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wild thingsReading Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature was the perfect way to cap off 2014. Written by children’s book bloggers Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta (who passed away shortly before the book was published), it offers an insider’s look at the kidlit world in all its absurdity: scandals! book-banning! in-fighting! In short, it’s about how the adults behind the children’s book industry behave like adults, instead of the angelic, bunny-loving writers that many grown-ups imagine them to be.

“With this book we hope to dispel the romanticized image of children’s literature, held by much of the public, of children’s authors writing dainty, instructive stories with a quill pen in hand and woodland creatures curled up at their feet,” says the Wild Things! authors in chapter one.

Having set the ground rules, Bird et al plunge into the juicy anecdotes: the author who killed her mother with cutlery; the bawdy, sexist book written by the Berenstain Bear series authors; Roald Dahl’s years as a British spy–which involved seducing a congresswoman to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Not all the stories are meant to shock. Some, like the backstory of how Jerry Spinelli got his start in writing, are awkwardly hilarious. Others show missed opportunities–like how an editor’s mistake deprived the world of a Maurice Sendak-illustrated version of J.R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In its best moments, reading Wild Things! is like listening to a master storyteller spin tales about storytelling giants. Continue Reading »

Happy Christmas from us to you!

tardis cookies

The cookies came out a bit wonkey. It’s been a rough season on Doctor Who.

Hope you’re having a lovely holiday season! We made cookies in anticipation for Christmas, but not long after they came out of the oven, the Daleks attacked and left no survivors! The poor Tardises didn’t stand a chance.

tardis cookie cutter

Tardis cookie cutter 1.0

We’ll have to make more cookies, preferably after our 3D printed cookie mold is upgraded to increase the definition between ridges and grooves. In the meantime, you can watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special (but no spoilers, please!) and check out BBC radio 4’s radio drama of A Christmas Carol while it lasts. Cheers!

NBC’s Peter Pan Live was certainly filmed live, but whether there was any spark of life to it is debatable. Critics were hoping the production would be one big hate-watch snarkfest in the tradition of last year’s The Sound of Music Live!, and but while NBC’s Peter had its issues, the show wasn’t substantial enough to evoke such strong opinions as much as a general sense of confusion. To borrow a line from the Baker’s Wife from Into the Woods–whose film trailer during the commercial break might have been the high point of the evening for me–what. was. that?

All the actors were perfectly acceptable in their roles, nothing Broadway level (expect, perhaps, Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling; sorry Christian Borle, even though you were amazing as Black ‘Stache in parallel Peter Pan universe), but also nothing to mean-tweet about. Even Christopher Walken, who Christopher Walken-ed his way through every song, dance, and line reading of the three hour broadcast. But when the standouts are Mrs. Darling, Nana the dog, and a creepily psychedelic turquoise man in a crocodile suit, what more is there to say?

Well, we could talk about the generally confusing production, both the source material (which I’d just read recently) and the director’s vision for it. The enduring popularity of J.M. Barrie’s original still baffles me, and I’m not sure why it enchanted audiences in the 1950s as a musical. Was it the flying? Or the fact that it lined up nicely with the gender norms of the time?

For modern day viewers, though, it was just plain weird watching one woman defy gender norms by cross dressing while subjecting another woman to pocket-making and other archaic gender rules. Weirder still to a modern audience is that Wendy–who was written a hundred years ago, mind you–seemed to genuinely enjoy her dual role of mothering and cat-fighting with Tiger Lily. (Was the Victorian era that boring?) Continue Reading »

CallitCourageI’ve given up hope of making good on my goal/bet to read ten consecutive Newbery winning books this year. Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, brings my grand total to exactly three. The 1941 winner is a familiar title from my childhood, back when I was very much into survival books of the My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and Island of the Blue Dolphins variety. It’s funny how my thoughts on the book have changed since my ten year old self last read it.

Written in the style of a legend, Call It Courage is a coming-of-age story about a Polynesian boy named Mafatu who is afraid of the ocean. Because he and everyone in the village is dependent on the sea, Mafatu gets a lot of grief for his fear. (Although to his defense, as a toddler he almost drown during a massive storm, while his mother, who saved his life, died.) Nevertheless, Mafatu is a source of embarrassment to his father, the chief, and a disgrace to his namesake, Stout Heart. So one day, fed up by the taunts of the other boys his age, Mafatu decides to conquer his fear of the ocean by sailing into the ocean. His plan: to set off for a distant island and live there among strangers until he has proven his bravery, and then return home in glory. Instead, he gets shipwrecked on a cannibalistic island (the cannibals visit periodically) with no food, shelter, weapons, or means of escape. Continue Reading »

Once in awhile it’s nice to get a refresher course on why [insert genre here] is so great. Such was the case when I sped through three graphic novels in a row: El Deafo by Cece Bell, and Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters. Aside from the great storytelling and fun artwork, each memoir took advantage of the graphic novel format, doing things that are difficult–if not impossible–to do in text-only novels:

el deafo

1. The bunnies. El Deafo is Bell’s memoir of growing up as the only deaf kid in her school/community. Her hearing aids made her conspicuous at a time when all she wanted was to be a normal kid with a true best friend. So, what better way to emphasize the importance of hearing than to depict every character as a rabbit? Those long ears sticking out of everyone’s head made it impossible to forget Bell’s fixation on sound. And it made the humor in the book that much goofier. Continue Reading »

peter panI know, sacrilege! Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie, is so special, it’s practically untouchable, but I’m going to say it anyway: I don’t see why this book is so beloved. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as a kid, and the only reason I pushed through as an adult was out of obligation.

But what kind of children’s book blogger would I if I were not familiar with the Great Pan himself? (The kind of blogger who had not read Alice until recently….cough, cough.) I’m pretty sure Pan references pop up more often than, say, Little House or Oz ones. Code Name Verity? Check. Peter and the Starcatchers? Check. Finding Neverland, the film and musical? Check.

While I highly recommend two of the three works listed above which reference Peter Pan over the original, here are the highlights from my reading of Peter Pan:

  • Famous opening remarks: “All children, except one, grow up.”
  • Mrs. Darling “tidies” up her children’s thoughts after they go to bed, like socks in a sock drawer, so the mean thoughts are folded away at the bottom, and the nice ones are on top. An intriguing idea.
  • Tinkerbell is “slightly inclined to embonpoint.” Also, being a fairy, she is so small she has room for one feeling only at a time. (This description is made of awesome.)
  • The number of Lost Boys on the island varies, “according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.” If that doesn’t scream sinister, I don’t know what does.
  • Barrie establishes that children are rotten brats towards their parents on multiple occasions: “Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced and not smacked. So great was their faith in a mother’s love that they felt they could afford to be callous for a bit longer.”
  • awkward narrator narrates sexist playtime: in Neverland, the boys play pirates and Indians. Wendy plays house with the boys. “Wendy would have a baby, and he was the littlest, and you know what woman are, and the short and the long of it is he was hung up in a basket.”
  • awkward narrator narrates racist interactions: After Peter saves Tiger Lily, the “redskins” take to calling Peter “the Great White Father, prostrating themselves before him; and he liked this tremendously, so that it was not really good for him.”
  • If Wendy allows her daughter to fly off with Peter so he can fulfill his selfish need for a “mother,” does that make her an enabler?

 

 

 

storyofowenI’m not a big fan of dragon books, so I was skeptical when I heard the praise for E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, which got a lot of media buzz last month when it was nominated for the Kirkus Prize (it ultimately lost to Aviary Wonders Inc. by Kate Samworth).

Even the premise sounds nonsensical: the story is set in contemporary Canada, but in an alternate version of history where dragons are real. Dragons, it turns out, are addicted to fossil fuels, so they will attack anything that spews carbon: factories, power plants, oil rigs. After the industrial revolution, dragon populations skyrocketed, and cities employed teams of official dragon slayers to combat the problem, leaving rural, less wealthy areas virtually unprotected.

As bizarre as it sounds, the premise works because the dragons don’t feel forced. Johnson manages to make the dragons a believable force in geopolitics. We get glimpses of their role in World War II, the building of the Suez Canal, the First Gulf War, and the power of corporations to influence public policy. You could interpret them as a metaphor, and they do shine a light on all kinds of real-world problems, from environmental decay to celebrity culture and socioeconomic inequality. But leave that to the Common Core curriculum. I had much more fun admiring how Johnston inserted dragons into everyday activities. Think Driver’s Ed is boring? You might miss the boredom if you had to deal with a lesson on what to do if a dragon goes after your car while you’re driving down a lonely road. Continue Reading »

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