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.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Kate DiCamillo, part 2

Dear Annie,

I'm glad Eleanor is a fan of Flora and Ulysses.  I really like it too.  As I said before the American Library Association awards were announced, the field of contenders seemed very wide.   There wasn't anything that I really loved over anything else.  The choices for both the Newbery and the Caldecott this year don't feel inevitable, but they're satisfying.  Well-crafted books that can engage kids.  I have no complaints.

Kate DiCamillo is a very interesting author and person.   Her books, as you point out, are often multi-layered, with disturbing elements as well as funny and emotionally satisfying ones.   Her father apparently left her family when she was five, which could help explain the anxiety about parents that goes through many of her books.   The mother is the villian through much of Flora and Ulysses; her parents' separation is a constant worry for Flora.  In Tale of Despereaux, the queen (mother of Princess Pea) dies early.  Opal's mother in Because of Winn-Dixie, DiCamillo's first book, is an alcoholic who left the family before the action of the story.  But in all those books, the overwhelming take-away is the engaging and tough personalities of the main characters.  We remember Opal and her dog, Flora and her superhero squirrel, the humans and rodents of Desperaux.  I've occasionally asked a parent who's read Winn-Dixie about the alcoholic mother, and I rarely find anyone who remembers that issue.  The sense of humor mixed with emotional turmoil makes for very good books.

The Bink and Gollie books and the Mercy Watson ones are younger and lovely in their own ways.  I love your description of the pig Mercy Watson as "in some ways truly pig-like."  My favorite title of the six books is Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig.

But then there's a stranger darker side to DiCamillo.  I usually describe The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, the story of a china rabbit who goes through many trials, as a love-it-or-hate-it book.  When it came out in 2006 Michael Patrick Hearn gave it a glowing review in the New York Times, ending with, "one reading is hardly enough to savor the rich philosophical nuances of DiCamillo's story. I think I will go read it again right now."  Elizabeth Ward, in the Washington Post, came down on the hate-it side: "I had trouble recalling the last time I had read such a bleak and manipulative story: Tess of the d'Urbervilles maybe."  That's where I am too, so here's a longer quote:
Edward, you see, is a vain, pampered, cold-hearted rabbit, incapable of love; it's convenient that he's made of china, because china is breakable, and Edward, apparently, must be broken -- violently, repeatedly, spiritually, physically -- before he can experience "genuine and true emotion." If that sounds bizarre, it is. 
It's always confused me that the ultimately warm-hearted optimistic author of the books I like can write something so bleak.

I've seen DiCamillo speak several times: she's an incredibly upbeat person, cracking jokes at a rapid rate.  The most recent time, she was on stage at the annual booksellers' convention in a conversation with the venerable Cynthia Voigt (you wrote about her here).  At one point the moderator asked about their writing routines.   Both women, it turned out, felt they did their best work before brushing teeth: they got up in the mornings and immediately started writing.
DiCamillo: That voice that's in your head that says -- Who do you think you are, you don't know what you're doing -- that voice is not an early riser.  That voice shows up at about 9 o'clock when I'm done with writing.  I spend the rest of the day with that voice telling me that I don't know what I'm doing, but it is not there at 6 o'clock in the morning.  I can write without that critic. (to Voigt:)  You're looking stunned.
Voigt: You still have that voice?
DiCamillo: Oh my goodness, you don't still have that voice?
Voigt: I don't think I ever had that voice.... I was raised with the mantra that you can't do this, and my response was not accommodating (laughs).... My whole habit is that if anybody tells me I can't do something, that's the very thing I'm going to probably try to do.
The whole conversation is here.  One definitely gets a sense of both women's personalities.

So congratulations to Kate DiCamillo.  And I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.



Monday, January 27, 2014

The empathy and the darkness of Kate DiCamillo

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You talk a good game about your picks not winning the Newbery or Caldecott Awards, but I'd like to point out that today's winners are both books we own because you sent them to Eleanor and Isabel earlier this year -- not so shabby!

As you learned early this morning, and I caught up with tonight, the Newbery went to Kate DiCamillo for Flora and Ulysses, and the Caldecott to Brian Floca for Locomotive, a gorgeous train book.

I've only recently become aware of Kate DiCamillo, who is suddenly everywhere, including serving as the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. She is one of those authors who, like Paul Fleischman, seems to be able to do anything: she writes picture books, early readers, and novels, in multiple genres and multiple tones.

We're big fans of Bink and Gollie, the series she writes with Allison McGhee, and Eleanor has recently devoured the Mercy Watson series of early chapter books, which focus on a family with a friendly, adventurous, none-too-smart pig as a member (though Mercy doesn't talk and seems in some ways truly pig-like, she also sleeps in a four-poster bed). Eleanor read and loved Flora and Ulysses, so much so that she recommended we buy it for a friend's birthday. I haven't read it yet, but last week Eleanor and I read DiCamillo's previous Newbery Winner, the 2003 novel The Tale of Desperaux.

The Tale of Desperaux shares some of the humor of these other books, but is far more complex and challenging in content. Reading it aloud, I kept finding myself questioning what kind of book it was, and who it was aimed at: the language in it is clear and straightforward, but the concepts and moral ambiguities it raises feel fairly adult. It's a little like a fairy tale fleshed out psychologically to the point where there can't quite be a perfect happy ending, because you've had to grapple with the actual cost of pain. I'm not sure how much of this Eleanor felt -- she reacted to the suspenseful parts, but didn't seem disturbed by the story itself. I find, though, that it's sticking with me.

The novel focuses on four characters living in the same castle: two rodents and two human girls. Each of them wants something he or she cannot have. Desperaux Tilling is a small mouse with large ears who is born wanting to interact with humans, which is against the code of mice. He loves music and stories -- when he's taken by his siblings to learn to nibble pages of books in the library, he instead discovers that the markings on the pages have meaning. Miraculously, he can read, and stories make him brave. Chiaroscuro (Roscuro) is a rat who craves light, and feels condemned to live in the castle dungeon, where the other rats are perfectly happy. Miggery Sow (Mig) is a poor girl whose father sells her as a servant after her mother's death. Her dream is to become a princess, but her reality includes a master who has given her a clout on the ear so many times that she loses her hearing. And then there's the real princess, Princess Pea, who is sweet and empathetic and has everything material she could want, but has lost her mother as well.

The dungeon plays a large part in the ways in which these four are interconnected, sometimes sweetly, sometimes violently. There is yearning, revenge, forgiveness, redemption, often in unexpected ways -- several times while reading aloud, I wasn't at all sure which way the story was going to go. Both Roscuro and Mig are twisted in unpleasant ways by their mistreatment. But DiCamillo is an empathetic writer: even her revenge-filled rat comes across as understandable and ultimately forgivable.

There's a strong narrative voice at work in the novel. Multiple times, DiCamillo addresses the reader directly, sometimes pointing out words to pay attention to or defining them for us:

As our story continues, reader, we must go backward in time to the birth of a rat, a rat named Chiaroscuro and called Roscuro, a rat born into the filth and darkness of the dungeon, several years before the mouse Desperaux was born upstairs, in the light.

Reader, do you know the definition of the word "chiaroscuro"? If you look in your dictionary, you will find that it means the arrangement of light and dark, darkness and light together. Rats do not care for light. Roscuro's parents were having a bit of fun when they named their son. Rats have a sense of humor. Rats, in fact, think that life is very funny. And they are right, reader. They are right.

This aspect of the writing, as well as the nice short chapters, make the book a good and interesting read-aloud. Eleanor loved the vocabulary (and we did pull out the dictionary when DiCamillo asked us to look up "perfidy"), and we had a number of conversations about why the characters did what they did. I'll be interested to know what she retains of it this time through, and when and whether she's moved to reread it for herself in a few years.

So I'm feeling pretty good about these wins. What did you think?

Love, Annie

Friday, January 24, 2014

Two books to take seriously

Dear Annie,

I love the reading reports from your house -- your latest one gives such a strong sense of A Day in the Family's Reading Life.  I found Eleanor's Magic Tree House criticism intriguing.  It's been years since I've read one of them, but the line on them is that Annie is the adventurous one and Jack's the more timid one.  So it's interesting to hear that she thinks Jack's the more central character.  Not necessarily contradictions, those two elements...

This Monday (January 27) will bring the announcements of Newbery, Caldecott and other ALA children's book awards.  As you know, in past years I've never managed to predict the winners.  For the Newbery at least, this year the field is wide but not all that deep.  A lot of likable books came out in 2013, but nothing that makes me stand up and say, "Yes, definitely!" 

I gathered a pile of six books to put in today's blog entry, weighing each one's chances for the Newbery.  Even though I like those books, it feels more like handicapping a race rather than celebrating something special.   

Looking at this pile, though, there are two books -- both non-fiction -- that rise above the others for me.  I doubt they'll be considered medal-winning material, but they're books I've loved reading and feel very good about recommending.  I hope they'll be in print for years to come.  So I'm setting aside the rest of the pile and writing about the ones that have stayed with me.

Back in March, I wrote about Lincoln's Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin.   It's the fascinating account of an 1876 attempt by a gang of counterfeiters to steal Lincoln's body from his tomb and ransom it for the release of one of their members from prison.  They almost succeeded.  The book reads like fiction, full of plotting, planning, hilarious mix-ups, and Keystone Cop-like action.  And Sheinkin does a lovely job of putting it all in historical context.  I've sold dozens and dozens of copies of Lincoln's Grave Robbers.  When I describe it to customers, the response -- from both adults and kids -- is, "Is this real?"  It's a great yarn -- made all the more interesting for being true.

The other non-fiction is The Boy on the Wooden Box, a serious and moving memoir of the Holocaust and the years since by Leon Leyson, the youngest person on Schindler's List.  He was 15 when the war ended, a small child who had to stand on a wooden box to reach the machinery in Schindler's factory -- a ruse to convince the Nazis that he was actually working.   Leyson died last year after the book was written; his wife Elisabeth Leyson and Marilyn Harran, the director of a Holocaust education organization, are credited with helping to write it.  There's something about the way he tells his family's terrifying story -- Schindler helped five of them survive the war -- that's quiet and direct and very moving. Throughout the book, Leyson keeps his focus on human dignity.

Leyson describes one awful incident when Gestapo soldiers break into his family's apartment in Krakow, beat his father, and drag him away.  After weeks when the family thinks he is dead, the father returns:
The moment he came through our door was one of overwhelming relief and joy.  At the same time, it brought an unexpected sadness.  It was easy to see that what he had gone through had changed him.  It wasn't just that he was weak and gaunt; he was changed in a more fundamental way.  The Nazis had not only stripped him of his strength -- although he would find a great reserve of it in the years ahead -- but also of the confidence and self-esteem that had put a spring in his step.  Now he spoke little and walked with downcast eyes.  He had lost his job at the glass factory, and he had lost something even more precious: his dignity as a human being.  It shook me to the core to see my father defeated.   If he couldn't stand up to the Nazis, how could I?
Somehow the father connects with Schindler, and slowly family members get work in Schindler's forced labor factory.  Conditions are bad, but Leyson keeps coming back to the impact on him of small personal gestures Schindler made for his workers: a kind word, a pack of cigarettes, a little extra food.
Such acts may seem insignificant given the scale of the evil in those years, but, in fact, they were anything but.  Schindler dared to rebel against the law of the land, which was to torture and exterminate Jews, not to treat us as fellow human beings.  
The workers are shipped to a concentration camp, then rescued by Schindler to work in a new munitions factory.  When the war ends, Leyson describes the wave of hostility in Poland against the returning Jews.  His family ultimately makes it to the U.S., to southern California, where he becomes a high school teacher, never mentioning his past in Poland.  After the movie Schindler's List came out in 1994, he started talking about it, eventually writing the book.

The book is about a horrific experience, but also about a boy who survived with his own dignity and strength.  It speaks to the children it was written for with a clear voice.

As I said, these two books have stayed with me more than almost any others I've read in the past year, but I'd be surprised if they were chosen by awards committees above the competition.  But I did check on one thing: it's possible to win a Newbery medal posthumously.



Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Independent reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What a prodigious feat of linking!  I love Bob's poem, and loved perusing your 1994 reading history, recognizing so many of the names listed and discovering a few I didn't know.

I wrote last week about the ways in which our family reading has come together in our love affair with the Bone graphic novels. On the flip side, my three children are each individually highly engaged with books of their own choosing.

At 11 months, Will understands that books are important. He has gotten terribly good at pulling books off the coffee table onto the floor, where he can sit and get them open. He takes dust jackets off hardcovers and mauls paperbacks, yelling when we take them away. We keep our board books on the lowest shelves in the living room, and about two weeks ago, Will started pulling out bunches of them and then bringing them to us to read to him. He can crawl with a board book in one hand, sit up, and proffer it with a raised arm and a hopeful glance. His most-requested list at the moment: I Love Colors,  My Face Book, Doggies, and Global Babies. Sometimes, he bats them open himself and pats at them on the floor -- this total independence is especially true with the Matthew Van Fleet books Cat and Dog. Pictures of babies still bring the biggest smiles and most vocalization.

Between her classroom library, your gifts, and our local library, Eleanor is speeding through a variety of series. She loves the Who Was... books, and tonight in the bath entertained us with facts about George Washington (he had a harsh, cold mother), Harry Houdini (he was the first man to fly an airplane in Australia), and Sally Ride (she had to strap herself in with Velcro in order to go to the bathroom in space).

Eleanor is also picking up historical facts from the Magic Tree House series, by Mary Pope Osborne. I'm so glad I followed your advice on not introducing these books until she was reading independently -- there are five million of them, all versions of the same plot and all written in the same flat language. The plus side is that Osborne does her research. Eleanor now knows about groundlings in Shakespeare's Globe Theater, and has learned how gorillas frighten away predators, among other things. After reading 10 or so of the series, Eleanor is becoming dissatisfied with it, however. Her complaint? The close third-person narration always focuses on Jack rather than his sister Annie -- you don't get as much of a sense of what she's thinking or feeling. (That's literary criticism I can get behind.)

The Jigsaw Jones mysteries, by James Preller, are another recent favorite. Jigsaw (his real name is Theodore, but he solves puzzles, so...) is a second-grader, who works to solve not-too-scary mysteries with his partner, Mila. There are more than 30 books in the series, and I think Eleanor is close to having brought all of them home. Apparently the gender balance in these doesn't bother her as much, though it's another boy-with-girl-sidekick situation.

And Isabel? Yesterday she spent close to an hour sitting on the couch with three Bone books and two Zita books, totally focused in her reading. We just took Bone #8 (of 9!) out of the library today. The series is getting darker and more complicated, and Isabel prefers her own reading of the later books to my offer to read the words. I have a feeling these will be some of the first longer books she learns to read on her own, in a couple of years.

Love, Annie

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Guest blogger: Ode to books

 Dear Annie,
I remain awestruck at Isabel's experience with graphic novels.  And thank you for your primer on the many ways a family can read graphic novels.

Our daughters have returned to their lives in California and Spain, and we've been doing a bit of post-Christmas clean-up around here.  Bob unearthed a wonderful artifact of our family's past: a poem he wrote for Christmas 1994, about our reading life.  Lizzie was almost five; Mona was three and a half.

The references are to books we'd read during that one year.  I've put in links to 75 different books; 50 of those links are to Annie and Aunt


Dear family: It has been a year
Since last we had a Christmas here,
With Santa's bounty strewn like pillows
Beneath the sacred armadillo.
Who knows what gifts this day will bring?
I don't – but there's at least one thing
I'm sure must lie beneath the tree:
Some books for you; some books for me.
That makes me happy, and it's leading
Me to think about the reading
We have done together. And
(If you'll forgive this bland
Attempt at rhyme) I'd like to write
Some verses of my own that might
Help overloaded brains remember
Books we loved in late December
Nineteen ninety four.  So here's
A Christmas list that says: Three cheers
Hurray for Ferdinand and Bambi,
Let us bark loud acclamation
Best wishes to Babar and Boris,
Walk into it and not
Be missed?  We'll never know.)
To Brave Irene, who trudged through snow;
Betsy and the doctor, too;
We read about all sorts of bravery –
And, occasionally, knavery,
From the henchmen of Cruella
To that rotten Nome King fella.
Look out, Peter!  Here comes Hook!
The captain's got a scary look,
But pirates can't beat Peter Pan.
(Growing up's the thing that can.)
We're going on a bear hunt.  We're
Not scared – unless the bear is here.
Speaking of bears: Pooh is a favorite
With his friends Eeyore and Piglet,
Rabbit with the too-small door,
Owl and Tigger (worra-worr),
Christopher Robin, Roo and Kanga;
In your honor, we shall hang a
Picture on each bedroom wall,
With thanks to Grandma from us all.
Down by the great Limpopo, one's been
Spotted with a crocodile.
And who's that beast all wreathed in smiles?
Why, Horton with his egg: It's hatching!
(Meanwhile, poor old Spinky's sulking.)
We've read of big and little fishes,
Searched with Galen for Delicious,
Mourned with Ardis at the lake,
Hopped on Pop (hope he won't break).
We've gobbled up green eggs and ham.
Eaten ice cream and clam chowder,
And we've told riddles, me and you,
Of copycats who end up swimming:
Catfish, as it were, not catwings.
The Cat in the Hat's been back this year
And Harry Cat has been a dear
Old friend to Chester.  Aren't friends grand?
Take Frog and Toad – they understand
Each other.  Mudge and Henry, too.
And George and Martha.  It is true
But they made up and took their chances
Being friends, not being careful.
Still, you'd better be bewareful
Of that nimble Fox: He's famous
For his tricks.  Now, why's George curious?
You can't mean it – you're not serious.
But don't imagine you'll convince me
That the yellow-hatted fellow
Tried to keep that monkey mellow
That's worthy of the Stupids.  Yet
It ended happily, this tale,
Holly and Ivy brought tears to eyes.
Grandfather Twilight had a surprise
In the form of pearls that turn to moons.
But who's left out?  This must end soon.
We should mention Max's breakfast vagaries;
Dr. Dolittle's menageries;
And think of a rhyme we can put London Bridge in.
Anna's new coat, the puddle goop
Into which jumped the piggie's mother;
And that makes me think of a strange kind of weather:
Cloudy, with meatballs soon to be showering;
A garden with secrets, soon to be flowering;
We could go, with our listing of Gollies
and penguins and Poppers and many more jolly
Good stories – like Paul Revere's horse, brave old Sherry,
And children who somehow made friends with a railway.
The carpet and phoenix should not be forgotten;
No more should Jemima, whose egg-luck was rotten.
What about Madeline?  Who do you think'll
Remember to ask: “What about Tiggywinkle?”
(That's “Mrs.” to you – we must be polite.)
Merry Christmas to all – and to all a good night!

Thanks to Bob for writing it, for saving it, and for having been there all along.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Reading graphic novels (alone, together, aloud, silently)

Dear Aunt Debbie,

First, how much do I love that you have a "random facts shelf" in your store? Not for the first time, I'm sorry we don't live closer to DC.

You asked in your last post about how I read graphic novels and comic books aloud. I've recently had a lot of time to practice the skill, because in the last couple of weeks we as a family have gone deep into the Bone series, by Jeff Smith. We have the first four Bone books out from the library right now, and they are in constant rotation, in a variety of ways:

"Reading" alone: When Isabel gets a new graphic novel, she first wants to read it by herself. I've made the mistake of referring to what she's doing as "looking at the book," and have been insistently corrected: "No, I'm READING it." She sits right down and examines every page, really taking her time with it. She starts to figure out what's going on, finds the characters she's most interested in, and determines which parts look scary, so she can prepare herself. (At least, that's how I interpret her poring over the pages. She doesn't talk much about what she's thinking as she looks through the books.)

Reading aloud together: After Isabel is done with her first read-through, she will allow me or Jeff (or sometimes Eleanor) to read the book to her. In my read-alouds, I follow the excellent advice provided by the folks at Toon Books (publishers of our beloved Maya Makes a Mess).

Here's the beginning of their list of top ten tips for reading comics with kids:

1. Find the right book

There are many comics and graphic novels out there, but not all are appropriate for every age. Look for titles made especially for children. It's best to choose a story that fits the child's age and interests.

2. Guide young readers

Keep your fingertip below the character that is speaking, so kids can follow along with the story even if they can't yet read the words.

3. Ham it up!

Think of the comic book story as a play. Don't hesitate to be a ham! Read with expression and intonation. Assign parts or get kids to supply the sound effects--it's a great way to reinforce phonics skills.
In reading aloud, this is what I do. I keep my fingertip at the bottom of each panel, under the character who's speaking, so I don't need to narrate who is saying what. I also try to differentiate my voices for different characters, giving them accents or higher or lower tones. Both Jeff Smith, in the Bone books, and Ben Hatke, in the Zita the Spacegirl books, help out by providing accent hints via phonetic spelling.  Here, from Zita, is an alien named Topper, who you can't help but read in a Cockney accent:
In Bone, the rat creatures hiss in long strings of SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS, which Isabel has claimed as hers to read aloud.

Reading alone: As soon as Isabel has put down a Bone book, Eleanor grabs it up, takes it to the corner we've dubbed the "reading nook," and reads it to herself. This is awesome in all ways but one: she has a terrible time keeping major plot points to herself. Lots of spoilers around here.

Reading aloud separately: When Eleanor reads to herself, she likes to stop and read aloud sentences and brief scenes that she finds funny: "Listen to this!" Mostly, these lines are completely out of context, so if she's reading something no one else in the house has read yet, it's difficult to understand what she's talking about. Every once in a while, however, she hits on a scene  that stands alone. She's fallen in love with this exchange between happy-go-lucky Smiley Bone and dour barkeep Lucius in Bone #3: Eyes of the Storm:

After reading it aloud by herself first, she drafted Jeff to play Lucius, and memorized all of Smiley's lines. They have probably recited this scene aloud 25 times in the last two days.

Rereading/reading out of order: Both Eleanor and Isabel pick up graphic novels out of order, paging through them to find and reread their favorite parts. Right now, Eleanor has read all of the first four books to herself, but likes to listen when I read aloud. Isabel has "read" all of them on her own. I've read the first three books aloud to Isabel, and today we started the fourth. Simultaneously, Jeff is rereading Isabel the second book, and Isabel on her own is reading the end of the fourth. Tonight I read to both girls by myself, as Jeff stayed late at work: Isabel requested a funny rat creature scene from the second book, and Eleanor wanted the continuing narrative in the fourth. The text and illustrations are rich, and the plot is growing increasingly complex, so the rereading doesn't feel repetitive. Often, it provides Eleanor and Isabel the opportunity to notice connections and foreshadowing we missed during the first readthrough.

It is such a pleasure to be immersed in this world as a whole family.

Love, Annie

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Woman on the floor!

Dear Annie,

I'm so impressed by Isabel's enthusiastic immersion into graphic novels.  And so impressed with how you're finding what engages her.

Sometimes, when I suggest graphic novels to parents of not-yet-reading children, I get confused or panicked looks.  It's not immediately apparent to many how one reads comics out loud.  Can you talk a bit about how you do it?  Do you say, "Then Bone says,..."  Do you point at each picture?  How do you match the words said out loud with the many pictures on each page?

Yesterday, I came around a corner in the book section and found a regular customer lying on the floor in front of the sports section.  She was intensely sorting through some of the sports books aimed at younger kids -- ones on the almost-floor-level shelf.  Turns out she was looking for books to entice reluctant readers quite different from Isabel: she works with a group of 11 year-old boys who are barely reading.  She wanted books with these attributes:
  • Large type, preferably that can fit fewer than five or six words per line.
  • Not many words per page.
  • No baby-ish stories -- these guys are in 5th grade.
  • Topics that would interest them -- that's why she started in the sports section.
I know this will sound familiar to your mother, my sister (Judy -- chime in here). 

We came up with a wide array.

The Best of Pro Football had big type, possibly too many words on a page, but high-interest topic, so she was going to give it a try.

I'm always partial to non-linear books for kids who are having trouble reading.  I'm thinking of the type of book -- usually non-fiction -- that one can open to any page, read the page, close the book and feel one has accomplished something.  In fiction, you can read 80% of the story but feel you've failed if you don't get to the end.

So the next one we ended up with was National Geographic's Myths Busted from the random-facts shelf.  There's a myth --
and on the next page a de-bunking: BUSTED  (coin is too flat and light, but a ball-point pen can become an arrow and inflict fatal damage).  Another non-linear book.  A variety of typefaces but most of them are pretty big, and the topic definitely doesn't feel like a first-grade reader.

Then I offered The Cat on the Mat is Flat, by Andy Griffiths.  It's a reader, but a thick one: it looks like a chapter book from the outside.  I measured the spine: it's half an inch.  The mom talked about the status a book with a significant spine gives struggling readers.  Inside, it's definitely a reader: "There was a duck. His name was Chuck.  Chuck the Duck drove an ice-cream truck."  The stories in it have titles like, "Frog in a Bog on a Log," "Harry Black, the Sack, the Snack, and a Sneaky Snack-Stealing Yak Called Jack," and "The Cat, the Mat, the Rat, and the Baseball Bat."  But Griffiths makes fun of the form while he uses it.  A story which starts, "The cat sat.  The cat sat on the mat." adds a rat who is chased by the cat until it gets fed up and finds a baseball bat, at which point the chase reverses and there's eventually a two-page spread of KERSPLAT!  It's possible that it's enough humor for an 11 year-old...

Once again, the constant variety of this job gives me something to look forward to every time I walk around a corner.  First time I've found an adult stretched out on the floor with no child in sight, I think.



Thursday, January 2, 2014

Zita the Spacegirl

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Happy New Year! I'm glad to hear the holiday season at Child's Play wrapped up well for you. Vacation and travel over the last two weeks gave us lots of good reading time, both together and separately -- Eleanor made the case for being allowed to stay up reading in bed with a flashlight on non-school nights. It's interesting seeing the way she reads independently: after we picked up five new books at the library this week, she stayed up and read the first chapter of each, rather than reading any one book start to finish. When one book she's reading gets a little suspenseful, she'll often put it down in favor of another, then come back to it later. All this switching around doesn't seem to hurt her comprehension.

With Isabel, our foray into graphic novels continues. We've probably read Bone ten times by now, in whole or in part. Isabel requests specific episodes and pages, and sits alone with the book when I'm busy with Will, poring over the illustrations. We have the next three volumes on hold at the library.

In the meantime, we've discovered another excellent graphic novel, recommended by our good friend and frequent guest blogger Holly: Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke. I bought it sight unseen for Isabel, and it's turned out to be a massive hit. (Happily, there are two sequels.)

Zita begins as an Earth girl, running through a field teasing her friend Joseph. They come across a crater made by a meteoroid, and poking out of the meteoroid, a device with a big red button. Against Joseph's fearful objections, Zita presses the button. A portal opens,and metallic tentacles shoot out to capture Joseph, then retreat as the portal closes again. Zita is left, shocked and guilty, on the grass. After gathering herself, she presses the button again, choosing to go into this other world to rescue Joseph.

The other world turns out to be a planet populated by all kinds of alien creatures, large and small. The button (a jumpgate between worlds) is accidentally broken, and Joseph disappears in a spaceship with the tentacled thing, leaving Zita to gather a band of misfits to go after him. Oh, and there's an asteroid on track to destroy the planet in three days.

It's a Wizard of Oz-like journey, a ragtag bunch led by a girl who's landed unexpectedly far from home, and longs to return. There's a giant mouse who communicates by way of a printer hanging around his neck; a not-quite-trustworthy man called Piper who can make and fix all kinds of fabulous devices, and plays a magical pipe to boot; a fierce red orb-shaped robot named One, who doesn't work well with others; a nervous, rattling robot named Randy; a giant alien (not smart, but helpful) named Strong-Strong. Together, they confront the Scriptorians, a group of aliens who believe that Joseph has the power to save them from the asteroid. There's suspense here, danger, some betrayal, but nothing too scary for my brave 4-year-old.

Zita is an appealing character.  She's adventurous, loyal to her friends, and brave enough to keep trying to find Joseph in the face of overwhelming odds. When given the choice, she doesn't want to hurt anyone in her quest -- she stops One from shooting a couple of times -- but she also puts on a massive pair of boots and stomps a pack of robot spiders into smithereens when they attack her and Mouse. She's also quite human. Her reactions throughout feel realistic, including the guilt and fear over what she's caused to happen to Joseph. I'm happy to have her as a role model in this house.

I think Isabel is drawn to the humor as much as to the adventure, in both Zita and Bone. She's started quoting lines verbatim from both books, and two of her most-requested pages focus on interactions with comparatively minor characters engaged in the humor of total exasperation.

In Bone, she loves this interaction between the two rat-creatures who try to catch Fone Bone for dinner:

In Zita, it's these two little guys who live inside and maintain a series of pipes, and come out because they hear Zita's tears plinking down and worry that there's a leak:

Humor, adventure, monsters and aliens -- we're on a roll here.

Love, Annie