Friday, March 7, 2014

First Grad School Reading List of Fourth Semester

Yes, my first bibliography of my last semester, and I'm only posting it a month late. I'm working on preparing my graduate lecture for Vermont College of Fine Arts—which is kind of like the defense of your critical thesis—so I reference my topic a lot in this list. I looked at a lot of nonlinear picture books and focused on narrative subtext. What can I saw, picture books are deep, man.

Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner: While this is a fun picture book that I immediately thought of for use in my lecture, reading it alongside books like Where the Wild Things Are and Grandpa Green made me realize how cliché rhyming picture books have become. You always hear not to rhyme in a picture book unless you can do it really well, and this book probably doesn’t do it well enough.

The Several Lives of Orphan Jack by Sarah Ellis, illustrated by Bruno St-Aubin: There’s a lot we don’t know in this book—the time period, the country of origin, the backstory of Jack—but that somehow gives it a folklore feel. When I went back to look at the original Grimm’s fairytales a few years ago, I was amazed by how much detail those stories lack. A lot of my memories have been filled in by Disney or books my mother read to me or watching Into the Woods every day the summer after third grade, but those stories have survived for generations because they allow the reader to fill in the details. It’s hard to put trust in the reader and let them make your characters their own.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Cancer may be fatal, but it’s not a flaw. This book annoyed me to no end. Talk about a manic-pixy-fairy girl and a tall-dark-and-handsome boy who say all the right things and feel all the right emotions and are just quirky enough to be endearing and totally unrealistic. Hazel talks about a character’s "fatal flaw," and unfortunately, the main character and romantic interest’s fatal flaws are completely superficial. Gus’s biggest flaw is that he’s a terrible driver with a hero complex, and Hazel’s flaw is that she can’t see her own beauty and won’t let herself love a guy who loves her because she thinks she’s “a grenade.” Sure, these kids have to deal with huge issues, such as their own mortality and living with constant pain, but I’ve known kids with terminal diseases before—deeply loved them and been torn apart by their deaths—but I’m also hyper aware of what pain and stress does to a teenager’s personality—and it’s not a pretty thing. The irony is that Green actually has the main characters talk about the postmortem saintly status of children who die young, but he himself is horribly guilty of reinforcing the same view. I felt like this book was doing a total disservice to teens with terminal illness by not allowing the characters to be real kids. And I don’t care how intelligent you are, missing three years of school because you’re receiving medical treatment will not make you some kind of literary savant. If you look past the emotional manipulation that is this book, you find hipster adults stuck inside teenagers’ bodies (see the dinner in Amsterdam scene) without any real substance who are completely defined by their circumstances rather than who they become in the end. Green’s a great writer, there’s no doubt about that, but can’t authors create beautiful sentences and substantive characters at the same time?

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield: I think personal essays, autobiographies and creative nonfiction are just about the perfect example of nonlinear storytelling—it allows the writer to dissect cause and effect with hindsight. The entire time I was reading this book, I was amazed at its organization, how events were grouped by topic and not chronology so I could see how one little thing could affect a future event in a big way. It reminded me of something James Cross Giblin said in his book Writing Books for Young People: He advises writers of nonfiction to “try not to begin a chapter with a flat, factual statement, but start instead with an anecdote or scene that will help establish the mood and lead the reader into the main part of the chapter” (22). Hadfield pulls that off to perfection.

Cold Skin by Steven Herick: I always approach novels in verse with trepidation—too many of them either focus too much on poetry or lose sight of the form—but this one did it well. I really liked Herick’s sparse use of stanza breaks. I also liked how seamlessly he weaves dialogue into exposition.

Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr., narrated by Dion Graham: This is a powerful letter, and with King's oratory skills, it's a letter written to be read aloud. It reminded my of the Pauline "Prison" Epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Sorry to go all Biblical when I try to keep this blog fairly nonsecular (though my religious views are a deep part of who I am, so they pretty much come out anyway), but hearing the voice of prophet's past in the voice of someone today is a pretty good sigh that he is doing God's work.

Anno’s Journey by Mitsumasa Anno: It was about halfway through this book that I realized why someone recommended this book to me. This is a book where time (Middle Ages, modern day, Renaissance) and space (England, France, Spain, Italy, even America) meet. Belgium surrealist painter René Magritte would have loved Anno. Everything is happening at once, but the journey keeps moving forward. Now to figure out how to do it so seamlessly with only words instead of only images.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: I’ve probably read this book 1,000 times or more, but it’s always been out loud to kids. What amazing surprises there where when I could flip back and forth and take time to actually study the pictures in connection to the words. There are only ten sentences in this book. Ten! But the way they build tension shows how possible it is to (purposely) break grammatical rules with run-ons and fragments. I also love how the word “and” acts as a beginning rhyme (rather than the traditional end rhyme) with 23 lines opening with the conjunction. The use of the moon to show the passage of time—or lack thereof—is absolutely brilliant. What a difference reading as a writer can make to a beloved classic.

Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd: This book has wonderful chapter openings that ground readers in action and equally wonderful chapter endings that propel readers into the next scene. Sure, the vocabulary isn’t always historically accurate (one of the characters wears “pajamas” inside of “night clothes,” and the MC’s BFF uses “God” as an interjection like a modern teenage would), but this book has great plotting and pacing that makes me more willing to ignore those little slips.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith: This is probably the best example of a layered picture book I have ever seen, with three stories in one. You have the rather simple narrative of the boy telling the story of his great-grandfather, all in the text. Then you have the story of the little boy tending and playing in the garden. And then there’s the story told in the topiary garden itself—a legacy left by an old man to his children. I know that having a book written and illustrated by one person lends itself to this kind of layering as the artist knows when to let the pictures speak and when the words are needed, but it got me thinking about how and where writers can leave room for the illustrations. I heard Brian Selznick speak a few years ago about the process of writing The Invention of Hugo Cabret and how he originally wrote it as an unillustrated novel, but then he went back at took out every passage of description or action and illustrated them instead. What words are really necessary? And how does that translate into writing an unillustrated novel?

Flotsam by David Wiesner: This is a great nonlinear picture book that uses a clever frame story of pictures within pictures to tell about the past and get a peek into the future. I love the unexpectedness of the fantasy within such realistic watercolor images. I wish I could use this one in my lecture, but it’s a little too fantasy based to work with the other books I’m using. (While Where the Wild Things Are and Snowmen at Night can technically be categorized as fantasy, they are really only fantastical within the imagination of children while this book is a fantasy hidden beneath the surface of the ocean.)

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