Monday, December 8, 2008

Birdsong and Books

I am listening to a radio broadcast of Messiaen’s birdsongs set to music, and thinking of working at the Hampshire Typothetae in Northampton, Massachusetts, round about 1980. It reminded me of listening to the Morning Pro Musica radio broadcasts of the late, great Robert J. Lurtsema, which always began with a very long recording of natural birdsong. I remember listening to Robert J’s best gravelly baritone introducing Ravi Shankar ragas while snow fell outside the printing studio and we all (printmaker Barry Moser, poet Chase Twitchell, master printer Harold McGrath) drank coffee and played Pitch. Magical company and magical times for a 19-year-old Smith College sophomore. I mostly distributed type (de-composed the type and put it away), swept the floors, and made coffee --and felt very, very lucky to be there.

Moser was working then finishing his Pennyroyal Press edition of Alice in Wonderland and beginning work on Moby Dick. I was interning at the Typothetae one or twice a week, as I recall, and working for Ruth Mortimer in the Smith College Rare Book room. All those rare books and letterpress arcana worked their way in to the books of my Spellkey fantasies, especially the final book The Books of the Keepers.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Time Lords

Has anyone else noticed some parallels between the Old Ones in Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising sequence and the Time Lords of the Doctor Who universe? The connection came to me listening to the audiobook of Silver on the Tree with the Budza. I could quite happily listen to Alex Jennings read the phone book.

My friends keep telling me I need an Intervention for my Doctor Who problem, which is really not a Doctor Who problem but a David Tennant problem. It's keeping me off the streets, true, but also keeping me away from other things I could and should be doing. But it feeds the Muse.

But in a completely different way than the Cooper does. I sink into her stories like a stone, always marveling at the command of language, the perfect pitch, the perfect marriage of closely observed family life on the one hand, and mind-boggling magical cosmology on the other. No one does supernatural scary quite like Susan Cooper, except possibly the late, great Martin Booth.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Old Man in the Corner

This might not seem to have much to do with children's literature, except that I am always interested in finding mysteries digestible by the newish reader that don't necessarily feature amateur teen detectives (fine as those junior detectives are--I'll be posting soon about John Bellairs). I'm thinking here of books suitable for boys and girls, which a young mystery addict is ready to dip into the adult mystery canon--the tantalizing books in the adult section of the public library with either Sherlock Holmes in profile or a skull on the spine, to signal that murderous mayhem is inside. A fourth grader who starts with "The Speckled Band" or "The Hound of the Baskervilles" may find enough thrills to be motivated to work her or his way through some of the challenging vocabulary of some of the other stories, or even the novellas.

But after that, what other books from the adult section work for kids--holding their interest, accessible enough in terms of plot and dialogue, and appropriate in their presentation of adult themes? The modern day mystery is a PG-13 or R rated experprise. Will the safer G and PG mysteries of the first 50 years of the 20th century yield some gems that can be enjoyed by the middle grade reader?

By the time I was ten, I was borrowing my father's paperback editions of Agatha Christie. The two I still own are The Labors of Hecrules (1947) and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960), now in print as Hercule Poirot's Christmas. This was around 1971, were living in Southeast Asia at the time, and my father would be on the balcony or the veranda, on a chaise lounge, in Bermuda shorts, with a drink going in an old fashioned glass, reading another mystery or possibly a spy novel by John Le Carre. Every now and then I get out the yellowed, battered paperbacks and enjoy them again. I also keep in the bedside table one or the other of the two volume complete Sherlock Holmes.

So I've downloaded from Librivox Baroness Orczy's The Old Man in the Corner, about the unnamed protangonist of the title, who relates the solutions to unsolved crimes to the young female journalist he meets in a teashop. These are probably too challenging for Budza (going on nine) but I bet they would be great for the 11 year old mystery enthusiast. I am just into the second story of the collection, but they rely heavily on all the turns of plot that have since become mystery tropes, but that Orczy, author of The Scarlet Pimpernel, originated. The Old Man in the Corner is widely considered to the first armchair detective, and while he has a very low index in the swashbuckle department, the puzzles themselves are intricate and devious.

There is a huge collection of old mysteries over at Project Gaslight--mysteries written between 1800 (!) and 1909. Probably the more stilted sytle, leisurely pacing, and Victorian vocabulary will take careful parental vetting to find stories that will grab and hold the young reader, but I think the effort will be well rewarded.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Get Your GAWA Gear at Cafe Press

I am very excited to announce GAWA Gear, the Cafe Press Shop of Yes, you can now flaunt your wizard pride. Show the world you Got Magic through a selection of T-shirts, onesies, hoodies, mugs, and stickers. Sport the official GAWA logo (featuring the fabulous artwork of Omar Rayyan) or let the world know that "Magic Hatches" by sipping your favorite potion from a "Magic Hatches" mug. 100% of the profit will go to the literacy charity JumpStart. If you get a shirt, please submit a picture of yourself wearing it to the guestbook account at

Monday, June 16, 2008

And the winners are....

Yes, winners plural. The entries for the 2008 Design-a-Dragon contest were so imaginative and captivating I couldn't choose just one winner. So I am pleased to announce a three-way tie:

Evan, a sixth grader from Simsbury, CT, for his Three-Horned Paleon.

Ella, a second grader from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, for her 3D model [shown here] of a Florella marvoses guarding her eggs.

Norah, a third grader from Silver Lake, CA, for her Silver Leaf Dragon, Sestertius bractea.

Congratulations to the winners, and to everyone who entered. Each of the winning dragons will be featured in the next Hatching Magic book.

Detials about the winning entries, the runners up, and a full gallery of all the entries will be posted soon to

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dragon Contest Update

Only fifteen days left in the 2008 Design-a-Dragon contest! Get those entries in for a chance to win! And all entries will be posted to the Readers' Gallery at

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Cloud of Hummingbirds

I am just back from Kindling Words West at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico. Mind-boggling creative experience. Mesas + stars + hummingbirds + the desert + the sky + a labyrinth + solitude to write + 37 other writers hang with. Amazing.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It was the Scholastic Book Fair at Budza’s school today. He was eager to get an Alex Rider spy novel, having read the graphic novel version of Stormbreaker down in Virginia, visiting his Gammie. It was buy one book, get a second book free, and his choice for his free book was a Scholastic book about dragons.

I have to say, I judged it by its formulaic cover, and figured he’d be much more excited about the Alex Rider book. But he wanted to show his dad this one first, and it was what he wanted to read aloud at bed time. It turned out to be a pretty good survery of world dragon legends. When we got to the description of Krak’s Dragon, and a statue that spat real fire, I called out to my husband in our home office down the hall to Google Krakow and dragon and lo and behold, a very cool statue breathing fire, right in front of Wawel Castle (Wawel Castle, King Krak, a hero named Skuba, a princess named Wilma, a dragon that drinks half of the river Vistula…the whole thing might have sprung up from the mind of John Cleese or Eric Idle). You do have to wonder, if Skuba was clever enough to kill the dragon, why Krakow isn’t called Skubow.

It turns out that the Poles do love their dragons, and Smok Wawelski or Smok the Dragon shows up in many aspects of Polish life, including school plays. I had an early turn on the stage at Madison Elementary as the swagman in Waltzing Matilda (the start of a long acting career in which I never, ever, ever got the ingĂ©nue part, but played swagmen, Fern’s mother in Charlotte’s Web, the Badger in Wind in the Willows, and an old lady in a Helen Hayes part). How much more fun to be a dragon.

Little did I realize when Hatching Magic came out in Polish that it fit into such a storied line of Polish dragon legends.

Monday, April 21, 2008

2008 Design-a-Dragon Contest Rules Posted

The rules and entry form for the 2008 Design-a-Dragon contest for dragon designers ages 12 and under have now been posted at Enter now--the lucky winner will have their dragon incorporated into the plot of Hatching Magic 3 and the runners up will be featured on the website. Stay tuned to this blog for contest updates.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Skirmish on the Green

Yesterday the Budza and my husband went to the Minuteman National Historic Site in Concord, Mass, to watch a reenactment of the Revolutionary War battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Budza remarked on how young the drummer-boys were. Because the reenactment was being held in a National Park, no one could fall down dead. Apparently there is a law against playing dead in national parks. Why do I think this might have something to do with anti-war protesters and the Vietnam War? Hmmmm.

It also happened to be the 100th birthday of the Paul Revere House Museum in Boston, and the Boston Globe had a spectacular picture of their show-stopping cake, a towering architectural likeness of the house in genoise and buttercream and what look like a solid chocolate horse and rider out front. If I can find a version to post here, I will.

Funny story about the Paul Revere House. It used to be an additional stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail; admission wasn't included on the Freedom Trail tour, so if you wanted to go in, it was an extra dollar or dollar-fifty. A good friend of mine used to say that she never actually went in to the museum, because she always spent her remaining $1.50 on a cannoli from an Italian bakery in Boston’s North End.

All this mustering got me thinking about books. Of course the classic Johnny Tremain comes to mind, the 1944 Newbury medal winner by Esther Forbes. Nice bio of Forbes here…she was a Worcester, MA, native.

Then there is Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Ben Frankling by His Good Mouse Amos (Little Brown, 1939). Lawson also wrote Mr. Revere and I: Being an Account of Certain Episodes in the Career of Paul Revere, Esq. As Recently Revealed by His Horse.

Huge list of both picture books and chapter books on life in Colonial America and the Revolutionary War here on the website of the Grand Rapids Public Library.

Pictures of the 2008 reenactment of the battle of Lexington and Concord used with the kind permission of “Budza” Hazell.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Announcing 2008 Design-a-Dragon contest

Winner to receive naming rights to a dragon in the third installment of Hatching Magic. Full details soon here, and entry forms and rules posted soon to

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Resources for Young Writers on the Web

I did a creative writing workshop today with some third and fourth grade kids in Winchester, MA. We had fun writing our own Martian postcards, a la Craig Raine's poem, "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home," and writing in the voice of a 13th century wizard seeing 21st century Boston for the first time. I was amazed that these kids were already well along in projects of their own, filling notebooks, living with plots and characters in their heads. They're on their way. It was fun and inspiring to see what they came up with in the hour we spent together.

I promised to post some links here to online resources about creative writing for kids. There is Annie Buckley's 2004 book, Once Upon a Time: Creative Writing Fun for Kids. And at the other extreme, there is the idea of writing a collaborative story with kids around the globe, using Twitter, like the kids at Many Voices did.

How 21st century is THAT?!?! I have to confess while I've visited the Twitter site, I don't quite get it, but any technology that makes a global collaboration among kids on different continents possible has to be a good thing.

Between books and twittories (Twitter stories) there are a lot of other resources, formats, and publishing venues for the aspiring or practicing creative writer under the age of 12:

Ideas for creative writing in the classroom from Pizzaz. Great stuff here: writing captions for wordless cartoons, limericks, on up to more ambitious stories.

KidPub allows young authors to post work online and sponsors writing contests.

Calling on the Muse offers some excellent loosening up creative writing exercises that would work well for groups at Education World.

Stone Soup online offers lots of advice for aspiring authors, a place to publish, and you can even listen to young authors reading their work online. They also have a long list of print publications that publish young authors.

For girls (y chicas) New Moon/Luna Vida

And for the young writer who is having a birthday, a bad day, got a great report card, or has a great idea and needs a great place to write it down, check out these truly swoon-worthy blank books.

Wild Things Tamed and Free

I love a very particular genre of book, true accounts of a foundling or injured animal that becomes, for a time, a pet in the house. There are, of course, the Gerald Durrell books (My Family and Other Animals, and many others) but I can't really recommend then because for some reason, as animal-crazy as I was growing up (and am, now) I never got into those. But I adored William Service's Owl: The Size of a Beer Can, The Personality of a Bank President which is hysterical and sweet by turns. I particularly remember Owl doing a little dance of frustration around a glass jar with a garter snake in it, and the author's wife opening a cupboard to get something out and discovering Owl among the coffee mugs.

And Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water about life with an otter Maxwell brought back from Iraq and raised in Scotland. My obsession with the wild-creature-as-temporary-houseguest got to the point where I could not pass up any I found in used bookstores, so we have one from the 1920s about The Sprite, who was a pet fox. It wil require a trip to the attic to refresh my memory about the rest. I know they're more, and they're in the category of books that will fit into the slightly rickety painted bookcase I plan to have in the summer house by a lake I am always happily furnishing in my imagination (and where it will likely stay).

This book is a special sub-genre of the Wild Thing as Pet motif, where the wild animal insinuates itself into the life of an illustrator and his family, and allows us a glimpse of the artist at work. The author of Martha is one of my favorite artists, ex-patriate Russian Gennady Spirin. The book is the story of how his wife and young son find a wounded crow and nurse it to health. The illustrations are wonderful...this seems to be Moscow in the 1970s, The scenes where they take the crow to the vet are wonderful, and the contrast between the drab winter streets and the wonderful interior of the Spirins' cozy, art-filled apartment, with all the rich colors of a jeweled icon, makes you think Moscow circa 1975 couldn't have been so bad... I love the images of Spirin at his drawing table, and the description of how the crow, Martha, recovers enough to explore the studio.

I also love Bill Peet's older book, Capyboppy, about the pet capybara brought home by their son. I couldn't, alas, find online the wonderful self-portrait of Peet at work with Capyboppy snoozing on the couch.

If anyone knows of other artist-adopting-pet books, I'd love to know about them.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Mapping the Imagination

Budza listens to an audiobook in the morning before school, and we’re now listening to Peter Pan. I am usually drinking coffee, reading the paper, packing a lunch, and only half listening, but found myself listening to, and smiling at, this passage:

I don't know whether you have ever seen a map of a person's mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child's mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.

It got me thinking of phrenology and maps of the inside of heads, and wondering what maps of the imagination itself there were. And Google found me this book by Peter Turchi.

Getting lost in this book is so easy, enlightening, and downright fun, any reader exploring it should take Saul Bellow’s advice: ‘Perhaps, being lost, one should get loster.’”
— The Ruminator Review

I don’t need it, but I need it, if you know what I mean. And I have a coupon from Porter Square Books burning a hole in my wallet anyways.Getting "lost-er" sounds like just what I need...

P.S. I have just discovered that Radiogirl blogged about this book and three others a few weeks ago. You can read her post and learn about other cool "maps of the imagination" books here.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Crafty Day for Wizards

What better remedy after a long morning trying to locate records for the tax man than to run to the craft store for supplies to open our own wizard's mint? Budza's BFF, the Divine Miss M., came over around one o'clock, and after I came back from our wonderful art supply store, Play Time Crafts, in Arlington Center, laden with Fimo, glitter, spell bottles with corks, phoenix feathers and lengths of wooden dowel for wands, they started rolling out metallic Fimo clay and making their own currency. There was a yard of sparkling green felt and some gold curtain rope to make money bags, and some parchment paper for making their own spellbooks. Miss M. is very good at writing Viking runes, and she says it's because she's already memorized the Hebrew aleph-bet.

We had a good time finding projects in The Book of Wizard's Craft, by Janice Eaton Kilby (Lark Books 2001), "in which the Apprentice Finds Spells, Potions, Fantastic Tales, and 50 Enchanting Things to Make." We can't wait to make the shrunken mandrake heads, but need to locate some alum first. Miss M. finally went home with a spell jar full of fairy wings and phoenix feathers, an emerald green felt reticle full of newly minted Queen M. money, a book of spells, a sparkly wand, and a feathered owl mask (feathers from our feather duster, quite a nice effect). What is great about Kilby's book is that it's the rare kids' craft book of things you can make (low cost, things you might actually have on hand) that you also WANT to make. My husband got apples and alum from the store, so tomorrow we might make the Mandrake Shrunken Heads.

Some great sites to check out for your own crafty wizard day:

Foe Viking runes, check out The Runic Journey, at

T.H. White's The Book of Beasts, online at the University of Wisconsin. Good text for Magical Creatures 101.

Online exhibit at the University of Illinois website of alchemy books from 1500-1964, with lots of great woodcuts that would look way cool printed on some fake parchment paper.

Huge Alchemy web portal here.

There was a Merlin Festival in Wales in 2007, but I've been unable to find details for a 2008 festival. If I do, I'll post it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Brains on Legs

Budza and I are listening to a LibriVox recording of Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, the first in his long-running series about John Carter, Confederate veteran/gentleman adventurer. For those who only know Burroughs as the creator of the pre-Disney Tarzan, Carter is

an omnipotent gentleman teleported to Mars, finding an outlandish society of ape-, tree- and lizardmen, red-, white-, yellowmen, brains on legs, strange bastions and curious apparatuses, where the strongest survives and women are needy beauties to be saved. How can something be so platitudinous and at the same time so imaginative and enthralling?

Ape-, tree-, and lizardmen? Brains on Legs? Sold to the young man in the front row! In fact, when I got to the part about brains on legs, I said to the Budza, "YOU could have written this."

I am not too concerned about the needy-beauties aspect of it; Budza appears deeply uninterested in that, and none of the women in his life, from his BFF to his teacher to his doctor to his 83-year-old grandmother are the needy types. Besides, it's the 1912 version of needy beauties--the novel appeared in six installments in the pulp magazine All-Story. It does seem, to judge by the plot summary up on Wikipedia, that the Martians don't wear clothes. This is where the audio aspect of it comes in handy.

But guess who owns the movie rights to a project with the working title John Carter of Mars? Pixar. We are so there.

You can download the MP3 files of A Princess of Mars and its many sequels from SFFAudio, maintained by Scott Danielson and Jesse Willis. You have to look around for age-appropriate material, but there are great links...I am looking forward to exploring their huge list of online audio links, especially the archived radio shows over at Digital Eel's Radio Tales of the Strange and Fantastic.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Appeal of the Miniature, Part 1

Budza is enjoying a new audiobook in the mornings before school, courtesy of iTunes this time: Mary Norton's The Borrowers. I think I didn't get into these (The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Aloft, The Borrowers Afloat) until I was a page working at the Mary Riley Stiles Library in my hometown of Falls Church, Virginia, in the mid-1970s. In these books, small Folk called Borrowers live behind wainscotting and under floorboards, borrowing what they need from the house's human inhabitants. The Borrowers' parlor is papered with old letters, with the writing running vertically in stripes. Half of a manicure scissors is an all-purpose blade; a hat pin is a good weapon against an unfriendly mouse.

These books float my teeny weeny bottlecap boat in so many ways. It's exactly the kind of magic-just-under-our-noses stuff I really like in a fantasy (though I like my fantasy high and low and most altitudes in between, actually). What made it particularly appealing to me then and now was how well it fit with my obsession with dolls' houses, or, more properly, doll house sized miniatures and an invented culture of trolls and Wishniks.

This was the late 1960s when I was living in Magallanes Village in the Philippines. I would spent my allowance on troll dolls, either authentic Dam trolls or Wishniks. My friend Eleanor had trolls two, and we got together regularly for long sessions of trolls, sometimes acting out long story lines, sometimes sewing troll clothes. We made clothes from them out of scraps of felt and ribbon and sequins. I had a jester with a cap and bells. My mother gamely knitted one troll a shrug on tiny needles.

There was great satisfaction in taking an everyday object and finding a way to make it work at roughly 1:12 scale. Miniatures made for the doll house were always fun, and I was always on the lookout for good ones, which were coveted (especially because so few worked with the trolls' squat bodies), but there wasn't the same pleasure in the clever transformation of the ordinary thing into a troll artifact. A soap dish made a very credible bathtub, a small glass topped tricket box an elegant vitrine. I fashioned a bamboo newspaper rack from toothpicks, and made a pretend ham wrapped in brown paper and string.

You develop a borrower's eye, a habit of looking at objects with the view of someone very small. So it was frustrating to me that the recent Spiderwick movie didn't spend more time letting me see the house brownie's magpie-ish nest with its repurposed household detrius of buttons and fasteners and odds and ends.

About 13 years ago I started a project to create a troll-scale naturalist's studio, and it's been a delight to collect natural objects at the right scale, and find buttons or beads that work as anthropological objects. I commissioned a leafcutter ant's nest from a miniature maker in Florida, and she made the ants out of three poppy seeds, glued together. There is a bead that is just right for an ostrich egg, and some actual books of the right scale. I have made a credible elephant's foot umbrella stand with a pill bottle, part of a grey leather kid glove, and some press-on fingernails (not my idea, I got it from a book). A visit to a really out of the way museum in Maine allowed me to pick up an actual ammonite the size of a nickel, and a tiny piece of petrified wood. I am still waiting for the right display setting for everything. I'm picturing it as a length of tree trunk with doors.

Some good miniature reads:

Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White (Lilliputians in the bottom of the garden...plot is very Joan Aikenish and would appeal to fans of Lemony Snickett)

Decorative Dollhouses: Original Interiors for Twenty-Five Dolls Houses by Caroline Hamilton (Clarkson Potter, 1990)

And some nice student guides and activities around The Borrowers, from

Nice discussion of The Borrowers and Mistress Masham's Repose here at Crooked House.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mapping Imaginary Places, Part 2

My own obsession with mapping the imaginary probably dates to my obsession with the Hugh Lofting book The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, and the description of how the doctor and his assistant, Tommy Stubbins, choose the destination for their voyage:

It was a tense and fearful moment--but very thrilling. We both had our eyes shut tight. I heard the atlas fall open with a
bang. I wondered what page it was: England or Asia. If it should be the map of Asia, so much would depend on where that
pencil would land. I waved three times in a circle. I began to lower my hand. The pencil-point touched the page.

"All right," I called out, "it's done."

We both opened our eyes; then bumped our heads together with a crack in our eagerness to lean over and see where we were to go.

The atlas lay open at a map called, Chart of the South Atlantic Ocean. My pencil-point was resting right in the center of a tiny
island. The name of it was printed so small that the Doctor had to get out his strong spectacles to read it. I was trembling
with excitement.

"Spidermonkey Island," he read out slowly. Then he whistled softly beneath his breath.

This was something like 1970, I think. We were living in Manila, where my father was posted with the US Foreign Service, and I'd just come back from home leave with a supermarket paperback edition of The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. And reading about the blindfold-and-atlas game, I had to have my own atlas. I have it still.

It was partly the maps in the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea that inspired me in the early 1970s to begin the book that became The Spellkey. It started not with words, but with the map of an archipelago. I had hoped the book would feature its own map, but by the time it was published in the late 1980s the economics of children's book publishing made it difficult to dress most books up with the kind of maps that graced my editions of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.

I'm grateful to Radiogirl for alerting me to this traveling exhibit of maps, "Maps: Finding Our Place in the Wold," coming to Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, and be sure to check out her own wonderful shop, The Interimaginational Institute for Fantastical Exploration and Cartography over at Etsy.

Shown: London during the Great Exhibition of 1851
by George Shove
ca. 1851; printed map on leather
The National Archives, U.K.
Fashion and map aficionados alike will enjoy this map of London on a glove created for the 1851 Great Exhibition.

[OK, London is not an imaginary place, but how cool is a MAP ON A GLOVE?!?!?!!!!]

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mapping Imaginary Places

Today the Budza got out a series of maps he'd started drawing before school vacation week, in his after-school program. It's a continent-by-continent atlas of the planet Ravnica, which features in the evening storytelling between Bud and my husband. The evening routine consists of Bud reading his daily 20 minutes, then me reading a picturebook or two, or a chapter from something longer. Then my husband takes the next shift, and he and Bud take turns telling installments of various space operas and other flights of fancy.

Anyway, the maps he's drawn so far of the continents of Ravnica are quite elaborate. The maps are my favorite kind, with animals and fortresses pictured at a wacky outsized scale, as well as rivers and oceans. Details include lava monsters, gates made out of spiderwebs, and forests of evil tree folk.

I was reminded of another book up in the attic somewhere, that I need to bring down: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Giani Guadalupi. You can page through maps of Wonderland, Oz, Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea and many terras far less cognita. In looking it up online, I discovered that after many print editions, it's now its own Wiki, which seems the perfect way for the meme of mapping the imaginary to spread to the furthest corners of the human imagination, like spiders ballooning with silk to colonize a volcanic island newly risen from the sea.

Then there's Storybook England, a website developed by the British tourist bureau. It's quite elaborate. There's an interactive map of England, and when you click on the name of your author, stars appear on the map. Click on those, and you zoom in to the locales of that author's books, and click again and a window pops up with information about the book. Really rather wonderful.

And for a real atlas of imaginary places, see this German website. And here a slightly obsessed Dutchman has posted scans of the maps from first French editions of Jules Verne, including this stunning map of Mysterious Island.

Obviously, I'm not done....more about imaginary places online in another post.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Moving Bookshop

Today was one of those rare days: the Budza had camp, it was a holiday, and my husband and I each had the day off from work. Whee hee! It was awful weather: high wind, lashing rain--and my husband had a terrible cold, but we weren't going to let THAT stop us. We dropped the Budza at school-vacation-week camp, stopped for cold meds and tea and a map (we lose maps of Massachusetts like some people lose socks), and steered the car up Route 1A to Marblehead, to have a long, uninterrupted book truffle without a restless child in tow.

Our true destination, Much Ado Books, would have been an even wetter drive. It turns out the owners of that store picked up a few years back and moved their shop to England. More specifically, to a 1370 building on the High street of the medieval village of Alfriston in Sussex. Lucky them!

Back in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the store's new owners are ensconced in different digs, and the store has a new name, Artists + Authors.

It's still a great store. There are certain signs that present themselves to the long-term connoisseur of the used-and-rare book store. A shop bell is usually, but not always, a good beginning. But, setting that aside, it's encouraging to find:

--a shop cat in old wicker chair (extra points for a cat door leading into a back room)
--multiple floors
--more than four corners per room
--entrire bookcases devoted to an obscure range of the Dewey decimal system, like ballooning or circuses
--A full bookcase devoted to books about books

Artists + Authors scores high on all counts. The shop cat, Dust Jacket, was extremely friendly and talkative and made us feel welcome. We spent a long time browsing, hitting mostly the children's books, folktales, natural history, biography, and mystery. We could have spent days more browsing, and as it was limited ourselves to a handful of titles. My husband came away with The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin, Henry Bates, Naturalist of the Amazons by George Woodcock, and The Arcturus Adventure by William Beebe. I contented myself with The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories by Hugh Greene, The Emperor's Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr, Skeleton-in-Waiting by Peter Dickinson, and a new children's author I didn't know, Edward Fenton. They had three or four of his mid-century kids' books, but I limited myself to The Riddle of the Red Whale. I'm going to have to keep a lookout for The Phantom of Walkaway Hill.

And, who knows, by the time Budza is old enough to enjoy a good long bookstore truffle himself, we might visit Much Ado in their not-so-new digs.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Dragons of the Watery Kind

The Boston Globe carried an article in today's Health and Science section (!) about a longtime hunter for the Loch Ness monster who has decided to hang up his sonar.

Well, that got me musing, very happily, on my 1995 honeymoon in the far north of Scotland, which included a stop at the tourist center in Loch Ness. I brought a lot of Loch Ness erasers back as souvenirs for colleagues at the publishing house where I work. And I also got thinking about Loch Ness, and Nessie-ish monsters, in various children's books.

The first one that came to mind was about an American Nessie. The Serpent Came to Gloucester by M. T. Anderson, with wonderful illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. Ibatoulline's art is evocative the way Alice and Martin Provensens' illustrations always are. I'd like to stroll this Glocester sea- and dream-scape much as I'd like to stay in the Provensens' lovingly realized William Blake's Inn.

Then there's Susan Cooper's second book in her Boggart series, The Boggart and the Monster. For younger readers than the Dark Is Rising series.

And then Dick King-Smith of Babe fame has written The Water Horse, which is now a major motion picture, as they say, from Walden Media/Beacon Pictures. It's a cousin, I suppose, of my childhood favorite, The Enormous Egg, in which a boy hatches a triceratops with the help of a broody hen. In The Water-Horse,young Kirstie and her brother Angus find a mysterious egg capsule among the storm wrack on a Scottish beach, and before you know it they have a young water-horse in their bathtub.

You might try to find Ruth Chew's The Trouble with Magic, which I found in a trove of many other of her books in a used bookshop in Damariscotta, Maine. It has this wonderful cover. It's nearly impossible to find anything out about Chew, but I think--not sure why--she did her own jacket designs.

Meet Harrison Peabody -- a most unusual wizard.

He's short and tubby. He wears a funny hat and carries a magic umbrella. He pals around with a sea serpent named George. He can make the most wonderful magic -- sometimes.

When the wizard sets up housekeeping in her attic, Barbara and her brother rick discover that magic can also be a very tricky thing.

On the nonfiction side, there's Frederick Stonehouse's Haunted Lakes: Great Lakes Ghost Stories, Superstitions and Sea Serpents. Sounds like a perfect candidate for a summer lake house rental to me.

You can read more about the Gloucester Serpent's appearance off the Massachusetts coast in August 1817 in this archived article, "Marblehead Monsters!" from Marblehead Magazine. The wonderful serpent I've reproduced here is by Stephanie Hart McGrail.

Here Be Dragons 2008 Book Challenge

How cool is this?!

The folks over at the book blog Stray Talk are sponsoring a book challenge: read three books about dragons between January 1 and June 30, 2008. 

Well, I'm in. In fact, I have three I want to read or reread right now:

R. A. McAvoy, Tea with the Black Dragon (1983)
Elizabeth Willey, The Well-Favored Man (1994)
and Caroline Stevermer, Serpent's Egg (1988). 

There are lots of other good suggestions being posted by folks that have taken up the challenge. I hope to archive some of those titles over at, where I've meant for a while to start a dragon bibliography.

Next up: dragons of the watery kind.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Books from the Attic, Part 2

So today I finally did a massive purge of picture books (*sob*) from the Budza's bedroom bookcase, sorted them into box-for-attic, give-to-the-new-parents-next-door, and donate piles, and went up into the attic to search for some novels for Bud.

I pulled down the attic stairs and made my way up to the rows of dusty boxes under the roof--jazz magazines, yearbooks, photo albums, Christmas decorations. And books. Lots and lots of books.

As I opened boxes to try and find the books I had in mind, I could hear the sparrows twittering under the eaves, disturbed by a rare visitor, though they wouldn't in February have nestlings to defend. Sometimes in the summer, when we take down the panels over the vents to allow air to circulate, we find the remains of a nest, and some feathers.

I found some books to begin filling the shelf I'd cleared in the bookcase. I called down to the Budza and my husband and we set up a kind of fire brigade, handing books down the ladder. Soon we had a pile: the rest of my Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Great Glass Elevator), various paperbacks of the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, some Alan Garner fantasies (starting with The Owl Service), some of The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, and lots and lots of Tintin

I also brought down The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Robert Lawson's Rabbit Hill. The Budza is an animal lover, and given how much he loves small, furry things I think he'll really cotton to the story in Rabbit Hill about the rabbit, Little Georgie, and the rest of the animals of the Hill. 

My edition may still include the offending character of the African-American cook, edited out of later editions. I don't remember that part of the book at all, but various websites devoted to the book mention it. So if I read this aloud to Bud, that will have to be a teaching moment. 

Thursday, January 31, 2008

What Boys Read and the Picky Eater Theory of Reading

In the car today I tuned into Robin Young on the Boston radio program Here and Now interviewing Innaugural Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Jon Scieszka. Scieszka was talking about his website, Guys Read, and the problem of how assigned reading in school turns boys off of reading. The example Robin Young gave was Little House on the Prairie, as it happens the very book Budza and I are reading aloud right now.

It made me think about how you have to trust the story sometimes and not fall prey to assumptions about what boys will and won't like. Budza is totally fascinated by the way of life in the 1870s in the big woods of Wisconsin and on the high prairie--making a house from logs, living among wolves, having the whole family come down with malaria and having the house nearly burn to the ground from a chimney fire. There is drama in every chapter.

Realize, too, that the story hour in our house means Budza has his pick of his own overflowing bookcase, and a stack about a foot high from the public library. His own 20 minutes of reading right now is from the Edgar and Ellen series by Charles Ogden. When I ask what he wants me to read, he considers all that, and reaches for the Laura Ingalls Wilder. Not every day. Some days he wants silly, or action, or space pirates or zombies or bug-eyed aliens. But sometimes he wants to know what it was like to live on the prairie in the 1870s. Because the best fiction, the most enduring stories, are a tardis, a time machine. They are magical, and they need no apology. The next thing I want to try Bud on is Robert Lawton's Rabbit Hill. Not a boy's book, really. But I am betting it will be my boy's book. It will be interesting to see if he will continue to enjoy books with female protagonists. I am thinking here of Island of the Blue Dolphns, Mistress Masham's Repose, Harriet the Spy.

It's sort of the picky eater theory of reading. You can give your reader the chicken nuggets, the mac and cheese, and plain cheese pizza--the Captain Underpants, if you will, or the comic books or the series books--and then just keep exposing them to the spicier and more complex flavors. It's not good or bad, just a range of flavors.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Natural History and Evolutionary Biology of Dragons

OK, this is my new guilty pleasure: An Animal Planet show from 2005 called Dragon's World: Fantasy Made Real. We got it from Netflix, and I honestly think I enjoyed it as much as or more than the Budza. A rogue paleontologist finds a frozen carcass that may or may not be a dragon, and with his reputation in tatters he goes off in a helicopter (!) to try and get more evidence for his dragon theory. Not a very promising beginning, but lo and behold the writers actually manage to weave in a lot of bona fide scientific detail: these dragons have breeding colors and use fire for sexual display as well as to subdue prey; they have to patrol their territories against competitors for food and mates; a male is shown blowing on his mate's eggs to cool them, so they will develop into daughters and not sons who might turn into rivals. In this imagining, dragons escaped the KT asteroid by taking to the seas, and then radiating into niches around the globe. A particularly nice segment shows a Chinese forest dragon stalking prey through a bamboo thicket. Of course, there is a pounding rock soundtrack and some scenery chewing by the lead paleontologist, but not enough to really derail this for the true dragon and natural history enthusiast.

The writers and producers availed themselves of science consultant Peter J.Hogarth of the University of York, and it shows. Hogarth has published on various aspects of mangroves and the family lives of fish and crabs, but his interests seem to include the folklore or mythological fauna. If anyone were going to be Walker of Walker's Dragons of the Old World, I think it would be Professor Hogarth.

Throughout the program I kept thinking about a favorite book of mine, The Flight of Dragons, by Peter Dickinson. The Animal Planet mockumentary seems to be a case of convergent evolution, in terms of the biologically plausible details of how such unaerodynamic creatures as dragons could fly or how they could breathe fire. That book was published by Pierrot in 1979 and then was maddeningly out of print for nearly 20 years until Overlook Press rereleased it in 1998, when I finally got my own copy. The fantasy art by Wayne Anderson is High Seventies: straight out of Heavy Metal magazine or the album art of a certain kind of trippy folk rock band, like Fairport Convention.

It turns out Dickinson at 80 plus is still going strong, has a website, and there you can read all about how The Flight of Dragons came to be. Like so many things worth knowing about, it had its beginnings on a train.

And--oh, my God!--he's written mysteries. I knew that, but never seem to remember when I'm frozen in indecision, staring at the mystery shelves in a library or bookstore (you know the feeling: you're in a restaurant with an enormous menu, and you have no idea what you're in the mood for). Now I know what I'm doing for the next decade or so, readingwise. I mean, what's not to like about a book that has a title like The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest, and has as its plot the remnants of a primitive New Guinea tribe and a female anthropologist keeping house in West London?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Puppy Come in from the Storm

This is what it looks like to win the Newbery Award. This sweet lady is Laura Amy Schlitz, Baltimore school librarian and author of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, which took home the top honor at the American Library Association's January meeting.
As priceless as the image itself is, check out this older interview with Schlitz from the School Library Journal website, where she explains how much she loves her publisher, Candlewick.

I’ve always written. I wrote two novels and about a dozen plays before Candlewick Press decided to publish “Good Masters! Sweet Ladies”* I’ve always written, but I’d pretty much given up on being published.

I’m not going to go into why I was on the point of giving up, because it’s a long story, and I can’t tell it without weeping copiously. Suffice to say I was thoroughly discouraged and I even thought of giving up writing, but I never got around to it. Luckily, I had two guardian angels. One was the Park School, which has been extraordinarily supportive of my writing, providing me with inspiration, encouragement, and grant money. The other was Candlewick Press.

I’ll tell you how I feel about Candlewick Press. I had a friend who found a puppy in the street one New Year’s Eve. It was sleeting, and she heard the puppy whimpering, so she scooped it up and took it to a New Year’s Eve party. One minute the puppy was outside shivering, and the next minute it was sitting in front of the fire, licking champagne and Beef Wellington off the fingers of the party guests. That’s me and Candlewick Press.

So congratulations to Schlitz, and to Candlewick, and to my friend and fellow writer/editor, Mary Lee, who was Schlitz's editor for Good Masters!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

An H. A. and Margaret Rey Kind of Day

On December 31 the Budza and I took the subway in to Houghton Mifflin, where my husband works. It was so cold outside we had soup from the company cafeteria rather that go out to find pizza somewhere. In the company cafeteria there is a green piano with a painting of a dachshund on it, and the style of the painting was very familiar. I went for a closer look, and sure enough, there was an inscription "To Nancy, from Pretzel and H.A. and Margaret Rey." The Reys, of course, being the couple behind Curious George.

After lunch there was still an hour to go before the end of my husband's work day, when we planned to walk around the preparations for First Night and see some ice sculptures. After giving the options some thought, the Budza and I decided to walk up the street to the Boston Public Library, to the Margaret and H.A. Rey Children's room. We loaded up with some books for the Bud, including a great graphic novel, more about which in a separate post. It was shaping up to be a Curious George sort of day.

And it reminded me that a friend had sent a book earlier in the year that was the account of the Reys' escape from the advancing Nazis.
The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Borden with watercolor illustrations by Allan Drummond (Houghton Mifflin 2005). It tells the story of the Reys' escape from Nazi-occupied France on bicycles, carrying the drawings and manuscript that would become the first Curious George book. I had set our copy aside at the time, but it now occurs to me that it's probably a good way to introduce the Budza to that awful chapter of world history, when he's still a little young, at age 8, for The Diary of Anne Frank.