Friday, October 23, 2009

Taking Wing

I'm looking forward to seeing Hilary Swank as our favorite Aviatrix in the new Mira Nair fim, Amelia. I'm not much of a Richard Gere fan, actually, but I think this one is worth seeing in the theater on the big screen.

The release of Amelia reminds me of friend Jeannine Atkins's wonderful book on women and flight, Wings and Rockets: The Story of Women in Air and Space. On her website, Jeannine tells a great where-I-get-my-ideas story about how the book was inspired by a trip with her husband and daughter to a roadside military museum where she saw a WASP uniform on a manequin:
 One summer day we were driving down a back road in New Hampshire when my husband spotted an army tank that looked like it had crashed through a brick wall. He had to pull over. Small military museums are not exactly my thing, but I love my husband .. and he promised the next stop would be a lake (bathing suits were packed).
I took my daughter’s hand as we wound our way around exhibits, then I yanked her to a stop in front of a manequin dressed in the uniform worn by women pilots during World War II. I’m always intrigued by women I never read about in history books while growing up. I bought a few books and soon was captivated by the daring WASPs who ferried and tested airplanes during the war ... then were sent home with a rather swift farewell.

I've been priveleged to work in a very small way with Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer and marine biologist known as a passionate and tireless advocate for the world's oceans. While she's not an aviator, Earle participated in the late 1960s in Project Tektite, a NASA experiment in underwater living meant to approximate the physical and psychological rigors of life in space. You can read an interview with Earle about life in the "Tektite Hilton" at

You might also want to check out this nice site for the American Experience film, "The Fly Girls" to see these aviation pioneers in action.

[Illustration: Amelia and Hilary from]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ghosts, Graveyards, and the Luxury of Time

A few days ago Budza and I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It’s the riff on Kipling’s classic set in a graveyard, with the Mowgli role given to one Nobody Owens, and various ghosts and hellhounds (and one very classy vampire) standing in for Bagheera, Kaa, Baloo, and the rest. It won the Newbery Award this past January and, in August, the Hugo. It’s hands down, the best story I have read aloud to Budza since we moved from picture books to chapter books and on to true novels--and he and I have read a lot of splendid books. But none this fully realized and compelling, ambitious and just plain good. The suspense was skillful, the plot crisis toward the end terrifying, the denouement satisfying, and the ending perfect and moving. I’ll say nothing more. Go read it.

I wonder how much of the book’s fineness comes from the fact Gaiman had the luxury and leisure to work on the story off and on for 22 years. It was in the mid 1980s when he spied a toddler riding a tricycle in a graveyard, and only years later that the story of Bod Owens was completed. That doesn’t happen much in children’s book publishing any more. Of course, Gaiman had what every writer would like to have--income from a lot of other finished projects and a plenty of other irons in the fire--but the fact remains that publishing is increasingly dependent upon series, and one book a season, please, and one just like the last one, thank you very much. And if you die in harness churning them out, we’ll hire someone else to keep it going.

The idea that a writer could take his time and allow the book to take root and grow is really an exception, if not an anathema. Would Tolkien be given the leisure to write his four books about Middle Earth in this day and age? He began The Hobbit in 1925 and finished the last chapter of Return of the King in 1950.

Everything is shorter, now, and faster. We are getting our stories every few seconds, 147 characters at a time. The days when editors and publishers could afford to wait for a book to be ready in the fullness of time are gone forever. But I can’t help thinking what if. What if writers had the leisure to take as long as the story needed rather than rush to deliver them, so they could be hurried past the copyeditor with a wink and whisked into stores? What if we all had the luxury of time?

Those are books I’d like to read.

[illustration of Mowgli by John Lockwood Kipling from The Second Jungle Book, 1895. Doesn't it look like a headstone?]

Friday, October 16, 2009

On Wildness and Power Plays

I confess I didn’t know quite what to do with Daniel Zalewski’s essay in the October 19 New Yorker. Titled “The Defiant Ones,” it neatly dissects the trend in picture books over the last 7-10 years to replace moral fables--in which children who who throw tantrums and commit other transgressions are met with firm parental correction and corporal punishment--with stories of child-centric parenting in which children who are wild and defiant are rewarded with extra dessert and a parental shrug: What are you gonna do?

I guess I ended up feeling that Zalewski was being a wee bit harsh on the authors and illustrators he singled out. The pendulum of parenting styles (or dogma, if you like) swings to and fro, and the picture books of any given time show us pretty accurately where the pendulum is. But then I got to wondering about the tension between the job of a parent and the job of a child, and I wondered how they both fit with the job of the storyteller.

I do remember when I was reading Russell Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances to the Budza when he was a preschooler, being brought up short by the line about the threatened spanking. At the time, I skipped over it--still in the thrall, as I then was, of the What to Expect books and parenting gurus like William Sears. It was such a stark reminder of the difference between parenting then and now, like riding in the station wagon without car seats, or watching my father drink a martini while he watched the Huntley and Brinkley Report, or playing with toys with small parts. Grown ups spent much of their time absorbed in a mysterious world of work and grown-up concerns that largely excluded us, and for much of the 1960s my sister and I and our friends were left to our own devices to do our important work of play.

The clueless, ineffective, apologetic or exasperated parent goes back a little further in children’s books than the 1990s. I am thinking of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald, published between 1947 and 1957--most memorably illustrated by Hilary Knight of Eloise fame, but also, interestingly enough, by Maurice Sendak, who knows a thing or two about childhood wildness. In Mrs Piggle Wiggle and its three sequels, we find ineffective parents reaping what they have sown, in terms of offspring who are tattle-tales, interrupters, slobs, gluttons, and other miscreants. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, widow of a pirate who lives in an upside-down house, reassures Mom and Dad and provides them with a sure-fire, hysterical cure for whatever bad habit is creating household discord. Who can forget the tidy little pig who teaches the messy eater manners? Or the boy who refuses to pick up his room who eventually becomes immured by his toys, so that his mother has to send up chunks of beef stew on the tines of the rake, followed by the garden hose so he can take a drink?

It’s not for nothing that Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s house is upside down. It’s only by taking the established order of things apart, and allowing children to suffer the inevitable consequences of their bad behavior, that family harmony is restored. And I think it’s important to say harmony, and not order. That’s the essential tension, between the parent who must socialize the child and teach her to be a reasonable member of society and to hew to a certain code, and the child, whose job it is to figure out, often in messy and socially unacceptable ways, how the world works. It’s the parent’s job to set the alarm clock for school, the child’s job to take the alarm clock apart. A good story teller will find ways to tell stories that honor and subvert, in turn, both those tasks.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On Wild Things and Second Helpings of Picture Books

I found Bruce Handy's October 11 essay in the New York Times an interesting take on the Sendak classic, not because I agree that more kids than we like to admit don’t like Where the Wild Things Are--I am sure that, like most picture books, it’s not universally loved, and probably doesn’t make the same impact on today’s kids it did a generation ago, when it was such a bombshell on the children’s publishing scene. (As I post this, the NYT link is broken, but when it's up, I'll post the link to the Handy essay.)

But it’s an interesting salvo because it does highlight the ongoing tension in picture books between what adults think makes a splendid book, and what kids will, of their own volition, pull out of the bookcase, hand to an adult, and say “Again.”

Personally, the Sendak book that did this for me and my kid was In the Night Kitchen-- helped along by the splendid Weston Woods animation adaptation narrated by Peter Schickele (a.k.a. P. D. Q. Bach). The familiar world of a kitchen transformed after hours into a wonderland aligned more closely with my own fascinations with scale--The Borrowers, miniatures, dolls houses--and with wonderlands, by Lewis Carroll and others.

One book does not fit all. My own “again” books included The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack, The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, and The Duchess Bakes a Cake by Virginia Stahl. These books had powerful themes that resonated with me. I had a childhood that saw my family transplanted from one hemisphere to another, and me moved from school to school to school to school. So the story of the Little House coming full circle to home was incredibly comforting and reassuring to me. Mike Mulligan is a great picture book, a fabulous read-aloud, and a classic, but it’s the lesser known Little House that is my personal favorite.

For my son, an early “again” book was Halloween Pie by Michael O. Tunnell. We read it when he was about two, and his interest in all things spooky is still going strong, eight years later. We had Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas in our VCR in heavy rotation for about a year at one point. I often thought that things that go bump in the night did for my son what T. rex and velociraptors and Triceratops did for other kids, for similar reasons. Dinosaurs were never really Budza’s thing. But mummies and vampires and creatures from the Black Lagoon? Bring them on.

I do think we have to be less wedded to an idea of some picture book canon, and let kids find their own “again” titles. In fifty years, who knows what stories kids will be reading on their Kindles? But I think it’s certain that every kid will have a title or two that isn’t on anyone else’s classic list...something that aligned with that child’s own wishes and fears and dreams. Another slice of Halloween Pie, please.

Bonus video of Peter Schickele reading In the Night Kitchen here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

On Unchaperoned Walks in the Woods

I spent part of today in the Middlesex Fells with my son and two of his friends and their mother, happily turning over rotten logs and examining the scurrying, burrowing life within. We saw the last of the season’s indian pipe, signs of leaf miners in the yellowing leaves, and one salamander. It was a good walk in the New England woods.

Not so long ago the Budza and I finished reading Jean Craighead George’s classic My Side of the Mountain (1959), in which our hero, Sam Gribley, runs away from his family in Manhattan to the Catskills. Armed only with a penknife, a ball of string, a hatchet, and $40 savings, he lives alone for a year in a hollow tree. He fishes and traps and lives on cattail roots and acorn pancakes. He skins and tans the hide of deer he steals from hunters. When he develops scurvy from lack of vitamin C, some instinct drives him to eat the liver of a rabbit. Raw.

It’s strong stuff. We both enjoyed the book, but I have to say, over and over again while reading I found myself thinking, man, today his parents would have Court TV camped on their doorstep, and CNN true crime stalwart Nancy Grace raking them over the coals, asking “Where is Sam Gribley? What are his parents hiding? Where is the body???”

The whole idea of a minor being allowed to run off and live by his wits in the woods with his parents’ blessing seems less like adventure to us fifty years on, and more like high fantasy. By the time Gary Paulsen wrote Hatchet in 1987, he had to substitute for running away the dramatic device of a plane crash, and transform the story of personal discovery, self reliance, and independence to one of white-knuckled suspense and survival. Hatchet is a wonderful book, but one in which the rigors of life in the wild are thrust upon the hero, rather than chosen. Sam can “rescue” himself any time, but he doesn’t.

One of the things I took away from reading the book to my son was the increasingly certainty that the story George tells in My Side of the Mountain could not be set in the present day. And I’m just as certain that in our risk-averse culture of hyperparenting we are not childproofing our lives so much as lifeproofing our children. Somehow the broken arm from falling out of the backyard tree that was yesterday's of rite of childhood has been replaced by the kinds of sports injuries usually seen in professional athletes.

Our family has been trying, in our way, to push back. So far we are starting with small things. Letting Budza light the gas stove, letting him prepare dinner with the sharp knives. Sending him to a camp where they use (gasp!) power tools. Working our way through Backyard Ballistics. I have even started lengthening the invisible rope, even if I’m not quite ready to let him off the lead. For brief bursts of time now, I know vaguely where my son is, but not exactly where. It’s a frisson for both of us.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Uses of Story

This fascinating story, caught on my drive time yesterday, details the challenges public health officials are facing try to deliver swine flu vaccine to remote areas in Alaska. It put me in mind about the ways we can use Story to begin a conversation with kids about a scary or worrisome thing.
In the story, NPR reporter Melissa Block inteviews Laurel Wood, whose job it is to use a network of bush pilots and Alaskan citizens to get the vaccine to remote villages in the Arctic.
Typically what happens is it goes out of Anchorage on a larger plane, arrives in a hub community where it is then redistributed again via bush planes. Often it's by people who are traveling to one of these communities and they carry it with them on the plane. One of the long histories in Alaska is of trying to deliver pharmaceuticals to these far-flung locations.

Toward the end of the story, Wood references the origins of Alaska's world-famous sled-dog race:
Certainly, people have heard about the Iditarod trail sled dog race that occurs today, that was based on the idea of trying to get diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, and we continue to do that with more modern equipment now. We might be using a snow machine or a four-wheeler in the summer as well as obviously bush airplanes. But the process remains the same. It is an interesting endeavor to try to get vaccine into some locations in Alaska. Thank goodness we have great partners to work with to make this happen.

Two books from 2002 tell the serum race story well, though in very different styles.

Togo by Robert S. Blake (Philomel)

The Great Serum Race: Blazing the Iditarod Trail by Debbie S. Miller (Walker Books for Young Readers)

For more on the origins of the Iditarod itself, Booklist reviewer Todd Morning recommends Lew Freedman's Father of the Iditarod: The Joe Reddington Story (Epicenter Press 1996).

These books may not take the sting out of the seasonal flu shot, but if questions and fears about flu linger after the shot, perhaps a story about a brave team of sled dogs is a gentle way in to a conservation in which kids can get answers and reassurance. And for suggestions on what to say to your kids about H1N1, here are some tips from the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC.