Thursday, April 17, 2014

100 Years Old But Young At Heart

When my daughter brought home Daddy-Long-Legs from the library, I was delighted.  I remembered loving the book as a child and I remembered the basic premise: a young orphan girl writes letters to her mysterious benefactor, whom she calls Daddy-Long-Legs, having just seen his shadow as he left the orphanage.  But I remembered nothing else.  With plenty of time to read as I recover from pneumonia, I picked it up, and was in for even more of a treat than I had expected.

Judy's letters to her anonymous patron are so delightfully irreverent, funny and modern, that I was shocked to see that the book was written in 1912.  We have read plenty of other children's books written or set around then, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Betsy-Tacy books, and All-of-A-Kind Family, and yet none have as modern a voice as this.

Judy is a true feminist before the coinage of the word.  Inequality between the sexes is simply so plain to her, and so obviously unfair.  She  complains of not having the right to vote, saying that while she hopes to develop into a Very Useful Citizen, "Are women citizens? I don't suppose they are."   After a sermon about how women must not "develop [their] intellects at the expense of [their] emotional natures," she wisely notes, "Why on earth don't they go to men's colleges and urge the students not to allow their manly natures to be crushed out be too much mental application?"  She even laments the lack of a neutral pronoun!

And she writes this gem, a model of economy of words, "Did you ever hear about the learned Herr Professor who regarded unnecessary adornment with contempt, and favored sensible, utilitarian clothes for women?  His wife, who was an obliging creatrue, adopted 'dress reform.'  And what do you think he did?  He eloped with a chorus girl."

Judy doesn't just address serious issues. Her descriptions of college life ring true today - friends dropping by, decorating her dorm room, deep philosophical discussions.  (All except the fudge - what WAS it with fudge a hundred years ago?  In the Betsy-Tacy books they are also constantly making and eating fudge!)  She draws a picture of the farm she is spending the summer at, explaining, "The room marked with a cross is not where the murder was committed, but the one that I occupy."

The only part of the book that might bother modern sensibilities - not that this kind of thing doesn't happen today - is the ending.  Spoiler alert.  At the end, Judy - and we - find out who Daddy-Long-Legs is.  This time, I knew all along, but I'm pretty sure as a child I was surprised.  It turns out that Judy has met him in person, repeatedly, but without knowing it.  But the real twist is that Judy marries him.  The fact that she marries a father figure, someone she's literally been calling "Daddy" throughout the book, definitely gave me pause.  The power dynamic is even more skewed by his wealth and the fact that he's gotten to know her through her letters as well as in person, while she has been kept in the dark.  Early on, my daughter predicted that Daddy-Long-Legs either was Judy's real father or would adopt her at the end of the book.  I would have preferred either of those endings and when she finished, she stated she would have, too.

Can you think of any old children's books that are similarly modern in tone?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Feeling Like Mama in All-of-A-Kind Family

We have been inundated with sickness here and now, just as Passover is about to begin, my older daughter is ill with the flu.  I can't help comparing myself to Mama in All-of-a-Kind Family, when four of her five daughters had scarlet fever and they had to listen to the seder from the sickroom (a converted bedroom).  Of course, she had it worse, with more sick ones and less modern medicine but still... Nothing like referring to a book to make me feel better!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Parent Problem

Authors love to get parents out of the way so that their child protagonists are free to embark on their adventures.  Often one parent is killed off (as I've written about before, it's usually the mother) and the remaining parent is of the absent-minded professor sort.  Mr. Mildew of the Tumtum and Nutmeg books and Mr. Melendy of the Melendy Quartet both come to mind as examples of the type.  Sometimes the children have a maternal figure in the form of a housekeeper or nanny, such as in the Melendy Quartet, or the Shoes books, or the Penderwicks series.  But when they don't, as in the Tumtum and Nutmeg books, it often strains credibility to believe that the children can take care of themselves and that Child Protective Services (or its British equivalent) has not appeared on their doorstep.  The neglect is supposed to be benign, but it often comes perilously close to being worse than that.  And in Under the Egg, it very clearly crosses that line. 

In Under the Egg, thirteen-year-old Theodora Tenpenny, whose father died years ago, tries to solve an art-related mystery, leading all the way back to the Holocaust, presented to her by her grandfather's dying words.  The adventure and research and plot (except for a too-neat ending) were all wonderful, but I was really disturbed by the character of Theo's mother, who is clearly mentally ill.  A mathematician who has taken refuge in her work (which is of dubious quality), she is unable to care for herself, much less Theo.  Once her grandfather dies, Theo has to care for both herself and her mother, doing everything from growing food in the garden to save money, to shopping, planning and cooking meals, fixing things in their old home, and handling the finances.  Perhaps we are supposed to be impressed by Theo's resourcefulness, but I was more struck by the fact that Theo is so obviously hungry that the gruff but kind local diner owner offers her free food (but does not call Child Protective Services!).

Theo explains why she does not seek help for herself or her mother, saying that if she did, "the Tenpennys [wouldn't be] the Tenpennys anymore.  It would just be the name on the door of a house I used to live in.  Before I went to foster care.  And then I would be really, truly, entirely alone."  That's understandable, but it sends readers the wrong message. 

The mother's condition is so serious as to bring her to the forefront of the book, rather than eliminating her as a plot point.  Moreover, the book treats mental illness too lightly, and ignores the burdens - fiscal, physical, and emotional - that such illness puts on the relatives of the sick individual.  The author either missed an opportunity to address mental illness or should have found another way of getting rid of Theo's mother.

In contrast, Theo's friend's parents are disposed of by being wealthy movie stars, too busy, too preoccupied, and too famous to take care of her, and she is taken care of by a full staff instead.  That, to me, is a preferable method of disposing of parents!

What do you think about the ways parents or parental figures are disposed of in children's books? Can you think of a children's book that deals with mental illness?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Braids in the Inkwell

A boy in my daughter's class is tormenting her.  He's not a bad kid, but he likes her and, of course, he doesn't know how to express it other than by teasing her.

In order to comfort her I resorted, of course, to books.  Unbeknownst to her,I have been saving a beautiful illustrated edition (to which I cannot find a link) of Anne of Green Gables (which she hasn't read yet) to give to her for her 9th birthday, so without mentioning the name of the book, I told her how, when Gilbert teased Anne, she broke her slate over his head.  I then offered to buy her a slate.  [Note to this boy's parents: I do not actually condone my daughter breaking a slate over your son's head.]  Laughter ensued.  Mission accomplished, at least in part.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Taking All the Fun Out of It

My third-grade daughter normally has to keep a reading log (and you know how I feel about that!) as well as write 1-2 paragraphs per week about the books she is reading, which are due on Mondays.  But the last two weeks, she had to do neither, in order to lessen the workload on the days surrounding the NYS ELA tests (another topic about which I have a lot to say).  I've been sick with what was first the flu and then pneumonia (that, plus our move into a still-being-renovated apartment account for my online absence lately), and this weekend her sister and dad were sick too.  We couldn't entertain her much.  My husband was worried that she was bored.  But I knew better.

She was thrilled.  Thrilled to have time to read just for fun.  She read two books in their entirety and started another, and possibly finished another one in there.  I read to her.  She went to the library and checked out thirteen books (nowhere near her record of 27!), ranging from classics (Daddy-Long-Legs) to junk (every balanced diet - reading or otherwise - needs some junk).

She read and she read and she read.  And she was so happy.

Sure, there's something to be said for reading deeply and analyzing what you are reading.  But there's also a lot to be said for just reading for pleasure.  Reading to be taken out of yourself.  Reading to get absorbed in a story, in someone else's life, in the rhythm of the words.  And I know that even this type of reading has all sorts of educational benefits: my daughter's vocabulary astounds me.  She never opens a dictionary.  She has learned from context.  (That's why the best SAT prep is not vocab lists but reading.)  But even if reading for pleasure had no educational value, who cares?  There's nothing wrong with reading solely for pleasure.  That's right.  There's nothing wrong with reading solely for pleasure.

With high-stakes tests and new curricula and the Common Core, reading for pleasure has all but disappeared.  The teachers no longer have time to let the children read independently, just for fun.  They no longer have time to read aloud to the class books of their own choosing.  What a loss.

Yes, some learning is boring and repetitive, of necessity (think times tables).  But if you take the fun out of reading, children aren't going to want to read any more.  I hope my daughter always finds joy in reading.  And I hope she is granted the gift of time in which to do it.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Needed: A Cure for Insufferable Mothers

You know the type.  You call a "friend" to commiserate over your parenting failures and she professes ignorance.  She's certainly never had that problem with little Timmy.  Why, little Timmy just adores his siblings.  Why, little Timmy is the most adventurous eater.  Why, little Timmy always does his homework the minute he comes home from school.

Well, Betty MacDonald, author of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books (there are five and I must confess, so far I've only read the first), knows them well too, and that is yet another reason her books are a delight to read aloud.  If you don't know Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, you are in for a treat.  A lover of children, not having any herself, (sometimes it is easier to deal with them when they are not your own!) she lives in an upside house and has cures for sassiness, sparring siblings, and all other manner of childhood afflictions.  The cures usually consist of giving the child a taste of her own medicine and/or taking her condition to extremes (e.g., providing the Tiny-Bite-Taker with penny-sized portions; letting the non-bather get so dirty that you can plant her with radish seeds).  Not only will you recognize your child's misbehavior in her pages, you will recognize the insufferable mothers (and they are, in the only dated thing about this book, solely mothers).  Ms. MacDonald pokes fun at them, not just by exaggerating their annoying traits (or perhaps just telling the truth!) but by giving them - and their horrid children - the most ridiculous names.

When Patsy won't take a bath, her mother calls her friend Mrs. Grotto for help.  Mrs. Grotto's response? "'Well, frankly, I don't know what to tell you because our little Paraphernalia simply worships her bath.  Of course, Paraphernalia is quite a remarkable child anyway.  Why, Thursday afternoon she said...'"

And when Hubert's mother seeks help in getting him to pick up his toys, Mrs. Bags can't help at all because she "'started Ermintrude picking up her toys when she was six months old.'" 

I suppose the best revenge on such mothers is curing your own child, but we know they are never fully cured.  They simply come down with next illness.  As my pediatrician once told me, at a certain age, children are either sick, getting over being sick, or getting sick.  What is true for illnesses of the body is true for misbehavior, too.  Although we know that the current affliction is "just a phase," we know that as soon as it is over, there will be a new phase to contend with!

If only Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle had a cure for insufferable mothers.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Wonderful, Even Out of Order

Despite the fact that I'm incredibly messy with physical things (just ask my husband), I'm pretty organized when it comes to mental tasks.  If a book is part of a series, I read it in order.  And I finish the series (with rare exceptions).  That's why I was horrified to discover my daughter reading Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books out of order.  Out of order!  Who does such a thing?  And yet, when I picked one up, I understood. 

Some of the many Alice books, out of order.

Alice's voice is so real, so frank, so matter-of-fact, that you can't help but be drawn in.  And, being, let us say, frugal, I put the books on hold at the library and they arrived out of order, leaving us with a random assortment as we await earlier ones in the series.  But once my daughter had read one, she just couldn't wait to read the others.  (The books were actually written slightly out of order, with the prequels coming later, as younger readers clamored to get in on the Alice action.  Moreover, with 28 books in the series (!!!), we'll see if my daughter actually reads them all.)

I picked up the one where Alice is in seventh grade (Alice in Rapture, Sort Of).  I opened it to the middle (hey, once you're reading the series out of order, why not pick up an individual book halfway through?), to this part:

"It's bodies!" Elizabeth told us.  "I mean, they're so embarrassing."

"Everybody's got one," I said.

"The noises they make!" she said.  "I have to eat four crackers just before I go out with Tom to keep my stomach from growling."

Pitch perfect, right?  Alice isn't horribly embarrassed by her body, as her friend Elizabeth is, but neither is she entirely comfortable with it.  What girl or woman is?

A few pages later, Alice describes her friend Pamela's bikini bathing suit.

"I knew her mother had gone with her to buy it.  I wondered why a mother would buy such a suit for a daughter who wasn't supposed to kiss until she was sixteen.  Some parents don't seem to have a bit of sense."

Don't you just love her?!?

When her boyfriend kisses her, she tells him simply and straightforwardly, "I don't think I'm ready for this yet."  And in the perfect touch, "He looked a little relieved himself."

The Alice books are some of the most-censored books out there.  What a pity.  Alice is a wonderful guide for young girls.  She's the big sister every girl has wished for and no one has ever had.  The time to read these books is when the reader is just a bit younger than Alice is in each book.  I'm thrilled my 8-year-old came upon these books.

If only we had them in order.