In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Harry Potter and the Girl who Reads Everything

Dear Aunt Debbie,

A couple of nights ago, Eleanor came into my bedroom needing to talk about why she wanted to stop reading a book. On non-school nights, we let the kids stay up with reading lights, and Eleanor is always the last to turn hers off, reading until 10 or sometimes even 11 PM. Then she'll come downstairs to find me and Jeff, or into our room, with a smile on her face, that little smile that says I know I shouldn't be up, but now is my favorite time to talk with you, alone.

A couple of nights ago, she wasn't smiling. Earlier this week, she had begun to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth Harry Potter book. I wrote this summer about Eleanor starting the series; how much I love what she is getting from the books, but how I have also been trying to slow her down, out of fear that the emotional content will take her too deeply over her head too young. I said I was fine with books 1-3, but discouraged book 4, in which Harry experiences the first death of a character we have grown to like, a fellow student murdered by Voldemort during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. My caution was rebuffed; she read on. After book 4, she reassured me the content was fine. She paused again, but late in the summer she began pushing to read book 5. She borrowed it from my parents last week.

Which brings us to Eleanor walking into my bedroom with The Order of the Phoenix under her arm, upset. A little more than 500 pages in, she had just read a scene set in a wizarding hospital, in which Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny run into their friend Neville and his grandmother. Neville and Mrs. Longbottom are there to visit Neville's parents, who were tortured into insanity by one of Voldemort's followers.

It's not a dramatic or violent scene:

Neville's mother had come edging down the ward in her nightdress. She no longer had the plump, happy-looking face Harry had seen in Moody's old photograph of the original Order of the Phoenix. Her face was thin and worn now, her eyes seemed overlarge, and her hair, which had turned white, was wispy and dead-looking. She did not seem to want to speak, or perhaps she was not able to, but she made timid motions toward Neville, holding something in her outstretched had.

"Again?" said Mrs. Longbottom, sounding slightly weary. "Very well, Alice dear, very well -- Neville, take it, whatever it is...."

But Neville had already stretched out his hand, into which his mother dropped an empty Droobles Blowing Gum wrapper. 

"Very nice, dear," said Neville's grandmother in a falsely cheery voice, patting his mother on the shoulder. But Neville said quietly, "Thanks Mum."

His mother tottered away, back up the ward, humming to herself. Neville looked around at the others, his expression defiant, as though daring them to laugh, but Harry did not think he'd ever found anything less funny in his life.

In telling me what had upset her, Eleanor was close to tears: the image of parents unable to communicate with their child, unable to do more than hand him a useless gum wrapper, was deeply troubling. This, even more than the images of death threaded through the books, was what made her want to stop reading. It was empathy; the book striking too close to a horror she could imagine.

But she didn't feel she could stop reading. Why not?

"I'm supposed to be the girl who reads everything," she said, hugging me. Oh dear.

"No," I said carefully, "you're the girl who loves to read. And you're someone who reads deeply, and who gets emotionally involved in the books you read. This is a good thing. But sometimes that might mean that something your friends have read is going to feel different to you than it did to them when they read it." We talked about how people read in different ways, and how something that feels scary to one reader might not to another. I mentioned that J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books to be read by kids who were Harry's age in each book -- by that rule, she's a 9 year old reading something written for 15 year olds. There's nothing to be ashamed of if it doesn't feel like the right thing to be reading at the moment.

She decided she wanted to stop reading the book, and I said I thought that was a good decision. The wonderful thing about books is that they will be there for you when you're ready for them. Until then, you can reread the first four books, and pick up the next one sometime in the future, when it feels like the right time. We practiced what she might say to her friends who have read the whole series, if they ask why she hasn't finished. She said, "I'll say it makes me feel too much emotional pressure to read it right now." Then she asked if we could give the book back to my parents for now, "so I won't feel possessed by the urge to pick it up again."

Two things struck me deeply about this conversation. First, Eleanor's determination about what feels "real" and what doesn't. She compared Harry Potter to the Percy Jackson series, saying that Percy Jackson felt less scary because "it couldn't really happen." Of course, both series are fantasy, filled with magic and impossible occurrences, but I understood what she meant: the situations in Rick Riordan's books feel more episodic; even when terrifying things happen, you're not really worried that the main characters will be hurt. There are so many moments in J.K. Rowling's books like the one between Neville and his mother: moments that feel emotionally real; not plot points, but character moments. (I googled the gum wrappers while writing this post, and found both that a lot of fans had wondered whether Neville's mother was slipping him secret messages, and that J.K. Rowling had said in an interview that that wasn't happening at all. She based the scene on the experience of a friend visiting his mother, who had Alzheimer's.) As she reads, Eleanor feels the difference.

The second thing that struck me was how much this book choice mattered to Eleanor in terms of her self-perception. I read somewhere recently that kids start to consciously carve out aspects of their identity around this age, 8 or 9; they start to see themselves as a certain type of person, and to act accordingly. This wasn't just about the question of stopping a particular book; because Harry Potter is so big, and because several of her friends have read the whole series, Eleanor saw it as something she should be doing as well as something she wanted to be doing. Because she's the girl who reads everything.

And that's where we try to step in as parents, right? To say yes, I see who you are becoming, and I love who you are becoming, and take my hand and step just a little over this way, see it just a little bit differently. See? It's still you, this slightly changed image. It's maybe even a slightly truer you.

I think often of something my Grandpa Frank, your father, used to say about kids: "You raise what you get." Here they are, these amazing young people growing into themselves; all we can do is try to know them and raise them the best that we can. Thank goodness we have books to help us along.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Graphic novel roundup

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As summer rolls to an end, we continue to be happily distracted by a plethora of great graphic novels. I realized recently, when recommending books to friends, that I have sadly neglected to blog about some of our favorites. Here's a roundup of our latest obsessions:

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales
We tend toward the fantastic and fictional in this house, but this historical graphic novel series has obsessed Eleanor and Isabel all summer. There are two Nathan Hales: There's the author and illustrator Nathan Hale, born in 1976, who we first encountered as illustrator of Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack, and who created this series. Then there's the historical Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War spy hanged in 1776, who serves as the narrator of the series.

The first book, One Dead Spy, tells the story of the historical Nathan Hale, and provides the frame story for every other book in the series. Hale is on the gallows in New York, about to be hanged by a cheerful, none-too-smart Hangman and a pompous British soldier. He says his famous last words ("I regret that I have but one life to give for my country"), and a giant eagle swoops down, picks him up, and drops him into an enormous magical history book. On emerging, Hale can see the future -- he now knows all of American history. He becomes a sort of Scheherazade, putting off his own death by telling the Hangman and the British soldier one story from American history in each volume of the series, as they comment throughout. There are six books so far, ranging from Revolutionary history to the Civil War (Big Bad Ironclad!), from heroes like Harriet Tubman (The Underground Abductor) to some of the least appealing episodes in American history (Donner Dinner Party). Both of my girls are retaining a huge amount of historical fact from the books; we've had the whole series out from the library all summer.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

For a totally immersive world filled with compelling teen characters of both genders, many of whom happen to have powers that allow them control of the elements, check out the Avatar series. We stumbled on them at the library, not knowing anything about the animated Nickelodeon series that preceded them (and which is also really, really good). I read the first out loud to Isabel and Will expecting it to be mediocre, as TV spinoffs so often are, and was happily surprised to find excellence instead. Looking at the title page, I was less surprised: the graphic novels are scripted by Gene Luen Yang, recently named National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, author of American Born Chinese, now also writing a teenage Chinese Superman for DC Comics -- is there anything he can't do?

The Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels follow the adventures of Avatar Aang (a teenage boy who is also the connection between the human and spirit worlds, and can "bend" air, water, earth, and fire), and his friends Katara (a water-bender), her brother Sokka (no powers, but funny), Toph (an earth-bender), and Zuko (a fire-bender, and ruler of the Fire Nation). The characters are complex--even the villains, like Zuko's evil sister Azula, have depth--and the plots are immersive. There are three 3-part series out right now: The Promise, The Search, and The Rift. The first volume of North and South is due out later this year. It's looking like we'll all be dressing up as Avatar characters for Halloween.

Giants Beware! and its sequel, Dragons Beware!
These excellent books came as gifts from you. They are the creation of Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, and join the list of spunky, awesome heroines on our Graphic Novels list page. The sword-wielding redhead on the cover is Claudette, daughter of blacksmith and warrior Augustine, who lost both legs and a hand to a dragon years ago. Behind her are her brother Gaston, who would rather whip up gourmet French food than fight; their friend Marie, daughter of the Marquis, aspiring princess and diplomat; and Claudette's dog Valiant. The two books (so far--it's clear that more are coming) include adventure with a touch of danger, but not so much that they become scary. Encounters with giants, dragons, and evil magic-wielding adults end well for all involved, and include a lot of humor. We're looking forward to more.

Raven the Pirate Princess
I wrote back in January about our love of Jeremy Whitley's graphic novel series Princeless, which combines a feminist sensibility with a racially diverse cast of characters, headed by Princess Adrienne, a fearless black princess who breaks herself out of the tower where she's been imprisoned by her father, makes friends with the dragon who's been sent to guard her, and sets off to rescue her similarly imprisoned sisters. In Book 3 of Princeless, Adrienne meets Raven Xingtao, the Pirate Princess, and now Raven has her own spin-off series. If anything, Whitley takes his characters even further into fabulous feminist territory as Raven assembles an all-female crew for her pirate ship and readies herself to go get her birthright back from her brothers, who usurped her place.

This series feels like it's aimed at a slightly older audience than Princeless -- middle grade and YA, I'd say. There's a little more violence, a little more sexual innuendo (between Raven and her the half-elf, Sunshine, and with her old best friend, Ximena; it's pretty clear that this comic is headed towards a lesbian relationship), and a lot of jokes about stereotypes and cultural appropriation that are very funny to a college-age sensibility. Here's Raven interviewing a bunch of male pirates before deciding she needs to stick to a female crew:

So brilliant. So much love.

There are more, of course (Ms. Marvel! Squirrel Girl! Raina Telgemeier's Baby-Sitters Club!), but I'll save them for another day.

I look forward to hearing about how it feels to be retired from bookselling!

Love, Annie

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Joining the Nerdy Book Club

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I've recently become an active reader of the fabulous website Nerdy Book Club. Every day, the Nerdy Book Club posts an essay by a different blogger: some are personal "Reading Life" essays, some are reviews (of new or "retro" books), some are author posts, etc. There is always something interesting going on.

Recently, I had the privilege of writing an essay for Nerdy Book Club, about the importance of reading with kids: "Why Reading with Kids Matters, at Home and in the Classroom."

It's a pleasure to join another excellent reading community!

Love, Annie

Monday, July 11, 2016

How children's books help me talk to my kids about race and gender

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Here we are a month later, with three more horrific shootings to process, with more grief and more anger and more unanswerable questions. Along with a number of my friends and acquaintances, I'm searching for ways to talk with my children about current events, ways to be honest about the complexities of race and politics in America on a kid-appropriate level.

On my local neighborhood listserve, someone suggested the websites Raising Race Conscious Children and  ParentsTogether, both of which have some excellent essays about how to talk to children of all races about race, racism, and violence.

For me, as with so many other major issues in life, I come at this conversation with my children through the books we read. Many of these are books I've brought into the house: I know their content, and when a complex issue comes up as we're reading together -- racist descriptions in Dr. Dolittle, for example -- I'm prepared to talk about it.

But increasingly, as we visit the library two or three times a week, all three of my kids are picking up and bringing home books that they read first -- sometimes entirely -- on their own. I try to pay attention without leaping in to censor their reading, even when I'm not crazy about the material they choose, and engage them in conversation about aspects of books that trouble me. As the library books pile up, however, some things slip through the cracks.

Isabel has recently been reading the Asterix comics, which I remember my brother Michael reading when we were kids, but which I've never read myself. Eleanor reads them too, because she reads every book that anyone brings into the house.

Two nights ago, Jeff picked up one of the books lying on our coffee table and came over to me, disturbed. "Have you looked at the depiction of black people in these books?" I hadn't. I did. It's horrendous.

The black characters in Asterix (almost all of them slaves seen serving white Romans) are old-school stereotypically racist, with dark skin, round white eyes, and swollen red lips. Here's an enlargement of an image on the first page of Asterix the Gladiator:


So yesterday morning, over breakfast, we had a conversation. 

I started by telling the girls that Jeff and I had been looking at the Asterix book the night before, and that something we saw in it was really disturbing to us. We pulled it out to take a look together, and do a little kid-friendly image analysis. 

I asked them, "What do you notice about how the black people in this book are drawn?" Then I let them talk and observe the skin, the lips, the expressions, trying to allow them the space to notice things themselves rather than jumping in to tell them what I wanted them to think. (It took me several years of teaching high school to learn how well this works.)

After they had identified a number of physical features, I asked, "Do these people look like real black people?" 
"How does this kind of drawing make them look?"
"They look like they're stupid."

Then I brought up the idea of stereotypes, which Jeff and I have talked about with the kids before: stereotypes are assumptions that you make about a whole group of people, which can damage people in that group by limiting what they are allowed to do and sometimes even hurting them in physical ways. A favorite entry point example in our house: many people used to believe that girls couldn't play sports as well as boys -- in fact, some people still think this. Because of that stereotype, girls who wanted to play sports were denied the opportunity. Bring this up, and both of my girls become immediately indignant. 

I explained that the way the black characters in Asterix are drawn is an example of an old, racist stereotype that some white people have had about black people. (You and I touched on this particular stereotype a few years ago in two posts about Little Black Sambo and its many contemporary retellings.)

Sometimes, I said, stereotypes like this can get into your head without you realizing it, because of what you read or see or hear around you. Subconsciously, those stereotypes start to change the way you think about a group of people.

We pulled out Will's 5-Minute Batman Stories to look for more stereotypes we might not have noticed. Here's a page of villains from the story "Harley Quinn's Perfect Prank": 

I asked, "What do you notice about the way Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman are drawn?"
"They're all wearing lipstick and eyeshadow."
"That's true. Think about the way their whole bodies look, too. I'm a woman -- does my body look like this?" I held the book up next to me. My daughters cracked up. (Answer: No.)
Eleanor said, "It looks like they're wearing corsets. They have tiny waists and really big..." She dissolved into giggles.
"You're absolutely right, they all have really big breasts. So when you read this book and look at the pictures, what do you think you might start to think about what a beautiful woman looks like?"
More giggling. "They have really big breasts!"

[Side note: The graphic novel series Princeless, which stars a strong, independent, black princess, does a terrific job of pointing out and poking fun at both racial and gender stereotypes in comic books. The scene where Princess Adrienne examines and comments on the outfits worn by Wonder Woman, Xena, and Red Sonja, is spot-on and extremely funny.]

Next, we looked at the page at the beginning of the book that lists the cast of characters, heroes and villains alike: 

"What do you notice about who's in this book?"
"It's mostly men. The bad guys and the good guys."
"What else?"
"There's almost no black people at all. It's mostly white men."
Will pointed out: "And Killer Croc. Because he's green."

Later, when the kids told Jeff about our conversation (which they remembered in great detail several hours later), he added the question: "Who do you think is probably writing and illustrating these stories?" It didn't take the kids long to figure that one out, either.

Finally, I made the connection to current events. We talked about the shootings over the last week, and the fact that a lot of people are angry and upset over the shootings of black people by police officers, in situations where it wasn't necessary. Eleanor (very upset and indignant about racism of any kind) asked why police officers would do that. I said that part of it comes from fear, and that I think part of that fear comes from the stereotypes and assumptions that white people have about black people as a group. And part of that fear comes from the images we see -- or don't see -- of black people in the books we read and the TV and movies we watch. That's why it's so important for us to look closely at and think about what we're reading, instead of just taking it in.

Then we closed the books and went to the playground. I pushed Will on the little kid swings, and Eleanor and Isabel got themselves some big kid swings and pumped really high all by themselves, and I thought about that as a metaphor because I'm an English teacher at heart, and everyone got a little wet in the sprinkler before it was time to go home for lunch. One more conversation to fold into our understanding of the world.

Love, Annie

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why we read (after Orlando)

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I've been trying to write a blog post about children's books, but I keep stopping to cry. I keep stopping because I can't stop thinking about Orlando, about the 50 people, most of them barely out of their teens, who were killed on Sunday morning in the nightclub that was their sanctuary, their safe space. I can't stop thinking about how rare safe space feels right now. It is not safe in this country to be queer. It's not safe to be Muslim. It's not safe to have brown skin. It's not safe to be a woman. It's not safe to go to the bathroom. It's not safe to worship in your church. It's not safe to dance in your nightclub. It's not safe to sit in your school classroom.

How do we explain this to our children? How do we make sense of it for ourselves?

In the last couple of months, Eleanor has started reading Harry Potter. She began a year or so later than many of her friends, but she's still younger than Harry is when he begins his journey. I've been trying to slow her down. I don't want her to get to the worst deaths too soon. I don't want her heart to break for Dumbledore before she's ready.

Here is what she's learning from Harry Potter: that in this world, there is magic. That there are friends who sacrifice themselves for others -- true loyalty exists. That pure evil exists, too: there are those who believe there is no value to human life, who believe that an ideology and the quest for power are more important than anything else. That sometimes the person you think is the bad guy isn't the real bad guy. That sometimes, the person who seems to be the bad guy is more complicated than that: he has hatred in him, but when it matters most, he chooses to be on the side of good. That we can survive unthinkable tragedy.

This is why we read. Reading allows us to think through the complexity of human beings. We read because it allows us to understand and work through the issues, because we learn human things through literature. We learn how to live, and we learn how to keep living when those who we love die. We learn that people are not just one thing or another, that the world is not black and white. That there are no easy answers.

This is why books matter.

One of the questions I've been trying to address in the blog post I can't write for the tears comes from Eunice, a friend who's started a book club for her 4th grade son. She started the book club because her son's school has essentially stopped teaching literature. Instead, they're teaching "critical reading skills" through passages that mirror what students will find on standardized tests.

There is so much wrong with this. I could write a book. (I'm actually starting to write a book.) As a parent, as a teacher, as a reader of long standing, I know down to my bones that the best way to develop "critical reading skills" is by reading things that matter to you, things that engage you, things that push your imagination and your skill, that make you question and wonder.

When our children read books that matter to them, they grow as readers, and as people. They become citizens who are able to assess the literature of the world around them, to read articles, speeches, bills, debates, and more with a critical eye. They become more empathetic, more likely to listen to others, more likely, as you've written, to be willing to understand issues from someone else's perspective.

When our children read test prep passages, they grow as test-takers, and little else. They learn to look for a single right answer. They learn that the form and length of their essays are more important than the content. When we evaluate our children solely through standardized tests, we are perpetuating a reductive view of the world. This has political consequences.

Eunice wrote to me because she's looking for guidance -- a list? -- of good books for her son's age group. She's concerned about encouraging her son and his friends to find "great" books as well as "fun" books -- right now, each kid involved takes turns picking a book, and leads the discussion about that book. She's also concerned about the intensity and maturity of the material in some of the books her son's friends are choosing, a concern I've heard recently from a number of parents.

I'm going to save the list question for my next post (though anyone reading this blog might start by checking out our lists to the right of this page: Middle grade booksYA books, and Lots of Ages all contain a variety of options).

For now, I want to say two things about the book club:

First, it's a wonderful idea. A book club like this provides two things vital to creating readers: choice and community. Looking to book lists can be a great way to find books to "interview" to see if you like them, as I wrote about last summer. But allowing kids to choose books for their peers, to have that ownership and that enjoyment, goes a long way toward building their identities as readers.

Second, a book club, like a good classroom, can be a perfect place to talk about some of the issues of content that parents (and kids) find disturbing in a book. It can be a safe space for both kids and parents to bring up their feelings about the content they're reading. These discussions might lead to a larger conversation about the goals of the book club: do the kids involved want to set guidelines about the content of books they pick? Do they want to agree to bring in classics every few books, along with contemporary fiction? How about nonfiction? Choosing the books can be an opportunity for critical thinking as much as reading and discussing them. But again, the decisions should come from the kids. We become readers when reading becomes something we want to do rather than something we feel we should do.

Part of what makes great literature great -- this goes for children's as well as adult literature -- is a willingness to engage with complexity. But a large part of what makes it great is pleasure.

We read to find so many things: joy, and peace, and excitement, and knowledge. Reading is a sanctuary. It is a safe space within which we can find ourselves or escape ourselves. Sometimes it's a space where we retreat just to laugh; sometimes it's a space within which we confront the things which frighten us most.

Reading with our children gives us a common language and an opening to try to understand the world together, in all its horror and all its beauty. Even when the world is inexplicable. Even when we know we cannot always keep our children safe.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Springtime: reveling in the wacky

Dear Annie,

Earlier this week, I had a lovely conversation with a mother who told me how much her three year old loves Maya Makes a Mess, a book that was a big hit in your household a few years ago.  It has a wonderful deadpan wacky sense of humor (food tastes better when eaten with hands? then we must do it!) which has popped up again in two new releases.

Back in 1967 Edward Gorey and Victoria Chess wrote Fletcher and Zenobia about a friendship between a cat who is stuck in a tree:

and a doll who emerges from a papier mache egg inside a steamer trunk he finds in the tree:
Neither can figure out how to get down from the tree, so they have a party, complete with many hats which were in the steamer trunk, punch, four quarts of peach ice cream (there's a freezer), and a Zenobia-baked "lemon cake with five layers, which she covered with raspberry icing and walnuts and decorated with green and blue candles ('Perhaps it is one of our birthdays,' she said)."

While Zenobia is teaching Fletcher how to waltz (there's music on the gramophone), a friendly moth joins the party, eats most of the refreshments, and wakes up the next morning big enough to carry them out of the tree and on to new adventures.   The matter-of-fact-ness of all the absurdity is so delightful.  The New York Review of Books has resurrected this little gem from out-of-print land, bless them: it went on sale last month.

Fletcher and Zenobia somehow strikes me as not from this continent: the freshness of the absurdity, the high-end vocabulary (withal, gramophone, mauve, gondola, maharajah).  Goes to show what I know.  Both authors were born in Chicago; wiki tells me that Gorey only left the U.S. once in his life.

Daisy Darling, Let's Go to the Beach!
by Markus Majaluoma is definitely from elsewhere: Finland.

Daddy takes a look out of the window.
"Daisy darling, let's have a jolly day on the beach!
Do you remember where you put the spades and other beach things?"
Yes, Daisy does remember.

Daisy is a curly-haired toddler whose pacifier never leaves her mouth.    She gathers her buckets, swimfins, snorkeling gear and large inflatable alligator and they set off on Daddy's bicycle.   When they get there, Daisy applies suntan lotion to her father's back with a spade.  A cast of minor characters appears in marginalia and the end papers: each plays a role in one or two pages.  There's the fisherman who gives Daisy a fish, the crossword puzzling woman whose hat Daisy adorns with the fish ("What has four letters and lives in the sea?" the lady asks.  "Fish," Daisy whispers in the lady's ear.), an ice cream man and more.  It's a book about some of the things a child is likely to encounter in a day at the beach, but all slightly off in its own nutty way.

Daisy and two children pile sand all over Daddy, but he's afraid he's stuck.
On the way home, Daddy pedals fast.
"Didn't we have a jolly day at the seaside?" he puffs.
Daisy, too, is happy because Daddy's back is covered with many exciting sea creatures.

A very satisfying day at the beach.

Here's to the anticipation of summer.



Thursday, February 11, 2016

The categorizing mind

Dear Aunt Debbie,

There's a new kind of reader in our house.

I've always enjoyed the way that kids have their own reading personalities, their ways of approaching and engaging with books. Eleanor was ready for chapter book read-alouds far earlier than Isabel, and her love of a long, gripping narrative has continued well into her own independent reading years. Isabel has always responded intensely to visuals, and graphic novels have eased her transition from emerging reader to full-on independent reader. Will, it turns out, has a categorizing mind.

This first became apparent last spring when Eleanor was doing a 2nd grade nonfiction project about Jim Henson. We took a bunch of books out of the library (how much do I love the Brooklyn Public Library?), among them a nice big coffee table book about all of Henson's creative projects ever: Christopher Finch's Jim Henson --The Works: The Art, the Magic, the Imagination.

It's a pretty fabulous book, especially if you're interested in the Muppets at all: accounts of Henson's early life, his first commercial projects, the birth of Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, his later, weirder TV shows and movies. Lots of glossy pictures, including a four-page spread with thumbnails of the guest stars in every Muppet Show episode that ever aired. (Bob Hope! Lesley Ann Warren! Alice Cooper!)

Will became obsessed with this book. He was just over 2 years old, and would sit on the couch turning the pages over and over -- so much so that, after he ripped a couple and we taped them, we returned the book to the library and bought our own used copy. He called it "Gog Book" (for "Frog," a.k.a. Kermit). And as he turned the pages, Will was categorizing: memorizing names and faces, putting things in order in his mind.

He particularly loved the big Muppet monsters: Sweetums, Thog, the purple-bodied twins/triplets The Mutations. One double-page spread contains pictures of the cast of puppeteers, showing who played which characters, and Will would ask us to read all the names: Richard Hunt played Janice, Scooter, Beaker, and Wayne of Wayne and Wanda. "Who played Thog?" The book didn't say. "Look it up on your 'puter, Mommy." I looked it up. Turns out it was Jerry Nelson.

Probably three weeks later, Jeff was reading the Gog Book with Will, and got to that page. "Daddy, Jerry Nelson played Thog." Okay, though it doesn't say that in the book. "No! Jerry Nelson played Thog!" Total nerd recall.

While full-bodied Muppet monsters still hold a place in his heart, Will has lately moved on to a full-fledged superhero obsession. Again, there is so much categorizing going on: the names of superheroes, followed of course by the powers and weapons of each one. What does Batman carry in his utility belt, you ask? Why, among other things, Batarangs, Batcuffs, and Batrope, of course.

As I mentioned in my last post, we've been reading a ton of superhero early reader books, some better than others. Generally speaking, we've found the I Can Read! books featuring the DC superheroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) to be better written than the World of Reading books about the Marvel superheroes (the Avengers, Spiderman, X-Men). Not loads better, but enough that the language allows you to read aloud with a little dramatic flair.

Here's Donald Lemke writing Batman: Winter Wasteland:

When he arrived in Gotham City, he spotted his coldest enemy, Mr. Freeze.
The frozen felon fired icy blasts at nearby buildings.
"Stop right there!" shouted Batman.
The villain turned and smiled.
"Don't you mean freeze?" he asked.

Compare that to Clarissa Wong writing This is Black Widow:

She was an orphan.
She lived at the Red Room.
The Red Room was a secret camp.
It was an evil place.
The camp leaders trained her to be a spy.
They taught her to steal.
She knew the Red Room was bad.

Yup, that's the book I read aloud five times yesterday.

Your latest slam-dunk gift, however, gives me hope for the Marvel universe. A month ago, you gave us Will's current favorite book, Meet the Marvel Superheroes, by Chris "Doc" Wyatt. It's an illustrated character encyclopedia, listing more than 100 Marvel superheroes, from the best-known to some I'd never heard of (Squirrel Girl, anyone?). The lineup is more diverse than I feared it might be -- lots of women, and a decent if not huge number of superheroes of color (Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Kamala Khan, is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants; Black Panther stars in a new series this year written by Ta-Nehesi Coates). None of the depictions of women are so sexualized as to make me cringe, though it is interesting to note how many of the female superheroes have powers that involve mind control. (Those crazy women -- they can make us do anything they want!)

We read this book all the time. Will has memorized names, relationships, weapons, powers. Each page contains handy thumbnail illustrations of the superheroes related to the one depicted on the page, which helps with the categorization.

I hesitate to be gender reductive here, but it does strike me that I've seen this kind of reading pattern -- learn all the facts about a particular universe, categorize them, repeat them -- more often with boys than with girls. But even as I write that, I think of the power of the superhero narrative: Will takes all of his knowledge and puts it into 24/7 roleplay, dressing up and casting all of us as superheroes around the dinner table, stopping our conversation to announce: "There's a new villain in Gotham City!"

So I'll take a step back from trying to categorize this type of reading, and go get ready to fight crime. You might not know it, but I'm Batwoman.

Love, Annie