Since relocating to Pittsburgh, I’ve been invited to teach at the MFA program at
Hogwarts Chatham University. This is a thrill, as my students will be actual creative writers of Children’s Literature! It will also be a challenge.
The educational needs of creative writers are slightly different from those of straight academics. The questions/vocabulary/theories that serve scholarship aren’t necessarily the ones that help a writer become better at their craft.1 The goal of this course will be to combine the reading list of an English Lit class with the vocabulary of a creative writing workshop.
I’ll be writing pieces on this blog about each of the books that we’ll be discussing in class.2 Here’s the first half of our reading list. You’re welcome to follow along!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum (1900)
I’m not actually the biggest Baum fan. His books often feel like rambling journeys where each chapter has no relation to the larger story. The first book in his series, however, is a welcome exception. Even better, Baum’s famous introduction to that book is a great way to start a course on the genre — it’s the Declaration of Independence of Children’s Literature.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
One of the recurring tropes in Children’s Literature is the creation of enchanted spaces — especially ones that are controlled by children. What better example of this than a book that manages to create such spaces without needing to resort to magic?3
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885)
Now that last year’s Huck Finn debacle seems to have blown over, it seemed like it might be fun to explore this book — one of the rare children’s literature titles that has gained full acceptance in the larger canon. From a writing perspective, it will also provide a chance to examine the quest narrative in greater detail.
Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie (1911)
My love of this book is well documented.
Charlotte’s Web by EB White (1952)
I’m actually more of a Stuart Little guy myself, but with this book recently topping the School Library Journal’s list of Top 100 Children’s Books, I thought it would be worth looking at. One of the things I love about Charlotte’s Web is how (seemingly) effortlessly it manages to combine prosaic American farm life and talking-animal magic — with Charlotte being the nexus between those two worlds.
- For more on this difference, you can check out my post on poetics vs hermeneutics ↩
- Some readers will remember that I blogged through the Children’s Literature course I taught last year. ↩
- My one regret is that I will not have space in the course to pair this book with its natural bookend: Bridge to Terebithia ↩
As many of you know, a few months back, my wife and I brought home our very first human baby. In advance of the birth, I had made a point of leaving Mary cute little sketches of what our baby might look like — most all of which she deemed “terrifying.” I thought I’d share them with readers …
And now, here’s the real deal! This is Penelope Fern Auxier. Not quite as many fangs as I’d imagined …
Please pass the word to any-and-all librarians you know that the historic CC Mellor Library in Pittsburgh is looking for a new children’s librarian! This library is two blocks from my house and it is a truly lovely building in the middle of a charming, safe, historic neighborhood.
If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you should know that it is an incredibly livable city — some people (ahem, Forbes Magazine, The Economist) would even say it is the most livable in the United States. Also, it is home to Mr. Rodgers. Try and tell me you don’t want to come to work in a place that looks like this:
Just to sweeten the pot: I’ll take whoever gets the job to D’s Six Pack and Dogs for dinner — you have not lived until you’ve eaten a salad with french fries on top.
You can find all the info about the position here. Tell your friends!
Children’s literature maven Monica Edinger recently wrote a thoughtful response to a recent Slate piece on the “epidemic of niceness” that plagues the modern publishing industry.1 Both writers voice their frustration over the dearth of negative book reviews online.2 Here’s an excerpt from the original article:
“But if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.” Jacob Silverman, Slate
For me, reading is too often an experience of discovering that the emperor has no clothes. When that happens, I feel betrayed by my community (Somebody should have warned me!). And yet, when I read an openly negative book review, it turns me off. While I agree to the importance of quality criticism, quality criticism is no fun.3
There is, however, one safe place where negative reviews thrive: the celebrated book
While I bite my tongue about contemporary books I dislike, I am more than comfortable speaking out against boring old books. I am not alone here; the internet is awash in snarky takedowns of overrated classics. For more contemporary targets, one only need look at the upper echelons. For every hundred glowing reviews of Freedom, you can be sure there will be a BR Meyer review attacking it.
Sometimes these dissenting voices come off as prophets, other times they come off as attention-hungry trolls (Armond White, anyone?). I think there is a sense that a successful work can afford to be taken down a few notches. Perhaps this is true, but since when has that been the purpose of criticism?
In Edinger’s comments, she mentions that SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog stands out as a place where honest criticism is alive and well. I agree with her, and I think the blog gets away with that because of its conceit: any book mentioned there is already a contender for the Newbery. There is no such thing as a bad book on that blog, only varying levels of good.
I think the success of Heavy Medal speaks to a larger point. Perhaps the reason bad books do not get panned is because we subconsciously know they are undeserving of critical engagement? And perhaps this is the way it should be? What is the value of our greatest literary minds attacking Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that has no literary aspirations?
Let us save our very best criticism for our very best books — because those are the books whose flaws are worth discussing, and those are the authors who we want to see grow.
- if the name sounds familiar, I posted about her last year ↩
- This is a problem that goes beyond just books. Just a few weeks ago, there was the notorious fanboy uprising against the reviewers who dared criticize the latest Batman movie. ↩
- As Edinger points out, things get even more complicated with children’s literature because adults are not the primary/sole reader. Who wants to be the jerk who disparaged a child’s favorite book? ↩
I’m a fan of the science-fiction blog Io9. A few weeks ago, they posted a pretty nifty piece of forgotten versions of famous movies. Among the list were several children’s literature adaptations, all of which are free watch on YouTube. (Hooray for the public domain!) Highlights include silent versions of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan as well as a saxiphone-laced Finnish adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Click any of the below images to read the whole list:
“Latimer Springfield was a rather cheerless, oldish young man, who went into politics somewhat in the spirit in which other people might go into half-mourning.”
– Saki, “The Lull”
I’ve recently been reading a lot of short stories by Edwardian master Saki (the pen name of HH Munro). The stories are largely wonderful — a combination of funny and macabre that I haven’t seen since Roald Dahl. Speaking of Dahl, he was a huge fan of Saki. Here’s his blurb on the back of the Complete Works:
“In all literature, he was the first to employ successfully a wildly outrageous premise in order to make a serious point. I love that. And today the best of his stories are still better than the best of just about every other writer around.” – Roald Dahl on Saki
Why is this interesting? Well, I have recently been thinking about Betsy Bird’s SLJ poll of the top 100 children’s books — in her piece on Matilda, Betsy mentions a rumor that the character of Matilda was originally conceived to be “a nasty little girl, somewhat in the same vein of Belloc’s Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death. Revision after revision turned her instead into the sweet little thing we all know and love today.”
This seems like a good comparison, but for the fact that Belloc’s Matilda is not terribly smart.1 So imagine my surprise and delight when a few weeks ago, while reading Saki’s short story “The Boar-Pig“, I encounter a shrewd little girl named Matilda Cuvering whose sole mission in life is to terrorize stupid adults. In the story, Matilda humiliates and extorts a pair of social climbers trying to crash a garden party. And she doesn’t limit her wrath to adults:
“I was told to imitate Claude, that’s my young cousin, who never does anything wrong … It seems [My aunts] thought I ate too much raspberry trifle at lunch, and they said Claude never eats too much raspberry trifle. Well, Claude always goes to sleep for half an hour after lunch, because he’s told to, and I waited till he was asleep, and tied his hands and started forcible feeding with a whole bucketful of raspberry trifle … Lots of it went on to his sailor-suit and some of it on to the bed, but a good deal went down Claude’s throat, and they can’t say again that he has never been known to eat too much raspberry trifle.”
Of course, we’ll never know for certain whether Dahl had this character in mind when he created Matilda Wormwood, but I can’t help but wonder.2