Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why A Cat? Or A Badger? Or a ...?

I was reading Yoko's Show and Tell to my daughter who was home sick from camp when we started talking about the fact that Yoko and her family are cats.  My daughter pointed out that "they are so much like people that when you get really into the book, you forget they are cats."  Which begs the question, why make them animals in the first place?  And if an animal, why cats?

The same question could apply to many other books but the Frances books  by Russell Hoban immediately spring to mind.

Well, to find out, we went to the source.  My daughter wrote a letter to Rosemary Wells, asking her that very question.  I'll let you know if we hear back!

In the meantime, I'm asking all of YOU that question. Why do you think Rosemary Wells chose to make Yoko a cat?  Why did Russell Hoban choose to make Frances a badger?  Would the books work as well if Yoko were a bird?  If Frances were a kangaroo?

What other books come to mind with animal protagonists so successfully anthropomorphized that you (nearly) forget they are not human?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A is for Anastasia

My daughter is reading the Anastasia books, which I loved as a kid.  I even reread the first one a few years ago in an attempt to figure out when my daughter might be ready for them.  Despite that, I got one fact about Anastasia very wrong.

In the first book in the series Anastasia lives in an apartment (her family later moves, to her initial horror, to the suburbs) with her hippie, artsy, uber-liberal parents (when a friend says his family donates to the March of Dimes, she responds that hers donates to the ACLU).  Her mom is a painter; her dad, a bearded English professor and poet.  They are straightforward with her about sex, bad words, feelings, and life in general.  They don't care about being like everyone else - in fact, they prefer not to be.  They celebrate Christmas but, to me, have a very Jewish sensibility.  The first book in the series was written in 1979.

Given that description, where do you think they would live?

New York, right?  The Upper West Side, back it when it was home to artist-intellectuals who had rent-controlled apartments.  Back when it was a bad neighborhood.  Back before the artists moved to (had to move to) Brooklyn (or even Queens!). 

Wrong!  Cambridge, Massachussetts.  Now, I guess this faulty recollection says more about me, the New York-centric reader than the characters, but still... I just cannot believe they are not Upper West Siders!!

Wherever she "lives," Anastasia is a treasure.  What other series could have both me and my 9-year-old daughter laughing out loud as we read separate books in the series silently to ourselves?  I can't think of any!

It is clear that Anastasia's parents have talked to her frankly about sex and growing up, but those issues do not dominate the books and, when they are included, often have a comic twist to them.  Having been written in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, these issues are also given a much-welcome lighter touch than I would think they would be given today.  When Anastasia develops what is pretty clearly a platonic crush on her female gym teacher, her mother reassures her that she is normal, but stops there.  No long discussion about homosexuality.  Not that books that do treat those issues differently aren't needed as well.

I also love the fact that Anastasia's parents, Myron and Katherine, are well-developed characters with their own interests (her poet father also loves classical music) and foibles.  While they mostly deal with Anastasia's, and her little brother Sam's, trials and tribulations (Sam has, in the years since I was the target audience for these books, gotten his own series), with patience and good humor, they too have their limits.  It is so refreshing to read a book where the parents are not killed off, are not caricatures, and are not absent whether physically or emotionally.  The Krupniks take their place in the pantheon of wonderful fictional parents, along with the Quimbys, as I discussed here.

Don't let the covers put you off (some have been updated - and not necessarily for the better!).  The books are not dated at all.  Go check them out of the library, then sneak them for yourself.  Now.

P.S. One day as I was checking the school library's catalog to see which of the Anastasia books we had, a third-grade girl, waiting for her turn to speak to me, spied the titles I was looking at and said, "Oh, Anastasia!  It's so sad what happened to her."  I paused, wracking my brain.  Nothing very bad happens to Anastasia.  But then I got it!  "Do you mean the Russian princess?," I asked.  She did.

P.P.S. I can think of few other authors with the range of Lois Lowry.  It's hard to imagine the same person writing the Anastasia books, The Giver (which I have not read), a Dear America book about a Shaker community in Maine during World War I, Number the Stars, about the Danish Resistance in World War II, and many others.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"My Light Bulb Went On!"

When spring break started, my 6-year-old had all the skills to read chapter books.  She could decode.  She knew dozens (maybe more) sight words.  She had the interest - she loved nothing better than to have me read to her.  But somehow, all that didn't add up to being a reader.

By the end of spring break, 10 days later, through no effort on my part - or hers, really - it did.  In the last two days she breezed through four Princess Posey books (my older daughter was also a fan).  This morning she got ready for school quickly and then asked if she could read Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (the first in a series that is now up to 3 books), which was also one of my older daughter's first chapter books.

When I asked her what had happened between the beginning of spring break and the end, she replied, "My light bulb went on!"

She also told me, "Reading is the best thing, next to chocolate."

Music to my ears.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Which Fictional Character Am I?

I'm a lively, talkative - no, loquacious - young girl with a great imagination.  I have a tendency to get into "scrapes," but I feel tremendous remorse about it.  I love words and poetry.  I'm a wonderful, loyal, friend.  I'm not conventionally attractive but people find my looks compelling, particularly my unusual eyes.  I was taken in by two adult siblings, one of whom is (seemingly) firm and nearly heartless, one of whom is softer but lacks the spine to stand up to the former very often.

Which famous fictional character am I?  If you said Anne Shirley, otherwise known as Anne of Green Gables, you'd be right.  If you said Rebecca Rowena Randall, aka Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, you'd also be right.

Why hasn't Rebecca had the same staying power as Anne?  Anne is beloved, even something of a cult figure.  Rebecca is known, but not read nearly as much these days.  Even the 100th anniversary edition of Rebecca, published in 2003, is already out of print.

I think the reason is the language.  Rebecca is written in much more complex language.  Kate Douglas Wiggins not only uses harder vocabulary, but treats mature themes, such as the child's attitude toward God, and addresses them with complexity.  Take this sentence: "To become sensible of oneness with the Divine heart before any sense of separation has been felt, this is surely the most beautiful way for the child to find God."

I can't imagine too many children today between the ages this book was geared for - say, 8-12 or perhaps even up to age 14 who could read this to themselves and fully comprehend it.  But it does make a perfect read-aloud.  I have stopped to explain words, paragraphs, and entire pages more often while reading Rebecca aloud than any other book I have read to my children.  But my 8-year-old has usually grasped the gist of what is going on, and often more.  And exposure to writing like this can only be a good thing.

Moreover, we shouldn't underestimate our children.  One night when my 6-year-old could not sleep, she came out of bed and listened while I read Rebecca to my older daughter.  As I floundered a little while trying to explain the sentence "Miranda Sawyer had a heart, of course, but she had never used it for any other purpose than the pumping and circulating of blood," my 6-year-old piped up, "She never loved anybody!"

Rebecca is a wonderful main character, full of life, and easily related to by children.  It is worth looking up a few words and stopping for explanations while reading in order to get to know her.

Have you read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?  Have your children?  Do you see similarities between her and Anne?  Do you have a preference?

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.