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.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Audio on the road

Dear Annie,

I hope you all are feeling more settled in your house, into the routines of school, and well-partied from Isabel's fifth birthday.  What a lot has been happening!

You sent me a lovely query from your friends Eunice and Ryan about audio books on a car trip, a topic near and dear to my personal and professional hearts.

Ryan is taking two boys, in first and third grade, "on an epic southwest road trip (Yosemite, Mammoth, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Yellowstone, Tahoe). "  Says Eunice:
There's a lot of car time coming up for Ryan and the boys. I tried convincing him that an audio download of Harry Potter would be the perfect fit, but Ryan is dead set on sticking with only "western" themed children's books.
As a family, we spent large amounts of time listening to audio books, both on long road trips, and going from place to place in town.  They're a fantastic way to enjoy a trip while still being able to look out the windows.

With audio books, even more than when a parent reads, delivery trumps content.  A good or average book read by an average (or bad) reader won't hold anyone's attention.  As we used to counsel our children in college: pick the elective course by the professor, someone who can excite you about a topic you didn't know you wanted to know about.  Going for the topic alone -- with professors or audio books -- can condemn you to boredom.  I think that's Eunice's motivation with the Harry Potter suggestion.  They're fantastic audio, but I'd suggest waiting a couple of years for the kids to get more out of them, and to avoid the really scary bits.

So I've come up with a list which includes some western themes, some vaguely western themes (does Portland, Oregon count?), books about trips and quests, and just good books.

I'll start with Jim Weiss, who's a storyteller.  His recordings sound like someone who's telling a story -- a little chattier -- not like someone who's reading you a book.  Lizzie was hooked on his King Arthur recording for years.  He's got a few western themes:
American Tall Tales: Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, "Fastest Draw in the West."
His Gone West includes Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, and Indian wars.
A CD called Tales from Cultures Far and Near has what's described as a funny Lakota Sioux legend, then other stories from around the world.

Robin Williams' Pecos Bill
The best storytelling audios ever, in my opinion, are the Rabbit Ears recordings.  They paired famous actors and actresses reading with background by major musical talent.  So you've got:
Robin Williams reading Pecos Bill with music by Ry Cooder,
Keith Carradine telling the story of Annie Oakley with music by Los Lobos,
Jonathan Winters doing Paul Bunyan with Leo Kottke.
There are lots more: check out the Rabbit Ears site.

All of these storytelling recordings, although entertaining, are not as long as book audios.  Most of them are 30 to 60 minutes.  Most books will run you much longer.

On themes of the west and wildlife and a great story, you can't go wrong with
The Trumpet of the Swan
, written and read by E.B. White. He has a wonderful old Mainer voice.  The story of Louis, the mute trumpeter swan, starts in western Canada, spends a good deal of time in Montana, and eventually makes it cross country to the Boston Public Garden.  It's full of nature and boy/swan friendship, and just great storytelling.

On to Portland, Oregon and two wildly different genres.  Beverly Cleary, as you know, is one of my favorite authors.  Stockard Channing did an excellent job of recording the Ramona books: they follow a younger sister from her pre-school days through fourth grade.  I don't know how these guys feel about books whose central characters are female (sigh), but I'd recommend two different Ramona books with boys as major secondary characters.  Cleary writes very empathetically about the experience of whatever age she's describing.  Ramona the Pest, about her kindergarten year, includes a rivalry with Howie, the boy next door.  And in Ramona Quimby, Age 8 she has a constant teasing friendship with the boy she refers to as "Yard Ape."  That book also features Ramona throwing up in school, and breaking a raw egg on her head.

Cleary also did a series about a boy named Henry Huggins.  Those books feel a little more dated than the Ramonas, but they're still entertaining.  The reader isn't up to Channing's high quality.  The first book, Henry Huggins, includes the story of Henry finding Ribsy, a stray dog, and coming very close to losing him again.  Great for dog loving kids.

And one other Portland book:
, by Colin Meloy (lead singer of the Decembrists), read by Amanda Plummer.  I'm surprised I haven't blogged about this book.  It's a Narnia-like fantasy: two kids enter a magical forest in Portland, trying to find a baby who's been stolen by crows.  They enter into a world of talking animals, bandits, and shifting alliances.  It's an intricate and well-written tale which will last for many hours.  I haven't heard the audio, but we get good reviews of it from customers.

I'll end with two great completely different books about travel/quests.  We know how much we all like Where the Mountain Meets the MoonThe recording, I'm told, is also excellent.  It's about running away from home and going on a quest to find the Man in the Moon.  Will entertain in a car for quite a while.

I've saved the weirdest for last:  Jim Copp's and Ed Brown's  children's stories, recorded mostly in the 1960s.  We came upon them by chance, following up on a brief mention of them in The Atlantic, of all places.  Lunatic, hilarious, wacky and weird are words which come up in descriptions of them.  The recording we loved -- and the whole family can still quote from -- is A Journey to San Francisco with the Glups.  Think of it as The Stupids Go on a Road Trip.  The Glups are a completely clueless family, traveling with their cow Bossy from Maine to San Francisco to claim an inheritance.  There are songs and great sound effects and many different accents -- and of course some mooing. 

So there's an array of audio.  I envy those three guys the trip.   How about a guest blog when they get back about what they listened to?



Sunday, September 14, 2014

The staying power of children's books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Hearing about your work in the store always makes me happy -- so good to know you're there, making excellent book to person connections every day. I've just put the first two books in the Whatever After series on my library hold list -- they sound like a perfect fit for Eleanor, who loved the Sisters Grimm. We're constantly on the lookout now for new middle-grade series to keep her happily in books. Yesterday, she picked up The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson book, and stayed up past midnight to finish it, thrilled and a little frightened by the end. She must have stopped 25 times during the day to tell me, "This is a really good book!" Any other suggestions?

I've been thinking this week about the staying power of children's books. As I'm sure you've noticed, a recent meme on Facebook has people listing 10 books that have stayed with them and/or made a difference in their lives. A little data analysis done by the folks at Facebook was reported in Mother Jones, under the headline, "Almost All the Books People Say Influenced Them Were Written for Children." Many of these are YA titles, with Harry Potter topping the list, but a few are picture books as well.

My own list (when I succumbed to being tagged and posted one) was no exception: half children's books. The one straight-up picture book I chose was Maurice Sendak's fabulous In the Night Kitchen. Immediately, my friend Ann messaged me about this choice. She said she'd bought the book for her daughter on my recommendation, but found aspects of it "surreal and horrifying," and wondered what I did with the Holocaust references. 

Holocaust references! I had to think, because that's something I'd never seen in In the Night Kitchen. I've always read the book in the way my father read it to me, with great joy: as an assertion of individuality, and a triumphing over people who try to force you to be something you're not. The bakers want to put Mickey in the cake, and refer to him as milk, but he breaks out: "I'm not the milk, and the milk's not me! I'm Mickey!" Then he goes farther, finding the real milk and adding it to the batter, helping to create the cake which will feed everyone in the morning: "I'm in the milk and the milk's in me! God bless milk and God bless me!"

Mickey isn't in control at the beginning of his journey -- the fall out of his clothes and into the night kitchen -- but he has gained control by the end. It's always felt to me like a vivid depiction of something children feel all the time, as they are thrown into situations not of their own making. So while I can look at it now and think, oh, the bakers have mustaches and they're trying to put Mickey in an oven, and Sendak wrote other things specifically referencing the Holocaust, I can't feel that that is the meaning behind this book. And of course it's not a meaning a two-year-old would have access to.

Sometimes being a parent requires you to put aside your own references in order to make space for your child's interpretation, or at least to combine your understanding with theirs. I know that my understanding of In the Night Kitchen was shaped by my father, who also read me the Chronicles of Narnia without ever hinting at their Christian underpinnings, but was willing and able to discuss that meaning with me when I figured it out later.

This goes beyond books as well, of course. Will is fascinated by airplanes, and points up at them every time he hears one go by overhead. This past week, with the anniversary of September 11th hovering, I was terribly aware of the resonances of airplanes in a cloudless blue sky, even as I watched Will's enjoyment of them.

This week, I will make time to read The Lightning Thief, so that Eleanor and I can talk about what thrilled her and what scared her yesterday. I'll continue to read The Phoenix and the Carpet to both Eleanor and Isabel when Will is distracted by something else, and will read Will Ollie the Stomper (sequel to Ollie) roughly 500 times. And I wonder, as I often do, what will have the greatest staying power for them.

Love, Annie

Friday, September 5, 2014

Back to bookselling

Dear Annie,

I love visualizing you five in a house -- with stairs! -- snuggled together reading ancient tales.  We carry both of those chatty Greek mythology series.  I prefer Myth-O-Mania too, but The Goddess Girls sell more.  Holub and Williams have also written a slightly younger series called Heroes in Training, with titles like Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom, and Poseidon and the Sea of Fury.  It does similar messing with the mythology in cute fashion.

I got back from Maine at the start of the week.  The book section was in more than the usual chaos: the young woman we had trained to look after it while I was away left for another job two weeks ago.  (Life in retail).  So I've been digging out from a certain amount of chaos while the new fall books are already arriving.  Lots of good ones, which I'll be writing about soon.

Today, though, was a day that made me happy.  Fridays are always fairly busy, and I had my hands full.  Several of my favorite grandparents showed up -- two of them had vacationed (separately) in Alaska; all had tales of summer ups and downs.  The man who has been so delighted anticipating and then greeting his first grandchild came in looking for a book for another child, a kindergartner in a Spanish immersion school in the midwest, whose parents don't speak Spanish.  He ended up with an Elephant and Piggie, and the bilingual version of
Nuestro Autobus/The Bus for Us
by Suzanne Bloom.  I also encouraged him to find Emily's splendid post about reading to infants.

A wonderful retired school librarian wanted a board book for an energetic one year-old who wasn't into sitting quietly with books.  She ended up with a book with holes in the pages that are good for grabbing:
Who Do I See?
by Salina Yoon.

A mom needing gifts for a third grade book exchange birthday party -- and who wanted hardcovers -- took Odd and the Frost Giants  and Fortunately the Milk, both by Neil Gaiman.

A mom who I met years ago when she became the stepmother of a friend of Lizzie's came in with her 10 year-old son -- they're just back from living two years overseas.  They left with a Calvin and Hobbes book.

I played what's-that-book with a fourth grader: she couldn't remember the name of a funny series about a brother and sister who are magicked into different fairy tales.  I tried a couple of series: A Tale Dark and Grimm has a brother and sister, but wasn't it (probably a little too dark for her taste); The Sisters Grimm doesn't have a brother in it.  Then it hit me: a couple of times in the past few months I've been asked for the Whatever After series by Sarah Mlynowski, which we don't carry.  That was it: she'd read
Dream On
, about Sleeping Beauty.  So I special ordered a couple of other titles for her, and ordered one of each book for the store.  I've heard enough about the series that it's worth giving it a try.  Another case of a customer turning us on to books worth carrying.

A box of special orders which I'd been told wouldn't arrive until Monday popped up in the middle of the afternoon, complete with What to Do When You Worry Too Much.  I called the mom who'd ordered it and she showed up right away, relieved to have the weekend to read it with her child.

And somewhere in that busy day three of us at the store spent a total of maybe an hour and a half interviewing a candidate for a job which would include doing a lot of work in the book section.  A very likable person, knowledgeable about kids' books -- she even volunteered (with no prompting) that she can't stand the Berenstain Bears. A woman after my own heart.

Other folks showed up all day long, with other questions to make me think.  At the end of a day like this, I go home knowing that I've supplied a fair number of kids with the experience of opening up a book they haven't seen before.  It's very satisfying.