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.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The pointing years

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thank you for the sense of perspective! We have so many other good books going on here at home that I'm sure you're right about the princess drek falling away. It's nice to be reminded that it's more often the good stuff that sticks.

I recently heard someone say that a better word for "toddler" would be "pointer," given the amount of pointing that kids do from around 15 months to 2 years, before full-blown language sets in. Will is firmly in the pointer phase. He points at dogs and pigeons and other babies on the street; he points to indicate the food he wants; he points and signs "more" when handing me a book to read to him. And he loves to point at pictures.

Specifically, Will has become a huge fan of pages of books with multiple pictures on them. He points at the items on the page, often the same two or three over and over, and I name them. Very satisfying. Sometimes we try it the other way: "Will, where's the dog?" Less accurate results, but still a lot of fun.

Our absolute favorite book to do this with is a board book I can't believe I haven't written about before: Penny Gentieu's Baby! Talk! We've had this one since Eleanor was a baby (did you give it to us? Probably.) and it's been a huge hit with all three kids. Most of the pages in the book contain a statement of a single baby concept: "Where are baby's toes?"; "How big is baby? So big!"; "Uh-oh!"; "Peek-a-boo! I see you!"; "Clap hands, baby! Patty-cake!" On the facing page, there are pictures of several babies illustrating the concept in different ways:

 (Jeff and I have always enjoyed the Zombie Baby at the top left of the "Uh-oh!" page.)

Will loves these pages. He reads "Uh-oh!" aloud, and plays peek-a-boo himself. But the page he turns to most often is the first page of the book:

*point* "Dog."
*point* "Spoon."
*point* "Cat."
*point* "Ball."
*point* "That's the dog again."
*point* "Spoon."

This is so consistently fascinating that I've started packing Baby! Talk! in the diaper bag every time we go out.

Luckily, children's book publishers seem to recognize the importance of the point-able illustration design. Every photo spread in Eating the Rainbow offers a similar opportunity:

While The Noisy Book presents only one illustration per page, the inside front and back covers show lots of little square images of the pictures and sounds contained in the book as a whole:

These are pages I used to skip over without thinking when reading the book aloud, but they're Will's favorite place to stop. And point. And point. And laugh. And point again. And keep me reading at his pace.

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Reading and memory

Dear Annie,

I haven't yet seen Frozen -- I've been tempted on a few occasions -- but I am very aware of the marketing phenomenon.  About 90% of what I know about the Frozen plot I learned in a phone conversation with your daughters last fall.  I remember a particularly breathless description by Isabel.

But I confess to contributing to the avalanche of books.  We refer to this prominently-displayed shelf in my book section --
-- as The Frozen Shrine.  It's hard to keep it stocked, although I think the demand has peaked now.  I used to come to the store on Mondays and the shelf would be completely empty.  Now we still have a few of each title left, and I can re-order before we see bare wood.

The vast majority of these books has been written or commissioned by marketing departments: why hire a Seuss or Minarek successor when a book with clunky, non-phonetic writing will be produced and sell quicker and cost less to produce?

The thing that's hard to believe, when your child is in the grip of Frozen obsession, is that in five or ten years she will have no memory of this stage.  When you are still regretting that you ever let the book in the door, she'll be happily reading something so different that she'll deny she ever dropped everything to look at a Frozen reader. 

I had a lovely conversation with a young reader at the store today.  I was on my way out to lunch, which sometimes takes a bit of time when I need to disengage from book selling.  I'd finally made it to the door, with my hand on the handle, when a voice said, "Excuse me?"  It was a girl I didn't know: she looked about ten years old.  "You sold Lincoln's Grave Robbers to my mom last week," she said.  It's a wonderful and weird piece of non-fiction: one of my favorites.  "I'm halfway through it," she said, "and I think it's one of the best books I've ever read."  So we talked about it for a while, and I told her it stays very strange and different all the way to the ending.  Moments like that are the best of my job.

After watching my own daughters' taste in books evolve, and talking with a lot of customers, I'll predict that when she's 15, that girl will still have a special spot in her heart for the book she's reading right now.  And when both of your daughters hit that age, they'll have lists as long as their arms of books that are special to them.  And not to worry: Frozen won't be there.



Monday, May 12, 2014

Let it Go

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Well, it's happened. After holding the line for years against letting badly-written Disney princess books into my house, unless they come from the library and go right back there, I have finally succumbed. I blame Frozen.

I'm sure that in your work at the bookstore-inside-a-toystore, you're aware of the Frozen-mania that has gripped children ages 4-10 in recent months. Eleanor and Isabel went to see the movie last fall, soon after it came out, and retained an enormous number of lyrics from that single viewing. Then "Let it Go" became inescapable (have you seen it sung in 25 languages?), and Isabel became obsessed with Elsa, the powerful but emotionally-stunted snow queen who can shoot ice from her hands. She got Frozen dolls for Christmas, and is planning a full-family Frozen costume for Halloween. For several periods this winter, we had to address her as "Queen Elsa," or she wouldn't answer.

And then there are the books.

At Barnes & Noble right now, there's an entire Frozen section: Little Golden books, sticker books, junior novelizations, early readers -- the Random House/Disney site has two pages of them. Several of Isabel's friends have the early readers, and these thin little books with their flat writing have become the latest object of desire. Last week, I watched seven 4-year-olds abandon their picnicking and tree-climbing in the park to press around a mom reading a Frozen book. It's just as alluring as the ice cream truck: literary kid-crack.

So when Eleanor's school held a book fair, I went ahead and got Isabel the book she wanted: A Tale of Two Sisters . A little literary reference there in the title, eh? Don't get excited -- that's as good as it gets.

Here's where I'm torn: I love books. I love watching my children grow to love books. I want books to be objects of desire for them, want them to be excited about sharing books with their friends. I want Isabel to want to learn to read, and this reader is the first book that's made her willing to try to identify the words she's looking at. Sitting with Jeff a couple of nights ago, she read aloud every instance of the names "Anna" and "Elsa," and was able to read a few smaller sight words as well.

But oh, it is so badly written. There's no author listed -- in every way, it feels like a commercial product rather than a book. Each sentence goes out of its way to drain any sense of drama or life from the story:

It's as if the publishing house believes that simple must equal boring, that there is no art to paring down a story and writing it in easy-to-read sentences. (I wonder as well whether some of these sentences are actually easy to read: the vocabulary in the book feels like it's hitting a variety of levels, including words like "kingdom," "search," and "listen.")

Would it really be so hard to do it better? Read a little Dr. Seuss, some classic Else Holmelund Minarik Little Bear, any of the amazing books we've touched on in our many posts on learning to read. I suppose that if the books are selling like crazy, there's no incentive for improvement, but I wish there were.

In the meantime, I'll focus on the positive message promoted at the end of A Tale of Two Sisters:

I'll take what I can get.

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Guest blogger: Stepping back

Dear Annie,

We have a new guest blogger today.  I'm currently visiting Lizzie in Spain, but my excellent colleague Molly, who runs the book section in our McLean Virginia store, has offered this entry.

I was talking with one of my customers this week about books that have a change in perspective.  Her son was having trouble finding a new angle when an art project started to go wrong, or his sand castle fell down at the beach.  I think there is infinite value in stepping back and looking at things differently, so we had a lot of fun picking books for him to read.  Here are a few of my favorite books that have big shifts in perspective.

The Most Magnificent Thing
, by Ashley Spires, is a new favorite for storytime in my store.  In this story, an unnamed girl and her dog set out to make the Most Magnificent Thing.  The girl becomes discouraged and the dog convinces her to take a walk around the block, during which she gains some perspective.  It turns out that her inventions are all magnificent in their own ways, and all ends well.  By taking a step back, the girl realizes that her negatives were actually positives.  I love that her frustrations are relatable and her triumph, magnificent!

Goodnight Opus (out of print, sadly), by Berkeley Breathed, has Opus the penguin step back and discover things he has never noticed.  When his grandma falls asleep while reading his bedtime story, Opus decides to change the story and make his own.  He enlists his pillow (with a balloon for a head) and his newly discovered blue monster friend to join him in his quest.  They then bike into the sky to kiss cows in the milky way, go skinny-dipping with the Lincoln Memorial, and visit with a tired tooth fairy.  When Opus makes the decision to “depart the text,” his world changes from black and white to full color.  What a delightful change of pace and perspective! 

Lafcadio, by Shel Silverstein, also features a changing perspective, of sorts.  Lafcadio is a wonderfully odd lion who adores marshmallows, becomes a circus sharpshooter and eventually finds himself in the middle of an expedition that is hunting lions.  By the time he goes hunting, he has almost completely forgotten his own origins and perspective.  Lafcadio is asked to pick between the men and the lions, and chooses, instead, to walk away from them both.  The result of his step back is this:

      He didn’t really know where he was going, but he did know he was going somewhere, because you really have to go somewhere, don’t you?
      And he didn’t really know what was going to happen to him, but he did know that something was going to happen, because something always does, doesn’t it?
  There is no neatly tied-up ending, but you finish the book knowing that Lafcadio is not under anyone else’s influence.  What a weird and lovely way to see the future.


Thanks for the shift in perspective, Molly!