Thursday, December 31, 2009

Virginia Lee Burton, My New BFF


While Wendy’s busy eating Little House On the Prairie-style, I’ve been exploring another Little House author – Virginia Lee Burton of The Little House. I've also decided I want Virginia for my BFF.

Unfortunately, she was born in 1909 and died (of cancer) in 1968.

Burton was the author and illustrator of several classics of children’s literature; besides The Little House you might recognize Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Katy and the Big Snow. I just finished reading her biography by Barbara Elleman – Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art.

I loved this book. I mentally hugged myself in delight the entire time I was reading it, and physically ached when it was over. I longed to go to school with Virginia, and to work with her at summer camp (yes, she really was a summer camp counselor). I wished I could learn design from her at Folly Cove. Folly Cove! That’s what her home was called.

The photographs and artwork included are superb. Burton herself was obviously both joyful and photogenic. The artwork includes familiar and less familiar illustrations from her books, concept sketches, and printed fabric pieces from her Folly Cove workshop, where she trained and worked with a large group of designers.

Oh, and there’s a photo of Burton with her sons, which shows the scenes the she painted or drew on their bedroom walls! It’s like they lived in one of her books!

And her sons do remember her fondly. None of this “yeah, she was a great artist but she sucked as a mom” trash.

The biography is cataloged as juvenile literature, but it’s really not. It’s a biography about juvenile literature, and the book is short (127 pages, including all the pictures), but it’s written at an adult level. Older children or teens might enjoy it, especially if they are interested in art. I did show some of the sketches and designs to my almost-10-year-old, and she was interested enough to stop and look.

Artists and designers may be interested in Burton’s work as well, and in her thoughts on design. Burton had been working on a book on design before her death, but never finished it.

I highly recommend this book, and I’d like to thank Melissa of KidLit History for pointing me to it.

P.S. – as far as I know, Virginia Lee Burton is no relation to us.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shelf Discovery Chat (or, Exactly What You'd Hear If You Spent an Hour With the Burton Sisters)


Lizzie Skurnick’s column, Fine Lines, frequently featured some of our very favorite (or at least, very familiar to us) books. Born in 1973, she falls right in the middle of the three Burton sisters. Kathleen is slightly older than Skurnick, and Wendy and I were always delving into Kathleen’s books. Like Skurnick, we read many popular titles of the ‘70s and ‘80s, along with earlier classics and ‘50s favorites.

So we’d been looking forward to Shelf Discovery, subtitled “The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading.” While not all of them are teen, not all of them are classics, and several of them we have never read, a quick skim of the Table of Contents assured us that we are the “We” of the title.

Wendy and I opened our books together one Saturday morning to talk about Shelf Discovery.

[Online chat transcript has been edited for clarity, brevity, and to remove side comments about PG Tips, Constant Comment, and Wendy’s zumba class that she missed while were chatting.]

Wendy: I'm really afraid to read some of these because they might get my ire up, for two reasons. One: if she disrespects books I think are awesome. Two: if she makes the points that I always make about these books, except she published them first.

Laurie: OK, take a look at the Table of Contents.Several of the authors--Zindel, Peck, etc.--I never read at all, but she read a lot of L'Engle, which led me to find her a kindred spirit (though she was clearly much more interested in Judy Blume than I was; that seems true of everyone I know).

I've spotted several I've NEVER HEARD OF.

And You Give Me a Pain, Elaine. To Take a Dare.

Wendy: First one I haven't read: Harriet the Spy. I TRIED. I was bored.

Laurie: My favorite Fine Lines post (which was not actually written by Skurnick) is included: Laura Lippman on Willoughby Chase. It’s titled, "Life's a Bitch, and So is the Governess."

So, let's read one.

Wendy: Oh, this is hard. I pick Stranger With My Face.

Laurie: Oh, goody. (Not Goodwife Cruff, though.) I find Lois Duncan holds up very well, re-reading as an adult.

Wendy: When I think of SWMF, I think that it's a sexy book.

Long black hair and almond eyes--twice over! and gorgeous guys that are accessible to slightly awkward girls because their faces are half burned off.

Laurie: Oh yes--the gorgeous guy who is literally smoldering. (sorry)

Wendy: HEE.

Really, all that stuff where Lia is telling Laurie about their past and astral projection, it reads like a seduction scene.

Kind of vampiric, I guess.

Laurie: And it has SECRET ADOPTION, which is something all kids/teens love to read about

Your parents aren't your real parents!

Wendy: Secret adoption with exotic past!

Everyone knows it is cooler to be "ethnic" than generic Caucasian.

Laurie: Indeed. It's practically wish fulfillment.

Wendy: It's also one of those books I bemoan where the heroine is plain and then suddenly gets beautiful and then Life Begins.

Laurie: You're right--just like in Moon by Night. Actually, the guy in SWMF is not unlike Zachary. OK, I'm going to page 277.

Wendy: Hey, what's it like to read a book where the main character has your name? Especially a SCARY book. It seems like it could be awesome.

Laurie: Yes, I always liked that about this book.

Wendy: I was reading the excerpt from SWMF and getting so into it that I was both startled and disappointed when it ended and went back to commentary...

When I was a kid I couldn't picture Jeff Rankin; I had trouble believing his face was really that messed up. Now that I've seen a lot of burn victims, I get it.

I like that she's pointing out all the dichotomies in this book. Clearly, this is a book Lois Duncan worked hard on, and that's what makes it so good.

Did you realize when you were a kid how shocking and horrible it was to split up twins? I didn't.

I mean, really, that makes the parents seem kind of cruel. But I was FASCINATED (and still am) by the idea of the evil baby that the mother didn't like holding.

Laurie: I think I had an idea splitting twins wouldn't usually be done, but I never questioned it in the context of the book because we all knew LIA IS EVIL!!

Laurie: Yes, this is a good piece. It reminds me why I like Stranger with My Face, which I assume is the goal of the book (Shelf Discovery), along with, possibly, sparking our interest in some we haven't read before.

Laurie: So, before we conclude this chat, I have two questions

What book are you very happy to see included in Shelf Discovery?

What book do you wish was included in Shelf Discovery?

I'm happy to see: Tell Me if the Lovers are Losers

Wendy: I was going to write that, too! It is so of this era.

Laurie: Like with other Newbery winners, Cynthia Voigt's other books tend to be overshadowed by Homecoming/Dicey's Song and Lovers is really, really good

Wendy: Also very strange, but yes.

Laurie: You should pick something else, though, since I picked that first

Wendy: Okay, then. Are You In the House Alone? I've never been that interested in Forever, which I find so one-note. Are You In the House Alone? is a book about rape, obviously, but it is so much more than that, and is also a book about teen sex during that era, just like Forever is.

Laurie: I wish she had included: at least one book by Lois Lowry. Preferably Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye, which would have been my choice. A Summer to Die seems an odd omission. And of course I love Anastasia Krupnik. NINE Judy Blume books, FIVE Lois Duncan books--but not a single Lois Lowry?

Wendy: I was just thinking that there ought to be some Norma Johnston up there.

Laurie: Yes, I would have been interested to read her take on The Keeping Days. But I wouldn't be surprised if she had missed Norma Johnston growing up; we easily might have, if Kath hadn't had that one paperback Keeping Days.

Wendy: Oh, there's so much we might have missed; it's scary to contemplate.

Laurie: So, what do you think about the Lowry? Is Keeping Days your answer to what you wish had been included?

Wendy: Well, I knew you were going to say Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye, but I probably would have said that, too...

Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, maybe, which might be too old for Skurnick's teendom. Plus it is too precious to me; no one's allowed to snark that but ME.

Wendy: Let's do one of our favorites.

How about Tell Me If the Lovers, since you brought it up?

Laurie: no, something more fun. Westing Game?

Laurie: or Basil E. Frankweiler? or Moon by Night?

Wendy: Westing Game, I'm already there. I remember the magic I immediately sensed, the first time I read the first page of this book. I think you might have read it to me, actually.

You used to laugh aloud at books, and I would ask you what was so funny, and if you were in a good mood you would read it.

Laurie: I just remembered to tell you that I am not a big Harriet the Spy fan either. Never read it as a kid. It always strikes me as one of those books that people who have never read anything cite as their favorite (you know, like George Bush and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.)

OK, The Westing Game.

Wendy: Ah, "oh, yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake." That's the line you laughed at and the one you read out loud to me. Though I didn't know what a bookie was.

Laurie: "Denton Deere was troubled. Just what did Angela mean by 'nun'?"
Yes, this was the first time I had ever heard of a bookie.

Wendy: Angela is probably my favorite character, although of course I resented her beauty.
I certainly didn't understand that being a bookie was illegal until I saw them on Dragnet years later.

Laurie: Angela is the most satisfying character, because she changes the most.

Wendy: I really like this Westing Game essay. It's solid.

Laurie: I like the Westing Game essay too. "A profound meditation on how humans, given a set of clues, miss what's actually missing right in front of them, and instead project themselves onto the negative space."

Wendy: And that is why it is the best Newbery winner of them all.

Laurie: The End.

Now I have to wake up Iris, and some time after that I am going to read your latest post on Six Boxes. Bye!

Wendy: Ciao!

Lizzie Skurnick very kindly spoke with Wendy for an hour about Shelf Discovery and YA then and now. Look for the interview piece coming soon.

Shelf Discovery also spurred an interesting and humbling conversation about the lack of racial diversity in our childhood reading, which will also be its own post, eventually.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Making Like a Muskrat

I was going to think through this whole Little House eating thing (help, please! I need a catchy title for my theme week!) a little longer, but had a chance to go shopping with a car today, so I quickly made a list of staples and "specials" I thought I would need. The perishability of some items means I'll be starting soon, maybe sometime tomorrow. (I meant to start tomorrow at breakfast, but realized I accidentally bought some avocados--they were looking good and weirdly cheap and I KNOW they come from Mexico, but, well. Powerless. Anyway, there's almost nothing further from something the Ingallses/Wilders would eat than avocados, so of course I have to eat them first.)

Here's what I laid in, to add to a few things I already had on hand (such as PLENTY of maple syrup): apples, heavy cream, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, molasses (I've never bought such a big bottle of molasses), buttermilk, whole milk, free range organic eggs, pea beans, oysters, oyster crackers, nutmeg, popcorn (I expect popcorn, popped in a kettle, to be one of my primary snacks; it'll be like Christmas every day. I mean, like an ordinary winter evening on the Wilder farm), buckwheat flour, dried corn, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, squash, pumpkin, turnips, lettuce (yes, I know there's no way they would have had THAT in winter, but I'm not going to carry accuracy that far), salt pork, bacon, cinnamon, and cloves. I still need to pick up some dried fruit, and I might get some fish. And I'm going to go ahead and eat my natural organic cheese occasionally (mostly because I forgot and opened some a few minutes ago); I don't figure it'll be that different from what they might have had.

Just realized I'm dooming myself to a week without hot cocoa. I'd better go make some now. It's interesting--I can't remember that chocolate appears in the Little House books at all (anyone?), yet twenty-five years later in the Betsy-Tacy books, it's absolutely ubiquitous. Mr. Ray wasn't kidding when he said that when HE was a boy, they managed to study without all the fudge.

I'm aware that I'm likely to be eating every day as if it were a feast, in Little House terms, but I know too that for me this will be an exercise in self-denial the likes of which would make Mary proud. Already I'm sort of gasping internally at the idea of the limited snacks, the lack of garlic, the single orange. (Hmm. I suppose I could have canned peaches, too, couldn't I?) But I'm also kind of surprised at the Plenty I have. And when the week ends and I can drink that cocoa, it'll be like the supply train has finally made it to DeSmet*.

*Except that's total hyperbole, because instead of starvation rations of brown bread, tea, and maybe some baked potato with salt for months, I'll be feasting on bird's nest pudding and baked beans and oyster stew for one week. But you get the idea. Hmm, I probably should have laid in some more heavy cream.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Almanzo ate four large helpings of apples 'n' onions fried together.

Stupidest idea I ever had? Eat like I'm living in Little House for a year. Secondary idea I had that I realized was actually practicable? Eat like I'm living in Little House for a week.

Armed with the Little House Cookbook and other resources, this will be coming soon. And I won't limit myself to heart-shaped cakes, fried potatoes, cambric tea, and other such "safe" foods, I promise. (Likely I will even eat some meat.) My first thought was just to create random menus from all foods available, but I could also feature one book each day (which would make it eight or nine days, of course), or just make sure that I did eventually eat from all of them, or something else. I doubt I will try to replicate any actual full meals, because I have different needs, but you never know.

If you have any suggestions or requests for specific foods, let me know. Or if you would like to join in a Virtual Dinner Party sometime. I did this once with Laurie and Kathleen, where we all made waffles for dinner one night, hundreds of miles apart. And once I sponsored a Meat Pie Monday with my Betsy-Tacy friends, where I donated a can of food to a food pantry for every person who agreed to make a meat pie on a particular night (it's a Thing from Betsy's Wedding). Several others matched my donations, and in the end, hundreds of cans were donated. Anyway, my point is that virtual dinner parties can be a lot of fun. So if you have a hankering for fried codfish balls, bean porridge, or corn dodgers, be in touch.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Best Christmas Present Ever

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good knitter. Wendy is both.

This is one side of the beautifully soft, cobwebby scarf that my sister sent me for Christmas. I have hardly taken it off since opening the package.

Thank you, Wendy!

The Charlotte A. Cavatica scarf was designed by the talented Rebekkah Kerner.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Christmas Box

Having a box of Christmas books is an important Burton family tradition. The box itself is nothing special (mine is beat-up cardboard that once contained copy paper), but the books are precious because they only come out once a year.

Our treasured family copy of The Night Before Christmas is illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa, who specialized in multi-ethnic picture books. The only characters in this one, though, are a white 19th-century family (plus white St. Nick).

Recently I've gotten some great recommendations for new and diverse Christmas books. This year Wendy is giving our youngest niece The Night Before Christmas (Putnam, 2009), illustrated by Rachel Isadora with African characters and setting, for her own Christmas book collection.

The Brown Bookshelf recommends multi-ethnic holiday books: Shades of the Season

Shen's Books shares four Christmas stories: Multicultural Minute #16

(In addition to the Fujikawa, my family's Christmas box includes Cookie Count by Robert Sabuda, A Newbery Christmas, I Like Winter by Lois Lenski, and a Little Golden Book about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, among other favorites.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

No Afterword, Thanks


I liked The Witch of Blackbird Pond, but I really think there should have been an author's note explaining that some women (and one man) really were executed as witches, along with something about the real-life persecution of Quakers (or Friends, as they prefer to be called) in New England. I'm not sure kids would get from the book what a very serious situation this was.

You can relax that horrified expression now; that isn't a real quote. But it could have been.

Have you noticed how common lengthy afterwords are on kids' historical fiction these days? In fact, I think we've come to expect them. When I read The Green Glass Sea (Ellen Klages), one of my favorite books from the last several years, I felt something odd when I'd finished it. Something refreshing. It was... the lack of an author's note.

One major complaint: Where's the explanation note? I cannot believe Klages ends the book without one. Her list of further reading materials doesn't take the place of something on the topic in the book. What happened to the scientists and their families? How did they react to what they created (hinted at in the story) What about radiation poisoning? Etc. Etc. There are dozens of additional questions readers could ask. Several have come to my mind since I finished the book. I don't expect her to answer all of them fully but I do expect her to say something. What the scientists created changed the world. Surely this deserves more than a footnote's worth of explanation.

That IS a real quote, from Goodreads, and it pretty much sums up most of what I don't like about afterwords.

I commented about this before on a post in Marc Aronson's Nonfiction Matters blog, Historical Fiction Seminar. I said "there was nothing to take me out of the book [after finishing]" Marc responded "Seems Wendy is one of those readers who wants to stay within the dream between the covers of the book". We were talking about whether people read historical fiction for a hallucinatory experience, so I can see why he thought that's what I was getting at. But it isn't that I don't like author's notes because they break the spell; it's because I think too often they interfere with both the enjoyment and the learning experience of the book.

The person who commented on The Green Glass Sea above said that "dozens of additional questions" came to her mind after she finished the book. She wanted them answered in an author's note. My question is--if there had been an author's note, would she ever have had those questions? Would she have spent time pondering the answers? Would the other Goodreads reviewers who were troubled by the ambiguity of the book have spent that time clarifying their own positions?

Let's take another classic, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. One of the central incidents in that book is the plague of grasshoppers. If it was written now, the author's note might include other descriptions of the devastation caused by the grasshoppers. Maybe there'd be a map showing how widespread the damage was. Maybe we'd get information on how the grasshoppers affected other families and whether there was any government relief.

It'd be factual. It'd teach kids something. Some of us would read this additional information with great interest. But the book is so well-written that it doesn't need any of this; in fact, I think it would only take away. We read On the Banks of Plum Creek and we get a clear picture of how the grasshoppers affected the lives of one family. We know the creepiness of the grasshoppers getting into our clothes, of hearing the neverending chomp-chomp of their jaws; we know the helpless feeling of watching our year's worth of work be destroyed in a matter of hours.

The last thing I want--or need--after experiencing something like that is to read an author's note where someone tells me what to think about it.

In most cases, if a book is written well enough, we get everything we need from the text. A curious reader can investigate the subject more; and we can say "but most kids won't do that"--if the book is good enough, that won't matter. If it's so important you have to say it, say it in the story.

I read The Rock and the River (Kekla Magoon) recently. I enjoyed the book. I hated the author's note. This is a Black Panther-positive book; most of those who review it comment on how good it is to have a book showing another side to the Black Panthers. But not only does the author's note pretty much reiterate the information that's already integrated in the text, but it makes the last sentence of the book--this book that shows the Black Panthers as a force for good--"In 1982, the Black Panther Party officially disbanded." So what, exactly, is my take-away there? How do I align that with the note the actual story ends on?

Magoon actually has the perfect author's note there. It's similar to the one at the end of The Witch of Blackbird Pond; it says the story is fictional but contains some real people. She's even got a line there that would have been a great last sentence, one that wouldn't destroy the power of her story's end. She could have finished her author's note with "The struggle that Sam faces in the story is based on the real-life challenges that many teenagers went through."

Do we need any more than that?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Live Tweets on the Prairie


A few weeks ago Mother Reader asked me who she should be following on Twitter--did I know anyone who was making really good use of the 140-character medium? I responded promptly, @halfpintingalls.

Half Pint is the online persona of Laura Ingalls Wilder (on the right there--she's the one who looks ever-so-slightly bitter, ), and this fall she's treated us to such messages as Twisting 33 hay sticks a day for #NaTwiHayMo is hard, but it's so satisfying when you win! Because then you don't freeze to death. and Today I have low self-esteem because my corn cob doll has unrealistic body proportions. and It'd be a riot if I dressed up as a grasshopper plague for Hallowe'en, wouldn't it? Or is that "too soon?" (Really, I could just sit here copy-and-pasting @halfpintingalls tweets all day, but you can go peruse them yourself.)

After reading these insights into the fascinating mind of my dearest childhood friend this talented author, I had many more questions. Half Pint kindly consented to an interview. (Though she wouldn't answer my "marry, shag, kill" question about Mr. Edwards, Mr. Loftus, and Reverend Alden.)

**************************************************************************

Okay, let's get one thing straight. My sister Kathleen wants to know: when you use the twittergraph do you have to go all the way to the railroad station, or do you have a portable device?

I walk two miles to the depot most days to send my dispatches, but I also have a hand-held Twittergraphone made of iron that I use sometimes. It's a pain to drag all that wire around but it comes in handy during blizzards and keeps you from wandering out on the prairie.

(I don't know why you future people like "wire-less" things so much! It makes you harder to find when you're buried in a snowdrift!)


Wasn't Eliza Jane totally pissed when you married her brother after she tried to get you expelled from school? I love that picture of you rocking the seat, by the way. FIERCE.

She's not mad at me because I married Almanzo. She's mad because I once told her, "You're really insufferable for a suffragette."

What's better, vanity cakes or heart-shaped cakes?

A VANITY-SHAPED cake would be the best of all, because it would be HUGE. At least it would be if Nellie Oleson and her gigantic ego baked it.

Tell us the truth. Did you or didn't you marry Almanzo because Pa promised him his prettiest and most capable daughter in exchange for a plate of buckwheat pancakes?

See, when Pa said that Almanzo was "a pancake man," I was really excited, because I thought he was a great big pancake man like the ones Ma used to fry up on Christmas morning. Those are my FAVORITE kind of men!

Turns out Almanzo's just a regular man who MAKES pancakes. Oh well, at least they're tasty.

Worst party ever: Nellie Oleson's birthday or the dime social?

The Donner Party was the worst party ever.

Did you ever regret not giving Rose away to Mr. and Mrs. Boast?

Actually, the deal was that the Boasts wanted to trade a horse for Rose. I'm glad we kept Rose but I will say that a HORSE wouldn't have plagiarized me and written Let the Hurricane Roar.

Green pumpkin pie is awesome. I made it once. But what were some of Ma's spectacular failure experiments in frugal cooking that never made it into the books?

Ma once cooked my corn cob doll to make stock. The soup was good, but afterwards my doll was never quite the same.

What's for Christmas dinner this year?

Whatever Pa has left in his pockets after being buried in a snowdrift for three days. You know, the usual.



Friday, December 4, 2009

Read This Now: Lips Touch: Three Times


I was going to write this whole post about "When is a book too old for the Newbery?". I still might, because I think that's an interesting and often misunderstood question. But this book has been living in me so thoroughly over the last few days that it's asking for a post of its own. You know how occasionally you can love a book so much that you feel lonely for it after you're done reading? It's almost like being homesick.

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends' laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends' laps? Yes.

Them.


The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.


Are you aching with the wonderfulness of that? Shivers went down my spine the first time I read it. Shivers went down my spine just now, retyping it.

Lips Touch: Three Times is a made up of three novellas, all of which involve a fateful kiss of some kind. I think it's being classified as fantasy, and I was about to say "it's so not", but then I thought over the characters in the stories: goblins. Demons. Immortal shapeshifters. Okay, I accept that this is fantasy, but to me it didn't feel like such; the characters (the main characters are basically mortal) are so very real, and while there are some fantasy elements to the settings, they're pretty much in the real world, too. While I was reading the book everything seemed perfectly plausible, even natural.

"Goblin Market" is the story quoted above, and it's about a modern teenager. It's one of those "if Twilight was actually good" kinds of stories. "Spicy Little Curses Such as These" is set in colonial India, like if Frances Hodgson Burnett had written fantasy, or if LM Montgomery had written fantasy AND stories set in colonial India. "Hatchling" is set in modern London and medieval eastern Europe (and I haven't yet found the right "it's like" for it).

These are gorgeous stories, pulse-beatingly romantic at times, just a little terrifying at other times. Sleeping Beauty curses, children's lives bargained for in hell, ghosts walking clockwise around people for protection, one-eyed birds spying for the immortal queen--I think all the mythology in this book has its basis in real mythology and religion, which is probably what gives one the shock of recognition while reading it; but it's used in new, creative, delicious ways.

Each story has several pages of illustration at the beginning, done by the author's husband. They illustrate events that happen before the story starts; events sketched out within the story. The art is, I would say, sort of a Pre-Raphaelite-meets-manga style, but I don't really know what I'm talking about there. I think the illustrations are going to be very, very appealing to most teenagers, but I think they will make many adults think this isn't the book for them. I'm going to assure you now that it IS.

My interest in this book was piqued by discussion on the Heavy Medal blog--I hadn't considered reading it before, because I thought it would be too high-fantasy for me. It was discussed there in the context of whether it was suitable for the Newbery or too mature. Packaged differently, this would totally be a Newbery contender, and we aren't supposed to look at packaging. But. More on that to come later, probably.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Sucker for E-Books


100 Scope Notes writes about e-books today. He's taking a wait-and-see approach and asks where we are with e-books; my comment turned into a post of its own. (And I almost titled this post "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love E-Books", but luckily I didn't, because... that's the title of the 100 Scope Notes post, which I hadn't noticed.)

I started reading e-books about five years ago when I had to get a Palm Pilot for nursing school. I discovered that I could download books from Project Gutenberg for free, and read many, many forgotten old books (no classics for me, thanks! I'd rather read Patty in Paris and The Campfire Girls Go Motoring) on that tiny screen. I went to Europe for two weeks that year and instead of taking one book and trying to parcel out the reading, I took dozens and was able to read whatever and whenever I felt like. (At this point people say "Well, if I was in Paris, I wouldn't be doing much READING"--hogwash. There's two long long flights to get through, Paris has trains like anywhere else, and I always do a lot of reading at night when I'm on vacation, once I'm too tired to keep going but it's still, like, 8 PM.)

Now that I've finally started to get over the feeling that we count our wealth in books--that I don't need to buy every used book I see that happens to be something I enjoyed--though I'm still struggling with the idea that if I don't have enough books, people will walk into my apartment and think I'm not a reader--I've started to like e-books even more. My local library is underfunded and unimpressive, and this year doesn't carry many of the new children's and YA books I want to read. So I've been buying more new books than ever before. And I'm buying them in "e" form. I'm not going to want to keep most of them, and I don't want them cluttering my apartment, and they're slightly more affordable.

I kept feeling a rosy glow when I bought an e-book, thinking that I was helping to sustain the author and publisher, but I was concerned that maybe the glow shouldn't be so rosy. I wondered whether authors really made much from the sale of e-books--was this like that writer's strike business, where the screenwriters were making squat from Internet downloads of TV and movies? I asked about this on twitter, and my understanding is that while authors make less from e-book sales, that's more because they cost less than because they're being cheated. Since I wouldn't buy all these books in hardcover--there's no way--I keep feeling rosy.

The downside is that I'm buying these from Barnes and Noble (since I don't have a "device" and read them on my computer, the tiniest of netbooks) instead of an independent bookstore. If there's somewhere else I ought to be buying from, do let me know.

My good friend CLM of Perfect Retort, whose apartment was blissfully wall-to-wall books last time I visited it ten years ago, asks about rereads. I'm happy to buy hard copies of books I want to read over and over, just as I always have. For me, that isn't a change at all--it used to be extremely rare for me to purchase a new book I hadn't already read; I only did it in the case of an author I knew I loved, or perhaps something deeply discounted on the sale table that looked interesting, but even then almost never. (I know that eventually hard copies will become proportionally more expensive, as fewer are produced, but it'll be something I'm willing to pay for.) People often mention that it isn't as cozy to curl up with an e-book as it is with a "real" book; for me, if I want to be cozy, I'm choosing one of those "I've read this more times than I can count" books I own anyway. And I've never been one to take books into the bath with me. (Shudder! Didn't you all see the instructional film in elementary school about how sad it is when books get wet?)

I do keep some of the e-books I buy, though. And I still mourn the passing of my Palm Pilot--I don't have an IPhone--because being able to read a snippet of Rilla of Ingleside anytime I happened to be caught in line was delicious.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Season of Gifts and Racism: one more round


There's been tons and tons and tons of discussion about whether Richard Peck's newest book, A Season of Gifts, is racially insensitive. (I know many of you have heard a lot about this, but since I've discovered that a lot of my readers are not regularly blog people and -- gasp! -- don't know about every blog controversy that comes along, a summary: this book takes place in the 1950s; there's a new Methodist preacher in town who's having trouble getting people to come to his church; to drum up publicity, his neighbor Grandma Dowdel pretends to have found the skeleton of an "Indian princess" in her garden and gets the preacher to stage a Christian burial with accompanying media frenzy.)

Let's get one thing straight: yeah, the bones are fake. There's no doubt about it. Only a "but the bones are fake!" defense doesn't wash with me. I'm also not going to say it doesn't make a difference that the bones were fake. The difference is just that it would be WORSE if the bones were real.

Yes, Jonathan Hunt et al, I get that Richard Peck was making fun of white people and their obsession with all things "Native American". But digging up American Indian bones and re-burying them in white Christian cemeteries?

Dude. That's not something to joke about*. It's disrespectful to use something like that as a way to make this mild sort of point, especially in a book that is not ALL about the white obsession with Indian mysticism, because come on, it's not like the white people don't come out on top in this book. They're a little silly in their reaction to the "Kickapoo princess", but they're also down-home good people.

Okay, but what surprises me: in all of the discussions of this book I've read, I can't remember anyone mentioning the part where Richard Peck makes an effort to show that he knows this might come off as being disrespectful. Because the sermon the minister gives is all about how great the Indians who used to live on that land were. Yes, Debbie Reese, I'm using "used to" and "were" on purpose, because that's how they're presented here. "The stewards of this land that now we till" and "How lightly her people lived here/In the seasons' ebb and flow;/May we leave this land as lovely/When it's our own time to go."

He tries, Richard Peck does. He knows that American Indians are more than mascots and "princesses" and headdresses. But this sermon--it's nice. It could be worse. The insensitivity of the book would be worse if it were left out altogether. But what it does is make the people of the town, and the Caucasian reader, feel good. It's okay that the local Indians are gone; they lived a good life and now it's our turn. It was their "time to go".

When, you know, it actually wasn't.

Now, when I first heard about this issue on Roger Sutton's blog, I commented "oops, there goes A Season of Gifts's Newbery nod". But now that I've read it, I don't think this book is Newbery-quality, anyway. It's well-written stylistically, because Richard Peck is a writing master, but the plot and characters are most thin. I don't think it's distinguished or that it adds anything special either to this trilogy (the first two books are excellent; one is a Newbery Honor and the other a Newbery) or to children's literature.

*Always allowing that I could find a joke about this really, really funny if it were done well and made an important point.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Oops! I Didn't Mean To Say That.

I was talking with the lovely author Laurel Snyder recently about her book, Any Which Wall (a thoroughly modern Edward Eager homage I enjoyed very much). I can’t remember how we got on the subject, but she mentioned that after it was published, she found things she wished she had written differently; I think she said she even has notes in her copy about what she would have changed.

I’m sure this is common among writers. “Actually, some authors really do that,” I told her.

Madeleine L’Engle was the first one who came to mind. Her first young adult novel, And Both Were Young (it’s really good--takes place in a Swiss boarding school, lots of fun stuff about skiing), was published in 1949. In 1983, she released a newly-edited version, which, she says in the foreword, is more accurate to the book she wrote. The 1949 editor insisted she tone down the main character’s grief over her mother’s death, the gentle romance between the teenagers, and the woman who’s after Philippa’s widower father.

I’ll be honest: I like the original a lot better. And when I say “original”, I mean what was published first. I think it’s sharper, clearer, more even in tone. Of course, it’s also what I read (and internalized: I read it many times) first.

I’m not sure how many times L’Engle did this in smaller ways. When I was re-reading a new-to-me copy of her book The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas, I kept thinking “huh. I don’t remember it that way”. On comparison, I discovered several small differences in the text between the edition of this book I knew and the one I own now. I don’t know why L’Engle or the editors might have made these changes, or which is the original, or which L’Engle might say was more authentic.

PL Travers did it in Mary Poppins. She has a chapter where Jane, Michael, and Mary Poppins go time/space traveling with the help of a compass. They visit the four corners of the world, and meet stereotypical people from the north (“Eskimos”), south (Africans), east (Chinese people), and west (American Indians, or, as many people in England call them even now, “Red Indians”). The chapter is charming in structure, but the stereotypes are awful. They’re worse than what you’re imagining right now. In 1981, Travers revised the chapter completely, having them meet animals in each corner instead. The writing isn’t as good as it was in the original, which is unfortunate but not surprising. When this chapter of Mary Poppins comes up in discussion, I always ask the same question: if you were the author, wouldn’t you be embarrassed? Wouldn’t you welcome the chance of a rewrite? (Amazingly, the original illustrator, Mary Shepard, was also around to do new illustrations for the chapter.) And Roald Dahl did something similar for the American edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; for some reason that’s not as well-known, though the book is more famous. In the original, the Oompa Loompas are pretty much happy lazy African slaves. I’m not kidding.

Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature has an interesting post discussing a passage from the book Dear Genius, in which editor Ursula Nordstrom talks about a small change Laura Ingalls Wilder agreed to make to a new edition of Little House on the Prairie--agreed wholeheartedly. While I don’t agree with the suggestion that the publisher might have stopped publishing the book entirely instead, I think it’s an interesting point to wonder what else Wilder might have changed in this book and her other books. Certainly her intent was never to depersonalize American Indians.

What else might Madeleine L’Engle have changed in her books? Did she mean for A House Like a Lotus to be underminingly homophobic? I don’t really think so. After she became a Christian, did she think back on her early books and wish she had written things differently? Would Jean Webster take the eugenicism out of Dear Enemy (sequel to Daddy Long Legs)? Would Ann M. Martin surgically remove Mallory Pike from the Babysitters Club? (Actually, she did eventually send Mallory to boarding school, to the great relief of all.)

We’ve posted recently about the ways Scholastic Book Fairs has asked authors to edit their books to make them “safe” for the school market. (Laurie pointed out elsewhere the funniest example of this: in Lois Lowry’s Anastasia On Her Own, Freddie Valente is changed in the [edit: not Scholastic's fault this time] Weekly Reader edition from a bra-snapper to a hair-puller. I guess bras are mature content, just like gay parents.) Laurie urged authors not to make changes in content after their books are published, at least not for Scholastic Book Fairs’s reasoning. What do you think? When is it okay for an author to change something, and when should the book be let stand as is?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Scholastic censors Luv Ya Bunches

The headlines last week read:
Luv Ya Bunches Will Be in Middle School Book Fairs
Scholastic reverses decision regarding 'Luv Ya Bunches'
Scholastic to Sell 'Luv Ya Bunches' at Middle School Book Fairs
Scholastic Reverses Decision to Exclude Gay Friendly Book from Fairs

An accurate headline, though, would read: Scholastic Sells Censored Luv Ya Bunches in Middle School Fairs; Refuses to Include Gay Parents in Elementary Schools.

Luv Ya Bunches is about fifth graders. Publishers Weekly recommended it for ages 9-13. Clearly it is intended for both elementary and middle school students.

Let's talk a little about book fairs. Scholastic dominates the U.S. school book fair market. From 2003-2007 I hosted a Scholastic book fair at my middle school (continuing the previous librarian's tradition). On the appointed date the deliverymen wheel in giant carts that open to become book displays. The middle school fairs offer certain titles, which have been advertised in advance to students via posters and book fair brochures. The books, published by Scholastic and other publishers, range from paperback classics to brand-new releases. Schools can make special requests; I always asked for more multi-ethnic books to reflect the interests and diversity of my students. The person in charge of the book fair can choose to remove items from the display if they don't want to sell them. Most librarians I know do: expensive software, toys with small parts, books you don't think students are interested in might stay packed in boxes. At my last Scholastic fair I didn't display the posters for sale, because space was tight and I wanted to focus on books.

My point is that with any book fair, including Scholastic, you can choose what to offer from the books provided. No school is forced to offer a book for sale.

If you (librarians or book fair chairs) live in a community that is so homophobic that parents will protest a book with gay characters, and you are not willing to take a stand and offer the book, you don't have to. But Scholastic Inc., whose credo says they strive "To enlarge students' concern for and understanding of today's world," should not pander to this homophobic constituency by refusing to offer Luv Ya Bunches or other books with gay characters in its elementary school book fairs.

Michael A. Jones of Change.org writes, "This was a victory for us all." I see no victory. Scholastic Book Fairs concluded their review process and decided to include an expurgated edition of Luv Ya Bunches in its middle school book fairs. This may be what they were already going to do before last week's outcry. It represents no brave stance on the part of Scholastic, despite what Lauren Myracle claims. Here's what needs to happen to achieve a real victory.


School librarians/Teachers/PTA (anyone who hosts a book fair in a school)
: Look into other options, such as local independents, for book fairs to reduce Scholastic's corporate monopoly. With any book fair (Scholastic or otherwise), be sure to request age-appropriate books that include LGBT characters. Let the book fair provider know that these books are both welcome and necessary in your school book fair to meet the needs of your community.

Scholastic Inc.:
1) Make your book fair criteria public and transparent. Are books with gay characters automatically excluded from elementary school? Sometimes excluded? As a customer of Scholastic Book Fairs (both as a school librarian and as a parent of an elementary-school child), I want an answer.
2) Apologize for asking Lauren Myracle to change the sexual orientation of characters in Luv Ya Bunches. Yes, you have a review process and you can only include a small number of books in the fairs each year. You can exclude books; it's your choice. But there is NO EXCUSE for asking to change gay characters to straight. NONE. You made a big mistake. Apologize, and make a donation to Lambda Legal or some other organization that helps families.

Authors: Do not agree to Scholastic Book Fairs or anyone else censoring your book. You wrote your book a certain way--maybe with hell, damn, Oh my God--because you, and your editor, believed it was right for your book. If it's not right, take it out in the editing stage. If it is right, DON'T CHANGE IT. This is disrespectful, dishonest, and deceptive to your readers. You can't champion the freedom to read while you are agreeing to sanitized versions of your own books.

Three weeks ago another librarian and I were talking about how there are quite a few picture books with gay characters, and more YA books all the time, but very few novels with gay characters for readers in grades 4-8. I mentioned Dear Julia by Amy Bronwen Zemser as a good new example: the main character's best friend has two moms. Children need these books. We need to keep the pressure on.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Elephant Run: Mother-Daughter Reviews

My nine-year-old daughter's teacher enjoys sharing contemporary children's novels with his class. Recently, he did Elephant Run by Roland Smith as a read-aloud for the class. Suzy enjoyed it and wanted to read it on her own, too, so she checked it out from the county library.

When she arrived home with the book, she suggested I might like to read it, too.

OK. Elephants, Burma, World War II, it sounded pretty interesting. And I wasn't disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed Elephant Run. We've both finished it now, so we've both reviewed it. You can read Suzy's review on her blog, SuperBookGirl.

The book begins in London, 1941. Thirteen-year-old Nick Freestone's mother sends him to live in Burma with his father after their home is destroyed in a bombing raid. Nick's father owns a teak plantation, which uses elephants for logging. Unfortunately, the Japanese arrive almost immediately after Nick does, taking his father to a prison camp and occupying the plantation. It's a story of Nick's survival and eventual attempt to rescue his father.

It's a great novel for ages 9-12. The book is well written, with an engaging and exciting story. It doesn't gloss over bad things that happened in World War II (deaths of some people on the plantation, for instance) but also doesn't get excessively graphic. Nick is clearly attracted to his friend Mya, but it's not overly emphasized (it's not a kissing book!).

I also thought it was interesting to see a different piece of the World War II story. History and historical fiction doesn't often focus on Burma, and personally, I've read much more about the European part of the war.

I would highly recommend this book for ages 9-12, and older kids and adults will enjoy it, too.

A Quick Note on Scholastic/Myracle

Laurie and I are not impressed with Scholastic's response to the Lauren Myracle uproar. This is just a quick note to say that; Laurie will be posting later with more book fair thoughts. (I'm interested to hear what she has to say.)

Scholastic is getting a lot of credit for "reversing" their position and putting Luv Ya Bunches in its book fairs, lesbian moms intact. But they're allowing it in their middle school book fairs. Not their elementary school ones. Luv Ya Bunches is an elementary-level book, and gay parents are not mature content.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'm indignant, as a consumer!

As usual, my first thought when I heard about the Scholastic Book Fair/Lauren Myracle book controversy (to sum up: middle grade author of non-gay-themed book asked to turn gay parents into straight parents for book fair edition) was a selfish one.

WAIT, HOW MANY ALTERED SCHOLASTIC EDITIONS OF BOOKS HAVE I READ?

I have fond memories of book fairs. We didn't have a lot of extra money when we were kids, and in my memory, book fairs were one of the only times I got to pick out my own books to keep. (My sisters may remember this differently, and I'm not even sure if book fairs were common when Kathleen was in elementary school. History of book fairs, anyone?) Why I wasted such opportunities on books like How to Draw Horses and The Ghost at Dawn's House is a mystery to me. (The fact that I remember buying these books specifically shows how significant the fairs were, I think.) I also remember buying a copy of Beverly Cleary's A Girl From Yamhill, though, and I think Daddy Long Legs.

Oh, how I remember the class visits to the book fairs to pick out what books we would buy when we came back with our parents, and how the teachers would try to shoo the kids away from the picture books once we were in upper elementary, which seems sad.

But how many of those books we bought at the book fairs had been changed from their original form? How many had words or characters or scenes altered? I learned about this practice a few years ago; I think it applies to the "book orders", too (those colorful fliers the teachers sent home every couple of months; I got a few books from there as well, like the first Pen Pals book). And I started to remember how occasionally I've noticed a difference in editions--like my ancient Scholastic copy of Anne Emery's Senior Year, in which teenagers are suddenly dancing the hustle instead of the original foxtrot.

I want to read the books as they're written. I think most people do. At the very least, I want to know I'm reading an altered edition. Are there disclaimers on Scholastic books now? I can't remember seeing one before. Don't we need a "this book has been edited for length and content" kind of message on there, so at least we KNOW the real book is out there?

If you were a parent and bought a no-gay-parents edition of Luv Ya Bunches (sorry, the sweetness of that title gives me the willies, too) for your kid, wouldn't you feel sort of dirty? I would.

Scholastic has put out a weird update on this situation of a neither-confirm-nor-deny stripe. (It makes no sense: if they "recognize Milla’s two moms as a positive and realistic aspect of the story", why would they ask to have them removed?) I'm puzzled that they mention carrying After Tupac and D Foster at book fairs. Is it an edited version or not? If not... why one and not the other? Perhaps it's because After Tupac skews slightly older; maybe it's the very middle-gradeness of Myracle's book that made someone think two moms were inappropriate. ("You can learn about different kinds of families when you're older, honey.") Maybe they know that the kind of parents who would be offended by Myracle's two moms would never, ever pick out After Tupac in the first place. Maybe they think the book is insidious because it looks "safe" but OMG liberal agenda!!!1!

Let's call it like it is, Scholastic. Let's put out Luv Ya Bunches: The Homophobic Edition.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Newbery Project Revisited

It's been just over a year since I finished reading all the Newbery winners, something I only thought about after I was able to put my Newbery skillz to work recently and call out Peter of Collecting Children's Books (which I referred to this weekend as, I think, "the best blog in the world" or similar), who graciously posted all about it.

Recently I said to Jen Robinson "I'm just really invested in the Newbery," and she responded "I can see that," possibly with a little "hello, Ms. Crazypants" in her eyes.

If I was formal about this kind of thing, I would start a Newbery Challenge and try to convince bloggers to read one Newbery they think they have zero interest in. Or to pick the decade of which they've read the fewest books (probably the 20s or 30s for almost everyone) and read one from there. Or to read the book published the year they were born, or the year their mothers were twelve. (The Westing Game and Amos Fortune: Free Man for me, respectively, which is very funny--of all the books on the list, I put The Westing Game at the top and Amos Fortune at the bottom.)

Every once in a while I revisit the idea of reading all the Newbery Honors, too. I've always avoided that for two reasons--one, I am not a compulsive person in the slightest, and two, a lot of the Honors sound really boring. But compared to most people, I have very little knowledge of most of the Honor books. (Um... when I say "most people", I mean... people with specialized children's literature knowledge. YOU know.) I did have an idea for a series of posts that deal with the winner and all the honors for one particular year; in fact, I finished all my reading for 1953, and if I ever post that year, I'll be soliciting for other year suggestions.

But for now, I'm going to do a decade-by-decade suggestion list. You could take it as a challenge, if you wanted.

1920s: Best read: The Trumpeter of Krakow; interesting setting, characters, and easy-to-enjoy plot. Most important read: The Story of Mankind. I think you really have to know this book.

1930s: Best read: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, a delightful story of adventure. Most important read: probably Caddie Woodlawn is the one with the most cultural resonance, though I found it unremarkable.

1940s: Best read: The 21 Balloons. This is really the book I wish everyone would read (especially if you like food). Most important read: depending on why you read, maybe The Matchlock Gun. It's easy for me to write off most of the racist books on the Newbery list, because most of them aren't very good. The Matchlock Gun is VERY good. It's a good (and safely in the past) point of reference for discussion about cultural insensitivity vs. distinguished writing.

1950s: Best read: Oh, The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was talking with a writer who isn't familiar with most of the Newbery books, and she was asking if I agree that most of them aren't very appealing to children. "Like, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, do you really think that's a great book?" she asked. "It's in my top five," I said enthusiastically. She hadn't read the book, had just heard something about it. I loved it when I was a kid and love it more now. Ladies and gentlemen, THAT is a great work of literature. Most important read (other than that): Secret of the Andes. Depending on who you are, you'll read it and see how horribly wrong committee discussions can go (that's me), or you'll read it and come off brilliantly when you're the one person in the group arguing that the right book won that year.

1960s: Best read: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but you've already read THAT. Most important read: probably the same. If you look at the list of winners, this book seems to usher in a new modern era of children's books; most everything before could be called somewhat old-fashioned, even, in some ways, A Wrinkle in Time. This book has an immediacy and modernity and envelope-pushing quality that seems important in Newbery history.

1970s: Best read: Well, The Westing Game, of course. Most important read: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I think, which is so central to discussions about period-appropriate offensive language. Incidentally, in the 1970s, four of the books focused on African American themes, one is about an Alaska Native, and The Westing Game has quite a bit of race-relations conversation, too. It's an interesting decade for the Newberys.

1980s: Decade of my childhood, and none of the winners are thrilling to me, which is maybe why I avoided Newbery winners for so many years. Best read: maybe Lincoln: A Photobiography. (Most of the books are good, just not thrilling.) Most important read: um... Jacob Have I Loved might be the most YA book in the entire list, so maybe that's important.

1990s: I sense another cultural shift here. Perhaps the best read is The Giver, and the most important is Holes, which is generally held up as "both popular and profound".

2000s: Best read: A Year Down Yonder, which is spare and funny and meaningful. Most important read: Too soon to say, but Bud, Not Buddy might be the one it's most important to be conversant with, culturally.

As always, I am delighted to hear any agreement or disagreement or to take any "what did you think of" questions. And I'm nudging you--do it now!--take just one of the books I've listed above and put it on hold at the library. Let me know which one you're choosing and why.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Indigo Notebook or Why I Ate Quinoa Last Night


I'm a big fan of Laura Resau's first two books, What the Moon Saw and Red Glass. (Disclaimers are so in right now that I feel like I should put that at the bottom--Disclaimer: I do not know Laura Resau, but I really like her other books and I read her blog sometimes.) When I heard that she'd just started a new series, I was pleased but surprised. YA series are not the most common thing (despite the fact that almost every book seems to be one of a trilogy these days), so I sort of assumed we were looking at something Babysitters Club-esque, or maybe like SASS, which it sort of resembles on the surface. Nope. Not. At. All. (I confess that I have yet to make it all the way through a single SASS book, even though I love the idea; I was hooked on this from the first paragraph.)

Resau's new Notebook series follows 15-year-old Zeeta and her mother, Layla, an itinerant ESL teacher. Each year of Zeeta's life they've moved to a new country. You know Layla now, don't you? You already know that she wears wrap skirts and quotes Rumi. What keeps Layla from being a cliche? You met her when you went to Thailand and Guatemala and Ireland. She's real.

And your mind is already turning, isn't it, thinking of what it would be like to have Layla for a mother? I am completely in love with Zeeta. If I wanted to be anyone else when I was fifteen, it was her. She's pretty and interesting and comfortable with all kinds of people and speaks seven languages fluently (over a dozen not so fluently) and somehow escapes being annoying. She's like Polly O'Keefe without the self-absorption. I'm afraid I'm making her sound like a Mary Sue, and in fact I do sort of wish she had more flaws, but I swear, to read Zeeta is to love her. I'm so looking forward to traveling all over the world with her. (Next stop: Provence.)

This first book in the series takes place in Ecuador, and the first sign that I wasn't in Babysitters Club territory was the richness of setting. It's obvious that Resau knows her Ecuador, but it comes out of her naturally, without delving into travelogue territory. The last two days I felt like I WAS in Ecuador, and so the only possible thing I could have for dinner last night was Ecuadorean quinoa vegetable soup from Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes--you may think you've never been that interested in going to Ecuador, but after reading this book, I predict you'll be looking up plane fares.

The setting and lovely characters are definitely the strengths of the book; to be honest, it gets a little overdramatic in the last part with a lot of cloak-and-dagger stuff, and maybe a little sentimental about international adoption (Zeeta's buddy is an American boy who was adopted from Ecuador as a baby and is back seeking his roots). But those characters! That setting! The food!

Now, I don't know how long Resau plans to make this series; I think it will be a challenge to keep it from being too Cherry Ames, with a new love interest and a dramatic mystery for Zeeta in every country. But if anyone can do it, I think it's Resau, who just keeps coming up with creative and original takes on YA. The fact that Zeeta and Layla stay in each place for a year will help, because that gives enough time to really develop the situation; it won't be like Zeeta is facing a near-death experience or being held for ransom every month.

I think your bright middle-schoolers and maybe high-schoolers will love this series. I was desperate to travel when I was that age, and it seems like something even more teens aspire to now. Zeeta is both a real girl (multiracial, by the way) and a wish-fulfillment fantasy, something YA can never have enough of.

Friday, October 2, 2009

You know you want to see Ed Young illustrate "One Night in Bangkok".

My brother-in-law (and Laurie's husband), Matthew Amster-Burton, has written both a delicious book about kids and food and a guest post for this blog.

Looking for a picture book set in modern New York City? I can think of about a hundred. How about a picture book set in historical, mythical, or rural Asia? Plenty of those, too.

But where are the picture books set in modern Asian cities? I'll bet you can't name many, and that's a shame. It gives English language readers an inaccurate image of Asia (all rice paddies and pagodas) and robs us of a potential treasure trove of children's stories.

Why the missing books? I have an idea. Come on a short trip with me; when we get back, I'm going to recommend some books.

1
I went to a slide presentation by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of two great Korean cookbooks. She talked about regional food and sightseeing in Korea (she's also the author of Frommer's South Korea). She showed at least fifty slides, of which one or two were taken in Seoul. There were several slides of an ersatz rural community set up for tourists, like a Korean Colonial Williamsburg. About half of all South Koreans live in Seoul or its outskirts. Seoul is one of the largest, most technologically advanced, safest, and presumably delicious cities on earth.

2
Around the same time, I had dinner with Dan Gray, a Korean food writer who has a blog called Seoul Eats. We talked a lot about Korean food and I told him that I'd never been to Korea but really wanted to go. He offered encouragement and a warning. "You have to understand," he said, extending his arm to indicate green Seattle, "Seoul isn't beautiful."

3
My five-year-old, Iris, is a fan of this cartoon called Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. Kai-Lan is a Chinese-American girl whose best friends are a monkey, a koala, a tiger, and a rhino.

Recently we watched a special 45-minute episode, "Kai-Lan's Great Trip to China," where the whole crew flies to China to visit Kai-Lan's great aunt and meet a baby panda. The first thing they do in China is stop at a roadside stand for dandan noodles. I heartily approved. Then they arrive at the aunt's house, which is a rural mansion.

Soon it's time to shop for presents for the baby panda's naming ceremony, so the crew goes into the city. The city looks like the China pavilion at Epcot, only with fewer people. The funny thing is, actual cities in China look a lot like this artist's conception of the original plan for Epcot.

4
We read a lovely picture book called Erika-san, by Allen Say. Erika moves to Japan to become a teacher. She begins in Tokyo, which she finds overwhelming. She moves on to a smaller city. Still
overwhelming. She ends up in a rural area, where she learns the tea ceremony and marries a Japanese man. The real Japan, the book seemed to imply, isn't in the city.

Phooey, I say.

In 2000, Laurie and I went to Bangkok. It was our first trip to Asia. We brought the Lonely Planet book, some travel pants from Lands' End, and a Seattle-honed appetite for Thai food. We arrived in the city at night, breathed a lot of diesel fumes, ate some bland stir-fried chicken from a street cart, and checked into our fleabag hotel thinking maybe we'd made a mistake.

In the morning, everything looked a lot better. We found a new, clean hotel with air conditioning. We rode the river taxi up and down the Chao Phraya. We ate perfect fried fish at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, perfect grilled chicken at Sara-Jane's, and many perfect things at street carts. To say that the best food I ever ate was in Bangkok would be a huge understatement. Compared to the food I ate in Bangkok, most of what I eat isn't even food.

We spent a week in Bangkok and didn't bother with any side trips. A lot of people in Seattle, especially young people, have been to Thailand, and everyone we spoke to found our trip puzzling. You mean you didn't go to the beach? To the floating market? To meet the hill tribes? Isn't Bangkok a cesspool of traffic and sex tourism?

Because I'd been to Bangkok, I knew what Dan Gray meant when he said Seoul wasn't beautiful. Bangkok is, well, ugly. There's a whole lot of dirty concrete. It's also wonderful, with unexpected glimpses of beauty everywhere, like smooth mounds of colorful curry paste at the market, orchid sellers on the street, a truck piled high with pineapples.

Rice paddies and historical Asian architecture are picturesque in a way a Bangkok streetscape isn't. Instead of seeing this as an artistic challenge, authors and illustrators (or maybe publishers) have largely surrendered. Imagine if Ezra Jack Keats looked around the streets of New York and said, "Nothing to see here; I think I'll head to Central Park."

When I traveled in Asia (specifically Bangkok and Vientiane), I saw children involved in all sorts of play, especially rambunctious, unstructured street play, the kind American parents like to lament the passing of. I'm not saying urban Asia is a children's paradise, but--like Keats's New York--it's a rich and untapped well of stories.

The few urban Asian picture books I've found have left me with an appetite for many, many more. Here are a couple of my favorites, mostly set in Japan:

* The Way We Do It in Japan, Geneva Cobb Iijima, ill. Paige Billin-Frye. Gregory grew up in the US but moves to Tokyo with his parents when his (Japanese-American) father is assigned to the Tokyo office. They live in a small apartment outside Tokyo. Gregory has to get used to rice and fish for breakfast; putting his bed in a cupboard every day; Japanese toilets; and school. This book wrings a lot of interest out of the profoundly ordinary, but my favorite thing about it is how it shows, without saying it outright, that a lot of things about being in a new country are cool and annoying at the same time. This is a perennial favorite in our house, even though the end is kind of dumb. (Also, according to School Library Journal, "some of the 'way we do it...' elements are a bit stereotypical of the traditional way of Japanese life." I'm not sure whether this supports or negates my thesis.)

* Tokyo Friends, Betty Reynolds; My Japan, Etsuko Watanabe. These are essentially vocabulary books, not great for reading aloud, but with fabulous, colorful artwork. Reynolds is the author of a series of adult picture books about Japan, the best of which is Squeamish About Sushi. My Japan has a great page about Japanese food which includes like ten of Iris's favorite foods.

* City I Love. This book combines poems by Lee Bennett Hopkins with artwork by Marcellus Hall. It does a great job of making Asian cities seem dramatic and cool. The Tokyo page features the dazzle of Ginza, complete with wild-eyed anime characters, and the Shanghai page highlights the insane Shanghai skyline. There's a fun scavenger hunt aspect to the book; on each page you need to find the traveling dog and figure out which city he's in. (Cities from every continent feature in the book, not just Asia.)

City kids--all kids--in the West deserve to know more about their counterparts worldwide. To cover one of my favorite continents, I'd like to see more good urban picture books set in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia.

Thanks, Matthew. Hungry Monkey includes kid- and adult-friendly recipes for pad thai, larb gai, and bibimbop, as well as an appendix with kids' books about food.