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.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Beach adventures: with and without parents

Dear Annie,

I must research Washington parks with sprinklers before you come to visit, to keep your girls splashing in the manner to which they've become accustomed.  Will also do some digging on books about New York and San Francisco for a two year-old for Tui, who has asked the question on your sprinkler post.

Today, though, as promised, it's time for beach novels.  I discovered
The Paradise Trap
by Catherine Jinks through its very well done audiobook.  This is a beach read in both senses: light entertainment and sandy surroundings.  Marcus and his mum (book is British) buy an old trailer and go the beach she remembers fondly from her own childhood.  She runs into a friend from those days with an inventor husband, children and a robot.  Marcus discovers a basement in the old trailer where one should not exist, and a door which takes the first person who enters to their ultimate "dream vacation."  The vacations all become dark, in the British tradition of magic, and involve everyone needing to work together to escape.  The three parents are equal players in the plot with the three kids -- an unusual occurrence in this genre of kids' lit.  The inventor is hilarious, believing that the magic is all a very clever technological creation, and his wife is constantly demanding better service -- even from six foot tall pink cats who are trying to keep her from leaving the spa of her dreams.  I can imagine a family vacation in which this is the audiobook everyone listens to.  Word of warning, though: the villain, once found, is genuinely scary.  Good for the 8 and up crowd that likes a frisson of creepy -- but lots of laughs too.

I'm bringing
The Worry Week
by Anne Lindbergh to you guys when I see you next week.  The author, who wrote a number of kids' books, was the daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  This one is the story of three sisters who contrive to spend a week without parents in their summer house on an island in Maine.  The plan goes perfectly -- except that unbeknownst to them the house has been cleared of all food.  All they have is a book about wild food in Maine, and vague memories of their parents' cooking.

11 year-old Allegra (Sometimes called Legs) narrates the tale.  13 year-old Alice spends much of the summer lost in Shakespeare, and Minnow, at seven, is something of a loose cannon.  Their first day on their own, they work hard to gather and scrape mussels, which Alice cooks.
   "Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog," Alice sang.
    I had been taking notes on cattail salad, but that caught my attention.   Living off the land is fine, if you have to, but eye of newt is going too far.  What's more, a really weird smell was coming from the stove.  Whatever it was, it wasn't mussels.  It made me feel a little dizzy.
   "Hey, Alice!  What did you put into that pot?" I asked.
   "Gin," said Alice, "and an onion.  I couldn't find any garlic, and there was no more wine, but there was half a bottle of gin left."
   "How much did you put in?" I asked.
   "All of it," said Alice.  "The mussels are ready now.  Could somebody get out the plates?"
   Allegra sees herself as the responsible sister, who tries to get everyone to forage for mushrooms and cattails.  There's a hunt for a rumored treasure.  But the strength of the book is in the relationship of the three sisters.  It's lovely.

 I hope that your students' portfolios are full of excellent surprises.

Love,

Deborah

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Joy of sprinklers

Dear Aunt Debbie,

This morning, I collected my gorgeous, time-consuming pile of end-of-semester portfolios.  I have some terrific guest bloggers lined up to help me get through the grading load; expect the first one on Friday.

In the spirit of your excellent post on beach books, here's how we spent Memorial Day, beating the heat in an NYC sprinkler:
Good times, even without the sand.  Makes me wonder if there's a subgenre I don't know about: books on the city kid's sprinkler experience?

More on books soon.

Love, Annie

Monday, May 28, 2012

Back to the beach!

Dear Annie,

I've been working Memorial Day weekend at the toy & book store, and I can testify that summer is definitely here.  Outdoors it's disgustingly sticky, and indoors sales of water guns, wading pools and swimming goggles are booming.

So even though we've gone to the ocean more than once (one, two, three, four, five times at least!),  I thought I might add a few more titles to our beach bag.

One of the prolific Robert Munsch's (one, two) more recent books,
The Sand Castle Contest
, continues his wacky streak.  Matthew and his family go to a beach where a sand castle contest is taking place.  In the background, we see people building sand versions of Big Ben, the leaning tower of Pisa, the Capitol, and more.  He meets Kalita, who is making a kid-size sand castle, and a sand dog.  He builds a wildly realistic sand house, with rooms and furniture.  Two different judges tell him to remove the house.
   "This is my sand house, said Matthew.  "I made it for the sand contest."
   "HA!" said the judge.  "I know a real house when I see one, and there are no real houses allowed on the beach!"
   She went into the bedroom and looked at the sand bed.
   She went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and looked at the sand apples and the sand celery and the sand cartons of milk.  Then she said, "Little boy, you've got to get this house off the beach."
   "This is my sand house, said Matthew, "and I am going to prove it"
   "HA!" said the judges.
Matthew finally proves it by kicking a corner of the house, at which point it collapses into a pile of sand, and he wins the contest.  In the meantime, Kalita's  sand dog has become real, and all are satisfied.  Part of what makes Munsch's stories work so well is his strategic use of repetition.  Love it.

Then there's Traction Man, a much-put-upon square-jawed action figure created by Mini Grey.  In his third adventure,
Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey
, he and his sidekick Scrubbing Brush go to the beach with their boy.  They explore a Rockpool -- "Traction Man is wearing his Squid-Proof Scuba Suit, Lightweight Shorts and Aquatic Air Tanks."  It's hard to do justice to Traction Man's manly humorlessness and the complete silliness of his plots.  Traction Man ends up grabbed by a dog and dropped near the Dollies' Castle.  The front endpaper has already introduced Beachtime Brenda, one of the Dollies:
"More Raspberry Ripple, Traction Man?"
"Thank you, Ladies, but no.  One scoop is plenty."
"You can stay in our castle FOREVER!"
"Somehow, Scrubbing Brush, we must escape."
Before they can, however, the dog comes back and destroys the Dollies' Castle, seriously rumpling all in the process.  Traction Man chivalrously offers to rebuild, but they all end up working on another project:
Traction Man, Scrubbing Brush and the Dollies are digging an exploration hole to the Center of the Earth.
   (The Dollies are wearing Safety Jackets, Excavation Shorts and Cave Helmets borrowed from Traction Man.)
   ...
   Tomorrow they are all going to go on an expedition to the Mysterious Cave with their own lunch.
   The Dollies have a dinghy . . . and they are all ready for Anything.
Next time: beach chapter books.

Happy summer.

Love,

Deborah

Friday, May 25, 2012

Is it leftist?

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Taking the political message-bearing kids' book modern, I'm reminded of Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin's Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type.  It's the first in what has become a series of stories about Farmer Brown and the animals on his farm: a rowdy bunch of cows, chickens, pigs, and ducks who he views with suspicion but can never quite outsmart.

It's the cows who start trouble in Click, Clack, Moo.  They find an old typewriter in the barn, and loud typing is followed quickly by articulated demands.  Farmer Brown finds a note nailed to the barn door:

Dear Farmer Brown, 
The barn is very cold 
at night.  
We'd like some electric 
blankets. 
Sincerely, 
The Cows

When Farmer Brown refuses their demand, the cows go on strike ("Sorry.  We're closed.  No milk today."), followed soon after by the chickens, who stop producing eggs because they want electric blankets too.

Farmer Brown counters with his own typewritten note:

Dear Cows and Hens:
There will be no electric blankets.
You are cows and hens.
I demand milk and eggs.
Sincerely,
Farmer Brown

Duck is chosen as the neutral party to communicate this ultimatum (in later books, Duck becomes the animals' ringleader; here, he's just getting started).  The Cows counter-offer to give Farmer Brown the typewriter in exchange for the electric blankets.  He agrees.  In the last two pages, the ducks seize the typewriter for their own use....

There's something deeply pleasing about the total daffiness of the book: electric blankets?  Typewriters?  Cronin's text is deadpan and very funny, and Lewin's big-eyed animals and crotchety farmer incredibly expressive.  But just below the daffiness, it's not hard to find a message about the power of collective bargaining.  The cows, chickens, and ducks work together to make quality-of-life demands from their employer, and they succeed.

This idea hasn't gone unnoticed, on either the right or the left.  Click, Clack, Moo appears as a recommended resource on the Zinn Education Project website with the tags "Labor" and "Organizing."  A couple of months ago, a conservative radio talk show accused elementary school teachers of using the book as part of a larger "left-wing indoctrination." They also found it "anti-creationist," because the animals are depicted as being on the same level as humans, rather than subordinate to them.  (I don't think these guys read very many children's books.)

As with so many books, for children and adults alike, I feel like the message that comes through has to do as much with the context of the reading as the text itself.  We've said it before: the conversations you have with your kids about a book help cement the meaning they take from it.  And we've said it before: sometimes the meaning they take from a book isn't the one the book is promoting at all.  Hard to tell, at this age, what will stick.

Love, Annie


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Is it political?

Dear Annie,

L. Frank Baum is always interesting on gender issues, but The Marvelous Land of Oz is definitely where he's most out-there.  His wife and mother-in-law were both very strong feminists, which leads critics to believe their influence led to his many strong female characters.  I've never been sure, though, how to interpret those girls with knitting needles and their strange revolution.  Is it a statement about the absurdity of women's political movements?  Or just a good plot device?

As for A Cricket in Times Square, I love that Eleanor picked up on the language variation right away.  Yeah, but for us grownups it sure is wildly uncomfortable.  Sounds like you handled it very smoothly.  One of the many wonderful elements of reading with your children: you get what one of my girls' preschool teachers called "opportunities" to unravel tangles you hadn't anticipated.

I stumbled upon a strange and interesting article last week which found a political message in post-WWII kids' books about construction equipment.  "Unearthing Benny the Bulldozer: The Culture of Clearance in Postwar Children's Books"* by Francesca Russello Ammon argues that massive urban renewal, new building, and the expansion of highways were all preceded by massive destruction: of old structures, terrain and the environment.  The dominant postwar culture, she argues, celebrated this destruction in many forms, including turning construction equipment into anthropomorphized heroes in kids' books.  She cites Benny the Bulldozer, a 1947 book by Edith Thacher Hurd and Clement Hurd (quite recently in this blog for their Mother Animal books) in which Benny agrees to clear the way for a new highway.  He ends up leading a triumphant July 4th parade celebrating the construction.
The simultaneous ascension of both the bulldozer and "bulldozer books" was no accident, but reflected parallels between the landscapes of fact and feeling.  The books reflect the social, political and cultural preoccupations of their era, helping a younger generation to make sense of the world as their environment underwent massive physical upheaval....
By putting a happy face on demolition for their readers, the books subtly endorse the "culture of clearance" -- that is, the ideology, technology, policy, and practice of clearing the landscape of its natural and built environment.
 I haven't managed to find Benny's text online or in the local library.  She also cites the 1952 Buster Bulldozer, from which I found this, which supports her point:

Many of our readers right now are probably screaming, Mike Mulligan! Mike Mulligan!

Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel
by Virginia Lee Burton tells the story of Mary Anne, a steam shovel celebrated for digging canals, cutting train tunnels through mountains, and "lower[ing] the hills and straighten[ing] the curves to make the long highways for the automobiles."  In the book, she digs the cellar for a new town hall in one day, triumphing over doubters.  The problem with including this one in Ammon's thesis, however, is that it's decidedly pre-war, published in 1939.  But it definitely sees re-shaping the landscape as a sign of progress.

Ammon's article, which seems to be a chapter in her PhD. thesis, reminds me a bit of the analyses that argue the imperialist nature of the Babar books and Donald Duck.  I find them all very engaging, an interesting frame through which to observe the familiar.  But the destructive construction equipment frame cuts off the intrinsic fascination of big machinery for kids.  And in a era when bulldozers were doing destructive stuff like moving hills, a sympathetic bulldozer with eyes and smile isn't necessarily a propaganda tool as much as an object of interest in a child's world.

Fun to think about, though.

Love,

Deborah

* Can't find full text online.  I read it in Technology and Culture: the international quarterly of the Society for the History of Technology. V. 53 #2.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Surprised by the past

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm very fond of George Booth's slightly cross-eyed, loopy dogs.  Clearly, it's time to introduce Isabel to those books.

In between picture books, we keep a chapter book going with Eleanor at all times.  As I've mentioned before, chapter book reading happens in our house in fits and starts: any evening that I'm putting the girls to bed alone, the chapter book is put aside, and we read things both girls will agree to hearing.

Two of our recent chapter book adventures have contained moments that surprised me, one in quite a positive way, and one in a slightly uncomfortable way.

You recently gave us a gorgeous hardcover edition of The Marvelous Land of Oz,the second book in the Oz series.  This was one of the books Jeff read to Eleanor, while I sat on the other couch reading If You Give a Pig a Pancake for the millionth time.  I eavesdropped a bunch, however, getting a sense of the Woggle-Bug and the various other astounding creatures involved in the story.  The main character in the book is a boy named Tip, who escapes from the witch who has raised him and runs off with an increasing band of characters, much as Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz.  I thought a few times as Jeff was reading how much I liked the book, but was a little sorry that so many of the main characters, including our hero, were male.  There are of course Glinda, who makes several appearances, and the antagonist General Jinjur, whose army of girls takes over the Emerald City for a brief period (some interesting gender stuff there), but Tip is at the heart of the story, and he, unlike Dorothy, is a boy.

Well, sort of.

Spoiler alert: there's a major surprise ending.

In your recent post on the Oz books, you focused largely on Ozma of Oz.  You alluded to Ozma's history, but I must have glossed over it, and it's clear I never read The Marvelous Land of Oz as a kid myself.  Because when it's revealed, in the last few pages, that Tip IS Ozma, I was just as surprised as Eleanor.  It turns out that baby Ozma was turned into a boy in order to protect her from harm when her father was deposed as ruler of Oz.  As Tip, she/he was safe, unknowing of his/her own history.

Glinda reveals the truth, and in the narrative, it's Tip who is most shocked -- who knows himself only as a boy, and doesn't want to be turned into a girl.  Glinda listens to him, but kindly and firmly informs him he has no choice: he must reassume his true form in order to take his place as the rightful ruler of Oz.

Here we are, in 1904, and L. Frank Baum's major heroine is transgendered.

Makes me want to read all the rest of the Oz books, right away, as well as researching where this came from, and what the reaction was when it was first published.  How did I not know about this before?  What an interesting man.

The second book is one I started reading to Eleanor this week: George Selden's The Cricket in Times Square.  I remembered it vaguely but fondly from my own childhood: the story of three animal friends (Chester Cricket, Tucker Mouse, and Harry Cat) who live in the Times Square subway station, and their relationship with Mario, a boy whose family runs a failing newsstand on the S train platform.  There's a lot to love, especially for a New York kid.  Today we walked through that very subway station, and imagined where Chester was found hiding under a pile of garbage, and where the newsstand might have been in 1960, when the book was written.

And then there's the wise old Chinese man who sells Mario a pagoda-shaped cricket cage, and speaks in stereotypical Old Wise Chinese Man English.  Sigh. 

Sai Fong is a  perfectly nice character -- he tells Mario a cricket origin story, and sells him the beautiful cage for very little money.  But there he is, running his Chinese novelties store filled to the brim with exoticized things, and speaking without any articles: "This very ancient cricket cage.  Once cricket who belonged to Emperor of all China lived in this cage.  You know story of first cricket?"  It's slightly cringe-inducing to read.

Eleanor picked up on it right away: "He said, 'I back soon'!" she responded delightedly as I read.  "Why does he talk like that?"  Total specific interest in his use of language, which she doesn't hear as a racial stereotype, but just as an interesting and different way of speaking.  So there I am explaining both that sometimes when people who speak another language first learn English, they put sentences together differently or leave out some words, but also that a lot of people don't really talk like that, and talking like that might sound like you're making fun of someone, and feeling while I'm trying to explain that I'm not doing a terribly good job.

Reading to your kids: you've got to be ready for anything.

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rural wildlife

Dear Annie,

Oh my, you see that last illustration as a tired couple at the end of a long day of parenting -- but for me, I instantly identify: it's the Empty Nest!  The one that inspired the figurative one!  They've sent their babies off to new trees, and there they are, looking older and tired, singing to each other as they hunt.

I'm sticking with the rural wildlife theme, but veering off in a decidedly wacky fictional direction.  Two books of rollicking verse have recently come to the store: they're both illustrated by the wonderful George Booth, best known for his New Yorker cartoons, especially his flea-infested dogs.


Never Tease a Weasel
, written in 1964 by Jean Conder Soule, was re-illustrated by Booth five years ago.  The text is a bouncy nonsense rhyme -- very catchy.
You could make a riding habit
For a rabbit if you choose;
Or make a turkey perky with a pair of high-heeled shoes.
You could make a collie jolly
With a red crocheted cravat;
Or make a possum blossom
In an Easter Sunday hat.
But never tease a weasel,
not even once or twice.
A weasel will not like it --
And teasing isn't nice!
These too-old-for-picture-books girls give it the right level of enthusiasm:

I was so happy to find
Possum Come a-Knockin'
by Nancy Van Laan: she and Booth did the book back in 1990.  Readers watch through a window as more and more family members (and pets) engage in various activities while a grinning top-hatted possum stands outside, knocking on the door.



The action accumulates: Granny knits, Ma cooks, Pappy whittles, Sis tosses Baby in the air -- and the possum keeps on pounding.  The cat finally starts getting upset, leading the people to notice the cat, but not the possum.

When the humans finally open the door to see what's up, the possum has moved a few feet to hide behind the tree.  On the last page, he's hanging by his tail from the branch, holding his hat on his head.

It's just full of fun, and great visual detail to follow through the story.  I don't know why a book about a nighttime intruder should be so cheerful -- but it definitely is.

Love,

Deborah



Monday, May 14, 2012

Images of owl motherhood

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As you know, I am always on the lookout for more non-dreadful princess books.  I will check these out as soon as I can get my hands on them.

For Mother's Day, my own lovely mother and father bought me and the girls the complete series of Edith Thacher Hurd and Clement Hurd's Mother Animal books (hooray for Alibris and the finding of things out of print!).

Each book follows the same basic structure: the mother gives birth to a baby, she provides the baby with food, she goes out to look for her own food, either she or the baby is in some kind of danger, but everyone is okay, the baby grows old enough to take care of itself, the mother mates and has a new baby.  As I wrote about in discussing The Mother Whale, Hurd doesn't shy away from the physical details of mating or birth, or facts about what animals eat and how they digest it (a page describing owl pellets!).

The girls have hooded animal towels, and it just so happens that Isabel's is of an orange owl.  Tonight, she and Jeff were playing Owl Father and Owl Child, hunting mice together, and when it came time to read, Isabel grabbed The Mother Owl and said with exceeding joy: "It's an owl book!  It's about us!"

Reproducing the words without Clement Hurd's amazing woodcuts doesn't do these books justice.  Here, then, are images from the beginning, middle, and end of The Mother Owl:
 I love those wide, wide eyes, and then the contrast with the squinty little baby eyes on the next page:


 But kids grow up:

I love this last image, close to the end of the book.  Tired, successful parent owls, nestling in close to each other.  I can relate.

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More post-modern princesses

Dear Annie,

Happy Mother's Day!

I too am quite fond of Little Fur Family.  It has provided us with another family literary reference, "the wild wild wood."  That's where the little fur child goes to play:
It was a wild wild wood.
Wild flowers grew all over the ground
and wild winds blew through the air.
When one is venturing into new territory, it occasionally gets referred to as the wild wild wood.

I'm venturing back to well-traveled ground today: princesses,  especially books about same that one can stand reading to one's child.  Two take-offs on The Princess and the Pea have recently appeared on our shelves at the store.  It seems to lend itself to parody more than most fairy tales. Ah, the overbearing mother...

The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-Be
by Mini Grey tells the tale from the point of view of the pea.  Mini Grey has the distinction of being named after the car she was born in (lovely interview with her here).  She does excellent slightly wacky illustrations: the prince goes on his search wearing jacket and tie and well-stocked backpack; the rejected princesses are a collage of Polaroid photos with captions -- "too energetic," "too grumpy," "too pink."  We keep seeing the gardener who raised the pea in the background hoeing, trimming trees, gardening.  She's the one who shows up at the door on the dark and stormy night.  The pea recognizes her snore, climbs all the mattresses, and whispers in her sleeping ear for three hours, "There is something Large and Round and very Uncomfortable in the bed under you."  This of course does the trick and Happily Ever After (with vegetables) follows.

The Princess and the Packet of Frozen Peas
by Tony Wilson and Sue deGennaro has become a huge favorite at the store.  It's entertaining on many different levels.

Prince Henrik hopes to find a wife who likes the outdoors, camping and hockey as much as he does.  His brother tells him about the trick of finding a real princess with a pea, which worked for him.
"Did Princess Eva complain?" Prince Henrik asked.
"You bet -- she complained a lot," said Prince Hans.
And she's never stopped, leaving Henrik concerned about his own search for a real princess.  So he changes the rules:
Instead of twenty mattresses, Henrik found one thin camping mattress.
Instead of twenty eiderdown quilts, Henrik found one old sleeping bag.
And instead of a single pea, the prince decided to use a whole packet of frozen peas.
This leads to some seriously put-out princesses, and no true love. Then his old pal Pippa shows up, they play hockey and make fun of the princesses, and the light bulb finally goes off over Henrik's head.  He puts the packet of frozen peas under her mattress and waits with trepidation.  He asks her how she slept.
"Fantastically well, thank you." 
Pippa handed him a packet of mushy peas. "I found this under the mattress last night," she said. "It was the perfect ice pack.  I had a bit of a sore shin from playing hockey."
Needless to say, it's true love.  The last page is a sequence of pictures of the two of them trying to figure out how to put up a tent -- they succeed in the end.

The illustrations are charmingly off-beat, the writing is good, it's funny -- and it's about falling in love with a friend.  What's not to like?

Love,

Deborah



Saturday, May 12, 2012

The perfection of Little Fur Family

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We've been rereading Sendak in our house a lot this week too -- a sad loss, and strange to have been writing about him the night before.

As promised, tonight I'm sitting down with one of the children's books I can't live without, the only one on my Top 33 list which I haven't yet written about here.

Margaret Wise Brown's Little Fur Family, illustrated by Garth Williams, is a strange and perfect book.  It's so hard for me to write about Brown without just quoting her -- paraphrasing loses all the poetry.  Here's the first page:

There was a little fur family
warm as toast
smaller than most
in little fur coats
and they lived in a warm wooden tree.

In Garth Williams's illustrations, the little fur family (father, mother, child) are of indeterminate species -- furry small creatures who act like human beings, each with a different shade of fur, and a fur coat.  (Now that I think about it, they're kind of multiracial-looking.)  Each wears a fur coat that appears to have come from another animal.
The father goes off in the morning "out into his little fur world," and the child, after a bath in which he's shown clutching his red ball, goes out to play "in the wild wood where they lived."

He sneezes, and wakes up his grandpa, and they say "Bless you" to each other, and he goes on to have interactions with other creatures in nature, starting with "a little river full of fish."



These were my favorite pages to read to Eleanor when she was a baby.  I would mime reaching into the river for the fish, and reaching into the air to catch the flying bug, looking at each, letting it go.  At age one and a little older, Eleanor took great pleasure in catching her own invisible bug and peering at it in her cupped hand.  There's something so lovely about this simple observation of creatures other than yourself, the catch and release.  Brown is never didactic: there's no sense that she's promoting a message about leaving the wild as you found it, or engaging in empathy.  The little fur child doesn't seem to see himself in the creatures he finds -- he is curious about them, he observes them, he puts them back. Even when he comes across "the littlest fur animal in the world" (who looks just like him, but smaller), the fur child isn't tempted to bring it home.

The sun goes down, and the child runs home, to be greeted by his big fur mother and carried to bed by his father, who tuck him into bed together and sing him a song:

Sleep, sleep, our little fur child,
Out of the windiness,
Out of the wild.
Sleep warm in your fur
All night long,
In your little fur family.
This is a song.

It's that last line that slays me: tender, factual, self-evident.  We've made up a tune for the words, and this song long ago joined our regular roster of lullabies.

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gentle beginnings

Dear Annie,

Your lovely description of Where the Wild Things Are became fitting final praise for Maurice Sendak.  It's been a sad week in the world of kids' books.  This afternoon in the store, two different adults stopped at my display of Sendak books, picked up Where the Wild Things Are, and read it straight through.  Each had a sad little smile, put the book back, and went on with whatever their errand was.  Sendak's death has put many back in touch with the magic of books for children.

Back on Sunday, I promised to write about four gentle and lovely baby books by the inspired Helen Oxenbury.



Tickle Tickle
,
Clap Hands
,
All Fall Down
and
Say Goodnight
are all eight-page board books designed to entrance little babies. Sweet big-headed babies of many colors toddle unsteadily through the delights of their days. The words to all of them are still embedded in my brain, although Clap Hands is always the one I come back to:

Clap hands, dance and spin, [picture: boogying toddlers]
open wide and pop it in, [babies eating, drinking and spilling]
blow a trumpet, bang a drum, [wooden spoons, pans and paper rolls]
wave to daddy, wave to mum. [waving at the reader]

That's the entire text, and the pictures give plenty to identify with.

Playing by the Book, an inspired mom's website which we've admired before, took the first line of Tickle Tickle as inspiration for a meditation on mud:

Squelch squelch in the mud ...

The babes in this one have grown-ups attached: a hand anchoring a muddy baby, a dad's back while he holds a wet bather, a mom brushing her child's silky hair while a bald baby looks on quizzically.

No major emotional conflict to be savored in these little books (give these toddlers two or three years to become Sendak readers), but lots of cozy.

Love,

Deborah




Monday, May 7, 2012

Can't stop adding to the list

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I like your additions to the list, and am interested in the list by author rather than individual book -- both seem useful in different ways.

Along with the suggestions posted in comments directly on the blog, I was roundly criticized by my friends on Facebook for leaving out the following (we've mentioned a couple of these in passing, but haven't written directly about any of them):

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams
Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst
books by Leo Lionni

And, as you mentioned, Dr. Seuss.

While I like all of these books, the only one that gave me a real pang -- how could I have forgotten it? -- was Where the Wild Things Are, which is a truly perfect book.  It has everything: misbehavior (Max running after the dog with a fork in his hand), punishment, wild imagination, joyful howling, acting out frustration with parents in the imaginative sphere ("'Now stop!' Max said, and sent the Wild Things off to bed/ without their supper."), and finally, return and reconciliation.  As my friend Kate posted: "Oh that he gets sent to bed without supper and then finds it still warm!"

Yes, Wild Things should be on every list.

Love, Annie

P.S. I haven't forgotten Little Fur Family!  Look for them on Friday.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

List-making

Dear Annie,

The best lists -- and of course I'm including yours when I say this -- are the most personal: what do I love to read, which ones do my children bond with?  I love that one of the comments, from your pal Rachel at Even in Australia -- a guest blogger and kids' book connoisseur -- says she's working on a list of her own, but that it has few overlaps with yours.  There are so many great books out there, and the process of winnowing them down to a top 25 -- or 100 -- can result in wildly different choices.

The day you posted, I was poking around on Read Roger, the blog of Horn Book editor Roger Sutton, and found an entry on lists.  In that case, it was a list of classic children's book authors: he suggested 26 writers who are “dead but important and still singing to readers.”  It's a list one can definitely debate -- the comments are half the fun.  But it's also another way of approaching book list-making: looking at  authors rather than specific books.

Take, for instance, Sandra Boynton.  She's written a few duds -- hard for a prolific author not to -- but I'd say at least five or six of her books are exceptional.  You listed Hippos Go Berserk -- a big one in both our families -- and Doggies (ah, Isabel).  In our household, Moo Baa La La La would probably supplant Doggies.  I've had customers recite to me much of Barnyard Dance and The Going to Bed Book.  So I'd just say, anything Boynton -- or maybe anything Boynton pre-2001.

The authors I'd offer for your list -- assuming we're aiming at a birth-to-preschool child -- are
Shirley Hughes: I love anything Alfie, or Dogger
Arnold Lobel: Frog & Toad, Mouse Soup, Mouse Tales
Peggy Rathmann: Goodnight Gorilla, 10 Minutes Til Bedtime, Officer Buckle & Gloria
Dr Seuss: anything
William Steig: Gorky Rises and Spinky Sulks would head my list, but one could go anywhere here too.

Coming up with this list makes me realize I've never written about Helen Oxenbury's wonderful collection of eight-page board books: that's my promise for next time.

I'm looking forward to The Little Fur Family!

Love,

Deborah

Friday, May 4, 2012

Building a library -- my top 25 (well, 33) list

Dear Aunt Debbie,

My good friend Ann -- teacher extraordinaire, one of the smartest and most electric people I know -- had a baby just over three weeks ago.  Ann is a reader from way back, and during her pregnancy prepared for her daughter's arrival largely by buying children's books.  At birth, this baby has the beginning of what I know will be an extensive and well-chosen library.

During her pregnancy, Ann asked me for a Top 25 list to supplement what she'd already bought: what kids' books are must-haves in starting a child's library?  Tonight, I set myself to the task.  25 proved too small a number, but I was able to whittle it down to 33, only one of which I haven't yet written about here.

Lists like these are by nature extremely subjective.  As I scrolled through our book lists (over there on the right side of the page), I found myself skipping over many, many books I love.  What made the cut?  It came down to gut reaction for me.  These are the books I have reread with the most pleasure, the most number of times; the books I can't imagine living without in the first few years of a child's life.

I've divided my list into three sub-lists:

For brand-new babies: the absolute first board books to start reading to babies in their first few months. 
Classics: these are largely books I grew up with, some older than others.  They make up the bulk of the list.
Contemporary: books I discovered as a parent, but which I now can't live without.

A few authors make it onto the list more than once: Margaret Wise Brown leads the pack here, with four titles, followed by Sandra Boynton and Robert McCloskey.  In some cases, I've cheated by referencing series rather than individual books, so that in truth this is a list approaching 50.  Within each section, I've listed the books in alphabetical order by author. Here it is:

For brand-new babies:

Classics:
Little Fur Family, by Margaret Wise Brown

Contemporary:

The one I haven't yet written about, as you can see by the lack of link above, is Little Fur Family, by Margaret Wise Brown.  Expect a post on it next week.

What am I missing?  What have I forgotten?  I'd love to hear from you, and our readers.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Anniversary books

Dear Annie,

Isabel's drawing is spectacular!  Such an expressive two-and-a-half year old! In our household -- and maybe in yours? -- no was a crucial defensive weapon for the younger child.  It was Mona's first word.

No Jumping on the Bed has been a favorite -- both at home and at store -- for decades now.  It's pure fun.  Every now and then a customer rejects it because s/he sees it as sanctioning bad behavior, and thus deprives a child of a good exercise of imagination.  It's interesting that you posted those two books written and illustrated by Tedd Arnold.  They represent his Early Period of illustration -- the '80s airbrushy style of No Jumping -- and his Current Period.  The Current Period brings us cute monsters with bug eyes.  To celebrate the 25th anniversary of No Jumping, Arnold re-illustrated it in Current Period style:
After 25 years of that smoothly-drawn child, I can't get used to this one.

Sometimes I get a bit stuck on a handful of recommendations because I'm so bonded to the books.  The question, "What's a good book for a three year-old who likes to be read to?" often gets No Jumping as the answer.  There's one other family favorite which is also a default choice for me:
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
by Judi Barrett.  (Amazing that we've been blogging for two years but have not discussed either of these wonderful books.)  A grandfather tells the story of a small town called Chewandswallow where all the food falls from the sky three times a day.  All is peaceful and cheerful, but then things start going wrong.  First, it's the menu:
One day there was nothing but Gorgonzola cheese all day long.
[picture: people with clothespins on their noses]
The next day there was only broccoli, all overcooked.
[picture: candlelit dinner, unhappy diners]
And the next day there were brussel sprouts and peanut butter with mayonnaise.
[very unhappy birthday party]
The situation progresses to bigger and bigger food falling from the sky: a tomato tornado, dangerously large bread, and a pancake that covers the entire school.  Finally the villagers decide to leave town, on sailboats made of stale gigantic bread with giant cheese slice sails.  The story ends as it began, back in the real world with Grandpa tucking the kids into bed. 

Here's a video reading of the book, done by an uncle:

 My father (your grandfather) used to tell us stories about Pegasus, a flying horse (not much relation to the mythical one) which I've unfortunately long since forgotten.  But the feel of this book is very Grandpa-ish.  Kind of deadpan whimsical.  A classic.

Love,

Deborah