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, November 29, 2010

Screaming latkes

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I must confess, goy that I am, that I don't know much about Hanukkah books.  Our local library children's section has a bunch of them, none of which, at least at a cursory glance, looks particularly great.  At one point last year, Eleanor picked out a Hanukkah version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with cartoony drawings of a raucous family getting five spinning dreidels, four bags of gelt, etc.  We brought it home and read it, but as she didn't have any experience of Hanukkah yet and didn't know the song the book was parodying, it was a bit of a bust.  I'll try the books you suggest, and would certainly be interested in hearing about others (thanks, Rachel!).

When I mentioned this topic to my wonderful student teacher, however, she perked right up.  "Have you read The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming?" she asked.  I confessed that I had not. She told me it was by Lemony Snicket (I've read none of his books, but know they are huge favorites -- what's your take on him?), and that she loved it so much she had given a dramatic reading of it to her family over Thanksgiving.  I asked Zara to tell me a little more about it, and here's what she wrote:
The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story
“This story ends in someone’s mouth, but it begins in a tiny village more or less covered in snow.”  And so begins what is definitely not another Christmas story, and although it’s written in a picture-book format, the humor will appeal to adults.  The book follows a latke that was created in a cottage that was “regarded with some suspicion, as it was the only place not decorated with flashing colored lights at this time of year.”  As the latke runs around the town, he meets some other holiday favorites—flashing lights, a candy cane, a pine tree.  With every new encounter, the latke tells a little more about the history and celebration of Hanukah.  But he just can’t stop screaming, because nobody seems to understand that Hanukah isn’t Christmas—as the latke shouts, it’s “something completely different!!” 
Finally, a story about how it can sometimes feel to be a Jew at Christmastime.  Sure, we love the candy canes, and the lights are beautiful, but Hanukah is more than eight days of presents, and it’s definitely not a Jewish Christmas.  The latke reminds us about the true meaning of Hanukah—having hope even when you feel outnumbered.  It’s hard to be the house without the decorations or the latke constantly trying to explain himself to a candy cane who just doesn’t understand. 
So true.  Thank you, Zara!

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hanukkah approaches!

Dear Annie,

'Tis the season of holidays, and this year they're coming fast and furious.  Hanukkah starts early this year: this Wednesday is the first night of Hanukkah.  It's made the usual build-to-a-late-December-crescendo in the toy store a little different this year.  Variety.  Always good.

I'm a big believer in kids having some understanding of major holidays in our society, even if not all of them are ones celebrated by their families.  Lizzie and Mona's private school dealt with the religion question with sequential immersion.  There was a big Christmas Assembly, with the first graders doing the Jesus/Mary/Joseph pageant, the headmaster reading The Grinch, and everyone singing a carol or two.  And come spring break, they'd have the Passover Assembly, with the kindergartners doing the plagues (ah, those hopping frogs), and Moses and Pharoah with their paper beards confronting each other.  The littlest ones got to ask the Four Questions.  Holidays from other traditions were discussed, but the Jewish/Christian mix was the big one for their school.

So, here for all of us, are my two favorite Hanukkah picture books:

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
, by master storyteller Eric Kimmel, wonderfully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman tells the story of a wandering beggar who finds a village which doesn't celebrate Hanukkah because a group of goblins has taken over the synagogue and harasses the populace.  Hershel sets out to evict them  by spending the eight nights of the holiday in the synagogue.  He outsmarts the goblins one by one on each night, managing to keep the candles burning every night.  (Lots of potential on the different-voices hamming it up front.)  On the last night he must face the dreaded King of the Goblins.  A good story.

And then there's
The Chanukkah Guest
, also by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Giora Carmi, which does much more than just remind us there are many spellings of Chanukkah.  It's set in another village, where 97 year-old Bubba Brayna still makes the best latkes in town.  Smells of her cooking awaken a bear.  When he arrives at Bubba's house, the very near-sighted, hard-of-hearing old lady mistakes him for the rabbi, feeds him latkes, responds to his growls as though they were conversation, spins the dreidel with him, and sends him off with the scarf she has knitted for the rabbi.  There's lots of charming slapstick in these scenes.  Then her intended guests -- the rabbi and the villagers -- arrive and figure out what happened, to some worries and a lot of laughter.

May your holiday guests bring you much joy and a few surprises.



Friday, November 26, 2010

Introducing the Thanksgiving story

Dear Aunt Debbie,

And happy Thanksgiving to you!  We missed you and your sweet potato biscuits, but my mom did a masterful job with the Johnson family pumpkin pie, and apple pie to boot.  It was a good day.

This is the first year that Eleanor has begun to be exposed to, and to take in, the Thanksgiving story.  It's interesting -- I remember getting all dolled up in elementary school in construction paper Pilgrim and Indian hats and headdresses, way back before I'd read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and started realizing how much had been revised and left out, and I found myself wondering recently how the story would come down to Eleanor and Isabel.  At preschool, they've done a nice job: they talked about the Pilgrims, and Eleanor came home to inform me solemnly that the Pilgrims came on a ship, "but they weren't the first people here."  Then they had homework: for Friday, each kid was given a plastic grocery bag and asked to fill it with the possessions they'd want to take with them on the Mayflower.  Evidently Eleanor really thinks the New World needs a Snow White Barbie doll and a plastic fireman's hat, among other things.  Her friend Ella (who I am sure will be massively into Ella Enchanted when she gets old enough) was a little more practical, and brought a lot of snacks.

Our first exposure to the Thanksgiving story actually came earlier this year, when we took the book Pilgrim Cat, by Carol Antoinette Peacock, out of the library.  I didn't realize at first that it was a Thanksgiving-related book.  It's decent picture-book historical fiction, about a young girl, Faith Barrett, who is among the passengers on the Mayflower, and makes friends with a cat who jumps on board just before the ship sails.  Faith and Pounce, the cat, become close friends, and he sticks by her through a difficult and dangerous time.  There's a nice surprise toward the end when Pounce disappears in the New World and is found again having given birth to kittens -- he is a she!  Just after this, there is the first Thanksgiving feast, complete with an accurate description of what they probably ate.  Lots of fish, it turns out.

Pilgrim Cat feels like a nice initial level of introduction to Colonial history.  Some of the story is prettied up a bit: there's no indication, for example, that the arrival of settlers threatens the Wampanoag people they interact with, and all the Pilgrim and Indian encounters are very positive.  But there's some good realism here too: conditions on the ship are described in bleak detail, and while waiting with many other passengers on the ship while some of the men land and build houses, Faith gets very sick with a fever that kills a great number of the people on board.  Eleanor and I had a bit of a discussion about that.  Squanto appears, and there are lovely drawings by Doris Ettinger depicting the daily activities the Pilgrims engaged in.  You get the feeling that Peacock did her research.  Now if only there were a dog involved, perhaps Isabel would be interested too....

Love, Annie

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Emma on Ella

Dear Annie,

Last week I received an e-mail from an old friend, a recent Swarthmore graduate who's been reading our blog. Emma has always cared deeply about books.  Her family gave our girls both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Golden Compass before we had heard of either one.  And I remember Lizzie, our Tolkien fan, calling Emma, also a Tolkien fan, after the first Lord of the Rings movie came out to ask Emma's opinion of it before venturing to the movie herself.

After reading some of our princess discussion, Emma wanted to make sure we mention
Ella Enchanted
, by Gail Carson Levine.  It's a middle-grade novel which can be read to younger kids, and still (see below) savored by older ones.  Levine has said that she wrote it because she was always perplexed by what a wimp Cinderella was, caving to the obnoxious whims of step-family.  So Levine added a fairy at her christening, whose curse was that Ella would have to obey any order phrased as a direct command.

Here's what Emma wrote:

Ella Enchanted is a retelling of Cinderella, set in a beautifully described magical world called Frell. Ella is in some ways our typical Cinderella-- with a dead mother, horrid stepsisters, and a pair of glass slippers-- but she also has an impressively complete backstory and personality. Instead of the traditional virtues of compassion, kindness, and beauty (those are mostly foisted on her prince), she's given a gift for languages, a sense of humor, and an independent streak a mile wide.

It is probably my favorite book that I've read since leaving picture books-- better than Civil War histories or Walter Benjamin or even Neil Gaiman. I can't speak to why it has such a strong hold on my heart, but there it is. In fact it's sitting next to me in bed now, because I've been rereading it the past couple of days. Ella is very sure of herself and of what she wants and doesn't want. She's a strong woman without giving up any of the "woman" part; I never feel that when she's mocking the things she learns in finishing school she's mocking anything about femininity or being a woman. The magic of this book is summed up for me by what Ella says when she finally breaks her curse: "I was made anew. Ella. Just Ella. Not Ella, the slave. Not a scullery maid. Not Lela. Not Eleanor. Ella. Myself unto myself. One. Me." That insistence on being herself on her own terms is what I think makes her such a great hero and character.

Whew! I'm making myself tear up here. Anyway: I think this book appeals to princess-story-loving girls while avoiding a lot of the typical downfalls of those kinds of stories-- I am a princess-story-loving girl, so I should know.
Many thanks to Emma for this.

And a Happy Thanksgiving to all.



Monday, November 22, 2010

Keeping the frog alive

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Ah, Howard Gardner.  I think that the idea of multiple intelligences is in some ways a good one -- kids do learn in different ways.  All too often, though, what it turns into in classrooms is a lot of chalk and talk, plus an assigned poster with glitter on it.  There is little room, and little incentive, for teachers in a test-focused system to experiment with projects which might actually reach kids in different ways.  (Education schools may preach it, but they don't always practice it: I'm reminded of a story that Michael told about the education professor who gave his class a handout and a Power Point about the Socratic Method.  It is to laugh.  Or maybe cry.)

I teach on the high school level, 9th through 12th grade.  I've been teaching for a little more than ten years, and in that time I've come to realize that one of my major pedagogical goals is to provide my students with the scaffolding, focus, room and choice they need to connect more deeply with reading and writing on both an analytical and an emotional level.  Some of my assignments include ways to get into the book in a non-standard reading and writing way, but for most we read a book, and then we write: about the book, about ourselves as inspired by the book, about ourselves and the book at the same time.

There's a wonderful Flannery O'Connor speech in which she bemoans the student's search for the one true meaning of a story: "Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle."  We talk in class about how to avoid that feeling, that we're analyzing a story to death.  How do you keep the frog alive?  Study the way it jumps without dissecting it? 

In that same speech, O'Connor writes: "A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.  Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already." Laura Miller touches on the same theme in The Magician's Book: "If literary writing has any distinguishing characteristic, it's that the more you look at it the more you see, and the more you see the more you want to go on looking.  It invites a plurality of interpretation.  'A genuine work of art must mean many things,' wrote George MacDonald, the Scottish writer whom Lewis regarded as his master.  'The truer its art, the more things it will mean.'  The meaning of Animal Farm is fairly obvious, but what's the meaning of King Lear?  The question doesn't even make sense, really; it's like asking what I mean, or what you mean.  Works of art, like human beings, are irreducible."

Sometimes, the best way to express how we feel and think about a work of art isn't just through writing.  When I assign the final portfolio to my juniors and seniors in Writers' Workshop, I encourage them to bind and organize their collection of work in a way which is creative and true to them.  Many make books; some go far beyond that when given creative freedom.  I've gotten portfolios hidden inside giant Lego motherships, portfolios hand-written on rice paper made into lanterns, portfolios sewn into the panels of quilts.  If you give kids the freedom and the encouragement to be creative beyond your wildest imaginings, I've found, they will do it almost every time.

This is what I think Lizzie and Mona's best projects (and your amazing Hobbit party creation) have in common: the freedom in each for the reader to express herself in a focused but open way, to come at it in a way that surprises even herself.

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 21, 2010

If you build it..

Dear Annie,

School projects.  Get ready -- they may well continue through all 12 grades.  Is this true at Stuyvesant where you teach?  Lizzie and Mona were constantly being assigned some form of art project to go with many different subjects.  Mona even had to do an elaborate poster (with glitter) of a "dream house" for Spanish her senior year -- a project based on a book whose title I can't remember.  It's my impression that the large number of projects was part of their school (and around here it wasn't alone) trying to incorporate Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences into the curriculum.  The concept is that different kids learn in different ways, and expanding the curriculum to more tactile and spatial activities -- like dioramas -- will be a more effective way to teach some children, though all the grades.  I feel silly saying this to you -- you're the teacher here.   What do you think of Gardner?

Projects I'll never forget -- although they weren't all assigned.  When Lizzie's fourth grade studied the Greek gods, she made a fantastic necklace out of Sculpey of the 12 gods and goddesses, using as a guide the D'Aulaire illustration you posted a couple of weeks ago.  She gave it to her teacher, who was quite good, and she displayed it on her wall at school for years.  I coveted it, though.

Then in fifth grade they each had to do "traveling biographies": researching an historical figure, writing a paper, and dressing up as that person and visiting other classrooms to talk about the person.  The project included a self-portrait which was half student/half subject: posters Bob and I have kept ever since.  Lizzie chose Jane Austen, whom she'd just discovered.  And Mona did Prudence Crandall, a white woman who started a school for free African Americans in Connecticut in the 1830s, and was eventually forced to close it by the enraged white townspeople.  That project was wonderful.

It's a little confusing, but that's Lizzie/Jane on the left, and Prudence/Mona on the right.

Then there was the structure of a cell out of jello.   Turns out that gummy bears dissolve in jello, so you can't really see the ribosomes or whatever they were.

But if you say "project" and "children's book" to me in the same sentence, the first thing that comes to mind is Lizzie's Hobbit birthday party.  It was my biggest June Cleaver moment: I sewed 17 hobbit capes (complete with hoods) for all the guests.  It took about a week, happening in the middle of a huge shut-the-schools-for-a-week snowstorm.  Lizzie is in college now, but the six foot-long Pin the Foot on the Hobbit poster that I drew still hangs above her bed.  He's foot-less -- we've long since lost the furry feet.  All very satisfying but exhausting.  (I'm so impressed with Playing by the Book.)

 One last note.  Gina posted a question on your last post asking about books to teach "about kindness, compassion, gratitude, helping others, etc."  It's a great question to kick around, and I intend to come back to it soon.  Gina, I'd recommend starting with Shirley Hughes.  We have two recent posts -- one on her Alfie books, and one on Dogger, the ultimate book about selflessness.

This is a slightly brief post tonight because we're off to the airport to pick up Mona, coming in from California.  Thanksgiving approaches.



Friday, November 19, 2010

School book projects

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The exchanging of heads!  An absolute memory explosion for me as well.  I read very few of the later Oz books, but I had a good friend who had them all, and when I borrowed them this scene was one of the ones which stayed with me.  So fascinating and creepy, and somehow playing into both the idea of dress-up and the understanding of having different moods in a deeply compelling way.

I've been trying to remember my own book-related projects, and am not coming up with much.  I know there were dioramas in shoeboxes, and can remember watching Shrinky Dinks curl up and flatten out and setting them up as people in my scene -- but what book was that for?  There was the time in fifth grade when my friend Matthew and I, obsessed with Daulaires' Book of Greek Myths, decided to make a model of Mount Olympus, complete with little dolls of the gods and goddesses sitting on top.  I wanted to start by making the dolls, but Matthew was convinced we needed the mountain first, so we made a four-foot tall model out of chicken wire in Mrs. Forrest's classroom and covered maybe one-quarter of it with papier-mache before we lost steam and moved onto something else.

Oh, and then there was Elizabeth Blackwell, First Woman Doctor (I'm linking to the Alibris page of the book it probably was -- there are a lot of bios of her out there, but this one, published in 1966, seems likely to be what I had from the school library).  For her, I mounted a doll made of stockings stuffed with cotton and dressed in a lab coat with a homemade stethoscope onto a thin round wooden frame which I think came from a wheel of cheese.  That one stayed up in my room for a long time.

I hope my girls get to do crazy, slightly pointless artistic stuff like that in school too, along with the test prep they're no doubt headed for.  Of course, I can always supplement with ideas from Playing by the Book at home....

Are there any projects from your childhood or Lizzie and Mona's that stand out for you?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Onward with Ozma

Dear Annie,

The first major season of school projects is upon us in the toy store.  During the year there are three or four waves of  parents, sometimes accompanied by their children, looking intensely for materials to make posters, dioramas, models of cell structure, maps of their neighborhood, mini-sarcophagi -- the list goes on and on.  A few days ago a mother was looking for material for a shoebox diorama of a scene from
Ozma of Oz
, her son's current favorite book.

There was a time in our household when Ozma got almost as much play as The Wizard of Oz.  It's the third book in the voluminous Oz series and still sparkles with the originality of the first.  Dorothy is not in the second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, which tells the origins of Ozma, and her ascent to the throne of Oz.  For most of book two, Ozma is under a spell which has turned her into a boy. (So interesting - Baum's imagination! And I'm not even going to get into the revolution of women armed with knitting needles.).

Book three starts with Dorothy adrift at sea in a chicken coop with a chicken who can suddenly speak -- showing that she's crossed over into the lands of magic. "'How is my grammar?' asked the yellow hen, anxiously.  'Do I speak quite properly, in your judgment?'  'Yes,' said Dorothy, 'you do very well, for a beginner.'" The chicken, named Billina, is a wonderful character, and Dorothy soon connects with Tiktok, a spherical wind-up robot. They are in the Land of Ev, which borders Oz.  The royal family is being held captive by the evil Nome King, so Dorothy and friends call on the regent of Ev, Princess Langwidere (languid air - get it?). 

When that mom said her son was doing a diorama in a shoebox, I suggested building the Nome King's underground caverns.  But he had already decided on doing Princess Langwidere's chamber.  Because the amazing thing about this ditzy princess is that she has 30 heads, all sitting in cupboards like hats, waiting to be put on.  Before meeting Dorothy, Languidere decides to change her look:
...after handing head No. 9, which she had been wearing, to the maid, she took No. 17 from its shelf and fitted it to her neck.  It had black hair and dark eyes and a lovely pearl-and-white complexion, and when Langwidere wore it she knew she was remarkably beautiful in appearance.
  There was only one trouble with No. 17; the temper that went with it (and which was hidden somewhere under the glossy black hair) was fiery, harsh and haughtly in the extreme, and it often led the Princess to do unpleasant things which she regretted when she came to wear her other heads.
   But she did not remember this today, and went to meet her guests in the drawing-room with a feeling of certainty that she would surprise them with her beauty.
She of course ends up grouchy and imprisons Dorothy, who is rescued in the next chapter by Ozma, with whom she becomes fast friends and they go on to do what needs to be done for the royal family of Ev, with help from Billina the egg-laying chicken on the way.

It's just an entertaining book.  It's funny while its characters are taking themselves seriously.  But the ones we're meant to like are all so likable. It cheered me up to know that Princess Languidere is going to be gracing a display table in an elementary school nearby -- and that a boy I don't know has had as good a time with Ozma as we did. 



Monday, November 15, 2010

Bow-Wow. Woof.

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oh, I wish I had a week, a month, to read YA and adult books!

What I have been reading, and rereading, and rereading, are all the board books we own with dogs in them.  Sometimes you say a thing about your kid, and you feel like you're exaggerating a little bit: "Isabel is obsessed with dogs."  You say it, and you think to yourself, yes, but she has many other interests as well: opening cabinets, for example, and bopping to music, and hiding things in the broiler.  And then day after day, she picks up board books and brings them to you to read, and all of her favorites, bar none, all the books she will sit through to the end and push at you and ask for again, have dogs in them.

I appreciate that you cater to our children's needs.  Two of Isabel's current favorites came from you for her first birthday:

Yip! Snap! Yap!
, by Charles Fuge, is a series of onomatopoeic doggie scenes.  Joyful, sleepy, hot, and grumpy cartoon dogs cavort across the pages.  The doggie sounds are fun, especially the howling puppies "Aroo!  Aroo!  Aroo!"  I'd like to say that I'm in love with the rest of the text, but it scans sort of oddly: it's trying to rhyme and have a rhythm, but doesn't quite work.  Not that Isabel seems to mind.

A Good Day
, by Kevin Henkes (of Lilly fame) isn't just about dogs: there's a bird, and a fox, and a squirrel as well.  Each of them begins by having a bad day: "Little yellow bird lost his favorite tail feather.  Little white dog got her leash tangled up in the fence."  "But then..." Everyone is okay!  "Little white dog worked herself free and ran in circles through the dandelions.  And little yellow bird forgot about his feather and flew higher than he ever had before."  Finally, a little girl finds the feather, and the last drawing pans out to show her running in a scene which includes all four animals, to her mother, shouting, "Mama!  What a good day!"  I can see how this will be a good book to teach perspective and coming back from a bad mood.  Right now, here's the takeaway: "Woof." Isabel points to the dog on the last page.

Do you know the Bow-Wow books?  This is their odd, pleasing website.  They're by Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, and we picked up two of them a couple of years ago for a dollar each from a street vendor: Bow-Wow orders lunch and Bow-Wow naps by number.  We recently found Bow-Wow hears things at the library, and were pleased to discover that it is just as good as the others.  Evidently there are more as well. 

The Bow-Wow books are spare of words, and often contain almost-unchanging pictures.  In Bow-Wow orders lunch, Bow-Wow sits up at a table, his paws in front of him, looking at a plate with a slice of bread on it.  The text reads "Bread."  On the next page, there's a slice of cheese on the bread: "Cheese."  Then bread, then cheese, then bread, then -- an extra slice of bread?  Bow-Wow takes a page to contemplate, then decides: "No."  Then there's meat instead of cheese -- madness!

These books are both simple and very funny, and they turn out to be great read-alouds with Eleanor helping to do the reading: because the text is so simple, she knows it cold, and she and I can read alternate pages to Isabel with ease.  Fun for the whole family.

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Another (very different) look at Africa, another good book

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad Anna Hibiscus was a hit.   We seem to be looking to Africa these days.  Today's book, though, looks at a very different aspect of the continent.

The opportunity to read a book -- or see a movie -- having little or no idea what it's about is a rare one for me.  But the process of discovering-as-one-goes is so satisfying.  It's also how the author intended it to be.

I just had this experience with
A Long Walk to Water
by Linda Sue Park.  I knew it had something to do with the Lost Boys -- thousands of homeless boys displaced by civil war in the Sudan during the '80s and '90s.  (Dave Eggers wrote an adult book, What is the What three years ago based on the life of one of the Lost Boys who ended up in the U.S. Link is to a lovely article by my spouse about the book.)   A Long Walk to Water alternates chapters told from the point of view of Salva Dut (a very real person), who flees an attack on his village in 1985, and a fictional girl named Nya in 2008, who must walk eight hours a day to fetch water for her family.  Park's book tells children  -- it's aimed at the ten-and-up crowd -- about the horrors of war, the hardships of living in a desert country, and the amazing personality of the man whose experiences are the core of the book.  And it leaves the reader with a real feeling of hope.  The ending made me cry, too -- but I'm not going to do a spoiler on this.

It made me think of Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, about his campaign to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The publisher did a
young people's version of the book
, aimed at this same audience of ten and up.  It's an amazing story which carries the reader along despite the clunky writing.  With Long Walk, though, the writing is in the hands of a Newbery medal winner, and it's a quite fine book.  It's going on my might-be-a-winner list.



Saturday, November 13, 2010

Amazing Africa

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Fascinating short essays by Adam Gidwitz.  I like what he says about some of the reasons for the violence in fairy tales:

Fairy tales—the original ones—are violent. Is this okay for today’s child?
I think it is. I’d go further: I think it’s good. Physical pain is something that children understand and can cope with. They have felt it and survived it. They know it will pass. Other kinds of pain—a parent’s abandonment, emotional abuse—are much more difficult for the child to bear, or even to imagine. What fairy tales do is put physical pain in the place of emotional pain, blood in the place of tears.

Right now I'm reading The Magician's Book, which you mentioned a little while ago in a post, and which my dad just finished and loved.  It's really good -- very readable, and extremely thoughtful about the ways in which children's literature (not only C.S. Lewis) works.  I'll write more about it when I finish.  

We're just back from a mini-vacation, and one of the books we brought with us to the indoor water park (kids' world, with all its attendant joys and frustrations) was one of your recent gifts to Eleanor: Atinuke's book Anna HibiscusYou wrote about many of the joys of this little chapter book: the large, close-knit family, the gentle humor, the mixture of the modern and traditional that characterize contemporary African life.  And then there are the amazing names: Anna has cousins named Benz, Wonderful, Miracle, Sweetheart, Chocolate, Joy, Clarity, and Common Sense.  Along with these excellent qualities, I'm finding Anna Hibiscus to be a useful and interesting way to begin talking with Eleanor about poverty.

In "Anna Hibiscus Sells Oranges," Anna decides she's bored hanging out with the little cousins at home.  She decides to join the girls who stand outside the gate of her family's compound and sell oranges and plantains each day:

Those girls shouted and screamed and laughed and talked to everybody.  They ran after passing cars for money held out of opened windows.  They fought off goats who ate the plantains.  They chased off children who stole the oranges.  The girls at the gate did not have to play boring games with little cousins all day long.  They were busy with the whole city.  Those girls did not look bored.

It's a great description, capturing both Anna's romanticized view of the life of the orange sellers and the actual details of their hard work.  She sees them, she just doesn't understand what their lives are really like.  So Anna takes the oranges off the trees in her family's compound, and sells all of them in a day, because her oranges are fresh, and she is clean and fresh-looking as well.  The orange selling girls don't make any money, and that evening some of them go home crying.  After her uncles and grandfather talk about the details of these girls' lives and their poverty, Anna starts to make the connection, and feels terrible.  Her grandfather is soft-spoken, but serious: "People will be hungry tonight, Anna Hibiscus, because of what you have done."  The next morning, instead of making Anna give her money directly to the girls, Grandfather tells her she will work for the girls all day.  He walks her back and forth to the market, where she buys oranges for the girls to sell.  The girls make extra money because they don't have to go to the market to refill their baskets, and Anna learns what it feels like to work for a day.  It feels real, but not too heavy-handed.  How do you talk in a real way about poverty to a three-year-old who has never known any substantial lack?  It's good to have a story to work with as Eleanor starts to have some sense of the world around her. 

Before I leave Africa, I want to mention a book that my sister-in-law, the amazing Aunt Grace, brought Eleanor last year from a trip to South Africa, where she and Michael are living this year.  Hot Hippo, by Mwenye Hadithi, illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway, is a gem of a book.  It's an origin story, clearly the answer to Why do hippos live in the river, when they look like land animals?  Simply: Hippo was hot.  He yearns to live in the river, so he goes to speak to Ngai, "the god of Everything and Everywhere."  Ngai, shown as a great face in a dark mountain, thunders down at Hippo that he cannot live in the water because he would "EAT ALL MY LITTLE FISHES!"  (It's fun to read Ngai's voice.")  Hippo promises to open his mouth wide, so Ngai can see there are no fish there, and to stir up the water with his tail, so Ngai can see Hippo has not hidden any fish bones.  Ngai relents, and Hippo happily splashes in the water: "And he sank like a stone, because he couldn't swim."  But he runs along the river bottom, as hippos do, and looks quite endearing in Kennaway's watercolor illustrations.  This seems to be part of a series; I'd like to find the others, too.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Grimm and good

Dear Annie,

Back in August we had some discussion of fairy tales, their scariness, and what works for what ages.  Over the past two days I finally picked up and read a book I thought I wasn't going to like at all, but which is really quite amazing and completely demonstrates the emotional depth and power of fairy tales, specifically Grimms'.

A Tale Dark and Grimm
, by Adam Gidwitz, a teacher at St. Ann's School in your fair borough of Brooklyn, is a brilliant book, just published this fall.  It's hard to describe because it sounds contrived and weird and gory, but it knits together the primal creepiness of fairy tales with very well realized and defined emotion.  Gidwitz puts two characters named Hansel and Gretel into six (more or less) of the original Grimm tales, substituting them for the child characters in each story.  He does it in such a way that they become one unified story, ending up with  three chapters of his own original tales which bring the action full circle.  In the first story, Faithful Johannes, a king and queen are guilt-ridden for having caused the death of their faithful servant because they didn't trust him.  They are told they can bring him back to life by killing their own children (Hansel and Gretel), so the king cuts off their heads.  After Johannes comes back to life, "he placed little Hansel's head back on his body, and little Gretel's head on hers, and instantly they began to leap and play as if nothing had happened, and as if they were not covered in blood."

Late that night, they lay in their beds, unable to sleep.
"Hansel," Gretel said.
"Yes, Gretel?"
"Did you hear what Father said?"
"He cut off our heads to save that ugly old man."
Hansel was silent.
"And Mommy was glad that he did.  Do you think they hate us?"
Hansel was silent still.
"I think we should run away," Gretel said.  "In case they want to do it again."
"That's just was I was thinking," Hansel answered.  "Just what I was thinking...."
And so they set off in search of good grown-ups -- and immediately find a baker in the forest with a house made of cake, launching us into the traditional H&G story.  In other chapters there are scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, serial murder and various other forms of violence. At the end of almost every one, adults have at the least disappointed and often come very close to murdering the sister and brother.  Sounds awful, right?  But the gore and violence have a point: crudely put, it's whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  The children grow and learn more, and eventually end up back at the gates of their parents' castle.  More murder and resurrection await -- and redemption and reconciliation in the end. Very satisfying.

Gidwitz uses a device throughout the book which, like much of the rest of this book, sounds like it shouldn't work, but it mostly does.  He occasionally breaks into boldface type and turns and speaks directly to the reader.  It feels a bit like Lemony Snicket at the beginning -- there's a lot of send-the-little-kids-out-of-the-room-it's-too-scary-for-them.  But he also uses it to talk about the feelings of the stories.  The asides give the reader a chance to catch one's breath and consider the larger themes.

As his website demonstrates, Gidwitz has thought a lot about fairy tales and uses of the imagination.  He includes writings of Bruno Bettelheim, G.K. Chesterton and Seamus Heaney to talk about the creative process and the unconscious.  His essays  Tears into Blood and Why Do I Write Fairy Tales If They're So Bloody? explore how he sees children reacting to scary/violent stories.

When I say children here, I'm not talking about pre-schoolers.  The publisher calls it a book for children ten and older, which seems about right to me.  And Gidwitz is quite clear that there are some kids who will never want to read it.  He's not setting out to traumatize readers, but to engage those who want to be engaged in some pretty intense feelings.  And he really does it well.



Monday, November 8, 2010

1001 Children's Books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thank you for the most excellent gifts you sent up with my mom from DC!  Hits abound, and I will be writing more about a few of them soon.

Tonight, though, I want to mention the awesome birthday present my parents gave me at our belated celebration this weekend: 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, edited by Julia Eccleshare.  It's a small, fat, heavy tome, with wonderfully thick full-color pages and hundreds of reproductions of picture book illustrations.  I haven't done more than page through it yet, but it feels like an excellent reference, populated by familiar friends and books I've never heard of but now want to run out and find.

In the introduction, Eccleshare writes: "this fascinating collection offers more than just a reminder of the enduring pleasure that is to be found in children's books.  Grouped into broad age bands to provide simple guidance as to who the books are primarily for, it is an invaluable guide for any adult who wants to give an informed answer to the conundrum children so often pose -- 'What shall I read next?'"

The age-range bands, indicated by rainbow-hued dictionary page-type markings at the edges of each page, seem both helpful and somewhat arguable (are Harold and the Purple Crayon and Blueberries for Sal really most appropriate for children age 5+?  I'd say younger on both counts).  The entry for each book provides some combination of summary and review; they're written by a stable of reviewers, with a few star-studded "featured reviewers," such as Isabel Allende and Lois Lowry.  It's a beautiful book, and one I think is going to get a lot of use in this household for quite some time.

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mythology: moving north

Dear Annie,

Yes, I would definitely cast Grandma (my mother) as Athena, the smart warrior, rather than Hera, the vengeful jealous spouse.  Athena fits much better.  D'Aulaires' Greek myths are wonderful.  Greek mythology is going through a big resurgence with middle-graders these days thanks to a former middle school teacher who's written a series of 21st-century fantasy novels with contemporary characters who discover they're the half-mortal children of Greek gods and goddesses.  The Lightning Thief and sequels by Rick Riordan have been wildly popular.  In terms of literary merit, they're a bit too slam-bam action-action-action for my taste, but they've whetted the appetite of the post-Harry Potter generation for mythology.

In our household, while we loved the Greek myths, we came back many times to
D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths
. They gave the Norse myths the same written-for-kids but not dumbed-down treatment.  I like the Norse gods better: they're not as pouty, although they're certainly plenty quarrelsome.  And they were ultimately mortal: killed off when Christianity arrived. The central caring-but-tragic relationship between Odin and the trickster Loki is wonderful.  And many of the stories have a great sense of humor.  Consider the story of Skade, a maiden from the rival world of the Jotun.  The Norse gods have killed her father and she demands that they pay a fine.  They offer her a Norse god as a husband, thus elevating her to goddess status.  She agrees, on the condition that they must first make her laugh.  Loki ties himself to a billy goat, eventually resulting in laughter.  Then they give her the pick of the gods, on the condition that she must choose by looking only at their legs -- which she's clearly giving much thought to in this illustration:
She ends up picking Njord, who loves the seashore, while she's a big skier and loves the mountains.  They spend nine days at the seashore, and another nine in the mountains, then agree to live separately.  "Thereafter he and Skade seldom saw each other, but in a friendly fashion they went together to all godly gatherings.  Skade stayed in her mountains and become the goddess of skiers."

And while we're on the subject of the Norse crowd, I'm quite fond of a recent book by Neil Gaiman,
Odd and the Frost Giants
.  In it, a boy leaves his village on a fjord and in the wild meets a bear, a fox and an eagle.  While they believe he's asleep, the animals speak with each other, but when Odd says he's been listening, they deny (in words) that they can speak.  It turns out that they're Thor, Loki and Odin, enchanted into their current forms and kicked out of Asgard, the home of the gods, by the Frost Giants.  The three spend much of their time bickering amusingly, while Odd turns out to be the only one with any common sense.  He ultimately acts sensibly and bravely and restores the gods to their home.  It's quite short, a good early chapter book  Gives one a taste for the Norse stories.



Friday, November 5, 2010

Cultivating an early obsession with Greek mythology

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thanks for the well-wishes!  I'm sure it will be fine -- we'll prep Eleanor for the filling, read some books, and make sure she gets novocaine or the like.  With any luck, she won't have any traumatizing memories later....

Earlier today, I was having a conversation with an art teacher friend of mine about getting through a section of the syllabus jam-packed with Greek and Roman art, which she doesn't find as interesting as Renaissance-and-later work.  She mentioned that part of the difficulty was not being able to keep all the stories straight.  My immediate reaction was to recommend to her the book which taught me everything I could possibly need to know about Greek mythology, a book I pored over for hours at a time in early elementary school:  D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths.

It is because of Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire that I learned the Greek gods and goddesses the way some kids learn dinosaurs: obsessively, insanely, down to every last attribute.  At age seven, I decided to believe in the Greek gods, and whispered prayers to Aphrodite into a little pink shell necklace I wore.  I cast all the members of my family as gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon: My mom was Demeter, my dad Dionysus, Michael was the baby Hermes, I was of course Aphrodite, Grandpa was Zeus, and Grandma was either Hera (because she was married to Zeus) or Athena (much more like her, really).  Looking back, I think I actually did a pretty good job.

What makes the D'Aulaires's book so incredibly good?  It's a combination of the retelling of the tales -- totally accessible to a wide age-range, but full of the original details, sexy and grisly as they often are -- and the extraordinary drawings.  The drawings are done in colored pencil; some full-color, some black and white, some in a sort of sepia-toned black on brown.  This is how I will forever see the gods on Mount Olympus:

Hera and her henchman Argus with the captive Io:

Athena emerging from Zeus's head:

Persephone being pulled down into the underworld by Hades:

I've read some of the stories with Eleanor, though she's still a little young for the whole book.  The story she's most taken by is Demeter and Persephone, which makes sense: it's the story of the enforced separation of a mother and daughter, a primal and intense idea.  I look forward to seeing what catches her imagination as she gets a little older.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tonsils & teeth

where's Goldbug?
Dear Annie,

Richard Scarry: such a mix of irritating and fascinating.  Cars and Trucks and Things That Go was a huge favorite in our house, because of the Waldo-esque search for Goldbug on every page.  Great visuals.

Lest we leave our readers worrying that Dr. Lion is the only option for the quarter-million (according to this book) children a year who get their tonsils out, here's
Good-Bye Tonsils
, by Juliana Lee Hatkoff and her father, Craig Hatkoff. It's the story of Juliana getting her tonsils out, starting with a series of bad sore throats.  This is definitely a 21st century approach to pediatrics: the doctor explains all about tonsils, Juliana talks with a friend who's had three operations, they play with face masks to get used to the idea of the surgical team, we see a drawing of her ankle bracelet, her nightgown has elephants on it, and the nurse takes a Polaroid of Juliana, her stuffed rabbit and her parents before the operation.  They give her red liquid to drink "that would make me feel good, and I might even feel a little silly."
Around 8:30 A.M. I was feeling very relaxed, and the nurse told my mommy to hold on to me tightly so I wouldn't slip or fall.  My mommy and daddy put on special gowns and these funny paper slippers.  Then my mommy carried me into the operating room.  I was very sleepy.  ... The anesthesiologist showed me the magic mask that was made of clear plastic and told me that I should breathe deeply as she put the magic mask over my mouth.  My mommy and daddy each kissed me and told me how much they loved me.
That's mom on the left.  Next thing you know, Juliana's waking up in the recovery room with mommy.  I assume mom and dad got kicked out for the operation.  Ice cream follows, of course, although she still has a sore throat for several days.  She goes home at 12:30 pm.

Earlier in Tonsils, Juliana reads two of the classic entries in the getting-an-operation literature: Curious George Goes to the Hospital (surgical removal of swallowed puzzle piece) and Madeline (middle-of-the-night appendectomy).  Just another reminder that kids have it better these days: Madeline is carried away in the middle of the night sans Miss Clavell or any other familiar adult.  She's in the hospital with nuns/nurses, but the first time she's visited by anyone she knows appears to be ten days after the operation

Moving on to dentistry.  Eleanor's getting a tooth drilled before she turns four!  Aack!  I was traumatized throughout my pre-flouride childhood by a dentist (family friend, no less) who never used novocaine.  I got laughing gas, which doesn't do much at all for pain.  Your mother has denied that this happened to her too, but I have vivid memories.

All the usual suspects -- Dora, Berenstain Bs, Little Critter -- have documented their visits to the dentist.  But the one I like best -- and which may be the most useful to you -- is in the sloggingly factual Usborne First Experiences series: 
Going to the Dentist
. Jake and Jessie go to the dentist.  Jessie has a regular checkup, but Jake has a cavity.

Note that we see the needle, but we don't mention it.  On the next page he gets drilled and filled (eyes closed the whole time).  Then the book goes on to keeping teeth clean.  Gives the facts.

I hope all goes well for Eleanor.



Monday, November 1, 2010

A (somewhat unsettling) visit to the hospital

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your post made me think immediately of an extremely odd little story which has captivated Eleanor for going on two years now.  It's one of the chapters in Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day?

There are things I really like about Richard Scarry: his jam-packed drawings, full of quirky animals on the verge of disaster; his emphasis on how things work, coupled with a sense of humor.  There are things I don't like, too: in this large-format book which purports to be about all the different careers people can have, women (or, rather, female pigs, goats, cats, rabbits, etc.) appear only as wives, mothers, grandmothers, and the occasional nurse.  And yes, Things Were Different Once, but he wrote the book in 1968. 

There are lovely and somewhat informative stories about how bread is made, and how to build a new road, and how to build a house, and how a letter gets to its destination, but are they what Eleanor wants to read?  No.  Eleanor wants to read "A Visit to the Hospital."

Mommy took Abby to visit Doctor Lion.  He looked at her tonsils.  "Hmmmm.  Very bad tonsils," he said.  I shall have to take them out.  Meet me at the hospital tomorrow."

Okay, so this is already a little weird: everyone is smiling, and the little rabbit Abby doesn't seem to be in any pain.  What does it mean to have "very bad tonsils," anyway?  Doctor Lion strikes me as arbitrary and untrustworthy.  Daddy drives Mommy and Abby to the hospital and takes off (um, where is he going?).  Then Mommy "had to go home," so she leaves Abby with Nurse Nelly.  No one seems to think this is odd.  Abby goes up to the children's ward, and meets Roger Dog, who has just had his tonsils out.  Then: 

Nurse Nelly put Abby on the bed.  She pulled the curtain around them.  No one could see what was going on.

Um, what?

Why, she was helping Abby put on a nightgown!

Oh, phew.  For a second there, Richard Scarry, I thought this was going to be a story of child sexual abuse!  Haha.  Guess I was wrong.
Doctor Lion peeked into the room.  He told Nurse Nelly he was going to put on his operating clothes.  He told Nurse Nelly to bring Abby to the operating room.

Or was I?

No, no, Abby just gets her tonsils out.  And then she has some ice cream.  And then she sees her Mommy arrive in an ambulance, and thinks Mommy is coming to see her:

She waited and waited -- but Mommy didn't come.  At last Doctor Lion came.  "Your mother has brought you a present," he said.  He took Abby for a ride in a wheelchair.  

I do NOT trust Doctor Lion at this point.

"There is your present," he said.  "It is your new baby brother! Your mother just gave birth to him here in the hospital."

Well.  That was a surprise.  

So here's this little girl, and she has to have an operation, and her parents abandon her to a disturbingly friendly lion, and clearly haven't told her she's going to have a younger sibling, and neither parent visits her in recovery, and all these animals are just smiling to beat the band -- and what's the takeaway message, Mr. Scarry?

What a lucky girl she was!  She left her tonsils at the hospital, but she brought home a cute baby brother.  But remember!  Very few children receive such a nice present when they have their tonsils out!

Okay, then.  I'll keep it in mind.

On a somewhat-related note, do you have any suggestions for a book that goes through what happens when you have a cavity and need to get it filled?  Eleanor seems to have inherited my ridge-filled teeth, and has developed a small cavity that her dentist wants to nip in the bud.  Maybe not Richard Scarry for this one?

Love, Annie