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Posts Tagged ‘inklings’

peter panI was shocked recently when a friend asked me to clarify a plot point in Peter Pan, and I realized I’d never read J. M. Barrie’s book. It got me thinking about all the other classic children’s books I’d never read, or read so long ago I barely remember anything about them. And while I may have gotten over my guilt of not reading certain adult books, I don’t mind catching up on classic kids’ books. Here’s a partial list of what I plan to tackle:

Peter Pan--never read

The Jungle Book--never read

Anne of Green Gables–never read

Charlotte’s Web–last read in elementary school. I only remember the basic plot and some of the characters’ names.

The Secret Garden–all I remember is the existence of a garden behind a locked gate, and a grumpy kid who may or may not be sick.

I should probably add Alice in Wonderland to this list, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. It was just so boring and confusing. Alice fans, feel free to convince me otherwise.

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Alternate title: I think I’ll try/defining/Gravity (performed by Adele Dazeem)

Jason Chin‘s latest picture book, Gravity, caught my eye because it got dinged by a review in The Horn Book Magazine (May/June 2014) for simplifying the science “to the point of inaccuracy.” But let’s be honest, without an advanced understanding of calculus and physics, we’re all getting the simplified version of gravity.

“Everything has gravity,” writes Chin to his pre-K audience, prompting Roger Sutton to complain:

Despite the text’s assertion, objects, whether the sun or a banana, do not ‘have gravity'; they have mass (which affects gravity). And to say ‘without gravity, everything would float away’ misses the rather more essential point that without gravity there would be no anything to float anywhere.

According to Newton, gravity is a fundamental force that depends both on the mass of objects and distance between them. The more mass objects have, the greater the gravity; the farther apart they are, the weaker their attraction. Chin makes this connection for young readers by saying “massive things have more gravity” and drawing bold pictures of outer space that depict size* and scale in a really fun way. Now if gravity is a property of matter, and all objects have mass (which Sutton correctly points out they do), then surely they have gravity.

Einstein updated Newton’s definition by scrapping the idea of gravity as a force. Instead, his theory explains gravity as the distortion of space-time geometry in response to matter and energy. (For example, the topology of space-time around the sun dictates the earth’s orbit around it.) With this in mind, if Sutton wanted to criticize Gravity for the inaccuracy of the everything would float away line, he should have nitpicked that floating away implies force.

Instead, Sutton’s second assertion–that without gravity, nothing would exist–is more of a chicken-and-egg quibble. Matter and gravity are intrinsically related, but good luck proving causality.

It’s gutsy of Chin to tackle a tricky subject for a young age in such a vivid, memorable way. When I asked physicists with PhDs how they’d explain gravity to five-year-olds, they wouldn’t stop laughing.

 

*We all know size matters not, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s pretend mass and size have a positive relationship

 

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chaldeaI’m no expert on Diana Wynne Jones, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize she was a cat person. Felines–especially the magical, clever sort–regularly get starring roles in her books, whether it’s Plug-Ugly in The Islands of Chaldea or Midnight and Whippersnapper in Castle in the Air. No matter how powerful the cats are, they inevitably behave like cats, by turns hungry, opinionated and irritatingly indecisive.

Patricia MacLachlan, on the other hand, is definitely a dog person. Her canines tend to be loyal and slightly magical. They comfort the dying in Kindred Souls, help rescue people in The Truth of Me, and even counsel parents in Waiting for the Magic (to be fair, there’s a cat in this book too, but the canine:feline ratio stands at 4:1).

Other authors have non-animal hobbies and/or obsessions that reliably appear in their stories. I suspect Gary D. Schmidt is quite the baseball fan, as evidenced by The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now. Madeleine L’Engle probably loved classical music, since there’s a lot of singers (mostly of church music) and pianists in her books. In The Young Unicorns, music literally saves lives.

Elizabeth Wein, obviously, is a pilot, and flying is crucial in both Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity, not to mention her short stories. And it seems her next book is about pilots-in-training (Ethiopia and airplanes–what a way to combine her two series)!

Redwall_CookbookNo Brian Jacques book is complete without mouth-watering feasts. I’ve heard he took great care with his descriptions because he started out writing for kids at a school for the blind. Whatever his reasons were, he’s inspired countless readers to attempt cooking his woodland fare…with mixed results.

Like Jacques, Laura Ingalls Wilder liked writing about food, but it usually comes across as gratuitous or slightly desperate (do we really need a description of every meal eaten by Almanzo in Farmer Boy?) Of course, it all makes sense when you consider the author’s childhood of near-starvation (remember her gaping incredulity when she got peppermint candy and a heart-shaped cake for Christmas in Little House on the Prairie? Meanwhile, Almanzo’s mother kept her house regularly stocked with home-made doughnuts). No wonder Laura found such joy describing her husband’s privileged upbringing.

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You know how it is: first you notice one thing, then another example of the same thing, and pretty soon you’re convinced this trend is taking over the world.

Lately, it seems, I can’t seem to escape middle grade books starring orphans–not just any orphans, but orphans in 19th century London, sneaking through grimy, secretive places and doing things adults can’t (or wouldn’t) do. Here are just a few examples:

index1. The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud. In a world where England is attacked by vengeful zombie-ghosts that can only be seen by children, orphans are routinely hired by terrified adults to get rid of the threat–often with deadly results (for the orphans). It’s a brilliant story, but not recommended for the claustrophobic (too many trapped-in-a-cobwebbed-room-with-monster scenes).

2. How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks–19th century London with supernatural predators. This time, it’s an adult using kids as bogle-bait, with yet more sewers, chimneys and cramped quarters.

3. Black Ice by Andrew Lane–in one disgusting scene, young Sherlock Holmes is saved by London street kids who know how to navigate the sewers (again with the filth and tight spaces!)

howtocatchabogle4. Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell–this one takes place in Paris instead of London, but the main character is British (and a presumed orphan), and she ends up joining a group of French orphans who live on rooftops and trees, never stepping foot into the street. Less claustrophobia, more acrophobia.

5. The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson–I haven’t read this yet, but it’s about “mudlarks”–Victorian London orphans scrounging for stuff to sell from the River Thames. This is playing out during the cholera epidemic, so expect plenty of unhygienic conditions.

What did I miss? I’m sure there are plenty of other recent books with plucky orphans not afraid of a little dirt.

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Once in awhile I succumb to the guilt of trying to be more knowledgeable about Literature. And thus, a few weeks ago I slogged through 300 pages of prose from a Very Important Author, re-affirming, in the process, why I read children’s books:

PLOT: if there was a plot to this Famous Book Which Shall Remain Nameless, it was too subtle for me to catch. I like stories where something happens. But there was no sense of progression in this book, just random slices-of-life that never quite strung together.

CHARACTER: everyone, it seemed, was either a quivering mess of low self-esteem or just plain cruel. I don’t need all the characters to be likeable, yet the constant unvarying doom was uninspiring. If there’s no discernible plot, at least give me someone to root for.

WRITING: the prose was fairly straightforward and not at all interested in showing off. I only wish it had been used to tell a better story.

From now on, I think I’ll stick with the adult books that work for me, like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or nonfiction. (Why is it that nonfiction reads so much better? Is it because the authors feel they have to work harder to make the story shine?) And the next time I get a guilty twinge, this post should cure any inclination to act on that impulse.

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The Matter of Who’s Who?

Presentation1Lisa and I were chatting the other day about book recs, and she mentioned a non-fiction YA that she really enjoyed, Pure Grit: How WWII Nurses in the Pacific Survived Combat and Prison Camp,by Mary Cronk Farrell. The title alone has me hooked already. I’m a sucker for anything that combines medicine (this story screams sepsis, dengue fever, and malaria), guts (literal and figurative), women’s war efforts, and the Pacific theater (which is almost always overshadowed by the European front) into a narrative that sheds light on unknown or forgotten moments in history.

 

Lisa’s only complaint–because there were so many accounts to piece together, she had trouble keeping track of all the people mentioned in the book. You could call it the Game of Thrones syndrome, where you’re not sure if you should invest in remembering characters because its uncertain whether they will reoccur. Only one doesn’t feel guilty about it in Thrones because they’re fictional…

 

I asked Lisa to think of a case of non-fiction where recalling who’s who was not an issue, and she offered Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb as a notable example. To be fair, Lisa has taken at least twice as many chemistry and physics classes as the average Bomb reader. Niels Bohr, Heisenberg (of Uncertainty Principle fame), Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer aren’t just part of her vocabulary, they were the scientific superstars of countless textbooks.

 

Which is all a very long-winded way to wonder…do you have trouble keeping track of the many main players in non-fiction accounts?

What are some steps you take as a reader to keep all the persons being referenced straight?

What are some things authors can do to help you out? Which non-fiction books in particular worked for you?

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…because based on the trailer, I’m terrified. Let us count the reasons:

1. The set design: all that glass and steel makes the movie look like a slick YA blockbuster, a derivative mix of The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and the Divergent trailer. I’d always pictured the community as white picket fence suburbia, and I know I’m not the only one who expected part of the movie to be filmed in black and white–but everything in the trailer was in full color. They seem to be trying to drum up excitement with hovercrafts! explosions! stormtrooper police and an evil be-wigged Meryl Streep! so there goes any hope of subtlety.

2. There’s a redheaded teenage girl who I presume is Fiona. We see Jonas urging her to stop taking the medicine, to wake up and understand what the Community is missing. Presumably she listens, and at some point we see her kissing Jonas, which is ridiculous. I have no problem with an older Jonas, or even increasing Fiona’s role. But this is not the book to insert Extra Teenage Romance Angst. Save it for something where it would make sense (like Team Human, which is crying out for a campy, melodramatic adaptation). [Note: if I'm wrong, and it's actually Rosemary, that's even more messed up. Star-crossed lovers across time, yeesh]

3. The Giver hinges on the Community’s blissful ignorance: there’s no omniscient dictator suppressing his people, no nefarious plot to keep them docile. So why add Meryl Streep spouting clichéd lines about choice and freedom? You may as well replace her with President Snow or icy Kate Winslet from the Divergent trailer. The Community’s dystopia is chilling because it runs on autopilot, because the decision for Sameness was made long ago and no one is capable of understanding what Jonas and the Giver know. In the book, Jonas’ loneliness drives the plot. Make Fiona his sidekick and that tension disappears.

4. The worst possibility: we see Fiona injecting something into her wrist. I hope it’s just the daily injection. But if not, and she’s actually Released, then I have an awful feeling that watching her Release is what pushes Jonas to leave the Community. Compare that to what happens in the book, where he falls apart over the death of a baby he doesn’t even know, killed by his uncomprehending father. That compassion is kind of the point, not romantic angst…

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe the trailer is misleading us to increase controversy and publicity. But if I’m right, then the filmmakers have alienated a lot of people: those of us who grew up reading and loving The Giver, and others who’ve never read it, and now assume it’s a copycat Hunger Games thriller. Either way, that can’t be good for box office numbers. And worst of all, Lois Lowry will have to say she likes the movie, whether she does or not.

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3_9_BKTS_1RND_alljudgesThe Newbery Curse strikes again! Every year during SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, we joke about how Newbery books always fare badly. And indeed, both Newbery-stickered books in this year’s tournament (The Doll Bones and Flora & Ulysses) were defeated in Round 1. I don’t think either has a chance of coming back from the dead (my bet is on Eleanor & Park or Rose Under Fire), so it looks like they’re out of the running for good.

What about previous years? I took a deep dive to study the Curse’s power:

In 2009, the event’s first year, The Graveyard Book (Newbery winner) and The Underneath (honor) lost in Round 1.

In 2010, the Newbery winner (When You Reach Me) and honor book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice went down in Round 1. But The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate made it to Round 2 before being defeated by Charles and Emma. We have our first (semi) winner!

In 2011, the only Newbery book–One Crazy Summer–lost in Round 1 to The Odyssey.

In 2012, Dead End in Norvelt lost in Round 1, but Newbery honor book Inside Out and Back Again won once before being vanquished by Drawing From Memory in Round 2.

2013 is special, because all four Newbery-winning and honor books made it into the tournament (what eerie predictive powers you have, Battle Commanders). Three Times Lucky and The One and Only Ivan lost in Round 1. Surprisingly, Bomb and Splendors and Glooms made it to Round 3 before losing out–to The Fault in Our Stars and No Crystal Stair, respectively.

The verdict? No Newbery winner has ever made it past Round 1, or been selected as an Undead Winner. In that sense, the Newbery Curse is omnipotent (0/5). Once you consider the nine honor books, two made it to Round 2, and another two to Round 3. Not a great record, but far from a complete loss. Clearly the Curse has its weak spots. I wonder how the books would fare if BoB occurred before the ALA Youth Media Awards? Does the Newbery sticker create a subtle bias on the part of the judges, who want to highlight books that didn’t get Official Award recognition? I suspect there’s more at work, since the hallmark of BoB is to pit books in different categories against each other. It all comes down to the judges’ personal preferences, and that’s why we spend so much time scrutinizing their publishing history to search for clues. What do you think?

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I’m a quarter of the way through Eleanor & Park, and enjoying it a lot more than Jen did. I had the advantage of reading without high expectations, whereas Jen read it over the summer, right after it won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and much praise from reviewers. That’s the danger with hype: even great books can easily fall short. Luckily, by the time I got to the book a week ago, my main concern was finishing it before SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books begins next week, and the only review I remembered was Jen’s.

Of course, hype can also work the other way: there was a lot of grumbling about What Came From the Stars before Jen and I read it. I like to think we would have loved it regardless of what the reviews said, but our low–or at least neutral–expectations didn’t hurt. We continue to be bewildered by those who fail to appreciate its genius.

Perhaps I should start avoiding certain reviews. I get most of my book recommendations through blogs, twitter, and The Horn Book. When all three sources start rhapsodizing about the same book, I get nervous about the book’s ability to deliver (notable exceptions: The Doll Bones, Bo at Ballard Creek, Team Humanwhich were simply too good). I could impose a quota: if there’s a book I’m going to read anyway, I pledge to read no more than X glowing reviews before I judge for myself? This seems like a superficial solution. Sometimes it takes a good five or six reviews to push me to read somethingie Between Shades of Gray, because I wasn’t ready to be depressed. I would hate to miss another book like that by avoiding what others have to say.

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floraLisa: Hello! So, Newbery reactions!
It was a good year for squirrels
Jen: and a good year for Floras!
Lisa: yes. I haven’t read Flora and the Flamingo but I could see Ulysses’ Flora attempting to dance with a flamingo
Jen: really? I think she’d be too cynical
Lisa: well, if her mother stuffed her into a tutu…
and there was a pink bird nearby…
Jen:
….
….
soooooo, anything surprise you about this year’s ALA youth media awards?

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