnathan's message and abilities are too powerful and soon he has taken on disciples and begun to teach him what he knows. They even go so far as to call him the Son of the Great Gull. Once his followers have all the knowledge he could impart Jonathan turns the teaching over to them, to spread the word and continue to seek out a life without limits.

Wow. What a mess. Who gives this kind of a book to a boy, and what are they expecting from him when they give it?

I'm glad I never read it then, or abandoned it, or whatever I did to block it from my mind. The story is a mess of theologies, a veritable smorgasbord of free-wheeling 70's pop-psych and religious cherry-picking. Jonathan's aesthetic of flight-for-flight's-sake reads a bit like a zen novice attempting to reach nirvana the hard way. Shut out of society, he takes the mythological night journey to the shaman flock where he is given rudimentary training in preparation for (or as prerequisite to) meeting his master. The master finds Jonathan an eager student and puts him through his paces toward total enlightenment. But like Jesus learning at the feet of the Eastern ascetics he realizes that his people need to be guided from their darkness more than his own needs and returns to become their rabbi. In time he has gathered his disciples (including a lone female gull) and, his lessons finished, leaves them to explore the possibilities of an enlightened existence.

There's just enough ideas strewn throughout to suggest that Bach might have been trying to appease all crowds. Depending on the reader's personal philosophies one could find some sort of comfort in the message. The outsider as the ultimate insider, the spiritual found in the purity of action, the student becoming the master... all that was missing was a true Death and Resurrection Show to make the shaman's circle complete.

This was another one of those 25 cent library sale finds that also qualifies as a part of rebuilding my childhood library, which becomes my justification for dropping a quarter. I am forever in love with libraries for any number of reasons, but rebuilding my own childhood library from their detritus has been one of the best.

I'm glad I finally read this, and I am probably the right age for it now. Back when I was twelve I probably wrote it off as a stupid book about a seagull. I know it was a hugely popular book when it came out and that every household had an obligatory copy (ours sat next to some of my mom's collections of Rod McKuen poetry) I only wonder what it was about me that caused someone to think I would have enjoyed it.


Jacqueline Woodson
Putnam 2007

I've been floundering with this book for over a week now, trying to figure out what exactly it is I want to say. Twice now my attempts to review the book have quickly become examinations of the 1970's and why it feels like we're seeing more books set during that time and what, if any, relation all this has on our current political landscapes and whether younger readers really want to read about all this as "period" reading.

At it's simplest the story come from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks family. A boy with long hair transfers mid-year to the new school on the bad side of town, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Being the new kid, the odd fish, makes him the easy target for the bullies and because he looks white and the other students are a rainbow of browns he is instantly viewed with suspicion. The Jesus Boy, nicknamed because of his hair and serenity in the face of his non-violent approach to life, causes unease because some of the kids begin to wonder if he isn't Jesus come back to test their faith. When finally pushed to the edge by Trevor, the class bully, JB finally lets lose a verbal assault that disarms Trevor but proves JB is like the rest of them, capable of cruelty and anger. JB's secret is that he was adopted by black parents who moved across the tracks because life wasn't any easier for them on the other side. Kids are egalitarian in their cruelty.

The story is told from the point of view of Frannie who, along with her deaf brother Sean, give us another perspective on being outsiders. Frannie doesn't feel she fits in with those around her who are more deeply connected to their church, and her brother Sean makes a connection between his deafness being a separate world that keeps disconnected. Frannie wants to believe as her friends do but she sees too many contradictions to settle her rational mind; Sean knows that no matter which side of the tracks he lives on he'll always be an outsider to the hearing world, a world he can never be a part of unlike his sister who can travel in his world through sign language.

The title comes from Frannie's book-long inquiry into a poem by Emily Dickinson which begins with the line "Hope is a thing with feathers." Indeed, it makes me wonder what Woodson herself hopes for both within the book and without.

Setting the story in the 1970's allows for a certain distancing from the idea of a segregated society, but the the ideas that lie beneath are as real today as they might have been 30 years ago. Somewhere between then and now American society has recreated new divisions and seems desperate to reclaim old one. Politics, religion and even music have moved to their respective sides of the track and don't take kindly to outsiders attempting to pass or blend in.

So why go there? Are we seeing an increase of writers who came of age during those times who feel the resonance so strongly with our current climate? The 70's are equally alive in Barbara Kerley's Greetings From Planet Earth so I'm wondering if this is a trend or a blip or just coincidence.

This perhaps moves outside the parameters of the review, but sometimes the universe sends a message and you have to puzzle it out the best you can. For a very long time now I've been wondering what to make of my particular generation, a shoulder generation who are alternately claimed as being either the tail end of the Boomers or the front end of Generation X. To my knowledge this generation is not formally recognized by marketers or the media and my experience has been that those born between 1958 and 1963 have a general sense of feeling left out. It was while I was at my wife's graduation ceremony this week that I had another old idea brought back to the surface. It was under the guise of referring to a graduating class as a karass, a term invented by Kurt Vonnegut, taken from Cat's Cradle (published in 1963 coincidentally), which is defined as "a team that do[es] God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing."

I'm beginning to feel as if my karass is making itself known in children's literature.

Friday, May 25

Summer Reading, Part Three: Trash

"Read the Dell paperback."

You have to be of a certain age to recall when those words would come at the end of a movie trailer. It was usually some genre film, something a little exploitative, a summer popcorn movie that was either based on the kind of paperback people would buy at the checkout stands in supermarkets or was written in haste between the editing of the film and the release date. I think half of these movies were produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures because that was usually the first part of the announcer's sign-off: "An American International picture. Read the Dell paperback."

How many people bought those books? It's hard to say though there's a booming business of these titles on eBay. It's nice to know there was a time when major motion pictures and the venues that advertised them -- theatres and television -- once actually used to use summer as a time to promote reading, even if it was merely an attempt to wring every last penny of profit from their films.

Today I am singing the praises of that ghetto of fiction known as Trash, or sometimes Beach Reading, and almost always as Genre. I'm not necessarily digging into the actual trash mentioned above but that fiction which tends to get marginalized because of its connection to popular culture. I won't attempt an exhaustive list of titles or suggestions, instead I'm taking a look at some of the books that many of my friends and I read and passed around during the summers when we were teens. My goal is to suggest some older titles that are still around and just under the radar of most young adults. If some of these titles seem like classics of their genre, well, I can't pretend any of us knew or cared about what sort of shelf life these titles would assume when we first read them.

One of my first "adult" summer reads was Ian Flemming's Bond classic Diamonds Are Forever. I bought it at some yard sale, among the go-cart parts and old kitcheware, laid out on a blanket with a bunch of other trash. I was eleven and it cost all of a quarter. I had seen a couple of Bond movies prior to reading this book and I might have already seen the film version, but on a lazy July afternoon I picked this thing up and started to read.

It might sound obvious to say this, but at the time I remembered thinking the book was nothing like the movies. There was something way more adult about all this, the language was foreign to me, the pacing and storytelling alien. It was tough slog at first because I was still trying to marry the book and images from the movie into my still-developing cranium. And then there was all that narrative, all those points where the author explained Bonds thinking and rationale. Huh, there was actually some thinking going on behind all that action, some deep cover and intel gathering. He wasn't just a spy or a man of action but a trained agent in the British Secret Service. There were dimensions to his character and *pop* suddenly Bond is a bit more real. Oh, and here's a surprise: it was really about diamond smuggling, with no evil villain planning to send a laser into space to blow up parts of the world.

I had two other Bond books in my collection -- did I pick them up at the same time? -- but I don't recall reading them. And I've meant to go back and reread Diamonds Are Forever or any other Flemming that looked interesting to see what my adult mind makes of it all. A few years back they repackaged the covers of the books, upped them to trade paper size (mine were the smaller paperbacks), which I found appealing. I would need to reconfirm this, but readers deep into the Alex Rider series (or even the Young Bond series that's a few titles in) might enjoy a little old school cold war spy genre fiction. From here one could suggest some Robert Ludlum, John le Carre, or Len Deighton. I am a particular fan of Deighton's Harry Palmer books and equally of the movie adaptations which featured Michael Caine. It's Caine's spymaster turn that is the physical inspiration for Austin Powers which is better appreciated when you get the joke. You might even be able to introduce a spy fiction buff to the broccoli that is Graham Greene, especially Our Man in Havana which borders on parody of the genre.

The penultimate summer movie, the one that actually created the mold for all summer blockbuster movies, is Jaws. When it came out I felt compelled to read the book first. In fact, knowing it was a bestseller before a movie I almost felt a certain sense of indignation that a movie had been made from the book and that most people would see the movie and never actually read the books.

I was a teenage boy and self-righteous indignation, especially over things I knew little or nothing about, came naturally.

I don't remember how I came into possession of my paperback of Jaws but I do know that I lent it out twice before trying to read it myself. I just had a hard time getting started. I must have reread the first 20 pages a half dozen times before I sat down determined to bust my way through it. I gave myself a 50 page deadline and had finished twice as many pages before I thought to look at the page numbers. The rest of the book came easy and when I finally saw the movie... well, let's leave my views about Steven Spielberg for another time and forum.

Jaws, at its simplest, falls into the man-against-nature horror genre. Typically there is a thing that is out to get people and there's a lot of running around trying to sort out what the thing wants and how to kill or outwit it. Character plays second fiddle to the action, which requires the story to be populated either with people of average or lesser intelligence than the reader to luck into a resolution or, at best, a challenge of wills in which the strongest (protagonist/s) survives.

For somewhat similar books I don't imagine there's any harm in Michael Chrichton's Jurassic Park, though I think The Andromeda Strain is a lesser known story that teen readers might enjoy. Also Robin Cook's Coma, William Wharton's Birdy, William Goldman's Magic (skip the film, the adaptation is atrocious), and Benchley's post-Jaws follow-ups The Deep and The Island.

For many I knew growing up summer reading could be summed up in two word: Stephen King. Personally I had some problems with early Stephen King where the characters had a paranormal abilities that were referred to as "the push" (in Firestarter) or "the shining" and I couldn't fully grok King the way my friends had.

Until The Stand.

Much talk these days about apoca-lit in YA fiction, much talk about how kids really seem to dig the political, ethical and moral questions that arise when the world faces a destructive-yet-unifying cataclysm like a comet knocking the moon off course or a plague devouring humanity. But when you weld these elements together with the muscular fists of a writer like Stephen King you have the ultimate in summer reads. Biological weapon released, killing a vast majority of the population who are haunted by visions of either an old woman near a corn field or a handsome stranger in the desert, drawn to either one in a battle of good verses evil for the survival of mankind. I haven't even glanced at this book since it's original publication and I can still remember images clearly from the book, more so than things I have read in the past year. Rib-sticking, something that isn't going to leave you feeling empty, yet nothing that's going to show up on an SAT test.

I would say that any Stephen King would work but I haven't read them all and I have encountered some duds, especially in the 1990's. Stick with the classic King, the books that made his name, like Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, Firestarter or The Shining. If you've got a reader who's already run those books down why not give them a taste of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, David Seltzer's The Omen, or Jay Anson's The Amityville Horror. These aren't exactly apoca-lit titles (I've got one coming up next) but they are still very sturdy reads.

I read another book the same summer I read The Stand and that was Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Now here was something fun: a newly discovered comet originally believed to pass Earth appears to be on a collision course. While the scientific community assures the public that impact isn't likely a televangelist fans the flames of fear and suddenly everyone's on a survivalist kick. The comet breaks up as it nears Earth and lands in various places across the planet, causing earthquakes, volcano eruptions and tsunamis-a-plenty. What's left of civilization is in ruins, fighting for survival among militant cannibals. Fun!

Larry Niven's name is probably familiar to science fiction fans for many books including the Ringworld series. I have tried to start other Niven/Pournelle collaborations but they just didn't click for me. That aside, what were talking about now is science-fiction which has steadily increased in its general approval since when I was a lad and is now (finally) practically respectable literature. Why, 30 years ago Phillip K. Dick might have had the word "wacko" in front of his name but now after Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly -- films all made from Dick stories -- he is being embraced as a unique and genuine American voice. Blade Runner and Total Recall were not the names of Dick books (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale respectively) and it might be fun (in a devious way) to present the originals sans mention of their movie adaptations on the cover to a reader to see if they make the connection.

A younger reader with a hunger for actual science fiction or fantasy may have already discovered the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker series, or the Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern books (one was good enough for me, thanks), or Octavia Butler's dystopian Parable titles -- all fine suggestions if they haven't been previously experienced. But there was one book that really tweaked me one summer and that was Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human. There was something truly alien about the feel of this story about a group of people with various powers who could blend together as one, sort of a next step in human evolution. To my younger self it felt like The Fantastic Four crossed with The Twilight Zone and only later did I understand some of the more psychological aspects. Sturgeon also wrote the novelization for the movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, giving him some true trash credentials. For something a bit more light and fun, a bit more Renaissance Faire-meets-Star Wars, try Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle, the first-written-but-middle-title in the timeline of his Majipoor series. I think it makes a good transition from a fantasy world reader into the more politicised sci-fi world. I'm sure that statement's going to upset someone. So be it. It's what I read then and what I'm suggesting now.

I'm going to cheat a bit here and talk about my summer reading after my first year of college. Technically I was still a teen, and I think that if I'd had this genre tossed my way earlier I'd have loved it. I'm talking about detective stories, especially those old school hard-boiled types. I'm talking about that triumvirate of explorers from the dark underbelly of the American psyche: Dashiel Hammet, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. Hammet, the former Brinks man invented both Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles and practically the entire genre we now recognize as hard-boiled. Cain's gritty stories traffic in a world of femme fatales and dirty double crosses, a bit on the misogynist side of things but no one comes out smelling like a rose with Cain.

For my money though it's Chandler all the way. Phillip Marlowe is his man, prowling the streets of Los Angeles in the 30's and 40's, pulling the most disparate threads and ties them into tangled nets that eventually solve the crime. Chandler claims to have been influenced by Hammet but it's Chandler who perfected the lyricism of the private detective's inner voice. You might have better luck teaching kids how to write more concisely, and more vividly, by teaching them from Chandler's stories than from Hemingway. Chandler, in describing Marlowe lighting a pipe in the smoking car of a train, taught me a word that I hope one day to use in my own fiction: frowst.

I loved this summary of Phillip Marlowe from Wikipedia:

Philip Marlowe, is not a stereotypical tough guy, but rather a complex and sometimes sentimental figure who has few friends, attended college for a while, speaks a little Spanish, at times admires Mexicans, and is a student of chess and classical music. He will also refuse money from a prospective client if he is not satisfied that the job meets his ethical standards.

And to think they used to call this kind of stuff pulp, after the cheap paper it used to be printed on in magazines. They made plenty of good movies from this stuff as well, inspiring an entire genre of film called noir: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely. All good stuff.

* * * * *

What these books and many, many more like them have in common is that they were paperbacks, they were cheap and, without exception, they were intended for adult audiences. If there's one thing teens love to do is assume they are ready for "adult" reading material as soon as the bug hits them, and I don't imagine it's been any different throughout history.

But looking back and then turning forward I am struck with how unified and national tastes were once upon a time. Many of these books weren't on the bestseller's lists because they had high orders from bookselling superstores, these were the books everyone read, and knew, and talked about. Maybe the closest thing we have to something similar in recent years is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and the popularity of that book remains a mystery to me even today as I found it filled me with inertia. But there was a time (I imagine some publishers and editors moon about this late at night at their favorite speakeasy) when the bestseller list was full of books -- for better or worse -- that were actually read by lots and lots of people and everyone would talk about them the way people now stand around and talk about the results of American Idol or the most recent developments on Lost. There are fine books out there, yes, yes, but how many of them are really capturing the national imagination and get read (before being optioned for movie rights) or that aren't being flogged by Oprah?

As I said from the beginning, this was my list and my experience. These were the books I discovered as a teen reader, or wish I'd discovered earlier, that make for good, solid summer reads. I'd love to hear what others discovered in a similar vein, particularly those who can speak to the romance genre that, as a boy, never held any pull with me.

Where to now? Let's see...
First there was Low Humor
Then there was Non-fiction

Next up: Shorts, perfect for summer weather

Wednesday, May 23

The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr

by Nicolas Debon
Groundwood 2007

This work of graphic non-fiction -- a bio-graphic, if you will -- presents the straightforward account of the life of The World's Strongest Man, circa 1900. The tale is told by Cyr to his daughter on the eve of his last performance, having been told by his doctor only moments earlier that he must stop as his profession is killing him. In the autumn of his days Cyr owns his own circus and has been the star performer but now must make the difficult decision to go out while he's at the top of his game.

In softened tints of browns and blues Debon recounts Cyr's life story in a way that almost suggests a Hugo-esque (as in Victor Hugo) portrait of a man with a single destiny. The problem is that his destiny seems very much set at an early age and the bumps along the way give no hint at anything more foreboding as some lean years working in a bar. It is a genteel portrait, one that well fits an American's impression of his northern neighbor, the story of a French Canadian who set many weight-lifting records, some of which are still on the books.

I was hipped to this by Fuse#8 and I think she does a much better job with the summary than I do, but I have say that in the end I felt the effort left me wanting more. More about the times Cyr was living in, the political and social climates, more about who he was and how he felt about his place in the world. I'm not asking that an otherwise normal life be given a false drama, or have extraneous outside influences added for effect. There is simple, and there is quiet, and this is a little too much of both. If those are the differences between American and Canadian tastes, so be it, but somehow I don't think so.

The Day the Stones Walked

by T.A. Barron
illustrated by William Low
Philomel / Penguin 2007

There's no rhyme or reason to the fact that I love anything that has to do with Easter Island. That remote little island with the giant iconic stone heads, be they alien totems in Chariots of the Gods or the idols of a superstitious monolithic culture, I am totally fascinated by it. I may be one of the few people in the world who actually paid to see the movie Rapa Nui and didn't totally hate it. Okay, maybe a little.

If I had any clue to the whereabouts of the originals for a mini comic I once made about "The Bellybutton of the World" I'd dig it out, scan it, and prove just how much I love those solumn stony visages.

Today, however, we are dealing with a picture book about this small island in the Pacific. A boy brings home some food he's speared at the tide pools and when his mother looks up at him she sees, over his shoulder, the sky has gone a shade of green. She's seen this happen once before, long ago, and sends the boy running to the carving pits to retrieve his father and bring him safely to the caves high above the shore.

The boy's father is a lone stone cutter, perhaps the last of a vanishing breed, carefully working over the unfinished features of one of the stone giants as it lay in repose. The boy tries to warn his father but is not convinced that he should abandon his work and sends the boy on his way. Half way up to the caves the boy sees a large tidal wave has sucked the shore into dry flats and a wall of water almost as tall as the island is approaching. He runs back down to the carving pits to save his father.

The wave hits, the boys is caught up in it and he is dragged under, tangled in the seaweed and floating among the stones down near the shore. The water recedes, the boy is alive and found by his father, and life on the island will never be the same. Uh, the end.

There is an afterward that connects some limited Easter Island history with modern tsunamis and an oblique reference to the effects of deforestation and global warming. Essentially, Barron is making a case that what happened on Easter Isle is a controlled-environment version of what is currently happening on planet Earth. That the island was once a lush paradise, full of the largest palm trees on the planet, and is now practically barren speaks to what happens when a culture takes from nature with little regard to the long-term effects. These people used their trees and plants for everything -- timber, fabric, food, rope, and most importantly, for transporting their huge heads around the island -- and when the trees left so did the native birds and cover vegetation. In the end the native peoples may have cursed the gods who abandoned them for not continuing to provide -- as many today will assume that global warming is a sign of god's wrath, if they accept global warming at all -- but in the end the evidence is fairly clear.

The story itself is fine, the idea of a small island community dealing with a tidal wave makes for some pretty interesting stuff, but if you're going to use Easter Island as your base and you're going to follow it up with an authorial afterword about the environmental effects, then that's the story that should have been told. I don't know that the world is going to be clamoring for another picture book about Easter Isle anytime soon, but if so there's a relevant cautionary tale to tell that doesn't involve an act of nature to explain the tragedy of a small piece of the planet and what it portends for the rest of us.

Preachy? Perhaps, but if the author had wanted me to more favorably review his book he shouldn't have undercut his own efforts by pointing out the weakness in his own story. As it stands the stones don't really dance, and there is little mention as to why the islanders even care about them. I wonder how much I would have cared if I wasn't predisposed to liking those long-eared, thin-lipped, top-knotted dudes.

Monday, May 21

Way. Too. Much.

Welcome to all and sundry who may have tripped over here via Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast or, as we like to say in our culture of abbreviation, 7Imp.

When I agreed to the interview I thought "well, it'll be small and quick and a fast read" because, honestly, it's not like I'm M.T. Anderson or Grace Lin or someone like that. I didn't realize I had so much of myself... out there, for all to see. It feels like way. too. much.

The interview is there, the blog is here. Thanks for stopping by. Now, back to the business at hand.

Andy Warhol's Colors / Counting with Wayne Thiebuad

both by Susan Goldman Rubin
Chronicle 2007

Board books are funny things. On the one hand they make perfect sense if you are trying to get kids used to the idea of books and reading at a very early age. They have sturdy coated cardboard pages that withstand throwing, food spills and the gnawing and chewing that comes from young pups.

But board books didn't always exist. They were invented, much like the term teenager was invented to suggest a difference between child and adult, probably more like the way the tween demographic was identified by markers and advertisers in order to better capture income from a growing consumer demographic. Somewhere in between the social science of presenting kids books at the earliest possible age and the capitalist goal to build a loyalty and brand recognition from the cradle, that is soupy mire from which board books arise.

Board books are not evil but there is a whole lot of cute mixed in with the good. It saddens me, for example, that publishers make board book versions of classic picture books, often abridging texts or images to fit the format. And there are those books that have "cute" spred all over their intents, proving that their true market is parents and grandparents for whom the book is going to have a greater appeal; they aren't buying for the child so much as they're hoping to impress their opinion of what is cute onto soft minds.

But sometimes people get that a board book can be more, and here we have two examples. Author Goldman presents classic Andy Warhol illustrations from the 1950's and 60's with short bits of rhyming text that are linked to their predominant colors. For those who only know Warhol's iconic factory-produced screenprints these fresh ink and watercolor illustrations may prove that, when he wanted to be, Andy was a talented artist. Featuring a typical assortment of animals -- cat, butterfly, lion, monkey, &c. -- Rubin fuses the color concept board book with a mini primer on a modern art master.

In the Thiebaud book Rubin offers us some of the artist's food paintings with a counting rhyme. That Thiebaud's paintings are done in a very thick application that makes them look as if they'd been composed with cake frosting is an added benefit. Consisting mostly of deserts -- pie, ice cream cones, cupcakes, candied apples -- the fact that they are well-known paintings from a still-living master is almost completely overshadowed by their tempting yumminess. Yes, I said that. The counting aspect of this book is practically lost but not in a bad way. It feels more a casual counting book, among a collection of food illustrations that, oh, just happen to be famous paintings hanging in museums.

Yes, okay, so these books are intended to appeal to adults on some level (did I not say yumminess?) but for those, parent and child alike, who might not be as familiar with these artists or their works, what a delightful little introduction. I noticed that there's no modern art master alphabet book from Chronicle but I hope they're considering it. In fact, I think this sort of art history could make for a very good series of board books.

After all, if Major League Baseball can produce board books (building that brand/team loyalty in the cradle again) then why not do more of the same for the arts and sciences? Just a thought.

Saturday, May 19

Operation: Dump the Chump

by Barbara Park
Random House / Yearling 1982
(Knopf 1979)

This is probably the middle grade reader best used as an example for how to outline a middle grade reader. It's right there in the third chapter, written as a list of things Oliver has planned out in order to get rid of his annoying younger brother, Robert, involving an elderly couple who live down the street:

1. Tell Hensons that Robert needs a home.
2. Tell parents that Hensons need a boy.
3. Put fake ad in the paper from Hensons.
4. Show ad to parents.
5. Put fake ad in paper from parents.
6. Show ad to Hensons.
7. Write fake letter to Hensons.
8. Write fake letter to parents.

A couple chapters up front to set the scene and show what Oscar hates about his brother, a chapter where the plan goes awry and another to wrap things up and that's it. The idea is to convince his parents to send his brother away to live with the Hensons down the street, and to convince the Hensons that they want to take Robert in. There's all kinds of cover stories involved about Oliver's father losing his job (he doesn't) or old man Henson being unable to get around his garden (untrue) and every other little fib along the way to make the plan work.

The twist should be obvious, as any boy's plan is bound to bite back in a middle grade reader, and you know what? That's why kids read through to the end, because they want to know how it's going to go bad, how bad it's going to go, and what the fallout looks like.

My co-worker Anna (who really should do a blog of her own, because she'd rock) reread this recently and said her teacher read it to her back in elementary school. It still held up and it's easy to see the appeal. The story is solid, everything moves along at a clip, and the anticipation that builds from knowing that everything Oscar attempts somehow goes askew (despite his "perfect planning") is exactly what keeps kids coming back to books like this.

Having the chapter outline practically spelled out in Oscar's to-do list is interesting because it really does open itself up for classroom lessons on plotting and on how to avoid the predictable. How many ways can this outline go wrong, and how long can things go right before they have to start falling apart at the seams? I've read some truly dreadful galleys lately that could have used this lesson, from adults who ought to know better. Or at least their editors should. I'm not saying new ground is being broken here, only that there's a reason this book has lasted more than two decades.

Take a look at that cover. You look at that and you think "Huh, the older brother's going to have his kid brother taken away by movers. How's that going to work?" It doesn't. There are no movers involved. This cover is part of a recent redesign of all the Barbara Park books, one of those things publishers do to keep older titles that still have some life in them "fresh." I can't fault them for the practice although it would be nice if the cover image actually made sense.

This was Barbara Park's first book for kids and she's had quite a run. I'm just going to pretend that I've never heard of Junie B. Jones and check out a few more of her earlier books.

Sticky Burr

Adventures in Burrwood Forest
by John Lechner
Candlewick 2007

We are not amused.

This comic masquerading as a graphic novel for the emerging reader set has nothing going for it. There's no real character development attempted, no plot to speak of, and in the end has too many similarities with Smurfs for my comfort. Seriously, a land of burrs living in the forest with one token girl burr and an old papa burr. True, there is no Gargamel character, but that wouldn't have made this better.

The oddest thing is that Lechner clearly has skills as an artist, because his backgrounds are wonderful, but the main characters are little more than jagged circles, a tiny doodle any kid could have created. The comic originated online apparently and Lechner's personal connection with illustrator Peter Reynolds may hold the key as to how this landed in Candlewick's lap.

Why is this in hardcover?

Why is this at all?

Summer Reading, Part Two: Non-fiction

Previously I made my case for a summer full of reading that had little-to-no direct educational merit. That is, I'm all against handing out lists at the beginning of the summer with a required title (or titles) with a la carte suggestions for additional reading. I still hold to the belief that play as important as work and that if we expect to have well-rounded, culturally alert, hyper-literate children then we need to honor and encourage the notion that reading for fun and pleasure has a place. Now I'm going to turn around and suggest that there are ways to encourage non-fiction as a summer reading activity that doesn't feel like a learning experience and still be fun.

As a caveat, I don't suggest doing all of these things (save some for future summers!) and would in fact caution against too much non-fiction as kids are pretty quick to figure out when a "lesson" is coming. Just take all this in and when the moment presents itself casually introduce one of these topics into the slipstream of their summer reading.

Joke and Riddle books

I have a larger thesis (much larger than can be presented here) about using jokes as a way of teaching kids how storytelling works. Basically, the idea is this: Jokes are some of our shortest stories and once you understand how they work you can apply that knowledge to telling a story. A joke has a setting, characters, dialog, and usually a twist ending. I find it amusing when I hear adults say they cannot tell a joke who then turn around a relate a personal narrative with the same elements. Set the story, introduce the characters, keep the pertinent details, timing is pacing, aim for the climax/punchline and when you hit it the story ends.

Riddles, on the other hand, have the actual advantage of developing lateral thinking. Where a joke's aim is a punchline, often surreal or just plain silly, a riddle demands a closer examination of language and context. Also, where jokes tend to run in fads and cycles (when was the last time someone told you an elephant joke?) there are riddles from hundreds of years ago that can still stump the sharpest young minds today.

Jokes and riddles are always great ways to pass the time, especially if siblings have their own books to pull on each other. If a child responds to joke and riddle books do your best to put up with the corniest of jokes, then encourage them to seek out more. This, by the way, was how I learned about the Dewey decimal system and discovered many great riddles and lateral thinking puzzle books in the adult section of my libraries. I remember once looking like a Master of All Knowledge with my girls when I was looking for a particular book and walked over to the 800's, bypassing the online card catalog. "Do you know where all the books in the library are?" my youngest asked. "No, but I know the numbers for the books I like." If they learn to do it themselves it won't look like you're forcing them to learn anything.

Martin Gardner, the great polymath of all things logical and illogical, had a book that I must have checked out more than any other kid at my library: Perplexing Puzzlers and Tantalizing Teasers. From this one book I learned puns, anagrams, palindromes and the kind of logic puzzles (classic matchstick puzzles) that can bend minds if not keep them limber. Just following Gardner around the library led me to his annotated versions of Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, into examinations of logic and philosophy Aha! Gotcha and Aha! Insight and finally into Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing. It might not be an exaggeration that Martin Gardner was my first dip into library spelunking. It also makes for a nice segue into

Code and Cipher books

Why do kids love codes? Maybe it has something to do with the deliciousness of secrets, the ability to create something that has a certain power. Codes and ciphers scrape along the surface of our desire to create symbols of meaning, communicating with a select group, a way of reclaiming the mystery and power of language. The history of codes is full of political intrigue and human struggle. The armies of the ancient Greeks and Romans employed codes, just as 20th century railroad hobos did to communicate among themselves. Ciphers have been used by spies for hundreds of years and they vary in sophistication and style in a way that make them appealing to all ages.

Gardner's book makes for an excellent introduction for kids, as does Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko. Older kids who might want a bit more history with their cryptography will probably want to check out The Code Book by Simon Singh (note, there are two books by Singh with the same title, the teen friendly one has the subtitle How to Make It, Break It, Hack It, Crack It and covers everything from Mary Queen of Scots and ends with Internet security encryption).

If you end up buying a code book I'd suggest getting two copies and keeping one for yourself. Once they have done a little reading you can write them a coded message (perhaps the secret location of a special treat) and send it to them in the mail. This isn't the first time I've suggested mailing things to kids in the summer and I can't promise it won't be the last. I have yet to see a kid act blase about an unexpected piece of mail, and once you send the first coded message you might be surprised at just how much and how quickly they'll want you to send another. I like to find unusual postcards for this and so far Homeland Security hasn't hauled me in for questioning. Maybe I've stumped them.

Activity books... and game instructions?

Get them out of the house! No one said all this summer reading meant staying indoors and there are ways to combine reading and activities. I'd also like to suggest that learning how to follow directions, instructions and rules surrounding various activities -- a lot of the same things we expect kids to get out of sports activities -- get reinforced this way.

Last fall a book came out that I would have drooled over when I was a boy: Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book. Over a dozen years of research and development went into this book and it shows. Page after page of ideas for all kinds of project, both indoor and out of doors. Building an igloo with cubes of jello? Why not? How about using graham crackers as bricks and canned frosting as mortar for building edible structures? Sure! Bird feeder space station platform from drinking straws and disposable drinking cups? Check. Rich in explanation about how structures work and the different kinds of structural elements featured there's bound to be something that sparks an interest. Don't be surprised to see some projects consuming the better part of a day. Or week.

How about a quick course in Pioneering, the art of binding ropes and poles to create impromptu fire towers and bridges across small rivers? Or a solid study in the art of Orienteering, the use of map and compass? Small boat sailing? Cinematography? Basketry? Auto Mechanics? Five words: Boy Scout Merit Badge Pamphlets. Despite the dated, sometimes hokey post-war earnestness each of the pamphlets available for various merit badges provides a solid foundation in each of its subjects. No kid is going to naturally be attracted to a pamphlet on first aid or lifesaving (unless they want to work toward becoming a lifeguard) but many of the booklets deal with outdoor activities, crafts or hobbies. I still haven't managed to build the junk wood punt from The American Boy's Handy Book but when it's done you can be assured that before I let the girls set foot in it they'll read all the merit badge pamphlets on boating.

Similar but a little less rigid are a series of books called the Brown Paper School series published by Little Brown back in the late 1980's. The Backyard History Book presents the idea of local history as a series of discoveries. Delving into the origins of street names, mapping neighborhoods and collecting oral histories gives the curious and the extrovert a channel for those energies. The Book of Where focuses more on geography, starting from diagramming your own home and building to mapping the world. I wish I'd had their Making Cents: Every kid's guide to money, how to make it, what to do with it back when I could have used it: about ten years before I went off to college. These and other books in the series (Math for Smarty Pants is fun but probably not as much for summer) are still out there among the remainder bins and, naturally, in finer select libraries.

On the occasional rainy day, or for a lazy afternoon, an indoor board game can be fun. Why not suggest playing a familiar game by new rules? The part of this exercise that requires reading is New Rules for Classic Games by R. Wayne Schmiteberger, former editor of Games magazine. Popular board games like Monopoly, Scrabble and Risk get new instructions, as do variants of Chess, Checkers and Go. Part of the fun in playing these games sometimes is the newness, the foreignness of their strategies. It hardly seems like legitimate reading, and that's my point. Reading, interpreting, understanding and following rules and instructions can be more of an intellectual workout that a flaccid textbook and some ditto sheets.

Other great possibilities for games, if you know kids who aren't afraid of the word brains: The Big Book of Brain Games, The Brainiest, Insaniest Ultimate Puzzle Book, The Games Magazine Junior Big Book of Games (there are two volumes out there), and for a really nice coffee table style book that covers the history, origins, rules and even instructions for making games you really can't go wrong with Games of the World.

Magic tricks, slight of hand and illusion

This requires a bit of work on the part of an adult initially but the payoff can be great.

Hit the library or bookstore and find a book of magic well suited for the children in your charge. Flip through and find a trick or illusion that looks good, and by good I mean has good presentation that doesn't lend itself to being easily figured out. Now, learn the trick and practice it until you can do it comfortably and without hesitation. Got it? Good. Showtime.

Find a casual, low key moment and say "Hey, want to see what I learned recently? Watch." Then perform the illusion. If the child/ren in question are suitably impressed they will ask you to do it again, and then beg you to show them how it is done. The rule of a good magician is that you never repeat a trick for the same audience (unless you can do it with a twist of equal awe) and to never give away the secret. "But," you can explain "I can tell you the name of the book where I learned the trick."

Yes, it is tricking them into reading, but I doubt they'll mind if they really want to learn the trick. Let them try the one you performed, being ready to help understand the steps if they get confused. After that they'll usually pick up a couple more tricks easy and will surprise you with their showmanship, dexterity and focus.

In sorting through books on magic you'll want to focus on those that deal with simple playing card -- sometimes called self-working illusions because the trick takes place in the manipulation of the cards. These tend to be variations of the "pick a card" fortune telling variety and are both simple to perform and impressive. Some books may include other tricks and illusions that include simple household items and these are fine as well, what you want to avoid is starting out with magic that requires the making (or purchasing) of special apparatuses.

I still have a handful of card tricks I learned as a boy that I remember. My girls have since learned all my tricks -- and taught me a few. My guess is they will one day pass along some magic to their own kids.

Reference material

I've mentioned the paperback spinner rack at my library, the place where I could find the Mad paperbacks and other collected comic strip books. But there was a second spinner nearby that contained mass market fiction for adults that held a secret gem: The Guinness Book of World Records, now know as the Guinness World Records Book. Back then it was an inch thick with tiny type and filled with some of the most fascinating stuff, including pictures of the unimaginable. Perfect for casual (ahem, bathroom) reading, car trips and just looking for info to impress friends with. Updated annually by the Brother McWhirter back in my day it's now a brand owned by some entertainment company more interested in selling it's pages off for product placement. Avoid it at all costs.

No, instead hunt down many of the fine books of randomly collected facts out there that have popped up to fill the quality void left when Guinness went south. Dorling Kindersly, DK in the trade, has two very visual offerings: Pick Me Up which covers a lot of useful (and useless) information on a variety of subjects, and Cool Stuff and How It Works which traffics in technology and uses the x-ray-like color illustrations and cut-aways to show the various layers involved. Seeing the inside of an iPod wasn't anywhere near as interesting as seeing what is in the souls of athletic shoes that makes them so springy.

Another pair of books that fills the random information bug is Children's Miscellany and Children's Miscellany II put out by Chronicle Books. Filled with the usual lists, facts and odd little bits of instruction (how to milk a cow?) these digest-sized books are almost perfect -- putting them out in paperback and lowering their price would move them up to perfect status. There are easily a dozen other book-of-facts and almanac-type paperback available waiting to be left around the house where they will be picked up, read randomly, and left somewhere else. And, again, none of it feels like reading, yet kids will read these books for hours on end.

Single topic books

This is my catch-all section for all the possibilities out there. Many kids know about the sumptuously produced Ology books out there (Piratology, Egyptology, &c.) nut many of these and other topics are better explored (and better organized) in more traditional books that aren't looking to use their flash to hide their thinness in content.

For the study of pirates, Lost Treasures of the Pirates of the Caribbean lays out maps and legends surrounding the actual pirating that once went on and where its believed they left their booty. For older readers who can't get enough of the Disney movie franchise the Dover book Pirates and Piracy gives a nice overview of the factual elements blown way out of proportion in popular culture while the recently re-released The Barbary Pirates by C.S. Forester makes for a cracking good read as well.

On the Egyptian front, smaller in size and crammed full of goodness is the DK Backpack Book 1001 Facts About Ancient Egypt. I'm a fan of these 4 by 4 inch square paperbacks on many subjects because they merge the very visual photos and illustrations that DK is known for with tons (or is it tonnes?) of facts. Sharks, space, the human body, dinosaurs... the Backpack Books never seemed to take off but can still be found and are worth the effort.

I don't want to ignore the arts but I could take days making suggestions. First, let me suggest origami. I realize that the instructions are almost 100% visual but it is a form of reading and thinking and worthy of some reinforcement. Similarly, Ed Emberly's drawing books should be required reading for younger grades. Using basic shapes and easy, wordless step-by-step instructions kids can learn how to draw anything from monsters to rocket ships. I think even adults who claim they can't draw would benefit from a course in Emberly's books.

Finally, a story about the summer I decided I was going to learn something new. I decided in June that I would spend the summer learning how to juggle. I imagined it taking quite a bit of time to master the hand-eye coordination necessary to keep three things in the air at once. So on the first day of summer vacation with my Juggling for the Complete Klutz in hand (the book that built an empire, or at least a publishing house) I set out to learn the fine art of keeping things in the air.

Twenty minutes later I had accomplished what I thought would taken me days if not weeks. The disappointment at learning how easy it really was made me feel foolish and I didn't spend the rest of the summer practicing or learning harder tricks. I went back to my usual summer of reading the Guinness Book and other omnibuses of facts and ephemera. Mine is a cautionary tale; it takes more than one activity, or one book for that matter, to fill a summer.

* * * * *

This week's entry took a lot longer to coordinate than I envisioned, and I left off a lot of books and ideas I had jotted down. More for next year, I guess. The point is that there's a lot out there that's non-fiction in book form. In fact, if you go to a book store or library and scan the store with an eye toward separating the fiction from non-fiction you might be surprised to see just how much there is out there.

Next week I'm either donning Shorts or taking out the Trash. We'll see where the whim strikes first.

Last Week: Low Humor
Next Week: Shorts... or Trash?

Friday, May 18

3 by Alarcon (and a few thoughts on Prelutsky)

From the Bellybutton of the Moon / Del Ombligo de la Luna

Angels Ride Bikes / Los Angeles Andan en Bicicleta

Iguanas in the Snow / Iguanas en la nieve

by Francisco X. Alarcon
illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez
Children's Press Books

I wanted to discover a new voice, some new poetry. I wanted it to be my discovery. Not necessarily something new, not something I could trumpet to the world as the next big thing, but something out there that hadn't crossed my path. There's a lot out there.

I went looking for a new voice in children's poetry and initially I went to the Poetry Foundation website because they had anointed the first Children's Poet Laureate last fall. Given my goal that might sound like cheating but what I wanted was to know what was already out there. I didn't want to "find" what someone else was pushing. Turns out I needn't have worried, there wasn't really anything there.

I jumped around on the Internet and landed on a California poet named Francesco X. Alarcon. In simple two- and three-line stanzas he was writing about the small moments of barrio life, of growing up in California, of the migrant and Mexican American experience. I couldn't find anything in bookstores and was able to track down three of his four seasonal collections.

Los Libros / Books

pasaportes / oversized
de talla mayor / passports

que nos permiten / that let us
viajar / travel

a dondequiera / anywhere
cuandoquiera / anytime

y no dejar / and keep on
de sonar / dreaming

In Alarcon's poems a family dressed in army surplus cold weather parkas become the iguanas playing in the rarely-seen snow. There is an ode to the man who twirls his mustache and sells popsicles from a cart at the end of the alley on a summer day. In his poems the imported palm trees of Southern California cha-cha-cha during earthquakes. The colorful illustrations that accompany the poems are in the bold colors and flattened surfaces reminiscent of the Mexican mural movement. The poems and their presentation are perfect for emerging readers who are ready for poetry beyond the rhymes, beyond nonsense, who might be looking for their own poetic inspiration.

Para escribir poesia / To Write Poetry

debemos / We must
primero tocar / first touch
oler y soborear / smell and taste
cada palabra / every word

That pretty much is the complete lesson plan for a poetry unit. Not that you'd find an administration that would accept it as one. I didn't expect to uncover a great new voice but I was happy to have been so successful in a single casual outing.

* * * * *

April, as may remember, was National Poetry Month. While many in the kidlit blogosphere were doing many wonderful things with the month I just wasn't feeling it this time around.

I did, however, hold a secret hope that we would be seeing some more high-profile books and event surrounding National Poetry Month. The source of my hope was the naming of Jack Prelutsky as the Children's Poet Laureate back in the fall by the Poetry Foundation. At the time I imagined that Prelutsky would seize the opportunity to give children's poetry a higher profile, something along the lines of what Robert Pinsky did when he raised the national level of discussion about poetry with his Poet Laureate status. I'm not saying Prelutsky would have to hold a regular gig on NPR, or hold down the fort at, or create the Favorite Poem Project, but then again, why couldn't he?

I guess I was hoping that when National Poetry Month rolled around we'd be hearing more from old Jack. Perhaps I just always happened to be out of earshot, perhaps he was out there discovering and promoting new children's poets, making a case for better rhymes or even for an examination of serious poetry for children. I'm not talking about having to track the man down on the Poetry Foundation website for a couple of puff entries but something a little more in our faces.

Oh, wait, he had two of his own book released during National Poetry Month, Good Sports and Me I Am, and it looks like his various publishers went back and dusted off all his older titles. And just this week another new Prelutsky book hit the shelves, In Aunt Giraffe's Green Garden, only this one came out with a Hollywood style name-above-the-title cover that proudly proclaimed "Jack Prelutsky, Children's Poet Laureate".


Don't get me wrong, Jack Prelutsky is a fine children's poet and has dozens of very popular books to prove it. The recognition isn't undeserved, though it is unnecessary. I guess I assumed that the title and the position was meant to be something more than a marketing tag and a lifetime achievement laurel.

One needs to be enchanted before being disenchanted, so I guess I'll have to settle for disappointed.

Thursday, May 17

Martin Pebble

by Jean-Jacques Sempe
translated by Anthea Bell
Phaidon 2006
Originally published in France as Marcellin Caillou
Editions Denoel 1969

Martin Pebble is a charming little boy normal in all respects except for the fact that for no reason at all he blushes. He blushes when he shouldn't and doesn't when he should, all of it out of his control. Doctors promise cures but in the end Martin's condition remains unchanged.

One day he meets a new neighbor, a boy named Roddy Rocket who, for no reason whatsoever, sneezes uncontrollably. Martin and Roddy recognize soul mates in each other and from that day on they are inseparable. Overlooking each others differences they play together, share illnesses and become each other's champions.

When Roddy's family moves suddenly a letter with their new address intended for Martin is lost. Martin tries to lives his days as before but without his best friend the places and moments they once shared feel empty.

Martin grows to be a man who continues to blush uncontrollably. It still catches him off guard and is occasionally an embarrassment, but nothing he hasn't gotten used to. One day at a bus stop he hears the unmistakable sneeze of his childhood friend Roddy. They meet up and discover that despite the years they have remained their same old selves. They return to their familiar haunts, their old play, returning to their old routines as though the years between had never happened. Of course they are older and cannot keep the old paces but they are just as comfortable as they once were just sitting silently in each other's company, passing the hours.

And their boys have grown to be just like them in every way, inseparable friends, one who blushes and one who sneezes.

Sempe tells Martin and Roddy's story in a way that seems alien by today's standards; in small pictures surrounded by lots of blank space, the barest of spot color (usually Martin's red face), and over the course of 120 pages. The tone and presentation is perfect, telling Martin's simple story with a measured pacing. It isn't necessarily poetic, though it does focus on the quieter details of childhood friendships. There is something, oh, I don't know, French about how much story is told without seeming like there's any story there at all.

In a lot of ways I almost wonder if the book works with kids at all. There is an underlying nostalgia to the story that isn't the sort of thing a picture book reader is going to be familiar with, and the latter section of the book that deals with the adult versions of Martin and Roddy might just as easily bore a young reader. No, I don't think it is boring, only that picture book stories that feature grown men trying to relive their youthful exuberances probably isn't going to register.

If the illustrations look familiar you may be confusing his work with that of American illustrator R.O. Blechman whose wiggly line style is similar and not at the same time. No, Sempe is the artist many know for his little spot drawings for Rene Goscinny's Nicholas books which, happily, are currently being reprinted in this country again and are highly recommended if they haven't already crossed your radar.

Martin Pebble is probably one of those picture books best appreciated by adults, much the same as Dr. Seuss' later books (Oh! the Places You'll Go, You're Only Old Once) are primarily purchased by adults for adults. Seeing as this is graduation time perhaps Martin Pebble would make a nice alternative for the adult who appreciates picture books and would like a nice little message that isn't trying so hard.