Month: November 2014

THE ART OF CHOOSING: Raymond Almiran Montgomery Junior (1936-2014)

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The one CYOA book that we own because — you know — the SEA….

Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventures” books? The man credited with turning them into the phenomenon that they became — R. A. Montgomery — died on November 9. Given that there were several different authors in the series (all of whom were actually credited, contrary to the standard practice for series like the Warriors books “by Erin Hunter”, or the Nancy Drew books “by Carolyn Keene”), the CYOA books were literary to varying degrees — not that high-brow literary was ever their main thrust. Kids love reading the books again and again for exactly the reasons Montgomery and the first book’s writer, Ed Packard, conceived of them: they heighten readers’ sense of agency and involvement in story. They “allow the reader to become the participant.”

Montgomery’s death and the obituaries that followed have carried reminders of the theory behind the books (this obit at the CYOA website provides great biographical background; another at obitoftheday.com riffs on the books’ format). In Montgomery’s 2010 interview with video game critic and historian Matt Barton, he shares much of his thinking too.

Montgomery began his working life as an educator, exploring gaming as a way to reach kids who were struggling with what he viewed as “rote, assignment-based and punitive” methods of teaching. Through gaming, he sought to involve kids more directly in their own learning and break down their resistance.

He went on to study game theory and simulation design. The way Montgomery saw it, task-oriented, goal-driven simulations and role play — well before they became the stuff of on-line and video gaming — have permeated various fields of study and learning for ages: architects build models of buildings, boat designers test hull shapes in wave tanks, law school students engage in mock trials, and when you learn CPR you pound the chest of a plastic dummy. The list goes on and on. And really: what is a young child building with blocks doing, if not testing her understanding of the world and how it works?

So, why not apply the same ideas to books? Montgomery said of CYOA, “It’s finally saying to you: you’re involved… making choices… Implicit in the choice is an ethical or moral approach or decision, but that is never spelled out, and it is never sold… It’s just an exciting way of getting people involved in their lives. And I had always hoped that this would make some profound changes in the way that people make decisions about their lives, about the lives of their children, about politics [and] all the rest. And I’m still very optimistic about that.” He continued, “I think all these gaming situations open up a world to people — whether they be kids or adults — that allows them not just to fantasize, but to indulge in exactly what CYOA does, which is to pretend without the risk of the real world. To try stratagems out, to develop an approach…”

We have a family game that we learned somewhere which consists rallying questions back and forth that share this basic structure: “Would you rather be a _____ or a _____.” (spoon or fork? english muffin or table? cat or tree?). The idea is to answer quickly and intuitively. And then explain your reasoning. (The William Steig/Harry Bliss book Which Would You Rather Be? emerged from this same game, I think). We’ve been playing it since our kids could first string words together, and the range of thinking behind people’s choices never ceases to surprise.

The CYOA books’ second person narration demands — repeatedly — the seemingly simple act of making a choice. “You are a _____. If you decide to “A”, turn to page ___. If you want to “B”, turn to page ___. ” Like it or not, you are the protagonist. Your choices are, of course, limited to just A or B. But really, how often aren’t your choices in life limited (aside from when you’re staring at a blank screen or page… ahem). Being permitted and required to choose as part of the act of reading, you help construct a story. And at the end of the day, the act of making choices — of being conscious and mindful about how and why we opt for this or that alternative — is integral to being human and to constructing the narratives of our own lives.

Whether Montgomery’s wish for the books to ‘change the way that people make decisions in their lives’ has panned out or not, I don’t know. But the books definitely do encourage children to make decisions, again and again and again, and I can’t think of anything bad about helping kids strengthen the sense of their own agency — in lives real or imaginary.

MUCK-OUT MONDAY: FERGUSON

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sketch from an independent autopsy by Dr. Michael M. Baden, Chief Medical Examiner of NYC; published in The New York Times

Because Michael Brown was shot in August, when most schools were still out of session, many classroom teachers may never have talked about FERGUSON with their students. When the grand jury decision is handed down in the coming weeks, though, teachers may have another obvious opportunity.

Today was Muck Out Monday again, and in the mix I came across Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s post from back in September, “Justice on the Lesson Plan”, at thebrownbookshelf.com. It is full of relevant children’s book titles, plus links to lesson plans for teachers who may need help finding a way in to a healthy conversation about Ferguson and the myriad issues that it brings up.

Please, pass them on to your teacher-friends.

Beyond Expectations: when a writer and an illustrator collaborate

“There are no wrong roads to anywhere.”

-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

 

Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth, 1961) is really an Architect. As the story goes, Juster won a Ford Foundation grant to write a grown-up, architecture book about urban perception, but ended up penning The Tollbooth instead. He shared drafts with his upstairs neighbor, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and the two ended up partnering on the book.

Last weekend was homecoming weekend at the University of Pennsylvania, where I got my Masters in Landscape Architecture, and where Juster completed his architecture studies in 1953. In honor of the weekend Penn’s School of Design invited alumni to a screening of the documentary film The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations.

Part animation, part comedy and part buddy film, Beyond Expectations is filled with the two men’s smart conversation, as well as interview chat with historian and critic Leonard Marcus, author/illustrator Eric Carle (who’s Museum of Picture Book Art Juster designed), New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (read him on the Toolbooth here), actor David Hyde Pierce (the inimitable reader of the audio book version), and a trip of un-named kids. Throughout, Juster and Feiffer’s conversation flows with the push and pull of an old married couple’s: their stories and quips unfold with hilarity and impeccable timing — and a beautifully rich sense of shared history.

Post-screening, Juster was joined on a panel by the film’s director, Hannah Jayanti and (at Penn for the second time in as many weeks) Leonard Marcus, who’s The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth was released in 2011 in honor of the book’s 50th Anniversary. At some point in the discussion, Juster responded to a question about how his architectural education influenced his approach to writing by describing how, in design school, you learn a method of breaking down and working through a design problem from many angles — as opposed to simply looking for an answer. His response shared a thread with one common read of The Phantom Tollbooth as a paean to the virtues of a liberal arts education. The book is very much about the journey, not the destination, and Juster is clear about his distaste for educational approaches that assume there is one right way of doing things.

The film and subsequent conversation also conveyed a powerful sense of both the idea and the fact of an intense, working relationship between author and illustrator. The physicality of the illustrations’ relations to the text, as well as the import of the geographic proximity of the two neighbors as they worked — are all captured sweetly in the film’s affecting animated sequences.

Juster and Feiffer clearly have tremendous respect for one another, and at the same time harbor no delusions about each other’s imperfections — instead finding real joy and humor in them.

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Feiffer’s illustration of The Whether Man — based on Juster

In an interview with Alex Stadler at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2011 that I since came across, Juster describes his and Feiffer’s dynamic as they worked on the book saying,

It developed into a kind of a game where he would try to subvert the illustrations and I would try to make things he couldn’t draw. Near the end there’s one group of demons called the ‘Triple Demons of Compromise’, which I invented just for him. One is short and fat, one is tall and thin, and the third is exactly like the other two.

That most illustrators and authors don’t collaborate directly is something of a surprise to most people outside the industry. (At some point during the film, one of the interviewees — I forget who — quips that editors nowadays don’t let the illustrators and authors of picture books work together because they need to make sure that they (the editors) still have something to do.)

It’s hard to talk about it from the position of never having published a picture book. But seeing a dynamic like Juster and Feiffer’s, I wonder about the opportunities missed by the full separation of the jobs — and the personalities. At the 2014 Winter SCBWI conference in New York during a picture book panel discussion, either Peter Brown or Oliver Jeffers — again, I can’t remember which — lobbied gently for more openings in this relationship. I remember being struck that the comment was a real push against the tide. (In my notes from that panel discussion I did find the words of editor and moderator Arthur Levine, who, on the subject of author-illustrator collaboration, declared “Fits are entitled to be thrown,”  implying that the potential for creative conflict and drama might be a deterrent for editors.)

There are contemporary pairings that seem possibly to defy the preferred order — like Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka, or Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett. (Anyone have any good links or references that talk non-PR-ish-ly about the nature of those partnerships?) And Ursula Nordstrom’s letters, compiled and edited by Marcus in Dear Genius, offer plenty of reminders that separation wasn’t always the norm, feeding — like the Sendak in the Sixties show — nostalgia for that great, bygone era in children’s book publishing.

 

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The Soundkeeper

One last, wonderful quote from The Phantom Tollbooth — which I can’t resist sharing:

 “Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But sadly enough, no one pays attention to them these days. Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

                                                                                                                            -The Soundkeeper

Despite silence, there is still so much for the senses to take in in the moments described and, yet, words fail to really capture them. That Juster is both a synesthete and a great lover of language and word play gives special poignancy to this particular passage. And, too, it speaks aptly to our era of relentless sensory onslaught.

Rule benders, less than happy endings, and misogyny

Check out this nice little piece posted in The New Yorker yesterday by Ruth Margalit: ‘”The Giving Tree” at 50: Sadder Than I Remembered’.

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It’s nice to revisit another book that does not adhere to all of the ‘what makes a good picture book’ rules. In the case of The Giving Tree, the ‘co-dependence’ read does cast a bit of a pall. It’s a valid interpretation, though I’d warrant that a conversation about the story with kids would be much more interesting.

Kids can handle ambivalence and not-so-happy endings. And, of course, the lucky ones are familiar with people who do a lot of giving; we can forgive them for not having worked out the imbalance piece, even as we help them understand it. But reading about Silverstein’s life — his involvement with Playboy and the like — also got me thinking about misogyny in the kidlit world. Having recently watched the somewhat disturbing preview of  Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tommy Ungerer Story, I was already mulling the issue.

(Do you suppose Ungerer and Silverstein ever palled around together?)

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There’s no reason that the world of children’s literature should be — or have been — immune from this sort of stuff. But I am definitely going to have to work at it a bit if I want to love Crictor and The Three Robbers as much as I used to. And this not even having seen the full film yet…

“a cannibal toward a missionary”

 

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Last week I went to the Rosenbach Museum with a handful of EPA-SCBWI illustrators to say goodbye to Sendak in the Sixties, which closes this weekend and is the final Sendak exhibit before Sendak’s documents head back up to Connecticut.

I don’t often have the time to see an exhibit — of any sort — multiple times; what a treat. On this visit, I  spent some time with Sendak’s Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water: Two Nursery Rhymes — which I don’t ever remember reading before. Sendak takes two simple nursery rhymes and illustrates them into another realm, elaborating on the simple narratives by teasing out and weaving in new layers with his drawings. They book is study-worthy — with the simplicity of the text underscoring Sendak’s artistry.

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Meanwhile, upstairs at the museum in the Bescribbled, Nibbled and Dog-Eared: Early American Children’s Books exhibit, this bit of text was literally writ large on the wall — from A.S.W. Rosenbach in 1907:

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 “Ediblity” was not a “Way In” that had occurred to me before, but I definitely think it could work.