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Louisa May Alcott

May 4 2012

Dear Genius

by Patricia D

The very beginning of children’s literature was based on a need for instruction, not just in reading, though of course that was a great thing to achieve, but for turning out a person of high morals and sound character.    Early examples of Good Books for Children are, to my way of thinking, the very best of adults sermonizing.  Even my beloved Louisa May, who gave us Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom (and that other book Little Women) can never stop herself from holding forth on the dangers to a young person’s character that come with reading popular books instead of “sweet, simple, wholesome tales.”  However, dime novels flourished, French novels (le gasp!) were translated into English and children’s publishing moved forward, leapfrogging from sweet and simple to the here and now concepts pushed forward by writers such as Margaret Wise Brown.  From there it gets worse.  Shel Silverstein not only contributed to Playboy but also created witty, adult-undermining poetry and pictures for sly ten year olds.  Maurice Sendak explored the terrifying emotional landscape of a small boy in Where the Wild Things Are (but remember at the end, Max’s dinner was still hot) and drew a naked kid in In the Night Kitchen.   Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was not a “nice” little girl, and M E Kerr and Robert Cormier were downright depressing and sometimes really mean.  Captain Underpants was too much potty humor and in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet not only does Alanna make a space for herself as a knight in a world that would deny women quite a lot, she also takes three different lovers over the course of the four books.  Clutch the pearls, mama, how can that be?

To trace some of this evolution, including the “invention” of young adult literature, one must read Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.  I know, I’ve mentioned her before, as well as Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus, but truly, this bears repeating.  Nordstrom’s letters to her authors are whip smart, coy, cajoling and have lots of teeth.   She begged for manuscripts from difficult authors, she took chances, sometimes staking her career on something in particular and she made mistakes, which she openly confesses.  You could read it in one setting but I wouldn’t.  Read a few letters at a time and savor them.  She wrote as well as any one of her Dear Geniuses.


Apr 20 2012

Bad Boys of Fiction

by Patricia D

Answer quick here.  Han Solo or Luke Skywalker?  You said Han Solo, right?  In all the years since there was a choice to be made I’ve never met anyone who picks Luke.  You know why?  No one wants to try to raise a family and pay the bills with a bad boy (or girl), but when we can indulge through fiction, most folks will choose the scuffed up, dangerous man for a dizzying night of dancing until the wee hours of the morning or a breakneck trip on a moon splashed road in a Harley over the guy (or chick) who will be there in the wee hours of the morning when you need to go the hospital.  Luke will get you to the hospital, but Han will wreck you first.


I think this “we love bad boys” theory also explains almost every romantic interest in a Sarah Dessen novel as well as all the the vampire fiction out there, especially the stuff aimed at teen girls (Silver Kiss, Darkangel, Twilight.)

Fiction is full of these guys and you know what?  It starts early.  My first “bad boy” fictional crush was the dashing fur trapper in Calico Captive.  Set during the French Indian Wars, our heroine in the end chooses the safe, steady, poor American who only wants to be a farmer and help establish his country when she could have been rich, had Quebec at her feet and her handsome voyageur husband by her side for a few weeks every five months or so.  Imagine my disappointment.  Louisa May Alcott threw two bad boys my way:  Dan in Little Men and Jo’s Boys and Charlie in Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom.  Because they were created by Louisa May there was never any chance at happiness for either one of them—she didn’t seem to have a good feel for a redemption story—so the bad boy dies, leaving the responsible, respectable fellows to pick up the chicks.

As a grown up of course I’ve got Richard Sharpe and Patrick Harper.  They aren’t just your average scuffed up, rough around the edges bad boys.  They are at times remorseless killers and cheerful thieves.   However, they are a special type of  “bad boy” because they will also take you to the hospital at 2:00 a.m.  or bail you out of jail at 3:00 a.m.  They might be the reasons you need emergency care or bail money, but they will be there.  As will Rhett Butler, who never really worked for me but obviously he worked for some.

Okay, time’s up.  Han or Luke?