March-April 2008 Selected Content
Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp
Wretched Writers Welcome
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which participants compete to write the first sentence of the world's most dreadful novel, was established in 1982 by English professor Scott Rice at San Jose State University. Rice, in graduate school, was assigned a paper on Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the irrepressibly wordy (and justifiably un-famous) Victorian novelist, author of long-forgotten Paul Clifford, which opens with the immortal line, "It was a dark and stormy night..." This literary disaster led Rice to invent a contest in Bulwer-Lytton's name. Abbreviated as the BLFC, the contest is now an annual event with thousands of applicants, enthusiastic media coverage, and numerous subcategories, among them Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Children's Literature, and Purple Prose. The rules for entry are described as "childishly simple:" applicants simply submit their awful sentence in an e-mail or via snail mail on an index card. For electronic submissions, visit the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Web site at www.bulwer-lytton.com (the "www," they claim, stands for "Wretched Writers Welcome") or mail your entry to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, Department of English, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA 95192-0090. Or send your multiple entries: there are no limitations; contestants can submit as many awful sentences as they want. The annual deadline is April 15, but entries are accepted year-round.
The BLFC Web site (see above) is definitely targeted at teenagers and adults, but the contest itself - check it out for your kids - should be fun for a range of ages. (I mean, who doesn't want to write a really awful sentence?) You can read the annual winners, runners-up, and dishonorable mentions at the Bulwer-Lytton site - and they're all truly horrid, as in the 2007 Children's Literature top pick: "Danny, the little grizzly cub, frolicked in the tall grass on this sunny spring morning, his mother keeping a watchful eye as she chewed on a piece of a hiker they had encountered the day before."
But just what is an awful sentence, anyway? Clearly there's disagreement here: the Web site "Great Prose or Not?" at reverent.org/bulwer-dickens.html demonstrates that sometimes it's tough to tell, with an online quiz that challenges readers to differentiate between sentences by (the maligned) Edward Bulwer-Lytton and (the acclaimed) Charles Dickens. Also see:
The University of Chicago Writing Program
Each week participants submit the most awful sentences discovered in published sources. The winning worst weekly sentence is featured on the Web site, with a discussion of just why it's so awful, and suggestions for how to fix it.
Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses
If you've got a kid reading The Pathfinder or The Deerslayer, try this: a Mark Twain essay on the awfulness of the sentences of James Fenimore Cooper.
For those aiming to correct, rather than invent, awful sentences, Jane Bell Keister's Caught' Ya! (Grammar With a Giggle) series (Maupin House Publishing) provides plenty of scope. The books, variously appropriate for kids in the early elementary grades through high school, include the text of a story told in thoroughly awful sentences; in the course of winkling out the mistakes, kids learn grammar, word usage, vocabulary, sentence structure, and spelling. Books and CDs are available from Maupin House Publishing (www.maupinhuse.com; 800-524-0634) or from bookstores. The Critical Thinking Company's Editor in Chief series by Cheryl Block and colleagues similarly uses pictures, picture captions, and short (grammatically disastrous) stories for kids in grades K-12 to edit and correct, thus learning grammar skills and language mechanics. Books and accompanying CDs are available from the Critical Thinking Company (www.criticalthinking.com; 800-458-4849) or from bookstores.
Or you can tackle this one, the Dishonorable Mention in the BLFC Science Fiction category: "Racing through space at unimaginable speeds, Capt. Dimwell could only imagine how fast his spaceship was going."
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
This is a nicely designed board game of first lines, in which players hop their pieces around a beautifully illustrated and highly literary board, trying to identify titles and authors from the first line of a well-known book (or movie). Books are categorized by genre - Children's Books, Shakespeare's Plays, Short Stories, Mysteries, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Novels, Non-fiction, and more. The play is straightforward: players earn book tokens for correct answers; first person to collect eight book tokens wins. The game is recommended for teenagers and adults, but with a little creative adaptation (say, play in teams and let the kids answer all the Children's Book questions), younger family members can play too.
What book, for example, do these openers come from?
"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines."
"The Mole had been working very hard all of the morning, spring cleaning his little home."
(Answers: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis; Madeline by Louis Bemelmans; The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.)
The game itself costs $49.95 from www.goodreadgames.com or from retail game stores (see the Web site for a list); the Web site also includes a page where enthusiastic players can submit their own favorite first lines to be included in future editions of the game.
And, as always, don't forget that adroit homeschoolers with a handy pack of index cards can always invent first-line games of their own.
Children's Book Quizzes<
From the Web site of a children's author, a large collection of children's literature quizzes, including several on famous first lines.
A free online reading motivation program for grades K-8. Registered users have access to a large number of literature quizzes on individual books.
The site includes a long list of quizzes on children's books and authors.
Fun Trivia: Children's Literature
Hundreds of quizzes on children's books and authors, categorized by level of difficulty.
For older students, several multiple choice quizzes on American, English, and world literature.
About.com: Classic Literature
A large collection of creative quizzes on the classics that runs the gamut from Antigone to Washington Irving.
Norton Anthology of English Literature Quiz
For older students, a collection of challenging quizzes categorized by time period, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.
George's Secret Key to the Universe
George's Secret Key to the Universe (Simon and Schuster, 2007) is the first of a proposed trilogy by physicist Stephen Hawking and his daughter, Lucy, published by Simon and Schuster (2007). It's a chapter book for readers ages 8-13, nicely designed, with humorous black-and-white illustrations by Garry Parsons, encyclopedic fact entries in shaded boxes, and gorgeous glossy color photographs of astronomical features, courtesy of the Hubble telescope. It's filled with real science, of which I am a passionate defender. I hate not liking it.
Here's the plot: George, the title character, is being raised by organic, vegetarian, anti-technology parents without benefit of television, computer, or electric light bulbs. Then George's obstreperous pet pig Freddy escapes through the fence into the overgrown yard of the abandoned house next door, which proves to be newly inhabited by Annie, who is George's age, Annie's father Eric, a scientist, and Cosmos, the most powerful computer in the world, who also has most of the book's personality. Cosmos is able to open portals leading to various parts of the universe, through which Annie, George, and Eric - in various combinations - explore the wonders of space. There's a bad guy named Graham Reeper (nicknamed "Grim") who wants to use science for personal gain and power and who, incidentally, happens to be George's teacher at school. The climax of the book occurs when Eric is sucked into a black hole, but George, reading the helpful book he left behind ("My Difficult Book Made Simple for Annie and George"), discovers that things can escape from black holes, which slowly leak particles in the form of Hawking radiation. With the help of Cosmos, Eric is saved, and George wins his school science competition with a speech about how science is really important: "Without it, we don't understand anything, so how can we get anything right or make any good decisions? Some people think science is boring, some people think it's dangerous - and if we don't get interested in science and learn about it and use it properly, then maybe it is those things. But if you try and understand it, it's fascinating and it matters to us and to the future of our planet."
Well, sure. The problem is that the entire book is filled with little pro-science pep talks like that; rather than being shown convincingly that science is interesting, the reader is simply told over and over again that it must be, and "Because I said so" has never, in my opinion, been a strong argument. George's Secret Key to the Universe is a science textbook masquerading as a weak science-fiction story, and as such it doesn't work very well.
But I have to say, I sure wanted it to.
$17.99 (or less) from bookstores and online book suppliers. Also see the companion Web site at www.georgessecretkey.com.
Teaching the Classics
Teaching the Classics in the Inclusive Classroom by Katherine S. McKnight and Bradley P. Berlage (Jossey-Bass, 2007; www.josseybass.com) is not the sort of title that ordinarily warms a homeschooler's heart - and at first glance, neither does the text, which includes a lot of obfuscating education-speak. For example, there are four pages alone on "Rosenblatt's Transactional Theory" (with diagrams), which all boils down to the idea that it's better to let kids form their own interpretations of literature than to force-feed them a single teacher-selected "correct" response. Well, duh.
However, if you manage to plow through (or judiciously skip) most of this, the authors relax enough to present some interesting proposals for literature projects. In one instance, kids made themed posters depicting the historical contexts of featured books - to accompany Chekov's "The Cherry Orchard," for example, Chekov's late 19th/early 20th-century Russia was put in perspective with posters detailing the fashions, living conditions, royal family, famous people, transportation, and so on of the times. In another, kids discovered and listened to popular songs and other music selections that relate to works of classic literature - David Bowie's "1984" paired with George Orwell's dystopic novel 1984; "Richard Cory" by Wings paired with the Edward Arlington Robinson poem of the same name; Iron Maiden's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." (A long list is included.)
Kids also created graphic novels and reader's theatre scripts to accompany classic texts, and designed and illustrated character bookmarks (one for each major character in a given work). They invented personal book bags for literary characters - place five items in a bag that you think represent a specific person encountered in your reading. (What would Juliet carry in her bag? What about Ulysses? Hester Prynne?) The kids made scrapbooks, wrote literature letters, kept character diaries. There's some good stuff here, if you make the effort to pry it out.
The book is intended for teachers (parents) of kids in grades 6-12. $24.95 from bookstores or online book suppliers.
© 2008, Rebecca Rupp