In the Media

Links and News

By Casey Wilson

  • Recent days have seen the loss of two more beloved authors of children’s literature: Elise Minarik, who wrote the Little Bear books, and Donald Sobol, author of Encyclopedia Brown. The links take you to their obituaries, which are both worth reading, I think.
  • Neil Gaiman will be writing (has written) more children’s books, which is most excellent news. Check the link for one of the illustrations from Chu’s Day. Also exciting, but unrelated to children’s literature, is the news that he will be writing more Sandman.
  • Word officially broke this past week that Mockingjay will be split into two films, though it’s been assumed to be the case since early in the production of The Hunger Games.
  • And in the never ending discussion of censorship and YA books, author James Dawson discusses the rules for swearing he has encountered as a writer.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

On Archery

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

We went to see Pixar’s Brave last night: me, my boyfriend, his mother, aunt, uncle and niece.  We joked around in the theater lobby that it took 5 adults to take one 8-year old to the movies because we all wanted to see the film without the stigma of being an adult at a kid’s movie.  I joked that my degree goals got me out of that one.  I anticipate that I am not the only person who will be posting about this film, so I am going to try to take a slightly different tack.

Brave has been touted as Pixar’s first full-length film centered on a female character.  Those films include: Toy Story (and its sequels), A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up and Wall-E.   Whether intentional or not, all of the other Pixar films have centered around male characters and their relationships (father-son in Nemo and Ratatouille, husband-wife in The Incredibles, male friendships in Toy Story, Monsters Inc, and Up, and romance in A Bugs Life, Cars and Wall-E.)  Sure, you can argue that Wall-E is actually a robot, or that Mrs. Incredible is actually a pretty well-rounded character for an animated super-heroine, but the facts are that Pixar has been looking at its various animated lenses through a male lens and Brave is its first attempt to look at the beautifully rendered world of the Scottish Highlands through the female lens of Princess Merida and her mother Queen Eleanor.

While the overall film was cute and moving and beautiful and funny and had the requisite kilt/bare bottom jokes, I did find myself wondering aloud as we left the theater, what is it about archery that makes a female character all at once likeable, a tom-boy, and badass?  True, Merida was badass in other ways too: her skill with a sword and spear come in handy and she is even good enough to be a match (momentarily) for her father, the King.  But it is clear that archery is Merida’s true love: when she can finally escape her mother’s lessons, she rides her horse, Angus, out into the surrounding forest, shooting well-worn targets as she goes. The sequence emphasizes her speed, accuracy, comfort and unbridled joy in this sport.  When forced by her mother to choose the means by which the young men of the clans will compete for her hand in marriage, Merida chooses archery, knowing that she will be able to out shoot all of the boys and hopefully, by a technicality in the law, win her own hand.

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Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

Profanity and the Status Quo: On Rating YA Lit

By Casey Wilson

“Is It Time to Rate Young Adult Books for Mature Content?” the US News and World Report asked this week. The subheading would make you think so: “A new report finds that nearly all young adult bestsellers contain at least some profanity.”

Now there is no surer way to get the YA community all aflutter than by asking such a question. And sure enough, my Twitter feed was filled to the brim with indignant responses to the article, which is based on a study by researchers at Brigham Young University. (One very important caveat: I have not had the opportunity to read the study itself. I am basing my understanding of it upon the article in question – which I am fully aware may not do the study justice. I’m working with what I have.) In the study, they apparently looked at the “40 best-selling children’s books on the New York Times list between June 22 and July 6, 2008” and found “more than 1,500 profane words”. Leaving aside the fact that 40 books is a very small sampling of the market, it is important to note that the definition of “profane” here is a wide one that they broke down into categories: “George Carlin’s ‘Seven Dirty Words,’ sexual words, excretory words, ‘strong others’ (bastard, bitch) and ‘mild others’ (hell, damn).” Thus, farting and fucking are both considered profane, and both make the same list.

Authors Kiersten White (known for not cursing in her books) and Gayle Forman (not so much) each have good pieces up addressing the issue of taking such an essentialist view of what is profane. They take very different approaches to get at the same basic premise: context is key. The problem with the MPAA – a problem recently demonstrated by the controversy over the rating for the film Bully – is that it offers no real leeway for context. You are given a certain number of “f-bombs,” and if you pass that number, it’s game over for a PG-13 rating. It’s a tempting system because it has the benefit of appearing “objective,” but it’s inherently flawed.

So, I fear, would be any attempt to create some sort of rating system for YA lit – beyond the one that’s already in place. If you pick up almost any YA book, you’ll find a suggested reading age: 12 and up, 14 and up, 15 and up. Publishers provide that information willingly, to help parents and children choose books appropriately. Granted, that is the only information given. It doesn’t come with a movie-trailer style “Pervasive profanity and occasional drug use” – but it is a way of helping to judge what would be acceptable to a given child. And let’s face it: creating a ratings system would be a lot of work, because there are a lot of YA books published every year.

Many proponents of such systems – including one of the Brigham Young researchers – say that providing more detailed content information would be a way of “empowering parents.” My concern with such reasoning is that by “empowering parents” we risk disempowering children – and especially teenagers, who are in a position with such a tricky balance of power to begin with. I’ve said this before – possibly even on this blog – but teenagers are capable of self-censoring, if they run up against something they aren’t prepared to experience. Part of helping children grow up (so I’ve heard) is allowing them to make choices based upon their own values, and by giving parents a list of every “scary” thing their child might encounter in a novel, I fear that teens may never be given the chance to confront concepts and ideas and words that run counter to those beliefs – and reject or accept them according to their own judgment. I firmly agree with Kiersten White that parents should read with their children and have an open dialogue about what they read; I also think it’s important to let children read something that can create a need for such dialogue in the first place, if they so choose.

This conversation dovetailed this week with another one that came from Kate Hart’s collection of charts breaking down YA covers into different categories, including race, gender, color, and image. Among the many important takeaways is this: 90% of YA covers in 2011 featured white characters. Which makes me wonder if we aren’t thinking in the wrong direction when it comes to warning labels on YA novels. Maybe it is time to slap a warning on some books after all. Something like, “No Minority Characters.”

My tongue is planted firmly in cheek, of course, but I do think it’s a conversation worth having, and I’m glad Hart put in the work to allow us to visualize the numbers at play here. And I also think that those charts prove that context does matter. Are a few curse words really so transgressive when they’re firmly entrenched in our culture’s dominant ideology? Which does more to challenge the status quo: profanity or a story that represents a marginalized cultural background? I’m far more concerned about the lack of the latter than I am the presence of the former, because it’s not just words that have power, but the story those words service.

Context is key. And given the straight, white, middle-class characters that dominate YA lit today, we need as many different contexts as we can get.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

Remembering Maurice Sendak And His Dark, Politically Moving Illustrations

By Emily Glosser

As many of us know, Maurice Sendak died last week at the age of 83. He will be most remembered for his fantastical and whimsical drawings of “wild rumpuses” and a little boy flying a cake-batter plane over an enormous glass of milk, however, it is important to also pay tribute to Sendak’s darker images that pervade almost all of his picture books.

Sendak claimed that his picture books were not written for an age-defined audience, however, they are widely recognized as books for children. While Sendak used child protagonists throughout most of his picture books, he never sugarcoated childhood, recognizing that to be a child is to be vulnerable. And as Sendak drew his pictures, often with Mozart playing in the background and his dog Jennie by his side, he allowed himself to reach back into his childhood, and re-experience those fears and uncertainties.

Indeed, his childhood was truly a dark one. Sendak, who grew up in Brooklyn during the 1930s and 40s, spent much of his childhood sick, and haunted by the destruction of European Jews occurring abroad, some of which were his own relatives. His parents never spoke explicitly with him about the war; rather, he would listen to their hushed voices through doorways, knowing that something terrible was happening in the world. As a teenager, Sendak spent much time studying black and white photographs of his relatives who were murdered by the Nazis.

As a result, Sendak often translated his childhood, in which he lived in the shadow of the Holocaust, to his picture books, including images of concentration camps, starvation, and death (some of which were subtle and some more explicit) within his illustrations. We see some of these images in In The Night Kitchen, where Mickey is shoved into an oven by three Oliver Hardy chefs, and in Dear Mili, which has images of Anne Frank and trees that resemble emaciated corpses. However, Sendak’s Holocaust representations are most clear and politically moving in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy and Brundibar.

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Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

For your consideration

By Casey Wilson

A couple links today:

First, Shannon Hale (Princess Academy, Goose Girl) has an entry on her blog about the role of parents in children’s literature. I have an acquaintance who asserts that a good children’s book must have a dead parent or two; while I don’t necessarily agree, parents in kid lit are often distant at best and dead at worst. That’s what Hale discusses, recounting her own struggles with this as an author — how do you give your young characters agency with their parents at their side to help them do everything — as well as some potential parental figures of note.

And second is an entry by Josie Leavitt on ShelfTalker in which she discusses the experience of running into some teenage boys who used to be active readers and regulars at her bookstore — but who have lost the time for that with high school’s arrival. Walking through Target the other day, I noticed that the teen book section was unusually empty, compared to what it is during most of the school year. One can only hope it’s students in middle school or high school or even college who are finally taking advantage of a chance to read what they want, when they want.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

Rest in Peace, Maurice Sendak

By Casey Wilson

I hate that I have to write this blog entry today — or any day, really. Sendak seemed like he could go on forever, just out of sheer will, and I think we all wished he would.

We’ll have more love and remembrance for Sendak here on the blog in the future. Until then, I only have sadness and links to offer.

The first link takes you to an interview in the Guardian from late last year, in which Sendak is utterly forthright:

“I refuse to lie to children,” says Sendak. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

The second comes from Vulture, which has embedded Sendak’s fantastic recent appearance onThe Colbert Report. (The children’s book by Colbert that Sendak “endorses” in the segment releases today, of all days.)

Then over to the New York Times, which has a phone interview with Sendak:

You mustn’t scare parents. And I think with my books, I managed to scare parents.

Then finally, read the New York Times obituary for this master of children’s literature, which sums him up as succinctly as one can such a complicated artist:

Roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children.

If there is one thing I’ve learned upon watching word of this news spread this morning, it’s that Maurice Sendak didn’t belong to children’s literature — he belonged to everyone. And not for the first time, I’m glad we live in an age where we can so easily hear stories from around the world about how Wild Things and Night Kitchen and all of Sendak’s other books have indeed become “essential ingredients of childhood.”

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

My Current Obsession: James Dean

By Casey Wilson

With the last day of classes for the spring semester behind us, I’ve been able to turn my full attentions to my seminar papers. One, for Marsha Bryant’s Desperate Domesticity class (which Mariko wrote so brilliantly about a few weeks back), is a reconsideration of James Dean’s legacy through the lens of his television work. We always talk with such sentimental terms about Dean’s short life and career, wondering what he would have done if he had more time. But the thing is, Dean’s career goes beyond the three films in which he had major roles – he was in more than two dozen television series before his death, too.

Thanks to the wonderful archive that is YouTube, many of his television appearances are easily available for our consumption. Looking for Dean as an overworked father? Here you go:

What about Dean as a nerdy lab technician?

In a live production, introduced by Ronald Reagan?

Or even acting opposite Ronald Reagan himself, in a role that seems to reflect the rebel icon to come?

These appearances and more all there for your viewing pleasure, relics of the 1950s recovered by the platforms of the 2000s. Sometimes it’s nice to live in the internet age.

Now excuse me while I get off the internet and back to my quality time with James Dean.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

Let’s Link!

By Casey Wilson

  • The Atlantic has a really great piece up right now that asks the question “What Does ‘Young Adult’ Mean?” that you should definitely read. “Young adult” is, as Jen Doll rightly points out, a rather complicated category to sum up in one go, but she does a nice job of working through many of the important signposts in the development of the term. I will likely assign this one to my students when I teach “Writing About the Young Adult Bestseller” in the fall. (Shameless plug!) Plus, it demonstrates that I’m not the only pedant about what is and isn’t YA lit.
  • News has recently broken that Charlie Kaufman, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation fame, will be writing the screenplay for The Knife of Never Letting Go, based on the novel by Patrick Ness. Knife is a brilliant novel, with a very distinct point of view. And as Rebekah will tell you, it does a lot of interesting things with the text on the page. I think a writer like Kaufman will be well suited to bringing all that to the big screen.
  • Perhaps because I’ve been in a great class on Videogame Theory and Analysis all semester, I found these illustrations of video games as children’s books to be pretty darn cute. I’ve also found game studies and children’s lit to have quite a lot in common across the semester, but that’s a post for another day.

Casey is a PhD student who promises the blog will be more than links again very soon.

Categories: In the Media

Three Names are Better than Two

By Casey Wilson

A short entry today, lost as we all are in the madness that is the end-of-semester rush. It’s just one link, but one I probably would have posted anyway because I think it’s lovely. Over at Under the Green Willow, Megan Whalen Turner (The Thief) tells the (short) story of how Diana Wynne Jones (Howl’s Moving Castle) helped get her first stories published. It’s a story of mutual admiration from two of kid lit’s best, and might just put a smile on your face.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

Sally Draper and Negotiations of Childhood

By Casey Wilson

When Mad Men first began, Sally Draper was little more than set decoration. She, along with her brother Bobby, mostly served to reflect the domestic troubles of her parents, Don and Betty. When Don runs out on Sally’s birthday party in the third episode of the series, for instance, it’s not about Sally but about the world pressing in on Don. Similarly, in its early days the show often asked us to compare Betty to her daughter, not to illuminate anything about Sally’s character but to demonstrate Betty’s own arrested development and childlike nature.

Luckily for us, that changed as the series progressed. Unlike Bobby Draper, who largely remains a blank slate and has been recast multiple times, Sally has become one of the most compelling characters in a show full of them. The young actress who plays Sally, Kiernan Shipka, has proven the depth of her talent through the intricate and nuanced work that she has done in recent seasons, tackling subjects like Sally’s nascent sexuality in a way that is honest, astonishing, and quite often discomfiting. Sally may still function as a referendum on her parents’ complicated emotional lives, but she is also allowed to have her own complex emotional identity.

Consider the most recent episode, “Mystery Date”, which aired on April 8. Woven in between the dissolution of a marriage and a violent fever dream came one of the show’s more troubling storylines – one that has lingered in my mind since it aired, and that places Sally right in the center of the action. The events of “Mystery Date” take place while the Richard Speck murders are flooding the newspapers; all the adults are discussing the murders (some more appropriately than others, Stan) but Sally’s step-grandmother Pauline goes out of her way to keep the girl ignorant of the story. Of course, it doesn’t work – and that’s when the episode gets really interesting.*

Sally is on the brink of being a full-fledged teenager, that awkward time when one is not allowed to be either child or adult and yet expected to be both. She longs for her voice to carry authority – as when she tells her father that Pauline doesn’t believe her when she says that she’s allowed to watch television all the time – but can’t quite bring herself to eat a sandwich that has relish on it. When Pauline verbalizes her reaction to the newspaper’s description of the events (“Those poor souls!”) she draws Sally’s attention only to immediately rebuke it by informing the girl that “Some things are not for children”. Sally’s response is telling: “Mommy lets me watch the news”. She’s old enough to (want to) know what adults know, but young enough to default to “Mommy”. She’s neither/nor and both/and, all at once.

In her next scene, she again attempts to find her way into the adult world. Ordered by Pauline to take the trash out, she offers a deal: “If I take out the trash, will you tell me about the murder?” When this is refused, she reframes the debate, arguing that she’s a good person, even if Pauline doesn’t think so. Coming on the heels of Sally’s inquiry about Pauline’s age, this effectively obscures the line between them. Pauline may think discipline will teach Sally to act like an adult, but Sally believes both that she already is an adult – or is at least close to it – and that she has the ability to decide morality for herself. She refuses to let an older generation undermine her own personhood.

And yet, when she takes the newspapers out of the trash and reads them for herself, Sally finds herself unprepared for the adult world and thus becomes unable to sleep. She comes to Pauline for comfort, and for once, Pauline is terrifyingly honest with her. She tells Sally the events of the case almost like a bedtime story and again the line between child and adult is moved. Now that Sally has forced her way into the adult world, she is expected to be able to handle the implications, even if it’s about rape and murder. “You’re old enough to know,” Pauline says at one point, and it comes out like a judgment.

And this is what makes the end of the episode so disturbing to me. Sally is “old enough to know” about what kind of desire those young nurses would have provoked in a man, and as such she becomes old enough to deal with that knowledge in the manner of an adult – with a pill. When her mother and stepfather return home, she and Pauline are both passed out. Sally’s underneath the sofa – hidden away like the lone survivor of the Speck murders – but there’s no hope or promise of salvation in our vision of her. There’s no sign that she has successfully learned to negotiate the liminal space she occupies as a burgeoning teen. No sense that she will recover from the trauma of the story her grandmother tells. No guarantee that that wasn’t just the first of many pills she’ll take in her lifetime when things get too scary. She’s just hidden away from the world entirely. Comatose.

Waiting to be found.

 

*The relationship between the episode’s major themes and the titular Mystery Date game is fodder for an entry all its own.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

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