Abrams had previously requested that I not publish too much information on my book just yet, but after their own creative director released this info on his blog, the gig was up. Below is a first peek at Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes:
This is a marketing sheet that was handed out at ALA Midwinter. The figure in the top left was scanned from one of my old sketchbooks. The silhouette and background were drawn by the brilliant Gilbert Ford, who created the book cover.1 For those who can’t be bothered to click through the image, I’ll reprint the text here:
“Now for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware that they make the very best thieves. As you can well imagine, blind children have incredible senses of smell, and they can tell what lies behind a locked door—be it fine cloth, gold, or peanut brittle—at fifty paces. Moreover, their fingers are small enough to slip right through keyholes, and their ears keen enough to detect the faintest clicks and clacks of every moving part inside even the most complicated lock. Of course, the age of great thievery has long since passed; today there are few child-thieves left, blind or otherwise. At one time, however, the world was simply thick with them. This is the story of the greatest thief who ever lived. His name, as you’ve probably guessed, is Peter Nimble.”
So begins PETER NIMBLE & HIS FANTASTIC EYES, the first novel from 29-year-old Jonathan Auxier. Overflowing with wit and invention, PETER NIMBLE is the utterly beguiling tale of a ten-year-old blind orphan who has been schooled in a life of thievery by his brutal master, Mr. Seamus. One fateful afternoon, as he’s picking the pockets of townspeople enraptured by a traveling haberdasher, he “discovers” (steals) a box of magical eyes. When he tried on the first pair, he is instantly transported to an island at the top of the world, where he meets the maker of the eyes, Professor Cake. The professor gives Peter a choice: travel to the mysterious Vanished Kingdom and try to rescue a people in need … or return back to his master and a life of crime. Peter chooses wisely, and together with Sir Tode, a knight errant who has been turned into a rather unfortunate combination of human, horse, and cat by a grumpy witch, he embarks on an unforgettable adventure in a book destined to become a classic.
At ALA, I noticed a typo in the first paragraph2 and declared that whichever librarian spotted it first would win a hand-drawn portrait. For about ten minutes there was much yelling and scrutinizing-of-text, until librarian and poet Nina Lindsay spotted the error. Here she is:
From chapter 3:
“Why? someone had scrawled in a blank space no advertiser had rented.
Why not? Someone else had slashed in answer.”
– Robert Cormier
The Chocolate War
Last week for our Children’s Literature course, we had an enjoyable discussion about Roald Dahl’s Matilda. This book is very dear to me — it was the first “long” book I read as a child and it sparked a lifelong love of reading. One thing that struck me during our conversation was how many things in this book run contrary to current parenting trends. Let’s dive right in …
1) Let them Read Anything
More than a few children’s books include reading lists of all the novels the protagonist loves. This usually functions as a sort of literary name-dropping intended to give a young hero instant credibility with readers: “You loved the Narnia books and so did my main character!” With Dahl’s book, however, it’s a little different. He doesn’t just have Matilda read beloved children’s books, he has her read beloved adult books — the list includes Dickens, Bronte, Hardy, Hemingway, Greene, Orwell, and Faulkner among others. Most of the titles are ones that would get a parent arrested for showing to their child. Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Really? Dahl doesn’t even let us pretend that young Matilda skipped over the dirty bits; he makes the point of including a scene where the girl asks her librarian about Hemingway’s sex scenes. What’s the woman’s response? “Don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”
2) Give them a Long Leash
Kids today can’t go anywhere without their parents knowing. Yes, a cell phone is a form of freedom, but it is also a way for a parent to track their children’s every move. Newbery winner Rebecca Stead has stated that she set When You Reach Me in the 70s because kids today don’t have the independence necessary for her story. I’m sure Roald Dahl would agree. While re-reading Matilda, I noticed how he makes a point of letting his young hero do grown-up things. The whole story starts with her walking to the library by herself at four years old. And this isn’t just parental negligence. The first thing the kind Miss Honey does when she invites Matilda into her house is ask the girl to fetch some water: “The well is out at the back. Take the bucket on the to the end of the rope and lower it down, but don’t fall in yourself.” When’s the last time you heard a parent tell their child to make herself useful and do something that could kill them?
3) No Positive Reinforcement
The book opens with an authorial screed about parents who dote too much on their children. Dahl fantasizes about being a teacher and sending home more accurate letters describing his students: “Your son Maximilian … is a total wash-out. I hope you have a family business you can push him into when he leaves school because he sure as heck won’t be getting a job anywhere else.” Later on in the story, the lovely Miss Honey bemoans how parents are constantly over-praising and over-estimating their mediocre children. And even after Matilda reveals herself to have psychic powers, Miss Honey is careful not to let her get a big head. “It is quite possible that you are [a phenomenon] … But I’d rather you didn’t think about yourself as anything in particular at the moment.” This runs contrary to the current trend of telling every kid that they can become an astronaut or the president.1
4) Blood is Bad
Dahl doesn’t play the coward by giving Matilda evil step-parents or evil guardians. She has evil parents. Period. In doing this, Dahl breaks the tradition of letting adult readers delude themselves into thinking that they could never do the horrible things that book villains do.2 It also dispels the fantasy that being related to a person necessarily means you will be loved by them. This is a narrative conceit that has bothered me in countless movies/books/sitcoms, and I’m always glad to see it challenged — It’s the reason I prefer “Hansel & Gretel” to “Cinderella.”
5) Golden Rule, Shmolden Rule
There is a central cruelty to this novel that I think makes it unique among children’s books. Wronged kids are nothing new in children’s literature, but Dickens never let Oliver Twist come back and terrorize his persecutors. Matilda, on the other hand, dishes out revenge with gleeful pettiness. Consider her first strike against Mr Wormwood: he demands that she eat dinner in the living room, and so she puts superglue in his hair. That’s draconian by any standard. Dahl knows it, too, and he complicates the book by blurring the line between Matilda and Trunchbull — consider how both characters always make sure the punishment fits the crime.3 This connects to a thread that runs through all Dahl’s best work — revealing how children can be just as cruel and selfish as the worst adults.
Just a few bits of child-rearing wisdom from old Uncle Roald. So throw away your Baby Einstein, pull out the TV dinners, and get parenting!
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In two weeks, I’ll be discussing Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road. For those interested, you should check out these other posts from our course reading list:
Plot vs. Story in The Chocolate War
Realism and talking Pigs in Winnie-the-Pooh and Charlotte’s Web
Literary dress rehearsals in Peter Pan
On the shoulders of A Little Princess
The childlit mentor in The Coral Island
How Little Goody Two-Shoes influenced other major children’s books.
- By my last count, only 1 in 300,000,000 people gets to be the president — chances are you’re kid’s not it. ↩
- I have to give a shoutout to Betsy Bird for making this same observation last year in her Top 100 Children’s Books series. ↩
- This is actually a subject big enough for its own post — I think the subtle differences between Matilda and Trunchbull set up a very sophisticated set of moral rules that determine who deserves punishment. My guess on the deal-breaker? Bad sportsmanship. ↩
Capturing the delicate balance between depravity and sweetness in adolescence:
“The one devastating sorrow he carried within him was the fear that he would die before holding a girl’s breast in his hand.”
– Robert Cormier
The Chocolate War
After weeks of being chained to my drafting table, I’m finally finished with the art for Peter Nimble! In the coming days, I’ll be leaking some previews of the art and a bit about my process. I’ll also resume putting up marginalia quotes and blog posts again.1 Please accept this first meager offering, a scan of a blotter sheet left over from the illustrations …
The last six weeks have been absolutely grueling. I drew thirty-one pen-and-ink pictures, and each one took me approximately twenty hours to complete. Do the math, and you’ll see that sleep was not really an option. I’ve heard that marathon runners’ bodies start to shut down as they round the last mile — that might explain why in the last two days of drawing I couldn’t hold a pen, eat, or walk straight.
Luckily, I was not alone. I had the advice and guidance of the Abrams’ designer Chad Beckerman as well as valuable input from my mother and sister, both of whom are artists. And, most importantly, I had Mary who (other than briefly deserting me to attend a Dickens conference in Houston) was more supportive than I can say.
I’ve experienced my share of deadline-induced fatigue, but nothing like this. Literally, the day after I handed in the final art, my eyes started acting strange. I couldn’t open them, and when I did, my eye muscles would start to spasm uncontrollably. How ironic that after completing a book about a blind boy, I became effectively blind. Hilarious!
A trip to the doctor informed me that all my time staring without blinking had given me an ulcer in my left eye.2 Apparently this isn’t a big deal, though it has forced me to take a longer rest than I originally planned.
When the doctor told me about this, I laughed out loud. Firstly, because I was glad to hear I wasn’t going blind. Secondly, because just a few weeks before I had mocked3 author Lisa Yee over lunch when she told me she had that very same ailment.
What’s the moral of this story? Don’t mess with Lisa Yee.
- Thanks to all the friends who harassed me about getting back to blogging; it’s nice to know I was missed. ↩
- I say “in” because an ulcer, as I learned from the doctor, is when a chunk is missing … basically, I have a cut in the white of my eye. ↩
- For any of you questioning why I would mock the suffering of a relative stranger, I would respond that you clearly don’t know me very well. ↩
Last week in our Children’s Literature course, Mary and I discussed Robert Cormier’s proto-YA novel The Chocolate War (1974). For those who have not read it, The Chocolate War is a harrowing story of a freshman who dares to buck convention by refusing to participate in the school-wide chocolate sale. This book was a perfect followup to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In some ways, The Chocolate War is a continuation of Flies’ thesis about the depravity of human nature, but unlike the earlier book, The Chocolate War does not seek shelter in rules and law — in fact, social strictures are depicted as fundamentally destructive.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a unique way that Robert Cormier achieves a sense of “interiority” in his writing. YA literature is often noted for its use of interiority — working overtime to forge a direct, emotional connection between reader and protagonist. We don’t just know what the main character did, we know how they felt while they were doing it. (This probably explains why so many adolescent girls are in love with Holden Caulfield.)
It’s no surprise that The Chocolate War — a seminal work of YA literature — trades in interiority. But what is surprising is how the book goes about creating it. Generally speaking, most books aiming for interiority make use of the first-person narrative mode.1 As a writer, I’m a bit leery of this technique. Sure, a great number of brilliant novels have been written in the first person. But I also feel that less talented authors sometimes use this device to compensate for an anemic narrative. Most of the Twilight books contain about 100 pages of plot sandwiched between 500 pages of, er, “interiority.”
Robert Cormier was a journalist, and it shows in his clean prose. Authors who rely too heavily on first person narration should feel shame when reading The Chocolate War, which somehow creates intimacy between reader and hero without ever ever breaking from the third person. Even more, Cormier doesn’t even bother to stay with his protagonist in every chapter — instead he nimbly hops from one side-character to another, shifting his third-person-limited perspective every few pages. In fact, every public scene containing the protagonist (Jerry Renault) is narrated from the perspective of an outside observer, and it’s only after school that we get to hear out hero’s take on the events that transpired. I would judge that at most 1/4 of the book is told from Jerry’s POV, and yet, by the end, we somehow know him like a flesh-and-blood friend.
How does Cormier pull it off? I’ve read the book three times in as many months and still can’t answer that question. However, on this most recent reading, I started to wonder if Jerry’s aloofness was actually part of the puzzle. Perhaps the reason that we connect with Jerry so much is because we long to connect with him, and so when we do get a rare glimpse inside his head, we make the most of it.
My former writing teacher Milan Stitt once outlined the difference between “plot” and “story.” He defined plot as the chronological list of events that transpire. Story is the act of telling those events in a way that creates meaning. These are two very different skill sets, and while the ability to concoct engaging plots is helpful, it is secondary to the ability to tell those events in a way that pays off. The gap between plot and story is the reason your mom can’t retell a joke.2
Cormier understood that a book about selling chocolates would not work unless he made it meaningful … unless he made it a story.3 Many people have observed that DIARY OF A WIMPY KID’s Greg Heffley is a sort of middle-grade version of Holden Caulfield … I wonder if there’s a middle-grade version of Jerry Renault out there? Any ideas?
- Some go one further and employ the present-tense. If you like hearing people dump on contemporary literary conventions, I urge you to read Philip Pullman’s delightful takedown of this trend. ↩
- I see now that this comes dangerously close to a “your mom” jab … Please accept my heartfelt apologies, Moms of the World. ↩
- Robert Cormier died in November 2000, and Publisher’s Weekly released this touching memorial discussing the man and his work. ↩
Taking a break from so much drawing to share with you readers the second half of our syllabus list. For those new to the site, my wife Mary and I are currently co-teaching a children’s literature course. A few months back, I posted the first half of the reading list, which took students up to the midterm. The books in the first half of the class were meant to give students a grounding in the basic idea behind children’s literature — where it came from and how it evolved into the genre we know and love today.
For this second half of the class, we’re broadening the scope to include some YA titles. Instead of listing the reading date for the class, I’ll be listen when I plan to post on said book. Let’s dive in!
After subjecting our students to a fairly rigorous1 midterm, we gave them a week to kick back and watch Peter Brook’s 1963 very good movie adaptation of Lord of the Flies. I opted for the movie because (a) everyone with a high school diploma has already read this book2 and (b) we didn’t have time. Still, it’s an important book for this course because it acts as a bridge between The Coral Island and the next novel on our syllabus …
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Cormier enjoys a place beside Judy Blume as one of the most challenged authors of All Time. Like Lord of the Flies, this book functions as a critique of the idea that communities of adolescent boys are anything short of monstrous. Unlike Golding, however, Cormier is kind enough to give readers a striking and memorable hero who stands out from the other — the indomitable Jerry Renault.
Blog Post Date: April 7
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Some of you may know that Roald Dahl is my very favorite children’s author. And this was Dahl’s very favorite book. That alone is excuse enough to include it on this reading list. Fortunately, Matilda also fits with our ongoing theme of child-communities. While this fantastical revenge story about a psychic bookworm is not nearly so grim as The Chocolate War, I do think the books are in conversation with each other — Dahl’s Crunchem Hall is every bit as dangerous and depraved as Robert Cormier’s Trinity.
Blog Post Date: April 12
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For this class, Mary will be giving a lecture on the history of the picture book. All I have to do is sit back and marvel at how lovely she is. Students will also bring in their own picture books from home and discuss them in groups.
Blog Post Date: April 19
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This book was first published in Australia in 2006. A few years later, the rest of the world picked it up and promptly freaked out. The story takes place in a sort of heightened world that is all but completely dominated by adolescents.3 Mary had a colleague recommend Jellicoe last year; she read the book and promptly declared that she wanted to teach a course connecting Marchetta’s novel to Peter Pan. Looks like she’ll get her chance.
Blog Post Date: May 3
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Curtis is truly rare in his ability to make historical fiction both powerful and funny. Given our course’s theme (communities in children’s literature), Elijah was a natural choice. The story takes place in the real-life Canadian town of Buxton, which was an organized black settlement during the American Civil War. It follows an eleven year-old boy (Elijah) who ventures out of the safety of his community to help a friend. If you haven’t read any of Curtis’ excellent books, I advise you to use this as your excuse!
Blog Post Date: May 10
So that’s it for the course! Read along if you can! Also, for those interested, below are some links to previous posts from the first half of the semester:
Little Goody Two-Shoes (published) by John Newbery
The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Winnie-the-Pooh and Charlotte’s Web by A.A. Milne and E.B. White (respectively)
- I’m a big believer in the idea that we learn more from hard-won failure than from easy-won success. In fact, I’d say one of the primary functions of college is in creating a space where it is safe to fail. For that reason, I tend to make tests incredibly difficult and then grade on a curve. ↩
- You doubt me on this? I defy you to Google “Lord of the Flies” and find one measly link that isn’t a study guide or essay-for-sale. Can’t be done. ↩
- Every description I’ve read puts me in mind of Rian Johnson’s movie Brick. ↩
From Chapter VII:
“By now, Ralph had no self-consciousness in public thinking but would treat the day’s decisions as though he were playing chess. The only trouble was that he would never be a very good chess player.”
Lord of the Flies