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.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Escapist reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Since finishing up my grading and saying goodbye to another school year, I've found myself craving YA lit as an entry into summer.  I'll get to some of my bigger must-reads in later weeks; for now, give me a good page-turner (or two, or three, or four).

I started at the end of last week with Gregor the Overlander, book #1 in Suzanne Collins' five-book series, The Underland Chronicles.  I knew Collins only from The Hunger Games, her best-known series, about which you and I have both raved here.  It's no surprise that this earlier series is both gripping and filled with compelling characters.

The series skews a little younger than The Hunger Games.  Our hero, Gregor, is an 11-year-old boy living close to poverty in an apartment building in New York with his mother and two younger sisters, Lizzie (7), and Boots (2), and grandmother.  Their father, an engaging and involved parent and excellent science teacher, disappeared without a trace two years before the beginning of the first book -- homage to A Wrinkle in Time?  Gregor and Boots are down in the laundry room one day when they fall into an open grate, are caught by misty currents, and land impossibly far down below New York City in Underland.

It turns out there's a whole world down there, populated by very pale humans, descendants of a British explorer from centuries earlier, and giant talking bats (friendly, bonded with humans), cockroaches (keep to themselves) and rats (bad, at war with the humans).  Bartholomew of Sandwich, the original settler, was also a prophet of sorts.  In Regalia, the gorgeous stone-carved capital city of the humans, he left a room filled with prophecies carved into the walls.  Soon after Gregor's arrival, the people of Regalia decide that Gregor is "the warrior" mentioned in a number of prophecies, and he and Boots embark on a quest to find and save their father, and possibly all of Underland.

It's a fine exploration of the "Who, me?  I'm no hero.  Okay, well, maybe I am" theme.  Gregor is appealing as he tries to resist the prophecies but starts to realize he might actually be something special, and Boots, the two-year-old, is a hoot.  She's totally fearless, and bonds immediately with the giant cockroaches, who revere her as a princess.  Speaking of princesses, one of the other major characters is Luxa, the underage queen of Regalia.  She's strong and at first quite cool -- her parents were killed by rats, and she's in training to take on the full powers of the throne when she turns 16.  She and Gregor don't like each other at first, but come to have a grudging respect, which develops into real caring as the series goes on.  (As of early in book 3, no romance yet.  They're only 11.)  There are many adventures and hairsbreadth escapes -- Collins is a master of the cliffhanger chapter ending -- and semi-major characters die in the fighting.  It's a good read.

After finishing Gregor the Overlander in a day, I quickly updated my library hold list to request the second and third books in the series: Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane and Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods.  While I waited for them to come in, I took a more realistic turn with a book you'd recommended a while back, Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  The alternating chapters by John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) and David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy) worked together well, and I found myself speeding through it with great enjoyment.

I like summer.

Love, Annie

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pointing out the obvious

Dear Annie,

I'm in the middle of ordering books that will arrive in the store this fall, and as usual feel deluged with a lot of average stuff, with the occasional really wonderful book poking its head above the waves.  I'm noticing a mini-trend: the anti-digital gadgets picture book.  A child is surrounded by shades of gray and boredom, moving from one digital object to another. "Loading... Loading.... Loading," says one. "Game Over," says another.  Finally she leaves the house and discovers color -- first in a flower, then in fields, and in wonderful adventures galloping across the countryside.  In another book, a girl rejects a friend's gadgets in favor of lying outside watching pictures in the clouds.  And yet another shows a child having increasingly outlandish adventures while trying to attract a phone-centric parent's attention.

Some of these books have wonderful art and funny scenes, but I find it hard to imagine anyone other than an irritated grandparent buying them.  They're a better illustrated version of preachy behavior books, making their points with thinly concealed lectures, rather than with good stories.  Many wonderful books about using your imagination exist -- it's not necessary to say, use your imagination this way before introducing them. 

I re-offer three, all listed under "imaginative play" on our picture books list:
The Queen of France
Even Firefighters Hug Their Moms

Somehow this feels parallel to books about books.  Picture books which sing the praises of reading -- with dancing animals, endearing siblings, or engaged students -- also tend to strike me as one step removed from the heart of reading.  It's easier to internalize that books offer huge ranges of emotion and experience simply by reading them, rather than reading books which tell you that's what they do.

Those are the thoughts rattling in my sample book-addled brain. 



Sunday, June 24, 2012

For the graduate...

Dear Annie,

Yes, I'm totally with you on Oh the Places You'll Go!  I think of it as a gift shop kind of book, as opposed to anything that goes deeper.  It sells like crazy at this time of year, though.  To all ages, from kindergarten to college grads.  There's that desire to say, you've done well, go out there and strut your stuff.

We usually have a whole display of Dr. Seuss this time of year, but we also keep a supply of 100 Words books next to the register for people looking for something different.  They're spinoffs from the American Heritage Dictionary, which of course has great resonance in our family.  My father, your grandpa, worked for American Heritage, and when they were creating the first of the AH Dictionaries, I remember his bringing home the questionnaires they sent to their usage panel.  The results were eventually boiled down to one and two sentence analyses of different words.

I carry three of these small and lovely books:

100 Words Every Middle Schooler Should Know
-- here is the list -- gives definitions and pronunciations for 100 words, and at least one quote from literature for each word.   Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Beverly Cleary, Sherman Alexie, Gary Schmidt, and many others are there.  Here's a quote for "A place in which to live, a residence.":
Late in the  evening, tired and happy and miles from home, they drew up on a remote common far from habitations, turned the horse loose to graze, and ate their simple supper sitting on the grass by the side of the cart.
-- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
It's a vocabulary list, but it's got personality.  And it's another way to say, hey, you know a lot.  Even if the recipient doesn't know every one -- they'll know a significant number.

Moving up the grades, we have
100 Words Every High School Freshman Should Know
(list is here), which ventures into science as well -- I'll never manage to retain what a xylem is.  This one abandons the quote-for-every-word format, but it still includes some wonderful ones.  "Sharing the same opinion; being fully in agreeement":
Cecil Jacobs, who lived at the far end of our street next door to the post office, walked a total of one mile per school day to avoid the Radley Place and old Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose.  Mrs. Dubose lived two doors up the street from us; neighborhood opinion was unanimous that Mrs. Dubose was the meanest old woman who ever lived.
-- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
And for the college-bound, 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know, gets tougher: abjure, jejune, moiety, orthography, and quasar all show up on this list.   Again, the quotes appear every few pages, but they're great: Willa Cather, Charles Darwin, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and more.  "The use of unnecessarily wordy and indirect language":
There lives no man who at some period has not been tormented, for example, by an earnest desire to tantalize a listener by circumlocution.
-- Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Language -- ain't it grand?



Friday, June 22, 2012

Oh, the graduations you'll attend!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The school year is winding to its slow, hot end here in New York.  I turned my grades in today, and graduation is on Monday.  This afternoon, the girls and I went to get summer haircuts at our lovely local hair salon.  While waiting for our turn, Isabel picked a book out of the basket of kids' books the owner keeps waiting on the floor: the perennial graduation-gift favorite, Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!

About which I feel -- eh.  There's a lot of Dr. Seuss I love: Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, The Lorax, to name a few we've touched on.  But I have to admit, aside from the pleasurably wacky Seussian drawings, Oh the Places You'll Go! is a pretty boring book.

Which is funny, because even when Dr. Seuss is plotless and random, as in Hop on Pop or One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, he's always quirky and specific as well.

Probably my favorite page in One Fish Two Fish is a brief stand-alone scenario, accompanied by this illustration:

Look what we found
in the park
in the dark.

We will take him home.
We will call him Clark.
He will live at our house.
He will grow and grow.
Will our mother like this?
We don't know.

 Compare that to the banality of Oh, The Places You'll Go!:

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen,
don't worry.  Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll  start happening too.
I talk to my creative writing students a lot about avoiding general statements, understanding that often, it's the most specific details that pull a reader in and lead to an emotional response.  Too many generalizations, and your book starts to read like a long-form greeting card.  And, apparently, to sell like hotcakes.

So, any other suggestions for graduation-appropriate kids' books?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Number the Stars

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad you wrote about the poem scene in Anastasia Krupnik -- that's the one I always think of with that book.  And as you say, the parents are wonderful -- and very deadpan, as I recall.

Before we leave the multi-talented Lois Lowry, I have to sing the praises of her first Newbery winner:
Number the Stars
.  Horrifying times in history are sometimes presented in kids' books through their heroic moments, rather than through the experience of cruelty.  We've talked about that in relation to slavery, and this book by Lowry builds on an amazing piece of Holocaust history that took place in Denmark in October 1943.  Just as the Nazis were about to start deportations, non-Jewish Danes hid that country's Jews, transported them to the coast, and ferried more than 7000 of them to safety in Sweden.  Only 5% of Danish Jews were caught by the Nazis.

Number the Stars is the story of 10 year-old Annemarie Johannesen and her friend Ellen Rosen.  Ellen's parents go into hiding and Annemarie's family tells the Nazis Ellen is their child. They take her to an uncle's home on the coast, where she's smuggled to a boat and then to Sweden.  There are several terrifying moments when Nazis confront the family, but they manage to deflect the attention.  The feeling of constant threat opens the story, when Annemarie and Ellen race each other home from school and are stopped by German soldiers:
Annemarie stared up. There were two of them. That meant two helmets, two sets of cold eyes glaring at her, and four tall shiny boots planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home.... And it meant two rifles, gripped in the hands of the soldiers. She stared at the rifles first. Then,finally, she looked into the face of the soldier who had ordered her to halt.... "Why are you running?" the harsh voice asked. His Danish was very poor. Three years, Annemarie thought with contempt. Three years they've been in our country, and still they can't speak the language.
The book stays with Annemarie's point of view throughout.  In Lowry's 1990 speech accepting the Newbery medal, she talked about trying to show the events from a child's perspective.  She told the story of a Danish friend who had been a child during the Nazi occupation.  "When I asked Annelise to describe, through the eyes of her own childhood, the German soldiers themselves, she said: 'I remember the high shiny boots.'"  Lowry emphasized the boots in the book, to the extent that her editor suggested she cut out some of the references.  During the time she was trying to decide how to deal with his suggestion, she met a Dutch survivor of the era, who as a very young girl had been hidden under floorboards while her mother was taken away by Nazis.
I asked her, as we sat there talking, if she remembered any of it.  She said the memory was very vague, because she had been so very young.  There was only one thing, she told me, that she recalled clearly from that day when she had peeked out through a crack in the floor.
   She said: "I remember the high shiny boots."
   So when I went back [to my editor], I asked him to leave the boots there in the book -- every reference -- again and again and again.  I decided that if any reviewer should call attention to the overuse of that image -- none ever has -- I would simply tell them that those high shiny boots had trampled on several million childhoods and I was sorry I hadn't had several million more pages on which to mention that.
Over the years, Number the Stars has been published by two different companies, but it's always had that cover photo of the blonde girl and the Star of David necklace.  At the dinner I attended with Lowry two weeks ago, she told us that she had taken the photo.  The girl was the daughter of Swedish diplomats who were friends of the Lowrys.  She was 21 by the time the book was published, and gave her permission for its use.  Although Lowry stayed in touch with the parents, she lost touch with the daughter over the following decades.  This spring the daughter came to an event where Lowry was speaking, and there was a cheerful reunion.  She pulled out her iPhone at the restaurant and passed around the picture she'd taken.  It was of a very attractive 45 year-old blonde woman, wearing makeup and a dress which showed off her curves.  She looked like someone I might enjoy meeting, and one could see the girl on the book in that woman's face.  But the iconic photo had definitely grown up.



Monday, June 18, 2012

First loves: Lois Lowry

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Apologies for the longer-than-usual grading hiatus!  I somehow managed to miss the fact that my seniors' grades were due today until late last week, so further paper grading on top of the portfolios took away the Friday night I was saving for you and Lois Lowry.

I have been meaning to write about my deep and abiding love for Lois Lowry for over a year, since we had that foray into "first loves": the YA authors whose books I read and reread until their cheap pages wore down, whose entire canons I owned, the books I can still practically quote from now, more than 20 years later.  I wrote about Madeline L'Engle as sci-fi and as chick lit, Cynthia Voight, and Paula Danziger, but the list would be sadly incomplete without Lowry.

Now, I'm not talking about the serious, dystopian, later Lowry that you covered in your excellent post last week, though she is the Lois Lowry my students know -- they've all read The Giver, and it blew their minds in 5th and 6th grade and set them up for a good time with Ursula K. LeGuin and her ilk later in life.  No, the Lowry I adored was the creator of the Anastasia books.

In the first Anastasia book, Anastasia Krupnik, our heroine is 10 years old.  She has freckles, big owl glasses, and a name too long to fit across the front of a t-shirt: middle-grade outsider, and thus someone I instantly identified with.  She lives in Boston with her father (an English professor and poet) and mother (a painter), and early in the book finds out that her parents are expecting a baby boy.  She's not thrilled about the news.  The third-person text of the book is interspersed with Anastasia's changing lists of "Things I love" and "Things I hate," which she keeps in a private green notebook, and which provide a commentary on the action.

In summary, the book sounds cute and possibly wholesome, like the photo cover image of the current paperback, up there on the left (the pricklier, stranger cover I remember from my edition is on the right).  What I have always loved about Anastasia, though, is her weirdness, and the supportive weirdness of her parents.  Here they are on page 2:

Anastasia had a small pink wart in the middle of her left thumb.  She found the wart very pleasing.  It had appeared quite by surprise, shortly after her tenth birthday, on a morning when nothing else interesting was happening, and it was the first wart she had ever had, or even seen.

"It's the loveliest color I've ever seen in a wart," her mother, who had seen others, said with admiration.

"Warts, you know," her father had told her, "have a kind of magic to them.  They come and go without any reason at all, rather like elves."

I love those parents.

The action in the book is episodic, and contains the requisite number of cringe-inducing middle grade experiences and rebound moments.  Anastasia writes a poem for homework, a lovely free verse poem about small quiet sea creatures, which her teacher Mrs. Westvessel rewards with an F because it doesn't follow the rhyming structure she's been taught.  Her father (who keeps drafts of his poems in the refrigerator crisper drawer so they won't burn if there's a fire) reads it aloud, and changes the F with his red pen to "Fabulous."  Rereading it tonight, I got all choked up.

The episode I hated most as a kid because it made me cringe so badly, but which interests me now, involves Anastasia's crush on Washburn Cummings, a boy in her school.  Washburn is black, and has an Afro (the book was published in 1979); in order to express her admiration for him, Anastasia rats and teases her normally straight hair to mimic his, and goes to school that way.  Mortal embarrassment.  But it's such a straightforward treatment of race and not fully understanding difference, it's kind of fabulous, too.

When faced with the knowledge that she's getting a younger brother, Anastasia threatens to run away from home.  One of the ways her parents dissuade her from doing so is by giving her power: her father says Anastasia can name the baby.  Because she is planning to hate him, Anastasia chooses the worst name she can think of, and writes it in her notebook.  The name?  One-Ball Reilly.  (Weirdness!)  Of course, when she first sees him, she falls in love, and the last scene has her giving him the name which will carry on through the rest of the series, and into his own series: Sam.

There were several other Anastasia books, and a whole Sam series I've never read.  I stayed with the series through Anastasia Again, Anastasia at Your Service, Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst, Anastasia on Her Own, Anastasia Has the Answers, and Anastasia's Chosen Career.

In the second book, which might have been my favorite, Anastasia and her family move to the suburbs of Boston.  Anastasia is at first totally resistant to the move, made because the family needs more space and her mother wants a studio for her painting.  She makes Sam promise to pretend to be allergic to every suburban house they visit, and her one request is to have her room in a turret.  Of course, the house the Krupnick family finds contains a turret for Anastasia, a huge library for her father, a light-filled studio for her mother, and a grassy neighborhood filled with interesting people.  Sam starts to pretend to sneeze, and Anastasia shuts him up.  As a kid growing up in a one-bedroom apartment with my family of four, I found the description of the house both compelling and foreign.  As an adult, I recognize it as Lowry's foray into real-estate wish fulfillment.

Okay, yes, I want the house too.  But I'll settle for a good reread of a great, strange little series.

Love, Annie

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"A room full of elephants"

Dear Annie,

Emily's poetry post is spectacular.  I've ordered a few of the books for the store -- such knowledge and enthusiasm.  Thank you, Emily!

It's been a week since I was at Book Expo America, and I've finally found a site with Lois Lowry's speech, and some other excellent ones given at the Children's Author Breakfast.  Navigation there is a little odd.  Here's the site, then click on "Author Breakfasts and Editors' Buzz" so that tab turns green (you won't go to a new page), and look at the videos listed in a line beneath the video screen.  Tenth from the left is "Children's Book and Authors Breakfast," running 01:07:26. Speeches during that hour, and their hit times:
00:06:00 - Walter Dean Myers, current Ambassador for Young People's Literature (our post here) made opening remarks.
00:25:00 - John Green, about whom we've written here, with more below.
00:40:10 - Lois Lowry.
00:53:30 - Kadir Nelson, illustrator and author -- see posts here and here.
In the order of things that morning, as you can see, John Green spoke before Lowry.  He's both a good YA writer and a masterful internet and social media communicator.  Although he wears both hats, he gave an impassioned ode to the empathetic power of reading.  At one point, he described the setting -- a booksellers' convention -- as " like being in a room full of elephants, as an elephant, talking about how great elephants are."  Not sure how I feel about being an elephant, but it captured the we-all-love-books feeling in the room.  His speech got eclipsed a bit by Lowry's knock-out one, so I'm offering some excerpts here.

As you may have already seen in his video blog, Green speaks at breakneck speed, only occasionally implying commas or periods.  My transcription:

The thing about books is that because they are composed out of text, because there is this act of translation that one has to do when reading, because I have to turn these meaningless scratches on a page into ideas that exist inside my head, I become the co-creator of the story when I read the story, in a way that I don’t become the co-creator of any other kind of medium. Which is precisely why reading takes concentration and it takes focus and it is an activity that you can’t do while you do other things.  It’s a very unpopular kind of activity these days.  But it was through stories and through people like Scout Finch and Pecola Breedlove and Holden Caulfield that I came to understand that other people were really real – and those people being real by extension made you real.
  I don’t think we need to become something that you look at while you do other things. I don’t think we need to become twitter or tumblr – and god knows that I don’t think we need to become angry birds.  I can take a break from creating a Power Point and glance at twitter.  I can play angry birds for 20 seconds while I’m waiting for lunch.  But that is not how I read a book.  Reading is quiet and contemplative and immersive and that’s why I like it.  And that’s why it matters.  And that’s how we’re going to compete, is by being the thing that we’re great at. 
I do believe that someday someone will create a multimedia text-based narrative that lights the app store on fire but I don’t think that it will succeed because it has a lot of bells and whistles or social media integration or whatever. I think it will succeed because of its story.  I believe that story trumps everything.
A lot of applause for that line.

I hope your grading frenzy is easing up.  Your guest bloggers are excellent, but we all look forward to your return.



Monday, June 11, 2012

Guest blogger: Grownup poetry for YA readers

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I am so jealous of your dinner with Lois Lowry!  I've been meaning to write about her for a long time, and will do so on Friday, when (I hope) I'll be done with portfolio grading, and facing only a large stack of final papers from my other classes.  Until then, here is my most excellent friend and colleague Emily, who teaches the Poetry Workshop class at Stuyvesant and is an accomplished poet in her own right.

Dear Annie,

As someone who has spent the past ten years teaching poetry to teenagers, I want to recommend a handful of writers that young, word-loving people respond strongly to.

Teenagers and poetry are, of course, a fabulous match. When I was in high school, I spent long hours on the front lawn reading Adrienne Rich’s poems out loud with my friend Eve, the grass tickling our legs. My school-issued Norton Anthology of Poetry was permanently cracked open to the short “Women Writers” section, ten pages that eventually led to my career as an English teacher and poet.

Since then, the internet has democratized poetry in wonderful ways. Type “Sarah Kay,” “Alvin Lau,” or “Andrea Gibson” into Youtube and you’ll be instantly thrilled by the spoken word videos you discover. (I’m totally serious: try it!) Page poems, too, are easier than ever to find and connect to. The web site has a marvelous search mechanism - “Poems for Every Occasion” - that allows my high school students to search by topics such as “Grief,” “Summer,” “Poems that Teenagers Like,” and even “Sharks” or “Shoes.” That said, there’s something beautiful, almost secretive, about the experience of holding a book of poems, and the right book in the right young hands can be a very big deal.

Mary Oliver is a perennial favorite, one who writes lovely, accessible nature poems. She’s written reams of books, and New and Selected Poems, Volume One and
American Primitive
are both favorites of mine. Here’s the entirety of “Wild Geese,” a poem it is easy to imagine a high school writer falling in love with:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

100 Selected Poems
is a wonderful little edition of poems by e.e.cummings, a writer whose explosive calligrams and expressively-punctuated poems are universally adored by my students.

            A more contemporary writer I love is Lucille Clifton. Her book Blessing the Boats is a great place to start, and her short, evocative, lower-case poems go down easy but linger in the mind. Here’s an excerpt from Four Notes to Clark Kent, titled “note passed to superman,” that is sure to delight young readers:

sweet jesus superman,
if i had seen you
dressed in your blue suit
i would have known you.
maybe that choir boy clark
can stand around
listening to stories
but not you, not with
metropolis to save
and every crook in town
filthy with kryptonite.
lord, man of steel
i understand the cape,
the leggings, the whole
ball of wax.
you can trust me,
there is no planet stranger
than the one i'm from.

The lyrical humor of Billy Collins is easy for writers of all ages to adore, and his web site and fantastic anthology series, Poetry 180, is designed to integrate poetry reading into daily student life. I know both teachers and students will appreciate this representative excerpt from the poem “Did I Miss Anything?” by Tom Wayman:

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 percent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Check out the website to read the rest; it only gets better.

On a totally different note, Sara Teasdale wrote gorgeously sad love poems, many involving Union Square, Coney Island, and other New York landmarks that delight my city students. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet whose love sonnets I could not get enough of in high school, Teasdale’s work is filled with rhythm and rhyme, so that she feels at once contemporary and deeply classical. Many of Teasdale’s poems are deliciously sad, perfect for a heart-broken high-schooler, but here’s the beginning of a more joyful piece, “Barter”:

LIFE has loveliness to sell,
     All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
     Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

 There are, of course, roughly a zillion other poets I could recommend: Nick
Flynn’s Some Ether is raw and potent; Frank O’Hara’s
Lunch Poems
radiate casual joy; Yusef Komunyakaa writes gorgeously visceral poems about growing up in the American South; Kimiko Hahn’s intimate, conspiratorial poems in Mosquito & Ant feel like secrets that the coolest girl in school is whispering into your ear. As Billy Collins once wrote,

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

Poetry does, indeed, lead to more poetry, both the reading and the writing of it. These writers are a good place to begin. 


And love from me, Annie

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lois Lowry

Dear Annie,

I can never get enough of Shirley Hughes. Not to mention the other wonderful British writers in Fabienne's guest blog post.  So frustrating when the classic ones go out of print.

The high point of Book Expo America, the booksellers' convention that brought me to New York last week, was hearing Lois Lowry speak, and having a chance to speak with her later in the evening at a dinner given by her publisher.  Among her better known books:

Number the Stars
The Anastasia Krupnik books (followed by the Sam books)
Gooney Bird Green books
and many more

And then there's
The Giver
and two (with a third coming in the fall) companion books.  Published in 1993, it's about a dystopian future, written well before that setting was overrepresented in kids' fiction.  It's a world where freedom, imagination, knowledge, individuality, sex, and even weather and colors have all been sacrificed for security and stability.

It's impossible to talk about this group of books without giving stuff away, so here's your spoiler alert.  Lots of 'em coming up.

In The Giver, a boy who has just started the job of holding historical memory for the community -- without communicating it to others -- realizes that a one year-old he's grown fond of is going to be killed because his sleeping patterns don't conform to the standard.  Jonas kidnaps the child and runs away.  The book gives readers -- it's hard to get past fifth and sixth grades without reading this classic -- a great introduction to the freedom vs. security discussion.  But its true and wonderful gift to children's literature is the gift of ambiguity.  At the end of the book, the exhausted near-death Jonas and baby Gabe start sliding down a snow-covered hill (it's the first time Jonas has seen snow), and they see in the distance what appear to be lights, possibly a Christmas celebration.  The End.  You just don't know if that was the real thing, or a hallucination of the dying, or heaven, or what.  Lois Lowry handed a whole generation of readers the knowledge that endings don't always give the answer, and the power to envision their own continuations of the story.  When she accepted the Newbery Medal for The Giver in 1994, Lowry said:
Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the “true” ending, the “right” interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.
You rock, Lois.

Seven years later she wrote
Gathering Blue
, about another dystopian future.  This one is also repressive and controlling, but it's primitive and brutish, with a population in poverty and distant rulers.  The main character, a weaver named Kira, is taken from her village to restore  the rulers' ceremonial robe which tells the history of the society.  As she realizes the injustice in her world, Kira becomes aware of a resistance movement, and she chooses to stay and try to change society, rather than leave as Jonas did.  In this, the ending isn't dramatically ambiguous.  My assumption was always that Lowry wanted to present the concept of staying and fighting.

The one that really hurt was the next book in 2004:
.  It's set in a village which takes in people who have fled their homes, and Jonas, Gabe, and Kira are all in it, although not the central characters.  Wham!  I was shocked and saddened.  There goes the gift of ambiguity: just tune in to the sequel.  She has said she did it because the pleas from children to tell what happened became overwhelming.  In the book, there's an ominous sense that the optimistic community created as a haven is starting to sour.  A teenager from Kira's village who is a very strong healer gives his life to try to put things right.

And now, this fall, book #4 in what is now a quartet arrives:
.  It starts in the sterile controlled world of The Giver, where teenage girls have always been selected to give birth to the new members of the community, who are immediately taken from them and raised first in a nursery, then assigned to couples.  Son follows Claire, Gabe's birth mother, in her desperate quest to find him after Jonas runs away.  It's intense.  It also seems more flawed as a story than the others.  The book ends with the teenage Gabe directly confronting Evil -- and vanquishing it.
From my notes of Lowry's speech last week:
Evil exists, has always existed.  We will face and fight it again and again....It is the young who must face it.  Young readers believe they can fix this world.
Over the years, Lowry has cited many reasons why she started The Giver.  Her 1994 Newbery speech is eloquent about the origins of different elements of the book.  She added some at last week's speech. 
The true reason I wrote The Giver is that I was wondering about something.... I think it makes more sense to write about what you don't know, about what makes you wonder.
She spoke of a letter she received from her son, who was a pilot in the first Gulf War.  Flying over the destruction and the burning oil fields, he asked his mom why people end up in wars, why they do such damage to each other.  The Giver was an attempt to show a society that had descended into such fear of difference that they gave up their selves. 

After she received the Newbery medal, before she wrote Gathering Blue, that son died in the crash of his fighter plane.  She told this to hundreds of us sitting there listening to her over breakfast.  It was public knowledge, of course, but many (me included) hadn't known.  It makes Claire's deep desire to find her son all the more moving.  And she used it to put a frame on these four books, to say that she was trying to explain the harm people inflict on each other, and to show that evil can be confronted, as Messenger did in the third book, and stopped, which is what Gabe does in the last book.  She acknowledges that it will come back, of course -- but she wanted what seems to be a happy ending.



Friday, June 8, 2012

Guest blogger: Rule Britannia

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It was lovely to see you!  The girls and I haven't stopped reading the books you brought, chief among them the two princess and the pea retellings you blogged about recently.  Good stuff.

Our guest blogger tonight is my cousin-in-law Fabienne, who has written for us before on the books of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.  Fabienne lives in London, and writes tonight's post with a British flair.  Here she is: 

Last weekend we Brits celebrated Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee. 60 years in any job is worth some praise, right?

And feeling quite patriotic, as one does at such times, I thought I'd write today's guest post about some British talent. British vintage talent to be exact...

My son Sebastien is two and  a half tomorrow and L-O-V-E-S books. His insatiable appetite together with the dearness of new books has meant that 98% of those I've bought for him have all been from various good will stores in our local community. Averaging about 60p (95¢) a pop means I can pick up 3 or 4 in one go and pay for our loot with loose change from my purse. Sweet. You come across a lot of tat of course, but I have been fortunate enough to come upon some real gems that you may not know of over on your side of the pond.

Is everyone ready? Then I'll begin...

The doyenne of today's bunch is Judith Kerr. Born 1923, Kerr is most famous for writing the much  loved British classic "The Tiger Who Came to Tea" as well as 17 volumes in the "Mog" series.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea
is an enchanting book about Sophie and her mummy who have a tiger over for tea and how he ate everything he could find leaving nothing for their supper, not even a drop of water in the tap. The tale and its illustrations are very much of their era (1960's) and include the old social stereotypes of mummy at home with the children, with dinner ready for when daddy gets home from work. So if you're fiercely feminist, you may object to this one, but to be honest, what with the cost of childcare incessantly soaring a lot of families have had to revert back to this kind of model in the UK. Either way it doesn't bother me and most importantly, it doesn't bother Seb, who loves the cheek of this wild yet very polite beast who invites himself in and helps himself to... well everything, only to leave and never return.

"Sophie's mummy said, "Would you like a sandwich?"
But the Tiger didn't take just one sandwich.
He took all the sandwiches on the plate
and swallowed them in one big mouthful. Owp!

And he still looked hungry,
so Sophie passed him the buns."

Next up is Shirley Hughes [Annie's note: We love Shirley Hughes!  We've written about her books before here, here, here, and here]. Like Kerr she started out as an illustrator, but went on to write and illustrate 50 stories or her own. You're most likely to know of "Dogger" a book that won her many awards and the first to be published abroad. But two of my favourites are "Out and About" and"Let's join in". Not so much stories but a series of anecdotes following Katie and her baby brother Olly. They have a vivid, real quality about them and depict childhood as it is: not manicured, tidy and fairy-tale-like, but scruffy, dirty and most of all funny. All in all her work is very English and evocative of carefree, simpler times.

"A lot of things seem to hide-
the moon behind the clouds...
and the sun behind the trees.
Flowers need to hide in the ground in wintertime.
But they come peeping out again in the spring.
Buster always hides when 
it's time for his bath,
and so does Mum's purse when we're all ready to go out shopping."

And finally the wife and husband team, Janet & Allan Ahlberg. Janet passed away much too early some years ago now following a battle with cancer, but she was the illustrator to Allan's text, making them an amazing prolific partnership. I'm sure "Peepo" and "Each peach pear plum" are as well known and loved in the USA as they are over here in Blighty. But our favourite these days is "Cops and Robbers", a rip-roaring rollicking tale about a band of robbers stealing children's toys on Christmas night and how they were caught by "upstanding Officer Pugh". The rhyming verse is detailed and funny and and as a whole resembles the structure of a song with many verses. In fact, my father does not read this to Seb, but sings it to a simple little tune he made up especially!

"Here are the robbers of London town:
With crowbars and skeleton keys.
They prowl and creep
When you're asleep
And take... whatever they please.

Ho ho for the robbers
The cops and the robbers Ho Ho!"

Many wonderful children's books are written every year, but let us not forget those little gems that will never go out of fashion... Three cheers for Blighty: Hip hip horray!


And love from me, Annie

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

This is city life

Dear Annie,

I'm in New York now, at the annual American Booksellers Association convention.  In a day of many fascinating events, author Lois Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars, Anastasia Krupnik and many many more) was quite amazing.  She gave a show-stopping speech this morning, and I went to a lovely dinner with her tonight.  Will report all in my next post.

And needless to say it was delightful to see you and your amazing family yesterday -- and to get a chance to play with and read to your girls.

In the meantime, as promised, here are some books about San Francisco, and a little bit of New York too.

From 1959 to the early '70s, Miroslav Sasek, a Czech author and illustrator, created 18 books explaining different place to children.  They've been brought back into print in the 21st century, with a lovely twist to them.  They're all called, This is _____ [city or country name here].

This is New York
shows pictures of city life --
 -- and when it talks about the big buildings --
From the Brooklyn side, this is Manhattan at night.
-- there will be an occasional asterisk.  When Sasek tells you the Empire State Building is the tallest building in the world, we follow the asterisk to a sentence about what was the tallest building in 2003 when the book was reissued.

This is San Francisco
starts, of course, with hills and cable cars --
--and goes on to hit the major points of interest --
There's lots to look at and anticipate if one is heading to that city.  The whole This is ... series is very gentle and informative.

Virginia Lee Burton, of Mike Mulligan fame, has brought us
Maybelle the Cable Car
.  Maybelle and her sisters roll happily up and down the hills of San Francisco -- there's even a two-page explanation of how the cable system works.  "No hill was too steep for Maybelle..."  Then along comes big and smelly gas-powered Big Bill, a bus claiming to be on the side of progress:
I just heard the City Fathers say the cable cars must go...
that you're too old and out of date
much too slow and can't be safe...
and worst of all YOU DON'T MAKE MONEY.
What they want is Speed and Progress 
and E-CON-O-MY... and that means US.
The city government tries to eliminate the cable cars, the People rise up and put the decision on the ballot, and behold, they save the cable cars and there's a big party.  Big Bill, who has been humbled by losing control on a steep hill, joins the celebration.

This turns out to be a true story (sans anthropomorphization) -- happened in 1947, five years before Burton wrote the book.  I lived in San Francisco in the '70s and never knew.

And one last true story. 
Humphrey the Lost Whale
was written by Wendy Tokuda and Richard Hall, both of whom I used to work with in my television days in San Francisco.  It's a lovely, kid-friendly book about a young humpback whale who wandered into San Francisco Bay in 1985, then wandered into the Sacramento River delta and couldn't figure out how to get back to the ocean.  People in boats making lots of noise eventually managed to turn him around.  Happy ending for all.



Monday, June 4, 2012

Guest blogger: Finding common ground

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our next guest blogger is our frequent contributor Denise, who has written previously about social awareness, the essence of summer, and art. Tonight she writes about a topic near and dear to my heart: trying to read to two kids of different ages at once.

Finding Common Ground between a 2, 5, and 30-something Year Old

Because we don’t have a mechanical dishwasher, every night after dinner, either Sean (almost always) or I (rarely) must do the dishes while the other readies the children for bed and reads to them. Reading to five-year old Jazzy and 2 ½ year old Emerson usually poses a problem. Usually, we read to Jazzy first because she falls asleep earlier; this often results in her disgruntled brother throwing books he doesn’t want us to read at the wall or someone’s head. However, on the occasional night when stars are aligned in our favor, objects are not flung across the room and both children are engaged in the same book.

On the very basic level are books with pictures and simple sight words that the big sister will read to the younger brother (seems to only happen on weekends when she doesn’t fall asleep at the beginning of a book). This is one of the best scenarios for many reasons: Jazzy develops confidence in reading and builds her sight words, her brother who idolizes her listens intently, and Sean and I can just sit back.

First 100 Words
published by Bright Baby. This is a giant padded board book with colorful photographs and font that any myopic like myself can see without glasses. Each page has 9 photographs of a different theme ranging from bedtime to jungle animals. Even though it is probably too easy for many two-year-olds, this is a perfect book for Emerson because he has a speech condition called apraxia. It is very good practice for him to repeat the words shown and to engage with the text in different ways. Sometimes we ask him to point to certain pictures of things or ask him to name the pictures; sometimes we ask him ridiculous questions like, “Is this a dog?” when it is obviously a goldfish – he then laughs, shakes his head vigorously, and says his favorite word while holding the “o” sound.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. This book is part of the canon of board books for good reason. There are large, brightly colored Carle-style cut-out prints of animals that span two pages, and the language is repetitive and rhythmic in a calming way: “Brown bear, / brown bear, / what do you see?  I see a red bird / looking at me.” This call-and-response structure gives the book a bluesy feel while teaching the younger one color and animals and the older one practice with a core of sight words.

A is for Animals, an ABC Popup
by David Pelham. On each page, two letters in different colors and in upper and lower case; for each letter, a fold-out popup with the painted animal coming out of the page. You don’t  even need 3D lenses to appreciate this. And although the animals are archetypal children's book animals, there are less common ones: Mm Mandrill and Nn Narwhal.

The books that both our children enjoy hearing are:

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. There are enough illustrations by Garth Williams to keep both children happy; also, the characters appeal to both of them, and the craft of the writing keeps me amazed. We just finished the chapter “Wilbur’s Boast” in which Wilbur confidently tries to prove to Charlotte that he can spin a web. There is an adorable picture of him with a string tied to his tail as he leaps happily from a manure pile. We all laughed at this part.

Many of the palm-sized board books by Dr. Seuss and others like him are full of silliness. One we have been reading is Ten Apples Up On Top! Emerson often mimics the lion, tiger, and dog putting apples up on their heads then doing stunts like hopping on a telephone wire; instead he puts books or toys on his head and laughs. The kids also like Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb which has already been blogged about.   
It is exhilarating when both children converge as one and share mutual enjoyment over books, creating a wondrous web where a babbling toddler, an outspoken five-year-old and their picky, literature snob mom are in a delicate balance. 


And love from me, Annie

Sunday, June 3, 2012

... and more dragons

Dear Annie,

I promise I'll get to Tui's request about New York and San Francisco books in the next post (SF especially -- as you pointed out we've hit the NY question before).  But Holly's delightful list of dragon books made me want to add to it.

Reluctant (but loquacious) dragon
Kenny and the Dragon, which Ian is so fond of, is an homage to The Reluctant Dragon, written in 1898 by Kenneth Grahame of Wind in the Willows fame.  The original illustrations (see left) were by Ernest H. Shepard who drew Winnie-the-Pooh.  The plot is essentially the same: boy, dragon, and over-the-hill dragon-fighter collude to stage a battle and save the dragon.  I love that Tony DiTerlizzi names the boy (Kenny) and the dragon (Graham) after Grahame.

Holly and Ian are probably already familiar with
Raising Dragons by Jerdine Nolan, another lovely gentle dragon book.  A farm girl discovers a large smooth rock.  One night there's a very loud crack, and she discovers a baby dragon emerging:
As I stroked his nose, a sweet little purring whimper came from him.  As I touched skin to scale, I knew I was his girl and he was my dragon.  I named him Hank.
Dragon and girl spend lyrical time together as he grows, but soon he makes so much of a sensation in the neighborhood that she feels she must return him to the land of the dragons.  She returns home with more dragon eggs, though, and we are left to wonder what happens next.

There's No Such Thing as a Dragon
by Jack Kent is a tale about denial.  The books's aesthetic vibrates with the feel of an earlier era -- it's vintage 1975.
Billy Bixbee was rather surprised when he woke up one morning and found a dragon in his room.  It was a small dragon, about the size of a kitten.  The dragon wagged its tail happily when he patted its head.
 He goes downstairs and tells his mother about the dragon.  She tells him there's no such thing as a dragon.  By the time he gets back to his room, the dragon has grown to "almost the size of a dog." Every time it's ignored or denied, the dragon (very friendly) grows a bit bigger.  Grown-ups continue to repeat the title phrase, and it keeps growing (see cover illustration).  After the dragon grows so large that it walks off with the house, the parents finally acknowledge its existence, at which point it shrinks back down to sit-on-your-bed size.  It's a bit of a moral lesson -- don't ignore the elephant in the room! -- but it's also quite entertaining.

On to San Francisco.