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, July 30, 2012

More gay-inclusive picture books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Now we're starting to get a good list together.  I'm interested to find A Different Dragon, and more books that include gay and lesbian parents without that being the only focus of the book.  We enjoyed And Tango Makes Three and King and King a couple of years ago -- time to get them out of the library again, I think.  While I don't have further suggestions at the moment of books I've read with the girls, I've done a little searching around and found a nice annotated list and a few books that seem worth following up on.

The list is Gay-Themed Picture Books for Children, written by a research-loving librarian who also includes picture books about kids born from donor eggs or sperm.  A number of the books here do seem like One Issue Books, but there's a wide variety, and tags along the sidebar to help you navigate.  And I hadn't thought before about incorporating books about donor offspring as well.

Two books by Bobbie Combs incorporate same-sex (and multi-racial) parents into scenes illustrating letters of the alphabet and counting.  ABC a Family Alphabet Book provides a word for each letter, and a sentence using the word:

A is for Awake.
Every morning, I am the first one awake in our house.

L is for Lunch.
We always pack a picnic lunch when my moms take me to the beach.

The writing seems a little flat, but the concept of the book worth checking out.

123 a Family Counting Book is sadly out of print (that's the Alibris link), but the reviews I've found of it say the illustrations are spectacular -- full of really interesting things to count, and again incorporating same-sex parents into the scenes rather than making them the focus of a story.

Todd Parr, writer and illustrator of roughly 3000 brightly-colored picture books, includes same-sex couples in The Family Book, along with single-parent families, families with adopted kids, and other possible constellations.  While I haven't read this one, I'm familiar with The Grandma Book and The Grandpa Book, which are also pleasantly inclusive -- each contains a picture of a grandparent zooming around in a wheelchair, among other things.  Both Isabel and Eleanor like to identify which of their grandparents best fits each page ("Papa has a wheelchair!  Lala likes to sew things!").  I find Parr's work to be a little neon and a little boring for my taste, but I can see why kids respond to it.

Finally (at least for now), there's the out-of-print Lucy Goes to the Country, by Joseph Kennedy, which follows a rambunctious cat getting into all kinds of adventures when her owners -- a gay couple she refers to as her two "Big Guys" -- bring her to a backyard barbecue where she chases a dog up a tree and causes general mayhem.  The fact that her owners are gay isn't referenced directly in the text, but is clearly part of the background in the illustrations, and there is a mention of two women and their daughter in the text as well.

I'm feeling a little better about what's out there, but this is clearly a genre that's ripe for more authors to write in....

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Two moms/two dads

Dear Annie,

Wow.  Two and a half years, 460 posts, and we haven't done two mommies/two daddies books.  We're making up for that now.

I'm quite fond of Mommy, Mama, and Me which you mentioned, and
Daddy, Papa, and Me
, also by Leslea Newman.  They're simple, not exceptionally artful, but enthusiastic and aimed at the very young:
The mom version is about lots of stuff to do in a day; the guy version is a bit more play-centric: "Daddy wears a shiny crown./Papa dresses like a clown."

I don't know A Tale of Two Mommies, which you ask about, but Vanita Oelschlager has also done A Tale of Two Daddies, with the same headless parents issue.

For a more contemporary on-the-issues book, Newman has written Donovan's Big Day.  We follow a six-or-so year-old boy as he gets up and gets ready for a big event (puts on a suit all by himself, clips on his new tie).  Grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles all are there to help, but no parents.  They get to what appears to be a church, say hi to lots of grownups, and Donovan follows his younger cousin down the aisle.  Then his aunt gives him his cue:
He handed one shiny gold ring to Mommy.
He handed one shiny gold ring to Mama.
He stood next to them without saying a word
while they slid the shiny gold rings
onto each other's fingers,
looked into each other's eyes,
said mushy things to each other,
and smiled and laughed and cried.
Big hugs and kisses all around at the end.

In comments on your last post, Beth mentions two quite wonderful picture books:

King and King
, by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland (translated from the Dutch), also ends with a marriage.  A prince's mother demands that he find a suitable princess to marry.  He auditions an array of not-very-fascinating women, but one of them brings along her brother, Prince Lee.  The electric look that passes between the princes when they meet lets us know what will happen next.  They fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after.  There's a sequel in which they adopt a child -- it's okay but not up to the standards of this one.

  And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell tells the true story of two Central Park Zoo male penguins who paired up and built a nest together.  Zookeepers gave them an egg to hatch, and they raised Tango, their daughter:
The illustrations help to make this a very sweet building-a-family story.   The wikipedia entry on the true story seems to say that all three of them are still living at the Central Park Zoo.  One of the dads has since paired with a female, and when Tango grew up, she found a female partner.

As you point out, it's great to find books that don't scream, This Book is About an Important Issue.  There's one more that I've been told about by a few customers but haven't been able to get for the store. 
The Different Dragon
by Jennifer Bryan is about a boy with two moms.  The story focuses on one of the moms telling him a bedtime story about a dragon.  The boy and mom create the story together, changing it as they tell it.  The story focuses on the dragon and the process -- the fact of two moms is a given, but not a focus.  Has anybody out there read this one?

Any other two moms/two dads good books?



Friday, July 27, 2012

Searching for great gay-friendly picture books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Over the last few months, quite a number of my friends have welcomed new babies into their lives -- they seem to come in waves, like weddings did in my mid-twenties.  I found myself heading to my favorite independent bookstore multiple weekends in a row to buy a few first board books for each family.  As I did so, I found myself wondering, as I have in the past, about whether there are any really great children's books out there involving gay characters, especially families with gay or lesbian parents, that aren't purely Message Books.  You know the kind I mean: well-meaning, but didactic, more about Showing Gay People are Normal than about telling a story.

For pretty much any new baby, I gravitate towards the books I highlighted in my "brand-new babies" section of the Top 25 (well, 33) picture books list I wrote up a couple of months ago.  Several of these books depict animal characters rather than human ones, and a couple of them (Baby! Baby! and I Love Colors) have terrific photos of babies, but no adults at all.  But it's nice for kids to have books which reflect the families they have, and do so in natural, easy ways.

For white friends of mine who have just adopted an African-American baby, I included Vera B. Williams's fabulous "More, More, More," Said the Baby, in which the illustrations to the three brief stories show racial diversity unobtrusively, in the context of a beautifully-written celebration of chasing after and playing with your small child.

For my college roommate and her partner, welcoming their first child, one of my choices was Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers, illustrated by Marla Frazee.  Frazee's illustrations are the reason I like this book, and the reason you first recommended it to me.  In the packed pictures of babies being hugged, fed, rocked, and played with in various ways, there are depictions of a number of different kinds of families, including what appears to be an interracial lesbian couple passed out on a bed next to a sleeping baby in a cradle, and a few pairs of dads who might be couples themselves.  The text accompanying these pictures is general and rhythmic:

Every day, everywhere, babies are born --
fat babies, thin babies, small babies, tall babies, 
winter and spring babies, summer and fall babies.
Every day, everywhere, babies are fed --
by bottle, by breast, with cups and with spoons,
with milk, and then cereal, carrots, and prunes.

You get the idea.  It's fine, and scans well, but it doesn't cry out for multiple rereadings.  The pictures are inclusive, but the last whole family shown on the page celebrating the baby's first birthday is still white and hetero.  I'd like to find a book I love as much as the others on my list that depicts families which look more like the families my gay friends are now creating.

I've written before about Patricia Polacco's In Our Mothers' House, which tells the story of a lesbian couple and their three adopted kids, each of a different race (the eldest daughter narrates).  There are a lot of things to like about the book, as with pretty much anything Polacco writes, but it's not the book I'm looking for.

At the library today, I picked up the infamous Heather Has Two Mommies, Leslea Newman's oft-banned book which made so many headlines 15 and 20 years ago.  I'd never actually read it, but it's -- okay.  It's clearly an Issue Book, and while it shows a sweet, loving family made up of two moms and a daughter, it's also a little odd in the way it opens up the issue.  Heather goes to a playgroup for the first time, and realizes for the first time that all the other kids have daddies, and she doesn't.  She feels bad, and cries, and the teacher consoles her, and has all the kids draw pictures of their different families, so everyone can appreciate that all kinds of families provide love and support.  It is, of course, the most diverse preschool group EVER, so there's another girl with two daddies, and an adopted kid, and a kid with divorced parents, and multiple races represented.  Maybe still useful for getting across the Message, but odd in its implication that Heather would never have run across other families different from her own before going to playgroup, and that her moms would never have talked to her about their own family.

On the same shelf, I found the more recent A Tale of Two Mommies, by Vanita Oelschlager (spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with Dickens).  In this one, a little dark-skinned boy answers the questions of two other kids on the beach about which of his moms (here, "Momma" and "Mommy") takes on which responsibilities of parenting:

Which mom coaches your T-ball team?
Which mom's there when you've had a bad dream?

Mommy is the coach of my T-ball team. 
Both mommies are there when I've had a bad dream.

The mommies appear largely from the waist down, as two pairs of long white legs -- I think the facelessness is supposed to represent a child's-eye view, but I find it a little disconcerting.  Again, it's -- okay.

In doing a quick online search, I came across some good reviews for Leslea Newman's newer Mommy, Mama, and Me -- have you read it?  I'd love your suggestions on some of the newer stuff out there.  Our foray into gay YA generated a nice long list of options (which you can find here under "Gay and Gay-Friendly YA"); I'd love to do the same for picture books.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Running away

Dear Annie,

I'll confess that in addition to liking John Green's books, I occasionally go through flurries of watching the Nerdfighters video blog.  The combination of smart, occasionally outraged and often absurdist speed-talking can keep you coming back.

Here's the story of a community from a pre-digital era:
Andrew Henry's Meadow
, by Doris Burn.  Published in 1965, it was brought back from out-of-print status this summer.  The illustrations feel very Robert McCloskey-ish.  It's a book about a group of young people who, like the Nerdfighters, feel apart from the mainstream.  Andrew Henry, middle child of five, "liked to build things."  He makes a series of Rube Goldberg-ish contraptions, all of which irritate different members of his family:

Mrs. Thatcher was unhappy when Andrew Henry built a helicopter in the kitchen.
The helicopter had many fine features.  Nevertheless, she said to him firmly, "Andrew Henry, I have work to do.  You must take that thing out of the kitchen."

His father is annoyed at an eagle's cage in the living room, his sisters are upset when he hooks up a merry-go-round to their sewing machine, and on it goes.  So one day he packs up his tools and leaves home, walking through woods and swamps until he finds a meadow, where he builds himself a house and is content.

Alice Burdock, carrying birdhouses and cages and sporting a dress arrives.  She loves birds, but her father hates them, so she asks Andrew Henry to build her a house, which he does:
It was a nice house, especially for a person who liked birds.
Next is a boy with fishing rods and boats: Andrew Henry builds a bridge, then builds a house on the bridge.  A boy with mostly rodent-y pets gets an underground house, and a tuba-playing girl gets a teepee with an igloo-style tunnel entrance because "she needed privacy for her music."  Soon there are nine children, each with a house in Andrew Henry's meadow.

Parents finally notice, there are four frantic days of searching, followed by discovery and rejoicing:
The fathers and mothers were too happy to scold or ask any questions.  Their children were safe.
The runaways are ready to go home, and all is happy.  Andrew Henry's family -- like Spinky's -- appears to have learned its lesson and he is given a basement workroom and much encouragement for his projects.



Monday, July 23, 2012

John Green's intelligent name-dropping

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In my ongoing reveling in the extra reading time afforded by summer, I read two John Green books last week in three days.  They made me want to go right out and find everything else he's written -- I'm a convert.  That's not to say that I'm diving into the Nerdfighter world myself, but Green's appeal to smart YA readers is crystal clear.

I'd previously read Will Grayson, Will Grayson; last week, I finally read The Fault in Our Stars, after being exhorted to check it out by a few of my students, and followed it up with
Looking for Alaska
, which won Green a Printz Award in 2005.

What strikes me about all three of these books is their intelligence, their smooth incorporation of complex intellectual ideas into readable, compelling narratives.  In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the Will Grayson written by John Green uses the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment: a cat is put inside a steel box with a small amount of radioactive material, which may or may not decay over the course of an hour, causing the release of acid which would kill the cat.  Before opening the box, the idea is that the cat has an equal chance of being alive or being dead -- that it is both alive and dead at the same time.  Green applies this idea to the growing relationship (or is it not a relationship?) between Will and a girl named Jane, who spend much of the book dancing around each other.  In The Fault in Our Stars, we get Zeno's Paradox (the one about Achilles and the tortoise) and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  In Looking for Alaska, there are extended meditations on the reputed last words of Francois Rabelais: "I go to seek the Great Perhaps," and about Buddhist philosophy. There are also literary quotes and references up one side and down the other: Shakespeare, W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, T.S. Eliot, the list goes on. 

Green doesn't make this name-dropping feel obnoxious.  It's sometimes the narrator who introduces the complex concept or quote, sometimes another character who gets the narrator thinking about the idea for the first time.  There's a spirit of inquiry and pleasure in ideas throughout.  There's also that excellent YA sense of sticking with a narrator who's a bit of an outsider, an observer, as he or she works to find a place in a community.

Both Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars deal quite directly with teenage death, and more specifically with the deaths of characters you really care about.  They aren't light reads, but they leave you thinking.  I can imagine each of them encouraging teenage readers to pick up the other materials referenced, and go further on their own.

Love, Annie

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ramona the younger

Dear Annie,

I'd never thought of the Ramona books in terms of birth order, but you may be onto something here.  The three members of our household who loved the Ramona books are all youngest children.  Lizzie, our firstborn, enjoyed them, but it was Mona and her parents (all youngest children) who reveled in repeated readings.  I've never bought into the firstborns-are-X, youngest-are-Y theories of personality.  But maybe there's more resonance between Ramona and the younger crowd.

I've been re-visiting Ramona the Pest since your last post.  Can't resist offering an excerpt.  Ramona has grudgingly agreed to loan an object to classmate Howie to bring to show-and-tell: "a stuffed rabbit that had already been given hard wear before the cat adopted it as a sort of practice gopher."  Howie has little interest in displaying it once in school, but is coaxed to the front of the class by Miss Binney.
   "Is there something you would like to tell us about your bunny?" asked Miss Binney.
   "No," said Howie.  "I just brought it because my mother made me."
   "I can tell you something about your bunny," said Miss Binney.  "It has had lots of love.  That's  why it's so worn."
   Ramona was fascinated.  In her imagination she could see the cat lying on the carpet with the rabbit gripped in his teeth while he battered it with his hind feet.
Miss Binney eventually gives the bunny a red ribbon.  On the walk home, Howie and Ramona have a huge disagreement over ownership of the ribbon.  Howie feels the teacher gave the ribbon to him; Ramona's interpretation is that it was given to her bunny, so possession is hers. 

So many scenes in this book have to do with misunderstandings and different interpretations of words and actions.  Ramona sees things from her very personal perspective: others' frequently different views are baffling and frustrating.  When she wants something -- the ribbon, or Susan's curls -- it's because she wants it, not because she wants to flout the rules.  Ramona is someone who's not going gently into the socialization process.  As the books progress, she matures but holds onto her outsider perspective.  The world around her expands, including more neighborhood, family, real life.



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rule-breakers and their siblings

Dear Aunt Debbie,

While I understand the desire to write about a book in a way that doesn't give away major plot elements, that is one very strange review.  We read the first Clementine book several months ago, and enjoyed it -- shades of Ramona or Junie B. Jones, with uncontrollable but generally well-meaning acting out, and a quirky heroine with a pleasant, also quirky family.  Knowing that this is the series Pennypacker is most famous for, I'd think a reviewer would want to drop a hint about unexpected darker content. 

Eleanor and I just finished Ramona the PestAs you've written before, Beverly Cleary does a terrific job of communicating kid-logic.  Ramona's thought processes and obsessions feel age-appropriate, though there's also a clear adult sensibility in the narration, providing details which allow you to see what's going on beyond Ramona's understanding.  Ramona is exactly Eleanor's age in the book -- five years old, and starting kindergarten.  So there's some room for identification with a character there, but at the same time, Eleanor is not anywhere near the kind of rule-breaker Ramona is.  As we read about Ramona's inability to keep herself from pulling her classmate Susan's curls, even when she wants to please her teacher, Miss Binney, Eleanor seemed a little confused: why can't Ramona control herself better?

As foil to Ramona, there is of course her older sister Beezus, who follows rules, is concerned about reputation, and finds Ramona's uncontrollable behavior incredibly hard to deal with.  There's something to identify with there, too, in the older sister.  But of course Beezus isn't as interesting a character as Ramona.  We get one book from her perspective (Beezus and Ramona), as opposed to Ramona's seven.

foil isn't a sibling (she has a younger brother, who she refers to with a changing variety of vegetable names: "Spinach," "Lima Bean"; at least in the first book, he's not much of a character), but her friend Margaret, who is neat, clean, organized, and rule-following. And, you know, less interesting than Clementine.

One of the few series I can think of in which the perspective stays with the better-behaved sibling is Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  Peter Hatcher narrates this and the following three books, recounting his tribulations as older brother to the rambunctious, rule-breaking Fudge.  Of course, the series is referred to as the Fudge Books.  I've always liked Peter as a narrator -- exasperated, but ultimately fond, taking responsibility for his little brother even as he feels like he's being driven crazy.  He's a nice guy, and the books are very funny.  And perhaps my own older-sibling status as I was growing up made me gravitate toward him, rather than Ramona.

On a final note, sad news: I read last night that this week we lost both Donald J. Sobel, author of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, and Else Holmelund Minarik, author of the Little Bear books, which are some of our most beloved here.  Both had long lives, but it's a loss just the same.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What's this book about?

Dear Annie,

It's cheering that Eleanor is so physically involved in reading: feelings fizzing out through her muscles.  And I also appreciate your pointing out Nancy Drew's no-nonsense competence -- not just at buying dresses, but also at repairing motors and driving and solving crimes.

I've recently had an odd experience with a book about girls who are trying to be competent in their lives, but who in some ways are in way over their heads.   I read
Summer of the Gypsy Moths
by Sara Pennypacker as a sample book and wrestled for a while with the question of whether I would order it for our stores (I did).  The author wrote a wildly popular early chapter book series about a character named Clementine -- one of those high-energy engaging girls whose realistic exploits keep expanding into more and more sequels.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths is aimed at older kids -- although the publicity for it says it's for 8 to 12 year-olds.  Last week the Washington Post kids' page ran a lyrical description of the book -- here are a few excerpts:
   Do you have a summer tradition? A place you go on vacation every year? A special spot for ice cream after dinner? A friend whom you get to see only when the days are warm, extra long and marked by endless hours of little to do?
   Sara Pennypacker’s book about two girls spending the summer with a relative on Massachusetts’s Cape Cod is about those types of traditions. . . .
   That’s just what author Pennypacker was going for in writing her novel. She said that she had a special summer friendship with a girl named Sonja on which she could model the relationship of Angel and Stella. “In the summers we’d hang out every single day, then on Labor Day we’d each go back to our real homes. The next summer, there we’d be, every single day as if the school year had never happened.”
The description creates expectations of warm friendships and magical days at the beach.  But it doesn't correlate at all with the book.  

To talk about the book, and to explain my uneasiness with the description, it's necessary to give away a major plot element in the next paragraph.  So be warned.

I would change the review's second paragraph to read, "about two girls spending the summer with the decomposing body of a relative...."  Kinda changes the lyrical summer vacation, huh?  Both girls have been sent to live with Stella's great-aunt because their families have become scarily dysfunctional.  Fairly early in the book, the woman dies, apparently of natural causes.  Rather than open themselves to the unknowns of the social services system, they instead bury her in the back yard, and take on her responsibilities as caretaker for a group of cottages.  As the body decomposes and starts to smell, they come up with increasingly unbelievable stories to cover for the situation.  Pennypacker explores the relationship between the girls well, but it's all based on a grisly and slightly preposterous plot element.

I don't know why the Post writer wrote what she did -- one of my co-workers is convinced she couldn't have read the book.  I spoke with three adults that week who came to the store to buy the lovely book described in the paper.  What should a bookseller do in that situation?  I basically said what's written above, but it turns a more complex book into its One Awful Thing.  Kind of like saying that The Hunger Games is about teenagers killing each other.  Well, yes, but there's a lot more to it.   The wonderful Gary Schmidt wrote a publicity blurb for Summer of the Gypsy Moths which for me captures what the author was trying to do:
 For Stella and for Angel, a terrible secret lies hidden beneath the pumpkin patch. But a more terrible secret lies hidden in the deeper depths of their hearts—the secret that must not be uttered: They may be absolutely and completely alone. Their journey in this grace-filled novel is a journey toward making that deeper secret a lie. Beneath the comedy and the suspense and the horror and the wit of this remarkable read lies the deepest secret of all: that we can learn to love each other.
He's created realistic expectations for the reader -- you know this book is different from Pennypacker's lighter fare.  He's a bit more enthusiastic than I am, but his reasons for liking it are wonderfully engaging.  And he doesn't give anything away.



Saturday, July 14, 2012

Reflections on Nancy Drew

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We're back home from a lovely lakeside vacation, during which we finished reading The Secret of the Old Clock.  Eleanor's excitement and complete inability to sit still as we read to her continued through the last chapter of the book, which I found to be an interesting mix of empowering, old-school, and just a little odd.

You mentioned logical reasoning and working things through as one of Nancy's best attributes.  I was struck perhaps even more by her cool competence in a variety of difficult situations.  When she sees a girl fall from a bridge into shallow water, she runs to the rescue and carries her home.  She drives a car (her own) extremely well, including driving her father around to a few appointments.  She knows how to drive a boat, and when the motor stalls (through no fault of her own), she works on it for more than an hour before giving up.  When help doesn't arrive after a few hours of waiting, she tries again:

To occupy her mind, Nancy concentrated once more on the motor.  Determinedly she bent over the engine.  It was not until the sun sank low in the sky that she sat up and drew a long breath.

"There!" she declared.  "I've done everything.  If it doesn't start now, it never will."

To her relief and astonishment, it responded with a steady roar as if nothing had ever gone wrong!

When confronted with rude girls of her own age or with possibly violent thieves, Nancy is internally morally outraged, but keeps her cool.  When locked in a closet, she tries to pick the lock from inside with a bobby pin, then tears down a wooden rod and uses it as a lever to break open the door at the hinges, citing Archimedes as she does so.  She knows how to bandage an elderly woman's leg properly, cook her a nourishing lunch, and move straight on to following thieves at close range and breaking into their truck.  When describing all of these episodes later, she's humble and undramatic.  Some nice role modeling here.

There are of course the requisite descriptions of every outfit she puts on throughout the book (lots of "smart little suits"), which made me think each time of the initial descriptions of the twins at the beginning of each Sweet Valley High book.  And Nancy is quite purely good in so many ways that one wishes at moments for a little more shading of character.  Still, there's a toughness to appreciate.  Eleanor has already asked me to find her book two.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The strongest woman in the world

Dear Annie,

Reading with one's children just keeps on giving us all little magic moments.  Here's a text conversation I had yesterday with soon-to-be-21 Mona, who's living in San Francisco this summer:
   Mona: A homeless man called me Pippi Longstocking today.  I ignored him but he did get points for children's book knowledge.
   Me: Love it! Although Pippi's hair is red [Mona's a blonde].
   Mona: I know -- I think it's because my hair was in a braid.  He also said something about the strongest woman in the world which could have been a reference too.
   Me: Picks up horse with one hand!
   Mona: Very impressive!
And here's a quote from  Pippi Goes on Board: a hypothetical stranger is watching Pippi's odd living arrangements from her front gate:
If the stranger stayed after Pippi had said good night and gone away from the gate, and if he saw Pippi go up on the porch and pick up the horse in her strong arms and carry him out into the garden, he would certainly rub his eyes and wonder if he were dreaming.
   "What an extraordinary child this is!" he would say to himself.  "Why, she can actually lift that horse!  She's the most extraordinary child I've ever seen!"
   He'd be right, too.  Pippi was the most extraordinary child -- in that town, at any rate.  There may be more extraordinary children in other places, but in that little town there was no one to compare with Pippi Longstocking.  And nowhere in the world, in that town or any other, was there anyone half so strong as she was.
first edition (in Swedish)
 Here's to extraordinary children everywhere.



Monday, July 9, 2012

Mellow mysteries

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love your suggestions, and will be sure to check them out.  Our nightly vacation reading of Nancy Drew is getting Eleanor so excited that she literally cannot sit still -- she's up and down, sitting on the floor and on the arm of the chair, moving closer to and farther away from the book with the intensity of the suspense.  I look forward to more mysteries with her.

I'm realizing, thinking back on it, that a few of our favorites have also been mysteries of a comic sort, so disguised that I don't think of them as mysteries first.  I wrote a while back about the fabulous Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, by Chris Riddell; in the year and a half since we first read it, we have acquired the other two Ottoline books: Ottoline Goes to School, and Ottoline at Sea (sadly out of print).  All three books are graphic novels, extremely quirky, mysteries of a sort but mostly just tremendously, enjoyably odd.  In Ottoline Goes to School, Ottoline and her friend/caretaker/tiny hairy Norwegian bog-person, Mr. Munroe, enroll along with Ottoline's new friend Cecily in the Alice B. Smith School for the Differently Gifted.  There are very few pupils, each astoundingly rich and odd, and each with a unique pet (the son of the Invisible Man, for example, has an Invisible Dog).  Ottoline tries to determine what her Different Gift is; meanwhile, the school appears to be haunted by the ghost of the Horse of the Hammersteins, who Cecily has a lot of stories about.  While that ghost is revealed by the end not to be real, there are some friendly true ghosts who wander through the pages, and can be great fun to pick out as you go along.  The story is about neediness and friendship -- Ottoline has to navigate her new exciting friendship with Cecily, who tries to pull her away from Mr. Munroe; ultimately, Cecily's loneliness for her parents turns out to be a major cause of her unhappiness.  (A funny moral, given that Ottoline never seems to see her parents, the Roving Collectors, but oh well.)  Ottoline at Sea contains a trip to Norway, a bog monster, and a pair of "bog-goggles" you can use to see hidden pictures in the book.  Eleanor will pore over these books for long periods of time.

For the early reader set, there's the Cynthia Rylant series The High-Rise Private Eyes, more humor than mystery, as I've written about before, but pretty great.

And speaking of great, let's not leave out Nate the Great, those odd little meandering books by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat.  Nate's mysteries always involve him eating a lot of pancakes, and at least in the several we've read, usually also involve slightly odd female friends and a number of cats.  The stakes are low -- a drawing disappears, and Nate figures out that his friend's little brother drew over it -- and the tone is thoughtful.

None of these make Eleanor squirm in her seat, but they do keep her interested.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Figuring it out

Dear Annie,

My girls were briefly into Encyclopedia Brown, but some stories were satisfying and others frustrating, requiring arcane knowledge to solve the mystery.  I gave up after reading "The Case of the Hidden Will," in which Encyclopedia Brown exposes the culprit because he knows that only one king in a deck of cards is without a mustache.  (See a funny critique here.)  I prefer the old-fashioned logic-it-out mysteries.

Meg Mackintosh
To that end, I offer two other step-by-step series.  Meg Mackintosh, written by Lucinda Landon,  has been solving mysteries since 1986.  The books are short chapter books -- they run around 40-50 pages apiece.  Every few pages, Meg figures something out, and the reader has the option of doing the same, or turning the page.

Meg Mackintosh and the Mystery on Main Street, Meg helps her brother Peter find an old family diamond ring that he lost while running errands. He had put it in his mitten for safekeeping.  During the day, he took some pictures in a toy store (and developed them in a home darkroom -- explainable moment!).  Peter shows the photos to Meg (we see illustration).
"Hmm, every picture tells a story," said Meg.  "I'm not sure how the story turns out.  I do know that you took your mittens off."
    Do you see anything unusual in Peter's photos?
    Why would Peter have taken the mitten off?
[turn page]
"Peter, if you took pictures in the toy store, you probably took your mittens off so you could press the buttons easier," said Meg, as she examined the photos.
She goes on to find a clue or two in the pictures.  The questions at the bottom of the page offer the chance to figure out the answer oneself, or just to get on with the story.  The plots all have a few red herrings to throw the unvigilant off the trail.  Meg carries a notebook with her and keeps careful notes throughout the stories.

The "Get a Clue" series by Julian Press (originally published in Germany) are the same idea, but rely more heavily on illustration.  Every page has a picture -- usually it's full of detail -- and there's a question at the end of each page. In "A Four-Legged Mystery," one of three stories in
The Curse of the Crossbow Archer
, three children go into a hair salon in their search for a missing dog.  There's a full-page illustration of the salon.
..."Do you also do dog grooming?" Josh asked awkwardly.
The stylist looked at him stonily.  "No. Animals are strictly forbidden in the salon.  And that goes for your bird -- he needs to wait outside."
"She's charming," David muttered under his breath.  "And what a liar!"
    QUESTION: How does David know the stylist is lying?
[turn page]
  The dog bone on the floor by the back door made David doubt the stylist.  Unless the woman ate dog bones herself, it was a pretty clear indication that she's had a canine visitor recently.  They had to figure out what was behind that door before the stylist became suspicious.
I think of these books as great for the first-to-third grade set who are getting increasingly comfortable reading on their own.  But as you know well, they also work as read-alouds for the mystery-minded soon-to-be-kindergartener.



Friday, July 6, 2012

Young sleuths

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We just read the dramatic department store scene tonight!  I'm interested to see where it goes, and will report back when we finish our first full Nancy Drew mystery.  So far, Eleanor is totally engaged, but there's a lot to explain, starting with what it means to make a will.

I've been thinking about your point about Nancy Drew (and the Hardy Boys, who I've never read -- in my experience, people read one series or the other, but not both) being models of clear deductive reasoning.  I've written before about my love of mysteries, and have pinpointed Nancy Drew as the beginning of that love, or close to it.  But around the same time, perhaps slightly later, I also read a lot of Donald J. Sobel's Encyclopedia Brown.  

The Encyclopedia Brown stories had a very different feel than Nancy Drew.  From what I remember, the stakes were always much lower, and most of the mysteries focused on kids and their interactions with each other.  The stories were short -- ten to a book -- and offered the same kind of teasing, almost-solvable pleasure that Christie's Poirot mysteries played with later.  You could almost figure these things out, and sometimes maybe you could, but most often you'd just get enough so that when Encyclopedia announced the answer you'd feel a little bit smarter.  The feeling wasn't so much following a train of thought as experiencing or observing a moment of insight.

I still remember a number of random facts gathered from the solutions to these mysteries: a hard-boiled egg spins better than a raw one; the word "bookkeeper" has three consecutive sets of repeated letters; you can use peanut butter to remove chewing gum from hair; tears fall from the inner corner of your eyes, not the outer one, because that's where your tear ducts are.  The first three of these solutions had to do with contests: an egg-spinning contest, a contest at a library, a bubble-blowing contest.  Lots of contests in Idaville, apparently.  The fourth had to do with a girl pretending to cry and using eye drops to fake it, but I forget over what.

I don't feel the same visceral love of Encyclopedia Brown as I do of Nancy Drew, but he was a lot of fun to read, and gave me a taste for puzzling that has served me well.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bygone eras

Dear Annie,

I'm quite fond of those yellow-spined Nancy Drew volumes: more than 60 of them, still in print.  They weren't part of my childhood -- Cherry Ames (Student Nurse/Visiting Nurse/Flight Nurse/Camp Nurse/Cruise Nurse/etc) was the only one of those series that hooked me.  Nancy is the keeper, though: every so often at the store someone will come searching for #34, which she has to read before #35, because she's doing them all in order.  I listened to The Secret of the Old Clock (#1) a while ago and was captivated on many levels.  Nancy goes through a clear process of deductive reasoning -- they're a good introduction to sleuthing.  She really figures stuff out.  Nancy's male counterparts, the blue-spined Hardy Boys books, also have that step-by-step thinking.

I love the Nancy articles you linked to -- my favorite quote was from an Atlantic reviewer:
The real allure of Nancy Drew is that, almost uniquely among classic or modern heroines, she can follow — is allowed to follow — a train of thought.
A bit of an overstatement, but a lovely sentiment.

Those yellow Nancy Drews also give parents the opportunity to explain An Earlier Era.  I often point out that Mr. Popper's Penguins, in addition to being a delightful book, calls on grown-ups to explain iceboxes and vaudeville.  There's a stunningly dated scene in The Secret of the Old Clock when Nancy goes to a department store -- buying a dress is a crucial part of the plot -- and has to wait until the saleslady finishes showing another customer some dresses before she can look at any.  Made me think of when I was a suburban 15 year-old shopping by myself at Saks Fifth Avenue in The City, carrying a note with my mother's letterhead (remember Grandma's stationery?) instructing the saleslady to put my purchases on her account.  No account number -- they didn't even keep the note.  Ah, a bygone era. 

Happy Fourth of July to you & yours.



Monday, July 2, 2012

Following the clues to the Nancy Drews

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It's interesting to hear what's stuck with you from the Gregor books, and to think about them as homage to Alice in Wonderland as well as A Wrinkle in Time -- of course, the fall down the laundry room grate is like that old rabbit hole.  But no, Gregor and Boots remain their same human size, and it is the animals who are truly enormous -- six-foot tall cockroaches, giant vicious rats.  At the beginning of the second book, Gregor takes Boots to go sledding in Central Park, and she's kidnapped by giant cockroaches there (one of the other entryways to Underland is under a large stone slab in the park).  Gregor figures out what's happened when he sees a dog going crazy barking at what looks like a stick, but turns out to be an enormous articulated cockroach leg that snapped off during the kidnapping.  (To clarify: the roaches kidnap Boots for her own safety, so the rats won't get her first.  They're still good guys.)  Oh yes, I'll be reading all five of these.

We're gearing up for our own vacation, and I've been stockpiling books to read with Eleanor during the week we'll be away with my in-laws in a cabin by a lake in Wisconsin.  The second Borrowers book is waiting for us, and we're already halfway through Ramona the Pest.  The book Eleanor was most excited to pick up from the library, however, was The Secret of the Old Clock, a.k.a. the first volume of the Nancy Drew mysteries, by Carolyn Keene.

Eleanor's interest in Nancy Drew was sparked by our recent reading of The Worry Week, which was a total joy.  Jeff began it with Eleanor, but it was her first week of vacation, so my mom and I were commuting with her around the city, and we all took a turn reading.  What a good book!  I knew I'd read it, but didn't realize until we started again just how many times I must have reread -- so many places throughout the book where I knew lines by heart, after more than 20 years....

It's a book full of references.  Alice, the oldest sister, quotes Romeo and Juliet throughout, so I had to explain the plot of that story.  Allegra, the narrator and middle sister, refers several times to her "pile of Nancy Drews," and Alice at one point twists her ankle and stays in the bath and on the couch reading "all the Nancy Drews."  Eleanor picked up on it: "What's a Nancy Drews?" and I dredged up what I could remember of the many, many Nancy Drew books I sped through in 2nd grade.  I have an image of the shelf they all sat on in my elementary school library: a bottom shelf, filled gloriously from one side to the other with the worn permabound covers, their yellow spines fraying a little at top and bottom, each front cover bearing an image of Nancy finding something amazing or sinister, usually surrounded by darkness.  I remember Nancy was motherless, and lived with her wealthy father and a motherly housekeeper.  She drove a blue roadster, dated the totally forgettable Ned Nickerson, and was best friends with plump, girly Bess and short-haired, tomboyish (ahem, butch) George.  I don't remember a single complete plot.  Elements, yes: a broken locket, lots of running to gazebos at night, close calls.  I have no idea what to expect when Eleanor and I crack this one open.

But apparently I'm in good company in having been a huge fan.  Three years ago, when Sonia Sotomayor was being confirmed as a justice of the Supreme Court, someone dug up the fact that all three (at that point, pre-Kagan) female Supreme Court justices cited Nancy Drew as a major influence.  The New York Times published two articles digging into Nancy Drew's appeal: one focused on the justices, and one expanding the pool of fans to include all kinds of high-powered women.  She's been a lot of things to a lot of girls and women over the years.  I'll report back on her impact in this house.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Summer reading

Dear Annie,

I've only read the first Gregor, although we sell a fair amount of all of them.  One of the indications of a good series is when readers keep coming back for more.  I think I read it during one of those intense times in ordering season when I read half a dozen books a week and place orders that will arrive six months in the future.  Gregor hasn't stuck with me.  That said, the one vivid image I hold from the first book is the laundry room, which is the portal to Underland.  In my mind, I see the cavernous laundry room in my parents' -- your grandparents' -- basement on West 77th Street.  So I guess my belief about Underland is that it's beneath the Upper West Side, probably below the Museum of Natural History.

The other element I've held onto is the into-the-rabbit-hole nature of Gregor's fall.  It was my impression not that the cockroaches (great comic relief!) and other animals were huge, but that the humans shrank as they fell.  Am I making this up?

You so deserve some relaxed reading time!  Around this time of year, I start packing some books I haven't read into a going-to-Maine box.  I'll dig through the box when we get there in August and work my way through a number of them while lying in the hammock.  Some are books I've ordered and know I need to read before they arrive.  And others are ones I just really want to read because I hear they're exceptional.

Here are the three YA books that I really want to read by Labor Day:

Ship Breaker
, by Paolo Bacigalupi. It won the Printz Award for best YA book two years ago.  Dystopian future with environmental breakdown in full swing.  About a boy who works mining beached oil tankers for their scrap metal.  Into his world sails a perfect clipper ship.  Sounds dark and fascinating.

Where Things Come Back
, by John Corey Whaley -- the winner of this year's Printz award.  Nothing futuristic or magical.  A high school boy whose brother disappears, and whose town becomes the focus of the search for a rare woodpecker.  I have high hopes for this one.

Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein, which just came out.  It's a World War II drama.  Two young women -- one a pilot, one a spy, each other's friends -- crash in Nazi-occupied France.  The intelligence agent is captured -- her interrogation and confession make up a large part of the book.  The other things I know about this book are that it's full of twists and surprises -- so the reviews are a bit squirrely -- and the writing is riveting.

Anybody out there read any of these?