Choosing Baby Presents

Dear Blog,

I know, I know– writing again so soon?  An embarrassment of riches, isn’t it?  Here’s the thing: a) I’ve found that writing here is very effective at getting my general writing muscles moving, which is good news for the old dissertation; b) I went to the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline today, which means that I’m bubbling over with inspiration.

Why was I in Brookline?  Well, you see, I have five babies who were either very recently born or are coming into my life imminently.  The Changeling’s birthday is also coming up soon, and I elected to give the four kids coming to her party books instead of loot bags (easier and more fun for me, and hopefully more lasting on the other end than the usual ephemera in loot bags).  So that meant I had nine people in my life in dire need of picture books.  Which means I basically got to go to the bookstore and have a complete blowout.  It was fantastic.  There’s no way that buying online would have been half as fun as browsing those shelves, seeing what was new, and recklessly adding everything that hit my “I love this” button to the pile.

And so, having recently exercised it, I want to share my baby-present-buying process with you.  First of all, is there an older sibling in the picture?  If so, I almost always give the family Here Babies, There Babies because I think it’s great for introducing a toddler or little kid to the wonderful world of babies.  Another book I like to give pretty much every family is A Child’s Garden of Verses, just because it lasts so well: it’s useful from babyhood up to reading it to your own baby.

But apart from those two staunch comrades there’s the rest of the world of books.  My philosophy of books for baby presents is to get books which will speak to the parent, because, well, honestly, anything you’re reading to a newborn you’re reading for yourself, really: the baby just wants to hear your voice.  I remember reading Eleanor Farjeon and Shakespeare to the Changeling.  She didn’t care, but it was fun for me and the cadence soothed her.  So get books the parents will like and will grow with the kid.  That meant that I got an animal-loving family Big Cat, little cat and Madlenka’s Dog, for example.  Another family is getting The Way Home in the Night.

Let’s take a look, though, at a few of the new-to-me books which struck me as being perfect for families to grow into together.

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Consider Emily’s Balloon by Komako Sakai.  The story goes like this: Emily gets a balloon, and she plays with the balloon all day.  When the wind blows the balloon into a tree, Emily is heartbroken.  She had planned to eat supper, brush her teeth, and go to bed with the balloon– what will she do without it?  Her mother promises they’ll get the balloon tomorrow, but Emily isn’t comforted until she sees the balloon is still in the tree waiting for her, gleaming like the moon.  It’s a tender, ever so slightly sentimental story of childhood love for something so simple as a balloon, but what hooked me was the wistful longing at the end: few children’s books dare to have such unresolved endings, leaving you on the note of her hope for tomorrow.  And then there’s the love between mother and daughter, too, perfect for a new mother to read.

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If you want something that sits right on the boundary between funny and sweet, then Love Is by Diane Adams and illustrated by Claire Keane is the book for you or that new baby in your life.  The illustrations tell the story of a little girl who finds a homeless duckling and raises it for a year, but the accompanying text can be applied to so much more.  It begins a bit more specifically: “Love is holding something fragile, tiny wings and downy head,” which nevertheless seems as applicable to a downy new baby as to a duckling, and carries on to the much more general, “Love is in familiar voices, feeling lost, and being found.”  Every line, however has something to tell us about love, both to the new parent and to the child.  I love imagining an older child reading it to a younger sibling, too.  And the funny pictures of the duckling’s antics will keep children of any age enthralled.


This one isn’t going to be a baby present– it’s going to be an instead-of-loot-bag treat: Rain! by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Christian Robinson.  This is exactly the kind of story that’s perfect for Christian Robinson to illustrate: witty and clever with lots of room for the child’s personality to come out.  And he does a stellar job here.  We have two main characters: an elderly gentleman and a little child.  The grumpy gentleman is quite miffed with the rain, while the child is thrilled to get to be a frog in the rain.  The two go their own ways until they literally run into each other in the coffee shop, where the gentleman’s encounter with the child makes him rethink his approach to a rainy day.  Funny and sweet, I can’t wait to see how my Changeling’s friend enjoys it!  (Maybe I’ll read it to the Changeling first, just to give it a test drive– what do you think?)

So that’s how today’s shopping trip went.  How was your day?

And I just realized– there are three birthdays coming up, and all those kids need presents.  What could make a better present than a book?  I wonder what I could find…

Town Is by the Sea

Do you remember The White Cat and the Monk?  It’s possible you don’t, so I won’t mind at all if you take a moment to refresh your memory, paying particular attention to the wonderful illustrations by Sydney Smith.

Well, today I happened to have a few minutes to spare while I was waiting to meet a friend in Harvard Square, so I happened to saunter into the Harvard Book Store, and I happened to end up in the picture book section where I happened across this book: Town Is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by the said Sydney Smith.  And then I happened to find myself at the cash register, buying it.  That sort of thing happens to happen.

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Dear readers, I have so much work to do, but I couldn’t resist telling you about this book, so bear with me if I rhapsodize a little and turn a bit Canadian on you.  I’ll be brief.

Have you read any stories by Alistair MacLeod, the great Canadian novelist and short story author?  If you haven’t, I’m really, terribly sorry.  Start with any of his short stories– I remember enjoying his collection Island.  If you have, believe me when I say that if Alistair MacLeod had written a picture book, it would have been something like this one, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay anyone.  This book shares his literary qualities: it has the same beautiful blurring of light and dark, joy and sadness you find in his work: not something you normally expect to find in a children’s picture book, and requiring extra skill to navigate without completely bypassing a child’s comprehension.  Joanne Schwartz, originally from Cape Breton and now living in Toronto, has that extra skill.

Let me tell you a little bit about Town Is by the Sea.  First of all, it’s a Cape Breton story, dealing with the sea and with the coal mines.  It’s told from the perspective of a little boy running through his summer day: all day he enjoys the sun sparkling on the sea while his father is deep in the darkness of the mines.  There are moments of homelike peace (his lunch, the chicken stew for supper), and moments of childlike joy (swinging with his friend at the ramshackle playground).

And there’s poetry.  Take the opening: “From my house I can see the sea.  It goes like this– house, road, grassy cliff, sea.”  Read that aloud and tell me that Joanne Schwartz wasn’t paying some attention to the cadence of her words.  Apparently she’s a children’s librarian, and I swear it comes through; she has the ear of someone who’s read lots of children’s books aloud in her day.  That poetry of sound binds together the book, both the light of the boy’s day and the darkness of the father’s, and then, at the end of the day, the peace of the family sitting together, overlooking the sea.  Until the ending: “I think about the sea, and I think about my father.  I think about the bright days of summer and the dark tunnels underground.  One day, it will be my turn.  I’m a miner’s son.  In my town, that’s the way it goes.”

I swear I choked up when I was reading that to the Changeling.  Times turned and things changed, but, as the author’s note at the end of the book says, “Even into the 1950s, around the time when this story takes place, boys of high-school age, carrying on the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, continued to see their future working in the mines.  This was the legacy of a mining town.”  And we know how dark, grueling, and unhealthy that work was.

If the poetry of the language draws together the light and dark of the book, the illustrations both delicately highlight the distinctions and pull the book together into a harmonious whole.  Sydney Smith was the ideal illustrator for this task: his rough, sketchy style deliberately resists romanticizing the scenes he’s depicting, and his palette for the home scenes is even a little muted, I could even say drab– until he gets to the sea and the flowers at the grave of the boy’s grandfather.  Those stand out in warm colour.  The mining scenes, by contrast, are completely, unapologetically dark.  Black, relieved only by the light from the miner’s helmets.  And yet, even the muted home scenes and the black mines have a beauty under his brush (“ink, watercolor, and a bit of gouache,” according to the book’s notes).

Altogether, then, this is a book of genius.  This tender, but unrelentingly realistic, Canadian story is not just for Canadians, and I was thrilled to see it in a Boston store.  It’s a story for anyone who’s grown up by the sea, or loves the sea.  It’s a story for anyone who knows the grim story behind a coal mine.  It’s a story for any child who misses a parent at work.  It’s a story for anyone who loves to see the beauty emerge from a realistic story.  It’s Hard Times or North and South, but aimed at children.

My recommendation?  Grab some Alistair MacLeod for yourself and a copy of Town Is by the Sea for your children, then go for a vacation to Cape Breton, or, if you can’t make it to Cape Breton, a seashore of your choice.  And then lie on the sand and read.  Enjoy.

(Note: This book was way too old for the Changeling, who’s nearly four years old, although she enjoyed it.  I just read it to her because I wanted to read it aloud and hear the words sing.  I think six or seven might be a better age for this book, or, of course, just read it for yourself.  I’m thirty, and it was perfect for me!)

Some Books

Dear Readers, today was a blend of the awful and the great.  The “awful” began early with a dentist appointment.  There are those who can face the dentist with equanimity; I am not of their number.  I remember once, in my youth, when I allowed someone to talk me into a waxing appointment.  As the hot wax was being poured onto, then yanked off of, my skin I told myself, “At least I’m not at the dentist.”

The “great” came right afterward: I had to do some shopping in Brookline, and that means that I could also go to the Children’s Book Shop!  Any excuse to go there is acceptable to me, and I did my errands like a good Mummy and then relaxed with wonderful books, new and old.  And as I was checking out the owner asked me, “Did Sheryl tell you the news?”  News?  We were back to the “awful”– it turns out that Sheryl had to move back home for excellent reasons which nevertheless are sad to me.  Sheryl, you see, has never been mentioned by name here, but her wisdom and perceptiveness guided me to some of the very best books I’ve talked about here: The Hired GirlA Child of Books, and many others.  Basically, if you’ve ever looked at one of my posts and said, “I like the sound of that book,” you may well have Sheryl to thank.  So let’s take a moment to pause and say “Thank you” to the great booksellers who link readers with good books.  Thanks, Sheryl, and I hope lucky stars shine on all you undertake.  The Children’s Book Shop just won’t be the same without your smile and unerring ability to say, “I have just the thing for you…”

But, back to the “great,” I came back with some really good books, so let’s skim through them.  We won’t go into great depth, but I really want to share some of the best books I’ve found over the past few months, and especially today’s haul:

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I snapped up The Way Home in the Nightby Akiko Miyakoshi as soon as I saw it (at the Harvard Book Store, actually).  Akiko Miyakoshi is the author of The Tea Party in the Woods which we talked about long ago.  It features the same exquisite art: dark charcoal backgrounds with the occasional splash of colour enlivening the page (she works in pencil, charcoal, and gouache).  The story is simple: a young rabbit is being carried home to bed and watches night take over his neighbourhood as he goes along home.  The glimpses of other homes are enchanting: a phone call, a hug goodbye, a pie in the oven.  But our focus always returns to the young rabbit who finally, sleepily, bids us all goodnight.  It’s sweet without being saccharine, it’s charming without being unrealistic.  And, in an era where it sometimes seems to me that bookshelves are creaking with the weight of the “goodnight” stories being produced, this one is truly, exquisitely original, both in art and in the story being told.  I loved reading it to the Changeling last night, and I strongly recommend that you give it a try, too.

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Do you know Shirley Hughes’s Alfie and Annie Rose books?  This is one of them: Alfie Wins a Prize.  It’s one of the injustices of the world, to my mind, that there are children out there who don’t have even one little Alfie story.  The Alfie books in general are simple stories bursting with realism: as the owner of the Children’s Book Shop once told me, “The thing about Shirley Hughes is that she knows how to draw children.”  This is true, both of her words and of her art.  In this story, happily discovered at the Children’s Book Shop this afternoon, Alfie enters a painting into the children’s art contest at the Harvest Fair.  He wins third place and is very happy, but he swaps his bubble bath prize with the little girl who was miserable about the “consolation prize” (a humorously described, sad-looking stuffed animal) she was given. The brilliance of this story is in what Shirley Hughes doesn’t say: she doesn’t make a whole moralizing bow-wow about sharing what you have to make others happy.  She doesn’t say that Alfie felt sorry for the deformed sheep or goat (no one can tell which it is) stuffy and wanted to make it feel wanted.  But it all comes through: Alfie’s sympathy for both girl and stuffed animal are heart-warming.  In her true-to-life descriptions, art, and stories Shirley Hughes reminds me of no one so much as Ezra Jack Keats, and I wish she were as well-known in the USA.

Big Cat little cat.jpg

Now for an author and illustrator completely new to me: Big Cat, little cat by Elisha Cooper.  I snapped this up at the bookstore today because I saw cats and I thought of the Changeling.  She and I bond over our shared love of cats.  What I didn’t expect, as I stood in the store flipping through the pages, was that it would bring me to the edge of tears.  You see, this is the story of a cat who lives alone, but then a kitten joins him.  The kitten grows and grows and becomes friendly with the cat.  However, the cat also grows older and older… and one day isn’t there any longer.  (Get yourself a kleenex.)  The text simply says, “And that was hard.”  (Yup, that’s when my eyes started to feel a little funny.)  And the kitten, now a cat, is very sad.  Until one day… along comes a kitten!  Well.  This was our goodnight story tonight, and the Changeling was as entranced by the beautiful black and white illustrations as I was, and cooed over each little pose: the older cats training the kittens to eat, drink, use the litter box, and cuddle and rest.  This book tells any reader, cat-lover or not, about the cycle of life, love, and trust.  It tells you of the pain you suffer when someone you love is gone, and of the joy you can find in welcoming someone new into your family.  It’s beautiful, heart-wrenching, and heart-warming.  Toddlers and up will love the illustrations, and adults will fully appreciate the life-cycle.  In other words, I think this is definitely an “all ages” type of book.

And those are three books to occupy you until I find the time to come back again!  Enjoy!

Karl, Get Out of the Garden!

Dear friends and devoted followers, I have thrilling news to share with you: my absences from the blog are evidence that writing is occurring elsewhere, to wit, on my dissertation.  That might not be so thrilling for you, but to me it means that whatever my duties may be, they involve writing, and writing is good.  So it’s quite a thrilling place to be: whatever I’m doing, I’m writing.

I do lament that I have less time for the blog than before, mostly because I’m up to my ears in fantastic books I want to share with you, but which have to wait for a break in my schedule so that I can write about them.  Today’s book is perfect for spring and for a spirit of dedicated work.  Also, it’s from Charlesbridge, and Charlesbridge is, quite simply, one of the best places out there for good children’s books.  The book?  Karl, Get Out of the Garden! Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything, by Anita Sanchez and illustrated by Catherine Stock.

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Carolus Linnaeus.  What a crush I had on him when I was going through my botanist stage in high school!  I bought a copy of John Gerard’s Herball, I recall, still one of my treasured books.  Interesting as the Herball is, though, it left me a little cold.  I wanted to know more about the plant families and how they came to be grouped and, frankly, I was fascinated by the names, and John Gerard didn’t go into that.  Enter Linnaeus!  Well, sort of.  The problem was that, fascinating as Linnaeus was, his works are somewhat impenetrable to the average Canadian 16-year-old.  I didn’t even try.  And there was a dearth of accessible biography about Linnaeus, too.  I was fascinated by him, but I didn’t stand a chance of finding out more without persuading one of my high school teachers to give a course on Linnaeus.  That… wouldn’t have worked.

I say all this for one reason: Anita Sanchez wrote the book I wish I’d had when I was in high school.  Don’t go telling me this is for ages 7-10 (which it is, it absolutely is), I would have snapped it up in an instant at age 16, especially given the excellent list of resources and bibliography at the back.  She does your research for you.

All right, now let’s talk about the book itself.  The book tells the story of Karl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus) from his childhood spent browsing gardens, through his medical studies, and on to his famous work as a naturalist.  It tells the story simply and clearly, without dumbing anything down.  Anita Sanchez explains that his parents had hoped he’d grow to be a scholar, but were disappointed in his lack of dedication to his studies.  Instead, young Karl always wanted to browse gardens and watch insects.  These qualities were useful in medicine, as doctors of those days used lots of plants in their preparations.  The problem was: which plants?  Without a unified system for naming plants, it was impossible to be sure which plant you were expected to use in a given preparation.  Karl decided to solve that problem.  And the rest of the book is given over to demonstrating precisely how one young man, Karl, was able to revolutionize the nomenclature system for plants and the animal kingdom, inventing a system we continue to utilize to this day.  (Sorry, I still have a bit of a crush on him.)

Does this sound a bit heavy for a kids’ book?  Dry, even?  If so, blame me, not Anita Sanchez and especially not Catherine Stock.  Between the two of them, they render the subject matter engaging and each page a visual treat.  Anita Sanchez’s text is simple and straightforward without ever committing what I consider the cardinal sin: patronizing the reader.  Take this sample of text:

“People were confused about animals, too.  Was a bat a type of bird?  Was a whale the same as a fish?  Scientists argued bitterly.

Karl decided to get things organized.  He planned to bring order to the chaos and give everything a clear and simple name.”

Clear and simple text, saying exactly what’s necessary and hooking you to know what’s next: how is Karl going to go about organizing the animal kingdom?  Flip the page to find out!

While Anita Sanchez’s admirably direct prose is decidedly engaging, much credit has to go to Catherine Stock’s gorgeous watercolour artwork for making this a book to cherish.  Her use of colour makes every page positively glow, and I love how she switches between drab greys and browns for the people’s clothing and bright swathes of rose and green for the gardens.  However, it is her line work which I truly admire.  There’s something in her use of line which recalls Shirley Hughes’s Alfie stories: the apparently loose, nonchalant lines which nevertheless produce a clear and vigorous personality jumping off of the page.  She is as skillful at drawing such vivid insects and animals as at drawing the people or the flowers, and all interact with the text in a fashion beautiful to see and read.

Particularly lovely, perhaps, are the pages where the illustration illuminates the text, and then a quote embedded in the illustration draws the whole page together.  For example, as the text tells us that “he called a beautiful golden flower Rudbeckia hirta, after a favourite teacher, Olof Rudbeck,” we see Karl standing in a garden holding up a golden spray of flowers.  A quote runs overhead in a lovely, flowing font: “So long as the earth shall survive, and each spring shall see it covered with flowers, the Rudbeckia will preserve your glorious name.”  What a page!

Altogether, this is a lovely book for any young reader.  I think that those devoted to fiction would easily fall in love with the story and illustrations, while those who already are dedicated to nonfiction will have a lot to chew on here, but will also enjoy the liveliness of the story and the pictures.  And everyone, young and old, will appreciate the message that if you truly dedicate yourself to what you love, even if it seems to just be a humble garden, you will find work worth doing and can dedicate yourself to doing it well and thoroughly.

Life on Mars

I begin with a disclaimer: the Changeling found this book ever so slightly frightening.  Please do not let this deter you from exploring its pages; these days, she even finds books like The Paper Bag Princess scary, and I can’t figure out why.  (But she’s not scared by Outside Over There.  I’m perplexed!)  So while I normally try to limit this blog to books both she and I love (or novels I particularly enjoy), I’m going to break with the usual pattern for this one.  It’s just too good not to share.

You see, I had a lunch date with my cousin in Brookline today, and, naturally, took the opportunity to poke my head into The Children’s Book Shop to see what was new for the spring.  The lovely staff there responded beautifully when I showed up and said, “Hi, I was just in the area and wondered what was new here.”  Boy, did they ever deliver.  People, this is a great season of new books.  And one of my favourite new books was Life on Mars by Jon Agee.  We’ve met him before for Lion Lessons.

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Life on Mars is just as cute a book as Lion Lessons, and with the bonus that I didn’t have to give away my copy as soon as I had the pleasure of reading it.  They even wrapped it up for the Changeling with a sticker on the front, because the staff there are just that nice.

But what makes it so special a book that I recommend it here even without the Changeling’s wholehearted endorsement?  The answer is: Chocolate cupcakes.

Let me explain.  (I’m resisting the urge to add, “No, let me sum up.”  I’ve watched The Princess Bride a few too many times, I guess.)  The story is of an astronaut who flies his spaceship to Mars (reminding me strongly of Harold’s Trip to the Sky).  He has a very specific purpose: there are those who don’t believe in life on Mars, but our astronaut does.  His job?  To locate life on Mars and silence the unbelievers.  So off he goes to Mars, carrying a package of cupcakes as a gift for the friends he’s inevitably going to make there.  But once there, he’s dismayed: it’s so arid and rocky!  What if… what if he’s wrong and the naysayers are right?  He walks around without seeing a single sign of life until he’s even lost his way back to his spaceship.  He puts down the box of cupcakes as he roams.  But what’s that?  A flower!  Life!  And then– his box of cupcakes?  How did they get there?  Finally, he climbs a mountain to help locate his spaceship, and then off he goes.  Settled into his spaceship with his Martian flower, he opens the box of cupcakes with satisfaction– he deserves a treat!  But… wait, why are there only crumbs in the box?

You see (spoiler alert!), the whole time our astronaut has been roaming over Mars, a creature has been right behind him.  A huge, orangey-brown, Martian creature who apparently very much enjoyed the chocolate cupcakes and very neatly closed and tied the box up again.  And our astronaut, earnestly seeking life on Mars, never even noticed the creature, even when he mistook it? he? she? for a mountain and climbed it to try to locate his spaceship.

May I just indulge myself for a second?  As an academic, it is somehow extremely satisfying to watch this astronaut scaling the sides of the creature he’s looking for, totally oblivious to the fact that the whole point of his research is right there beneath his feet.  I’m surprised that I don’t find it more frustrating than satisfying, but it’s true– all I feel is satisfaction that, dear God, at least I’m not alone in sometimes (often) feeling like the whole point of my work is somewhere but I can’t find it… until I open the now-empty box of cupcakes and realize that, oh right, that was it all along.  Followed by the realization that: Dammit, I missed the cupcakes.  What I’m saying is that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll recognize yourself in this book.  Maybe you’re not the astronaut– maybe you’re more self-aware than we are and are always on top of your research.  In that case, you probably identify with the Martian creature, patiently hanging out right nearby, just in case the astronaut will finally notice him.  Or maybe you just like chocolate cupcakes.  But I think that whoever you are, you’ll probably sympathize with some aspect of this adventure.  And maybe after recognizing this parable’s application to my own life I’ll be better on the lookout for the cupcakes.

As for children?  Despite the fact that the Changeling found the book a little bit scary when she thought it over afterwards, during the reading itself she very much enjoyed looking for the creature in each picture and was deeply concerned for the fate of the chocolate cupcakes.  In fact, hours after we’d read the story, as I was getting her ready for bed, she suddenly reminded me, “The cupcakes weren’t in the box.  They were all gone!  The creature ate them.”

To be honest, I’m not sure how much she understood about being on Mars: we haven’t done much astronomy together and she doesn’t really know about other planets.  (Give her a break: she’s not even four yet.)  But she definitely got that the astronaut had gone to a new place and was looking for something he couldn’t find.  If your child knows more about outer space and cares about planets more than she does, that would be fantastic, but even without that background I think this book is a total winner.

One warning: before you read this book either to yourself or to your child-audience, do make sure that you have cupcakes in the house.  I really want cupcakes now, and I hold the lovely owner of The Children’s Book Shop completely and totally to blame.


As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been keeping my main focus on my dissertation lately (I don’t think it’s going too badly, and I’m enjoying it, so that’s all good news), and that’s had an interesting effect on a lot of my other activities.  Knitting, spinning, sewing: seriously geared down, of course, though never entirely abandoned.  (You wouldn’t like to meet me if I’d completely abandoned my knitting– I get grouchy, and not the funny Oscar-type grouch, either.)  Here, I post as inspiration strikes rather than on my former schedule.  And what’s interesting is that “as inspiration strikes” in this case isn’t from any of the beautiful new publications I’ve seen, and that’s not for lack of beautiful new publications, I promise you.

The thing is that when I’m in “academic reading” mode, I find it very hard to read anything else except by specific rules: a) I only read for relaxation on Shabbat afternoons, b) I can only read very low-stress books or graphic novels.  I used to think I was broken, but then I met other people with the same experience.  Perhaps it’s a function of contrasts: my husband, a scientist, reads Proust for fun; I, a student of literature, read Susan Cooper and Alan Garner.  For me, it’s the equivalent of comfort food, but in book form.  All of that is to explain why I’m posting a review of a classic of children’s literature instead of reviewing any of the new lovely picture books I’ve got around this house.


The story of Elidor, by Alan Garner, has fascinated me ever since I first read it, back when I was in my early teens, I think.  The story might be rather familiar in some respects.  A family of four children go into Manchester to escape the packing frenzy as their family is about to move houses.  The youngest of them, Roland, finds a map, and, on it, finds a street called Thursday Street.  Intrigued by the odd name, they go over to see the street.  Then, one at a time, they’re spirited away by a mysterious figure named Malebron to the magical, besieged land of Elidor.   Once there, they gain, and are entrusted with, four Treasures which hold the light of Elidor.  Pursued by the powers of darkness in Elidor, however, they have to escape back to their own world and keep the Treasures safe until it’s possible to return them to Elidor.

Now, a lot of that sounds like standard fare for fantasy buffs: children whisked away to a magical land under siege by powers of darkness?  C. S. Lewis, Guy Gavriel Kay, and many, many others have written some variant of that story.  But Alan Garner is entirely different, entirely original, and it’s taken me years to put my finger on what makes Elidor, and many of his other novels (The Moon of Gomrath springs to mind) so different.  Alan Garner pushes both the magical elements and the everyday elements to their logical extremes, and the results are beautiful.

In Elidor, for example, there’s a magical prophecy which predicts the four children coming to Elidor and rescuing the Treasures, there’s a circle of standing stones which nearly drives Roland out of his mind, and there’s the figure of Malebron (whoever he might be) who at one point communicates with Roland through a planchette.  What I’m saying is that Alan Garner really pushes and expands the range and complexity of what magical, otherworldly forces can do in children’s literature.

But that’s not the surprising thing.  It’s a distinctive feature of his work, for sure, but what really differentiates him from other authors of fantasy for children is the extent to which the magical adventures impinge on the children’s day-to-day lives.  For a simple example, when the children return from Elidor, they’re filthy.  They’re not allowed on the train in that condition, and have to smuggle themselves home, where their parents are furious with them for making extra trouble when they’re busy moving houses and so on.  Actions in Elidor have consequences in Manchester, in other words.  Even Cat Valente, in her Fairyland series, keeps the parents out of it until the very end of the third book in her series– it’s simply understood that parents get in the way of adventures, so they have to be tidied aside, one way or another, in most children’s fantasy novels.  Alan Garner doesn’t tidy anything aside; he embraces the complexity.

Thus, when Roland uses his memory of the family’s new house to help him open the doorway to a mound in Elidor, that has repercussions later as evil figures from Elidor try to reverse that magic and get into his world through his house.  Naturally, logically, his parents notice the shaking at the door, although they know nothing of Elidor.  The heated pursuit which ends the novel begins with the soldiers from Elidor overturning a cupboard full of china in the children’s very house.

While it’s true that the parents aren’t around for the pursuit and never directly encounter Elidor, it’s also true that things get messy between magical Elidor and the rigid logic of the children’s world.  In fact, they’re so messy that the three older children themselves (never Roland) try to logic themselves out of Elidor: they determine that they must have been through a mass hallucination.  This fits perfectly into their day-to-day world, which doesn’t admit Treasures or menacing standing stones, but it isn’t true.  Roland never wavers in facing, with equal logic, the truth: I was there, I saw it, I know it must be true.

What does this all add up to?  Alan Garner creates a world encompassing both the “real” world and “magical” Elidor, and its rules are relentlessly logical.  If you bring magic into the “real” world, then, yes, there will be consequences.  It will try to follow you.  You may end up with a unicorn prancing around the streets of Manchester escaping two evil soldiers from another world.  (Yeah, that happens.)  And your parents might just begin to suspect that something is going on…

The key point here is that Alan Garner’s Elidor shows him to be a master at crafting both new worlds and our own world.  So why don’t you take a little break, put up your feet, and let him introduce a bit of magic into your day-to-day life?

Lucky Lazlo

Dear Blog, remember me?  That would be your author writing here.  It’s been a while, and I’ve left you unfed and out in the cold for too long.  Let’s just say that while I was picking up the pace on the dissertation, I left a few other things by the wayside.  You could commiserate with my knitting and sewing projects, if you like; you’d all have plenty to complain about.  And yet I made some real progress on my dissertation, and, well, just know that I never forgot you, and here I am, back again with a new tasty book for you to sink your teeth into: a book from one of my favourite children’s book authors writing today, the great Steve Light.  We’ve met him before with his wonderful books Have You Seen My Dragon? and Swap!.  I spotted his new book, Lucky Lazlo, at the Harvard Book Store last week and snapped it up like the treat it is.  It’s a little gem, and I’m sorry I only got to posting about it the day after Valentine’s Day!

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Dear readers, Lucky Lazlo is sheer fun, and truly fun for all ages, a term I don’t use lightly.  There’s plenty in here for parents and children alike, and, while I think it’s perfect for kids around the age of four and up, I’d be tempted to try reading this even to a toddler.  I think the bright splashes of colour and zany antics might be a real delight for little ones.

“Zany antics?” you inquire.  Well, yes, let’s talk about the content of the book now, shall we?  Lazlo, our protagonist in this oeuvre, is a young gentleman who is shatteringly in love with a young lady who is starring in a production of Alice in Wonderland.  (Anyone who knows me will also know that this automatically endears the book to me.)  And so he buys her a rose from the flower-seller: “The last red one– how lucky!”

Then misfortune strikes: as our young hero rushes off to see his beloved perform in the play– bam!  He runs straight into a post, drops the rose, and a cat snatches up the rose and runs off with it, straight through the stage door of the theatre.  Oh no!  Poor Lazlo runs in hot pursuit of cat and rose.  The dastardly cat gets into a mess at the theatre, tangling himself in the tailor’s thread and trying to hide in a tuba, and then rushing straight into the orchestra as the play was about to begin.  The mess continues until he’s distracted by something more interesting: a mouse!  Lazlo snatches up the rose as the cat pursues the mouse, but then– oh no!  Lazlo steps onto a ball.  But luckily he soon picks up the knack of balancing on the ball and glides straight across the stage, stealing the show.  Our last glimpse of Lazlo shows him receiving a nice kiss on the cheek from his lady love, who, after all of these adventures, gets her rose.

There’s a lot of “zany antics” going on here, as you can tell.  Of course, there are all of Lazlo’s misadventures with getting the rose to his beloved, but there are also plenty of adventures and misadventures going on in the illustrations around the theatre.  Steve Light, as usual, has positively jam-packed the backgrounds of each page with little surprises.  In this case, it’s full of hints and entertaining trails to follow for anyone who knows anything about theatre life, and good and bad luck in the theatre.  As Steve Light explains in the notes at the back of the book, he’s drawn references to every superstition he could, and it’s up to the reader to see how many they can find.

Now, I won’t say a toddler would be able to go on a theatrical superstition treasure hunt, but I’ll admit I had a good time flipping through the book looking for candelabras with three candles, broken mirrors, and all the other superstitions carefully listed in the back.  And I got a flashback to myself when I was a kid in love with the theatre (lo, these many years ago…).  I did a lot of babysitting back then and read a ton of terrible books and a meager number of very good books to the kids I looked after.  How I wish I could go back in time and hand myself this book.  I would have gotten a kick out of all of the theatrical lore packed into every page, the kids would have loved the surface story, and we’d all have been happy.

If “zany” is the first word which came to mind to describe this story, “sweet” is the second word I think of.  Perfectly sweet.  Sweet without being nauseatingly saccharine.  Lazlo engages our interest precisely because he’s a total sweetheart, stopping to buy his young actress a rose.  That opening image absolutely melted my heart.  But making him walk into a pole and drop the rose was frankly hilarious, and the chaos he and the cat cause at the theatre is just zany enough to keep the sweetness from overwhelming the story.

So, my dear Blog, I hope that this offering of a book perfectly balanced between the sweet and the zany, and 100% funny and engaging all the way through is enough to mitigate any anger you might feel over my seeming abandonment of you.  I never truly forgot you, and I brought you back one of the most charming books I could find as a gift on my return.  I hope you enjoy it, even if it is past Valentine’s Day.  I love you every day, so here’s Lucky Lazlo, his darling red rose and the mischievous cat, all for you.


The Hired Girl

I’m going to let you in on a secret (which is really not so much a secret as a fact which is uninteresting to people who aren’t me): I love novels with strong, introspective female narrators.  Let’s just run through some of them: there’s Vicky Austin in Madeleine L’Engle’s novels (A Ring of Endless LightTroubling a Star), Catherine in Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, Judy in Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, and Cassandra in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  All of these have been favourites of mine for years, and all have in common that they’re told, through one mechanism or another, as st0ries from the first-person perspective of the female narrator.  They also have in common that the narrator in question is deeply reflective, keenly intelligent, and often a little willful.  I love them all like old friends, and now I have a new novel to add to the list: The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, whose narrator, Joan Skraggs, is quite as intelligent and introspective as any of these earlier narrators.

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There’s a really nice review of it from the New York Times which you can read over here, and which will give you a quick glimpse of what it’s like to read a book guided by someone like Joan.  I would add, though, that part of what makes Joan such a fascinating guide is that not only does she build her own story throughout the book, but that she’s remarkably gifted at drawing characters: her father, each of her brothers, her mother, and her teachers all come to life in the early part of the book.  After she runs away from home, her new employers and their entire family take centre stage, and she, as much a director of a drama as protagonist in a novel, deftly sketches each of them.

But you haven’t yet read the book, so let’s talk a bit about what goes on with this varied cast of characters.  Joan Skraggs is fourteen years old in 1911, her mother is dead, and her father is tyrannical, just literate enough to run his farm without seeing the use of further education– not for himself, and certainly not for his daughter.  And so, at fourteen, forbidden from attending school, she suddenly finds herself without future prospects.  After her father burns her only books, she’s spurred to action and plans her escape to Baltimore, where she hopes to find a position as a hired girl: $6/week seems a fortune to her, and surely she’d be able to make more of a life for herself on such a princely salary.  And so she escapes, and, after a series of adventures, the Catholic Joan, now going by the name Janet Lovelace, finds herself the hired girl for a Jewish family, the Rosenbachs.

The Rosenbachs are just transitioning into the fashionable Reform Jewish world of educated German Jews in America, and, as they figure out their own Jewishness (they frequently run into conflict with the more traditional Malka, the beautifully-drawn old housekeeper for the family), so, too, Joan has to figure them out, and figure out her own place as a Catholic in their household.  The consequence is a series of occasional conflicts: when Malka sees that Joan has hung her mother’s crucifix in her bedroom she’s horrified, and Joan has to learn that to someone of Malka’s age and history the crucifix is a symbol of pogroms, not of peaceful personal religious observance.  Learning of anti-Semitism is a painful process for young Joan, and so is recognizing the symptoms of it in her religious mentor, Father Horst.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this process throughout the novel is seeing how Joan represents each of these new figures in her life.  After leaving her family behind, Joan is bereft of mother, father, and siblings.  Her escape to Baltimore shows her to us in two lights: on the one hand, she’s all independence now, and making her own way; on the other hand, she’s constantly looking at her new acquaintance as, in a sense, her new family.  Having lost a loving mother, she has a rather tense relationship with Mrs. Rosenbach, who is generous but inflexible.  But the revelation to her is Mr. Rosenbach (“Little Moritz” to the old housekeeper, Malka), who, when he hears of her longing to read, orders Joan a new kimono so that she’ll be able to read in the evenings in the comfort of the library after her work is done.  How could a father be so kind?  And Father Horst, who encourages her to ask questions and even owns up to his mistake after Joan reproaches him for his anti-Semitism, is a different kind of revelation to her: just imagine a Father (or father!) who takes ownership of his errors!

Our eyes are opened to different types of characters along with Joan’s, and our reflections as to what is right and what is wrong and what is a bit more subtle and complicated move along with hers.  We sympathize with her, we groan at her errors, we worry for her.  But, ultimately, and in this I am strongly reminded of I Capture the Castle, we are concerned less about the actual sequence of the story and much more about Joan’s day-t0-day relationships with the other characters she meets: “Tell us more about you and Mimi,” I silently beg her.  “I want to know whether you make up that quarrel.”

In that sense, this is a book about family, about relationships between people, about faults and forgiveness and kindness.  As such, this is an absolutely fantastic YA novel: perfect for an age where people wonder about just such themes.  And it’s fantastic for older readers, too; after all, who exactly stops wondering about family, about relationships, and about faults and forgiveness and kindness?  I know it was interesting to me, and I strongly suspect that it would be interesting to you, too.  Take a look and let me know what you think!

First Snow

It’s cold today.  Yesterday was warm beyond belief for December in Boston, but today is cold, and a few days ago we had our first real snow of the season.  All of that means that I’m finally feeling winter arrive, if a bit tenuously, and I just got my daughter a book which fits the feeling of the season: First Snow, by Bomi Park.  First Snow.jpg

I was inspired to pick this book up because the cover reminded me so strongly of a perennial favourite in this house, The Tea Party in the Woods.  Feast your eyes on that soft black and white with occasional pops of colour in the child’s red scarf and the cat’s fur.  The whole book is that lovely, and, if you want to be really infuriated, please note that this is Bomi Park’s debut book (first published in Sourth Korea in 2012, and just now brought to the American market by, you guessed it, Chronicle Books).  I think it’s entirely unfair that such a lovely book is her first, but, on the other hand, I’m so smitten with it that I’m just glad it exists.

The story is very, very simple.  A little girl is lying in bed when she hears something go “pit, pit, pit” against the window.  Snow is falling.  She quickly gets dressed and sneaks out into the snowy night.  She begins to shape the snow into a ball, and then rolls it to make it bigger (remember how to do that?).  She rolls it through her yard, through her town, through fields, past a train, through the woods, until she arrives somewhere– somewhere special with other children all rolling snowballs, building snowmen, and simply enjoying the first snow.  And that’s the story: just a girl playing with the snow.

It’s a beautiful balancing act between the very real, very tangible delights of first snow and a rather magical idealization of children playing in the snow.  On the one hand, what is more real than children bundling up and rushing outside to pat and roll snowballs when winter first arrives?  On the other hand, somewhere along the way there’s a turn for the more-than-real: our little girl goes rolling her snowball through the woods until she sees a bright light and breaks through into a snowy landscape where all the other children are also enjoying the snow.  It never stops being realistic, in one sense.  After all, it’s simply children playing in the snow.  In another sense, however, it’s consistently mysterious.  From the very beginning, starting with a girl waking in the night, we get the impression of a dream landscape, and so a magical journey is no more unexpected than in, for example, The Nutcracker.  And yet there’s no journey to the Land of the Sweets in our book; from our girl’s backyard to the forests, it’s all a journey through snow.  In other words, it never stops being realistic, even though it’s dreamlike and magical from the very first page.

But let’s take another look at the art.  You see, the very same balancing act is going on in the art as in the story.  On the one hand, you have the dreamy haziness of the black and white, which functions (again, think of The Tea Party in the Woods) as a muted reflection of the world: familiar, but a bit unfamiliar at the same time.  You’ll also notice as you read that it starts out darker, a nighttime scene, but gets whiter and whiter as you progress farther into the snowy landscape with the story.  (I’m sorry, this is where I’d normally talk about the medium the illustrator used, but, sadly, I can’t find that information!  I’d hazard a guess at pencils and maybe charcoal.  Perhaps also some digital effects.)

And yet, even through the dreamlike shades of charcoal-like blacks, greys, and whites, we’re constantly being grounded into reality by occasional pops of colour.  Our girl’s red scarf, the orange in the cat’s fur, and a variety of red accents on the other children’s clothing all serve to bring us back to the realism of playing in the snow.  And there’s something else I wonder whether a non-parent would notice: Bomi Park gets the posture of a young child bending over in a snowsuit spot-on perfect, absolutely 100% real.  Children move and bend their legs differently in snowsuits, and that touch of realism makes me smile every time I flip through this book.

You know, I grew up in a very snowy place (New Brunswick, Canada), and I have to say that it’s been a long time since I saw anyone capture what perfect, fresh snow feels like as well as this book does.  I’d say that it handles snow as beautifully as Ellen Bryan Obed handled ice in Twelve Kinds of Ice.  And as winter begins to arrive in earnest, I can use a book like this to remind me of the beauties and joys of the season.  So I have one recommendation right now:  Go and get this book (it’s 20% off at the Harvard Book Store!), and then read it with your kid.  Then get bundled up together and just walk outside and see what winter looks like for you.

Who? What? Where?

Dear everyone who’s stopped by my blog only to mutter: “Who? What? Where?”

I’m sorry.  I’m writing my dissertation and fighting demons at the same time, and it gets a little hectic!  Also the Changeling caught a nasty cold last week.  In short: I was prevented from writing here by Life Happening.

I will be back very soon with a proper post (boy, do I have some great books to share with you all!), but in the meantime, do you remember this book?  Who Done It? by Olivier Tallec?  Well, Chronicle Books has another of his!  The same cute concept, some of the same cute characters, but a new little hunting game.  It has the Changeling’s stamp of approval already.  Go here to check it out!  Who?  What?  Where?

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