In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Christmas roundup

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Welcome back!  It's been a good week off, complete with travel, feasting, family, and fevers (all are well again), and though we took a break from blogging, of course we didn't take a break from reading.  A number of new good books have entered our lives, and I thought I'd mention a few tonight.

As promised, you sent us Inga Moore's A House in the Woods.  The girls are big fans, and so am I -- such sweetness, without being cloying, and such depth to her pictures!  It was accompanied by a picture book about Anna Hibiscus, whose chapter books we've extolled here and here.  In Anna Hibiscus' Song, Anna Hibiscus finds herself extremely happy one day, and wants to figure out what to do with her happiness.  She asks the various members of her family what they do when they're happy, and gets a variety of responses: they are very quiet, they work, they dance, they whisper.   Even in this short book, you're introduced to her warm presiding grandparents, her piles of hard-working, laughing aunties and uncles, and her cousins with all their glorious names -- Benz, Chocolate, Angel -- as well as her black African father and white Canadian mother.  At the end, Anna Hibiscus realizes that her own greatest happiness lies in singing.  It's a joyful, loving book.

I bought Isabel two books about classical music which you wrote about a while ago: Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! and The Philharmonic Gets Dressed.  Huge hits, both of them -- we've pretty much been reading them nonstop since Christmas morning.  There is something so fabulously child-logical about The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, in particular: all the tiny details of coats and homes and transportation, all the terrific illustrations of lower and upper halves of musicians struggling into complicated underwear or examining the hole in a sock.  For Isabel, who likes to narrate her daily experience anyway, this book is a perfect fit.  When we read about the musicians drying off, she talks about her own towel.  On the next page, she responds to the different types of underwear the musicians put on: "And I wear a diaper."

Just before Christmas, our lovely cousin Ona sent each girl a book with an accompanying stuffed animal, and these two are great hits as well.  For Eleanor: Kevin Henkes's Chrysanthemum.  This is another mouse-girl/adjusting to school book from Henkes, though Chrysanthemum is far less of a scene-stealer than Lilly and her purple plastic purse.  She's just a sweet kid with a sweet family, who has always loved her name, until she enters school and a group of mean girls begin to tease her about it (it's too long, she's named after a flower, etc.).  Chrysanthemum wilts, despite the tender, nerdy comfort of her parents (her dad is shown in a lab coat and glasses, reading "The Inner Mouse, Vol. 1: Childhood Anxiety").  It's only the intervention of the magical, extremely pregnant music teacher, Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle, that makes everything right again.  I kind of like Chrysanthemum's retiring nature here -- she feels like a normal kid responding to bullying, rather than a particularly precocious one.

For Isabel, Ona sent The Gingerbread Girl, written and illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst.  It begins with a brief recap of the story of the Gingerbread Boy running off and being eaten by a fox when he tried to escape the people chasing and trying to eat him.  This is helpful if you're reading to kids, like mine, who don't know the original tale.  Ernst ends the first page: "This is the story of his younger, wiser sister."   The lonely old man and woman decide to make a gingerbread girl this time around because she'll be sweeter and better-behaved than the original Gingerbread Boy.  Of course, she isn't, and takes off running as soon as the oven door is cracked open.  Her story is much like the original: she runs past lots of people and animals who want to eat her, and follow along.  My favorite is the calf who turns from its mother's udder to moo, "Mama, I want a cookie to go with my milk!"  There's a lot of singing: the Gingerbread Girl tosses out rhymes to each group she passes, ending each with her refrain:

I'll run and I'll run
With a leap and a twirl.
You can't catch me,
I'm the Gingerbread GIRL!

She meets the fox who ate her brother, climbs on his back to cross the river -- and then lassos his mouth with a licorice whip from her hairdo and rides him back to shore, where she leads everyone who's been wanting to eat her back to her parents' place and bakes them all gingerbread to eat (presumably non-sentient).

There's a lesson of female empowerment here, in the Gingerbread Girl's rejection of her parents' expectations and, especially, of the fox's.  I have to admit, while I like the book a lot, and the girls adore it, I find the scene with the fox a little creepy in a sexual predator way:

"Ooooh, the water is so deep, move to my back!" he insisted, thinking this cute cookie was even dumber than her brother.  Anyone could tell by looking at her that she was an airhead.  The Gingerbread Girl did as she was told.  "That's a good little girl," the fox said with a snicker.  "Oh my, the water is deep, now move to my head!"

On the next page, after she lassos him "with the expertise of a ranch hand," the Gingerbread Girl whispers into the fox's ear: "You're right....I am good."  It's an interesting use of language, and makes me wonder about the message it's sending in terms of possible future threats.  The Gingerbread Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Finally, I'll mention the chapter book my father-in-law bought for Eleanor, which I'm sure I'll blog about at greater length once we've finished it: Thomas and the Dragon Queen, by Shutta Crum.  So far (we're about halfway), it's an appealing medieval-ish fantasy.  Thomas is a twelve-year old from a leather-worker's family who aspires to be a knight.  Improbably, in a kingdom besieged at its borders and in need of fighting men, he becomes one, and is deputized by the king to ride off in search of the very nice Princess Eleanor (you can see one reason we like this book), who has been kidnapped by the ancient dragon queen, Bridgoltha.  What will happen?  Tune in soon....

Love, Annie


  1. Wow, you mention two of our favorites here: Chrysanthemum and The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. My husband doesn't "get" the latter but the kids and I love it for just the reasons you mention. Those details are exactly what kids want to know about! Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production has a great review of A House in the Woods.

  2. Wonderful reading suggestions! I love that your children get so many books from relatives. It shows how important reading is to your family!