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.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Falling in love with Little House

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Seabird sounds marvelous, and certainly something I'd like to check out with Eleanor when she comes back from the brief spring break jaunt to Mystic. As you mentioned in your last post, she has recently been captivated by a series chock-full of historical detail: the Little House books.

I'm betting that pretty much anyone reading this blog has some familiarity with Laura Ingalls Wilder's saga of her family's time as pioneer settlers in the American West.  When I was a kid, the TV series starring Melissa Gilbert was running, and I had friends who were obsessed with it, reading all the books repeatedly and role-playing Little House games.  Sun bonnets abounded.

That wasn't me. I'm pretty sure I read all nine books, because I'm a completist that way, but they weren't stories I reread.  What I retained as an adult were brief snippets of scenes -- Laura making and eating maple syrup candy by pouring it over snow; Pa running a rope between the house and the barn in the middle of the winter so he wouldn't get lost in the six-foot snowdrifts -- and the feeling that the books were otherwise a little dull.  I'd forgotten most of the narrative entirely.

Two and a half books in with Eleanor, I've fallen in love with them, and so has she.

We're reading in chronological order, so we began with Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, and are now in the middle of Little House on the Prairie.  In the first book, Laura is five, living in a log cabin in the woods of Wisconsin with her parents (Ma and Pa), her big sister Mary, and her little sister Carrie. Farmer Boy is the story of Almanzo Wilder, who grows up to be Laura's husband. He's nine years old, living on a large, successful farm in upstate New York with his parents (Mother and Father) and three older siblings. Laura and her family don't figure into the book at all, except that readers know what Almanzo's future holds. In  Little House on the Prairie, Pa gets wanderlust, and packs up the family to move West in a covered wagon.

They make for excellent read-alouds. Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing is clear, clean, and at times quite poetic. Here she is describing six-year-old Laura's impressions of the log cabin Pa is building on the Oklahoma prairie:

Laura couldn't wait to see the inside of the house.  As soon as the tall hole was cut, she ran inside.  Everything was striped there.  Stripes of sunshine came through the cracks in the west wall, and stripes of shadow came down from the poles overhead.  The stripes of shade and sunshine were all across Laura's hands and her arms and her bare feet.  And through the cracks between the logs she could see stripes of prairie.  The sweet smell of the prairie mixed with the sweet smell of cut wood.
The level of detail in the books is tremendous, and you get a feel for how insanely much work farm families had to do in the late 1800s, and how good every family member was at doing it all. In Little House in
the Big Woods, there are descriptions of making cheese (first you need to kill a calf to get the rennet from its stomach lining), harvesting straw and braiding it to make straw hats, and how to get honey (ladle it into tubs from a dead tree after scaring off a bear).  When Pa wants to go hunting, he melts pieces of lead over the fire the night before, then pours the result carefully into his bullet mold.  Everything is handmade.  One effect of reading all of this in the comfort of my 21st-century life is to make me feel comparatively incompetent.

In Farmer Boy, the descriptions of how to do and make those things necessary for a good farming life are, if anything, even more specific. The book sometimes feels like an instruction manual for the self-sufficient life: here's how to plant potatoes, or put together a child-size bobsled, or train young oxen to pull a sled bearing a load of logs.  A couple of weeks ago, Eleanor asked me what Almanzo used to brush his hair. I said I didn't know -- it's one detail Wilder leaves out -- and she said, "They probably took a piece of stone and drilled holes in it and attached pieces of straw."  Yes, probably!

Wilder writes all of the books in third-person, though they are clearly based on her own memories. She does a beautiful job of capturing a child's perspective, and I've enjoyed noticing the differences between her narrative and Almanzo's. The greatest of these is Almanzo's focus on food.  Laura appreciates the meals Ma makes, but Almanzo's descriptions of Mother's cooking and the ways it fills his all-consuming hunger are rapturous:

Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans.  He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth.  He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy.  He ate the ham.  He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust.  He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin.  Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist.  And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles.  He felt very comfortable inside.  Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
We end a lot of chapters feeling pretty hungry ourselves.

It's easy to imagine the adult couple sitting by the fire, Almanzo telling Laura stories of his childhood, Laura pressing him for details.  My good friend Cyd has been reading the Little House books with her oldest daughter, Rebekah, who is a tremendous reader herself.  Cyd reports that when they were reading 
These Happy Golden Years, the story of Laura and Almanzo's courtship, Rebekah would take the book to bed and reread the romantic scenes: the first literary romance she's experienced.

I'm looking forward to continuing this journey with Eleanor in the next few months myself.

Love, Annie

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Dear Annie,

Welcome back!  What a magical reading time it is at your house -- I wish I were there to hear Eleanor reading.  And to see all five of you, for that matter.

When you told me that Jeff and the girls are heading to Mystic Seaport this week, one book immediately came to mind.  Bob brought
by Holling Clancy Holling into our family -- he had fond memories of it from his childhood.  Written in 1948, it's the story of four generations of men all involved with seafaring.  It's definitely from an earlier era, about Men and The Sea, but it's quite lovely: a good adventure.

It starts with young Ezra, a cabin boy on a whaler in 1832.  He's in the crow's nest during a snowstorm off the coast of Greenland:
A shadow passed him, gone before he really saw it.  It came again and was gone.  Then it hovered, beyond arm's reach.  A white bird soared motionless in the falling snow, looking at him.  It gave no cry.  It, too, was unreal to Ezra -- as though the silent flakes had formed a snowy vision.  The boy gazed without blinking.  He had never seen anything so coldly beautiful -- so much a part of snow and ice and the mystery of air.
    Without warning the white bird wheeled, swept forward and shot straight up.
Ezra makes a connection between the bird's odd flight and swallows from his home in Maine and realizes that there's an iceberg dead ahead.  His warning saves the ship.

He ends up carving a scrimshaw model of the bird -- calling it Seabird -- and carries it with him as his talisman.  One of the beauties of the book is that Holling does lovely drawings in the margins to give background to the main story: a sort of forerunner of Magic School Bus.  We see the steps of making the carving.  Later, drawings explain geologic forces, steam engines, types of whales, and the steps of rendering oil from a dead one.  This, of course, is one of the challenges of the book: it lovingly describes the steps of whaling, from sighting and chasing whales --
to the processing of the blubber.  It's all technologically fascinating, but has to do with whale murder.

Ezra grows up to be captain of a clipper ship hauling cargo around the world.  His son Nate comes along, on a round-the-world voyage, with Seabird always in tow.  Nate makes the transition to steamships.  Nate's son Ken is fascinated by the machinery and ends up becoming a ship designer.  And Jim, born in 1918, the year his great-grandfather turns 100, becomes an airplane pilot, flying across oceans.  Seabird hangs above each boy's cradle, and is carried on all the adventures -- including a plane flight carrying all four generations.

It's a very male adventure: the only woman in it is Ezra's wife, described only as "a girl with golden hair and eyes as blue as the sea."  It has some of the appeal, though, of the Little House books: loving attention to detail, immersion in an earlier way of living.  It could be a hit with Eleanor.

Enjoy your just-mom-and-baby time with Will -- and I hope the rest of the family has fun on the New England trip.



Thursday, March 14, 2013

Update from a three-child household

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I've been enjoying your posts, and Lizzie's, on my blog maternity leave!

Will turned one month old yesterday, and we're starting to settle into a bit of a rhythm. While I haven't been blogging, I've still been doing a lot of reading to Eleanor and Isabel, much of it over the head of a nursing Will. I like to think he's imbibing narrative as he does mother's milk.

Our biggest book development here is that Eleanor's independent reading has taken off in the last few weeks.  The resistance she had to working at reading when we tried to encourage it last year melted away in the light of her wonderful kindergarten teacher and a classroom culture that supports both reading alone and discussing books with a reading partner. One day a week, Eleanor "shops" for books at her reading level from bins in the classroom library, so she has five books she can read in her backpack at all times. Her teacher provides her with reading goals, and checks in with her regularly to see she's meeting them and adjust her reading level as necessary.

All of this good foundational work at school has led to Eleanor starting to pick up books to read to herself at home. You can practically see the light bulb go off: Hey, I can read the books on our shelves!  Last weekend, I had to ask her to put down the board books she was reading, sprawled out on the living room floor, in order to get ready to go out for a playdate. It was one of the best moments of my parenting life.

So board books are regaining their usefulness as early readers, but Eleanor is also picking up and returning to longer beginning reader books. For Christmas, her great-aunt Karen gave her The Big Blue Book of Beginner Books, which contains 6 books of the 60-page variety, easy reads with a lot of repetition and some rhyme. 

Both Eleanor and Isabel love having the stories read aloud to them; now Eleanor can read them herself.  Her best friend Ian was over a few days ago, and while Isabel and Ian started playing in the girls' room, Eleanor sat down on the couch and started reading aloud Put Me in the Zoo to herself. (I was nursing on the couch across from her.) Holly drifted over to listen, then Ian, then Isabel, and suddenly there was Eleanor, reading to an attentive audience! I haven't been this excited since she started talking.

I'm going to aim to come back to blogging a little slowly -- one post a week at first.  It feels good to be back.

Love to you and yours,


Saturday, March 9, 2013

It takes a graveyard

Dear Annie,

We seem to be on a grave kick here in the nation's capital.  My last post was on the wonderful true story of the plot to steal Abe Lincoln's body.  And today, guest blogger Lizzie (your cousin, my daughter) returns with the decidedly fictional world of a graveyard.

I’ve spent a lot of my life listening to books. My parents read to me at night until I got into high school and would sometimes head to bed after they were already asleep. We listened to books on tape as a family on long car rides. We all read the Harry Potter books aloud as they came out (though those are also good on audio and Jim Dale’s rendition of Hermione’s oft-repeated line sorry Harry has become a household joke). At some point, I developed the habit of listening to books on tape to keep my mind occupied when I was doing something tedious – read: cleaning my room or middle school math homework – and it’s a habit I’ve held onto as time passes. So in my second-ever blog post here, I’d like to introduce you to a lovely book that I recently listened to on audio (they’re not cassette tapes anymore!):
The Graveyard Book
, written and read by Neil Gaiman.

The book is about a boy named Nobody – “Bod” for short – Owens who grows up in a graveyard after his family is murdered in the first chapter (my mom tells me that this makes it hard to sell, but don’t let it scare you off!). When he arrives as a baby the ghosts extend “the Freedom of the Graveyard” to him and, throughout his childhood, the graveyard offers both protection and a place for adventure. As the novel progresses, Bod’s curiosity and childhood/pre-teen stubbornness, manage to get him into a whole lot of tricky situations both inside his home and out in the village (ghouls and bullies, to name just a few). Though on occasion Bod makes his own way out of danger, more often than not he’s helped by the graveyard’s inhabitants, ghosts and others who are both loving family and strict educators to him. All the way through, Gaiman’s novel reminds us of the prediction of its first chapter: “It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will take a graveyard.”

Bod’s world is so full of the community of the graveyard, that, for me, the most poignant moments in The Graveyard Book come when he is -- necessarily -- excluded from the ghostly world. In one of my favorite chapters, “Danse Macabre,” Bod finds the whole graveyard bustling and cleaning for an event to take place the next day that no one will tell him anything about. When the day comes, Bod finds himself alone in the graveyard and: “Panic started then, a low-level panic. It was the first time in his ten years that Bod could remember feeling abandoned in the place he had always thought of as his home.” What happens next is a beautiful dance between the dead and the living, but when Bod wakes up the next morning he again finds himself in a graveyard where no one will explain the event to him. Here’s a lovely passage of him trying to figure out what’s going on:

   Josiah Worthington was standing beside him.

   Bod said, “You began the dance. With the Mayor. You danced with her.”

   Josiah Worthington looked at him and said nothing.

  “You did,” said Bod.

   Josiah Worthington said, “The dead and the living do not mingle, boy. We are no longer a part of their world; they are no part of ours. If it happened that we danced the danse macabre with them, the dance of death, then we would not speak of it, and we certainly would not speak of it to the living.”

  “But I’m one of you.”

  “Not yet, boy. Not for a lifetime.”

           Though Bod’s situation is particular and fantastic, the themes that come out of passages like this seem pretty universal to growing up. I’ve never played with ghosts in a graveyard, but the idea of leaving home to have one’s own “lifetime” and adventures seems particularly relevant. Which is, I think, why I found myself tearing up (a little) in public as Neil Gaiman finished his reading of The Graveyard Book. Who knew I could find so much in common with Nobody Owens?

And now I'm tearing up at the thought that we have less than two months of this lovely interlude of Lizzie at home before she sets out on a lifetime of adventures.



Sunday, March 3, 2013

Counterfeiters, grave robbers, and Abe Lincoln

Dear Annie,

We're in the final run-up to publication of Bob's book (for grown-ups) here: Tuesday's the big day.

So it seems an appropriate time to talk about another riveting historical book -- this one for kids. 

Lincoln's Grave Robbers

by Steve Sheinkin is the amazing story of an 1876 plot by a group of counterfeiters to steal Lincoln's body from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois.  Sheinkin describes a meeting where Terence Mullen, part of a counterfeiting ring, explains the plan to Lewis Swegles, whom he's recruiting to join them.  The other names are of other members of the ring.
   They were going to take a train to Springfield, bust into the Lincoln Monument, and steal the coffin holding Lincoln's corpse.  They'd load the box onto a wagon and drive it two hundred and twenty miles northeast to the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan.  The beauty of the dunes was that wind would quickly blow sand over their wagon tracks.
   After the body was stashed in the Indiana sand, Big Jim Kennally would contact authorities.  The terms for the return of Lincoln's body would be simple: [imprisoned engraver] Boyd's freedom and $200,000 cash.
   Lincoln's monument had cost about $200,000 to build, Mullen cackled. "What is the use of the monument without the corpse!"
   Swegles was too stunned to respond.
Unbeknownst to Mullen, Swegles was an informant sent by a Secret Service agent to find out more about the distribution of counterfeit money.  Instead, they discovered a plot so strange -- trading a dead president's body for a live counterfeiter's pardon -- that the head of the Secret Service didn't believe it could be happening.

The agent, Patrick Tyrrell, wrote a series of letters to his boss as the plans were developed.  The letters, along with testimony from the trial that ultimately took place, provide fascinating detail which Sheinkin has turned into a spectacular book.  The characters come alive, the events are stunning.

Sheinkin, who has also written The Notorious Benedict Arnold and Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon gives the late 19th century context.  In addition to the suspenseful action surrounding the plot -- which got farther than anyone expected -- we learn about Lincoln's death, Lincoln's family, the evolution of money and counterfeiting, and the 1876 election between Hayes and Tilden. 

Toward the end of the book, there's a jaw-dropping description of Lincoln's re-interment in a renovated monument in Springfield in 1901 -- his coffin had rested in several temporary locations within the tomb following the attempted theft. 
As soon as [the group entrusted with the task] got there, the men began to argue -- should they have one last look in the coffin, just to make absolutely sure Lincoln was still in there? Robert [Lincoln] had specifically told them not to open the casket.  They decided to anyway.
One of the men involved in the project pulled his 13 year-old son, Fleetwood Lindley, out of school witness the moment.
He had only seen Lincoln in photographs, but when the casket was opened, he recognized the famous man immediately. "His face was chalky white," Fleetwood would never forget.  "His clothes were mildewed."
  "He looked just like a statue of himself lying there," said another witness.
The coffin was re-sealed, lowered into a locked steel cage in a hole, and covered completely with concrete.  "It's still there," writes Sheinkin.

This is an amazing book.