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.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Surviving, and loving books

Dear Annie,

Like you, I revisited My Side of the Mountain a few years ago.  It's assigned a lot in fifth grades in our area.  What struck me was how out of date it seemed.  It's the story of a young man who goes off to live by himself in nature, but the first thing he does is hollow out a centuries-old tree with fire.  His attitude toward his surroundings was one of using it for his needs: burning the tree, stealing a falcon from its nest.

That book leads one to think of the uber-survival novel: Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen.  A light plane goes down in the wilderness of northern Canada, with the sole survivor a teenage boy whose only possession is a small hatchet.  Unlike My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet is filled with self-doubt, and the trials of a young man who starts out completely clueless about how to survive.  It's an older read: the first chapter includes a graphic description of the pilot dying of a heart attack.  But it's riveting.

If you're revisiting survival novels of your youth, why not take a look at  Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell?   I don't know how it would play for Eleanor.  An Indian girl living alone on an island off the coast of California.  Lots of figuring out how to fend for oneself, and defending against predators. 

Last weekend was the National Book Festival here in D.C.  I missed one day of it because I was hosting several authors -- including Mark Teague and Tamora Pierce! -- who came by the store to sign copies of their books.  It was a pleasure to meet them -- they were in town for the festival.  On Sunday I managed to get to the mall and hear a number of kids' authors.  What struck me most this year, though, had to do with the people in the audience.

During Grace Lin's presentation, I sat next to a middle-aged woman from Pennsylvania who was getting her PhD in children's literature.  Her dissertation is on kids' books about racially mixed families.  When Susan Cooper spoke, I wasn't very aware of the woman sitting on my right until, when the audience started moving out, a young woman appeared on my left, leaning over me, and breathlessly asked my seating companion if she had spoken on a panel the day before.  Yes, she had.  "Oh, you're,  you're -- "  "Megan Whalen Turner," the woman replied, smiling, "Yes I am."  They walked off together.  She's the author of a much-loved fantasy series set in Attolia (see Tui's comment here).

Wow -- I've just mentioned three major fantasy writers (Cooper, Pierce, Turner) who I saw last weekend, none of whom we've blogged about at any length.  So much still to do!

But back to book-lovers.  Mark Teague, illustrator of the Poppleton books and the cloying but well illustrated How Do Dinosaurs... books attracted a crowd whose average height must have been about four feet tall.  Dozens of kids lined up to ask him star-struck questions about his work.  It was pretty much the same four questions over and over, all of which he answered with warmth and humor.  The whole festival made me feel great about the future of reading.

So I leave you with the first eight panels of Lynda Barry's "20 Stages of Reading," a work commissioned by the Washington Post to publicize this year's Book Festival:

... continued here.



Monday, September 23, 2013

Independent living

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your mention of Julie of the Wolves reminded me of another One Young Person Surviving the Wilderness story which I read in elementary school: My Side of the Mountain.  I'd forgotten, if I ever knew, that both books were written by the same author, Jean Craighead George.  My memories of the book were fairly dim -- a snowstorm, a hollow tree, a bird -- and I don't think it's a book I ever reread, which says something about how much I liked it, as I was an inveterate rereader.  I thought of how much Eleanor loved the Little House books, with their highly specific details about how to make and do the things necessary for life in the Big Woods and on the prairie, and of how much she loved the running away and planning in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and wondered if My Side of the Mountain  would be a good book to go to next.  Happily, it's one of those classics that is easily found on the shelves of my local library, without having to request it from another branch.  I took it out and reread it today.  And remembered why I do not love this book.

On one level, it's a really interesting story: 12-year-old Sam Gribley decides he's fed up with life in a New York apartment with his eight brothers and sisters, and runs away to live alone on land owned by his family in the Catskill Mountains.  He is amazingly successful at feeding, clothing, and housing himself, and George provides copious details about how to hollow out a tree to live in, and which plants are edible.  Sam steals a baby falcon from her nest and trains her up to hunt for him; for much of the book, the falcon Frightful is his only companion.  Sam enjoys the solitude at first, but then begins to look for human companionship, and has a few interactions with people who come across him on the mountain: a lost college professor, a boy his age who wants to be a newspaper reporter.  Though he's tried to escape into the wilderness, he ultimately creates civilization around himself.

I think what keeps me from entering into the story more is Sam's total competence.  Nowhere in the book does he explain how he knows so much about every aspect of living in the woods.  At the beginning, he refers to not knowing at first how to start a fire with a flint, and later he describes having to try building a chimney for his treehouse a few times before getting it right, but his narration is largely straightforward: then I skinned the deer and tanned its hide and made a perfect pair of pants.  Really?  On your first try?  After coming from an apartment in New York City?  I buy that a city boy would want to run away to the wilderness, and that he might know something about how to survive.  (My own brother, Michael, chafed at growing up in New York and once in high school went so far as to plan to run away to the Grand Canyon; later in life, he learned to farm, to butcher cows, and to camp pretty much anywhere.)  In a preface to the edition I read, Jean Craighead George writes that in her own childhood, her father took her camping and taught her about wilderness survival, and her brothers trained falcons.  Giving that kind of background to Sam would make his abilities more believable, but in the narrative there's almost no reference to his family or life before running away.  His voice reads largely like a summary of his experience, a kind of animated How To Survive in the Woods.  His character is stoic, and I find it hard to imagine a truly stoic 12-year-old.

So this won't be the next book I pick up with Eleanor.  Perhaps she'll like it herself, in a few years time.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Name that book

Dear Annie,

Ah, the power of great folk tales.  Especially when women are leading the charge.

I had a very satisfying Book Lady Moment yesterday.  A customer had been asked by a friend to pick up a book about which she knew only:
  • It was by a Newbery or Caldecott winning author.
  • It had a monster or a wolf and the ocean in it.
  • The author was female.
My first thought was Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George.  The story of an Inuit girl who lives with a wolf pack, it won the 1973 Newbery Medal.

No, said the customer, that's not it.  Then she added that the friend had heard the author on the radio recently.  George died last year, so that was definitely out.

But radio attention was the key that solved the riddle.

This week, the National Book Award, in an effort to get more publicity for good books, decided to release a "Longlist" of contestants for the 2013 Award.  The Young People's Literature list includes ten nominees.  It's a good list this year, ranging from edgy YA books to some very sweet and engaging books aimed much younger kids.

One of the nominated authors is Kathi Appelt, who won both a Newbery Honor and a National Book Award Finalist spot for her 2010 book The Underneath.  Not a big fave of mine: a little dark and too fond of the nobility of suffering.  Her current release, though, is delightful: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp.  There are no wolves in the book, although there are two very likable raccoon siblings.  The bad guys are the evil real estate developers, but there is a monster of sorts: the Sugar Man, a tropical yeti-like figure.  It all takes place in a swampy bayou in Texas -- I guess it sort of qualifies as ocean.

No wolves or open ocean, but it was the answer.  Once she heard the title, the customer knew that was it.  It's fun, this guessing game I play often with my customers.  And when the answer is a thoroughly enjoyable book, it feels all the better.



Sunday, September 15, 2013

East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love your suggestions for encouraging Isabel toward chapter books. I've ordered the read-aloud version of James and the Giant Peach for her birthday -- I think Roald Dahl's humor and meanness might work very well for Isabel's sensibility, and Quentin Blake's drawings can only help. She responds so strongly to illustrations.

One of our favorite picture books at the moment is a lavishly illustrated fairy tale: East of the Sun & West of the Moon, written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer. This authorship surprised me a few weeks ago when we picked up my childhood copy of the book at my parents' place (sadly, the book is out of print, though there are used copies out there -- the link above is to Alibris). The only other Mercer Mayer books we own are the not-terribly-interesting Little Critter series.  I'd forgotten that Mayer is also responsible for such extreme strangeness and beauty.

East of the Sun & West of the Moon is a retelling of a Scandinavian fairy tale, and contains elements familiar from other fairy tales as well.  A proud, beautiful maiden, the daughter of a farmer, falls on hard times when her parents lose their money and her father becomes gravely ill.  To cure him, she must bring back a clear drink of water from the spring of the South Wind.  She is helped in this by a frog, who asks her to grant him three wishes in return.  Of course she agrees, and her father gets well again; their fortunes are restored, and the young woman has forgotten the frog by the time he shows up and asks to visit her, then to have her hand in marriage.  She refuses him; when he insists she keep her promise, the maiden throws him against the wall, killing him.  It turns out he wasn't a frog at all, but a handsome youth, enchanted by an evil troll princess.  Death frees him from his frog-body, but he is seized by trolls, who take him away to the kingdom "east of the sun and west of the moon," where the troll princess plans to marry him.

The maiden, racked with guilt, embarks on a quest to save the youth from the fate she helped solidify.  She travels through vivid landscapes, visiting enormous wise creatures from whom she asks advice and receives gifts.  Two of my favorites:

The Salamander who lives in the fiery heart of a mountain of ice, and knows "everything that is in the heart of the world."

The Great Fish of the Sea, who knows "everything that is in the blood of the world."

Finally, the North Wind brings her to the land east of the sun and west of the moon, where she works for the troll princess, cleaning floors while the trolls torment her.

The maiden uses the gifts given to her by the creatures she's met to rescue the youth, who has been frozen in a block of ice, and defeat the trolls.  It's a happy ending, and a somewhat empowering one: the maiden shoots the troll princess in the heart and turns the other trolls to stone with no help from the youth, who looks like he needs a little time to wake up from being frozen.

Mayer's writing is poetic, and the descriptions of the connection between the maiden and the youth pretty sexy at times (Father Forest tells the maiden: "I know what is in your body and in the body of the youth, and I know that your bodies call to each other." Va-voom!). The illustrations are rich and elemental, emphasizing the maiden's smallness in relation to the creatures she meets.  The pictures I've scanned here are the ones which remained ingrained in my memory from my own childhood thirty years ago.  Vivid stuff.

In two days at my parents' place, Isabel asked us to read her this book seven times.  She drank it in.  So this week I'm thinking, if we're not doing so many chapter books just yet, I'm okay with that.

Love, Annie

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Enticing chapter books

Dear Annie,

Congratulations on being the mother of two schoolgirls!  Pre-K and First Grade: very impressive.

I've been thinking about your question of what to read next, now that both girls are enjoying Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  What books might entice Isabel to enjoy longer narratives?

At first, I came up with some chapter books that are camouflaged to look like picture books.  The Santore versions of The Wizard of Oz and Snow White fit that category.  Penguin books has done paperback editions of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach in an 8" x 10" format with color illustrations (still the great Quentin Blake pictures) on every page.  Running Press has large retold versions of Peter Pan, Brer Rabbit and Aesop's Fables with a full page picture on every two-page spread.  These are all called "read-aloud versions," designed to bridge the transition from picture to chapter books.

Then I came home to dinner with Bob, and we got to talking about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  What Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has that these others don't are real kids, in (more or less) real situations.   The conflict level is pretty high, intensifying the emotional drama.  She may not be old enough for them yet, but I think Isabel may find the Ramona books very much to her liking: a younger sister struggling with the world's expectations of her.   Henry Huggins, also by Beverly Cleary, combines some of that real-feeling atmosphere with the discovery and adoption of a stray dog, which could appeal to Isabel. 

Another one that might be worth looking at is the Stink series, by Megan McDonald.  I hesitate to recommend it because I only skimmed through the first one years ago.  Stink is a spin-off: he's the kid brother of Judy Moody, who has her own ten book series.  She's a fairly overbearing big sister.  In the first book, Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, he finds ways to stop worrying about his height (short), and tries to handle a certain level of conflict with his big sister.  It might be worth you taking a look at it before you introduce it in your home.  What made me think of it is the level of emotional intensity.

Will keep thinking about this.  More domestic drama -- hmm.



Friday, September 6, 2013

Resistance and repetition

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I wrote a few months back about Isabel's disinterest in starting to learn to read on her own, as Eleanor becomes an increasingly fluent reader.  Another facet of this resistance is that Isabel refuses to let me read her chapter books: not the early, short-chapter ones that Eleanor began with, like Riverside Kids and Jamie and Angus; not the longer chapter books full of animals that I know she'd love, like Doctor Dolittle or Mr. Popper's Penguins.

I don't mean that I start these books, and they don't hold her attention -- no, Isabel will not allow me to pick them up and try reading them to her in the first place. Never mind that some of her favorite picture books have text as dense as, or denser than, a chapter book might (St. George and the Dragon and The Kitchen Knight are regular fare these days); if it's not a picture book, she's not interested.  I know this is normal: she'll be 4 later this month, and I recognize that being able to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Eleanor for the first time when she was 3 1/2 was anomalous.  Still, Isabel has a good attention span, and I'd love to be able to enter a larger narrative world with her, as I do so often with Eleanor.

Isabel is a visual kid.  She watches movies with unblinking intensity -- sometimes her eyes actually water -- and recalls images vividly.  Any night that Jeff is home for bedtime, her reading of choice is our giant book of Little Nemo comic strips, which they have now read cover to cover, and to which she returns with specific requests for certain pages.  (The size of the book makes it impossible for me to handle when I'm home alone with three kids -- imagine trying to hold it over the head of a nursing baby!)

So our reading time, in the morning and at night, toggles back and forth between Eleanor's current chapter book and Isabel's desire to read the same small group of picture books repeatedly for days in a row.  It's not uncommon for them to argue over who gets read to first, or to pout when it's the other one's turn.  Isabel tunes out Eleanor's books (or listens to them with half an ear from the other side of the couch); Eleanor is bored by Isabel's desire for repetition.  I've been looking for a book that would keep both of them interested.

Enter Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  Reminded and inspired by your recent post about the miracle worker who cures children of all kinds of bad behavior, I requested the first book from the library, and it worked.  Although there are only two pictures per chapter, Isabel was captivated by the stories, and Eleanor found them hysterical.  "The Answer-Backer Cure" proved to be a tremendous favorite, as both girls liked the parrot who repeats rude phrases, loudly out-doing the girl whose rudeness needs to be cured.

So has Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle cured my children of their arguments at reading time?  Not exactly.  We read the first chapter, "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Herself," one evening last week, and everyone went to bed happy.  The next morning, Isabel wanted to hear the chapter again.  Eleanor, of course, wanted to read the next chapter.  And that's how it went for a few days: when it was Eleanor's turn to choose, we'd get one chapter further into the book.  When it was Isabel's turn, we would reread a chapter. By the end of the week, we got to know the book quite well.

Any suggestions for what we might try next?

Love, Annie