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, April 20, 2015

The Exiles: so much better than the cover!

Dear Annie,

Spring is finally arriving, but it's fall book ordering season in my world.  I've been reading lots of books about Santa and dreidels the past few weeks.  By chance, in the middle of all that, I discovered that a book that I'd believed to be long out of print is alive and well.  Well, but cursed with what may be The Worst Cover Ever for a children's book.

The Exiles is another four-sister book, this one by Hilary McKay, author of the wonderful Saffy's Angel and sequels.  Even more than Saffy, this one is all in the characters.  The Conroy sisters are sent to the seaside for the summer to live with their grandmother while the parents renovate their house.  The two older sisters (Naomi and Ruth) find it difficult to do anything but read books constantly; the younger two (Phoebe and Rachel) love a good book, but also manage some imaginative mischief. 

Their grandmother -- called by all Big Grandma -- puts them on a regimen of outdoor activities, chores, and no books.  The girls are not enthusiastic.
There were plenty of reasons why she should be called Big Grandma.  For a start she was very tall and muscly, and she ate a lot.  Also, she wore men's pajamas and drank whiskey at bedtime.  In a lot of ways she was huge.  Her house was very big, too; even the toilet was higher than ordinary people's toilets.  It had a wooden seat which always felt warm, and by Monday morning Naomi had decided that the only thing she really liked about Big Grandma's house was the toilet seat.
Big Grandma sees the girls' escape into reading as anti-social, and she's determined that they find other ways to engage themselves.  Slowly, of course, they all adapt to country life even as they resist it.
All by herself Phoebe [age 6] had acquired a new hobby.  It was her own invention.  Nobody had helped her, nobody but Phoebe would even have thought of it.  You filled a bucket with water, tied a bit of string on the end of a stick, held the stick over the water, and there you were.  Fishing in a bucket.  The total hopelessness of the activity was very soothing.  It was the perfect sport.  Without the emotional stresses of success and failure, she was entirely free to enjoy the pleasure of the moment. 
After a hike in which she is immobilized by fear of heights, Naomi (11) sneaks back to the high spot, willing herself to overcome the fear, and falls and breaks her arm.  She trudges back to the house and the swirl of breakfast conversation around her as she repeats four times, "I've broken my arm" before she is heard, distills the chaos of the family.  The reader feels her pain, but still has to laugh.

McKay creates completely believable characters all of whom can be intensely annoying and yet children one would want as friends.  The sisters' constant search for reading material -- cookbooks are read and re-read, Shakespeare is the only volume that's rejected -- continues through the summer.  Slowly the reader takes in that it's all a grand plan on Big Grandma's part. 

Big Grandma becomes more likable, but maintains her crusty aspects.  The night after Naomi breaks her arm, Big Grandma sleeps in her room:
  "D'you mind if I put the light on and read?"
  "Very much indeed," said Big Grandma.  "Try counting sheep jumping over a gate."
  "I don't know what sheep look like jumping over a gate.  I didn't know they could jump."
  "Try it."
   Naomi tried it for a few minutes.  "They keep bashing their knees," she said eventually.  "Big Grandma?"
  Big Grandma dragged herself awake again.
  "D'you think this house is haunted?  Ruth does."
  Big Grandma made an enormous concession, recognizing that if Naomi did not have something to take her mind off her broken arm she was quite liable to lie awake and talk all night.
  "I suppose it might be a little bit haunted!"
  "Is it?"
  "Perhaps a bit," repeated Big Grandma grudgingly.  "In a manner of speaking.  A rather flamboyant manner of speaking, and not strictly true."
It's a delightful book, and a perfect summertime read.



Friday, April 3, 2015

Heroines of the month: Penderwicks, Clementine, and Frances

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We're coming out of a rough March, which culminated in a stomach flu that decimated Isabel's kindergarten class and knocked us for a loop. Through it all, we've continued to read up a storm. All three kids have gravitated recently towards reading and rereading of books with terrific, spunky heroines.

It's funny you should mention The Penderwicks in your last post. I tried reading it to Eleanor a couple of years ago, when she was still too young for it, then finished it myself and thought, eh, as you did. But Eleanor read it on her own last month, and liked it so much she asked me to read it to her again as a read-aloud. It's growing on me this time through. I like the variety in the characters of the sisters, who are Little Women-ish in some respects: Rosalind, the oldest, has a mothering/romantic Meg vibe; Skye, the second, is the rebellious one, and the one I suspect is author Jeanne Birdsall's favorite. But there the similarities begin to break down: it's Jane, the third daughter, who is the writer in the family, while Skye prefers to do math, and both are terrific soccer players. Batty, the youngest, is an animal-lover and wears butterfly wings everywhere. We've just gotten the second and third books from the library; I think we're hooked.

Isabel has for the first time found a non-graphic novel chapter book series she wants to read straight through: Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker. These books have just the right combination of elementary school suspense and relief. What will happen when Clementine cuts off her friend's hair (at her request) and then her own (to match) and colors both of their heads with marker? What will happen when she sells items that people in her building have given to charity back to other people in her building to earn money for a present for her mom?

Pennypacker's quirky sense of humor first jived with Isabel when you sent us The Amazing World of Stuart, and continues here. We never learn Clementine's little brother's name, because she refers to him by the name of a different vegetable every time he's mentioned (she got stuck with a fruit name, so why didn't he get a vegetable name to match?). In one book, Clementine goes on a shopping trip to an Asian grocer to look for new vegetable names: Mung Bean Sprout, Bok Choy. Clementine is a terrific artist, can do advanced math problems in her head, and really doesn't like pointy things. As a parent, I appreciate her family as well: Mom is an artist who wears overalls and tolerates a good amount of mess; Dad is the super of their apartment building in Boston, and they have a sweet, affectionate relationship with each other and their kids that reminds me of Anastasia's parents in Lois Lowry's series. Isabel's favorite so far is The Talented Clementine, which focuses on a talent show and Clementine's fear of having no stage-worthy talent. We have not been allowed to return any of these to the library, and our library shelf is pretty much glowing orange.

Finally, what does Will want every day? The Frances books! I wouldn't have picked these fairly long picture books for a two-year-old, but this is the kind of happy discovery that you get to make when your house is full of books for kids of all different ages at once. Will doesn't say "Frances," but refers to each of her books as "My book." (In the case of A Baby Sister for Frances, it's "My baby book.") He asks for them every day, morning, afternoon, and night. I think I could probably recite all of A Birthday for Frances from memory, and that is not a short book. I'm not sure how much of the story he's getting -- mostly, he likes to point to the characters and name them, and refer to any character who's shown smaller in the distance as "baby" -- but he wants us to read them, cover to cover.

We have read our four Frances books so many times over the last month that I went ahead and added a fifth to our bookshelves: Best Friends for Frances. My dim memory of the book was that it was about kids excluding each other because of gender, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to bring that idea into the house. Happily, the way Russell and Lillian Hoban handle the issue is lovely. Frances's best friend Albert does exclude her, first to walk around by himself and catch frogs and snakes, which she doesn't know how to do, and then to play baseball with another boy, who says it's a "boys only game." What I'd forgotten is that the story is largely about Frances realizing she can be best friends with her little sister Gloria. It turns out that Gloria knows how to catch frogs, and wants to play baseball, and the two of them get together a giant picnic and bring along two frogs in a jar, for frog races. The picnic basket attracts Albert, who realizes the error of his ways, and everyone ends up playing baseball together. The moral: anyone can be a best friend, even sisters. I'll confess that I've read the book a little louder, hoping my girls would hear it, too.

Love, Annie

Saturday, March 21, 2015

After Harry Potter: good (and different) books

Dear Annie,

Funny you should be writing about the BabyLit books now.  Just last week a customer came in saying her 6 year-old insisted on being Anna Karenina for Book Character Day because she loved reading Will's favorite BabyLit book to her baby sister.  Go figure.

Hi, I'm back from a hiatus of sorts.  The always-interesting Cyd has sent us a question I couldn't resist.  Rebekah -- 7 years old?  almost 8? -- plowed through all of Harry Potter recently.  So Cyd wants to know:
...what to read next?  What can I give her that won't feel like a huge let-down after those enormous HP volumes, that fully realized world? It doesn't need to be fantasy - in fact, she's not particularly into fantasy - but I want something just as rich. I think of some of the things I loved at her age - Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, - but they feel so much less compared to HP. I think she's a little young for Cynthia Voigt; I have read her all of Frances Hodgson Burnett; I have read her all (yes, ALL) of Louisa May Alcott; I am reading her much of L.M. Montgomery. She really likes historical fiction and for Hanukkah I bought her a 30-volume set of My Story books, which is the British version of the My America books (which she had already ripped her way through), and they are decent books but they're not Harry.
When one's child is doing amazing things -- in reading or any other endeavor -- she doesn't have to have a steady diet of the same kind of amazing.  Just as adults vary what they read, kids like to do that too.  As you know, we read the unabridged Les Miserables to Lizzie (at her insistence) when she was in second grade.  The following year she fell in love with the Animorphs series and charged through about 12 of them before abruptly dropping them and moving on to other things that I'm sure her parents liked better.  Variety is a great thing in all our lives.

So Cyd, I'm interpreting your query as looking for good stuff Rebekah can immerse herself in next.  So here are a bunch of authors worth sampling.

These four, like J.K. Rowling, wrote series in which one returns to beloved characters in successive books, seeing how they're growing up and their worlds are changing.

Hilary McKay wrote Saffy's Angel and its sequels.  Plots and themes abound in these books, but what makes them special is the four children of the eccentric Casson family.  One goes on to book after book to find out how these friends are doing.

When it came out, I wasn't immediately taken with Jeanne Birdsall's
The Penderwicks
.  It felt like it was trying a little to hard to have an old-fashioned feel: a family of four girls (oh. you probably already know this one, Cyd) having wholesome adventures on summer vacation while still missing their dead mother.  But talking with kids over the years, and seeing how many come back for the sequels -- #4 is due out on Tuesday -- has changed my mind.  I gave an advance copy of the book to a wonderful family one of whose children dressed at The Penderwicks: the book for Halloween.  They talked with me about the excitement of opening the book and catching up with the characters, who are now old friends.  It sounded so much like our family's experience with the Harry Potter books -- it was really moving.

Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time and sequels has more of what Cyd calls the "fully realized world."  You did a lovely blog on them here.

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books feature children from three different families who have summertime adventures in England and Scotland in the 1930s.  They have everything to do with kids and boats and elaborate games of imagination.

I would encourage Cyd and Rebekah to pick up E. Nesbit and Edward Eager again.  They're both delightful, and they spend a lot of time -- with a heavy dose of humor -- on siblings in large families.  Eleanor loved the Half Magic series almost four years ago, but if she were to revisit those books now, she'd get lots more out of them.  Just as Rebekah may end up with the thrill of discovery all over again if she picks up Harry Potter when she's 12.  E. Nesbit is viewed as a seminal writer of 20th century children's literature because she wrote about realistic relationships among family members.  My favorite of her magical books is Five Children and It, in which everything that can go wrong with a wish does.  But the one our entire family loved best was
The Railway Children
, the story of city children who move with their mother to the countryside after their father is falsely accused of spying.

The Prydain Chronicles -- starting with The Book of Three -- by Lloyd Alexander could be a lot of fun for  Rebekah.  They're loosely based on Welsh mythology.  Harry Potter incorporates elements of lots of mythology of the British Isles -- she might find some familiar stories.  The current Book of Three paperback has a scary image that I've found turns some kids off.  The book isn't as creepy as the picture.

And while we're adventuring, don't forget Robert Louis Stevenson.  Treasure Island is still a great read.

Moving closer to the twenty-first century, I suspect Rebekah would connect with Sharon Creech's books.  Walk Two Moons is her best-known, and spectacular -- it has a lot to do with characters telling each other stories.  Mona and Lizzie's favorite was Bloomability, about a lower-middle class girl who ends up in a Swiss boarding school for a year, completely out of her element, and figures out what's important in people and in life.

 And last, there's some contemporary historical fiction.  Has Rebekah tried any books by Karen Cushman yet?  Here's a complete list: most of them are set in medieval or Elizabethan times.  She's probably best known for The Midwife's Apprentice, which won a Newbery medal.  Most of her main  characters are children who have been rejected by the people who should be caring for them.  They learn to make their own way in the world, often with the help/supervision of unlikely adults.

I hope there are some surprises in this list.  Enjoy!



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cute for grownups -- but also for kids?

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Among the many kinds of board books out there in the world, one of my least favorite has always been the Cute for Grownups board book. You know the kind I mean: books which feel like they were written to be marketed to the hip friends of new parents who will pick them up at the counter of a trendy gift shop on their way to a baby shower. These are the books that a browsing shopper might find chuckle-worthy in the moment, but they're not really for children.

I'm talking about titles like the Baby Be of Use series, or the nine book series which started with
Urban Babies Wear Black
. And of course there's Go the Fuck to Sleep, which made the rounds a few years ago, and for which you had much less patience than I.

I've been given a few of these types of books over the years, and have quietly deep-sixed them before having to run the risk that a child will get attached to one and I'll have to read it aloud twelve thousand times while feeling vaguely annoyed.

So when my mother (your sister, and generally a terrific judge of children's literature) bought us a board book version of Anna Karenina, I was skeptical.

In the BabyLit series -- of course it's a series -- Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver reimagine a number of classic works of literature as concept board books. Anna Karenina is "A Fashion Primer," and introduces dress and accessories vocabulary; Wuthering Heights is "A Weather Primer," using direct quotes to illustrate the various kinds of weather Heathcliff and Catherine are exposed to ("Breezy," "Stormy"); Frankenstein is an "Anatomy Primer."

Despite my misgivings, Will fell in love with Anna Karenina immediately. I think the attraction resides in part in Oliver's illustrations, which are attractively blocky and colorful. Will's love of dress-up, which he shares with his older sisters, may also play a part.

In the last year, I've read a number of the BabyLit titles in stores and at friends' houses (suddenly, they're everywhere!). I've found them a little uneven in quality -- some are spot-on, both funny for the grownups reading them and interesting for the kids, some less so.

Hands down, my favorite is Pride and Prejudice: A Counting Primer. Here's the entire text, with a couple of illustrated pages to give you the flavor:

1 English village
2 rich gentlemen
3 houses
4 marriage proposals

5 sisters
6 horses
7 soldiers in uniform
8 musicians
9 fancy ballgowns (this is Eleanor and Isabel's favorite page)
10 10,000 pounds

When I got to 10 the first time I read it, I laughed out loud.

Have I been bamboozled by the hip nerd feel of these books? Are they just as obnoxious as the other Cute for Grownups books I've eschewed over the years? They feel different in character to me, but I'm willing to hear an argument. What's your take on this genre?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Dear Aunt Debbie,

Suddenly, Isabel can read.

Of course, it isn't sudden at all: we've been reading together for more than five years, pretty much since the day she was born. She's been "reading" on her own for quite some time as well, poring over picture books and graphic novels, staying up on weekend nights with her own reading light and our copy of Smile or one of the Olympians books while Eleanor whizzes through another chapter book in the bunk above and Will sings to his stuffed animals.

But, like Eleanor when she was first learning to read, Isabel has been resistant to reading out loud at home. Her fabulous kindergarten teacher sends her home every night with a book baggie containing a small pile of early readers. As part of her homework, she's supposed to read these books aloud to an adult, and practice the sight words taped to the baggie.

Cue the misery: resistance to reading aloud, complete resistance to trying to sound out any word she didn't know (or hadn't memorized). Book baggie evenings often culminated in hysterical wild guesses and dissolving onto the living room floor in boneless refusal. Needless to say, we weren't doing this every night. The level of the readers Isabel was bringing home (first A and B, then C and D) was rising based on what her teacher saw at school, but we weren't seeing any difference in her reading at home.

A few weeks ago, I went in to meet with Isabel's teacher to talk about her reading. Ms. Mazor took me through Isabel's school work, showing me how Isabel has been telling stories: first in pictures, then through accompanying words, and in her latest story, writing the words first so that she could get them down, leaving space for the pictures to come later. The writing she showed me was dramatic and vivid, and her message was clear: silly mama, you have nothing to worry about here.

Here is Isabel's story of her own birth:

For Isabel, clearly, writing and reading are happening hand in hand. The comprehension is there, and the mechanics are catching up.

The week after this meeting, Isabel picked up a note I was sending in to her teacher and read it aloud. Then it was a couple of pages of P.D. Eastman's Go, Dog. Go! Then every other page of The Cat in the Hat.

On Sunday, we sat down with The Cat in the Hat and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and Isabel read 100 pages of Dr. Seuss in one sitting. (As our guest blogger/kindergarten teacher Clara noted when Eleanor was learning to read, some of those early readers are weirdly long.)

Her mom and her dad and her sister are so delighted.

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Guest blogger: Brooklyn baby books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Despite your protestations, your Newbery picks this time around did very well! Brown Girl Dreaming didn't take the top prize, but it was named a Newbery Honor Book, along with the marvelous El Deafo. You've got skills!

Our house has been a whirlwind of birthday celebrations and fevers for the last couple of weeks, and I've been feeling a little overwhelmed. Happily, our regular guest blogger and new mom Emily has some thoughts about several Brooklyn-themed baby books that have entered her life since the arrival of her daughter Alice. Here she is:

A realtor gave us a copy of Brooklyn Baby, by Lisa McKeon, which has quickly become one of my eight month old daughter Alice’s favorite board books. Both of us love illustrator Violet Lemay’s busy, happy streetscapes featuring familiar food carts and subway signs. I also love the silly local touches. “Brooklyn baby, now it’s time to go to sleep,” instructs the last page. High up in an apartment window, a little Brooklyn baby responds with a big “Fuhgeddaboudit!!” 

Alice is still too young for books she can’t eat, but when she can handle paper pages she has a lot of local options ahead of her. In Homer the Little Stray Cat by Pam Laskin, a scruffy street cat finds a home in the arms of a Brooklyn boy named Adam. Reluctant about having such a yowly new addition, Adam’s parents are won over by the ways Homer draws their shy son out. One of the more endearing aspects of this story is that Kirsi Tuomenan Hill’s illustrations present Adam’s interracial family without making them the center of the story. 

We discovered Mermaids on Parade at a public library sing-a-long when the author Melanie Hope Greenberg stopped in [Note: Mermaids is also a huge hit at our house, introduced to us by our guest blogger Denise. With bright, pastel illustrations featuring all sorts of costumed characters, Greenberg tells the story of a young girl’s trip to the Mermaid parade amid lavish descriptions of Coney Island’s steamy summer electricity. 

It almost goes without saying that Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by the inimitable Mo Willems, is a total gem. Against photographed backdrops of brownstone stoops, a bespectacled cartoon dad makes an alarming discovery during a trip to the laundromat with his daughter. This one is wonderful to read out loud, filled as it is with onomatopoeic kid language – “’Aggle flaggle klabble!’ said Trixie again” – and the flustered, outer-borough dad is completely recognizable. 

I suspect it will be fun for Alice to see her world of brownstone stoops and corner laundromats - a world that would have been unrecognizable to me as a suburban kid - reflected in the books she reads as she grows up.


I'm sure it will. More from our crazy house soon.

Love, Annie

Friday, January 30, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming: my Newbery hope

Dear Annie,

I sell a lovely little board book, called
My Face Book
, with photographs of babies' faces, one to a page.  There are several books like that, but what I particularly like about this one is that the faces are majority non-white.  It's one of those happy baby books.  I showed it to a customer the other day (Caucasian) who was looking for a book of faces for a baby gift.  Thanks, she said, but this one is “too diverse,” and she added a sentence I've heard more times than you'd expect over the years: "I want him to see faces that look like him."  One can point out that a 3 month-old has no idea what he looks like, or that they’re all human babies, or that the bunnies in Goodnight Moon don't look like him either, but it won't change anything.
I bring this up to say that there's a section of the white buying public -- no matter what their political beliefs may be -- who aren't comfortable mixing books about children of color with their own children.  It's a minority, but I'm frequently reminded that it's there.  When kids get up to the chapter book age, it's really noticeable: it's hard to sell novels about African Americans to some white parents.

A year ago, when I was selecting yet-to-be-published books to carry in our store, 
Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson was one of the offerings from Penguin.  My sometimes cynical self, I confess, heaved a sigh.  It’s a memoir written in poetry – poetry! not a big seller either – focusing on an African American girl growing up in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 70s.  I was skeptical about being able to sell it.  But when I got around to reading it, I knew I had to try: it’s an amazing book.

We won't have a girl named Jack, my mother said.

And my father's sisters whispered,
A boy named Jack was bad enough.
But only so my mother could hear.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can't help but 
grow up strong.
Raise her right, my father said,
and she'll make that name her own.

Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said. 

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.
So how was I going to sell the book?  A review in the New York Times raved about the universal nature of the story: how it would resonate with any girl growing up.  “The title seems to confine the book in too narrow a box,” wrote the reviewer.  “Will girls who aren’t brown know, without prompting, that they too are invited to the party?”

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us –
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South –

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free.  Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

The reality of a black family’s life in the South during the civil rights movement is here.  There are sit-ins and marches, back-of-the-bus moments, anger, pride, a school burned.  To dismiss the title and sell it as an Everygirl memoir denies who Woodson is. She is a brown girl, first in the South, then in Brooklyn.  The book shows us a loving and very religious family, a marriage that has ended, joy in nature, friendship, and how it feels to discover the amazing power of words. The poetry, the language, is what plaits all the elements together. 
How amazing these words are that slowly come to me.
How wonderfully on and on they go.

Will the words end, I ask
whenever I remember to.

Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,
and promising me

 Brown Girl Dreaming was released at the end of August, and despite my enthusiasm, sold not as well in the store as I’d hoped, but not horrendously either.  I wrote a blurb that tried to say how much the book encompassed, and even listed page numbers of four poems which would give a browser a sense of the many elements of the book. Then in November, it won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. 

The awards ceremony had a horrifying incident in which Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), MC of the event and a friend of Woodson’s, commented as she left the podium, “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon.  Just let that sink in your mind.”  Woodson wrote an incredibly eloquent response in the New York Times.  

That Handler remark – of a white man flamingly uncomfortable with the blackness of a friend and colleague – brings me back to the rejection of the baby book.  Would Handler shop for a board book with not too much diversity?

The National Book Award had many happier outcomes also.  My pile of Brown Girl Dreaming started to sell a lot faster: that gold circle on the cover said “read me” better than I had been able to.  It's on the bestseller list now.  But the National Book Award for children is an odd duck: it doesn’t guarantee that a book will stay in the public eye over the years.

The award which makes a massive difference in kids’ literature, of course, is the Newbery Medal, which will be announced this coming Monday, February 2.  The last time a book with an African American protagonist won the prize was 2000, my first year selling books.  Before that, one has to go back to the years of Woodson’s childhood: the 1970s. 

So I am hoping – and we know my record on Newbery predictions is abysmal – that Brown Girl Dreaming will pick up another gold circle for its cover on Monday, and that it will enter the canon of classics which all kids will be reading for decades to come.  I’ll be tuning in for the webcast,at 9 a.m.