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.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Up the Creek

Dear Annie,

Sticker Dollys!  Where would I be without them: they sell like crazy.  And they're from Usborne, the lovely British publisher which seems to be successfully resisting Amazon.  The Action Dollys book which you show is a brand-new one.  Some of us think it's in reaction to the Sticker Dressing Heroes which were all male: guys who went into space, disposed of bombs, rescued people underwater, etc.  It got a little irritating that the women were shopping and going to weddings while the guys saved lives, but now the Action Dollys are starting to even it up.

Bob and I are heading to Maine this weekend, and I just ordered a new book for the store that is putting me in the mood.  Up the Creek by Nicholas Oldland is a charming book about one of our favorite summer pastimes: canoeing. 
There once were a bear, a moose and a beaver who were the best of friends, though they often disagreed.
One sunny day, the bear, the moose and the beaver decided to go canoeing.
Anyone who has been canoeing with novices -- especially novices who often disagree -- can see where this is going: around.

They finally work it out -- this is actually a clever "lesson book" masquerading as a good travel tale --  and fall into something of a rhythm, squabbling enough that they don't hear the approaching rapids.  Just as they plummet into the whitewater, we see the beaver screaming, the moose covering his eyes with his hooves, and the bear, as is his wont, paddling diligently.  Then:

(note the red bird)
They spend the night stranded on a rock in the rapids, arguing about the best course of action.
The moose wanted to burn the canoe to make a signal fire.
The bear wanted to throw the beaver to shore to get help.
The beaver figured swimming to shore would be safer. . . .
Ultimately, they realize they've just got to get back in the canoe and work together.  The illustrations give a wacky exuberance to this trio, making their arguments and resolutions part of the nuttiness of it all.  There's a two-page spread of running rapids, upending the canoe, capsizing and recovery, a brief shore-side lineup which looks suspiciously like all three guys peeing, and the final triumphant paddles-up joy of flat water.  Exhausted at the end, they cook lunch over the fire: the bear holds a fish over the flames, the moose a handful of grass, and the beaver a branch.

They decide to walk home.

Maybe it's just my proximity to vacation by the Saco River, but it's certainly put me in the mood to get there.  Next week, I'll give you a report on canoeing conditions.



Thursday, July 25, 2013

Best sticker books ever?

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I am sorely tempted to grab Jeff right now and rehearse the fights Eleanor and Isabel have with each other so that we can act them out and cure our children of bickering once and for all, a la Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  I remember the radish cure well -- one of those images that sticks with you, all those little green sprouts growing out of Patsy's dirt-covered skin.

Summer has brought us some good vacation time, and with it the need for distraction on airplanes and long car rides.  I've written before about sticker books, and you've brought up other good kinds of activity books as well.  Our current household obsession entered our lives as a gift from my friend (and our guest blogger) Faith. When Will was born, she sent us a package including a present for him and sticker books for Eleanor and Isabel from the Usborne "Sticker Dolly Dressing" series.

Despite their cloying name, these are fabulous books.  Each one contains a series of pages of cartoon-style figures standing in scenes in their underwear.  The middle pages of each book contain sticker clothing to peel up and apply to each of the figures, so that everybody ends up dressed.  In some of the books, each outfit must be put on the correct person; in others, you can choose which clothes to put on which doll.
Sticker Dolly Dressing Action!                                                           Historical Sticker Dolly Dressing

Some books follow a few characters through a rough narrative: three bridesmaids get ready for their friend's wedding, for example.  In others, each scene stands alone: historical styles of the 1920s, or festivals from different countries.  The "Historical Sticker Dolly Dressing" books are drawn in a more realistic style, Tom Tierney-like

Each book takes hours -- literally, hours -- to complete.  Eleanor is deeply into applying all of the stickers the right way, and will work her way through a book until it's completely finished.  Isabel is a little more slapdash, but enjoys them all the same.  Many of the books are pretty girly, with princesses, brides, and fairies taking up starring roles.  A little deeper in the catalog, however, you'll find a nice smattering of multiculturalism, some Dollys of different races, and even a book of pirates.

I've just sent three more books to my friend (and our guest blogger) Cyd, to occupy her three older daughters in the weeks following the birth of her fourth.  I have a feeling they won't be the last ones I'm buying.

Love, Annie

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Dear Annie,

Books and a flashlight under the pillow!  Excellent!

 I've just spent a lovely afternoon re-reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  A little while ago I referred to it as an Ur-text of what Eleanor called a "lesson book."  Betty MacDonald wrote four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books between 1947 and 1957, all of which pointed out bad behavior in children and illustrated ways to modify it.

During the years that we read a lot of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, I went from finding the books archaic and ponderous, to scathingly satirical, to straightforwardly hilarious.  I still love the books now, although I know they can be an acquired taste.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is a charmingly eccentric (but wise!) little woman who lives in a house that has been built upside down, with chandeliers rising from the floor.   She plays with all the neighborhood kids, who have free run of her house and possessions, and counsels the parents how to stop the children's bad habits, which are legion.  The structure of almost every chapter is the same: we meet a new child, discover his or her intolerable (to the parents) vice: extreme selfishness, aversion to bathing, tattling, dishonesty, etc.  Someone mentions that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle might have the answer, and the rest of the chapter is devoted to her "cure."  In our household, the first mention of her name was usually shouted out by all listeners.  Wikipedia has a lovely chart of all the cures.  In two of the books all the cures are behavioral; the two others introduce magic.  I'm sticking to the non-magical today.

In "The Selfishness Cure" we meet Dick Thompson, who refuses to share anything.  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle tells the parents to label everything with Dick's name "DICK'S BOOK -- DON'T TOUCH! DICK'S NOTEBOOK -- DON'T TOUCH!  DICK'S CRAYONS -- DON'T TOUCH!"  This extends to bicycle, baseball bat, lunchbox, and even food, which is labeled with icing: "DICK'S APPLE -- DON'T TOUCH!"  Dick is mercilessly laughed at in school; by the second day someone pins on his back "THIS IS DICK -- DON'T TOUCH!"  Dick can't take the ostracism and within two days he declares that he's willing to share everything he owns.  This story gave us another family literary reference -- every now and then one can be moved to theatrically assert ownership, adding, DON'T TOUCH!

"The Radish Cure" deals with Patsy Waters, who refuses to bathe.  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle counsels her parents to wait until the dirt on Patsy is deep enough to sprinkle her with radish seeds while she sleeps.
When they had finished and were standing by her bed gazing fondly at their handiwork, Patsy's father said, "Repulsive little thing, isn't she?"
The dads often get to say the little zingers.

Patsy, unphased by dirt, is horrified by green radish sprouts and demands to bathe.  Problem solved.

The names are part of what won me over to MacDonald's nutty sense of humor.  Corinthian Bop, Enterprise Beecham, Jimmy Gopher, Electra Rockstall and my favorite, Paraphernalia Grotto, all have appearances.  The upwardly-climbing Foxgloves name their sons Harvard and Cornell; the daughters are Melody and Emmy: this is the Fifties.  The moms are all full-time moms, baking cookies and talking with the other moms about their children.  Dads are consulted on the phone, want to read the evening paper more than engage with their families, and forget Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's name ("Call that Mrs. Wriggle-Spiggle.").  But as this theme goes through story after story, I start suspecting MacDonald of being a proto-feminist social critic.

The story that provoked the most glee in our house was "The Fighter-Quarrelers Cure," about the constantly bickering Russell twins, Anne and Joan.  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle tells the parents to take notes on the girls' fights and then act them out the next day.  So the day starts with the mother screaming to her children that the father has told her there's a spider in her bed (Joan's usual attack on Anne). 
Mr Russell said, "Was she scared?" and jumped out of bed and ran into the bathroom shouting at the top of his voice, "Ha, ha, my first turn for the shower!"
   At that Mrs. Russell came flying in from the twins' room and began pounding on the bathroom door, yelling, "It is not your first turn!  It's mine!  You traded me your first turn yesterday for a new golf ball."
   Mr. Russell laughed rudely and called out "Too bad for you.  I've got the door locked."
   Mrs. Russell kicked at the door and shouted, "Cheater, cheater, cheater!"
The fights go on until the children, having learned their lesson, beg their parents to stop fighting.  All go out for ice cream.

The redeeming element of all these stories is that outrageous behavior -- by kids and adults -- is so much more entertaining than the final lesson (let's-be-good-and-share/bathe/not fight).

 I look forward to seeing what your family will think of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.



Thursday, July 11, 2013

Griffins and unicorns and kraken, oh my!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your haiku summarization of the beginning of The Secret Garden is perfect, and gives me a new level of appreciation for the extreme condensing that some of these early readers provide.  (On a more adult level, have you seen these "ultra-condensed classics"? Some are pretty funny.)

Back in the world of unabridged chapter books, Eleanor and I have finished the Little House series.  We left Laura and Almanzo married and settling down on their own small farm, after a sweet, low-key courtship.  Our Little House sojourn has led to a number of chapter books piling up, and Eleanor's next pick was something totally different: middle-grade fantasy filled with mythological creatures and cliffhanger chapter endings.

I'm speaking of The Menagerie, the latest book by my friend-from-college Tui T.Sutherland, co-written with her sister Kari Sutherland.  Tui and Kari were in New York recently to promote The Menagerie at the great independent bookstore Books of Wonder, along with a number of other middle-grade authors, and we bought ourselves a signed copy there.  It turned out to be a terrific purchase -- Eleanor loves this book, and we swept through it in less than a week.

The plot: There's a secret menagerie filled with mythological creatures (unicorns, dragons, griffins, etc.) in the small town of Xanadu, Wyoming.  Before the story begins, six griffin cubs have just escaped, and their possible discovery in the town threatens the existence of the Menagerie.  There are two protagonists: Logan Wilde, a boy who's just moved to Xanadu from Chicago after his mother left him and his father, and Zoe Kahn, the youngest child of the family that has run the Menagerie for generations.  Logan stumbles into the mystery of the missing cubs, and finds an immediate connection with the animals, but struggles with the question of why his mother has abandoned him.  Zoe spends the book worried about saving the Menagerie: agents from a governmental agency tasked with overseeing mythological animals are due to inspect the premises, and the missing cubs are a huge problem.  There are a host of other characters, human and animal, and sometimes a combination of the two.

What I like most about this book, and about Tui's series Avatars, is the level of research that underlies the characters: each animal in the Menagerie comes from the mythology or folktales of a different culture, and the result is a kind of mythological mash-up.  There are windows into a wide variety of stories that a reader might pursue, from the phoenix to the kelpie (a Celtic water-horse spirit) and the kitsune (a Japanese fox spirit -- who knew?).  Several of the characters here suffer from enlarged egos, and the clashes between the phoenix and the goose who lays golden eggs are particularly funny.

The narration alternates between close-third-person chapters from Logan's and Zoe's point of view.  Both are appealing characters, of the observant quirky loner type I've always been fond of.  Logan is African-American, and there are sprinkled references to racial and ethnic diversity among the other characters: the school librarian, who may be hiding a secret herself, is Indian, and a variety of skin tones are mentioned.  There are a few too many mean-girls in the book for my taste: Zoe's older sister Ruby and adopted sister Keiko, her former best friend Jasmin, a host of mermaids.  That being said, both Zoe and her mom are down-to-earth, and Logan's mom, in absentia, becomes a really interesting character by the end of the first book.

Because yes, The Menagerie is the first book in a trilogy.  This came as a shock to Eleanor this morning when we reached the end, and only one of the many outstanding plot questions was answered, followed immediately by a dramatic twist and the words "To be continued...."  She was thrilled and frustrated in equal measure.  We're both sorry we have to wait until next March for book two.

The multiple cliffhangers throughout this book captured Eleanor's imagination all week.  Waking up, it was the first thing she asked for, and in the afternoons after day camp, she'd turn to me out of the blue and say, "But we still don't know who opened the gate to let the griffins out," or "What's going to happen to Logan?  He's right there, and the SNAPA agents are coming!"  A couple of times, when I had to pause in our reading to change a diaper or otherwise take care of Will, Eleanor read a full chapter on her own (putting the bookmark back where she and I had stopped, so that I would reread what she'd read and we could talk through the words and pop culture references she didn't know).  I love the way in which her independent reading is starting to dovetail with our reading together.

From her excitement over this book to the early readers and flashlight I found stashed under her pillow tonight, I have a feeling this is going to be an excellent reading summer.

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Peter Pan industrial-strength haiku

Dear Annie,

Yes!  Please come visit again soon. It was wonderful having all five of you here in D.C.  The block castle still stands guard in the living room, and kids' books are scattered even more thickly than usual all around the house.  We had a lovely time.  I'm very fond of the picture of Jeff and the girls reading in the board book section.

We all managed to linger over many delightful books, but today I'm bringing us one that is more efficient than eloquent.  As you heard when you came to the store, it's hard to find a short book with pictures in it which can introduce the story of Peter Pan to a three or four year-old.  You wrote a while ago about a re-telling at an early chapter level, but as you pointed out, the Disney Golden Book is about the only illustrated option for young ones.

Imagine my surprise when
Disney Peter Pan Level 1 Reader
appeared in a shipment recently. It's a reader -- one of those beginner ones which rarely offers more than two or three words per page.  This one reads like the winner of a contest to summarize a plot in fewer than 50 words.  Here's the entire text, each line a page:
Peter Pan!
Fairy dust.
They can fly!
Fly to Never Land!
Meet Tinker Bell.
Follow the Lost Boys.
See mermaids.
Pirates! Oh, no!
Captain Hook's ship.
Walk the plank.
Brave Peter.
Clumsy Captain!
Take the ship!
Fly home.

Forty-one words.  I find this weirdly engaging.  It gives the parent who's forgotten everything the rough outline to summarize the plot to a child.  A few major elements are missing, of course: Stories!  Poison! Tiger Lily! There's zero literary merit here, but room to elaborate.  A sort of disneyfied haiku.

At this rate, how many words for The Secret Garden (Wake up./All dead./Moor./Uncle's house./Screams in night./Locked!/...)? And shall we allow 70 for Dickens?

Ah well, the summer heat is wreaking havoc with my brain.

Love to you and yours,


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Please and thank you

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What a lovely visit we had with you in Washington, DC! The trip to Child's Play was among the highlights.  We hadn't been there since before the renovation, and it's so cheering to be among such well-stocked shelves!  After being briefly distracted by the racks of dress-up in  the toy section of the store, Eleanor and Isabel settled down to looking at books.  We said we'd buy each girl one of her choosing: Isabel picked Owl Babies, and Eleanor a new Nancy Drew.

Then I spotted Thank You, Mama, by Kate Banks, which I was curious to read after your post on it a couple of months ago, and found its companion book, Please, Papa.  I quickly read through both, fell completely in love with them, and passed the two books over to Jeff to read to the girls while I nursed Will.

In Please, Papa, the animal-loving Alice is making a farm in her bedroom.  She asks her mother for a variety of animals, and her mother responds with a refrain familiar to all parents:

"Mama, give me the pig," she said.
"Say please," said Alice's mother.
"Please, Mama," said Alice,
and her mother gave her the pig.

In Gabi Swiatkowska's fabulous illustrations, the animals that Alice's mother passes over aren't toys, but real farm animals -- Alice lugs the huge pig across the page.  The requests continue, and Alice gets slightly more polite, until Alice asks for a horse and her mother doesn't have one.  When her father comes home from work, Alice asks him for a horse, and when she says please, he becomes the horse, lifting her up onto his shoulders:

"Make the horse trot," said Alice.  "Please, Papa."
Alice's father skipped around the room.
"Make the horse neigh," said Alice.  "Please, Papa."
Alice's father bobbed his head and neighed like a horse.
"Make the horse gallop," said Alice.  "Please, Papa."
Alice's father raced around the room with Alice on his shoulders.

"Make the horse jump," said Alice.  "Please."
"No," said her father.

"Please, Papa," said Alice.
Her father shook his head.
"No," he said again.  "This horse is tired."
Alice frowned.

This is the moment that made me love this book unquestioningly: the father's total willingness to play, and then his need to stop playing before she's tired of the game, ring true.  Alice pouts, and then her father asks her ("please, Alice") to give him a rest, and she gets over her pout, and she does.  It's pretty much what happens at our house every time Jeff comes home from work.

So thank you, most wonderful Aunt Debbie, for hosting us and giving us gifts (including these two excellent books), and for continuing to support such good reading in our home.  And please, can we come visit again sometime soon?

Love, Annie