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.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Princesses with parents

Dear Annie,

 We've kicked around princess-ness a lot on this blog, but I have two new entries to the discussion.

The first Fancy Nancy, by Jane O'Conner, came out five years ago. I resisted it for a while because it seemed so pink-and-girly. Okay, technically it's not a princess book, but it struck me as being full of the same problems: pink, obsession with clothes and  bossiness.  I'm still a bit dismayed at what a franchise Nancy has become: four big hardcovers, several more small hardcovers, and a slew of paperback I-Can-Read books.  But the core of Fancy Nancy is quite likable.  In the first book, she tries to teach her family (parents and younger sister) how to be fancy, which basically involves the  whole family wearing Nancy's dress-ups and going out to a pizza joint, pretending that all is quite elegant.  There's a playfully indulgent air about the parents.  When Nancy drops the dessert tray of ice cream sundaes, "I don't feel fancy anymore.  I want to go home," she says in tears.  They go home, clean up, and eat ice cream at the kitchen table.  In the end, the important thing is the loving goodnight from the parents.  In another Fancy Nancy (Bonjour Butterfly), Nancy is furious because she'll have to miss a friend's fancy party to go to her grandparents' 50th anniversary party.  Despite her tantruming, her parents stand firm and they celebrate with the grandparents: no compromises here.  She  ends up having a delightful time, and all generations are happy.  The moral to these stories tends to be that family is important and fun.

I'm curious if you've run into any of the F.N. books, and what you and Eleanor think of them.

On the regal front, there's a truly lovely book, complete with pink glittery cover:
The Queen of France
, by Tim Wadham.
When Rose woke up that morning, she felt royal.

She opened the box of jewelry.
She put on the necklaces.
She put on the bracelets.

She went to the make-believe basket.
She put on the crown.

The Queen of France went to find Rose’s mother
In her persona as queen, Rose finds each of her parents and asks them if they've seen Rose.  They respond in character, straight-faced. Then Rose takes off her dress-up clothes and goes back to her parents searching for the Queen of France.  This goes back and forth a few times.  My favorite scene, in the kitchen:
"Hello, Rose's mother," said the Queen of France.
"Hello again," said Rose's mother.
"I am shocked to see that you do your own cooking," said the queen.
"Well, here in the village, we have to cook for ourselves."
The queen proposes to Rose's mother that she and Rose trade places, but when she discovers that Rose's mother will miss her "infinity times infinity," the deal is off.  The whole family is happy that Rose hasn't moved to the palace.  In the last page, Rose is getting into dress-ups again: this time it's a dragon costume.

This book has style.  It has subtlely.  It has loving humor.  It has great parents  And a girl who wants to be queen -- sometimes.  I'm quite fond of it.



Friday, July 29, 2011

Lesser-known Agatha Christie

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It's so interesting to see the sort of longitudinal study of a reader's growth that you've been writing about in your last two posts (here and here).  How often do you get a chance to see that kind of progression, save for in yourself and in your children?  It makes me want to ask more questions of my students next year about reading habits and how they've developed.  Maybe something to add to my intro letter assignment....

Looking back on my own development as a reader, I can certainly see Agatha Christie as a stepping stone.  I've always been drawn to mysteries as my guilty pleasure of choice, and Christie occupied a nice long stretch between Nancy Drew (second grade; a habit I am proud to share with at least three Supreme Court Justices) and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Christie wrote 80 crime novels, and that's not counting the hundreds of short stories, plays, and pseudonymous novels as well.  I adored reading her work.  Her plotting is tight and effective, and while there are certainly similarities among books (in how many does the detective gather all the suspects together in a room and then get one to fess up?), there are enough differences in plot and character to keep a reader interested for years.

Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are Christie's most famous detectives.  While I read and enjoyed many (many, many) books involving them, some of my favorite Christie books were less famous ones.

The Man in the Brown Suit
follows accidental detective Anne Beddingfeld, a young woman drawn into intrigue and danger after she sees a man fall to his death before her eyes on the railway tracks at Hyde Park.  Refreshing my memory of the plot to write this tonight, I find I don't remember much of it -- there are diamonds, and a long boat voyage, and kidnapping, and the lingering question of the identity of the title character.  What I do remember is how much I liked Anne, who is spunky and smart.  I took a lot of Christie out of the library, but this is one I owned.

I also loved the Tommy and Tuppence series.  These (initially accidental) detectives fall in love in the first book in which they appear together, The Secret Adversary.  In three later novels (N or M?, By the Pricking Of My Thumbs, and Postern of Fate, the last novel Christie wrote), they grow older together, solving mysteries at different points in their lives, and raising children along the way.  This may be one of the things I liked most about them: the sense that they had an ongoing life.

Tommy and Tuppence also star in Christie's parodic short story collection, Partners in Crime.  In 14 linked stories, the now-married Beresfords take over a detective agency and solve a series of cases.  Each story is written in imitation of the work of another mystery writer; in one, Christie parodies herself.  It's a fun read.

Right now, on the adult side of things, I'm deep into The Count of Monte Cristo, and loving it -- further evidence that my tastes haven't changed all that much?

Love, Annie

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Beyond action and intrigue

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad you mentioned Brat Farrar. I'm quite fond of it.  Our 16 year-old in question had already read it.  He's definitely been wandering into more complex literature, away from the thrillers.  Books he's read recently include:

  • Slam by Nick Hornby, about a 15 year-old father, which appeared on here back in December.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
    , a  funny and moving story of a boy who's the first from his reservation to go to the white kids' school 22 miles away.  It's a diary full of drawings and wonderful writing.  An example of the art:

(Click on illustration to be able to read it.)

  • I've mentioned Godless by Pete Hautman before, but it's so good, I'm doing it again.   It's about a boy from a Catholic family who with his friends invents a religion centered on the local water tower: the Ten-legged God.  Her are the first four stanzas (chapters? verses?) of the religion's text:

In the beginning was the Ocean.  And the Ocean was alone.
And the Ocean did not know where it ended or where it began, and so it created Time.  And the Ocean passed through Time.
Still, the Ocean was alone in Time, and Time was endless, and so the Ocean drew in upon itself and became finite, a writhing ball of water and foam surrounded by nothingness.  And the Ocean Passed through Time and Space.  But the Ocean was still alone.
The Ocean created Land, so that it did not have always to be with itself.  And it cast off fiery bits of itself to light the sky, and it created Wind, and it filled itself with tiny nodes of Energy called Life.  And still it passed through Time and Space, but now it was not so alone.

So why doesn't anyone worship water?

The story of this boy who went from resisting reading to thrillers to much better-written novels with complex realistic characters added a new chapter the other day in the store.  His mother and I discussed many different books, but the one that caught her eye -- and she's been reading his changing taste for some years now -- was The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in the Chaos Walking trilogy about which you and I have both written.  It's extremely well-written science fiction.  It fits in the progression this young man is going through into more complex language and plots, but for him, as for the characters in the book, it's a whole new world.  An excellent reminder that there's so much to discover out there, especially when you're a book-hungry 16 year-old.  I hope they come back to visit again next year.



Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Action and intrigue in the mysteries of Josephine Tey

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You have struck on the one genre of children's/YA books with which I have virtually no experience.  I'm sure that my students read a ton of action/adventure books, but I haven't picked up on any in particular, and it's not an area that I found attractive as a reader myself.

The closest I can come is mysteries.  My mom commented on your last post that your now-16 year old boy reader might like the mysteries of Josephine Tey.  I remember devouring them in high school, though I haven't read them since.  My parents have recently rediscovered them, and are complete converts.

Tey is perhaps most famous for The Daughter of Time, but the book I remember most strongly, and the one which I think might appeal most to reluctant readers, is Brat Farrar.  It's a gripping mystery, with a few indelible characters and images, very much an exploration of deception.  It's England, late-1940s.  Brat Farrar is a 20-year-old British orphan who has become an expert horseman working on an American ranch, but knows little about his own background.  Back in London, a man on the street mistakes Brat for Simon Latchett, the heir to a large estate in southern England.  It turns out that Simon once had a twin brother, Patrick, who disappeared at age 13.  Patrick was 15 minutes older, and would have been the heir...but then he disappeared.  Brat is pressed into posing, somewhat reluctantly, as the missing Patrick to try to inherit the family fortune.

There are horse-related action scenes, murderous plots revealed, appealing and quirky family members, and the discomfort as Brat is romantically attracted to Eleanor, Simon and Patrick's slightly younger sister.  Great drama!  Totally satisfying climax!  It's a really good book.

Come to think of it, there is a ton of action and intrigue in the other mysteries I read obsessively in junior high school: Agatha Christie.  I must have read 50 of her books, easy.  But I'll save her for another day.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Action and intrigue

Dear Annie,

As you know, I get to know customers at the toy and book store fairly frequently.  Then their children progress beyond toy store age, and most of them kind of fade out of the crowd.  So this week when a Scandinavian mom I've always liked popped up, I just figured I hadn't seen her in a year or two because her son is now 15 or 16.  "Hi!," she said, "we're living in Moscow now."

When her son was around 10, she was worried that he wasn't interested in reading.  I can't remember if I introduced him to the action/thriller genre, which at that point I didn't know much about, or if he had already read the
Alex Rider series
by Anthony Horowitz, the Basic Text of middle grade action books.  Her commitment to ferreting out more books that engaged him led me on an interesting odyssey through a genre that I wouldn't have gravitated to naturally.

Alex Rider is a 14 year-old who is recruited into the British spy system after his uncle, an agent, is mysteriously murdered.  All the books (there are nine of them) are full of action and high-tech gadgetry and the kid hero outsmarts everyone.  They've been wildly popular.  There's no magic, which is quite important for some readers of action thrillers.

The first book I found after that was by Andy McNab, which is apparently the pseudonym of a real former British special forces guy.  He's done a series, the first of which is
, about a teenager whose grandfather is a rogue intelligence agent.  High-tech, action, kid smarter than grown-ups.

I don't understand why so many of these books are by Brits, but another series with some staying power is called Danger Zone, by David Gilman.  The first book, Devil's Breath, gets even further into the realm of the preposterous, with three teenagers trying to track down an eco-villain in Namibia who has kidnapped the main character's father.

And there's the CHERUB series, by Robert Muchamore (British) which I haven't read but have the impression may be better than most.  CHERUB (Charles Henderson Espionage Research Unit B) is, in these books, a unit of the British secret service which recruits kids younger than 17 to be special agents.  In the first book the main character is an 11 year-old budding juvenile delinquent.  

I wonder if you run into this genre much with your high school students.  They're so all-action-all-the-time, and many of them with a depressingly simplistic view of world politics.  Yet I became sort of fond of them because they kept this one kid reading enthusiastically.

What made all this research so interesting was the intense conversations I'd have with the reader's mother.  She cared so deeply about finding books that would engage him, even though she herself had no interest in the genre.  He rarely came to talk about books himself, but was clearly open to what she brought home.

He's still reading thrillers now, although the ones I talked about with her this week were mostly titles he already knew.  He's expanded his taste in literature, and has recently been reading novels with more reality-based protagonists -- many of them much more interesting and better-written books than the spy ones.  He and his mom have been feeling frustrated again with what can they find for him to read in Moscow.  So when she made plans to come visit friends in Washington, he said to her, "Go back and talk to that toy store lady -- she'll have something for me."

Next time, I'll explore his current taste.



Friday, July 22, 2011

archy and mehitabel

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love the image of Grandma reading to you, Uncle Allan, and my mom every night over dinner.  I wish I'd had the chance to know her as an adult, and that Lizzie and Mona had been able to meet her.  What an amazing woman she was.

It's interesting to hear that archy and mehitabel were part of Grandma Helen's legacy to you.  They came to me as a gift from my parents' dear friend Sally, another brilliant, articulate woman who helped shape my early life. (The picture here is of the edition I have on my shelf, well-loved and ragged.) Sally died of cancer two months after Grandma did, the year I turned 14.

What is so amazing about archy and mehitabel?  His plain-spokenness; her tremendous attitude and appetite for life.  The image of archy, a poet whose soul has transmigrated into the body of a cockroach, being thrilled that Don Marquis left a sheet of blank paper in his typewriter that first night, and working so hard to jump up and hit his head on every typewriter key individually to spell out his thoughts.  There are a few poems where he asks Marquis to leave the caps lock on, and his extreme joy in being able to write in capital letters for once leaps off the page.  

I memorized and recited "the song of mehitabel" for a forensics class during my sophomore year of high school (not sure what my classmates made of it, but wotthehell, wotthehell).  But my favorite archy poem will always be this one, which brings to mind both Sally and Grandma:

takes talent

there are two
of human
beings in the world
so my observation
has told me
namely and to wit
as follows
those who
even though they
were to reveal
the secret of the universe
to you would fail
to impress you
with any sense
of the importance
of the news
and secondly
those who could
communicate to you
that they had
just purchased
ten cents worth
of paper napkins
and make you
thrill and vibrate
with the intelligence

So true.

Love, Annie 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Grandma: a reading recollection

Dear Annie,

This past Monday was your grandma's 90th birthday, and although she's no longer with us, I've been thinking about her and how much she read to us.  My memories of my father reading out loud have to do with bedtime, but with Mom, the reading was all in the kitchen.

Our father commuted to The City (in those days I believed there was only one), and always came home  on a train that arrived at 7:12 pm -- a time considered too late for our dinner.  So the three of us ate earlier, and Mom, sitting on the other side of the kitchen counter, read to us.  Your mother (my sister) remembers being told that reading was a way to keep us from fighting.  I just thought of it as What Happened at Kids' Dinner.

My most vivid single image from all those years was of Grandma taking off her glasses and wiping away her tears over the death of
. That may have been the first time I saw my mother cry.  She read us Stuart Little, too.

She had to find books that would appeal to children across a range of six years.  I was eleven when your mom went off to college, so we're talking about keeping the interest of kids ranging from maybe six to twelve on up to eleven to seventeen.

There was a lot of ThurberOgden Nash: I don't know if it was specifically child-oriented poetry, or just a collection of all his poems.

One of the striking things about the list that Judy, Al and I have put together over the past few days is the large percentage of books written for adults, many of them written from the 1920s to 1940s, often by people affiliated with the New Yorker or the New York literary establishment.

After fifty years, one of the first titles both my siblings remembered was
The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N
by Leo Rosten (under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross).  Hyman Kaplan is an eastern European immigrant in what we would now call an ESL class who mangles English syntax and meaning constantly while maintaining his lovely and frustrating personality.  While trying to define vast, used to describe America's deserts, Kaplan says, "Ven I'm buyink a suit clothes, I'm gattink de cawt, de pents, an' de vast!"   "Mom read his accent perfectly," says your mother.

There was a Fireside Collection of American Humor, which gave us Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.  Link is to full text, as is this one to one of our other  favorite short stories, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The latter is not in the humor category, but a wonderful story of the world's richest family, which lives on top of a mountain-sized diamond in Montana.  I remember loving The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat: a memoir of his Canadian childhood with a dog of pronounced personality.

archy and mehitabel
, which you introduced to my Lizzie, was a favorite in our kitchen. It started as a newspaper column by Don Marquis, who said he found the writing of a cockroach with a human soul in his typewriter every morning. Archy jumped on each typewriter key and couldn't manage the shift for capitals, so it was all lower case. Mehitabel the alley cat was a friend of archy's; she claimed to have been Cleopatra in an earlier life. This site is a great introduction to archy and mehitabel. Here is part of her Song of Mehitabel: imagine Grandma reading it:

i once was an innocent kit
wotthehell wotthehell
with a ribbon my neck to fit
and bells tied onto it
o wotthehell wotthehell
but a maltese cat came by
with a come hither look in his eye
and a song that soared to the sky
and wotthehell wotthehell
and i followed adown the street
the pad of his rhythmical feet
o permit me again to repeat
wotthehell wotthehell

my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
wotthehell wotthehell
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai
So much of what she read us had real style, good writing, and a certain esprit.  My ten year-old self enjoyed archy and mehitabel without understanding a lot of it, but it was a wonderful thing to be immersed in.  There's family lore about Grandma's father (your great-grandfather) holding your infant mother on his lap, reading her the phone book in warm and loving tones.  He undoubtedly read many things beyond phone books (did they exist in the '20s?) with his own daughter when she was little too.  Generations of our family have instilled the love of  reading from a very early age.

We're all grateful to all of them.

Happy Birthday, Mom.



Monday, July 18, 2011

Our favorite songbook

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Books like Good Night, Gorilla, Ten Minutes Till Bedtime or Chickens to the Rescue, with their illustrations which reward close examination, are great vacation companions.  There is something to be said for a book which can take a pleasantly long time to read.

On that note, one of the other greatest hits we’ve brought along with us is a songbook.  Getting to Know You!: Rogers and Hammerstein Favorites is a most excellent compendium of songs from, you guessed it, Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, illustrated by Rosemary Wells.  (As you can see from the Alibris link, it's out of print, but findable.)  The songs come from four shows: Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel, and The King and I.  The book came from my cousin (your niece) Ona, who knows how much we love 1950s musicals.  Rogers and Hammerstein have always been particular favorites for me; they were my lullabies as a child, and I’ve sung them to Eleanor and Isabel since the day they were born, as my father sang them to me.  My mother can boast that she attended the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! in utero; I’m sure it had an effect.

In much the way that she imbued several volumes of Mother Goose rhymes with her own joyful, quirky animal spirit, Wells does a terrific job here.  “The Farmer and the Cowman” who should be friends are dancing, dressed-up buffalo; “Happy Talk” is a romance on a tropical island between two furry guinea pigs; “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” boasts dancing clams as a border around a picture of some very satisfied looking dogs.

The lyrics as represented on the pages of the book are often incomplete – there isn’t room for all three verses of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” – but a small songbook is tucked into a pocket in the back cover.  Here, you’ll find the sheet music and complete lyrics to all the songs included in the volume.  It’s a nice way to brush up on your recollection of the tune to the bridge of “Mister Snow.”  Or, of course, you can just read the lyrics aloud, as poetry:

His name is Mister Snow
And an upstanding man is he
He comes home every night in his round-bottomed boat
With a net full of herring from the sea.

An almost-perfect beau
As refined as a girl could wish
But he spends so much time in his round-bottomed boat
That he can’t seem to lose the smell of fish.

The first time he kissed me, a whiff of his clothes
Knocked me flat on the floor of the room.
But now that I love him, my heart’s in my nose
And fish is my favorite perfume! 

Both Eleanor and Isabel are in love with this book.  Isabel calls it “Happy Talk book,” and her requests for it, at top volume, are the reason the hardcover made it into our traveling bag.  It's worth the weight.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On the Road

Dear Annie,

I think you just have to forget about packing lighter when you have small children.  Not possible.

When we spent our one month a year in Maine when the girls were little, we'd mail a couple of boxes of books and toys to ourselves in Maine before we left D.C.  That said, local libraries are a real asset.  When you guys come to Maine in August, we'll introduce you to both the Brownfield Library, which was much smaller when our girls were little, and the Fryeburg Library which introduced us to, among other things, Webster and Arnold.

I spend a fair amount of time at this time of year recommending books for people to take with them on trips.  One of my big favorites for people closer to Isabel's age, but Eleanor would still enjoy it, is
10 Minutes till Bedtime
. I remember when your mother (my sister) discovered it -- possibly before Eleanor was born -- so I suspect you're quite familiar with it.   It's by Peggy Rathmann, who wrote the wonderful wordless Good Night Gorilla.  The basic plot of this one is so wackily wonderful: a boy's father tells him he has ten minutes till bedtime, and his pet hamster organizes a tour group of hamsters (ten of them wearing numbered shirts) to watch the process.  Suspense grows as one wonders if the boy will be ready by deadline, and if the hamsters will be gone by the time dad shows up for the good night kiss.  Each turn of the page brings the reader a minute closer, and the pictures become increasingly chaotic.  For fans of Good Night Gorilla, there are many references to that book, including the gorilla and her banana.  It's an I-Spy book for toddlers: there's lots to look for.  And once one is reading numbers, one can identify behavior of different hamsters: #10 is always talking, #9 is always the highest on the page.  One can hand it to a child strapped into a car seat, and she can get absorbed for a while.

Less inspired, but useful for toddlers, are small lift-the-flaps.  My favorite in this category is
Open the Barn Door
.  It's little and easy to put in a parental pocket or purse.  There's one flap per page, each hiding a different farm animal, but it maintains interest.

Moving on to Eleanor, you've got the advantage of chapter books: less bulk, more time-consuming.  And as your pile of books attests, paperback picture books don't take up too much space.   About a half dozen of Robert Munsch's books (best known for Paper Bag Princess: we've written about him here and here) have been issued in tiny paperbacks: about three and a half inches square, but readable, with full text.  Another put-in-parent's-pocket size.

Enjoy your vacation, and I look forward to seeing you soon.



Friday, July 15, 2011

Vacation reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We are happily ensconced in the North Woods of Wisconsin, where we go on summer vacation with Jeff’s parents for a week each summer.  This time, we’re taking a few extra days in the Midwest on the back end, which means that when it came time to pack a few days ago, I was packing for two weeks.  Clothes – no problem.  A little bit of something for every kind of weather, and you do laundry once or twice.  Toys can be whittled down: two stuffed animals each, plus a favorite doll and a few small prizes to be stashed away in bags.  But books are another story.

It is hard to pack books for a two-week vacation with kids this age.  Isabel wants her picture books, of course.  There are the board books: sturdy, but dense and heavy, and all very short, so you whiz right through reading them.  Then there are the picture books with regular pages (the ones whose pages Isabel has been tearing up), which are longer and take more time to read, but are also often large and flat.  It’s a complicated calculus: which books will bear quite so many repeated rereadings?  Which books have the best pictures for detail-hunting?  Which books will keep the girls occupied on their own in the back of the car?

It’s a little easier to pack for Eleanor – a couple of good chapter books, along with a very few favorite picture books, will take us through the time.  And then of course there are the art supplies: the sticker books for the plane, the colored pencils, and markers, and pads of paper.  Not to mention the books Jeff and I brought along....

I packed books in my backpack, in the toy/book/snack tote bag I brought on the plane, and a few more in my suitcase for good measure.  Here’s how it adds up:

And the closeup (with credit to Rachel at Even in Australia for the pile-of-books photo idea):
You’ll recognize most of these titles, I’m sure.  Many are books I’ve written about here already, and a few others are favorites I’m sure I’ll be writing about soon. 

Meanwhile, if you or our readers have any advice on how to pack lighter, I’m all ears.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Holes new, holes old

Dear Annie,

I clearly need to bring Isabel
Peek-a Who?
by Nina Laden when we see each other in a few weeks. It's a simple board book with a big hole in every other page.  There's a page with a hole and part of the next page visible. Facing that, the text says, "Peek-a." The thought finishes when the page is turned, an owl is revealed, and WHO! is the punchline.  Then there's Peek-a MOO! (Holstein), BOO! (ghost), ZOO! ( lots of animals), etc.  There's something very satisfying about all those holes that you can grab to turn the page.  I found this lovely series of photos of a four month-old reading it on a family blog from Portland Oregon.

Laden went on to do Ready, Set, GO! (blow, throw, row, etc.) with circular holes.  But for Isabel, it'll be  the animal one.

Somehow all this talk of holes, combined with our reminiscences of books we both read in my parents' house, led me  to look up
The Hole Book
by Peter Newell.  I grew up with my father's copy of it.  It was originally published in 1908, four years before Grandpa was born.  The complete book is here, appropriately on, which also spends a lot of time on Edward Lear,  found in your recent post.

To me as a child The Hole Book was fascinatingly weird.

Tom Potts was fooling with a gun
(Such follies should not be),
When—bang! the pesky thing went off
Most unexpectedly !

Tom didn't know 'twas loaded, and
It scared him 'most to death—
He tumbled flat upont he floor
And fairly gasped for breath.

The bullet smashed a fine French clock
(The clock had just struck three),
Then made a hole clean through the wall,
As you can plainly see.

(Is this familiar to you?  How about my siblings?  Judy and Al -- remember this one?)
The hole in the page is a real one, and it continues through the book, following the bullet's trajectory.  It blows a hole in a boiler, explodes a car's gasoline tank, breaks the rope holding up a swing, smashes a fish tank, and just keeps on going and going.  It eventually meets its match:

Mis' Newlywed had made a cake,
With icings good and stout—
The bullet struck its armour belt,
And meekly flattened out.

100 years after Newell wrote it, some of the ethnic stereotypes are quite heavy-handed.  Not something to snuggle up and read with your four year-old, at least not without taking a good look at it first.  But it has a rollicking nuttiness to it.  Newell also wrote Topsys and Turvys (illustrations start on page 6), an optical illusion book. 



Monday, July 11, 2011

Hole-y books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I remember discovering The Far Side at Grandma and Grandpa's apartment, right next to the Doonesburys.  Total magic, especially once I got old enough to really get the sly humor.  I don't know when or how we all got hooked on Calvin and Hobbes, but I have vivid audio memory of Michael dissolving in fits of giggles as he read them.  Good stuff.

It's interesting to see the ways in which Isabel's reading habits are similar to, and different from, Eleanor's at her age.  Some of the same books are total hits, and some that were Eleanor's favorites leave Isabel cold.  Isabel is far harder on the physical books than Eleanor was (with the exception of our chewed-up Goodnight Moon board book) -- we now have a number of picture books with ripped pages, from Isabel's active page-turning.  Violet the Pilot has had the most egregious damage, i.e. the most love.  Part of this comes from Isabel being left on her own with books more often than Eleanor was: if I'm trying to read a chapter of a longer book to Eleanor, I'll leave Isabel alone flipping pages, rather than rushing over to be part of her reading and to spare the book some wear and tear.  But I think Isabel is also a very tactile reader.  She likes books with flaps to lift and tabs to push and pull.  And she, as Eleanor also did at her age, likes books with holes in them.

You and I, and then you again, have written about Janet and Allan Ahlberg's marvelous Peek-a-boo!  The holes cut into the pages, showing what the baby sees and then enlarging to show the whole scene, are a great size for putting fingers into, and even entire small hands. 

Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar has much smaller holes, holes the size of the caterpillar as he eats his way through ascending amounts of food (mostly fruit, but then a carnival's worth of delicious junk on Saturday, and penance in the form of a "nice green leaf" on Sunday).  It's such a great book: brightly colored, funny, good for counting, with pages of varying sizes and all those wonderful holes.  I remember Eleanor finding it hysterical when I'd press my finger up against the back of a page to touch her finger on the front of the same page through the hole.  Jeff and I continue to be mildly disturbed by the fact that the wings on Carle's butterfly appear to be upside down:
 Aside from this, however, it's a great little book.

Less known, but no less tactile, is  Lois Ehlert's Fish Eyes: A Book You Can Count On.  It begins:

If I could put on a suit of scales
Add some fins, and one of these tails
I'd close my eyes, and then I'd wish
That I'd turn into a beautiful fish!

The narrator goes on to imagine what she'd see through her fish eyes: ascending numbers of different kinds of fish, all with little punched-out holes for eyes, so that the color on the next page comes through.  Again, much fun with small fingers and flesh-colored fish eyes appearing and disappearing.  There's also an almost-invisible dark little fish at the bottom right of each right-hand page, intimating what the next number will be.

Finally, a classic: Dorothy Kunhardt's Pat the Bunny, first published in 1940.  I remember playing obsessively with our copy as a kid: touching "Daddy's scratchy face" (the patch of Daddy's skin made, literally, of sandpaper), looking into the shiny mirror, and putting my finger through "Mummy's ring" (the hole in the book!).  It's one of the most pleasing tactile books I know of, and also one of the easiest to destroy, with its flimsy plastic ring binding.  But totally worth getting a second copy when that happens.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summer funnies

Dear Annie,

This afternoon, I was poking around our chaotic kids' book shelves that house both rotating sample books and treasured family volumes, looking for a blog topic.  I kept having to push past multiple volumes of Calvin and  Hobbes, Fox Trot, Zits, Doonesbury, and more -- and it finally hit me that I need look no further.

Comic strips, like the ones that generations have read in the paper (although who knows if the current kids will have paper newspapers) are a back door way for some kids to work their way into reading.  And they're so entertaining.  You talked about reading Doonesbury books while grown-ups talked at your grandparents'/my parents' apartment.  Comics are a lovely way to withdraw while keeping an ear open to what's up -- this could be part of why they're so popular to send to kids at camp.

So the most popular comics at the store are:

Calvin and Hobbes: it ran in papers from 1985 to 1995, then Bill Watterson stopped.  Wikipedia says he had issues with cartoon syndicates which wanted him to merchandise the strip more.  In any case, the Calvin and Hobbes books are finite, but new to successive generations.

Fox Trot by Bill Amend stopped its daily run in 2006, but still shows up in Sunday sections.  It's about a family with three kids: a 10 year-old brother who's brilliant and a geek, a 14 year-old sister who's a bit ditzy and feels put-upon by her brothers, and a 16 year-old jock.  The book titles are a lot of fun: Your Momma Thinks Square Roots are Vegetables, My Hot Dog Went Out, Can I Have Another?and How Come I'm Always Luigi?  Here's today's strip (click for bigger):

The older crowd tends to go for another discontinued one: The Far Side by Gary Larson which, like Calvin and Hobbes, ended in 1995.  But its sensibility lives on:
 My girls were always very fond of Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, in which Jeremy for years remained a 15 year-old, but he's recently advanced to 16 and now drives.

And Mona's and my favorite is a newcomer to the funny pages: Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson, with the wonderful Alice, a pre-schooler: 

I have memories of my children lying around on couches, hammocks, lawns flipping through these strips.  Great escape.