Friday, March 7, 2008


Recently on one of the listservs I'm on, someone asked whether anyone knew what the movie Penelope was based on. There is a book by Marilyn Kaye, published in 2007, but the person asking the question thought the story originally came from an older folk tale. I was intrigued by the question so I did some web searching, and here's what I found. It turns out the movie IS actually an original screenplay based on an older tale and not the Kaye book. In fact, the book seems to be a movie tie-in product. The book itself says "Adapted from the screenplay by Leslie Caveny" and the movie website describes Caveny's creative process in coming up with the story. (A number of the reviews I saw online incorrectly state that the movie is based on Kaye's book, which is a shame. Caveny should be getting complete credit for her idea!)

In interviews, Caveny mentions that she based the movie on a folk tale, but she doesn't provide any more detail. My searching led me to believe the folk tale is probably that of Tannakin Skinker, a woman born with a pig snout whose only hope of having a normal face is marrying. It's pretty obscure: the only mentions I found of it are in scholarly works. Below are a link and an article excerpt for anyone interested.

There's a lot of information about the story in Jan Bondeson's The Two-Headed Boy, and Other Medical Marvels (in fact, there's a whole chapter about hog-faced women!).

This excerpt is from Kathryn Hoffmann's Of Monkey Girls and a Hog-Faced Gentlewoman: Marvel in Fairy Tales, Fairgrounds, and Cabinets of Curiosities:

"... It was the tale of Tannakin Skinker, the hog-faced gentlewoman. A fifteen-page pamphlet that told her story bore the following title: 'A certaine relation of the hog-faced gentlewoman called Mistris Tannakin Skinker, who was borne at Wirkham a Neuter Towne betweene the Emperour and the Hollander, scituate [sic] on the river Rhyne. Who was bewitched in her mother's womb in the yeare 1618 and hath lived ever since unknowne in this kind to any, but her parents and a few other neighbors. And can never recover her true shape, tell [sic] she be married' (n.p.). Tannakin's parents had, in typical fairy-tale fashion, 'very lovingly lived together, without any issue' for a long time, their lack of child 'being no small griefe unto them.' Mother Skinker, having finally conceived, to her great joy, makes the common fairy-tale error of refusing alms to an old woman who was heard to say, as she departed: 'As the mother is hoggish, so swinish shall be the Child shee goeth withall.' Miss Skinker is subsequently born with a snout and must be fed from a trough. A famous artist (who also happens to be a mathematician and an astronomer) predicts in equally familiar fashion that marriage, but only of course to a gentleman 'who would take her to his bed after loyall matrimony,' would cure her state. The promised dowry of forty thousand pounds supposedly attracted suitors from throughout Europe, desirous of the hand and the dowry (if not the face) of the maiden, willing to try their luck at transforming her back into human form through marriage."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sub texts

As a graduate student, I do a lot of reading as I research and write my dissertation. Most of it is pretty dry stuff---scholarly books and articles, unpublished dissertations, monographs, etc. Of course, I read a lot of the same types of things as an undergraduate student for my research papers back then, too. But as a graduate student, I have learned to read in a different way from the way I did in college. I not only read the text itself, but also the items that go before, under and after the text: introductions, acknowledgments, and footnotes and endnotes. It may seem obvious that one should read these things, but I've noticed from my teaching gigs that undergraduates rarely read footnotes, for example, which often means that they miss crucial information that the author has tucked into the small print. Footnotes and endnotes often point to the author's sources, or perhaps to a different scholar's theory on the same topic. Acknowledgments often pay tribute to those scholars whose ideas have helped the author formulate his or her own, revealing the web of connections in the small communities that make up academe. Introductions often provide a road map for the ideas ahead, laying out for the reader how the author went about conducting research, formulating his ideas, and finally finding the evidence to support his argument. Even the book dust jacket can reveal something interesting about the author, whether it's the name of his spouse (oh he's married to that professor?) or her educational background (oh she studied with that famous professor?). Altogether, these pre-, post- and sub-texts add layers to the experience of scholarly reading.

Why do I bring this up in a blog on children's literature? Two books that I recently checked out of the library make use of the areas usually not considered part of the "reading experience" of a picture book. In Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin with pictures by Betsy Lewin (Simon and Schuster, 2000), Betsy Lewin has included an "artist's note" on the title page. Maybe I just haven't looked closely enough (and I certainly haven't read a lot of picture books in the past 25 years), but this is the first time that I've seen such a note, in which she describes how she created her vibrant watercolor drawings. I was fascinated to learn that she first created brush drawings in black watercolor on tracing paper, then photocopied the drawings onto watercolor paper, and finally added the color washes. This allowed her to experiment with different colors as many times as she liked without having to redo the black drawings themselves. After reading this, I took another look at the pictures. I would never have guessed that a photocopier had been part of the artistic process, but its use means that the black ink lines are never faded, washed out or blurred by the colored washes of paint. Each black line is crisp and clear, and this really allows the character of the cows to pop off the page. It's not surprising that the book was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2001. What is surprising that (as we learn from the back flap of the dust jacket) Doreen Cronin is not a professional artist but an attorney, and this was her first picture book. (We also learn that she collects antique typewriters, no doubt a plus for a book about cows that type!)

Mo Willems, author of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Hyperion, 2003), is known for making use of the entire book for his artistic endeavor. The story starts on the opening endpaper and finishes on the closing endpaper. I had heard a lot about Willems from both my sister and my friend Susan, both graduate students in library science (and both focusing on children's literature). Although I read Knuffle Bunny first, Pigeon is Willems' first book. As in Knuffle Bunny, the story starts as soon as you open the book. On the two-page spread of the endpaper, Pigeon is dreaming of driving a bus, which zooms across the page. We turn the page, expecting to find the title page, but instead we meet the bus driver, who sets up the title of the book: "Hi! I'm the bus driver. Listen, I've got to leave for a little while, so can you watch things for me until I get back? Thanks. Oh, and remember:" (we jump to the next page, which is both the conclusion of the driver's request and the title of the book) "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" We turn the page again, and the story moves forward: the bus driver walks off and the pigeon peeks in from the corner of the far page. We start to turn the page to discover what the pigeon is up to. But wait! You missed something! Tucked below the image of the smiling bus driver walking away is what looks to be boring publication information. You know, the copyright, Library of Congress cataloging data, etc. But if you read closely, the copyright is not your typical copyright: "All rights reserved for humans, not pigeons." Even in something as dry as a copyright, Willems finds a way to add a little humor. (Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was also a Caldecott Honor winner, in 2004).

It's doubtful that children will notice these two little extras, but the discovery added to my enjoyment of both books (especially since at this point, I'm really reading more for myself than for the benefit of my six month old, who enjoys books only as much as he can fit them into his mouth). So, as you read, read like a graduate student and remember to look for those extras that can add to your reading experience.

See, graduate school IS good for something in the real world!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

I love James Marshall

Well, that pretty much sums it up: I love James Marshall. He is one of my favorite (possibly my absolute favorite) picture book author/illustrators. He's on my mind because recently a library patron requested that we add some more Scholastic Video Collection DVDs to our collection and one of the ones I ordered was Red Riding Hood... And More James Marshall Fairy Tale Favorites. I used this as an excuse to revisit some of my Marshall favorites, including George and Martha, the Fox easy readers and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (a Caldecott Honor book). I also came across some books I hadn't seen before, like Pocketful of Nonsense, his collection of limericks and rhymes.

I know I'm not alone in my James Marshall love: he was the winner of the 2007 Wilder Medal (an award given by the ALA that "honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children"). Also, the forward to George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends, is Maurice Sendak's beautiful tribute to Marshall. You can read an abbreviated version here.

Why do I love his picture books? First, his dry sense of humor. Second, his style--there are so few words on a page and the illustrations are not at all fussy, but they convey so much meaning. Third, the beautiful sentiments his stories convey (this mostly applies to George and Martha, who have disagreements and get into fights, but at the end of the day would do anything for one another).

I could say more, but Sendak says it much more eloquently. In Marshall's work, says Sendak, there is "No shticking, no nudging knowingly, no winking or pandering to the grown-ups at the expense of the kids." "Much has been written concerning the sheer deliciousness of Marshall's simple, elegant style. The simplicity is deceiving; there is richness of design and mastery of composition on every page." Of George and Martha: "Those dear, ditzy down-to-earth hippos bring serious pleasure to everybody, not only to children. They are time-capsule hippos who will always remind us... of the true, durable meaning of friendship under the best and worst conditions."

James Marshall died in 1992 at the age of 51. Despite how young he was at his death, he left behind an impressive and sizable body of work. It's sad to think about what other wonderful books he would have written had he lived longer, but I'm so glad he left what he did for us to enjoy.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Recent YA fiction favorites

I haven't reviewed any books in quite a while, but I have been reading like crazy, so I thought I would tell you about two of the YA series I've enjoyed recently.

Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga (Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse):
Ok, so I'm a little late in finding this series. The books have been popular best-sellers for a while, but I just read them in November. I raced through them and am now oh-so-patiently waiting for the next in the series (scheduled to be released next fall... sigh...). A very brief synopsis: When Bella Swan goes to a new high school, she encounters the mysterious Cullen siblings. Despite an hostile first encounter with Edward Cullen, Bella becomes intrigued by him and an unlikely relationship develops. As Bella gets to know the Cullens, she discovers their secret and finds herself being drawn deeper into their dangerous world.

I highly recommend them to anyone who likes vampires or romance or just YA books in general. And once you read them, visit, which is a terrific author website with a lot of great information.

Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series:
Five of an eventual seven books in the series have been published so far; the first is Mister Monday. They follow the story of Arthur Penhaligon, an ordinary boy who inadvertently becomes mixed up in a power struggle amongst beings from another world. About halfway through the third book it started feeling as though the books were following a predictable pattern (which I was losing interest in), but that perception quickly changed and I'm looking forward to the next installment of this as well. I recommend either the books or audiobooks. I listened to the audiobooks and thought the narrator, Alan Corduner, did a fantastic job creating unique voices for each character.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why do(n't) we read?

The New York Times had an interesting article on November 25 entitled, "A Good Mystery: Why We Read." I found the title rather provocative. I thought it was obvious why we read: to enter into someone else's imagination, to learn something new, but most of all, for fun---for the pure pleasure of leaving our world for a spell and becoming engrossed in a world of the author's fashioning. (I'm talking about recreational reading, not reading for work. God knows I do enough of that for my dissertation!)

But as the author, Motoko Rich, points out, the NEA recently released a study that found that Americans are reading less for fun these days. And I have to wonder, with so many wonderful books out there, and so many literary professionals and organizations extolling the wonders of reading in blogs, websites, and through awards programs (see my friend Susan's post on the Caldecott Honor awards), why are so many young people disinterested in reading?

The rise of video games and the Internet has often been fingered as the culprit, and I'm sure that these new technologies are partly to blame. But for each generation (at least beginning in the 20th century) there has always been a new technology to tempt our attentions; radio, film and the television have competed for our time long before the XBox was invented.

One recent trend that I have noticed among other parents with young children is the desire to schedule their children in structured activities. There are Mommy and Me music classes, Mommy and Me yoga classes, Strollercize fitness classes, and of course the ubiquitous Gymboree classes. I know a mother who started her son in Gymboree classes at three months of age. Now that she is back to work, she has her nanny take him to his classes. I'm not judging her (or any mom) for signing up for such classes; I think that they are often as much, if not more, for the mother's benefit (to meet other moms and get out of the house). Heck, if I had the money I would probably sign up for one, too. But with all this structured activity, how much time is left for unstructured activities, like drawing, make believe...or reading?

One bright light in all of this are the story time programs offered at my local library. My library is tiny. I mean, really tiny---most of what I want to check out has to be ordered from other branches because the circulating collection at my library is so small. But while it may lack a large collection, it does have something that is far more important: a really enthusiastic children's librarian. This librarian has started free story time programs for toddlers as well as babies (I believe the only one of its kind in the county), and he allows anyone to attend (other municipalities in the area limit attendance to residents of that particular town). These programs are so popular that people come from the neighboring county just to attend! What a wonderful way to get moms/dads/caregivers and their charges into the library and get them excited about reading. It's a shame that the other libraries in the county don't follow my library's lead and open up their programs to whomever wants to attend. It's a great first step to creating lifelong readers.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Return of the Mom

It's been a little over three months since I last posted on here. My son Ari was born in mid-July and consequently the blog has (understandably, I think) been relegated to the back-back burner.

I visited my parents in Washington, DC last week and saw my old friend Susan (author of Wizards Wireless) the other day and that, along with my son's improving sleep schedule, has inspired me to return. Susan is now (in addition to being a graduate student in library science) a children's book buyer for a local toy store, and her enthusiasm for children's literature is infectious. (Quick plug for her store, Child's Play, with branches in Rockville, MD and Chevy Chase, DC---we popped into the Chevy Chase branch, which looks like a tiny storefront but goes on and on...I got sidetracked by the excellent selection of infant toys at the front but eventually made it to the back, where they keep their amazing selection of books.)

My reading time has been sharply reduced as of late and now consists almost solely of the two books that I alternate for Ari's bedtime: Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Although Ari is much too young to actually understand what I read, I like to think that he enjoys the repetition. His eye-hand coordination has improved to the point where he can grab at the sturdy board book pages of Caterpillar (my sister Liz wisely bought us the original hardcover copy of Goodnight Moon; the board book cuts down the pages dramatically and a lot of key details are lost.)

Reading (and re-reading) these two classics, which were also two of my childhood favorites, sheds new light on what makes a successful children's book. Children love repetition, but we adults crave variety. I think that what makes these two books fresh night after night are the amazing details that the illustrations provide, from the delectable treats of the caterpillar's Saturday feast (not surprisingly, my favorite page as a child) to the collection of items that are wished a goodnight by the blue pajama-clad bunny. Although I can now recite Goodnight Moon verbatim, the drawings are what make the book interesting for me. I recently read a Time Out New York Kids article that asked various authors why they loved the book. Julia Glass wrote that both of her sons loved to search for the roving mouse on each page. I couldn't remember if I conducted a similar search as a child, but now as an adult, I took a look, and sure enough, the little mouse is there on every page in a new spot. The painting on the wall of two bunnies is from the other Brown/Hurd collaboration, The Runaway Bunny. And just last night, I noticed for the first time that a little green copy of Goodnight Moon is on the bunny's bedside table. Very post-modern.

I'm eager to hear what other books you have read over and over again and still find as intriguing as the first time you opened the cover.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little is an amusing debut by Peggy Gifford. It's the day before school starts and Moxy Maxwell still hasn't done her summer reading. She put it off all summer long and now has to read an entire book (Stuart Little) in one day. The book follows her over the course of that day, as Moxy puts off reading by finding other, more appealing things to do. Many children (and adults!) will relate to Moxy's skilled procrastination techniques and be entertained by the things she decides are priorities (such as planting peach pits in the yard for the peach orchard she might want to own when she is an adult).

The story is accompanied by photographs taken by Valorie Fisher. It's unusual to see photographs in a children's fiction book, but in this book they work very well. The pictures and accompanying captions enrich the text and add to the humor. Moxy's twin brother Max is credited with taking the pictures, and it's funny to see his side of the story through them. It took me a little while to get used to the photographs, but once I did I really enjoyed them. They help make the book feel like a true story and that might add to the appeal for some readers--especially those who can relate to procrastinating on their summer reading!

This is an excellent book for children who are ready to move on from easy readers, but aren't quite ready for books with long chapters. It has short chapters, a large font and the pictures help break up the text. Recommended for children in grades 3-5.