wayfarers all

children's literature, childhood and culture (and anything else that strikes my fancy).

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Location: pittsburgh, U.S. Outlying Islands

carbon-based life form: thinking, reading and gardening. New College alum; current grad student writing a dissertation. I specialize in children's literature, media, and culture, and queer/gender studies, with a strong interest in 19th century British literature and culture. I like history, a lot.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

ChLA Conference

I recently learned that JAMES KINCAID, my personal theory god and guru, my academic/critical/intellectual hero and role model, is giving the Francelia butler Lecture at the ChLA Conference in June.

i hadn't planned on attending, though I would have liked to, because I'm not presenting (didn't even submit a paper, stupid me). But now that James Kincaid is speaking....well. it's a whole different ballgame, now.

I really want to go. I had such a wonderful time last year - it was incredibly inspiring and invigorating, listening to the papers and talks. I'm still reeling from the starstruck moment of being in the same room with Peter Hunt! and from the unbelievable paper on Raggedy Ann given by a woman named Robin something (who is at Harvard, and I am a total jerk for my inability to recall her last name).

I'm not outgoing enough to really "network" but the possibility of meeting and chatting with people in the field is also really tantalizing.

anyway, i'm trying to find out if i can get any funding through the university to attend. even if they could cover the cost of airfare/registration, i could manage lodgings. but i can't afford it all on my own. i just can't.

maybe i should set up a paypal account and see if anyone(s) wants to sponsor me to attend? i promise full reports on whatever sessions i attend....and of course, a gushing report on James Kincaid's lecture.

any sponsors????

Monday, March 27, 2006

Bartimaeus: Ptolemy's Gate

I finished reading Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy about a week ago. Due to unbelievable amounts of busy-ness I haven't been able to collect my thoughts and post them here...but now I'm taking time out from the busy-ness (stolen time, really) to do so.

I'm happy to admit to being wrong: my first impressions of the trilogy were incorrect. After reading Ptolemy's Gate, I have to say Stroud has created a really fantastic work of fantasy/fiction. My one remaining complaint - and I think it's a valid one - is that somehow all three books felt a little too long, too wordy. Tighter editing would have worked wonders, but in retrospect, the books are strong enough that even with this verbosity: they're still remarkable.

I'm currently taking a class on queer theory, so I'm on Heightened Alert for queerness. and Ptolemy's Gate has it. Probably all three books have it, really. The most exciting moment for this came late in Ptolemy's Gate, when Bartimaeus (as narrator) says "It was all a bit butch and male." I can't say more without Giving Away The Plot, but my goodness! a book "for children" that says something was butch!!!!!


Stroud does a good job, I think, of making his main three characters - Nathaniel/Mandrake, Kitty and Bartimaeus - morally complex. This is no Manichean universe; these are good, bad, confused, complicated characters. The books refuse simple choices and predictability; the Other Place perhaps crystallizes this complexity. It was difficult for me (via Kitty Jones) to get my brain around a place so Other but it is an appealing Other Place, and one worth thinking about.

I'm certainly also a fan of the progressive - moderately progressive, anyway - politics of the book. any world where the ruling class is challenged is usually good with me.

So: recap. The Bartimaeus trilogy is definitely a keeper. I think eventually I'll re-read it, although I don't find it as intensely satisfying and in need of re-visiting as, say, Diana Wynne Jones's novels.

I have to say, though, I'm not sure how to deal with the ending of Ptolemy's Gate: in some ways, it was deeply satisfying. In other ways........I felt somehow cheated. I'm really not sure yet how I feel about this, but I do know the trilogy, as a whole, was definitely worth reading.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Yesterday I finished reading Jonathan Stroud's first book in his Bartimaeus trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand.

What to make of this book?

I admit I'm skeptical to snarly about the proliferation of glossily-packaged magic/fantasy novels for "children" since the breakout of Harry Potter. Fantasy is what I study, it's my favorite genre within children's lit and has been since I started working "professionally" on children's texts (fall 1998, for those keeping track at home).

The premise appeals: a more-or-less modern-day London, ruled by magicians who depend entirely on a vast array of enslaved magical creatures for their power. This is an alternate world with a different history - London is the center of the universe and capital of a vast empire. Prague is its erstwhile competitor for the claim of most powerful city in the magical world.

But Stroud doesn't do enough, I don't think, with his modern magical world. The Amulet of Samarkand is mainly about Nathaniel, a rather brattish - though brilliant - magician's apprentice who calls up and enslaves Bartimaeus, a pompous, self-important and rather snotty djinni. The cleverest bit here is Stroud's use of first-person narration for the Bartimaeus-focalized chapters. Bartimaeus as narrator is very conscious of his position as storyteller - his narration is littered with footnotes, a number of them very textually self-referential.

The problem with The Amulet of Samarkand, for me, is that I don't like either of its "heroes." Bartimaeus gets tedious with his wholly self-centered existence (although we do see glimmers of a kinder, gentler demon - and I hope these glimmers are expanded in the subsequent two books). Nathaniel initially appeals as the downtrodden genius apprentive/slave to a mediocre master, but his boundless desire for power and revenge is thoroughly unappealing.

I don't mind sarcasm at all, but I suppose I like my fantasy fiction to be a little more full of wonder. Samarkand is smart, cynical and, I suspect, a decent political allegory of sorts (conflict between commoners and magicians). I'm hoping the trilogy brings out these themes without being predictable or derivative, but I'm not too optimistic. I've started The Golem's Eye (the second book) and so far I'm curious but not enthralled. Stroud's a decent enough writer but for me, a good fantasy novel (see: anything by Diana Wynne Jones) is completely captivating. The fantasy needs to be believable, I think, to be good (Jane Yolen writes a nice short essay about this, "Turtles All the Way Down") and I'm not entirely sure that Stroud has created a believable fantasy world.

but i will reserve my Final Judgment until after the trilogy is complete.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

the penultimate peril

i just finished the penultimate peril (book 12 in the series of unfortunate events) and i have to say again that lemony snicket (aka daniel handler) is a genius. it's not very interesting or original to point out how delightfully postmodern the entire series is, but this is one of the things i love best about the books. i also revel in the self-referentiality, the attention to language and the very obvious love of literature the books reveal.

a few years ago, i wrote a not-very-good paper for a children's lit class that tried to talk about the carnivalesque and the series of unfortunate events (and weetzie bat). the main text i ended up looking at was book 9, The Carnivorous Carnival (weirdly coincidental; i wasn't discussing carnivalesque because the book actually features a carnival).

like i say, it wasn't a terribly good paper, although i suspect now I could write a better one. but what intrigued me about the carnivorous carnival is the way that disguise operated, and the way that the lines between good and bad became very, very blurred - which is what is happening (or so it seems) in The Penultimate Peril (and perhaps in the series as a whole?).

poorly defined good vs. evil is often interesting because it does raise extremely relevant questions about human nature. The Penultimate Peril sets up its binaries - noble and wicked, volunteer and villain - but then confuses and confounds these binaries to the point of irrelevance.

this is great. it's fascinating and makes for good reading but i think, just as importantly, it pushes on what's acceptable in children's literature. children's texts - fantasy perhaps most obviously - is often criticized for oversimplifying the struggle of good vs. evil (Harry Potter might be a good example of this). I hear the common remark that acquaintances don't enjoy children's texts because of this perceived simplification, the perceive lack of complexity of human behavior. And though it's cloaked in clever allusions and humor, i think the Series of Unfortunate Events is counteracting this by presenting us with a very complex meditation on the nature of good and evil, of nobility and wickedness - or, if you rather, the line between volunteer and villain.

Monday, October 17, 2005

it's been a long time

and, unfortunately, I don't have much to say at the moment. I've been unbelievably busy with not my favorite things since school began; I haven't had time at all for my own academic pursuits. Instead, i've been teaching freshman composition, reading about composition theory and pedagogy and hunkering down with some of the classics of American lit (last week, we read Moby Dick - the whole book, in one week, for one class).

eventually, i'll bring my brilliant insights back here but for now - consider this blog temporarily in hibernation.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

me & sybill trelawney - HP6

Big Fat Spoilers Here! So stay away if you don't want to know. Here is a nice daylily to admire before getting to the spoilerpost.

My prediction was right! So far, anyway. My sister and I have often kicked around various predictions and ideas for how the series will end, including what will become of harry's love life. And I have suggested more than once that he will become a Loner-Hero, removed from those around him, pursuing his work in a self-imposed isolation. and his "breakup" scene with Ginny in HP6 proves me right!
although to be fair, I don't reckon Ginny is the kind of girl to take that very well. Ginny as I read her will Be There for Harry no matter what, and will likely save his ass on at least one occasion, thus proving herself worthy of partnership. Ginny's tough, and doesn't seem too keen to have boys tell her what to do - I like that about her.
Someone on my listserv has pointed out similarities between Ginny and Harry's mother, Lily - I'm assuming physical (the long red hair). This is creepy. I sincerely hope this wasn't intentional but I fear it might have been. the "becoming his father" plot is also a bit tiresome to me, although it doesn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the books.
anyway, I like it when I make predictions and they, at least temporarily, come true.
When does Book Seven come out??

Saturday, July 16, 2005

HP6 - first responses (no spoilers)

I stayed up all night reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - until about 6:30am, anyway (and then couldn't fall asleep for two more hours, but that's another story).

I'll have to read it again before I can do my really sharp, insightful literary analysis, but as of right now, my first impression is very positive. I have a feeling that a lot of the book could have been cut down - it's backstory, information-providing scenes that could have been written differently and more efficiently - but this doesn't really detract from the novel. The best and most surprising bit for me is how Rowling's writing (or her editors' editing) has improved, especially in casual dialogue. HP6 is funny - at times, though of course humor is not the prevailing tone. But the interactions between the kids - Harry, Ron & co - rang much more true to me - they joke, they're sarcastic. Harry doesn't waffle around with adults - he's gotten pretty defiant but comfortably so. His insistence on following his own dictates doesn't come off as it has in the past, as a kind of immature, childish contrariness; in HP6, he seems like a real human with a conscience and well-developed sense of right and wrong, a knowledge of what is the right thing for him to do, and an absolute (and admirable) unwillingness to deviate from that knowledge. He is not longer petulant, which is a huge relief, and finally Ron's been given some good lines (!).

My big disappointment is not very much Luna Lovegood, with whom I was absolutely delighted in HP5. She makes appearance here, of course, but not in the sustained way I was hoping for. But I can live with this.

There's a typo or misspelling within the first few pages which made me groan ("site" instead of "sight") but otherwise I think this was well-edited. A bit of a lack of continuity - some things felt a bit as if they were coming out of nowhere, and for the obsessive re-reader, Harry's sudden ability to swim rings false (remember in Goblet of Fire how he worried about the second task because he couldn't swim well??? evidently, Rowling and her editors didn't).

This was definitely not the book I expected, but at the same was precisely what I expected. A few of my personal predictions came true, which is always nice. I'm curious to see how the series will wind up - of course, I'll be waiting a jolly good long time for this to be revealed. In the meantime, I'll re-read HP6 and think it through more carefully, and there's a universe full of other (more?) brilliant books awaiting my attention.

Summary: HP6 a pleasant surprise. sharper, cleverer, smarter than i'd expected. flawed, certainly. but a hugely satisfactory read.

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