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.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Slavery for your 7-year-old

Dear Aunt Debbie, 

I haven't seen I Saw Esau, but clearly it's a book we need to get into this house -- what fun!

I wrote a while ago about reading the Molly books from the American Girl series, and being pleased to find them better than I'd expected. Recently, Eleanor has picked them up to read on her own, and has been ripping through them; inspired, I've gotten us several more from the series via the library. 

For the last week or so, then, Eleanor has been engrossed in the Addy books, by Connie Porter.  By virtue of their main character's story, they are far more intense in their content than the Molly books were. I can see why the first one would have riveted Mona in an ER waiting room

Addy Walker is born into slavery, and in her first book, Meet Addy, she lives on Master Stevens's plantation with her parents, her 15-year-old brother Sam, and her one-year-old sister, Esther. There are a few details about her experience of slavery that are quite hard-hitting, especially in a book aimed at ages 7 and up. In one scene, Addy is tasked with picking worms off the leaves of tobacco plants. When she misses some, the overseer follows her down the row, gathering them, then forces her to eat them. This made quite an impression on Eleanor (and on almost 4-year-old Isabel, who heard it from her older sister and then proceeded to repeat it to several people we met the next day).  There is also a mention of Sam having scars on his back from being whipped the previous year when he tried to escape -- we don't see the scene, but it's referred to.

Perhaps the most disturbing scene comes when Addy's father and brother are sold to another plantation owner just before the family had planned to run away together.  Despite the loss of half of their family, Addy and her mother stick to the plan, leaving baby Esther behind with other slaves on the plantation, and eventually make it to a safe house on the Underground Railway.  The next five books take place in Philadelphia, among freedmen.

The level of intensity here led Eleanor to put the book down for a few days after reading about Poppa and Sam being tied up and taken away.  That's when I picked it up: the first time I've had to read on my own something Eleanor was reading on her own, so we could talk about it.  (Hooray!)  Because I knew what was coming, I was able to reassure her: no, despite the picture of Momma flailing in the roaring river, she doesn't drown, and she and Addy do escape successfully.  I didn't push Eleanor to finish the book, but left it out on the coffee table without commenting on it.  A few days later, she sat down and finished it.  In less than a week, she has now read books 2, 3, and 4, and we have 5 and 6 on hold at the library.  Friends, we have a READER.

I'm running a bit behind: I've read  Addy Learns a Lesson, and am just starting Addy's Surprise (so far, it's Eleanor's favorite).  Addy Learns a Lesson introduces Addy's good, kind friend, Sarah, who is also a former slave, and her new nemesis, Harriet, a spoiled girl who was born free.  There is well-woven historical detail, but the focus is on relationships between school-age girls.

One interesting choice in Connie Porter's writing is that the slaves and former slaves don't speak with proper English grammar.  It's not full-on black dialect, but there's a definite voice here: "Momma and me saving for a lamp."  Addy's teacher is a college-educated black woman, and speaks with perfect grammar.  Eleanor hasn't commented on this yet, but it struck me while reading.  I find myself looking forward to the rest of the books, and even more so, to the conversations they'll inspire.

Love, Annie

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Back to the schoolyard

Dear Annie,

I can just see Eleanor absorbed in the catalog of the Thorne Rooms.  And what excellent timing on reading the book, just as you were visiting the Illinois grandparents.

Up here in Maine, I've been browsing our kids' book collection and came up with a wonderful one.   I think you were looking at it when you came to visit Child's Play:

I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild's Pocket Book
, edited by Iona and Peter Opie with spectacular illustrations by good old Maurice Sendak.  We've talked about Opie collections of nursery rhymes before, but this one is more chants than rhymes, suitable for schoolyard recitation, like "sticks and stones..." or "rain rain go away...."  But those are just the beginning!

The Opies put the 174 rhymes into wonderful categories --
-- to name just a few.

Here's one from "Reality":

Under "Guile - Malicious":
Adam and Eve and Pinch-Me
Went down to the river to bathe;
Adam and Eve were drowned,
Who do you think was saved?
An interactive rhyme, that one.  Under "Guile - Innocent," with the note "punctuation is important":
Charles the First walked and talked
Half an hour after his head was cut off
Sendak illustrates with a very elegant headless gentleman.  Then there are several rhymes suitable for writing in one's own book, under "Book Protection":
This book is one thing,
My fist is another;
Steal not the one
For fear of the other.
"Mock Scholastic" has a sub-category, "Loony Latin" (best when read aloud):
Brutus adsum jam forte,
Caesar aderat. 
Brutus sic in omnibus,
Caesar sic inat.
The illustration includes two miserable-looking guys in togas and laurel wreaths, one with his face buried in a hat.

One can tell that everything about this book is fun: the collecting of the rhymes, Sendak's wacky illustrations, the reading aloud.

Something to put a little zip into back-to-school.



Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Night at the museum, in miniature

Dear Aunt Debbie,

After our recent visit with you in Washington D.C., you sent us home with a bag full of books and other goodies, which we're still working our way through.  One chapter book in the bunch was clearly something we had to pick up immediately, as it was place-specific, and we were about to travel to exactly the right place.  It turned out to be both a good read and an excellent jumping-off point for a museum visit.

The book is The Sixty-Eight Rooms, by Marianne Malone.  The rooms in question are the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago, 68 historically accurate miniature rooms created in the 1930s by craftsmen under the direction of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.  There are two sets of rooms: the European rooms depict interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s; the American rooms from the 17th century to the 1930s.  The rooms were built on a scale of one inch to one foot, and the detail in them is astounding, as you can see in this slightly interactive Art Institute "Game of Thornes."

The premise of the book is a good one: best friends Ruthie and Jack, both sixth-graders, discover an ornate key in an access hall to the back of the Thorne Rooms.  When Ruthie picks up the key while standing near the rooms, she feels a magical wind and shrinks down to fit the scale of the rooms, becoming five inches high. With Jack's help, Ruthie gets up into the rooms and begins to explore.  The friends sneak back to the museum for an overnight visit, and discover that if Jack holds Ruthie's hand while she shrinks, he'll shrink too.  Further exploration reveals that there's more magic inside the rooms: a book which speaks to Ruthie, and the discovery that the rooms can serve as portals to the past.  Little people, time travel, sneaking around inside a museum -- there's a lot to keep a reader interested.

Eleanor loved the book, and we ripped through it in just a few days.  The combination of magic and the working through of practical details kept her riveted (how will Jack and Ruthie get up from the floor to the rooms when they're both five inches tall?  Build a staircase of catalogs while normal-sized, and then scale them as little people!).  I found Malone's writing a little flat: lots of dialogue tags like "Jack responded" and explanations of what Ruthie is thinking and feeling, rather than details which might communicate states of mind more organically to a reader.  For this reason, it wasn't the most satisfying read-aloud, though Eleanor's experience of it was quite positive.

We read The Sixty-Eight Rooms while visiting my in-laws in Illinois, and used one of our vacation days to drive in to Chicago and visit the Art Institute to see the Thorne Rooms in person.  Hands down, this was the best thing about reading the book.  Eleanor made a list of the rooms which figured most prominently in the story, and ran from one to the next discovering details that Malone had written about.  She was incredibly excited.  My mother-in-law bought her Miniature Rooms, a catalog/coffee table book of color photos of the rooms, and Eleanor pored over it for days, holding it open on her lap as we finished the book together and imagining other stories for herself. (Clearly, Malone has done this too: there are already two sequels.)

Looks like it's time to break out From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and take a trip to the Metropolitan Museum next.

Love, Annie

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hiking with kids: the secret ingredient

Dear Annie,

Eleanor is reading whole chapters on her own!  This is so great. 

We're in Maine now -- haven't made it to the Saco for canoeing yet, but are very happy to be away from city life.  Your pal and occasional guest blogger Denise posted a great question on my last post:
What are some other books like these that would inspire hiking and camping trips? My daughter is a resistant hiker though reciting/singing We're Going on a Bear Hunt always keeps her going for a little while. But we do need more inspiration for our imminent camping trip:-)
I can't think of a perfect book, but let me offer two that might help, and some advice.

Play with Me
, by Marie Hall Ets is a sweet picture book (1955) about a girl who wanders into a meadow looking for playmates.  She meets a series of animals (grasshopper, frog, turtle, fawn, etc) who run away when she gets too close.  She eventually sits by a pond and the animals all come back.  It gives a feel of the elusiveness of animals in the wild, and of needing to act a bit differently when one is looking for them.  It's also just a lovely classic book.

Good old Henry and Mudge come through on this topic with a camping book:
Henry and Mudge and the Starry Night
, by Cynthia Rylant.  Henry and his parents -- with, of course, his big dog Mudge -- go camping. They hike to their campsite:
They walked and walked 
and climbed and climbed.
It was beautiful.
And there's a list of what they see: fish, deer, waterfall, rainbow.  Mudge gets very fond of all the smells.  They end up sleeping under the stars.

I'm going to veer off books for a minute to offer a solution which worked real well in our family:  always hike with friends.  Slogging up that trail with mom and dad and siblings can get a little old, tiring, whine-inducing.  But add another family with kids -- with us slightly older kids were the best -- and it becomes an adventure.  Being in a new place with friends makes it all a lot more fun.  And if you're the kind of family that likes to sing a few tunes from Broadway musicals as you go, you'll be at the top of whatever you're climbing before you know it.

Enjoy your trip, Denise.



Monday, August 5, 2013

Sleeping in boxcars and horse stalls

Dear Aunt Debbie, 

Your post about Up the Creek and Denise's follow-up question about books to encourage camping and hiking came at a moment when Eleanor and I are reading a series of books which contain a number of camping/hiking/pro-outdoor self-sufficiency scenes. I'm not sure how well they'll translate into increased love of camping -- we read all those Little House books, and Eleanor hasn't become quietly, gratefully industrious -- but we're having fun with this odd classic series. 

We picked up the first four books of The Boxcar Children mysteries in a boxed set while on vacation.  This is one of those series that started smallish and became a franchise: Gertrude Chandler Warner wrote the first 19 books (the first in 1924, the rest starting in the late 1940s and continuing into the 1970s) and other authors picked it up in the 1990s. There are over 100 books and counting. We're not aiming to be completists here.

The series focuses on four orphaned siblings: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, in descending order of age. Henry is 14 in the first book, very much the leader, and the one who goes out to work and get money for food. Jessie, 12, is the caretaker and cook. Violet is 10, artistic and delicate. Benny is 5, energetic and super-friendly, the kid who everybody loves. In the first book, which I mentioned briefly three years ago when we were talking about orphans having adventures, the children are running away after the death of their parents so that they won't be claimed by their grandfather, who they believe is cruel because he's never met them and didn't like their mother.  They make a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the woods, and are really excited to play house there, though it's hard work.  Henry starts doing odd jobs for a local doctor, who becomes a friend to the children, and ultimately introduces them to their grandfather, John Henry Alden.  It turns out that their grandfather is super-nice, super-rich, and thrilled to have them come live with him.  And they get to keep the dog they found in the woods.  And grandfather has the boxcar moved into his enormous backyard, so they can still hang out there when they want to.  A happy ending for all!

On an emotional level, the books are fairly bizarre.  There's no discussion of how the children's parents died, and they're never mentioned or wished for again (at least, not in the first three books).  There's no explanation of why Mr. Alden didn't meet his grandchildren earlier, or what the rift was between him and his daughter-in-law.  It's totally unclear where the children were living before the beginning of the first book -- what exactly were they running away from?  In this way, the story feels almost like a fairy tale, starting with the children at their moment of entering a life of adventure, and ending by turning their rags to riches. Or perhaps it feels more like a story told by a child old enough to understand a compelling plot and think through the details of an experience, but not old enough to recognize how these circumstances would affect people on a deeper level.

There's a lot here to enjoy, however.  Warner provides pages of detail about the way the children keep  house: building shelves from cardboard, scavenging dishes from a dump and washing them, making beds of pine needles, cooking stew over a fire.  In the third book, The Yellow House Mystery, the children go camping on a trail with their cousin Joe and his wife Alice, and have to hang their food from trees to protect it from bears, catch fish to eat, and survive a storm that threatens to beach their canoes.

Perhaps the thing I like most about the Boxcar Children is their ridiculously positive can-do attitude in every circumstance.  "We like hard work!" says Henry, and it's true to a fault.  In the second book, Surprise Island, Mr. Alden brings the children to a small island he owns and asks if they'd like to live there for the summer, essentially on their own (there's an old boat captain on the island too, but he's pretty hands-off).  Oh, and by the way, they'll be living in the barn, not in a house.  Thrilling!  Even better!  They get to sleep in horse stalls!  Um, okay, kids.

I began reading the books to Eleanor, but realized quickly that the vocabulary Warner uses is accessible to fairly new readers. As she started to do with The Menagerie, Eleanor began to pick up the first book on her own and read ahead, though she still wanted me to do the reading aloud. In Surprise Island, she read sections of several chapters aloud to me. Now we're speeding through The Yellow House Mystery, with Eleanor reading the even chapters aloud, while I read the odd ones. The "mystery" aspect of the books is so far fairly tame -- no suspense that's making her want to hide under a blanket as she does with Nancy Drew.  I'll have no qualms if Eleanor continues to read the series on her own.

Love, Annie