In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bone at the book festival

Dear Annie,

I love your reading-at-the-party photo.  Isabel is really focused in.

I wanted to go back to the National Book Festival for one last author.  I went predisposed to like Jeff Smith, author of the
graphic novel series.  He grew up in Columbus, Ohio -- the big city of your grandpa's childhood.  And he grew up reading lots of comics, including
by Walt Kelly, which you and I both were introduced to in my parents' home (yeah, well, 25 years apart).  While still a kid, Smith created the character Bone, and added Bone's two cousins who look remarkably similar.  In interviews, Smith is very up-front about being influenced by Kelly.

What I really liked about Jeff Smith was that, even though he wrote Bone for adults before it was bought by Scholastic, he treated his kid fans with wonderful respect.  Some children's authors will show up at an event where the audience is more or less split between kids and grown-ups and play to the adults in the crowd.  But Smith really talked to the kids in the audience, without talking down to them.   Smith is 50 years old, and started out saying he grew up in a time when reading comics was not considered to be reading.  He was fascinated by drawing cartoon characters, created Bone early on, and wanted to insert cartoon characters into more serious folklore/legend-style stories.  That's basically what the Bone series is: three clueless Bones who have wandered into a world of mythic good and bad guys (and some fabulous women) and creatures deep in generations-old struggles.

One nine or ten year-old in the audience asked Smith a slightly inarticulate question about why the Bones didn't have swords.  The cartoonist understood the question immediately, talked about how the characters were inserted into this mythic setting.  "They're classic slapstick comedians ... Their job is to get in trouble."  And it's up to other characters -- usually Gran'ma Ben and her granddaughter Thorn -- to wield the swords to get them out of trouble. "The Luke Skywalker part of the story goes to Thorn and Gran'ma."

Smith drew several pictures of the main characters on a big newsprint tablet.  It was remarkable how after just two strokes of his pen, you could see the character.  One girl asked him if he saw the whole picture in his head before he drew, or if he figured it out as he went along.  The latter, he said, and proceeded to demonstrate by drawing Smiley Bone throwing a ball.  Smith threw an imaginary ball four or five times in the 90-second process of doing the drawing.  It was great -- made you feel a part of his creative process.

"I like comedies that forget they're comedies sometimes," he said, which sums up the feel of the Bone books quite nicely.  Good reads, probably ages 9 or 10 and up.

I plan to spend this weekend unpacking boxes and boxes of books in the new store.  I hope all of you are immersed in books too, but less overwhelmingly.



Monday, September 27, 2010

Mem Fox, in bedtime and playtime mode

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love knowing that Max and Ruby were real kids.  I wonder how they feel about the drekky TV show using their names....

You mentioned a few great Mem Fox titles; tonight I'd like to sing the praises of two of them, both of which have been staples in our house for quite some time.

Time For Bed
, illustrated by Jane Dyer, is one of our favorite bedtime books: a gentle, lyrical rhyme which says goodnight to all kinds of small animals: "It's time for bed, little mouse, little mouse.  Darkness is falling all over the house....It's time to sleep, little bird, little bird.  So close your eyes, not another word."  The version I've linked to is a lap-sized board book (who knew there was such a thing!), and thus perfect for really little kids who are apt to tear normal pages, but love the large, double-spread pictures of parent and child animals.  I'm pretty sure I could recite this entire book from memory.  There's also a small-sized board book and a standard paper page hardcover, whose major benefit is that it contains an extra painting of a bear and the night sky.  We have all three versions.

Time for Bed was my introduction to Mem Fox, and was one of the reasons I perked right up a year and a half or so ago when I saw you'd sent us
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
.  The other reason, of course, is that it's illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, whom I adore.  It's a lovely multicultural book, listing and depicting a lot of different kinds of babies, each of whom, "as everyone knows/ had ten little fingers/ and ten little toes."  Sometimes the text gives a hint to the babies' races ("There was one little baby who was born on the ice/ and another in a tent, who was just as nice"), but more often, the babies are just happily and quietly different colors and ethnicities.  It's quite joyful.

In birthday news, both Dog and Maisy's Amazing Big Book of Words were giant hits.  Isabel is now obsessed with Dog (which, brilliantly, has a pull-tab that makes a dog's leg lift and shows him peeing), and Eleanor and her friend Martin were super into Maisy yesterday.  Here's what we looked like for much of the party (joined here by Eleanor's dear friend Ian):
Love, Annie

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book festivities

Dear Annie,

Happy first birthday to the delightful Isabel.  I hope you've been having a special day.

I had quite a lovely day yesterday down at the National Book Festival on the Mall here in D.C.  It's basically a series of readings in the heat under huge tents by lots of different authors, each presenting every 45 minutes or so.  Laura Bush is credited with starting the festival ten years ago, "the best legacy of the Bush Administration," said Rosemary Wells, in a not-so-subtle dig.

 Rosemary Wells, best known as the author of the Max and Ruby books, ran a real pep rally for reading.  "I write to cause children to look at a book and open those pages and love what's inside....I don't want to write a book about what you should or shouldn't think."  She talked about the ability to read being the foundation of a democracy -- lots of good stuff that I agree with.

She eventually got around to good old Max and Ruby, though.  One kid asked her how she came up with them.  She replied that they're non-fiction, based entirely on her two children.  She wrote the first book when Ruby was five years old and Max was nine months.  "Ruby is 37 years old now, the mother of three, and still really bossy.  An Max is 32 and teaches horticulture at Cornell and still really dirty."

Judith Viorst, best known for Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, read from her new and wacky
Lulu and the Brontosaurus
. I'm quite fond of that one -- lots of opportunity for parents to ham up a read-aloud.  (It might show up at your house in my Christmas box.)  She says the idea was born on a rainy day on vacation with two of her grandsons.  They demanded that she make up stories for them over the course of several hours, and eventually Lulu and the brontosaurus appeared.  Someone in the audience asked about Alexander, the subject of several of her books, at which point she said, "Alexander's going to kill me for this," and pointed to a forty-something man in the front row with a small boy in his lap.  He smiled and waved at the crowd.

Mem Fox, author of some wonderful books for little ones --  most notably Time for Bed, Where is the Green Sheep?, and my current favorite,
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
-- spoke about her childhood. Born in Australia, she grew up in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), the child of missionaries and the only non-African child in her school.  Her classroom, she said, was a space under a tree.  The teacher would trace the letters of the alphabet in the air and the children wrote them with their fingers in the dirt under the tree.  Eventually they graduated to slates, which had the attraction of needing to be spat upon to be erased.  She spoke about the intense thought that goes into creating the economy of language in her board books.

I'm going to save for my next post a wonderful presentation by a great graphic novelist. 



Saturday, September 25, 2010

Inanimate objects with personality

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We await the birthday box of books with great anticipation!

A Flock of Shoes sounds wonderful.  There's something so appealing about giving personalities to inanimate objects.  Yesterday afternoon, Eleanor and I were having ice cream cones in the playground (and giving the eager Isabel licks from a spoon), and I was reminded of one of your gifts to us: the book Things That Sometimes Happen: Very Short Stories for Little Listeners, by Avi, with illustrations by Marjorie Priceman.

There are a lot of wonderful things about this book: the nine very short stories with simple, imaginative, funny plots; Priceman's vivid, sweeping gouache paintings.  There are animals (a hippopotamus who wants to buy a new car), and people (a little boy who makes himself small so he can run between the raindrops to get his mother some bread from the store), and there are some wonderful inanimate objects, each of which wants nothing more than to be of use.

In "The Story of the Glass of Water and the Elephant," the Glass of Water complains about having no one to drink him: "'I do wish,' the Glass of Water said to himself, 'I do wish somebody would drink me.  A Glass of Water needs to have somebody to drink the water or it is no good.'"  Happily, the Glass of Water meets a thirsty Elephant, and it all works out.

"The Black Crayon" begins: "A Black Crayon was feeling very unhappy because nobody used him very much.  All the other crayons, the red crayon, the blue crayon, all the different ones, were getting shorter and shorter.  But the Black Crayon was staying very much the same size."

He convinces a Little Girl to draw a picture of the nighttime, with lots of black, and everyone is happy.  The fate of "The Melting Ice Cream Cone" is not as rosy: though he wants to be eaten, he melts while two bears argue over who should take the first lick.  I love the sense in all three stories that everyone just wants to fulfill their role in life.

I can't write about Things That Sometimes Happen without mentioning the story "Going to Work," in which a Little Boy agrees to take his Papa's place at the office when his Papa has to stay home sick with a cold.  The description of an adult workplace is both clearly simplified and totally accurate: "After his Mama had made him a lunch, the Little Boy went to work.  When he got to work, he sat at a desk and said yes and no to a lot of people.  Then he picked up the telephone and spoke to some more people.  Then he looked at some papers.  Every once in a while he had some coffee."  Yep, that's pretty much how it goes some days.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Migrating in style

Dear Annie,

Ah, bedtime reading.  Such a lovely time.  Such a challenge to exhausted parents. We had the luxury of two parents at home at most bedtimes, so we would alternate which parent put which child to bed each night.  Before the days of chapter books, the deal was two picture books, then bed.  That of course led to lots of negotiation.  A reading of Grumpy Bird is considerably shorter than, say, A Baby Sister for Frances.  And two Frances-length books could put off sleep for quite a while.  Once the girls were in chapter book mode, each would have her own bedtime-specific book.  Because we stuck to the policy of parental units alternating nights, each of us would end up reading every other chapter of a lot of books.  Part of our post-child-bedtime conversation would involve briefing each other on what happened in books we were particularly fond of.  What I remember about single-parent nights was starting in Mona's room (she being a year and a half younger) and reading to both of them, then tucking Mona in and continuing upstairs to Lizzie's room.  Definitely harder.

Our box of birthday books left Washington today, heading to you in time for Isabel's birthday.  There are books for both of your girls, of course.  And because today is the first day of fall, I'm going to give you a preview of one of them.  It's
A Flock of Shoes
, by Sarah Tsiang, from the same Canadian publisher that brought us The Paper Bag Princess

Abby has wonderful pink and brown flip-flops with lime green trim which she wears very happily all summer long.  As cooler weather approaches, Abby refuses to relinquish them, just adding socks to keep warm.  But one day, as she's swinging high, first one sandal falls off, then the other:

They join a V-formation of summer shoes flying south.  Abby's mom gives her cool boots, but she's slow to bond with them, instead thinking of what her sandals are doing.  There's a postcard with a picture of the flip-flops in beach chairs on the sand: "Thought about your heels today.  We miss you to the bottom of our soles."  Abby finally becomes fond of the boots, but when warm weather comes, they stomp off to a northbound train, just as the sandal population is winging its way north.  Her pair finds her: "They were rested and fat, grown just wide enough for Abby's feet."

I love this book.  Have sent it to both of my daughters in college, and am going to make it the centerpiece of my fall books display.  Hey, leaves can fall any year -- but how often do shoes migrate?



Monday, September 20, 2010

Birthday books and bedtime reading routines

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oh, how I wish we could get you to open up a bookstore near us!  We're overdue for a DC and Child's Play visit.

Isabel turns one this coming weekend (I still can't quite believe it -- this year has gone so fast), and I've been putting away books to give her for her birthday.  In addition to the favorites I've mentioned before (Doggies and  Cat top the list), she is currently obsessed with another great Sandra Boynton book:  Moo, Baa, La La La!  She's big on animals and animal noises, and has started referring to most animals, including pigeons, by her dog noise ("Fwoof").

Our pre-bedtime reading ritual has gotten a little more complicated since Isabel started to be just as interested in books as she is in milk.  Eleanor, of course, wants us to read her nice long books.  But as soon as Isabel is done with her bottle, she squirms off my lap, finds one of her board books, picks it up and shoves it at me.  Often, one of us will read Doggies again for the umpteenth time while the other finishes Eleanor's current library book.  On nights when Jeff works late, however, I find myself doing double duty: pausing in the middle of a dramatic scene to direct a "Moo" or a "Woof" at a delighted Isabel.

I remember that your girls had an elaborate routine that involved each having her own book read by a parent, plus having a common book you all read together -- am I getting that right?  I'm starting to wonder how old my girls will have to be before we can all read the same book together and all get real enjoyment out of it.  Not to say that I'm not enjoying this stage, too.  I am.

Two books are hidden on my closet shelf right now.  Dog, of course, is a companion book to Cat.  Pretty sure that will be a hit.  The other is a recommendation from my dear friend Cyd: Maisy's Amazing Big Book of Words.  Cyd's oldest daughter, Rebekah, loved her copy to destruction and they had to get another for Rebekah's sister Ellie.

I'm not the biggest fan of the Maisy books in general.  Maisy herself is a fine character -- she's a mouse, and not too girly, and Lucy Cousins's paintings are bright and appealing.  I like the way she outlines everything in black, making it feel at once childlike and sturdy.  Truth is, though, they're kind of boring.  Maisy does things -- goes to the hospital, bakes gingerbread, makes Valentines, goes to preschool, celebrates pretty much any holiday you can think of -- and nothing very interesting happens, and everyone is fine.  Okay.  Eleanor really likes them, of course, but they are difficult to reread.

Maisy's Amazing Big Book of Words, however, is pretty awesome.  It capitalizes on what Cousins does best, in page after page of bold drawings and words, without being hampered by a plot.  Each 2-page spread has a picture of Maisy doing something on the left (playing the piano, driving a police car, watering plants), often with a lift-the-flap piece, and a series of illustrations of thematically-linked words on the right.  For "Rainy Days," the words are "frog, lightning, ducklings, umbrella, boots, worm, puddle, snail."  There's a page on dress-up, a page on fish in the sea, a page on noisy things, etc.  I'm looking forward to obsessive reading on the part of both girls.  Let's hope I'm right!

Love, Annie

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reading about the family compound

Dear Annie,

Today I sent off tens of thousands of dollars' worth of orders for kids' books for a new store that we'll be opening in a few weeks in Virginia.  It's so much fun to go through lists of all the books our current stores have sold recently and try to shape a new book section based on books I like.  One of the joys of the job.

Another joy is finding, in the midst of many many sample books, a gem of a new book.  This weekend I discovered Anna Hibiscus, by a Nigerian-born storyteller named Atinuke. (She currently lives in Wales.)  It's an early chapter book with a lovely lilting tone about a girl who lives in an unnamed African city.  Her extended family lives in a compound where the grandparents are revered, where most of the grown-ups have cellphones and commute to their jobs, and where a young child faces universal challenges figuring out what the world is like. 

Anna's father grew up in this family; Anna's mother is from Canada.
    One day, Anna's mother told the family that in Canada she grew up in a house with only her mother and her father.
   "What?" cried Auntie Grace.  "All alone?  Only the three of you?"
   "Yes, and I had a room all of my own," Anna's mother said wistfully.
   Anna's grandmother looked at her.  "Dey make you sleep alone?" she asked.
   "It was not a punishment," Anna's mother said.  "It was a good thing to have my own room."
   Anna Hibiscus and her cousins looked at each other.  Imagine!  Sleeping alone.  Alone in the dark!
   "Nobody likes to sleep alone," said Anna's grandmother.
   Anna Hibiscus laid her warm brown cheek on her mother's white arm.  "Don't worry, Mama," she said.  "You have all of us now.  You will never be alone again."
Anna's mother yearns for a little more solitude, so the nuclear family of Anna's parents, Anna, and her twin baby brothers goes off to the seaside by themselves.  Chaos ensues, and slowly relatives from the city compound arrive to lighten the load and cheer everyone up.

In another chapter, Auntie Comfort is coming to visit from America.  The family worries that she has forgotten the African ways, so with the help of her Uncle Tunde, Anna sneaks off to send some text messages to America.  Comfort arrives satisfyingly African:
Although the question of what is African is debatable:
   "Welcome, Comfort!" Grandfather said.
   "Thank you, Father," Auntie Comfort replied.  "But I am now called Yemisi."
   "Why?" said Grandmother.  "What is wrong with Comfort?"
   "I wanted to have an African name, Mama," said Auntie Comfort.
   The aunties started to laugh.
   "Comfort is an African name," said Grandmother.
   "But it is an English word, Mama," said Auntie Comfort.
   "It is an English word, but an African name," said Grandfather.  "Have you ever heard of any English person being called Comfort?  Come, enough of this.  Let us eat."
The gentle sense of humor reminds me a bit of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, done for the under-eight crowd.  (Smith has a lovely early chapter book series set in a wildlife sanctuary in Africa, but I'll save that one for another day.)  Several of the stories  have Anna wanting to push the boundaries of behavior (I won't fix my hair, I want to sell oranges on the street) and while the parental generation tries to stop her, the grandparents let her go ahead, and take the consequences.  The lesson learned in the orange chapter has to do with understanding that she is a child of a prosperous family and other children must work hard to live.

So far there are two Anna Hibiscus books out in the U.S.  It wouldn't surprise me to see more. 



Friday, September 17, 2010

YA mystery and autism

Dear Aunt Debbie,

So many of my students are obsessed with manga -- I really need to read a few sometime soon.  Perhaps I'll ask them for recommendations.

Your mention of autism brings to mind at once Mark Haddon's YA novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  It's a mystery/coming-of-age/parental difficulties story, narrated by an autistic teenager named Christopher.  The narration is compelling, and is, I think, the reason this book got so much good press when it came out a few years ago.  Christopher's voice is extremely rational, and he notices everything about his surroundings without being able to understand the emotional resonances around him.  He's extremely smart, and the book is filled with mathematical digressions and simple diagrams, but he can't tell what other people are feeling, and has difficulty feeling emotion himself.  Even when describing himself at moments when he shuts down, Christopher is rational:

The policeman said, "I am going to ask you once again...."
I rolled back onto the lawn and pressed my forehead to the ground again and made the noise that Father calls groaning.  I make this noise when there is too much information coming into my head from the outside world.  It is like when you are upset and you hold the radio against your ear and you tune it halfway between stations so that all you get is white noise and then you turn the volume right up so that this is all you can hear and then you know you are safe because you cannot hear anything else.

The narration encourages the reader to make connections Christopher does not, which is satisfying, and also feels like a realistic depiction of what it might be like to be autistic.  I didn't feel passionately in love with it when I first read it, but it's certainly an interesting book.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Manga & autism

Dear Annie,

Book Blogger Appreciation Week keeps being interesting.  We received a comment two posts ago from Sam of Sam and Boo Book Reviews, who I suspect found us through BBAW, which she's been participating in.  Sam is the mother of Boo, a book-loving toddler on the autism spectrum.  In addition to the fact that Sam shares our taste in Blogspot templates, she cares very deeply about both parent and child enjoying reading.  At the end of her book reviews, Sam adds a paragraph on how the book can be useful with autistic kids.

I don't have a lot of experience with autistic kids, although I'm constantly impressed with their parents' understanding and resourcefulness.  One book that taught me a lot about raising an autistic child, to get back to one of our threads, is a graphic novel:
With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child
, by Keiko Tobe. It's a serialized story that Tobe started writing in Japan in 2000, and it's still going.  It follows one family from the birth of their first child, Hikaru, through his diagnosis of autism, then through his childhood. In the U.S. Volume 7 has just been published, in which Hikaru is a young teenager.  In the first book, Hikaru's different behavior from other babies creates tensions within his parents' marriage, exacerbated by a mother-in-law who feels the mom is doing something wrong.  When they finally figure out he's autistic, the father can't handle it and leaves, but he later returns and remains an involved parent through Hikaru's childhood.  As the parents learn more about Hikaru, the reader is educated also.  There's the search for a good school and teacher, the heartbreak of the good teacher leaving, the many challenges of everyday life.

It's basically a soap opera with very interesting content.  It's still manga, with those big-eyed women and gender roles which occasionally make me cringe.  The books available in the U.S. are huge -- several inches thick.  They're collections of the small comic books which were published serially in Japan, so one has to adjust to a certain amount of repetition.  And they're manga,  reading from the right side to the left.  This is one of those summarizing pages: start at the upper right corner of the page on the right:

 It's not a kids' book, although I suspect some teenagers would find it interesting.  A former colleague of mine from the store has a son who is on the autism spectrum.  She really liked With the Light because she felt it was a very accessible way to educate her friends and extended family about autism.  And that's often why parents of autistic kids buy it: to give to people they care about.

In the past few years, there have been several quite good novels with autistic characters for middle grade and teenage readers.  Another time, I'll go there.



Monday, September 13, 2010

Graphic novel as first-person historical text

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers: yet another book I need to check out.  And perhaps a good way to introduce the subject of September 11th to my kids, before they're old enough for me to have the real conversation about it, and eventually explain where their parents were on that day.

Before we leave the subject of the graphic novel, I wanted to mention one more that I adore: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi.  Satrapi was born in Iran, and Persepolis is a memoir: the story of her childhood and early teenage years during the upheaval of the Islamic Revolution.  Iranian history is complex, but Satrapi's child's-eye view of the revolution and the societal repression that followed is crystal clear.  She is an engaging narrator: an irrepressible, funny, angry kid encouraged by her politically active and liberal family to be herself at home, then forced to hide her individuality as much as possible in public.  It opens with an image of Satrapi, age 10, wearing a veil over her hair, followed by an image of a group of schoolgirls during recess, playing with the veils which they have just been forced to wear.  The book is drawn entirely in black and white, a stark, effective way to communicate the story.  As Iranian society becomes more repressive and dangerous, Satrapi's parents decide to send her away to school in Vienna -- this is where book one ends.  The sequel,  Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, details Satrapi's studies, depression, and romantic relationships, both in Vienna and back in Iran, where she returns as a young woman.  It's a fascinating read.

On a completely different note, I want to mention that it is now Book Blogger Appreciation Week.  Their site lists some fabulous blogs -- I highly recommend checking them out as a resource.  Our readers may remember that we entered ourselves in the awards category for Best Kidlit Blog.  We made it past the first round of voting, but sadly not into the final round.  Still, the competition introduced me to what has become one of my favorite kidlit blogs: Playing by the Book (we've linked to it in our sidebar as well).

It's written by an amazing, creative mom of two young girls who not only reads great books with her kids, but also does intense art projects.  Three of my favorites:

Fishing for Words
Stories in Tune: The Firebird Part I and Part II
Going to the Library

Such inspiration!

Love, Annie

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Before the fall...

 Dear Annie,
Once there were two towers side by side. They were each a quarter of a mile high, 1,340 feet.  The tallest buildings in New York City.
 So begins Mordecai Gerstein's tribute,
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers
, the tale of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the towers in 1974, before the World Trade Center opened.  
He looked not at the towers, but at the space between them and thought, what a wonderful place to stretch a rope.
It's a picture book which tells kids the story of Petit's feat. He's a man who wants to do something because he feels it's fun, and he's willing to overcome many obstacles to make it happen.  This includes shooting an arrow from one tower to the other to start running the cable, hours of pulling heavy cable across, and then defying police who demand he come down.  The illustrations put you there.  As he starts across, we see:
And then, closer:
One could fall into the page. Then perspective shifts to the point of view of those watching from below.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers was published in 2003, and adults can't help but think of September 11 when they read it. This book is not trying to explain September 11 to small children, although it acknowledges that the towers aren't there any more.   What it does is celebrate the life of objects that are now gone, rather than focusing on their death.  It acknowledges absence, but remembers a good yarn from an earlier time. It concludes:
Now the towers are gone. But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.
Every two or three months, a customer who I really like comes to the store and buys another hardcover copy of this book.  Once she bought two, so that she'd have an extra copy if she needed it.  She and her kids are so fond of the book, they give it to friends fairly frequently. She has an I-love-this-book intensity when she talks about it, because it's meant so much to them as a family.  I used to stock only the paperback, but lately, I've made sure I have two hardcovers on the shelf too, for her, or possibly someone who received the book from her.



Friday, September 10, 2010

September 11th, in graphic novel and play

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Tomorrow is the ninth anniversary of September 11th, and as always happens at this time of year, I find myself thinking about it a little more than is probably healthy.  Tonight I've gone farther and done some serious rereading, both of the play I worked on with my students in the months following the World Trade Center attack and, appropriately to our conversation, of a September 11th-related graphic novel.

Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers is a burning, furious cry from a brilliant and political cartoonist.  Spiegelman (author of the extraordinary Holocaust memoir/parental biography Maus) lives in Lower Manhattan, and on September 11th he watched the towers fall.  The book is a series of large-scale color pages, originally printed in a German newspaper, which draw on comic strips of the early 20th century and combine a wide variety of styles.  In the second half of the oversized book, Spiegelman reproduces some of the original strips which inspired him.

The pages are heterogeneous and complex, Spiegelman's attempts to make sense of his own anger and loss.  He rails against the Bush administration and what he sees as the cynical political use of the country's intense reaction to the attacks.  Perhaps this isn't the right place to write about this book: it's not a comic for kids.  But for older teenagers, with the right context, it could be a disturbing and fascinating read.

One of Spiegelman's pages depicts him and his wife, Francoise Mouly, running toward the high school where their daughter Nadja had just begun her freshman year in order to find her and take her home.  That school, Stuyvesant High School, is where I've taught since 2000.  (Nadja was in my Writers' Workshop class her junior year.)  On September 11th, I was one of the teachers evacuating the building along with our 3000 students.

In the aftermath of the attacks, after we returned to the building, I worked with a group of Stuyvesant students to create a series of interview-based monologues which became the play with their eyes.  Our inspiration came from the work of Anna Deveare Smith, whose plays Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles showed us how powerful the words of everyday people can be in conveying the complexity of community tragedy (in her case, riots in Crown Heights and L.A.).

Ten student actors interviewed 23 members of the Stuyvesant community -- students, faculty, and staff.  They recorded these interviews on audiotape, transcribed them word for word, including all the "like"s, "and"s, and "um"s, and arranged them on the page like poetry, with line breaks to indicate pauses.  The actors edited the transcriptions into monologues, and then performed in the character of the people they had interviewed.  The book reproduces all of these monologues, along with pictures of the student actors (taken by the immensely talented Ethan Moses, who was a senior at Stuyvesant at the time): 
Chantelle Smith as Anonymous Male Custodian
Catherine Choy as senior Owen Cornwall
I am obviously not an impartial reader here: from rehearsing these monologues over and over, editing the book, and watching other performances of the play by high schools and even a couple of repertory companies in the last several years, I know many sections by heart, and can hear the voices of the students who created each role.  Still, it's been a while since I sat down to reread the whole play.

Anna Belc as English teacher
Katherine Fletcher
One of the things that makes this form so powerful is that it is a collection of stories, and so can represent multiple and conflicting viewpoints: the intense anger of senior Max Willens, who felt his neighborhood was invaded by tourists who didn't belong in New York but snapped pictures of the wreckage; the bubbly freshman Katie Berringer talking about the pluses and minuses of having to hold classes in another school until the building could reopen; the Dining Hall worker talking about how her religious faith helped her through.  Anna Deavere Smith writes about how everyone, given the chance to talk, will say something which is poetry.  In the case of these interviewees, processing the attacks just a few months later, this was true.  Their voices came through so clearly.

Christopher Yee as sophomore Kevin Zhang
I've heard from classes who have read this book and students who have performed the play that hearing the actual words of kids their own age about what it was like to be so close to Ground Zero on September 11th made them understand the day differently.  The tiny details -- a sandwich left in a locker when students evacuated, gone moldy by the time we returned -- aren't necessarily what you think about when you think of a day as fraught with tragedy as this one was.  But they were part of the reality too.  It's important to remember.

I hope your weekend is peaceful.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

More great graphic novels

Dear Annie,

Yes! I sell comic books!  Most of them are Graphic Novels these days and they come in many layers of complexity, reading levels, and quality.  We recently expanded our graphic novel section -- I still find some of it beyond me (don't know if I'll ever figure out manga, although I try).  So today I'll only talk about three.

American Born Chinese is great, and it was such a lovely moment when it won the Printz Award for YA books a few years back. You probably already know The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (which Indie Bound doesn't seem to list, so the link is to the author's site) but especially with your student demographic (many first and second generation immigrants, right?) it would fit right in.  It's a stunningly beautiful wordless book which puts the reader inside of the immigrant experience in a fantastical world where everything is just, well, different. Here, for example, is the harbor where the main character arrives after leaving his family behind:

All is strange to him: he can't read the designs on signs, the food is unfamiliar, he doesn't know where he's going.  But other people -- usually other immigrants --  help him out.  He has come from a world of poverty and hunger, symbolized by the shadows of dragons we see in the city he left.  His new friends describe to him why they fled their homes, the most disturbing image being this one:
One can linger long over every page.  There's tons to think about.  I never understood some of the elements in the story (why did they have those animals in the baskets?), but that can be part of the immigrant experience too: you never entirely get the new culture.

Then there's
, out this year.  It's a memoir by Raina Telgemeier about her years of oral surgery and orthodontia following a bad fall after a Girl Scout meeting.  At the same time, she's going through middle school with difficult friends and hard social situations.  She finally comes out of it all satisfactorily, but it's a sometimes painful ride that feels very emotionally spot-on.  Raina endures clueless doctors who seem so true-to-life I found myself remembering the orthodontist's office from my childhood -- not to mention all the people we dealt with through Mona's orthodontia and jaw surgery. 

For the younger set, a starter chapter book/graphic novel: 
Travels of Thelonious by Susan Schade and Jon Buller. It's the first in The Fog Mound series, a post-apocalyptic fantasy for the 8 to 12 year-old crowd.  Buildings exist, but no people.  Animals talk, and the ones who live where people used to live wear clothing.  The book is both a chapter book, with pages with a normal type layout, and then it breaks into comic book format for four or five pages, then back to regular type.  The story follows Thelonious, a chipmunk from the country, as he comes to the big city and finds friends to help him:

Thelonious wants to find out if the old legends about humans running the world are true.  He and friends go on an odyssey that appears to have concluded with the third book, but in this era of sequels, one can never tell..



Monday, September 6, 2010

Graphic novels: for emerging readers and book fiends alike

Dear Aunt Debbie,

While my father may have exaggerated a little about Michael's pre-high school reading habits, my memory confirms that that was pretty much the case.  Michael and I grew up in the same house, book-filled and created by readers.  I read everything I could get my hands on starting at a very early age (including all those Archie comics my dad mentioned), while Michael was much happier endlessly going through albums of baseball cards, or baking and then eating cookies.  My parents bought him books on tape, which were a big hit: he'd listen to Treasure Island over and over while rearranging his albums of baseball cards.  He didn't seem to be picking up on literature for much of his childhood, but clearly he was, as his later reading habits showed.

Do you ever recommend graphic novels?  There are so many good ones out right now, with the pull and ease of a comic book and, in the best cases, a novel's richness and depth.  I've just finished an excellent one, recommended to me by my student teacher this semester (she's a former student as well -- very exciting!).

American Born Chinese
, by Gene Luen Yang, weaves together three stories in alternating chapters.  The first strand, based on Chinese myth, tells the story of the Monkey King, who masters the arts of kung fu and the heavenly disciplines, but gets too high on himself and is despised by the other gods and imprisoned under a mountain of stones.  The second and most realistic strand centers on Jin Wang, who moves from San Francisco to a neighborhood where he is one of three Asian kids in his school, and tries to assimilate.  He at first rejects, and then befriends, Wei-Chen Sun, a recent Taiwanese immigrant.  The third strand is written like a sitcom, complete with laugh track, and focuses on Danny, an all-American white boy whose life is destroyed once a year by the annual visit of his cousin Chin-kee.  As the name implies, Chin-kee is the worst of ethnic stereotypes, complete with braid, slanted eyes, and thick accent.  The three stories ultimately come together in a very satisfying way which I don't want to spoil here.  Suffice it to say they have something to do with accepting your true self rather than trying to run from it.

The population of the school where I teach is largely Asian, and so many of the details in this book ring true, from clothing choices and dialogue to the greater issues of assimilation and prejudice.  It's beautifully written and drawn, extremely funny, and ultimately wise.  It's a book I'd love to teach someday.

Speaking of which, I'm off to pack my bag for tomorrow and try to get a good night's sleep.

Love, Annie

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Emerging Readers

Dear Annie,

I love the idea of trading favorite book recommendations with friends.And Paul Fleischman's lovely apprehensions about a friend's taste ("This actually made them laugh, you think (or cry, keep turning the page, etc.)  Can I still regard this person as a friend?  As human?") was perfect. Thank you so much, Paul, for joining our discussion.

Before leaving Narnia, I'd like to mention a book that sounds great, although I have yet to read it (no time, no time...). 
The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia
by Laura Miller. She's someone who loved the Narnia books as a child, felt betrayed when she understood later that they were full of Christianity, then went back and wrote about them in intelligent adult ways later in life. Full of contradictions, those books.

I thought today that I'd recount a conversation I was in a week ago at cousin Ellen's wedding.  It was with the mother of the delightful Dancing Boy -- an eight- or nine-year old who spent most of the night by himself on the dance floor.  She was lamenting that he seemed not to be interested in reading, and how does one get boys interested in reading these days.  The conversation had two parts.

First, it turned out that he reads, but not the books his parents expected him to.  He likes non-fiction, books that give him information.  And he was reading Asterix and Tintin comic books.  But he wasn't reading novels, including books that we might consider classics.  One of the issues parents get to face as their children grow up is that their taste may differ from the older generation's.  Also, as one is emerging into being an independent reader, novels are harder than a lot of other types of reading.  First and foremost, you have to read the whole thing.  If you read two-thirds of a novel and give up on it, you've failed. But if you read one page of The Guinness Book of World Records, or one story in a comic book, you've gotten something.  Reading a page or two here or there is all good practice, keeping one in shape for whatever one wants to read in the future.

Then your father joined the conversation, bringing your brother up as an example.  Michael is remembered as reading nothing but Archie comic books until the summer before he went to high school.  (True?  Michael - are you reading this?)  At that point he switched over to reading Dostoevsky, and never looked back.  Paul Fleischman's sentence in the last post reminded me of Michael:
The book was on the shelves in my childhood home, but I didn't discover reading for pleasure until high school.
 (Although, of course, one assumes Michael was reading Archie for pleasure.)

I started out thinking I was going to write a post on boys and reading, because I've received a number of questions lately about how-can-I-get-this-boy-to-read.  And what's being written in general these days about boy books and girl books drives me slightly crazy.  And I'm sure I'll come back to this topic lots.  But we all need to remember that children engage in reading in different ways, at different ages.  Feeding individual interests is helpful.  And being a household that loves books, where parents read for pleasure themselves (I know, no time, no time...) -- it all contributes to kids loving books.



Friday, September 3, 2010

Other people's favorite books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Chaos Walking now goes on my list, absolutely.  I'm drooling to get my hands on Mockingjay.

One of the things I'm enjoying about blogging is the increased number of book recommendations I've gotten in the last few months, both from you, from our readers (hi readers -- please keep posting comments and recommendations!), and from friends in conversation.  When we wrote about Paul Fleischman's work a little while ago (here and here), I emailed him to let him know we were talking about his books.

I met Paul in 2002 at a teaching conference where I was promoting with their eyes, the book of interview-based monologues about the aftermath of September 11th that my students and I created that year.  (I'm planning to write more about the book next Friday, as the anniversary comes up.)  Paul was signing books at the HarperCollins stall too, and we got to talking; as well as being an excellent writer, he's a perfectly lovely guy.  In the years since then, we've kept up a correspondence.

After reading my post on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Paul mentioned that he'd never read it, and we made a deal: he'd read one of my favorite children's books, and I'd read one of his.  For me, he suggested one of the following:

The Night of the Comet by Leon Garfield: A hilarious comedy-of-errors by a British YA master, with prose that contains more pleasure per paragraph than almost any book I know.

Krippendorf's Tribe
by Frank Parkin.  For adults, perfect for parents.  If by chance you saw the movie, erase it from your mind.  Comic writing at its best.

Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser.  The first in a series, a terrific account of a ne'er-do-well's rise to the top during the time when Britain, not we, were mired in Afghanistan.  Withering and wry, a savory literary kebab.

I haven't kept my end of the bargain yet, but he has, and here's his reaction:

In Breakout there's a line about people's disinterest in walking a mile in each others' shoes, not to mention their families, diets, politics, favorite colors, and definitions of fun.  A book from someone's All-Time Favorite list can be similarly hard to love.  This actually made them laugh, you think (or cry, keep turning the page, etc.)  Can I still regard this person as a friend?  As human?  Despite which, I'm a believer in serendipity and therefore constantly writing down suggested titles and bringing them home from the library.  Recently I took the plunge and read one of Annie's favorites, one I should have read decades ago--The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  The book was on the shelves in my childhood home, but I didn't discover reading for pleasure until high school and had already put away childish things.  Its reputation as a Christian allegory didn't help.  Plus, I've never been a reader of fantasy, in the same way other people can't eat dairy.  The wacky names and top-heavy morality have always put me off.   This actually gave the present project added impetus: I'd walk a mile, or at least around the block--the book was brief--in some footwear most definitely not my own.

My report?  I can certainly see kids being attracted to it.  To pass through a wardrobe into a hidden forest is a hook with immense appeal.  I was going to say that having the four siblings come from our world would help children identify, but today's young readers might regard names like Edmund and Lucy and phrases like "by Jove" and "hang it all" as coming from a realm light-years away.  Entering into a world of danger without parents at hand, but with each other and a cast of beneficent animals holds great appeal as well.  Alas, I see books through a writer's eyes as well and found much to squint at here.  The narrator--an intrusive old-fashioned sort--subverts suspense by giving away actions and cushioning readers from too much anxiety.  The deck feels too strongly stacked for the forces of good, with Aslan as the deus ex machina that writers are always urged to avoid.  The children do a bit to earn the ending, but far less than we're accustomed to.   They're also amazingly undeveloped, as is the world they've been evacuated from (covered in one sentence) and the house they're occupying, headed by its mysterious professor.  I found gaps at every quarter, from the children's never even remarking on the animals happening to speak English to the one mention of their mother, far offstage.  I might have been pulled into the fantasy more fully if the avuncular narration contained more original description--but that's a quibble I feel about most books I read.  Full disclosure: I'm hard to please.  I deal with issues like the above all day, month, and year, and expect other writers to solve them before setting their books in type.  Many of my complaints are the result of the changes wrought by the last sixty years.  Can't blame C.S. Lewis for those.  Most of them will be as unnoticed by young readers as the book's Christian element.  And I must admit that I feel more likely to try more fantasy in the future, having now passed through the wardrobe into that world.  Overall, a positive experience.  Thanks, Annie...


I'll be sure to post my thoughts on one of Paul's favorites sometime soon.  And what a great project to take up with a friend!

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chaos Walking

Dear Annie,

Reading with Isabel sounds so delightful -- such a great stage.

I though I'd fast-forward about 15 years to a great YA trilogy which I've just finished.  There are two excellent just-completed YA trilogies floating around these days, both of which I wrote about back in May.  The one which has been getting all the attention these days is the Hunger Games trilogy, of which
is the newly-released conclusion.  That one's still on my bedside table -- I haven't read it yet but would love to hear from our YA fantasy fan readers what they think of it.

The series that's been keeping me from reading Mockingjay is called Chaos Walking; the three books of the trilogy are The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men,  to be released at the end of this month.  The author, Patrick Ness, grew up mostly on the U.S. west coast, but has been living in London for the past decade.  Like the Hunger Games series, it pits teenage protagonists against manipulative controlling political leaders in a dystopian future.  In Chaos Walking, the future is on another planet where people from our planet have gone to create a new society.  The settlers discovered two unexpected facts about the new world: it was inhabited already, by a populace they name The Spackle, and a native virus has made all men's thoughts constantly audible -- but not women's.  The first two books explore how the inequality of privacy -- which is how the humans experience "the Noise" -- affects the society.  The third book brings in both new human settlers unfamiliar with what's been happening among the local humans, and two fascinating Spackle characters.  It turns out that audible thoughts are the Spackle's only -- and very effective -- means of communication, both one-to-one and across the entire planet.

These books start with personal violence, and move on to repression and war -- lots of blowing things up and death, especially in Monsters of Men.  But that's kind of like saying that the Hunger Games books are about a TV reality show where teenagers are forced to kill each other.  Yes, those are the plots.  But the authors use those plots to explore the complexities of human nature in very teenage-friendly ways.  Patrick Ness has an incredible ear for language.  He creates different voices for each of his main characters that submerge the reader in their experience.  Todd, the male protagonist, in battle for the first time:
Is this what war is?
Is this what men want so much?
Is this supposed to make them men?
Death coming at you with a roar and a scream so fast you can't do nothing about it --
and later in the same day, when reinforcements arrive:
"Come!" [the mayor] says to me. "See what it's like to be on the winning side."
And he rides off after the new soldiers.
I ride after him, gun up, but not shooting, just watching and feeling --
Feeling the thrill of it --
Cuz that's it --
That's the nasty, nasty secret of war --
When yer winning --
When yer winning, it's effing thrilling --
I don't feel like I'm doing this excellent series justice.  Suffice it to say that I had to stop reading anything for a few days after I'd finished it because anything I picked up was too much of a disappointing contrast with what I'd just read. So much to talk about in this one..