Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Mockdecott is Coming!

I am the volunteer librarian at my daughters’ K-5 school. The library does NOT get a lot of love and support from the administration, and even the teachers who love it are pressed for time. However, I’m making our first attempt at a mock Caldecott this year. I picked our 10 nominees based mostly on online "buzz," . I also wanted some diversity of subjects, genre, illustrators, artistic styles and media, and wordless books as well as those with text.  In a school that is nearly half Latino and a quarter black, I wanted the students to see themselves reflected either in the subject matter and/or the authors and illustrators themselves in at least some of the books.  Of course, those are all factors that the committee is not supposed to consider. But my goals are a bit different. Here is my list, in no particular order:
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Draw! by Raul Colon

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia Maclachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper

Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo

Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales and Tim O'Meara (photographer)

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Brother Hugo and the Bear by Katy Beebe, illustrated by S.D. Schindler

I'm asking the students - and teachers - to rank their top three.  I'll rank mine in an upcoming post.  What are yours?  Or do you have other favorites this year?

Do you do a mock Caldecott at your school?  Are your criteria for choosing nominees different from those considered by the real Caldecott committee?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What Is Wrong With This Picture?

I'm running a mock Caldecott this year!!

I haven't been posting much because I'm now basically running my daughters' school library.  As a volunteer.  And I have wanted  to tell you about all the interesting things I've been doing there, such as our "guess the theme" competition and the 4th Grade Library Club, but I've been too busy actually doing them to write about them.

But I couldn't resist posting this.  In preparation for our mock Caldecott (or our Mockdecott, as my husband christened it), I did some research about the award.

And then, when wrapping various Chanukah and birthday gifts, I came across this:

Let's go in for a close-up, shall we?

Do you see what I see?  Tell me in the comments!

I let Amazon, where I purchased the book, know, and I emailed Grace Lin as well.  Let's see if I hear back.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Do You Believe in Magic?

I'm generally not a fan of fantasy or science fiction, but realistic books with just a touch of magic seem to me to be of a different class.  Plus they have none of that dystopian, end-of-the-world, battle-to-survive element which seem to cast such a shadow (in my opinion) over the fantasy and science fiction genre.  These, instead, are pretty realistic, except that, you know, the protagonist can fly, maybe, or travel through time.  A side benefit of the time travel ones is that they also function as historical fiction.  Many play with the idea of meeting one's parents or grandparents as children and changing the future.  (Does anyone else feel a sudden urge to watch Back to the Future?)  Here are some of my favorites.

Black and Blue Magic.  This lovely story of a fatherless boy who is given wings (literally) is really about the power of faith - whether in god or the possibility for goodness in people and in life.  Mistaken for an angel as he flies through the night sky of San Francisco, Harry gives those who have given up on life new hope.  As his neighbor says, "... a little more believing in things would do this world a lot of good.  You take all the believing out of life and it doesn't leave much room to grown in... and... the unbelievable can happen almost anywhere."  What a beautiful, uplifting sentiment.

Half Magic and other books by Edward Eager.  Edward Eager's books all involve time travel as well. In Half Magic, four siblings come into possession of a magic coin, which grants wishes by halves. Until they realize how to wish for double what they want (e.g. "I wish to go back in the distance of home but twice as far...), they end up in some pretty sticky situations.  His other books have similar twists, including times when the protagonists meet their parents as children.  Eager's protagonists go back in time to Camelot, the Revolutionary War, the time of the Underground Railroad, and other exciting times in history and literature, which may either spark an interest in those periods and/or stories, or leave young readers confused.  

The Magic Half.  Miri is a singleton born between two sets of twins... or is she?  When she goes back in time to 1935 and rescues Molly from an abusive cousin, she realizes that "Magic is just a way of setting things right."  A sequel, Magic in the Mix, was recently published.

Seven Stories Up and other books by Laurel Snyder.  Published 6 years after The Magic Half, these two books are eerily similar, right down to the time period that the protagonists go back to, the fact that they both "fix" their families, and the presence of a character named Molly!  When Annie goes back in time to 1937 and meets her grandmother as a child, she gains insight into her grandmother's prickly, unpleasant nature... and changes the future.  Seven Stories Up contains more historical details than The Magic Half and author Laurel Snyder includes a note at the end about the research she did and what things were really like for children in 1937.  Her book, Bigger than a Breadbox, also features magic, but this one is my favorite.

What are your favorite magical - but not scary or dystopian - books?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Library Round-Up #15, Part 2: Picture Books

Mini-reviews of what we're reading now.

Picture Books

Chengdu Would Not, Could Not Fall Asleep.  Beautiful art complements a book that addresses a problem everyone - adult or child - has had at one time or another, and how snuggling with mom or dad or sister or brother can sometimes solve it.

Are You Awake?   This would make a nice complement to Chengdu, as it is about a child who wakes too early.  Clever and sweet, it exactly captures how an exasperated and exhausted parent still treasures this special time with her child.  If it sounds like one of those books more appreciated by adults than kids, it's not.  My 6-year-old loved it.

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas.  The true story of an elephant seal who chose to live in the Avon River and sun herself on the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, despite  being repeatedly returned to what was allegedly her natural habitat.   A lovely book about how home is where we choose to make it, with fascinating facts in the back matter.
Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing.  A work of historical fiction that tells of when P.T. Barnum's circus elephants traipsed over the Brooklyn Bridge to prove its safety and strength.  The compelling facts overcome the weakness and confusion of the text - is it free verse?  Is it prose?  Why does some of it rhyme?

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon.  More historical fiction, with interesting facts about Audubon and about scientists' and philosophers' very unscientific speculations about which birds migrate.  Melissa Sweet's trademark collage style is a nice match for the text.  This would be great paired with Summer Birds: The Butterfliesof Maria Merian, about another naturalist/artist.

In Front of My House.  A great concept, this book situates the narrator's house in it's place in the universe: "On a little hill, behind a brown fence, under a big oak tree, is... my house.  In front of my house... a rosebush.  On the rosebush... a little bird."  What starts out as a charming goes on for far too long, however.  While sorely in need of editing, this is still a fun read, with lovely, simply artwork, if your child has the patience for it.

The Emperor and the Nightingale.  A beautiful, and beautifully illustrated, retelling of a Chinese folktale about the power of true art and nature to move us and how wild animals should not be caged.  In this version, the live nightingale lives to continue to entertain the emperor.  I seem to remember other versions where the nightingale falls silent once caged and either remains so or is finally set free never to return.  Can anyone refer me to those?

The Green Line.   A quiet meditation on a walk in the park, illustrated with photographs, and a child's delight in simple pleasures, like rolling down a hill and blowing on dandelions.  A lovely little book for a child in the right mood.

I'm in Charge of Celebrations. The child narrator tells the reader in free verse about all the things in nature she celebrates, such as a rabbit in the mist looking at a triple rainbow, meteor showers, and the animals and weather of the desert southwest.  Again, a book with a more quiet feel.

Yussel's Prayer.  A retelling of a Jewish folktale about a boy who is unable to pray the traditional Hebrew prayers and plays his flute instead.  It turns out his flute playing is more sincere than all the rote prayers recited by the congregation, and it is his tune which opens the gates of heaven.

A Library Book for Bear.  Curmudgeonly Bear is back, with his bright-eyed, irrepressible friend mouse.  Not quite as funny as the other Bear stories, my daughter was amusingly shocked (or shockingly amused?) at Bear's proclamation that he owns 7 books and that is all he needs.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Library Round-Up #15: Part 1: Chapter Books

Mini-reviews of middle-grade and young adults books we're reading now.

Chapter Books

I Kill the Mockingbird.  Three friends harness the power of social media and supply and demand to get people to read To Kill a Mockingbird to honor the memory of a beloved English teacher.  The plot, however, intrigued me less than the role of Catholicism in the main character's life, something I have never seen in fiction, for adults or children.  Rather than emphasize the rites and rituals of Catholicism (which do appear in fiction), the author portrays Catholicism as a guiding philosophy, and a very beautiful one at that.  "We're taught [in Catholic school] that sometimes the world is a puzzle waiting for us to solve it.  Other times it's a mystery to appreciate and accept."  The protagonist's father says, "I don't believe that God has motives that we are supposed to understand or enjoy."  Lucy responds "But you still say thank you."  Her father rejoins, "Good manners never hurt anybody."  And at the end, Lucy explains the concept of Ordinary Time.  "In our church calendar, Ordinary Time is when we're supposed to be living our lives without feasting or penance or other drama.  It's not a quiet time exactly.  It's more like the days are supposed to be filled with expectation."  This novel's real gift is in bringing these concepts to young readers, whatever their religion.  And it has a great cover!

We Were Liars.  Compulsively readable, this novel's much ballyhooed "twist ending" felt more like a gimmick to me.  Perhaps if I read it again, I will find some foreshadowing that would make it more plausible?  This is a young adult novel, with themes of romance, death, and guilt.

Like No Other.  This modern Romeo and Juliet story of a Hasidic girl falling in love with a black boy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has a happier ending than the Shakespeare play, but is not what you expect.  Devorah is a strong character who knows her own heart and mind.  It sounds cheesy, right?  It's not, I promise.  I loved it.  And it has another great cover.

Another Day as Emily.  Written in free verse about a girl who decides to become a hermit like Emily Dickinson when her younger brother commands attention for saving an ill neighbor by calling 911, this middle-grade novel was enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable.

Ava and Pip.  I had high hopes for this middle-grade novel about two sisters, the younger outgoing and social, the older one shy to the point of having emotional problems.  A good read, but nothing more, although my 9-year-old enjoyed it.  Word lovers will love the family's obsession with palindromes - hence the names Ava and Pip.

Have you or your kids read any of these?  What did you think?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I AM The Audiobook

When I read over at What Do We Do All Day? Facebook page about the Ramona-Henry Huggins audiobooks, about whose existence I hadn't known, although I should have, I realized something: in our house, I AM the audiobook. 

I normally love reading to my kids.  It's one of the most special activities we share.  I have a lot of patience for rereading, too, although there are certain books I do refuse to read aloud (e.g. those Rainbow Magic atrocities).  But when my kids are sick and my reading aloud is the only entertainment they desire, I sometimes start to feel like an audiobook on which they are pressing play.  Over 4 days of my 6-year-old's being sick recently, I read well over 300 pages of the Ramona books Ramona books and we finished the series for the second time.  I've also read it aloud - all 8 books - to my older daughter twice.  If only I had thought to record myself reading it the first time!  (I've known grandparents and other relatives who live far from the children in their lives who have actually done this; it's a great substitute when being together in person isn't possible.)

Of course, reading together provides all kinds of benefits that listening to a recording (whether of me or a professional actor) does not.  First of all, there's the snuggling.  You can't snuggle with a CD player or an ipod.  Second, every time we read together, one or both of us notices something new, or asks a question, or discusses something different.  Sometimes I read, without explaining, difficult words, and sometimes I pause to define them.  Sometimes my daughters have questions, or a topic comes up that wouldn't have when we last read the book a year ago, when they were a year younger.  It would be fascinating to hear a recording of how I read some of these books in the past, and what has changed.

Nonetheless, we all need a break sometime.  I don't need to be a martyr!  And of course, audiobooks are great for the car.  We are city people and are not in the car that frequently, but when we are, good audiobooks also provide some great entertainment without me risking a headache. 

Right now our audiobook collection includes only the Frances books, Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One (the first chapter book in The Pain and the Great One series) and CDs that came with some of the books we own: the Barefoot Books of tales (like this, this, and this) and Poetry Speaks to Children (with some of the poems read by the poets themselves!).  We've taken The Mouse and the Motorcycle audiobook, one of the Humphrey audiobooks, and one of the Patricia Reilly Giff Zig Zag Kids audiobooks (which I do NOT recommend) out from the library.  We quickly discovered that not all narrators are created equal.  We just checked out the Henry and Beezus audiobook from the library, but it's an older version read by William Roberts.  Anyone know how it compares to the newer ones by Neil Patrick Harris?

I'd like to expand our collection, particularly with chapter books.  In my limited experience, Any recommendations, besides the Ramona-Henry Huggins audiobooks?  Specific editions/narrator preferences appreciated! 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Anne Gets a Makeover

As I was walking past the "popular/recently returned children's books" shelf at my local library the other day, my eye was immediately grabbed by two new versions of the Anne of Green Gables books.  Take a look at the new one on the left versus the edition I owned as a child on the right.

In addition to the new cover illustrations (which I love, and for me are reminiscent of the Betsy-Tacy books, which are set slightly after these; it must be the pompadours!), these books are bigger - trade paperbacks, rather than mass market paperbacks.  The best thing about the bigger size for some of us is the bigger print!  As you can see from the link above, there have been many different covers over the years, but the one pictured above is the one I had as a child.  It is very "well-loved," isn't it?  I don't know what size the other versions are; do you?

I haven't had a chance to check, but hopefully these new editions also correct the typos present in the old versions, especially the appalling, and appallingly frequent, example which appears twice in the single page to the right.  Can you find it?

I do wish that the publisher had added interior illustrations and possibly introductions by contemporary writers who themselves read and love the books, as in the new editions of the Betsy-Tacy books.  Alas.  They are certainly still worth purchasing for those of us whose copies will likely not survive being passed on to the next generation (see photo above!).

These new editions are published by Sourcebooks, a publisher I've never heard of.  Have you?  It appears that Sourcebooks has republished only the first five books of the series; I hope the rest follow soon.

Interestingly, my daughter prefers the older books - whether purely on aesthetic grounds or because she had already developed a sentimental attachment to them I am not sure!

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?

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.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Library (and Bookstore) Round-up #14

Mini-reviews of what we're reading now.

The dough rises.  And rises.  And rises.
The Duchess Bakes a Cake by Virginia Kahl.  Introduced to us by our awesome, well-read, 12-year-old babysitter, this rhyming story "scans," as they say.  The Duchess goes a wee bit beyond her natural abilities and decides to bake a "luscious, light, delectable cake."  Although her mistakes with yeast and the hijinks that ensue are the subject of many a book (see my review of Bembelman's Bakery, published more than 20 years after this one, which was first published in 1955), this story is utterly delightful, made more so by the perfect rhymes and amusing drawings.

Jumping Penguins by Marije Tolman.  An assortment of utterly random, bizarre and perfectly fascinating animal facts accompanied by whimsical, watercolor illustrations.  You want to know how far caterpillars can throw their poop?  Then this is the book for you.

Old Henry
by Joan W. Blos.  Henry's house doesn't look like everyone else's on his block.  And apparently there is no neighborhood association to force him to mow his lawn or mend his fence.  Billed as a book about different people learning to live in harmony, I saw this more as a comforting book for the messy among us and an ode to how important community is.

Arthur and the Sword by Robert Sabuda.  Retold by Robert Sabuda and illustrated in his distinctive stained-glass style, this version was an excellent introduction to the folktale of King Arthur.  It is, however, the story only of Arthur and the sword - it does not tell the further tales of King Arthur and his court. 

 Wild by Emily Hughes.  After quite a bit of hype I was disappointed by this book.  The story of a child who is left in the woods and raised by animals, found by people and returned to "civilization," and, unable to adapt, returned to the forest, was, in my opinion, lacking in plot.  I can't see this one appealing to kids.

One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale
by Demi.  This is a beautifully illustrated version of a folktale which teaches the mathematical concept that doubling causes numbers to grow incredibly quickly.  The illustrations and folktale setting may even entrance the math phobic!

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look, illustrated by Meilo So.   This picture book by Lenore Look, author of the chapter book series Ruby Lu (enjoyed by my older daughter last year), captivated my 6-year-old.  Using the limited available knowledge about the life of the famous Chinese painter Wu Daozi, Look tells a story about the power of art, as Wu's paintings, in her telling, literally come alive.

Christina Katerina and the Box
by (well-known children's book editor) Patricia Lee Gauch.  Another favorite of my kindergartener about the power of imagination.  A forgotten classic, its place usurped recently by other books of the same ilk such as Not a Box by Antoinette Portis and The Nowhere Box by Sam Zuppardi.

Forever by Emma Dodd.  This plotless promise of unconditional love from a mama polar bear to her cub is set against an Arctic landscape which is brought to shimmering life with shiny foil illustrations.  A bit gimmicky, but I fell for it anyway!

When Jessie Came Across the Sea
by Amy Hest.  In this beautiful story about a Jewish immigrant to America, a grandmother's bond with her granddaughter cannot be severed by time or distance.  An object - here a wedding ring - represents home, family, and history.  Other books with these themes include Patricia Polacco's  The Keeping Quilt and The Blessing Cup and Dan Yaccarino's All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel

My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits.  Another touching immigrant story about the power of names and family history. 

What are you reading?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Birthday Books and Inscriptions for a Six-Year-Old

Six years ago today, it was close to 60 degrees.  I know this because it was the day I brought home my younger daughter from the hospital.  Despite the weather, I insisted on dressing her in the same pink, fleecy bunting, I'd come home from the hospital in nearly 33 years before.

Regular readers know that I always write inscriptions on the books I give my daughters for their birthdays.  Today my younger daughter turned 6.  I only gave her two books, with two more to follow which align thematically with a gift that my parents will give her this weekend.  I chose these two because they inspired repeated requests for reading, but I realized they dovetailed nicely with each other as they are both about sibling relationships.  So without further ado, here are the two books I gave her and what I wrote in them.

The Seven Chinese Sisters.  May you and your sister always find your own strengths and use them to help each other. 

Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare.  As you and your sibling grow up, fight, and compete with each other, may you always respect each other's passions and accomplishments and remember that, in spite of it all, you love each other.  After all, just see whom the author dedicated this book to! [It's her brother, of course, the "rotten Richie" of the title.]

What books have you given as gifts?  Do you inscribe them?