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.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The great silliness of Sandra Boynton

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I don't think you're taking the window/mirror thing too far -- and I love your assessments of Lizzie and Mona's reading habits. I'm looking forward to seeing what Eleanor and Isabel gravitate towards as they get older.

This morning, everyone woke up too early and we ran out of milk and there was some general grumpiness (mostly from me), and then Eleanor completely lifted the mood by putting on a CD she's been listening to a lot these days: Sandra Boynton's Philadelphia Chickens (a collaboration with composer Michael Ford).

Philadelphia Chickens

It comes with an accompanying book, with fabulous Boynton drawings and the lyrics and music to all the songs, and I've had it stuck in my head all day. Patti LuPone singing "I Like to Fuss"; Laura Linney singing "Please Can I Keep It," about a big animal that follows a kid home; Kevin Kline singing a patter song about being really busy -- it goes on and on in great goofy, catchy style, with an all-star cast. (If you're a fan of The Belly Button Book or Snuggle Puppy, this album gives you handy tunes for the songs in each. And "Snuggle Puppy" is sung by Eric Stoltz. Sigh.)

Boynton is so unabashedly silly, and so prolific, that I figure most parents have at least some of her books, but I thought I'd mention a couple of our favorites, both of which involve counting:

Doggies: A Counting and Barking Book

Doggies is one of the first books we read to Eleanor regularly. On each page, a new dog is counted, and barks an appropriate number of times (1=Woof! 2=Yap yap! 3=nnn...nnn...nnn, etc.). On the page for number 9, all the dogs howl -- this used to send Eleanor into paroxysms of laughter. We're now all reading it together to Isabel, who seems intrigued.

Hippos Go Berserk!

Boynton's hippos have this manic look in their eyes when they're running to a party -- a party that grows and grows as the book goes on, first adding hippos, then subtracting them, and in the middle having a giant dance party (we always make the book dance at this point, and sing a little tune). This one also begins to get at the concept of addition: we recently had a conversation with Eleanor about how many hippos there are at the party, sparked by the last line of the book ("One hippo, alone once more/Misses the other forty-four.").

There are so many other great Boynton books. And, I'm sure, other great counting/numbers books. What would you recommend on either front?

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mirrors & windows 2

Dear Annie,

I think I may have oversimplified Mitali Perkins’ mirror/window analysis in my last post. You talked about a book being able to be both: a reflection of the reader with which s/he can identify, and a way to see new places and have new experiences. Which of course Perkins was intending with the concept too. I really want to read her Bamboo People. Here’s her May 27 post on that BEA breakfast. I love her description of how Cory Doctorow entertained himself while others were speaking.

I’m so glad Eleanor took to Babies Can't Eat Kimchee. It acknowledges the ways in which a newborn can be disappointing (can’t play yet, cries inexplicably, etc) while still celebrating the relationship between siblings – and reminding the older one of her many accomplishments. The window element of the book -- introducing three year-old Eleanor to little bits of Korean culture – is such a great thing to be able to do within the context of everyday reading.

You ask about Lizzie and Mona and the window/mirror stuff. At some point in their chapter book lives, they each gravitated to different kinds of books. Their reading wasn’t exclusively one kind. But Lizzie definitely got very involved in adventure and fantasy books. Treasure Island, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and The Hobbit were books that she revisited frequently. I think she loved worlds which were very different, yet at the same time she could imagine herself an adventurer in those worlds. Window?

Mona, a year and a half younger, grounded herself in what we referred to as “domestic fiction,” Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books being the best example. Real life for kids. As you know, they’re among my favorites for taking the trials and tribulations of growing up so seriously, while presenting them with such a gentle sense of humor. Mona has always been interested in the interpersonal dynamics around her, and many of the books she chose gave her more reflections of her world. It’s funny, the last books we read aloud with Mona, when she was a high school freshman, were The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. She was already a strong feminist, and I think the biggest attraction of those books was Mma Ramotswe’s perception of human relations, and Mma's own strong sense of self. So does that make it a mirror? Am I pushing this concept too far?


Friday, May 28, 2010

Book as window, book as mirror

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Sounds like a fabulous convention. From checking out your links, I'm particularly interested in reading some of Cory Doctorow's work. For the Win sounds in some ways like an updated version of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game: applying kids' video game skill to real-world situations. I first heard about "gold farming" (sweatshop workers playing video games endlessly to get characters to higher levels, which are then sold to first-world players for real money) a couple of years ago, and find the concept both horrifying and fascinating. I'm intrigued.

I was struck by Mitali Perkins's formulation of books as "window books" or "mirror books," and started thinking this morning about which kids' books I've been reading lately would fall into each category. Then, of course, my English teacher brain kicked in, and I thought, So many of the best books, kids' lit or otherwise, are those which are both mirrors and windows. There's something in a book which allows you to identify with it deeply, and yet the book also has something to teach you outside of your own experience.

One of the first books I thought of which functions as both mirror and window for Eleanor is another of your gifts:

Babies Can't Eat Kimchee

Babies Can't Eat Kimchee, by Nancy Patz, with great energetic collage illustrations by Susan L. Roth, is perhaps my favorite How to Deal With a New Sibling book. The mirror: An older sister is faced with a new baby sister. She lists the things babies can't do (eat kimchee, spaghetti, and strawberry ice cream; dance like a ballerina; know what an elephant is), then turns it around and projects how she will help teach her little sister some of these things ("I'll teach her to lick up the drips"). When we started reading the book, just before Isabel was born, Eleanor immediately picked up on the positive formulation: I'm going to help teach my baby to walk, etc. The window: the girls in the book are Korean, and there are references to kimchee and the special dress the baby will wear on her first birthday. Both of these have prompted questions from Eleanor. The best part of the book: at the end, the older sister gets so carried away by the idea of singing songs with her little sister that she offers, "Baby, do you want me to teach you a song?" Then there's a two-page spread of a red-faced, screaming baby ("WAAAAAH! WAAAAAH!"), followed by the rueful older girl: "Well, maybe someday." We have probably acted out those last pages 150 times this year.

I remember, in my own childhood reading, identifying incredibly closely with lots of characters, to the point where their moods would influence mine as I read. What kids' books do you think functioned most as mirrors, or windows, or both, for Lizzie and Mona?

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 27, 2010

BEA & energizing authors

Dear Annie,

I’m just back from New York where I spent a day at BEA (Book Expo America: the booksellers’ convention). The day started with a really wonderful breakfast where three children’s book authors spoke. I realized after it was over that if I’m going to be blogging, I have to dust off my old journalist’s instincts and start taking notes. I didn’t, alas, but wanted to give you a few impressions.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Little Brother, a novel about Homeland Security gone wild, and the current For the Win. He was incredibly moving. He talked about the intensity of adolescence and how it’s a great age to write for. Tries to stay very connected to his audience, is deep into the world of high technology, cares deeply about injustice, and was a pleasure to listen to. I’m not doing him justice here, but in the spirit of this blog will quote one line from the bio on his website on a completely different topic:
“On February 3, 2008, he became a father. The little girl is called Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow, and is a marvel that puts all the works of technology and artifice to shame.”

Mitali Perkins
is a Bangladeshi-born, New York-raised author I wasn’t familiar with. Her current book, Bamboo People is about a friendship between two boys on the Thai-Burmese border. Her books all tend to be about cultures in conflict. She talked about kids’ books falling into two categories: mirror books or window books. Basically, a mirror book has elements with which the reader can strongly identify (she talked about Little Women being a mirror book for her because she was in a family of sisters), and a window book introduces you to experience foreign to your own.

And Richard Peck (I can’t find a website for him, which makes sense), the third speaker, was an angry and impassioned 76 year-old guy. I know him best for A Long Way from Chicago and sequels – middle-grade stories of the Midwest during the Depression for which he won a Newbery Honor, and for the first sequel, the Newbery Medal. He’s currently flacking Three Quarters Dead which harks back to his roots as a horror writer. Three girls are killed in a car accident while the driver is on her cell phone. The fourth, surviving member of their group starts receiving text messages from the dead ones… Peck made it clear that he hates cell phones, a lot of other technology, and what he sees as anti-authoritarian, anti-intellectual culture inspired by the upheavals of the 60s. He said he quit teaching (in the NYC school system) in 1971 (the year of Doctorow’s birth) because that’s when they took teachers’ authority away. I disagreed with a lot of what he was saying – and liked some of it too – but it was a pleasure to listen to someone who cared so deeply about communicating with kids through his writing.

Walking out of the breakfast, on my way to a day of visiting publishers’ exhibits at the Javits Center, I felt renewed. Here were three wildly different authors, all of whom had very strong world views, writing very different kinds of books, and caring deeply. It’s part of what makes my job so satisfying.



Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Quirky and out of print

Dear Aunt Debbie,

While I'm always excited to find new books, some of the ones I've most enjoyed reading to Eleanor are books I remembered faintly from childhood, and then got to rediscover. I'm not talking about the well-known classics here, the Margaret Wise Browns and Maurice Sendaks. No, these are strange, quirky books that no one I know outside my family has ever heard of, which came to mind suddenly and then had to be searched for, because of course they're out of print.

After waiting several weeks, one such gem arrived on the hold shelf of my local library yesterday: Tell Me A Mitzi. Lore Segal's book, memorably illustrated by Harriet Pincus , contains three stories: "Mitzi Takes a Taxi," "Mitzi Sneezes," and "Mitzi and the President." Each is introduced by a brief conversation between a girl named Martha and her mother or father, in which Martha asks them to "Tell me a Mitzi." In each story, Mitzi and her little brother Jacob have a low-level adventure, based in reality and involving a lot of step-by-step detail:

So Mitzi got Jacob's bottle, carried it into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator and took out a carton of milk and opened it and took the top off Jacob's bottle and poured in the milk and put the top back on and closed the carton and put it back in the refrigerator and closed the door and carried the bottle into the children's room and gave it to Jacob and said, "Let's go."

Why do I find this kind of writing so pleasing? Part of it, I think, is because this is the way toddlers think; going through an action in such detail makes total sense to them. As a parent who has been asked to make up a lot of stories lately, I also recognize a narrative trick I've employed to make the story a little longer while you're figuring out what's going to happen next.

This is such a New York book, with its street scenes and taxis; such a 1970's book, with its patterned clothes, and Pincus's drawings are solid and joyful and a little strange. (The IndieBound site has no image of the cover, but the wonderful blog Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves has a few images to give you a sense.) It taps into something deep in my childhood experience (in New York, in the 1970's -- and get this: Mitzi's grandparents live one door down from Grandma and Grandpa's house), but, as you wrote about Countdown yesterday, you don't need to have had that experience to love it. At Eleanor's request, we've read it aloud four times already since yesterday afternoon.

Love, Annie

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Good Book

Dear Annie,

As the person who decides what books our stores will carry, I read a lot of kids’ novels. Sometimes I can tell right away if a book will be right or wrong for us, but there’s a vast middle-ground through which I slog regularly. There are times when I feel I’ve lost all critical faculties (hmm, maybe this is a good book, it seems okay, why am I not excited about it…). Then there’s fantasy fatigue, when I just can’t face another book about an 11/12/13 year-old with mysterious magical powers who has just discovered that s/he is crucial to the survival of civilization/life in another dimension/ancient gods and goddesses. But every now and then, just as I feel I’m sinking beneath the flood, the waters part and there stands a really good book.

So here’s the latest in that category:
, by Deborah Wiles, which came out this month.

It’s the story of an 11 year-old girl during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Her father is a career military officer stationed in suburban Washington DC. Franny tries to make sense of the escalating crisis at the same time that she’s dealing with a realignment of her group of friends (is she being pushed into the out crowd?), a shell-shocked uncle who’s getting worse, and a rebellious older sister who has discovered the civil rights movement. The list may sound a bit heavy-handed, but the characters have dimension and the execution is very well crafted. Into these plot lines, Deborah Wiles weaves collages of history: mini-bios of important figures of the time, lots of photographs, rock’n’roll lyrics, newspaper clips.

My overwhelming feeling after reading it was, yes, she got it right: she really presented the feelings and atmosphere that I lived through that fall of 1962. This was followed by, but what will 21st-century kids think of it? I got one positive review back from a fifth grader whose father reported she stayed up late reading and asked him lots of questions about the era the next morning. Another kid reader has come back for a second copy to give a friend – always a good sign.

I’ve been a big fan of Wiles’ Love, Ruby Lavender (the opening chapter, when a girl helps her animal-activist grandmother liberate some chickens from a chicken farm, is a stitch). It has two companion books, Each Little Bird That Sings and The Aurora County All-Stars. They’re not as ambitious as Countdown, but all have great characters, all in the same small southern town. I went to a luncheon with Wiles last week, and she talked about Countdown as the first in a trilogy about the Sixties. But like the earlier trilogy, the main characters will be different in each book although some of the settings will be the same. I look forward to them.



More wordless (and almost-wordless) books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oddly, we don't have a lot of wordless books in this household. (Or perhaps, it being this household, it's not odd at all.) We adore Good Night, Gorilla, which I think you gave us when Eleanor was quite small, and which is so rewarding to read and re-read and examine. It's funny; it's not technically wordless, as the zookeeper does say good night to each animal, and towards the end, the animals all say good night as well, but the words don't cover the bulk of the story. We've read it in various different ways. For a while, we had the standard things we'd say on each page ("And now the gorilla is using the blue key to open the blue cage...."), and then once Eleanor was old enough, we'd ask her questions about what was going on in each picture. I don't think she focused on reading this one alone more often than books with words. Of course, with so many of our picture books, she knows much of the text by heart anyway.

Mulling over wordless or almost-wordless books made me think of one of our favorite good night books, which is extremely quiet and simple and includes three page spreads with no text at all.

Grandfather Twilight

We received Barbara Berger's Grandfather Twilight as a gift from a colleague of mine shortly after Eleanor was born. This was lucky, because it's not a book I would have bought for myself had I run across it in a bookstore. Flipping through it for the first time, I found the illustrations cloying, rendered in soft-focus, and the story nothing gripping. But I was wrong. Eleanor loved the book immediately. In it, Grandfather Twilight takes a pearl from his trunk each night, then walks through the woods, into open ground, and out to the sea (these are the wordless pages). The pearl grows larger in his hand as he goes, and he lifts it up at the water's edge to become the full moon, then walks back home. It's a slow, gentle story, and the paintings grow on you quickly. We read it often.

A wordless book we discovered this year is by the multi-talented Paul Fleischman (author of a wide variety of children's books, including the terrific Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and Seedfolks -- is there anything he can't do?).

Sidewalk Circus

Sidewalk Circus depicts a girl waiting at a bus stop and looking at the street around her. There are signs and posters advertising the coming circus (they provide the only text), and as she looks around, the everyday activities of the people on the street are transformed into circus acts: a cook in a restaurant window flips pancakes, while her shadow is that of a juggler, etc. It's a fun one to explore with a kid, especially someone who has been to a circus.

It seems to me, thinking about it like this, that often wordless books are good for slightly older kids, so they can talk through them and discover the stories for themselves.

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Beyond Words

Dear Annie,

A delightful Dutch book arrived from a publisher this week, reminding me just how varied wordless books can be. This one, called
The Surprise
, by Sylvia van Ommen, follows a serious and industrious sheep while it takes a bath, rides a motorbike to go to the store, buys red dye, dyes its wool (while it’s still on), shears itself, etc., all the way through knitting a gift for a friend. It’s both whimsical and very clear and straightforward.

Peggy Rathmann is the queen of toddler/preschooler wordless books, with both
Good Night Gorilla
, a hilarious and simple story about a mass zoo escape (the goal is to sleep in the zoo-keeper's house), and
10 Minutes till Bedtime
about a boy getting ready for bed while a tour group of hamsters complicates the process. It’s all in the details, and there are lots of them. You can spend many minutes, if not hours, discovering all the things going on in each picture. And it has a number of references in it to Good Night Gorilla.

In Quentin Blake's
, a group of toys is thrown out, and the clown doll sets out to find a new home for all of them. He has setbacks along the way, but ultimately finds a family in need of some cheering up, and they all end up happily together. Blake -- perhaps best-known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl books -- puts lots of emotion into this one.

David Wiesner does more complex, weirder and (sometimes) darker wordless books, but for an older child, they're quite wonderful. In
, frogs float out of a swamp one evening on lily pads and have adventures in town, turning back into their land-based selves at the end of the evening. The pictures are amazing, bordering on the eerie, with details one can keep finding on re-readings. And his
puts a washed-up camera at the feet of a boy exploring the beach. He develops the film in the camera, finding fantastic pictures of magical underwater worlds, and self-portraits of other children who have found the camera. At the end, he takes a picture of himself, and sends the camera back into the waves.

I'll end at the ocean still, on another younger book.
, by Suzy Lee, shows a girl's day at the beach, with all the wonder and occasional overwhelmingness of the waves. Lovely.

So now that I've listed these, I'm wondering how you as the reader in the parent/child group, feel about wordless books. A welcome change? An extra task (now I've got to make up the story too...)? Something that can be read without you around? What do you think of them?



Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bravo for Frances

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I can't let your mention of the Frances books go by without taking a moment to wax rhapsodic about them: they are some of our absolute favorites, beloved by adults and kids alike. Russell and Lillian Hoban, the married couple who wrote and illustrated them, respectively, have a knack for depicting life for this family of badgers as both charming and realistic.

The book I remembered best from my own childhood, and the first one we bought to read to Eleanor, is A Baby Sister for Frances.

A Baby Sister for Frances

Perhaps the thing I love most about Frances is that she makes up little songs all the time, so each book is punctuated by these short rhymes that we provide tunes for while we're reading. A Baby Sister for Frances begins:

It was a quiet evening.
Father was reading his newspaper.
Mother was feeding Gloria, the new baby.
Frances was sitting under the kitchen sink.
She was singing a little song:

Plinketty, plinketty, plinketty, plink,
Here is the dishrag that's under the sink.
Here are the buckets and brushes and me,
Plinketty, plinketty, plinketty, plee.

She stopped the song and listened.
Nobody said anything.

Frances feels like her parents aren't paying enough attention to her because of Gloria. After a couple of disappointments (no raisins for the oatmeal!), she decides to run away. To under the dining-room table. Mother and Father play along, talking about how much they miss Frances as she sits listening and singing a lonely song and eating cookies, and eventually she decides to come back. (Though we got it before Isabel was in the picture, this is also a great book to give to a family expecting or just having welcomed a second child.)

A Birthday for Frances

A Birthday for Frances is also about sibling jealousy: it's Gloria's birthday, and Frances has a hard time ceding the spotlight to her sister. There's some wonderful dialogue in this one between Frances and her friend Albert about the uselessness of little sisters.

A Bargain for Frances

A Bargain for Frances is perhaps our current favorite, as it involves Frances's manipulative friend Thelma, who plays a mean trick on Frances over the purchase of a tea set. Frances thinks hard, and comes up with a really satisfying way to turn the tables on her. While the book ends happily, with friends playing together, the Hobans don't whitewash the ways kids can be mean to each other. My favorite moment in the matter-of-fact dialogue comes when Frances brings home the red plastic tea set Thelma has conned her into buying, and shows it to her sister Gloria: "'That is a very ugly tea set,' said Gloria. 'What's the matter with it?' said Frances. 'It's ugly,' said Gloria."

You mentioned Bread and Jam for Frances, which is another of our favorites, but needs a bit of a warning label if you have an impressionable child, as I do. In it, Frances only wants to eat bread and jam, and complains about all other food. Mother and Father deal with this by giving her bread and jam for every meal for a day and a half, at which point she gets tired of it and appreciates other kinds of food again (with the support of Albert, who is extremely satisfied with his own multi-part lunches). So the moral is a good one: try new food! In our house, however, what this translated to was Eleanor wanting to eat bread and jam all the time.

That leads me to the problem with Bedtime for Frances (the first Frances book, and the only one illustrated by Garth Williams). Like the others, this book has lovely moments in it: Frances has a hard time falling asleep, and one of the things she does is to make up a little alphabet song. However, she also gets out of bed multiple times, asks for and receives cake from her parents, imagines there's a tiger in her room, and is threatened with a spanking (the only time either Father or Mother comes off as punishing). We received this book recently in an awesome Easter package, and after reading it to Eleanor once (once!), she talked about there being a tiger in her room for probably two weeks. We've pulled it from the rotation.

There's one more Frances book, Best Friends for Frances. I've glanced at it in a bookstore, but never bought it, as the friend problem in it seems to involve Albert telling Frances he won't play with her anymore because she's a girl. Again, a concept I don't want to have to introduce Eleanor to just yet. Sadly, the time will come.

Love, Annie

Friday, May 21, 2010

More Chuckles & Guffaws

Dear Annie,

I love your image of Eleanor belly-laughing at The Backward Day. One of the joys of reading with kids is the surprises they can hand you.

I think it's always useful to remember that small children have -- and should be encouraged to have -- very eclectic taste. Eleanor can be captivated by a delightfully silly story like Chickens to the Rescue, then listen in fascination to The Wizard of Oz. Just like grownups, kids enjoy many different forms of writing.

A few additions to your hilarious list:

Backward Day is a New York Review of Books reprint of an out of print classic: they've been exhuming both novels and picture books from earlier eras. This month they released a delightful one: Russell and Lillian Hoban's
The Sorely Trying Day
. It's from the folks who wrote Bread and Jam for Frances and sequels, and it has that same sense of families being loving but chaotic and sometimes contentious, always with a large dose of humor. Father comes home from a Sorely Trying Day, only to discover that the children are squabbling miserably. An investigation ensues, with each wrongdoer pointing to a wrong that was previously done to them. Once that circle is closed, a new circle of apology ensues, with everyone trying to outdo the contrition of the previous apologizer. It's just really funny.

Then there's Robert Munsch, best known for The Paper Bag Princess, but he's written dozens of books. He was a pre-school teacher, and his humor is very slapstick. One of my fondest memories of picture book hilarity is of watching my spouse's loving but somewhat taciturn father reading Munsch's
Thomas' Snowsuit
to Mona when she was probably around 3 or 4. Thomas doesn't want to put on his snowsuit, and ends up in a series of confrontations (visuals: cloud of dust with hands and feet occasionally poking out) with various adults. When the dust clears, it's always the adult who's wearing Thomas' snowsuit. Mona started giggling, then laughing, then her grandfather started laughing, and he ended up stopping reading and laughing uncontrollably. The power of Munsch.

I'll toss in Katie Davis's
Who Hops
here, which appears to be a much younger book. But there's something about it that appeals to many 3 and 4 year-olds' sense of the absurd. "Who hops?/Frogs hop./Rabbits hop./Kangaroos hop./Cows hop." (picture of very startled purple cow, who on the next page thinks, "It would never work.") And it goes on from there.

A quick note on Ruth Krauss, author of The Backward Day. She also wrote the great
A Hole is to Dig
, illustrated in 1952 by the young Maurice Sendak. It's sweet and offbeat -- not hilarious, although it has its smiling moments. It's a series of definitions which aren't really, like "A hole is to dig," or "A hand is to hold." Her "a face is so you can make faces" attracted a little flack from critics, who felt Ms. Krauss was encouraging rude behavior. Ah, the Fifties.



Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tickling the toddler funnybone

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Before returning to toddler-book world, where I live most of the time these days, I want to mention one more YA fantasy series: the Avatars trilogy (So This Is How It Ends, Shadow Falling, Kingdom of Twilight), by Tui Sutherland. (Full disclosure: Tui and I have been friends since college, and she's already one of our main comment-writers on this blog. But they're still good books.) It's a post-apocalyptic trilogy, in which the only surviving people on earth appear to be several teenagers in different parts of the globe, each of whom has been invested with the powers of a god from a different pantheon. Sutherland clearly did a lot of research into the various beliefs and myths of cultures from around the world, and the resulting mash-up is a lot of fun to read.

And now, back to toddlers.

Last week, we took out of the library the latest book I Must Buy for Eleanor. Why? Because it cracked her up, and she made me read it four times that day and several more in the last week, and I loved it just as much. It got me thinking about what makes a toddler laugh -- I mean, really laugh, belly laugh, get so tickled by something that the laughter comes in spite of themselves. For Eleanor, right now, one of those ticklish points is the idea of opposites and things being backwards. Which is why this book is perfect.

The Backward Day

The Backward Day was written by Ruth Krauss. Before this, I knew her only as the author of The Carrot Seed; I'll be looking for more now. (Fun fact: she was married to Crockett Johnson, who illustrated The Carrot Seed and wrote the Harold and the Purple Crayon books.) It's a simple, short story about a little boy who wakes up and decides it's backward day. He explains to himself, helpfully, "Backward day is backward day." After putting on his clothes backwards (underwear on the outside), he goes downstairs backwards, and sits backwards at the table. When his parents and little sister come in, instead of making fun of him, each of them sizes him up and joins him in backwardness. It doesn't last long. Warning to parents: Eleanor has started making us read the book backwards to her now, too.

Then there's humor via banter and wordplay, as in the Cynthia Rylant series The High-Rise Private Eyes.

The Case of the Desperate Duck

The first of these we discovered (and still our favorite), is The Case of the Desperate Duck, which includes the line, "Hello, I'm Mabel. Let me show you to your table." (Ha! This started one of our first discussions of rhyme, too.) The private eyes are a raccoon named Jack and a rabbit named Bunny. Bunny is smart, Jack is distractable, and they have quirky personality traits throughout. We only read a few books in the series, but the plots seem generally to revolve around theft, and be resolved when the thief apologizes and explains that he didn't do it on purpose. No major crimes here.

Finally, here are two wacky books that you sent Eleanor in the last year or so, both of which remain in heavy rotation.

Monsieur Saguette and His Baguette

We've discovered that Frank Asch's tale of a baguette used for a wide variety of purposes (to rescue a cat from a tree, to rescue a baby from a crocodile, to lead a parade in lieu of a baton, etc.) is especially funny when you read Monsieur Saguette's lines in a very bad French accent. We often provide different accents for the other characters (a construction worker, a robber, a little girl) as well. This book has a blithe spirit.

Chickens to the Rescue

Chickens to the Rescue, by John Himmelman, tells the story about all the things that go wrong on a farm during the course of a week ("On Monday, Farmer Greenstalk dropped his watch down the well."). After each mishap, a giant cloud of chickens flies in and fixes whatever's wrong, and you get to yell "Chickens to the Rescue!" The pictures in this one are awesome, and it makes a great group read-aloud.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

YA Fantasy: Beyond Vampires

Dear Annie,

What an excellent post! Reinforces all my initial negatives about the Twilight series.

Okay, so you ask about whether there's any such thing as "really good fantasy/fairy/faerie/vampire YA lit being written out there." I suspect that as far as faeries and vampires are concerned, that's an oxymoron. But that could just be my prejudice. There is one riotously funny vampire satire, The Reformed Vampire Support Group. It's about a group of slightly sickly vampires who have banded together in an AA-like group to keep each other from attacking humans. They do, of course, still need blood -- you'll never think the same way about guinea pigs again.

For those folks who actually take Twilight seriously, I tend to recommend Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle Trilogy (first book: A Great and Terrible Beauty). My Lizzie got fond of these books toward the end of high school. It's a combination 19th-century British boarding school tale, crossed with magic and mysterious dark men (probably magical) hanging out in poorly lit places. But the writing's okay, and the author is definitely thinking more about women's place in society.

Two good recent YA fantasy books:

, by Kristin Cashore creates a really interesting medieval-style world where some people are born with "graces": extraordinary talents. Katsa, the heroine, believes her "grace" is killing people: she's excellent at combat and has been forced into the role of enforcer for an evil king. Turns out her talent is more complex than that. Takes a sympathetic guy (who's also a great fighter) to help her figure out what's going on. Has a satisfyingly unpredictable ending. The sequel/companion book, called Fire, is pretty dismal: Cashore creates a different main character who is so beautiful that everyone goes nuts around her because they're consumed by desire. Kind of the ultimate cheesy fantasy.

Then there's a very interesting trilogy-in-progress called Chaos Walking. First book is
The Knife of Never Letting Go
. It's set on a planet which has been colonized by earthlings who came as fundamentalist settlers. Shortly after arrival, a virus infects all the men, making their thoughts audible to others. Women are unaffected. The first book involves an odyssey through many settlements, each of which has dealt with the issue differently, from extreme repression of women to hippie matriarchy. The bad guys are really bad, setting out to take over all the settlements, using extreme coercion and torture in the process. They have also enslaved what remains of the native population. I've read the first two books wondering when the action was going to veer into awful sexual violence, but so far that hasn't happened. A lot of adults try to manipulate the teenage protagonists, and there are some fuzzy lines between resistance and collaboration. It's one of those series that gives a teenager a lot to think about. Also a good read -- I really want the last book to come out, already.

And then, aimed at the sixth grade and up crowd, one more trilogy which is great and impossible to sell. Just mentioning the premise in the presence of a parent is the kiss of death: dystopian future in an America divided into 12 states, each of which must send two teenagers a year to a reality television show which involves the contestants killing each other until there's one winner. Two books are out:
The Hunger Games

Catching Fire
, the third is coming in August. They're psychologically and politically fascinating books. Katniss, the main character and Hunger Games contestant in the first book, is horrified by the games and improvises her way into resistance, initially simply to save herself, and ultimately because her acts on television have helped fuel an underground movement. It sounds grim, but the core of this series is anger mixed with hope.

Time to get back to cheerier stuff --



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On Twilight. Oy.

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Ah, Twilight. Yes, after realizing how many of my high school students had read the series (most of them in junior high), and after one of my all-time favorite students told me I needed to read them because the gender issues in them were really disturbing, I read all four books. They're not good books, but they are quick, gripping reads -- the kind of book you read obsessively for two days and then it's done, and while you're reading you keep thinking, ah yes, this was written to be turned into a movie.

What bothers me about the ubiquity of the Twilight books is the relationship dynamic they set up for the (mostly) tween (mostly) girls reading them. Because Edward is a vampire, and Bella is human, every romantic encounter they have is freighted with danger: he is so in love with her, so aroused by the smell of her blood, that if he loses control, they both know he might kill her. Because he doesn't want to do this, he is by turns emotionally cold and crushingly overprotective. While there's a logic to his behavior in the fantasy world Meyer has created, in our world, a relationship like this would be abusive. I worry about Edward helping shape the concept for so many girls of what it means to have a "good" boyfriend.

(Spoiler alert -- in the next couple of paragraphs, I'm going to reference major plot points in Book 4.)

This ties into the question of sexual desire, and who is supposed to feel it. A lot has been written about Twilight as a sexy abstinence book -- Bella and Edward don't have sex until after they get married, early in the last book. Before this, Bella wants to, but Edward won't go along with it. She desires him intensely, but knows that she has to keep a lid on her desire, because if she turns him on too much, he might lose control and kill her. There are a few scenes where she doesn't hold back while kissing him, then gets mad at herself for tempting him too much. Because, you know, boys can't control themselves the way girls can.

When they finally do have sex, it is reported to be mind-blowingly fantastic (we don't actually get a sex scene), but Bella wakes up covered in bruises. Edward feels terrible and never wants to touch her again; Bella reassures him that she's fine, doesn't hurt at all, and wants to do it again immediately. Then it turns out she's pregnant, and I don't know what happened to Meyers during her own pregnancies, but this one is horrible -- the half-vampire baby makes Bella violently ill, breaks her ribs, and brings her to the brink of death while ripping its way out of her. (Another picture I'm thrilled to have put in the minds of my students.) This paves the way for Edward to finally turn Bella into a vampire, which she's been asking him to do for three books. And the moral is? We're all happy, young, gorgeous, rich vampires who don't need to kill people. And did I mention we're gorgeous? And young? And rich?

I read my fair share of bad books as a kid: dozens of Sweet Valley High books, for one, which I borrowed from a friend in junior high. It was like eating junk food. I knew this at the time, knew that these were fun books but that they were essentially the same, and that I wasn't getting anything real from them. All I've retained is that the main characters were twins, and they had perfect size-6 figures and wore gold chain necklaces with their names spelled out so people could tell them apart. I'm sure if I re-read SVH, I'd find plenty of gender issues to object to as well. But like you, I think that when something terrible is part of the larger picture of reading, and if it gets kids going and interested in reading more, it's not necessarily so bad.

That being said, I'd like to know that there's some really good fantasy/fairy/faerie/vampire YA lit being written out there as well. Is there? What do you recommend when this question comes up?

Love, Annie

Monday, May 17, 2010

YA: good stuff & the other stuff

Dear Annie,

Getting back to the YA question. Feed is definitely dark, although its social commentary is spot-on. Marcelo and Godless, though, are both pretty life-affirming – figuring out who you are and getting comfortable with the idea. Oh sure, you might climb a water tower and go swimming inside and worry that someone might seriously injure themselves – but hey, that’s what we do at this age, in one form or another. And in the meantime you’re rejecting your parents’ religion and figuring out what you believe.

A lot of current YA books that publishers are pushing right now are series with vampires, werewolves, and faeries (with that spelling). Yech. It’s scary how unimaginative publishing companies can be – and how ruled by marketing machines. Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book, has a good editorial about that in the current issue. See especially his last paragraph.

So is this the moment for us to talk about the Twilight series? I resisted carrying it at the store for a while, then caved to demand. I confess I’ve only read half of one of them, and was overwhelmed by what a romance novel it was: too many adjectives, too much heavy breathing, and a too passive leading lady. Our kid clientele goes up through high school, but I 've been struck by how many of the kids who want to get Twilight are middle-schoolers. I think the movies have driven some of that -- one day I watched an argument between a boy who came up about to my elbow and his mother: "Mo-om, everyone in the whole sixth grade is reading it!" She eventually caved and got it for him.

I have a certain amount of ambivalence about reading junk. Sometimes it's relaxing and, in the context of other (better) stuff that kids are reading too, is all part of a mix. I don't think one book is going to warp anyone permanently. Yet when something takes off as much as this series has, it makes me nervous. I don't want to say a teenager shouldn't read it, but I wish eveyone who reads it had someone to have an intelligent discussion with about it. Which I gather you've done some of with your students, n'est-ce pas?



Sunday, May 16, 2010

Social issues embedded in picture books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

These books sound fabulous -- I'll clearly be reading some of them myself before Eleanor is ready to go there. It strikes me, though, how dark their themes are. This is a comment (a complaint?) I've heard a lot about recent YA books, though I'm not sure how different they are in tone from previous generations. Do you think books for teens have gotten darker or weightier? Is this necessarily a bad thing if it's true?

I think about this as we've been reading a lot of Patricia Polacco in our house. Her picture books often touch on weighty or at least societally complex issues, but the touch is light and the illustrations filled with swiftness and joy.

I first came across Polacco's wonderful book Chicken Sunday long before I had kids, when I was right out of college and teaching at a boarding school. That year, I was part of a group of teachers who met once a month to talk about "issues of educational equity and diversity." For one meeting, our assignment was to find a children's book with themes of diversity. I think we were supposed to do a swap with the books after the session, but everyone wanted to keep the books they'd picked, so we all took our own home again.

Chicken Sunday

What I like about Chicken Sunday is that it isn't preachy. It's the 1950's, I think, and the narrator is white, and her best friends and adopted grandmother are black, and the hat-maker is Jewish, and the complexities are there underneath the narrative, but they're not made too explicit. The grandmother talks about how the hat-maker had "a hard life," and in one illustration you can see a number tattooed on his arm, but that's all that's mentioned. So there's this other level that, at some point, Eleanor can notice and ask questions about, but for right now, it's a story about the kids wanting to save up to buy an Easter hat, and being unfairly accused of throwing eggs, and doing something creative to get the hat for their grandmother.

When I was looking recently for good books involving same-sex couples, you mentioned Polacco's In Our Mothers' House, with the caveat that the story isn't as good as some of her others.

In Our Mothers' House

Like Chicken Sunday, In Our Mothers' House is told in retrospect. The narrator is one of three children adopted by a warm, loving lesbian couple (the kids call their mothers Marmee and Meema). They live in Berkeley, and all of their neighbors are totally accepting of them except for one family, where the parents keep their kids away. The most explicit this family's homophobia gets is when the mother tells Meema and Marmee: "I don't appreciate what you two are!" Then she walks away, and everybody else in the neighborhood hugs them. It's enough to spark a question in a child reader: why doesn't this mother like their family? Polacco leaves the complexities of the conversation to the parent reader. Mostly, I appreciate this approach.

I'd like the book to be a little less episodic -- here's another warm, loving thing that happened in our house or neighborhood as I was growing up -- and to have more of a single narrative. That said, it does part of what I want it to do: provides pictures and text that normalize the idea of a household with two moms, and with adopted kids of different races. Eleanor's first reaction to the book was not positive: she sighed as we got to the end and said, "This book is long." But then when we went to pick which books to return to the library that week, she wanted to keep it. We've renewed it twice now, and she's asked me to read it to her multiple times. What's her favorite part? When Meema and Marmee, who always wear pants, don huge flowing dresses to host a mother-daughter tea at their house. So, she's 3.

The other two Polacco books we're reading regularly were your recommendations as well. And because you put it so well in the email you sent to me recommending them, I'm going to quote you here:

Go out and get Thunder Cake.
A girl and her babushka'd grandma, on grandma's farm, see that a thunderstorm is brewing. Girl is scared. Grandma says they have to make a thunder cake before it hits, so they race. To the cows for milk, the chickens for eggs, etc. It has those lovely energetic Polacco people and animals with hands and feet going in many directions. And the last page, after the two sit down to their cake as the (slow-moving) storm crashes, is the recipe, complete with a secret ingredient.

I also really like The Keeping Quilt, which follows a quilt through many generations of Polacco's family. Don't know if this one will read to Eleanor a little too slowly, like Our Mothers. I've given it as a wedding gift, because it's so full of family. She of course has a pretty serious quilter for a grandma, so it might resonate.

Eleanor loves them both. The Keeping Quilt doesn't feel slow at all, but again touches on so many periods of history, here especially Russian Jewish immigrant history, that there is a rich layer waiting for her to get a little older. And, of course, there are a lot of wedding dresses for her to look at.

Love, Annie

Saturday, May 15, 2010

YA, Part 2

Dear Annie,

We read The Ruby in the Smoke with Lizzie and she liked it, but didn't want to rush on into the others. A couple of years later I read and loved Tiger in the Well, the one about 19th-century identity theft. I'm such a huge fan of The Golden Compass and sequels that I've always thought of the Sally Lockhart series as good, but one notch below. I love the many-layered aspect of The Golden Compass, and Pullman's hostility to organized religion. So much is going on in his books at once. I should go revisit Ruby.

My favorite YA book – and by that I mean, say, 8th grade and up – is probably
, by M.T. Anderson. It’s set in a dystopian future where everyone has computer chips in their brains (“wetware”) so that they can access the internet (the Feed) just by thinking about it. IM-ing is constant. And the Feed can access your thoughts, so it’s always beaming thought-specific advertising directly to your brain. It’s kind of fascinating at the beginning of the book, and evolves darker as the story progresses. The main character meets a young woman who’s trying to resist the Feed, and although he’s intrigued he ultimately retreats into his programmed world. The beauty of the book is in the language: Anderson has created teenspeak which is completely understandable and just a bit off from the present day. There’s a great audiobook of Feed also. Our girls listened to it a lot.

Marcelo in the Real World
, by Francisco X Stork is another I’ve become quite fond of. Marcelo is an Asperger’s kid, in the summer before his senior year in high school. His over-controlling lawyer father wants him to leave his special school and mainstream into the local high school. Father and son make a deal that if Marcelo can work all summer in the mailroom at his father’s law firm, then he can choose what school he goes to. Marcelo’s voice is pitch-perfect: he explains in his slightly-detached way how he analyzes and interacts with the world. The law firm gives him an array of fast-talking, sarcastic, and occasionally just plain nasty people to try to figure out. The ending wraps up a bit too neatly, but the journey is quite wonderful.

And as long as I’m on a roll with contemporary YA with male main characters, I’ll toss in
, by Pete Hautman.A high school boy creates a new religion that worships the local water tower. Chapters are preceded by quotes from the bible that he writes: they all make a lot of sense – after all water is very primal. It’s all about questioning of faith and, because the object of worship is a huge water tower, risk-taking. Another piece of good writing.



Friday, May 14, 2010

Gripping historical fiction for older kids

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oddly enough, the book I'm reading with my book club fits into this conversation, albeit on the older YA end of things. The library has labeled it "YA" on the spine (though they've also labeled it "Assignment," a surefire way to get more kids to pick it up).

The book is Kindred, by Octavia Butler.


It's a time-travel novel: Dana, a contemporary (1976) African-American woman, is transported back in time to the antebellum South in order to save the life of a white boy who turns out to be one of her ancestors. He's accident-prone, and she is called back several times, with some of her visits lasting months, though very little time elapses in her real life. On one trip, her husband (a white man) is pulled back with her, and has to pose as her master for the safety of both of them. It's a gripping read, giving you a real sense of the historical situation of and relationships between slaves and plantation owners. Dana is an articulate and conflicted observer, trying to make sure that her family line will be started, repulsed by the situation she finds herself in, and slowly starting to accept it as normal at the same time.

Earlier this year, I came across another YA series which completely obsessed me: the Sally Lockhart Mysteries, by Philip Pullman. I'd read Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) several years ago, and loved them; I think I like Sally Lockhart even better.

The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery

In The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally is 16 years old; in the later books (The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, The Tin Princess), she's in her early and then late 20's.

All four books are set in Victorian London, and are beautifully written, nail-biting mysteries packed with historical detail that enriches the plot without getting in its way. You find yourself learning about the opium trade, the plight of European Jewish immigrants, and Victorian property law, among other things. Above all, I adore Pullman's characters, especially his women; Sally is smart and tenacious and feels very real all the way through. I gulped these books down, reading them the way I remember reading as a kid, carrying them from room to room with me and reading in every spare second.

Of course, I found all of these books as an adult, and don't have a good sense of exactly when they'd start to be appropriate for kids: what's your thought on this? And what are some of the great new YA books you've discovered recently?

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wonder Women

Dear Annie,

We used to recite a little mantra when reading to our girls about an earlier era: “Women’s lives were different back then: it’s not that way now.” They got so used to our saying it that they’d respond, yeah, yeah, let’s read the story. There’s so much about the way society works and has worked that one wants to introduce slowly to one’s child. Sometimes that’s possible, and sometimes not. I think that if it’s too early for them to understand it, a lot of stuff just goes by without inflicting self-doubt on the way. And heaven knows both Eleanor and Isabel will get plenty of messages about being able to do anything.

As long as we’re on the subject of Deborah Hopkinson, let me offer you another:
Maria's Comet
. (That’s pronounced ma-RYE-uh, like the wind.) Maria Mitchell was a mid-19th century astronomer (discovered a comet in 1847). This picture book focuses on her childhood in Nantucket and her longing to learn astronomy. There’s a moment of tension after her brother leaves home when we all wait to see if her father will invite Maria to observe the stars with him in the boy’s place. Whew.

Somehow thinking about all this has moved me on to tall tales, that wonderfully American form of folklore. Here are two delightful ones which put girls in the central role, wrestling tornadoes, performing feats of strength, changing the local topography, and generally being amazing:

Thunder Rose
by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, and
Swamp Angel
, by Anne Isaacs, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. The language is a hoot in both of them, and the pictures are very special. They're both wondefully energetic books.

So brace yourself for babies as big as their mothers who can talk in full sentences at birth and build log cabins shortly thereafter.



Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Historical Girl Power

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I look forward to sharing the baseball books with Eleanor when she gets a little older. Right now, of course, we have Cubs-related board books, and sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as our last lullaby every night ("And it's root, root root for the Cubbies") -- but you understand marrying into a family with a love for a team that seems destined to lose forever. At least your Red Sox fan daughters eventually got lucky....

We've found and checked out a few random baseball-related books in the library. The one she liked best was Girl Wonder, by Deborah Hopkinson.

Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings

It's based on the true story of Alta Weiss, who pitched on a minor league team starting in 1906, then quit baseball to become one of the first women doctors. It's a punchy book, and Eleanor enjoyed reading it. Like a number of historical girl-power books, however, it raises a funny issue for me: it introduces my daughter to historical prejudice and stereotyping even as it tries to debunk the stereotype. When I read dialogue in which men and boys tell Alta, "You can't play baseball! You're a girl!" I cringe. Nobody has ever told Eleanor that she can't play baseball. I kind of hate for her to have to find out.

When I opened Girl Wonder, I realized that Hopkinson was also the author of another good library find: Apples to Oregon: Being the (Slightly) True Narrative of How a Brave Pioneer Father Brought Apples, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Grapes, and Cherries (and Children) Across the Plains.

Apples to Oregon

This is a joyful, weird, tall tale of a book, also based on a historical narrative. It's told by Delicious, the oldest daughter of a tree farmer who transports a nursery full of trees from Iowa to Oregon in a covered wagon. The full-length title gives you a good sense of the tone. And while it's the father's idea to go this whole long way, Delicious and the other kids are the ones who do a lot of the tree-saving work. Empowering in another way?

Love, Annie

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Play Ball!

Dear Annie,

It's springtime, and I want to talk baseball. The sport is so full of heroic figures and twists of fate that it lends itself to good picture book narrative. So here are four great pieces of baseball history:

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!
tells the story of Koufax’s slow start and amazing years pitching for the Dodgers. Great illustrations and lots of impressive statistics, well-presented.

No Easy Way: The Story of Ted Williams and the Last .400 Season
by Fred Bowen describes the nail-biting last game of the 1941 season, when Ted Williams chose to risk his .400 average by going to bat, rather than sitting it out and taking his feat into the record books.

gives kids the Jackie Robinson Story through the lens of his friendship with Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese.
The Longest Season
by Cal Ripken Jr. tells the tale of the start of the Orioles’ 1988 season in excruciating detail: the team lost 21 games before their first win. It’s a story of sticking with your teammates and family in the face of adversity and gives anyone who’s had a losing season the reminder that even the greats have been there.

These are all a little older picture books: you need a child who has some understanding of baseball. And they all hinge on the players’ characters. Good stories.



Monday, May 10, 2010

In appreciation of Mother Bear

Dear Aunt Debbie,

And Happy Mother's Day to you! I'm looking forward to the years when "sleeping in" will mean later than, say, 7 AM, but enjoying it nonetheless. I got an awesome 3-D sparkly Princess card.

I adore Little Bear. I was thinking about Mother Bear this weekend, planning my own mother-related post. There are so many treacly mothers out there in the children's book world that I appreciate coming across a mother with a little zing to her. (I really like the imaginative play in Even Firefighters Hug Their Moms, but I find the mom a little annoying. Come on, lady, play a part in your kids' story instead of just showing up in every scene to beg for affection! And what's up with the 80's suit and power earrings she's wearing to hang out at home?)

In the four stories in Little Bear, I agree that Mother Bear is warm and loving, but you also feel her patience being tried, and the combination of Minarik's spare text and Sendak's expressive drawings is sharp and funny. In "What Will Little Bear Wear?", Little Bear goes out to play in the snow, but keeps coming back in because he's cold, interrupting Mother Bear as she sweeps the floor, hems a skirt, and finally sits down to read a book (her activities aren't mentioned in the text -- they're all Sendak). Each time, Mother Bear asks what he needs and then makes him something new to wear. You can read her dialogue aloud in a completely patient voice, but look at her expression and tweak it a little bit, and it becomes quite dry: "Here is Little Bear again. 'Oh,' said Mother Bear, 'what can you want now?'"

In "Little Bear Goes to the Moon," the dialogue goes a step farther. Little Bear, wearing a cardboard space helmet, is planning to fly to the moon. I really have to quote the whole thing:

"I'm going to fly to the moon,"
said Little Bear.
"Fly!" said Mother Bear.
"You can't fly."

"Birds fly," said Little Bear.
"Oh, yes," said Mother Bear.
"Birds fly, but they don't fly to the moon.
And you are not a bird."

"Maybe some birds do fly to the moon,
I don't know.
And maybe I can fly like a bird,"
said Little Bear.

"And maybe," said Mother Bear,
"you are a little fat bear cub
with no wings and no feathers.
"Maybe if you jump up
you will come down very fast,
with a big plop."

"Maybe," said Little Bear.
"But I'm going now.
Just look for me up in the sky."
"Be back for lunch," said Mother.

There are four more Little Bear books: Father Bear Comes Home, Little Bear's Visit (about a trip to his grandparents' house), Little Bear's Friend, and A Kiss for Little Bear. All of them have wonderful moments in them; I'm a particular fan of A Kiss for Little Bear, which has lots more of the illustrations adding extra depth and humor to the text.

Eleanor adores these books. Of course, she also adores the Little Bear TV show, which is treacly in the ways the books are decidedly not, and contains a little too much canned laughter for my taste, but is otherwise harmless. Except, perhaps, for the fact that all anyone seems to ingest on these kids' shows is cake and lemonade.

While I'm on the subject of Else Holmelund Minarik, I can't fail to mention her other great book, also a collaboration with Sendak: No Fighting, No Biting!

No Fighting, No Biting!

This is one I grew up with, but I don't think I've ever seen it at anyone else's house, and it's wonderful. It's a story within a story: Cousin Joan is trying to read, but keeps getting interrupted by the bickering of Rosa and Willie, so she tells them a story about two little alligators who almost get eaten by a big hungry alligator because they fight too much. The bickering is pitch-perfect, and the mother alligator brooks no argument. There's also a side story about Rosa losing her tooth which is quite sweet.

I have so much love for Maurice Sendak. More on him, of course, later.

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

Dear Annie,

Happy Mother’s Day!

This is my first Mother’s Day without the presence of either Lizzie or Mona since I’ve been a mother. I’m feeling the satisfaction of motherhood more than the loss of breakfast in bed (although I confess I do miss that). They’re both in such good places right now – psychologically and physically – it makes me happy. I wish all those mothers of little ones out there a lovely day with strange meals and hand-picked bouquets.

Today I offer some golden oldie mother books:

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present
, by Charlotte Zolotow (1963) with watercolor illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Mother is off-camera in this one, while a girl and a bi-pedal rabbit discuss possible gifts she could give her mother. It’s very rhythmic and lyrical.

Little Bear
(1957) by Else Holmelund Minarik also has Sendak illustrations, suffusing Little Bear with feeling. This book is three very short stories, all of which feature a patient and loving mother helping Little Bear to discover the world. At the end, when she appears at a birthday gathering her son has feared she forgot, she says, “I never did forget your birthday, and I never will.”

Are You My Mother?
by P.D. Eastman (1960): a baby bird hatches while mother is away and goes off in search of her. A classic – great for very little ones. This is part of the Cat in the Hat Beginners series, by a Dr. Seuss protégé. Quiet sense of humor.

And one written in the 21st century::

Even Firefighters Hug Their Moms
: a celebration of pretend play. A big brother and little sister are pretending various scenes: ambulance, firefighters, police officers, etc. Whenever Mom asks for affection, she’s brushed off “Too busy saving lives.” But she keeps gently coming back for more, and eventually gets what she’s after.

And lest we get too dewy-eyed about the Ideal Mother, I refer back to
Pirate Girl
in my April 30 post. A book which proves that Real Mothers are tougher than bad-guy pirates, and a lot more fun.

Have a great day!