16 September 2017

The Original Charlie Bucket

The press in both Britain and America is abuzz with reports that Roald Dahl originally wrote of Charlie Bucket, hero of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as black. These grew out of a radio interview with Dahl’s widow and his authorized biographer, Donald Sturrock.

In fact, Sturrock reported how Dahl’s early drafts described Charlie as a “small NEGRO boy” back in 2011 in his biography Storyteller. At that stage the novel’s plot turned on Charlie being sprayed with quick-drying chocolate and mistaken for one of Willie Wonka’s “chocolate boys,” an awkward state that nonetheless lets him witness a theft and solve a mystery.

Dahl already had his eye on the American market, with agents in New York and Hollywood and direct contact with editors at Alfred A. Knopf. His widow, who didn’t meet Dahl until a decade after he wrote Charlie, suggested that a part-American sensibility was why he first imagined the young hero as black. Of course, it might simply have been a mental association of chocolate and brown skin.

In the radio interview Sturrock said that an agent recommended that Dahl drop that idea. He didn’t name the agent, but he used the pronoun “she,” ruling out Dahl’s British representative, Laurence Pollinger. According to Sturrock, “She said people would ask: ‘Why?’” Which might have been an unfortunate reflection of the U.S. market, or might have been a polite way of warning Dahl off of a racial stereotype.

As we know, in subsequent drafts Dahl stopped describing Charlie as black and also gave Willie Wonka an enslaved African workforce. That should undercut any simple suggestion that Dahl was unusually enlightened in imagining a black hero for a children’s novel in the early 1960s.

14 September 2017

“The only one there is you.”

From novelist David Burr Gerard at LitHub, writing about the biggest influences on him as a storyteller:

And if I hadn’t fallen in love as a child with The Monster at the End of This Book, I’m not sure I would have fallen in love as a teenager quite so hard, or in quite the same way, with Kafka…
The essay touches on child empowerment, the reader’s relationship to a narrative protagonist, and the ambivalence of recognizing the self.

08 September 2017

Golding and the Girls

Recently news broke that a Hollywood studio optioning a remake of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies with marooned schoolgirls instead schoolboys. I saw some people suggesting that adaptation missed how the novel is a critique of male behavior; others said that wasn’t what Golding had in mind at all. So I decided to look into the question.

As the book was being published, Golding told his publisher:
The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island.
It seems clear not only that Golding hadn’t set out to discuss male behavior. Indeed, his use of the generic word “children” for the all-boy cast of characters hints that he believed boys were representative of all children.

And that’s confirmed by Golding’s later comments. Peter Brook, who eventually directed the best movie adaptation of the novel, recalled hearing Golding respond to Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel’s suggestion to add girls to the cast:
Mr. Spiegel, I wanted the film to be an allegory on the human race. “Man” suggests all, “boy” equally—if you bring in boys and girls you’re forced to bring in secondary side issues, sexual attractions, conflicts, problems of puberty…
Indeed, a teacher casting the play in a co-ed school found something similar: “while having the female actors read lines with the male actors during auditions, Williams noticed that the teasing dialogue had turned into flirting.” Surely Golding, a schoolteacher, understood those issues arose in an all-male group as well, but they weren’t as open, especially with such young boys.

However, that quotation also shows that Golding was considering male as the default gender, especially when discussing “the human race.” In the introduction for a reissue of the novel, Golding expressed that idea at even more length:
When girls say to me, and very reasonably, “Why isn’t it a bunch of girls? Why did you write this about a bunch of boys?” my reply is I was once a little boy. I have been a brother, I have been a father, I’m going to be a grandfather, I have never been a sister or a mother or a grandmother, so this is why I wrote it really about little boys. That’s one answer. Another answer is of course to say if you, as it were, scaled down human beings, scaled down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.

Don’t ask me why, and this is a terrible thing to say because I’m going to be chased from Hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality. This has nothing at all to do with equality at all. Women are foolish to pretend they’re equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. But one thing you cannot do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down so to speak into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization, of society. That’s another reason why they were little boys.

The other thing is, why weren’t they little boys and little girls? We being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.
After considering these quotations, I concluded that it was clear Golding didn’t intend to write about masculinity, but also couldn’t conceive of masculinity as an issue in the problems he set out to explore. Which looks like an aspect of the male behavior up for critique. Unknowingly, or in defiant denial, Golding portrayed the worst of male behavior while insisting he’d done no such thing.

05 September 2017

Julia Anne Young Reenvisioning Oz

Artist Julia Anne Young created this model as an exercise for an SCBWI New Jersey conference. Maria Middleton, Art Director for Random House Children’s Books, assigned the people in her illustrators’ intensive workshop to “put our own spin on any character from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, write an original story brief, and illustrate a story scene.”

Young imagined Dorothy Gale as “a camp counselor for The Flying Monkey Scouts,” rescuing one of her charges from a whirlpool. (She also implicitly reimagined Dorothy from the blonde girl that John R. Neill drew while retaining the blue checks and red shoes from the movie.) We can see Young’s whole process here at 24 Carrot Writing.

Julia Anne Young’s story doesn’t exist (yet). From the workshop she took home ways to improve this picture further. So we might yet see future versions of this adventure.

29 August 2017

No Need to Visit Skull Castle

Seeing Dirk Gringhuis’s 1964 Mystery at Skull Castle in David Maxine’s collection made me curious about it. Fortunately, David has already shared a thorough review that answers nearly all my questions about the book and its connections to the Oz series.

Just a taste:
The boys [Bram and Piet] are secretly saving money to purchase a new buggy for Piet's uncle. They move their savings to the old burnt-out castle for safekeeping. While at the castle they find a stash of jewels and seconds later meet Major Willoughby, supposedly the long lost heir to the man who built the castle, and his East Indian servant, Singh. The Major cons the boys into leaving their money in the same niche that the jewels were in and tells them to keep quiet about the discovery. . . .

Bram and Piet are stupid and oblivious. They are gullible to every idiotic suggestion and notion the Major tells them. They ignore the truth even when little Bertram is telling them flat out he just watched the Major steal the jewels. Even after they manage to escape their bonds in the castle they don't run for help in town but allow themselves to be cornered on the shore of Lake Michigan where they cower until Piet's uncle solves the mystery (he recognized the red mud of the castle grounds on the major's wagon wheels) and comes down to the shore where he hears the commotion and shoots the Major. In a children's mystery, shouldn't the main characters be the ones to find the solution?

Not only do Bram and Piet not solve the mystery, their primary goal at the beginning comes to nothing, since the uncle has no interest in a new buggy.
Kirkus Reviews was no more complimentary in 1964: “An incredible, poorly plotted story . . . In the story which amounts to little more than a wild chase, the boys and lesser figures are paper thin.”

28 August 2017

An Upsetting Tap on the Shoulder

In a conversation with novelist John Le Carré arranged and recorded by the New York Times Book Review, the espionage historian Ben Macintyre spoke of being recruited for the British secret service MI6 by a man calling himself “Major Halliday”:
It was the typical sort of tap on the shoulder. It was quite amusing, really. A don that I didn’t know terribly well came barreling up and he said, “What are you doing after university?” I said, “I don’t really know.” And he said, “Well, there are some parts of the Foreign Office that are different from other parts of the Foreign Office. In a sense, they are different from the Foreign Office itself.” He went on for about five minutes. Of course, I knew exactly what he was saying, although he never actually said it.

So I went along to Carlton House Terrace [where MI6 had an office]. And there was very clearly more than one Major Halliday, because other people I know were recruited by a completely different Major Halliday. Mine had on socks and sandals, which was quite upsetting at the time.
Le Carré’s new novel is A Legacy of Spies. Macintyre’s latest is Rogue Heroes.

26 August 2017

Picturing an Author-Illustrator as Her Book

Here’s a nice quote from John Rocco, artist of the upcoming picture-book biography Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton, written by Sherri Duskey Rinker. Burton was known to friends and relatives as “Jinnee.”

At first it was hard to wrap my head around the idea of illustrating a book about another children’s book artist without just showing her drawing…

But a lot of Jinnee’s personality came through as I went through her sketches and books. I suddenly realized that she was the embodiment of The Little House. She had an appreciation for technology and moving forward, but was much more closely tied to a simpler life. To portray her symbolically as her book’s little house, which was surrounded by daisies, I pictured Jinnee wearing a skirt emblazoned with daisies.

And when I learned that she was a dancer, I wanted her dancing across the page as she created her art, and tried to capture the sense of flow and movement across the pages of her own books, and to pay homage to her meticulous sense of design.
Rocco is quoted in this Publishers Weekly article about the new book and reissues of two of Burton’s picture books, including The Little House.

14 August 2017

“Dark stuff for 8–12 year olds”

Highlighting Patrick Hogan’s essay “A Children's Book About Aliens Turned Me Into a Socialist” at Splinter, about the My Teacher Is an Alien series by Bruce Coville:
When I spoke with Coville over the phone, he said the social justice bent of the series was a bit of an accident after the surprise success of the first book, which was intended to be a one-off adventure novel. His other novels (and he has written a lot of novels) rarely indulged in politics, but he was inspired to add an element of social criticism the Teacher is an Alien series after reading the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol.

“The pleasure of writing about aliens is they could see our nonsense from the outside,” Coville told me. “It’s an insane way to live.”

In the final book, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, the child protagonists of the first three volumes are given the task of convincing the Interplanetary Council to not blow Earth up (the planet having, as the title hints, flunked its alien evaluation). As part of the assignment, their alien teacher, Broxholm, takes them on a tour of Earth and asks them to answer for humanity’s behavior. They hit up war zones, impoverished cities and, most notably in my memory, a refugee camp . . .

That’s dark stuff for 8–12 year olds. It was dark for Coville, too, who said the research he conducted for the segment of impoverished and war-torn areas of the world was harrowing.

“I got away with it because it was the fourth book of the series,” he said. “That book sold a million to a million-and-a-half copies but I feel like a lot of it was a secret between me and the kids who read it.”
Hogan recalls only one other title in his school library with a waiting list: How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.

20 July 2017

DeConnick Scripting from the Dialogue

In this 2011 interview with with Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter, comics scripter Kelly Sue DeConnick described her method of writing dialogue:
DeCONNICK: I suspect that’s more a result of the actor training than anything else, but I’m sure they’re all related.

SPURGEON: You even work from dialogue first as opposed to structure or visual cues or graphic beats. How does a page form when you work from dialogue first?

DeCONNICK: A looooooot faster than if I try and break things down into panels as I go. [Spurgeon laughs] It took me a while to figure out that that was the best approach for me, and I still forget it sometimes and try to pound it out panel by panel and it’s just... torturous. And not very good.

Okay, so, when I get to scripting, I’ve already got my outline. So I know what the scene is and who's in it. Without sounding too pretentious—I hope!—I just kind of let them talk. It’s like…well, I was an actor, right, but I was also a professional improv actor for three-plus years. So, it's like improvising a scene—only I'm playing all the characters. I take down the dialogue and then I go back and look at it. I cut what I don’t like. Then I start breaking the scene down into beats the very same way an actor breaks down a script. The big beats? Those are page turns. The smaller ones are panel breaks. More important beats call for bigger panels—though I never dictate that sort of thing, I only suggest.

Some beats are silent. . . .

Oh, hey—I remembered something about actor training that is directly relevant to writing comics—psychological gesture. I thought of you this morning when I was acting out a panel at my desk trying to decide if the gesture I was asking for felt right.

SPURGEON: What is psychological gesture exactly? Can you describe what it is about a certain gesture that you feel is valuable to consider when putting together a script?

DeCONNICK: It’s pretty much exactly what you’d think—it’s something the actor does with his or her body to give the audience additional information about what’s going on in the character’s head. It’s a simple enough idea, but it’s one of the things that makes acting an art form and not just Pretty People Playing Telling Lies.

So, for instance, my scripts often indicate when characters are making eye contact—or more importantly, when they’re not. People sometimes touch their mouths when they’re lying, cover their eyes or foreheads when they’re ashamed. I consider it valuable because it adds information that isn’t in the dialogue.
I am, of course, not convinced that it’s so easy to tell when people are lying, or to convey that in a way most readers pick up. But I am intrigued by DeConnick’s approach to scripting as acting on the page.

18 July 2017

The Tin Woodman of Forkland

Starting in 1993, Jim Bird has been building statuary out of old farm equipment and hay bales on his fields in Forkland, Alabama.

Among those figures is this “32-foot sculpture of the tin man from Oz, assembled from old bathtubs, 55-gallon drums and a discarded fuel tank—and topped with an old fertilizer spreader.”

As of 2015, this was the most expensive of Bird’s statues since he spent $40 on paint; otherwise, he has a rule not to spend more than $5. The heart has text which reads, “Jim loves Lib.” That’s a message for Bird’s wife Lib; he started building his figures when she was on a trip and he missed her.

(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)