Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Afrogeek Kids Book Recs

Every time I think about possible regular features for this blog, "Book Updates" always makes the short list.  I imagine regular posts about what I'm reading, with witty commentary that shows off well my really expensive literary education.

Alas, I spend most of my time reading for class (which means skimming books I've read dozens of times before or reading student writing), reading for work (right now, lots of, mostly, random articles and essays on romance novels), or reading to children (we're making our way through the Lemony Snicket books, which I am finding deeply disturbing).

The girls, however, are reading up a storm lately.  Frances, our nine-year old 4th grader, is reading NERDS.  Here's the Amazon description:

Combining all the excitement of international espionage and all the awkwardness of elementary school, NERDS, featuring a group of unpopular students who run a spy network from inside their school, hits the mark. With the help of cutting-edge science, their nerdy qualities are enhanced and transformed into incredible abilities! They battle the Hyena, a former junior beauty pageant contestant turned assassin, and an array of James Bond–style villains, each with an evil plan more diabolical and more ridiculous than the last.

The hysterical giggles from her room go on well past bedtime when's she reading this book.

Cate, our three-year old pre-schooler, in the last month has started reading independently.  Her favorite thing to read lately, besides anything with My Little Pony on it, is Once Upon a Time, The End (Asleep in 60 Seconds).  It's Amazon description:

Here's a fresh approach to fractured fairy tales: take one small child's insatiable demand for "just one more story" and add a sleepy parent's wish to get the bedtime ritual over with as quickly as possible. The result is this collection of eight condensed folktales. For example, Goldilocks and the Bears begins, "There were some bears;/It doesn't really matter how many./There was a bunch./Let's get to the point" and ends, "When the bears came back,/They found her asleep./She woke up, screamed, and ran home/So she could sleep in her own bed./Just like you."  The sometimes sly, sometimes outrageous, sometimes simply silly humor will go over the heads of most preschoolers, but it's right on target for their older siblings (and tired parents, of course)

That last part isn't true of our pre-schooler.  Cate seems to take great delight in the father's insistence that his kid go to sleep.  She's also really enjoying Thelonious Monster's Ski-High Fly Pie.

The tune for I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is likely to echo in children's minds as they listen to the words of Thelonius Monster's Sky-High Fly Pie, in which an earnest monster chef intends to swallow hundreds and thousands of succulent flies. After obtaining some helpful hints from a spider via e-mail, Thelonius creates a sticky crust, gathers flies, attaches them to the crust, and invites eleventeen ravenous monsters for dessert. The resulting creation is a thing of beauty: the flies hum, they sparkle, they play orchestral music. And, alas, they fly away. Thelonius has forgotten to bake the pie, and off it goes.

The picture of the flies flying off with a gooey pie stuck to all their little feet apparently never fails to be funny.
One day soon I'll get to finish Sag Harbor, or Asterios Polyp, or Devil in the White City.  But not today.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Remembering Dr. Pat

Dr. Patricia Rickels was the director of the Honors Program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (where I was an undergraduate). She wore mumuus to work everyday because she came to the conclusion sometime in the 1970s that deciding what to wear every day got in the way of more important decisions. She was the much-rumored inspiration for Myrna Minkoff, the windmill-tilting, Negro-loving minx in John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces (much rumored among the faculty at UL who knew Toole from LSU and UL). She befriended and worked on behalf of black people in the South at a time when nice white women never dreamed of such things--Dr. Pat thought being a nice white woman was wildly overrated.

Almost all of my good memories of UL are Dr. Pat related. She co-taught my favorite class, an honors seminar called Culture of Man. The library was our textbook and the course content was whatever caught our fancy. We went to plays and festivals, on road trips to Houston and New Orleans, all of free of charge, all made possible through some generous donation Dr. Pat bullied someone into giving. (I suspect she funded a lot of our class activities herself). I spent many an afternoon in the honors program offices, eating the endless free popcorn and hanging Mardi Gras beads on Baloo, the real, life-sized stuffed bear that, inexplicably, lived in those offices.

Dr. Pat was my advisor, as she was for all honors students who were English majors. She invented a minor for me (interdisciplinary humanities) because I couldn't decide between French and philosophy and history. She convinced me to stay in college an extra semester so that I could finish the requirements for an honors baccalaureate degree. "You would be the first black woman to to do it," she would say to me *every single time* she saw me, for months. "Somebody has to be the first. Why shouldn't it be you?"

She died peacefully in her home last week, having retired after 50 years of service at UL. She was a shameless flirt, an unapologetic liberal, an inspirational teacher, and a friend. Brian and I will miss her very much.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Teaching Comics Update

After a rock start (rockiness which, I allow, was primarily in my head), my comic book course is swimming along. I knew it would all be okay the day when one student asserted, and several more agreed, that because comics have pictures you don't have to interpret them as much as you would, say, a Shakespeare play. (Ah, Shakespeare, the perennial go-to guy whenever the argument for the ornerous-nous of close reading needs to be made.) I knew then, whatever deficiencies I might have in comic scholarship (again, I'll grant those deficiencies are probably mostly imagined) I more than make up for in my ability to read a text well. Plus, I like to think that I've also gotten pretty good at helping students learn to read well.

The first book we read was Eisner's Contract With God and the conversation, over two class periods, was *amazing.* There was actual debate among students about the meaning of the repitition of of the streelight lamp imagery throughout the four stories, discussion of Einser's formal control as evidenced in his varied use of panel size and placement, a weighty discussion about the possibility/impossibility of a contract with God--it was great.

We've moved on now to superheroes. Before reading Dark Knight Returns we read a selection from Peter Coogan's Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre in which he argues that a superhero is defined by his/her selfless, prosocial, never-ending mission; superpowers or superior abilities that set him/her apart from ordinary humans; and a secret identity that is separate from and in contrast to their supehero identity and an iconic costume that is emblematic of that identity. Finally, such a person appears in superhero stories. If such a person appears in another genre, like horror, they are not superheroes.

In this excerpt he gave a very detailed argument for why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not a superhero. Apparently those are fighting words. Several students made very impassioned arguments for Buffy's superhero status, with a few votes thrown in for Sam and Dean, the brothers on Supernatural. The result was a lively discussion about genre, the importance, or lack thereof, of genre distinctions, the difference between superheros and antiheroes, and whether a Norse god (namely, Thor) really cares enough about humanity to have a prosocial mission.

Tomorrow is our first day with Dark Knight. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Disney Buys Marvel--Good for Girls?

Disney has purchased Marvel and Bitch magazine is pondering the effect of this purchase on girls. I am too. Like my students I want to know what this purchase means for grittier Marvel fare like (like Deadpool and Punisher) and like some comics scholars I'm pondering the challenges and opportunties that come from being a part of a large (to say the least) corporation like Disney. But as the mother of two girls who consume a lot of Disney media (the obsession with the Jonas Brothers grows daily; "Squirrels in My Pants" is on constant YouTube loop), I do wonder what this might mean for them.

People seem to want to make a stark divide between girls' and boys' entertainment and read this purchase as Disney's way of regaining market share with boys, market share they've given up by focusing on girls' enterntainment like Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers. But what do we do with a girl who likes both Hannah Montana and superheroes? What if Disney, because they're already so tapped into the girl market, recognizes the possibility that girls can like fairies and princesses and rock stars with double lives at the exact same time as they like Spider-man and Ms. Marvel and Elektra?

Obviously I don't think Disney is going to become a bastion of progressive feminism any time soon, and I fully recognize that it is a corporation that exists to sell my children stuff, but I'm also not convinced that the stuff it sells my kid is all bad or problematic. (Which calls to mind thoughts on The Frog Princess, which I will share another day.) This is all to say I think there's great potential in this Marvel/Disney merger, potential that Disney, because it may ultimately serve their bottom line, may very well tap into.