Archive for August, 2010

A Is for Art: Stephen T. Johnson’s Abstract Alphabet

Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art (cover)Part children’s book and part lesson in twentieth-century artistic movements, Stephen T. Johnson’s A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet is at the avant-garde of alphabet expressionism. Cubism is here, but the work explores the influence of dada and its children—surrealism, pop art, and conceptual art—and other styles such as abstract expressionism and color field painting. The result is a provocative meditation on art and language.

Invoking the mid-twentieth-century French avant-garde lettrist (letter-centered) work of François Dufrêne, Johnson in Arrangement No. 1 tears type from, as he describes in a caption accompanying the work, “an array of abstract bits of advertisements,” arranging them across strips of vivid orange. Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  A.  Arrangement No. 1Amplifying the “A”s, Johnson describes how he has aligned small “apostrophes, ampersands, accents, and an asterisk,” around a dark “angled letter A.” Recalling American artist Man Ray’s Mystery of Isidore Ducasse, which is a blanket-and-twine-wrapped sewing-machine-sized object (it is a sewing machine, but the viewer cannot see it), Johnson’s Wrapped Wishes — devoted to letter “W” — invites the viewer to imagine what she or he sees. Wax, wool, and wire wrapped around unknown objects entice us to “wonder what is within.” In the aptly titled Recycled, a readymade assemblage of red and blue rubber bands spans a resin-filled frame. Encouraging the proliferation of “R”s, Johnson calls it a “rectangular receptacle,” and describes the bands as “rendered rigid by resin.”

In his art, Johnson maximizes the possibilities of each letter. The punnily titled Ice Cream Floats presents, as he writes, “an installation of individually illuminated, isolated, immobilized immersed and inverted identical insoluble imitation ice cream cones.” As that description suggests, these objects are multi-layered alphabet games, with images and captions that resonate in many directions. Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  U. Untitled.The op art (optical art) piece, Untitled (from the Undulation Series, 2006-2007), incorporates an “upside down, underlined upper case U with umlaut,” against an ultramarine blue background that appears to undulate. Jambalaya offers an homage to French-born American artist Arman’s “accumulations,” such as his Poubelle Papier (Wastepaper Basket) , while exploring “J” with, as Johnson’s caption notes, “Jampacked juxtapositions of jagged, jammed, joined and jumbled junk.” Careful examination reveals multiple iterations of “J” tucked into a fold of metal or at the intersection of one aluminum slice and another. As with all of Johnson’s works, the more you look, the more you see.

A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet takes the letter-hunting game of Johnson’s Caldecott Honor-winning Alphabet City (1995) to another level. That book’s clearly articulated, easy-to-find letters should please those for whom the alphabet is a recent acquaintance or a passing interest. Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  Q.  Quiet Time QuiltBut An Abstract Alphabet is for hard core abecedarians, alphabetic connoisseurs who crave a richer experience. As such, Johnson’s work is among those alphabet books—such as Dr. Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! (1955) and Michael Chesworth’s Alphaboat (2002)—that probe the paradox of language, a system practical and impractical, a means of communication and a game played for the fun of it.

Oscillating between each side of the paradox, Johnson’s densely allusive works abstract letters from their function and bind them to their function. Packing each alphabetic portrait full of references makes meanings multiply, reminding us how words always have indications elsewhere. Yet, even as it highlights language’s slipperiness, Johnson’s An Abstract Alphabet also forges connections between words and things. Indeed An Abstract Alphabet might also be called Concrete Alphabet: Johnson offers comically literal renderings of each letter, complete with witty, alliterative captions like Quiet Time Quilt’s “Queen size quilt, quartered by quadrants, with quadrilaterals, question marks and quotation marks.” The work has all of these features, along with the attributes of examples of late-1960s American art such as the geometric stripes of Frank Stella’s shaped canvases or the bold typography of Robert Indiana’s sculptural poem LOVE.Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  H.  Hoopla!

Beyond exploring language and artistic approaches, Abstract Alphabet catalogues Johnson’s artistic versatility. As an artist, he is capable of rendering realistically detailed portraits, painting abstract mathematical ideas, and creating minimalist installations. As a realist, he gives  details to the parrot in Pop Quiz, such as the texture of the bird’s red feathers and a sharp curved beak. Exploring mathematical concepts, his Golden Sections depicts the golden ratio, incorporating a Fibonacci Spiral — a mapping of the Fibonacci Sequence, where each number is the sum of its two predecessors (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on). The hanging hollow hula-hoop forms in Johnson’s Hoopla! recall the pliant minimalist works of German-born American sculptor Eva Hesse (another “H” word!). Through painting, collage, sculpture, and readymades, Johnson’s Abstract Alphabet is playful, questioning, and profound.

Note: this originally appeared in Alphabet Soup: Work by Stephen Johnson, Jim Munce, Tony Fitzpatrick (exhibition at Beach Museum, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, 4 April – 3 Aug. 2008); an earlier version accompanied An Abstract Alphabet: New Works by Stephen Johnson (exhibition at Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 19 May – 5 Aug. 2007).

Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  P.  Pop Quiz

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The Trauma Games

Suzanne Collins, MockingjayWar is hell.  If General Sherman (and, I expect, many others) hadn’t said it first, I suspect Suzanne Collins might have chosen those three words as a subtitle for her Hunger Games trilogy.  As its predecessors did, Mockingjay dramatizes the physical and emotional consequences of war.  It’s especially adept at displaying the scars invisible to those of us who either have not been in a war or do not know people who have. The victors of the Hunger Games cannot sleep — as Finnick says, “I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking” (156).  They are haunted by what they’ve done, and by what they haven’t done.  Even if the physical wounds heal, the emotional ones linger.  Early in the novel, after Gale admits that he’d use a bow and arrow on people if it would keep Katniss safe, she thinks, “I don’t know what to tell him about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never leave you” (68). Like the first two books in series, the third is about trauma.

It is also about torture, which — no matter what your government tells you — is not merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  It’s torture.  Characters in Mockingjay have been tortured by the agents of Panem, the totalitarian regime against which the Rebels (including our heroine Katniss) fight.  Appropriately, Collins does not invite us into the scenes of torture.  She shows us what happens later, how torture’s survivors cope.  The tortures of Panem are a sophisticated cruelty, a more subtle and more damaging type of the aversion therapy scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).  One character has been soaked in water, and then given electric shocks; now, rain, the shower, water of any kind triggers a flashback to that experience.  Another has been drugged with venom, conditioned not just to doubt but to kill a loved one.  Damage inflicted on the mind, the novel suggests, is the hardest pain to bear.  As Katniss says late in the novel, “I can’t believe how normal they’ve made me look on the outside when inwardly I’m such a wasteland” (366).

Though Collins understands why people would feel the need to fight a war, Mockingjay offers a more eloquent defense of pacifism than of, say, a “just war.”  There’s a line in the book that made me think of the lists of dead troops from America’s current wars, names of people who are almost always younger than I am — people in their 20s, and sometimes as young as 17 or 18.  To say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of children killed in those wars.  This is the line.  Considering the “creature” that is a human being, Katniss observes, “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences” (377).

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Johnson and Krauss, Together for the First Time!

The Carrot SeedThough they had lived together since 1940 and married in 1943, this 1944 photograph is the first one to include both Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  Taken by Frank Gerratana, it appeared in the Sunday Herald (Bridgeport, Conn.) of October 1, 1944.  In my biography of Johnson and Krauss, I’m using a print of the actual photo: what you see below is the newspaper clipping. The photo shows them a few months after they signed the contract for Krauss’s second book — The Carrot Seed (1945), illustrated by Johnson, and her first big success.  Her first book — A Good Man and His Good Wife (1944), illustrated by Johnson’s friend Ad Reinhardt — had just been published that very fall.  (You’ll see a reference to it near the end of the final column of text….)

Photo of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 1944

Though it contains a typographical error in its first sentence (that should be ’42, not ’32), the article itself (reproduced below) has been extremely valuable to me.  There are very few interviews with Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss, and this is the first one of the two of them together.  It offers one version of how they met: “on Fire Island,” says Ruth.  It provides one source for his post-secondary education: “about six months of art at Cooper Union after his graduation from Newtown High School in Queens.”  (Since Johnson never graduated from Cooper Union, the school has no record of him.)  And, of course, Johnson reveals his support of Roosevelt, and winks at his satirical portrayal of the President’s rival, Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey.

Ethel Beckwith's article about Johnson and Krauss, October 1944

I’m able to share with you the entire original newsclipping courtesy of Betty Hahn, the spouse of Ruth’s cousin, Dr. Richard Hahn.  Betty has been extraordinarily generous in sharing not only her recollections, but also original photographs of Ruth Krauss as a baby and teenager — and, yes, these photos will appear in the biography.  Literally hundreds of people have been so very generous to me!  (The biography’s acknowledgments run for 8 pages in manuscript.)  So, thank you Betty… and thanks everyone who has helped me during the ten-year odyssey towards The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi in 2012).

Update, August 27, 5:30 p.m.: The above item arrived yesterday. Today, a note arrived from Betty, conveying the provenance of the items.  The above clipping was pasted into an album (scrapbook) that Ruth’s mother kept.  Thought people might like to know.

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Censoring Children’s Literature, Fall 2010

Helen Bannerman, Little Black SamboJ. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanSometimes, a new course draws on my expertise.  Other times, a new course is a chance for me to develop that expertise.  This class — “Censoring Children’s Literature” — is definitely the latter.  I have an interest in the subject, and I’ve tried to structure the syllabus around major issues concerning the regulation of what children and young adults read: texts that have been Bowdlerized so as not to offend current sensitivities, texts altered without the author’s consent, texts over which there’s a documented scuffle between author and publisher, and of course the many reasons that adults may deem a text unsuitable for children or adolescents (profanity, sex, homosexuality, racism, religion, and so on).  But I’m definitely not an expert on the subject.

Justine Larbalestier, LiarRoald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)The class is called “Censoring Children’s Literature” because that’s what fit on the university’s line schedule.  A more accurate title would be “What You Can and Can’t Say in Literature for Children and Young Adults.”  In other words, rather than framing the class around “censorship” exclusively, I also recognize there are reasons to be concerned about what children read — they lack the experience of adults, their identities are in the process of being formed, and one may fairly consider them more impressionable than older readers.  Certainly, one does not want to scar children emotionally, nor teach them to hate.  On the flip side, part of growing up is learning to cope with a world that can seem indifferent to your troubles: literature can help you explore these troubles imaginatively.

Dav Pilkey, The Adventures of Captain UnderpantsJudy Blume, ForeverAnd, then, there’s the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  In other words, it’s one thing to seek to prevent your own children from reading a work you consider inappropriate, and it’s another thing to decide — on behalf of an entire school district or public library — that no children should have access to the work.

Walter Dean Myers, Fallen AngelsI expect the class to disagree about what books are and are not appropriate for younger readers.  That disagreement is part of the point of having this conversation in the first place.  Discerning how “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” — to quote the landmark obscenity ruling Roth v. United States (1957) — might perceive a book is a tricky business.  But I am and have always been drawn to the difficult questions, the grey areas of a debate, the problems without clear solutions.  So.  Let the conversation begin!

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Corporate Seuss; or, Oh, the Things You Can Sell!

SeussvilleRandom House’s newly updated Seussville website — featuring my biography and timeline — recently went live.  This is the first time I’ve written a piece for a corporation, but Dr. Seuss did it all the time.  Though he published his first children’s book in 1937, he made his living through advertising … until the bestselling The Cat in the Hat (1957) allowed him to make writing for children his primary occupation.

Seuss’s best-known ad campaign was for Flit bug spray.  The tagline Quick, Henry, the Flit! became a staple of pop culture — the Where’s the Beef? or the Got Milk? of its day.

Seuss: Flit ad (from UCSD's website)

But he also created advertisements for many other products, such as Ford, General Electric, Holly Sugar, NBC, and Essomarine’s Oils & Greases (an example of which I actually happen to own):
Secrets of the Deep or The Perfect Yachtsman: cover

This 35-page booklet, Secrets of the Deep or The Perfect Yachtsman (1935, credited to the fictitious Old Captain Taylor), contains over a dozen Seuss illustrations – including a few that later emerge as characters in his children’s books.  This little chap (on the left) seems an ancestor of the “fish / With a long curly nose” from McElligot’s Pool (1947, on the right):

Incidentally, if you enjoy these sorts of correspondences between Seuss’s characters, check out Charles Cohen’s The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss (2004) — he’s very good at spotting them, and has found far more interesting connections than the one above.

Seuss also indulges his habit of drawing needlessly complicated machinery, a Rube-Goldberg-influenced feature of many of his books.  Sure, this is nowhere near as elaborate as the Cat’s pick-up machine in The Cat in the Hat or the Utterly Sputter in The Butter Battle Book (1984), but does offer a glimpse of a tendency he exploits more fully in other early cartoons and in later children’s books.
"Feeding and Care of the Motor" from Secrets of the Deep, illus. by Dr. Seuss

The ad copy of “Old Captain Taylor” is a bit strange in places.  I think it’s safe to say that, though the second sentence above seems to make an off-handed joke about child abuse, the word “abuse” would not for a reader in 1935 have the connotations it has for a reader 75 years later.  For that matter, in the wake of BP’s Gulf oil disaster, a 35-page ocean-themed advertisement for oil seems a bit strange….

Mostly, though, the booklet showcases the sense of humor that Seuss had been honing in his magazine cartoons.  There are jokes about fat people:

"Rules of The Road at Sea And When to Forget Them" from Secrets of the Deep

Jokes about conspicuous consumption:

"Laying in Supplies for a Cruise" from Secrets of the Deep

And, of course, plenty of fish.

"Navigating without Road Signs" from Secrets of the Deep

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Literature for Adolescents, Fall 2010

M.T. Anderson, Feed

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

With the fall term imminent (starts Monday), I’m posting a link to the latest iteration of my English 545: Literature for Adolescents. My goal is always “diversity” in many senses of that word.  We read books by writers of different backgrounds (African-American, Iranian, Chinese-American, Latino, Caucasian), genders, sexualities, classes — which are probably the categories most people think of when they hear the word “diversity.”  I also use the word in terms of genre.  We read graphic novels, a novel in verse, a novel in the form of a screenplay, memoir, dystopian fiction, historical fiction, a sports novel, magical realism, film, and fairy tales.  And I use the word to expand “Literature for Adolescents” beyond “Young Adult.”  On the syllabus are works about adolescence (but not necessarily written for adolescents), works that get assigned to adolescents, and of course Young Adult Literature.  Finally, we read some classics, and a lot that’s contemporary.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

Francesca Lia Block, Weetzie Bat

I’m never completely satisfied with my syllabus.  So, each semester, I change it a little.  This term, for instance, I’ve added a “dystopias” unit: we’ll read M.T. Anderson‘s Feed and Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games.  I’m happy about that change, but not about the omission of fantasy.  I also wonder if I have one too many graphic novels.  Any why are there no works by Native American authors on my syllabus?

Benjamin Alire Saenz, Sammy & Juliana in HollywoodWalter Dean Myers, MonsterEach syllabus is always incomplete. There are never enough weeks in the term to cover all I want to cover.  At best, students will get a taste of the field.  But I hope that this slender sliver of knowledge will send them back to the library, the bookstore, or possibly other English classes.  I hope that this is but the beginning (or a continuation) of a lifetime of reading and learning.  There is so much to read and to know, and our lives are so brief.  I write that last sentence to convey not despair, but rather urgency, inspiration, motivation.  Or, to quote a Robert Herrick line entirely out of context, “make much of time.”

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It’s a Lane Smith Book

Lane Smith, It's a BookComedy is hard.  Lane Smith makes it look easy.  I’m not going to reveal the punch line to his latest, It’s a Book, because I don’t have to: There are plenty of amusing moments along the way.  When the jackass asks, “Where’s your mouse?” Smith provides a wordless page in which a mouse emerges from beneath the monkey’s hat.  Deadpan.  And funny.  On his blog, he provides some insight into some of the labor behind the humor: the jackass was originally a child, but he didn’t want people to think he was mocking a child. So, he turned him into an animal. Which is funnier.  For some glimpses of the finished book, here’s a the book trailer, which, incidentally, also omits the punch line:

In many ways, It’s a Book epitomizes what Smith does.  Most of his books have some metatextual element to them.  That is, they’re books about books, books that reflect on what a book is or should be.  His first collaborations with Jon Scieszka — The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (1989) and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992) — both dismantle fairy tales.  In the former, Al Wolf provides his version of what that huffing and puffing was all about.  In the latter, after Jack the Narrator spoils the story by summarizing it before it begins, the wolf and Little Red Running Shorts leave the story, creating a blank page in the book.  The Happy Hocky Family (1993) and The Happy Hocky Family Move to the Country (2003) parody Dick and Jane and similar primers.  In the first book, Henry and Holly Hocky tell us “We take CARE of our TOYS” because “We do not want our toys to become broken.” Then, enter Cousin Stinky, clad in bright red advertisements from the backs of comic books.  “Where are your toys?” he asks.  Smith follows that with this page:

A page from Smith's The Happy Hocky Family

I love this page.  It gently mocks the earnest good behavior of the preceding pages, where Henry and Holly model how children should take care of one’s toys.  Since Smith has been evoking the well-behaved children of the Dick and Jane books, you might think this page would be on the virtues of sharing, even with Cousin Stinky.  But no.  This page says if you want to take care of your toys, then lie to your cousin.  The comic timing is perfect.

So are all the details. From the ersatz Mondrian on the wall in It’s a Book to the presidential biographies strewn about Katy’s floor in Madam President (2008), Smith creates images that are fun to re-read.  The more you know, the more you notice: his version of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington adorns the wall in Katy’s house and serves as the model for Smith’s version of the first president in John, Paul, George & Ben (2006) — the title of which, of course, is a comic riff on the Beatles.

page from John, Paul, George & Ben
The Beatles, Abbey Road

He’s also careful about the details he chooses.  The title page of John, Paul, George & Ben alludes to the Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969), but Smith shows restraint.  He does not show the “four lads” crossing the street or dressed in identical clothes, but he does place their bodies in the same positions as those of Harrison, McCartney, Starr, and Lennon. (Visually, John Hancock corresponds to George Harrison, Paul Revere to Paul McCartney, George to Ringo Starr, and Ben Franklin to John Lennon.)

Lane Smith, from It's a Book

In It’s a Book, he strips away anything that might distract us from the heart of the story — the conflict between the modern jackass and the traditional monkey.  His backgrounds are unusually spare, a change in color suggesting a change in tone or mood.   His language conveys the essential differences between the characters, which in turn creates the humor.

Yes, it’s a book.  But it’s also a fine example of storytelling, artwork, and humor.  In other words, it’s a Lane Smith book.

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Green Eggs and Ham: A 50-Word Book Turns 50

Green Eggs and HamDr. Seuss‘s Green Eggs and Ham is one of the reasons I do this blog, write books, and am an English professor.  Nearly forty years ago, Green Eggs and Ham — which turns 50 this month — taught me to read.  It also taught me that reading is fun, helping to make me a life-long reader.

The book didn’t teach me literacy all by itself, of course.  My parents read to me.  And I watched both Sesame Street and The Electric Company on PBS. But Green Eggs and Ham helped me put what I learned into practice.  The poetry and the limited vocabulary were key.

Seuss used a restricted vocabulary for his Beginner Books: since these were designed to teach reading, the idea was not to overwhelm a child with too many different words. The Cat in the Hat (1957) had 236 different words. He found the requirement of writing within word limits very challenging. He’d agreed to write a book that would teach children to read, but felt stymied. His favorite story about writing The Cat in the Hat is that, when about to give up in frustration after having written a story about a queen zebra (only to find neither word on the word list), he looked at the list of 348 different words provided by the publisher, and decided that he would find two words that rhyme: he found “cat” and “hat” and decided to make The Cat in the Hat the title of his book.  As is the case with many of Seuss’s stories, that’s not strictly true. When talking to the press, he was often more interested in telling a good story than in telling an accurate one.  In truth, images came easier to him than words did.  And the earliest story he told about the creation of The Cat in the Hat is likely the accurate one: in that version, he came across a sketch of a cat wearing a hat, found both words on the list, and made that the book’s title.

When, a few years later, his publisher bet him that he couldn’t write a book using 50 or fewer different words, Seuss’s response was Green Eggs and Ham.  For a beginning reader (such as I was), this is ideal because you encounter the same word many times.  The first time you see the word — house, mouse, fox, box — you have to sound it out, and Seuss’s end rhymes give you clues to pronunciation.  Subsequent times, seeing the word offers a sense of mastery.  I remember myself at three years old, experiencing such joy as the difficult words quickly became much easier.  When I finished reading Green Eggs and Ham — the first time I had read a book all by myself — I was so happy that I flipped the book back over to the front cover, and began to read again.

I’ve been talking a bit to people about Green Eggs and Ham lately — The Arena on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1 in July, and Breakfast with Red Symons on 774 ABC Melbourne (Australia) last week.  Tomorrow (Tuesday evening in Kansas, Wednesday morning in Australia), I’m on 720 ABC Perth’s Breakfast with Eoin Cameron. It’s been fun talking about the book, and about Seuss. But those do not seem the venues in which to share what the book means to me, personally. So, I’m writing about it here.  In teaching me not only how to read but why, Green Eggs and Ham helped make me a reader, which in turn led me to become an English major, and finally an English Ph.D… who happens to specialize in Children’s Literature.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. Scott Pilgrim: Believe the Hype

Scott Pilgrim: Movie PosterJust back from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which (as you may have read by now) is a fantastic adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s si­x-volume series of graphic novels.  This is why.  Director Edgar Wright understands what O’Malley is trying to do.  As in the books, the film treats narrative as a playful, allusive, genre-bending game.  Put another way: it’s not about the story.  It’s about the way O’Malley and Wright tell the story — virtuosic understanding of form, kinetic sense of visual movement, and hyper-consciousness of … everything. Really — of everything. Narrative structure, video games, comic books, action films, rock clichés, sit-coms, and emotion.

I say emotion because at the heart of the story, there is, well, heart.  Three hearts.  Scott Pilgrim’s, Ramona Flowers’, and Knives Chau’s.  And all three characters do learn something about love during the film — that it comes with baggage, that you need to respect yourself, and that it’s worth fighting for.  That emotional resonance — wonderfully delivered by Michael Cera (Scott), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona), and Ellen Wong (Knives) — gives this fast, funny, clever film enough weight to keep things grounded.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (the graphic novel)What’s fun, though, is the way Wright packs the scenes with references and jokes.  O’Malley does this sort of thing, too.  The little boxes that give you “fun facts” about the characters also appear in the comics, as do the references to videogames.  Wright does, of course, make some changes — moving pieces of plot around, adding some new gags and scenes.  But he understands the essence of what O’Malley is doing.  If we (taking Linda Hutcheon’s advice) think of adaptation as a kind of translation, then these two quotations from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” are key to evaluating any film version of another work (in this case, Wright’s version of O’Malley’s novels).  First, “no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife . . . the original undergoes a change.”1 Second, “[t]he task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.”2 I have no idea whether Wright has read Benjamin, but he grasps both of these ideas.  In the case of the first, he understands that attempting to undertake a “faithful” adaptation is impossible.  As Hutcheon3 notes, different media have different strengths and weakness: attempting a literally faithful adaptation simply doesn’t work.  What works in a comic-book format will not necessarily work on screen, and vice-versa.  In the case of the second point, Wright sees O’Malley’s intended effect, which is not merely a mash-up of a relationship story with ninja narratives and Final Fantasy II.  It is this, but it’s also using the storytelling techniques of these media to tell its own story.  And it’s the confidence in deploying these techniques with the precision, verve, and nerve that only a master can do.

I know that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has received a lot of hype … along with reviews by some people who didn’t get it (deftly dismantled by Linda Holmes at NPR).  This a case though when one can safely dismiss the detractors and (with apologies to Chuck D) believe the hype.  Beyond the film’s many innovations, it’s also a really fun evening at the movies.


1. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (1968; New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 73.

2. Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 76.

3. Any interesting insights about adaptation here derive from Linda Hutcheon’s excellent book, A Theory of Adaptation (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).  Any other insights likely derive from my own essay on the Harry Potter movies: “Lost in Translation?: Harry Potter, from Page to Screen,” which appears in Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, revised edition, ed. Elizabeth Heilman (Routledge, 2009), pp. 275-290.

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How to Publish Your Book; or, The Little Manuscript That Could

Graduate schools don’t teach you how to get your book published.  This post represents my attempt to help.  I’ll focus on academic publishing, rather than commercial publishing.  One disclaimer: this is what has worked for me.  Results may vary.

1.  Do you need to have written the entire book before you seek a contract? No.  You need a book proposal, and a chapter — ideally, a chapter and the introduction.  On the basis of these materials, you can get either a contract or a request to send the complete manuscript when finished.  In the latter case, the press will ask: How far along is the manuscript or when can you send us a completed manuscript?  Invent a deadline for yourself, and respond: “I’m on schedule to complete the book by … October 1st.”  (Or something.)  Note: for a first book, the press may want a complete manuscript before sending a contract.  But the proposal and chapter can get their attention and get you some feedback.

2.  What do you put in a book proposal?

Dr. Seuss: American Icon

  1. Summary.  Brief but punchy description of your book’s scope, goals, and contribution.  Be bold.  Here’s one of mine: “Dr. Seuss, American Icon will establish Seuss’s importance as a subject for critical inquiry while revealing the ideological assumptions behind Seuss’s work.  Since his death in 1991, Seuss has ascended in cultural importance, but little has been written on the social significance of this fact.  Seuss has, in effect, become another Disney — a corporate enterprise, a marketing phenomenon, a symbol of U.S. culture — but his transition from children’s book author to American icon has never been fully explored.  Dr. Seuss, American Icon will be the definitive book on this subject.”  End quote.  Is that an overstatement?  Of course it is.  But I prefer to think of it as plausible hyperbole, supported by evidence (elsewhere in the proposal).  And it’s truly what I hoped to accomplish in the book — though whether I did accomplish it is a separate question.
  2. Table of Contents, followed by chapter descriptions — no more than a single paragraph for each chapter.  Be succinct.  Lead with your main idea.
  3. Length of book.  About 100,000 words might be the upper limit here.
  4. Markets.  Who will buy your book?  Is it for fellow scholars only?  In which fields?  (Since I mostly work in children’s literature, some possible fields I’d suggest are: Education, Children’s Literature, Cultural Studies, Childhood Studies.  All of the above?)  Can you imagine your book also being read beyond academia?  If so, say so.  Might your book be assigned in a class?  If so, which classes?  How widely are these classes taught?  To support your claim, you might use a search engine, and locate a few specific examples.
  5. Competition.  To what other books is your book comparable?  You might here indicate how your book differs from those books — what are you doing that these other books are not doing?  A sentence or two on each book will suffice.
  6. The Author.  Who are you?  What are your qualifications for writing this?  A paragraph or so is sufficient here.
  7. Deadline.  When will the manuscript be complete?
  8. Illustrations.  If illustrations, you might indicate availability of illustrations.

William Germano's Getting It PublishedFor the best advice on what to put in a book proposal, read William Germano’s Getting It Published (here’s an excerpt).  If you’re here because you’re turning your dissertation into a book, then you should also read Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (here’s an excerpt).  They’ll give you better advice than I can.

3.  Which publisher? Look at publishers’ lists and see where your book might best fit — you can do this on-line.  Start with the books in your “competition”: who published those?  Since I work on children’s literature, I can tell you that many presses publish children’s lit scholarship, among them: Oxford, Yale, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Duke, Iowa, Mississippi, Norton, Wiley-Blackwell, Ashgate, Routledge, and Continuum. Duke and Mississippi are interested in popular culture more than children’s lit (Mississippi specializes in comics in particular); NYU tends more towards childhood studies, and history. There are many other differences between presses: Oxford and Yale have more money than, say, Mississippi or Iowa.  Refereed presses carry more prestige than non-refereed ones, though a major trade press will usually carry as much prestige as any refereed one.  Full disclosure: I’ve published with Continuum (2 books), UP Mississippi (2 books, one of which is forthcoming), NYU Press (2 books, one of which is forthcoming), and Random House (1 book).  I’ve had great experiences with all of these publishers.

4.  Contact the Appropriate Editor.  Once you’ve decided on likely publishers, contact the editor in charge of your area – if you’re doing Children’s Lit, that’s likely the Humanities Editor or the Literature Editor.  You can find this on the publisher’s website.  If you’re going to MLA or ASA, set up an appointment with these editors in advance.  Write a cover email in which you briefly describe your book and explain why it might fit with their list; offer to send the proposal, and ask if the editor might be free to chat at MLA or ASA. That’s the best approach, but I’ve only done that for the most recent books.  What I used to do is simply arrive at MLA with half a dozen copies of my book proposal, and half a dozen copies of my CV.  I walked through the book exhibit, gauging which publishers might be a good fit ­— then, I introduced myself, and made a little sales pitch for my book (which I rehearsed in advance).

5.   Can you give a book proposal to more than one publisher at a time? Yes, you can.  A publisher will ask for exclusive rights to review a manuscript. Once the manuscript is under review at Publisher X, you may not turn around and send it to Publisher Y. You need to wait until Publisher X has delivered its verdict. That said, for the most recent contract (Keywords for Children’s Literature), several publishers asked for exclusive review of the proposal — that was unusual. Hadn’t happened to me before. From what I’ve  heard, such requests are becoming more common. Since we already had the proposal under review with several places, we had to say, politely, “no” and ask if a non-exclusive review would be possible. In all cases, the publisher agreed to give it a non-exclusive review.

6.  If favorable readers’ reports, respond politely to the content only.  So, you send your book proposal — along with a sample chapter or two — to a publisher.  If the readers’ reports are favorable, you’ll need to respond.  Readers’ suggestions range from excellent ideas that will help you make the project better … to less helpful ideas, reflecting, perhaps, the book the readers would like to see you write or, maybe, a misunderstanding about what your book intends to accomplish. Accept the helpful suggestions with gratitude, and respond graciously to the other ones — perhaps your proposal could have more clearly conveyed that your book intends to do X and Y?  You might then quote the relevant part of your proposal, offer a few more explanatory sentences, indicating that while the reader offers promising directions for further development, to fully advance the aims of your project you won’t be able to pursue all of those directions even though you especially like direction number 7 which you find very helpful in reframing Chapter 3.  My policy is to cede when I can and to hold my ground when I can, but always do it politely.  If a reader’s report has a hostile tone, respond only to the content and not to the tone.

7.   If unfavorable news,… never say die! What if that publisher doesn’t either send you a contract or ask to see your manuscript?  Well, keep trying.  Go to the next publisher on your list.  If you remember nothing else from this blog post, remember these three words: Never say die.

Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War8.  If your proposal can’t be a book, it can become an article or a chapter of a different book. It’s possible that your idea simply isn’t going to work as a book. Not all ideas become books.  This isn’t because there are good ideas and bad ideas, although there are good ideas and bad ideas.  This is because there are marketable ideas and un-marketable ideas.  If you have a good idea for a book, but you can’t sell it… then it’s not a book.  Maybe it becomes an article or part of another book. As I noted in this blog’s inaugural post, my first failed book idea was a collection of Dr. Seuss’s World War II cartoons.  Right when a publisher was ready to offer me a contract, I learned that the New Press would be publishing Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War.  So, I turned my introduction into an article, which I published in Mosaic in 2001, and which became Chapter 2 of Dr. Seuss: American Icon — that article and the book proposal secured the contract for that book.  A more recent failed book idea is for an Annotated Ferdinand; I gained the support of the Leaf family and the Lawson estate, but I couldn’t interest Viking or Norton.  So, I’ll be turning that proposal and sample annotations into an article.  And so on.  In other words, if it won’t work as a book, then put it to some other use.  This is simply another version of never say die.

Gubar's Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature9. Reasons to keep trying.  Given the many obstacles, why should you pursue your dream of writing the book?  Two reasons.  In academia, writing a book means never having to explain yourself. You become (for example) Marah Gubar, author of Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature.  Second reason: in academe, publications are the coin of the realm, and we academics get to print our own money.  There’s pocket change — say, an encyclopedia entry or a book review.  Then there are moderately-sized bank notes — articles in refereed journals, essays in edited collections.  Finally, there are the Really Big Bank Notes — books.  The book increases your cultural capital more than any other kind of publication.  Now, I’m definitely not arguing that books should be so highly valued; some books should not be.  I am merely pointing out that they are highly valued.  And that’s a good reason to keep repeating to yourself, “I think I can, I think I can….” And it’s an excellent reason to make your Little Manuscript That Could… into the Little Book That Is.

Note: I presented a version of this at the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference in Normal, Illinois, on June 12, 2008.  Several people have indicated that they found this information helpful.  So, I thought I would share it with a wider audience.

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