In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two small girls and a baby 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.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Better Nate Than Ever: voyage of discovery

Dear Annie,

My literary travelers left the Lake District this morning, very satisfied with a week of exploring, hiking, reading scenes from Rosemary Sutcliff's The Shield Ring aloud on location, and adjusting to driving on the left.  I am so impressed with Lizzie and Bob's joy in that special book.

I'm preparing to hit the road to join those two in Spain, but in the meantime I've been listening to a wonderful middle-grade book involving a pilgrimage of a different sort, to your home town.  

Better Nate Than Ever
by Tim Federle is the story of a small town boy who sneaks off to New York to audition for a lead role in E.T.: The Musical.  The book has all the elements of a Broadway plot: boy flees disapproving family, is overwhelmed and wowed by The Big Apple, suffers insult and disappointment at auditions, meets sympathetic friends, and ultimately (in his own way) triumphs.  It's also the story of a theater-loving boy who's on his way to figuring out that he's gay but hasn't quite gotten there yet.  In the meantime, he has become experienced at handling constant anti-gay harassment from his classmates.
(My sexuality, by the way, is off-topic and unrelated.  I am undecided.  I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided my major and frankly don't want to declare anything other than "Hey, jerks, I'm thirteen, leave me alone.  Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food -- how would I know who I want to hook up with?")
Nate has spent his life using humor to get through the tough times, but discovering there's a world where kids like him aren't automatically beaten up, and where men express affection to each other in public clearly has a big emotional impact.  The publisher described the book at being for a 9 to 13 year-old audience, although I would like to think that the string of anti-gay slurs in the book (homo, faggot, fairy etc) might be a surprise to a third-grader.

His personality is effervescent.  I listened to the audio book, read by Tim Federle, the author.  He has a list of theater and bartending credits that qualify him as having been a serious contender in the Broadway world.  The tone of the audio book was perfect for his character.  I know that should be obvious, because after all he wrote it, but I've listened to a lot of author-read books that were pretty deadly.  The recording won an Odyssey Honor from the American Library Association this year: that's the award for children's audio books.

Better Nate Than Ever also won an honor from ALA's Stonewall Book Award -- recognizing books writing about GLBT issues.  That reminder made me go back and look at our flurry of entries on gay-themed books for younger children.  That was back in the summer of 2012 -- almost two years ago!  And while we're on the topic of time flying, we passed entry # 600 a few weeks back without even so much as a celebratory glass of champagne.  Onward!

Love,

Deborah

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Return to Narnia

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I shudder to think of all those good adventure books relegated to the "boys' library" -- and yet, as we've touched on before, there are many ways in which our own era divides books neatly into "girls' books" and "boys' books." I'm noticing and appreciating series with paired boy-girl protagonists as a way to buck this trend: Sixty-Eight Rooms, Pinky and Rex, even Magic Treehouse, though it's not my favorite thing to read. Emily of New Moon goes right on my list, and I'm sure it will be a hit with Eleanor. But doesn't that cover just scream "Girl Book"?

Isabel announced a couple of weeks ago that she was ready to try a chapter book. Practically holding my breath with excitement, I asked her what she'd like to read. "Something with magic in it. Something with good guys and bad guys, and someone with powers."

And so we return to Narnia.

I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Eleanor when she was 3 1/2, which feels crazy young when I think about it now, but she was ready for it then. We've re-read it a couple of times since then, getting a little more out of it each time. When I pulled it out to read to Isabel, Eleanor picked it up and re-read several parts on her own.

When we first read the book, Eleanor was quite frightened by Michael Hague's intense illustration of the White Witch and her attendant ghouls preparing to sacrifice Aslan on the Stone Table. She would turn the page quickly, peeking at it and then away:


By contrast, this was the picture that convinced Isabel, fresh from the apocalyptic battles of the final Bone books, that she wanted to read the book. She pored over Hague's richly-colored illustrations, learning much of the story that way before we even started reading.

What a joy to read a chapter book to both girls at once! We sped through it, devoting morning and bedtime reading to the story. Isabel really listened, sometimes holding the book open to see one of the color plates while I read. When we finished a chapter, Eleanor often took the book to bed with her to read it again.

Hoping to keep the ball rolling, I started Prince Caspian immediately. In the second Narnia book (second that Lewis published, that is. If you go by Narnian chronology, it's number 4, but who really starts with The Magician's Nephew?), the four Pevensie children return to Narnia about a year after their first visit. In Narnian time, however, they've been gone for hundreds of years. They have passed into legend, as the Narnian Kings and Queens of old, and it turns out they've been called back magically to help Prince Caspian defeat his wicked uncle, King Miraz, and restore the Old Narnia.

Our reading is going okay -- Prince Caspian has nothing like the elemental power of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but the time-travel aspect is engaging, and there are several excellent characters. The version we're reading from is a giant paperback containing all seven Narnia books, with each chapter headed by one of Pauline Baynes's black and white line drawings. What I wouldn't give for more Michael Hague color plates! Without them, Isabel's attention wanders. Yesterday, she didn't want me to read it at bedtime, and we started off with a picture book. When Eleanor chose more Prince Caspian, Isabel did get into it in spite of herself. How could she not, in a chapter involving a fight with a hag and a werewolf?

Are there any really good illustrated versions of the other Narnia books? I did a quick search and didn't come up with any. But really, even a large drawing of the fighting mouse Reepicheep or the centaur Glenstorm would go a long way.

In the meantime, we'll be returning to picture books and graphic novels more often, charting Isabel's course in a different way than Eleanor's. As it should be.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sutcliff on girls' books, boys' books and a great book

Dear Annie,

Matthew Swanson's review of Crabtree was delightful.   You posted it just a day or two after I'd unpacked Crabtree from a box of new titles, so it was especially exciting for me.  Thank you, Matthew -- come back and talk books again soon.

We're still immersed in Rosemary Sutcliff in this household.  Bob recently re-read her memoir, Blue Remembered Hills
She had a rare form of juvenile arthritis which stunted her growth, kept her in pain for a good deal of her life, and led to long hospital stays and operations.   And of course in those days (she was born in 1920), parents were only occasionally permitted to visit their hospitalized children.

Hospital policies weren't the only attitude toward children that was different then.  There was the issue of books:

The rigid segregation of the sexes applied even to our reading matter.  We did not have a hospital library: we had two ward libraries, ours housed in a cupboard, the boys' piled on a large table in the corridor just outside their ward door.  When I was Up, and going to the physio department under my own steam, I used to pass it on my daily journeys to and fro; and how I envied the boys their library!  There was of course no money to buy books; we depended entirely upon the kind hearts of the general public, who unloaded onto us the unwanted books they found in their attics during spring-cleaning.  So, to start with, our books were those which somebody else didn't want; and as soon as they reached the hospital they were rigidly divided up; Boys' Library, Girls' Library, with anything that remotely resembled an adventure story going to the Boys'.  Unfortunately most of the books with any quality about them seemed to fall under this heading.  Passing the Boys' Library I used to eye with longing battered copies of Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines or Tom Brown's Schooldays.  Our own library cupboard seemed to be entirely stocked with Victorian stories about little girls of great virtue who died young, generally of consumption, surrounded by grieving friends; or the American version of the same theme, which was even worse.  There was one about a little girl whose brutal father beat her for preaching total abstinence to the clientele of his public house.  She died of consumption, too.  It wasn't really much of an incentive to virtue.  There were a few books by Mrs. Ewing and Louisa M. Alcott, but they were very definitely the aristocracy of our bookshelves; and myself, I have never been an Alcott fan.

And then one day I found a book.

It was a book called
Emily of New Moon
, about a little girl whose father died of consumption -- that made a change, to start with -- after which she was brought up by strict aunts in an old farmhouse somewhere in Canada.  A Canadian story, not an American one; but I barely registered that at the time.  What made it so different from other books of its kind I did not know, and I do not really know even now.  But for me it was magic.  I carried it off and kept it under my pillow or clutched to my bosom at bed-making time, and it seems as though I read it all that summer long, which can scarcely have been the fact; but I think I must have read it through, at first voraciously and then with slow and lingering delight, at least three times on the trot.  And it was summer. On fine summer nights the beds remained out on the concrete strip all night, and I used to read, half under the bedclothes to evade Night Nurse's eagle eye, until the last dregs of the light had drained away, and the first stars pricked out in a sky of witchball green; and from the barracks half a mile away, the bugles sounding Last Post had a magic in them, too, that turned them into the horns of Elfland, faintly blowing.


The Evening Star, and the bugles sounding across the misty fields in the summer dusk, and the book hidden under the bedclothes somehow entered into each other and became part of the same enchantment, while I followed spellbound Emily's adventures and misadventures, her fantasies and her budding relationships, and her first attempts to be a writer.  Was that the secret of the book's attraction?  No, I do not think so, my own first quickening in that direction was still around eight years away.  It was just magic, and magic is always an unaccountable thing.

Emily of New Moon is the first of a trilogy by L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables.  I remember reading it with my girls, and liking Emily even better than Anne.  For your future-reading list with Eleanor!

Love,

Deborah

Friday, March 28, 2014

Guest blogger: Matthew Swanson gets excited by stuff in Crabtree

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your family takes awesome vacations. Best of luck to Bob and Lizzie on their Rosemary Sutcliff-inspired trip!

For a while now, I've wanted to have Matthew Swanson write a guest blog. I went to college with Matthew and his wife Robbi Behr, the dynamic duo behind the kids' book and music subscription Bobbledy Books and a host of other projects. We've mentioned their Build Your Own President book, and our guest blogger Faith raved about My Henderson Robot, a favorite in my house as well.

Here's Matthew, with one of his recent favorites:

Oh my gosh, I love this book.

It’s called Crabtree. It’s by Jon and Tucker Nichols. 


I love it for various reasons.

1) It’s really big. And it has smooth, thick paper. It’s really nice to hold in your hands.

2) It’s about a guy named Crabtree. He’s really funny. He’s downright hapless, which means he’s pretty confused all the time and can’t find what he’s looking for and needs lots of help. Which kind of reminds me of me. The specific thing Crabtree needs help with is finding his false teeth. He decides that the best way to go about finding his missing teeth is to go through every single thing he owns.

Here's Crabtree. Isn't he lovable?


3) Because Crabtree is going through every single thing he owns, every page of the book is full of stuff. All of Crabtree’s stuff. And Crabtree has lots and lots of wonderful stuff. He has hats and helmets, for example.


He has real ducks and his fake ducks (otherwise known as decoys).


Here are his ants (most of them, anyways).


And all the things he owns that are yellow.


This book is not big on plot, but it's huge on amazing drawings of stuff, stuff weird and unexpected, stuff mundane and sublime. I love the wonky style, the not-quite-perfectly-colored in shapes, and the hilarious captions for each of the drawings.

Seriously, anyone who likes to laugh will like this book, as will anyone who likes to look at other people's stuff. Which means that anyone I've ever met will like this book.

4) (Perhaps you forgot that we were following a numbering scheme, but here we go again.) This book boasts advanced production techniques, including a double gate fold, which allows for so many drawings of stuff that my head nearly explodes with happiness.


5) Just as my head was literally about to pop off of my neck and fly up to the moon in utter delight, I discovered that the dust jacket is actually a poster!


And not just a poster, but a TWO-SIDED poster!


I've read enough about book reviews to know that I'm not supposed to give away the exciting conclusion. But this I will tell you: Crabtree does find his teeth. However, I will not tell you how.

I wish I had written this book, darn it. But since I did not, I'm really glad that Jon and Tucker Nichols did.
The verdict: Two thumbs up. This book is the greatest. I love the art. I love the drawings. I love the humor. And, as already stated, I love the printing techniques and paper. 

This is a book that kids will love looking at (I've never met a kid who doesn't love identifying "stuff" on a page; have you?) and adults will not mind looking at over and over and over again (which is the true measure of success for a children's book in my dad-centric opinion).

Get a copy. Get it now. 

A father of three, Matthew Swanson is the author/publisher behind Bobbledy Books, a picture books and music club for kids he runs with his wife, the illustrator Robbi Behr. His book Babies Ruin Everything will be published by LB Kids in 2016.

Clearly, I need to take Matthew's advice.

Love, Annie

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On the road with Rosemary Sutcliff

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad The Moorchild was a favorite.  Moql is a great character.  You talk about looking forward to reading the book again with Isabel.  Do you and Eleanor ever re-read your read-alouds?  I remember reading Tolkien over and over again with Lizzie, revisiting the Ramona books with Mona, and occasional other favorites.

I'm currently re-reading a multi-generational favorite because it's come back to play a big role in our family.  Bob wrote about his love of Rosemary Sutcliff's books for us here.  When we started reading them to Lizzie, she also connected closely with them.  The one which became very special to her -- as it is to her father -- is the one with the strongest female character: The Shield Ring.  It takes place in the Lake District in northwestern England in the years after the Norman conquest of 1066.  It tells the story of fierce resistance to Norman rule on the part of Norsemen (descendants of Vikings) who had settled in the area. The two central characters are young people orphaned by the hostilities.  Frytha, the girl, is smart, perceptive, but very much a part of the society she lives in.  She learns archery when the women are called on to help defend the settlement, but her strength and attraction are in Sutcliffe's nuanced portrait of a great character. 

Lizzie was Frytha for Book Character Day back in third grade, and she continues to re-read the book now.  Her high school senior paper, in which she had to compare two books, was on The Shield Ring and To Kill a Mockingbird: the connection between the two had to do with the nature of courage.

Next month, Bob and Lizzie are immersing themselves in The Shield Ring in a new and wonderful way.  They're heading to the Lake District to spend a week finding the places where the action of the book takes place.  Sutcliff describes in detail the landscapes where battles happened, warriors were buried, characters found emotional escape.  Many of these are places Bob has located -- along with the trails or precarious winding roads that will get them there.  One of the towns they'll visit is called Buttermere, possibly derived from the name of a Norse leader, Jarl Buthar, who is a character in the book.  The land the Norsemen were defending is beautiful, and the characters have strong connection to it.  Here's Sutcliff's description of a spot high on a ridge, a few miles from Buttermere, that appears twice at important parts of the story:
Frytha lay silent a while, gazing down.  Up here on the ridge one seemed in some strange way to be riding out, far out, over the dale below; it was like being in the prow of a gigantic long-ship, she thought, though she had never seen a ship.  On either side of her the deep glens, and between them the slender long-ship thrust of the ridge, tapering down into the marshes where the Normans were hurriedly throwing up bank and stockade about their camp.  Marshes that glowed tawny green below the grey and blue, russet and purple of the fells.  Save for the distant swarm of figures about the Norman camp, there seemed not a living soul in all the sweep of country; nothing to tell of the fighting that had gone on all the sweating, blistering day.
That spot on the ridge appears on 21st century maps as Aikin Knott; one can imagine Frytha looking out over the countryside:

View toward Aikin Knott
Both Bob and Lizzie have loved The Shield Ring since childhood.  Now, with Lizzie an adult and the two of them armed with maps, rain gear, and a drive-on-the-left rental car, they're going to immerse themselves in Britain of a thousand years ago.  And it all started with a wonderfully written children's book.

Love,

Deborah

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A captivating changeling

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thanks to you once again, Eleanor and I have been engrossed in some gripping reading in the last week. Your latest birthday box included the wonderful novel The Moorchild, by Eloise McGraw. I'd never heard of it, let alone read it, but both Eleanor and I were instantly captivated.

The Moorchild is the story of a changeling. Moql is half human, half Folk (that would be fairy folk, flitting wild on the Scottish moor). She lives at first with the Folk in the Mound, learning to play tricks on people and dancing her way around, but when it becomes clear that her human side has left her without the magic she needs to survive as Folk, she is cast out. The Folk Prince steals a human baby to work as a servant and leaves Moql in her place, red-faced and inconsolable. (While reading these scenes, I had vivid flashbacks to Eleanor screaming with colic in her first few months of life -- Jeff and I used to wonder whether she was possessed. I wouldn't be surprised if colic was the origin of many changeling stories.)

Moql is raised as Saaski, daughter of the village blacksmith Yanno and his wife Anwara. Of course, she doesn't fit in in the human village of Torskaal either: she looks like no one else, fears iron and salt, has to stop herself from running up walls and trees, and is happiest out on the moor, where the other villagers fear to go. Old Bess, Anwara's mother, suspects early on that Saaski is not truly her grandchild. She's a tough woman, a healer and a loner, and after some violent reactions against Saaski becomes a sort of mentor to her. Saaski also finds companionship with Tam, an orphaned shepherd's boy, also an outsider, who roams the moor with his goats.

On the one hand, Saaski's experience is a metaphor for difference. McGraw dedicates the book "To all children who have ever felt different," and the ways in which Saaski is feared and consequently bullied by the children of the village (and ultimately the adults as well) feel true to the experience of any child who knows herself to be different from those around her. On the other hand, she is truly the thing the villagers and Old Bess fear her to be. Saaski isn't fully human. She doesn't understand hate or love the way the people around her do, and she has powers that they do not. Reading with Eleanor, I kept toggling back and forth, feeling protective of Saaski when she was accused of being other, and then remembering, Oh right, she really is.

Old Bess and Tam are her human counterpoints. Old Bess, it turns out, has a history much like Saaski's: she was abandoned as an infant, raised by gypsies, then placed by them in Torskaal because the gypsies felt it was where she belonged. She, too, feels she's never quite belonged. I loved the complexity of the people who care for Saaski most. For much of the book, Eleanor and I had to talk through Old Bess's motivations: is she on Saaski's side? Is she against her? Her ultimate empathy is deep and affecting. Saaski's parents, too, are wonderful characters. Neither Yanno nor Anwara understands the child, but both are fiercely protective of her, even when troubled by her differences.

The language is gorgeous, filled with Scottish-inflected dialogue and vivid details of landscape, so much good vocabulary to roll around in your mouth as you read aloud. Here is a description of Saaski going out on the moor soon after she discovers Yanno's father's bagpipes and is given permission to play them:

Her life had already begun to be two lives -- the humdrum one in the village, made irksome by the bedevilment of the other children, though brightened by Old Bess and the books -- and the other, truant life, high among the mists and bogs and wild, stony reaches of the moor. She was never sure which part of the moor she liked best -- the steep broom-gilded, heather-shadowed slopes always solid underfoot, or the sometimes steeper bogs, spiced with danger. After a dry spell a bog was merely a mat of thready, springy moss that you could bound across as if your feet had sprouted little wings. In wet weather -- which was scarier but exciting -- you had to pick your way across a bog, wary of the tall tussocks of sedge and cotton grass that marked the wettest spots, where a misstep could set you sinking and struggling into the sucking depths. But the glimmering little tracks she often saw there always traced a safe pathway -- though she was careful never to put a foot directly on that glimmer.

We finished the book tonight, and I'm already looking forward to the day when Isabel will allow me to read it to her, and we can pick it up again.

Love, Annie

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Snippets of bookishness

Dear Annie,

As a third child, I'm always happy to hear about the new books your third is discovering.  Somehow, I never doubted that he'd get quality reading time.  Although semiotics could be pushing it...

A few snippets of bookishness today:

It's Book Fair time here: I spent the morning working on set-up with the volunteers who make the book fair happen every year at Lizzie's and Mona's old school.  More than 800 titles (2000+ books) are laid out on long tables with colorful signs in the school's black box theater.  For the next two days, kids will come classroom by classroom to browse and write wish lists to take home to their parents.  Then they'll return with checks and gather armloads of new books.  The lovely woman who's been running it says the moment the kids are set loose to look is her reward for all the hard work.

And one more mention of our delightful visit from Jon Muth,  Zen storyteller and panda artist.  The Washington Post did a piece on him for its kids' news page.  I used this space two years ago to attack a very unfortunately written book review on that page.  So here's another side of KidsPost.  Muth's new book, Hi, Koo! is a collection of 26 haikus about the seasons.  Reporter Christina Barron chose to focus on his unorthodox (to English-speakers) definition of haiku, which doesn't follow the 5-7-5 structure.  Better than your average story.

Speaking of the Washington Post, I highly recommend  this beautiful short blog entry by Ron Charles, deputy book editor, "Why World Read Aloud Day is my favorite holiday." It has thoughts to make us all appreciate both the power of the written word, and how amazing some parents can be.  Make sure you get to the fourth paragraph which starts, "When my wife and I had our first daughter, we weren’t sure we’d ever be allowed to share that joy [reading aloud] with her...."

Love,

Deborah