Friday, March 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: Billy Collins

Here's a neat little commentary on one of the pillars of our literary canon by the inestimable Billy Collins. Reprinted, shamefacedly, without permission from his collection Ballistics, published by Random House last year.

That roast beef has stopped me more than once, too, though I imagine the middle piggy in front of a bloody joint (as the British say), not a deli sandwich. It surely can't be the only nursery rhyme that stops us in our tracks, can it? Who's looked at the Opie collections lately?

My favorite line here is the one about the smug self-satisfaction of Jack Horner. We want to be Little Jack and we want to smack him in the face at the same time. Or maybe that's just Billy and me.

This Little Piggy Went to Market

is the usual thing to say when you begin
pulling on the toes of a small child,
and I have never had a problem with that.
I could easily picture the piggy with his basket
and his trotters kicking up the dust on an imaginary road.

What always stopped me in my tracks was
the middle toe -- this little piggy ate roast beef.
I mean I enjoy a roast beef sandwich
with lettuce and tomato and a dollop of horseradish,
but I cannot see a pig ordering that in a delicatessen.

I am probably being too literal-minded here --
I am even wondering why it's called "horseradish."
I should just go along with the beautiful nonsense
of the nursery, float downstream on its waters.
After all, Little Jack Horner speaks to me deeply.

I don't want to be the one to ruin the children's party
by asking unnecessary questions about Puss in Boots
or, again, the implications of a pig eating beef.
By the way, I am completely down with going
"Wee wee wee" all the way home,
having done that many times and knowing exactly how it feels.

-- Billy Collins, 2008

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kate McClelland and Kathy Krasniewicz

Yesterday, on the vernal equinox, there was a memorial service for the two great librarians who died at ALA Midwinter in January. Brian Selznick created a wonderful piece of art for the occasion -- a cross between Giotto and Rousseau. The black & white reproduction above does it no justice! There were storytellers at the service, and kids, and library volunteers, and a politician. Pat Scales gave a dignified and moving account of Kate and Kathy's professional influence, and Brian Selznick told us an uncanny story of a baby born at the Denver Public Library the very day that Kate and Kathy left us. I have written about Kate before on this blog, but a number of people have asked for the text of the comments I was honored to deliver at the service. Here it is:

Memorial service for Kathy Krasniewicz and Kate McClelland Old Greenwich, Connecticut, March 20, 2009

My name is Brenda Bowen, and I am honored to speak on behalf of the children's publishing community.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote on the ALSC site after hearing the news of the death of Kate McClelland and Kathy Krasniewicz: "Deepest condolences to all of you who knew them well from one who admired them so much and loved their work and generosity to so many in the realm of READING and THINKING and BEING. The world has darkened utterly. What can we do to keep them alive?"

Today's celebration is keeping Kate and Kathy very much alive. Every single one of us carries a piece of their spirits in the way we read, how we think, who we are. To know Kate and Kathy was to be inspired by them. These ladies had style, and class. Kate -- who at 71 years old (and who knew she was 71?) -- was an agent of radical change. She was not content with the status quo. She rewarded risk and venturesome creativity. Kathy was a beacon of warmth and intelligence. She was the practical application of our work as publishers. Children always first with Kathy.

And children and young adults all over this country have found books to love because of Kathy and Kate's work and passion. We publishers have made better books because of them. We can still feel the grip of Kate's hand on our forearms as she leaned in close to ask..."What is Jinny up to?" We can see Kathy with her dazzling smile and her regal bearing, eyes bright with excitement about what was coming out next season. "Tell me about your books, " she'd say. They never stopped, never got tired of hearing what was coming next.

They pushed us, these ladies. They pushed us into bringing authors to conferences to speak to other librarians. They pushed us to get artists to talk to kids about drawing. They were so pushy on behalf of books. They had passionate opinions. They couldn't let a good story go unnoticed. They could not stop working to spread the word of children's books to the world. They were working, it is safe to say, up to the moment they died. They are working now.

The great English writer Virginia Woolf had something to say about women like Kate and Kathy, in a line Kate liked to quote: “I have sometimes dreamt…" Woolf wrote, "that when the Day of Judgment dawns…the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these have no need of reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’”

Woolf had her picture of heaven (only Kate and Kathy would have appeared at the Pearly Gates with galleys, not bound books); I'll add to Woolf's vision with mine. I think Kate is up there right now, getting up to mischief with Bill Steig. Conspiring with Lloyd Alexander and -- whoa! -- maybe she's making peace between Anne Carroll Moore and Margaret Wise Brown. She could do it!

And Kathy is right there next to her, the sensible one, the steady, constant companion and quiet leader. She's reading to the young children and booktalking to the older kids and writing letters home to her girls, her beautiful girls.

I think any of us in publishing has had the thought: I don't think I can face another season. Not another list. Is there really anything new under the sun? And then you're at your desk, and you open an email attachment from a new writer, and you start reading on the screen, and you can't stop reading, even though your eyes hurt. Because there in front of you an amazing story is spinning out -- a story you've never read before, told in a voice you've never heard. And your heart actually quickens with excitement.

Or you get back to your office to find a huge brown-paper-wrapped package, and you carefully, nervously undo the wrapping to discover a picture book from years ago that you thought would never get delivered and you open it and it is astonishing -- and you think, Oh my God: This is why I'm in it. This is why I love making books.

And right away your mind goes to the next thought: But who's going to get this? Who's going to read it and love it and spread the word and get it to kids? Oh -- there's Betty Carter! And there's Karen Breen! And there's Kathy and Kate!

But now there's not Kathy and Kate any more. Which is why it is so urgent that we leave this place with Kathy and Kate on our shoulders. One on each. We'll take Kathy's red coat and Kate's fabulous kimonos and wrap them around ourselves as armor. We'll recall Kate's chunky jewelry and Kathy's beautiful family rings when we see a literary gem in the rough. We'll peer over Kate's half glasses and look at the world half full; more than half full. We'll steal their enthusiasm, their drive, their optimism and use it to fuel ourselves. It's uncertain times these days. Radical change is in the air. But the stories and the songs and the pictures will go on because they must go on. Our job as publishers, writers, artists, readers is to imbue our own endeavor with the fierce love of Kate and Kathy felt for children's literature and children themselves.

It's the least we can do for them.

A book Kate loved was Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse. It's the vernal equinox today -- such a good day for a celebration of life. Here is a poem about spring from Karen Hesse's book that evokes Kate and Kathy and the gifts they will continue to give us, as long as we live.

"Apple Blossoms"

has been nursing these two trees
for as long as I can remember.
In spite of the dust
in spite of the drought,
because of Ma's stubborn care,
these trees are
thick with blossoms,
delicate and

My eyes can't get enough of the sight of them.
I stand under the trees
and let the petals
fall into my hair,
a blizzard
of sweet-smelling flowers,
dropped from the boughs of the two
placed there
in the front yard by Ma
before I was born,
that she and they might bring forth fruit
into our home,

Friday, March 20, 2009

Poetry Friday: Vernal Equinox

Just a quickie today, from the gifted poet Anon, in his Brooklyn incarnation:

De spring is sprung,
De grass is riz;
I wunneh wear de flowers is.
De boid is on de wing --

Absoid! De wing is on de boid!

No flowers, barely any birds, and only chicken wings in this corner of the world on today's snowy start to spring.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It's a free country

"It's a free country, I can _______ if I want to." Didn't you say that a LOT as a kid? I did. "It's a free country, I can take your clothes if I want to" (to my sisters). "It's a free country, I can eat chocolate before dinner if I want to" (to myself). Of course I couldn't say it to my parents, because talking back was the worst of all possible transgressions in my household.

But when was the last time you heard a kid say "It's a free country"? I have not heard it in a long time. Because now we're a "If you see something, say something" country. Now we're a "You will be photographed country."

How is this filtering down to the books we read? The books we choose to publish? It would be interesting to know.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Poetry Friday: All the single ladies

I've been obsessing just a little about Beyonce's hit, Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), so I am using Poetry Friday as an excuse to explore why.

Things I love about it: The title (the parentheses). The simple trips up and down the major scale. The call and response. The bridge. The post-post-feminism empowerment lyrics. The schoolyard chant. The beat. The video. Oh yes, the video.

Why can books never employ that parentheses trick? The best we seem to be able to do is use "or," as in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. I suppose we give books nicknames (e.g., HP7), but we don't memorialize those nicknames in the actual titles of literary works. I don't know what Beyonce's memoir will be called, but I hope it shatters literary convention and includes an alternate title (in parens).

Don't you just love and admire the way song just skips way up and down a regular old major scale? It's a simple schoolyard chant with a driving beat. The S&M Mary Janes worn in the video by Beyonce and her two relatively heavily-clad backup dancers are a little nod to the schoolyard, too. At least that's what I like to think.

And how about the call and response? Calculated to get all the single ladeies -- and every single woman -- out on the dance floor, it still evokes a deep-seated recognition in the listener, at least in this one.

Then there are the lyrics! The song is credited to Thaddis Laphonia Harrell, Jr; Beyonce Knowles; Terius Youngdell "TheDream" Nash; Christopher "Tricky" Stewart -- it's an Oscar-worthy cast. I know, I know, it's so heavily produced that it's barely a song at all, but look at the words and tell me how anyone can help but sympathize/empathize with the singer. This is an anthem for anyone who's been wronged by a no-'count man. And, much as I love and adore men of all stripes...who hasn't been wronged by a no-'count man at least once in her life?

I'm blameless, she says. I have the moral upper hand. You had your chance and you blew it. So long sucker. All the things we want to say but we can't find the words. Well, here they are.

So "infinity and beyond" makes us all think of Buzz Lightyear. So the symbol of a ring to show a woman's worth in objective terms is against what we and our foremothers fought for. So no one can really move like that without a few breathers between takes (right?). I don't care, and neither do the forty-six MILLION viewers of her video.

Plus, you know you've really arrived when your song has its own brass band sheet music. Happy poetry Friday, Beyonce. I like it.

Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) Lyrics

All the single ladies (7x)
Now put your hands up
Up in the club, just broke up
I’m doing my own little thing
Decided to dip but now you wanna trip
Cuz another brother noticed me
I’m up on him, he up on me
Don’t pay him any attention
cried my tears, after three good years
Ya can’t be mad at me

Cuz if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it

Cuz if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it

I got gloss on my lips, a man on my hips
and we tated up in my Dereon jeans
acting up, drink in my cup
I could care less what you think
I need no permission, did I mention
Don’t pay him any attention
Cuz you had your turn
But now you gonna learn
What it really feels to miss me

Cuz if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it

Don’t treat me to these things of the world
I’m not that kind of girl
Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve
Is a man that makes me and takes me
And delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond
Pull me into your arms
Say I’m the one you want
If you don’t, you’ll be alone
And like a ghost I’ll be gone

All the single ladies (7x)
Now put your hands up

Cuz if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Daylight Savings Time Is Relative

The glamorous Yuyi Morales just announced on her Facebook page that she woke up this morning not knowing it was Daylight Savings Time. DST is one of my pet peeves (actually, the fact that it is not DST all year round is my actual peeve), but that is a post for another kind of blog. For this blog, let me tell a good story:

Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press once hosted a dinner party in Bologna to honor the late Max Velthuijs, a whimsical and very wonderful Dutch author/artist. Held in the magnificent Sala Farnese at the Palazzo d'Accursio in the center of town, the party was as classy and stylish as Klaus himself. It was springtime in Bologna, the light was beautiful and spirits were high.

At first the guests were so charmed by the rooms and by each other that they didn't notice the guest of honor had not arrived. The cocktail hour did seem to go on a wee bit long, though, and just as we were all wondering whether dinner would indeed be served, Klaus stood up and made his first announcement. Max was still in The Hague, he said, but he would arrive very soon, and could we all have another drink and wait for him? Of course we could, and did.

The announcements came periodically throughout the evening. During the pasta course, Max was in the air. When the secondi piatti were taken away, Max was landing. For the dolci, Max was in Bologna at the airport! By the grappa, Max was in a taxi!! Max was almost here!!!

When the great man finally arrived, to a fairly soused standing ovation, he offered his explanation:

Daylight Savings had started one week before the party, and the news of it did not reach Max, in his tiny house in his tiny village in The Netherlands. He therefore missed his plane to Bologna, not because he wasn't at the airport, but because he was "enjoying a sausage" while he waited to board, oblivious of the real time.

No one who attended that dinner party in Bologna will forget it, or Max Velthuijs, or Daylight Savings, or the sausage. Which just goes to show that artists are all the more memorable for late arrivals, and steering clear of real time.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Poetry Friday: Infinite Space

One prominent recently laid-off publishing big wig confessed to me the other day that, since he lost his job, he's been plagued by bad dreams. Me too. It's hard to see one's position change, one's ambitions evolve. So that line of Hamlet's kept turning over in my mind -- the one about bad dreams. Then it turned up on another friend's Facebook page, so I'm thinking it's in the wind. It's not truly poetry, but it's poetic, and it's late on Friday night, so I'll post it by your leave.

To go with it, a bad dream of my own, albeit with a serendipitous ending:

I'm in the kitchen. Lots of people are there -- we're preparing a meal. There's a white paper bag in the middle of the floor, and it's been sent to me by Angela and Tony DiTerlizzi. Everybody seems to think there's a bomb in it. So we can't touch the bag, or get too close to it, because it could explode at any second. Still, we have to get the meal made. But how? We're endangering our lives with every step.

But I look that dangerous white bag and I say: If it's from Ang and Tony it can't be bad. And, against all calls to the contrary and to everyone's vivid horror, I open it.

First I find...a note, from Ang. An early drawing of Tony's. And then, delicately wrapped in tissue, deep in the bag: AROMATHERAPY CANDLES.

Some bomb.

Denmark's a prison.

Then the world is one.

A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons. Denmark being one o'the worst.

We think not so, my lord.

Why then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

Why then, your ambition makes it one. 'Tis too narrow for your mind.

Oh God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the
shadow of a dream.

Hamlet, II, ii, William Shakespeare