Books From Beyond The Grave

One of the bargains in my newsletter of the day was a Boxcar Children Book–Legend of the Irish Castle, and just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. (Apparently, if you’re a minor, you celebrate by reading. Who knew?) I was just intrigued enough to go look the book up, since I read a lot of Boxcar Children books when I was a kid, and I don’t remember any Irish Castle.

Turns out that Legend of the Irish Castle is book #142 of a series the original author only wrote 19 books of. It was released last year, which is pretty good, considering that Gertrude Chandler Warner has been dead since 1979.

I’m going to say that as a personal “thing” I’m not all that crazy about the idea of having other people keep on writing my characters, after I’m dead.

Part of that is just… I don’t want to be dead. And part of it is that I spend so much time getting my characters to be the way I want them. I don’t want them shipped to places and plots I never intended them to go. I mean, come on! They’re mine!

And while we’re at it, let’s pretend that I’m very deep and philosophical, and say that there’s something bordering on Hubris about the idea of my characters being so spectacular that someone else should be writing them, instead of their own.

I’m not sure what Gertrude Chandler Warner thought. She was a first grade teacher, which may actually mean that she’s happy just as long as the kiddies are reading. I tend to think of grade school as dear, saintly creatures who really might be that unselfish.

Then, I saw all the common core, ATOS, and Accelerated Reader bullshit **ahem** foo-fer-alls and thought again. I don’t know what Gertrude’s opinions on each and every individual one of those would be, but you can bet she’d have opinions. And I don’t think they’d support micromanaging children’s reading.

So, now, I’m thinking about what a writer’s educational philosophy–or their politics, or their personal beliefs– should mean for their books, and the way those books are managed after their death. For instance, is it really fair to use Sherlock Holmes to sell fried chicken? Or should you really add Zombies to Pride and Prejudice?

I’m bordering on an intellectual property rant, now, but the general question… if I have one… is how do you feel about your characters having adventures without you?

So, What is the Purpose of YA and Middle Grade?

Sometimes, you get into an argument–it was a very polite argument, by the way–and it just gnaws at you for the rest of the… Well, what is this? Thursday? Well, week, then.

A Middle-Grade Writer on Twitter was grousing about Middle Grade literature making references to (things she considered to be outside a MG-er’s frame of reference.) She thought of this as the author flaunting his own intelligence at the dear children’s expense. She called this something like “above the head winks” and thought of it as very disrespectful.

And, obviously, I disagree. I have no problem with a child having to pick up a dictionary from time to time, and none with having him pick things up from context. I don’t think children’s literature should be dumbed down to the point that the snot fountains **ahem** dear children never encounter so much as a word about anything they don’t already know.

I’m also incredibly concerned about the idea that somewhere–somehow–someone gets to be the Universal Arbiter of the Standard Childhood Experience. I mean, are we talking about an Airforce brat? A San Francisco hippie’s kid? A Korean immigrant? At what point do you hit the “Children don’t know anything about THAT!!!” Button?

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I’m no expert on children. I don’t have any. I hardly ever borrow any. And for the purposes of this post, I’m pretty sure I never was one. I also don’t write for them. Note the disclaimer on my stories page: Any resemblance to children’s literature is purely coincidental. I mean that.

But the comment got me thinking, and within a couple of hours, I’d run the question past a couple of people (one is raising children, and the other intends to be at some point. And one of them writes for children, as well.)

The writer’s general thought was that in fact, young adult and middle grade fiction do exist to insulate children from certain things. (Vocabulary in general was not on the list.) That it presents better morals, and a…well, somewhat selective window into the world. Less cussing.

Yeah. Well. I suppose they do learn enough cussing in school. But I’m not convinced. Wasn’t there a death match in some of those books? And again… whose morals?

So… here’s my question. Well, Questions, maybe.

1.) What is the purpose of Middle Grade or Young Adult as a separate thing? Protect the morals? Indoctrination? Strictly marketing? Something else?

2.) Why do you believe that MG or YA is better for children than popping over to the library and just choosing books that interest them? Or vice versa?

Throwing Away The Classics

I ran into this post–which talks about why not to give children a particular book– on Carol Nissenson’s Blog the other day and despite the post’s title, it took me three or four read throughs to figure out exactly which book she was talking about. The Secret Garden. One of the books I read as a child, and enjoyed. And probably would have handed over to the next generation without a second thought. The truth is, my initial response was something more along the line of “What is she talking about?” than “Oh, she’s right.”

But she is right.

It took me a while to think of the negative stereotypes she was talking about. But, of course, they didn’t make as direct an impact on me as they would have on other children. And, in time, my memory glossed over them.  So, I went back to Padma Venkatraman’s interview, and kept reading.

Oh. Yeah. That. Well, yes.

Leave a comment and tell me if you knew right away what scenes she’s talking about, or if it took you a second.

Revisiting old stories… old songs… old anything and consciously thinking about the messages in them has been a recurring thought lately.

For instance… Pretty Woman (the song, not the move)… It’s street harassment, but kinda catchy, and you can dance to it. Still… Should little girls’ brains be marinating in the idea that you’ll hurt a stranger’s feelings if you don’t smile at him?

Return to Sender… A stalker classic. No amount of pelvis shaking is going to change the fact that the woman in the song is giving Elvis a clear NO! and his next step will be… to show up on her doorstep. Not a great example for little boys.

And The Secret Garden? Well, damn it, I liked the Secret Garden. But moving forward… I liked a lot of books. And I still want there to be time in childhood for kids to discover their own favorites. I don’t think every childhood needs to be a blow-by-blow replay of my own to be a good childhood.

The Great Hierarchy of Children’s Books

  1. Books Recommended by A Parent, Teacher, or Librarian. In my family, this included Caldecott and Newbery winners and nominees, and a large number of dog stories. Books received as gifts from any of the above. And things on school reading lists. That recommendation–the moment when someone actually hands a child a book and says “Read this”–is a high level of approval. And not all books deserve that seal of approval. This is the pinnacle of all children’s books.
  2. Books Not Recommended, but Still Enjoyed by Parents, Teachers, or Librarians. These would be the books of no particular social value (or detriment) that your mother is willing to read to or with you. Your parents aren’t holding them up as anything special. You probably brought them home, yourself. Good for you.
  3. Books That Annoy the Shit Out of Adults Not actually harmful, but your mother is not willing to read them to you or with you because she just doesn’t like them. Because, at some point, you’re old enough to read that to yourself, if you really want to read it. My family? Well, this would be any Ramona book.
  4. Books That Will Result in a DISCUSSION. These are the books that will need some parental guidance. The ones where your parents seriously disagree with some of it, or where clarification will be necessary. The family medical encyclopedia. That thing about the circus sideshow. And anything where the expectations in your family are dramatically different than what’s shown in that book. For instance: The Secret Garden is really old fashioned, isn’t it? Wow, that child is horrible.
  5. Books That Will Result in Someone’s Career Ending There weren’t a lot of books that fell into this category, when I was a kid. (We’re a fairly information-positive family.) In one notable instance, however, a really lazy grade-school teacher decided that a movie about World War II would be just as good as a more formal lesson. Her career ended somewhere during a scene with a couple f—udging* on the porch.

I believe that books can move up or down the hierarchy of children’s books without any actual censorship or book-banning taking place. I don’t think I owe a recommendation to anything, and I certainly don’t think I should recommend everything to children. Plenty of books I read myself–and enjoy, and recommend to adults–that I wouldn’t recommend to a ten year old or a six year old.

Most of the books I read, I wouldn’t recommend to a young child.

And if I do recommend a book, I want it to be good–not just enjoyable, but good–a step in the direction I believe the world should go. I want it to be something that represents something I can stand behind, and something that will give that child–and the children he comes into contact with–a better life.

*If you know how to use euphemisms, thank a teacher.

 

Halloween Ennui

The last year I handed out candy for Halloween was a long time ago. I spent most of the evening at home, and in the end, there were exactly two trick-or-treaters. Now, I like children dressed as devils and corpses as much as the next girl, but that does seem like a whole lot of boredom for two kids, and especially two kids I don’t even know, even out of costume.

Halloween,–even in my remarkably safe little town– has moved to the commercial sphere. The merchants hand out candy (and advertisements) and the whole affair goes downtown, or to the mall. The greedier parents dump their kids off in **ahem** take their kids to the “rich” neighborhood (not mine) and that’s about the end of it. (Driving through the”Rich” neighborhood on Halloween is like taking a truck through a cattle drive. But a whole lot more pink and sparkles.)

There are, of course, a few activities for grown ups. (Drinking. Also Drinking. You know… Like on Thursday.)

When I was in bigger towns… when I was dancing… it seems like I was in costume, dressed up as something every other week. Costume’s half the fun, you know. And once I started winning costume contests… well, you put the money back into the next costume, until you have your own little costume closet. And that’s been a while, too.

The thought that always comes to me around Halloween is the idea of dressing the candy bars up as books. (Not as my books, of course. Other people’s books. People who write for children.) Print the cover on one side of a paper, and a coupon code for the book on the other side of the paper, and glue the thing on a Hershey’s bar. (Or, you know… something good, if you happen to be in the “rich” area of town.)

I’m not one of those people who would give a sweet, innocent child a box of raisins–or a toothbrush–for Halloween, but a book?  That sounds like something healthy and fun. I could approve of that.

I fiddle around with the details, of course. The coupon codes would have to be set up in advance. It would have to be e-books to be cost effective, especially for a poor writer who’s paying for it, herself. And you might need separate bowls of candy for different age groups. I’m not sure. Different age groups would probably mean more than one writer.

And in order to get much traffic, you’d almost have to barge in on one of the businesses that actually gets trick or treaters, or buy a booth at the mall.

 

Dragon Smoke and Wind

The morning the Dragons came, the cat was in a questionable mood at best. That was understandable. When he was a kitten, and Mr. and Mrs. Dragon were still very young, Mr. Dragon pulled his tail. And Mrs. Dragon set him on fire. Simultaneously.

After all, he’d just fallen in the pig sty, and didn’t their own mother burn them clean, when they got dirty? In retrospect, even the cat could admit it was an honest mistake.

When his fur finally grew back, it had an iridescent sheen, like dragon smoke and wind. His tail—where a young Mr. Dragon had grasped it—was unchanged. Garden variety gray tabby.

Of course, the cat came out to greet the Dragons; that much was common courtesy. He and Mr. Dragon bowed to each other, and he even deigned to let Mrs. Dragon scratch his ears. He shook hands with each of the hatchlings, and commented on how big they were getting.

It was a compliment: none of them was any bigger than a baby goat. The hatchlings remembered their manners, and thanked him.

After that, the cat disappeared. He stalked off into the hydrangeas in the corner of the garden, and stayed there.

Mr. and Mrs. Dragon made themselves at home, and chatted with the hag on the veranda. The three of them—kept half an eye on the hatchlings—and drank cold tea and lemonade for more than an hour.

The hatchlings were bored. The green hatchling and the brown hatchling sat in the grass and made long chains of daisies, and answered the hag’s questions, when she thought of asking any, which wasn’t often. She wasn’t interested in children.

The red hatchling roamed the garden. He wandered past the roses, and the violets, and the little pond with the big goldfish. Then, he went to look for the cat. The cat moved fast—from the hydrangeas to the lilies, to the big evergreen at the end of the lot.

The red hatchling followed; boredom and mischief, and just a hint of excitement. He caught up, and tunneled under the spreading green branches.

Mr. Dragon looked away. The hag raised an eyebrow, and Mrs. Dragon forgot what she was saying, and turned to watch.

And then, they saw the cat emerge from under the burning fir tree. His back was still smoking, but he was only half-bald this time. From the waist down, his iridescent fur was unscathed.

Cats do not stoop to laughter, but the cat did smirk at Mr. Dragon. “Your kid’s smarter than you are,” he said. “Only took him two minutes to figure it out.”

The red hatchling crawled out from under the tree, and collapsed on the grass. He was out of breath, and the fact that he was panting for air did nothing to hide the shock on his face.

“You didn’t tell me he was enchanted.”

Mr. and Mrs. Dragon glanced at each other. “Of course, we didn’t,” Mr. Dragon said.

“If we told you, you wouldn’t have learned anything,” Mrs. Dragon said. “But, yes. Mr. Whiskers is enchanted. People, themselves, feel whatever pain they inflict on him.”

The cat licked his bare paw, and did not stoop to laugh.

“It hurts,” the red hatchling said. He trembled, with pain and humiliation. Without the enchantment, he would never have felt fire burn. As a dragon, he couldn’t.

The hag shrugged, as if the pain was nothing, but the brown hatchling looked worried. Mrs. Dragon took a jar out of her purse, and rubbed the salve on her son’s back.

“It doesn’t matter whether the cat’s enchanted, or not. It’s a cheap lesson,” Mr. Dragon said. He produced a gold coin from his bag, and gave it to the hag. Mrs. Dragon thanked her and the cat for everything they’d done. “In a few years, you’ll be as big as a house, and if you don’t learn to think and treat others as they want to be treated, they’ll come after you with spears.”

Read more of my work here, or Follow Me:
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Be sure to visit my friends to read more stories:

Katharina Gerlach Lobster One
S.R. Olson Malakai’s Gift
Wendy Smyer Yu Into The Light
Emily Plesner Time Stops When I’m With You
Barbara Lund Separate Space
Shana Blueming A Melting Heart
Juneta Key Don’t Drink The Water
Angela Wooldridge Midwinter
Lee Lowery All Aboard
Elizabeth McCleary OverWhelmed
Viola Fury The Day The Cat Got Out
Karen Lynn Dragon Smoke and Wind

Three Days till The Blog Hop

Update: Please see the Blog Hop page for dates and details about the next blog hop.

It’s been a few hours since I mentioned the fact that I’m having a blog hop, so I thought I might mention I’m having a blog hop.

My blog hop is on the 27th of July.

Huh. I feel a little bit like a kid having a birthday. My blog hop is on the 27th. Are you coming?

The Storytime Blog Hop is a fun collection of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction stories. No graphic sex or violence, and no swearing. (Yes, I’ll go back and edit. Again.) And since it’s the genre, not the age range that ties it together, there’s a really nice range of writers involved.

If you want to check out some stories from our last blog hops right this second, I have a whole page of them.

And be sure to join me back here on July 27th for new stories from twelve talented writers. (Oh, fine. Eleven plus me. ;))

In Praise of Children’s Booksellers and Librarians

Children confuse me.

When I was a bookseller, I spent a lot of time in the Children’s Section. If I wasn’t actually in the character costume for an event, I was behind the desk, frantically searching for the by-age-and-grade-level cheat sheets the children’s specialist kept.

The character costume part was easy. All you  have to do is fit in the costume, keep your mouth shut, and pretend to be a dog. (Or whatever.)

The book part? Virtually impossible.

In the first place, nothing you read when you were a child is relevant. What was I reading in third grade? Not Captain Underpants. So, for a child-free soul like myself, that’s going to mean rote memorization. A lot of it.

And in the second place, none of the kids you’re talking to are reading at their age/grade level, anyway. Well, I guess those cheat sheets were more a set of guidelines, anyway. Does fifth grade mean fifth grade, or second? Does “gifted” mean the standardized test score shows him at a 4.6 reading level (And only six months into 4th grade!) or does it mean college physics?

Then, on top of that, there are the parents.

Let’s be honest… half the time, what you’re really looking for is something the parents like. Child friendly, with good values, and wholesome adventures. Maybe something where the dog actually survives, or the kid grows up to be an accountant… you know, just like his mom. But nobody’s gonna give you a wish list. Nope. You have to guess.

And if they don’t like what their kid’s reading?

Oh, boy. They’re gonna track you down.

Your name’s on that receipt, and they will find you. Were there talking animals in that book? An abomination. Sex? Violence? Fart jokes? Run!

Oh, no. You will not speak. After all, you should have known the moment an over-21 type adult tried to buy that manga–the shrink-wrapped one with the giant age-rating on the cover–that it was clearly a birthday gift for her eight year old.

So, to all the Kids’ Specialists, Children’s librarians, and **gulp** school teachers…

For all your hard work and dedication…

For all the time and energy you expend trying to expand the minds of the next generation, and for the effort you put into encouraging them…

Thanks for taking the bullet.