Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Brunch with Annoying Authors

Today’s Sunday Brunch celebrates Snow Days and Oscar night, describes what an “extra-illustrated book” is, and asks which children’s authors are the most annoying.


Back when I was a kid, I loved the Academy Awards.

It meant staying up late…on a school night!

It meant snacking on chips…and dip!

It meant the betting pennies with my brother on which movies, actors, and actresses would win the awards.

Never mind the fact that we’d never seen any of the nominated movies (MIDNIGHT COWBOY? CARNAL KNOWLEDGE? Yeah, right.) or that the ceremony would drag on so long that we were nearly nodding off before they reached the main categories…I still loved the Academy Awards.

And I think I enjoyed the awards even more when I got into my late teens and twenties and started seeing most of the nominated films and performances; then I could make more informed choices about who I wanted to win. On the other hand, staying up late “on a school night” had lost its illicit thrill by then. And what can you buy for a penny as an adult? …So some of the excitement had died by that point.

Still, the Oscars are always fun -- even these days. One of the interesting things about the movies today is that so many are based on children’s books. In honor of tonight’s awards, here’s a list of all the 2010 movies that had their origins in children’s books:

ALICE IN WONDERLAND / based on the classic novel by Lewis Carroll
CHRONICLES OF NARNIA : THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN / based on the classic series by C.S.Lewis
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID / based on the novel by Jeff Kinney
ECLIPSE / based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer
FLIPPED / based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS / based on the “honorary children’s book” by Jonathan Swift
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS : PART 1 / based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON / based on the series by Cressida Cowell
IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY / based on the novel by Ned Vizzini
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS : THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE / ased on the series by Kathryn Lasky
PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS : THE LIGHTNING THEIF / based on the seriesw by Rick Riordan
RAMONA AND BEEZUS / based on the book BEEZUS AND RAMONA by Beverly Cleary
SHREK FOREVER AFTER / based on the original movie which was based on the original book by William Steig
TRUE GRIT / based on the “honorary children’s book” by Charles Portis

A couple of the above movies are even up for Oscars tonight!

So this evening, I’ll be where I've always been for the past forty-plus Oscar nights: smack in front of the TV watching the awards. With a bowl of chips…and dip. Betting (long distance, over the internet) with my brother on which movies and performers will win. But here's the irony. This year I’ve been so busy that I haven’t seen a single nominated film. And now I’m so old that I’ll probably nod off before the ceremony is over!

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Many years ago, Joni Mitchell wrote a song with the refrain, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

I hear ya, Joni.

Last spring when I bought this house, it didn’t really bother me that my bedroom window looked out at a bare wall, or that the only other room at the front of the house faced another bare wall. After all, the fantastic view off the deck in back more than made up for it. But it’s been too cold and snowy to use the deck for several months now…and lately I’ve begun to feel somewhat claustrophobic with no window views to bring in light or provide a connection to the outside world.

This situation has made me start craving the world of Julia Redfern, the protagonist of Eleanor Cameron’s A ROOM MADE OF WINDOWS. In that 1971 novel, Julia lives and works in a small room surrounded by windows. It even has a skylight. I’m starting to covet that room!

When I first read the book as a kid, I didn't think much about Julia's room -- or the metaphorical importance of its windows. Back then, as an aspiring author myself, I was wrapped up in Julia's experiences as a young writer. I loved the scenes in which Julia, her older brother, and the elderly lodger, Daddy Chandler, all sat in their separate rooms writing and typing their own manuscripts. I loved puzzling over the dream that Julia recorded and tried to turn into a short story. I loved the novel's family dynamics and Julia's quest for identity as a person and as a writer.

Eleanor Cameron delved deep into her own past to write this book, which was based on her childhood in Berkeley, California, and her desire to become a writer. Even the dream that serves as a motif in the novel was based on a dream that Ms. Cameron had as a child and never forgot.

A ROOM MADE OF WINDOWS won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and was named an Honor Book in the New York Herald Tribune Children's Spring Book Festival. It also marked a major turning point in the author's career. Before this book, she was best known for writing genre novels (THE MYSTERIOUS CHRISTMAS SHELL; the much-loved "Mushroom Planet" science fiction series) but after WINDOWS, her work took a more "literary" turn. She went on to win the National Book Award for THE COURT OF THE STONE CHILDREN and be nominated again for TO THE GREEN MOUNTAINS.

I find her continuation of the "Julia Redfern" books particularly interesting.

A ROOM MADE OF WINDOWS was originally conceived as a single, stand-alone novel. It wasn’t until later, when Ms. Cameron read Jane Gardam’s collection of interconnected short stories, A FEW FAIR DAYS, that she decided to revisit Julia Redfern.

Of course, many many authors write sequels or even series books. Sometimes the characters essentially stay the same age throughout the series (Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys come to mind) and, in other cases (as with Harry Potter and Laura Ingalls) they progress in age over the course of the books. But has anyone ever done what Eleanor Cameron did with Julia Redfern, going back in time with each book, so that the main character grows younger in each volume?

Published in 1977, JULIA AND THE HAND OF GOD features the character at age eleven and the book ends just where A ROOM MADE OF WINDOWS begins.

THAT JULIA REDFERN (1982) goes back even earlier in time, and JULIA’S MAGIC (1984) takes the character back to age six. Still drawing from her own childhood (Ms. Cameron would sign the books “From Eleanor Cameron, who was once Julia”), the author once remarked how mysterious it was that moments and incidents mentioned in the earlier books often opened up into full-fledged scenes in the later books, as if she’d planned it that way all along.

After three volumes in which, Benjamin-Button-like, Julia Redfern grew younger with each book, Eleanor Cameron capped off the series with THE PRIVATE WORLDS OF JULIA REDFERN (1988), which depicts the character at age fifteen. Although it was great to meet the teenage Julia, I still find myself wishing the author had continued the backward journey of Julia. After introducing us to the character at six in JULIA’S MAGIC, would the next volume have been an “I Can Read”-like story of Julia at five? Followed by a picture book? Then maybe an alphabet book (J is for Julia, W is for Windows) and perhaps ending with a volume for infants, such as PAT THE JULIA?


Although the author’s greatest works are her literary novels, she probably remains best known for her middle-grade science fiction series that began with THE WONDERFUL FLIGHT TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET in 1954 and continued with STOWAWAY TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET (1956), MR. BASS’S PLANETOID (1958), A MYSTERY FOR MR. BASS (1960), and TIME AND MR. BASS (1967.) In honor of these books, the Golden Duck Awards, “which are designed to encourage science fiction literature for children” have established the Eleanor Cameron Award, which is given to science fiction books written for grades two through six.

Here is a list of all the previous winners:

2010 / Z. REX / Steve Cole
2009 / LIGHTER THAN AIR / Henry Melon
2007 / APERS / Mark Jansen and Barbara Day Zinicola
2006 / WHALES ON STILTS / M.T. Anderson, tied with THE FRAN THAT TIME FORGOT / Jim Benson
2005 / SUPERNATURALIST / Eoin Colfer
2004 / ESCAPE FROM MEMORY / Margaret Peterson
2003 / ON THE DOG, IN THE BATHROOM, IN THE KITCHEN (three volumes in the “Andrew Lost” series / J.C. Greenburg
2001 / THE POWER OF UN / Nancy Etchemendy
2000 / I WAS A SIXTH GRADE ALIEN / Bruce Coville
1999 / YOUNG JEDI KNIGHTS / Kevin Anderson and Rebecca Moesta
1998 / ANDALITE CHRONICLES / Katherine Applegate
1997 / KIPTON AND THE TOWER OF TIME / Charles Fortenay
1996 / STAR HATCHLING / Margaret Bechard
1995 / SHAPE CHANGER/ Bill Brittain
1994 / WORF’S FIRST ADVENTURE / Peter David
1993 / WEIRDOS OF THE UNIVERSE UNITE! / Pamela Service
1992 / MY TEACHER GLOWS IN THE DARK / Bruce Coville


The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has just announced the nominees for the 2010 Nebula Awards.

The following titles have been nominated for the “Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy”:

SHIP BREAKER / Paolo Bacigalupi
WHITE CAT / Holly Black
MOCKINGJAY / Suzanne Collins
A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS / Megan Whalen Turner
BEHEMOTH / Scott Westerfeld

The winner will be announced in Washington, D.C. on May 21.


Do you know what an “extra illustrated book” is?

To be honest, I’d never heard the term until last night when I was watching ANTIQUES ROADSHOW.

This morning I did some searching around the internet and came across this article by Ellen Gruber Garvey, which describes the process, which was very popular in the eighteenth century:

Extra-illustrators took apart existing books, inserting pictures, autographs, and other material with some relationship to the original, often having them expensively rebound. In an extra-illustrated theater history, for example, a reference to the actor "Garrick's drama of 'Gulliver in Lilliput'" is followed by three small pictures of Jonathan Swift (each mounted on a full page), playbills, a two-page print depicting Gulliver at Brobdingnag and a series of other tangentially related illustrations. When an extra-illustrator was done with it, a 250-page book might have been enlarged to ten volumes. Extra-illustration transformed ordinary books into a frame or armature for the compiler's collection of visual images; sometimes the leaves of the original text are hard to find between the pages of prints.

Sounds a little like old-school scrapbooking!

I wonder if there are any “extra-illustrated” children’s books out there.

Have you ever seen an example?

Have you ever created one yourself?


Okay, maybe Oscars Night isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be.

Perhaps birthdays and Halloween and maybe even Christmas aren’t as much fun as they used to be when we were kids.

But there is one day that I loved as a kid and love equally as an adult: a snow day!

Yeah, it’s nice to get an unexpected day off school when you’re in grade school, but it’s even better to get a day off work when you’re adult -- and get paid for it!

I can’t tell you how I thrilled I was this past week when a sudden storm hit and we got a Snow Day!

Of course maybe I wouldn’t have been quite as excited if I’d known about the book TRAPPED back then. As it turns out, it wasn’t till yesterday that I picked up Michael Northrop’s latest novel, which concerns the ultimate “Snow Day.” In fact, TRAPPED is about an entire Snow Week, in which fifteen-year-old Scotty and six classmates are left behind in their high school when a major blizzard shuts down their rural town. I started this suspenseful survival story just before bed last night was still reading at 5:30 this morning. I haven’t finished it yet, so can’t offer a definitive critique beyond “so far so good” but I do want to note the volume’s excellent design. The cover of the book is snow white (get it?) and the beautiful dustjacket illustration (by Phil Falco) wraps around the entire book and even extends onto the inside flaps:

The snow from the dustjacket continues falling across the title page and even onto the copyright and dedication pages:

And veils of snow appear at the heading of every chapter, in varying amounts that mirror the snowfall in the novel.

We don’t usually see this kind of care and craftsmanship in a young adult novel, and Scholastic should be commended for doing such a first-class job with TRAPPED.


I especially appreciate the design of TRAPPED when I compare it to something like THE RIVER by Mary Jane Beaufrand. The front of the dustjacket features the title in a blurry font (why?), an unfocused landscape in the background, and what appears to be long, curly hair next to the spine. I guess we’re supposed to assume that’s the side of the narrator’s head as she stands staring into the water. Okay, I thought, it’s not the greatest dustjacket image in the world, but it’s not the worst either…

…until I spread the book open and looked at it again:

Unlike the TRAPPED illustration, which extends across both panels in an exquisite tableau, THE RIVER just presents the same photograph in mirror image. And it looks bizarre. No one’s head is that narrow! To me it looks like a humongous magnified insect superimposed on a blurry waterscape.

I probably wouldn’t even mention the cover of the book if I hadn’t found the writing so nasty. I don’t consider myself particularly persnickety. I’ve read a million books filled with gross scenes and grotesque imagery -- including Rick Yancey’s THE CURSE OF THE WENDIGO, which was so superb that we just shortlisted it for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. But in most books, images of questionable taste are usually germane to the plot. What I object to are scenes and images that trigger my gag reflex for no good reason. I gave up reading Sharon G. Flake’s books years ago because I couldn’t stand her constant cataloging of smells, sweat, pimples, and other stuff that made me say yuck. But Sharon Flake is a downright amateur compared to Mary Jane Beaufrand, who fills THE RIVER with images of “nostril hairs,” wiping one’s nose on one’s sleeve and leaving a “snail trail,” and -- where’s the barf bucket? –- a disgusting bit where the narrator’s father is shown “stroking his beard, extracting little flakes of dead skin, which he rolled into little pill shapes and flicked onto the carpet.” And did I mention that this family runs an inn and he’s flicking the dead skin onto the floor where all their guests walk? I think I’d check out of that inn right away! Then report them to the Board of Health. As I said, if this scene had something to do with the story, it might not be bother me…but it’s not only gross, it’s gratuitous. And downright nasty.


After that last section, I guess you can say that Sharon G. Flake and Mary Jane Beaufrand are two children’s book authors who annoy me. Are there any authors who annoy you?

If so, check out to see if anyone shares your angst. I was surprised to discover what a large selection of children’s authors are included on this site.

Each entry gives a list of reasons why an author may or may not be annoying, then invites you to cast your own vote. For example, the entry for BABE author Dick King-Smith includes the following:

Why he might be annoying:

He ran two farms that went under due to his lack of business sense. ('I had animals that I liked. Now I see that it was rather a stupid way to run a farm, but at the time I felt I didn't have to conform.')
He became a teacher, but was moved from teaching juniors to pre-school because he could not handle long division.
He did not become a published writer until he was in his 50s.
He said, 'As much as I love The Wind in the Willows and the works of Beatrix Potter, I never dress my animals in clothes... They behave as animals should behave, with the exception that they open their mouths and speak the Queen's English.' (That's a pretty big exception there.)

Why he might not be annoying:

He served with the Grenadier Guards in World War II and was wounded by a grenade in Italy.
He was married to his first wife Myrtle for 57 years until her death.
He was described by the Guardian as 'delightfully old-fashioned without being in the least an old fogey.'
He sold over 15 million books.
He said, 'A real adult, someone who is really grown up and adult, someone like Mrs Thatcher, couldn't possibly write a book for children. Somebody like me, even when I'm 85, is pretty damned childish. I laugh at things that young children laugh at.'

He’s currently rated as 57.84% annoying.

And here’s the entry for 33.33% annoying Madeleine L’Engle:

Why she might be annoying:

Her parents disagreed about how to educate her, with the result that she attended numerous boarding schools and had several governesses.
'A Wrinkle in Time' received 26 rejections from publishers who felt it did not quite qualify as either a children's or adults' novel.
She incorporated traumatic events from her children's lives into her books, while editing out her own troubles.
She has suggested that 'we're all a little psychic.'
She said, 'I sometimes think God is a sh** -- and he wouldn't be worth it otherwise. He's much more interesting when he's a sh**.'

Why she might not be annoying:

She and her husband adopted the seven-year-old daughter of family friends who had died.
'A Wrinkle in Time' won the Newberry Award for outstanding book for children.
She was seriously injured in an automobile accident (1991), but recovered to visit Antarctica the next year.
She said the TV movie adaptation of 'A Wrinkle in Time' lived up to her expectations: 'I expected it to be bad, and it is.'
She said that Christian fundamentalists who object to her books 'want a closed system and I want an open system.'

Yeah, it’s kind of mean.

But I think it’s all meant in fun.

I think.

And, personally, I’m annoyed with for misspelling the word “Newbery.”


I wanted to add a special thanks to everyone who “friended” me on Facebook this week. If anyone else wants to be friends, just send a Facebook friend request to Peter D. Sieruta.

Thanks, too, for visiting my blog. Hope you’ll be back!


hschinske said...

I remember being very muddled about when the Julia Redfern books were supposed to be set. I think I ended up deciding that it must be between the wars, and that Julia's father had been killed in the first war, not the second, but then in _A Room Made of Windows_ Mrs. Moore says that Yeats is dead (and speaks as though he's been dead for some time) which puts it definitely after 1939. Or maybe it's only that one date that's off, and everything else is fairly consistent.

Apart from various small clues, though, there wasn't much hint that _A Room Made of Windows_ (which I first read not long after it came out and have re-read by far the most often of the series) wasn't contemporary, so I kept forgetting and then being shocked when dates like the 1906 earthquake would pop up.

Helen Schinske

Hope Vestergaard said...

Oops, accidentally posted while logged into a work account. Reposting now -- can't seem to delete the previous one, though I'll keep trying. If both stay up, please delete!

Yick, yuck, yack at the skin flakes description. What an odd (and obvious!) writing tic. I always picture editorial conversations when I come across such clunkers. Could two people agree that particular detail was essential? If not, how could one defend its inclusion? Ugh. I had to laugh at the Berenstains' amiannoying entry -- did you read their autobiography? It had more than one reference to their sexual lives that I found gross. TMI!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Peter--don't forget about Shaun Tan's Lost and Found--his animated short, The Lost Thing, is one of the stories in Lost and Found--and won the Oscar!--JMB

Laura Canon said...

That extra-illustrated stuff sounds like what Joe Orton got arrested for.
I had no idea until recently that A Room Made of Windows was part of a series. Probaby my library didn't have the other books. I re-read it recently and found I remembered it fairly well.
And I just finished I Shall Wear Midnight yesterday! Terry Pratchett allegedly has early-onset Alzheimer's but I don't see any sign of it in his writing. Loved it, and Behemoth.

Bybee said...

Trapped made me remember a Weekly Reader book (I was in their club and got their books..once a month? every two or three months? for a while) called Snowed Up. Somehow, three children get trapped in a house without parents during a freak blizzard. Food is low.

Were you ever in that Weekly Reader book club? Another one of their books was called Andrew, The Big Deal

Jess said...

I think about Julia Redfern all the time - it's been ages since I read any of the books, but she must have made a big impression on me (her and her room - when I walk through my neighborhood I pick out houses that look like they have great window-filled rooms). Too bad they seem to be out of print - I just put the first one on hold and I think I have a copy of Private World at home.

Mike McQueen said...

True. “One of the interesting things about the movies today is that so many are based on children’s books.”

True. “One of the interesting things about the movies today is that so many are based on children’s books.”