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.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Independent girls and their dogs

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thank you for the birthday wishes (and the birthday box of books, which we're just getting into)! We had a lovely, celebratory weekend, and everyone was exhausted afterwards. Time does feel exceptionally strange in relation to parenthood. Eleanor's first six months felt about three years long, but then it all speeded up dramatically, and Isabel was walking and talking in no time at all. Now my girls are starting to develop a real sisterly relationship, both affectionate and competitive. One of the main areas of competition at the moment has to do with reading time. Jeff often works late, which means I put the girls to bed by myself. Bath time is no problem, and I can wrangle everyone into pajamas just fine, but then it's time for books, and there are very few that can please both my four-year-old and my 16-month-old at the same time. I often find myself reading a chapter book or long picture book to Eleanor with one hand while holding a board book for Isabel in the other, every now and then pausing in my reading to bark or moo.

Recently, we've found two books which hold both girls' interest at the same time. As you might guess from knowing my kids, they both involve spunky, independent girls and their dogs.

The first is Violet the Pilot, written and illustrated by Steve Breen.  It's the story of Violet Van Winkle, a mechanical genius who by the age of eight is building flying machines out of the spare parts she finds in her parents' junkyard.  She is, of course, a social outcast, misunderstood by her peers but loved and appreciated by her dog, Orville, who goes flying with her.  The time period appears to be the 1930's -- Violet has a picture of Amelia Earhart on one wall -- and the vibe is sweet and imaginative and old-fashioned.  The pages showing Violet's creations (the Tubbubbler, the Bicycoptor) are particularly fun.  In true underdog style, Violet's most ambitious flying machine, which she wants to take to the local air show, saves the day in an unexpected way.  Even Orville gets a medal.

The other big hit is one of Ian Falconer's Olivia books: Olivia Saves the Circus.  I've said before that I like Olivia's Opposites better than the more narrative Olivia books, which are a little meandering, but this one is pretty great.  Olivia is asked to tell her class about what she did over her vacation, so she spins a tall tale about having to save the circus by performing all the acts herself after all the performers are felled by ear infections.  We were primed to like the illustrations, as several of them were co-opted for Olivia's Opposites; Olivia as a lion tamer (Quiet/Loud) is a particular favorite.  And of course, Olivia with her not-very-trained dogs brings the house down.  On her bedroom wall, Olivia has a fantastic poster of Eleanor Roosevelt, her arms raised in a joyful, explanatory way.

Now that I think about it, another book that seems to go with these two is the Ladybug Girl series -- Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy is our favorite.  Ladybug Girl is the superhero identity of Lulu, who runs around with her dog Bingo and uses her imaginative powers to explore and enjoy the world around her.  Okay, so it's a little treacly/heavy-handed at times, but I like the emphasis on imaginative play, the fact that she's not wearing pink, and the way Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy supports boys and girls playing together and addresses how to compromise on games and how to include other kids who want to play with you.  (We're just getting into the first experiences with conscious exclusion of friends; I'm on the lookout for books that touch on that horrible, complex issue.)

 I'm interested to hear your thoughts on books about dealing with the deaths of loved ones -- there's so much more to say on that issue.  But for now, I'm happy to leave it on a lighter note.

Love, Annie

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