Sunday, October 30, 2011

Are Harris Burdick's chronicles too mysterious?

It's a new book by fourteen "alleged authors" of tales behind drawings in a style very similar to Chris Van Allsburg's, originally published as a picture book in 1984, but apparently created and captioned by a mysterious artist named Harris Burdick decades earlier. Handsell that.

The Brattle Theatre was full a few nights ago with people eager to hear from a distinguished panel about The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. It was an audience made up almost entirely of adults (one teenaged audience member faux-huffed when that was pointed out), and my sense is that many of us were, in one way or another, "children's lit people." This thing could be meta-children's-lit enough to implode on itself.

But I suspect it isn't.

Look at it this way: it's fourteen authors who are all different kinds of awesome, each responding to a writing prompt in the form of a picture and a caption. It's like a game, and I hope teachers will let their students try their hand at it before sharing the collection. The backstory will likely be fun for some kids; I would've loved it. But for those not drawn in by it, I think the collection will stand on its own.

In any case, if you ever have the chance to hear Chris Van Allsburg talk about physical books or Lois Lowry about Elsie Dinsmore, take it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hear, hear!

A number of people I respect have issued a proclamation. It's a good one.

I don't think the current picture book market is drowning in drek, not at all. The early days of picture books had Margaret Wise Brown, but they didn't have Mo Willems. Innovative work is still being produced; some of it feels like it could only have been created by its particular artist, and some of it makes me wonder, "Why didn't anyone think of this before?"

What I'd like to tell some authors and illustrators, though, is that it's not enough to know and to show us that children are charming. We know children are charming, and children know it, too; childhood is where they spend all of their time. For a book to be worth a child's time, it needs to do something of its own, or do something in a new way. That might mean introducing a character who's interesting for a reason beyond being young and cute, or it might mean approaching a concept like the alphabet in a way children haven't seen before, or...

well, you're the innovators. Show us something.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"I don't grunt, I don't oink, I don't even squeak or squawk."

There are many ways to do animal voice wrong. Most of these ways involve overthinking it, twisting your mind too hard around what animals would know: "The human jangled the small pieces of door-opening metal. Maybe I would get to take a ride in the big moving thing!"

There are many ways to do animal voice right. Most of these ways involve creating a set of rules for what these animals understand and owning those rules, whatever they are. Elephant and Piggie are almost indistinguishable from humans. Wilbur, Charlotte, and their friends have distinctive but mostly human-like voices. Despereaux tells Princess Pea that he honors her, and Princess Pea understands.

But the best animal voice I've read recently came from an unlikely source: a YA dystopia. In Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy (thanks for the rec, everyone!), thoughts are audible, so it follows naturally that we hear from animals as well as from humans. The animals are kept animalistic, and their self-expression is kept simple and thus believable. "Hungry, Todd." "Thirsty, Todd." "Boy colt?" Their words, and especially their identifications of the people closest to them, combine with their actions to tell us plenty about them. We learn enough to care about them as what they are - animals whose emotions are basic but include loyalty and love.

"Lap, Shosh," a certain cat seems to be saying. Signing off.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to infringe on Mo Willems' copyright* and other lessons from the Boston Book Festival

*reference to copyright infringement copyright Mo Willems

-The man who brought us the Pigeon, Cat the Cat, Knuffle Bunny, Elephant, and Piggie is at least as hilarious in person.

-You can draw the Pigeon even if you can't draw. Mo will even teach you how, copyright be darned.

-Differences between a child's Pigeon and Mo's Pigeon constitute the child's drawing style and are to be encouraged, even by a Caldecott honoree.

-It is possible for the Boston Book Festival and good weather to coincide.

-When such a weather phenomenon coincides with a grilled cheese truck phenomenon, the BPL cafe becomes a much quicker place to get lunch.

-Authors of novels that aren't really "humor books" can create a substantive, informative panel on "Funny Kids' Fiction."

-Authors who grew up on oral tradition, like Julia Alvarez, can provide great insight into what makes a "reluctant reader."

-I really need to read Meg Wolitzer's The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

-Chris Raschka is an excellent deadpanner.

-Linda Urban is excellent at taking kids seriously, as when an eight-year-old audience member requests advice on overcoming writer's block.

And finally, one lesson that was purely review:
-There are so many books. There is so little time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The structure of adventure

In a New York Times article published yesterday, Maria Tatar suggests that the often frightening fantasies of today give kids and young adults less space to play in wonderlands than did their counterparts in earlier decades and centuries. I agree with some of the points she makes, though I'm not sure that scary books necessarily give readers more of "a dose of adult reality" than cheerful books do. Yes, scenes of violence and political unrest may reflect realities or project possibilities, but so do scenes of love and triumph, regardless of one's age. I don't think the question is one of adult reality, but rather one of story structure and how it's changing. A home-away-home pattern was once pretty standard for kids' books, particularly those for middle-graders and younger. That pattern hasn't disappeared, but my sense (anecdotally) is that it's appearing in fewer stories now.

(A few non-shocking spoilers below.)
It went without saying in the 1860s that Alice would make it back up the rabbit hole. Small, happy-ending changes were standard, but they might be as slight as a bell under a Christmas tree and a happy memory of a Polar Express train. But things change irrevocably for Harry Potter and for a lot of his young descendants (I speak not of the painfully named Albus Severus). It's especially true in YA, but the middle-grade world is hardly immune.

I'm not calling the change a good or a bad thing. Characters should change and grow. In many cases lately, particularly in dystopian fiction, their worlds change and grow with them, which is awesomely empowering for the characters and thus for the readers. But I think there's value in both types of structures. There's great comfort in a home-away-home story, and I hope that comfort, like Max's supper, is still hot.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Sendak sends us

Maurice Sendak seems to be everywhere these days. With the publication of Bumble-Ardy, the first picture book he's written and illustrated since 1981, comes a plethora of articles and interviews, and every time I read one, I learn something new. There's a lot to the guy.

It's good fun to read some of his saltier comments (he mentions his mother with that mouth?). He's always insisted that the young aren't necessarily innocent, and he's proof that neither are the old. The details of his life give him good reason to make a few negative comments on the world, and that he does so with humor and hope is to his credit.

But what I especially come away with is that Sendak, this person who would like to die dancing, has a rich lifetime's worth of wisdom, and he's chosen to apply that wisdom to creating books for children.  Before places like Simmons granted the field academic legitimacy, before series like Harry Potter made it commercially attractive, Sendak decided to use his artistic skill and everything else he had to tell children honest stories they could appreciate on whatever levels felt right to them. He's still doing exactly that, and his work is probably a big part of the reason that other people are, too.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Horn Book at Simmons: It's not just on M&Ms

Horn Book at Simmons M&Ms are a real thing. So are Simmons College glasses-cleaning cloths and tote bags reading "Crit Happens." For some kids, so is Stuart Little.

"Engaging Worlds, Real and Imagined" was the theme of this year's Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, which followed the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for the second year in a row. Both events, and the kidlit meetup that took over the Coolidge Corner Panera yesterday, created a world for people who deal with children's lit in all sorts of real ways to engage with the field.

We looked at ways real people have looked at imagined worlds; Richard Peck reminded us of the library world's objections to a human giving birth to a mouse. The same sorts of oppositions have plagued nonfiction; Steve Sheinkin gave all kinds of examples of how truth can be more fun than fiction if no one tries to sanitize it. A panel of publishers imagined how people might find their way into the worlds of stories in the near and distant future.

Reassuringly, it seems stories will still get to be stories. And there are still plenty of us in favor of obsessing about them. Good, honest, speculative discussions are a real thing, too.