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, March 28, 2014

Guest blogger: Matthew Swanson gets excited by stuff in Crabtree

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your family takes awesome vacations. Best of luck to Bob and Lizzie on their Rosemary Sutcliff-inspired trip!

For a while now, I've wanted to have Matthew Swanson write a guest blog. I went to college with Matthew and his wife Robbi Behr, the dynamic duo behind the kids' book and music subscription Bobbledy Books and a host of other projects. We've mentioned their Build Your Own President book, and our guest blogger Faith raved about My Henderson Robot, a favorite in my house as well.

Here's Matthew, with one of his recent favorites:

Oh my gosh, I love this book.

It’s called Crabtree. It’s by Jon and Tucker Nichols. 

I love it for various reasons.

1) It’s really big. And it has smooth, thick paper. It’s really nice to hold in your hands.

2) It’s about a guy named Crabtree. He’s really funny. He’s downright hapless, which means he’s pretty confused all the time and can’t find what he’s looking for and needs lots of help. Which kind of reminds me of me. The specific thing Crabtree needs help with is finding his false teeth. He decides that the best way to go about finding his missing teeth is to go through every single thing he owns.

Here's Crabtree. Isn't he lovable?

3) Because Crabtree is going through every single thing he owns, every page of the book is full of stuff. All of Crabtree’s stuff. And Crabtree has lots and lots of wonderful stuff. He has hats and helmets, for example.

He has real ducks and his fake ducks (otherwise known as decoys).

Here are his ants (most of them, anyways).

And all the things he owns that are yellow.

This book is not big on plot, but it's huge on amazing drawings of stuff, stuff weird and unexpected, stuff mundane and sublime. I love the wonky style, the not-quite-perfectly-colored in shapes, and the hilarious captions for each of the drawings.

Seriously, anyone who likes to laugh will like this book, as will anyone who likes to look at other people's stuff. Which means that anyone I've ever met will like this book.

4) (Perhaps you forgot that we were following a numbering scheme, but here we go again.) This book boasts advanced production techniques, including a double gate fold, which allows for so many drawings of stuff that my head nearly explodes with happiness.

5) Just as my head was literally about to pop off of my neck and fly up to the moon in utter delight, I discovered that the dust jacket is actually a poster!

And not just a poster, but a TWO-SIDED poster!

I've read enough about book reviews to know that I'm not supposed to give away the exciting conclusion. But this I will tell you: Crabtree does find his teeth. However, I will not tell you how.

I wish I had written this book, darn it. But since I did not, I'm really glad that Jon and Tucker Nichols did.
The verdict: Two thumbs up. This book is the greatest. I love the art. I love the drawings. I love the humor. And, as already stated, I love the printing techniques and paper. 

This is a book that kids will love looking at (I've never met a kid who doesn't love identifying "stuff" on a page; have you?) and adults will not mind looking at over and over and over again (which is the true measure of success for a children's book in my dad-centric opinion).

Get a copy. Get it now. 

A father of three, Matthew Swanson is the author/publisher behind Bobbledy Books, a picture books and music club for kids he runs with his wife, the illustrator Robbi Behr. His book Babies Ruin Everything will be published by LB Kids in 2016.

Clearly, I need to take Matthew's advice.

Love, Annie

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On the road with Rosemary Sutcliff

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad The Moorchild was a favorite.  Moql is a great character.  You talk about looking forward to reading the book again with Isabel.  Do you and Eleanor ever re-read your read-alouds?  I remember reading Tolkien over and over again with Lizzie, revisiting the Ramona books with Mona, and occasional other favorites.

I'm currently re-reading a multi-generational favorite because it's come back to play a big role in our family.  Bob wrote about his love of Rosemary Sutcliff's books for us here.  When we started reading them to Lizzie, she also connected closely with them.  The one which became very special to her -- as it is to her father -- is the one with the strongest female character: The Shield Ring.  It takes place in the Lake District in northwestern England in the years after the Norman conquest of 1066.  It tells the story of fierce resistance to Norman rule on the part of Norsemen (descendants of Vikings) who had settled in the area. The two central characters are young people orphaned by the hostilities.  Frytha, the girl, is smart, perceptive, but very much a part of the society she lives in.  She learns archery when the women are called on to help defend the settlement, but her strength and attraction are in Sutcliffe's nuanced portrait of a great character. 

Lizzie was Frytha for Book Character Day back in third grade, and she continues to re-read the book now.  Her high school senior paper, in which she had to compare two books, was on The Shield Ring and To Kill a Mockingbird: the connection between the two had to do with the nature of courage.

Next month, Bob and Lizzie are immersing themselves in The Shield Ring in a new and wonderful way.  They're heading to the Lake District to spend a week finding the places where the action of the book takes place.  Sutcliff describes in detail the landscapes where battles happened, warriors were buried, characters found emotional escape.  Many of these are places Bob has located -- along with the trails or precarious winding roads that will get them there.  One of the towns they'll visit is called Buttermere, possibly derived from the name of a Norse leader, Jarl Buthar, who is a character in the book.  The land the Norsemen were defending is beautiful, and the characters have strong connection to it.  Here's Sutcliff's description of a spot high on a ridge, a few miles from Buttermere, that appears twice at important parts of the story:
Frytha lay silent a while, gazing down.  Up here on the ridge one seemed in some strange way to be riding out, far out, over the dale below; it was like being in the prow of a gigantic long-ship, she thought, though she had never seen a ship.  On either side of her the deep glens, and between them the slender long-ship thrust of the ridge, tapering down into the marshes where the Normans were hurriedly throwing up bank and stockade about their camp.  Marshes that glowed tawny green below the grey and blue, russet and purple of the fells.  Save for the distant swarm of figures about the Norman camp, there seemed not a living soul in all the sweep of country; nothing to tell of the fighting that had gone on all the sweating, blistering day.
That spot on the ridge appears on 21st century maps as Aikin Knott; one can imagine Frytha looking out over the countryside:

View toward Aikin Knott
Both Bob and Lizzie have loved The Shield Ring since childhood.  Now, with Lizzie an adult and the two of them armed with maps, rain gear, and a drive-on-the-left rental car, they're going to immerse themselves in Britain of a thousand years ago.  And it all started with a wonderfully written children's book.



Saturday, March 15, 2014

A captivating changeling

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thanks to you once again, Eleanor and I have been engrossed in some gripping reading in the last week. Your latest birthday box included the wonderful novel The Moorchild, by Eloise McGraw. I'd never heard of it, let alone read it, but both Eleanor and I were instantly captivated.

The Moorchild is the story of a changeling. Moql is half human, half Folk (that would be fairy folk, flitting wild on the Scottish moor). She lives at first with the Folk in the Mound, learning to play tricks on people and dancing her way around, but when it becomes clear that her human side has left her without the magic she needs to survive as Folk, she is cast out. The Folk Prince steals a human baby to work as a servant and leaves Moql in her place, red-faced and inconsolable. (While reading these scenes, I had vivid flashbacks to Eleanor screaming with colic in her first few months of life -- Jeff and I used to wonder whether she was possessed. I wouldn't be surprised if colic was the origin of many changeling stories.)

Moql is raised as Saaski, daughter of the village blacksmith Yanno and his wife Anwara. Of course, she doesn't fit in in the human village of Torskaal either: she looks like no one else, fears iron and salt, has to stop herself from running up walls and trees, and is happiest out on the moor, where the other villagers fear to go. Old Bess, Anwara's mother, suspects early on that Saaski is not truly her grandchild. She's a tough woman, a healer and a loner, and after some violent reactions against Saaski becomes a sort of mentor to her. Saaski also finds companionship with Tam, an orphaned shepherd's boy, also an outsider, who roams the moor with his goats.

On the one hand, Saaski's experience is a metaphor for difference. McGraw dedicates the book "To all children who have ever felt different," and the ways in which Saaski is feared and consequently bullied by the children of the village (and ultimately the adults as well) feel true to the experience of any child who knows herself to be different from those around her. On the other hand, she is truly the thing the villagers and Old Bess fear her to be. Saaski isn't fully human. She doesn't understand hate or love the way the people around her do, and she has powers that they do not. Reading with Eleanor, I kept toggling back and forth, feeling protective of Saaski when she was accused of being other, and then remembering, Oh right, she really is.

Old Bess and Tam are her human counterpoints. Old Bess, it turns out, has a history much like Saaski's: she was abandoned as an infant, raised by gypsies, then placed by them in Torskaal because the gypsies felt it was where she belonged. She, too, feels she's never quite belonged. I loved the complexity of the people who care for Saaski most. For much of the book, Eleanor and I had to talk through Old Bess's motivations: is she on Saaski's side? Is she against her? Her ultimate empathy is deep and affecting. Saaski's parents, too, are wonderful characters. Neither Yanno nor Anwara understands the child, but both are fiercely protective of her, even when troubled by her differences.

The language is gorgeous, filled with Scottish-inflected dialogue and vivid details of landscape, so much good vocabulary to roll around in your mouth as you read aloud. Here is a description of Saaski going out on the moor soon after she discovers Yanno's father's bagpipes and is given permission to play them:

Her life had already begun to be two lives -- the humdrum one in the village, made irksome by the bedevilment of the other children, though brightened by Old Bess and the books -- and the other, truant life, high among the mists and bogs and wild, stony reaches of the moor. She was never sure which part of the moor she liked best -- the steep broom-gilded, heather-shadowed slopes always solid underfoot, or the sometimes steeper bogs, spiced with danger. After a dry spell a bog was merely a mat of thready, springy moss that you could bound across as if your feet had sprouted little wings. In wet weather -- which was scarier but exciting -- you had to pick your way across a bog, wary of the tall tussocks of sedge and cotton grass that marked the wettest spots, where a misstep could set you sinking and struggling into the sucking depths. But the glimmering little tracks she often saw there always traced a safe pathway -- though she was careful never to put a foot directly on that glimmer.

We finished the book tonight, and I'm already looking forward to the day when Isabel will allow me to read it to her, and we can pick it up again.

Love, Annie

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Snippets of bookishness

Dear Annie,

As a third child, I'm always happy to hear about the new books your third is discovering.  Somehow, I never doubted that he'd get quality reading time.  Although semiotics could be pushing it...

A few snippets of bookishness today:

It's Book Fair time here: I spent the morning working on set-up with the volunteers who make the book fair happen every year at Lizzie's and Mona's old school.  More than 800 titles (2000+ books) are laid out on long tables with colorful signs in the school's black box theater.  For the next two days, kids will come classroom by classroom to browse and write wish lists to take home to their parents.  Then they'll return with checks and gather armloads of new books.  The lovely woman who's been running it says the moment the kids are set loose to look is her reward for all the hard work.

And one more mention of our delightful visit from Jon Muth,  Zen storyteller and panda artist.  The Washington Post did a piece on him for its kids' news page.  I used this space two years ago to attack a very unfortunately written book review on that page.  So here's another side of KidsPost.  Muth's new book, Hi, Koo! is a collection of 26 haikus about the seasons.  Reporter Christina Barron chose to focus on his unorthodox (to English-speakers) definition of haiku, which doesn't follow the 5-7-5 structure.  Better than your average story.

Speaking of the Washington Post, I highly recommend  this beautiful short blog entry by Ron Charles, deputy book editor, "Why World Read Aloud Day is my favorite holiday." It has thoughts to make us all appreciate both the power of the written word, and how amazing some parents can be.  Make sure you get to the fourth paragraph which starts, "When my wife and I had our first daughter, we weren’t sure we’d ever be allowed to share that joy [reading aloud] with her...."



Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Making joyful noise with babies

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In the swirl of finding the right books for Eleanor to read independently and for Isabel to stay happily engaged, I sometimes worry that Will gets short shrift. He's certainly surrounded by books: the bottom two shelves of the main bookcase in the living room are stocked with board books he can reach; the coffee table is always piled with books the girls are reading, which he opens at will; and his crib is next to an adult bookshelf -- this past week, I found him playing with  Roland Barthes' Elements of Semiology.

Back when Eleanor was a baby, Jeff and I read to her every night, picking a few board books we loved, always ending with Goodnight Moon. Our routine with Will is far less stable: I read to him when we're alone during the day, and sometimes in the afternoon with the girls, but bedtime reading is overtaken by Eleanor and Isabel, and it feels like time is always short. Here on the blog, I fall into the same pattern, writing much more often about books at the 7 and 4 year-old level, and not so much the newly-1-year-old.

But 1 is an awesome age to read to a kid! While Will is still a big fan of books with photographs of baby faces, he's now really getting into books full of sounds.

The prime book in this category is, of course, Sandra Boynton's Doggies: A Counting and Barking Book, which I wrote about when Isabel was a baby, and for which I have a deep and abiding love. So simple. So captivating. So endlessly entertaining.

Two other favorites from Eleanor's babyhood are coming back into heavy rotation now:

Cows in the Kitchen
, by June Crebbin, is a rollicking version of "Skip to My Lou," repopulated with barnyard animals intent on taking over the farmhouse and wreaking havoc:

Cows in the kitchen, moo, moo, moo,
Cows in the kitchen, moo, moo, moo,
Cows in the kitchen, moo, moo, moo,
That's what we do, Tom Farmer!

The farmer in question is sleeping in a haystack, and comes running to shoo everyone out, but is so exhausted by the end that the animals sneak back in and jump on him quite joyfully. It's kind of like having a house full of kids, come to think of it....

Jamberry, by Bruce Degen, is a joyful set of berry-based rhymes, truly fun to read aloud. The illustrations depict a boy and a large friendly bear moving through a landscape filled with berries and other animals. The text riffs off of one berry name at a time: blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries. The blackberry rhyme may be my favorite:

Pick me a blackberry!


And then there's a new favorite which came as a gift from you: The Noisy Book, by Soledad Bravi. No narrative here, just more than 100 pages of things that make sounds:

The firecracker goes boom
The cars go brrmm brrmm
The drink goes glug glug
The monkey goes oo oo oo

And then there are a few cute ones:

This afternoon, Will let me read him the entire book. Noises are awesome.

Love, Annie

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Day of the Pandas

Dear Annie,

Your family's discovery of graphic novels has made me start recommending them to a much wider variety of kids -- in age and interest -- than I have before.  I love it.   Rapunzel's Revenge, for instance, I've thought of as mostly a 4th-to-7th grade book.  But it clearly works for much younger, even the pre-reader.

I've been listening to a YA version of Rapunzel, part of a futuristic fairy tale series.  It's called Cress, and the imprisonment is in a satellite high above earth.  Rapunzel everywhere...

Enough of that: we have an excellent day with pandas to discuss.  Jon Muth, author of the Zen books, came to town with his family on Tuesday.  It was snowing when we went to the zoo -- Jon's wife Bonnie took pictures of him in front of snow-covered bamboo -- which meant that even after the zoo opened we were almost the only ones in the Panda House.  Bao Bao, the 6 month-old baby panda, slept in a non-visible corner the whole time we were there, alas, although we watched her some on the pandacam (it's only on in daytime: can become addictive).   But both of her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, were there and awake, only a few feet on the other side of the glass observation panel.  They were energetically chomping on bamboo and walking around.  Muth said he's seen pandas at zoos all over the world, but this was the closest he'd ever been to them.

So what does an artist do when faced with close-up live models?

He pulls out a sketch book, something that looks like a Coke bottle filled with black ink, and a brush.
It was quite wonderful to watch.

His six year-old twins were there, incredibly articulate and involved:
Not a great photo, but a very nice moment.

I learned later in the day, when Muth spoke to an assembly of early elementary school kids, that his children have been the models for all of his kids' books.
The two taller kids here in Zen Ghosts are his now college-age children.  Costumes, he told the school assembly, are central to play in the Muth household.

And six year-old Molly and Leo are the main humans in the new Hi, Koo!
sparkle in Puddles
shadows climbing trees

Their mom told me that they came along on this first day of Jon's book tour, including to the school and his reading at our store, because she wanted them to understand the parts of their dad's job that don't take place in his studio at home.  They were pretty tuckered out by the time we got to his event at the store, although as you know, reserves of energy can emerge when faced with all those toys.

The reading was great, the kids who came were fascinated, and Muth did paintings both with and for them:

A good day all around.