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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Unrestrained id: so attractive!

Dear Annie,

I think kids can distinguish fairly early between outrageous unlikely-to-happen or flat-out impossible stuff in books, and more realistic fiction.  And some of the outrageous stuff -- like the scary stuff we've written about -- is a direct line to the subconscious.  I suspect Eleanor knows that it's highly unlikely that a ten year-old girl can live alone and carry a horse around with one hand.  But it's cool.  Pippi, like another classic character, the Cat in the Hat, is both funny and attractive because she's so unrestrained, so beyond the rules.  And Tommy and Annika, like Sally and her unnamed narrator/brother ("I"), have to process the craziness and still live by their own rules of behavior (e.g., going home to bed every night), even as the crazy one enables them to push the envelope a bit.  Tommy and Annika have the internalized parents to help restrain them; Sally and I have a Very Serious goldfish invoking the name of Mother:
But our fish said, "No! No!"
Make that cat go away!
Tell that Cat in the Hat
You do NOT want to play.
He should not be here.
He should not be about.
He should not be here
When you mother is out!"

 So there you have it: id and superego, with ego (split into siblings) getting to process it all.  And when you're in the thick of the Processing It years of childhood, it's wildly entertaining to watch behavior you're learning not to do.

Not to say that all writing about beyond-the-rules behavior is a good thing.  You've got to have good writing and some engaging characters too -- which both Astrid Lindgren and Dr. Seuss provide quite nicely.  One of the more love-her-or-hate-her characters in kids' literature these days is
Junie B. Jones
, by Barbara Park. She's rude, she has terrible grammar, she rarely learns from her mistakes, and she's in 27 books, which follow her through kindergarten and first grade.  I'm in the hate-her camp on this one.  But the people who love her, and whose children love her, do so for that titillation of bad behavior.  Look, she's more clueless than I am! 

And on another Pippi-inspired note, I'd like to point out an excellent post after your previous entry from our own guest blogger Rachel of Even in Australia.   Here's the central question, and it's wonderful food for thought and discussion on another day:
So, here's the question - which books do we read to our kids and which do we let them read and discover on their own?
I encourage our readers to read the entire comment.



Monday, June 27, 2011

Revisiting Pippi: the right book at the right time

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about trying to read Pippi Longstocking to Eleanor, and discovering that she wasn't quite ready for it yet.  I attributed this partly to Eleanor not having had school experience, as a certain amount of Pippi's humor comes from resisting and rejecting the structures adults have planned for her.

We picked it up again a few weeks ago, and suddenly it was the only thing Eleanor wanted to read.  She's still on the young side for some of the humor (she's 4 1/2, and Pippi and Tommy and Annika are, I think, about ten), but the spirit of independence and the hilarity of Pippi's behavior have totally captivated Eleanor.  So now I find myself thinking about Pippi in other ways.

Pippi Longstocking is a fascinating character.  Like so many other heroines we've discussed here, she's an orphan: her mother died early, and her father, a sea captain, was swept overboard.  She lives in a little house her father left her, with only a horse and her monkey, Mr. Nilsson, for company, but she never seems lonely or upset.  In this sense, she's more the Ottoline kind of lone child heroine than the Sara Crewe kind.  Pippi misbehaves like crazy in this book: she refuses to follow kids' rules, and won't let the townspeople take her to a children's home; on the one day she tries going to school, she speaks out of turn and is rude to the teacher, then draws all over the floor; at the circus and at Tommy and Annika's mother's tea party, she's insanely disruptive and gets all the attention in the room by making up wild stories about her grandmother's disobedient, ankle-biting maid.

And then there's the bit that I'd forgotten: Pippi is the strongest girl in the world, and utterly fearless.  She can lift her horse down from the porch without breaking a sweat.  Over the course of several chapters, she picks up policemen, robbers, bullies, and a circus strongman; rides a bull and breaks off his horns to keep him from goring Tommy; and rescues two little boys from a raging fire.

Astrid Lindgren writes Pippi as a sort of naif.  When she's bad, she's unaware of why she's causing such disturbances; when she's heroic, though she's self-congratulatory, you feel like she still doesn't quite understand why what she's done is particularly special.  She's a little otherworldly.  The only times Pippi gets upset are when she realizes she's upset other people -- on some level, she knows that she can't quite behave properly, and feels a little bad about it, though not bad enough to change.  Pippi is perfectly herself.

All this makes Pippi an interesting role model.  Jeff commented on how he didn't particularly like the bad behavior is funny aspect of some of the stories, and on one level I agree, but man, I love having an inexplicably strong female character in our pantheon.  Good manners are great to reinforce, but sometimes a girl just needs to lift her horse down from the porch and go for a crazy ride.

Love, Annie

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Middle of the night tune

Dear Annie,

I'm in Brownfield Maine this weekend, where we're dusting off the winter's accumulation and going to a concert given by one of our favorite singers at the barn-turned-performance-space down the road from us.  We have no phone, no wifi, no cell phone reception.  So I'm leaving behind one of the songs we may be hearing Sunday night.

For all you parents of little ones out there, the healing power of music:

Back to books with the next post.



Saturday, June 25, 2011

Artistic mice and curious bears

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'd forgotten about the larger questions of imperialism that come up in Mistress Masham's Repose -- I am really looking forward to rereading it with my girls in the next few years.

One of the other books that came to mind during our discussion of dolls, little people, and such, is the marvelous picture book Norman the Doorman, written and illustrated by Don Freeman.  It's the story of a mouse, Norman, who serves as doorman at the mousehole-sized entrance to a large human art museum.  He welcomes small groups of mouse visitors and takes them for a tour of the art at night, when the coast is clear.  Norman lives in the helmet of a suit of armor in a museum storage room, and Freeman's sketchy colored pencil drawings of Norman going in and out have a wonderful energy.
As a mouse, Norman is of course an unwanted resident in the museum, and there is a guard who tries repeatedly to catch him, mostly via mouse traps.  Norman gets very good at dismantling the traps and eating the cheese.  One day, the museum holds an art contest, and Norman is inspired to create a sculpture out of the mousetrap pieces he's been collecting.  Of course, he wins anonymously (wonderful illustrations of the snooty art collectors peering through monocles and down their noses at the art), and when the guard eventually does catch him, a moment of terror becomes a moment of realization and success.  It's a lovely book.

Of course, Don Freeman is far better known for Corduroy, the story of the little stuffed bear in the department store who goes searching at night for the lost button on his overalls.  That was the part of the story I remembered most clearly from childhood: Corduroy bending down to pull at the button sewn on to a mattress, as he is in the cover illustration.  But it's really about friendship, and finding a home. Lisa, the little girl who sees Corduroy's true self and buys him with her own money, takes him home, sews on a new button, and shows him the little bed she's made for him.  It ends:

"You must be a friend," said Corduroy.  "I've always wanted a friend."
"Me too!" said Lisa, and gave him a big hug.

The first time I read it aloud to Eleanor, I had to choke back tears.  The book has such a direct sweetness.

Eleanor and I took Corduroy out of the library a couple of years ago, and kept it and kept it; when we finally returned the book, Eleanor asked for it again, so many times that I had to buy it.  The first library copy we picked up happened to be the excellent 40th Anniversary Edition, a hardcover with all kinds of great extras in the back.

The last eight pages of the edition provide a glimpse into the creation of Corduroy: letters between Don Freeman and his editor, Annis Duff; an early manuscript of the book, with Duff's handwritten comments:
sketched drawings side by side with the finished ones:
and copies of Freeman's obituary (he died of a heart attack at 69).  It's a fascinating read for anyone interested in children's books -- comparing Freeman's original text with the final version reinforces just how good you have to be to write a truly excellent children's book -- but it's also a joy for kids.  Why?  Because all the letters are in real envelopes
 They're glued into the book, and they open, and the letters in them can be taken out and unfolded.  Seriously awesome.  It makes you appreciate Freeman's work on a whole new level, and get to play post office with your kids, all at the same time.

Love, Annie

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Mistress Masham

Dear Annie,

Ah, Mistress Masham's Repose.  One of the greats of children's literature.  It was published in 1946, the year of my brother's birth.  I don't know how my parents came upon it, but it was much loved in our household.   Yes, I too can hear my father's voice reading it.

One of Bob's and my magical discoveries when we met was that we both had fathers who had read us Mistress Masham, which we both loved.

It's such a beautifully written book.  Near the start of the story, when Maria has taken a first step toward gaining the confidence of the Lilliputians she has discovered, they solemnly parade themselves and their livestock in front of her (see picture in your post).
They all stood gazing at her with their mouths open, and the mothers held their children tightly by the hand, and the men stood rather in front, in case of emergency.
Nobody knew what to do.
Finally she remembered her instructions.  She called out that she was going to stand up, so they must not be afraid.  When she did stand, there was another "Ooo!"
Maria presents gifts, carefully planned with her friend the Professor.  Silk scarves, razors, needles, nails -- and "a shilling's worth of chocolate creams":
She had gone through a tussle with the Professor about  these.  He, with his giant's obsession about choosing small things for small people, had wanted to buy an old-fashioned sweet which was sometimes used on cakes, called Hundreds and Thousands.  They were tiny pellets of hard sugar, colored pink or white or blue.  Maria had insisted on full-sized chocolates.  Which  would you have preferred, then: a hard piece of sugar about the size of a toffee apple, or a chocolate cream the size of a pram?
Maria  befriends the colony, but cannot resist the allure of their novelty:
The more she adored and wondered at the doings of her six-inch People, the more she wanted to take control of them.  She wanted to play with them, like lead soldiers, and even dreamed of being their queen.  She began to forget what the Professor had said, about not being an owner.
This all  leads to a disastrous accident and Maria must make amends before she can regain the confidence of the People.  The Plot Thickens as the evil vicar and governess plot against Maria and -- when they discover them -- the Lilliputians.  It's exciting: there are chases, a dungeon, acts of courage.  But the real core of the book is about a ten year-old and a group of grown-ups one tenth her size learning to love and respect each other.  It's wonderful.

The language is sophisticated and often difficult for younger kids.  Even for a strong ten year-old reader it can be tough.  It's a pleasure as a read-aloud when a child is ready, though.  We read it with both our girls -- I think we may also have had a false start at a too-young age before savoring it together later on.  And for the map afficianados among us (hello, Ian!) there's a great map of the grounds of Malplaquet, Maria's decaying estate.



Monday, June 20, 2011

Back to the little people

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Portfolios, those gorgeous, time-consuming projects put together by my junior and senior students, are done.  I've still got some grading to do, it's true, but I'm back to something resembling my normal state of exhaustion, and summer is so close I can smell it.

Before we get too far removed from the thread we were pursuing so happily when end-of-semester grading intervened, I want to bring us back to books about little people.  Specifically, one book: a book whose title was so much a part of my childhood that it sounds completely normal to me, until I step back and look at it and realize its oddity.  It is a title which tells you nothing about the contents of the book, which is hard to parse when you first hear it, and which, if you hadn't fallen in love with it at a young age, would probably be hard to remember.  Oddly, the author is T.H. White, who generally knew a thing or two about titles (see The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King).

I'm writing, of course, of Mistress Masham's Repose.  

It was one of my grandfather's (your father's) favorite books, so I have no doubt that you, too, remember him reading passages out loud.  I can remember his excitement about me being ready for him to read it aloud -- I think we may have had a false start or two when I was too young for it -- and his great pleasure in my loving it too.

Mistress Masham's Repose is the story of 10-year-old orphaned Maria (yup, another orphan), an heiress of sorts who lives on her ruined estate under the care of her guardian, the vicar Mr. Hater, and a horribly mean governess, Miss Brown.  Maria lives in general misery save for the friendship of a dotty old professor and a nice cook.  Then, one day, she discovers the city of tiny people living on an island in the corner of the estate, in a run-down temple known as "Mistress Masham's Repose." 

The tiny people turn out to be the descendants of Gulliver's Lilliputians, a community in exile.  Maria tries to befriend them, and there is some comedy in her large bumbling -- I remember particularly a Lilliputian being wrapped up in her handkerchief and very red-faced and angry when he's tumbled out.  They eventually grow to understand and like each other, and Maria and the professor must become the Lilliputians' protectors when Miss Brown and Mr. Hater get wind of their presence, and sense a chance to make money off of them.

I would love to reread this book -- it's been years.  Happily, after being out of print for a while, this is another gem that's been reprinted under the auspices of the New York Review Children's Collection.

Did your kids ever get into this one?

Love, Annie

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Summer approaches!

Dear Annie,

Thank you to Denise for her lovely list of summer books.   Now that she's started, I don't want to stop.  I'll add a few to the list.

Belly Button Book
is a cheerful Sandra Boynton board book for little ones, explaining why hippos go to the beach:

Where Tons of Hippos Stand Around
In Bathing Suits Too Little
Because They Hope You Will Admire
The Button On Their Middle

How Will We Get to the Beach?
by Brigitte Luciani tells the story of Roxanne who has a baby, a ball, a book, an umbrella and a turtle, all of which she wants to take to the beach.  She goes through a series of conveyances -- a bus, a bicycle, a skateboard, a kayak, and a hot-air balloon -- each of which can't fit one thing, and so is rejected.  The reader has to figure out which thing doesn't fit each time.  Eventually a solution appears and all is well.  It's quite delightful, and full of I-spy and counting elements.

And the wonderful Shirley Hughes, about whom we've written more than once, does a lovely series of summer stories in 
The Big Alfie Out of Doors Storybook

It has four stories about being in the outdoors: playing in the back yard, camping out near the house (with a local farm pig wanting to join in), trying to get a lost sheep home, and the best of the bunch: a beach story called "Bonting."

Alfie creates a pet rock from a stone he finds.  His mother gamely makes Bonting a wardrobe, including a bathing suit.  So when the family goes to the beach, Bonting comes along.  The day at the beach is lovingly described, and when it's time to go home, Bonting is nowhere to be found.  All ends happily.  Parents: read at your own risk: just a couple of weeks ago, a customer told me about her own child's Bonting, whose clothing was a challenge to create.  It brought back memories of splicing together fashion for my own children's rocks.

We avoided taking them to the beach, though.



Saturday, June 18, 2011

Guest blog: Picture Books that Capture the Essence of Summer

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We are so thrilled to welcome Natasha as part of the family!  In our extended cousin mix, Eleanor and Isabel have been the only representatives of their generation, and it's thrilling to see the ranks expand.
I'm very close to the end of portfolio grading, and will return as my full self next week.  Until then, here is my friend Denise, middle-school teacher and mom of Eleanor's friend Jazzy, who has guest-blogged before, on books for summer:

Some signs of summer that stand out to me are:
  • the scent of linden trees on most Brooklyn sidewalks and throughout Prospect Park
  • red, bright pink, yellow roses in peak abundance
  • the elusive mosquito escaping a determined palm then leaving itchy marks on limbs
  • sprinklers, water balloons, sandals
  • free park concerts - I especially enjoyed the ones at Pier 1 Brooklyn Bridge Park
  • the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island tomorrow that will re-awaken the sea creatures within my daughter Jazzy and me
  • reading books to my kids that capture the essence of summer

Mermaids on Parade
by Melanie Hope Greenberg: a picture book from the point of view of a girl who participates in the mermaid parade as the Shy Mermaid Coming Out of Her Shell. I love the colorful artwork that captures the artistic and creative vibrancy of this event. The girl describes the excitement vividly and simply: “King Neptune and Queen Mermaid lead the parade of gorgeous glistening creatures. The heat rising from the steamy sidewalk makes them seem to sway and shimmer. I can hear ocean waves pounding onto the shore and my heart beats faster.” At the end of the book is a brief history on the parade and a page on how to make your own mermaid tail. While not the most creative narrative, the book is fun to read in preparation for the parade.

by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward based on the lyrics to the song by George and Ira Gershwin. The paintings by Mike Wimmer capture bucolic scenes of children playing in the countryside, a nice contrast to the cityscapes we are so accustomed to. Listening to a version of the song (I like Billie Holiday singing it) combined with reading the book is a good way to introduce a great American standard into a child’s musical vernacular. 

Mama, Is It Summer Yet?
by Nikki McClure has simple words and a simple narrative; a child is repeatedly asking his mother if it is summer yet and the mother explains different aspects of nature that show that it is spring and that summer is imminent. For instance, the first response the child’s inquiry is, “Not yet, my little one. But the buds are swelling. Soon new leaves will unfold.” Another response: “Not yet, my little one. But the swallows are singing. Soon warmer winds will blow.” Of course in the end, summer arrives and the landscape changes. What I love best about this book and others by McClure is her distinct style of illustrations that she creates by using an X-Acto knife on black paper.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt
by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury is a precious book about a family going on an adventure to hunt a bear. There is a repeated chorus: we’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one, what a beautiful day, we’re not scared. Then they cross several obstacles until they finally meet the bear in gloomy, dark cave. This is a book that we recite when go hiking and/or camping or even when we’re just walking to daycare in the morning. It’s a book that really makes you value the great outdoors.

by Suzy Lee makes me so excited to go to the beach (even if it’s just the beach at Coney Island tomorrow which will be crowded with people in costumes and other large groups of people). Lee is one of my favorite children’s book illustrators/writers. This one is wordless and follows a girl and her interaction with waves. As my daughter looks at the illustrations, I ask her questions to aid her in narrating her own story.

Other beach books we’ve borrowed from the library and enjoyed are:

Bats at the Library by Brian Lies
Ladybug Girl at the Beach by Jacky Davis and David Soman


I'm feeling it.  Bring on summer!

Love, Annie  

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New reader in the family

Dear Annie,

What a pleasure to have my sister doing a guest appearance!  Thank you Judy -- and Lorenz Graham was such a great choice.

Our extended family is celebrating the birth two days ago of Natasha, a new cousin.  Her parents were Amazing Wedding #3 last summer, the last of the magical family gatherings of 2010.  I'm lining up some of my favorite good-for-infants books to give her when we all meet in Maine in August.

Natasha is my first cousin twice removed, your second cousin once removed, and Eleanor and Isabel's third cousin.  That sounds so distant -- yet we're all so close. 

In honor of Natasha's arrival, I wanted to mention a grown-up book I recently received from someone whose infant daughter I babysat when I was in college. 
Morning Song: Poems for New Parents
was edited by Susan Todd, the mother of the now 40-something former baby, and Carol Purington.

Whenever someone I love has a baby, I think back to those first stunned, happy and intense weeks of parenthood.  All of a sudden, the world is divided into people who have children and those who do not.   Bob and I both felt we had become members of a not-so-secret society, all sharing this amazing reality.  The strength of that society's bonds was something we knew nothing about -- we had barely even known it existed.  Look! this person whom I've known for years is a parent.  She's been through the sea-change of becoming one, and I never realized it.  Morning Song is a welcome to the club.  Shakespeare, Yeats, Levertov, Atwood, Hughes (both Langston and Ted), Sappho, Billy Collins, Patti Smith, and many more are all here.  The poems all fit into sections, starting with love, conception, pregnancy and birth, then going through childhood and life.  They're all framed within a book about parenthood, but not every poem overtly addresses the parent/child relationship.  It's a collection to come back to as one's children grow.

Here's a celebratory selection, for Natasha:
Infant Joy

"I have no name: 
I am but two days old."
What shall I call thee?
"I happy am, 
Joy is my name."
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet Joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee!

         -- William Blake
When Susan sent me the book, I sent back a suggestion for volume two -- if she ever does another.  It's a poem by an old friend, Charles Douthat.  "The Hold" is a little closer to my place on the parenting continuum, but those first days with a new baby never leave us.



Monday, June 13, 2011

Guest blog: The poetic language of Lorenz Graham

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our guest blogger tonight is none other than my mom, your sister, Judy.  This is a true family affair!  Here she is, on a book I remember with great fondness from my childhood.

Dear Debbie,

One of my very favorite children’s books is Every Man Heart Lay Down by Lorenz Graham, with lovely illustrations by Colleen Browning.  It’s a retelling of the birth of Jesus in, as Graham says, “the idiom of the West African native.”

Lorenz Graham was born in New Orleans, the son of a Methodist minister.  As a young man, he worked as a teacher in a mission school in Liberia for five years and was amazed at the power and beauty of the English dialects he found there, and at the way the Bible stories had been made new again by being retold and reimagined.   He absorbed the music and rhythm of the speech that enveloped him, and these story poems are the result.

Our dear friend Sally, who had a knack for spotting marvelous language, gave us “Every Man Heart Lay Down” when Annie was little.  It is the kind of book that cries out to be read aloud, and challenges you to do it without choking up: 

Long time past
Before you papa live
Before him papa live
Before him pa’s papa live—

Long time past
Before them big tree live
Before them big tree’s papa live —
That time God live.

And God look on the world
What He done make
And Him heart no lay down.

The plot is the prequel to the story of the birth of Jesus you may be familiar with.  In this book (spoiler alert), God is about to destroy the world, he is so angry about the way things are going, when a small boy begs him,

“Don’t break the world
What You done make.
Don’t lose the people
What You done care for.
I beg you
Make it I go
I talk to people
I walk with people
Bye-m-bye they savvy the way.”

And the pican go down softly softly
And hold God’s foot.
So God look on Him small boy
And Him heart be soft again

Once you start quoting this book, it is practically impossible to stop, the writing is so lovely. 

Graham is also the author of other Bible stories told in the same vein. 
How God Fix Jonah
is the name of his collection, originally published in 1946, which came out in a new edition in 2000, illustrated by Ashley Bryan.  It includes “Every Man Heart Lay Down,” as well as “David He No Fear,” which also was published alone in an edition with pictures by Ann Grifalconi.

Just one more quote.  I can’t resist.  Here is the passage where David walks up to Goliath:

The giant say
“Ho! Small boy done come to say how-do.”
David say
“I come for fight!”
Giant say
“Do you mommy know you out?”
David say
“Now I kill you!”
Giant say
“Go from my face less I eat you!”

Graham is also the author of “Tales of Momolu,” stories about the life of an African boy, as well as the Town book series of contemporary African American life.   I am not familiar with these books yet.   Do you know them, Deb?


And love from me too,

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Where's the bathroom?

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad Fabienne has talked about the Scheffler/Donaldson books.  She has also solved a little mystery at the store.  I sometimes get direct imports from England through one particular distributor (this is how I keep all the Shirley Hughes Alfie books in stock).  Recently, I've had a little four-page vinyl bath book called Katie the Kitten.  It struck me as odd that Scheffler would be illustrating a bath book -- but now I know it's a pared-down version of one of the books Fabienne is talking about.  It all fits!

Holly's guest post on maps got me thinking about visuals and history, and I wanted to talk about
A Street Through Time
by Anne Millard, illustrated by Steve Noon, a golden oldie at the store.  It's a magical book that can engage a five year-old or a 12 year-old -- or a grown-up.  It's a series of annotated illustrations of the same fictional bend in a river,  somewhere in the British Isles, starting with 10,000 BC and progressing on up to the present.

Here's the first

Small descriptions march around the edges, and objects within the picture are labeled.  I don't know if it's possible to enlarge this picture enough to see him, but below the highest tree to the right of center, a time traveler with a telescope is looking at the scene.  He's in every picture -- a Waldo to search for.  The early pictures show the growth of the agricultural community, the explosion of architecture in Roman times, and Roman ruins flanking later agricultural settlement.  Then multi-story buildings make a comeback:

and then:

Part of the effectiveness of this book is that the point of view is always the same, so the comparison among the pictures is clear.  This author/illustrator pair did three other books, focusing on a port, cities, and farms.  But none of the others kept the static viewpoint, and they're not nearly as effective.

A history-obsessed child can enjoy this.  Someone who's just learning to read can get a lot out of it.  A very visual kid who's not so enthusiastic about lots of words can still learn a lot.  It's fascinating.

After I'd been selling this book for several years, one young customer who loved it told me a new fact I hadn't known: every illustration has a historically accurate bathroom somewhere within it -- usually in use.  You just have to search for it.



Friday, June 10, 2011

Guest blog: Dynamite Duo

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Holly's post made me realize the same thing -- how can we have gone for so long only mentioning My Father's Dragon?  It's been a favorite with Eleanor as well, so quirky and at the same time serious about Elmer's adventures.

I'm still deep in grading mode, so here's our next guest blogger: my wonderful cousin-in-law, Fabienne.  Fabienne lives in London (she grew up in England and France) with her husband (Jeff's awesome cousin Jason) and their lovely 18 month old son Sebastien.  Seb is clearly gearing up to be quite a reader as well.  Here's Fabs:

I love a good bargain. Who doesn’t? So when I popped into a local discount book shop and saw a cute looking pocket library for £2, I couldn’t resist. It was only when I got home that I realised I’d bought a set of books by the illustrator of one of Sebastien’s favourites - Axel Scheffler. The set  is comprised of four books: Freddy the Frog, Pip the Puppy, Lizzy the Lamb and Katie the Kitten. Perfect for little hands, I must have read through these short, funny, rhyming stories hundreds of times. Sebastien never tired of them! 

I think Freddy the Frog is my favourite...

“He leaps and jumps and has a good time,
squelching about in the muddy, green slime.”

But until these little gems came on the scene, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and the same Axel Scheffler ruled the roost. Jason and I enjoy this book as much as Seb, fine tuning the different voices with each read. Why is it the fox always get a posh English accent?!
“Where are you going to little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.”

But this great writing/illustrating partnership has much more to offer than the famous Gruffalo.

Lesser known but as wonderful is The Snail and the Whale. An unlikely and charming tail of a sea snail wanting to see the world, and ends up hitching a lift on the tail of a whale, only to  save the life of his mighty ride when he gets beached in a bay.
“The sea snail slithered all over the rock, and gazed at the sea and the ships in the dock, and as she gazed she sniffed and sighed. “The sea is deep and the world is wide! How I long to sail!” Said the tiny snail.”

Julia Donaldson's writing is full of great melodic rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia running through quirky and charming stories usually about brains versus brawn. Axel Scheffler's illustrations are colourful and detailed - there's always more to find in the picture than what first jumps out at you. In fact it seems that whatever this dynamite duo touches, turns to gold!

Sebastien is now also the proud owner of several other books born of the same collaboration: The Gruffalo's Child, Room on the Broom, Monkey Puzzle, A Squash and a Squeeze, The Smartest Giant in Town, Fox's Socks and Hide-and-Seek Pig.

You might find it odd that we have so many books by the same author/illustrator, but Seb loves both the style of writing and illustration - and as he grows and learns there is always something else for him to find and enjoy in them, and we as parents never tire from them either, despite having to read and re-read them a multitude of times a day. Why not pick one up and see for yourself!


We have, and are fans as well.

Love, Annie 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Father's Dragon: one of the greats

Dear Annie,

I realized, with Holly's lovely post on map books, that we haven't sung the praises of the My Father's Dragon trilogy enough.  They were our family's introduction to chapter books, and they're classics in that category.

Published in 1948, My Father's Dragon tells the story of a boy -- referred to throughout the book as "my father" -- who goes to a magic island to rescue a baby dragon who's being held prisoner there.  The boy packs his backpack with a variety of objects: rubber bands, lollipops, boots, a comb, brush and ribbons, chewing gum, an so on.  When he gets to the island he meets a succession of animals (each in a separate chapter) who want to stop him.  Despite the many threats aimed his way, the boy always reaches into the backpack and pulls out something with which to outsmart his opponents.
My father looked at those seven hungry tigers, and then he had an idea.  He quickly opened his knapsack and took out the chewing gum.  The cat had told him that tigers were especially fond of chewing gum, which was very scarce on the island.  So he threw them each a piece but they only growled, "As fond as we are of chewing gum, we're sure we'd like you even better!" and they moved so close that he could feel them breathing on his face.
"But this is very special chewing gum," said my father.  "If you keep on chewing it long enough it will turn green, and then if you plant it, it will grow more chewing gum, and the sooner you start chewing the sooner you'll have more."
The tigers said, "Why, you don't say!  Isn't that fine!"
The boy sneaks past them as they watch each other's mouths for the color change.  This goes on through a lion, a rhino, crocodiles and more -- all disarmed by a different object in the pack.  The book ends with the boy and dragon flying away together.  In Elmer and the Dragon, we learn the boy's name. On the way back to Elmer's home, they are blown off-course and end up on Canary Island where various adventures ensue -- including digging for buried treasure.  Elmer and the dragon become fast friends.

The middle one is the weakest of the three, but as with many sequels, it's a pleasure to be spending time with beloved characters. The third, The Dragons of Blueland, expands to some wonderful new ones.  The dragon had left for his own home, but returns when he discovers his sizable family has been captured by bad guys who plan to sell them to zoos.  So Elmer goes off again to rescue the family.  In this book, we learn the dragon's name, and those of all his siblings.  Lizzie's beloved stuffed bear was re-christened when we read the list below.  Since about 1993, her bear (currently in summer storage at college) has been named Eustacia.  Here's the crowd:
The books focus on the resourcefulness of Elmer acting without benefit of parents.  He has adventures and is brave and smart.  And he and the dragon have a lovely friendship based on helping each other.  A wonderful way to launch one's lifetime of novel reading.



Monday, June 6, 2011

Guest blog: Map books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I have so much more to say on the little-people/dollhouse thread.  Here's my promise that I will go right back to it as soon as I get through my end-of-semester portfolios.

In the meantime, here's Holly, mother of Eleanor's good friend Ian, on one of their current preoccupations:

The other day in a local cafe Ian came across a Disney-fied Winnie the Pooh and immediately turned to me with the map asking where the Six Pine Trees were. Nowhere to be found.

We are always on the look out for books with maps. They tend to be adventure books, questing books, which is right on target for what Ian wants and what I’m happy to read to him. They make me think of Tolkien -- the first time I can remember really following characters along a journey by map, as if I were travelling along with them in a whole different world.

Ian’s first and favorite map books were My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland (collected in one volume as Three Tales of My Father's Dragon), by Ruth Stiles Gannett. The maps are very personal: “my father doesn’t know what’s on this side of the island,” “clump of tall grass where my father slept and left more tangerine peels.” It makes you want to make a map of your own life and explorations. Ian loved to follow the story as Elmer journeyed through Wild Island from animal to animal, wondering where he would go next. 

I couldn’t resist buying Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air, by Stewart Ross, illustrated by Stephen Biesty. It’s a terrific book with pull out maps and descriptions of the journeys of explorers like Marco Polo, Cook, Livingstone, Zheng He, Hillary, and even, yes, Buzz, Michael and Neil’s journey to the moon. It’s still on a high shelf waiting for the right moment, but I’ve been enjoying it myself.

Something for us to look forward to, too!  Thank you, Holly.

Love, Annie

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Large Dolls and Little People

Dear Annie,

This thread goes deep.

I realized after posting last time that I should have mentioned
The Racketty Packetty House
, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose praises we'd been singing.  It's another class-warfare-among-dolls tale.  The Racketty Packetty House has been around in a girl's family since the time of Queen Victoria's childhood, and it's old and shabby, but the dolls are oh so jolly and optimistic.  The current (1908 or so) girl receives Tidy Castle, inhabited by aristocratic and supercilious dolls, and plans are made to burn Racketty Packetty House.  Fairies, true love and a real princess intervene and all ends oh so jolly.  It's been beautifully re-illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. 

Our household never bonded with The Littles, probably because we had spent so much time immersed in
The Borrowers
, by Mary Norton.  They are also small people (tail-less) who, in the first book, are discovered under the floorboards by an unhappy boy who is living with an elderly relative.  Pod, Homily and Arrietty Clock (named for the furniture closest to their secret home) carry on the tradition of their tribe, "borrowing" from the humans they live near.  This, of course, is the explanation for the disappearance of small items -- safety pins, earrings, stamps, thread, etc. -- from all our homes.  Daughter Arrietty accidentally reveals herself to the boy, resulting in a friendship and more danger for all the Borrowers.  They eventually have to flee the house, and find other Borrower colonies and other adventures in The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft and The Borrowers Avenged.  After the first reading, Mona never let us read aloud the first chapter of the first book.  It's the set-up chapter, narrated by an elderly woman explaining how her brother as a boy had his adventures with the little people.  It's a slog, necessary the first time, but definitely skippable after that.

Bob and I have just had a delightful dinner conversation remembering The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh, which we haven't read for at least ten years, but who remain with us.  They're a family of life-size rag dolls, mysteriously brought to life ("born knowing" how to be people) after the death of the elderly lady who sewed them.  They live in her house, paying rent to her heirs, selling crafts and written articles to make a living, but never coming in contact with humans.  Like the characters in many of the books we've been discussing, they have wonderful names: Sir Magnus and Tulip the grandparents, Joshua and Vinetta, the parents, teenagers Soobie (he's made of blue cloth, and descends into bouts of depression from time to time) and the rebellious Appleby (female), younger twins Poopie and Wimpey, and the baby Googles.  There's even Miss Quigley, a "neighbor" who lives in the hall closet and sneaks outside to ring the bell and come visit for tea.  Their lives are full of paranoia -- will they be discovered? -- and pretending.  They're cloth dolls, but they pretend to cook, eat and sleep.  They do not age, stuck forever in the age that was sewn into them. It's wacky and full of feeling.  And quite well written.  The first of the five Mennyms books was published in 1993, but they are all, alas, out of print. Worth digging up, however.  I'd say ages 7 or 8 and up.

We'll all miss you as you immerse yourself in portfolios, Annie.  But after our last round of guest blogging, I'm looking forward to what your pals have to say this time. 



Friday, June 3, 2011

Dolls and other little people

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Waves of nostalgia!  I remember loving Tottie Plantagenet (not least for her extraordinary name), and am so glad you reminded me of The Doll's House.  The subject of dolls made me think of a book I remember from second grade -- I don't think it was one I ever owned, but I retained some vivid images of Japanese dolls and the name Plum.

A bit of online searching, and it turns out to be another book by Rumer Godden, the unfortunately now out of print Little Plum.  It's apparently the sequel to Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, which tells the story of eight-year-old Nona Fell (like Sara Crewe, a recent transplant from India to England), trying to fit into the family of her aunt, uncle, and cousins, and to handle her loneliness and outsider status.  Nona (proper) and her cousin Belinda (tomboyish) receive two Japanese dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.  Over the course of the book (and due partly to the machinations of the two dolls, who can speak to each other, though not to the girls), they become friends, and build and furnish an appropriate Japanese-style dollhouse for them.  A third doll, Baby Peach, joins them.  While I don't remember reading this book at all, online reviews wax poetic about the glories of the actual plans for dollhouse and furniture that Godden included in the book.  Evidently, you can really build it from these plans.

Little Plum, the sequel, involves a rich family moving next door to the Fells' house.  The rich girl has a Japanese doll as well (that would be Little Plum), but doesn't take good care of her.  It's another story of girl friendship growing despite initial animosity, and the dolls have their own friendship and communication beneath the girls' notice.  That's part of what I remember about the books, that and a climactic scene involving a doll falling out of a tree.

For a slightly younger age group, there is Beatrix Potter's wonderful The Tale of Two Bad Mice.   Two gloriously named bad mice, Tom Thumb and his wife Hunca Munca, break into the dollhouse populated by two sentient but immobile dolls, and destroy lots of things in their search for food and items to steal.  The fake food on the dolls' table is infuriating.  It is terribly funny, and has a nice little moral at the end, as well as some great illustrations of how Hunca Munca uses some of her stolen booty when she has mouse babies in her hole.

I know it's not quite the same thing, but this thread made me think today for the first time in years about the series The Littles, by John Peterson.  It's a big series, with lots of sequels, and I remember gobbling them like candy in elementary school, where they came super-cheap as part of a Scholastic catalog.  I think I knew at the time that they weren't great books, but oh, they were fun.  The Littles are a family of tiny almost-people (they have mouse-like tails) who live in the walls of the house of the Biggs.  They get into all kinds of adventures, and danger lurks around every corner.  There's something so appealing about the idea of tiny communication, be it doll or person.

In answer to your question about Mona Baby, I'm not sure how Eleanor feels about Isabel co-opting her.  I know that Eleanor still does consider Mona Baby her baby, but she's been very generous about letting Isabel play with her.  We shall see.

I collected final portfolios this week, and so have asked a few friends to help me out again, as several did this winter, by providing guest blogs for a couple of weeks while I am up to my neck in student writing.  Look for Ian's mom Holly's take on books with maps in them on Monday. 

Love, Annie

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dolls past and present

Dear Annie,

I remember that edition of Hitty.   I remember that I read it, but not much else about it.  I carry it at the store, and occasionally a grandma will come in looking for it.  But it's not an old classic lots of people gravitate toward.  (Judy [mother of Annie, sister of me]: do you have any memories of it?)

The old and wonderful book I have that I remember receiving at too late an age is Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin's:

It's old and fragile.  The copyright page says 1888.  It's the novella that Frances Hodgson Burnett later turned into a play (1902) and then A Little Princess (1905).  I was 12 or 13 when British friends of my parents brought it to me; I felt far too old for such a child's book at the time, although I think I did appreciate the fact that I was being given an antique.  There are just a handful of full-page illustrations.
"She slowly advanced into the parlor, clutching her doll."
I came to appreciate A Little Princess as an adult, reading it with my own kids.

The doll book I remember loving as a child was Rumer Godden's
The Doll's House
, about a group of dolls brought together in an old dollhouse.  They're all from different eras and made of different materials.  The salt-of-the-earth central character -- Tottie Plantaganet -- is an old simple wooden doll.  The evil manipulative character, named Marchpane, is a beautiful china doll. This book taught me the term celluloid doll, which was a kind of brittle early plastic (wikipedia tells me it's still used for ping pong balls).  Birdie, the celluloid doll in the Doll's House, is lovely and sweet and slightly ethereal.   Celluloid is highly flammable, and there's an awful climactic scene in which Birdie sacrifices herself in order to save a child doll from flames.   Your household can probably wait a few years before reading it, but the wonderfully varied characters and the situation stayed with me for a long time.

As long as we're on the subject of books about dolls, I'll throw in a lovely contemporary one:
The Doll People
.  It's by Ann Martin, of Baby-Sitters Club fame, and Laura Godwin.  It's the first of a series of three.  Brian Selznick, the wonderful author and illustrator I was talking about a few posts back, did the many illustrations.  You have your basic 100 year-old dollhouse, inhabited by a family that has played with many generations of the same human family.  Suddenly, the Funcrafts move in next door.  They are (shudder) plastic, which dictates their more energetic, fearless personalities because they're unbreakable.  The adults are skeptical, but of course the daughters from both families become friends and solve a 45 year-old mystery together.  The story is gentle and the pictures are great: it makes a good younger read-aloud.  For several years I had a colleague at the store whose two sons loved this book, and I watched her persuade many families that despite the gender-aversion some boys go through, this is a great book for everyone.  It's full of adventure, and a good way to nudge the no-girls crowd back into a wider range of books.

And a last question for you on the subject of dolls.  Our family has always been fond of Eleanor's first major doll, whom she named after my second-born.  Has Mona Baby been passed to a new generation, or does Eleanor just occasionally let Isabel do stuff with her, as described in your last post?