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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hague and some Housekeeping

Dear Annie,

Your Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe experience sounds just wonderful.  And the illustrations -- wow, I'd never seen those.  We became very familiar with Michael Hague illustrations the many times we read Lizzie The Hobbit in the paperback oversized edition.  I liked the pictures you posted so much that I e-mailed my Harper sales rep (they're the current C.S. Lewis rights-holders) and asked if anyone's ever considered re-issuing that edition.  She passed the question along -- will post the answer here if I get one.

I have no memory of  reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid.  My father (your grandfather) had little patience with those Oxford guys.  I remember his railing against Tolkien -- he felt the language and the stories were both too fussy -- whom I also didn't read as a kid.  And I can imagine Grandpa having little patience with the C.S. Lewis brand of Christianity.  We read The Lion, The Witch with both girls -- I really like it, despite the crucifixion/resurrection thing.  I'm curious to see if you and Eleanor charge on into the other Narnia books.  I think we slogged through them all at least once.  Nothing as magical as Lion, but I remember feeling Dawn Treader was probably the most kid-friendly.

So now that you've read the book, are you going to see the movie?

That last sentence, of course, is a reference to an earlier discussion on this blog.  Leading me into today's other topic: Annie and Aunt are (is?) entering a contest. The Third Annual  Book Blogger Appreciation Week is September 13-17.  The week encourages people to explore book blogs across a range of topics, and it also gives awards to the best blogs in a variety of categories.  We are, of course, hoping to be named Best Kidlit Book Blog.  One of the requirements for entering the contest is to post our intention to do so (yes! we intend!), and to list five blog entries on which we would like to be judged.

Here they are:

Mother Goose was a Poet
The Bard of Columbus
Bravo for Frances
More on Starter Chapter Books
On Twilight. Oy.
(We figure, given how many fifth and sixth graders have been reading Twilight, that it qualifies for a younger-than-YA blog category.)

So here we go, venturing further out into the blogosphere.



Monday, June 28, 2010

On entering Narnia

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The ALA convention sounds fabulous; I've put The Lion and the Mouse on our library hold list, and am jonesing to read Rebecca Stead now as well.  Thank you for keeping me up to date!

By contrast, the great pleasure I've had this past week has been a classic one.  On Thursday afternoon, Isabel was taking a long nap and I was tired of the particular stack of library books Eleanor kept returning to, so I picked up Jeff's childhood copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe just to see if it would take.  It took.  We've been reading a few chapters a day, at Eleanor's request, and finished the book tonight.  I have been in heaven.

In the last three years I've read Eleanor dozens of books I remember from my own childhood.  Why, then, does reading her C.S. Lewis bring me such intense joy?  I think part of it is that I remember my own introduction to Narnia.  Because I was so young when they were read to me, my memories of picture books are of re-readings, but I have a vivid emotional memory of my father first reading to me about Aslan's death: sadness, discomfort and even embarrassment with the ways the White Witch and her cronies abuse him, confusion over his coming back to life.  (It was much, much later that I realized Narnia was a Christian allegory.)  Over the course of several years, my father read me all seven of the books, and we returned to them again and again.

I know Eleanor is too young to understand a lot of what is going on in this book.  But I was pleased to find that Lewis's sentences are smooth and clear and easy to read; except for the children's kingly and queenly language at the end, the language is never obtuse.  Edmund is cringingly real and human, Lucy is plucky and forthright, and Susan and Peter are sort of parental (does any child ever actually relate to them?).  As we read, Eleanor kept stopping me to insert herself into the narrative, not as a character, but as herself: "But that's when I came in, and I saved Mr. Tumnus and told him the Witch was coming, and we had dinner together."  She untied Aslan, too, before the girls and the field mice got to it.  Her attention certainly wandered at points, but she has also asked that we bring this book on our plane trip this weekend, so we can read it again.

Eleanor's interest was piqued partly by the gorgeous Michael Hague illustrations in our copy (which I'm pretty sure I've found here, through Alibris, though the cover image is wrong).  These are the pictures I've used in this post (we finally have a working scanner, hoorah!).  In terms of holding her attention and giving her something to focus on as I read, the pictures were vital.

And so we begin!

Love, Annie

Hearing from Medal-Winners

Dear Annie,

Ah, I remember those days of hauling home armloads of picture books from the library.  We bonded totally with the people who work at our local library.  Even now when I go into the library, two of the the check-out  women will ask me about Lizzie and Mona.

I've just returned this evening from  the American Library Association convention, where the Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners gave speeches tonight.  Two good books, two interesting and very different people:

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery for best children's literature.
The Lion and the Mouse
by Jerry Pinkney is a wordless book which won the Caldecott for best illustration.

Two snippets:

Pinkney spoke first.  He's 70 years old, has won Caldecott Honors five times, and was genuinely pleased to get the top prize at last (so overdue, in my opinion!).  He was so clearly sure of himself and of his art, and spoke of the support he got from his family to be an artist when a young man.  He said he didn't originally think of The Lion and the Mouse as a wordless book: he planned to do the illustrations, then write the text to the pictures.  But he realized the pictures made words unnecessary.  Then he told an anecdote a friend had told him: "She had given The Lion and the Mouse to a nephew and she described with great excitement how he had read it by creating his own narrative.  Then, when he read it a second time, he had a completely different interpretation of what he saw in the pictures.  This is exactly what I had hoped for: a child claiming ownership of this much beloved fable."   What a good way to think of wordless books!  Not only a vehicle for a child to tell a story, but a way for the story to belong to the child.

Rebecca Stead was such a contrast. When You Reach Me is a wonderful, carefully-constructed book with mystery and lots of good characters with real feelings and a surprise ending that ties things up perfectly and took my breath away.  She's 42, says she always wanted to write but became a lawyer instead.  Has two children, lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and describes many of her self-doubts in very articulate ways. She talked about realizing, when she was six "that I was completely alone in my own consciousness."  She would ask herself, "How am I me?" over and over.  "I think that like someone alone in a dark room, I was feeling around for a door because I really really did not want to be alone in there.  And I did find a door, eventually.  The door was books.  When I read books I wasn't alone in the rooms of my own mind.  I was running up and down other people's stairs and finding secret places behind their closets.  The people on the other side of the door had things I couldn't have, like sisters or dragons, and they shared those things with me. And they also had things I did have, like feelings of self-doubt and longing and they named those things for me."  The story she told of becoming a writer was the story of overcoming the obstacles her own self-doubts created.

I had a lovely serendipitous moment at the dinner, too.  I ended up sitting next to a woman named Libby Koponen, who in 2006 published a wonderful novel for kids called Blow Out the MoonBlow Out the Moon.  It's autobiographical, set in the late '50s, about a girl from the New York suburbs who moves to England with her family for a year and ends up going to a British girls' boarding school.  It's a lovely gentle book about being in new places and learning to grow up on your own.  It's one of those books that a second grader or a sixth grader can connect with.  I was very fond of it, then it went unceremoniously out of print.  Well, it's not available for sale at most independent bookstores, but it's possible to get a print-on-demand copy, and Libby pointed out it's also for sale as a download.  And I confirmed with Libby what her book didn't quite say: that the suburb she lived in was Pleasantville, NY, where your mother and I grew up. She was a year behind me in elementary school, then moved away after fifth grade.



Friday, June 25, 2010

Libraries and bookstores

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I've been thinking, this week, about the books we own versus the books we take out of the library. We've become big library-goers, often requesting books online to be delivered to our local branch, and visiting at least once a week for toddler storytime and to check out more books. For a while, I tried to limit the number we were taking home, but that has fallen by the wayside, and we now usually have between 10 and 15 out at a time.

Every Tuesday morning, before we go to the library, I take down all the books we have checked out and go through them with Eleanor, deciding which we'll give back that week and which she'd like to renew. If she wants to renew something over and over, and we're reading it all the time, I'll put it on my list of books to buy. Of course, there are many wonderful books that we don't buy. Sometimes she'll remember these and ask for them again; sometimes seeing them in the library or having a conversation with her will prompt me to check them out again, and I'm always a little surprised when Eleanor has no memory of having read them before. (Though of course she forgets things. She's 3.)

This weeks' rediscovery is a marvelous Ezra Jack Keats classic: Whistle for Willie.

The story of Peter trying to learn to whistle to call his dog Willie is simple and lovely. There's something very pure about Peter's play: hiding in a carton on the street as he tries to whistle for Willie, drawing a long line with colored chalk on the sidewalk, putting on his father's old hat and pretending to be his father while talking with his mother. He's just hanging out on the street in a pleasant, solo, meandering sort of way, the way thoughtful kids playing alone will. Keats's illustrations are brightly-colored collages of the city streets, and seem to come directly from Peter's perceptions: when he spins around to get dizzy because he's tired of trying to whistle, the red, green, and yellow lights on the streetlight get dizzy too, hopping out of their places and dancing about. We have read this book at least twelve times since Tuesday, often twice in a row.

Many of the books we own have come to us as gifts (a great number, of course, from you!); others are books I've bought for Eleanor, often online, so that her experience is that books you keep arrive in a box. They are also, of course, books you can return to over and over, books you can rediscover in your own home after fallow periods.

Last week, we got to go to a children's bookstore: the excellent Books of Wonder. I told Eleanor that she could pick out one book to buy, and we browsed together through the shelves. After picking out and discarding several choices (so odd to be limited to one book!), she settled on a book we're both happy to own: Mo Willems's Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity.

This is, of course, the sequel to Willems's Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, which we've taken out of the library a few times itself. In both books, Willems combines colored cartoon-like drawings with black and white photos of Park Slope, Brooklyn, as he tells the tale of his daughter, Trixie, and her adored stuffed rabbit, Knuffle Bunny. In the first book, she loses Knuffle Bunny at the laundromat and can't yet talk to let her father know what's happened; in the second, she and another girl bring their Knuffle Bunnies to school on the same day and accidentally go home with the wrong bunny. The kid details are pitch-perfect, and both books are very funny to read if you're the parent of a young child.

I say that I'm happy to own this book, and I am, but it's probably not the single book I would have chosen to buy that day. So my question, for you and any readers out there, is this: what do you buy and what do you borrow? How do you make those decisions? Aunt Debbie, has working in a bookstore changed your opinion on this question at all?

Love, Annie

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Max and Ruby again.

Dear Annie,

One can see all of parenthood as a struggle between the values of a family (the real Max and Ruby, or Alice in Wonderland, or healthy food, or hundreds of other things and beliefs we hold dear) and mass-produced products which tend to undercut those values.  As adults, we've learned to screen out a certain amount of the crap (not all of it, god knows), but seeing the pull it has on our children is disturbing.  Bob and I tried to stem some of that tide by putting the TV away permanently, which we were happy to have done.  But no one outside of extremely closed communities can raise kids without the tensions of our culture.  I tend to believe that when people are as involved parents as you and Jeff are, family culture wins.  So maybe Eleanor will have memories you wish she didn't of Little Bear.  But both your girls will grow up to be adults who read Ruby out loud with a faint Chicago accent, and who will care about reading good books all their lives.

Good old Max and Ruby.  In among all those paperbacks, though, there are some very good non-TV-spinoff Max and Ruby picture books, most of them written in the '90s.  Our favorite was Max's Dragon Shirt, the tale of brother and sister getting separated from each other in a department store.  "Dragon shirt!" says Max, but Ruby is on a mission to replace Max's old blue pants. Ruby gets distracted by dresses she decides to try on (check out the purple one with cucumbers -- eggplants? -- on the skirt).  Max follows the wrong yellow dress and finds a dragon shirt, but instead of Ruby -- a teenager! (see illustration to right)  He screams, various confusions ensue, and when Ruby finally finds Max, he's eating ice cream with two policemen and the teenager.  Needless to say, Max goes home in his old pants and the dragon shirt.

In Bunny Party, the ever-officious Ruby is organizing Grandma's birthday party.  She brings seven guests: her dolls and stuffed animals, with names like the Tooth Fairy, Rapunzel, and Mr. and Mrs. Quack.  Max manages to sneak in three of his toys one by one (my favorite is Can't-Sit-Up-Slug), and every time Ruby counts the guests, she's one chair short and confused.  "Something's wrong, Max," says Ruby, "It must be a bad counting day."  Ruby finally discovers the uninvited guests, but before she can eject them, Grandma shows up and saves the day.

And then, four years ago, just as I was thinking Wells' works were on the downhill slide, Max's ABC arrived. I keep this one shelved with the storybooks, not the ABC books, because it's a delightful story about Max's ants:
Max's Ants escaped from their Ant farm.
They went looking for Max's birthday cake.

Up Max's pants they climbed.
Bite Bite Bite went the ants
on the Birthday cake.

Max poured his Cup of Cranberry
juice onto the ants in his pants.

Down Down Down went the juice.
Delicious! The ants Drank it up.

"EEEeeeeek!" said Max's sister Ruby.
Ruby tries various schemes to catch the ants, with Max participating, although his body language is skeptical.  In the end, Max rescues the ants from the vacuum cleaner and puts them back to bed in their ant farm, where they sleep, ZZZZZ.

Which I should do as well.  Sleep.



Monday, June 21, 2010

Max, Ruby, and how to deal with terrible adaptations

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You raise a complicated question, in this era of adaptations and TV spinoffs and You Tube clips. When should we allow our kids to watch a movie adaptation before reading a book, especially if the book is something they're not quite ready for? We try to be purists where we can (or, more accurately, where we feel it would be blasphemous for Eleanor to get a sub-par impression of a character first), but it's not that simple.

So: we read the abridged Wizard of Oz just before watching the movie, and had good conversations about the differences between the two. When Eleanor discovered the Disney Peter Pan book at our local coffee shop, and then was given the movie by her grandparents, we followed it up quickly with a good abridged version as well. But when she followed the same path to the Disney Alice in Wonderland, which is a bizarre movie and bears little resemblance to the book, we let it stand. She's too young for the full-length Alice, and when she gets old enough, I think she'll enjoy it just as much even with the movie for background.

The more insidious adaptations for us at the moment are kids' TV shows. I've mentioned previously that the Little Bear books are better than the TV series; the same goes double for the adaptation of Rosemary Wells's Max books into the TV show "Max and Ruby" and all of its associated products, including books.

The original Max board books are perfect. Each, in ten pages, chronicles a small tussle between Max and his older sister Ruby: Ruby wants Max to eat his egg for breakfast (Max's Breakfast); Ruby gives Max a lobster toy for his birthday, and he's scared of it (Max's Birthday) ; Max is in love with Ruby's doll Emily, and wants to play with her (Max's Toys). Ruby is a big sister trying to exert control, and Max wants to do things his own way, and they are very, very funny. I can't do justice to quite how funny they are without a scanner; when our new one comes, I'll add to this post the image of Max wrapped up in Ruby's stuffed snake after he can't find his red rubber elephant to sleep with in Max's Bedtime.  (As promised.)

There were originally eight Max board books; as far as I can tell, four of them are now out of print: Max's First Word (Ruby tries to get Max to say a word other than "Bang"); Max's Bath; Max's Ride (a great concept book, as Max goes over, under, etc.); and Max's New Suit (Ruby tries to make Max wear his new suit for her party).

I'm taking the time to list them all here, because it's practically impossible to find them by doing a search in the mess of dreadful TV-related "Max and Ruby" books. Ruby, in the TV show and the spinoff books, sounds like somebody's whiny grandma, nagging her way through every lengthy story. (In our house, by contrast, Jeff reads Ruby with a faint Chicago accent -- a nice flat "A." Works perfectly.) The other problem with the series is that, when you enlarge the focus from just Max and Ruby, their lack of parents becomes conspicuous. In the board books, they're the only characters, but it doesn't seem odd: every pair of siblings has some alone time. In the TV show, they apparently live alone in a gigantic house with bizarre computer-generated wallpaper (sombreros in the kitchen). Grandma is in a house nearby, and there are neighbors and friends, but parents just aren't mentioned. This is weird.

Of course, Eleanor loves the show. I've done my best to discourage her from watching it, which has worked somewhat, but her pure experience of Max and Ruby as I knew them from my brother's childhood and before we discovered the TV show has been sullied. I'm sure it won't be the last time.

Love, Annie

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Books and Movies: which comes first?

The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Collection is so great -- I'm mystified why Candlewick Books decided to put it out of print.  One of our readers has asked about how we know about out-of-print books.  There are lots of sources.  Libraries are probably the best.  They have many books which are great and may have gone out of print recently.  Then there are the books you remember from your own childhood -- alas, many of those may be no longer in print.  If you have only a vague memory of the plot, I recommend -- it's lovely.  And once you know what you want, if a library loan isn't permanent enough, check out  It's a consortium of used book stores from all over the country. Prices are usually fairly reasonable, and their assessment of condition is pretty close to accurate.

Moving on..  I wanted to talk a little about movies made from books. The Ramona books, by Beverly Cleary, are going to be put into movie form this summer by Disney.  Having looked at the trailer, this depresses me a lot.  Ramona seems to be well cast, but big sister Beezus is a kind of sexy Selena Gomez -- aack!   And scenes from books spanning Ramona's life from pre-school through fourth grade have all been mushed together.  Cleary has written eight Ramona books, which take her from pre-school to fourth grade.  I'll write more about them in another post, but they're wonderfully written, full of funny moments and wry wit, very empathetic with whatever age Ramona is in the book, and understandingly realistic about the little tensions that exist within families.  Although they've been written in order, one can read any one without having read what came before.  For an excerpt from one of them, see my May 2 post.

 I want to bring up parental policy about movies made from books.  There are, of course, many of them , aimed at many different ages.  I've been impressed over the years how many parents I've talked to in the store who say they insist on reading a book before seeing the movie -- no matter how different the two are.  I know you did this, Annie, with Wizard of Oz.  It gives a child the real story before seeing how Hollywood re-works it.  And it offers lots of teachable moments for discussion  of how elements were changed.

So if there are folks out there with children between say, 5 or 6 and 10, why not do a festival of reading Ramona books before Disney undercuts them?  It would be a lovely way to spend the summer. 



Friday, June 18, 2010

Poetry 4

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Every fall, I do a poetry project with my freshmen which requires them to choose a poet they're not familiar with and delve into his or her work, creating a personal anthology and emulating the poet's work. As we begin, I ask my students about poets and poems they already know and love. Shel Silverstein is always mentioned, and there is always a collective moment of 14-year-old nostalgia -- kids love him. Of course, then I have the sometimes difficult task of steering them towards other poets who are not Shel Silverstein in order to broaden their horizons.

For the die-hard Silverstein fan, another surefire winner is Ogden Nash. Nash wrote volumes and volumes of light verse, some poems more adult than others. The current Nash poem in the zeitgeist, to our family's great joy, is The Adventures of Isabel.

It's the rhyming story of a spunky girl who confronts a variety of unpleasant creatures (bear, witch, giant, doctor) and defeats them in turn. A sample:

Once in a night as black as pitch
Isabel met a wicked old witch.
The witch's face was cross and wrinkled,
The witch's gums with teeth were sprinkled.

Ho, ho, Isabel! the old witch crowed.
I'll turn you into an ugly toad!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry,

She showed no rage
and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk
and drank her.

Eleanor is in love with this book, and not only because the heroine has her little sister's name. Bridget Starr Taylor's illustrations are brightly colored and zingy, imagining all the episodes in a fantastic and connected landscape. The rhyme and rhythm are unbelievably catchy. It includes a CD of Ogden Nash himself reading the poem in his slightly creaky voice. After a good friend gave us the book, Eleanor had us read it aloud to her easily thirty times in two days. She can now recite most of it by heart.

If all that weren't enough, I discovered last night that Natalie Merchant has just released a song using the lyrics to the poem.  [The Youtube link we had up here has been pulled due to copyright issues.  New link is a rehearsal recording of the whole song -- same feel, though Merchant isn't totally on top of the lyrics yet.]

If this is the major cultural artifact Isabel has to contend with growing up, we will consider ourselves very lucky.

After posting about Mother Goose a few nights ago, I realized I'd forgotten to mention our other favorite nursery rhyme book:The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Collection. (Of course, it's out of print. Still findable, though.)

I've always thought of Oxenbury as a brilliant illustrator, but evidently she's quite a good editor and adapter as well. The collection is divided into three parts, each excerpted from other out-of-print Oxenbury books: "Verses from Tiny Tim," "Nursery Rhymes," and "Nursery Stories." We started with the first two sections, before Eleanor was able to listen to longer stories, and there are some fabulous rhymes here. The one we chant most often is "Choosing Shoes," by Frida Wolfe:

New shoes, new shoes,
Red and pink and blue shoes.
Tell me what would you choose,
If they'd let us buy?
Buckle shoes, bow shoes,
Pretty pointy-toe shoes,
Strappy, cappy low shoes;
Let's have some to try.
Bright shoes, white shoes,
Dandy-dance-by-night shoes,
Perhaps-a-little-tight shoes,
Like some? So would I.
Flat shoes, fat shoes,
Stump-along-like-that shoes,
Wipe-them-on-the-mat shoes,
O that's the sort they'll buy.

The stories (Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, The Three Little Pigs, etc.) are mostly wonderful, but Oxenbury doesn't clean them up: two of the little pigs die, as do most of the animals in "Henny Penny." This bothered me more than it did Eleanor.

On the subject of rhyme, we are in love with a weird little book (out of print? Natch.) called Pass the Celery, Ellery!
It's a rhyming alphabet book, with quirky painted illustrations of small people and large food on each page, captioned with polite requests: "Pass the abalone, Tony." "Pass the linguini, Teeny." "Pass the ratatouille, Louis." "Pass the water, daughter." As you might imagine, it's insanely catchy, and led to Eleanor trying to rhyme everything she could, all the time. Worth looking for.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Poetry 3

Dear Annie,

Excellent Mother Goose entry. It’s funny, I never warmed to the Rosemary Wells Mother Goose illustrations – they felt too cute. I may have been reacting more to the covers than the individual illustrations.

So much to say about poetry. Today I want to look at just two, for kids who are already reading. I’d call these both second grade and up (and up and up).

First, there’s Shel Silverstein. It was only when I became a parent that I discovered Silverstein wasn’t just a cartoonist for very adult magazines. The kids’ poetry book that took hold in our house is
Falling Up
, but his other two big collections, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic are very much along the same lines. Short poems, some of which are tied to drawings which add crucial information. Very funny, many of them sort of smart-ass, in a ten year-old kind of way, and often with a punch line.

The ham’s on your pillow,
The egg’s in your sheet,
The bran muffin’s rollin’
Down under your feet,
There’s milk in the mattress,
And juice on the spread –
Well, you said that you wanted
Your breakfast in bed.


That story is creepy,
It’s waily, it’s weepy,
It’s screechy and screamy
Right up to the end.
It’s spooky, it’s crawly,
It’s grizzly, it’s gory,
It’s the awfulest story
(Please tell it again).

An old friend gave Lizzie Falling Up when she was six. We may have read it a bit out loud, but Lizzie wasn’t quite ready for it, and it went on the shelf. Then, when she was in third grade, she started getting up in the morning and reading a poem or two before starting the day. An entertaining easy bite of words, with a sense of humor that really tickles that age. I found Falling Up on her bookshelf today with seven yellowing pieces of newsprint marking favorite poems. The date on one was her fifth grade year.

And then there’s my absolute favorite book of poems for children:
Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices
, by Paul Fleischman. Fleischman is a wonderful writer, always experimenting with form and audience. He won a Newbery for this one. They’re all poems about bugs, and the thing that makes them amazing is that they’re written to be read aloud by two people, sometimes alternating, sometimes together. When I show this book to customers, I often get them to read a few lines out loud with me – it’s the only way you can tell how special they are.

Both my girls each memorized a poem from this book with a friend – I think they were both in third grade at the time. Here’s the start of "Honeybees," which Mona and her friend Margot could recite. There are two columns, one for each voice. Lines next to each other are read together:
Being a bee                                  Being a bee
                                                     is a joy.
is a pain.
                                                     I’m a queen
I’m a worker.
I’ll gladly explain.                        I’ll gladly explain.
                                                     Upon rising, I’m fed
                                                     by my royal attendants,
I’m up at dawn, guarding
the hive’s narrow entrance
                                                     I’m bathed
then I take out
the hive’s morning trash
                                                     then I’m groomed.
then I put in an hour
making wax,
without two minutes’ time
to sit still and relax.      . . .

The whole poem is in a pdf here.
But as I said, it’s really best to hear the poems out loud. I found a number of youtube videos of high school kids and even grownups reading from Joyful Noise. But my prize goes to these guys, reading "Water Striders":



Monday, June 14, 2010

Mother Goose was a poet

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The Piggy in the Puddle is one of the few kids' books I bought for myself as an adult before having children, simply because it cracks me up every single time I read it. What an awesome book.

I agree with you about poetry being everywhere in kids' books. Next time I write, I'll touch on a few books that fit into your other categories, but tonight I want to focus on Mother Goose.

We have several editions of Mother Goose rhymes, each of which has its particular delights.

First, there's the big old classic Real Mother Goose, illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright:

The Real Mother Goose

I think this is the most comprehensive, with rhymes packed in sometimes five to a page. Because there are so many rhymes, it can feel overwhelming, but you find wonderful ones you've never heard of, as well as the golden oldies. There's a Table of Contents, but no index, so it takes some work to find a specific rhyme. The illustrations (first published in 1916) are pleasingly old-fashioned: bonnets and aprons abound. Because of the number of rhymes per page, not every rhyme is illustrated -- this sometimes bothers Eleanor, who wants a picture to go with everything.

Scholastic has put out a series of Real Mother Goose board books as well: The Real Mother Goose Board Book, My First Real Mother Goose, etc. These are lovely and small, easy to read and easier for kids to hold. An interesting side note in terms of our conversation on race: in the smaller board books, Scholastic has photoshopped the illustrations to make some of the children black.

Tomie dePaola has the same combination of big hardcover Mother Goose and little board books as spinoffs:

Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose

Tomie's Little Mother Goose

dePaola's illustrations are simple, cheerful, and childlike. While I love some of his other books to pieces, his Mother Goose illustrations have always struck me as a little too sweet, but maybe that's just me. Some of his rhymes in the big book are one per page, some up to four, with illustrations for each. (His big book does have an index, by the way.)

The Mother Goose we found ourselves reading most often to Eleanor are two books edited by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Have I mentioned how much I love Rosemary Wells? Opie loves her, too. In the introduction to their big book, The Very Best of Mother Goose, she writes:

I firmly believe that Rosemary Wells is Mother Goose's cousin and has inherited the family point of view. Her illustrations exactly reflect Mother Goose's many moods: glumpish, her animals look wickedly askance at the world; happy, they almost dance off the page; cosily at home, there is no greater depth of contentment. They make me shout with glee.

While the big book we have is out of print (hence the Alibris link), it appears to be a combination of two Opie/Wells books that are still quite happily in print:

My Very First Mother Goose

Here Comes Mother Goose

Tons of rhymes, each with its own giant watercolor illustrations, and joy on every page. Chapters. An index. And, of course, associated board books.

Finally, there's the Opie/Wells book of lesser-known rhymes:

Mother Goose's Little Treasures

We read this one a lot. It has some fabulous oddball rhymes, so I'll end with two of our favorites:

Mrs. Whirly sells fish,
Three ha'pence a dish.
Don't buy it,
don't buy it;
It stinks
when you fry it.


When the rain raineth
And the goose winketh,
Little knows the gosling
What the goose thinketh.

Man, I need to get a working scanner.

Love, Annie

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Poetry 1

Dear Annie,

There's been a question about poetry for two-to-five year olds, so for the moment I’ll stick with pre-readers. The big question for me is, what is poetry for someone that young? Bob reminds me that somewhere in our house we have a five-pound book with bible-thin pages called something like “Poems for Children,” the majority of which were written in the 19th century. I bought it at some point when the girls were quite young, but we can’t remember ever opening it. One had the impression there would be a lot of sorting through to find the gems within.

There are wonderful books of poetry, like A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, eloquently praised by you on 5/5/10, and  Now We Are Six. And everyone needs Mother Goose – in any edition – even if some of the poems are weirdly incomprehensible. For a very beginner book of poems, Jane Yolen’s
Here's A Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry
, collects a lot of later 20th century poets (Mary Ann Hoberman, Jack Prelutsky, Rosemary Wells, Nikki Grimes, and more) in simple, sweet and funny works.

Does poetry mean rhyming? Lots of fun, and a necessary concept to grasp before one moves on to learning how to read. But look at the books you’re already reading:

I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them Sam I Am.
(Green Eggs and Ham)

I meant what I said,
and I said what I meant
An elephant's faithful,
One hundred percent.
(Horton Hatches the Egg)

Just about all of Dr. Seuss is rhyme, as are many many others. Do I recall an Eleanor anecdote about her speaking in Dr. Seuss meter? A book I committed to memory early in parenthood was
The Piggy in the Puddle
, by Charlotte Pomerantz :

See the piggy,
See the puddle,
See the muddy little puddle.
See the piggy in the middle
Of the muddy little puddle.
See her dawdle, see her diddle
In the muddy, muddy middle.
See her waddle, plump and little,
In the very merry middle.


The Seven Silly Eaters
by Mary Ann Hoberman, with great Marla Frazee illustrations, seems to have a life of its own at the store – flies off the shelf.

Not so long ago, they say,
A mother lived -- just like today.
Mrs. Peters was her name,
Her little boy was named the same.
Now Peter was a perfect son
In every way – except for one.

He was a picky eater, as were his six younger siblings. The action centers on all seven of them trying to agree on what to make their mother for her birthday. Hilarity all around.

Or by poetry, do we mean economy of language and vividness of imagery? Writing a picture book is not unlike writing a poem. Even though the imagery is helped along by the pictures, every word counts, and text is sparing. I offer one recent spare-text book by Emily Gravett,
Orange Pear Apple Bear
which is a combination of just those four words and great illustration. Is this not poetry?

I don’t want to sound too hokey, but when you’re reading with pre-schoolers, poetry is all around you.  This is of course the beginning of a conversation which we'll come back to quite a lot. 



Thursday, June 10, 2010

Blog housekeeping and a request for our readers

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I want to respond to the poetry question (lots to say there!), but I think it will have to wait until Monday. Right now, I'm spending some time making it easier for readers to search our blog.

Hi, readers! Let me tell you what we're doing, and ask for your help.

First, we're adding a section on the right side of the blog, under the Blog Archive, called "Book Lists." If you look there, you'll find several pages addressing different age groups: Books for babies, Picture books, etc. On each page, we'll post lists of the books we've discussed on the blog, starting from Day One. Each book title will link back to the blog post where we first discussed that book. (Check out "Picture books" to see how it will work -- that's the one I've done the most work on so far.) We'll finish the archived posts over the weekend, and keep these lists current as we post from now on.

Second, we'd like to start expanding our readership and linking to other blogs. We're starting a list of kid-lit blogs we like at the bottom of the right side of the blog. If you have other favorite blogs you go to for children's literature browsing needs, please tell us about them! You can post in the Comments section of this post, or email us at

Finally, if you're a reader who's started coming here regularly and you like what you're reading, please tell your friends! We're having fun with this, and we're thrilled to hear from you.

Love, Annie

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Inside Outside

Dear Annie,

It's more of a concept book than specifically opposites, but I've always really liked
Inside Outside Upside Down
. I think your mother gave it to us. It was written by the Berenstains back before the dreaded Bears (I'm so not a BB fan), and it's wonderfully engaging and simple. It has to do with a bear getting into a box, the box being loaded upside down onto a truck, and then bouncing off the truck and landing right side up. The bear runs home to report, "Mama mama I went to town: inside, outside, upside down!" A cautionary note: this comes in a board book and a jacketless hardcover. Don't get the board book: most of the Bright & Early Board Books series have been abridged. I don't know if this one is, but the others are fairly drastic.  The cover has been tarted up to make it look like a Berenstain Bears book, but inside it's not.

I've always been a little ambivalent about
Food for Thought
: all those vegetable people feel a little weird. That said, though, I do like
How Are You Peeling?: Foods with Moods
, which isn't quite as busy at Food for Thought.  One of several good books on emotions.

Rachel posted a comment looking for good poetry books for the 2-to-5 crowd, which I fully intend to speak to, but I want to rummage around in the shelves at the store before coming up with a list of favorites.  Where does Eleanor stand on poetry? 


Aunt Debbie

Monday, June 7, 2010


Dear Aunt Debbie,

How lovely to read about Thurber -- I hadn't thought of those books in ages, but deeply love every one of them, not least because they remind me of Grandpa. I remember poring over the illustrations in The 13 Clocks, which are so saturated and rich. I remember the moment I got the joke in The Wonderful O about why Ophelia Oliver had to hide from society when no one was allowed to pronounce the letter O anymore. Towards the end of Grandpa's life, I remember reading him a lot of My Life and Hard Times, and even though his memory was fading and he couldn't keep track of the narrative for too long, he savored every sentence. He'd stop me and say, "He could really write." I'm going to go put Many Moons on the library list right now.

A few days ago, our friend Beth (mother of the indomitable Max) emailed to ask for recommendations on books about opposites.

The first that sprang to mind was

Olivia's Opposites

I actually like this book better than the more narrative Olivia books. (Perhaps "narrative" is the wrong word, as Ian Falconer's Olivia series sort of meander along with a partial plot that doesn't get very far before turning its attention to something else.) It's a very short board book, all black and white drawings with red accents, and has pairs of pictures of Olivia doing opposite things: "coming" and "going" on a scooter; "quiet" and "loud" involving taming a lion; "plain" and "fancy" with Olivia dressing up. Eleanor liked it early, and we've read it a lot.

Then there's the wonderful
Quick as a Cricket

I didn't even think of this as an opposites book at first -- Audrey Wood's text and Don Wood's illustrations have such personality to them. On each page, a boy compares himself to different animals with opposite characteristics: "I'm as quick as a cricket/I'm as slow as a snail. I'm as small as an ant/I'm as large as a whale." This is another one of the books we read aloud with accents ("I'm as tame as a poodle" always comes out British, while "I'm as wild as a chimp" is broad Southern). It's a great one for exploring the idea that we all contain multitudes.

Finally, I want to mention a book that has a section on opposites but is so, so much more:

Food For Thought

Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers are crazy geniuses. On each page of this (quite long) book, they have cut and shaped different kinds of fruit and vegetables to resemble faces, shapes, and animals illustrating a variety of concepts: colors, the alphabet, numbers, and, yes, opposites. Their leek people, cauliflower and olive sheep, and bok choy fish are not to be believed.

What else do you recommend on the opposites front?

Love, Annie

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Bard of Columbus

Dear Annie,

The time has come to celebrate James Thurber (1894-1961), best known for his essays and cartoons for The New Yorker, but also a wonderful children’s author. He was from Columbus, Ohio, not far from Cambridge, where my father, your grandfather, grew up. Grandpa always felt an affinity for Thurber – mostly because of their shared love of language – but also for the Midwestern sensibility. Four of Thurber’s books – two fairy tales, a fable, and a memoir – are wonderful family reads with children of different ages:

Many Moons
, with two editions in print, each with a different illustrator, is a read-in-one-sitting picture book. A young princess is fading away because she wants someone to bring her the moon. All the wise men of the kingdom tell the king why it’s impossible – it’s 35,000 miles away and made of molten copper, 150,000 miles away and made of green cheese, 300,000 miles away and pasted on the sky. The court jester finally asks the girl how big the moon is, and she says, “It is just a little smaller than my thumbnail, for when I hold my thumbnail up at the moon, it just covers it.” The jester gets the goldsmith to make a very small golden disk and hang it on a chain:
“What is this thing I have made?” asked the Royal Goldsmith when he had finished it.
“You have made the moon,” said the Court Jester. “That is the moon.”
“But the moon,” said the Royal Goldsmith, “is 500,000 miles away and is made of bronze and is round like a marble.”
“That’s what you think,” said the Court Jester as he went away with the moon.

The 13 Clocks
is a chapter book fairy tale, complete with evil duke, imprisoned princess, and disguised prince, as well as various magical characters. In the introduction to the New York Review of Books reprinted edition, Neil Gaiman calls it “probably the best book in the world.” Superlatives can always be debated, but the language and the story in this one are very special. It makes a great read-aloud because sometimes the paragraphs reveal themselves to be poetry as one reads. As in this scene, where the Golux, a magical ally of the prince, is figuring out a charm put on the commoner Hagga that turns her tears into jewels: if the tears are sad, the jewels are permanent, but tears of laughter soon dissolve.

“What happened on that awful day to make him value sorrow over and above the gift of laughter? Why have these jewels turned to tears a fortnight after?”
“There was a farmer from a near-by farm, who laughed,” said Hagga. “’On second thought,’ the good king said, ‘I will amend and modify the gift I gave you. The jewels of sorrow will last beyond all measure, but may the jewels of laughter give you little pleasure.’”
The Golux groaned. “If there’s one thing in the world I hate,” he said, “it is amendments.”

The Wonderful O
(also reprinted by NYRB) was one of my favorites as a child, although I now understand I must have been reading on my own for several years before I discovered it. It has held a special place in my brother’s heart as well, because your Uncle Al frequently wielded Captain Black’s threat: “ I”ll squck his thrug till all he can whupple is geep.” The book is the story of pirates from the black-sailed ship Aeiu taking over the peaceful island of Ooroo and banishing the use of the letter O. The book is all wordplay, with lots of lists of things permitted and banished
There was great consternation on the island now for people could have pigs, but no hogs or pork or bacon; sheep, but no mutton or wool; calves, but no cows. Geese were safe as long as one of them did not stray from the rest and become a goose, and if one of a family of mice wandered from the nest, he became a mouse and lost his impunity. Children lost their ponies, and farmers their colts and horses and goats and their donkeys and their oxen.
A clandestine resistance movement is organized, and of course eventually triumphs. The best way to read this book is aloud, with a child who is already a comfortable reader sitting next to you. So both of you can hear the marvels of the language, and also scan each line for the forbidden O.

And last, the perfect book to take to the beach (or wherever family vacation takes you):
My Life and Hard Times
, a thin volume of essays about Thurber’s childhood. Best known of the bunch is “The Night the Bed Fell,” one of the classic stories of American humor. I can never decide if I find that one the funniest, or “More Alarms in the Night,” which has young Jamie waking his father in the middle of the night because he has forgotten a name:
I had been trying all afternoon, in vain, to think of the name Perth Amboy. It seems now like a very simple name to recall and yet on the day in question I thought of every other town in the country, as well as such words and names and phrases as terra cotta, Walla-Walla, bill of lading, vice versa, hoity-toity, Pall Mall, Bodley Head, Schumann-Heink, etc., without even coming close to Perth Amboy. I suppose terra cotta was the closest I came, although it was not very close.
The New Jersey Turnpike has never been the same for me.

One caveat on this very funny book. I would recommend a parent reading “A Succession of Servants” on one’s own before plunging into it aloud. It’s a reminiscence about many different maids from many different ethnic groups who worked for the Thurbers. Some of the language is a century old, particularly Thurber’s rendition of black dialect. There’s nothing that screams, oh-no-can’t-do-this-one, but it would help to know what you’re getting into.

My Life and Hard Times, which was written for adults, probably works best with older kids -- maybe 9 or 10 and up. And of course grown-ups: bring it along for yourself, too.



Saturday, June 5, 2010

More new baby and sibling books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

On brand-new babies:

We adore Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (such a great book to address guilt over doing something mean and then regretting it), and read Julius, the Baby of the World soon after Isabel was born. However, we ran into the Bedtime for Frances problem: Eleanor started saying more negative things about Isabel as a consequence of reading the book than she had been on her own. We returned it to the library.

Another book you gave us in the same vein, with wonderful, realistic illustrations by Michael Emberly is Robie H. Harris's Hi New Baby!

Hi New Baby!

An older sister is less than thrilled by the appearance of her younger brother (the line Eleanor quoted from this one is "That baby is yucky!"), but quickly has some fond moments with him. One of the things I like about this one is that it's narrated by Dad, talking to the older sister in retrospect: remember when this happened?

Eleanor also really likes the book Rachel recommended in her comment, How to Be a Baby...By Me, the Big Sister. It contains some very funny lists.

On older sibling/younger sibling relationships:

As I've mentioned before, I love the treatment of sibling jealousy in A Birthday for Frances.

Rosemary Wells does siblings incredibly well. Two of our favorites (there are so many great ones) are Noisy Nora and Stanley and Rhoda (sadly, out of print).

Noisy Nora

Nora is the middle sibling, and spends the book watching her parents pay attention to her older sister and baby brother, then acting out in huge operatic ways ("First she banged the window/Then she felled some chairs/Then she took her brother's kite and flew it down the stairs!"). When all of the attention she gets is negative, she decides to run away, and everyone immediately misses her. Perhaps my favorite illustration here is Nora holding up a muffin pan in her little mouse hands, clearly about to drop it and make as much noise as she can.

Stanley and Rhoda

Stanley is a studious looking, responsible mouse, and Rhoda is his louder and far less responsible little sister. There are three stories in the book; our favorite is "Don't Touch it, Don't Look at It," in which Rhoda gets a bee sting and freaks out, while Stanley quietly calms her down.

I'll save the Max and Ruby books (NOT the ones connected with the TV show, blech) for another post. They deserve their own.

Finally, on a positive sibling note, I want to mention another gift from you:


David McPhail's drawings of the older sister and younger sister playing together and separately have a nice pencil-sketch feel to them, and his spare text describes two girls who you feel would be fun to hang out with. It's a good Here's how we're different/ Here's how we're alike book.

Love, Annie

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Aack! New Baby!

Dear Annie,

Before I go on to new sibling books, I have one last discovery to add to the Best-Ever cover change. Remember the cover for
Best-Ever Big Sister
, which I thought had been unchanged? Well, guess what arrived at the store today?:

The change isn't as drastic as going from an African-American kid to blond hair and blue eyes, as they did with the brother (see 6/1 post) . But she still isn't who she used to be.

You ask about new sibling books. The Best-Evers are fine, and good for toddlers, complete with lift-the-flaps. They fall into the see-what-I-can-do category of big sibling books: reassure older sibling by celebrating his/her accomplishments, plant the idea that older child will be able to teach younger. My favorite of this type currently in print is Babies Can't Eat Kimchee, addressed quite nicely by you on 5/28.

Then there are the informational books. New baby will come. Mom and Dad will go to hospital and come back. Small baby won't be able to do anything. etc. Joanna Cole (yes, the Magic School Bus person) is an author who can do those books very straightforwardly, and they can be useful to introduce the subject:
These books have also gone through a redesign: these are the re-illustrated versions of what were books with bright red or blue covers.

Then there are the I-don't-want-this-baby-here books. They're often the best literature of the lot, because they tell good stories. See especially A Baby Sister for Frances in your 5/22 post. And the favorite in our house was always
Julius the Baby of the World
by Kevin Henkes (two syllables) with the flamboyant Lilly (of the Purple Plastic Purse) in the role of obnoxious older sibling. Much of the book is her very funny but intense comments on how much she dislikes new baby Julius. In the end, she's offended by a cousin making similar criticisms, and she rises to Julius' defense. Illustrations show that the siblings become fast friends. Because Lilly's feelings are so raw, this is not the first book you want to read with your soon-to-be older sibling. But for an older child, or some months into the new baby's life, it's very funny.

One other, new last year, which doesn't quite fit any of my categories above:
Surprise Soup
, by Mary Ann Rodman tells the story of two brothers and a father making soup for their mother as they await her arrival home with the new baby. Younger brother Kevie is constantly being put down or ignored by the older, and even Dad doesn't hear what he says -- Kevie's the only one who knows Mom's secret ingredient. All turns out well in the end, and it's a very cozy family story. Also a good reminder that life doesn't always revolve around the baby.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Race in children's books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What a depressing, jerky move from the folks at Penguin! I do think about race as one factor when I buy children's books, in pretty much the way you describe: I think it's a good idea for Eleanor and Isabel to have a variety of images of people in the books that surround them. (This is one of the reasons I've also been on the hunt for good books with same-sex couples in them. More on my favorites in that category in an upcoming post.)

Eleanor has, to date, never commented on the question of race, in terms of the people we know (and she has a somewhat mixed group of friends), illustrations in books, or depictions in movies. We recently watched the live-action Disney Cinderella starring Brandy, and I wondered if she would comment on the race-blind casting: Cinderella is black, the evil stepmother (Bernadette Peters) is white; one of the stepsisters is black, the other white; the king is white, the queen (Whoopi Goldberg) is black, and the prince is Filipino. Not a word, even when we discussed some of the differences between this version and the cartoon.

I'm always happy to open a book Eleanor has picked out at the library and find that the characters in it aren't all white. On Eleanor's friend Ian's recommendation, we checked out one such book yesterday, by Jane Ray:

The Apple-Pip Princess

It's a sweet fairy tale: a widowed king says he's going to retire and choose one of his three daughters to rule his kingdom. Each princess has to do something to prove her worth. Predictably, the two elder princesses are too selfish, and mess it up, while the third uses magical gifts of the land left to her by her mother to plant a lot of magic trees and win in spite of not being grand. It's a little bit treacly in places (the good princess is named Serenity), but the illustrations are wonderful, and Eleanor adores it. Everyone in the book is dark-skinned, and there's no mention of race.

On the fairy tale front, another library discovery of ours are the gorgeous retellings of classic tales illustrated in African-inspired collage by Rachel Isadora. The first of these we read was The Fisherman and His Wife.

The Fisherman and His Wife

Isadora's collages are vibrantly colored and energetic -- if we had a working scanner at the moment, I'd show you the ocean getting darker and more furious as the fisherman's wife continues to ask for ridiculous things from the flounder. We also like Isadora's versions of Hansel and Gretel and The Princess and the Pea, though be forewarned: Hansel and Gretel is a dark story, and the illustrations of the witch are quite frightening; and The Princess and the Pea is, at bottom, not an interesting story at all, though Isadora's illustrations of different African princesses are beautiful, and she teaches you how to say hello in three different African languages.

Then there are some of the gifts we've gotten from you. Three that pop immediately to mind:

Where Is Gah-Ning?

As we've said before, Bob Munsch is hysterical. This was the first of his books we'd ever read, and it has some of his trademark style: lots of pleasing repetition in the dialogue, as Gah-Ning tells her father she wants to go to Kapuskasing, and he says no to every way she could get there, followed by a totally ridiculous plot twist and a happy ending. Gah-Ning and her family are Chinese, and some of the other characters are white, but again, there's no mention of race.

Oscar's Half Birthday

Bob Graham includes a nice variety of characters in his books: in Oscar's Half Birthday, mom is black, dad is white, and the kids are mixed-race (as well as being supernaturally well-behaved, especially at bedtime). It's a very sweet depiction of an older sister and baby brother. We also liked Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child, in which Annabelle (the girl who sees the fairies) and her family are white, and all the fairies are darker-skinned -- possibly Latino?

Finally, there is the joyful, perfect poem of a book by Trisha Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury:

So Much

It's a story about waiting and having people arrive: a new family member comes in on every other page, with a catch-phrase ("Hello hello!" "Yooo-hooo!") and something they want to do to the baby ("I want to kiss the baby! I want to kiss him so much!"). On the alternating pages, all the people in the house sit and wait together, and the drawings become sepia-toned. The family is black, British, and incredibly warm. Helen Oxenbury's drawings of babies are pitch-perfect.

All of which is a long way of saying that, given books with the two covers you referenced in your last post, I'd be more likely to buy the one with the black kids. However, there are a number of other books I like better for addressing new sibling issues. What are your favorites in that category?

Love, Annie