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.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Searching for home and child in Robert McCloskey

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love the Look-Alikes idea -- reminds me of the pleasure we've all gotten around this house from figuring out what the vegetable people and scenes are made of in Food for Thought.  The most fun we've had with a searching book recently was with Adele and Simon; the Waldo and Chaffy books look like a good time for the future.

Tonight I read the girls our two favorite Robert McCloskey books, and remembered again why I love both of them so much.  In a funny way, both of them are about searching as well: searching for a home, mother and child searching for each other.

Make Way for Ducklings has everything going for it.  It's the story of a couple of ducks, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, who are looking around Boston for a place to build a nest and raise their children.  There's wonderful Boston detail throughout, most notably in the depiction of the Public Garden, where the Mallards encounter a Swan Boat and think it's just incredibly stuck-up not to speak to them.  There are their eight children's fabulous rhyming names.  There's a kind policeman named Michael who feeds them peanuts and, in the climactic scene, holds back traffic so the ducklings can cross the street.  Most of all, there are McCloskey's extraordinary, closely-observed illustrations of the ducks and ducklings themselves.  I'm pretty sure they're rendered in charcoal; the shading is tremendous.  My favorite is a two-page spread of Mrs. Mallard teaching the ducklings how to swim and dive.  Each duckling is rendered so individually: one distracted by a bug in the air, one peeking out quizzically from behind his mother's back, one starting up in the water, tiny wings extended.


Then, of course, there's the absent-father moment.  Jeff and I have always enjoyed reading this bit aloud in a light, dry way:

One day the ducklings hatched out.  First came Jack, then Kack, and then Lack, then Mack and Nack and Ouack and Pack and Quack.  Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were bursting with pride.  It was a great responsibility taking care of so many ducklings, and it kept them very busy.

Next page:

One day Mr. Mallard decided he'd like to take a trip to see what the rest of the river was like, further on.  So off he set.  "I'll meet you in a week, in the Public Garden," he quacked over his shoulder.  "Take good care of the ducklings."
"Don't you worry," said Mrs. Mallard.  "I know all about bringing up children."  And she did.

Ah, feckless Mr. Mallard.  Ah, 1941 gender relations.

In Blueberries for Sal, there are no fathers mentioned at all: it's a strictly mom and kid book.  The drawings here are pen and ink, all the shading accomplished with closely-gathered lines, the color a dark blueberry blue on white.  It's the story of Little Sal, who goes to pick blueberries on Blueberry Hill with her mother, and Little Bear, who goes to eat blueberries on the other side of the hill with his mother.  Each child falls behind and temporarily loses his or her mother, then begins to follow the wrong mother.  There's no fear or anxiety associated with these moments of getting lost: Little Sal looks eagerly for her mother ("She heard a noise from around a rock and thought, 'That is my mother walking along!'"), but tramps along happily behind Little Bear's mother when that is where she finds herself.

Each mother quickly notices something is wrong when the child behind them does something surprising: the blueberries Sal drops in her bucket go "kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!", while Little Bear gulps two Tremendous Mouthfuls of berries from Little Sal's mother's bucket.  One of my favorite moments in the book is the matching parenthetical description of each mother's immediate, backing-away reaction: "(She was old enough to be shy of people, even a very small person like Little Sal.)" and "(She was old enough to be shy of bears, even very small bears like Little Bear.)" Mothers are reunited with children, everyone finishes gathering and eating their blueberries, and all is well.

Sal doesn't say a single word in the book, but she is marvelously physical: she tromps around, squats to pick berries, observes the world around her with a perfect little-kid focus.  In the two-page spread which begins and ends the book, Sal and her mother are at work canning the blueberries in their Maine kitchen.  The way Sal stands on her chair, methodically arranging the rubber seals for Mason jars along her arm and a large spoon she's holding, as her mother calmly pours cooked berries into jars, floors me.


McCloskey knew what childhood feels like.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Searching

Dear Annie,

I can imagine your grandma, my mother, getting competitive about Easter egg hunts. She was always very good at finding things -- she had the mathematician's eye for pattern. Grandpa used to talk about her abilities to find four-leaf clovers in a field of three-leaf ones. I don't know if she ever encountered the Where's Waldo books, but I suspect she would have aced them.

It's travel season in the toy store. It seems one school or another has been on spring break for the past five or six weeks: this always drives up sales of activity books that one can do on a trip. I've met parents who say their four or five year-old can find Waldo. I have a hard time finding him in his oh-so-busy pictures; I think of the Waldo books being more satisfying for the 7 and up (and up) crowd. Here's a bit of him:

Maybe because it's a detail, I'm actually able to find him.

I've just discovered an even funnier search-for-it book:
Find Chaffy
, by Jamie Smart.
Chaffies are small white lop-eared objects which say "meep" and travel in packs. The book starts with ten to find in a Waldo-esque montage of pandas. One of the ten has gone native, taking on panda coloration, and stays behind as the nine move on to a two-page spread of cats. Another stays behind and they continue through
robots, dinosaurs, pigs, sheep, ninjas and more.

This is a little less than a sixth of a two-page spread with all ten in it. The most useful hint is that the Chaffies are much smaller than the pandas.
 I can find two Chaffies in this one*.  Anyone see any others?  The Chaffies have a whimsical bent to them.  I didn't manage to include the panda picnic with teapot that's a bit below this detail.  But there's lots of good stuff to find.

My favorite searching book is probably the Look-Alikes series, by Joan Steiner.  One isn't looking for anything specific: you're just looking.  At first it seems like a familiar dollhouse-like scene, but as your eyes adjust, you realize the majority of the objects are something else.  As in this one, from Look-Alikes Jr.:
 I love looking at them.  The author's list of objects is below**, after the Chaffy spoiler.  But take some time looking at it before you read the list.  I totally did not figure out the wing chair.

Happy hunting.

Love,

Deborah

*Chaffies: : one along the bottom edge, the other on the left side, about midway down the picture

** Left to right: maple seeds, seed packet, green ribbon, compact disc, brass drawer pull, kernels of corn, crayons, candy fruit slices, lasagna noodles. Television: eyeshadow box, ball-headed pin.  Cabinet: wrapped candy bar, Triscuit crackers.  Reading lamp: Bell, ball-peen hammer, paperweight.  Wing chair: peapod, candle, chess pieces. Dining area: Christmas cookies, tambourine, spool of thread.  Rocker: barrettes, hairpins, slice of kiwi fruit. Planter: Napkin ring.  Fireplace: Christmas ball ornament, mint candy, grommet, toy diamond ring, marble, doll shoes, silk autumn leaf, magnets, cinnamon sticks, chocolate bar, paper binder clip.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Gail Carson Levine redeems princess stories

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Happy Easter!  We did indeed have some egg-dyeing yesterday and some egg-hunting this morning at my parents' place.  And we did indeed fail to find one hidden egg, so that will be an exciting surprise for my parents at some point in the future.  I was reminded this morning as we traded off hiding and hunting of our tradition at Aunt Martha's house: first the adults would hide the eggs for the kids, and then the kids would hide a second round for the adults.  Grandma always won the grown-up hunt; she was quite competitive about it, too.

Thank you for the Peek-A-Boo explanation.  Makes total sense now, and I'm glad Dad isn't going anywhere too dangerous.  Sadly, Emma's query rings no bells for me.  Maybe this is one to post up at whatsthatbook.com?

Your mention of Emma's post about Ella Enchanted made me realize that I haven't yet written to you about Eleanor's reaction to Gail Carson Levine's The Fairy's Return and Other Princess Tales, which you wrote about a couple of months ago.   It's a collection of six stories, each set in the village of Snettering-on-Snoakes in the Kingdom of Biddle, each pulling from classic fairy tale tropes and recasting them in realistic, funny, and interesting ways.  You wrote about "The Fairy's Mistake," which is pretty fabulous in terms of imagining what it might be like if fairy tale things happened in real life.

One of our other favorites is "Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep," Levine's take on Sleeping Beauty.  In this one, a fairy gives the baby princess the gift of being ten times as smart as any other person on earth, thus making her life extraordinarily difficult -- no other kids want to play with her, her answers bore everyone, she has no intellectual equal.  Because she's so smart, Sonora understands the spindle finger-pricking curse that awaits her, and decides to hide a spindle for herself so she can choose the hour of her hundred-year sleep.  Of course, this goes wrong, and in Levine's world the hundred-year-sleep leaves her filthy with dust and cobwebs, but the prince who comes to awaken her has as his main characteristic an intense curiosity -- no one has ever been able to answer all of his questions....

The heroes and heroines of these stories are realistic, appealing people, with dispositions both interesting a sweet.  Levine alternates among stories of princes finding love with farm girls, princesses finding love with baker's sons, and royalty finding love with each other.  She plays with elements of The Princess and the Pea, Cinderella (it's a boy, Cinderellis, here), Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and lesser-known fairy tale elements: the glass hill, the goose who people's hands stick to, the girl turned into a toad.

Eleanor adores the book.  It's close to 400 pages, all told, and we've already read it through twice completely, with a few forays into individual stories as well.  A total hit!  Princesses who are actually pretty decent role models!  A sense of humor!  Good find.

Love, Annie

Friday, April 22, 2011

Peek-a-Boo dad

Dear Annie,

Welcome back!  I hope you're continuing the family tradition of Easter egg hunts this weekend.  Half the thrill of those hunts was the fear that some eggs wouldn't be found until months later.  We have loved The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes in our household, too.  I don't have any memories of it in my own childhood.  Cousin Gail (soon to be a grandma) introduced it to my girls when they were quite little.  It sells very well every year -- I never order quite enough.  Almost everyone who buys it remembers it from long ago.  I've always felt it was the ultimate book in praise of the single mother.  I'd never thought about the anti-racist element: didn't get the brown bunny/white bunny thing.

Getting back to Peek-a-Boo! by the Ahlbergs, and the World War II theme.  My father, your Grandpa, was inexplicably irritated by the historical feel of that book.  I remember him reading it with our kids and asking why the hell they put it in the war era like that.  I don't know if it brought up memories (although  he spent most of the war in Ohio and Florida) or if it was part of his general glumness of those post-Grandma years.  Anyway, you ask why the baby's father gets into a uniform and appears to be leaving at bedtime:
He sees the landing mirror
  With its rainbow rim
And a mother with a baby
  Just like him.

He sees the bedroom door
  The crib made ready
His father kissing him goodnight
  His ball
  And his teddy.

Daddy, in my opinion, is a London Air Raid Warden.  They patrolled the streets at night, enforcing the blackout and helping during air attacks.  Dad's doing his part on the Home Front.

I'm so glad you found Chaos Walking as special as I did.  I love it when the last book in a trilogy is the best.  You know how some books can put your head completely into a character's mood?  One feels the tension, is immersed in the anger?  Monsters of Men has a scene of a surprise reunion between two characters which is one of pure joy -- I felt high on the happiness.

I'm tossing out a query here from guest blogger Emma who wrote about Ella Enchanted last November.  Our discussion of all that YA literature a few weeks back brought memories for her of a book whose title she can't remember.  But she sure retained a lot of the book:
Here's what I remember: it was definitely published before 2000. It's told in the first person by a white girl growing up in the south in the 1960s. Maybe it's Alabama? Anyway, it's the year she starts middle school, and also the year that her town becomes desegregated.  She's nervous about going to a new school, and this is compounded by the fact that her best friend won't be going to the newly desegregated public school--instead, Best Friend's parents are sending her to a private, all-white school. There's wonderful descriptive writing, including a scene where the smell of pizza wafts upstairs to the two girls having a sleepover, and a different scene where Main Character talks about beginning to see her parents as real people instead of as "cardboard cutouts." Mostly, I remember it speaking to the difficulties of outgrowing a friendship, and the ways in which you can feel both left behind and like you're doing all the leaving.

Major characters include: a wonderful 6th grade teacher who seats all her students alphabetically, regardless of race, and has her 6th graders read Huck Finn; a piano teacher who pushes the main character to challenge herself with more mature music selections; an older sister who is in high school and lends her little sis a bangle bracelet to make her feel better on her first day of school; and a black boy in the main character's class with whom she develops an unlikely and sometimes tense friendship.

Main plot events include: Best Friend calling the piano teacher "nigger" and getting slapped by the main character; an uncomfortable halloween party; the 6th grade class attempting to get over an obstacle course wall in under a certain amount of time; an end of year piano concert; the main character impressing classmates with her awesome layup shot; and I think there's an unfortunate haircut.

Any of this ring bells with you?
Alas, I have failed my wonderful Emma. I don't know it.  Anyone out there recognize this?

Love,

Deborah

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The only Easter book you'll ever need

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our brief beach vacation was lovely and restorative.  I did no kind of work at all, and finally gave myself time to read Monsters of Men, the final book in the Chaos Walking trilogy you introduced me to last year.  What a final book!  Patrick Ness does an extraordinary job of presenting characters who grow in complexity throughout the series, and his vision of the New World planet he's created is subtly and brilliantly observant about our own world.  Like the best science fiction, these books made me think more deeply about real life, the workings of society, and the machinations of people in power.  They're unsparing books, but so, so good.  I am a total convert.

So much to respond to!  I can't believe we haven't touched on the Ahlbergs yet either.  Each Peach Pear Plum was one of Eleanor's early I-Spy favorites, and actually introduced her to some fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters for the first time.  We didn't know Peek-A-Boo! until you sent it recently for Isabel, but it is one of her absolute favorite books right now.  In fact, during her long nap refusal on our plane ride home this morning, she spent quite some time clutching it to her chest and saying, "My Peek-A-Boo!"  Usually, her interactions with the book are far more, well, interactive.  She loves to turn the pages with the peepholes in them, calling out "Peek-A-Boo!", and there are small details on almost every page that she'll comment on: every time the dog appears, of course, but also a bird on the roof of the garage, the baby's rubber duck on the bath page, a small margin drawing of a car.  On the page with Dad putting his finger to his mouth to motion for silence, Isabel puts her finger up too, for a "Shh."  Jeff and I are fascinated by the narrative running under this book -- it appears to be WWII-era London, with Dad bringing in a bucketful of coal, and the general sense of happy crowdedness throughout.  But is Dad going off to fight at the baby's bedtime?  There he is, kissing baby goodnight in full uniform, which he hasn't been in throughout.  Do you get what's going on in that last family picture?

I'd love to post next time about Robert McCloskey, both Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal.  But Easter approaches, and through conversations with a few friends I've recently come to realize that not everyone in the world knows about my absolute favorite Easter book of all time.

I grew up with The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, by DuBose Heyward.  It's a surprisingly feminist and anti-racist children's book, especially for having been published in 1939.  Then again, Heyward was the author of Porgy, the novel on which Porgy and Bess is based, and apparently wrote a lot of the lyrics to that great operetta as well.

The Country Bunny is the story of a little brown girl bunny who wants to grow up to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who hop all over the world bringing Easter baskets to children.  The male bunnies, white and brown, laugh at her and tell her she can't possibly be an Easter Bunny -- she can't be swift or kind or wise enough, and she should go home and have babies.  At first, that's what she does, 21 of them (that's the line-up in Marjorie Flack's inspired cover picture).  Talk about absent fathers; the father here isn't even mentioned.  But the Country Bunny raises her children beautifully, and trains them to do all the jobs that need doing around the house: two mend clothes, two cook, two wash dishes, two paint pictures, two play music, and on in a nice combination of the practical and the artistic.  When they're old enough, the Country Bunny brings them with her to the next Easter Bunny auditions, and the wise old Grandfather Bunny sees her uber-competent mothering skills as evidence of her readiness to be an Easter Bunny herself.  She is chosen, and joins four tall male bunnies in delivering Easter baskets.

The message of equality gets a little more complicated toward the end.  The old wise Grandfather Bunny tells the Country Bunny he's saved the most important egg for her to deliver: a gorgeous iced confection of a thing with a little glass window in it through which you can see a tiny diorama.  The egg is for a little boy who lives on top of a steep hill, and who has been very ill but uncomplaining for a whole year.  The hill is impossible to climb; the Country Bunny tries her best but falls, hurting herself, and dawn is approaching....  Enter Grandfather Bunny, with the magic gold shoes as reward for her effort and bravery.  She springs up the hill, leaves the egg by the (extremely blond and rosy-cheeked) ill boy, and springs back down in time to bring Easter baskets to her own children.

My feminist, post-colonialist self is not utterly satisfied here, but the whole of the story is worth it.  What stuck with me most as a kid were all those little bunnies, fulfilling their bunny duties happily and well in Flack's drawings.  We'll be reading my old copy this weekend, up at my parents' place, and speculating about whether Eleanor and Isabel's Easter Bunny is a girl.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A moose named Mona

Dear Annie,

I trust your brief beach vacation is relaxing and entertaining.

As promised, I've found
The Guest
by James Marshall. It's  a wonderful friendship story in the tradition of George and Martha.  Unfortunately it's currently out of print, but worth searching for in a library or alibris.

"One rainy afternoon while Mona was practicing her scales," it starts, "she had the oddest feeling.  'I must be catching the flu,' she said to herself."

But it turns out to be Maurice, a pink-shelled snail, walking up her back.  She offers him chocolate milk and cookies, he tells her his life has been getting boring, and she invites him to be her guest.  They play and do chores together.  Mona is shocked when Maurice tells her that in France they eat snails: "I'm told we are very tasty."

After some days, Maurice gets moody, then disappears.  Mona is depressed, worries that he's gone to France, makes mistakes at her job at Flora's Cafe, and posts a sign:

 Finally, while she's playing the piano yet again, Maurice reappears -- with his family! He introduces her to 20 snails -- all with French names -- but never points out which is his spouse, if he has one.  A good time is had by all.

I'm fond of the gentle friendship of this book and of course the fact that the main character is both a moose and bears the name of one of my children.  But it also has the nagging little problem of part-time dad, epitomized in the classic Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey. In that, father duck leaves mom to raise the kids alone and walk them across Boston to the new home he's found.  In this, Maurice found life with 19 or 20 children to take care of "was getting boring," so he left.  Ah, the little contradictions of children's literature.  But it's still so entertaining...

Love,

Deborah

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Each Peach ... Peek-a-boo!

Dear Annie,

Ah, the Stupids.  Ah, George and Martha.  James Marshall is so likable, and so wacky.  And such a writer.  In addition to the many reasons many of us love him, our family was thrilled to discover he wrote a book about a moose named Mona.  Not many Monas in literature, so we tend to get kind of excited when there's a great one.  I'll dig it up and write more on it soon.

Speaking of classics, I'm surprised to discover that we've been blogging for almost a year but somehow haven't hit two great books by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. 

Each Peach Pear Plum
and
Peek-a-boo!


These are such great snuggle-with-a-toddler books.  They're sophisticated I-Spy books in very British settings with great rhymes.

Each Peach Pear Plum refers to a different nursery rhyme or story on every page.  It starts, "Each Peach Pear Plum/I spy Tom Thumb." Hidden behind leaves and peaches in an orchard we can just make out a blond boy reading a book.  Next page: "Tom Thumb in the cupboard/I spy Mother Hubbard":
 Then: "Mother Hubbard down the cellar/ I spy Cinderella":
It goes on like this through the three bears, Jack and Jill, Little Bo-Peep and many more.  The three bears even make an encore appearance.  Lots to look at, lots to listen to.  I was always fascinated by the title page illustration of hilly countryside.  Every scene in the book takes place somewhere in that picture, and if you look closely at almost every illustration, you can see how Janet Ahlberg, the artist, has kept everything in the right spatial relationship to everything else.  Very cool.

Peek-a-boo! Is a series of wonderfully cluttered scenes of a British family which appear to be set in the World War II era -- at least that's how I've always seen them.  The book starts with a baby standing in his crib on the left side page, looking across at a hole cut through the right side, with PEEK-A-BOO! and a glimpse of the following page.  You turn the page and get a listing of what he sees, starting with his parents still asleep as the sun comes in the window.  I love the pictures drawn entirely from the baby's perspective.  This one starts, "Here's a little baby/One, two, three/Sits on his sister's lap/What does he see?"  Turn the page (and imagine these two side-by-side):
I think I have a soft spot in my heart for books that celebrate the exhausted mother.   And chaos!  Love that dog.

Love,

Deborah

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Stupids Blog

Dear Aunt Debbie,

James Marshall is such a nutsy joy.  The George and Martha books were a staple of my childhood, and they wear well with time.  How can you not love George pouring Martha's pea soup into his slippers under the table after she brings him an eleventh bowl because he's been lying to her about how much he loves it?  One of the joys of the books for me is that George and Martha each take turns going overboard about things and being the more sensible one -- they're both a little odd, and totally pleasing.

Looking up books to blog tonight, I was surprised to find that some of the books I think of as quintessentially James Marshall were actually written by other authors, and credit Marshall as the illustrator.  I knew this was true about the fabulous Piggy in the Puddle, by Charlotte Pomerantz, but didn't realize that Harry G. Allard was the author of both Miss Nelson is Missing (which I never really liked -- always thought it was a little creepy) and the Stupids books.

The Stupids became a major force in my life when I was about 10 or 12, and my mom discovered them at work.  They're a sublimely stupid family: Mom, Dad, two kids, Grandpa, a dog named Kitty, and a cat named Xylophone (the animals are the only ones with any brains).  Our favorite was 
The Stupids Die
, in which the lights go out and the Stupids decide they must be dead.  While they're debating about what to do now that they're dead, and how they feel, Kitty and Xylophone go down into the basement and repair the fuse.  The lights come on again.  The Stupids decide that they must be in heaven.  Then Grandpa drives his motorcycle through the wall and tells them, "This isn't heaven!  It's Iowa!"

The way I am telling this is not nearly as funny as the way Marshall and Allard do it -- I can remember laughing so hard that tears ran down my cheeks.  And then "The Stupids Do ____" became part of our family vocabulary.  We drove to pick Michael up at sleepaway camp and decided to visit FDR's house in Hyde Park, but it was just off our map and when we finally stopped to ask for directions, we realized that we'd overshot it by two hours.  Oh well, "The Stupids Go to Hyde Park!"  So we went to visit some friends in Great Barrington instead, but they weren't home, so we canoed around their lake in circles for a bit ("The Stupids Go Canoeing"), and then drove home.  After stopping for dinner, we got back on the road -- going the wrong way.  Which my parents realized two hours later ("The Stupids Go Home.").  Really useful, especially on driving trips.

I can't quite believe that "The Stupids Die" was allowed into publication as a title for a picture book -- but there's something about Marshall's good-natured drawings of people who are clearly both dumb as rocks and perfectly happy that takes the sting out of the words.  He must have been a fun guy.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dinner had to wait...

Dear Annie,

There's so much demoralizing going on about government funding.  I don't understand how we can all agree that education is crucial to the future of the country, then cut its funding.  I must say I'm kinda fond of the slogan your mother is pushing (echoes of Grandpa Frank, rest his soul): "Son of a bitch!  Tax the rich!"

And as long as we're talking about family, I got a lovely call from cousin Kate (Astoria, Oregon) tonight just as dinner was going on the table.  She was standing in a bookstore in need of a consultation on what to buy for the children of a family she's visiting.  Dinner had to wait.

She was looking for books for three kids: a pre-schooler (maybe 4 years old), a first-grader, and a fifth grader.  We started with the fifth grader.  I rejected The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo: tries too hard to be profound, but ends as a parable that didn't work for me.  Kate introduced our family to
The Wheel on the School
, a wonderful Newbery winner by Meinert DeJong.  The children in a one-room schoolhouse set out to find a wagon wheel to put on the roof of their school (we're in 19th century Holland here) so that cranes will build nests in their town.  Each child goes on a separate adventure, but the exceptional nature of the book has to do with three generations in the town all becoming involved.  There are two climactic scenes -- both involving the ocean and dikes -- that always make me wonder why this hasn't been turned into a gem of a movie, preferably by a small British studio.

But the bookstore in question didn't have it.  Kate has such a good knowledge (albeit a bit rusty: her daughters are in their mid 20s) of classic children's literature.  I suggested
The Westing Game
by Ellen Raskin, a classic and engaging mystery, as you have pointed out. We had a winner.

On to the little kids. We kicked around a few, then the Frog and Toad books came up.  The only question there was whether to give them to the first grader to read on his own, or to the pre-schooler to be read to.  There Kate was in the early reader section, which is where the Frog and Toad books are usually shelved, and she spotted some Fox books. 

One of the many enlightened policies of  the progressive school Lizzie and Mona went to for the early grades was to use the Fox books as the introductory reader in first grade.  Fox is an endearingly rebellious adolescent with whom any first grader can identify.   He's just straightforwardly funny, through a dozen or so books.  The byline on the cover of the Fox books is Edward Marshall, which might lead you to believe (erroneously) that they're not by the great James Marshall, author of the George and Martha books and the Miss Nelson books, among others.  There was a dispute with a publisher, and Marshall sold the Fox books to someone else, using his middle name for a byline, saying Edward was his cousin.  There's a fun anecdote about that, which you can discover here.

So the verdict was Frog and Toad as a read-aloud for the four year-old.  And a couple of Fox books for first grader.  A good time was had by all.

Love,

Deborah





Friday, April 8, 2011

The best teacher training I've ever known

Dear Aunt Debbie,

My attention is torn tonight as I'm putting the finishing touches on a workshop I'll be teaching tomorrow at the New York City Writing Project's annual Teacher-to-Teacher conference.  The NYCWP (a branch of the National Writing Project) is hands-down the best teacher training program I've ever come in contact with: the most respectful of teachers; the smartest about using writing in all kinds of classrooms, from kindergarten up through college; the most creative and innovative.  Of course, in this political climate, it's also under fire: the stopgap spending bill Congress passed and Obama signed last month to keep the government running cut all funding for the NWP, as well as a host of other education programs, and it's unclear whether any of that funding will be restored.

I first became involved with the Writing Project in 2005, when I took part in their Summer Invitational.  I was one of 16 NYC teachers who met every day for a month at Lehman College in the Bronx to read and write together, teach each other about the best practices we'd each developed in our classrooms, and learn from each other, other texts, and our facilitators.  (During the school year, the NYCWP continues this kind of work by sending Teacher Consultants to work in local schools, helping teachers in all subjects bring writing into their classrooms in organic and effective ways.)  It was during that month that I first encountered Paul Fleischman's Seedfolks, a collection of linked short stories, each told in the voice of a different member of the diverse community which comes together to turn a vacant lot into a thriving community garden.

It's hard for me not to link this symbolically to the work that the Writing Project does, both locally and nationally: they are all about cultivating best practices, bringing careful and intelligent care to schools and communities, working within schools and getting to know them and what they need rather than prescribing a curriculum across the board with a one-size-fits-all mentality.  When I take part in a Writing Project workshop or event, I know that I am going to be meeting colleagues who pour enormous amounts of energy into teaching kids to write well, and to write with passion.  I come away from every Writing Project event with tools I can take into my classroom, but more than that, with a renewed sense of urgency and community.

Those of us who care about our children becoming lifelong readers and writers should unequivocally support continued funding for the National Writing Project.  So should our government.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Revisiting . . .

Dear Annie,

We keep coming back to Trina Schart Hyman -- she's so good.  I want to put in a plug for another fairy tale she illustrated: Snow White.  It went out of print fairly recently, but I couldn't find a used copy for less than $39, and most are significantly more than that, alas.

She illustrates Snow White as a young teenager, which I like.  But the best part of her pictures is that the evil stepmother is really beautiful, not twisted and mean like the Disney version.  My scanner is still broken, so I can only show you the second-best picture, but you can still get my drift:


Well, capes based on books.  I've got a picture for that one too.  I've already told the story of Lizzie's 6 year-old hobbit birthday party for which I sewed 17 hobbit capes.  Here's Lizzie in her Bilbo Halloween costume (complete with wig) with the cape that became the prototype for the other 16.  I think it was a Simplicity pattern.  We used the wig again when she was John Lennon for Halloween in fifth grade.

And as long as I'm referring to past posts, I'd like to report that I read Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt on my recent quick trip to New York -- all those hours on a bus were perfect for complete immersion.  Wonderful!  Gwyn is such a great character, and there are so many times in the book when Voigt creates many different levels of meaning and action.  How are the other books in Voigt's Kingdom series?  As good?

Love,
Deborah

Monday, April 4, 2011

Role play

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We are just getting into all the deep imaginative play at our house, and I'm looking forward to the ways in which Eleanor and Isabel will create worlds together.  Right now, we're gearing up for a costumed role play: Eleanor's friend is having a fairy tale costume birthday party next weekend.  I kind of expected Eleanor would go for a princess costume, but she's decided that we're all going as the characters from Little Red Riding Hood instead.  (She's Little Red, of course; I'm Grandma; Jeff and Isabel have both been cast as wolves.)

This current fascination owes a lot, I'm sure, to the gorgeous Trina Schart Hyman
Little Red Riding Hood
we recently bought.  We've both written before (here and here) about Hyman's lush illustrations, and this book is no exception.  There is such affection between the mother and Little Red, with their wisps of hair flying free of their bonnets.  Her older people -- the grandmother, the woodcutter -- look realistically tired.  Hyman often frames her pictures with wooden looking curlicues, turning the pages into Joseph Cornell-like boxes.  It makes the story feel old-fashioned, and also I think pleasingly contained -- this wolf is scary, certainly, but he's not about to leap off the page and attack you.

I'm taking a page from Playing By the Book's Zoey and trying to sew up a red riding hood out of a long red skirt.  Will let you know how that goes.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pretend

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?"
"Nice."
It's
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.

Love,

Deborah

Friday, April 1, 2011

More gay and gay-friendly YA

Dear Aunt Debbie,

On our way home from preschool today, Eleanor informed me that pink is a girl color.  Not only that, but that girls like bright colors and boys like dark colors, and boys like trucks and girls like princesses.  I pointed out that her friend Ian likes a lot of the same things she does, including things that are pink, but she was undeterred.  So yeah, I just placed a hold on Pinky and Rex and the Bully at the library.

A few more gay and gay-friendly YA titles to round out the week:

My friend Denise (middle-school teacher and previous guest blogger) reminded me yesterday of a great anthology aimed at junior high and high school kids, and edited by Marion Dane Bauer: Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence.  It's 18 stories by contemporary (as of 1995) YA authors: Lois Lowry, M.E. Kerr, Jane Yolen, Bruce Coville, and a number of others.  I remember a wide range of themes, genres, and tones -- a solid and interesting collection.  The title comes from the Bruce Coville story, in which a fairy godfather helps a gay kid who's being bullied by casting a spell that turns everyone a shade of blue, depending on where they fall on the gay/straight spectrum, and revealing some gay-bashers as hypocrites.

One of the authors included in Am I Blue? is Francesca Lia Block, who I discovered in grad school and read in great gulps.  Her books are strange and vivid, written almost as if tongue-in-cheek, but not quite, and populated with characters with names like Pony, Mellow Moon, Rave, and La.

Block's best-known books are the Weetzie Bat series, collected together in the volume Dangerous Angels.  The publisher's descriptions I'm glancing at as I write refer to them as "postmodern fairy tales," which I suppose is as good a way as any to characterize them.  Weetzie Bat starts out on the first page of the book as a high schooler, but the high school idea is quickly dropped as she revels in the sparkle and the old-fashioned glamor of Los Angeles, meets her gay best friend, Dirk, and hangs out and parties with him while looking for ducks (Dirk's name for men) for both of them.  With the brief help of a genie in a lamp (that's the fairy tale bit), Dirk winds up with a duck named Duck, Weetzie gets a guy named My Secret Agent Lover Man, and they all live together in a cute little house. 

What makes it not cloying?  Partly it's that the stories are so odd -- you never know where they're going next. When Weetzie Bat goes in one book from being a teenager to deciding to have a baby with Dirk and Duck because My Secret Agent Lover Man thinks the world is too flawed to bring a child into it, you kind of go oh, okay.  Partly it's that there's an understanding of pain beneath the flash and glitter -- Weetzie Bat's father, Charlie Bat, dies of a drug overdose; Duck gets very sad about all of his friends dying simply because they love each other (the first book was written in 1989, and AIDS is a major specter, though it's never directly named).  When Weetzie goes ahead with her baby plan, My Secret Agent Lover Man is wildly hurt, and leaves her for a period of time.  There's something real going on.

Block's short story collection, Girl Goddess #9, is more realistic than Weetzie Bat.  Some of the nine stories in the volume involve gay characters -- "Winnie and Cubby" (which appears in Am I Blue? as "Winnie and Teddy") is about a girl whose boyfriend comes out to her on a trip to San Francisco; the novella "Dragons in Manhattan" is narrated by Tuck, a girl with two mothers who goes searching for her father and finds a complex story involving a transgendered character.  Even in those not explicitly about gay characters, however, there's a sense of both gender and sexuality being complex and sometimes transmutable things.  In "Blue," a young girl deals with her beautiful, artistic mother's suicide by talking with an imaginary friend who appears in the form of an androgynous little blue person in her closet.  My memory is that you're not crazy about Block, and I don't think she's a writer for everyone, but I can see her speaking deeply to the right kid.

Love, Annie