Friday, January 30, 2009

The Grey King

Sometime back when I was in grade school, I picked up my older brother's copies of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and got forever hooked on fantasy. This was right around the same time that Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence of books was published, but unfortunately (because I'm sure I would have have loved them then) I was oblivious, and only became aware of these books in the last few years.

My recent reading and appreciation of The Grey King was hampered by a couple of things. First of all, I have not read the other books in the series, and I'm guessing that you really need to have read Over Sea, Under Stone, and then The Dark Is Rising, and Greenwitch (the three books preceding The Grey King) to really get into Will Stanton's story.

Secondly, I just finished a couple of other fantasy books that were so very, very good that other fantasy just pales in comparison (Lois McMaster's The Sharing Knife: Horizon, and a re-read of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, in case you were wondering). Do you ever have this happen? That what you read influences your views so much on the very next book you pick up? Maybe I should have read some non-fiction next, or something else that really couldn't be compared.

Finally, I was stuck in bed recovering from a stomach bug when I read The Grey King. I will say Cooper's book helped me forget my surroundings for a while. But overall, I was a little disappointed. I didn't think that the fantastic parts of The Grey King meshed particularly well with the details of everyday life on a farm in Wales (at first, at least, I think it got better as the story went on), and I was confused about the relationships of the "Old Ones", the Dark, the Sleepers (pictured in the cover above), Merriman, and the Grey King.

The main character, Will Stanton, was an appealing character, and I liked his aunt's family and his friend Bran and Bran's dog Cafall very much, and the use of Celtic myth and history. But I don't have a strong urge to read the rest of The Dark Is Rising series - which I guess tells you something about my feelings about The Grey King. I don't have any problems with recommending it for young readers who enjoy fantasy, but for whatever reasons (and probably at least partially for the ones given above), it's not a keeper for me.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Check Out Neil Gaiman's Blog Post

upon learning he won the Newbery Medal this morning: (Insert Amazed and Delighted Swearing Here). His labels on the post are pretty sweet, too.

Newbery 2009

The Winner:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Honor Books:
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
Savvy by Ingrid Law
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Cat Who Went to Heaven - 1931

Sandy D’s recent post intrigued me; I had to read this book and do a bit of research.

Elizabeth Coatsworth was inspired to write this book by her travels in Asia. According to her editor and Vassar classmate, Louise Seaman Bechtel, in her essay “From Java to Maine with Elizabeth Coatsworth” in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 (Boston, Horn Book Inc., 1955, pp. 94-98), Coatsworth said:
Its main inspiration was the Buddhist temples of Borobodur, in Java, a magnificent carved stupa, standing, scarcely in ruins, in a plain surrounded by volcanoes. Among the many carvings on its terraces are some of the animal rebirths of Buddha, which very much took my imagination. Many years later, in the Pasadena Library, I was to read translations of the rebirths and string them together on the thread of a Japanese legend which we had been told in a Kyoto temple, one day in the enchanted October of 1916. Later, Tom Handforth* sent me a print, which, like the temple scroll, showed a cat coming to mourn the death of Buddha. It was unusual to see a cat among the other animals. These things lay, with a thousand other impressions, long in my mind, and happened to be the ones I could use.

[*As an aside: Tom Handforth is probably Thomas Scofield Handforth (1897–1948), an American artist and etcher who wrote and illustrated the 1939 Caldecott Medalist Mei Li about his personal experiences in China.]

The animal rebirth stories would be the Jataka, fables Buddha originally told to his disciples to illustrate his teachings. Like Aesop, each tale features animal characters, as well as an incarnation of the Buddha from an earlier life, usually as an animal himself. These amusing parables embody some of the central tenets of Buddhist principles of wisdom, heroic action, nonviolence and compassion. Other stories are from the Buddha’s life or other sources.

The snail (pp. 21-22) comes from “The Snail Martyrs” (scroll down to that section of the web page), a story that explains Buddha’s hair curls. The elephant tale (p. 24) can be found at the website Himalayan Art, which has translations of Jataka tales from Tibet.

Kanthaka (p. 26) was the favorite horse of Prince Siddhartha, who later became the Buddha, while the tale about the horse who captured seven kings (pp. 26-28) is this one, "Siddhartha and the swan (p. 31) is in a number of places; I also found it in Buddhist Stories (2006, pp. 9-10) by Anita Ganeri.

The buffalo story (p. 34) appears to be "The Ox Who Won the Forfeit" from Jataka Tales: Animal Stories retold by Ellen C. Babbitt and published in 1912. I can see how a water buffalo and an ox might be confused.

The story about the dog Shippeitaro (pp. 36-37) can be found in Mary F. Nixon-Roulet’s Japanese Folk-Stories and Fairy Tales (1908). The deer tale(pp. 43-44) is “The Banyan Deer”, also from Babbitt’s 1912 Jataka Tales.

After this story, Coatsworth mentions a number of other animals that “in each of them the spirit of the Buddha had at one time lived, or it had rendered service to him when he was a prince on earth” (p. 46). Many of the tales of these animals – the woodpecker, the lion and hawks, the goose with golden feathers, and the wise goat and the wolves, can be found in Babbitt’s 1922 More Jataka Tales. The story about “the hare who jumped into the frying pan of the beggar” can be found in Eastern Stories and Legends, by Marie L. Shedlock, published in 1920.

The monkey or ape story (pp. 46-48) appears to be “The Story of the Great Ape,” which can be read in The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha by Dr C. B. Varma, a multimedia collection based on the digital collections of the Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts in India.

The reference about the tiger (p. 51) is from The Light of Asia, Book 2, by Edwin Arnold, originally published in 1879.

And what about the cat? On the Laws of Japanese Painting: An Introduction to the Study of the Art of Japan by Henry P. Bowie, published in 1911, has this to say on page 97:
Shaka’s [a Japanese term for Buddha] death is commemorated in the picture called NEHAN, nirvana. The lord, Buddha, is stretched upon a bier tranquilly dying, an angelic smile lighting his countenance, while around are gathered … the different animals of creation, all weeping. A rat having gone to call Mayabunin, mother of Buddha, has been pounced upon by a cat and torn to pieces. For this reason in paintings of this moving scene of Shaka’s death no cat is to be found among the mourning animals. The artist Cho Densu, however, in his great painting of NEHAN (still preserved in the Temple To Fuku Ji at Kyoto) introduces the portrait of a cat. It is related that, while Cho Densu was painting, the cat came daily to his side and continually mewing and expressing its grief, would not leave him. Finally Cho Densu, out of pity, painted the cat into the picture and thereupon the animal out of joy fell over dead.

Similarly, in her book Cat (2006) Katharine M. Rogers writes (on pages 28 and 30):
In Buddhist folklore, a rat was sent for medicine to cure the Buddha when he was mortally ill, but it could not fulfil [sic] its mission because a cat seized and ate it on its way. In another version, the cat was the only animal not overwhelmed with awe when the Buddha was passing into Nirvana: it was too intent on eyeing the rat.

And on page 75:
a cat came regularly to sit by the famous late medieval artist Cho Densu in the monastery Tofuko-ji, where he was painting an enormous picture of the entrance of Buddha into Nirvana. One day he ran short of ultramarine blue, and he joked to the cat, "If you would be good enough to procure for me the mineral [lapis lazuli] powder that I need, I will portray you in this painting of Nirvana.” The next day, the cat not only brought him some powder but showed him where an ample supply could be found. In recompense, the artist included the cat in his composition, and thereby improved its moral reputation throughout the country. This rehabilitation was important, because in Buddhist tradition the cat was often disparaged as impious for showing disrespectful unconcern when Buddha ascended into Nirvana.

From all this, I would say Coatsworth’s book is well-researched and true to the cultures it is trying to portray, blending Buddhist folklore and Japanese legend she first learned about on her own travels. Perhaps calling it “The Cat Who Went to Nirvana” would have been more politically correct, but I believe the book is more accessible to children with its present title.

As for the cat on the cover: my library’s copy (a 1967 edition) does not have the Newbery sticker over the tail, but it did have our bar code and shelf label, so I have superimposed the title area of a photo of the cover without those over my photo of the cover illustration. The cat is probably a Japanese bobtail, which are “considered symbols of good fortune in Japan.”

[originally posted at Bookin' It]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

It's Like This, Cat

It's Like This, Cat is a the perfect title for this book. Because I think that what it does best is describe a time and a place - neighborhoods in New York City in the early 1960's. A lot of the Newbery winners do excel in capturing particular settings, come to think about it. Maybe I've come to expect that as a given, and that's why I didn't like this book more than I did, which was moderately.

It's interesting, too, because Neville gets the feel of it down (I think pretty well, though I don't know the setting myself) without mentioning current political events or too much of the pop culture of the time. It reminded me of Betsy Byars' Summer of the Swans in that way - except instead of a girl and her tennis shoes and backyards and Green Acres, Neville shows us a boy with his duck tail (which gets turned into a "butch" cut) and apartment buildings with stoops and cellars full of storage lockers, and record players with needles and Belafonte records. Young teenagers ride their bikes everywhere and explore the city by themselves, calling their parents (even if their parents are beatniks) at dinnertime if they're going to be late.

Apart from the setting, the story is a quiet coming-of-age story of a young teenaged boy (unnamed for a few chapters, but you finally learn he's called Dave) who befriends a number of different characters in his neighborhood. One of the more eccentric ones, whom the local kids call Crazy Kate the Cat Woman, gives Dave a young tomcat. Dave is a rather lonely kid - he has no siblings, and he fights with father - and his adventures with Cat lead him to some new perspectives on his family and new friends.

It was all very nice, and I enjoyed reading it, but it didn't really make the profound impression on me that I feel like a Newbery winner should make. Am I expecting too much? Do I really need more "issues" in a story? Is it weird that my main thought after finishing It's Like This, Cat is on the lack of drug use in the big city?

I did find the whole book, including illustrations, online at the University of Pennsylvania's digital library. Take a look at it and see what you think.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

2009 Newbery Predictions

The 2009 Newbery award will be announced Monday, January 26 at 7:45 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time. There’s been a lot of speculation on possible winners. A former Newbery judge and longtime children’s librarian at the Donnell Central Children’s Room of the New York Public Library system, Elizabeth Bird, made her predictions in her Fuse #8 blog for School Library Journal. She also makes predictions for many of the other American Library Association Youth Media Awards. Another former Newbery judge, teacher Monica Edinger, has some thoughts on possible winners that appealed to her on her blog.

The results are also in for Heavy Medal, a Mock Newbery blog also at SLJ, and for the Allen County (Indiana) Public Library’s Mock Newbery, which has had all the previous winners on their short list of contenders since 1999 (except The Higher Power of Lucky in 2007). Read the rest of their blog for the winners of other mock contests.

Any guesses out there on this year’s Newbery winner and honor book(s)?

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

There were some things I liked very much in The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, and some things that I was very dubious about.

I liked the descriptions of the cat, Good Fortune, as well as all of the deftly portrayed animals that the unnamed Japanese artist thought about for his painting of the Buddha's death scene. Coatsworth uses simple yet poetic words in her short story (is this the shortest of the Newbery winners? I think it must be, except perhaps for one of the poetry collections - it's only 74 pages!):
So the old woman put down the basket and opened the lid. Nothing happened for a moment. Then a round, pretty, white head came slowly above the bamboo, and two big yellow eyes looked about the room, and a little white paw appeared on the rim. Suddenly, without moving the basket at all, a little cat jumped out on the mats, and stood there as a person might stand who scarcely knew if she were welcome. Now that the cat was out of the basket, the artist saw she had yellow and black spots on her sides, a little tail like a rabbit's, and that she did everything daintily (p. 10).

She is like new snow dotted with gold pieces and lacquer; she is like a white flower on which butterflies of two kinds have alighted...(p. 11).
I did wonder why the cat had such a short tail. Was this some genetic thing, like a Manx cat, or was it cropped or lost in an accident? Frustratingly, my library book had a sticker over the rear end of the cat shown on the cover, but it did appear that the pencil illustrations by Lynd Ward and Jael inside this 1990 edition showed a short-tailed cat. When I went to look at what I think was the original cover art, this is what I saw:



Every single copy of this cover image that I can find on the internet has the Newbery medal stuck on the cat's tail! Is it a tiny nub or what? I think if the cat had a normal tail it would extend out beyond the medal.

Now for the things I didn't like about this quiet little story that a lot of people find so charming and inspirational.

I really wondered about its authenticity (ooh, big literary word alert), and question how much of Coatsworth's portrayal of Japanese culture and Buddhism is accurate. I did some Googling and didn't turn up a legend about cats spurning the Buddha's blessing on the first couple pages of hits. Does anyone know if Coatsworth made this story up out of whole cloth, or is it really a Japanese legend? The fact that schools and homeschoolers alike use this book to fulfill a reading or social studies requirement on world cultures and/or religions makes this question rather important, I think.

In a similar vein, the Newbery Book Discussion Group at the Allen County Public Library ranked The Cat Who Went to Heaven 81st out of 87 winners, noting that it was:
Blessedly short. Some of us were bothered by seeming cultural insensitivity in the title, since the book is a story about an artist and the Buddha...So, shouldn't it be "The Cat Who Went to Nirvana"?
Finally, I absolutely hated the book's ending. I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it, but if you want to read about the part that bothered me, highlight the following paragraph.

The cat dies because she's so happy? WTF? What kind of ending is that for a children's story? I don't demand "and they lived happily ever after" for all kid's books, but isn't it a little disturbing to suggest that "pure joy" will kill you?

Anyway, it was a mostly enjoyable story, but not one I'll probably ever re-read or recommend to anyone but hard-core cat lovers, who might enjoy the gentle creature that Coatsworth portrays as colorfully as the artist in the story.