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Archive for the category “Books”

Okay, Fine. It’s Worth Reading.



The plot finally kicked in for me, and once it did, I tore through the last two-thirds of Cursed Child. I’m in the mood to talk details here, so if you haven’t read the script but plan to, stop here!

Rowling and co-writers (mainly Rowling?) came through with a satisfying take on the Potter crew one generation later. It doesn’t have the sprawl and heft that a Book 8 would surely have; it’s missing a few vital characters (Hagrid! and, um, Voldemort); nonetheless I found myself admiring, as always, Rowlings’ storytelling genius.

I had trouble focusing at first (you know this, if you’ve read my earlier post). There were disturbing oddities, like Ron’s becoming a goofy, hapless adult. More problematic, I had trouble warming up to the two young heroes. In theory, what could be more interesting: the offspring of Harry and Draco, best friends! And in Slytherin together! Poor Albus is lousy at spells and flying. He’s almost obligated to hate Quidditch, and he does. He sees himself as the disappointing son—the “spare,” as he calls himself, using Voldemort’s word for Cedric Diggory. (Harry’s first born, James, and the youngest, Lily, are “easy” children.) Scorpius struggles not as much because of his own dad— though Draco is chilly and removed—than because everyone at Hogwarts believes a rampant rumor that he’s the secret son of Voldemort. I should’ve been brimming with compassion for these boys, but exasperated was more like it. I wanted to tell them to stop sniveling, to stop worrying about what their dads thought of them and to get a life! Rowling et al. expect us to appreciate the irony of Albus’ predicament—he has the family and love his father yearned for, but he’s miserable being his father’s son. It’s right up Rowling’s alley, this kind of emotional messiness but—there’s no time for depth. It’ll all telling instead of showing.

SCORPIUS: I know the—Voldemort thing isn’t—true—and—you know—but sometimes, I think I can see my dad thinking: How did I produce this?

ALBUS: Still better than my dad. I’m pretty sure he spends most of his time thinking: How can I give him back? (p. 81)

Going back in time to save Cedric Diggory from a brutal death was something, anyway. It’s a decision full of self-pity—awww, the spare wants to save the original spare—but any action is welcome at this point. Albus and Scorpius’ plan begins with a time-honored tradition: Polyjuicing in order to sneak into the Ministry, in this case to steal the Time-Turner from the office of the Minister for Magic, our own Hermione Granger.

They manage it far too easily, if you ask me. They know just where it is, and there’s no doubt they’ll find it, even if they do have to fight off a few enchanted books first. And if they’re caught? They don’t even worry about getting into trouble—that’s how ho-hum that trouble could be. An angry parent? What else is new? For the original trio, sneaking into the Ministry was a life-or-death affair once the Death Eaters took over. Think of the time they stole in to steal back Regulus Black’s locket from the horrible Dolores Umbridge, and Hermione, disguised as a low-level Ministry witch, is dragged into a Muggle-denouncing proceeding to act as Umbridge’s secretary. The three of them barely escape, with Hermione only at the last second able to shake off Death Eater Yaxley.

The clash of good and evil—that’s what’s missing in the first half of the script. There’s a specter of evil. Harry has disturbing dreams and wakes up with his scar hurting and the voice of Voldemort hissing his name. Haaarry Pottttter….I’m sure this was supposed to send shivers down my spine. It seemed hokey, though. I was unmoved until Albus succeeds in his mission, and in an instant disappears from the world, having altered time in the worst possible way. Voldemort doesn’t die—Harry does. Which means Albus himself doesn’t exist.

Page 159, halfway through. This is when I thought: Rowling is baaack.

Who hasn’t wondered what would’ve happened had Voldemort lived? Rowling seized upon the most compelling what-if of all. Here’s where I finally began to respect Scorpius, who’s left alone to figure out how to restore the post-Voldemort present and bring back his best friend. It’s clear once and for all that he’s too decent to be a Death Eater—he’s horrified at the cruel, Muggle-torturing world he’s trapped in. He ably takes on the hero role and proves himself much like Harry did time and time again (oddly, he’s more Harry-like than Albus is).

Of course, he’s got an easier time of it than Harry, because he knows everything about the past he’s entered. He knows to go to Snape for help—Snape, alive and well—as well Hermione and Ron, the last existing members of Dumbledore’s Army. These were my favorite moments: When three characters we know intimately from Book 1 to 7 meet, in an alternate past, a Voldemort-ruling past, a boy they think they know but they don’t, because he’s from an alternate future. It’s so crazy and mind-warping!

The whole Delphi-Augurey development was a delightful surprise—I didn’t for a moment suspect she was anything but what she was. She’s far from being a Voldemort replacement, though. I hoped he’s make an appearance at the end, when Harry and the gang are waiting to intercept Delphi in Godric’s Hollow. Instead of Harry v. Voldemort, Round 2, we get Harry disguised as Voldemort. “Horrendous,” the script notes read. Not for me, knowing that he’s just Harry. I can see reasons for keeping Voldemort out of the action. His and Harry’s history would swamp every other dynamic in the play. The scene as is brings in Albus to fight on the side of his dad, which honestly is hard to imagine against the real Voldy.

I have to grudgingly admit that whatever I might find lacking in the script, I can see it as the basis for a riveting theatrical production. I’d love to see how a set designer would create the Forbidden Forest; the Dementors; the fight against Delphi. With the play a sold-out success in London, it’s sure to come to New York. It could travel the globe eventually.

It’ll probably be turned into a movie. Don’t you think? We may well see it on the screen before we see it on the stage.

I hope Robert Patterson is free to play Cedric.

A few random thoughts and quibbles.

Who’d have thunk it:

Draco—wiser than Harry when he urges Harry to see that Albus needs him and Scorpius. A lonely child, like Tom Riddle and Draco himelf, lives in a dark place

Moms are a big deal in the books, but not here. Fierce, self-confident Ginny has virtually no role. She could be whited out and no one would miss her.


When Albus is Polyjuiced into Ron at the Ministry and tries to distract Hermione by suggesting they have another baby—“Or if not another baby, a holiday. I want a baby or a holiday and I’m going to insist on it. Shall we talk about it later, honey?”

Moaning Myrtle, as always. Flirty Myrtle acts as if Harry and Draco visited her bathroom only yesterday. “Hello, Harry. Hello, Draco. Have you been bad boys again?”

Biggest beef:

Where’s Hagrid? We see him in two flashbacks but never in the present. No wonder Albus is such a sad sack–no Hagrid to cheer him up. Could he have retired?


Cursed child–Harry, Albus, Scorpius? Every child who has issues with Dad/Dad figure? The unknown kid in the cover image?

What on earth is that cover image? A nest with owl wings?


Curses, Child!

Here we are, a week after I was supposed to have bought the Cursed Child and devoured it in one euphoric sitting. By now I should been well into the Joan Mitchell biog. I picked up from the library, even with time allowed to re-read favorite parts of CS.

Somehow, once I’d decided to postpone buying the book, I forgot to buy it all together. I forgot to write it down. It’s been true for quite some time now: If I don’t write a thing down, it doesn’t exist. I can’t say when I would’ve remembered had I not passed the wonderful Books of Wonder on 18th Street and seen Cursed Child in the window.

This was Wednesday. Lunchtime. I sat in the kitchen with some leftover pasta carbonara and open the book. For a few pages, it read more or less the way I thought it would, picking up the last chapter of Deathly Hallows. It was strange to see paragraphs winnowed into one-line bits of dialogue. Right, this was a script—a “Special Rehearsal Edition Script,” as the cover trumpets. (I could imagine the marketing meeting about the cover design. “Is there any other kind of script?” someone asked. “No.” The presenter, standing with a huge full-screen mockup. “It just sounds good. I mean, come on—it’s the eighth Harry Potter book! If that isn’t special, I don’t know what is.”)

But it wasn’t Deathly Hallows, in play form. Not for long. Page 10: Ron greets his niece Lily Potter with a…trick. Huh?

“RON: Are you aware of the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes-certified nose-stealing breath?

ROSE: Mum! Dad’s doing that lame thing again.”

Lame is right. Why is Ron doing lame jokes? He was never funny, like George and Fred—not intentionally, anyway. Is this the hand of Jack Thorne, the playwright?

Anyway. We’re still in Hallows territory. Albus get on the Hogwarts Express, with Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter. They’re looking for somewhere to sit. Remember Harry’s first trip? Rose does. She reminds Albus that his dad and her parents met on that first train. To my dismay, Rose reveals herself to be a terrible snob from the get-go—she wants to find just the right people to sit with, the ones deserving of being friends with the children of Harry, Ron and Hermione. But Albus ends up wanting to sit with—

All right. I’m not going to give anything away. Just in case you find the first part more riveting than I did. I found I was perfectly capable of putting the book down after lunch, and not looking at it again until I was in bed. At which point I read only a few pages before my eyes grew heavy. I put the book down and fell asleep. No all-nighter for me!

Michiko—how could you steer me so wrong?

I’m sorely missing Rowling’s voice. And her world building. And character development. I wonder why she didn’t just write this as a novel?

Well. I need to finish it before I say anything more. I’m on page 94—about a third of the way through. I’m going to try to get a chunk read this weekend.

The Harry Potter All-nighter


The night Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows was released I stayed up ’til 5 am reading feverishly. Like a vampire, my time would be up come morning. I was going to have to hand it over to my son, who waiting eagerly for me to pick him up at sleep-away camp. (It never occurred to me to buy two copies. I’d like to say it’s because of how deeply I believe in sharing, but it has more to do with my Puritan  horror of excess and lack of discipline. What–buy TWO books, just because I can’t for my turn?)

Is there another all-nighter in my future? The New York Times most senior book reviewer, the august Michiko Kakutani, is calling Cursed Child “a compelling, stay-up-all-night read.”

Now I’m not a rabid follower of Michiko or anything. I respect her. She’s not a gusher. She seems more inclined to hate something than love it. For Michiko to say a work is “compelling,” is astonishing enough. If she’d said it was compelling and stopped there, I’d go ahead with my plan to buy the book (script, rather) today.

But she’s saying it’s so incredible, I’m gonna be up all night reading it. And because she’s baldly saying this–could it be the first time Michiko’s ever called a book a stay-up-all-nighter?–I believe it. I feel the truth of it. On the one hand, I’m thrilled, as every Harry Potter fan has to be, that the script is so gripping. But man oh man–do I want to be up all night tonight? I’m nine years older than I was when Deathly Hallows came out. Do I have the stamina? Do I even have the will? (She whines. I know, nine years older and whinier.) I know if I buy it, I won’t have a choice. I’ll be up all night. Unless I ran out and bought it right now. Then I’d have to forgo the writing and research I was going to do this afternoon. I don’t have quite as much Puritan self-discipline as I like to give myself credit for.

I should wait for the weekend. Yes. Buy it Friday. If I stay up all night Friday, I can sleep in Saturday. Perfect.

Do I really have to wait ’til Friday, though?

Yes. I do. It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read. I’m going to finish Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (it’s absorbing enough). I’m not going to the bookstore.

Good. I’ve decided. A good decision. Right.


Harry Potter!

Harry Potter’s back! Behold the window display in my local independent bookstore for a midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.


A release party! Just like the good old days, when J.K. Rowling produced her seven Harry books ever year or so, starting in 1998 (stunning, given how long and complex the later books were). My bookstore, Bookcourt, has clearly been missing those years. “Costumes welcome!” the handwritten sign (so Mugglish) reads. “Butterbeer! Get sorted into your Hogwarts house! Make your own wand at Ollivander’s!”

I have to admit I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the news about a Harry Potter play opening in London. I’d gotten the Amazon emails, trumpeting my chance to pre-order the script. “Why would I want to read a play script,” I grumbled to myself. I’m as big a Harry fan as the next person—which is to say big—but this just seemed like a massive, cynical marketing ploy Why would Rowling write a play when she could write a novel? The play couldn’t be any good. Well. it’s rave review in today’s New York Times changed my mind about that. The review tried not to give too much away—in keeping with the level of secrecy that Rowling always insists on prelaunch, quite rightly—and I know just enough to know I’m going to have to buy this damn thing, a “rehearsal edition script,” whatever that is. After all, I won’t be getting over to London anytime soon. (The play is reportedly sold out until next May.) When’s that release party again?

I have fond memories of going to a midnight bookstore party for the seventh and last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My husband and I were in Hanover, N.H.,  spending the night before picking our son up from camp the next day. It was the night be before  would be released–and of course, we didn’t know the title then, we didn’t know anything. The Hanover book store was having a release party at midnight. We went with another couple, friends who were  picking up their son at the same camp. The bookstore was packed, of course. I remember being pushed backward by the crowd. I was resigned to waiting many hours before being able to buy a book, when all of a sudden our friends–tall and determined–pushed their way to the front of the line and bought a book for all of us. Heroes!  I remember reading late into to night, and having trouble rousing myself for the trip to camp. When we got there, our son took possession of the book, and for days afterward, I waited impatiently for him to go to sleep at night. There was no other time for me to read, except when he was in bed. My longing to get on with the book drove me to distraction. But we did end up sharing the book,  the three of us, Dan, my son and I. For some reason, it never occurred to us to buy more than one book. No, there was one, and it was precious.

How nice it would to have that feeling again! And maybe I will.






I participated in a four-day picture-book boot camp at the Highlights Foundation last weekend. Days later, I’m still sifting through my thoughts about the whole experience, what I learned, and what I had to relearn.

There were twenty of us, all author-illustrators save for four –five?–who were writers only. The whole weekend, I thought of myself as “just” a writer, a lesser person, frankly, than these extraordinary individuals who could tell a story both in words and pictures. Honestly, I’d never recognized how much work goes into the pictures alone.



The Highlights campus lies in bucolic northeastern Pennsylvania, ten miles from the town of Honesdale,  home of the Highlights magazines for kids. Here’s the barn, where we met for meals and had many of our critique sessions. It really reminded me of the lodge of my summer camp, Green Cove, down in North Carolina. The food was much better, though. The food was astoundingly good. Everything was from a farmer’s market. Eggs  and sweet New Jersey blueberries at breakfast; homemade soups and salad and hearty breads at lunch; for some reason I’m blanking on the dinners, but they were delicious, too. And with all that,  because we are children’s writers, after all, we could have ice cream anytime we wanted. That’s right. Highlights has an ice-cream bar. With sprinkles. Two kinds. You’re searching for the Highlights schedule right now, aren’t you?


Most of us stayed in individual cabins like this. Simple inside, with two single beds, a dresser, a small desk, a mini fridge (with seltzer and sodas inside–a thoughtful touch). Here are three of our talented group–from left to right Merrill Rainey, Kristen Bannister and Sabina Hahn. I feel sure you’ll be seeing their names in print at some point soon. It’s a funny thing, how quickly  strangers can bond when they have a common goal. We were all there to polish a particular work, and we were all eager to share it with our own kind. We were members of a tribe coming together for the first time.


I worship the faculty–four noted author-illustrators,  Pat Cummings, Denise Fleming, Steve Light and Floyd Cooper. Here’s Steve in the Barn, talking about his career. My photo’s crummy, but note the fantastic ink illustration on the screen. Each one of them gave me something valuable to think about.

The crux of the weekend was a 15-minute meeting, for each of us, with a publishing trio: an editor, an agent and an art director. Of course, we were all incredibly nervous. And hopeful; a few of us had agents or books already out, but most (like me) were looking for their big break. I was pitching a biography that I thought was compelling, naturally.

It wasn’t for them. So be it. I did get some feedback I can run with,  having to do with digging more deeply into my character. That rang true to me, and that’s what I’m working on now.

Other boot-camp takeaways:

  1. Make a dummy for every revision. I mean writers–it’s obvious that author-illustrators need to make them. A dummy magically reveals where the story falters or where it needs more room–it’s astonishing. I knew this, and yet had managed to arrive at boot camp without a dummy for my manuscript. Denise Fleming, bless her, had a pile of ready-mades ones that she’d brought for us. ( I think she said she’d stitched them on a sewing machine. She’s amazing.) Once I’d put mine together, I saw all kinds of possibilities I hadn’t before.
  2. Make your writing irresistible to read out loud. Punch up the text. Shorten sentences, use lively verbs.  Cut out any “then”s. (This last was Floyd’s pet peeve, and for good reason. A “then” is usually a sign of flabby writing.)
  3. Stay true to your idea, and to your writing, but keep an eye on the realities of the marketplace. Some ideas aren’t going to lead to a book deal. Which leads to….
  4. It’s not you it’s me: Editors’s decisions are subjective. They like what they like, and sometimes they don’t want things for reasons that are entirely personal. As Pat put it, in her inimitable way, if you’re pitching a cat book to an editor who was mauled by a cat as a child, that editor isn’t going to want your book, no matter how good it is. Knowing this doesn’t prevent the sucker punch of rejection, but it’s something.

I know my group of boot campers is hard at work right now, using the ideas and inspiration from the weekend. A few are already starting to submit. One may well have a contract (I’m waiting for confirmation).  I salute this talented bunch!  In one or two year’s time, boot campers’ will have books on sale. Fingers crossed.





Thoughts on Hemingway

Generation gap? My daughter, Vanessa, is reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and can’t stand it. In her view his characters do no more than meander through life, glass in hand. “All they do is drink,” she says disdainfully.

I, too, read Hemingway in high school (hasn’t everybody?). But I found all the drinking, amid the bull fighting of Pamplona, kind of glamorous. Drinking counts as doing something, doesn’t it? Then again, when I was my daughter’s age—18—I liked beer and wine and had already discovered that rum gave me a crushing hangover. Vanessa doesn’t like any kind of alcoholic beverage I can see it might be difficult to settle in with Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises if you aren’t wondering what a Jack Rose is—one of the drinks Jake orders—and half wishing you were in the Paris hotel bar with him. (Turns out a Jack Rose is composed of applejack, grenadine and lemon or lime juice. Hmm. Not sure what to make of it.)

The drinking scenes throughout Hemingway’s oeuvre are famous enough to have inspired Philip Greene’s Hemingway cocktail compendium, To Have and Have Another, a second edition of which came out last year.

Of course, the drinking is not the only reason Vanessa shuns Hemingway. She’s indifferent to the unvarnished style that made him famous. She finds it really boring. I’m fascinated by her confidence here. I don’t remember feeling as if I could not like Hemingway. We were expected to appreciate, if not revel in, the short declarative sentences, his insistence on cutting away everything but the essence, leaving the reader to interpret what is left unsaid. (That’s what I vaguely remember. If I’m misrepresenting Hem, let me know.)

Thinking about him now, I know I didn’t just like him because I was supposed to. That man could write. Okay, he was clearly a male chauvinist pig. But he could write. Here’s something he once said about the training of a would-be writer, in an interview with Paris Review editor George Plimpton, back in 1958 (as printed in Newsweek):

“Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”

P.S. In my local Barnes & Noble, on the “Books Everyone Must Read” table, two Hemingway classics lie front and center:



I spotted For Whom the Bell Tolls on another side of the table, along with The Old Man and the Sea. He was the only author to have more than two books, and only two had more than one–Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kurt Vonnegut. What does this mean? Is it a reflection of Hemingway’s stature in American literature? Are the B&N staff composed of big fans? The former seems more likely than the latter.


Stories from the Past


This book was sitting on a stool outside of a second-hand store calling to me. It was published in 1932 (there were four copyrights, and ’32 was the most recent). The name of a onetime owner—the last?—is Eulalia M. Cunningham. (I’ve heard of Eulalie but not Eulalia—lovely name. Lilting.) Her name is written on the copyright page, along with the words “Christmas 1944.” On the front page, in a more childish script, Eulalia herself (I’m guessing) wrote, “E. Cunningham, and then, having realized she forgot something, “E.M. Cunningham.” She added a Christmas sticker to the page, just the way a child would—it’s randomly placed on the left side of the page, toward the bottom—just where it happened to come off her fingers. A man and a woman in a sleigh, with a Christmas tree sticking out the back. Just think—a seventy-two year-old sticker!

The title page says the stories are selected from John Martin’s Book, which was a popular children’s magazine, aimed at five- to eight-year-olds, published from 1912 to 1933. (Thank you, Google.) John Martin was a pseudonym of founder Morgan Shepard. I couldn’t find any info on why it folded, but far bigger enterprises than this failed during the Great Depression. John Martin’s Book must’ve continued to resonate with readers if this book was available for purchase in 1944. (It’s not easy to find a ten-year-old book these days—not unless it’s an enduring classic.)

This is one dense book, with marvelous black-and-white drawings on nearly ever page. There are not just stories but poems, biographies, riddles and even pictograms.

Check this out:


I can’t figure out the meaning of the line with the feather and the flat iron. A feather sail an iron for a ship?

Riddles! These are kind of complicated. And a bit weird. Hats off to the five- to eight-year-olds who are getting these:IMG_2926

There’s always something about stories from past eras that startles or even shocks. In a few of the stories here, people get hurt, and good. “Tommy Elephant Discovers the Railroad,” a monkey named Fibber-Jibber convinces Tommy that a strange creature running along a new jungle trail wouldn’t dare hurt as large an animal as Tommy. So Tommy stands on the train tracks, in front of an oncoming train. Yikes!  He gets hit, naturally. There’s an illustration showing the elephant, head over heels, while the train rushes past. He’s not killed, which he surely would be in real life, but he’s badly bruised—-much to Fibber-Jibber’s amusement. It’s hard to imagine this was ever funny to anyone, but it must’ve been. Americans of the early 20th century clearly didn’t think of animals as stand-ins for boys and girls, the way we do today. At least not wild animals. (Perhaps that changed with Babar, published in 1931?) Fibber-Jibber gets a punishment of sorts. Using his trunk, Tommy hoses him repeatedly, until he’s a “very wet, but much wiser” monkey, who doesn’t play any more tricks on Tommy for a  “long, long, long” time.

There’s a tale called “Catskin,” which reads much like Cinderella except there’s no glass shoe and no stepsisters, and the heroine is, yes, wearing an outfit made out of—catskin! No wonder this story has slid into obscurity. Oh, and also, the cook beats the poor girl like nobody’s business. She’s forever breaking a ladle or a skimmer over Catskin’s head. Incredibly—thankfully—Catskin is always “none the worse.” She sneaks off to go to balls, where she meets a squire (not a prince, but quite good enough). Before long she marries him and lives happily ever after. With brain damage, no doubt.

There are Grimm-like stories like this one, but many others. The variety is pretty astonishing. Origin stories, such as how corn got its ear and how the woodpecker came to be. Christian stories—St. Francis convinces robbers to change their ways. A story about Mozart as a young boy. A tale about St. George and the dragon.

I can’t say the poetry impressed me, but I am impressed with the presence of the poetry. It’s so tough to get kids to read poetry today–to give it a chance!  Shepard, writing as John Martin, contributed a poem that I wouldn’t mind reading to little ones:

A Magic

One day I saw a rule hand
Rise up to strike a heartless blow,
It did not stop to count the cost,
It did not care to know.

And then I heard some gentle words;
They worked a magic, sweet and calm,
Their gentle power held that hand
So it could do no harm.

One day I heard an angry voice,
Its words would neither think no spare,
How deep they cut another’s heart
It did not know nor care.

And then your gentle words were said.
The angry voice to softness fell.
Repentance quivered in that voice
Beneath your magic spell.

Oh, it is strong, and fine, and good
To find what gentle words will do.
I’m sure that they are always best,
And bravest too—aren’t you?


The Lure of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch


This is my 21-year-old son Davison, reading during spring break from college.

Reading! Proof that college students still read books when they’re not in school. And he happened to be reading a book I gave him, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I can’t even express how happy this makes me. I gave it to him for Christmas, thinking, He has to read this book—everyone has to read this book, even as I doubted whether he’d get to it anytime soon. It’s 771 pages long, after all, and he was about to embark on another term of challenging classes. But he took it back to school with him, and lo and behold, he was in the thick of it by the time I saw him in March. I asked him what he thought, and he said he wanted to see Theo, Tartt’s protagonist, catch a break, just one. I knew exactly what he meant. Tartt sucks you into a world that is so vividly rendered and so painful for Theo that you feel like you are suffering alongside him, an invisible companion who can’t do anything but watch and worry and hope that happiness is just around the bend. Then Tartt turns around and challenges our assumptions about what constitutes a meaningful life. At the end, Theo tells us, “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are.” It’s not an uplifting book, but it’s an unforgettable one.

I feel lucky that Davison’s formative years came before technology seeped into every crevice of of everyday life. When he was six or eight, computer games were new, and we had maybe one or two. (I remember the Freddy the Fish game—pretty cute, as I recall. Freddy helps you on a deep-sea treasure hunt.) He didn’t have a cell phone until he was thirteen—one of those flip phones. There was no texting or apps. I can’t make any statements of fact here, but I believe that he read more in his free time than he might’ve had he had access to social media, the Internet and the vast array of computer-based games that exist today.

Studies on kids and reading are troubling. Only about half of kids ages six to eight are reading daily; that number falls to a quarter by age fifteen. According to one study, the percentage of seventeen-year-olds who never or hardly ever read has gone from 7% to 27% in the last thirty years. (I’m assuming the study is referring to reading for fun. Schools may have eliminated art, music and physical activity—at least in New York City—but they’ve hung onto the three Rs. For now.) How do we keep reading books a part of the picture? It’s up to parents. We need to read to our kids when they’re young—from the time they are babies for as long as they’ll let us. It’s the only way to instill a love of reading and stories (which I can’t believe aren’t innate in kids). And then we have to encourage them as they learn how to read. We need to help them choose books and bring them books and make reading a family activity.

This is pretty obvious stuff, I know. Also, it doesn’t always work. My sister says her two boys, 10 and 12, are off books. Period. Nothing to be done. If it were me, I’d keep trying. Just like you don’t give up trying to get your kids to eat vegetables, you have to keep trying with books.

Food in Kids’ Books

The MC in my new manuscript likes food. It’s not her defining characteristic or anything, but she lives in Brooklyn, New York’s foodie-est borough. You have to try really hard (or be a two-year-old) to avoid good food in Brooklyn.

Middle-grade characters known for a food they like or dislike: It’s a rare breed. There’s only one character who pops into my head immediately: the grumpy, quirky heroine of Harriet the Spy, who ate a tomato sandwich (white bread, mayo) for lunch every day. When I read Harriet back in the day, I was as revolted as author Louise Fitzhugh probably wanted me to be. Tomatoes were like lettuce to me: watery, tasteless. What was the point in eating them? There were no organic Heirloom tomatoes trucked in from upstate farms in the 1960s, when Harriet the Spy was first published, or in the ‘70s, when I was growing up.

Then there’s the poor giant in Roald Dahl’s The BFG, who subsists on snozzcumbers, probably the foulest vegetable (real or not) in children’s literature. Sophie the orphan can’t even swallow one bite. “‘It tastes of frogskins,’ she gasped. ‘And rotten fish!’ ‘Worse than that!’ cried the BFG…’To me it is tasting of clockroaches and slimewanglers!’” (I looked that up, in case you were thinking I had amazing recall.)

There may be others. Overall, though, I’d say that food has not been a big motif in kids’ books for the simple reason that it hasn’t been a big focus for kids. It can be a source of enjoyment (Yay, pizza!) or conflict (Mom insists you eat breakfast, but you’re late for the bus; a mean kid at school makes fun of your lunch). But traditionally—both in life and fiction—eating is something done in between activities; it’s not an activity in itself.

That’s changing a bit. Kids are way more sophisticated about food than they were even ten years ago. More and more, they have tastes that span the globe. They eat fish tacos and Bánh Mì pork sandwiches and sushi and Pad Thai. Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a story on the American child’s expansive palate. According to the Journal story, households with children under 18 are twice as likely as households without children to have eaten Korean, Indian, Thai, Hispanic or Caribbean in the last three months.

Have children actually become more adventurous eaters than their parents? That would be quite an extraordinary thing. If the Journal is onto a real trend, I’m guessing we’ll see increasing numbers of fictional characters with foodie sensibilities.

We’re already being introduced to a few characters who know their way around a kitchen. Gladys Gatsby, the protagonist of Tara Dairman’s Four Stars (2014), is a budding chef; Moses LoBeau, of Sheila Turnage’s Three Times Lucky (2012), steps in when needed to run the breakfast service at Miss Lana’s café (she comes up with a menu she can handle—“a full line of peanut butter entrées”). A kid chef with a TV show—that’s coming next. I’ll be looking for it.

Revisiting Anne of Green Gables


I didn’t pay attention the first time I saw news about the death of Jonathan Crombie, the actor who played Gilbert Blythe in CBC’s 1985 TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Yesterday, though, I found a posting on Facebook of a New Yorker article called “Why We Loved Gilbert Blythe.”

Well. I had to read that.

It turns out teenage girls all over fell in love with Crombie as Gilbert in this mini-series. “Crombie gave Gilbert caring, intelligence, and dreaminess: qualities that enchant seventh-grade girls,” Sarah Larson writes. I missed Crombie and all his dreaminess. I was in my early 20s in 1985, just out of college and living in San Francisco. I don’t think I had a television in those days. I feel sure I would’ve been tempted to watch, having been an avid reader of the whole Anne series. But I can’t feel too sorry that I missed it. Crombie sounds a bit too milktoasty for my taste. Larson prefers Crombie to the Gilbert of the books. She finds him “kinder,” with “lively” instead of “roguish” eyes, and without the mouth “twisted into a teasing smile,” as author L.M. Montgomery describes him.

Of course Gilbert is roguish! He has to be. Only a mischievous boy would call Anne “carrots” to try to get her attention, and kept trying, even after she breaks her slate over his head and refuses to accept his apology. A kinder boy wouldn’t have dared the “carrots” jibe, and there would’ve been no Anne and Gilbert, which is unthinkable.

I’ll admit Crombie looks the part. He’s got the build and coloring you’d expect, and that’s huge. And if intelligence and caring come across—well, I imagine I could fall under his spell, given the chance.

The production didn’t quite get Anne right—at least in the looks department. I looked up the photos of Megan Follows, cast as Anne, and she’s pretty and fresh-faced in a way that Anne isn’t. She was also a seventeen-year-old playing an eleven-year-old. But I can see how it would be practically impossible to find a young actor who fits Montgomery’s description: “Her face was small, white and thin, also much freckled; her mouth was large and so were her eyes, which looked green in some lights and moods and gray in others.”

I read to the point where Marilla tells Mrs. Blewett that she and Matthew haven’t entirely decided against keeping Anne, and Anne suddenly understands she might have a home, after all. A tear welled up in my eye. It’s that kind of book.

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