Posted in children's books

Trailer for New Anne of Green Gables

A new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables!! Love love love. The life and times of Anne Shirley seems to reach across generations, cultures and shine its light into the hearts of so many different kinds of people. Young women in Japan have come in droves to be married “Green Gables style” on Prince Edward Island (believe it or not). Children’s literature scholars write paper after paper on the series, plumbing its depths from this angle and that. Now, to have a remake….can’t wait! Coming to PBS this Thanksgiving.

educating alice

New adaptation premiers on PBS November 24th.

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Posted in about childhood, children's books

If Middle Grade speaks to you

….like it speaks to me, then you need to read this post from Project Mayhem:

4 WAYS “STRANGER THINGS” GETS MG RIGHT by Mary E. Cronin

It’s a clear, inspiring look at the eight-episode show Stranger Things on Netflix.  I’m going to check it out tonight!

Something about the tween age tweaks at my heart and brain like no other — well YA historical fiction notwithstanding 🙂  And then there’s the beauty of a brilliant picture book…alright, I’m hopeless.  It’s true love, me and kids’ books, what can I say.  But that age, that threshold holds some kind of magnetic pull.

I wrote my master’s thesis on the unreliable narrator in children’s MG books, beginning with E. Nesbit – do you know her?  End of the 19th century…..Five Children and It, The House of Arden, The Wouldbegoods etc.  all the way up to Sharon Creech, Polly Horvath and Rebecca Stead.  More on that later.

But there’s something about the agency of that age, the purity of their focus on themselves, the fierceness of their friendships, and their lives.  As a writer, I may just end up there.  We’ll see.  In the meantime, do check out the post, and that show.

Talk to you later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in about childhood, children's books, fairy tales

The enduring enchantment of fairy tales

The Legend of the Briar Rose
The Sleeping Beauty, (1890) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Fairy tales from around the world such as Sleeping Beauty are stories that have traveled eons.  They have been part of our collective consciousness for so long that that as P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins — a great lover of fairy tales — put it, even if we are reading them for the first time, there is a sense of recognition, of having found something already near and dear and close to our heart. Perhaps a sense of longing for what has been lost and might never be found again spurs us on to re-tell the tales endlessly, crossing and re-crossing the bridge from a dim past into our own time.

Tales of enchantment fell from the lips of storytellers in the 10th century marketplaces of Baghdad and made their way westward with merchants on the Silk Road.  The old wive’s tales of medieval Europe have their roots deep in the orient, and have been re-incarnated time and time again, first orally and then pouring forth into written form.

One of the earliest versions of the tale is The Ninth Captain’s Tale of “The Arabian Nights.” This goes back a thousand years! The story has traveled from the Middle East to Europe, where it resurfaced as The Sun, Moon, and Talia, an Italian literary fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile in his 1634 work, the Pentamerone. Charles Perrault then retold it in 1697 as The Sleeping Beauty.  We know this version well.  We also know the tale as it traveled to Germany and appeared in the Grimms’ fairy tales in 1812, as Little Briar Rose.

Each version of Sleeping Beauty involves the prediction of some terrible thing happening to the young girl, if she pursues her curiosity or desire.  One of the reasons fairy tales are so enduring is that many of the tales involve a curse or prediction of some kind. These can come from animals, who can talk, either being under a spell or whatever..or a wicked fairy, as in Sleeping Beauty. Once the prediction has been uttered, the reader is set up with an expectation of the coming promised event. The sense of fate, of moving towards something, sparks a desire to see what will happen next.

Cultural theorist Catherine Driscoll has pointed out the “…girl’s role as a marker of cultural identity” that also “installs her as representative of the coherence of an historical period.”  If that is true, then the character of Sleeping Beauty is a kind of archetype, The Girl, able to shape-shift throughout multiple times and cultures.

There are multiple modern re-tellings of this tale, from Disney to numerous contemporary re-tellings.  The underlying inborn story continues to fascinate us.  In the contemporary world, as in all ages, she could well be a symbol for that tween or teen girl on the cusp of awakening.   Each one of us has either been or known someone like that — and we all love that girl.

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Click here to find my e-book,
Sleeping Beauty: the Evolution of a Fairy Tale
on Amazon

Posted in children's books

Thief Girl, by Ingrid Lee

Multiculturalism lives and breathes in my hometown of Cambridge, and has for years, even before it became all the rage everywhere else.   We all know that. Here your kids can be comfortable being, well, just about anybody. It’s one of the things we love about this place.   I’ve lived here forever. So, when a novel comes along on this theme, it better be good, or forget it. Thief Girl is one of those books. The voice of fifteen-year-old Avvy is so authentic, so compelling, it pulls you right in. She immediately makes you want to sit down and listen to her whole story, right away. Authentic voice is one of those things I feel as a reader, way deep down, and either the narrator has it, or not. If the narrator has it, even if the plot is mediocre, I don’t care, I need to keep reading. If the voice is contrived on any level, even if the plot is wittier than Shakespeare, I get bored. Suffice it to say that I read Thief Girl in one sitting.

Avvy is a first-generation Chinese teenager, with a whiny little brother and hard-working parents who run a stall at the mall’s food-court. Due to a weird zoning thing she gets to attend Oak Ridge High, the ritzy high school across town, where it appears she is the only Asian student in school. (Remember, the author is Canadian. Maybe they need time to catch up.)   Helping out at her parent’s stall after school, Avvy’s life straddles two worlds.   Of course we see these worlds through her eyes, and her observations are tinged with just the right touch of humorous irony and honesty. Against this backdrop, the author deftly weaves several strands of story-line, which slowly and seamlessly come together into a unified whole. It all starts when Avvy finds a leather wallet on the street as she walks home with her brother after work one evening; it’s already been rifled through and all that’s left is a picture of a dog. It’s a nice wallet; unthinkingly she throws it in her backpack. It’s only later, as she pries the dog out from it’s plastic cover, that she discovers a bank card tucked in behind it. Wow. How – awful. How – exciting. When her well-meaning mother, clueless about the price of anything, gives her thirty dollars to buy a new winter jacket, Avvy is sorely tempted, but she resists. It’s only when she gets the idea to give her brother, bullied almost every day at school, martial arts lessons, that she overcomes her natural unwillingness to steal. She tries using the card at an ATM machine and discovers the account has five hundred dollars in it. One thing leads to another. She needs a new jacket (the kids at school!) her parents need a new stove (immediately!) and she learns “two things about thieving: The doing is scary but it’s quick. It’s over before you know it. And afterward you get a rush. It’s only after some time that you notice you feel different – that the rush was really part of yourself leaving. What’s left is heavier.”

Searching for herself in a world where it’s much easier to remain invisible, is the deeper theme here. As Avvy writes in a history assignment: “Governments that used multiculturalism as a basis for policy pushed the real stuff, the deep stuff, to the fringes…” Set in a totally realistic world of high school classes, art projects, and hall-way drama, this is a modern teen novel with emotional veracity and real intelligence.   James Lorimer and Co., 2010.

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Posted in children's books

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Diary fiction is hot stuff just now. It’s kind of a hybrid; fiction masquerading as creative nonfiction – a type of voyeurism that allows readers to peer inside the heart and mind of the narrator. Narratorial voice is key, and the more authentic the voice, the more powerful the impact. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a case in point.

I wasn’t going to read this book. I resented the fact that the School Library Journal gave it a thumbs up for twelve-year-olds. True, Arnold Spirit, Jr., the protagonist, is in middle school. But his language, his sarcasm, his whole schtick, at first glance, was alarming.   I just didn’t want to deal with it. Recently, however, I was stuck at an airport and needed something to read, and bought a copy. As soon as I started reading this time, I was hooked. Junior (Spirit’s nickname on the rez) is a real person. He can be vulgar (like a lot of 13-year-old boys, I guess) but he can also be astonishingly sweet, and funny.   He is a living, breathing boy, and you end up really caring about him.

Born with water on the brain, Junior is an Indian (his term; no one in this book is ever referred to as a Native American) cartoonist who draws constantly in order to express himself, and connect to the world. (Junior’s comics are sprinkled throughout the text). He has dreams, and hopes for a good life, even though he knows that Indians aren’t supposed to do that. His family is so poor, his Dad has to shoot their dog when it gets sick, because they can’t take it to the vet. After freaking out one day when he realized the textbook he is handed was used by his mother – meaning it is over 20 years old – a teacher encourages him to leave the rez and go to the rich, white school, 20 miles or so away. Junior is conflicted. He doesn’t want to abandon his people, but he has to go where there is hope, and the possibility of getting out of the cycle of poverty.

Of course all this heavy stuff is implicit – Junior’s cutting perceptions of the problems all around him are punctuated throughout by a wicked wit and unflinching self-examination. After a rocky start, he falls in love with an anorexic “translucently beautiful” white girl who morphs into a sort-of girlfriend, joins the basketball team, and because of his quirky and courageous character, becomes an accepted part of the school community. His true community, however, of course, lives on the rez. How can he leave them behind? Will they ever forgive him?

I have to say, I was wrong about this book. Regardless of its genre, its age range, and what not, Sherman’s novel is just really, really good. By the time you reach the last page, you wish it could go on and on.  Like all great fiction, at heart it’s all absolutely true, and therefore very compelling. As the poet W.B. Yeats tells us on the frontispiece of the book, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” This world of an adolescent on the rez is not often, or ever, portrayed with such stirring clarity.

So is this book for the younger spectrum of middle grade? At first glance, no, not really – at least not on their own. It’s vulgar at times, and a lot of really disturbing things happen. But there is a discussion guide in the back for teachers, with helpful questions that probe the deeper implications of the book. With that kind of guided reading in a middle grade classroom, I imagine the experience would be fantastic.

absolutely-true-diary

Posted in children's books

In Darkness, by Nick Lake

This book is incredibly important for several reasons.  First, it’s about one of the worst natural disasters of the decade.  Second, it’s an in-depth look at Haiti, told by one of her native sons. With one out of every twenty Haitians resides in the US, (Migration Information Source; http://www.migrationinformation.org/usfocus/display.cfm?id=770) let’s just say it’s a relevant culture. (My children’s elementary school announcements were actually made in both English and Creole.)  Third, its narrative structure is outside the box.  Let me elaborate.

Imagine Haiti, after the earthquake of 2010. Shorty is a teenage boy, trapped under a collapsed building in that country. Alone and in total darkness, Shorty lapses in and out of consciousness as he reflects on his life as a drug runner for rap star Biggie. Part truth, part fantastic fiction, a picture emerges of a boy, held captive not only by stone and earth, but also by the history of his troubled culture. The book moves back and forth in time from Shorty’s first-person account of his childhood in Site Soley, the major Haitian slum in Port au Prince, run by thugs and drug runners, to a third-person narrative of revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led an actual slave revolt in Haiti in the 18th century. Their stories alternate by chapters, Shorty’s street slang and rap lyrics contrasting sharply with the slightly academic and detached manner of L’Ouverture’s story. L’Ouverture loves his beautiful country, despite his enslavement, and describes her landscape in voluptuous terms. Yet voodoo and violence abound in both realities; for example, L’Overture attends a ceremony to invoke possession by dead spirits, and Shorty sees his own father killed. As he sleeps, possibly dying beneath the rubble, the boy dreams he is the black revolutionary, while L’Ourverture himself dreams of flying as a young boy into a future Haiti, free from slavery, but lying in the ruins of some great natural disaster. The two share a single soul, and their intertwined destinies paint a dark and trembling portrait of a country relegated through the centuries to brutality and neglect. Other actual people pepper the story with life, such as the popular local leader Dread Wilme, who was shot down by UN forces for real in 2005. While the transition between the two narratives is not always smooth, the book is incredibly powerful. Lake clarifies what is real and what is not, with an Author’s Note at the end, and gives further resources for information and assistance. Readers will certainly come away with an authentic and deep cultural awareness, more than any factual account of the natural disaster could ever achieve. While the raw depictions of violence and black magic make the book inappropriate for younger grades, it is sure to enlighten many teens, young adults, and anyone who cares about global understanding. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012. Don’t miss it!

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Posted in children's books

The Absolute Value of Mike, by Katherine Erskine

 

Mike is, in his own words, a fourteen-year-old “math moron.” Given that his father is a math genius who teaches at the University, this is pretty serious. But Mike lives alone with his Dad, and takes care of him. He can’t do things like other fathers: make toast, find his car keys, or pay the bills. Mike’s most immediate problem is being sent away for six weeks to help his ancient great-aunt and uncle with some science project in rural Pennsylvania while his father teaches a seminar in Romania.   Great-aunt Moo meets him at the airport, white hair sticking straight out from her head, wearing yellow duck sneakers, and the summer goes downhill from there. Mike’s Uncle Poppy, still in shock from the death of their son four months ago, sits glued to the living room chair. The smartest man in town lives on a park bench. This could be depressing, but Mike’s ongoing inner and outer dialog is laugh-out-loud funny, and the darkness recedes.  He tells his story with great humor, panache and heart. As Mike gets drawn into the town’s scheme to adopt a small boy from – where else – Romania, the various storylines get pulled closer and closer together, like the strings on Moo’s hoodie. National Book Award winner Erskine (Mockingbird) weaves a magic spell in this snugly constructed novel. While the premise of a young teen being sent off to crazy relatives is not exactly original, the quirky characters virtually pop off the page, and the absolute value of the story ends up being much more than the sum of its parts.

Philomel, 2011, Ages 8-12.

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