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Friday, August 24, 2007

A Thin Line

According to some scholars, there had, for a long time, a gender bias in children's books. Traditionally, boys were portrayed as "strong, adventurous, independent, and capable," while girls tended to be "sweet, naive, conforming, and dependent." Girls in books tended to be more passive and "acted upon" rather than the active seeker of solution and adventures. However, I could recall many female protagonists who possess all the positive and active characteristics: Charlotte (Charlotte's Web,) Claudia (From the Mixed-up of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,) Meg (A Wrinkle in Time,) Cimorene (Dealing with Dragons,) Leslie (Bridge to Terabithia,), India Opal (Because of Winn-Dixie,) and Lyra (The Golden Compass.) This is just a start of a long list of names. I doubt not that young readers "need" these strong girls in their readings to form part of their world view without the traditional gender bias. Many newly published books for children continue this trend. (Lucky in The Higher Power of Lucky comes to mind.)

For a long time now, there has also been a group of girl protagonists that I might term "misunderstood." The famous ones are Ramona (Ramona the Pest and other titles,) Gilly Hopkins (The Great Gilly Hopkins,) Harriet (Harriet the Spy). These girls are head-strong, actively seeking adventures, and (on the surface) do not care how others perceive them. (But as readers soon find out, they are all insecure and desire to be noticed, admired, and loved.) Out of this vine, there grew the current bunch of girls who are not only strong and adventuresome, but also couldn't care less what others perceive them and how others might feel and react to their words and actions.

More and more female protagonists act rudely and selfishly and have been praised for their "pluckiness" and nonconformity. We see a mild case of witty snippishness in Mia (Princess Diaries,) and then there are the younger cast such as Junie B. Jones whose antics, unlike those of Ramona's, are a lot more intentional and whose sarcastic descriptions of the others (children and adults alike) are beyond just a show of pluckiness or humor. Last year we saw a group of amazingly talented outcast girls in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City. They sure are adventuresome and resourceful. No guys ever helped them with their mission. They are bonded over life-and-death situations, saving each other from great perils, and sharing secrets no one else could know. And yet, when they are with each other, sarcastic put-downs are uttered and thrown at each other relentlessly. These are not merely nonconforming, plucky girls: they are downright rude and nasty.

And, yet, it seems, the world celebrates them. "Kiki Strike celebrates the courage and daring of seemingly ordinary girls, and it will thrill those who long for adventure and excitement." --School Library Journal and "This is a rallying cry for the ‘curious’ and an effective anthem of geek-girl power . . . All in all, an absurdly satisfying romp for disaffected smart girls." --Kirkus Reviews

When did so many girl protagonists cross the line and went from being admirably courageous and confident to being mean-spirited and self-congratulatory in their total disregard of others? I always believe that literature does not exist to cultivate readers' manners or to provide role models. A good storyteller should always aim at achieving a good story. It is true that these girls exist in real life (flinging insults at each other as a way to show intimacy and quick wit, much like their male counterparts) and that the world of stories should be wide-open and encompass all kinds. However, it is crucial that children's book creators and their teams do not simply make up these characters to follow a trend since these are what children see and hear on a daily basis, both in their real life and on TV/in movies and seem to fit the market place.

I wish that more critics and readers are aware of this somewhat subtle but insidious shift in children's literature heroines and continue to appreciate the "traditional" "strong, adventurous, independent, and capable" literary girls whom we admire and would love to be friends with after reading the last sentence of a tale.

More on this later.


Friday, August 17, 2007

Pulled Pork Theory

My daughter commented at dinner the other night after I enthusiastically devoured a superb Pulled Pork Sandwich, that, "Because you like pulled-pork so much, you're NEVER going to say that it's not good!" I looked at her, thinking, yup, she's probably right. Since I love love love this particular food, it's more likely that I would enjoy it as a meal option than some other choices (such as pickled herrings over a green salad.) However, thinking further, I replied, "Hmmm, just because I love pulled pork doesn't mean that I can't tell a good pulled pork from a badly done one, or from an excellent one. In fact, because I AM a pulled pork expert (consuming, not making) I probably am more sensitive to tiny differences in quality from one pulled pork to the next."

Then we went on and talked about my taste and ability to tell a good fantasy novel from a poorly constructed one. And, how, reading is like eating: to a more practiced and sensitive palate, small alterations in ingredients and textures could make a huge difference in my level of enjoyment. Spaghetti must be cooked al dente in my household -- slightly firmer or one degree limper both result in less enjoyment. That's why we guard the pot and test the noodle and quickly drain the water and serve when it's "just right." I know, it's a curse! But, a bliss as well, when everything is "just right" or when something exceeds expectation. Like the superb pulled pork from a grocery delivery service: all prepared and ready to serve (after a couple of minutes in the microwave!)

So, this is my pulled pork theory: just because I like a particular kind of books doesn't make me blind to the differences in quality from one offering to the next (the opposite probably applies.) And, it is important, for my professional life, to widely sample different kinds of writings and styles, all sorts of genres and formulas, so when it comes to discerning the poorly done, the mundane, and the divine, I can make well-informed and balanced judgments.


Hitler's Canary

Author: Sandi Toksvis
Reading Level: 5th - 7th

Pages: 191
Publisher: Roaring Brook (originally Randomhouse, UK, 2005)
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

What a feat... a tender, courageous, and often wryly humorous tale about the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. (Even if it's just a small corner of the world the Nazi's had a hold on.) Because of the courage and ingenuity and the strong belief in human equality of the Danish people, most of the 8000+ Jews were sheltered, transported to safety, and survived. This story from pre-and-early-teen Basme's (Teddy Bear) view point should be introduced to as many young readers as we can! It does not have extremely gruesome depictions that will upset young readers who have yet to know this part of our history, but it has plenty of nerve-wrecking moments and conflicts to hold one's attention and interest. There is great sacrifice and a few upsetting events (at least two quite irrevocable sufferings) toward the end of the tale, justifiably depicted. I cried, laughed, and gasped with terror, during the great theatrical scene that Mama staged to save their neighbors. Knowing that the story is inspired by family histories and relatives of the author I bought the story even more.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Serving on the Notables

So. Some of you might know that this year (and next and who knows...) I have been reading as a Member of the ALSC Notable Children's Books Committee, along with ten other VERY diligent and VERY intelligent and extremely knowledgeable and generous members!

So, the question I have been asked most is: How could you possibly read these many books? (Yup, we've each received already around 1000 titles and that's just the first half of the year's submission.) The short and quick answer is, "I can't!" So, I read as much as my slow pace allows, and then rely heavily on other members who read faster and have better radars to best books for recommendations. Without them, and without the current responsibility, I wouldn't have read the excellent survival story/mystery Leepike Ridge or what I am currently reading and definitely enjoying, Does My Head Look Big In This?

I am totally enjoying this experience, although of course, overwhelmed, as well. More to report another day.


Grumpy Bird

Author:Jeremy Tankard (illustrator)
Reading Level: Pre-k to 2nd

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

I LOVE the grumpiness of Bird and his host of 4-legged friends who totally are so clueless to his mood. The Wahaha-WOW ending is so unexpected and satisfying. There is a great momentum building through this seemingly simplistic picture book. Tankard's thick-black-outlined endearing group of animals and brush-painting trees, accompanied by bleached photo background is dexterously done. There is just so much to look at and such a joy to read aloud and to share!

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Leepike Ridge

Author: N.D. Wilson
Reading Level: 4th to 7th

Pages: 224
Publisher: Random House
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

A great survival story, a thrilling adventure, an intriguing mystery, and a tall tale. It reminds me of Paulsen's survival stories but seems to have even more layers and with incredibly enjoyable wry humor: "It was a face deciding what to say and how to say it, and the truth didn't look as if it was a factor in the decision making."

"The bottom of the trash bag was full of boiled crawdad dead. Those remaining in the pool wandered about, confused by the sudden spaciousness."

"Jeffrey was dragged out by his shoulders and then propped up with his back against the couch. The bag was still blood-glued to the back of his head and stood out around it like a white plastic halo."

Yup, a few gruesome scenes: for example: dealing with and collecting useful things from a dead body. I loved those scenes.

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Atherton: The House of Power

Author: Patrick Carman
Reading Level:

Pages: 330
Publisher: Little, Brown
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

This grabbed me and wouldn't let me go the entire time! Instantly, I was intrigued by the Frankeinstein quote and the strange conversation between the two disembodied voices. Edgar's tale then unfolds with lots of fast paced action and suspenseful plot twists, a cast of well-delineated major and minor characters, and wonderful illustrations (I'd like just a few more... um... maybe a dozen more, of Squire Broel's pencil drawings, actually!) I know that there is quite a bit of environmental message attached and all the science might not be accurately scientific and border on magical elements, but I bought it all: the world, the characters, the events, and wasn't even that distraught to find no ending to this particular portion of the tale.

I was reluctant to start reading the book, since there is a half-wrap dust jacket and a Bonus CD-ROM -- gimmicks that made me skeptical: the book must not be that great if they need to include special cover design and extra materials to draw readers! Glad that I did read it, really glad!

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Monday, August 06, 2007

It's definitely an addiction

Reading, that is. I have been reading nonstop due to my responsibility on ALSC's Notable Children's Books Committee. Although so many books so far have been disappointing or just bleh, my passion for reading has only increased. So, this reading thing must be an addiction: I am constantly looking for the next book that will grab me, get me lost in a different and dexterously constructed world (and it doesn't even have to be a fantasy land or a futuristic one) and keep me in a dizzying haze when daily routines seem less real than the characters or relationships in a story. How else could I categorize this constant search for the next Big Experience?

This desire is so strong, it's often physical!


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Am I evil in demanding high standards?

I've been teaching an online graduate course on fairy tales as children's literature these past few weeks. Recently, we debated heatedly about picture book fakelores and whether they should remain on library shelves and classrooms. Some of my students were puzzled by my passionate stance, believing that as long as the books are in high quality, with good stories and great illustrations, created by well-intentioned and reputable authors/illustrators, what's the big deal if they might be misleading. One student stated that if she was to choose between a beautifully made story, with some misrepresentation of the culture, but entertaining to the young readers, and a boring but accurate book, she would definitely choose the former. I completely understand how she feels. But, a big question remains:

Why would we even need to "choose"? Why couldn't we demand that books created for children and purchased by libraries and schools always be both accurate and entertaining? Why would anyone want to just settle for the lesser evil?

(I've been called the mean step-sister by a student already, so I imagine that I'm probably an evil step-mother now that I want these teachers and librarians to never settle for second best and always demand the best for our kids and for ourselves.)


So, the wind has changed

I have now decided that -- my simple reading log is no longer a "simple" journal recording specifically books and what I think about them. So, I guess, once in a while, someone visiting this blog might stumble upon my musings ABOUT reading and the general field of children's literature. I hope no one objects.