Today’s Sunday Brunch features more random opinions and observations about children’s books old and new.
CAPS AND GOWNS
All our local high schools videotape their graduation ceremonies, which are later broadcast (again and again) on community-access cable. I’m sure most viewers flip right past when switching channels. After all, what could be more boring than watching hundreds of students, from Amy Aames to Zachary Zukowski, march across a stage in caps and gowns to receive their diplomas? But I always stop to watch. I’m fascinated to see how much things have changed since my own high school graduation decades ago. (Since when do the students hug their principal and teachers when crossing the stage? That never happened in the seventies.) And I’m equally fascinated by the expressions on the kids’ faces: excited, bored, tearful, trying-to-look-cool, scared.... Some things are timeless.
I actually spent my graduation day throwing up.
I don’t know if I had the flu or a bad case of nerves or what...but I threw up before leaving the house...threw up in the snow outside the school (I graduated in January)...and threw up out the car window going home.
Looking ahead to a future of fame and fortune (hey, isn’t that what graduation is all about?), I tried to laugh it off, thinking it might someday make a funny anecdote in my autobiography.
Then came a future devoid of fame and fortune and today, rather than finding it humorous, my Regurgitation Graduation instead strikes me as being fairly, well, pathetic. And I can’t even claim it as a unique experience because half the people I talk to these days tell me, “Dude, I threw up at my graduation too!”
I grit my teeth in order not to respond, “Yeah, but in my particular case, I wasn’t drunk... dude.”
Watching the Class of 2009 crossing the stage with such promise and hope on TV and remembering my own wretched past (“Could you please hold my mortarboard while I vomit?”) made me start thinking about graduation scenes in young adult novels. Though an important rite of passage for teenagers, I can’t recall many truly memorable high school graduations in fiction.
The one I remember best comes at the conclusion of MY DARLING, MY HAMBURGER by Paul Zindel (1969.) I read this novel before I even started high school, but was still being moved by the melancholy tone of the scene as the characters reflect on how much they changed between the start of senior year and graduation.
A graduation ceremony provides the framework for Stella Pevsner’s 1981 novel I’LL ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU...MAYBE. As the protagonist sits through her commencement, she recalls her high school romances, which are presented in flashback.
In Larry Doyle’s 2007 debut, I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER, the senior class valedictorian uses his commencement address to declare his love for an unattainable girl. Although technically published as an adult novel, this funny and frantic book seemed like YA fiction to me and I imagine the forthcoming movie version will also appeal mostly to teens.
Finally, I can’t believe I’m including a Christopher Pike paperback here...but I will say that the three-volume “Final Friends” series is probably the best thing this usually-slipshod author has ever written. I expected a fast-moving plot and lots of suspense and surprises -- but perhaps the biggest surprise was how strong the characterizations were. In this third volume of the trilogy (after THE PARTY and THE DANCE), the characters finally reach the end of their senior year -- and what could be more fun than high school graduation with a murderer still on the loose?
MY FAVORITE GRADUATION STORY
An adult book about an elderly custodian probably falls outside the purview of “Collecting Children’s Books,” but since the story is set in a high school and has lots of young supporting characters -- and since this is one of my all-time favorites -- I want to mention it here. Mackinlay Kantor’s VALEDICTORY first appeared as a SATURDAY EVENING POST story in 1938. I discovered it as a teenager in a paperback anthology and loved it. When I left the book sitting around, my father read the story and loved it. Then he passed it on to my mother and she loved it. Since then I’ve given the story to several friends and -- guess what? -- they loved it too. But I only give it to special friends because I know I’d be hurt and take it personally if they didn’t love it. One day, years after reading this story in the anthology, I was browsing in a used bookstore and discovered that VALEDICTORY was printed as a hardcover novella in 1939. This story of Ty, an elderly janitor working his last high school commencement before retiring, is not just a wonderful character study, but also a reminder of how every person touches other lives, sometimes unknowingly. And that high school commencement is not the only “graduation” we face in a lifetime of moving on.
WHERE ARE YOU GOING ON VACATION? DID YOU SAY “HELL”?
The end of the school year brings summer vacation. To get in the mood, I’ve been reading a new paperback called VACATIONS FROM HELL, which contains five stories about young vampires and witches by Gen X young-adult authors Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Claudia Gray, Maureen Johnson, and Sarah Mlynowski. This volume follows on the heels of PROM NIGHTS FROM HELL (stories by Meg Cabot, Stephenie Meyer, Kim Harrison, and Lauren Myracle) and LOVE IS HELL (Scott Westerfeld, Melissa Marr, Justine Larbalestier, Gabrielle Zevin.) There seems to be a trend of novelists contributing entries to themed paperback anthologies. The results are often uneven. Many novelists are not particularly skilled at writing short fiction. Some of their efforts have a “written to order” feel about them. But I wanted to mention these books because I think short story volumes are often overlooked by readers. And fans of the above writers may be interested in seeing them work in a different genre. Certainly any “completist” interested in collecting every work by their favorite author will want to track down these types of volumes.
Thinking about summer vacation reminds me of the year we had a tent in our backyard. Many hot afternoons were spent inside the tent playing kids’ card games: Old Maid, Fish, War, and Authors.
Does anyone else remember the game of Authors? Various classic authors were represented like this:
You dealt the cards out among all the players and then tried to collect all four titles by an author to get a set. For example, if you had Charles Dickens’s PICKWICK PAPERS, you would ask another player if they had OLIVER TWIST. If they did, you’d add it to your hand and keep playing. If not, your turn was over. The next player, having heard you were collecting Dickens, might then ask you for CHRISTMAS CAROL. Or they might be searching for Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott.
Reading up on the game today, I was surprised to discover the game was originally begun in the 1860s and then issued by Parker Brothers in 1897.
When I played this game at age six or seven, I had no idea who Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Makepeace Thackeray or Alfred, Lord Tennyson were. (In fact, the only book I probably knew in the entire card game was Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL.) And I remember the pictures on the cards being black-and-white (or perhaps sepia) and the print being very tiny. But looking back I see that the game did affect my “cultural IQ,” so that when I heard those names later in life I knew they were authors and could even list some of their works.
I just did some searching on the internet and discovered these cards are still available. There is even a special deck focusing on children’s authors that includes Dr. Seuss, A. A. Milne, Meindert DeJong, Rudyard Kipling, Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, Charles Perrault, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Brothers Grimm, Joel Chandler Harris, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Beatrix Potter, and J. M. Barrie.
I wonder if any kids actually play Authors today. Probably not...unless there’s a Playstation version.
I’m waiting for the Nintendo Wii edition.
Can you imagine dancing with A.A. Milne or kickboxing with Laura Ingalls Wilder?
I haven’t read it yet, but I’m intrigued by a new book called THE HEIGHTS by Brian James, which is a modern young adult novel inspired by Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS:
A few years ago Gordon Korman wrote JAKE, REINVENTED, which was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY:
I know there are many novels based on classic fairy tales and legends. Robin McKinley’s done a couple. Jane Yolen too. And Donna Jo Napoli has made a cottage industry of it. But I’m wondering if there are any other books for young people, like THE HEIGHTS and JAKE, REINVENTED, that are based on specific, well-known novels of the past. Could this be a trend for the future?
Do contemporary retellings of classic novels represent a paucity of imagination for modern writers (1) Pick classic novel. 2) Change old-timey names to something cool like Aidan and Summer. 3) Move setting from English village to Greenwich Village, etc., etc.) or do they serve a purpose in drawing attention to classics? I can definitely see a high school teacher using both THE HEIGHTS and WUTHERING HEIGHTS in the classroom, or having students compare and contrast JAKE and GATSBY as an assignment.
QUOTES FROM KIDS’ BOOKS
Those who follow this blog may remember my not-so-recent pledge to read MIDDLEMARCH. More than a month has passed and I’m now only on page 360...out of 890. Depressed by how slow that was going, this past week I picked up a short modern classic and knocked it off in a couple afternoons...so at least I could feel I'd accomplished something. The book I chose was THE GREAT GATSBY (no, not JAKE, REINVENTED -- the real thing) and I loved it from the very beginning to its stunning, oft-quoted final line:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Gosh, I love that line. I’m dying to find some way to squeeze that quote into conversation one of these days.
And it got me thinking about famous quotations from children’s books. A couple that immediately came to mind:
It is not often someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.
Charlotte was both.
--CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White.
Have a carrot.
--THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown.
I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am!
--GREEN EGGS AND HAM by Dr. Seuss
Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.
--Dr. Seuss (was this from a book as well?)
I’ll love you forever and like you for always-- (Ack! Enough! Do you want a repeat performance of my high school graduation here???)
Anyway, what wise or witty sayings do you recall from Milne or Travers or Sendak, etc? What quotations from children’s books would you put in your personal copy of FAMILIAR QUOTATIONS?
This past week’s conversion from analog to digital television got me thinking.
Technology is always changing -- and those changes are often permanent.
Remember record albums? They were replaced by CDs. ...And when was the last time you saw a record album?
Remember the age of videotapes, when we had entire stores full of videos for rent? Today a store like Blockbuster only has DVDs...and there are new things coming down the line that will put DVDs out to pasture with our old videotapes.
Now electronic reading devices are impacting the world of books. As more and more books are read only on a Kindle, fewer and fewer hard copies of those titles will need to be printed. That just stands to reason.
But what happens when today’s Kindle is replaced by tomorrow’s “next big thing” in electronic reading devices?
What exactly happens to all the books you read on your Kindle when Kindle no longer exists?
When a book goes out of print -- a real book with ink on paper -- there are still thousands of copies out there...in libraries, in homes, in used bookstores. But what happens when Kindle books -- made of pixels and light -- go "out of print"? I can’t see anyone making the effort to upgrade a midlist or poor-selling book for the next reading device. ...And remember, there won’t be as many paper copies left behind either, since much of the original audience read those titles on Kindle and there wasn’t a need to publish them on paper.
I used to worry about preserving old children's books...and now we also have to worry about books that only existed as letters on an electronic screen. How will save those stories?
So we read on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly toward books of the past.....
Thanks for stopping by.