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.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Captured by the Mixed-Up Files

Dear Aunt Debbie, 

After spending much of last week trying to absorb the terrible news from Boston and the rest of the world without betraying too much of it to my kids, this week felt a little more normal.  I was saddened, however, to read of the death of E.L. Konigsburg, a favorite author of mine who we have somehow never written about here.

Konigsburg's best-known book, and certainly my favorite, is the Newbery-winning
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
.  I happen to have reread From the Mixed-Up Files a couple of weeks ago, when a lovely hardcover version of it arrived from friends as a big-sister present for Eleanor in a package for Will. I sat on the couch with Will napping and nursing on my lap and tore through it in one sitting. I'm looking forward to reading it to Eleanor soon.

It's the story of 11-year-old Claudia Kincaid and her 9-year-old brother Jamie, who run away from their home in Greenwich, CT to spend a week living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their adventure gains a bit of mystery when they become interested in a small statue of an angel which the Met has recently acquired, and try to figure out through their own research whether or not it was sculpted by Michelangelo. The story is introduced via a letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her lawyer, Saxonberg, claiming authorship of the story, though it's unclear until close to the end of the book what her involvement with the Kincaid children is.

I'm sure I'm far from the only child who fantasized about following Claudia and Jamie's footsteps.  It's not a romantic vision of running away, exactly, though Claudia would like it to be so -- there are too many little difficult details for it to feel easy or comfortable.  But such indelible images: the kids bathing in the restaurant fountain at night and discovering coins underfoot to supplement their savings, hiding in bathroom stalls at closing time  by standing up on the toilet seats so their feet won't show, stashing Claudia's violin case filled with clothes in an empty sarcophagus.

While a number of details in the real-life museum have changed since the book was published in 1967 (the Met helpfully provides a children's guide here), and there are no Automats left in New York to eat in or stores with typewriter displays on their sidewalks, the story doesn't feel dated. Claudia and Jamie read like real kids, bickering a little, Claudia wanting very much to be in charge and to retain her romantic ideal of the adventure, Jamie far more focused on how much money they're spending (most of it is his, won by gambling at cards on the school bus). As the older sister of a younger brother, I recognized their dynamic early on.  The book wears well.

E.L. Konigsburg was a genius with odd titles: Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethFather's Arcane Daughter; and my second-favorite Konigsburg book, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver.  The last is a story about Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, narrated in the afterlife -- Eleanor is in heaven, waiting for the judgment of her second husband, Henry II, to see if he'll join her.  It's an interesting and somewhat challenging conceit for YA historical fiction.  I loved it.

It's hard not to imagine Konigsburg herself as a little like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: a connoisseur of fine art and experiences, attuned to people but possessing her own indomitable voice.  She will be missed.

Love, Annie

P.S. On another note, have you seen this lovely piece in the NYT about a father packing away his favorite children's books?  Some gems here, and beautifully written.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Near Thing

Dear Annie,

Soon, I'll do an entry on Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, possibly one of the Ur-texts of Eleanor's "lesson book" genre.  And riotously funny.  I want to spend a little time and do it justice.

The other week, Lizzie and I were in a doctor's waiting room (her injured knee mercifully turned out to be only bruised) and I dug around in my bag for something to read.  Out popped the delightful
A Near Thing for Captain Najork
.  Russell Hoban, of the Frances books and many others, wrote it and Quentin Blake, illustrator of Roald Dahl, did the amazing illustrations.  We read it to each other (quietly) as we waited.  It has definitely withstood the test of time.

Tom and Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong
A Near Thing is the sequel to How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen.  That one is, alas, currently out of print, so my precis here is relying on long-ago reading.  Tom lives with his Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong who disapproves mightily of Tom's tendency to fool around.  So she hires Captain Najork and his four trained sportsmen to knock some sense into him.  They challenge him to games of womble, muck and sneedball, which turn out to resemble what Tom does when he's fooling around -- mucking around in mud is all I can remember of those scenes.  Tom ends up freed of Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong's discipline and living with his Aunt Bundlejoy Cosysweet. Captain Najork and the evil aunt marry.

In the second book, A Near Thing for Captain Najork, Tom has fooled around with his chemistry set and invented anti-sticky.  He builds a two-seater frog which runs on the interaction of anti-sticky and jam.
Tom and Aunt Bundlejoy Cosysweet in the jam-powered frog.
Captain Najork was in the observatory looking through his telescope at the girls' boarding-school across the river when the frog hopped past.
  "Follow that frog!" he shouted to his hired sportsmen as he leapt into his pedal-powered snake, and away they undulated.  Captain Najork had not forgotten the time when Tom had beaten him and his hired sportsmen at womble, muck, and sneedball.  "I'd like to try some new games on him," said the Captain.  "I'd like to see how good he is at thud, crunch, and Tom-on-the-bottom."
(How many books will give you an undulating robot snake?)  It turns out Captain Najork has been peeping at the girls' boarding-school's Headmistress while she pumps iron.  Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong Najork discovers this, swims the river in snorkel and flippers, and challenges the confused headmistress to an arm-wrestle for the Captain -- "Best out of three," she says.  Meanwhile, the frog is running out of jam, so Tom and the Good Aunt stop at the boarding-school to ask for more, leading the school's commissionaire (read: doorman) to say one of the book's great lines: "There is a lady at the door who wants a pot of jam and there is a snake at the window, madam," he says to the arm-wrestling Headmistress.

There's some chaos; the Najorks work out their differences and go home, followed by the Headmistress who, having seen the Captain, wants to continue the competition for him:
I love the Captain's expression in this one.  The whole story is wacky and delightful.  No lesson to be learned here, but much fun to be had.



Friday, April 12, 2013

Life lessons, and a little more Little House

Dear Aunt Debbie,

When describing her school reading, Eleanor sometimes refers to "lesson books": books which she sees as obviously teaching a lesson or having a moral.  The most recent of these she's mentioned was called A Week Without TV (I think this is it, though I can't find a review or image online to be sure).  She recounted the plot: a boy is upset when his family's TV breaks. On each page, the text has him talking about how sad it is not to have television to watch, but the pictures show him engaged in all kinds of creative activities: drawing, playing with toys, building block towers. When the TV is finally repaired and his father asks if he wants to come watch it, the boy responds that he's too busy, and there's a picture of him fully engaged with the city he's built.

"It's a lesson book," Eleanor said, not dismissing it entirely -- she enjoyed it enough to recount the whole thing at home -- but qualifying it. The book's  purpose was clear to her, and it wasn't primarily about enjoyment of character, language, or story.

Your discussion of Thank You, Mama, has me thinking about the difference between "lesson books" and books which impart moral or behavioral lessons in more subtle ways.

As I wrote recently, we're spending a lot of time right now with the Little House books, a world rich with possibility for discussing manners and morals.  Laura, her older sister Mary, and her future husband Almanzo, in Farmer Boy, are growing up in houses where they're expected to do a hefty number of chores without complaint (this is especially true of Almanzo and his siblings, who are older than the Ingalls children in the first few books) and to be unfailingly polite to adults. Children don't speak to adults unless spoken to, especially at the dinner table. There's a heavy sense of the importance of self-sacrifice, especially coming from Laura's mother, Ma, who many people seem to feel is a wet blanket. In one episode in
Little House on the Prairie
, Laura and Mary go with Pa to explore an abandoned Indian camp. They discover beautiful beads scattered in the dirt, and each girl collects a large handful. When they return to their cabin, Mary (who Laura feels is obnoxiously good) says she's going to give her beads to Baby Carrie.
Ma waited to hear what Laura would say.  Laura didn’t want to say anything.  She wanted to keep those pretty beads.  Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn’t always be such a good little girl.  But she couldn’t let Mary be better than she was. So she said, slowly, “Carrie can have mine, too.” “That’s my unselfish, good little girls,” said Ma.
I hoped that Ma might appreciate Laura and Mary's willingness to sacrifice, but then let them keep the beads themselves -- they have so little!  But no, Ma has them string the beads for Carrie and then puts them away, because Carrie is too young and might break them. Laura is made to feel bad for wanting something of her own, and internalizes her desire as something bad:
And often after that Laura thought of those pretty beads and she was still naughty enough to want her beads for herself.
A far cry from the current feminist message of Sheryl Sandberg and her ilk....

There are obviously aspects of this way of raising kids that I don't agree with. We like it when our children speak up, and encourage them to be comfortable interacting with adults. I've never felt that instilling total self-sacrifice in my daughters was a good idea. Still, there are moments when our kids complain about cleaning their room or wail over a minor stubbed toe when I've found myself thinking, Why can't you be a little more like Laura and Almanzo?  Of course, I phrase it a little differently if I do invoke them: "Think about all the hard work Almanzo has to do every day.  We all need to pitch in and help here at home, too."  I struggle at times with how to walk that fine line between encouraging empathetic connection and behavioral modeling and spoiling a book we're all enjoying.  I suppose, as with so many other aspects of parenting, it's a balance we'll be working at for a long time.

Love, Annie

Monday, April 8, 2013

Thank you!

Dear Annie,

It makes sense that Isabel has some hesitation about new habits of reading right now.  Reading independently -- or being able to listen to a sibling who can -- is a great thing, but because reading is such an emotionally satisfying activity, a change can be unsettling.   At a point when parental attention is newly split three ways, the problem with Eleanor may be that she's just not mom or dad.  At different points, Isabel can see learning to read on her own as wonderfully independent, or as not-so-wonderfully reading without parents.  Needless to say, this will all shake out.  I love that picture of the three of them (upper right).

I had another one of those happy surprises today, opening a box of new books and finding a truly delightful one I'd ordered months ago. 
Thank You, Mama
by Kate Banks, spectacularly illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (you wrote about her new-baby book here) epitomizes to me why we don't need the Berenstain Bears.  This a book about learning to say thank you.  But it's so much more too.

It starts with Alice's mama and papa taking her to the zoo -- on a triple tandem bicycle -- to celebrate her birthday.  When she reaches for a proffered balloon, her father prompts her to say, "Thank you, Papa," which she repeats.
"Would you like a birthday hat? said Alice's mama.
"No," said Alice.  "I don't want a hat."
"No, thank you," said Alice's mama.
"No, thank you, Mama," said Alice.  "I would like a pet."
We then go through a wackily-illustrated series of possible pets.  A giraffe is too tall to pet, Alice wonders where an elephant would sleep, and:
The alert reader will notice the unprompted thank you coming from Alice.  She asks for a parrot -- one has been flying around the edges of the last few pages -- and thanks both mama and papa for it.  When Alice thanks her papa for an ice cream, the parrot chimes in, "Thank you, Papa," and does the same with Mama and another gift.  When they're home, the parrot demands food, and rewards Alice with a "Thank you, Mama."  Alice prompts the parrot to thank Alice, and the parrot declines.
 When she gives the parrot a drink:
"What do you say?" she said [looking a bit stern].
"Thank you, Papa," said the parrot.
"No," said Alice.  "Thank you, Alice."
"Thank you, Papa," said the parrot again.
Alice frowned.
Alice's facial expressions are constantly changing and endlessly entertaining.  Here's her goodnight kiss:
The parrot demands a kiss too, and when Alice kisses it:
"Thank you, Alice," said the parrot. "Thank you, Alice."
And Alice kissed the parrot again.
The book is offering a lesson, but without a preachy bone in its little body.  Banks's rhythm and repetition, combined with the warmth and oddness of Swiatkowska's pictures makes it a delightful read.  Thank you, Kate; thank you, Gabi.



Thursday, April 4, 2013

Pleasure in meanness

Dear Aunt Debbie.

The Birchbark House books sound excellent -- we'll check them out in the near future. We're just starting to get into the parts of Little House on the Prairie where Indians make an appearance, and Ma's negative reaction to them will clearly be leading us toward some interesting conversations about prejudice. I'd like Eleanor to have a different narrative about Indians as counterpoint.

As Eleanor takes off in her independent reading, Jeff and I wondered whether Isabel would be inspired to start sounding things out herself. It sometimes happens: an older sibling's new skill inspiring the younger sibling. Isabel certainly walked earlier because of Eleanor's example, and is happy engaging in 6-year-old level imaginative games, though she's only 3 1/2. On the reading front, however, Isabel seems to have mixed feelings about Eleanor's new ability and her own possible reading future.  Sometimes she likes having Eleanor read to her; sometimes she rejects Eleanor as a reader and just wants a parent, perhaps because Eleanor's reading is slower than she's used to; and sometimes she wants to "read" on her own.

By "read," I mean that proto-reading stage of memorizing books and reciting the words accurately as the pages are turned. My mom, your sister Judy, remembers "reading" Madeline in this way, pretending effusively that she was truly reading the book.  Isabel has a terrific memory for text, and regularly corrects an adult reading to her who makes a slip of the tongue (or nods off just a smidgen, as we have been known to do after a spate of newborn baby nights).  In the last several weeks, Isabel has been asking to reread the same few books over and over, even more than usual. Once she knows them, she'll stop us: "No, I'll read that page!" and then recite it totally accurately, without looking at the words.

Her current favorites include Henry in Love, which I've written about here, a sweet short narrative about the growing infatuation between two elementary school kids (a cat and a bunny, in McCarty's drawings):

Henry did his best forward roll.
"Show him what you can do, Chloe," said Abby.
Chloe turned a perfect cartwheel.
Henry was impressed. 

On a different note, she's enamored by a pair of books by Paul Fleischman, who we've written about extensively in the past as an author of poetry, wordless books, and early chapter books, among other things.

The Dunderheads
and its sequel, The Dunderheads Behind Bars, prove once again that Fleischman can do anything, in any genre. They're Kids Against Adults books, stories about a small gang of elementary-school-age misfits who go up against their horror of a teacher, Miss Breakbone, and prove themselves successful against the odds. The narrator is a boy nicknamed Einstein, because he comes up with such smart plans. He's joined by a vivid cast of characters, each with a strange and specific talent: Pencil can see anything once and draw it perfectly from memory; Clips can make anything out of paper clips; Nails uses his long nails to pick locks; Google-Eyes can hypnotize people and animals; etc.

The stories are part mystery (where did Miss Breakbone hide the china cat she confiscated from Junkyard, and can the Dunderheads get it back? When Spider, who can climb anything, is arrested for being a cat burglar, can the Dunderheads save him by finding the real thief?), part adventure story, part humor. There's a level of meanness coming from Miss Breakbone which I imagine wouldn't appeal to all readers -- she keeps an antique electric chair on display in her classroom, and gives herself a star on her chart every time she makes a kid cry -- but I think it's this very aspect that keeps Isabel so interested.  In her imaginative play, Isabel often casts herself as a Bad Fairy or a Mean Girl or a giant who captures small people, working through the fun of breaking rules even as she's asked to be increasingly responsible and gentle with her new baby brother.

Is it psychologically connected in that direct a way? Maybe. Or maybe there's just a joy in screaming out "Mannerless monkeys!" in the voice of Miss Breakbone, no matter what your age.

Love, Annie

Monday, April 1, 2013

Birchbark House

Dear Annie,

Your Little House reading sounds wonderful.  The books never really took off in our family -- possibly because we attempted them too close to Lizzie's Lord of the Rings obsession.  They still have a loyal following these days, selling steadily.

When you're finished with them, I recommend checking out  Louise Erdrich's
Birchbark House
series.  It's sometimes referred to as the Native American response to the Little House books.  The first book is set in an Ojibwa tribe on an island in Lake Superior in 1847.  Erdrich herself is part Ojibwa and thoroughly researched the life of the tribe of 150 years ago.  Most of the book focuses on seven year-old Omakayas, an intense and energetic girl.  We follow the tribe through a year, learning about building birchbark houses, tanning hides, sewing clothing, making canoes, and lots more.  It has that same fine attention to detail of the Little House series.  The characters and the family relationships are beautifully written and drawn -- Erdrich sketched the illustrations too. 

The encroaching white culture is an element in the book, but not the dominant one.  Both traders and missionaries coexist with the natives.  They bring smallpox: the story starts with an epidemic which kills all but one person -- a baby -- in one village.  Seven years later another wave of disease strikes -- and Omakayas discovers her own origins while she helps nurse her family through.  In later books, the family moves off the island, and keeps moving.  The fourth book,
came out just last year.  Its main characters are Omakayas' twin sons, one of whom is kidnapped (and later rescued).  Each of the books works well as a stand-alone -- but Birchbark House is really worth reading first.  

Erdrich, who owns an independent bookstore (yay!) in Minneapolis called Birchbark Books, is planning more in the series: she says she wants to follow 100 years of Omakayas' life, bringing us up to 1940.  I look forward to them.