Elisabeth Kushner | Tor.com
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Elisabeth Kushner

Toy Story 3: The Steadfast Plastic Cowboy

But what fascinated Ermengarde most was [Sara’s] fancy about the dolls who walked and talked, and who could do anything they chose when the human beings were out of the room, but who must keep their powers a secret and so flew back to their places “like lightning” when people returned to the room.

We couldn’t do it,” said Sara, seriously. “You see, it’s a kind of magic.”

—Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

It’s an old story, the fancy about toys who come alive when we can’t see, but pretend to be inanimate when humans are around. Hans Christian Andersen takes a turn with it in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” and it makes an appearance in the Edwardian melodrama A Little Princess. But it also sits comfortably in a contemporary, computer-and-cell-phone-strewn setting, as in recent books like The Doll People and Toys Go Out, and in the “Toy Story” trilogy.

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Series: Pixar Movie Marathon

The Newbery Medal and Speculative Fiction

Another Newbery Medal ceremony has come and gone, leaving the usual mixture of cheering, grumbling, and perplexed head-scratching in its wake. Strictly speaking, you could say that about any award ceremony, but the Newbery—informally known as “the Oscars of children’s literature,” and mandated to choose works based on distinguished literary quality rather than popularity—is notorious for picking dark horses, and this year’s medal winner, Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, is no exception. (Here’s the complete list of ALA award winners and honor titles announced yesterday morning.)

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Trapped in a Pattern: The Owl Service

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is the spookiest book you’re ever likely to read about a set of dishes. It’s also about Welsh nationalism, British class snobbery, the Mabinogion, teenage angst, family secrets, the sixties (it was written in 1967), the Power of the Land, and the broodiest, most sinister housekeeper outside of a Daphne du Maurier novel.

It starts off, not with a bang, but with a scratch. Teenaged Ali, sick in bed in her Welsh country house, complains that there are mice scratching in the attic. Gwyn, the housekeeper’s son, climbs up to investigate, and brings down a set of dishes with a strange pattern on them. Ali is immediately compelled to trace the design on the plates, cut up the tracings, and assemble them into little paper owls—which keep disappearing. The scratching gets louder. Gwyn’s mother, Nancy, becomes unaccountably furious about the dishes. The pattern disappears off the plates, and then they start falling—or being thrown, but no one will admit to throwing them.

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Jellyfish, Deerstalkers, and the Weirdness of Unillustrated Text: Scott Westerfeld at Kidlitcon 2011

Scott Westerfeld gave the keynote speech at Kidlitcon in Seattle this year. In the spirit of the just-ended Steampunk Week, just picture my thoughts traveling since that fateful September morning via horse-drawn robot, or maybe very slow walking tank, from my brain to the keyboard, and thence to the screen you see before you. It took me almost all that time to process what he said, because he talked about, well, everything.

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Back to School with Science Fiction/Fantasy

In this week after Labor Day, which will always be Back-To-School week to me, a kid-lit-ophile’s fancy lightly turns to that venerable staple of juvenile fiction, the School Story.

The School Story, for the unacquainted, is just what it sounds like: a children’s novel where the action centers on what happens at school. School is, after all, a rich and varied place, and the centerpiece and touchstone of most western kids’ lives, so it’s not a big surprise that the school story has a lot of general appeal, or that examples abound.

In booklists and library textbooks and such, though, the school story is usually lumped in as a subgenre of realistic fiction, and that’s just wrong, wrong, wrong. Because such is the school story’s ubiquity that it extends into the distant future and the realms of fantasy. Here’s a sampling of stories set in schools that don’t look like the ones that you or anyone you know attended—unless you know a wormhole through the time-space continuum and have visited any of these first-hand. In which case, please see me after class:

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Ghosts in the Flood Zone: Ninth Ward

This week, as news of Hurricane Irene and its aftermath continues to trickle through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I’ve found myself turning to a novel set during another hurricane that filled the news six years ago: Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Twelve-year-old Lanesha sees ghosts. Her mother, who died in childbirth at seventeen, and who still hangs around the house, “her belly big, like she’s forgotten she already gave birth to me. Like she’s stuck and can’t move on. Like she forgot I was already born.” Figures from the past of her city, New Orleans, a place soaked in history: “Ghosts wearing yellow silk ball gowns with flowers in their hair, and waving silk fans. Cool men who wore their hats slanted to make them look slick.” And then there are the more recent arrivals: “Ghosts in baggy pants, their underwear showing, wearing short-sleeve T-shirts and body tattoos… mostly boys killed in drive-bys or fights or robberies. Sometimes, I know them from school. Like Jermaine. One day I’m seeing him in the cafeteria eating macaroni, the next day, he’s a ghost, dull eyed, high-fiving me, saying, ‘Hey, Lanesha.'”

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Noir Comes to Main Street: Shadow of a Doubt

Rain on a dark street in a big, bad city. A single cigarette ember, glowing in a room lit only by streetlights shining through venetian blinds. A bitter, cynical middle-aged man in a fedora and trench coat.

You won’t find any of these noir staples in Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 study of menace in a small town. (Except for the bitter, cynical middle-aged man. And he’s the villain.) Instead, the movie is drenched in sunshine, suffused with wholesomeness, and set in a small California town so close-knit that the traffic cop knows everyone’s name.  Most of the action is filmed in a comfortable family home that could have been lifted right off the set of Meet Me in St. Louis. In fact, Sally Benson, the author of the original “Meet me In St. Louis” stories, co-wrote the screenplay, along with another great chronicler of small-town American life, Thornton Wilder.

And to top it all off, the heroine and sleuth…is a teenaged girl.

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Series: Noir Week on Tor.com

What We Pretend to Be: The Devil’s Arithmetic

“We are what we pretend to be.”—Kurt Vonnegut

Time travel is about identity, because people are products of their times: when a character is unmoored from their own time and plonked into another one, it inevitably brings up the question of who they actually are, where their identity resides.

Well, okay, maybe not inevitably. There are plenty of kids’ time-travel stories where the main character(s) visit the past like tourists, look around, learn something (“Wow, life was tough on the prairies/in the Revolutionary War/in Medieval Europe!”), and go back home, without any identity crises at all. But even in those, unless they’re invisible (that happens sometimes too), the time travelers have to account for their presence to the contemps somehow: they need find a way to blend in and pretend, sometimes to everyone, sometimes to all but a few confidantes, that they belong there. The time traveler has to, in a sense, become an undercover agent.

But when identity comes into the mix in a deeper way, it gets at a haunting human question: if we lived somewhere else, or sometime else, would we be someone else too? Would we still be ourselves? What’s that self consist of, anyway? Is it the physical stuff around us? The people we know? Our names? Or is it something deeper, more essential, harder to destroy?

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The World Shot Through with Magic: Linnets and Valerians

At first glance, Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge, doesn’t look like children’s fantasy at all: No one goes to a school for wizards, or meets an elf, or a fairy; no one travels to another dimension, or to another time; there are no talking animals, no invisibility cloaks, no magic mirrors or poisoned apples. And not one character flies through the air on a broomstick, or on anything else: everyone’s feet are firmly planted on the good rich English earth.

And yet, in some ways, none of that is true, and many of those things DO happen. Because Linnets and Valerians is a book of both the purest naturalism and the purest magic. There are guardian bees and a shapeshifting cat and a book of evil spells, and at least three people are bewitched. There is one character who may be an elf, and another who is almost certainly a very nasty witch. There is a mirror that on one occasion seems to reflect something, or someone, from the past. There is a statue that may or may not occasionally come to life. There are corridors, and woodland paths, that lead different ways at different times. There is evil, and there is good, and both those things have demonstrable power.

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Books Within Books: Inkheart and Seven-Day Magic

At seven or eight years old I used to choose reading material by running my hand along the spines of the books in the library, convinced that when I found the right book I’d feel a buzz, a tingle, some physical communion with the item. I swear sometimes it happened. Though it might just have been a well-chosen font.

It can’t be all that uncommon, among book-lovers, to feel strongly that books are not just meaningful and cherished but actually magic—that all the love the reader has for a book, and all the time and attention the author put into it, invests it with something more than the sum of its parts, more than the words that comprise its intellectual content and the ink and paper and glue that make up its physical existence.

So it makes sense that the book as magical object shows up a lot in children’s fantasy. And it’s not always benign magic, either.

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YA SFF Saves

Every year or so, there appears a much-publicized article decrying the dark, depressing and degenerate state of young adult fiction. The most recent edition of this perennial kerfuffle broke out last Saturday, when the Wall Street Journal published a piece by one Meghan Cox Gurdon entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” which hit all the traditional high points: the hapless anecdotal parent who can’t find a decent book for her child; the alarmist list of topics supposedly now common in YA (“kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed… at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”); the castigation of publishers as money-grubbing opportunists who don’t care a fig for children’s fragile sensibilities.

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Intimations of Bordertown

Let’s be clear on one thing: Bordertown is made up. Fictional. Not real. You can’t find it in the World Book Encyclopedia or on Google Maps (I’ve tried). Writer and editor Terri Windling invented it in the 1980’s, and invited a bunch of writers in to share and populate the place, a city in our world but slam-up against the border to Faerie (or Elfland, or the Realm; call it what you like, it’s the same place).

It’s a rundown, punk, jerry-rigged kind of city, where magic works sometimes and technology works sometimes but neither works reliably, and runaway humans and elves converge to find real magic or make art or just construct a way to survive in a place they can call their own, or make their own.

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