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.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Surprised by the past

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm very fond of George Booth's slightly cross-eyed, loopy dogs.  Clearly, it's time to introduce Isabel to those books.

In between picture books, we keep a chapter book going with Eleanor at all times.  As I've mentioned before, chapter book reading happens in our house in fits and starts: any evening that I'm putting the girls to bed alone, the chapter book is put aside, and we read things both girls will agree to hearing.

Two of our recent chapter book adventures have contained moments that surprised me, one in quite a positive way, and one in a slightly uncomfortable way.

You recently gave us a gorgeous hardcover edition of The Marvelous Land of Oz,the second book in the Oz series.  This was one of the books Jeff read to Eleanor, while I sat on the other couch reading If You Give a Pig a Pancake for the millionth time.  I eavesdropped a bunch, however, getting a sense of the Woggle-Bug and the various other astounding creatures involved in the story.  The main character in the book is a boy named Tip, who escapes from the witch who has raised him and runs off with an increasing band of characters, much as Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz.  I thought a few times as Jeff was reading how much I liked the book, but was a little sorry that so many of the main characters, including our hero, were male.  There are of course Glinda, who makes several appearances, and the antagonist General Jinjur, whose army of girls takes over the Emerald City for a brief period (some interesting gender stuff there), but Tip is at the heart of the story, and he, unlike Dorothy, is a boy.

Well, sort of.

Spoiler alert: there's a major surprise ending.

In your recent post on the Oz books, you focused largely on Ozma of Oz.  You alluded to Ozma's history, but I must have glossed over it, and it's clear I never read The Marvelous Land of Oz as a kid myself.  Because when it's revealed, in the last few pages, that Tip IS Ozma, I was just as surprised as Eleanor.  It turns out that baby Ozma was turned into a boy in order to protect her from harm when her father was deposed as ruler of Oz.  As Tip, she/he was safe, unknowing of his/her own history.

Glinda reveals the truth, and in the narrative, it's Tip who is most shocked -- who knows himself only as a boy, and doesn't want to be turned into a girl.  Glinda listens to him, but kindly and firmly informs him he has no choice: he must reassume his true form in order to take his place as the rightful ruler of Oz.

Here we are, in 1904, and L. Frank Baum's major heroine is transgendered.

Makes me want to read all the rest of the Oz books, right away, as well as researching where this came from, and what the reaction was when it was first published.  How did I not know about this before?  What an interesting man.

The second book is one I started reading to Eleanor this week: George Selden's The Cricket in Times Square.  I remembered it vaguely but fondly from my own childhood: the story of three animal friends (Chester Cricket, Tucker Mouse, and Harry Cat) who live in the Times Square subway station, and their relationship with Mario, a boy whose family runs a failing newsstand on the S train platform.  There's a lot to love, especially for a New York kid.  Today we walked through that very subway station, and imagined where Chester was found hiding under a pile of garbage, and where the newsstand might have been in 1960, when the book was written.

And then there's the wise old Chinese man who sells Mario a pagoda-shaped cricket cage, and speaks in stereotypical Old Wise Chinese Man English.  Sigh. 

Sai Fong is a  perfectly nice character -- he tells Mario a cricket origin story, and sells him the beautiful cage for very little money.  But there he is, running his Chinese novelties store filled to the brim with exoticized things, and speaking without any articles: "This very ancient cricket cage.  Once cricket who belonged to Emperor of all China lived in this cage.  You know story of first cricket?"  It's slightly cringe-inducing to read.

Eleanor picked up on it right away: "He said, 'I back soon'!" she responded delightedly as I read.  "Why does he talk like that?"  Total specific interest in his use of language, which she doesn't hear as a racial stereotype, but just as an interesting and different way of speaking.  So there I am explaining both that sometimes when people who speak another language first learn English, they put sentences together differently or leave out some words, but also that a lot of people don't really talk like that, and talking like that might sound like you're making fun of someone, and feeling while I'm trying to explain that I'm not doing a terribly good job.

Reading to your kids: you've got to be ready for anything.

Love, Annie

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