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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | baseball

Skinny Dip with Michael Hall

Red: a Crayon's StoryWhat is your proudest career moment?

Several months before the publication of my book, Red: A Crayon’s Story, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial bemoaning the “gender industrial complex,” “cultural warriors,” and books—including mine—“that seek to engage the sympathies of young readers … and nudge the needle of culture.” I had written something good enough to provoke the wrath of the WJS editorial page. It was a proud moment, indeed.

In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?

The first thing that comes to my mind is baseball. But there are problems.

First of all, baseball isn’t an Olympic sport. (It became an official Olympic sport in 1992, but was ousted after the 2008 summer Olympics.) Nevertheless, since we’re talking about fantasy—and since I have a rich fantasy life—this is relatively easy to overcome. Let’s face it, if I can imagine the balding, pot-bellied, sixty-something me gracefully climbing the wall in left field to rob a batter of an extra-base hit (to the thundering approval of the crowd), I can certainly imagine that baseball has been reinstituted as an Olympic sport just in time for the summer of 2016.

Michael Hall sports fantasyBut there’s a more difficult problem: Having spent much of my life imagining myself as a star left fielder for the Minnesota Twins, my status as an amateur is clearly in doubt. If it came down to it, I wouldn’t sacrifice my imaginary Twins baseball star status in order to imagine winning an Olympic gold medal for the United States Olympic team.

So I’m going with table tennis.

What is your favorite line from a book?

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”

What keeps you up at night?

These pesky creatures called should’ves. I don’t know how they get into the house, but at night, they crawl into my bed and whisper in my ear.

“You should have done this, Michael.”

“And frankly, you should have done that as well, Michael.”

This makes sleeping difficult.

It’s well known that should’ves tire easily. If you ignore them, they’ll fall asleep. So I thought I could just wait them out. But it’s less well known that they snore loudly. So, even while sleeping, they keep me awake.

One night, after the should’ves fell asleep—and were snoring horribly—I picked them up, put them in a shoe box, and took them out the back door. I went back to bed and was dozing off, when I was visited by five angry shouldn’t’ves.

“Michael, you should not have done that!”

Which of your books would make a good movie and who would be the star?

It's an Orange AardvarkThe book with the most crisply drawn characters is probably It’s An Orange Aardvark, a book about five carpenter ants who awake to a noise outside their dark nest in a tree stump. One ant tries to get clues as to what it is by drilling holes in the stump. As each new hole reveals a different color, a second ant, who is convinced that it’s a hungry aardvark, twists the information to fit his preconceived belief, even as his version of the truth becomes more and more absurd.

For me, this was always a book about scientific method. The hole-drilling ant is a wide-eyed, dedicated, idealistic scientist. I think someone like Toby Maguire would be perfect for the role. (There is no love interest here. It’s a picture book after all. But I’m sure a talented screenwriter could fix that.)

The second ant, the one who’s convinced an aardvark awaits, is sort of a cross between Dick Cheney and Cliff Clavin from Cheers. I could suggest someone like Willem Defoe, but I don’t want to play up the sinister part too much (it’s a picture book, after all), so I’ll go with John Ratzenberger from the Cheers cast. 

 

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Bookstorm: Catch You Later, Traitor

Catch You Later Traitor Bookstorm

In this Bookstorm™:

Catch You Later, TraitorCatch You Later, Traitor

written by Avi
Algonquin Books for Young Readers, 2015

The early 1950s in the United States was a time when soldiers and medical personnel had returned home from the two theaters of World War II, Communism was talked about as something to be feared, and colleagues and neighbors were asked to testify against people who were suspected to be Communists in America. The nation was caught up in reports from the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Federal Bureau of Investigations was concerned about citizens who were disloyal to America. The air was heavy with suspicion and people were encouraged to fear intellectuals, immigrants, and Hollywood.

It was a time when baseball soared. The Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the New York Yankees were the most famous teams of the day. Radio was the primary source for news and entertainment. Televisions weren’t yet a part of every household. 

In Avi’s novel, 12-year-old Pete Collison is a regular kid who loves Sam Spade detective books and radio crime dramas, but when an FBI agent shows up at Pete’s doorstep accusing his father of being a Communist, Pete finds himself caught in a real-life mystery. Could there really be Commies in Pete’s family? This look at what it felt like to be an average family caught in the wide net of the Red Scare has powerful relevance to contemporary questions of democracy and individual freedom.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. For Catch You Later, Traitor, you’ll find books for a variety of tastes, interests, and reading abilities. Catch You Later, Traitor will be comfortably read by ages 10 through adult. We’ve included picture books, novels, and nonfiction for the plethora of purposes you might have. This Bookstorm™ has a few more books for adults than usual, believing that a background in the era will be helpful for educators who weren’t alive during, or wish to brush up on, the time in which this book takes place.

McCarthy Era, also known as the Red Scare. Surprisingly, there aren’t very many books written for young readers about this intense time in history, but we’ve selected a few that will align well with Catch You Later, Traitor.

Nonfiction. There are a greater number of nonfiction books available about the early 1950s, including lifestyle books, the Cold War, fashion, the Hollywood Ten, and spies.

Communism, Socialism in the United States. Were you aware that a group of Finnish-Americans moved to Russia to set up a Utopian community based on promises from Russian leader Joseph Stalin?

Witch Hunts. A classic book, a classic play, and a fascinating look at an incident of the “Red Scare” in children’s books.

Mid-Century United States. Superb recommendations for books, both fiction and nonfiction, set in the 1950s. Reading several of these along with Catch You Later, Traitor will give students an excellent flavor of the time, which offers a mirror for other periods in history as well as the present.

Baseball in the 1950s. It was the most talked-about sport in the country, claiming headlines and tuning radios in to listen to “the game.” We’ve gathered a wide-ranging set of books that will include something for every reader, from picture books to books for adults.

Noir Detective Fiction. We mentioned Sam Spade, but what exactly does “noir” mean? Here are good examples, spanning early chapter books such as Chet Gecko to a graphic novel like City of Spies to Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon.

Old-Time Radio. There are whole radio programs online to be shared with your classroom, along with a series on YouTube that depicts the workings of a radio studio, and Avi’s own novel about the heyday of radio serials.

Techniques for using each book:

Downloadables

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A Conversation Between Avi and Gary D. Schmidt

Avi and Gary D. SchmidtWhen Avi published his 1950s’ era novel, Catch You Later, Traitor, he dedicated the book to Gary D. Schmidt, fellow author, fellow reader, fellow connoisseur of noir detective novels and history. The Bookologist is privileged to listen in on this conversation between two authors who are so greatly admired for the depth and texture within their books. Enjoy!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Ray Bradbury once wrote a short article entitled “Memories Shape the Voice” in which he talked about the powerful ways that his childhood memories affected the making of his Greentown, Illinois. It wasn’t just the details that would come back to him as he created the world of his short stories—it was how he felt about those details: the beauty (to him) of the town’s factories, the terror (to him) of the gullies. It seems to me that this is true also of your evocation of 1951 Brooklyn. Is that fair to say?

Avi:
It is fair. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in NYC, but I confess I still think of myself as a New Yorker. I’ve written more about the city than any other place, from City of Light, City of Darka dystopian graphic novel—to Sophia’s Wara tale of the American Revolution. It’s not just “home” in a physical sense, it’s my emotional home. And yet, I now live in the Rocky Mountains, nine thousand feet up, in a community of thirteen, the nearest neighbor a mile away.

When writing Catch You Later, Traitor, which is set, for the most part, in my boyhood neighborhood, it was easy for me to walk home from school, play stoopball, go to the local movie theater. I easily recall sitting on the front stoop reading comic books with my friends—even which comic books.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One part of that world is the physical setting: Pete’s apartment, the streets, the nursing home, the school. Though I suspect that being in these settings brought a great deal of nostalgic pleasure, how did these settings play a part in the plotting of the book?

Avi:
I think all writers depend on sensory memory. Consider Ritman’s Books where, in the book, Pete hangs out. There was such a bookstore in my neighborhood, which I loved to go to. The same for that movie theater where I would go for the Saturday morning kids’ shows. My Brooklyn was very much a small town. There was everything I needed, and all I needed to construct the book. Even when I had to go beyond, by subway—I love the city subways—it gave me great pleasure to write about them.

Brooklyn Heights SchoolGary D. Schmidt:
The school is particularly intriguing to me, since it seems to me to be acting in interesting thematic ways. School, for Pete, is a place of monolithic power: the teacher. There is one point of view, one way of responding to America, one way of sitting and responding and behaving. Toward the end of the book, Pete calls his teacher, Mr. Donavan, a bully—and it seems at that point that Mr. Donavan represents all of the school. But does it seem to you as well that the school, with its insistent power, also represents the way the country was acting toward dissent at this time?

Avi:
Mr. Donavan is based on a teacher I did have. I describe him as I remember him. But don’t forget Mr. Malakowski, who is also real, and a nice guy. He was, in fact, my favorite teacher. Parents think they know about their children’s schools, but I think in some way schools constitute a parallel universe to home life. They don’t always intersect. Pete’s parents don’t really know what’s going on there, and Pete doesn’t want them to get involved. That, I think, is typical. In today’s world, the older a kid gets the less he/she wants parents to be involved in school. Yes, the school does represent the country at that time, but it’s important to remember that it was not the whole country.

Gary D. Schmidt:
And of course, there are the characters that are so vivid—an Avi trademark. I think especially of Mr. Ordson, the blind man to whom Peter reads. He reads the newspaper, because Mr. Ordson wants to keep up with current events. And he is a wise and good friend to Pete. You’ve written that Mr. Ordson is based on a real person to whom you, as a young adolescent, read. Are there other characters based on folks from your past? Perhaps Pete’s father, a noble character? Have you, as William Faulkner once advised, cut up your relatives to use them in your plot?

Avi:
How can I say this? Pete’s father is based on what my father was not. My father was not a nice man. Very hard on me. Abusive. Don’t get me going. Anyway, I think Pete’s father is what I would have liked my father to be. I bet you’ve worked from that kind of opposite, too. Cathartic, perhaps. On the other hand, Pete’s older brother is somewhat based on my own older brother who, like many older brothers, can be patronizing to younger brothers. That said, a major part of the story is not about families that pull apart—there is some of that—but how families stay together. And Kat—a key fictional character in the book—is drawn to Pete’s family as much as she is to Pete.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One other element from the past: the noir voices, the sounds of the hard-boiled detective fiction that you read, that I read, that we both still read. At times, Pete leaves the first-person narrative to go into that hard-boiled voice. I think you probably had a lot of fun with that, right?

Avi:
I adored writing those sections. I think there is something uniquely American in that noir voice. The tough love. The sarcasm. The wit. The truth-telling. The very careful literary construction, all of which masks a deep-rooted sentimentality, an embarrassed, if you will, searching for love. Very complex. The thought that I can share that—introduce it—to my readers gives me great pleasure.

Gary D. Schmidt:
In this McCarthy–era novel, Pete is thrown into a world in which fear inspires hatred. As news spreads that his father does not accept an easy vision of a perfect America but believes that the stories of workers and African Americans also need full play in tales of the development of the country, Pete is ostracized, since it is assumed that his father must be a Commie! Since all historical fiction is written both about a time in the past and for readers in the present, it seems to me that your novel is a powerful warning against assuming that any narrative about our country is simple and uncomplicated.

bk_go-between_160Avi:
One of my favorite notions about historical fiction is expressed in the opening lines of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I find that a fascinating idea because I don’t entirely agree with it. What I mean is, yes, the past is a different country, but they do not always do things differently there. I know, from what I’ve read of what you’ve written, you understand this. Our goal is to make the past meaningful to the present, right? To give it life. America has such a complex and fascinating history. But how little people know of it! How many great stories there are yet to tell!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete must deal with some hard truths: in the novel, he develops strong anger toward both his brother and his great-uncle, anger which does not get resolved in the narrative. At the same time, he comes to understand that his father lives a life that is larger and perhaps more noble and honorable than he had imagined. Is it fair to say that in one way, this novel is about the limits of knowledge—that we cannot truly know someone else completely?

Avi:
Pete’s father tells Pete: “Nothing is simple. Know that and you know half the world’s wisdom.” Oh, how I believe that! Bet you do, too. Somewhere I read, “Poor writing makes what you know simple. Good writing makes it complex.” Right?

Gary D. Schmidt:
Perhaps this is the hubris of the McCarthy era as well—the assumption that I have the right to know everything about someone else. I note this in the context of a world in which it seems to be the growing assumption that we do have the right to know what we want to know about another person—something that Pete’s father insists is not true at all.

Avi:
Hey! Privacy, the last frontier! It’s one of the most important things about book reading. It’s truly private. Far more so than even digital reading! The other day—in San Francisco—I passed a used book store. Out front was a box labeled “Free Books.” Think of it! No one would know if I picked up a book. Or read it. Or thought about it. Or what I thought. No one. And yet, and yet—and I know you believe this, too—nothing is more intimate than sharing thoughts. That said, one of the most powerful things a person can have—for good or ill—is a secret. As a kid I recall playing a game we called Secrets. The idea being that you and your friend each shared a real secret. A dangerous game, when you think about it.

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete decides that he will be a Giants fan, going against Brooklyn’s fanatic loyalty to the Dodgers—who, we know, will one day betray that loyalty. I know this is, on one level, simply Pete’s desire to get back at the others around him for their hatred. But it also seems to me that Pete is asserting his right to be different—exactly what McCarthyists feared and prosecuted, and, perhaps, exactly what our own culture seems to fear: the person who does not buy into the current vision of the American dream: to acquire. This is not a message novel; it first does what E. M. Forster claims the writer must do: make the reader turn the page. But at the same time, you are making some powerful suggestions that warn against a too easy acceptance of the culture’s claims upon us.

Avi:
Being loyal to a false ideal can be very destructive. Being loyal to high ideal can be very dangerous. Pete’s shift from being a Brooklyn Dodger fan to a New York Giants fan is something that came right out of my life—and, yes, in 1951 when the Giants won the National Pennant just as I recount it in the book. It was my first step in becoming independent from my family. But when you become independent of your family—or your culture—you pay a price. More often than not you are rejected, told that you have abandoned them, whoever or whatever them might be. But being different, being independent, is liberating. In Catch You Later, Traitor, the word traitor becomes a code word for “being different.” In the story being different enriches Pete’s life. The story begins by his no longer being a kid. It ends by his becoming a kid again—but far deeper in experience. Hey, that’s why I dedicated the book to you. You’ve lived your life that way. Right?

Bookologist:
Thank you both for this interview. It opens many paths to explore and ideas to consider, but we expected no less from the two of you.

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Anatomy of a Series: Topps League Books

We’re in post-season, when a lot of fans start to look wild-eyed, wondering how they’ll hang on for three months until spring training starts in February. Here in Minnesota, it’s tough for sandlot baseball or Little League games to be played in the snow with an icy baseline. Young fans can keep up the momentum […]

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Baseball Crazy

Yup. I admit it. I am baseball crazy. I have been since my mom took me to games at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, to see the newly arrived Minnesota Twins. And this year the Twins have outdoor baseball for the first time since 1982. It’s no wonder “baseball awareness” is heightened at this time […]

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