Scary books

BBW13_ProfileOne of the categories for the 2015 Reading Challenge is *banned book*. I looked at ALA’s list of most frequently challenged books in 2014 and was pleasantly surprised to learn I’d read half of the top ten. But I also discovered, at #3, a picture book I hadn’t read.

“A picture book?” you ask.

imagesYes. And Tango Makes Three (J. Richardson and P. Parnell, ill. H. Cole) was published in 2005 and topped ALA’s list of banned books in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010. This tale of two male penguins who prefer each other’s company and hatch a chick at NYC’s Central Park Zoo –a penguin with two daddies! — raises red flags all over the place.

According to the ALA, Richardson’s and Parnell’s book has been frequently challenged because its content is anti-family and “promotes the homosexual agenda”. Others complain that the content is inappropriate for the age level. Parents in several states have asked that the book be removed from the library, or placed in a restricted section or in the non-fiction area (the assumption being that kids never browse the non-fiction section?), or marked as requiring parental consent before being checked out. In all cases, the parents’ requests were denied or eventually overruled.

Of course such efforts to bowdlerize public bookcases may be likely to backfire. Anyone who’s seen The Fantasticks knows that, if you want your kids to do something, tell them not to. Would this book have faded into obscurity if parents had said nothing? It’s impossible to know. But certainly the many challenges have kept this book in the spotlight.

It’s a lovely story. The two adult penguins are friends who do everything together, even building a nest and trying to hatch stones that look like eggs. A sympathetic zookeeper provides an abandoned egg, they take turns tending it and, mirabile dictu, it hatches. (Which makes me think of Horton hatching his egg — with no subsequent complaints from the reading public about a male elephant becoming a single parent.)

I know — I shouldn’t expect consistency or logic in this particular arena (or, in fact, in any arena). Yet, I always hope.

I’m grateful to the ALA for bringing such books to our attention, providing us opportunities to support authors, libraries, schools and READERS. If you haven’t done so yet, find a banned/challenged book and read it. Then try to figure out what all the fuss is about.

Posted in 2015 Reading Challenge, Banned/Challenged Books, Picture book, YA Lit | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The enchanted world

enchantressAnother category for the 2015 Reading Challenge is *a book set in the future*, for which I chose a book that has long been sitting on my shelf: Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars (1970), a Newbery Honor Book. My edition, from 2001, includes a Foreword by Lois Lowry, who points to Engdahl’s “lush literary landscape” that “enables a reader to enter several worlds and make a home in each.”

Lowry is right, but the irony of the statement is that the main character, Elana, an interstellar anthropologist-in-training, cannot ever be at home in any of the worlds she visits. The complexities of this novel are a challenge to put into a few words, but I’ll try.

Three cultures (two of whom have mastered space travel) come into contact on one planet, in a region that looks much like medieval Europe. The most advanced culture (the Federation) must save the planet (Andrecia) from being taken over by the invaders (the Empire), but in a way so subtle that neither the Andrecians nor the Empire need to change their understanding of the universe.

Engdahl mixes genres (medieval quest, coming-of-age, space opera), letting us into the minds of the various characters and forcing us to see events from more than one angle. However, this is not a case of cultural relativity — Engdahl is clear about which viewpoint is the most enlightened (the peaceful one) — but she underscores the values inherent in each viewpoint.

Edwin Booth

Edwin Booth

One theme of this novel is the role of magic (or the discounting of this role) in a culture’s understanding of how the universe operates. The Andrecians believe in magic: for them, the Empire’s excavator is a dragon that eats rocks when it has no humans to devour; for them, Elana is an enchantress able to teach the magic of making objects float through the air. The Empire does not: there’s no such thing as mind reading or telekinesis. The Federation also does not, but understands, like Hamlet, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy. (Engdahl even paraphrases Hamlet in something Elana says.)

At one point Elana says to a Federation soldier, “To see so much, by methods you think are scientific, that you’ve no faith in there being anything you don’t see — it must be awful.” And, later, Elana tells an Andrecian, “We are both captives still, captives of our worlds’ boundaries, for enchantments are not unworldly things, but only ways of seeing what is already there.” The Andrecians have this power, which the Empire and, perhaps, even the Federation have lost. We pay a high price for scientific advancement.

And yet this is a hopeful tale — the dystopian Empire will one day evolve enough to join the utopian Federation. Andrecia will travel the same path (Engdahl’s determinism may be too harshly limiting), and the Federation’s goal is to keep the path clear for all planets on this journey. Elana learns much about the demands placed on her as an anthropologist — she cannot provide medicine or food to the hungry and ill Andrecians she meets. But she also learns what the Federation can accomplish, while we learn that there may be hope for our own messed up world — we’re still adolescents, but moving inexorably towards adulthood and eventual wisdom. I wish there were a way to speed up the process.

Posted in 2015 Reading Challenge, Adventure, Dystopia, Science fiction, Utopia | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Doggie heroes

Here is the last of my recent library stumble-upons, but it was no unknown treasure that I found, simply a book I’ve been curious about ever since finding out that the author of I Capture the Castle had also written a book adapted by Disney and his team of animators.

DalmatiansCoverThe author would be Dodie Smith (in my library copy, penciled in as “Smith, Dorothy Gladys”), and the book I found would be The Hundred and One Dalmatians.

You don’t have to love dogs to enjoy this book, but I imagine it would help. It’s written from the viewpoint of the dogs: the humans are their pets, whom they attach to leashes and take for walks. Yes, you read me right: the dogs are walking the humans. The dogs can understand human speech perfectly, unlike their poor pets who can’t seem to decipher the perfectly clear messages the dogs are sending them. Many of the dogs we run across in this novel can even read the newspapers.

The Dearlys own the first two dalmations, Pongo and Misses Pongo (Perdita, who joins them later, is another full-grown dalmatian who’s lost her own litter of pups). Cruella de Vil (only the dogs notice the devilish clue in her last name) and her henchmen Jasper and Saul Baddun steal the dalmatian pups in the heat of night. The twilight bark sends news all across southeastern England. Rescue ensues, followed by pursuit, and then of course the happy ending. For those keeping count, the identity of the “hundred and oneth” dalmatian remains a mystery up to the last pages.

Smith includes a fur demolition scene that I don’t remember from the film — marking a rare instance where I actually prefer Disney’s revision. Disney also simplified the cast, and, if my memory hasn’t completely failed me, intensified the chase scene. But in essentials, Disney’s movie closely follows Smith’s plot, down to disguising the dogs in coal and Lucky’s horseshoe pattern of dots.

This was a quick read — just a few hours — but satisfying. Smith’s humor and quiet messages (including one on the evils of television) perfectly season this story of parents who risk everything to save their children.

Posted in Adventure, Animal tales, Fantasy | 2 Comments

Tall tales and just-so stories

Library stacks at U of Saskatchewan

Library stacks at U of Saskatchewan

Karel Čapek’s Nine Fairy Tales (1932, tr. 1990 by D. Herrmann) is another treasure found while wandering my school library’s stacks. There are actually ten tales here (And One More Thrown in for Good Measure is the subtitle), most short enough for a bedtime read. Two, however, the first and tenth, are “great” tales composed of several short stories featuring a single character. In “The Great Cat’s Tale”, for instance, we read of how a princess first acquires a cat, how that cat is stolen, how several detectives search for the cat, how one pear-loving detective is successful, and finally how the cat manages to bring the future king, with his house, to the princess’s castle.

311Bs+ywdJL._BO1,204,203,200_Herrmann’s translation from Czech (making this my *book originally written in a different language* for the 2015 Reading Challenge) is sprightly, full of puns and slang, rhythm and music — language that delights in sound as well as meaning. We learn the origins of comets, why hens don’t fly, and why dogs dig in the dirt. From a Czech swallow, we learn that buildings in America are so tall,

if a sparrow has a nest on the roof of such a building and an egg falls out, it keeps on falling for such a long time before it hits the ground that a baby sparrow hatches out on the way, grows, marries, has a slew of kids, ages and dies in blessed old age, so instead of an egg, an old dead sparrow drops flat on the pavement.

A traveler to India tells us the river Ganges “is so wide that if you throw a stone across to the other side it will take an hour and a half to land.” A dog, finding an intruder, barks:

Halt! … Get, get, get him! Overpower him! Hey, buddy! Hey, you hoodlum! Hey, you villain! Hey, you clumsy giant! Choke him, tramp him, smear him, thrash him, roll up your sleeves and tear him up! Ha-ha-ha!

These are stories with joyful characters, happy endings, and that extra bit of magic that makes them qualify as “fairy tales”.

Posted in 2015 Reading Challenge, Animal tales, Fantasy, Read-aloud book | Tagged | 4 Comments

Why I love libraries

I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but I’d like to point out what can happen in a library that can’t happen anywhere else: discovering old books you never even knew had been written. I’d gone to my college libe to borrow one book for the 2015 Reading Challenge (it’ll get its own post during Banned Books Week in September), and, only because I was on the wrong floor of the stacks, I discovered a couple of bonus books. Here’s one, *written by a woman*:


If you’re a Janeite, the title is all you need. (If you’re not a Janeite, I pity you. But you can start your apprenticeship here.)

I liked how Ashton based Jane’s relatives, friends and acquaintances on characters from her novels. This ploy creates a spot-the-character game for Janeites: a sister-in-law could be the source of Mary Crawford’s sprightly disdain for propriety; a proud great aunt may have been the model for Lady Catherine de Bourgh; two of Jane’s brothers see themselves in Mr. Knightly and Henry Crawford. Even Jane’s visits reminded me of locations and scenes in her novels — for these, Ashton may be hitting close to the truth, for we know much about where Jane spent time, as visitor or inhabitant, and Ashton made excellent use of this knowledge. (Note to self: read this book: Jane Austen: Her Homes and Friends, by Constance Hill.)

Lord Nelson

Lord Nelson

Ashton based Parson Austen’s Daughter on family documents and on letters by and about Jane (the few not destroyed after Jane’s death by her sister Cassandra — Cassy’s kindness to her beloved sister was cruelty to the world of her fans). More importantly, Ashton situates Jane in a critical period of English history, when armies led by Nelson and Wellington, not to mention three of Jane’s brothers, battled Napoleon for decades. Those soldiers quartered in Meryton, Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, Fanny Price’s brother — what may seem like plot devices is actually Jane showing the effects of world events on her “little bits of ivory” (Nathan Albright’s thoughtful analysis of Jane’s use of military history can be found here). Having a little more historical context will help me with future readings of these novels.

Jane gave her heroines much happier lives than the one fate had provided her. Although two of her brothers inherited large estates, and two others rose to high ranks in the British Navy, Jane and her family lived lives restricted by lack of money. Ashton shows us Jane, Cassandra and their mother, after Parson Austen dies, struggling for ways and means — where should they live, what can they hope for the future, who will marry either daughter now? It turns out, neither Cassandra nor Jane wanted to marry — the death of Cassandra’s fiancé is well known; Ashton posits a similar experience for Jane. We know about Jane and Tom Lefroy, and we know that some years later Jane accepted another man and then a day later changed her mind (much as Fanny Price does with Henry Crawford). But Ashton provides a third suitor, one who dies mysteriously before the family can learn of an understanding between the two.

Cassy’s and Jane’s disappointments are so like Jane’s temporary loss of Bingley, and Elinor’s temporary loss of Edward Ferrars. Except that Bingley and Ferrars don’t die — they come back, and everyone lives happily ever after. (The joys of being a novelist include being able to right the wrongs of the world.)

It takes a certain nerve to novelize the life of a beloved author. Janeites can be prickly arbiters of fact — see reactions to Becoming Jane (here and here) for instance. Ashton may play with Jane’s inspirations, but she’s true to the flavor of Jane’s life. The genteel poverty, the fears for brothers in the armed services and other relatives facing financial ruin, the reliance on letters for news, the walking, the heat of summer and cold of winter, the pain of illness — these all are in Ashton’s novel and make me admire Jane even more for her ability to create worlds in which behaving well despite adversity is the greatest achievement.

Happy discoveries like this one keep me returning to libraries. May your own library visits be frequent and equally fruitful!

Posted in Biography, Historical fiction | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

This and that

stack-of-booksAs NYC swelters through the dog days of summer, I find myself wishing for an early start to fall. This summer, what with work projects and reading projects and writing projects, has been busy. It’s also passed quickly — in ten days I’ll be back in the classroom, for my antepenultimate semester of teaching. Yes, it’s official. Retirement is close enough to seem real.

Meanwhile. I’ve just finished my 43rd book for the 2015 Reading Challenge. Here’s the next installment of highlights:

9781619634329Jessica Day George’s Silver in the Blood, *published this year* is a YA/New Adult gothic romance novel set for the most part in Rumania. Another take on Stoker’s *supernatural* Dracula, it follows two 17-year-old American debutantes as they learn dark family secrets in Bucharest and beyond. With lines like “He smelled like money and masculinity” and scenes where the heroines find themselves in various stages of undress, I found myself laughing at parts I suspect the author didn’t intend to be funny. Too many eyebrows climbed to hairlines, too many hysterics and vapors simmered under the surface. I dismissed it as “popular fiction”, but at p. 170 I turned to my daughter and said, “It just got good.” It got good because the author surprised me. George doesn’t need you to buy this book, so just look for it at a library. It helps if you’ve read Dracula, but that isn’t completely necessary.

The_Crossover_book_coverurlI can highly recommend two books in verse, deserving the several awards they’ve garnered. Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, with a scene *set at Christmas*, tells of a young basketball player dealing with jealousy of his twin brother. The photos in Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, brought me close to *tears*. These books portray black lives at a time when it’s crucial for all to understand how these lives are different from, but also so similar to, the lives of non-black people.

RevisedChapter4PanelsAnother memoir, this one in graphic form and chosen on the basis of *its cover*, deserves a lengthy commentary. In Cece Bell’s El Deafo, the young Cece, after a bout with meningitis, loses her hearing. This is back in the 1970s, when the solution was to hang a canteen-sized machine around her neck with wires leading to her ears. With her teacher hooked up to a microphone, Cece could hear everything the teacher said. Even when the teacher left the room. Thus Cece could effectively accompany her teacher to the teachers’ lounge, the cafeteria, even to the bathroom. Cece, at first embarrassed by the hearing aid, hides it and hopes no one notices.

Cece chooses not to learn sign language, feeling naked without the huge hearing aid box dangling from her neck. She makes and loses friends, seeing insult where only care was intended. El Deafo is her imagined alter ego, with superpowers to defeat the ignorance, stupidity and unintended cruelty Cece faces when people react to her deafness.

Having a sister who has been deaf for 30 years, and who will soon have a cochlear implant, I could recognize my sister’s experiences in everything Bell describes — the inability to participate in multi-participant discussions, the impossibility of playing team sports, the loneliness of a silent world. Cece gets glasses and sees individual leaves on trees for the first time — I had the exact same experience.

It’s dismaying to recognize oneself in Bell’s characters, who are all too realistic in their fears, errors — and then reassuring to see their humor, strengths, and loyalties. Cece copes with “difference” by hating the term “special” until she realizes that El Deafo is, in fact, very special — someone unlike anyone else, who can help both deaf and hearing people learn how to be more inclusive. I loved this book.

Posted in Adventure, Gothic, Graphic Novel, Newbery Award, Poetry, Supernatural | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

In Brief

220px-Holbrook_Jackson_1913Recent discovery: Holbrook Jackson, English bibliophile (1874-1948).

Just to give you a taste, he writes, in “The Uses of Books,” about discovering, while visiting an acquaintance, a false bookcase that was actually a door to a cupboard packed with cigars.

… I am not sure that he was not making as worthy a use of books as many whose pretensions approach more nearly to reality. But, at the same time, it would have been less gracious, but more strictly in keeping with the tradition of honesty, if he had kept real books on his shelves and consumed them as cigar lighters. The latter method of dealing with books would confer a double blessing upon men, in the first instance by getting rid of a lot of unnecessary old books, and in the second by providing additional royalties for the authors of new ones. And the Goddess of Nicotine, one might imagine, would be more readily propitiated by the gift of fire: as the Muses, with their traditional incense.

Posted in Bibliiomania | Tagged | 1 Comment