Reading to my Kid <$BlogRSDURL$>

 / . Reflections on children's literature and the process of reading aloud, which is both political and emotional.
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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

New Books 

Yes, children like to hear the same old books over and over. As I posted below, I once read "Maisy's Bath" seven times in a row. But I think we can't underestimate the power of new books; after all, one of the huge pulls of television is that it offers new content every minute. There's always something the child hasn't seen. But her books -- those are all the same as yesterday.

A friend of mine who is a children's librarian, no less, called me the other day to thank me for a birthday gift of five or six books I gave to her child. "We have so many books already," she said, "I never think to buy new ones. We haven't had any new books for a really long time. Both kids just sat down on the couch and wouldn't leave until I read every single one. And then they did it again with the babysitter, later on."

I was glad the books went over so well -- but I was amazed that my friend hadn't thought to bring books home for her kids from the school library where she works; or to purchase them. She just figured, she had a lot at home already.

Tulip responds hugely to the library, at age two. At the actual place, she mainly runs around like a maniac and plays peekaboo, hiding behind the shelves. But when we get home, she is "so 'cited" to read the new books; she knows which ones are library books; she understands that we say goodbye to them and give them back -- and then get new ones to take home. The library is an awesome place.

By the way, the books I gave to my friend's child:

How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World, by Marjorie Priceman
The Day the Babies Crawled Away, by Peggy Rathmann
Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey
Doctor DeSoto, by William Steig
Zin Zin Zin! A Violin! by Lloyd Moss
Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, by Chris Rashka

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Max and Ruby: do they have parents? 

In Rosemary Wells' first eight board books about Max and Ruby, a parent rabbit appears in only one title: Max's Ride. She is rather grandmotherly, wearing spectacles and a long dress; she is hanging out the washing on a clothes line.
Later, in Bunny Cakes (which is a title for slightly older readers), Max and Ruby do have a grandma -- for whom they each make a birthday cake.

I read an interview with Wells a while ago, when the Max and Ruby TV show came on the air. I haven't seen the show. But the big focus of the interview was how M&R don't have parents in the books, and how they had to invent this world of a town of bunnies where everyone was kind of a child, in order to make it understandable that they had no parents and appeared to live on their own.

Wells has said in other interviews that the dynamic between Max and Ruby comes from the dynamic between her youngest child and her eldest. So really, it's a relationship that stems from a family situation. It seems odd that we'd have to go to some magical bunny town in order to justify these simple everyday stories. Wells did draw parents -- just not often.

What the books say to me is that adults exist; they just don't always matter to children; don't matter at all, in fact, when they're absorbed in relating to one another.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Coming Attractions 

I am under the weather, so no post; But coming next week:

Herbert the Lion (by request)
Max and Ruby: their mother
and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (a reader suggestion)

I love getting these suggested topics, so please send one on over if you think of it:

Now to bed.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Discussion of Pre-teen Book Romances 

A lovely post on the romances in books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne Montgomery, etc. can be found here at This Woman's Work. And there are more than 25 responses!
Check it out.

Maisy Takes a Bath, by Lucy Cousins 

More thoughts on Maisy, about whom I posted earlier in the week.

When I first encountered her, it was in the story Maisy Takes a Bath (actually, we have the British edition, which is just called Maisy's Bath). In it, Maisy is getting ready for her bath when the doorbell rings; it's Tallulah, her friend, holding a tennis racket. "Maisy can't play now, it's her bathtime."

Maisy goes back upstairs, gets in the tub, and then doorbell rings again! She answers it in a towel. It's Tallulah -- but this time she won't take No for an answer. She charges upstairs, gets naked, and jumps in the tub. "Maisy and Tallulah play in the bath."

Tulip loved this book before she was even a year old. I read it seven times in a row one day. No joke.

But I was mystified by the story. What was the message here? Maisy had clearly asked to be left alone, and yet when Tallulah barged her way into the house AND into the bathtub, Maisy just accomodated her. The message seemed to be: well, if someone insists, just let them. Personal boundaries aren't worth much. Privacy isn't worth much.

Actually, when I put it that way, it's not such a bad message. Friendship is more important than a lot of other things. But in my early readings of it -- granted during my first year of parenthood when I was never ever alone for a bloody second, it felt like -- I just couldn't get on board. Maisy needs her privacy, Tallulah! What part of "No" don't you understand?

My sister, who is thirteen, interpreted the book this way: Baths are boring. You've got to take them, but what a drag. Maisy is being responsible by bathing, but really she wants to go and play with Tallulah, so when her friend finds a way for her to be responsible AND have fun, she's happy.

As an adult, I never would have thought of it like that. People who interrupt my bath are liable to have their heads bitten off.

I include this link because it's interesting to read the Amazon comments on this book.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Writer Community and Children's Book Authors 

More on YA today.

I just visited Ned Vizzini's website and blog for the first time, and Vizzini (author of two YA titles: "Teen Angst? Naaah" and the upcoming "Be More Chill") talks a lot in his blog about all the different writers he goes to see in New York, etc. Like many adult authors who live in NY, he appears to be very much part of a literary network of people who do readings together, write for magazines and so forth. But it is unusual, in my experience, to see this sort of connection happening with YA writers. For example, Vizzini is doing a reading next week with Joseph Weisberg (author of 10th grade; which is technically an adult title, although I don't see why since it is all about 10th grade and nothing dirty or violent happens).

There are a few reasons why it's so rare to see teen and children's book authors connecting with one another on a regular basis. First, when we do readings we do them at schools, usually; not at places like KGB.

Second, there's still a lingering prejudice against young people's literature that probably causes lots of teen writers to kind of keep their heads down and be out of the scene -- although maybe the Weisberg and company have eluded this kind of stupid stigma.

Third, there are no magazines for such writers to write for -- the way there are magazines for grown-up writers; Cosmo Girl and Teen People don't run long articles, and Cricket etc. don't pay well and aren't based in NY. There are very few book review publications to write for, too. So there's not a network of magazine people connected to these YA and children's writers the way there is for the adult community.

And then there are those of us, like myself, who go to sleep at 9pm in order to get up with an early-rising toddler, and who wouldn't know what to say to other writers if we did meet them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004


Pirate Monkey's Harry Potter Personality Quiz
Harry Potter Personality Quiz
by Pirate Monkeys Inc.

I always thought I was Hermione.

I haven't written much about middle-grade and YA in this blog -- mainly because Tulip doesn't read them yet. But I am steadily amassing GoodWill 50 cent classics for her future library. I feel, as I think most parents do, an urgent desire for Tulip to read the books I read and loved as a child: The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, for example; All of a Kind Family; A Cricket in Times Square. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Pippi Longstocking. I could go on and on. It's all retro.

I do read middle grade and YA when something catches my fancy or when I need to do it for work. But my "need to share" feeling doesn't apply even to stellar works like The Canning Season or Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging -- both of which I love. The feeling only applies to books I read as a child. Lord knows, I don't want Tulip's childhood to replicate my own. Just the reading list, somehow.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

B&N Board Book Top Sellers 

I posted about Amazon's top-selling board books, earlier, so I decided to see if Barnes & Noble customers were buying the same ones. Here's the list as of today at 1:22 PM:

Toes, Ears & Nose, by Marion Bauer
Dr. Seuss's ABC
Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
There's a Wocket in My Pocket! by Dr. Seuss
A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Stevenson. On the bestseller list. Well, the board book bestseller list, anyhow.
And I thought the toddlers of America were being raised on Barney.

Jez Alborough: Hug & Ice Cream Bear 

Jez Alborough's "Hug" led me to check out his other books, and I find his output varies pretty widely. "Ice Cream Bear" couldn't be more confusing or pointless. In it, a polar bear doesn't fix a broken skylight in his house, and instead goes to sleep UNDER it (the fool) and dreams that it is snowing ice cream. In the dream he makes a big ice cream ball, which falls on him -- and then it turns out snow has fallen on him through the skylight. He puts on a rain coat, gets himself six tubs of ice cream, and eats them all, still sitting in the chair still underneath the broken skylight, because "work and pleasure can't be mixed."

What??! The idea of snowing ice cream is great and full of child appeal. But bear -- what a dingbat. Move the chair, you silly thing. Plus, he's a compulsive overeater. Are we supposed to identify with him? shake our heads at his behavior? are we meant to actually believe work and pleasure can't be mixed, when Mary Poppins singing "Spoon Full of Sugar" and Snow White singing "Whistle While You Work" tell us the opposite?

Alborough's "Duck in a Truck" -- I posted about it in Feb. 2004 -- has a similarly odd message.

"Ice Cream Bear" has a number of awkward locutions, because Alborough rhymes everything. "Bear should fix that broken pane (the skylight)/ it dribbles drops of snow and rain (but it's the arctic and I doubt there's any rain)". Or "He dreams of slipping out the back/to fetch himself an icy snack."

"Hug" is awesome, though. It's emotional. It's funny. There's a big problem and a big crisis, and a protagonist you can really adore.

There are also almost no words, so Alborough doesn't get all rhyme-y on us. A little gorilla (of ambiguous sex -- see the post below!) is meandering through the woods, checking out lots of animals embracing each other. "Hug!" she says, each time.

Eventually, she wants a hug herself, and a parent elephant, baby trailing behind, helps her search for one. They just encounter more animals hugging -- but no one to hug the little gorilla. Soon, all these other animals are following them, concerned: snakes, hippos, giraffes, lions. Finally, the gorilla breaks down, screaming "HUG!" Her mommy hears her, and rushes through the jungle. "Bobo!" she yells.

Mommy hugs Bobo, Bobo hugs the parent elephant, all the animals hug each other and it's just a jolly day. The end. Tulip learned the word "hug" from this book.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Ambiguous Gender 

Last post, I was talking about female protagonists in popular, merchandised series; now I want to bring up those books that feature characters of ambiguous sexuality: they could be boys -- or girls. The writer never indicates.

I was going to start with Jesse Bear, hero/heroine of Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? by Nancy Carlstrom, illus. Bruce Degan. There are a number of other Jesse Bear books, as well. Jesse has a pink rug, blue pajamas; he/she smells flowers, catches butterflies. A pink piece of clothing can be spotted in his/her drawer in the cover illustration; his/her toys are balls, trains, sandpails, stuffed animals.

I say I WAS going to start with Jesse Bear -- because now that I read the BACK FLAP copy, I learn that Jesse is a boy bear. And now that I look more carefully at Degan's picture of Jesse getting dressed, what appeared to be neutral blue & white underpants are in fact, Y-fronts.


Helen Oxenbury's babies -- stars of numerous board books for toddlers ("I Can" "Friends" "Working" etc.) -- are gender neutral. Emily Arnold McCully's mouse baby -- protagonist of "Picnic" and "School" -- could be a boy or a girl. Those are the only two I can think of that are popular enough to appear in several books. Email me if you think of others.

This may be corny, but I try to use "she" as my default pronoun when looking with Tulip at pictures of animals, or at characters whose sexes aren't defined by the text. Sometimes, I substitute "she" for "he" -- mainly in singing "Old MacDonald," which we do on a painfully regular basis. And know what? Tulip really does use "she" frequently as well. She does not assume that fire fighters, mail carriers, police officers, farmers, dinosaurs, rhinos, elephants, etc. are male. Nor that kittens and bunnies are female.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Maisy by Lucy Cousins, and female protagonists with viable merchandising tie-ins 

Of the mass-marketed book characters for toddler readers, I can think of only one female heroine who is really the center of the action: Maisy. That mouse is a dynamo. She's like Nancy Drew. She can garden, she can paint, she runs a farm; she drives a fire engine and a tractor; she bakes; she does home repair; plays guitar. Anything she tries her hand at, she's awesome. Never is Maisy insecure, or plagued by self-doubt; never is she unkind or regretful; she's just not a mouse with problems. So: she's not a complex girl, and her world is not a complex world; but she's a nice role model for Tulip, I think; I can't recall any other book for BABIES, nor any other series of popular books, that feature a female protagonist doing all that kind of stuff.

(Maisy is like Elmo in her lack of complexity. Elmo never has a crisis of identity, like Grover or Kermit. He never fails or gets depressed, like Big Bird. He's not misunderstood, like Oscar. He's just a little ball of sunshine, that Elmo.)

Of course, there are many popular female characters in books. But if we're just talking about characters for TODDLERS that are popular enough to be made into plush dolls and TV shows and spin-off products, the list ends with Maisy, I think. Oh -- I just remembered Miffy. But Miffy is so BLANK, I just never really got her. But yes, it's Miffy AND Maisy.

The other toddler book protagonists who have reached a similarly wide audience are male:
Winnie the Pooh(everyone's a boy but Kanga)
Max (yes, there's Ruby, but it's his name on the cover)
Clifford (yes, there's Emily Elizabeth, but it's his name on the cover)
Carl (yes, there's Madeline, but its his name on the cover)
Am I missing anyone?

For slightly older readers, I think Eloise, Angelina Ballerina and Olivia have all reached a nearly comparable level of media saturation. And yeah, Strawberry Shortcake and Dora the Explorer and other television characters show up in books for toddlers, as do those Disney Heroines. But it really does seem to me that boys are still dominating, even more in TV tie-ins than with character generated from books: Blue's Clues, Sesame Street, Barney, Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder; I'm not clear on the gender of those Teletubbies.

More next time on sexually ambiguous protagonists.

Note: Researching this post, I was interested to see that on Amazon's list of top-selling board books today, not a single TV tie-in title was in there. No Bob, no Sesame Street, nothing -- although any chain bookstore carries tons of these. And none of those top board books has a central marketable character, either. Top on the list is Where is Baby's Bellybutton? followed by Goodnight Moon; Brown Bear, Brown Bear; The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Guess how Much I Love You. That's a pretty quality list, in my opinion. Gives me some hope for the literary tastes of Tulip's generation.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

More on Click Clack Moo 

My friend M (father of a 3-year-old) read the recent post on Click Clack Moo and sent in this comment:

"r.e. Cows that Type, I've already ranted to you that it's a capitalist tool to suppress the oppressed: give the proletariats a voice and education (the typewriter) and you'll arm them to make demands and ultimately crush the ruling class. If Farmer Brown had taken the typewriter away, the enlightened workers would have continued in their mindless toil. It's like giving women the vote -- soon they'll want real equality, and the social fabric will be ripped to shreds! I mean, what do ducks need a diving board for anyway? The workers need to be told what they need!
The real question is, who's the protagonist in that story?  If it's Farmer Brown, then it's a union-busting yarn. If it's the cows, then it's a call for the workers to rise, comrade!"

In favor of M's argument: Cronin begins the book: "Farmer Brown has a problem. His cows like to type." -- which suggests that we are meant to identify wth the farmer's problem
On the other hand, in Lewin's pictures, the animals are much more appealing than the farmer. And there's certainly a victorious feeling when we see that last page with the diving board.

I did a web search to see if any of this stuff has been raised, but didn't immediately come up with anything. If anyone has seen it discussed in print, drop me an email!

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

We're All in the Dumps with Jack & Guy, by Maurice Sendak 

I don't know how I managed not to read this book for so long, especially given that Sendak talks about it at length in a number of his published interviews and essays.

It's so strange and sad. The story, as much as it can be told: Jack and Guy are two homeless toughs. A "poor little kid," homeless as well, begs them for help, but they tell him to get lost. The kid is then kidnapped (along with a truckload of kittens) by a bunch of rats; Jack and Guy make a futile attempt to win the kid back at a card game, but the rats just speed off with him anyhow. Then the moon kind of picks up J&G and drops them in a field behind an orphanage, where they find the poor little kid and the kittens. One of them wants to hit the little kid, but the other says, "No, let's buy him some bread," and then the moon turns into this big moon-mama-cat and chases away the rats, rescuing the remaining kittens inside the orphanage. There is free bread there, and the boys take it (they don't have to buy it after all). The moon-mama-cat turns back into the moon and gives the boys, the kid, and the kittens a ride, during which they nap. Then it gently deposits them back in their shanty-town, where J&G decide to bring up the kid "as other folks do."

I am not sure I like it. It is so sad. But it is also an incredibly brave and complex book, that forces readers to think metaphorically.

Tulip keeps saying "They going home? where their home?" and I have to say, "They have no home, it's a sad story because some people have no home and have to sleep outside. But it's happy because at the end they have each other, and they are going to be a family together."
She points to Jack and says, "He the mommy?"
"Um," I say.
"He the mommy and he the daddy," she says, pointing to each in turn.
I say, "It's kind of like that, but they're just two boys, and they're going to be a family together with the poor little kid. Some families don't have a mommy and a daddy, exactly, but they're still families."

And I wonder, maybe it would be better just to ask her what SHE thinks. Or to read the book without discussion and just let her absorb it however. Rather than feeling like I have to explain that the cat is the moon and the moon is the cat, and what homelessness is, and so forth. Or maybe it would be better not to read this one with a 2-year old.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illus. by Betsey Lewin 

We have been reading and watching the Scholastic/Weston Woods video of Doreen Cronin's Click,Clack, Moo: Cows that Type. The story is that these cows have discovered an old typewriter in the barn, which allows them to write messages to the farmer, although they can't actually speak. The cows demand electric blankets, because the barn is cold at night, and go on strike when he refuses them. They get the hens on board, too: "No milk, no eggs." Farmer Brown is furious, but eventually gives in when the cows agree to give up the typewriter -- only before he can get it back, the ducks get ahold of it and begin typing out their demands.

I don't expect that Tulip understands the political commentary, or even the concept of writing -- but she enjoys both the book and the movie, and I've explained to her that the cows want blankets and the farmer wants milk, and the cows say, "no milk until we get blankets." She nods.

But on the thirtieth viewing/reading, she says, "Farmer Brown, he want to type?"
She figures he wants a turn on the typewriter, and that's why he's so upset. After all, he does want to get the typewriter back from the cows, and is upset when the ducks get it. In her mind, it's the typewriter that looks like fun -- and this is a story about sharing.

(Actually, Farmer Brown has a typewriter of his own, which is clearly pictured. He's put the old one in the barn because he bought a new one; but in Tulip's mind, he just wants the one the cows are playing with.)

I just wonder: how can the cows type in English when the text explicitly says that they can only speak "Moo" and that the other animals in the barn don't even understand them? And how is it, then, that they get the hens on board with their strike?

And the ducks: what do they have to hold out with, against Farmer Brown? The cows can withhold their milk; the hens their eggs. But the ducks: they're really most likely there for meat. MAYBE their feathers, but I think they'd have to die for the farmer to get those, too. So although the ducks DO get a diving board at the end, it seems to me they really have no bargaining power.

It's a delightful book in many ways: I love how it leaves certain elements to the illustrations, and Betsey Lewin can't be beat for drawing farm animals. But to me, there's no rigor or real underlying logic to the fantasy -- and that's a problem. It all gets even more complicated in the sequel. I haven't yet read the third in the series: Duck for President. But it's in bookstores now, nicely timed for election year hoo-hah.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Leo Lionni 

I recently read Vivian Gussin Paley's The Girl With the Brown Crayon, which is the story of how Paley -- a pre-school teacher and MacArthur recipient -- spent a year with Leo Lionni's picture books as a major part of her curriculum, and details the way the children responded to his stories, and how their understanding deepened over time. Paley really did do an in-depth literary analysis, over the course of time, with these students; they dramatized scenes from the books, painted enormous posters of the characters, had group discussions, and compared the stories to one another.

The thing about Lionni is that he uses this rather overtly didactic tone, but sometimes the message is oblique. Or the message in one tale seems to almost contradict the message in another. For example (though this is not an example Paley uses), in A Color of His Own, a chameleon wishes to be just ONE color, and tries to stay on a leaf forever so he will always be green. Eventually, he has to accept that he's just a chameleon, and he'll always change color; but he CAN hang out with another chameleon and they can change color together. You get a similar message in Fish is Fish -- where the fish nearly dies when it wants to get out of the pond and see the world: accept who you are, Lionni seems to be saying, and don't have extravagant, impractical dreams.

But then -- look at Frederick. He's the field mouse who won't gather food for the winter, though he plans on eating the food his friends collect, because he's working on his poetry. In the long dark winter days when the food is scarce, Frederick helps his friends by reciting poems and painting vivid pictures for them of the warmth and colors of spring.
So here is a mouse who has huge, impractical ideas of who he is. If left alone, he'd die, just like the fish out of water. Only we are clearly meant to see Frederick as an artist -- initially misunderstood but later celebrated. He doesn't accept the basic situation of his life, the way the fish and the chameleon do.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Sendak at Thinking While Typing 

The blog Thinking While Typing has a lot of interesting material on Maurice Sendak today.
or the link in the sidebar.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom 

Nordstrom edited Sendak, Wise Brown, Zolotow, Crocket Johnson, Louise Fitzhugh -- everyone. Her letters (edited by Leonard Marcus) are just fascinating and also moving, somehow, to see behind the scenes as some timeless books are created. It also made me wish for those old days of publishing, when editors nurtured writers over years and years; Nordstrom really had faith in people.

Marcus is the only person I know of who's doing the kind of work he does. If you haven't read him, check him out. Ways of Telling is interviews with all these different picture book lions: Zolotow, James Marshall, Eric Carle, Helen Oxenbury, Rosemary Wells, etc. In Side by Side he looks at author/illustrator teams (though the text is relatively slight and the teams weren't exactly forthcoming with multiple drafts or the works, vitriolic emails they sent to each other etc. probably a product of the fact that they didn't ACTUALLY work that closely together, which is relatively normal these days in publishing. I wonder if it was different way back when...).

Side note: In the Annotated Charlotte's Web you get to see a lot of White's kibbitzing on Garth Williams's illustrations.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Good Writers Hitting the Mass Market 

I read recently (in Barbara Bader's American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within) about how when Little Golden Books started up in the 40s, they were making a brand of cheap books designed to be given and purchased often, almost like toys -- and they were hugely successful. But the publishers also hired Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny etc.) to write some stories for them: she did Bunny's Noisy Book with them, I think.

Anyway, my historical details may be off, but the point is, Brown wrote for Golden -- and Golden was smart enough to hire her.

I just bought a collection of 40 paperback animal books for about $23 on ebay, and there's a lot of junk mixed in with the good titles; there are more mass-market books in this pile than I've read in ages. And a number of them were apalling. I mean, really just shockingly pedestrian and dull and confusingly written and just generally bad.

Which leads me to my point. Picture book writers need money. It's a low-paying gig. I'm sure there are many excellent writers for young children who publish with houses like FSG or S&S or Chronicle who would still jump at the chance to write a series for a mass-market publisher for even a small advance. These houses should court these writers; even if the authors use pen names for the more mass-market stuff, it would be an incredible boon to the art of picture book-making if the standards of these inexpensive "toy" books went up. And a boon to some of the starving writers who are quietly winning awards and not racking up sales figures enough to pay their mortgages.

Allright, here's the book that inspired this rant. Patchez and the Soccer Surprise, by E.D. Willow, illustrated by Jim Kersell. The first half is about a panda and his monkey friend who want to play explorer, only it rains. So Patchez goes inside, and decides to explore indoors by dusting off an apparently unused old trunk underneath his bed. (This happens on page 10; they played outside for quite a long time). I think Patchez Panda is meant to serve as a literacy advocate, here, but it's clear he hasn't looked at his books for ages. Like maybe not ever.

He looks at the books and then starts reading one about soccer; suddenly, it's a magic story, and Patchez is transported into the game, which is being played by ordinary suburban children in uniforms. He learns to play soccer, and embedded in this section of the story is a lesson about practicing: he's no good at first, and tries several times before he successfully kicks the ball without falling down. Then he comes back to reality, and recommends reading to the audience. (Okay, I know the magic bit is meant to be a metaphor for his engrossment in the book, but it says things like :

"Just then, the air began to move. Everything began to whirl. The red and yellow uniforms seemed to give off sparks. Colors swirled all around. "Oh, no, Patchez said with a giggle. "Here I go again!"

Really, if we need a soccer panda story, I am certain there are many really high quality picture book writers who would gladly do one for hire. Perhaps there are economic elements to this kind of book that I don't understand. Maybe they are written in-house, by editors, or something. But kids who want to read sports stories, or stories about pandas, shouldn't have to read crap.

P.S. If you're interested in the Little Golden Books, read the February 2004 archives for an extended post on them, in particular on Baby Brown Bear's Big Bellyache, which Tulip and I read while waiting the apparently requisite 90 minutes in the doctor's office.

P.P.S. Since I've been so cranky about the bad books in my ebay motherload, let me name a few of the lovely ones:

Five Minutes Peace, by Jill Murphy
Pigsty, by Mark Teague
The Dumb Bunnies, by Sue Denim, illustrated by Dav Pilkey
Green Wilma, by Tedd Arnold
It's Mine! By Leo Leonni
Dogs Don't Wear Sneakers, by Laura Numeroff, illus. by Joe Mathieu

P.P.P.S What's Tulip doing while I write this? Watching TV with her dad. Sigh.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Getting to Know You -- Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rosemary Wells 

I do so love this book, which is a compliation of Rodgers & Hammerstein lyrics with pictures by Rosemary Wells. The illustrator's work seems more careful here than it does in the Opie collections, where some pages are great and others seem haphazard and devoid of emotion. It is a uniformly joyous collection -- and this morning Tulip and I sat down first thing, her with a bowl of apples and smoked salmon, me with a mug of coffee, and sang "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" together. And then "Getting to Know You" and "Happy Talk" and several others.

I particularly like a couple of boyfriend/girlfriend guinea pigs in the pictures. First, we see them on vacation in "Happy Talk," playing ukelele and wearing sunglasses and comical bathing costumes. Later, we see her washing her hair (top fur) in "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" -- and the last picture shows that she's actually been getting ready for a date -- and he comes zooming by to pick her up on his motorcycle.

The humor of this is lost on Tulip. She keeps asking if they are mommy and baby, and I have difficulty explaining that I think they are romantically involved, and why I think this. But who cares. Anyone who knows these old songs and likes to sing should have this book.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Alphabet Books 

There is such a proliferation of alphabet books out there, and I wonder indeed if they actually teach the alphabet at all. For example, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin, is a pleasant little book with a good rhythm -- but I'd think it would only serve to confirm and celebrate mastery of the alphabet for a literate child. It doesn't seem like it could serve well as a teaching tool. Likewise, a book by Chris Van Allsburg called The Z Was Zapped is gorgeous and entertaining, but many of the letters are so obscured they certainly wouldn't function to teach the alphabet to anyone who was just learning it.

Alphabet books seem to have become a category of children's books on their own, independent of the educational agenda that one might think they'd have. It's funny, since it's actually a very awkward form, given the problems posed (what to do with X? how to accomodate the enforced rhythm of the alphabet, how to deal with the letters that make different sounds than then seem like they would, or those that have two different sounds? etc.).

more on Van Allsburg, who is author of Jumanji and The Polar Express, among others:

more on Bill Martin, author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? and others:

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Which Dr. Seuss Character are You? 

I am the Lorax
You are the Lorax!

Which Dr. Seuss Character Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

I was not surprised to learn I am the Lorax, although I have a distinct fondness for the pants with nobody inside them.

Follow Carl! by Alexandra Day 

The idea behind Alexandra Day's Carl books is captivating: a child's mother leaves her with the family Rottweiler as a babysiter, and the dog Carl takes the child (Madeleine) on all kinds of adventures, returning at the end, just before the mother does -- so the mother is never the wiser.

The dog is exceptionally charming, and there are lots of pictures in the Carl books that just make me smile: Carl eating a popsicle (Carl's Masquerade) for example.

But just to be snarky, I wish Day had a more aggresive editor or a stronger storytelling sense. For example, Madeleine gets a little bit older with every story, but when I got to the cover of Follow Carl! it shows a 5-year old kid with long black braids chasing after Carl. Last time I saw this character she was about 2 and blond.

I said to Tulip, "Look, Tulip! Madeleine has grown up SO much! What a big girl she is now!"
Tulip said: "That Madeleine?"
"Yes! Look how big she is and how long her hair is now."
"She Madeleine?"
"Yes, see? she's following Carl."

Well, it's not Madeleine. Madeleine looks the same as ever. They just put some OTHER child, who figures only incidentally in the story, on the cover.

Maybe this cover is well-thought out from some perspective I'm missing, but to me and Tulip it was just confusing and almost upsetting. Carl and Madeleine are together - that's the point of these stories. I've got no interest in a Carl story about Carl with other children -- and in fact, that is what Follow Carl! turns out to be. M&C go down for a nap, but then a group of older kids appear at the window and invite Carl (not Madeleine) out to play Follow the Leader. He goes, with M on his back. The pictures are fun -- they show a group of children imitating Carl all around the neighborhood -- but gone is the fundamental appeal of the stories: baby and Carl have a secret, a special life that only the two of them know about. Madeleine is too little even to join in the follow-the-leader game, so she's very much on the margins here, and as readers we've got nobody to identify with.

The ending also tweaks the formula that Day uses in the other stories -- the mother finds ALL the kids lying on the floor of M's room, imitating Carl, who has gone back to taking a nap. So in this story, unlike all the rest, the mother knows what's up. So the secret is lost twice: once because the other children share Carl, and once because the mother learns about the adventures.

So disappointing.

trivia bit: Alexandra Day is a pseudonym.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Great Books for Girls, by Kathleen Odean 

I'm reading Great Books for Girls, by Kathleen Odean, who was Chair of the 2002 Newbery Award committee. She feels so passionately that books provide children with a sense of what is possible, and that it is essential for young girls to have books with girl heroines.
It made me remember how, as early as the age of five, I was a BOY in almost all my fantasies. I was Peter Pan, I was Curdie in The Princess and the Goblin, I was generally a boy because that was how I imagined having adventures. When I was a bit older, maybe 8, I still played the boy parts in all the little dramatizations of books I did with my friends -- we acted out Narnia stories and Peter Pan and Pippi Longstocking. But I had a bit more of a girl adventure vocabulary by then, thanks to Caddie Woodlawn and the Little House books, and Pippi -- so I spent some time pretending to be female characters as well. One year, all my friends and I were Pippi Longstocking for Halloween.
In teaching my class on Writing for Children, I really do notice that my students create male characters by default. Probably 80% of the characters they write are boys. Usually animals with alliterative names: Tommy Turtle, Freddie Fish, Bobby Bunny. I wonder where this tendency comes from (the names). I certainly see it only very rarely in actual picture books.

Friday, March 05, 2004

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? by Jane Yolen 

I'm very fond of this book, which manages to be didactic and witty at the same time; and Mark Teague, who did the illustrations, is awesome. The gist of it is this: "How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?" do they whine, mope, complain etc? (the pictures show dinosaurs doing all of these things, much to the exasperation of their human parents). No, dinosaurs don't; they don't even try. THey give a big kiss, and turn out the light, etc.

But I want to comment on the Weston Woods/Scholastic video, which obviously took a lot of work and re-conceptualizing of the book; it shows explicitly that the dinosaurs are human children imagining themselves as dinosaurs. We see the kids as people, then as dinosaurs, then as people again. To my mind, this dilutes the magic of the story, which forces us to just accept that this ordinary man and woman are the parents of a T-Rex. It also creates a rather complicated conceptual framework where none existed before; Tulip keeps asking me, where the girl go? where the dinosaur go? when they transform. I have to keep explaining that they are pretending, and we can see the thing they are pretending. But if they are pretending, the parents' reactions are not nearly so funny as they are when we see the mother rolling her eyes at some enormous beastie, or the father shrugging his shoulders at the stubborn behavior of the Tyrannosaurus.

The video does include GIRLS being dinosaurs as well as boys, though. Which is a big improvement, since the one thing I dislike about the text is how it makes every difficult child and every big exciting dinosaur into a boy.

Yolen explains the genesis of this book:

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Time for Bed, by Mem Fox, illustrations by Jane Dyer 

This book is a classic, I know, but it just infuriates me. The text does, that is.
Half the time, it uses the terms for baby animals: "time to sleep little calf, little calf, what happened today that made you laugh?"
and the rest of the time it doesn't: "time to sleep, little sheep little sheep" and "little cat little cat" even though lambs and kittens are probably the very first baby animal names many children know --
so it's very inconsistent.
So in reading to an inquisitive child, you end up explaining about foals and calves, but then having to explain why the writer didn't seem to know a baby sheep was called a lamb.

In addition, Fox's narrator says to the little fish, "hold your breath" -- which is nuts, because fish don't breathe in such a way that they can hold their breath. Oh, and many of the rhymes are false, and I don't really understand why the mother horse would whisper a secret but don't tell a soul as part of her bedtime ritual.

Every Picture Tells a Story 

Since I posted about Storyopolis I've been wasting time shopping for the work of illustrators I can't afford. The other site to do this on is -- which is the gallery "Every Picture Tells a Story."

Stuff I want (illustrations by Bernard Waber; Mark Teague; Rosemary Wells; Edward Gorey; Pierre Pratt; Alexandra Day; etc. etc. etc.) is upwards of a thousand dollars. But it's fun to dream.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

A Treasury of Children's Songs -- Metropolitan Museum of Art/She'll Be Comin' Around the Mountain 

Tulip and I have been reading a lot of songbooks. The one named above -- and a collection called I Hear America Singing! especially. I end up singing for like half an hour at a time, which is pretty fun actually, since no one ELSE wants to hear me sing, ever.
But I want to write about this urge I have to sugar-coat some of the songs. Go Tell Aunt Rhody (The old gray goose is dead) for example; or Clementine -- which is all about how Clementine drowns. Now it's obvious that millions of children have grown up with these songs and not suffered serious damage, and poor Tulip will certainly suffer if she's the only one in nursery school singing "Go tell Aunt Rhody, I love that old gray goose!" or some other twaddle I make up. And a lot of times she doesn't seem concerned with what the song means anyway -- she's just listening to how it sounds. But still, I have that urge.

I leave out "oh, we'll kill the old red rooster when she comes!" in She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain. I feel bad for the rooster, but it also seems just creepy to be super happy about killing something. Also, why would they be particularly excited about killing the OLD rooster, which couldn't possibly be the best-tasting animal around? Roosters make good soup and good coq au vin, but they're not generally good eating. So that whole song confuses me; even more so because one of my books says it's about a TRAIN, and the "driving six white horses" is about horsepower. But that does little to explain "she'll be wearin' red pajamas when she comes!"
Although if there is a train-oriented explanation for the red pajamas, I'd also be relieved, since I have been puzzling about why the woman is driving a team of white horses while wearing her PJs.
Tulip just likes the song. Especially while she's bouncing on a bouncy turtle at our local playground.

Hondo & Fabian by Peter McCarty 

I just love this book. Almost nothing happens. Hondo is a dog and Fabian is a cat and they just live their lives, interested in food, largely. I have been teaching my students (in the Writing for Children class) about PLOT and how to construct it, but McCarty isn't really worried about that at all -- though of course the text is highly structured. It's almost a boring book, only it isn't. Which is a marvel.

McCarty has no website that I found, but the link below is to the work he sells at Storyopolis, which is a place to buy original artwork by picture book artists and a website I visit rarely because it just makes me mad I'm not rich.

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