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, December 23, 2014

Graphic memoirs, for kids and adults alike

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Happiest of holidays! I'm so glad to hear that things are humming along at the store, despite the odd objection to stories that are "too sad."

As we head into the school break, I wanted to highlight a couple of books we've recently fallen in love with, excellent reading for both kids and adults.

The kid appeal: both are graphic novel memoirs (have I mentioned we're a little obsessed with graphic novels?), both focused on the early to middle childhood years of the author/protagonist, both full of humor and intelligence and drama, both featuring smart, creative girls.

The adult appeal, especially to adults around my age: the major action in both books takes place in the 1970s and 1980s, so they have a real time capsule quality (walkmans! slouchy socks! the San Francisco earthquake! the Waltons!).

Book number 1 is from our beloved Raina Telgemeier, author of Smile and the Rapunzel story in Fairy Tale ComicsSisters is billed as "the companion to Smile." In Smile, Telgemeier focused in depth on her fraught dental history (she knocked out her adult front teeth in an accident, and years of surgery and complicated braces followed). In Sisters, the braces take a back seat, and Telgemeier focuses on her fraught relationship with her younger sister, Amara.

The frame story puts Raina, Amara, their younger brother Will, and their mom in a minivan on a road trip from San Francisco to Colorado for a family reunion. Bickering abounds, and frequent flashbacks (with the pages tinted slightly yellow, to make it clear what's a flashback and what is present day) expand on the sisters' history. It feels like such a real family -- the back and forth among the siblings, expert at pushing each others' buttons, the ways in which small moments of connection break through. Amara loves all nature, including lizards and snakes; Raina thinks they're disgusting, and a snake figures prominently in one of the book's later scenes. The road trip offers a chance for the sisters to take stock of their relationship to each other, and to realize that their parents' marriage is in trouble. It feels like a pivotal summer.

Isabel bought Sisters at her school book fair, and we must have read it 12 times through in the first week. Both Isabel and Eleanor identified with the family deeply (two sisters! who bicker! and their brother is also named Will!), though thankfully there is no parental tension looming on the horizon in our house. We took Smile out of the library not long afterward, and we have now read it at least as many times. Telgemeier's illustrations are a little goofy and totally expressive, and she's able to explore complicated emotional material in clear and accessible ways. An absolute hit.

Book number 2 captured Eleanor before Isabel.  In El Deafo, Cece Bell tells the story of losing most of her hearing at age 4 after a bout of meningitis. It's the mid-1970s, and she's outfitted with two different hearing aids, both enormous by today's standards: a smaller one for home, and the large "Phonic Ear" for school. The people in El Deafo are depicted as rabbit-like creatures, with long ears, so the wires connected to the hearing aids are extremely visible, as Bell says they felt to her as a child.

Cece wears the Phonic Ear as a box hanging around her neck (underneath her overalls, which she wears every day to hide the box). Her classroom teacher wears a microphone, which allows Cece to hear her speech far more clearly. It turns out that the microphone is quite powerful, allowing Cece to hear her teacher anywhere in the building: in the teacher's lounge, even in the bathroom. This, then, is her superpower. Cece fights off her feelings of loneliness and difference by imagining herself as El Deafo.

El Deafo, which came as a gift from you, resonated for me because of the history of deafness in my family: as we've written about before, both of my father's parents were born deaf, and communicated largely through lip-reading rather than sign language. Cece struggles with self-identifying as deaf, and rejects learning ASL when her mother encourages it. She depicts herself as both lonely and independent, always very much herself. In one of my favorite details, she wears a red two-piece bathing suit and nothing else for pretty much the entire year she's four.

I think El Deafo resonated for the girls, especially Eleanor, because of Bell's depiction of elementary school friendships and their vagaries. There's a lot to talk about here (as there is in Smile) in terms of making friends, and standing up to your friends when they treat you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, by focusing on your differences. Eleanor's research into the life of Helen Keller (which led us to another terrific graphic novel) also whetted her interest in the subject of deafness.

Isabel loves to read graphic novels on her own, but I think she had trouble making sense of this one without adult help. She picked it up and put it down, fully getting into it only when we sat down to read it aloud together. Recently, it has come into the rotation of books she reads in bed on weekend nights -- the highest accolade.

Have a wonderful holiday, and give my love to your amazing family, all home together for Christmas!

Love, Annie

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas and Hanukkah and seasonal spirit

Dear Annie,

I love the passing of the code-breaking to a new generation.  This is giving me tons of ideas for Christmas presents for your household.

The store is in full holiday mode: shelves that were well-stocked in the morning have gaping holes by afternoon.  I'm seeing customers I see only once a year -- and never have quite enough time to talk.

I thought I'd give a tip of the Santa hat to Christmas books we've loved and blogged about in the past:

and some Hanukkah ones too (tonight's the first night):

I have two stories from the bookselling frontlines this year, good illustrations of the extremes of the season.  I'll start with the Grinch-y one.

A grandmother asked me about books for an 8 year-old good reader who "doesn't like anything sad."  (Nothing sad, or nothing scary, are frequent requests.)  I offered Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, which we have all loved.  It's the story of a girl who runs away from home to find the Man in the Moon and to ask him to change the fate of her parents, who are poor farmers.  It's a magically wonderful book.  No, said the woman, too sad.  Actually, I said, it's pretty uplifting.  No, she said, it's about poor people: "too sad."  So much for the spirit of the season.

But for every customer like that, I talk with dozens and dozens of kids and adults who are just happy to be in the midst of books.  My other story is about literature always being in people's lives.  A dad asked me to special order one of the Who Was books I was out of: Who Was Bruce Lee? (the range of subjects of those books keeps getting wider and wider).  He left his name and number: his first name was Dickon.  Ah, I said, a great name from children's literature.  Dickon is the Yorkshire boy in The Secret Garden who's deeply in sync with nature.  "Yes," he said, "My mother was reading The Secret Garden to my sister when I was born."  That alone was wonderful, but I wondered if he might be a bit tired of the book, having been so closely tied to it.  "Oh no," he said, "I love it.  I'm looking forward to being able to read it to my daughter."

So here's hoping readers everywhere have books they're looking forward to giving to and reading with the kids in their lives.



Saturday, December 6, 2014

Codes and ciphers for your 8-12 year old

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Yes, tell me more about about your experiences with book fairs! I'd love to see the list you've developed. With Eleanor in 2nd grade, Isabel in kindergarten, and Will just under 2, I'm going to have plenty of opportunities to be involved with elementary school book fairs for the next -- gulp -- ten years. Tomorrow we volunteer at Isabel's Barnes & Noble fair, for which I've been compiling the teachers' wish lists. I'm loving the glimpses into different classrooms that this affords, and have already started thinking about how to do it more smoothly next year.

As the holiday season rolls around, I wanted to recommend a book I bought for Eleanor last Christmas, which has turned out to have tremendous staying power:

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, by Paul B. Janeczko.

It's a fabulous introduction to codemaking, written in clear, accessible prose. Here's the beginning of Chapter 1:

Before we talk about making and breaking codes, we need to realize that most of the time when people talk about making codes and breaking codes, they are not talking about codes at all. They're really talking about ciphers. What's the difference? A code is a system where every word or phrase in your message is replaced by another word, phrase, or series of symbols. On the other hand, a cipher is a system where every letter of your message is replaced by another letter or symbol.

For now, let's stick with codes. For example, you and your partner can make up code words for places in your neighborhood. Your code word for "post office" might be GREEN. Your code word for "playground" might be AWARD.

A code can also be a number. We might say that the code for "post office" is 71715. And the code for "playground" is 71716. Again, the words or numbers don't matter, as long as you and your partner know what they mean.

Janeczko packs the book with examples of codes and ciphers from history, and brief stories about the people who have used them: Thomas Jefferson, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, The Shadow. He explains the way particular systems have worked, and offers practice codes to encipher and break. The text is broken up with drawings and challenges -- it's easy to dip into and out of. Chapter 2 is all about code breaking, and includes handy frequency lists:

As you know, Jeff is a puzzle-maker and puzzle-solver from way back, so bringing this book into our house was a no-brainer. He and Eleanor solve Ken-Ken puzzles together on the weekend, and I thought this might lead to further father-daughter play. It has.

Eleanor was a little young for Top Secret when I gave it to her last year -- the age range on the back of the book says "9 and up," and that feels pretty accurate to me. She didn't sit right down to read it cover to cover. But when Jeff's birthday came around last August, she pulled out the book and took it to bed with her every night for a week, creating five different enciphered messages for him to crack to reveal the locations of his presents. Last week, Jeff presented Eleanor with an enciphered message, and she used techniques in the book to decipher it. I have a feeling it's going to be in use for a long, long time.

If you don't have a code-breaker parent in the house, you might give a copy to your kid's best friend, and get them started encoding and enciphering messages to each other. Or is this asking for trouble?

I hope your holiday season is getting off to a rousing start. I'd love to hear what you're recommending at the store right now.

Love, Annie