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

Monday, August 30, 2010

Birth of a reader

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It was lovely to be away, especially for such a joyous occasion, but I'll admit it's nice to be back home.  We're in a period of happy transition -- I'm about to go back to teaching full-time, and the girls are going into full-time preschool and daycare.  So far, everyone seems to feel good about the changes.

One of the biggest and happiest changes in the last two weeks or so has been Isabel's intense new interest in books.  In her first ten months, she allowed us to read to her a little, and would often pick up books as toys, or try to chew on them, but she clearly had no real understanding of what a book was: that a certain book had the same pictures inside it every time, and would encourage her parents to make the same sounds.  It is such a delight to see her diving for books right now, going back to her favorites, clearly indicating that she wants me to read certain books over and over.

Some of Isabel's new favorites are books you and I have mentioned before: Cat, Doggies, I Love Colors, Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb.  She is really drawn to animals, particularly dogs; she seems to be trying very hard to say "Woof."  A great dog book which belongs in our discussion of wordless books (here and here) is Alexandra Day's Good Dog, Carl.  Isabel leans into and pores over the pages depicting the great friendly rottweiler "taking care of the baby" while mother is out shopping: helping the baby swim in the fish tank, fall down the laundry chute, bounce on the parents' bed, etc.  It's all about hiding bad behavior, of course, but it's such a gentle, funny depiction.  And of course, everything is cleaned up and put away before mom comes home.

The new love of books has even extended into the bath, where we repeatedly read two simple and excellent Sandra Boynton bath books: Bath Time! and Barnyard Bath.

They float, they rhyme, they encourage washing, and they make my little girl sit down in the tub, if only for a minute.

I'm looking forward to seeing where her attention goes next.

Love, Annie

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dear Annie,

Here we are, back in our respective cities after Amazing Family Wedding #3.  It was great.  Good to see you.  Good to see your wonderful family.  Good to see our amazing extended family.  Now back to some form of regular posting at Annie and Aunt.

Somehow, even though they're not  related, Frog and Toad have such a close and cozy feel, it seems appropriate to talk about them after a family gathering.  I love "HEY BIRDS, HERE ARE COOKIES!"  But the one which comes up most often for me is a chapter called "The Corner," in
Frog and Toad All Year
.  Frog tells Toad a story from one winter in his childhood (tadpolehood?). His parents tell him spring is "just around the corner," so he sets out to find it, peering around several corners, only to be disappointed.  He returns home, coming around one final corner, and discovers his parents happily looking at a sprouting garden, because spring was actually around this final one.  And there are many situations in which one can say, "Spring is just around the corner."

I remember my sister, your mother, introducing us to
Mouse Tales
, also by Lobel, which is one of my faves.  The best story of the bunch is "The Journey," in which a mouse sets off to visit his mother.  He drives until his car falls apart, then finds someone selling roller skates, which he buys and rolls on.  When the roller skates fall apart, he finds a boot seller, and eventually he continues barefoot until his feet wear out.  Happily, someone is selling feet by the side of the road, he buys a pair, and makes it to Mom's house.  She's happy to see him, and says right away, "What nice new feet you have!"  It feels like the best of Lobel's wackiness.

I completely agree, though, that some of his stories are dark.  I sometimes wonder if he had depression issues.  Owl at Home is another multi-chapter short book, which includes a story about Owl (who lives alone) making "tear-water tea" by thinking of everything he can that's sad (like pencils that are too short to use) until he cries so much that he has enough tears for tea.  In another story, he's feeling lonely, so he calls up the stairs, then runs to the top of the staircase and calls back down the stairs.  This continues all day.  Although Owl is still endearing, after a few readings, Bob and I felt he was just too unhappy to keep in the rotation.

Lobel is no longer with us now -- he died at age 54 back in 1987.  His wife Anita Lobel, currently in her 70s,  is another wonderful children's book author and illustrator about whom I will write more on another day.  

I hope your re-entry into real life is going smoothly.



Monday, August 23, 2010

Frog, Toad, and one more dinosaur

Dear Aunt Debbie,

So that explains "Wick-ee!  Wick-ee!"  I've always wondered.

Before I get to one of my favorite family references, I have, as promised, one more dinosaur rec from my friend Sophia: Dinosaurs: Sounds of the Wild.  She says she likes the book "because it is interactive...dinosaurs pop up, lots of interesting sounds, etc. The text is pretty sophisticated...talks about dinosaurs according to periods, traits, etc...but it is a book that you can grow into."   I'd be interested to hear from you at some point which are the best dino books for older kids, but we're certainly not ready for them here yet.

Your recounting of some of the catch phrases that have made their way into daily parlance makes me think of so many things: calling Eleanor a "grumpy bird" and having her admit it; agreeing, as Frances says in Bread and Jam for Frances, "I do like snacks"; our entire bedtime routine based on Goodnight Moon.

But what I want to write about tonight is a catchphrase from my own childhood, which comes from a story in a series we often carry with us in the diaper bag for long subway trips: Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad.  These books are great re-reads, both because they tap into something visceral in kids' emotions, and because they're quite funny.

There are four Frog and Toad books:
Frog and Toad are Friends
, Frog and Toad Together, Frog and Toad All Year, and Days With Frog and Toad.  In each, Frog (taller, greener, generally more able to enjoy life) and Toad (shorter, browner, more neurotic) spend time together and have very low-key adventures.  A typical plot: Frog and Toad go for a long walk.  Toad gets back, realizes he's lost a button from his jacket, and gets upset.  Frog reassures him they'll find the button, and they retrace their steps.  They find lots of buttons, but all are in some way wrong, and Toad gets more and more worked up: "'That is not my button!' wailed Toad.  'That button is square.  My button was round.'"  When he gets home after his giant tantrum (so much fun to read aloud), Toad finds his button on the floor.  He feels terrible, and to make amends, sews all the other buttons he's found onto his jacket and gives the jacket to Frog as a present.  ("A Lost Button," in Frog and Toad Are Friends.)

The catchphrase I mentioned earlier comes from the story "Cookies," in Frog and Toad Together.  Toad makes an amazing batch of cookies, and shares them with Frog.  The two can't stop eating them.  To exercise will power, Frog tries in several ways to make the cookies less accessible: he puts them in a box, ties it up, puts them on a high shelf, etc.  In every case, Toad points out quite reasonably how he could get them again.  Finally, Frog gives up:

Frog climbed the ladder 
and took the box 
down from the shelf.  
He cut the string 
and opened the box.  
Frog took the box outside.  
He shouted in a loud voice, 
Birds came from everywhere.  
They picked up all the cookies 
in their beaks and flew away.
"Now we have no more cookies to eat,"
said Toad sadly.  
"Not even one."
"Yes," said Frog,
"but we have lots and lots
of will power."
"You may keep it all, Frog,"
said Toad.
"I am going home now
to bake a cake."

You'd be surprised how often "HEY BIRDS, HERE ARE COOKIES!" can come up.

Each Frog and Toad book contains five short stories, all illustrated by Lobel in green and brown accented line drawings.  Some of them are sweet and funny, and some a little dark and odd, exploring the fear of being alone or being laughed at.  At times, reading them, I've wondered if Lobel was in some kind of psychoanalysis while he was writing: what is up with Toad dreaming of himself dancing and singing beautifully on a stage while Frog gets smaller and smaller in the audience, then disappears ("The Dream")?  Overall, these are books I am happy to read and read and read again.  And that means a lot.

Love, Annie

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Family Literary References

Dear Annie,

We've left the hammocks of Maine and are back in DC, at least for a few days -- until we see you at yet another amazing cousin wedding on Friday. 

While the four of us were together, we realized how many times we use little phrases among ourselves that come from books we read years ago.  I think many families have these mutual reminders of things that resonate in books.  Here are some of ours:

"Wick-ee, wick-ee!"
 Not your usual conversational gambit, but it comes up surprisingly often around here.  It's from a long-out-of-print reader called Webster and Arnold and the Giant Box, by P.K.Roche.  It has to do with resisting an overly-controlling older sibling:
"You will be Rocket Mouse," said Arnold. "And I will be Chief.  Now let's get ready to blast off."
"Okay, said Webster.  What does Rocket Mouse do?"
" Rocket Mouse helps the Chief," said Arnold.  "Sh-h! Here's the countdown."
"But what do I do?" yelled Webster.
"Nothing!" yelled Arnold.  "That's what you do! 10...9..."
"Listen," said Webster.  "What is that funny noise?"
"Sh-h!" said Arnold.  "There is no funny noise.  8...7..."
"The rocket is going wick-ee, wick-ee," said Webster.
"The rocket is not going wick-ee wick-ee, said Arnold.  "6...5..."
"I think the rocket is going to explode," said Webster.
"No," said Arnold.  "It is not going to explode.  4...3... "
Webster listened closely.  "Yes," he said.  "I feel sure it is going to explode.  The wick-ee is getting louder."
"It is not!" yelled Arnold.  "The wick-ee is not getting louder!  2...1... blast --"
"WICK-EE!  WICK-EE!  KA-POW!" yelled Webster.  "The rocket is exploding!"
"That does it!"  shouted Arnold.  "I'll never play with you again!  Never! Never! Never!"   And he stamped out of the box.
They eventually reconcile and keep playing, of course. And we keep using wick-ee wick-ee when we hear something that sounds a little off, or during a countdown, or when Ka-pow on its own just isn't quite enough.

"Carry me, carry me!" (in whiny tone)
From one of our favorite Christmas books (also out of print, alas): Angel Mae, by the excellent Shirley Hughes. Mae is a pre-schooler who lives in a walk-up flat with her very pregnant and frequently tired mum:
"Mae got tired too.  She wished she could be carried like a shopping bag.
'Carry me, carry me,' she moaned, drooping on the banisters at the bottom step.  But Mum couldn't carry Mae and the shopping.  Mae was much too old to be carried anyway."
Even when your children are taller than you are, they can get great satisfaction in expressing fatigue with Mae's eloquent moan.

"Don't call me darling -- I'm a driving instructor."
A great line from Saffy's Angel, and one which we've used more in the post 16 year-old years.  It's said with a British accent.

"Sorr-eee, Harr-eee" (British, accent on second syllable)
This is from the great Jim Dale recordings of the Harry Potter books -- a phrase Hermione uses in sing-song inflection throughout all seven books.  Used when apologies come up.  This one escapes my lips most frequently when I'm in public, leading to the occasional funny look.

Another of the joys of reading a lot with one's children.



Friday, August 20, 2010

Touching and feeling (dinos and cats)

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm going to have to outsource some of the research on this subject -- I've asked a couple of friends with dino-mad sons to give me their recommendations, too.

The only other dinosaur book we own is a pretty amazing 3-D one meant for ages 8 and up: Uncover A T. Rex, by Dennis Schatz.  It falls into the second of your dino categories, the books which focus on facts and conveying scientific information.  The book contains a plastic model of a T. Rex, and each page focuses on one of its systems: skeletal, cardiopulmonary, etc.  It's written in factoid form, with lots of questions and answers and bullet points ("How fast did T. Rex run?"  "What was T. Rex's posture like?")  As you turn each page, the system described lifts up to reveal the next system below: the nervous system disappears to reveal the muscles.  Eleanor is still too young for it, but she likes to  look at the model parts inside, and I'm hoping it will prove useful in a few years.

In heavy rotation at the moment is the Matthew Van Fleet touch-and-feel spectacular Cat, which has recently become 10 1/2 month old Isabel's favorite book.  She pats and hits and tears at and touches the book intently, all the while saying "Ghat!"  I'm wary of ascribing language to a baby that young (though we are positive she is now saying "Hi!"), but when I took her to a friend's house a couple of days ago and she saw a couple of real cats, she perked right up, pointed at them, and said, "Ghat!"

It's a very engaging book, illustrated with photos (by Brian Stanton) of real cats in various positions, some with furry patches a baby can touch, others with a paw or tail that moves when you pull a lever.  Isabel has already pulled off one moving tail, crowing proudly.  (Eleanor objected, until I reminded her that she had pulled off the pig's tail with the same construction in Van Fleet's book Tails at about the same age.)  The text, in rhyming couplets, highlights concepts and opposites, and the pictures are great.

In my own reading life, I just picked up and sped through Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, which you wrote about a little while ago.  What a totally satisfying book.  Thanks for that one.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dinosaur picture books

Dear Annie,

Dinosaurs, dinosaurs -- so many different things to different people. 

Dinosaur books tend to come in two categories: one where dinosaurs are
the stand-ins for people and things and tend to get very rollicking.  The other tries to
convey some facts about the big old guys.

Dinosaurs as stand-ins for kids are what the Yolen/Teague How Do Dinosaurs... series is all about.  How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? is one of the more recent ones, and it sounds like it's lacking in the strong behavioral message that comes with most of them.  The first,
How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?
has dinosaurs acting out bad going-to-bed behavior in a way that many kids find hilarious:
Does a dinosaur slam his tail and pout?
Does he throw his teddy bear all about?
Does a dinosaur stomp his feet on the floor and shout: 'I want to hear one book more!'?
After detailing many wrong ways to go to bed, the book goes on to the right ways to say good night -- whisper, hug, kisses, etc.  It's a widely-loved book, by both parents and kids.  I feel a little grinch-like saying it's not one of my favorites.  A little too far into the preachy end of things.  I'd be curious what Eleanor thinks of it.  And, as you pointed out, all the books in this series have accurate dinosaur names.

Another book which includes scientific names, but has a great story-book plot is
Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs
by Ian Whybrow. Harry finds a stash of plastic dinosaurs at his grandma's house, washes them off and identifies them all -- identifying dinosaurs is an important element of many kids' dinosaur fascinations. They go everywhere with him, in a bucket, until the day he loses them.  Getting them back involves Harry reciting their names -- it's a lovely ending.

Advances in paleontology have made a few old dinosaur classics out of date, but some new ones are filling the demand for dinosaur science.   
Oh, Say Can You Say Di-no-saur?
is part of a new series of science books for pre-schoolers, all written in Dr. Seuss meter.
Dinosaurs lived
on the earth long ago,
before you and me.
So how do we know?
From fossils!
Dinosaur teeth, eggs, and bone
got stuck in the muck.
Then that muck turned to stone.
I realize the rhymes can become mind-numbing, but the series -- called The Cat in the Hat's Learning Library -- conveys a lot of information well.

And I'll end with my current favorite dinosaur book:
When Dinosaurs Came with Everything
by Elise Broach.  A boy and his mother are doing errands, and  every business they visit (bakery, doctor, dentist, etc) is offering a free dinosaur with purchase.  So he ends up accumulating several full-size
live dinosaurs, which he takes home with him.  Much chaos results.  Great illustrations by David Small, and the story is a lot of fun.

Lots lots more, but there's a start.



Monday, August 16, 2010

How do dinosaurs compare to princesses?

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It's heartening to know that there's more complexity to princess books than Disney fare; I'm looking forward to checking out your latest recommendations.  (Particularly the King Arthur stuff; we play the music from Camelot a lot in our house.  As with so many other musicals, this leads to interesting conversations about Major Life Issues, such as adultery.)

In our growing conversation about princess books, however, I'm afraid we're leaving out the other major toddler and little kid subjects which seem to engulf boys in the same way Princess engulfs girls: dinosaurs and trains.  Before starting this blog, you and I corresponded at length about both of these subjects, and I'd love to bring that conversation here.

Your mention of good parenting made me think about my decidedly mixed feelings for the best-selling How Do Dinosaurs series, by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague.  The one we own is How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You?, but there are endless variations: How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?  How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?  How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?  How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Dogs?  (I worry a bit about that last one.)  The conceit of the books is that children are like dinosaurs, galumphing around and misbehaving, but parents love them anyway.  The children are depicted as full-sized dinosaurs, and the parents as normal-sized, racially diverse humans trying to wrangle creatures ten times their size.

It's the illustrations that make the books.  I knew I liked Mark Teague's work from the Poppleton books, but he outdoes himself here with double-page spreads of parents and dinosaurs in bright acrylic paints.  He paints a wide variety of dinosaurs, so much so that I looked some of the names up tonight to see if they were real: Tapejara, Nothosaurus, Kentrosaurus, Neovenator.  They all were.

It's the text that bothers me.  Jane Yolen writes the books in perfectly decent rhyming couplets, and stresses that bad behavior doesn't stop a parent from loving a child, which is a moral I agree with.  But in these books (or at least the one I'm looking at right now), there are no consequences for bad behavior at all:

Out in the sandbox
you threw lots of sand.

You ran from the slide,
after slapping
my hand.

But you suddenly turned
with a smile I adore.
Oh, I'll always 
love you, 
my dinosaur.

Well, yes and no.  You do those things, my little dinosaur, and that smile needs an apology to go with it.  The illustrations are so full of humor and love, and of course the sentiment makes sense when you're dealing with toddlers, but I wish the text didn't seem to encourage bad behavior.

What are some of the other good options out there?

Love, Annie

Sunday, August 15, 2010

If it's gotta be a princess

Dear Annie,

I know I promised Good Parents (harder than I'd thought to find 'em), and I swear I'll do it next time.  But right now I want to suggest another way to stay on a princess-y path, but read more varied stuff.

King Arthur and other stories of brave knights, many of which include princesses.

I'll start with one of Lizzie's early favorites, Young Guinevere, a picture book by Robert D. San Souci.  It's a little off from the mainstream Arthurian stories, but it's about a princess who runs around in the woods and shoots bows and arrows and does stuff.  Ends with her going off to marry Arthur.  Out of print, alas, but I've included an Alibris link here.

You've talked about Trina Schart Hyman with your Rapunzel entries.  I'm fond of her art, and she has some very good illustrations for stories of knights and ladies, several of them done for retellings by Margaret Hodges, .  I'll start with
Merlin and the Making of the King
, which is structured like an early chapter book, and gives some of the basic Malory stories, with lush illustration.  A good introduction the the sword in the stone story, Morgan Le Fay, Lady of the Lake, Mordred and the death of Arthur.  I think it skims pretty lightly over Guenevere and Lancelot.

Hodges and Hyman also collaborated on two great picture books:
Saint George and the Dragon
is a retelling from The Faerie Queen. Hyman won the Caldecott Medal for best illustration for this one. It gets a bit gruesome at times: St. George does in the dragon rather graphically.  And if you happen to get this (I have no copy of it here in Maine, so I can't scan, alas), the elderly medieval couple on the back cover are portraits of the author and her husband, with the Green Mountains of Vermont where both Hodges and Hyman lived in the background.

Back to Malory, Hodges and Hyman did
The Kitchen Knight
, about Gawaine's brother Gareth and the sisters Linette and Linesse, neither of whom one could call a shrinking violet.

And just because I'm on a roll with Trina Schart Hyman, I want to include two others of hers:

, written by Howard Pyle, now out of print. About a young man raised by a very loving bear who must accomplish various tasks to win the hand of the princess he loves. What makes this edition of the story so special is that Hyman has given a wide range of ethnicities to the characters: the prince is Asian, the princess is black, her parents and the members of the court are a melange of many colors, all with lots of personality.

And on the subject of non-wimpy princesses, one last book, for an older crowd:
The Serpent Slayer
illustrated by Hyman and written by her daughter Katrin Tchana. It's a collection of retellings of fairy tales from around the world which showcase strong and fearless women.  Some of them pretty intense, as you can see from the cover.



Friday, August 13, 2010

Thirteen motherless princesses

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Before we move on to wonderful parents, I want to write about two more motherless-girl fairy tales that have been getting a lot of play in our house lately.

The first is Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China, retold by Ai-Ling Louie and illustrated by Ed Young.  According to the author's note, this is a version of the oldest Cinderella story on record, dating from the T'ang dynasty (618-907 A.D. -- the first European version is dated 1634.)  It has many of the traditional Cinderella elements: orphaned girl is worked to the bone by her stepmother and mean stepsister, is eventually helped by a magical figure, gets to go to the ball, loses a precious slipper, finds it again, and marries the prince.  The twists: Yeh-Shen's only friend is an enormous fish she has raised.  After her stepmother discovers him and kills him, Yeh-Shen's magic spirit, in the form of an old man, tells her to find the fish's bones and use their magic.  It is the fish bones which provide Yeh-Shen with food, and eventually a dress and golden slippers to go to the banquet.  The king doesn't actually see her there, but is presented with her lost slipper and falls in love with the idea of the tiny-footed woman who might wear it.  (It's a wonder that Cinderella stories didn't give all the women in our family major complexes about the size of our beautiful large feet.)  He uses the slipper to set a trap for Yeh-Shen, she comes to get it, he falls in love.  Oh, and the last sentence has the stepmother and stepsister being killed in an avalanche.  It's an interesting variation, well-written, and the drawings are gorgeous.

I've mentioned before that Eleanor is, like every other girl in America, really into princesses.  If one princess is good, how much better to have an even dozen, all lushly illustrated in full-scale ball gowns?  The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a strange story, and one I'd forgotten.  This version is told by Marianna Mayer, and illustrated by K.Y. Kraft.  Their mother has of course died, and to keep them out of trouble, their father the king locks them into their bedroom every night.  Yet every morning, they're exhausted, and their dancing slippers are worn through.  What's going on?  The answer lies in the Twilight World, where they go every night for what is essentially a waltzing rave.  They bring a number of princes down with them, and make them drink a potion which freezes their hearts and leaves them only the love of dance.  The princesses' secret is discovered by a poor dreamy farmer named Peter, who becomes the castle gardener and falls in love with the youngest princess.  There's a happy ending for everyone.  I love how weird this book is -- the Twilight World has no explanation, and the princesses seem perfectly happy to live their secret night-time lives; Eleanor adores the dresses.  So we're both happy.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The mother problem

Dear Annie,

I had a moment -- which I may have already told you about -- when I realized I had completely crossed the line from identifying as a member of the younger generation, to being A Mom.  Lizzie and Mona were probably about 5 and 6, and I took them to see the Big Apple Circus.  There was a wonderful trapeze artist -- a young woman in her 20s -- scantily dressed, with sequins and fringe, doing amazing feats, including hanging by her heels on a very high trapeze.  She was great, the girls were rapt, and the thought which came screaming into my mind was, "Does her mother know she's doing this?!?!?"

The basic mother-reaction is what gets us evicted from a lot of children's literature.  A good deal of growing up has to do with learning how to interact with the world without the intervening presence of a parent.  That includes everything from learning to handle a spoon and bring the pablum to your mouth, as I suspect your Isabel is by now pretty good at, to driving hundreds of miles on your own on big highways, as both Lizzie and Mona did (separately) for the first time this year.  And so much in between and beyond.  Many of the interesting events in children's literature have to do with gaining skills and knowledge without your parents handing you that knowledge.  Babar going into the big city, James ending up in the giant peach, Pippi living without limits, Jim Hawkins facing Long John Silver, Sara Crewe discovering her inner strengths, Stuart searching for Margalo, the Cat in the Hat wreaking havoc -- none of this stuff happens if Mom's there too.  Sure, there are great books with wonderful parents in them too.  (I keep coming back to the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary: the parents have their own lives and personalities, and their own separate relationships with their daughters.)  But removing parental supervision is a tried and true way to get a story going.

It helps to see the dead/absent/ignored mother as a plot device, a door to the imagination, and not as a real desire.  At different points in any child's life, a story with a dead mother can be a very scary event, or just part of the set-up to a good yarn -- as you point out, one's choice of reading material is always specific to one's child.  The parent gets to offer the variety of creative escapes, while still providing the basic security from which a child can venture into the world. 

I think my next post will talk about some wonderful parents in children's lit...



Monday, August 9, 2010

Motherless children

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I agree with you, Bettelheim, and Kathryne that there are good reasons to read fairy tales to kids: they're a way of working through fears safely, they're exciting, and they are referenced throughout our culture.  I think the age at which you read them to a child, and the versions you read, has to be specific to the child -- you learn by reading what's going to scare the pants off your kid, and what she or he will adore.  I agree with Rachel as well that I'm not thrilled with a lot of the motherlessness in these stories, but I think I understand why it's there.

When we started reading fairy tales to Eleanor (and we were certainly spurred to do this earlier than I might have by the ubiquity of Disney princess stuff), she went through a brief period of time when she'd say to me, "I want a stepmother."  She said it thoughtfully, not in anger.  Perhaps, in her mind, having a stepmother was a way into the fairy tale world, since so many princesses (Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Belle) begin their stories motherless.  In a way, it reaffirms the power and safety of having a mother: if any of these princesses had mothers around, none of the bad stuff (and none of the adventure) would have happened to them in the first place.  When I explained that telling me she wanted a stepmother hurt my feelings, she began to lean over to me fondly at odd moments and say, "Oh, Mommy, I love you.  And I don't want a stepmother."

Rachel's comment brought to mind two of my favorite chapter books from my elementary school years.  In each, the protagonist(s) are orphaned, thus opening their lives up for adventure that wouldn't be possible if they had a mother and father taking care of them.  I haven't read either book in years, but I'm pretty sure they stand the test of time.

The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner, focuses on a family of four kids who are orphaned.  They run away from their orphanage and a grandfather they think is cruel (though of course ultimately they're wrong) and live in an abandoned boxcar with their dog, Watch.  I remember scenes of homemaking in the boxcar, and the sense of having to create a whole new life.  In looking it up, I see that it was the first in a giant series, though I don't remember reading any of the others.

A Little Princess
is by Frances Hodgson Burnett, of Secret Garden fame.  Sara Crewe begins motherless, and is orphaned when her father dies in India (the book was first published in 1904, so it's quite Imperial British Empire).  She goes from being one of the richest pupils at a boarding school run by a meanie to being the poorest, and in a Cinderella turn she has to do the school's housework and live in the attic.  Again, one of the things I remember most fondly about the book is Sara making her attic space livable and even homey.  This one has the added benefit of cruel boarding school girls, which resonates with anyone who's ever been a girl around other girls. 

Now that I think about it, in both of these books there isn't much active adventure -- more creating the best and most home-like situation possible in bad circumstances.  I suppose that's true in fairy tales like Cinderella and Rapunzel as well.  Still, there must be something liberating about projecting yourself into the dangerous and adventurous situation, and then comforting about being able to turn again to mom on the couch beside you or in the next room.

Love, Annie

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fairy Tale Anxieties

Dear Annie,

As you say, fairy tales are elemental and stark.  Primal, one could say.  I think Disney has conditioned us to think of fairy tales as stories for young children, but most of them are adult folktales, or were written for adults originally.  They're also, as Rachel points out in her comment, very woven into our culture, for better or worse.

I tend to subscribe to the general sense of Bruno Bettelheim's analysis of children and fairy tales, summarized well in this article.  The situations and characters in fairy tales, Bettelheim says, reflect thoughts that children have, but don't know how to process. 
Bettelheim argues that what children really gain from these grim and troubling stories of being shoved in a witches oven, having one’s head cut off, or being eaten by a wolf (all not exactly a ball of fun) is the symbolic assurance that all difficulties in life can be mastered with the right attitude and some courage. Folk tale characters experience existential anxieties that are inherent in human nature: the need to be loved, the fear that one is thought worthless (look at poor Jack with his handful of beans!), the value of life and joy, and the ever-present spectre of death.
I've spoken with a number of teachers who read fairy tales to kids in grade school, older than the ages that parents usually turn to these tales.  I often recommend fairy tale collections as gifts for kids who are five, six or seven.  Even though children those ages are able to pay attention to much longer books, the emotional intensity of fairy tales, and the leaps of imagination they entail, appeal to children who are dealing more with how they fit in the world.  They can envision themselves as grappling independently with the world, even if their reality is quite sheltered.

I've never been a fan of the young adult horror genre, but it has a devoted following.  I think the motivations for reading it fit into Bettelheim's analysis: facing one's primal fears, and vicariously vanquishing them.  Again and again.   One gains strength by seeing what it's possible to overcome.

Adam Gopnik wrote an interesting piece on fairy tales in The New Yorker back in 2002 which rambles a bit but discusses both the Bettelheim take on folktales, and a more conservative they-teach-you-good-conservative-values argument. 

Such a rich vein, fairy tales.



Friday, August 6, 2010

The harsh truths told by fairy tales

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Saffy's Angel: clearly another book to put on my library list.  You are turning me into a reader of YA books again.  Just whizzed through Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and am already biting my nails for the third book to be released.  YA fiction can be so intensely gripping.

But YA books aren't the only ones that deal with dark themes.  I mentioned a month ago that we'd been reading Eleanor a gorgeously illustrated version of Rapunzel (retold by Barbara Rogasky, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman); last week, we bought another Rapunzel, this one retold and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky.  Again, it was the illustrations that drew us to the book: Zelinsky's oil paintings have a Renaissance feel, really stunning.  Where Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations are lush and storybook:

Zelinsky's are crisp and dramatic:

Much of the story is the same in both books, including the difficult parts: the parents losing their child to the witch; Rapunzel being locked in the tower, the prince's fall and blinding after the witch catches him.  The main difference between them is the way in which the witch (sorceress, in Zelinsky's version) finds out about the prince.  In Rogasky's telling, Rapunzel is weaving a ladder from pieces of silk the prince brings her, so they can escape together:

     After some time, the ladder was almost finished, and Mother Gothel still knew nothing.  But one day, when Rapunzel had watched the witch make her clumsy climb to the tower room, the girl forgot her secret.
      "Mother Gothel," she said, "how is it that it takes you so long to climb up here when the king's son does it so fast?"
      "Oh, wretched girl!" The witch flew into a rage.  "Wicked, ungrateful child!  I thought I had hidden you from all the world.  I thought I had given you all your heart could desire.  And now you have betrayed me!"

In Zelinsky's retelling, there is no escape plan, and he mentions that Rapunzel and the prince hold a marriage ceremony for themselves on the first night the prince visits.  Time passes, and then: 

     One day when the sorceress entered the tower, Rapunzel said, "If you please, Stepmother, help me with my dress.  It is growing so tight around my waist, it doesn't want to fit me anymore."
       Instantly the sorceress understood what Rapunzel did not.  "Oh, you wicked child!" she shrieked.  "What do I hear you say?  I thought I had kept you safe, away from the whole world, but you have betrayed me!"

 Check out the convex mirror on the table, reinforcing the pregnancy theme.

In the first version, Rapunzel comes off as a little dumb; in the second, she's a sexual innocent, and the revelation of her love is something she couldn't possibly suppress.  Reading this version prompted Eleanor to ask, as she didn't when the Rogasky/Hyman Rapunzel had twin babies in the wilderness, "How did she get pregnant?"

Fairy tales are so elemental, so stark.  Abandonment, death, marriage, childbirth.  I love them, and so does Eleanor, but it's a little bizarre that they are among the first stories we tell our children.  If these themes appeared in contemporary children's books, would anybody read them?  Is it our own familiarity with certain stories that allows us to comfortably introduce them to our children?

Love, Annie

Thursday, August 5, 2010

My First Kiss

Dear Annie,

The other week, as I was walking down the street near the store, a customer greeted me warmly and gave me a kiss.  "Saffy's Angel!" she said. "Thank you for her" -- gesturing to her ten-or-so year-old daughter -- "and thank you for me."

I've been selling kids' books for more than ten years now, but this was the first time I've ever received a kiss for a good recommendation.  And
Saffy's Angel
is a spectacular book, definitely worthy of such high praise.  It's one of those books aimed at "middle grades" -- third or fourth to sixth or seventh grades.  But as the mother in question amply proved, it's a wonderful book at any age.  Written by Hilary McKay in 2001, it won the Whitbread Children's Book Award in England -- their Newbery Medal equivalent.

It's a very moving story, but the thing that makes it so special are the wonderful eccentric characters, each lovingly portrayed.  There's plenty of real emotional turmoil, and there's also a fair amount of hilarity.  Eve and Bill Casson have four children, named Cadmium (Caddy), Saffron, Indigo, and Permanent Rose.  Saffy has always been told their names come from the color chart that hangs on the kitchen wall (both parents are artists).  But when she's eight and finally reads it, she discovers saffron isn't there.  This leads to the long-overdue revelation that she is actually her siblings' cousin, daughter of the mother's twin sister who lived in Italy and was killed in a car accident when Saffy was three.  Saffy trudges on through life feeling slightly detached from her loving family, and with a fairly sizable chip on her shoulder.

The main action of the book takes place about five years later.  Rose is in kindergarten, resenting its structured days, Indigo spends much of his time sitting in his second-floor window, trying to overcome his fear of heights, and Caddy has a crush on Michael, her driving instructor.  Our family first discovered Saffy's Angel on audio.  The CD is out of print now, but I strongly recommend finding it in a library -- it hits all the right notes.  Driving lessons were especially well read.  In this one, Indigo and Rose have come along:

     "Which way  at the rotary?" Caddy asked peacefully.
     "Right.  Sorry, I was forgetting.  You're in the wrong lane!  Signal! Don't barge in front . . . there . . . missed the road . . . take no notice of him honking . . . you can't stop here!  Go round again!"
     Caddy went around again and managed to take the right road the next time, frightening Michael, Indigo, Rose, and a truck driver in the process.
     "I can't believe you just did that," said Michael.
     "That was very, very brave," agreed Rose, unclamping her fingers from the edge of the seat.  "Zipping in front of that enormous truck.  I'm sorry I screamed."
     "Perfectly natural reaction," said Michael.  "Have you seen those cyclists ahead, Cadmium?"
     "No. Oh, yes.  Sorry.  Shut my eyes for a moment."
     "Can you drive with your eyes shut?" inquired Rose, with great interest.
     "No. No, I can't.  Missed.  Good."
     "Missed what?" Michael asked.
     "The cyclists."
     Michael put a hand on the steering wheel and said Caddy should take the next turn on the left and then pull up and park.
     Caddy pulled into a bus stop and thirteen people waved her away.  Rose waved back.

They're all a little daffy, but they all understand the important things in life. Their beloved but addled grandfather dies, and a note on his will leads Saffy on a quest to find a stone angel.  She finds a new friend who ultimately helps with the search.  But the moment of making friends is one Saffy wants to keep to herself:
     She knew quite well what would happen the moment she let Sarah meet her family.  She would lose her.  Sarah was just the sort of person that Caddy and Indigo and Rose would like.  They would make friends immediately.  Then Eve would come out of her shed and be sweet and useless and friendly, and she would like Sarah too.  And sooner or later Bill would reappear from London and be efficient and handsome and make excellent jokes.  Sarah would be swept away on a wave of Casson charm.
     Saffron had lost her grandfather only the week before.  She had lost her family twice -- the first time in Italy, and the second time when she discovered her name was not on the paint chart.  She seemed to have been losing people all her life, and she had no intention of losing the first proper friend she had ever made.

Sarah and Saffy end up going in one direction to solve the mystery of the angel, and Saffy's siblings try something else.  Ultimately the search is what heals her, and pulls her back into the family again.  It's great.

McKay has written four sequels to Saffy.  They're all quite good, and the reader has that wonderful warmth of being back with characters one knows and loves.  But Saffy is without doubt the best.



Monday, August 2, 2010

Performing board books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We're home again, getting back into the routine, and while we had a wonderful and relaxing vacation, I can't help but be slightly jealous of the hammock, and the hours of uninterrupted reading it implies.  Ah, well.

I realized recently that although we have a photo prominently displaying the board book of Mr. Gumpy's Outing, by John Burningham, neither of us has yet written about it.  What a great little book.  It was a favorite of Eleanor's from early on, and Isabel has already started to get into it (though she's still in the slapping at/eating books phase).

Mr. Gumpy lives by a river, and has a boat, a low raft-like thing.  He goes out in his boat one day, and everyone wants to come with him: the children, the rabbit, the cat, the dog, the cow, the chickens, the goat.  As he says yes to each request, Mr. Gumpy admonishes the newcomer: "'Very well,' said Mr. Gumpy.  But you're not to chase the rabbit.'"  "Yes, but don't keep bleating."  Everything goes along swimmingly until all the animals on the boat begin to do what they aren't supposed to do:

The goat kicked
The calf trampled
The chickens flapped
The sheep bleated
The pig mucked about
The dog teased the cat
The cat chased the rabbit
The rabbit hopped
The children squabbled
The boat tipped...

Eleanor particularly loved this page, coming as it does after the suspense-building setup.  Mr. Gumpy is pleasant about the whole thing, and they all walk home across the fields and have tea together.

Our one elaboration on Burningham's simple text and appealing sketchy drawings is that we've always read the book with different voices for each of the animals, and added in the animal sounds they make: "'Moooo, Can you make room for me?' said the calf." Our kids like it, and it helps differentiate each animal's voice to start with a bleat or an oink or a meow.

It's funny how you start reading books a certain way when you read them aloud over and over again.  You choose inflections and accents and then so often repeat them as reading becomes partly a performance.  When we started reading aloud to Eleanor, Jeff and I were quite rigid about alternating pages, so we'd each read an equal amount of every book, or we'd choose certain characters to read, and we'd fall into patterns with books: I'd know which page I wanted to start on to get some of my favorite pages in the middle.  We're much more lax now, but if we're reading Mr. Gumpy together, one of us will take his voice (slow and soft), and the other will do all the animals.  There's a way our kids now expect certain books to be read, as if they are songs with our own particular music.

Love, Annie

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bookstore and Berenstains

Dear Annie,

One of the many ways I am fortunate in my work is that I have a lot of control over what books I sell.  I run the book section within a very good independent toy store.   (The website, however, does not yet include our book department -- it's still building.)  The store's book section is as big as a medium-sized children's book store.  We stock thousands of books, so I can't say that I love every one of them.  But I like the vast majority of them, and I can do things like deciding not to carry any of the dreaded Berenstain Bears.  We do carry some books related to television shows -- a few Sesame Street books,  some Dora and Diego, Thomas, and Caillou.  The main place where I concede space to Disney princess junk is in the activity section: we carry $2.99 coloring books, and some sticker books.  Also one or two of the older Barbie sticker books.  C'est tout.  It's too bad that a store that sounds as good as the one you visited feels they have to sell the branded books.  It may be a way to drive more traffic into the store, or it may be that they feel they want to offer as wide a range of books as possible, or maybe they like them.

One of my little rules of thumb about what to carry -- not always followed, I confess -- is to stock books that the writer felt inspired to write.  As opposed to books which marketing departments commission because they believe they'll sell.  When you get into chapter book series that go on forever, that becomes fuzzier territory.  But those books without authors listed on them, and with the little TM on the cover -- they come from market research.

Moving on to the Berenstain Bears.  You called them preachy, which I think is a good word for them.  I think they often choose good topics -- ones which parents want to discuss with their children.  Manners, TV, anger, bad dreams, junk food, etc etc.  Sometimes I think they miss the reason a particular topic has an emotional impact on kids.  But even when they get it right, they're just so clunky.  Often there are better books on many of the Berenstain topics -- they're just not obviously labeled in a series.

Just got to Maine, by the way.  One hammock is already up, and the second will be by tomorrow.  We're all ready to lie around reading in between days canoeing on the river.