Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Terrible Days and Pizzas: Books About Emotions

[Cross-posted once again at Librarian Mom.]

My kid had a terrible tantrum last night: a real humdinger of a meltdown over a Chanukah present. She’s kind of old to have those on a regular basis, but we still get them every once in a while. She was furious, then upset, then penitent, then furious again about the consequences for her first tantrum.

After she’d calmed down some, she started recounting all the awful things that had happened to her that made this the WORST DAY OF HER LIFE.

“Wow,” I said. “It’s kind of like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” I didn’t want to push the comparison, but it seemed to take her out of herself just a little to remember that other people have felt the way she did—enough that Judith Viorst wrote a whole book about a kid whose day goes so badly that he declares repeatedly that he wants to move to Australia.

Here are a few other books about emotions that might help a kid who’s stuck in her (or his) own anger or misery:

When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry, by Molly Bang. Enraged over a sibling dispute, Molly runs and runs outside, then cries, then climbs a tree and lets “the wide world comfort her,” until her anger is dissipated and she returns to her house to play a game with her family. What I love about this book is the way the vibrant, bold, pulsating colors of Bang’s painted illustrations make it absolutely clear what Sophie is feeling. A rare nonjudgemental book about a child’s totally believable anger.

How Are You Peeling?, by Saxon Freyman and Joost Elders. This duo has created a whole series of books in which the characters are played by fruits and vegetables, cleverly carved to resemble animals and people. This one, which introduces a surprisingly broad range of emotions, is my favorite: who would have guessed that lemons and onions and even turnips could be so expressive? (I’m particularly fond of the sulky red pepper who illustrates the concept of pouting.) The illustrations, along with the jaunty rhyming text, also help keep the book from bogging down with seriousness or preachiness.

Pete’s a Pizza, by William Steig. [out of print, but available used and at many libraries.] It’s raining, so Pete can’t go outside to play with his friends. He’s miserable, but not for long: his parents start pretending he’s a pizza: they “knead” him on the kitchen table, sprinkle paper (for cheese) and checkers (for pepperoni) on him, and drop him on the couch to be “baked.” All the while his expression modifies from full-bore crabbiness to mildly-amused-in-spite -of-himself to total giggling enjoyment, until he leaps off the counter (where’s he’s about to be “sliced”) and runs away, only to be caught and tickled. My daughter hates to be cheered up or jollied out of what she’s feeling, but sometimes she likes reading about it, and your child might too.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Light up the Darkness with Hanukkah Books

[cross-posted at Librarian Mom]

Like many Jewish kids, my daughter ends up getting read a lot of Chanukah books around this time of year. It’s one way for her to connect to her Jewish heritage and traditions at a time of year when sometimes it feels like the whole known world is one big Christmas celebration!

Over the years, we’ve progressed from the very simplest board books to some meatier titles. Here are some picks from our Chanukah bookshelf:

This original tale has everything you need in a kid’s book, really: a wily trickster figure (Hershel of Ostropol, based on a famous character of Jewish folklore) a seemingly impossible task (to defeat the goblins and bring back Chanukah by lighting all eight nights of candles in the old, haunted synagogue) and, best of all, a cast of truly monsterish goblins, by turns dopey and irritating and purely, spookily wicked, depicted with all their glorious warts and teeth by the late, great, illustrator Trina Schart Hyman.

  • The Flying Latke, by Arthur Yorinks; illustrated by William Steig, with photo illustrations by Arthur Yorinks and Paul Colin

Opinions vary on this farcical restaging of the Chanukah miracle, wherein one single latke feeds an entire extended family that’s holed up in their New Jersey home for eight days after a Hanukkah party gone wrong. Some people might find it too in-jokey, but my kid loves the Borscht-belt slapstick humor, and I get a big kick out of the illustrations: the author and illustrator rounded up a stellar cast of actors, authors, and children’s book luminaries and their kids (John Turturro and Maurice Sendak each make an appearance) to act out each scene, which were then photographed and superimposed on a painted background. The resulting tableaux emphasize the over-the-top schtick-y nature of the book, and make it a treat to pore over for details.

Sara has a dilemma common to Jewish kids: Christmas envy. When the mysterious Tante Miriam shows up at the family Chanukah party and gives each kid a gift, Sara’s annoyance deepens; her present is a weird, huge, golden dreydl. Except, well, it actually sends her spinning into another reality, one that includes King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, a lost princess who needs rescuing, and the Demon King. Also, some highly satisfying riddles that my kid has been enjoying trying out on friends.
I can’t pretend to be unbiased about this new addition to the Chanukah canon: it’s by my cousin. But just as she’s more than accomplished enough not to need a plug from me, The Golden Dreydl had plenty going for it on its own to engage both reader and listener, even without the family connection, when I read it aloud to my daughter a few weeks ago. It was especially fun to find the “Nutcracker Suite” connections together (though I have to admit that the riddles were made even more enjoyable by my slowly dawning realization that most of them came from the stock of jokes my dad used to tell us).

These are just a few of my family’s favorite books about Chanukah (Or Hanukkah, or Hanukka…it’s always a challenge to figure out how it’s going to be spelled next). If you’re looking for more, there’s no shortage of resources:, Kidsreads,, and the educational website all have extensive annotated lists of Chanukah titles for children. Scholastic’s own website has a nice list of Hanukkah picture books, as well as an article about December holidays which includes some excellent Hanukkah titles, as well as books about Christmas and Kwanzaa, and tips on discussing all three holidays with children.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Heralding Robert's Snow with Giles Laroche

I’ve been pretty quiet on this blog about the amazing Blogging for a Cure effort (though I did write about it over at Librarian Mom a couple of weeks ago), so it’s a treat to have the chance to not only feature a snowflake illustrator in support of the Robert’s Snow: For Cancer’s Cure online auction, but to do so on the very last day before the first snowflake auction opens.

Giles Laroche has been drawing, according to this site,“as long as he can remember.” He illustrates using a technique he calls “paper relief,” a combination of drawing, painting, and paper cut that produces a three-dimensional effect.

I knew of Laroche through his illustrations for Sacred Places, by Philemon Sturges, but discovered through research for this post that his illustration credits include an impressive variety of other titles. On my desk right now are What Do Wheels Do All Day? written by April Jones Princes, and Bridges are to Cross and Down to the Sea in Ships, both written by Laroche’s frequent collaborator Philemon Sturges.

In each of these books Laroche takes on a specific and visually striking topic—respectively, wheels, bridges, and boats—and brings it alive in a way that’s meticulously detailed enough to satisfy the most mechanically-minded kid (I’m especially fond of the gears and pulleys in “What Do Wheels Do All Day?” and the individually cut and placed pieces spanning the Apurimac River Bridge in “Bridges Are To Cross”) and bright and accessible enough for even easily-distracted toddlers. Each page is a world in itself, and rewards multiple viewings.

Like his book illustration, Laroche’s snowflake, entitled “Compass and Cormorant,” is both stunning and simple. I love the juxtaposition of the medieval-esque angelic herald with that alert seabird on the other side, ready to take flight. Here; it's worth a closer look:

The Robert’s Snow: For Cancer’s Cure auction is ready to take flight too, as of tomorrow. Please take a look at all the snowflakes, and consider bidding on one (or more!). It’s a rare chance to support a truly worthy cause and to own an affordable piece of art by a children’s illustrator.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Books for Halloween: Scary, but not TOO Scary

[Cross-posted on Librarian Mom]

[Note: I promised a post on Robert’s Snow this week, but am postponing it once more as Halloween waits for no blogger. If you just can't wait, take a look at this post--and many others around the kidlitosphere--for a quick overview.]

Spend any time around kids in first or second grade who are looking for books, and you’re sure to hear a request (or two, or seventy-five) for scary stories. Especially as the end of October draws nigh. Now, as children’s librarian Adrienne has rightly pointed out, not everyone likes to be scared. But more than once I’ve had some tiny, pudgy-cheeked child turn his or her adorable angel face away in utter scorn of whatever mildly frightening title I’ve proffered, demanding instead “Something REALLY scary.”

This presents the thoughtful librarian or relative with a book-recommending dilemma: if you’re too weenie about offering up scary stuff, the kid will decide you are just another clueless grownup and stomp off on his or her own to find the most irritating and/or product-placement-laden book possible, and then demand that someone read it to them over and over until all family members are driven insane. On the other hand, accede too readily to the “REALLY scary” imperative and as likely as not the child will end up having nightmares and/or hiding the book under a pile of junk in the basement so as to be spared the scary sight of it.

So, for those parents (and kids) who don’t have a taste for insipid junk, night terrors, or library replacement fees, here are a few picture books and early readers to take a look at. None of them are Halloween books per se, but they all aim for that sweet spot beloved of many kids at this time of year: scary enough…but not TOO scary.

King o’ the Cats, retold by Aaron Shepard. This retelling of an old English tale features, among other things, a spooky feline funeral in a church. The author even provides a readers’ theatre script of the story on his website.

Black Lagoon series, by Mike Thaler. Every book in this series follows the same pattern: a kid recounts the terrible, gruesome, scary things he’s heard about the (teacher, principal, librarian, custodian, bus driver…) only to be disabused by the actual niceness of the grownup in question. I used to read The Librarian from the Black Lagoon to 1st graders at the beginning of every year, and they loved it even when they didn’t understand all the jokes. My favorite part is how if you talk too much…the librarian laminates you! Heh, heh, heh.

The Spider and the Fly, by Mary Howitt and Tony DiTerlizzi. A gloriously creepy illustrated version of the 19th-century poem that speaks to the goth in us all. I know one very young kid who loved this book so much she simply took it home from the library and refused to return it.

For the rest of the year. Her mom wasn't thrilled, but I bet the illustrator would be if he knew.

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, by Adam Rex. In one gleefully silly (and perfectly illustrated) poem after another, monsters do things that you don’t usually see them doing: the Mummy demands a bedtime story before his eternal rest; the Phantom of the Opera (in a particularly crowd-pleasing running joke) gets a series of songs stuck in his head; and of course there is the titular sandwich. This is one of those books that is sophisticated enough for middle-schoolers to enjoy, but younger kids go crazy for it too even if some of it is over their heads.

Precious and the Boo Hag, by Patricia McKissack. Precious’s brother is just teasing her with his stories about the Boo Hag…or is he? I have to admit that this one is my favorite out of all of these. It is juuuust the right amount of scary, has a great refrain, a great story, and a spirited and smart heroine.

[Next week: for real, the big idea behind some little snowflakes.]

Monday, October 15, 2007

Environmental Books for Blog Action Day

(Cross-posted at Librarian Mom.)

In honor of Blog Action Day, all the books recommended today have something to do with the environment. "The Environment" is a pretty big, abstract concept, especially for kids. These books all do something to make that concept concrete. Mostly they're not treatises on global warming or any other specific environmental crisis; instead, they do what books do best: tell stories, bring characters to life, and help us understand that the big picture is made up of many small pieces.

Aani and the Tree Huggers, by Jeannine Watkins.
Aani, a young girl in rural India, marshalls the girls and women of her village to join forces and stop the nearby trees--a precious natural resource for the villagers--from being cut down. The story, which is based on true events, is told clearly and directly; when the women literally hug the trees to stop them from being felled, it's easy to see how much courage this simple action took. And the illustrations, by Venantius J. Pinto, are striking and rich.

Pearl Moscowitz's Last Stand, by Arthur A. Levine. [out of print, alas]
Another picture book about taking action to save trees, but with a very different setting. Mrs. Moscowitz has seen her neighborhood change: from Jewish, to African-American, to Latino, to Asian. But she's still there, and so is the gingko tree that her mother saw planted many decades ago. When a man from the city comes with official orders to have the tree cut down, Pearl and her neighbors try to distract him, first with plates of food, then with overloaded wallets of family photos. Finally, Mrs. Moscowitz chains herself to the tree, bringing on the TV cameras and saving the day.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, by D. B. Johnson.
What's the faster way to get from Concord to Fitchburg: walking? Or taking the train? Henry, an amiable bear, poses this question to his friend, and they try it out: The friend works all day to earn the train fare, while Henry spends the same time walking to Fitchburg through fields, gathering flowers, and picking blackberries. This first volume in a series of four stories about Henry is based on a passage in Henry David Thoreau's journals, and is a great way to start kids thinking about the way people live (and don't live) our values through how we choose to spend our time and energy.

If the World Were a Village, by David Smith
The concepts in this book pack quite a wallop and could keep a family or a class busy thinking and discussing for days. The premise is simple: If the entire population of the world was represented by a village of only 100 people, how many would speak English? How about Chinese? How many would be children, and how many adults? How long would each person's life expectancy be? How many would have clean, safe water to drink? The answers are often surprising and sometimes sobering, and bring the issue of population growth and its effect on the earth into striking focus.

Material World, by Peter Menzel et. al.
Like If the World were a Village, this book takes a simple concept and uses it to completely crack your head open. It's brilliant: a team of photographers travelled around the world, finding one "average" family in each of over 30 countries and photographing that family surrounded by all their material possessions. The logistics involved must have been tremendous, and the contrasts are fascinating. Aside from the photo-essays on each family, there are pages devoted to individual items: televisions of the world, typical meals around the world, and (always a favorite among kids) toilets of the world. It's an eye-opener--literally--to see the evidence of how many millions of people get along the sheer amount of stuff that's amassed by many people in Western countries.
I have to admit that this is my favorite title of any on this list. Though it's not technically a children's book, I've used it many times with 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes, and the kids are always fascinated and fight to check it out.

If you want to find out more about Blog Action Day, check out their website! You might also be interested in some of the environmental charities affiliated with Blog Action Day.

Monday, September 24, 2007

In Which I Scuff My Toe And Look at the Ground

So. I have an announcement.

Here's what happened:

Some months ago, I got a warm and informed e-mail from someone who asked if I wanted a paid weekly blogging gig.

What I felt like I honestly should say: "Um... are you sure you want me?? Because there are all these really fantastic kidlit bloggers out there [and you know I could link to way more, too] who are incredible writers and also post reliably, like, all the time. Here, let me give you some names..."

What I did say: "Sure!"

What happened after that: Nothing, for a while. And then, some more e-mails, culminating in the launch of a raft of new blogs at's site for parents. Including one by me with the highly descriptive title Librarian Mom. My first post went live today.

I'm linking to it even though some of the layout is still a bit rough, because...well, because I'm happy about it and wanted to tell people.

I'll be cross-posting some posts from the new blog on this one, though the intended audience is somewhat different: the general book-friendly parenting public, as opposed to the kind of obsessive kidlit hounds (like me!) whose idea of fun is a rousing evening spent debating the relative merits of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden (ah! a post I haven't written yet!)*. I'm also going to focus over there on books for kids between the ages of 3 and 13, so ruminations on the far ends of the kid/teen lit spectrum will end up at this site.

Anyway. I would love to have visitors from those among you who are still reading this blog after what's been a rather fallow summer. Even if you just click over because you're curious to see a photo of me with what appears to be a halo emanating from the back of my head. (It was originally snapped against a background of kitchen cabinets, and transformed by the photoshop wizards at Scholastic.)

Now that I have a new library job, along with this new blogging one, my brain is buzzing with ideas for things to write about, and I'm looking forward to writing about them here and there and...well, not quite everywhere. Yet.

*Though actually, when you get talking kids' media with many parents who don't on the surface appear to be that involved with the genre, you find hidden pockets of obsession: I once heard a volunteer mom at my old job riff for a good twenty minutes on the themes and idiosyncrasies of the "Arthur" TV shows and how they compared with the books. So, you never know.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Cheese Balls and Tshuvah

Tonight marks the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. This is the first year in almost a decade that I haven't had the Jewish holidays off work, and I'm thinking wistfully of the holiday book collection at my old job and wishing I could get my hands on some of them now, to share with my daughter and to think about myself.

The central concept of Yom Kippur is tshuvah. Though tshuvah is generally translated as "repentance," it literally means "turning": turning from sin--however you define that, whether it be hurtful behavior or not living up to one's own potential--to something better. Trying, and failing, and apologizing to whoever you hurt, and trying to make restitution if you can, and then getting back on that horse and trying again.

This is a concept that even--or maybe, especially--young kids can understand, and there are several decent children's books on the topic. One perennial favorite is Gershon's Monster, by that doyen of Jewish holiday books (and Anansi stories, while he's at it) Eric Kimmel. Instead of repenting or apologizing for any of his little thoughtless acts, Gershon sweeps them up and puts them in the cellar. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, he tosses them all into the sea. Eventually all the un-dealt-with sins become a huge monster that threaten what is dearest and most precious to him. There are echoes of King Lear and other old, dark tales in this simple story, but it never seemed to bother the enraptured kids who sought the book out by name even in the off-season. I think they recognized the power and truth behind it. Or maybe they just liked the big scary monster, as illustrated by Caldecott Honor medalist Jon Muth.

Jacqueline Jules's The Hardest Word is more nakedly didactic, but still enjoyable. The Ziz (an imaginary huge bird creature that apparently has its origins in Jewish mythology), after destroying a vegetable garden, must do repentance by finding and saying the very hardest word of all. Any guesses what it is? (hint: it starts with an "S.") Kids enjoy this one, too, and can identify with the well-meaning but hapless Ziz.

For my money, though, the best book about tshuvah is a title doesn't even refer to Yom Kippur, or to Judaism at all. In Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes, Lilly goes through all the important steps of true repentance after drawing a mean picture of her teacher, Mr. Slinger, in a burst of temper: She owns up to what she did, she feels true remorse, she makes restitution by drawing a nicer picture and writing a story and bringing in home-baked cheese balls, and she apologizes in person. She even does the hardest thing of all, which is to confront the evidence of her wrongdoing when Mr. Slinger gently brings out the dreaded picture and asks what she thinks he should do with it.

I'll be thinking of Lilly tomorrow night when the final shofar blast sounds and everyone cheers, and then the whole congregation--like Mr. Slinger's class--eats some tasty snacks. Tshuvah like hers deserves a celebration.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What to Do with the Babies-O at Story Time

My new job, as new jobs tend to, involves doing some stuff I've never done before. Among other things, I'll be creating and performing a weekly story time for babies/toddlers (take your pick of terms) aged 12-24 months.

Now, I adore this age group. Back in my distant youth, I even taught toddlers full-time, at a childcare center. But I have to admit that after nine years of mostly dealing with elementary-aged kids, I'm daunted at the prospect of keeping the attention of preverbal crowd, even with parents in the mix.

I'm going to stick to mostly songs and finger plays, and just slip a couple of books in each week. I spent a fair bit of work time in the past week flipping through picture books, immediately discarding anything that had more than four or five words on a page.

One side-effect of all this planning is that is What'll I Do With the Baby-O? by Jane Cobb has become my new favorite book in the world. I've been shamelessly cribbing from Cobb's preschool story time resource book I'm a Little Teapot! for the last several years, and now she has once again saved my bacon. Or my little piggies. Or my thumbkins. Whatever. In any case, Baby-O is a treasure trove of songs, finger plays, bouncy rhymes, and simple circle games for the very youngest storytime-goers.

Cobb lays out step-by-step outlines of a few sample story times for babies and for toddlers, and even includes suggestions for low-key informational asides to make to parents in between songs: "When you bounce your baby to the beat of the rhyme, you're helping her absorb rhythms and language with her whole body"-- that kind of thing. The accompanying CD, which I've been listening to somewhat obsessively on my commute, provides sung/spoken versions of 35 of songs. It's a teaching CD, so the versions are pretty bare-bones, but some of them are very sticky and I was surprised at how many were new to me and how many were quite lovely. I've found myself singing her version of "Mr. Moon/T'was On a Summer's Evening" at odd moments, hoping to find someone to sing it with as a harmonized round as Cobb demonstrates on the CD.

(Does it count as bragging if I mention that Cobb is not only Canadian, but a librarian at the Vancouver Public Library?)

What'll I Do With the Baby-O? doesn't seem to be available yet through Amazon. But it can be purchased through its publisher, Black Sheep Press. Independent bookstores may also be able to order it. If you do any programming for this age group, it's more than worth the list price, even with international postage.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Moving: In Praise of Bibliotherapy

I've been pretty cagey about it on this blog--at first because I hadn't given notice at work yet, and then because things were so frantic there was no chance to sit down and write a substantive and literary post about it--but we've spent the summer moving to Vancouver. That's Vancouver, Canada. We have a new home, with new jobs and new school, in a new city, in a new country.

It hasn't been a painless move for any of us. I'm probably the most jazzed about being in a new place (all those British editions!), and my just-turned-7-year-old daughter is easily the least enthusiastic. And why shouldn't she be? She had a nice life, good friends, great school, comfy (if somewhat snug) home. She didn't ask to move. But she had to, anyway, just because her parents got this crazy idea in their heads.

Just before the end of the school year, I snagged a copy of Alexander, Who's Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move, by Judith Viorst, at my school's used book sale. I thought the book might be too blatantly bibliotherapeutic for my kid--that she might feel emotionally manipulated, or put on the spot--but I gave it to her anyway in early July, and she's glommed onto it. Not every day, but once every week or two, all summer and now into the fall, she asks for it for her bedtime story.

Even though it's about a boy and she's a very girly girl, even though he has siblings and she doesn't, even though she's only moved a hundred-some miles from her old home, not a thousand miles as in the book, this story speaks to her. She likes the humor; she likes the eponymous refrain; she likes the litany of people and things that Alexander is going to miss; she loves the variety of places where the hero contemplates hiding (at the friendly neighbors'; behind the clothes racks at the cleaners'; inside the pickle barrel at the market). And I think she likes the hope held out in the end, that there can be new things to love in the new place where you live.

It calms her and makes her laugh, knowing that someone else, somewhere, has been through the same thing that she's going through, and felt the same things, and that there's a story about it. And it doesn't hurt that it's a decent, funny, well-written one, at that.

Here are a couple more good books about moving, that focus especially on friendship:

The Shelf-Paper Jungle
, by Diana Engel. (o/p, alas.) When Frannie has to move away from her best friend, the two create a huge mural on a roll of shelf paper, dive into their creation and have one last adventure together, then cut it in half and each take a portion.

Ira Says Goodbye, by Bernard Waber. In this book, it's the hero's best friend, Reggie, who's moving away. Ira acts like he doesn't care, but at the last minute he's able to say goodbye to Reggie.

Anyone have any other suggestions?

Friday, August 31, 2007

Grace Paley, 1922-2007

It's been a hectic few weeks in our household, and it was only today that I heard of writer Grace Paley's death last week. The New York Times printed a moving and literary obituary. If you've never read any of her writing, this is a great introduction, quoting some of the most delicious bits from her short stories and giving a great sense of Paley as an activist as well.

Paley never wrote for children (though her friend and sometime collaborator, Vera B. Williams, did and still does), but her stories have the honesty and immediacy that I associate with the best writing for kids, and there are kids all over them: dumping sand on each other in the park; riding daredevil between subway cars; carried on their fathers' shoulders, and always, always, worried over and talked about and arguing with the mothers who are the heroes of most of her writing.

It's killing me right now that I can't find in our box-stacked living room a copy of Paley's first book, The Little Disturbances of Man, which includes the first short story of hers that I ever read, "The Loudest Voice." It's the story of a little girl, Shirley Abromovitz, who gets a coveted part in the Christmas pageant at her (circa 1930's, somewhere in New York City) school. You see, she has the loudest voice: so strong and clear it can peel the paper off Campbell's soup cans, so she's a cinch for the narrator's role in the school's annual reenactment of the Nativity story.

Naturally, Shirley's mom and several of the other parents in her Jewish neighborhood are horrified at this "creeping pogrom" of a public-school activity. But theirs isn't the only opinion; Shirley herself is thrilled, and her dad is encouraging, and the conclusion is more nuanced than anything I've read before or since on the whole Jewish-kid-at-Christmas topic. The important and unquenchable thing is, indeed, Shirley's voice; at the end, after her triumph in the pageant, she hunkers down and prays for everyone: her family near and far, her teachers, and "all the lonesome Christians." She's sure her prayers will be heard: "my voice was certainly the loudest."

Paley herself has quite the voice, zippy and sneaky; she started off as a poet, and it shows. Her verbal path is loopy but at the same time direct--straight to the heart. She's a master of first lines. One story starts out: "There were two husbands disappointed by eggs. One was livid and one was pallid." The narrator refers to the two men as Livid and Pallid throughout the rest of the story. (Not surprisingly, neither of them comes off very well, either as a husband or as a dad.)

After reading and admiring her since high school, I got to see her in person, once. The Seattle Arts and Lectures series hosted an evening with Grace Paley and Anne Lamott, a possibly inspired combination that nonetheless was pretty much a disaster as far as literary events go (Anne Lamott wrote about it in Salon here, and also in one of her recent books). They tried for an unscripted discussion, which resulted in Anne Lamott, nervous and fast-wired, stepping into any pause before Grace Paley got a chance to say much. As the evening wore on and Lamott got more visibly anxious about how it was going, she only talked faster, until I thought the audience would start throwing things.

I only remember one thing Grace Paley said that evening, but it was worth the price of the ticket all by itself: one audience member asked what advice she would give to a new writer, and she said that she would give the same advice she gave her writing students: "Keep a low overhead, and don't live with anyone who doesn't respect your work." Nothing about "write what you know," or "kill your babies"--just smart common (or maybe not so common) sense on how to live and survive as a writer.

Grace Paley always struck me as one of a very few people (Jessica Mitford was another, and maybe Molly Ivins too) who managed pull off three tough feats simultaneously: she knew how to have great time in life; she stayed committed to serious political activism over several decades; and while she was at it, she wrote some kickass books. Not too shabby. But I wish she'd had just a little more time to do all those things.

Her voice will be remembered. It might not have been the loudest, but it was, and is, one of the strongest.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Els Kushner Does Love Moxy Maxwell

I usually spend the last weeks of school brainstorming with classes to get their picks for great summer reads (so much more effective than suggestions from adults), and by mid-June, what with the kid recommendations and the review journals and the blogs and the catalogs, I've got a sizeable To Be Read list of my own. This year my self-assigned summer reading list looked like this:
  • Specials
  • Heat and/or Travel Team
  • So Totally Emily Ebers
  • Rickshaw Girl
  • Vive La Paris
  • Gilda Joyce
  • Peaches
  • Shackleton’s Stowaway
  • The Glass Castle
  • Key to the Golden Firebird
  • The Jew Store (adult)
  • Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie
  • Twilight
  • Kiki Strike
  • Weedflower
  • Year of the Rat
  • The Green Glass Sea
  • Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life
  • Julia’s Kitchen
  • Ruby Lu
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • Between Mom and Jo
  • Dairy Queen
  • Plain JANEs
  • Total Constant Order
  • The Mislaid Magician
  • Emma jean lazarus fell out of a tree
  • Moxy Maxwell Does NOT Love Stuart Little
The five bolded books are ones I have read as of this moment. Please note that today's date is August 15, and thus summer is roughly 3/4 over. Also please note that 5/28 is nowhere near 3/4.

And so I feel for poor Moxy Maxwell, whose tale of woe and required summer reading I just finished half an hour ago (while I was supposed to be doing something else. But that's another story). Summer slips by so fast, with so many projects to accomplish, and in the blink of an eye it's the last day of vacation, and even though you've been carrying around Stuart Little all summer--and, as we all know, carrying a project around is practically the same thing as actually doing it--the actual reading-the-book part has not exactly happened.

I expected to love this book, having read so many enthusiastic reviews in the past few months. And so indeed it was. What I didn't expect was that it would be so suspenseful that, even though I had managed to restrain myself from skipping ahead throughout the 600+ pages [Canadian pagination] of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I cheated and jumped to the end of this 92-pager because I could not stand one more moment of not knowing whether Moxy's mother would really, truly keep her from performing in the Goodbye to Summer Splash daisy-petal water ballet, as was the threatened consequence if Moxy did not finish Stuart Little by 6:00.

The result left me feeling for Moxy's mother as much as for the title character herself, fellow book-lover and fellow procrastinator that she is. And it left me feeling lucky that my own reading list is made up of books that I chose myself. And that there are still a few weeks left for me to stay up late on hot summer nights getting lost in them.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Don't Toss That Coin inThe Well: Verdigris Deep

Everyone--well, everyone who's ever heard or read any fantasy or folklore, or who has any common sense, for that matter--knows how dangerous it is to make a wish; how the wish, if granted by a god or elf or genie or pixie, is almost always distorted, twisted, turned against the wisher.

But what of the wish-granters?

That's the question Frances Hardinge asks in Verdigris Deep, and she goes deep with it. Hardinge's first novel, Fly By Night, gathered many genres--alternate history, adventure, coming of age, political intrigue--into its capacious (maybe too capacious) embrace, but managed to avoid the one she delves into here: creepy, creepy horror. Like Alan Garner's The Owl Service, with which it's sure to be compared many times, Verdigris Deep pits a trio of troubled adolescents against the raw, living forces of an ancient mythology, forcing them to confront the deepest and most secret recesses of the human heart.

How'd that be for jacket-flap copy? But it's all true. Horror is not so much my thing, and if Fly by Night hadn't been one of my very favorite books read last year (it wasn't everyone's, I know, but it was mine) I probably wouldn't have gone near this one. But there it was, sitting
on the bookstore table, and my hand just went for it. Almost without my control. Ooo, spooky, and so much like this book. I couldn't even bring myself to read it at night. When our hero, Ryan, got those weird itchy bumps on his hands and they turned into--oh, I can't tell you what they turned into but believe me it will give you the willies--and then the well witch started showing up on posters in tunnels, streaming water from her eyes, and then the creepy Miss Gossamer showed her true colors, well it's a good thing there was bright daylight outside or I would have lost even more sleep than I did last week.

For plot, I'll tell you what the back-cover copy told me: three kids steal some coins from a well for bus fare, and are then forced to serve the god ("well witch" is what the back cover says, but really she's a god, that's clear) responsible for granting the wishes each coin represents. It's pitched creepy, and it reads creepy. But there's more here. This book is more compact and less picaresque than Fly By Night; page by page I'm not sure that I enjoyed it more, because it's not my favorite genre, but I think it might be a stronger book. Hardinge doesn't mess around this time having fun with made-up worlds, just goes straight for the heart with a pick-axe. Man, she's good.

I can't decide yet if there's too much troubled-family problem-novel psychological stuff in the book or not. You get right away that Ryan's parents are part of his issue: his mom writes "unauthorized biographies" that get her stalked by her subjects, and does bad-fictional-parent stuff like making Ryan wear his contact lenses instead of the glasses he prefers when reporters come to the house to interview her; she and Ryan's dad alternate between bickering and icy silence, which drives Ryan batty. And Ryan's friends' parents wouldn't win any functional-family awards either: Josh is a charismatic budding juvenile delinquent whose folks punish him for his frequent misbehavior by banishing him from the house; and Chelle is all but ignored by her family, which might be one reason she keeps up a constant torrent of chat, in hopes of catching someone's attention even for a moment.

But the family psychology is part of Hardinge's point, not tacked on but integral. As our three protagonists blunder through the summer, desperately trying to grant wishes, they gradually realize what the Well Spirit cannot: not only can wishes turn against those who make them, but each wish has an unspoken component, born of the wisher's deepest unacknowledged yearnings, and granting these can be even more disastrous than making the intended wish come true.

Ryan lays out the heart of the novel when he tries to explain to Chelle that wishes are "sort of like conkers [chestnuts]...There's an outer bit which is what the wish seems to be, but there's another bit inside which is kind of the real wish...And I don't think when most people wish, they really know what they're wishing. It's like they only see the green spiky outer bit." The ancient Well Spirit, he goes on, "doesn't really get the green spiky bits of their wishes...But the shiny nut bit of wishes, she gets that, kind of. She can help with that. Because those are the great big, painful, simple wishes, you see. Life. Death. Love. Revenge. She gets that."

Hardinge, it's clear, gets that too. Not to give too much away, but some of these wishes--past and present--are the hard, real, unpretty deal, and I wouldn't recommend this book to readers much younger than ten, or maybe eleven, unless I knew them (and their parents) quite well. Or unless they'd already read The Owl Service or Margaret Mahy's The Changeover and come out the other side unscathed.

I can't wrap this up without mentioning Hardinge's way with language, which outshone all the plot baubles in Fly By Night and which illuminates the murky relationships here: When Ryan's mum prepares him for a visiting reporter, "Ryan could feel his mother's fingers pulling and poking at him as they had the orchid. He sometimes wondered whether she thought that if she tugged at him for long enough she would end up with something more interesting." Chelle offhandedly complains about what it's like "when somebody's watching you and you can feel it like dead leaves down the back of your jumper..."Of Magwhite, the town where the fateful well is located: "Nobody could quite remember which, but something had happened to give the name 'Magwhite' ugly edges. If Magwhite was mentioned, parents' faces stiffened as if they had picked up a bad smell."

There are also some nice funny bits, and several adults have their own surprises in store; it's always a relief to see kids' books where the grownups turn out to be flawed human beings rather than caricatures.

All in all: if you liked Fly By Night, try this one. If you didn't like Fly By Night, try this one too, as it is utterly different in its particulars. Either way, watch for more by Frances Hardinge; her first two books, put together, are a pretty powerhouse combination, and I wish (uh-oh) I could read whatever else she's got in store.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Harry Potter Ate My Week

Technically, I finished late, late Sunday night, chased by a horde of spoiler threats. But it's taken me all week to catch up, on sleep and everything else.

I know lots of people who aren't done yet, and, like MotherReader, don't want any spoilers, not even "it was good" (or not). So I won't be spilling anything here.

But if you're also done, or if you don't care about spoilers, here are two links:

Emily Jiang of TLeaf Readings has painstakingly written a brisk chapter-by chapter summary of Deathly haiku form. (Link via Emily Reads.)

And over in the not-entirely-kidlit-focused blogging world, there is a smart and multi-faceted critique/appreciation/analysis of the book raging in the comments of Phantom Scribbler's HP7 Spoiler Thread. Phantom opened thread at 5:33 AM last Saturday (fast reader, that woman) and it's been going strong ever since.

Now, on to other things. I picked up a copy of a certain other much-anticipated British fantasy at Kidsbooks the other day, (we're still in Canada) and I feel it calling me from upstairs.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Dateline: Ministry of Magic

a/k/a Van Dusen Garden, Vancouver, British Columbia.

The tickets came in the mail just a few days ago: three Ministry of Magic badges, along with one Key to unlock the gate to a copy of That Book.

Last time around, two years ago, we were also in Vancouver and hit the midnight party at Kidsbooks, but this time they went offsite and held the launch at Van Dusen Garden.

The doors opened at 11 PM, but we didn't show up until 11:30. We didn't remember exactly where the garden was, but we soon figured it out by the lack of parking. And--oh, right!--the line of people stretching up most of a very, very long block and around the corner.

We took up our spots at the end: two jaded, sleepy grownups and our very jazzed 6-year-old Hermione, the latter sporting the requisite Griffyndor cloak and tie, a sparkly wand, and a white shirt and plaid skirt found at a thrift store. We flashed our badges at the gate, past Kidsbooks employees urging us to "Hurry! Hurry! It's almost midnight!" and then we were in.

Inside the garden was all drizzly, convivial chaos, which is an apt description of most of Vancouver most of the time. A Celtic band played, and the expected crowds of revelers wore the expected costumes: there were Griffyndor badges a plenty, as well as numerous lightning bolts on faces, tiny children in witches' hats, teenage boys sporting big round black-framed glasses. A very polite dragon (Canadian, dont'cha know) wished us a good evening, and Kidsbook employees wearing Ministry of Magic T-shirts buzzed about.

But where were the books? Oh, at those tents! Scattered about the well-lit grounds, numbered 1 to 12, the vaguely medieval-looking tents were obviously where the books were to be found. Everyone pulled out their paper certificates and looked for the number. Rumor had it, you were to pick up your books at the tent whose number matched your key. Crowds pressed forward around each tent as midnight approached.

Our young scout, hoisted on shoulders, gave the play-by-play: "I don't see anything--now smoke is coming out of the tent--now, nothing--wait, Harry Potter just came out! Now he went back in!" The band stopped playing. We were urged to pick up our books and then leave as quietly as possible, so as to spare the neighbors, and have "a good read." (to which I murmured that this was my kind of party: make an appearance, wander around and mingle a little, and then go home and read.)

The countdown was counted. Wild cheering erupted, and the crowd surged forward.

After much confusion, it emerged that the tent numbers meant nothing after all, and certificate-holders could go to any tent to pick up their book. "Just get in line," we were told, which was easier said than done, as there seemed to be no lines whatsoever, just swirling masses.

It crossed our minds that there might be no books at all, after all, as no one seemed to have any. Then--oh, there was someone gleefully holding a book! And there-- a few more! We were finally in something resembling a line, which seemed to be moving forward. Then we were in the tent, handed over the certificate, and were unceremoniously handed a book and swept out the other side.

The crowds lingered, photographing each other with their books, with some of the most flamboyantly costumed guests (including Sirius Black's mother, wearing black and carrying an elaborate picture frame). I read aloud the first paragraphs to my companions. (Not to give too much away, but it opens in a dark night, in a city that knows how to keep its secrets.)

Then a staffer dressed as Professor McGonagle kindly but firmly shooed us out of the park, and we obediently left.

It was almost 1 AM. Almost certainly, there were kids in England who had finished the whole book by the time we left the party in Vancouver. We walked through the pleasant, tree-lined streets to our car. Most houses were dark. But one, a few blocks away, was brightly lit on the second floor. We could see posters and decorations and a white gauze canopy: a girl's bedroom. We stopped outside the house for a moment, picturing her in there, just home with her brand-new, long-awaited book, and up late reading, reading, reading.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dads on the Page

Children's books are filled with mothers: Moms putting kids to bed, moms taking kids to school, moms comforting kids after various physical and psychic injuries, invisible scolding moms (a la In The Night Kitchen). But where are the dads?

Well, they're out there, but you do have to look for them. Herewith, a small sample of my favorite fictional dads, and the books in which they appear:

Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson. The dad in this book is wise, understands how to turn an enemy into a friend, and makes great pie. What more could you ask for?

Something Good
, by Robert Munsch. Featuring a dad who cares about good nutrition, but cares more about his kids. Even when one of them ends up stuck on the doll shelf at the supermarket with a sticker on her nose that says $29.99.

Ten Minutes Till Bedtime
by Peggy Rathmann. Well, it's true that the dad in this book is pretty clueless: he doesn't even notice that dozens of hamsters are gallivanting through his home on the "Ten Minute Bedtime Tour." but his goodnight tuck-in once the hamsters are all dispatched reveals the depth of his feelings for his kid.

Daddy is a Doodlebug
, by Bruce Degen. "Daddy is a doodlebug/and I'm a doodlebug too./We doodle things together/that doodlebugs like to do." The father and son in this book are truly doodlebugs--many-armed, tentacled creatures who also like to draw together. This warm ode to a parent and child who share a talent would make a great bedtime story.

Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen. I used to think this quiet picture book wasn't dramatic enough to hold a kindergarten story-time audience; I was so, so wrong. Kids are entranced by the father and daughter's nighttime owling adventure. John Schoenherr's luminous Caldecott-winning illustrations convey suspense and wonderment.

The Naked Mole-Rat Letters
, by Mary Amato. This quietly smart novel didn't make nearly the splash it should have. It's about a girl whose widowed father has (gasp!) found a GIRLFRIEND. His daughter is not pleased, and starts e-mailing said girlfriend, who happens to work at the zoo, with a pile of (mostly-fabricated) reasons that her dad is really not such good boyfriend material. Both the girlfriend and the father respond admirably. The parallels drawn between human and naked-mole-rat territorial behaviors are kind of cool, too.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men
, by Iain Lawrence. The father in this book is physically absent, fighting in World War I. But his son Johnny treasures his letters, and the toy soldiers he carves while sitting in the trenches. Johnny comes to believe that his games with the toy soldiers are affecting his father's fate, lending the book a haunting cast.

The Saturdays (et al), by Elizabeth Enright. I danced a little jig when this book came back into print. The Melendy kids' dad always seemed to have that perfect combination of concern and laid-back-ness: he let his kids run around New York City on their Saturday Adventure Club allowance-sponsored jaunts, but when it came to a crisis he could always be counted on.

The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish
, by Neil Gaiman. Truth be told, the dad in this book is far from exemplary. In fact, all he does throughout the entire narrative is read his newspaper, completely oblivious to the fact that he's being trundled around, traded hither and yon, and judged bloody useless by one kid after another, until the narrator, who perpetrated the original and eponymous trade, reluctantly tracks him down and retrieves him. Still, this is a terrific book, deadpan and funny and slightly creepy. For the dad with a strong self-image and a good sense of humor.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Name-Dropping, Small World, Raspberries

When I was a kid, I lived across the street from a really nice couple of the grandparent-ish variety. They were smart, and bookish, and kind, and when I ran over to their house in brand-new shoes one day and called out from the sidewalk that the shoes were making me dance until my feet were sore like the Red Shoes, they totally got the literary reference, which made me so happy.

They were not only grandparent-ish but were, in fact, actual grandparents, whose grandchildren were a few years younger than me and would come to visit sometimes from the City near our suburb. I think once or twice I even babysat for them. The older grandchild became friends with my younger brother, I think through summer camp, and they've remained in touch through adulthood. This same older grandchild, in one of those weird small-world occurrences, happened to meet and eventually marry a college friend of mine, so they're sort of like relatives on both sides.

And now this selfsame older grandchild of my old neighbors, Mark Dominus, friend of my brother, college-friend-in-law of mine, has gone and gotten himself cited in the kidlitosphere for his thoughtful and deadpan analysis of one of my favorite easy readers, A Bargain for Frances. My college friend Lorrie even makes an appearance, doing our alma mater proud with some hardcore lit-crit speculation regarding the inner life and motivations of Thelma, Frances's nefarious tea-set-swindler pal.

My favorite part, though, is Mark's own rueful evaluation of his attempts to explain the concept of "lying" to his 2-year-old daughter, Iris, using the hypothetical example of his telling her there were no raspberries in the refriegerator, even if there were, if he wanted to keep them all for himself: "I think Iris attached too much significance to the raspberries; for a while she seemed to think that lying had something to do with raspberries."

Well. I don't have any justification for feeling proud by association, but somehow I do. Maybe I can meet Iris in person someday, and we can discuss this crucial raspberry issue further.

Thanks to Fuse #8, now in her new home, for the link.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Night of the Living Summer Reading List

Every summer, the middle schoolers at my place of employ have required summer reading. Required, not assigned: they have some choice about which books they read, but they have to read something.

And every June, I put together recommended-books lists, racing the clock before the end of school.

For years, I painstakingly compiled three separate themed lists, one for each grade, keyed to the Humanities curriculum each grade would be studying that year. It was thorough, but exhausting, and frankly I'm not sure how useful it was.

Last year, with thousands of books to weed through and pack up for a summer remodel, I tried something new: an annotated list of a couple dozen "Els's Picks" list for the whole middle school, from entering-6th to entering-8th. They didn't have to choose a book from the list, but if they wanted some guidance, it was there. I tried to range it out with young-ish books, old-ish books, male and female protagonists, different genres, etc. Because it was the first time I'd done a list like that, I went a little wild with it: threw in all kinds of stuff that I just loved, cobbled together some summaries, and tossed it to the kids. This was the result.

Now I'm up against the Summer Reading Wall once again, and realizing I have a problem. Last year's list was the cream of the crop of a lifetime's reading, so how can I possibly top it this time around? I'm thinking that rather than create a whole new Picks list, I'll revise last year's, deleting a few titles that aren't so incredibly compelling in retrospect and adding some new ones.
On the other hand, I've been reading teen/YA fiction at a furious rate this year, and might just have enough to support a brand-new list, supplemented with a few titles that ended up on last year's cutting-room floor.

So far, here's what a list like that would look like, in no particular order:

American Born Chinese
Fly By Night
Hattie Big Sky
A Drowned Maiden's Hair
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Yellow Star
Septimus Heap--Magyk
The Weight of the Sky
No More Dead Dogs
Jason's Gold
A Mango-Shaped Space
The Lightning Thief
The Wee Free Men
Rules for Survival
A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life
Sorcery and Cecelia

I'd like to add a few more, like Heat by Mike Lupica, and a Gilda Joyce book, and The Schwa Was Here, and Vive La Paris, and Twilight, but I haven't actually read those yet so even though I think I'll love them I can't include them in good conscience. Ah, well; maybe next summer.

Now that I look at it, though, it's not a bad list just as it is. (Astute readers might notice a definite Cybils influence--no big surprise.) I might just go with it, if I can slog through the summaries in the next few days.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Amateur Literary Theatricals

I missed MotherReader's 48-hour Book Challenge on account of a long-planned multi-family beach weekend. Fortunately, we had a great time. Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly on the Pacific Northwest coast), it poured rain for most of Saturday. I spent a chunk of that afternoon in a 15-foot-diameter yurt in the company of seven charming 3-to-7-year-olds, whose good humor was considerable despite the inclement weather.

To pass the time, we acted out Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, adapted from the version retold by Eric Kimmel. A velveteen pillow served as the eponymous rock, and the six-and-seven-year-olds took turns--mostly harmoniously--playing the plum roles of trickster Anansi and the quietly clever Little Bush Deer. After a couple of go-rounds, the older kids were even able to take my place as Narrator, moving the action along with explanatory phrases like "So Anansi and Lion went walking, walking, walking, in the cool forest, until Anansi led Lion to a certain place..." whereupon Anansi would point out the pillow and Lion would utter the fateful words "Oh, my, isn't that a strange moss-covered rock!" Followed quickly by everyone's favorite part: Lion (or whichever animal) falling down Klonk! on the futon, only to wake up to a spinning head and the unpleasant discovery that Anansi had stolen all the fruit from her house.

We stuck to the basic story line, but improvisation abounded. The kids picked what animals they wanted to play, and what (invisible) fruit Anansi would steal from their (invisible) houses. One four-year-old objected gently that Hippo should be walking through the water, not the woods, since hippos liked to stay in the water. Little Bush Deer occasionally acquired a Little Bush Deer Little Brother, who stayed under the bed and didn't take part in the tricking and counter-tricking. One particularly gifted comic actress taking her turn as Anansi ad-libbed an epilogue: after the denouement, in which she discovered that Little Bush Deer had organized the other animals to steal their fruit back, she shrugged, reached under a (real) grocery bag, declared "Oh, well, at least I still have this apple!" and mimed a big, juicy bite.

All in all, it was a highly satisfying afternoon. I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in charge of a group of six or seven or ten kids with no props and no preparation.

A couple of other folktales that lend themselves to amateur theatricals:

It Could Always Be Worse!
Retold by Margot Zemach. We did this one at last year's beach weekend; the three oldest kids gleefully took on the roles of a trio of rabbis proclaiming, from the top bunk, that the poor unfortunate man (played by me) should bring more and more animals (played by other game grownups) into his house. The story was definitely enhanced by the real-life crowded conditions of the yurt in which we were acting it. If you have kids play the animals and family members (which I've done a few times with classes) care needs to be taken when laying out the rules to ensure that no actual injurious mayhem ensues. "No touching anyone, no yelling, and stop when you see the signal" are useful guidelines.

Mabela the Clever
, retold by Margaret Macdonald. This one has two major parts: Mabela and the cat. There's also Mabela's father, and a flexible number of mice, who need to march along, sing a refrain, and get fo-feng!ed by the cat until Mabela rescues everyone. (In the story, the cat plucks each mouse into a bag, which isn't really practical to reproduce exactly; the fo-fenging would probably best be dramatized by having the actors move to a couch or rug on the sidelines).

It's nice to have time to act these out several times, so that everyone who wants to has a turn at the best parts. It's also highly recommended that the drama session be followed by naptime, at least for the adults involved.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Poetry Friday: The Month of June

Still riding the year-end rapids, but I had to surface for this first Poetry Friday in the first month of summer.

June means graduation around here. The 8th graders at my school are graduating in a couple of weeks. They were kindergarteners when I first started at this job, so we've grown up together; now they're heading off into the wider world, and there are changes ahead for me, too.

This poem by Sharon Olds reminds me of them.

The Month of June: 13 1/2
by Sharon Olds

As our daughter approaches graduation and
puberty at the same time, at her
own, calm, deliberate, serious rate,
she begins to kick up her heels, jazz out her
hands, thrust out her hipbones, chant
I’m great! I’m great!

Read the rest of the poem here.

The Poetry Friday roundup, along with a lovely Elsa Beskow poem, is at Adventures in Daily Living this week.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

bisy backson

My day job and domestic tasks have sucked up almost all my time the last several days, leaving scant minutes for posting or commenting. I'm hoping the crunch will ease a bit by midweek; in the meantime, there's a wealth of good posts over at the 14th Carnival of Children's Literature, hosted this month by the indomitable Chicken Spaghetti. Click! Read! Enjoy!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Poetry Friday: Cross That Line

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about seeing Naomi Shihab Nye at the Serendipity Conference in Vancouver. I'm still thinking about that talk. This poem probably comes as close as anything to catching the heart of what she spoke about:


Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border of the USA
and sang into Canada...

Read the whole poem here.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is up at Big A little a.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fox Cub Kidnapped by Evil Baby Orphanage?

bookbk: Hey, Fox's mom is pregnant in this book! Look at this! First I thought she was just drawn with a big dress on, but no, she's really totally pregnant.

Spouse: Yep, I noticed that.

bookbk: But she's not pregnant in the later books. See? Look, here in Fox All Week. She's standing up, and you can see: not pregnant. And there's no baby in any of them. It's weird.

Spouse: Well, maybe that was Louise she was pregnant with.

bookbk: No, cause, see, look, Louise is here in this first book too! Fox's mom is bugging him to watch her. That's what the whole book is about: "Fox, look after little Louise," blah blah blah.

Spouse: Huh.

bookbk: I hope it wasn't stillborn. That would be so sad.

Spouse: I think you're reading too much into this.

bookbk: Maybe that's why Fox acts up so much. Maybe he's really upset about the stillbirth of his baby sibling, and no one else ever talks about it, so he's, like, carrying the whole emotional load for his family. That's how come he's always getting in trouble.

Spouse: You are looney tunes.

bookbk: Wow. These books seem so funny on the surface. But there's this whole tragic undercurrent when you get down to it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Tag, I'm it!

Web at blog from the windowsill has tagged me with the "What are you Reading?" meme, which is my kind of meme: a really easy one.

So, what am I reading? Well, I'm in the middle of Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson, and liking it just fine. It's exactly what I'm in the mood for: a straightforward, thumpy historical novel with a nice appealing narrator, some letters mixed in, and just enough political social consciousness (as the anti-German sentiment of 1917 brings up some parallels with the current political situation) to help me feel plugged into the present day.

I'm also in the middle of Pretties, having double-barrelled through Uglies as fast as I could, on paper at home and via audiobook on my commute. I got stalled on Pretties about two-thirds of the way through--the dystopia just got to me all of a sudden--and picked up Hattie instead. I figured I'll save Pretties for the car this week.

On my night-table: Castle Waiting, Forever in Blue, Kiki Strike, A Swift Pure Cry (someone recommended it-- can't remember who), Total Constant Order (an ARC) and the last few issues of the New Yorker.

On my reserve list at the public library: The Talented Clementine (my whole family can't wait to read it), Specials (in print and audiobook format), and a whole slew of audiobook versions of the 2008 Young Reader's Choice Award nominees.

Books read recently that I plan to write about but haven't yet: Tripping to Somewhere, The Bermudez Triangle, and more books than I want to admit that I need to review for the Puget Sound Council.

I'm tagging: Charlotte, Dawn, and anyone else who hasn't done this meme yet.

Guilty conclusion drawn from this meme: I really, really need to update my "recently read" list over there on the sidebar. Oops.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Single Moms on the Page

Several years ago a single-parent friend of mine with a preschool daughter asked for a suggestions of picture books featuring single mothers, or characters who could be single mothers. Thanks in part to the dearth of dads in picture books (about which more next month), it was easier than you'd think to pull together a list.

That preschool daughter is now in middle school, but some of my favorites from back then are on today's list, along with a few newer gems:

Mama, I'll Give you the World, by Roni Schotter.
This is one of those books that makes adults go "Awwww..." and that kids love too. The story is pretty simple: for her mother's birthday, Luisa plans a surprise dance party, along with Mama's co-workers and customers at Walter's World of Beauty. But the depth of love subtly depicted between mother and daughter, and S. Saelig Gallagher's poignant, playful, gold-tinged illustrations (I was surprised they didn't at least get a Caldecott honor last year) make this one a classic.

A Chair for My Mother, by Vera B. Williams.
Rosa and her mother and grandmother have lost their home in a fire; they have a new place to live now, but nowhere comfortable to sit. They save their change until the big jar is full, and then buy.... a chair. A wonderful, beautiful, comfortable chair. Like Mama, I'll give You the World, this is a warm tale of family and community. If you haven't ever seen this book, give yourself a treat and buy or reserve it.

Jonathan and his Mommy, by Irene Smalls.
Jonathan and his mommy take a walk through the neighborhood, matching their steps to how they feel: zig-zag steps, big steps with big voices, and then finally Jonathan-and-Mommy steps home. Sometimes it's hard to find picture books for younger preschoolers depicting African-American kids; this simple, friendly story would be a nice read-aloud to a crowd or a good book for sharing with one child before (or after) your own neighborhood walk.

First Tomato, by Rosemary Wells.
I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for the Bunny Planet books, and this one is my favorite of the three. Claire's idealized "day that should have been" takes place in a garden, where her mother asks her to pick the first ripe tomato and bring it inside. Claire is tempted to eat the tomato and "never, ever tell," but her honesty is rewarded. Her mother's words, "I've made you First Tomato Soup, because I love you so," are often echoed in our house at mealtimes.

Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey.
Another food-gathering book featuring a mom-and-daughter duo. Little Sal goes to Blueberry Hill with her mother, to gather berries to save for winter. Only Little Sal--who really is quite little, maybe two at the oldest--is more interested in eating the berries than in putting them in her little tin bucket. When she wanders off and runs into Little Bear and his mother, also out eating berries...well, things turn out all right, this being a children's book, but adults who know the ways of bears may find it harrowing. Still, kids love the simple dark-blue ink illustrations, the gentle humor of the mix-up, and the repetition of that lovely "ker-plink, ker-plank, ker plunk!" as the berries fall into Sal's bucket.

Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman.
Grace's mother and Nana help her find the strength to stay true to her dreams when her classmates insist that she can't play Peter Pan in the class production because she's Black. My favorite aspect of this book is Grace's powerful love of story and of acting, and her absolute confidence in her own abilities. Would that we all had such faith in ourselves!

Fox All Week, by Edward Marshall. This dryly funny easy-reader series is easily my first-grade daughter's favorite. In this title, featuring one short mishap-laced story for each day of the week, Fox volunteers to take over for his beleaguered mom and cook Friday dinner for the family. Mom and little sister Louise are a bit concerned about all the crashing and banging coming from the kitchen, but when the three sit down to dinner...let's just say that there were no major disasters.

A Mother for Choco, by Keiko Kazsa.
In this nice companion to (and subtle commentary on) Are You My Mother? Choco, a puffy-cheeked yellow birdling, goes searching for a mother, only to be rejected by one creature after another because he doesn't look like them. When Mrs. Bear takes him in , she makes it clear that it's love, not appearances, that count.

Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake (formerly known as Don't Wake Up Mama!) by Eileen Christelow
Oooh, those nutty monkeys! Christelow has written a whole bunch of books about their antics, but this is the one my family enjoys most. It's Mama's birthday, and her five little monkeys are determined to surprise her with a wonderful cake. Only they're not so good at cooking, it turns out...oh, well, never mind; Mama would certainly rather be greeted by a safe family and a platoon of firefighters than have her birthday forgotten.

And a Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers reading: single, partnered, adoptive, and everyone else. May it be replete with the dessert of your choice and some time to sit and read a good book.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Hooray for Hollywood

I have one or two more left in the Serendipity Conference series, but for now a quickie post, as it's the time of year at work when all the end-of-year events and jobs seem to come cascading down like (to mix a metaphor/simile) some kind of crazy roller-coaster heading into summer.

It's a good time of year to do some low-key, easy lesson plans. One of my favorites for 4th and 5th grade is "Books into Movies."

First, I pull a whole bunch of books that have been made into movies and put them out on the tables (Wikipedia has a pretty good list). When the class comes in, they have to look at the books on the tables and guess what they have in common. Some years they guess and guess and never come up with the answer ("Animals!" "No, they're all fantasy!" "No, they're all classics!"), but this year someone guessed it almost right away in both 4th grade classes.

Then we talk for a while about the differences between books and movies: Have they ever had the experience of reading a book and then seeing the movie, and wondering how the two can even have the same title? What are some reasons that a movie might have to be different from a book? Why might the people making the movie decide to change things around?

This year I talked about my experience seeing the movie "Harriet the Spy" after loving the book as a kid, especially my disappointment that Harriet was so skinny and cute (I showed them the illustrations from the book as a comparison) and that the movie wasn't set in New York. I also gave them some of the scoop about the upcoming Inkheart movie.

They did some silent reading, choosing a book from one of the tables (I encouraged, but didn't require, that they pick a book they'd never read but whose movie adaptation they'd seen), and then after checkout we read Shrek, which is a great example of a book that's completely different from the movie. I thought they might think it was too young for them, but both classes were highly amused by Shrek's evil temper and by the poetry.

When asked about books and movies in class, kids will dutifully reply "The book is always better": they've learned that books are supposed to be Good for Them and movies are faintly unwholesome fun. Sometimes teachers even act like the existence of a movie taints the book, and won't let kids read books for reports if they've already seen the movie.

Kids believe this, too; I don't know how many times I've suggested a book to a kid, only to have them shrug it away with "Oh, I already saw the movie of that." This class shakes that up a little and asks them to think about the two mediums in a different way. Plus, it's just a blast to teach.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Serendipity, Part 2: Naomi Shihab Nye

I've read some of Naomi Shihab Nye's poems and essays, her picture book Sitti's Secrets and her novel Habibi. My library owns some of the anthologies she's edited. I've always thought she was a good poet, a good writer, who seemed like a kind and open and smart person. She's Palestinian-American, and writes about that, which might make her books controversial at the Jewish day school where I work, but I've never had any complaints. Maybe because her work is so manifestly about the need to reach out, to cross borders, to connect. (Or maybe it's just that no one's really noticed them.)

Well. She is a fine poet. And a good writer. And a good anthologist. But she is a great speaker. And I mean "great" as in Great Books or Great Horned Owl. After a full day of presentations at the Serendipity conference, and a full dinner, and three introductory after-dinner speakers who got us all warmed up and excited about poetry, this small woman in a green jacket and a bushy sideways ponytail stood up and talked. She was quiet and kind and eloquent and radiant with love of words. And we sat entranced.

I was too entranced to even take many notes, so this will be from memory, and not necessarily in the order I heard it:

She unfolded an article she'd clipped from the newspaper, with the headline: "To be Young, Rich, and In Vancouver." Reading and writing for children keeps us young, she said; and we all know that books and words are the real riches; and here we are, in Vancouver! This sounds corny written down, but she pulled it off in a lovely understated, pleased way.

She read poems about her father's annoying and endearing singing, her childhood love of reading which was so great that she read the car manual from the dashboard, about Paul Robeson singing into Canada when he wasn't allowed to leave the United States, sending his voice across the border. She read about a girl pretending she wasn't herself, she just worked for herself: "she'll be so glad I got that homework done..."

She talked about herself, how nostalgic she was even as a child: she cried at her third birthday because she wasn't done with being two. About how she still feels time is going too fast: "Life is always rushing us along to the next moment." But words can be a way of slowing time down.

She read a poem by a 7-year-old boy from Winnipeg who sent her some of his work along with a letter about the doubts he sometimes has about his writing, and told about what happened when she wrote back to him, which was that some of his classmates also wrote to her with some of their poems, which were, they explained in a cover letter, much better. She told about their classroom, which, when she traveled from Texas to Winnipeg to visit it, was covered in poems everywhere: on the walls, on the ceiling, and about their teacher who had grown up in a small town and who had the world opened up to her through books, and was determined to open it up for her students through poetry.

She urged everyone to make poetry part of children's lives every day, despite the pressures of curriculum and standardized testing: read it aloud, just one poem a day. Make it part of your own life, she said. Sneak it into your day. Write three lines a day, in a notebook. Just that. Just that can make a difference in your life, day after day.

She talked about place, about connection to place even if it's not where you're from: "If you live in a place, you like its can belong to it."

She talked about her father, whose eightieth birthday was the next day. He is a Palestinian refugee, but as a kid she didn't know he was a refugee because he never spoke of himself that way; how he talked about the Palestine of his youth, which was a less contentious place than other accounts would have it; how he played with Arab Muslim kids and Arab Christian kids and Jewish kids and Greek kids and Armenian kids, all of them together on the same street, and how after dinner they would all come out of their houses and trade desserts.

She talked about her friend who works with kids in Palestinian refugee camps, how he makes "Passports" for the kids to write in, empty booklets for them to fill with the titles of books they read. Because even if you can't cross the checkpoint, you can go anywhere if you can read.

She talked about her hope in the face of war and fear and the loss of recess in the schools. And she read something she'd written recently, that she hadn't meant to be a poem, she said; just something she e-mailed to a few friends, but it seemed to have spread to more people and people were breaking the lines like a poem, so it was turning into one. Here it is: Gate 4-A.

(I've just read over this entry and I'm not sure it captures the quality Nye has as a speaker that led me to lean over to my neighbor at the banquet table about half an hour into her talk and murmur "I think I'm in love with her."

So I found a link to an audio interview she gave several years ago; the subject matter is totally different from what she talked about this weekend, and I'm not crazy about the interviewer, but I hope it gives some sense of how unassuming and yet powerful she can be.

If you want to take the trouble to register, you can also hear this talk she gave last year on the New Letters public radio show, which was similar but not identical to the presentation I heard this weekend. But really the thing to do is to go see her and hear her in person if you ever get the chance.)

Serendipity, Part 1: The Bell and Funke Show

It's a symptom of the deep and lamentable divide between the United States and Canada that I only found out about this incredible children's literature conference by merest chance, and that few or no other Seattle-area librarians appeared to be there even though Seattle and Vancouver are less than three hours apart by car. But I found out in time to go, anyway. And I took notes. (Well, some notes.) And so I bring you this report from the True North Strong and Free, specifically from the student union building at the University of British Columbia, where the semester is over and so there are almost no students trying to get onto the computers at 6:30 8:00 on a Saturday night.


Actually, it's hard to know where to start. If you click the link above and check out the Serendipity lineup, you'll see why. (Also, my notes are incomplete and in many cases illegible, scribbled as they are on the backs of various programs and flyers. I have a renewed respect for Fuse #8's rampagingly detailed dispatches from all those soirees and previews. I'm afraid there will be no footwear in this report, and precious few desserts.)

Maybe best to start at the end, with what was obviously for many people the climax of the two-day program: a double presentation by Cornelia Funke and her English translator, Anthea Bell.

Anthea Bell spoke first. She is little and understated and elderly and wry and very British. She is also very brilliant, as demonstrated by her three-page list of translating credits in a dizzying array of languages, ranging from Sigmund Freud to all the Asterix books. She spoke about why she got into literary translation (it seemed like a "difficult challenge" and, she noted with some relish, she likes difficult challenges), her opinion of academic degree programs in literary translation (which runs along the lines of "I'm sure it's very fun to do, but it's not a degree that will make much difference to publishers; they just want to know if you can get the job done") and her academic background (in English Literature, not comparative lit, because at that time at Oxford you could only read one or the other and she wanted to take the philology course they had in Eng Lit).

Ms. Bell elaborated with passion about the importance of literature in translation, particularly for children, who are rarely bilingual, and who deserve the chance to read books from other cultures--books that are great, and books that are just fun and enjoyable. She quoted Samuel Johnson who, when asked what books a boy should be given to read, said basically that you should let a young boy [sic.--Samuel Johnson's sic., not Anthea Bell's] read whatever he enjoys so that he learns to like reading; he can pick up the "better" stuff (which at that time would have meant Greek and Latin works in the original) later.

Just before ceding the podium and picking her careful way back to her seat, she spoke a little about the Inkheart books ("tantalizing you," she said sweetly), the third of which Cornelia Funke has just emailed to her this week; it's sitting in her in-box, waiting for her to get back to England and get started reading it [gasps and murmurs from the crowd at this point]. "I've been asked to do a new translation of Kafka's The Castle," she said later in the presentation, "and I told them it will have to wait. [laughter and applause.] It's only fair; Kafka's been translated before."

Then Cornelia Funke got up. And she...she...well, she's about the most stunningly matter-of-factly self-confident human being I think I have sever seen in person, and that includes politicians and rock stars. She spoke without audio-visual aids and without notes. "I don't know how this will go," she smiled; "maybe you'll be really bored." But she didn't seem too worried.

Nor should she have been. She launched into the story of her literary journey (a theme all the presenters had been asked to address): growing up in a small town, books were her addiction, a "legal drug" that she couldn't get enough of. Her parents wanted her to pursue her talent for art, but she saw it as irrelevant and elitist and wanted to change the world. She became a social worker. But "you cannot live against your will do what you were born to do, and your gifts will pull and push at you and pain you" until you use them. So she entered the illustrator's program at the university after all, graduated, and got a job illustrating books.

And soon found herself bored with the picture books she was given to illustrate: "Children in classrooms, children in their rooms...German children's literature at that time was very realistic." She wanted to draw fairies and ogres, so she whipped up a little picture book of her own, which was immediately published. Nope; never had a rejection slip [mutters and groans from the audience].

And the rest is more or less history. She wrote and wrote and wrote (which she professes to find painless and joyful--provoking more envious groans from the crowd). She wrote Inkheart as a love letter to books and to her fellow reading addicts, and has been surprised to find it read and loved by many kids who formerly never read books. She lives in Los Angeles now, loves it, and is currently working on a screenplay she was asked to do by one of the producers (I think) of the Harry Potter movies--not a book of her own, but a project based on (an unnamed, super-secret) someone else's book that "very much relates to the fairy tales of the Germans". It's her first time working directly in English, and she's enjoying it, but she thinks she's only a reasonably good writer in English; not as good as she is in German.

When she sold the film rights to Inkheart she asked to be made a producer, and so she's had a say on the director and the cast (Helen Mirren is going to play Elinor), gets to see the rushes, and all that fun stuff. She feels it has "the darkness I wanted" for a film version of the book, and seems genuinely pleased with it, and with everything else in her life.

Finally, the author and translator sat down together, conversed briefly on mike, and then took questions. This was when I got to appreciate the full resplendence of Cornelia Funke's dark brown velvet skirt, and also the genuinely warm working relationship between the two writers, strikingly different as they are (short, tall; English, German; diffident, flamboyant). They obviously admire each other's talents, and feel that each is a better writer because of the other. Cornelia Funke even completely rewrote one of her early novels to make it more worthy for Anthea Bell to translate into English. "I felt so blessed that she put this beautiful glove about the hand of my language," she said.

Next up (but probably at much less length): Naomi Shihab Nye makes us all choke up, and Janet Stevens's technical difficulties.