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, October 31, 2011

Halloween in Oz

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I definitely want to see a picture of you as Miss Rumphius.

I've always loved Halloween.  Partly it's because my birthday is so close to it, and partly because I've always enjoyed dressing up.  Jeff isn't generally a costume guy, but this year Eleanor began planning for an Oz-themed Halloween last March, and we all were cast as characters.  Here's how it turned out:

That's Eleanor as Dorothy and Isabel as Toto, plus our good friend Ian as the Tin Man (his mom Holly is the Cyclone in the back).

I cannot overstate how much Charles Santore's Wizard of Oz, the very first book I blogged about on this site, has to do with Eleanor's love of Dorothy.  Yes, we've seen the movie at this point, but it was Santore's illustrations and thoughtful abridgement that brought the story to life for Eleanor, and now captivates both my children.  An absolute classic.

Happy Halloween!

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Dear Annie,

Vocabulary and SATs.  A subject I promise to address next post.  At the moment I'm full of the spirit of the season.  First:

Happy Birthday!  I hope you've been celebrated all day long.

It always seemed special to me to have your birthday so close to Halloween.

Our Halloween tradition at the store involves the entire staff dressing in costume.  As the Book Lady, I always try to be a book character.  I've been Miss Clavell from Madeleine, Amelia Bedelia, the zookeeper's wife from Good Night Gorilla, the Guinness Book of World Records, and Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter.  So, in the constant search for Women of a Certain Age in children's literature, I've decided this year to be the eponymous
Miss Rumphius
, world traveler and sower of lupine seeds, striving to make the world more beautiful.  The book is  written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney; it's a lovely lyrical celebration of living an engaged life.  Here's Miss Rumphius distributing lupine seeds:
Fortuitously, I still have the Hobbit cape I made for Lizzie's birthday party 15 years ago -- pictured here.  Tomorrow it will belong to Miss Rumphius -- amazing similarity, don't you think?  That and lots of hair devices for building topknots, and I'll be a dead ringer.  Picture to come next time, if it's not too embarrassing.

Happy birthday and Halloween to you.



Friday, October 28, 2011

Better than SAT prep?

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm glad we're swinging back to YA for the moment, because I have a question for you.  I spent three hours last night and two more this afternoon holding Parent-Teacher conferences, speaking with the parents of about half of my students (I teach just over 150 kids each semester).  Exhausting, but totally worthwhile.

One of the questions that often comes up in these conferences is how parents can help their high school-age kids prepare for the SATs and college applications.  Many parents complain that their kids aren't big readers, or used to be but aren't anymore; that they spend all their time on the computer either playing games or doing homework. At this point in their lives, these kids are learning vocabulary from test-prep courses: rote memorization with handy tricks to game the system. 

As I've mentioned before, I don't think this kind of vocabulary study works particularly well.  It's good for the short term, but it takes reading a word in context multiple times to understand its nuances, and to retain it.  I encourage parents to see all reading that their kids do as positive, and not to pile on the extra homework in an attempt to make their kids into learning machines.  Still, I am often asked for book recommendations that will help these high-schoolers succeed academically.

So here's what I'm wondering: are there YA books out there that are both high-interest and high-vocabulary level?  My student monitor asked me about this this afternoon, and I couldn't come up with anything off the top of my head.  When I read YA these days, I don't pay particular attention to the vocabulary level -- do you?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Combat, sharks and justice

Dear Annie,

I'm starting to write this as I listen to your youtube Danse Macabre link.  Halloween music.

I'm doing one of those radical turns of subject today, veering over to the death-and-macabre side of things for older kids.  I got a note from someone I haven't seen in a few years, the daughter of one of my father's (your grandfather's) oldest friends.  She was wondering about books for her 12 year-old son who's a big non-fiction reader, especially history.  She mentioned war stories, and somehow she made me think of a book I recommend fairly frequently:
Left for Dead
, by Pete Nelson.  I'm sort of stunned I didn't think of this one when we were trying to come up with kid-appropriate combat stories.  The subtitle of the book is "A Young Man's Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis."  The Navy cruiser Indianapolis delivered components of the atomic bombs to the Mariana Islands in the summer of 1945, and on its return trip was torpedoed and sunk.  Distress calls were not reacted to, and hundreds of men ended up in the water for four days before the survivors were rescued.  880 men died, many of them killed by sharks as they tried to stay afloat.  The captain was court-martialed for his handling of the ship when it was under attack, although the trial was controversial and some saw him as the scapegoat for Navy incompetence.  He eventually committed suicide in 1968.  In the 1975 movie Jaws, one character gives a grim four-minute speech about surviving the ordeal of the sinking (shark attacks being the theme here).

Twenty-two years after Jaws came out, Hunter Scott, a sixth grader in Florida saw the movie and started asking questions about the Indianapolis.  His sixth-grade history project ended up tracking down some of the surviving crew, publicizing the injustices, and four years later, in 2001, leading to the exoneration of the captain. 

The book tells the stories of the ship and sailors, and of Scott's investigation.  Some of it is within the context of Florida conservative politics, but it's an amazing story -- two amazing stories.  It's also well enough written that a fair number of customers have come back to say how much they liked it.  It's got combat and death and scariness; incompetence and accusations and cover-ups; and a kid with curiosity, brains and perseverance.  And in the end, there's justice -- in a too-late (but still triumphant) kind of way.



Monday, October 24, 2011

More music (Bug-Gup!)

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Jim Dale seems to do a pretty good job with Peter and the Wolf.  I'm still stuck on my Bernstein, though -- there's a kind of warmth behind his voice that I find very appealing.  He sounds like he's enjoying himself, and is happy that you know the piece as well as he does.  He's quite encouraging.

One more book with music: Tubby the Tuba, by Paul Tripp, illustrated by Henry Cole.  I remember the Tubby the Tuba cartoon from my childhood mostly for Tubby's melancholy voice, and I'm pretty sure the CD recording included with this book is the same one.  I'm sure at least that it's not the new recording made by Meredith Viera advertised on the official Tubby website.

The illustrations are new -- nice and cartoony, and a little bit updated.  Tubby wears shorts and a t-shirt in rehearsal, and the orchestra's usual conductor shows up in jeans and Birkenstocks with socks.  Never fear -- when Signor Pizzicato, the guest conductor, arrives, everyone is in a tuxedo.

It's interesting to look back at Tubby the Tuba from an adult perspective.  It's so clearly a story about being an outsider and then figuring out a way to belong: Tubby wants to play the melodies that everyone in the orchestra gets to play, but he keeps squashing the poor little tune, and is relegated to going "oompah, oompah."  Yes, he's the fat kid no one wants to play with, and the violins are mean to him.   Wandering off at night, he meets up with a frog singing by a pond.  The frog's salutation may be my favorite part:

Bug-Gup! Bug-Gup!  Lovely evening!
Bug-Gup! I said, bee-oo-ti-ful evening.  Hello!
Bug-Gup! Hello! Bug-Gup! Hello!

The frog teaches Tubby a frog/tuba melody, and the next day, Tubby impresses Signor Pizzicato and the rest of the orchestra with it.  Everyone wants to play his tune.  Maybe it's a little didactic, but when you include the recording, it's a lot of fun.

Along with Peter and Tubby, my girls have Danse Macabre on repeat these days, and do a terrific dance where they pretend to be witches and are frightened away by sunrise at the end.  I don't think anyone has yet turned that into a children's book, but I expect Neil Gaiman will get there sooner or later.

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Dear Annie,

I offer you one more Peter & the Wolf, although I haven't listened to the whole thing, so I don't know how it comes out.  There's a whole generation that's bonded to anything that Jim Dale says, because he's the voice of the Harry Potter audio books.  I've just ordered a version of Peter and the Wolf read by Dale -- here's a quick sample.  Am curious how it compares to Bernstein.

The music-and-story audios that had a big effect on our family were a handful of CDs from a Canadian group called  Classical Kids.  They're stories combining a young child character with biographical information and music of a major composer.   The first one we hit was Mozart's Magic Fantasy, featuring a girl who wanders into a production of The Magic Flute.  It messes with the plot a bit, given that it's adding a character. 

Then we went on to their best-known recording, Beethoven Lives Upstairs, telling the story of the great composer's life and death from the point of view of a boy whose mother rents a room to the almost-deaf composer.  Great story, lots of funeral scene. 

The girls' favorite, though, was Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery, about La Pieta orphanage in Venice, where Vivaldi taught music to the girls.  The central character is a violinist who goes on an adventure at Carnival time to try to discover her past.  It has a few scary moments, and vivid images of Venice which stuck with our girls until they were high schoolers and we visited the city.

They're good stories, and they implant the music subliminally.  All links above have audio samples attached.  I think some of them may have been turned into movies -- or videos you can find on youtube.  But just sitting at home or in the car listening is a special event.



Friday, October 21, 2011

Books that come with music

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We will have to check out some of those coloring books.  I'm starting my Christmas list now....

I said recently that I'd identify the book that Michael was reading to Eleanor in this picture.  The book itself is new to us, but the story and music behind it have become a staple in our house over the last several months.

Peter and the Wolf came into our lives when my mom told Eleanor (who is now taking ballet classes) about once dancing the part of the wolf in a performance.  The pictures of my mom being caught around the waist by Peter's rope hung for years in Grandma and Grandpa's hallway, and I always found them fascinating.  Eleanor was intrigued, and pretty soon after that, we checked out the Disney cartoon version on YouTube.  The second we put it on, Isabel was hooked.  Amazed by the wolf, entranced by the music.  They were both a little scared, too, mostly by the wolf's slavering jaws, but it's Disney, so there's a happy ending.

Isabel's interest prompted us to buy the Leonard Bernstein version of the music.  Isabel became truly obsessed.  We listened to Peter and the Wolf at least three times a day for most of the summer.  At the beginning of the recording, Bernstein presents the instruments playing each character in the story as a sort of quiz: "And what's that old bassoon doing? Right, it's Peter's grandfather.  You really know this piece, don't you?"  Oh yes, Leonard Bernstein, we do.

For Isabel's birthday, my parents found a gorgeous illustrated version of the story, which comes with a CD: Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, illustrated by Peter Malone.  The story is largely the classic one: Peter goes wandering out of his house into the fields, though his grandfather tells him not to.  The duck wanders out too, and play-fights with the bird; the cat appears and tries to eat the bird; Peter's grandfather sends him back inside.  Then the wolf appears.  The wolf chases everybody, eats the duck, and is ultimately captured by Peter, with the help of the bird.  Hunters come and march the wolf off, and the whole thing ends with a parade.

I love the illustrations in this version: they have a very Russian feel to them, and remind me of Vladimir Vagin's gorgeous drawings in The King's Equal.  The text has been sanitized a little: the wolf eats the duck here, but at the end he convinces the hunters that he'll be good, and they agree to let him go (!), and then he feels bad, so he coughs the duck up.  Not like any wolf I've ever heard of, but okay.  The grandfather is also a little nicer: in the Bernstein version, he's grumpy to the end, complaining at the parade about what might have happened if Peter hadn't caught the wolf.  Here, he marches along proud of Peter.

I'm a big fan of Leonard Bernstein's voice, and after so many times through it, far prefer his creepy ending, with the duck's quacking still audible from inside the wolf's belly, as well as his slight upper-crust accent, to the narration on the book's CD.  Still, the music is wonderful -- by turns playful, dramatic, and narrative.  It bears listening to five thousand times.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Dear Annie,

Do I sell sticker books?  Yes, by the hundreds.  So much so that I can recognize the particular DK Ultimate Sticker Book that's pasted all over Isabel in your hilarious picture.  Sticker books come under the broad umbrella of activity books: stickers, coloring books, paper dolls, mazes, dot-to-dots, hidden pictures, etc.  I have a particular tour of the store I offer people who are looking for travel activities: I ask the children's ages, then we visit various activity book racks, miniature versions of games, audio books, racks of small plastic objects (people, animals, cars...).  Activity books, as I've mentioned, are where I try to contain the junky stuff: Barbie, Disney princesses, TV spinoffs.

I wanted to add two kinds of sticker books to your list.  There are the paper doll books.  They usually have a punch-out paper doll and lots of reusable sticker clothing to put on the doll.  Illustrated on the left is an Usborne book that's a little less over-the-top than the Princess/Wedding/Fairy ones -- but they've got those too.  Usborne, a British publisher of many different kinds of activity books, also does some good, non-product-driven sticker books.  The farm sticker book is on the right; they have concept ones (numbers, letters, etc.), and lots of vehicles.

I want to put in a good word for coloring books.   There are those who avoid them at all costs, feeling they have nothing to do with the creativity of doing art.  I agree, standard color-between-the-lines books aren't art, but they are a form of more meditative activity that can be engaging on a trip or a quiet afternoon.  Good for fine-motor practice too.

And these days there are also several lines of coloring books which are basically prompts to finish and color drawings.  Taro Gomi, a wonderful Japanese illustrator, has done many along these lines:

Lots more on Gomi's books -- many of which are very large and thick, but fun -- and downloadable pages here.

Yesterday the mother of a ten year-old came in looking for 
Rosie Flo coloring books
.  They're British, but most are published in the U.S.  The books provide clothing and the child provides the people within them.  These seem to hold interest of kids of many ages.  Sometimes the pictures are whimsical clothing lined up on a page, and other times you get a scene:

Lots to do.



Monday, October 17, 2011

In praise of sticker books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our weekend away (and without internet access, hence without blogging) was lovely: the wedding of good friends, and two nights away from our normal life.  I thought about children's books, of course; in fact, I read an excerpt of Home for a Bunny as part of the ceremony.

But what I want to write about tonight are sticker books.  More specifically, sticker books as a great savior on plane rides and long car trips, sticker books as activity and bribe and simple, cheap fun.  They're less messy than drawing with markers while traveling (though we brought those too), don't take up much space, and can occupy Eleanor for a nice long time, and Isabel for at least the minutes it takes for her to take all the stickers out and apply them to her body:

There are all kinds of sticker books, of course, sticker books for every kids' franchise on earth, product tie-ins up the wazoo.  There are the dollar-fifty 6-page sticker books that the girls talk me into buying when we go to the bookstore; those are good for a subway ride, though I find that an inordinate number of them drip glitter.  There are the 8 1/2 by 11 full-size books, some with hundreds upon hundreds of stickers.  I can't claim to be a sticker book expert, but there are two types of books that the girls have particularly liked.

First, there's the Match the Sticker to its Place kind of book.  DK publishes a lot of "Ultimate" sticker books, largely with product tie-ins, and their (now out of print) Disney Animals Ultimate Sticker Book occupied Eleanor for several sittings when she was about 2 1/2.  She would find a sticker, peel it off, then hold it carefully while she turned the pages, trying to find the shadow shape where it fit.  The Disney Animals one had the added benefit of including characters from all kinds of Disney movies, over a period of perhaps 50 years, and sorting them by type of animal: there was a whole page of jungle animals, a page of fish, a page of dogs and cats, etc.  The sorting aspect was very pleasing.  We've tried a few other DK books, never with quite as good results, but still well made overall.

Then there's the Here's a Scene, Paste Some Characters and Things On It kind of sticker book.  On this trip, we brought along this Flower Fairies Sticker Storybook for Eleanor: pages of fairyland scenes on which you can stick extra fairies, flowers, nuts, berries, etc.  The drawings in this one are all from the 1920s, by Cicely Mary Barker, so although the bits of text are dumb ("The picnic turns into a party.  Soon the glade is covered with fairy decorations, and there are Flower Fairies everywhere!"), the stickers themselves are quite nice and old-fashioned.  Eleanor spent about 20 minutes setting up a fairy picnic and giving all the fairies acorn and star hats.

Do sticker books fall under your purview at the book-and-toy store?  Any suggestions for our next big trip?

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The postseason

Dear Annie,

I hope your weekend away has been good, filled with friends, and relaxing.

Life at the store is starting to speed up, as it is wont to do this time of year.  But before I sink into nothing-but-work, I thought I'd tip the hat to the baseball post-season.  All the teams our extended family roots for have been eliminated long since, but I seem to be obsessively following the dwindling number of games still available.  Baseball is such a pleasure, and the intensity of this time of year is always fascinating.  Tonight could be the deciding game in the NLCS, then on to the World Series.

At the start of the 2010 season, I listed a few good kids' baseball books, but I'm adding two more today.

First, we'll travel back to the summer of 1941.  My mother (your grandma) was home in New York between her junior and senior years at Rollins College in Florida.  She turned 20 that summer, my daughter Mona's current age.  Her 28 year-old boyfriend (my dad, your grandpa) was working for Life Magazine -- that might have been the summer they spent a night sleeping in Central Park (that family legend has always been fuzzy).  Although the Mets eventually turned Helen into a baseball fan, I don't know if she or Frank was paying much attention to the game that remarkable year.

The Unforgettable Season
by Phil Bildner, with illustrations by S.D. Schindler tells the stories of Yankee Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak (the longest ever), and Red Sox Ted Williams' season of batting .406 (.400 hasn't been touched since).  It's a picture book -- aimed at ages 5 to 9 -- full of illustrations, statistics and suspense.  1941 also had the bittersweet distinction of being the last summer before World War II changed that generation's lives.  By the following summer, my parents were married, your grandpa was in Basic Training, and U.S. involvement in the war was in full swing.  Both Willliams and DiMaggio ended up in the military.

Getting back to the game, I offer a baseball novel that immerses the reader in the love of playing baseball. 
Six Innings
, by James Preller, focuses on the Little League postseason: a regional championship game.  The structure of the novel is the innings of the game.  We get to know all the players, and the announcer, who's a former team member who now is seriously ill.  The book mixes real feelings and character development with evocative description of how it feels to be in the game.  It's one of the best-written sports books I know for middle-graders.  And while poking around online tonight to find more information about the book, I found this lovely and emotional blog entry by Preller, explaining what led him to write the book.

So, on to the World Series.  With whoever's playing.



Wednesday, October 12, 2011

mutual memories.2

Dear Annie,

I'm back in DC, recreating the entry I wrote then lost on Sunday in Seattle.

Ah well, I knew I was pushing it with the The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.  I had hoped the repetition and suspense might grab.  I know what you're saying about the creepiness of McKean's drawings, although I think the startling differentness of them can engage an older child.

Your mentioning good old Odd and the Frost Giants made me realize that Odd and Wolves in the Walls have the same infrastructure.  Lucy in Wolves (or Odd in Frost Giants) is faced with family (gods) who have been summarily evicted from their homes by malevolent stronger beings.  The family (gods) dither, while Lucy (Odd), the youngest of the group, summons common sense and courage to regain the territory. 

original cover: 1902
We had a lovely small memorial service for Bob's mother on Saturday, and (unsurprisingly in this family) the subject of reading came up.  Bob's nephew Pete -- whom you may remember as the wonderful photographer at your brother's wedding last summer -- talked about reading Kipling with his grandparents.  Bob's dad read Pete the Just So Stories when he was a kid.  Pete remembers fondly returning again and again to one particular story, "The Elephant's Child."  Decades later, when his grandfather's health was failing, Pete sat by his bedside and read the story aloud to him.  At the service, Bob starting reciting the story's lilting line, "on the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees,"  and his brother, Pete, and several others chimed in.  Later, my brother Al said he and his daughter Ona exchanged glances on that one, then he recited the same line to me. 

It was a time for family and friends to share memories, of course.  But there's something so satisfying about sharing words written more than a century ago that have been savored by generations of two families.  Gifts given to children that go with them through life.



Monday, October 10, 2011

family reading -- an image

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I am drowning in work here, and Columbus Day means that tonight is really a teacher's Sunday night, so my larger ideas will have to wait.  I hope you are well, and that the memorial for Bob's mom was good.  In the meantime, here's one of my favorite images from last month's pictures -- from the evening of Isabel's birthday party, the girls being read to before bedtime by their uncle and aunt:

Isabel and Grace are reading Peek-a-boo; I'll write about what Michael was reading to Eleanor on Friday....

Love, Annie

Mutual memories.1

Dear Annie,

I'm in Seattle, writing on an unfamiliar laptop, and somehow the computer ate the post I've been working on throughout the day. Rrgh!

It was about Bob's mom's memorial service (which is why we're here) and families and books.  I'll re-create  it and post next time (too late tonight), but in the meantime, imagine a lovely day in Alaska in 1938, a log cabin, a young woman destined to become my children's grandmother, and a good book:

More soon.



Friday, October 7, 2011

Why I don't like Neil Gaiman's picture books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I have to admit it: I don't like the Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean picture books.  I want to like them -- I read all of Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels in college, and went on to enjoy Good Omens, his satirical collaboration with Terry Pratchett (very funny, very Douglas Adams in tone).  Eleanor and I both loved Odd and the Frost Giants; in fact, Eleanor recently asked me if there were any more books about Odd.

I think it may be largely a question of illustrations.  Gaiman's writing has a wit and warmth about it, a sense of humor that I enjoy.  Dave McKean's illustrations creep me out.

They're technically beautiful: combinations of drawing and collage and photograph, a melding of different styles, lots of dynamic movement.  But there is something very inhuman about his people: the eyes which are nothing but pupil, the shadows and angular lines.  They're not pictures I want to look at, and they're not pictures I much want Eleanor and Isabel to see either.  For me, they overwhelm Gaiman's wit.

This is true more for The Wolves in the Walls than for The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, which we just received from you in the most wonderful Isabel Birthday Box.  I haven't read it to Eleanor yet, but the interesting thing is that she saw it and didn't immediately ask me to, as she did ask me to read her every other book in the box. 

About a year ago, we took another Gaiman/McKean collaboration out of the library.  Crazy Hair is a poem, and an exercise in hyperbole:

"In my hair
Gorillas leap,
Tigers stalk,
And ground sloths sleep.
Prides of lions
Make their lair
Somewhere in my crazy hair."

The text is kind of cool.  The drawings are kind of creepy.  Eleanor had zero interest in the book -- didn't want to look at it, wouldn't even let me read it through once.  My mom looked through it and pronounced it slightly disturbing.

Perhaps we'll all feel differently when the girls get a little older, and enjoy a disturbing thrill.  For now, though, we are clearly not the Gaiman/McKean target audience.

Love, Annie

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gaiman picture books

Dear Annie,

Ah, the two-year old world.  Ah, wolfes.

Isabel has provided me with the perfect segue to two strange and wonderful and not necessarily young-child-friendly picture books by the excellent Neil Gaiman.  We seem to have written about him only once, in relation to Norse mythology.

Wolves in the Walls
by Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean, starts with Lucy hearing things:
(Not a book to read at bedtime.)  Her family members dismiss her belief that there are wolves in the walls, but all three tell her, "You know what they say, if the wolves come out of the walls, then it's all over."  They finally do, in a burst of black line drawings, causing the family to flee:

(Lucy's father is a professional tuba player.)  The family huddles in the garden while the wolves party in the house.  Lucy is the only rational one of the bunch.  She sneaks back to rescue her pig-puppet, then concocts a plan for the family to return to the house and live in the walls.
"What?" said her father
"What?" said her mother.
"What?" said her brother.
"What?" said the Queen of Melanesia, who had dropped by to help with the gardening.
That's the Queen's entire participation in the book: she's a cameo.  Lucy leads the family into the walls, then in an attack on the wolves:
"Arrgh!" howled the wolves.  "The people have come out of the walls!"
"And when the people come of the the walls," shouted the biggest, fattest wolf, flinging aside the tuba, "it's all over!"
The wolves all flee and the family eventually restores order. Then Lucy starts hearing new noises...  It's creepy and fascinating and wacky.

In the process of searching for already-scanned pictures from Wolves, I came upon a site called Teaching Children Philosophy which discusses "numerous philosophical issues concerning knowledge, metaphysics, and ethics" brought up by this off-beat book.  Kind of lovely, actually.

Six years before Wolves, Gaiman and McKean collaborated on
The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish
, which I sent to you as an un-birthday present for Eleanor. It's another odd one, but higher on the purely funny end of the spectrum.

A boy's friend comes to visit with two goldfish in a bowl.  They discuss a trade, but nothing offered by the narrator is acceptable.
I thought for a bit.

Some people have great ideas maybe once or twice in their life, and then they discover electricity or fire or outer space or something. I mean the kind of brilliant ideas that change the whole world. Some people never have them at all. I get them two or three times a week.

"I'll swap you my dad," I said.

"Oh-oh,” said my little sister.
"That's not a fair swap," said Nathan. I've got two goldfish, and you've only got one dad.
 But the dad is bigger than the goldfish, so the swap is made.  When Mum comes home the kid sister rats on her brother, and both children are sent off with the goldfish to retrieve the dad.   Nathan, the goldfish boy, shows the narrator an electric guitar he has just acquired in a swap:
And of course Vashti got the dad in exchange for the guitar.  Brother and sister, bickering all the way, find that guitar girl swapped dad for a gorilla mask, and on it goes.  Finally the siblings bring a very large rabbit named Galveston to Patti's house, where the bunny is greeted with glee (including enthusiasm from the Queen of Melanesia, in another cameo).  The father is found reading his paper in the rabbit hutch and the children take him home, reading the paper all the way.

It's fun and nutty and, like Wolves,  much more visually sophisticated than your average kids' picture book.  I've never offered it to someone Eleanor's age -- I think of it as a bit older sense of humor.  But I'm curious what you guys think of it.



Monday, October 3, 2011

"Who's that?"

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Animal Faces arrived today.  What an excellent book!  Isabel sat right down with it to examine the animals.  She opened to the page with camels:

 "Who's that?"
"That's a camel."
"Oh.  Who's that?"
"That's another camel."
"Who's that?"
"That's another camel.  They're all camels."
"Oh.  Who's that?"
We moved on to the seals, the rhinoceroses, the polar bears, the lions, and the foxes.

"Where's the wolfes?"
"The wolves?  I'll find them."

I found the wolves.

"Ohhhh, wolfes.  [pointing at each] One wolf, one wolf, one wolf, one wolf, one wolf, one wolf.  Aroooo!"

These two reactions -- "Who's that?" and "counting" -- are hallmarks of the reading experience with Isabel these days.  She's taken to asking us to read her fairly long picture books, books with text at a level that she doesn't get yet, and we work our way through them with her, narrating around the pictures as much as reading the actual words.

The biggest hit at the moment is our old favorite, Charles Santore's The Wizard of Oz. Isabel can identify all the characters, and explain the high points of the plot.   She's excited to dress up as Toto this Halloween (Eleanor planned out our Oz-themed costumes in March, and hasn't budged since then).  I think her repeated "Who's that?" is a way of reinforcing knowledge she already has, sometimes gaining new knowledge, and playing with the idea of testing my knowledge and getting me to come around to her point of view.

On the illustration of the Munchkins last night:

Isabel: "Those are goblins."
"No, they're Munchkins."
"Oh.  Who's that?"
"Who's that?"
"They're Munchkins."
"Who's that?"
"Who's that?"
"They're called Munchkins."
"Who's that?"
Isabel, finally satisfied: "Oh."

We're loving age two around here.

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Escaping the stereotype (with difficulty)

Dear Annie,

The Sambo story, stripped of its unhappy heritage, is a good story.  The imagery stays with readers for a long time.  Every few years, some brave soul attempts a new version.  In 2003, the lush artist Christopher Bing illustrated Bannerman's words with an African child in an Indian setting:
 The over-sized picture book even has tiger claw marks on the cover.  It keeps the title and the names, however, which are part of the problematic history of the story.  Sambo, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo were names which became twisted into racist stereotypes.

Two major figures of children's literature of the last 40+ years, Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney, both African-American, collaborated back in 1996 on a retelling which avoided the name question by calling all the people in the book Sam and their country Sam-sam-sa-mara.  So conversations go like this: "Sam looked at Sam. Sam shrugged. Sam shrugged back...."

Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo
creates some extra characters and broadens the humor.
 Sam had an idea of what kind of a day it was going to be, and when he saw the next Tiger coming, he took off his shoes.  "Here you go," Sam said, holding out the shoes.  
"Good deal for you. Bad deal for me.  I've got four feet.  You only got two shoes."
"Feet!" Sam exclaimed. "These are ear-shoes!"
The Tiger put them on.  "Ain't I fine!" he declared.
"You are indeed," Sam agreed.
The Tiger went on his way.
Sam didn't see any point in moving, and sure enough, along came another Tiger.
My experience as a bookseller is that this and Little Babaji are the versions most likely to appeal to customers, but even with the modern sensibility, a lot of folks are still uncomfortable. 

I finally sent off a box of birthday books for Isabel (with some sisterly additions too) today.  One of them, a picture book by Neil Gaiman, is  something I'll write about next time.