Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Mom with a Hobby

In most, if not all, of the books my kids and I have read, the mothers are primarily or solely caregivers.  Yes, in the Ramona series Mrs. Quimby gets a part-time and then full-time job (is "liberated!" as her daughter Beezus says), but, although she seems to enjoy her work well enough, she does it out of economic necessity.  In picture book after picture book, the moms give hugs and kisses, prepare meals, put children to bed, and tend to all the other daily minutiae of childcare, but do not seem to be doing anything sheerly for their own pleasure. 

Enter Mrs. Peter, the cello-playing harried mother of seven in The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by my new favorite Marla Frazee.  Although the story is, as the title says, silly - the seven children each eat only one item - and their mother is a total pushover, the clever rhymes and the delightful illustrations make it utterly enjoyable.  As the family grows, the mom still manages to find time for her passion.  Even as one of the kids dumps oatmeal on the cat (which always makes me think of the song from The Fantasticks which laments, "Why did the kids put jam on the cat?  Strawberry jam all over the cat?  Why would the kids do something like that?  They did it 'cause we said no!"), Mrs. Peters does not get up from her cello but yells at the offender across the room.  Although the cello disappears from the illustrations midway through the story as Mrs. Peters is overwhelmed by her household, in the end, she takes it up again.  

Of note (pun intended) is the fact that the cello is never mentioned in the text - we only see it in those charming illustrations.  Whose idea was it, I wondered, to include the cello?  The author's or the illustrator's? 

So I emailed Ms. Frazee, who graciously wrote back within hours.  Apparently, I was not the first person with these questions.  Linda Urban had previously "interviewed" Ms. Frazee by email and reprinted the conversation, which included this topic, on her blog, Crooked Perfect (full links included below).  Ms. Frazee gave exactly the answer I was hoping for: she put the cello in because she thought the mom needed to be defined by something other than her status as a mother alone.  And for that, I, for one, am grateful.

Can you think of any other picture books or early chapter books where the mother has a hobby, a passion, an interest besides her children?

Here are the links to the full conversation.  The last link is the one that discusses  The Seven Silly Eaters specifically, while the others talk more generally about the process of illustrating picture books, including the collaboration with the author and editor and about what makes a book a picture book.  I highly recommend the entire series.  Enjoy!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Patience and Fortitude: The Library Lions At 100

Check out this article about the upcoming birthday of the soon-to-be centenarians!  I contacted the NYPL and the Lego artist referenced and they said the Lego homage to the library lions should be on display at the 42nd Street library the weekend of the centennial of the 42nd Street library building (May 20-22) and should be on display this summer.  You can learn more about the 42nd Street Library's Centennial Festival here.  You can also find more information about the Lego lions at the sculptor Nathan Sawaya's website at

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Inside Out

When I spotted The Inside-Outside Book of New York City by Roxie Munro on display at my daughter's school library, I knew I had to have it.  What I didn't know was that it was part of a series of such books, 4 of which feature cities and one of which, reviewed by me here, which looks at libraries inside and out. Munro has also written and illustrated The Inside-Outside Book of Texas and Inside-Outside Dinosaurs, neither of which I have had a chance to read.

The concept behind the series is, quite simply, terrific.  In each book, Munro depicts buildings in the chosen city from both the outside and the inside.  But which buildings she chooses to depict makes the quality of the books vary.  Here's a look at the four books about cities, one by one.

The Inside-Outside Book of New York City vies with The Inside-Outside Book of Libraries for my favorite in the series.  The choices of locations are pitch-perfect: not just the famous landmarks (although even those are inspired - how often do you really get to go in the Chrysler Building and look out one of those triangular windows?), but a subway station (outside) and a subway tunnel as seen from inside the front or back car of the train, Madison Square Garden (outside) and the circus playing inside, Lincoln Center and the Nutcracker being performed within.  And, as in the The Inside-Outside Book of Libraries, Munro also shows the more mundane, yet perhaps more important: an ordinary walk-up apartment building's lobby, and the view out the window of one of its apartments.  The illustrated spreads themselves have absolutely no text other than identifying the buildings themselves (the insides, such as the circus or the Nutcracker are not labelled) but at the end of the book is a list of the sites and some information about each one.

The Inside-Outside Book of Washington, D.C. also has some fascinating places: the Supreme Court, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (where money (bills) are printed), the floor of the Senate, the printing presses of the Washington Post juxtaposed with someone delivering the papers and a press conference inside the White House, a reporter outside of it and the TV newsroom where the footage is being produced.  The only site which left me scratching my head was the building housing the Organization of American States, wherein dancers in native costume performed.  Like the New York book, information about each location is included at the end.

I thought I'd enjoy the books about London and Paris, cities which I've never been to, more than the ones about New York, which I'm obviously very familiar with, or Washington D.C., which I've visited numerous times.  But the reverse was true.  Seeing familiar places provided a jolt of recognition that added to, rather than detracted from, the pleasure of these books.  And having never been to London or Paris, I was less able to judge Munro's choices of buildings in the books about them. 

Nonetheless, in The Inside-Outside Book of London I enjoyed seeing the inside of an umbrella shop, the cast taking a bow at a show in the West End and, perhaps best of all, seeing the outside, and then the view from inside the prison that is the Tower of London.  The hairstyles of visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum place this book squarely in the 1980s, but I don't think most of it is outdated.  Like the others, the text is at the end of the book. 

Unlike the others, The Inside-Outside Book of Paris has text alongside each double-page spread.  I'm not sure which style I prefer - they each have advantages.  The selections here vary from well-known museums and institutions such as the Pompidou Center to a puppet theatre, a local bakery, and an open-air market. 

What is your favorite book about a city?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

(Un)welcome Guests


I would not be too happy if a mouse decided to visit me.  But in A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker,
curmudgeonly Bear learns the value of companionship when an originally unwelcome mouse visits him and won't take no for an answer.  My kids literally laughed out loud each time the persistent mouse returned and the mouse's Britishisms (he wants "a spot of tea," is "terribly sorry" and says Bear has been "most kind") in a book which appears to have no connection to England made me chuckle.  With a story both humorous and heartwarming, this is one of my new favorites.  Apparently Becker has since written two more Bear and Mouse stories and a third will be published in September.  I've put the two published ones on hold at the library and am interested to and see how they measure up to the first.

In Bernard Waber's Do You See A Mouse?, the title character has invaded a fancy hotel, a hotel that cannot, does not, harbor a mouse!  And so it employs two inept mouse-catchers. Can you find the mouse when they can't?

Although the two books above make no secret of the fact that the mouse keeps reappearing, a popular theme in children's books is a hidden mouse who appears on each page.  Classics such as Goodnight Moon and Good Night, Gorilla employ this device as do some (all?) of the books in the adorable touch-and-feel Usborne series That's Not My [Lion, Monkey, etc.] (my favorite is That's Not My Monster).  I'm sure there are others - if you know of any, please tell me about them!

In the meantime, enjoy these (thankfully fictional) mice.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Library Loot #4

For the kids:

As you can see, photography is not my strong suit.  So although I find that tall stack above so satisfying (and sometimes a bit overwhelming), I was frustrated by the fact that you can't see the titles as well as I'd like.  So, with apologies for the overlapping photos (why can't all the books' titles line up perfectly?!?), here, ready for their close-up, are our library books. 

The ones the kids chose are all the holiday books (Easter, Passover and Thanksgiving - I guess they like to have their bases covered).

For me:

True confession: Origins was actually for my husband.  I'm interested in it but probably won't get to it, especially as he was disappointed with it.

Not pictured: Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, which I had to return before I could even crack it open.  I plan to re-reserve it.  And Sometimes I Feel Like A Nut, by Jill Kargman, author of wealthy-chick/mommy lit, which I had been misled into thinking was mainly about her various New York City apartments, but which instead was... well, awful.  And vulgar.

The book that is hard to see is Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a Collection of Essays from the New York Times.

Finally, you may have noticed that I take all of your suggestions, whether in comments here or on your own blogs, to heart.  Thanks for all of them and please keep them coming!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Reading Is Not A Sport, Take 2

Playing by the Book has a great post up about a new British initiative to get kids ages 11 and up to read at least 50 books per year. 

What this immediately brought to mine was my elementary school principal's yearly directive to read "a" book during summer vacation (and make a friend and avoid dehydration - he was very big on dehydration).  This announcement always made me and my sister scoff.  "A" book?  A single book during a 10-week vacation?!?  We could read a book a day or more - and often did, especially during those summers that we boycotted camp.  (I hated camp, precisely because I always wanted to be somewhere, preferably an indoor, air-conditioned somewhere, reading a book, rather than sitting on tickly grass or having balls thrown at me during dodgeball.  What can I say, I'm a city kid.  And a bookworm.) 

I don't like the idea of setting a goal of reading a certain number of books or pages at all, as I wrote here.  It takes the joy out of reading.  Not to mention that looking only at quantity is meaningless since books vary in length and difficulty.  If we have to quantify kids' reading in some way, it makes more sense to me to do it by the amount of time they spend reading.  We hear about how much "screen time" kids get these days - not how many different TV shows they watch or games they play, but how long they spend doing so.  That seems to me a much more sensible way of looking at reading, too.  We all read at different speeds and even a fast reader may read more dense or difficult material more slowly.  I don't advocate setting a timer, though; that still makes reading a chore.  But encouraging kids to spend more time reading sounds like a good idea to me.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Treasure Hunts

When we walk around our neighborhood, we see something you don't normally think of when you think of New York:  gargoyles.

Soup-eating, book-reading gargoyles!

And when Isabel Hill walks around New York, she sees animals.  Not real ones, but sculpted ones, hidden (to greater or lesser degrees) on buildings all over the city.  In Urban Animals, she takes us on a tour of her finds.  While the rhyming text is labored ("In this keystone with its tail in a curl/sits a busy city squirrel."), and the highlighting of architectural terms (defined in a glossary at the back of the book) is distracting, the photos themselves are compelling.  She includes a list cleverly titled "Animal Habitats" which gives the location of each animal depicted so the reader can follow in her footsteps (although the animals are located too far apart to see them all on the same trip).  And if you can't do that, or even if you can, you'll still be inspired to look a bit more closely at the buildings you pass each day.  Despite its flaws, this book will appeal to animal lovers, New York-ophiles and budding architecture buffs alike.

Stephen Johnson's Alphabet City and City by Numbers also prompt the reader to look at his or her environment from a new perspective.  In his paintings, the elements of city life suddenly reveal the shapes of letters and numbers, respectively.  My five-year-old, who until now had found these books boring, is suddenly fascinated by them.  I do wish Johnson had, like Hill, included a directory of where he found each of the images he chose.  While some are obvious (M is made with the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, I'm pretty sure C is from the The Cathedral of St. John the Divine , just down the block from those gargoyles), others are impossible to place  (two floors of fire escape stairs form B, the three elements of a traffic light, when viewed in profile become E).  And are any of them actually in the New York City neighborhood known as Alphabet City?