It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

With apologies to the Christmas season (which I do love), the time of year when I typically experience the greatest and most consistent sense of well-being is the mid-to-late spring time period we are in right now.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s warm, and the days are getting longer.  In case you care, here are my favorite seasons in order: spring, fall, summer, winter.  I like change as long as it’s regular, predictable change, so the seasons in which the weather, plant life, and day length are going through obvious transformation are my favorite.  Of those two, I prefer the spring for the obvious reason that everything is coming back to life.  It’s not just the symbolism; I actually feel physically and mentally healthier (aside from pollen allergies) when the world is waking and warming up after the seemingly interminable winter.
  2. It’s a time for celebration.  This is the most exciting time of year in my world of academia.  I’ve always loved graduations, probably because I’m secretly British and therefore really enjoy pomp and ceremony (also “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation song).  As a Harry Potter fan, I also appreciate long robes and funny hats.  So even though I’m not a fan of crowds or of wearing heavy black garments in the blazing May sun, I enjoy putting on my doctoral regalia (for which I paid a hefty price in both effort and actual money) and marching around as a symbol of intellectual weightiness.  Even more, I enjoy seeing graduates celebrate with their loved ones and anticipate the future with joy and hope.  (Crap, I’m starting to cry!)  I especially like the opportunities this time of year provides to see students share what they’ve learned and what they’re passionate about.  (See my post on this from a couple of weeks ago.)
  3. I’m about to be a lot less busy.  Another good thing about working in academia is that, for most of us, there’s not as much going on in the summer.  I don’t truly get the summers off because I’m also an administrator and therefore on a 12-month contract, but I don’t teach on campus in the summer (I’ll have one online class), and the cycle of department, committee, and student meetings slows way down.  So I’m looking forward to reading the backlog of books I’ve bought over the past few months, spending lots of time outdoors, going to bed early more often, and having adventures (or just passing time) with my favorite people, near and far (because I also have more time to travel in the summer). I got a little taste of that this past weekend when I had only a few children’s lit papers left to grade.  Friday night I read a little bit of Jurassic Park (the book I’m reading for fun right now) and then went to bed at 9:30, with my windows open and my Thomas Newman Pandora station playing.  Saturday morning I got up at 5:30, threw some clothes on, got an iced caramel mocha at McDonald’s, and headed to a local park, where I spent three hours.  I did some yoga on the lake pier, walked around the lake (it’s more of a large pond), read my Bible and another book, and did some journaling.  That may not sound like a fun morning to you, but I had a great time.  And I still had the whole day ahead of me when I was finished!  This is why I sometimes fantasize about being retired.  Anyway, although point #3 has been, strictly speaking, about summer, I still count this as a reason why I love spring, because right now I’m just beginning to enjoy–and still anticipating–all the delights of the coming season.

Do you enjoy this time of year, and if so, why?  (That feels like an essay prompt.  It’s also final exam time.)

on listening to presentations

I just came from the penultimate session of a class I teach (facilitate, really) during which students complete the research and writing of their senior honors thesis.  Today I listened to the seven students in my all-female class (the Magnificent Seven, as I’ve been calling them in my mind) give short presentations about their thesis research and post-graduation plans.  These are students from majors as diverse as journalism, exercise science, and English/Spanish with teacher licensure, but they crossed disciplinary divides to convey their passion for their topics.

Earlier this afternoon, I served as a judge for five presentations (from history, English, and theology) that were part of our university’s Research Week competition.  Yesterday, I was a moderator in a room of presenters from exercise science and sports management.  Although the topics diverged widely, all the students, in spite of limitations in some of the presentations, showed a clear enthusiasm for their research and its implications in the real world.

On Tuesday, I watched my first master’s thesis student (i.e., the first student for whom I’ve served as thesis chair) defend her project, on moral maturity in the Harry Potter series, with flying colors.  It was a delightful meeting not only because we shared cookies and baked apple bars, not only because all three committee members and (of course) the student herself were Harry Potter fans, but primarily because I got to see the culmination of over a year’s worth of work and my student’s relief as she realized that she knew her stuff really, really well.  It was as if I could see her becoming an expert before my eyes.

Finally, three of my children’s lit students gave in-class presentations on nonfiction books yesterday, and four more will do so tomorrow.  So I’ve spent most of this week listening to students talk.  And although there’s a significant difference between a 10-minute undergrad class presentation and an hour-long master’s thesis defense, I love hearing students at any level talk about what they love, especially when they’ve done the work to know what they’re talking about.  In fact, I love hearing people in general talk about what they love.  Maybe we should all do more asking and listening–we might hear something really cool.

children’s lit roundup

Last week I told you about my new resolution to read one children’s book every weekend.  Well, my resolution-keeping streak lasted exactly one weekend.  Although I contemplated reading the shortest children’s book on my bookcase (The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman) this past weekend, I decided I had too much other stuff to do, like making a pot of pasta e fagioli soup.  (So I did continue my Italian cooking streak.)

However, I did buy a children’s book on Saturday.  At a local store with the perfectly explanatory name Estates and Consignments (where I also found a nice drop-leaf table that I’m thinking of buying if it’s still there next time I go), I found a copy of 1971 Newbery Winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  It looks like an early edition, and if it is indeed a 45-year-old paperback, it’s in really good shape.  So that’s got to count for something.

And although I didn’t read an entire children’s book over the weekend, I did make progress on a children’s book I’ve been working on for a little over a week: Inkdeath, the final book in the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke.  I’ve been disappointed with these books because I really wanted to love them, especially after witnessing the enthusiasm of one of my students who claims them as her favorite books and who is doing a major project on them this semester.  Although the story has kept me enough engaged that persevering through these three massive volumes hasn’t been a complete drag, I can’t say I’ll be sad to finish the series.  I find the translation from German clunky, with isn’t Funke’s fault, but I don’t think the translation can be blamed for the unlikeable (in some cases) and forgettable (in most others) characters.  There are a few minor characters with interesting psychologies, but I still don’t really care if they live or die.  The quasi-medieval Inkworld is by turns beautiful and gritty (which is why I think the second and third books, which are set in it, have been better the first one, which is set in our own world), but I kind of wish I could get rid of all the existing characters (except maybe Dustfinger; he’s okay) and create my own story set in the Inkworld.  Which I guess makes me no better than the villain of this third book, who’s basically trying to do just that.  All right; I’ll just own it.  I’m a bad guy.

I am also listening to a children’s book, the recent Newbery Honor book The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz.  Here’s the premise of this bizarre (and, like Inkdeath, extremely long) story: In medieval France, three kids with superpowers (though nobody actually uses that word), accompanied by a greyhound who’s been resurrected from the dead, are trying to get to a far-away monastery and escape the corrupt knights who are hunting them.  Actually, right now they’re just trying to get to an inn where one of the boys left his donkey, which he calls his ass, which led to some Chaucer-esque broad humor that I have to admit made me LOL.  The structure of the novel is also Chaucer-esque: The “inquisitor” of the title is a writer (voiced in the audiobook by Gidwitz himself) who keeps asking questions while drinking in an inn, and the story gets pieced together by a colorful cast of adult characters who seem to be in awe of the plucky trio–and who are just as interesting as the kids themselves.  I’m enjoying this book for several reasons: It’s funny but it also has a real sense of danger (a balance that many good children’s books strike); the characters are likeable, except the ones we aren’t supposed to like; and the most of the readers are good, which, as I’ve noticed since I started listening to audiobooks recently, can make a huge difference in my appreciation of a book (which, I suppose, isn’t entirely fair to the author).

Well, that’s about all the children’s lit I can handle in one week.  Let me know if you’ve read any of these books or if you have any suggestions for ones I should read next!

The Witches and Italian nachos

This past weekend I set myself a new goal: to read one children’s book every weekend.  This will not only make a dent in the growing pile of books that, until yesterday, was on the floor of my home office (yesterday I bought and assembled a cheap but serviceable Target bookcase), but also, more importantly, it will help build my expertise in the ever-growing field of children’s literature, which I claim to know enough about to teach.

On Saturday and Sunday, I read The Witches by Roald Dahl.  This is only the third Roald Dahl book I’ve ever read, which I realize makes me a total children’s lit poser (a lot of things make me a children’s lit poser, but I’m working on that).  I am, however, familiar with the plots and themes of many of his other books, in some cases through movies (like Steven Spielberg’s recent The BFG).  The Witches is different from many of the books because it’s written in first person, and although nobody would mistake this for a realistic novel, I think Dahl draws a bit from his own upbringing as a person of Norwegian ancestry growing up in the UK.  I hope Grandmamma, a delightful character, is based on one of his real grandmothers.  Like many of Dahl’s books, this one makes you laugh at things that should probably terrify you (though some of Quentin Blake’s illustrations, which are usually just wacky, are genuinely frightening in this book), and it also contains elements of the classic morality tale–e.g., the boy who tortures small animals and gets turned into a mouse himself (though the kind protagonist also gets turned into a mouse, of course).  I think what struck me most about this book is how much it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which I read recently.  Gaiman’s work in general is often Dahl-esque, but I really see a resemblance between these two books.  Though The Witches  is sillier, both mingle humor and terror, both have curious and seemingly dauntless children as protagonists (well, that’s true of 75% of children’s literature), and both include female antagonists who seem sweet and polite on the surface but quickly reveal themselves to be malevolent, specifically to children.  There’s probably something psychoanalytic here–I’ll leave that to someone else to explore.

I briefly toyed with the idea of turning this into a themed blog and writing each week about the children’s book I had read the previous weekend.  I know that themed blogs tend to be more successful because readers know what to expect.  But I also know that I would miss writing those wonderful gut-spilling confessional pieces I like to post every few months, as well as writing about movies, events, academia, and Christian life.  So I’m not going to fundamentally change the nature of this blog, but I probably will include a short update most weeks about the children’s book I’ve read most recently.

Another regular feature I’d like to include is a brief spot about some food I’ve prepared recently, whether from a recipe or from my own invention–usually the former, since I’m not a particularly imaginative cook.  But I did come up with this one all by myself: Italian nachos.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to have invented something similar, but it was a new idea to me.  The story is this: I had some Tostitos and nothing to dip them in.  So I started dragging things out of my refrigerator and pantry.  My nachos ended up with the following toppings: shredded mozzarella, crumbled goat cheese, a spice blend left over from a recipe (it was actually more Indian, but Italian nachos are, by definition, multicultural anyway), oregano, cilantro, parsley, lime juice (this was a nod to traditional nachos; I could have used lemon juice to be more thematic), olive bruschetta, and sliced cherry tomatoes.  I microwaved it all for a minute, and the result was delicious.  Obviously, there are endless possible variations depending on what you have on hand, but I have one piece of advice: if you don’t have olive bruschetta, use a little bit of olive oil.  You need some oil to bind everything together.

So there you have it.  I recommend getting a copy of The Witches and making yourself some Italian nachos immediately.  I would not recommend enjoying both at once, however.  The Witches is a little gross.  (It’s Roald Dahl; what did you expect?)

for your New Year’s resolution to read more children’s lit

Because if that isn’t one of your New Year’s resolutions, it should be.

When I was grading my children’s lit students’ response papers on contemporary realism, for which at least five of them chose to write about Louis Sachar’s Holes, I realized that I had never read this novel, though I had seen the 2003 movie (which is excellent, and which I’ll address shortly).  So during my Christmas break, I decided to spend an afternoon reading it.  Now, I’m pretty sure I’ll use it as an assigned text if I teach the course again next fall.  Let me tell you why Holes is so good.

In slightly over 200 pages, Sachar weaves a five-generation family saga together with a hundred-year-old mystery and the story of a teenage boy’s developing self-esteem and moral consciousness.  In the process, he meaningfully addresses the penal system, homelessness, and race relations in America.  Yet there’s nothing pretentious or alienating about this novel.  It’s exciting, it’s funny, and it’s perfectly pitched toward that elusive reading demographic, elementary to middle school-aged boys.

When I get around to teaching Holes, I’ll have to comb through it to find all the symbolism, parallelism, and other literary devices that Sachar uses in such a not heavy-handed way.  For now, here’s one example: the situational irony.  I love the little detail at the end of the novel that tells us that Camp Green Lake ends up turning into a Girl Scout camp, a wonderful conclusion to all Mr. Sir’s lame jokes about how it isn’t a Girl Scout camp.  As ironic reversals go, this ranks right up there with Haman’s nasty shock in the book of Esther, my current go-to example of situational irony.

I’ll also have to find time in the course to show the movie, which is one of the most faithful page-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen (not that I valorize faithfulness; I understand that books and films are two totally different media), probably because Sachar himself wrote the screenplay.  (He also appears in a brief cameo–he’s the balding guy that Sam the Onion Man tells to rub onion juice on his scalp.)  One thing I appreciate about the film is that all the characters from the book are in it; none of them are collapsed together for simplicity’s sake, as so often happens in adaptations.  I also think it’s important that each of the actors who portrays one of the boys in D Tent is the same race as the character in the book, since race is such a major (though relatively subtle) theme in this novel.

The one place where the movie diverges significantly from the book is also one of its areas of strength: the casting of the protagonist, Stanley Yelnats.  Shia LaBeouf plays this role with great sensitivity and humor (whatever he may be now, Shia used to be a really good actor), but he doesn’t fit the novel’s description of Stanley as a very overweight kid.  Stanley’s weight is important to the themes and even the plot of the novel, and it adds painful overtones to scenes that are already emotionally fraught (like when ZigZag tries to force Stanley to eat his cookie).  I wonder if some young fans of the novel were disappointed that the movie didn’t address this element–especially, perhaps, some kids who identified with Stanley.  I was a little disappointed myself, but it’s my only complaint about the film.

In conclusion, you should read Holes, watch the movie, and let me know what you think.  And get working on that New Year’s resolution.

a gallery of picture books

I am teaching a college class about children’s literature, and today our topic was picture books.  Truly, we could spend a whole semester on these beautiful works that are not merely cute stories (I challenged my students not to use the word “cute” in any of their papers for the rest of the semester) or fond memories from childhood.  Picture books represent an astonishing variety of artistic styles and mediums; they tell stories that may incorporate irony and sensitive characterization, and–yes–they sometimes teach lessons ranging from basic counting to eating in moderation (both of which are found in The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a simple and delightful book that doesn’t feel like it’s teaching any lessons).

During the 75-minute class period, I had time to read seven entire picture books to the class, while pausing to point out important details in the text and illustrations.  Here are the books we read, along with a few observations about each.

  1. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, words by Charlotte Zolotow and pictures by Maurice Sendak.  This book draws from two very grown-up artistic traditions.  Magical realism, a literary tradition in which bizarre events happen to normal people and are treated as no big deal, is evident in the protagonist’s conversation with a rabbit who is taller than she is and from whom she has no problem taking advice.  Meanwhile, the pictures in the story, with their pastoral setting, pastel colors, and blurred brushstrokes, seem to fit into the school of impressionism.
  2. The Story of Ferdinand, words by Munro Leaf and pictures by Robert Lawson.  The text, about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight, is laugh-out-loud funny (I say that because I actually laughed out loud while reading it), and the black-and-white line drawings are amazingly detailed and delightful.  We don’t expect to find irony in pictures books, but the whole impact of this story comes from an ironic reversal involving the key word “mad”: Everyone wants to make Ferdinand mad so he’ll fight, but he ends up making everyone else mad when he sits down to smell the flowers.
  3. Tuesday, words and pictures by David Weisner.  This almost-wordless book, in which frogs launch off on lily pads and begin to fly through an average neighborhood, is illustrated in a style that our textbook calls surrealism, and I have to agree.  I bet Salvador Dali wishes he thought of painting a picture of a guy eating a sandwich in his kitchen while frogs are flying past the window.  Another wonderful thing about this book is that the ending isn’t really an ending–there’s an indication that more magic is going to happen next Tuesday.
  4. The Very Hungry Caterpillar–I’ve already mentioned this one, and it’s so well-known that there’s not much more that I can say about it.  For a very short book, there’s an awful lot going on, and it’s brilliant.
  5. Come Away from the Water, Shirley, words and pictures by John Burningham.  This is a very funny book about a little girl having an adventure with pirates while her clueless mother keeps admonishing her not to get tar on her shoes or to pick up any smelly seaweed.  There is huge irony in the layout of the book; the parents’ boring day at the beach is illustrated in washed-out colors on the left-hand side of each page spread, while Shirley’s simultaneous adventure is depicted in bold colors on the right.  The deliberately naive drawing style reminds me of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.  (Shirley’s head is perfectly round, like Charlie Brown’s.)
  6. Make Way for Ducklings, words and pictures by Robert McCloskey.  This one might be my favorite of the ones we read today.  The sepia pencil drawings aren’t necessarily eye-catching at first, but they grow on you as the story continues, taking you flying above real locations in Boston (this book has a strong sense of place).  I love how the police officer, Michael, is so serious about helping these ducks get through the city safely that he gets practically the entire Boston PD involved.  This books has it all: onomatopoeia, repetition, and even a quest narrative.
  7. Where the Wild Things Are, words and pictures by Maurice Sendak.  Speaking of books that have it all: this one is also a quest narrative, with a chiastic structure, internal rhyme, and a plot that make psychoanalytical theorists go crazy.  But it’s also a story about a boy who feels wild and out of place, learning that he belongs right where he is, where his mother loves him and keeps his dinner waiting for him, still hot.  Now that’s a good story.

Picture books aren’t just for children or people with children.  Read some this week!