In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Poetry in a nutshell

Dear Annie,

I'd like to point out a lovely comment on the movie Hugo that's just been posted here by your father, my brother-in-law.  Testimony to the fascination of great books and movies for both kids and grown-ups.  Thank you, John.

Now on to Nick's question about more poetry, which got me thinking too.  In addition to the book lists you referred to in your post, we went on a roll about poetry back in June of 2010: there were four posts in a row: here, here, here and here.  Don't know if you found all four of them, Nick -- and they're fun to revisit anyway.

So imagine my surprise when I realized we haven't visited Maurice Sendak's
Nutshell Library
.  It's four small rhyming books: Chicken Soup with Rice (about months), Alligators All Around (alphabet), One Was Johnny (numbers), and
Pierre: a cautionary tale
.  They're all delightful, but for the moment I'll stick with Pierre, a boy who responds to all statements -- including his mother's "You are my darling boy/you are my only joy" --  with, "I don't care." When he stands on his head on a chair:
His father said,
"Get off your head, or I will march you up to bed."
Pierre said,
"I don't care!"
"I would think that you could see --"
"I don't care!"
"your head is where your feet should be!"
"I don't care!"
"If you keep standing upside down -- "
"I don't care!"
"We'll never ever get to town."
"I don't care!"
"If only you would say I CARE."
"I don't care!"
"I'd let you fold the folding chair."
"I don't care!"
So his parents left him there.
They didn't take him anywhere.
The parents go, a lion appears, expresses the intention to eat him, with the usual response.  The lion then says, "Then I'll eat you if I may," to which Pierre replies, "I don't care!" and is eaten.  When the parents come home, the lion is abed and they fear the worst.
His mother asked, "Where is Pierre?"
The lion answered, "I don't care!"
His father said, "Pierre's in there!"
The doctor eventually gets a relieved Pierre out, and now, of course, he cares.  It's another Sendak mix of the absurd with intense feeling.  And it's all wrapped up in great rhythms and rhymes.



Monday, November 28, 2011

Book lists and rhyme, all the time

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I really want to see Hugo.  Going to need babysitting for that one.  We took the girls to their first movie-theater movie this weekend: the new Muppet movie.  It was a total hit, both girls mesmerized by the big screen.  Isabel didn't say a word, and practically didn't move, for more than two hours.  Eleanor had much more active reactions, laughing, squealing, even crying towards the end when it looked like the bad guy was going to win.  She knows a lot of stories, but doesn't yet fully understand that comedy means the good guys are going to come out on top at the end.

While movies are clearly a different medium from books, and what they require from an audience is different as well, I can't help feeling that the sustained attention span Eleanor and Isabel have built up in all our reading time has something to do with their ability to follow the narrative of a full-length movie.  It certainly informs the way they tell stories.  A couple of nights ago, they were in the bath together, each girl playing her own separate narrative game.  Eleanor had a Barbie in the tub with her, who she had cast as Cinderella, and there was a complex dialogue going on, Eleanor voicing Cinderella and herself and a small cast of other characters.  Right next to her, Isabel swam a rubber crocodile through the water, saying, "And the crocodile swam toward the child, and the child kissed the crocodile" (she picked it up and kissed it) "and took the crocodile home to its mother."  I'm a sucker for kids narrating stories about themselves in third-person.

But back to books.  Earlier tonight, Nick left a comment asking about more recommendations for rhyming books for 3-year-olds.  I'll answer that partially by encouraging readers to check out our Book List pages.  Under Picture Books, I have two lists that might be helpful: "Books it's fun to read aloud because of rhythm and rhyme" and "Rhyming books."  I've just added a few titles to each from the archives.

Lately, Dr. Seuss has been circulating heavily in our rotation.  In an earlier discussion of poetry, you mentioned Green Eggs and Ham, one of Isabel's current favorites.  Talk about rhythm and rhyme -- this book has an engine thrumming beneath every page:

I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

I didn't realize until I had kids that, of course, this is a book about picky eaters.  How many times has every parent played out this same scenario? "You do not like them.  So you say.  Try them!  Try them! And you may."

Dr. Seuss has so much going for him: the strange, effective creatures, the loopy twisting roads and railroad tracks, the rhyme, the repetition.  It's funny -- I don't feel the same affection for his books that I do for, say, anything by Margaret Wise Brown, but he is classic, worth rereading often, and a natural place to go to when you want some serious rhymes.

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A book to watch

Dear Annie,

I hope your Thanksgiving was a good one.  We had relatives from Bob's side of the family and our Lizzie here with us.  On Friday night, in part because I was so curious about it, some of us went to see Hugo, the new Martin Scorsese movie based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, which we've written about here.

The book is a visual feat: the story is told alternately in words and in pictures.  Here are two short sequences:
Both those scenes are in the movie, with the same emotional meaning as in Selznick's illustrations.  The film stays very true to the look and feel of the book -- one feels immersed in it, and I don't think that's because it was in 3-D.  Hugo is a12 year-old boy living hidden in a Paris railway station, and much of the film is shot from the perspective of someone shorter than the adults around him. 

The plot swings around two historical artifacts and the characters' emotions tangled up in them.  One is a damaged mechanical man -- an "automaton" -- which Hugo hopes to make work again.  The other has to do with the films of a very early movie-maker, Georges Méliès.  My recollection of the book was that the suspense surrounding the automaton was primary, and the films secondary.  In the movie, the priorities are reversed.  Scorsese, a master filmmaker, offers a history of early film -- and some hilarious and fascinating clips from  old movies.  The history is wonderful, the plot remains mostly true to the book, and true to Selznick's emotionally powerful main character.

I wonder what your father (my brother-in-law), who's so knowledgeable about film, will think of it.  John?

It's almost always disappointing to see what the movie industry does to good kids' books, but this time I think Scorsese made a film that's both his own, and one true to the book.  My biggest problem with the film was the 3-D.  This may be my inner Luddite speaking, but I really didn't see the point of making gears jump out of the screen, snowflakes appear to fall on the audience, or even the crowd scenes be in-your-face.  The film itself is enough to pull you in.  And it really does.



Friday, November 25, 2011

Animal house

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You make me excited for Christmas (for which I am otherwise woefully unprepared).  I adore Inga Moore.

With winter coming, we've been doing a lot of reading of another book about large animals and small animals trying to live together in a space that doesn't quite work for them:   The Mitten, retold by Alvin Tresselt.  It's a traditional Ukranian folktale, and the illustrations by Yaroslava in this version give it a very Easten European feel. 

A little boy out gathering firewood for his grandmother on the coldest day of winter drops his mitten in the snow.  The narrator opines: "Now, how a boy could do this on the coldest day of winter I'll never know, but that's the way my grandfather tells the story."

The boy goes off, and a mouse decides to crawl into the mitten to keep warm.  She is soon joined by a parade of animals who increase in size and absurdity: a frog, an owl, a rabbit, a fox, a wolf, a boar.  The mitten gets more and more snug; seams start to strain.  Then a bear comes along.

"No room! No room!" cried the animals even before the bear had a chance to speak.
"Nonsense!" said the bear.  "There's always room for one more."
And without so much as a please or thank you, he began crawling into the mitten.
He put his paw in first, and the mitten creaked and groaned.
He put his other paw in, and one of the seams popped.
Then he took a deep breath and pushed himself in.

So you think it's going to be the bear who makes the mitten explode -- but it isn't!  The last straw comes in the form of a tiny cricket, who shows up just after the bear in a very pleasing reversal of expectations.  NOW the mitten explodes, and all the animals get tossed out across a double-page spread into the snow.

The boy realizes he's lost his mitten, and comes back to look for it, but all he can find are the ripped-apart pieces.  The book ends, "And my grandfather says he never did know what really happened to his mitten."  The idea that this reveals that the story is made up is lost on my kids -- kind of a complex thing to explain -- but it has led to some interesting conversations.

Eleanor and Isabel love the repetition in the story, the way the mitten-house gets more and more ridiculous.  There's suspense and humor, and Yaroslava draws all the animals in traditional Ukrainian clothing, which is very funny.  I also appreciate that the animals are of mixed gender, pretty much half male and half female.  Half of the pictures are black line drawings on turquoise-blue pages; the other half are on white pages with the color inked in in a pleasingly solid way.  It's high-contrast, and very appealing to the eye.  It's also, after you close the book, a fun game to play with a blanket and couch cushions.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Friendship, homebuilding and peanut butter

Dear Annie,

"Everything!  Everything!"  What a perfect reaction to getting the connections in a series of books.  Such a lovely time you're having reading with your children.

Tonight I'm spilling the beans on a Christmas gift I'll be sending Eleanor and Isabel.  I first read this one as a sample back in the spring, and have been waiting to write about it until it came out last week. 
A House in the Woods
is a picture book written and illustrated by the wonderful Inga Moore -- I don't know if this is her first foray into writing.  You've written about her illustrations for Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden.  She continues to do amazing emotionally descriptive pictures filled with detail.  And her characters are full of body language and personality.

We start with two friends:
One morning the two Little Pigs went out walking together.  One Little Pig found a feather, and the other found an interesting stick.
After the walk, the pigs find that their homes have been unintentionally destroyed by their large friends Moose and Bear, who were only trying to move in:
There they are, in a pickle, with such expressive human-like bodies, the pigs with the feather and stick, and a Narnia-esque lamppost in the woods.

They decide to build a house together and call the Beavers (old-fashioned phone on nearby tree) to help them with the project:

The beavers are so professional -- and so consistently cheerful.  And payment in peanut-butter sandwiches is such a nice touch.  They fell trees in beaver fashion, with cheers from the non-chewers, then everyone gets busy:
This size picture doesn't do the scene justice: there's so much going on!
By lunchtime the walls of the house were up . . . and by dinnertime the roof was on. (The lunch and dinner times were on different days, of course.  Beavers are fast, but not that fast.)
The house is finally finished and furnished, and the bill is delivered.  There's a dash to the local store to buy peanut-butter and bread, and the four friends go to the quite spectacular beaver lodge with six towering plates of sandwiches to which grown-up and child beavers help themselves.  Then then the four head back to their new home, have supper, talk by the fire, and go sweetly to bed.

The tone throughout the book is cozily descriptive.  Toward the end, the author asks if the reader thinks all that hard work has been worth it.  (How could one say not?)  And we get to say goodnight to each of the main characters, snoozing in their beds beneath birds roosting in the rafters.  A really wonderful book.



Monday, November 21, 2011

Fantastic stories parents tell their kids

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Julian sounds like an awesome character.  We'll have to put him on the list.  We've just run through the four linked Edward Eager books that begin with Half Magic, and are back to rereading My Father's Dragon.  The end of The Time Garden, which has the scene in which Katherine and Martha's children travel back in time and meet (and rescue) their mothers as children, was a fabulous reading experience.  As Jeff read the scene and Eleanor realized what was happening, she got incredibly excited, so much so that she started bouncing and jumping on the couch, sputtering, "Everything!  Everything!"  I can't wait for her to discover other linked fictional universes.

Your descriptions of Julian's tall tales made me think of a picture book which also involves tall tales and strange, elaborate drawings: Waiting for Gregory,by Kimberly Willis Holt, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska.  It's a book Aunt Irene and cousin Ona sent Eleanor when I was pregnant with Isabel -- a Preparing for the New Baby book, with a couple of twists.

The book begins:

Aunt Athena is expecting a baby boy.
She says we'll call him Gregory.

The picture is of Iris, the narrator, holding the rendering of Aunt Athena's pregnancy.  It gives you the sense of the lovely, odd combination Swiatkowska achieves in her illustrations: her characters have an 18th-century feel about them, and the pages are filled with intricate line drawings of ladders and angels and strange machines -- it feels a little like an artist's notebook.

Iris is eager for her cousin to be born, and curious about when it's going to happen, but no one will give her a straight answer.  "Soon, Iris, but not too soon," her father tells her.  And then the myths come: Iris's grandfather tells her Gregory will be arriving by stork; her grandmother tells her he's growing under a cabbage in her aunt's garden, her friend Lacey insists it has to do with Aunt Athena eating "a thousand chocolate-chip ice cream sundaes with sour pickles on top."  Finally, Iris asks her mother, who pulls out the most accurate information from each story (while still eliding any actual physical facts of pregnancy), and gives Iris a rough estimate.

Iris goes on in the vein of Babies Can't Eat Kimchee to imagine all the things she wants to do with Gregory:

When Gregory arrives, of course, he can't do any of those things yet, but there is the hopeful, pleased sense that some day he will.

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Up from the basement

Dear Annie,

Bob has gone through a flurry of Fall Cleaning this weekend, digging boxes out of the basement and reorganizing our storage space.  Several boxes marked, "Children's books -- take to Maine" have surfaced, and he hasn't been able to resist pulling some of our favorites to have back on the shelves.  Some of what we've got on display:
and on and on.  I live with lots of these books at work, but it's so cozy having the dog-eared copies here on the bookshelves in the dining room.

The one I grabbed and happily re-read this evening is
The Stories Julian Tells
, by Ann Cameron.  The cover has been redesigned kind of unimaginatively, but the internal illustrations by Ann Strugnell are still intricate and lovely.  It's an early chapter book -- one of those starter books in which each chapter is a separate short story.

Julian is an older brother who leans toward magical thinking and making up tall tales.  The first story refers to corporal punishment in a way that one could be unhappy about.  Julian and Huey's father makes a pudding for their mother. "A wonderful pudding....It will taste like a whole raft of lemons.  It will taste like a night on the sea."  The pudding is beautiful, the boys are told to stay away from it, and of course they consume almost all of it when no one else is around.  The last part of the story involves the angry father saying that there's going to be some beating and whipping going on, and the boys are clearly scared he's going to hit them.  The beating and whipping turn out to refer to the steps in making a new pudding, which the dad supervises and the boys make.  They're tired from the exertion, but physically unharmed and no longer hungry for pudding.

I'm making this sound bad, but the relationship between father and sons throughout the book is clearly loving and teasing.  The second story, "Catalog Cats," is one that will stay with many readers for years, if not decades.  Dad sends away for a seed catalog, and the younger Huey asks Julian,
"What's a catalog?"
"A catalog," I said, "is where cats come from.  It's a big book full of pictures of hundreds and hundreds of cats.  And when you open it up, all the cats jump out and start running around."
"I don't believe you," Huey said.
"It's true," I said.
"But why would Dad be sending for that catalog cat book?"
"The cats help with the garden," I said.
"I don't believe you," Huey said.
"It's true," I said.  "You open the catalog, and the cats jump out.  They run outside and work in the garden."

When the much-anticipated catalog finally arrives, Huey bursts into tears because there are no cats.  He explains to their confused father about the cats that will help prepare the soil and plant the seeds.  Again we have the apprehension about parental anger.

"Julian!" said my father.
"Yes," I said.  When my father's voice gets loud, mine gets so small I can only whisper.
"Julian," my father said, "didn't you tell Huey that catalog cats are invisible?"
The father goes on to weave a much taller tale about the catalog cats, how they move too fast to be seen, and they only work on gardens if people do half the work too.  By the end of the succeeding chapter, Julian half believes in them.

Our girls were quite fond of this one --  it was lovely to revisit tonight.



Friday, November 18, 2011

Sesame Street, old and new

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Press Here gets high marks in our house.  At 4 1/2, Eleanor finds it totally amusing and fun -- really gets into pushing the dots, though she knows of course that it's not real.  Isabel likes getting her hands all over it because that's what Eleanor is doing, but she doesn't seem to get the apparent causal connection, either to think that her pressing on the dots is doing anything, or to realize that it isn't.  My feeling is that it's a book with a very specific perfect age range: say, 3 to 5.

All this talk of self-conscious picture books has made me think of an oldie from my childhood: the Sesame Street classic The Monster at the End of This Book.  I'm glad to see it's still around.  It's a similarly meta-story: Grover sees the title, and spends the whole book talking to the reader about how nervous he is about the monster that's coming.  Of course, you get to the end, and the monster is Grover himself ("Oh, I am so embarrassed.")  There's apparently a new sequel to the book, starring Elmo as well as Grover: Another Monster at the End of This Book.

We don't have a ton of TV tie-in books, but I've found the Sesame Street ones to be pretty decent as the genre goes.  (It's funny -- I don't remember buying any of them, or even receiving them as gifts, but we have several.  They're kind of like mushrooms, growing up naturally in the soil of any house containing kids.)

Isabel's favorite is Sesame Street Ready for School, a 10-page lift-the-flap board book that I think we may have found in our building's laundry room.  It's pretty awesome: one double-page spread focuses on shapes in a street scene of kids going to school, one on numbers (counting things in the classroom), one on colors (art class), one on action words (on the playground), and the last on food (snack time).  You can tell this is new, politically correct Sesame Street by the fact that Cookie Monster's cookie-shaped lunch box contains only a fruit cup.  Sigh.

The other favorite Sesame Street book around here is Animal Alphabet.  In it, Elmo and the other Sesame Street regulars walk you through animals whose names begin with every letter, in order.  We have a number of alphabet books, but the cartoony nature of this one (and of course the appearance of Elmo, who is like crack to children) has made it a hit with both girls for quite some time.  The text of these books isn't terribly interesting, but it's always at least decent, and there is an underlying educational philosophy, which is more than I can say for a lot of the TV books out there.

Love, Annie

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Shaking it up

Dear Annie,

Continuing here with the permeable fourth wall, I'm having a hard time deciding how I feel about
Press Here
by Herve Tullet.  It's a large-format, sturdy-paged book with lots of dots in it.  It starts with one yellow dot and the words, "Press here and turn the page."  Two dots appear on the next page, and the reader is encouraged to press a dot again.  A third dot appears.  One page instructs the reader to tilt the book to the left, and all the dots (there are more by now) end up on the far left side of the page.  Then the book holder straightens it out:

Perfect! ... Now press hard on all the dots. Really hard.

Not bad. Shake them up a little.
Pretty, isn't it?  Try blowing on them ... to get rid of the black.
Hmmmm.  Maybe a bit harder?
And on it goes: clapping makes the dots bigger, and at the end of course, the only thing to do is to go back to the beginning.

One of my colleagues has a three year-old who loves this book.  Like Eleanor and Isabel with the cats, he knows it's not real, and he gets that it's a joke.  I think there's also something satisfyingly tactile about being instructed to put your hands all over a book.  So sometimes I think, this is cool three year-old humor.  Yet at other times it feels a little too cute, a little too much like a kids' book that's angling for a museum shop to sell it.  Too self-conscious, maybe.  What do your girls think of this one?

I have no problems with the hilariously self-conscious 
We Are in a Book!
by the prolific Mo Willems.  This one's my favorite Elephant & Piggie book.  The two characters start out sitting back-to-back.
"Yes, Gerald?"
"I think someone is looking at us."
So Piggie gets up and takes a look:

After some consideration, they agree that "A reader is reading us," leading them to the joyous realization: "We are in a book!"

Piggie gets a crafty look in her eye and says, "I can make the reader say a word," and demonstrates:

The fact that the reader has said Banana leads them to gales of falling-down laughter and a few repeats of the word.  Then the existential realization hits that the book is going to end: Piggie lifts a corner of a page to check how long it is (57 pages).

Gerald, as is his wont,  gets more and more upset:
This book is going too fast!
I have more to give!
More words!
More jokes!
More 'bananas"!
The solution, of course, is to send the reader back to the beginning, to "read us again."

I'm so fond of E&P, and to have them speaking directly to me -- knowing I'm there -- it's a treat.



Sunday, November 13, 2011

You -- yes, you! -- are reading this book

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You have your finger on the pulse of the children's book world with your thoughts about superhero books!  In this weekend's NYT Book Review, Roger Sutton touches on the same subject (though I must say, he's a little more dour).  I'm kind of sorry to see Bumblebee Boy go off by himself -- afraid, I guess, that his solo books will be aimed at boys and perhaps take boy readership away from the Ladybug Girl books, the way Dora was more okay for boys to like until Diego came along.

Writing last week about books that engage the reader with the idea that a book is being constructed as they read got me thinking about a few picture books written in the second person which are big hits at our house.

Right Where You Are Now, by Lisa Montierth, came to us as a family gift: cousin Molly sent it recently to Eleanor and Isabel (she's friends with the illustrator, Ashley Burke).  I wasn't at all sure what to expect from the cover, which has a sort of Hansel and Gretel vibe, but the book is based on an interesting idea, and the illustrations are terrific.  Each double-page spread includes a scene of today's world on the left, and a scene from prehistoric times on the right:

It gets you talking about prehistory, with all its lava and lush rainforest growth, and it certainly increases your prehistoric animal vocabulary: plesiosaur, merychippus, nimravid.  If you're concerned about telling these guys apart or pronouncing their names properly, never fear: the last pages include a visual dictionary, so you can be sure you're not mixing up megacerops and uintatherium (as I did on the first reading).  It's kind of awesome to hear your 2-year-old yelling out "Nimravid!" when you turn the page to see the face of a saber-tooth cat-like creature (actually not a feline, but related as much to hyenas as to cats).  It's my favorite kind of nonfiction book: well-written, imparting its information in context, leading to lots of questions.

There Are Cats in This Book and its sequel, There Are No Cats in This Book, are purely playful.  Viviane Schwarz is the author-illustrator here, and the two books focus on a trio of cats (Tiny, Moonpie, and Andre), who address the reader directly.  In the first book, the cats want you to play with them.  They tell you when to turn the pages, and ask you to throw them balls of yarn and open the boxes they're hiding in.  When they get wet on a page full of fish, they ask you to blow on them, and emerge all fluffy.  The pages abound with flaps, and the cats are very good-natured and eager for what's going to come next.

In There Are No Cats in This Book, the cats are antsy.  They want to get out of the book, and will try pretty much anything: pushing the side of the page, jumping out (the book becomes a pop-up for a moment), and finally, asking you to wish them out.  Then they send you a postcard, before eventually returning to the book.  The cats' manic energy is totally engaging.  Even though Eleanor and Isabel both know that they're not really changing the content of the book by doing what the cats ask, they get into playing with it.  Another way of exercising your superpowers, I suppose....

Love, Annie

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Dear Annie,

Denise, your pal, occasional guest blogger, and mother of a soon-to-be 2 year-old boy, raised this question after your most recent post:
As I have been thinking of books to get Emerson, I have been noticing that he gravitates toward Superman and popular cartoon books that involve action, fighting, and lots of loud glossy pages, books I do not enjoy reading. He likes Star Wars, the Incredibles, all those Nickelodean characters..

I would love recommendations for my lil' boy who loves to pretend fight, play with balls, and turn anything into a bat. 
I'm sticking to the superhero part of this question today, starting with
SuperHero ABC
, by Bob McLeod, whose day job is being a comic book artist.  It's your basic ABC book, but each letter is a superhero, starting with "Astro-Man is Always Alert for An Alien Attack.  He Avoids Asteroids!  He has Asthma!"

Here are a few more:
Fun sense of humor, occasional gross moment ("The Volcano Vomits on Villains.  He's Valiant!  He's Vile!  It's Very gross!")  No plot, but as long as Emerson isn't totally identifying with brand-name superheroes, there's lots to look at.

Parents come to the store frequently looking for books about superheroes or Star Wars characters that they can read to their very young children.  The demand is usually there because the kids are aware of the characters, but don't really know who they are.  The parents don't want serious violence and they don't want to show their kids the contemporary movies on these characters.   Three very basic biographies of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman by Ralph Cosentino hit the spot on this request.

They give enough background information about the characters that other books -- and playground scenarios -- will make more sense.  Definitely worth a parental read-through before introducing them, though.  The basic stories have a certain amount of destruction and demise of parents.  They're in comic book format in small-ish hardcover books and sell incredibly well at the store. 

Our friend Bumblebee Boy, last seen negotiating pretend play roles with Ladybug Girl, now has spun off a book of his own:
The Amazing Adventures of Bumblebee Boy
, by David Soman and Jacky Davis.  Ladybug Girl isn't here, but Bumblebee Boy (aka Sam)'s kid brother Owen is constantly trying to enter Sam's adventures.

While Bumblebee Boy clashes with evil pirates, fights a fire dragon, stops a runaway lion, and has various other adventures, the pajama-clad Owen keeps intervening.
"No, Owen!  I am playing Bumblebee Boy," says Sam.  You can't be in this game."
"Why?" asks Owen.
This is a bit of a problem.  Sam knows that he is not supposed to be mean to Owen, but he feels like playing his own game right now.
Sam must think fast.
"Because," says Sam, "you are not a superhero like me, see?"
Sam dashes off.
Eventually, Bumblebee Boy decides that fighting aliens on the moon is too much for him to do alone, and he and Owen negotiate a deal in which Owen brings along some bank robber monsters to the moon.  It has echoes of Even Firefighters Hug Their Moms in its pretend play elements, but lots of good swashbuckling too.

And then there's
The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man
by Michael Chabon (yes, that Michael Chabon).
Hi!  I'm a superhero [says the guy flying through an urban landscape in a Superman-style cape-and-tights outfit].  My name is Awesome Man.
I have a cape as red as a rocket,
a mask as black as midnight,
and a stylin' letter A on my chest.
I'm just basically awesome.
 He does awesome, totally super-hero-ish stuff --
-- sometimes with his Awesome Dog Moskowitz.  He stops trains, vanquishes Professor Von Evil in his Antimatter Slimebot, and gives the Flaming Eyeball his comeuppance.  Sometimes he gets a little too wired and starts hitting buildings and throwing trucks around.  "I might hurt somebody, or destroy a city or something."  So he calms down in the Fortress of Awesome and has something to eat.  By the end of the book he's revealed his secret identity -- a slightly airbrushed-looking kid -- and like the firefighter of yore, hugs his mom.

So Denise, these are all definitely action-packed books, but they have more humor, style, and even good writing than the stuff that gets generated by the licensed-product machinery.  I hope there's something here that makes both you and Emerson happy.



Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Breaking the fourth wall

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Before I move too far away from the subject of books on color, I want to include a shout-out for another Eric Carle book that Isabel adores: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  Carle is the illustrator here (Bill Martin, Jr. wrote the text), so the pictures are his wonderful familiar streaky collages.  It's kind of the proto-version of The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse: lots of illustrations of brightly-colored animals, though here most are the colors nature made them.  The question and answer format is rhythmic, and encourages kids to respond when you read it aloud: "Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?  I see a yellow duck looking at me." We read it a lot.

Your discussion of Linda Sue Park and the way she plays with narrative voice in Project Mulberry got me thinking about other authors who address their audiences directly or in other ways consciously engage kids with the fact that they are constructing a book.  Sometimes this involves a conversation between author and character, as you write about with Park; often, it happens through a second-person address directly to the reader.

Judith Viorst (of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day fame) has a recent entry in this category: Lulu and the Brontosaurus, which you mentioned briefly last year here.  It's a short chapter book, packed with attitude from the first page:

OKAY!  All right!  You don't have to tell me!  I know!

I know that people and dinosaurs have never lived on earth at the same time.  And I know that dinosaurs aren't living now.  I even also know that paleontologists (folks who study dinosaurs) decided that a dinosaur that was once called a brontosaurus (a very nice name) shouldn't be called brontosaurus anymore, and changed it to apatosaurus (a kind of ugly name).  But since I'm the person writing this story, I get to choose what I write, and I'm writing about a girl and a BRONTOSAURUS.  So if you don't want to read this book, you can close it up right now -- you won't hurt my feelings.  And if you still want to read it, here goes:

Most of the rest of the book is a straight narrative (though it does contain a number of parenthetical asides), about an extremely bratty little girl named Lulu who decides she wants a brontosaurus for a pet.  She's spoiled, and won't take no for an answer, so when her parents refuse to get her one, she takes off into the forest by herself.  Lulu runs into several wild animals, who she's rude to and then defeats easily: squeezing a snake, bonking a tiger on the head with her suitcase.  She finds her brontosaurus, but -- here comes the twist -- it turns out that he wants to make her into the pet, not the other way around.  She learns a little humility, and ultimately apologizes to the other animals, and life is better.  As so often happens with these Children Behaving Badly stories, she's more interesting when unrepentant.

The catchphrase that has come to us from Lulu is her catchy, repeated rhyme:

I'm gonna, I'm gonna, 
I'm gonna gonna get

A bronto-bronto-bronto 
Brontosaurus for a pet.

I'm gonna, I'm gonna, 
I'm gonna gonna get

A bronto-bronto-bronto 
Brontosaurus for a pet.

Fair warning: reading about Lulu leads to lots of chanting of the above.

At the end of the book, Viorst plays heavily with narrative voice again ("Wait!  I'm really not all that sure about this ending.  It may be a little too mushy, a little too sad").  Eleanor enjoys this telling and re-telling, and I think it's a interesting model to expose kids to when they're making up their own stories all the time.

There are some picture books I have in mind as well, but I'll save them for another night.

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Linda Sue Park

Dear Annie,

It makes me happy that The Artist who Painted a Blue Horse is a hit in your family.  I love all the pictures, but wasn't sure how it would play with kids as a book.  There's a whole category of picture books which I see before they're published and I say, "It'll be great when it's a board book," and then I don't buy them as hardcover/paper page books because I can't see the appeal to older kids.  I waffled on this one, but Carle's pictures pulled me in.  I have a 3-foot tall poster of the blue horse from the cover on a wall at the store -- can be seen from quite a distance.

Maybe because business is getting busier and busier (yes, all the Christmas and Hanukkah books are on display already), I find my focus with the blog bouncing all over the place.  This week I've come back to Linda Sue Park, a wonderfully versatile author.  I've talked about A Long Walk to Water, set in the Sudan.  She's written many books, both picture books and middle-grade novels.  She even has a new Christmas book this year: The Third Gift, which taught me a lot about frankincense.

Park is Korean-American, and many of her books include Korean themes.  A Single Shard, for which she won the 2002 Newbery Award, is about a 12th century Korean potter and his apprentice.  But the one I wanted to talk about today is about a contemporary Korean-American girl:
Project Mulberry
.  There are two things that make this book engagingly out-of-the-ordinary.  First, it deals with kids' feelings about race, in age-appropriate ways.  Julia and her friend Patrick want to do a project for the state fair, and her mother (who is Korean) suggests they raise silkworms.  Julia doesn't want to be typecast as the Asian kid in her predominantly white small town, but doesn't know how to resist the silkworm idea.  "I wanted a nice normal, All-American, red-white-and-blue kind of project," she writes.

Julia also sees that her mother is uncomfortable with black people -- it embarrasses her, but any attempts to confront her mother directly get deflected.  There's a lovely scene when Patrick, Julia and her mother visit someone who they've been told might have mulberry leaves to feed to the silkworms.  He answers the door, and Julia is surprised then apprehensive to discover he's black -- worried about her mother's reaction.  The man is startled, he tells them, because he was expecting them to be white.  The book is aimed at the fourth-to-seventh grade age range, and Park presents Julia's thought processes in an empathetic way, saying out loud those things which are often unspoken.

The other lovely unusual element of the book is that between all the chapters, there's a brief two-page discussion between the author and the main character, arguing about the direction the book should go.
Me: Do you want my opinion?  I am not happy with the way things are going here.  I hate the project idea, Kenny [her brother] is driving me nuts, and I still haven't found another Connecticut.
Ms. Park: Actually, no -- I don't want your opinion.  I've written other books, and only once has a character ever talked to me.  You talk to me all the time, and I'm finding that hard to get used to.
Me: Like right now, while you're in the -- ahem -- bathroom.  Well, I don't care whether you want my opinion or not -- you're getting it.  That was a terrible chapter.
Ms. Park:  Would it help if I said I'm sorry you're having such a hard time?
Me: If you were really sorry, you'd go back and rewrite it.
Ms. Park: You're the main character.  You have to have a problem or two.  If you didn't, there wouldn't be any story.
There's a lot of negotiating about plot in these little interludes, and at one point Julia gets so angry that she refuses to participate in the discussion.

Project Mulberry is part of a genre of books which say: you're not a baby anymore; we (the authors) are going to talk to you about real stuff, and we know you'll understand it, but we're also going to remember that you're not a teenager yet.  Part of the progression.



Friday, November 4, 2011


Dear Aunt Debbie,

You make an awesome Miss Rumphius.  I can totally see Mary Poppins in your future, too.

Aside from reading a ton of college essays my students write, and writing a ton of college recommendations, I tend to allow the application process to be background noise in my classes.  My students are all so college-crazed at this time of year that I think allowing too much talk about it into the classroom would be unhealthy -- it sucks all the air right out.  So let's move on from the SAT question to a different level of learning.

Colors.  I remember when Eleanor was learning concepts that I was struck by the fact that colors didn't come to her earlier.  She got shapes first, and opposites, but color recognition lagged.  Isabel is the same way, perhaps even more so.  In recent weeks, she's started commenting on the colors of things, but she gets them wrong probably 95% of the time.  While she knows all the words for all the colors, she seems unable or uninterested in matching them up correctly.  We've recently started trying to reinforce the concept that color words refer to specific colors. We'll ask Isabel what color her blue bowl is, and she'll say, brightly, "Pink!" or "Green!"  (That is, until Eleanor whispers the right answer.)

So maybe she's color-blind?  Or maybe it's just time for us to put a few of our favorite color-related books into the rotation.

We've mentioned the wonderful I Love Colors before.  It's one of my top-favorite board books -- so totally joy-filled, especially on the last page:

I also really like the Colors section in Food for Thought:

Skewing a little more in-depth on the concepts, here are three of our favorites:

Blue Hat, Green Hat
, by Sandra Boynton.  On each page, a series of animals wears items of clothing in different colors: "Blue Hat, Green Hat, Red Hat, Oops."  The "Oops" at the end of each page refers to the turkey, who puts on all her clothes wrong: she's standing in her hat, or wearing pants on her head, or sticking socks on her wings, all with this lovely, slightly cross-eyed smile as the other animals grow increasingly perturbed:

Blue Hat, Green Hat has a terrific rhythm to it.  Even before Eleanor was old enough to understand why the turkey wearing everything upside down was funny, she liked reading it. Once she got the joke, she found it hysterical.

You recently sent us Eric Carle's latest book, The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.  It is a huge hit.   The other Carle books we own are in board book format, but this one benefits hugely from the large-format pages.  It has few words, and joyful, bright, large paintings on each page.

The book begins with a painting of a child of indeterminate gender painting on a large canvas.  The text reads:

I am an artist
and I paint...

Each successive page is an animal the artist paints, all in unexpected colors: a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, a black polar bear.  After a series of these great double-page spreads, the artist stands back from the canvas, paint on the floor, to say, "I am a good artist."

It's a simple, clear, exuberant book.  Carle credits Franz Marc, painter of the original blue horse, as his inspiration, and includes a reproduction of one of Marc's paintings at the end.  Isabel has started saying, "I am a good artist," a catchphrase I'm happy to encourage.

Finally, there is Mouse Paint, by Ellen Stoll Walsh.  This one is about color mixing. Three white mice live on a white sheet of paper, so the cat can't see them.  One day, they find three jars of paint in primary colors.  They climb into the jars, covering themselves, then dance in puddles of paint to make secondary colors: "Look!  Red feet in a blue puddle make purple!"  The paint makes them sticky, so the mice wash themselves off (in the cat's water bowl, natch) and paint on the paper in both primary and secondary colors.

I love the way the narrative allows you to encourage your child to guess what the two mixed colors will form, and the mice are quite appealing.  The one thing I wish this book had is a picture of the final painting: I imagine a Mondrian-like canvas, huge and blocky.  I want to know what the mice create.

I'm assuming this will all sink in someday....

Love, Annie

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reading for the test

Dear Annie,

Your crowd has to have had the best set of costumes in all of Brooklyn, if not in the continental U.S.  Superb!

So here I am as Miss Rumphius:
A few customers actually recognized me -- those pieces of paper pinned to the cape were lupine seed packets.  And one person thought I was Mary Poppins.  She'd be a good character to be sometime.

Life has gone back to normal -- my co-workers are no longer Dr. Who (complete with fez), Katniss from The Hunger Games, or a very business-like young woman with FBI ID card from the X files.  So, as promised, I will turn to SATs and vocabulary.  On Monday, while I was floating around as Miss R, a teenage customer walked into the store and asked me if we had flash cards for studying vocabulary for the SATs.  Right on cue. (No, we don't.) Like you, I don't have a simple answer to the what-to-do-about-the-test problem.  Sigh.

If kids read a lot, they'll improve their vocabulary -- we all agree on this.  It's a lifetime thing -- I don't know if it makes a difference if you read a pile of novels in the six weeks before you take the SAT.   I tend not to think of individual books as having higher vocabulary levels than others.  As a wildly generalized rule of thumb, I'd say books written more than 20 or 30 years ago -- all the way back to 200+ -- probably have more vocabulary words unfamiliar to a 21st century teenager.  And my own prejudice is that British writers tend to be less hesitant about using unusual or more sophisticated vocabulary.  It depresses me that the motivation for reading would be to score better on the SAT.  And searching for vocabulary words while reading a good novel seems bound to put a damper on the experience.

Then there's the question of video games sucking away reading time.  Sigh again.  Many times, I hear parents sounding helpless in the face of their children's computer and video game habits.  Often, I think this is because parents didn't have a plan before the games came into their children's lives.  Video games are very seductive, and sometimes addictive.  Some of them can be fun and interesting too.  Two of the most useful words I know for parents facing the digital world are delay and limit.  Better that a kid should come to this stuff later than the average child rather than earlier.  Gives them more time to experience the world first-hand, be it reading or running around or building stuff with Legos or playing make-believe.  Then when games do arrive in one's house, even one little game, the limits should be clear.  I know some people who say, only in the car or when we're traveling.  Or only on weekends.  Or just half an hour a day.  If there's some routine that defines when they should stop, it helps fend off the Video Game That Ate My Child's Mind.

Is it interesting to be constantly surrounded by teenagers in the throes of thinking about and applying to college?  Or is that usually background noise to the work of the day?