Showing posts with label children's books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children's books. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

IN SCHEMES BEGIN RESPONSIBILITIES: I have a post about the Great Brain books, over at Acculturated!

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I immediately thought of Wesley Hill's book (not Catholic but we will overlook that for the moment) and less-immediately thought of two kids' books I loved, The Satanic Mill and The Wicked Enchantment. I wrote about them in an old piece which is very flawed but with whose basic thesis I still agree, here. (The 2009 date is when it was reprinted--I'm pretty sure it was originally written in 2002.) Other books I'd push: Kathy Shaidle's Lobotomy Magnificat, Tim Powers's Declare, and Alan Bray's The Friend. You guys doubtless have your own candidates!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN: A genuinely illuminating interview with Maurice Sendak. I was wary at first, thinking he might come across as self-impressed, but that really didn't happen (in my opinion):
...At 83, Sendak is still enraged by almost everything that crosses his landscape. In the first 10 minutes of our meeting, he gets through:

Ebooks: "I hate them. It's like making believe there's another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of book! A book is a book is a book." ...

The term "children's illustrator" annoys him, since it seems to belittle his talent. "I have to accept my role. I will never kill myself like Vincent Van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can't do that. I'm in the idiot role of being a kiddie book person." He and Eugene never considered bringing up children themselves, he says. He's sure he would have messed it up. His brother felt the same way: after their childhood, they were too dysfunctional. "They led desperate lives," he says of his parents. "They should have been crazy. And we – making fun of them. I remember when my brother was dying, he looked at me and his eyes were all teary. And he said, 'Why were we so unkind to Mama?' And I said, 'Don't do that. We were kids, we didn't understand. We didn't know she was crazy.'"

There was a partial reconciliation with his parents, a moment of understanding. They never made much of his work except once, when he was asked to illustrate a set of stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1978. They were proud of that, he says. For the illustrations, Sendak went back to the family album. "There were the photographs my father had of his younger brothers, all handsome and interesting-looking, and the women with long hair and flowers. And I went through the album and picked some of my mother's relatives and some of my father's and drew them very acutely. And they cried. And I cried. So there was that. And there still is that."

more (also via A&LDaily)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"WITHOUT HESITATION THEY BEGAN TO DANCE." The 2008 movie Exam is basically a cheapened version of William Sleator's terrific novel House of Stairs.

As the comparison suggests, Exam's first half-hour or so highlights the way that contemporary job applications and economic pressures infantilize adults (much as the surrounding pop culture infantilizes people who, in a better world, would already be raising children of their own). The adults in this movie can be treated like the teens in Sleator's novel because their life-stage is so similar. The pencil-skirt precision with which they present themselves, the marketing ethos which leads them to accept the most reductive nicknames, all make college applicants look like careerist twentysomethings and make thirtysomethings look like children.

Exam is a really bad movie, with tons of overplaying and overwriting. I do think it's kind of amazing as a cultural document. The parallels with House of Stairs were startling, and the really boringly obvious AIDS references were harsh enough that I choked up a couple of times despite knowing that I was being manipulated. A B-movie, if not a B-minus--every single twist will be guessed well in advance--but this is a window into what job-hunting really feels like, and that makes it painful. I thought the twistiness of the "are we pro- or anti-Big Pharma?" plotline was also surprisingly thoughtful, though I have really intensely low expectations there.

You really should read House of Stairs though. It's a sad, compromised look at martyrdom and complicity, and its characters are incredibly memorable. Peter and Lola are one of the most memorable and unexpected teams in children's lit.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


She is one of my most beloved children's authors. Everybody has a unique list of favorite DWJ novels. I'll talk a little bit about mine, here, and also try to indicate what made her writing so fantastic overall.

Fire and Hemlock. What's odd is that I've never managed to keep the plot of this retelling of the Tam Lin/Thomas the Rhymer legends straight, even as I started to consider it one of Jones's best books. It's longer and "older" than most of her stuff--shading into adolescence, rather than firmly embedded in childhood--and there's erotic tension appropriate for the age group. The girl, the "Janet," is self-dramatizing and unpleasant in a way I am pretty sure I was at her age! This is a much less moralistic tale than The Secret Garden (which I also love) but the exposure of the protagonist's flaws is equally unsparing.

Dogsbody. A bullied girl finds solace in her pet dog... who just happens to be the personification of the Dog Star, Sirius, sent to earth to learn humility and reclaim the weapon used by his beloved and treacherous Companion star.

DWJ is often at her best when she's showing a fractured and barely-mended family in which the children have to bond together despite one another. A lot of people have noted how self-absorbed the parents in her books often are, how neglectful or actively harmful. And here we get to see two "blended families": Kathleen and her cousins (her father is an imprisoned Irish terrorist), and Sirius and the cats of the household. We see how the "insiders" have become defensive and cold as a result of the father's neglect and the mother's bullying; we see how the "outsiders," Kathleen and Sirius, bargain for small concessions; and we see, I think, how even the ferocious mother is a real person, with real emotions, whose tragedy is precisely that she exists in her own world and doesn't understand what she's done to her children (and her cats!).

I love this book so much. I identified very strongly with Sirius, with his uncontrollable temper and his sense of how humiliating it is to have to relearn one's place in the world. This is one of the books which shaped me as a person.

Cart and Cwidder. Another patchwork family. Political tensions between north and south (I'm pretty sure those were the terms--?) force itinerant singer Clennen and his kids to make nice with bratty Kialan and his brother, sons of a northern rebel. Again I seriously overidentified with Kialan. He's just so awful!--and yet Jones seems to understand what it would feel like to be the kid who is always doing or saying the unhelpful thing, when everyone around you is being intensely responsible and you feel incapable of matching them. There's an immense amount of wonder in this book, as well, with mountains moving and ancient legends fulfilled.

Witch Week. One of her funniest--even though it includes scenes in which a child imagines what it will be like when he is burnt to death for witchcraft! The backdrop of this story is incredibly dark--it's set at a boarding school in which almost all the children have lost family members to witch-hunting, and all of them fear that they might be next on the fiery agenda--and yet the tone is "school story" and hilarious. Insightful (I used a diary code similar to Charles's when I was a teen) and bittersweet. The adults are unhelpful, but less actively-harmful than in most of Jones's books.

The Ogre Downstairs. Maybe her most forgiving book--although she's a forgiving author, in general. Stepchildren need to learn to work together to manage a magical chemistry set. Tons of fun (the bit where they gild the horrific wedding gifts is priceless), moments of genuine wonder in between things like chocolate bars wandering down the hallway, and huge amounts of sympathy for everyone involved, even the stepfather who is the "ogre" in the title.

Witch's Business. Published in the UK as Own Back, Ltd. A rare Jones with explicit discussion of class conflict! But again, kids band together despite intense personal dislike, and through compromise and sympathy they defeat the adult enemy. Plus, they run a revenge-for-hire business!

Power of Three. Children from three species (basically fairy/normal, human/Giant, and fishything) must band together to lift a curse. Includes some really powerful scenes of what it feels like to be waiting to be caught, as a kid; learning the weakness of the adults whom you love; and discovering that your place in the world is simultaneously more important and much more unpleasant than you realized.

The Homeward Bounders. Probably the saddest children's story I've ever read. Jamie "walks the bounds," crossing the lines between universes, and meets the ferocious Helen and the seemingly-servile Joris (Joris? can't remember how his name is spelled). Includes some of Jones's most horror-show moments, like Helen's cannibal hand or the mud-colored soldiers' uniforms. The awesomely funny bits, like the pantomime horse or the cricket game, only make the final lines more heartbreaking.

Howl's Moving Castle. This is just a confection. Young Sophie is cursed to live as an old woman; she goes to work for rakish wizard Howl, and becomes entangled in his bizarre puzzlebox of a life, as he tries to work free of a curse of his own. A charming, funny, magical book, with John Donne and a soap-operatic scarecrow and lots of hats.

Charmed Life. Typically absurd magic (the evil dough stuck to the floor is especially memorable) with a terrifying older sister who is willing to sacrifice almost anything for power. As always with Jones, childhood is no refuge.

Monday, January 31, 2011

For my twelfth birthday my Aunt Harry gave me a one-thousand-dollar bill, a ten-foot-long boa constrictor named Calvin, and a five-year diary.
--Joyce Cool, The Kidnapping of Courtney Van Allen and What's-Her-Name

Monday, June 01, 2009

VERY EXPENSIVE STONE. Sorry--as you can probably tell, the post below was unfinished. My computer crashed. I want to do a longer post looking at a bunch of Mangan's columns, because she's a vivid writer and a good opponent even where I disagree, but I don't have time right now. For some children's-book recommendations from me, you can go here, here, and (with caveat) here. Also, I don't think I mentioned the Bagthorpe books for some reason; read those too!

Meanwhile, 1) it's the feast of St. Justin Martyr, patron of philosophers!


2) I have very vague, and possibly false, memories of an article making the case that the Slits scene in Derek Jarman's Jubilee "elected Thatcher" (by being emblematic of the '70s glorification of public disorder, which isn't the only reading of Jubilee, but whatev). Did I dream this, or does someone else remember the article? I need it for a thing.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

THE WHIRLIGIG OF TIME BRINGS IN HIS REVENGES. Inside Catholic reposted an article I did for them way back in 2002, when they were still Crisis magazine. The piece is called "Outside Narnia: Christianity and Children's Fantasy," and it was my attempt to defend non- and even anti-Christian fantasy books while also promoting a few fun or even great Catholic works which had been swamped by the flood of Lewistolkein.

Re-reading it... wow, I would not write this article the same way today! Every column-inch of the praise for Tamora Pierce is humiliating to read, and in general, this is just more "pi" and ethics-y than I'd want to write now. On the other hand, the parts where I recommend John Bellairs, Margot Benary-Isbert, and (especially) Ottfried Preussler, and where I defend Susan Price (author of the world's most nihilist children's books!), are still fine.

Anyway... uh... there it is! Can you tell I'm not strong enough or humble enough to keep my old diaries?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Further communication with her husband seemed hopeless. Between them yawned the chasm that divides those who have consumed champagne before breakfast from those who have not.
--Helen Cresswell, Bagthorpes Haunted