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, October 31, 2013

A literary Halloween

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm excited by the long list of elementary-age historical fiction choices -- thank you!  I look forward to part 2 of your answer.

It's been a busy Halloween week, and after successful costume-making and trick-or-treating, we're ready for a bit of a rest.  So I'll save the longer post I'm working on (Anne of Green Gables!) until early next week, and take a moment tonight to share this year's costumes, both inspired by books we've written about here.

Eleanor chose to be Young Guinevere, from the Robert San Souci book of the same name.  As I mentioned when we first got the book, we love the depiction of Guinevere as a strong, adventurous young woman, skilled with a bow and arrow, which she uses to fight off improbable monsters.

Here's Eleanor, in the costume she designed (she made the arrows by herself):

Isabel, revisiting our Halloween from two years ago, went as Dorothy.  While her slippers were red, as they are in the movie, the Charles Santore illustrations are what she pored over while thinking about her costume.  Here's Santore's Dorothy in the Emerald City:

And here's Isabel:

Books: the gifts that keep on giving.

Happy Halloween!

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 27, 2013

History series for newly-independent readers

Dear Annie,

Ah, so many books, so many kids.  I'm glad that Isabel's liking The Amazing World of Stuart.  I'm very fond of the idea that once Stuart owns a cape (made of dad's ties), of course he can fly.

You've asked a big question in that post -- about books to engage newly-independent readers, especially boys.  You've pushed two of my buttons on this one -- so I'm going to sound a few brief cautionary notes, then go on to the first of two lists.

You write:
One mom said that her son was only interested in non-fiction; one that hers was mired in Captain Underpants and its ilk.
So?  What's wrong with non-fiction?  I run into many parents who feel it's not really reading unless it's fiction, or seriously good fiction.  It's all reading, it all exercises those getting-comfortable-with-reading muscles, and if it's what interests the child, it will reinforce the concept that reading is something you do for enjoyment, not obligation. 

I think the Stuart Little Problem comes up a lot for parents.  Every parent remembers wonderful books from his or her own childhood, but we tend to forget both what ages we were when we read them, and the mountains of other books we were reading which have faded from memory.  Children have a lot of years to read amazing classics -- both ones their parents loved, and new ones they'll discover.  Right now a kid may be mired in one type of book only -- but as with everything else in their lives, new ideas will appear, horizons will open up.  It all doesn't have to happen at once.

Then there's the boys-are-harder-to-engage-in-reading argument.  Twenty years ago, every three year-old girl wasn't obsessed with being a princess, and every boy wasn't a reluctant reader.  These trends rise and fall in our culture, molded by lots of influences.  We already know how the Disney machinery pushes pink princesses.   Somehow, in the separation-of-the-genders gestalt that's going on these days, the concept that boys have a harder time with reading than girls is reinforced.  I know it's hard for parents to navigate through all this, but I'm a firm believer that it's possible to find books to connect with every child.

Okay, venting concluded.

Here are a number of history-based series, most of them not exclusively girl-centric, that engage a lot of kids, starting with non-fiction:

I've written about the Who Was... series before: a wide variety of very readable biographies, of people from Ferdinand Magellan to Steve Jobs.  Those folks have just launched a What Was... series, which so far includes Pearl Harbor, the March on Washington, The California Gold Rush, The Boston Tea Party, The Battle of Gettysburg, The First Thanksgiving and (near to my heart) The Alamo.  The Underground Railroad is scheduled for December.  They tend to appeal to first to fourth graders.  These folks seem to be making an effort to balance between books about war and ones about other kinds of events.

There's a whole subgenre of historical fiction on books about kids -- usually boys -- in wartime situations. They tend to aim at second to fifth graders in reading level and intensity of some of the topics.

Scholastic did a hardcover book series of fictional diaries of boys called "My Name is America" -- they were companions to "Dear America" girl diaries.  Diaries often appeal to new readers because each entry is usually shorter than your average chapter.  Like the American Girl chapter books that Eleanor loves, these diaries are written by significant kids' book authors, among them Walter Dean Myers, Kathryn Lasky, Laurence Yep, Joseph Bruchac.  I'd guess about half of them are combat related: American Revolution, Civil War, World War II, Vietnam.  But they also include topics like the Negro Leagues, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the transcontinental railroad.  Scholastic has started re-issuing the boy diaries as paperbacks and they seem more appealing that way than in the hardcovers.

 Lauren Tarshis pushes the envelope on action and danger further than most with her series, "I Survived."  I was a little skeptical about this series at first (I haven't read them), but it's developed a loyal following.  Kids -- both boys and girls -- come to the store eagerly looking for new books in the series within days of their publication dates.  Each of these novels follows one boy in the midst of an historical event: she takes on Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, and the Titanic among others.  But she also goes where few kids' book writers have before: The Shark Attacks of 1916, Hurricane Katrina 2005, The Japanese Tsunami of 2011, and The Attacks of September 11, 2001.  Needless to say, a parent would want to check them out a bit more, but they do touch kids' interest in disaster.

And then there's an odd but still attractive history series modeled on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" formula.  "You Choose: An Interactive History Adventure" books are all written in the second person.  You, the reader, are put in a situation where you determine what happens next.  Sometimes, as in You Choose: World War II Navy, you're deciding what character you are:

Other times, you're choosing the next action your character takes, as in You Choose: The Harlem Renaissance:
This form gives kids a number of features lacking in other books of this length.  Because you're skipping pages to get to the pages that you've chosen, the story you read at any given time is significantly shorter than the whole book.  And you can read and re-read many times before you start repeating, so it stays fresh for quite a while.  Topics range all over the place: many wars, immigration, pirates, Dust Bowl, Oregon Trail, many others.  The combat ones have the hazard of sometimes ending your story, after you've made several choices, with "You die."  Here's the only list I can find of most of the books.  It's on an education site, so it lists library-copy prices.  They're all in paperback too.

This post answers only part of your question about elementary school series.  I'll do part 2, on more whimsical fiction, soon.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Adventuresome boys

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As soon as I saw those little green aliens, I recognized the hand of David Wiesner -- they're clearly related to the undersea tourists in Flotsam:

I look forward to Mr. Wuffles!

In the last few weeks, I've had a couple of conversations with parents of boys around Eleanor's age and a little older -- 7-10 year olds -- about books to encourage independent reading. One mom said that her son was only interested in non-fiction; one that hers was mired in Captain Underpants and its ilk. Both were looking for ways to broaden their kids' reading habits.

I suggested that they check out our book lists of early chapter books and middle grade books, and thought in particular of Hero on a Bicycle, Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, and The Search for Delicious.  I realize, however, that middle grade books are not my area of expertise, and would love to ask you to weigh in.

You've written before about the unfortunate tendency of both publishers and consumers to designate books as "girls' books" or "boys' books," and the assumption that girls will read about male characters, while boys won't read about female characters. Many books are marketed with covers that pigeonhole them by gender, even if their content doesn't. When I mentioned that Eleanor was reading the American Girl books obsessively (30 books to date, and counting), and that I was impressed by the writing and historical detail in them, one mom wondered if there were an equivalent "for boys." Much as I'd like to say that boys would enjoy these adventure and history-filled narratives too, I know it's a hard sell to get an eight-year-old boy to carry around books emblazoned with "American Girl" on the cover. Is there a boy/more gender neutral version of this kind of historical fiction out there?

Happily, Eleanor and Isabel don't have any qualms about cross-gender reading. In easing Isabel into chapter books, in fact, we've recently been reading a number of books with boys as main characters. Two of your recommendations have been big hits.

Isabel liked Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, partly because of the comic book/superhero retellings at the end of each chapter. I wasn't crazy about the book. I made the mistake of not reading through it first on my own (though you warned me to do so!), and was blindsided by the rather grisly death of Stink's class pet, a newt named Newton.  He jumps out of Judy Moody's hands and down into the drain of the kitchen sink while they're cleaning his tank. Judy goes to turn on the light switch to look for him, and hits the garbage disposal switch instead. Isabel was more interested than upset by this development, and requested repeated readings of the chapter, but I can see plenty of kids of both genders who might dissolve into tears.

We're both big fans of The Amazing World of Stuart, by Sara Pennypacker.  Stuart, age 8, has just moved to a new town and is worried about making friends and upset that all of his treasures were thrown away accidentally because they looked like trash.  He copes by making a cape out of 100 ties (he staples them together, with a lone purple sock as a hidden pocket).  In each of the following chapters, the cape's magic sets off an adventure: Stuart finds seeds in the pocket and grows giant plants bearing hot buttered toast; Stuart's cat and his neighborhood sanitation man switch bodies, and Stuart has to pick up the trash; Stuart gets locked in the bathroom at school and sneaks out through a hole which he can fold up and put in his pocket.  There is no discussion of the weirdness or improbability of these events.  Stuart's parents seem oblivious to them, and I wondered at first whether all would be revealed as Stuart's imagination, but that never happens either.  Isabel is lately into telling a lot of largely made-up stories about her own life, and continues to want Little Nemo above all other reading at night, so a book which blends the realistic and the fantastical is right up her alley.  We're reading it on repeat. Thank you for this one!

Love, Annie

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cat vs. aliens

Dear Annie,

Some evenings I sit here in the dining room facing a large box full of F and Gs, "Folded and gathered": the book business term for unbound picture books which are sent out as samples to book buyers.  So I admit I occasionally blast through them kind of quickly, looking for something that will catch my eye and slow me down enough to read it thoroughly.  Last spring I was moving along so rapidly that when I found a wonderfully strange wordless book, I didn't even notice the name of the author.

It was about a house cat who discovers a very small alien space ship which looks remarkably like a cat toy:
 The cat bats it around, causing the little green people in the vehicle to sustain alien bruises, hold their heads, and discover that a crucial piece of equipment has been broken.  So they leave the ship and make a run for it...
...  to safety beneath a radiator.  There they find a series of paintings showing that the cat has been terrifying small beings for a while:

 They also discover the ants and ladybugs who seem to have been doing the painting.  It may be hard to see in this picture, but the insects are speaking a language very different from the aliens'.  This leads the green people to draw a picture of the cat chasing their spaceship, and ants and aliens become friends.  They post for pictures (note the green people saying "cheese!"), share food, and get better at communicating:

While the cat sits mesmerized outside the radiator cover, the insects find the solution to the broken equipment problem and the group comes up with a game plan to get the aliens back to their ship.  There's a photo finish, and a lovely ending.

What a book!  When I closed the F&G, imagine my surprise when I discovered the author/illustrator is the great David Wiesner, creator of Flotsam, Tuesday, Art & Max, and several other amazing books.  He's won the Caldecott Medal for best illustration three times.

He's done another amazing one with
Mr. Wuffles!, which went on sale this week.  The plot is delightful, but there are so many other aspects.  The emotions of aliens and ants are so vividly described in body language.  And Wiesner's alien language in the speech bubbles makes me want to try decoding it.  I haven't even described any of the cat/human interaction in this story, and the pitch-perfect way Wiesner captures both feline indifference and cat obsessive concentration.

So here's a great little video from Wiesner explaining the book and giving action shots of the model for Mr. W.  (Not a cat video!).



Thursday, October 10, 2013

Here comes the Rainbow

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your latest box of gifts, which arrived recently for Isabel's birthday, contained a number of gems, including one which has become Will's favorite book.

I haven't yet written much about Will's taste in books: at close to 8 months old, he's mostly interested in slapping at them and trying to eat the corners.  But he's gotten to that excellent baby stage where he thinks pictures of other babies are awesome.  We're hitting some of our favorites in this category, of course: Baby, Baby; I Love Colors; What's on My Head?

Eating the Rainbow
 is another good board book to engage this phase.  It's full of bright colors, adorable multi-racial babies, and healthy eating suggestions -- what's not to like?  Each two-page spread contains a picture of a baby eating a fruit or vegetable, with several other food items of the same color laid out on the facing page. It's good for baby faces now, and will be good for color and food recognition later, as well as supporting the idea that fruits and vegetables are good things to eat.  Will looks at these babies and laughs out loud.

In my free time, I've been reading some really good YA fiction.  I finally got Wonder from the library, and devoured it.  What a good book -- the kind where the characters feel immediately like real people, and start to inhabit your thoughts throughout the day.

Poking around online, I came across a story that led me to Eleanor & Park, a YA novel by Rainbow Rowell.  I'd never heard of Rowell, but after reading the book, I've put library holds on the two other books she has out, and will be watching for her new work.

Eleanor & Park is a YA misfit love story, set in 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska.  Eleanor is big and red-headed and poor, living with her mom, siblings, and abusive stepdad in a tiny house.  At school, she's bullied quite badly.  Park is half-Korean, into comics and punk music, popular enough but definitely other.  They fall in love, and Rowell writes about it in such specific, evocative detail that it made me feel like I was 15 again.  Holding hands on the school bus is the most intense of experiences:

As soon as he touched her, he wondered how he'd gone this long without doing it.  He rubbed his thumb through her palm and up her fingers, and was aware of her every breath.  

Park had held hands with girls before.  Girls at Skateland.  A girl at the ninth-grade dance last year. (They'd kissed while they waited for her dad to pick them up.) He'd even held Tina's hand, back when they "went" together in the sixth grade.

And always before, it had been fine.  Not much different from holding Josh's hand when they were little kids crossing the street.  Or holding his grandma's hand when she took him to church.  Maybe a little sweatier, a little more awkward.

When he'd kissed that girl last year, with his mouth dry and his eyes mostly open, Park had wondered if maybe there was something wrong with him.

He'd even wondered -- seriously, while he was kissing her, he'd wondered this -- whether he might be gay.  Except he didn't feel like kissing any guys either.  And if he thought about She-Hulk or Storm (instead of this girl, Dawn), the kissing got a lot better.

Maybe I'm not attracted to real girls, he'd thought at the time.  Maybe I'm some sort of perverted cartoon-sexual.

Or maybe, he thought now, he just didn't recognize all those other girls.  The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn't recognize the formatting.

When he touched Eleanor's hand, he recognized her.  He knew.

It's a gripping read, moving and real.  Like WonderEleanor & Park doesn't shy away from the complicated ways that teenagers are both affectionate with and cruel to each other, or from the horrendous circumstances that many kids grow up through.

So of course it's been censored.  Some high school librarians in Minnesota liked the book so much they offered it as a community read, and invited Rowell to speak.  Then a couple of parents got hold of the book and counted up the curse words in it (apparently without taking much else in as they went through) and decided that it was "dangerously obscene."  Here's Rainbow Rowell talking about it in a brief interview.

I'm no fan of censorship in any case, but here it seems particularly misguided.  Eleanor and Park are good kids, and the vast majority of the cursing in the book comes from Eleanor's stepfather and the kids who bully her -- it's language she and Park feel as abusive, and try to move away from.  Linda Holmes writes thoughtfully about this issue on her NPR blog, here.  This is the kind of book I hope Eleanor, Isabel, and Will will be reading when they're 15.

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Big [mostly] friendly dragons

Dear Annie,

Thanks so much to Holly for another excellent guest post!  She and Ian are such experts in the dragon field that I'm not sure I can add any they don't already know -- but I'll give it a try.

The Dragon Keepers series by Kate Klimo is more complex than early chapter books, but won't be as gory and grim as some older dragon books. 
The Dragon in the Sock Drawer
is the first of the series: successive books put her in the driveway, the library, the sea, etc.  The stories start in the present day when two kids (boy and girl cousins) find a dragon egg in a sock drawer.  As in Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, the first challenge the kids face is how to keep a rapidly-growing noisy baby dragon a secret from the grown-ups.  The villain in the books is the centuries-old St. George, and the adult ally is a dragon expert they locate through Google.

I haven't read the Dragon Chronicle series by Susan Fletcher -- it might get a little scary.  The first in the series,
Dragon's Milk
, involves a magical world where some people are "dragonsayers" -- they can communicate with dragons.  A girl sets out to find a nursing mother dragon because she needs the magical dragon's milk for her sick sister.  One thing leads to another, the mama dragon dies and our heroine has three baby dragons on her hands and bad guys wanting to do them in. Lots of action, but a sense of humor too.

And there's one more -- sorry, it, too is a series -- that might appeal very strongly to Ian:  Dragonborn by Toby Forward.  The first book has a wonderful scene of a magician conjuring up a very small dragon for his apprentice (see illustration on cover).  The dragon grows (see background of illustration), boy and dragon bond, including telepathically.  The magician dies early in the book and the boy, Sam, has to sort out which of the magician's previous apprentices are good guys and bad guys, and who is the major Bad Guy of the book.  A fairly tough girl enters the action, and comes back in book #3.  The whole works is called The Flaxfield Quartet.  Book #2, Fireborn, which is a prequel, is due out in the U.S. this December.

So have I come up with any you didn't know about, Holly?  I'll keep looking...



Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Guest blogger: Dragons in chapter books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your comments about My Side of the Mountain hit home -- yes, I think some of what I'm responding to negatively has to do with the ways in which the attitude toward nature feels dated and a little twisted. I'll check out some of the survival novels you mention. And I look forward to hearing more about contemporary fantasy authors -- I'm sadly under-read in that area.

My good friend Holly, however, is deep into fantasy with her son Ian. Not just any fantasy, of course: fantasy about dragons. Holly has blogged here before about dragon picture books (as well as  outer spacemap books, and kid-appropriate adventure and peril).  I've been hearing a lot in recent months about the dragon chapter books Holly and Ian are reading, and I asked Holly to write up her thoughts on their favorites.  Here she is:

One thing that has astonished me as a parent is the unflagging, focussed passion kids can have for their chosen interests. While my son Ian will stubbornly refuse to accept that last week he liked kiwi, he remembers every dragon related incident in his life seemingly from birth and will literally weep sometimes when he describes how much he would like to be a dragon. For good or bad, I’ve supported this obsession, and thus my unending blogs about dragon books! I have become quite a connoisseur of this genre, and I’m happy to pass my expertise along.

This past Christmas, Annie’s family gave us The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons and Talking to Dragons), by Patricia C Wrede. The series begins with Princess Cimorene, who wants to break away from the expected role of princess. I have to admit I find this a little played out. I think Ian has had much more exposure to this sort of smart sassy sword-wielding anti-establishment Princess than to the convention which she is rebelling against, so I wonder what he makes of it.

In any case, she soon runs off to become a princess for a dragon named Kazul, where she cooks and gets to organize her treasure, magical objects and and her library (my dream job) while discouraging the princes who, following society’s expectations, come to rescue her. She discovers a plot by the wizards to poison and usurp the King of the Dragons. Cimorene, clever and level-headed, foils their plans with the help of a witch, another princess, a stone knight, and lots of good magical spells and gimmicks. At the end of the first book, Kazul becomes King (female or male ruling dragons are called Kings) and Cimorene’s happy ending is staying on with her to be her princess.

The books are all told from the points of view of Cimorene’s companions, Mendanbar (King of the Enchanted Forest), Morwen (a witch with lots of cats), and Daystar (spoiler alert! Cimorene and Mendanbar’s son) as they go on quests to foil the wizards. There were times when I felt the action lagged as the characters travelled in groups and had to discuss and review everything constantly, but perhaps this is necessary for young readers. But each book was full of magic and likeable characters on an new quest without any actual danger or loss -- totally engaging for Ian.

Cimorene and Mendanbar fall in love, marry and have a child, but this is not central to the story or Cimorene’s action, which I appreciated. I enjoyed the fact that in the third book Cimorene is pregnant but this is hardly mentioned as she initiates a quest to retrieve Mendanbar’s sword from the Society of Wizards, embarks on risky teleportations, slogs through a swamp, rides a winged blue donkey, is enchanted and attacked by deadly invisible plants, etc. before returning to the Enchanted Forest to find her husband trapped in an enchantment by the wizards. At the end of book three she plans to live incognito with her newborn son, raising and training him on her own so he can use his inherited powers to rescue his father. I have to admit, the female characters in this series really won me over.

My second recommend for a girl-centric series would be Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George, starring another “non-conventional” girl who makes friends with a dragon rather than being saved by a knight, moves to the city on her own, succeeds in the dressmaking business, and helps the misunderstood dragon population defend itself against various attacks. However, Ian was not into this beyond the first book. Not because there are a lot of descriptions of dresses (and there are) or because our new-fangled heroine falls in love with a prince (yes, she does), but because there are wars and dragon deaths and slavery and it becomes pretty intense, and will probably be more appropriate at a later age, if he’s still game for dresses and romance.

Another series that Ian wants to go back to frequently is The Dragonology Chronicles by Dugald A. Steer. Set in the 1800s, it follows a brother and sister, Daniel and Beatrice, as they are educated in Dragonology by Dr. Drake, the credited author of Dragonology: the Complete Book of Dragons.  Throughout the four books they help defend the dragon world against attacks from various evil power-hungry humans. It has everything you need in a dragon story: magical artifacts, riddles, traps, secret codes, various species of difficult to befriend dragons and dragon eggs that need hatching. It is action packed and at times quite scary. The series ends as dragon stories often seem to: dragons and people are not able to exist in the same world and there is a sad parting between boy and dragon. See also Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville and Puff the Magic Dragon (Ian forbids us to sing the last verse).

OK, one more! We both really liked this one. We recently finished
Dragon Rider
by Cornelia Funke. Not a series (phew!). A dragon named Firedrake sets off to find a safe place in the modern world for dragons to live accompanied by a forest Brownie, a grumpy cat-like creature named Sorrel.  A wise old dragon instructs them to seek the Rim of Heaven, a hidden valley in the Himalayas where he was born and he is certain a group of dragons still remains. When they stop in a city to get a fabulous map from a genius rat, they meet a young, amazingly well adjusted boy named Ben with apparently no human connections and no back story, who joins their quest. Along the way, they are betrayed by a mountain dwarf to a horrible man-made golden dragon named Nettlebrand who was created to hunt dragons and has seeking them since they have become rare and hidden in the world. Nettlebrand sends his servant, a man-made homunculus named Twigleg, to spy on Firedrake and find the location of the Rim of Heaven.

When they are blown off track and Sorrel is captured, they meet a scientist named Dr Greenbloom who is derided by his colleagues because his specialty is fantastic creatures. He helps the group by sending them to a djinn for directions and giving them one of Nettlebrand’s golden scales. While the quest continues, Twigleg comes to love Ben and works against Nettlebrand’s interests. It is a long and exciting book with many fantastical creatures. It culminates in an all out battle in the Rim of Heaven between our heros and Nettlebrand in which none of our heros get hurt and Nettlebrand is defeated but doesn’t actually die. We were braced for a boy-dragon farewell scene, since Ben was clearly going to go live with Dr Greenbloom and his family and the dragons were being pushed farther into isolation by human ways. Ian went ahead and started sobbing in anticipation, but then, wonder of wonders!:

“You need human beings the way I need the other dragons, the way Sorrel isn’t happy without the other brownies to quarrel with. Without human beings, you’d start to feel very lonely.”

“I’ll feel lonely without you dragons, too,” said Ben, looking away from Firedrake.

“No, no!” Firedrake rubbed his head very gently against the boy’s. “Believe me, we shall meet again. I’ll visit you as often as your short human life allows.”

“Oh, yes, please,” replied Ben. “Visit me often.” And he put his arms around the dragon’s neck and hugged him as if he would never let him go.

That is what, in this house, we call a happy ending! Until we manage an actual boy to dragon transformation, this is pretty much as close as we can get to a perfect dragon experience. But, that doesn’t mean we’re done! The quest for dragons continues! Wish me luck.


Good luck, dear Holly!

Love, Annie