Mary's Library

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

A librarian friend told me last Sunday about Brian Selznick's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I immediately requested it from the library.

The book is intended for children in grades 4 to 9, so I was startled to discover that it's 533 pages long. A bit thick for your typical 9 year old. But I found that the thickness comes from the intriguing use of many detailed charcoal drawings along with the text, with an occasional movie still thrown in.

In 1931 Hugo Cabret lives in a tiny room behind the air ducts of a Paris railroad station. He repairs the station clocks and in his spare time he tries to recreate an automaton that his father, a clockmaker, found in the attic of a museum. Hugh runs into trouble when he tries to steal a mechanical mouse from a mysterious toy shop owner.

He meets the toy store owner's god-daughter who is fascinated with photography and with her he sneaks into a movie theater to watch a film. And he continues to work on his mechanical man. The second half of the story moves on to the early history of French film.

This is a story with hidden identities, secret messages, and the fundamental mystery of the automaton. The alternating text and pictures move the story quickly along. I am stunned at the creativity of Selznick's conception -- a blending of a conventional book with a graphic novel. The book is unlike anything I've ever seen and it's superb.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Wall

I've begun reading books from the Mock Newbery lists that libraries and bookstores create every year at this time.

The first book I read is The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis, a book for children aged 8 and up.

Born just after World War II, Sis was raised in Communist-controlled Cold-War Czechoslovakia, being indoctrinated at the state school, joining the Commnist youth organization, and not thinking much about the way the world around him worked. He spent his time and creative energy drawing.

The book shows some of the things Sis drew as a small child and then as a young man. There are brief quotes from his journal. He tells us what life was like in his country. Slowly over the years Western culture filtered through to Prague and he learned about blue jeans and the Beatles and rock music. He realized there were many things that the Czech people weren't being told by the government.

Sis devoted himself to his drawing. He grew increasingly skilled and eventually had a chance to travel in the West. He was in London when the Prague Spring, as the easing of Communist control was called, came to a sudden halt as the Russians sent tanks into Czechoslovakia and again the iron curtain rang down.

I was excited about this book and about to declare it, a bit prematurely, my choice for the medal. But then I picked up another book, and suddenly my perspective changed. More about that tomorrow.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dewey's Big Day

Happy birthday, Melvil!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Preaching of the Pine Trees

Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish. -John Muir

Friday, December 07, 2007

The World Without Us

A move to the inland west from the east coast is among other things a move to a to a semi-arid place where people are constantly searching for water. The east is a place where the problem is getting rid of it.
That water is the key to what would happen in our world if human beings were to disappear suddenly from the earth. If you want to get rid of a barn, says a farmer, cut an 18-inch square in the roof. A decade later the barn will be a pile of decaying rubble.
It might seem that a city such as Manhattan would be more sturdy than a wooden barn, but "water's retaliation for being squished under all that city cement" would take its toll there as well. Acid rain, pathogens, the alanthus tree (an aggressive non-native invader), fire, freezing and thawing, and other elements of nature would join water to do much of the work of razing New York City.
An unintended example of this process in the city can be found in an abandoned LIRR track that has become a garden of crocus, Queen Anne's lace, and other flowers and its beauty has led to its being officially designated a park called The High Line.
I'm "reading" the audio book of Alan Weisman's wonderfully shocking and frightening book, The World Without Us. The waiting list at the library for the paper book is so long that on a whim I requested the book on CDs. That was a good move. I love to be read to and a charming man named Adam Grupper is reading this book to me this morning What a treat!
When Mr Grupper finishes Weisman's book, a fellow named Holter Graham will be reading me David Michaelis' Schulz and Peanuts I'm going to go looking for more books on CD. This is a perfect way to read while knitting!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Free Rice

My sister just told me about, the web site that gives the UN World Food Program 20 grains of rice for each vocabulary word you correctly define. The advertisers you see on the page pay for it. says it's legit. Give it a go.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Teaching Expository Writing

Every now and then I read something that is so well written or badly written that it makes me wish I were back teaching Expository Writing 101. That was the designation of the English class I taught years ago at what was then North Carolina College. It was an attempt to bring freshmen up to speed so they could write skillfully the essays they would be required to write in order to meet the requirements not just of their English classes but of history, sociology, psychology, and occasionally the hard sciences and math.
One of the ways to teach this kind of writing is to examine closely the writing of other expository writers, journalists being some of the best. When I was in a similar freshman class my professor, Mr Derocco, had us reading the New York Times and the Daily News - a tabloid - every day. (Also Time magazine and the New Yorker every week. I've been reading the New Yorker ever since.)
The Daily News didn't believe in keeping the reader going for 20 minutes as they explored the details and implications of the latest city government scandal or movie opening. They didn't allow breaks on the front page, sending you to page 5 or page 38 or whatever. The Times, in order both to feature lots of stories on the front page and to examine them in depth, was all breaks. It still is with much text and few graphics vs the Daily News and their half-page photos.
The Daily News, it goes without saying, was tighter, more focused, and more entertaining since it wanted to grab the reader's attention, if only to keep it for 2 1/2 minutes, which if I recall was the amount of time the editors had decided their readers would be willing to spend on each story. It was a surprise to most of us to find that the "trash" paper was so much better written than the Good Grey Lady, which was and is considered the best paper in the country. I'm not convinced of that, but I read it every day so maybe it is.
When I was a newspaper reporter this training came in handy as I had an idea what was important in a news story from reading so many of them in two different (very different) papers years before and knew how to hook a reader in the lede with the heart of the story rather than waiting to reveal it in paragraph six on page 38 as is sometimes the case in the Times.