Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lorax goes Hollywood. Tell me Mike Myers isn't donning a brown Bar-ba-loot suit.

My son recently emerged shaken from an encounter with one of the scariest classics of children's literature. No, not the collected works of Mr. Stine. I refer to the rhyming environmental apocalypse that is “The Lorax.”

You remember the Lorax? He speaks for the trees. Also the brown Bar-ba-loots, in their Bar-ba-loot suits. (Say it with me. It's fun.) But despite the little guy's best efforts, the greedy Once-ler just keeps turning Truffula trees into ugly double-knitted Thneeds.

“I thought Dr. Seuss books were supposed to be happy,” Nate said, wide-eyed and a little tearstained after his cousin screened the 1972 animated short for him. “She kept telling me I needed to relax,” he told me. “But I couldn't bear to watch everything being destroyed by the Once-ler. He's an old crook.”

I remember sitting in an elementary classroom with similar feelings, hoping that the film would break while there were still a few candy-colored Truffulas left. 

We've dabbled in Seuss, but that particular book never made the bedtime reading list. For one, he's all about “The Lightning Thief” and “Dragon Slayer's Academy” and for another, I prefer that our time together not be punctuated with outraged protests. Also, as I explained to him, “The Lorax” isn't purely a story. The fable is a powerful piece of propaganda. (I'm not exactly opposed to trees or clean water, so I'm fine with its message.) Not for nothing did Ted Geisel work in advertising before he created “The Cat in the Hat.” 

I know at least one child who became a vegetarian after seeing “Babe,” and I'm betting many of today's environmentalists started out as second-graders determined to bring back the Lorax. The recipe, if you'll recall, is simple: “Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water and feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax, and all of his friends, may come back.” How effective is “The Lorax”? I haven't read the book in more than 25 years, and I didn't need to look up that quote.

So, I was a little skeptical when Universal announced yesterday that it is making a new version of “The Lorax,” for release in 2012. At just 22 minutes, it's rough going for the second-grade set. How are they going to stretch it out to two hours? Lots of close ups of axes on trees? A lingering pan to the line of Humming Fish drearily trudging away? (And will the controversial Lake Eerie line that Seuss cut from the book but kept in the DVD make it into the new version?) For sure, there will be plenty of slapstick and some potty humor to soften the uncompromising message, but at bottom, it's not really a heartwarming comedy. Will the Once-ler become a Johnny Appleseed-type convert, sowing Truffula seeds the length of the Street of the Lifted Lorax?

All I have to say is: They'd better not mess with the ending.  

Friday, July 24, 2009

Unalloyed Awesomeness Department

Here's something to brighten your Friday: A new book by Arnold Lobel has been discovered that predates the "Frog and Toad" stories by about a decade. The LA Times says Frog and Toad aren't friends yet in "The Frogs and Toads All Sang," (HarperCollins, Ages 4-7) but the 10 poems and illustrations (colored by his daughter, Adrienne) already have many of the characteristics of the later stories. I say anything new by Lobel (especially amphibious in character) is cause for rejoicing. 

Book yes, but not for kids

Review of "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann up at the Monitor. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hard Times Book Club

My high school look didn't exactly spring from the pages of Vogue. Outside of the dreaded polyester school uniform (the kilt would melt if you tried to iron it), I had another one for weekends: jeans, T-shirt, a pair of black boots, and my dad's old Army jacket. (Picture Linda Cardellini circa “Freaks and Geeks” with frizzy hair and minimal coordination.) 

In other words, I never really got the whole “Gossip Girl” or “Blue Bloods” ethos. Nothing wrong with a little wish-fulfillment in your reading – after all, what are books if not escapes? But if shopaholic reading material is feeling a little shopworn, lo, these many months into the recession, here are some great heroines whose closets were also a little lacking in the Prada department.

For teens:
1.“I Capture the Castle,” by Dodie Smith. Cassandra's dad is a genius who has had writer's block so long that the family is mired in eccentric English poverty. This means they get a picturesque, leaky castle to live in, but little food. I didn't find this book until I was grown-up, but lordy, is it a good one. Please hand it to as many bookish teens as possible.

2.“Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott. OK, this one's a gimme, but I'll take any excuse to hang out with the March sisters. (Bonus points: “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” also by Alcott. Poor country girl helps her rich friends adjust to life after their dad loses everything in a business crash. Perhaps she could teach seminars.)

3.“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee. Tomboy grows up in the Great Depression with possibly the world's most perfect dad.

4.“Little Heathens,” Mildred Armstrong Kalish. This terrific memoir is not technically a young adult book, but my son had to listen to it as my mom and I read it out loud to each other on a road trip, so on the list it goes. Kalish's memories of growing up just about destitute on an Iowa farm under the care of her strict grandparents is full of life and free of self-pity. Plus, there are recipes for homemade marshmallows.

5.“Where the Lilies Bloom,” Bill and Vera Cleaver. After her daddy dies, 14-year-old Mary Call tries to keep her siblings together and her “cloudy-headed” big sister out of the clutches of their landlord. The North Carolina girl finds money by heading up into the mountains and harvesting medicinal plants. No matter how hard the recession has been, the Calls had it worse.

6.“Homecoming,” Cynthia Voigt. Another teenager trying to keep her family together – this time in the 1970s. Thirteen-year-old Dicey's mom abandons her kids in a mall parking lot, and Dicey has to get them to their great-aunt's house in Bridgeport, Conn., with only $7 and a few sack lunches. Voigt won a Newbery for the sequel, “Dicey's Song.”

7.“The Hunger Games,” Suzanne Collins. There are no hard times like post-Apocalyptic hard times. Katniss Everdeen, a sci-fi descendant of Mary Call, uses her woodscraft and hunting skills to keep her mother and sister alive in the poorest remnant of what used to be the United States. Then her sister gets chosen for a “Running Man” style reality show, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. The sequel comes out in September. I can't wait.

For younger readers:
8. “All of a Kind Family” series, Sydney Taylor. These charming books follow the story of five sisters living in New York's Lower East Side during the turn of the 20th century. The family doesn't have much money, but Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie seem never to have heard of the disease of boredom. To this day, I can't dust a room without thinking about their mama's game involving buttons and pennies (and wishing someone would liven up the chore for me). Only three are still in print, but I remember lugging home more than that from the library.

9. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” Mildred Taylor. This Newbery-winning story follows one harrowing year in the Logan family, as 10-year-old Cassie's family struggles to hold onto their land during the Great Depression in Mississippi.

10 a. “The Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Life with Ma and Pa and Half-pint wasn't exactly brimming with creature comforts, but I sure wanted to give pioneer living a try as a third-grader.

10 b.For a multicultural twist with a literary pedigree, try Louise Erdrich's native American answer to Wilder's much-read series, “The Birchbark House.”

11. “Ramona and her Father,” Beverly Cleary won a Newbery Honor in 1978 for this entry in the Ramona series. Ramona's dad loses his job and the family has to scramble to keep afloat (Ramona's dreams of winning a contest, notwithstanding). I can still remember poor, hungry Ramona, stuck in the neighbors' living room when her family is late to pick her up one evening, realizing that there wouldn't be an extra pork chop for her.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Save Susan Pevensie!

In honor of the movie, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” The Christian Science Monitor hauled out my old review of Book 6 over the weekend. After Book 3, these became exercises in speed-reading and sleep-deprivation. (I don't write for the NYT, so we didn't rate a review copy.) The basic drill was simple: Pick up a copy at a midnight party, read all night, and then write like crazy. Amazingly, the books are still enjoyable even when consumed in this manner, unlike a whole lot of college reading.

So, I don't tend to look back on my Harry Potter reviews and think, “Wow, I really nailed that one.” (Actually, I don't tend to go over old reviews period – too many new books out there beckoning, siren-like.) But one of my sleep-deprived asides  seems to have struck a chord with a few commenters, who don't feel I gave C.S. Lewis his due.

Here's the thing: Growing up, I loved “The Chronicles of Narnia.” To this day, all I have to do is say, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and I get a similar feeling of peace as the magic words, “The Wind in the Willows” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But as a fourth-grader reading “The Last Battle,” I was absolutely aghast when I realized that Susan didn't get to come back to Narnia. (It may be the only instance when my reaction to hearing that someone didn't die in an accident is shocked horror.) As I kept reading, I was aghast for other reasons: What do you mean you're packing up Narnia and shutting the place down? But what if I finally make it to England and get a chance to go through all the cupboards? (I held on to my dreams a little longer than most kids.)

Now some people have argued that Susan never had the character Lucy did, and was just a vain, shallow creature who didn't deserve any magical adventures. But take Eustace Scrubb, whom Lewis introduced in “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” as “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Or Edmund, who sold out his family for candy that didn't even have chocolate as an ingredient? They were transformed into heroes by their experiences in Narnia. Why didn't Susan rate a similar makeover, my inner fourth-grader howls. (My inner fourth-grader is all about injustice.) Lots of teenage girls get silly about looks and makeup – usually they grow out of it. Doesn't she even get a chance?

And what about the events of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”? Susan and Lucy were both witnesses to Aslan's sacrifice and resurrection. Wouldn't that experience have unalterably changed Susan? (I still say yes, for the record.) To say nothing of ruling in Narnia for all those years (although granted, she wasn't always the wisest of rulers. See “The Horse and His Boy.”) And besides, Lewis promised: “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”