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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Four years of Annie and Aunt!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As I was sitting down to write this post, I realized that we've just hit our 4-year mark: We began Annie and Aunt on April 27, 2010, when Eleanor was 3, Isabel was a baby, and Will wasn't even a thought in anybody's mind. Time flies. Happy anniversary!

While our posting regularity has slipped in the last year or so since Will's birth, I continue to love writing to you about the books I'm reading with my kids, and to love learning from you about books old and new. Here's to another great year to come!

A family reading update:

In the last couple of weeks, we've gone on spring break and returned, tired and happy. Eleanor brought The Fairy's Return with her to Florida and read it obsessively (see new picture to the upper right) -- that's a book with staying power. It's lovely to see her reading it independently now, since it started for us three years ago as a read-aloud.

Together, Isabel and Eleanor and I are moving through the Chronicles of Narnia. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was our vacation reading. It's a far more rollicking adventure than Prince Caspian, filled with visits to islands inhabited by strange creatures and teeming with unexpected dangers. Kind of an elementary-school version of The Odyssey, without all the death.

Only Lucy and Edmund Pevensie are in this book, Peter and Susan having been deemed too old to return to Narnia. What enlivens the narrative most is the bad behavior of the Pevensies' cousin Eustace Scrubb, who comes along for the ride. He's a perfect pill of a boy until he gets turned into a dragon about halfway through the book (it's his own fault, and he turns out okay). C.S. Lewis is at his best when he has normal, changeable, imperfect kids to write about. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund plays the role of stinker, and his bad behavior gives the other kids something to play off of. By the end of the book, however, he's redeemed, and in Prince Caspian all four Pevensie children are terribly decent throughout. While I'd love to see my own children be so polite, functional, and moral, it's not as interesting a story to read.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader begins with Eustace, and you know immediately you're in for some fun:

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and his masters called him Scrubb. I can't tell you how his friends spoke to him for he had none. He didn't call his Father and Mother "Father" and "Mother", but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and tee-totallers, and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and the windows were always open.

Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.

Eustance Clarence disliked his cousins, the four Pevensies -- Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. But he was quite glad when he heard that Edmund and Lucy were coming to stay. For deep down inside him he liked bossing and bullying; and, though he was a puny little person who couldn't have stood up even to Lucy, let alone Edmund, in a fight, he knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visitors.

While Eustace becomes reformed over the course of the voyage, he retains his personality. He and a classmate of his, a girl named Jill Pole, are the two humans transported to Narnia in the next book, The Silver Chair. We're a few chapters in, and Jill and Eustace's minor bickering is highly entertaining. The narrative -- they've been sent by Aslan to find the lost prince of Narnia and bring him home, and are headed into giant country -- is gripping. We're clearly going to be reading all seven of the books in a row.

Will's current favorite is a book you gave Isabel three years ago: Nina Laden's excellent board book Peek-a WHO? We read it over and over, and he laughs every time.

Your gifts keep on giving.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Better Nate Than Ever: voyage of discovery

Dear Annie,

My literary travelers left the Lake District this morning, very satisfied with a week of exploring, hiking, reading scenes from Rosemary Sutcliff's The Shield Ring aloud on location, and adjusting to driving on the left.  I am so impressed with Lizzie and Bob's joy in that special book.

I'm preparing to hit the road to join those two in Spain, but in the meantime I've been listening to a wonderful middle-grade book involving a pilgrimage of a different sort, to your home town.  

Better Nate Than Ever
by Tim Federle is the story of a small town boy who sneaks off to New York to audition for a lead role in E.T.: The Musical.  The book has all the elements of a Broadway plot: boy flees disapproving family, is overwhelmed and wowed by The Big Apple, suffers insult and disappointment at auditions, meets sympathetic friends, and ultimately (in his own way) triumphs.  It's also the story of a theater-loving boy who's on his way to figuring out that he's gay but hasn't quite gotten there yet.  In the meantime, he has become experienced at handling constant anti-gay harassment from his classmates.
(My sexuality, by the way, is off-topic and unrelated.  I am undecided.  I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided my major and frankly don't want to declare anything other than "Hey, jerks, I'm thirteen, leave me alone.  Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food -- how would I know who I want to hook up with?")
Nate has spent his life using humor to get through the tough times, but discovering there's a world where kids like him aren't automatically beaten up, and where men express affection to each other in public clearly has a big emotional impact.  The publisher described the book at being for a 9 to 13 year-old audience, although I would like to think that the string of anti-gay slurs in the book (homo, faggot, fairy etc) might be a surprise to a third-grader.

His personality is effervescent.  I listened to the audio book, read by Tim Federle, the author.  He has a list of theater and bartending credits that qualify him as having been a serious contender in the Broadway world.  The tone of the audio book was perfect for his character.  I know that should be obvious, because after all he wrote it, but I've listened to a lot of author-read books that were pretty deadly.  The recording won an Odyssey Honor from the American Library Association this year: that's the award for children's audio books.

Better Nate Than Ever also won an honor from ALA's Stonewall Book Award -- recognizing books writing about GLBT issues.  That reminder made me go back and look at our flurry of entries on gay-themed books for younger children.  That was back in the summer of 2012 -- almost two years ago!  And while we're on the topic of time flying, we passed entry # 600 a few weeks back without even so much as a celebratory glass of champagne.  Onward!



Thursday, April 10, 2014

Return to Narnia

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I shudder to think of all those good adventure books relegated to the "boys' library" -- and yet, as we've touched on before, there are many ways in which our own era divides books neatly into "girls' books" and "boys' books." I'm noticing and appreciating series with paired boy-girl protagonists as a way to buck this trend: Sixty-Eight Rooms, Pinky and Rex, even Magic Treehouse, though it's not my favorite thing to read. Emily of New Moon goes right on my list, and I'm sure it will be a hit with Eleanor. But doesn't that cover just scream "Girl Book"?

Isabel announced a couple of weeks ago that she was ready to try a chapter book. Practically holding my breath with excitement, I asked her what she'd like to read. "Something with magic in it. Something with good guys and bad guys, and someone with powers."

And so we return to Narnia.

I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Eleanor when she was 3 1/2, which feels crazy young when I think about it now, but she was ready for it then. We've re-read it a couple of times since then, getting a little more out of it each time. When I pulled it out to read to Isabel, Eleanor picked it up and re-read several parts on her own.

When we first read the book, Eleanor was quite frightened by Michael Hague's intense illustration of the White Witch and her attendant ghouls preparing to sacrifice Aslan on the Stone Table. She would turn the page quickly, peeking at it and then away:

By contrast, this was the picture that convinced Isabel, fresh from the apocalyptic battles of the final Bone books, that she wanted to read the book. She pored over Hague's richly-colored illustrations, learning much of the story that way before we even started reading.

What a joy to read a chapter book to both girls at once! We sped through it, devoting morning and bedtime reading to the story. Isabel really listened, sometimes holding the book open to see one of the color plates while I read. When we finished a chapter, Eleanor often took the book to bed with her to read it again.

Hoping to keep the ball rolling, I started Prince Caspian immediately. In the second Narnia book (second that Lewis published, that is. If you go by Narnian chronology, it's number 4, but who really starts with The Magician's Nephew?), the four Pevensie children return to Narnia about a year after their first visit. In Narnian time, however, they've been gone for hundreds of years. They have passed into legend, as the Narnian Kings and Queens of old, and it turns out they've been called back magically to help Prince Caspian defeat his wicked uncle, King Miraz, and restore the Old Narnia.

Our reading is going okay -- Prince Caspian has nothing like the elemental power of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but the time-travel aspect is engaging, and there are several excellent characters. The version we're reading from is a giant paperback containing all seven Narnia books, with each chapter headed by one of Pauline Baynes's black and white line drawings. What I wouldn't give for more Michael Hague color plates! Without them, Isabel's attention wanders. Yesterday, she didn't want me to read it at bedtime, and we started off with a picture book. When Eleanor chose more Prince Caspian, Isabel did get into it in spite of herself. How could she not, in a chapter involving a fight with a hag and a werewolf?

Are there any really good illustrated versions of the other Narnia books? I did a quick search and didn't come up with any. But really, even a large drawing of the fighting mouse Reepicheep or the centaur Glenstorm would go a long way.

In the meantime, we'll be returning to picture books and graphic novels more often, charting Isabel's course in a different way than Eleanor's. As it should be.

Love, Annie

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sutcliff on girls' books, boys' books and a great book

Dear Annie,

Matthew Swanson's review of Crabtree was delightful.   You posted it just a day or two after I'd unpacked Crabtree from a box of new titles, so it was especially exciting for me.  Thank you, Matthew -- come back and talk books again soon.

We're still immersed in Rosemary Sutcliff in this household.  Bob recently re-read her memoir, Blue Remembered Hills
She had a rare form of juvenile arthritis which stunted her growth, kept her in pain for a good deal of her life, and led to long hospital stays and operations.   And of course in those days (she was born in 1920), parents were only occasionally permitted to visit their hospitalized children.

Hospital policies weren't the only attitude toward children that was different then.  There was the issue of books:

The rigid segregation of the sexes applied even to our reading matter.  We did not have a hospital library: we had two ward libraries, ours housed in a cupboard, the boys' piled on a large table in the corridor just outside their ward door.  When I was Up, and going to the physio department under my own steam, I used to pass it on my daily journeys to and fro; and how I envied the boys their library!  There was of course no money to buy books; we depended entirely upon the kind hearts of the general public, who unloaded onto us the unwanted books they found in their attics during spring-cleaning.  So, to start with, our books were those which somebody else didn't want; and as soon as they reached the hospital they were rigidly divided up; Boys' Library, Girls' Library, with anything that remotely resembled an adventure story going to the Boys'.  Unfortunately most of the books with any quality about them seemed to fall under this heading.  Passing the Boys' Library I used to eye with longing battered copies of Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines or Tom Brown's Schooldays.  Our own library cupboard seemed to be entirely stocked with Victorian stories about little girls of great virtue who died young, generally of consumption, surrounded by grieving friends; or the American version of the same theme, which was even worse.  There was one about a little girl whose brutal father beat her for preaching total abstinence to the clientele of his public house.  She died of consumption, too.  It wasn't really much of an incentive to virtue.  There were a few books by Mrs. Ewing and Louisa M. Alcott, but they were very definitely the aristocracy of our bookshelves; and myself, I have never been an Alcott fan.

And then one day I found a book.

It was a book called
Emily of New Moon
, about a little girl whose father died of consumption -- that made a change, to start with -- after which she was brought up by strict aunts in an old farmhouse somewhere in Canada.  A Canadian story, not an American one; but I barely registered that at the time.  What made it so different from other books of its kind I did not know, and I do not really know even now.  But for me it was magic.  I carried it off and kept it under my pillow or clutched to my bosom at bed-making time, and it seems as though I read it all that summer long, which can scarcely have been the fact; but I think I must have read it through, at first voraciously and then with slow and lingering delight, at least three times on the trot.  And it was summer. On fine summer nights the beds remained out on the concrete strip all night, and I used to read, half under the bedclothes to evade Night Nurse's eagle eye, until the last dregs of the light had drained away, and the first stars pricked out in a sky of witchball green; and from the barracks half a mile away, the bugles sounding Last Post had a magic in them, too, that turned them into the horns of Elfland, faintly blowing.

The Evening Star, and the bugles sounding across the misty fields in the summer dusk, and the book hidden under the bedclothes somehow entered into each other and became part of the same enchantment, while I followed spellbound Emily's adventures and misadventures, her fantasies and her budding relationships, and her first attempts to be a writer.  Was that the secret of the book's attraction?  No, I do not think so, my own first quickening in that direction was still around eight years away.  It was just magic, and magic is always an unaccountable thing.

Emily of New Moon is the first of a trilogy by L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables.  I remember reading it with my girls, and liking Emily even better than Anne.  For your future-reading list with Eleanor!