Monday, December 31, 2007

There I go, turn the page

Time keeps on tickin', tickin', tickin' into the future.

Yeah, I'm mixing my '70s song lyrics today (Bob Seger, "Turn the Page" and Steve Miller Band, "Fly Like an Eagle", for those of you too young to get the references).

Here's the thing about New Year's Eve. It's really not a humongous deal to me. Or to mother nature. But it is a way to mark the turning of the year, even if nature turned the year back at the solstice.

I won't be making any resolutions this year, really. But I will be choosing a theme (à la Laura Purdie Salas) and/or a motto (à la Cindy Lord). And I will be taping my wish list behind the Magic Mirror (a trick I learned from my good friend Linda Urban).

And tomorrow, on the first day of the year, I will make some time for lunch with a new(ish) friend and for writing, because I've heard that what you spend your first day of the year doing is how you'll spend your whole year. And I'd like to spend time connecting with friends and writing this year. How 'bout you?

Something I will miss going forward: My business-daily dose of Brotherhood 2.0, which I've watched since its inception. Before it went viral with Hank's song, "Accio Deathly Hallows" and before the "Nerdfighter" label even existed. The parting video made me cry real tears, unexpected and sudden, full of nostalgia and gratitude. But they'll be doing weekly posts in the new year, so huzzah for that!

Speaking of gratitude, I am extremely grateful for all of you, those who lurk, those of you who comment, those of you who I've met and those of you who I've yet to meet. Your presence and support have made my days better, whether the day was good or bad to begin with.

A final poem to share with you in 2007, from William Butler Yeats.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Quoteskimming

This year, I haven't read nearly as many children's and YA books as usual, on account of the Jane Project.

You can read a list of all the Jane-related books I've read at my main blog.

While I may not have read tons of them this year, the books that I have read have been outstanding. Here are some of my favorite quotes this year, but "Great mother of Mozart,"* where to start?

*"Great mother of Mozart" is from Linda Urban's wonderful debut, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, which is as good a place to start as any. Here's a bit of a phone conversation between the main character, Zoe Elias, and her friend Wheeler:

I tell him about Mona and how when she plays you feel like your whole body is filled up with music——like singing.
And he says, "You play like that."
"What?" I say.
"You play like that. At school, when you played 'Green Acres.' And when you think nobody is paying attention. You play like that."
"I do?"
"That's why me and your dad are always singing in the kitchen."
They sing in the kitchen?
"You can't hear us because you're singing, too," he says.
"You can hear me singing?"
"Of course we can hear you, Goober," he says. "Someday we're all going to have to learn the words."
I laugh again.
Wheeler laughs, too.
And Wheeler's laugh sounds like singing.


From "Falling in Love with America", in Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill

She is grand. She is
literature. She is beauty.
She masks a vast brain

under her blondness,
but when she reads her poems,
her great sheaf of verse,

I see genius.


From Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr, which still makes me cry on repeat readings:

"How many screw-ups do you get before you're out?"
He stroked his mustache. The walk-in hummed behind us. "Good question. I'm . . . let's see . . . forty-six. I guarantee you that I've screwed up more than you have, and I'm still in the game."

From Austenland by Shannon Hale, discussing the main character's obsession with the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice:

. . .it wasn't until the BBC put a face on the story that those gentlement in tight breeches had steeped out of her reader's imagination and into her nonfiction hopes. Stripped of Austen's funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane's soul and made her shudder.

From Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson:
"Never underestimate dainty little ladies."

Two from the almost-end of Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend by Carrie Jones:
"You would have hurt me more if you kept pretending to be who I wanted you to be."
"I don't need you to be there for me, Dylan," I say. "I just need you to be there for you."

From An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, a bit about story that makes me cry every damn time I read it:

And he found himself thinking that maybe stories don't just make us matter to each other— maybe they're also the only way to the infinite mattering he'd been after for so long.
  And Colin thought: Because like say I tell someone about my feral hog hunt. Even if it's a dumb story, telling it changes other people just the slightest little bit, just as living the story changes me. An infinitesimal change. And that infinitesimal change ripples outward——ever smaller but everlasting. I will get forgotten, but the stories will last. And so we all matter——maybe less than a lot, but always more than none.


And from Looking for Alaska, also by John Green:

"He was gone, and I did not have time to tell hiom what I had just now realized: that I forgave him, and that she forgave us, and that we had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth."
And that, my friends, is why I adore John Green's writing.

From Possession by A.S. Byatt:

"Independent women must expect more of themselves, since neither men nor other more conventionally domesticated women will hope for anything, or expect any result other than utter failure."

From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling:

That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemnort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.

More books, of course

In addition to the ones I've quoted from here, I've read extensively from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, On Poetry and Poets by T.S. Eliot, A Family of Poems, edited by Caroline Kennedy, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, ed. by Harold Bloom; The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson; at least 5 books of poetry by Billy Collins, two by Anne Compton and one by Ted Kooser; The Selected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz; The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry, and more.

So today, I'll leave you with the last bit of "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost, which inspired the title of Fry's novel:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird by Jacques Prévert — a book review

Today I had the opportunity to read a lovely new book translated and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein. The original text is a poem written in French by Jacques Prévert.

First, my initial impressions of the book before I came home and did some research. "Oh, wow!" and "What a beautiful book!" were the primary reactions I had at the time. And I came home totally jacked about this book, which you can read in its entirety online at the MacMillan website, with "Copyrighted materials" prominently splashed on each page, or (as it turns out), over at LookyBook.com, where you can leaf through without the Big Grey Letters.

I loved the text and the happy-colored illustrations, which look to me to be pen-and-ink drawings that have been colored in with something that looks to me like colored pencils, but I could be wrong on that. It's a delightful book and a delightful story and I wish I'd seen it much sooner. Also, I wish to make clear before going forward that I enthusiastically adore this book and wish to recommend it highly.

However, I have a minor quarrel with its designation as a "translation." (*Activate nerdiness chip now*) Until today, I'd not read this poem before, in French or English, but since this afternoon I've located the original French text and a translation by famous San Franciso poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti's is extremely close to the original French text. Following is an excerpt from each of the three texts. The bolded lines are the most blatant difference between Prévert/Ferlinghetti on the one hand and Gerstein on the other. Note also the difference in the description of the sun, wind, and insects (which are unspecified in the original, but are bees and butterflies for Gerstein).

From Prévert's original text:

Faire ensuite le portrait de l'arbre
en choisissant la plus belle de ses branches
pour l'oiseau
peindre aussi le vert feuillage et la fraîcheur du vent
la poussière du soleil
et le bruit des bêtes de l'herbe dans la chaleur de l'été
et puis attendre que l'oiseau se décide à chanter
Si l'oiseau ne chante pas
c'est mauvais signe
Signe que le tableau est mauvais

mais s'il chante c'est bon signe
signe que vous pouvez signer


From Ferlinghetti's translation:

Then paint the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful of its branches
for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the wind's freshness
the dust of the sun
and the noise of insects in the summer heat
and then wait for the bird to decide to sing
If the bird doesn't sing
it's a bad sign
a sign that the painting is bad

but if he sings it's a good sign
a sign that you can sign


From Gerstein's text:

Now paint the portrait of the tree
with the prettiest branch for the bird.
Paint the green leaves and the summer breeze.
Paint the smell of the sunshine and the flowers,
and the songs of the bees and the butterflies.
Then wait for the bird to sing.
If it doesn't sing, don't be sad.
You did your best.

But if the bird sings,
it's a very good sign.
It's a sign that you can sign.

Now, I really like the Mordicai Gerstein book, in fact, I kinda love it. But in reality, it should not say "Illustration and Translation by Mordicai Gerstein" on the cover. It should read "Illustration and Adaptation/Interpretation". Because Gerstein doesn't stick with translating the original text; in places, he flat-out alters the meaning. His choices are understandable and lend themselves to a gentler text for children, but they are there. And the book closes with a parenthetical that is not from the original poem, but is evidently a comment from Gerstein, although there's no accompanying notation to that effect.

Final say?
Go. Read this book. Buy this book, even. It is like holding happiness and music and creativity and wonder in your hands.

Also, consider sharing the original Prévert poem with children if your kids speak/understand or are learning the French language, because it is simple and lovely and magical.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Auld Lang Syne — a Poetry Friday post

It's nearly New Year's Eve or, if you're Scots, Hogmanay, and both occasions are times for singing a traditional Scots tune with lyrics penned by Robert ("Rabbie") Burns in 1788, and likely based on a fragment of traditional song (tune unknown). (Attention, non-Scots: it's pronounced "old lang sign", not zein, just so you can annoy everyone you know by correcting them 'round midnight.)

First the poem (in its entirety), and then the explication:

Auld Lang Syne
by Robert Burns

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

  CHORUS:
  For auld lang syne, my dear,
  For auld lang syne,
  We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
  For auld lang syne!

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mine,
And we'll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

  CHORUS

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou'd the gowans fine,
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

  CHORUS

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.

  CHORUS

And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o thine,
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

  CHORUS


Some translations and discussions of what it all means

auld lang syne - times gone by
be - pay for
pint-stowp - pint tankard
twa - two
braes - hills
pou'd - pulled
gowans - daisies
monie - many
fit - foot
paidl't - paddled
burn - stream
morning sun - noon
dine - dinner time
braid - broad
fiere - friend
guid-willie waught - goodwill drink

More about the poem

Burns didn't write the entire thing. The two verses that begin "We twa" are both entirely his writing; the rest of it is most likely his attempt to capture a much older song, and the phrase "auld lang syne", evocative as it is, is most definitely not his doing, but existed for at least 200 years before Burns's poem (and was used in poems by other Scots around the same time). In December of 1788, he sent the song to a friend, Mrs. Dunlop. Here's a sentence from that letter: "Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than half-a-dozen of modern English Bacchanalians." He also said, "Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld Lang syne exceedingly expressive? This old song and tune has often thrilled through my soul." And in a letter he wrote to James Johnson at the Scots Musical Museum in 1793, he said "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man's singing, is enough to recommend any air."

Now, Burns's protestations about it being an old song aren't dispositive on their own, because it was a popular convention at the time to claim to have "found" or "discovered" some old poems that one had written one's self. However, other versions of Auld Lang Syne exist, some of which predate Burns's poem, and they have some commonalities that seem to indicate that a half-forgotten song called Auld Lang Syne existed.

What it all means

From When Harry Met Sally:
Harry: What does this song mean? For my whole life I don't know what this song means. I mean, "Should old acquaintance be forgot". Does that mean we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happen to forget them we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?
Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it's about old friends.


Here's my take on it: Burns isn't posing a subjunctive hypothetical here, as in "What if old acquaintance is forgotten?" He's asking (or the traditional song is asking) whether we should forget our old acquaintance and days long ago, but it's rhetorical, and the answer is intended to be "no, of course not." The chorus makes it clear: we're still drinking to honor days gone by, and in doing so, we're remembering. The second verse makes it clear that everyone's in charge of buying their own drinks. The third and fourth verses by Burns talk about the long history between the drinkers and close in friendship. In the third verse, the speaker tells of their youth together, running about the hills, pulling daisies, and how many long miles (and, impliedly, years) have gone past. In the fourth verse, they clasp hands and drink a "guid-willie waught" or goodwill drink as a means of acknowledging one another.

Usually folks only sing the first verse and the chorus, but I've heard some versions in which a second verse is shared (usually the final verse). The final verse is usually translated, or arguably rewritten as:
And here's a hand, my trusted friend,
And here's a hand of thine
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne.


If you want to see pronunciation guides and translation into English side-by-side, the folks at Wikipedia have set it up for you, with the usual note that sometimes, folks screw with Wikipedia so don't rely on it too hard.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

On the second day of Christmas

At least, I believe it's the second day of Christmas. The twelve days traditionally start on Christmas night and run through the morning of January 6th, which is Three Kings Day, Eastern Orthodox Christmas, Epiphany and/or "little Christmas." The days of Christmas are measured in Hebrew fashion - they start at evening of a given day and run through the next day. Hence, the first day of Christmas starts in the evening of December 25th and ends at sundown on the 26th. The final day, or twelfth day, begins in the evening of January 5th and ends on the 6th. January 5th, for those of you keeping count and conversant with Shakespeare, is Twelfth Night. But some traditions shift the dates, so that the days start with the 26th and roll through the 6th, so that Twelfth Night is on January 6th. Either way, right now it's "the second day of Christmas." Thankfully, no turtle doves have turned up inside the house, and the mourning doves that used to visit the ground below the feeder in the yard seem to have moved on some time ago as well.

Twelfth Night traditionally is a time of merrymaking, and it marked the end of a festival that opened on All Hallow's Eve, a time known in Brittany as Toussaint, when the dead were able to mix with the living. On Twelfth Night, the world symbolically is turned upside-down, and the peasant is king, and the king is a pauper. The reversals within Shakespeare's play are indicative of the topsy-turvy nature of the holiday that is/was Twelfth Night.

"The Rain it Raineth Every Day, one of Feste's songs:

When that I was and a little tiny boy
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man's estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas, to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still 'had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world began,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.



It was a pleasure to have company during the holidays, and it is a pleasure to have a modicum of quiet in the house now that they've gone to the airport for their flights home. I hope they have safe travels, and wish safe travels to the rest of you and yours as well, with a hey, ho, the wind and the rain.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Temple — a Christmas post

A very happy Christmas to all of you who celebrate it. Here's my wish for you, and for all of us, today:

An excerpt from Akbar's Dream
by Alred, Lord Tennyson

                      I dreamed,
That stone by stone I reared a sacred fane*,
A temple, neither Pagod**, Mosque nor Church,
But loftier, simpler, always open-doored
To every breath from heaven, and Truth and Peace
And Love and Justice came and dwelt therein[.]



*fane: temple or church
**pagod: a Chinese temple in the shape of a tower (pagoda)

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Visit from Saint Nicholas — a Poetry Friday post

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was no such thing as childhood. Oh sure, there were babies born, and young human animals who were expected to shape up and become sentient beings, but the idea of childhood as we know it did not exist. Nor did children's literature.

In an anthology edited by recent Poet Laureate Donald Hall called The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, I learned that there wasn't much in the way of American children's poetry for quite a long time. The poem that blew the doors open, although not off, was A Visit from Saint Nicholas, by Clement C. Moore, which was first published in 1823 without authorial attribution (which is a rather long-winded way of saying "anonymously", come to think of it).

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap—
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof—
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled; his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"




The illustration above is called "Merry Old Santa Claus", and was a woodcut by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly in 1881. Santa here is not elfin, as in many prior illustrations, and appears far more mature than earlier versions. Nast is responsible for much of what we know about Santa that didn't come from Moore's poem: Santa's home being at the North Pole, for the inclusion of elves in the system, and for Santa being fat and bearded, among other things.

About Moore's poem (authorship of which has a slight asterisk to it, I should note, as some folks claim that one of his wife's relatives (Henry Livingston) may have written it): It is written in end-stopped rhymed couplets. Each line has four stressed beats to it, and it is in ternary form, meaning that it's written using triplets, or three-syllable feet. It is largely anapestic*, although sometimes instead of having two non-stressed syllables at the front of the line, it has only one.

I think of the unstressed syllables at the start of the poem as "pick-ups", which is what they'd be in music, and this poem would be in 12/8 time. If written out musically, there'd be a two beat pick-up to the start of the poem, which is, come to think of it, how I "see" this poem in my head. The first stressed beat of the poem is "night", and it would be the downbeat (or first beat) of the first full measure if this were written on a musical score. In lines like the third one, there'd be a one-beat rest between "mouse" on the previous line and "The" at the start of the third. This makes perfect sense to me, and hopefully isn't confusing the hell out anyone else.

Images in particular that I adore in this poem, which are much better if looked at in isolation so that the rhythm of the poem doesn't catch you up and sweep you along?

1. "The moon, on the breast of the new-fallen snow,/Gave lustre of midday to objects below." Can't you just see the moonglow? I know I can.

2. "More rapid than eagles his coursers they came" I love the comparison of the tiny reindeer to eagles, with all their strength and nobility.

3. "As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;/So up to the house-top the coursers they flew" The image of leaves wooshing along in gale-force winds, then blowing almost straight skyward when they hit a stump or fence, and the idea of the velocity he manages to convey here are terrific. I think it helps that he's got a strong anapestic thumping beat driving the reading of the poem, which makes it difficult to conceive of stopping and lingering, really.

4. And then there's the physical description of Saint Nicholas. My favorite lines as a child were the ones about his merry dimples, rosy cheeks and cherry nose, but these days I like "He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,/And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;/A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,/And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack." It's not how we picture Santa, since we always see him in a clean red fuzzy suit, but I love his sooty ashiness here.

*Anapest: a three-syllable poetic foot with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one: "titty-TUM" to quote Stephen Fry.

There's only one more Poetry Friday this year. Until then, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Elfin magic

So, when S was home sick last Friday, we watched the movie ELF together. I love that movie (and it's soundtrack), and I've been thinking about all the many things that make me laugh about it, and also about the things that make it memorable.

First, let's talk about excellent writing. David Berenbaum wrote an awful lot of great lines and really funny scenes for this movie, but even before he wrote those lines and precise scenes, he had a great premise. What if a human is raised as a North Pole elf, and then sets off into the "real" world with his elfin skills in search of his father. Oh, and let's make the father a perennial member of The Naughty List. Oh, and as a bonus for children's writers, let's make him a children's book publisher. And hey, in case you're curious, I found what looks to be an early version of the script available online. (It is missing some of the lines and scenes that made the movie, but it's got quite a bit there, too.)

Jon Favreau directed this movie, and he really did honor to the script and to the characters. I've loved him since I first saw the movie Swingers, which he wrote. That movie was also my first introduction to Favreau's buddy, Vince Vaughn, who played Trent and was absolutely riveting to watch (he was so money!). But I digress. Back to the excellent writing that is David Berenbaum.

In a scene in which Buddy is eating spaghetti with his father, step mother and step-brother, we find some of my favorite lines (and it's the lines plus the delivery that really sell the first bit, but the final line stands on its own merits).

Buddy pulls some syrup out of his breast pocket and pours it over his spaghetti. Walter and Michael share a disgusted look, the first time they've been in agreement on anything in a while.

EMILY
You like sugar, huh?

BUDDY
Is there sugar in syrup?

EMILY
Yes.

BUDDY
Then yes! We elves try to stick to the four basic food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.


And there are bits that are equally hilarious, like Buddy running around and around in a revolving door, puking into a trash can, then going back for more. Excellence, all around.

And there's the issue of elf swearing. As when Buddy is struck by a snowball and exclaims "SON of a NUTcracker!", or when he gets down on himself early in the film (while still at the North Pole) and says "I'm a cotton-headed ninny-muggins."

Second, let's talk about commitment.

Will Ferrell is one of the best actors out there when it comes to fully committing to a role. In Elf, he plays Buddy, a human orphan who crawled into Santa's bag and ended up at the North Pole, where he was raised by Poppa Elf (as played by Bob Newhart, who is hilarious in all his deadpan glory). Buddy is now about 30, and finds out he's not an elf when he overhears a conversation between elves in the toy workshop.

Ferrell commits to this role (and all others he's been in, as best I can tell) 100%. (I'd say more, but really, there is no 110% in commitment - you can be all in or less, but not more. If you could be, though, Ferrell would be.) He never once winks at the camera or makes any attempt to distance himself from his character, as if to say, "see folks? it's all an act." Instead, he goes balls out for being a naive elf-raised boy in the city on a quest to find his father, who is (horrors!) on The Naughty List. It was what made Ferrell stand out on SNL, as when he was a Spartan cheerleader, or a high school music teacher trying to be "hip", or a high school kid fervently singing "Message in a Bottle" ("I'm sending out an SOS S-O-S-O-S-OS. Message in a bottle, WOOOOO!")

Ferrell doesn't seem like he's pretending to Buddy the Elf. He is Buddy the Elf, plain and simple. Here's an exchange he has with the "Elf Manager" at Gimbels:

ELF MANAGER
Don't touch the damn snow. What are you smiling at? You think I'm a joke?

BUDDY
Oh no, I'm just smiling. Smiling is my favorite.

ELF MANAGER
Well take it down a notch.

Buddy tries to frown for a second, but his lips quiver and hurt and now he's smiling again, making the exact same face


Buddy's childlike ability to contradict adult/authority figures is great. As when the Gimbels manager tells buddy that it's the North Pole, and Buddy continually retorts, "No it's not", or says there's no singing at the North Pole and Buddy says "Yes there is," or when Buddy sees the fake Santa that Gimbels has hired and goes off on him. My favorite quote from the fake Santa confrontation is not Buddy's "You disgust me", but his parting line "You sit on a throne of lies!"

Why the film is memorable, in my opinion

It's the combination of excellent writing and commitment (by the writer, the director, and the cast) that makes a film truly memorable. Another holiday film which is memorable, and in which the leading man committed just as much as Will Ferrell, is It's A Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart was a terrific actor, and he committed fully to the role of George Bailey. It's a different role, but both of these movies have great writing, excellent directors, and 100% committed leading men. And it's what makes them standouts among holiday movies, if you ask me. Which, come to think of it, you didn't.

What this has to do with writing

It takes a great premise, excellent writing and 100% commitment to make something truly memorable. Any of those three ingredients alone may get you published, by the way, but it won't get you something truly memorable. Unless you are writing a book with an intrusive narrator, it is never okay to wink at your reader ("wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, say no more"). You have to stay in the writing and be committed to it and its characters. The characters you write have to be committed to being real, too - they can't be some half-assed sketch of a character or some flat stereotype that's there for filler. No, they aren't being played by actors - they're simply fictional characters on the page. But they have to really be themselves, not just some stick figure thrown in by the author as a tool. And I think many of us have been vaguely disappointed by books where there's excellent writing and commitment, but in the end, the premise wasn't truly great enough to justify it.

So, my advice to writers? Go watch Elf. And not just so you can get tips from the great children's author, Miles Finch, played with panache by Peter Dinklage.

MILES FINCH
No tomatoes. They're too vulnerable. Kids, they're already vulnerable.

WALTER
See? I told you guys. I told them the same thing . . .

MILES FINCH
And no farms. Everyone's pushing small town rural. A farm book would just be white noise.


If you've seen the film and/or know who Peter Dinklage is, you know that he's a little person. In the film, Buddy mistakes him for an elf, leading to one of the funniest scenes - a smack-down by Dinklage:

BUDDY
Did you have to borrow a reindeer to get down here?

MILES FINCH
Hey, jackweed, I get more action in a week than you've had in your entire life. I've got houses in L.A., Paris and Vail. In each one, a 70 inch plasma screen. So I suggest you wipe that stupid smile off your face before I come over there and SMACK it off! You feeling strong, my friend? Call me elf one more time.

BUDDY
[after a pause] He's an angry elf.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was a voice major in college. And even before that, I was a big-time music nerd in high school. You name it, I did it: marching band, jazz band, stage band, madrigals and chorus. Oh, and I auditioned for district band and chorus, too. I went to districts and regionals on tympani (aka kettle drums) and to districts in chorus one year, too. My audition piece was "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair", a traditional Scots folk song in a setting by noted folk singer, John Jacob Niles. My friend Tom tried out, too, and sang "The Vagabond", in a setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams. (Note to newbies: his first name, like that of the guy who plays Voldemort in the movies, Ralph Fiennes, is pronounced "Rafe").

For the past few weeks, this one comes to mind most days while I'm in the shower. Why? Who can say how the brainradio truly operates? But it is so much fun to sing the vocal line that goes with "Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,/nor a friend to know me/All I ask, the heaven above/and the ground below me." (Oh, and the parallel line: "Bed in the bush with stars to see,/bread I dip in the river/There's the life for a man like me,/ there's the life forever.") And yet the line of the poem that best fits my feeling as I've been singing in the shower on these past grey wintery days is: "Not to autumn will I yield,/Not to winter even!" But if you watch the video link later in the post, you'll see that in the song setting, it's in the bridge, which I haven't been singing in the shower because I'd, um, forgotten it. By the way, singing this one is a true joy. Not just because it's fun to navigate the odd jumps, but also because it's sung with a gusto bordering on bravado, and a feeling of immense swagger — thank goodness the neighbors can't hear me.

The Vagabond
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Give to me the life I love,
  Let the lave* go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
  And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
  Bread I dip in the river —
There's the life for a man like me,
  There's the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,
  Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around
  And the road before me.
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
  Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
  And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me
  Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
  Biting the blue finger.
White as meal the frosty field —
  Warm the fireside haven —
Not to autumn will I yield,
  Not to winter even!

Let the blow fall soon or late,
  Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around,
  And the road before me.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
  Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
  And the road below me.


*lave: leavings; what is left; the rest (completely unrelated with "to blave, and as we all know, to blave means to bluff, heh?")

The poem comes from Stevenson's collection, Songs of Travel and Other Verses, published in 1896, and was intended to be sung to an unspecified "air of Schubert". Wondering what air Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote for it? Check out this performance by a young man named Louis Riva over at YouTube.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Quoteskimming

Fa la la la la, la la la la . . . Oh, right. You're not here for carols, you're here for quotes, si?

About literature and politics
In this festive holiday political season, what better than a quote from one of the most famous of U.S. presidents about poetry?

"When power narrows the areas of men's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence." ~John F. Kennedy

Before the next quote, a confession. I am a Christmas Carol junkie. Not the songs, although I like carols just fine, but Charles Dickens's wonderful book. I own a number of the video productions and at least two copies of the text (and I'm getting a third this year, the version pictured here on the right. Ooh, shiny! But I digress.)

In this political/holiday season, I keep thinking of the importance of education and literacy. Also, all the book banning news this year has hammered this point home as well, because ignorance comes in many forms. But here's the bit from A Christmas Carol that has been bellowing at me this year, from page and audio book and DVD/VHS, right at the end of Ebenezer Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Present:

The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.

"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"

"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. "Look here."

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

"Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man’s," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!"

"Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"

The bell struck twelve.


On writerly neediness

Sylvia Plath was quoted as publicly opining that poetry wasn't a competition. Her journals tell a slightly different tale:

"I want the world's praise, money & love, and am furious with anyone, especially anyone I know or has had a similar experience, getting ahead of me."

And all you writer-folks thought you were alone out there, right?

On poetry

"Without poetry, without song, without dance, I would not be alive. Nor would any of us." ~Joy Harjo, poet, writer & musician.

Oh, satisfaction! I don't think I could live without it. It's like water or bread, or something absolutely essential to me. I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I'm writing one. Having written one, then you fall away very rapidly from having been a poet to becoming a sort of poet in rest, which isn't the same thing at all. But I think the actual experience of writing a poem is a magnificent one. ~Sylvia Plath


I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Fast away the old year passes,
fa la la la la, la la la la,
Hail to you ye lads and lasses . . .


Or, for Bill, and for Sarah at Castell Tywood the only two folks I know who understand the language, here's a bit from the original Welsh (as reported by Wikipedia, so accuracy is uncertain):

Oer yw'r gwr sy'n methu caru,
Ffa la la la la, fa la la la.
Hen fynyddoedd annwyl Cymru,
Ffa la la la la, fa la la la.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The lowest trees have tops — a Poetry Friday post

Today's post is short, but hopefully sweet as well. At least I believe the poem is sweet, in a slightly melancholy way.



The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall
by Sir Edward Dyer

The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall,
The fly her spleen, the little spark his heat:
The slender hairs cast shadows, though but small,
And bees have stings, although they be not great;
  Seas have their source, and so have shallow springs;
  And love is love, in beggars and in kings.

Where waters smoothest run, there deepest are the fords,
The dial stirs, yet none perceives it move;
The firmest faith is found in fewest words,
The turtles do not sing, and yet they love;
  True hearts have ears and eyes, no tongues to speak;
  They hear and see, and sigh, and then they break.


Edward Dyer was a courtier poet during the time of Elizabeth I. He was a contemporary of some poets I've mentioned in past posts, including his friend, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, and more. He is believed to have been a Rosicrucian based on his study of alchemy. (One of the leading Rosicrucians of the day was Francis Bacon.) Dyer's best-known poem is "My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is. You can read that poem at Bartleby.com or elsewhere online.

For my part, I prefer "The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall." There is a musical setting of this poem by John Dowland, which can be found on Sting's album, "Songs from the Labyrinth", recorded with lutenist Edin Karamazov. Once you get used to the notion of Sting singing Elizabethan songs accompanied by a lute, it's quite lovely (even if his diction is a bit blurry from time to time). You can listen to short bits of it at Barnes and Noble.com, Amazon.com, or at the Deutschegrammphon site for the album.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Gifts for Babies

It's almost Christmas, and folks are probably still wondering what to get for some of the people in their lives, including some of the wee people. Today, I'm talking about babies and toddlers. Some of you have 'em, and more of you have to shop for 'em. But what are some of this year's best baby gifts? Well, I can't speak to toys and creepers and the latest in swing technology, but I do know a little something about books.

For years, a handful of Sandra Boynton board books has been one of my very favorite gifts to give babies. In fact, I have my brother to thank for that. When S's first Christmas rolled around, her uncle gave her Barnyard Dance, Oh My, Oh My, Oh Dinosaurs! and But Not the Hippopotamus (early edition). (*rant* Somewhere along the line in the very late 90's, a different edition of But Not the Hippopotamus came out, and it had been dumbed down, with the effect of mucking up the rhyme scheme and, well, using less excellent words. Original text: "A hog and a frog cavort in a bog. But not the hippopotamus." Dumb text: "A hog and a frog do a dance in a bog. But not the hippopotamus." Other changes were made as well. The ones currently on book store shelves are back to the original text, I am happy to report. */rant*)

I added other Boynton titles to my arsenal, including the smash hit beloved by babies and parents everywhere, Moo, Baa, La La La, A to Z, Hippos Go Berserk!, Birthday Monsters, Bob and 6 more Christmas Storiesand The Going to Bed Book (which has one of my favorite bedtime endings ever, tied with the ending of Madeline). The ending of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans: "And she turned out the light, and closed the door, and that's all there is, there isn't anymore." The ending of The Going to Bed Book (again, from memory): "The sky is dark. The sea is deep. They rock . . . and rock . . . and rock to sleep." Apologies if I flubbed either line word-wise or punctuation-wise. But I digress.

This year, the new Boynton book that I think is perfect for babies is Bath Time!, which lists for $7.95 US, $10.95 Canadian (which is a ripoff, since the Canadian dollar is currently so strong, relative to the US dollar, but I digress). On the front cover, as you see here, the front of a pig with a towel. On the back? The back of a pig with a towel, of course. The towel says "THE END" on it, and is covering the pig's end, of course. But I remember the satisfaction in my children's voices back when they were toddler/babies, and they'd say "THE END!" whilst closing a familiar book. So having the words there is most excellent. This is no board book, though. It's a bathtub book. A bathtub book with really cute pictures and an actual rhyming story in it, even though it is only 10 pages (including the front and back cover). And it has a squeaker in it, although I cannot demonstrate that for you now because the puppy will then want to play with it. Also, as this is not a sound recording, you wouldn't hear it anyway.

Some folks don't "get" bath books, and to them I say, "why the hell not?" Reading in the tub is a time-honored tradition. And any time or place you can introduce kids to books is a good one, in my opinion. Also, some babies and toddlers need the distraction when they are having their scalps washed (or hair, if they happen to have some; my babies were both bald-ish when they were young, with just a whispy coating, not that you would ever guess it now to see their full heads of hair). In such a case, it doubles as a toy, what with the floating and the squeaking and all. In my experience, these books get slimy and can become a bit mildewy if you aren't careful, but a swipe with some diluted bleachy water or some white vinegar will clean them up nicely from time to time. And if it gets too scungy, toss it.

Looking for a more conventional book? Look no further than Here's a Little Poem from Candlewick Press, edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters and illustrated with wit and sweet cleverness by Polly Dunbar (list price $21.99). I reviewed this book during National Poetry Month. If you haven't already had a look at the review, but are on the proverbial purchasing fence for the baby/toddler set, I hope you'll check it out. The review features a few poems and illustrations from the book to give you a better idea of it.

But Kelly, you say, I'd like one of those toy-with-book options. This year, check out the new boxed set My Penguin Osbert by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, illustrated by H.B. Lewis, packaged with a really soft, squishy stuffed Osbert toy (listed at $18.99). In this story, young Joe has a tradition of asking Santa for something and getting a watered-down version. (A request for a racecar, for instance, nets a Matchbox car.) So this year, Joe very specifically asks for a real, live penguin, then has to handle the consequences when Santa delivers. It is a cute story well-told, and the illustrations are wintry bliss. The boxed book is significantly smaller than the original version, so if size matters, by all means purchase the original book ($16.99) and a separate penguin ($9.99). The boxed set is a better dollar value, in my book, unless this is one of your favorite picture book titles.

Other book picks? Well, I can think of quite a few that I loved this year, but as I'm restricting myself to the baby/toddler set, here are a few picks:

Books by Tony Mitton, whom I interviewed in August. Check out Playful Little Penguins, his new title (I still like "Perky" better) and titles from the Amazing Machines series for starters.

A Good Day by Kevin Henkes, which I reviewed back in April.

By all means, check the picture book nominees over at the CYBILS site, and don't forget to look at the nonfiction picture books as well. And hey, if you are one of those people who orders your books from Amazon (or, for that matter, if you order ANYTHING from Amazon), could you go to the CYBILS site first and click through to Amazon from there? Because if you do, then a few pennies go into the CYBILS piggy bank, which will hopefully add up to enough to fund the giving of actual awards to the winning authors this year. (The giving of pennies by Amazon in no way affects your personal bottom-line.)

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A day late and, if not a dollar short, then perhaps missing some sense.

Quotes for this week. Initially I thought they were random, but having looked again, I believe there's a major theme afoot. What think you?

From the "Rugrats" series, which I used to watch faithfully when my kids were little. Gosh, how I loved that show and its many clever/sly references. There are about a bajillion excellent lines in the series, but my favorite (based on usage) is probably from "The Art Fair" episode, in which Charlotte Pickles believes Angelica is a talented artist as a result of splatters actually caused by Chuckie, Tommy and the other babies. Eventually, Charlotte enters Angelica in an art fair.

In the episode, Angelica overhears her mother say this line: "Oh relax Chaz. She's au courant. She's into vanguard. She's on the edge." And repeats it later to the "dumb babies", Angelica-style and with swagger:
"I'm in the van pool. I'm on the hedge." ~Angelica Pickles

I have repeated the line about being in the van pool and on the edge at least a handful of times, because it so sums up my feelings some days. I've used it ironically on the days when I'm toting kids thither and yon. And I've used it on those days when I feel punch-drunk from too much creative juice. Only I'm pretty sure it just marks me as crazy most of the time, on account of my reference point.

Moving on. From Elizabeth Smart, a Canadian writer best-known for her largely autobiographical novel written in prose poems, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. (Bonus points to you if you'd already heard of this writer (I had not); bonus points also available for anyone able to provide the number of the Psalm her title parodies without having to look it up. It begins "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept", and it provided the impetus for part of the lyrics from "On the Willows" in Godspell (one of my favorite tunes from the soundtrack, and that is saying something).)

"What is poetry? Do not enquire. The secret dies by prying. How does the heart beat? I fainted when I saw it on the screen, opening and closing like a flower . . . poetry is like this, it is life moving, terrible, vivid. Look the other way when you write, or you might faint." ~Elizabeth Smart

From Jane Austen's "Love and Freindship", from the body of work called her Juvenilia (and yes, the typo was intentional - Jane had a spelling issue with the order of I and E):

"Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—" ~Jane Austen

These are the last words that Sophia says to Laura before Sophia's death. Excellent advice, particularly when paired with Ms. Smart's comments, I think. Makes me want to be "in the van pool" and "on the hedge."

So, for today, I hope to run mad with poetry. Right after I do a bunch of holiday baking.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Feast of Lights — a Poetry Friday post

It’s currently Chanukah, known as the "festival of lights". The word Chanukah doesn’t mean "festival," though. It means dedication. The holiday refers back to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a band of Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees led by a man named Mattathias managed to throw a bunch of Greek pagans out. There was only enough sacramental oil to last for one night, but miraculously it burnt for eight nights until more could be gained. Or so the story goes.

The timing of Chanukah, like the timing of all Jewish holidays, is based on the lunar calendar. While it seems odd to many Christians that the Jewish holidays move about, it seems equally odd to Jewish children that Christmas remains fixed on December 25th. To celebrate Chanukah, I thought I’d share a poem by Emma Lazarus, a nice Jewish girl from New York who was concerned with the plight of Jewish immigrants, as you may recall from my Independence Day post, in which I featured her more famous poem, "The New Colossus". What? You think don’t know it? Sure you do, or at least these lines: "Give me your tired, your poor,/
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . ."

The Feast of Lights
by Emma Lazarus

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
  Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
  An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
  Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
  The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
  Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
  And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
  With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
  From one heroic stock, one seed divine.

Five branches grown from Mattathias' stem,
  The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
  Eleazar, Help of-God; o'er all his clan
Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
  Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
  Whose praise is: "He received the perishing."

They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
  Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah's heights the tangled grass
  Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie
Disfigured and polluted--who had flung
  Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
  Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,

Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
  Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o'ercame,
  Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.
Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
  Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
  Music and revelry wed day with night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
  The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
  Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
  Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
  The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!




Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Two wintry retellings

Today, a duo of winter-themed retellings from master storyteller, Bruce Coville. Bruce is well-known for his work in the field of fantasy, but for the past decade or so, he's also been writing retellings of Shakespeare's plays for children. Earlier titles include The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night.

This year's offering is William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, which is illustrated by LeUyen Pham (and let me tell you, the illustrations are fabulous). For those of you unfamiliar with the play, it's from the "problem" category. Early on it was called a comedy, but since it involves lots of death and drama and dark-and-twisty psychological factors, it's been subsequently called a "romance." It's what some would call a "reconciliation" play, in that the characters undergo a series of terrible misunderstandings, with problems solved at the end. But it's far darker and twistier than, say, Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night's Dream. In fact, some of its issues echo Othello, which is clearly in the "drama" camp.

The plot? A king (Leontes) becomes insanely jealous (and mistakenly so), thinking that his wife (Hermione) has cuckolded him with his best friend, a king from a nearby kingdom. (How much do I love the word "cuckold?" Oh so much.) The friend flees for his life, Hermione gives birth to a daughter while imprisoned, Leontes orders Antigonus to kill the baby (but he instead sails to Bohemia, the neighboring kingdom, names her Perdita, and then exits, "pursued by a bear", and is killed offstage). Perdita is rescued by a shephered. Leontes is told that Hermione has died.

Sixteen years later, Perdita the shepherdess meets and falls in love with Prince Florizel (in disguise, naturally). Florizel wants to marry her. Through some rather convenient plot twists, Florizel and Perdita and the shepherd are put on a boat back to Leontes's kingdom, and Florizel's father follows closely behind in another ship. At the end, Perdita is proved to be the princess, the kings are reconciled as friends, and it's revealed that Hermione hasn't been dead for the past 16 years. Happiness all round, oddly enough.

The Winter's Tale is lesser-known than some of the other plays, but based on Bruce's masterful retelling, I'm not sure I understand why. Coville's use of language is lyrical, and pulls you through the story easily. Even with the disguises and duplicities involved in this sort of plot, the reader never gets lost. He's made it readily understandable and interesting, without adding to or diminishing the original story. It has, in fact, inspired me to pull out my copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare in order to read the original (which is best known for having one of the "best" stage directions Shakespeare ever wrote: "Exit, pursued by a bear.") And I believe I've already mentioned the fantabulous illustrations, yes?



Here's the first spread in the book. Most two-page spreads have at least one illustration, and some have more. You can see the first eight pages at the Penguin website.

For something completely different, but also winter-themed, from Bruce Coville, you can buy his picture storybook retelling of Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge (who, oddly enough, does not get cover credit). Dodge wrote the original story Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates back in 1865. Although I remember hearing the story as a child, it's decidedly fallen out of common circulation among today's youth. Bruce Coville, assisted by gloriously wintry illustrations from Laurel Long, is aiming to change that.

In an author's note inside the book, Coville explains why he's chosen to do a retelling of this story. It has to do with providing today's youth with positive role models, and Hans is "strong of heart and true of purpose." Yet in this retelling, Hans doesn't seem to good to be true, nor does the message overpower the essentially sweet story of a family struggling to get by while dealing with horrible poverty that is the result of their father's illness. The illustrations are luminous, and really pair well with the story and focus attention on the essence of each scene.

For those who aren't familiar with the story, or need a refresher, it tells of the Brinker family. The father is disabled; the mother is desperate because before the father lost his mind (essentially), he hid the family's money. Hans and his sister, Gretchen, both like to skate and are good at it, but they have crappy skates. A contest will be held. The prize? A pair of silver skates: one in the boys' category, and one in the girls'. Gretchen wins her matches (and the skates). Hans doesn't win (a friend of his is faster). But Hans does manage to find a doctor to help his father recover his memory, and he also manages to find the hidden money.



This book's themes should resonate well in today's society. The "have-nots" feel lesser than the "haves," and Hans is teased (bullied, even) by one of the neighborhood boys for having shabby skates, no money, etc. However, Hans's perseverance and his smarts are enough to help him move beyond what some people's expectations of him might be, and he ends the book well (and so does his family). In today's society of layoffs and disabilities, the family's plight remains recognizable, and it's overall message — that hanging in there and doing your best and using your smarts can make things better — is a solid one for kids to hang their hats on. Especially kids who are dealing with negative economic issues at home. The message about how to deal with bullies is timely as well. And the lovely illustrations throughout coupled with Coville's assured authorial voice make this a terrific book to share on a cold winter's day/evening.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Toot and Puddle: Let It Snow!

When my children were little, I bought the very first Toot and Puddle book by Holly Hobbie. I was attracted to the cute piggies on the cover, and the fact that the author was named after a doll that had been extremely popular when I was a young child was only a bonus.* And then I bought Toot and Puddle: You Are My Sunshine and Toot and Puddle: A Present for Toot. I've read a few of the others, too, but they all came out when M and S were "too old" for picture books.

But this year, I'm going to make an exception. I'm buying Toot and Puddle: Let it Snow! for M, because she wants it (for nostalgic reasons). And because I've just learned that it is, per Little Brown, "the last book in the beloved series."

In this book, Toot and Puddle try to think up the best Christmas presents for one another. They telephone Opal, who advises them both to make dolls (guess what Opal gets?). They each think of what the other might like best, and they invest their time and thoughtfulness in making the perfect gifts for one another. It is sweet and thoughtful and adorable, words that I'd apply to all of the books, really. And of the new holiday titles this year, it is (to borrow a phrase from Charlie and Lola) "my favorite and my best."

*Okay, so she created the doll, too, and the doll was named after her. But I didn't know that until much later, compliments of Google.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Quoteskimming

It being Sunday, 'tis time for some quoteskimming. Without further ado . . .

On being a "famous author":

"[F]amousness is probably about as useful for an author as a large, well-appointed hiking backpack would be for a prima ballerina. Honest." ~Neil Gaiman.


On author appearances

When the books were first published, the publisher asked me a very sensible question, which was, if you're going to take on the persona of the narrator and not the writer, what will you do when you go out to speak to people? So I went to see another children's author speak and I thought it was very tedious. She said she wanted to remove the mystery from writing, and I thought, why in the world would you want to do that? I thought I would like to put more mystery into writing, and that that would actually be more interesting. So that was the angle that I went for. I just assume that if you're going to get up on stage, you might as well do something interesting. Even when I go to speak about my adult books, I try to be more interesting than I am in normal life. I mean, in normal life, people listen to me talk for free. Daniel Handler, in an interview with About.com.



On setting (specifically, the weather) in writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
Elmore Leonard, from his essay which was printed up as Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing.


Samuel L. Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, went one better than that. At the start of The American Claimant, he included this comment as a preface:

THE WEATHER IN THIS BOOK.

No weather will be found in this book. This is an attempt to pull a book through without weather. It being the first attempt of the kind in fictitious literature, it may prove a failure, but it seemed worth the while of some dare-devil person to try it, and the author was in just the mood.

Many a reader who wanted to read a tale through was not able to do it because of delays on account of the weather. Nothing breaks up an author's progress like having to stop every few pages to fuss-up the weather. Thus it is plain that persistent intrusions of weather are bad for both reader and author.

Of course weather is necessary to a narrative of human experience. That is conceded. But it ought to be put where it will not be in the way; where it will not interrupt the flow of the narrative. And it ought to be the ablest weather that can be had, not ignorant, poor-quality, amateur weather. Weather is a literary specialty, and no untrained hand can turn out a good article of it. The present author can do only a few trifling ordinary kinds of weather, and he cannot do those very good. So it has seemed wisest to borrow such weather as is necessary for the book from qualified and recognized experts-giving credit, of course. This weather will be found over in the back part of the book, out of the way. See Appendix. The reader is requested to turn over and help himself from time to time as he goes along.


For those of you wondering, the book did indeed include an Appendix entitled "Weather for Use in This Book", followed by exceprts of descriptions about weather from other sources. The final entry? "It rained forty days and forty nights.—Genesis."

And this week, some Jane:
How to respond to advice from "well-meaning" acquaintances:

You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other. From a letter by Jane Austen, and dated 1 April 1816, to the Prince Regent's Librarian, James Stanier Clarke, who had written with suggestions that she write either the story of his life (in essence) or an epic about the House of Saxe-Coburg.