Sunday, October 30, 2011

Classic Children's Book Characters, Sullied

I'm not into Halloween.  I let the kids dress up (which I have mixed feelings about, from a Jewish perspective), but I've never gotten into it (I don't do it for Purim either).  I think it stems from my memories of rather rough early-dismissals from school on the Lower East Side on Halloween, with broken eggs littering the sidewalk (don't worry, Mom, that's my only scar from growing up there!) and all those 1980s razor-blades-in-the-apple stories.  But now I have another reason not to like this holiday.

This year my six-year-old asked me to dress-up so that when I take her trick-or-treating, I won't give away who she is.  So I braved Ricky's and found, among the zombies and witches, tarted up (to put it mildly) classic children's book characters.  I'd seen a  "sexy" Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and an "adult" Alice in Wonderland before, but today I even saw an inappropriate Pippi!  At least Anne and Ramona remain untouched.  For now.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Happy Birthday to the Statue of Liberty

The NYPL reminded me that today is the Statue of Liberty's 125th birthday.  Serendipitously, I picked up a book about this very topic while volunteering yesterday at my daughter's school library: Eve Bunting's A Picnic in October in which a family travels to Liberty Island despite the fall chill for a birthday picnic because "that's what Grandma wants."  But it's not Grandma's birthday - it's Lady Liberty's!  I must confess, I didn't have a chance to read this book carefully, but it's so appropos that I couldn't resist mentioning it.

Another wonderful picture book about the statute is Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statute of Liberty by Linda Glaser.  A biography of Emma Lazarus, the poet who penned the famous poem that is printed on a plaque at the base of the statute: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," this book can be approached in so many different ways: among them to discuss income inequality (so timely!) and immigration or to introduce the genres of biography and poetry.  We loved this one.

Monday, October 24, 2011

We Already Have A People's Library!

I don't blog about politics and I'm not commenting on the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Except for one thing: what the protesters call "The People's Library," described here and here.

We already have a People's Library!  It's the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Library  and the Boston Public Library and the public library in every city the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to.  It's free.  It's open to the public.  It doesn't get more populist than that.

The NYPL branches closest to Zuccotti Park are probably the Battery Park City branch and the New Amsterdam branch.  I strongly urge protesters - and the passers-by checking them out - to go have a look.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

These Just In: Library Round-up

When I hear of a book I'm interested in, I immediately put it on hold at the library.  But for new books, the library has often not yet actually come into possession of them (they are "on order") or there already are four bazillion holds on the book I am requesting and I am hold number four bazillion and one, meaning that I sometimes have weeks or even months before I can take these books home.  So when they arrive, it is cause for celebration.

Except when it isn't.  Sometimes these books disappoint, making me glad I got them from the library rather than buying them.

Here are some of the books I'd been waiting for for a long time and what my girls and I thought of them.

Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? by Susan A. Shea and illustrated by Tom Slaughter is a brightly-colored joy. With funny rhymes ("If an owlet grows and becomes an owl/ can a washcloth grow and become... a towel?") and lots of flaps to lift, both my kids loved this one.

The much-ballyhooed I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen left me cold and didn't thrill my kids either.  The story of a bear who asks other animals for his missing hat, finds it, and does something surprising to get it back requires the reader to read between the lines, something many young children can't do.  Neither of my children understood what had happened the first time I read it to them.  The older caught on with a rereading but I had to explain it to my three-year-old, although she does think it is very funny that the bear does not realize on his first go-round that one of the animals he speaks to is actually wearing the hat.  I had already learned the ending from a review somewhere, so that may have spoiled my enjoyment somewhat, as may have my inflated expectations but I don't think those are the main reasons.  I think that the main reason it didn't appeal to me is that, as Playing by the Book says, this is ultimately a picture book for adults.  And among adults, I know plenty of people who have enjoyed it - including my husband and my parents.  You may, too.  I just wasn't one of them.

The first picture book Lauren Castillo has both written and illustrated, Melvin and the Boy is a sweet story of how a boy takes a turtle from a pond to be his pet and ultimately realizes on his own that the turtle belongs back in the pond.  The illustrations are beautiful and I particularly like the ones featuring the figures in black shadow.  The park, with its skyline backdrop reminds me of Central Park but is probably Prospect Park given that Ms. Castillo lives in Brooklyn.

Eve Bunting's Tweak, Tweak is another entry in the crowded field of mother-child love stories, and to me, not one that stands out, despite the lovely pastel illustrations by Sergio Ruzzier.  In addition, the mother elephant constantly reminds her child of her limitations: No, you can't do that, you are an elephant.  Although I hate the sin of reading too much into things, this particular trope really bothers me, with its echoes of, "No, girls/women/African-Americans/minority group of your choice can't do that."

Eric Litwin's Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes and Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes are the opposite of I Want My Hat Back : books that please only children but not the adults reading to them.  Thus, while I found them a bit boring (Pete's white shoes turn colors as he steps in different substances; he goes to different rooms at school, respectively) and the moral annoying ("Does Pete worry?  Goodness, no!  Because it's all good.), my three-year-old thoroughly enjoyed them.  Of course, preschoolers have a different relationship to repetition than adults so she finds the constant refrain reassuring rather than monotonous.  The primary-colored palette by James Dean is appealing to children of all ages. 

Finally, Hopper and Wilson by Maria van Lieshout follows two stuffed animal friends as they sail off in search of the end of the world.  Ultimately, they return home, discovering that it and each other are all they need.  The storyline could come across as cliched, but Ms. van Lieshout pulls it off successfully.  A more detailed review at A Fuse #8 Production is here.

So, in the end, I had three winners out of six (counting the Pete the Cat books as one), but my three-year old likes five out of the six.  Not bad, especially for books we read for free!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Old-Fashioned Fun

Reading the Little House books to my daughter and finding out a friend of hers loves them because they are "old-fashioned" got me thinking - what other books are there about "olden times" for the 6-8 year-old set (either as a read-aloud or for them to read on their own)?  A quick question at my fabulous local independent bookstore yielded recommendations I already knew about: the Betsy-Tacy books, another Betsy series, the B is for Betsy one, and The Saturdays.  But none of them were set quite as long ago as the Little House books.  The only books that came to mind from that era or something close to it and that embody the same pioneer spirit were Sarah, Plain and Tall and the Great Brain series.

Do you have any suggestions?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Art en Route

This past weekend we went to the NYC Transit Museum.  Housed in a decommissioned subway station, it has old subway cars that you can go on, complete with ads from the era when the car was in use, as well as exhibits on the building of the New York City subway.  If you haven't been, you must go!  My husband and I found it so fascinating that we want to go without the kids one day.

Of course, my girls wanted to buy something at the gift shop.  My 3-year-old got a placemat to match the one her sister received as a party favor.  My 6-year-old kept suggesting items I had to turn down (no more stuffed animals!).  And then I found a small book, Art en Route, showing the art at different subway stations with a marked price of 50 cents.  She was sold, and I was thrilled with both the book (more of a brochure, really) and the price. I later found you can request it for free or even download it!  (I was shocked, however, at the paucity of non-fiction books about the subway system for kids her age.) 

This morning she perused it over breakfast and came to me with several subway stations she wants to visit.   Now we just have to find something to do at each stop when we get there!

Sunday, October 16, 2011


My 6-year-old just read her first chapter book all on her own!  I'd been looking for a chapter book that she might be able to read by herself, and I am pretty pleased with myself as my first choice turned out to be a hit.  Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg (it's her first book) has super-short chapters (1-3 pages) and short sentences placed on separate lines, so it's a lot less intimidating than long paragraphs and pages dense with words.  In this sweet book, 8-year-old Eleanor's babysitter Bibi, who has taken care of her her whole life, moves away, making Eleanor's summer "as bad as pickle juice on a cookie."  But Eleanor adjusts to a new babysitter, while never forgetting Bibi.  A great first chapter book.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Up for Debate

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, discussing The Phantom Tollbooth on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, writes "As with every classic of children's literature, its real subject is education.  The distinctive quality of modern civilization is, after all, that children are subjected to year after year after year of schooling ."  He goes on to say that the child is presented with a choice between formal but worthless education versus meaningful self-education.  As examples he cites The Sword in the Stone, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Babar, and Mary Poppins

All I can say is, "Really?"  Or perhaps more honestly, "Huh?"  I haven't had enough time to think about the issue in depth, but his sweeping claims that the subject of every children's classic is education and that years of formal education are the distinguishing feature of modern society strikes me as... well, simply wrong or at least overreaching.  Perhaps it's based in a semantic disagreement over the term "education" but I'm not sure.

What about the more fundamental theme of good versus evil (Harry Potter, anyone)?  Despite its setting at a school I don't think I'd say its "real subject" is education.

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Heresy (Or, How Laura Ingalls Wilder and I Don't Have Any Chemistry)

Right now, I'm reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my 6-year-old and having the same reaction to it that I did 30 years ago: it's okay.  Yup, just okay.  I know this is heresy to legions of Little House devotees (dare I say fanatics?), my sister among them, but these books just don't have the emotional resonance for me that the Ramona series or the All-of-a-Kind Family series (which a friend called, correctly, I think, "the Jewish Little House books") or, for an older audience, Anne of Green Gables, do.  Laura herself was bored during those long winters - why did she think they'd be any more interesting for her readers?  To be fair, the books are not nearly as boring as they could be, but they just don't do it for me. 

And yet, I am finally reading them to my daughter for a number of reasons.  Peer pressure was one - many of her friends are reading it too.  But I also I felt that it was part of the children's canon, books that every (girl) child should read in order to be culturally literate. 

I'm not sure what accounts for the series' appeal, but the hardships faced by Laura and her family and their lack of technology, not to mention what we consider basic creature comforts (like indoor plumbing) are fascinating to some.  But not me.  I can relate to many books that I "shouldn't" be able to - books set in a time and place I know nothing about, like Anne of Green Gables and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate but not these.  I love plenty of spunky heroines (Anne and Calpurnia again being prime examples) but for me, Laura isn't one of them.  I guess it just comes down to chemistry.  It's just not there between me and Laura.

If you or your child loves the Little House books, why? 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Find Your Inner Artist (or Stop-Motion Animator)

On Thursday, I took my girls to our local library branch for this program on the works of Ezra Jack Keats.  We all (including me!) had a chance to make Keats-inspired collages, ostensibly of our neighborhood.  Can you guess which one of us did which collage?  Here they are:

The workshop was run by an educator from the Jewish Museum in connection with its exhibit, The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats. The woman who led our program, who is an artist herself, did a fantastic job.   It looks like the museum is doing the workshop at one more branch, so go check it out!

Then today we went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, to see the exhibit Jim Henson's Fantastic World.  It was absolutely fascinating and the fact that there were plenty of TV clips allowed me and my husband to take turns viewing the exhibit while the other of us would watch the TV clips with the kids (on comfy beanbags!).  Not to mention that we got to make our own stop-motion animations!  I know this doesn't involve books but since Henson is known, at least in part, for educational television, I figured I'd throw it in.

What book-related exhibits or activities have you been to lately?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Trips Back in Time... In More Ways Than One

It's a cliche to say that books let us journey to other places and other eras.  It's not trite, though, because it's true.  Recently, two books of middle-grade fiction let me travel to all kinds of places. But best of all, they let me travel back to the time when I read these type of books as a member of their intended audience.  As a child, I loved reading (of course!) and I had a special affection for historical novels (The Witch of Blackbird Pond was one of my favorites).  Rediscovering that pleasure has been a gift.

If only The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly had been around back then!  I loved, loved, loved this book! I loved the setting (Texas, 1899), I loved the story, I loved the writing, I loved the cover, and, most of all, I loved 11-year-old Calpurnia, a budding naturalist with an interest in evolution, who is constrained by the mores of her time.  Luckily, she has a mentor in her grandfather but the book's ending left a question in my mind of whether Calpurnia would fulfill her intellectual potential or be forced by circumstance into a life she considered domestic slavery.  This passage, about Calpurnia's discovery that there are other women scientists, and that she is not the only one of "her kind," like the last firefly of the season, was one of my favorites: "How sad to be the last of your kind, flashing your signal in the dark, alone, to nothingness.  But I was not alone, was I? I had learned that there were others of my kind out there."  I hope that those others see Calpurnia's flashing signal.  I know that readers of this book will.

After visiting turn-of-the-last-century Texas, I traveled to New York, Chicago, rural Kentucky and across the country with an Okie child and her dad, all just before or during the Great Depression in Kirby Larson's The Friendship Doll.  Following the travels of Miss Kanagawa, one of the fifty-eight Friendship Dolls sent to America by the Japanese in 1927, I criss-crossed the continent, meeting the children who awaken Miss Kanagawa's heart, and whose hearts she touches.  For in the tradition of Rumer Godden's works about dolls (which I now feel compelled to reread), Miss Kanagawa is not a mere inanimate plaything.  She "speaks" to children and they hear her, loud and clear and, just as they learn from her, she learns from them.  However, just as I got into each story (the book is divided into separate chapters for each of the important children in Miss Kanagawa's "life"), it would end!  In addition, some of the plot twists seem unnecessarily sad.  (Then again, sappy endings can be annoying too - I guess I'm never satisfied!).  Finally, the book jacket suggests that the reader may solve the mystery of the thirteen missing Friendship Dolls, but that mystery does not figure into the book at all.  Perhaps the author was hoping a reader would turn out to be the owner of one of the missing dolls?  I liked that Ms. Larson provided notes at the end, indicating which parts of the story were true to history and which she took liberties with, as well as noting where some of the Friendship Dolls can be seen.

As for adult historical fiction, I recently enjoyed The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin.

What are your favorite historical novels, either for adults or kids?  What kind of books take you back to your childhood reading habits?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Robot Without An Imagination Is Like A Scarecrow Without A Brain

Yesterday we were at the library and found a pile of books rejected by other patrons on one of the tables in the children's section.  One of them was the adorable Zoe and Robot: Let's Pretend! by Ryan Sias.  Part of the Balloon Toons series, which I had never heard of, this book defies categorization.  Way too short to be graphic novels, these picture books with, as the book jacket describes it, "zany cartoon art" advertise themselves as "the perfect way to start off your new reader."  Since I was with my three-year-old when we found it, I had to wait to test that claim.  In the meantime, though, she and I enjoyed this sweet story of a robot sorely lacking in imagination who finally learns to pretend.  And of course, it gave me a great opportunity to practice my robot voice.

Today, the publisher's claim was tested and proved correct.  My older daughter found Zoe and Robot: Let's Pretend! in our library pile, and promptly read it to herself in its entirety. 

We'll be heading back to the library to find out if the rest of the books in the series are as appealing.