Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Ballad of the Alamo

The Battle of the Alamo

The Ballad of the Alamo

A hundred and eighty were challenged by Travis to die
By a line that he drew with his sword as the battle drew nigh
A man that crossed over the line was for glory
And he that was left better fly
And over the line crossed 179

Hey Up Santa Anna, they're killing your soldiers below
So the rest of Texas will know
And remember the Alamo

Jim Bowie lay dying, his blood and his powder were dry
But his knife at the ready to take him a few in reply
Young Davy Crocket lay laughing and dying
The blood and the sweat in his eyes
For Texas and freedom no man was more willing to die

Hey Up Santa Anna, they're killing your soldiers below
So the rest of Texas will know
And remember the Alamo

A courier came to a battle once bloody and loud
And found only skin and bones where he once left a crowd
Fear not little darling of dying
If this world be sovereign and free
For we'll fight to the last for as long as liberty be

Hey Up Santa Anna, they're killing your soldiers below
So the rest of Texas will know
And remember the Alamo

Libraries, bookstores and the depths of winter

As we trudge our way into February, that wicked and most treacherous month of winter, family members serially fall prey to cabin fever.

One of the things we do is to make an expedition to our local used bookstores or libraries. If you are not in the habit of doing so (and even if you are) it is a great way to break up the monotony of winter. It's a wonderful feeling getting home like a band of pirates, everyone smuggling in their booty and headed off to the various rooms to read their hoped for as well as unexpected finds.

Here in Atlanta we have a couple of really good libraries. One that we favor is the Decatur Library in downtown Decatur (just east of Atlanta). It looks like a library, feels like a library, is always busy with patrons but never feels crowded or frantic - just a low hum of reading pleasure. It is a happy place of reading with a quality collection of children's books.

It is easy to overlook the treasures we take for granted. There are a lot of changes afoot over at the NYPL Donnell Library in mid-town Manhattan. Make sure you get the kids over to their Central Children's Room while everything is in place. It is a storied resource in one of the most literate and literary cities. In May, the Donnell Library will be closing and the disposition of the Central Children's Room is uncertain at this point. Elizabeth Bird, at her School Library Journal blog, has the details.

One of the resources I am creating for TTMD is a register of used bookstores and public libraries that have a particular focus on children's books and are especially welcoming of children. Please use the comments to suggest favorites you might have.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig by Charles Lamb

I came across this essay by the author Charles Lamb, more famous for retelling the Shakespeare stories for children (Tales from Shakespeare).

In a completely different vein, this essay, A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, is one that has a couple of good guffaws in it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Favorite Children's Books - UK and USA

I am an inveterate collector of lists. With something as contextual and subtle as favorite children's books, it is really mostly an indulgence but sometimes there are glimmerings of insight that you can discern in the sludge.

In the past year, two major papers in the US and UK (The New York Times in the US and The Daily Telegraph in the UK) have run a question soliciting their readers feedback on favorite children's books. I recognize that there are all sorts of drawbacks to using this information - 1) they were run six months apart, 2) the questions were slightly different (Telegraph - Which books should every child read? versus the New York Times' - What was Your Harry Potter?), 3) the population of respondents was self-selected, 4) the number of commenters differed (Telegraph, 189 and NYT 1031) before being cut off, 5) there were no formats or standards for commenting so that some commenters might mention a single book, others a couple of dozen, some commenters would also suggest "All of author X", etc. and 6) often the commenters comments need interpreting (title not quite right, or a right title and wrong author, or an unidentifiable title), and so on.

Still, it is kind of interesting to compare the results. 189 commenters made suggestions in the UK and 1,031 in the US. The UK list had a total of 430 books mentioned, 110 of those being mentioned by at least two or more commenters. The corresponding numbers for the US list were 977 and 352. I documented all titles and authors in the commenters sections, making corrections as necessary. Here is what I found.

Top Twenty Titles

The Chronicles of NarniaNancy Drew
Swallows and AmazonsLord of the Rings
Alice in WonderlandThe Chronicles of Narnia
Peter RabbitThe Little House on the Prairie
Treasure IslandThe Hardy Boys
The HobbitA Wrinkle in Time
Lord of the RingsAnne of Green Gables
Wind in the WillowsLittle Women
Black BeautyTom Swift
Winnie The PoohThe Hobbit
The Magic Faraway TreeThe Wizard of Oz
Robinson CrusoeThe Phantom Tollbooth
Famous FiveCharlotte's Web
The Silver SwordThe Bobbsey Twins
Harry PotterBlack Stallion
BigglesThe Secret Garden
Lord of the FliesThe Dark is Rising
Aesop's FablesThe Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler
The Diary of a Young GirlThe Boxcar Children
>Charlotte's WebDr. Dolittle

Top Twenty Authors

Enid BlytonJudy Blume
C.S. LewisRoald Dahl
Arthur RansomeBeverly Cleary
Beatrix PotterRobert Heinlein
Roald DahlIsaac Asimov
AesopJules Verne
Rudyard KiplingDr. Seuss
Willard PriceRay Bradbury
William ShakespeareEnid Blyton
Charles DickensJack London
E. NesbitLouisa May Alcott
Hans Christian AndersonMark Twain
Malcolm SavilleAlbert Payson Terhune
R.L. StevensonMadeline L'Engle
Captain MarryatEdward Eager
Dr. SeussLucy Maude Montgomery
G.A. HentyA.A. Milne
H. Rider Haggard Agatha Christie
Isaac AsimovEdgar Allan Poe
Jacqueline Wilson John Bellairs

Only four titles were common across the top twenty from each country, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Lord of The Rings and Charlotte's Web.

Despite the top twenty list having only four in common, the total list of titles were relatively well known to the two different groups of commenters.

All the top twenty titles from the UK list were mentioned among the US commenters at least once, except for one with which I was also not familiar, The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailier. Even the very distinctly British series, Biggles, received a couple of votes from the NYT commenters (perhaps some Canadian readers commenting in the NYTs?).

However, among the US top twenty, including the top scoring US book, the Nancy Drew series, fully 25% of the titles were not mentioned at all in the UK. These US favorites not recognized in the UK were; Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, The Black Stallion, and The Boxcar Children.

A more widely read US group perhaps, or maybe simply a function of a larger commenting population.

Classes of favorites differed between the two countries, with series making up 65% of the titles in the US list versus only 40% in the UK. In fact it is even a little more differentiated than that if you distinguish between formulaic series (UK - Faraway Tree series, Famous Five, and Biggles; US - Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Boxcar Children) from literary series (UK - Chronicles of Narnia, Swallows and Amazons, Peter Rabbit, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter; US - Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Black Stallion). The formulaic series represent only 15% of the top twenty in the UK whereas they are 35% of the US list.

If we turn to the top twenty authors, the differences become more pronounced. In part this is possibly due to lack of guidelines in commenting. I am focusing here on those authors where multiple commenters explicitly indicated that the entire body of the author's work was read or ought to be read.

Four authors make both lists, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Isaac Assimov.

The British list is much more explicitly classical canon with most the usual suspects including Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Arthur Ransome, Rudyard Kipling, Hans Christian Andersn, E. Nesbit, etc. In fact there are only four authors that would probably not fall into the classical canon: Willard Price, Jacqueline Wilson, Malcolm Saville (another one that I have never come across but was mentioned several times in the UK list) and possibly G.A. Henty.

The US top twenty list was much more heterogeneous with mystery writers (Agatha Christy), science fiction authors (Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury), early independent reader authors (Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume) and a couple of niche authors (John Bellairs and Albert Payson Terhune) leavening the classics (Mark Twain, Jack London, Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allan Poe, Madeleine L'Engle, Jules Verne and L.M. Montgomery).

So - Any conclusions? No, not really. Still, pretty interesting to mull it over.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Colossi of Memnon, Luxor, Egypt

by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday, January 21, 2008

'If children are to become readers for life, they must first love stories' from Britain

The Telegraph has a listing of Childrens Books as well as suggestions from their readers. I love book lists and am happy to see this one. Especially note the readers comments for all the favorite books that any list inevitably omits.

You might recall that we prepared a British Expatriates and Immigrants book list. I will compare what the Telegraph readers think to the list we created and see what gaps exist.

The Moral Instinct

Steven Pinker had an essay, The Moral Instinct, in the New York Times a week ago which I have just got around to reading.

It is good reading for prompting questions and discussion. If you have a young adult in the household, with their finally attuned instincts for questioning the order of things and particularly the iniquity of parentally imposed moral structures, this is a nice essay for neutral common discussion.

I was also interested to see how some of the points he makes tie into a number of the axioms articulated in last weeks' Pigeon Post essay In Praise of Bad Books.

And how does this relate to children's books? Between this essay on The Moral Instinct, Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and a couple of other books I am reading at the moment, I am becoming more and more intrigued by the idea of the importance of imagination as a root capability. The ability to sympathize with others is in part dependant upon our capacity to put (imagine) ourselves in the circumstances of another. Our ability to plan ahead is just another mask of imagination, for what is planning but the imagination of what is likely to happen (both necessary actions and possible consequences)?

In children's literature we often think of imagination in its manifestation as creativity. But I wonder if children's stories, in their capacity of nurturing imagination, don't play an even more important role by building up those other attributes that are so critical such as empathy, anticipation, comprehension of consequences, etc.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Those Icelanders

The other day I was poking around a used books store and came across an intriguing little book narrating the history of Icelandic immigration to Canada from the 1880's to the 1910's. Who knew. I love the complex weave of humanity's stories with all its hidden strands.

Part of what makes this such an interesting story is simply the numbers. The population of Iceland in this period was about 70,000. 15-20,000 departed for Canada.

Even I couldn't warrant purchasing the book; limitations of space have forced me to ever higher standards of self-restraint. Even writing that sentence, I can feel Sally raising a skeptical eyebrow. But be it noted that there is no book on Icelandic immigration in the house.

Instead here are a couple of sites sketching out this intriguing story.

The Icelandic Immigration

Samkoma - History, Western Icelandic A veritable buffet of links to all things related to Icelandic immigration.

And here is the general Samkoma site, "The Meeting Place" for Icelandic & Western-Icelandic connections.

Early Icelandic Settlement in Canada

Icelandic Immigration to Alberta

New Iceland - A Forgotten Nordic Colony In Canada - This site, strange maps, by the way, is a great place to spend time for anyone with an interest in history and geography.

Well, enough about Icelandic immigration. I sure do enjoy coming across new information about something of which I was never even aware. You don't know what you don't know.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Beowulf - What I didn't know

Dot Wordsworth, language columnist in the The Spectator, in her column of November 24, 2007 points out something I never knew, nor even thought about. Interesting though.
Beowulf is meant to be a courteous but fierce warrior. His name is literally ‘bee-wolf', or ‘bees' enemy'. This is merely a kenning, or poetic name, for ‘bear', since bears seek out honey, destroying bees' nests as they go.

A couple of good versions of Beowulf

Independent Reader

Beowulf the Warrior by Ian Serraillier and illustrated by Severin & Ian Serraillier Recommended

Young Adult

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney Recommended

We'll All Die Game by Johnny Ashcroft

Johnny Ashcroft was an Australian country singer especially popular in the 1950's and 60's. I especially like this ballad. The names in the fourth stanza refer to famous Australian bushrangers.

We'll All Die Game
Johnny Ashcroft

Oh bring on the troopers, the judges, the hangman
Bring ‘em, they're one and the same
The hills and the valleys will echo our laughter
‘Cause we'll all die game.

When we're dead and gone we will long be remembered
One day they'll all know the shame
Of how we were hunted and tortured and beaten
But we'll all die game.

Oh, one day we'll ride just as free as the wallaby
Over the hills and the plains
To a place where the troopers and hangmen won't catch us
‘Cause we'll all die game.

Now there's Brady, there's Caesar, there's Moondyne, and Donahue
Together we'll all gather fame
With Thunderbolt, Moonlite, Ben Hall and Ned Kelly
We'll all die game.

Oh, when it is more than a hundred years after
And only our memories remain
The hills and the valleys will echo our laughter
‘Cause we'll all die game.

So bring on your troopers, your judges, your hangmen,
Bring ‘em, they're one and the same
To hell with your troopers, yours judges, your hangmen
‘Cause we'll die game.

James Baldwin Quote

James Baldwin Collected Essays

What It Means to be An American
Page 142

"Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world."

Take the Kids, and Don't Feel Guilty

In today's New York Times, A.O. Scott has an article, Take the Kids, and Don't Feel Guilty, which you might find interesting.

His central argument is two-fold. Parents should look beyond easy rules of thumb in deciding what is beneficial for their children. Yes, we should seek age appropriate materials (movies in the case of his article and books in the case of TTMD). But we should be simultaneously seeking to expand their horizons in terms of both what they are familiar with and what they are comfortable with.

Which leads to his second point. The biggest impact is not the movie/book itself, but the conversations arising from it.

I agree with both points.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Cider with Rosie

Coldharbour; Sun and Snow, 1916 by Lucien Pissarro

Cider with Rosie is a classic British autobiography by Laurie Lee and not currently available in the US. I have started it a number of times over the years but never progressed very far.

A couple of weekends ago, I was poking around in the Book Nook (one of Atlanta's good used bookstores) and came across a 1984 illustrated edition put out by Crown Publishers. It is beautifully illustrated and I have been revisiting Lee's striking, almost glutinous, prose. He grew up in the Cotswolds of England in the 1920's, out in the country.

Here is his description of seasons.
The seasons of my childhood seemed (of course) so violent, so intense and true to their nature, that they have become for me ever since a reference of perfection whenever such names are mentioned. They possessed us so completely they seemed to change our nationality; and when I look back to the valley it cannot be one place I see, but village-winter or village-summer, both separate. It becomes increasingly easy in urban life to ignore their extreme humours, but in those days winter and summer dominated our every action, broke into our houses, conscripted our thoughts, ruled our games, and ordered our lives.

Winter was no more typical of our valley than summer, it was not even summer's opposite; it was merely that other place. And somehow one never remembered the journey towards it; one arrived, and winter was here. The day came suddenly when all details were different and the village had to be rediscovered. One's nose went dead so that it hurt to breathe, and there were jigsaws of frost on the window. The light filled the house with a green polar glow; while outside - in the invisible world - there was a strange silence, or a metallic creaking, a faint throbbing of twigs and wires.

Twilight of the Books

Caleb Crain, in the December 24, 2007 edition of the New Yorker, has an article, Twilight of the Books.

One part book review of Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, one part summary of recent literacy stats, and one part speculative essay, it is a bit of a dog's breakfast but interesting none-the-less.

I don't agree with his somewhat dispirited conclusions but there is at least meat in the article which is perhaps more than can be said for most articles these days.

There are many cited statistics, almost every one of which sparks further questions as well as objections or ripostes. For example
In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.

One wonders if this decline is a function of lack of demand on the part of the reading public or a function of lack of supply (quality) on the part of the writing population. Also, since these figures cover a period encompassing a massive migration into the country of people from low literacy backgrounds, one would expect there to be a significant erosion of reading as reported by respondents; was this factored in?

The article is interesting and I do agree with the article's premise that reading is an integral part of our recent human history and a causative factor in the development of our advanced civillization and that there are many mysteries; historical, physio/neurological, and social, attendant to the act of reading which we do not yet fully comprehend and that the barrage of new technologies (radio, TV, internet, etc.) are likely to change reading practices in some way but in ways that are only dimly discerned at this juncture.