Saturday, October 11, 2014

A story with gaps

On October 11, 2008, coming off a happy summer that had involved a great internship and a lot of tree-climbing, I climbed one last tree on the Simmons campus. I sat for a while--it was quite a nice day for October--and read from the dual volume of Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward from my Nineteenth Century American Children's Literature class and from the copy of Much Ado About Anne I'd yoinked from The Horn Book's "No Shelf." When I finally decided to go inside, I guess I didn't properly mind the gap between the branch I was sitting on and the one I wanted to step onto.

Fractured spines and shoulders aren't fun, and the next few months were not my favorite time.

There were certainly good things in the gap between then and now. I graduated from Simmons. I healed enough to work in a great bookstore, and I got to know a lot of wonderful people. But I never liked October 11.

Here's how I spent October 11 this year. I spent it in thoughtful discussions of gaps in children's book content, and of logistical and economic gaps between books and the readers who need them. I spent it surrounded by people who care a lot about stories and how we tell them and how we get them to kids. I spent parts of it behind the registration table and behind bookcarts full of swag bags. I spent it (and the awards ceremony last night) with good friends old and new. And in case anyone requires reassurance, I spent it on solid ground.

These snippets of a story, meaningful to one individual with an overdeveloped storytelling impulse, don't have much children's lit significance. But maybe they mean Pollyanna was onto something.

And they definitely mean that I, like Anne, shouldn't walk ridgepoles.




Sunday, September 28, 2014

Anastasia returns! (No Russian royalty involved.)

Things I love:
-nerdy main characters
-even nerdier parents
-budding-nerd little brothers
-hilarity, especially when it has completely logical reasons for ensuing
-Anastasia Krupnik

Some months ago, a young bookstore customer interrupted my handselling pitch for Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik around "and she lives in Cambridge!" to ask, "Did you write that book?" I realized afterwards that, as I was wearing my glasses that day, I looked a bit like the cover photo. But initially, I thought he was asking because I was so excited about it.

"I wish!" I answered.

And I'm equally excited that the Anastasia books will be re-released starting in January! (Excuse me for a moment while I look askance at the term YA in the linked article and decide that an argument could sort of be made for the later books. Sort of. Okay, that's out of my system.) Maybe it's because realistic fiction is cool again. Maybe it's because the author finally got her Giver movie, though I think that's less of a good reason; the author's ability to do lots of very different things very well does not make for readalikes. (My 1992 printing of Anastasia at this Address - $3.50, by the way - boasts, "By the author of the Newbery Medal winner Number the Stars." That's lovely, but it doesn't mean readers who loved a Holocaust book will love a comedy about a preteen answering an adult's personal ad.) But whatever the reason, I'm very excited that these books might get into more young hands.

Anastasia pays attention to the world around her. She's a reader and a listener, and finds herself interested in language and concepts she doesn't fully understand (echoes of Green Gables, anyone?). She's uncool and wants to be cooler, and is terrible at it in linguistically fascinating ways. Her parents take her seriously enough - or maybe just love their own fields of interest enough - to get into discussions of Wordsworth with her when she's ten. Her little brother Sam gets his own series, and it's funny without being gimmicky. Madcap things happen in many of the books (exploding perfume! Gerbils everywhere! Postal dog doo!), but they happen for reasons that make perfect sense if you follow along with the characters' thought processes.

Welcome back, Anastasia.

ETA: I don't think I'll be mistaken for the Anastasia on the new cover...


Sunday, August 31, 2014

I don't have the precision of language for all the feelings I'm feeling.

I have seen the Giver movie.

I can't bring myself to call it just The Giver. The Giver is a book, one that's meant a lot to me back and back and back. Back to, probably, early 1993, when an ALA-active family friend with access to this amazing thing called advance copies told me that Lois Lowry had a new book, very different from my beloved Anastasia books, and I agreed that the idea of suddenly seeing color without knowing what it was sounded fascinating. Back to my first reading, when I got to feel more informed than the characters as I figured out what information they lacked that was second nature to me. Back to the first time I reached the ending, when I realized agonizingly that maybe Jonas died and maybe he didn't, and either way, we weren't going to get to see what happened in the Community after Jonas released the memories. ("I hope she writes a sequel," I said to my mom. "Some books are better left on their own," she replied.) Back to the eighth grade essay I wrote about some of the big questions The Giver raised, something to the effect of, "The only way for it to be fair for people to be treated exactly the same is for them to be exactly the same." Back to my agony when sequels did appear and were interesting but didn't answer my questions about the Community's fate, and my further agony when early buzz about the movie made it look horribly commercial, and later buzz made it look not so bad.

Yeah. When I finally watched the first lines, I had more with me than two lovely viewing companions and a box of Junior Mints. But I was determined to give the film a chance.

The first few lines didn't do it for me. First-person narration has its place, but in this case, a Jonas apparently speaking from the future told us way too much. One of the best things about encountering this story in its original form is that Jonas doesn't know much about his world, and the reader gets to figure everything out. Still, the first half of the movie got some things right. It sped through a lot of revelations (um, maybe explain the Community's stance on twins so it can be knocked down?). But character ages aside, it preserved a lot of the important details of the Ceremonies. Jeff Bridges was perfect, and so, by the way, was Emma Tremblay as Lily. The emphasis on Jonas's love for Gabriel was just right, even if it had to fight for screen time with other things being emphasized.

Beyond that, the movie took some interesting directions. It made Fiona a completely different character - an interesting character, just not Fiona. Ditto the Chief Elder and Asher and Jonas's mom. The last third was an exciting action sequence with characters making exciting choices, but the action-packed parts were their own story, not The Giver's.

That's the thing about The Giver: it basically established the modern formula for YA dystopia, and in its relative simplicity, it raised lots of possibilities for stories of people attempting utopias and, well, dissing them. Remember the recent tidal wave of dystopian YA novels? Lots of people explored those possibilities and came up with new, if related, stories. Matched, for instance, is in many ways essentially The Giver with romance. The Giver is not.

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I should add that as of a week and a half ago, I'm approaching the children's book field from a new angle, one I'm very excited about. After four and a half years learning a heck of a lot as a children's bookseller (whatever else I might say about the Giver movie, I know it will bring the book to lots of new readers), I'm now an editorial assistant at The Horn Book. I don't know exactly how this blog will evolve, but as always, opinions expressed here are my own.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In a world where Bridge to Terabithia gives me hope for The Giver...

Remember the ads for the 2007 Bridge to Terabithia movie?


Bridge to Terabithia is not a fantasy. It is not about giant fantasy creatures leaving giant footprints. It is not the kind of story that calls for a power voiceover. It's Bridge to Terabithia, not BRIDGE. TO TERABITHIA.

The thing is, the movie turned out to be a faithful adaptation. The fantasy creatures showed up for about as long as they did in the trailer, and they played the same role that Terabithia played in the book: they we clearly creations of the characters' imaginations. Hollywood made a trailer using the moments it believed would put butts in the seats, but first it made a movie that respected the book and its fans.

Which brings me to this:


The studio has assured us that the movie will begin in black and white, as it should. We know that Hollywood has aged Jonas up and gathered a cast so all-star, it's made a few jaws drop. I'm not expecting a completely faithful adaptation; there's no beaming up in The Giver, but there is in this trailer. Maybe, though, the beaming up is less significant than it looks. Maybe it's a dream sequence.

The source of my renewed optimism is this article. Clearly, there've been some changes to the story (Jonas has a "girlfriend," huh?), but the reporter seems to have viewed a story that's very recognizable as The Giver in both theme and plot. (The Washington Post deserves kudos for its informed writing about YA, here and elsewhere.)

I'm still going into this one warily, and I'm sure I'll find things to rant about, maybe even big things. But maybe, just maybe, the moments chosen to put butts in the seats don't represent the movie's essence. And whatever else Hollywood did, it kept the title, which means more people are going to read the book.


Friday, July 11, 2014

On religion and children's books

There's a scene in More All-of-a-Kind Family, the third book in Sydney Taylor's wonderful series based on her own childhood, when Henny begs her older sister Ella to check the nearly new Anne of Avonlea out of the library. Henny can't do it herself because the book is in the adult section, but that's a subject for another post. Today, what I have on the brain is religion, specifically religion in mainstream children's fiction.

If you've read L.M. Montgomery's work, you know that religion comes up pretty often, usually in a way that's irreverent toward minutiae but respectful overall. Most of her characters are Presbyterian, and characters' hangups over their differences with Methodists are played for comic effect, as are some anxieties about what is or isn't okay to think about on Sunday. But in serious moments, Christianity is taken seriously, and all this is just part of the fabric of life for the ridgepole-walking redhead. It doesn't seem to bother Sabbath-observing, kosher-keeping Henny. Fast-forward about eighty years, and much as I loved seeing my family's religious practices in the All of a Kind Family books, the Anne books felt just as much my own.

These days, there are religious publishers of religious books for religious kids, but there are fewer mainstream books that acknowledge religion. And just like books with characters of a particular ethnicity shouldn't just be for readers of that ethnicity, there's value in giving kids a chance to see what they have in common with kids from other religions. I would guess there's been some hesitation on this front because religion is so personal and sometimes so fractious, and mainstream publishers may be afraid to be seen as endorsing a particular set of beliefs. I wonder if it's actually easier to get a book like Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. or My Basmati Bat Mitzvah published than it is to include a more prevalent religion in a kids' book. (I'm speaking here of American publishers and American demographics.)


This is on my mind now because of two recent reads that I thought did this well: Julie T. Lamana's Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (yes, I finally got my hands on an ARC). Upside Down follows a family from the Ninth Ward through Hurricane Katrina. Religion is not a major focus, but the Curtises are devout Christians, and it makes complete sense that in very difficult moments, they automatically take comfort in their faith. I'm pretty sure that if I had read this as a middle-grader (obviously an anachronistic hypothetical), I would've understood the emotions being expressed through religious language. Brown Girl Dreaming does something perhaps even more interesting, and being based on the author's life, it sort of had to. It portrays a variety of religious beliefs within one family - Jacqueline's grandmother is a Jehovah's Witness, and various members of the family embrace or reject her faith and practices to varying degrees, even evolving as time passes. An uncle adopts Islam, and young Jackie prays with him without abandoning her earlier beliefs. There's some push-and-pull over religion in the book, but it's not cataclysmic.

Religious differences don't have to be cataclysmic. That's all I'm saying.


Friday, July 4, 2014

Let fREADom ring.

Happy Fourth! As always, there's been a lot to talk about lately here in the American kidlit/yalit world. Maybe my perspective's a little skewed - after all, this is kind of the primary lens through which I view the world - but the discussions we're having seem like a good reflection of what this country is.

It's a place of incredible diversity, a place where not everyone has always been treated fairly, but where people step up and say what needs to be said for the sake of the future. It's a place where ideas get challenged, but where we can challenge those challenges. It's a place where it's okay to express unpopular opinions and to respond to them, and to read whatever the heck you want. It's a place where we're making progress.

And, especially in this weather, it's a great place to curl up and read.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Nancy on My Mind

Flashback a couple of years: At a New England SCBWI conference, we'd just watched a screening of  Library of the Early Mind and listened to a panel discussion with some of the authors featured in the documentary. One of them, a small, elfin woman named Nancy Garden, was charming but a bit self-deprecating about her appearance in the film, which included images far more memorable than anything she might have done with her hair. Bonfires of her book, for example. On our way back to our respective hotel rooms, a few friends and I ended up in the same elevator as Nancy. Everyone was silent for a moment, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wanted to say, "Nancy, you're brave and amazing and important." I finally settled for, "Nancy, I thought you looked lovely."

Flashback a few years earlier. I checked out Annie on My Mind knowing it was an iconic lesbian novel, and feeling like I was doing something a little daring. But when (minor spoilers ahead) authority figures in the novel treated same-sex relationships as something people should get in trouble for, I knew enough to be angry, to want to jump into the pages and say, "you know these people haven't actually hurt anyone, right? Or harmed themselves? Or done anything wrong?" I missed out on the pre-Annie novels in which homosexuality always ended in tragedy, but I knew of their existence. And I knew that though this was a happy novel, a positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship, it also depicted a time and place where the world's reaction to such relationships was not okay. (In many cases and places, it still isn't.)

Flash forward to today.  Lambda Literary's obituary for Garden quotes her on why she wrote for teens, and points out the astronomical growth in young adult literature since the height of her career. I would add that YA with queer characters has grown in leaps and bounds. We're way past the point of discreetly checking out one or two iconic novels. We have a ways to go, especially in the area of casual diversity (hero or heroine of story is queer but the main plot is about other aspects of his or her life), but look. Look. Look. Look. Look what Annie hath wrought.

Thank you, Nancy.