Thursday, April 21, 2011

Marc Brown at Hicklebee's

If you don't know who Marc Brown is you probably have not had a kid or been a kid or been around kids in the last 35 years. Marc Brown is the author and illustrator of the Arthur books which have been made into a long running TV show on PBS. And because I like author mash ups, especially when they involve Neil Gaiman, here is an episode of Arthur in which Neil Gaiman makes a guest appearance and we hear the line "Neil Gaiman? What are you doing in my falafel?"

So anyway! Marc Brown has written a new Arthur book - the first in 10 years! - called Arthur Turns Green. You've probably already guessed it has an environmental message. Hicklebee's was packed to the rafters with kids of all ages eager to meet such a beloved author. He drew Arthur twice, the original long nosed version and the newer rounded nose with glasses version. He talked about how he was inspired to give Arthur glasses when one day, while visiting a school, he saw a boy with lose shoe laces dash into the bathroom. After a bit of screaming, the boy exited the bathroom, which he then realized was actually the girls bathroom. Embarrassed, he reached into his pocket, pulled out his glasses, put them on, and then went, correctly, into the boys bathroom. He also drew a picture of D.W. and their baby sister, Kate. He then read Arthur Turns Green to an attentive audience, although, as one child pointed out, he didn't even have to look at the words on the page to read the book!
Naturally, I bought the book for our library and took a picture with Mr. Brown, which will be added to my author shrine as soon I get it in the mail.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Hunger Games

Whew! I finished listening to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins this afternoon. What a ride! I can see what all the excitement is about now. This book is not available in the Marshall Lane Library but I've had quite a few 5th graders ask for it so I thought I should read it for myself so I could say why it's not in our library. It is a YA title. It's pretty dark and violent. If you haven't read it yet and care about such things, from here on out there be SPOILERS.
The story takes place sometime in the distant future of an Earth-like world. Climate change has made resources scarce and after a series of wars, North America seems to have emerged as a new country called Panem consisting of the Capitol and 12 surrounding districts. The 13 district was crushed by the Capitol in a failed uprising. Each district has a specific function, for instance, district 12 mines the coal, district 11 grows food, etc., however, resources are scarce and most seem to go to the Capitol first. Starvation is common in many of the districts. A district may earn more food for a year by offering a "tribute" to the Hunger Games. A tribute is a child of the district between the age of 12 and 18 who is sent to the Capitol to battle the "tributes" from the other districts to the death in a huge arena that mimics a type of environment and is manipulated by the "game makers." Every year each district sends two tributes, 1 boy and 1 girl, to the Hunger Games from which only one can emerge victorious and 23 must die. The games are televised and people are encouraged to sponsor their favorite players. This adds a twist to the game play because if players win the favor of the audience, they may earn special items to help them in the game. It's like Survivor on steroids. Katniss and Peeta are the tributes from District 12, a district that has not produced a champion in over 30 years. Once the tributes are selected they are shipped off to the capitol and treated as the celebrities du jour. They are given make overs and weapons training and they are coached on strategies and how to win the favor of the audience. As it turns out, Peeta carries a torch for Katniss, which Katniss finds out during a public interview, and they are encouraged by their team of coaches to play up the romance angle to please the audience. It works. As violent as the game is, it is even more heartbreaking to see Peeta and Katniss's emotions manipulated for entertainment. Katniss is painfully aware throughout the games that she must not only survive but put on a good show. And is Peeta doing the same? Or does he really love her? And when the games are finally over, she realizes she can't continue to be the person she was in the arena yet she's unable to be who she was before.
Dystopian sci-fi often feels like cautionary tales, and there is a bit of that here, what with our thirst for 'reality' television, but I was too swept away by the horror of the games and the heartbreaking tale of Peeta and Katniss to tell if there were any fingers wagging at me.
Although you won't find The Hunger Games at the Marshall Lane Library, if you'd like to read something similar try The Giver, by Lois Lowry or The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer, both of which can be found in the Marshall Lane Library.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Celebrating stories.

Today Mr. Richards and I went to WonderCon in San Francisco. It's a big media convention - mostly comics - held at Moscone Center. It was a three day event but we just went up today specifically to see the Doctor Who panel, more specifically because Neil Gaiman was on the panel. I don't think it's any secret that I'm kind of a Neil Gaiman fan. I'm also a Doctor Who fan. So when Neil Gaiman writes an episode of Doctor Who, well that's just a perfect storm of fandom. This is a picture of me waiting in line for the panel this morning; I brought a sock to work on in case we had to wait for anything. There was a very large crowd for this panel. And it was very cool - we got a free t-shirt - and interesting but it's not the main thing I wanted to talk about here. I went to two other panels which were more academic in nature; the first was about female spies and private eyes in comics and their evolution, and the second was about comics for kids. Now the interesting thing about this topic is that I think most people would say, "aren't all comics for kids?" And the answer is no, in fact, most comics now days are for grown ups. The people who used to be kids and loved their comics so much that they wanted grown up comics to read when they grew up are now writing, drawing, and painting them. They spent a decade or so convincing the public that comics were not just for kids and not all comics were about costumed superheroes. So the comic book industry grew up and kind of left the kids behind. And now the publishers think that the only people buying comics are adults and teens, according to the panelists, one of whom was Jennifer Holm of Babymouse fame. Babymouse is very popular now but it took several years to get the first one published, she said. This challenge is added to the "not real reading" attitude that many parents still hold about comics. Yet time and time again, when I listen to authors and illustrators speak, many of them talk about how they were inspired by the comic books they read as kids. At the Doctor Who panel I mentioned earlier Toby Haynes, director of the first two episodes of season 6, spoke of his dyslexia and said that the first book he every finished reading without help was a Doctor Who comic book. The stories spoke to him and inspired him and kept him reading.
Something else the panel discussed was writing for children in general. They came to the conclusion that while it is more difficult to write for children, stories that are written with a specific audience in mind tend to feel inauthentic. So again, it comes down to story. Is it a good story? Do I care about the characters? Do I want to know what happens next? A good story will appeal to all kinds of people - male, female, young, old, whatever.
And speaking of good stories, I happened to read the graphic novel Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel yesterday. I know that this book has been getting lots of good reviews and is landing on a lot of top ten lists so I thought I'd give it a looksee. It is a fantastic book. Frank Gallows is a sort of hard boiled ghost hunter whose work is a bit sloppy. Garth Hale is a kid who's been diagnosed with an unnamed terminal disease. Their paths cross when Gallows accidentally sends Garth to the afterlife with a captured ghost. While Frank must find a way to get Garth back to the living world, Garth discovers he has powers in the after life and uses them to battle the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, and free the city of the dead from his reign of terror. Although this book is at a second grade reading level, the subject matter puts it at no less than a fifth grade interest level, in my opinion. The story is very well written and it only feels a little bit like a book written for kids, it certainly doesn't read like a second grade book! The pictures are dark and edgy and would definitely appeal to the older kids. I was raving about it to Mr. Richards and now he's reading it himself!
So, to wrap up this whole thing, as Mr. Richards and I talked about the day, we came away with the feeling that the thing that everyone at that convention center had in common was the love of a good story, whether it was the people writing episodes for a popular british science fiction TV show, people drawing pictures for comic books, or the people who dressed up as their favorite characters, everyone was celebrating stories and storytelling. We felt pretty lucky to have been a small part of that today.