Nine years ago, I started teaching a course I called “Harry Potter’s Library: J.K. Rowling, Texts and Contexts.” This coming fall, I’ll be teaching it for the seventh time (eighth, if you count the semester I taught two sections). The course has been so popular that Kansas State University uses it in its promotional materials. Faced with a high demand for the class, the English Department offers at least one section each year. Thankfully, my colleagues Karin Westman and Naomi Wood have also been teaching it (freeing me to teach other courses). Indeed, our current syllabus is a collaborative effort — and will likely change further before the term actually starts. I’d like to incorporate some PotterMore, and arrange for a guest lecturer on Wizard Rock.
When I began teaching the class, on the first day I asked “How many people have read any of the books or seen the first film?” About half of the class raised hands. On the first day of class now, all thirty students answer that question in the affirmative. Indeed, on the first day of class, 27 or 28 students have read the entire series at least once. These students have grown up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione as their contemporaries. These students are the “Harry Potter generation.”
It’s tempting to claim that the release of the seventh (and final) film next month will be a kind of milestone for this generation — the last dramatic adaptation of their beloved series. And it might be that. But such a claim suggests that it (the film) will serve as a sort of “concluding chapter” to a phase of their lives, and I don’t think that’s strictly accurate. A more accurate claim would be to say that, for many of this generation, the Harry Potter series constitutes a key portion their shared culture. In increasingly fragmented media world (websites! videogames! Facebook! Twitter! movies! TV!), Harry Potter is one thing that they have in common — or most of them do, anyway. Even if they’re not fans of the series, they’ll know the basic references.
The closest analogue that my generation has is Star Wars, and yet Harry Potter feels bigger than Star Wars. I haven’t studied this subject closely, but my sense is that the appeal of Harry Potter is broader than that of Star Wars. Fans of each are comparably devout, fond of dressing up in costumes, collecting memorabilia, having conventions. But I cannot think of anything comparable to, say, Wizard Rock in the Star Wars fan community. For a variety of reasons, Harry Potter has permeated the culture much more thoroughly than just about anything else. What the Beatles are to popular music, Harry Potter is to children’s literature — and, indeed, to popular culture. In the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book, Professor Minerva McGonagall predicted that the infant Harry Potter “will be famous — a legend — … there will be books written about Harry — every child will know his name.” Rowling could not, then, have known how prophetic that statement would turn out to be.
Well. Back to the course. The structure, each time, has been roughly the same. Part I: Antecedents and Influences. Part II: The Harry Potter series (plus some critical articles on it). Part III: Contemporary British Fantasy. But the particular texts have varied. Sometimes, for Part III, we’ve done the entire His Dark Materials trilogy. Diana Wynne Jones and Eoin Colfer have also made appearances in Part III. Lately, we’ve been doing Pullman’s book 1 (The Golden Compass) with book 1 from Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.
The class pulls in people from all over the university — we’ve had students from just about every major. Since the total number of credit hours already taken determines when a student gets to enroll, most of the students are seniors — many of whom, they tell me, have been waiting to take the class since they were freshmen.
Lest readers of this blog post imagine that the course is “light,” take another look at the syllabus. The Potter novels themselves run a total of 4,195 pages. When you add in the other novels and additional critical texts, that’s a lot of reading. Sure, most of the reading is fun. But it’s also work — the rare work that is also enjoyable. Happily, students who enroll in the course tend to be dedicated and (thus) do not complain about the heavy reading load. And, over the course of the semester, they come to understand that it’s fun to take children’s literature seriously.
It is fun. And showing people the fun of taking children’s books seriously is one of the reasons I do what I do — teaching and writing about literature for young people.
Many folks who attended Julia Mickenberg’s and my “Radical Children’s Literature Now!” lecture today at the Children’s Literature Association Conference in Roanoke asked: “I didn’t get a handout. Could I have one?” Since we only made 200 copies, here is that handout. (The entire lecture will be on the Children’s Literature Association’s website in the future.)
Radical Children’s Literature Now!
Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel
Francelia Butler Lecture
25 June 2011
Mac Barnett, Moustache. Illus. Kevin Cornell. Hyperion, 2011.
Tom Tomorrow (pseud. of Dan Perkins), The Very Silly Mayor. IG Publishing, 2009.
Mohieddin Ellabbad, The Illustrator’s Notebook. 1999. Transl. Sarah Quinn. Groundwood, 2006.
Uri Shulevitz, How I Learned Geography. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008.
Amy Lee-Tai, A Place Where the Sunflowers Grow. Illus. Felicia Hoshino. Children’s Book Press, 2006.
Peter Sis, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.
James Rumford, Silent Music. Roaring Brook Press, 2008.
Davide Cali and Serge Bloch,The Enemy: a book about peace. Schwartz & Wade (Random House), 2009.
Nicolas Debon, A Brave Soldier. Groundwood, 2002.
Walter Dean Myers, Patrol. Collages by Ann Grifalconi. HarperCollins, 2002.
Ahmad Akbarpour and Morteza Zahedi, Good Night, Commander. 2005. Translated by Shadi Eskandani and Helen Mixter. Groundwood, 2010.
Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky. Illus. Stéphane Jorisch. Kids Can Press, 2004.
Environment / Global Climate Change
Lauren Child, Charlie and Lola: We Are Extremely Very Good Recyclers. Dial, 2009.
Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch, How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming. Dawn Publications, 2008.
Charise Harper, Just Grace Goes Green. Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
Megan McDonald, Judy Moody Saves The World. Candlewick Press, 2002.
Jennifer Berne, Manfish. Chronicle Books, 2008.
Dan Yaccarino, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau. Knopf, 2009.
Claire A Nivola, Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008.
Jeanette Winter, Wangari’s Trees of Peace. Harcourt, 2008.
Molly Bang, Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Effort to Save the Bays. Henry Holt and Company, 2000.
Sara Pennypacker, Sparrow Girl. Hyperion, 2009.
Janet S. Wong, The Dumpster Diver. Illus. David Roberts. Candlewick, 2007.
Jonah Winter, Here Comes the Garbage Barge. Illus. Red Nose Studio. Random House, 2010.
Thomas King, A Coyote Solstice Tale.Illus. by Gary Clement. Groundwood, 2009.
Homelessness and Poverty
Avi Slodovnick, The Tooth. Illus. Manon Gauthier. Kane/Miller, 2009.
Vera Williams, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart. Greenwillow, 2001.
Elisa Amado, Tricycle, illustrated by Alfonso Ruano. Groundwood, 2007.
Catherine Stier, If I Ran for President. Illus. Lynne Avril. Albert Whitman & Co., 2007.
Lane Smith, Madam President. Hyperion, 2008.
—, John, Paul, George & Ben. Hyperion, 2006.
Kelly DiPucchio, Grace for President. Illus. LeUyen Pham. Hyperion, 2008.
Chris Van Allsburg, Queen of the Falls. Houghton Mifflin, 2011.
—, Widow’s Broom. Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
David Walliams, The Boy in the Dress. Illus. Quentin Blake. Razorbill/Penguin, 2008.
Harvey Fierstein, The Sissy Duckling. Illus. Henry Cole. Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Pija Lindenbaum, Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle. Translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard. R&S Books, 2007.
Leslea Newman, Mommy, Mama, and Me. Tricycle Press, 2009.
—, Daddy, Papa, and Me. Tricycle Press, 2009.
Bobbie Combs, ABC: A Family Alphabet Book. Illus. Desiree Keane & Brian Rappa. Two Lives, 2001.
Cheryl Kilodavis, My Princess Boy. Illus. Suzanne DeSimone. Aladdin, 2009.
Marcus Ewert, 10,000 Dresses. Illus. by Rex Ray. Seven Stories, Press, 2008.
Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, And Tango Makes Three. Illus. Henry Cole. Simon & Schuster, 2005.
[Sex], Death, Disability, and Mental Illness
Nicholas Allan, Where Willy Went: The Big Story of a Little Sperm. 2004. Red Fox, 2006.
Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley, It’s Not the Stork!: A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Familes, and Friends. Candlewick, 2005.
—, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. 15th Anniversary Edition. Candlewick, 2009.
—, It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. Candlewick, 1999.
Pija Lindenbaum, When Owen’s Mom Breathed Fire. Translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard. R&S Books, 2006.
Shaun Tan, The Red Tree. 2001. Simply Red Books, 2003.
Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría, The Black Book of Colors. Transl. by Elisa Amado. Groundwood, 2008.
Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman, The Pencil. Candlewick Press, 2008.
Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Litchenheld, Duck! Rabbit! Chronicle Books, 2009.
Kara LaReau and Scott Magoon, Ugly Fish. Harcourt, 2006.
Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Tadpole’s Promise. Andersen Press, 2003.
Boni Ashburn, Hush, Little Dragon, Illus. Kelly Murphy. Abrams, 2008.
Sylviane Donnio, I’d Really Like to Eat a Child. Illus. Dorothée de Monfried. Transl. Leslie Martin. Random House, 2007.
The Jane Adams Children’s Book Award, established 1953, “given annually to the children’s books published the preceding year that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races.”
The Pura Belpre Medal honors “a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose works best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth
The Coretta Scott King Award, established forty years ago, honors African American authors and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions
The Green Earth Book Award, is given to “authors and illustrators whose books best raise awareness of environmental stewardship, and the beauty of our natural world and the responsibility that we have to protect it”
USBBY lists Outstanding International Books, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s Choices highlights books on subjects such as Peace and Justice, Labor, Earth and the Environment, (Eco-Reading), Gay and Lesbian Themes and Topics, “Global Reading” (books set in other countries), and Recommended Picture Books Featuring Interracial Families.
Happy First Day of Summer! Here’s a “Summertime” box set. I will now take your questions.
Q: Are there good “summer” songs omitted from these four mixes?
A: Yes, of course there are. I came up with an additional 133 songs that I did not use.
Q: Will you assemble more mixes including those songs?
A: If I had world enough and time,… I would. But…. [Long pause.] Yes — the young man in beige?
Q: Beyond “Summertime,” does each mix have any additional theme or mood?
A: Yes. The first three are all uptempo. The fourth is more midtempo, even quiet, and contains the highest proportion of melancholic songs. So, if you want something a little more calm, head for the fourth one.
“Let’s take a kayak / To Quincy or Nyack” or, no, “Let’s take a powder / To Boston for Chowder.” Love the couplets, and the band’s shouted responses to Anita O’Day’s vocals. “Let’s take a trip to Niagara. / This time we’ll look at the falls.” Band replies: “What? No romance?”
“And the sun keeps shining ’til it’s dead and gone. / And it must be summer ’cause I can’t go on.” Power pop with melancholic lyrics. Fountains of Wayne’s new record, Sky Full of Holes, is due out later this summer.
Covered by T. Rex, Blue Cheer, and many others — but here’s the original. For a guy who only lived to be 21 years old, Eddie Cochran had a remarkable impact on popular music. In particular, check out his “Somethin’ Else,” “C’mon Everybody,” and “Nervous Breakdown.”
“Can’t you dig the sunshine?” This ersatz pop group perform this song on a talent show (on their own hit TV series, The Brady Bunch), and place third. Hmm. I guess the judges had no appreciation for camp.
From the duo of Bill DeMain and Molly Felder (a.k.a. Swan Dive), a bit of happy summer pop. I knew Bill when I lived in Nashville. He once made me an incredible mix tape of Italian film soundtrack music. Someday, I should try to recreate it on CD — it was (and remains) one of my favorite mixes.
This “supergroup” (the late Robert Palmer, Chic’s Tony Thompson, and Duran Duran’s John Taylor and Andy Taylor) also had a hit with a cover of T.Rex’s “Bang a Gong.”
12) Summertime Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (1999) 2:10
With music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, this song from Porgy and Bess gets a punk make-over. This version appears on Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ Are a Drag — all covers of show tunes.
I’m a devotee of cover versions and I’ve heard the Van Halen rendition of this song, but I’ve yet to hear a recording that beats John Brim’s original. And yes, Mr. Brim is talking about what you think he’s talking about.
Unlike the last song, this one — as far as I’m aware — is just about ice cream. I mean, I’m aware that one could perform it to bring out other meanings. But, in this rendition, it sounds quite literal (to me, at any rate).
After Squeeze broke up in 1982, Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook cut a record as a duo. Released in 1984, it’s the “lost” Squeeze album between Sweets from a Stranger (1982) and Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (1985)
An update. Shortly after yesterday’s blog post, my editor said I could go ahead and send it all in. This means either that he (or someone else) will now seek places to cut or that it’s moving ahead to the copy-editing stage. Either way, it’s off my desk until [unknown date]!
With a mixture of pride and embarrassment, Nine Kinds of Pie commemorates this (possibly) momentous occasion with some amateur photography.
DVD containing the full manuscript plus all images.
A panorama of permissions.
Envelope (containing ms., images, &c.) poses for a photograph that it will later regret.
Diving into mailbox, envelope at last evades grinning lunatic. Whew!
One final note: If this is indeed going into copy-editing now, then expect The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss to be published in June 2012.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy previous entries of similarly dubious merit, all concerning the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:
On Monday, I finished the eighth edit of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and sent it to my editor. I’m really happy with all of the edits I’ve made. I finally understand his advice, and have cut anything that feels purely “completist,” and focused instead on the critical bio., keeping in mind a “trade”/general audience. I have also removed any in-text image descriptions, taken out all discursive footnotes, condensed the footnotes (no need to replicate what’s already in the bibliography), restructured the early chapters (so that they once again alternate between Krauss’s life and Johnson’s), and attended to the second reader’s suggestions. In sum, it’s good — without question, the best version of this manuscript to date. So, that’s the good news.
The bad news is that I’ve fixed everything but word count. It’s 23,000 words shorter than the last version, but still exceeds the word limit he’d like. With notes, it’s 136,250 words. He wants it no longer than 125,000. My figure of 136,250 does not include bibliography or acknowledgments — and his limit of 125,000 does include both. If he’ll accept it, I will then burn everything (full ms., plus images, permissions, etc.) to disc and send it to the press. If he won’t, then I’m not sure what will happen. But here are three possible outcomes:
I’ve done my best, editing most paragraphs at least twice, often reading things aloud (sometimes to Karin, who has also offered her suggestions). But I can’t see where else I should be cutting: either he or another editor will need to offer specific advice on what should go. So, that’s one possibility.
Another possibility is that I try a ninth time, but I won’t have time to pursue round nine until the fall. Receiving comments in early May, rather than earlier in the year, has complicated my work schedule for the early summer months, and I already have work lined up for the rest of the year. Even in the fall, I’d need to squeeze this in amidst other tasks.
A third possibility — which I really hope I don’t have to pursue — is to consider withdrawing the manuscript and taking it elsewhere. I really, really do not want to do this. For one thing, it would mean re-doing all the permissions… which I also really, really do not want to do. For another, sheesh, what a mess that would be. I just don’t want to go there. If I have to go there to get this published, I will. But it’s definitely a “last resort” option.
Mostly, I can’t bear the psychic burden of this unfinished project any longer. I began this book during the waning years of the Clinton administration. For the past year and a half (I sent in the complete manuscript in December 2009), I have been doing what the press asks of me, and then receiving feedback that indicates I’ve failed to do what the press has asked of me. Each time, I figure, well, I’ve misunderstood — let me try again. I try again, and the cycle repeats itself. The whole thing has worn me out.
Having said that, from my editor’s point of view, I must seem a particularly slow study: he gives me advice, but I continue to make the same mistakes. Further, I am positive that the manuscript can be better than it now is. I’m also positive that it can be shorter than it now is. I’m sure that further edits would improve it. My problem is: I cannot see what those edits might be.
One reason — and one reason that writing this book has been more challenging than any other I’ve written — is that this book requires me to be a creative writer. I’ve had to learn how to structure a narrative, create character, and do all the things that creative writers do. I have no training in either writing or editing fiction.
Another reason that this has been so challenging is that I feel constrained by the facts. Biography is informed speculation, but I’m wary of straying from what I know for certain. So, for instance, the second reader asked for “some vivid details” about the moment that Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss met. That’s a great idea, and would definitely improve the story. Unfortunately, I have very little information on their meeting. They met at a party either on Fire Island or in Greenwich Village (sources differ). Of meeting Dave (Crockett Johnson) Ruth liked to say “We met and that was it!” Also, they were both living in Greenwich Village at the time. And that’s all that I know. So, I’d already written this:
Though she and Dave were working in different parts of Manhattan, both lived in Greenwich Village. That fall, at a party in the Village or on Fire Island (sources differ), the outgoing, energetic Ruth met the wry, laconic Dave. He was tall and taciturn. Seven inches shorter, she was slim, exuberant, and ready to speak her mind.
In an effort to follow the second reader’s advice, I added:
Her exuberance drew him out of his natural reticence, and into conversation. His calm, grounded personality balanced her turbulent energy.
I used what I knew about their respective personalities to infer a sense of what their meeting might have been like. And then, the paragraph concludes with what I’d already written:
They were complimentary opposites who felt an immediate attraction toward one another. As Ruth liked to say, “We met and that was it!”
The two additional sentences (about her exuberance and his calmness) are slightly more speculative than I like to be, but I like the emotional content they bring to the scene.
Well to keep with the “outtakes” in the title of this post, here are a few more cuts. Generally speaking, Crockett Johnson didn’t have art hanging on the walls and was skeptical of those who did. But he did have Art Young’s last Christmas card hanging up. That’s significant for many reasons: their shared left politics, the fact that they knew each other, and Young’s status as one of the great political cartoonists. I still mention the card in this chapter (Chapter 11) and elsewhere touch on their acquaintance, but I’ve cut a lot of my description of this card, which:
reproduced at its top a glimpse of Young’s 1916 card. That earlier card featured a caricature of Young, arms spread wide, his right hand pointing to “1916” and his left holding his cane aloft. Framed by sunlight breaking through the clouds, its caption read “The road to tomorrow.” The lower two thirds show a much older Young, his right hand a fist with its thumb pointing up to “1944” and “FOUR FREEDOMS” (with “maybe more” in smaller letters below). In the background, light breaks through clouds, as swastikas fly away in retreat. This caption read, “It’s a long road, but now we are getting somewhere.” Though Young is older and slightly hunched over, he looks determined and hopeful. Fascism is being routed, and perhaps can be expanded.
I’ve retained the card’s message but cut the extensive description (reproduced above). Young died in late December 1943.
Had I space enough, I would love to reproduce Johnson’s entire Bosco ad parody in Chapter 20. It’s hilarious, and gonzo before the term “gonzo” existed. I don’t have space, and have in this round of editing trimmed the summary even further. Fortunately for you, you can see the whole thing on my blog.
Likewise, I’ve trimmed my analyses of Ruth’s poetry. I still retain some, but have also cut such passages as this one, which discusses two of her poems published in the first issue of the short-lived Nadada (1964) — an issue that included work by Allen Ginsburg, Frank O’Hara, Charles Bukowski, and Ted Berrigan.
Ruth’s more experimental contribution, the brief “Song,” juxtaposes images from mass culture with the repeated line “I was thinking of you,” as in: “when further down the page I saw Eat Five Kinds of Apples from Just one Miracle Tree / I was thinking of you.” In contrast, the longer “Poem” offers a lyrical exploration of Ruth’s favorite theme — the coming of spring. It begins, “I’d much rather sit there in the sun / watching the snow drip from the trees / and the milkman’s footsteps fill up with water / and the shadow of the spruce tree branches waving / over the sparkle on the leftover snow / and the water dripping in front of my eyes.”
I retain, elsewhere, some analysis of her verse, but this is one example of close-reading that just slowed the narrative down too much.
After Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) died, Ruth struggled on her own. I have many examples of her relying on a boarder to help her cope with life’s daily challenges. So, I’ve cut this example from Chapter 27:
When a blizzard hit in February 1978, water from the Sound rolled up the long driveway, pushed open the garage door, and flooded their cars. Fortunately, Binnie and a visiting boyfriend — Ruth had no problem with male guests — were able to struggle with the cars, and get them cleaned up again. The effects of the storm were too much for Ruth to face on her own.
Indeed, I have other examples featuring Binnie Klein. I realized that one reason I’d been retaining this one is that the Blizzard of ’78 has special resonance for me. When it hit, I was in grade school, in Massachusetts. Three feet of snow closed school for a week, and snowplows created snowbanks over five feet tall. That was significant for me, but not for Ruth and nor for this book.
All of the above were definitely superfluous and the book is better without them. As I say, I’m sure the book could be improved by removing other pieces — only, I lack the ability to figure out what those pieces are.
By way of conclusion, here’s (Doozies creator) Tom Gammill parody of a Ken Burns-style documentary on R.C. Harvey’s Milt Caniff biography. In addition to being funny, this clip makes me feel a lot better about my own manuscript. 900 pages? Mine is a double biography and it ain’t even half that long.
Incidentally, that’s Jean Schulz (widow of Charles M.) near the end, using Harvey’s book as a nutcracker.
Gluttons for punishment may enjoy other entries in the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:
Each year the Children’s Literature Assocation is guaranteed one session at the MLA and can submit proposals for up to two more.* If you would like to propose a session topic, by June 17th please send the ChLA/MLA Liaison (Philip Nel: firstname.lastname@example.org): (1) a short description of your proposal idea, and, if relevant, (2) the name of an other MLA-affiliated entity (allied organization, division, or discussion group) you plan to seek as a co-sponsor. The ChLA Board will examine the proposals and select the top three (one guaranteed, plus two additional**) for submission to the 2013 MLA Convention.
*If ChLA chooses to submit two additional sessions, one of those sessions must be a collaborative session with another entity (division, discussion group, allied organization, etc.).
**The proposals for the two additional sessions are not guaranteed and will be reviewed by the MLA Program Committee. Please see the Procedures for Organizing Meetings on the MLA Web site (http://mla.org/conv_procedures) for further details.
In an op-ed piece that the Wall Street Journal published as an article, Meghan Cox Gurdon criticizes contemporary young adult fiction for its darkness. As she writes, “it is … possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.” In other words, reading about troubled teens may not help console the troubled, but may in fact create more troubled teens.
Rebutting this claim, one Meghan Cox Gurdon wisely notes, “Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code.” In other words, reading about troubled teens will not create more troubled teens. Since Gurdon makes this point earlier in the same article, one wonders whether there are two Gurdons at work here — say, Gurdon (who deplores darkness in lit for teens) and Gurdon Prime (who recognizes that darkness need not beget darkness).
Gurdon Prime makes a strong point. Representing anorexia, bullying, rape, racism, or any of the host of challenges that teens face is different from endorsing any of those things. For this reason, Gurdon misses the mark when she accuses the “book industry” of using “the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into … children’s lives.” As Gurdon Prime knows, representation is different from endorsement. Since Gurdon does not appear to be in as close contact with her (former, I presume?) collaborator, I’d like to amplify Gurdon Prime’s point with a few tips on how to tell the difference between representation and endorsement.
1) Which characters does the novel represent sympathetically? With which ideas do those characters seem aligned?
2) Since detecting sympathy seems a challenge for Gurdon, here are some literary terms to keep in mind:
A. Point of view. Whose points of view does the book represent? If it is a third-person narrative, does it tend to align itself with particular characters? Which ones? When? Why? If it is a first-person narrative, is the narrator reliable? Or do the narrator’s perceptions and interpretations of events fail to coincide with the implied opinions and norms of the author? If a book gives you reason to doubt the veracity of its narrator, then you have an unreliable narrator — and you’d be wise to view this character’s words with skepticism.
B. Diction, which is a fancy term for “word choice.” The words an author chooses convey tone, a term for the speaker’s attitude towards the object of discourse. If, for instance, Gurdon Prime suggested that Gurdon were “a narrow-minded, nattering nitwit,” one would feel compelled to note the sarcasm in such a choice of words. The alliterative pleasures of that repeated “n” aside, this would be an ad hominem attack on Gurdon — personal and needlessly hostile. And such diction might make us interpret Gurdon Prime as mean-spirited, even cruel. On the other hand, what if Gurdon Prime instead said that Gurdon were “guilty only of her concern for young people, a concern which sometimes manifests itself in language that conveys passion more than it does an ability to read critically”? In addition to suspecting Gurdon Prime of harboring an academic affiliation, we might also note the sympathy manifest in phrases like “concern for young people” and in the politic nature of the criticism: in this claim, “language” is the culprit, not Gurdon herself.
C. Narrative structure. Who gets the first word in the book? Who gets the last? What impact does structure have on point of view?
3) There are of course many other literary features to consider here. And many novels are ambiguous, requiring the reader to think about where to place her or his sympathy. If Collins’ The Hunger Games (one of the books Gurdon cites) invites criticism of the violent spectacle in which Katniss and other tributes must participate, how do we evaluate those moments where the novel seems to invite us to root for Katniss, hoping that her acts of violence allow her to survive? Is Collins’ novel complicit with what it strives to critique? Or is she hoping to make the reader uneasy, by engendering in her or him the very feelings that the novel exposes as dangerous?
I suspect that Gurdon Prime understands all of the preceding points. Here’s hoping that Gurdon is willing to listen to her erstwhile writing partner — indeed, here’s hoping that they collaborate again. Together, they might produce some lasting work.
The good news. I’m making progress, and — currently up to Chapter 20 (of 28) — have cut far more (already) than I did on the last round of revisions. I have a clearer sense of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (UP Mississippi, June 2012). I can better see what belongs in the manuscript and what can be safely trimmed. I’m happy with what I’ve cut: I think the omissions make the book stronger. Since making these revisions have required me to read the manuscript very closely, I’ve also refined the prose here and there.
The bad news. This is extremely painstaking work. Sometimes, I have to read a paragraph many times in order to figure out what goes and what stays. This evening, Karin kindly helped me work through Chapter 18 — which was great, because it can be hard for me to see when something could be trimmed or isn’t working as well. And, to be perfectly frank, though I am doing my best, I cannot see my way to getting the manuscript down to the 125,000-word compromise my editor and I agreed on. If that 125,000 words included only the main text and the notes, well… then I’d be coming close. But it doesn’t — it includes the whole thing, including the massive bibliography.
Here’s something I struggled with cutting — largely because I like the image of Dave (Crockett Johnson) driving his tan Austin, racing the river. The incident, cut from Chapter 14, takes place on a vacation that he and Ruth took with filmmaker Gene Searchinger and his wife Marian, c. 1950:
Gene was fascinated by Nova Scotia’s tidal bore: When the tide comes in to the Bay of Fundy, it temporarily reverses the river’s direction as the ocean surges upstream. Having brought his movie camera, Gene decided to film it, with the idea of showing it on Today. To give a sense of just how fast the water moved, Gene filmed Dave driving along the edge of the river, glancing over his shoulder to see if he could keep up with the surging current. The footage never aired, but (if it has not been thrown away) somewhere in NBC’s vaults is film of a tall bald man, in a tan Austin, racing the river.
I cut it because there’s another, more telling anecdote from the same holiday. And, though this image makes me happy, it doesn’t advance the narrative.
Some of the easiest things to cut have been items that, though too detailed for the bio., are not too detailed for The Complete Barnaby (Fantagraphics, 5 vols., 2012-2014). So, those items will appear in the Fantagraphics volumes. Johnson’s etymology of “Cushlamochree!” (Mr. O’Malley’s signature expression) will not be in the bio., but it will be in The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 1.
I cut the paragraph below from Chapter 4 because it struck me as too technical, and because I’d already spent time in this section on Johnson’s New Masses cartoons. Though I like this, it just seemed too much for this point in the book:
Stylistically, Johnson has not yet arrived at the Otto Soglow-esque minimalism for which he is famous. Although the detail is less abundant and the lines more fluid than his earliest work, these lines display more dramatic variations in thickness — beginning thin at an end, and then inflating to show the shadow of an elbow or to accentuate the nape of the neck, before slimming back down to a point. Unlike Crockett Johnson’s characteristic style, these lines often do not close, instead just suggesting the boundaries of a figure. The faces of those whom he satirizes even include elements of caricature. These features bring his early cartoons nearer to that of his contemporary Al Hirschfeld. Johnson lacks Hirschfeld’s delight in rendering minutiae, and uses a lesser degree of exaggeration, but there is an edge that softens in Johnson’s later, characteristic style — a style which would emerge in just a few years, and which he would not alter for the rest of his career.
This next bit comes from Chapter 5, just after Ruth Krauss has arrived in London, c. 1938-1939. Ruth did not plan this trip particularly well. She met Elwyn (named below) on the ship over, and he introduced her to the woman with whom she would stay in London. Here’s a little more about Elwyn, whom she elsewhere describes as “dopey”:
On her second day in London, Elwyn introduced Ruth to “another guy,” whom invited Ruth to call. When she reached his house and rang the bell, his landlady stuck her head out of the window.
Ruth asked for her tenant.
The landlady replied, “You’re well out of it, me girl. They’ve come and took ’im in the night!”
Via some other friends, Ruth later investigated this claim, and it was true: the police had taken him, though “unjustly.”
Before Elwyn could introduce her to other questionable young men,
The narrative then picks up with Ruth’s bicycle trip, which I have included.
I’d planned to post more cuts, and to do so more frequently, but these revisions — and other tasks — are proving so consuming that I’ve had little time for the blog. As ever, thanks for reading. Look for the bio. of Johnson and Krauss in about a year’s time!
The patient and the masochistic may enjoy other entries in the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:
biography outtakes, part 5 (Dec. 2010): this and those below are from the round of edits I did in the fall. In that round of editing, I removed 10,000 words. I need to remove several times that in this round of editing. Hoo boy.
Mp3s are for sampling purposes. If you like what you hear, please go and buy it. Go to the artists' concerts. Tell your friends about them. If you represent an artist or a label and would prefer that I remove a link to an mp3, please email me: philnel at gmail dot com.