In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Grabbing life by the braids

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I hope your visit with John Muth to see the baby panda at the National Zoo went well yesterday -- I can't wait to hear about it! Our wildlife sightings recently have been limited to some chilly squirrels and pigeons, and we're looking forward to spring.

The graphic novel obsession in our house continues unabated, and I'm feeling extremely lucky to be raising kids at such an amazing time in the explosion of the form. I remember the hours I spent with book after book of Archie comics, which I loved despite the bad jokes and reductive gender stereotypes. Instead of reading about the good girl (Betty) and bad girl (Veronica) fighting over Archie's attention, my daughters have spent the last couple of weeks getting to know the active, awesome heroine of Rapunzel's Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale.

Our friend and fabulous YA and middle-grade author Tui Sutherland recommended the book in a recent comment on the blog. It's a graphic novel retooling of the classic Rapunzel story, set in an alternate world with a Wild West flavor. In this version, Mother Gothel is a slave-driving overlord who uses "growth magic" to keep the countryside around her green oasis barren and forces locals to work in her mines under dangerous conditions. The growth magic is also responsible for the incredible length of Rapunzel's hair. Rapunzel discovers her true parentage at age 12 (her real mother is one of Mother Gothel's mine workers), and Gothel imprisons her in a tiny room at the top of a giant tree. There's a palpable sense of the difficulty of Rapunzel's solitary confinement, but she uses it to get herself in shape:

At age 16, she breaks herself out of the tower room and goes adventuring, planning to save her mother and defeat Gothel. Rapunzel teams up with the crafty but somewhat hapless Jack (of beanstalk fame). Their relationship is decidedly one of equals: there's mutual respect along with the budding romance, and they work together well to trick and fight their way to a satisfying ending. Rapunzel provides the moral center, expecting the best from people and urging Jack to give up stealing; Jack watches Rapunzel's fighting skills with admiration, and proves to be a quick thinker even when outgunned. A word about guns: as Tui noted in her comment, there are a number of them in the book (Wild West and all that). However, our heroes go farther than not using guns themselves: they actively remove guns from their opponents, Rapunzel by using her braids as a lasso and a whip:

It's pretty badass, in a kid-appropriate way.

Calamity Jack is a worthy sequel. This one is narrated by Jack, and takes place in the city of Shyport, a steampunk world filled with gadgets, floating houses, evil giants, and pixies.

We get Jack's backstory: he's a petty thief, a disappointment to his widowed mother, with a propensity for tricks that don't quite work. He's also Native American, a fact that is woven in thoughtfully but not too heavy-handedly via illustrations and a few references to an inherited war band and a fringed jacket of his father's.  The story here involves Jack and Rapunzel, along with a couple of other good guys, teaming up to fight the giant Blunderboar. (Rapunzel's hair was shorn at the end of the previous book, but she still keeps her braids coiled at her waist as weapons. Another detail I love: in both books, Rapunzel trades her dress for an outfit with pants, the better to climb buildings, leap over rocks, and slingshot herself towards her opponents.) Blunderboar has leveraged the threat of giant ant-people to take control of the city. Our heroes solve a mystery and save the populace, again as equal partners. And my daughters get another awesome heroine to tuck into the pantheon they're creating for themselves.

Love, Annie

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Panda time

Dear Annie,

I hadn't seen the Helen Keller graphic novel by John Lambert -- it looks amazing.  Am going to start carrying it in the store.

We've been having a good time at the toy store this past week, decorating for an author event.   The stuffed animal buyer ordered more than the usual number of large pandas, the window-decorator has scoured the shelves for big stuffed pandas, teeny plastic pandas, and everything in between.  And we've been talking on the phone with the National Zoo.

Here's the immediate result of all this activity:
A panda window!  

The books are Zen Shorts and Zen Ties by Jon J. Muth: the event is for his new book,
Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons.

Muth's Zen books so far (they also include Zen Ghosts) are stories about a very large panda named Stillwater who speaks "with a slight panda accent."  He befriends three siblings and tells them multi-layered stories that entertain (some nice wordplay) and teach life lessons.  The illustrations are stunning watercolors, and in some of the books black-and-white ink drawings lend a more thoughtful mood to his Zen tales. 

In Zen Ties, Muth introduces Stillwater's nephew Koo who speaks only in -- you guessed it -- haikus.
And now Koo has a book of his own, a collection of haikus about the seasons.  In illustrations, Koo and two children frolic through the year, throwing snowballs in winter --

snowball hits the stop sign
Heart beats faster
are we in trouble?

Escaping winter doldrums in the spring --

And appreciating fireflies, stone-skipping and kites in the summer.

When Scholastic announced it was publishing Hi, Koo! -- the official on-sale date is this coming Tuesday, February 25 -- they didn't have plans to bring Jon Muth to Washington DC.  As you may know, we're quite happy here in the nation's capital that the National Zoo has a new baby panda: Bao Bao is just about six months old.  So I wrote them and suggested that we'd be the perfect spot to kick off the book tour.  

That's what's happening: Jon Muth is coming to a Washington DC public school, then to the store at 4 pm this Tuesday.  Local folks: everyone's invited -- it's going to be fun.  But I suspect the best part of the day will be a visit we arranged for the Muth family to see Bao Bao.  Too cute for words these days:
I'll be going along with them to the zoo.  Will have a full report on the day in my next blog entry.



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Graphic learning

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your story about the 2nd-grader exhilarated to stay up reading far past his bedtime hits home here. It's mid-winter break in New York, which means that first Eleanor, and now also Isabel, have successfully petitioned to be allowed to stay up reading with flashlights in their beds every night. ("It's not a school night!") Graphic novels provide Isabel with the ability to read her own chapter-length books, which she stashes under her pillow. Eleanor has a few chapter books going at once -- she's just started the Noel Streatfeild Shoes books -- and is dipping in and out of our growing pile of graphic novels as well. They've been going to bed very happily.

Last Friday, Eleanor came home with an assignment from her first-grade teacher: to find reading materials at her level in order to research and write a brief biography of a famous American. From a small pool of candidates, Eleanor chose Helen Keller. I immediately put Who Was Helen Keller? on our library hold list -- we love the Who Was... series -- and then emailed you. On your recommendation, I added the Sterling Biography Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark.

Then, yesterday, we went to Books of Wonder, one of my favorite children's bookstores of all time. Their stock is huge, their shelving is brilliant, and they have a big open carpeted space in the back for events, read-alouds, stroller parking, and just plain sitting on the floor and reading.  Will napped in his stroller, bless him, and Eleanor and Isabel each picked out a stack of books and got busy.

I sneaked off to the graphic novel shelves, hoping to find something new to feed our growing habit, and came face to face with this:

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller, by Joseph Lambert.

That's right. A graphic novel. About Helen Keller. Clearly, it was fate.

We bought it, of course, and Eleanor took it to bed with her last night. While it turns out to be more about Annie Sullivan's life and character than Helen Keller's, it's an extraordinary book. Lambert uses the power of the graphic novel form to illustrate Helen's initial wordless existence, and then to show her dawning awareness of language. The book begins in Helen's point of view:

The more traditional narrative on the following pages reveals this to be a scene from six-year-old Helen's first "lesson" with Annie Sullivan: to eat, you must sit in a chair and use a spoon.

Lambert tells the story of the early years of Sullivan's time with the Keller family through narrative panels with dialogue, overlaid with Annie's cursive writing describing her challenges and Helen's progress (much of this in Sullivan's actual words, from letters she wrote back to Mr. Anagnos, the head of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, where she was educated). There are also flashbacks to Annie's childhood: suffering in a criminally badly run almshouse, where her brother died of tuberculosis; moving to the Perkins Institution, where she had trouble controlling her temper and fitting in, but rose to the top of her class. There's some difficult material here, especially the death of Annie's brother. Panels from Helen's point of view are woven throughout the book. The famous scene at the water pump, where Helen first makes the connection that the finger-spelled words have a meaning, brought me to tears. Here is Helen's knowledge exploding just afterwards:

Lambert chooses to focus the final third of the book on a plagiarism controversy. At age 10, Helen wrote a story, "The Frost King," which turned out to have the same plot and structure as a published story, "The Frost Fairies." She was accused of plagiarism, and Annie Sullivan came under suspicion by a number of people, including Mr. Anagnos, who had previously supported her through a great number of small offenses. The story ends with Helen and Annie leaving the Perkins school, where they had been living essentially as poster children of the Institution, and going back to the Keller home in Alabama.

Loneliness -- both Helen's and Annie's -- is a primary theme in this book. It gave me a far better sense of Annie Sullivan than I'd had before. Eleanor loved it, but was confused when reading on her own by the plagiarism story, and had trouble deciphering the cursive writing of Annie's letters to Mr. Anagnos. (I think it's aimed more at middle grade audiences, or even older.) Happily, I think this will lead to us having more of a conversation about these issues, and more time reading together.

Love, Annie

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Bedtime delight

Dear Annie,

Where would children's literature be without The Lady from Philadelphia, I ask you.  I can still hear my mother's voice reading those delightful stories.   As you point out, the Peterkins were the Stupids of the 19th century.  I'm having a reaction that hits from time to time with this blog: how did we get this far without ever mentioning The Peterkin Papers?

Today I have a great anecdote, from the world of Book-Loving Parents Who Pass It On to a New Generation.

A mom comes in to the store earlier this week, and we discuss books for her 5th grade daughter and her 2nd grade son.  They both are very much in the book zone, loving reading and being read to. 

So the mother tells me that the other night, she was reading a bedtime book to her daughter, both of them lying together on the girl's bed.  The inevitable happened: they both fell asleep.  Meanwhile, the dad, downstairs watching TV, also falls asleep.  Around midnight, Dad is the first parent to wake up.  He goes upstairs, locates the spouse in the daughter's room, and they both head to bed.  On the way, they notice a light coming from the younger brother's room.  They discover a very happy boy sitting up in bed surrounded by many of his favorite books, reading voraciously.  At some point during the evening, he had discovered that he was the only awake family member, and decided to take full advantage of the opportunity.  And when his up-way-past-bedtime status was discovered, he proudly showed his parents every book he'd read that evening.  I expressed surprise that he hadn't fallen asleep by that hour.  No, said his mom, he was so happy and wired he couldn't possibly have slept.  She loved it.

One suspects that evening will go into their family lore, dusted off occasionally for a family reunion, a high school graduation, or the first time he reads Moby Dick.



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Great and ordinary silliness

Dear Aunt Debbie,

For Eleanor's birthday this year, I went old-school to find some good read-alouds. We've just started a book I remember my parents reading aloud to me and Michael, which my mom remembers your parents reading aloud to her and to you: The Peterkin Papers, by Lucretia P. Hale.

The Peterkins are a sublimely silly family. There are Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin, their older children Agamemnon, Elizabeth Eliza, and Solomon John, and the unnamed "little boys" (are there two of them? three? it's not quite clear, as they always speak and move together). In each of the short stories in the collection, the Peterkins get into a small ordinary difficulty, and don't have the sense to figure a way out of it by themselves. In most of the stories, their problems are solved when they ask advice of "the lady from Philadelphia," who is often visiting in a house down the street. She is a paragon of common sense, and offers up the basic solutions the Peterkins are lacking.

The stories which stuck with me in greatest detail are among the first in the book. In "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee," Mrs. Peterkin puts salt in her coffee instead of sugar. She can't drink it, of course, and the family goes all out to help her find a way to fix it. The whole pile of them troop over to fetch the chemist (who is an amateur alchemist, and is trying to convince his wife to give him her gold wedding ring to melt down for his experiments) and bring him for a house call:

First he looked at the coffee, and then stirred it. Then he put in a little chlorate of potassium, and the family tried it all round, but it tasted no better. Then he stirred in a little bichlorate of magnesia. But Mrs. Peterkin didn't like that. Then he added some tartaric acid and some hypersulphate of lime. But no; it was no better. "I have it!" exclaimed the chemist, -- "a little ammonia is just the thing!" No, it wasn't the thing at all.

After the failure of the chemist, the family goes to fetch the herb-woman:

First she put in a little hop for the bitter. Mrs. Peterkin said it tasted like hop-tea, and not at all like coffee. Then she tried a little flagroot and snakeroot, then some spruce gum, and some caraway and some dill, some rue and rosemary, some sweet marjoram and sour, some oppermint and sappermint, a little spearmint and peppermint, some wild thyme, and some of the other tame time, some tansy and basil, and catnip and valerian, and sassafras, ginger, and pennyroyal. The children tasted after each mixture, but made up dreadful faces. Mrs. Peterkin tasted, and did the same. The more the old woman stirred, and the more she put in, the worse it all seemed to taste.

So the old woman shook her head, and muttered a few words, and said she must go. She believed the coffee was bewitched.

Finally, in desperation, Elizabeth Eliza goes to ask the advice of the lady from Philadelphia. Her response: "Why doesn't your mother make a fresh cup of coffee?" The children shout with joy, Elizabeth Eliza wonders, "Why didn't we think of that?" and the day is saved.

In "About Elizabeth Eliza's Piano," the piano-movers set up the new instrument with the keyboard facing the wall, and Elizabeth Eliza has to sit out on the piazza to play it through the open window, which becomes difficult when the weather gets cold. (This is the picture on the cover of the book.) The lady from Philadelphia triumphs again, asking, "But why don't you turn the piano round?"

One of the joys of reading The Peterkin Papers aloud with children is that a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old can see the solutions to these problems quite easily, and enjoy calling them out before the lady from Philadelphia gets involved.

The stories in The Peterkin Papers were first published in magazine form in the 1860s and 1870s. They feel like magazine stories: episodic, quite short (so good for read-alouds at bedtime!), a little formulaic in a nice way. Most of the stories involve lists of items (see the chemicals and herbs above), and all of them include a moment where the little boys have to put on their india-rubber boots to go fetch someone or something. The general good nature of everyone involved is totally pleasing, as is the absolute ordinariness of the problems they run into.  They're a great precursor to books like The Stupids.

Eleanor is loving them, and Isabel, in spite of her continued protestations against chapter books, is taken by the stories too. I can see "the lady from Philadelphia" becoming a family literary reference for us as it did in my own childhood.

Love, Annie

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Grandfatherly wisdom

Dear Annie,

I have so much fun picking out books for your family.   Raina Telgemeier, who did the Rapunzel comic you guys liked, is a wonderful graphic novelist who will delight your children when they're all a few years older.  She has two full-length graphic novels about middle school-age kids.  Her first, Smile, is about her own multi-year drama of broken teeth, orthodontia, headgear, and life in middle school.  It's wonderful and very popular with the 5th-to-8th grade crowd. 
And Drama is about kids in middle school theater: the girl who's the main character is a techie.   Graphic novels for kids of many ages are proliferating in wonderful ways these days.

Here in D.C., Bob has been on a let's-look-at-the-boxes-in-the-back-of-the-closet kick.  Today he unearthed a letter from his dad, Will Thompson, written after he received a first letter from Lizzie.  Will read a lot whenever we saw him, both aloud to the girls, and to himself.  When he wrote the letter, Lizzie was in first grade; Mona was a kindergartner.  The learning to read process was in full swing at our house, and Grandpa offered his thoughts:

I think learning to read is like opening a door and letting all the ideas anybody anywhere ever had come in.  A few ideas come from far away and very long ago, lovely or strange or both, and a flood of ideas come each day to be forgotten right away, like the ads in the paper!  Good ideas and horrid ones, pleasant and painful ones, generous and selfish ones, as many kinds of ideas as there are people.  Take what you can use and be aware and careful of the others!


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Early reader mysteries and fairy tales in comic book form

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We are the happy recipients of another excellent birthday box from you, this one for Eleanor's 7th last week. Your boxes are the cause of much excitement in our house, as the kids know there will be something for each of them, no matter the occasion. Sibling presents on birthdays are the best.

Isabel was particularly excited to find that this box included several comic book/graphic novels. We have all become immediate fans of the early chapter-level graphic novel series Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye, by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue, which you mentioned in a recent post. Eleanor likes the detective/mystery aspect of the adventures of the guinea pig Sasspants, who is pressed into working as a private eye by a hamster named Hamisher. Isabel likes the superbly silly humor throughout. The pet shop is run by a scatterbrained man, Mr. Venezi, who labels the cages of all the animals with the wrong names. As a result, the hamsters all think they are koalas; the chinchillas are called camels, etc. There's a lot of opportunity for reading aloud with accents and dramatic voices, which you know we enjoy. I also appreciate that Sasspants, the protagonist, is female, and wants to do nothing more than lie back in her cage with a good book. She's my kind of detective.

Perhaps the biggest hit so far is Fairy Tale Comics: Classic Tales Told by Extraordinary Cartoonists, edited by Chris Duffy. It's a gorgeous book: 18 fairy tales, retold and illustrated by contemporary cartoonists. There is great variety in the style of illustration, and in the choice of stories. The girls immediately gravitated toward the familiar -- Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rapunzel -- and enjoyed pointing out the ways in which the retellings differ from the versions we know well. Raina Telgemeier's Rapunzel is a particular favorite: Rapunzel jumps out the window after the prince and saves both of them by using her hair as a rope.

After that first pass through the book, we're starting to read some of the lesser-known stories: "Azzolino's Story Without End," from "The King and His Storyteller"; "The Prince and the Tortoise," from 1001 Nights; the English tale "The Small-Tooth Dog." Here's a page from Luke Pearson's retelling of the Japanese tale "The Boy Who Drew Cats":

I love coming into the living room to find each girl poring over these densely-illustrated pages. Even Will loves flipping the cover open. Another hit -- thank you!

Love, Annie