A few weeks ago, I was invited to write a guest post on the website Books4YourKids about my favorite book of 2013: Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli. 

Many might disagree, but I would argue that this is perhaps one of the most important children's books written in my lifetime. Here's an excerpt in which I discuss how this book interacts with Peter Pan

It has been observed that I am somewhat obsessive about JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. More than once, people have asked me what I think about Pan adaptations and sequels written by contemporary writers. My usual response is that I think those writers could better use their time creating their own characters to discuss similar themes. Spinelli has done just that. The fugitive shadow of Peter Pan skitters all throughout Hokey Pokey without ever once needing to be mentioned. To every person hoping to write an “updated” version of Oz, or Wonderland, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I would direct them to this book. 

The best response to this post came from Tom Angleberger who objected that he didn't actually think this was a book for kids (Betsy Bird wondered as much in her excellent review ... which is what prompted me to pick up the book in the first place). It's an interesting question, and one that I suspect I'll be chewing on for a long time. 

You can click here to read my full review ... better yet, just read Spinelli's book. Because it's AWESOME. 


GUEST POST: Harry is a Tool, Aang is a Hero

Hey, Readers!  Today I have a treat for you lucky folk in the form of a wonderful guest post by my friend Rob.  Some months ago, Rob and I found ourselves in a debate about stories that include a "chosen one" (read about it here).  Rob has some interesting ideas -- including a theory as to why Harry Potter isn't really a hero.  I'll let him explain ...

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Hi.  I’m Rob.  Jonathan and I were good friends back when I was handsomer and less hairy.  I live in South Korea (not the scary one), and write a blog about South Korea.  I’m no expert in fantasy or young adult books, but I am a breathless lover of awesome things and a frustrated thinker-abouter (some editors prefer ‘think-abouterer’) for things that try to be awesome but fail: for example, stories, songs and raspberry sorbets.

We once discussed what Jonathan called “prophecy stories,” stories featuring “Chosen Ones” like Harry Potter, Ender Wiggin and King Arthur, here, here, here and here.  “Chosen Ones” have some great destiny expected (sometimes prophesied) of them.  Now, I thrill to a great hero story, but not any old hero thrills me: I’m not easy.  So let’s talk about some “Chosen Ones” I adore:

 **Spoiler Alerts** for The Harry Potter Series, Ender’s Game, and Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV series)

Harry Potter started off as my favorite hero ever.  The first three books were fun and gripping, the characters were lively and hilarious.  Courage, cleverness, and awesome friends helped Harry, and the author threw him a rope when he got in too deep.

Then, in book four, Harry’s preparations for the Triwizard Tournament were as last-minute and half-hearted as his quest for a date to the Yule Ball.  When Harry learns he won the tournament because somebody wanted him to, a hero would think, “That should have been my hide. I’d better not bank on luck again.”  The time had come to start kicking butt through resourcefulness and preparedness, not courage and luck.

Cue training montage: 

Harry forms Dumbledore’s Army.  He also lies about his connection with Voldemort, quits Occlumency, walks into more traps, and fails to get the information Dumbledore needs without JK Rowlicis... oops I mean felix felicis.[2. A description of felix felicis can be found here]  Instead of watching a kid learn from mistakes and improve, we watch Harry beat himself up for his mistakes and resent a lot of stuff.  Holden Caulfield, yes.  Heroic, no.

But the undoing of Harry the hero is this: long ahead of time, Dumbledore and Snape knew Harry had to die to destroy Voldemort[3. As revealed in Deathly Hallows, pg 686]  Except they didn’t tell Harry!  In Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says,  “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are,” but by hiding vital information until it was far too late for Harry to do anything but sacrifice himself, Snape and Dumbledore (mostly J.K. Rowling) robbed Harry of real choice.

And that means I read seven books to learn Harry’s a weapon aimed by Dumbledore and Snape, or a cog in Rowling’s plot mechanism: less heroic either way.  It means the first three books telling me he was the crucial choice-maker in the series, were misleading me.

Yet I give Ender Wiggin a pass, though he had no choice in Ender's Game, either.  Why?  Because once he learned the consequences of his choices, he took ownership of them.  Because heroes live with their choices, and learn from them, and change (heroes don’t walk into another trap in book five, and another in Godric’s Hollow, despite what happened to Cedric and Sirius).

Also, nothing in Harry Potter reaches the level of nuance and insight Ender displays here:

          “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them--"

         "You beat them."

Ender Wiggen was special from birth, but he was also recruited for his talent:  Ender had to pass a test before going to Battle School to fulfill his destiny.  Excalibur didn’t magically come out of the stone for him.  His talents, though, made him especially suited to perform his task.[4. Jonathan here: Rob also made a generous comparison between Peter Nimble and Ender Wiggen, which I cut because it made me blush.]

Finally, which “Chosen One” checks every box?  My favorite hero right now is a boy named Aang, from the awesome Nikelodeon cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”.

In Aang’s world, some people can “bend” or control one of the four elements -- Earth, Air, Water, and Fire.  The Avatar is a continually reincarnating person with power to control all four, tasked with keeping the four elements in balance.  So ... imagine the Dalai Lama was a diplomat with superpowers.  But Aang ran from his Avatar training, and got frozen in ice for a century while the Fire Nation took over.  Now, he must take up the responsibility he once shirked, master all four elements, and then defeat the Fire Nation king to restore balance.

 Traveling with a team of friends, Aang masters the four elements.  He learns, in his training and in his relationships.  Aang deals with the guilt of abandoning the Air Nation (who were wiped out).  He is also a kid, and acts like one.  He plays pranks, cracks people up, and makes faces at babies.  The supporting characters are humans too, with strengths and flaws, journeys, and tough choices.  They suffer loss, and even grieve.  They learn from mistakes.  Or they don’t.  Each earns the fate they receive.

For the final battle, sprits of previous Avatars encourage Aang to kill the Fire King.  Aang’s journey has made him hate killing, so he is unwilling to live with having made that ultimate choice.  Instead, Aang negotiates a new path, true to his values as well as his duty as Avatar.  By balancing his individuality and his destiny, Aang’s “Chosen One” journey is totally satisfying.

These stories show me I like heroes who take control of their situations, earn their victories, and own their choices - including mistakes.  Their authors put them in situations where they are real people with real choices, not just props and placeholders.  Without these elements, even “Chosen Ones” (perhaps especially them) fail to move me.

 Call me picky.

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Thanks for the fantastic insights, Rob!  Bloggers Matt Bird and Tanner Higgin have been after me to watch Avatar for ages now ... between your three recommendations, I find myself with no choice but to check it out!  Ooh, look!  It's on Netflix ... (promptly wastes the entire afternoon)

Great Books That Turned Me Off From Reading

The above picture is from Kelly Butcher's excellent blog, the Lemme Library.  Note the second name on that checkout list![1. I would be lying if I said the thought of Peter Nimble checking out a book also read by Lucy Pevensie and Edward Tulane didn't make me cry a bit!]  Yesterday I had the honor of teaming up with fellow Abrams' author Tom Angleberger to write a guest post for Kelly on a topic very dear to my heart: What to do when you hate a classic

It's a lively conversation and definitely worth checking out if you've ever felt at odds with the critical mass.  (Tom may or may not refer to Peter Pan as "dreck!")  In the post, I mention three books that I was forced to read in school that turned me off from reading:  The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and Romeo & Juliet by ... some dude ... can't remember his name ...

Anyway, a few readers expressed a desire to learn what about those particular books bothered me so much.  I thought I'd take a crack at answering the question here! 

First off, a disclaimer:  I am not saying these books are actually bad, only that my experiences with them were negative.  But the fact remains that they did more damage than good. 

The Yearling - I read this book in seventh grade Language Arts class.  Nothing too pointed in my criticism beyond the fact that this book had nothing to do with me or my life.  By that age, I was enough of a reader to know that there were many wonderful, exciting books out there.  But instead of reading Ray Bradbury or SE Hinton, we were stuck with this story of a farm kid and his pet deer.  What was the damage?  The choice of text led me to believe that great stories (which I read at home) and English Literature (which I read in class) were completely unrelated things.

Romeo & Juliet - I read this play in grade ten.  There is a common problem in pop culture where Romeo & Juliet is peddled as a love story when it's actually a cautionary tale.  Even as a young adolescent, I could tell that whatever Romeo and Juliet had going on between them was not real love -- certainly not an ideal to aspire to.  And yet the play was presented to me as some kind of timeless love story.  I remember reading it and thinking, "If this is Shakespeare's idea of true love, then he doesn't really know much about the world."  What was the damage?  When I later read other Shakespeare plays (Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream), I was unreceptive; I had already made up my mind that this was a writer who had nothing to teach me.[2. Of course I could not have been more wrong on this point -- I owe a tremendous debt to both Julie Taymor and Niel Gaiman for setting me straight!]

A Tale of Two Cities - I don't know what makes educators think that this book is a good introduction to Dickens -- yes, it's short, but it is also devoid of Boz' trademark humor and charm.  I read this in my junior year of high school, and I hated every word.[3. Looking back now, I think I struggled because I lacked the necessary historical context.  To really appreciate this book, you need to have a sense of both the French Revolution and the Victorian social reform movement -- only then can you start to understand why Dicken's English readers would be interested in things that transpired half a century earlier in a different country.]  I already knew and liked some of Dickens more kid-friendly stories (Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol), and I deduced wrongly from Tale of Two Cities that this was what happened when authors wrote "serious" books ... they got boring.  I suppose a positive effect of this experience was that it drove me to further embrace children's literature as the sort of stories I wanted to write![4. It took me even longer to come around to Dickens; I didn't start reading him again until I went to graduate school and met an pretty young Victorianist with pigtails!]

So those were a few classic books with which I really struggled.  I've since gone back and re-read the latter two, and I have to say they were better the second time around.  I'm not sure whether a different teacher could have gotten me to respond to the books or whether I was simply too young.

My wife and I were discussing this topic yesterday, and I asked her what the solution might be. She said the best thing for her in high school was a (wonderful) English teacher who alternated between fun and challenging texts:  students read one difficult assigned book, and then they read one book of their choosing (from a list).  Seems like a nice carrot-and-stick compromise!

Five Tips for Keeping a Writer's Journal ...

Hey, readers!  Today I've got a post over at The O.W.L. about how to keep an artist's journal.[1. O.W.L. stands for "Outrageously Wonderful Literature," of course!]  I've blogged about keeping a journal before, but this time the piece is written for kids who want to start writing.   Still, the five tips I mention are applicable to pretty much everybody.  Also, the site is giving away a copy of Peter Nimble to one lucky commenter -- you should check it out!

Risks and Rewards of UN CON VEN SHUN

Today we've got a post from friend and booklover Craig Chapman. Readers of The Scop might recognize his name from the comments section.  Back in high school, Craig and I regularly cleaned up in the local debate scene.  Look!  Here we are in our school year book:

Nowadays, Craig is some kind of mad scientist, but in his spare time he reads a lot of YA.  Recently, he was talking to me about China Mieville's YA fantasy, Un Lun Dun.  I only know Mieville as the guy who hates Tolkien, but apparently his book made some waves as a sort of anti-Harry Potter.  I asked Craig to share some of his thoughts on the blog, and boy did he deliver!  Please forgive his ridiculous Canadian spellings ...

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Conventions can be liberating.  They establish expectations that convey volumes of information.  Taking an example from my world of research in behavioural neuroscience, humans have the unique ability to accurately guess what another person is thinking.  This ability – referred to as Theory of Mind – is thought to be the base capacity required for successful communication.  Here’s an example: You are walking by the office of a co-worker and see that they are looking frustrated while rummaging through an open drawer.  You infer that this person is looking for something.  Of course, it is possible -- though unlikely -- that they are trying some new exercise regimen.  How do you know that the first option, if not correct, is much more likely?  The simple answer is that it fits with the context.  That is, given the surroundings, your experience with this person, their expression, and even thinking how you might act in the same situation, you expect that they are looking for something.  And so you ask “What are you looking for?” instead of “How many calories have you burned”?

Along the same lines, authors can use conventions to convey information without the need to write anything down.  Consider a recent post and comments on this blog regarding the ‘Childlit mentor’.  It went without saying that we all knew exactly what a mentor was like.  They are old, and wise.  They help the protagonist when all seems lost, or when things just don’t make sense.  By using a convention like the mentor, the author gets all of this content for free.  I don’t think I’d even ‘met’ Dumbledore as a reader and I already knew that he was the key to a lot of the challenges Harry would face (and that he was probably an awesome wizard, too!).

Of course, the problem of relying on conventions is that they can become stale – the text that overuses them can feel derivative and ultimately boring.[1. One personal pet peeve is how unimaginative fantasy authors are when conceptualizing how magic might work.  Almost always magic is simply the act of thinking really hard, then saying a word (the ‘Force’, the ‘Will and the Word’, ‘Avada Kedavra etc.).] Of course an author can decorate convention, dress it up so it seems new or interesting to explore because of its dressing.  For the perfect example, you need look no further than Harry Potter.  Rowling relies heavily on convention, but gives such exquisite details that it becomes a joy to read what could otherwise have come off as “more of the same.”  Still, there is a reason why not everyone is a Rowling:  making old conventions novel is ultimately very difficult.

Given the risks associated with over-used tropes, why don’t we read more books that are completely unconventional?  The problem is this:  if you create something truly new you have to spend a significant amount of text describing how this new thing works.  And in doing so you risk losing your reader.  Moreover, when a reader fills in the blanks of a story employing a particular convention, they will likely fill those blanks with material that they like.  While we might all know what a mentor is, your mentor and my mentor might be different – but as long as the author leaves it to the reader to fill in the details, then each of us can use whatever mentor we like best.

Perhaps there is therefore good reason why we don’t see many examples of true unconvention – because largely it doesn’t work, at least not for a broad readership.  But occasionally, I have seen excellent examples of authors being unconventional.  In his book Un Lun Dun, China Mieville employs the tactic of anti-convention.[2. Mieville also writes some of the best adult sci-fi/fantasy I have ever read; his book Perdido Street Station is so incredibly imaginative and horrific that it literally gave me nightmares, and his book The Scar (my personal favorite) has the single most memorable image I've ever seen, heard, or read in any medium.]  He doesn’t create something new, but rather he uses the exact opposite of a whole host of conventions:


In the book, the Chosen-One is a beautiful blond girl who shoulders her fate with quiet resolve -- but she goes down early and it’s her tag-along, rather-plain friend Deeba who becomes the hero of the story.  The prophecy describing how to defeat the evil Smog is spoken by a book, guarded by a sect of wise “Propheseers” -- all of which turn out to be hopelessly false ... not malicious, just wrong.  Deeba’s sidekick is a milk carton named Curdle who in the final fight cowers in the corner and at no point does anything to save the hero.  And, my personal favourite, when Deeba is faced with completing seven tasks to find seven essential tokens, she decides there is no time and completes the seventh task first, thus acquiring the most essential item (the UnGun, which, as you might guess, works best when firing nothing).


It ends up being a fun exercise to consider all the ways Mieville plays with anti-convention from the title through to the end of the book.  It’s almost as much fun to consider whether all of the unconventions are meant to specifically mirror Harry Potter or not.

By using anti-convention, Mieveille still gets all the free content that comes with the expectations associated with conventions.  Then, by turning a convention on its head, he makes the unconvention new and interesting for the reader.  Ultimately, Mieville is playing a complex game using Theory of Mind.  He supposes that his reader will have a whole host of beliefs and expectations that come from the conventions he employs.  But more than that, he wagers that he can guess almost the exact content of your beliefs and then invert them; the result runs so counter to what you expected that it is enjoyable.

It’s as though he’s guessing that when I’m reaching in my drawer I’m looking for something, then deliberately asks me how many calories I’ve burned, knowing that I’ll get the joke.

PETER PAN WEEK Day 5: Loss and Exclusion in Peter Pan

Hey, folks!  For the final of day "Peter Pan Week," we've got a special treat:  Barrie scholar Kerry Mockler has written a post.  Readers of The Scop might know Kerry better as "Kbryna," a regular commenter on this here blog and the woman behind The Moving Castle.  Kerry wrote her master's thesis on The Little White Bird and is currently finishing a dissertation on Mr. Rogers at the University of Pittsburgh.[1. For those who have never been to Pittsburgh, it is worth noting that locals take their Fred Rogers very seriously.]   Today she's agreed to share her thoughts about the most enigmatic character in all of Peter Pan ... the narrator!  Take it away, Kerry:

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We're used to thinking of Peter Pan as a symbol of perpetual childhood, of carefree innocence, joy, adventure, and freedom ... but Peter Pan also has nightmares.  What we forget, or never knew in the first place, is that at its heart, all of Barrie's versions of Peter Pan are about loss and exclusion.  That famous first sentence – "All children, except one, grow up" – sets up these themes, which also serve to close the novel.  The loss of childhood (of one's own childhood and of one's child) finds expression throughout the novel, largely through the peculiarly ambivalent and enigmatic narrator.  Exclusion and longing form -- for me, at least -- the strongest themes of the book, which make it one of the most melancholy stories I know.  All those children, growing up, leaving behind Peter Pan who cannot grow up, and who masks his inability to grow up with the illusion of a defiant choice to remain a child.

Peter is not captain of the Neverland by choice, though he initially presents himself as an intentional runaway, defying the world that would have him grow up to be a man.  Instead, he is marooned;  when he tries to return to the home from which he has run away, "the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed."  Thus he moves on to the Neverland, where he deals with lost children who all eventually outgrow their trees and their boy-leader.  Peter's memory, a continual tabula rasa, prevents him from forming lasting relationships with anyone;  even Tinker Bell, even Hook, are forgotten by the novel's end -- but the loss of that mother and that home are always with him.

The narrator of Peter Pan poses one of the biggest challenges to any reader;  he attempts to identify with both child and adult, leaving us as readers in a linguistic and psychological muddle.  The narrator’s inconsistency in using the first-person singular and first-person plural create confusion about his position in the text, and to whom he speaks:  is he an adult addressing adults?  or a child addressing adults? or an adult addressing both adults and children?  He is never clearly one or the other, and never seems to manage to merge both into one adult/child hybrid;  like Peter himself, the narrator is a "betwixt-and-between," neither one thing nor any other.[1. Upon returning to the Gardens in The Little White Bird, Peter is shocked to learn from the crow Solomon Caw that he is not still a bird, but more like a human — Solomon says he is crossed between them as a "Betwixt-and-Between."] The narrator's bitterness and unhappiness at his position is made clear at the end of the book, when the Darling children return home. Anticipating the reunion, the narrator says:

"However, as we are here we may as well stay and look on. That is all we are, lookers-on. Nobody really wants us. So let us watch and say jaggy things, in the hope that some of them will hurt.”

The narrator’s exclusion from the homecoming scene echoes Peter’s exclusion from his own nursery.  The narrator’s looking on from outside of the text recalls the image of Peter flying up to his old nursery window and finding it closed and barred. Watching the reunion of the Darlings, the narrator tells us:

“He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred."

Peter, of course, is not the only one to see the reunion;  the narrator looks on as well and speaks for them both as he narrates the one joy from which both he and Peter are barred.  As Hook and Mr. Darling are twinned, so too are Peter and the narrator.   At the end, they are the only two who remain:  Wendy grows up and Mrs. Darling dies, forgotten.  The cycle of little girls to do the spring-cleaning goes on and on, but Peter and the narrator remain alone, excluded, untouched by time.

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On that poignant note, we come to the end of "Peter Pan Week."  While researching topics, I came across some great stuff I couldn't fit into posts -- including a few pretty hilarious Pan-related image macros, an incredibly disturbing headline, and a scathing review of Lars von Trier's offbeat movie adaptation.  You should all count yourselves lucky that I didn't make it "Peter Pan MONTH."  Now that would be an awfully big adventure.

For those who missed the other "Peter Pan Week" posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

Day Two: The Problem with Peter

Day Three: Tink or Belle?

Day Four: The Neverland Connundrum

Also, you can also read my ham-fisted attempt to connect Peter Pan to The Hunger Games here.

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.

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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