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, May 31, 2011

Old treasures

Dear Aunt Debbie,

My parents are in the middle of a Great Purge and retooling of their apartment, spurred on by my brother, home briefly from his travels.  There have been great book-related results of this movement: first, the children's bookshelf containing all the books Michael and I grew up with has been moved to a far more accessible place in the living room, and all of the books are now visible, rather than hidden behind the couch.  Second, I have been made to take possession again of the 15 boxes which have been in my parents' storage room since I graduated from college.  While the prospect of dealing with all of the contents of the boxes is daunting, Eleanor's excitement over opening them has helped.  The first box we chose to open contained a number of my old dolls; the second was a book box.

Two old and much-loved books came out of this box, both, appropriately enough, containing dolls as major characters.

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years
, by Rachel Field,  was first published in 1929, and the copy we have belonged to Grandma Helen, your mother.  There's her name, in bold ink on the first page: "H. Darling," and next to it a stamp with her married name and Pleasantville address.  Was this a book you and my mom read as children?  It appears to be a first edition, and I searched it up fully expecting it to be out of print, but lo and behold, it's a Newbery winner, and still very much available.

Hitty is a wooden doll, and she narrates the book, writing her memoirs from the comfort of an antique shop where she finds herself after cycling through the hands of a number of owners and going on an improbable number of adventures (a whaling ship, New York society, a hayloft with a litter of mice).  I remember most of the plot rather vaguely, but with some fondness.  Eleanor had me start reading it immediately, and while the language in the first chapter is a little stilted at times: "So here I am in the midst of her very untidy desk with my feet on a spattered square of green blotting paper, my back against a pewter inkstand, and a perfect snow bank of bills and papers heaped about me."  Lots of vocabulary words to touch on, there.  Hitty's narration is very matter-of-fact, and in that way quite appealing.  I'm not sure we'll get through it all now, but I look forward to trying again if this attempt falls flat.

A Little Princess
, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is another story.  I've written before about the tale of orphaned and cast down Sara Crewe, which captivated me even more than Burnett's most famous The Secret Garden.

I adored this book as a child.  The edition I pulled from the box is a former library copy, water-damaged from a flood caused by our upstairs neighbors' waterbed when I was perhaps 10 years old.  That flood took out a number of books, but I was always secretly grateful to it, because it allowed me to keep the sumptuously illustrated version of a book I would otherwise have had to return.  The full-color plates throughout the edition were painted by Ethel Franklin Betts, and they have just the shade of mistiness to make them most romantic to a girl with that bent.  Eleanor seems to be having a similar reaction.  After a chapter of Hitty, she asked for a chapter of Sara Crewe, and the clearer, simpler language and detailed descriptions of dolls and dresses in the early pages have made it our current chapter book of choice.  I'm finding the separation between Sara and her father hard to handle, as I know the death that's coming, but Eleanor is taking it in stride.

So here's Sara Crewe, with her doll Emily, who she speaks to as if she is a real person, and Eleanor sitting on the couch with her new/my old doll in her arms, and Isabel putting Mona Baby (Eleanor's baby doll, named after your younger daughter) to bed, and Hitty's memoir sitting on our coffee table -- it feels kind of intimate, really.

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The inner life

Dear Annie,

Returning briefly to Brian Selznick, author of Wonderstruck (and many more): BEA has put up a video of his speech here.  I strongly recommend skipping the first five minutes and starting with his reading from the book. 

Today I thought I'd mention another speaker from that lovely breakfast: Kevin Henkes (pronounced with two syllables).  We've both written about him, here, here and here.   His youngest picture books are gentle and sweet; his older mouse picture books are full of personality.  And his middle-grade chapter books are a bit uneven, although I'm about to mention a new one which I like a lot.

Henkes spoke about Little White Rabbit, and the care, skill and thought that goes into creating an apparently simple book.

The video  is an interview with him about it.  Little White Rabbit is hopping along and wondering what it would be like to be as tall as the trees, as green as the grass, as still as a stone, etc.  One of the themes that Henkes says he keeps coming back to is "children absorbed by the inner life."  Little White Rabbit is by himself, observing the world and wondering about it.

He read a bit from his new chapter book, Junonia.  It's the story of turning-ten-year-old Alice, who's on a beach vacation with her parents.  Several old friends who planned to join them can't make it, and an unexpected guest brings his troubled six year-old daughter.  Alice spends a lot of time thinking on her own: some of it a bit dreamy, some angry and hurt.  Her reaction to the six year-old is a combination of trying very hard for empathy, but really not liking the child's self-centeredness.  Henkes does it all with a deft touch.  Alice longs to find a rare shell, the junonia. One always wonders how an author will handle desire for a longed-for object in middle-grade novels.  Do we get the satisfaction of discovery?  Do we learn from disappointment?  This ending brings in the longings of one of the adults in a lovely and unexpected way.  I really liked it.



Friday, May 27, 2011

Deafness in books, and baby signs

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love the description of Selznick's new book, Wonderstruck, and you're right on the money when you talk about all the resonances from my life in your last post.  Eeyore's Books for Children was my favorite bookstore for years: when I first started getting an allowance, I would save up to buy books there.  I still remember the layout, including the giant stuffed Eeyore doll whose lap you could nestle into, beanbag-like.

Yes, both of my father's parents were born deaf, and my mom and I took some American Sign Language classes several years ago, although neither of us ever became anything close to fluent.  Both of my grandparents were deaf children born to hearing families, and were sent to day school rather than boarding school at a time when the teaching of sign language was discouraged in favor of "oral communication": speaking aloud and lip-reading.  Boarding schools were where ASL survived and thrived as a language, as deaf children communicated with each other secretly via sign, a language in which they could be totally fluent (a really good lip-reader can understand only about 70% of oral communication).  Essentially, because my grandparents' parents kept them at home, my grandparents were prevented from becoming fully fluent in any language.

I'm interested to hear about Selznick's choice to represent a deaf girl's story solely in pictures.  One of the things I learned in ASL classes, which focused on deaf culture as well as language, was that deaf people are often not big readers of books.  I knew this was true of my grandparents, but didn't realize it was true on a larger group level.  The way it was explained to me has to do with how hearing people learn to read: first, by being read to, by hearing the voices of their parents reading words, by sounding things out.  When we begin to read on our own, we have a voice in our head pronouncing the words aloud; someone who's born deaf doesn't.  It's not surprising, then, that learning to read would be more difficult, and that blocks of text might not be as engaging for a deaf reader.

My grandfather died when I was in 7th grade, and my grandmother, the inimitable Grandma Ruth, died a year before Eleanor was born; sadly, they never met.  But of course, baby sign language has become big business, and we did a bit of it with Eleanor and Isabel.

When Eleanor was little, family friends gave us a wonderful set of books: the Baby Signs starter collection, which came with a book on animals, one on bedtime words, one on food, and one on "favorites."  Baby sign language uses modified ASL signs to allow pre-verbal babies to communicate more effectively what they want, and lead to fewer tantrums.  The sign that stuck most intensely with Eleanor  was "milk" (you squeeze your hand like you're milking a cow), which she used even after she could say the word aloud.

While both my girls became verbal pretty early, and we didn't rely on signing the way I've seen some families do (with great success), the board books are still big favorites here.  What's not to love?  Bright, engaging close-ups of toddlers doing signs, paired with photos of the thing they're signing about.  Isabel uses them now to practice identification and saying the words as much as doing the signs.  They're warm and effective, and I love having an accurate introduction to a tiny bit of ASL in the house.

Your post made me wonder about other representations of deafness in children's literature -- how much is there?  I'm finding it hard to think of any.  You?

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wonder in New York

Dear Annie,

I'm so happy the wombats were a hit.  I'm quite fond of both of those books.

Thinking about Book Expo America, where I was earlier this week, I realize I want to talk about one remarkable author and his new book, which has a lot of resonance with elements of your life.  Brian Selznick started his career as a bookseller, at Eeyore's Books for Children, a store to which your parents introduced me and where I suspect you spent a lot of time in your youth.

Selznick was one of the speakers at the Children's Book and Author Breakfast.  To the extent that the kids' book industry has superstars, he qualifies.  And he enhanced that image by appearing in a shiny gray suit and red shoes which practically glowed; he stepped out in front of the podium to show them off before speaking.  We all cheered.

He's been a quite wonderful illustrator and occasional author for decades, but his most amazing work came in 2007:
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
. It's a story set in a Paris railroad station in the early 20th century and deals with, among other things, the history of silent film. About half the book is full-page drawings. The pictures aren't illustrations of the words; they pick up where the words leave off and continue the story in graphic form for pages, then cease and the author's words pick up the story from there.  It's quite wonderful.  Martin Scorcese, of all people, is making it into a 3-D movie this fall (trailer here).

The subject of Selznick's talk on Tuesday was his next book,Wonderstruck, even more heavily illustrated, but with a slightly different structure.  It's due out in September.  It tells alternating stories of two young people, one in 1977 and the other starting in 1927.  Rose, the girl from the earlier era, is deaf and her story is told completely in pictures.  The boy's story is in words.  I haven't read the whole thing yet, but  I watched two of my colleagues each read the entire book (we received advance copies) on the bus ride back from New York to DC.  They were riveted.

Here's part of Selznick's acknowledgments in the book, talking about a documentary called Through Deaf Eyes:
I was especially fascinated by a section about cinema and the new technology of sound, which was introduced into the movies in 1927.  Prior to this, both deaf and hearing populations could enjoy the cinema together.  Sound movies, for the first time, excluded the deaf.  That insight was the beginning of Rose's story.
So, resonance with your life: Eeyore's; history of film (your father's encyclopedic knowledge qualifies there); both of his parents, your grandparents, were deaf -- and you and your mom know ASL, don't you?  Oh, and I don't think I mentioned that Selznick, of course, lives in Brooklyn.  But let's add an element from the maternal side of your family: the Museum of Natural History, next to which my parents, your other grandparents, lived for much of your childhood.  I don't want to put in any spoilers, but Rose ends up on the lam in the museum of 1927:

He meticulously researched the museum of that era -- as he researches all his historical works.

The most magical moment of Selznick's talk was a brief reading from the book.  He started with a dream sequence of being chased by wolves (they silently get closer and closer), then read an introductory section about Ben, the 1977 boy.  Then he showed the opening sequence of Rose's story: closeup of a movie magazine, the picture pulls out to the magazine in Rose's hand, Rose looking out the window of her room.  We see a car pull up, a man knocks, Rose climbs out of her window and down a tree, then runs to the river with a note in her hand that says "Help me."  He projected more than 20 double-page spreads of pictures on the screens in a big banquet hall at the Javits Convention Center.  I can't tell you how long it took -- maybe two minutes?  There was not a single sound in the hall: no coughs,  no cell phones, no clinks of coffee cups.  Everyone was completely absorbed in the pictures.  Full of wonder.



Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Dear Aunt Debbie,

It was so lovely to have you visit.  I've put up a picture in the sidebar of you reading Dodsworth in London to Eleanor -- the seriousness of her face, and the smile on yours, make me very happy.

And you came bearing gifts!

In the two days since you were here, we've become very interested in wombats: furry, battering-ram headed bearlike Australian creatures.  This newfound interest is, of course, on account of the two wombat books you left us with, both by Jackie French, with wildly appealing illustrations by Bruce Whatley.

They are an interesting pair of books: a picture book, and a short non-fiction chapter book about the history and habits of wombats, clearly aimed at older readers.

First, the picture book:

Diary of a Wombat
is exactly that:

Morning: Slept.
Afternoon: Slept.
Evening: Ate grass.
 Night: Ate grass.


Morning: Slept.
Afternoon: Slept.
Evening: Ate grass.
Night: Ate grass.  Decided grass is boring.
Scratched.  Hard to reach the itchy bits.


On Wednesday, new neighbors (a family of people) move in, and the wombat begins to interact with them, fighting a major battle with their doormat ("flat, hairy creature invading my territory"), demanding carrots, digging holes in the garden, banging on a metal garbage can to demand still more carrots.  From the combination of French's deadpan text and Whatley's sleepy-eyed wombat illustrations, you get the sense that wombats are strong, stubborn, and single-minded, as well as being extremely cute when rolling around on their backs.  The wombat trains her neighbor humans (oh yes, on the gender-of-animals front, it's made clear on one page that the wombat is female) to take care of her when needed, and seems quite happy with her situation.  It's enormously appealing.

How to Scratch a Wombat is a longer and far more in-depth read.  In it, French provides some of her personal history with wombats -- she's lived with them invading her garden, and sometimes her house, for more than 30 years.  French's stories of individual wombats (all named, all described like old friends) are funny and full of personality.  She interweaves her anecdotes with straightforward wombat facts: what they eat (mostly grass), how their anatomy functions (they are marsupials, with pouches, and have extremely strong skulls, "bums," and clawed digging paws), their place in Australian history (hunted down as pest by white settlers), and more.  Whatley combines his cartoon-like illustrations here with far more realistic ones in shaded pencil, so that you get a good sense of how wombats really look and act.

Eleanor has not historically been drawn to non-fiction books, but she's sustained an interest in this one, and we're both enjoying the combination of fact and personal narrative.  I appreciate particularly the way French stresses the dangers of co-habiting with wild animals: yes, wombats can be adorable, but she describes in detail the time a wombat tore a gash in her wrist when he thought they were playing a game.  Despite the anthropomorphizing in Diary of a Wombat, French keeps the wildness of the wombats front and center.

I look forward to hearing more about the BEA conference -- I hope this morning's panel was excellent!

Love, Annie

Monday, May 23, 2011

New York

Dear Annie, 

I've just spent a wonderful day with you and your family, skipping through the Brooklyn drizzle, being goofy with Isabel, and reading  
Dodsworth in London
with Eleanor.  It was an excellent reminder of the joys of repeated readings of the same book.
I'm here in New York for Book Expo America, the annual booksellers' convention.  There are some workshops on Monday, a breakfast on Tuesday where Kevin Henkes, Sarah Dessen, Katherine Paterson, and Brian Selznick are all going to speak, and then lots of time in the Javits Convention Center visiting booths set up by publishers large and small.  It's a fun event, not so much for specific work that gets done, but for feeling in touch with the whole world of books and the people who sell them.  For the first time this year, people from our other three stores are coming too -- I think that will be a good thing all around.

One of the booths I intend to visit is the one for Workman Publishing, who just did a nice thing for our store.  They publish about half of Sandra Boynton's delightful books.  A couple of weeks ago they wrote to tell us that Barstons Child's Play, our little chain of toy and book stores, was one of the top seven retailers in the country of their Boynton books in 2010.  They sent us a framed signed print by Sandra Boynton (a picture of which I would have posted here but the camera is having download problems) to thank us for the sales.  

This on top of the fact that we sold a grand total of a million dollars in books last year is making me feel pretty good.  And to add to that glow, Workman sent a list of the other six retailers.  It includes some of the best-known independent book stores in the country:

The Tattered Cover in Denver,  Powell's in Portland (yes, that Powell's), Book People in Austin, Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis (the only other children's-only retailer on the list), Anderson's in your Jeff's own hometown of Naperville, Illinois and, just to add something a little different, Deseret Books, the official book store chain of the Mormon Church. 

So I'm off to the convention feeling pretty chipper.  I leave you with some fun from Barnyard Dance!, which starts, "Stomp Your Feet!  Clap your Hands!/ Everybody ready for a barnyard dance!":

I'm spinning off to convention-land.  Will report back to you about it all on Wednesday.  It was great to see you.



Friday, May 20, 2011

Tot Shabbat

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oh yes, The Golden Notebook was one of your gifts to me in high school -- the first book I ever felt compelled to write in, underlining lines which felt so deeply true that I couldn't help myself.  I reread it a couple of years ago as an adult, with my book club; it was fascinating to see what my 17-year-old self had found vital. There was more Doris Lessing too, the whole Martha Quest series, and before that lots and lots of children's books, some of which I still comes across with their inscriptions at my parents' place.  I was, and Eleanor and Isabel are, incredibly lucky to have you as our Book Aunt.

There is something wonderful about an unexpected gift, the ways in which a book can find you rather than you finding it, and then immediately become part of the fabric of your reading life.  So it is with It's Tot Shabbat!, by Naomi Danis, the book which has recently made Eleanor announce, more than once, "I wish I was Jewish."

It's Tot Shabbat! was a gift from my friend and colleague Sophie, who is Naomi Danis's daughter.  While we are not Jewish, we live in a neighborhood with a large Orthodox community, so we often have conversations about the banners advertising Purim celebrations (boy, did the idea of Purim make Eleanor want to be Jewish), and about Judaism in general (lots of yelling "Menorah!  Menorah!" every time we passed one in a window this winter; a few iterations of no, not all Jewish people wear black and white, though many of our neighbors do).  I've told Sophie some of these stories, and so when she went to her mom's book release party, she got my girls a copy.

It's Tot Shabbat! is the story of a group of preschoolers in the children's room of their synagogue on Shabbat morning.  The text is clear and simple; the photographs (by Tod Cohen) are joyful.  The kids greet each other, play with blocks and stuffed torahs, listen to the story of Noah's Ark and then pretend to be porcupines, build a child-sized Tower of Babel, dance and fall down, and finally have their Shabbat snack of challah and grape juice.  Finally, they enter the sanctuary and sing "Adon Olam" with the congregation.

The picture above gives you an idea of the feel of the book: inclusive, playful, full of life.  The kids are clearly having a good time.

The first time I sat down to read Tot Shabbat with Eleanor, she made me reread it three times in a row.  Granted, one of the major attractions for her is the opportunity to assess the dresses the girls are wearing ("I like that dress, and that dress, and that dress").  But I think part of it is the ritual as well.  The last page of the book contains a small glossary and the blessings to be said over wine and bread, written out in Hebrew letters, translated into phonetic spelling ("Baruch Atah Adonai"), and then translated into English.  Eleanor requests that I read the blessings in both languages every time we read the book.

A last anecdote: Sophie tells me that the working title for the book was "Don't Eat Yet, Don't Drink Yet!", which is what her mom used to say to her and her siblings to keep them from reaching for the challah before the blessings.  

Shabbat Shalom!

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Dear Annie,

When Eleanor was born, the first of her generation in our extended family, I decided to become The Aunt Who Gives Only Books, to her and to any sibling (hello, Isabel!) or cousin (another coming soon :) to follow.   It didn't exactly start with Eleanor -- we've mentioned a few books I gave you over the years.  Part of the fun of giving books over decades is being able to grow with the recipient.  Starting out with board books, ending up with adult novels (wasn't The Golden Notebook in there somewhere?).

I've spent some of this evening going through the books I'll be bringing to your daughters this weekend.  I had to re-read a few -- can't resist.  Even though I spend a good deal of my days recommending books for adults to give to children, I can end up tied in knots when choosing my own offerings.  There's the Venn diagram of overlapping circles: books I love/books about things I think you love.  So one of the grand experiments here  will be one I've already warned you about:
The Very Kind Rich Lady and her One Hundred Dogs
by Chinlun Lee, on a topic we all know Isabel loves.  The book names all 100 dogs: the first time with a label under each picture, the second time (!) as a string of names being called.  Can Isabel do 200 woofs?  We shall see...  Am also bringing monkeys, wombats (fiction & non-fiction), bunnies, gods, and a few humans.

I woke up this morning to find the current issue (June 9) of The New York Review of Books left open for me to an essay by Michael Chabon on The Phantom Tollbooth -- a book you and I will blog about here someday.  I bring this up not to discuss the Norton Juster classic, but to relay Chabon's thoughts on the gift of a book:
The book appeared in my life as mysteriously as the titular tollbooth itself, brought to our house one night as a gift for me by some old friend of my father’s whom I had never met before, and never saw again. Maybe all wondrous books appear in our lives the way Milo’s tollbooth appears, an inexplicable gift, cast up by some curious chance that comes to feel, after we have finished and fallen in love with the book, like the workings of a secret purpose. Of all the enchantments of beloved books the most mysterious—the most phantasmal—is the way they always seem to come our way precisely when we need them.
  May we all be the agent of a secret purpose at some point in a child's life.



Monday, May 16, 2011

Mutual respect on an epic journey

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I hear you on the mean-spiritedness.  Jeff and I have talked about this -- the feeling that our generation skews cynical in our pop culture, that sometimes the satire we cultivate becomes too cold.  That being said, I think I may find Mansbach funnier than you do these days because the experience he satirizes is currently a part of my life.  Of course, as my mom pointed out, the danger of actually buying it is that your kids will pick it up and want you to read it to them....

Your point about mutual respect made me think immediately of the book Eleanor and I are engrossed in at the moment (one of your recent gifts): Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the MoonYou wrote about it a few months back, describing Minli's adventures and the ways in which it is a book about stories, storytelling, and the ways that stories can knit together to become something whole.  The relationship between Minli and her parents, Ma and Ba, is such a tender one: she starts out on her quest in order to improve her family's fortunes, and is always deeply aware of the pain she's causing them by having run away, even as she's determined to reach the Old Man of the Moon.  Ma and Ba's journey is an internal one: ultimately about accepting that they need to trust their daughter to come home, rather than looking fruitlessly for her.  The traditional Chinese virtue of filial piety is part of this, I think, but there is something very moving and personal about the way it's expressed here: foremost about mutual consideration and love rather than duty.

We also went ahead and got ourselves a copy of One Morning in Maine, also a deeply warm and considerate book, which has become an instant favorite.

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fuck you, kid

"Fuck your stuffed bear."
Dear Annie,

Go the Fuck to Sleep.  Wonderful pictures.  Skillful writing, with an excellent ear for good kids' lit.  It's clearly going to be a huge seller.

I find it funny for about ten seconds.  But it's  so, well, mean-spirited.  Some refrains:
I know you’re not thirsty. That’s bullshit. Stop lying. 
Lie the fuck down, my darling, and sleep.
Hell no, you can’t go to the bathroom. 
You know where you can go? The fuck to sleep.
A hot crimson rage fills my heart, love. 
For real, shut the fuck up and sleep.
Fuck your stuffed bear, I’m not getting you shit. 
Close your eyes. Cut the crap. Sleep.

I'm a big believer in mutual respect between adult and child as the basic principle of child-raising.  That doesn't mean there's no anger or frustration or despair at many points.  But I don't find humor in venting frustration by, as you put it, cursing at your children -- no matter how artfully done.

I look forward to getting back to books for kids in our next posts.



Friday, May 13, 2011

Cursing at your children

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I raised the issue of Bow-Wow's gender with Eleanor this week, and told her that you had found a picture of the dog Bow-Wow is based on, who is female.  "So," I said, "I think we can choose.  Should we start calling Bow-Wow 'she'?  Do you think Bow-Wow is a girl?"  Eleanor's face lit up (because of the option to choose?  Because she thinks girls are cool?).  "Yes!  Bow-Wow is a girl!"  So that's the conscious choice we're making around here.

But this is not what my friends want me to be blogging about.  No, in the last two weeks, I have been emailed by at least eight different people, all encouraging me to blog about a children's book aimed at adults, a book which has not even been released yet (look for it in June): Adam Mansbach's Go the Fuck to Sleep.

This is clearly what the hip, tired young parents of America want: a children's book aimed at adults, blurbed on the front cover by Jonathan Lethem, with really beautiful illustrations by Ricardo Cortes and an Onion/Daily Show-like satirical sensibility.

It's actually pretty funny.  Mansbach captures the cadence of goodnight books like Time for Bed, beginning with this simple first page, accompanied by an illustration of a sleeping child curled next to three sleeping cats:

The cats nestle close to their kittens now.
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear.
Please go the fuck to sleep.

As the book continues, the narrator gets a little more frustrated:

The wind whispers soft through the grass, hon.
The field mice, they make not a peep.
It’s been thirty-eight minutes already.
Jesus Christ, what the fuck? Go to sleep.

The illustrations remain gorgeous and nature-filled, but the little children in them become wider and wider awake (on one page, a kid is skydiving down onto a dock).  Here, a laughing toddler leans over the back of a sleeping lion, other lions passed out around them:

The cubs and the lions are snoring,
Wrapped in a big snuggly heap.
How is it you can do all this other great shit
But you can’t lie the fuck down and sleep?

We've all been there.  Depending on the hour of the night and your current level of exhaustion, this book may move you to tears of laughter.  Or just tears.

I wonder how it'll sell?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The default "he"

Dear Annie,

You may already know this story:  A father and son are in a car accident.  The father is killed and the son is badly injured and taken to the hospital.  The surgeon coming into the operating room looks at him and says, "I can't operate on this patient: he's my son."

If you are perplexed by how this could be, go to the asterisk* at the bottom of the page.  If you know it instantly so much the better.

I want to go back to assumptions of maleness, the default "he."  I bounced around the store today saying to my co-workers, "Did you know Piggie is a girl?"  About a third of them knew; two people said they just assumed a male/female friendship.  The rest of us all assumed the buddy relationship that you write about.

"What does it take," you ask, "for an animal to read as female?"  There are the visual cues -- you point out the eyelashes.  Or the pink bows or something equally girly.  Why aren't 50% of those ambiguous animals female?  Do we need an author's assertion of femaleness to read a she?

I think the answer to your question is a reader who is conscious of resisting the default.  I've written about my daughters' insistence that the William Steig character Gorky was female, despite the pronouns on every page.  And we got an interesting comment from Erica yesterday:
When I was a child, I always assumed that Piglet from Winnie the Pooh was a girl. Even when I was told otherwise, I refused to accept it. As far as I was concerned, it didn't matter what Piglet's actual gender is. I read her as female, and I still do, even though I know that she was meant to be male. Because she's a fictional character, I felt that no one (not even the author) could tell me that I was wrong in thinking of Piglet as a girl. Most likely, my feelings came from the lack of female characters in Winnie the Pooh and the fact that Piglet is pink.
 So should we the readers (both grown-ups and kids) mess around with gender whenever we feel like it, as with Gorky or Piglet?  Or should we stay true to the intention of the author?  And if the author doesn't reveal intent -- why is that?  I could say that they're encouraging us to become aware of the default and choose for ourselves.  Or I could be  cynical and say that someone -- author or publisher -- believes that a female character might discourage sales to boys or the adults who buy for them.  But that's a post for another day.



* The doctor is his mother.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Piggie is a girl!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your last post gave me a great little epiphany moment -- all this time, all these many readings of Bow-Wow, I had just assumed the dog was male.  But you're right -- there are no gender cues at all.  What does it take for an animal to read as female?  Long eyelashes, I guess.  Eleanor has already consciously picked up on the eyelash cue when assigning gender to animal characters.  If it looks neutral, it's probably male.

Which is why your post reminded me of the moment that I figured out that Piggie, of Mo Willems's most excellent Elephant and Piggie series, is female.

The Elephant and Piggie books are cartoony stories about the adventures of Gerald (the elephant, a worrywart) and Piggie (the pig, mostly a happy-go-lucky sort, but prone to fits of anger).  They're longer than Willems's Pigeon books, and all the text is dialogue, in speech bubbles.  (They lend themselves to staged readings.)

The first Elephant and Piggie book we came across was Are You Ready to Play Outside?, in which Piggie's great enthusiasm for playing outside is dampened (ahem) by a torrential downpour.  She is crushed.  She is furious.  She hates the rain.  But with Gerald's help and after seeing two really happy worms playing in the rain, Piggie decides that rain is actually wonderful!  Just in time for it to stop raining.

I'm using the female pronoun here, but on first reading (and second, and fifteenth), I read both characters as male.  They have a kind of odd-couple feel that makes me think of buddy movies, Laurel and Hardy, Frog and Toad.  Piggie has no secondary sex characteristics -- no curly eyelashes here -- and neither character wears clothes.  Gerald is gendered by his name; Piggie isn't. Because the whole book is a dialogue between two characters, it's pretty easy to avoid pronouns.

We read other Elephant and Piggie books: There is a Bird on Your Head! is my other great favorite, although there are many.  I love the declarative titles.  It wasn't until we found I Am Invited to a Party! at the library that I saw it: when Piggie is invited to a party, and she and Gerald dress up in a wide variety of outfits to prepare, she wears women's clothing.  I think there may also be a female pronoun in this one; I don't have it at home to check.  The jacket copy confirms Piggie's gender as well, where others don't.

So, interesting choices by Mo Willems.  Why create a pair of male-female best friends and leave the gender of one, but not the other, ambiguous for several books?  Or did Piggie read as female to Willems from the beginning, and would Eleanor's and my gender assumptions about her surprise him? 

In any case, they're a nice boy-girl non-romantic pair.

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 8, 2011


Dear Annie,

So here we have a study of a lot of books published in the 20th century.  These hard-working researchers discover that children's books seem to reflect public attitudes about gender.  The male figures take up more space than the female ones.  The ratio gets worse in the Fifties, one of the bigger back-sliding decades for women's rights.  And the ratio gets up to "close to parity" in the Nineties.  No word on what's happened in the past ten years.

This is only 20 seconds, and I can't resist putting it in here:

It's hard for me to work up much surprise at these findings.  It sounds kind of common sense. Books are part of the popular culture.  Sometimes they help shape it; usually they reflect and reinforce it.  And we all know that popular culture leaves a huge amount to be desired.   It took me a long time to understand that Barbie wasn't who was going to warp my daughters' brains; it was every billboard and every TV show and every passing stranger saying, "aren't you pretty -- who's your boyfriend?'  The biggest anti-warping influence, of course, is family  And unlike billboards and passing strangers and kids in the playground, books are something parents have a fair amount of control over -- at least in the age group this study was talking about (pre-school to third grade).

We all pick and choose what we want to read with kids.  Good engaging books come with many different kinds of content.  We read the books we like.  If we feel a gender or an ethnic group is getting short shrift, we go find some books to offset that.  We discuss the less-than-perfect aspects of otherwise wonderful books.  We help create critical thinkers.

The part of that study that I find more interesting to explore is the question of animal characters, which the researchers found to be much more lopsidedly male than human ones.  I think that many of us have a default setting with animals (and this goes for passing drivers too -- but that's another discussion): they're all "he" until proven otherwise.  I just had an interesting time doing a little Bow-Wow research online.  You and Isabel have given me a much deeper appreciation of the delights of the
Bow-Wow books
for toddlers.  I went looking for Bow-Wow tonight to use as an example of a character whose gender a parent can change pretty easily: few or no words in these books, one could just start calling him "she."  What I discovered is that I'm the one who assigned "he" to Bow-Wow.  The authors' wonderful website appears to go out of its way not to mention gender.  And the dog who is credited as "the inspiration for Bow-Wow" is a female Australian terrier named Ruby. 

Good Night Gorilla
is another almost-wordless book which would be easy to change to a female main character. In this case, the jacket copy identifies the gorilla as male -- but why don't we ever think of her as a girl? (Peggy Rathmann, by the way, is also the creator of Gloria the dog in Officer Buckle and Gloria, which you mentioned in your last post.)

Sheep in a Jeep
Sheep in a Jeep is another one -- are they all male? All female? Hmmm.  What does it take for an ambiguously gendered animal to be a she?

Thoughts to explore.



Friday, May 6, 2011

Gender disparity in children's books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

How can I have gone this long without ever reading One Morning in Maine?  A shocking lapse.  The first picture you've posted does feel very Eleanor and Isabel.  Clearly, a book we need to read in this house.

I'm sure you've heard in the last few days about the recent publication of a big study on gender disparity in children's books: "Gender in Twentieth-Century Children's Books : Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters."  It's an interesting study, though a little dry to read.  There's a good summary of the findings here, at Science Daily (thanks to Jessica@Vegbooks, who posted the url in a comment).

The main ideas: there are measurably more male characters than female characters in children's books, and female representation has not increased steadily over the last century.  The statistics are pretty staggering.  From Science Daily: "No more than 33 percent of children's books published in any given year contain central characters that are adult women or female animals, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100 percent of books."

It's interesting to me that the study finds more gender bias in books centered on animal characters than human ones.  Science Daily again: "Although books published in the 1990s came close to parity for human characters (with a ratio of 0.9:1 for child characters; 1.2:1 for adult characters), a significant disparity of nearly 2 to 1 remains for male animal characters versus female."

I was first alerted to the study via an NYT blog post, which summarizes the findings but gets at least one fact wrong: the author claims that Make Way for Ducklings is the only Caldecott winner with a central female figure.  The study actually refers to the book Have You Seen My Duckling?, by Nancy Tafuri, and says this about it:

A closer look at the types of characters with the greatest disparity reveals that only one Caldecott winner has a female animal as a central character without any male central characters. The 1985 Honor book Have You Seen My Duckling? follows Mother Duck asking other pond animals this question as she searches for a missing duckling. One other Caldecott has a female animal without a male animal also in a central role; however, in Officer Buckle and Gloria, the female dog is present alongside a male police officer. Although female animal characters do exist, books with male animals, such as Barkley (mentioned earlier) and The Poky Little Puppy, were more than two-and-a-half times more common across the century than those with female animals.

I'm curious to hear your reaction to this study.  We've written a lot here about gender in children's books, and finding strong female characters (check out some of our book lists, too).  Do you feel this disparity actively as a bookseller and book-buyer?  Do you think that the gender of animal characters is more or less influential than the gender of human characters?

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Maine Summers with family

Dear Annie,

Blueberries for Sal was published in 1948: Sal would have been three then.  The following year, Jane was born, and by 1952, when One Morning in Maine came out, Jane would have been pushing three, and Sal was a mature 7, although both were younger when their dad drew them for his book.

This picture, and the entire book, somehow make me think of Eleanor and Isabel.  Articulate, strong-willed big sister.  Curious animal-obsessed little sister (keep that dog in mind).

Sal wakes up with her first loose tooth, worried that it will keep her from a promised excursion to the mainland.  Her mother reassures her, telling her that when it comes out she can make a wish on it. In a series of amazing pictures of the coast of Maine, Sal finds her father and digs clams with him.  Somewhere in there -- we never know quite when -- her tooth disappears from her mouth.  "Sal's father helped her look, but a muddy tooth looks so much like a muddy pebble, and a muddy pebble looks so much like a muddy tooth, that they hunted and hunted without finding it." 

Sal and Jane both head out with Father in the boat --  but engine trouble ensues.  A long-suffering dad rows across the bay, to Condon's garage, where spark plug trouble is diagnosed.  The old one is pulled like a tooth, and handed to toddler Jane, who clutches it for the rest of the story.  Locals are chatted with, groceries are picked up, ice cream is consumed, and the satisfied family heads back home, in time for Sal's famous final line. "When we get home we're going to have [page turn] CLAM CHOWDER FOR LUNCH!"

The book cares so deeply about the minutiae of family tasks.  The emotion isn't as high as in Blueberries,  but there's a steady feeling of family members contentedly going through life together.

In my imagination, the next book was at least partly spurred by the now-8 year-old Jane pointing out that dad has done two books focusing on Sal, and where's the book for Jane? 
Time of Wonder
luxuriates in the magic of spending half a year living on the ocean.  It's written in the second person, with more abstract illustrations: luminous paintings with both girls in them, but the descriptions are of what the younger one is doing.  We go through the steps of a foggy spring morning slowly clearing, ferns growing, sun shining, summer packs of kids at the beach, magical lightning bug nights.  We are in wonder at it all.

But the part that made the biggest impression on me was always the hurricane after the summer people have gone.  "We're going to have some weather," the locals say, and it's anticipated for several pages.  The family is together in their house:
A tree snaps.  Above the roar of the hurricane you see and feel but do not hear it fall.  A latch gives way.  People and papers and parcheesi games are puffed hair-over-eyes across the floor, while Father pushes and strains to close and bolt out the storm.

One can see why McCloskey won the Caldecott for best illustration with this book.  Next page:
Mother reads a story, and the words are spoken and lost in the scream of the wind.  You are glad it is a story you have often heard before.  Then you all sing together, shouting "eyes have seen the glory" just as loud as you can SHOUT.  With dishtowels tucked by doorsills just to keep the salt spray out.

(Dog look familiar?)

The storm passes, damage is inspected the next day, and soon it's time to move back to wherever their winter home is.
Take a farewell look at the waves and sky.  Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going.  It is a time of quiet wonder -- for wondering, for instance: Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?
The end.

I'm so glad your family will be coming to visit us in Maine this summer.



Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reading aloud with accents

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love the Allan Ahlberg video.  His reading of the word "Peepo," though, is so restrained -- in our house, the Americanized refrain of "Peek-a-boo!" is joyful and very loud.

As I've mentioned before, we're big fans in this house of reading things aloud with funny accents -- I've even put up a list on this blog of "Books it's fun to read aloud with funny accents."

One of our current favorite read-alouds fits this category to a T: Mo Willems's fabulous The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too!  There are several Pigeon books in the series that started with Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, some board book-length, some larger picture-book length (no surprise that Isabel is a big fan of  The Pigeon Wants a Puppy).  In each, the pigeon tries to wheedle his way into or out of something, using a variety of toddler-inspired techniques: whining, exclaiming, pouting, begging, hopping around in joy.  The pigeon's supporting characters include a bus driver (clearly the adult in the situation) and a small yellow chick with big innocent eyes.

It's the bus driver who starts off the action in The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too! by exhorting the pigeon: 

"Hey pigeon!  Why don't you show everybody your happy face?"  

The pigeon responds:

Why should I?  Do I get on your bus and tell you how to drive?  
Boy, you sure know how to make a bird angry.
And sad.
Everyone always tells me what to do."

Each line is accompanied by a picture of the pigeon expressively demonstrating his emotion. I'd scan a couple now,  but I seem to have left the book in the girls' room.  Fortunately, I've inadvertently memorized every word of it.

A while ago, we somehow started reading both the bus driver and the pigeon with super-broad New York accents -- think Guys and Dolls, and you'll get the idea: "Boy, you shua know how to make a boid angry."  Now Eleanor can recite the whole book too, complete with accent (Isabel chimes in on "And sad" and "Yippee!" at the end).  So if my kids grow up pronouncing "time" "toim," you'll know how it started....

Love, Annie

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Reading Aloud

Dear Annie,

The McCloskey books are so great -- and I love that picture of canning blueberries.  All these years that we've been blueberry obsessed in Maine every summer, I've never taken the step to can some.  A combination of intimidation at the amount of work, and fear of messing it up and poisoning everyone.

I'll pick up the McCloskey baton and write next time about his next two Maine books: One Morning in Maine and Time of Wonder.  Must scan a few pictures.

My brother, your uncle Al, has found a lovely video of Allan Ahlberg (who spells his Allan as our Al does) reading Peek-A-Boo!  There was also another video of Ahlberg talking about the book -- called Peepo! in British -- saying it's an autobiographical work, set in Oldbury, in the English Midlands, and that the baby is none other than Ahlberg.  Lovely.  Here he is reading it:

One can totally visualize him with a grandchild on his lap.  Reading aloud encompasses such a wide variety of styles.  I think of this as a classic style: there's inflection, but not a lot of it.  He's clearly paying attention to the words, sharing them with the listener.  There's something very intimate about this reading.