I have learned many (often horrifying) things in my three-plus years of being a parent. One is this: lots of children's literature sucks. This shouldn't have been surprising, but it was. When it had been thirty years or so since I'd read any children's books, I assumed that all children's literature was awesome because all of the children's literature I remembered was awesome. Which is why I remembered it. OF COURSE, children's literature, like all other kinds of literature, has some gems and lots of turds.
I found this out by going to the library solo with my daughter. When we can, the three of us go together. That way, my husband reads to D while I pick out really good books to take home with us (or vice versa) (not books picking out really good versions of me to take home with them -- though that would be awesome -- but I read and my husband picks out books). But if you go just you and your three year old, she randomly picks things off the shelf that catch her eye and wants to read them then and there. Do you have a kid who will just sit quietly in the library and read to him- or (let's face it, probably) herself while you browse? Bless you.
As most writers are, I was a huge and wide reader as a child. So pre-parenthood, I could name lots and lots and lots of awesome books I remembered reading as a kid. That turns out not to be because kids' books are universally awesome but because I repressed the ones that weren't. I know this because D picks out books that MAKE NO SENSE where NOTHING HAPPENS and characters are POINTLESS and the whole thing feels phoned in and depressing. And I mean, these are children, you know? They're innocents. They deserve better. My ONLY goal when I read to D is to teach her to love books and reading. How can I do that if the books suck?
When we read aloud, my husband changes all the characters into accented foreigners: often British or Scottish, sometimes German, occasionally Irish or Minnesotan (not foreign but a good accent). I change firemen to fire fighters and policemen to police officers, and in books where EVERY animal or anthropomorphized character is "he," I change half the dinosaurs or sheep or pigs or cars or whatever to "she"s easily enough. We also don't read about Barbie, guns, or thinly veiled moralistic crap. Because D is adopted, I sometimes have to edit books that assume every single child on earth is parented by two married heterosexual people who had sex, became pregnant, and gave birth. This is what I was wary about going in. But it turns out there's shelf after shelf of terrible books out there just as necessary to avoid -- offensive not because they're sexist or racist or homophobic but because they are just SO bad.
Narrative, people. Even children need narrative. Here are some new-since-I-was-three books we've found to love. What other newish and fabulous children books do you know?
P.S. This is also, once again, why we need small bookstores and librarians: for help culling. And good writers and illustrators and artists and editors and book-makers: for making the world a better place.
It is, more or less, my one year anniversary of not teaching. Since last June, I've been out of the classroom, out of academia. Since last June, when someone asks me what I do for a living, the answer has been "novelist" rather than "English professor" as it had been for the ten previous years. This past September was the first September I didn't go back to school since I was three. Literally.
Die-hard -- I often call them "real" -- academics get time off to write. I left graduate school right before I'd have gotten a year of stipend in exchange just for writing without having to teach. I left my first teaching job before I had enough years accumulated to apply for a sabbatical. I wasn't tenure-line at my second so never even had the opportunity to apply. So while this year was my first opportunity to write without also being in the classroom, in fact it's not that unusual for people in my profession(s).
But for me, it's been life changing. One thing is child+book writing+full-time teaching position was too damn much. Getting rid of one of those makes doing the other two one-hundred-percent more sane. Another thing is what happens when you elevate your hobby to your career and put all of that time and energy and creativity and intellectual effort and resources and priority into something you used to just make time for and squeeze in as you could. The difference shouldn't have been nearly as surprising as it was. Teaching full-time, reading and lesson planning, grading all those papers, e-mailing with all those students, commuting, working with colleagues, dealing with all the crap that comes with any job...putting all that time and energy into writing instead makes for a lot of time and energy put into writing. Basically, I wrote the whole of Goodbye For Now between June and September. People think that's mind-blowingly fast, and it is (and was only possible because I'd worked on it the previous summer and had it all planned out and ready to go in my head), but also, put 40 or 50 hours a week and all your creative energies into something, and you're bound to see some pretty steady progress.
I miss teaching -- the classroom part, the good days. I do not miss grading at all. I thought it would be hard to write without talking about and teaching about writing, but it wasn't. I thought it would be hard to write without a deadline -- September and the start of classes -- on the other end, but it wasn't. I thought it would be hard to write at home by myself inside my head all day instead of interacting with students and colleagues and a whole out loud world out there, but it wasn't. I worked so long and so hard and so formatively at teaching I thought giving it up would be much harder and stranger than in fact it's been. It feels like it's been much, much longer than a year.
I was in tenth grade the first time I read The Great Gatsby. In many ways, it was my first love. I'd been a big reader since, well, I learned to read. I had favorite books and literary obsessions. I made my parents read me the same books over and over and over again as a child. I was not a new book lover. But Gatsby was different. I was in love with it. I carried it around with me all the time, read passages over and over again during algebra and physics and other classes which, frustratingly, persisted in not being English class. I thought about the characters all the time as if they were my friends. I journaled about them. I talked about them to everyone I knew. I was so obsessed that, at my ten year high school reunion, almost everyone said something to me about the book, convinced, apparently, that that kind of love could not possibly have waned in the intervening years. When I told them I was in graduate school studying not American Lit but Shakespeare, many of my high school compatriots refused to believe me. They couldn't imagine the fifteen-year-old I was ever getting over that book. That's how in love I was.
I have not seen the Robert Redford film. I couldn't imagine that it would live up to the thing in my mind, and I wanted to keep the thing in my mind, not supplant it with something else. I didn't see it when Seattle Rep did it live a few years ago. I have concerns about staging novels, but let's leave that for another post.
But I will see the Baz Luhrmann. In fact, I almost can't wait until Christmas to do so. 1) I will see anything Baz Luhrmann does. Anything. 2) Look at it! It's gorgeous and so different. I know a lot of people -- like, all of them -- prefer movies to stay very close to the book, but I don't really see the point of that. In the same way that novels are not plays, books are not movies and vice versa. They are different mediums, good at and for different things, with different strengths and weaknesses. We already have The Great Gatsby in book form. What Baz Luhrmann is giving us is something new and different, adding to what's already there, to what we've already learned from the book, giving us more. Who doesn't want more? The book cannot be reproduced on film, so why try? Its strength is being something else instead, a different Gatsby riff. Show me who thinks this book and these characters are too small to be yet more.
But 3) is best of all. Baz Luhrmann's films have a look about them. Baz Luhrmann's films sometimes star Leonardo DiCaprio. This one preserves that look and that star. And that means we cannot help but get a story wherein Romeo grows up to be Jay Gatsby. And he does! Of course he does! Impetuous, obsessed, lovelorn Romeo who moons about, whose whole world must revolve around love, who must, but must, give up everything for it OF COURSE grows up to be Jay Gatsby, still lovelorn and obsessed, still revolving his whole world around love but without seeming to do so, replacing the impetuousness with a more careful, more measured, more determined approach, more outwardly successful, still that heartsick, lovesick little boy inside.
Both are undone by love, both victim to circumstances they have a hand at perpetuating but did not kick off and cannot possibly control, both are more sinned against than sinning (esp. in the Baz version where Romeo does not in fact kill Paris), neither can choose anything but love. Gatsby has all this experience, learning, worldliness, power, ambition, perspective, connections, and money that Romeo does not, a much much wider world, and he falls into exactly the same trap. It is so awesome. I could not love it more. And what percentage of high schoolers will read both of these texts and see both of these films? Um, like 95%? How great is it to be fifteen in the Age of Baz? So great!
About The Author
Laurie Frankel writes novels (reads novels, teaches other people to write novels, raises a small person who reads and would like someday to write novels) in Seattle, Washington where she lives on a nearly vertical hill from which she can watch three different bridges while she's staring out her windows between words. She's originally from Maryland and makes good soup.