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.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Dear Annie,

A wonderful book. Twelve year old girls acting as their favorite pretend characters:
It would be hard to say whether Lester and Lynette were brother and sister, or girlfriend and boyfriend. Were they children or teenagers or grown-ups? Cousins or even Uncle and niece? It didn't matter at all because in that moment, in that space out of time, there was no one and nothing else. They would walk on the trails to the Native American long house village and be adopted by a loving family who had just lost their own two babies to a terrible disease the white man had brought to this new land, and for which the tribe had no immunity. Lester and Lynette would grow up with new names. Maybe Spirit of Running Bear. Or Girl With Hair Like Corn Silk.
"Or Jumps Like Grasshopper," I said. I loved to jump
"Sings like Soaring Sparrow" Eliza wanted to be a famous singer when she grew up.
"Or Swims in Rushing Waters."
Eliza stopped me there. "You hate to swim."
"I do?"
I didn't like to swim and Eliza knew me.
"How about Wades in Rushing Waters, then?"
The Summer Before Boys
by Nora Raleigh Baskin, about two girls in transition from pure kid-hood to life-is-more-complicated. The mother of the narrator is in the National Guard in Iraq for most of the book, and a crush one girl forms shatters the closeness between the girls.  But what makes the book special is its evocation of the parallel universe of pretend play, and its staying power on up to middle school.  Eliza describes "D'Ville," the bin full of dolls who helped them create their world:
When we were really little we used to line them all up, or divide them into groups.  There was the hair color camp, where they had talent shows divided into teams by the color of their hair.  There was the tease-y group that used to be mean girls but now it was just the older kids, not quite grown-up dolls, the ones we didn't know where else to put. The tease-y group got to do the most things.  Go to camp.  Go to college.  Have singing contests.  Usually I got to be the dolls in the tease-y group.
It was only a couple of years ago that we stopped needing the dolls themselves to play.  It was almost as if we ourselves had become characters in D'Ville.  We carried them within us.  Lester and Lynette were the only two characters that weren't real dolls.  They lived in D'Ville but they were us.
Eliza and I were Lester and Lynette.
Or at least we used to be.
You know when you read a book and you think, "this person knows me"?  Baskin takes my breath away because she knows my children.  I watched Lizzie and Mona playing this way for years -- mostly with their Playmobil people (who still inhabit many drawers in the guest room).  I watched how the dolls remained the same -- except that their population grew -- but the plots to the stories became richer as the girls matured.  "They lived in D'Ville but they were us."  Yes.  Your girls are just entering this world: right now it includes princesses and Dorothy and Toto and I don't know who else, and it will just keep on spinning its tales for six or ten years -- or who knows how long. 

Baskin creates the world of pretend, but she also puts her characters firmly in the real world, where mom calls from Iraq when she can, and where a girl can be cruel to a life-long friend and take a while to figure out that she has been. 

It doesn't go on sale until the beginning of May, but it's quite special.



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