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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The allure of emergency

Dear Annie,

Bob and I gave blood today.  It took a while, and there was a messy moment when a donor and the man with needle weren't entirely coordinated, but one still feels good having given. 

All that blood, though, made us think of a book whose popularity in our house always mystified us.  It's called Stitches, by Harriet Ziefert, and is, alas, currently out of print.  It's an early reader which we used as a picture book read-aloud.  It tells the story of Jon, a slightly excitable boy, who falls off his bike, cuts his head ("I fell!  I fell!/There's blood!  There's blood!"), and goes to the doctor to get stitches.  Each step is explained, and at the end he's home being visited by his friends.

This book fascinated both the girls when they were around 4 and 5, before either one had her own experience with being sewn up.  I remember reading it over and over.  The kid is so full of hurt and worry and exclamation points, yet the injury is so contained: just a few stitches, done at the doctor's office.  I think it gave them a little vicarious catastrophe, enough to make the heart beat a little faster. It expanded their horizons of the possibility of damage, without their having to go through it.  I know that in the past I've encouraged parents to try to avoid books they don't like, and this one could certainly have fit in that category.  But it was so apparent that this little story was hitting a nerve in their growing psyches -- the fascination definitely outweighed the lack of literary merit.

I hope you had a good birthday, and Happy Halloween.



Friday, October 29, 2010


Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thank you for that excellent round-up.  I don't know when that particular day is going to come (faster, I bet, if Eleanor's friend Ian keeps asking questions and gets one of the books to read), but I'm glad to have some go-to books if that seems like a good way to go.  I'm sure that musicals will play some part in our discussions as well.  "The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl For Me" (Music Man) and "I Cain't Say No" (Oklahoma!) are already staples of our bedtime repertory.  We're just asking for it.

Thoughts of travel and birthdays have made me want tonight to write about one of my favorite classic and extremely strange picture books: Fortunately, written and illustrated by Remy Charlip (who was co-founder of the Paper Bag Players to boot).  Fortunately is among the small stable of books from my own childhood that I made sure to buy for Eleanor early on.  Its pleasing strangeness wears well.

Fortunately alternates between full-color happy pages ("Fortunately, one day Ned got a letter that said, 'Please Come to a Surprise Party.'") and black and white bad-news pages ("But unfortunately, the party was in Florida, and he was in New York").  The genius of this book is how totally strange it gets immediately after setting up this premise:

a friend loaned him an airplane.

the motor exploded.

there was a parachute in the airplane.

there was a hole in the parachute.

there was a haystack on the ground.

there was a pitchfork in the haystack.

And so it goes, through sharks and tigers, with a birthday party coming out of nowhere at the end.  It feels like the kind of one-upping story that a really bright 6-year-old might tell -- total kid-logic.  The repetition also makes it great for a read-aloud, as kids can chime right in.  Eleanor loved this book from very early on, though I do remember a phase when she was disturbed by Ned appearing upside-down in several drawings (as he falls from the airplane).  Each time we got to one of those pages, she'd make us turn the book so he'd appear right-side up. 

I hope you and my mom have an amazing time tomorrow!  I think you are both awesome.

Love, Annie

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where babies come from: The Book(s)

Dear Annie,

I've been reading sex books for the under-six crowd all day.  I've narrowed it down to four candidates.

These books tend to be almost all about having babies, rather than other motivations for having sex. Some of them spend a lot of time on both perceived and real differences between boys and girls (there's some knocking down of pink/blue stereotypes).  Some of them have diagrams with cross-sections of penises and uteri.  All of them talk about pregnancy (no, the stomach and the uterus are not the same place); many of them go into fetal development.  Most of them are packing lots of information into from 30 to 58 pages.  Sometimes they're surrounding the relevant information with lots of less-so info -- e.g. a two-page spread in It's Not the Stork with a naked girl on one side and a boy on the other, seen from the back.  About 20 different body parts are labeled (hair, wrist, arm, waist, knee, thumb etc) -- and they're all the same!  But turn them around (another two-page illustration), you can label all those parts again (adding belly buttons and nipples), but look -- here's a vulva, there's penis and scrotum.

The big difference is in the how-it-happens part.  Two basic explanations:

A) Two people really love each other.  They decide to have a baby. Sperm and egg get together.  A baby grows inside the mom.  We have two candidates in this category

The one on the left was written by Joanna Cole, of Magic School Bus fame, back before she developed a sense of humor.  Most of the illustrations are photographic, including a lot of in utero photos.  Both How You Were Born and Amazing You! (by Gail Saltz) have good two-page notes to parents with lots of common sense advice.  They both label themselves as being for children ages 3 and up.  Here's the Joanna Cole explanation of conception:

The next page moves on to more about cell division.

Amazing You, whose subtitle is Getting Smart About Your Private Parts, emphasizes one's own relationship to one's body, in terms of knowing about it, being proud of it, and enjoying it discreetly.  ("It's perfectly natural to be curious about your private parts and to want to touch them.   But this is something you should do only in a private place, like your room.")  Amazing's note to parents has this advice about preschoolers and pregnancy:  "Most are not ready to hear about intercourse and do not need to know about it yet.  What they want to know is where in your body the baby grows and how it comes out." 

For those who feel their children may want to know more, we have:

B)  Penis and vagina get together, sperm transfers, baby grows.

Page to right is from It's NOT the Stork! by Robie Harris.  It's the youngest in a trilogy of what are now the staple fare of sex ed books.  It considers itself appropriate for ages four and up.  This is the 58-page one, and it's crammed with information.   Basic physiology, sexual development, conception, fetal growth, birth, different kinds of families, good touching/bad touching, and on and on.  The note to parents says your child may not want all the information in it at once, which makes sense.  Although I find it hard to imagine a voracious reader like Eleanor being willing to read anything just a few pages at a time.

The other book in this category is What's the Big Secret? Talking About Sex with Girls and Boys by Laurie Krasny Brown and her spouse Marc Brown, author of many Arthur and D.W. books.  I will admit that I approached this one a bit warily, because although they've done some other pretty good advice books (Dinosaurs Die, for example, and Dinosaurs Divorce), I really can't stand the Arthur books.  What's the Big Secret has lots of the same information as the others, a little less overwhelming than Stork, some kid-appropriate humor.  The stated message of the book is that there's nothing to be uncomfortable with here and conversation and openness is the way to go.  But every now and then there's a pretty clear message that we're uncomfortable talking about this, up to the last page, where a boy tells his father he wants to ask a question about sex and dad says, "Okay, fire away.  I'll try to answer it."  But the thought blurb above his head is saying, "Relax, take a deep breath...."  And this isn't the note to parents part: this is what you're reading to your kid.

When people come to the store looking for books about sex for their kids, I always encourage taking the time to read a fair amount before they buy.  As with anything else you teach your child, your (the parent's) feelings are going to convey strongly.  So you need something you're comfortable with.  I don't remember our using any books in the early discussions of sex with our kids.  I do remember we used the "when two people love each other they sometimes decide to have a child" line, which ultimately led to my taking my cue from Irving Berlin for the next step in the education.

There we were, driving around town as usual listening to musicals on the tape player.  The girls were maybe 5 and 6.   Ethel Merman was belting out "Doin' What Comes Naturally," from Annie Get Your Gun.  She was even singing the last verse, which I discovered today from googling has been expunged from many versions of the song:
My mother's cousin Carrie
Won't ever change her name;
She doesn't want to marry
And her children feel the same.
Sister Rose has lots of beaus
Although we have no parlor;
She does fine behind a tree
Doin' what comes natur'lly --
Doin' what comes natur'lly.
Sister Rose went right by them.  But Carrie -- wait a minute.  This information we'd given our children about mom and dad loving each other so much and wanting children together:  how does this translate over to a mother who doesn't want to marry?  How did she make the babies?  Even though they knew plenty of kids in non-traditional households, somehow it was Ethel Merman who made them ask the question.  So I told them, driving past the Potomac on a lovely evening after gymnastics class.  As with all of parenthood, sometimes you're just winging it.

Happy Birthday in advance, by the way.  Your mother, who arrives here tomorrow,  and I will celebrate it on Saturday by marching together for sanity.



Monday, October 25, 2010


Dear Aunt Debbie,

Like you and Rachel, I adore Dogger.  You sent it to us last year, and it quickly became a household favorite.  We've gotten a couple of other Shirley Hughes books out of the library: Alfie's Feet, which you mentioned in your last post, and  Alfie and the Birthday Surprise, which is very good at dealing with the death of Alfie's neighbors' beloved cat (though the jacket copy didn't prepare me for what was going to happen inside.  Surprise!)  But Dogger is the best.

It's the story of Dave, a little boy who has a stuffed dog named Dogger, which he loves to pieces.  One afternoon, on the way home from picking up his big sister Bella at school, Dave somehow loses Dogger.  There are a wonderful few pages of the household search for Dogger (a scene familiar to all parents, I'd wager):

"But Dogger was quite lost."  Dave is bereft.  The next day, the family goes to the School Summer Fair (lots of great, highly-detailed pictures of fair activities: a costume parade, different kinds of races and games).  Bella wins both a three-legged race and a raffle, and gets a giant stuffed bear.  As Dave pouts around, he discovers Dogger on a toy sale table, with a price tag on him.  Horrors!  He doesn't have the money to buy Dogger back, and can't get the lady's attention, and can't find his parents, and sees another little girl come to buy Dogger, and it seems for a few pages that Dogger will be irretrievably lost, but Bella reunites them in a moment of selflessness.

Hughes's writing is beautifully understated.  As you say, her characters behave well in a way that feels totally natural: no one is being taught a lesson in these books, but there is real goodness here, and a careful attention to what is most important to small children.  And there is the lovely British-accented text:

Bella ran up with her satchel flying.
"Mum, can we have an ice cream?"
Mum gave her the money for two cones.  Joe didn't have a whole ice-cream to himself because he was too dribbly.

I really need to find myself more Alfie books too, don't I?

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wonderful Alfie

Dear Annie,

Hmm, well, birds and bees and four year-olds. One of the many challenges of parenthood. I remember Lizzie asking, when she was about three years old, "How did I come to be?" It was such great phrasing. I talked about Mommy and Daddy loving each other and deciding to have a baby. We got into more of the nitty-gritty later.

I'll come back to this question -- probably in my next post -- after I go comb through my shelves in the store and find the good books.

I thought I'd spend most of this post on the amazing Shirley Hughes and her Alfie books, which Rachel mentioned in a comment last week.   I seem to have mentioned her only once, in relation to Angel Mae, a great Christmas book that's part of her Trotter Street series, now out of print.  She's a British author and illustrator.  The children in her books seem very multi-culturally British, fresh-faced and sweet.  The stories take the daily tribulations of pre-schoolers' lives very seriously, and they tend to have children who behave well, with courage, without being preachy.  There's always a sense of having succeeded at something.  They're lovely.

Rachel, the British versions of the Alfie books are currently in distribution in the U.S. -- I carry them at Child's Play.  You just need to find the right independent book store which carries them.

My favorite Alfie books are: Alfie's Feet (about getting new boots and figuring out which feet to put them on), An Evening At Alfie's (about a ceiling leak when the babysitter is there), Alfie Gets in First (Alfie unintentionally locks his mother out of the house), and
Alfie Gives a Hand
.  In this one, Alfie goes by himself (for the first time) to a birthday party.  He's apprehensive, and brings along "his old bit of blanket" to feel more secure.  He politely declines the hostess's  invitation to put it down.  Bernard, the birthday boy, does some major acting out -- throwing Alfie's gift in the air, being wild with his food, playing games while wearing his scary mask -- disconcerting Alfie, but scaring his friend Min.  When it's time to play ring-around-the-rosy, Min won't join unless she can hold onto Alfie, but Alfie can't hold Bernard's and Min's hands and his blanket too.
Then Alfie made a brave decision.  He ran and put down his blanket, very carefully, in a safe place underneath the table.  Now he could hold Mind's hand, too, as well as Bernard's.
 Alfie is center top in the picture.

The party ends happily and Alfie's mum and baby sister come to collect him as promised.

All the Alfie books are full of detailed illustrations which one can linger over.  Most of them also feature Alfie's toddler baby sister Annie Rose, a pre-verbal forceful personality.  They're great.

Best of all the Shirley Hughes books is Dogger, which I'll save for another post.



Friday, October 22, 2010

Do tadpoles lead to the birds and the bees?

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love the image of your new store, all those books waiting to be discovered by kids and parents.  Sounds like a busy, fun time.

This week, Eleanor picked up a book at the library called Growing Frogs, by Vivian French.  It's part of a series put out by Candlewick Press (they have such good taste) called "Read, Listen, & Wonder": the narrative is meant to teach a bunch of interesting facts, and the book comes with a CD containing both a read-aloud version and a bunch of extra facts, in this case about frogs.

Perhaps it's my English-teacher-fiction-loving heart, but I didn't expect to like this book as much as I do.  It's quite charming: the story of a girl who lives near a pond and her mom, who teaches her how to take frog spawn out of the pond, bring it home, and grow tadpoles in a fish tank.  (There are many clear instructions on how to do this without hurting the pond or the tadpoles.)  When the frogs get big enough, the girl and her mom return them to the pond.  There are clear, readable explanations of all the stages of tadpole-to-frog development, including a few bits in smaller font that add to the narrative without being exactly part of the story: "Tadpoles have gills on the outside of their bodies at first.  Then they grow gills inside their bodies, and the outside ones disappear."  It's enough to make you want to go out and get some frog spawn -- if, you know, you didn't live in the middle of a city.

One of the extra-informational bits in this book explains the process of fertilization: "Male frogs croak to attract female frogs for mating.  Mating occurs when the male frog covers the female's eggs with his sperm.  A tadpole will only grow if an egg joins with a sperm -- this joining is called fertilization."  Reading this aloud to Eleanor last night, I wondered if it was going to spark questions about how babies are made -- I was very aware that it was the first time I'd introduced her to the word "sperm."  She hasn't picked up on it yet, and probably won't in this context, but it gave me a moment of Huh, I wonder when and how the sex conversation is going to happen.

I'd just finished reading a very funny article by Jill Lepore in the Oct. 18 New Yorker magazine on the subject: a round-up of several new How to Explain Sex to Kids books.  As far as I remember, we never had any of them in the house growing up.  My dad enlightened me on the facts of life when my mom got pregnant with Michael -- I was 3 1/2, about Eleanor's age, and can actively remember being embarrassed by the conversation.  But I was never misinformed.  Still, I remember friends talking about having childhood sex-ed books (including one pop-up book, which just seems like a bad idea).  What's your take on this genre, animal husbandry or human sexuality-wise?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

We open in McLean

Dear Annie,

The new store, which is in a shopping center in McLean, Virginia, has been open for a week now.  I spent today finishing unpacking a 27-box shipment from Harper, and 7 more boxes from Simon & Schuster.  All the books from major publishers are now there, on the shelves where they'll be living, and mostly in order.

I feel like I'm bringing old friends to a new neighborhood.  It's fun to see which of my new co-workers reacts to which book.  One person sat on the floor reading the most recent Diary of a Wimpy Kid today.  Another has been figuring out the mysteries of putting early readers in order.  Frog & Toad, The Fire Cat, a ton of Fancy Nancy readers, lots of Henry and Mudge, Small Pig -- they're all arranged in spinner racks which finally arrived yesterday.

It all feels clean and new.  Which is nice (no chaos!), but it doesn't have its own personality yet.  We still haven't hired the person who will be responsible for the new book section -- and that person is bound to put more personality into it.  And even though I've been talking with customers, I don't have a sense of who they are yet.  Not that everyone who walks into a store is the same person, but each store has a clientele that leans a little more toward different types of books.

One boy -- maybe 8 years old -- came in today asking where Jack and Annie were.   I had to translate for a co-worker: they're the stars of the Magic Tree House series (yes, we carry all 44 of 'em, sigh).  A mom and her four year-old spent some time quietly on the floor back in the picture book section, declining any assistance, and after half an hour emerged with an armload of books.  That happens at the main store a lot, but it was fun to see someone stocking up just as we were opening.  The Guinness Book of World Records and Star Wars book still exert a magnetic pull for anyone over ten years old.

But my favorite was a girl who came in yesterday.  She was maybe eight years old, totally energetic.  She flitted around the book section, giving equal attention to the organized books on the shelves and piles on the floor.  What I really loved was that she'd walk up to a pile and pick up a book or two, look at them, get distracted by another one, go pick up that one.  It was such a tactile exploration: touch, pick up, look, put down, touch another, pick it up, etc.  That's how I feel a lot of the time: wanting to run my fingers through the books.



Monday, October 18, 2010

Darker Sendak

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm kind of sorry to have the possible Holocaust interpretation of In the Night Kitchen in my head now.  Not that it's a total surprise, given Sendak's clear personal interest in Holocaust stories.  I saw an amazing collaboration he did with the dance company Pilobilus, which touched on Holocaust themes, and I know he and Tony Kushner worked together on Brundibar, a children's book which tells the story of the Czech opera that Nazis had Jewish children perform in the concentration camp Terezin.  I haven't yet read it.

I've always felt that the most disturbing Sendak book I know is Outside Over There.  It's a fairy tale, of sorts: Ida's papa is away at sea and her Mama is depressed, so Ida takes care of her baby sister.  The baby is snatched away by goblins, who leave a wide-eyed ice baby in her place.  Ida chases down the goblins, then plays a tune on her horn so catchy that the goblins can't help themselves, and dance until they've melted away.  The baby-stealing thing disturbed me even before I had kids of my own, but the page where the goblins dance themselves to death is just as creepy: when the goblins take off their cloaks, they're revealed to look like babies themselves, so it is babies you see laughing and dancing to oblivion.  There's a lot to analyze in that one, too.

Love, Annie

P.S. I'd love to hear more about the new store!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Let's hear it for choice

Dear Annie,

I have some vague memory of reading an essay by Sendak about In the Night Kitchen, but I've just been through a fruitless search on the internet.  The interpretations of the book that I've found, though are:

  1) Differentiation of self: "I'm not the milk and the milk's not me!"  Basically your interpretation.
  2) Something fuzzy and full of phallic/Freudian/sexual imagery involving both the extremely obvious and the slightly less so: free-flowing milk, for example.
  3) And then there's the Holocaust.  Sendak is quoted (but I can't find his words) as telling Terry Gross that the Oliver Hardy look-alike bakers are actually stand-ins for Nazis who want to put Mickey in the oven.  If it didn't come from the horse's mouth, I'd take this one with a grain of salt.  All of Sendak's father's family was killed in the Holocaust.  (And the Wild Things are Sendak's mother's relatives who they managed to get to the U.S. before World War II.)

In answer to your question, yes, In the Night Kitchen is still wildly popular, and Where the Wild Things Are is even more so.  Which brings me back to that stupid New York Times article on picture books.  No, sales of picture books are not down at our stores in the D.C. area -- although we're in an area which has not been as badly affected by the economic mess as many other places.  I believe that picture books will be the last type of book to be affected by the current digital revolution.  Long after 12 year-olds are reading their middle-grade novels on kindles, grown-ups will still be buying physical books with real pages and great pictures to read to their little ones. I hope.

Some newly-published picture books -- like any other genre, for children or adults -- don't sell.  That's the nature of the business.  Publishers winnow down many submissions to the few hundred they offer to bookstores in a season.  The book buyers choose a small percentage of those to bring into their stores (I went through about 20 sample picture books from Scholastic today and have settled on three that I'll offer to our customers next spring).  Then the end users -- moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, loving friends -- come into the store and maybe look at some of those new ones, or maybe just go for In the Night Kitchen for that special kid.  So some of the books I like don't make the cut.  And some catch on and become part of our more or less permanent collection.  No store can guess right all the time.

And of course one of the pleasures of going to a book store or a library is choice.  That's what browsing is all about -- sampling and choosing. 

The new store opened last week, by the way.  More on that another day.



Friday, October 15, 2010

Weird, wonderful Maurice Sendak

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I will certainly be trying more David Wiesner on our 3-year-old crowd -- will let you know the results.

Tonight we read, for probably the thousandth time, a classic weird and wonderful Maurice Sendak book: In the Night Kitchen.  It's one of the formative books of my childhood, and was seminal Maurice Sendak for me, right up there with the now-ubiquitous Where the Wild Things Are and the satisfyingly tiny books of The Nutshell Library.  I honestly don't have a sense of how well-known and currently popular it is -- do lots of people buy it these days?

One of the classic reading photos in our family is of me, age 6ish, reading it to Michael, probably 1 1/2, both of us intensely concentrated.  (That photo is in a hard-to-open frame at my parents' apartment; here's the best picture my mom could snap of it through the glass.)

In the Night Kitchen  is the story of Mickey, who is woken up by "a racket in the night."  When he gets up to shout for quiet, he falls "through the dark, out of his clothes, past the moon & his mama & papa sleeping tight...into the light of the night kitchen."  (It's hard to write about this book without just quoting the whole thing!)  The "night kitchen" is a city made of milk carton, jam jar, and boxed good buildings decorated with giant wire whisks: a child's-eye view of the mysteries of cooking and baking.  The bakers here are three large identical men in bakers' clothes.  They mix Mickey into cake batter and try to bake him, but Mickey pops out covered in cake dough: "I'm not the milk, and the milk's not me!  I'm Mickey!"  He skips over to the bread dough, makes an airplane out of it, and flies up to get milk from a giant milk bottle, which he dives into, singing: "I'm in the milk, and the milk's in me.  God bless milk and God bless me!"  The bakers bake their cake, Mickey returns to bed, "And that's why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning."

You have to wonder what happened in Sendak's childhood.  I'm hard-pressed to explain it all, other than feeling like it has to do with a child's new understanding of his own individual identity, his me-ness, in a world which is big and strange and trying to force him to be what he's not.  Why the bakers mistake him for milk in the first place, or why they look like Oliver Hardy, or who in the world actually has cake every morning, I don't know.  I do know that this is a deeply satisfying read.  I'm looking forward to the day when Eleanor gets to read it to Isabel, as well.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

weird and wonderful

Dear Annie,

David Wiesner does such amazing books.  After your post of those great Flotsam pictures, I thought I'd add two from Tuesday.  Frogs arise from a pond at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, floating on lily pads, and end up in a town observing the locals and wreaking a little mischief.  As with Flotsam, there's always lots going on in every picture:

He's just released a new one (it's been four years since Flotsam):

Art & Max
.  It's much more exuberant than either of the other two books we've been talking about. Arthur is a takes-himself-so-seriously Artist, and his friend Max is an enthusiastic and clueless newbie to painting.  When Max wonders what he should paint, Arthur suggests, "you could paint me."  Max then covers Arthur with paint:
The process of trying to remove the paint reduces Arthur to a line drawing, then he unravels to a scribble.  Max has to rebuild his friend, all the while gaining confidence in his artistic abilities.

It all ends happily, with each character (lizard?) taking on a bit of the creative approach of the other. 

I'm curious what your group of three year-olds would think of it.  It seems to me to be both very sophisticated in its approach to the process of making art, yet it also has a straightforward plot, brimming with energy.

The new store opened its doors for business today, despite the fact that we still haven't received shipments from two major publishers.  So we opened without Goodnight Moon, but Harper swears it will be there on Friday.



Monday, October 11, 2010

Living happily in our cloud of words (and pictures)

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It's funny -- when we started reading chapter books with Eleanor, I had the brief worried thought: Does this mean we're leaving behind our wonderful stash of picture books?  But of course it doesn't.  Even if we didn't have Isabel coming up through the ranks, thrusting her dog-themed board books at me and insisting, "Woof!", Eleanor moves easily among different kinds of books.  Like all readers, sometimes she's in the mood for one thing, and sometimes another.  Me too. 

I can see how, especially in a recession, parents might balk at buying a lot of brand-new hardcover picture books, at close to $20 a pop -- I do.  As I've mentioned several times, we often make the library our testing ground, and then buy the books we've checked out repeatedly.  But have you noticed, as a bookseller, anything like the "trend" the Times is reporting on?

One of the library books Eleanor has fallen in love with this week is a wordless book you wrote about back in May: Flotsam, by David Wiesner.  It's such a gorgeous book, and so rich -- Jeff and I have found ourselves poring over it as well.  Eleanor has been reading it a lot, both talking it through with us and just staring into the pages as she drinks her milk in the morning.  In Flotsam, a curious boy already examining crabs on the beach finds an old underwater camera, develops the film in it, and sees extraordinary underwater scenes: mechanical fish, a family of octopi reclining on living room furniture, giant starfish stretching with islands on their backs, and finally an explanation of the camera's provenance. 

I wonder what Eleanor makes of some of it.  I look at these pictures and tease out what is real and what's fantastical.  But here's Eleanor, for whom magnifying glasses, microscopes, and old-fashioned film developing are just as strange and wonderful as the magical bits are to me.  I think this is one I'll shell out the bucks for, maybe for Christmas.  I'd like to have it around so the girls can easily re-read it as they get older.
Your also post reminds me that I need to write at some point about more of the classics: Maurice Sendak, Robert McCloskey.  I'll get on that soon.

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In Praise of Picture Books

Dear Annie,

I've spent the weekend up to my ears in books again, setting up the new store in McLean, Virginia.  Most of the shelves arrived on Thursday, and we're all trying to get the goods in the right places.  Opening day is this coming week.  With books, the big sections are pretty straightforward: Early Chapter Books go in this aisle, Board Books have their own nook, Mysteries in the back, near regular Fiction.  Should Potty Books have their own section, or can they exist in one area with Manners and New Siblings?  Religion fits well on this particular shelf, but does it work right next to Humor? 

Picture books have been a particular challenge.  The store is in a location which has had a toy & book store before, so we have reason to expect that hardcover picture books will sell well there.  I ordered more hardcovers than the other stores stock.  The obvious place to put them is in the back of the book section, and today I figured out which shelves to put them on which will make them visible across the entire store.  I have lots of face-out shelves -- they look quite lovely.  Books like Where the Wild Things Are, Make Way for Ducklings, The Lion and the Mouse, and of course Grumpy Bird are all beckoning across the shelves.

So imagine my -- not surprise, exactly -- exasperation at a New York Times article last week pronouncing picture books "no longer a staple for children."  What planet is that paper on?  Speaking as a former journalist, I can say that trend articles are almost always instigated by an editor who has had one conversation with another person, and they tend to be low on documentation and high on dumb quotes.  This one is no exception.  MotherReader, an excellent site ("The heart of a mother. The soul of a reader. The mouth of a smartass.") to which we link, skewered the article very nicely.  And before you get furious at the woman quoted in the article as saying she and her husband keep their six year-old from reading picture books because he should be reading longer ones, read her blog entry titled, "When quotes are taken out of context."

Very few adults read only one genre, and the same can be said for kids.  They start out with grownups reading them picture books.  Then the appetite for longer stories grows, and kids jump to listening to chapter books -- as Eleanor has been doing.  But it's my distinct impression that chapter books haven't stopped Eleanor from enjoying the many different levels of picture books.  The genres all get mixed up together, creating a warm surrounding cloud of books/stories/words.  Which, of course, is what we all want.



Friday, October 8, 2010

Playing dress-up

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You know, I can see Eleanor getting into the idea of period costume.  We found a colonial outfit last spring in a museum in South Carolina, and she was crazy for it, putting it on and posing every which way.  This past year, she's gotten deeply into dressing up.  We're currently working on putting together her Halloween costume ("beautiful princess," natch), and she dips regularly into the dress-up bin in her room as well.  When I pick her up at preschool, she and her other 3-year-old friends are often wearing bits and pieces of princess, fairy, firefighter, and Peter Pan costumes -- it's kind of fantastic.

One of the books which has helped fuel Eleanor's dress-up recently is a repeat library checkout: Mama's Saris, by Pooja Makhijani, illustrated by Elena Gomez.  The narrator is an Indian-American girl, who for her seventh birthday wants nothing more than to wear one of her mother's special saris, which are kept in a suitcase under her parents' bed.  The mother at first says no, but as they go through the suitcase, looking at each sari and remembering the special occasion each was worn, she realizes how much the narrator wants to feel grown-up, and ends up letting her wear a sari for her birthday party.

It's a sweet story: the narrator admires her mother, and the saris are presented as glamorous and evocative.  The book hints at assimilation: Nanima (grandma) wears a sari every day, while Mom pulls them out only for special occasions: "I think Mama looks so pretty when she wears her saris.  They are so different from the gray sweaters and brown pants that she wears to work every day."  The writing is a little flat, but perfectly serviceable, and the illustrations are largely set on close-ups of sari patterns, so turning the pages feels like moving from one bolt of gorgeous cloth to the next.

Since reading this book, Eleanor has taken possession of an Indian wrap-around skirt I have, and turned it into her "sari."  I love the fact that this word is now in her vocabulary, and that she, like the narrator of the book, deeply wants a real one when she gets a little older. 

Love, Annie

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Historical fiction, Minnesota-style

Dear Annie,

Mona was a fan of the Betsy-Tacy books.  I'm fond of the progression of the first few: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib (a third friend is added -- almost no triangle situations), Betsy-Tacy Go Over the Big Hill (venturing out...), Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown (venturing out into small-town society).  They're 12 years old in that one.  Then Betsy, like Anne of Green Gables, just keeps getting older, finding boys, etc.  We quit after #4.  I'm curious what Cyd thinks of the later books.

They're lovely books, but there's a phenomenon with them which exists around other books too: that of the organization of obsessive fans.  In this case, it's The Betsy-Tacy Society, which has bought Betsy's and Tacy's houses in Mankato, Minnesota and is now restoring them.  The books are the thinly fictionalized stories of Maud Hart Lovelace's childhood around the turn of the previous century.  I once met a woman who was an active member of the society and went to frequent (yearly?) gatherings where everyone came in period costume.

As for the infant mortality -- sigh.  I always mention it to parents who are thinking of buying the book.  I'd say maybe half decide not to get it because of that.  Being blind-sided by Baby Bee's death -- as you almost were on the subway -- is no fun.  Yet missing out on the books altogether for that reason feels not quite right either.  Maybe I'll start recommending skipping that chapter.  We got through many books (most notably stuff about women's roles, but it works with medical advances too) saying, "Things used to be different [fill in: for girls and women/ when people got sick/ when kings and queens ruled...], but the world has changed now.  Those things don't happen, or don't happen as much."



Tuesday, October 5, 2010

We are what we read

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your last paragraph made me tear up.  I'm so glad that you're out there talking about and selling books to people.

I know what you mean about feeling like certain books belong to certain readers.  (And of course I have my own, books that are so intertwined in my childhood that they feel entirely mine.  Today at lunch in the English teachers' lounge, one of my colleagues referred to a character in one of Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik books, and I lit up -- I adored and identified with Anastasia, and hadn't thought of her in so long.)

This past week, Eleanor and I started reading a book which I will forever identify with my friend Cyd: the Maud Hart Lovelace classic Betsy-Tacy.  Cyd is an amazing, voracious reader, and has been since she was two years old.  Since we became friends in high school, she's mentioned Betsy-Tacy a number of times as being one of the formative series of her childhood, and told me recently she'd just re-read the first two books with her daughter Rebekah.  (The series takes Betsy and Tacy from childhood up into early adulthood over the course of ten books.)

Reading the book with Eleanor, I see Cyd in its pages.  Betsy-Tacy is the story of two best friends (Betsy and Tacy), both 5 years old, who live across the street from each other in turn-of-the-century Minnesota.  Betsy is Lovelace's alter-ego, a storyteller and budding writer, filled with imagination.  Betsy and Tacy are deeply loyal to each other, and totally engaged in an imaginative world together: they climb trees, make a house outside in a piano box, dye sand with Easter egg colors and use it to fill jars which they sell to other neighborhood children, dress up in their mothers' clothes and go calling on neighbors.  Their play is lovely and old-fashioned and real.

Big warning for the first book, however: in the chapter titled "Easter Eggs," Tacy's youngest sister, Baby Bee, dies of an unexplained illness.  Cyd warned me about this a while ago, but of course I forgot until this weekend, when I was reading it on the subway to Eleanor and her friend Ian.  Then there was a mention of Baby Bee being sick and...I paused and scanned the pages rapidly...oh.  I made a lame excuse about the length of the chapter and moved onto the next one.  You can do this -- while Betsy and Tacy discuss Bee's death in the chapter (Betsy reassures Tacy that Bee is up in Heaven in a way I imagine will only reassure your child if this is also your family belief and you've discussed it previously), there's no mention of it in later chapters.  Eleanor has already looked through the book on her own, found the picture of Betsy and Tacy in a tree with their Easter eggs, and asked about what happens in that story -- if she pushes, I'll have the conversation with her.  But for now, I'm fine with keeping infant mortality off the table.

Aside from the one chapter, Betsy-Tacy is an unadulterated pleasure.  A new old friend.

Love, Annie

Monday, October 4, 2010


Dear Annie,

Even though I order books constantly, there's still a Christmas-morning thrill to the moment they arrive.  Inside all those nondescript brown boxes are books I know well.  They're old friends, come to visit once again.  It makes me think of when Eleanor came to visit the D.C. store and spotted books she knew -- oh look, here's Grumpy Bird!  There's Chickens to the Rescue!  The cosiness of familiarity.

A mere two dozen of the hundreds of books I unpacked at the new store over the weekend:
Pippi Longstocking
Goodnight Gorilla
The Owl and the Pussycat
The Snowy Day
Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
Who Was Elvis Presley?
The Twits
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
The Jolly Postman
Tintin in Tibet
Mr. Popper's Penguins
Moo Baa La La La
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Math Doesn't Suck
The Guinness Book of World Records
Miss Mary Mack
Fox on Wheels

Each Peach Pear Plum
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
Sports Illustrated Book of Football

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

It all made me think about my life selling books.  I sort of stumbled into it, with my only expertise coming from loving to read to my children and doing volunteer work for a truly wonderful school librarian. Just as with human friends, I have many different ways to appreciate books.  There are the characters I love: Saffy, Ramona, Bartimaeus, Mirette, Grumpy Bird, Little Bear, Frog and Toad, and on and on.  There are the lyrical take-your-breath away books: The Arrival or The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, to name two.  There's the rip-roaring action at any age: from No Jumping on the Bed through Harry Potter on up to Hunger Games and Chaos Walking.  Books of courage, of hardship, of inspiration.  And on and on.

But another thing I realized while unpacking all those books, is how many of them represent specific children to me.  There are kids I know well like, for example, Eleanor.  Whenever I look at So Much!, a book I've carried for years, I think of when you and Eleanor called me, a few days after I gave it to her for her second birthday.  She was at that whispery toddler stage on the phone, but she breathed out, "I want to kiss that baby," -- one of the refrains from the book.  We carry a feminist fairy tale chapter book called Dealing with Dragons which Steven, my boss, loves and sells a lot of.  But for me it will always be connected to a 9 year-old boy who was tripping over his words with excitement as he told me, "It's so cool!  The dragons are the good guys and the wizards are the bad guys!"  I love being a matchmaker for kids and books.  Sometimes they're arranged marriages: I speak with parents who then introduce their kids to the books.  I can't count how many times a parent has come back and said, my child loved that book you recommended, but when I ask which it was the parent can't remember.  I've stopped asking that, and just feel good knowing there was a match there somewhere.

Sometimes the job has counseling elements to it.  How can we help your child get involved in reading?  I love those challenges: how to entice a child who's already rejected a lot of options.  A few years ago a woman appeared in the store who I recognized as someone I'd had a number of those conversations with.  She hadn't been by in a while, but she had come to tell me that her son had gotten involved in some of the books I'd recommended and that now he was reading steadily.  I said something kind of breezy about that's great that he's liking it.  "No, you don't understand," she said, and she teared up.  "What I'm saying is, you made my son a reader."

Another reason to love my job.



Saturday, October 2, 2010

Baby animals. Too cute.

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We are immersed in books.  And largely, thanks to Isabel's preferences, my parents, and your most excellent birthday box, we are immersed in books about baby animals.  There is just insane cuteness happening in our house all the time.

I'm going to keep this post focused on the photographs-of-baby-animals books, leaving aside the drawings-of-baby-animals books for another time.  For her birthday, Isabel received three new ones with excellent documentary photos.

Big Babies, Little Babies, the one you sent, is a DK Publishing book.  I like seeing their symbol -- it makes me think of all of their awesome art books, and I know that the visuals will be of high quality.  This book is no exception: it's filled with excellent photos of animals in their natural habitats, meerkats and opossums and otters and pangolins, and on and on, nuzzling their young.  Each double-page spread contains a lot of interesting information about the animals.  From the ostrich page: "Both parents sit on the eggs until they hatch.  Mom does the day shift, since her feathers are speckled and she's hard to see against dry grass.  Dad's black, so he takes over at night."  I could do without the thought bubbles coming out of the animals' heads: the baby rhino announces: "Hello!  My mom will look after me for about three years.  By that time, I'll be almost as big as she is."   A little too cute for my taste.  But that's a minor complaint about a book that will clearly be useful and enjoyable for a long time.

Baby Animals In the Wild
and Baby Animals On the Farm (from my parents) are from the same Kingfisher board book series, which lists no author, usually a sign that the text isn't going to be brilliant.  Isabel is already into them, flipping the hard pages and staring intently, trying to recognize them as either "Cat!" or "Woof!", her two animal words.  Each page is written in the voice of the baby animal (is this what people want?  I guess I should just get over myself and succumb to the cuteness), and has words that are stretched or bent or wiggly to emphasize their meaning ("hidden" is in a smaller font; "rivers" is kind of bumpy).  The baby hippo floating under water is criminally adorable.

And then there's the book Isabel discovered by herself at the library this week: Baby! Baby!, by Vicky Ceelen.  Each double-page spread contains two pictures: on one side, an animal baby; on the other, a human baby looking eerily like the animal, due to body positioning, facial expression, or both.  This is a brilliant book.  It is completely wordless, the pictures (most in color, a few of the animals in black and white) are sharp and engaging, the babies are a pleasantly diverse assortment, and each page is bordered in a block of pastel color.  Isabel can't stop looking at it.

I think this is my favorite spread:

That pretty much says it all.

Love, Annie