Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Monday, January 31, 2011

Featured Book: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Harper & Row, 1963
I probably read Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are about a thousand times as a little guy. Love it.  Sendak creates some of the most memorable images in children’s literature.  And it’s the images that drive the story. In fact, the “wild rumpus” sequence is told entirely without words in 3 full-page spreads (six total pages).  Also, early in the tale, we see a picture on the wall of Max’s room that he drew (which both illustrates his fantastic imagination and foreshadows the adventure to come).  The story is very simple, told with basic vocabulary in fewer than ten sentences. Max is sent to his room without dinner because he’s being wild.  He then has an elaborate daydream in which he sails to where the wild things are and envisions himself as the wildest wild thing of all.  He is then brought home by the smell of his dinner, which is waiting for him at his door. And it’s still warm.

Spike Jonze film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are found mixed reviews upon its release.  I, however, enjoyed it immensely.  I’ve often heard it described as an adult meditation on childhood. And I think that’s an accurate description. Especially because one of the most wild parts of childhood is pain. It’s been over a year since I’ve seen the film, but I still remember the expression of concern and confusion on Max’s face when his teacher talks about the finite nature of the universe.  And  then there’s the heartbreaking scene in which Max is playing under his mom’s desk (maybe telling her stories?) as she works. She enjoys time with her son, but she wears the pained expression of adulthood. There’s longing and sadness in her eyes, and it makes Max hurt, too. And feel sad. And the hardest thing about all of it is that he doesn’t understand.  I got a little choked up watching that scene. And it altered my expectations of the film.  And the way I watched the rest of it. Max spends his time in the land of the wild things trying to make a child’s wild nature and understanding of the world fit into what he believes are the adult rules. But those rules just don’t make sense.  I come away from the film feeling that life, generally, makes so much more sense as a child. And maybe that’s why I still love this story (both the book and the film) so much.  Hell, maybe that’s why I love children’s literature so much.  Thank you, Mr. Sendak.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Featured Book: Harry the Dirty Dog

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion 
HarperCollins, 1956
Illustrations by Margaret Bloy Graham
The title of Gene Zion's 1956 Harry the Dirty Dog says it all. Harry dislikes cleanliness. He hides the scrub brush whenever it's time to take a bath. To Harry, filthiness is next to dogliness.  So he runs away and indulges in joyous, untidy rebellion. His dirty doings are depicted in a series of short, simple sentences and corresponding drawings: playing in a street, at the railroad, with other dogs. Even in a coal chute! In a humorous twist, all of the grime transforms Harry from a white dog with black spots to a black dog with white spots. He looks so different that his family doesn’t recognize him when he returns home (one of several indications that Harry is brighter than his family--another being that he always outsmarts them with concealing the bath brush). Harry finally does the very last thing he ever expected to do in his entire life: beg his family for a bath.  But as the story comes to close, we’re not left feeling like Harry “gives in.”  No, Harry might be clean and safe at home, but the bath brush is still tucked safely beneath his pillow.  Only now, it seems, that instead of always refusing to be clean, he will be the judge of when he needs a bath (i.e. when his silly family doesn't recognize him through the filth!).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Featured Book: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

 Narrated by our protagonist, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (illustrated by Ray Cruz), demonstrates the many perils of childhood, like tripping, getting gum in your hair, and not getting the prize out of the cereal box.  Fortunately, Alexander has a plan--a remedy--that pops up as an amusing refrain throughout the story: he's going to move to Australia. Before the story—and the day—comes to a close, Alexander’s best friend demotes him, he fails to impress his teacher with a drawing of an invisible castle, he sings too loudly, he forgets the number 16, he doesn’t get dessert, he has a cavity, he is pushed in the mud and called a crybaby, he gets lima beans at dinner, and he sees kissing on TV.  Ew! That’s the worst! The loveliest thing about this story is that it doesn’t feel the need to end on a positive note. Instead, Alexander admits that sometimes days are just...terrible, even. But they can be bad in Australia, too. We close the book satisfied that Alexander survives the ordeal, and we hope the poor fellow has a better day tomorrow.

Bonus Review:

Two decades after Alexander has a terrible day, the poor kid still can’t catch a break.  In Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move, a late entry in Judith Viorst’s Alexander series (illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser), our plagued protagonist returns, facing yet another childhood woe: moving (no--not to Australia). Told again in Alexander’s charming voice, he lets the reader know—absolutely, positively, unequivocally—that he will not move. “Never. Not ever. No way. Uh uh. N. O.”  In fact, we never hear other characters' exact words from their own lips, with their own voices. Alexander paraphrases all of it for us, including the repetition of his brothers’ opinions of him: “Nick says I’m_____ (fill in the blank with a variety of nasty things brothers might say),” and “Anthony says I’m being immature.”  Repetition is also used to underscore the sadness that sort of oozes through the humor of the story. It's really a melancholy little tale.  Alexander notes the distance between his current and new homes: a thousand miles.  He considers his not-moving options, plotting to live with the Baldwins or the Rooneys.  Or moving into his tree house.  He packs and says his goodbyes, but all the while he plots, thinking of how not to move. Finally, his parents offer incentives to Alexander, like calling his best friend long distance and maybe getting a dog. Finally, he decides that maybe he can handle moving after all. And the “incentives” are a nice touch, because when thinking about all of the things that he likes about his current home early in the story, we encounter the neighbor’s dog and the friend he’ll be leaving behind.  While not as charming as Very Bad Day, it's a worthy entry in the Alexander canon, a sweet story about loving what you have while also being willing and able to change (and hopefully love the change, too).

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,
by Judith Viorst, Atheneum, 1972. Illustrations by Ray Cruz.

Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move
by Judith Viorst, Atheneum, 1995. Illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser (in the style of Ray Cruz).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Featured Book: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
Houghton Mifflin, 1939

In Virginia Burton's Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, the reader learns, in a series of beautiful and detailed pictures, what a steam shovel can do: dig canals, cut through mountains, lower hills, straighten curves, smooth ground, fill in holes, create landing fields for planes, and dig holes for the cellars of skyscrapers. Mike Mulligan is proud of his steam shovel Mary Anne (apparently a reference to Marion Steam Shovels), and boasts that she could dig in one day what 100 men could do in one week, and the two always work faster and better when others are watching.   

But gas, electric, and diesel shovels are rapidly replacing steam shovels. Out with the old and in with the new. Mike knows that Mary Anne still has worth; so he goes to the small town of Popperville, which needs a basement dug for its new town hall. Mike is so confident that the work can be done in a day (remember his boast about the 100 men?) that he promises that the labor will be free if not completed by nightfall. 

At dawn the next day, they set out to work. The reader gets the sounds of the digging: BING! BANG! CRASH! SLAM! The people of Popperville (and neighboring Bangerville, Bopperville, Kipperville, and Kopperville) all come to watch, which makes Mike and Mary Anne work faster and better! The ending is exciting and unexpected: Mary Anne gets stuck in the basement! 

This dilemma encourages interaction with the reader, asking of him what should be done in this situation.  Ultimately, upon the suggestion of the little boy in the story (based on the suggestion given to Burton by a real-life 12-year-old), it is decided that Mary Anne will be used to heat the new town hall, and Mike is given a job there so that he may always be with her.  The technology in the book is deliberately outdated (and infinitely more outdated now). But the story still feels fresh. Ahead of it's time, even. At least for me.  I'm still young, but I can feel more and more each day just how quickly the world moves, and how easy it is to feel suddenly irrelevant. Especially as a writer. Mike Mulligan encourages salvage and reuse of valuable resources and finding value in things (and people!) that might otherwise be written off. Not preservation for preservation's sake, but creative and essential new uses for what we already have.

Picture Books

I devote much of my time to reading, writing, and reviewing books for middle grade and young adult readers. But my love of words began when I was very young. With picture books. And now that I have a young son of my own, picture books have become a significant part of my life again.  So for the next week or so, I'll talk about a few of my favorites. Books my son enjoys. Books I enjoyed. Books my parents enjoyed. And books their parents enjoyed.

I hope you enjoy them, too.