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.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane reading: Half Magic

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Eleanor really likes The Magic Schoolbus Inside a Hurricane -- Holly took it out of the library for Ian, and it made for great subway reading on Friday in anticipation of Irene.

However, when it came down to the hurricane day itself, narrative won out.  We spent much of yesterday reading one of your recent gifts, Edward Eager's marvelous Half Magic.  We're close to finished with it (and I've just sneak-read ahead to the end in order to write about it tonight).  It has reduced Eleanor to hysterical giggling several times, and has terrific suspense throughout.  It does require two parents to be home at once, as the chapters are quite long, but Eleanor has been patient with us when Isabel announces, "The End!" and slams it shut.

Half Magic is the story of four siblings who find a magic coin.  Or a half-magic coin: it turns out to grant only half of what you wish for when holding it.  This twist leads to some very funny mistakes.  Martha, the youngest, wishes that their cat could talk.  Then, of course, Carrie the cat can half-talk, though she learns to express herself pretty well:

Carrie was still there, pacing the floor, lashing her tail and muttering a horrid monologue.

"Idlwidl bixbax," she was saying. "Grompaw.  Fooz!  Idjwitz! Oo fitzwanna talkwitz inna fitzplace annahoo?"

She seemed to be trying desperately to express herself.  It was agony to watch and still worse to hear.

Soon enough, the children learn to use the coin more thoughtfully, wishing for exactly twice what they want to have happen, though they still make thoughtless mistakes out of anger.  Jane (the eldest), Mark (the only boy), Katherine (the literary one, who takes them back to King Arthur's time), and Martha (the youngest and most difficult) each get a (long) chapter devoted to their adventures.  At the end of each, they learn something about themselves and about the magic powers they control.  While it's certainly a lesson each time, it doesn't feel heavy-handed, and the children retain their personalities throughout.  Well, Jane loses hers for part of a chapter, but that's another story.

You mentioned to me in Maine that Eager was influenced by E. Nesbit, who he brings up as one of the children's favorite authors early in the book.  (Have we never blogged about her?  Shocking!)  There's certainly a thematic and tonal connection between the two authors.

Eager wrote Half Magic in 1954, and set it "about thirty years ago."  This puts the children in the 1920's, though the only moment in the text where this becomes clear is when they go to see a (silent) movie and Martha is frustrated because she can't read the titles.  At a couple of moments, the 1950's era reveals itself: Mark's adventure involves an Arab described thusly: "The ragged Arab's expression was crafty, and definitely unattractive."  He turns out to be no better than he should be, but ends up rewarded rather than punished -- it's uncomfortable as a read-aloud, but not deadly.

And then there is "the children's mother," a widow who works for the local newspaper and isn't given a name until the last chapter.  She ends up with a most excellent suitor, and turns down the position of City Editor to stay home with the children, which turns out to be her heart's desire.  Of course, that's a feminist question a lot of us are still working through....

Love, Annie

After the hurricane

Dear Annie,

I know some of those September 11 books and will devote a post to them soon.  Right now, we're about to be on the road trying to get home after Hurricane Irene blasted up the I-95 corridor just before we were going to take that route home to DC.  So we're still in New England, not badly blown about, but I thought I'd do a short list of hurricane books.

Time of Wonder, by Robert McCloskey, which we've written about here (look again at those great windy illustrations!) is the first that comes to mind.  The build-up, the drama, the aftermath, complete with downed tree.
, by David Wiesner (whose works we've explored here and here), is another picture book which does the storm, then lingers on the fantasy world of playing in a fallen tree.
And where would a good natural phenomenon be without Ms. Frizzle?
The Magic School Bus Inside a Hurricane
gives the explanation for what's going on in Joanna Cole's usual breezy funny fact-filled style.  The bus starts as a hot-air balloon, then transforms into the airplane on the cover of the book. 

These picture books are about hurricanes which have their scary moments, but are something to get through basically unscathed.  On a much more serious level, for kids about ten and up, Dark Water Rising by Marian Hale is a fictional account of the 1900 Galveston Texas hurricane.  Wikipedia calls it the most deadly natural disaster ever in the U.S.: thousands of people died when Galveston was submerged by a hurricane.  The book follows one 16 year-old boy through a horrifying night as he watches much of the city being swept away. 

A number of books have been written -- from picture books about lost dogs to a magical/fantasy book for teens -- about Katrina, and they keep coming out.  I'm without scanner or my bookshelves right now, so can't explore that route -- but they're out there.

In the meantime, I'm off to pack the car, hit the road, and inspect the damage back home.  Am worried about all those books in the store staying dry...



Friday, August 26, 2011

Talking to kids about difficult issues

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your discussion of Jefferson's Sons raises a question we and our guest bloggers have touched on before (here, here, here, and here, among other places): when and how do we talk to our kids about complex, painful issues, and how do books play a part in those discussions?

This question has come up for me again most recently in relation to September 11th.  HarperCollins is putting out a new edition of with their eyes: September 11th: the view from a high school at ground zero, the play I created with my students after the World Trade Center was attacked four blocks from our school.  (I've written about it in more detail here.)

with their eyes is a YA book, aimed at an audience of high school students and above -- not the kind of thing you'd generally want to share with your 4 year old.  But with the new edition and my revised introduction have come interviews, and opportunities for me to write about the play, and the book has been out on the coffee table,  so at some point I had to explain to Eleanor what it was about.

I told her the story of September 11th very simply: that some very angry, very evil people had flown planes into two tall buildings, and the buildings had fallen down, and lots of people died.  She asked why people had done that, and I said I didn't fully know; that some people believe it's okay to hurt and kill others, but that we know it is never okay.  I told her that my students and I saw some of it, and that we had to leave our school and walk uptown when it happened, and that the play told the stories of lots of different people's experiences.  I reminded her of the tower we've seen going up at the World Trade Center site when we drive up the West Side Highway to visit my parents, and explained that that was where it happened.

Eleanor took the story in stride.  It's funny what upsets her and what doesn't -- she can process stories of great tragedy well, and then something very small will upset her deeply.  I wasn't sure how much of it she'd taken in, but about a week after our conversation, she brought it up matter-of-factly in the bath when I was talking obliquely to my mom about the play: Oh, that's about the people who flew the planes into the buildings and killed all those people.  Her tone was serious -- she knows this is heavy, real stuff even if she doesn't fully comprehend it yet.

with their eyes appeared recently on a Huffington Post list of children's books about September 11th.  I'm not familiar with any of the other titles on the list, though some of them look powerful.  Have you read any of them?  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jefferson's Sons

Dear Annie,

One of the things I've been doing here in Maine is catching up on the new kids' books coming out in the fall.  I sometimes order books without reading them, based on the author, or the subject, or the opinion of a sales rep whom I trust.  Then I try to catch up.  I bring books with me to Maine which I suspect will be good reads -- and I picked up a quite good one this week.

Jefferson's Sons
, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, imagines life at Monticello for Thomas Jefferson's slave family from 1805, when he was still president, to the 1827 slave auction after his death.  Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, who was Jefferson's wife's half-sister, are pretty credibly believed to have had four children who lived to adulthood.  All four eventually became free, and three ended up identifying as white.  The book portrays Hemings, who first became pregnant by Jefferson when she was a teenager, as caring for Jefferson, but also as having made deals with him that her children would be well treated as slaves and freed when they reached 21.  Bradley's Hemings raises her children -- who had seven white great-grandparents -- to expect that they will eventually "pass" as white.  One of the strongest characters in the book is Maddy (short for James Madison), who realizes fairly young that his darker skin won't give him the option his siblings take.

This book is aimed at eight to 12  year-olds. It portrays Jefferson as a distant and flawed man who won't apply his beliefs about equality to the slave population.  The concept of rape is barely in the book -- a passing reference to Sally using her influence to keep her daughter safe.  The most brutal moment is a flogging of an escaped slave, which Sally makes her children watch.  The hardest emotional moments are when Maddy's close friend James is sold away when he's 11 years old. Maddy is furious.

  After a few days Harriet [Maddy's sister] took Maddy aside.  She walked him past the garden and sat him down on an old log on the hill.  "What," she said, "do you think slavery is?"
  Maddy glared at her.  Harriet took no notice.
  "I'll tell you," she said.  "It's not having any say.  Any choice.  Not about you, not about your family, not about anything.  Forget having to work for someone.  Forget not being paid.  It's the say.  The not having any say."
  "I know that," Maddy said.
  "You act like you don't. You act like you're just now discovering what everyone else understood all along."
  Maddy searched for the words to explain.  "I thought Master Jefferson cared about Miss Edith and Joe [James' parents]," he said.  "He liked James for bringing him that bird.  I thought he wouldn't sell people he liked, not if they worked hard."
  Harriet shook her head.  "You thought wrong."
This book is about people who have no say.  It's about injustice, not about violence and brutality.
It's trying to explain the hypocrisy of one of our founding fathers to people younger than Maddy.  I don't know enough about the historical facts, but it may be pretty accurate about the Hemings children's experience.  If this were one's introduction to slavery, it would be too mild.  But as a picture of one family's experience, and a way to view Jefferson, it's a very good read.  The kind of book a teacher, or a parent, or a book group can think over for quite a while.



Monday, August 22, 2011

The Secret Garden

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your post about statues made me think immediately of the Secret Garden statue in Central Park's gorgeous Conservatory Garden.  It's a fine example of a statue which romanticizes its subject almost beyond recognition: yes, there's a boy playing a little flute who could certainly be Dickon, but is that sylph-like creature holding the birdbath really supposed to be sour-faced Mary Lennox?

Here, I think, is a far better depiction of Mary, at least as she first appears in the book.  She's a thoroughly unpleasant heroine at this point, a spoiled little rich girl who grew up in India with parents who didn't care about her at all.  When these parents die (Burnett loves her orphans), Mary is sent to live with her distant, rich uncle in his estate on the English moors.  The fresh air and proximity to growing things make her nicer and healthier (she talks a lot about how happy she is she's getting "fatter"; another way in which the statue gets it wrong).  And of course she discovers secrets: the secret garden of the title, which has been shut and locked since the uncle's young wife's untimely death ten years before; the secrets of the moor, as shown to her by the pure-souled, Yorkshire-voiced Dickon; the secret invalid, Colin, who turns out to be her cousin.

As you saw in Maine, Eleanor and I have recently been reading a gorgeous version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore, whose Wind in the Willows we fell in love with last summer.  Her illustrations are just as good here.  Moore has a feel for the English countryside, and you can tell she's thrilled to be able to capture the specific varieties of plants and flowers Burnett mentions. 
 I'll admit, though, it's Moore's animals that get me.  Sprinkled throughout the pages are mice, squirrels, badgers and other creatures, many mentioned in the text, but some just populating the book as they would a garden.  And sometimes, Moore depicts human actions described in the text via the animals.  Here are two of Dickon's squirrels on the page where Mary examines Colin's back to prove to him that he's not developing a hump:
Burnett depicts imaginative play among children as life-giving, even holy.  In  A Little Princess (which we've also written about here and here) and The Secret Garden, she uses the term "Magic" (her capital letter) to describe Sara Crewe's vivid stories and Mary, Dickon, and Colin's belief in the life-force that makes plants and children grow healthy.  It can feel a little heavy-handed at times, but when you give yourself over to the world of the book, it really is quite beautiful.

Love, Annie

Books in bronze and stone

Dear Annie,

Your discussion of books about pretend play made me think of
, another of those books that I'm surprised we haven't mentioned here.  It's by Alice McLerran, wonderfully illustrated by Barbara Cooney (whom we also haven't mentioned enough).

McLerran writes about a group of children who create a whole city out of rocks, boxes, and various found objects in a vacant lot in Arizona. 

Marion called it Roxaboxen. (She always knew the name of everything.)  There across the road, it looked like any rocky hill -- nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes, cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo -- it was a special place.
 The story pulls you into the magic of creating something from imagination, and  a group of mixed-age kids having fun with each other. It makes children want to get up and build a town.  I knew that the story was based on McLerran's mother's own experience, but it turns out that the vacant lot was a specific place in Yuma, Arizona which has now been turned into a delightful-sounding park.  It has a few benches and some signs and a lot of rocks to play with.  Visitors are encouraged to donate rocks, knowing that they'll be added to the mix of stuff used by kids who play there.

So thinking about parks led me to Grant Park in Portland Oregon, in Ramona Quimby's neighborhood.  We came upon it on our cross-country trip ten years ago, not far from where cousin Kate then lived.  It's a nice comfy city park, with playing fields and trees, and in one corner of it are three statues and some very kid-friendly fountains:
 Ramona Quimby, Ribsy, and Henry Huggins are right there, to be played with and splashed around.  Ramona is wearing her boots and seems to be in the scene where she's a kindergartner stuck in the mud in Ramona the Pest. There's even a map of the neighborhood, marking places where events in the books happened.

Coming upon one's books as a real physical places can be very satisfying. Gives you a new way to think about the book, without eclipsing the images in your mind.



Friday, August 19, 2011

Imaginative play

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What a lovely time we had with you in Maine!  As my mom recently emailed, you have a way of making hosting large groups of family feel effortless.  And the food is so, so good.  I'm still dreaming of blueberry pie.

One of the joys of the week was, of course, having so many relatives and friends reading to Eleanor and Isabel.  It seemed like there were always several books open, and more scattered around the floor, and we've come home with a number of new goodies which I'm sure I'll be writing about in the weeks to come.

The Queen of France, which you wrote about recently, is a total hit.  Reading aloud the story of Rose, who becomes the Queen of France several times throughout the day, and her parents, who gamely play along, was so much fun.  Great to find a pink-y princess-y book it's a pleasure to reread.  And then, of course, you get to do a bad French accent, which you know I love.

At home, we've been reading a lot of Christine Maclean's Even Firefighters Hug Their Moms, which has recently become one of Isabel's favorites.  I've mentioned before that I have mixed feelings about this book, because of the character of the mother, but it's been such a hit in our house that I think it deserves more attention.

The basic plot: a boy and his non-speaking toddler sister play a wide variety of imaginative games, turning household implements, stuffed animals, cardboard boxes, and couch cushions into all kinds of settings.  The boy is a firefighter, an EMT, a train conductor, an astronaut, etc.  In each scene, his little sister is given a smaller role: she's the assistant, or the police dog, or the train passenger.  And in each scene, mom comes in and tries to get the boy to give her a hug.  He pushes her off, and she counters with "Even firefighters (EMTs, helicopter pilots, construction workers) hug their moms."

What I love about the book: The kids are having great imaginative play.  The boy uses a pot lid as a steering wheel, makes construction vehicle gears out of golf clubs and wooden spoons, and repurposes the same four stuffed animals in every scene.  (One of Isabel's great pleasures is identifying these animals on every page: "There's the dog!  There's the pig!  There's the dinosaur!  There's the bear!")  The boy incorporates his little sister into every game; it's clear they play well together.  There's a sense of happy creative mess in the pictures -- no one minds that the "garbage truck driver" dumps a whole pile of toys down the slide and into a box.

But mom is such a wuss.  In a couple of scenes, she starts to play along: she's a train passenger, she's under the couch cushions acting like Mission Control while the boy goes to Mars.  But every single time, she brings it back to the hug.  She comes across as depressingly desperate for physical contact.  Whereas Rose's parents in The Queen of France engage in her imaginative world while they're doing other things (making dinner, mowing the lawn), the Firefighters mom seems to have no purpose in her day other than to beg her kid for a hug.  It makes you hope Dad is coming home soon.

Love, Annie

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Relatives Came!

Dear Annie,

It seems appropriate to get back into blogging gear with a look at time just past:

The Relatives Came
, by the multi-talented Cynthia Rylant (previously mentioned here and here): Eleanor and I read it together several times.  It's a rollicking, over-stuffed version of our family visit here in Maine.  In the book, the relatives in Virginia pack up their "old station wagon that smelled like a real car," and drive all day, until they arrive in dramatic fashion:
Then it was hugging time.  Talk about hugging!  Those relatives just passed us all around their car, pulling us against their wrinkled Virginia clothes, crying sometimes.  They hugged us for hours.
Stephen Gammell's illustrations capture the rumpled chaos and the warmth of two families greeting:
Hours expand to weeks, children get used to "all that new breathing in the house" at night, families eat, do chores, play music, take pictures and hug...

This lovely picture book ends up on several schools' summer reading lists, so I'm always thinking about it this time of year.  But somehow, this year, after your visit, it seems so perfect.  All visits must end, of course, as yours did two days ago.  The relatives pack up the station wagon, strapping too many suitcases to the roof, and leave before dawn.
And the relatives drove on, all day long and into the night, and while they traveled along they looked at the strange houses and different mountains and they thought about their dark purple grapes waiting at home in Virginia.
But they thought about us, too.  Missing them.  And they missed us.
And when they were finally home in Virginia, they crawled into their silent, soft beds and dreamed about the next summer.



Thursday, August 11, 2011

On vacation!

Dear Readers,

We're together in Maine:

Deborah, Lizzie, Eleanor, Annie and Isabel (we miss you, Mona!)
We'll be back on the blog next week.

Happy reading to all,

Annie and Deborah

Monday, August 8, 2011

Traveling, traveling

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In the last few weeks, I've been in a lot of contact with HarperCollins and the students who I worked with to  create "with their eyes: September 11th: the view from a high school at ground zero."  HarperCollins is reissuing the play later this month, with an updated introduction from me, and one of the things they needed to do was to get back in touch with Ethan Moses, who took the amazing photos used in the book (he was a high school senior at the time), to get permission to use the photos in the new e-book.

I tracked Ethan down in Paris, where he's working at the moment, and was rewarded with a long, lovely email from him about our blog.  In part, he writes:

My grandmother was also an NYC public school teacher, and a wonderful reader and teller of stories. She used to tell us (my sister and two cousins and I) stories about Moshey Poshey, who was a little boy who always got into some sort of trouble.  I don't know if they were in part handed down, or just made up on the spot, but they always seemed new and fresh, although he frequently got into trouble somehow while hiding in piles of laundry.  My mother could never tell them the same way, and I don't know if I will ever be able to piece them together properly.  I only have a metric that I must some day live up to in my storytelling career.  

She read me Flat Stanley quite often, about a boy who was flattened by his bulletin board one night in his sleep.  Flat Stanley has all sorts of adventures, like being flown as a kite by his little brother, and folding himself up and mailing himself to a friend across the country.  I remember that he had a cigarette box to put a sandwich or some water or something in, and I wanted an empty cigarette box too.  It must have been from the forties or fifties.  My mom's take on it was that it was about learning to live with disabilities, and accepting people for their differences, skills and competencies -- but I actually never picked up on that until she brought it up sometime in the last year.

This rang a bell for me.  I've participated a couple of times in Flat Stanley/Flat Charlotte projects without knowing too much about them other than that they seemed like a neat way for elementary school kids to explore geography and get a kick out of sending and receiving real letters as opposed to email.  I didn't know that the original 1964 book, written by Jeff Brown, was illustrated by Tomi Ungerer, of Moon Man fame.

It turns out the Flat Stanley Project was started in 1994 by Dale Hubert, a Canadian 3rd grade teacher, and has grown to become international.  (I'm pretty sure cousin Ona did one with her kindergarten students a few years ago.)  The basic idea is that a class prints out Flat Stanleys (or any one of the multicultural options that are now available as well, including several in camouflage) and sends them to other people: students at other schools, famous people, friends.  Some of the projects include taking pictures of Flat Stanley in a variety of places.  We were recently tagged in a "Flat Charlotte" project, in which we didn't receive a paper doll but were asked via a sort of chain letter to write a postcard from our hometown back to the school where Charlotte started, and to send the letter on to someone else.

Flat Stanley has exploded in books as well, with a newly illustrated version and sequels with titles like Flat Stanley's Worldwide Adventures #3: The Japanese Ninja Surprise.  Not sure how much that one will lead to actual cultural exchange....

It seems like Flat Stanley has come a long way from his original roots.  What are your thoughts on the phenomenon?

Love, Annie

Sunday, August 7, 2011

On our way to Skokie

Dear Annie,

I'm sorry for you, going through too-few-books/not-enough-parents reading madness.  Many of us are looking forward to being able to spell you when you get up here on Wednesday.  Here are a couple of paragraphs which could explain why Isabel is so happy with all that repetition.

In the pile of books I brought down from upstairs for your girls, I've found another of our old favorites.  About a year ago, you and I blogged about family literary references: those little phrases from books read long ago which live on in conversation.  As we head out on trips (short or long), some of us often let slip, "We're on our way to Skokie," to which the response is, "Everything is Okey-Dokey."  The reference is to a 1977 (out of print, alas) book of three short stories by Rosemary Wells: Don't Spill It Again, James.  They're about two brother roly-poly furry animals -- I think they're foxes.  Our favorite story, "Skokie," starts:

We're on our way to Skokie.
Everything is Okey-Dokey.
I've got the money.
You've got the lunch.
We've got our presents 
In a great big bunch.

The pictures show the two brothers and much luggage getting onto a train and settling comfortably into a compartment.  For years, those illustrations of what I think of as a European train led me to believe (erroneously) that Wells was British.  This was despite the Illinois-ness of the destination.  The poem bounces along cheerily, with the illustrations showing what's actually going on.  A large adult owl smoking a cigar comes into the compartment ("We're on our way to Skokie. Everything is very smoky.") The boys look a bit green around the gills, the owl falls asleep while reading his newspaper, and the boys put out the resulting fire with the bottle of milk from their picnic lunch.  All share pieces of cake.

The style of this book is definitely before the more commercialized versions of some of Wells' work came on the scene.  The characters are endearing and there's so much to look at in the pictures.  We'll see what Eleanor and Isabel think of it later this week.



Friday, August 5, 2011


Dear Aunt Debbie,

We like Henry and Mudge too.  Don't own any of them yet, but we have read a few here and there.  I suspect that we'll be reading more of them as Isabel moves up into the short chapter books age, since her dog obsession continues to date.

Some weeks, I feel like I have new and interesting things to write about.  And some weeks, like this one, both of my children just want the same books read to them over and over.  There are different kinds of repetition: there's the reading of Goodnight Moon once a night for two years, which is establishment of routine, and, because it's a great book, lovely.  Then there's the kind of repetition we're doing right now: a few books, the same few books, the same damned books, requested six or twelve times a day.  No, nothing else will do.  Even if these are great children's books, it gets old.  And when they aren't great....

Part of this is my fault.  I got those two Fancy Nancy books out of the library to blog about them on Monday, and then they were all Eleanor wanted to read for the rest of the week.

Isabel's books of choice at the moment are things we've had around the house for a while:

1) the Max books, which she's never allowed us to read to her before about a week ago (literally: she would bat them out of my hand), but which she now thinks are hysterical.  Max's First Word is her favorite.

2) the Little Bear books.  Isabel is actually too young to sit through a whole Little Bear book (except for A Kiss for Little Bear,which is a single story).  Nevertheless, this is what she wants: to have me start reading one of them, and then to take it away from me to examine the back of the book, or to announce "The End!" and close it, and then reach for another one: "Read Lil Bear!"  Her favorite thing to do is to identify each character in the pictures: "Tha's Cat.  Tha's Duck.  Tha's Hen.  Tha's Lil Bear!"

Part of it was circumstantial: Jeff had to work late several nights, and I usually do the morning reading time with the girls, so I was flying solo.  This made it harder to sneak in an alternate option, as both girls were unwilling to compromise on a book they might both enjoy.  Each sat there with her small pile of books, demanding attention.  I found myself on more than one occasion with two books balanced open on my lap, reading alternate pages.  At other moments, I just let Isabel fuss while I read to Eleanor, or let Eleanor pout while I read to Isabel.  (This may have affected my mood.)

I understand that repetition has great value in the child mind -- kids need to hear the same stories over and over, and enjoy knowing what's going to happen and taking part in it.  Their repeated responses aloud seem to be as important to their enjoyment of the book as the text itself. 

At the playground yesterday, I was talking to the mom of one Eleanor's friends.  The book on repeat at their house this week is Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi, so I guess I should count myself lucky.  Earlier this week, the mom told me, she had brushed one of the illustrations of poop with her finger as she turned the page, and jokingly said, "Eww, yucky!  I touched it!"  Now her daughter repeats the gesture and disgusted response on EVERY SINGLE PAGE, giggling hysterically the whole time.  There doesn't seem to be a way to get the repetition to stop until it runs its course.  Or you hide the books while your kid's not looking.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Henry and his big dog Mudge

Dear Annie,

Bob and I are happily settled in the house in Maine now, eagerly anticipating Lizzie's return from Spain on Friday, and your visit next week.  All that, and Mona turns 20 tomorrow!  She's far away, alas.

I started rummaging around today for good books to read with your girls and unearthed
Henry and Mudge in the Green Time
by the multi-talented Cynthia Rylant. You've written about her Poppleton and High-Rise Private Eyes books; Henry and his big dog Mudge (as they're always introduced in the books) were her most important characters in our house. Henry is an only child. In the first book, his parents get him a puppy who grows into a 182-pound English Mastiff.  They lose each other, and Henry swears they'll never be apart again.  The books are structured like Frog and Toad and a number of other readers: broken up into several short chapters.

Henry and Mudge in the Green Time is three stories about summertime.  In the first, they go on a picnic, Henry doesn't see a bee who's investigating his pear, and he is stung.  "'Ow! Ow! Ow,' Henry cried," a line parroted by my girls whenever we read the story.
Henry just had to cry. He sat down beside Mudge and held on to his hurting hand and cried.
Mudge sniffed Henry's hair.
Mudge sniffed Henry's hand.
Mudge put his big nose in Henry's ear.
But Henry kept crying.
Then Mudge licked Henry's face.
Mudge liked the taste.
It was salty.
So Mudge licked Henry's face again and again and again.
Every tear that Henry cried Mudge licked away.
Henry cried, Mudge licked, and the hand hurt.  But in a while, the hand stopped hurting, Henry stopped crying, and Mudge stopped licking.
They finish the picnic and all's well.

The other stories involve Mudge getting a bath -- in which Rylant and illustrator Sucie Stevenson get the resigned misery of a soapy dog just right -- and Henry playing king-of-the-hill with his faithful dragon Mudge.

All the Henry and Mudge stories (there are 27 of them now!) involve realistic situations, with real feelings, and family and canine love.  They involve relatives visiting, lost cats, birthdays and various holidays, mud, getting sick, being scared of the dark, going to the beach, and on and on.  They're written with Rylant's deft hand, a pleasure to read.

The most recent listing I can find for a Henry and Mudge book is one that came out in 2007.  Since then, Rylant's been working on a spinoff series about Henry's cousin Annie and her pet rabbit Snowball, in which Henry and Mudge almost always play a part.  Annie showed up in a couple of H&M books, and I suspect the publisher said aha, let's market these books more directly to girls. The Annie books have phrases in their titles like "Pink Surprise," "Prettiest House," and "Teacup Club" which telegraph that they're being aimed at girls. As you know, this is one of the things about the current marketing mentality that drives me crazy.  The Henry and Mudge books have broad appeal: they talk about universal kid experiences. But then,as with Dora and countless other characters, the marketing message twists, and girl characters are pushed for girls and boy characters for boys.   

So resist the spin and enjoy the books.  We'll have Henry and Mudge in the Green Time waiting for you up here.



Monday, August 1, 2011

Fancy Nancy and the teaching of vocabulary

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You ask about our experiences with Fancy Nancy.  Up till now, I have gently steered away from her -- we don't own any Fancy Nancy books, though we do have a Colorform set which came as a birthday present, and when Eleanor has picked out Fancy Nancy books at the library, I've read them to her once or twice and quietly moved them up onto the library shelf.  Today was the first time I ever sought them out, to respond to your post.

So how do we feel about them?  Eleanor is attracted by the glossy sparkly princessy covers, and Nancy's general fancy-ness: dresses and hair doo-dads and purses and bows.  There are a lot of pretty girls in Robin Preiss Glasser's drawings, and Eleanor likes that.  She wants to read the books when we get them, but doesn't request them over and over.  Then again, my own lukewarmness may affect my reading aloud.

I have mixed feelings.  I could do without the girly stuff, which we don't really need reinforced around here.  So much emphasis on primping!  However, I like the fact that there are alternate female characters depicted: Nancy's best friend, Bree, is black (though similarly fancy in dress); Nancy's mom sports glasses, a ponytail, and decidedly non-fancy tops and pants; and Nancy's adored teacher, Ms. Glass, is fancy in a different way: patterns, an artist's smock in the trip to the museum book, glasses, a pink streak in her black bangs.  (I admit it.  I am swayed by the depiction of the awesome cool teacher.)

Honestly, what annoys me the most about Fancy Nancy is the way the books try to teach vocabulary.  As a reader and as a teacher, I have always been of the Vocabulary in Context school of thought.  Once you've read a word in context several times, you figure out organically what it means.  When you begin to use it, then, you use it correctly -- you get a far better feel for the word than you do by rote memorization and drilling.  It's not hard to tell which of my 9th graders are the big readers, and which are the kids who learned their hundred-dollar words from test-prep classes.

The Fancy Nancy books each include a small number of words which Nancy designates as "fancy"over the course of the narrative.  At the end of the book, there's a page with all of the words and their definitions.  Here's the vocab page from Fancy Nancy: The Dazzling Book Report:
Some of these seem to me to be pretty good vocabulary words.  "Crestfallen" -- great!  But do "desperate" and "select" really need to be defined?  If you're a kid who knows "eye-popping," wouldn't you probably know "dazzling" too?

And then there's the way every single one of these words is introduced.  From page 1 of the museum book referenced above:

Ooh la la!
I am overjoyed.
(That's a fancy word for very happy.)
Our class is going
to a museum.

"That's a fancy word for..." gets old pretty fast.

Perhaps Jane O'Connor, who writes the Fancy Nancy books, agrees with me.  One of the two books we were able to pick up today at the local library was a fairly recent entry in the series: Fancy Nancy: Poet Extraordinaire!

In it, the fabulous Ms. Glass teaches a poetry unit.  Nancy and the other students have to survey their family and friends about their favorite poems, and the book includes several of these favorites (though not the text of "Annabel Lee," Nancy's mother's choice, or "Blowin' in the Wind," which is her father's).  The class makes a "poet-tree," and each student writes a poem up on a leaf and tapes it to a branch.  Ms. Glass writes encouraging comments on the back of each leaf.  There's a discussion of writer's block, inspiration, and the wide variety of poetic forms that exist in the world.  There is very little in-your-face vocabulary definition, and instead of the usual vocab page at the end, O'Connor includes an anthology Nancy is compiling of her favorite poems.  All in all, it's a pretty good foray into poetry for fairly young kids.

Foray: that's a fancy word for an early try.

Love, Annie