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.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

My love/hate relationship with Roald Dahl

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I've often found our family's taste to be out of the mainstream; I've even been known to take a perverse pride in it.  That being said, I'm sorry that your favorites this year didn't win the big awards.  Ah, well.  Maybe next year?

I am, happily, writing to you from my maternity leave (or rather, in Dept. of Education parlance, my Restoration of Health leave, which comes before my Maternity and Childcare leaves.  Each of these, you understand, requires separate forms).  In any case, I've finished up my end-of-semester grading and am able to rest a bit and prepare for the arrival of Barleybee, who's due in a few weeks.  So there's a maternity leave from the blog pending, but right now, I'm back!

Thank you for the fabulous birthday gifts for Eleanor (and Isabel, and Barleybee) -- we've been reading new books from you since opening them last night.  As always, you are an amazing gift-giver.

The book I want to focus on tonight came from you for Christmas, and reading it to Eleanor has reminded me of how much I love -- and really, really don't love -- Roald Dahl.

Like pretty much every kid I know, I went through a huge Roald Dahl phase in elementary school.  I've read most of his novels, and scenes from several of them -- Danny the Champion of the World, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- are ingrained in my mind.  I have vivid memories of lying to my mother about how much I had left to read and sneaking an extra chapter in before bedtime: these were addictive, thrilling page-turners, filled with heroic kids and mostly ineffectual or evil adults; modern, super-readable fairy tales.  Jeff remembers loving Dahl as well.  Tonight when we talked about it, he referred to a "gleefully malevolent juvenile quality that spoke to me as a ten-year-old boy."  His aunt Karen, who teaches elementary school in Texas, reports that her 3rd graders love Dahl more than just about anyone, from the fabulous plots to cliffhangers and the fart-joke humor.

Even as a kid, though, there were moments that made me queasy.  There's a lot of straight-up meanness in Dahl's work, not only in books like The Twits, which Jeff remembers as "an exercise in sustained cruelty," but in some of the books containing his most empathetic characters.  Reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and now The BFG to Eleanor, it's hard not to feel that Roald Dahl just didn't like people very much.  Aside from one main character at a time -- Charlie, Sophie, Matilda -- the supporting cast is treated with an off-hand cruelty that's quite off-putting.  In The BFG, Dahl takes equal delight in describing farts ("whizz-poppers"), good dreams that the BFG catches and puts in jars, and the bone-crunching bloody exploits of the mean hairy giants who gallop off every night to eat people in all corners of the world.  When the bad giants are caught at the end, they're sentenced to a sadistic imprisonment, forced to eat repulsive snozzcumbers in a pit while being watched by tourists.  Somehow, it feels more cruel than killing them off.

Eleanor loved The BFG. She loved the heroine, Sophie, who is brave and intelligent and gets to ride in a friendly giant's ear.  She loved the BFG, with his charming way of mangling words and his vocation of blowing good dreams into the ears of sleeping children.  She was on tenterhooks whenever Sophie was in danger of being discovered by the mean giants, jumping around on the couch or covering her head with a pillow.  As I read her the many descriptions of giants eating "human beans," however, or the almost as gross descriptions of hairy giant bellies and slobbery wet giant mouths, I couldn't help wondering if I were setting her up for nightmares.

Maybe these are books better read by kids alone, and a few years older.  I can't decide -- it's hard to separate out the pleasure from the meanness.

Love, Annie

Monday, January 28, 2013

The best?

Dear Annie,

I am proud to report that my record for never predicting the winners of the Newbery and Caldecott medals will stand untarnished for another year.

Awards, award committees -- oy!

I'll start with the good news.  Note the little silver circles on the covers of Sleep Like a Tiger and Extra Yarn:
They both won Caldecott Honors for best illustration: Pamela Zagarenski is the artist for Tiger; Jon Klassen for Yarn.  Annie and Aunt regulars will note that guest blogger Clara was eloquent on the subject of Extra Yarn just one post ago.

Jon Klassen also won the Caldecott Medal for This Is Not My Hat.

page from This Is Not My Hat
It's dark, funny, and an understandable choice for the top illustrator honors, even though I personally think Sleep Like a Tiger would have been a better one.

Then we get to the question of literature.  Sigh.  Wonder, which was my complete favorite, didn't win any awards: not a Newbery medal or honor, not even a mention in the category of books about disabilities (the American Library Association gave out lots of awards today: Newbery and Caldecott are the most visible).

The One and Only Ivan
, by Katherine Applegate, is the 2013 Newbery Medal winner.  If the author sounds vaguely familiar, it's because over the course of five years in the late '90s she wrote the 54 books in the
Animorphs series.  One assumes she took a bit more time with this one.  It's the story of several animals -- including a gorilla named Ivan -- who live in neglect in a shopping mall zoo.  Ivan is depressed.  An older elephant dies from an out of control foot infection -- but first she elicits a promise from Ivan to look after the newest arrival: a baby elephant.  Working with the young daughter of the mall custodian, Ivan paints pictures which eventually gain enough attention for the plight of the animals that they end up in a zoo in much better circumstances.

I have to go back and re-read this one.  It's got lots of lovable animals in it -- a plus for many young readers.  But I remember feeling that it fell into a genre of kids' books which presents suffering as a necessary preliminary to enlightenment/happiness. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo is similar.  These are definitely love-it-or-hate-it books.  I come out on the negative side: they feel heavy-handed in their morality and depressing in their action.  But there exist people I respect who are moved by them.  (See a thoughtful Heavy Medal Blog entry here.) My heart sinks to think of the significant number of very good books that came out this year -- not just Wonder.  And this is the best the ALA can offer kids?

Those great books from 2012 -- and of course many more from years past -- are still there, of course, waiting to connect with readers who will love them. 

And as for awards -- there's always next year...



Friday, January 25, 2013

Guest blogger: Extra Yarn

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm nearing the end of my grading marathon (and the beginning of my maternity leave -- Monday is my last day at work, and Barleybee should be making his entrance sometime in the next few weeks).  Here, to round things out, is my friend Clara, kindergarten teacher and mom of Isabel's good friend Vera, who wrote beautifully for us some months ago about teaching kindergartners to read.

I have a new favorite picture book for our home library: Extra Yarn, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen. 

It came to us at Christmas, a nearly forgotten gift left under the tree in a shadow and rediscovered when we returned from traveling for the holidays. I promptly bought one for my classroom and a few for any upcoming occasions requiring gifts for children or teachers. Everyone I mentioned the book to hadn't yet heard of it, but I'm hoping to see it in bookstore windows all over the city soon. 

The illustrator is known for I Want My Hat Back, which is also part of our home library, and Extra Yarn certainly wouldn't be the same without his sparse, powerful paintings. The author's name didn't ring a bell at first, but when I looked him up I found that I have bought his books for my nieces and my classroom (Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, The Clock Without a Face, and Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). Phrases used by reviewers to describe Barnett's other books include surreal, clever, slyly subversive, definitely funny, and wonderfully ridiculous. Extra Yarn, however, is subtle and touching. Funny and subversive, yes, those too, but it has its own simple tone.

It begins:

Annabelle proceeds to knit herself a sweater, and one for her dog, but she still has extra yarn. A neighborhood boy makes fun of her sweater. Her eyebrows furrow but she reasons that he must be jealous and so she makes a sweater for him, and one for his dog while she's at it. But she still has extra yarn. In school, the other children are distracted from their work because they can't help but turn around to look at Annabel's colorful sweater set against their world of grays. Her teacher bans the sweater from the school, but again Annabelle figures that if she simply knits sweaters for her whole class, they won't have to turn around anymore. Her teacher doesn't believe she is up to the task.

"Impossible," said Mr. Norman. "You can't!"
But it turned out she could. And she did.

After knitting for the entire town (even the neighborhood nudist, for whom she knits a hat), Annabelle knits for the animals (you will recognize forest friends from I Want My Hat Back) and every inanimate object that will hold a row of knits and purls. 

She is then visited by a duke from across the sea who is quite fond of fashion. He offers her a million dollars for her box, but she says no. He steals it by night, sailing with the box to his land across the ocean, which is aptly painted in only blacks and grays. When he opens the box and finds it empty, he hurls it back into the ocean, cursing Annabelle to never be happy again. With no words for the next two page spread, the box floats back to shore into Annabelle's hands. The curse to "never be happy again" still hangs in the air. The book simply ends with "But it turns out, she was."

My husband and I argue over who gets to read Extra Yarn during bedtime stories. He loves that the illustrator puts this book in its own world, one with incongruous time signatures; prominently featured are soot, a count in an elaborate sea vessel, and a pickup truck. I love that there is a magic box that is never called magic, and a girl that is generous without ever being called so. I adore that this child does not act selfish for 95% of the book (a huge pet peeve of mine and far too common), serving as a bad role model to her readers, and then miraculously learns her lesson to become generous. She just is. She's not even celebrated for it, except perhaps by her readers. 

Mac Barnett's language matches this feeling of just being, just doing. Annabelle just has extra yarn. She just knits beautiful sweaters for others. She just is happy. And Jon Klassen's illustrations couldn't fit the story better either. Annabelle's simply painted gray scale town is transformed by her simple, repeated acts of generosity and her extraordinary box of yarn. 

The book does not hit readers over the head with morals, magic, or the domino effect one person's kindness can have on others. It remains a simple, sweet story that leaves you feeling, well, just good.

Lots of love, C

p.s. If you don't have it by then, when Barleybee arrives, he just may find himself with a copy of this book and if I can find the right box of yarn, something to keep his head warm. 

I can't wait!

Love, Annie

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Dear Annie,

Ona as a guest blogger!  Way to go!  I love your story about Sally, Ona -- proving once again what we already know: we have yet another excellent teacher in the family.

I'm quite fond of The Dot, which Ona mentioned, and Peter Reynolds' sequel,
.  In Ish, a boy who loves to draw is ridiculed by his older brother -- "WHAT is THAT?" he laughs, pointing at Ramon's attempt to draw a vase of flowers.  This kills Ramon's joy in art: he keeps starting pictures and then crumpling them up.  He then discovers that his little sister has been rescuing the drawings, flattening them, and displaying them on her walls because she likes them.  When he tells her one drawing was supposed to be a vase, she says it's "vase-ish."  The concept of -ish frees him to enjoy his art again.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find a book by JoAnn Deak in Ona's list.  She's written two books for adults: How Girls Thrive and Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters.  She makes a point that about 80% of each gender conforms to what we think of as stereotypical boy or girl behavior -- and about 20% don't.  For every four girls whose parents say, "We gave her a truck and she gave it a name and tucked it into her doll bed," there's one who says, "Vroom vroom," and pushes it across the floor.  I find this a helpful concept in the unending debate about boy stuff/girl stuff.  (Nice piece on same here.)  She's not saying that 80% of girls want to be exclusively pink princesses, but that certain forms of play are more common in different genders.

It was so lovely to see you and your amazing daughters (who were busy building the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel with Magna-Tiles and sending cars through it) over the weekend.  And the most amazing part of all was listening to Eleanor reading books to us.  She did an excellent rendition of We're Going on a Bear Hunt, complete with inflection that would make a middle-schooler proud.  Given all the great readings she's listened to from her parents I suppose it's no surprise.  But it's certainly impressive.



Monday, January 21, 2013

Guest blogger: Making Mistakes

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I hope you're right this year!  I've certainly agreed with your votes before, over the official committees'.

I'm still knee-deep in portfolios, so I've asked another family member to be our next guest blogger: my cousin, and your niece, Ona, who teaches kindergarten in Seattle.  Here she is, in the first of what I hope will be many guest blogger appearances:

Making Mistakes

Much of my year as a kindergarten teacher is spent on life lessons. My hope is to impart these lessons in a fun way-- and at times these ideas outweigh the academic material.  One such lesson is that the brain needs to explore, try new things and make mistakes. Every day I point out to my students mistakes that I have made, as well as complimenting them on catching them, "Wow, you have sharp eyes that you caught my mistake." (Adults: check out the awesome book Brain Rules, by John Medina-- highly recommended for teachers and parents alike!) 

Making mistakes is a fresh topic in my mind this year as I have a perfectionist in my class. I will call her "Sally." I can relate to Sally as I have similar traits so I have even more of a vested interest while working with her. Sally becomes so frustrated if her work is not "perfect" that she will cry or just give up. I found out at our recent parent teacher conferences that Sally's mother regularly scans and photoshops her "mistakes" and prints off a new page so her daughter can have it "just the way she wanted." After her mom told me this, she asked me, "Is that too much?"

I offered the following books:

Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It by JoAnn Deak Ph.D. and illustrated by Sarah Ackerley is a kid-friendly version of Brain Rules [Annie's note: it seems to be out of print, and the Alibris link above links only to pricey versions.  Try the library?]. With cartoon-like images, it alternates from simple ideas and language, to a specific explanation of how the brain and its various parts function. The most important take away is that it is crucial for your brain to make mistakes so it can learn. Deak provides an example of jumping into a swimming pool. If this is the first jump, the signals from your brain might make you feel nervous or scared. Once you jump, the brain can remember the sensations it felt and the experience becomes less daunting the second time around. During ages 0-10 the brain grows and learns the most.  The more things you try and the more mistakes you make, the better! Cool lesson for kids, right?

Another fantastic exploration into making mistakes is the artistic book, The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds. A little girl, Vashti, is asked to draw and is so worried about how to draw that she is frozen, as Reynolds says "glued to her seat." "I just CAN'T draw!" is a frequent line in the beginning of the book, a line I hear in my classroom too. Vashti's teacher says, "Just make your mark and see where it takes you." What a beautiful message-- this encourages Vashti to try by drawing a simple dot, and the more she does the more confident she becomes. At the end of the story Vashti teaches another student to “make your mark.”

Another way of helping kids become unglued from their seats is to provide a structure as a starting-off point.
I Can Draw People
 and I Can Draw Animals,
 by Ray Gibson, are from a series that I often use in my classroom. The books offer a step-by-step take on drawing and each page has numbered directions: Step 1, Step 2 and Step 3. Children follow the shapes that are drawn in each step, thereby adding another detail to their picture. This is a beauty of this series as reading is not necessary, just copying the steps. The scaffolding that this provides helps those kids who say, "I can't draw" start with the most basic shapes and at the end discover they have drawn an angel or a giant or a lion!

Sally is becoming like Vashti. Last week she came up to me during art class and was beaming. She proudly told me that she had made a mistake and figured out how to fix it-- all by herself! I asked Sally if she cried or got upset and quit, and with a big smile she said, "Nope!" What a teachable moment this was-- Sally  felt the joy of overcoming a difficulty and she made her mark. I hope that these selections help you and yours do the same.

Love, Ona

And love from me, 


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Placing my bets

Dear Annie,

A big thank you to Holly.  Her post offered two excellent elements in kids' literature: good adventure series for younger kids, and heroic rodents.  But the thing that made me happiest about the post is that I didn't know about either series.  I always love learning about new books from people who have been enjoying them.  Way to go, Holly and Ian.  It seems not that long ago that Ian was an exclusively-train guy.

In the world of bookselling, we're in the annual run-up to the American Library Association awards, coming on January 28.  The two biggest awards will be the Newbery and Caldecott medals -- for writing and illustration, respectively.

As I've pointed out before, in my 14 years of bookselling, I've had many favorite books, but I've never successfully predicted the winner of either medal.  Speculation about the awards is all over the place, as often happens.  This year, one book in each category has really stood out to me as the best .

I wrote about Wonder by R.J. Palacio a year ago, and I've been recommending it on almost a daily basis since then.  I've been hoping all year that it will win the Newbery.  Today, as she was leaving the toy store, a customer came over to the book section to tell me how much both she and her children had loved the book -- I'd sold it to her in the fall.  She says she's given it to other kids several times since then.  It's about kindness and cruelty and a fifth grader's struggle to be part of a school community when his severe facial deformities "make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds."  He's a great character.  And Palacio advocates for understanding and kindness without moralizing or sledgehammering her point.  It will make me very happy if this is the year I'm right.

And for the Caldecott, I'm hoping Sleep Like a Tiger, with words by Mary Logue and amazing illustrations by Pamela Zagarenski, gets the Caldecott for best illustration.  It was in your Christmas box o' books from me, so you know what I'm talking about.  An I-won't-go-to-sleep child is ever-so-gently cajoled into sleep by parents with infinite patience and imagination.  A while ago I had a lovely conversation with a customer who started talking about all the symbolism in the illustrations and how carefully they'd been planned out.

Given my track record, it could be that my advocacy of these books is the kiss of death.  We've been talking about doing a promo for the books on the store's Facebook page listing these two titles with the line, "The book lady's never predicted the awards right.  Will this be her year?"

I hope so.



Monday, January 14, 2013

Guest blogger: Hedgehogs and Mice

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Helen Oxenbury's illustrations are so joyful!  We're Going on a Bear Hunt has inspired a number of happy moments of charging forward in our family, too.

As I charge on with my portfolios, here's our regular guest blogger Holly, mother of Eleanor's good friend Ian, on their current adventure reading:

I prefer to wait out a series -- tv, movie or book -- until it is complete and then have a wonderful binge. You would think I would have learned from the rollercoaster of emotions I feel toward George RR Martin not to dabble with unfinished series again, but we seem to have fallen for two children's series which have left us uncertain about the fates of several small mammals we've become attached to.

The first series is The Six Crowns by Allan Jones, illustrated by Gary Chalk. I was dubious at first because the verse that describes the titular six crowns is really lame: 
Six are they, the Badgers' crowns.
If power ye seek, they must be found.
Crystal, iron, and flaming fire --
Gather them, if ye desire.
Ice and wood and carven stone --
The power they give
Is yours

However, once you work out the bizarre cosmology of the Sundered Lands (islands floating in air, Six Crowns of the Badgers of Power) it becomes a very fun, never a dull moment adventure quest led by a fabulously morally questionable but terrifically gutsy girl hedgehog, Esmeralda, and the reluctant homebody hero hedgehog, Trundle. Here's how she gets him what she has decided is his hero's sword:
Esmeralda came to a skidding halt, leaning back and hefting the cobblestone. She let it fly. There was a chime and clash of smashing glass, and almost before Trundle knew what was going on, she had reached in through the broken window of Honesty Skanks Gold Star Pawnshop and had grabbed hold of the sword. ... Esmeralda pushed the sword into Trundle's hands "I should have thought of this from the start! It would have saved us a lot of bother!"
There are really nasty pirates and lots of fighting and explosions. I wouldn't have thought that Ian would be able to take the scariness level but we zoomed through all three of the series that are available so far. Maybe when hedgehogs are in danger it's less of a deal breaker?
Our family fell for another furry hero in the book, The Song of the Winns: The Secret of the Ginger Mice by Frances Watts. The first book is all we can find, although it seems like the others may have come out in Australia.
The main characters are four young mice living in a world where due to a complex political backstory they find that they are sought by the Queen. The kids are allied with an underground resistance movement, FIG (Free and Independent Gerander) which would likely lead to some interesting discussions of real life politics in an older child than Ian.  What gripped him was the Huck Finn feel of the book -- two of the mice actually escape down a river on a raft. On the journey you feel you actually get to know each character and watch their relationships to each other develop. So often in kid's adventure books I find I have to differentiate the characters myself by giving one a funny voice. Even the villians are complex and interesting. This is a book I looked forward to reading every night and which Ian agreed with us upon. I look forward to Book Two and Three as well!

And love from me,


Friday, January 11, 2013

Who's going on a bear hunt?

Dear Annie,

Such a lovely list from your pal and guest blogger Faith.  I've got to find My Henderson Robot -- sounds delightful.

Tonight at dinner, which often includes Lizzie these days (one last exam next week and she's a college graduate!), she pulled a book from the dining room shelves and asked if I'd ever blogged about it.  Your pal Denise, guest blogger extraordinaire, mentioned it in a list of summertime books, but I'm going to return to it.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt

(words by Michael Rosen; pictures by Helen Oxenbury) just begs to be read aloud with great gusto.  I suspect you and Jeff have added a number of embellishments to it.  Michael Rosen provided the words, based on what he says was an old campfire song.  Five family members and a dog set out on an expedition, encountering a series of obstacles along the way.
We're going on a bear hunt.
We're going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We're not scared.
Oh-oh! Grass!
Long, wavy grass.
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
Oh, no!
We've got to go through it!
It's all wonderfully rhythmic and repetitive.  "I had this idea," Oxenbury has said, "of doing a black and white page when they're thinking and when they're saying, you know, about where they're going and what they're going to do. And then when they've decided, it burst into color."
 Subsequent obstacles include a river (Splash Splosh!), mud (Squelch Squerch!), a forest (Stumble Trip!), and a snowstorm (Hoooo Woooo!).

The arrival at a cave (Tiptoe!) leads to a startled confrontation with an actual bear, followed by a hasty retracing of steps:

The book ends with the family safe at home, in bed under the covers, and the bear wandering sadly on a beach.  I've been reading this book for a bit more than 20 years, and until tonight I'd always assumed the big guy is the dad.  I've been a little confused about the blonde in the white dress: probably the big sister, but could be the mom.  Here's Oxenbury on how she interpreted the words:
 What's wonderful about it is that nothing is described in a way that restricts you. Michael had said he envisioned it as a king and queen and jester setting off to hunt a bear, but I immediately saw it as a group of children. Everyone thinks the eldest one is the father; in fact he's the older brother. I modeled them on my own children. I didn't want adults around because they tend to stilt the imagination. The dog in the pictures was my own dog.
There's so much special in this book that it's hard to imagine it any other way.  King, queen and jester?  Can't see it.  But to change the dad to the big brother -- I'm still wrapping my mind around that one.

I remember Lizzie's first pre-school, where the kids acted out each color page of the quest.  Lizzie, it turns out, doesn't remember much from that experience, but had it read to her throughout childhood, and read it to kids she babysat.

Now, she says, it's part of her -- one of those literary references -- that comes up with friends when, say, they're going to the dining hall:

We're going to dinner
We're not scared.
Oh-oh! Stairs!
Can't go over them
Can't go under them.
Oh, no!
Have  to go down them.
Ba-bump ba-bump!
Ba-bump ba-bump!



Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Guest blogger: Sleeper Hits of 2012

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I remember with great fondness Grandpa (your father) reading me The Light Princess -- is there something in it about having to cut her hair as well, or am I confusing it with another story?  In any case, sounds like the right time for us to rediscover it here.

On Monday, I collected my fabulous, time-consuming creative writing portfolios from my high school students, which means it's time for our winter round of guest bloggers!

The first is my friend Faith, a masterful blogger and writer in her own right over at The Pickle Patch and in Faith in Vermont, a regular column in the Addison County Independent, where she writes about raising her three girls in small-town Vermont after living in New York and the Bay Area.

Here she is:

Sleeper Hits of 2012: Five Books That Unexpectedly Delighted Our Family

Parents like to think that their children are exceptional – and of course, every child is exceptional, in their own special way. But I’ve been forced to admit that, when it comes to taste in reading material, my own children (three girls aged 22 months to five years) are decidedly, predictably…ordinary. On our weekly trips to the library, they head immediately for the rotating display of “Ready-to-Read” books; anything with Dora, Tinkerbell, or a Disney princess on the cover is a definite take-home. The “literary” books that I slip into our tote bag usually get a single polite listen. Even tried-and-true classics, like The Cat in the Hat, have bombed in our house.

I tend to believe, at least in the beginning stages, that any reading is good reading (within reason, of course; I draw the line at A Child’s Guide to Cooking Meth). I’m just grateful to have three children who love to read, and I’m DELIGHTED when my children love books with a literary nutritional value greater than, say, Fruit Loops. Sometimes, their choices surprise me, and these books I call “sleepers:” books in which nothing much happens, that are dated, or that have a moralizing message; books that I wouldn’t expect to attract children in an age of Fruit Loop literature. Herewith, five sleeper books that delighted our brood this year:

Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm
by Alice and Martin Provensen. One of the best books you’ve never heard of – I certainly hadn’t heard of it, and it’s not in our local library. It was recommended by two mothers of older children, and is the most realistic and charming depiction of farm life I’ve ever read. Alice and Martin Provensen lived on Maple Hill Farm in upstate New York, and this book is a catalogue of the animals – both welcome and unwelcome – who also lived there. It’s a sleeper because it’s long (many animals live on a farm), and because it has no plot. But it’s filled with honest details – sometimes hilariously brutal – that entertain all the ages in our house. Like the understated conclusion to a page chronicling a day in the life of chickens: “A fox is carrying Big Shot [the rooster] away.” Or, following a description of some wonderful farm dogs: “Other dogs are foolish dogs who do useless, foolish things. These dogs aren’t around any more.” Or, my personal favorite, which I’ve sometimes quoted (unfortunately): “Field mice are on the pantry shelves. Why don’t they stay in the fields?”

Owl Moon
, by Jane Yolen. A particular favorite of my 22-month-old, who has been known to demand ten readings in one sitting. I have no idea why, since, like Maple Hill Farm, it’s a book in which not much happens: a girl and her father walk through moonlit woods looking for owls, they see an owl, they go home. Add to that the kind of gorgeous, poetic language that would usually make my children’s eyes glaze over (“When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope…. The kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon.”), and you have a book that seems designed to delight parents and bore children. But my toddler can’t get enough of it.

My Henderson Robot, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr. You probably won’t find this book at your library or local bookstore; it’s available from Idiots’ Books, a small enterprise run by Matthew and Robbi (both college classmates of mine). Compared with the previous two books, My Henderson Robot is action-packed, but here’s the plot summary from Idiots’ Books: “In which a little girl makes a friend and does the boring, inconsequential, plot-deadening things that kids do. Not much happens.” My Henderson Robot is filled with the sort of quirky details that fill my own children’s heads, which is probably why they find it so relatable. Their favorite detail: “At night the Henderson Robot waits by my closet door to keep any monsters out. He keeps his blue eye open so I can know where he is. He shuts his red eye so it can get some rest.” I have a particular fondness for the closing lines: “We step outside. The sky is green. It is hours until lunch.” Depending on the day, this seems like a perfect description of the idyllic, endless days of childhood – or the existential despair I sometimes feel as a parent immediately following breakfast.

Billy and Blaze
,  by C. W. Anderson. Somehow, I am the mother of two horse-crazy girls. Horses played almost no role in my own childhood, or in my reading. Perhaps because we live in Vermont, where horses are a daily presence, my oldest daughters can’t get enough of them. The day came when they wanted to read only “horse books.” Since this isn’t my area of expertise, I turned to our wonderful children’s librarian, who said, “Well, it’s pretty dated, but try Billy and Blaze.” Thus began our relationship with Billy and his pony, Blaze. Billy and Blaze is the first of an eleven book series written between 1936 and 1970. They’re certainly dated, with illustrations in the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys vein. We’ve read five Billy and Blaze books so far, and the stories are formulaic: Billy is riding his pony when they suddenly encounter some minor emergency (often involving a homeless dog). Boy and pony save the day with their intelligence and pluck, and Billy proclaims Blaze “the best pony in the world.” Despite their mid-century wholesome blandness and their male protagonist (usually a turn-off for my girls), the Billy and Blaze books have all merited repeat readings in our house.

Because Amelia Smiled
, by David Ezra Stein. Published in 2012 and filled with action, Because Amelia Smiled is a sleeper because it’s the type of parent-pleasing book – beautiful message disguised as children’s literature – that I always want my children to love, but which they usually spurn. The premise is simple: “Because Amelia smiled, coming down the street…Mrs. Higgens smiled, too. She thought of her grandson, Lionel, in Mexico and baked some cookies to send him.” And so on, until Amelia’s smile has indirectly changed lives around the world.  Perhaps because the message – that doing small things with great joy can make a big difference – is somewhat subtle, hidden behind delightfully illustrated mini-narratives, this book didn’t set off my daughters’ “preachy” alarm. So for a change I get to read a book that chokes me up, and my audience is riveted.

I hope that one of these books – or another surprising treasure – delights your family in 2013. Feedback on your favorite sleepers welcome!


And love from me,


Sunday, January 6, 2013


Dear Annie,

What a spectacular book Little Nemo in Slumberland is.  And those pictures of Jeff and Isabel reading!  We need to incorporate them into our permanent collection here on the blog.  The sheer size of the book makes me think of lying on the floor reading the Sunday funnies.

Way back in November, you wrote about George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin.  I'm curious to know what happens if you give it another try with Eleanor.  I don't know the book, but have been a fan of MacDonald's
The Light Princess
since my own childhood.  Was it part of your growing up?  It's such a delightful combination of fairy tale and wordplay.  And in 1969 (a year before publication of In the Night Kitchen) Maurice Sendak did a wonderful series of illustrations for it -- including one with a naked baby which apparently triggered none of the controversy that came a year later.

After longing for a child, a king and queen finally have a baby.  They forget to invite the king's sister, Princess Makemnoit, to the christening.  So of course she shows up, muttering a charm at the font:
"Light of spirit, by my charms,
Light of body, every part,
Never weary human arms --
Only crush thy parents' heart!"
They all thought she had lost her wits, and was repeating some foolish nursery rhyme; but a shudder went through the whole of them notwithstanding.  The baby, on the contrary, began to laugh and crow; while the nurse gave a start and a smothered cry, for she thought she was struck with paralysis: she could not feel the baby in her arms.  But she clasped it tight and said nothing.
   The mischief was done.
The princess has no gravity, in both senses of the word.  When the baby is tossed into the air, she floats upward until air resistance slows her.  One summer day a breeze blows her out a window:
She's found in a rose bush. laughing cheerily.  She laughs at everything: floating above the servants' reach she's "like a baby-laughter-cloud in the air, exploding continuously."  She takes nothing seriously, making light of everything -- which makes her parents predictably sad.  To propel herself across the ground, she must hold onto rocks in each hand.
I may here remark that it was very amusing to see her run, if her mode of progression could properly be called running.  For first she would make a bound; then, having alighted, she would run a few steps, and make another bound.  Sometimes she would fancy she had reached the ground before she actually had, and her feet would go backwards and forwards, running upon nothing at all, like those of a chicken on its back.  Then she would laugh like the very spirit of fun; only in her laugh there was something missing.  What it was, I find myself unable to describe.  I think it was a certain tone, depending upon the possibility of sorrow -- morbidezza, perhaps.  She never smiled.
Eventually it is discovered that swimming gives her some gravity: she loves it and becomes a tad more serious when water is keeping her from floating away.  "Perhaps that was because a great pleasure spoils laughing." 

During one nighttime solitary swim, a prince wanders into the story and falls into the lake, where he falls in love with the lovely princess.  The evil witch gets wind of this and makes bad things happen to the swimming lake, and then the prince offers himself as a sacrifice to restore it.  His near-death -- and a good long cry on her part -- restore her gravity, and introduce her to love.  The wedding, which leads to happily ever after, has to be postponed, however, until she learns to walk, "for she could walk no more than a baby."

A satisfying and funny tale.



Friday, January 4, 2013

Anxiety and wonder

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I vividly remember going to see Les Mis with you, Lizzie, and Mona when the girls were maybe 8 and 9, which would put me in my early 20s.  I hadn't read the book, and didn't know the musical well, but they talked at length about the casting choices (Cosette was way too sweet; Gavroche looked too well-fed).  I love the story of your girls and Les Mis.  You never can tell what's going to stick.

My big Christmas present for Jeff this year was a book which has become an instant hit in our house, especially with Isabel.  Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays collects some of the best of Winsor McCay's groundbreaking comic strips, originally published between 1905 and 1910.

Each one is a newspaper-sized, full-page, full-color spread depicting Little Nemo (a small boy) and his adventures trying to get to Slumberland, or get to stay in Slumberland, or get back to Slumberland, a magical kingdom that exists only in the world of dreams.  For some number of panels, Nemo gets closer to his goal.  Then something crazy happens: the dream-horse he's riding gets into a race and goes too fast, and he falls off; the garden he's walking through suddenly becomes giant; the houses he passes grow legs and begin to chase him.  Things are always changing shape, coming to life, becoming unstable.  In the last panel of every strip, we see Nemo in his bed, waking up as if from a nightmare or being woken by one of his parents from a dream he doesn't want to leave.  It's an extraordinary mixture of wonder and anxiety.

So it's a giant book (and I mean GIANT) of Sunday newspaper comics from the early 1900s, which doesn't necessarily sound like the first thing a 3-year-old would gravitate towards, but these are magical.  Isabel has been asking for them every night: "More Memo, Daddy!"  When Jeff reads to her, she's totally engrossed:

Here's a glimpse of what she's so taken by:

This edition of Little Nemo is put out by Sunday Press, and is to my knowledge the most true to the size and colors of the original strip.  I grew up with an earlier edition -- a fatter, but smaller, book collecting Little Nemo comics from a larger range of years, though in less spectacular form.  Looking through this book, I was interested to see how many of the story details I'd forgotten, but how many of the images I remembered.  I think there's something about the intensity of every page that cements it in your mind.

In the earliest strips, Nemo is invited to Slumberland by a host of fairies and other dreamworld creatures at the behest of the Princess, daughter of King Morpheus, who desperately wants to meet Nemo.  He's not excited to go, and often resists; by the bottom of the page, he's usually calling for his mother.

As the series continues, and Nemo finally gets to Slumberland and meets the Princess (she's very sweet), the anxiety shifts.  Now danger comes in the form of Flip, a little fat cigar-chewing imp of a guy who doesn't like the way Slumberland has treated him in the past, and has the ability to wake everyone up and thereby make Slumberland disappear.  He's childish and dangerous, and causes Nemo to wake up when he doesn't want to.

In later strips, Nemo and Flip become, if not friends exactly, partners in crime, and are joined by a wild little jungle imp creature who doesn't speak.  They get out of Slumberland by accident and keep trying to return; there's lots of slipping and falling and slapstick humor.

Through all of it, there's a sense of the pleasure and the danger of children running amok in a world built by adults.  There are rules being enforced, but as often as not they seem random and easy to break; chaos always ensues.

We're not sure yet what Isabel is taking from it, but she's drinking it all in.

Love, Annie

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Les Mis: just right?

Dear Annie,

Happy New Year!

Sometimes we forget that young readers usually have two characteristics we take for granted in older readers.  The first is taste: a preference for a certain kind of story, or a desire to avoid specific genres.   I sometimes see this with the fiction/non-fiction choice.  Some adults define "reading" as "reading fiction."  No matter how voracious a child's appetite is for browsing books crammed with snippets of information, a grown-up can still feel there's something lacking.  Or other times a parent to whom I've recommended a book that I love will come back and say in a disappointed tone that the child didn't like it.  That can be code for it's too hard, or it's too scary, or I don't want to read what everyone else is reading.  But sometimes it can just mean they genuinely don't like it.  My job is to find one s/he does like.

The second aspect of kids' reading -- which your family illustrates effortlessly -- is that children, like adults, often enjoy reading many different things.  Just as an adult will linger over a heart-warming feature in the paper, and on the same day immerse herself in a complex 21st century novel, a kid can read one of those "just right" bland readers, then jump all over the room when a grown-up reads her Nancy Drew.

The discussion of "just right" reading you cited from the NY Times hits some of those points.  In my perfect world, no one would start reading Harry Potter until they were at least 10, then they'd read one book a year until they were 16.  Fat chance.  Lisa Van Drasek's essay has a much more nuanced attitude toward the ubiquitousness of the Harry Potter books in early elementary school -- basically it's, let 'em read them early if they want, and they'll read them again later and have a richer experience on the re-reading.

I keep coming back to parental involvement in kids' reading (and their lives) as the best barometer of what to read.  Lizzie showed an interest in adventure and epic tales early on, starting with her fascination with Davy Crockett at age 4, going on through King Arthur and The Hobbit at 5, and falling into the arms of Victor Hugo beginning in first grade.  We offered some of those choices, and followed her curiosities with others.

We were already listening to many musicals, but a wonderful babysitter brought a CD of the Les Miserables music with her one evening, and we had a new world to discover.  First we found a horrendously chopped 112-page early chapter book telling the story which left out whole plot lines (no Eponine!).  At that point, Lizzie wanted more, and the Fryeburg Maine library had a 500-page abridgement.  I think we didn't make it through that one because Lizzie was wanting the whole thing.  So for eight months of her second grade year, Bob and I alternated reading her the unabridged Les Miserables.  That book is looong.  And it has whole chapters on subjects like the history of the Parisian sewer system, the relationship of Louis Philippe to the bourgeoisie, and (one of my favorites) the evolution of Parisian barricade building from 1832 to 1848.  It's full of religion, poverty and suffering, and humiliation and prostitution.  It's epic.  We all saw the musical, more than once.  Mona was swept along on the musical and discussion of the book ("I knew there was a lot in the book about the bishop," she says now).  All of it was a wonderful experience.  But was it "just right" for Lizzie to have it read to her at age 7?  Could anyone have predicted what it would mean to us?  No way.

Last week all four of us went to the new Les Mis movie.  We all came out of the movie trying to remember what was in the book vs. the stage version vs. the movie.  We debated the casting, the changes to some of the music, the characters, Hugo's intentions.  We each confessed which scene made us cry the most.  It's probably 16 years since Diana the wonderful babysitter grabbed a CD as she headed to our house, but the literary and theatrical journey hasn't ended yet.