Sunday, May 20, 2007

bisy backson

My day job and domestic tasks have sucked up almost all my time the last several days, leaving scant minutes for posting or commenting. I'm hoping the crunch will ease a bit by midweek; in the meantime, there's a wealth of good posts over at the 14th Carnival of Children's Literature, hosted this month by the indomitable Chicken Spaghetti. Click! Read! Enjoy!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Poetry Friday: Cross That Line

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about seeing Naomi Shihab Nye at the Serendipity Conference in Vancouver. I'm still thinking about that talk. This poem probably comes as close as anything to catching the heart of what she spoke about:


Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border of the USA
and sang into Canada...

Read the whole poem here.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is up at Big A little a.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fox Cub Kidnapped by Evil Baby Orphanage?

bookbk: Hey, Fox's mom is pregnant in this book! Look at this! First I thought she was just drawn with a big dress on, but no, she's really totally pregnant.

Spouse: Yep, I noticed that.

bookbk: But she's not pregnant in the later books. See? Look, here in Fox All Week. She's standing up, and you can see: not pregnant. And there's no baby in any of them. It's weird.

Spouse: Well, maybe that was Louise she was pregnant with.

bookbk: No, cause, see, look, Louise is here in this first book too! Fox's mom is bugging him to watch her. That's what the whole book is about: "Fox, look after little Louise," blah blah blah.

Spouse: Huh.

bookbk: I hope it wasn't stillborn. That would be so sad.

Spouse: I think you're reading too much into this.

bookbk: Maybe that's why Fox acts up so much. Maybe he's really upset about the stillbirth of his baby sibling, and no one else ever talks about it, so he's, like, carrying the whole emotional load for his family. That's how come he's always getting in trouble.

Spouse: You are looney tunes.

bookbk: Wow. These books seem so funny on the surface. But there's this whole tragic undercurrent when you get down to it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Tag, I'm it!

Web at blog from the windowsill has tagged me with the "What are you Reading?" meme, which is my kind of meme: a really easy one.

So, what am I reading? Well, I'm in the middle of Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson, and liking it just fine. It's exactly what I'm in the mood for: a straightforward, thumpy historical novel with a nice appealing narrator, some letters mixed in, and just enough political social consciousness (as the anti-German sentiment of 1917 brings up some parallels with the current political situation) to help me feel plugged into the present day.

I'm also in the middle of Pretties, having double-barrelled through Uglies as fast as I could, on paper at home and via audiobook on my commute. I got stalled on Pretties about two-thirds of the way through--the dystopia just got to me all of a sudden--and picked up Hattie instead. I figured I'll save Pretties for the car this week.

On my night-table: Castle Waiting, Forever in Blue, Kiki Strike, A Swift Pure Cry (someone recommended it-- can't remember who), Total Constant Order (an ARC) and the last few issues of the New Yorker.

On my reserve list at the public library: The Talented Clementine (my whole family can't wait to read it), Specials (in print and audiobook format), and a whole slew of audiobook versions of the 2008 Young Reader's Choice Award nominees.

Books read recently that I plan to write about but haven't yet: Tripping to Somewhere, The Bermudez Triangle, and more books than I want to admit that I need to review for the Puget Sound Council.

I'm tagging: Charlotte, Dawn, and anyone else who hasn't done this meme yet.

Guilty conclusion drawn from this meme: I really, really need to update my "recently read" list over there on the sidebar. Oops.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Single Moms on the Page

Several years ago a single-parent friend of mine with a preschool daughter asked for a suggestions of picture books featuring single mothers, or characters who could be single mothers. Thanks in part to the dearth of dads in picture books (about which more next month), it was easier than you'd think to pull together a list.

That preschool daughter is now in middle school, but some of my favorites from back then are on today's list, along with a few newer gems:

Mama, I'll Give you the World, by Roni Schotter.
This is one of those books that makes adults go "Awwww..." and that kids love too. The story is pretty simple: for her mother's birthday, Luisa plans a surprise dance party, along with Mama's co-workers and customers at Walter's World of Beauty. But the depth of love subtly depicted between mother and daughter, and S. Saelig Gallagher's poignant, playful, gold-tinged illustrations (I was surprised they didn't at least get a Caldecott honor last year) make this one a classic.

A Chair for My Mother, by Vera B. Williams.
Rosa and her mother and grandmother have lost their home in a fire; they have a new place to live now, but nowhere comfortable to sit. They save their change until the big jar is full, and then buy.... a chair. A wonderful, beautiful, comfortable chair. Like Mama, I'll give You the World, this is a warm tale of family and community. If you haven't ever seen this book, give yourself a treat and buy or reserve it.

Jonathan and his Mommy, by Irene Smalls.
Jonathan and his mommy take a walk through the neighborhood, matching their steps to how they feel: zig-zag steps, big steps with big voices, and then finally Jonathan-and-Mommy steps home. Sometimes it's hard to find picture books for younger preschoolers depicting African-American kids; this simple, friendly story would be a nice read-aloud to a crowd or a good book for sharing with one child before (or after) your own neighborhood walk.

First Tomato, by Rosemary Wells.
I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for the Bunny Planet books, and this one is my favorite of the three. Claire's idealized "day that should have been" takes place in a garden, where her mother asks her to pick the first ripe tomato and bring it inside. Claire is tempted to eat the tomato and "never, ever tell," but her honesty is rewarded. Her mother's words, "I've made you First Tomato Soup, because I love you so," are often echoed in our house at mealtimes.

Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey.
Another food-gathering book featuring a mom-and-daughter duo. Little Sal goes to Blueberry Hill with her mother, to gather berries to save for winter. Only Little Sal--who really is quite little, maybe two at the oldest--is more interested in eating the berries than in putting them in her little tin bucket. When she wanders off and runs into Little Bear and his mother, also out eating berries...well, things turn out all right, this being a children's book, but adults who know the ways of bears may find it harrowing. Still, kids love the simple dark-blue ink illustrations, the gentle humor of the mix-up, and the repetition of that lovely "ker-plink, ker-plank, ker plunk!" as the berries fall into Sal's bucket.

Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman.
Grace's mother and Nana help her find the strength to stay true to her dreams when her classmates insist that she can't play Peter Pan in the class production because she's Black. My favorite aspect of this book is Grace's powerful love of story and of acting, and her absolute confidence in her own abilities. Would that we all had such faith in ourselves!

Fox All Week, by Edward Marshall. This dryly funny easy-reader series is easily my first-grade daughter's favorite. In this title, featuring one short mishap-laced story for each day of the week, Fox volunteers to take over for his beleaguered mom and cook Friday dinner for the family. Mom and little sister Louise are a bit concerned about all the crashing and banging coming from the kitchen, but when the three sit down to dinner...let's just say that there were no major disasters.

A Mother for Choco, by Keiko Kazsa.
In this nice companion to (and subtle commentary on) Are You My Mother? Choco, a puffy-cheeked yellow birdling, goes searching for a mother, only to be rejected by one creature after another because he doesn't look like them. When Mrs. Bear takes him in , she makes it clear that it's love, not appearances, that count.

Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake (formerly known as Don't Wake Up Mama!) by Eileen Christelow
Oooh, those nutty monkeys! Christelow has written a whole bunch of books about their antics, but this is the one my family enjoys most. It's Mama's birthday, and her five little monkeys are determined to surprise her with a wonderful cake. Only they're not so good at cooking, it turns out...oh, well, never mind; Mama would certainly rather be greeted by a safe family and a platoon of firefighters than have her birthday forgotten.

And a Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers reading: single, partnered, adoptive, and everyone else. May it be replete with the dessert of your choice and some time to sit and read a good book.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Hooray for Hollywood

I have one or two more left in the Serendipity Conference series, but for now a quickie post, as it's the time of year at work when all the end-of-year events and jobs seem to come cascading down like (to mix a metaphor/simile) some kind of crazy roller-coaster heading into summer.

It's a good time of year to do some low-key, easy lesson plans. One of my favorites for 4th and 5th grade is "Books into Movies."

First, I pull a whole bunch of books that have been made into movies and put them out on the tables (Wikipedia has a pretty good list). When the class comes in, they have to look at the books on the tables and guess what they have in common. Some years they guess and guess and never come up with the answer ("Animals!" "No, they're all fantasy!" "No, they're all classics!"), but this year someone guessed it almost right away in both 4th grade classes.

Then we talk for a while about the differences between books and movies: Have they ever had the experience of reading a book and then seeing the movie, and wondering how the two can even have the same title? What are some reasons that a movie might have to be different from a book? Why might the people making the movie decide to change things around?

This year I talked about my experience seeing the movie "Harriet the Spy" after loving the book as a kid, especially my disappointment that Harriet was so skinny and cute (I showed them the illustrations from the book as a comparison) and that the movie wasn't set in New York. I also gave them some of the scoop about the upcoming Inkheart movie.

They did some silent reading, choosing a book from one of the tables (I encouraged, but didn't require, that they pick a book they'd never read but whose movie adaptation they'd seen), and then after checkout we read Shrek, which is a great example of a book that's completely different from the movie. I thought they might think it was too young for them, but both classes were highly amused by Shrek's evil temper and by the poetry.

When asked about books and movies in class, kids will dutifully reply "The book is always better": they've learned that books are supposed to be Good for Them and movies are faintly unwholesome fun. Sometimes teachers even act like the existence of a movie taints the book, and won't let kids read books for reports if they've already seen the movie.

Kids believe this, too; I don't know how many times I've suggested a book to a kid, only to have them shrug it away with "Oh, I already saw the movie of that." This class shakes that up a little and asks them to think about the two mediums in a different way. Plus, it's just a blast to teach.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Serendipity, Part 2: Naomi Shihab Nye

I've read some of Naomi Shihab Nye's poems and essays, her picture book Sitti's Secrets and her novel Habibi. My library owns some of the anthologies she's edited. I've always thought she was a good poet, a good writer, who seemed like a kind and open and smart person. She's Palestinian-American, and writes about that, which might make her books controversial at the Jewish day school where I work, but I've never had any complaints. Maybe because her work is so manifestly about the need to reach out, to cross borders, to connect. (Or maybe it's just that no one's really noticed them.)

Well. She is a fine poet. And a good writer. And a good anthologist. But she is a great speaker. And I mean "great" as in Great Books or Great Horned Owl. After a full day of presentations at the Serendipity conference, and a full dinner, and three introductory after-dinner speakers who got us all warmed up and excited about poetry, this small woman in a green jacket and a bushy sideways ponytail stood up and talked. She was quiet and kind and eloquent and radiant with love of words. And we sat entranced.

I was too entranced to even take many notes, so this will be from memory, and not necessarily in the order I heard it:

She unfolded an article she'd clipped from the newspaper, with the headline: "To be Young, Rich, and In Vancouver." Reading and writing for children keeps us young, she said; and we all know that books and words are the real riches; and here we are, in Vancouver! This sounds corny written down, but she pulled it off in a lovely understated, pleased way.

She read poems about her father's annoying and endearing singing, her childhood love of reading which was so great that she read the car manual from the dashboard, about Paul Robeson singing into Canada when he wasn't allowed to leave the United States, sending his voice across the border. She read about a girl pretending she wasn't herself, she just worked for herself: "she'll be so glad I got that homework done..."

She talked about herself, how nostalgic she was even as a child: she cried at her third birthday because she wasn't done with being two. About how she still feels time is going too fast: "Life is always rushing us along to the next moment." But words can be a way of slowing time down.

She read a poem by a 7-year-old boy from Winnipeg who sent her some of his work along with a letter about the doubts he sometimes has about his writing, and told about what happened when she wrote back to him, which was that some of his classmates also wrote to her with some of their poems, which were, they explained in a cover letter, much better. She told about their classroom, which, when she traveled from Texas to Winnipeg to visit it, was covered in poems everywhere: on the walls, on the ceiling, and about their teacher who had grown up in a small town and who had the world opened up to her through books, and was determined to open it up for her students through poetry.

She urged everyone to make poetry part of children's lives every day, despite the pressures of curriculum and standardized testing: read it aloud, just one poem a day. Make it part of your own life, she said. Sneak it into your day. Write three lines a day, in a notebook. Just that. Just that can make a difference in your life, day after day.

She talked about place, about connection to place even if it's not where you're from: "If you live in a place, you like its can belong to it."

She talked about her father, whose eightieth birthday was the next day. He is a Palestinian refugee, but as a kid she didn't know he was a refugee because he never spoke of himself that way; how he talked about the Palestine of his youth, which was a less contentious place than other accounts would have it; how he played with Arab Muslim kids and Arab Christian kids and Jewish kids and Greek kids and Armenian kids, all of them together on the same street, and how after dinner they would all come out of their houses and trade desserts.

She talked about her friend who works with kids in Palestinian refugee camps, how he makes "Passports" for the kids to write in, empty booklets for them to fill with the titles of books they read. Because even if you can't cross the checkpoint, you can go anywhere if you can read.

She talked about her hope in the face of war and fear and the loss of recess in the schools. And she read something she'd written recently, that she hadn't meant to be a poem, she said; just something she e-mailed to a few friends, but it seemed to have spread to more people and people were breaking the lines like a poem, so it was turning into one. Here it is: Gate 4-A.

(I've just read over this entry and I'm not sure it captures the quality Nye has as a speaker that led me to lean over to my neighbor at the banquet table about half an hour into her talk and murmur "I think I'm in love with her."

So I found a link to an audio interview she gave several years ago; the subject matter is totally different from what she talked about this weekend, and I'm not crazy about the interviewer, but I hope it gives some sense of how unassuming and yet powerful she can be.

If you want to take the trouble to register, you can also hear this talk she gave last year on the New Letters public radio show, which was similar but not identical to the presentation I heard this weekend. But really the thing to do is to go see her and hear her in person if you ever get the chance.)

Serendipity, Part 1: The Bell and Funke Show

It's a symptom of the deep and lamentable divide between the United States and Canada that I only found out about this incredible children's literature conference by merest chance, and that few or no other Seattle-area librarians appeared to be there even though Seattle and Vancouver are less than three hours apart by car. But I found out in time to go, anyway. And I took notes. (Well, some notes.) And so I bring you this report from the True North Strong and Free, specifically from the student union building at the University of British Columbia, where the semester is over and so there are almost no students trying to get onto the computers at 6:30 8:00 on a Saturday night.


Actually, it's hard to know where to start. If you click the link above and check out the Serendipity lineup, you'll see why. (Also, my notes are incomplete and in many cases illegible, scribbled as they are on the backs of various programs and flyers. I have a renewed respect for Fuse #8's rampagingly detailed dispatches from all those soirees and previews. I'm afraid there will be no footwear in this report, and precious few desserts.)

Maybe best to start at the end, with what was obviously for many people the climax of the two-day program: a double presentation by Cornelia Funke and her English translator, Anthea Bell.

Anthea Bell spoke first. She is little and understated and elderly and wry and very British. She is also very brilliant, as demonstrated by her three-page list of translating credits in a dizzying array of languages, ranging from Sigmund Freud to all the Asterix books. She spoke about why she got into literary translation (it seemed like a "difficult challenge" and, she noted with some relish, she likes difficult challenges), her opinion of academic degree programs in literary translation (which runs along the lines of "I'm sure it's very fun to do, but it's not a degree that will make much difference to publishers; they just want to know if you can get the job done") and her academic background (in English Literature, not comparative lit, because at that time at Oxford you could only read one or the other and she wanted to take the philology course they had in Eng Lit).

Ms. Bell elaborated with passion about the importance of literature in translation, particularly for children, who are rarely bilingual, and who deserve the chance to read books from other cultures--books that are great, and books that are just fun and enjoyable. She quoted Samuel Johnson who, when asked what books a boy should be given to read, said basically that you should let a young boy [sic.--Samuel Johnson's sic., not Anthea Bell's] read whatever he enjoys so that he learns to like reading; he can pick up the "better" stuff (which at that time would have meant Greek and Latin works in the original) later.

Just before ceding the podium and picking her careful way back to her seat, she spoke a little about the Inkheart books ("tantalizing you," she said sweetly), the third of which Cornelia Funke has just emailed to her this week; it's sitting in her in-box, waiting for her to get back to England and get started reading it [gasps and murmurs from the crowd at this point]. "I've been asked to do a new translation of Kafka's The Castle," she said later in the presentation, "and I told them it will have to wait. [laughter and applause.] It's only fair; Kafka's been translated before."

Then Cornelia Funke got up. And she...she...well, she's about the most stunningly matter-of-factly self-confident human being I think I have sever seen in person, and that includes politicians and rock stars. She spoke without audio-visual aids and without notes. "I don't know how this will go," she smiled; "maybe you'll be really bored." But she didn't seem too worried.

Nor should she have been. She launched into the story of her literary journey (a theme all the presenters had been asked to address): growing up in a small town, books were her addiction, a "legal drug" that she couldn't get enough of. Her parents wanted her to pursue her talent for art, but she saw it as irrelevant and elitist and wanted to change the world. She became a social worker. But "you cannot live against your will do what you were born to do, and your gifts will pull and push at you and pain you" until you use them. So she entered the illustrator's program at the university after all, graduated, and got a job illustrating books.

And soon found herself bored with the picture books she was given to illustrate: "Children in classrooms, children in their rooms...German children's literature at that time was very realistic." She wanted to draw fairies and ogres, so she whipped up a little picture book of her own, which was immediately published. Nope; never had a rejection slip [mutters and groans from the audience].

And the rest is more or less history. She wrote and wrote and wrote (which she professes to find painless and joyful--provoking more envious groans from the crowd). She wrote Inkheart as a love letter to books and to her fellow reading addicts, and has been surprised to find it read and loved by many kids who formerly never read books. She lives in Los Angeles now, loves it, and is currently working on a screenplay she was asked to do by one of the producers (I think) of the Harry Potter movies--not a book of her own, but a project based on (an unnamed, super-secret) someone else's book that "very much relates to the fairy tales of the Germans". It's her first time working directly in English, and she's enjoying it, but she thinks she's only a reasonably good writer in English; not as good as she is in German.

When she sold the film rights to Inkheart she asked to be made a producer, and so she's had a say on the director and the cast (Helen Mirren is going to play Elinor), gets to see the rushes, and all that fun stuff. She feels it has "the darkness I wanted" for a film version of the book, and seems genuinely pleased with it, and with everything else in her life.

Finally, the author and translator sat down together, conversed briefly on mike, and then took questions. This was when I got to appreciate the full resplendence of Cornelia Funke's dark brown velvet skirt, and also the genuinely warm working relationship between the two writers, strikingly different as they are (short, tall; English, German; diffident, flamboyant). They obviously admire each other's talents, and feel that each is a better writer because of the other. Cornelia Funke even completely rewrote one of her early novels to make it more worthy for Anthea Bell to translate into English. "I felt so blessed that she put this beautiful glove about the hand of my language," she said.

Next up (but probably at much less length): Naomi Shihab Nye makes us all choke up, and Janet Stevens's technical difficulties.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Poetry Friday: The Librarian Proctors a Math Test

Lines composed on a spare piece of scrap paper while proctoring the Iowa Test of Basic Skills this week. It seemed like it wanted to be a poem, though I'm kind of out of practice at this sort of thing.

Disaffected rebel in the back,
Finished early, reads The White Mountains.
The kid who bounced
Out of his seat back in kindergarten
Cracks open The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Lunch Money sprawls open, cover-up, laid on
The desk as if this timed test is a momentary interruption
From the real business of finishing the chapter.

Ugg-booted fashionista
(First glimpsed years ago
as a tagalong preschool sister
dragging her contraband puppy into the book fair on a straining leash)
Slouches in her seat, munching an apple,
Immersed in Overboard.

It's her assignment for Humanities:
a survival book.
They've done this project year after year
Reading survival, living it, surviving
These annual fill-in-the-bubble tests,
The crush from class to class
The bumpy road from littleness into
The first glimmers of their grownup selves,
those selves now bent over desks
scribbling equations on scrap paper.

Four minutes left. I write it on the board.
But they're almost all done now,
bubble-filled papers folded properly into each booklet.

Some sleep, some stare at nothing,
But most are turning pages:
Uglies. Heroes Don't Run. Make Lemonade.
The Adventures of Ulysses.
Double Identity.

Their double identities waver before me
Who knew them when, who could make
Them sit still for a story
With one practiced look.

They sit still on their own now.
All I have to do
(at least this one quiet morning)
Is hand out pencils,
Watch the clock,
Go next door and ask for quiet,
Clear time and space for them
While they hitchhike
Through this place
To find their own white mountains.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Male and Female Created (S)he Them

Ten or fifteen years ago, when I worked at a progressive preschool, we used to cross out the sexist language in the older picture books (our own, naturally; not the library's) and rewrite it so that the kids we worked with would grow up knowing that girls can be police officers and firefighters and mail carriers, and fathers can take care of babies, and also that, incidentally, animals come in both the male and female variety.

That last point is surprisingly slow to catch on, even yea unto this day. In the last couple of weeks I've found myself reading two different otherwise-lovely picture books--both published within the past three years--that feature a variety of different animals, all of which (whom?) are inexplicably referred to as "he." After some pages of this my feminist training kicked in, and I started changing some of the "he"'s to "she," stopping momentarily to explain that this wasn't exactly how the author had written it, but I was reading it a little differently because some animals are girls, aren't they?

It might seem like a minor thing, but as a very girly girl growing up, I never felt for animal books, mainly because they all seemed somehow too boy-y. If a fictional animal was clearly a girl I was much more interested, but that was pretty unusual--in fact, except for the dragon in My Father's Dragon, and that whiny Little Red Hen--oh, and Kanga--I can't remember a single one.

How refreshing, then, to open up Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile, (reviewed more fully here by a wrung sponge) a charming trickster tale from Liberia in which both the trickster and the tricked are most definitely women. Of course, they'd have to be, as the plot revolves around the hatching of their eggs.

Even so, the kindergarteners and even the first graders were confused; they kept pointing to the Hungry Crocodile and saying things like "He wants to eat that chicken up!"

Well. Apparently the revolution has not yet arrived. Onward, ye writers of animal picture books!

p.s. Come to think of it, that most popular of contemporary animal characters, the Pigeon, is never referred to (at least not in the books themselves) as either "he" or "she." Though it seems to be generally assumed that the Pigeon is male. I tried thinking of the Pigeon as a girl pigeon, and felt my brain's eyes cross with the effort.