Now that the craziness of the book release has calmed down, I’ll be returning to a more regular posting schedule (MWF) in which I discuss broader subjects in children’s books.1
In the meantime, I wanted to share about my absolutely crazy week. First off, I managed to get invited to an amazing party at author Cornelia Funke’s house. I got to hang out with a slew of teachers and booksellers … as well as Newbery winning author Susan Patron.2
Even more awesome, this week I did my very first SCHOOL VISITS! I did four middle schools in two days — each group was between 300-400 kids. The presentation included candy, costumes, toilet plungers, yo-yos and, of course, Peter Nimble! The whole thing culminated in a signing at Redlands Barnes & Noble. We had a huge turnout of awesome kids at the signing! Here’s a picture of me doing a little lightning quick sketch-artistry to explain some of the story:
Also, check out this ridiculous photo from an article in the local paper about the event. I especially love how this photo features my many weak chins:
I owe a huge thanks to librarian Joan McCall and B&N’s Laurie Aldern for organizing the event. I’ve got a whole slew of signings and presentations in the coming months … check out my events tab to see the full list. Once I get a few more of these visits under my belt, I’ll be writing a post with tips about what I’ve learned presenting to schools. Until then, consider booking me in a school or store near you!
This is as good a time as any to point my Los Angeles friends to TWO upcoming signings that I’ll be doing next week:
I will be at the famous Mrs. Nelson’s Books & Toys on Friday the 23rd at 5pm in conjunction with another school visit. And the following day (Sept 24), I will be at Chevalier’s Books in Los Angeles from 1-3pm. The store is on Larchmont in Mid-Wilshire. For my LA friends, I urge you to please, please, PLEASE come to the Chevalier’s signing. Seriously, what else are you doing at 1pm on a Saturday?
And finally, I’ve picked winners from the Peter Nimble t-shirt giveaway! The winners were selected from anyone who wrote a Peter Nimble review on Amazon, Goodreads, or B&N.com before August 31. Here they are:
Karissa Eckert – “A creative world, interesting plot, and wonderful characters make this a book that is fun to read and hard to put down.”
Nicola Manning – “A wonderful story that quickly grabs your attention with delightful characters one becomes fond of right away.”
Joceline Foley – “Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is a classic hero-on-a-quest novel, yet it manages to be anything but predictable and boring. The archetypal characters are fresh, funny, and smart.”
Aislynn Thompson – “The author did a fantastic job of weaving all the various stories of each character together – from the evil kind, the lost princess, the mysterious desert with the thieves, the crows, the missing children … all of it was woven together into a story that I couldn’t put down!“
Francine Kizner – “Peter Nimble is a fun and exciting adventure story that brings a fresh voice and perspective to children’s literature. It’s enthralling, funny, and very entertaining.”
I’ve contacted the winners — congrats, gang!
I’ve had a number of people ask about buying Peter Nimble t-shirts. For those interested, you can grab one for $20 (this includes shipping). The shirts are hand-printed on American Apparel 50/50 tees. Please specify size (XS, S, M, L, XL) whether you want green or blue. Click below to pay through paypal, or contact me directly to mail a check.
This morning I read an engaging rant on a topic close to my heart: Whither the children’s book?1 The post came from Australian Judith Ridge’s excellent book blog, Misrule. “Misrule” is the name of a cluttered, sprawling home (think Von Trapp family crossed with the Lost Boys) in Ethel Turner’s Australian classic Seven Little Australians.2 Mary and I have, in fact, long dreamed of one day christening our own home “Misrule” and then filling it with lots of ill-mannered children.
Ridge’s post bemoans what she sees as a trend in the book industry of labeling books written for children as “Young Adult” … some even going so far as to call chapter books “Young Young Adult.” This is obviously a market-directed phenomenon, and thus something that will pass after a few more YA movies flop at the box office3
Of course, this new trend begs an old question: what is children’s literature? It’s a slippery question because for every rule you put down (Rule #1: “Children’s Books Feature Child Protagonists”), you can find an adult book featuring the same trait.
After many years of wrestling with this definition, I came across one trait that might actually apply to every children’s book … and is virtually antithetical to adult literature. It is something my wife (who studies Victorian children’s literature) learned while working with children’s literature scholar June Cummins. Are you ready?
children’s literature assumes a teachable audience
This is not limited to books with obvious morals. Nor does it specify that this “teachable audience” must be a literal child. Rather, it specifies a tone in which the author is speaking to a reader who is still unformed in his/her opinions.
I understand that this is an infuriatingly-vague definition. It’s akin to “defining” comedy as being anything that’s funny. But unlike the a posteriori checklists obsessed with reading level and plot specifics, Cummins’ definition is both parsimonious consilient.4
What really excites me about this definition is that it might also be applied to YA books … and it goes a long way toward explaining why some Young Adult titles feel like adult books and others feel like children’s books.
- thanks to Fuse #8 for pointing me to the story! ↩
- Seven Little Australians is a delightful book that, along with The Paper Bag Princess (Canada) and The Wonderful Adventure of Nils (Sweden), seems to have been relegated to “local favorite” rather than part of the larger international canon. This is a pity. ↩
- Note how Cowboys vs. Aliens and The Walking Dead are not being touted as a comic book adaptations — quite the change from five years ago when everything was boasting its comic creds. ↩
- Which my freshman geology course instructed me was essential for any good scientific theory! Go college! ↩
I recently stumbled across commenter Lisa’s new word blog This Wretched Hive.1 Lisa writes smart, succinct posts about words old and new. One of my favorite pieces discusses portmanteaus. Portmanteaus are words that combine two different words to make something new: televangelist, spork, interrobang, etc.
I love portmanteaus because when done well, they brush up against word play. In fact, without that element, portmanteaus pretty much fail. Consider the example Lisa discovered in her grocery store:
“Portmanteau” is actually a French word for an upright trunk that has dresser-like compartments in one half and a hanging closet in the other.2 I first discovered the word as a child when I read Lewis Carroll’s introduction to “The Hunting of the Snark.” He observes:
Humpty Dumpty’s theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all. For instance, take the two words “fuming” and “furious”. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first … if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “frumious”.
Carroll is referring to something Humpty Dumpty says in Alice in Wonderland3 in order to explain how a reader might be able to decode the made-up words in his famous nonsense poem, “The Jabberwocky.”
A few years later, while scouring footnotes in Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice (which I read nightly for over a decade), I discovered that Alice in Wonderland was actually the first time portmanteau was used in this linguistic sense. Way to be awesome, Lewis Carroll!
- The title of Lisa’s blog makes me think all blogs should be named after things Obi Wan said. ↩
- I find a beautiful irony in the fact that the word portmanteau is a portmanteau — being a combination of “porter” (to carry) and “manteau” (cloak). ↩
- “You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.” ↩
Well, I’m supposed to be furiously working on a new script right now … but I hated the idea of not following up on this particular topic. Last week I wrote a piece that compared rolling the dice in a board game with authorial intervention in a plot. The comments that followed were lively and engaging. One early remark (by friend and K-Blogger Robosoyo) went off on an interesting tangent:
I’ll be honest: this is why I was disappointed by the last two, and especially the very last Harry Potter book. Because by book 4, Harry’s luck should have run out, and his own skill/inventiveness/wit should have been the thing saving him. Instead, Who He Was got him all the way to defeating Voldemort, rather than What He Learned. The end of book 7 and the git still only knew about five spells, two of which were “Authorio Intrusio” (accio and apparating).1
He makes some good points (“authorio intrusio” is truly inspired), and several commenters voiced their support. I get it; everyone hates lazy prophecies. However, I cringe to think that just because a story contains a prophecy it must be obligated to subvert it. Rowling is a smart writer, and she went out of her way to make it clear that Harry Potter would never be the most skilled/smart/witty of his friends … I have to think that that was intentional. Maybe it even has something to do with the point of the whole series?
This question sparked an off-blog conversation about “prophecy stories.” As I see it, prophecy stories contain unexceptional protagonists who have been selected as The One. Why have they been selected as The One? Well, that’s sort of the point: they’ve done nothing to deserve the title; it is thrust upon them and the central question of the story is “Will they live up to it?” In our current world, which places great emphasis on personal merit and individual choice, this concept may seem completely unrealistic — but remember that for thousands of years people lived in a world where a baby could become a king by virtue of bloodline, and another baby could be born into slavery for similarly arbitrary reasons. In that older world, the idea of being The One might actually speak very directly to the human experience.
In fact, I would argue that “older world” is a key distinction here. Prophecy stories almost all take place in ancient worlds (even high tech sci-fi stories Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica occurred long ago in galaxies far away). This is different from our current age. Nowadays we crave stories about characters who shape their own destiny. We want to believe that individual choice and personal merit are the most important determinants of success.2 While true to an extent, it is occasionally very untrue. Just ask the victims of a natural disaster.
The world is a big place, and there is plenty of room for both kinds of stories. The problems start when authors try to have it both ways. That’s usually the point when readers start to revolt. Any time I see a story about a hero with superpowers (personal merit) who also was predicted by The Ancients (destiny), I start to get nervous. It means that no matter how the story ends, it will betray one of its central metaphors.3
What happens when authors betray their metaphor? Well, consider the Matrix trilogy. Everyone loved the first movie and hated its sequils. Why? some people claimed they were too confusing, but so was the original. Some claim it had too many pointless special effects, to which I ask Why did they feel pointless? Looking back over what happened in that series, I suspect that one of the central problems is that the story transitioned from one of choice to one of destiny. The first movie is all about Neo choosing to become a hero (as exemplified by the red-pill/blue-pill scene). The later installments, however, take pains to reveal that Neo has never really been in control of his own destiny — that everything he’s ever done has been part of a plan. This is a literal slap in the face for the audience, as it’s telling us that we (along with Neo) were fools for ever caring about which pill he chose. Ha ha. Joke’s on us.
So how does this tie back to Harry Potter? Well, I would argue that just as The Matrix began with the premise of choice, the Harry Potter books built their foundation on prophecy. Baby Harry defeated Voldemort not by his actions, but simply by being The One. In the end, [SPOILER ALERT] he defeats Voldemort in the very same way — and, to me, any other outcome wouldn’t have felt half so magical.
- This is actually an abridged version of a much more in-depth rant Rob published a few years back on his own blog, which is worth a read provided you can accept the premise that Tolkein is a great writer. ↩
- I can’t say for sure, but I suspect this storytelling sea-change has something to do with the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and Shakespeare. ↩
- This idea has been stolen directly from Matt Bird’s excellent blog post on the subject. ↩
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?
- For the record, I do a pretty awesome Gurgi … ask me to bust it out the next time you see me. ↩
- As for my own contribution, I stupidly tried to tackle both questions simultaneously — which just made me sound scatterbrained. ↩
- 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… ↩
Some of you might remember when I posted a link to Kirby Field’s fantastic article about file-sharing.1 Well, clear your schedules because Mr. Fields has struck out on his own! He recently launched a site called Reading Remainders, in which he will slowly tackle all the unread books on his shelf.
This is a noble pursuit. Pretty much every reader I know is plagued by stacks and stacks of unread books. For years, I had a personal rule that I could not put a book on a shelf unless I had read it in its entirety. I considered a shelved book no different than the mounted head of a deer — it was a trophy.
Of course, this all got ruined when I met Mary. All of a sudden there were somebody else’s books cluttering up my shelf. The horror!2 I eventually managed to convince her to at least allow me the “no unread books on the shelf” rule. Those books can be broken up into two basic categories:
1) the one book Mary is about to actually read
2) the many books Jonathan swears he will read so can he pretty-please buy them all?
These books are strategically-placed above Mary’s desk, where they can inspire maximum guilt. My old pal Kirby, however, has elected to display his shame shelf before the whole world. And it’s not just a bunch of classics that everybody knows of and hasn’t read — he’s also reading all the crappy books that have somehow ended up in his possession. Consider this week’s piece, which is an extended, thoughtful meditation on an Anthony Robins self-help book from the 80s.
These are less book reviews than platforms for reflection on a lifetime of reading and thinking. (The above Anthony Robins piece, for example, is set against Kirby’s first-ever brush with unemployment.) In his NFQs page3, he refers to the blog as an “online manuscript.” Whatever you call it, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon.
- I also encourage you to check out his great Popmatters article about his favorite childhood used bookstore. ↩
- One of our first real arguments was about how to organize said books … during which I was informed that my longtime sorting method (“grouped conversations”) is nothing short of insane. ↩
- Which I can only assume stands for “Never Asked Questions” ↩
After spending waaaaay too many hours with ink-stained fingers, I recently decided to drag myself into the digital world. This included buying and learning Adobe Photoshop — a double-challenge as I am both stingy and lazy. I asked Mary what I should draw to practice, and she suggested The Library of the Future.
“The what,” you say?
A few weeks ago, Brooklyn librarian Rita Meade participated in a city-wide competition in which kids wrote essays describing “The Library of the Future.” She recently posted some of her favorite responses on her excellent blog, Screwy Decimal.1 I’ll reprint them here (her responses are in parentheses):
1) “The future library will be located in a spaceship. The spaceship will have blue tables and purple chairs. The walls of the future library will be green and magenta. Also, the future library will have many skylights.”
2) “Libraries will have flying desks and iPads for each person.” (Is this in the budget?)
3) “The future library will be open twenty four hours.” (I’m not sure, but I THINK this goes against union bylaws.)
4) “The library will have ninety thousand computers. The library will also have a café.”
7) “As much as I love the library, I’m 100% sure future libraries would be even more awesome. Just think how amazing the library will be in the future, with robots and electronics.”
8) “I also believe that there will be robot librarians. But then again a lot of people know that someday robots will take over the world. Also people think that there will be a war of good robots vs bad robots but here is the good part about all this is that the good robots will be teamed up with all of humanity. But earth is a very strong place and can fight with or without human help.” (This kid’s going to be a sci-fi writer, you wait and see.)
9) “[Robot librarians] will be very cost effective because we will not have to pay them.” (Thanks, kid!)
So, I sat down and tried my best to draw a picture of the wonders described by our young prophets. To see all the details, click through the image:
Awesome, right? I fit in pretty much everything but the iPads, which I sincerely doubt will be around in the future (unlike evil robots, which are fact).
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. ↩
Hey, readers! I have a quick, exciting announcement about the forthcoming book: Abrams is letting me illustrate!
The good news is that I’m going to start posting drawings-in-progress and some other Peter Nimble-related tidbits in the coming weeks. The bad news is that I’m on a tight deadline, which will be eating into my regular blogging schedule. I’ll still be posting at least twice a week, but I need to make a little extra time for drawing! More to come …
I am not the biggest fan of Twitter. I can only get work done when my internet is disconnected, and the idea of a “community” that requires constant input is both daunting and distracting. Still, a few months ago I signed up … and quickly discovered that I am the worst Twitterer in the world.1
Case in point: last week I wrote the following message –
With hindsight, I can see that this is a bit, shall we say … desperate? At the time, however, I was simply thinking “Gee, people post these kinds of messages all the time and then get a zillion followers — I want a zillion followers!” I hit “tweet” and waited for success.
So how many new followers did I get?
Zero. None. Not even a spambot. In fact, I lost a follower.2 If there’s a moral to this story, it’s something about how I should never again be allowed near a computer.
Despite the shattering of my fragile ego, there has been one big upside to using Twitter: I’ve made connections with a number of interesting people in the children’s book world — people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. For example, Deer Hill Elementary teacher Mike Lewis reached out and invited me to contribute a video to his school’s annual Read Your Heart Out Day (warning: contains me in pajamas).
Another example is Share a Story – Shape a Future 2011. This is an annual literacy event hosted by a variety of children’s book bloggers. My involvement was slightly accidental. A few weeks back I answered a call for photos of writers’ notebooks from teacher-blogger Sarah Mulhern. I sent her a few photos of my old journals. Little did I know what I was getting into. You see, Sarah’s “author notebook” post is a part of a massive event that includes dozens of teachers/librarians/writers/book lovers all over the world. The theme this year is “Unwrapping the Gift of Literacy,” and each day will tackle a different topic:
MONDAY – The Power of a Book
TUESDAY: The Gift of Reading
WEDNESDAY: Unwrapping Literacy 2.0
THURSDAY: Keeping School from Interfering with the Gift of Literacy
FRIDAY: Literacy: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Once I figured out (through Twitter, of course) what this event was, I asked if I could join the fun. The coordinators are nice people and said “dive in!” I’ll be posting related pieces this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. In the meantime, check out posts about “the power of a book” at The Book Whisperer and Reading is Fundamental.