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.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Dear Annie,

What a hard week it's been for the whole Stuyvesant community -- and beyond.  I'm so sorry for all of you.    Gavin De Becker's book sounds both useful and thought-provoking.  I've ordered it for the store.  There's so much more to talk about on this topic: we'll come back to it in the new year.

Child's Play has been a busy place this past week.  All that drumbeat about the internet eclipsing real stores' sales seems to have been alarmism in our case.  From year to year, I forget how much one gets picked up by the wave of holiday shoppers: books disappear from shelves, hours fly by completely in conversation with readers and their parents.  The supply of Guinness World Records 2012 which we thought would carry us well into the new year is poised to sell out tomorrow.  Our fast reaction to Scholastic running out of their print run of The Invention of Hugo Cabret has led us to have copies on hand when even Amazon has sold out (take that, big guys!).  And the big sales of Hugo and Wonderstruck have made me happy that the hot books are also the good ones.  Books telling the story of the Nutcracker aren't selling as well as in previous years, but the Twelve Days of Christmas -- never a big hit in the past -- is bigger this year.

Last year, the first holiday season of our blog, we indulged in a festival of Hanukkah and Christmas books, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Tonight I offer one joyful one, illustrated by the wonderful Julie Vivas, whom many of us know as the author of the board book I Went Walking.  Her
is exuberant, even when the characters are exhausted.   She uses the King James Bible words, and infuses them with a very human aura.  Her annunciation is probably my favorite interpretation, an illustration I wish I had for my wall:

Getting the news over a cup of coffee: perfect.  We have a series of three time-lapse drawings of Mary watching her belly grow.  And then --
which is tiring:
Curious shepherds show up, shooing away their sheep, and the wise men eventually arrive with camels.  The rejoicing combines the hosannah-ing biblical kind and the neighborhood-is-excited-because-you-have-a-new-baby kind.  Definite joy is here.

May you and your family have a joyous Christmas, Annie.  And I wish our followers much rejoicing, whatever your holiday.  We'll take a little break and be back in 2012.



Monday, December 19, 2011

Danger and the impossibility of preparedness

Dear Aunt Debbie,

A student at my school was hit and killed by a drunk driver on Friday night, a block away from home.  He was going home a little late after hanging out with his school friends at the Board Game club he started this year -- his senior year.  I didn't know him, but by all accounts he was a sweet, dedicated, hard-working kid.  He'd just gotten into college.  I teach a number of seniors, so classes today were part English, part grief counseling.  Stuyvesant is a huge school; not everybody knew him.  That is part of the grief.

So many what-ifs in this kind of situation.  If he had been one minute earlier or one minute later, he wouldn't have been standing on that median when the van swerved and crashed into him.  And yet it's the kind of situation you can't prepare against.  Here was a kid who did everything right, who wasn't acting in a way that should have put him in danger in the slightest.  And yet.

Becoming a parent is on some level laying yourself open to the possibility of unimaginable loss at any moment.  There is so much more in the game.  And so you're faced with the question (among millions of other questions) of how to prepare against tragedy in as many ways as you can.

Last summer, a 9-year-old boy in our neighborhood, walking home alone from camp for the first time in his life, got lost and was kidnapped and killed the next day by the man he asked for directions.  Both the boy and the man were Hasidic Jews; the boy had been told to approach someone obviously from his community if he needed help.  The one man he chose just turned out to be crazy in the most horrific way.

In the weeks after this horrendous crime, our neighborhood listserves lit up with discussion of how to prepare children against abuse and kidnapping, how to teach them about how to engage with strangers and the world around them.  The book cited most often was Gavin De Becker's Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane).  I put it on my library hold list immediately (as, apparently, did every other parent in Brooklyn), and received and read it a few weeks ago.

De Becker's title is a reference to his other big book,  The Gift of Fear.  In both, he argues that true fear is a gift, and that we need to trust our instincts in order to protect ourselves and our children.  Unwarranted fear, on the other hand, is paralyzing, and can make us blind to the signals of real danger.

I found Protecting the Gift both frightening and useful reading.  De Becker takes you through all of the ways in which your child might be preyed upon, by kidnapping strangers (he stresses that this is the most rare, though also the most highly feared), by abusive caretakers, by abusive family members and friends (sadly, the most likely scenario, though also the most willfully ignored).  He provides examples of letters to pediatricians, daycare facilities, and schools which request specific information about safety procedures and staff background checks, and encourages frank discussion of difficult subjects.

De Becker's discussion of why "Don't Talk to Strangers" is a terrible piece of advice to give your children was particularly interesting.  He argues that this is confusing to kids. Children may hear this message on the one hand from their parents, but on the street we ask our kids to talk to strangers every day: respond politely to the person who says hello, or makes a comment on the toy you're dragging around with you everywhere.  What we should be doing, he says, is training our kids to assess who is safe to approach if they need help, and who is not.  His simplest advice?  Teach your kids to approach a woman for help, particularly a woman with children.  Statistically, this is the safest thing to do.

There's a lot in this book about teenage safety, and how to talk with your kids about sexual abuse; how to make sure they know they can talk to you about anything, and that you will hear and believe them.  It's a book I feel I might return to when Eleanor and Isabel are a little older.

There's a fine line between seeing danger everywhere and knowing that, while danger might be everywhere, you need to live your life without letting that knowledge consume you.  On a day like today, I feel consumed.  Also, terribly lucky.

Love, Annie

Sunday, December 18, 2011

I don't work for Amazon

Dear Annie,

Your Amazon outrage is wonderful, and heartwarming to this independent retailer.  The Amazon Industrial Espionage Day was outrageous. When Amazon sends consumers into physical stores to look at products then buy them online it's using us as involuntary showrooms for its products.  Because they can't hand you the physical object they're selling, they're sending you to a business that's shelled out the money for inventory you can inspect.

This issue sometimes intrudes on one of the aspects of bookselling I cherish most: my conversations with customers.  As you know, I talk with lots of children and grown-ups about kids' interests, then recommend and discuss books which might be a good match.  I almost always suggest more books than someone buys: the point is to give people an array that they can peruse and choose from.  I never expect a customer to get every book I offer -- nor do I expect a sale from every conversation.  But my job does depend on our store selling books: that's what pays my salary.

Our store prides itself on customer service: we've read many of the books, played the games, tested the toys, listened to our customers.  And people rely on our recommendations.  So if I have a ten minute conversation about books, after which the customer leafs through them, then whips out a pencil or an iPhone and makes a list and leaves empty-handed, I feel ripped off.  People come to me for something they value -- an opinion -- then they use that information but don't pay for it.   They're using my service and then sending their money to an online retailer. 

The Harvard Bookstore -- an independent store in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- had a great slogan when I visited it this past fall: "Find it here, buy it here, keep us here."  So thanks for doing your shopping through IndieBound and your great-sounding local bookstore.



Friday, December 16, 2011

Shopping independent for the holidays

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm so glad to hear your store is hopping.  It gives me great joy to walk into our own local independent bookstore and find it crowded -- in these depressing days of chain retailers and online sales eclipsing actual stores, I worry for the future of the physical bookstore as a place to hang out and browse.

When we started this blog, you made a persuasive argument to me about why we should link to IndieBound rather than Amazon when discussing books: Amazon, in its monstrous size, is a threat to the small independent bookseller.  I've always been quite fond of Amazon myself -- it's easy to shop there, it's secure, and their search engine works far better than the one at IndieBound, where you have to get every piece of punctuation in a title right in order to get the system to identify it.  I like the Amazon reviews, and they are most accurate about what books are in and out of print.  I'll admit, I've kept shopping there even as we blogged.

But this year, I am not buying any books from Amazon.  Why?

First, we've built in regular visits to our wonderful BookCourt, and I've gotten in the habit of calling them to order whatever I want to buy, then picking it up whenever we're there.  They get books in quickly, and I feel good about supporting the store where my kids get to sit and read for an hour at a time, and everyone is nice to us.  Online retail doesn't have child-sized wooden chairs.

Second, Amazon's recent "price check" promotion makes me hate them.  Not content with offering bargains online, they asked shoppers to go into real stores, scan prices of the items in them, send that information to Amazon, and be rewarded with discounts.  Turn your customers into spies, and take business away from retailers in your neighborhood!

The best discussion I've seen of this idiot idea (for which they've gotten a lot of bad press) was Richard Russo's NYT Op-Ed.  He wrote to several of his author friends asking for their thoughts on the matter.  Ann Patchett (one of my favorite contemporary novelists) responded:

“There is no point in fighting them or explaining to them that we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace....I don’t think they care. I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.” 

So when buying books for my friends and family in other states, I've used IndieBound to find independent bookstores in their neighborhoods.  Yes, it took me a couple of extra minutes to do, but really not that long.   My hope is that supporting bookstores in Oregon, Connecticut, and Texas, as well as in New York, will keep those brick-and-mortar stores around in my friends' communities, too.

And if you have a hard time remembering an exact title, you can always search it up on Amazon, then go buy it at your local independent bookstore instead.  I'm sure the folks at Amazon will understand.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Life in sales: always surprising

Dear Annie,

It's That Time of Year again at the toy and book store.  Things are very busy, I'm working huge hours and it's all kind of fun.  Around now it just becomes riding the wave until the end -- not much more I can do in terms of ordering; we just hope supplies will last.

So it was especially lovely that in the middle of all the chaos, I was blessed with the Best Customer Complaint Ever.  I had helped a very nice, 70-ish woman; she bought an
A. A. Milne boxed set
: both Winnie-the-Pooh books and the two poetry ones.  As she was leaving, she took me aside and said, "I think you need to talk to your manager behind the counter about language."  We're a store with kids in it all day, so we're all very conscious of needing to avoid  profanity.  The person she was talking about is very mild-mannered.  She gave me a steely look and said sternly, "'Him and me' should never start a sentence!"

I thanked her for her grammatical concern, filed it away to smile about with Will, and went on to the next customer.  It was funny, because Will himself cares deeply about usage -- I couldn't tell if she attributed the remark to him, or she just felt that he should enforce higher standards with other staff members.  I later learned that she managed to confront Will directly and they had a very pleasant discussion of various grammatical errors of this era.  On her way out of the store, she found me and said I didn't need to talk to Will after all -- "He's on our side."

So here I am on the side of matching subject and verb, happy that I meet strangers who care about such things, and enjoying the serendipity of my profession.

I hope you and yours are having a pleasant run-up to Christmas.



Monday, December 12, 2011

Lab rats (and mice)

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your mention of bats being banded by humans in the Silverwing series made me think about two very different books involving animal-based lab experiments.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
, by Robert C. O'Brien, is an action-packed adventure story.  Mrs. Frisby is a widowed mouse bringing up four mouse children, and when one of her kids is sick and she can't move him to their summer house, away from the garden plowing which endangers them, she ends up seeking help from a group of former lab rats who live under a nearby rosebush.  It turns out that these rats were bred and trained at NIMH (the National Institute of Mental Health), and have near-human intelligence and capabilities.  They've created their own functioning society, complete with siphoned electricity, but are planning to relocate to a utopian farming community (as in Watership Down, there's a certain amount of exploration of what constitutes a perfect society).  The rats help her save her son, she helps them avoid capture, and there's a scene about drugging a very scary cat.  I haven't read the book in years, and think it may be aimed at a slightly younger audience than your Watership Down-loving sixth-grader, but I remember being captivated by it.

Flowers for Algernon
, by Daniel Keyes, is written from a human perspective, but features a lab mouse quite prominently.  Algernon is the mouse, the recipient of brain surgery which makes him increasingly intelligent, to the point where he becomes a kind of mouse genius, solving all possible mazes.  The story is told through the journal entries of Charlie, a mentally handicapped man in his 30s who is asked, and agrees, to undergo the same brain surgery.  His writing is at first full of misspellings, and reveals his dim awareness of much of the world around him.  After the operation, however, Charlie's intelligence increases by leaps and bounds.  He begins to understand his own history, forms complex relationships with the people around him, falls in love, and eventually gets so smart that he becomes a bit of a social outcast in the other direction: whereas once people made fun of him for his stupidity, now he makes them feel stupid.  In the second half of the book, Algernon begins to lose cognitive function, and then so does Charlie.  It's painful stuff: Charlie is at first terribly aware of his waning capabilities, then ultimately loses the capacity to remember and understand who he was under the effects of the operation.  Total tearjerker.

Both books cry to be read as metaphors for human interaction and society; both ask you to think about the results, positive and negative, of trying to change the basic parameters of our capabilities.  They stick with you, these speculative fictions.

Love, Annie

Mice, rats, bats and bears - oh my!

Dear Annie,

Of the Lawson books, Mr. Revere and I was the big hit in our house; the Ben Franklin book never quite caught on. Lizzie went through a brief horse period, and we probably read it then. I loved it: lots of history and excitement. The horse was very far from being a naturalistic horse: she had strong political loyalties, first to the British, then to the revolutionaries.  I remember being shocked some years later to discover that Revere's horse wasn't named Scheherazade as she was in the book.

As to your question about animals in books, there are many gradations of anthropomorphizing.  There are the Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh animals who, as you point out,  are just a clever way to present people to kids.  

As one gets further into chapter books, there are a number of series that create complex chivalric social structures, with clans, territories and wars, in worlds inhabited by animals.  The
series by Brian Jacques (pronounced Jakes -- honest!) is the best-known of these.  Jacques wrote 22 of them: mice, badgers and squirrels are the good guys; rats, foxes and weasels are their enemies.  Character tends to be determined by species.  I've only read one of them, but we carry them all -- as one gets further into the series the quality varies more. There are other series along similar lines focusing on house cats which have escaped to the wild (Warriors, by Erin Hunter), its spinoff about bears (
Seekers) and Guardians of Ga'hoole by Kathryn Lasky, about owls.  They're all quite popular with the middle-grade crowd.

The one our family got hooked on for a while was the Silverwing series, by Kenneth Oppel.  It's four books about bats and includes a fair amount of behavior and information true to real bats.  Different types of bats are distinguished from each other, and the hibernation season figures in the plot.  The first book centers on the bats believing that they've been banded for a greater purpose.  The purpose turns out to be nefarious human schemes.

Then there are the animals who act pretty much as animals yet interact with people -- dogs dominate this category.  I'm thinking of two wonderful classics of the must-get-back-to-my-human genre:
The Incredible Journey
by Sheila Burnford is the story of two dogs and a cat who cross hundreds of miles of Canadian wilderness to find their old home where they believe their family is.  They go through all sorts of adventures and hardships on the way, but they're all things that really could happen.  And
Lassie Come Home
by Eric Knight is a wonderful story that has nothing to do with the American TV Lassie.  Lassie belongs to a family in Yorkshire, but they're forced to sell her to someone who takes her to Scotland.  She treks across Scotland and England to get back to the family.  Most of the action in the book follows Lassie, but we cut back to the family occasionally.  It's very intense, both in the feelings between the boy in the family and the dog, and in her series of scary and harsh experiences during her odyssey home.

Given the thousands of kids' books with animals in them, I know I'm missing lots of other categories.  But there's a start.



Saturday, December 10, 2011

Animal characters as an entre to history

Dear Aunt Debbie,

My memory of Watership Down is vague -- I read it in college, on the recommendation of a friend who was captivated by it in 7th grade.  I think I was too old at that point for it to change my life.  One of the things I remember liking about it, however, was how animal it is.  Yes, it's on one level a commentary on human society, but it's in such a clear rabbit-perspective -- my memory is of rabbits who think and observe in a way rabbits really might, if they had a certain level of consciousness.  Which got me to thinking.

There are so many books about animals in which the animals act essentially like humans: The Wind in the Willows comes to mind, and of course there are lots of others, especially in the picture book world.  The animals chat with each other, have tea, wear clothes.  In what other books do animals appear straight-up as animals, interacting only with other animals as part of an animal society rather than in concert with humans?  I am drawing a blank here, but wondered if anything springs to mind for you.

I'm at my parents' place tonight, and was scanning their shelves for inspiration when I came across a couple of my childhood books which don't try to depict animal society at all, but anthropomorphize animals as a way to write about famous historical figures.

These two books, both by Robert Lawson, are tales of great men as "written" by their animal companions.  The subtitles say it all: Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin By His Good Mouse Amos, and Mr. Revere and I: Being an Account of certain Episodes in the career of Paul Revere, Esq. as recently revealed by his Horse, Scheherazade.

I read and reread Ben and Me in elementary school.  Amos the mouse is a fine narrator, funny and somewhat self-important (a bit like Franklin himself).  By his account, Amos helps Ben Franklin figure out all kinds of inventions, from the Franklin Stove to the discovery of electricity.  In a climactic scene, Amos goes up in a basket tied to the proverbial kite and is hit by lightning (Franklin tricks him into going up when there's a storm, and won't pull him down out of danger because he's so obsessed with the concept of electricity).  Amos is burned and furious, but otherwise okay.  The book is a terrific entry into Franklin lore, good, kid-friendly historical fiction, packed with drama.

Mr. Revere and I never grabbed me quite as much.  Perhaps it's because a mouse can go more interesting places than a horse; perhaps because Franklin is a more interesting man, on the whole.  Still, it's another accessible and interesting entry into American history.  

On the slightly pulpier side, Ally Sheedy (yup, that Ally Sheedy) wrote, at age 12, She Was Nice to Mice: The Other Side of Elizabeth I's Character Never Before Revealed by Previous Historians.  In it, a mouse living in Queen Elizabeth's court makes friends with the queen, and because of her small size is able to overhear conversations (and more) between Elizabeth and Essex, among other people.  I loved this book.  I have no idea how good it would be on a reread, but Elizabeth's court is juicy material, and Sheedy has fun with it.  I look forward to finding my old copy someday.

Love, Annie

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rabbits small and large

Dear Annie,

I love The Runaway Bunny with its amazing pictures that one can just climb into.  It's a book for a very young child, describing the world a child sees.  During those toddler stages of exploring the world then wanting to cling, it reassures.  Having said that, I will confess that I didn't read it to my own children when they were that little.  As you know, one of the traumatic moments of my early motherhood was when 22 month-old Lizzie walked out the door in our urban neighborhood, closing it behind her, and toddled happily toward a six-lane major thoroughfare at the end of our block.  I figured out where she'd gone and caught up with her before she got there, but the whole incident was heart-stopping.  Somehow, reading a book where the thrill of running away was so beautifully presented, and the message that mom will always come after you (as I did) led me to fear that the book would encourage her roving tendencies.

 An older fan of another rabbit book came to the store yesterday: a sixth grader who loves
Watership Down
, by Richard Adams.  It tells the story of a group of rabbits who leave their home when one of them predicts its destruction.  They go on an odyssey through several different types of rabbit communities before establishing -- and having to defend -- their new home on Watership Down. It's big and rich in adventure, heroism and competing philosophies of what society should be.  I wonder if it's one of the books that your high school students talk about having loved a few years earlier.  The sixth-grader's father said that in searching for other books she might like as much, he ran into recommendations speaking to the utopian/dystopian themes, like 1984, and Brave New World.  He was hoping for something else --- "not as dark" was his request.

I love this kind of request, but I also often wish I had a few hours and several different people to chat with before I charge into recommendations.  That's not how it works, though -- so I flailed around for a bit and came up with two possibilities.  First I suggested
The Sword in the Stone
, by T. H. White (author of Mistress Masham's repose, which we've praised here and here). It's the story of King Arthur's childhood, the first part of The Once and Future King.  It's a big meaty book, full of humor and good writing. Wart, as the boy Arthur is called, grows -- literally and figuratively -- through the book.  I'm particularly fond of the edition whose cover you see here: it has stunning occasional illustrations which stress Arthur's youth.  Merlyn's education of Wart is the element which made me think of it for our sixth grader.  He changes Wart into different animals so that he can experience different societies and attitudes toward the world.  The boy becomes a hawk, a fish, an owl, a goose, an ant, and a badger.

It didn't quite hit the spot with my 11 year-old customer, so we moved on to the epic element of Watership Down.  Next stop: Lord of the Rings.  I think it was attractive for its epic proportions, and for its stamp of you're-not-reading-little-kid-stuff-anymore.  We discussed for a while whether she should just jump right into The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or if she should read
The Hobbit
first.  It was written first, of course, and introduces Middle Earth, some of the characters, and it's where Bilbo obtains The Ring.  It's a slightly easier read, not quite as dark as the trilogy which follows.  She took The Fellowship of the Ring and went off in search of her father to discuss it.  It was late, things were busy, and I didn't talk with her again.  This morning I noticed that the book was back on the shelf, but The Hobbit was gone. 

So there you have it, from rabbits to dragons. 



Monday, December 5, 2011

Have a carrot

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In the context of our discussion about apparently sweet but deeply dysfunctional parent-child love stories, a friend of mine alerted me to Lisa Belkin's Huffington Post slide show about Children's Books Parents Either Love or Hate.  (Belkin gives The Giving Tree a longer treatment, and provides a solid opposing viewpoint from someone who loves it, here.)

The Giving Tree tops the list, and Love You Forever is right up there.  I was surprised, however, to see The Runaway Bunny at #3, as it's a book I've never thought of as hate-able. 

Okay, yes, it's the story of a mother bunny who convinces her little bunny that he can never run away from her, because she'll always find him no matter where he goes.  That might sound grasping.  The combination of Margaret Wise Brown's simple, lyrical text and Clement Hurd's extraordinary pictures, however, has always made me feel that the mother here is firm and reassuring, rather than creepy.

Here's how it begins:

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.
So he said to his mother, "I am running away."
"If you run away," said his mother, "I will run after you.
For you are my little bunny."

I've written before about how much I love Margaret Wise Brown's writing (in Goodnight Moon, Home for a Bunny, Big Red Barn, and Wait Till the Moon is Full).  Her sentences are simple and child-friendly and beautifully crafted -- she's really a poet.  Half of The Runaway Bunny is her text, with Clement Hurd's black and white line drawings.  Every other double-page spread is a giant wordless color painting illustrating how the mother bunny will go after her little bunny. 

"If you become a tree," said the little bunny,
"I will become a little sailboat,
and I will sail away from you."

"If you become a sailboat and sail away from me,"
said his mother, "I will become the wind
and blow you where I want you to go."

(The next line is perhaps the only Margaret Wise Brown line I feel the need to edit when reading aloud: "If you become the wind and blow me," said the little bunny....)

The paintings are surreal and beautiful.  I remember staring at them as a child, finding the bunny in the crocus when he's hiding in a garden, amazed by the mother tree when he is a bird.  There's a playfulness here, a way in which the mother is engaging in her child's imaginative world. 

And finally, Margaret Wise Brown is never heading for the tear-jerker ending.  No, after all of that, here's where the story winds up:

"Shucks," said the bunny, "I might just as well
stay where I am and be your little bunny."

And so he did.
"Have a carrot," said the mother bunny.

That's a mom I can get behind.

Love, Annie

Good authors, bad books

Dear Annie,

Your excellent discussion of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree leads my thoughts to another of my least favorite books,
Love You Forever
by Robert Munsch.

It starts with a mother singing to her infant son, telling him she'll love him forever, "As long as I'm living my baby you'll be."  He grows into a mischievous two year-old, an inconsiderate nine year-old, an Elvis-obsessed teenager, and finally a grown-up who moves out and gets a house across town.  In each of the episodes, the mother crawls into his room at night, checks that he's sleeping, then picks him up (without waking him), rocks him and sings her little song about loving him forever.  She even does this when he's an adult:
If all the lights in her son's house were out, she opened his bedroom window [top of ladder visible in window], crawled across the floor, and looked up over the side of his bed.  If that great big man was really asleep she picked him up and rocked him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
and then of course she sings her "as long as I'm living..." song.  One can only wonder what happened the nights she looked over the side of his bed and found him (a) awake, or (b) not alone.

So one day she calls him up and says, "You'd better come see me because I'm very old and sick."  She's too weak to sing to him, so he picks her up and rocks her in his arms and sings, "As long as I'm living my Mommy you'll be."  He goes home that night real sad, picks up his sleeping child out of her crib, and sings her his mom's song.

It's sappy and sentimental and a little creepy.  The mother's not being destroyed by her child, but she sure is having problems with separation, and the author is celebrating it.  As with The Giving Tree, this is not a book for kids.  It's in kids' book form, but aimed at adults and adult sentiment.  Don't forget, I'm gonna die -- be nice to your mother.

The thing I find so strange about both these books is that this isn't the way these writers usually are.  Munsch is the author of The Paper Bag Princess, Thomas' Snowsuit and many other funny and slapstick books which are very in tune with the pre-school sense of humor.  And we've written about Silverstein's poetry, also very plugged in to kids' ideas of what's funny.  Maybe their publishers suggested they write something that would sell every year on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day (that's when I get the biggest demand for both of these, from adults who really love them).  Or maybe, as your mother (my sister) suggests in her excellent comment, they're displaying their own unresolved issues with their moms.  There are wonderful books that present parental love in kid-friendly ways -- why celebrate the ones that aren't?



Friday, December 2, 2011

I'm glad The Giving Tree wasn't my mother

Dear Aunt Debbie,

With your last post, I realized we hadn't seen our complete Nutshell Library in a while (the tiny books tend to lose their covers and become separated, if you're not careful), and also that we had a BRAND NEW one, still unopened, as a recent gift.  So we cracked it open, and pretty much have read nothing else for the last 24 hours.  Plus, Isabel got to take all the new covers off and then ask for my help putting them back on again.  Jeff's aunt told me once that she kept the Nutshell Library in her purse for several years while raising her three kids -- they're the perfect size for pulling out in waiting rooms or on public transportation.  Pierre is our favorite, too, though "One Was Johnny" comes in a close second: all about a boy who lives by himself, and is bothered by a series of animals and a robber who come in to disturb his reading (counting up to 9), then threatens to eat them all if they don't go away, so they do, one by one (counting back down).

I've been thinking about Shel Silverstein again too, courtesy of one of my high school seniors.  At the beginning of each of my classes, a student stands up and delivers Minutes from the previous day's class, then gives the class a "gift": a poem, or an interesting article, or a thought-provoking riddle, or a demonstration of some kind of skill -- sort of a grown-up version of show and tell.  In my Women's Voices class this week, a boy brought in and read aloud The Giving Tree.  It was a sweet moment: the beginning of the seniors looking back at their childhoods through rose-tinted glasses as they focus on the college and adult lives looming ahead of them.  He paused on each page to show the pictures to the class, and you could feel the wave of  nostalgia. 

I tried to feel it too.  Problem is, I hate that book.  Periodically, I'll forget why I hate it so much, and think, Oh, so many people adore The Giving Tree, and adore Shel Silverstein because of it, and I'll read it again, and then I'll remember how much I hate it.

I understand that it's supposed to be a story about being willing to give everything to those you love, specifically, your children.  The tree gives the boy apples, and he swings in her branches, and they have fun.  And then he grows older, and when he wants money, and a house, and a boat, she gives him her apples, and her branches, and her trunk, and she's lonely all the time.  Finally, she's just a stump, and he's old, and he wants a place to rest, and she can still give him that, so they're both happy.

Except she's a freaking stump. 

I said something fairly mild to my class about the fact that I didn't like the book, and connected it to some of what we've discussed in there about female characters in literature: here's the female tree, who sacrifices every part of her being to the ungrateful male character, and it's that total self-sacrifice that makes her happy.  Some of my students looked at me like I was crazy; some nodded.  The boy who brought the book in said that he thought it was beautiful because the tree was like a mother, giving all of herself to her child.  And I said yes, I'm a mother, and that's why I don't like this book.

The boy is ungrateful; the tree-mother is sad and lonely.  Her sacrifices don't lead to any lasting happiness for either of them, and their only relationship is based on her giving him things as she wastes away.  It's not a model I particularly want to emulate.

I think that my gut reaction to The Giving Tree soured me on Silverstein in general, which is too bad.  Maybe when Eleanor's old enough, I'll give his poetry another chance.  For now, though, despite my students' fond memories, I'll be keeping that book out of my house.

Love, Annie