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, May 30, 2013

Blizzards and budding romance

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The temperatures are climbing in Brooklyn, and this afternoon we set out for our first day of water play in the parks.  At home, however, Eleanor and I find ourselves shivering and worrying about how long food supplies can hold out now that the trains have stopped running.

As you might have guessed, this means that we're deep into book six of the Little House series: The Long Winter.  This makes Little House the first chapter book series that Eleanor has wanted to read straight through, one after the other. Yes, she's also loved the Betsy-Tacy books and The Borrowers, but she's been willing to take breaks between books. Not so with Little House.

The Long Winter may be the most dramatic book of the series.  In it, Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace (the youngest Ingalls, born between Plum Creek and Silver Lake) are living out in the little town of De Smet, in the Dakota territories.  Pa has a claim a mile or so from town, and the family has been living in a tiny shanty to stave off claim jumpers.  But winter begins early that year, and promises to last for months. The first severe blizzard, in October, convinces the family they need to move to town.  Even in Pa's well-built storefront on Main Street, they are cold and isolated as the blizzards keep coming, sealing them in the house for days at a time.  Then snow stops the trains from running, and soon the Ingalls family is pretty much out of supplies and facing starvation.

The natural drama of the situation is coupled with foreshadowed romantic drama: this is the book where Almanzo Wilder reappears.  (Technically, we get a brief glimpse of him at the end of By the Shores of Silver Lake). Almanzo and his older brother Royal have come out west to stake claims of their own: Almanzo plans to farm, and Royal to be a storekeeper.  While much of the narrative is in close third-person perspective focused on Laura, as are all the other books except Farmer Boy, there are chapters here in close third-person focused on Almanzo as well. We get a glimpse into his head, his experiences, all with the delicious knowledge that he and Laura will some day be married.

Eleanor picked up on the narrative change, and we got to talk about how Wilder, as an author, is making us feel close to both characters by showing us more of what both think. She loves having knowledge of the characters' future, glimpsing the romance to come. It's also helpful when we get to a suspenseful part: "She can't die of starvation, because she has to grow up and write these books!" Eleanor looks ahead at the Garth Williams pictures and reads the chapter titles of this book and the next one, looking for hints of the future ("Mary is going to get to go to the college for the blind!").  Last night, when we had to stop just before reading a chapter whose title and illustration indicated that Pa was going to find Almanzo's hidden seed wheat, Eleanor jumped with excitement. She is utterly engaged. As am I.

Love, Annie

Monday, May 27, 2013

Playing in the Park

Dear Annie,

Eleanor's progress through the early readers is a delight to watch.  She's picking some of the classic authors of the genre: Cynthia Rylant and  Syd Hoff in your previous post, and now James Howe.  Howe is probably best-known for Bunnicula, a chapter book series about a vampire bunny who sucks the juice out of vegetables.  And he's done a more recent series about kids in middle school who are ostracized for different reasons.  He's impressive in a number of different genres.

Not unlike our pal Emily Jenkins, author of the wonderful early chapter book Toys Go Out, a handful of picture books including the mathematically-inclined Five Creatures, and, writing as E. Lockhart, YA novels including the excellent The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.  She's got a lovely new picture book:
Water in the Park
, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin.  Sooner or later, a non-New York-based bookseller can sometimes feel, all roads lead to Brooklyn.  This book was based on a summer's observation of Prospect Park, but the experience is definitely universal.  Going from dawn to dark, Jenkins lists various activities in the park -- most of them having to do with water.

Turtles leave their rocks when early morning dog-walkers arrive -- panting in the heat, the dogs say, "Heh. Heh. Heh."
Mr. Fluffynut is scared to go deeper than his doggy ankles.
He holds a tennis ball tight in his mouth and will not give it up.
"Drop it!" says his human.
But Mr. Fluffynut will not drop it.
By 7 a.m. babies arrive, sprinklers are turned on (one baby cries, the other laughs),and soon a panoramic illustration of the playground shows dozens of children in motion.   In late morning, park workers water plants.  Then it's lunchtime:
Coming up on noon, it's time for lunch.  Maybe a nap.
Some children cry.
Claudie K. clings to the leg of a bench.
"Not going home," she says.  She likes it here.

We'll see more of Claudie in the afternoon.

The grown-ups show up to eat lunches on benches.

On very hot days, the ice cream truck comes early.
By two, its tune is already jingling.
Children coming back to the park get soft-serve cones and bright Popsicles.
Grown-ups buy bottles of water.
Sticky fingers and faces are rinsed in the sprinkler.
Kids dump water on each other and run through sprinklers, someone scrapes a knee, a naked baby runs away from clothing.  When the sprinkler is turned off, the baby who cried when it was turned on now laughs, and the water-loving baby cries.  Dog-walkers and other grownups return, and as it turns to dusk a downpour soaks those who linger.

It's a lovely recitation of the details of life, with many many details to pore over.  I love it for its quiet way of taking everything seriously.  Jenkins' theme of uniting it all with water (pond, sprinklers, bottles, rain) didn't quite work for me.  The human rhythms seem to be the theme of the book.  The detail that's missing here is the drumbeat of cell phones: I can't find even one in the entire day.  Idyllic.



Friday, May 24, 2013

Boy-girl best friends in an easy reader format

Dear Aunt Debbie,

At her new reading level, Eleanor has discovered another series of Easy Reader books that she's really into, and  I've been enjoying as well: the Pinky and Rex series, by James Howe. You blogged about one Pinky and Rex book a while back, when we were writing about gay and gay-friendly YA and middle grade books.  As you mentioned at the time, no one in the series is explicitly gay, but there's some nice gender-bending going on.  

The series focuses on elementary-school-age best friends Pinky (a boy whose favorite color is pink) and Rex  (an active, ponytailed girl).  Pinky has a younger sister, and Rex has a younger brother; their families live next door to each other, and their parents are friends as well.  Each book contains six short chapters, with a decent amount of text on each page, and pictures (by Melissa Sweet) on each facing page.

Howe says in a note at the end of Pinky and Rex and the Double-Dad Weekend: "Writing the Pinky and Rex series gives me a chance to remember what it was like when I was seven. It also gives me a chance to say: It's okay to be different, and it's okay for boys and girls to be friends--even best friends."  Happily, Howe knows how to get these ideas across without becoming treacly.

In Pinky and Rex and the School Play, Pinky wants to be an actor, and has his heart set on becoming the lead in the school play, "Davi, Boy of the Rain Forest."  He convinces Rex, who has no interest in acting, to join him for the auditions.  Rex impresses the director so much that he casts her as the lead, changing the name of the play to "Bahi, Girl of the Rain Forest."  Pinky is cast as a monkey.  Jealousy and bad feelings ensue.  As rehearsals continue, however, Pinky decides to learn as much as he can about acting, even though his character is minor.  He pays attention to everything that Mr. Lacey, the ponytailed teacher directing the play, says.  On the day of the performance, Rex does a terrific job, and Pinky saves the play by ad-libbing and directing the other kids on stage who have frozen up and forgotten their cue.  Hard work pays off: Mr. Lacey compliments Pinky, and offers him the opportunity to be the director's assistant on the next school play.

One of the most interesting moments for me comes with Rex's reaction to her success as an actor.  Pinky's sister Amanda praises her after the show:

"Oh, Rex!" Amanda cried. "You were so-o-o good.  Are you going to be a movie star when you grow up?"

"No way," said Rex.  "I'm through with acting."

"That's too bad," her father said.  "You were very good."

"I can be good at something and not have to want to do it, can't I?" Rex asked.  Her father looked surprised, but nodded his head.  "It's just that there's other stuff I'd rather do, like soccer."

Not the predictable moral, and a nice lesson to pull from this story.

Eleanor was so excited by these books that she came home wanting to read them aloud that evening instead of having me read to her.  She took one on the subway to a birthday party the next day finishing reading it aloud to me, and on the way home, reread it silently while I talked with a friend.  I'm loving this stage.

Love, Annie

Friday, May 17, 2013

The benefits of children reading to each other

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As Eleanor's independent reading is progressing (and she's going like a house afire!), we're starting to enjoy some of the benefits of our kids reading to us, and to each other.

Benefit #1: Eleanor finds new authors and series she's really into.  In her classroom, Eleanor "shops for books" once a week, choosing five independent reading books at her level and bringing them back and forth to school every day.  Lately, she's been choosing multiple books by the same author, really paying attention to who's writing what she likes to read. This is how we've gotten a lot of Syd Hoff books into the house: Sammy the Seal, Danny and the Dinosaur, Mrs. Brice's Mice. She loves the cartoony drawings, and the general sense of play throughout Hoff's stories. They're a little meandering, and fun.  Henry and Mudge, who you blogged about a while back, have also become huge favorites here -- the third series by Cynthia Rylant that we've fallen in love with, after Poppleton and The High Rise Private Eyes.  Watching her gain a conscious appreciation for the work of a particular author is a joy.

Benefit #2: Eleanor reads Isabel the crappy books I don't want to read to either of them.  As I'm home with Will full time right now, and Isabel is home with us three days a week, we're going to the library a lot. Isabel's library book picking habits are fairly indiscriminate: she stops in front of a shelf and just pulls out whatever's there, barely looking at it until we sit down to read it there or later.  What she gets most excited about are books she knows, or books with pop culture characters she recognizes.  Each visit, she picks up at least one badly-written series book: a Star Wars industry story, or a godawful Disney princess book, something either cloying or nonsensical in its narrative, and sometimes both.  Then, of course, this is the book she wants me to read to her sixteen times in the next two days.  Imagine my joy when I peeked around the corner of the kitchen into the living room a few days ago and saw Eleanor reading Isabel Rapunzel and the Golden Rule/Jasmine and the Two Tigers!  They were both totally into it, and I didn't have to be involved.

Benefit # 3: Both girls have started reading board books to Will. At three months old, Will is starting to be entertainable at times, and he's really paying attention to his two older sisters.   Among other games (painting his hands and feet with dry paintbrushes, dancing around him, putting hats on his head), they're showing him books. Eleanor caught his attention first with Pat the Bunny, that wonderful old standby with things to touch on every page. It's such an odd, pleasing, dated little book.  The next day, there was Isabel showing him My Friends, by Taro Gomi, a gentle recitation of all the things a little girl learns from the animal kingdom:

I learned to climb from my friend the monkey.

I learned to run from my friend the horse.

I learned to march from my friend the rooster.

I learned to nap from my friend the crocodile.

While all this kid reading has been going on, I've managed to find time to read Fire, Kristin Cashore's second book.  I'm in total agreement with you -- it's not nearly as good as Graceling.  Turns out that skipping it and going straight to Bitterblue was a good idea.

Love, Annie

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hero on a Bicycle

Dear Annie,

Bitterblue sits on my shelves -- clearly it's time for me to read it soon.  I really liked Graceling, then felt Cashore had lost her touch completely with Fire, so I'm glad she came back to form with the third.

As long as we're on the subject of of moral culpability in difficult circumstances, I'll bring up an excellent new middle-grade book by Shirley Hughes, author of Dogger and many other wonderful picture books.  She has just published her first novel at the age of 84.

Hero on a Bicycle is set in Florence during the Nazi occupation --  siblings Paolo (13) and Costanza (16) are living in the city with their English mother; their Italian father has left, apparently to join the Resistance.  Paolo rides his bike after curfew, longing for the excitement of war, wishing to be heroic.  His sister spends vaguely uncomfortable time at the home of a family of collaborators, listening to records with a friend and meeting German officers.  When Paolo tries to find and join the Resistance, fighters ridicule him and steal his bicycle.  A commander stops the theft but growls at Paolo:
"Take it -- go home -- presto! -- as soon as you can.  And remember, you say nothing about this little adventure to your family -- nothing -- understood?"  Then he turned to go and gestured to the others to follow him.
   "But I want -- " said Paolo weakly.
   "Just get going -- now!"
   Paolo could resist no longer.  Forlorn, dejected, and utterly humiliated, he set off, bumping dangerously down the path on his bike and praying that the sharp stones wouldn't wreck his tires.
When he gets home, the Resistance has pressured his mother into hiding escaped Allied prisoners of war.  She tries to keep it from her children, but Costanza says, "Oh, Mamma -- we're not kids anymore.  Of course we can guess what's happening."  The story progresses through heart-stopping action -- saving a wounded Canadian soldier from the Nazis, aerial bombings, searches of their home, a near-execution in a town square, constant fear and confusion.  As the family comes under suspicion of helping the Resistance, it's clear someone has informed on them, and others are warning them.  A Nazi officer's genuine fondness for Costanza saves the family in one situation; a friend's need to save his own family endangers them.   Hughes even deals with that how-do-you-live-near-them-afterwards question that you brought up.

Both brother and sister have their moments of exceptional courage in terrifying situations.  Paolo and his bicycle help to save a man's life.  Later that day, as Germans are retreating in a chaotic scene, Costanza hears her name called on the road, thinking it's a soldier she's helped.
Then she realized that it was an even more familiar voice.
   "Paolo!" she shouted back.
   She could see his head bobbing along some way off.  He was waving.
   "Oh, Paolo -- thank God!"
   They struggled toward each other.  Paolo looked every bit as exhausted as she was, and he was clearly so close to tears that she stopped crying and hugged him.
   "Paolo -- where have you  been all this time?  Where's your bicycle?"
   "I lost it.  I mean, I gave it to someone."
It's a novel, they're teenagers, there's a war on -- but their reunion on the road made me think of the much younger David and Bella in Dogger.  In Dogger, Bella gives up a bear that she's won in order to retrieve her little brother's beloved stuffed animal.  It's an act of sibling caring and sacrifice that always brings a tear to my eye when I read it.  Hughes lets the reader feel the depth of caring between brother and sister.  And in Hero on a Bicycle, we feel the deep connection between Paolo and Costanza.  They start out on parallel tracks -- each in a separate internal world.  But having to face the realities of the war brings out what's been there all the time: intense caring and family feeling.  I feel these brave Anglo-Italians show us how sweet British David and Bella could have turned out.  A lovely reading experience.



Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thought-provoking YA fantasy

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In the excitement of Will's newborn baby state and our busy spring, we skipped right over our third anniversary! That's right, as of last month we've been writing Annie and Aunt for three years.  And there are still so many books to write about....

A couple of years ago, in search of alternatives to the Twilight series (which you know I don't like), you mentioned a couple of YA novels by Kristin Cashore: Graceling and Fire.
(Full disclosure: Kristin Cashore and I both went to Williams College, and have mutual friends, though I didn't know her there.)

I finally picked up Graceling, had a pleasantly obsessive read, and followed it up with Cashore's third book, Bitterblue.  I didn't mean to read them out of order, but was confused by the publisher's choice to put an excerpt from Bitterblue at the end of Graceling. You don't need to read Fire before Bitterblue for it to make sense (and I know you weren't a fan of Fire), but there's a character payoff at the end of Bitterblue that I think would have been more fun if I had read Fire first.

While Fire is a prequel or companion book to Graceling, Bitterblue is more of a sequel: there's a different main character, but many of the characters in Graceling return here. Spoiler alert -- in writing about Bitterblue, I will by necessity reveal some plot points from Graceling.

Queen Bitterblue, who appeared in Graceling as a ten-year-old girl, is now eighteen, and trying to bring her kingdom of Monsea back to some kind of normalcy after the death of her father, King Leck. Leck was Graced with the ability to make people think and feel what he told them to -- to have all his lies believed -- and was an astoundingly manipulative and evil man.  Though Leck's reign of terror ended eight years earlier, Bitterblue is just starting to understand what a mess he's left, and how much she doesn't know about what happened under his rule.

Bitterblue herself is not a Graceling -- she has no special powers, though she does grow in knowledge and strength throughout the book, as a good YA heroine should.  The Gracelings around her are physically recognizable by their eyes, which are two different colors.  Each has an extreme talent, some more fantastic than others: the ability to read minds, or tremendous physical strength, or the ability to know what a person would most like to eat at the present moment. Gracelings have to figure out what their Graces are, which is easier for some than for others.  It's a nice metaphor for different intelligences.

Cashore knows how to move a plot forward and create suspense, and Bitterblue is sprinkled with effective moments of decoding -- ciphers play a large role in the unraveling of the mystery.  What I find most compelling about the book, however, is the way Cashore gets you thinking about culpability.  Many people committed crimes while under Leck's influence.  Is it fair to hold them responsible for their actions?  Is the way forward to silence discussion of the terrors of the past and the lives lost, or to delve into them and talk about the truth?  The people in Bitterblue's castle, who worked closely with her father before serving her, refuse to talk about the past.  Bitterblue seeks out friends in her city who are, as she is, interested in exposing what really happened.  There's a human cost to either way of proceeding, which Cashore renders in realistic ways.  I found myself thinking about South Africa at the end of apartheid, or Rwanda after the genocide -- how do you come to terms with horrors committed by people who now must live together peacefully?

Many of Leck's crimes have a sexual element: under his reign, hundreds of young girls were stolen from their families and disappeared.  Cashore is thoughtful about gender, creating strong female characters in all walks of life, and with different kinds of strength, but placing them in a world where violence against women is a palpable threat.  (I should add that she draws a number of kinds of men as well, and that several of her nicest characters are gay.)  This is a patriarchy familiar to those of us who live in the real world.

I'm left thinking, and looking forward to Cashore's next book.

Love, Annie

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Making manners fun

Dear Aunt Debbie,

A propos of our conversation on "lesson books" (here and here), a friend recently recommended a couple of books by Aliki, which I checked out of the library.

Manners and Feelings are an interesting hybrid of playful and didactic.  Each book is a series of unconnected episodes riffing on the theme of the title, and rendered in Aliki's wonderful cartoon drawings.

The drawings are of a racially diverse group of kids (somewhat more so in Manners than in Feelings), enacting the ideas on each page. A pair of birds provide commentary at the top and bottom margins of each page, which is both cute and serves as an invitation for the kid reading to comment on the action as well.  These are great books for parents and children to talk through.

In Feelings, many of the pages simply evoke or illustrate a feeling or feelings you might have in a certain situation:

In Manners, more of the episodes are cast as lessons, and tell a brief 

Flipping through the pages of both books before reading them aloud, I thought, Oh dear, these really are Lesson Books.  Happily, my fears that both the girls and I would find them too preachy were unfounded.  Aliki's cartoony drawings and sense of humor make even the didactic bits palatable, and both girls love the books.  Eleanor, at age 6, can read them herself. The day I brought them home from the library, she tried to sneak a flashlight into her room to keep reading at bedtime (always a good sign, in my opinion). Isabel, at 3 1/2, is captivated by the depictions of bad behavior, and requests repeated readings of specific pages. "How Anthony Almost Ruined Diana's Party" is her favorite:

So far, this hasn't resulted in her co-opting the most interesting new insulting phrases and using them on her sister, though I'm on the lookout.  I've found myself referencing episodes as well, so that it's not just me, but also Aliki encouraging them not to pick their noses or grab toys from each other.  (Thanks, Aliki!)  There's a richness to the varied format that holds up well on repeated readings, and keeps everyone engaged.

Love, Annie