Archive for February, 2013

Maurice Sendak, Uncensored

The Comics Journal 302 (2013): coverComics people will already know what is being billed as (and probably is) Maurice Sendak’s Final Interview.  (It was conducted in 2011, and he died last May.)  So, I’m writing this for all the children’s literature people out there: here’s why you might want to read this interview, which appears in the latest issue (no. 302) of The Comics Journal.

Pre-publication, Sendak’s fantasy of assassinating President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney got the most publicity. People who didn’t know Sendak were shocked, not realizing that he was making a dark joke. That said, it’s no understatement to say that he truly despised the Bush administration. One of the first times he and I spoke (on the telephone), Maurice referred to President George W. Bush as “that fucking fuckface.” This was back in June 2001, before 9/11 became an opportunity to launch “pre-emptive war,” before Abu Ghraib, before warrantless wiretapping, before torture, and all the rest. Needless to say, Sendak’s opinion of the administration did not improve over time.

Yes, you read his nickname for Mr. Bush correctly. What’s particularly delightful about this interview is that it has not been expurgated. Often, reporters edit out Sendak’s exuberant profanity. Gary Groth (who conducted this interview) leaves it all in. As a result, when you read the interview, it sounds like Sendak talking with you. He loves Henry James, “Jew-hating motherfucker that he is.”  He has an irrational, “impersonal hatred” for Alec Baldwin, “that fat-faced fuck.”  And so on.

He and Groth talk a lot about movies, including why Buster Keaton is better than Charlie Chaplin, favorite actresses (Simone Signoret, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard) and why most contemporary films aren’t worth seeing. But they also talk about William Blake, Herman Melville, Salman Rushdie, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franz Schubert, and Vincent Van Gogh’s wife.  It’s a wide-ranging interview, covering many subjects.

The Comics Journal: Sendak interview

As is always the case, Sendak is quotable:

On the creative process: “I’m trying to be honest with you. That you never feel you’ve gotten it right because you have a kind of vision, or a kind of feeling. But your body, your hands, the brush in your hand — nothing equips you to fulfill what the original impulse was. So the original impulse is the most exciting thing” (43).

On the publishing industry: “we cannot, I think, separate ourselves from our time. Like when I began in the ’50s … Young people were welcomed. New things were happening, a surge of energy, a surge of hope. A surge of happiness. And now it’s all dwindled. And so I say, look, I’m very lucky that’s when my time was. What a blessing that I could be there and then and be with editors and people in the publishing world who appreciated young people and wanted them to be crazy like I was. Nobody wants them now” (47).

On writing children’s books: “I get criticized for doing too many serious books. Why is there a dead child in your books? Why is there a chagrined mother? Because that’s the way it is. It works both ways. You either become very superficial and do it for the money, or you become very serious and you turn people off. And if it’s a book for children, my God! I would not know how to write a book for children. I’ve never written a book for children. And yet I’m known as a children’s-book writer and illustrator, OK?” (53).

Bonus: the interview is lavishly illustrated with both art from Sendak’s books and images from other works he mentions. There’s an essay by Alexander Theroux, and a reminiscence from Gene Deitch. (I also contributed an overview of Sendak’s career.) But the interview itself will be of greatest interest.

Though lengthy, the interview does not cover everything important. They don’t talk about Ruth Krauss, one of the key professional relationships in Sendak’s life. (For that, you’ll need to read Sendak’s “Ruth Krauss & Me: A Very Special Partnership” [Horn Book, May/June 1994] or my bio. of Johnson and Krauss.) But this was to have been as the first in a series of interviews, and so Groth never got to ask all of the questions he’d planned to. In any case, for a comprehensive interview with someone as accomplished as Sendak was, you would need an entire book.

Above all, in reading Groth’s interview, it’s great to hear Maurice’s voice — his salty, funny, grumpy, insightful, irascible voice — just one last time.

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Introducing the Niblings

The Niblings

Meet the Niblings, a new blog consortium (found on both Facebook and Twitter), representing Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (Julie Danielson, a.k.a. Jules), A Fuse #8 Production (Betsy Bird), Nine Kinds of Pie (yours truly), and 100 Scope Notes (Travis Jonker). We considered calling ourselves “100 Notes on Why 7 8 9,” but, happily, the group liked my suggestion of “The Niblings.”

Our goal with this group is to share — in one convenient location — links from our blogs, as well as other interesting links related to the field of children’s literature. Instead of us sharing links to our respective blogs on four separate pages, consider this (the Facebook page or Twitter feed) a one-stop resource center for information on children’s literature. This was initially Jules’ idea, ’cause she isn’t happy unless she’s collaborating with others, and she has immense respect for these three other blogs. And she couldn’t pass up the fun numerology in these four blog titles.

“The Niblings” comes from Tove Jansson’s Moomin series: 

“Do you like educational games?” Hodgkins asked cautiously.
“I love them!” said the Nibling.
I sat down and didn’t know what to say.

— Tove Jannson, final chapter of Moominpappa’s Memoirs (1968, revision of The Exploits of Moominpappa, 1950), translated by Thomas Warburton, p. 147

Why this name for our group?

  1. Tove Jansson‘s Niblings love educational games and are, of course, often hungry. And we four children’s-lit bloggers have a comparably rapacious curiosity.
  2. It is the nature of blogs to take small bites of things. Niblings like to gnaw on things, too. (Niblings also chew off noses they think are too long. We vow not to do this.)
  3. “Niblings” is a term for nieces or nephews and thus offers an additional link to young readers.
  4. The word evokes other literary groups, such as the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, et al), as well as Fanny Burney’s 1779 play The Witlings (which satirizes the literary world).
  5. It’s slightly absurd, rather like Monty Python, Moxy FruvousBoing Boing (the blog), or A Fuse #8 Production (Betsy’s blog).

The NiblingsWe hope you enjoy our group. The cover image/logo was created by the great Megan Montague Cash and is © 2013 The Niblings (Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, Travis Jonker, Philip Nel).

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Abe Lincoln’s Dream

Lane Smith, Abe Lincoln's Dream (2012): coverLane Smith’s Abe Lincoln’s Dream invites us, with America’s 16th president, to travel through dreams and corny jokes, and to consider the state of the nation. In a tone that falls between the humor of his John, Paul, George and Ben (2006) and the reflective mood of the Caldecott-Honor Grandpa Green (2011), Smith’s latest picture book imagines an encounter between President Lincoln’s restless ghost and Quincy, a girl who has strayed from her White House tour group. It’s a visually absorbing, gentle story in which good (and bad) humor stave off melancholy, and which encourages readers to reflect on American history.

“Encourages” may be too strong a word. It’s more that the book’s subtlety grants us the space to reflect. Quincy shares her first name with the middle name of America’s 6th president, John Quincy Adams, who, in his post-presidential career fought against slavery. She resembles an older version of the African-American girl from Smith’s The Big Pets (1991). But the book never mentions her race, Adams, nor his politics. Nor that a two-page spread of Lincoln strolling through roses may allude to both the Rose Garden and the variety of flower known as the Lincoln Rose. However, the accretion of these details and others grant the book a visual richness that invites re-reading.

Heck, the book is even typographically engaging. Abe Lincoln’s Dream’s layout recalls broadsides, with lines of text in alternating sizes, some in all capitals. Miraculously, designer Molly Leach has created this broadside look without sacrificing readability. There’s also something in these rectangles of text that echoes two other recurring rectangles: Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, and his long legs.

In Smith’s rendering, Lincoln’s limbs are absurdly long and sharply angular — features that are both comic and accurate. (Lincoln was 6′ 4″.)  These images also reflect a child’s perspective on an adult: as a giant pair of legs that towers over her. Smith introduces this motif in the book’s opening pages, when three different presidential dogs get spooked by Lincoln’s ghost. FDR’s Fala ends up below a framed pair of legs (in the lower part of a portrait), LBJ’s Yuki approaches a pair of legs (LBJ’s) that extend up and off the page, and Reagan’s Rex cowers near table legs.

"Do you know how long a man's legs should be?" from Lane Smith's Abe Lincoln's Dream (2012)

Yes, there are also several silly jokes, some of which involve legs. Lincoln evidently had a fondness for this sort of humor.  (Who knew?  I didn’t.)  Presumably, these jokes helped him cope with the heavy burdens of office. As he tells Quincy, “I apologize if I appear restless, but there was so much to do beyond 1865. Our union was so fragile, so uncertain. Like that ship on the rocky sea.”

In response, Quincy tells him that “A lot has changed since 1865.” Then, Lincoln’s ghost takes her hand and they fly up above the White House.  As Smith’s narrator explains, “The ghost did the flying. The girl answered the questions.” While they soar above the Capitol, past a mural of the Statue of Liberty (and other places), she tells him that things have improved since then. Her words share the page with images that do and do not support her optimism, though the book itself ultimately gestures towards a better future.

"And equality for all?" from Lane Smith's Abe Lincoln's Dream (2012)

When you’re living in a country reluctant to face climate change, its wars, economic inequality, or its crumbing infrastructure, it’s a daily challenge to find hope. Though Abe Lincoln’s Dream doesn’t explicitly address these issues (and there’s no reason it should), its conclusion supplies the hope that all political change requires, and that children seem to possess in greater quantities than adults. The night after her visit, Quincy dreams of “a tall man in black, on a boat moving rapidly toward the rising sun.” On the next (and final) pages, there he is, standing towards the prow of a patriotic steamboat, smiling as he faces the future. Here’s hoping that Quincy’s dream comes true.

"He was smiling" from Lane Smith's Abe Lincoln's Dream (2012)

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Vanity, Thy Name Is Lawsuit

Edwin Mellen Press

As you may have heard, the Edwin Mellen Press is suing librarian Dale Askey and his employer, McMaster University, for damages in excess of $4 million.

Why?  The suit alleges that Askey is guilty of libel for calling Edwin Mellen Press “a vanity press” and suggesting that it lacks “academic credibility.”  There are several problems with this claim.

  1. In the blog post in question (since removed, but still available via Archive.org), Askey does not call Edwin Mellen Press “a vanity press.”  He acknowledges that “they are not technically a vanity publisher” because they don’t require authors to underwrite the cost of their books.
  2. A serious academic press values academic freedom. It does not (for example) try to silence its critics with a multi-million dollar lawsuit.  A serious academic press builds its reputation on reputable titles.  If Edwin Mellen Press seeks to earn the title of “litigious bully,” filing this lawsuit will aid its cause.  However, if it seeks to improve its reputation, such legal action seems unlikely to further its aims.  As Inside Higher Ed and Academic Librarian have both reported, this is not the first time it has filed a lawsuit to defend its reputation.  The press’s last such lawsuit failed.  (A 1993 article in Lingua Franca called Edwin Mellen “a quasi-vanity press cunningly disguised as an academic publishing house.”)
  3. Making judgments about the quality of scholarship is a professional librarian’s job.  As Leslie Green notes, Askey in a 2010 blog post said “that Mellen was a poor publisher with a weak list of low-quality books, scarcely edited, cheaply produced, but at exorbitant prices.  Librarians are expert at making such judgments; that’s what universities pay them to do.  And the post made a key point about the public interest: ‘in a time when libraries cannot purchase so much of the first-class scholarship, there is simply no reason to support such ventures.’”
  4. Academics do not take threats to academic freedom lightly.  Librarians, Professors, and other academic professionals can advise their libraries not to buy books published by Edwin Mellen Press.  One way to do this would be to ask that, if a library’s vendor has Edwin Mellen Press on a list of books to be purchased automatically, then it should ask that the books of Edwin Mellen Press be removed from this “automatically purchase” arrangement. What it might do instead is, should a faculty member (or, to set the threshold a little higher, several faculty members) recommend a particular book, then the library will purchase it.  But the library will only purchase specific volumes recommended by faculty members — or by a particular number of faculty members. That way, should Edwin Mellen Press publish reputable scholarship (which it does do, on occasion), a library could purchase it.  Edwin Mellen can't spellBut Edwin Mellen could no longer rely upon automatic purchases from libraries.
  5. The Streisand effect.  As in the case of Barbra Streisand’s attempt to remove a photograph of her house from the web, the Edwin Mellen Press’s attempts to silence Dale Askey’s criticism has simply given more publicity to that criticism.  In sum, the more we blog about this and the more it gets report, the more that people will learn about the critique and the behavior of Edwin Mellen Press.  John Dupuis’s post “Publisher hits new low” has collected all of these links, and is adding new ones as Mr. Dupuis becomes aware of them.  UpdateThis point added on 11 Feb. 2013.
  6. I can think of no evidence to contradict Askey’s claim that while “they occasionally publish a worthy title,… so much of what they publish is simply second-class scholarship (and that is being kind in some cases).”  To judge from the comments I’ve seen elsewhere as well as from informal conversations with peers, this view of Edwin Mellen Press is widely held.  As William Pannapacker tweeted in response to the lawsuit against Askey and McMaster,

Heck, the website is so poorly edited that it misspells the institutional affiliation of a professor who endorses it (see image above right).  The word is Massachusetts, not Massachusettes.

What We Can Do to Help

So, for those of us who value academic freedom and feel comfortable speaking up, there are several steps we might take:

  • There is a petition asking Edwin Mellen to drop the lawsuit.  Sign it.
  • Who is paying for Dale Askey’s legal costs?  McMaster has just published a statement affirming their commitment to academic freedom, but Inside Higher Ed notes that Askey is paying for his own legal fees.  Full disclosure: I’ve met Dale Askey before and am a friend of his wife’s. (They both used to work at Kansas State.)  Earlier today, she indicated on my Facebook wall that they were indeed paying for their own legal fees.  Should that still be the case, could someone with knowledge of how these things work please set up a site where we might contribute to cover his legal fees?  Call it the “Dale Askey Legal Defense Fund,” perhaps.  And when you do this, please let me know so that I can add a link, here.  Thank you.
  • Let other concerned people know about it.  Use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and so on.  I’ve been using the #FreeDaleAskey hashtag each time I tweet about it.  Perhaps we might adopt that?  Would be great to see this trending on Twitter.
  • Speaking of legal fees, I wonder if this is the sort of case which someone like Lawrence Lessig might take on?  I realize that Professor Lessig is a busy man, and I have never met him myself.  So, I don’t mean to suggest that he’s obligated to add to what is already a considerable workload, but perhaps he — or someone like him — might take an interest in the case?
  • Contact your professional organization and ask that they address it.  So far, there have been statements from the Canadian Library Association, the Progressive Librarians Guild, McMaster University, the York University Faculty Association, and other faculty associations. UpdateThis point added on 11 Feb. 2013.
  • Other ideas?  Please share them in the comments section.  Thank you.

Update, 11 Feb. 2013: Added point no. 5 and the “Contact your professional organization” point (above).

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How to Mispronounce “Dr. Seuss.”

Dr. Seuss poses with The Cat in the Hat and other books, c. 1957Offering a great example of information without context, The Week‘s Amanda Green says we should not pronounce “Dr. Seuss” as “Doctor Soose” but as “Doctor Zoice.”  She’s wrong.

The professional pseudonym of Theodor Seuss Geisel is Dr. Seuss, and all the English-speaking world pronounced it “Doctor Soose.”  If you pronounce it “Doctor Zoice,” you’ll sound like a fool.

It is true that the middle name of Theodor Geisel — “Seuss,” which was also his mother’s maiden name — was pronounced “Zoice” by the family, and by Theodor Geisel himself.  So, if you are pronouncing his full given name, saying “Zoice” instead of “Soose” would not be wrong.  You’d have to explain the pronunciation to your listener, but you would be pronouncing it as the family did.

However, if you’re referring to the author of books for children, you pronounce it “Doctor Soose.” For his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss accepted this pronunciation of his middle name.

Since you may have arrived at this page from anywhere (and may not be a regular reader of this blog), I should tell you that I’m the author of Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) and The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats (2007).  I also wrote the bio. and timeline for Random House’s Seussville website.  The beginning of that bio. includes the pronunciation information (“Zoice”), which I learned from Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995).  If you read one secondary source about Seuss, their book is the one to read.

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