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, August 28, 2014

The Greeks, tweaked

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I just took the time to read Lois Lowry's Newbery speech, which you linked to in last week's post, and now I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes. I think I'll skip the movie, but I'll go back to reread The Giver soon.

We are settling into our new house (the first house I've ever lived in, after a lifetime of New York apartments), unpacking and feeling out how the spaces will work. Because of contractor slowness, we are without the full wall of bookshelves we'd planned in the living room, so we haven't yet been able to unpack the major part of our library. I feel a little hobbled by this. But we are making do! There's one tall bookshelf crammed to the gills in the kids' playroom, and we have a nice pile of books out from the library.

We are still deep into mythology over here -- maybe something about the discombobulation of a move makes the Big Dramatic stories more attractive? With both girls, I'm reading aloud Odd and the Frost Giants, which is tremendous fun now that we've read D'Aulaire's Norse Myths cover to cover. Both Eleanor and Isabel are quick to catch references to the classic stories: Thor (in the form of a bear) repeatedly mentioning Loki's time in the form of a mare, which annoys Loki to no end; brief mentions of Thor's wife Sif and the lovely Freya.

We've all been rereading George O'Connor's Olympians series (we're really going to have to buy that boxed set), tucking the books into backpacks for subway and playground reading.

And Eleanor has been captivated by two middle grade chapter book series based -- more or less -- on characters from Greek mythology. I've read one of each series, and while I'm not a convert to either, there is some interesting play happening in each.

The series I like more is Myth-O-Mania, by Kate McMullan. In each of the nine books, Hades narrates an alternate version of a classical Greek myth, presenting himself as the hero of a number of stories, and Zeus as a blowhard who exaggerates his achievements. The titles are exclamatory and cute: Have a Hot Time, Hades!Say Cheese, Medusa!, Keep a Lid on It, Pandora! Long Greek names are shortened to nicknames: Eurystheus, the king who assigns Hercules his labors, is "Eury"; Persephone is "Phony" or "P-phone"; Cerberus is "Cerbie." Many of the more unsavory parts of the original myths are explained away in Hades' breezy retellings. In Phone Home, Persephone!, there is no kidnapping. Persephone has a crush on Hades, and hitches a ride to the underworld, then tricks him into falling in love with her. In Get to Work, Hercules!, Hercules doesn't kill the Nemean lion, but somewhat accidentally frightens him into running headfirst into a tree.

Still, McMullan has clearly read her mythology. Her books are parodies, playing off of details, large and small, from the original myths. Part of the pleasure Eleanor is taking in the books (which she has reread more than once) comes from identifying the ways in which they stay true to the stories, and the ways they tweak them.

Then you have the Goddess Girls, by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams. Their covers teem with large-eyed cartoon characters and titles swirled in girly script. The narrative places a number of Greek gods together in middle school, with Zeus as the principal. They refer to each other as "godboys" and "goddessgirls." The nods to the original myths are far smaller here. In the first book, Athena the Brain, Athena discovers at age 12 that she's the daughter of Zeus, when a magical scroll comes in through her window (she's been living on earth with the family of her friend Pallas) and tells her she's going to Mount Olympus Academy. So we lose one of the best origin stories in mythology, and get a thin version of the first chapter of Harry Potter instead.

Athena is the new girl, making friends with Aphrodite, Persephone, and Artemis, fighting with Medusa, and learning how to be a goddess after growing up on earth. While Eleanor loves these books, she was somewhat bothered by the ways in which Holub and Williams play fast and loose with the gods' ages: Zeus is the principal, and therefore an adult, but Poseidon (who should be Zeus's older brother) is a godboy who the goddessgirls have crushes on. There are cute moments: the Trojan War begins as a class project, with each goddessgirl and godboy being given a hero to guide on a quest. Athena has brought her toy wooden horse from earth, and on the spur of the moment makes it into the Trojan Horse.

The series wouldn't be my choice, but every time I see Eleanor start to reread another one and cringe a little at the level of cute, I remind myself of the reams of Sweet Valley High I read at just a few years older than she is now. She loves something I don't. But more than that, she loves to read. It'll be just fine.

Love, Annie

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Lois Lowry, The Giver, the movie, and Maine

Dear Annie,

I hope that your move has taken place, that it went incredibly smoothly, and that your children have settled in completely. 
We’re in Maine now and last Friday I went to the local premier of the movie of The Giver, by Lois Lowry.  I did not have high expectations for the movie, but it was showing in Bridgton Maine, where Lowry lives in the summers, and she spoke after the show.  

 I’ve written about The Giver and about Lowry before: the book is set in a dystopian world where individual freedoms have been sacrificed for security.  Jonas is a 12 year-old who’s been chosen to hold the collective memories of the world for the community members, who have no historical memory.  Jonas kidnaps a one year-old  who is going to be put to death and escapes, traveling across a grim and barren landscape.  The book ends very ambiguously: either Jonas and Gabe are about to be rescued by a warm, Christmas-carol singing community, or else they’re dying and Jonas is hallucinating rescue.

The book gives kids a lot to think about.  It’s about a boy who discovers his own moral compass in the face of a bland and dehumanizing society.  It’s also a good story with suspense and action and complex characters.  Lowry, who emphasized on Friday that she wrote the book for kids, not for grown-ups, has great respect for her readers.  

Okay.  So, the movie.  Sigh.  It’s not unalleviatedly awful.  Some of the details worked well.   It presents the monochromatic world of the book in visually very satisfying ways.  And  it felt well, okay, that Jonas has been moved up from 12 years old to 16: he and his contemporaries still have a kind of young naive air about them.  But then there’s the love interest (not in the book!), and the evil Meryl Streep who would fit right into the Hunger Games or Divergent movies.  A question about the expansion in the movie of the repressive Streep character is what prompted Lowry to say that she was writing her book for kids, not adults.  Jonas’s moral journey is there, but it takes place in labored speeches.

It’s a movie which is trying hard not to abandon the book, and at the same time is tarting it up because that’s what sells movies.  It has the flatness of a movie which is trying to telegraph all the complexity of a book into a too-small space.  Without quite believing it.

Lowry was in the awkward position of being part of the publicity machinery for an imperfect but not disastrous movie.   She was very diplomatic, but still gave some hints.  She had no control over the final product, but she said she had some strong disagreements with Harvey Weinstein, one of the film’s producers.

 “I had a lot of arguments with Harvey,” she said.  “He won them all.”  The disagreement she discussed was about the ending, which was portrayed too clearly as a magically happy transformation, rather than as the ambiguous one she had written.  

Such a contrast to her acceptance speech when she won the 1993 Newbery medal for The Giver.  She had won it three years earlier for Number the Stars:
I think the 1990 Newbery freed me to risk failure.  Other people took that risk with me, of course, One was my editor,  Walter Lorraine, who has never to my knowledge been afraid to take a chance.  Walter cares more about what a book has to say than he does about whether he can turn it into a stuffed animal or a calendar or a movie.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Guest blogger: Trippy books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We're moving on Tuesday, and my life is a swirl of boxes and packing tape, discombobulated children and frustration with contractors. Happily, my dear friend Emily, who most recently guest blogged for us a couple of weeks ago about reading to her newborn, has written another most excellent post for this week:

Hi again Annie, 

One of the pleasures of having a new baby, aside from the tremendous new love in one’s life, is the influx of books from friends and well-wishers. Among the classics we've received – The Snowy Day, Make Way For Ducklings – are a few wingy selections. Three of these trippy, singular books are the subject of today’s post. 

Our friend Bronwen gave us Innosanto Nagara’s
A is for Activist
– a radical left wing alphabet primer sure to have your baby rising up against tyranny in no time. Imagine how rousing it is to read Nagara’s ode to the letter J:

“J is for Justice! 
Yay for Justice! 
Jia-Jing Jiang.
Juanita. Jamal.
Justice for the Janitors,
Justice for all!”

The next letter comes with a thoughtful reminder:

“Kings are fine for storytime.
Knights are fun to play.
But when we make decisions 
we will choose the people’s way!” 

My daughter Alice is still young enough that she inadvertently throws one of her little fists up above her head on occasion. At least I thought it was inadvertent at first; now I suspect she’s preparing to fight the power. 

The Color Kittens
, illustrated in bright, pastel hues by Alice and Martin Provensen, is a lesser-known book by the inimitable Margaret Wise Brown. In it, two kittens named Brush and Hush mix buckets of blue, yellow, and red paint to create “all the colors in the world.” The text shifts back and forth from prose to verse, for instance when Brush and Hush try to create green: “Green as cats’ eyes / Green as grass / By streams of water / Green as glass.” At one point the color kittens fall asleep and then things really get trippy. In their dream, their colors rush together as they imagine “a purple land / In a pale pink sea / Where apples fell / From a golden tree / And then a world of Easter eggs / That danced about on little short legs.” The plot of this book is less emotional than the Margaret Wise Brown of, say, The Runaway Bunny, but the linguistic rhythms are as inexplicably mesmerizing as those in Goodnight Moon. It’s a charming addition to Alice’s growing library. 

Growing up, our own loopy family favorite was The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, a book originally published in 1977. In it, a mustachioed man named Plumbean lives “on a street where all the houses were the same” until a seagull mysteriously drops a can of orange paint on his roof. Implored by his neighbors to paint over the splot, he decides instead to paint the house of his dreams by night. In the morning, his neighbors come out of their monotonous brown houses and behold Plumbean’s: “It was like a jungle. It was like an explosion.” The neighbors talk among themselves, saying “Plumbean has gushed his mush, lost his marbles, and slipped his hawser” – lines that are a joy to read aloud. One by one, they stay up all night in Plumbean’s garden, trying to convince him to return his house to its original, drab form, and one by one, they decide to paint their own houses to “look like all their dreams.” The results, illustrated in groovy, nineteen-seventies style, are magic. 

 My hope for Alice is, of course, that she will live a life that looks like all her dreams, as weird and wild as they might be. These books will surely encourage her in that direction.

Love, Emily

And love from me, crazed as I am!


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Greek gods as superheroes? Oh, yes.

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I adore William Steig's vocabulary. What a find!

In the midst of packing to move, with all the drama and unsettling that provides, we are deep into mythology right now. I've written before about my childhood obsession with D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. I broke it out for the first time close to four years ago with Eleanor, when she was too young for many of the stories but enjoyed the pictures. Two years later, I read a number of the myths with her -- the ones at the beginning, focused on the twelve Olympians, we read multiple times. Several weeks ago, we took the book out again, and Isabel was hooked. The D'Aulaires include illustrations on every page to satisfy my visual daughter.

Happily, it was a read-aloud to satisfy both Eleanor and Isabel at the same time. Most mornings and nights, we'd read together; sometimes Eleanor would read her own book, and I'd re-read Isabel one or two of the myths she requested. (And where was Will? Sometimes with Jeff; often playing on the floor or sitting on my lap and putting things down my shirt while I held the book open behind him; sometimes shutting the book and shoving his board books at me. Three is more complicated than two.)

After we'd finished the Greeks, cover to cover, we started in on D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, which your girls loved so much. Again, total buy-in from both girls (though Isabel asked, quite early in the book, "Where are all the goddesses?" Say what you will about the Greeks and their gender issues; they did a great job with equal representation.)

And then I remembered to look in my closet.

Two years ago, when Eleanor decided to dress up as Athena for Halloween, you gave us George O'Connor's graphic novel Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, with the warning that we should preview it to make sure it wasn't too violent for Eleanor. I flipped through it, saw a couple of images that made me think it might not be the right time, and put it on a shelf in my closet, meaning to read it through when I had the chance. Like I said, that was two years ago.

I was a fool to let it sit so long. George O'Connor's Olympians series is absolute genius. There are six so far: Zeus: King of the Gods, Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory, Hades: Lord of the Dead, Poseidon: Earth Shaker, and Aphrodite: Goddess of Love. They're coming out as a boxed set this October. We currently have them all out from the library, but we're going to need to buy them.

What makes these books so, so good? O'Connor is a Greek myth nerd from way back, and in writing and illustrating his graphic novels, he draws on lots of original sources. Reading his author's notes at the end of each book, it's clear that O'Connor has thought deeply about how to present each of the gods, choosing which aspects of their stories to include to shape a fully-rounded and complex picture of each of them. There is rich characterization here.

This is true particularly of the goddesses. O'Connor provides about as feminist a reading of Greek mythology as I think you can make, given the material. In Hades: Lord of the Dead, Persephone speaks up against being treated like a pawn by her kidnapper Hades and her mother Demeter. Ultimately, she enjoys the prospect of being Queen of the Underworld, and (in one of what I think are very few moments where O'Connor actually changes the source material) she chooses to return to Hades, rather than being forced to because she absentmindedly ate a few pomegranate seeds.

In O'Connor's telling, Hera is much more than just a jealous spouse, making life difficult for Zeus and his illegitimate children. She has a keen sense of humor, and seems very much in control of herself. Hera's tormenting of Heracles is depicted as a way to help him become the greatest hero on earth, and made more complex by the inclusion of an episode where she nurses him as an infant in order to save his life:

You may notice here that Heracles is dark-skinned. So is Aphrodite, and so are a host of other more minor characters -- there's some diversity going on, which is also nice.

O'Connor's illustrations are both thoughtful and gripping. The gods appear as Marvel-comics versions of themselves -- lots of rippling muscles and glaring faces, lots of action sequences when recounting the Olympians' many battles. But there are so many subtle touches. The Titans are dark and shadowy, their heads touching the sky, reddish clouds floating about their heads like hair:

Poseidon's son, the Cyclops Polyphemos, has a head modeled on the skull of an elephant, because O'Connor is drawing on the theory that the ancient Greeks discovered mastodon skulls and mistook the trunk hole for a single eye socket, giving rise to the legend of the Cyclopes:

I should note here that this episode in Poseidon:Earth Shaker is fairly graphic. I'm far less concerned about exposing my kids to violence in graphic novels after reading all of the Bone series with Eleanor and Isabel -- the last book, in particular, is quite bloody. Still, even Isabel paused over Polyphemos eating Odysseus's men two at a time, and Odysseus driving a sharpened stake into his eye. ("I don't like that part," she said, looking at it again.)

In some ways, I'm glad we're discovering the series now rather than two years ago. Eleanor is reading them on her own, and returning on her own to the excellent material included at the end of each book: O'Connor's footnotes, which he calls "G[r]eek Notes"; author's notes; character profile pages; questions for discussion. She came out of her room tonight after Isabel and Will were asleep and wanted to discuss Question 7 at the end of Aphrodite: Goddess of Love: "Very few people believe in the Greek gods today. Why do you think it is important that we still learn about them?" Eleanor's answer: because it's the way to pass the stories on to future generations, and then if people want to believe in them again, they can. Then she combed through the end pages and wrote a list of one of the sacred plants of each god before finally going to bed.

My heart sings.

Love, Annie

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Discovering Tiffky Doofky

Dear Annie,

I love Emily's discovery of the joy of reading to babies.  And I especially like that it ends with her very new family's creation of their first family literary reference.

I came upon a discovery of my own this past week, thanks to a well-read customer.

When a book starts ...
Tiffky Doofky, the garbage collector, went his rounds in a jolly mood.  It was first-rate weather.  He planned to wind up work in time to get to the Annual Picnic of the Oil & Vinegar Club over in Moose Hollow.
.. and it's by William Steig, you know an adventure is about to happen.  That's what so many of Steig's books are: characters happily immersed in routine suddenly faced with the extraordinary.

Tiffky Doofky is comfortable with himself:
The stink of garbage did not faze him.  He respected garbage.  The furniture in his home, the bed he slept on, the dishes he ate from, his footstool, his lamp, his umbrella, the pictures on his walls, all came out of the garbage.
A visit to the fortune teller Madam Tarsal shifts his world.

 She predicts that he will meet and fall in love with his future bride before the sun goes down.  "Nothing you do can keep it from happening."   He's a happy guy, but also a dog: "Tiffky Doofky's tail whacked the chair he was sitting on."

Steig's characters' paths to happiness are  never smooth.  Tiffky nearly hits a babushkaed bicycle-riding chicken: "Help me up young fellow, don't just stand there like a totem pole!"
She then tells him to follow a magic arrow and he ends up lost in an enchanted world. Steig helps us out with a parenthetical:
(The old biddy was really a villainous witch who detested Madam Tarsal, her fellow fowl, and always tried to foil her fortunetelling.  As Tiffky Doofky ran after the arrow, she cackled with evil glee.)  
The enchanted world frustrates the garbage man's quest: after a sequence of bad experiences, he falls from a cliff and meets a self-described lunatic with a butterfly net over his head.  All of a sudden, the enchanted world disappears and he's back on the road with his garbage truck.  Once again Steig takes us into parenthetical explanation:
(How the devil did this happen?  Well, the old biddy who had been holding him under a spell had to go home in order to lay an egg.  This egg demanded all her attention, and tired her.  So she turned herself into a pair of old sneakers, something she did now and then because she found it restful.  Tiffky Doofky had been forgotten, he was off the hook.")
Well, not quite.  Demoralized, he dozes off by the side of the road and is nearly strangled by a boa constrictor. An attractive female poodle arrives and shouts, "Dolores!  At ease!"  It's Estrella, a carnival snake charmer, and as the sun sets we have true love:
The book is titled, appropriately, Tiffky Doofky.  I learned about it for the first time last week, when a very engaging customer asked about -- it had been her son's favorite and she wanted it for her grandchild.   It's always a pleasure to find out about a good book that I can start carrying in the store.  And to find a hitherto unknown (to me) Steig is a special treat.

I love his meandering stories and his unassuming lovable characters.  So many of his details are perfectly placed.  A picture of the dump has a bucolic scene of sheep grazing in the fields beyond the stinking garbage.  When Tiffkey is lying at the bottom of the cliff, the dominant figures in the picture are four cows who "ambled by, nodding, chewing, and mooing."  Such a master craftsman.

Love to you,