Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Author’s Note: six years ago now, I posted an article on my old site (teachertrenches.blogspot.com) about the connections between the film Field of Dreams and the J. D. Salinger novel Catcher in the Rye.  And since the movie came out twenty-five years ago this summer, I thought I would re-post it.  Hey, who’s not a fan of re-cycling, right?

By the way, my wife Sheri now has a sister blog, Hearing God’s Whisper.  She just started it, but she already has some really great content. I’m really proud of her. You can access it here.   

Finally, just today, I have a piece running on an awesome site called LikeTotally80s. The article celebrates the song “The End of the Innocence,” which– like Field of Dreams– came out in the summer 1989.   You can check out the piece here

* Whew *… OK, enjoy…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

So what does Field of Dreams, a 1989 film about spectral baseball players in an Iowa cornfield have to do with The Catcher in the Rye, a classic novel about a depressed 1950s teenager wandering through New York? I’m glad you asked!

First off, the most obvious connection: for the three of you out there in Internet-land who may not know this,…

  • Field of Dreams, the film, is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.
  • In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella goes to Boston to find a reclusive novelist named Terrence Mann.
  • In the novel Shoeless Joe, Ray Kinsella goes to New Hampshire to find a reclusive novelist named J. D. Salinger.

That’s right: Terrence Mann is loosely-based on J. D. Salinger. And I say “loosely-based,” because Salinger is not a large, black man with a voice that sounds suspiciously like Mufasa. But like Terrence Mann, both the real-life J. D. Salinger and the character J. D. Salinger from the novel Shoeless Joe are hermits who stopped writing (or at least, stopped publishing their writing) at the peaks of their careers.

Incidentally, you really can’t teach Catcher without talking about Salinger’s biography; over the years, it seems more people are more interested in what Salinger hasn’t written in the past forty years than anything he’s ever has actually written. (You can find out more on Salinger’s perculiar reclusiveness in the documentary, J. D. Salinger Does Not Want to Talk.) And the Terrence Mann character provides a way to segue into Salinger’s infamous reclusiveness.

Beyond the Mann-Salinger connection, the film shares some thematic connections withCatcher. You can find the real biggie in Terrence Mann’s famous climactic speech. (Come on: You know the words– say it along with us!)

“People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

The whole speech, and especially the parts I italicized, is about the biggest dream of them all: regaining childhood innocence. And Ray’s field makes that impossibility possible. That’s why those thousands of cars show up at the end: to get back to a time when there were no mortgages, no gambling scandals, no fallen heroes. That’s childhood, essentially.

Holden desperately wants a place like Ray’s field. He wants to be the “catcher in the rye,” the guardian who keeps kids from losing their innocence, from falling from grace. He knows it can’t happen in real life, but he wants it anyway. (Of course, a place like Ray’s field can happen in the movies– an artform which Holden claims to hate. If Holden actually saw Field of Dreams, he’d probably dismiss it as being “corny” or “phony.” Or at least, he’d say those things, but who knows what he’d really feel deep down? )

Holden’s desire to be a “catcher in the rye” relates to his fundamental fear of change. This seems odd to say, since he has been to four different high schools, but Holden can’t deal with change and flux. This relates to one of the most important and most overlooked symbol in the book, for my money– just as significant as the “catcher in the rye” symbol: the “big glass cases,” which Holden talks about at the end of Chapter 16.

Holden marvels at how the “big glass cases” you find at museums preserve things: they keep objects and moments frozen in time. “Certain things they should stay the way they are,” Holden says. “You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

Holden could probably really use a place like Ray’s ballfield, a place where time stands still, where the flux of life is held in stasis. Basically, the Iowa ballfield is the equivalent of Holden’s “big glass case.”

Of course, if Holden heard a voice telling him to build a baseball field, he would never do it. For one thing, building the field takes work; Holden won’t even pick up the phone to call Jane Gallagher. In addition, Holden, despite all his posturing, is too concerned with what everyone else thinks about him. (Remember, in the movie, all the locals think Ray Kinsella’s crazy, the “biggest horse’s ass in three counties.”)

Finally, Holden is too self-absorbed to do something to help someone else. And that’s really what the building of the field was for Ray. Just like he said to Shoeless Joe near the end of the film, “I never once asked what’s in it for me.” And his selflessness allowed Ray to realize his dream of playing catch with his dad. Holden’s a lot of things, but you’d never really call him selfless.

There are other smaller connections too (Allie’s baseball mitt with the poems on it, the name “Richard Kinsella” appears in Catcher), but the connections I detailed above get to the heart of both texts. Showing the movie in conjunction with the novel highlights the themes in both texts; plus, it’s an excuse to show a timeless classic in class. And maybe, if you get “meta” with me for a moment, that timelessness can be a connection in itself.

Serendipity time: this past weekend, I was watching the Red Sox-Orioles game, and Kevin Costner was in the booth with Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy. (Some of Field of Dreams, remember, was shot at Fenway.) And Costner was saying that, while making millions at the box office is nice, he’s more interested in making movies that stand tghe test of time. (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist of it.)

Well, he may not have passed the “test of time” with Dragonfly, but he definitely did with Field of Dreams. The film has aged well– so well, in fact, that it doesn’t age. And in that sense, the film Field of Dreams is like the “field of dreams” it showcases. Maybe Holden’s idea of the “big glass case” is not so impossible after all.


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SuperbowlSince today is the Super Bowl, and since football is the only pro-sports organization (to my knowledge)  that has a team named after a work of literature– i.e. the Baltimore Ravens, named after the Edgar Allan Poe poem– we thought we could re-post our “football in literature” quiz form last year… with a few additions. (We had fifteen questions last year, but now, we’ve added five more, plus a bonus.)

Feel free to bring these questions to whatever party you’re attending this evening and quiz your friends during one of the game’s slower moments.  And yes, we recognize it will have to be a pretty lame party if you have to resort to asking literary questions.  (I know we made that same joke last year.)

  1. What American novel features a neighbor named Roberta (formerly Robert) Muldoon, a transsexual former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles?
  2. In William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, a young schoolteacher named Labove plays college football to pay for his education, even though he’s not crazy about the game.  (Labove sends home cleats to the members of his family who can’t afford shoes, which is very sweet; on the other hand, he also falls in love with an eleven-year-old girl named Eula– definitely not sweet.)  For what university does Labove play football?
  3. In Death of a Salesman, what is the name of Willy Loman’s oldest son, the star football player who never graduated from high school?
  4. And where was this character supposed to go to college?  (He threw into the furnace his sneakers imprinted with the name of the school.)
  5. What novel takes place during World War II at the Devon School, where students invent a game named blitzball, a combination of rugby and football?
  6. This young-adult novel which features a character named Darry, the captain of his high school’s football team who could have gone to college on a football scholarship; however, after the death of his parents,  he gave up on his dream to take care of his brothers, one of whom is named Ponyboy. What is this novel?
  7. Who is the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Native American ex-football player who now pretends to be a deaf-mute?
  8. Which Tennessee Williams play features a former professional football player named Brick, whose possible romantic feelings for his former teammate Skipper may be the source of his current alcoholism?
  9.  What is the name of the H.G. Bissinger non-fiction book about the Permian High School football team (from Odessa, Texas), which was the basis of a movie (2004) and a TV show (2006-2011)?
  10. In the 1986 novel and the 1994 film version of Forrest Gump, Forrest earns a scholarship to play football for what university?  (Big Hint: In 2002, Winston Groom– the author of the novel Forrest Gump— wrote a book about this school’s football program, entitled The Crimson Tide.)
  11. I am an American author who played high school football and, during World War I, drove an ambulance in Italy for the American Red Cross.   I later drew on these experiences when I created Nick Adams, a former football player and World War I soldier, who is the protagonist of more than twenty short stories.   Who am I?
  12.  “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.  When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football again were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.” These two sentences begin which beloved American novel?
  13.  The film Stand By Me features John Cusack as Dennis, a star high school football player whose death haunts his younger brother Gordie.  On what Stephen King short story is Stand By Me based?
  14. What 1999 coming-of-age young adult novel features an introverted narrator named Charlie and a closeted gay football player named Patrick?
  15.  On the Road author Jack Kerouac had a scholarship to play football for an Ivy League university, but after cracking his tibia and squabbling constantly with the coach over his lack of playing time, he dropped out of college completely.  Which university was it—Brown, Columbia, or Princeton?
  16. In The Great Gatsby, what is the name of Daisy’s husband, “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football” at Yale?
  17. I am the sixteen-year-old male narrator of a great American novel.  My story begins as I am standing all alone on Thomsen Hill, next to a Revolutionary War cannon, as my school Pencey Prep’s football team plays Saxon Hall.  I am just about the only one not at the game—except for the kid who lives next door to me, an acne-ridden senior named Ackley.  Who am I?
  18. What little-known (and rightly so) 1986 Robin Williams/ Kurt Russell film about a man who wants to replay an ill-fated football from high school takes its title from the first line of a Dickens novel?  (The question is asking for the name of the movie.)
  19. Which Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, famous for his “Rabbit” novels, has written a short story called “In Football Season”?
  20.  Which Robert Cormier young adult novel opens with high school freshman named Jerry Renault throwing up after trying out for the football team?Universoi
  21. BONUS:
    1. As a follow-up to Question #8, about the Tennessee Williams play:  what was the name of Brick and Skipper’s team? (Hint: it’s fictional.)


  1. John Irving’s The World According to Garp
  2. University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
  3. Biff Loman
  4. University of Virginia
  5. A Separate Peace
  6. The Outsiders
  7. Chief Bromden
  8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  9. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream
  10. University of Alabama
  11. Ernest Hemingway
  12. To Kill a Mockingbird
  13. “The Body”
  14. Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  15. Columbia
  16. Tom Buchanan
  17. Holden Caulfield
  18. The Best of Times
  19. John Updike
  20. The Chocolate War
  21. BONUS: Dixie Stars

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Obviously, Martin Luther King has done so much for humanity.  But how often do we take the time to celebrate what MLK has done for that curious subset of humanity, high school English teachers?MLK

I have been teaching English for almost eighteen years now, and for each one of those years, I have read something by MLK in at least one of my classes.  His name and works always find a way into the classroom.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll talk about two examples:

(1) If you want to teach argument, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”(1963)  is the quintessential piece.  Appeals to logic and reason (or what we call “logos” in the biz), appeals to emotion (or “pathos”), appeals to his own character (or “ethos”)– he’s got all the bases covered.  I could go into detail about how he does this, but that’s another post.

For now, I want to zoom in on a particular passage from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one that is just two sentences long:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n*****,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

As always with King, it’s not just what he’s saying here but how he’s saying it.  Strictly from a rhetorical standpoint, his passage is remarkable to me, for several reasons.  First, he’s worked in some great metaphors in there– e.g. “stinging darts of segregation” and “airtight cage of poverty” and “ominous clouds of inferiority.”

Next, it’s an excellent example of the rhetorical device known as anaphora– the repetition of a word or phrase and the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences.  So, in this case, we have a series of dependent clauses beginning with “when.”  The repetition of “when” lends some rhythm and unity to the piece.

Speaking of the dependent clauses, did you notice how the “when” clauses get piled on and piled on?  At the end, the reader is saying, “Whoa!  That IS a lot!”  To me, this is an example of how the form of this passage mirrors the content;  the repetition of the clauses underscores the overwhelming burdens African-Americans have to carry.

Finally, this passage is a perfect way to teach the usefulness of the periodic sentence– which is a sentence that withholds the main subject and main verb until the end.  In this case, we have dependent clause after dependent clause (ten, by my count), until finally, we get to the main subject (“you”) and main verb (will understand”).  Again, this is the form mirroring the content: the passage is about how long the African-American community has had to wait for change to occur, so now, as readers, we have to “wait” until the end of the sentence to see the main subject and verb.  So brilliant! (King, I mean… he’s the brilliant one, not me…)

(2) MLK also ties in perfectly with that high school staple Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960). Now, even someone reading this book for the first time can see that Atticus Finch, in his quest for racial equality and his commitment to nonviolence, shares a lot in common with Martin Luther King.  What’s cool is that King himself saw this connection.  In fact, King actually makes an allusion to Atticus in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait.

The Atticus reference occurs in a chapter called “The Sword That Heals,” which is itself part of a metaphor King uses to describe “the just and powerful weapon” of nonviolence.  Reverend King alludes to a moment in Mockingbird when Atticus goes to the local jail to protect his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, from a mob that wanted to lynch him.   The scene gets tense very fast, with the men telling Atticus to get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Suddenly, Atticus’ daughter Scout– blissfully innocent as always– comes out of the shadows and recognizes the leader of the gang; he’s the father of one of the boys in her class.   When she calls the man, Mr. Cunningham, by name, the mood changes; it’s as if just the simple act of hearing his name awakens Mr. Cunningham to his potential actions, even shames him.  The gang disperses, and the crisis is averted.  Later, Atticus– ever the wise sage– says the incident reinforces the fact that “a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they are still human.”

That’s the incident in Mockingbird.  Here’s what King had to say about it in Why We Can’t Wait:

“We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice.  It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.

“Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force.  I am reminded of the popular and widely respected novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird.  Atticus Finch, a white southern lawyer, confronts a group of his neighbors who have become a lynch-crazy mob, seeking the life of his Negro client. Finch, armed with nothing more lethal than a lawbook, disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage, aided by his small daughter, who, innocently calling the would-be lynchers by name, reminds then that they are individual men, not a pack of beasts.

“To the Negro of 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice.”

I haven’t taught Mockingbird in a decade, but I’d encourage anyone who does teach the book to use this connection.  Not only does it allow for a discussion about the similarities of Atticus Finch and Martin Luther King, but it also drives home a larger point: that the literature we read in class does not exist in a vacuum.  Indeed, the ideas in these texts have real-life implications. Students may not always believe this, but it’s true.



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With the year coming to a close, this seemed as good as time as any to talk about endings.

Endings come in all stripes.  You’ve got your happy endings and your sad endings, your wrapped-up-with-a-neat-little-bow endings and your open-ended endings (some of which are so open-ended that they are actually non-endings—see Catching Fire or any Second Acts).

Then there are the Surprise Endings, which can run anywhere from “What a swerve” (The Usual Suspects) to “What a crock!” (cop-outs such as “And then I woke up”).

No matter the medium—novel, movie, TV show, essay—a Great Ending is absolutely essential to a work of art. In fact, in some cases, a really, really Great Ending can redeem an otherwise mediocre text—if only because addled people like me can’t remember anything beyond the previous five minutes.

Think of it as the literary equivalent of a walk-off homerun victory:  an exciting ten seconds at the end of a game can help fans forgive the torturous tedium of the previous eight-and-two-thirds innings.

But writing that Great Ending is tough, even for published authors—a truth that was reinforced for me with the three books I read last summer.  (I’ve actually disclosed this before, but the irony of being an English teacher is that we’re so busy reading student essays that we never get to read—you know—books and stuff until the summer.)

The first book from my summer reading list: John Green’s Paper Towns, which I read because… well, reading John Green now seems required by law.  So last June, I dutifully went to the library, picked up Paper Towns (the only Green book that had not been checked out)… and was immediately hooked.paper towns

And not just because of the plot, which involves the search for a high school runaway, the beautiful and mysterious Margo Roth Spiegelman.  What drew me in the most was the narrator, a seventeen-year-old boy named Quentin, who has a sweet-if-not-slightly-obsessive crush on Margo.  Quentin is awesome, which I know is narcissistic for me to say—mainly because he reminds me a lot of me when I was seventeen.  Like Quentin, the seventeen-year-old version of me was a generally witty, optimistic guy, with a band of wacky yet devoted friends and a tendency to fall for girls who would inevitably bring him heartache.  And, most of all, Quentin and I are both English class wizards/ nerds.

I found this book funny and insightful and touching and infuriating.   I loved everything about it—well, mostly everything.  I have to say (Non-Spoiler Alert), I found the ending… shall we say, slightly protracted.

In my opinion, Green took a few more pages than necessary to get to the climax.  Don’t get me wrong: I liked those pages.  Those pages were filled with good, funny stuff.  But I wanted to get to the ending; I wanted to see how Green was going to resolve all the issues he raised.  So, great book, just maybe it could have been trimmed by maybe ten pages.

Next up:  The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle’s fascinating exploration of the Tortilla Curtaindestructive effects of xenophobia and poverty in modern-day California.   The book follows the parallel lives of two men: Delaney Mossbacher, a white nature writer who lives with his family in the most gated of gated communities; and Candido Rincon, an illegal Mexican immigrant who is desperately trying to build a new life for himself and his pregnant wife, the not-so-ironically named America.

In the very first chapter, Delaney accidentally hits Candido with his car and, instead of taking him to the hospital, Delaney gives him $20. The two men go off in separate directions, but their lives intertwine in curious ways throughout the novel.

One of my best friends recommended this book to me six years ago, and I just got around to it this summer. (See what I mean about English teachers never having time to read?)  But it was worth the wait: fascinating read, filled with sentences that literally angered me, because I knew that I would never be able to write like that.

But I did have a teeny-tiny problem with the ending—just the opposite problem I had with Paper Towns.  This time, I thought the ending came on too abruptly.  To me, Boyle built up and built up this incredible climactic moment, only to cut everything off prematurely.  I expected to turn the final page (or flip the screen, since I read this on iBooks) and find an epilogue, something that explains what happened to all of the characters.  Nope.

This isn’t even a critique or a regret, because I truly enjoyed 99% of Tortilla Curtain, and I recommend it highly.  But for me, five more pages of epilogue would have really made a difference.

I don’t really have too much to say about the third book, Dan Elish’s Born Too Short, the story of an 8th-grade shrimp of a kid named Matt whose best friend Keith is the best looking, most athletic, most talented kid in the whole school.  So one night, the in the presence of creepy (and possibly enchanted?) homeless man, Matt wishes bad tidings on his best friend, which seems to trigger a deluge of misfortune to descend on poor Keith.

Now, that sounds fun enough, but I had two problems with the story:

(1) Pick a genre, already!  Was the book realistic or fantasy?  Did Matt, with the help of the mysterious homeless man, somehow magically cause bad luck to befall his friend?  It’s never clear.  Aaauuggghhh!

(2)  Where’s the ending?  Perhaps the “can’t decide on a genre” problem had something to do with it, but to me, nothing gets resolved in this book.  The author raises some potentially interesting ideas but never takes them to any sort of logical (or even illogical) conclusion.  Literally, my son (who also read it this summer) got to the end and said, out loud, “What? That’s it???”

When thinking about endings, I was reminded of a decree one of my fellow teachers issued to his students many years ago:  no more conclusions. No, he didn’t want them to write the Never-Ending Essay.  But he no longer required concluding paragraphs—mostly because their conclusions were usually redundant and toothless and entirely unnecessary.

Now, in many ways, I didn’t agree with this policy.  After all, often times, I think students don’t even figure out what they’re trying to say until their last paragraph.  And as I suggested earlier, a really good concluding paragraph can absolutely save an essay.

On the other hand, I could see where my colleague was coming from.  After all, I’ve read many, many essays with conclusions that are really just recycled intros; the student-writers obviously just copied their intros and just sort of “synonymized” the words.  These conclusions don’t add anything new to the piece, so really what’s the point?

And I’m not necessarily sure I can fault high schoolers for not being able to craft great conclusions.  So many factors go into an essay that I know I rarely spend a lot of time talking about strategies for conclusions; in a sadly fitting way, it’s the last thing on my list.

Besides, as I said earlier, writing endings is tough!  For example, ever since I started writing this entry, the knowledge that I had to write a really good ending has been looming over me.  I mean, this is a piece about endings, after all; I really have to bring it home!  Should I offer some pithy advice about crafting endings?  Should I give examples of endings I’ve liked?  Should I circle back to some idea or clever line I’ve mentioned before and then put a different spin on it?  So many possibilities… I just can’t decide…

And then I woke up.

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School’s out for the summer! This glorious time of year ushers in one of my favorite things… summer reading. While taking my boys to the library last week to pick out some books for our local library’s Summer Reading Challenge, I thought about some of my favorite books from childhood.

Anne Green Gables
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
In Anne I found a true “kindred spirit.” Someone who saw the world through the same romantic lens that I did. Her adventures were amusing, heartwarming, and just plain fun. And as an added bonus: Gilbert Blythe – my first fictional crush.

wolves willoughby

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Just like the cover suggests, this was the probably the first “dark” story I read as a child. I was enthralled by every page: the faraway setting, the dangerous storyline, and the put-upon heroines—Bonnie and Sylvia—trying to escape the prison-like orphanage they were sent to by the cruel Miss Slighcarp.

Henry Reed

Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service by Keith Robertson
My favorite in the Henry Reed series, Henry and his friend, Midge, start up their own babysitting business. Pure fun and wackiness.

Katie John

Katie John by Mary Calhoun
Ten-year-old tomboy Katie John moves from California to Missouri when her Great Aunt Emily dies and leaves her parents a huge, rambling house in the country. I loved being taken along on the adventures as Katie John made friends, explored the countryside, and got into lots and lots of trouble.

Secret Language

The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom
Nordstrom edited classic children’s books like Charlotte’s Web, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Where the Wild Things Are. I loved her sweet story about two girls at boarding school who invent their own secret language. As a child of a much less glamorous public school, it inspired me to create my own secret language. I still remember it to this day. Meest efin puoya anack lerugifo itil utuom.

Secret Garden

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
As an adult my favorite stories are always the ones in which the main character is transformed in some way. This is probably the first transformation I had the pleasure to discover. (And as I kid, I think I loved any book with the word “secret” in the title.) After her parents’ death, Mary Lennox leaves her home in India to live with her uncle in a dark and brooding English manor. Just as Mary’s secret garden blooms with the help of some great friends, Mary herself blooms with new life and spirit.

Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Even though she wasn’t a typical, lovable character, there was something in Harriet that I could connect with. She was real and honest, and she lived her life through observations and written words. A true introvert, just like me.

100 pounds popcorn

100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz
Andy and his sister find a 100-pound bag of popping corn and start up their own business, only to find it’s not as simple as it seems. I loved seeing these industrious kids solve problem after problem in their quest to be entrepreneurs.

Ramona the Pest

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
Beverly Cleary captures the essence of childhood with humor, heart, and a delightfully spunky main character.

westing game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
I wrote about this book in our very first blog post. I still contend that it’s one of the most clever books ever written. I re-read it every year.

There are many, many books I’m leaving off this list… but these are some that came immediately to mind when thinking back over youthful summer’s spent lost in books.

What favorites do you remember from childhood?

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So, the new film version of The Great Gatsby just opened.  And Mark is currently teaching Fitzgerald’s novel in his AP class.  And this is a blog devoted to fiction. Sounds like a readymade excuse for a Great Gatsby post!  (Or two!  Or three!)  And what better place to start than the title?

Now, we mentioned this in a previous post (but don’t click back just yet!  We’re having a quiz in a moment!), but it bears repeating:  Fitzgerald was no fan of the title The Great Gatsby. “The title is only fair,” he is credited with saying, “rather bad than good.”  Instead, Fitzgerald has a bunch of other titles he was considering.  Try to guess which of the following were actual possible titles for The Great Gatsby:Gatsby Logo 1

  1. On the Road to West Egg
  2. First Impressions
  3. Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night
  4. The High-Bouncing Lover
  5. Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires
  6. They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen
  7.  Under the Red, White, and Blue
  8. They Who Got Shot

Of those winners listed above, only 1, 4, 5, and 7 were actual titles Fitzgerald considered for Gatsby.  As for the others: First Impressions was a possible title for Pride and Prejudice; though it would fit Fitzgerlad’s Manhattan, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night was title of the article upon which the film Saturday Night Fever was based;  They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen (also fitting for Gatsby) was a working title for Valley of the Dolls; and They Who Got Shot was a possible title for (wait for it) Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Incidentally, as a title for Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald was especially partial to either Trimalchio or Trimalchio in West Egg– with “Trimalchio” being the name of a character in the Roman novel The Satyricon. Now, Trimalchio is a wealthy man who throws extravagant parties, so the name does fit the character Gatsby.  The problem, of course, is that maybe 3.7% of the populace knows that.

(I’m reminded of that anecdote Nabokov wrote in the foreword to his memoir Speak, Memory; apparently, Nabokov wanted to call it Speak, Mnemosyne, after the Greek goddess of memory, but his editor warned him that “little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.”  Good advice, there.)

And why didn’t Fitzgerald like The Great Gatsby as a title?  Apparently, he had a problem with the “great” part.  As he explpained to his editor, Max Perkins: “There is no emphasis, even ironically, on his greatness or lack of it.”  (Ummm… really, F. Scott?  “No emphasis” on Gatsby’s greatness?  Did you actually read your novel?)

Ultimately, Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, along with his editor, talked Fitzgerald into The Great Gatsby. And for that, I feel I can speak on behalf of millions of readers when I say, “*Whew!*”  Honestly, do you think ANYONE in 2013 would be dressing up in flapper costunes to see the premier of a movie called Trimalchio?  Or On the Road to West Egg?

Just goes to show that sometimes artists really don’t know what’s best for their own works of art.  I mean… High-Bouncing Lover?  For real???

While we’re on the subject, here are some other great stories about titles…

  • In addition to the bizarre They Who Got Shot, Ernest Hemingway had at least thirty other working titles for A Farewell to Arms, including the following: The World’s Room; World Enough and Time; The Italian Journey; The Italian Prodigal; Love Is a Fervent Fire, Kindled without Desire; Disorder and Early Sorrow; Death Once Dead; If You Must Love; A World to See; A Patriot’s Progress; The Carnal Education; The Grand Tour; The Sentimental Education of Frederic Henry and (the most curious of all) I Have Committed Fornication But That Was in Another Country, and Besides the Wench Is Dead.
  • Great story about the movie Field of Dreams: the film, which features former baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, was based on W. P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe.  Test audiences, however, thought the title was misleading; they thought the film was going to be a movie about a homeless person.  The studio suggested Field of Dreams.  Luckily, author Kinsella didn’t mind, since his publisher originally came up with Shoeless Joe.  The title Kinsella had wanted: Dream Field.
  • Many artists have mined the works of Shakespeare for titles. Macbeth inspired William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), Kurt Vonnegut (Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow) and Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes). Aldous Huxley found a Brave New World in The Tempest.  Sting named his second solo album Nothing Like The Sun after Sonnet 130. And one of Leo Tolstoy’s working titles for War and Peace was All’s Well That Ends Well.
  • On a related note, Star Trek writers really seem to love the Bard: Star Trek VI was subtitled The Undiscovered Country (from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech); “Dagger of the Mind” and “All Our Yesterdays” (Macbeth) and “Thine Own Self” (Hamlet) are all names of Star Trek episodes.
  • Any frustrated Sporcle enthusiast now knows that, in Britain, the first Harry Potter book is entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone— which author J.K. Rowling prefers to the Americanized Sorcerer’s Stone. But did you know the sixth book was supposed to be called Harry Potter and the High-Bouncing Wizard?    Kidding!

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Top o’ the morning, Erin go bragh, and may the road rise to meet you!  For our 50th post, we prepared a special St. Patrick’s Day Literary Quiz, celebrating Irish (or Irish-American) writers and their works.  We came up with seventeen questions (in honor of March 17th), and just so you know:  some are tougher than the blarney stone, and leave just as bad a taste in your mouth!  Answers follow…

irish writers

  1. What is the last story in James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners?
  2. From which William Butler Yeats poem did Chinua Achebe borrow the title Things Fall Apart?
  3. Which Irish-born writer is famous for classic “chick-lit” novels such as Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, Watermelon, Sushi for Beginners, and This Charming Man?
  4. What is the name of Jonathan Swift’s well-known satirical essay, in which he advises the Irish to sell their children for food in order to relieve the problems of famine and poverty in Ireland?
  5. He may not have won an EGOT (and for all non-30 Rock fans out there, that stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), but Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature AND an Oscar.  For what film did Shaw win the Oscar?
  6. In Samuel Becket’s famous play, who are the two main characters who are waiting for Godot?
  7. How many Pulitzer prizes did Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill win?
  8. Which Seamus Heaney poem begins, “Late August, given heavy rain and sun/ For a full week, the blackberries would ripen”?
  9. Which best-selling Irish writer, whose sixteen novels include Glass Lake, Tara Road, and Circle of Friends, died last summer, on July 30, 2012?
  10. What is the title of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s only novel?
  11. Stephanie Meyer owes a blood debt to this nineteenth-century Irish-born writer, whose Dracula is the prototypical vampire novel. Who is this author?
  12. Which Irish writer was famous for his short stories, including “The Majesty of the Law,” “The Drunkard” and “My Oedipus Complex”?
  13.  I am an importance voice in the literature of the American South.    My stories (including “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) have influenced rock-and-roll demigods Bruce Springsteen (who allegedly read my stories while writing the album Nebraska) and Bono, of the Irish supergroup U2; in fact, Bono alludes to my story “The Enduring Chill” in the lyrics of the song “One Tree Hill.”  And while I was not born in Ireland, I do have Irish ancestry and an Irish last-name. Who am I?
  14.  The “S” in “C.S. Lewis” stands for “Staples.”  What does the “C” stand for?  (And yes, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia was born in Belfast, Ireland.)
  15.  Which Irish college houses the Book of Kells, an ornately decorated rendering of the Four Gospels, dating back to the Middle Ages?
  16. What is Gulliver’s first name in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels?
  17. Who is Angela in Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes?


What is “Bloomsday”—the date on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set?  (a) July 2, 1902 (b) June 12, 1903 (c) June 16, 1904, or (d) July 16, 1905


  1. “The Dead”
  2. “The Second Coming” (The line is, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”)
  3. Marian Keyes
  4. “A Modest Proposal”
  5. Pygmalion (1938).  Shaw also wrote the play on which the film is based.
  6. Vladimir and Estragon
  7. Four, for Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1957).
  8. “Blackberry Picking”
  9. Maeve Binchy
  10. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  11. Bram Stoker (Incidentally, his actually first name is “Abraham.”)
  12. Frank O’Connor
  13. Flannery O’Connor
  14. Clive
  15. Trinity College
  16. Lemuel
  17. Angela is the author’s mother, who is a native of Limerick, Ireland.  Frank McCourt himself was born in New York, but eventually his family moved to Limerick.

Tie-Breaker:  (c) June 16, 1904

How’d You Do?

15-17 Correct: Pot o’ Gold!

11-14 Correct: Shamrock-star!

6-10 Correct: Lucky Guesser

2-5 Correct: Green around the Gills

0-1 Correct: Potato Famine

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