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, June 27, 2013

Heckedy Peg: a new-old fairy tale

Dear Aunt Debbie,

On one of our recent forays to the library, Isabel and I picked up a book that reads like a classic fairy tale, though it was written in 1987.  It's gripping, a little creepy, gorgeously illustrated, and possessed of the kind of fairy tale logic and threat level I associate with Grimm Brothers stories.  I actually had to do a little research on it to confirm for myself that it's a contemporary story, not a retelling of something older.

The book is called Heckedy Peg, by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood.  They're a married couple, and a writing/illustrating team we know well from the awesome book of opposites Quick as a Cricket, which I can still recite verbatim after reading it a thousand times to Eleanor in her first couple of years.  I think the Woods are best known for The Napping House and King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, both of which are energetic and light-hearted, and play with repetition ("King Bidgood's in the bathtub, and he won't get out!").

Heckedy Peg is darker, in fairy tale form.  It's the story of a poor mother who lives with her seven children, named after the days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, etc.).  Before going off to market one day, she asks the children what each of them would like as a present:

Monday asked for a tub of butter.
Tuesday asked for a pocket knife.
Wednesday asked for a china pitcher.
Thursday asked for a pot of honey.
Friday asked for a tin of salt. 
Saturday asked for crackers.
And Sunday asked for a bowl of egg pudding.

The mother goes off, telling her children not to let any strangers in and not to touch fire.  Of course, as soon as she's gone, the witch Heckedy Peg comes to the house:

I'm Heckedy Peg.
I've lost my leg.
Let me in!

After a brief back and forth, she convinces the children to let her in and light her pipe with fire from the hearth. As soon as they do, she turns them into food (the illustration here is fabulously ghostly):

The mother returns home to find her children gone, and the story becomes about her quest to get them back.  She tricks Heckedy Peg into letting her in by pretending to cut off her own feet (you see what I mean about the Grimm aspect here), and the witch gives her a chance to break the spell: if she can correctly identify which child is which food on her first try, she wins them all back.  She uses the gifts each child wanted to figure it out:

Bread wants butter.  That's Monday.
Pie wants knife.  That's Tuesday.
Milk wants pitcher.  That's Wednesday.
Porridge wants honey.  That's Thursday.
Fish wants salt.  That's Friday.
Cheese wants crackers. That's Saturday.
And roast rib wants egg pudding.  That's Sunday.

The children resume their natural forms (Sunday, the littlest, immediately starts eating his bowl of egg pudding), and the mother emerges triumphant and runs the witch off.

It's pretty awesome.

I love the mother in this book, for her strength and her ultimate knowledge of her children.  I think Isabel responds to the odd magic of it, and the fairy tale trope of having disaster befall you when you break the rule you've been set.  The illustrations are spectacular -- the kids full of life in the pictures of their playful moments, every picture clearly a portrait of a real person.  It's a book with real staying power.

Love, Annie

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Life imitates Shirley Hughes

Dear Annie,

I had a lovely encounter walking home this afternoon, worthy of a blog entry.

It was a gorgeous day here today: sunny and not too humid.  I ran into a neighbor on a walk with her two sons, ages 1 and 4.  She commented about hoping for rain, and I realized the 4 year-old was wearing a pair of bright yellow rain boots.  We all stood quietly admiring them for a moment, then his mother realized that they were on the wrong feet.  "That's why you've been walking that funny way," she said.  It took a little twisting, wiggling, and bracing himself against the available grown-ups, but he managed to switch boots without sitting down.  "Ah," I said, "do you know Alfie's Feet?"

They didn't.

Alfie's Feet
is one of several excellent picture books by Shirley Hughes, whose praises we've sung on more than one occasion.  Alfie loves to splash in puddles, so his mother gets him a  pair of lovely yellow Wellingtons (he is, after all, British).  He puts them on and heads out into the world:
Alfie stamped in a lot of mud and walked through a lot of puddles, splish, splash, SPLOSH!  He frightened some sparrows who were having a bath.  He even frightened two big ducks.  They went hurrying back to their pond, walking with their feet turned in.
His father notices that Alfie is walking a bit like the ducks, and realizes that his boots are on the wrong feet.  Alfie sits down and remedies the situation.  Satisfaction all around.  It's Shirley Hughes immersing herself in a pre-schooler's point of view, savoring small details.

It was such a magical moment for me, watching a pre-schooler realize his yellow Wellies were on the wrong feet.  It felt like a gift from the book gods. 

I'm getting the neighbors a copy of Alfie's Feet as soon as I get to work tomorrow.



Thursday, June 13, 2013

Funky parents, and a chicken

Dear Aunt Debbie,

After writing briefly about Bob Graham last week, I found myself thinking more about the wealth of detail in his illustrations.  Rereading April and Esme, ToothFairies, I noticed that Fay, the fairy mom, has a small blue tattoo on her right shoulder. (Take an extra moment here to appreciate the household items that have been repurposed as bathroom furniture.)

John, the fairy dad, sports a ponytail. In an early scene, he's shown hanging up the family laundry to dry in front of the fireplace.

They're a little funky.

This shouldn't be a surprise: the parents Bob Graham draws often are.  Here are the mom and dad from Oscar's Half Birthday, moving furniture aside to dance together in the living room after they get home from celebrating:

And here are the parents from Queenie, One of the Family: mom with short pink hair, dad with an earring knitting booties for their coming baby:

Queenie is another favorite of ours, gifted by you.  It's the story of a family living across a highway from farmland, who rescue a hen from a lake and take her home for a bit before bringing her back to the farm where she belongs.  (Again, there's that city/country combination.)

They name the hen Queenie, and she bonds with the family: mom, dad, daughter Caitlin, and Bruno the dog, whose basket she usurps before being taken back to the farm.  But Queenie returns: every morning, she walks from the farmyard over the road, across the highway bridge, and in through the dog door to lay an egg in Bruno's basket.

The drawings show what happens to the eggs, which are used for breakfast and then to make a cake for Caitlin's first birthday. And it is the drawings, rather than the text, which set us up for the birth of Caitlin's little brother.  This isn't a heavy-handed New Baby book: the preparations for the baby take place entirely in pictures, and the focus isn't on Caitlin's reaction to him (though there's a lovely illustration at the end of her trying to balance a stuffed animal on his head).  But the baby's arrival is exciting enough that Caitlin forgets to collect Queenie's eggs, and Bruno the dog accidentally hatches them. Then the chicks need to be returned to their mother, across the highway bridge and over the path -- Graham's refrain in this book is "That might have been the end of the story -- but it wasn't!"  There is so much story here, and so much warmth to be found in rereading.

Love, Annie

Monday, June 10, 2013

Little House, big reach

Dear Annie,

"Mellow" and "oddball" - excellent choice of words when describing Bob Graham's lovely books.  I'm glad April and Esme was a hit.

Bob found a lovely little story in our neighborhood paper the other day, about a kids' writing contest.  The Library of Congress invites students from fourth to tenth grades to write a letter to an author -- not necessarily a live one -- talking about how the author's books "affected them personally."  49,000 kids sent in letters this year, and the winner is from here in Washington DC.  I thought you'd enjoy this story because she wrote her letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Alessandra Selassie is a fifth grader in a DC charter school; she started reading the Little House books as a kindergartener, and has re-read them over the years.  I can't find the full text of her essay, but here are some excerpts:
When I want water, I turn on the tap.  When it’s dark, I turn on the light.  While my life is so different than yours, I was still so touched by your books because they helped me to finally understand the life of someone I love: my father. 
Her father grew up in Eritrea.  "My dad kept on telling me stories about his childhood, but I wouldn't really understand them," Alessandra told the paper.  He grew up without electricity, sometimes without enough to eat.  "When this contest came up, I thought about my dad, and I realized how I have sort of changed over the time that I had read [the series] because I understood them more, and I related to the books."  Wilder, she writes,
gave me a new way of looking at him. ... I know you wrote these books to help children understand the lives of American pioneers, but for me, it helped me see my father's African childhood as being less foreign.
This makes me think of a discussion you and I had back when the blog was young, about books as windows or mirrors.   Author Mitali Perkins spoke at BEA in 2010, saying that some books will reflect readers' own experiences back at them, while others provide a window into unimagined new worlds.  For Alessandra, Wilder provided the window to a mirror reflecting her father back to her.



Alessandra Selassie, holding a mock-up of her $1,000 prize check, with lots of supportive unidentified grown-ups.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Tooth fairies with cell phones

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Really interesting speech from Veronica Roth about the importance of humility as both a reader and a writer. The way she writes about her fans educating her about the problems with her use of sexual assault as a plot device made me think of Kristin Cashore's acknowledgments section at the end of Bitterblue.  Cashore describes the way she came to see her treatment of one of her main characters as problematic when viewed through the lens of the disability rights movement.  This character goes blind towards the end of Graceling, but is endowed with special powers which allow him to effectively hide his blindness from the rest of the world.  While he is physically disabled, he doesn't have to deal with the real-world effects of that disability.  There's something kind of wonderful about this quick and detailed back-and-forth between author and readers, though I imagine something terrifying about it too.

It was lovely to see you last weekend!  The books you brought have already become household favorites; today, in fact, I was asked to read Bob Graham's April and Esme, Tooth Fairies, no less than three times.  (Regular readers will notice that I've put up a brand-new picture of you reading to Isabel; that's the book she's gazing at so intently.)

I love Bob Graham's books.  They have a sweetness to them, a kind of mellow, oddball feel.  His characters are gentle -- not a lot of conflict in the worlds he creates, though there is some drama.  In April and Esme, the title characters are two young tooth fairies, setting out to bring back their first tooth, and leave their first coin.  Their parents, also tooth fairies, worry at first:

"You and Esme?  A tooth in Parkville?" said their mom, Fay.  "Darlings, you're far too young."

"You went by yourself when you were six, Mommy," said Esme.  She balanced a bubble on the end of her finger till it popped.  "Same age as me--and April's even older."

"Well, that was long ago," said Mom.  "Before the highway came.  Foxes still chased hares on the hill, and things were different back then."

"Well, some things haven't changed, Mommy."  Esme took a sip of her dandelion soup.
"Children still lose their first teeth," April said, "and ducklings still have to take their first swim."

So April and Esme set off, with instructions from their father to remember that the boy, Daniel, thinks they are magical spirits, and must not see them, and from their mother to text her if they need to (they do).  Yes, text: one of the things I like so much about Graham's work is the way he combines the old and the new, nature and the intrusion of the modern world.  Fairies carry cell phones, and their home in a field next to a stump is right up next to a busy highway.  In Oscar's Half Birthday, the family lives in an apartment building and has to go past train tracks with graffiti on them in order to get to "the half-country" for their picnic.  There's no fight between these different elements; they simply exist, side by side.

Graham illustrates his own books, and his detailed pictures often hint at elements of the story that he doesn't explain directly in the text.  In April and Esme, the fairies find Daniel's tooth in a glass of water by his nightstand, and April has to dive to retrieve it.  A couple of pages later, we see Grandma asleep with her dentures in a glass of water on her nightstand.  April tells Esme not to try to take the dentures, but no one explicitly says what the drawings show you: that Daniel has put his tooth in water to be like his grandmother. In a drawing of the fairies' living room, you might notice that their rocking horse is a chess piece: a knight turned on its side, with wheels added.  In a bathroom scene, the mom dries her hair in one panel, then holds up the hair dryer to waft Esme higher in the air on her wings as they talk.  There's a lot to find and enjoy, amid the pleasing round-faced characters and ponytailed dads.

Thanks for the gift!

Love, Annie

Monday, June 3, 2013

Reading humility

Dear Annie,

It was so delightful to see you and all of yours this weekend!  I read two books to Isabel; Eleanor read two books to me.  And it was a pleasure to meet the newest relative: young Will was wonderful.

As you know, I was in New York for Book Expo America, the annual booksellers' conference.  It always provides a few unexpected moments that make me glad I was there; this time the surprise came from a wildly successful 24 year-old writer of YA dystopian fiction.  Veronica Roth has sold 3 million copies of
and its sequel,
.  Divergent has a YA-familiar story line: in a future controlled society, teenagers get sorted into different groups which narrowly define them for life.  The government is repressive and more corrupt than originally believed by our teenage protagonist.  There's friendship, betrayal, and a fair amount of hand-to-hand combat.  The book ends leaving fans impatient for the sequel.

BEA's Children's Author Breakfast is often inspirational for the hundreds of booksellers gathered at the Javits Center.  (See Lowry, Selznick, and others.)  In theory, this year Roth had tough acts to follow: she spoke after Mary Pope Osborne (Magic Tree House: 110 million books in print) and Rick Riordan (Lightning Thief and many mythology-based sequels: 33 million books in print).  Osborne's speech had been okay; Riordan's felt like he'd said the same words at every book event he'd ever been to.  Then Roth got up, and with an occasional quaver in her voice, spoke from the heart.

She had, she said, been an obsessive child reader until high school.  She had a boyfriend who felt he was too cool for Harry Potter, ridiculing the excitement around the release of the last book.  She ended up reading it in secret weeks after it came out, not telling anyone that she had.  "After that I became ashamed of a lot of the books I liked and tried to push myself to read the books I felt you weren't supposed to be ashamed of."  This eventually led to her stopping reading for pleasure. "I lost my love of reading at the same moment I started to say, 'I already know' instead of 'I'm here to learn.'  In other words, at the moment that I lost my reading humility."

She said her fans got her back into the love of reading because of their unapologetic enthusiasm for many different kinds of literature.
When I talk about reading humility, I'm not talking about turning off your critical brain. I'm talking about the way you read. Reading like someone who is there to learn means assuming at the outset that a book is valuable and searching it for that value. If, at the end of that search, you don't come up with anything, it's important to be able to figure out why. But it's that starting place, that willingness to love things, that I most admire about young readers.

Roth went on to talk about bringing the "I'm here to learn" attitude to her writing -- both in the editing process, and in dealing with reader reaction.

A few months after my first book came out, several book bloggers in the Young Adult blog-o-sphere made me aware of something. There's a trend in Young Adult books in which a sexual assault is used as a plot device, either to illustrate just how bad an antagonist is or to heighten the suspense, which is harmful for many reasons. Chiefly, that it doesn't engage with the issue of sexual assault with care and respect. The aforementioned bloggers indicated to me that a scene in 'Divergent' participated in this trend.

She went through months of feeling defensive before she acknowledged that she used the assault to advance the plot without incorporating its emotional effect on her character.
I couldn't change what I had written, but I could change the way I reacted to it. So, I talked about it on my blog, and it was humbling. That act of humility, painful and uninviting though it was, it was a gift. I realized that if I wanted to write a character whose experience was different than mine, humility could drive me to diligent research, careful depiction, thoughtful revision and openness to critique. It could make me free to say, 'I'm here to learn' instead of 'I already know.' And if and when I failed I could be free to say, 'Maybe you have a point, and I can do better next time' instead of 'your critiques are not valid.'

I think what I like about Roth is the sense of her as a work in progress: someone who's still thinking and working things out even though she's become a star in the YA world.  It made me think I should pick up Insurgent sometime soon and check out the author's evolution.



Here's the whole speech.