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Archive for February, 2008

While I sincerely doubt many of you, my fine readers, get all of your kidlit news from Yours Truly it may be possible that the following bit of news has escaped your attention in the kidlit blogosphere.

Guys Lit Wire, a new site launching in June, promises to provide you with everything you need to know in the world of literature for teenage boys.  Colleen of Chasing Ray has been been spearheading the effort which she described on her blog yesterday thusly:

There will be book recommendations, author interviews, literary commentary, a rant or two (I’m sure) and lots of other good stuff. The goal is to cover a ton of different types of books from across the literary spectrum so we can become a good resource to actual teenagers as well as anyone seeking to find books for teen boys. (And if the girls want to visit we are happy to have them, but boys are our target audience.)

I am happy to announce — nay, honored and privileged — to be participating in this new blog and sincerely hope I can hold up my end when it comes to adding my voice to the community.  I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to debut with but that deadline’s behind a few others I have for school right now so it can remain fuzzy.  But I promise you, it will be brilliant.  Both my post and the new blog!

Right now the group is shy a few contributors, and we could really use a few more guys.  C’mon, out of 21 of us there are only 3 males reading and writing about books for teens?  That can’t be right, can it?  Consider this a call to action.  If you or someone you know wants in contact Colleen directly (colleen(at)chasingray(dot)com).  And if you’d rather just support the effort please feel free to pass this news along to others.

For my part, if any of you have ideas or suggestions of some teen-boy-reading topic you’d like to see me mangle address, feel free to get in touch via comments.  Let me know if you’d rather communicate off-blog as well and we’ll make it happen.

I’ll keep you posted as June 1st looms.

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This might not be all that original, and my examples may be weak, but I’m flying with this idea that forms of fiction take after the elements of grammar. To wit:

simple noun = sketch
e.g. Fool

simple subject = vignette
e.g. The Village Fool

subject + verb = short story
e.g. The Village Fool Dies

simple sentence = novella
e.g. The Day the Village Fool Died

complex sentence = novel
e.g. The Life and Death of the Village Fool

sentence beginning with a conjunction = literary novel
e.g. And Death Fools the Village

possesive noun/non-sentence = epic/classic
e.g. Dead Fool’s Village

Feel free to add your own.  And if someone else somewhere has tapped this, let me know and I’ll change it.  Not change you can Xerox, mind you…

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against homework

That’s right, I don’t believe in homework. Not until high school, and then I believe there needs to be a two-year guided course on time management and instruction on how to study effectively before juniors begin doing real work at home. Homework before high school is a colossal lost opportunity.

What is the point of elementary and middle school homework? To reinforce classroom lessons? To prepare children for the rigors of high school coursework? To teach time management and critical thinking skills? Or is it to pick up the slack for over-burdened and over-extended school curricula? Is it designed to deaden the spirit, or force heads-down conformity? Is homework the bi-product (or the secret agenda?) of a society unable to address the breakdown of the middle class?

Okay, this could go on forever, and there’s a lot of back-and-forth about the advantages and disadvantages. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel on this argument, the tubes of internets are teeming with the fury from both sides ditto sheet. What I’m here to say is I don’t believe in homework, but I do believe that time can still be used in constructive educational pursuits. Dig this.

First, we make education compulsory up to a certain age, right? We need to agree whether it’s the time or the education that’s compulsory, because if we’re just keeping kids off the streets, out of the military, and out of the factories then we can just extend the school day and give the kids more recess. If we’re serious about the educational aspects then we need to step up and stand behind that conviction and that means extending the school day and dumping homework. Your employer doesn’t send you away at 3 in the afternoon with a couple hours of work to do at home, on your time — unless they do, in which case you either better love what you do, get paid well for it, or get another job. There is no level playing field in education if students are spending upwards of one-third of their education unsupervised and off-campus. Parents and homes are wildly different in their ability to offer a student what they need, and to suggest that homework can be evenly applied outside of the school environment ignores this reality.

If we wish to keep our heads in the sand about the increased demands on educators and the amount of curricula they are expected to deliver then I guess we can continue to justify homework. Why not? Put the burden back onto the parents who have to supervise and enforce homework. That’s the road to a solid education.

How about some suggestions, something a little more positive?

Let’s use homework to guide and teach kids in subjects they aren’t learning in school. Use the time for educational enrichment that will help build a more rounded individual. Kids as young as third grade could begin to get lessons in philosophy, for example learning the basics. Teach the Socratic method with reinforced homework, lessons that can be used to tie into other subjects. Establish a fiscal management program that sets up in-school bank accounts that converts grades and homework credit into dollars that can be used to teach balancing a checkbook and paying mock bills… at home, just like mom and dad. Give kids a one-week after-school intensive in something technical like basic electronics and then send them home with kits to make a monthly project of their own design. Ditto computer programming, website design, digital photo manipulation. If music and the arts have been cut (or aren’t considered essential) there are many video/DVD lessons that could be sent home. A course in art history, film history, music history, can be a valuable component that doesn’t take up class time if its an additional subject learned at home. There are more, a lot more, I could spend all day coming up with ideas.

I’ve read in several places that free play has become one of the “lost” aspects of contemporary childhood. I know I had lots of free time as a kid to tear apart my bike and put it back together (after school bike clinic?) and I learned from that. I built a couple of what we called go-carts, what are probably better described as downhill racers, and more than a few of us built bike and skateboard ramps (woodworking?). I know kids who built plastic kit models, model rockets, you know, hobby stuff. There’s a lot to learn from all of this and t doesn’t need to be lost knowledge if it’s worked into homework.

We need to get beyond our narrow perceptions of what constitutes an education, what is considered valuable. One of the lasting effects of the Reagan Revolution’s Back To Basics movement in the 80s has been that we have reduced education to three subjects — reading, writing and arithmetic. This wasn’t a mistake, it was a conscious decision to reduce the nation into the most common denominator, a deliberate dumbing down of the nation’s citizenry. If education reform, if getting back to basics is truly important, if leaving no child behind is indeed to goal, then why do we even need homework?

Where are the studies that prove a correlation between homework and measurable, improved educational performance?

There aren’t any. Because no one is willing to set up a control group of students who receive no homework to serve as a baseline. That would be “wrong” to deliberately subject school children to the possibility of failure by denying them homework. Or… perhaps it would be too damning to have a control group perform as well as (or better than) a group loaded down with homework — imagine the chaos, the anarchy, the shock and horror of having to admit several decades of policy failure! No, there will always be people to bend the results and explain away the inconsistencies because that’s the kind of nation we are. No doubt, no mistakes, all bluster.

So every time you see or hear some school crowing about the rise in test scores and the increase in grades as a result of homework, you know you’re hearing the sound of someone who drank the homework kool-aid.

And don’t get me started about the electoral college.

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Here’s an experiment for any of you blogging out there who want to see a boost in your traffic. If you include just two words in the title of your blog post you can practically double the number of people who find you on search engine keyword searches:

baby. poem.

Cheese Louise, every day I’m seeing people who found me because they’re looking for baby poems. I have one post entitled “baby steps (and a poem)” that has NOTHING to do with infants or first steps. Who knew there were all these people out there looking for poems about baby’s first steps.

I wonder if it’s anything like Grandmother books. You know, how when you see a picture book that has nothing going for it except the fact that it seems designed to separate grandparents from their money via the cute factor. Because, honestly, poetry about baby’s first steps? Try Reader’s Digest or Parade Magazine in the Sunday papers.

Sorry, folks, I write for children, I occasionally write poetry, I don’t write poems about cute babies and fluffy kittens and whatnot.

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Suze left her iPod at work this weekend. Normally this isn’t a major disaster but we were having company over and needed to have music playing while we cleaned up the house, if not during company itself.  So I was asked to bring my iPod out of it’s protective gym casing and allowed to set it into the docking station for the day.

Needless to say, my wife and I have different tastes in music. And just to be on the safe side (in case I didn’t realize it) she let me know we had different tastes in music this evening, which was her polite way of saying that she didn’t really like everything my pod was shuffling through. Funny how the fact that I don’t dig what her pod shuffles most of the time doesn’t matter, especially since she hogs the docking station. But I digress.

What I was reminded of tonight, and one of the first times I ever put an iPod in shuffle songs mode, was how well-matched the music seemed to be. Even when it shifted genres or decades or styles, somehow the pod knew how best to match things: when to bring the tempo up or down, how to match beats, matching closing and opening keys. Man, I thought, that’s one smart program they’ve written for a music player.

Except Apple didn’t write that program. I did. And I did it using the time-honored methods outlined by Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara back in the 1920s. And I didn’t even know it (which is really the only proper way to do it). Allow me to explain.

In 1924 little Sami Rosenstock, a.k.a. Tristan Tzara, as one of the founders of the Dada art movement published a book entitled Seven Dada Manifestos. Among the manifestos Tzara included instructions for writing a Dada poem. Here are the complete instructions:

To make a Dadaist poem:
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the point of this little exercise.  The poem will be like you because, in a sense, you have consciously chosen the elements to be included even if you had no real say in their order.  In choosing the article and the length, in choosing the words, you have in essence subconsciously programmed all the possible meanings and permutations of your poem.  In the end, only one order will emerge of all the possibilities, and it couldn’t possibly be otherwise.

You see where I’m going:  my iPod is the bag, the songs I’ve loaded are the words, and the shuffle element randomly chooses songs.  That the final playlist “works” is because in pre-selecting the songs to be included the final playback of those songs in whatever order “resembles me.”  Where I find myself wishing to skip songs when the pod is in shuffle is when it’s playing back a song I loaded for reasons other than personal enjoyment — like songs I loaded in order to make mix discs for my girls, or for specific playlists (like the gym list) that have their own separate applications.  Of course I’m going to think the iPod can read my mind, I’ve loaned it the building blocks of my own subconscious programming.

It’s nice to think of all these pod people walking around with a little bit of Dada filling their ears.

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Which is harder, having to pick out your favorite dessert from all the desserts in the world or having to pick your favorite among a selection of five? On the one hand you can take everything into consideration but you could also find it hard to choose among favorites; on the other hand having a narrower selection can help you focus your decision but you might end up wishing you had another choice.

Does this have anything to do with being a judge on the graphics novel panel for the Cybils this year? Yes and no. I think the parallel is there when it comes to trying to narrow down the selection of possibilities — graphic novels in this case — but as for working off a shortlist I think the analogy breaks down when you consider it was five people trying to agree on a choice. So then I guess it’s like being at a restaurant with a bunch of people trying to decide on which dessert they’re going to split. It might not be your favorite dessert, but why are you complaining? You get to eat dessert!

I’m going to break this down by category, and I’m only going to be discussing my personal thoughts in the matter. I will not name names (you can go to the Cybils site for that), I’m not going to comment directly about anyone’s choices, and I’m not going to reveal the secret handshake of the gn panel. There will be a peak into the process but only to illustrate my involvement. If you’re looking for dirt, sorry.

Middle Grade & Elementary — The Shortlist
Robot Dreams written and illustrated by Sara Varon
The Courageous Princess written and illustrated by Rod Espinosa
Yotsuba&! #4 written and illustrated by Kiyohiko Azuma
Artemis Fowl written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin; illustrated by Giovanni Rigano and Paolo Lamanna
Babymouse #6: Camp Babymouse written and illustrated by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

The Winner
Artemis Fowl

What was I thinking?
Looking at the list my first thought was that the category seemed awfully broad, which also made it seem unfair. You would have different expectations for a second grade early readers and a middle grade fiction meant for sixth graders, but in this category you’ve got a cute widdle baby mouse up against a heartless pre-pubescent evil genius. Still, there are those books where the quality would trump the reading level, so looking for the best qualities should yield the correct winner no matter what.

Here’s my first problem: the book I feel belongs here, and would want to win, isn’t here. It’s shortlisted, but in the teen/YA category. Its The Arrival. There was a bit of back-and-forth about this from my fellow judges once I brought up that while I felt it could be appreciated by an older audience I found it more appropriate for the middle grade set. The issues it covers — immigration, stranger-in-a-strange-land, government oppression — these are heavy topics but not outside the scope of the tween audience. Not everything in the book would be readily accessible, but I found its picture book formatting and its limited narrative more in keeping with a middle grade book: indeed, if you were to write the story’s narrative as it’s presented you would find it necessary to explain much of what it only hinted at between the panels.

While this does not make it bad, it makes it bad for a teen reader who is going to blow through the illustrations, glean the basic story, back-fill the missing parts with what they’ve already learned in elementary social studies, and not fully appreciate it at all. This is one of those books (like the picture books of Adam Rex, btw) which I almost feel are more for adults than kids. My total opinion, of course, and it doesn’t change the fact that it wasn’t nominated for this category. So why am I even talking about it again? Oh yeah, that’s right. It would have been my first choice.

My pick was Robot Dreams. I believe I was the only one who wanted this as the winner. Another wordless tale like The Arrival, I felt there was actually a really good character arc and one that was totally age appropriate. There’s friendship and embarrassment and loneliness and abandonment and a whole lot of really great issues that middle grade readers would totally get and not feel preached to. I found its extended storyline to be the most complete and contained and the resolution satisfying without being predictable. Yea, Robot Dreams!

Last on my list? Artemis Fowl, an unimaginative comic book adaptation that, at times, bored me silly with its pacing and often slipped into the thing I hate the most about superhero comics — narratives over action panels explaining what a character is thinking or doing. It’s like voice-overs in movies, there’s good voice-over and there’s bad voice-over and then there’s voice-over that ruins everything else. This one is somewhere between bad and worse. In general I find adaptations troubling — whether book to movie, movie to book, book to graphic novel, comic to movie — because there’s always that problem of the two not syncing up. You can say ‘try not to think about the elephant in the room’ but you’ll find yourself thinking about the elephant in the room: in this case, the elephant is the original book, which I also didn’t think that much of.

But I was determined to take the comic graphic novel on its own and it still lost me. It took me a while to figure it out but it comes down to the character of Artemis himself. Here, with his big head (Manga inspired?) and his emotionless face he reminded me of nothing less than a pre-teen Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That’s right, the bald baddy from Bond movies. In those films Blofeld serves as the foil against which Bond reacts. Blofeld has no backstory, none that’s relevant at least, he merely wants to blow up the world, steal the gold, kill Bond, whatever the plot needs to keep Bond moving forward. He’s a 2-dimensional cutout and that’s all we need because he isn’t the star of the film. And that’s the problem, I don’t buy Artemis Fowl as anything more that a 2-d character and I don’t find the story compelling as a result. I don’t care if the faeries get him or kill him, I don’t care about his missing father or his demented mother, I don’t care… and that’s the point where you lose me.

But I was outvoted. C’est la Guerre.

Teen/YA — The Shortlist
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Flight #4 edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Laika written and illustrated by Nick Abadzis
The Professor’s Daughter by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert
The Plain Janes by written by Cecil Castellucci; illustrated by Jim Rugg

The Winner
The Professor’s Daughter

What was I thinking?
I work the other direction on this one, what I was thinking was yes! Actually, I had two first picks and would have been happy with either winning, The Professor’s Daughter and The Plain Janes. As different as they are to one another I felt they both had merit and would give them both the award if I could. When the majority went for The Professor’s Daughter I was happy to let it go at that.

Push-to-shove, The Plain Janes does have some clunky transitions at times, and I think it traffics in some visual stereotypes that could have (and should have) been avoided. The frumpy drama girl? Really? Please. The cop from casting central? I hear your donut calling. I’m also a little unsure of the transition from big city to small town but I forgive it these problems because it deals in teens dealing with teen problems in a graphic novel. I understand there’s a second Plain Janes book due out soon and I’m looking forward to it.

There are some I have spoken to outside the gn panel who didn’t “get” The Professor’s Daughter. I think I can pinpoint the problem in a single word: European. There are many who do not get certain picture books for the same reason, that there is a very different sensibility for the picture book in Europe, just as there is in graphic novels and sequential storytelling. Compare Tintin with any of his American contemporaries from the 1950s, say Will Eisner’s The Spirit. That’s the difference, and The Professor’s Daughter gets its strange rhythms from that tradition. And I liked that it as coming from a different place, a place almost more in keeping with a horror movie from the 1930s, one with a sense of humor and a strange sense of the fantastic. One thing I will say, I was never really sure where the story was headed… and I mean that in a good way!

So why, if I felt so strongly about The Arrival, didn’t I give it either my top two spots on this list? Simply, it canceled itself out. I didn’t feel it belonged in this category and couldn’t vote for it as a teen/YA winner. There was some brief discussion as to whether we, as judges, could move books between categories as we saw fit (I believe there was a question about the age appropriateness of Robot Dreams belonging in this category) but in the end even if I had voted The Arrival for teen/YA it didn’t have enough support for a win.

I need to make a side note here about Flight. This collection of stories by various artists is the graphic novel equivalent of a short story collection. As with most collections of this kind some stories are going to hit, some will flop, and a room full of people aren’t going to decide on which are better than others. Something I had pointed out to me recently, something I knew but never thought about long enough to articulate, was that generally the only collections that work are single-author collections. Where the stories may vary the connecting thread of a single author’s world view is always present somewhere, if only in the punctuation.

Another problem I had with Flight is that much of what it contained, while suitable for teens, would really only be appreciated by a true young adult, a person in their 20s questioning and considering and exploring their place in the world. The pieces in Flight are more mature and they benefit from a reader with a variety of experience. This is the second year in a row that one of the Flight volumes has been nominated and, like as much as I did, I just can’t see it ever winning.

So that’s that.  I hope I don’t need to remind anyone who has gotten this far that these are my opinions and, well, you can take them for what they’re worth.  I enjoyed my duties as a judge and hope I get the opportunity to participate in the Cybils in the future.

Y’all can start in with the brickbats now.

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Cybils 08

The awards are up and you can feast your squinties on the final selections in each category over here. I am not surprised by one of the winners, happily surprised by two others, and look forward to checking into the rest.

My discussion of the graphic novels category may or may not appear in this space tomorrow. Go check ’em out.

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