What oft was OMG WHERE'S MY PEN?!

Yesterday, I talked briefly about the joy of finding how books from my past have subconsciously influenced my work.  Today, I'd like to discuss the opposite discovery:  when you read something new that puts words to your most secret thoughts.  Those are the moments when I leap from my chair and scramble for a pen because what I've just read must be written down!  English poet Alexander Pope describes this "aha!" moment perfectly:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed
What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.

So many great authors have inspired this feeling in me.  Here are a few such "ne'er so well expressed" observations that have really blown me away:

MOBY DICK - Herman Melville

"... truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more."

I have often argued this same point among friends and family:  that the secret to being cozy lies in a part of you being cold;  the moment a person is warm all over, they are too warm.  However much I may have felt this in life, I could never have said it so well as Melville.

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton

"Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity."

Chesterton is a master of pith.  Case in point: before having really read any Dickens, I was still able to read his book Charles Dickens: the last of the Great Men and love every word -- that takes a special type of writer.  (If you like the above line, I'd recommend you check out the ChestertonQuote Twitter feed.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

Describing the color of polyjuice potion:

"Both glasses hissed and frothed: Goyle's turned the khaki color of a booger."

A small observation, but profound nonetheless.

Foundling - D. M. Cornish

This next one is unusual because it's not actually from a book.  Rather, it's from the jacket copy of D.M. Cornish's "Foundling" trilogy.  Still, it puts words to something I've felt for a long time:

"Convinced as a child that writers had a key to unlock other worlds and convinced as a young man that there were ways to be fantastical without conforming to the generally accepted notions of fantasy ..."[1. emphasis mine]

These are but a few writers who reached into my brain and scooped out (what I had thought to be) original thoughts.  Ordinarily this would make me feel violated or robbed, but these authors managed to express the thought so perfectly that I can't help but feel like I've just discovered a conspirator ... or a new friend.

On the Shoulders of A LITTLE PRINCESS

In last week's children's literature class, Mary taught Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.  This meant I got to kick back and just enjoy re-reading the book.  While doing do, I came across a passage in which Sara describes the view from her attic window:

"You can see all sorts of things you can't see downstairs," she said ... "Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky—and sparrows hopping about and talking to each other just as if they were people—and other attic windows where heads may pop out any minute and you can wonder who they belong to. And it all feels as high up—as if it was another world." 

The subject comes up again a few chapters later:

When the square suddenly seemed to begin to glow in an enchanted way and look wonderful in spite of its sooty trees and railings, Sara knew something was going on in the sky. ... she invariably stole away and crept up the flights of stairs, and, climbing on the old table, got her head and body as far out of the window as possible. When she had accomplished this, she always drew a long breath and looked all round her. It used to seem as if she had all the sky and the world to herself. 

These passages stood out to me because I am in the middle of writing a book that is largely "about" rooftops, and it includes a few observations very similar to the ones above.  While I did not deliberately set out to copy pay homage to A Little Princess, I am pretty sure I couldn't have written my rooftop story if I hadn't of first read them in Burnett when I was a child.  (I can't help but wonder if PL Travers felt the same way?)

This happens to me a lot.  While revising Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes, I was continually rediscovering how this or that moment/character/theme/word was actually inspired by something I had read long ago.  This seems right to me.  Some writers make a big deal out of creating from nothing;  I, for one, am more comforted by the thought that I create from the things that live within me  -- things put there by other, greater minds.  On the shoulders of giants, and such.  I love realizing how forgotten books are still unconsciously informing me, and I hope to continue making such discoveries for as long as I write.

The (Book) Doctor is In!

A special treat for readers today: my good friend Meredith Sommers has written a guest post for The Scop!  I met Meredith when she was getting her MLIS in preservation;  she now works as a librarian and archivist at Milligan College.  Behold her book-fixing powers:

Pretty neat, eh?  I asked Meredith to share some advice on the care and feeding of books, here's what she came back with ...

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First off, thanks to Jonathan for the chance to guest post.   I'm excited to have the opportunity to think about the care of books, which occupies a surprisingly small portion of my life these days.   With the exception of unique archival items, our school's collection is selected for use.   When our books get old and ratty, we buy new ones (because most of them can be replaced less expensively than they can be repaired).   I'm finding lately that this mentality is bleeding into my personal life;  my home library is greatly shrunken from its heyday, and I'm much less emotionally attached to most of my books than I once was[1. 1. Last week, the book I was reading was soaked when a pipe burst, and I tossed it into the garbage without a second thought because I could get another copy so much more easily than I could return the soaked one to a readable state].

That said, there are some books worth keeping forever and handing down.  And the good news is, books are sturdy.  If they're made of quality materials (read: not mass-market paperbacks printed on acidic paper), and given a modicum of care, they'll last a really long time.  Below are some basic guidelines for keeping your books safe:

Environment - Books are comfortable when people are comfortable.   They'll do best around 70 degrees F, and 30-50% relative humidity.  The key, though, is consistency.  Don't put your treasures in the uninsulated attic where the temperature fluctuates wildly with the seasons, or the damp basement.  Keep them away from flood-prone areas (basement, again).  Built-in bookcases flanking the fireplace?  Not for the heirlooms.  Light causes fading.

Storage - Books should be on the shelf, standing straight up.  Leaning stresses the spine, and eventually leaves them mangled.  Keep the shelf full or use a bookend, but don't pack it so tightly that it's a struggle to remove a volume.  If you have to pack books away, lay them flat in the box or rest them on their spines. Resting on the foreedge stresses the hinges and can pull the textblock out of the case.  And if you have to put that box in the basement (it happens), keep it up high and use a plastic bin with a snap-on lid for extra protection.

Use - Be gentle.  Wash your hands.  Finger oil and dirt can build up remarkably.  To remove the book from the shelf, push in the volumes to either side so that you can grasp the middle of the spine (rather than using one finger on the top of the spine to tip it out).  Use a paper bookmark rather than a thicker metal or leather one to avoid distending the pages (similarly, no dog-earing, and no paper clips – which have the added benefit of rust).  No Post-its;  the adhesive leaves a residue.  If you have to annotate, use pencil.  Support the covers;  don't force the book to open flat.  Never lay it open and face-down.   Keep away from food or drink.

On the subject of repairs, it's hard for me to recommend DIY jobs.  So many at-home interventions go so badly.  If it's really beloved, call a conservator.  But a few tips, for things worth fixing, but not worth bringing in the big guns:

Water - Get it dried out.   Stand the book on its end with the pages fanned out and keep air circulating and the lights on.  Stick paper towels in between every 10 pages or so, and change the towels frequently.  The key is to avoid mold, which can set in very, very quickly.  The pages will buckle, but it'll still be readable.

Tears - Never, ever use Scotch tape.  Give it 20 years, and it'll be cracked and brittle and yellow -- as will the paper underneath.  Filmoplast is lovely (but pricey), and a roll will probably last the rest of your life.  Line the paper up and use small pieces of tape to match the tear's contours.  Fold the tape over the edge of the page, and repeat up the back of the tear.

Loose Hinges - Often the result of storing a book on its fore-edge.  The text block comes apart, just a little, from the cover.  It can be reattached with a bit of acid-free glue (PVA, polyvinyl acetate is good. Check the scrapbook supplies section of Michael's or similar) applied with a very thin knitting needle[2. 2. University of Illinois - Urbana-Champain has a great tutorial].

Torn spine - Sorry.  I have no suggestions beyond professional help.  Please, though, no duct tape.

*     *     *

Me again.  If you want to see more of Meredith's book repair wizardry, click here.  She also sent along the following links for (much) more information on the subject:

The Library of Congress

American Institute for Conservation's Caring for Your Treasures

Northeast Document Conservation Center's preservation leaflets

CORAL ISLAND and the Childlit Mentor

For those of you just joining the conversation, my wife and I are currently team-teaching a children's literature course.  Last week's book was R. M. Ballantyne's 1857 adventure The Coral Island.  Instead of summarizing the plot[1. 1. Three boys get shipwrecked on the island. They get along splendidly. Then some pirates come and ruin everything. Also, cannibals.] or discussing its literary significance[2. 2. Coral Island is considered by many to be the first boy's adventure novel; it is also the book that provoked William Golding to write The Lord of the Flies (as a rebuttal)], I thought instead I could talk about a certain character relationship that the book depicts -- one that traces back to Homer's Odyssey and lives on today in books like Harry Potter.   It is the relationship between a boy and his mentor.

The Mentor in The Coral Island In the second half of the book, fifteen year-old Ralph gets kidnapped by pirates.  He spends many days on this ship, surrounded by cutthroats and monsters.  Among the crew, however, he finds a man named "Bloody Bill":

This man, although he was always taciturn and often surly, was the only human being on board with whom I had the slightest desire to become better acquainted. ... Once or twice I tried to draw him into conversation, but he always turned away after a few cold monosyllables.

Ralph soon befriends Bloody Bill and learns the true nature of his character -- namely that Bill is a sensitive man, wracked with guilt over his wicked deeds.  The relationship between these two only spans a few chapters, but it acts as the emotional center of the novel.  Without Bill, this would just be another book about some kids surviving on an island.

I find this child/mentor dynamic particularly compelling as an adult reader of children's books.  It forces me to question whether the adults in my own life were so deeply invested in me -- people that I once perceived to be cold and indifferent.  Usually after reading such books, I have an overwhelming desire to call my parents and teachers[3. 3. This is no accident.  The word "mentor" actually comes from the character of the same name in Homer's Odyssey.  In the poem, Mentor is a wise old man who looks after Odysseus' son in his absence.  In English today, it is a word for someone in a role that is equal parts parent and teacher.].

The Mentor in Contemporary Children's Literature. To be honest, child/mentor relationships were on my brain long before I picked up The Coral Island.  It all started when I read D. M. Cornish's "Foundling" trilogy over Christmas[3. 3. A special thanks to Betsy Bird and her wonderful Factotum review for putting these books on my radar!].  Cornish seems to compulsively render the child/mentor dynamic between his young hero Rossamund and ... every adult character in the series:

Well, maybe not every adult character.  But shades of this trope show up repeatedly.  (I don't blame Cornish for repeating this dynamic -- he writes it very well.)  With both The Coral Island and the "Foundling" books, I'm not just talking about a pairing of an old character with a younger one.  Rather, it's about the layers of understanding going on between those two characters.  In both texts, I see a consistent theme of a young person struggling to comprehend an older caretaker.

When I think of other contemporary examples of this dynamic, my mind goes straight to Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore:

To my thinking, this relationship stands out as being the real story in the "Harry Potter" series.  Each volume moves Harry closer toward understanding just how much this enigmatic old wizard cares for him -- even when he appears distant.  At the end of every adventure, Harry receives a "reward" in the form of a conversation with his mentor, who reveals the ways in which he has been watching and helping from a distance.  These conversations are the climax of personal growth ... just as they are for Rossamund Bookchild and Rover Roger.

The Mentor in Adult Literature. With the above examples in mind, I tried to think of some child/mentor relationships that predate children's literature.  The only thing I could come up with was Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur.  My friend Doctor Comics is publishing a book on Arthurian legends, and so I asked him about the relationship between King Arthur and Merlin.  He told me that the original Arthur texts don't really capture the dynamic I was looking for -- in fact, it wasn't until T.H. White's depiction in The Sword and the Stone in 1938 that Merlin-as-mentor really emerged.


So it wasn't until Arthur was re-written for children that the child/mentor dynamic really came through?  Huh.  With this new revelation, I started to wonder whether the relationships that I find so moving are actually unique to the genre.  Maybe there is something about children's literature  --  which is meant to be read by both children and adults -- that captures this child/mentor relationship in a way that adult literature cannot?

I have no idea whether this is true.  But a part of me suspects it may be so.  In the meantime, I'm sure I've forgotten a lot of great child/mentor relationships from children's books.  You should let me know in the comments.

UPDATE: I wanted to give a special welcome to any readers visiting from Fuse #8! I like to think of the comments section as that "reward" that Harry (me) gets to have with Dumbledore (you) at the end of an adventure -- in which wise readers tell me why I'm wrong about this or that thing.  So please, pull up a chair, grab some butterbeer, and join the conversation!

Last Call for THE CORAL ISLAND ...

Just a short post reminding readers that I'll be discussing R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island on Monday[1. 1. I'll be trying my best to connect it to Harry Potter and D. M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy ... we'll see how it goes.]. If you were hoping to read along, now's your chance. All this week, I'll be posting quotes from the book in the Marginalia Box (in the right column). Also, I've included an excerpt from the preface to whet your appetite:

"If there is any boy or man who loves to be melancholy and morose, and who cannot enter with kindly sympathy into the regions of fun, let me seriously advise him to shut my book and put it away.  It is not meant for him."

Did I mention the book has pirates? And a shark? You can read it for free here.

Don't Shoot the Messenger

The other day I was having trouble with a script and so I took a long walk. We have a dollar theater about eight miles from the house, which is a perfect distance (provided you have a ride home[1. 1. I tend to prefer walking all my miles in a straight line ... which invariably results in my phoning Mary to pick me up. The woman is nothing if not patient.]). I love dollar theaters because they stop me from being picky: how can I resent a movie that only cost a buck? Even when the movie is terrible, I can at least spend the time productively by analyzing why the movie is terrible ... Which is exactly what I did while watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Over the years, I have had a very love/hate relationship with Lewis' fantasy series[2. 2. I have long harbored an irrational hatred for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ... The Magician's Nephew, however, is one of my favorite stories of all time.]. One of the books' most divisive elements is its use of Christian imagery ... some might even say allegory. I've spoken with countless friends who still remember the day they realized that Lewis had woven covert religious themes into his narrative. At ALA last month, Neil Gaiman reminisced about this moment in his own life. Laura Miller wrote a book about it. Phillip Pullman wrote several.

I'm starting to think that the discovery that the Chronicles of Narnia are about something is the bookish child's version of learning that [SPOILER ALERT]  there's no Santa Claus. It is the moment when we discover that authors aren't just nice men and women trying to entertain us with a story; instead they're trying to communicate some lesson to us -- which makes them no different than every other bossy adult in our lives. Perhaps even more important, it is usually a discovery we make on our own.

I have re-read (and now watched) The Chronicles of Narnia with this question in mind. And the more time I spend with these stories, the less I think that the outrage is justified. Certainly Lewis has created Narnia as a moral universe -- where every new place and challenge is a proving ground for personal integrity. But what good story doesn't do that? Why do we roll our eyes at the heavy-handed moralizing of Eustace's avarice, but thrill at seeing Ofelia approach the table of the Pale Man? Or seeing Harry Potter discover the secret of the mirror of Erised?

I suspect that the anger concerning The Chronicles of Narnia is less about Lewis' specific message and more about the fact that he has a message at all. It is outrage at the very notion of authorial intent.

Book Review: The Grimm Reader

I wanted to give a special "howdy" to any visitors from 100 Scope Notes; welcome to The Scop! Anyway, on with today's post ... Between the two of us, Mary and I get a lot of free books. Most of mine are galleys and ARCs from meetings/conferences. Mary gets books sent to her from various academic publishers hoping she might incorporate their text into a syllabus[1. 1. It usually works out that Mary reads my free books and I read hers (something about the grass being greener, I'm sure.)]. The other day she came home with a copy of The Grimm Reader: the Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Maria Tatar. I stole it from her desk and read it last week.

Here's the rundown:

The Forward: The forward was written by A.S. Byatt, who I guess knows something about children's books[2. 2. On top of writing The Children's Book, Byatt also penned an incendiary op-ed in the New York Times attacking Harry Potter ... I can't resist a contrarian!]. Like most forwards, it's less about hard facts and more about general reflection -- which isn't a bad thing. Some favorite quotes/observations:

"Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance -- and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated."

"I inhabited stories with characters in a way I never inhabited true fairy tales ... I fell in love with Sir Lancelot and held long conversations with Robin Hood ... But I never loved or was loved in the context of a fairy tale. Dickens claimed that he wanted to marry Little Red Riding Hood, which to me is a category error. Either he had seen a pretty actress in a red hood in a pantomime, or his hugely animating imagination could even insulate itself into the closed box of finite gestures. Character feels wrong in folktales."

"I am not sure how much good is done by moralizing about fairy tales. This can be unsubtle -- telling children that virtue will be rewarded, when in fact it is mostly simply the fact of being the central character that ensures a favorable outcome."

The Introduction: Tatar's introduction is lengthy and enjoyable[2. 2. Mary has informed me that her name is pronounced "Tuh-tar" ... and that she's kind of a big deal]. She makes some general observations about books and then does a brief rundown of her personal connection to a number of specific stories. Here are some thoughts that I really liked:

"Magic happens in nearly every one of these tales, but the real wonder is that no one ever feels that slightest shock. A girl meets a wolf in the woods and is not at all astonished when he engages in a conversation about her grandmother."

"With the Bible and Shakespeare, the Grimms' collection ranks among the best-selling books of the Western world. 'In an old-fashioned household,' Baron Munchausen reports, 'Grimms' fairy takes occupied a position midway between the cookbook and the hymnal.'"

"Those who expect to find role models for children in fairy tales will be deeply disappointed. Parents will look in vain for so-called family values in stories that show us a widower wooing his daughter, a woman lacing up and suffocating her stepdaughter, and her father turning over his daughter to a greedy king. But these stories all meet one important requirement for a good children's book: they show the triumph of the small and meek over the tall and powerful."

The Children's Tales: Nothing much to report here. A translation of a number of Grimm tales -- specifically ones that worked their way in the the Brother's later collection, Children's Stories and Household Tales. One thing I did like was Tatar's wording of birds' the rhyme in "Cinderella:"

"Roo coo coo, roo coo coo, Blood is dripping from the shoe: The foot's too long and far too wide, Go back and find the proper bride."

The Adult Tales: This is where the book gets interesting. Tatar spends some time in her introduction talking about how after the Grimms' first publication was a success, they set to making a version more suitable for children. In that spirit, Tatar includes some more adult stories that didn't make the cut. After each one, she includes about a page of analysis. She points out how closely the story resembles earlier folktales and postulates why it might have not been considered acceptable to contemporary readers. Among the most shocking is the amazingly-racist "The Jew in the Brambles" which must be read to be believed.

Bonus Features: In back of the book are a few nice resources. First, a fascinating 10 page biography of Jacob and Wilhelm, which gave me a lot more information than any Wikipedia page ever could. Following that is the original preface (written by the Brothers) to the first edition of Children's Stories and Household Tales. Lastly, there is a collection of favorite quotations about fairy tales that Tatar has amassed over the years. Below are my two favorites:

"Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already. ... But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long journey in the cards of death by water they influence the future. I suppose what is why books excited us so much. What do we ever get nowadays to equal the excitement and revelation in those first fourteen years?" - Graham Greene

"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted." - Mae West

What I Liked: There is no shortage of Brothers Grimm collections out there. A few too many people are still trying to shock readers with the revelation that "these ain't your Uncle Walt's fairy tales!" -- a super-cool piece of trivia when I was nine years old ... now, not so much. That said, I did learn some new things in Tatar's collection, especially with regards to how the Grimms decided to edit and sanitize their own previous publication. That and the resources in section three of the book make it a welcome addition to our Fairy Tales Shelf.

What I Didn't Like: As I mentioned earlier, Tatar follows each of the adult tales with a bit of editorial analysis. This is great for a reader like me who has trouble learning in a vacuum. I really, really, really wish she had been able to include this sort of information after the Children's tales, which makes up the bulk of the collection. So, really, my only complaint is that I wanted more!

Other Reading:

You can read a review of the book at The New Republic here.

Also, check out Maria Tatar's blog, which is pretty swell.

Little Goody Two Shoes

So this week in our children's lit class, my wife and I taught The History of Little Goody Two Shoes [1. 1. The book was published in 1765 by John Newbery (heard of him?). There's debate about who authored the book; among the contenders is Oliver Goldsmith]. I wanted to put down a few thoughts and reactions that came up in discussion.

If you haven't read the book, let me save you the trouble: Little Goody Two Shoes follows a recently-orphaned girl who rises above oppression by being an exemplar of moral and social virtue. She's rewarded for her hard work by a wedding proposal from a rich old man -- which I guess was a good thing back then.

Little Goody Two Shoes was written at a time when children's literature was almost entirely limited to educational and religious primers [2. 2. To prepare students for the assignment, we read a few early excerpts from Patricia Demers' From Instrustion to Delight]. It's sort of shocking to think that this book would have once been perceived as entertainment. To a modern reader, it feels like a series of straightforward moral lessons.

Still, children's literature had to start somewhere, and there is no question that Little Goody Two Shoes had a huge influence on books that came after it. I thought it might be fun to look at how elements from this book show up in later works of children's literature:

1) It's an origin story

This book popularized the term "goody two shoes,"  but the phrase had been around long before it. In the book, a small orphan girl named Margery Meanwell only owns one shoe. But then a rich man buys her a complete pair, and Margery is so delighted that she runs around the village, exclaiming: "Two shoes, ma'am! See, two shoes!" The nickname follows soon after.

It seems like Little Goody Two Shoes was trying to create an origin story for a phrase that was already in the culture. It reminds me of the "How the X got its Y" structure from Kipling's Just So Stories. An even more direct comparison might be Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, where the author creates a secret underground society comprised of the "Jacks of All Trades"[2. 2. Unrelated: at ALA, Neil Gaiman noted that his book was meant to be in conversation with The Jungle Books ... which promptly made me feel like an idiot for not noticing the fact].

2) Silly Character Names

Little Goody Two Shoes is full of characters with loaded names: Margery Meanwell, William Dove, Timothy Gripe, Farmer Graspall (can you guess which ones are villains?). Nothing much to say about this other than the fact that this technique later became inseparable from Charles Dickens. I also think Roald Dahl is pretty dang good at it ...

[3. 3. These BFG illustrations were drawn by Rebbaz Royee -- it's a bold man who decides to take on Quentin Blake!]

One big difference between Little Goody Two Shoes and books that came after it is that the former plays it straight. There's nothing particularly funny or playful about the names -- they're just meant to highlight the moral lessons. It's nice to know we've evolved beyond that.

3) Animals save the day!

Little Goody Two Shoes spends a lot of time saving animals. The middle chapters of the book are a series of animal-rescue adventures. She saves a few birds, a dog, and a lamb. She teaches them to "speak and spell." This pays off in later chapters when her dog, Jumper, rescues Goody and her students from a collapsing schoolhouse.

Again, not much to say on this. But there's a pretty clear connection between this book and later stories like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Also, Cat Lassie ... We must never forget Cat Lassie ...

4) My two favorite parts

There are two awesome bits from Little Goody Two Shoes that I wish had made it into pop culture. Here's hoping I can make them stick:

At one point Goody befriends a raven that she names Ralph and a dove that she names Tom. She teaches both of these birds to spell by using alphabet blocks. Ralph-the-Raven loves spelling things with the uppercase letters; Tom-the-Dove spells things with the lowercase letters. Soon, the schoolchildren begin to referring to capital letters as "Ralph's alphabet" and lowercase letters as "Tom's alphabet." Awesome, right?

Later in the book, a man walks into Goody's schoolhouse and sees her surrounded by animals. He points at her, screaming, "A witch! A witch!" Goody, without missing a beat, points right back and exclaims "A conjurer! A conjurer!" I think this rejoinder could have saved some lives in Colonial Salem.

That's it for Little Goody Two Shoes! Next week our class is discussing RM Ballantyne's The Coral Island. (I recently got called out for dismissing boys' adventure novels as "escapist fluff" -- my Coral Island post will probably take the form of a long apology.) See you then!

Genre Mashups: Peter Pan and The Hunger Games...

A while back, I sat down to re-read JM Barrie's The Little White Bird -- which is sort of a rough prequel to Peter and Wendy [1. 1. The Little White Bird was a novel Barrie wrote before Peter and Wendy. Several of the chapters deal with a nascent version of his beloved Peter Pan (and are often excerpted under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens)]. The introduction to my edition was written by Jack Zipes, who makes an interesting observation:

“Barrie himself, as author, was trying to bring together two different strands of children’s fiction that collided with one another in his novel: the adventure story for boys and the domestic and fairy story for girls.”[2. 2. Introduction, pg xxiv]

I'd like to discuss this idea. I know both of the genres that Zipes mentions pretty well. They are, by and large, escapist fluff. And there's no question that Peter and Wendy contains a lot of the same elements as that fluff (pirates, fairies, mermaids, etc...). So why does Barrie's book feel so much better than the works that informed it? Why is it greater than the sum of its parts?

I think it's because Barrie -- while using those genres -- also problemetizes them. The ending of Peter and Wendy ruthlessly shatters the escapism of both worlds:  neither Peter's adventuresome spirit nor Wendy's domestic longing is strong enough to keep them together. I'm fairly convinced that it was this genre-critique that made Barrie's book feel different from its predecessors.

With this theme in mind, I started thinking about more contemporary works that also mix genres traditionally associated with opposite sexes. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games came to mind straightaway.


In her books, Collins takes the dystopian-gladiator setting (masculine) and narrates it as a teen romance (feminine). But the real question is: does Collins do anything new with these genres? I would argue that she does.

Let's look at the dystopian-gladiator bit first. Most books with characters who kill each other on live television are thinly-veiled cautionary tales about the evils of violent media. In Collins' book, however, the "games" are more of a metaphor about command performance -- being forced to jump through hoops set in place by those in power[3. 3. For more on this point, I suggest reading Laura Miller's fantastic New Yorker article, which covers the subject far better than I ever could]. Is this an earth-shatteringly new theme? Not really. But it is a fresh take on a well-worn genre.

As for the teen romance part? I would point to the end of the trilogy. Like Twilight, readers have been primed for a "which cute boy will she choose?" climax. But right when we're expecting to hear Katniss bear her heart ... the narrative jumps ahead. Years ahead. Her decision is stated as simple fact, not an impassioned declaration. I think this is a pointed critique from Collins about limited scope of most YA romance novels -- no matter how big things feel at seventeen, life goes on.

Is The Hunger Games as good as Peter and Wendy? Of course not. But I do think that both books successfully appropriate escapist genres to tell powerful, distinctive, literary stories.

Class is in Session: Part One!

My wife  (who is a PhD candidate in English Literature) and I (who am not) are co-teaching a course on children's literature. Mary has taught this course many times before, but with the pressures of dissertation-writing weighing heavily on her shoulders, she was wary about taking on the extra work. And so she asked the school if I could teach with her[1. 1. After some "equivalency" rigmarole, the school determined that my MFA in Dramatic Writing would be sufficient]! We pretty much spend our waking lives reading and discussing children's books, and now someone is going to pay us to do it!

Mary suggested we take the opportunity to throw out her old syllabus. She wanted to try teaching some new texts, and we were both eager to insert a bit more contemporary work (she specializes in the 18th and 19th centuries). A few of these books are ones I haven't read before, and I'm very excited to dive into them.

I thought I'd put the first half of our reading list on this site and use the course as a way to talk out some of my ideas on each book. The thesis of the class has to to with creating unique geographies in children's literature. I also am including the course dates, just in case you want to read along:

The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes by John Newbery (1765)

That's right, the John Newbery. The guy who started it all. His Goody Two-Shoes stories are a perfect example of the earliest children's literature, which functioned primarily as moral instruction. I've only read excerpts from this piece back when I was an undergrad, so I'm excited to revisit. Discussion on: Jan 27

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The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne (1857)

After the bombshell that was Robinson Crusoe (1719), there came a wave of "Robinsonades" -- knockoff books about people being stranded on islands. A lot of these were written for children (Swiss Family Robinson anyone?). Coral Island was an immensely popular take involving a bunch of schoolboys who land on an island and behave like good English gentlemen. I love adventure stories, but have somehow have failed to read this book. Discussion on: Feb 10

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A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)

We're reading this book to balance out Coral Island. Like many of Burnett's books, A Little Princess is a wonderful example of a domestic girl's story. It also provides a nice female perspective on notions of Empire and community (within Sara's school).It's been a long time since I've read this and I'm excited to revisit!

Discussion on: Feb 17

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Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie (1911)

This is without question my favorite book of all time. I have read it a dozen times over and still can't find a single word that feels out of place. It is also a wonderful synthesis of the two genres preceding it -- a combination of boy's adventure and girl's domestic tales [2. 2. Credit for this distillation goes to Jack Zipes]. Can't wait to talk about this book!

Discuss on: Feb 24

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Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (1926)

If Peter and Wendy is an example of an author creating a world that hinges on childlike imagination, Winnie-the-Pooh does one better: it is a meticulous recreation of an actual child's world. It is also adorable.

Discussing on: March 3

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Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (1952)

Charlotte's Web is a step away from the fantasy of Barrie and Milne. It takes readers back to a more grounded world. Yes, the animals can talk, but only to each other ... plus they die.

Discussing on: March 10

So that's it for the first half of the semester. After these books, we'll be moving on some more contemporary work (including some YA). If you have any desire to read or re-read these books in the coming weeks, do so!

HUCKLEBERRY FINN and Literary Alteration

What is it about the New South edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that has so captured the public’s ire? Great works of literature are being altered and transformed everyday -- and yet something about this alteration feels different.

I am not interested in commenting directly on the Huck Finn debacle[1. 1. Editor Alan Gribben reacts to the issue in the School Library Journal here]. What I am interested in is the impulse fueling this controversy -- the idea that the work of an author should not be altered to fit the needs or desires of a certain audience.

What does it mean to alter an author’s work? What are the ways that can be done? I’ve been chewing on those questions for the last couple of weeks, and I thought I’d try to work some ideas out on this blog.

So far as I can tell, there seem to be six basic forms of literary alteration. Each of them carries different implications -- some good, some bad, some neutral. In the spirit of fairness, I’m going to try talking about each type in terms both positive and negative. Here goes:

1) ABRIDGMENT –  this may well be the most socially-accepted form of alteration in our culture. Books are abridged all the time to make them more accessible or simply shorter. Abridgment is usually most appreciated in long works like Don Quixote. (Take it from the guy who read all 400,000 words: that book could use some trimming.) On the other hand, what could be more mercenary than to alter a text for fear of boredom?[2. 2. or, even worse, as a way to cut printing costs] In a world of shrinking attention spans, is abridgment a necessity, or is it just an example of lowest-common-denominator thinking?

2) APPROPRIATION – appropriation involves taking passages from a previously existing work and re-fashioning them into something new. This form of alteration has been well-covered in the world of pop music (mash-ups, sampling, remixes), but it also happens in books. Literary appropriation usually works best when it functions as homage or satire. The less-appealing version of appropriation might be what I would call “parasite” books -- in which authors try to make their own terrible books more palatable by associating them with canonical classics.

3) EXPURGATION - There’s no shortage of stories about books that have been Bowdlerized for the sake of young readers. Famous among them are PL Travers’ late alterations to Mary Poppins, and Roald Dahl’s 1973 revision of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The above examples were changes made at the behest of the authors (or at least with their permission). There are also much more pernicious examples of expurgation performed without the author’s consent -- as it was with Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It’s pretty clear that altering a living author’s words against their will is condemnable, but what about after they are dead? Is there any way to know whether a dead author would or wouldn’t want to expunge offensive passages from his or her own work?[3. 3. for more on this subject, check out Phil Nel's wonderful post here]

4) ADAPTATION – Like abridgment, adaptation seems to pass in our culture without moral judgment. Instead, people restrain their remarks to whether “the book was better.”  I’m not sure why this is the case, as many times adaptations do not just dramatize or condense -- they also make fundamental changes to the meaning of a story. Remember how “The Little Mermaid” is supposed to end? To tie this to the current debate: why was it less offensive to hear Elijah Wood clean up Huck's language in the 1993 Disney movie? My suspicion is that adaptation gets a free pass because of expectations: people assume there will be changes in an adaptation, and thus feel less outraged when they encounter them.

5) EXPANSION – This type of alteration is different from the ones previous because it does not deal with cutting away parts of the original text. Instead it is a matter of adding story on either end. I would argue that giving Anne Shirley a posthumous prequel or detailing the origins of Neverland changes the original work just as much as any other form of alteration. If a character is the sum of their actions, then adding actions changes the character. This isn’t just a question of modern-day writers revising the canon. Living authors are just as likely to change their own works by adding further installments -- sometimes to the detriment of the original. Don’t believe me? I present to you EXHIBIT A.

6) TRANSLATION – this last form of alteration has an added hurdle: many people don’t speak two languages, which means they have no ability to judge the fidelity of a translation. I would add to this the question of whether being faithful-in-word is as important as being faithful-in-spirit. The King James edition of the bible is widely considered to be one of the least accurate translations out there, but it is also the most beautiful. Another justification for translation-alterations might have to do with cultural sensitivity. For example: my upcoming novel will be published in Indonesia, which wikipedia tells me is the most populous Muslim nation in the world.  I do not think Peter Nimble contains anything offensive to Muslim readers, but if I am wrong, I sure hope that translators will catch it and make appropriate changes.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I’m sure there are more categories of alteration (and if you think of any, please let me know in the comments!). Still, it is my attempt to work through some of the issues circulating in the heated debate surrounding The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn.

So what did I learn?

Firstly, I think the reason this topic has divided so many different people is because there is a lack of clarity about which type of alteration is taking place. Certainly Alan Gribben is expurgating Twain's book, but is he also translating it? After all, the contested word has gained a lot more cultural baggage in the 100+ years since the book was written.

Another question seems to deal with whether this new edition will be presented as complete. When I was working through the six types of alteration above, I noticed that the most condemnable version of each act was tied to secrecy. If you alter a work without informing the reader, you are lying. It seems like much of the objection to the New South edition of Huckleberry Finn assumes that this book will be marketed -- and blindly received -- as the complete, original text.

One positive outcome from all this media fuss is that it has created awareness about the alterations ... whether the publisher wanted it or not [4. 4. After reading the thoughtful introduction to the New South edition, I am inclined to think that the publishers were pretty forthright about the changes they made]. Even better, it has brought a wonderful book -- and a wonderfully complicated moral puzzle -- into the national spotlight.

Now if only we could get Mark Twain invited onto the “Today Show.”

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

I first learned of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable when reading an interview with JK Rowling. Once I became aware of it, I found references to the book all over the place. Apparently every writer in the world already owned and loved a copy. Obviously I needed one too!

The dictionary was written in 1870 by Reverend E. Cobham Brewer. Is was designed to be a sort of poor-man's education in idiom, history, literature, and folklore. The combination of these different fields leads to some wonderful cross-referencing. Almost every entry contains a "See also" listing other related entries -- an endless series of digressions-on-digressions. If Laurence Sterne wrote a reference book, it might look something like this.

It's this rabbit-hole quality that makes Brewer's such a valuable source for procrastinators writers.   Philip Pullman puts it perfectly in his forward to the recently published 18th edition:

"has anyone ever opened the great Dictionary of Phrase and Fable . . . looked up the one entry they wanted to read about, and then closed it at once? Of all the dictionaries in the world it is the most like a treasure-hunt, where one phrase leads to another, and that to a third, and before you know what's happened, it's time for lunch."

As much as I love this new edition (which I got for Christmas), I was disappointed to see that many of the older, more obscure entries were cut out to make way for contemporary content. That's a pity because part of the fun is in discovering words and phrases that I could never find on Wikipedia. Even Pullman can't help but indicate his dismay at this fact, and he ends his forward with a teasing reference to a forgotten tradition of blessing the Duke of Argyle when scratching one's back. Still, this new edition has plenty of wonderful gems to keep me busy for a while.

You may have figured out by now that I use the "Marginalia" box in the right column to put down things that I read, heard, or saw that day. The entries in that section are transcribed from my physical journal.[1. 1. anyone who has ever met me can attest to the fact that I carry a black, spiral-bound journal with me everywhere I go. More on that later.] I figured including a designated spot for such stuff might keep me accountable -- I'm not allowed to sleep until I've learned something new. For the next couple weeks, I'll be rooting through Brewer's in search of interesting entries. Enjoy.

ALA Midwinter: Awesome Jokes and Free Books

As some of you know, I attended my first ever American Library Association (ALA) conference this weekend in San Diego. I'd been warned that the Midwinter conference  is more about closed-door awards deliberations than hobnobbing. Still, there was some hobnobbing.

Abrams brought out a few authors with forthcoming books[1. 1. David Ward and Lauren Myracle were especially great about making me feel welcome. Thanks, guys!] and were kind enough to let me join the fun. We ate a bunch of food at a bunch of restaurants with a bunch of librarians and booksellers -- all of whom were  delightful people. Even better, I learned a brand new joke from blogging librarian Stacy Dillon:

Another highlight included getting drinks with Travis Jonker and John Schu, both of whom were kind enough to meet with a total stranger and give sage advice about how to run a book blog. The other thing they did was talk about all the exciting free books they had gotten while wandering around the floor. This led to me spending several hours, shuffling between booths, trying to figure out the difference between a free book (called an "ARC") and a not free book (called a "Stop, thief!").

At the end of the day I had collected exactly zero ARCs. Why? Because I am a big chicken. During an event titled "A Special Afternoon with Neil Gaiman and Nancy Pearl," Mr. Gaiman spoke of the English as having "a pathological fear of public embarrassment."[2. 2. In this same conversation Mr. Gaiman said a number of interesting things about his novel The Graveyard Book, which I plan to address in a future post] I'm pretty sure that characterization extends to Canadians as well. At least it applies to me, which explains how I spent five hours in the Land of Free Books without getting so much as a brochure.

On the following day, I forced Mary to join me so she could gather ARCs on my behalf. Not my proudest hour as a husband. But hey! Free books!

The last big event of ALA Midwinter was the Youth Media Awards ceremony, which began very early Monday morning. Sadly, I was unable to attend. I'm told it was a rollicking good time. For a list of winners and honorees, you can check the ALA's twitter feed, or better yet Betsy Bird's lively rundown.

Now go away. I've got reading to do.