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.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Charlotte Zolotow

Once there was a little girl who didn't understand about time.  She was so little that she didn't know about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.  She certainly didn't know about January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.  She was so little she didn't even know summer, winter, autumn, spring.
   What she did know about was all mixed together.  She remembered a crocus once, but she didn't know when.  She remembered a snowman and a pumpkin, and a Christmas tree, and a birthday cake, a Thanksgiving dinner and valentines.  But they were all mixed up in her mind.

Dear Annie,

That's the beginning of Over and Over by Charlotte Zolotow (illustrated by Garth Williams), explaining the rhythms of a year.  Zolotow died this past week, at the age of 98.  She wrote more than 70 picture books, and edited countless other children's books.  They have a gentle straightforward tone to them -- they feel a little old-fashioned but still very in touch with kids' feelings.

My favorite is Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, a lovely discussion between a girl and a rabbit (illustrated by Maurice Sendak) about what she should get for her mother's birthday.  It, too, starts wonderfully:
"Mr. Rabbit," said the little girl, "I want help."
"Help, little girl, I'll give you help if I can," said Mr. Rabbit.
"Mr. Rabbit," said the little girl, "it's about my mother."
"Your mother?" said Mr. Rabbit.
"It's her birthday," said the little girl.
"Happy birthday to her then," said Mr. Rabbit.  "What are you giving her?"
"That's just it," said the little girl.  "That's why I want help.  I have nothing to give her."
"Nothing to give your mother on her birthday?" said Mr. Rabbit.  "Little girl, you really do want help."
Mr. Rabbit suggests several different colors, which get narrowed down to objects (red > red underwear > red roof  > red bird > red apple) until the girl ends up with a basket of fruit for her mother.  It's idiosyncratic and lyrical.

Zolotow wrote the iconic (but kinda archaic) William's Doll about a boy who's teased for wanting a doll.  It became rooted in the psyches of a whole generation (not mine -- was it yours?) who grew up listening to Free to Be You and Me.

This Quiet Lady was a favorite in our house.  Anita Lobel's illustrations underscore the intimacy of a child exploring pictures of her mother's childhood.  I was always partial to the drawing of a 10 year-old mom going off to school with a Beatles lunchbox.  It was rooted enough in its era that it eventually became outdated: the Beatles belong to grandma now.

Every now and then I'll be reminded of another special book that Zolotow wrote.  A woman who really cared about communicating with children.  Her daughter, Crescent Dragonwagon has also produced dozens of kids' books.

Here's a little bit of the L.A. Times obituary:

. . . a few days before she died she stopped eating and drinking. 

"She lived a full life and it was like, she had been at the party, and now it was time to take off her shoes," Dragonwagon said.

One of Zolotow's last published books was 1997's "Who Is Ben?" about a boy asking questions about his existence. Dragonwagon said she might read from it at a memorial for her mother.

"The boy asks, 'Why does the day end?' " Dragonwagon said, "and his mother tells him that it doesn't end, it goes on to become day somewhere else."



Friday, November 15, 2013

Good, non-scary chapter book reads

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The Keeping Quilt has long been a favorite of ours, and I'm happy to hear that Patricia Polacco has updated it again -- the edition we have includes her children as adults, but neither of them was married yet.  One of my favorite things about the book is that only the quilt is rendered in color (in the early pages, the dress and babushka which will be used to make the quilt are also in color), while the rest of the illustrations are black and white.  This choice foregrounds the importance of the quilt, and makes the pages feel like black and white photographs.  We also have a special feeling about the book because my mother-in-law is an amazingly talented quilter, and has made multiple baby quilts for each of our kids, as well as the full-sized quilts we sleep under.  The image of Polacco's family quilt being used in active child play is a familiar one around here.

We can't wait to have you here for Thanksgiving!

Recently, an old college classmate of mine, Laura, emailed via the blog to ask about reading suggestions for her 4/12 year old daughter (also named Eleanor).  Here's her letter:


I would love book suggestions.  I am having trouble figuring out what to read to my Eleanor.  She turns five in March. I feel like it should be easy because she loves books and has a very long attention span.  I read the first two Little House books to her last year and she is in love.  They are nearly the only thing she has wanted to reread since shortly after she turned two.  She spends all of her spare time pretending to store food for winter. The next two didn't resonate with her as much because the girls are older and she is definitely not ready for The Long Winter.  I tried Ramona the Brave but the first chapter really upset her.    The Magic Tree House books are "too scary."  After some time reading your blog, we just read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  It was a great success and she even wanted to reread a chapter tonight.  I will pick up another one of those books,  but I don't know where to go after that.  I tried to start Pippi Longstocking, but she was really upset by the beginning and asked me to stop.  I asked her to listen for another paragraph and then decide.  The image of Pippi lifting her horse made Eleanor smile but she still wanted to stop.

I think she is really worried by books where children don't have adult supervision.  They all nearly died in every chapter of the Little House books (which I probably would have held off on had I had the sense to preread them) but Ma and Pa said things were okay so she didn't worry.   In the Magic Tree House, the kids go off alone and she is sure they will be eaten.  I had to page to the advertising in the back of the book to convince her that they couldn't die because they starred in at least 43 more books after this one.  I talked her through The Littles and she even read a couple on her own after. 

She already gets sucked into books just walking by them.  I find her, only half in her pajamas, leaning against her bed, lost to the world, book in hand.  She loves the Magic School Bus books, including the chapter books.  She likes Horrible Harry.  She reads reams of non-fiction.  The Cat in the Hat Learning Library and the Read and Find out Science series have been huge hits.  She enthusiastically describes how carpet pythons eat fallen baby bats but she hid an Animal Ark book about a lost puppy because it was scary.  I wouldn't mind suggestions about what to give her to read to herself.  My friends tell me that it doesn't matter because she already loves reading so much.  I think it does, especially since some books scare her enough that she hides them behind furniture. 


First, let me just say that I loved this letter.  Laura clearly knows her child, and is doing a wonderful job of finding her the right books to read, both on her own and together.  And her Eleanor sounds like an awesome kid.

Now, some thoughts on books for the younger Eleanor:

My first thought was the Betsy-Tacy books.  Like Little House, they're full of specific historical detail, and both Betsy and Tacy come from close, warm families.  As both of us have mentioned, the first book contains one difficult episode involving infant mortality which needs to be handled when reading it with younger kids. But this shouldn't stop you! The first four Betsy-Tacy books are quite wonderful in their depiction of friendship -- Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are tremendously imaginative and fun. (I'm less enamored of the later books, which take Betsy into high school and beyond. Eleanor and I are reading the fifth book right now, and it's heavy on descriptions of clothing and crushes on boys.)

She might also like the Riverside Kids books, which are similarly grounded in families with parents, and interesting without being scary.  Ditto for Anna Hibiscus, with the added benefit of containing lots of good detail about living in Africa.

Especially if she's interested in animals, Laura's Eleanor might enjoy the Doctor Dolittle books, which I adored in childhood and my Eleanor was very much into at age 4 as well.  Or Mr. Popper's Penguins, in which a house painter obsessed with Antarctic exploration receives a penguin in a box from an explorer he's written to.  In short order, he has a houseful of penguins, which he trains to perform in a vaudeville act.

Our list of Early Chapter Books has a bunch of other good possibilities as well.  Do you have further thoughts, especially on the non-fiction front or other books we haven't yet covered?

Love, Annie

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Dear Annie,

I've been thinking about the gathering of the family at your home in a few weeks, looking forward to seeing many of us together around your Thanksgiving table.  And eating the pumpkin pie, of course: a tradition passed down from your great-grandmother (my grandmother) and before -- those hard-working constantly-cooking Ohio women.

Some of these musings have been inspired by two books about family traditions by Patricia Polacco.  She's updated her classic The Keeping Quilt on its 25th anniversary, and written a new family tale, The Blessing Cup.

The Keeping Quilt starts with Polacco's great-grandmother Anna arriving in New York as a child more than 100 years ago. 
The only things she had left of backhome Russia were her dress and babushka she liked to throw up into the air when she was dancing.
When Anna grows bigger, her mother makes the dress, babushka and other clothes from the old country into a quilt.  "It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night," she says.  The quilt is used to wrap babies, cover celebratory tables, make wedding huppas, and for generations of children's play.

Polacco lovingly describes each wedding, the births of babies who grow up to be grandmas, deaths.  25 years ago, she ended the book with the births of her own children, the fifth generation in her story.  At each wedding, there's a symbolic gift:
Carle [Anna's daughter] was given a gift of gold, flower, salt and bread.  Gold so she would never know poverty, a flower so she would always know love, salt so her life would always have flavor and bread so that she would never know hunger.
One wonders how the quilt survived the babies, the birthday parties, weeping relatives at deathbeds, not to mention energetic make-believe.  It seems to have, and in the new book Polacco describes how she's taken it with her to schools and other book talks for the past 25 years.  It finally shows its age -- the white parts of the quilt in the illustrations turn to brown -- and her children surprise her with a meticulously-researched, lovingly sewn copy of the quilt.  The original now hangs in a museum in Ohio.

The loveliest part of the revised book, though, is Polacco's addition of both of her children's weddings, under the original quilt huppa.  One wedding is straight; the other is gay:
Sometimes I think multi-generational picture books don't quite engage kids.  But this one is so full of babies and parties and family gatherings that it can really resonate with a young reader.

The Blessing Cup, a new addition to Polacco's many stories of her family history, tells how Anna came to the U.S.  It starts in a shtetl , with young Anna and her mother hiding in a goat barn during a pogrom.  One of the family's prize possessions is an elaborate tea set given by an aunt.  "Anyone who drinks from it," she wrote, "Has a blessing from God.  They will never know a day of hunger.   Their lives will always have flavor.  They will know love and joy . . . and they will never be poor!"  The family rejoices in the richness of having each other.

Later, Jews are expelled from Russia and the family begins a long trek to the coast where they hope to find passage to America. Anna's father collapses from exhaustion and the family is taken in by a friendly doctor who cares for all of them for months.  When soldiers demand that the family leave, the doctor sells one of his prized possessions to pay for their safe passage to America.  They bid each other farewell over hot tea in the tea set. The family leaves all but one cup of the tea set behind, conferring its blessings on the doctor: "We kept one cup so that we can still have its blessing among the four of us.  It is all that we will need."  The cup, like the quilt, symbolizes the blessings conferred by a strong and loving family.

The story fast-forwards through the cup being handed to the family brides under the quilt huppa -- and a sad but sweet denouement during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. 

So this all brings me back to impending holidays, family gatherings, the stories we all tell each other about the ancestors we never met, and the feelings that get wrapped up in the traditions. I can't wait to see your brood, to be one of the old folks telling stories of generations past, and to have some of grandma's amazing pumpkin pie.

With love,


Friday, November 8, 2013

Gorgeous landscapes and talkative girls

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We've entered a new era.  Eleanor's independent reading has gotten very quickly to the point where she can read novels which were once the province of our read-alouds.  Last week, she read an entire Nancy Drew on the school bus; this week, she picked up the third book in the shrinking people/time-travel Sixty-Eight Rooms series, and is cruising through that as well.  While I'm thrilled about this turn of events, there's a little part of me that wonders what it bodes for our reading together.  As Eleanor is able to read more complex books independently, which ones should we reserve for me to read to her?

One easy answer comes from a recent read-aloud success: the classic 
Anne of Green Gables
, by L.M. Montgomery.

I read Anne of Green Gables as a kid, and retained fond but fuzzy memories of it: an image of Anne floating down a river on a raft and getting into trouble, a recollection of poetry and imaginative play. My mother-in-law gave us a beautiful copy of the book, with color plates, more than a year ago, but I had the sense that would be too early for Eleanor. When a friend mentioned she was reading it with her eight-year-old, I thought I'd give it a try.

I didn't preview it, and in the first few pages of reading aloud, I wondered whether I'd made a mistake about the age Eleanor would be ready for it: the vocabulary, especially in the descriptive narrative sections, is intense. Here's the first sentence of the book:

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.


But Eleanor let it wash over her, and I paused to parse some difficult bits, and as soon as Montgomery dipped into dialogue, the language was clear and the characters sprang to life. Mrs. Rachel Lynde is of course not the protagonist here, but a neighbor of middle-aged siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who mean to adopt a boy from an orphan asylum to help them as they age, but end up accidentally with red-headed, imaginative, glorious Anne Shirley. Here's Anne introducing herself to the quiet, shy Matthew, who has just offered to carry her bag from the train station:

"Oh, I can carry it," the child responded cheerfully. "It isn't heavy. I've got all my worldly goods in it, but it isn't heavy. And if it isn't carried in just a certain way the handle pulls out--so I'd better keep it because I know the exact knack of it.  It's an extremely old carpetbag. Oh, I'm very glad you've come, even if it would have been nice to sleep in a wild cherry tree. We've got to drive a long piece, haven't we? Mrs. Spencer said it was eight miles. I'm glad because I love driving. Oh, it seems so wonderful that I'm going to live with you and belong to you. I've never belonged to anybody--not really. But the asylum was the worst. I've only been in it four months, but that was enough. I don't suppose you ever were an orphan in an asylum, so you can't possibly understand what it is like. It's worse than anything you would imagine. Mrs. Spencer said it was wicked of me to talk like that, but I didn't mean to be wicked. It's so easy to be wicked without knowing it, isn't it? They were good, you know--the asylum people. But there is so little scope for the imagination in an asylum--only just in the other orphans. It was pretty interesting to imagine things about them--to imagine that perhaps the girl who sat next to you was really the daughter of a belted earl, who had been stolen away from her parents in her infancy by a cruel nurse who died before she could confess. I used to lie awake at nights and imagine things like that, because I didn't have time in the day. I guess that's why I'm so thin--I am dreadful thin, ain't I? There isn't a pick on my bones. I do love to imagine I'm nice and plump, with dimples in my elbows."

Eleanor responded viscerally to Anne's talkative nature, and to the rapturous descriptions of the landscape of early 20th-century Prince Edward Island, in Canada. As we read, and watched early fall pass by in New York, she sighed several times, "Oh, I wish we lived in the country!"

I'd remembered that much of the story of Anne of Green Gables follows Anne through a series of amusing scrapes: she accidentally gets her friend Diana drunk on wine which she thinks is raspberry cordial; she puts liniment instead of vanilla in the cake she serves to the minister's wife; she dyes her hair a ghastly green while attempting to turn it raven black. Anne is dramatic and dreamy, constantly imagining new stories for herself. Like Betsy in theBetsy-Tacy books (we're reading the rest of them right now, taking Betsy up into high school and beyond), Anne is a budding writer, drawn to melodrama but with a growing awareness of the power of good literature. She's a natural for Eleanor to love.

What I hadn't remembered was how old Anne gets in this first book -- there are several sequels, taking her up through marriage and children and into middle age -- and how much happens by the end. While the early chapters cover the episodic mishaps of grade school, the last third of the book finds Anne working terribly hard to be the first in her class, vying with Gilbert Blythe (who will later become her husband), heading off to college, and preparing to become a teacher. There is a little too much nostalgia towards the end of the book for my taste -- repeated reminiscing on the part of the adult characters about how much Anne has changed and matured since they first met her -- but it goes by quickly.

Spoiler alert: close to the end of the book, Matthew Cuthbert dies, and Anne gives up a scholarship for further study in order to teach close to home and take care of Marilla. I'd forgotten this was coming, and it was upsetting to Eleanor, but she weathered it, and wants to read the rest of the series.  I don't remember ever reading them myself -- perhaps because the end of the book feels so final? -- but am looking forward to them now, in the company of my grand reading partner.

Love, Annie