Wednesday, March 27, 2002

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I finished reading The Wide Window, the third book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Snicket's books often take up a few slots on the New York Times Children's Bestseller List. When I read the first one, The Bad Beginning, I must admit I didn't really see what all the fuss was about. It was okay, but... I missed the second one altogether and picked up the third one to give the guy a second chance. It was worth my effort. The Unfortunate Events books are takeoffs of Nineteenth Century novels in which nice children from good homes fall on hard times. The three young Baudelaires are always falling on hard times. And that's the joke. One disaster after another befalls them. The only adult they can turn to is the family solicitor, Mr. Poe (as in Edgar Allen?), who is honest and all that but doesn't really care for kids and is always hopeful that the next living situation he finds for the orphans will be the one that takes them off his hands.

The unknown narrator, who is relating the sad history of the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans, injects his two cents into the story quite often, which is either annoying or brilliant, depending on your point of view. My own feeling is that it can go both ways. A page long aside on the meaning of the expression "hook, line, and sinker" got old fast. On the other hand a page long paragraph describing the children's feelings while watching their aunt's home slide down a hill into a lake includes the lines "I have seen many amazing things in my long and troubled life history...I have seen a woman I loved picked up by an enormous eagle and flown to its high mountain nest." Works for me.

Actually, it is this unknown narrator--presumably Lemony Snicket, whoever he is supposed to be--who gives the stories their unique edge. Though he is not a character in the story, it's his voice we listen for and his thoughts we wait for. He stops the story every now and then to define a word, definitions that are sometimes only vaguely accurate but fit the situation. He interprets for the youngest Baudelaire child, who is still an infant and can't speak. He keeps pointing out to the readers that the events he's describing are sad and tragic. Unfortunate, indeed.

But the Baudelaires survive and move on, using their own wits to save themselves--even though, as Mr. Snicket points out, children are not supposed to be left "all by themselves in great danger." The books have clever mind games for those who like that kind of thing, and dark humor for another sort of reader. And perhaps former English majors who have a little knowledge of Nineteenth Century literature will get a kick out of some of the goings on.

Monday, March 25, 2002

Another Day, Another Conference

On Saturday I attended the Rabbit Hill Festival of Literature in Westport, Connecticut. The festival, in its second year, was named for the home of Robert Lawson. Now, if you're like me, you've never heard of Robert Lawson. However, like me, you've probably heard of some of his books--The Story of Ferdinand, Mr. Popper's Penguins, and Ben and Me. He's the only author/illustrator to win both the Caldecott and Newbery Medals. He lived in the first half of the last century, back in the days when people (at least people in Westport) named their homes. (For years I've been trying to think of a name for my raised ranch. They only things I can come up with wouldn't look very nice engraved on stationery.)

Anyway, the festival's theme was "Authors of Historical Fiction." The festival began on Thursday night with an opening address, which I missed. On Friday the guest authors visited public schools in Westport. There was a dinner with the authors on Friday night, which I didn't manage to get to. On Sunday there was a puppet show. I think I was visiting relatives that day. However, on Saturday morning the Festival organizers held a symposium on writing historical fiction for young people, and that's what drew me to Paul Newman's home town. Joseph Bruchac spoke on turning to oral tradition for inspiration in writing history and talked about 'lost history' of such people as his own Abenaki ancestors. Patricia MacLachlan explained that the story behind Sarah, Plain and Tall came from her great-grandmother's experience and her own early life living on the prairie. Richard Peck suggested curriculum changes for public schools. The keynote address was given by Katherine Paterson. She explained that, though she writes historical fiction, current events have an impact on her choice of time periods to write about.

In the afternoon, the authors led workshops. I attended one led by
Patricia Reilly Giff, whose advice to writers was to take a character, put him in a situation, and give him a problem.

The really interesting thing about this symposium was that the authors were all really fine speakers. Some of them even had marvelous sounding voices.

I stumbled upon a Web site called All About Patricia Reilly Giff by "Amanda." She says that Ms. Giff's hobbies are "sitting on the beach, wearing her bathrobe, and reading in the bathtub." Those are my hobbies, too! Except for sitting on the beach.

Friday, March 22, 2002

Another Student Writing Conference

Since I was talking about a student writing conference yesterday, I'll continue on that subject today and let you all know about the New England Young Writers' Conference, which is held on the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College. Yes, that is the same Bread Loaf Campus where the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference has been held for, oh, decades (I think it celebrated a 75th anniversary a couple of years ago), and the same Bread Loaf Campus where I spent so many happy hours of my wasted youth working in the kitchen. Which is neither here nor there.

Anyway, the New England Young Writers' Conference is held for a weekend in the spring for high school juniors or "outstanding sophomore writers." (And just what is an "outstanding sophomore writer?" Who gets to decide?) Applicants have to submit writing in order to be considered for the program. The Web site describes the sessions that will be offered and this year's sound great. There will be one on writing about real situations from the point of view of a nursery rhyme or fairy tale character. In another, students will create characters by pretending they, themselves, are writers preparing for a role. There will be workshops on dialogue, sense of place, popular culture, fantasy, the Beats...

You must understand, when I go to a writers' conference (an old writers' conference), the workshops are on topics like "Marketing Your Book" and people spend a lot of time talking about the sorry state of publishing. Which is all just fascinating, of course, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. But that young writers' conference sounds a whole lot better.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

What Did You Do Yesterday, Gail?

I was a workshop leader at the Statewide Student and Teacher Writing Conference at the University of Connecticut, if you really want to know. And I had a pretty good day, considering it was snowing and I'd forgotten what it's like to drag myself around a college campus in bad weather. The Conference was sponsored by the Connecticut Writing Project , an organization that promotes writing in schools.

Sara Holbrook, who is described as a performance poet, gave the opening address in a ballroom filled with five hundred sixth through twelth graders and teachers. (They had to turn away another two hundred people.) I had never heard of a performance poet before but I'll never forget the term because Holbrook's performance was fantastic. She spoke about her life as a poet and effortlessly slipped in poems in appropriate places. She writes poetry for children and young adults. (Actually, she has a couple of books out for adults, too.) Her work really illustrates how poetry can address emotions.

Last night I discussed her writing with a teenager. His reaction was that adults can't write about adolescent experience because they aren't adolescents. They no longer know what adolescent experience is. They aren't living it. I think he has a point. The whole issue of one group of people writing for another group they don't belong to does strike me as bizarre. I could go on and on about it. In fact, I did go on and on about it in an essay that will be published in English Journal. However, Holbrook's poetry in her book I Never Said I Wasn't Difficult addresses experiences I see teenagers I know living through. And certainly her work is proof that poetry can be about anything. Kids who love poetry and adults who love kids really ought to check her out.

Monday, March 18, 2002

The Answer to a Question You Didn't Ask

I was reading one of the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket this weekend. Tragically, I haven't finished it yet. But the miserable, hopeless lives of the Baudelaire orphans who are the main characters in those wretched books did make me think of a question I've heard raised a few times in the past. And since I happen to know the answer--Voila! A blog posting is born!

Why are there so many orphans in late 19th and early 20th Century children's stories?

The Secret Garden, The Boxcar Children, and Understood Betsy come quickly to my mind. Tom Sawyer was an orphan, too. Makes you wonder how much children really enjoyed reading back in the good old days.

Well, there was a logical reason for the high parental death rate in those books. In order to focus the stories on kids, the authors had to get rid of the adults. Adult characters tend to take over a story, just as adults take over everything they can in real life. It's something children's authors have to guard against all the time. If you end up writing about the adult characters, you're no longer writing a children's book--you're writing an adult book. In addition, in our culture we expect parents to protect their children and keep them from doing dangerous things. A book with parents who let their kids live in boxcars and have dangerous adventures becomes somewhat grim because the parents can be viewed as neglectful. So in days of old authors used to just kill off the parents. It provided a big plot complication/conflict for the kid main characters to deal with and removed those interfering adults.

Nowadays authors have more options. The parents can be divorced, which will get one parent out of the house right away. And mothers can be sent to work, which gets them out of everyone's hair. I once sent a mother off to jury duty to get rid of her for a couple of days.

Now you know.

Friday, March 15, 2002

The YA/A Thing Again--In Science Fiction

I am somewhat obsessive and dwell on things so this post deals with young adult versus adult books, which I talked about earlier. Penguin Putnam has started a new science fiction imprint, Firebird, that publishes paperback editions of titles that are supposed to appeal to both teens and adults. Which avoids the whole problem of whether a book is for young adults or adults.

Thursday, March 14, 2002

One of Those Improving Web Sites

While preparing for a workshop, I stumbled upon one of those Web sites that are helpful rather than fun. What Makes a Good Short Story can be found at a site maintained by the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It discusses the 'elements of fiction'--plot, point of view, character, setting, and theme.

What Makes a Good Short Story includes a short story (which I'll admit I didn't actually read, but it seems like a good idea to have it there) that is referred to in the sections on plot, point of view, etc. So students, parents, teachers, this could be some study help for you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Beowulf Again??

What are the chances of seeing a reference to a 10th Century literary work that hardly anyone reads within 24 hours of referring to it myself? Not great, I would hope.

However, yesterday I was reading the most recent issue of The Horn Book, which includes an article on J.R.R. Tolkien by Susan Cooper (whose fantasy books are all over YA shelves). In it she says that Tolkien always began his lectures at Oxford by reciting the first lines of Beowulf--in Anglo-Saxon. Having read only The Hobbit (I read it aloud to my kids--a couple of the longest weeks of my life), I can't address whether or not the old hero seems much of an influence on Middle-earth. Though I do recall that the Anglo-Saxons were always giving each other rings, and I believe a ring is supposed to figure prominently in the famous Tolkien trilogy.

I've often wondered if the whole Beowulf/Anglo-Saxon thing about warfare being the highest form of manly endeavor and straightest path to honor didn't influence the Klingons in Star Trek. I also wonder if English majors don't read too much into things.

Monday, March 11, 2002

"You just never know when fake doggy doo-doo is going to come in handy!"

Well, I haven't even been doing this a week, and I've already missed a day. Fortunately, I don't believe in dwelling on my failings.

If you don't recognize the quote in today's headline, than you haven't read The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. Don't feel badly. It was published in 1997, and I just got around to reading it a week or so ago. It's been getting a lot of attention (until now, from everyone but me), and deservedly so.

Personally, I think the title is self-explanatory. I will just say that though there is an adult in the story, kids are in control, which is exactly how things should be in a good kids' book. The plot doesn't drag at all and had a couple of twists that took this reader totally by surprise. There should be plenty here for an independent reader of elementary school age (and older) to enjoy. Adults reading it to younger kids should have a good time, too.

Warning: Some grown-ups may think there's too much toilet humor in this book. I don't happen to be one of them. All I can say to those who take offense is--there's a picture of a guy in his underpants on the cover. What did you expect?

Visit a great Web site: Pilkey's Web Site O' Fun! Be sure to stop by "Stuff for Boring Teachers."

Saturday, March 09, 2002

Feeling Guilty About Yesterday

I'm feeling badly about trashing Kate Chopin's The Awakening yesterday. If you're a person old enough to date, try reading her short story The Story of an Hour. It was my first exposure to her back while I was in college, and I've never forgotten it. It's really, really short.

Also relating to yesterday's post: If you're a young person who would like to try an Old English epic (or an older person who thinks it would be very improving to make a young person read one), Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf is far more readable than the one I struggled through in college. I know a fourteen year old boy who actually read it during summer vacation. It didn't change his life or anything, but it didn't scar him the way Romeo and Juliet and A Tale of Two Cities appear to have.

Friday, March 08, 2002

The Difference Between YA And A

The answer to yesterday's question is, "I don't know." I only brought it up because I've seen some unusual titles on YA shelves.

When you get right down to it, this is still a free country and people can read pretty much whatever they want. (We have "challenged" books here. We don't actually ban them from every single library, bookstore, etc.) So how books are categorized shouldn't really matter all that much. Categorizing books as middle-grade, YA, or adult, simply helps readers to select titles that might interest them. There are 40,000 books published every year. (That's an old figure. The number may be higher.) If we had to go into Borders and wade through thousands of uncategorized books, many of us would just start watching a lot more television.

Categorization is good for us.

That being said, who decides these things? Do YA and younger books have kid main characters? What about Snow in August by Pete Hamil? Except for a kind of long middle section, it sure read like a kids' book to me. But evidently not to its publisher. I had a friend who refused to read To Kill A Mockingbird in her book group because she said it was a YA book. That would come as a surprise to more than a few people. In bookstores sometimes Brian Jacques' Redwall books are stashed in the YA section, sometimes they're in with adult science fiction and fantasy. I've also seen Grendel by John Gardner and The Awakening by Kate Chopin in the YA section. Now, though I doubt Gardner had the young in mind when he wrote Grendel (which has a really impressive Web presence), it is the Beowulf story from the monster's point of view and it's not unheard of for adolescent readers to enjoy epics. But The Awakening? Essentially, it's one of those unhappy woman stories. A Nineteenth Century unhappy woman story. What is there about it that would engage the interest of someone who isn't an unhappy woman? I know it is supposed to have been scandalous back in its day, but its day was a long time ago. I've read it twice (never as a young adult), and I still couldn't tell you more about it than that I think it's set in New Orleans. I admire the young person who could get through it.

The difference between YA and A books is another one of those things I don't know.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Speaking of Bridget Jones... we were yesterday, gives me an opportunity to bring up two Bridgetish YA books I'm fond of.
Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison was compared to Bridget at the time it came out because, well, it's the funny diary of a British female. The big difference is that Georgia, the main character, is a teenager. Thus, being self-absorbed is much more normal for her than it is for Bridget, who is thirty if she's a day. Boyfriend and clothing problems get old fast with adults. Get a life, Bridget. But boyfriends and clothes are a more significant part of a teenager's world. Georgia never wears out her welcome, the way Bridget does.
The Adrian Mole Diaries by Sue Townsend contains two books originally published in the late 1980s/early 90s. The first book begins on New Year's Day with a list. Sound familiar? So does Bridget. The books are supposed to have been wildly popular in England. Sound familiar? So was Bridget. But, remember, Adrian was first. Hmmm. In addition to having a teenage main character, the Adrian Mole books are also deeper than Bridget. Adrian comments on what was going on in England at the time. High unemployment and immigration, for instance. That's social commentary, which holds a reader's interest a whole lot better than "Oh, how many cigarettes have I had today? That can't be good."
A question: Were the Adrian Mole books originally published as children's books?

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Not Another Self-involved Weblog?!

That's not the plan. After all, I have an entire Web site all about me, so I don't need a blog in order to talk about myself. What I do need is a way to bring original content to this site. Let's face it, author Web sites are all about self-promotion so they end up including a lot of book reviews, interviews, and other warmed over material. I want to do something more. In the past I've posted selections of works in progress, and I considered posting some "out-takes" from A Year with Butch and Spike. But who has time to read all that? So I'm trying a blog devoted to children's books, writing, maybe some stuff about writers in schools, and attending writer events. Whatever your age group, I'm directing this to you.
I promise not to write about my weight problems or hair issues because Bridget has already done that, and, of course, I don't have weight problems or hair issues. None worth mentioning anyway. Nor will I write odes to my dead pets, though those are the only kinds of pets I have. And I'll keep things short and to the point.

Blogging links:
A List Apart
A Favorite Blog:
Jan's Weblog :This is short and to the point and the point is something I'm interested in.