Date: 21 July 2013

Books Completed: 144

Books Left: 56

I’ve spent a bit of time this summer with the 25 books that will be featured in the Black-Eyed Susan program for my students this year. One of the things I love about this intense concentration of children’s literature into my daily reading is how it focuses my attention on author’s craft. This year’s program features a book by Jacqueline Woodson that is a particular stand out.

Each Kindness tells the story of Chloe and Maya. Narrator Chloe sees that newcomer Maya looks a little shabby and awkward, and like the rest of the class, Chloe holds herself apart from the new girl. Maya tries very hard to fit in, but no one welcomes her. Mrs. Albert the teacher notices and takes advantage of Maya’s absence one day to explain the ripple effect of kindness, hinting that the class should apply this philosophy to Maya. Chloe seems willing and so the reader anticipates the two girls will end up friends. Unexpectedly, Maya never returns to school and Chloe is left to ponder the might-have-beens.

This is not the conclusion the reader expects or really wants. However, it’s a realistic and therefore much more powerful one. In ending her story this way, Miss Woodson ensures that her tale, while instructive, is neither pedantic nor predictable. It was a brave choice and one that showcases Miss Woodson’s respect for her audience.

Even more than adult readers, kids want the happy endings, they like it when stories get wrapped up neatly with a pretty bow. Yet in trying to please kid readers in this way, some authors end up underestimating their audiences. In general, yes kids are more innocent, inexperienced, and perhaps less complicated than adults, but they are not stupid. They deserve to have writers speak directly to them, not down to them. Miss Woodson’s choice to give her book the more genuine ending allows her to do just that.

This brings me to some criticism of an extremely popular book (not in the BES program, incidentally) in which the writer does not give his readers enough credit. I’m talking about Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

Let me explain.

Percy Jackson is an early adolescent who does not do well in school. The only academic success he has is in studying mythology. One day he learns that his absent father is actually a god. Trouble is, he does not know which one. Upon three occasions, powerful and supernatural things happen, ultimately to Percy’s benefit, when he is around water.

Water…god…who’s your daddy…hmmmmm.

Percy does not realize that he is Poseidon’s son until a trident appears above his own head. Really? He couldn’t figure that out? Guess he wasn’t so great in mythology after all, huh?

No, I would not expect 4th and 5th graders to have known about Poseidon, but Percy should have–mythology is the one thing he’s good at! My point is that this absence of insight damages Percy’s credibility. When the protagonist lacks integrity, the writer is banking on his readers’ ignorance. In short, Riordan is writing down to his audience—going in the same direction as my opinion of him.

It’s true that the kids don’t see that in essence, Percy is kind of a stupid character—as the phenomenal success of the entire series indicates. (I have to say, though, my students always concede the point when we talk about it!) But the fact that they don’t see this doesn’t matter. Readers, whether kids or adults, deserve respect from their writers. The best writers use the tools of their craft to convey this respect.

That is what it means to me.

Pilgrim on a Journey

Date: 16 July 2013

Books Completed: 139

Books Left: 61

When I was 7, my mum and my sister went to London and Paris. They brought back a puzzle of Henry VIII and his six wives. I’m not sure anything has ever captured my imagination quite the way that that puzzle did. It launched my life-long Anglophilia, which when combined with my adoration of the written word led to my love of Shakespeare and to the creation of the Janeite that I am. So, when I traveled to England four years ago, visits to Stratford-upon-Avon and Chawton were musts. While there, I realized that I was actually on a pilgrimage of sorts and then an idea was born—I should journey to homes of other authors I admire. How fitting is that for a Book Diva? This realization led to a trip two years ago to Boston, the lovely town of Concord, and Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott. This year it was to Canada, Prince Edward Island, and Cavendish, where Lucy Maud Montgomery grew up.

On the big day, we (my parents and I) started out fairly early, driving from Charlottetown on winding rural roads to Cavendish on the North Shore. We stopped first at the LMM homestead, but all we found there was a bookstore that hadn’t opened yet. We then backtracked and found ourselves at the Cavendish post office. Turns out that Miss Montgomery’s maternal grandparents the Macneills ran the post office in their day, something Miss Montgomery herself did after her grandfather’s death (leaving her teaching job to do so). Did not know that. There was a museum, and we enjoyed perusing the various exhibits therein.

The next stop was the mother of all LMM places to visit—Green Gables itself. I know, I know, there was no actual Green Gables. The house belonged to an uncle. Miss Montgomery never lived there (although she visited frequently). The house is currently decorated according to Miss Montgomery’s descriptions of Green Gables. In short, this is not a LMM house. Still, it was GREEN GABLES—and I loved every minute of my time there.

OK, so actually it was the inspiration for Green Gables, but still.

The house and grounds are part of park lands, so we had park rangers talk about the actual use and ownership of the house and how it came to be “Green Gables.” It seems that in restoring the property, the park service mixed the book descriptions with the Megan Follows miniseries, keeping mostly to the book. I totally get that—out of the 20 or so people in our group, there were only about five of us (me and four others) who read the book(s). After viewing the house, taking pictures of everything possible, and just basking in being there, we walked through “Lover’s Lane” and the “Haunted Woods,” sauntering over to that earlier bookstore. We ended our afternoon with tea at a nearby restaurant.

Later that evening, we had some cultural plans. The day before, Ann, the proprietor of the B&B we had stayed at in Nova Scotia, tried to convince me to see Anne of Green Gables, the Musical. I had looked into that when planning the trip and thought it was just too corny and would stray too much from the book for my taste. However, the magic of the island and just the fact that I was THERE worked on me and I thought, what the heck, let’s go. Turns out, it was not showing at that time. However, the musical Anne and Gilbert was playing, so we went to that. This picked up with Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island and chronicled the romance.

Loved it. What can I say? I’m a sucker for just about anything Anne.

So my latest pilgrimage was quite a successful one. The cover of my Nook has Sir Christopher Wren’s quotation, “Choose an author as you choose a friend.” I don’t know if I would have been friends with Mr. Shakespeare, Miss Austen, Miss Alcott, or Miss Montgomery, but certainly Beatrice and Portia and Isabella, Elizabeth and Jane and Anne, Jo and Beth, and Anne and Diana are all chums of mine. Whether I am at actual residences of my chums’ creators or places that simply inspired them, while I am there I get to be a part of the story. It doesn’t matter if it’s the author’s story or the characters’ story. I am there, reverently soaking up the atmosphere and experience, so it becomes part of my story.

And that, as MasterCard says, is priceless.


Me at Green Gables!

Me at Green Gables!