Wednesday, October 14, 2009

To see or not to see WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

It’s time for a confession.

I’m not entirely sure I want to see WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.

There. I’ve said it, it’s out there, and I’ll suffer the consequences. This is not to say I won’t see it (I reserve the right to change my mind) but I’m find I’m waiting for it with apprehension rather than in anticipation.

If you look at my movie-viewing history, you’ll find I’ve avoided many filmed versions of my favorite childhood books. I generally try to come up with some kind of academic, incontrovertible reason for doing so, but more often than not it comes down to fear that my internal vision won’t be reflected on screen.

I skipped the two films of The Chronicles of Narnia because I know what Lucy and Mr. Tumnus and Reepicheep look and sound like and I wasn’t willing to accept any substitute. And I remembered that C.S. Lewis never sold the film rights himself believing that a film wouldn't be able to do the fantastic elements of his books justice. For me, that was reason enough not to see the movies. The author was alive when film was an established medium (unlike, say, Oscar Wilde) and he said no. By not seeing the movie, I was not only stubbornly preserving my childhood vision, I was honoring the wishes of the creator of that world. (Though I do concede that Tilda Swinton was perfectly cast as the White Witch.)

I also said no to THE GOLDEN COMPASS (the text and some themes had to be softened and Lyra didn’t seem spunky enough), TWILIGHT (I am solidly team Jacob, and I do not like that casting), CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (what’s that scientist doing there?), and a resounding no to A WRINKLE IN TIME (the IT in my imagination is plenty scary, thank you).

There are yeses. HOLES I allowed because I knew that Louis Sachar had written the screenplay. While HARRIET THE SPY wasn’t quite mean enough, I couldn’t resist Eartha Kitt as Agatha K. Plummer. And I was thrilled that Tim Burton returned some of the edge to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

But Aunt Feather, I hear you asking, why no to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE? You love Spike Jonez (I do), Dave Eggers is brilliant (he is), Sendak gave his seal of approval (he did), and this is one of the most important books of your life (absolutely).

And therein lies the problem.

This is one of the most important books of my entire life. It was regularly checked out of the library throughout my childhood. My folks gave me tickets to see the opera when I was in high school. When I left teaching and bookselling for an office job, I kept a copy of the book at my desk just in case I needed it. Over the years, I developed my own ideas about Max and his mother’s backstory, cemented clear thoughts about the personalities of the Wild Things, and honed specific ways of delivering the dialogue when I read the book aloud. And I’ve had all 300-odd words memorized for as long as I can remember.

Frankly, I’m scared to lose all that. I’m concerned that I’ll move away from my gruff read of “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” to the soft way that line is delivered in the movie. I worry that the landscape of the island (for that’s where the Wild Things make their home in my mind) will change irreversibly after seeing what Jonez and company have created. Even from the preview, the presence of a desert confuses me beyond measure. There’s no desert where the Wild Things live. And of course I worry that I’ll learn things about Max which will change my relationship with him.

I don’t doubt that Sendak’s story and art have been beautifully expanded upon and built up for the film. I’m sure that the backstory and additional details enrich the world and give it additional depth and heart. And I’m sure that the performances are unparalleled. But I’m not sure that the filmed version will enrich the landscape that I’ve been building since I was a toddler.

Long and short, I’m worried that the magic of the film will tarnish the magic of the book. And when I have a choice, books win.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Picture Books Get Banned, Too

In getting ready for this week, I looked over lists of banned and challenged books. I was looking for titles I’ve never read and challenges I’d forgotten, and titles I didn’t know had ever caused a ruckus.

I expected to see the Harry Potter books (witchcraft and sorcery), Judy Blume (sex), and recent Newbery Award Winner THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY (the word ‘scrotum’ caused an uproar). And then there were titles that surprised me—that literally made me exclaim out loud. Picture books caused most of my confusion.

In picture books, I knew that Sendak’s Caldecott Honor book IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN continues to cause a stir because Mickey spends much of the book naked (as I explained to a friend ‘you can’t show his pee-pee!’) I had already heard that AND TANGO MAKES THREE held the top-spot on the challenged books list for the third year in a row (this title about a same-sex penguin couple has been challenged internationally.) It was no surprise at all that THE STUPIDS is challenged time and again because there is objection to the use of the word ‘stupid’ and a claim that the series promotes negative behavior.

And then came the surprises. As I saw each of the following titles on the list I tried to figure out why they were challenged before I read the explanation. In every instance, when I had one at all, my guess was wrong.

Dr. Seuss is acclaimed for his early readers and his ability to address complex issues in accessible parables. THE LORAX introduces a creature fighting to defend the trees, the creatures who live among them, and the land itself from an unnecessary corporate expansion. What could be offensive about this conservationist picture book? THE LORAX was challenged in California because the ‘I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees’ chant might defame the logging industry.

Caldecott Award Winner SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig has long been one of my favorites. I have always thought of this as a loving story of family and undying love. I thought that perhaps the magic which changes Sylvester from a donkey into a rock and back again might be considered witchcraft. But I was wrong. In 1977 the book was challenged in Illinois because in this world where all the characters are animals, the police officers are illustrated as pigs and that could be construed as defamatory to law enforcement.

I knew the KING AND KING had been challenged from coast to coast and overseas because of the homosexual relationship, but was someone really offended by the fact the Queen is a divorcee? A parent in California was.

My guess when I saw THE THREE LITTLE PIGS on a list was that it might be cited because of violence (particularly in early, traditional tellings) I didn't expect to find out the book was challenged as school reading because the pigs as food might be offensive to the Muslim community.

Suffice it to say, that picture books land on banned books lists is a reminder that no book is free from scrutiny. Every title is subject to unexpected interpretation. And most importantly, that every book we read over our lifetimes might someday require defense.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I Read Banned Books

I have been very blessed in many areas of my life. One of the most important personally and professionally is the fact that I grew up in a in a household of readers. Of equal importance was that this was a family of readers in which no book was forbidden.

Certainly there were books my siblings and I chose which my parents didn’t care for, but I never remember them forbidding even one title. Granted, if I chose something they considered too sophisticated (THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG the summer between 8th and 9th grade, for example) they let me know—but it was with a subtle, “I’d prefer if you didn’t read that now…” I can’t remember even one instance where they said no to me or to my siblings when it came to the written word.

And happily—luckily—though I attended school all over the United States, I don’t recall living in district where a book was challenged by a parent, educator, or community at large.

Today is the start of the 28th annual observation of Banned Books Week. This is a week to celebrate our freedom to read and our access to information. Glance over the list compiled by the American Library Association of the 100 most frequently challenged books from the 90’s and my guess is you’ll be surprised by what some people have found so offensive they want to restrict access for the rest of us. This is also a week to show support to all of those who help protect our intellectual rights on a daily basis—particularly the librarians, booksellers, and educators who are most often on the front lines.

I’ve been reading quite a bit to prepare for this week, and I found myself returning to this quote by Margaret Bald, co-author of 100 BANNED BOOKS, again and again:

“When you look back over the centuries at censorship and see the incredible range of books and authors whose works were suppressed, you can only be struck by how absurdly ineffective and useless it has been in the long run.”

There are hundreds of books that have been banned or challenged over the centuries. My challenge to you is to read one of those books this week.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Will Oprah pick SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM?

While I’d intended to write only about the classics and the forgotten and the out of print until I got my proverbial sea-legs with this blog, I need to leave that aside for today. Please forgive in advance any sweeping statements or generalizations I may make, but I hope that after you read this book, you’ll feel the same way.

When speculation about the next Oprah Book Club pick began a few weeks ago, there were a handful of details which were broadly available to those who cared to look for them. Who the publisher was, the length and price of said book, and the fact that the choice was like no other that Oprah had put her book club seal on were reported on in the publishing trades I read daily, and I filed away this information.

Once it was confirmed that the book was going to be from Little, Brown and Company, I crossed my fingers and hoped that Uwem Akpan’s SAY YOU’RE ONE OF THEM would be the choice. According to a small piece in the media today, it is.

I first read two of the stories in this collection, ‘An Ex-mas Feast’ and ‘My Parents’ Bedroom’ when they were published in The New Yorker. When I came across them in this collection, I immediately remembered specific details and felt the pulse-racing upset I’d felt when I first read them. There was not only intellectual memory, but sense memory associated with the stories. To have that clarity and emotional response years after the first encounter was unexpected and spoke to me of the lasting, powerful, and important nature of Akpan’s storytelling.

SAY YOU’RE ONE OF THEM is a collection of short stories, set across Africa which address the difficult issues which are facing the young people across that continent. Genocide, AIDS, orphans, child prostitution, lack of education, and slavery are some of the issues contained within its pages.

Is it easy reading? No. Is it important and necessary? Absolutely. In my mind, this is a title which needs to be in every library—both school and public—across the United States and around the world.

And not to make light of the stories or the issues, be prepared to take action after reading the collection. You’ll surely want to do something: trick or treat for UNICEF, write letters for Amnesty International, donate to Doctors Without Borders, support a local Peace Corps volunteer.

That’s my greatest hope: that this book will galvanize readers to care enough to do something for the children the world over who need our help.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"God bless the gargoyles. God bless us all."

On September 11th, eight years ago, I was preparing for the first day of school: setting up the classroom, meeting students, calling parents…

At the time I was teaching during the week and bookselling on weekends. The school opted to postpone the first day until the following week to allow families time together and to allow the staff time to develop strategies to address the questions and comments our preschool students would surely have. Similarly, the bookstore instituted additional storytimes—a place to allow families to gather and relax, for parents to search for titles that might help them talk to their children, and for kids to be in a familiar place outside of their home.

The store compiled a list of titles to read and to suggest to families, but of course the booksellers added additional books which had personal meaning or which gave us comfort. There were a lot of titles about love and forgiveness, about families and home, about peace and understanding. Terrific titles, meaningful and important books all.

But it surprised me to find that the title which gave me the most comfort during this time was one I added to our suggested titles list — Dav Pilkey’s GOD BLESS THE GARGOYLES. Yes, that Dav Pilkey. Dav Pilkey the creator of Captain Underpants and The Dumb Bunnies.

GOD BLESS THE GARGOYLES tells the tale of how and why gargoyles perch on churches and cathedrals— that they were placed there to look over and protect us, to scare evil away. Yet over the centuries, our relationship with them changed, and people began to worry over these creatures, concerned that their frightening appearance reflected an unsavory soul. The gargoyles took this to heart and were devastated. Soon angels heard their crying and flew down to comfort them and to work with them to watch over mankind. To this day, whether we know it or not, accept it or not, they still look over us.

I first encountered the book when it was released in 1996 and it quickly became a favorite. But it was never an easy book to handsell. My passion for it worked during the Halloween season, but it’s not a book that is an easy one to suggest for birthdays or bookreports. It is not a book likely to become an obvious favorite.

After the events of 9/11, I realized what an important book this had become to me. Now it is among the first I turn to when I need comfort. It makes me weep and it brings me peace. And now that it is the reason I suggest it to others.

God bless the hearts and the souls who are grieving:
For those who have left, and for those who are leaving.
God bless each perishing body and mind
God bless all creatures remaining behind.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Facing Fears with THE THREE ROBBERS

There are very few books from my childhood that were ever ‘lost’ to me. I have a half-dozen younger siblings, I taught nursery school, I was a bookseller… when my peers were ‘setting aside childhood things’, I was still encountering them on a daily basis.

But despite this, there are a handful of books which have slipped through the cracks. Some are obscure and long out of print and I’m sure they’ll never surface, some are remembered but I can’t find them (anyone else remember a staple-bound, die-cut Golden Book THE FRIENDLY LION?), and a few I’ve been lucky enough to run across at unexpected times.

Years ago when I was bookselling, I was straightening the shelves in paperback picture books when I came across a book which was just oversized enough to stand out… I pulled it off the shelf and gasped. A dark, almost sinister cover was before me. Three tall black hats, six gleaming eyes, a frightening red axe… I grinned and sighed and felt a rush of glee. I sat on the floor to get reacquainted with Tomi Ungerer’s THE THREE ROBBERS, a friend I’d not seen in decades.

The book follows the exploits of three robbers, cloaked in black, who torment their victims with an axe, a pepper blower, and a blunderbuss. Citizens are terrified—to the point that ‘Women fainted. Brave men ran. Dogs fled.’ Their horrible reign continues until the night they stop a carriage wherein the only thing of value is an orphan. They take Tiffany back to their lair where she convinces them to do some good with their plundered wealth, and they open an orphanage. Over the years, an idyllic town springs up around the orphanage and the citizens erect towers in honor of these unlikely foster parents.

While the story does have a happy ending, the bulk of the tale isn’t comforting. Here is a fierce trio, taking what they want at will and with a measure of violence. They chop up carriage wheels and threaten people. I’m sure my exasperated childhood self exclaimed, ‘They’re even mean to the horses!’ They take a small child because there’s no other treasure to steal.

The illustrations don’t soften the story in any way. They are dark in both mood and appearance. An image early in the story shows the robbers in silhouette, their weapons brandished and threatening against the night sky. Even the final image of the town is heavy with a swath of black and many others are easily 2/3 solid black ink.

Finishing the book as an adult, I was confused. And worried. And concerned. What was I reading? Was this really a childhood favorite? Why did I ever connect with this book? And how could something so scary resonate with me— I’m a chicken who can’t even watch previews for horror movies. I don’t think I wanted to escape my family until my tween years. I doubt harbored a secret wish to be a robber. And yet, this was a book I checked out from the library repeatedly as a child.

The recent Phaidon hardcover edition is open on my desk as I write this and another read still hasn’t helped me understand why I like it so much. Unfortunately, I’m too tied up in the memories to look at the book objectively. I don’t think figuring out the book’s appeal would unlock any mystery of my personality, but I would like to know what the draw was to my five-year-old self. But the confusion my adult self feels wouldn’t keep me from sharing the book. It’s not a title I’d give as a gift to just any kid, but the right child might just find it appealing—and maybe even draw on it to face their real-life fears.

THE THREE ROBBERS by Tomi Ungerer, ISBN 978-07148-4877-8, picture book

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Greetings and Salutations!

One habit people have long teased me about—whether I’m visiting family and friends or touring a historic home—is scanning the bookshelves. It’s a habit I’ve had most of my life and I choose to believe it’s done me a service. My curiosity opened conversations with my grandparents about our family history, sparked debate with close friends about what did or didn’t work in a novel, reminded me of forgotten favorites, and introduced me to titles and authors I’d never have found otherwise.

And while I’m happy to discuss my love of Tom Robbins or debate which Brontë is the strongest writer or share which translation of Don Quixote I prefer, my biggest literary passion has always been children’s books—that all encompassing category that covers books published for those from birth to somewhere into young adulthood. This love has influenced my work and personal life and absolutely informs how I view much of the world.

For years, I’ve had friends from all around the country ask me if I would share my thoughts about children’s literature via blog or newsletter. I’m finally answering, “Yes.”

Aunt Feather’s Bookshelf is a place for me to share some of my favorite books, to remind you of things you may have forgotten, and to explore titles I overlooked (or stubbornly refused to read) when I was the target audience. I also hope that it becomes a place for discussion about what is and isn’t working in children’s literature and what we—as publishers, parents, librarians, educators, aunties and uncles—can do to keep children of all ages vibrant and interested readers.

So, welcome. There’s limeade in the fridge, that big green bowl has snacks in it, the chair in the corner is the comfiest, and the shelves are yours to explore…