Sunday, July 31, 2011

I blog The Body Electric.

(Be glad I don't sing it. Trust me.)

The topic for this year's Children's Literature Summer Institute at Simmons was "The Body Electric," which meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To many, it was a chance to reinterpret their bodies of work, or talk about what had galvanized them. To Brian Floca it was, among other things, a chance for clever riffs: "I push the button electric!" To Jack Gantos, it was the impetus for a side-splitting stroll through an imaginary graveyard of "canon fodder." Gene Yang, Barbara O'Connor, and Sharon Draper demonstrated it literally with animated presentations; I don't envy anyone the task of presenting after lunch on day 2.5 of a conference, but they had enough energy to transmit some to us.

Before and during the conference, I thought about all kinds of things "the body electric" might mean. Toward the end, I took a fresh look at Whitman, and it's all there. I was surprised to see how closely connected his words were to Laban Carrick Hill's and Bryan Collier's presentations. But really, everything's connected. (Currents. Circuitry. Joints and sinews. Describe it as you will.) Helen Frost connected her books to each other and to her family history. Grace Lin's questions about whether "multicultural" books can be for everyone were easy to connect to Amy Pattee's images of books about overweight characters; is putting a relatively thin girl on the cover the only way to make this sort of book cool enough for everyone? Much of what Sara Pennypacker said connected with my own interests and values, enough so that I'm planning to write a separate post on her talk.

That certainly isn't all; I enjoyed and got something out of every presentation and every breakout session, as well as the conversations I had with friends old and new. M.T. Anderson spoke about how the world of stories is changing in ways that can both worry and excite us, and he's right. But as long as this community's here, I know I can find people who care about the things I care about.

I celebrate the us yet to come.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Is this a kissing book?"

Every time I read or watch an old favorite like The Princess Bride, I notice something new, and last night's outdoor viewing was no exception. (You haven't lived until you've done a  communal recitation of the "mawwidge" monologue on the waterfront on a summer night with a bunch of good friends.) This time, TPB reminded me of bookselling.

Most of us have awwwwed over the exchanges between the recently departed Peter Falk and an adorably young Fred Savage as Grandpa tries to convince his feverish grandson to give a book about true love a chance. "Murdered by pirates is good," little Fred eventually concedes. The book sets up a similar dynamic, with a fictionalized younger version of author William Goldman demanding to know if his father's favorite book has any sports in it. "Fencing," returns his father. "Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge..."

I have variations on this conversation all the time in the bookstore. My suggestions are always books that I think the reader will enjoy; I'm not trying to make a tricky sales pitch. But readers and (more often, honestly) adult book-bestowers come with biases about what the right book is and isn't, which puts me in the position of the father and grandfather in the two Princess Brides, looking for the angle that will make a book most appealing.  I've found that Graceling is hand-sellable to boys and their gift-buyers (and even had one customer come back and say he loved it), but the more I can say about Katsa before arriving at a gender pronoun, the more likely I am to win the customer over. And Frannie K. Stein? The mother of a sci-fi-and-horror-loving second-grade boy was convinced to give the heroine a chance only when I said, "Yeah, but it's a science girl."

As you wish, readers. As you wish.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Literary Love: Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu

I am totally on this bandwagon. If buzz is any indication, lots of booksellers and librarians will be scattering Breadcrumbs this fall, and with good reason.

Breadcrumbs is the story of Hazel and Jack, two fifth graders who get pulled into the world of "The Snow Queen." It's a fantasy, but with a first act rooted in realism, which I think will make it appealing to kids who are primarily fantasy fans as well as those who'd rather read about kids like them. Jack and Hazel are kids like them, or like many kids. Their sense of not belonging and their discomfort with the changes and losses that come with growing up bring them into the fairy tale world, and it makes complete emotional sense that both of them have a hard time resisting that world's pull.

There's extra payoff for The Kid Who's Read Everything. A review of or introduction to "The Snow Queen" is certainly helpful, but there are plenty of other references to recognize (and I don't know about you, but I love recognizing references). There's a whole lot of Narnia, some Harry Potter, some Alice, a Phantom Tollbooth nod... there's even a mention that Hazel is reading about a character who's reading A Wrinkle in Time--a When You Reach Me reference sandwich, to paraphrase myself from a Facebook conversation this morning.

A story full of snow. Doesn't that sound nice?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Not-so-stinky cheese

I recently saw a film made from a children's book. There was much I liked about the film; many of the little emotional moments were played just right, and it told a story well. But - and I'm being pseudo-cryptic here so I can deny it all to any who violently disagree - some moments in this film might be described as cheesy.

It's hard to avoid being overdramatic when you're showing a moment that characters, readers, and viewers have been awaiting for a significant portion of their real or fictional lives. Think about something you've wanted for as long as you can remember, something that everyone you know wants for you. In the movie of your life, what would the background music and camera angles be for the moment you attained that something? There's probably an understated way to play that kind of moment in a visual medium, but I don't know what it is, and I'm not sure Hollywood does, either. I can forgive Hollywood for that, and even thank it for giving me a few good laughs while I enjoyed its storytelling.

Still, epilogues, like strong cheese, are best used sparingly.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

When Chicka Chicka clicked

When A turned two back in September, I thought Chicka Chicka Boom Boom would be the perfect gift. I knew from plenty of trials with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and its sequels that she was a Bill Martin, Jr. fan; she was getting older and becoming ready for longer texts and for the alphabet; and what kid wouldn't be attracted by Lois Ehlert's simple, boldly colored shapes?

She wasn't into it. I suspect that she mostly just wasn't into anything unfamiliar; she had her favorites, and why read some strange new thing for the first or second time when you can read a beloved Maisy book for the seventy-second time? (I told you she liked bold colors.) Whatever the reason, CCBB skit-skat-skoodle-doot-flip-flopped.

Well, now A is two and three quarters. (Credit for that precision goes to her five-and-a-half-year-old sister.) This weekend, on a whim, I pulled CCBB out of the book bin. Early in the first read-through, she was answering my "chicka chickas" with "boom booms," and when we reached the end of the alphabet's ascent up the tree, she jumped in with, "Now I know my ABC; next time won't you sing with me?" On the alphabet's way down, she was fascinated with the crying k (the letter is shown with a tear dripping from its top).

In fact, when we reached as-yet-unscathed k in its first appearance on the second read-through, she stopped me. "Let me show you something," she said, and turned the pages until she found the crying k. She flipped back and forth, showing herself and me that k and crying-k were the same character (in every sense of the word).

The right book for the right child at the right time? We got there eventually.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Alas, Morgenstern invented it all."

My favorite adaptation isn't really an adaptation at all.

I refer, of course, to The Princess Bride. Author William Goldman claims to be abridging a classic tome by one S. Morgenstern of Florin, and through Goldman's little notes about what he's cut, what he's kept, and why, we get the feeling we're enjoying a favorite tale along with him. But florin is nothing but currency, no one named S. Morgenstern ever lived there, and without Goldman, no part of The Princess Bride would exist. It's not hard to see who gets the credit there.

In other cases, though, the point of an adaptation can be harder to find. I've heard many objections to the abridgements of classics for early readers. Personally, I don't object to their existence; if a six-year-old is interested in a sneak peek at what this Oliver Twist business is about, more power to him or her. I just hope parents and other gift-givers aren't motivated by a desire to be able to say that the child in question is reading "classics." After all, there are plenty of classics whose originals--with their original voices intact--are intended for new readers, and I'd hate for those readers to miss the real Frog and Toad or The Hundred Dresses because they were limited to a not-quite-real Secret Garden or Moby-Dick.

But there are adaptations that are works of art in themselves. Some of the graphic novel versions of existing works are somewhat perfunctory; others may be helpful in understanding those works, but are otherwise forgettable. But then there are Gareth Hinds' graphic novel adaptations. Just look at The Odyssey. I think I've made a few maybe-graphic-novels-aren't-junk converts just by holding it up.

And then there's The Flint Heart, Katherine and John Paterson's "freely abridged" adaptation of Eden Phillpott's 1910 novel. I've read only a brief excerpt of the original work, but my impression is that the Patersons did something really smart: they preserved the voice. It's not dumbed down, and the funny lines keep on coming. It's easy to preserve plot in a retelling (though many film directors could stand a lesson in that). But the new Flint Heart also holds onto other important elements that make a story worth reading. If this edition brings a near-forgotten story to more readers, I think it serves a worthwhile purpose.