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.