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.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Competing messages

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Of course you're right -- parental involvement in reading is natural and vitally important in terms of the message a kid takes away from a book.  There are still books I don't want in the house, but when we bring home or are gifted with less than great books, there is opportunity for discussion about them.  And then sometimes I secretly throw them away.

But it's not always the parents', or the author's, intent that comes through.  Thinking about this subject, I was reminded of Eleanor's reaction to The Lorax, Dr. Seuss's classic of environmental awareness.  We read the book multiple times in a period of a couple of weeks: the Once-ler sent down his grovulous glove and told in low tones the story of how he deforested the land of Truffula trees to make and sell Thneeds, depriving all the local animals (Bar-ba-loots!  Swomee Swans!) of their natural habitats, and leaving the land miserable and polluted, despite the Lorax's warnings.  The story ends with the Once-ler tossing down the last Truffula seed for "you" (the boy standing in for the reader) to take care of, and a moment of hope that the trees can be brought back if you care and work hard enough.

What did Eleanor learn from all this?  For months afterwards, she would chant the Once-ler's words at every opportunity: "Business is business, and business must grow!"

There's a takeaway for you.

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 27, 2011

On choosing books

Dear Annie,

Well, it's late, and I'm a bit brain dead because I've spent the last four hours going through the many offerings of three different small non-fiction publishers.  Some of the titles I've been looking at:

I Know Someone with Cancer
A Day in the Life: Meerkat
Inside My Body: Why do I have Periods? (photo of pained-looking teenager holding her stomach on cover)
Predator vs. Prey: Dolphins Vs. Fish
Robert E. Lee: The Story of the Great Confederate General (this one's a comic book)

Although some of these publishers' many new books are obviously not right for our clientele (the cover of the period book, for example, discourages further reading), many of them just might be good and useful for kids with different focused interests.  The meerkat book, for example, has lots of charming photos, clear writing, and interesting information.  Did you know that meerkats eat scorpions because they aren't affected by their poison?  I didn't.  Am going to order that one.

The cancer book is one of those too much information/too little processing of it books, so I'm passing on that one.  A slim volume called The Legacy of the Holocaust is one I had to read all of before deciding that yes, it's a keeper. 

All of this is to make a point about the New Yorker article on kids' books about emotions that you pointed out in your last post.  I understand the basic point that Daniel Zalewski is making: kids' books these days are too tolerant of bad behavior.  He gives examples of some books he feels are over the top on this issue, and others which are okay with him.  I could pick nits with a few of his characterizations of individual books, but generally agree with most of his criticisms (Knuffle Bunny excepted). 

But he's assuming parents have no capacity for critical thinking.  Because these books exist, he's damning a generation of parents, whether or not they're reading them to their kids.  And he's also assuming that to read a book about a child behaving badly is to accept that behavior. Part of the charm of Trixie's dad getting up in the middle of the night to get Knuffle Bunny back is that it's so silly.  To read it to one's child does not mean you're going to acquiesce to an outrageous demand. 

We're talking about picture books here.  And one of the advantages of this genre is that a parent can often read the whole thing before reading it to a kid.  Not always possible, I know, but parental control of reading material is much more a possibility here than later in children's lives.  If a parent reads and is repelled by the message in Pinkalicious, cited in the New Yorker piece, one does not have to read it again.  Or one can talk about what's wrong with it with a child.

Because how can someone grow up to be a critical thinker if they're not given the chance to understand competing points of view?  Every book one reads to a child doesn't have to be debated and disagreed with.  But if one only read books whose message one supported completely, reading time would be a blander experience.

Love,

Deborah

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kids behaving badly

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love the Tim Noah piece -- I've never thought about sulking, as opposed to other forms of acting out, in literature before.  But reading your discussion of Spinky Sulks (a Steig I don't know, but will certainly look up now), I'm stumped.  You could argue that Grumpy Bird begins as a sulking book -- Grumpy Bird is deep in his own funk for a while -- but he doesn't hole up anywhere, and it doesn't take him too long to snap out of it.  I'd be curious to hear of other books that take on sulking in a serious way.

Pondering the art of the sulk got me thinking about books we have that take on intense emotions, several of which you sent us about a year and a half ago, when Eleanor was deep in age 2 1/2.  One of our favorites is When Sophie Gets Angry -- Really, Really Angry..., by Molly Bang.  Sophie's anger starts with something small: her sister takes a toy gorilla away from her, and their mother confirms that it is the sister's turn.  Sophie trips over a toy truck (hooray for non-gendered toys!), and then she goes off into a full-blown tantrum.

Sophie's anger is outsized.  In Bang's vibrant paintings, her shadow grows huge and orange and smashes the wall; her roar blows toys and books across the room. 


The figures of Sophie and her family members are outlined in colored lines, and as Sophie gets angry, her outline changes from yellow to orange to bright red (her sister's stays green).  Then ("PABAM!") she runs out of the house.  "She runs and runs until she can't run anymore."  Luckily for Sophie, she lives in the middle of a beautiful, safe, forested area, so she runs to her favorite beech tree, climbs it, and cools off by looking at the ocean.  "The wide world comforts her."  She calms down (back to yellow), climbs down, and goes home, aware now of the sounds of the animals around her.  Everyone is glad to see her, and she and her sister and parents do a jigsaw puzzle together.

I like the honesty of the anger in this book, and the way that the rest of the family just lets Sophie deal with her tantrum herself until she's ready to come back to them.  The arc of Sophie's anger rings true.  The book opens up avenues for conversation about the way anger feels: on the copyright page at the end, it asks directly, "What do you do when you get angry?"  Of course, we live in the middle of a city, and running out the door to climb a tree when you're upset is not an option here.  Every time we read the book, I find myself a little wistful about Sophie's family's bucolic life.  So close to the ocean!  And there's dad, sitting on the couch with his seed catalogue....

Sometimes I'm Bombaloo
, by Rachel Vail, feels much more like a story of anger and cooling down that might happen in an apartment.  It's another younger-sibling-annoys-the-older-sibling-into-a-tantrum story (here it's a little brother and a block tower that gets knocked down).  The narrator, Katie Honors, describes herself as a generally good kid, but explains that sometimes she loses control of herself: "I'm bombaloo."  Losing your temper, in this formulation, is like being taken over by something wild and uncontrollable -- you become someone else.  I'm of two minds about this formulation.  On the one hand, it makes sense; who hasn't felt this way at times?  On the other hand, it feels a little like a free pass: It wasn't me, Mommy, it was Bombaloo.  I do like that it's humor that brings Katie back to herself and allows her to calm down.

At about the same time you sent us When Sophie and Bombaloo, the New Yorker published Daniel Zalewski's wrap-up of books about children's anger and the ways parents deal with it.  It's pretty damning towards a number of books -- the thesis is that parents have become hyper-aware of the ways they shouldn't discipline their children, and so have become ineffectual at doing so, and that a number of contemporary children's books depict children running roughshod over their parents.  I'd be interested to hear whether, and how much, you agree with Zalewski.  And of course, this opens up the can of worms that is Amy Chua's Tiger Mothering, if we want to go there....

Love, Annie

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spinky and Gorky: two great guys

Dear Annie,

Mirette is so wonderful.  It was one of several Mom-gets-choked-up read-alouds in our family.  When Mirette steps out on the wire -- so daring!  so selfless! -- to help Bellini, I'd get teary every time.

Speaking of your posts, there's a great princess discussion going on in the comments back in "I only like princesses."  I know you know it's there, but I highly recommend it to our readers.

Today I want to visit two wonderful characters created by the late great William Steig.  Both guys, although for reasons beyond me, whenever I read
Gorky Rises
to my girls, they insisted that I change him to a she. This is not easy at 5 in the afternoon, snuggled up on the couch with two small warm bodies and feeling a bit drowsy. I still remember the elbows that would dig into my ribs to keep Gorky female.

In any case, Gorky, who is a clothed frog, wants some magic in his/her life, so s/he mixes up
a little of this and then a little of that: a spoon each of chicken soup, tea, and vinegar, a sprinkle of coffee grounds, one shake of talcum powder, two shakes of paprika, a dash of cinnamon, a splash of witch hazel.
After adding a bit of father's cognac, s/he finally dumps in a bottle of mother's perfume.
That did it!  The thick stuff sank to the bottom of the mixing glass and [s]he had a reddish-golden liquid full of tiny bubbles that glinted like particles of fire.  This, obviously, was the magic formula [s]he had long been seeking.
Gorky falls asleep in a field holding the magic stuff and
Whatever had kept him[/her] fastened to the earth let go its hold and Gorky's slumbering body rose in the air, like a bubble rising in water, and moved off in an easterly direction.
S/he floats high and low, attracting the attention of many characters on the ground, rising through a thunderstorm, somersaulting above the head of cousin Gogol (yep), and going on into the dead of night.  By releasing the magic formula one drop at a time, Gorky manages to descend, landing on Elephant Rock in his/her own neighborhood.  One last drop transforms the rock into an elephant, released from rockdom after ten million years (shades of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble).  Gorky's distraught parents are ecstatic to have their child back, although it takes a little convincing for them to believe the whole story.  The book is a lyrical and sweet and loving adventure.  The only time, thankfully, that my children insisted on sex change.


Spinky Sulks
, however, is on a completely different level of intensity, as is clear from the first page:
Spinky came charging out of the house and flung himself on the grass. He couldn't even see the dandelions he was staring at, he was so upset.  His stupid family!  They were supposed to love him, but the heck they did.  Not even his mother.
Spinky is angry for a host of slights, among them that his sister called him Stinky, and his brother disagreed with his assertion that Philadelphia is the capital of Belgium.  His siblings apologize.  Mom tells him she has loved him "ever since the moment he was born.  And even before that."  His father tells Spinky "he was one of the most popular of the three children."  But his sulk builds and builds.  We see him draped over a porch railing, turning away from family and friends, rejecting candy from Grandma -- all with a scowl and a frown.  This goes on for days, with Spinky holing up in a hammock, refusing to go inside.  He finally softens: "Maybe these people didn't know how to behave, but at least they were trying. Was it their fault they couldn't do better?"  He finds a face-saving way to end the standoff.
After that, Spinky's family was much more careful about his feelings.
Too bad they couldn't keep it up forever.
And for a delightful contemplation of the art of the sulk and Spinky's parallels to Achilles, see this article by Tim Noah in Slate.

Love,

Deborah

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ah, gay Paris!

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.

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wanderlust

Dear Annie,

It's February and gray and dreary so I'm going to turn to the allure of travel.  Specifically, with the delightlfully wacky Tim Egan's  Dodsworth.  So far he's been to three cities :





As you can see from the covers, the titles should be Dodsworth and Duck.  In the first book,
Dodsworth wanted adventure.
He wanted to fly in a plane.
He wanted to sail on a ship.
He wanted to see the world.
But first, he wanted breakfast.

Breakfast at Hodges' cafe (pancakes) leads to Hodges' misbehaving duck (many pancakes end up in air and on ground) stowing away in Dodsworth's luggage.  This is discovered on the train to New York, where Dodsworth has booked ship passage to Paris.  He buys the duck a train ticket back home, but the duck takes off, and Dodsworth spends a day looking for him in some of the major sights of New York, a la Madeline's wanderings through Paris.  Finally, he finds a woman feeding bread to some ducks, but "Only one duck was throwing bread back at the lady." The duck once again outruns Dodsworth and jumps on the Paris-bound ship.  As the curtain comes down on book one, they're on their way to France.

I'm not quite sure what kind of animal Dodsworth is.  A fox?  A weasel?  Muskrat? The predominant other species appear to be pigs, cows and hippos.  In Paris, the duck acquires an acorn-shell beret and tries unsuccessfully to become a street performer (while dancing unintentionally on a painting by Dodsworth).  There's much exasperation, and a hasty exit from Paris in a hot air balloon.

While floating in to London, the duck sees Buckingham Palace and declares his intention to stay there. "It's not a motel," cautions Dodsworth.  They go into a pub near Picadilly Circus, where there are darts:
The duck looked at a dart.
Dodsworth looked at the duck.
"Don't even think about it," he said.
The duck smiled.
The duck grabbed the dart.  
Dodsworth jumped at the duck.
He wasn't fast enough.
The duck threw the dart.
Once again, chaos ensues and they leave.  They eventually get separated (two different double-decker buses) and Dodsworth is confused by a very similar-looking duck with a British accent ("I am the Royal Duck.  Her Majesty's Duck.") and is then distraught because he's lost his friend.  There's a day-long search  through the sights of London, and of course the duck is found entertaining the queen in Buckingham Palace.  They end up staying there for a week.

One could call these books picture books, or early readers, in the short-chapter tradition of the Frog and Toad books.  They make entertaining read-alouds and can come in handy for the family who travels.  The next stop is Dodsworth in Rome, which will be out in April.

Love,

Deborah

Friday, February 18, 2011

Back to baby board books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I loved The Queen Who Couldn't Bake Gingerbread -- we've read it recently at my parents' place.  Yes, you definitely gave me Stories for Free Children. That's the first place I read "X: A Fabulous Child's Story," by Lois Gould, which Orenstein writes about in Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  I now use it to open the discussion of nature vs. nurture in my senior Women's Voices class.  It's a good read.  The other major memory I have of Stories for Free Children is a piece about Amelia Bloomer and women starting to wear pants which I remember finding fascinating.  Ironically, at the time, I was refusing to wear pants myself.  So I suppose I have my own history to look back on as I recite the mantra: this too shall pass....

With so much interesting stuff happening on the Big Kid front, I fear that Isabel's reading habits have been getting short shrift.  At 16 months, she is in love with books (she "reads" to the other babies at daycare), and extremely specific in what she will and will not let you read to her.  She refers to a number of books by name: "Munny" ("Bunny") is Home for a Bunny; "Up" is Olivia's Opposites; "Doss" ("Dogs") refers to any of the roughly 5000 board books we now have about dogs.

One of her latest favorites came from you: "Meow" refers to Where's the Cat?, by Stella Blackstone and Debbie Harter.  This is a wonderful book.  Each right hand page asks "Where's the cat?" and provides a clue by showing a tiny bit of ear or paw poking out from under something; when you turn the page, the wide-eyed black and white cat reveals itself in an active catlike pose: "on the chair," "up the stair," etc.  The drawings are intense and colorful.  Eleanor often joins in on reading this one too, answering every "Where's the cat?" by pointing to the right place on the page matter-of-factly: "There he is."


Margaret Wise Brown's Big Red Barn, illustrated by Felicia Bond, is another go-to book right now, so much so that the corners are starting to fray.  I could read pretty much anything Margaret Wise Brown writes a thousand times in a row and not get tired of it -- something about her rhythm and her simplicity which is pitch-perfect for children but never cloying.  (I just tried to refer to her as "Brown," and couldn't do it -- why is it that some authors need to be referred to by their full names?)  Here's a sample:


There was a  big pile of hay
And a little pile of hay,
And that is where the children play.

But in this story the children are away.
Only the animals are here today.

The sheep and the donkey,
The geese and the goats,
Were making funny noises
Down in their throats.

An old scarecrow was leaning on his hoe.
And a field mouse was born...

in a field of corn.

There are lots of animal noises, and, happily, dogs and cats show up a little later.  Everyone goes to sleep at night, under a big beautiful moon.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One last princess

Dear Annie,

I gave you Stories for Free Children?   That sounds in character, but I have no memory of it.

The predominant attitude toward gender has changed so much in the 12 years I've been selling books and toys.  It used to be only the occasional customer -- usually of grandparent age -- who would specify that a gift must be for a girl (or a boy).  Now it's rare that someone doesn't specify a gender-related gift -- for any age.  One of the more startling moments of transition for me came when someone asked for a book for a six month-old.  I showed her
Eat!
, a delightful book full of pictures of babies eating. She recoiled from the cover and said, "No, I want a book for a girl." That made me wonder for quite a while -- what said "not girl" about that? I think she meant that girls aren't messy. Oy.

I'm happy to hear regular highlights from Cinderella Ate My Daughter as you go.  I'm so glad Peggy Orenstein wrote that book.  Your princess problem is, of course, being created by forces outside of the home.  You just have to keep believing that your values will ultimately trump.  There have been times when I've talked with Lizzie or Mona about something that was central to their lives at age 4 or 5 and they will literally have no memory of it.  So you can always hope..

I swear this is the last time I'll talk about royalty in children's books for a while, but your mention of Stories for Free Children reminded me of a book I was so happy to give you when you were around four: The Queen Who Couldn't Bake Gingerbread, by Dorothy Van Woerkom.  A king sets out to find a bride who is beautiful and wise and can bake gingerbread.  Various princesses try to please him, to no avail.  But when he asks the wise Princess Calliope if she can bake gingerbread she replies, no, but can you play the slide trombone?  Neither can satisfy the other's heart's desire, but they decide to marry anyway and agree not to discuss the longed-for skill.  They can't keep the promise -- there's a fight, the forbidden words (gingerbread! trombone!) are spoken, and they both stomp off to opposite ends of the castle.  Soon sounds of a slide trombone being played by a novice float from the queen's tower, and the smell of burnt gingerbread wafts from the king's.  Each finds happiness in learning what they wanted, reconciliation takes place, and all's well.  This book has so many lessons: about unrealistic expectations, about grown-ups fighting and making up, about working for what you want.  And it's a lot of fun.  Out of print, but findable.

Love,

Deborah

Monday, February 14, 2011

"I only like princesses."

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The Fairy's Return is next on our list of chapter books after The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.  Eleanor really likes the cover, natch.  I'm glad to know that it's a little post-modern (though what else would I expect from the woman who bought me the anthology Stories for Free Children?).  In the last month or so, Eleanor has been hitting the princess obsession hard, and it's driving me a little crazy.

We've written before (here and here, among other places) about the inescapable allure of princess stories, and the ways in which the Disney machine has commodified what might have started as a natural interest into a full-scale kid lifestyle.  Eleanor's 4th birthday brought a host of new princess products into our house (mostly courtesy of her friends, who got her what she asked for), and with them and the post-birthday letdown has come a period of trying behavior.  At preschool, she told one of her teachers that she was bored with Circle Time and only wanted "to talk about princesses."  Coming home last week, she was asked by a neighbor if she liked cats: "No, I only like princesses."  It doesn't seem to matter to her that this isn't objectively true: the Doctor Dolittle she's so heavily into right now is about the farthest thing possible from a princess story, and over the weekend she had a great time at the Brooklyn Children's Museum watching sea anemones, then painted a pretty awesome underwater scene featuring a jellyfish.  But there's something about the marketing of Disney Princess that has infiltrated the way she conceptualizes what she is, and should be, interested in.

In short, I am the target audience for Peggy Orenstein's new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  I bought it this weekend at our local independent bookstore after reading Eleanor yet another godawful flat story from a Disney Princess Golden Book.  (Our bargain is that I'll read them to her in the store or the library, but we won't take them home because they're badly written.)  I'm only a couple of chapters in, but let me tell you, Orenstein speaks to my soul.  She's recycling some of the material that has appeared in the NYT magazine over the last decade (I linked to my favorite of her pieces here), and has expanded and added new iterations of the same basic idea: Yes, your experience as a parent that girls' choices of what to play with and how to play are being steadily pinkened and narrowed is correct.  This is what's happening, and it may seem fairly innocent, but it's actually kind of scary.  I am filled with righteous outrage!

And so again, what do I do about it?

My mother-in-law gave Eleanor a new alternate-princess book for her birthday, and she's been enjoying it.  Babette Cole's Princess Smartypants is written in the mode of The Paper Bag Princess.   In this story, Princess Smartypants wants to hang out with her monster pets and stay single ("She enjoyed being a Ms.") rather than marry any of her many suitors.  She sets them all impossible tasks, then watches happily as they fail.  Then Prince Swashbuckle shows up.  He seems a good match for her -- he too can roller-disco till dawn -- but when he passes all her tests, she turns him into a toad with a magic kiss and gets to live happily alone again. 

On the one hand, I like the humor here, and the reversal of expectations, and Princess Smartypants's overalls and monsters.  On the other, her name bugs me: "Smartypants," in my experience, isn't a positive thing to be called.  (Did I mention that several of the princess-y things Eleanor got for her birthday were made by a brand called "Klutz"?)  Also, she's kind of a jerk to Prince Swashbuckle, who looks a little smarmy but just does what she's asked him to do. 

Reading this book, among all the others, makes me wonder what I'm really looking for.  Do I want a better model of princess, or just less princess in general?  Am I overreacting to what will turn out to be a nice little pre-feminist stage?  Thank goodness for Isabel's taste in books and products, which has lately expanded from dog ("Aaa-ooooo!") to monkey ("Mun-kee!").  Animals feel like such a relief.

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Fairy's Mistake

Dear Annie,


Ah, Dr. Dolittle.  So delightful.  I have fond memories of my father, your Grandpa Frank, reading the books to me.  And it was such a pleasure to read them to our girls.  One of my favorite characters was always the Pushmi-Pullyu, a gazelle-unicorn cross with two heads, one on either end of its body.  It argued with itself a fair amount.

I realized, reading the books with Lizzie and Mona, that Dr. Dolittle was the first animal rights activist.  In one of the later books he liberates the animals from a circus in the dead of night.  There's an overland coach ride  to get the seals to the ocean and freedom.

I just re-read a story I gave Eleanor recently: "The Fairy's Mistake," by Gail Carson Levine.  It's part of a collection of six short stories:
The Fairy's Return
.  They're post-modern fairy tales by the author of Ella Enchanted (the subject of a recent guest blog).  Levine takes a classic fairy tale -- one in which a disguised fairy rewards a generous sister and punishes the selfish one -- and asks what would really happen if you had jewels coming out of your mouth and your sister spoke bugs and snakes.

Ethelinda slurped the water.  "Thank you.  Your kindness merits a reward.  From now --"
"You don't have..." Rosella stopped.  Something funny was happening in her mouth.  Had she lost a tooth?  There was something hard under her tongue.  And something hard in her cheek.  "Excuse me."  Now there was something in her other cheek.  She spat delicately into her hand.
They weren't teeth.  She was holding a diamond and two opals.
"There, dearie."  Ethelinda smiled.  "Isn't that nice?"

Of course it turns out not to be nice.  A passing prince realizes that the heretofore impoverished Rosella is a source of constant riches and proposes to her on the spot.  She causes small riots of everyone around her who pounce on every jewel she utters.  The prince shuts her in a huge library with empty chests and tells her to read aloud until they're full.  In the meantime, the evil sister is demanding major payment from all the local shops to keep her from entering their stores and distributing creepy creatures everywhere.  It takes the slightly clueless fairy a little while to realize what's going on, then to find the solution. 

It's a quietly funny read. I'm curious what Eleanor will think of it.  Definitely not Disney-esque, although there are poofy dresses.

Love,

Deborah

Friday, February 11, 2011

The perfection of Doctor Dolittle

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I was so sorry to hear about the death of Bob's mom.  I hope you are all doing okay.  What a week for us to be discussing books about death!

Tonight I'm going to shift gears to bring up the newest obsession in our house, and an old, old favorite of mine: the Doctor Dolittle books, by Hugh Lofting.  My father read me the entire series when I was about 4 years old, and the books are among my earliest memories of being read to. While I retained the sense of loving them deeply, I had forgotten most of the stories -- unlike the Chronicles of Narnia, I never returned to Doctor Dolittle on my own as a reader.  I had a feeling that this would be the right time for Eleanor to hear them, and my parents gave her their wonderful old copies of four Doctor Dolittle books for her birthday a couple of weeks ago.  They are a perfect fit.  First thing in the morning and last thing before bed, Eleanor asks for chapters.  In less than a week, we've finished the  first book and are a third of the way into the second.


The first book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, introduces John Dolittle, M.D., a doctor and naturalist who likes animals more than people.  With the help of Polynesia, a most excellent gray African parrot, he learns to speak a variety of animal languages, and becomes an animal doctor renowned throughout the world (that is, the world of animals).  He doesn't care about money, and his animals (Dab-Dab the duck, Chee-Chee the monkey, and Jip the dog, among others) band together to take care of him and his house, until he's called away to Africa to cure an epidemic among the monkeys.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is narrated by Tommy Stubbins, a nine-year-old boy who becomes Doctor Dolittle's assistant.  It is a longer book, and probably the best of the series; in it, there are multiple voyages as well as mysteries closer to home, in the fictional Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.  All the animal characters are back, and the impression of the good doctor, a gentle, inquisitive man, is highlighted by Tommy's perceptions of him.

There is so much to love in Lofting's writing.  The language is clear but not simplistic; the descriptions of nature and animals are strong.  There is no magic involved in Doctor Dolittle, and then Tommy's, ability to understand animals: it's all about close observation and understanding that animals communicate in different ways.  The virtues extolled: curiosity, noticing things, patience and practice, caring for others no matter their species. There is warmth and humor and people named things like "Matthew Mugg, the Cat's-Meat man."  As a parent of a just-one-more-chapter kind of child, I was also happy to find that the chapters are super-short; it's never hard to find a place to stop when you have to get ready to go to school, or to brush teeth before bed.

The caveat to mention about The Story of Doctor Dolittle has to do with the depiction of the tribe Doctor Dolittle encounters in Africa, the Jolliginkis.  Descriptions of their king and his son, Prince Bumpo, in the original edition are problematically old-fashioned-racist in places.  When my father read me the original, he says he just changed the language as it needed to be changed, and left some parts out.  The copy I read to Eleanor, which I have linked to above, is a Bowdlerized version -- the African characters' roles have been cut down significantly, and all the racist parts are gone.  It worked for us this time through.  Such an odd problem to have with Lofting, when the moral of all the stories is about complete acceptance of difference -- only connect!

In all other respects, these are perfect books for a four-year-old.  We are very happy.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Mourning

Dear Annie,

I've just reread Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie de Paola. It's so lovely: most of it is about visiting his grandmother and great-grandmother. I can see why it stayed in your memory all this time. When four year-old Tom sees that his grandmother ties her 94 year-old mother into a chair so she won't fall out, he asks to be tied into his chair too. There's a picture of them sitting side by side, tied in, both smiling. And there's a sequence of Tom watching both women fix their long white hair which brought back to me memories of Aunt Martha (your great-aunt) and her crown of white braids.  After he learns Nana Upstairs has died, Tom runs to her room, only to find it empty.
Tommy began to cry.
"Won' t she ever come back?" he asked.
"No, dear," Mother said softly.  "Except in your memory.  She will come back in your memory whenever you think about her."
I wanted to move the discussion today to books that are written specifically to help children understand the death of someone they love.  Our family is grieving for someone we love this week: Bob's mother, my children's grandma, died on Sunday.  She cared about books, and with her husband raised an amazing reader, and it seems fitting to talk about mourning.

Nana is a book one can read as a story -- as you did as a child -- but which can be useful talking about someone who's died.  After both Nana Upstairs, and years later Nana Downstairs die, Tom sees a shooting star.  "Perhaps that was a kiss from Nana Upstairs," Mother tells the young Tom.  The book gives a hint of something Bigger out there, without spelling it out.

As with sex, Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown have written a Very Thorough book on death:
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death
. It defines alive and dead and gives lots of examples of ways to die (after long  illness, sudden illness, accidents, as a baby, in war, "poverty, prejudice and drug abuse," and suicide).  There's a lot about missing people, about overwhelming feelings, about funerals (illustrated with one for a pet).  There are many different answers to "What Comes After Death?"  It feels like it can be just too much information.  But it does hit a lot of points.

I think we've both established at some point that we're not particularly religious.  I'm fond of the treatment of heaven in Judith Viorst's
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney
. This one is about the death of a cat, and it's full of Viorst's wonderful kid-intensity. After Barney's backyard funeral, the narrator and his friend talk:
Annie said Barney was in heaven with lots of cats and angels, 
drinking cream and eating cans of tuna
I said Barney was in the ground.

Heaven said Annie, heaven.  So there!  The ground, I told her, the ground.  You don't know anything.

My father came in from the yard and took a cookie.
Big-mouthed Annie said heaven again.  I said ground.
Tell her who's right, I asked Father.  She doesn't know anything.

Maybe Barney's in heaven, my father began.  Aha, said Annie, and stuck her tongue out at me.

And maybe, said my father, Barney isn't.  What did I tell you, I said, and yanked Annie's braid.

Father made me let go.
We don't know too much about heaven, he told Annie.
We can't be absolutely sure that it's there.

But if it is there, said Annie in her absolutely sure voice,
it's bound to have room for Barney and tuna and cream.
She finished another cookie and went back home.
The beauty of Barney is that the narrator makes a list of ten good things about the departed cat.  It's an exercise people sometimes do with grieving kids.

There are other books with groups of people (or animals standing in for people) reminiscing about special moments with the person who's no longer there.  They're stories, presented as a kind of model for mourning.  I'm curious if any of our readers have had satisfactory first-hand experience with a book for their kids to help process dying.

Love,

Deborah

Friday, February 4, 2011

Death in picture books and chapter books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In answer to KPK's comment of a few days ago, I've been trying to think of books which address the issue of death for younger readers.  The only picture book of this kind I remember from my own childhood is another by Tomie dePaola (who is starting to seem a little morbid): Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs.  Nana downstairs is 4-year-old Tommy's grandmother, and Nana Upstairs is her mother, and in the book, Nana Upstairs dies.  I haven't read it in a long while, but I remember it being sweet and sad.

Patricia Polacco would also be a good author to check out on this subject -- in many of her books, while death is not the main subject at hand, she takes her adult-role-model main characters all the way to death on the last page.  This is true in Chicken Sunday and  In Our Mothers' House, and The Keeping Quilt has death threaded through it, along with births and marriages.  I've written more about these particular books here.

KPK mentioned The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, which I've never read, but in a conversation on this topic today, my friend Emily cited it as one of the main books about death in her childhood.  She says it's a lovely, gentle story -- Freddie is a leaf, and he grows and then falls and dies, and becomes part of the earth and helps other things grow.

The books I read as a kid which made me think most deeply about death are all chapter books, only one of which would be appropriate to read to fairly young kids.

The first is actually referenced in your previous post as one of the books Doug reads to the kids he babysits (what a wonderful, reference-filled scene!): E.B. White's Charlotte's Web.  I still remember my father reading me the scene where Charlotte dies; I still remember sobbing.  Such a great book, and such a bittersweet ending -- all those baby spiders taking off and leaving Wilbur alone, but the promise of the one who stays, the generations to come.  That's one we should break out fairly soon, I think.

The other two both have protagonists who are about ten years old, and I think that's probably the right age to read them: Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, and Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt.  I know I read both of them on my own (and then re-read, and re-read them, sobbing every time).  Bridge to Terabithia is the story of the friendship between Jess Aaron, a fifth-grade boy, and a neighbor girl named Leslie.  They create an imaginative world together in the woods near their houses (Terabithia, of course), and it's intense and wonderful, and then one morning while Jess is away -- I think at an art museum with his teacher -- Leslie tries to go to Terabithia in bad weather, has an accident, and dies.  There is so much in the book about friendship and guilt and loss; it feels horrible and preventable but altogether real.  I get choked up just writing about it.  I heard Paterson once on NPR talking about how she wrote the book after her son's best friend, an eight-year-old girl, was killed by lightning.  The book has that feel of truth to it -- she's trying to make sense of absolute tragedy.

In Tuck Everlasting, a ten-year-old girl named Winnie Foster meets the Tuck family, including one very attractive son a little older than she is.  She learns fairly quickly that he's actually a lot older -- he and his family have drunk from a spring of immortality.  Winnie is offered the chance to drink from the spring herself, and has to decide whether or not she wants eternal life and eternal youth.  I suppose with all the vampire fiction around these days, there are other places kids are puzzling over the pluses and minuses of eternal life, but for me, this was the first time I'd really pondered it.  It's hard to understand at age ten that people might want to grow old and even to die, when the time comes.  I suppose it's hard to understand on some level at any age.

Love, Annie

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Yes, but

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad you and I have the same take on Ladybug girl.  One wants it to be better because the illustrations are so engaging and she has a slightly tough feel to her.  And it's not, but it's still okay.  Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy is my favorite too.  Books like that, which have a message but still have a bit of personality, are why the world doesn't need the Berenstain Bears, to get back to an old thread.

I'm going to defer the discussion of death books -- must go ransack my shelves for some good ones first.

I'm in the thick of meetings with sales reps to order books for the summer right now.  And I've just read the first Seriously Good (Although Flawed) book of the year.  I'm putting it on my might-win-an-award list -- although we know how bad my record is on those predictions.  It's
Okay for Now
by Gary Schmidt. It's due out in mid-April.  (Note: spoilers throughout the following paragraphs.)  Schmidt's a lovely writer: this book is full of very special individuals. There are a few old chestnuts among the characters, but the narrator, Doug Swieteck, is wonderfully done.  The book follows him through his eighth grade year: it's 1968 and his family moves to a small town in upstate New York.  His older brother is an aspiring hood who steals his stuff and beats him up.  His father is abusive to the entire family and the whole town is suspicious of the brothers.  Two adults help Doug discover some of the joys of the world: a science teacher who figures out that he can't really read, and a librarian who introduces him to the prints of John James Audubon.

Underneath the glass was this book.  A huge book.  A huge, huge book.  Its pages were longer than a good-size baseball bat.  I'm not lying.  And on the whole page, there was only one picture.  Of a bird.
     I couldn't take my eyes off it.
     He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea.  His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he were trying to turn but couldn't.  His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water.  The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.
     This bird was falling and there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all.
     It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.
     The most beautiful.

He starts drawing copies of the Audubon prints.  The nasty brother rips one up once, which he takes in stride because he's used to being pushed around and abused.  So when one discovers the deep hostility of his father's abuse -- and Doug's emotional scars -- it really hits.

There are funny and touching moments too.  He learns to read and then tries out his skills on the kids he babysits for.  I figured you'd appreciate this line, Annie:
And it wasn't like you could read to all of them at once, or even three of them, or two.  It was five kids, five books.
     This takes a long time.  I'm not lying.
     But I didn't care, because I figured it all out, thanks to Miss Cowper's County Literacy Unit.
     I figured out Sam-I-Am for Phronsie.
     I figured out Circus McGurkus for Davie.
     I figured out Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack for Joel.
     I figured out Andy and the thorn in the lion's paw for Polly.
     And I even figured out why Wilbur is one terrific pig for Ben.
     You know what this feels like, to figure all this out?
     Do you really know what it feels like?
Okay, so now I'm coming to the problematic part: the ending.  There are a lot of bad things that happen in among the good things.  But almost all of it gets resolved.  People change.  Those who can't communicate learn to listen to each other.  Young romance stays true.  The town's suspicions are dispelled.  Parents reconcile.  There's even the implication that the horrendous dad has turned a new leaf. 

I want to say, Yes, but...

This is a book aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds.  We don't need gritty realism throughout.  There's a lot to think about in this book, and the bad things people do to each other -- especially the bad stuff adults do to kids -- is harsh.  But it's well written:  one can imagine inhabiting that life.  But I just don't believe a father who's been uncommunicative and violent to his entire family is all of a sudden going to realize that kind of behavior is a bad thing and stop.  So how do we present the world to a ten year-old?  Look, there's bad stuff, some parents hit their kids.  Do we end on a more realistic but depressing note, saying that kind of parent isn't going to stop?  Or do we hand out a little hope with the bad news?  Schmidt opted for the hope.  I wish he'd found a more nuanced way to deal with it, but it's still a really good book.

Love,

Deborah

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Independent girls and their dogs

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thank you for the birthday wishes (and the birthday box of books, which we're just getting into)! We had a lovely, celebratory weekend, and everyone was exhausted afterwards. Time does feel exceptionally strange in relation to parenthood. Eleanor's first six months felt about three years long, but then it all speeded up dramatically, and Isabel was walking and talking in no time at all. Now my girls are starting to develop a real sisterly relationship, both affectionate and competitive. One of the main areas of competition at the moment has to do with reading time. Jeff often works late, which means I put the girls to bed by myself. Bath time is no problem, and I can wrangle everyone into pajamas just fine, but then it's time for books, and there are very few that can please both my four-year-old and my 16-month-old at the same time. I often find myself reading a chapter book or long picture book to Eleanor with one hand while holding a board book for Isabel in the other, every now and then pausing in my reading to bark or moo.

Recently, we've found two books which hold both girls' interest at the same time. As you might guess from knowing my kids, they both involve spunky, independent girls and their dogs.

The first is Violet the Pilot, written and illustrated by Steve Breen.  It's the story of Violet Van Winkle, a mechanical genius who by the age of eight is building flying machines out of the spare parts she finds in her parents' junkyard.  She is, of course, a social outcast, misunderstood by her peers but loved and appreciated by her dog, Orville, who goes flying with her.  The time period appears to be the 1930's -- Violet has a picture of Amelia Earhart on one wall -- and the vibe is sweet and imaginative and old-fashioned.  The pages showing Violet's creations (the Tubbubbler, the Bicycoptor) are particularly fun.  In true underdog style, Violet's most ambitious flying machine, which she wants to take to the local air show, saves the day in an unexpected way.  Even Orville gets a medal.

The other big hit is one of Ian Falconer's Olivia books: Olivia Saves the Circus.  I've said before that I like Olivia's Opposites better than the more narrative Olivia books, which are a little meandering, but this one is pretty great.  Olivia is asked to tell her class about what she did over her vacation, so she spins a tall tale about having to save the circus by performing all the acts herself after all the performers are felled by ear infections.  We were primed to like the illustrations, as several of them were co-opted for Olivia's Opposites; Olivia as a lion tamer (Quiet/Loud) is a particular favorite.  And of course, Olivia with her not-very-trained dogs brings the house down.  On her bedroom wall, Olivia has a fantastic poster of Eleanor Roosevelt, her arms raised in a joyful, explanatory way.

Now that I think about it, another book that seems to go with these two is the Ladybug Girl series -- Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy is our favorite.  Ladybug Girl is the superhero identity of Lulu, who runs around with her dog Bingo and uses her imaginative powers to explore and enjoy the world around her.  Okay, so it's a little treacly/heavy-handed at times, but I like the emphasis on imaginative play, the fact that she's not wearing pink, and the way Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy supports boys and girls playing together and addresses how to compromise on games and how to include other kids who want to play with you.  (We're just getting into the first experiences with conscious exclusion of friends; I'm on the lookout for books that touch on that horrible, complex issue.)

 I'm interested to hear your thoughts on books about dealing with the deaths of loved ones -- there's so much more to say on that issue.  But for now, I'm happy to leave it on a lighter note.

Love, Annie