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.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Dear Annie,

Such a pleasure to hear from an editor/illustrator!   Jackie Morris mentioned in her comment that she's working on illustrating nursery rhymes: yesterday she posted some of those pictures.

I've been trying to catch up on books that might win the Newbery and Caldecott medals this year: always impossible to predict, but I keep trying...  They'll be announced on January 10. 

I find myself with very mixed feelings about
As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth
, a middle-grade novel by Lynne Rae Perkins, who won a Newbery a few years ago for Criss Cross, a quiet but good novel.  I read so many novels written for kids that I sometimes don't register bad or mediocre writing -- I'm just charging along for plot, feeling mildly dissatisfied.  Then a book will come along which is qualitatively different, and my brain will scream, "Wow, good writing!"  That's how I felt getting into this one.  It's about Ry, a 15 year-old boy who gets off a broken-down train in the middle of nowhere in Montana to try for cell phone reception, and gets left behind when it unexpectedly starts up.  The book is full of eccentric adult characters, and ties several subplots together well.

With the help of a benign but opinionated man Ry meets in a small Montana town, he travels to his home in Wisconsin, then cross-country to Florida, flies in a homemade private plane to Puerto Rico, and sails from there to a remote Caribbean island where his parents (whose phone and credit cards have been stolen) are vacationing.  In the meantime, his grandfather (who has fallen on his head and lost his short-term memory) and dogs in Wisconsin have disappeared.  The dogs are a lovely, although occasionally confusing subplot: Perkins (who is also an illustrator) does them as an occasional page of graphic novel.  My scanner is still busted, but here's what the dogs look like:
and here's part of their conversation when they realize they have no humans at their new home:
"Hey, do you remember that movie?"
"What movie?"
"Where the dogs and the cat find their way back to the old house?"
"I love that movie.  That's a really good movie.  Except for the cat."
"I think that's what happened to us.  I think we need to find our people.  We need to go back to the old house."
"How can we do that?"
"We're dogs.  We have 'instinct.'"
In the last panel they are heading down a long straight road.  They are, unsurprisingly, completely clueless, but end up being found and flown back home by the end of the book.

There's lots of riveting action: a charmingly hair-raising ride with a crazy old guy who can't see out of the stolen Oldsmobile he's speeding down a highway, the 15 year-old with a learner's permit driving through large freeway interchanges getting lost in the middle of the night, a ride in a plane that logically shouldn't be able to fly -- it goes on and on. 

My problem is that the plot is, well, preposterous.  Somehow this 15 year-old kid and the adults around him don't think to go to the police to get help contacting his parents.  When police finally do show up when it becomes clear that Grandpa is missing, they don't question why this kid is traveling thousands of miles with an unrelated adult. The whole plot could have evaporated with one phone call.  It all hangs on such an unlikely premise.

I feel grinch-like grousing about this.  But there's so much likable in this book that I find myself more bothered by its big flaw than if it had just been an average book.  I keep thinking yes, I've had this sensation before: what other book was it?  and not coming up with it.  But you know what I mean?



Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A gorgeous treasury of poems

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We are well-fed, well-loved, and well-gifted here in the midwest.  Not so bad to be here while a blizzard rages back home, too.

Christmas brought us some excellent books.  I took the opportunity to buy Eleanor several library favorites: In Our Mothers' House and The Keeping Quilt; Tell Me a Mitzi and Tell Me A Trudy; and Flotsam.  On your recommendation, I also tracked down a copy of Young Guinevere, which is an immediate hit with Eleanor.  I love the depiction of Guinevere in the crazy enchanted forest near her father's castle fighting and then teaming up with a wolf who turns out to be a shape-shifting child, and then doing battle with a giant beast with the head of a serpent, the body of a leopard, and the tail of a lion.  Quite unlike other Arthurian legends I've seen.  Eleanor is, of course, impressed by Guinevere's long auburn hair and silk dresses.  I was nice to talk to Lizzie on Christmas day and hear that those were major details she retained as well....

As for me, I'm two-thirds of the way through The Knife of Never Letting Go, and devouring it in great gulps.  What a book!

One of the surprise gifts of the season came for Eleanor from a family friend.  The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems is a gorgeous anthology of poetry, beautifully chosen and illustrated by Jackie Morris (do you know her?  I'd never heard of her, and now I want to find out more).  It is a rich and varied collection, combining poets and poems you might expect in a children's collection (A.A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson) and poets who come as a surprise in this setting (Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Rainer Maria Rilke).  The book is organized roughly by the idea of a journey from birth to death, with childhood, nature, animals, love, and war along the way.  Each poem is sumptuously illustrated with landscapes and figures.  Morris's choices are excellent, as is her ordering.  The poems talk to each other: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee?" faces Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), as lovers clasp hands across the page break.  She's a gifted editor, and artist.  I want to read a poem every night, and give this book to all kinds of people now.  How often do you get to watch your father-in-law read your almost-4-year old "Jabberwocky" on one night and "The Tyger" on the next?

Love, Annie

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Dear Annie,

Happy Christmas certainly happened.  We had a lovely day giving each other gifts and then just hanging out and trying to figure out how the gifts worked.  Pete Thompson, the girls' cousin on Bob's side (you may remember him as the amazing photographer at your brother's wedding), joined us for Christmas Eve and Day -- including our marathon book-reading! -- which was quite nice.   Before becoming a fashion photographer, which he is now, Pete spent many years shooting skateboarders in action.  Somehow we started talking about legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk (with whom Pete had worked on occasion), and it led to discussion of a great young adult book.

, by Nick Hornby is another one of those books it's extremely hard to sell to anyone's parent.  I'll just say, "It's a wonderful book about a 15 year-old boy who fathers a child," and 90% of parents will say, let's see something else. Sam, the main character, is very into skateboarding (he would say skating -- the full word is uncool) and Tony Hawk is his idol.  He talks to a poster of Hawk that hangs in his room, and after he's read Hawk's autobiography, the poster responds to him, in lines from the book.
After a while, I started talking to Tony Hawk about other things -- about school, Mum, Alicia, whatever, and I found that he had something to say about those things too.  His words still came from his book, but the book is about his life, not just skating, so not everything he says is about sacktaps and shove-its.
   For example, if I told him about how I'd lost my temper with Mum for no reason, he'd say, "I was ridiculous.  I can't believe my parents didn't duct-tape me up, stuff a sock in my mouth and throw me in a corner."  And when I told him about some big fight at school, he said, "I didn't get into any trouble, because I was happy with Cindy."  Cindy was his girlfriend of the time.  Not everything Tony Hawk said was that helpful, to tell you the truth, but it wasn't his fault.  If there was nothing in the book that was exactly right, then I had to make some of the sentences fit as best I could.  And the amazing thing was that once you made them fit, then they always made sense, if you thought about what he said hard enough.
Then when Sam's girlfriend tells him she's pregnant, things start happening which Sam interprets as Tony playing tricks on him.  Every now and then Sam wakes up in the future, after the baby is born, and spends a day as his pre-baby self trying to figure out What's going on and what he's supposed to do.  They're wonderfully funny and poignant scenes.

The book is about being handed a life you hadn't expected, and managing to bumble through, even learning a fair amount as you go.  Hornby has called it a cautionary tale, but it's much more than that.  A very good read.  When it came out in 2007, Bob wrote an article on Hornby and the blossoming of young adult literature. Good reading all around.

I hope you're all still having a good time out there in the midwest.



Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Christmas at my in-laws' house in Illinois!  The children are nestled all snug in their beds, my wrapping is done, there's a light layer of snow outside and plates of Christmas cookies jostling for space with the pies on the kitchen counter -- it's a lovely night.

Tonight, along with The Night Before Christmas, we read another favorite Christmas story (one we actually read all year round), and I found myself wishing for the other Christmas Eve book of my childhood, which I'm going to have to find for the girls next year.  To be honest, I should admit that Eleanor and I read these books; Isabel sat on Jeff's lap and directed him emphatically to read her
My Teeth
 and Olivia's Opposites. So she doesn't quite get Christmas yet.  It'll come.

Morris's Disappearing Bag
 was a gift from you to me in 1979 -- it's inscribed "To Annie -- With love from your disappearing aunt.  Love, Debbie."  It'll be out of print by now, I thought to myself, but it isn't -- a new edition came out in 2001.  I think this may be, like Noisy Nora, a book that Rosemary Wells did new, more brightly colored illustrations for in order to get it reprinted.  The cover image here is a little different from the one we have, but I'm sure it's essentially the same.

Morris is the youngest bunny in a family of four.  On Christmas morning, his brother Victor gets a hockey set, his sister Rose gets a beauty kit, and just as you're thinking oh no, a gender-role-reinforcing little Christmas book, Morris's other sister, Betty, gets a chemistry set.  Morris gets a bear.  The other siblings play with their own presents and with each others' ("And then Victor made himself beautiful and Betty played goalie and Rose invented a new gas."), but no one will let Morris play with their toys because he's too young, and no one wants his bear.  Morris droops.  But then!  Under the Christmas tree, Morris finds an overlooked package.  Inside is a Disappearing Bag -- he crawls in and becomes invisible.  A couple of funny pages follow where Morris's siblings can't find him, but the tips of his ears or tail are showing, so your kid can.  Morris pops out of the bag, lets his silings jump into it, and plays with all of their toys on his own until bedtime.

There is something very satisfying about this little book -- it's so good about jealousy and sharing and siblings, and Rosemary Wells can't be beat for drawing droopy bunnies.  It's a Christmas story, but I've never thought of it as relegated to Christmas-time reading.  I'm glad it's still around.

As in your house, I grew up with the King James version of Jesus's birth as one of the traditional Christmas Eve readings.  We always referred to it as "the part in the Bible where Jesus gets born."  In our house, the book was published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art: the Bible passages illustrated with reproductions of Old Masters' paintings.  In the absence of the book at the moment, I'm trying to figure out which it must have been.  This is my best guess.

There's a current version out, however, which I plan to get in the next year: The Christmas Story (Metropolitan Museum of Art).  There's something appropriate about having the story illustrated by multiple artists, from multiple years and countries -- no one person has a lock on what the Holy Family looked like, and there are such great and differing depictions of the animals as well.

And now I'm off to bed, so Santa can come.  Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Love, Annie

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Eve

Dear Annie,

This is my last post before Christmas, so here's what the four of us will be reading on Christmas Eve:

Starting from the bottom:

The two Night Before Christmas versions blogged earlier this month.

 A facsimile edition of the 1939 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer written for the Montgomery Ward department stores.  This is very far from my favorite Christmas song.  I think of it as the ultimate Washington scenario: odd guy gets bullied until someone in power decides he's useful, at which point bullies tell him he'll go down in history.  But hey, the book showed up in our pile of Christmas tradition many years ago.

The Polar Express. by Chris Van Allsburg What can I say?  It's a wonderful classic with slightly fascist imagery.  We all love it.

Jingle Bugs, by David Carter.  He's done quite a few bug pop-up books.  Some of the lines from this one: "Who's in the chimney, warm and snug?" [pull tab, a Santa with buggy eyes and antennae pops out of a chimney] "Ho, ho, ho!  It's Santa Bug!"  This goes on through "jingle bugs swinging to and fro," "Gift-wrapped bugs for you and me,"  and on and on.  Pop-ups are very well engineered.

The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry.  The wonderful story of hair sold to buy a watch chain for a watch sold to buy combs for the hair.  We read the Lisbeth-Zwerger illustrated edition, still beautifully in print.  I've never understood why they didn't just return the combs and go buy back the watch, but I guess that's a story for another day.

Spot's First Christmas, by Eric Hill.  This is the one that, per Grandma's advice, I would have thrown out -- but I realized it too late, alas. Also, it was given to the girls by a friend whom we love.  It's inane, it doesn't rhyme, it's full of Spot and his mother getting ready for Christmas, mostly with Spot wanting to know what presents he's getting.  Our girls have a weird sentimental attachment to it.  I think they're also amused by how much I dislike it.  There was a little serious discussion about giving it to Isabel for Christmas this year, given her dog obsession.  I was willing to mail it if Lizzie and Mona wanted to buy it, but the decision was finally that they worried that you'd feel the same way about it that I do, and that you'd hold it against them for years.  You have been spared.

The Story of Christmas, words from the Bible, illustrated by Jane Ray.  Part of the Christmas tradition of your mother's and my non-religious family was to read the King James Bible story of Jesus' birth.  Our parents felt, as I did with my kids, that if you're going to get the pagan elements of the celebration, you should know the religious story on which it's based.  The language, needless to say, is beautiful.  And Jane Ray's illustrations in this out-of-print books are gorgeous.  All the characters are very middle eastern Semitic-looking, except for an occasional blond angel.

A Christmas Story, by Mary Chalmers, which I remember owning in miniature edition as a child, tells how a girl named Elizabeth, along with Harry Dog, Hilary Cat, and Alice Rabbit find and and trim a tree.  When they discover there is no star for the top, Elizabeth goes out in the snow to find one.  She encounters one of the best-named characters in children's literature: "the Santa Claus for rabbits and other small animals."  He gives her a star, which she carried home triumphantly.  The last word in the book is, "There!." Ahh.

Babar and Father Christmas is one of the longer ones, but totally enjoyable. Babar sets off to find Father Christmas to ask him to deliver to the Elephants' country.  One of the challenges of the book is pronouncing PRJMNESWE, the town in Bohemia near which Father Christmas lives.  Babar finally finds him, and they work out a deal which results in no additional work for the old guy, but joy and presents for the little elephants.

And last -- and best, in many of our opinions -- is The Story of Holly and Ivy, by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.   An orphan wandering alone in a small town, a doll in a toy shop, and a slightly sad middle-aged woman married to a policeman all wish for each other, and get their wishes.  This is such a wonderful book that someday -- maybe next December -- I'll devote a whole entry to it.  It's long, it's magical.  We love it.

It's a huge pile.  It takes a couple of hours to read them all.  In recent years we've pulled out one of the three biggest --Holly and Ivy, Babar, or The Gift of the Magi -- to read on the 22nd or 23rd, so that we still have time to race off to our rooms to wrap gifts before midnight Christmas Eve. 

Happy Christmas to all.



Monday, December 20, 2010

An appetizing alphabet

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What an unsettling customer story!  I wonder if being in a children's bookstore also brings out the deep immaturity in some people....  I'm glad it ended the way it did, and wish you no one like that in the store this week.

I didn't mean to sound grinchy in my last post -- I love holiday books too, and I do want to hear about the other Christmas Eve titles you read each year.  I'll get back to Christmas books on Friday.  For now, though, here's another of our favorite alphabets.

A Apple Pie
is a British alphabet rhyme from the 1600s, detailing what happens to an apple pie with every letter of the alphabet: "B bit it, C cut it, D dealt it," etc.  I grew up with the wonderful Kate Greenaway version, which has just been republished -- lots of girls in empire-waisted dresses and little white caps digging into and playing wholesome-looking games with their pies.

The version we have now is illustrated by Gennady Spirin, and is pleasingly odd.  The pie in Spirin's drawings is gigantic: not a normal pie, but one which on some pages much be rappeled down by tiny soldiers and inspected (the letter I, natch) with scientific instruments.  Each page is packed with detail: not only the letter and its accompanying sentence and illustration, but also an animal and another food beginning with the same letter.  A comes with ants crawling over an apple, for example.  It rewards close looking.

And now I'm off to get as close as I do these days to bookstore work by reshelving the many, many books Isabel has thrown to the floor in her tornado-like fashion. 

Love, Annie

Holiday madness

Dear Annie,

We have a Laura Krauss Melmed city book here too. 
Capital! Washington D.C. from A to Z
is one of my big favorites in our city section.  It's full of kid-friendly information, and I'm very fond of  the primitive-painting feel of Frane Lessac's illustrations.  Melmed lives here in D.C. and has written a number of books, including Christmas and Hanukkah ones and some lovely folk tale-ish stories.

As for other alphabet books, I'm very fond of Mick Inkpen's
Kipper's A to Z: An Alphabet Adventure
.  I know Kipper is a television figure now, but we first encountered him in books.  This one is an alphabet book with suspense.  Before it starts, on the copyright page, Kipper the dog tells a zebra, "We won't need you till much, much later," and the disappointed-looking zebra walks off-page.  Kipper and his friend Arnold find an ant, a box, and lots of other stuff.  The ant and the caterpillar stick around while the two bigger animals (Arnold's a pig) trudge through the alphabet.  The zebra shows up from time to time, asking if it's his turn, but he keeps getting shooed away.  Finally, when the zebra pops up yet again, asking, "Is it my turn? Is it? Is it?" the response is, "Yy is for Yes!" The zebra then poses in the middle of the next page while the other characters proclaim, "Zz is for zebra!" Very satisfying.

I can understand your feeling Christmased out.  Given that I'm surrounded by people shopping for the holidays from late October on, I forget that the rest of the world isn't like that.  That said, I have promised the story of The Customer from Hell, and am offering it here.

This took place maybe five or six years ago, on a busy late December day in the toy store.  I was first aware of him when he approached me toward the back of the store and said he had a toy to return.  I gave the stock answer: sure, just take it up to the register and they can take care of it.  No, he said, he'd already been told that, but there was a line and he didn't want to wait.  He was very busy and had to return it now.  I think this was the point where he got madder and madder and threatened to get his friends at the Washington Post to write nasty things about us.  My boss Steven showed up, and shepherded him away.  I went back to other things, but a few minutes later heard the man screaming, "YOU HUMILIATED ME!!" at Steven.  He kept screaming; a few other customers started muttering about calling the police.  It turned out that Steven had taken him to the front of the store where six or seven people were waiting at the register and said to them that this man was very busy and felt he needed to transact his business before the rest of them.  No one objected, the man got his money back, then blew up at Steven.  After several minutes of tension, two customers in the store got on either side of the man and escorted him out of the store.  Customers and staff were all rattled, but those of us who work there was also touched that customers helped to end the confrontation relatively peacefully.

I've thought about that guy a lot over the years.  Steven and I even talked about him today.  I wonder what made him such a jerk that day.  One's immediate suspicion is that it was his personality: he was a man who went through life believing himself a Master of the Universe.  Or maybe something awful had just happened in his life: the end of a marriage, a child's illness, a job lost.  (Not that I believe being under stress justifies attacking others.)  I think it wasn't coincidental that the whole incident took place within a week of Christmas, when any emotional upset can seem more charged.  Because our store feels very connected to the surrounding community -- although shoppers come from all over -- the fact that customers ended the incident felt like a gift.  Even though it was very unpleasant and a little scary, it left a be-good-to-your-fellow-humans feel among many of us. 

So there's my odd little story.

Back to that pile of Christmas books in our living room next time...



Friday, December 17, 2010

Alphabet books for city kids

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Happily, the Leonard Weisgard Night Before Christmas contains the "settled our brains" line -- yet another reason to adore it.  I'm looking forward to being able to settle my brain a little next week.  But enough Christmas for the moment -- I'm beginning to feel like one of those radio stations that plays only holiday music from mid-November through January 1st, thus driving everyone in the supermarket and the laundry room crazy.

I've been thinking about alphabet books.  Eleanor has known the letters of the alphabet for a while now, but has only recently begun to be interested in how words are spelled and which letters begin which words.  We have a number of alphabet books, some of which have enjoyed moments of glory (Max's ABC, for one), but many of which have languished on our shelves.  I think now may be their moment.

Two good alphabet books in our collection also happen to be good New York books.  We tend to get a lot of NewYork-themed books from friends and relatives, some of which are well-illustrated but kind of plotless (I Live in Brooklyn), some of which are totally inane (Good Night, New York City and its cousins, bidding goodnight to cities around the country with no character whatsoever), and some of which are quite good.

ABC NYC: A Book About Seeing New York City
, by Joanne Dugan, is made up of photographs Dugan took while walking around New York with her young son. She was frustrated with the bucolic nature of many of the objects and animals in his alphabet books (how many New York kids see cows on a regular basis?), and decided to create a book that would speak to city kids.  Each page contains a photo of a letter of the alphabet (from signs, graffitti, subway tiles, etc.) next to or superimposed over a city thing beginning with that letter.  Some are particularly New York (C is for the Chrysler Building, O is for Obelisk); some applicable to multiple cities (M is for Manhole cover, W is for Water Tower).  The pictures, both black and white and in color, are crisp and gorgeous.  One of my colleagues told me today that his 2 1/2 -year-old twin boys adore this book; every time they see the Chrysler Building from the elevated train, they call out in excited recognition.

New York, New York!: The Big Apple from A to Z
is the kind of book you want to pore over.  Laura Krauss Melmed wrote the text: brief descriptions of the New York City landmark chosen for each letter, with additional small paragraphs of informational text scattered over the pages.  Frane Lessac did the illustrations, which are warm, colorful, and a little childlike in feel.  It's wildly Manhattan-heavy, of course, but it contains packed scenes and fun facts to engage kids on a number of levels.  It would also make a great kids' guidebook for a New York visit, I bet.

Love, Annie

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas recitations

Dear Annie,

One of our family's big Christmas Eve traditions is an out-loud reading of our collection of kids' Christmas books.  The finale of this hours-long event is a group reading of The Night Before Christmas.  Two versions come out of our special bag of Christmas books -- I'm not sure where either one came from.

Tasha Tudor's 1975-ish version
. My scanner is still on the fritz, alas, so I can't show you her lovely internal illustrations.  They're very impressionistic.  Santa is definitely elfin: small and bright-eyed, dressed in fur and partying with the family's cats and dogs (corgis, of course: Tudor had a thing for them).  Some of the pictures show the parlor in cross-section, with a family of mice (and a few birds) decorating a tree under the floorboards.  Perhaps where Jan Brett got her ideas from.

Our other one was illustrated by Arthur Rackham in 1931.  Santa's a little guy in this one too -- how did he end up so big and fat in the current culture?  I found several illustrations from his Night Before Christmas on, an interesting little website that appears to post illustrations from no-longer-copyrighted classic children's books.  It's aimed at collectors, but has some lovely stuff to poke around in.

Both of these books are out of print these days. 

One of the interesting things about a group read-aloud is that we discovered not all versions of Clement Moore's poem are the same.  The Tudor book has the words I'm most familiar with:
And Mama in her kerchief
  and I in my cap
Had just settled down
  for a long winter's nap,
Now Rackham:
And Mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

Settling brains -- harder on the meter, but a better image.

Am off to settle my brain.



Monday, December 13, 2010

Counting down to Christmas

Dear Aunt Debbie,

And happy holidays to you!  Having an almost-4 year old in the house makes Christmas seem right around the corner.  Every morning, Eleanor opens the next window on her advent calendar, and she must count from 1 to 24 at least six times a day.  She's even started to remember the number 15, which usually gets skipped.

Holiday anticipation is, of course, reflected in our reading list, in new favorites and old.

New: an abridged version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Brett Helquist.  The abridging is okay -- boils the story down to its most important elements, so you get Tiny Tim saying "God bless us, every one!" but not any more of a real sense of him or the Cratchit family, and there's no explanation for why Scrooge was left alone at Christmas when he was a boy, or why the lovely young woman he danced with at Fezziwig's party didn't end up as his wife.  The original A Christmas Carol, which my family often read as Christmas approached, is coming soon in our future, I think.

The gift of this book are the illustrations, which are vivid and appealing, and bring the ghost story to life for kids.  They owe a lot to the 1951 British film, which I remember watching often as a kid -- the beautiful Spirit of Christmas Past; the jolly, bearded Spirit of Christmas Present; and the death-cloaked specter of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.  (In a nice anachronistic touch in Helquist's illustrations, the third spirit seems to be trailing a string of electric lights, which I guess you might get wrapped around you if you kept traveling to Christmases of the future.)  Jacob Marley's ghost is enormous and imposing, and Scrooge sallow and beak-nosed.  Eleanor listens to it each time with wide, excited eyes and her hands drawn up to her mouth, thrilled.

Old: There must be hundreds of versions of The Night Before Christmas.  I imagine it is a huge best-seller: simple and rhyming and focused on Santa.  The girls have a lush version of it from Jeff's parents, complete with a tiny golden stocking hanging from the silky red string bookmark.  From my parents, we've inherited my childhood version, above which there can be no others in my eyes.

It's out of print, of course, but you can find copies at Alibris and elsewhere: the Leonard Weisgard-illustrated version of The Night Before Christmas.

It is a perfect book.  I've had to reinforce the binding of our copy with clear tape in order to keep it together, but the illustrations are intact and it's undamaged.  All, that is, except for the page describing the children's dreams.  Over and around their heads, I once took a purple marker, I guess to approximate sugar-plums.  I didn't write in my books as a rule, so I must have felt strongly about scribbling on this page.

What is so perfect about the illustrations?  It's hard to explain.  They are sweet without being cutesy: the narrator appears bluff and hearty, and Santa pleasant and bright-eyed.  The pages are oversized (too big for my scanner to capture accurately), and Weisgard alternates simple scenes with images of Santa imposed over pine tree branches or surrounded by a wreath.

Perhaps I'm blinded to other Santas because this was my first, but I can't help feeling that there can't be a better one.  Do you have a current favorite?

Love, Annie

Sunday, December 12, 2010

On shopping

Dear Annie,

No -- a very satisfying word.  Very useful for younger siblings, who have a lot of other people's agendas to resist.  It was Mona's first word.  I'm glad your younger daughter is enjoying it too.

Another busy day at the store today.  Somehow, in the middle of many adults looking for items on their lists, or intently trying to figure out if a box of markers and crayons is a better gift for their five year-old than a huge jar of collage materials, little beacons of happiness emerge.  Despite the crowds, two four year-olds managed to arrange about fifty small plastic figurines -- fairies, soldiers, polar bears, dinosaurs -- into two very neat rows meandering past several shelves.  It's good to have a very concrete reminder of play in the middle of shopping nuttiness.

A lovely book by Harriet Ziefert  also gives a little perspective on the shopping season. 
A New Coat for Anna
, illustrated by Anita Lobel, tells the story of a girl and her mother in post-World War II England. 
Winter had come and Anna needed a new coat.  The fuzzy blue coat that she had worn for so many winters was no longer fuzzy and it was very small.
My scanner is not functioning these days, or I would add the lovely drawings of Anna in her short blue coat.  Her mother has very little money, but she has beloved old objects: grandfather's gold watch, a lamp, a necklace and a teapot.  And she has an idea.  Anna and her mother offer the watch to a farmer, in exchange for enough wool from his sheep to make a coat.  The farmer agrees, but says they'll have to wait for shearing time in the spring.
Anna waited for spring to come.  Almost every Sunday she and her mother visited the sheep.  She would always ask them, "Is your wool growing?"  The sheep would answer, "Baaa!"  Then she would feed them nice fresh hay and give them hugs.
At Christmastime Anna brought them paper necklaces and apples and sang carols.
There's a page of pictures of Anna surrounded by sheep who are wearing paper chains around their necks.  The sheep are eventually shorn, the farmer teaches Anna how to card the wool, and Anna's mother barters the lamp to a spinner to spin the wool.  Anna and her mother pick lingonberries in the summer to dye the wool a lovely bright red, then give a weaver the necklace to convert the wool into a bolt of cloth.  The tailor gets the teapot and Anna gets a lovely big red wool coat.  At the end, the four people who helped it to happen come to a modest Christmas party at Anna's house.

Acquisition in this book is so personal -- I'm quite fond of it.

Happy holidays to you.



Saturday, December 11, 2010

Catching up a little

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Apologies for the radio silence this week!  Whole family sickness and second marking period grade calculations and the looming question of where we're sending Eleanor to school next year combined to make it hard for me to see my hand in front of my face.  A quick word now, and then I'll be back on our normal track for Monday.

I'm relieved to hear that both of the books I was worried were out of print are, or will not, be soon.  Whew!  How lovely as well to hear from Sara O'Leary, who has a great blog of her own.

Isabel was down with a fever earlier this week, and read tons and tons of board books with my mom, who stayed home with her -- thank goodness for grandmothers!  We discovered something else wonderful about the Bow-Wow book Bow-Wow hears things, which is that it's a great way for a 14-month old to practice saying the word "No!" very emphatically.  Isabel says it with such glee!

On Monday, I'll write about a couple of the Christmas-themed/getting ready for Christmas books that are in heavy rotation here.  It's coming up on us fast.  For now, though, I'm running out the door to go see Paul Fleischman's new adult play Logomaniacs in Jersey City.  I'll report back.

Love, and more soon,  Annie

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A storytelling list

Dear Annie,

Things aren't getting any slower at the toy/book store these days.  Every time I turn around, I see huge gaps in the shelves (oh no! No more Jan Brett books! We're down to two Grinches!  And today someone bought out all five of our copies of A Wrinkle in Time!  Must reorder!).  There are a few more irritating customers than usual: grandparents who have no idea what their grandchildren are like, people with too much money and not enough time, parents who have little interest in communicating with their kids.

But they're definitely in the minority.  There's that lovely moment of wondering, who will this person be, before I offer to help someone.  A quite wonderful woman was in yesterday, to whom I sold a very fine list of books.  She's the mother of a nine and eleven year-old: one of each gender.  She had bought the
Classic Starts Arabian Nights
a while ago.  It's part of the series that has a Peter Pan edition you wrote about.  She said her husband was stunned that she'd bring home such an abridged edition, but he started reading it with the kids and everyone really liked it.  It was a little young for them, and they wanted to wander into more magical/folklorish books.

So here's what we ended up with:

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
, by Grace Lin. This was the first one I thought of. I'm surprised that I've never written about it here: it's so wonderful, and appeals to kids of many different ages.  It's the story of Minli, a girl who runs away from home to find The Old Man of the Moon, who determines everyone's fortunes.  She wants to ask for prosperity for her parents.  They're poor farmers, but her father tells lovely folktales to his daughter.  On her quest, Minli meets many characters, human and not: a talking goldfish, a wingless dragon, travelers on the road, a king.  Each new character tells his or her own story, which appears in a lovely old-fashioned typeface.  Lin has also done gorgeous illustrations.  While Minli is searching for the solution to her family's problems, we cut back from time to time to her parents, who are missing her achingly, but they're also reassessing the role of stories in their lives.  Slowly, all the internal characters' stories knit together into one story, which is the one that Minli is in.  The ending has a very satisfying reunion between child and parents.

Since we were looking at fantastical fiction, the next title that came up was
Luka and the Fire of Life
, by Salman Rushdie.  Luka has just been published, the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which Rushdie wrote back in 1990.  Luka was written for his younger son and tells the story of a boy who journeys through a magical world to steal and bring home the Fire of Life to revive his dying storyteller father.  It's full of a magical cast, governed both by ancient rules of storytelling and by conventions of video games.  Every now and then Luka must hit a gold button that appears in the air in order to save the progress he's made toward reaching the fire.  It has wonderful wordplay and is beautifully written. 

So there we were with two very well-written books about storytelling.  How do the kids feel about scary?, I asked.  They were mostly cool with that.  So A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz (link is to last month's blog entry), also about the role of stories in kids' lives, became the next on the list.

How about something different, the mom said.  Sticking with the very good writers, we went on to A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, a very realistic story about children surviving under very hard circumstances in Sudan.  She decided to take that one too. 

I was ready to quit: what a satisfying list.  But she wanted one more, and asked for one I thought was really special.  Given that this is a family that clearly cares about language, the last book on this pile was one I loved as a kid: The Wonderful O, by James Thurber.

I hope I hear what they thought of all those books.

We miss you, Annie, but I know this is the end of the semester and an incredibly busy week for you.  I hope there's some fun in all that grading.



Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Angel Gave-you

Dear Annie,

How lovely to get a comment from an author of the book you posted about!  I look forward to being able to carry When You Were Small when it's republished.

I suspect that the store that told you Anna Hibiscus is out of print was using the same data base I use for quick look-ups of customer questions.  Amazon, much as I dislike it as a force in the bookselling  industry, has a better listing of books and what's in print than any other free site.  However, especially with smaller publishers, they can be wrong.  They also have been known to banish publishers' products from their listings when they have disputes with them (see Macmillan kerfuffle some months ago).  Anna Hibiscus is not out of print; I just received 20 copies of it from the publisher last week, and their website lists it as in stock and available, so don't despair!  And feel free to tell your local store about it.

Speaking of out of print books, I'll be referring to a few this month.  We have a family tradition of reading a pile of books together on Christmas Eve.  They're a funny mix of books we've accumulated over the years, all of which have a special aura for the four of us, so a number of them will make it into the blog.

I wrote a bit about one some months ago: Angel Mae, by the wonderful Shirley Hughes.  I was referring to Mae's endearingly irritating whine, "Carry me!"  Angel and her big brother Frankie are anticipating the arrival of a new baby in the house: Mum is large and exhausted.  Their school is putting on a Christmas play and roles are assigned: Frankie gets to be one of the three kings.  Mae volunteers to be the baby Jesus, but her teacher says the part is already taken by a doll.
She said that Mae could be a cow or a sheep if she liked, but Mae certainly didn't want to be either of those.  She stuck out her bottom lip and made a very cross face.
"What about being an angel?" asked Mrs. Foster.
Mae didn't want to be an angel either.
"You could be the angel Gabriel," Mrs. Foster told her.  "That's a very special angel, a very important part."
Mae thought about this.  Then she nodded her head.
"I'm going to be the angel Gave-you!" she told Frankie later.
"Angel who?" said Frankie.
"Angel Gave-you!  A very special angel," said Mae proudly.
Mum of course goes into labor just before the play, but Dad makes it to the performance at the last minute, leading Mae to shout from the stage, "Hello, Dad.  I'm being the angel Gave-you," and fall off her chair.  Courage triumphs, and despite a bump on her arm, Mae keeps singing Away in a Manger, and the show is a success.  There's a new baby too, and Mum and the babe make it home for Christmas.



Friday, December 3, 2010

A small funny book

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oh, I want more dispatches from the front!  I'm glad the craziness is feeling good to you.

We stopped by a local independent bookstore (the excellent BookCourt) last weekend to browse and Christmas shop a bit.  Found out that Anna Hibiscus (which you and I have both written about recently) is already out of print -- how does this happen?  So frustrating.  I was able to find it quite easily via Alibris, but it still makes me sad.

Every time we go into a bookstore, Eleanor wants me to buy a book for her, and I can't really help myself.  We've come to a happy understanding: while I browse, she sits in the children's section and pores over all the crap Disney princess books, and then when it comes time to leave, we buy something else.  This time it was, as I promised months ago, the wonderful The Backward Day.  Still insanely funny to Eleanor.  So much fun to read aloud.

Then, at the library, we found another very simple concept/ extremely funny picture book: When You Were Small, by Sara O'Leary, illustrated by Julie Morstad.  (Argh.  I just checked.  It's out of print too.  Here's the Alibris link.) [See comment below -- another print run is about to come out!]

The book begins:
Every night at bedtime Henry and his father have a chat.
It always begins the same way.
"Dad," says Henry.
"Tell me about when I was small."
On each succeeding page, Henry's father tells him:
When you were small we used you as a chess piece, because our chess board was missing one of the knights and you were the perfect size.
 When you were small we let you sleep in one of my slippers.  The left one.  You used a fuzzy wash cloth for a blanket and a tea bag for a pillow.
 When you were small you wore a thimble for a hat.
And so on.  Like The Backward Day, When You Were Small is charming and warm without being cloying.  The humor is deadpan.  The illustrations, simple pen drawings with lots of cross-hatching and minimal color, have an almost Edward Gorey feel to them, though far less sinister.  A good find.

Good luck with the weekend shoppers!  I look forward to hearing about it.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December First

Dear Annie,

Today at work was many things: the last day before the first night of Hanukkah, the deadline for buying advent calendars, and the first nutty-December holiday day of crowds and chaos.  The crowds have been building, but today felt like the store does only about two weeks of the year.  People come in clutching lists -- some of them handwritten by kids, others printouts of e-mails -- with a determined, sometimes grim look in their eyes.  They accumulate armloads of books and piles of toys before checking out.  The line at the gift wrapping table grows.

There's lots of pressure this time of year -- I'm going to be up late tonight doing a lot of book ordering.  Things get chaotic, we start running out of things people want (Lego Advent Calendar: sold out three days ago: oh no!  And I'm down to my last Grumpy Bird, although more are coming.). But it's fun too -- if one is going to work in retail, one has to see this time of year as an adventure, not a burden.  One of the enjoyable aspects of all this for me is talking fairly intensely about books with a higher percentage of customers whom I haven't met before.  The regular customers are great, but it's fun to find out about new kids.

So this month I may check in from time to time with dispatches from the front -- leading up to the story of The Customer from Hell, who appeared in the store two days before Christmas a few years ago and traumatized us all (although the story has a happy ending).  I was going through some of my notes from previous years, and thought I'd share the story of one fascinating kid whom I never met.

It started with a call from his grandmother, asking if we had a 19th century naval uniform costume that would fit a five year-old.  We've got lots of costumes, but not that many. She and I chatted briefly.  Then she came in the following day, looking for books.  She and her husband had given this five year-old boy Treasure Island and he liked it. (That's how old Lizzie was when we read it to her: it's a great book, with lots of fascinatingly scary characters and the very likable Jim Hawkins to identify with.)  This boy wanted to know more about pirates, and especially about the people who fought them.  We have books about pirates, but this was a new question.  I offered books on Sir Francis Drake, a pirate sanctioned by his queen to attack the Spanish: not quite right.  Books about Queen Elizabeth -- also not quite there.  At that time, we had a lovely book about
Old Ironsides
, the USS Constitution, which chased pirates through the Mediterranean by the shores of Tripoli.  I think that struck the grandma as too much about the ship, and not plot-driven enough.  The winner in all this was a small biography of Lord Nelson, from a British-based publisher which, alas, is now out of print (link is to Alibris).

The following year, both grandparents were back because their grandson's interests/obsession/intellectual meandering had brought him to Waterloo.  Yes!  I had a book on that, too. 

So out of the tumult and confusion of the season, the shining stars of interesting kids who will grow up to be interesting grown-ups cheer us all.