26 November 2010

Pet Shop Boys + David Almond = SQUEE!

Talk about serendipitous. Just yesterday I was blogging about To Be Read piles. In one of those piles I photographed yesterday is a copy of this book:
So imagine my surprise and thrill when  this morning, I open my daily Google Alert for the Pet Shop Boys--only my all-time favorite pop group--and I see a link to an article about this:

 Note who wrote the score?

I have blogged before about links between the Pet Shop Boys and children's literature. As they prepare for the debut of their ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, it seems they had the time to fit in another kiddielit project.

Truly, the Pet Shop Boys are never being boring.

25 November 2010

Today I am thankful for......

.....To Be Read (TBR) piles! Much like piles of laundry, they never go away. But unlike piles of laundry, they are so much more rewarding! it's frustrating to know that I will never get to read all the great books that are out there and that interest me. But the alternative--no great books at all!--is so much more dire.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
TBR's in office

TBR's on coffee table (and Richie!)

18 November 2010

Cybils Nominee: Summer Birds

This review comes to you from an avowed Lepidopterphobe (also known as someone who has a fear of butterflies.) But personal irrational fear aside, I could not read this stunning book and let it go without comment.

Summer Birds tells the true story of Maria Sibylla Merian, who was a groundbreaking entomologist in 17th century Germany. The understanding that butterflies and moths are hatched from eggs and undergo metamorphosis from caterpillars to winged insects seems like basic scientific knowledge now (not to mention a great literary device. Imagine how blah The Very Hungry Caterpillar would be if he was formed from mud instead of that promising egg on a leaf. Although watching him evilly munch his way through a week might be fun.) But at one point the idea would have been construed as the work of the Devil. Conventional wisdom said that insects were evil and formed from mud. Maria proved otherwise, through simple observation and meticulous record keeping. That a young girl had the enthusiasm and patience to devote her life to studying insects and other small animals such as frogs and lizards, makes for a rich subject in this well told and exquisitely illustrated book.

Maria Merian was fortunate in the fact that she possessed not only the talent to document her observations, but was encouraged to do so by the adults in her life. The book starts with Merian as a thirteen year old, precocious and thoughtful and highly driven. When she is not catching and observing insects, she is imagining what the world holds for her, and all the marvels that she will see and paint when she is grown-up. An author's note (which for once is not written way above the comprehension of the child who might be reading the book) indicates that Merian did indeed travel the world and publish her findings. Some of her paintings have even graced postage stamps in the United States.

Much like the story of child archaeologist Mary Anning, part of this book's appeal for a young reader is in the fact that the protagonist is so young herself when she begins to grow into her passion.

Another source of appeal is the artwork. Giant portraits of butterflies aside, the illustrations by Julie Paschkis have an ethereal quality about them which suggests the flow of metamorphosis. The illustrations alternate between the accurate detail of Maria's scientific drawings, and the superstitions surrounding the mystery of the natural world. They are fanciful, colorful, and exquisite.
Books about girls who like science are always a plus, and in this instance we get a girl who is not only enthusiastic, but ahead of her time. Summer Birds is a great introduction to the fascinating and fulfilling life of an amazing woman who paid attention to Nature's secrets and then shared them with the world.

08 November 2010

30 Second Review: Dragon Puncher by James Kochalka

What do you get when you mix James Kochalka's cat, Spandy, with giant robot Gaiking? You get Dragon Puncher, and she is totally made of awesome! Dragon Puncher is on the look-out for sneaky, evil dragons, but what she initially finds is a nondescript, yet cute, baby creature who is armed with a very powerful spoon. While Dragon Puncher prefers to work alone, she is soon lumbered with a fearless and enthusiastic side kick.And a good thing, too, because the dragon is indeed fearsome. And drooly. Using nothing more than cropped facial features and simple line cartoon bodies, mounted against a scenic Burlington, VT background, Kochalka has created a comic masterpiece for the Easy Reader crowd. For fans of Elephant and Piggie and Dav Pilkey. And goofballs in general.

04 November 2010

No more dead mothers

So. Here's a question: in children's literature, is it preferable to be an orphan than motherless?

Let's consider the options.

If a child is orphaned by the death of both their parents, it is usually a device which frees up the child to have an adventure--the sort which could never have been enjoyed if constrained by the banalities of family life. There may be some shuffling about among disgruntled relatives, but for the most part orphaned children in books tend to reach the end of their adventures having either created or joined the best family for themselves. While their struggles as orphans are evident, their triumphs are just as prevalent. As examples I present Anne Shirley, Harry Potter, and the Baudelaire siblings.

Now let's look at motherless children. There is no sense of adventure for these unhappy souls. They are usually stuck working through their grief while also trying to contend with the ill-equipped parent who is still around. Books in which the mother has died seem to require an awful lot of growth on the part of their young protagonists. In fact, that usually seems to be the point of the book--showing the reader how the child grows, managing to survive the dark pit into which they have been figuratively thrown.  Surviving a dead mother is an adventure of sorts, but not a particularly fun one. Katherine Marsh's The Night Tourist, K.L. Going's The Garden of Eve, and Sally Nicholls' Season of Secrets all feature children who have recently lost their mother and are trying to somehow reach or retrieve their deceased parent.  A notable exception would be a character like Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice, who is several years removed from the death of her mother by the start of the series. Even though she still misses her mother--particularly the impact of her feminine influence in her life--her grieving and subsequent transformation has happened off-screen.

So where does this leave us? I would say it's better to be rid of both parents and just get on with facing the world. Being motherless is simply too angsty. Do you have any examples to present for either argument?

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