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The Trout Beneath

May 30, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (0)

Ever alert to references to children's books changing lives, I was delighted to come across this memory of reading Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher  by science fiction writer China Mieville, in the June 4/11 issue of The New Yorker, p 80 - 81:

"Your dapper batrachian hero sits on his lily pad.  He doesn't see that beneath him a trout is rising.  Its mouth is open, heading for Mr. Fisher's dangling right leg.  The submerged, predatory yellow eye rolls.  You always have to take deep breaths before turning to this page.  This is where you learn the vertigo of knowing something a protagonist doesn't.  For you, the tradition of the glimpsed numinous starts here.  Later, there'll be Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis Thompson, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  For now, there are monsters underneath -- the Devil, Quatermass's pit, Lovecraft's burrowing Dholes, "Jaws."  All of which, significant as they are, are only ever echoes of Mr. Fisher's trout."


You Buy One Loaf

May 14, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (0)

This past weekend's conference "From the Garden to the Trenches:  Childhood, Culture and the First World War" was the occasion for a stunning display, here at the Osborne Collection, of children's books, toys and games relating to the two world wars.  You could do a whole study of attitudes to war, play and childhood in the twentieth century just by looking at the board games:  "Battle Checkers:  Beat the Axis," "Blackout:  Today's Game of Thrills," "Fighting with the Allies:  The New War Game -- Entertaining, Enthrilling."  As news of Maurice Sendak's death last week was still sinking in I found myself thinking of the nursery rhyme  from We're All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy:

Jack and Guy

Went out in the rye

And they found a little boy

With one black eye

Come says Jack let's knock him

on the head

No says Guy

Let's buy him some bread

You buy one loaf

And I'll buy two

And we'll bring him up

And other folks do.


Book Making

April 30, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (2)

My colleagues at the Vermont College of Fine Arts alerted me to this lovely short video showing a book being constructed.  The publisher being featured is "Slightly Foxed."  Their quarterly publication ( often features smart and appreciative articles about children's literature. 

Here we go: Take a couple of minutes and sink into the pleasure of seeing something made by hand:

Cardboard Boxes

April 11, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (3)

Q: What does it take to make a little boy happy? A: Many cardboard boxes, a roll of strapping tape and lots of time.  For a joyous reminder of the sustaining power of imagination (and to meet a really great dad) have a look at this short film. Caine sums up why I write for kids.


April 3, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (1)

On my walk to the Osborne I pass by a rich medley of fences:  lattice, wrought-iron (plain and fancy), wattle and picket.  There is even one split rail fence, obviously constructed by some lonesome cowboy.  Best poem about fences?  My nomination is by David McCord.  It is a marvel of rhythm and the precise use of line endings.   Although a character is never mentioned you can absolutely see the kid with a stick.


The Pickety Fence
The pickety fence
The pickety fence
Give it a lick it's
The pickety fence
Give it a lick it's
A clickety fence
Give it a lick it's a lickety fence
Give it a lick
Give it a lick
Give it a lick
With a rickety stick


Enjoying Nesbit.

April 1, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (0)

Prompted by Case #2 in the current Osborne display, "The World Was All Before Them," I've just read E. Nesbit's Harding's Luck from 1923.  This is a wild book!  E. Nesbit is really the godmother of the middle grade novel and my biggest influence as a writer.  This is a time travel novel, in which the hero travels back and forth between his time and the seventeenth century. The totally charming thing about Nesbit here, as elsewhere, is that she goofs around with the illusion of narrative with complete unconcern for the rules, jumping into the story when the spirit takes her.

Need to weave in some explanatory backstory?  Here's Nesbit:  "I hope you're not getting bored with all this?  You see, I must tell you a little bit about the kind of boy Dickie was and the kind of way he lived, or you won't understand his adventures."

Want to seed some suspense?  "Now you see that Mr. Beals may be a cruel, wicked man  . . .or he maybe a really benevolent person.  Well, you will know all about it presently."

Want to take the opportunity to promote your other books?   "Now if you have read a book called "The House of Arden" you will already know . . . If you have not read that book, and didn't already know these things -- well, you know them now."

I guess if we indulged in such hijinks now it would be post-modern.  But with Nesbit it is just . . . jolly.


Y.A. Lit in the news

March 17, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (1)

There's a piece on young adult literature in this morning's Globe and Mail.  Commentator Sheila Heti makes a couple of good points.  The first is that adult approval is the kiss of death for a young adult novel.  (This makes things tricky for the marketing folk at publishers!). The second is that young adults read all over the map.  That was sure true for me in my high school years.  I read children's books (in secret), lighter adult fare (Mary Stewart, Paul Gallico, Sherlock Holmes), books to try to fit in (Siddhartha, Beautiful Losers) and oddities (the minor novels of Thomas Hardy, the Vancouver Public Library had a matched set and I was the only one who ever borrowed them). What Heti omits from her argument, however, is any mention of young adult literary fiction.  What about Ursula K. LeGuin's Gifts, Tim Wynne-Jones's Blink and Caution, M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing?  These are books of intellectual and emotional heft, satisfying to adults but focussed on adolescent characters and concerns.   Sure, any young adult reader worth her salt is going to be reading adult books, but she doesn't need to choose between The Hunger Games at one end of the scale and Dostoevsky at the other. There is plenty on young adult lists to challenge and sustain.   Just don't tell her I said so. 

Tripping Over My Bridge

March 13, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (2)

Yesterday's stunning performance of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" at the Lillian H. Smith Branch played to a capacity crowd. The production incorporated both classical and avant garde elements, adhering to the Aristotelian unities of time and place while experimenting with a post modern middle billy goat: "I'm the middle billy goat and my name is (ironic, self-referential, crowd-pleasing pause) The Middle Billy Goat!" The script (Heras and Schwartz) was crisp; the set (Heras and Schwartz) was Brechtian in its simplicity and the performances (Heras and Schwartz) reflected method actors who have fully explored their inner trolls. Audience reaction was best summed up by a young theatre aficionado in the back row who, upon the final vanquishing of the troll, leaped to his feet with a full body air- punch and a heartfelt affirmation: "Yes!!"

What Colour is Snow?

March 11, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (0)

Last Tuesday at the Picture Book Workshop we had a chance to see some of Barbara Reid's work up close. The Osborne has several of her original plasticine illustrations and they brought a couple down to the meeting room for our pleasure. One was from her 2009 title, Perfect Snow. What hit me was the complicated colour that she devised for snow. Beautiful and real. It would make me see snow anew, if there was any snow in Toronto at the moment!

Thoughts on Classics

March 5, 2012 | Sarah Ellis | Comments (0)

Thoughts on Classics.
On my way to the Osborne Collection in the morning I walk through a neighbourhood in which people put their unwanted stuff out on the street. (A very sensible approach to recycling. Wonder why we don't do this more in Vancouver? Oh yes. Rain.) There are always lots of books. This morning there was a bedraggled copy of The Secret Garden outside one house and, outside another, My Mother, My Self by Nancy Friday. This led my meandering mind in two directions. One was to odd coincidences because before Nancy Friday published My Mother, My Self in 1977 she had written a book called My Secret Garden:Women's Sexual Fantasies. I remember from my public library days that this caused quite a stir when it came out and had a long and somewhat snickery holds list. But after a few more blocks I started to wonder why I had viewed those two paperbacks sitting in the winter sun so differently. The Friday seemed to me to be rejected, finished, out-dated, kaput, sitting sadly on the curb. The Burnett seemed well-loved, alive, doughty, just waiting for its new owner. The question of what makes a book last, what makes a book a classic, is of course far too big for a blog post but here is one thought. I once went to an excellent lecture by John Rowe Townsend on this very question and his conclusion was that the children's books that last do so because of character. Long after we have forgotten the plot we still remember Tom Sawyer and Mary Poppins and Anne of Green Gables and Pooh. So, if you're setting out to write a "classic" just find yourself a strong, distinctive and slightly quirky character. Easy as pie! You heard it here first.

Musings from a writer in residence, sitting surrounded by the whole amazing history of children's books and meeting the newest writers in our field.