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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Northwest reading tour

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What a pleasure it was to see you and so much of our extended family for not one but two weddings of cousins this month! It rivaled our wedding summer of four years ago. While our travels have kept us from blogging, they didn't stop us from reading, and the trip to Seattle, WA and Portland, OR provided us with access to a few truly great bookstores. Eleanor read a number of books on the Kindle, but we all stocked up on real true books as well -- we just can't help ourselves.

Our first stop in Seattle was Arundel Books, a small independent store selling new, used, and rare books where I worked for a year in my early 20's. The store has moved to Pioneer Square since I worked there, but the profusion of excellent titles and overflowing shelves is the same. Phil Bevis, my former boss, is thriving, both as a bookseller and as an editor and printer of truly beautiful books. Eleanor introduced herself to him by announcing, quite seriously, "Reading is my life." He responded, "Mine, too."

Nestled in by the shelves, Aunt Grace read Dr. Seuss to Isabel while Eleanor started Ella Enchanted and I caught up with Phil. When we left, he told each girl to pick out a book as a gift. To Eleanor: "You've read that much just sitting here? You'd better take two."

On our last morning in Seattle, Jeff and I headed to Capitol Hill with Isabel to visit more of my old haunts. My all-time-favorite Seattle bookstore (excepting Arundel, of course) moved to the neighborhood a few years ago. The Elliot Bay Book Company is a large, gorgeous, well-tended store with lots of staff picks displayed prominently on the shelves, and a children's section that includes a castle big enough to read in. We had to drag Isabel away.

Then it was off to Portland, OR. We visited old friends for brunch on our first morning there. When Eleanor got a little bored at the local playground, my friend Caroline suggested she check out the tiny free library on a nearby corner. Happiness ensued.

Finally, what is a trip to Portland without Powell's City of Books? We made a full family pilgrimage, trying to limit ourselves to buying one title each, and (mostly) succeeding. Here are Aunt Grace, Isabel, Eleanor, and Grandma Judy on one side of the Rose Room:

And here are cousins David and Natasha, along with Jeff reading to Will (Food for Thought, which we clearly need to pull out again at home!) on the other side:

What a glorious trip! We return renewed.

Love, Annie

Monday, June 30, 2014

Classics for the e-reader

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I agree with you about the generally anodyne quality of Eric Hill's Spot books -- nothing wrong with them, they're just not that interesting. But even before watching that wonderful video of Hill reading aloud Where's Spot? with different voices, I confess I've always liked the understated weirdness of the book. Why are there wild animals hiding in every nook and cranny of Spot's house? Totally unexplained. Sally, the searching mother dog, seems completely unperturbed by a bear, a lion, a hippopotamus. A crocodile under the pink ruffly bedcover? Yeah, whatever. Especially when compared to Spot Goes to the Farm (spoiler alert: he discovers farm animals) and the other Spot books, Where's Spot? gives you something to work with.

A brief respite of health has given way to another virus for Will, on the eve of our vacation and then -- gulp -- our move to a new house at the end of July. We're all feeling a little discombobulated. A friend of mine recently asked for recommendations for toddler-appropriate books about moving to a new house -- any good ideas? We took one out of the library a little while ago about a girl moving to a new house with her stuffed animal elephant, who grows to her size and has a tea party with her. I can't for the life of me remember the title, but it had what I assume is the basic Moving Narrative: "This new house is strange. I discover things I like about it! I make a friend! This new house is great."

Come to think of it, are there any Moving Books you'd recommend for Eleanor and Isabel's ages? Eleanor, in particular, is feeling deeply nostalgic about leaving the apartment where she's lived her whole life, and concerned about what it will feel like to move. Maybe it's time for Anastasia Krupnik.

Packing the right books (and enough of them) for vacation with children of different ages has always posed some difficulty for me. This year we face a longer trip than usual, and Eleanor's increased reading speed -- she's devouring roughly a chapter book a day this summer -- had me stymied. Help came from my awesome mother, who has loaned us her Kindle and given us permission to load it up with Eleanor-appropriate books. This is a great travel solution. I've already borrowed several books from the library -- Ruth Chew, Edward Eager -- and have found a motherload of free classics.

I have very mixed feelings about Amazon as a company, and about reading on a device rather than holding paper and ink in my hands. Still, it's hard not to love the ability to download classic fairy tales for free, not to mention E. Nesbit (seriously -- we still haven't written about E. Nesbit?), Treasure Island, all the Oz books, and more. The Amazon site does a poor job of aggregating these together into a decent list, which I found surprising. In searching around online, I came across this blog, which pulls together a number of interesting choices.

Among them: the Twins series, by Lucy Fitch Perkins. In each of these books, published between 1911 and 1938, Perkins writes about a pair of twins living in a country somewhere in the world (The Scotch twins, The Eskimo Twins, The Italian Twins). Some are set in the early 1900s, and some are historical fiction. I remember reading The Spartan Twins in what must have been a book from your parents' childhood, and being fascinated by elements of Spartan culture. This blog has an excellent rundown of the plots of the books, and notes how many of them deal subtly with the sexism inherent in many of the cultures profiled. I may need to sneak the Kindle away from Eleanor at some point over vacation to refresh my memory.

She hasn't waited for vacation to start dipping into it, of course. On non-school nights, we allow the girls to stay up with reading lights in bed. Earlier this week, Eleanor emerged an hour and a half past bedtime, raving about how much she loved Edward Eager's Seven-Day Magic: "The adventure they're having is exactly the kind of adventure I'd like to have!"

One of the perils of the e-reader format: she thought she was reading E. Nesbit's Five Children and It. (Both books center on five children finding a magical creature.) Eleanor caught a reference to Half Magic, and assumed that E. Nesbit was writing after Edward Eager. When I explained that it was the opposite -- that Eager had been inspired by Nesbit, and sometimes wrote about her in his books -- Eleanor practically jumped up and down: "That is SO COOL!"

Not for the first time: I love raising a reader.

Love, Annie

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The American Academy of Pediatrics and Spot

Dear Annie,

Oooh, family epidemics: the pits.  I'm so sorry you guys have been so miserable.  It reminds me of a wonderful scene in Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief.  If all our fiction shelves weren't wrapped in plastic while the kitchen is being redone, I'd quote from it at length.  The flu hits the entire family sequentially in that book, striking the parents in overlapping fashion.  Smiley does misery very well.

Two news events since last we posted seem worth noting today.  The American Academy of Pediatrics is now officially recommending that parents read aloud to their children starting in infancy.  They cite both language development and strengthening of parent-child relationships.  Hey, we knew that -- but it's still good to hear it from the family doctors of this world.  Just yesterday, a regular customer who's about to become a grandfather asked me about when to start reading to babies, and what to read.

This of course is one of our big themes -- see Books for Babies in list at right -- with lots of pointers in our posts. 

I also wanted to note the passing of Eric Hill, creator of the Spot books.  As you know, they've never been high on my list, and I have a particular dislike of Spot's First Christmas, which I've been forced to read every Christmas eve for the past 20 years.  But I must admit I found his obit in The Washington Post fascinating.

Hill is credited with creating the lift-the-flap book concept back in 1980 with his first book, the iconic
Where's Spot?
  I never knew.  I also discovered a bit of the Spot origin story which my father, your grandpa, would have appreciated.  Eric Hill, who was 15 years younger than grandpa, had this to say about Spot's markings:
As a child, during the war, I drew Spitfires and Messerschmitts.  With Spot, I found that I had designed a fuselage! His spot is on his side, the roundel marking of an English fighter plane, and the color bar of his tail is the color stripes of a plane’s rudder.

Take a look: 

The Spitfire's in there for Grandpa, who loved airplanes. I can imagine him pointing out to a grandchild, look, that doggie looks just like a Spitfire.  

I've always felt that Spot was too bland, and (especially in the Christmas book) annoying (always demanding his presents).  Hill phrased the blandness differently:
There is no violence in the books. No pussycats get chased. ... He is a happy dog, a little naughty at times, but predictable.  Children like this.
Cozily Predictable walks a fine line, easily crossing over into the Land of Boring.  But my opinion of Eric Hill has gone way up after viewing a video of him reading Where's Spot out loud to a stuffed toy Spot.  It appears to have been done four years ago, when Hill was 82.  The American Academy of Pediatrics should post it: this man knows how to make a bland book a lot of fun.  He adlibs all the way through, and even does voices -- although not as good as yours and Jeff's.

So thanks to Eric Hill for never being bored with a book he's read thousands of times.  Rest in peace.



Thursday, June 12, 2014

Comfort reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The beginning of summer has brought with it, unfortunately, a nasty bug in our house. First Jeff, then Isabel, and now Will have come down with a fever of the knock you flat on your back variety. So there's been more than the usual TV-watching (for Will, the great distractor is a YouTube video of a bunny eating raspberries). But there has also been great comfort reading.

For Isabel, the go-to book was James Herriot's Treasury for Children: Warm and joyful tales by the author of All Creatures Great and Small. Isabel has always loved animals, both live in front of her and in picture books. My mother-in-law found this lovely illustrated collection of James Herriot stories a few years ago, but Isabel decided that it was too much of a chapter book, and wouldn't let me open it. Lately, though, she's been talking about becoming a veterinarian, so while she was in her fever-weakened state, I took the opportunity to crack the book open. We read it straight through, and then she had Jeff read it to her again later that day. It's become, immediately and intensely, one of her favorite books.

One major plus: the book is highly illustrated with gorgeous watercolors by Ruth Brown and Peter Barrett -- the text is printed on top of these illustrations, so there is always something to look at. The landscape of Yorkshire, England and the various farm animals in Herriot's stories are vividly rendered.

While there's a certain amount of sweetness ("Warm and joyful tales" indeed), Herriot's language is interesting enough to keep the stories from being cloying even to an adult reader. In the first story, "Moses the Kitten," he stops his car to open a farm gate in the middle of winter and finds a kitten freezing to death by the side of the road:

The wind almost tore the handle from my fingers as I got out but I managed to crash the door shut before stumbling over the frozen mud to the gate. Muffled as I was in heavy coat and scarf pulled up to my ears I could feel the icy gusts biting at my face, whipping up my nose and hammering painfully into the air spaces in my head.

I had driven through and, streaming-eyed, was about to get back into the car when I noticed something unusual. There was a frozen pond just off the path and among the rime-covered rushes which fringed the dead opacity of the surface a small object stood out, shiny black.

I went over and looked closer. It was a tiny kitten, probably six weeks old, huddled and immobile, eyes tightly closed. Bending down, I poked gently at the furry body. It must be dead; a morsel like this couldn't possibly survive in such cold...but no, there was a spark of life because the mouth opened soundlessly for a second then closed.

The drama! Isabel was hooked. There are eight stories in the book, mostly about cats and dogs, but including sheep, a horse, and an old cow who refuses to be sold away from her home. The Yorkshire accents as reproduced in the dialogue make it a fun read-aloud. While all of the stories end happily, there's a bittersweetness in a couple of them, and a mother cat dies in one, in the act of bringing her kitten to a warm home. So there's some sense of the reality I believe is stronger in Herriot's adult books (I read them years ago). It's a lovely compilation.

There's a different kind of poetry in Leo Timmers's Vroom!, the book Will wants to read over and over and over with his 103 fever. You might call it the poetry of repetition.  Here's the entire text:

Here comes the family car.

Here comes the sports car.

Here comes the taxi.

Here comes the wedding car.

Here comes the jeep.

Here comes the royal car.

Each page is illustrated with a a large-eyed animal or series of animals in the aforementioned car (the family car is full of rabbits; the wedding car a pair of frogs). It's very odd, but gets you in kind of a zen space when you read it ten times in a row. Or maybe that's just my exhaustion talking....

Love, Annie

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Big Book of Words and Pictures

Dear Annie,

I love thinking of toddlers as pointers -- I've used that a few times already at work.
Here's another for your list of pointable books:

The Big Book of Words and Pictures
by Ole Konnecke, a Swedish-born artist living in Germany.  It's definitely Big: a board book that measures 13 by 10 inches.  And it's packed with delightful stuff to point at.  It's a sort of toddler version of In the Town All Year 'Round: it feels European in its sweet sensibility, but also in some of its objects.  There are more berets in this one than you'd find in an average board book.

A group of charming animals stands in for people in this one, and they're always interacting with each other, sometimes across illustrations. I'm particularly fond of a picture on the first page, which juxtaposes various noise-making objects (wooden spoon, pot, toy trumpet) with a parent trying to sleep (double bed, bedside table).

Two pages later the reader in the single bed above has shed the pajamas and is working on articles of clothing:

A page with many flying objects, from satellite to paper airplane, includes a group on the grass watching a kite.  Along the edge of the scene are other fliers: wasp, mosquito, grasshopper.

And any book which includes croquet and bocce (well, they call it lawn bowling) in playground activities has got to be a favorite of mine:

The bottom of this page has mini golf, with a lion carefully marking a scorecard while the croquet-playing stork putts.

Here's to almost-summertime, mini golf, and lots of books.



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The pointing years

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thank you for the sense of perspective! We have so many other good books going on here at home that I'm sure you're right about the princess drek falling away. It's nice to be reminded that it's more often the good stuff that sticks.

I recently heard someone say that a better word for "toddler" would be "pointer," given the amount of pointing that kids do from around 15 months to 2 years, before full-blown language sets in. Will is firmly in the pointer phase. He points at dogs and pigeons and other babies on the street; he points to indicate the food he wants; he points and signs "more" when handing me a book to read to him. And he loves to point at pictures.

Specifically, Will has become a huge fan of pages of books with multiple pictures on them. He points at the items on the page, often the same two or three over and over, and I name them. Very satisfying. Sometimes we try it the other way: "Will, where's the dog?" Less accurate results, but still a lot of fun.

Our absolute favorite book to do this with is a board book I can't believe I haven't written about before: Penny Gentieu's Baby! Talk! We've had this one since Eleanor was a baby (did you give it to us? Probably.) and it's been a huge hit with all three kids. Most of the pages in the book contain a statement of a single baby concept: "Where are baby's toes?"; "How big is baby? So big!"; "Uh-oh!"; "Peek-a-boo! I see you!"; "Clap hands, baby! Patty-cake!" On the facing page, there are pictures of several babies illustrating the concept in different ways:

 (Jeff and I have always enjoyed the Zombie Baby at the top left of the "Uh-oh!" page.)

Will loves these pages. He reads "Uh-oh!" aloud, and plays peek-a-boo himself. But the page he turns to most often is the first page of the book:

*point* "Dog."
*point* "Spoon."
*point* "Cat."
*point* "Ball."
*point* "That's the dog again."
*point* "Spoon."

This is so consistently fascinating that I've started packing Baby! Talk! in the diaper bag every time we go out.

Luckily, children's book publishers seem to recognize the importance of the point-able illustration design. Every photo spread in Eating the Rainbow offers a similar opportunity:

While The Noisy Book presents only one illustration per page, the inside front and back covers show lots of little square images of the pictures and sounds contained in the book as a whole:

These are pages I used to skip over without thinking when reading the book aloud, but they're Will's favorite place to stop. And point. And point. And laugh. And point again. And keep me reading at his pace.

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Reading and memory

Dear Annie,

I haven't yet seen Frozen -- I've been tempted on a few occasions -- but I am very aware of the marketing phenomenon.  About 90% of what I know about the Frozen plot I learned in a phone conversation with your daughters last fall.  I remember a particularly breathless description by Isabel.

But I confess to contributing to the avalanche of books.  We refer to this prominently-displayed shelf in my book section --
-- as The Frozen Shrine.  It's hard to keep it stocked, although I think the demand has peaked now.  I used to come to the store on Mondays and the shelf would be completely empty.  Now we still have a few of each title left, and I can re-order before we see bare wood.

The vast majority of these books has been written or commissioned by marketing departments: why hire a Seuss or Minarek successor when a book with clunky, non-phonetic writing will be produced and sell quicker and cost less to produce?

The thing that's hard to believe, when your child is in the grip of Frozen obsession, is that in five or ten years she will have no memory of this stage.  When you are still regretting that you ever let the book in the door, she'll be happily reading something so different that she'll deny she ever dropped everything to look at a Frozen reader. 

I had a lovely conversation with a young reader at the store today.  I was on my way out to lunch, which sometimes takes a bit of time when I need to disengage from book selling.  I'd finally made it to the door, with my hand on the handle, when a voice said, "Excuse me?"  It was a girl I didn't know: she looked about ten years old.  "You sold Lincoln's Grave Robbers to my mom last week," she said.  It's a wonderful and weird piece of non-fiction: one of my favorites.  "I'm halfway through it," she said, "and I think it's one of the best books I've ever read."  So we talked about it for a while, and I told her it stays very strange and different all the way to the ending.  Moments like that are the best of my job.

After watching my own daughters' taste in books evolve, and talking with a lot of customers, I'll predict that when she's 15, that girl will still have a special spot in her heart for the book she's reading right now.  And when both of your daughters hit that age, they'll have lists as long as their arms of books that are special to them.  And not to worry: Frozen won't be there.