Friday, November 30, 2007

Oh, Cr*p

Budza and I just finished reading Volume 1 of the Beyond Spiderwick series, The Nixie's Song, by Holly Black and Tony DeTerlizzi. I was taken aback to find the work cr*p in it repeatedly, used by the narrator, Nick. The first time I ran across it ...
"Nick cringed and set down another box of her crap on the canopy bed. All the boxes seemed to be labeled unicorns, fairies, or books about unicorns and fairies. A few of them had even bled glitter onto the hall rug.

...I just stopped reading, unsure of what to do, and explained to Ben there was a bad word there I didn't want him to use and I was skipping it. The next time I think I changed it to Nick's stepsister's "stuff" and the next use I changed it to "crud." But then when Jared calls Nick a "lard ass" I read that out loud and told Ben I didn't want him to use language like that. (And I seem to have total amnesia about Spiderwick books I through V. Maybe they had language on the salty side, too, but I just wasn't paying attention.)

I know kids grow up fast, and probably he's heard much worse that this on the schoolyard and at camp, and in a few PG movies that really push the envelope. But somehow it feels different coming from a book, and one clearly marked for ages 7 and up.

To me, 7 is still YOUNG. It's not the 9-12 age span of this year's Newbury award-winning The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, which set off a firestorm earlier this year because of the word, on page one, for a portion of a male dog's anatomy.

I think I'll have to have a converation with Budza about the language in the book, and why I felt I had to change it, but say that now he's reading on his own he'll be picking his own books and will have to make his own decisions on what language he wants to use and what not. I support Holly Black's right to be true to the creative vision and voice of the characters in the book. She had every creative right to use the word, but I just keep coming back to the notation on the back of the book for ages 7 and up.

The whole situation leaves me not knowing quite what to do with my reaction. I suppose it's just another sign of the downward creep of tween-ness, language and plot elements that used to be solely the territory of YA seeping into books that are for younger and younger kids. It somehow seems wrong, to have to leave the word cr*p out of a book you're reading aloud to a seven year old who is sitting there in his shark pajamas, wiggling his loose tooth like the kid he is.

The world is full of cr*p, he'll learn that soon enough, probably he knows it already. But I couldn't stand to hear it come out of my own mouth at story hour.

Brownies Again

First, the disambiguation: these are not Brownies as in a young girl's Brownie troop, these are not the bake-sale staple, but these are related, sort of to the ubiquitous Brownie camera made by Eastman Kodak for about a hundred years.

I was looking online yesterday looking for a good beginner camera for the Budza, who will be eight later this month. He loved taking a disposable camera to the Lego meetup Brickfest in Vermont this summer, and to Bar Island, Maine, for our family getaway. I quickly discovered that first digital cameras aimed at the 5 to 10 year old set are disappointing. They seem to be either hard to use or to yield disappointing pictures, or to have inadequate memory. So I ended up ordered a refurbished camera from Kodak's online shop. But in the process of looking, I got all nostalgic not just for my old Brownie camera, which I took around the capiltals of Europe and Asia during my jet-setting childhood, but for the little Brownie characters devised by Palmer Cox (1840-1924) in the 1880s, which were used to sell an early version of the camera. By the time Kodak put the Brownies in their ads for the $1 camera, Palmer's cartoon creations were famous and already heavily merchanised, much like Kewpie dolls at the time or Spongebob today. There's even an 1894 review in the NYT archive of a play staged in Philadelphia based on the Brownies. It opened a month later in New York and later toured for five years. When I was growing up, we had a Dover reprint edition of The Brownies: Their Book, and while I confess it was the kind of long epic poem with which I had, at the age of ten, zero patience, I pored over the images. I always liked to find the Brownie with the monocle, kind of like trying to find Waldo in one of those crowded Where's Waldo images.

So, if they were so popular a century ago, why aren't they better remembered today? Like Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle, the Brownies haven't survived the transition to the twenty-first century. Probably just as well, because to an adult's eye they appear as a parade of ethnic stereotype and racial charicature:

the Irishman, the Scot, the Russian, the effete London dandy, the Indian, the Eskimo, and the Chinaman with his queue. As Palmer draws them, they're not in the least fey or magical, but Palmer did his best to draw them with a sturdy farmhouse charm about them, true to the actual Brownie folklore. And I think it's in that spirit that I enjoyed them as a child, poring over the details of the crammed images. Would I enjoy them now? I might have to go up in the attic and find the old Dover reprint and see.

Read more about them on the web at Toonpedia, the site of an apparently fanatical Dutch collector of Brownieabilia, and these really thorough webpages from the Freemasons of British Columbia and the Yukon dedicated to the memory of Cox's great grand nephew.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Spiderwick from Page to Screen

Well, in the opinion of my seven-year-old son, the Spiderwick books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi aren't making the transition from page to screen quite fast enough. The petulant refrain as we toured the wonderful Spiderwick exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum in Hadley, Mass., was "Do we really have to wait until FEBRUARY?!?!"

The exhibit features a reproduction of DiTerlizzi's desk, complete with a stag beetle under glass and a little champagne cork and wire chair sized for a brownie; character development sketches by the animators at Industrial Light and Magic; 3D animation maquettes of the characters; wonderful props from Arthur Spiderwick's secret study, and the magpie-ish nest of the house brownie Thimbletack, with its thimbles (of course), buttons, and a andelabra fashioned of a birthday candle. There is a whole wall of Thimbletacks, like mutant wombats, menacing leprechauns, strange pookahish things caught halfway between human and animal. There are even some hanging cages from the goblin-camp scene. I had already been looking forward to Spiderwick on the big screen, but after we'd toured the exhibit a couple of times, I had two thoughts.

Don't the prop people and set-dressers at Paramount Pictures have a great job, and how can I get it? Really, who wouldn't want to prowl antique shops to furnish the Spiderwick mansion?


Do we REALLY have to wait until freaking FEBRUARY?!?!?!??

Alas, Budza, we do. But we have the new Beyond Spiderwick book, The Nixie's Song. And when we're done with that, I'm getting my hands on some Arthur Rackham. It's been too long since I've enjoyed his sensibility in the original.

The Footprints of Noah's Raven

OK, this is pretty mind-boggling.

In the 1830s, Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), the third president of Amherst College, amassed the world's largest collection of dinosaur footprints, collected from the Connecticut Valley. You can see these trackways, mounted on the walls and hanging in slabs from the ceiling of a dimly lit gallery at the Amherst Natural History Museum not far from the Amherst town common. Hitchcock first began his collection before the word "dinosaur" had even been coined over in the UK. He thought the three-toed footprints had been made by giant birds.

And that would be mind-boggling enough, but it doesn't stop there. Hitchcock took some smaller slabs, split them into layers, and bound them like books, with metal hinges, so you can actually turn pages and see the dinosaur footprint cast, the actual footprint, and echoes of the print in layers of sediment further down. The Amherst Museum actually has a replica of one of these "stony books" whose pages you can turn. It's quite the weird experience, turning the pages of time.

My other favorite part? The very first dinosaur footprint in the collection was discovered by one Pliny Moody in 1802, when he was ploughing a field in South Hadley, Mass. He thought the prints must have been left by Noah's raven.

You can see Edward Hitchcock's Stony Library at the Amherst Natural History Museum through January 6. And if you can't make it to Amherst to see the stony library before they pack it all up and put it away in a back room, you can at least check out Nancy Pick's book about Hitchcock's collection, Curious Footprints.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Thorn, White Rose reissued

A rare piece of my writing for the adult market, a Regency reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, is now back in print. "Somnus’ Fair Maid,” appears in the new edition of Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. First published in 1994 by Avon/Morrow, the anthology has just been re-released by the Prime Books imprint of Wildside Press, based in Rockville, Maryland. For you teachers and librarians out there, my entry is G, but others in the collection range up to mature territory. Not for tweens, and for older teens only, probably. In "Somnus's Fair Maid," the spinning wheel is a roulette wheel upon which the heroine's father loses his fortune, and it's the hero, Hippolyte, not the heroine, Pesephone, who's awakened by a kiss. And you just have to love the new jacket art, don't you?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Reader Is Born

The Budza (my 8 year old son) started reading for pleasure for the first time last night. For some time he's had to read to us twenty minutes a day for homework, and if he wakes up before we do on the weekends he will sometimes page through a book until we are ready to get up and grope our way to the coffeemaker (damn those trained cappuchin monkeys!!! We thought they would bring us coffee in the mornings...)

Anyway, last night we had had a busy day--a bunch of catch-up chores, hosted some other kids on a play date at our house--and come dinner time we decided to head to our local family-friendly pub. Usually the Budza would pack a small toy lunchbox full of "guys," or drawing paper and markers, or a Lego catalogue. Last night for the first time he went to his bookcase and chose three books--an A to Z Mystery by Ron Roy, a Dorling-Kindersley early reader about Batman, and a Marvel Comics kid-friendly graphic novel, Spider-Man and Power Pack: Big City Super Heroes.

It was the graphic novel he read while we were perusing the menu and waiting for our food, and again after he'd pushed his dish of pasta and shaky cheese aside. He finally asked for a bookmark (I tore a slip from a scrap of paper in my purse), and once he'd marked his place he checked to see how far he'd read, with great satisfaction.

A reader is born.