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, February 25, 2013

Biography season

Dear Annie,

Life gets busier and busier at the store these days.  I'm supplying a book fair that starts two weeks from today -- will all the shipments make it in time?  I'm in the middle of ordering books from the summer catalogs of publishers -- I have meetings this week with Macmillan and Hachette sales reps.  And our severely challenged inventory system, exacerbated by being short-staffed, means that I'm not completely up to speed on re-ordering all books post-holiday.

I realize all this pales in the face of caring for a less-than-two-week-old amazing human who probably doesn't know day from night yet, even though his sisters do.  We all hope you're getting at least a little sleep.

One of the book sections I'm struggling to keep stocked these days is the Who Was shelf.  It's part of Biography, which gets a serious workout from elementary schools at this time of year.  I suspect the Who Was series (which occasionally includes Who Is) will eventually be something this generation waxes nostalgic about, as their elders have been known to do about other now-unavailable series.   I'm constantly reminded of how popular they are.

The books are aimed at first-to-fourth grade readers. They're packed with illustrations, have occasional factual sidebars, and always end with timelines.  The reading level is harder than Magic Tree House, but not by a lot.  When it's not biography season, some kids work their way through the titles in the same way others go through fiction series.  They make a nice read-aloud for younger kids.

They have distinctive covers, with bobble-headed people.  One of the series' big strengths is the wild variety of subjects.  The Usual Suspects are covered: Washington, Lincoln, M.L. King Jr., Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman.  Then it veers off into the less-usual movers and shakers: Einstein, Jefferson, Reagan (haven't read that one yet), FDR and a separate book for Eleanor Roosevelt.  And various others: King Tut, Picasso, Mozart, Magellan, DaVinci.  And the cultural contemporaries (or almost): Steve Jobs, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, the Beatles, J.K. Rowling, Jim Henson, Roald Dahl, Maria Tallchief.  It goes on and on.

I count at least 44 of them currently in print, with Sally Ride, Christopher Columbus and Maurice Sendak coming out in May and June.  In the back of every book there's a list of all titles, irritatingly alphabetized by first name, as was this publicity graphic, which goes from Abraham to Elvis:

Tonight as I left work, I grabbed a Who Was and a Who Is to refresh my memory.  Who Was Charles Darwin? concludes refreshingly clearly:
   Today Charles Darwin's ideas are considered a cornerstone of modern science.  Darwin is just as important now as he was when he lived.  And scientists have been able to fill in information for much of what he could only guess at.  It's amazing that Charles Darwin got so much right....
   Scientists now accept the process of evolution as a fact.  Charles's hunch is now a "Big-T Theory."  The evidence for evolution by natural selection is overwhelming.  Even so, Darwin's ideas are still controversial.  Some people will not accept them.
And from
Who Is J.K. Rowling?
, when U.S. publishers were bidding for her first book:
The winner was Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic.  He was a little scared about spending so much money [more than $100,000] on a first-time author.  But he loved the book so much.  He thought kids in America would, too.  His favorite thing about Harry Potter was "the idea of growing up unappreciated, feeling outcast, and then this great satisfaction of being discovered."
   Jo understood the feeling of being discovered.  With her newfound wealth she bought a new jacket.  It was strange for Jo to be able to spend money on herself and not worry about it.
A good series.

Wishing you sweet dreams, and the time to have them.



Thursday, February 21, 2013

Guest blogger: welcome home!

Dear Annie,

We hope your family is thriving.  To celebrate your son Will's arrival, my daughter Lizzie (just graduated from college) has volunteered for a guest blogging slot. She's home right now, and revisiting her past.

I've been getting rid of books recently. I went through all the bookshelves in my room at home in DC and pulled down much of their contents into piles bound for used book sales or – in the case of a select few – the still unfilled shelves of our house in Maine. The goal behind this destruction was to make space for the more recent additions to my collection and to transform the room through literature into the home of a college graduate instead of a 10-year-old. All of which starts to sound a little heartless – so let me reassure you that many of the books from when I was younger stayed on those shelves. How could I be at home without the books I loved back then? How could even the hefty novels I used in writing a college thesis crowd out the stories that held my imagination when I was 6? Books don't work that way.

So I want to start out this guest blogging with one of the books that's been on my bookcase for almost three-quarters of my life: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi.

It's a book that I think of as wholly mine. A story of adventure that I picked all by myself. My parents and I agree that I must have been about six when I went into the Cleveland Park Public Library and selected it off of a spinning rack that I remember as being in a section that felt more mature than the usual kids section. I think I picked it entirely for its cover: a young woman in a blue dress standing at a ship's railing and gazing off into the distance. That cover seemed to invite me into the story; I was a girl, I liked the color blue, and I could be on the same adventure as the 13-year-old “Miss Doyle.”

Rereading the book over lunch today, I realized that I didn't remember much of its content, but its world was still familiar. It's the story of a girl who ends up as the only passenger on the Seahawk, a ship crossing the Atlantic, heading back to her family in Rhode Island. There's a captain who turns out to be evil, mutiny, death, the harsh reality and rules of the ship and crew. It's about a proper young lady who ends up taking responsibility for herself in a new way and ends up more at home at sea than in her family. My parents both remember the plot as heavy-handed, but I remember that it took me into the self-contained world of an adventure.

On the first day at sea Charlotte (who writes in first person) is talking to Zachariah, a crew member who she still snubs as well below her own status, when this exchange takes place:

            “I don't need a friend,” I said.
            “One always needs a final friend.”
            Final friend?”
            “Someone to sew the hammock,” he returned.
            “I do not understand you.”
            “When a sailor dies on voyage, miss, he goes to his resting place in the sea with his hammock sewn around him by a friend.”

The book is full of moments like this: concepts introduced as a normal part of life at sea, things that connect death and danger to friendship. As a 6-year-old, I must have learned all of these things alongside Charlotte, I must have been with her on the Seahawk's voyage. The world of the ship was specific and separated from the life on land. Death is different, friendship is different.

I know all of these things caught my imagination and held onto it. As a first-grader, I wrote a story in class whose villain took on the name of the Seahawk's evil captain, Jaggery. At any point in all those years between that 6-year-old experience of the book and my recent reacquaintance with it, I'm sure I could have described the image and feel of the 13-year-old girl looking into the distance on its cover. And finally, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is still part of what it means to be home; it welcomes me into my room from its spot on the top shelf of my bookcase.

Welcome home, my dear.  And welcome to your Will, Annie.



Sunday, February 17, 2013

Guest blogger: Souper Stories

Dear Annie,

Extended family and friends are still basking in the happiness of Will's existence.  We hope at least some of you are getting some sleep, and that Will's entry into your family is going smoothly.

Today I get to introduce one of our regular guest bloggers, your pal Denise, who has written previously about social awareness, the essence of summer art and trying to read to two kids of different ages at once.  On this wintry evening, she is tackling the subject of soup, in many contexts.

The chilling winter days have been bringing out the soup in me. I started off the week with Red Lentil Soup (page 36) from a cookbook that Annie recommended,
Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home: Fast and Easy Recipes for Any Day
. The recipe was indeed simple and easy to modify based on the vegetables I had in my fridge: onion, ginger, carrots, roasted red peppers in a jar. While I cooked, the kids played horses and dinosaurs without fighting; less than 40 minutes later, the beautiful pinkish-orange soup with a slightly silky, slightly rustic texture was on the table. Most importantly, it was approved by the grand critic, Miss Jazzy. I served it with warm pita bread and sautéed kale, and had enough for a couple of lunches.

Later on this week, I made another delightful soup from this cookbook: North African Cauliflower (p. 33). This was Emerson’s favorite which isn’t surprising since he loves cauliflower the way most kids love mac n’ cheese. Three particular ingredients make this soup special: cauliflower, potato, and ground fennel. I sautéed shallots, shiitake mushrooms, and tempeh bacon and used this as a garnish. This was equally satisfying and warming.

This brings me to a few souper picture books on the kids’ shelves
Mouse Soup
by Arnold Lobel is one of those precious books that is funny and entertaining for kids and parents. I marvel over how cleverly it is constructed. The book begins with a weasel catching an adorable mouse who is reading a book under a tree (I can relate – so often I want to just read a book but am chased away by my duties as a mother and teacher). The weasel puts him in a pot to make mouse soup, but the mouse convinces the weasel that he needs four stories in it to make it good, so the mouse proceeds with telling distinct narratives. Some ingredients to these whimsical stories include: a beehive, stones on a hill, loud crickets, and a dying thorn bush that is revived. In the end of the book, the mouse tells the weasel to find the ingredients from the stories to put into the mouse soup which allows him to escape. The last page shows the mouse sitting in his chair reading his book, a moment I pine for.

Another story where soup also saves is
Stone Soup
by Jon J. Muth. Here three Zen monks, Hok, Lok, and Siew, go on a journey to answer the question, “What makes one happy?” They come across a village in the mountains where the people had experienced many hardships; here “the villages worked hard, but only for themselves.” This changes with the help of the monks who build a fire and make stone soup in a small tin pot. A little girl walks by and helps them find three stones. Then she goes home to get a bigger pot. Eventually, people from the village curiously peer from their windows and begin to offer ingredients to the large pot of soup. In the end, the monks as well as the villagers learn that “to be happy is as simple as making stone soup.”

These stories create an internal warmth much needed in winter, especially on those cold evenings after long days of transporting children, working, and carrying around book bags, food bags, heavy coats. I guess it would be best to leave that all at the doorstep and focus on making soup in the kitchen. The kids will chop and add ingredients to the pot; after, they will do the dishes while I recline in the living room chair and read. If only it were that simple.

Many thanks to Denise.  And wishing you lots of warmth in Brooklyn, Annie.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Dear Annie,

The entire extended family is dancing with joy, waiting for this little guy to wake up, grow a bit, and dance with us:

Will arrived early this morning, missing his uncle's birthday by a few hours.  You're now a five-person nuclear family.  I suspect Will's big sisters (how does that title feel to Isabel?) will start reading to him soon.  The new baby books, of course, and the three-child-family ones, and many many more.

We can't wait to meet him.  In the meantime, we will send him books and ooh and aah over his pictures, and cheer on his amazing sisters.

I offer you two quotes from children's literature, to celebrate the boy.

I've cited Ramona's wonder at having a baby sister in the three-child-family post, but here's a snippet again:
"Look at her tiny fingernails," Ramona marveled as she looked at the sleeping Roberta, "and her little eyebrows.  She is already a whole person, only little."
And from William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a different context -- the missing Sylvester has been restored to his parents --but applicable to the birth of a baby as well:
When they had eventually calmed down a bit, and had gotten home, Mr. Duncan put the magic pebble in an iron safe. Some day they might want to use it, but really, for now, what more could they wish for? They all had all that they wanted.
I suspect you have all you want right now (except maybe more sleep...).   Enjoy tomorrow's homecoming, and all that follows.  We have guest bloggers waiting in the wings, and will be very happy to hear all about your five-person family whenever you come up for air.

With much love for all,


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Forerunners of Minpins

Dear Annie,

It's funny, I've always thought of the Minpins -- which we also loved -- as being one of Dahl's scarier books.  It's that nightmare sense of being chased by something very scary, belching fire...

The Minpins was Dahl's last book, published in 1991 shortly after he died.  The little people make one think of the Oompa Loompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964).   The monsters Little Billy's mother warns him against -- Whangdoodles, Hornswogglers, Snozzwanglers -- are the same ones who terrorized the Oompa Loompas in Charlie.  The world of the Minpins, sans Gruncher, seems much more harmonious than their forbears, though.

I was poking around on various kid-reading book sites today, and came across a lovely photo of a different sort of harmony.  One of the frequently-cited ways a parent can encourage a child to become a reader is to model the behavior oneself.  Then one ends up with a family of readers.
I love the dad's hand on the kid's leg.  In touch.  I can't figure out what the dad is reading, but the book on the right is a compilation of three Tintin books.  Tintin: another topic we should take up one day.

Love to you,


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dahl, a little less mean

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Of course, just after writing about my mixed feelings for Roald Dahl last week, we cracked open one of your birthday presents for Eleanor, a slim, beautifully illustrated picture book with all the adventure and none of the nastiness I've come to expect of him.

The Minpins begins:

Little Billy's mother was always telling him exactly what he was allowed to do and what he was not allowed to do.

All the things he was allowed to do were boring.  All the things he was not allowed to do were exciting.

One of the things he was NEVER NEVER allowed to do, the most exciting of them all, was to go out through the garden gate all by himself and explore the world beyond.

Of course, the majority of the story involves Little Billy doing exactly that.  Inspired by a voice in his ear that he thinks of as the Devil, he hops out the window and runs off to explore the Forest of Sin, though his mother has warned him of the horrible creatures living there: Whangdoodles, Hornswogglers, Snozzwanglers, Vermicious Knids, and the Terrible Bloodsuckling Toothpluckling Stonechuckling Spittler.  (Okay, I admit that so far it sounds very Dahl-like.)

Once in the forest, Little Billy is chased by a monster he can hear and smell but not quite see -- the puffs of smoke are too great.  He climbs a tree to get away, and finds himself face-to-face with first one, and then hundreds, of Minpins: tiny people who live inside the trees.  The horror of the monster below is forgotten as Little Billy peers into their miniature rooms through postage-stamp sized windows.  The illustrations, by Patrick Benson, are intense and lovely in equal measure.

The Minpins are friendly as can be, and show Little Billy how they live, foraging for food and exploring on the backs of all the birds in the forest.

They urge him not to climb back down the tree, as the monster who was chasing him -- the Red-Hot Smoke Belching Gruncher -- is waiting below.  Little Billy learns about the Gruncher from the Minpins, devises a plan to destroy him, and enlists the Minpins' help in doing so.  He's calm in the face of danger, and earns the respect of the Minpins.  Plus, he gets to fly on the back of a very large swan.

The Gruncher is a funny creation: from the beginning to the end of the story, we get only glimpses of him through the smoke.  There's none of the usual Roald Dahl detail -- the Gruncher is a fuzzy nightmare creature, not a specific terror.  What sticks, and what has captured both Eleanor and Isabel's attention, is the wonder of Little Billy's meeting the Minpins.  Little people, as we've written about before (also here and here), are endlessly fascinating, and there's a sense of wonder in Little Billy's ultimate explorations.

That's the way The Minpins ends, with this sense of wonder in Dahl's final words to the reader:

Watch the birds as they fly above your heads and, who knows, you might well spy a tiny creature riding high on the back of a swallow or a raven.  Watch the robin especially because it always flies low, and you might see a nervous young Minpin perched on the feathers having its first flying lesson.  And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.  

Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.

Love, Annie

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dahl: wonderful but nasty

Dear Annie,

Happy Maternity Leave!  And may your leave and increase of family be Restorative of Your Health!

I thought a lot about the Roald Dahl question before sending The BFG to Eleanor.  With the exception of The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me -- which one could almost call sweet -- I find The BFG the least problematic of Dahl's wonderful-but-nasty books. 

We read it with Lizzie when she was about Eleanor's age -- and I remember her being entranced with it.  I was worried about the opening scene when a giant hand comes through Sophie's window and kidnaps her -- but it was my worry, not Lizzie's.  At dinner tonight, she got a sort of far-away smile on her face and said she remembers really loving it, and loving the BFG.  She remembers snozzcumbers and his fractured language.

I opened Mona's copy tonight looking for a good example of the BFG's speech and came upon this, from early in the book:
"Would you teach me how to make an elefunt?" the BFG asked.
"What do you mean?" Sophie said.
"I would dearly love to have an elefunt to ride on," the BFG said dreamily.  "I would so much love to have a jumbly big elefunt and go riding through green forests picking peachy fruits off the trees all day long.  This is a sizzling-hot muckfrumping country we is living in.  Nothing grows in it except snozzcumbers.  I would love to go somewhere else and pick peachy fruits in the early morning from the back of an elefunt."
Sophie was quite moved by this curious statement. 
And there's always his signature, "Am I right? or left?" There is, of course, a Goodreads page out there with nothing but BFG quotes.

Dahl is part of a British tradition of children's literature which is not gentle.  But his protagonists are always good, and triumph over the bad guys in the end.  Harry Potter's Dursleys are very Dahl-esque: caricatured cruel relatives.  And revenge is savored.  I'm more uncomfortable with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its repeated humiliation of the obnoxious kids than with the BFG -- but no question that they're both books some reasonable parents will choose to skip.

I hope you're glad you didn't, though. 

Sweet dreams to you all.