Tuesday, December 27, 2011

'Tis the Season... for Colds and Flu

As I am stuck home with a sick child, I realized there's nothing like a book about someone else who is sick to make you feel like you are not alone.  My favorite is The Sniffles for Bear by Bonny Becker, one in a series of Bear books (I talk about another one in the series here).  Bear, suffering from what must be the worst cold in the history of colds, does not appreciate his friend Mouse's cheerful attitude and lack of sympathy.  At the end, Bear recovers and Mouse, having caught the cold, takes to his bed.  When Bear tells him he's sorry he's sick, Mouse replies that just that made him feel better.  Sometimes sympathy goes a lot further than hot tea and honey! 

There are many other books in which the caretaker becomes the one in need of care.  In Old Bear and His Cub by Olivier Dunrea (of Gossie and Friends fame) and Anna Dewdney's Llama Llama Home with Mama, the child ends up taking care of the sick parent while in a Frog and Toad book (I can't remember which one!), just like in The Sniffles for Bear, the caretaker gets sick from his charge.  That should sound familiar to any parent who's ever caught a bug from his or her child. 

Those are books about being sick.  As for books we read (and activities we did) while my daughter actually was sick, in an attempt to ward off cabin fever, they include finishing three chapter books we were in the middle of (Little House on the Prairie, The Cats in the Doll ShopGoing, Going, Gone! with the Pain and the Great One), reading tons of picture books, reading 6 books online on Raz-kids.com, playing Mastermind, Memory and Shut the Box, making beaded snowflakes, doing other art prjects and watching plenty of TV.  Unfortunately, we still had cabin fever!

What is your favorite book about being sick?  What is your favorite book to read when you or your child is sick?  What are your favorite sick day activities?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Old-Fashioned Toys, Old-Fashioned Joys

Samantha on a Roll, by Linda Ashman and illustrated by Christine Davenier is an utterly delightful book.  Frustrated that her mom can't help her try out her new roller skates, Samantha takes matters into her own hands (and feet).  Told in verse, Samantha on a Roll demonstrates the old-fashioned joys of speed, independence, and of getting away with a little misbehavior.  The skates, although not the story, also bring to mind the old Newbery-award winner, Roller Skates, a chapter book for older kids set in 1890s New York, which follows 10-year-old Lucinda as she explores the city on skates with considerable freedom. 

We didn't give our girls roller skates this holiday season (I wasn't sure whether they were even still sold until a quick search reassured me) but we did give one old-fashioned toy (and one mentioned in a book!) and the kids loved it: steppers.   Essentially overturned buckets or cans with rope handles attached, these are a simpler version of stilts.  In one of the Ramona books, she and her friend Howie make them out of tins cans.  The modern-day plastic version is a bit safer although you do sacrifice the do-it-yourself aspect.

Other old-fashioned toys that are always popular: building toys of all sorts (wooden blocks, Legos, Magnatiles, marble runs), magnifying glasses, binoculars (well-received here, too), puzzles, dolls, pretty paper/notebooks and pencils (a princess stationery set was put to immediate use), board games (Shut the Box and Mastermind for Kids were also hits at our house this year), jump ropes, scooters (which appear in Mimmy and Sophie under the guise of "skate boxes") and of course, bicycles.  Toys are notably absent from the Little House series (for a while Laura makes do with a doll made from a corn cob) and although I know that children back then were both better able to amuse themselves, of necessity, and kept busy doing chores, it still strikes me as rather sad and boring.

What is your or your kids' favorite "old-fashioned" toy?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Is the Original Always Better?

Lately I've read a few books which are clearly derivative of (or perhaps, more positively, homages to), classics which came before them.  They are not "remakes" in the sense of movies with new casts and updated language and settings.  Rather, they use the original work as a starting point for a whole new work.

Wendy Mass's middle-grade novel, The Candymakers, has a premise similar to that of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (recently published in a new pop-up edition by famed illustrator Quentin Blake), but with several twists.  It's been called a cross between Charlie and The Westing Game.  In The Candymakers, the four protagonists are contestants in a candymaking competition and the perspective of the book shifts among them (although none of them narrate it directly).  As the point of view alternates, the reader learns new information.  This mystery-adventure is a great book and I'm eager to read others by Ms. Mass. I think, if I'm being honest, I might even like it more than Charlie

When I saw the title, A Sock is A Pocket for Your Toes by Elizabeth Garton Scanlon, I immediately thought of Mary Ann Hoberman's, A House is a House for Me, discussed here, and written more than twenty-five years earlier.  Sure enough, it too is a creative look at containers for items, here described as pockets rather than houses.  Here, I definitely prefer the original on the merits alone.  This one has a rhyme scheme I don't particularly like, and the ending is too sickly-sweet for me.

Finally, King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bentley and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, harkens back to  Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, particularly in the pictures.  I actually love this sweeter, gentler take on a child's imaginative journey, although it lacks many of the psychological elements (acting out, parent-child relationships) that make Where the Wild Things Are truly special and unique. 

It takes a lot of guts to challenge a classic head-on like this.  After all,  Ms. Mass could have made the contest about something else - inventions in general, even - but she chose candy (with its echoes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) for a reason.   But I'm not sure what the reason was. 

It's worth noting, too, that two of these three books are all by established authors/illustrators; the exception is Elizabeth Garton Scanlon, for whom A Sock is A Pocket for Your Toes was her first book.  Would publishers have dismissed the others as derivative if they'd been submitted by unknowns?

Of course, lots of books share themes or even plots. What distinguishes them is language, character development, pacing, and a million other indefinable things.  Intellectual property law distinguishes between works which rely too heavily on the original and those which use it as a jumping off point and are derivative (in a legal, not pejorative sense).  So why do I have a voice in my head saying "the original is always better"?  That's how I feel about movies made from books, too. But is that bias fair? And what if I'd read the second book first? How would I feel then? 

What do you think?  Is the original always better?  What other pairs of original/derivative books can you think of?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good-bye, Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban, creator of the inimitable Frances, died earlier this week.  I had no idea that he had also written for adults, or that he and Lillian Hoban, who illustrated 6 of his 7 Frances books, were divorced.  Learn more here and here. What is your favorite Frances book?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

She Started It!

My 6-year-old, H, frequently complains that her younger sister, M, is "bothering" her, while her sister does absolutely nothing.  In fact, it is M's very existence which bothers H.  She's going through a phase (a long one, I suspect!) where she wants privacy and time alone, whereas her sister wants to be with her all the time.    On the other hand, last week I took H alone to a gym/playspace that I usually take the girls to together (M was sick).  Afterwards, I asked her whether she preferred going alone or with her sister.  "With M!," came the immediate reply.

Judy Blume really gets both sides of this.  And in The Pain and the Great One, she shows both sides - literally.  This 1974 picture book is really two books - one read from the front and told from older sister Abigail Porter's (the "Great One" as her little brother not-so-affectionately calls her) perspective and one flipped over and read from the other front, from little brother Jake's (the Pain's) point of view.  At the crux of all sibling relationships is, of course, competition for parental attention and love and each book ends with the words "I think they love him/her more than me."  But just as with my two, when the kids get what they thought they wanted - Jake to build with blocks alone, Abigail to stay up late without her brother - they are lonely and bored.  And I love the tag line: "Little brothers are never wrong!/Big sisters are always right!"

Many years after writing the picture book The Pain and the Great One, Judy Blume began a chapter book series featuring the same characters.  The chapter books stay true to the theme of sibling rivalry and love.  While these two may not always get along, they always stand up for each other.  The fact that the picture book exists is a nice way to segue a child into early chapter books (although these would have to be read to a beginning reader).  Of course, Blume's Fudge books, which I read as a child but have not (yet) revisited, are also great books about siblings.

In Mimmy and Sophie, the two eponymous sisters find adventure and joy in everyday life growing up in Depression-era Brooklyn, just as the author did.   In my favorite, Mimmy, the older, gives voice to my older daughter's exact feelings when she yells at her younger sister "[W]hy do you always have to be where I am?  Can't you go somewhere else?" To which her not-quite-5-year-old sister replies, quite logically, "Where?"  At the end, in response to Sophie asking "Am I still your sister?" Mimmy draws a picture of them with their arms around each other, in chalk, on the sidewalk.  It looks remarkably like the drawing H did of herself and her sister the other day.  As with The Pain and the Great One, Cohen followed the initial picture book with a chapter book, Mimmy and Sophie All Around the Town.  Thanks to Storied Cities for the recommendation! 

I love the way Shirley Hughes does siblings, too.  From her Alfie books (particularly Annie Rose Is My Little Sister) to Dogger (our favorite!), siblings annoy each other, play with each other, protect each other, help each other, and comfort each other.  Hughes's illustrations are pitch-perfect, from the loving mom who looks like someone you could meet, to the messy toddler.

In Charlotte Zolotow's Big Sister and Little Sister, the ability of the girls to comfort each other is the focal point of the story.  Irritated by Big Sister's bossiness, Little Sister runs away.  In a nice role reversal, Little Sister ends up comforting Big Sister as Big Sister sobs when she can't find her younger sibling.  The book closes with a lovely thought: "And from that day on little sister and big sister both took care of each other because little sister had learned from big sister and now they both knew how."  I love the illustrations in this one, too! 

The Frances books almost go without saying on any list of great sibling books.  In A Baby Sister for Frances, the Hobans perfectly capture Frances's jealousy and resentment "Things are not very good around here anymore," she says after Mother does not have time to iron her favorite dress or buy her favorite oatmeal topping.  (Books about the arrival of a new baby are admittedly a whole separate genre, but here the series continues as the girls grow, so I figured it was fair game.)  In later books, they again sum up the essence of having and being a sibling.  My favorite is in A Birthday for Frances when Frances, in an attempt at generosity, buys little sister Gloria a birthday present (gumballs and a candy bar) but ends up eating most of it herself! 

These books are all great on the theme of sibling relationships but they are also just all great books, period that the kids and I all love.  Of course, there are tons of books about siblings.   What are your favorites?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Reading Is Not A Sport, Take Three

Yesterday my 6-year-old was inducted into her school's Reading Hall of Fame.  In order to be inducted, the child has to read a certain number of books and/or do a certain number of book-related activities (taking online quizzes about the books, for example) over a specified period of time (here, summer vacation).  The required amount of reading varies with the children's grade. 

The inductees were called up to the stage by name and received a certificate and a badge, with the rest of their class watching.  Then the principal announced that they would also get a special snack in the cafeteria and extra recess time.

I have mixed feelings about this.  Oh, who am I kidding, I have mostly negative feelings about this.  First of all, as I've said repeatedly here, here, and here, I'm opposed to rewarding reading.  Reading should be its own reward.  Reading for donuts (the special snack) just doesn't cut it for me.  The principal's speech about how the kids would "get lost in their books" was rendered less convincing by those donuts waiting in the next room.

Second, the idea of rewarding quantity doesn't sit well with me either.  My husband likened it to the testing craze.  There is such desperation to measure student progress, which is only partially measurable, that administrators have to pick something they can measure.  Number of books (or pages) is an easy, objective, measurable item.  The book's degree of difficulty, or how much the student learned from the book, or how much effort or time the student put in, or, heaven forbid, how much the student enjoyed the book are not quantifiable.  But real literacy and a real love of reading are not about racing through books just to list them on a reading log.

Finally, there was a shame element to the ceremony that I was really uncomfortable with.  The kids who weren't up there on the stage, did they really need to witness their peers being rewarded?  And then watch them as they marched off for their special snack and extra recess time?  There's something to be said for incentives but I'm not sure this is the way to do it.

On the upside, my daughter said that she would definitely participate in the next reading challenge, because she wanted more donuts, although she would read even without them.  She told me "I think my school really wants kids to read so we can learn and stuff."  Admittedly, seeing her happy, proud face as she ascended the stage gave this mother naches (Yiddish for parental pride).

What do you think about rewarding reading and measuring reading by the number of books read?