Archive: May 2011

“We had knocked those three old gentlemen off their chairs … and they were now slowly and painfully sorting themselves out from each other, and picking fish off themselves; and as they worked, they cursed us — not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully-thought-out curses that embraced the whole of our career, and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations, and covered everything connected with us — good, substantial curses.”

Jerome K Jerome
Three Men in a Tub, ch XII

AFTERWORDS: Fridays are for Suckers …
So I think it’s time for another roundup of links.  Most people post these sorts of things on Fridays, but I am way too cool for that.  Let’s get to it …


This last week marked the Book Expo of America in New York City.  But for those who could not attend, there was the Armchair Bea — a big ol’ blogging event where tons of people talked about books, blogging, participated in giveaways and were generally awesome. The last day included some nice pieces about book blogging.



On the topic of BEA, Peter Nimble made its debut there!  A few friends snapped photos of the book in my absence.  Thanks to Lisa Yee, Michael Scotto, Frank  Polito, Mercedes Fernandez, and everyone else who picked up a copy.  Hope you enjoy!  If you missed it, no fear, both Peter and I will be attending ALA this summer in full force!


I don’t read many Young Adult (YA) blogs, but recently I’ve been enjoying Stephanie Sinkhorn’s site Maybe Genius.  She does a great job of tackling big themes in the genre, such as Cliches of YA Fantasy or Using Named Characters Well.  Check it out.



A few weeks back I found The House of Automata — an online repository of all things clockwork.  They have a workshop dedicated to pieces they’re restoring, as well as some fantastic videos.  Even better, you can commission custom jobs from them.


If that’s too expensive, perhaps you’d prefer to assemble your own time machine from Ikea. The folks at College Humor have created Ikea-style instructions for a variety of sci-fi treasures … including a Jedi “Litsabbur” and the “Tjardiis.” All you need is some plutonium and a hex-wrench and you’re set!




Mary and I recently finished reading Adam Gidwitz’ A Tale Dark and Grimm aloud to each other.  Readers of the blog will know I am a big fan of his dedication.  As it turns out, I’m also a big fan of his book.  Here are some choice quotes …

A nice bit of narrative intrusion: “Now, my young readers, I know just what you’re thinking. You’re thinking,Hmmmm. Stealing a girl. That’s an interesting way of winning her heart. Allow me to warn you now that, under any other circumstances, stealing a girl is about the worst way of winning her heart you could possibly cook up. But because this happened long ago, in a faraway land, it seems to have worked.”

A paragraph I wish I’d written: “But she wasn’t a witch. The Brothers Grimm call her a witch, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact she was just a regular woman who had discovered, sometime around the birth of her second child, that while she liked chicken and she liked beef and she liked pork, what she really liked was child.I bet you can figure out how this happened.

Some lovely description: “…the little village that stood near the Schwarzwald was not dark at all. No, no: It was ringed by trees that, when Gretel arrived, had just slipped into their golden robes of autumn.”

What do you eat for breakfast?: “The next morning, the Devil arose and readied himself for another day of soul-collecting. His grandmother made him a breakfast of human fingernails — scrambled, of course — and packed up his lunch bag.”

About false apologies: “This I would not recommend. It’s sort of like sweeping broken glass under the carpet; the floor still isn’t clean, and somebody’s going to end up with a bloody sock.”

Again, jealous: “Of course, getting trapped in the stomach of a dragon is, even for a creature that cannot die, an incredibly unpleasant experience…. Though not quite as unpleasant, I would imagine, as getting out again.”

Some final wisdom: “You see, to find the brightest wisdom one must pass through the darkest zones. And through the darkest zones there can be no guide.”

Now doesn’t that make you want to run out and buy the book?  It should.  Also, the comments thread in last week’s piece about Boardgames and Storytelling has sparked not one, but two new posts coming this week.  Stay tuned!
Wood Ports and Good Plots …

This last week, the Auxier family descended on Southern California for a wedding.  One of the things we like to do is play board games.1  One of our favorite games as of late is Settlers of Catan.

For the uninitiated, Settlers of Catan is a “German style” board game that involves building towns and cities on an island — sort of a pre-industrial Monopoly that works on bartering rather than bank accounts.  Settlers has helped usher in a golden age of board gaming, supplanting classics like Risk and Diplomacy as the favorite Friday night activity of nerdy boys in AP History.2

In fact, Risk is something I’ve used more than once to explain Settlers to newcomers.  Both games involve a map, cards, and anxious rounds of placing armies/towns on unclaimed real estate.  There is, however, one key difference between Settlers of Catan and Risk:  I hate Risk.

Risk is Candy Land in wingtips and a smoking jacket — a game of luck pretending to be a game of skill.  “But how can you say that Jonathan?” you protest.  “Risk involves military strategy! and sacrifice! and cannons!”  Perhaps, but the fact is that when all is said and done, the dice are king.  You could be Napoleon Bonaparte facing off against Gomer Pyle, but if you’re rolling bad dice, you’re going to lose.

Of course, luck is not in and of itself a bad thing.  Pretty much every good board game includes a little bit of chaos to confound best-laid plans.3  Settlers makes heavy use of dice and random card drawing — so why doesn’t it inspire the same frustrations as Risk?

This weekend I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between luck and strategy in these two games in the hope of figuring out how they differ … and I think I figured out an answer!

First let’s look at how luck and strategy work in Risk:  a player’s turn begins with fortifying his/her countries with armies (skill); then they maneuver those armies to attack their enemies (skill); then they roll the dice to see if their attacks were successful (luck).

And now Settlers of Catan:  a player starts his/her turn by rolling a dice, which determines how many resources they acquire (luck), then they barter with other players for the things they need (skill), and then they spend the resources to expand their empire (skill).

So, in Risk, people make plans and then luck determines the outcome; but in Settlers, luck initiates the action and then players must react.   When I broke it down like that, I began to wonder whether the key to a board game being fun for me was in the sequence of luck and strategy.  Whist, Canasta, Cribbage, Scrabble, Scatergories … in all these games the biggest piece of luck comes at the beginning rather than the end of play.

So what does this have to do with The Scop?

Well, the more I thought about my luck/strategy preference, the more I thought it could be applied to more than just board games.  I like the idea that humans have a chance to react to the things we can’t control.  Consider, for example, how luck interacts with stories.  In all my favorite books/movies/plays, some unpredictable event (luck) thrusts a hero into the middle of a plot in which he must react (strategy).

In fact, this idea of keeping your biggest piece of luck at the top of the story is pretty well documented in the writing world.4  When it happens at the beginning, we call it an “inciting incident.”  But when writers save their biggest roll of the dice for the final scene, we call it a “deus ex machina.”

And nobody likes those things.

*          *          *

I have recently been inspired by book critic Laura Miller to try limiting my in-text links in favor of a list at the end.  Let me know if you approve:

– A fantastic Wired feature about how Settlers of Catan is the “Monopoly Killer”

– Speaking of, watch this hilarious mock trailer for a Monopoly movie

– TV Tropes article hating on Deus Ex Machinas

A discussion of inciting incidents in screenwriting

– The Salon article in which Laura Miller dumps on hyperlinks

  1. This is an understatement: Mary was not allowed to marry into the family until she could hold her own in whist.
  2. Or IB History, as was the case for this particular nerdy boy.
  3. Except for chess, of course, which might explain its standing as a legitimate sport.
  4. “luck” in this case being defined as a plot event that the main characters have no control over.


“You see, to find the brightest wisdom one must pass through the darkest zones. And through the darkest zones there can be no guide.”

– Adam Gidwitz
A Tale Dark and Grimm


I’m a sucker for word-play:

“Of course, getting trapped in the stomach of a dragon is, even for a creature that cannot die, an incredibly unpleasant experience…. Though not quite as unpleasant, I would imagine, as getting out again.”

– Adam Gidwitz
A Tale Dark and Grimm


Mary is an insane crafter.  I turn my back for ten seconds, and the next thing I know she’s making a quilt, or painting a chair, or re-wiring an old chandelier.  As you can imagine, a number of the crafts in our house are book-related.  I thought I’d start sharing some of our more bookish creations on The Scop.  First up, a series of shadowboxes we made for our bookshelves:

The inside is cut from pages of an old German hymnal.   Here are a few pics from an angle: 

But the coolest part is when we put lights in the frames: 

Neat, eh?  In the coming weeks I’ll try to post some other book-related crafts (mostly Mary’s).  If you’ve made anything bookish and awesome, send me some pics and I’ll feature it!

About false apologies:

“This I would not recommend. It’s sort of like sweeping broken glass under the carpet; the floor still isn’t clean, and somebody’s going to end up with a bloody sock.”

– Adam Gidwitz
A Tale Dark and Grimm

Guess What Came in the Mail Yesterday?!?!




I Promptly gobbled up all the Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) that my publisher sent me.  However, if you’re coming to ALA this summer, there will be zillions of copies available for free!1

  1. If you’re a book blogger and you aren’t going to be at ALA, let me know and I’ll have the a copy sent to you post-haste!

Some wisdom on dragon-slaying:

“‘You must kill it. You and Gretel.’
‘Why us?’
‘Because there is a time when a kingdom needs its children.'”

– Adam Gidwitz
A Tale Dark and Grimm

“Blogs, and Poetics, and Hermeneutics — Oh My!”

Over the last year-and-a-half, my wife and I have been reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain aloud to each other.1  While doing so, I started to form a brilliant theory about how traveling parties in quest stories often function as reflections of a specific trait in the protagonist — it was going to be the Greatest Blog Post that the world had ever seen!  That is, until Betsy Bird at the School Library Journal went and ruined everything by beating me to the punch.

Last week Betsy posted a piece entitled The Oz Quest Theory: Are Four Characters Too Many? She suggested that Wizard of Oz is but one example in a long list of quest books in which the hero picks up three sidekicks who represent guts, heart, and brains.  One of the reasons I like Betsy’s blog is that everybody reads it, which means that everybody also leaves comments.  Some readers mentioned titles that either broke or followed the “rule of three”,  others floated theories about what might be motivating the pattern, a few even chimed in to ask “what’s the point?”

While reading these comments, I noticed that there seemed to be two separate conversations taking place — each exploring different questions:

1)  How might three be a uniquely suitable number for storytelling?

2)  Why might three be a uniquely significant number in our culture/world?

These are two fundamentally different questions, and looking back you can see the tension that stems from people talking at cross purposes.2  The comments thread is also a perfect snapshot of a philosophical battle as old as literature.  It’s the reason MFA writing programs are distinct from Lit PhD programs.  It is the difference between poetics and hermeneutics.

If you want a scholarly breakdown of these terms, click here.  In the broadest sense, poetics is concerned with how and hermeneutics is concerned with why.  Poetics people look at stories the way auto mechanics look at a car engine:  they want to know how every moving part fits together to make a unified machine (maybe in the hope they might one day build a car of their own?).  Sticking with the metaphor, hermeneutics people don’t really care about what’s under the hood; instead they’re more concerned with what it means to live in a world with cars.

Often, the people most drawn to poetics are people who work directly with the nuts and bolts of storytelling — authors, editors, and dramaturges.  People who deal with hermeneutical questions are those whose job it is to administer books to the world — scholars, librarians, and teachers.  I have often found that people from one camp have little interest in the questions of the other.  (My own marriage is an example of this Capulet-versus-Montigues battle.)

So which camp is better?  Well, I might be slightly more interested in poetics, but I’d be a fool to argue that hermeneutics isn’t absolutely essential.  After all, hermeneutics is what justifies the very act of making of books (as Mary has informed me on more than one occasion!).

Perhaps this is what I find so compelling about the children’s literature community?  There exists an  unusual amount of cross-fertilizaton between poetics and hermeneutics — authors, editors, librarians, teachers, and readers all coming together to discuss this thing they all love.3  Is it messy?  Of course!  Is it frustrating?  Sometimes.  But what fun would a quest be without a few friends?

  1. For the record, I do a pretty awesome Gurgi … ask me to bust it out the next time you see me.
  2. As for my own contribution, I stupidly tried to tackle both questions simultaneously — which just made me sound scatterbrained.
  3. Except, I would point out when it comes to booking conferences:  ALA always seems to book the same weekend as major literary conferences (MLA and ChLA).  Because of this, Mary will miss my first book signing, and I will miss her presenting a paper on Octavian Nothing.  Not cool, conference planning people, not cool…
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