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

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Comfort reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The beginning of summer has brought with it, unfortunately, a nasty bug in our house. First Jeff, then Isabel, and now Will have come down with a fever of the knock you flat on your back variety. So there's been more than the usual TV-watching (for Will, the great distractor is a YouTube video of a bunny eating raspberries). But there has also been great comfort reading.

For Isabel, the go-to book was James Herriot's Treasury for Children: Warm and joyful tales by the author of All Creatures Great and Small. Isabel has always loved animals, both live in front of her and in picture books. My mother-in-law found this lovely illustrated collection of James Herriot stories a few years ago, but Isabel decided that it was too much of a chapter book, and wouldn't let me open it. Lately, though, she's been talking about becoming a veterinarian, so while she was in her fever-weakened state, I took the opportunity to crack the book open. We read it straight through, and then she had Jeff read it to her again later that day. It's become, immediately and intensely, one of her favorite books.

One major plus: the book is highly illustrated with gorgeous watercolors by Ruth Brown and Peter Barrett -- the text is printed on top of these illustrations, so there is always something to look at. The landscape of Yorkshire, England and the various farm animals in Herriot's stories are vividly rendered.

While there's a certain amount of sweetness ("Warm and joyful tales" indeed), Herriot's language is interesting enough to keep the stories from being cloying even to an adult reader. In the first story, "Moses the Kitten," he stops his car to open a farm gate in the middle of winter and finds a kitten freezing to death by the side of the road:

The wind almost tore the handle from my fingers as I got out but I managed to crash the door shut before stumbling over the frozen mud to the gate. Muffled as I was in heavy coat and scarf pulled up to my ears I could feel the icy gusts biting at my face, whipping up my nose and hammering painfully into the air spaces in my head.

I had driven through and, streaming-eyed, was about to get back into the car when I noticed something unusual. There was a frozen pond just off the path and among the rime-covered rushes which fringed the dead opacity of the surface a small object stood out, shiny black.

I went over and looked closer. It was a tiny kitten, probably six weeks old, huddled and immobile, eyes tightly closed. Bending down, I poked gently at the furry body. It must be dead; a morsel like this couldn't possibly survive in such cold...but no, there was a spark of life because the mouth opened soundlessly for a second then closed.

The drama! Isabel was hooked. There are eight stories in the book, mostly about cats and dogs, but including sheep, a horse, and an old cow who refuses to be sold away from her home. The Yorkshire accents as reproduced in the dialogue make it a fun read-aloud. While all of the stories end happily, there's a bittersweetness in a couple of them, and a mother cat dies in one, in the act of bringing her kitten to a warm home. So there's some sense of the reality I believe is stronger in Herriot's adult books (I read them years ago). It's a lovely compilation.

There's a different kind of poetry in Leo Timmers's Vroom!, the book Will wants to read over and over and over with his 103 fever. You might call it the poetry of repetition.  Here's the entire text:

Here comes the family car.

Here comes the sports car.

Here comes the taxi.

Here comes the wedding car.

Here comes the jeep.

Here comes the royal car.

Each page is illustrated with a a large-eyed animal or series of animals in the aforementioned car (the family car is full of rabbits; the wedding car a pair of frogs). It's very odd, but gets you in kind of a zen space when you read it ten times in a row. Or maybe that's just my exhaustion talking....

Love, Annie

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