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, February 29, 2012

Amazon wars

Dear Annie,

Wow -- both your girls are moving right along on the reading front.  And having a good time doing it.

We also loved the Golly Sisters and their distinctly juvenile form of sibling bickering.  There are three Golly Sisters books, two of them now sadly out of print.  In Hooray for the Golly Sisters,  May-May and Rose encounter a river separating them from a town where they're scheduled to perform that evening.  The opening lines provided us with another of those family literary references:
"Big river," said May-May.
"Very big river," said Rose.
It comes in handy when faced with any large body of water.

Some interesting developments are afoot this week in the world of bookselling.  You eloquently discussed some of Amazon's predatory practices back before Christmas.  Now they're putting the squeeze on some book publishers to cut the prices at which they sell to Amazon.  Last week, Amazon stopped selling e-books from Independent Publishers Group because it refused to cave to Amazon's demands.  "It wasn't reasonable.   There's only so far we can go," said the head of IPG, a distributor which sells books for hundreds of small publishers.  Our store gets many titles, including the wonderful Alfie books and Dogger by Shirley Hughes, from IPG.

On Monday, Education Development Corporation, which publishes Usborne and Kane-Miller books in the U.S., announced it will no longer sell its 1,500 titles through Amazon.  They're an all-kids' book publisher -- we've talked about the Usborne activity books here and their First Experience series here.  Their publications which are nearest to my heart, though, are Atinuke's amazing Anna Hibiscus books.  Those come through Kane-Miller, which specializes in kids' books from around the world.  EDC started experimenting with going Amazon-less back in 2009 when it pulled its Kane-Miller titles -- at last I know why Anna Hibiscus was only intermittently showing up on Amazon.  They satisfied themselves that they could stay profitable -- Kane-Miller's sales are way up since then -- so they pulled the plug on the larger Usborne list this week.  The EDC president said Amazon is trying to "gain control of publishing and other industries by making it impossible for other retailers to compete effectively." And he concluded the announcement with a statement which has cheered many independent booksellers:
 From my point of view as an editor and publisher, this is also about supporting the connection between booksellers and book buyers. Hand selling has always been a necessary, integral part of the business, particularly with children's books. And it's still the hand selling, the independent booksellers and word of mouth that can create a best seller. Amazon might sell them, but independent booksellers are the ones who create them.
This is all cheering because from my point of view Amazon has seemed so unstoppable in its efforts to monopolize book sales in all forms.  Smart people are figuring out how to keep bookselling a varied and open marketplace.



Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My sister, my sister

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Yes,  Isabel is getting into longer books.  Not full-on chapter books yet, though that will come in the next year, I think.  At close to 2 1/2, she mostly wants long picture books: both last night and tonight, the lineup included Make Way for Ducklings and Monsieur Saguette and his Baguette.

She has a good attention span for beginning reader books, too -- the kind with five or six short, connected chapters.  The first of these to capture Isabel's attention, several months ago, was a gift from you: The Golly Sisters Go West, by Betsy Byars.

The Golly sisters, Rose and May-May, are a pair of sibling performers in the Old West.  They set off at the beginning of the book in a wagon stocked with costumes, drawn by a patient horse, planning to perform in towns in the west along their way.  They are a little hapless (the first story is about figuring out how to get the horse to move, and to stop), but for the most part confident and competent: there's a reference to pursuing their dreams of singing and dancing even though people told them they wouldn't make it, and their shows appear to be well-attended.

One of the great pleasures of this book is the sibling bickering.  There's a lot of talk about who gets to go first on stage (I'm guessing this rang true to you and your girls), and some mild insulting of each other:

"I want to go first," said Rose.
"You got to wear the blue dress, so I get to go first," said May-May.
"I got to wear the blue dress because you look funny in blue," said Rose.
"Who says I look funny in blue?" asked May-May.
"Everybody!" said Rose.
"Give me the name of one person who says I look funny in blue."
"Everybody!" said Rose.
"I knew it," said May-May.  "You cannot think of one person."
"I can."
"Then who?"
"Hmmmm, let me think," said Rose.

By the time they resolve the argument and open the curtain, their audience has gotten bored and left.  Rose and May-May, undaunted, perform for the dogs who are still hanging around.  Taking the kind of petty back and forth that siblings so often get into and making it funny, as Byars does, with the help of Sue Truesdell's illustrations, is a nice way to poke fun at it.

Our most exciting news of the week is that Eleanor is truly starting to learn to read.  I'm looking forward to the day -- not so far off -- when she can read the Golly Sisters to Isabel herself.

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The sequel that ate the author

Dear Annie,

Sometimes one or two books that turn out to be commercial successes take on a life of their own and swallow their authors, forcing them into sequel after sequel.  I'm thinking here first of Mercer Mayer, whose Little Critter books you gently criticize.  I am very un-fond of them -- feel they're barely a step up from the dreaded Berenstain Bears.  The driving force behind the series is to give lessons in behavior, rather than to tell a story or engage a kid in other ways.  But Mayer has done some good books, too. 
A boy, a dog and a frog
, his first book, is a wordless delight showing a boy and his dog trying to catch a frog, who eventually follows them home.  He did several boy/frog books.
evicting the kangaroo
 And then there's
What do you do with a kangaroo?
  Wasn't that one of the books that lived on the kids' bookshelf at my parents' (your grandparents') apartment?  A series of animals attempts to move into a girl's home, making many imperious demands.  What do you do?  You throw them out!  Except that they keep reappearing....  Mayer wrote that one in 1973, a dozen years before Laura Numeroff launched her series with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, but there are some parallels in the feel of both books: kid at home intimidated by demanding but ultimately lovable animal interloper.  Repetitive structure, giggles of anticipation.  And Numeroff, like Mayer, got taken over by the form and still can't stop cranking them out.

I completely sympathize with your antsiness at reading and re-reading average stuff.  I have misty memories of evenings when Bob and I would get a choice in the picture book rotation too.  Small relief.  It sounds like you might be moving to a broader range of books that both girls will be happy with these days, even if they keep coming back to a few.  Is this true?  Is Isabel getting into longer stuff?



Friday, February 24, 2012

Enduring the unobjectionable

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I agree with you: it is full-on weird to return a book just because you didn't like it.  Your post got me thinking about my own responses to books I don't particularly like.  As I've mentioned before, I try to keep our shelves free of badly-written, overly commercial, or otherwise obnoxious books.  In keeping with Grandma Helen's advice, I have been known to throw a few clunkers out in the dead of night (or at least, after bedtime).

But what of the perfectly okay?  I'm talking here about books that my kids love, and that I think are...fine.  Totally decent.  Not bad or harmful in any way.  Enjoyable to read in small doses.  Just, well, not all that interesting.

Two series pop to mind: Little Critter, by Mercer Mayer, and the If You Give... books, starting with If You Give a Mouse A Cookie, by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond.  Part of the problem with each is the sheer volume of the series.

There are more than 70 Little Critter books, and counting.  In each, Little Critter (an appealingly prickly little hedgehog-like person) focuses on one idea, and repeats it with variations: "When I get bigger, I'll...."; "I wanted to do X, but Mom wouldn't let me.  I was just so mad!"; "I can do X all by myself"; etc.  Each page repeats the same basic formula, and there's always a very slight twist at the end ("I'm not bigger yet!").  The Little Critter book we own is a collection of seven stories, and reading the same formula over and over (which is a requirement -- I have never successfully read only one story from the book and been allowed to put it down) can feel mind-numbing.

Mind-numbing, and depressingly literal.  One of my pet peeves about Little Critter is that Mercer Mayer doesn't do anything interesting with the text he includes in his drawings.  There are often labels on food or toys, or single pages of books Little Critter is reading.  Without fail, they are boring: a shopping bag reads "Best Food"; a toy duck is labeled "Duck"; a book is titled "Read This Book."  Compare this to the fantastic, old-school brand names on kitchen products in In the Night Kitchen ("Kneitel's Fandango," "Phoenix Baking Soda," "Hosmer's Free Running Sugar: It Pours"), or the psychology-related book titles Kevin Henkes sneaks into Chrysanthemum.  Is it too much to ask a kids' author to sneak in a little tidbit for the parents to enjoy?

In comparison to the Little Critter juggernaut, the 8 If You Give... books don't seem like so many.  Except that we own them all.  Again, here, we started with an anthology:  Mouse Cookies and More: A Treasury.  It includes four books (...Mouse a Cookie, ...Moose a Muffin, ...Pig a Pancake, and If You Take a Mouse to School), as well as song lyrics, recipes, activities, and a CD.  Again, individually, I like these books.

In each, a demanding animal asks for increasingly elaborate things from the boy (or girl, but mostly boy) he (or she, but mostly he) is visiting.  Many of the requests are domestic: they want a cookie, to draw a picture, to make puppets or a kite.  In the later books (...Dog a Donut, ...Cat a Cupcake, ...Pig a Party), they go farther afield, to the beach, and museums.  The child caring for the animal invariably winds up looking exhausted by the end of the story.  There's a nice wink at parents here -- the animal exhausts the child just as my own child exhausts me!  And Felicia Bond's illustrations are bright and bold, with lots of action.

But it's the same construction, every time: "If you give..., he'll want....  Then he'll ask for..." etc., all the way back to the original item given.

I know that kids love repetition, and that it's developmentally appropriate -- it gives both Eleanor and Isabel great pleasure to be able to predict what's going to happen on the next page, to essentially be able to recite these books.  There is good nature here, and well-aimed humor.  But oh, some nights, I would really rather be reading something else.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Unhappy return

Dear Annie,

Well, it was fun to get an unsolicited author response -- Nick Bruel on our Bad Kitty post. He's both a former bookseller, and the father of an Isabel, so he fits right in here.

Speaking of bookselling, someone came into the store today to return a book she bought several months ago.  The reason she returned it was that she was shocked at what a bad book she found it to be.  The nine year-old for whom she bought it didn't like it, and it had cruelty to animals in it, she said.

The book was one I had recommended: The 13 Clocks by James Thurber, which Neil Gaiman called "probably the best book in the world," and whose praises I sang here.  I'd been thinking of it this week in the context of the lovely discussion going on in the comments about your post on Charlotte's Web, another book whose writing leaves many in awe.

So this customer didn't agree about Thurber's fable-like 20th century fairy tale, which is her right, completely.  There are many readers in the world, each with their own opinions.  I re-read The 13 Clocks today, looking for cruelty to animals: I found 11 princes run through by the evil duke's sword, reference to "slaying the thorny Boar of Borythorn," (who turns out to be fictitious), a description of the castle looking "as if the gaunt Duke stalked from room to room, stabbing bats and spiders, killing mice" -- and  the murder of time by the clock-destroying duke.

Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to the book,  elaborates on his superlative: "And if it's not the best book, then it's still very much like nothing anyone has ever seen before, and, to the best of my knowledge, no one's ever really seen anything like it since."  Which also serves as an explanation of why a child might be put off by it, especially if reading it alone: too different, too weird, too wordy. 

I remain stunned by people who feel they can return a book they've read some or all of because it didn't please them.  The store has a fairly liberal return policy, which we see as part of maintaining good relations with our customers.  The book came back in good condition, but it still feels wrong to me.  If one buys a book, one is taking the risk of not liking it.  One doesn't demand money back from a bad movie -- is the situation with a book different? 



Monday, February 20, 2012

Cynical politics and awesome first ladies

Dear Aunt Debbie,

And Happy Presidents' Day to you!  Bad Kitty sounds like a funny way to get into the topic of politics, though perhaps, as you say, a tad cynical for a first time through.  Then again, it's hard not to feel cynical these days when trying to explain the democratic process to one's children.  We've had a few conversations about the presidential election with Eleanor -- nothing about the Electoral College, so I'm afraid I'm no help on that front, but a few of those Major Conversations that pop up when you're not expecting them as a parent, often just before bedtime: What color is God's skin?  What happens when we die?  What's the difference between Democrats and Republicans?

We read Duck for President a while back, and while I adore Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin's Dooby Dooby Moo, I remember not loving this one as much.  It's wacky, as their books about the animals on Farmer Brown's farm tend to be, but at least when we last picked it up, also struck me as aimed at slightly older, more savvy readers.  Maybe worth picking up again.

The most presidential book we own at the moment is Eleanor's new book of  Obama paper dolls, which my father bought for her birthday.  They're Tom Tierney dolls -- the best paper doll artist ever, and worthy of a complete post someday soon.  It's laudatory, and the text inside is mostly about the clothes.  I love Tom Tierney.  (If you're feeling quite cynical and a little more adult, but still want an activity book, I'd recommend the Idiots' Books mix and match book Build Your Own President, created by my former college classmates, Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr.)

Rachel at Even in Australia posted recently about historical president books.  Her post made me realize that I've never written here about the first book you gave Eleanor, sent to us mere weeks after she was born: Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick.

The Eleanor of the title is, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt; Amelia is Amelia Earhart, and apparently the two women were friends in real life.  Ryan draws inspiration from an actual historical episode: an evening when Amelia joined Eleanor for dinner at the White House, and later in the evening the two went flying in an airplane together.  In the fictionalized version, the flight is a spur of the moment decision, and Amelia and Eleanor are the only ones in the plane, swooping over Washington DC at night.  They return to the White House only to go out again, so that Eleanor can take Amelia for a spin in her new car.  The back of the book provides accurate historical information: there were other pilots on the plane, it was arranged ahead of time, Earhart didn't fly it the whole way, etc.  I like having the facts laid out at the end, but allowing for a little bit of fantasy in the plot.

Our Eleanor is a big Eleanor Roosevelt fan, and the depiction of Roosevelt and Earhart is compelling.  They're both presented as strong-willed, charismatic women who aren't shy about pursuing their interests.  And of course, Selznick's drawings are fantastic -- I didn't make the connection until picking the book up again last week that of course these portraits and DC landscapes were penned by the artist and writer who created Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck.  What an awesome man.  And what awesome women.

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bad Kitty: Civics Instructor?

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad you're enjoying The Borrowers.  It goes on for five books, but as with most series, the first is the best.  I'm also curious to see the new movie, The Secret World of Arrietty.  It seems to be based on at least the first two books, but the initial meeting of the human boy and Borrower girl appears to be a good deal more Disney-fied than your description of the book, alas.  But it's gotten some good reviews.  Hmm.

A customer asked me for a book a few weeks ago that would explain the Electoral College to her six year-old.  I understand the desire for one, but I couldn't think of any (suggestions, anyone?).   Then
Bad Kitty Runs for President
by Nick Bruel arrived at the store.  Bad Kitty is one of those gender-nonspecific characters, like Piggie, who turns out to be female.  Bad Kitty, through three picture books and five chapter books, is a mostly-obnoxious but often funny acter-outer, with occasional bursts of real likability.  Bad Kitty Meets the Baby, for example, is a new-sibling book with a lovely Chinese baby adoption twist to it. 

Bad Kitty Runs for President is not about the Electoral College, but it's a realistic-to-cynical explanation of democracy in action in America.  It bears more resemblance to politics of the past few months than to an upbeat civics text explaining how-a-bill-becomes-a-law.  In the book, the narrator persuades Bad Kitty to run for president of the Neighborhood Cat Club.  The only hint of an issue is Bad Kitty's anger at stray cats moving into the neighborhood (shades of anti-immigrant feeling?), and both sides of the argument are briefly laid out.  But issues quickly get bypassed while babies are kissed, money is raised, deceptive character claims are made ("This is Kitty," says her ad, "What a Good Kitty.  Such a Very Good Kitty."), and an attack ad is aired alleging that the opponent is really a dog.

Salted between episodes of Bad Kitty frenetic activity are "Uncle Murray's Fun Facts," explaining things like voter registration, and how massive amounts of money get funneled into campaigns, including PACs and Super PACs.  And when Bad Kitty works her way up to what promises to be an explosive tantrum when she loses, there's a little lecture about living in a democracy.  Given the cynicism of previous chapters, the concluding lines seem a bit starry-eyed:
Democracy makes sure that EVERYONE has a chance to participate, that EVERYONE has a chance to win, and that EVERYONE has the chance to become the leader of his or her community.
You may not like how the election ended, Kitty.  But you have no choice but to live with the results if you want to live in a democracy.
The book's format (early chapter) and look say that it's aimed primarily at second-to-fourth grade kids.  Is that the age to go into the major failures of the political process?  The trivialization of issues, the influence of money, the dishonesty of campaign claims: these are all very real parts of American politics.  I think I'd aim for this book not to be the first explanation of civics that a politically-emergent child reads.  But I wouldn't mind it being part of the mix in the early grades.

Have you started explaining presidential politics to Eleanor, or is that something for future years?



Friday, February 17, 2012

Realistic kid behavior in fantasy worlds

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm sorry you've been down with a cold this week -- hope you're feeling better!

I've been thinking about YA and chapter books, and the qualities that make a child or teenage protagonist feel realistic, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.  I started on this tack when talking to Jeff earlier this week.  He's currently reading The Hunger Games, which I devoured last year, so that we can go see the movie together next month.  Jeff was struck by a couple of points he felt were unrealistic.

First: in their initial training, the Career Tributes (the teenagers who come from the richer districts and have been training for their whole lives for the Hunger Games) band together and form immediate alliances, while the other Tributes, who were chosen from poorer districts and are far less prepared, don't band together, and remain loners.

Second: this is a world in which everybody has grown up watching the Hunger Games on TV, and seen how the social dynamics play out multiple times.  Would Katniss really be so surprised when Peeta declares his love for her in his live TV interview?  Wouldn't she be prepared for, and understand, the reasoning behind playing up a romantic connection between them?

While I see his point on both counts, neither of these moments made me pause as a reader.  This may partly be that I read more YA literature than my husband does.  But it's more than that: I spend a lot of time with teenagers, and the teenage behavior Suzanne Collins describes feels true to me.  I've been teaching creative writing for 12 years, and have read enough stories of lost friendships and romantic entanglements and entanglements that they're not sure are romantic, but might be, to believe that Katniss would honestly be caught off guard by Peeta, no matter what she'd seen on TV before.

As a teacher who watches cohorts of students cycle through high school, I've become familiar with the tropes of teenage life, with what happens to a class when they hit junior year, and when they then become seniors.    To some extent, my students are aware that the paths they're taking have been trodden before, that the plots of their stories aren't brand new.  But they are brand new to them. 

So yes, I believe that the weaker Tributes wouldn't immediately band together like their own little armed Breakfast Club; in an atmosphere of suspicion, and in their untrained state, they wouldn't make that early move to connect, or even see connection with the other "losers" as a strength.

This week, Eleanor and I are reading The Borrowers, which came in your latest wonderful package.  We're loving it -- such suspense!  Such pleasure in imagining where Borrowers might live in our own home, and what they might be taking!  I hadn't read it in years, and one of the things I'd forgotten was the intensity and discomfort of Arietty's first meeting with the human boy.  She's 14 years old, and a few inches tall; he's 10, and a giant.  When the boy spots her, his first move is to threaten to squash her -- he thinks she's a possibly evil fairy -- and the rest of the interaction isn't much better.  He's threatening and pushy, and she's brave, but thoughtless about revealing information to him.  In short, he acts like a 10-year-old, and she acts like a 14-year-old.

There's something wonderful about reading child protagonists who feel emotionally plausible in this way.  A recognition: yes, I know that kid.  I've been that kid.  That kid speaks to me.

Love, Annie

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

From memoirist to YA novelist

Dear Aunt Debbie,

When I was twelve, and we moved into the first apartment where I had my own room, I did some of my decorating with romance novel posters I snagged at an NYC Book Fair.  The tagline on one of them read: "Against Fate and Fortune, they found a Love that sealed their Destinies."  When I tracked down the book and read it, of course, the star-crossed lovers were barely star-crossed at all -- both from the same social class, with nothing much keeping them apart but attitude.  I wonder sometimes whether the writers of those back-cover blurbs have read any part of the book they're blurbing.  They're pretty fantastic, though.

I love the Beth Kephart piece you linked to about the promising future of YA novels -- several more titles to put on my reading list.  I know Kephart only from her first book, the memoir A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage.  A number of years ago, our friend Beth Tascione adapted it as a one-woman show, which we saw at the NY Fringe Festival.  It was a powerful evening of theater, and afterwards I bought and read the book, which I found quite moving.  This was before I had children; I'd be interested to reread it and see how parenthood has changed (and, I'd guess, intensified) my reactions.

In A Slant of Sun, Kephart writes about raising her son, Jeremy, who was diagnosed at age 2 with a pervasive developmental disorder.  Her account of working through this diagnosis and learning how to bring Jeremy out of himself and reach for human connection with him is straightforward and honestly written, with some lyrically beautiful passages.  It's not a book for kids, but it is one for parents, of all kinds of children.

I'm interested to see that Kephart has moved to writing YA novels -- have you read them?  Her website (which is great) says she wrote five memoirs first, and this made me wonder about connections between the genres.  Does making meaning of your own life lead naturally to plotting the lives of others?  Is there something more direct and attractive about writing for teenagers than adults? 

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Looking on the bright side

Dear Annie --

Ah, golden underpants, book bonanzas and more -- inspiration strikes so originally at the kids' books blogs we've passed the Liebster to.  And another thank you to The Literary Lunchbox for giving us the hot potato.

I've just come back from Toy Fair, the toy industry's big trade show in New York.  Even though I've been working in a toy store for the past 13 years, this was the first time I've gone to it.  It's big.  It has a lot of stuff I recognize from our stores, and a lot of stuff we don't carry.  It's weirdly fun to run into people dressed in Ugly Doll outfits, not to mention some very short people dressed as round, slightly vegetable-ish characters I didn't recognize.  And I saw some very endearing stuffed animals of Elephant and Piggie which we'll be carrying.

As I was packing to go, I opened a box of bound galleys, which is what we call sample copies of chapter books, from a publisher from whom I need to order new books that will be coming out this summer.  I figured I'd grab a few to read on the bus to New York.  I can do a rough sort of one of these boxes pretty quickly.  I started reading the blurbs on the backs of some of the books, and the sameness of many of them are I-could-laugh-or-I-could-rant material.  I pulled five (from a box of 20) galleys: they're all aimed at the Young Adult market, three have women in big dresses on the covers, one has a woman in a tank top, and the last has a slightly squished-looking heart.  Here are the back-cover blurbs:
He's not a vampire. He's not a werewolf.
He's something else...the Temptation.
The fate of the paranormal world rests in Evie's hands.
. . . gritty alternate reality where vampires make the rules...and one girl dares to break them.
There's normal, and then there's paranormal, and neither is Quinlan's cup of Diet Coke.
A breathtaking, postapocalyptic romance inspired by Jane Austen's PERSUASION.
That last one's my favorite.  Aaagh!  It's even conceivable that some of these could be good reading.  Maybe.  But the way they're being marketed is so symptomatic of the pack mentality of many publishing houses these days.  In the words of Beth Kephart, YA novelist:
Teeth sink. Wings ascend. Murderous games hold court. Landscapes are annihilated, and then annihilated again. It's a package deal.
I quote Kephart because she wrote a lovely essay published in Shelf Awareness (an intelligent newsletter for the book industry)  offering an optimistic take on current YA writing.  Despite the formulaic stuff, she argues, the books which have recently received awards or other forms of attention are getting better and better:
Ten years ago, when I chaired the National Book Awards Young People's Literature Jury, I yearned for the dawning of a movement much like the one that I believe we are seeing today--for a time when the dominant YA books were the risk-taking books, tantalizing in their shape and form, fresh and original in their language, soulful. I believed then, and I believe now, that enduring YA books have the capacity to alert, embolden and inspire; to live outside marketing labels; to stretch young readers' ideas about how words can take them to places they've never gone.
Kephart's essay lists a number of very good recent YA books -- definitely worth taking a look at.



p.s.   I ended up taking two other galleys on the bus with me, both middle grade non-fantasy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A little love for our fellow kid-lit bloggers

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Interesting question about the current reputation of Strunk & White.  We have a bunch in the English Dept. bookroom (or at least we used to), but I'm not sure how often it's taught in high school.  My guess would be that most of my students don't know about it.  Perhaps it's time for me to break it out again....

Last week, Ali B. at Literary Lunchbox honored us with a Liebster Award.  Thank you, Ali!

It's a lovely thing -- an apparently grassroots way for small bloggers to spread a little love for each others' blogs.  I haven't been able to find the origin of the award, but there are a lot of blogs out there who have given it to each other, and it seems warm and nice. Think "pay it forward" rather than "chain letter."

Here's what I have found:

Liebster is a German word that means dearest,and this award is given to bloggers with less than 200 followers who deserve more recognition.

The rules:
  1. Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog.
  2. Link back to the blogger who awarded you.
  3. Give your top 5 picks for the award.
  4. Inform your top 5 by leaving a comment on their blogs.
  5. Post the award on your blog.
So this is what I'll be doing tonight.

My top 5 picks are all blogs we've been linking to in our sidebar for quite a while; I encourage readers to check them out.

Even in Australia is written  by a friend of mine who is also the mom of two small girls.  She covers a wide variety of subjects and asks thought-provoking questions about them.  I also love the photos she posts of her library book stacks -- totally inspiring.

Storied Cities is written by another Brooklyn mom who reads a ton with her kids and reviews books about cities, set in cities, or in some other way connected to the urban life.  Her reviews focus on how the book connects to the city.  She has a great, no-nonsense voice.

Vegbooks focuses on books which help parents and teachers support vegetarian and vegan kids in their lives.  The reviews are written by several collaborators, each with his or her own perspective; they're thorough and interesting.  Jessica Almy, the creator of Vegbooks, lives in your neck of the woods, and has been a frequent and insightful commenter here.

LitLad is focused on the reading life of a mom blogger and her two sons, ages 9 and 5.  Especially on days when I feel we're skewing a little girl-heavy here, this is a great place to go.  The Boy-Tested Book Bonanza! page gives you a good sense of the feeling here.

Smiling Like Sunshine focuses on natural family living.  Much of the blog is devoted to lifestyle ideas, but there's a good amount of talk about books, especially on Book Sharing Mondays.

And I need to add one, who's strictly over the 200 followers limit, but whom I adore: Playing by the Book, hands-down the most creative book blog I know.  Zoe is the mom of two girls just a tad older than mine, and along with reading them extraordinary books, she excels in creating and documenting funky craft projects.  The latest: a pair of golden underpants meant to be worn on the head.

Inspiring, awesome stuff.

Love, Annie

Friday, February 10, 2012

E.B. White: some writer

Dear Annie,

Charlotte's Web: wonderful book,  intense family experience.

You quoted the book's vivid opening lines.  I offer the closing ones:
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte.  Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart.  She was in a class by herself.  It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  Charlotte was both.
 We often think of Charlotte's Web when we're in Maine, where large spiders are frequent residents in our big old house and barn.  As you may recall, we tend to refrain from banishing all of Charlotte's descendants from our screen porch -- some years they're inside the screen, some years outside.
screen spider at sunset.
I wonder what Eleanor will think of the spiders the next time you guys visit.

I love the way White draws the reader into the world of the farm and the wonderfully individual personalities of the animals.  Even as we the adult readers can see the inevitability of death (and what are they raising those geese for?), lives are lived to their fullest.  There's Templeton's unapologetic selfishness, the dithering of the geese, Charlotte's intelligence and caring.  And Fern and Wilbur, both growing up before our eyes.  And the names!  Fern and Avery Arable, the Zuckermans, Henry Fussy.

White, like Charlotte, cared deeply about language.  I first became aware of
The Elements of Style
, by William Strunk, Jr. and White when I was in high school.  I have no idea if it's a book teenagers still know about.  Do your students?  Strunk had been a professor of White's; he had written a small book laying out rules and guidelines for writers.  In 1957, five years after the publication of Charlotte's Web and a decade after Strunk's death, White revised the book, adding a few essays of his own, and it's been in print ever since.  In the introduction, White uses not a lot of words to create a sense of his professor, and to put the reader there in the lecture hall in a way that feels not unlike sitting on Fern's stool watching the conversation:
"Omit needless words!" cries the author on page 17, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul.  In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having short-changed himself, a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock.  Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times.  When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice said, "Rule thirteen.  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!"
We're all so glad that White kept the needed words in.



Monday, February 6, 2012

Pigs, spiders, and mortality

Dear Aunt Debbie,

This past Saturday afternoon, we took the girls to a local elementary school (one of the places we're looking at for Eleanor's kindergarten next year) to see a production of Charlotte's Web, as acted by 4th and 5th graders.  School plays are a big hit in our family these days, even when we don't know the kids acting in them -- inspiring, especially for our theater-loving Eleanor.

But I wanted Eleanor's first interaction with Charlotte's Web to be with the book itself -- E.B. White's words, Garth Williams's pictures.  We started last week, and finished on Saturday morning.

Without the impetus of the play, I think we would have waited -- I wasn't at all sure how Eleanor would react to Charlotte's death, and all of the other questions of mortality the book raises.  My father reminded me of my own reaction: we were on a bus coming back from somewhere, and he says they didn't prepare me well enough, and I fell into hysterical, inconsolable sobbing in public.  I think I was about Eleanor's age, maybe a little younger.

With this in mind, but feeling from past experience that Eleanor could probably handle it, we embarked.  Jeff did most of the reading: we've been taking turns reading chapter books to Eleanor, so that each of us gets the full experience of one book with her, rather than a few chapters here or there.  Because Jeff often works late, and Isabel doesn't yet have the patience for chapter books, this means that some weeks, our chapter book reading is pretty slow.  I ceded my claim to Charlotte's Web, listening out of the corner of my ear as I read Gingerbread Girl and The Philharmonic Gets Dressed and Niccolini's Song over and over to Isabel.  Jeff had never read the book himself, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to get through parts of it without completely breaking down.

It's a brilliant book.  E.B. White's language is clear and firm, and he sets a tone of straightforward discussion of tough issues from the first paragraph:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable.  "Some pigs were born last night."
"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.
"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt.  It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything.  So your father has decided to do away with it."
"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern.  "You mean kill it?  Just because it's smaller than the others?"

Death, and the desire to escape it, are there right from the beginning.  White is both empathetic and unsentimental: you feel for Wilbur, and for Fern and Charlotte (each of whom saves Wilbur's life at one point in the book), but White never lets you forget that death is a necessary and everyday part of life.  Wilbur's first interaction with Charlotte involves him learning about the way she sucks the blood from flies and other insects; he's appalled by her bloodthirsty nature, even as he admires her cleverness and wants to be able to be her friend.

If you're looking for it, foreshadowing of Charlotte's death comes early.  In Chapter 15, "The Crickets," White writes about the sad intimations of the crickets' song:

Everybody heard the song of the crickets.  Avery and Fern Arable heard it as they walked the dusty road.  They knew that school would soon begin again.  The young geese heard it and knew that they would never be little goslings again.  Charlotte heard it and knew that she hadn't much time left.

That's where Jeff paused in his Thursday night reading to ask Eleanor, "What do you think that means?"  We talked about the lifespan of spiders, how they don't live through the winter, and Eleanor said, "But Charlotte will!  She's a magic spider, because she can talk!" And I said that, in the world of this book, even though the animals can talk, it doesn't mean that they're magic -- that animals and people in this book are capable of dying.  And Eleanor teared up, and resisted, and then seemed to take it in a little, and they went on reading.

So on Saturday morning, when Charlotte died, we were at least somewhat prepared.  Eleanor cried.  I cried.  Jeff teared up.  Isabel sat on the loveseat making one Barbie doll dance on another one's head, and singing to herself.  Eleanor said, "But I love Charlotte!  She's one of my favorite characters!" and we all hugged, and sniffled, and wiped our eyes, and after a couple of minutes, Jeff read the last chapter.

It was a good first real death.

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dogs in New York

Dear Annie,

I'm so pleased you like Niccolini's Song with its wonderful lullabies for trains and babies.  It is, alas, out of print.  Mark Buehner, the illustrator, has done a lot of other lovely books -- although none perhaps as emotionally evocative as Niccolini.  He does, however, have some good dog picture books.

The Adventures of Taxi Dog
, written by Debra and Sal Barracca, follows a stray dog and the taxi driver who adopts him through the streets of New York, picking up fares in rhyme.  I've met a number of people who love this book a lot, but it's never resonated in that way with me.  Buehner's art is good (although his version of New York is overwhelming full of white people) -- and Isabel will undoubtedly appreciate the fact that Max the dog is on every page.

Buehner did Taxi Dog in 1990, shortly after he moved to New York from Utah.  Fourteen years later, he illustrated
Dex: The Heart of a Hero
, written by his wife, Caralyn Buehner.  It's a riot.  Dex is the ultimate 98-pound weakling -- I suppose in dog terms it would be 9.8 pounds.  He's a dachshund who's either ignored or ridiculed by the neighborhood dogs and cats (it looks like we're in New York still, and all characters are animals).  He has Walter Mitty-esque dreams of becoming a superhero: "The Mighty Dex flew up into the dark and starry night...."  So he starts training: running up and down garbage piles, dragging socks full of sand to the corner and back, doing push-ups, circling five times at night before going to sleep.  My scanner is, alas, on the fritz again.  I would love to show you the six-panel illustration of Dex doing body-builder poses in front of the mirror: "Faster than a rolling ball, stronger than the toughest rawhide, able to leap tall fences in a single bound!"  He gets himself a superhero costume (see cover) and starts his career by helping a puppy across the street.  He saves a mouse from falling down a storm drain, tackles a purse snatcher (bulldog), and organizes a neighborhood cleanup day.  I love that his superhero-ness is so non-magical, and his heroic deed are so pedestrian.  He takes himself very seriously.

He finally gets his wish to fly to the rescue when the cat who has been his biggest detractor gets stuck in a tree and all the animals of the neighborhood run to Dex to rescue him.  Dex harnesses the laws of physics: he stands on one end of a see-saw --
"Everybody on the other end! One! Two! Three!"
All the animals jumped together on the other end of the teeter-totter, catapulting Dex into the air.  He soared over the crowd, his ears and cape streaming out behind him...
The illustration is of a wide-eyed caped dachshund bouncing straight up,  with caption: "The Mighty Dex flew up into the dark and starry night..."  He saves the cat, the crowd chants "Su-per Dog!" and the cat and Dex end up partners in matching caped outfits.

Buehner's illustrated some other interesting ones too: a short story by Octavio Paz rewritten for kids, and a delightful tall tale about a man who grows balloons on a farm.  Stories for another night.



Friday, February 3, 2012

Lullaby for trains

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Happily, our stomach bug was not nearly as bad as Ramona's.  I have no new ideas on the stomach flu book front, but in conversation with a colleague today was reminded of two lovely Poppleton stories that have to do with being sick.  In Poppleton, there's "The Pill," in which Fillmore is sick and convinces Poppleton he has to have his pill inside a piece of cake, which results in a tremendous amount of cake being eaten.  In Poppleton Forever, it's "The Cold," in which Poppleton has a bad cold, and his friend, a llama named Cherry Sue, tries to cure him by bringing him a bowl full of oranges.  Each time he peels an orange, he sneezes, and the orange ends up across the room, in some different strange spot.

But moving away from stomachs and colds, and back to trains....

One of your gifts for Isabel in Eleanor's birthday package was the lovely Niccolini's Song,by Chuck Wilcoxen.  We've been reading it three times a day.  It's about a mild-mannered train yard night watchman, Niccolini, who is surprised one night when, after an earlier scare, a steam engine begins to talk to him.  It's worried about the next day, and having trouble falling asleep.  Niccolini sings the engine a lullaby: "a song about gentle hills, steady tailwinds, and feathers for freight."

After this first night, the other engines want Niccolini to sing to them, too.  In Wilcoxen's text, the trains come across very much like children, and Niccolini a tender father:

Niccolini knew that some of the trains were perfectly capable of falling asleep without a lullaby.  In fact, there were nights when certain engines (who felt unloved) would wake themselves up just to have Niccolini sing them back to sleep.  Niccolini didn't mind.  The words came to him easily, the tune was always the same, and it cost him nothing to bring them comfort.

One night, a harried mother walks her sleepless baby down by the train yard; the baby, too, is soothed by Niccolini's song.  The story expands: other mothers come, with other babies, in a quieting parade.  Then one night, there's a terrible wind, and so many sleepless parents and children come to be soothed by Niccolini that no one can hear them.  And so he enlists the engines to whistle his song, while he conducts.

This is a deeply gentle book.  Mark Buehner's illustrations all have the feel of dusky night, every page both detailed and dim, so you have to peer at them closely.  I love the roundedness of his forms: both the trains and Niccolini himself have depth and heft.  Here's Niccolini, early in the book, leaning to listen to the engines:

 Isabel's favorite illustrations are the ones with mothers and babies, which she likes to identify and comment on: "There's the mother.  There's her baby.  Where's the daddy?  He's home asleep."  For me, though, this is the image that sticks: Niccolini, listening for danger and ready to blow his whistle (look at the tension in his turning form), on the cusp of discovering something miraculous. 

Love, Annie

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tummy misery

Dear Annie,

I'd never thought of The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a cautionary tale on overeating -- interesting interpretation!  But the overeating leads ultimately to beauty and flight...

The other illness from overeating I can think of is
The Lady with the Alligator Purse
, which is about a baby drinking the bathwater, eating the soap, and being misdiagnosed. Lovely video of three sisters reading it here.

I'm taking you up on the Throw-Up Challenge.  (The Upchuck Event?)  I still can't think of any in the picture book category. 

I return to the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, exquisitely empathetic portrayals of life from pre-school to fourth grade.  I've just re-read Chapter 6 of
Ramona Quimby, Age 8
: "Supernuisance."  Ramona is in third grade and her loving but overloaded parents are struggling with financial problems.  She has overheard her teacher describe her as "a nuisance," which has deflated her enthusiasm for anything in school.  So one morning when her parents' car breaks down, she arrives in her classroom with its wall of science experiments (fruit flies growing in colored oatmeal), feeling increasingly bad:
She sat motionless, hoping the terrible feeling would go away.  She knew she should tell her teacher, but by now Ramona was too miserable even to raise her hand.  If she did not move, not even her little finger or an eyelash, she might feel better
   Go away, blue oatmeal, thought Ramona, and then she knew that the most terrible, horrible, dreadful, awful thing that could happen was going to happen.  Please, God, don't let me. . . . Ramona prayed too late.
   The terrible, horrible, dreadful, awful thing happened.  Ramona threw up.  She threw up right there on the floor in front of everyone.  One second her breakfast was where it belonged.  Then everything in her middle seemed to go into reverse, and there was her breakfast on the floor.
Ramona is miserable and humiliated.  The teacher sends a student to take Ramona to the office, and she gives the rest of the class permission to "hold your noses and file into the hall until Mr. Watts comes and cleans up."

The school secretary is the mensch of the story, cleaning Ramona up, settling her on a cot, and calling her mother.  Mrs. Quimby is at work, leading Ramona to worry that her illness will cause her mother to lose her job.  When Ramona throws up again, the secretary gets her to the toilet in time, gives her a cup of water and cheerfully says, "You must feel as if you've just thrown up your toenails."

Cleary charts Ramona's misery -- from willing herself not to throw up in the taxi her mother has brought to take her home, through the days of fever and slow recovery.  First she can think only of the secure feel of the clean sheets on her bed.  Family members look in on her from the doorway.  Then she's aware they're having dinner without her.  Next her world expands enough to understand that they're being especially quiet just for her.  There's ginger ale, and later dry toast.  And when she asks sadly for  butter on the toast, we know she's on the way up, at least physically.
Remembering what had happened at school, she began to cry.
   "Dear heart," said her mother. "Don't cry.  You just have a touch of stomach flu.  You'll feel better in a day or so."
   Ramona's voice was muffled.  "No, I won't."
   "Yes, you will."  Mrs. Quimby patted Ramona through the bedclothes.  
   Ramona turned enough to look at her mother with one teary eye.  "You don't know what happened," she said.
   Mrs. Quimby looked concerned.  "What happened?"
   "I threw up on the floor in front of the whole class," sobbed Ramona.
She works her way out of misery during her convalescence in the next chapter, and by the time she gets back on the school bus, throwing up is in the distant past. 

I trust your misery is also a dim memory at this point.  And that it hasn't visited itself on others near and dear to you.