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

Monday, April 30, 2012

Saying No!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

With a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old in the house, every day is to some extent a No Day.  We hang the girls' drawings and paintings on one wall of our living room, in a rotating display, and one of the drawings up there right now is Isabel's interpretation of the intensity of "NO."  The words are hers, dictated; the "of course" on top was Eleanor's contribution.

I'm reminded of two ridiculous, fun "No" books by Tedd Arnold, both of which center on jumping on the bed (one of Isabel's favorite pastimes) and being told not to.

Five Ugly Monsters is a retelling of that good old standard, "No more monkeys jumping on the bed," with monsters subbing in for the monkeys.  The monster-plagued boy keeps calling the doctor, who gets increasingly frustrated at being woken up, and finally rips the phone out of the wall to get some sleep.  The boy, deprived of his doctor's advice, takes on the monsters himself: "I called the doctor...[the doctor is sleeping soundly] and then I said, NO MORE MONSTERS JUMPING ON THE BED!"  Empowerment!  A reason for your kids to yell along with you in rhyming chorus as you read!  And really cute ugly monsters.

No Jumping on the Bed!
is a more developed narrative.  It's the story of Walter, whose father tells him to stop jumping on the bed: "If I've told you once I've told you a million times, no jumping on the bed!  One day it'll crash right through the floor."  Of course, Walter doesn't listen, and two pages later his jumping does send him and his bed crashing through the floor into the apartment below.  What follows is a series of further crashes, as Walter goes down through several levels of his apartment building, through the rooms of a roster of characters with rhyming names.  At each level, he gathers the people and a variety of items from their apartments, so there's a pleasing element of repetition:
"Down and down fell Walter, Miss Hattie, Mr. Matty, Aunt Batty, Patty, Natty, Fatty Cat, the stamps, the TV, the spaghetti, the bed, and all."

There's a nice combination here of crashing violent destruction and lack of actual harm.  No one is hurt; in fact, each neighbor seems intrigued as well as somewhat disturbed by the falling people and debris.  It's good to see a picture book reflecting apartment building living (so many houses in picture books, sigh), though apparently each of these apartments has a totally different layout from the ones above and below, as Walter doesn't just fall through bedrooms. It's a good escape from reality.

Love, Annie

P.S. Happy 2nd birthday to Annie and Aunt!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

No no no: one of those days

Dear Annie,

I hear your own family of origin has found you The Mother Whale and several other entries in Edith Thacher Hurd's mother animals series for a Mother's Day gift.  Showing that it's never too late to give one's children great picture books.

I've been thinking about a much less lyrical book for Mother's Day -- but it sure is entertaining. 
My No No No Day!
just came out last week. When I ordered it, I hadn't thought of it as appropriate for the coming holiday, but it very thoroughly evokes a certain kind of day in the parent-child relationship.  Bella, the cross and bellowing star of the story, has a day in which nothing goes right: it's a sort of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day for the pre-school crowd.  A good deal of Alexander's misery is inflicted on him by the outside world, but in Bella's case, she starts out prickly and can't stop hating everything.  The first injustice wreaked on her is that she wakes up and discovers her baby brother not just in her room, but licking her jewelry, which is strewn across the floor.  "Much of the charm of this book is that it is too weird to be made up," says one reviewer.

Everything is wrong: yucky eggs for breakfast, peas for dinner that are too hot, a bath too cold.  My favorite line, accompanied by the body language of the cover (her mouth is always grimly cavernous) is, "BALLET IS TOO ITCHY!"  There's a full-blown tantrum before bed, followed by a happier, hopeful ending.  One has the impression it's just a bad day for Bella -- she's clearly a child of strong feelings, but they can be positive too.

The book reminds me of Grumpy Bird, another woke-up-in-a-rotten-mood book.  Bella is more intense, but it definitely gives the opportunity for some great conversations with the pre-schooler in one's life.  I laughed through much of it, but it also brought back a host of emotional memories of those days. 

I hope the days in your household rarely make it all the way to a triple NO.



Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Mother Whale

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Reading your post on ocean life reminded me of a wonderful book from my childhood: The Mother Whale, by Edith Thacher Hurd, illustrated by her husband Clement Hurd, of Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny fame.

My memories of the book were dim -- it lives on the children's book shelves at my parents' apartment, and I haven't read it for a while -- but it stuck in my head, so I called my parents, and my mom found the book and read it aloud to me over the phone.

It is far more wonderful than I remembered.  The Mother Whale begins with a female sperm whale giving birth to her baby.  In clear, patient language, Hurd describes the scene:

On the flat blue sea there were only the white fountains of the whales.

The mother sperm whale rocked in the long slow waves of the sea, waiting.

The great sperm whale swam around and around. The bottle-nosed dolphins dove
in the blue sea and leaped in the sunshine.

At last it was time. The mother whale held herself still, her tail moved back and
forth. She balanced herself with her flippers. For one year and four months the
baby whale had been curled up and growing. It was now time for it to be born.

The baby whale was born slowly, first his tail, the two black flukes curled in at the
corners, just as they had been while he was growing inside his mother.

Last of all came the baby whale’s flippers and his huge head. He was a big baby. He
weighed two thousand pounds and was fourteen feet long.

The mother whale grunted and made singing noises as she swam close to her little
new calf. He moved his tail slowly and balanced himself with his flippers. He
shivered in the cold ocean water.

This tone continues for the rest of the book: both factual and fond, providing informative facts about and descriptions of whale life without anthropomorphizing the whales at all.  There's drama: the mother whale goes hunting in the deep sea, and encounters and eats a squid; the bull whale is challenged by a younger bull whale who wants to steal his harem (apparently, the word we use to describe a family group of whales).

The biology of whale life is discussed openly, so reading of this book to young children might open up some questions.  The baby whale nurses: "The mother whale turned on her side. Her baby nuzzled her belly. He drank her warm milk, gallons and gallons and gallons of warm rich milk." There are references late in the book to the mother whale and the bull whale mating to create a new baby (in the picture, the whales are touching, but the important bits are covered in a swirl of white water).

While The Mother Whale is out of print, there seem to be a number of used copies out there, and several of Edith Thacher Hurd's 75 children's books are still in print (though not, it appears, the other books in her Mother Animal series, which includes The Mother Kangaroo, The Mother Chimpanzee, and The Mother Owl).

Perhaps a gift for Mother's Day?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sustenance from above

Dear Annie,

Flip Flap Airport is a big favorite of mine.  Lots to look at -- and even grownups can learn things they didn't know about how things operate behind the scenes.

We stayed on the ground on our mini-vacation.  We saw Monticello in the rain, then drove across Virginia and south to Kitty Hawk.  It was wonderful -- motivated me to search hard for a good kids' book on the Wright Brothers.  Their story is fascinating, full of math and science and scientific method.  And sibling shouting matches -- good stuff.

Our motel was on the beach, with dolphins and pelicans cavorting out our window.  One thinks a lot about the sea when one is on a long thin barrier island, so I'm offering a book on the subject for today's entry.

Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas
by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm is the third in a series of science books narrated by the sun.
I am your sun, your golden star.
All ocean life depends on me;
so does all life on land.
It's a sumptuously illustrated picture book outlining the basics of sea life.  I still need to get a new scanner, alas.  We have pages of blue and green wonderfully complex drawings of phytoplankton, which "form the great invisible pasture of the sea."  We go through the food chain, on up to big fish and whales.  Then, a two-page spread that's almost all the black of the deep sea, with a tiny strip of blue at the surface.  How, the sun asks, can animals live in the deep sea when phytoplankton can't because there's no sun.
   They wait for SNOW.
   This snow isn't made of ice.  "Marine snow" is tiny flakes from living things.  As animals and phytoplankton live and die, their poop and mucus, carcasses and guts, sink down and down, like falling flakes of snow.  Marine snow is nutritious food for bacteria and other creatures living in the sunless belly of the sea.
   Nothing is wasted.
Nutritious poop falling from above -- an image that could stay with future marine biologists for a long time.  It's a lovely book, with clear explanations throughout.

I miss that ocean...



Monday, April 23, 2012

Lifting flaps at the airport

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I hope you and Bob are having a lovely time, and that it's not too rainy to enjoy your southern jaunt.

Our spring break trip to Florida provided us with an opportunity to enjoy one of your recent gifts in more depth.  Both before flying down and after we returned, the girls spent a lot of time on the floor with Usborne Flip Flap Airport ("with over 60 flaps to lift and other exciting surprises").

What I like about this book, and assume may be true of the other titles in the Usborne Flip Flap series, is the combination of specific, factual information about various aspects of airport functioning and the good-natured sense of humor present in the drawings.  On the "Preparing the Plane" page, you learn that "the plane is cleaned with water jets," that "This tow truck will pull the plane away from its parking spot," and that a truck with a big hose empties the toilet tank of a plane as the passengers exit.  Look a little closer, and you'll notice that the man standing next to the toilet truck is holding his nose, and that one of the baggage handlers has picked up a fallen bag and is running after a baggage truck: "Hey!"

All noises are accounted for: vehicles proclaim "beep beep!" or "toot toot!"; pigeons say "cheep cheep!"  The flaps themselves are fun, but the level of detail aside from the flaps is also terrific.  The book consists of 7 double-page spreads -- no narrative, but a movement from morning to night, from departure to arrival, with several pages of functional information in between. 

My only quibble with the book is its weight.  This is a large board book (roughly 9 1/2 by 11 inches, which is why my scanned image is cut off), with all the bells and whistles, it's too heavy to be something you'd want to lug with you on a trip, say, to the airport.  Not vacation reading.  For pre- and post-, however, it's an excellent choice.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Dear Annie,

Bob and I are off on a very small vacation, wandering around Virginia and North Carolina for a few days.  We'll end up at Monticello, which I haven't visited since I was 14.  Jefferson's Sons (which I still wish had won the Newbery medal) has added to my curiosity about Jefferson's home.

While we're on tour, I offer you a tour of a different kind.  This one's a Blog Tour, celebrating Diana Wynne Jones, who died a little more than a year ago.  Sixteen different bloggers -- many of whom appear to have known her -- have signed up to blog about Jones on successive weekdays.  So here's the site.  And here's a Publishers Weekly article about all that's being done to commemorate her, including a gathering today in her home town of Bristol.  (Make sure to scroll down to the world's oddest cake.)



Saturday, April 21, 2012

Quirky and out of print

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As regular readers know, we're entered in the Independent Book Blogger Awards, and first-round voting ends Monday, April 23.  If you enjoy our blog, please click on the button to the right and vote for us this weekend!

As you mentioned in your last post, we're coming up on our second anniversary here at Annie and Aunt, and every once in a while I too come across a book I can't believe we haven't written about yet.  The most recent one of these for me is a truly strange picture book that was one of my favorites growing up, and has become a favorite with both my girls.

Here it is:

From the cover, you might think that Meal One, by Ivor Cutler, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, is focused on playful violence between a mother and son.  The title makes no apparent sense, and doesn't seem connected to the picture.  The story goes in a totally different direction from anything on the cover: it's about Helbert, a young boy who is "great pals" with his mother, and the growth of a plum tree inside his house.  It begins:

One morning, Helbert woke with a plum in his mouth.  He pulled it out and held it between his fingers for a good look: it was purple and juicy.

"Who put it in my mouth while I was asleep?" he wondered.

"Me!" shouted his mum, stretching her head out from under the bed with a great grin on her lips.

"Hello, Mum!" he smiled.

Helbert eats the plum, and he and his mum decide to plant the plum stone under his bed.  They dig a small hole in the floorboards, and when it doesn't grow immediately, they entreat it:

"O stone!  O mighty plum!  Send forth roots and shoots.  Grow with our love into a plum tree, with lots of plums!"

And magic happens:

The tree in Helbert's bedroom is fantastic enough, but after he's figured out a way to lie in his bed among the branches and hopped out again, complete with three new scratches, he gets dressed and his mum carries him downstairs for "meal one" -- breakfast.  She kicks open the door to the kitchen and they're greeted by the two pages which engraved themselves in my memory in childhood:

Magical realism continues as Helbert's mum winds time back by turning back the hands of the clock, and all is restored.

That image of the roots eating breakfast fascinated me as a kid.  I can remember staring at it, examining with great interest what each of the roots was doing, and imagining what it would really look and sound like.  The whole book is so playful, so British in sensibility, such a strong combination of realism and twisted magic.  Jeff doesn't understand why I like it quite so much, and I think it has something to do with encountering it as a child rather than an adult.  Which is why, of course, I made sure to get it on our shelves early on.

Love, Annie

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Marcia Williams: on beyond comic books

Dear Annie,

There are multiple industries these days of Shakespeare graphic novels.  I'll stop myself from recounting all the riotously funny "updated" versions in mangashakespeare
(King Lear
in a Last of the Mohicans setting; Hamlet in a 2017 environmentally devastated word; a steampunk Twelfth Night -- and there's more!).  But unlike some Shakespeare comics, it uses some of the original language.

Every now and then I think, wow, two years into this blog and we haven't yet written about X.   Today, X = Marcia Williams, wonderfully kid-friendly translator of classics and folktales into her unique style of graphic novels.  Here's some of her Midsummer Night's Dream:

Tales from Shakespeare
retells seven plays, including A Winter's Tale. And a second volume does seven more. They all have a lovely whimsical quality, even while doing tragedy.  The text under the pictures narrates the story, and the pictures use actual Shakespeare quotes.  They work well as a read-aloud, pointing as you go.

We first discovered Williams with her graphic novel version of Robin Hood, followed soon after by Tales of King Arthur.  She's done Greek Myths and  The Odyssey; her latest is on Egyptian mythology.  Her Charles Dickens and Friends retells Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol -- and in 48 (large, kinda dense) pages!  I've never seen her Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote (both not published in the U.S., alas) -- but I'm curious.



Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Illustrated Shakespeare for older kids

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We'll have to check out those other intro-to-Shakespeare picture books -- they look terrific.  The other form of illustrated Shakespeare books I have on my shelves are a couple of graphic novel versions I bought during my first year of teaching, at a Massachusetts boarding school where the English Department used them to get high school kids interested in Shakespeare.

Ian Pollock's Illustrated King Lear
and Othello, illustrated by Oscar Zarate, each contain the complete, unabridged text of Shakespeare's plays, filled with wild, animated drawings.  Pollock's King Lear leans toward the surreal, with characters of wildly different sizes, and moments when the word is made flesh.  Here, Lear excoriates his daughter Goneril, and appears to pull a bloody lump from himself to illustrate that she is "a disease that's in my flesh, which I must needs call mine":

It's engaging and creepy and a little mad, which fits with the plot of the play: Lear's own descent into madness and powerlessness.

Oscar Zarate's illustrations for Othello are more straightforward, though similarly creepy at times.  Lots of play with light and shadow, and the pages become darker as Othello succumbs to Iago's poisonous lies (here, depicted as a physical sword skewering him):

and begins to believe that Desdemona is unfaithful:

I'll confess here that these are not illustrations which give me pleasure when I return to them.  There's violence here, harshness, ugliness.  All of it is drawn from the text, but it's almost too intense for me at times.  That being said, I can see them hooking YA readers accustomed to graphic novels and manga.  They bring the plays to violent life.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Shakespeare storytelling

Dear Annie,

A Winter's Tale -- one of the odder Shakespeare plays.  Interesting place to start.  Bruce Coville has also done five other long picture book retellings of the bard.  People tend to buy them when they're taking a child to a Shakespeare play for the first time.  I like the idea of separating a book telling the story from an actual performance, as you did with Eleanor.  There are two collections of stories that might work for her.

The first, from Barefoot Books (which brought us a great collection of poetry) is
Shakespeare's Storybook
. It first came out as the picture book-size volume we see here, but they've recently put out a smaller edition the size of a chapter book.  The subtitle is "Folk Tales that Inspired the Bard."  Author Patrick Ryan retells seven folktales and stories in circulation in the 16th century that, according to his introduction, Shakespeare used for his plays.  (John, father of Annie, and Shakespeare scholar -- is this accurate?)  The plays that resulted are The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear and A Winter's Tale.  In contrast to the lines you quoted, I offer the opening paragraphs of "The Flower Princess," precursor to A Winter's Tale:
   There once was a young king of Sicilia who was selfish, restless and hard-hearted.  His people wished he would fall in love and settle down.  But the king said this would never happen.
   Yet one day the king met a young country girl.  "You're so beautiful!" he exclaimed. 
   That she was, and as kind and generous as the king was mean-spirited.  His heart softened and he fell in love with her.  Before long, the king asked her to be his wife.
There's a baby daughter, and then of course bad things happen, followed by good things in the neighboring kingdom of Bohemia.  The stories are the inspirations for Shakespeare: he took off from them and went in other directions.  Every page is beautifully illustrated by James Mayhew, and they're a good starting point to talk about the plays.

Then there's the lovely
Tales from Shakespeare
by Tina Packer.  It's a more traditional re-telling of the plays, with occasional real quotes thrown in.  It includes A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, As you Like It, The Tempest, Othello, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet.  Each 15-or-so page story has one full-page picture by a different major children's illustrator (Mark Teague, Mary Grandpre, and Kadir Nelson, to name three).  Here's a bit of As You Like It, when Rosalind (in drag) confronts Orlando:
..."I am he that is so love-shaked, Orlando admitted.  "I pray you tell me your remedy.  Did you ever cure any so?"
  "Yes, one, and in this manner," Rosalind said.  "He was to imagine me his love.  I would now like him, then loathe him; now entertain him, then forswear him; now weep for him, then spit at him.  Thus would I cure you, too, if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to woo me."
   Orlando considered this strange proposal.  He did not wish to be cured of his love for Rosalind, but this would give him a chance to practice wooing her.  Besides, this boy seemed like jolly company, and everyone else in the dukes' court was tired of hearing about his beloved.  And in some strange way, the boy even looked like fair Rosalind.  "Now, by the faith of my love, I will, good youth."
The quotes are chopped down from the real speeches, but close.  They give a feel for the language.

Now I must get back to store work: my orders for advent calendars (which will go on sale in November) are due in tomorrow.  We plan ahead in this business...



Friday, April 13, 2012

Shakespeare for kids

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm looking forward to the entry you promise on puberty and periods, perhaps more than the advent of those things themselves.  Happily, we still have a number of years to go.

This afternoon, I found myself talking to the girls about Shakespeare.  Jeff and I are headed tomorrow to a matinee of The Taming of the Shrew while my parents babysit, and when Eleanor asked why they couldn't come with us, I had to explain that we were going to "a grown-up play."

This is a funny way to refer to Shrew, a play I teach regularly to my 9th graders because of its mix of high and low-brow humor, its slapstick comedy and dirty wordplay, and elements of romance, fighting, and disguise which wouldn't be out of place in a children's theater.  What is the right age to introduce kids to Shakespeare?

Eleanor was recently given a children's book retelling of, of all things, The Winter's Tale, retold by Bruce Coville and sumptuously illustrated by LeUyen Pham.  It's Shakespeare's story adapted into prose, accessible to younger readers -- Eleanor likes and can follow it with some parsing of the text -- but aimed at a higher-than-picture-book reading level.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

There is a disease that can twist men's hearts and make them mad, and the name of that disease is jealousy.  

This was the sickness that came upon Leontes, King of Sicilia, in what should have been the time of his greatest happiness.  He had a lovely and loving wife.  He had a fine young son.  And his greatest friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, had been in court for an extended visit.

The jealousy started on the day Polixenes wished to return home.  Though Leontes bid him stay, as he had several times before, Polixenes was firm.  "I must return to my own kingdom, my own wife and child," he protested.

"You speak to him," said Leontes to his queen, Hermione.

Of course, Leontes interprets Polixenes' reaction to Hermione as proof that they are having an affair, and banishes her to prison, where she has her baby.  Leontes says the child isn't his, and sends her off to be abandoned in the wild to die.  Their son dies of grief, and word comes that Hermione is dead, too.  Leontes feels terrible!  I wonder why I am reading this book to my 5-year-old!  Then 16 years pass.  The abandoned baby, rescued by shepherds, grows into the lovely Perdita, and falls in love with Prince Florizel, the son of King Polixenes.  Festivals, disguises, and revelations follow, culminating in everyone coming back to Leontes' court and the lovers getting to be together when it's revealed they're both royal.  Everyone is happy, and even Hermione comes back to life (or is revealed to have been alive the whole time).

I've always found The Winter's Tale to be both painfully beautiful in its language and deeply, deeply weird: a problem play, not quite tragedy or comedy.  Reading it as a picture book makes me think of it in a new way -- it possesses the harsh logic of a fairy tale, as we've discussed here and here.  There are terrible losses early on, large gaps in time, magical resurrections.  In some ways, it makes more sense as a kids' book than it does as a book for adults; Eleanor has far less of a problem with the emotional logic involved than I do.

While Isabel isn't able to sit through the lengthy story, she too loves Pham's illustrations, painted in glowing colors and soft draperies.  Lots of expressive hands and faces.  I appreciate the racial diversity in the casting as well: both Paulina, (the awesome servant who's the only one willing to fully stand up to Leontes, and who hides Hermione for 16 years) and her first husband Antigonus are black; no mention of this in the text, just a fact in the pictures.

Maybe I should be scouting New York for upcoming productions of The Winter's Tale for Eleanor's next theatrical outing....

Love, Annie

American girls

Dear Annie,

I have a vivid memory of an emergency room waiting area (Lizzie had broken a wrist falling from a tree) where Mona sat the whole time with her back to the TV, reading Meet Addy by Connie Porter, another American Girl book.  She was in first grade -- I think it was the first chapter book she read on her own.  The American Girl series plug along at the store, selling steadily but not amazingly.  Each of the American Girl historical figure dolls has an accompanying six book series -- and some have a seventh book focusing on a friend of the central character.  The company, which started in 1986, was bought by Mattel (the mega-toy business that brings us Barbie, among many others) 12 years later.  They've kept the basic marketing scheme: upscale dolls, clothing and accessories which are sold directly to consumers, and books and a handful of games that are more widely available.

I suspect you'll find more of the "reasonable writing, interesting historical detail" you describe in the Molly book if you guys keep going.  They deal with historical issues of whatever time they're about in quiet but straightforward ways.  Most of them have the same titles and trajectory in the six books: Meet Molly, Molly Learns a Lesson, Molly's Surprise, etc.   One author, Valerie Tripp, wrote the Molly books, as well as all of Kit, Josephina, Felicity and half of Samantha.  I will admit that I was disconcerted a few years back when they introduced a historical character who is younger than I:  the story of Julie is set in San Francisco in 1974.

The American Girl publications that fly off our shelves, though, are the advice books.  They publish quite a few, all aimed at 8-to-12 year olds, with titles like, A Smart Girl's Guide to Friendship Troubles/ Staying Home Alone/ her Parents' Divorce/ Manners/ Sticky Situations/ Boys.  Their advice is pretty solid, full of common sense and pushing girls to think for themselves. 

Then there's the runaway bestseller,
The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls
.  It's the ultimate puberty-but-no-sex explainer.  We've discussed books about where babies come for young kids, and someday we'll do another entry on puberty and periods.  There are other books too, but this one is an excellent place to start.



Monday, April 9, 2012

Traveling with friends

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thank you for getting us entered into the Independent Book Blogger Awards!  Readers, please go vote for us there starting tomorrow (Tuesday)!  I'm looking forward to perusing some more book blogs I don't know about yet.

Our regular reader (and my former awesome student) Erica has corrected me in a comment on my use of the term "book trailer" to describe John Green's vlog about The Fault in Our Stars.  I spent a little bit of time tonight looking at John Green and his brother Hank's Nerdfighters site, which seems to be a rich and intense world.  Their goal: "We fight to increase awesome and decrease suck."  Looks like a nice community to be able to join, especially if you're a nerdy HS student.

I'm still left with the question: publishers are pushing for authors to make book trailers and have more of an online presence, but are people really watching these things regularly, if they're not part of an organic community with a larger goal?

We've been on vacation this week, which means very few new books, but a lot of good rereading of old ones, especially skinny little books that can slip easily into the back of the diaper bag so I can pull them out when we're waiting in line at an amusement park, or at the table in a restaurant before the food has come.

So hello, old friends: Little Bear, Poppleton, A Bargain for Frances, The Golly Sisters, the Nutshell Library.  Eleanor and I are rereading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is just as gripping as it was for her the first time around, and opens the way for different conversations than it did when she was 3 1/2.  I love that book.

But our Narnia comes in a nice heavy hardcover, so we needed a chapter book of reasonable length to keep Eleanor occupied without weighing down the diaper bag.  Enter Molly Learns a Lesson, the second in a series of six American Girl books which Eleanor received for Christmas and her birthday from her grandmother, my mother-in-law, along with her Molly McIntire doll.  You and I have chatted briefly about the American Girl experience.  I was pleasantly surprised when we read the first one a few months ago: reasonable writing, interesting historical detail.  Molly is the spunky 1944 girl whose father is a doctor over in London helping treat soldiers in a military hospital.  There's a kind of Little Women feel to some of it -- a fatherless family pulling together on the Home Front and trying to help the war effort, while the children are drawn into their own smaller intrigues.  There's also a certain amount of Learning of Lessons, even in the books that don't have it in the title, but all in all both Eleanor and I are engaged.

It's interesting to read them today and think about what aspects are anachronistic -- I remember reading my mom's old copy of Junior Miss, by Sally Benson, published in 1941, and both enjoying it tremendously and feeling a little uncomfortable about the gender roles portrayed in the relationship between Judy Graves and her friends.  (This, in a brief review on a lovely librarian blog, is the copy I read.)  In Valerie Tripp's Molly stories, there's a lot of boys-against-girls stuff going on, but it's also carefully modulated: the very smart girl wins the class multiplication bee, rather than the obnoxious boy, though Molly herself isn't very good at multiplication.  You can feel the hand of the editor urging caution in creating female characters with the right combination of strength, endearing flaws, and historical accuracy.  It's an interesting mix.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 8, 2012

We're in a contest

Dear Annie,

I have very little experience of book trailers.  They come in several forms.  There are the produced-by-publishers ads for upcoming books -- usually YA ones.  There are the homage-to-a-book-I-love ones produced by kids who understand more than I ever will about video production.  And there are the school-produced (by grown-ups or kids) ones which are aimed at getting more kids to read.  No one's ever come into the store and said to me, I've just seen a great book trailer -- do you have the book?  I have the impression that trailers are more a way to stay in a book after one has read it, rather than an enticement to go find it.  What do your students say about them?

Alert readers may notice that there's a "Vote for this Blog" button over there to the right.  It's a bit premature -- voting starts the day after tomorrow.  We've entered the Independent Book Blogger Awards, sponsored by  The first round of voting, which will produce shortlists in four categories, is from April 10 to 23.  Then a panel of experts takes over to determine the winners.  We're in it for the fun of finding other people's blogs, and in hopes that others will find ours.  We've submitted five entries from the past year:
Piggie is a Girl!

On Choosing Books

I'm Glad the Giving Tree Wasn't My Mother

Grandma: A Reading Recollection

First Loves: Science Fiction

And we wanted to put in our list of Picture Books, because it's fun to browse  But it didn't fit the contest definitions.  Feel free to check 'em all out, dear readers.



Friday, April 6, 2012

Book trailers and the cult of celebrity

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The book trailer you linked to in your last post -- by John Green, for The Fault in Our Stars -- is fascinating.  It's funny and energetic and strange, and I can see immediately why Green has such an intense teenage following.  My student Nicole, who I quoted raving about the book, got her copy signed, and it was clearly a Celebrity Experience.  Are authors, and YA authors in particular, our new rock stars?  Does this form of celebrity allow for a wider range of what celebrity means, given that it's so quirky?

Watching Green's trailer, and a few others linked to through the Adult Books 4 Teens site, made me think about the role of self-promotion in the publishing business at the moment, and the idea of book trailers in particular.  How common are they in the children's book world?  How much of an effect do they have?  Is this largely a YA phenomenon, since it's an audience that's likely to be online a lot?  What do you think of them?  Do you watch a lot of book trailers?

I know I'm asking a lot of questions here, but I'll confess I'm old-fashioned when it comes to finding books.  I'm sure I've watched fewer than 10 book trailers total; I like book reviews and word-of-mouth advice.  As someone who I'm sure is deluged by requests from people who want you to push their books in your store, what do you think of all this online, Author as Interesting Online Personality self-promotion?

A moment of self-promotion I recently enjoyed: Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook (which is, by the way, an adult book that might appeal to some teens) in a short film on his recollections of Stuyvesant High School, his (and my) alma mater, and the school where I now teach.  I, too, failed to excel athletically in that gym.  Even without the common experience, however, I can imagine myself being drawn to his work because of odd little films like this.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Death and renewal

Dear Annie,

I haven't read Virgin Suicides either.   I feel nervous about suicide books in the same way you feel about anorexia books.  No matter how awful the suicide, I fear that some teenagers are particularly vulnerable to seeing it as an attractive choice.  You talked about "anorexia porn"; I have the same worries over a romantic vision of suicide.

The idea of dying young -- by whatever means -- is hugely attractive in YA.  As one comes to terms with one's own mortality, reading about those who don't make it becomes wildly interesting.  So that's one reason The Fault in Our Stars, about teenagers with cancer, is so popular.  I haven't finished reading it, but it's also a really good, well-written book.  There's one other element which contributes to its wild popularity.  John Green, the author, is a master of social marketing.  When he twittered the title of the book last summer (more than six months before its publication date), The Fault in Our Stars became an online bestseller.  He and his brother Hank have a video blog which (I confess) can get a little addictive.  Here's his entry the day the book was published.

Back in January I wrote about the store going through an expansion.  The first step was re-carpeting the whole space.  Then we knocked down some walls and spread out into the retail space next door.  And on Monday, the book section finally got its new shelving.  So right now the floor is littered with piles of books waiting to go onto different shelves.  Sports books are moving into the space previously occupied by mysteries, but I can't move mysteries until I shuffle early chapter books to the right, but first teen & adult books have to move -- to the current location of the sports section.  So stuff ends up on the floor, even though there's more space.  The only area that's just about finished is a lovely new Star Wars, fine arts and gift book section in the alcove that used to house Play Doh (which has moved into the new space).  I'll post photos once it's all in order.

We talked about the teen & adult section two weeks ago in the context of adult books for the YA audience.  I've just found a blog within the School Library Journal called "Adult Books 4 Teens."  It seems to deal mostly with new books, but I'm keeping an eye on it.

Have a lovely time on your spring break.



Monday, April 2, 2012

Death, two ways

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm going to do something tonight that I don't usually do: recommend two books which I have not actually read.  Both fall under the category of edgy issues in YA books, though neither is focused on anorexia.  (I agree with you -- all novels about eating disorders, even those in which the protagonist is exceptionally damaged by the experience, make me worry that kids reading them will use them as blueprints to develop eating disorders of their own: a kind of anorexia porn.)

The first is an adult novel which can be read as YA: Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides.  It is, in fact, about suicide: the suicides, within a year, of five beautiful young daughters from the same family, as seen by the neighborhood boys who watch them.  A good friend and grad school colleague of mine used to teach this book at the beginning of her Women's Voices course, using it to engage HS students in questions of how societal forces shape our understanding of femininity, and how the girls involved are objectified by the boys, who don't really know them.  I read and loved Middlesex, Eugenides' lyrical, generational saga narrated from the point of view of a young hermaphrodite; I'd trust him to take on the issue of suicide.

The second is a proper YA novel that has taken my students by storm. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, is a girl-meets-boy story which takes place in a cancer support group.  (We've mentioned Green before in the context of gay YA.)

In recent weeks, I've seen a number of students carrying it around, and two (one HS freshman, one junior) chose to recommend it to the entire class as a Minutes gift.  Today I asked the freshman, Nicole, if she'd mind writing a few sentences about why she liked it so much.  She lit up like I'd given her a prize.  Here's what she wrote:

The Fault in Our Stars gives you a sarcastic, young cancer-ridden girl who has given up on life and gives you hope, along with an idealized, pretentious boy who pulls on your heartstrings.  I read it and just wanted to get up and make the world better and devote the rest of my measly life to making people happy.

A resounding endorsement!  Have you read either?

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fairy folk

Dear Annie,

Huuuge thank you to Clara.  Her post on  learning to read was so smart and clear.  I really appreciate her distinguishing among different early reader series.  I've resisted bringing in the Brand New Readers which she talked about, simply because I sometimes feel overwhelmed by every publisher having a differently-leveled early reader series.  But now I'll start carrying them in the store because Clara has explained to me what they do well.  I'm going to repeat her summing-up advice, because it's so important to raising a reader:
... if you had insisted I write a one sentence piece of advice to parents on teaching their children to read, it would be this: "Read together, every day." For a child who associates reading with love will not find it difficult to love to read.
Moving back to chapter books, a lovely new one went on sale this week.  
The Fairy Ring
, by Mary Losure is a magical piece of non-fiction.  It tells the story of two Yorkshire cousins during World War I who took pictures of drawings of fairies and passed them off as photos of the real thing.  One of the girls claimed that she actually saw fairy folk, apart from the faked pictures.  The book says that the girls staged the pictures in response to adults belittling them when they talked about fairies.  The mother of one of the girls gave the photos to an adult member of the Theosophists, who believed in fairies, and before long Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a book using the photos as proof of the existence of fairy folk.  It's the story of a lie tumbling out of control.  The girls stood by their story for decades, in the face of escalating adult interest and skeptical reporters.  The mother who released the photos said she believed they were true because she couldn't imagine her daughter lying to her.  The father, who publicly disparaged his daughter's intelligence, believed the pictures were a hoax, but couldn't prove it.

The book has many levels.  It's the story of a hoax.  Of family dynamics gone wrong. Of a close friendship.  Of a social movement that wanted to find magic in the world.  And of educated upper-class men believing the pictures were true because they thought young working-class Yorkshire girls were incapable of a sophisticated hoax.  It's a lovely read.