Wednesday, March 22, 2006

 

Magic Does Not Always Involve the Supernatural

So B. It by Sarah Weeks (HarperCollins, 2004): tidy, tight, simple, affecting, perfect. I will now go out and find her other jr fiction. (Also by this author: picture book Mrs. McNosh Hangs Out the Wash, which was Daughter's favourite car story when she was two, always asked for by name: "Nelly Noss! Nelly Noss!")

The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett (Viking, 2004): same adjectives as above can apply, but this is an entirely different sort of book, international and old-fashioned where the other was definitely American and modern. In the woods near their home, two French girls find an English (WWI) soldier gone AWOL. He lost his eyesight on the way out from the front; he needs to get across the Channel and home, to see his ill (dying) brother. While waiting for a plan to take shape and effect, the soldier tells four stories, each inspired by the silver donkey he keeps as a good-luck charm. I think I'll read this aloud to Daughter, if not now then in a year or so.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

What Happens When There's Nothing on TV?

The laundry doesn't get folded, and books get read.

I picked up Shadrach by Meindert DeJong (Harper, 1953) at a secondhand shop last week, for sentimental reasons. I started reading this one aloud in the car on a family trip and got maybe a third of the way through. What an odd book! It had the timbre of a van de Hulst book, and we wondered if this was a Dutch thing. Van de Hulst was the author of a number of stories for children that were published in Edmonton in the fifties and sixties. (Cozy and full of Omas, Opas, and church, but with extremely low production values and a limited circulation--basically, Dutch immigrant families.) The quality Shadrach and the books of van de Hulst have in common is a kind of self-conscious, sing-song cadence to the writing. VandeHulst pretty much stuck to present tense, and would often address the reader directly; you never lost the sense that a story was being told. Shadrach is better, but ideas and phrases are repeated with a kind of wide-eyed emphasis, as if by an Oma engaging the attention of a wriggly four-year-old.

Way back when my father expressed disdain for Dutch children's literature. "They're way behind North America," I believe he said. (And he a native Dutchman!) The book that incited the comment was an brief, illustrated early-reader book, in the present tense and with a kind of cute, arch tone. I didn't think it was so bad--but then, I though vandeHulst was cozy. Now, I read Hide and Seek by Ida Vos (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), which was was first published in the Netherlands in 1981, and wonder if my father's opinion was perhaps the right one. It is in present tense, and has that same simple, plodding, wide-eyed quality. Of course, the bad translation doesn't help. Too many Dutch turns of phrase were literally translated ("little maid") making the book more wooden-footed than it needed to be.

DeJong was technically an American, and wrote in English, but he was essentially a Dutch storyteller. He was greatly honoured in his time, winning the Hans Christian Andersen award in 1962. But his stature hasn't lingered much. Even while I was reading him, in the seventies, his books seemed opaque with time. He wrote in an old-fashioned way, often about children from his own childhood (though I didn't read many more than a couple--The Wheel on the School and Candy I remember; I might have read others). Since DeJong, there have been no great works of Dutch children's literature. Or any literature, that I know of.

So, where are the great Dutch writers? Or is it simply that Dutch writing--Dutch thought, Dutch storytelling--doesn't translate well into English?

Monday, March 20, 2006

 

Two in One Day!

Oops, forgot to blog this: Secrets, "stories selected by Marthe Jocelyn" (Tundra, 2005). The dedication in this book is very encouraging. The collection is really good. I'm grateful to Tundra for taking the risk. There are so few collections like this out there at this level. And it came just in time for me: a friend at the university in town is having Teresa Toten in to speak to the children's lit class, and invited me to crash. Based on the whipcrack of a story she has in this collection, I really want to go and hear what she has to say.

 

The Tall and the Blind

Picked up The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken (Avon, 1996) at the secondhand book shop. Liked the cover and also thought a story about a woman who falls in love with an eleven-year-old boy would be an good antidote to The Time Traveller's Wife. (I found the Pygmalion-like setup there creepy, though the story was a total ride and there were many thought-provoking moments in it. ) The Giant's House was well and carefully built, and as a novel, it stands absolutely solid. I can't fault its storytelling or its characters. There is little to jar you in its "carefully delineated, well-tended precincts" (The New Yorker)—but in the end it left me pretty cold.

How could it be otherwise, given the difficult task the author assigned herself? The narrating character is a librarian; and yes, she is the dry stick of a female you are imagining right now. She's single and solitary. She is a character in a book, literally: fleshless, scentless. I've encountered a few dry-stick women with emotions as tamped-down as this character's, and I find them really hard to be around. They make me want to scream. So the coldness I toward the book is partly my inability to understand the main character. (I believe my close-the-book comment was "I don't understand grownups.")

So what is the nature of her "passion" for James, then? It's not sex, she insists (certainly not at the start, when he is a child). She says at one point she simply wants to "be in his body." I think the "passion" is simply the strength of her decision to love him. Yes, she makes a decision to love James, in the only way she can, which is to take care of him, and be his friend, and bend her whole life's purpose to his service. And as I write this, I make a connection: this sounds like one's love for Jesus. Is Peggy Cort a latter-day Julian of Norwich? Or a cross between the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene? Hmm. James is a giant, over eight feet tall when he dies—larger than life, too large for life. Hmm. He loves her too, and there is a brief, mostly hidden scene of physical intimacy, right before he dies, when he is already incandescent with fever; but the most poignant physical moment in the book is when she bathes and ministers to his much abused feet. Hmm. After he dies, too young, she lives out the rest of her life caring for his shrine. Hmm. She also bears his child—spiritually speaking, since the intimacy didn't extend that far, and the actual sperm was provided in a grief-induced grapple with James' pleasant, impossible father. Double hmm.

I found that pregnancy the hardest to believe, and I think it's the weakest part of the book—a folly that compromises the whole foundation. Being pregnant, giving birth and raising a baby is an intensely physical experience. Peggy is so intensely non-physical. It gives the whole book the flatness of a Byzantine icon. And she appears to have almost no relationship with her child. Okay, so the book is about her relationship with James; so then why throw in the child?

From Charlie's Point of View is a high midgrade, low YA-ish novel by Richard Scrimger (Tundra, 2005) . The big joke is that Charlie is blind, and so doesn't have a point of view (he claims, when asked; though we know different, because much of the book is narrated from his point of "view"). With the help of his old, good friend Bernadette and their new sidekick Lewis, Charlie tracks down the real perp when his dad is accused of being the Stocking Bandit. The book's a romp, very entertaining in every respect. (Including the design. The cover's great, and they've had some fun with Braille and "blank" pages.) There are a couple of delightful twists: the identity of the perp (I got the right idea at one point, but then the story performed just enough sleight of hand to distract me) and the mysterious character Gideon, a guardian angel with a choral aura and an endless supply of bouncy balls.

One discordant note is the American hybridization. The kids go to a middle school, say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning and eat lunch in a school cafeteria; yet they eat during "grade seven lunch" period. Don't the Americans say "seventh grade"? I wonder what else will strike American readers as slightly off. I can totally understand wanting to appeal to the big market down south, but in a book like this—whimsical and fantastic—is an Anytown, USA setting really necessary?

P.S. I am advised that Born to Rock is being published here by Scholastic Canada Ltd. There's a good and accurate review in Quill&Quire, April, 2006.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

 

Boy Writer

It has slowly been dawning on me that my son, similar though we may be, is a boy. I was a girl when I was his age. We read (past/present) differently. A few years ago he told me that he didn't like books that were "too moving." I thought this meant he didn't like sad fiction, but that wasn't so. What interests me in fiction is the intimate movement of character and relationships. When something happens, I want to know what changes because of it in the main character and how s/he relates to the other characters. I want emotion: my son, sensitive, perceptive and thoughtful though he is, wants action. He doesn't want movement; he wants motion. He loved the second "Children of the Lamp" book, whereas I got a bit bored (Hmm--I forgot to blog that one. What does THAT say?) Nothing changed for me from the first book to the second. The kids were pretty much the same, and they related to each other in pretty much the same way. But sure, plenty of exciting stuff happened, and that was all good for my son.

A friend in the publishing industry gave me an advance reader's copy of Gordon Korman's latest, Born to Rock (Hyperion, 2006), on the condition that I didn't say anything "nasty" about it here. I might have (or might not have), but because she had planted that idea in my head I found myself reading it in a tolerant mood. I was grateful in the end, because the tolerance allowed me to see something more clearly. Korman is what he is: a boy writer. (Quality is another discussion altogether.) Lots of mayhem, big-C Characters, stuff happening. Because the book is YA-ish ("content" implied only) there's some character growth allowed--but not too much. In the end, the estranged dad character saves the day most heroically. And that's okay. It's okay that too much of this stuff bores me; it's okay that my son snarfed Bruno and Boots and their ilk, and that he's frightened of Leon Garfield.

One of my many teacher-sisters (the one with three sons!) pointed out that all the books on teaching writing teach girl writing: emotion, situation, meaning. She also pointed out that there are plenty of gender-crossers (Ender's Game came first to mind; and then Diana Wynne Jones, though she's too literary for most kids; but spec and science fiction seems to be the most fertile field for gender hybrids) and became thoughtful when she realized she had been keeping a mental list of such titles. I would dearly love to talk about this some more in a conference setting. What might come up?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

 

One More Thing

Thinking about it some more, I guess the idea of the Bach book was that the two voices, Catharina's and Hannah's, play out in the book like the concerto, picking up a theme and carrying it, playing together, going solo in turns. Hmm. I can think of a few more interesting, evocative titles, then: what about "The Double"? Or "Concerto for Two Voices"?
I read the "Other Books by" and "About the Author" in The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli (Random House, 2005) and despair. How does she find the time and energy to write all those books AND teach? Okay, the college year is short, and she is an experienced researcher, but still . . . I sigh, and feel like the laziest underachiever on the planet.
Song of the Magdalene was okay (I got tired of the [Biblically unfounded and Roman Catholic] notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitite long before Dan Brown did, I'll bet) and Daughter of Venice was good, but it was with Breath that I sat up and took notice. What an unusual look at old Europe that was--very Boschian and unsettling. The King of Mulberry Street is unsettling, too. It isn't so long ago that children were fending for themselves in North America. They still are, a lot of them, but maybe not to this extent. For some reason, stories like this disturb my son--stories about children having to fend for themselves. I wonder why. I liked them, when I was his age. Maybe that was because I felt so alone and anxious, then, and such stories told me that kids could have it worse than me and still survive.
Donna Jo regrets that she did not listen at the feet of her grandfather while he was alive. Well, that's a pointless regret (and Donna, your story might be better for it, anyway). You're ready when you're ready. You need distance to get the whole picture. Parents cast big shadows. Maybe I'll be able to write about my own grandmother(s) when my parents are out of the picture--and then I'm sure I'll be kicking myself for not having asked my parents more questions.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

 

With All Due Respect . . .

I didn't get why these two things were being put together, and their connection was so spacey and all-in-the-head: Catharina, the daugher of JS Bach, and a violin-playing young teen/preteen, Hannah, who has lost her mother. Okay, there's being female, whatever that means; there is the music (Hannah is trying to master the Bach Double), if you know anything about Bach you know from the start there will be the grief (Catharina's mother dies); there is the difficulty in communicating with a distant father (Hannah's is lost in grief, Catharina's is always working and has expectations only for his sons). And then there's the violin: it turns out that Hannah inherits a violin that was originally owned (though she doesn't know it) by JS himself. Yes, that looks like a lot of similarity, but the connection still seems forced, particularly in the Catharina-to-Hannah direction. Catharina seems to call "the girl" up from nothing and nowhere, in an idle letter, and then sees her in mirrors. Why?

I look at the title of this book, Hannah Waters and the Daughter of Johann Sebastian Bach (by Barbara Nickel; Penguin, 2005) and I think, "Well, there you are." It's two stories, running side by side, like gears; they work fine, but the clutch doesn't, so when they try to mesh, there's a grinding sound. That Catharina feels Hannah's misery when she touches her father's violin violates everything we understand about the (fictional) life of objects, which accumulate, not project, the patina of their successive owners.

And can you really convey what music does and is, in writing? The author works hard at it, and what comes across most powerfully is how music helps people connect with one another. Yes, there's the connection over history that written music makes. That is illustrated by the frontispiece reproduction of a page from an autograph copy of Concerto For Two Violins; and by the very portrayal of the Bach family, who live and breathe music so completely that they can't help leaving a trail of it behind them. But I'm talking about what music does in the present and in the flesh; an episode in which Hannah learns the St Anne's Reel during the course of a kitchen party is a beautiful example, and so is Hanna's climactic performance of the Bach Double in her school gym, in which she forgets herself at last (and then wins over her scornful peers). That connection can be powerful, but it takes real people playing in real people's hearing—breath and sweat and flesh—to make it so. Stretch it across time, reality—and art forms—and it gets a bit thin.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

 

Grown Up Children

The thing about E.L. Konigsburg is that her protagonists are grown-ups; conflict is initiated when a grown-up child butts up against a childish grown-up, or when the the protagonist is forced to deal with childish behaviour in his or her (grouped) “peers.” And each book includes at least one childlike grown-up—an ally who, though fully grown up, has the soul of a child, and is willing to lend his or her adult privileges (transportation, credit, a voice) for the protagonist's use.

I didn’t see this, reading her work as a child, but I felt a certain vertigo sometimes; From the Mixed-Up Files [etc.] and A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver were/are among my favourites, but in Father's Arcane Daughter it was as if I was taking a step or two across the chasm between childhood and adulthood on a kind of magic one-hair bridge of Konigsburg’s devising. (Perhaps I was just too young for that one at the time.)

The View From Saturday seemed rather precious to me, and I was surprised at the Newbery committee’s awarding it a medal. Now I wonder if the chasm crossing in that book was more in the nature of back-fill than bridging. In The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place Konigsburg builds a a bridge again, this time in the form of fanciful towers erected over 45 years by a couple of bachelor uncles and saved from demolition by their faithful niece, with the help of assorted allies of the grown-up and child kind (though the latter take some persuasion). The story is good, too.

Also read: Hidden Child by Isaac Millman, a tale of suffering and astounding luck, tenderly told. This is the kind of picture book adults can own without apology.

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