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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

An old story in a new form

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I can't wait to check out some of those animal books with Isabel!  She's still very much an animal (mostly dog) girl.

We went to the library yesterday, and reading some of our loot this morning, I had a book epiphany -- a moment when I realized that the story I was reading was a new version of a story I knew quite well, but hadn't thought of in years, so dressed up that I never would have known from the cover that there was a connection.

The book we were reading was Anne Isaacs's Pancakes for Supper!, illustrated by Mark Teague.  (I'm surprised to find it's out of print, as it's relatively recent; the link is to Alibris.)  Isaacs is the author of Swamp Angel, which you wrote about a while back, and its sequel Dust Devil; she has a great knack for tall tales and feisty heroines.  Teague is the illustrator of the How Do Dinosaurs series and the marvelous Poppleton books; his paintings are large, bright, and expressive.

Pancakes for Supper! tells the story of Toby, a girl riding on the back of her parents' wagon through snowy woods somewhere in the Northeast.  She's making up a song as she goes, about all of the special clothes she's wearing:

I've got a sky-blue coat with purple lining, 
A sun-yellow sweater with green leaves twining,
Thick orange mittens with a matching cap,
Buck hide boots to keep out the damp,
Fuzzy red long johns and a dress of brown:
Brand-new clothes for Winter Creek town!

The wagon hits a bump, Toby goes flying way into the sky, and when she comes down, she's far from the wagon and right next to a hungry wolf.  After some rhyming dialogue, Toby convinces the wolf that she can make him into "the grandest animal in the forest" by giving him her beautiful blue coat.  He takes it and struts off.

After the wolf come a cougar, a skunk, a porcupine, and a bear, each of whom gets another piece of fine clothing, until Toby is left shivering in her red long johns.  She rounds a corner, looking for her parents, and finds all the animals fighting over who looks the best.

At this point, I'm starting to think, This seems familiar....  And then I turn the page and see the animals chasing each other in a circle around a big tree:

All their fine clothes fell off as they ran.  They caught hold of each other's tails and raced around the trunk of the huge maple tree.  Soon they were spinning so fast that Toby couldn't tell which animal was which.  Round and round the animals whirled, faster and faster, until at last they melted into a great golden puddle at the base of the trunk.

Because of course, Pancakes for Supper! is a retelling of Little Black Sambo.  

Grandma and Grandpa (your parents) had a copy of Little Black Sambo on the kids' shelf in their apartment when I was growing up.  I remember having intensely mixed reactions to it: both loving the story and realizing at the time (probably due to my parents' intervention) that there was something uncomfortable and racist about the illustrations.  Jeff has a similar memory of the book: he remembers reading it, but knowing at the same time that it was in some way bad to like.

Helen Bannerman wrote the original story in 1899, when she was living in India with her husband, an officer in the medical service there.  Sambo is apparently supposed to be a caricature of a Tamil child, but in a number of later pirated versions of the book, he was depicted as African, or African-American, in illustrations which helped cement the image of the happy, none-too-smart pickaninny child.  Wikipedia has a good rundown of the controversy.  The original is very much in print, and online reviews seem to be split among grandparents who are thrilled to find it for their grandchildren and people who are appalled that its racist drawings are still available.

The story is pretty much the same one Isaacs uses: Little Black Sambo has fine new clothes, which he gives up to four tigers who want to eat him.  The tigers get jealous of each other and whirl themselves around a tree, eventually becoming a puddle of butter.  Sambo's mother makes the butter into pancakes, and Sambo eats 169 of them. (In Isaacs's version, the animals become maple syrup, which gets soaked up into the tree.  Toby taps it, her mom makes pancakes, and she also eats 169 of them.)

There's at least one other contemporary version out there: Fred Marcellino (of Pelican Chorus fame) changed the names of the characters from "Little Black Sambo, Mumbo, and Jumbo," to "Little Babaji, Mamaji, and Papaji," and kept the rest of the text the same in his book, The Story of Little Babaji.  I haven't seen it, but apparently it takes care of the racism question quite nicely.

I wish now I had the version I grew up reading and could assess it as an adult.  In the meantime, Anne Isaacs's book gives Isabel the animals she loves to look at, gives Eleanor a spunky heroine, and makes everybody white.  Progress?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Dear Annie,

Ah yes, two years old: Isabel's definitely bigger all the time.

Do you know
Little Gorilla
, by Ruth Bornstein?  Little Gorilla lives in the forest and is loved by all the animals he meets.  Then one day he starts to grow (we see animals looking up, off-page), and he ends up BIG.  All his friends come to his birthday party, and they all still love him.  It sounds ridiculously simple-minded, but it's sweet too.

I wanted to look at some big-as-life books today.  First, there's
Life-Size Zoo
, by Kristin Earhart (editor) and Toyofumi Fukuda (photographer).   It's big: 14 inches high and 20 inches wide when it's open, but some pages fold out one more time, giving you a 40-inch wide panorama.  and what you're looking at is a picture of an elephant, a tapir, a koala, or a hedgehog printed in the size it would be in real life.  A giraffe with its tongue sticking out spans the whole width.  And a tiger, at 20 inches across, sure is big:

Lots more about this book and two others by the same folks at a blog called Bookie-Wookie, featuring a dad and kids talking about what they've been reading.

Then there's the amazing Steve Jenkins, who creates lots of stunning non-fiction books illustrated with cut-paper collages.  In
Actual Size
he does with collage what Fukuda did with photos. The gorilla's hand on the cover (book is 12 inches high) makes anyone -- grown-up or child -- feel small.  And when an animal is too big for the page, we get wonderful detail.  I had no idea a giant squid's eye is bigger than a gorilla's hand!  Here's more at Jenkins' website.

Animal Faces by Kyoko Toda and Akira Satohis, is alas, out of print -- although I've just ordered a copy sent to you from alibris for Isabel's birthday.  The picture on the cover is of a life-size wombat -- harking back to an earlier wombat entry here.  But the beauty of this book is in the smaller photographs inside.  Every two-page spread has 21 photographs of one species of animal: gorillas, tigers, camels, elephants, etc.  The beauty of it is that each photograph is of a different individual.  Kids of many different ages can get lost in comparing all the different faces.  Check out the rhinos:

I bought as many copies as I could find of this great book when it went out of print, so that I could keep selling them.  It took about a year to run through them all, and now I miss it.  I hope it's a hit at your house.



Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Big and little

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We've spent much of the last few days celebrating Isabel's second birthday, and so have had plenty of opportunity to think about questions of aging, looking forward and looking back, as you do in your last post.  Isabel is working through what it means to be growing, not big yet, but not truly small either.  The repeated dialogue:

Isabel: "I'm little."
Me: "Yes, you are."
Isabel (emphatic): "I'm bigger!"

And of course, they're both true.

All this had me thinking about a lovely little book by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, the couple who gave us all those fabulous Greek and Norse myths.

Too Big
is the story of a little boy who wakes up and finds he is too big for his clothes:

He could not get into his little pants because he was
He could not get into his little coat because he was

The little boy is also too big to lift his cat by the tail, ride on his dog (the poor pained dog splays out its legs), or ride the horse.  The happy ending is paradoxical:

"Never mind," said the little boy.
"I'll grow bigger
and bigger
and when I grow up
I will ride on an

Some of the logic in the book escapes me: how exactly can you be too big to lift a cat by the tail, or to ride a horse?  But the conclusion the boy comes to makes a kind of child mind sense.  I'm not little anymore, and I'm getting bigger, so clearly I will be enormous, and end up getting to do things I can't do yet.

The D'Aulaires' illustrations alternate between full-color and black-and-white spreads, each page filled with energy and movement.  It's a charming, short, picture-filled book, and both girls have loved it.  Nice to have a way to talk about a sense of scale.

Love, Annie

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Guest blogger: former self

Dear Annie,

I've just returned from my 40th (!) college reunion, which was wonderful in many ways.  I had occasion to revisit a lot of what I wrote as a college journalist, and came upon a review of
The Trumpet of the Swan
, E.B. White's third and last children's book.  Both the book and the review were published in 1970 (the hardcover cost $4.50).  I still agree with the opinion, although I would be more enthusiastic about the book now, comparing it quite favorably to all of children's literature.  This review focuses more on the comparison to the rest of the White oeuvre.

Here it is, slightly condensed.  Watch out for spoilers.
E. B. WHITE has a rather strange mind. To a normal eight-year-old, he's just an exceptionally good author. But to someone older, who has never experienced the joy of Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little, he is, as a friend of mine said recently, "very weird." True, spiders don't usually weave slogans such as "Some Pig" into their webs to save pigs from being slaughtered; and human parents don't usually give birth to a son who looks exactly like a mouse. But none of that matters, because they're all very real, endearing characters with real problems-of survival or identity or whatever. So when Charlotte (a spider) dies, even though her babies will be hatched in the pigsty the next spring, of course you cry -- even my mother always cries over that passage.

   White's third children's book, The Trumpet of the Swan, although filled with prose as great as the first two, is slightly disappointing. At first I thought that the fact that I'm 20 instead of eight had something to do with my let-down. But I reread the other two, and if anything they seemed better than they did 12 years ago.

     One great deficiency of Trumpet is its illustrations. The association of Garth Williams' concise, delicate ink drawings with White's prose is too strong to break. ... Even going beyond illustrations, there is a bigger let-down: it is a happy book, with a happy ending and few disappointments along the way.

    Trumpet is, in White's words, the story of "a young swan who had a speech defect and conquered it." Louis, a trumpeter swan, is born without a voice. ...

   As in White's other books, the line between human and animal is very faint. Louis befriends a small boy, Sam, who takes the swan to his school in Montana to learn how to read and write. ("If I can teach a bird to write," says Mrs. Hammerbotham, first grade teacher, "it'll be big news all over the Sweet Grass country. I'll get my picture in Life magazine. I'll be famous.")

    But writing on a small slate he carries around his neck does Louis no good -- when he returns home none of the other swans can read. He falls in love with Serena, a lovely young swan, who ignores him.... Louis's father sacrifices his honor, stealing a trumpet from a music store in Billings, Montana. Before winning Serena, Louis resolves to repay his father's debt by working as a trumpeter. One of his jobs is as a trumpeter playing "Row, Row Your Boat" while swimming in front of the swan boats in the Public Garden in Boston ("Boston, which . . . is famous for its baked beans, its codfish, its tea parties, its Cabots, its Lowells, its Saltonstalls, and its Swan Boats.") He earns fame in Boston, and gets a ten-week engagement at a night club in Philadelphia. By this time, he is a great musician, giving Sunday afternoon classical concerts at the Philadelphia Zoo, where he lives.

     Serena comes into the Zoo on a gale one night -- blown from Montana to Philly -- and falls madly in love with Louis, who wakens her with "Beautiful Dreamer" on his trumpet. They return to Montana to give his father Louis's accumulated earnings (minus expenses) of $4420.78 with which to repay the music store. Louis and Serena live happily ever after, migrating between Canada and Montana with yearly cross-country tours to show the kids where Louis spent his youth, overcoming his speech defect and restoring grandpa's honor. And every year the swanboatman treats the parent swans to a night at the Ritz Hotel.
Serena dearly loved the Ritz. She ate dozens of watercress sandwiches and gazed at herself in the mirror and swam in the bathtub. And while Louis stood and looked out of the window at the Public Garden down below, Serena would walk round and around, turning lights on and off for the fun of it. Then they would both get into the bathtub and go to sleep.
It's a lovely book, but somehow it seems more like any kids' book, and less moving than White's others. Perhaps the question of Wilbur's survival or of what Stuart, who is only four inches tall, will do with his life, are more important than Louis's falling in love and restoring his father's imagined honor. They seem more real, more unusual than the usual children's fare. Or maybe I'm just getting old. . . .

Well, eventually I got older.



Friday, September 23, 2011

The pleasures of a complete universe

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm afraid we've reached the limit of my recent YA series knowledge, but I have been thinking about what these series we're calling keepers have in common: Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings.

Part of it, I think, is the pleasure of getting to know a complete universe.  Each of these series allows you to become familiar with a world over a period of time.  They are rich worlds, filled with detail, like our world in some ways but totally unlike it in others. 

And they are worlds we want to inhabit.  There is some kind of magic in each of them that is deeply attractive.  In Narnia, there is the portal to another world, the prospect of going through the back of your closet and into a forest populated with talking animals and other fantastic creatures.  In The Golden Compass, there are the daemons: each person in this alternate world has one, an animal of the opposite gender who is part of that person and travels with them throughout life, able to change shape until the person hits puberty, then choosing its permanent animal form.  How can you read Philip Pullman and not wonder who your own daemon would be, what form he would take?  And then of course there's Hogwarts.  Even without Harry, Hermione, and Ron there, who wouldn't want to get the letter from that first owl, proving that the strange sense of not-belonging you've been experiencing was an indication that you are secretly a wizard?  Though all these worlds are mired in war, there's a sense of what they would be like in peace as well.  There is an invitation to join them.

I loved reading Chaos Walking and The Hunger Games, but the worlds they describe are not places I would ever want to be.  Their dystopian strength seems to me to be about showing me dark things about the world I live in already, rather than opening an aspirational escape.  I wonder whether this makes them more of our moment, and whether they will last.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Dear Annie,

Ah, spoilers as occupational hazards.  Before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out in 2000, there was buzz that one of the characters was going to die.  Quickie reviews carefully kept the secret.  I read it fast, but not as quickly as one of my customers.  A ten year old boy dropped by the store to tell me that he'd finished the book -- probably within the first 48 hours of publication.  "And I just knew ______ was going to be the one to die!" he crowed.  I was about two-thirds through the book at  that point, but such is life.

You ask what series will last.  Hmm.  I think Harry Potter will for lots of reasons: good writing (most of the time), humor, evolving characters and evolving complexity of successive books.  And it draws so heavily from the British mythic tradition: those themes are keepers.

The only other series I can feel confident saying that it'll be around in 50 years is Philip Pullman's
His Dark Materials Trilogy
-- usually referred to as the Golden Compass books.  The first one came out in 1995.  It's so ambitious, creating a wonderfully believable parallel world and weaving together varied characters and great action.  And it grapples with much bigger issues, many of them having to do with religion and organized religion.  It's wonderful.

Game of Thrones is one of my boss Steven's favorite books.  I think I need a long summer after I retire to attack that series, but it sounds riveting. 

A lot of the other series we've been talking about are good entertainment, and some of them can really resonate with their readers.  Does that mean they'll still have the emotional pull exerted by some of the literary first loves we talked about last spring?  I guess part of what I'd hope for in a book or a series that's going to last is that it affects a reader.  Not just entertains or engages, but really makes someone think, or see the world differently.  The transformative power of literature.  It's hard to know which ones those are until someone has lived with them for a while.

Any more nominees out there?



Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Series that stick

Dear Aunt Debbie,

When I asked my ninth-graders what attracted them to the Percy Jackson series, in particular, their responses mirrored the comment on your last post (written by one of my students, I assume -- hi!).  They cited fast-paced action, humor, relation to normal teenage life, and the pleasure of reading something where fantasy and reality clash.  They also characterized the books as quick, easy, fun reads, attractive at any age.

What's the line between action/adventure series that stay with you and those that fade?  Does it have to do with the amount of time you give them to sink in, as you say played a part in the initial popularity of Harry Potter?  With the depth of complexity of the plot?  With the cultural resonance a particular series has at the moment you read it?

It's not exactly YA, but the series Jeff and I have recently found ourselves being pulled into is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (yes, we came to it via HBO's Game of Thrones). I feel justified in mentioning it here by the fact that a number of my older students have devoured the series.  The extent of their interest was confirmed for me when I ran across three major plot spoilers while reading my students' English Regents exams last spring.  That's right, Game of Thrones right up there next to The Great Gatsby as a text for the "critical lens" essay.

Is there something in the cultural and political air that makes Martin's plot twists particularly appealing right now -- the descent into civil war, perhaps?  Or are strong characters the driving force, the thing that makes a series last?

Which books that you're selling now do you think will have staying power?

Love, Annie

Sunday, September 18, 2011

YA Hit Parade, take two

Dear Annie,

It's an interesting list your students have created.  I've read at least pieces of each of those series and understand the attraction of them all.  But very little of this list are titles that I would guess will stay with the readers throughout life.

The one most likely to, IMHO, is Harry Potter.  My experience of it, and that of my children and customers, was that the year or more between each book was crucial to one's appreciation of the series.  A new book would come out, it would be inhaled by all within a week of publication, then it could be savored.  There were re-readings, and intense speculation about what would happen next.  The characters soaked into kids' consciousness, so that when the next book arrived, one would be reacquainting oneself with old friends.  Rowling's little asides and character tics were appreciated all the more for the familiarity.  I often wonder how the easy availability of all seven books affects readers' experiences now.  I suspect your current freshmen had most of them available when they started the series.

The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (first syllable pronounced like "fire") has been phenomenally popular.  The basic concept of the books, starting with The Lightning Thief, is that there's a group of kids in contemporary society who are the half-mortal children of Greek gods and goddesses.  Riordan, who used to be a middle school teacher, says he invented the stories to interest his own children in Greek mythology.  The popularity of the books has created a wave of interest in anything related to mythology -- it's been fascinating.  Two years ago, Riordan spoke at the Washington DC Book Festival on the National Mall.  The tent where he spoke was overflowing with kids clutching their books.  When he arrived on stage, it felt like a major rock star was there: the crowd cheered, screamed, waved, jumped up and down.  Riordan has started two other series: one on Egyptian mythology (biracial brother and sister, separated by divorce, who are direct descendants of Egyptian gods), and a follow-up to Percy Jackson, introducing Roman mythology.

I will confess to you something I don't often say aloud.  When I first read The Lightning Thief before it came out, I stopped after two chapters.  I think the deciding moment was the scene where a teacher on a field trip turns into some sort of monster with knives shooting out of her fingers.  It's a very action-action series, with teenagers constantly deciding the future through individual combat.  Parts have more depth to them too, but I wonder about the series' staying power.  What do your students talk about liking about Percy Jackson?

I think of the Sisters Grimm as being a bit younger than the others on your list.  Also very popular, in part I think because it maintains good mysteries through the books.  The sisters have inherited the responsibility to keep fairy tale characters confined to a small town in upstate New York and not let them escape and wreak havoc on modern society.  The characters, with well-known names from fairy tales, all have personalities fairly far off from how they are in the original tales (Grimm and others).

I'm surprised and pleased that The Agency, by Y.S. Lee made it onto the lists. It feels a step up in both sophistication and language.  You've already linked to an enthusiastic review.  The fact that the heroine is Anglo-Asian, and that the author has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, give the books a deeper, engaging edge.  The heroine is fallible in sympathetic but sometimes excruciating ways.  Your parallel to the Sally Lockhart stories is a good one.

I'm curious to know more about why your students love the books they do.  Anybody out there who wants to talk about your favorites?

Or maybe I'll just hear more from you...



Friday, September 16, 2011

YA reading list

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You make me look forward to my children's math education!  In the meantime, we are forging ahead with Edward Eager with Eleanor, and rereading The Adventures of Isabel, In the Night Kitchen, and When Sophie Gets Angry -- Really, Really Angry... multiple times a day with Isabel.  Her new favorite phrase: "Read't again!"

At the beginning of every semester, I ask my high school students to write me introductory letters, telling me a little bit about themselves and their history with reading and writing.  I asked my 9th-graders specifically to name books they love, and as I read through them, I jotted down notes about the titles that came up most often.

The Harry Potter books were the hands-down favorite -- everyone has read them, and everyone adores them, no surprise.  Those books have staying power.  The Hunger Games trilogy wasn't far behind.

The third most-popular books mentioned were the Percy Jackson series, by Rick Riordan.  You wrote about them briefly a little while ago, when we were talking about mythology.  I think it's time I checked them out.

Two other series that came up often: Mortal Instruments, by Cassandra Clare, and  The Sisters Grimm, by Michael Buckley.  The description of the first book of Mortal Instruments ("the handsome Jace introduces fifteen-year-old Clary Fray to the world of the Shadowhunters, a secret cadre of warriors dedicated to driving demons out of our world....") doesn't fill me with a great desire to pick that one up, but the idea behind The Sisters Grimm seems promising: two young sisters, descendants of the Grimm Brothers, find out that they are fairy-tale detectives and need to solve mysteries in a world where the characters from fairy tales have come to life.

Finally, I was intrigued by the mention of The Agency series, by Y.S. Lee: Mary Quinn, orphan and thief in Victorian London, is taken in by a girls' school which turns out to be the cover for an all-female detective agency.  Here's a more thorough take on the series from the blog Brown Paper.  They sound similar in tone to the Sally Lockhart mysteries, though I'm not holding my breath that they're as good.

I'm sure you're far more familiar with all of these titles than I am.  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, both on these books in particular and on why series seem to have eclipsed stand-alone novels so completely in the hearts of teenagers.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Math: more than numbers

Dear Annie,

All this talk of school makes me think of two of my favorite books about math.  Math education was a big surprise to me as a parent: the pedagogy had evolved hugely in the 40 years from my school days to those of my children.  The foundations of mathematical thinking are emphasized now, especially in the lower grades: patterns and concepts trump tables, big time.  From kindergarten up, Halloween became math homework as the girls would dump their loot on the floor and sort and classify it and create graphs about what they got.

The idea that one can arrive at an answer in math through many different routes is central.  My favorite book on this subject is
Five Creatures
by Emily Jenkins. She wrote it ten years ago, before her wonderful forays into early chapter books and YA chick lit.  The cover of the book shows the five creatures: a girl, her parents, and two cats.
Five creatures live in our house.  Three humans and two cats.
Three short and two tall.
Three with orange hair [girl, mom, one cat], and two with gray [dad, other cat].
Two with long hair [girl, mom], three with short [dad and cats].
It goes on to classify many things that characterize some but not all of the household.  My favorite spread is "Three who can button buttons [girl looking proud].  Four who can open cupboards [parents trying to shoo cats from cupboards, girl looking forlorn on the floor]."  Math as part of the entertainment of life is what cheers me up about this approach.

Robert and the number devil
And for an older -- say, third grade and up -- child, there's the amazing
The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure
, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (translated from the German).  It's the story of Robert, who on twelve different nights is visited in his dreams by the number devil, whose job is to explain the basic principles of mathematics.

On the first night, Robert and the number devil discuss the number one, with the help of some chewing gum and many mice.  Zero and negative numbers come along on the second night.  The third night is prime numbers: the chapter during which both of my daughters separately jumped out of bed and found paper and pencil to figure out prime numbers as explained by the devil.

The sixth night is Fibonacci numbers (explained with rabbits, of course), which any self-respecting  third grader knows about these days.  Then the book launches into things which are comprehensible during the explanation, but for me they're like relativity: I can retain them for only an hour or two without getting muddled.  But it's written so engagingly, the higher concepts really are comprehensible.  On the seventh night, the number devil builds Pascal's Triangle
Honest, this is stuff a third-to-sixth grader can understand.  Take, for instance, the R entries in the index:
Rabbit clock
Raising to a higher power
Roman numerals
Russell, Bertrand (1872-1970)
Rutabagas (Square roots)
 And the number devil is such an annoyingly likable guy:
"You probably think I'm the only one," said the number devil the next time he turned up, perched on a folding chair in the middle of a vast potato field.
"The only what?" asked Robert.
"The only number devil.  But I'm not.  I'm one of many.  Number Heaven, where I come from, is teeming with us.  I'm not even one of the bosses.  The bosses do nothing but sit and think.  Now and then one of them will laugh and say something like 'Rn equals hn factorial times f of n open bracket a plus theta close bracket,' and the others nod and laugh along.  There are times when I don't understand a thing."
"You poor devil," Robert said.  "Here I though you were so sure of yourself."
"Why do you think they send me out at night?  Because the bigwigs have things to do other than visiting apprentices like you."
"So I'm lucky to have even you.  Is that what you're saying?"
 It's a delightful read.



Tuesday, September 13, 2011

School as a place for connection

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our discussion of picture books set in schools (here and here) has gotten me thinking about another kind of school story: the kind where the classroom is simply the backdrop for connection, either between friends or with a little romantic twist.

Two books pop to mind here:

Rosemary Wells has a lovely one called Timothy Goes to School.  (The version pictured here is clearly one which, like Noisy Nora, she's re-illustrated to get it back in print.  Not the cover I know.  And evidently it's also about to become a TV series.  Urgh.)

Timothy is a little raccoon-person, and he's very excited to go to school.  His excitement is dampened when he meets Claude, a boy in his class who is better than Timothy at everything, and makes fun of what Timothy is wearing each day.  There are very sweet scenes of Timothy coming home to his mother, ears drooping, unable to enjoy his after-school snack.  The happy ending comes in the form of Violet, a little rabbit-person he meets in the audience at the talent show.  She's just as annoyed by the excellence of another girl, Grace, as Timothy is by Claude.  As Claude and Grace perform, Timothy and Violet giggle, and start to have a lot of fun with each other.  They wind up happy -- not the most successful or talented kids in their class, but with a real friendship.  It's a nice small celebration of not overachieving.

Then there's Peter McCarty's Henry in Love.  I love McCarty's fine line drawings -- expressively shaded, simple, perfect work.  (I forgot to get the book out of the girls' room before bedtime, but when I do will scan a page or two.)

It's an even simpler story: Henry wakes up, gets ready for school, gets to school, and pays attention to Chloe, who can turn a perfect cartwheel.  He is seated next to her in class when the teacher changes their seats, and shares his snack.  It is a small and wonderful moment.  McCarty's animals have a lot of subtle personality -- you don't feel like you know what they're thinking, exactly, but the wheels are clearly turning.

He has other quite excellent books as well, but I'll save them for another post.

Love, Annie

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Good authors, more good books

Dear Annie,

Such good choices of books about school!  I would add two to your list -- one from each author you mention:

Officer Buckle and Gloria
by Peggy Rathman is a hilarious send-up of boring elementary school assemblies.  Officer Buckle speaks to kids on safety tips and puts them to sleep with his delivery. One day he brings along Gloria, a dog who has wandered into the police station.  Gloria is a natural ham, acting out the oblivioius Officer Buckle's safety tips behind his back.  "Never leave a thumbtack where you might sit on it," inspires Gloria to jump in the air with a pained expression on her face.  The audience loves her, and Officer Buckle becomes hugely popular.  He discovers what she's been doing when a news crew does a story on them. "Do not go swimming during electrical storms," he says, while Gloria fluffs her fur in a shocked-looking way and the kids cheer.  Officer Buckle is hurt and offended and stops his speaking tours.  All comes out right in the end, with the two remaining fast friends.

I tend to discourage this one as a book for pre-schoolers because knowing what an assembly is makes it so much funnier.  But it's a good laugh for anyone.

Chester's Way
, by Kevin Henkes, isn't a school story, but it's the book that introduces the indomitable Lilly. Chester and Wilson have a very quiet friendship filled with charmingly rigid habits.  It makes them both happy, in a quiet sort of way.  Then the flamboyant Lilly moves into the neighborhood.  They can't handle her at all, until her over-the-top behavior scares some bullies away from the quiet boys.  They all become fast friends:
She goes on to the plastic purse, which may be her best moment, and Lilly's Big Day, which disappointingly emphasizes her overbearingness and leaves out her conscience.  And of course good old Lilly is the big sister in Julius the Baby of the World.

Both these authors put lots of thought, skill and humor into all the illustrations, offering new discoveries on many re-readings.  A delight.

All this talk of school somehow has made my mind wander to math.  Will post on two good stories about math next time.



Friday, September 9, 2011

School books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Perhaps I'm looking in the wrong direction by asking about first day of school books which depict school as something to look forward to rather than to fear.  As you say about community involvement in your post about The Concrete Lorry, maybe the idea that school is a positive thing is best absorbed through a good story.

Two good school stories we've been rereading lately come from authors we've written about regularly: Peggy Rathmann (Good Night, Gorilla; 10 Minutes Till Bedtime), and Kevin Henkes (Julius, the Baby of the World, Kitten's First Full Moon, A Good Day).

From Rathmann: Ruby the Copycat.  Ruby is a new girl in Miss Hart's class, with Rathmann's trademark fuzzy hair and lit-up face (see the unspecifically gendered child in 10 Minutes Till Bedtime.  Or the gorilla.).

The book covers Ruby's first week of class.  She's seated behind Angela, "the girl with the pretty red bow in her hair," and is so entranced by her that Ruby can't help but copy everything Angela does: she goes home for lunch and returns with a bow in her own hair, tells the class that she, too, was just flower girl at her sister's wedding, and essentially plagiarizes a poem that Angela writes.  Angela is at first flattered, but becomes increasingly upset by Ruby's attention.  Miss Hart gently intervenes, and after a little backsliding, Ruby is encouraged to claim her own interests and act like herself.  School is the social environment where all of this plays out, and the influence of peers is clear.  Miss Hart is a warm and accepting presence, who ultimately helps Ruby shine in the eyes of her classmates.  Eleanor is very much into the social dynamics of the story, and Isabel loves to point out the pictures of cats on the wall.

From Henkes: Lilly's Purple Plastic PurseWe've mentioned Lilly before, but have not yet given this book its due.  Lilly, who appears in several other books as well, is a confident, outspoken, dramatic child (well, mouse).  She begins this story in deep adoration of her teacher, Mr. Slinger, who does seem pretty cool:

Mr. Slinger was as sharp as a tack.
He wore artistic shirts.
He wore glasses on a chain around his neack.
And he wore a different colored tie for each day of the week.
Instead of "Greetings, students"
or "Good morning, pupils," 
Mr. Slinger winked and said, "Howdy!"

For a while, inspired by his coolness and the rainbow-striped shirt Mr. Slinger wears in one illustration, I thought Henkes was subtly indicating that Lilly's favorite teacher is gay.  I was wrong: in Lilly's Big Day, he marries a female teacher at the school, and Lilly lobbies hard to be their flower girl.  (I'll admit, I was a little disappointed.)

Lilly gets a new, awesome purple plastic purse, shiny jingly quarters, and sparkly sunglasses one weekend, and brings them in to school to show off.  She can't keep quiet about them, and Mr. Slinger confiscates them until the end of the day.  Lilly is furious, and draws a mean picture of Mr. Slinger, sneaking it into his bag at the end of the day.  Of course, he leaves her a very sweet note in her returned purse, and she feels TERRIBLE. This is why it's a good book to help discuss guilt over doing something which hurts someone else's feelings.  Lilly apologizes, and draws a new picture.  Her mom writes Mr. Slinger a letter, and her dad bakes cheese balls to bring in. All is forgiven, but the feelings are deeply felt.

School here is exciting, social, and full of learning.  It's Lilly's main focus throughout the book: the first sentence is "Lilly loved school."  All the adults, teacher and parents, are understanding but firm -- no one makes excuses for Lilly, and they help her make amends.  Henkes also has a nice comic-book-like way of drawing some of the pages, with multiple images and lots of little throwaway dialogue lines or captions in the pictures.  It's a fun book to peruse -- way too long for Isabel to sit through at the moment, but one of Eleanor's favorites.

So it's back to school for us all!

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Community in action

Dear Annie,

Here we are, back to school once again.  Mona flew off to her junior year in college today; Lizzie's already in her second week of classes.  Eleanor's in a new pre-school.  And you must be in full swing at Stuyvesant. 

I've had a nice little reminder of the store's connection to its community in the past week.  Our local  middle school assigned a book on the first day which I was able to order quickly.  Someone posted on a school listserv that we had it, and we've had a parade of folks coming in to buy it.  It's very satisfying to have that connection to a nearby school and its parents.

So I've been thinking about community and neighbors, and yet another Shirley Hughes book seems appropriate here.  Four of them, actually, collected into Tales of Trotter Street, currently out of print, alas.  Each story focuses on a different family living on the same block, but members of the other families have minor parts.  I've written about one of them, Angel Mae, which is both a Christmas book, and (since you asked) the only book that pops into my head which presents school as part of life, rather than an anxiety-provoking task.

The Trotter Street Tale that was read and re-read in our house was The Big Concrete Lorry.  It's about the five-person Patterson family, who decide to add a room onto their house rather than move to a bigger house away from Trotter Street.  They shop for plans, buy supplies, and, with the neighbors' help, dig a foundation.  The next day, when they're still recovering from all the digging, the Jiffy Ready-Mix Concrete Co. lorry appears:
Out jumped jolly Joe Best.  "Load of concrete you ordered!" he called cheerfully.
"Not this morning, surely?" said Mum.  "I'm sure we didn't. . . "
But it was too late.  Jimmy had already pulled a lever and the big drum poured out a load of concrete, all in a rush.  Slop!  Slurp! Dollop!  Splosh! Just like that!  It landed in a shivering heap right outside the Pattersons' front door.
The concrete has to make it to the foundation in the back yard of the rowhouse before it sets.  Dad wakes up.  Mum starts wheeling loads through the house, and the kids run for the neighbors:

Everyone runs to help, there's a frenzied paragraph of "labouring and struggling," and the concrete gets moved.  A small hill remains on the front sidewalk: "it was great for sitting on and racing cars down.  And if you climbed up and stood on the top, you could see right to the very end of Trotter Street!"

So here's to neighbors and helping each other out: one of those lessons best absorbed in the context of a good story.



Monday, September 5, 2011

Odd Couples

Dear Aunt Debbie,

One of the books we came back with from Maine has gotten me thinking about odd couples: children's books with pairs of characters in them who complement, enjoy, and sometimes enrage each other.  We've written about several of them before: Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Elephant and Piggie.  The Dog and Bear books, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, fall firmly into this category.

Dog is a somewhat manipulative dachshund, and Bear is a good-natured stuffed animal who he hangs out with.  There's no sense of the two of them living with any people -- they're just on their own, hanging out.

The book you gave us is the second volume of the Dog and Bear series: Dog and Bear: Two's Company.  Each book contains three stories, and the first one in this volume establishes character immediately:

"I am very angry with you, Bear.  I am running away."
"All right, Dog.  Go ahead."
"I am packing my bones."
"You do that."
"I am packing my sticks."
"Of course you are," said Bear.
"I am packing all my toys."
"Don't forget this one," said Bear.

Throughout, Bear gazes at Dog with a slightly woeful expression.  He lets Dog pack up and head for the door, then quietly invites him back for ice cream.  All is resolved.

I like the fact that there's no explanation of why Dog was mad at Bear in the first place.  As in Spinky Sulks (though on a far less intense level), we're thrust into the action mid-argument.  Both of my girls responded to the characters immediately.

So here's a question: Eleanor is starting a new school this week, and I've glanced at a few "first day of school" type books at the library to see if they'd be worth picking up.  All of them that I've seen, however, start from the assumption that the first day of school is something to be feared.  This isn't how Eleanor feels, and I don't want to give her the idea that school is something she should be worried about, so I've largely avoided them.  Do you have any favorite first day of school books that don't have that tone?

Love, Annie

Sunday, September 4, 2011

More Magic

Dear Annie,

I wanted to react to a couple of things that have dashed by in recent weeks.  I suspect you've finished Half Magic by now -- I'm so glad you all enjoyed it.  There are six more books in Edward Eager's Tales of Magic, written from 1954 to 1962, and in all he acknowledges his reverence for/debt to the writing of E. Nesbit (yes, yes - we have to write about her!).

I loved your quote from the talking cat chapter, but I still haven't figured out what "Idlwidl bixbax. Grompaw.  Fooz!" mean.  There's one more book about Martha, Jane, Mark, and Katharine,
Magic by the Lake
. In one scene, the children are lost in a sort of magic fog on a desert island and are rescued by another group of children who seem to be in the same magic. Two of the other books -- Knight's Castle and The Time Garden -- are about Martha and Katharine's children.  There's a lovely scene in one of them where the cousins go into a sort of magical fog on a desert island and find and rescue another group of children there.  They all go on their separate ways.

Then there's your entry on editing out too-disturbing stuff as one is reading aloud.  It's true, we keep coming back to this.  In an ideal world, we'd all have time to vet books before reading them to kids, but after the picture book stage, that's next to impossible.  And it's so hard to predict what will just go right by a child, and what will be traumatic. 

You talked about your friend Cyd reading one of the All-of-a-Kind Family books with Rebekah, and her sister writes about the books wonderfully in Even in Australia.  This is not the first time I've felt I should re-visit that series.  A lot of people have a special spot in their hearts for them.  I read the first book once with our girls.  The turn of the last century Lower East Side is very well portrayed.  I remember liking some of it, but recoiling at some of the heavier gender stereotypes.  There was a chapter in which the excitement had to do with a contest among the sisters about who could dust the best/fastest.  And for me the strongest image of the book was of the father crying at the end because he was so thankful he finally had a son.  Heaven knows I've spent plenty of time saying that attitudes about women have changed, but it still was a hard scene to explain to my daughters.  Cyd and/or Rachel, I'll go back and re-read, but feel free to jump in here...



Saturday, September 3, 2011

Selective editing

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Seeing those images from Fireboat of the planes heading toward the towers, I'm not sure if I'M ready to read it with Eleanor yet. Both of the books you write about in depth, though, do seem like good possibilities in the near future.

A propos of this topic, I was talking to my friend Cyd a few days ago about the selective editing we are sometimes tempted to do as parents when reading to our children books which are mostly fabulous but contain one or two highly disturbing moments.  I've written about reading Betsy-Tacy to Eleanor for the first time and eliding the death of Tacy's baby sister (on second reading, we talked about it ahead of time and read it with the full text, and Eleanor seemed totally capable of handling it).

Cyd, mother of three girls, is currently reading the All-of-a-Kind Family series to her eldest, Rebekah.  I remember the series dimly from my own childhood -- it's about a family of five girls living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century -- but I don't think it made as much of an impression on me as it did on Cyd's family.  (Here's her sister, writing about it on one of our favorite blogs, Even in Australia.)

When the mother of a boy in one of the later books gets sick and is in the hospital, Rebekah got terribly worried about her, and asked about her welfare every night when Cyd sat down again with the book: "Is she going to be okay?  Will she get well?"  In Sydney Taylor's text, the mother dies, and the family goes to live with their social worker.  Cyd felt that this would crush Rebekah, talked it over with her husband, and had the mom get well and go to live with the social worker with the rest of the family.

As we talked, Cyd and I both felt mixed about this -- when is it time to reveal the harsh truths  that are part of life, and when is it still time to protect your child from what she will inevitably learn later?

I feel like this is a question we keep coming back to, and that there's no one good answer.

Love, Annie

Thursday, September 1, 2011

9/11 books for young children

Dear Annie,

It's lovely seeing you as a co-blogger in the New York Times today, writing about responding to 9/11 with your high school students.  I'm sorry I've never seen with their eyes performed, although one of the best meetings of Lizzie's and my mother-daughter book group was when you came to talk about it.

Last week, you brought up the issue of talking about 9/11 with Eleanor, who's four and a half, and asked about a Huffington Post list of kids' and YA books on the subject.  I'm familiar with most of them -- they cover a wide age range.  I was surprised the list didn't include Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers for teens, or Mordecai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (I know, it's about the beginning of the towers, not their end, but it still belongs).  Two of the youngest books on that list are particularly interesting.

I really like Maira Kalman's
Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey
, but it would be a very hard one to read with most young children.  I wonder if it would work for you and Eleanor, given that she's aware of what happened.  The book tells the story of a Depression-era New York City fireboat which was decommissioned in 1995 and bought by a group of friends who lovingly restored it ("They repaired the 2 propellers ... They repaired the holes with steel plates... They scraped barnacles...").

Then there's one page that's all black, with white lettering:

But then on September 11, 2011 something so huge and horrible happened that the whole world shook....

[detail of a two-page spread]
 Two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers.
CRASHED, CRASHED, CRASHED into these two strong buildings.

The sky filled with fire and smoke.
The buildings exploded and fell down to the ground.
Many people were hurt.  Many lives were lost.
After these stunning two-page spreads, the story goes back to the friends who own the John J. Harvey, who rushed to the boat  and volunteered to help.  The lower Manhattan water pipes were badly damaged, and the fireboat ended up pumping river water to the firefighters on land to pour onto the wreckage for four days.  It ends feeling a bit like the plucky little boat that could still help out.

On a completely different note is another book which comes at the events from an oblique angle: 14 Cows for America, by Carmen Agra Deedy.  It's a moving reminder of the powerful feelings generated by the attacks.  The book tells the true story of a young Maasai man who was studying medicine in the U.S. on September 11.  When he returns home to his village in Kenya, he talks about the attacks.  The villagers decide to give the U.S. a gift to express their deep sympathy: 14 cows, highly prized by the Maasai.  The U.S. ambassador eventually comes to the village to accept the gift, and the village says it will keep the herd for the Americans.  It's lovely and moving, a good way to talk about loss and caring.  The final line of the story:
Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small that they cannot offer mighty comfort.