Bookbyte Blog

Archive for the ‘Books and Publishing’ Category

Neil Gaiman’s Brilliant Career Advice

Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech to the graduates of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, embedded above, is, much like his books, charming, enjoyable, and full of lots of legitimately good insight. Listen to the whole thing if you’ve got the time, but if not, at least read the best part, transcribed below. (In the clip, the below quote begins at 14:06.)

You get work however you get work. But people keep working, in a freelance world — and more and more of today’s world is freelance — because their work is good, and because they’re easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good and they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

Maurice Sendak and the Importance of Being Scared


Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and a bunch of other books that likely played an important role in your childhood, passed away yesterday at the age of 83.

Sendak’s public persona had a bit of resurgence in his 80s. Last year, he released a new book, Bumble-Ardy, and gave this absolutely hilarious two-part interview on The Colbert Report. In 2009, when the Spike Jonze-directed film version of Where the Wild Things Are was released, a Newsweek reporter asked Sendak what he would tell parents who thought the film adaptation was too scary. Sendak told these theoretical parents to go to hell. (Here’s the interview. The whole thing is worth reading.)

Sendak has long been a proponent of the idea that children are much more capable of handling complex and dark themes then they get credit for. When he won a Caldecott in 1964, his speech defended the importance of encouraging fantasy among children — “that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction.” Sendak’s intent was never to traumatize children, just to create a story where fears, repressions, and insecurities feel just as authentic as the real world but are made manageable in the restraints of fiction.

That’s a viewpoint I’ve always appreciated, even as I generally see the world tilt in the opposite direction. I grew up in the early ‘90s, so one of my favorite cartoons (and still one of all-time my favorite shows) is Batman: The Animated Series. One of the amazing things about that show, watching it today, is seeing how the show was able to fit within the network’s strict standards for kids’ shows while never holding back on very mature themes. For example, you won’t see a drop of blood, but you will see Bruce Wayne have a nightmare about his parents’ death. In one episode, Batman arrives too late to a police shootout that ends with Commissioner Gordon being badly wounded. Gordon is placed in intensive care and Batman returns to his hideout, where he smashes computers, overturns desks, and breaks equipment. He throws a tantrum, basically. And then he guiltily sulks for the rest of the episode. As a kid, I didn’t just see the hero always do the right thing (he’s back to his crime-fighting ways by the end), but I got to see him feel universal emotions like guilt, regret, frustration, and inadequacy. Those feelings aren’t just universal: they appear almost as soon as we begin to understand the world around us.

As a kid, it’s always incredibly frustrating when you can actively see the world trying to coddle you, even if you don’t want it. When I was very young, all playgrounds were wood and metal. By the time I was around 8, they all started to turn plastic. In many places, they even replaced the wood chips on the ground with a spongy and springy floor. As an 8-year old, I hated it. I couldn’t put it in words then, but I was simply angry that the world was removing the manageable danger of cuts, bruises, and splinters.

Even as adults, we still crave manageable danger. It’s the reason we go rock climbing and river rafting. It’s the reason we travel to other countries without knowing the language. And it’s the reason we seek out fiction that will give us an emotional reaction — whether it’s a scary movie, a heartbreaking book, or a TV show that gets laughs from uncomfortable and unexpected situations.

Sendak understood that, and built a career around that. While just about every publication has released their own posthumous tribute focusing on his “it’s OK to be scared” mentality, many of them seem to overlook just how gently he handled real emotions. After all, Where the Wild Things Are ends with Max returning home to eat his mother’s still-hot soup. Despite the wildness of Max’s adventures, in the end, his mother’s love wins out. An exciting story and a comforting conclusion — that’s a good formula for any story, not just one for kids.

So rest in peace, Maurice Sendak. You will be missed.

Racism, The Hunger Games, and Bad Reading Comprehension

Rue from the Hunger Games


I’m sure by now many of you have already heard about the Tumblr page “Hunger Games Tweets.” It’s a collection of tweets by people griping about the casting of a character named Rue. You see, the film cast 13-year old actress Amandla Stenberg (see above). The tweeters targeted by the Tumblr page bemoaned the fact that the film version of Rue just had to be black. Which is confusing, because in the book she is black, in no uncertain terms. She’s described as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” and later, when the reader is introduced to another character named Thresh, we’re told that he “has the same dark skin as Rue.”

Plenty of whatever the online equivalent of ink is has been spent on this story — what it says about race in America, connecting it to Trayvon Martin’s tragic murder, etc. — but I want to focus a little bit more on what the Tumblr creator’s intent was. His blog has said, essentially, that the main problem is not poor reading comprehension. Rather, it’s that readers naturally assume that Rue, a portrait of doe-eyed innocence, must have pale white skin.

For the sake of this column, we’re going to ignore the insane, aggressively racist tweets. That bigoted nonsense isn’t worth anyone’s time. The more interesting ones are subtler. A number of the tweets say that Rue “should have” looked like some other literary characters, like Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood or The Lovely BonesSusie Salmon. Notice the theme? Characters who represent sweetness, naiveté, and innocence (or innocent victimhood) are automatically assigned long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and very pale skin.

If you deconstruct this story even further, it asks interesting questions about how we read and how we imagine. When we’re not prompted with details, how do we fill in the blanks? If a story just begins in media res, with no description of the narrator, what do you assume he or she looks like? Do you picture yourself? Do you picture an “average” person? What does “average” mean? Is it, as this Destructoid article pointed out while criticizing modern video games, a middle-aged white man with brown hair and stubble? Or do just keep you mind blank about the specifics until some details can paint a fuller picture?

I’m not suggesting that defaulting to a white male protagonist is racist and sexist. But I do think it’s worth reflecting upon where our mental casting assumptions come from. It’s the classic chicken-or-the-egg question. Are fictional characters assigned certain racial archetypes because that’s what the audience assumes, or does the audience assume certain racial archetypes because that’s what their fictional characters have always looked like?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 58 other followers