Monday, February 23, 2009


During my net surfing for a censorship entry awhile back, I ran across a NY Times article entitled, "A Good Book Should Make You Cry." It concerns the "problem novels" that teachers, often following book awards, think kids "should" appreciate.

The author rightly perceives that matching the reader to the book is important and difficult, and she touches on the attraction of bleak stories, but she doesn't really tackle the issue of why a story that puts its main character through serious emotional trauma can be well-loved, and how it differs from the ones kids avoid. The key is there, though, in her comment that the problem novels left her "unconsoled."

I tackled the issue when I got the whole set of Little House books for my 9th birthday. I'd already polished off 2 or 3 of them thanks to the school library, and had begged to own them.

(Shameless digression: There they are on my emergency evacuation shelf. On top of the stack is a paperback Little House on the Prairie in French. Next to the Wilder books is the first, and therefore dearest to me, of my Victorian schoolbook collection, which I wanted because they were the kind of books Laura had. I bought that one, Lippincott's Sixth Reader, in an antique store when I was 11. Not that I was really, like, into this or anything.)

When I got to By the Shores of Silver Lake I got the shock of my reading life:

Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary's eyes and Mary was blind. She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma's old hickory rocking chair. All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little but less every day, she had never cried.
By the end of chapter 2, when Laura's beloved dog, Jack, died, I felt suckerpunched.

I never hesitated to skip ahead (still don't), so I pushed pages aside looking for the cure. Surely Mary would be cured by the end of the book.

She wasn't cured. I cheated outrageously and spot-checked the rest of the books as well, only to discover that Mary never regains her sight.

This is, i guess, a transition every kid has to make if s/he's an avid reader. I noticed that the above-article's author, writing in 2004, praised the cheerful Harry Potter books. They sure got darker later.

I was mulling all this over for my blog (I mull at length) when Mike Peterson -- for a treat, visit the classic stories on his Weekly Storybook site -- passed on to me a related article, "Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?" It was published in School Library Journal, which I was glad to see. SLJ is right where the librarians who review and who sit on the many ALA award committees will see it.

Library school, among many other things, set out to train us to join the reviewer pool. We were urged to get on board with the library journals once we were degreed and employed. It's entry-level professional publishing, and one can get into heavier publishing, organization and presentation work, editorial work, networking, and, for some, places on award committees. In a Booklist, Library Journal or SLJ review, somebody with the same training I have can say "Highly recommended" and generate serious sales of the title. Then libraries expose some readers to nifty books they would not ordinarily run into.

In a way it's good for prestigious awards to be given by practicing librarians. Or it used to be. Or it ought to be. We supposedly strike a good balance between literary knowledge and life in the real world with real readers.

The decisions that we look back on -- passing up Charlotte's Web is pretty cringe-worthy ‑‑ aren't as clear at the time we make them. It's good to publicize a cool but more obscure book. But how do you factor popular appeal and outside-the-box writing/subject matter, to craft an equation you can call "excellence"?? I can tell you one thing, though:

Kids can spot a book chosen to Improve them a mile away, and that goes not only for moral lessons, but for straight-out Learning Opportunities about history or other cultures. Those things are all great if the story is strong, but if the story is the packaging and a Lesson the contents, instead of vice versa, expect kids to Just Say No.

Charlotte's Web is great precisely because it entertains so marvelously, and yet does not shy away from depicting the full emotional power of death and loss. Neither do Frances Hodgson Burnett's books.

Neither did By the Shores of Silver Lake, which we're back to because it was my watershed book. Once I'd grudgingly accepted Mary's permanent situation, I was ready to sit down and read the book and let Wilder take me where she would. There would be new rules. A character could suffer harm or loss, but I trusted that the author would help her, and me, find our way back from it. This served me well because Roller Skates, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess would be in my hands shortly.

A child and a kids' book author have a relationship, and it's based on trust. Wilder did not let me down. OK, Laura's life has changed forever and she needs to become her sister's "eyes." Her new need to observe and describe is the beginning of Laura's training as a writer.

It's also the first stirring of her psychological independence, joyously symbolized by a hair-raising pony ride out in the prairie with her wild tomboy cousin, away from her nuclear family and its sorrows and responsibilities for one wonderful afternoon. The book is a terrific depiction of a girl's emotional growth, but that's where a good story has its real power: when it's a depiction, not a lesson.

And especially, when it's hopeful. A source of psychological tools for the reader.

That would make such a nice, neat closing sentence, but some of the grim-reality "problem novels" are a 3rd category, neither the cheerful story of fun and adventure, nor the classic tale of adversity overcome. The books that send librarians into ecstasies are often lesson-free, stories of stark and often horrible realism. Librarians, bless their good intentions, embraced this as kind of a rebellion against didacticism, and they promoted authors like Robert Cormier. Well-written grim reality speaks to an important readership that includes kids with life hardships who need their experience acknowledged and validated.

Cormier's The Chocolate War is one powerhouse of a book about a kid who tries to buck the system and gets crushed, but it's a mistake to decide that the uncompromising realism per se is what makes it excellent, and then start loading the shelves with lots of death-and-despair titles. What made The Chocolate War excellent was a factor that's one of the most difficult things to articulate and train into a reviewer. A story can depict failure, all attempts to fight for truth and justice can turn to ash, but the reader can see a spark of hope and the possibility of a different path.

At some point a reader becomes aware enough to see that the very existence of the book in her hand means that the corruption has been exposed. People who value truth, justice and mercy may not triumph in the book, but they grow up and write the books. This is a new type of consolation, at a remove from the story itself, but it's there.

Cormier got it in that novel. Barely. He even got it in After The First Death, a grueling terrorism novel for teens in which he lets you fully engage with and root for various young characters and then lets the terrorist kill them anyway. I haven't read all his books. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway -- a hopeless, pointless and hideous children's cancer clinic story -- was my farewell to Cormier. I'm pretty good at achieving the detachment that lets me see the merit in a book I don't like, but I had trouble finding a purpose for this book. Just my opinion, but: "Not recommended."

The excellence of the best examples can fool less insightful reviewers, and award-givers, into thinking everything ugly must be good. Both these articles provide what I think is an important wake-up call.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

You think you got Problems

There's a whole genre of kids' fiction -- mostly aimed at pre-teens and teens -- called "problem novels." It's a relatively recent genre, novels in which kids face realistic modern problems: death, crime, drugs. This was kind of revolutionary and was rightly applauded, engaging some readers who insist on acknowledgment that Dick/Jane/Sally suburbs and families just are not everyone's experience.

Publishing and awards have gone overboard with these books, though, and that's a whole post by itself, but before I offer that one I'm going to serve dessert first and tell you about the ultimate Problem Novel.

I got a "newsletter" (read: ad) from abebooks a couple days ago, which mentioned a list voted by British readers as the 10 funniest books of all time. No way does this one belong with that largely modern classic group, but it popped into my head immediately. The Grounding of Group 6 is one of my guilty pleasures, ridiculous but funny as all get-out and seems (judging by its amazon reviews) to have a little cult following, enough to have gotten it reprinted at least once. That's notable since, with some exceptions, hot teen novels have short self-lives.

In The Grounding of Group 6, a new school year opens at hip, elite Coldbrook boarding school. Orientation consists of a wilderness hike for all the new students, who are divided into small groups and sent out, each with a faculty advisor, for bonding, trust-forming, resource-testing, yadda yadda.

Only... this school offers parents a special service. If you have problem teens, you can arrange to have them assigned to Group Six. This is the group that ... does not come back. Ever. Part of the quite black humor here derives from the implication that unwanted-child disposal -- no, I mean real disposal -- is one of the raisons d'ĂȘtre of boarding schools:
Arn had said that there'd been lots of Coldbrook-sorts-of-schools, for years and years and years. "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" How many times had someone said that to a friend? And gotten back the answer "Oh she or he went away to school and I lost track of her or him." Oh, yeah.

To present these kids, with the various ways in which they've teed off or disappointed their utterly coldhearted parents, to make it a biting comedy and still touch on the heartbreak at least some of them would feel, is hard. Thompson is remarkably successful at balancing the reality and the campiness. The evil adults pretty much are caricatures, and that works, since it reduces the painful-reality problem a reader might have, and lets the humor be nice and dark, while the more believable kids of Group 6 made me genuinely care. It skewers preppie culture nicely, and has some sharp things to say about education, fads, and conformity.

It's got flaws. To make the plot work, these kids have to get over this emotional trauma way too quickly, though black comedy allows some license. The romantic pairups among them work out too neatly. And the pairing-up of the 22-year-old leader with one of the girls, an impossibly wise and mature 16-year-old, is probably why it's gone out of print, though they resist unprotected sex. And the circumstances under which they manage that make it not terribly plausible. The resolution is idealistic, though I can be over-tolerant of happy endings because, blast it, I like them. The absence of cell phones and computers (it was published in 1983) is conspicuous, but, heck, just set it in 1983 instead of in "the present."

Basically, the story tells how the group -- including their leader, who was hired to off them -- faces the truth and turns the tables on the school, taking it over. They form a real Family Of Choice, and make a plan. The scene in which they go through the items in the evil headmaster's office was what sent me into a fit of laughter. He's a Mary Worth fan and that's all I'm sayin'.

Thompson wrote other books that were maybe less flawed, but just didn't have the bite that this one has.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Another tedious butterfly post

I was amazed to spot this butterfly today. Shocked, actually, enough to scare Larry, since I was pointing through the car window and babbling incoherently. It doesn't take much to make me speechless, actually, but he thought I'd seen dead bodies in the roadside weeds or something, till he saw it too.

It also got me to email my biologist brother, who says he even saw one up there in NC during the past few days, 5 hours' drive north of here. The long season of seeing last year's crop, which went on into January, was pretty spectacular, but it seems that early sightings of this year's generation aren't as weird as I thought.

According to my bro, they experience "cold shock," which is a good thing. Very cold temperatures actually give the chrysalis a bigger and better burst of hormones as soon as it warms up, and the butterfly can metamorphose and emerge pretty fast. I'll say. We've had only a couple warm days after a short but exceptional cold spell.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Me and my shadow

Three photos - two scans, one digital shot:


Stephens College campus, March. The 2 under the tree were each my roommate at different times. We all had single rooms in the same wonderful little 1929 house (since, torn down! Hate that.) by the time of this photo. I'm standing on the overpass to the Commons building, and my shadow is cast down there on the sidewalk.



Beach, Hilton Head Island.



December 15th - stalking butterflies for my blog.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hot summer day

Sparky, Jake and Sally, 1971, probably August. One nice spot of good shade. That's not photo damage or aging -- i took it through the kitchen window and got a gash of sun glare from the window glass, right through it - would've been such a great picture. If I ever can spring for photo restoration technology I might be able to artificially correct it.


Sally is the tree. I grew up in a family that named things. I come honestly by my weirdness. "Sally" was a tree with personality. For such a small tree, it leaf-ed like crazy. For some reason, its great enthusiasm I guess, this reminded my mother of Sally Brown in Peanuts.

Things have been ... um ... piling up around here, but the scanner is uncovered now!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I. Hate. Crafts.

All I wanted was a scarf, okay? I know myself well enough not to attempt an afghan or a complicated thing with sleeves and necks and yadda yadda, I just wanted a scarf.

And I wanted one that was wide enough, that felt soft and nice, that was not in some weird trendy color ... and that was not acrylic, or even wool. This last requirement was the most important one, because I hate getting zapped by static electricity. I wanted a scarf of nice cotton yarn that would NOT crackle and make my hair stand on end.

So there are, like, THREE WALLS of yarns in the craft store. And all are acrylic or wool or blends, except two bins of cottons.

The first bin was baby yarn, for very thin, fine, tight-weave work. It would take me 90 years to make something out of that fine gauge yarn. OK, it would only seem like 90 years. I am not craftsy. Anything involving needles and thread makes me want to run screaming out into the night. This project is a means to an end, not about finding enjoyment in the process.

But despite the slim choices, I liked the stuff in the tiny second bin. Organic. Made in USA. Soft, nubby, earthy colors. Pricey, but I thought a couple skeins would... um...

Two hours of work later, you see the result. The book is there (why, of course I chose it at random...) to show just how few inches one skein makes. I've used over half of a skein and barely started. Each skein costs SIX BUCKS. This project will cost as much as buying some cashmere thing from Neiman Marcus.

Yes, I can dismantle this and make it narrower. And I will do exactly that, but one of the reasons I wanted to make my own was to get a wide one, since the current fashion trend is toward skinny things that will not provide much warmth.

So i'll compromise on width, save a skein or two, pay more than I meant to, and wish that the helpful information on the label --which happily explains what needles to buy-- would tell the buyer something like "This skein will make a one-foot square, crocheted."

I really hate crafts.

The last crochet project I completed.

Even here!

Snow. We had about an hour of driving flurries this morning. It was sunny by noon and nothing accumulated, and despite 22° nights coming up, I don't think precipitation is expected.

I'm slowly figuring out how to photograph falling snow. It helps to find a pocket out of the wind, which slows the speed of the stuff so that the camera can catch it. Facing into it helps too, so it's like looking into a starfield simulation.

But you''ll need to zoom these photos to make the flurries visible! It was pretty impressive in real life but doesn't show up well.

(1) The bike path across the marsh, and (2) a shot of Murrells Inlet's Highway 17.

After my stroll out there to the highway, I walked back around the house, where Scooter heard me and left his warm basement to grudgingly accompany me. He feels that it's his duty.

What is this $#!t,
and why are you forcing me out in it?!

The yard.

Please note that I've endured snowflakes on my back for this.
Extra treats will be expected.