le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, May 28, 2012

toys (even a potato, even a soda bottle)

Pretty sure my heart just broke. 

ingenuity and inventiveness, of course, but you can't call this "upcycling."  
but it does speak to the need for toys, which is a very, very, very old need indeed (there is archaeological and other evidence for pull toys and dolls going back thousands of years).

In Juliana Ewing's "Land of Lost Toys," there is a very brief passage about a toy that is respected and revered by the others for how much it was loved: a potato, the "doll" of a poor Irish child, a toy the child clung to even through starvation and death.

Friday, May 25, 2012

the color of YA lit

Kate Hart has done an astonishing amount of research and compiled some impressive and disturbing charts with the results. She looked at over 600 covers of YA lit from 2011 (and of course missed some titles which would alter percentages, but this is a sample study she did on her own initiative; it would require serious time and funding for a truly comprehensive study). She includes a few graphics of YA book covers by color - actual color of the jacket or cover of the book, irrespective of skin colors of characters - and those are quite fun. When she moves on to the analysis of racial representation, it gets deeply depressing.
Broad roundup: 10% of book covers featured characters of ambiguous race/ethnicity. 90% featured white people. 1.4% featured Latino/Latina; 1.4% featured Asian; 1.2% featured Black characters.
90% white.

Hart includes a list of links at the end of her post to other writers on the topic of race and representation, many of which I have read at one point or another. This is a topic worth keeping an eye on; as I've said before, representation matters. It matters deeply.  There's been a lot of fairly offensive racist ballyhoo about the newly-release statistic that more than half of all babies born in the US now are not white; how about they get some books with people on the covers who look like them? Better still, with people in the pages who look like them?
Last year there was a lot of talk online, including some posts from authors detailing their experiences (links to which unfortunately I do not have), and in general it seems that a lot of the publishing world, especially the big publishers, are pretty uninterested in protagonists of color. And by "uninterested," I mean they return manuscripts suggesting they be re-written with white protagonists instead.

Along with continuing to write characters of color, it's important that we, as book-buyers, book-readers, book-teachers, etc, make conscious efforts to consume books with non-white protagonists. I know for a fact that I don't do enough of this, and it needs to be rectified promptly. Since this is meant to be Dissertation Lockdown Summer, my extracurricular reading is limited, so reading more YA of color may be a project for the fall. But it will be a project, and an ongoing one, until - I hope - reading characters of color becomes as simple as plucking books from the shelves at random, instead of having to seek them out in hidden corners.
because 90% white?
we can, and should, do SO much better than that.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Letter Q

Publishers Weekly has a great write-up of The Letter Q, the anthology of letters to their younger selves by queer writers, editors, and publishers. I've been excited about this since I first heard of it; after reading the PW piece, I have to get my hands on a copy.
I'm been a fan of Armistead Maupin since forever - tenth grade? eleventh? who knows? - and in fact, when my high school somehow allowed us to choose new books to be purchased for the school library, I picked Tales of the City.
I also adore David Levithan, and quite like Jacqueline Woodson, and - well, I think this project is superneat-o, and I want to read and support it.
A good portion - half, I think - of royalties are going to the Trevor Project, which is awesome as well.

Should be great reading - I hope my library has it on the shelf!

Thursday, May 10, 2012


This week, we lost one of the true geniuses of children's literature and art: the absolutely magnificent Maurice Sendak. Like virtually every American under the age of 40, I grew up with Where the Wild Things Are; it was a touchstone book (and one that also, though I'd forgotten it somehow, was the source for my mother's often-repeated "I'll eat you up I love you so"). I also loved the Little Bear books, and had more than passing acquaintance with Really Rosie and Chicken Soup with Rice.
In college, a good friend made me aware of In the Night Kitchen, which I'd either never encountered, or seen as a small child and forgotten; it too immediately became one of my  Great Books. 

It was through Sendak's illustrations for the Tony Kushner-written picture book that I came to know the story of Brundibar; their book is absolutely chilling.

When I finally heard an interview with Sendak - on NPR, of course - I was delighted beyond expression; such a curmudgeon! so adamant in his refusal to sentimentalize children! In the literary world, where so many authors have decidedly unpleasant attitudes and personae, it is a true joy to find that a favorite author/illustrator is also a person about whom I can be excited.

There have been plenty of great words written about Sendak, even before his death, and I can't add much to the elegiacs around the internet. I will link to this wonderful post by Kenneth Kidd, which says pretty much everything I've thought, and also appropriately spotlights the queerness of Sendak's work.

And I'll link, again, to the glorious art project Terrible Yellow Eyes, which ran from 2009-2010; in the tribute/inspired-by artworks, I find any number of images that are more than suitable as farewells. The image posted at the top of this post is by Chuck Groenink.

The image that immediately came to mind, upon hearing of Sendak's death, was this one, though, which has long been my favorite Terrible Yellow Eyes piece: Nate Wragg's diorama that manages to capture something of the melancholy and loss that seems inherent in the book. The lone Wild Thing, carefully holding the crown with no wearer, is a perfect image-tribute to the already greatly-missed Sendak.

Wragg's piece is titled, of course, "Wish you were here."

Friday, May 04, 2012

13 months after the death of Diana

I discovered Diana Wynne Jones during a particularly trying phase of my life. I had graduated from college, and in the summer of 2001, I moved to DC with my then-boyfriend so he could attend law school. I applied for job after job after job, but it turned out that a degree in British and American literature from a school no one's heard of doesn't open too many doors. After temping for awhile (including through September 11, 2001), I got hired as an administrative assistant at a children's literacy nonprofit. I seem to have a knack for finding jobs that mostly require me to sit around doing nothing, and this one was no different. In fact, my work day was maybe two hours of actual work, and six hours of clock-watching and fretting. BUT! One of the few tasks my manager (who was very difficult to work with, and not very nice to me) delegated was looking up children's literature resources online. And I found the child_lit listserv, which was life-changing. I've been on the list since either December 2001 or January 2002.

Almost as soon as I joined the list, I started seeing mentions of a book I'd never heard of, Howl's Moving Castle, by a writer I'd never heard of.  It seemed that every request for suggestions or recommendations that anyone made (including, I think, myself) was met instantly with Howl's Moving Castle. These replies were often accompanied by exclamation points, or the verbal equivalent of an exclamation point.

At that point I hadn't yet set my mind on children's literature as my field of study; I was applying to grad schools with the (in retrospect, hilariously misguided) idea that I wanted to work in marxist theory. But I'd done my undergraduate thesis on children's lit, and so had a fair amount of interest in the field. But aside from Harry Potter and Philip Pullman, I hadn't read much contemporary children's fiction.

Howl's Moving Castle, when I finally got it from the public library, was a revelation.  I've read it so many times since then that it's hard to recall exactly what my initial impressions were, but I do remember that I ate that book up in no time. It was the kind of book you hate to see drawing to a close - those few pages remaining in your right hand seem like the end of the world. I was swept right off my feet by that book, and frankly, I still am, every time I read it.
As soon as I finished it, I made a beeline for the library to get more. Somehow I ended up with just one Wynne Jones title - Dogsbody - which kind of disappointed me. I was charmed with her descriptions of cat behavior in that book, because I have cats of my own who I dote upon, but the story couldn't hold a candle to Howl's Moving Castle. Thinking back on it, I realize I probably started with the two most poorly matched books in her oeuvre; though both are fantastic,work in very different ways. The only worse choice, I think, would have been Hexwood or maybe Fire & Hemlock.

After Dogsbody, I almost gave up on her.

I thought maybe she was a one-trick pony; I thought maybe I just had different tastes from the list members, most of whom were quite a few years older than my 22-year-old self.

I cannot think how different my life would be if I hadn't kept going, if I hadn't made my way back to the "J" section of that lovely, shabby old Georgetown public library's children's section. It was on the second floor and usually fairly empty - it's a small library, and old and unrenovated, lots of old wood and low bookcases and big windows overlooking tree-lined streets. It did, however, have a lot of Diana Wynne Jones titles, possibly because that library didn't seem to stock much published after 1990.

I don't know what I read next after Dogsbody, or how I came to read it. I suspect it was a Chrestomanci title, but if that's the case, it was either Witch Week  or The Lives of Christopher Chant.
And from then I was lost, absolutely lost, to the wit and charm and creativity and imagination and emotional force of Diana Wynne Jones. No other writer has given me so many hours of happy reading, of amusement, and anticipation, enthusiasm and excitement, hopefulness and happiness, sadness and solace. My world has become one that is permanently, indelibly marked by her books, and that is just exactly the way I want it.

One of the things I love best about her books is the way she so deftly creates characters who feel real, recognizable, fully-developed. She doesn't need pages and pages of exposition, or obnoxious conversations that exist in the text only to reveal the emotional state of a character. Somehow, her people are real in a way that characters in other books often aren't. Even in books with numerous protagonists, like Dark Lord of Derkholm, we get to know Shona, Mara, Querida, Derk, Blade, even Kit and Callette and the other griffins, intimately. With just a few well-chosen adjectives, with the decision to have Derk sigh or Querida shake her head, these characters become people, each entirely individual and unique, the way real, living and breathing humans are. It's tiny details, like Sophie's relief that, though the cursed suit may have caught her, Howl doesn't like her (so she thinks). It's the speech patterns of Pretty, that colt of infinite spirit. It's the hidden prettiness in the Last Governess's face, the sacred face of Helen, the fancy dressing-gowns of Chrestomanci, the spectacles - and lens treatments - of Maree Mallory and Rupert Venables. Tiny details that, in books jampacked with action and activity, fill in the background with a richness so complete one almost doesn't notice it. The aliveness of the characters feels organic - as if, like Roddy when Nick sees her on the dark paths, the characters had simply grown there.

Reading Diana Wynne Jones in the early 2000s definitely helped push me along the path to children's literature scholarship as a full-time professional occupation. The void left when I had exhausted the library's supply of her books forced me to seek out other fantasy writers, other YA and children's authors. The bits of knowledge her books have imparted to me have pushed me further along; the flower files in The Merlin Conspiracy made me spend more time researching before working on my own garden; the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer stories in Fire and Hemlock led me to Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, and helped me understand Franny Billingsley's Chime.

One thing, however, that reading Diana Wynne Jones has not led me to: choosing her books as the subjects for my academic writing. I've made a point of including her books on my syllabi, but I won't write about them as part of my scholarly work. They are, somehow, too important to me, too much a part of the fabric of my mind, to be laid out on the critical dissecting table. Even when I teach her books, I inevitably tell my students that really, we read Howl's Moving Castle just because it's so good. That all I really want them to do with that text is enjoy it, and let it lead them to more of Diana Wynne Jones's novels.

I don't usually experience the deaths of "celebrities" or artists whose work I like as a deeply personal loss; it's always sad, it's always a reason to pause and re-appreciate their work, but I rarely feel anything that I might honestly call grief because of it. But when I learned of Diana's passing last year, it felt like a truly personal loss. When I read Neil Gaiman's tribute post to/about her, I cried, because I was already teary-eyed with sorrow and irretrievable loss. I placed a black ribbon image, with her dates attached, on my blog, intending to keep it there for awhile in memoriam. It's still there; even after a year, I don't want to take that down.
I wish, like Sophie, I could say "have another thousand years!" and keep Diana alive and healthy and writing. But I can't. That kind of magic only exists in  the kind of stories that Diana Wynne Jones wrote: the very best stories.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

take a look

Really fantastic image tweeted by Levar Burton, longtime host of one of the best shows television has ever had, Reading Rainbow. The hashtag accompanying the tweet of this was #butyoudon'thavetotakeMYwordforit.