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April 03, 2017

Say Hwæt? (Voice, Beowulf, and the Art of Translation)

This is not a Seamus Heaney fangirl post.

Okay, maybe it is a little. But mostly, this will be a post about voice; that strange, amorphous part of a story that seems to be so hard to define. Voice is, of course, short for “the voice of the storyteller,” and I would argue that it is at least as important as plot. A good writer—one who can tell a good story, one whose prose seems to be a living thing—can make any story interesting. I would rather read a good writer’s description of a trip to the pharmacy than a bad writer’s tale of muscly space hunks who save the Earth from a giant asteroid.[i]

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because I relied so heavily on Heaney’s translation while I was writing Grendel’s Guide to Love and War.

When I first began tinkering with the idea of this book, I had to confront the fact that my understanding of Beowulf was embarrassingly shallow. I had read the original, but I only understood it as a story about feuds, monsters, and good folks ripping the arms off bad folks because they deserved it. The greater subtext… Beowulf’s value system, the reality of the world he lived in, what it was that he really wanted—that was all lost on me.

Heaney’s work—the epic infused with his own voice—changed my understanding of what was most important about Beowulf, which, more than a story about a good arm-ripping, is a story about the immortality of legacies and the desperate need people have to be known and remembered. It took my reading a different translation for me to see what I needed to see in the text. Without it, I never would have been able to finish writing Grendel at all.

When I first read Beowulf, Heaney’s translation did not yet exist.[ii] Our high school textbook contained excerpts from an older translation, and while it was serviceable, it was hardly inspiring. I liked the story; there were monsters, and monsters are always good, and the good guy bites it in dramatic fashion, which is even better. But at the same time, it was just… okay. None of us reading that text ever stood up in class and said “Holy crap, did you just read that?”

So when I came across Seamus Heaney’s translation many years later, imagine my surprise when I stood up and said, “Holy crap!”

I’ll give you an example. My favorite part of the epic is the end, after Beowulf has died. Everybody is thinking this is probably not good, and since we’ve seen Beowulf’s milquetoast thanes (who famously stand around eating popcorn while Beowulf fights the dragon until he keels over dead), we know they are probably correct to be worried. Here’s the 1910 translation by Francis Barton Gummere:

Wailing her woe, the widow1 old,
her hair upbound, for Beowulf’s death
sung in her sorrow, and said full oft
she dreaded the doleful days to come,
deaths enow, and doom of battle,
and shame.

Okay. So, we know things are not that great? But, you know. Whatever. It’s cool. I would argue that “doleful” is a poor word choice if he’s trying to convey something really catastrophic.

Now here’s Heaney’s translation of the same part of the text:[iii]
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement.

Heaney manages to convey an almost unutterable existential dread. It’s chilling. And we understand, now, that Beowulf was not just a slayer of mythical monsters. He was all that stood between his people and an oncoming tide of horrors, slavery, and death.

Heaney does all that with the power of his voice. The entire translation is fabulous, and it punches you in the gut again and again. It wasn’t until I found the right translation that I was able to connect with the story on a deeper level. And this is how Beowulf, run through the filter of my own brain, became Grendel’s Guide, which is of course not a translation but a retelling (retelling being translation’s freer, less literal cousin). My hero is Grendel, not Beowulf, although he struggles with the same basic desires, though Tom’s craving is less to be remembered than to remember others, and to connect to a father whose own broken memory has caused him to drift away from his son. Tom fights not actual monsters but those villains one is more likely to run into in 2017: the self-absorbed, the cruel, and the willfully ignorant.

These different levels of interpretation—from translations to retellings—serve as a set of gateways to the original work, with Beowulf (in the original Old English) in the center, the translations inhabiting the next rung, and the retellings the next.

Some might argue that the further out you go from the original, the more you obscure the original intent, but I would argue that these gateways also serve to shine new light on the original, by giving new ways of understanding a story. John Gardner’s Grendel asked (long before I did) what the story might have been like from the Grendel’s point of view.[iv] Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary—who wrote the script for the 2007 Angelina Jolie-fronted film Beowulf—imagined that Hrothgar and Grendel were actually related.[v]

So what is the point? Translations, are important not just because they disclose the literal contents of the text, but because they convey the heart and voice of the story. It’s an enormous challenge, working within the framework of someone else’s existing words, rendering those words into a different language, and then breathing life back into them again.[vi] Unfortunately, many non-English works only have one translation available, and you just have to hope that what you have is a good one. But for older and more famous works, there are frequently multiple possibilities, and these are often the texts assigned to young people, who may be seeing these stories for the first time. And finding the right translation—not just an accurate one, but one with a voice that is witty, vivid, and accessible—may mean the difference between an engaged, passionate reader and one who leaves the story behind, baffled and bored.

Of course, this is what those of us who write retelling are doing as well… imbuing existing stories with our own voices, and hoping we’re up to the task of taking something old and grand and giving it a new life. And perhaps those new stories will inspire the next generation to add their own layers of interpretation to the gateways around Beowulf.

[ii] Between the time I first read Beowulf and wrote Grendel’s Guide, Heaney won the Nobel prize, translated Beowulf and a host of other works, and published half a dozen of his own poetry anthologies. He was a busy guy.

[iii] For further comparison, here is Tolkien’s 1926 (published in 2014) translation of the same passage:

There too a lamentable lay many a Geatish maiden with braided tresses for Beowulf made, singing in sorrow, oft repeating that days of evil she sorely feared, many a slaying cruel and terror armed, ruin and thraldom’s bond.

(Heaney’s is still the best version.)

[iv] There is no prank war in Gardner’s version, nor are there any pigs, pot-eating or otherwise.

[v] NB: if a hot woman appears randomly out of a bog, probably sleeping with her is a bad idea.

[vi] I sometimes think that translating a book works a bit like the transporters on Star Trek… you take someone apart at the molecular level, send then someplace else, and then put them back together, but if you are not very careful, the person does not come back to life at the other end.

April 03, 2017

Books to Recommend for Your Students’ Summer Reading list!

It’s hard to believe that summer is just around the corner!  Check out these engaging middle-grade novels that you can feel good about recommending to students and parents to maintain healthy reading habits while on vacation.

For kids who love HUMOR!

PB: 978-0-385-75586-3
HC: 978-0-385-75583-2
GLB: 978-0-385-75584-9
EL: 978-0-385-75585-6
CD: 978-0-1475-2117-0

Red is not afraid of the big bad wolf. She’s not afraid of anything . . . except magic.

But when Red’s granny falls ill, it seems that only magic can save her, and fearless Red is forced to confront her one weakness. With the help of a blond, porridge-sampling nuisance called Goldie, Red goes on a quest to cure Granny. Her journey takes her through dwarves’ caverns to a haunted well and a beast’s castle. All the while, Red and Goldie are followed by a wolf and a huntsman—two mortal enemies who seek the girls’ help to defeat each other. And one of them just might have the magical solution Red is looking for.

Liesl Shurtliff spins a spellbinding tale, shining the spotlight on one of the most beloved characters from her award-winning debut, Rump.

Also Available:


For kids who love PUZZLES!

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics
PB: 978-0-553-51042-3
HC: 978-0-553-51040-9
GLB: 978-0-553-51041-6
EL: 978-0-553-51043-0
CD: 978-0-1475-2038-8

Welcome, boys and girls, and readers of all ages, to the Library Olympics! Kyle and his teammates are back because the world-famous game maker, Luigi Lemoncello, is at it again! 

This time Mr. Lemoncello has invited teams from all across America to compete in the first-ever Library Olympics. Will it be fun? Like the commercials say . . . HELLO? It’s a Lemoncello! Of course it will be fun! But something suspicious is going on . . . books are missing from Mr. Lemoncello’s library. In between figuring out mind-boggling challenges, the kids will have to band together to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Now it’s not just a game—can Mr. Lemoncello find the real defenders of books and champions of libraries? Packed with puzzles, clues, and thrilling surprises, this is a deliciously fun, action-packed sequel to the New York Times bestselling Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. Let the games begin! BONUS: Look for brand-new extras in the paperback!

Also Available:


For kids who love FAMILY STORIES!

Penny from Heaven
PB: 978-0-375-83689-3
HC: 978-0-375-93687-9
GLB: 978-0-375-93687-6
EL: 978-0-375-84926-8
CD: 978-0-7393-3596-3
Educators’ Guide

Inspired by acclaimed author Jennifer L. Holm’s own Italian American family, the New York Times bestselling, Newbery Medal winner Penny from Heaven is the story of a summer of adventures, surprises, and secrets that will change everything for Penny. But most of all, it’s a story about families—about the things that tear them apart and bring them back together.

It’s 1953, and eleven-year-old Penny dreams of a summer of ice cream, swimming, and baseball. But nothing’s that easy in Penny’s family. For starters, she’s not supposed to go swimming because her mother is afraid she’ll catch polio at the pool. To make matters worse, her dog, Scarlett O’Hara, is sick. Her favorite uncle is living in a car. Her best friend is turning into a criminal. And no one will tell her the truth about how her father died.

Also Available:


For kids who love MYSTERIES!

Fuzzy Mud
PB: 978-0-385-37022-6
HC: 978-0-385-74378-5
GLB: 978-0-375-99129-5
EL: 978-0-385-37021-9
CD: 978-0-8041-2138-5
Louis Sachar Author Study Guide

Be careful. Your next step may be your last.

Fifth grader Tamaya Dhilwaddi and seventh grader Marshall Walsh have been walking to and from Woodridge Academy together since elementary school. But their routine is disrupted when bully Chad Hilligas challenges Marshall to a fight. To avoid the conflict, Marshall takes a shortcut home through the off-limits woods. Tamaya, unaware of the reason for the detour, reluctantly follows. They soon get lost. And then they find trouble. Bigger trouble than anyone could ever have imagined.

In the days and weeks that follow, the authorities and the US Senate become involved, and what they uncover might affect the future of the world.

Also Available:


March 01, 2017

“Teachers Matter: A Letter to My Teacher” by Deborah Hopkinson

We don’t write letters much anymore. At least, I don’t.

These days, most of the letters I get are from students. Just yesterday, at an author visit at Lowrie Primary in Wilsonville, Oregon, I was presented with a heavy, beautifully wrapped box. Inside I discovered more than five hundred letters—one from each student in the school. The stack sits on my desk as I write, tied with a blue ribbon, a testament to both the writers’ hard work and the thoughtfulness of the teachers and librarians who organized the effort.

The letters are from children whose families hail from all over the world. Last night, at a family literacy event, I chatted with a father and his two children from Egypt, a mother and daughter from India, a family who’d moved to Oregon from Pittsburgh, and Latino families who had taken advantage of the school’s special interpreter headphones. During the day I met more than five hundred children, all part of that unique learning community we call a school.

I was struck by this sign prominently displayed in the front office (it also appears on the school’s website):

As an author, I am privileged to be able to visit schools all over the country. Invariably I come away feeling a sense of awe as I meet caring, dedicated professionals working incredibly hard, day after day, to create welcoming, nurturing learning communities for all children.

So, although it is fictional, A Letter to My Teacher is my own thank-you letter to all the educators I’ve met, and so many others. Lately I’ve found myself wishing that, like the girl in the story, I’d taken the time to thank many of the teachers who changed my life and encouraged me to read—and especially to write. I hope reading this book will encourage others to write their own letters of gratitude.

Speaking of being grateful, I am thankful, as always, to Anne Schwartz, for helping me to craft the best story I could. I’ve worked with Anne and Lee Wade for a long time, and the beautiful books in the Schwartz & Wade imprint never fail to astonish and surprise.

But I think what makes A Letter to My Teacher truly shine is Nancy Carpenter’s sensitive, evocative artwork. Somehow, Nancy has captured the heart of what I really wanted to convey: teachers make a profound difference in individual lives—perhaps more than they will ever know.

I wrote an early draft of this book in an April snowstorm a few years ago. I was in New Hampshire, visiting my daughter, Rebekah, who, at the time, was in graduate school and about to embark on a teaching career. I’ve dedicated the book to Rebekah, who is now an incredibly gifted teacher who inspires her students every day.

A final note—while I don’t write personal letters, I DO still work with students at author visits to incorporate letter-writing activities into my presentations. So, teachers, get ready: you might find yourselves with a treasure trove of grateful student letters thanks to A Letter to My Teacher. And you will deserve each and every one. Thank you!

March 01, 2017

Celebrate Women’s History Month!

The future is female, but so is the past and present! Women’s History Month is the time to learn about it all. Dive into these books with your class, and explore some amazing female figures! With books of all reading levels about diverse women from different backgrounds and fields of study, there is something to inspire everyone.

Miss Paul and the President
By Dean Robbins, Illustrated by Nancy Zhang
Ages 4–­8

Alice Paul was a mischievous child, but she was always determined. Determined to keep up with the boys. Determined to read every book she could find. Determined to be a leader.

She became a suffragette and vowed to see women gain the right to vote. So when President Woodrow Wilson said there were other matters he needed to handle first, Alice would not be deterred. She organized the National Women’s Party and marched down the streets of Washington, D.C. She held parades and signed petitions and would not quit, because she was determined to be an equal citizen in the country she loved. And though President Wilson did attend to other matters, his daughter Margaret was also an advocate for suffrage and convinced her father to pay attention to Alice and her cause.

With creativity and fortitude, Alice Paul helped change the face of the democratic process. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to participate in that process, the impact of which still resonates today.

By Jonah Winter; illustrated by Raul Colón
Ages 4–8

How did a scrappy little girl from a suburb of Chicago become one of the most important women in American history? Find out in this beautiful and empowering picture-book biography of the incomparable Hillary Rodham Clinton. In vibrant text and captivating artwork, Winter and Colón illuminate Clinton’s distinguished life and career, from her early years as an outspoken student at Wellesley College and Yale Law School, to marrying Bill Clinton and raising daughter Chelsea, to becoming First Lady of the United States, and then a US senator, and then secretary of state. Follow the inspiring story of the woman who was the first female presidential nominee of a major political party in the United States, and who has been a role model to boys and girls all over America.


Trailblazers: 33 Women in Science Who Changed the World
By Rachel Swaby
Ages 10 & Up

This middle-grade work, inspired by the author’s Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the World, profiles a cross section of history’s female scientists who have made important strides in the fields of biology, health and medicine, Earth and stars, and technology and invention. Perfect for STEM and classroom use.





Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iqaq
By Mark Alan Stamaty
Ages 5–8

The inspiring story of an Iraqi librarian’s courageous fight to save books from the Basra Central Library before it was destroyed in the war.

It is 2003 and Alia Muhammad Baker, the chief librarian of the Central Library in Basra, Iraq, has grown worried given the increased likelihood of war in her country. Determined to preserve the irreplaceable records of her culture and history from the destruction of the war, Alia undertakes the courageous and extremely dangerous task of spiriting away 30,000 books from the library to a safe place.

Told in dramatic graphic-novel panels by acclaimed cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty, Alia’s Mission celebrates the importance of books and the freedom to read, while examining the impact of war on a country and its people.

Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time
By Tanya Lee Stone, in association with Girl Rising
Ages 14 & Up

One girl with courage is a revolution. In collaboration with the makers of the film Girl Rising, this stunning nonfiction book shows how educating girls in developing countries can break the cycle of poverty in just one generation.

Millions of girls around the world face barriers to education, such as poverty, child marriage, domestic slavery, sex trafficking, gender violence and discrimination, and lack of healthcare. Removing these obstacles means not only a better life for girls, but a safer, healthier, and more prosperous world for all. Tanya Lee Stone, an award-winning writer, deftly uses new research to illuminate the facts and stories behind the film. With stunning full-color photos from the film, infographics, and a compelling narrative, Girl Rising will inspire readers of all ages to help change the world.

Your Own, Sylvia
By Stephanie Hemphill
Ages 12 & Up

Your Own, Sylvia draws on Plath’s writing and extensive nonfiction sources, chronicling Hemphill’s interpretation of Plath’s life from infancy to her death by suicide at age 30. The poems are arranged chronologically and each conveys an experience in Plath’s life told via the voice and perspective of family members, friends, doctors, fellow writers, etc.—as interpreted by Hemphill. Each poem is accompanied by an addendum that further explains the factual circumstances of that poem’s subject. The book also includes an Author’s Note, some photos, a section describing the source material for each poem, and suggestions for further reading.


March 01, 2017

Discover how to use these graphic novels in your classroom!

Kids love graphic novels because they’re visually stimulating and accessible. But why do educators love graphic novels? Here are some reasons we’ve been given by teachers and librarians:

  • Graphic novels take you on a visual and mental journey.
  • They add a dimension to the story no other medium can.
  • They’re motivating, complex, imaginative, and a bridge to more.
  • They help make topics easier to digest with engaging storylines!

We think those are pretty good reasons to get your hands on a graphic novel or two! To give you a few options, we’ve rounded up some favorites that you won’t be able to put down. If you use graphic novels in your classroom or library, let us know! Email us at slmarket@penguinrandomhouse.com. Enjoy, and keep reading!

Lucy & Andy Neanderthal
By Jeffrey Brown
Ages 8–12
Graphic Novels Educators’ Guide

From the New York Times bestselling author of the Jedi Academy series comes the first installment in a new, humorous graphic-novel series about two Neanderthal siblings living 40,000 years ago. In the hilarious tale of Lucy and her goofball brother Andy, the duo handles a wandering baby brother, bossy teens, cave paintings, and a mammoth hunt. A special paleontologist section at the end of the book helps to dispel common Neanderthal myths.


5 Worlds Book 1: The Sand Warrior
By Mark Siegel and Alexis Siegel; illustrated by Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun
Ages 8–12

Oona is the clumsiest student at the Sand Dancer Academy. It’s her older sister—the one who ran away—who’s supposed to light the beacons and save the worlds. So why can Oona create a Sand Warrior? An Tzu is an orphaned boy from the slums. He has lots of street smarts but no idea how to stop the illness that’s turning him invisible! And why do plants react to his music? Jax Amboy is THE star athlete of the 5 Worlds. If only he were human! Jax is a robot in disguise, and he may hold the secret to why the Toki are invading. Time is running out in the 5 Worlds. Can this unlikely trio rise to the challenge and face down the forces of evil in time to light the five beacons and save the worlds?


Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo Book 1: The Road to Epoli
By James Parks and Ben Costa
Ages 12 & Up

Rickety Stitch is a walking, talking, singing skeleton minstrel, the only animated skeleton in the dungeon who seems to have retained his soul. He has no idea who he used to be when he was a living, breathing sack of meat and skin. His only clue to his former identity is a song he hears snippets of in his dreams, an epic bard’s tale that could also explain the fog covering the comical fantasy land of Eem. . . . Oh, and his sidekick and only friend is a cube of sentient goo. In this rollicking first volume, Rickety encounters imps, gnomes, giants, unicorns, a mysterious lady knight, and other fantasy dwellers on his quest to uncover his identity and spread his (painfully bad) music far and wide.

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great
By Jessie Hartland
Ages 12 & Up

A quick yet comprehensive read, this graphic biography illuminates an entrepreneurial life in both words and images—from Steve’s adoption and childhood spent tinkering, to dropping out of college and traveling around India, to founding Apple and inventing the iPod and other devices, to transforming the music industry, to cofounding Pixar Animation, to his untimely death.




Hilo Book 3: The Great Big Boom
By Judd Winick
Ages 8–12
Graphic Novels Educators’ Guide

D.J. and Gina are TOTALLY ordinary kids. But Hilo isn’t! When we last saw our INTREPID TRIO, Gina had been sucked into a mysterious portal to who knows where?! But friends don’t let friends disappear into NOWHERE! It’s up to D.J. and Hilo to follow her! Will there be danger? YES! Will there be amazing surprises? OF COURSE! Will Gina end up being the one to save them? DEFINITELY! With the help of Polly, the magical warrior cat, the friends will have to battle bad guys and face disgusting food, an angry mom, terrible knock-knock jokes, powerful magic, and more! Will they survive . . . and make it back to earth before the portal closes again?!