Filling a gap on the timeline

Dead End in NorveltIn anticipation of a solitary road trip, I headed to the library for an audio book.  Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos caught my eye, in part due to these lines in the description: “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional.”  Now, this was something that would make the miles pass faster.

As luck would have it, the road trip got cancelled, so instead I listened to it in fits and bursts during my regular commutes and while cooking.  This is definitely not the best way to enjoy an audio book, and sometimes days would pass before I was able to listen to the next chapter.  And there were times that I really wished I had been reading it, as there were some really, really good lines about history.

Modern fictionalized autobiographies, books that carry on the traditions started by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ruth Sawyer, Carol Ryrie Brink and Maud Hart Lovelace, seem to be in short supply, but this book certainly fits the bill.  Jack Gantos grew up in a town with an unusual origin–Norvelt was a planned community, launched during the Depression as another relief organization.  Originally called Westmoreland Homesteads, town members later renamed it in honor of the woman who pushed this program through the legislature, Eleanor Roosevelt.  The book is just one important summer, a summer in which he’s grounded and becomes the official scribe for the obituary writer.  Miss Volker is a sheer delight–cranky and opinionated, but with a strong sense of history and her duty to pass that history on.  Her obituaries are truly a work of art.  As a historian, I loved watching the way she would weave past and present together.  At the same time, she was also a bit of a history preacher.  For example, there’s this great quote: “Be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors.” Or this one: we have to save the history we have. You never know what small bit of it might change your life–or change the whole world.”

This book won the Newbery in 2012, and that award wasn’t well received by many critics.  I don’t pretend to be able to keep up with all the books in the running each year, so I won’t give an opinion on its worthiness.  Though this book wasn’t perfect, it does meet all my requirements for quality historical fiction.  It’s funny.  It has a good story.  It makes you want to find out more (I totally did some research on the history of Norvelt).  And it contains lots of details that you just might not include if your only knowledge of the time period was through research.  Do I think Jack will have the staying power of Laura and Betsy?  Probably not, but it was fun to get to know him.  And as a historian, it fills a great spot on the timeline of childhood during the 20th century.

With baby boomers’ strong tendency towards self reflection, I’m surprised that there aren’t more books like this being published.  Or perhaps I’m just missing them?  Who might be the next Laura or Betsy?  As technology marches on, childhood in the 1950s or 1960s is becoming more and more foreign, and it seems like this should be a booming sub-genre of children’s literature.  And honestly, after reading a lot of YA fantasy, it was a relief to be in a world for a while with no supernatural happenings.  Who else is writing fictionalized autobiographies for a young audience?  Is there a Laura for the mid-late 20th century waiting in the wings?

Jealousy

When I was a teen, my favorite author had been dead for 50 years.  This is just one of the many challenges of being obsessed with characters like Anne and Laura.  Sure, I was able to ride the wave of all of L. M. Montgomery’s books being reissued in the wake of the mini-series, but fan mail definitely wasn’t an option.  And there wasn’t a chance of being in the same room with my favorite author.

So, I’m a little jealous of today’s young readers, who can follow their favorite authors on Twitter and Instagram.  Or be in the same room with them and get photos and autographs and all of those amazing things.

Yesterday was the very first North Texas Teen Book Festival.  I’ve been a member of the DFW Forever Young Adult Book Club (p.s find a chapter near you.  You won’t regret it!) for several years, and our little club was heavily represented–a member was running the whole thing, other members were on the steering committee, panelists or moderators.  When the author list was announced in December, I was completely blown away.  For the last few months,I’ve been binge reading YA, trying to become acquainted with as many of the visiting authors as possible.

Over the years, I’ve been to my share of author readings.  I’ve attended the Texas Book Festival a few times.  But let me tell you–none of those experiences compare to the energy of being in a room with hundreds of obsessive teen fans.  Over and over, I saw teens basically ready to bust out of their skin in excitement.  Their book bags were full of books.  They were moaning about not having enough money to get everything they wanted.  They were very, very happy.  Books aren’t dead!

Featuring Sara Zarr, John Corey Whaley, friend Julie Murphy, and Karen Harrington

Featuring Sara Zarr, John Corey Whaley, friend Julie Murphy, and Karen Harrington

My friend Mandy moderated the “Book Boyfriends 101″ session featuring authors A. G. Howard, Megan McCafferty, Jenny Han, Stephanie Perkins, and Ally Carter.  I’ve read 4 of the 5, and must say I am completely smitten with Jenny Han and Stephanie Perkins, so this session was a high priority for me.  Luckily, I happened to run into Mandy right before her session.  As we headed to her room, the hallway got more and more crowded and we realized–they were all trying to get into that session.  Mandy pushed her way through, and I was right behind her.  She got into the room by saying “I’m the moderator,” and I got into the room by saying “I’m with the moderator.”  Yes, I totally cut off hundreds of rabid fangirls.  I do feel guilty, but I was also the official session photographer.  I had a job!  I grabbed a seat on the first row.  Five minutes later, the volunteers asked any adults “who didn’t have to be here” to please leave.  I shrunk down in my seat and tried to look as young as possible.

Featuring Ally Carter, Jenny Han, Stephanie Perkins, Megan McCafferty and friend/moderator Mandy Aguilar.  Not picture: A. G. Howard

Featuring Ally Carter, Jenny Han, Stephanie Perkins, Megan McCafferty and friend/moderator Mandy Aguilar. Not picture: A. G. Howard

The girls next to me were super, super excited.  One was literally on the edge of her seat, back ramrod straight, for the entire hour.  She squealed.  She gasped.  Other girls on the front row were wearing Gallagher Girls shirts, a nod to Ally Carter’s series.  There was literal screaming when each panelist was introduced.  It was clear that the audience was full of teen girls who had read and reread and obsessed over these authors’ books.  It was quite obvious that this experience was going to be a highlight of their lives.

And the panel.  Oh, the panel.  So very funny and real and honest.  Authors confessing the silly things they’ve done for love.  How to create the perfect book boyfriend, with the reminder that sometimes a good book boyfriend would make a terrible real boyfriend.  As I said on twitter, it was like a cross between a rock concert, comedy show and therapy session.

Just one room of the signing lines.  I chose to buy pre-sigend books and left the fun of standing in line to the teens.

Just one room of the signing lines. I chose to buy pre-sigend books and left the fun of standing in line to the teens.

At a certain point yesterday, 35 year old Melissa became very, very jealous of thousands of book loving teens crammed into the Irving Convention Center.  Being a teenager can be such an awkward, terrible thing–and being bookish doesn’t always help much.  But they had this moment to connect with fellow fans and the authors they love.  This is one of those events that you just know will have extraordinary ripple effects in these teens’ lives.  There was a great article about the event, and I think they totally understood how magical this was.  They followed one girl in particular and wrapped it up with this little story:

She opened her bag and counted her haul, 14 books total.

“Eight, nine, 10,” she said, piling the books in her lap. By the time she was done, a tower of novels swayed atop her knees.

Fire & Flood. Don’t Even Think About It. Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

And her latest acquisition, Side Effects May Vary.

“I met Julie,” Carol told the boy matter-of-factly. “Do you know how exciting that is?”

I’m so very proud of my friends that put this whole thing together–and so very glad that I could come along on the ride.

Now, I have to get back to my very long reading list, currently full of authors that are alive and well!

Required Reading?

231631There are some books that I just assume everyone has read.  Often, these lines are somewhat generational.  For example, I just assume that everyone my age and younger has read Harry Potter.  And I had also always assumed that most older women have read Little Women.  (I definitely think it is less-read today, but I also think it’s more read than people assume.)  For the museum’s book club, we decided to focus this year on books written during our time period (1840-1910) that have been repeatedly mentioned in other things we’ve read.  Little Women was at the top of the list.  Going into our discussion, I assumed that this would be a reread for everyone–though it had probably been decades since they had last read it.  But almost half or our group had never read it!

This led to a really interesting conversation about why they had missed it and what it was like to read it for the first time as an adult.  Everyone liked it, though I’m not sure if our first-timers loved it.

Frankly, I was even more surprised because all of these women love history.  It seems like there are certain books that all of us history lovers (especially the women) have in common: Little Women, Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables seem to be the three most common. We also chatted a bit about what books they had read, and not a lot of historical fiction came up.  Though I still believe kidlit history is one of the best paths to history, it is good to be reminded that there are many ways to become a history fan.

As you know, I have often incorporated my own love of children’s literature into museum programming.  During our Little Women themed event about a year ago, one of my most devoted junior historians confessed that she hadn’t read any of the canon–or even those of the “secondary” canon–Frances Hodgson Burnett, Maud Hart Lovelace, etc.  We might have teased her. I might have threatened to kick her out of the program if she didn’t read at least one of my favorites.  I might have sent over her buddies (who had read all of the required books!) to give her a hard time.  Don’t know if she ever picked anything up, though I still allow her to be a junior historian.

So, what titles make you say “I can’t believe you haven’t read that!”?  What’s in your kidlit history canon?

Kindred Spirits

The last six months or so have been crazier than usual, of which this poor neglected blog is certainly a testament.  To briefly recap: in June, I was named Interim Executive Director at the museum where I’ve worked as educator for the past nine years.  I spent four weeks this fall at a professional development seminar in Indiana.  And the weeks surrounding that departure were crammed with work things, a friends wedding (I was maid of honor), my parents’ 65th birthday party, and of course, the holidays.  Now that it’s January, I feel like I’m starting to get a sense of what the new normal is.  At the very least, I’ve found time to read and watch tv again!

Several of my friends had equally crazy (though for different reasons) falls.  They also happen to share my love for Anne Shirley.  In talking with one friend back in October about that lovely blank spot between Christmas and New Year’s, we decided that an Anne party would be the perfect way to celebrate making it to the end of 2013.  Tea, raspberry cordial (with optional hooch), tea-time food and the movie.  Because I am somewhat nuts, I decided that I would also haul out my entire Anne collection for party decorations.

Now, I knew I had a lot.  After all, I’ve been collecting since I was nine or ten years old.  If you’d been keeping an eye out for things for 25 years, you would have a lot too.  But seeing it scattered throughout the house was kinda amazing.  I believe guests were both amazed and frightened.  In my defense, the only things that are ever out all the time are a few pictures in the guest bedroom.  Though I will confess that I left out a few of the Anne dolls and added my Little Women porcelain figures and my Laura Ingalls Wilder (the author, not the little girl!) doll for this month.

yes, that is four different versions of Anne of the Island.  Turns out I have the most copies of that one.

yes, those are four different versions of Anne of the Island. Turns out I have the most copies of that one.

One friend brought scones and another egg salad sandwiches.  I made cucumber sandwiches, pimento cheese (yes, I know that’s not in Anne, but I live in the South where if you have tiny tea sandwiches, pimento is required!), raspberry cordial, and plum puffs.

Raspberry cordial!

Raspberry cordial!

Plum puffs!  Complete with stills from two of the movies.

Plum puffs! Complete with stills from two of the movies.

Here’s the thing about Anne: we all adore Anne, but we can also make fun of her.  After all, what child, even in the 19th century, ever talked like that?  We started being snarky from the very beginning, which made watching so much more fun.  We laughed in places where as a kid, I would never have laughed.  I would have just nodded my head because I understood perfectly.  We talked back to the movie often.  The champagne might have had something to do with that.

About halfway through the movie, we started imagining backstories for some of the secondary characters.  If Aunt Josephine is so rich, why isn’t Mr. Barry?  Was there some sort of family argument?  And how did she become so wealthy?  Was she a madam?  It went downhill from there.  By the end of it, Mr. Barry was a serial killer, Mrs. Stacey had some sort of secret double life, and I can’t remember what all else.  It was hysterical.  If we were really clever and not so busy, we could write one heck of an alternate history of Avonlea.

It’s not often that I get to celebrate my love of kidlit history with others in person and not just online.  That moment of discovery can be so delightful.  After all, there has to be a moment of discovery because it’s not like I talk about such things all the time.  (Contrary to the belief of one friend who teases me often about this interest and refused to come to the party because she “might be converted.”)  I discovered one kindred spirit when she noticed a very discreet watercolor of Green Gables at a housewarming.  Another was discovered during a workplace conversation about Little Women (a theme for one of our events.  Gee, I wonder whose idea that was. . .).  Bringing everyone together was such fun.

The bookshelf that holds all of my older versions.  They no longer fit on one shelf!

The bookshelf that holds all of my older versions. They no longer fit on one shelf!

Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think.

Small books about big wars

In the fall of 2011, my family and I made our first trip to Hawaii. In what should be no surprise, we made sure to make time for a visit to Pearl Harbor. My knowledge of World War II is probably deeper that the average bear, but I’m not even close to being an expert. Before visiting Pearl Harbor, I had never really considered the impact of that attack on civilian life in Hawaii. Their exhibit spaces made that abundantly clear, and I found myself thinking deeply about all that had to happen after the attack. And of course, the USS Arizona Memorial was incredibly moving, even though it was also incredibly crowded.

IMG_3263

Like any good museum professional/tourist, we made a lengthy stop in the museum store.  While there, I picked up this little book.

Dancing in Combat Boots

And then it sat in my to-read pile for two years.  And I felt bad when I finally read it, because it is a gem of a book.  Funke took real women and fictionalized their war stories.  She did an excellent job of choosing women from a variety of backgrounds that did a variety of things in a variety of locations.  At the back, there’s a paragraph about each woman’s real life, adding a few nuggets of details.  And the stories themselves are beautifully written.  I think my favorite was “Three Thousand Men.”  Attie sketched thousands of soldiers in their hospital beds in LA.  The story itself takes place in modern times, as Attie is trying to find a permanent home for her copies of the sketches.  Attie says towards the end of the story:

I’m not asking for recognition for myself.  But some of these boys never made it home.  Do you see?  There should be a place where their families can go to find these portraits.  There should be a way for people to see what we sacrificed in that war, a whole generation of men lost.  I didn’t paint anything else those four years.  I put all my energy into this.  Four or five sketches a day, and then I’d have to stop.  Your eyes can only take so much.  This was the most important work of my life.

There is also a story set on December 7, 1941 and the days following.  Newlywed Marjorie is living on base with her army husband.  The chaos of the attack is vividly brought to life as Marjorie flees with a neighbor, not knowing if or when she’ll see her home or husband again.  In huge, dramatic events like this, it’s sometimes the details that capture the imagination.  When Marjorie returns briefly to her home, she instantly notices the dirty dishes in the sink: “‘Never again will I leave dirty dishes in the sink,’ I promised myself.”

World War II is such a big story–just go to any bookstore and see how many books about the war span the shelves, especially compared to other wars or periods in history.  Is there a place for a small book of fictional stories about women on those shelves?  I would argue that books such as Dancing in Combat Boots give people something small enough to hold on to.  Shelf after shelf of fat books about military strategy, soldiers, the European Theater, the Pacific Theater, the homefront, and politics are going to intimidate a lot of people.  But by its very nature, fiction is less intimidating.  And when you have a book like this, one that has good, solid historical research behind it and tells engaging stories, you’re one step closer to teaching people about the past.

I’ve recently returned from a three week professional development seminar that was all about the place of history museums in the world around us.  We spent hours discussing history’s role in public life and ways to increase the relevance of history.  Some people argued that we have to teach the public more about the ways of doing history.  There was also a subtle undertone that fluffy, feel good history was something we should abandon–we must focus on the Seriousness of History.  I have always believed that you lure people in through their comfort zone, and then you push them a bit.  With that pushing, they may realize they’re ready for a deeper exploration of the past.

And that’s what books such as this do so well.  The look of the book is utterly charming, but inside are some difficult stories about the Japanese internment, sexism in the workplace, and the fears when a POW comes home.  And these stories certainly have inspired me to look again at the stories surrounding World War II.

On Slates

Around here, school is about to start.  This is quite evident with the flashing school zone lights, and the conversations among the younger set.  I spent Sunday night hanging out with two of my favorite girls, Grace and Sophie.  However, the usual “back to school” conversation took an unexpected turn.  Grace, now 11, started talking about boys.  It was a very long conversation.  Questions were posed such as “Would you rather be kissed by the dumbest boy you know?  Or a dumb boy you don’t know?”  “If a boy kissed you, would you faint from embarrassment?”  I also learned that Sophie had a pre-school boyfriend, who she kissed every day.  And Grace has her first official crush.  Luckily, she’s in that stage where she can still talk to him and not blush, but she’s also desperately hoping he doesn’t figure it out.

In the middle of all of this, I hopped up from the table and turned on my nook.  Since finishing up the Betsy-Tacy books, we’ve been reading Anne.  I have never before been so nervous introducing a book to kids before.  Anne is so near and dear to my heart.  What if they didn’t like her?  Before we read the first chapter, I told them that if they didn’t like it, I understood–that there were lots of other books I wanted to share.  As I started reading, I got more nervous.  It is a much harder read-aloud than Betsy–the rhythm and pacing are so different.  I also worried about the whole “are you going to send me back” part because these girls are also adopted.  I shouldn’t have worried.  Grace, Sophie and I are indeed kindred spirits and they really like Anne.

Anyway, back to my story.  I knew we were getting close to the wonderful scene in which Anne thwacked Gilbert with a slate.  But would we get to it tonight, after talking endlessly about the problems of liking boys?  Miracle of miracles, it was the next chapter!  What are the odds?  Life lessons through literature, handed to me on a silver platter!

So, we read about Gilbert teasing Anne.  And Anne setting Diana drunk.  And I was struck anew at how funny Montgomery is–and how true those scenes still are.  They totally got why Anne was so mad at Gilbert–and we talked about the deep desire to sometimes whack a boy with a book (not a slate.  I had to explain what a slate was.)  I watched as Sophie and Grace’s face lit up at the thought of hosting a friend without the parents around.  I’ve read this book so many times now that the lovely details often just wash over me.  As I stumble over some of Montgomery’s “poetical” words, laugh at the jokes, and watch the girls’ reaction as they hear this classic for the first time, it feels like a fresh, new book.

As they were going to bed, Sophie asked me: “Am I like Anne?”

My reply: “I think there’s a little Anne in all of us.  You’ve got a great imagination, you get into trouble sometimes, but you have a big heart.  Just like Anne.”

Road trip inspiration

Over the years, I’ve built a few vacations around visiting favorite literary sites.  There was the Prince Edward Island Trip in 2002.  Mankato in 2009 (which led to the genesis of this blog).  Mansfield and Hannibal in 2010.  Monterey in 2012 and 2013.

So, I’m very intrigued by the newish website, Placing Literature.  It’s a crowd-sourced project, inviting readers to place books on a map.  Right now, the map isn’t very full, and there aren’t a lot of likes on their facebook page yet (just over 150).  But what a fun, fascinating idea.  How great would it be to plot a road trip using this map?  And the books to read along your road trip?

I’ve written more than once about how much the power of place can add to the reading experience.  Looks like there are a few other folks that believe in the power of place.  Best wishes to them, and here’s hoping the project (and the map!) begins to grow rapidly.