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, December 23, 2013

One day more...

Dear Annie,

Ah, Isabel is having such a fascinating journey into the literary world.  I'm so glad Bone was a hit.  Also, I'd suggest checking out Marcia Williams' graphic novel retellings of classics: they're delightful.  There's also a whole world of early chapter-level graphic novel series: Babymouse, Squish (he's an amoeba), the Lunch Lady (she's a superhero), Pet Shop Private Eye (a guinea pig), and more, which I'll write about soon. 

Just one more shopping day until Christmas.  It's been crazy-busy, but also a lot of fun. One of the many interesting phenomena of this season is that adults seem much more adventurous when they choose books for kids.  I've sold more Thurber in the past week than in the last six months.  Ditto Mistress Masham's Repose  and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  Yesterday someone bought The World is Round by Gertrude Stein (illustrated by the great Clement Hurd) for a ten year-old who hasn't yet found a book she really loves.  It's an odd, very Stein-ish book, with lots of circuitous sentences.  It could be a terrible choice for a reluctant ten year-old.  But then and again, it could be refreshing and different enough to change her whole attitude toward chapter books.  I hope I find out what she thought.

Two days ago I had a conversation straight out of this blog.  A mom talked about her five year-old who's very resistant to the idea of reading chapter books.  His eight year-old sister is a voracious reader and the mom suspects the younger brother is rejecting chapter books -- even before anyone has a chance to open them -- as a way to say I'm-not-my-sister.  Sound familiar?  I talked to her about Isabel and recommended a couple of books.  Then, as she made her way to the front of the store, the synapses connected: I grabbed Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle from the shelf and ran after her.  So we'll see what happens.

Then there are the Who Was... books that we've talked about.  Five new ones came out last week, an even odder-than-usual assortment: Frida Kahlo, Milton Hershey, Ernest Shackleton, Steven Spielberg and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  They sold out in two days.  The first to go was Milton Hershey -- go figure.  Which leads me to another lovely conversation of the past weeks.  A mom was talking about how much her son loves this series.  But he only likes the "outside people."  He sees the world of biography as comprising people who live their lives primarily either outdoors or indoors.  The presidents: not so good.  Davy Crockett: yes.  Steve Jobs: no.  Jane Goodall: yes.  In the list above, maybe Shackleton and Wilder are outside people?  His favorite, though, was very clear:

  Sacagawea, definitely an outside person.

Have a lovely Christmas out there in Illinois. 

Merry, merry,


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Give the people what they want

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In my continuing quest to find books with longer narratives that Isabel will tolerate having read to her, I have two more success stories -- or rather, one semi-success story on my terms, and what appears to be one slam-dunk on her terms.

The semi-success (which is also a HUGE success for Eleanor):
Eleanor has been reading another series by my friend and prolific YA and middle grade author Tui Sutherland, whose book The Menagerie was a hit in our house last summer. The series is called Pet Trouble, and each of the eight books follows a different kid in the same town. Each kid owns a dog who causes some kind of trouble: a golden retriever runs away, a beagle howls incredibly loudly, a poodle can't stop getting dirty.
Each book can stand alone as a story, but there are sightings of the dogs and characters from one book in other books, which makes for fun connection-spotting. Eleanor loves the dialogue, and finds the situations hysterically funny. There's a little bit of suspense, but the trouble of the title doesn't get too serious -- they're fun reads.

Isabel has always loved dogs, so I thought that Pet Trouble might work for her as an early chapter book read-aloud. We've been reading Mud-Puddle Poodle together this week (that's the book Eleanor is reading on her own in the picture above), and it's worked pretty well as a mutual read-aloud. The narrator, Rosie Sanchez, is a girly-girl who wants her new poodle to be clean and ladylike, but Buttons turns out to be obsessed with rolling in the mud, and doesn't want to be dressed up in doll clothes.  Rosie's four older brothers are at first dismayed by the cute little dog, but Buttons wins them over by being smart, energetic, cute, and a magnet for the girls who one of the brothers wants to attract. (Side note: as with The Menagerie, I appreciate here that Tui's main characters are a variety of races. Rosie and her family are Latino, which is both clear throughout and not made into a big deal at all.) Isabel loves the descriptions of Buttons's dog-play behavior:

She ran in big circles on the grass in front of us as we walked. The wind blew a leaf past her nose. With a ferocious yip, she pounced on it, then blinked in surprise when it didn't try to run away. She poked it with her little black nose, then looked up at me like, Did I win? Did I win?

Isabel said to me last night, "When you read it, it's like I can see the pictures in my head!" And I thought, yes! This is the revelation I've been hoping for!

But truth be told, even Buttons's antics don't make Isabel clamor to read a book without pictures.  So now we come to...

The slam-dunk (and one of your recommendations to me over Thanksgiving): 
Jeff Smith's Bone: Out From Boneville. This is an odd, wonderful series focused on the adventures of three small white bone-people: Fone Bone (the sweet hero), and his cousins Phoney Bone (the schemer who's always getting them into trouble) and Smiley Bone (the dim-witted, cheerful one). In Volume 1, the Bones are kicked out of their hometown of Boneville because of Phoney Bone's antics. They become separated in a desert, and Fone Bone finds himself in a valley populated by huge toothy rat-monsters (visually scary with hairy faces and red eyes, but made somewhat comic through their bickering over how they plan to cook Fone Bone for dinner). There are also kind possums, bugs shaped like leaves, a beautiful, kind human girl named Thorn, and her incredibly tough grandmother, Gran'ma Ben, who raises racing cows. And of course a big red dragon with furry ears who is protecting Fone Bone (no one knows why). I've only read the first book (there are nine, plus a couple of prequels and a connected series), but so far it is weird and wonderful. Rereading your description of Jeff Smith's appearance at the National Book Festival a few years ago, I like him even more.

Why on earth haven't I gotten graphic novels for Isabel earlier? I picked up Out From Boneville earlier today at the library, and gave it to Isabel to look at in the car as we drove up to my parents' place. She was immediately excited: "It has pictures on every page! Oh, thank you, Mommy!" By the time we got to the Upper West Side, she had looked through every page, and was already making up names for the characters. She was thrilled to have Jeff read it to her tonight, and warned him ahead of time that she knew there were going to be a few scary parts. She loves monsters. She loves pictures. She loves humor. We have a winner here.

I hope that business at the store is humming, with Christmas right around the corner, and look forward to hearing from you when you get a chance to breathe!

Love, Annie

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bobbledy Books: the gift that keeps on arriving

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love knowing that you're helping guide people's holiday shopping,and are so open to customers' great finds. Who Made This Cake? sounds like a fabulous book, especially for kids who are mesmerized by construction vehicles.

One of the fun things that's been happening here is that both Eleanor and Isabel are working on writing and illustrating books for a contest that's part of our favorite subscription series: Bobbledy Books. It's the creation of married couple Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, founders of Idiots'Books (full disclosure: we went to college together). Our guest blogger Faith wrote here about Matthew and Robbi's first foray into children's literature: My Henderson Robot, which is a favorite in our house as well.

I bought the girls a subscription to Bobbledy Books last Christmas, and renewed it this year, as it's been a huge hit. Every couple of months, they get a new book in the mail (stories by Matthew, pictures by Robbi). It is enormous fun to get books in the mail. Way better than pulling out my New Yorker issue every week and getting me to explain what the cover is supposed to mean.

The books themselves are pleasantly loopy: a boy refuses to get out of bed and builds robots in his room to get him food (Bobby and the Robots), a dragon is told that he's not real, and has an existential crisis before realizing his importance to the town around him (The Imaginary Dragon), a girl with an enormous head eats a lot of lollipops and grows other enormous body parts, one at a time, allowing her to develop a variety of special abilities (Henny Wampum Had a Really Big Head). 

When this last one arrived, Eleanor grabbed it, sat down on the couch, and read it straight through. Then Isabel asked me to read it to her three times in a row. I think it may be the next book she memorizes. Once a year, the subscription includes a CD of new children's music by Drew Bunting (another college classmate). The girls' favorite songs from the first album, "I Don't Wanna Brush My Teeth," include "Where Does It Go?" (an imaginative answer to the very good question about toilets) and "Mothra," which appeals particularly to Isabel, with her current penchant for monsters. 

Once a year, Matthew and Robbi send out a book with a title, text on a few pages, and a little bit of art on each page, for subscribers to finish. One kid's completed book is chosen to be published; all kids who enter get their names and one drawing from their book printed in the back of the winning book.The due date for this year's entries -- The Snowmen Below -- is Dec. 15 so the girls are working on finishing theirs this week. (Unfortunately, I seem to have passed on my tendency toward procrastination.)

A good Christmas gift, for those who are looking!

Love, Annie

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bookselling symbiosis

Dear Annie,

We had such a lovely time seeing you and the extended family over Thanksgiving!  A crowd of mostly-related-to-each-other people, mixed with a few newcomers from distant shores: it was excellent.

Your last post brought one of my regular customers into the store looking for Global Babies.  She got it, and another wonderful photo board book which is going to appear under your tree this Christmas: My Face Book. It's from Star Bright Books, publishers of Eating the Rainbow, and stands out for at least two excellent reasons.  First, it's the only book in this genre that I know with a majority of non-white faces.  And one of the smiling babies is a child with Down syndrome.

This time of year of course brings more people into the store, some of whom I see only once a year.  One of the things that gives the book section its character is the constant input from customers.  Some of the best and most off-the-radar books I carry were introduced to me by customers. 

Who Made This Cake?
This week, a woman came to the store looking for Who Made This Cake? by Chihiro Nakagawa.  I was unfamiliar with it and offered to special-order the book for her.  She described the delightful plot to me: a mother leaves various ingredients on a table and then leaves the house with her child.  About 100 tiny people swarm over a group of construction vehicles, fire them up, and create a cake.  They mix:
 They bake, then bring on the decorations:
And a helicopter adds the final touch:
The book ends with a family birthday celebration; the little people are nowhere to be seen.

I was entranced by her description.  She asked me to order it for her, and another mom who had been browsing piped up and asked me to get one for her too.  And of course I ordered a copy for the store.  It was a perfect example of how a neighborhood store and and the people who shop in it build something special.  Made me happy.



Sunday, December 1, 2013

Global babies

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What a pleasure it was to see you and Bob for Thanksgiving, and to gather around our packed tables with family and friends!

As you saw on Thursday, Will has reached a couple of book milestones: understanding he now has the ability to pull books off of low bookshelves onto the floor, and reaching consciously for board books illustrated with pictures of babies.  He's not quite able to turn the pages yet, but he can open and close a book when I hold it, and pats the faces of babies with great glee.  We've written before about great baby-picture board books: cute baby facesbabies and animalsbabies and food, more babies and food, and baby signs.

Two of Will's favorites which we haven't yet covered are multicultural treasure troves:

Global Babies contains text in English and Spanish, stressing how much babies everywhere are alike, and how all are loved. Global Fund for Children is listed as the author, and the book does have a little bit of a written-by-a-nonprofit, not an author vibe, but the pictures (by Keren Su and Frans Lemmens) are lovely. Each page is labeled with the baby's country of origin, and there's a lot of traditional-looking baby garb. Many skin colors, many expressions, some very sweet sleeping babies.

Then there's My Teeth, by Richard and Michele Steckel. It's another simple premise: each page has a picture of a baby (again labeled with country of origin) smiling to show off an ascending number of teeth, from "No teeth (South Africa)" to "10 teeth (Belize)."  The last two pages are "Bite! (Turkey)" and "Let's brush! (Ireland). Will, who at the moment has three teeth, is impressed.

Sandra Boynton's Doggies is another big favorite -- I'll keep you posted on where we go from here.

Love, Annie

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Charlotte Zolotow

Once there was a little girl who didn't understand about time.  She was so little that she didn't know about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.  She certainly didn't know about January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.  She was so little she didn't even know summer, winter, autumn, spring.
   What she did know about was all mixed together.  She remembered a crocus once, but she didn't know when.  She remembered a snowman and a pumpkin, and a Christmas tree, and a birthday cake, a Thanksgiving dinner and valentines.  But they were all mixed up in her mind.

Dear Annie,

That's the beginning of Over and Over by Charlotte Zolotow (illustrated by Garth Williams), explaining the rhythms of a year.  Zolotow died this past week, at the age of 98.  She wrote more than 70 picture books, and edited countless other children's books.  They have a gentle straightforward tone to them -- they feel a little old-fashioned but still very in touch with kids' feelings.

My favorite is Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, a lovely discussion between a girl and a rabbit (illustrated by Maurice Sendak) about what she should get for her mother's birthday.  It, too, starts wonderfully:
"Mr. Rabbit," said the little girl, "I want help."
"Help, little girl, I'll give you help if I can," said Mr. Rabbit.
"Mr. Rabbit," said the little girl, "it's about my mother."
"Your mother?" said Mr. Rabbit.
"It's her birthday," said the little girl.
"Happy birthday to her then," said Mr. Rabbit.  "What are you giving her?"
"That's just it," said the little girl.  "That's why I want help.  I have nothing to give her."
"Nothing to give your mother on her birthday?" said Mr. Rabbit.  "Little girl, you really do want help."
Mr. Rabbit suggests several different colors, which get narrowed down to objects (red > red underwear > red roof  > red bird > red apple) until the girl ends up with a basket of fruit for her mother.  It's idiosyncratic and lyrical.

Zolotow wrote the iconic (but kinda archaic) William's Doll about a boy who's teased for wanting a doll.  It became rooted in the psyches of a whole generation (not mine -- was it yours?) who grew up listening to Free to Be You and Me.

This Quiet Lady was a favorite in our house.  Anita Lobel's illustrations underscore the intimacy of a child exploring pictures of her mother's childhood.  I was always partial to the drawing of a 10 year-old mom going off to school with a Beatles lunchbox.  It was rooted enough in its era that it eventually became outdated: the Beatles belong to grandma now.

Every now and then I'll be reminded of another special book that Zolotow wrote.  A woman who really cared about communicating with children.  Her daughter, Crescent Dragonwagon has also produced dozens of kids' books.

Here's a little bit of the L.A. Times obituary:

. . . a few days before she died she stopped eating and drinking. 

"She lived a full life and it was like, she had been at the party, and now it was time to take off her shoes," Dragonwagon said.

One of Zolotow's last published books was 1997's "Who Is Ben?" about a boy asking questions about his existence. Dragonwagon said she might read from it at a memorial for her mother.

"The boy asks, 'Why does the day end?' " Dragonwagon said, "and his mother tells him that it doesn't end, it goes on to become day somewhere else."



Friday, November 15, 2013

Good, non-scary chapter book reads

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The Keeping Quilt has long been a favorite of ours, and I'm happy to hear that Patricia Polacco has updated it again -- the edition we have includes her children as adults, but neither of them was married yet.  One of my favorite things about the book is that only the quilt is rendered in color (in the early pages, the dress and babushka which will be used to make the quilt are also in color), while the rest of the illustrations are black and white.  This choice foregrounds the importance of the quilt, and makes the pages feel like black and white photographs.  We also have a special feeling about the book because my mother-in-law is an amazingly talented quilter, and has made multiple baby quilts for each of our kids, as well as the full-sized quilts we sleep under.  The image of Polacco's family quilt being used in active child play is a familiar one around here.

We can't wait to have you here for Thanksgiving!

Recently, an old college classmate of mine, Laura, emailed via the blog to ask about reading suggestions for her 4/12 year old daughter (also named Eleanor).  Here's her letter:


I would love book suggestions.  I am having trouble figuring out what to read to my Eleanor.  She turns five in March. I feel like it should be easy because she loves books and has a very long attention span.  I read the first two Little House books to her last year and she is in love.  They are nearly the only thing she has wanted to reread since shortly after she turned two.  She spends all of her spare time pretending to store food for winter. The next two didn't resonate with her as much because the girls are older and she is definitely not ready for The Long Winter.  I tried Ramona the Brave but the first chapter really upset her.    The Magic Tree House books are "too scary."  After some time reading your blog, we just read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  It was a great success and she even wanted to reread a chapter tonight.  I will pick up another one of those books,  but I don't know where to go after that.  I tried to start Pippi Longstocking, but she was really upset by the beginning and asked me to stop.  I asked her to listen for another paragraph and then decide.  The image of Pippi lifting her horse made Eleanor smile but she still wanted to stop.

I think she is really worried by books where children don't have adult supervision.  They all nearly died in every chapter of the Little House books (which I probably would have held off on had I had the sense to preread them) but Ma and Pa said things were okay so she didn't worry.   In the Magic Tree House, the kids go off alone and she is sure they will be eaten.  I had to page to the advertising in the back of the book to convince her that they couldn't die because they starred in at least 43 more books after this one.  I talked her through The Littles and she even read a couple on her own after. 

She already gets sucked into books just walking by them.  I find her, only half in her pajamas, leaning against her bed, lost to the world, book in hand.  She loves the Magic School Bus books, including the chapter books.  She likes Horrible Harry.  She reads reams of non-fiction.  The Cat in the Hat Learning Library and the Read and Find out Science series have been huge hits.  She enthusiastically describes how carpet pythons eat fallen baby bats but she hid an Animal Ark book about a lost puppy because it was scary.  I wouldn't mind suggestions about what to give her to read to herself.  My friends tell me that it doesn't matter because she already loves reading so much.  I think it does, especially since some books scare her enough that she hides them behind furniture. 


First, let me just say that I loved this letter.  Laura clearly knows her child, and is doing a wonderful job of finding her the right books to read, both on her own and together.  And her Eleanor sounds like an awesome kid.

Now, some thoughts on books for the younger Eleanor:

My first thought was the Betsy-Tacy books.  Like Little House, they're full of specific historical detail, and both Betsy and Tacy come from close, warm families.  As both of us have mentioned, the first book contains one difficult episode involving infant mortality which needs to be handled when reading it with younger kids. But this shouldn't stop you! The first four Betsy-Tacy books are quite wonderful in their depiction of friendship -- Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are tremendously imaginative and fun. (I'm less enamored of the later books, which take Betsy into high school and beyond. Eleanor and I are reading the fifth book right now, and it's heavy on descriptions of clothing and crushes on boys.)

She might also like the Riverside Kids books, which are similarly grounded in families with parents, and interesting without being scary.  Ditto for Anna Hibiscus, with the added benefit of containing lots of good detail about living in Africa.

Especially if she's interested in animals, Laura's Eleanor might enjoy the Doctor Dolittle books, which I adored in childhood and my Eleanor was very much into at age 4 as well.  Or Mr. Popper's Penguins, in which a house painter obsessed with Antarctic exploration receives a penguin in a box from an explorer he's written to.  In short order, he has a houseful of penguins, which he trains to perform in a vaudeville act.

Our list of Early Chapter Books has a bunch of other good possibilities as well.  Do you have further thoughts, especially on the non-fiction front or other books we haven't yet covered?

Love, Annie

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Dear Annie,

I've been thinking about the gathering of the family at your home in a few weeks, looking forward to seeing many of us together around your Thanksgiving table.  And eating the pumpkin pie, of course: a tradition passed down from your great-grandmother (my grandmother) and before -- those hard-working constantly-cooking Ohio women.

Some of these musings have been inspired by two books about family traditions by Patricia Polacco.  She's updated her classic The Keeping Quilt on its 25th anniversary, and written a new family tale, The Blessing Cup.

The Keeping Quilt starts with Polacco's great-grandmother Anna arriving in New York as a child more than 100 years ago. 
The only things she had left of backhome Russia were her dress and babushka she liked to throw up into the air when she was dancing.
When Anna grows bigger, her mother makes the dress, babushka and other clothes from the old country into a quilt.  "It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night," she says.  The quilt is used to wrap babies, cover celebratory tables, make wedding huppas, and for generations of children's play.

Polacco lovingly describes each wedding, the births of babies who grow up to be grandmas, deaths.  25 years ago, she ended the book with the births of her own children, the fifth generation in her story.  At each wedding, there's a symbolic gift:
Carle [Anna's daughter] was given a gift of gold, flower, salt and bread.  Gold so she would never know poverty, a flower so she would always know love, salt so her life would always have flavor and bread so that she would never know hunger.
One wonders how the quilt survived the babies, the birthday parties, weeping relatives at deathbeds, not to mention energetic make-believe.  It seems to have, and in the new book Polacco describes how she's taken it with her to schools and other book talks for the past 25 years.  It finally shows its age -- the white parts of the quilt in the illustrations turn to brown -- and her children surprise her with a meticulously-researched, lovingly sewn copy of the quilt.  The original now hangs in a museum in Ohio.

The loveliest part of the revised book, though, is Polacco's addition of both of her children's weddings, under the original quilt huppa.  One wedding is straight; the other is gay:
Sometimes I think multi-generational picture books don't quite engage kids.  But this one is so full of babies and parties and family gatherings that it can really resonate with a young reader.

The Blessing Cup, a new addition to Polacco's many stories of her family history, tells how Anna came to the U.S.  It starts in a shtetl , with young Anna and her mother hiding in a goat barn during a pogrom.  One of the family's prize possessions is an elaborate tea set given by an aunt.  "Anyone who drinks from it," she wrote, "Has a blessing from God.  They will never know a day of hunger.   Their lives will always have flavor.  They will know love and joy . . . and they will never be poor!"  The family rejoices in the richness of having each other.

Later, Jews are expelled from Russia and the family begins a long trek to the coast where they hope to find passage to America. Anna's father collapses from exhaustion and the family is taken in by a friendly doctor who cares for all of them for months.  When soldiers demand that the family leave, the doctor sells one of his prized possessions to pay for their safe passage to America.  They bid each other farewell over hot tea in the tea set. The family leaves all but one cup of the tea set behind, conferring its blessings on the doctor: "We kept one cup so that we can still have its blessing among the four of us.  It is all that we will need."  The cup, like the quilt, symbolizes the blessings conferred by a strong and loving family.

The story fast-forwards through the cup being handed to the family brides under the quilt huppa -- and a sad but sweet denouement during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. 

So this all brings me back to impending holidays, family gatherings, the stories we all tell each other about the ancestors we never met, and the feelings that get wrapped up in the traditions. I can't wait to see your brood, to be one of the old folks telling stories of generations past, and to have some of grandma's amazing pumpkin pie.

With love,


Friday, November 8, 2013

Gorgeous landscapes and talkative girls

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We've entered a new era.  Eleanor's independent reading has gotten very quickly to the point where she can read novels which were once the province of our read-alouds.  Last week, she read an entire Nancy Drew on the school bus; this week, she picked up the third book in the shrinking people/time-travel Sixty-Eight Rooms series, and is cruising through that as well.  While I'm thrilled about this turn of events, there's a little part of me that wonders what it bodes for our reading together.  As Eleanor is able to read more complex books independently, which ones should we reserve for me to read to her?

One easy answer comes from a recent read-aloud success: the classic 
Anne of Green Gables
, by L.M. Montgomery.

I read Anne of Green Gables as a kid, and retained fond but fuzzy memories of it: an image of Anne floating down a river on a raft and getting into trouble, a recollection of poetry and imaginative play. My mother-in-law gave us a beautiful copy of the book, with color plates, more than a year ago, but I had the sense that would be too early for Eleanor. When a friend mentioned she was reading it with her eight-year-old, I thought I'd give it a try.

I didn't preview it, and in the first few pages of reading aloud, I wondered whether I'd made a mistake about the age Eleanor would be ready for it: the vocabulary, especially in the descriptive narrative sections, is intense. Here's the first sentence of the book:

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.


But Eleanor let it wash over her, and I paused to parse some difficult bits, and as soon as Montgomery dipped into dialogue, the language was clear and the characters sprang to life. Mrs. Rachel Lynde is of course not the protagonist here, but a neighbor of middle-aged siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who mean to adopt a boy from an orphan asylum to help them as they age, but end up accidentally with red-headed, imaginative, glorious Anne Shirley. Here's Anne introducing herself to the quiet, shy Matthew, who has just offered to carry her bag from the train station:

"Oh, I can carry it," the child responded cheerfully. "It isn't heavy. I've got all my worldly goods in it, but it isn't heavy. And if it isn't carried in just a certain way the handle pulls out--so I'd better keep it because I know the exact knack of it.  It's an extremely old carpetbag. Oh, I'm very glad you've come, even if it would have been nice to sleep in a wild cherry tree. We've got to drive a long piece, haven't we? Mrs. Spencer said it was eight miles. I'm glad because I love driving. Oh, it seems so wonderful that I'm going to live with you and belong to you. I've never belonged to anybody--not really. But the asylum was the worst. I've only been in it four months, but that was enough. I don't suppose you ever were an orphan in an asylum, so you can't possibly understand what it is like. It's worse than anything you would imagine. Mrs. Spencer said it was wicked of me to talk like that, but I didn't mean to be wicked. It's so easy to be wicked without knowing it, isn't it? They were good, you know--the asylum people. But there is so little scope for the imagination in an asylum--only just in the other orphans. It was pretty interesting to imagine things about them--to imagine that perhaps the girl who sat next to you was really the daughter of a belted earl, who had been stolen away from her parents in her infancy by a cruel nurse who died before she could confess. I used to lie awake at nights and imagine things like that, because I didn't have time in the day. I guess that's why I'm so thin--I am dreadful thin, ain't I? There isn't a pick on my bones. I do love to imagine I'm nice and plump, with dimples in my elbows."

Eleanor responded viscerally to Anne's talkative nature, and to the rapturous descriptions of the landscape of early 20th-century Prince Edward Island, in Canada. As we read, and watched early fall pass by in New York, she sighed several times, "Oh, I wish we lived in the country!"

I'd remembered that much of the story of Anne of Green Gables follows Anne through a series of amusing scrapes: she accidentally gets her friend Diana drunk on wine which she thinks is raspberry cordial; she puts liniment instead of vanilla in the cake she serves to the minister's wife; she dyes her hair a ghastly green while attempting to turn it raven black. Anne is dramatic and dreamy, constantly imagining new stories for herself. Like Betsy in theBetsy-Tacy books (we're reading the rest of them right now, taking Betsy up into high school and beyond), Anne is a budding writer, drawn to melodrama but with a growing awareness of the power of good literature. She's a natural for Eleanor to love.

What I hadn't remembered was how old Anne gets in this first book -- there are several sequels, taking her up through marriage and children and into middle age -- and how much happens by the end. While the early chapters cover the episodic mishaps of grade school, the last third of the book finds Anne working terribly hard to be the first in her class, vying with Gilbert Blythe (who will later become her husband), heading off to college, and preparing to become a teacher. There is a little too much nostalgia towards the end of the book for my taste -- repeated reminiscing on the part of the adult characters about how much Anne has changed and matured since they first met her -- but it goes by quickly.

Spoiler alert: close to the end of the book, Matthew Cuthbert dies, and Anne gives up a scholarship for further study in order to teach close to home and take care of Marilla. I'd forgotten this was coming, and it was upsetting to Eleanor, but she weathered it, and wants to read the rest of the series.  I don't remember ever reading them myself -- perhaps because the end of the book feels so final? -- but am looking forward to them now, in the company of my grand reading partner.

Love, Annie

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A literary Halloween

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm excited by the long list of elementary-age historical fiction choices -- thank you!  I look forward to part 2 of your answer.

It's been a busy Halloween week, and after successful costume-making and trick-or-treating, we're ready for a bit of a rest.  So I'll save the longer post I'm working on (Anne of Green Gables!) until early next week, and take a moment tonight to share this year's costumes, both inspired by books we've written about here.

Eleanor chose to be Young Guinevere, from the Robert San Souci book of the same name.  As I mentioned when we first got the book, we love the depiction of Guinevere as a strong, adventurous young woman, skilled with a bow and arrow, which she uses to fight off improbable monsters.

Here's Eleanor, in the costume she designed (she made the arrows by herself):

Isabel, revisiting our Halloween from two years ago, went as Dorothy.  While her slippers were red, as they are in the movie, the Charles Santore illustrations are what she pored over while thinking about her costume.  Here's Santore's Dorothy in the Emerald City:

And here's Isabel:

Books: the gifts that keep on giving.

Happy Halloween!

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 27, 2013

History series for newly-independent readers

Dear Annie,

Ah, so many books, so many kids.  I'm glad that Isabel's liking The Amazing World of Stuart.  I'm very fond of the idea that once Stuart owns a cape (made of dad's ties), of course he can fly.

You've asked a big question in that post -- about books to engage newly-independent readers, especially boys.  You've pushed two of my buttons on this one -- so I'm going to sound a few brief cautionary notes, then go on to the first of two lists.

You write:
One mom said that her son was only interested in non-fiction; one that hers was mired in Captain Underpants and its ilk.
So?  What's wrong with non-fiction?  I run into many parents who feel it's not really reading unless it's fiction, or seriously good fiction.  It's all reading, it all exercises those getting-comfortable-with-reading muscles, and if it's what interests the child, it will reinforce the concept that reading is something you do for enjoyment, not obligation. 

I think the Stuart Little Problem comes up a lot for parents.  Every parent remembers wonderful books from his or her own childhood, but we tend to forget both what ages we were when we read them, and the mountains of other books we were reading which have faded from memory.  Children have a lot of years to read amazing classics -- both ones their parents loved, and new ones they'll discover.  Right now a kid may be mired in one type of book only -- but as with everything else in their lives, new ideas will appear, horizons will open up.  It all doesn't have to happen at once.

Then there's the boys-are-harder-to-engage-in-reading argument.  Twenty years ago, every three year-old girl wasn't obsessed with being a princess, and every boy wasn't a reluctant reader.  These trends rise and fall in our culture, molded by lots of influences.  We already know how the Disney machinery pushes pink princesses.   Somehow, in the separation-of-the-genders gestalt that's going on these days, the concept that boys have a harder time with reading than girls is reinforced.  I know it's hard for parents to navigate through all this, but I'm a firm believer that it's possible to find books to connect with every child.

Okay, venting concluded.

Here are a number of history-based series, most of them not exclusively girl-centric, that engage a lot of kids, starting with non-fiction:

I've written about the Who Was... series before: a wide variety of very readable biographies, of people from Ferdinand Magellan to Steve Jobs.  Those folks have just launched a What Was... series, which so far includes Pearl Harbor, the March on Washington, The California Gold Rush, The Boston Tea Party, The Battle of Gettysburg, The First Thanksgiving and (near to my heart) The Alamo.  The Underground Railroad is scheduled for December.  They tend to appeal to first to fourth graders.  These folks seem to be making an effort to balance between books about war and ones about other kinds of events.

There's a whole subgenre of historical fiction on books about kids -- usually boys -- in wartime situations. They tend to aim at second to fifth graders in reading level and intensity of some of the topics.

Scholastic did a hardcover book series of fictional diaries of boys called "My Name is America" -- they were companions to "Dear America" girl diaries.  Diaries often appeal to new readers because each entry is usually shorter than your average chapter.  Like the American Girl chapter books that Eleanor loves, these diaries are written by significant kids' book authors, among them Walter Dean Myers, Kathryn Lasky, Laurence Yep, Joseph Bruchac.  I'd guess about half of them are combat related: American Revolution, Civil War, World War II, Vietnam.  But they also include topics like the Negro Leagues, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the transcontinental railroad.  Scholastic has started re-issuing the boy diaries as paperbacks and they seem more appealing that way than in the hardcovers.

 Lauren Tarshis pushes the envelope on action and danger further than most with her series, "I Survived."  I was a little skeptical about this series at first (I haven't read them), but it's developed a loyal following.  Kids -- both boys and girls -- come to the store eagerly looking for new books in the series within days of their publication dates.  Each of these novels follows one boy in the midst of an historical event: she takes on Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, and the Titanic among others.  But she also goes where few kids' book writers have before: The Shark Attacks of 1916, Hurricane Katrina 2005, The Japanese Tsunami of 2011, and The Attacks of September 11, 2001.  Needless to say, a parent would want to check them out a bit more, but they do touch kids' interest in disaster.

And then there's an odd but still attractive history series modeled on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" formula.  "You Choose: An Interactive History Adventure" books are all written in the second person.  You, the reader, are put in a situation where you determine what happens next.  Sometimes, as in You Choose: World War II Navy, you're deciding what character you are:

Other times, you're choosing the next action your character takes, as in You Choose: The Harlem Renaissance:
This form gives kids a number of features lacking in other books of this length.  Because you're skipping pages to get to the pages that you've chosen, the story you read at any given time is significantly shorter than the whole book.  And you can read and re-read many times before you start repeating, so it stays fresh for quite a while.  Topics range all over the place: many wars, immigration, pirates, Dust Bowl, Oregon Trail, many others.  The combat ones have the hazard of sometimes ending your story, after you've made several choices, with "You die."  Here's the only list I can find of most of the books.  It's on an education site, so it lists library-copy prices.  They're all in paperback too.

This post answers only part of your question about elementary school series.  I'll do part 2, on more whimsical fiction, soon.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Adventuresome boys

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As soon as I saw those little green aliens, I recognized the hand of David Wiesner -- they're clearly related to the undersea tourists in Flotsam:

I look forward to Mr. Wuffles!

In the last few weeks, I've had a couple of conversations with parents of boys around Eleanor's age and a little older -- 7-10 year olds -- about books to encourage independent reading. One mom said that her son was only interested in non-fiction; one that hers was mired in Captain Underpants and its ilk. Both were looking for ways to broaden their kids' reading habits.

I suggested that they check out our book lists of early chapter books and middle grade books, and thought in particular of Hero on a Bicycle, Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, and The Search for Delicious.  I realize, however, that middle grade books are not my area of expertise, and would love to ask you to weigh in.

You've written before about the unfortunate tendency of both publishers and consumers to designate books as "girls' books" or "boys' books," and the assumption that girls will read about male characters, while boys won't read about female characters. Many books are marketed with covers that pigeonhole them by gender, even if their content doesn't. When I mentioned that Eleanor was reading the American Girl books obsessively (30 books to date, and counting), and that I was impressed by the writing and historical detail in them, one mom wondered if there were an equivalent "for boys." Much as I'd like to say that boys would enjoy these adventure and history-filled narratives too, I know it's a hard sell to get an eight-year-old boy to carry around books emblazoned with "American Girl" on the cover. Is there a boy/more gender neutral version of this kind of historical fiction out there?

Happily, Eleanor and Isabel don't have any qualms about cross-gender reading. In easing Isabel into chapter books, in fact, we've recently been reading a number of books with boys as main characters. Two of your recommendations have been big hits.

Isabel liked Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, partly because of the comic book/superhero retellings at the end of each chapter. I wasn't crazy about the book. I made the mistake of not reading through it first on my own (though you warned me to do so!), and was blindsided by the rather grisly death of Stink's class pet, a newt named Newton.  He jumps out of Judy Moody's hands and down into the drain of the kitchen sink while they're cleaning his tank. Judy goes to turn on the light switch to look for him, and hits the garbage disposal switch instead. Isabel was more interested than upset by this development, and requested repeated readings of the chapter, but I can see plenty of kids of both genders who might dissolve into tears.

We're both big fans of The Amazing World of Stuart, by Sara Pennypacker.  Stuart, age 8, has just moved to a new town and is worried about making friends and upset that all of his treasures were thrown away accidentally because they looked like trash.  He copes by making a cape out of 100 ties (he staples them together, with a lone purple sock as a hidden pocket).  In each of the following chapters, the cape's magic sets off an adventure: Stuart finds seeds in the pocket and grows giant plants bearing hot buttered toast; Stuart's cat and his neighborhood sanitation man switch bodies, and Stuart has to pick up the trash; Stuart gets locked in the bathroom at school and sneaks out through a hole which he can fold up and put in his pocket.  There is no discussion of the weirdness or improbability of these events.  Stuart's parents seem oblivious to them, and I wondered at first whether all would be revealed as Stuart's imagination, but that never happens either.  Isabel is lately into telling a lot of largely made-up stories about her own life, and continues to want Little Nemo above all other reading at night, so a book which blends the realistic and the fantastical is right up her alley.  We're reading it on repeat. Thank you for this one!

Love, Annie

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cat vs. aliens

Dear Annie,

Some evenings I sit here in the dining room facing a large box full of F and Gs, "Folded and gathered": the book business term for unbound picture books which are sent out as samples to book buyers.  So I admit I occasionally blast through them kind of quickly, looking for something that will catch my eye and slow me down enough to read it thoroughly.  Last spring I was moving along so rapidly that when I found a wonderfully strange wordless book, I didn't even notice the name of the author.

It was about a house cat who discovers a very small alien space ship which looks remarkably like a cat toy:
 The cat bats it around, causing the little green people in the vehicle to sustain alien bruises, hold their heads, and discover that a crucial piece of equipment has been broken.  So they leave the ship and make a run for it...
...  to safety beneath a radiator.  There they find a series of paintings showing that the cat has been terrifying small beings for a while:

 They also discover the ants and ladybugs who seem to have been doing the painting.  It may be hard to see in this picture, but the insects are speaking a language very different from the aliens'.  This leads the green people to draw a picture of the cat chasing their spaceship, and ants and aliens become friends.  They post for pictures (note the green people saying "cheese!"), share food, and get better at communicating:

While the cat sits mesmerized outside the radiator cover, the insects find the solution to the broken equipment problem and the group comes up with a game plan to get the aliens back to their ship.  There's a photo finish, and a lovely ending.

What a book!  When I closed the F&G, imagine my surprise when I discovered the author/illustrator is the great David Wiesner, creator of Flotsam, Tuesday, Art & Max, and several other amazing books.  He's won the Caldecott Medal for best illustration three times.

He's done another amazing one with
Mr. Wuffles!, which went on sale this week.  The plot is delightful, but there are so many other aspects.  The emotions of aliens and ants are so vividly described in body language.  And Wiesner's alien language in the speech bubbles makes me want to try decoding it.  I haven't even described any of the cat/human interaction in this story, and the pitch-perfect way Wiesner captures both feline indifference and cat obsessive concentration.

So here's a great little video from Wiesner explaining the book and giving action shots of the model for Mr. W.  (Not a cat video!).



Thursday, October 10, 2013

Here comes the Rainbow

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your latest box of gifts, which arrived recently for Isabel's birthday, contained a number of gems, including one which has become Will's favorite book.

I haven't yet written much about Will's taste in books: at close to 8 months old, he's mostly interested in slapping at them and trying to eat the corners.  But he's gotten to that excellent baby stage where he thinks pictures of other babies are awesome.  We're hitting some of our favorites in this category, of course: Baby, Baby; I Love Colors; What's on My Head?

Eating the Rainbow
 is another good board book to engage this phase.  It's full of bright colors, adorable multi-racial babies, and healthy eating suggestions -- what's not to like?  Each two-page spread contains a picture of a baby eating a fruit or vegetable, with several other food items of the same color laid out on the facing page. It's good for baby faces now, and will be good for color and food recognition later, as well as supporting the idea that fruits and vegetables are good things to eat.  Will looks at these babies and laughs out loud.

In my free time, I've been reading some really good YA fiction.  I finally got Wonder from the library, and devoured it.  What a good book -- the kind where the characters feel immediately like real people, and start to inhabit your thoughts throughout the day.

Poking around online, I came across a story that led me to Eleanor & Park, a YA novel by Rainbow Rowell.  I'd never heard of Rowell, but after reading the book, I've put library holds on the two other books she has out, and will be watching for her new work.

Eleanor & Park is a YA misfit love story, set in 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska.  Eleanor is big and red-headed and poor, living with her mom, siblings, and abusive stepdad in a tiny house.  At school, she's bullied quite badly.  Park is half-Korean, into comics and punk music, popular enough but definitely other.  They fall in love, and Rowell writes about it in such specific, evocative detail that it made me feel like I was 15 again.  Holding hands on the school bus is the most intense of experiences:

As soon as he touched her, he wondered how he'd gone this long without doing it.  He rubbed his thumb through her palm and up her fingers, and was aware of her every breath.  

Park had held hands with girls before.  Girls at Skateland.  A girl at the ninth-grade dance last year. (They'd kissed while they waited for her dad to pick them up.) He'd even held Tina's hand, back when they "went" together in the sixth grade.

And always before, it had been fine.  Not much different from holding Josh's hand when they were little kids crossing the street.  Or holding his grandma's hand when she took him to church.  Maybe a little sweatier, a little more awkward.

When he'd kissed that girl last year, with his mouth dry and his eyes mostly open, Park had wondered if maybe there was something wrong with him.

He'd even wondered -- seriously, while he was kissing her, he'd wondered this -- whether he might be gay.  Except he didn't feel like kissing any guys either.  And if he thought about She-Hulk or Storm (instead of this girl, Dawn), the kissing got a lot better.

Maybe I'm not attracted to real girls, he'd thought at the time.  Maybe I'm some sort of perverted cartoon-sexual.

Or maybe, he thought now, he just didn't recognize all those other girls.  The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn't recognize the formatting.

When he touched Eleanor's hand, he recognized her.  He knew.

It's a gripping read, moving and real.  Like WonderEleanor & Park doesn't shy away from the complicated ways that teenagers are both affectionate with and cruel to each other, or from the horrendous circumstances that many kids grow up through.

So of course it's been censored.  Some high school librarians in Minnesota liked the book so much they offered it as a community read, and invited Rowell to speak.  Then a couple of parents got hold of the book and counted up the curse words in it (apparently without taking much else in as they went through) and decided that it was "dangerously obscene."  Here's Rainbow Rowell talking about it in a brief interview.

I'm no fan of censorship in any case, but here it seems particularly misguided.  Eleanor and Park are good kids, and the vast majority of the cursing in the book comes from Eleanor's stepfather and the kids who bully her -- it's language she and Park feel as abusive, and try to move away from.  Linda Holmes writes thoughtfully about this issue on her NPR blog, here.  This is the kind of book I hope Eleanor, Isabel, and Will will be reading when they're 15.

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Big [mostly] friendly dragons

Dear Annie,

Thanks so much to Holly for another excellent guest post!  She and Ian are such experts in the dragon field that I'm not sure I can add any they don't already know -- but I'll give it a try.

The Dragon Keepers series by Kate Klimo is more complex than early chapter books, but won't be as gory and grim as some older dragon books. 
The Dragon in the Sock Drawer
is the first of the series: successive books put her in the driveway, the library, the sea, etc.  The stories start in the present day when two kids (boy and girl cousins) find a dragon egg in a sock drawer.  As in Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, the first challenge the kids face is how to keep a rapidly-growing noisy baby dragon a secret from the grown-ups.  The villain in the books is the centuries-old St. George, and the adult ally is a dragon expert they locate through Google.

I haven't read the Dragon Chronicle series by Susan Fletcher -- it might get a little scary.  The first in the series,
Dragon's Milk
, involves a magical world where some people are "dragonsayers" -- they can communicate with dragons.  A girl sets out to find a nursing mother dragon because she needs the magical dragon's milk for her sick sister.  One thing leads to another, the mama dragon dies and our heroine has three baby dragons on her hands and bad guys wanting to do them in. Lots of action, but a sense of humor too.

And there's one more -- sorry, it, too is a series -- that might appeal very strongly to Ian:  Dragonborn by Toby Forward.  The first book has a wonderful scene of a magician conjuring up a very small dragon for his apprentice (see illustration on cover).  The dragon grows (see background of illustration), boy and dragon bond, including telepathically.  The magician dies early in the book and the boy, Sam, has to sort out which of the magician's previous apprentices are good guys and bad guys, and who is the major Bad Guy of the book.  A fairly tough girl enters the action, and comes back in book #3.  The whole works is called The Flaxfield Quartet.  Book #2, Fireborn, which is a prequel, is due out in the U.S. this December.

So have I come up with any you didn't know about, Holly?  I'll keep looking...



Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Guest blogger: Dragons in chapter books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your comments about My Side of the Mountain hit home -- yes, I think some of what I'm responding to negatively has to do with the ways in which the attitude toward nature feels dated and a little twisted. I'll check out some of the survival novels you mention. And I look forward to hearing more about contemporary fantasy authors -- I'm sadly under-read in that area.

My good friend Holly, however, is deep into fantasy with her son Ian. Not just any fantasy, of course: fantasy about dragons. Holly has blogged here before about dragon picture books (as well as  outer spacemap books, and kid-appropriate adventure and peril).  I've been hearing a lot in recent months about the dragon chapter books Holly and Ian are reading, and I asked Holly to write up her thoughts on their favorites.  Here she is:

One thing that has astonished me as a parent is the unflagging, focussed passion kids can have for their chosen interests. While my son Ian will stubbornly refuse to accept that last week he liked kiwi, he remembers every dragon related incident in his life seemingly from birth and will literally weep sometimes when he describes how much he would like to be a dragon. For good or bad, I’ve supported this obsession, and thus my unending blogs about dragon books! I have become quite a connoisseur of this genre, and I’m happy to pass my expertise along.

This past Christmas, Annie’s family gave us The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons and Talking to Dragons), by Patricia C Wrede. The series begins with Princess Cimorene, who wants to break away from the expected role of princess. I have to admit I find this a little played out. I think Ian has had much more exposure to this sort of smart sassy sword-wielding anti-establishment Princess than to the convention which she is rebelling against, so I wonder what he makes of it.

In any case, she soon runs off to become a princess for a dragon named Kazul, where she cooks and gets to organize her treasure, magical objects and and her library (my dream job) while discouraging the princes who, following society’s expectations, come to rescue her. She discovers a plot by the wizards to poison and usurp the King of the Dragons. Cimorene, clever and level-headed, foils their plans with the help of a witch, another princess, a stone knight, and lots of good magical spells and gimmicks. At the end of the first book, Kazul becomes King (female or male ruling dragons are called Kings) and Cimorene’s happy ending is staying on with her to be her princess.

The books are all told from the points of view of Cimorene’s companions, Mendanbar (King of the Enchanted Forest), Morwen (a witch with lots of cats), and Daystar (spoiler alert! Cimorene and Mendanbar’s son) as they go on quests to foil the wizards. There were times when I felt the action lagged as the characters travelled in groups and had to discuss and review everything constantly, but perhaps this is necessary for young readers. But each book was full of magic and likeable characters on an new quest without any actual danger or loss -- totally engaging for Ian.

Cimorene and Mendanbar fall in love, marry and have a child, but this is not central to the story or Cimorene’s action, which I appreciated. I enjoyed the fact that in the third book Cimorene is pregnant but this is hardly mentioned as she initiates a quest to retrieve Mendanbar’s sword from the Society of Wizards, embarks on risky teleportations, slogs through a swamp, rides a winged blue donkey, is enchanted and attacked by deadly invisible plants, etc. before returning to the Enchanted Forest to find her husband trapped in an enchantment by the wizards. At the end of book three she plans to live incognito with her newborn son, raising and training him on her own so he can use his inherited powers to rescue his father. I have to admit, the female characters in this series really won me over.

My second recommend for a girl-centric series would be Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George, starring another “non-conventional” girl who makes friends with a dragon rather than being saved by a knight, moves to the city on her own, succeeds in the dressmaking business, and helps the misunderstood dragon population defend itself against various attacks. However, Ian was not into this beyond the first book. Not because there are a lot of descriptions of dresses (and there are) or because our new-fangled heroine falls in love with a prince (yes, she does), but because there are wars and dragon deaths and slavery and it becomes pretty intense, and will probably be more appropriate at a later age, if he’s still game for dresses and romance.

Another series that Ian wants to go back to frequently is The Dragonology Chronicles by Dugald A. Steer. Set in the 1800s, it follows a brother and sister, Daniel and Beatrice, as they are educated in Dragonology by Dr. Drake, the credited author of Dragonology: the Complete Book of Dragons.  Throughout the four books they help defend the dragon world against attacks from various evil power-hungry humans. It has everything you need in a dragon story: magical artifacts, riddles, traps, secret codes, various species of difficult to befriend dragons and dragon eggs that need hatching. It is action packed and at times quite scary. The series ends as dragon stories often seem to: dragons and people are not able to exist in the same world and there is a sad parting between boy and dragon. See also Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville and Puff the Magic Dragon (Ian forbids us to sing the last verse).

OK, one more! We both really liked this one. We recently finished
Dragon Rider
by Cornelia Funke. Not a series (phew!). A dragon named Firedrake sets off to find a safe place in the modern world for dragons to live accompanied by a forest Brownie, a grumpy cat-like creature named Sorrel.  A wise old dragon instructs them to seek the Rim of Heaven, a hidden valley in the Himalayas where he was born and he is certain a group of dragons still remains. When they stop in a city to get a fabulous map from a genius rat, they meet a young, amazingly well adjusted boy named Ben with apparently no human connections and no back story, who joins their quest. Along the way, they are betrayed by a mountain dwarf to a horrible man-made golden dragon named Nettlebrand who was created to hunt dragons and has seeking them since they have become rare and hidden in the world. Nettlebrand sends his servant, a man-made homunculus named Twigleg, to spy on Firedrake and find the location of the Rim of Heaven.

When they are blown off track and Sorrel is captured, they meet a scientist named Dr Greenbloom who is derided by his colleagues because his specialty is fantastic creatures. He helps the group by sending them to a djinn for directions and giving them one of Nettlebrand’s golden scales. While the quest continues, Twigleg comes to love Ben and works against Nettlebrand’s interests. It is a long and exciting book with many fantastical creatures. It culminates in an all out battle in the Rim of Heaven between our heros and Nettlebrand in which none of our heros get hurt and Nettlebrand is defeated but doesn’t actually die. We were braced for a boy-dragon farewell scene, since Ben was clearly going to go live with Dr Greenbloom and his family and the dragons were being pushed farther into isolation by human ways. Ian went ahead and started sobbing in anticipation, but then, wonder of wonders!:

“You need human beings the way I need the other dragons, the way Sorrel isn’t happy without the other brownies to quarrel with. Without human beings, you’d start to feel very lonely.”

“I’ll feel lonely without you dragons, too,” said Ben, looking away from Firedrake.

“No, no!” Firedrake rubbed his head very gently against the boy’s. “Believe me, we shall meet again. I’ll visit you as often as your short human life allows.”

“Oh, yes, please,” replied Ben. “Visit me often.” And he put his arms around the dragon’s neck and hugged him as if he would never let him go.

That is what, in this house, we call a happy ending! Until we manage an actual boy to dragon transformation, this is pretty much as close as we can get to a perfect dragon experience. But, that doesn’t mean we’re done! The quest for dragons continues! Wish me luck.


Good luck, dear Holly!

Love, Annie