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.

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,


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