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, April 4, 2013

Pleasure in meanness

Dear Aunt Debbie.

The Birchbark House books sound excellent -- we'll check them out in the near future. We're just starting to get into the parts of Little House on the Prairie where Indians make an appearance, and Ma's negative reaction to them will clearly be leading us toward some interesting conversations about prejudice. I'd like Eleanor to have a different narrative about Indians as counterpoint.

As Eleanor takes off in her independent reading, Jeff and I wondered whether Isabel would be inspired to start sounding things out herself. It sometimes happens: an older sibling's new skill inspiring the younger sibling. Isabel certainly walked earlier because of Eleanor's example, and is happy engaging in 6-year-old level imaginative games, though she's only 3 1/2. On the reading front, however, Isabel seems to have mixed feelings about Eleanor's new ability and her own possible reading future.  Sometimes she likes having Eleanor read to her; sometimes she rejects Eleanor as a reader and just wants a parent, perhaps because Eleanor's reading is slower than she's used to; and sometimes she wants to "read" on her own.

By "read," I mean that proto-reading stage of memorizing books and reciting the words accurately as the pages are turned. My mom, your sister Judy, remembers "reading" Madeline in this way, pretending effusively that she was truly reading the book.  Isabel has a terrific memory for text, and regularly corrects an adult reading to her who makes a slip of the tongue (or nods off just a smidgen, as we have been known to do after a spate of newborn baby nights).  In the last several weeks, Isabel has been asking to reread the same few books over and over, even more than usual. Once she knows them, she'll stop us: "No, I'll read that page!" and then recite it totally accurately, without looking at the words.

Her current favorites include Henry in Love, which I've written about here, a sweet short narrative about the growing infatuation between two elementary school kids (a cat and a bunny, in McCarty's drawings):

Henry did his best forward roll.
"Show him what you can do, Chloe," said Abby.
Chloe turned a perfect cartwheel.
Henry was impressed. 

On a different note, she's enamored by a pair of books by Paul Fleischman, who we've written about extensively in the past as an author of poetry, wordless books, and early chapter books, among other things.

The Dunderheads
and its sequel, The Dunderheads Behind Bars, prove once again that Fleischman can do anything, in any genre. They're Kids Against Adults books, stories about a small gang of elementary-school-age misfits who go up against their horror of a teacher, Miss Breakbone, and prove themselves successful against the odds. The narrator is a boy nicknamed Einstein, because he comes up with such smart plans. He's joined by a vivid cast of characters, each with a strange and specific talent: Pencil can see anything once and draw it perfectly from memory; Clips can make anything out of paper clips; Nails uses his long nails to pick locks; Google-Eyes can hypnotize people and animals; etc.

The stories are part mystery (where did Miss Breakbone hide the china cat she confiscated from Junkyard, and can the Dunderheads get it back? When Spider, who can climb anything, is arrested for being a cat burglar, can the Dunderheads save him by finding the real thief?), part adventure story, part humor. There's a level of meanness coming from Miss Breakbone which I imagine wouldn't appeal to all readers -- she keeps an antique electric chair on display in her classroom, and gives herself a star on her chart every time she makes a kid cry -- but I think it's this very aspect that keeps Isabel so interested.  In her imaginative play, Isabel often casts herself as a Bad Fairy or a Mean Girl or a giant who captures small people, working through the fun of breaking rules even as she's asked to be increasingly responsible and gentle with her new baby brother.

Is it psychologically connected in that direct a way? Maybe. Or maybe there's just a joy in screaming out "Mannerless monkeys!" in the voice of Miss Breakbone, no matter what your age.

Love, Annie

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