Dear Aunt Debbie,
You sent us Dodsworth in New York a little while ago, and it's a favorite here. The duck is just so odd, and Dodsworth himself so quirky, that it's a really pleasing read. There are of course moments that make no geographic sense if you know New York City (Dodsworth takes a taxi following a bus the duck is riding from the Upper East Side to Coney Island: a) No such bus. b) Hell of an expensive taxi ride.), but that's a minor complaint in a fun book. We took Dodsworth in Paris out of the library a little while ago, and it wasn't as big a hit, but still enjoyable. We like to read the duck with a broad nasal accent.
Now you've got me thinking about Paris. So many great children's books about the city, starting of course with the unimpeachable Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. My mom (your older sister), says that Madeline was the first book she pretended to have learned to read: she knew the whole thing by heart, including when to turn the pages, and "read" it aloud to Grandma and Grandpa at a pretty young age. I can probably do the whole book from memory myself at this point, after reading it over and over to Eleanor:"In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines/Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines." At about age 3 and a little earlier, it was one of Eleanor's most-requested books, and her favorite page was the one where Madeline "pooh-pooh"s the tiger in the zoo. Eleanor would stop me every time: "The other girls are all scared of the tiger, but not Madeline!" A great role model.
Paris isn't the focus of the text, of course: it's Madeline's appendicitis and the other girls' jealousy over her hospital visit and fabulous scar. But the drawings are full of Parisian locations and local color, and an end-note identifies every location the girls walk through. Reading it as an adult, there are moments that seem like they might be stressful for children: where are the girls' parents, and why are they living with a nun? Will Madeline be okay? I don't remember any sense of stress from it as a child, however -- on the contrary, Miss Clavel's final benediction reads to me even now as a moment of peace and grace: "'Good night little girls, thank the lord you are well. And now go to sleep,' said Miss Clavel."
Another book with Paris as its backdrop and a high-spirited girl as its heroine is Mirette on the High Wire, by Emily Arnold McCully. I'd never heard of this one until you sent it to Eleanor, but what a lovely book it is! Mirette lives and works in her mother's boarding house. She becomes fascinated with one of the boarders there, a quiet man who turns out to be the great Bellini, a high-wire walker who performed extraordinary feats before losing his confidence on the wire. Mirette sees him practicing on the clothesline outside and asks him to teach her; he refuses, saying essentially that he doesn't want to doom her to his career. But she's been bitten by the bug, and practices on her own for weeks until she can walk the clothesline on her own. It's a redemption story: Bellini teaches Mirette, and in doing so regains his own confidence. Mirette is strongly the main character, and the relationship between the two is kind and focused. One of the things I like about the book is the emphasis it puts on practice, on really wanting something and working hard to get it, and on the truth that even when you become very good at something, you can have setbacks. There are two sequels: Mirette and Bellini Cross Niagara Falls and Starring Mirette and Bellini, the first of which we've read. Not as good as the original (largely, to my mind, because the starring role goes to a boy named Jakob instead of to Mirette), but still an interesting read.
Finally, I want to mention Barbara McClintock's Adele & Simon. Here we are again in early 20th century Paris, following the responsible Adele and her absent-minded little brother, Simon, as they wend their way home from school through the city, stopping an improbable number of times. Simon starts with a number of possessions; at each stop, he loses something, and the joy of the book is to search the extremely detailed double page spread drawings to find the thing he's lost. The first time through, there were several items it took me a while to find, and Eleanor had to do some serious searching. Here's another take on it from Storied Cities, a lovely blog our friend Rachel (of Even in Australia) mentioned recently.
And now go to sleep, said Miss Clavel.