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, April 30, 2010

Princesses, take 2

Ah, Helga -- Lizzie and Mona were very fond of her. Your mother probably gave it to us. It's out of print, alas, but at libraries and Alibris, which we haven't discussed much but which is a great source for the books you remember from childhood.

I know that the princess fascination isn't new, but it does seem to have gotten more intense lately -- thanks in no small part to the Disney marketing machine. I offer here a wonderful column written by Marjorie Williams on the occasion of the death of Diana in 1997. "It is the rare little girl who wants to grow up to be queen," she writes. "To wish to be a princess is not simply to aspire upward, to royalty; it is also to aspire to perpetual daughter-hood, to permanent shelter."

A few additions to the princess book list. Cornelia Funke has two lovely strong-girl picture books. The Princess Knight is about a princess who trains with her brothers to be a knight, only to end up with her father inviting male knights to a tournament to compete for her hand. She is outraged: "You want me to marry some dimwit in a tin suit?" She sneaks into the tournament as an anonymous entrant, and gets what she wants. It's good, although feels like it's trying a bit too hard.

Another Funke which I like better is Pirate Girl, about a girl who is captured by pirates and keeps warning them that they'll be in trouble when her mother comes to get her. They all think this is ridiculous, until mom shows up as the captain of her own pirate ship, striking terror into the hearts of the bad guys. The illustrations are what make this so good: the pirate queen is a hefty Teutonic-looking redhead, clearly tickled to have her little girl back.

Both those Funke books, plus a very different but lovely one about a little brother, have been packaged together in one book, A Princess, a Pirate, and One Wild Brother, three hardcover books for the price of one.

Then there are the chapter books... Another time.

Aunt D.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Expanding the notion of Princess

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'll admit, we've deep-sixed a few books in this house. I've felt a little guilty each time; it's nice to know that Grandma Helen did it too. Sometimes it's because they're boring or badly written, but sometimes it's the content that makes me squirm. This is particularly true now that we've entered the beginning of a heavy princess phase in our house. (With two daughters, I expect that we're in for a good seven years of tiaras and Disney and happily ever after.)

I've been on a hunt for books that expand the notion of princess, that aren't just "She's really nice and pretty and then she marries the prince and they live happily ever after." Here are a few of my favorites that break or at least enrich or complicate the mold, some from my own childhood, some from you:

Helga's Dowry: A Troll Love Story, by Tomie dePaola
First off, everyone in this book is a troll, so they're small and dumpy and fun to look at. Helga is supposed to marry the handsome troll Lars, but he turns out to be a jerk and wants a dowry, so she uses ingenuity and troll magic to earn her own dowry, and along the way accidentally impresses the troll king, who falls in love with her. Helga is spunky and smart, and the book is a lot of fun. (I'm also a fan of dePaola's Strega Nona series.)

, by Jay Williams
Petronella is born into a royal family that, before her, has only had sons. She was supposed to be the next Peter, find a princess to marry, and come back to rule the kingdom. Though she's a girl, she goes out adventuring anyway, looking for a prince to bring home. She finds one at the house of a great enchanter, completes impossible tasks, fights the enchanter, and ultimately realizes (once she's defeated him) that the enchanter himself is a lot more interesting than the prince, who is kind of a dip. (In a lot of ways, it's similar to Helga's Dowry.) The edition I grew up with had amazing loopy Monty Python-like illustrations by Friso Henstra. It's out of print now, but I found it for too much money here on Alibris (I hope this is the right one. The cover picture is wrong, though).. I can't vouch for the illustrations of the new version, but the story is good.

The Paper Bag Princess
, by Robert Munsch
This seems to be the one most people know. Eleanor was not as into it as some of the others, probably because Princess Elizabeth is wearing a paper bag instead of something beautiful, but it's a fun twist on the normal ending, as she runs off happily by herself after outsmarting the dragon and rescuing the dippy ungrateful prince. The thing I like most about Munsch's books is that they have the kind of random kid logic that's accurate to little kids. As in: everything in the castle is burned by the dragon except for a paper bag.

The King's Equal
, by Katherine Paterson
This is a slightly longer book, more serious in tone and in illustration style, but quite beautiful. Thanks for sending us this one. The only other thing I'd read by Paterson is Bridge to Terabithia, one of my old YA favorites which I can hardly even think about without choking up. The King's Equal isn't weepy at all, but is another story of the girl (Rosamund, poor, kind, and smart) proving herself to be as wise, beautiful, and rich as the selfish and unpleasant Prince Raphael. The nice thing about this one is that Raphael has to go off by himself for a year, along with a few goats and a magical talking wolf, to prove himself worthy of Rosamund. Eleanor really likes it. The only downside to Vladimir Vagin's intricate illustrations is that the page with the picture of three gorgeously dressed princesses has no text on it, and she's always trying to turn the page while I'm still reading so she can see the picture.

The Princess and the Pizza
, by Mary Jane and Herm Auch
This is Eleanor's favorite of your princess book recommendations, hands down. It's silly, with some nice wordplay and alliteration, and has references she can pick up. She knew the story of Snow White already, so when Auch refers to the princess with the seven little men following her, Eleanor was excited to be able to identify her. On the other hand, we hadn't yet read Rapunzel, and when we explained the Rapunzel story so Eleanor could get that reference too, suddenly all she wanted to do was play Rapunzel, which is not so feminist a story. Ah, well. Like Paper Bag Princess, in this one Princess Paulina ends up happily not married to the prince, and founder of her own successful business.

Any I'm missing here?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On not reading books you hate

I love the Santore-illustrated Wizard of Oz so much. It's one of my first choices for a gift to a 4 to 6 year-old (Eleanor's a little unusual being so into it at 3). A word of caution to anyone thinking about buying it: there are currently two editions of this gorgeous book, one larger and better printed than the other. I strongly recommend the Random House edition, which is more expensive than the smaller Sterling Press edition. The color especially is much more vivid.

Your last post brings up a theme that I care deeply about: parental feelings about the books they're reading to their children. As you already know well, children develop different opinions from their parents very early in life. So when Eleanor wants you to read Dora Loves Boots (or the equivalent) five times a day, remember the advice my mother (your grandmother) gave your mother when you were young. If you can't stand a book, throw it out before it makes your reading time miserable. As you remember, Grandma Helen loved books, and certainly did not seem to be a book destroyer. But she understood one of the great truths of reading with your child: it's an intense bonding experience. Parent and child feel closer, and it's how children develop a love of reading. If a parent is hating the book s/he is reading aloud, the kid will catch on, and often end up less enthusiastic about reading time. I'm not talking about the so-so books; I'm talking about the ones you really really dread facing one more time. I have a suspicion that The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, which I loved as a child but never managed to get through when my kids were little, was the inspiration for Grandma's advice: she really hated it. You will note that she didn't act on her own advice ( at least not on the Peppers), but I think the jarring concept of throwing out a book underscores how important it is for both parent and child to be comfortable when reading together.

Aunt D.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Getting started, Wizard of Oz

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You started giving me fabulous picture books when I was a little kid, and have been an extraordinary book recommender all my life. Now that I'm a mom (of Eleanor, age 3, and Isabel, 7 months), your recommendations and gifts have become a vital part of our home library. After the umpteenth conversation with parent friends of mine about what we're reading with Eleanor these days, and the thousandth time I've recommended a book you sent us, I think it's time we take our conversation public.

For now, every time we mention a book, we'll link to it via the website Indie Bound, which will let readers buy the books at a local independent bookstore. Perhaps in the future we can link to your awesome store, Child's Play -- Eleanor still remembers our visit there last summer, seeing all the books we have at home and greeting them like old friends: "There's Frances! There's Nora! There's Max and Ruby!"

It's funny that you've started by posting about Piggie Pie, because it's not one of my favorites. I find the drawings a little disturbing -- they're so close-up, in your face, like the camera has gone crazy, and I think the witch is creepy. My parents have a copy of it, and we haven't read it in a while, so I'll go back and revisit it with Eleanor the next time we're over there. I honestly don't remember her reaction to it, just mine. But I find myself pulling away from reading her books I don't like. Sometimes at the library she picks something dreadful, and then of course that's the book she wants me to read her three times a day for the next three weeks.

We are still obsessed at our house with one of your best ever recommendations: the abridged L. Frank Baum Wizard of Oz illustrated by Charles Santore.

Wizard of Oz (Santore illustrations)

It has the most extraordinary watercolor paintings -- bright, vivid, imaginative. They feel informed by the movie, but not of it. Eleanor spends half an hour at a time sitting on the floor turning the pages and just looking at all the pictures, and she wants us to read her pieces of the book (it takes several sittings to finish) all the time. We play "Wizard of Oz" a lot these days: she's Dorothy, of course, and I'm the Tin Woodsman; Isabel is Toto, the fate I suppose of younger siblings everywhere. The only downside of the gorgeous big pages of this book is that she's ripped the bottoms of a few by turning them on her own so much. I've already bought five copies of it to give to friends with kids the same age or slightly older -- it's just so beautiful. Thanks again for that one.

Love, Annie

Books in which the reader is smarter than the characters

I somehow haven't managed to put together an introducing-myself entry, so I thought I'd just jump right in. Suffice it to say I'm Annie's aunt, the mother of two college students who have always loved books, a former journalist, and have been selling children's books in a toy store for the past 11 years.

I've been thinking about pre-school picture books which give the reader the opportunity to be smarter than the characters. My absolute favorite in this category is Piggie Pie, by Margie Palatini. I don't know if you and Eleanor have hit this one, yet, Annie -- it's even got Wizard of Oz references. Witch in search of pigs for piggie pie comes to a farm to catch some. Pigs all get into costumes of other animals -- cows, ducks etc -- and deny the presence of pigs. We can see the piggie-tails sticking out of their disguises, but the witch never gets it. Really delightful.

Others with good hidden visuals: Where's the Dragon? by Jason Hook is more of an I-Spy sort of book. A boy and his grandfather set out in search of dragons. It turns out they're camouflaged on every page -- the pictures are raised slightly so that you can feel them as well as see them -- but Grandpa never catches on. At the end, the book tells you how many are hidden.

Man on the Moon (A Day in the Life of Bob) by Simon Bartram is about a guy who commutes to the moon in order to tell the tourists that there's no such thing as aliens. While he's telling them, of course, little green people are popping up all over the background.

And in a different, un-wacky vein, there's Jan Brett's Beauty and the Beast. The servants have all been enchanted into animals, but in every picture where an enchanted person appears, there's a tapestry on the wall depicting the people in their unenchanted state. The text never mentions it -- just requires a sharp-eyed child to spot them.

As this blog goes on, I'm sure we'll get around to introducing ourselves a bit more, and waxing a little more philosophical from time to time. But here's a start. Over to you, Annie.