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

Sunday, August 19, 2012

God in the details

Dear Annie,

I need to pay more attention to Bea and Mr. Jones.  Lovely.  My favorite switching places story is in Things That Sometimes Happen, by Avi, which you wrote about almost two years ago. You quote a fantastic description of working in an office.

I've been poking around our bookshelves here in Maine and have been reminded of one of my favorite author/illustrators, Peter Spier.  He does wonderfully intricate drawings with lots to look for and always sneaks in some humor.

Bored -- Nothing to Do!, now sadly out of print, got a lot of readings in our house.  The first picture is of two boys surrounded by toys and sports equipment looking very bored.  Then their mother kicks them out of the house: "Go do something.  I was never bored at your age!"  While hanging out in the barn, they spot a large propeller on the wall, which leads them to books and plans about flight and before you know it --
they've built an airplane.  They've scavenged materials from linen closets, baby carriages, fences and a VW bug.  Text consists of two or three word captions on all the illustrations.  The boys take a triumphal flight while their parents discover all the objects that are missing from the house, and then are buzzed by the aviators.  Scoldings ensue.  The last two panels are the parents saying to each other:
"Some boys." "Clever, too!"
and the boys, back in a toy-filled room:
Bored - nothing to do!
Spier's most spectacular book is probably
Noah's Ark
, for which he won the 1978 Caldecott Medal.  The almost-wordless book tells the Bible story starting with the building of the ark.  Supplies for people and animals are piled outside, crowds of animals mill around while Noah and family admit pairs and shoo away the rest -- everyone from elephants to flies:

Pages of the lone ark in the rain alternate with pictures of the humans laboring: feeding many species, separating natural enemies, shoveling manure, catching fish, and (as the journey lengthens) admiring kittens, puppies, baby giraffes, chicks, many rabbits, and more. 

Every page has lots to linger over:
It ends with most of the animals eagerly scattering across the slopes of Mt. Ararat -- the cats stick around, and the snails are quite slow.

This one can sustain many readings -- more lovely details to find every time.

It's late August -- time for Annie and Aunt to take a little time off, read a few more books, lie around in hammocks or see new places.

You have a lovely vacation, dear Annie.  We'll be back and blogging in September.



Friday, August 17, 2012

Trading places

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our good friends Brian and Rachel are moving to London shortly, and have been divesting themselves of a number of things in preparation, sending some of the kids' stuff our way.  This is how we got our copy of Bea and Mr. Jones, written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz.  It has quickly become a family favorite.

It's a book that starts with extreme dissatisfaction:

"I've had it with kindergarten!" Bea Jones said to her father as he was sitting down to breakfast.
"I've had it with beanbag games!
"I've had it with clothespin games!
"I've had it with sitting on that dumb green rug and playing that dumb colored lollipop game!
"I'm ready for a change."

Mr. Jones put down his muffin and coffee.
"Beatrice," he said, "do you think I like my job?  I'm tired of running for the 7:45!  I'm tired of sitting at that desk and working so hard!  I'm tired of laughing at the boss' jokes all day!"
"Doesn't sound so bad to me," said Bea.

You can guess what happens next: father and daughter trade places for the day.  Mr. Jones is a total whiz at kindergarten, and becomes the teacher's pet (and a milk and cookie monitor who doesn't spill anything).  Bea laughs at the boss's jokes, comes up with a terrific new advertising slogan ("Munchy Crunchy my dear snackers, You will love our Crumbly Crackers"), and ends the day tired but satisfied.

And you can guess what might happen after that: they each learn something about themselves, and go back to their own lives.  Except that's not what happens in this book.  Instead, both Bea and Mr. Jones decide they've found their niche.  Bea is promoted, and Mr. Jones keeps right on going to kindergarten every day.  The book ends with sightings of both of them, Mr. Jones getting into a movie theater at a kid's price, Bea at a restaurant lunch meeting.  There's something fabulously loopy and unapologetic about the whole thing.

Going through the box of YA books from my parents' storage room, I came across two books which I realized were my template for parent-child switching stories, and part of the reason I expect them to be stories in which everybody Learns a Lesson.
Freaky Friday
 is, I'm sure, the best-known: it's been made into two movies, neither of which sticks very close to the plot of the original book, but both of which exploit the basic premise: 13-year-old Annabel Andrews and her mother Ellen magically switch bodies for a day.

In the book, Ellen is the architect of the switch, and it's Annabel who narrates and who ultimately learns all of the lessons.  Such as: being an adult comes with a number of responsibilities, and it's important to do some work at school and pass English, and your younger brother who you hate secretly adores you.  Ellen is a stay-at-home mom, so many of the responsibilities involve household chores at which Annabel is incompetent.  There are the beginnings of a feminist consciousness: Annabel refers to Gloria Steinem and Women's Lib, and Ellen is fierce about defending staying at home as real work.  Still, Mary Rodgers wrote the book in 1972, and aspects of it feel a little dated.  How often do/did husbands call up during the day and instruct their wives to make dinner for the business clients they were suddenly bringing home?  I loved the punchiness of the narration when I was younger, and enjoyed it as a reread as well, but there's a lot here to explain.  In her daughter's body, Ellen essentially gives Annabel a makeover, so that by the end of the book (and both movies), the ugly duckling has metamorphosed into a swan.  Which, okay.

Mary Rodgers fun fact: she's one of the daughters of composer Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, and is a composer in her own right; her best known score is for Once Upon a Mattress.  She wrote a couple of sequels to Freaky Friday, including Summer Switch, in which Annabel's younger brother Ben, known to all as Ape Face, switches bodies with his father, Bill.  Ape Face is just about to go to sleepaway camp, and Bill is on his way to L.A. on a business trip; they spend a couple of weeks in each others' bodies, and the narration toggles back and forth between them.  It's a more developed (and therefore more ridiculous) plot, but still a fun read.

Still, it's the ending of Bea and Mr. Jones that leaves me on a high note, every time.

Love, Annie

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer reading, fallen angels and woodpeckers

Dear Annie,

Here I am in Maine, with the usual several days of getting systems functional.  We have internet now -- and it has survived the first crashing thunderstorm.

I'm glad you've managed to revisit some more YA books of your youth.  Like you, I've started reading some books I'd set aside for this part of the summer.

Today's treat is 
Where Things Come Back
, a first novel by John Corey Whaley.  It provoked some cheerful speculation about the state of young people's literature when it won the Printz Award (best YA literature) in January.  It's a fascinating melange of philosophical musings, small town claustrophobia, family trauma, mystery and media spectacle.  Reminds me a bit of John Green books in the ways the characters are trying to make sense of their lives in trying circumstances.  Not as consciously intellectual, but wonderfully written.  I'm going to try to avoid spoilers in what follows, but am offering enough to let you know it's not just a nice book about a woodpecker.

We start with 17 year-old Cullen and his younger brother Gabriel, their good friend Lucas, their dead-from-an-overdose cousin and the hazing tensions of high school in a small Arkansas town.  Then a birdwatcher comes to town and claims to have spotted a rare bird which was believed to be extinct.  As the town slowly realizes the business potential involved, the boys resist the mounting enthusiasm.
It's hard to say what bothered me so much about John Barling and the whole bird thing without painting myself as an angry-for-no-real-reason teenager dressed in black and moping around like Charlie Brown all the time.  But it was the same for Gabriel, and Lucas, too.  It was as if we got the joke that everyone in town had been told.  We knew the punch line.  And it would've been much easier to sit back while all of Lily fell under the awe-inspiring spell of the possibility of second chances, or rebirth, but we just couldn't do it.  I may not have liked the people in Lily that much, but I felt sorry for anyone being massively scammed.
A new, apparently unrelated character pops up in a Georgia fundamentalist community: Benton Sage, who in alternating chapters goes on a mission to Ethiopia, becomes disillusioned, and is introduced to The Book of Enoch, a strange and ancient text about the fall of angels and God's reasons for sending the flood.  So we have an elusive bird redeeming a town called Lily, and searching-for-meaning Benton, when -- wham! -- Cullen's brother disappears.  Things become more confusing and scary.  Most of the book is from Cullen's perspective, muddling through an awful situation.  More characters appear.  The moment at which they all cross paths is a stunner.  But the point of the book isn't the solution to the mystery.

Near the end, Cullen speculates about the meaning of life.
I'll tell you now that I still don't know the meaning of mine.  And Lucas Cader, with all his brains and talent, doesn't know the meaning of his, either.  But I'll tell you the meaning of all this.  The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it.  The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead.  To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption.... To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but never do.
Definitely worth putting on your next-summer list.



Monday, August 13, 2012

Serious Issues from the 1980s

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Among my summer projects was the task of going through a pile of boxes formerly housed in my parents' storage room, which my parents returned to me almost a year ago.  I spent a number of hours digging through them last week, sorting letters and papers, discarding college notebooks, wallowing in memories.  One of the best boxes to open was marked "YA books," and stuffed to the brim with all my old favorites: Madeleine L'Engle, Cynthia Voight, Paula Danziger, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume.  And then there were the smattering of books I'd forgotten, which came rushing back as I picked up the dog-eared paperbacks with their airbrushed 80s covers.

Such shiny hair!  Such serious faces!  These two Norma Fox Mazer paperbacks were in heavy rotation in my junior high school years.  They're both gripping, realistic YA fiction which take their plots from 1980s Serious Issues.  While there are aspects of both that feel a little dated, rereading them again in the last couple of days has reassured me that they hold up well.

Taking Terri Mueller
(that's the current cover, to the left) is the story of a 13-year-old girl who has lived alone with her father for as long as she can remember.  Terri and Phil move around a lot -- often more than twice in a year --and Terri knows no other family except for an aunt she sees once a year.  Phil tells her that her mother died in a car accident when she was four, and has no pictures.  As the spoiler tag line on the 80s cover above reveals, Terri figures out more than halfway through the book that her father kidnapped her after losing custody when her parents divorced.  Her mother is alive, and has been desperate to find her since she was taken.

Mazer does a beautiful job of presenting all the nuances of this family situation: Phil is a caring, loving father who it's hard to demonize; you can see his side of things.  At the same time, the pain his kidnapping of Terri has caused for the rest of her family, and for her, is front and center.  Phil gets involved early in the novel with a single mom, Nancy, who is warm and loving, the first woman he's considered settling down with.  After the revelation of the kidnapping, Nancy can't reconcile herself with what Phil has done, or with his lack of remorse about it.  She's a kind of moral center as Terri is so emotionally embroiled that she finds it hard to know what she's feeling.  The book is written in close third-person, mostly Terri's perspective, but at a few moments it shifts to Nancy's, Phil's, and Terri's mother's.  It's even-handed, and at the same time completely emotionally gripping.  Not to mention still, unfortunately, quite timely.

Downtown is narrated by Pete Greenwood, a 16-year-old boy who lives with his uncle Gene, and tells people his parents were killed in an accident.  Unlike Terri, Pete has always known the truth: his parents, Laura and Hal, were members of a radical group that bombed a government research lab eight years earlier.  The bomb unexpectedly killed two people, and Laura and Hal, wanted for murder, went into hiding.  Until age eight, Pete was Pax Connors; since the bombing, he has taken on the burden of a new identity in order to keep his parents safe.  He's seen them three times since then, and keeps a notebook of license plate numbers of cars he thinks might be following him.

The jacket copy, at least on my book, focuses largely on Pete's relationship with Cary, a beautiful girl he meets downtown and begins to date.  She has complications in her life as well: she's been in the foster care system since she was four, and is hoping to be adopted by her latest foster family.  Pete is pleasingly imperfect -- he has an uncontrollable temper at times, and is less than secure about himself.  But again, the characters in this book feel warm and real, even when they're prickly. 

I may have trouble tearing myself away from this box to get any school-prep reading done....

Love, Annie

Thursday, August 9, 2012

One's own drummer

Dear Annie,

I promised to revisit the gay-themed books for kids topic one more time, mostly because I wanted to mention two books which sort of fit, but maybe not quite...

The Boy Who Cried Fabulous
is by Leslea Newman, who seems to have written about half the books about gay parents -- starting with Heather has Two Mommies.  She's not one to be coy about a topic, but it's interesting what she's written here:
When Roger started out for school,
his mother set a simple rule.
 She said, "Now Roger, you go straight --
 straight to class, and don't be late."
 . . .
but then he came upon a store,
its windows full of lovely clothes
so colorful that Roger froze,
then clapped his hands in fits of glee 
and shouted out in ecstasy:
"What a fabulous coat,
is it silk or wool?
What a fabulous bell,
can I give it a pull?
What a fabulous door, 
does it open wide?
What a fabulous store,
can I come inside?"
He admires the clothes, the customers, the day, the world.  Everything is "fabulous" (although "simply divine" sneaks in there too).  Roger has such enthusiasm for every distraction that he's constantly late wherever he goes.  His parents (one mom, one dad) are very irritated.  The next day as the family goes to town together, mom and dad ban the use of the word fabulous.  Although he's trying hard, Roger just can't toe the line, but his exuberant descriptions sprout new adjectives: marvelous, wonderful, dazzling, glorious, etc.  The scene becomes crazier and crazier as Roger ends up dancing on tables then leading happy townsfolk in a parade, complete with elephant ride.  A moment of suspense ensues as he turns to see his parents' reaction.
"We've never, ever had such fun,
and you are the world's most fabulous son!" 
It's fun, it's a good story, written with panache.  Maybe it's about following your enthusiasms, maybe it's about parents accepting their gay sons.  The differing interpretations feels a bit like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, it's a wonderful magical tale, and some also see it as carrying a Christian message with a clear crucifixion allegory.

note the bird
Another excellent character bucking his family's expectations is Liam, star of
Piggy Bunny
, by Rachel Vail, illustrated by Jeremy Tankard of Grumpy Bird fame.  Liam is a piglet who wants to grow up to be the Easter Bunny: he practices hopping, eats salad and tries to deliver eggs.  His parents point out that he's "a terrific piglet" (nice adjective choice) and they love all his sweet piggy attributes. 
"You are perfect," said Liam's dad, just exactly the way you are."
"Just exactly the way I am," said Liam, "is like a piglet who is going to be the Easter Bunny."
Then Liam's grandparents visit and Grandma bucks the family attitude.
"They just have the imagination of a kumquat, the lot of them."  She shook her large head.  "Go put on your Easter Bunny suit, Liam.  Then they'll see."
Turns out he doesn't have one.
Liam's grandpa smiled gently.  "This is the kind of problem" he whispered, "that is called fixable."
They go to the internet to solve the problem.  When it arrives, the suit is itchy and doesn't quite fit right, but when he looks in the mirror,
looking back at him, was Liam, the Easter Bunny.  
A happy piggy.

This is an enjoyable book on many levels: it's funny, it's a believe-in-yourself story, and the author (in a very nice discussion with the illustrator) even calls it subversive. One of my co-workers pointed out another interpretation.  Julian, who used to be Nicole, read it through with a huge smile and said, "This is me."  Liam, the transgender piglet.  It's his current staff pick.



Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your lovely post about sisters in picture books made me think immediately of a couple of new additions to our bookshelves, which aren't technically about sisters, but have very much a sisterly feel.

I'm talking here about Bink & Gollie and its sequel, Bink & Gollie: Two For One, by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile.  I mention the illustrator right off the bat because these books are so illustrated as to feel almost like graphic novels, though their structure is more early-reader: each book contains three stand-alone stories, loosely linked.

Bink and Gollie are best friends: Bink is the small, wild-haired blonde; Gollie the tall, thin, and hyper-articulate brunette.  You can imagine how easily my own tall, brown-haired Eleanor and smaller, blonder Isabel see themselves in this pairing.  There is no mention of either girl's family; though they are clearly kids, they seem to live in small individual houses close to each other.  Bink's house is classic one-room-house-shaped, while Gollie's is a far more modern structure, spare of furniture, perched up in the top of a tree.  The setting feels a little like the houses of the various animals in Winnie The Pooh, an impression that grew on me as I noticed each girl pretty much makes and eats only one thing (peanut butter sandwiches for Bink, pancakes for Gollie).

The stories in the first book involve individual desires and ultimate compromise: Gollie detests Bink's new brightly-colored socks, and refuses to make her pancakes until she takes them off; Gollie is on an imaginary adventure climbing the Andes Mountains, but Bink keeps disturbing her when she wants to be alone; Bink gets a new fish and spends so much time caring for him that Gollie gets jealous.  Very sister-like, in the ins and outs of negotiating play together.

What this summary misses is the pleasant loopiness of the dialogue, powered by Gollie's slightly formal tone and vocabulary and Bink's straightforward responses:

"Bink," said Gollie, "the brightness of those socks pains me.  I beg you not to purchase them."
"I can't wait to put them on," said Bink.

They refer to themselves as "marvelous companions."

In the second volume, Bink and Gollie visit a state fair, where Bink tries to throw balls to win a giant donut, and ends up hitting the guy running the stand; Gollie attempts to recite a poem at a talent show and is stymied by stage fright; and both girls go to see a fortune teller. A similar sense of sisterly support permeates these stories as well.

Love to your big sisters from my little ones,


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Celebrating sisterhood

Dear Annie,

Yesterday was Mona's 21st birthday.  She had asked for her sister for her birthday, so we flew Lizzie from Boston to San Francisco to celebrate with her.  They're used to birthdays together --

this was Mona's 7th birthday (Lizzie was 8).

I'm breaking from the current discussion to celebrate sisterhood in children's literature.  We've done a lot of that, so a lot of these are links.

David McPhail's Sisters celebrates the positives and negatives with a list:
One liked to wear two different colored socks.
One didn't like to wear socks (or shoes) at all.
One liked baseball.
The other found it boring.
[and on the other hand...]
Both sisters like to help bake cookies
and to play in puddles.
And a pile of leaves was never safe with those sisters around.
In Sheila Rae, the Brave by Kevin Henkes, the big sister is fearless:

But when she calls Louise a scaredy-cat and sets out on a new route home, Sheila Rae becomes hopelessly lost.  Louise has been secretly following her and pops up in time to lead Sheila Rae home.
When they reached their own yard and the gate was closed behind them, Sheila Rae said, "Louise, your are brave.  You are fearless."
"We both are," said Louise.
And they walked backwards into the house with their eyes closed.

Big Sister and Little Sister
, by Charlotte Zolotow features a little sister who finally has had it with being told what to do, so she hides in tall grass in a meadow.  The big sister searches fruitlessly for her, and ends up so worried that she sits down and cries, prompting the little sister to reveal herself and take care of her big sister for the first time. 

And where would any sister stories be without Frances and Gloria, Rose and May-May (of the Golly Sisters -- two of children's literature's best sibling bickerers), and Ramona and Beezus (link is to a particularly sister-ish excerpt).

I love the fun, the rivalry, the resentment, the admiration and love that permeate these sister stories.  What am I leaving out?

We could go on to older fare -- The Hunger Games at one end of the spectrum, or Jane Austen at the other.  But that's another day.

Happy Birthday to you Mona!

And love to you, Annie.



Saturday, August 4, 2012

Gay marriage, political and non-political

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Visiting my parents last week in Manhattan, the girls and I stopped in at Bank Street Bookstore, one of our favorite independent children's bookstores anywhere.  Imagine my surprise when the first display to hit my eyes as I walked in the door was a selection of books about gay marriage and families with gay parents!  Maybe there's something in the air.

The display included a few of the books you've recently written about: And Tango Makes Three, Donovan's Big Day, King and King, and Monday is One Day, which I hadn't seen before, but enjoyed.

In the same vein of books aiming to be inclusive of all different kinds of families, there was also The Great Big Book of Families, by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by cartoonist Ros Asquith.  On each two-page spread, this book focuses on a subject -- holidays, where people live, pets, who makes up a family -- and then provides text and drawings to illustrate as many options as possible.  It's nicely multicultural, and includes families with gay parents.  On skimming, I found the text a little didactic, but the overall message of inclusiveness was nice.

Then there were two books which took on the subject of gay marriage in different ways, each beginning with a child's negative reaction, and ending happily, one in a totally non-political context, and one which makes it clear that the fight for gay marriage is a civil rights issue.

In Uncle Bobby's Wedding,by Sarah S. Brannan, the characters are all anthropomorphized guinea pigs.  Chloe has a close relationship with her Uncle Bobby (some sweet scenes of them playing together outdoors), and is upset when she learns he's getting married.  The nice thing about the book is that the gender of Uncle Bobby's fiance, Jamie, is never the issue, and in fact isn't remarked on at all.  The family is clearly supportive of the wedding, and Chloe's reaction is due entirely to her worry that she won't have as close a relationship to Bobby once he has a husband.  Before the wedding, Bobby and Jamie spend quality time together with Chloe, and she comes to love him, too.  There's a nice line about the two of them planning to have kids of their own, but still having a special relationship with Chloe.  Chloe demands to be their flower girl, and the wedding is a success.

Operation Marriage, by Cynthia Chin-Lee, is set in California in the few months in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal there, just before the passage of Proposition 8.  It's based on a true story about a pair of kids -- the older sister, Alex, narrates the book -- who push their two moms to get married legally amid the campaigning for and against Prop. 8.  Alex's best friend, Zach, tells her he can't be friends with her anymore because her parents aren't really married, and his father says that two women can't be married.  Alex and her brother Nicky decide that the way to fix this is to make their moms' union legal, and they go home and begin "Operation Marriage" to encourage Mama Kathy and Mama Lee to marry under California law: they play the wedding march, and make a wedding program to give their mothers.  The moms are very sweet -- their initial reaction is to say, but of course we're married, and break out the videos of their commitment ceremony.  After some talking, however, they're convinced.  Alex and Nicky get new wedding clothes, and the family has a small, warm, civil ceremony.  Even after Prop. 8 is passed, Alex feels like her mothers are truly married.  And Zach and his mom show up at the door to apologize for letting the issue divide the friends.  It's a nice combination of realistic, political, and hopeful.  Reading it, I felt like it would make a good historical picture book in the future, dramatizing the last throes of the fight against marriage rights for all.  Let's hope so.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gay parents: part of the crowd

Dear Annie,

Arthur A. Levine, best-known as the Scholastic editor who brought Harry Potter to the U.S., is also a gay dad and a sometimes-author.  His
Monday is One Day
combines two themes we've explored. One is there-are-many-types-of-families; the other is working parents.
The hardest part about going to
work is being apart from you.
Let's count the days till we're both at
home with a special thing to do.
He then lists the weekdays, counting them off until the weekend when kids and working parents get more face time with each other.  Each page has a different family, including different races, single parents, grandparents, and two dads.  It's a wonderfully loving book.

Levine, ever aware of the financial pressures in publishing, is quoted in a five year-old blog post about controversies over several of the books we've been discussing:
"I'm hyper-alert in bookstores looking for the book that might include our family," Levine said. "I'd buy anything that remotely reflected us, partly because I would want to make a vote with my pocketbook. I want to say, 'Whoever you are in that publishing house who pushed this through, I am supporting you.'"

Then there's
The Trouble with Babies
by Martha Freeman.  It's an early chapter book (which I haven't read, have been trolling the internet for good stuff) about a girl who's just moved to a new neighborhood with her mom and stepdad.  She befriends the boy next door, who has two dads.   The plot seems to center on her settling in to the new situation, rather than on the kid's dads: they're just part of the setting.

I'm going to toss out another Levine quote here, and come back to it next time:
"Ten percent of the children's book readership, at least, will grow up to be gay or lesbian," he said to "Wouldn't it be nice if their first exposure to the idea that there are gay people in the world isn't when they're teenagers — so when little Johnny falls in love with that really cute, brainy boy in his computer class, he's grown up with the idea that it's not unusual and there's nothing wrong with that."
So are there picture books about young kids who are gay?  A few get presented that way.  Stay tuned for my next post, which will also address a delightful book that could be about a transgender child.