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Debatables: Mouse Appeal


Another round of Debatables starts today. Mike and I are both pro-rodent (although I am not a rat fan since Ratigan and Willard *yikes*). And we celebrate the arrival of Mike’s new book:

So–it makes sense to make our February Debatables all about mice, particularly the Most Appealing Mouse of Middle Reader Literature.

Mike’s vote is for Amos from Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me.

I am promoting Reepicheep from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series.

Voting takes place at Mike’s blog. This shall no doubt be a lively round. Stop by and cast your vote (for Reepicheep, of course).

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Debatables: Ominous Winter Scene


The usual monthly Debatable format shall be slightly different this month. Mike Allegra, that talented, and becoming increasingly prolific writer, is off on a month-long fellowship diligently working on his book. This means he does not have the time, nor can he spare the creative pundit, to dabble in quibbling and debating. In his stead, he has asked Jilanne Hoffman, a capable author in her own right, to quibble and debate upon a chosen topic. He likened it to her being a tribute. I promise no life-threatening survivalist tactics will be forthcoming. Instead, I offer a warm welcome for Jilanne. Please feel free to trot over and check out her blog. I suggest signing up her updates and such while you are there. She has a fascinating bio:
Jilanne Hoffmann has been a zoo train engineer and a “real” engineer, but switched to freelance writing 20+ years ago and now enjoys writing stories for kids and adults. She has an MFA in Creative Writing, has read at Listen to Your Mother – San Francisco, and is an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Rutgers One-on-One Conference. One of her stories is included in a forthcoming anthology (Feb 2019), “She’s Got This: Essays on Standing Strong and Moving On.” She is currently at work on a new adult novel and many, many picture books.


Today’s Topic: What is the most ominous winter scene from a juvie book?

I have selected the passage from the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Edmund meets the White Witch upon his entry into Narnia.

Image result for edmund meets the white witch
That’s right, Edmund–think twice about talking to that lady in the sledge.

Jilanne has decided upon the scene where Scrooge meets up with Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

The same guidelines apply: we each have 300ish words to state our case, and then another 150 to counter argue.

Let the quibbling begin!

First off, a definition of ominous is needed:

om·i·nous/ˈämənəs/adjective:giving the impression that something bad or unpleasant is going to happen; threatening; inauspicious.

Cricket:

For those not familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia, the first book introduces readers to the Pevensie children: Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan. Lucy finds her way into the enchanted land of Narnia, yet her siblings disbelieve her.

In chapters three and four Edmund follows Lucy into a wardrobe during a game of hide and seek, and unexpectedly enters Narnia, where it is winter. His paradigm has definitely shifted. A stranger in a strange land, he decides “he did not much like this place.” Tension builds. He can’t find Lucy, he is freezing cold, and wonders how to get home. Desolation increases–that feeling of”something bad or unpleasant is going to happen” is about to happen.

In the distance a sound of bells. They come nearer. What can be approaching? A threat forms. Suddenly a sledge drawn by reindeer driven by a bearded dwarf appears. This is not promising. What’s really startling is the formidable woman seated in the sledge, who holds a wand and wears a crown. Her severe manner startles Edmund into stuttering out his name. She demands information from him. The interview’s only bright spot is the Turkish Delight she provides. But wait! Readers are informed that the candy is tainted with her evilness, creating a craving for more, to the point of Edmund promises to turn over his brother and sisters to this imposing woman to satisfy his craving.

Minutes later, Lucy and Edmund reunite and Edmund discovers he’s been fraternizing with a witch, the dreaded White Witch. Edmund is sick with his realization (not to mention the overindulgence of Turkish Delight).

This scene is truly frightening: a lost child, cold, made more miserable upon understanding how badly he’s messed up. Lewis knows how to capture the fears of childhood, and creates an absolute memorable ominous scene.

Jilanne:

I nominate Jacob Marley’s chilling scene from A Christmas Carol. It has always terrified me. Scrooge feels a “strange, inexplicable dread” as bells clamor in his gloomy house and then stop, followed by “a clanking noise, deep down below, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine merchant’s cellar….the cellar door flew open with a booming sound…the noise much louder on the floors below, then coming up the stairs, then coming straight towards his door.” I cowered behind my mother as she read, my head under the covers, hoping this ghost would take only her and let me live.

Jacob Marley, a “bristling” specter drapedwith the miserly chains of cash boxes, ledgers, and purses he forged in life,has “death-cold eyes” and a handkerchief wound round his head like a bandage.Although he sits still, his “hair and skirts and tassels were still agitated asby the hot vapor from an oven.” When Scrooge doubts his vision, Marley removesthe bandage, releasing his lower jaw onto his breast. Aghhhh! Dives below theblankets yet again, and stays there.

Marley hears “sounds of lamentations and regret, wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory” outside the window. He joins in “the mournful dirge” before floating “out upon the bleak, dark night.” Scrooge peers out the window and sees “phantoms wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went.” Each wore chains like Marley’s ghost. This scene could turn anyone but Voldemort into a philanthropist.

Ah, even in Mike’s absence, quibbling is still a part of the format. So—

Cricket’s Rebuttal:
Quibble point #1: Yes, ghosts are scary. Yet, does winter really play into this scene? Ghosts can appear any time of the year. Marley’s ghost is not even associated with Christmas specifically; he’s just the forerunner of other visitors. And is Scrooge actually intimidated? He is doubtful and doesn’t become a philanthropist at that point. A scary scene, but not really ominous.

Quibble point #2: Did Dickens write this for children? Wasn’t he actually trying to soften the hard hearts of adults?

Main point: The cold, foreboding setting of the perennial winter forest creates an unpropitious mood. Add in that austere White Witch and her toxic Turkish Delight, and a menacing winter scene designed just for children is created. Lewis imbues an impactful lesson: taking treats from wicked witches can lead to all sorts a serious trouble beyond tummy aches–becoming a traitor is indeed ominous.

Jilanne’s Rebuttal:

Winter plays a HUGE role. Scrooge’s rooms are bitterly cold and dark, like his heart, a stark contrast to generosity and warmth. PLUS Scrooge does fall to his knees, asking for mercy when Marley raises “a frightful cry.”

 

Ditch authorial intent. It’s like asking Maurice Sendak if he really wrote for children. By the time kids reach the age of reason (seven), they know this story and its meaning: be generous and compassionate toward those less fortunate.

 

My quibble for you:

Edmund’s not scared. He’s cold and in a strange place, but he spies a bearded dwarf (Santa!), a sleigh, and reindeer. Fun! The queen’s just a brittle genealogist seeking to identify Edmund’s siblings. Plus the promise of a title! Who doesn’t want to be a prince and eat sweets, bellyache notwithstanding? Marley’s ominous promise, OTOH, led me to save my quarters for charity before I was five years old!    

 

And there we have it–two scenes that should elicit feelings of something threatening or bad about to happen.

Readers: as a child reader, which is more ominous to you?

Let the voting begin–and, of course, comments are always encouraged.

Debateables Recap: Rudolph Grounded


Each month, Mike Allegra and I take on debating mostly meritable topics concerning children’s literature. We each state our initial argument in about 250 words and then add on a 150ish counter argument. You then, dear readers, vote accordingly and add in commentary. Mike and I look forward to the votes, and truly relish your comments.

Our December Debatable focused on Christmas specials based on books. I offered the perennial classic: Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, based on the song, which is based on the Montgomery Ward coloring book. The book lasted longer than the store, sadly.

Image result for rudolph the red nosed reindeer

Mike, suggested his usual underdog, a relative newcomer to the seasonal menu: A Wish for Wings That Work based on the title by adult/children’s writer Berkeley Breathed, known for his Bloom County comics.

Image result for a wish for wings that work

This month proved, well, ummm, different. Lots of likes and visits. Few commitments. Mike edged the voting outcome by one vote–two, if you go by what Mike says. Anyway, quibbling aside, Mike is the winner. The score is now *gasp* EVEN! We are now 3-3.

Stay tuned for January’s Debatable. A winter theme? Open to suggestions. Leave your comments and certainly your suggestions for new Debatable topics.

Until then…

Blue skies, and happy reading…

Debatables:Worst Picture Book. Ever.


Debatables Round Two: The Worst Picture Book. Ever.

New to our blogosphere is the incredible Debatables, where my co-host and debate opponent, is the amazing Mike Allegra.
Mike Allegra is the author of Sarah Gives Thanks (Albert Whitman & Company, 2012), Everybody’s Favorite Book (Macmillan, 2018), and Scampers and the Scientific Method (Dawn, 2019). He also not-so secretly pens the Prince Not-So Charming chapter book series (Macmillan 2018-19, pen name: Roy L. Hinuss). He was the winner of the 2014 Highlights Fiction Contest and a recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council for the Arts. He also juggles, plays the banjo, and is known to appreciate a well-crafted fart joke.

Over 12, 000 bloggers can’t be wrong, so if you aren’t following Mike’s blog, you are missing out. If you like to laugh, snicker, and outright guffaw, you will want to check out his blog.

Here are the Debatables ground rules:
Each Debater is allowed one brief argument (fewer than 300 words) on a previously agreed-upon topic. These brief arguments will then be followed by a briefer rebuttal (fewer than 150 words).

Today’s Topic: What is the worst picture book ever?

Disclaimer: The debate you are about to read is in absolute good fun. As children’s book writers we both understand the love and labor that goes into writing a book. Please no flames, comments of impending bodily harm, or allegations of shaming the writing community. This is a practice in word hurtling, nothing more.

Mike is suggesting:

love you forever cover

Cricket suggests:

cat hat cover

Cricket:

I like the idea of a critter who helps a sibling pair beat the rainy day boredom blues, but that inherent sensibility I possessed as a child followed me into adulthood. That uninvited cat who creates a multitude of mayhem scenarios makes me nervous. And that’s my gripe with Seuss’s cat: he is the Pied Piper of pandemonium.

First off, The Cat in the Hat breaks basic rules we teach our children: stranger danger (and that is one strange cat); running in the house; playing with breakables; let alone making a mess. This is all done under the guise of “let’s have fun!” Let’s add onto the list how the voice-of-reason pet fish is abused several times, and the cat stubbornly refuses to leave when asked more than once (quite firmly) to depart.

inside cathat

To add to the havoc the Cat releases the naughty Thing 1 and Thing 2. Are these thingsendangered exotic imports? Have they had their shots? Are they housebroken?

The reckless approach to busting boredom leaves poor Sally and her bro in a pickle as Mom approaches the house. They are not having fun. They are stressed out to the max. The only time the children smile is when they see the back of that cat. The real clincher are the ending lines:

Should we tell her about it?

Now, what SHOULD we do?

Well…

What would YOU do

If your mother asked YOU?

This is an invitation for children to be deceitful. Shocking, I know.  Such a playful question is really introducing children to be duplicitous. Just say “No” to cats in hats barging their way into households. Listen to the wisdom of goldfish.

Vote with me that The Cat in the Hat is the worst picture book for children. Ever.

Mike:

The mom in Seuss’s magnum opus is negligent, but at least she doesn’t remind me of The Story of Oedipus.

Love you Forever is about a mother’s lifelong devotion to her son. She sings of this love to her sleeping child when he is a baby and a young child—which is fine—and when he’s a teenager, which is less fine. She doesn’t just sing to him, she cradles the boy in her arms. We don’t see the cradling for the teenager scene; instead the illustration delivers something creepier: a young adult sleeping while his mother, wearing an expression of eager anticipation, crawls into his room on all fours.

all fours

But once the son grows up and moves out, such behavior must draw to a close, yes? Um. No. Refusing to accept this new chapter in her life, Mom grabs a ladder, drives across town, breaks into her son’s house (through a second floor window!), and cradles the sleeping adult male in her arms.

cradling

Scenes like this might have worked if the illustrations were less representational or more playful, but Sheila McGraw’s work is realistic and earnest. This elderly woman nuzzling her grown son is not a metaphor to illustrate the love between mother and child—it’s really happening. This woman really broke into her son’s house and really rocked him in her arms without his knowledge or consent.

Love You Forever is a world free of spouses. The adult son eventually has a daughter, but we never see this baby’s mother. The son’s father is also absent from the story. Where are these people? In the world of Robert Munsch’s picture book, it doesn’t matter. These significant others would only distract from the disturbing, single minded, nearly predatory mother/son bond at the story’s core.

Cricket’s Counterpoint:

While Love You Forever is creepy in its depiction of motherly devotion, it’s impact hasn’t prevailed for over fifty years like Geisel/Seuss’s creation. The Cat in the Hat is dangerous, not only as being an instigator of mayhem, but the fact is this bowtied cat is an industry, an institution of corrupting influence. Sequels, clothing, toys, teaching curriculum, movies, even designated days–this ubiquitous cat has influenced generations of children to ditch household norms under the guise of learning to read. Even Geisel, admitted in a 1983 article how The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority. Teaching our children to read at the cost of them totally abandoning all reason and opening their households to felonious felines is much too high a price to pay. Beware of hatted grimalkins in the guise as a reading muse. The campaign of awareness shall begin: #badcat.

Mike’s Counterpoint:

Yes, the Cat is an instrument of chaos, but TCINH’s hero (and audience surrogate) is the unnamed boy. This boy doesn’t invite The Cat in or encourage his “games.” Instead, he puts an end to the mayhem by capturing the Things and throwing The Cat out. These are good character traits (as is the “clean up after yourself” finale).

The Cat in the Hat, also did something very important, it buried the insipid Dick and Jane books once and for all. It showed that easy readers could be fun! And funny! And exciting!

Most importantly, TCITH was always written with kid readers in mind.

Love You Forever wasn’t written for kids. It was written for moms in order to affirm a subliminal hope that their babies can remain baby-like forever. This, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is an unhealthy conception of motherhood. Even a child knows that.

So, dear readers–what is your vote? Which brilliant argument convinced you? Let us know in the comments below. 

Dogs–the new cigarette?


When I was a kid, the family dog was in the backyard and cigarettes were found everywhere. Today, dogs are everywhere and smokers are banned to their backyard.

I’m not complaining. Just wondering how dogs have reached such a thumbs-up public approval.

Check out this New Yorker article in which the journalist trots a turkey, a snake, a pig, and an alpaca in public places.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/20/pets-allowed 

Now, before we get started. I need to state right up front. I like dogs. Our family dog taught me to walk (I grabbed on to him and he patiently led me along), and we were buds until he died at age of fourteen. I still miss him. Not that it’s a big deal, but I nearly died trying to protect our neighbor’s Cock-a-poo who had been attacked by dogs gone wild.  I have considered becoming a trainer for guide dogs once I finally retire from teaching. And just today I reunited two boys with their list Labrador. So–I do like dogs.

I just prefer dogs in the proper setting. Restaurants, hotels, the library, grocery stores, the farmer’s market, my local Home Depot, and the post office are not places I expect or desire to interact with dogs. I have no issue with true service dogs. They are trained and serve a needed purpose. The wolfhound blocking the sidewalk at the local farmer’s market (where it is posted “No Dogs in Park)–purpose?

Some communities are crazy for dogs. Oregon’s Hood River is such a place. San Francisco is another city gone to the dogs, and many of its citizens are wondering if they have gone too far in embracing doggy appreciation (3-1 said yes in a poll). It’s become so prevalent to see dogs when I go out to eat that I’m tempted to ask if there is non-dog section when going to a restaurant. True service dogs stay at their owner’s feet, they do not share their table, nor their lap. No fuss is made over them because they are on duty. They are well-behaved. They aren’t that noticeable.

Regular dogs and their owners–that’s a different matter.

Even though it’s posted at our local community park, where the local farmer’s market is held, that no dogs are allowed, that does not deter either the locals or the tourists from bringing their canine with them as they shop for garlic cloves and search for the perfect scone. I see the sign “Service Animals Only” posted on the door of most businesses, yet that request does not apparently apply to the lady with the Pekinese stuffed in her purse as she rolls out her grocery cart.

The value of a posted ordinance, rule, or request is only as good as it is enforced. The farmer’s market association says it’s the job of the city to enforce the ordinance. The police department says they will stop by the park if they don’t have other pressing duties. The store manager says they risk a lawsuit if they ask the person if their dog is a service animal. Clerks have developed a “we don’t ask” policy at the library and post office. The people I encounter in public places who do not have their dog on a leash, although it’s posted to do so, say “Oh, no worries. She’s friendly.” Maybe so, but I still don’t want that friendly nose snuffing my leg. There’s a set of teeth ever so close to that friendly nose that may decide otherwise. It’s happened. 

I’m wondering if society has replaced the cigarette, a selfish, noxious habit that can harm those in its presence with another risky habit. Whoa, C. Muse. Equating cigarettes to dogs is a bit harsh. Maybe so. There remains a deep-seated amazement that people seriously think I want to share my space with their four-legged habit. I am not the only one who is wondering about this new dog-permissive attitude.

David Lazarus of the LA Times decided to test the new doggy permissiveness. Even though there are health codes, he acknowledged, he took his dog Teddy with him one day, wondering why no one stopped him when he decided on taking his dog everywhere he went. Perplexed at being ignored by those around him he summed it up: “I have only one answer to that. It’s L.A., dude.”

I will expand on that answer: It’s America. Americans don’t like being told what to do. Americans like to celebrate their freedom. Americans like their dogs.

Has anyone else noticed the new dog permissiveness? Are dogs as prevalent as cigarettes once were in public places? Dog gone it, I just don’t understand why society wants to have such dog day afternoons. 

 

 

Happy New Year!


For most people, January marks the start of a new year. However, as a teacher, September is the beginning of the year for me. September is when the odometer of the year’s passing begins once again. August is the last of my holiday months and each day draws me closer to the start of my calendar year: September. I actually consider January as my mid-point.

As I write this post I am lounging in bed at 8:25 am. This is the last Monday of the school year where I won’t have either essays to grade or think about assigning. I’m usually up by 5 or 6 am, so staying in bed past 8 0’clock is borderline sloth for me.

As I proofread this post it’s 6:09 am and I have four minutes before I must scamper into my morning routine. It’s Friday of my first week back to school. How can four days make one weak?

A new year typically calls for new year’s resolutions. I don’t much prescribe to resolutions,  instead I form goals. Here are a couple so far:

1. Go deeper instead of wider. I teach seniors which means they are maxed out on absorbing much more information. This year I’m going for them really understanding at least one aspect of each unit. They don’t need to know the entire litany of Anglo-Saxon history,  but knowing that Beowulf was one of the first epic hero archetypes is something that will distinguish a faithful film adaptation from a ridiculous one (Angelina Jolie’s version).

2. Mix more fun in with firm. I have the reputation as a toughie–my son would bear the brunt of this distinction when he was in school. “Dude, your mom yelled at me.” He would then say something like, “You probably deserved it.” They had nowhere to go on that one. But, I also have a sense of humor, and I’m sure I can combine a jib with a jab when the occasion calls for it.

3. Be a more of duck than a sponge. Both deal with water, which I translate to stress.  A duck lets water roll off its back and swims merrily around in the pond, whereas a sponge absorbs the water until saturated and can’t properly function anymore. 

4. Work smarter, not harder. Testing for comprehension is big news these days. We are all tired of being over-tested. Students especially. Grading tests is not so great either. Measuring academic success can take the  form of discussion, a presentation, or a project. I’m hoping for less paper proof of knowledge and more creative measures of learning achievements.

5. Respond more than react. Reacting is typical: “Are you kidding? You are 20 minutes late to class and now you want to go to your locker?!?” Or “Admin is switching to early release schedule for a pep assembly!!! Finals are coming up–what are they thinking?!?” If you have a proper response to these scenarios let me know. I realize it involves something to do with removing exclamatory tone and waving of arms.

Anyone else consider September their new year beginnings? Parents? Students? Other teachers?

As with my resolutions, these will no doubt epic fail before October is ready to roll. That’s why I disguise  them as goals–if I fail, I have an excuse to keep trying.

Atticus: Racist or Realist?


The hub-bub about Go Set a Watchman seems to have dissipated, much like a thunderstorm that rumbled ever so much and offered only a spate of rain. Basically, Harper Lee’s “second” novel wasn’t as refreshing as anticipated.

Did Watchman change your opinion of Atticus? image: USNews.com

First of all–lots of skepticism precluded its arrival as in how did Lee not remember it even being around? Why did it suddenly get found after Alice (sister/lawyer/protector) passed away? Why was there an elder abuse investigation following Lee’s decision to publish the manuscript? There was also trepidation at her request of having it published “as is.”

Watchman arrived early July and now as we roll into September there are few comments left to make. Actually, I don’t recall too much buzz in July. The overall feeling I have gathered is a “meh.”

There seems to be a consensus that this novel is basically a draft and that the “good” parts were plucked away to create Mockingbird. Given time and an editor’s guiding hand, Watchman could have been the novel we all anticipated.

That’s not my main concern–that is, the quality of the writing. Lee’s talent for characterization and dialogue, along with her penchant for subtle wit still shines.

My intention is to un-besmirch Atticus’ reputation. Since so many are in agreement that Watchman is unpolished, I’m surprised that so many are quick to judge Atticus as a racist. My belief is that he is a realist, not a racist.

For one, Scout, as a girl, never heard racist remarks from her father while growing up in the Finch household. She even says so as she has her showdown with him towards the end of the book. Jean Louise, the grown woman, even clobbers Atticus with the hurled comment how he raised her to be color-blind, to look at a person’s heart more intently than their skin color. Even Uncle Jack couldn’t argue with that argument.

Another point made is how Atticus refuses to get riled at Jean Louise’s verbal scathing of him being a hypocrite. He knows he isn’t one, so he doesn’t get offended. His reason is logical, one of his strong suits. He attends the meetings Jean Louise deems as KKK because he wants to know who is behind the sheets. Just because he attends a meeting doesn’t make him a believer. Just like going to the gym doesn’t make a person fit and healthy. Atticus is a savvy lawyer which means he looks into all angles of the case in order to be prepared to sway the jury. In this version his young Negro client is acquitted–would a racist truly want that to happen? That verdict was very unusual for the times and only someone who believed in justice could have been able to have justice served out. Obviously, this outcome changed in Mockingbird, making it even more heart-rendering that Atticus’ strength as a lawyer, with all the obvious right on his side, couldn’t sway the jury.

Another consideration is that Atticus, a man of influence, lives in a small town. He is wise playing his hand close to his chest. He can’t offer a voice of reason if he is seen as having “gone to the other side.” Atticus, having served in the legislature, knows the value of being a politician, that saying one thing and believing another, and making others believe in what he wants them to believe, is imperative to getting votes for projects and issues of concern.

There is one other point that people misinterpret. When he says the Negroes (the coinage of the times) aren’t ready to go toe-to-toe with the whites and doesn’t want them getting all stirred up by outsiders, he isn’t patronizing–he is functioning as a padre, a fatherly-minded protector.  He knows they aren’t ready due to inexcusable education deficits, that equality doesn’t happen overnight. Atticus is all about justice, and justice is not served if the playing field is heavily encumbered by advantages not given to the other players.

Wait, one more something. Harper knows how to put punch into her titles, just ask any ninth grader who has been given the task to analyze To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbird carries many meanings. Go Set a Watchman is along the same path. The title refers to Isaiah 21:6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” To better understand the verse and what the watchman is seeing read the passage entirety. The passage speaks of the grievous pain caused by treacherous dealers. War is soon coming and the setting of a watchman will inform what is happening. Atticus is that watchman. He is set to report all that is approaching. The watchman is a trusted position. Atticus is that watchman for the South, and its upcoming changes. Lee knew Atticus could be trusted to report the truth.

Realizing there is a bit more to the racist or realist idea than just forming an opinion, I dug up some interesting research. Give these links a try and determine for yourself about Atticus and his stance:

Are you a racist quiz (take it as if Atticus might–even in Watchman mode (how well did you read the book, between the lines, y’all?)

Psychology Today article on racism.

In Mockingbird we were dazzled by the paragon of virtue who wore a three-piece suit of justice; in Watchman we realized he puts that suit on one leg at a time.

So, what do you think–is Atticus really a racist after all?

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