In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The joy -- and danger -- of bookstores

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'd love to hear you go into detail about the Berenstain Bears sometime.  Not a fan of them myself -- too preachy.

We went to a marvelous bookstore today -- Anderson's Bookshop, in Eleanor and Isabel's grandparents' town.  Fabulous children's section, including a train table, and lots of really well-chosen books.  Eleanor was thrilled to recognize some of her favorites, but then as we got really into looking, she gravitated toward the Disney and Barbie junk: bright-pink books with no plots to speak of and no actual authors listed.  She spent much of the rest of the visit enthralled by them (they were all, of course, on the lower shelves, just at her eye-level).  She asked to buy them, but didn't put up much of an argument when we said no -- we were walking out with several other purchases.  But it made me wonder: when you stock your shelves, how much of the junky bestselling branded stuff do you put out there?  Where do you draw the line?

One of the books we did buy was one I remember from my childhood, but hadn't seen or thought of for years: Tikki Tikki Tembo, a Chinese folktale retold by Arlene Mosel, with utterly appealing woodcut-like drawings by Blair Lent.  It's a simple story about two brothers who, on two separate occasions, fall into a well.  The second brother's name is Chang, so his older brother is able to explain quickly to their mother and then to the Old Man With The Ladder what's happened.  But the elder brother is named "Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi pip peri pembo," and that is the joy of this book.  Tikki tikki tembo's full name appears on almost every page, and as Chang tries to tell his mother and the Old Man With The Ladder to come rescue him, he runs out of breath and can barely get the words out.  So much fun to read aloud.  When we got back to the house, it was the first one Eleanor wanted to read, and I think we'll be hearing a lot of it in the days to come.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Dear Annie,

What a magical time you're having these days.  Ahhh.

The Wind in  the Willows was one of those Stuart Little moments for me.  I think I tried engaging my kids in the book at too young an age -- and I didn't have the amazing help of Inga Moore's illustrations.  It was a book that I had loved, but that never took with my next generation.

Inga Moore is great.  She's also done a heavily-illustrated, unabridged
The Secret Garden
which is gorgeous.

Sticking with good illustration and three or four year-olds, I wanted to talk about a new and lovely book by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska: 
The Quiet Book
There are many kinds of quiet:/ First one awake quiet/jelly side down quiet/Don't scare the robin quiet/Others telling secrets quiet....

The whole book is a list.  The pictures are good (bordering on cute, maybe, but still very expressive), and the situations cover a huge range.  What I love about this book is that it's such a good one to talk about with a child.  It gives you the opportunity to delve into how one feels in response to a whole gamut of stimuli.  It's so much more natural than sitting down with a clunky this-is-how-we-feel book (I am a deep disliker of the dreaded Berenstain bears -- but that can hold for another day).  And there's so much to imagine.  An excellent conversation starter.



Monday, July 26, 2010

Vacation reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It is such a gift to be on vacation in a quiet place, a place removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  Or at least, as removed as you can be with a 3 1/2 year old and a 10 month old in tow.

We brought a small selection of books with us for the plane and the week away: a few board books, a few longer picture books, and one chapter book to see if it would work for Eleanor.  I'm happy to report that it did, and that the reason it did has everything to do with the extraordinary illustrations of Inga Moore.

The book is a somewhat abridged version of The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame.  I'm not sure exactly how abridged it is -- clearly, it's had a few chapters cut out, but the chapters which remain don't feel heavily edited.  I don't know the original text well enough to tell how much has been taken out; I think I read it as a kid, but it didn't leave a huge impression.  That is clearly because I didn't have Inga Moore's illustrations to look at while I was reading.  

What stuck from my childhood was a vague memory of Mr. Toad running around the countryside madly, which he does.  I may have remembered his obsession with motor-cars.  What I didn't remember at all are the shadings of fond and close friendship between the Mole and the Water Rat.  After reading aloud all week, I feel terribly fond of Mole, who is so thrilled by the life of the riverbank and the feel of the sun and being aboveground that he gives up his tunnel home and moves in with Ratty for the duration of the book.  Mole is appreciative of the world around him, and reading Grahame's words and looking at Moore's drawings, the English countryside and riverbank come to life.  

I am without my scanner, so the best I could do was to take a picture of one illustration and upload that; I'll scan in a few choice pages when we get home (done!).

You can see how expressive everybody is: Mole's sweet little face, Mr. Badger's instructional tone, the Water Rat's alertness.

The text alone would not have held Eleanor: this is absolutely a book for older kids.  But the drawings pulled her in -- there is a drawing on almost every single page, some threaded through the text: 
some a double-page spread:


some small:

Especially when we got to Mr. Toad's adventures, she was rapt, and able later in the day to recount all the major plot points to her grandparents (who gave her this beautiful book).  

It's interesting to read this as an adult and recognize Toad as the portrait of an addict.  His friends, led by Mr. Badger, have a major intervention to cure him of his self-destructive motor-car buying and crashing behavior, and when they lock him in his room, he goes through withdrawal symptoms (see text of small picture, above).  Toad's exploits are funny, but also kind of disturbing: he lies, steals, is thrown in jail, escapes to lie and steal again.  He's never exactly repentant.  But there's something Mark Twainish about him, more than just the riverbank setting, a kind of craftiness that you have to enjoy even as you deplore it.  Mole and Ratty and Mr. Badger clearly feel the same way, and stay with him through it all.  I'm looking forward to reading it again.

Love, Annie

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Back to the beat

Dear Annie,

Doonesbury: what a great idea.

I know I did an about-face in my last post: from jazz and rhythm for toddlers to war for pre-teens.  Sorry about that (to use a Vietnam War-coined phrase).  So now that I've scanned a few pictures from music books into my computer, I'll lurch back to little ones and music.

You hit the two of the best books on rhythm, so I want to move on to more classical fare.  Starting with the delightfully illustrated
Zin! Zin! a Violin
by Lloyd Moss. It introduces ten instruments, one page at a time, starting with the trombone:
With mournful moan and silken tone,
Itself along comes ONE TROMBONE.
Gliding, sliding, high notes go low;
I can imagine your household, with your talent for accents and singing.  Next, the trumpet, giving the enthusiastic feel of Marjorie Priceman's pictures:

It goes on through cello, harp, clarinet and more.  Then they file onto a stage, and play:

The STRINGS all soar, the REEDS implore,
The BRASSES roar with notes galore.
It's music that we all adore.
It's what we go to concerts for.
A happy line of hand-holding cats, dog, and a mouse boogie across the bottom of the page.

And speaking of concerts, I'm ending with my favorite book for young concert-goers:
The Philharmonic Gets Dressed

by Karla Kuskin.  It fits into the tradition of Ramona wondering about Mike Mulligan going to the bathroom.  In this one, we follow the getting-ready rituals of many of the 105 members of an orchestra:
First they get washed.  There are ninety-two men and thirteen women.  Many take showers.  A few take baths.  Two men and three women run bubblebaths, and one man reads in the tub while the cat watches. One woman sits in the bubbles and sings.
They dry off, put on underwear (boxers and briefs for the men, and an array of early '80s underwear for the women), each step with Marc Simont's  illustrations of six or more people, each doing things slightly differently:

There are ties and overcoats and saying goodbye and getting transportation to the concert hall.  The book ends with "the man with the black and white wavy hair" (we've been following him too) stepping onto the podium, raising his baton, and starting the music.

What I love about this book is that it takes seriously all those little steps which can dominate parts of the day for small children, and which adults tend not to mention much (see Miss Binney, in Ramona quote referenced above).  And it turns a somewhat confusing crowd of grown-ups into people who put on their pants (mostly) one leg at a time.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Graphic depictions of war

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Ten years old -- yeesh.  I don't know what I'd recommend.  I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on the Walter Dean Myers, though; he's so good at so many other subjects.  I'm very much of your opinion, that the best thing a parent can do when a kid has a strong interest is to study it along with him or her, exploring what's out there and talking about it together.  Of course, I haven't had too much of that experience yet with Eleanor, except for requests for stories about princesses.

I'm wondering if something like Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury cartoons about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be appropriate.  They're accessible, though not aimed at kids, and when I've read comments on his work it seems like servicemen and women think they're really accurate.  Because every comic was published in daily papers, they're also guaranteed not to be too harrowing or inappropriate. 

The trilogy of Iraq War stand-alone books Trudeau has put out focus on life-changing injuries suffered in the war: BD's loss of his leg (and helmet); a young soldier nicknamed Toggle and his injuries, including TBI (traumatic brain injury), which leaves him unable to speak clearly.  Most of the comics in these books are focused on rehabilitation and recovery, but they provide a searing and honest picture of the war and its effect on soldiers.  The books: The Long Road Home, The War Within, and Signature Wound. You can find a complete archive of all his comic strips, as well as a ton of information, at

I started reading Doonesbury books at Grandma and Grandpa's house when I was little, finding them on the cartoon shelf with all the Pogo books and New Yorker cartoon compilations.  While I didn't fully understand them at first, they made an impression, and as I returned to them again and again while the grownups were talking in the living room, they gave me a real sense of American political history over the past 40 years.  Maybe this is a good way in?

In 2006, Trudeau also started a blog for current forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The Sandbox contains posts directly from soldiers.  I haven't read much of it, and don't have a sense of whether it's kid-appropriate, but this might be something for a parent to read with a kid.  There's also a Sandbox book, which again I haven't read, but might be worth reading with or before an interested kid does.

You mentioned Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. This is perhaps my favorite book to teach of all time.  It's a collection of linked stories about the Vietnam War, but more than that, it's a book about storytelling.  I teach it to high school juniors and seniors in a Writers' Workshop course, where students have signed up to explore creative writing.  I wouldn't recommend it for kids younger than 15 or 16, for two reasons.  First, some of the scenes contain images of disturbing violence and of death.  Second (and perhaps more importantly, as most teenagers these days have seen a lot of violent images by the time they hit high school), O'Brien plays with truth-telling in complex ways, and in my experience, most ninth-graders and younger won't fully get what he's writing about.

By telling and re-telling certain stories in the book, and calling it "a work of fiction" but narrating in the voice of a character named "Tim O'Brien," O'Brien confronts readers over and over with the question of what in his book is true, and what truth even means.  He offers his own definition of "story-truth" -- something that can be true without having happened -- and "happening-truth," something which occurred.  Story-truth, he says, can be truer than happening-truth.  (You discuss that with a roomful of 16 and 17 year olds, and you blow their minds.)  It's an extraordinary book, and a potent model to get students to write about difficult experiences in their own lives.  And O'Brien's writing is both gorgeous and straightforward.  In ten years of teaching, I have not had a single student who didn't like this book.

On that note, I'm off to pack.  We're heading out on vacation for a week and a half, so while I should be able to keep posting, I won't have my whole library to draw from.  But we'll make do.

Love, Annie

Monday, July 19, 2010

Combat and kids

Dear Annie,

I love Charlie Parker Played Be Bop.  I also love Hand Hand Fingers Thumb, but feel extremely guilty that I knew you were reading the abridged board book version, but I still haven't sent you the
unabridged one
. Unlike many of those Bright & Early abridged board books, I think the one you've got hasn't changed the words, which is what makes it so good.  I've always thought of the book as having some historical content: those monkeys are such beatniks, as is their beat.  Published in 1969, oddly enough, in the post-beat era.

I'm doing an about-face on topic here, because I had an interesting question today at the store. A ten year-old boy and his mom were looking for books for him about the Iraq war.  He had seen and wanted an adult book,
The Good Soldiers
, by David Finkel. I carry it because the American Library Association listed it on their Ten Best Adult Books for Teenagers list, and because it's a good, (although searing) book.  I completely do not see it as a book for a ten year-old, no matter how precocious.  He really wanted something about the Iraq war -- was basically tired of the many books that exist for his age group about World War II and earlier.  He wanted to read about something that takes place during his lifetime.  His mother worried that he was caught up in the romance of war and combat, although she was willing to pursue the question.  I find it hard to imagine anything depicting romance of war in a combat zone in which roadside bombs and suicide bombs are two of the main methods of killing.

I found two possibilities, both rated as Young Adult, and neither of which I've read.  I carry
Sunrise Over Fallujah
by Walter Dean Myers, a writer whom I usually like a lot.  The novel focuses on the men and women in one company, during 2003.  The reviews give the impression that Myers communicates the terror and frustration of the war, but aims it at a school-age audience.

The other book I found (good old Google) and have ordered to look at is called
Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI
by Ryan Smithson. It's one young man's memoir of fighting in Iraq. The book was published in 2009, but appears to be based on events a few years earlier.  I have the impression it doesn't have the literary strength of the other two books.

There are also books about the non-combatants: children whose parents go off to war, child refugees displaced by war.  They held no interest for my young customer.

I've ended up full of questions I don't know the answers to.  What to do for this very likable smart ten year-old boy?  Does one help one's child pursue interests wherever they lead?  My immediate reaction is yes, and the parent goes along for the ride.  This mother was definitely planning to read whatever her son ended up getting.  At what age does one start exploring the horrifying-but-true? 

I know you teach The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, to your high school students.  Freshmen?  Seniors? Is there a difference? What are your reactions to this ten year-old?

This all feels a long way from last week's festival of love.  But one of the things I really like about my job  is the constant surprise of where books can lead kids -- and adults.



Saturday, July 17, 2010

Books with a good beat

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What a wedding! It's taking us more than a day to recuperate.  As we return to normal life here, images from the past week of family celebration keep floating through my mind.  One of my favorites has got to be Eleanor dancing behind the New Orleans-style second line band leading the guests to the ceremony (a brilliant idea for a wedding, by the way).  From infancy, Eleanor has loved a good beat -- we used to calm her colicky crying with Jimi Hendrix -- and Isabel is now the same way.

I've been thinking about books that mimic the rhythm and feel of a good song.  Two of our favorites are board books about music, one with some historical content, and one that's just good and silly.

Chris Raschka's Charlie Parker Played Be Bop reads like a jazz riff.  It provides the absolute basic facts about the jazz great Charlie Parker: "Charlie Parker played be bop.  Charlie Parker played saxophone."  and then goes into what the music sounds like, with rhyming rhythmic words: "Be bop.  Fisk, fisk. Lollipop.  Boomba, boomba.  Bus stop.  Zznnzznn.  Boppity, bibbity, bop...."  Raschka's illustrations include dancing boots and chickadees, and a sour-looking black cat ("Never leave your cat alone.").  It's impossible to read this book without bopping and tapping your foot yourself.

Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb
is nonsense rhyme about monkeys drumming on drums.  It, too, asks for a reading with steady rhythm: "Hand, hand, fingers, thumb.  One thumb, one thumb, drumming on a drum.  One hand, two hands, drumming on a drum.  Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum."  I think I have the whole thing memorized.  The monkeys in Eric Gurney's drawings are so pleased with themselves and their drumming, and the book is so joyful and silly, that it's been one of our favorites for ages.

I'm sure there are more music-related books out there that mimic the feel of the songs they write about -- do you have some favorites in this category?

Love, Annie

Thursday, July 15, 2010

True love: the ceremony

Dear Annie,

I'm writing this the morning of your brother's wedding.  I love the tribute to true love you just posted, and thought I'd continue in that vein.  Here are excerpts from two truly wonderful pieces of children's literature.

First, as you know, I'm a very big Beverly Cleary fan.  This is from
Ramona Forever
, set in the summer after her third grade year.  Ramona's aunt is marrying her friend Howie's uncle.  The ever-frugal Quimbys have new dresses for their daughters to wear in the wedding party, but figure they can make do with their old party shoes:

“Beezus, my feet are killing me,” whispered Ramona with tears in her eyes.  “My shoes are way too short.”
“So are mine,” agreed Beezus. “I'll never make it down the aisle”
Grandmother Kemp was lining up the wedding party in the order in which they were to enter the church.  “Once you reach your place at the front of the church, don't move,” she ordered.
“Quick,” whispered Beezus to Ramona.  “Give me your shoes.”  Astonished, Ramona obeyed.  As the wedding party proceeded through the reception room to the vestibule of the church, Beezus dropped the two pairs of slippers into a large bouquet of rhododendron blossoms.  When the organ burst forth with the processional, the girls stifled their giggles.  Uncle Hobart's friends, the bearded ushers splendid in their rented clothes, grinned at the girls and, after escorting Howie's mother and grandmother and Mrs. Quimby to the front pew, returned to walk slowly down the aisle together.
Ramona and Beezus counted to four.  With the carpet tickling the bottoms of their feet and their nosegays quivering from nervousness, they followed, slowly and with dignity.
The scene continues to where Ramona saves the day by finding the missing ring, but I'll leave our readers to anticipate that, as we are anticipating Michael and Grace's walk down the aisle.

The next is from
Walk Two Moons
, a marvelous and emotionally rich book by Sharon Creech.  (I'd call it fourth grade and up).  Salamanca is traveling cross-country with her grandparents, who reminisce about their lives.  Here is the story of their marriage, narrated by Sal:
They were married in an aspen grove on a clear July day, and afterward they and all their friends and relatives had a wedding supper on the banks of the river. ...
At the end of the supper, Gramps picked up Gram in his arms and carried her across the meadow.  Behind them, everyone was singing, “Oh meet me, in the tulips, when the tulips do blooom--”  This is what they always sing at weddings when the married couple leaves.  It is supposed to be a joke, as if Gram and Gramps were going away by themselves and might not reappear until the following spring when the tulips were in bloom.
Gramps carried Gram all the way across the meadow and through the trees and into the clearing where their little house stood.  He carried her in through the door, and took one look around and started to cry.
The reason Gramps cried when he carried Gram into the house was that there, in the center of the bedroom, stood his own parents' bed – the bed that Gramps and each of his brothers had been born in, the bed his parents had always slept in.  This is where his father and brothers had disappeared to during the wedding supper.  They had been moving the bed into Gram and Gramps's new house.  At the foot of the bed, wiggling and slurping, was Sadie, Gramps's old beagle dog.
Gramps always ends this story by saying, “That bed has been around my whole entire life, and I'm going to die in that bed, and then that bed will know everything there is to know about me.”
So each night on our trip out  to Idaho, Gramps patted the bed in the motel and said, “Well, this ain't our marriage bed, but it will do,” while I lay in the next bed wondering if I would ever have a marriage bed like theirs.

Here's wishing Michael and Grace a wonderful marriage.


Aunt Debbie

Monday, July 12, 2010

True love, picture book style

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Eleanor spent much of the day helping her cousins bake cookies for her Uncle Mice's wedding.  She has her own kid-sized apron, and has recently been fascinated with helping in the kitchen, especially when it has to do with baking.  Pretend Soup gets a good workout in our house, though the most-requested recipe in it is "Homemade Lemon-Lime Soda Pop."  Quesadillas are a big favorite too.

With all this wedding celebration, I've had love on my mind.  Two classic, slightly offbeat takes on true love keep recurring to me, both illustrated by Garth Williams. The first is a book I've mentioned once before: A Kiss for Little Bear.  It's the only one of the Little Bear books that contains a single story (the others each have four).  Little Bear makes a drawing for his grandmother, and asks Hen to take it to her.  Grandmother Bear loves the drawing, and asks Hen to take a kiss back to Little Bear.  But Hen wants to stop to chat, so she asks Frog to take the kiss.  The kiss is passed on until it reaches Little Skunk, who finds another little skunk, and they pass the kiss back and forth until Hen discovers them: "Too much kissing!"  The book ends with the skunks' wedding, and a fine picture of Little Bear as Best Man.

Else Holmelund Minarik's text is excellent, but what makes the book perfect are Williams's dry, funny illustrations.  The text: "Then Hen saw some friends.  She stopped to chat.  'Hello, Frog.  I have a kiss for Little Bear.  It is from his grandmother.  Will you take it to him, Frog?'  'Okay, said Frog.'"

The illustration:

And then there is the marvelous Home for a Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown.  It is a poem of a book, about the arrival of spring and one little bunny's search for a home.  The opening lines always crack me up:

"Spring, Spring, Spring!" sang the frog.
"Spring!" said the groundhog.
"Spring, Spring, Spring!" sang the robin.
It was Spring.

Amid all this Spring activity, a bunny is looking for a home.  He asks the robin, the frog, and the groundhog about moving into their homes (lots of great opportunities for different voices here: high-pitched for the robin, low for the frog -- "Wog, wog, wog" -- and grumpy for the groundhog).  Eventually, he meets another bunny, who has a home under a rock, under the ground, and it's a happy ending:

"Can I come in?" 
said the bunny.
"Yes," said the bunny.
And so he did.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kitchen reading

Dear Annie,

Well, here I am in New York with Lizzie (20 yrs old) where she is about to embark on a three day adventure of making a wedding cake for her cousin Michael (your brother, of course) whose wedding day is Thursday.  The basic recipe is the same one he used to make your wedding cake eight years ago.

Which makes me think about cooking -- and although these kids are grown now, both Lizzie and Michael have been cooks since childhood.  The first kids' cookbook our household bonded with (Lizzie & Mona both) was
Klutz Kids Cooking
. It's very kid-friendly in layout and choice of foods.  This is not high cuisine: the three we ended up making most were muffins with jelly baked inside, popcorn with cheese on it, and sloppy joes made by adding equal parts of ketchup and mustard to cooked ground meat.  And it comes with plastic measuring spoons which we still use.

Pretend Soup
Molly Katzen, author of the Moosewood Cookbook and sequels, has done several cookbooks (vegetarian, of course) for kids. Pretend Soup, aimed at preschoolers, is definitely healthier than Klutz, but is also very clear and simple.  Each recipe has an adult page and then a clearly illustrated kids' page with all the steps in the recipe.  It gives you a fun way to play in the kitchen with little ones -- and still end up with lunch.  Katzen's book for older kids, Honest Pretzels (ages 8 and up) eliminates the parent pages and lays out what kids will need (both ingredients and equipment) and how much time the recipe will take, before taking the reader through the (once again) well-illustrated step-by-step.  The first complete meal Lizzie and Mona ever cooked for us came from Honest Pretzels: it was tacos made with homemade tortillas.  Excellent, and heart-warming too.

Teens Cook
Then there was the summer when the girls were in middle school and I had brought home Teens Cook.  This books is sophisticated enough for an experienced teenage cook, but still clear and with a great choice of recipes.  Mona points out that the photographs of every dish were very helpful, both deciding what to cook, then figuring out how to do it.  Anyway, that summer, I came home from work many evenings to dinner from the cookbook, lovingly prepared by my girls.  I have fond memories of potstickers, made with wonton wraps and a really good homemade filling.  And a great red beans and rice with cornbread.

So grab a cookbook this summer and head to the kitchen with your kids.  Always an adventure.  I'll report back on the wedding cake.


Aunt Debbie

Friday, July 9, 2010

Picturing the working mom

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oh, dear.  Does "working mom" in picture books mean "absent mom"?  Owl Babies sounds lovely, but as a working mom myself, I hate to think that the absent mom is the best we can come up with in that category.

That said, only two picture books spring to mind for me.  The first is I Live in Brooklyn, which we have been given no less than three times because, well, we live in Brooklyn.  (At some point, I'd love to do a post on place-specific books, so many of which are deeply dull.)

Mari Takabayashi wrote and illustrated this book, and the illustrations are often quite appealing and accurate in depicting aspects of Brooklyn life.  My favorite page has pictures of all the different kinds of street food carts.  Unfortunately, the book is plotless.  It's narrated by a six-year-old girl, Michelle, and she walks you through some things she does in Brooklyn throughout the year: "Daddy takes me window shopping on Fifth Avenue every year.  It is fun to see Santa Claus standing in the crowd with his bell....Whenever my mom makes a sandwich, she saves the edges of the bread for us so that we can feed the ducks in the park.  They are always hungry."  It's not horrendous, just flat -- the voice of an adult trying to sound like a child, but losing any shred of personality by making the language too simple.  Eleanor loves it, of course.  But it's one of the books I sometimes hide at the back of the shelf.

Still, Michelle's mother works!  Every morning, she leaves Michelle's sister Lucy with their grandma (who conveniently lives one block away, sigh), and takes the bus with Michelle: "She drops me off at school and then goes on to her office."  No drama, no emotion, just simple fact.

The other book that came to mind after reading your post isn't really about a working mother, but another animal mother who leaves her kid alone to go forage for food.  It's one of my all-time favorite children's books, however, so I'm going to seize the opportunity to write about it.

Wait Till the Moon is Full
is Margaret Wise Brown at her best:

Once upon a time in the dark of the moon 
there was a little raccoon.

He lived down in a big warm chestnut tree 
with his mother -- who was also a raccoon.

This little raccoon wanted  to see the night.  He
had seen the day.

So he said to his mother, "I want to go out in the
woods and see the night." 

But his mother said, "Wait."

"Wait till the moon is full."  So he waited, deep
in his warm little home under the chestnut tree.

As the raccoon waits and grows, and the moon waxes, he hears the sounds of the night, and his mother tells him to wait, and sings him songs about the night.  On one page, his mother is late coming home, and the raccoon "sat there wondering to himself."  But then she returns, "skuttle bump, in came his mother, her pointed ears pushed back on her head" (and, in the Garth Williams drawing, in a shawl and carrying a basket of groceries).  And of course, eventually, the moon is full, and the little raccoon gets to go out and play in the moonlight, and the waiting is rewarded.

As ours will be starting tomorrow with our week of family weddings!  See you then.

Love, Annie

Working moms

Dear Annie,

It's true, Pippi Longstocking, like Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, are best when one understands the world of school and peers that they inhabit.  But as long as we're on the subject of Pippi, I'd like to point out
that a few years ago Lauren Child (known to this generation as the creator of Charlie and Lola) did new illustrations for a fabulous (hardcover only) new edition of
Pippi Longstocking
. This is a case of an illustrator totally in sync with the author, even though they're decades apart.

Owl Babies
The other day, we received a question about books for 3 year-olds about working moms.  The problem, of course, with working mom books is that one is writing about someone who's not there in a picture book.  The book that I think captures that emptiness and waiting very well is Owl Babies by Martin Waddell.  Three owl babies wake up one night in their home in a tree to discover that their mother is gone.

    The baby owls thought

    (all owls think a lot) –

    “I think she’s gone hunting,” said Sarah.

    “To get us our food!” said Percy.

    “I want my mommy!” said Bill.

They keep worrying and waiting (while Bill repeats his refrain) through some lovely illustrations.  Then:


    their Owl Mother asked.

    “You knew I’d come back.”

    The baby owls thought

    (all owls think a lot) –

    “I knew it,” said Sarah.

    “And I knew it!” said Percy.

    “I love my mommy!” said Bill.

Okay, so one can say it's a bit saccharine.  But the pictures are very engaging and the message is clear: mom always comes home.

This mom is about to leave home to go join many family members for two weddings in the next week.  I'll see you soon, Annie.


Aunt Debbie

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pippi and Poppleton

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your thought about the age at which books become funny to a child makes me think immediately of two we've picked up recently.

The first is an example of the Stuart Little problem: remembering my own love of the book, but forgetting at what age I enjoyed it, I bought Eleanor a copy of
Pippi Longstocking
, by Astrid Lindgren.  Turns out that Pippi's kookiness doesn't fully translate until you've had some experience with school.  Sure, it's kind of odd that she lives with a horse and a monkey, but without the context of rules and expectations that Eleanor will understand later in childhood, the book takes too much explaining, and just isn't funny yet.  We're putting it away to try again in a few years.

The second is a series that hits the funny bone of child and adults in this house at once: Cynthia Rylant's Poppleton. Rylant is also the author of the High Rise Private Eyes series I've written about before; her sense of humor is quirky and odd and totally pleasing, and happily, she's prolific, so there are always more books to check out.  We've read three of the Poppleton books so far; there are eight.

Poppleton is a pig who moves from the city to a small town peopled by a variety of animals: Cherry Sue, the llama next door; Fillmore, the hypochondriac goat; Hudson, a mouse who likes to go to the shore.  The stories are highly random: in our favorite in the first book, Fillmore is sick but refuses to take his pill unless Poppleton hides it in his food:

"I'll put it in the soup," said Poppleton.
"No, it has to be in something sweet," said Fillmore.
"Sweet?" asked Poppleton.
"Sweet and soft," said Fillmore.
"Sweet and soft?" asked Poppleton.
"Sweet and soft with raspberry filling," said Fillmore.
"Sweet and soft with raspberry filling?" asked Poppleton.
"And chocolate on top," said Fillmore.
"Chocolate on...Fillmore, are you talking about Cherry Sue's Heavenly Cake?" asked Poppleton.
Fillmore smiled.

This passage reduces Eleanor to giggles every time.  

Our favorite in Poppleton and Friends is titled "Dry Skin," and is entirely about Poppleton believing he has dry skin, and trying to fix it by covering himself with oil (which makes him want french fries) and honey (which makes him want biscuits).  Each book contains three stories, with brightly colored and personality-filled illustrations by Mark Teague on every page.  We are clearly going to have to read them all.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Caveat Lector

Dear Annie,

Part of my job when I'm selling books is to issue the occasional warning.  One category of those warnings is: the first chapter is tough, but stick with it.  I say this almost every time someone says they're thinking of getting The Hobbit for their child.  It's true, the beginning drags.  But just stick with it, I say, until Bilbo hits the road.  As soon as he gets moving, so does the plot.  Another book which gets this warning is The Borrowers by Mary Norton, which was a big favorite of Mona's: little people living under the floorboards.  After we read it the first time, she always refused to let us read the first chapter, which explained why the full-size human boy was living in his elderly relative's home, and had nothing to do with little people.

Scary, as you so eloquently put it, is a little more complicated.  Each child -- and each parent -- reacts differently.  The wonderful Santore-illustrated Wizard of Oz whose praises we've sung here -- is often rejected by parents because they think their children aren't ready for the scary parts. When I read it with my girls, I kept a post-it in the book reminding me of the three pages where I would skip a line or rework something scary: the one I remember is the decapitation of a cat, which takes place in half a sentence. 

I've run into quite a large number of kids who can tolerate -- even enjoy -- scary stuff in the context of fantasy writing: as long as they know it's taking place in an imaginary world, it's okay.  But they will reject books with real-life bad situations that they can imagine happening to them or those they love. 

So much depends on what age a child is.  The death of Babar's mother is often much harder on the parent who is reading than on the child who's listening and, like Eleanor, doesn't quite yet understand what death is.   I have vivid memories of the specific moment at which each of our girls was devastated by realizing someone we were reading about was dead.  In Lizzie's case, it was Andrew Jackson; for Mona is was Casey Jones.  There was nothing exceptionally traumatic about these deaths over other ones that had come up in their books.  The difference was their growing awareness.  Both girls were around 5 or 6, and had matured to the point of understanding the finality of death.

Leaving scary for a moment, the other place it's clear that kids reach different levels of understanding at different ages is sense of humor.  A wonderful school librarian I used to work with told me she never recommended The Phantom Tollbooth -- which is full of wordplay -- before the third grade.  Second graders, she said, can sit and listen to it straight-faced.  But try reading it to the next grade up, and it's hilarious. 

You ask about when is the right time to introduce your child to books with scary bits -- but there is no clear answer.  It  sounds like Eleanor is figuring out how to handle scary stuff -- and that she likes it enough not to reject it.  I think parental comfort with the level of scary is equally as important as the child's.  Stopping and talking about something scary can help.  A friend's child would simply reach out and shut a book his mother was reading if it got too creepy: a clear message. 

I'm going to leave fairy tales for another post -- lots to explore there in the wonderful world of the subconscious.



Friday, July 2, 2010

The Scary Parts

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oh, I hope that they'll reprint the Michael Hague-illustrated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I'll have to check out his Tolkien, too, when we get to that age.  I wasn't a huge Tolkien fan myself, though I did eventually read them all (and saw all the movies).  I remember getting stuck on the beginning of The Hobbit at least three times, as Tolkien went on and on about every detail of the entrance hallway, just before Bilbo Baggins left his house for the rest of the book.  But I know Lizzie loved the books; I remember visiting your house when she was in high school and marveling at the life-sized cutout of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn propped up in the corner of her room.

So what is the right age to introduce your kids to books with scary bits?  After my last post, my good friend Cyd commented about her daughter Rebekah's strong reaction to the dog running away in Beverly Cleary's Ribsy, saying that she couldn't believe Eleanor (a month younger than Rebekah) was ready for Narnia.  This got me thinking about what does and doesn't scare Eleanor, and why.

My theory is that things like witches (which she knows are imaginary) and death (which she doesn't fully understand), are far less scary to Eleanor than things closer to home.  Rebekah really does have a wonderful dog of her own, so I can imagine that the thought of a dog getting lost and not being able to find his way home would be extremely frightening.  When we watched the movie Up with Eleanor, the moment which upset her most was when Carl, the old man, lost his house.  Eleanor burst into tears: "But where is he going to live?"  Out of all the frightening and sad things that had happened in the movie, this was the one she could relate to most.

We've read a number of fairy tales with Eleanor, and I've been surprised by her hardiness in the face of awful plot developments.  We have a gorgeous edition of Rapunzel illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman from the library right now, and of course I didn't pre-read it before we read it together, and I had forgotten how dark it is.  Rapunzel's parents have their baby taken from them by the witch, and never see her again; Rapunzel grows up with no contact with anyone but her witch-mother, and is locked away by her when she turns twelve (such interesting puberty-related issues there!); after the witch has discovered Rapunzel's relationship with the prince, she attacks him and he falls from the tower, landing on thorn bushes which poke his eyes and blind him.  Rough stuff.  When faced with this (or with the White Witch, or Aslan's death), Eleanor has taken to doing what she does during the scary parts of movies: she gets a blanket and hides in it.  She doesn't want me to stop reading, and in fact will say "I like the scary parts," but she wants to hide nonetheless, and will turn away even from a book, like Narnia, that doesn't have pictures on every page.  It's a measure of control, I suppose.

I'm trying to go along with where she seems to be, prepping her for some of the scary parts when it's something I've read beforehand (that's what we did with The Wizard of Oz, and with Narnia), and stopping when she wants to.  As in so many other aspects of life, we do our best to follow her lead and enjoy the surprises along the way.

Love, Annie