Monday, July 30, 2007

Geraldine McCaughrean

GERALDINE MCCAUGHREAN (1951 - ) - Essay contributed by Ken Vesey, international children's librarian

Still waters run deep. Certainly this is true of English author Geraldine McCaughrean ("mih-KOK-re-in"), an author perhaps best known in the United States for her retellings of stories from mythology, legends of various cultures and traditions, and classic tales from literature. I had the privilege of meeting her and hearing her speak during a school visit in 2006. Younger than her years, she is quiet, polite, perhaps even timid. On stage, however, with a microphone in one hand and her latest book in the other, her voice came across strong and assured as she led an auditorium full of eager school children deep into the suspense of her latest publishing success. Her gift with narrative seems effortless as she leads her readers on original adventures or adaptations of classic works from literature. She is a born storyteller.

McCaughrean is responsible for more than 130 books, a phenomenal output when you consider that she only really began publishing for children just twenty-five years ago. That's an average of five books a year, most of which are adaptations admittedly, but to call them mere adaptations sells her creativity short. She is no hack, churning out abridged classics by snipping and cutting a thousand page book down to thirty-five. Far from it. Her adaptations start with the essentials of a classic text and rework them almost from the foundation up, making them understandable and digestible to youngsters who otherwise would not be able to process the rarified language or outdated syntax of the original translations. In this role as the reteller of tales from our cultural heritage, McCaughrean very much follows the tradition of the likes of James Baldwin, Roger Lancelyn Green, and Charles and Mary Lamb.

Many of her reworkings for children such as The Canterbury Tales, The Orchard Book of Greek Myths, and Stories from Shakespeare have become much-used and much-beloved student and classroom resources, providing young people accessibility to venerable tales and texts. Far from being Disney-fied versions, her retellings remain true to the original works, rendering them in a style that is contemporary but at the same time respecting the integrity of the original. McCaughrean preserves the simplified essence of the original and breathes new life into the tales, creating a resonance and relevance to today's young readers. Compare the first line of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English in rhyming verse above, to McCaughrean's lines which start her retold version of this monument of English literature below:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour

April rain was dripping off the branches as I rode beneath them. But the last sunlight of a fine spring day made the leaves shine…

Her goal is not to translate tales that children could easily read in the original version on their own, but to rewrite stories like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that would otherwise, due to vocabulary and style, remain impenetrable until a much later age. Such is her talent as a storyteller." Publisher's Weekly once remarked, "that [she] could probably weave a mesmerizing tale from the copy on the back of a cereal box."

Further examples of classic tales adapted by Geraldine McCaughrean include Moby Dick, Cyrano, The Odyssey, King Arthur and the Round Table, and El Cid.

Of her childhood the author stated, "We did not have a television at home until I was nine [and not having one] made a bigger impact on me than it did on the rest of the family, I think-- on the way I imagine and the way I write… The only place where I could make things happen was in my imagination, writing stories." Although from an early age McCaughrean was always writing, she did not set out to be a writer and was unsure of her professional ambitions. She took a degree at Christ Church College of Education in Canterbury, Kent. Because of her quiet demeanor, she admitted herself that a career as a teacher was an unlikely path to follow.

After working for some years at secretarial posts at various British publishing houses, McCaughrean began proofing magazine copy on fishing, music, cooking, and children's stories. Eventually she became a staff writer, writing stories to fill pages when the "regular" authors' copy didn't stretch to fill the requisite space. Her first commission as a children's author came about quite by accident. McCaughrean recounts it this way: "I went to church, in those days, with a children's publisher. One day he mentioned that he was planning a version of the Arabian Nights. 'Let me write it!' I pleaded." Her pleading worked, the church friend gave her the commission, and her first published children's book was a retelling of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. When it appeared in 1982 the book was extremely well received and immediately praised for its inspired storytelling and the author's ability to make the familiar stories of Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba fresh and original. "That was the start," McCaughrean said, "but still it did not occur to me to earn my living by writing. From this chance entry into writing for children, McCaughrean never turned back and replicated her initial success with Arabian Nights again and again, establishing her current reputation as a formidable talent in children's literature.

Although McCaughrean began as a reteller of tales, and this still represents the bulk of her literary output, her forays into original fiction for independent and young adult readers have gained her critical acclaim and a dedicated readership. To date she's written about a dozen books in this category, though her reputation in this genre might be more firmly established in her native Britain. Five years after her debut with One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, A Little Lower than the Angels, an historical tale set in medieval England, represented her first attempt at original fiction for children. Her talents as a writer were not restricted to retellings as A Little Lower than the Angels was quickly recognized with one of the UK's top honors in writing for children, the Whitbread (now called Costa) Award for Children's Literature. In fact, she has won the prestigious Whitbread Children's Award twice more: in 1994 for Gold Dust and 2004 for Not the End of the World. No other children's author has won the Whitbread as many times as McCaughrean, proving that what she does, she does exceedingly well.

McCaughrean was further distinguished with the Carnegie Medal (the UK's "Newbery") in 1989 for A Pack of Lies. Her popularity has translated internationally and she has even received awards outside of the English-speaking world, including the Katholischer Kinderbuchpreis (Catholic Children's Book Prize) in Germany for the local translation of A Little Lower than the Angels and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (German Youth Literature Prize) in 2004 for Der Drachenflieger, the German translation of The Kite Rider. White Darkness, a recent original work of fiction for young adults, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award 2005.
In the United States McCaughrean's books have been distinguished with numerous accolades by the American Library Association, though the big awards have, as yet, eluded her in this country.

By her own description McCaughrean is timid and retiring, but when she sets pen to paper her voice is strong and compelling. In particular, her novels written for older independent readers are characterized by a wonderful creative use of language and an advanced vocabulary. There is no "dumbing down" in her books, and consequently her novels for youth can be enjoyed by independent readers of all ages and can also serve as suitable read-alouds with younger children.

Geraldine McCaughrean was awarded a unique accolade when she was commissioned by the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London (the copyright holders of J.M. Barrie's classic children's tale Peter Pan) to pen an authorized sequel to the tale of the boy who never grows up. Given the iconic nature of this story, the search for a talented writer capable of such a delicate mission was long and thorough. Entitled Peter Pan in Scarlet, this new book combines McCaughrean's skill both as a reteller of tales and her reputation as an original writer of fiction. The sequel is set in 1926, the Lost Boys are known as the Old Boys, and Wendy Darling has become a wife and mother. And what of the boy who never grows up? With McCaughrean's strong voice and gift for imaginative storytelling, Peter Pan in Scarlet will undoubtedly gain a large readership and become a classic in its own right.

McCaughrean's writing talents have gained her success in the adult fiction market as well, but it is her acclaim in penning original fiction for independent readers and her penchant for artfully retelling such cultural icons as the stories of classical mythology and Shakespearean plays, and making them accessible to a younger audience, that have formed the foundation for her reputation. The British newspaper The Guardian said of McCaughrean, "[she] writes every sort of book and she seems to produce them in the way a rose bush produces flowers."

Picture Books

1001 Arabian Nights by Geraldine McCaughrean

A Pilgrim's Progress by Geraldine McCaughrean

Blue Moon Mountain by Geraldine McCaughrean

Casting the Gods Adrift by Geraldine McCaughrean

Cyrano by Geraldine McCaughrean

Father and Son by Geraldine McCaughrean

Gilgamesh the Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean

Grandma Chickenlegs by Geraldine McCaughrean

Greek Gods and Goddesses by Geraldine McCaughrean

Greek Myths by Geraldine McCaughrean

Hercules by Geraldine McCaughrean

King Arthur and the Round Table by Geraldine McCaughrean

Knights, Kings, and Conquerors by Geraldine McCaughrean

My Grandmother's Clock by Geraldine McCaughrean

Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean

Odysseus by Geraldine McCaughrean

Perseus by Geraldine McCaughrean

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean

Smile! by Geraldine McCaughrean

Stop the Train! by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Canterbury Tales by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Canterbury Tales by Geraldine McCaughrean and illusttrated by

The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Odyssey by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Stones are Hatching by Geraldine McCaughrean

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Theseus by Geraldine McCaughrean

Telling Family Stories

What is reading without the story? The words go together so easily without thinking - Read me a story. But reading is incidental to the story, it is what you do to get to the story. The story itself is what is really desired. Without the story there is still reading, for facts, for information but it has become the body without the spirit.

Long before reading there have been stories, so many lost now to living memory or with only the dimmest of echoes, going right back to the very beginning of human communication. I am sure that it wasn't but a generation or two between stringing together the first words "Watch out! Lion!" to someone sitting around the campfire telling stories "There once was a lion…." And certainly only a further generation for big sibling to be scaring little sibling silly with stories of lions in the night sniffing out lovely smelling little children.

And so it goes in families. Want good readers? Tell good stories. Tell them early, tell them often. Reading will come as it does but the habit of listening, paying attention, following the sounds that become a story, can be formed long before the skill of reading is developed. Tell stories about your life, about your parents, about ancestors, folk stories, made-up stories, interesting vignettes from what you saw or experienced or read during the day. But tell them. Don't keep them secret.

Your stories forge a deep link that is almost impossible to understand between you and your children and the nature of the stories you tell becomes an inseparable element of themselves. The benefits of storytelling are not unilateral either. For as much as they learn and enjoy from your stories, you also are rewarded many times over. In the pleasure of the act itself, but also in the habit it forces of winnowing out the superfluous, of focusing on the essence, on how to move from factual recitation to something that grips.

And it is so easy. You don't have to stop what you are doing, you don't have to buy anything to do it, you don't even have to make more time in the day. Now there are a few things that do make it easier, but nothing that prevents anyone from telling stories.

We have always made a point of having one sit-down meal together each day, almost always dinner. It is a time when we can catch-up with one another and be together and share that most primeval of experiences, a meal and that second most primeval experience - a story. It is the time when, by the act of listening, experiencing and mimicking, the children learn the art, the give and take, the protocol, of good conversation and story-telling.

And it is fun. There is a virtual warehouse of stories we tell on ourselves collectively and which we all have of one another. They disappear for a while and then something happens to bring a story to mind and out they come.

A number of years ago when we first moved to Australia (and the children were all quite young), in the first days and weeks of adjusting to this new country with its unfamiliar customs, we would every evening sit down to dinner and share what faux pas we had committed, what we had seen that was unusual, what reactions we had elicited that were surprising, and what we had done that led to unexpected outcomes.

Sally managed to set the tone for these family debriefing/storytelling sessions, the very first evening. We had moved into a house and were still unpacking everything and had the minimum of kitchen utensils. We were tired from the twenty-four hour journey out to Australia, from the fourteen hour time zone difference, from having arrived at midnight, and from having spent the whole day unpacking. At the end of that first hectic day, Sally baldly stated "OK, I'm done. We are going to have a proper dinner."

She set off to the neighborhood grocery store, shortly returning with the ingredients for a simple spaghetti dinner and salad. Pretty soon the homey smells of dinner are wafting through the house, the kids begin to gravitate to the dining room, the table is set and we are sitting down to the first act of normalcy after this epic move. Everyone is hungry from the disrupted meal schedules and from all the exertions of exploring the garden, moving and setting up furniture, unpacking and so on. And so the first bite of the spaghetti was large and enthusiastically engulfed.

And memorable. Glances were averted as each of us adjusted to this unexpected taste sensation. For it was then that we discovered that in Australia, what is marked as tomato sauce is what we would call ketchup. Sally had fixed a very nice spaghetti sauce made from ketchup. Nothing wrong with that per se but certainly unexpected and very certainly unlikely to set some new dining trend. So one more story was added to the repertoire.

There are all manner of styles of story-telling (check out the storytelling websites mentioned in the Resources section of TTMD). It doesn't take long to find one that suits you, drama, humor, pathos - take your pick. And remember, you will never have so forgiving an audience as the very young. They have no basis of comparison to critique your style. You are the benchmark. And there is nothing so satisfying as hearing "tell it again" or "tell us the one about…"

In our family I am partial to telling stories about experiences. Things I have experienced or stories my parents and/or grandparents told me when I was young of things they experienced. I feel it provides a means of anchoring our children in values older than the present whimsies and giving them a context that they cannot have until they have lived long enough.

And in these times of busy schedules and affluence and fads, it allows them to connect with things that are so real and painful and need to be known but from which our modern circumstances shield them. Of need, of want, of death. So I tell the stories I heard from my grandmother, raised in the hardscrabble environment of the Ozarks in the early 1900s, orphaned as a young girl, village school teacher in a one room shed at sixteen, her brother scraping together the dime to buy his two sisters (separately farmed out to family and strangers) each a little vase that first Christmas after the death of their parents.

I tell these stories, not to frighten them, but to quietly remind them that though we are fortunate to live in great prosperity and freedom and liberty, life isn't necessarily always that way. Hard times may or may not be around the corner, but even if they are others before them have confronted and overcome misfortune. And with those examples and tales, I hope they are equipped to better deal with all that life will throw at them.

Knowing that the stories came from my grandmother's lips to my ears and hearing those stories from my lips to their ears builds a chain of reality that binds the lesson to them without having to suffer the experiences being related. It gives the stories a heft that can never be fully present in the letters on a page.

But what I love the most in storytelling are those stories that have a touch of humor to them, that make the kids smile or laugh. My mother, their grandmother, is a Southern lady. Proper, sweet, sentimental, but with iron fortitude and a steely pragmatism. As indulged grandkids, the latter characteristics are not so obvious to them. And so they love to hear the stories where those traits are on display. Such as the day when, living in a third-world country as we were at the time, she came out of a little local store to find four fellows baiting our Boxer dog locked up in the car. They were having a good old time taunting him and driving him into a frenzy of slobber and noise. Of course the game was good because there was no chance of him doing any harm to them, locked up as he was.

As she approached the car, their attention was turned to her with chauvinist comments bandied about in a foreign tongue, insolence approaching aggression in their manner. My mother, calmly proceeded through their picket to the car, as if they did not exist, her very ignorance of their existence somewhat taking them aback.

But they were not nearly so taken aback by that as they were by her next action. As if unaware that there was a baying, salivating eighty-pound Boxer dog that had taken on the appearance of the Hound of the Baskervilles crashing around inside the car trying to get out to address his persecutors, her hand reached out to open the car door.

And at that moment, what had all the makings of a bad situation became a good story told down through the years. It was almost a real-life rendition of one of those old Roadrunner cartoons. Where there had been four bad-guys ready to make trouble, there was a cloud of dust hanging in the air. And one Southern lady on foreign shores with an enigmatic smile of triumph. As if nothing were out of the ordinary.

Family stories are a treasure that with any luck are passed down from generation to generation. We have, in our children's literature, many wonderful instances of family story-telling. In the collection following you will find examples of family stories as narrative (Moomintrolls and The Borrowers) as well as family stories that are really a collection of vignettes told by master raconteurs (Mama's Bank Account, Cheaper by the Dozen, etc.) Particularly these latter are a pleasure to read as an adult regardless of when you read them to your children.

Picture Books

All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Mike Wimmer

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest and illustrated by P.J. Lynch

Independent Reader

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor and illustrated by Helen John

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and illustrated by Jody Lee

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink and illustrated by Kate Seredy

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards and illustrated by Shirley Hughes

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

The Borrowers by Mary Norotn and illustrated by Beth Krush

The Littles by John Peterson

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit

Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott

Young Adult

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Oddballs by William Sleator

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mysteries at the Beach

We're at the beach this week. I have two reading customs when going to the beach. First I bring a canvas bag of many of the books I have been wanting to get to all year and haven't found time for. Despite the idea of all that time to read at the beach, of course it doesn't work out that way and most return home unread but the thirty or forty books come every year anyway.

Second, I indulge in mysteries. Most my life, my preferred reading has been basically factual. History, Science, Exploration, Military, Maritime History, Poetry (OK that one is not non-ficiton per se). The exceptions have primarily been P.G. Wodehouse and in recent years, mysteries. P.G. Wodehouse I'll read anytime in the year. Mysteries are mostly a beach indulgence.

Georges Simenon's Maigret has been with me to the beach a number of times but never been read. I just finished Maigret Sets a Trap and found that I quite enjoyed the book. I especially enjoyed his evocation of Paris in the heat of late summer and Simenon's attention to the little observations that powerfully evoke the scene.

"Before long they sat down to dinner. It was a hot evening, but toward the end of the meal it started to rain, a light gentle rain, and its rustling sound outside the open windows formed an accompaniment to the rest of their talk."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Contributions from Garner

Garner just came in to afflict me with his most recent riddles. Some of which are good and some of which are bad, and some of which are good-bad.

What starts with an E, ends with an E, and only has one letter in it?

Words are to Books as Ordinates are to Maps - Discuss

I have always loved fooling around with maps; tourist maps, gasoline station maps, huge Times Atlases, historical atlases, fine old NGS maps from the thirties, ordinance maps - they are all grist for the mill. I especially like maps that provide comparisons (size on the map relative to GDP or population for example) and that measure things other than geographical (religion, language, colloguilisms for example).

And now, courtesy of Coyote blog via Instapundit, I have come across a site that should thrill any map lover - strange maps. My hat is off to the creator of the blog which should entertain all map lovers out there. Take a look at the world from a whole new angle.

Boy Wanted

Boy Wanted
by Frank Crane
Boy's Own Paper
February 1921

A boy who stands straight, sits straight, acts straight, and talks straight.

A boy who listens carefully when spoken to, who asks questions when he does not understand, and does not ask questions about things that are none of his business.

A boy whose fingernails are not in mourning, whose ears are clean, whose shoes are polished, whose clothes are brushed, whose hair is combed, and whose teeth are well cared for.

A boy who moves quickly and makes as little noise about it as possible.

A boy who whistles in the street but not where he ought to keep still.

A boy who looks cheerful, has a ready smile for everybody, and never sulks.

A boy who is polite to every man and respectful to every woman and girl.

A boy who does not smoke and has no desire to learn how.

A boy who never bullies other boys or allows boys to bully him.

A boy who, when he does not know a thing, says,"I do not know"; and when he has made a mistake says, "I'm sorry"; and, when requested to do anything, immediately says, "I'll try".

A boy who looks you right in the eye and tells the truth every time.

A boy who would rather lose his job or be expelled from school than tell a lie or be a cad.

A boy who is more eager to know how to speak good English than to talk slang.

A boy who does not want to be "smart" nor in any wise attract attention.

A boy who is eager to read good, wholesome books.

A boy whom other boys like.

A boy who is perfectly at ease in the company of respectable girls.

A boy who is not a goody-goody, a prig, or a little Pharisee, but just healthy, happy, and full of life.

A boy who is not sorry for himself and not forever thinking and talking about himself.

A boy who is friendly with his mother and more intimate with her than with anyone else.

A boy who makes you feel good when he is around.

This boy is wanted everywhere. The family wants him, the school wants him, the office wants him, the boys and girls want him, and all creation wants him.

Reading Diaspora

An article in the New York Times this weekend describes the reading habits and book collections of CEOs of several major companies.

Readers are everywhere. Thank goodness.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Top Favorite Books by Enthusiastic Readers

Last week, one of the national papers in the US asked readers what were their favorite books from their childhood. They received more than a thousand responses. The top ten favorites by number of mentions were:

Nancy Drew by Carolyne Keene

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Little Women by Lousia May Alcott

Tom Swift by Victor Appleton

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien