The Penderwicks at Last

Dear Fellow Lovers of Good Books, I have sad and happy news.

Sadly, the Penderwicks series (previously discussed here) has come to an end. In happy news, that ending is lovable, perfect, and filled with a joy you can clasp right close to you and never let go.

The characters aren’t gone and finished and done with: Jeanne Birdsall is too wise an author to end her books with utmost finality. I don’t mean to say she leaves room for the novels to continue (she sounds pretty final on that point, probably a wise choice), but that the ending doesn’t feel like a pat “happily ever after.” Rather, it’s left with musings over what’s going to happen next– and, best of all, what happens next is up to your imagination.

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I’m writing ever so briefly about this for two reasons: a) My previous post says pretty much everything that I need to say about how wonderful these books are, so I don’t need to go on at length, but b) I do want to remind you of this series, let you know that it continues beautifully to the very end, and, really, encourage you to give it a shot.

What can you expect from this series as a whole? I’d say what you get is affirmation. Perhaps another word, maybe a better one, is reassurance. People aren’t really all that bad, you come away thinking. Even when someone is all that bad, they’re so outnumbered by the tight loving-kindness of a basically good family that the selfishness or nastiness is completely counter-balanced. Negativity can never win.

I’m struggling here not to give away any of the plot twists, but I’ll say that even the Penderwicks aren’t perfect. The children overstep, they come up with plans which are less than totally advisable, and yet the basic decency underlying everything their family has to offer results in teachable moments rather than leading to descents into harrowing negativity. Even the harshest moments are handled so deftly and sensitively by Jeanne Birdsall that negativity never really gets a grip on the story. And in an era of the grim and the gritty, I appreciate this reassuring, life-affirming sort of text.

So, yes, I encourage you to go forth and read! Read about the Penderwicks and your life will be just a little stauncher, a little more committed to life and beauty and music. Enjoy it– I know I did!

And, because I can’t resist: yes, I went to Jeanne Birdsall’s event and signing hosted by the Children’s Book Shop (I’m so glad I live near there now!). And, dork that I am, I got my picture taken with her. It’s terribly unflattering of both of us, but I don’t care. Here’s evidence that I met and spoke with Jeanne Birdsall, author of the Penderwicks. I couldn’t be happier, so who cares about whatever the hell’s going on with my chin(s???) and hair!

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Jeanne Birdsall? Thank you for writing. I hope that you continue to write with joy, sensitivity, and hope. I love your books, and will read them all, forever. I can’t wait until my Changeling is old enough to read them with me.

The rest of you? Really, I don’t know what else I can say. Go forth and read!

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SWAN revisited

Hi! I don’t have a long post for you today, or even a new book. Frankly, I’m just having trouble switching my brain from “moving into a new house” to “writing a dissertation” mode, and I need your help to get my writing muscles moving. Also, I’m just so excited about the book I just bought– even though I’ve bought it, oh, about a thousand times so far.

Which book? Swan, by Laurel Snyder. (Chronicle Books link, which is great, they have excellent service,  but I got mine through my beloved Children’s Book Shop.)

Swan

It’s a book which is precious to me for several reasons, and I just wanted to share those reasons with you:

  • First of all, it’s the first book I wrote about on this blog: Swan. I hate reading over my own writing– I’m always convinced that it’s going to have turned into a rotting slag heap of compost since the last time I looked at it– but here I have to say two things: 1) I still agree with myself: it’s a book which elicits a lot of emotion in adults as well as children; 2) I feel like the start of blogging here was good for me, and I’m glad that I started with such a great book.
  • I didn’t mention this back in my old entry, but I love ballet. The Changeling started ballet lessons this past year, and she loves it, too. She loves watching it, reading about it, dancing it– it’s become a point of bonding between us, and that makes me happy. This book is part of that bonding, and that means it feels somehow intimate to me, even though I’ve shared it with about a million other people in the past couple of years.
  • The book isn’t just about ballet or talent or genius or hard work: it’s about leaving the world a better and more beautiful place– which is precisely what this book does, incidentally.

The reason I revisited this book was because my Changeling is just finishing up her year’s ballet lessons, and I thought it would be nice to give her teacher a copy. I still think so. We love Miss Rachel, and she’s turned my Changeling into a happy little dancer. I think Swan is going to make her happy, too. Chronicle Books? You done good, and the pairing of Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad was absolutely perfect.

Saturdays Again

I have been writing my fingers off for hours, dear Readers, but I’m so pepped up on adrenaline left over from my dissertation that I decided I’d have a chat with you this morning!

First things first, my thanks to those of you who wrote to me about my brainstorming post: the Changeling and I are having an absolute ball and I look forward to trying out some of your suggestions once we’re settled in our new place and have, you know, bookcases again. In the meantime we’re making do with those books which aren’t yet packed: she reads This Is Not My Hat to me, and I read The Little Bookroom to her (my sneaky way of getting some Eleanor Farjeon into my life after all). It’s so wonderful to share the reading: I’d anticipated that it would be fun, but I had no idea it would feel so special.

What this means, though, is that most of what I read with the Changeling right now is pretty repetitive– mostly books I’ve already written about here, or ones like This Is Not My Hat, which are already pretty well-known. (You know it, right? It’s a fun one. Highly recommended, especially when read aloud by a charming Changeling of your own.) I’m looking forward to sharing more picture books with you soon, but right now, as we prepare to move, well… how about some more Saturday books?

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The first book I want to share is not new, but is new to me. Somehow I grew up without reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I can still see the exact place on my mother’s bookshelf where this book sat: I remember the spine and everything. And it has “witch” in the title, and that’s a word which would have attracted my notice, and, basically, I cannot explain what ridiculous turn of events prevented me from reading a book that was right there and did everything it could to attract me. I just don’t know.

Then the owner of The Children’s Book Shop mentioned it to me and my mind flew right back to that spot on my mother’s shelves, and next thing I knew I was wandering along beside the Changeling over Passover with the book in my pocket, ready to read it while she played at the park.

Fellow readers, this is a book I wish I’d read as a teenager or pre-teen, so if you have a pre-teen or teenager in your life, do try to ensure that a copy is hanging around where they might see it.

This is not a “suspense!” type of book so I’m not worried about spoiling the plot. It’s the kind of book where the how it happens supersedes the what happens. So, be warned, if you’re the kind of reader who really likes to discover the what happens without having the least detail spoiled: I am planning to spoil some bits of the plot below. For you, I’ll just say that this book is about home and belonging and how you get there. For the rest of you, let’s dive in a bit more deeply.

Ready? OK.

Kit Tyler is a sixteen-year-old girl who grew up in her literate, wealthy grandfather’s home in Barbados in the late seventeenth century. When her beloved grandfather dies, circumstances force her to rush without any warning to her aunt’s home in a Puritan settlement in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Think of it as a change in hue– and, indeed, Elizabeth George Speare certainly emphasizes that sensory experience: Barbados is bright, it is warm, it is jewel tones; Wethersfield is dark, it is cold, it is all natural hues. Barbados is silk, Wethersfield is wool.

Which is better?

This is a question Kit has to answer for herself. In Wethersfield, she has, initially, enormous difficulty fitting in. Her impulsive, independent nature, nurtured by her highly educated grandfather who taught her to read literature, is utterly out of place in stern Wethersfield where the highest virtue is obedience and the only book to read is the Bible. Kit gradually fits herself in, but she just can’t get the hang of obedience in the face of what she considers the right thing to do: befriending a taboo Quaker woman and teaching a neglected child to read. This brings her into high trouble… and, ultimately, out of it. Rather than squashing herself to fit in, she learns to absorb the virtues of Wethersfield and the beauty of Barbados in equal parts, and, thus, makes two homes for herself without in any fashion compromising her own identity.

Get why I wanted this when I was sixteen? I’ll bet you do! Let’s make a pact to keep this available to every sixteen-year-old child who may need its lessons: Don’t change who you are, but also don’t dismiss every new experience out of hand. Adaptability, I think in hindsight, is the key to adolescence, and that’s what Kit Tyler has to teach us.

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The next book I want to tell you about is a debut novel, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by one insanely talented Jessica Townsend. (Hey, Jessica? All of those expletives I muttered as I read your basically-perfect first novel? Please don’t take them personally! You’re amazing, and I’m just a tad bit jealous of your extraordinary level of skill for a first novel!!!)

Nevermoor is as different from The Witch of Blackbird Pond as you can get– at first glance, at least. Blackbird Pond is history and realism, Nevermoor is fantasy and whimsy. Blackbird Pond is stern and ruthlessly structured, Nevermoor is giddy and sprawling. Blackbird Pond is short, Nevermoor is nearly twice as long.

And yet…

Nevermoor may be fantasy, full of magic and fun, whimsical and sprawling in nature, and quite long, but let’s talk about that a little. A book like Blackbird Pond wears its heart and structure on its sleeve; Nevermoor? Not so much. So I want to posit that it is, despite being a whimsical fantasy novel– realistic! It is also masterfully structured in its own sense, following a very careful narrative arc. Finally, it may be longer than Blackbird Pond— I mean, it is, that’s not up for debate, the page count is 480 while Blackbird Pond is 249– but it doesn’t feel long. It’s still pretty tight (there’s that structure at work) and I’d be hard pressed to point to a chapter or other section and say, “Cut this.”

I’m going on about this for two reasons: I’m frankly fed up with reading opinion pieces or otherwise talking to folks about a fantasy novel (or sci fi, horror, or other genre) and having them sort of pat them on the head: “Yes, I’m sure it was entertaining and good… for a fantasy novel.” Hear me now, loud and clear: FANTASY DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT GOOD. This here? It’s a first novel by a skilled novelist who, I’ll bet you anything, is just going to get better at her craft, and she knows what she’s doing. It’s good stuff, and deserves the accolades it got from Publisher’s Weekly and lots of other notable places. So, even though it’s apples to oranges, yes, I’m comparing it to Blackbird Pond. And I mean it, too.

Oh– the second reason I’m talking about structure, voice, length, etc? Unlike in the case of Blackbird Pond, I’m really leery of spoiling the plot for you.

So, then, let’s talk about the elements that go to make Nevermoor, in its own way, quite as skilled as a classic like Blackbird Pond. (Note: I said skilled, not “as good as” or “you’re wrong if you don’t like it” or anything else implying a moral issue here: just that it’s well-structured and should be up for as much serious discussion as a realist classic of children’s lit. Your personal taste is your own, however, and up to you.)

I started by talking about realism. You may think that, because Nevermoor is fantasy, that it’s not grounded in realistic characteristics of life lived: Kit Tyler faced real life issues in Barbados which caused her to make her way to Connecticut, where she faced more realistic life issues. What about Morrigan, the female protagonist of Nevermoor? She was born at a cursed time and is therefore believed to carry a curse by her community and her family. Not so realistic. Except–

Well, remember that Kit Tyler is earmarked as “different” with her bright clothing, swimming skills, and impulsive nature? She’s marked out and doesn’t fit in and doesn’t know how to handle that situation. Morrigan is marked out, can have no friends (she’s cursed) or place in her community (that curse again) and doesn’t even fit in with her own family (her father resents her curse for making life difficult for him, for example). Until, that is, she makes her own big trip to a place where– well I won’t give away the plot, but, trust me, there’s something very real and human about her seeking her own tribe, as it were, and slowly finding people and creatures who seem to understand her– as well as discovering that nowhere and no one is perfect.

Thus much for “realism” and “fantasy,” but I think we need to talk a bit about structure and length now.

On the one hand, I’ve noticed books creeping longer in length over the past while– I’m not going to call out ones that felt long to me, but I think it’s generally the case that the books which have survived to be classics (Blackbird Pond, Alan Garner, The Perilous Gard, I could go on) dwell in the area of 250 pages, give or take. More recent books, especially perhaps fantasy?, are creeping up towards 450 pages. Think of the Harry Potter books, which started fairly short and crept up towards– what was Order of the Phoenix? Over 500 pages? And maybe that one was a bit longer than necessary? It’s hard for me to say anything negative about those books, though– they were so formative for me and I remember the thrilling wait for each one as it emerged from J. K. Rowling’s brain into my hands in book form… I feel a bit sorry for the Changeling, who will get to plow through them all straight away without waiting in line at midnight for each book to come out!

My point is: I think longer books are becoming more acceptable in MG fiction, and I don’t know that this is entirely a bad thing. On the one hand, oh, those deliciously concise books where every word is weighed in the balance and only placed if truly necessary! On the other hand– Cat Valente, anyone? The Glass Town Game was pretty damned good, with its long sentences, plot rising like dough in a warm spot in your kitchen, and generally fabulous characters. So, I’d say it all comes down to the skill of the author (and the keen eye and ear of the editors)– is this a book which can comfortably occupy 400+ pages, or is it better pared down a little? Is this a style which would work better in a concise format or with rolling, delicious prose? That is, I trust Cat Valente to use every page well, but other authors work better in a tight, succinct format (I can’t imagine Alan Garner writing a longer text, for example: he’s so good at keeping it trimmed down and elegant).

I’ll admit: the length of Nevermoor did truly give me pause initially, not because I’m afraid of long books (one of my all-time favourites being Tom Jones, so, you know, I’m used to lengthy reads), but because of my Saturday constraints. I didn’t want to embark on a long read, get totally hooked, and have to either: a) sneakily read it during the week when I should be working, or b) actually have to wait a week to find out what the [expletive] HAPPENS!!! (Yeah, I was one of the kids who got the latest Harry Potter book at midnight and started reading it while walking home from the bookstore. Instant gratification takes too long.)

I’m so glad I fell down hard and read this anyway. It turns out to be a great balance of suspense and well-crafted writing which it was a pleasure to savour. I read it all over two Saturdays and enjoyed the week-long break in between. I simply thought about Morrigan Crow on occasion, wondering, “What will happen next?” and “I wonder if Plot Point X is going to come back?” I was into it, but it wasn’t torture to be made to wait a while. It was like eating half a slice of a really good pie, and then being called to a conversation with a charming friend before you can finish– you really want the rest of that pie, but no one’s life is in danger if you wait to get back to it. Maybe I’d have felt differently ten years ago, but speaking from the ripe old age of 31*, I enjoyed the slight suspense without being totally immersed in concerns for Morrigan. Frankly, I think this had a lot to do with character design: I trusted Morrigan to get through anything.

So, folks, there you go. Two splendid books, both well-written, both with engaging characters and lessons about persistence and adaptability, both carrying you along with a narrative which was imaginative while at the same time being grounded in excellent characters with real-life applications. And both being exactly the length that was right for them.

*This reminds me that I never shared my wonderful birthday gifts from my charming husband. I suspect you’d enjoy them, but that will have to wait until we move.

Eleanor Farjeon

Dear Readers:

I’m going to be in and out even more erratically than usual up until the end of August, which is when my dissertation writing has to be finished. You’ll find me here when one or more of three things occurs (I’m a Celticist; we work by threes):

a) I stumble across something I just have to share with you;

b) I have a question or a job for you;

c) I need to stretch my writing muscles before going back to my meat and potatoes writing.

Today? Well, there’s a bit of all three at work here I suppose! a) I want to draw your attention back to an author I’ve written about before (although never entirely to my own satisfaction– I just don’t seem to be able to capture her brilliance as well as I’d like); b) I have a job for you; c) I’m working towards a deadline and my words aren’t flowing as well as I’d like, so I thought a brief post here might get those muscles moving.

So. Eleanor Farjeon.

She’s come to mind, I know, because I’ve had the delight of reading a few stories from The Little Bookroom to the Changeling lately. I thought she was too young for them still, but, to my utter surprise and joy, she doesn’t seem to have noticed she’s too young for them, and has asked me to read them to her again and again. And dear God above, these are stories meant to be read aloud! They sing and dance on the tongue! I’m in heaven.

But the thing about Eleanor Farjeon is that she’s addictive; now that I’ve been reading her stories to my Changeling, I’m absolutely craving Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard. Usually early spring is all about The Secret Garden for me, and I save Martin Pippin for the fall, but, well, a) The Secret Garden is in a box somewhere; and b) see above re: addiction to Eleanor Farjeon.

But I can’t read Martin Pippin yet– not until Saturday roles around, at the very least, and, I suspect… maybe not even then. I’m just working towards deadlines now. Which is where b) comes into the picture: Dear Book-Lovers, will you do me the very great kindness of somehow procuring some Eleanor Farjeon, especially Martin Pippin, and giving it a read? She’s undervalued, under-read, underappreciated, and one of the finest writers who has ever trod this beautiful, complicated, messy planet of ours, and she deserves to have more readers. I can’t take the time right now, but maybe you can. Check your libraries, or AbeBooks, or wherever you like, and delight yourself with her exquisite words. Then come back here and tell me your thoughts: either in the comments, or just write to me! deborah@childrensbookroom.com

Let’s celebrate Eleanor Farjeon and let’s read good stories. Your comments will give me a smile while I write, and you’ll be keeping Eleanor Farjeon’s name alive. So: Go forth and read while I sit here and write!

(And wish me luck with this deadline!)

Early reading brainstorming!

Hi, folks! Two posts so close together? What miracle is this???

Here’s the terrifying truth: the Changeling, my darling little baby girl, is heading rapidly towards age 5 and with equal rapidity towards reading on her own. Right now I can’t tell exactly how well she’s reading as opposed to how much she has memorized, but, well, she can decipher my handwriting with disturbing ease, so I’m forced to conclude that she really can read pretty well by now. This means that some old favourites, such as her old beaten up, chewed on Sandra Boynton board books, have resurfaced since she enjoys reading the simple text.

But both she and I would prefer a bit more variety and, shall we say, complexity in the story and characters. Once again, some old favourites come to our rescue: Swap!, for example, is as engaging as it ever was, but the simplicity of the text makes it perfect for the Changeling to read aloud at bedtimes. Where the Wild Things Are is another beloved book enjoying a renaissance, and, of course, there’s the simple process of reading anything at all aloud and allowing the Changeling to burst in with whichever words she can read on the page– Shirley Hughes is brilliant for that since her stories are engaging but her diction isn’t particularly complex. Or Frog and Toad, with its wonderful characters and pared down text.

But, frankly, I could use more books. I’m getting a little bored.

(Don’t tell my husband I said that. He might blow a gasket and/or point to all of the boxes in the basement waiting for our move.)

I want more books, though: I want ones with simple text, beautiful pictures, and mind-blowing stories and characters. I want new books which the Changeling hasn’t already memorized. I want good rhythm to it (whether or not it’s poetry it should be beautiful to read aloud) and I want a certain level of sophistication to the design.

Also, cats and ballet are good. The Changeling goes for anything to do with cats and ballet these days.

So I turn to you, oh Internet and Blog Readers! What books did you read with your little ones when they were starting to explore literature on their own terms?

And another, related, question: When did you start reading beyond picture books with your children? I’m dying to introduce the Changeling to Eleanor Farjeon and Arthur Rackham and Joseph Jacobs and Andrew Lang, but I also don’t want to start before she’s ready and bore her or, worse, turn her off. (When can I read her The Cat Who Walked by Himself?)

So, please, tell us your stories! What did your kids love to read on their own? What did you love to read to them, and when? If you’d prefer to email me rather than comment here, my email address is deborah@childrensbookroom.com. Tell me what books to buy! I’m ready and waiting.

More Saturday Books

I wrote a while ago about Saturdays and what they mean for me. And what they mean (in part!) is getting to read light fiction, mostly MG novels. (I mean, I can’t take notes or write on Shabbat so reading academic stuff in a useful fashion isn’t really possible.)

Do you know what? I’m going to be up front about this: I often go around feeling like a failure, and my reading is part of this. I could do more academic reading. I could read “better” books. I’ve never in my life read anything by V. S. Naipaul– how can I be considered literate and intelligent if I’ve never read V. S. Naipaul, I ask myself. Am I just lazy? Unintelligent? In short, I never think I’m doing enough and I’m consistently ashamed of myself for this. (I’ve spoken to other grad students, so I know I’m not alone in this.)

So, along come these Saturdays, designated as days for rest reading , and my husband is reading Proust and I read MG fiction. Well, my self-esteem takes a real hit: I’m not reading academic prose because my memory’s gone down the drain since I had the Changeling, and I’m not reading V. S. Naipaul because apparently I’m convinced that I’m stupid, so what am I reading?

Let’s get to a place of no shame, an answer which gets to the heart of things. That answer? I’m reading some damned fine fiction which shines a light on some of the most important questions we, as humans, face, if I do say so myself (read that in a defiant tone of voice). And I think it’s worth sharing with you. Please read on to find some intelligent, thoughtful, fun reads which, well, are really damned good, no matter which age they’re aimed at.

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Let’s start with Hilary McKay. Saffy’s Angel and its sequels came as something of a revelation to me. I hadn’t really thought about what we might call “family stories” in a long time– I remember enjoying stories such as Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, but most of the MG fiction I’ve been reading in the past several years has come from different angles: adventure stories, Gothic horror, tales of mystery and magic… not the plain old down-to-earth story of a family going about its business.

But to call the Cassons in Saffy’s Angel “plain old” and “down-to-earth” is to wildly misrepresent them. Who are the Cassons? The Cassons are an eccentric, artistic, and slightly loopy family living a short train ride from London. In fact, Bill Casson, husband and father of the family, spends much of his time in his London studio apartment, where he creates Real Art. He is very proud of his Art, particularly as compared with his wife Eve’s paintings, which he considers “not exactly Art.” Oddly, despite this infuriating attitude, Bill Casson manages to have some endearing characteristics (he is, ultimately, devoted to his family), and, refreshingly, he is challenged by his own children (both in terms of his art and his way of participating in the family), and, of course, by the flow of the narrative.

While the parents are fully fleshed characters in their own rights (a nice contrast to how often parents are pretty one-dimensional in “family books”), the real emphasis of the books, however, is on the children. The first book, Saffy’s Angel, opens with Saffy (Saffron) Casson discovering that she was adopted. Eve Casson is not her mother, but her aunt, and her mother, Linda, had died when little Saffy was only three years old, and since then she was raised by Eve and Bill along with their own children. I won’t spoil the plot, which extends throughout the series, but you can imagine the fallout: Saffy begins to question her place in the family and in the world she’s always known. Along the way she makes friends with spunky Sarah, and finds her “siblings” warmer and more caring than she had, perhaps, suspected. Her development through the book, and, in fact, the series, is realistic without being dark and gritty, and consistently intelligent and believable.

Perhaps Hilary McKay’s strongest skill (and she is immensely skillful) is in creating a whole cast of strong, realistic, flawed but lovable characters. As the series progresses, these characters grow; little details from Saffy’s Angel onward are brought forward, developed, and given whole new roles to play. For example, Rose Casson holds a fairly mid-level role in Saffy’s Angel, but little hints of who she is are planted in that book: her artistic skills, her unconventional ways of seeing the world, her distrust of her father– all of these elements are small points in Saffy’s Angel, but are picked up on in the later books and brought to full fruition. And she’s not the only one. In short, we really get the sense that Hilary McKay knows these characters, and her deft handling of them gives the full series a strong sense of cohesion– it grows and fleshes itself out without ever feeling disjointed. (A skill I strongly envy as I begin to think about how to bring my dissertation to a cohesive whole!)

To sum up: this is a family story, but not your run-of-the-mill Happy Family story. Everyone is explored fully. Each character is created in full detail and each detail matters. And while the stories don’t play down the more complicated aspects of messy family relationships, ultimately it comes back to a place of warmth, love, and mutual respect.

Next up? The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.

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Dear readers, this is yet another family-based set of novels, perhaps more reminiscent of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit than of Sydney Taylor– or maybe the comparison I’m looking for is to Louisa May Alcott. What I want you to expect is the feeling of children comfortably settled in a warm, loving home, but getting up to well-meaning antics as they go along.

The Penderwicks are each very distinctive, and all very lovable: they have a remarkable sense of family pride and honour, and they all have strong, loving bonds as a family. And yet they’re not faultless, not infallible, and not so prissy they’re boring or insufferable to read. Let me introduce you to them:

  • The father, Martin Penderwick, is a loving, caring, but slightly absentminded father. He’s a botanist with a tendency to slip into Latin at odd moments. (I love that about him.)
  • The eldest sister, Rosalind, is serious-minded and very reliable and maternal. After the death of her mother, Rosalind stepped up, and is, if anything, too reliable and caring; she has a tendency to put others ahead of her own needs.
  • Skye Penderwick: the only Penderwick girl to inherit her mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes, she’s also brainy, good at math and science and facts. She also has a temper to be reckoned with.
  •  Jane Penderwick is as dreamy as Skye is down-to-earth. A writer, she fills notebook after notebook with the exploits of Sabrina Starr. She’s as messy as Skye is neat.
  • Batty: the littlest Penderwick, born as her mother was dying of cancer, she’s shy and retiring, but don’t let yourself think that’s because there’s nothing much going on. Batty has a very firm sense of justice and would do anything for those she loves, animal or human.

Also of importance is Jeffrey Tifton, the Penderwick girls’ close friend and a fantastic musician.

I’m deliberately not saying much about what happens because the characters grow as time goes by and I don’t want to spoil any events for you, but expect adventure (the kids meet a bull at one point which leads to– wait, I won’t tell you that), and hominess (baking figures largely in these books), and sisters sticking up for each other against any external forces. Any more details I give you will spoil the books for you, so for once I’m asking you to take it on trust: just go and read, OK?

Warning: when I read the last book, The Penderwicks in Spring, I actually got sniffly more than once. (OK, full confession: I outright cried. Full and complete confession: It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep until I finished reading and I was sobbing over a book aimed at kids less than half my age because MG fiction is the best and I am not even remotely ashamed.) These books may be gentle family stories, but they are not messing with reality: remember, the girls’ mother was dying of cancer as Batty was born, an event which isn’t romanticized; it’s horrible. Expect your emotions to go through the wringer, expect to be called on to think about what’s right and what’s wrong. There are no clear, easy answers, and even an adult would be challenged by some of the situations which arise in these novels (I mean… I am an adult, and I find them challenging to read), but, at the same time, this is, unequivocally, a book for children, so these highly emotional and complicated events are being gently introduced at a level children should be able to understand. It’s a fine balance, and Jeanne Birdsall handles it deftly.

I encourage you to read the whole series, and if there are any children of the right age for it in your life, share it with them! You might be surprised at the conversations that will result from reading it together. I can’t wait until the Changeling is of an age for these books, because I fully propose reading them aloud together. OK, confession: I tried reading a few passages aloud, just for the hell of it, and it reads as beautifully as the Moomin books.

Perilous Gard.jpg

Lastly, I want to tell you about a new-to-me-but-not-so-new book, The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I bought this because I went to the Children’s Book Shop and asked Terri, the owner, about a different book (which shall remain nameless). Because she’s wonderful and knows my taste, she told me to skip that book and asked if I’d read this instead. I hadn’t, somehow, and was immediately intrigued by her description and the excellent flap copy. Note to publishers: good flap copy matters! Note to everyone: support good independent bookstores! Look, Amazon can’t tell you: “This one is over-hyped and not your style; read this instead.” Terri can.

Folks, this is possibly one of the best books I’ve read, and I can already tell that it’s going to be a book I return to again and again in years to come. The action is set during the waning period of Mary Tudor’s reign, shortly before Elizabeth comes to the throne. The paranoid Queen Mary has Elizabeth effectively under house arrest at Hatfield. Alicia, one of the ladies of Elizabeth’s court, writes innocently, incautiously, and, frankly, stupidly to the queen to protest her treatment of Elizabeth. The queen lashes out against Elizabeth and her ladies: she orders Alicia to be brought to her own court and has Alicia’s sister, Kate, sent to the Perilous Gard, out in Derbyshire, under the guard of Sir Geoffrey Heron.

The Perilous Gard turns out to be a rich and fine enough hall, and Kate Sutton seems to be in a good enough position, all things considered– until mysteries start to pop up all over the place. Who is the woman she spied on the road? Who is the young man in green lurking by the window? Why does Sir Geoffrey disappear for such long periods of time, leaving the running of the manor to his steward? Kate being who she is, she’s unable to leave the mystery alone– especially when she hears the story of Sir Geoffrey’s daughter’s disappearance. Following along the story with the headstrong, intelligent Kate, who has nerves of steel, common sense, and a ready sense of humour, you will also find the mysteries intriguing. Rational Kate pulls apart the myth of magic and finds that, from beginning to end, her own nerves and her own mind, are more than a match for– well, I won’t tell you that bit. Read the book and find out for yourself!

One last word, this one on style: I don’t know why it is, but I’ve lately been thinking about book length. It seems to me, unless I’m totally generalizing and making things up, that MG and YA books are getting longer. When I think about, for example, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, they wasted no words; something I fully and completely admire in them. (Now, Little Women is a long book, so, well, make of that what you will– I’m probably generalizing. It’s not like long= bad.) The Perilous Gard is fairly short. It’s also packed with action. It’s also full of intelligent, thoughtful characters (Kate being one) who make you think along with them. You don’t need more space to make a book more complex or intelligent; you need to be able to write the right length for the right book, and I suspect that practice and editorial help are of assistance. Anyway, I just find this book succinct and clipped clean and perfect, so in style, plot, and character, this is a truly perfect book.

(There’s another book along those lines I want to tell you about, but I’ve already written too much– there’s a smidgen of delicious hypocrisy for you!– so I’ll wait for another day to talk about… well, we’ll save that, won’t we?)

So there you are! Two series, one stand-alone book, all succinct, gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. Happy reading, and tell me what you think if you do read one of these, OK? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This Is Not a Valentine

I promised you all a Valentine’s Day post, and here it is. Even if I have to keep it brief.

Dear friends, I love you all so much that I’m going to tell you about a perfectly delicious new book, This Is Not a Valentine, by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins.

This Is Not a Valentine.jpgWhen I first saw the title, my mind shot back to one of the Changeling’s most enduring favourites, This Is Not a Picture Book!but for another Sergio Ruzzier book you’ll have to wait until April. (I can’t wait!) No, this is very different from Sergio Ruzzier, but they have one thing in common: this book is sweet and adorable without being saccharine or fluffy. It has a lot of substance and a lot of gentle wit.

First, a note about the illustrations, which are done in brush marker, gouache, graphite, pencil crayons, crayon, ink, and charcoal. If that sounds complicated, I’m guessing it was, but Lucy Ruth Cummins makes it look simple and childlike, without ever getting to “childish,” and she never lets the page get overwhelming. In fact, if her art reminds me of anyone’s, it’s of Christian Robinson’s: there’s the same “child” feel with a special flair that will delight the adult reader, too. I hope that’s a comparison that would give both artists pleasure; both of their work is stellar.

As for the text, well, I’ll try to give you a flavour of the book: it is not a Valentine… unless a Valentine communicates dedication, loyalty, and affection, in which case it absolutely is. It lacks glitter and lace and sticky candies– but it does have a ring won “in some machine at a grocery store” which “matches your best shoelaces,” a grubby bunch of dandelions, and a paper airplane thrown from the back of the line to the beloved at the front of the line. Most striking of all, of course, is the superhero cloak given from the lover to the beloved because “red is pretty good for superheroes, and you are my favorite one.” (Whereat my husband, hearing me read this aloud, interjected with an “awww!” It was a very sweet moment, indeed.)

You get the point. There aren’t any chocolates or phials of perfume and there’s a distinct lack of glitter or lace. But there’s love in every line of the book and in every illustration. Shy love, open love, direct love– and what it all comes down to is sharing. True love, our narrator instinctively knows, isn’t based on what fits in with the heart-shaped picture of Valentine’s Day we’re taught in kindergarten. No, love is expressed by sharing what we love, and what we expect our beloved (whether we’re talking about a beloved parent, child, sibling, or friend) to love. A sacrifice shows love. Thinking really hard about what our beloved would want shows love. A red superhero cape which the beloved will wear in every subsequent illustration shows love.

And that’s really a message worth sharing, whether with your child, friend, partner, parent, or whoever else is in your life. And that’s why I wanted to share this book with you. Because, dear and darling reader, I bet that if you’re reading this, you like picture books, and so I probably like you, too, and I want to share my joy with you. That is, after all, why I write this blog. Because I want to share bookish joy with you. So I’m just going to say thank you for being here, thank you for reading, and (a few days early) happy Valentine’s Day to you!

(And while you’re here, looking for Valentine’s Day books, I’ll also remind you of Lucky Lazlo, which I wrote about last year, and which is absolutely delightful.)

So, happy Valentine’s Day, and happy reading! And if you know of any particularly good Valentine’s Day books, share them in the comments below!

I Am a Cat

Hello, old friend! Long time, no see. Well, here’s the thing: I did too much travelling (as you saw in my last post), so I had to make up the work time somehow. But does that mean I’m no longer reading new children’s books? I’ll give you a hint: the Changeling is still four and a half years old, and my personality hasn’t changed– I’m still attracted to anything shiny and new with words and pages involved.

Case in point: yesterday I had a doctor’s appointment in Brookline, and my little cousin will be celebrating his third birthday very soon, so I took the occasion to visit my favourite purveyor of fine children’s literature to get him a present. And a few other things, while I was at it. And since I’ve met the day’s word count, I feel free to tell you about it.

This book, I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein (her debut– and congratulations are due for such a strong first book!), is among the “few other things,” and I’m now slightly regretting that I didn’t get a copy of it for my little cousin as well as the one I got for the Changeling; he has a cat and I’m sure would enjoy it as much as he would the other two books I got him (an Alfie book and a book by the power duo Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett), so, well, I may be finding him a copy, too. (Don’t give me that look– my husband’s already tried it out on me and it doesn’t work. I am who I am, and I like to think that I am a Curator of Books.)

In any case, right now I’m sitting at my favourite working café, staring off vaguely into space and trying to figure out who wouldn’t enjoy this book. Well, there’s my father, I suppose: he’s allergic to cats both physically and spiritually. He can just barely endure mine, because they’re quiet and, frankly, afraid of people; they know he’s not a friend and never try to engage with him. But if it’s a cat, or has to do with cats, my father is generally opposed.

But I wonder if even he would smile over the cuteness that is I Am a Cat.

I Am a Cat.jpg

Look at Simon on the cover there (Simon is the little grey kitty)! Isn’t he a sweetheart? Who could resist that face? Not even my father could deny his cuteness, this I believe.

But that’s not the question this book asks: it doesn’t care whether or not we find Simon cute, but whether or not he’s accepted into the cat clan with all of the other cats around him: Lion, Cheetah, Tiger, Puma, and Panther.

The story is simple: Simon is a cat, and declares himself to be so. The surrounding big felines respond with laughter, and then explain: Lion has a mane and is king of the beasts– that’s why he’s a cat. Panther is jet black and sleeps in trees– that’s why he’s a cat. And so on for all of the wildcats. But Simon is confused: each characteristic described is highly individual, he points out. What do they have in common that renders them cats? The animals respond: flat noses and long tails, sharp claws and eyes that can see in the dark. If that’s the case, Simon posits delicately, then, as he shares in those commonalities, he should be one of the family, too. The wildcats are briefly surprised, but then welcome him with open paws and they play and fall asleep together in a heap.

It really is a simple, straightforward book: the topic of belonging, a subject which is so frequently heartrending in MG, YA, and, frankly, in adult fiction, is tackled in a strong, direct, and self-confident tone here which keeps it fresh and original. After all, isn’t Tess of the D’Urbervilles about belonging to a clan (as I think I mentioned in my post about Quackers)? This book is just as effective an appeal to inclusiveness as Tess is, and by extension, and by its own lights, a strong indictment of gate-keeping. And yet, direct as the story is, its argument comes across without fanfare.

And, in fact, message aside, what I love in it– apart from Galia Bernstein’s lovely art, which is adorable without being cartoonish– is Simon’s personality. Partly this really is down to the art, which conveys the animals’ expressions with great economy of line, but it’s also in the straightforwardness of the text. Simon asks the obvious question: if each of you can have unique qualities and yet be part of the same family, why can’t I? And he makes this irrefutable argument directly and without any self-consciousness or seeming to feel humiliated by the big cats’ laughter. I cheered internally as he stood up for himself so politely and yet so strongly.

Simon is my new role-model. He doesn’t give a damn about whether others think he’s too short and chubby to be fast as a cheetah. He knows he’s not supposed to be a cheetah, so why should he be like a cheetah? He’s a cat. He doesn’t worry about what any of the others think of his distinctive qualities; he knows he’s a cat, and he will challenge the self-appointed authorities of catness on that point.

And yet, although I’ve teased out this message, I want to emphasize this point: this all comes across without any preaching. The surface story has you so wrapped up in Simon’s encounters from cat to cat that you’re just cheering him on; it’s only after the book was over that I started to think, “Hey, if Simon could face up to the other cats, well, why can’t I…?”

So, I want to encourage all of us to be like Simon: be straightforward, be direct, and state the truth. Who are you, really, and what or who is holding you back?

Also, it’s worth reiterating: this really is simply an adorable book.

And now I’ve got more work to do today. But watch out for a little something on February 14…

Stanotte… ha nevicato!

You know, I’m just going to admit to something: I’ve been grouchy lately. I have been balancing Things I Want To Do with Things I Don’t Want To Do, and, I repeat, it’s been making me grouchy. Some of it’s been just the usual: I don’t know many people who eagerly anticipate unpacking suitcases, for example. It’s just not a chore that gets people super excited, in my experience. But lots of people enjoy the travel which precedes that annoying task.

I hereby confess to the fact that I was extremely grouchy about the travel I undertook this winter. I take full responsibility for said travel: No one bought the ticket and dragged me to the airplane against my will. I sighed, bought the ticket, and got on the plane all of my own free will; I was just grouchy about it the whole time. Kudos go to my husband for putting up with a travel partner who said, “But I don’t have time for this!” at least a hundred times.

I was just that charming a companion.

That said, once we reached Rome (our destination), I took a deep breath, said to myself and my husband, “If I’m here, I may as well enjoy it,” and we sketched out a plan. The plan was to take it easy, see the city, get some work done, and bring back a shitload of paper. I think we did a good job of tackling all of the above. (We… got some paper, yes.) (From three different stores, including Il Papiro and Fabriano.) (We take paper seriously in my family.)

One other thing we did was to visit a children’s store which was half books, half toys, and entirely charming. And while we were there, I saw a book carefully wrapped in plastic, and my heart started to beat a little faster.

Stanotte ha nevicato.jpg

Stanotte… ha nevicato! by Steffie Brocoli (originally published in French as Il a neigé ce matin!)

I snapped it up in a hot second and brought it carefully home with us, where I’ve been showing it to everyone I think will be remotely interested. And either people have learned to humour me, or else it really does make people sit up and take notice. As they turn the pages, they murmur to themselves, “Would you look at that? Oh, that’s charming! It’s so restrained. Look at that use of colour!”

And I get it, because I had very similar responses myself. What I don’t know how to do is to convey to you just how captivating this book is, and my hesitation is due to one particular challenge: the entire aesthetic of the book is predicated on texture, not colour. Further, it’s basically wordless. So everything depends on textured white paper, and white textured paper is really hard to get across on a computer screen. Normally if I want you to admire an illustration, I grab my phone take a (generally fairly crappy) picture, and post it here for you to admire. How can I do that for embossed white paper? But it’s my moral duty to share beautiful children’s books with you, so here we are.

The way the book works is like this:

You open it up, and see tiny footprints embedded in the page, leading to a little textured leaf. Then you lift the leaf and– ah! beneath it is a bright, colourful bird. You flip the page. There are three coloured flowers and another set of footprints leading to a bush, and behind the bush– a hedgehog! And so it goes. Each page sets up a little puzzle, the very simplest of puzzles, and a bright surprise behind a flap. It’s ingenious, charming, and uplifting.

Stanotte hedgehog (2)

(I stole this picture from Steffie Brocoli’s excellent website because it’s a much better quality picture than I was able to get!)

The question, I think, is: Uplifting? Why uplifting? And I don’t have a deep answer for you because it’s all very simple. We’re turning pages through a white, quiet world, and in that white, quiet world we find the occasional surprise of bright, cheery colour, all jewel tones shining through the snow. That feels exciting. It feels good. It feels like when you’re trudging along being grouchy– and suddenly you discover a beautiful book and everything feels worthwhile again.

So, I just wanted to share that simple joy with you. Usually I post links for places to buy books I share with you, but I bought this one in a tiny shop in Rome. If you’re really intrigued and want a copy of your own, here’s the French publisher and here’s the Italian. Good luck! (I agree with your private thought right now that it’s worth tracking down a copy of your own. Go for it.)

Best of 2017

I’ve been quite the absentee blogger this past while, and I apologize for that.  Frankly, things have just been a bit heavy and work has been intense (good! but intense, yes).  December, however, is upon us and I didn’t want to leave 2017 behind without a bit of a chat.

It’s been a strange year!  Difficult in terms of how the world goes, but really astonishingly good in terms of children’s books.  I mean, stupendously good.  And from what I’ve seen and heard, 2018 is going to be at least as good.  There are so many talented authors, illustrators, and editors at work that it really warms my heart.  Whatever else is going on right now, there are good people at work, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

I want to highlight that good work with a little look at some of the best books of 2017.  I was going to do a “Best Three Books” but I was struggling to narrow it down to three, so I’ll be doing a “Best Five” because that was as low as I was willing to go.

Here we go:

Karl, Get Out of the Garden! Karl Get Out of the GardenThis was one of the earliest books I fell in love with this year, and I continue to love it.  It’s exactly the kind of book Charlesbridge does best, and it’s one of the reasons I love them so much.  It’s offbeat, eye-opening, and educational without being didactic.  It tells the story of Karl, the boy who wants to spend all his time in the garden and ends up doing exactly that– and naming the plants therein for posterity!  I love how it rearranges the way you think about gardens and science so that the next time you see a lilac bush, for example, you’ll catch yourself thinking, “I wonder what Linnaeus would call it?”  It’s clever and beautiful, and, in true Charlesbridge fashion, as interesting to the adult reader as the child, but without ever forgetting that its primary audience is the child.

Town Is by the Sea

Town Is by the SeaTown Is by the Sea is the first of the Canadian books on this list, but it won’t be the last.  It’s the story of a boy in Cape Breton, and his life by the sea as his father works in the coal mines.  I remember rhapsodizing in my original post about the blurring of light and dark in the story (the light of the sun sparkling on the sea, the darkness of the mines).  The illustrations emphasize that quality in the text to perfection.  I remember, too, thinking that it was too young for my four-year-old Changeling.  That’s true, too; it’s geared towards an older audience.  And the Changeling loves it despite that.  And I love it.  I love that we love it together, each on our own level.

How to Make Friends with a Ghost

How to Make Friends with a Ghost

OK, here’s another Canadian one, from Tundra this time.  If you know me, you’ve probably heard me complain about the lack of good new Hallowe’en stories.  I remember a ton of old ones from my childhood, but I didn’t see new ones in stores.  This one is new, original, witty and sweet at the same time.  It’s a guide to being friends with a ghost throughout one’s life and beyond– and the lessons in here work just as well for living friends as for friends whose lives may be in the past tense.  It’s just a tiny bit gross and a teensy bit spooky, but my Changeling, who is currently hyper-sensitive to being scared, loves it, so I don’t think it could be called scary.  And we enjoyed reading it even past Hallowe’en!

The Glass Town Game

The Glass Town Game

The disadvantage of a novel over picture books is that it takes actual time to read and reread them.  One of the sorrows of my life at present is that I don’t have time to reread The Glass Town Game.  It’s so rich, so densely packed with history and literary and artistic allusions that I’m dying to read it again, really thoroughly, and unpack all of the hints that Cat Valente has woven into the text.  The story is of the Brontë children and the games they played, but virtually all of the 19th C seems to make its way into the book in some fashion or other.  And it does so without ever disrupting the fact that the story belongs to the children and the games they played.  It’s genius.  You should read it, and reread it, if possible.

Shelter

Shelter

Dear readers, this last one (another Canadian one– hello, Kids Can Press!) is going on my list of books to give to almost everyone.  It’s a story about seeking and sharing shelter, about selfishness and generosity, about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.  It’s warm and touching without ever being saccharine or denying the cruel realism that not everyone will be generous.  When the big bear tells the little bear that maybe the cold hillside will be more welcoming than the animal homes where they’ve been denied shelter– well, my heart twisted in my chest a little.  It’s a wonderful conversation starter with a child.  My Changeling noticed that the animals who said they didn’t have food to share actually did have plenty of food according to the illustration, and so we had a chat about lying and sharing.  In short, it’s both beautiful as a story and literature and a good way to start some difficult conversations with children.  It’s a keeper.

And so ends this little review of some of the best books in 2017!  It is by no means exhaustive, but these are the ones which sprang to my mind when I sat down to write.  What are some of your favourite books from this past year?  Did you discover anything new?