Fantasies and other random amusements

Next fall, I'll be teaching a course on Fantasy Books and Media for Youth. This means that I am trying out lots of recent fantasies to see what I want to teach. Of course, I'm also thinking about the children's lit and young adult lit classes at GSLIS and doing my best to avoid overlap in specific books if not specific authors. I'm already amassing a long list of 25+ books I want to teach, and sometime soon I'll have to fine-tune it as I turn in my texts for fall.

The Imp That Ate My Homework by Laurence Yep

I'm searching for two things that I hoped to find in this book, fantasies for younger readers and fantasies that representing something other than a purely Western set of imagery or magical elements. Lewis and L'Engle have pretty much covered the Christian fantasy approach, and many other books by White writers either consciously or unconsciously base their books on Arthurian legends or other European myths and legends.

Yep brings a great perspective as a Chinese immigrant, and his story is based on the idea that the man character's grandfather is actually Chung Kuei, the old enemy of the imp that was recently released from an ancient vase. However, the actual mechanics of how this works in the story feel, well, mechanical and even contrived at times. The grandfather explains what's going on to his grandson, but it's all in this stilted "let me explain to you how this legendary Chinese character works" sort of format. Appropriate, perhaps, to the grandson's ignorant state, but it's just not very fun to read. At other points, Yep seems to be trying too hard for laughs.

In all fairness, I think covering both of the bases I mentioned above and doing it really well would be extremely difficult. Yep doesn't quite make it, but he's still in the running for inclusion on my syllabus, even if I end up going with a different book.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Tally lives in a dystopian fantasy world where everyone is considered ugly until they turn 16 and become breathtakingly gorgeous through a series of operations. Of course, there's a sinister side to this transformation, as Tally finds out when her friend Shay runs off to the wilds to escape it. Tally is recruited by Special Circumstances agents to get Shay back and destroy the village of escapees in the mountains. Then she finds out there's an even more sinister side; the doctors who make you pretty also selectively destroy parts of your brain. The story is a harrowing ride, and both fascinating and disgusting by turns, and it's a strong contender for inclusion on my syllabus, but it depends a bit on how many dystopian books I find I have on the list.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by DiTerlizzi and Black
Okay, we'll probably end up reading this along with Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortuate Events, because they're popular and successful and fun... but it doesn't mean I have to love them. Actually, I'm much more fond of Snicket than of this series, in great part because almost nothing actually happens in the first book. It's as though the entire thing is a set up to get you reading the next book, which I suppose is fun if you're in 4th grade and eager to collect the whole series (and have the money, they're not really that cheap), but I found it tedious.

The one up side, and this is probably what I'll want to talk about in class, is the fakelore book design. There are manufactured artifacts thoroughout the book, like a letter from the authors about meeting the protagonists as though there were real people and supposed documents from and about fairies and other creatures. There are also design elements that are pretty clever, like the appearance of fairy-shaped dots between the chapter sections starting about midway through the book.

This is a series that's deliberately stoking the fires of it-could-be-real with its fake artifacts, and that's interesting to me as a literary trend. It takes advantage of the recent passion for memoir, but also continues the semi-documentary tradition in recent years in children's nonfiction. Dorling Kindersley has made this into a marketing empire. Now that kids have outstanding photos in their true books, why wouldn't they want a little pretend truth in their fiction books?

Disenchanted Princess by Linker and We Are So Crashing Your Bar Mitzvah!!! by Rosenbloom

Can you say Rich Kids? Princess is about Hollywood-dwelling West Deschanel who is sent by the courts to live with her poor aunt in Arkansas, thanks to her father's prison sentence. She's too posh for words, and her Arkansas relatives are just hicks, except the one hot foster kid who lives with them. He's black, which isn't explained very well when we first meet him and so has to be addressed with heavy-handed prose later, and their one near-sex scene is just lackluster in the writing. West doesn't adjust much except at the end, when she "adjusts" all at once in a very deux-ex-machina finale.

Rosenbloom's book is better than this, although again it deals with extremely rich kids, this time NYC Jewish kids. Stacy and Lydia just got back from being at camp, where they managed to join the extremely cool group. They want to carry their coolness into eighth grade, but are thwarted when their third best friend, Kelly, turns out to have not only gotten hot over the summer, but also has already been recruited by the popular clique. Stacy and Lydia are not so lucky. The religious focus is light, but Judaism at least brings in some believable moral dilemmas, and the characters' emotional states are so true to eighth grade that it's almost painful to read. Rosenbloom pulls it off, though, and manages to be hilariously embarrassing, superficial in a fun way, but also have some ethics to the story as well. This is the second in the series, and I'd prefer to have started with the first one.

Preschool to the Rescue!

Yesterday I gave a talk to 60 preschool teachers in Danville, and it was a fabulous event. I was their last speaker of the day, which suited me just fine since I had some interactive components planned and I always enjoy the challenge of firing up an audience. I brought them books that I knew they could use as read-alouds in their preschool classrooms, and tied it to the very concrete things that children are interested in, such as animals, food, trucks, dinosaurs, big things and small things and differences in size... actually, that last idea deserves some expansion and explanation, and maybe even a paper. We talked about humor for preschoolers, and especially the kind where it's funny because the kid knows better than the book. For instance, many books use the trope of having an animal make the wrong noises, and preschoolers love this because they know it's wrong, so it's both funny and empowering.

It felt so extraordinarily practical and meaningful to be back in front of preschool teachers, a place I used to occupy on a regular basis at Urbana Free. I have got to find ways to move more deeply into early literacy issues in my research. What I have so far from the talk are the makings of a rock-solid bibliographic essay. What I need is either a literary or social approach that will let me push this toward peer-reviewed scholarship.

Newbery Honors are Okay.

Yeah, just okay. Not bad at all, but not the best ever either. It all depends on the year, I suppose...

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
The setting, a free village in Canada populated by former slaves who have escaped from America, is extraordinary. Curtis must have researched the dickens out of this location and these free Canadian communities. Protagonist Elijah was born into freedom, which makes him an unusually naive character when he comes to interface with the wider world. This takes 3/4 of the book to happen, however, and though it's a nice meander, the page count is mighty high by the time the main action of the plot ensues. Still, Curtis takes on the topic of slavery like no one yet has in children's literature, and his naive protagonist is the perfect character to have encounter the brutality of slavery. And it is brutal, to the tune of brief nightmare-inducing images of a man who was tortured, mutilated in a way that I wish I could get out of my mind, and hung. Yet it is true, in the sense that historical fiction when well-researched can be true, and I can only hope it will cause young readers of any color to think about the great fortune that they were not born into such a horrific system.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
Another nice wandering book, this time in a Vietnam-War-Era classroom. Holling Hoodhood likes baseball, acts in a Shakespeare play, gets to know his teacher, has mild adventures with the class pet... I can see how you could get sentimentally attached to this book if it was set in your childhood era. As for me, it was an okay read. I nearly put it down after a few chapters, but didn't yet have the 3rd Newbery winner, so I kept going and I'm not sorry I did. But it's not the kind of fresh, ground-breaking book that you'd hope would receive a national honor.

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodsoon
On the up side, Woodson edits herself well, and the length of the book is about half that of the previous two under-edited tomes. The story also features a white boy who has been adopted and raised by a black family, which causes all sorts of stir in protagonist Frannie's all-black school into which he is deposited. The tension between the bully and the new kid is adeptly depicted. The tie that connects Franny and the new kid who calls himself Jesus (not the Latino pronunciation, but the Christ pronunciation) is that they both know sign langauge. Jesus doesn't remember how he learned it, but Frannie's older brother is Deaf, so she uses it to communicate with him all the time. Woodson is another author who is just plain good at what she does, and her books are worth reading for that reason alone. They are always emotionally expressive and feel very accurate to my remembered childhood experiences, even though she and I don't share a skin color. The cultural details are not those from my childhood, but the emotional details truly resonate for me. Read her stuff if this sounds good to you, because she's well worth reading. I'm not convinced that this is her best book ever, but it's good and if these themes sound appealing, then you'll likely enjoy it.