Archive for April, 2012

There’s a new biography about Kurt Vonnegut out. I’ve caught the fact of it out of the corner of my eye here and there but the subhead on this Guardian review of the book pretty much underscores why I’m not interested in the book.

Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, does not come out well as a person in a new biography by Charles J Shields.

See, I don’t really want to read that. Not because I regard Vonnegut so highly that I don’t want to know the truth about him (or at least some biographer’s truth), it’s because there isn’t any point. I don’t want to get into the quibbles about an author’s moral stance, or how his or her personal life squares against their public persona. I’m sure there are a great many writers who are nothing like we imagine them to be, which is why there is a caution often given about meetings one’s heroes.

But here’s the thing, Vonnegut was pretty good about talking about his own life. Sure, any autobiographic information given by any author is going to be somewhat unreliable, it’s an occupational hazard. I wish I could find the quote, but Stephen King was once asked about his story “The Body” which became the film Stand By Me, specifically how much of it was based on his life. He mused about how when writing a writer starts from something true and then gets to a fork where they know what happened next but “wouldn’t if be great if this happened instead?” I think writers might have a predisposition toward revising the truth of their own lives a bit.

But Vonnegut didn’t exactly shy away from the darker stuff. He made his opinions known in essays and lectures and if there was a fiction to them it doesn’t negate the message, just as his real life doesn’t negate the narrative of his fiction simply because they may be contradictory. From reading Vonnegut’s own words I know that he served in World War II, that he survived the fire bombing of Dresden, that his mother committed suicide, that his son had his own bout of mental health issues, that when his sister and her husband died that he adopted their children as well as raising his own, that in his youth he worked writing propaganda for GE, that he didn’t hold much love for George W. Bush, that he tried to commit suicide himself, that he later decided that death by cigarettes was a “classier way to die,” and that in the end what killed him was a fall down the stairs in his home where the trauma to his brain let him slip into the big sleep. A tragi-comic observer of humanity’s foibles, Vonnegut’s own death was as common and unexpected as one of his characters, he couldn’t have written a more fitting ending.

So it goes.

I know all that and more because Vonnegut told his readers as much as he wanted them to know. As a public figure he decided how much of his private life he wanted to share, and that’s good enough for me. And it should be good enough for any of us that what we know of public figures is what they want us to know. This endless fascination with celebrity, this outgrown sense of entitlement that public figures somehow owe us unfettered access to their lives, is bushwah of the highest order. I don’t want to know everything about all these celebrity, but we’ve become so accustomed to this constant stream of access that now we get updates instantaneously via Twitter when someone in the public eye dies, gets arrested, or if we’re getting it directly from them as a source, utters some inane comment that gets them in a heap of trouble.

With the advent of our constantly internet-available culture there has been some question as to what the future holds for historians and biographers. Will some famous person’s tweets one day be compiled from the Library of Congress in a single bound volume, grouped by subject and annotated with parallel and supporting links? Will there one day be an online depository of web pages of celebrities collected by discipline or topic, a thematic archive grouped by decade or influence? Or will we come simply to accept the ever-annotated entries on Wikipedia as our primary source of information?

It doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter.

We’ve come to that point where we need to know less, not more. We need to curb our diet for knowing everything about everything, to not give in to this false expectation that we are entitled to something from people just because their lives have become public. The argument that celebrities put themselves in the public eye, as a justification for such constant scrutiny, is no different and no better than blaming a rape victim for dressing provocatively. And the level of information we get, especially from tabloids, suggests the only good celebrity is a dead or, or near-dead one, or at the very least, one whose physical failings deserve to be highlighted as some sort of proof that they aren’t as perfect as they might seem. News flash: none of us “regular” people would come off any better under the microscope.

But if we are to judge a man by his words or his deeds, in the case of authors like Vonnegut, I’ll take their words over an account of their deeds from a third party.


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So I’ve been blogging kidlit book reviews for well over five years now over at the excelsior file. I started out wanting to sort of self-educate, er, myself about the world of children’s literature in preparation for becoming a writer of books for children and young adults. I decided I would review anything that caught my fancy, from picture books to young adult, and with a few excursions into general industry news, I’ve hewed fairly close to being reviews-only.

Sometimes I get a little ranty, sometimes my big ol’ brain gets in the way. Once I had a graduate student who wanted me to essentially grant permission to let them use one particular post as their own graduate thesis. Another time I got a little cranky and really laid into a book that stirred the ire of a certain subset of the kidlit community; I still occasionally get defensive emails sent directly to me from that community, people who clearly should understand the difference between an opinion and a fact. Nonetheless.

As the years progressed I’ve found myself discovering older, out-of-print titles that have stood the test of time. I have reveled the childhood joys of gross humor despite with many a wary librarian might want to hear. And I’ve defended graphic novels as “legitimate” reading though reviews of both good and bad reviews. In fact, one of the things that I came to realize was that by writing both good and bad reviews I’ve walked into a minefield that has divided the kidlit community, but I stand my ground. Without knowing the full range of what I think how can you tell whether or not I have any discernible taste, how can you tell if I’m being fair or even-handed?

Occasionally I make a bad call on a book. As I like to say, I could be wrong. I believe that when it comes to reviews people should read everything and judge for themselves.

While I accept review copies from publishers and their publicists, and occasionally from authors themselves, I am not paid for all this blogging and don’t feel beholden to any outside interest.

So is it so wrong that after five-plus years that I might want a little external recognition?

I want to go to BEA.

I want to win the Independent Book Blogger Award, or IBBY, contest currently being hosted on Goodreads. The winner in each of the four categories will get to go to NYC and attend this year’s Book Expo America

I want your vote.

I want the vote of everyone you can convince to vote for me.

Unless you happen to be in the contest, in which case I’m sorry for bothering you.

So here’s the deal. You go to the Goodreads page where they’re holding the contest and you get four votes, one for each category. I guess that means you have to sign in, which means I guess you also have to have a Goodreads account (pretty crafty of them), but if you do and are so inclined and would be so kind…

I’m the excelsior file, in the Young Adult and Children’s category. Unless the order comes up randomly each time you check in, I’m toward the bottom of the page.

Feel free to tell your friends. Feel free to alert your followers on the facebook and the Twitter, I won’t mind. If I win, and there’s some way I can verify that any one person’s effort helped put me in the finalists category I’d be more than happy to bring back some swag from BEA for them. I haven’t the slightest clue how to do that, so I think I’d take the best, most sincere claim around.

I’m not on my knees, I swear. But if you would be so kind…

Thank you.

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I don’t generally review books in this space, preferring to keep my editorializing and rambling separate from the analysis of the books. I don’t really know why the firewall between the two spaces makes me more comfortable but I’m not sure it matters. Nonetheless, I found myself having read a book that (a) isn’t entirely meant for kids and (b) doesn’t merit review so much as an observation about why the project never found any takers in Hollywood when it was written.

The book in question is a graphic novel adaptation of a screenplay by Jim Henson called A Tale of Sand. It is beautifully presented in full, rich color with an elastic band to hold the hardcover closed. Illustrator Ramon Perez has managed to find a sweet spot in the illustrations that feel very much of the era in which the script was written (the 1960s) without feeling stodgy or old. Set in the American Southwest, there are many surreal elements that echo the campy TV show Wild, Wild West while at the same time hinting at the absurdity and tension of Vietnam era.

The story, essentially, has a man – Mac in the script – stumble into a western town that’s in full on celebration mode. The Sheriff finds Mac and gives him refuge in his office only moments before Mac is to leave. Leave where, and to do what, Mac isn’t told, but he’s given a backpack and a ten minute head start. At the gun Mac goes running, though without understanding why, until he is caught up by a party who is hunting him down. Primary to the party are Patch, a cruel rogue with an eyepatch, and a woman simply known as The Blonde. It becomes clear to Mac that if he is to survive he must stay ahead of and outwit Patch, and the odd assortment of items in the backpack are there to help.

With that as the lead-in, everything that follows is a collection of absurd escapes until the final scene where Mac stumbles to a conclusion most readers will have figured out long before Mac does. Questions along the way: is Patch really Mac’s alter ego, his desire hunting him down, pushing him to succeed? Is The Blonde an ideal of the unobtainable, a fickle femme fatal, or merely eye candy? And given the cyclical nature of the story does Henson suggest that we are always running away from the same things we run toward, or was he merely tacking on a cute “gotcha” at the end?

Henson was only a few years away from the wild success that would grow from Sesame Street. He’d begin experimenting with film, away from anything Muppet-related, and picked up an Oscar nomination in 1966 for his short Time Piece. Stretching out with the long-form feature film, Tale of Sand was the sort of film that would have predated but fit in nicely among the late-60s countercultre films to come, like Psych-Out, The Ruling Class, O’ Lucky Man, Putney Swope, or even Easy Rider. Which is to say that it would have been of its time and probably not very successful.

Because it has no plot.

Its got a great starting gimmick, sure. The “ticking clock” is a time-honored classic. But if you’re going to put someone on the run, so that they’re running for their life, eventually we have to learn what it is they are really running from and we have to care about whether they’re going to succeed. It’s generally accepted that an audience with go with a film for the first 20 to 30 minutes without question, but by the time that first plot point is supposed to kick in things better start tying together. We don’t need a huge backstory or a complicated scene where the character spells it all out for us, but we have to be engaged by more than action.

And even as I’m saying this I’m trying to fight it. Who says? Why do our stories need these structures and emotional attachments? Can’t we tell a story of escalating circumstances that culminates in a moment of enlightenment, for the reader/viewer if not for the main character? Well, let’s see.

At the end of a story, what do we expect? We expect to be rewarded. Every storytelling requires a tacit contract between the teller and the listener, essentially a promise is made to deliver something in exchange for the time taken. When a book or movie fails on that promise we feel cheated of our time and energy. You can put a price on it if you want but there’s more than money involved and we make these transactions all the time. When someone is relating what happened during the day, when someone tells a joke, a blog post, a tweet, all of these social contracts have something to offer in exchange for their time.

Over time, storytelling has conditioned us to expect certain things from the narrative. We expect a sympathetic hero, one who has a goal or desire that must be fulfilled. That heroine must go through a seemingly rigorous set of trials by which we are concerned when they do not succeed and rejoice when they do. In the end, the heroes must obtain their goal or desire (or the replacement desire discovered along the way) in order for us to feel satisfied by the story. Storytelling has conditioned us to “know” the correct ending in a way that masks the truth: everything in between was a contrivance to reach the obvious conclusion. Without these conventions we would become disoriented, confused, and perhaps even hostile to the finished narrative’s failure to deliver on the expectation we created in out minds, whether explicit or implied at the beginning of the story.

So lets go back to Tale of Sand. Mac enters town and we, like he, are confused and disoriented. Very quickly, i the same dizzying manner in which we enter a new job, Mac is literally sent packing and on the run. We care and are concerned and it seems the contract is in place, because we want to know why Mac is doing this and we really want him to succeed. But along the way there are absurdities – the backpack contains a record player and sound effects record of a bomb that, on impact, has the same deadly effect as the real thing. We stop seeing Mac’s world as real and begin looking for clues, something to latch on to. Our hope is that there is an emotional through-line, something Mac needs to solve internally or through interaction with others that will clue us in.

But there is nothing.

Then, as we get closer to the end, we begin to suspect something we really, truly hope doesn’t happen. But it does, and it is the cinematic equivalent of “…and then I woke up.” We’re hoping against this because there is a cheat involved in the dream story, a swindle of both our time and the investment we placed in the telling, because had we known in advance we would have approached the story differently. We wouldn’t have been as forgiving of the deus ex machina involved at every turn (despite the fact that ALL fiction has the hand of its creator directing everything) and we might not have put up with the story for as long as we did.

In short, it’s easy to see why so many studios passed on Tale of Sand. As a story it’s got a great “What If?’ but only manages to deliver a solid “So What?” But you know what the weirdest thing is?

I still like it.

I like it because Henson and his writing partner Jerry Juhl tried to do something different. They set out to deliver something visually unique and, had they filmed it anything like the way it’s portrayed in the adaptation, they would have delivered. I like it because I can see so much potential within the story frame. True, its plotlessness allows everyone to read into it whatever they wish, but I see the most elaborate storyboard for a TV series never produced here. If each absurd section had its own segment, allowing for characters to articulate what they’re thinking and demonstrating motives, I think by the end you’d have something akin to Lost, or perhaps going back to its era, The Prisoner.

I am grateful that the Henson Company has decided to share some of Jim Henson’s woodsheddings. It’s a fun peek into a fertile mind, one that is sorely missed.

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For a third year (third, right? Not fourth?) I’m tweeting haiku thrice daily on Twitter. There appears to be less twitter poetry this year, perhaps the idea of 140 character poetry and stories has played itself out. But as much as I do it in celebration of National Poetry Month I find that taking a few moments during the day to think in such a highly structured format sharpens me up. When I need to take a break, sure, I could go snack, or take a nap, or read some blogs… or I could set the metronome to five-seven-five and see what sort of tunes develop.

I’m free-form this year, no grand theme or design to guide me. The results have been pretty funky.

Sunday, 1 April
despite my claims of not having a theme, food was clearly on my mind

like rolling thunder / my stomach calls for waffles / but they don’t answer

oh, frickadellen! / savory love child of / burger and hot dog!

double leftovers / when laziness trumps hunger / leftovers again

Monday, 2 April
okay, now we’re getting somewhere! nature triumphant!

burning, stinging eyes / itchy, inflamed sinuses / many joys of spring

the umbrella dies / a gust of wind, worn out seams / instant skeleton

tendrils of sunlight / gently caressing eyelids / late afternoon nap

Tuesday, 3 April
eh, not so focused today, with an ominous foreshadowing of a dental appointment later in the week

bear in a campground / scavenges through garbage cans / a potluck gourmand

in the roots of leeks / smell the damp, sandy soil / smell the birth of spring

like a sword in stone / hard kernels of popped corn trapped / between my molars

Wednesday, 4 April
garbage day, joggers, and the lottery. timeless themes of poetry

the sentries lined up / to be relieved of duty / curbside on trash day

laugh, but you don’t see / animals in mylar suits / trying to lose weight

to number the stars / is like counting grains of sand / or lottery odds

Thursday, 5 April
and now we get to it, the mundane couching the horror of the week

though called “rush hour” / a dog chasing his tail / would get to work first

eyes shut, aching jaw / hands and arms uselessly clenched / endless root canal

a biting rip saw? / a tiger’s labored chuffing? / no, a snoring spouse

over at Laura Purdie Salas’s place, for this week’s 15 words or less poem (based on a photo of a horse in a landscape) I contributed the following:

in your haunting eyes / do we look as majestic / as you do in ours?

maybe it doesn’t work without the picture, but then again, maybe it’s a haiku of awe told by a child to an alien.

There are a couple in there I don’t mind. I have some favorites. Early in the week someone on twitter retweeted one of my twitku with a qualified “um…” suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t legitimate haiku because, I don’t know, it didn’t reveal some great truth of nature? Hey, this is the Modern World, people, and garbage cans deserve poetry as much as dead umbrellas and the lottery. Does a root canal deserve to be a haiku? That’s a tough call, but sometimes you don’t know what works until you do it.

So there it is, this week’s contribution to Poetry Friday. There’s probably tons of stuff happening this month, and a decent chunk of it is being rounded up by Robyn at Read, Write, Howl this week. Go on, take a peek. The poetry won’t bite. I can’t speak for the poets…

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The School Library Journal has a story about how a school library in Liberty, Missouri decided to entice more boy readers by building a “cave” space. There is a photo, but here is the description of The Cave from the article:

The space is outfitted with modest furnishings, including chairs made from milk crates and padding, designed by Rosheim, and a brand-new beanbag. Fabric is tacked to the ceiling to provide a cavelike aura. A life-sized Wimpy Kid poster, donated by Abrams Books, the series’ publisher, is personalized with a message that reads, “This Way To the Cave.” And, of course, there are books.

Fabric on the ceiling, milk crate seats, and a lone beanbag do not a cave make. Points for effort, and I can appreciate schools being tight on funds and all, but it misses the mark.

What makes a “cave” is that it has a feeling of isolation, a place where you can get away from outside world and hunker down. When grown men make their getaway caves they aren’t light, aerie spaces, they’re basements and garages, paneled in dark wood and full of comfortable furniture where the act of sitting can become a nap. They are permissive places, indulgent, and yes, a little clubby.

I’ve known teens to build their own rooms into caves: walls painted black or a dark color, furniture to a bare minimum, mattress on the floor, colorful print fabrics hanging like partitions against prying eyes and the outside world. It’s a claiming of space and a recognition of a need for sanctuary. Sometimes there are multiple media involved, a TV on while doing homework, or muted with music playing. Let the outside world criticize, but the space is user-created both as an experiment in and an expression of freedom.

In late 2007 author Sara Lewis Holmes posted something on her blog that generated a discussion about what the ideal space would be for teen readers. I wish I could find the original thread, but I remember clearly a number of us tossing around ideas and I threw in my two cents about a retail environment that was perhaps in a basement, with more floor space for lounging and reading, monitors showing movies of TV shows (sound muted), perhaps a cafe bar… basically a full-service cave. (I remember the discussion because out of it a number of us got together and created the review site Guys Lit Wire, dedicated to suggesting books for boys.) Since then I’ve seen stories like this one, of libraries actively looking to create spaces that are more inviting, less like a library. My own town library turned the periodical room into a teen room.

The problem isn’t necessarily that boys need to have their own space to entice them, it’s that the space needs to feel like something they can take ownership of, and by they I mean boys and girls. Input is great, but why stop there, why not let the kids design the space themselves? Build a scale model of the library and the furniture and have them push it all around until they have something they can all agree on. You do this with a committee of an equal number of boys and girls and I guarantee there will be not one but two and possibly many cave-like arrangements in the design. Just like on the playground where groups of kids will congregate on their own patch of territory, why not let them do the same in a library? Let there be five or six “cubicles” of space that different groups can claim (or sign up for, as they will become popular) and see if the library doesn’t start getting more use. They might even want to paint it black and hang Indian print fabric from the ceilings to create partitions that screen out the world. Do it.

But don’t perpetrate the hard gender classification of books. If a kid reads something they like they will go back to the well looking for more of the same. Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn’t a boy book, it’s an illustrated middle grade book (some would say a graphic novel, but I disagree) and should be shelved with similar books for browsing. I mean, really, are we going to start separating boy sci-fi from girl sci-fi? Who gets Harry Potter? Who gets The Hunger Games? When you start segregating the space in the library and organizing books by gender you reinforce the idea that “these books are good, those books aren’t” to the detriment of both reader and book.

But a cave, a cave is good for all. The more the better.

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I think, I hope, we’ve moved beyond the question as to whether or not comics and graphic novels are legitimate reading for kids and teens. But just in case another case needs to be made, or should you find yourself needing just one more piece of evidence to get the last word, I’m throwing this idea out there:

Comics existed before most people even owned books.

So the word itself, cartoon, comes from the Italian cartone which was the stiff paperboard Renaissance artists used to sketch out their paintings. Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of cartoons. All those frescos in the churches, they began as cartoons drawn on the walls. Historically, the cartoon was a representative drawing done in preparation of a finished work. These cartoons were illustration, plain and simple, and they came from a long line of visual representation starting with those cave paintings in the south of France.

You see, man’s earliest attempts to communicate story came in pictographs. The pictures, spread across cave walls, told a sequential narrative about The Great Hunt or The Battle for Berries or Hunter Tripping on Rocks. These forerunners of the cartoon predate cuneiform and hieroglyphs and other forms of symbolic language. The pictures told the story in much the same way that a wordless picture book or graphic novel does today. Depending on the sophistication of their brains, it would be curious to take a modern wordless picture book back to cave-dwelling man and see if they understood it.

Though it can be a bit of a stretch to call the cave paintings and fresco sketches cartoons they are nonetheless historical artifacts that show that there was a way to “read” before there were words. Up until the Renaissance these cartoons were historical in nature (the Greeks and Romans would illustrate battles from Mythology, they believed them to be historical at some level), but I recently came across what might truly be the genesis of the graphic novel in The Bayeux Tapestry.

Art history majors (and anyplace where the arts are still considered important and taught) know The Bayeux Tapestry to be an illustrated telling of the Norman Conquest and The Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066. The Tapestry itself dates to the 1400s which easily predates the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spigelman and the groundbreaking work by the father of the American graphic novel, Will Eisner, by a good 500 years. Cartoons and the sequential narrative are not new.

Last week I was reminded of this when the website Open Culture featured an animated version of The Bayeux Tapestry. I don’t often post media within the blog, but this is worth the diversion.

The tapestry itself is a collection of narrative strips – or panels, to use a modern comic term – that read from left to right and top to bottom, just as if you were reading a book. Because you are, you’re reading a graphic novel from 1476, and the best part about it, it’s non-fiction! It’s not only a cartoon, it’s historical!

I hope this puts a cork in the comics-aren’t-reading argument so we can move on to more important discussions. Like what makes a good comic or graphic novel – and why are there so many mediocre ones out there for kids these day?

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