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.

Friday, December 25, 2009

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.


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.