Monthly Archives: April 2021

Becoming Dr. Seuss: An exploration of the good and the bad from our favorite children’s author

If you’ve been on the Internet in recent months, you’ll be aware that people have been up in arms over the Seuss estate allowing a few older titles to go out of print. My growing irritation with people completely (and willfully, in some cases) misunderstanding what’s gone on led me to finally picking up a Dr. Seuss biography. Becoming Dr. Seuss Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination by Brian Jay Jones, one of the more recent Seuss biographies, seemed to be the logical choice, as it had the potential to touch on the topic of caricatures that has landed Seuss in hot water, now and in the past.

Geisel never set out to be a children’s book author and actually got his start in college humor magazines and advertising campaigns. He learned most of his storytelling skills from his work in the U.S. Army, working on propaganda during World War II. When he did decide to write for kids, he got off to a slow start, until The Cat in the Hat launched him into the spotlight, revolutionizing children’s primers. Seuss ultimately became the leader of several imprints within Random House Publishing, focused on writing books that teach kids both to love reading as well as how to do it.

And while many of us would love to make a hero out of this favorite author, the reality is that Geisel had several black marks against him. Throughout his years cartooning he never balked at using misogyny as the punchline of his jokes and during World War II actually used his cartoons to support and promote Japanese-American internment. Added to this was his embracing of the era’s common practice of racist caricaturing within cartoons and drawings. But, as he aged, Geisel himself came to acknowledge that, while acceptable for the time, not everything he’d drawn was tasteful and appropriate. And though he perhaps wasn’t as public about it as we’d expect of someone today, I believe his work shows the growth and change of mindset Geisel experienced.

Jones draws from a vast array of research and content to paint a comprehensive picture of Geisel’s life, and he doesn’t try to cover up some of Geisel’s shortcomings. It’s an engaging book that goes beyond just Dr. Seuss–or rather, explores various experiences that made him who he was. Touching on cartoon crusades, propaganda creation, author-publisher relationships, the revolution of children’s primers and the birth of several well-known imprints, readers get knowledge on a lot more than just the man who illustrated many of our childhoods.

I did feel like the book was lacking in visuals, though. A 400+ page book and it only contained eight pages of photos and illustrations. Whether it was too much of an expense to get the rights or they didn’t want to trim the book to make room for more, I felt like this was a lost opportunity, especially when considering many people are unaware of Geisel’s art outside of Seuss books.

While this already-published book can’t touch on the foolish drama of 2021, it’s interesting to see that Jones does touch on the topics in general–in fact, this isn’t the first time some of these titles have been in the hot seat because of problematic illustrations and words.

Knowing this, and knowing that some of the books have already been changed to be more politically correct, it definitely highlights the idea that these books, while containing problematic content, have been retired more because of lack of sales. If the books were still selling well, they’d most likely take them back to the drawing board, as they have done before.

I’ve kept my silence on this topic because I’m inclined to believe that most people aren’t actually interested in learning and dialoguing but just want something to be up in arms about (and I’m jealous of that energy. I’d like to channel some of it just to help me get through my daily to-do list.). But I’ll throw a couple thoughts out here.

First, these titles have not been censored or banned. They’ve been allowed to go out of print. And, surprise, this happens to books all the time. Ever try to go to a bookstore and buy the random books you read as a kid (not the classics everyone read, the random ones no one else was reading)? The reason you can’t find them is because they went out of print. The demand to publish wasn’t there. That’s all that’s happened here, except the Seuss estate used it as an opportunity to stand against caricatures and problematic content in the books (and if you don’t know, I worked for 5+ years in book sales, so I can attest to the fact that these retired titles were no where near bestsellers, they didn’t even compete with other Seuss titles).

Second, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about preserving history and keeping examples so that people know what’s not appropriate to do (and not just about Seuss). And I think it’s a really weak argument, especially for this situation. Seuss engaged in the kinds of jokes and drawings he did because they were the fare of the era. By keeping them around and sharing them with kids, it indicates there’s something of value to them. And while we can debate whether there is academic value in preserving them in a historical way to see how we’ve improved (and I believe there’s a compelling case there), we don’t need any more reasons for kids to draw lines of division among themselves. There will be plenty of hurtful childhood antics without contributing to it by continuing to provide them with stories that make differences seem funny, abnormal, or bad.

In the end, when someone tells us something is problematic or hurtful, we don’t get to tell them they are wrong. The response we should have is one of dialogue, hearing their concern and doing better. Too often the people fighting against the action are the ones who haven’t been hurt by it or anything similar. And just because we can’t understand the experience doesn’t mean we can write it off. Why wouldn’t we improve when given a concrete place to start?

Mexican Gothic: My introduction to the next layer of Gothic novels

The first thing that should be abundantly clear is that Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is not your classic Bronte or Du Maurier gothic novel. As far as I’ve read, this book is in a class all its own. That said, despite the bizarre nature of some of the plot, the mystery and intrigue were great.

Mexican Gothic is set in 1950s Mexico, where Noemi Taboada is sent to investigate a strange and frantic letter sent by her newly married cousin, Catalina. When Noemi arrives at High Place, its isolated and gloomy atmosphere hints at strange and dark secrets. Before long, Noemi finds herself affected by the house and its inhabitants and only one thought is keeping her going–escaping with Catalina.

Escape seems to be impossible and Noemi is stuck wrestling against the darker parts of her nature that beg to flourish at High Place. As she starts to unravel the threads of the history, the truth is something she never could have imagined.

This book was a little slow to start, and I had trouble really sinking into the story because it didn’t feel like it was set in the 1950s. Too often I felt myself jarred out of the story wondering if such a thing would happen or if they spoke that way in the ’50s. It wasn’t until pieces of the family history started to be revealed and connected (about halfway through the book) that I was able to set everything else aside and really focus on the storyline. Additionally, I didn’t feel like there was anything particularly “Mexican” about this gothic novel. Aside from being set in Mexico and some people having Mexican names, it could have taken place anywhere.

I’m pretty convinced nothing could have prepared me for the direction this story went. At first, I was unsure of how Moreno-Garcia was going to tie together all the various threads and motifs she had going. But she managed it nicely, albeit very unexpectedly. It veers almost into fantasy more than fiction, hence why it stands out as very different than other gothic novels that I’ve read.

Overall, I’ve got mixed feelings about the book. I’m glad I borrowed it instead of buying it, but it’ll make for great book club discussion.

A few content/trigger warnings may be helpful to some readers, though: the book includes some mildly descriptive gore and sicknesses, attempted rape, and a reference to cannibalism.

Vengeful

The second book in V.E. Schwab’s Villains series, Vengeful is an engaging read that weaves several threads together, providing the right amount of intrigue and suspense while dropping clues and answers along the way.

Vengeful finds Victor, Sydney, and Mitch on the run after the confrontation with Eli. A new ExtraOrdinary Observation and Neutralization force has been established, and even as Victor works to keep one step ahead of them, he runs toward other EOs, hoping to find the solution to the sickness wracking his body. Meanwhile, a new EO is rising in Merit, and she has no intention of hiding her power. Marcella Riggins has no qualms about creating chaos and taking what she wants. And she is the magnet drawing Eli and Victor to their final showdown.

In similar style to Vicious, Schwab jumps from scene to scene, in and out of her characters’ timelines to gather the necessary information for readers to follow the story. While this isn’t always my favorite style of writing, Schwab makes it work really well, not over complicating the signals of time and character jumps. She also makes sure to tie the jumps in to the surrounding chapters, letting readers know intuitively how it fits together.

Once again, Schwab makes her characters make impossible moral and ethical decisions, some motivated by survival, some by power and desire. This makes her characters real and layered, allowing readers to see bits of themselves even in the characters they are rooting against.

Schwab wraps it all up at the end with hints at another book, leaving some threads of the story loose. So, naturally, I’m desperate for another installment in this series. But that’s going to have to wait, as I’m not even sure she’s got it in the works right now. I’m willing to be patient, though. Good authors need time to produce satisfaction.

Beyond

If you know me or have followed my blog for a while, you know that I am a big space enthusiast and I love reading the latest biographies and histories surrounding it. So when I saw that I could get an early copy of Stephen Walker’s Beyond: The Astonishing Journey of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space (what a title) I naturally snagged it pretty quickly.

I’ve read a lot about the early years of the U.S. space program, from NACA to NASA, but never much about the USSR program, except for bits and pieces. So to have a whole book mainly dedicated to looking at the Russian side was thoroughly interesting.

Russia only publicized their “space spectaculars” after missions had been successful, which covered their program in a shroud of secrecy during the 1960s, and even beyond. But though no one knew what they were doing, they were as active as the U.S. in training their cosmonauts and preparing the way for manned space flight. Yuri Gagarin, who would eventually be the first man in space, was one of six top cosmonaut hopefuls (eventually whittled down to three in the running for the first flight) who went through a training regimen equally as brutal as the one the U.S. put its astronauts through.

Walker’s book touches on some biography details of Gagarin’s life, but mainly focuses on the progress of the Russian program, similar to other books that chronicle the U.S. program. Where possible, Walker spoke with eye witnesses and descendants of key figures. Other information, finally declassified by the Russian government, was drawn from documents and archives.

Though I would have expected more biography on Gagarin, given the subtitle of the book, I was still very interested to read about the development of the Russian program and learn the names behind some of the men who made it happen.

And even though I knew what would happen (it’s history, after all), Walker did an excellent job putting the reader in the thick of the suspense of Gagarin’s first flight, creating a page-turner as readers breathlessly wait to see if Gagarin’s flight went as smoothly as we were always led to believe.

For history buffs and space enthusiasts, Beyond is a different take on the space race and one that is very worth the time to read.

House

Ted Dekker has been a favorite author of mine since high school. And while I knew of Frank Peretti, I didn’t read much by him (and still haven’t, though I did finally read his Darkness series last year). But as I was cataloguing our books recently, I found that my husband has a couple that I haven’t read, so I decided to add them into my reading mix, starting with House, a joint effort between Dekker and Peretti.

Jack and Stephanie are going through the motions of working on their marriage when a series of small mistakes get them lost in Alabama’s backwoods. A strange accident leaves them stranded without a vehicle as night is falling. Hurrying away from the perceived danger, they make their way to the only building for miles around. Inside, they find another couple with a suspiciously similar story but the inn proprietors are missing.

The guests quickly realize they’ve run right into some sort of trap, but they never imagined they would be locked inside and threatened with death unless they embrace their sin and commit murder themselves. They have until sunrise to choose which of their natures they will embrace, and the house will do everything possible to push them toward evil.

House has definitive elements of both Dekker and Peretti’s writing styles. And while it was a good and engaging story, I’m not sure I loved the combination. Peretti often gives evil physical form, as he does in House. Dekker’s style is the twisty wrestling with internal good and evil natures, culminating in a salvation experience. Mixing the two into a supernatural thriller felt almost a little too allegorical. Even though I grasped the symbolism and the story, some parts felt like they were laid on a little thick. Perhaps it’s a story that would have benefited from being shorter.

I also felt like some elements were not fully explored after being introduced. While the whole experience was guided by the evil residing in each “guest,” the transformation of the house seemed a little glossed over, as did the hints that past trauma surrounding the house was responsible for it being susceptible to evil.

That all said, I’ve come to realize that I tend to be a lot more of a literal reader. Though I desperately want to enjoy books full of allegory and symbolism, it often just goes over my head or else hinders my reading experience as I try to wrap my mind around it all. Others I know who enjoy Dekker and Peretti rave about this book, so I’m willing to chalk my experience up to personal preference. Even though it wasn’t my favorite of their books, it was still a good book, a quick read that pulls you in and makes you question what makes a person good or evil.

City of Ghosts

I thought it was bad enough working at a bookstore and coming home with all these new books I wanted to read. Now that I’m back in the world of libraries, all the books I already have are definitely going to feel neglected as I gallivant off with other attractive books.

But there’s just something special about binging all the books by a favorite author. I haven’t really done it since I was a teenager, and V.E. Schwab’s stories are calling.

City of Ghosts is the first in Schwab’s Cassidy Blake series. Cassidy is far from a normal teenager– after drowning and coming back, she’s found she has access into the Veil, the world between this one and the next. It’s sometimes creepy but never really dangerous, at least not until she travels to Edinburgh with her ghost-hunting parents.

In Scotland, Cassidy learns that her gift is about more than jaunts into the in-between, and not all ghosts are harmless. Her gift could put her very life in danger through an end much worse than mere death.

Though this is a book written for middle grade kids, Schwab does a great job of writing a gripping and interesting story that seems to tie in to her Villains series and ExtraOrdinary people.

Schwab builds her story with background and character history, establishing them before throwing them into danger, and I like this about her writing. It make me feel like I’m already friends with the character before things get tough.

City of Ghosts proves that Schwab’s masterful storytelling isn’t limited to one age group, but that she can write for anyone and engage everyone. And the threads she weaves throughout the story, to continue in the next book(s), grip her readers and keep them coming back.