Today’s Sunday Brunch looks at Cliffsnotes for kids, highlights a couple odd bibliotherapeutic books I found in the library, and reviews some 2010 titles.
CLIFFSNOTES FOR KIDS
Most of us get the title wrong.
We call them CliffNotes though they’re really named CliffsNotes.
They were named after their creator, Cliff Hillegass, who, along with his wife, began producing this series of literary study guides in the basement of their Lincoln, Nebraska home in 1958. The first books were devoted to Shakespeare’s plays, but within a few years nearly every classic work of literature was featured in those familiar yellow-and-black-striped paperbacks which contained summaries of the texts, examined the characters, listed themes and motifs (the first time I ever read the word “motif” was in a CliffsNote), and included sample test questions.
As a kid I was fascinated by these books, which were always carried around by the coolest high school and college kids. I loved how they were stored in unreachable racks, high up on the walls of the bookstore, and could only be retrieved by a clerk who held a special ten- or twelve-foot long pole with a “grabber” on the end of it. I couldn’t wait for the day when the bookstore clerk would have to pull down one of these titles for me and, in exchange for a single dollar bill, I could carry a CliffsNotes volume around with my looseleaf, looking all cool and grown up.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that CliffsNotes wouldn’t make me look cool. My first pair of bellbottoms didn’t do it. The sunglasses didn’t either. So why did I assume CliffsNotes would? I eventually learned that I am one of those people who is genetically unable to “look cool.”
I guess that would have been okay if strutting down the high school hallway with a CliffsNote slung against my hip at least made me look intellectual.
But it took me a while to realize you never saw the smartest kids at school carrying around CliffsNotes.
They didn’t need ‘em!
For the last couple years I have toyed with the idea of writing a spoof version of CliffsNotes for a children’s book such as GOODNIGHT MOON. I thought it would be fun to write up questions such as “What was Margaret Wise Brown’s opinion on middle-class morals and manners based on their representations in the text and illustrations of this book?” and “Clearly, the bowl of mush is an important symbol in this book. Please describe, in five paragraphs, its significance” and “Does the Quiet Old Lady evolve as a character or does she remain static?”
I also wanted to include a play on that dire (hey, it was written in all caps) warning that appeared inside every CliffsNotes:
READ THE ENTIRE LITERARY WORK. THESE NOTES ARE NOT INTENDED AND HAVE NOT BEEN PREPARED TO SERVE AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE TEXT ITSELF OR FOR THE CLASSROOM DISCUSSION OF THE TEXT. STUDENTS WHO ATTEMPT TO USE THE NOTES AS SUCH ARE DENYING THEMSELVES THE VERY EDUCATION THEY ARE PRESUMABLY GIVING THEIR MOST VITAL YEARS TO ACHIEVE.
How about this one for GOODNIGHT MOON:
MAKE SURE MOMMY READS YOU THE ENTIRE PICTURE BOOK. THESE NOTES ARE NOT INTENDED TO SERVE AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR MS. BROWN’S WORDS OR FOR MR. HURD’S PRETTY PICTURES . BRATS WHO ATTEMPT TO USE THE NOTES AS SUCH ARE DENYING THEMSELVES THE VERY PRESCHOOL EDUCATION THEY ARE PRESUMABLY GIVING UP NAP TIMES, PLAYDATES AND BARNEY RERUNS TO ACHIEVE.
Of course the problem with spoofs is that, while you're sitting around laughing about the concept of Cliffsnotes for Kids, someone else is taking the idea seriously and actually begins making money by publishing them. I was dumbfounded when I recently came across this volume:
And what about this one, which covers ten Newbery winners in a single blow:
I guess I should have copyrighted my GOODNIGHT MOON idea.
I never like seeing an author referred to as “Dr.” on the title page of a children's book.
The obvious exception: Dr. Seuss.
Otherwise, it seems an affectation. Show-offy.
Sure, plenty of children’s book authors have had docorates (Herbert Zim and Isaac Asimov come to mind) but they never felt the need to crow about it on the front covers of their books.
Those who feel the need to attach their professional title to their names usually write very, very bad children’s books. Case in point:
The other day I came across another such gem in the library: DR. GARDNER’S STORIES ABOUT THE REAL WORLD, a 1972 collection of children’s tales by a psychologist. In the introduction, the author explains why he is writing stories set in the “real world”:
At the time in the lives of our children when we are most concerned with teaching them about reality, we simultaneously expose them to a world of unreality -- a world of fairy tales, fancy, and myth. Although the child certainly derives many benefits from fantasy, such exposure, at the same time, often engenders unreal expectations about living which may contribute to life-long feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration.
So, instead of writing something along the lines of CHARLOTTE’S WEB or MARY POPPINS and contributing to the life-long feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration experienced by so many of us, Dr. Gardner gives us instead such realistic (i.e. condescending and patronizing) fare as “Oliver and the Ostrich” in which bratty Oliver learns that, in the real world, ostriches don’t hide their heads, but instead stand up and face their problems. At the end of the story, we read the following lines, dripping with didacticism:
It took a long time, but gradually Oliver learned the lesson from the ostrich Then he did better and better in school and he was a happier boy.
Oliver also started to look at what he was doing with his friends. He didn’t like to hear that he was selfish, that he always wanted to go first and tha the wouldn’t let other children play with his toys. But he realized – for the first time – that loneliness was even worse. So Oliver thought about how he acted with the other children. It made him feel bad but he knew that thinking about his problems would help him change them.
This is the kind of writing one might see in an antiquarian Sunday school tract, but who would expect to find it in a children’s book from the seventies?
A few years later, Dr. Gardner apparently changed his mind about that foolish fantasy stuff, as he published a couple volumes of fairy tales -- some original and some based on traditional stories. Here’s how he explains his tale “Mack and the Beanstalk":
The traditional Jack and the Beanstalk tale deals primarily with what psychoanalysts refer to as the oedipal theme, namely the desire for each child to remove the same-sexed parent from the family and to take possession of the opposite sexed. The story is basically one in which Jack accomplishes this. The giant in the sky who represents Jack’s father, is progressively robbed of various possessions – each of which relates to the gratification of Jack’s oedipal wishes. Coins, egg-laying goods, and harp.
Then Dr. Gardner explains the meaning of the harp for us: “this curvaceous, sweet music-producing instrument, on which one plays lends itself to symbolizing the sexual female – in Jack’s case again, his mother” before wrapping up his introduction with a pat on the back for himself: “My story provides what I consider a more realistic solution for Mack’s oedipal conflict, while retaining, I would like to believe, much of the richness of the original tale.”
He might like to believe it, but he’d be wrong. Gardner's poorly written story doesn’t have Jack…er, Mack…stealing from the giant in the sky, but instead stealing stuff from his own father.
At the end of the story, Mack’s father tells him: “This harp is mine. But I’m certainly willing to let you play on it once in a while.”
But wait a minute. Didn’t Dr. Gardner already tell us that curvacious harp represents Jack’s mother?
Then what exactly is his father offering him at the end of the story?
The mind boggles.
When I first came across these books by Dr. Gardner in the library, I regarded them as curiosities and wondered how many readers had been raised on these bibliotherapeutic blunders.
Still, I was willing to give Dr. Gardner the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone has the ability to write fiction – especially fiction for children. Maybe he was better at writing factual material. According to one source, his BOYS AND GIRLS BOOK OF DIVORCE, which was published in 1970, was one of the first books aimed at young people whose parents are getting divorced. Forty years later, the book remains in print, though customer reviews on Amazon.com are widely divergent. One reader said, “My daughter (age 12) carried this book with her for many weeks. She was able to contact her father and begin a series of meetings each Monday evening, which gave them both the opportunity to openly discuss their feelings. Good and bad. The book helped her to be honest about her feelings and helped us as parents be honest about ours. She eventually started a group of children at her school to meet and discuss their own family issues. She shared this book with them. She worked through her anger at her father for leaving and they shared a loving relationship until he, unfortunately, died of leukemia, when she was in Medical School, years later.” Another reader reports that this book influenced his or her decision to become a psychologist. Other readers say “Don’t buy this book!” and refer to it as “awful.”
But then I did a little more research on Dr. Gardner and realized that his children’s books were the least of his problems.
At the time of Gardner’s death, London’s INDEPENDENT newspaper printed this damning obituary:
In a contentious child custody dispute in the suburbs of Pittsburgh a few years ago, three teenage boys begged a family court judge not to force them to continue visits to their father because, they said, he was physically abusive towards them. Rather than believe the boys, the judge relied on the testimony of an expert witness retained by the father, a Columbia University professor of clinical psychiatry, Richard A. Gardner.
Gardner insisted the boys were lying as a result of brainwashing by their mother and recommended something he called "threat therapy". Essentially, the Grieco boys were told they should be respectful and obedient on visits to their father and, if they were not, their mother would go to jail. Shortly afterwards, 16-year-old Nathan Grieco, the eldest of the brothers, hanged himself in his bedroom, leaving behind a diary in which he wrote that life had become an "endless torment". Both Gardner and the court were unrepentant even after the suicide, and it was only after an exposé in the local newspaper that custody arrangements for the two surviving boys were changed.
This "threat therapy" was part of a much broader theory of Gardner's known in family courts across the United States as "Parental Alienation Syndrome". The theory - one of the most insidious pieces of junk science to be given credence by US courts in recent years - holds that any mother who accuses her spouse of abusing the children is lying more or less by definition. She tells these lies to "alienate" the children from their father, a shocking abrogation of parental responsibility for which she deserves to lose all custody rights in favour of the alleged abuser.
Incidentally, Dr. Gardner’s own death was caused by suicide. Facing a painful and incurable illness, he didn't emulate an ostrich but instead stabbed himself repeatedly in the neck and chest with a kitchen knife.
THE FIRST BEST LIST
We’re heading into the season when magazines and newspapers begin publishing their “best of the year" lists. The first one I've seen this year comes from Publishers Weekly. Want to know what they picked for the “Best Children’s Books of 2010?” Click right here!
…AND A NEWBERY LIST
Meanwhile, Nina and Jonathan at Heavy Medal have posted their shortlist of Newbery titles.
…AND HOW THEY INTERSECT (OR NOT)
…but only three of the titles on Heavy Medal’s shortlist made PW’s best-of-year list: ONE CRAZY SUMMER, SIR CHARLIE, and THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK. Will the other five titles be cited by SLJ, Horn Book, Booklist, or the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books? We'll see...
REVIEW: CANDY BOMBER by Michael O. Tunnell
After World War II ended and Germany was divided into four occupied areas, West Berlin lay deep within the Russian zone. When Soviet authorities instituted a blockade, preventing the Western Allies from delivering food into the city by land or water, the United States, Great Britain and France began airlifting supplies into West Berlin. In CANDY BOMBER : THE STORY OF THE BERLIN AIRLIFT’S “CHOCOLATE PILOT," author Michael O. Tunnell introduces Gail S. Halvorsen, whose chance meeting with a group of hungry German kids inspired the American airlift pilot to begin dropping candy and sweets from his plane to the children of Berlin.
Relying initially on rationed candy donated by himself and his crew, Halvorsen’s plan soon received military and public support. Donations came from both candy companies as well as charitable groups -- and the Air Force adopted the name “Operation Little Vittles” for the candy drops. American schoolchildren donated handkerchiefs which were used as parachutes to float the sweet treats down over West Berlin. Unfortunately, CHOCOLATE BOMBER is a bit skimpy at providing biographical information about its hero, Gail Halvorsen; even basic facts such as his date of birth are not provided. But the stories and anecdotes about the letters he received from children (many reprinted here) and the lifelong friendships that he made with his young beneficiaries make for engaging reading in this uplifting volume about a little-known chapter in postwar history.
I have this awful habit. Whenever I need to reference a famous children’s book editor, I fall back on the usual go-to gal in such matters -- Ursula Nordstrom. So whether I’m writing a blog or writing a book or just speaking in conversation and the topic of editing comes up, the name “Ursula Nordstrom” is the one that trips off my tongue. On the one hand, she deserves all the glory she can get; she is probably the most important children’s book editor of all time. On the remaining hand, there are plenty of other editors who deserve some notice as well: May Massee, Alice Dalgleish, Margaret McElderry…so many more. But the one I’d like to single out today is Jean Karl. Looking back at my own lifelong "best of" list, I’m surprised to see how many of my favorite authors she discovered…and how many of my favorite books she edited.
Born in 1927, Jean Karl started her career at Scott Foresman, then was the children’s book editor at Abingdon Books, which I believe is affiliated with the Methodist church. In 1961, she started the children’s book department at Atheneum. Four years later Atheneum won both the Newbery (SHADOW OF A BULL by Maia Wojciechowska) and Caldecott (MAY I BRING A FRIEND illustrated by Beni Montresor and written by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers) and over the next 39 years (Ms. Karl retired in 1985, but continued to edit occasional books until her death in 2000) she published a total of five Newbery winners and six Newbery Honors, as well as two Caldecott winners and one Honor. She discovered E.L. Konigsburg, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Barbara Corcoran, Robert C. O’Brien, and rescued Phyllis Reynolds Naylor from the world of B-list publishers. Atheneum was particularly known for its fantasy and science fiction books, and included Ursula LeGuin among its authors. Late in her career, Jean Karl would write a handful of fantasy and science novels of her own.
Looking at the list of authors she edited, I can’t help wishing that Ms. Karl had written a memoir about her publishing career, or a volume profiling the famous names she worked with. I imagine it would have made fascinating reading.
Has any children’s book editor written such a volume? Or is the relationship between author/editor considered privileged and confidential, the same way that clerics and lawyers are not supposed to reveal information from those they counsel?
You don’t hear the name “Jean Karl” mentioned much in children’s book circles these days, but you should. She truly was one of the greats.
REVIEW: BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea
Seven kids take turns narrating the story of their fifth-grade year and the teacher who changed their lives. While Mr. Terupt gives assignments both wacky (calculating how many blades of grass are in the school soccer field) and profound (spending time with kids in a special needs class), his students grapple with problems at school and at home. There’s mean girl Alexia, trouble-making Peter, and overweight Danielle. One boy struggles with the death of a brother; a girl is ostracized because her mother has never been married. When a schoolyard accident results in Mr. Terupt’s hospitalization, the kids deal with their own individual and collective guilt.
Rob Buyea makes a promising debut, juggling seven distinct voices and personalities to tell one cohesive story. While Mr. Terupt is a nice guy and a good teacher, readers may find themselves wishing for that one bit of dialogue or single pithy anecdote which would elevate him into a truly individual, memorable character; instead, he pretty much remains a “blank slate” catalyst for the changes that occur within the lives of his students. Though the story occasionally gets a bit sticky-sweet, BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT is fast-paced, likable, and sure to find an audience for those who enjoy “school stories.”
THE BOOK ACCORDING TO IRVING
Incidentally, not only does the dustjacket of BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT contain an enthusiastic blurb from John Irving, but inside there's also a forward by this adult author. I’m sure that Mr. Irving has never blurbed a book for young readers before…so it's pretty neat that Buyea's book snaggged him.
But I cann’t help but wonder how many of MR. TERUPT’s young readers will neither know nor care who John Irving is….
A BOOKLIST FROM MR. TERUPT
One of the neat things about MR. TERUPT is that the story contains references to a number of notable children’s books. They include:
A WRINKLE IN TIME
WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS
THE SUMMER OF THE SWANS
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS
Pretty good reading list, huh?
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