Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Challenges to books by people I actually know

If you think that challenges to books by people you actually know are unlikely, I'd encourage you to take a second look.

Here are challenges of which I am aware from 2008 and 2009 to books written by people whom I know in real life:

Looking for Alaska was challenged in February 2008 at Depew High School outside of Buffalo, New York. The challenge was made by community members, who had the temerity to use the word "pornography" in describing John Green's novel. You can read my post from back then, "John Green is not a pornographer", which includes John's vlog post, "I am not a pornographer". That challenge was unanimously shot down by the school board. Alaska was one of a number of books challenged by a group calling themselves "Citizens Against Pornography" in the St. Louis County Libraris in St. Louis, Missouri. The group asked that the library impose restrictions on the books, such as using a “rating” system to classify books, or requiring that teens get written permission from a parent or guardian to check the books out. I'm not positive what the outcome to that particular challenge is, although I know that the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers' Foundation for Free Expression sent letters opposing the action in St. Louis. Alaska, along with An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns and Let it Snow and at least 36 other books, is facing a current challenge in Leesburg, Florida, with a coalition of two mothers and whoever they could stir up claiming that the books are "vulgar".

You can read more about it in John's blog post from yesterday and in Leila's excellent post at Bookshelves of Doom, with lots of linky-links to give you all the background and context. It appears that the issue is resolved (at least temporarily) by the creation of a specific set of book shelves for "high school" books, which would include all of the books being challenged (and more). The proposal to establish the separate shelving area came from the library itself, and will mean no books are actually removed from the library, as I understand it. On a practical level, it will likely mean that access to the books isn't impeded either, which is as it should be, but not as Dixie Fechtel, book banning crusader, would like it to be.

Speak and Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson underwent recent challenges. Twisted was challenged in Downingtown West High School in Downingtown, PA, but the involved teachers were able to reach a quick resolution with the teacher, where Twisted was on the summer reading list. Twisted was also challenged in Montgomery High School in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. Speak was challenged in Temecula, California, where a parent called the book "smutty" and "pornographic". (Again, a challenge to a book that discusses rape based on it being sexual, rather than violent, one of my personal hot buttons. Rape is not sexual, although it includes actions that involve sex. Rape is violence and aggression and hostility. And if it appeals to one's prurient interest (the definition of pornography), then one has a decidedly warped sensibility. I'm just saying.) All three attempts to ban those books were shot down.

Lessons From a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles faced the same challenge as Laurie Halse Anderson's Twisted in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. While Jo's book has survived the challenge, along with Laurie's and books by Chris Crutcher, Neal Shusterman, Sheri Reynolds and Sonya Sones. Only three of the seven books pulled from the classroom had the appropriate paperwork filed, and all three (Twisted, Lessons and Shusterman's Unwind) survived the challenge, although it's not clear whether they've actually been returned to the classroom shelves yet.

Think the Mount Sterling issue is over? Think again. As Laurie Halse Anderson posted today, the teachers in Mount Sterling have been reprimanded for wearing T-shirts bearing the quote you see up above to the left there from To Kill a Mockingbird. The reason? The administration said it constituted political activity. On the one hand, the administration is correct. But I think it still falls under First Amendment protected speech. I wonder if they'll file a grievance . . .

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Harry Potter and the Ghastly Book Challenges

In 2001, the #1 most-challenged "book" in the United States was the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. At that point in time, it would have meant the first four books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (renamed from the original Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Reasons for challenges in 2001: anti-family, occult/Satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence

In 2002, Harry Potter again led the list. Same four books.

Reasons for challenges in 2002: occult/Satanism and violence

In 2003, Harry Potter slipped to second place, despite the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Reasons for challenges in 2003: occult/Satanism

As I've mentioned before, I've read the first Harry Potter book at least a dozen times now, and Chamber of Secrets and Azkaban at least 10 times each. If forced to pick one of the seven books as a favorite, mine would probably be Azkaban, in fact, although it's a tough call. I've read each of the successive books a few times less - so, something like 8 times for book 4, about 6 times for book 5, 3 tims for book 6 and, I am somewhat chastened to report, a mere twice for book 7. I sense a mid-winter rereading binge might be in order.

I cannot think of a single instance involving Satan or any of his minions in the entire series. Nor can I find any evidence of Satanism. There are good witches, and bad witches, and people who, like Dorothy, are not a witch at all (although usually they are not the best sort of people, since most non-witches depicted in the books are not particularly good - think of the Dursleys, for instance, or Filch, who was a Squib; Hermione's parents, who are dentists, are spoken of, but appear only briefly in Chamber of Secrets.

Do the books include occultism? I'd say yes, in the best possible sense: they concern "the belief in or study of the action or influence of supernatural or supernormal powers". As do the Superman or Spiderman comics, the Narnia books, and more. Do they promote worship of dark forces? Not unless the reader is peculiarly warped.

These books are all about friendship and loyalty and trust, about light overcoming darkness, good triumphing over evil. They are about self-sacrifice and hard work and dedication, about setting one's priorities properly - Hermione loses her singular dedication toward getting great grades, Ron decides that friendship and loyalty and love are more important that individual glory, Harry learns that being an orphan doesn't mean that he has to be alone and without a family, Neville learns that hard work and dedication can raise one up from being a rather hopeless case to being a respected member of society . . . I could go on, really, with other characters, including some of the adult ones, but I won't. All of those lessons are the sorts of things that most parents want their children to learn, and setting them in a fantasy realm is a way of making those lessons accessible without them being completely overwhelming. Not that they are lessons that Rowling set out to teach in the first place - they (and more) are, rather, the take-aways that come from the stories she has set within the tremendous alternate universe that she has created.

As Dumbledore told Harry in The Chamber of Secrets: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." This includes our choices as rational beings to stand up and say NO when book challenges or book bans come along. As Mad-Eye Moody is fond of exclaiming, CONSTANT VIGILANCE! is what is required to ensure that we remain an open society, and it includes just saying NO to book challenges and bans.

Incidentally, this does not mean that any parent has to say "yes" to any and every book their own child is reading. Parents ought to do what they think best when it comes to books their children are reading, just as they ought with respect to TV or movies that they watch, friends with whom they play, activities in which they participate, etc. Parents can and should monitor their own children; they ought not, however, try to prevent other people's children from access to reading materials, any more than they ought to slap someone else's child for carrying on in the grocery store.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

ALA downloads for banned books week

At the ALA website, I found the following quote that helps to explain the difference between a challenge and a ban. Far more books have been challenged than banned, but my guess is that "Challenged Books Week" wouldn't catch people's attention in quite the same way. Some folks have called the label duplicitous, but were it not for the diligence of librarians and community members in defending against challenges, challenges would result in bans much more often.

What's the difference between a challenge and a banning?

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.

ALA, About Banned Books

While at the ALA website, I downloaded my icon, as well as the lovely image you see below:

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Banned Books Week

I am late in getting started, but I fell down a rabbit hole. Of sorts. Health issues with both kids swallowed my Friday, and yesterday's JASNA trip to Pennsylvania Hospital (to see art by Benjamin West and tour the historical old building with parts that date from 1755 to 1801) basically exhausted me.

And now, it's Sunday afternoon. And based on the website,, I'm giving you the list of the 10 most-challenged books in 2008 according to the 513 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom. I hope you'll go ahead and count how many of them are written specifically for children and teens:

1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

2. The His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. Individual titles are Northern Lights (called The Golden Compass in the U.S.), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass

3. The TTYL series by Lauren Myracle. Individual titles are TTYL, TTFN, and L8R, G8R

4. The Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz. Individual titles include Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones

5. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

7. The Gossip Girl series by Cecily von Ziegesar (At least 9 separate titles)

8. Uncle Bobby's Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen

9. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

10. Flashcards of My Life by Charise Mericle Harper

You may have noticed that there are far more than 10 books on this list; there are, in fact, at least 22 books on this list (if I'm correct about there being only 9 Gossip Girl titles, and assuming that The It-Girl titles don't count in the Gossip Girl tally).

Out of this list, I hope you spotted that 8 of the 10 (or, if you prefer, 20 of the 22) were written for children or young adult readers, and the other two - The Kite Runner and Bless Me, Ultima are frequently taught to high school students.

Both of the picture books on the list - And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby's Wedding - are about same-sex couples who are forming families. They are frequently challenged on the basis that they are anti-family and because they include homosexuality. Tango has been challenged for being anti-ethnic, which kind of cracks me up - it's about actual penguins, and penguins pretty much defy traditional notions of ethnicity, don't they?

You can read the reasons these books were challenged at the Banned Books Week website. You may find it interesting to note (or at least I did) that Phillip Pullman's books have been challenged on the basis of political viewpoint, and that The Kite Runner hasn't been challenged for violence, but for being sexually explicit. Because rape is, apparently, sex, and not violence. Don't get me started.

Here are a few additional statistics from the ALA website's page on frequently challenged books for the years 2001-2008:

1. The number one reason for book challenges has been "sexually explicit content". Over 1200 challenges were registered for this reason.

2. "Offensive language" comes in at number two. Challenges on this basis are not limited to profanity. Over 1000 challenges were lodged for offensive language.

3. Over 700 challenges were based on a book being "unsuited" for a particular age group. (I do not believe these were challenges to the placement of, say, The Story of O in an elementary school library - I think most of us would agree with that particular challenge, if it existed.)

4. Over 450 challenges were based on "violence".

5. "Homosexuality" was challenged 269 times.

6. "Religious viewpoints" were challenged 233 times (given that Tango and His Dark Materials and Scary Stories are high on the list with these challenges, it's relatively safe to say that many of these are challenges based on the books being "anti-Christian").

7. 103 books were challenged as being "anti-family", a term which here means "contrary to a particular view of what a family is", and not "opposed to the notion of families". I really think they ought to rename this challenge category and not allow it to stand as is, since most (if not all) books that are called anti-family (such as And Tango Makes Three or Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman) don't oppose the idea of family; rather, they seek to expand its definition.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

'Tis true, 'tis day; what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?

That bit's not Shakespeare, by the by - it's from John Donne's "Break of Day", and it popped into my head just now, so there it is.

But it's not just day - it's Wednesday, and time for a bit of the Bard. Today, in honor of the coming of autumn (I hope those of you who celebrate had a joyous Mabon (or, if you prefer, equinox)), I thought I'd share Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold"), which is set in late fall. The commentary is a reprise from the last time I posted this poem, in February of 2008.

Sonnet 73
by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Broken down in the crassest of ways, the speaker here spends four lines comparing himself to a tree in winter, another four comparing himself to twilight (with night encroaching), and yet another four in comparing himself to a dying fire, with an overt reference to a death-bed in line 11. The final couplet is, to me, the real volta here, where Shakespeare ceases to speak of "me" and shifts to "thou", and the topic shifts from metaphors for death and aging to a direct address about love and parting. Despite a fairly bleak opening, I find hope in this poem because of its last lines, which speak of love strengthening and which can, I believe, be read in a carpe diem* kind of way.

Many folks read the poem literally as one intended to be "spoken" by an older person to someone much younger, and I have to say I think that's an entirely fair reading. The poem can also be read as being about the speaker's creative life: his work was once compared to the singing of sweet birds, but now is diminished; his star is fading; his creative powers are nearly used up. I have to say that while that second interpretation is one that's very popular with the "write a bullshit essay for school" crowd, I don't believe for moment that Shakespeare intended for the poem to be about his art, even though one can freely analyze it that way and likely get an A on the essay in doing so.

No, my take is that Shakespeare was most likely feeling neglected or a bit unappreciated by a lover and was trying to gain their sympathy (or heap coals upon them) by invoking thoughts of his death. It's all very melodramatic and over the top, and similar to what a lot of teenagers might do (even though Shakespeare was probably in his twenties or thirties when this was written), yet it rings true in a way that making these about Shakespeare's death or dying art do not. First, there's his age to consider - he was not an old man when he wrote this sonnet. Second, there's his art to take into account: he was still growing and writing and succeeding. In either case, personal experience/autobiography seem out of the question. Unless, of course, you believe, as I do, that Will was trying to manipulate someone by preying on their emotions.

Sonnet 73 is part of a quartet of sonnets that deal with aspects of death, and are usually read together. The quarter is composed of sonnets 71-74, and most folks read them as an older man (most believe Shakespeare himself) considering his own mortality, and writing poems for a young male friend he leaves behind him. Why male? Beats me. There's nothing in the poems overtly indicative that such is the case, although references to the other person facing public scrutiny might be taken that way (and many scholars believe that it was Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron, to whom these poems were addressed). It seems to me far more likely that these lines were written by Shakespeare in order to manipulate a woman he knew, or else written for Southampton so that he could share them with a mistress in order to try to make her feel sorry for him. Or perhaps to try to get Elizabeth I to pardon him for schtupping one of her ladies-in-waiting without her permission or for backing Essex's rebellion against the Queen.

Sonnet 71 takes a pious martyr-like tone and urges the surviving loved one not to mourn overly much, because it's not the dying person's desire to see him/her unhappy, nor does the speaker want the survivor to be "mocked" for their sentimental mourning: "I'm just thinking of you, dear; I would never want you to be unhappy. When I'm dead." Sonnet 72 reads like a dejected, almost petulant, lover, speaking of how unworthy he is of love and undeserving of praise, and exhorting the survivor (after his death), not to heap praise on the speaker because it would be a lie: "I'm a mutt, a mongrel, unworthy even of being kicked". Sonnet 73 you've just read, and Sonnet 74 talks about how the dead speaker's body may decay, but his spirit will live on with the loved one he addresses, as memorialized in the lines of his poem: "Don't be sad. Even when I'm dead and my body is being devoured by worms, probably because I've been knifed, and I'm unworthy of being remembered by you, you'll have this sonnet about me being dead to remember me by." (Sorry for the overly long description of Sonnet 74, but really, the lines about worms and being knifed and how base the writer is were too good not to mention.)

* seize the day

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sea Gypsy by Edward Hovey

Back in April as part of my "Building A Poetry Collection" series for National Poetry Month, I posted "Sea Fever" by John Masefield, a favorite of mine because of its strong association with my maternal grandmother, who could recite it from memory. (It begins "I must down to the seas again,to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship a star to steer her by".)

Last week, I got a lovely email at my website from a then-stranger (hi Kevin!) who had stumbled across my post in the way that searching for things on the internet sometimes leads to, and in his very kind comments, he mentioned a poem by Richard Hovey called "The Sea Gypsy", which - at the time - I'd never read. But having remedied that situation, I can see why Kevin pairs the poems in his mind.

And I must say that I am sorry not to have read it sooner, but I'm so glad to have read it now that I thought I'd share it all with you today. I'm pretty sure in particular is going to love this one.

The Sea Gypsy
by Richard Hovey

I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay*.

There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the Islands of Desire.

I must forth again to-morrow!
With the sunset I must be
Hull down on the trail of rapture
In the wonder of the sea.

*Cathay: China

Terrific imagery - the sense of wanderlust comes through strongly, I think, and the love of the sea. The form of the poem (the technical explanation is below for them that wants it), with lines of regularly varying length, adds a rocking meter to the poem that contributes to the feeling of being at sea. Makes we want to head off on a boat - and I'm not really much of a boat lover!

The form of the poem uses trochaic tetrameter (four trochaic feet per line (TRO-key TRO-key TRO-key TRO-key), or, if you prefer two trochaic feet in each second line followed by a cretic foot (a three-syllable foot that follows a stress-non-stress pattern, such as LA-di-DAH).

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Bad Day by Kay Ryan - a Poetry Friday post

Everyone has bad days sometimes. As I continue on my revisions for the second gnome chapter book, I thought of this poem by the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan.

It's a very short poem; nevertheless, I've truncated it so as not to violate copyright laws. I hope you'll click through and read the poem in full:

Bad Day
by Kay Ryan

Not every day
is a good day
for the elfin tailor.
Some days
the stolen cloth
reveals what it
was made for:
a handsome weskit
or the jerkin
of an elfin sailor.

* * *

But some days
neither the idea
nor the material
presents itself;
and these are
the hard days
for the tailor elf.

Read the whole (short) poem here.

I love Ryan's sly use of rhyme and slant rhyme in this poem: tailor/for/sailor, weskit/jacket/fabric, itself/elf and the internal rhymes such as jerkin/elfin. And I love who perfect a metaphor this is for writing poetry.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Devise, wit; write, pen

Today I awoke with these lines from Love's Labour's Lost in my head:

"Devise, wit; write, pen; for I am for whole volumes in folio."

They come at the end of a monologue by Don Armado, one of Shakespeare's comic characters who is sometimes referred to as "the braggart". Yet even though they're the end of a comic soliloquy, they have a depth - and a sentiment - to them, that I adore.

Today, I'll hope my wit and pen come through for me. They certainly did yesterday, when I managed another 2-1/2 poems for the Jane project, all while keeping my foot firmly against the door to the back storecloset, whence the gnomes are trying to get out. I'd at least like to finish the incomplete Jane poem (related to Persuasion) before turning my attentions gnomeward.

Meanwhile, in an effort to find you a version of Don Armado's speech online, I inadvertently tripped across this sketch with Hugh Laurie as (a blond) Shakespeare and Rowan Atkinson as his editor, in which they discuss the most famous soliloquy ever written, Hamlet's "To be or not to be":

You can watch a finalist named Logan from the ESU Shakespeare Competition perform Armado's soliloquy (and two other things) here, if you're so inclined.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, ill. by Marla Frazee

I have spent a week thinking about how to talk about this book, because it seems to me impossible to do it justice. And yet, all through that time, I've been talking about this book.

Here's what I know. There is no such thing as perfect. Really. But this picture book by my friend Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee comes close. Liz has written a marvelous poem, but one that's hard to picture. Marla has drawn a lovely narrative, but one that doesn't make complete sense on its own. Together, those slightly imperfect pieces make a perfect whole (or as nearly as is humanly possible to create).

As I said in my mention last week, All the World is a work of epic beauty inside a picture book package. I love this book for its size, its cover, its lime-green endpapers, its flap copy and author & illustrator info, its words and its pictures. I love it for its lyrical, song-like qualities, for its generosity of spirit, for being so simple and yet so terribly complex that a week later, I remain gobsmacked. I love it for its pictures that wind along the California coast, for its inclusiveness (mixed-race and same sex couples made me especially happy), for its ability to show that all the world is all of us.

I have heard this book described by others as an immediate classic and a book with Caldecott potential (boy do I agree - not that I have any influence over these things, but man!). Bloggers whom I know to be highly articulate were brought to their knees at the thought of talking about this book, because it is difficult to know how to do it justice. If you've experienced this book, I'm guessing that you know whereof I speak, and that you also want to do it justice (and quite possibly feel inadequate). This book is that good.

This is a book that sings to places in your soul and that manages to completely engage you whether you intended to be engaged by it or not. Perhaps you opened it to humor a friend or see what the fuss was about, but most likely by the you reached the end, you found tears in your eyes without having realized that you were becoming emotional. Most likely you realized midway through that Marla Frazee's illustrations were moving through a particular (imaginary, as it turns out) landscape, and you wanted to go back and look through it again to see how the "camera" flowed along. Most likely you felt changed, somehow - maybe in a quiet way, maybe in a profound way - like those of us who are middle-aged might have done for a brief moment when we first heard We Are the World or Do They Know It's Christmas?, or if we stood next to friends, neighbors and strangers holding hands for "Hands Across America", when something inside felt that upswell of realization of interconnectedness and good will - our own particular Ebenezer Scrooge moments, when the shackles and fetters drop off, if only for a moment, and we realize that life is good and we resolve to keep Christmas in our hearts every day. It is, in short, a revelation.

Go. Buy it. Whether you share it with the people in your life or hug it to your chest and remind yourself that there is good in the world and that we are all connected, this book will do you good.

If you're still on the fence, check out this review by Jama Rattigan (complete with gorgeous spreads and quotes) and this interview of Liz and Marla at 7-Imp, with backstory on the development of the illustrations and more spreads.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare

Today being Wednesday, what say you to a little bit of the Bard?

Sonnet 55
by William Shakespeare

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils* root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick** fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
  So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
  You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

*broils: tumults, battles
**quick: probably intended for its double meaning: 1) fast-burning and 2) the sort that burns something to its quick, or its very heart/center

First, let me say how very much I love the line about "unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time", "sluttish" being a word which here means "disgustingly dirty", and not actually something sexual. Second, let me say that this poem conjured for me an image of fallen statues, which naturally called up "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which I discussed back in April as part of my National Poetry Month posts, with its image of trunkless legs standing in the desert.

I suppose I ought to take notice of the form and meaning - a sonnet, of course, and a Shakespearean sonnet, of course, written in iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first eight lines are grandstanding, in a way: "Monuments shall fall into ruin, but not your reputation" is the gist of it. The next six lines take a slight turn (or volta) when the focus shifts away from monuments falling to wars and the ravages of time and more to the active nature of the poem and its ability to preserve the memory and reputation of the Fair Youth: "My poems about you will keep your memory - and therefore the essence of you - alive until Doomsday".

Check out the use of personification of war through the invocation of Mars, the Roman god of war, and how Shakespeare claims that Mars is no match for poetry. In fact, he claims that poetry will outlast war, while the physical things built by men will not.

The final couplet is an extremely pithy summary of what he's been saying all along: "So, until judgment day, you live in my poem, and as a result, your spirit is kept alive in that of all lovers."

Pretty bold claim, and yet who am I to argue? Four hundred years or so after it was written, this poem is still around and we're still talking about it and about Shakespeare's obvious love (platonic, romantic, sexual, or otherwise) for the Fair Youth, whose identity can only be guessed at (although many believe it to be Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton). Still, that Fair Youth's spirit is kept alive, is it not, by these poems? And while it would be tempting to dismiss Shakespeare's talk of "powerful rhyme" and his claims of keeping the Youth's reputation and memory alive until Doomsday as hubris - and I'm nearly certain he took crap for it during his lifetime and was undoubtedly accused of puffery, to say the least - it would seem that the Bard might be having the last laugh. For while it is not yet time for the final judgment (best as I can tell), there are plenty of folks still admiring Shakespeare's "powerful rhyme".

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Friday, September 04, 2009

Me With You by Kristy Dempsey

I have been remiss in not reviewing this lovely picture book. Kristy Dempsey, who is a LiveJournal friend of mine, first wrote this poem for her husband; now, it is a beautiful picture book featuring a little girl and her grandfather. As you may have guessed from the cover art, the people aren't people, they're bears.

While the book is entitled Me With You, much of the poem is a celebration of the way the people – er, bears – interact with one another. It begins this way:

We're a pair beyond compare,
a rare and special two,
in all the ways that I am me
and you're completely you.

But most of the rest of the poem is in an "I'm me when I do this, while you do that" format. It's kind of a celebration of how sometimes a good relationship enhances the good points about the individuals involved. Perhaps my favorite is:

I'm me on an adventure,
digging treasure from the sand,
and when the path is rocky,
you are there to hold my hand.

The poem is written in rhyme in a form known as a fourteeners (rhymed couplets in which each line has fourteen syllables – usually 7 iambic feet, with the odd exception here and there of a line with only 13 syllables because it began with a single accented syllable in lieu of an iambic foot), which gives it a lovely, rolling feel. Because fourteeners tend to lend themselves to long lines, they are often (as here) split into two lines, alternating four and three iambic feet (8 and 6 syllables each).

Kristy's lovely words are accompanied by marvelous illustrations by Christopher Denise. You can find out more about him and his work in a marvelous interview over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

You can get a feel for the book by watching this wonderful book trailer:

I was lucky enough to get a F&G (folded and gathered) copy of this book from the publisher. I encourage you all to look for the real book in stores now.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner

Up front, I have to disclose that I know Kate personally, and that she very kindly handed me a signed copy of the ARC for her forthcoming novel when I saw her at the New England SCBWI Conference. You might assume that, with Kate being a friend, I'd be predisposed to want to like her novel, and you'd be correct. You might assume that with her being a friend, if I'm mentioning her novel in a public forum such as this, I'm going to say that I like it.

You'd be wrong.

Because this novel? I love it.

Kate juggles a bundle of fairly heavy plotlines as if they weighed no more than a pile of leaves, managing her story with humor and grace.

Gianna Zales is a middle school cross-country star, a true artist, a good friend, and a bit of a free spirit. Two weeks ago, her science teacher gave the class a month to collect twenty-five leaves from different species of trees, identify them, and put together a visual representation of their distribution. One week from now, it's due. And unless Gianna gets a good grade on her science project, she won't be allowed to run in the cross-country sectionals. Not just that, but the hateful Bianca will run in her place.

Gianna is helped by her good friend Zig, who is starting to show signs of being interested in Gee as a girl, not just as a friend. Gianna is frankly hindered by her family, no matter what they say; I mean, they lecture her on the importance of meeting a Monday sub-deadline on Saturday, while in the car on the way to the Italian market in Montreal. And this isn't the only family obligation that pops up along the way to prevent her from actually doing what they tell her she ought to be doing. I'm just saying. (You will note that Kate must be an excellent writer based on my degree of anger towards Gianna's parents for this whole "say one thing, do another" routine they've got going. Actual anger on the part of a reader about obstacles faced by a character in a book is a surefire sign of good writing.)

Now, Gianna is a cross-country runner, but I have to tell you, the way this book goes, she ought to be a hurdler. There are low hurdles, like the fact that her father's a mortician and that she frequently arrives at school in a hearse, or that her mother's got an unhealthy fixation on health food. And there are mid-sized hurdles, like figuring out what to say to a girl she knows whose grandmother has just died. And there are some really high hurdles indeed, such as the fact that her Nonna is starting to forget things - not just the occasional word or where she left her glasses, but important things, like where she is.

Like a cross-country course after a rain storm, there are an awful lot of puddles to avoid - like Bianca's attempts to belittle Gianna and others, or her efforts to replace Gianna at sectionals. Like unexpected developments with her leaf collection at several turns. Like a bunch of issues with her grandmother and her mother (both separately and together). And like whether she likes the way things are changing with Zig, who was always just a friend before.

And like the happy feeling that rushes through you during and after a cross-country run*, the book is full of warm, happy, funny bits. Gianna's brother, Ian, is hilarious, in spite of (or maybe because of - it's hard to say) his fondness for jokes and paparazzi-like photography. Her friend Ruby is pretty terrific, too. And although there are some sad things about Nonna, when she's on her game, Nonna is a riot - the exact sort of grandmother that pretty much anyone would love to have. She knows when to encourage and when to scold, how to intervene with Mom, how to support Gianna (openly or on the sly), and how to make the very best Italian Wedding Cookies in the world.

Do I love the repeated references to Robert Frost's poem, "Birches"? You know I do. Particularly since the poem is not only referenced and quoted, but also thoughtfully considered and discussed along the way. Also a high point? The references to Gianna's talent for and love of art.

Without being didactic, there are take-home messages about responsibility and the importance of personal expression, about the diversity of nature and the desirability of understanding natural science, about understanding and empathy for others and the true nature of friendship, and about the pitfalls of middle school, something about which Kate possesses and displays intimate knowledge.

Before I go, a word about the book design. I think that Nicole Gastonguay deserves special mention for what she's put together here. Now, I only have an ARC, but I have to assume that the finished copy of the book is going to have that same gorgeous cover image by Joe Cepeda, the same artist who did the lovely cover for Pam Munoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising. And that the right hand edge of each odd-numbered page bears a gray maple leaf, conveniently located at varying locations from top to bottom, top to bottom, so that if you hold the book steady at the spine and thumb the pages, you generate a flip-page animation of a falling leaf. Believe me when I say that this is a) huge fun and b) strangely hypnotic.

Kate's book is due out on September 1st - that's a week from today!

* I am taking that endorphin thing on faith people - you won't catch me actually testing it out.

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