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.