Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gene Yang at Hamline!

Just learned some great news! Gene Yang, author of the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award-winning American Born Chinese, is joining the faculty in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Hamline University. He was met with great enthusiasm (including from yours truly) when he spoke at the January residency in St. Paul.  For any of you aspiring graphic novelists out there (especially those who write for younger readers), this should serve as another nudge to check out Hamline! Peruse the website to learn more (and see what other amazing faculty are involved).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Book Review: Oil Spill! Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico

Oil Spill! Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a new non-fiction book by Elaine Landau that chronicles the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. It’s broken into several sections that cover the explosion, stoppage of the leak, the devastating affects on sea life and local economies, and suggestions for what concerned readers can do.

Landau does an excellent job of illustrating that there were no quick, neat, or easy solutions. Stopping the leak and conducting the clean up have been “messy” jobs. And without being preachy, she suggests concrete things readers can do to prevent such disasters in the future (like writing a congressperson about exploring and investing in cleaner energy, or—closer to home—reducing the amount of energy you use to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels).
Oil Spill! Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico
by Elaine Landau
Millbrook Press, 2011

I like the multi-pronged approach of the book, viewing the story from several perspectives to get a sense of the breadth of the disaster and what it took (and continues to take) to counteract the devastation. But it makes everything feel a bit distant. I wish there was a unifying thread in Oil Spill, tying together the separate sections of the book. As it stands, it’s like a collection of interesting topical essays about the disaster.

But Oil Spill is very readable. I appreciate the list of other disastrous spills at the end of the book that contextualizes how serious the Gulf spill is. And the glossary of terms is helpful for young (and older!) readers.  I’m struck by the violence of much of the terminology used by people addressing this disaster: top kill, junk shot, dead well, etc. It’s appropriate, I guess, since it’s almost like we’re at war with the disaster. Battling. Fighting. Defending sea life (and a way of life) on the Gulf Coast.

And the book is timely. Not only because the Gulf region is still feeling the affects of the spill (and will for quite some time). But because we’re constantly reminded of the volatility of our energy sources. Wars and political upheaval in the Middle East (Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) affect the price of oil. An earthquake and tsunami in Japan have caused crises at nuclear facilities. These are things that all of us need to think about—even kids. Maybe specially kids. Someday today’s children will take the reins on energy use and policy. And Landau manages to present a compelling read that asks them important questions without being pessimistic or (as I said before) preachy.  It’s not an angry book. But it also doesn’t gloss over the tough stuff. Oil Spill challenges its readers to think about the real world consequences of meeting contemporary energy needs.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dialectical Completism: a review of Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

I collect things. Especially books. And films. And I’m a completist; I like to have entire sets of my favorite things.  Since my sophomore year of college, I’ve been assembling the American Film Institute’s 100 Years...100 Movies list (the original one from 1997—not the 2007 update).  I have ninety-seven so far; I’m just waiting for re-releases of the last three. I collect other films, too, like ones by my favorite directors—Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Scorsese—or favorite TV shows, like The Simpsons.  I also collect favorite books and sets of favorite book series.

The collections are less pristine than they once were, having been boxed and unpacked for several moves (including two semi-trans-United-Statesian trips). And a newly toddling child who clears any and all reachable shelves adds to the torn pages, creased covers, scratched discs, and smudged jackets in my library.  But I’ve learned to let go of keeping things crisp and new (except for signed copies—I at least keep those out of reach).  Because the condition of these items has become less important to me as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it’s just that I want the things that are important to me—items that are useful, enjoyable, and influential—to be readily available. In their entirety.  Regardless of their condition.

Or maybe it’s something else.

At any rate, I can relate to Doug Swieteck’s quest for complete-ness in Gary Schmidt’s wonderful new book Okay for Now (due out April 5). But more on that quest in a minute.

First it’s important to understand young Mr. Swieteck’s circumstances.  For those of you who read Schmidt’s 2008 Newberry honor book The Wednesday Wars, you might remember Doug, a friend of Holling Hoodhood.  This book picks up about where Wars left off, but follows Doug and his family (instead of Holling and his) to “stupid Marysville, New York” in the summer of 1968.

Doug hates his new life in this little town in upstate New York.  He wants to be back near the city, near Yankee Stadium, where he might have another chance encounter with his favorite player Joe Pepitone, who Doug is convinced is the greatest guy in the world.  Young Doug enumerates, in his amusing and endearing voice, all of the things he hates about Marysville (and life in general), including his house, which he calls “The Dump.” Plus his older brother is a jerk who picks on him and steals all his stuff (including his Joe Pepitone signed baseball cap, which is the only piece of clothing he’s ever owned that hasn’t belonged to another Swieteck before him). His oldest brother’s off fighting in Vietnam. His dad is so dissatisfied with his life that he has taken it upon himself to make everyone else in the family absolutely miserable. And the principal at his new school doesn’t think much of him. Nor do several of his teachers—especially Coach Reed.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2011

But thankfully there are some bright spots in Doug’s Marysville life. First is his mother.  She’s a bright spot everywhere. Especially her smile. Enough said.  Then there is his company-picnic-baseball-trivia-partner/horse-shoe-instructor, who turns out to be his dad’s boss (you’ll need to read the book to fully understand this one). And, of course, there is Lil (short for Lily, short for Lillian) Spicer, who is in the eighth grade with Doug. In their first meeting, she teaches him how to drink a really cold Coke (spoiler: it involves an impressive belch) and offers him a Saturday delivery job at her dad’s store. Lil quickly becomes his first and best friend in Marysville.

But most important is the public library—which is funny since Doug has never before set foot in any other library in his entire life.  Inside he’s drawn to an enormous book in a glass case, which is opened to a painting of an artic tern.  The book is John James Audubon’s Birds of America. And Mr. Powell, a librarian, finds Doug tracing his finger over the image, entranced by its beauty. He immediately recognizes his interest (although Doug won’t admit it—it’s just a bird, so what?), and over the course of the book  teaches Doug (who is unsurprisingly reluctant, at first) to draw. And to draw well

The book is a bit darker than The Wednesday Wars, dealing with weightier subject matter. But Schmidt does so delicately. The story is at turns sad, joyous, infuriating, hysterical, and touching. And it is always sincere. It earns its emotional punches. We can feel the shifts in tone and mood as we navigate through the pages. And he provides subtle markers that tell us where we are in the story. Like with the delivery route.  Doug takes groceries to the same set of people every week, and Schmidt gives us quirky details about these characters and their lives. And how they change throughout the book (especially in their attitudes towards Doug) not only suggests the passage of time but reflects Doug’s internal and external struggles and the evolution of his place in Marysville. Doug learns how to ride the ups and downs of life, whether it be troubles or triumphs with his brothers (both of them, since the eldest returns from war partway through the book), his father, his teachers, or Lil.

Another point of navigation is the plates—individual paintings of birds—from the Audubon book.  Each chapter is centered on one of the plates, either on drawing it or collecting it (again more on the collection quest in a moment). Many chapters involve sequences in which Doug receives detailed instructions from Mr. Powell about perspective, movement, tension, etc.  In short, he learns how to bring life to static images (in the same way writers bring places and characters to life through the use of abstract, static symbols called letters). And Schmidt uses the descriptions of the paintings to create a deeper and more complete understanding of the relationships Doug has with the other characters. For example, Doug’s relationship to Coach Reed seems one-dimensional at first—the aggressive gym teacher and the somewhat mouthy new student. But Schmidt uses the painting of the fork-tailed petrels to illustrate one of the more complex relationship arcs in the story. When Doug and Coach Reed finally talk, really talk, it’s not the result of a direct engagement, smashing into each other as they have throughout the novel to that point. It’s more like they’re circling, circling, until finally the right situation emerges, the right words slip past their lips. They circle, circle until they meet like the petrels.

There are numerous subplots involving a play, a rash of robberies in Marysville, the hijinks (not of the amusing, whimsical variety) of his dad and his dad’s drinking buddy Ernie Eco, Doug’s oldest brother’s search for gainful employment, andoh yeah—the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, but these are secondary to Doug’s primary quest. Yes, we’re finally going to talk about the quest.

When the arctic tern disappears one day and Mr. Powell moves on to teaching Doug about another painting from the Audubon book, Doug learns a terrible truth. The book is very rare, and very valuable. How is that terrible, you might ask? The book is so valuable that few people can afford a copy in its entirety.  So the town of Marysville (which is short on cash) has been cutting individual paintings/pages/plates out of the book and selling them one by one. 

This devastates Doug, and he makes it his mission to return as many of the paintings to the book as he can.

If he succeeds, the book won’t be pristine.  Not even close.  Much in the way my DVDs and books have been battered, crushed, dented, and otherwise damaged over the years. Much in the same way people aren't in "mint condition." Not as children. Not as adults. But the book will be whole.  We can be whole.

For Doug, each plate he collects is literally an important page from his life (underscored by the way Schmidt organizes each chapter). The reassembled book represents a pivotal year of Doug’s adolescence.  A whole book. And a whole person.

Which makes me think that while it’s true that I collect things that are important to me for the simple reason that I like them to be readily accessible for my personal use (in their entirety), I think there might be something more meaningful going on.  The items or libraries we build or collect (of books, films, music, antiques, works of art, toy cars, rubber bands, whatever) are tangible representations of us, our internal selves fit nicely into objects we can (often) hold in our hands. That’s not to say we’re simply a sum of our possessions—that’s not what I mean at all. Doug, for example, doesn’t have much (not even his signed baseball cap that his stupid brother stole and it ended up in the stupid gutter). But the things we value both reflect and shape who we become. As do our quests.  Viewing the films I’ve collected and watched again and again or (and especially) reading the books I’ve read and the notes I’ve made in them at different times in my life, you will begin to get a sense of me. Not an exact me. But a sense. And that me grows and changes as my library grows and changes (as the complete sets I collect grow and change), which will in turn influence what I read and view and collect in the future.  And while I certainly won’t keep everything I’ve read or seen (or even everything that’s important to me), I will always have the quest. And the quest to complete those sets is as important to me as actually having them. Each movie in the AFI 100 represents a story for me (in how I acquired it, where and when and with whom I first saw it, etc.). The list has been an important part of the last nine years of my life.

And Doug spends a year of his life with these plates, which (in the acts of both drawing and collecting them) influence his actions, relationships, and feelings. And he directly impacts the paintings by getting them back to where they belong. Completing the book. "Completing" himself. And in a nice surprise twist at the end (one spoiler I will not reveal in detail), Doug becomes intimately linked to this particular copy of Birds of America, which, after he grows up (and possibly moves away from Marysville), he might never even see again. But it will always be a part of him and he a part of it. As will the quest to reassemble it.

As for me, I think I’ve decided how to fill the AFI void when I get through the list: by collecting the complete works of Gary D. Schmidt.

Recommended for ages 11-15.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Book Review: The Many Faces of George Washington

When you think of the face of George Washington, what comes to mind? The visage that graces the dollar bill, perhaps? Maybe his profile on the quarter? Or is it the majestic pose chiseled into the side of Mount Rushmore beside Presidents Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln? In her fascinating new book due out this month, The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon, Carla Killough McClaffery explains that not one of the above-mentioned images—or any other image of Washington painted, carved, or sculpted during his lifetime—looks exactly like any of the others. And since there is no photographic evidence from this time period, we’re left to wonder, do we really know what the first president of the United Sates actually looked like?  Or has his image been so irrevocably obscured by history that the closest we’ll ever get to the real thing is little more than a caricature?

The early part of the book is filled with examples of mismatching Washington portraiture in beautiful, full color images. And again, no two are alike, including two that were painted on the same day—during the same sitting—by father and son. Even the iconic image of Washington on the dollar bill is suspect. Washington sat for painter Gilbert Stuart on an “off day” for the portrait. And the President had new dentures that made his lips bulge out. On top of that, the portrait on the bill is actually a mirror image of the original (a product of the engraving process).

Throughout the rest of the book, McClaffery follows the contemporary leadership at Mt. Vernon as it tries to figure out what George Washington really looked like and develops three life-sized recreations of the man (at ages 19, 45, and 57).  The leadership compiles portraits—none of which were painted before he was forty—and written descriptions of the president, and forms a team, which includes a sculptor and a forensic anthropologist.

The Many Faces of George Washington:
Remaking a Presidential Icon
by Carla Killough McClafferty
Carolrhoda Book, 2011
As the figures emerge, McClaffery paints her own portrait (with words) of Washington, describing his life during the three time periods featured in the recreations. And she helps the reader understand that both science (including technical measurements and research) and art (consideration of subtlety, emotion, and character) combine to create the realistic representation of President Washington (with accurate size and dimension and appropriate expression and poise).

One of the team’s biggest breaks was the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon, a French sculptor who was commissioned to make a life-sized statue of Washington late in the 18th century. (Some wanted to make a larger than life sculpture of the man, but at over six-feet in height, Washington himself said life-sized would be big enough.)  Fortunately, Houdon insisted on doing the sculpture in person (not just from a portrait) so he traveled the Atlantic and lived at Mt. Vernon for several weeks, drawing Washington, getting to know him, taking precise measurements, and casting the President’s face! The original cast has been lost, but the life mask and bust that he made from it survive.

From the bust and the mask, McClaffery explains how researchers used sophisticated scanning technology to create detailed 3D imaging of Washington’s face. She discusses how his appearance changed as he aged (especially his mouth and jaw due to his severe tooth-loss) and how sculptors considered how bone and skin and muscle affect appearance and change over time.  She talks about Washington’s posture—a product of his grooming as a gentleman in upper class society—and his clothing, which was recreated for these figures according to styles he would have worn, right down to the type of fabrics used.

You can see how the President’s life story is so intimately tied to his appearance (and the recreation of it).

And as McClaffery recounts the pain-staking detail that went into the creation of each model of Washington at 19 (as a young surveyer), 45 (as a general in the revloution), and 57 (as the first President), her story of the man unfolds. I worried, at first, that it would be a dry recap of his life—like many other histories and biographies I’ve read of Washington. But her portrait really does put a heart to the face. She recounts his struggles, desires, profound sense of duty and obligation to his country, sophistication and class, and warmth and humor.

A particular scene that sticks out to me is one in which he addresses congress, officially giving up his role as commander-in-chief following the end of the war. He felt he was a poor public speaker so he wrote out his remarks, and his hand shook as he held the paper and made his speech.  Apparently there were few dry eyes in the chamber when he was finished.

The final chapter of the book underscores the interdisciplinary involvement in this project: anthropology, science, technology, art history, and textiles. Artists, scholars, tailors, taxidermists, and craftspeople, who demonstrate “the study of human history is not confined to research libraries or archaeological digs” (107). 

And James C. Reese, Mount Vernon president, says that people who visit the historic site don’t really know much about him. They might respect the President, but they feel no connection to him. Reese says that changes by the time they leave: “They really feel good about Washington, and that makes them feel good about America” (108).

Ultimately, McClafferty’s book makes us think about how our own physical characteristics, clothing expressions, posture, etc. affect what we think, how we act, who we are. And vice versa.

And by the end of the book, after we see all three of the Washington re-creations now on display at Mt. Vernon, we feel that a man whose image was once obscured by history has been made “flesh and bone” again through modern technology and old-fashioned story-telling. Washington is made accessible and relevant.

Excellent read!  Recommended for ages 9-12.