The news just broke… Walter Dean Myers has passed. In his lifetime, he wrote over 100 books, served as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, won too many awards and honors to list, advised and inspired kids and young writers everywhere, and impacted thousands of lives. He was a lifelong proponent of diversity in children’s literature, and just a few months ago wrote an article that once again sparked the discussion.
TODAY is the 50th Anniversary of the beloved classic Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. First published in 1963, it has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.
The New York Times obituary for Maurice Sendak calls Where the Wild Things Are “simultaneously genre-breaking and career-making,” describing Sendak as being “…widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.”
One of the most talked about interviews we’ve ever done was with Maurice Sendak in 2011 shortly before he died. Sendak reflects on love, loss, and celebrating life:
I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.
“Perhaps I speak only for myself, perhaps it’s different for other writers; but for me, the making of a fantasy is quite unlike the relatively ordered procedure of writing any other kind of book. I’ve never actually thought: ‘I am writing fantasy’; one simply sits down to write whatever book is knocking to be let out. But in hindsight, I can see the peculiar differences in approach. When working on a book which turns out to be a fantasy novel, I exist in a state of continual astonishment. The work begins with a deep breath and a blindly trusting step into the unknown; I know where I’m going, and who’s going with me, but I have no real idea of what I shall find along the way, or whom I’ll meet. Each time, I am striking out into a strange land, listening for the music that will tell me which way to go. And I am always overcome by wonder, and a kind of unfocused gratitude, when I arrive; and I always think of Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time….
The Graveyard Book: "Leave no path untaken..." (288)
I chose The
Graveyard Book for LCN617 because I find it both entertaining and fruitful.
As an example of contemporary children’s literature which is well-written,
imaginative, engaging to readers of all ages, and has received popular and
critical success, it is useful for readers who may be new to the field.
However, this week’s lecture needed to
introduce concepts of narration and focalisation in addition to considerations
of narrative forms such as that which Campbell described as the “monomyth”. So,
below are some (only a few) of the untaken paths through the graveyard…
Illustrations, and the Visual Culture of Novels
UK EDITION: Riddell has illustrated plates
of characters or events with captions. These establish a point of expectation /
readers’ focus for the forthcoming chapter.
US EDITION: McKean’s illustrations are
integrated with the verbal text.
Separately or together, they invite us to
consider the role of the visual in a novel.
Online / Digital cultures of and around Gaiman
In part, this is due to Gaiman’s much wider
and longer career as a creator – he has a huge, diverse, and loyal fanbase.
Nonetheless, his writing for young people has a specific online culture around
it – from Gaiman’s official young folks’ website at http://mousecircus.com/ to a much wider
arena. See, for only a handful of examples: http://lcn617.tumblr.com/tagged/gaiman
Metaphysics – literally asking questions about life and
Apart from the obvious issues of life,
death, afterlife, non-life, etc. etc. – which, depending on one’s spiritual
outlook, will signify in various ways – there is an engagement with the
metaphors we use to think about death. Example: “for each of us encounters the Lady of the
Grey at the end of our days, and there is no forgetting her” (24).
an explicit valuing of life: “You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite
of the novel through the lens of the epitaphs that are ‘quoted’ would likely
produce a fascinating interpretation!
Book awards are a highly-visible yet
complex means by which children’s literature is promoted, circulated,
privileged, and managed.
Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Medal and the
2010 Carnegie Medal. Does this guarantee that the book is “great,” “best,” or
Of course, the most overt and sustained
intertextual reference is to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
Bod ‘borrows’ Robinson Crusoe from a graveyard citizen because he is lacking in
reading materials. However, later in the narrative, Robinson Crusoe provides him with an imaginative vocabulary to
describe a desired removal from the world he knows (182).
Such elements connect with thinking about The Graveyard Book as a literacy
narrative and as a novel about education:
“The boy was a model pupil, forgettable and easily
forgotten, and he spent much of his spare time in the back of the English class
where there were shelves of old paperbacks, and in the old school library, a
large room filled with books and old armchairs, where he read stories as
enthusiastically as some children ate” (Gaiman 169)
There are other intertextual domains, such
as those of children’s literature (Bod reads alphabet books and The Cat in the Hat) and of children’s
culture (references to nursery rhymes of “chopper[s] to chop off your head” and
games such as “Murder in the Dark”. These may remind some readers that
childhood has never been exclusively a time of ‘lightness’ or innocence.
do we make of the Honour Guard being made up of “classic” monsters such as a
vampire, a wolf-person, a mummy, etc.?
Is The Graveyard Book a fairy tale? A
fable? A Gothic fiction?
“Fairy tales are wish-fulfillment fantasies
in which characters get what they want and are happy with it. Fables tend to be
stories about how characters are wrong to want what they want and learn their
error by getting the object of their desire. Fiction for children, rooted
historically both in the tradition of fables and in the tradition of fairy
tales, seems to represent an ambivalent combination of the two opposite tendencies.”
“Fairy tales are more than true: not
because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons
can be beaten.”
G. K. Chesterton [Gaiman used this as an epigraph to Coraline]
Karen Coats argues that:
render fairy tales less able to do their work despite the fact that our
unconscious is as murky and the outside world as dangerous as ever they were […
and] create the conditions for the Gothic in contemporary children’s literature
to fill the gap that the loss of traditional fairy tale has created.” (79)
Underestimate the Value of a Good Scare!
“But children don’t only like to be
frightened—they need it too, if their emotional development is to be complete.
“Being scared is a rite of passage,” says [child psychologist] Nadin, “but a
pleasurable one. I don’t see the gain in mollycoddling. A friend of mine dug
out her old Ladybird fairytales from when she was young, to pass on to her own
children, and was horrified to discover that some characters died—her mother
had always invented more palatable endings. I’d be devastated to find out now
that I had missed out on, say, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood getting
chopped open, and Granny being found inside.”” (Gilbey)
“Well-made Gothic can fill in these gaps,
giving concrete expression to abstract psychic processes, keeping dark
fascinations and haunting fears where children can see them, and mingling the
horror with healthy doses of humour and hope.” (Coats 91)
References (beyond those from the Unit readings):
Coats, Karen. “Between Horror, Humour, and Hope: Neil Gaiman and the
Psychic World of the Gothic.” The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting
the Borders. Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis. London:
Routledge, 2008. 77-92.
“‘All the same,’ said the Scarecrow, 'I shall ask for brains instead of a heart; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one.’
'I shall take the heart,’ returned the Tin Woodman; 'for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.’”
And don’t you DARE say, “Oh it’s just a children’s book.” Or “Kids don’t know any better.” Or “You can’t hold YA fiction to the standards of…”
Stop. Just stop. That’s such bullshit that it’s an insult to the word ‘bullshit.’ Kid’s books should be just as good as any other books. No. They should be held to a *higher* standard than other literature for the same reason that we take extra care with children’s food.
The fact is, what you feed your kids is important, and that includes what they put in their heads as well as what they put in their bellies.
What the most memorable book from your childhood? (Since we're all asking)
Okay actually I think I might have a handle on this one. There are a few.
Cowslip by Betsy Haynes.
I bought this with my “own money” at a garage sale for 25 cents when I was five years old and read it cover to cover that same day. It’s a book about a little girl who is enslaved in the American South. Everyone tells her that slavery is okay because it says so in the bible. She risks life and limb to learn how to read so she can look for herself to see if the bible really says that because she just can’t accept it. Let’s just say it had a profound effect on my worldview in some key areas. I’m sure if I reread it today i’d be pretty critical of it but that’s the main message I took away from the book-always check for yourself to see if something is true or not rather than just accepting what people tell you is true.
Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.
In Which Cimorene and Kazul have a fascinating conversation about gender and job titles.
Quest For a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry
I actually reread this very recently for the first time in about…10 years? First line:
“When I was nine years old, i hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.”
Anyhow, it takes place in Medieval Scotland and it’s a Low Fantasy political intrigue novel…you know, for kids! :D It ABSOLUTELY holds up. Honestly you can probably read this as an adult and get a lot out of it. To share with you a rather fun on-topic excerpt (page 98):
I got blue glass beads for Domna that would have cost me near double in Dunfermline, and a strange-colored fruit the man said was an orange. It was from far away over the sea to the south, he said, where the men had been burned black by the sun. He thought I’d not believe him, and was surprised when I told him I’d spoken to two Black men, slaves to sir Alex Dalrymple, who’d brought them back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land years ago. They were wed on lasses at Falkirk now.
Of course we never get to see or hear from these characters, but I bet writing a book about them would be pretty interesting. Also, the Dalrymples totally really existed. It’s an extremely well-researched book. So yeah, it set the bar really high.
Many Waters by Madeline L’Engle
I think this was the only L’Engle book I ever really cared for. And no, the degree of sexuality going on in the book wasn’t particularly lost on my 8 or 9 year old self. It’s got a slight case of Mighty Whitey going on but overall is really weird and genuinely engaging. Oh, as for plot? Basically teenage twin boys accidentally time travel to immediately before the Great Flood of biblical times and Angels and Fallen angels and giant mythical everything.
That’s all I can think of off the top of my head at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll be slapping my forehead later on it XD