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Files cover“Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place,
but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.”
—E. L. Konigsburg

I stopped and caught myself when I heard that E.L. Konigsburg passed away last Friday. It hurt. But almost immediately, that gave way to the familiar, deep-in happiness I always feel when I think of her. Oh, I loved her books when I was growing up!

Like Elizabeth, I had a pet frog so I was thrilled by the schemes and magic in Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. And, I have to point to Konigsburg’s tale of Eleanor of Acquitane, A Proud Taste for Scarlett and Miniver, for sparking my interest in biographies and historical fiction. (Cannot wait for the next Hilary Mantel!)

But most of all, I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—the story of Claudia and her little brother Jamie, who run away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Claudia is the reluctant adventurer. “Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside where it counts.”

Still, ‘the Mixed-Up Files’ had just enough adventure (and mystery) to keep me hooked, but there was also the research and library angle, which especially appealed to a bookworm like me. I’ve read the book countless times and have given it to almost every kid I know.  After they read it (and are in on the secret), it’s especially fun to take a child to the Metropolitan Museum to see the “Mixed-Up” haunts.

Claudia and Jamie spent a lot of time in the Egyptian galleries and the very bronze cat they admired is still in a case there. There are several period bedrooms on display, though the exact bed that the kids slept in has been dismantled. Likewise, the fountain they bathed in is gone, though there are several others in the Charles Engelhard Court. Finally, in a case of life imitating art—well, art imitating fiction—the Met recently put on display a small marble statue called the ‘Young Archer’ which may or may not have been carved by Michelangelo.

In fact, so many children ask about the book, that the museum has put out a special “Mixed-up Files” guide to their collection. (As opposed to the American Museum of Natural History, which pretty much has nothing from Night at the Museum. #disappointedkids)

In addition to being a great storyteller, Konigsburg wrote beautifully. When Elizabeth looks out at spring from her window she finds, “new green was all over … green so new that it was kissing yellow.” The author won two Newbery Medals and several other literary citations.

Konigsburg would often tell her readers, “before you can be anything, you have to be yourself. That’s the hardest thing to find.” Most of her novels were about self-discovery and that time in life when children start to define themselves with their actions and choices.

I like to think of E.L. Konigsburg starting off like the out-of-place, questioning Claudia and in her later years resembling the accomplished Mrs Frankweiler, smiling with her secret. I’m so grateful to Konigsburg, and I am sad that she is gone. But mostly, when I think of her, I feel that happiness and excitement which she so perfectly described, and I can still it flapping around a little.

Scholastic Book Clubs Tribute Page to E.L. Konigsburg

Washington Post: E. L. Konigsburg Obituary and Bio

New York Times Books: E. L. Konigsburg, Author, Dead at 83

WP Style Blog: To My Lawyer, Saxonberg, the Genius of E.L. Kongisburg

The Metropolitan Museum Kids Guide: the “Mixed-Up Files” Issue

The Metropolitan Museum Unveils a ‘Maybe’ Michelangelo

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triple covers

How, HOW did I not know that Marvel published a comic book, er graphic novel, of Pride & Prejudice?! It came out three years ago. I am hugely, abominably embarrassed. I wouldn’t even share this mortifying tale, except for the hope that others might benefit.

Let me say up front that this Marvel P&P is a gem. Regency romance meets comic book—pure genius!

p and p danceAs a kid, I loved Betty and Veronica and all the superheroes comics. I don’t read them much anymore. (I go to all the movies!) When I see the Marvel or DC logo, warm memories of childhood summers flush to the surface. For Christmas, I got my 10-year-old godson the DC Comics Encyclopedia. He already had the Marvel one (the boy is very advanced).

To blend Marvel with Jane Austen is such a frothy new twist (well, to me). The illustrations really capture the characters—except Mr. Collins could be more repellent. Also, Pemberley looks a bit like the White House, but overall the settings are spot on. The editors chose the best quotes—the banter between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. They even included the moment when Darcy acknowledges that Jane Bingley is very pretty, “though she smiled too much.”

Here’s another great way to celebrate Pride and Prejudice’s 200th Anniversary. Even better news: Marvel has also come out with Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma. I haven’t been this excited since Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

fun extra coverAusten Fans Celebrate 200 Years of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks: Boring to Brilliant

So Glad Jane Austen Made Me Do It

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Spoiler Alert: This Book Has No Ending

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It’s Banned Books Week (Sept 30- Oct 6), organized each year by the American Library Association (ALA). The awareness campaign was founded in 1982—the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a New York school district could not remove Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five from its middle-school and high-school libraries. Well, barely. The court was sharply divided over this decision, split 4-4 as to whether limiting the books would violate the students’ First Amendment rights. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger actually sided with the book banners. The swing vote was cast by Justice Byron White, who concurred with the four that wanted to limit the school board’s ability to withhold books, but he refused to comment on the First Amendment issue. Er, I’m no lawyer, but denying books to students seems a pretty clear violation of both “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press.”

It was close call, but that ruling hasn’t stopped Slaughterhouse Five from being barred repeatedly from school bookstores and libraries, as recently as 2007 in Howell, Michigan. Other frequently banned classics include high-school favorites like A Separate Peace, by John Knowles; As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner; The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger; The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding; and just about everything written by Hemingway, Orwell, and Steinbeck. Check out the ALA’s list of the Most Frequently Banned and Challenged Classics.

Back in 1918 when James Joyce’s Ullysses came out it was banned from publication in the U.S., Ireland, Canada, and England. Sylvia Beach famously came to the rescue by printing and selling the book from her Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. In 1940, U.S. Post Office actually declared Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls “non-mailable.”

But censorship is not something of the past. Right after the first The Lord of the Rings movie debuted in 2001, a pile of Tolkien’s books were burned outside a church in Almagordo, New Mexico, for being “satanic.” Clearly, these people had not actually read the books (or seen the movie). In 2010, a California school district banned Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary owing to “explicit definitions.”

Last year, the ALA reports there were 326 attempts to remove books from school curricula and/or libraries. The Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2011 include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (both repeatedly challenged in the 21st century). Of course, the list includes The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, just as a few years back the target was on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I confess, I feel a bit squeamish about younger children reading The Hunger Games, but that’s a decision for their parents—not the state … or the local town council, seriously?

So celebrate our right to read this week by reading a banned book … or any book. Check your local library for Banned Book Week events. Also, don’t miss the Virtual Read-Out on YouTube. Passages from banned books will be read in video clips by celebrities, famous authors, and just about anyone who wants to upload to the channel. Read on.

30 Year Timeline of Banned Books Week

Top Ten Banned Books of 2011

List of Most Frequently Challenged Classic Books

Banned and Challenge Classics: History by Book

BBW Virtual Read-Out on You Tube

Bookman’s Does Banned Books on You Tube

Flashback Post: Banned Books Week 2011—Celebrate  Celebrate our Right to Read

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It’s a big weekend in The Shire! Today, September 21, marks the 75th Anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, first published in 1937. The book, which has never been out of print, has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 50 languages. In 1954, the poet W.H. Auden called The Hobbit, “one of the best children’s stories of this century.” So many decades later, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and the fiesty band of  rogue dwarves continue to fascinate readers of all ages. Indeed, Tolkien’s “re-creation of Middle-earth has affected every fantasy writer since.”

Then tomorrow, Saturday, is Hobbit Day, observed every year on September 22. Tolkien fans around the world will celebrate with Second Breakfasts and toasts the Shire. This is actually the birthday of both Bilbo and his nephew Frodo Baggins, aka the two ring bearers. This date takes on even greater significance because it kicks off the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, opens with Bilbo’s birthday party on September 22, after which he passes the One Ring on to Frodo, and trouble follows fast.

Earlier this week, a tantalizing new trailer was released for the upcoming movie The Hobbit: An Uexpected Journey. I must say that I am triply excited that there will be three films instead of one.

We have to wait until December for the film, but this weekend all things Hobbit can occupy our thoughts. Here are 10 Ways to Celebrated Hobbit Day!

September 22 is Hobbit Day

10 Ways to Celebrate Hobbit Day

Bring on the Hobbit Movie Triple Play!

The Hero is a Hobbit: W. H. Auden in The New York Times

The Hobbit: What Has Made the Book Such an Enduring Success?

The Hobbit Second Breakfast (via the Wall St Journal)

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Hello?! Am I the only person who is excited—thrilled, actually—that Peter Jackson is turning The Hobbit into three movies?! (FYI, the book celebrates its 75th anniversary on Friday, September 21.) Seriously, I don’t understand all the snarkiness. Genius director: check. Passionate about the source material: check. Proven track record: double and triple check. Jackson won countless awards and honors for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) film trilogy, including the 2004 Best Picture Oscar for The Return of the King.

Heck, The Lord of the Rings legendarium by J. R. R. Tolkien could have easily been four movies, or six! There were actually six volumes to the series—two per book. So much was left out! The Rangers of the North; the Hobbits’ Second Breakfast (mentioned only in the Fellowship Extended Edition); Mirkwood Forest and its mischievous elves (though we know we will get this in The Hobbit films); the Scouring of the Shire; the true reach and power of the insidious Palantír; the tenuousness of Aragorn’s position as the ‘heir of Isildur among the fiefdoms of men; the storied history and strategic importance of Osgiliath; and also Minas Morgul, which in the book (but not the movie) is one of the ‘Two Towers.’

The mystery and tense uncertainty as the Fellowship wound through the Mines of Moria had me so gripped reading the book, but the The Fellowship of the Ring movie reveals the fate of the dwarves straightaway. I must give Jackson major props, however, for including my very favorite line from the trilogy in both his first and second film. It’s in Moria, when Gandalf is dangling from a precipice in the clutches the Balrog. The rest of the Fellowship hesitates, turning back to help him. “Fly you fools!” he barks, just before he plunges into the abyss.

Most egregiously, however, they cut the wonderful romance of Faramir and Éowyn. Seriously, how could they have left that completely out?! It’s barely referenced even in the Extended Edition. (Yes, I own the Extended Editions of all three movies.) Two of my favorite characters, individually, actually end up together. All in all, there was simply not enough of Faramir in the films.

Still, there is only so much of this epic that could be squeezed into just three movies. If only the extendo craze (which made two films out of the final volumes of both Harry Potter and Twilight) had happened pre-LOTR. I did like the first three Twilight flicks, but Breaking Dawn – Part One was a low point, painful really. If you haven’t subjected yourself, skip it and rewatch Vampires Suck.

I don’t mean to knock or diminish Jackson’s achievement with the LOTR trilogy. All three films are amazing, brilliant, seminal—truly among the best ever made. But, The Return of the King felt to me a tad rushed and left me a teense unsatisfied. I wanted more.

There is so much to cover in The Hobbit. Did I mention that Friday, Sept 21 is the books 75th anniversary? I am so eager to see all of it—every minute! After all, the past few holiday seasons have seen a dearth of blockbusters, with Harry Potter done and James Bond mothballed by MGM’s bankruptcy (until this November 9th—eureka). It’s been a real let down. I am savoring the whole fevered run-up to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which hits theaters on December 14th. Check out the awesome latest trailer! Even better, after that we have two more movies to look forward to … bonus!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Latest Trailer

The Hobbit Movie: Original Announcement Trailer

The Hobbit Movies (Official Website)

The Hobbit (background on the book via Wikipedia)

Tolkien’s Hobbit Celebrates 75th Anniversary

September 22 is Hobbit Day!

Ten Ways to Celebrate Hobbit Day

The Hobbit: What Has Made the Book Such an Enduring Success?

The Hobbit Second Breakfast (via the Wall St Journal)

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hunger tixCall me The Hunger Games hypocrite. Yes, I raced through the books. Yes, I got advance tickets for opening day. (Not the midnight show—not since I slept right through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.) And no, I could not concentrate for much of Friday thanks to the zeitgeist of anticipation via email, Facebook, and Twitter.

The books are hugely readable and addictive. Suzanne Collins offers up lots of great plot twists, which keep them far from predictable. Collins must be commended in hooking, not only girls, but also the elusive non-reading demographic of teenage boys on a story told from the point of view of a schoolgirl. That is a phenomenon in itself. It’s refreshing and exciting to have a strong, determined, and capable heroine, and I know that my teenage self would have loved to read about Katniss Everdeen. Still, I have some real problems with these books.

hunger games 1For starters, the body count is higher than a season of 24. Spoiler alert: pretty much everyone dies. And they die savage, gruesome deaths. Kids—yes, these are kids here. They’re dying and killing each other like something out of the 300. The grisly fate of stylist Cinna in Catching Fire would work great in a pulpy noir novel about Russian mobsters. But, um, this book is aimed at ages “12 and up.” To contrast, in Lord of the Flies, three boys die and it is a really big deal. In The Hunger Games, every kid dies and it is no big deal. At least it seems to be no big deal judging by the hordes of kids (not teens) who packed the theater.

Also, the dispassionate tone of Katniss, the narrator, really unnerved me. She seems fairly anesthetized to all the violence and takes a disturbing matter-of-fact approach to her Death Wish-esque rampage. Gosh, even in Jason in The Bourne Identity (book or movie) seems more conflicted than Katniss, um, as does Darth Vader at the end. When nice guy Peeta dispatches another wounded and helpless tribute (that’s a child/teen competitor), the book plays it off like that was a smart move, as though it were some heroic reach to protect Katniss. Again, little remorse. Even in Saving Private Ryan, the trained soldiers—men who have just been through D-day—find themselves torn about whether to execute their German prisoner.

hunger-games-2This lack of emotion and also the frenetic pacing made me feel like I was reading a video game. Snipers shoot unexpectedly from trees or roof tops, assailants jump out from behind corners, and there’s a constant stream of surprise dangers—fires, rabid mechanical dogs, poisoned gas—that Katniss keeps dodging. Particularly the third book, Mockingjay, feels a bit like “Call of Duty” as Katniss is almost continually shooting at someone. The whole underground trek in the tunnel was dizzying, as menaces popped out at nearly every turn. I had to stop several times during this book, because the choppy pace was so bing, bang, boom that I was getting a headache. My 13-year-old nephew told me that his teacher did not like The Hunger Games because he said it doesn’t offer the same sort of ‘patience and reward’ as traditional books. And I do wonder if kids are getting the same benefits to their comprehension and concentration skills when reading this flash-and-dazzle compared to say, Treasure Island, or eventhe Harry Potter series, which featured plenty of more ruminative passages and lots of complicated plot lines and backstories.

In the film Jennifer Lawrence, who was so striking in Winter’s Bone, added nuance and complexity to Katniss. I liked the character better than in the books. It’s interesting, because there was a bit of an uproar when Lawrence was cast, as Hunger Games fans called her too pretty or too old. But, she nailed it.

I’m not sure how they will handle Katniss as the films progress, but it really bothers me that the books never resolve the difficulties between her and her mother. They have a distant, unsettled relationship which percolates throughout the trilogy, and it was a real let down to have that go nowhere. Katniss is able to forgive and accept Buttercup, the cat she hates, but why not her mother? I must add that I loved the fractious dynamic with Buttercup.

Indeed there are many things to love in these books. Collins delivers memorable characters—Rue, Haymitch, Cinna, President Snow.  Even the tributes who we don’t know that well (Foxface, Glimmer, Thresh) we can visualize clearly. Collins is also a wonderfully descriptive writer and does an amazing job creating the sparkling Capitol, the rundown “Allentown” of District 12, and the workaday poverty of the Seam. You really sink into the world of Panem. Also, it is quite a feat that with only her words, she sort of put me off the smell of roses. I got some right after I finished the last book, and they did smell overly sweet and almost sickly. With each whiff, Katniss’s negative associations came to mind. Now, that’s some pretty impressive wordsmithing.

hunger games 3It was great fun seeing all of this come together on the screen in The Hunger Games movie, which so far seems to be a hit with both the diehard fans and those who’ve never read the book.  I do look forward to the next movie and also the next book by Suzanne Collins, although before I crack the spine, I will brace myself.

The Hunger Games Series Official Site on Scholastic

The Hunger Games Movie

The Hunger Games Wiki Site

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I’ve been surprised to hear that many of my friends who saw War Horse—the play on Broadway or the new Steven Spielberg film—did not know that both were based on a wonderful novel by Michael Morpurgo.  For some reason, Morpurgo, who was the Children’s Laureate of the UK, is not that well-known in the states. He has written dozens of children’s books, which are extremely popular in the UK, and indeed, worldwide. Some, like It’s a Dog’s Life and The Butterfly Lion, are geared to early readers. War Horse is one of his several fine young-adult novels.

The story is of Joey, a Devon farm horse, who is drafted into World War I, and Albert, the boy who enlists and vows to find his horse. Morpurgo did not want the book to be partisan, so Joey ends up working in turn on the British and the German sides. We see the humanity, kindness, and brutality of both. Morpurgo paints a picture of how WWI impacted civilians as well as soldiers. The book holds close to historical details, with the new agonies of trench warfare, machine guns, and gas. There’s a moving scene of Joey getting caught in no-man’s-land between the fronts, and also Albert fights in the pivotal Second Battle of the Somme. Morpurgo brilliantly invokes the foolhardy, specious, “charge-of-the-light-brigade” gallantry that would send a cavalry into battle against modern heavy artillery. Whether he is writing about people or animals, Morpurgo creates memorable characters. I particularly loved the gruff but noble workhorse Topthorn.

Another book by Morpurgo that I strongly recommend is Private Peaceful. Also set during WWI, it is an affectionate and wrenching story about Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful and his brother Charlie, who become soldiers together.

After their father is killed in an accident, the two brothers struggle to help their mother keep the family together, now that they no longer have claim to the tenant farm where they live. Morpurgo highlights the resolute and capricious power that the landed gentry had over their laborers—an authority that ultimately forces the brothers off to war at an early age. This class conflict is mirrored by the brutish behavior of some of the officers in the trenches. Again with attention to historical accuracy, Morpurgo focuses on a lesser-known, barbaric injustice faced by many of the rank-and-file soldiers in the British army in the early 20th-century.

The book is told in flashbacks by Tommo, who lied about his age so he could go along when his older brother was drafted. “They’ve gone now, and I’m alone at last. I have the whole night ahead of me, and I won’t waste a single moment of it. I shan’t sleep it away. I won’t dream it away, either.” I was hooked from Tommo’s first line. Also, the pacing that alternated real-time with the past had me ripping through the pages. The countdown felt a bit like an episode of the TV show 24—with the suspense, and the sense of dread, compounding. I finished Private Peaceful in one sitting.

In addition to some lovely vignettes of life in the Devonshire countryside, there is also a charming, understated tween love triangle, which sparkled with the refreshing, best-friend dynamic of childhood romance. Though his books are targeted to young readers, Morpurgo insists they are “stories for everyone.” And I must say I am steadily plowing through them, relieved to find that he is so prolific.

Although the children’s book market has been booming, there is a lot of dodgy, poorly-written, mishmash out there—such as the hackneyed “kitten”, “rainbow”, and “weather” fairy series. And don’t get me started on the fad of celebrity children’s books. Ugh. Do you really want your kids reading this stuff?

Parents looking for quality, compelling books for their children should browse the virtual bookshelf on Morpurgo’s website. Not only are his many books beautifully-crafted with wonderful characters (there are lots of animals and there’s lots of history), but these books are downright satisfying page-turners … for readers of any age.

Fueled by Movie Buzz, War Horse Breaks into Top 50 Bestsellers

War Horse: the Novel

Private Peaceful

Michael Morpurgo’s Virtual Bookshelf and Website

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