A Castle Full of Cats

While keenly aware that if I run this right after my Little Red Riding Hood post I run the risk of being “one of those cat blogs” (so sorry, Daddy), this Sunday I went to my favourite store in the entire universe again: The Children’s Book Shop.  What that means is that I came back with new material for you all.  And yet here I am writing about a book I got last time I went there.  It goes like this: when I go into a shop like that and casually pick up another copy of that book I got last time because I need to give it to someone for a gift, honestly, I do, no, it’s not just because I want to hold it in my hands at all times… well, isn’t that a sign it’s a book I need to talk about here?

Castle Full of Cats

Those who know me may say that any book called A Castle Full of Cats, written and illustrated by Ruth Sanderson gets its own post here on the basis of the title alone, but those people are wrong for the following reasons: a) If it didn’t work for me and fell flat I’d be too angry to write about it, and, anyway, I intend only to write about books I like (what’s the point of writing about books you hate?); b) Did you know there are cat books I don’t like?  Oh, there are plenty; c) Shut up, Daddy, I do so like books that aren’t about cats– I wrote about Madlenka’s Dog once.  I run my selection process here by a complex and most stringent algorithm written up in Python using processes too technical to share with you, but, to simplify it for the plebes, it can roughly be translated as such: Do I love this book oh so very much that I have got to write about it right now so help me God?  And with this book, well, when I went right into that store, ran over to the appropriate spot on the shelf and yanked it off?  “It’s… for a present,” I muttered, hugging it.  (“Maybe I should get two,” I thought.  But I resisted.  Because there was only one on the shelf and I was embarrassed to ask for a second.)  Well, when that happened I knew there was more to it than “contains cats.”  “Contains cats” will get a look from me.  It won’t get love.

What got love?  I’ll admit one thing up front: this is still a bit too old for the Changeling.  It’s not that she doesn’t sit through it or like it.  On the contrary, she really loves the pictures, poking through and naming the cats and finding the ones that look most like the ones she knows.  She enjoys it.  But there are elements of the story and illustrations which are just over her head and make this more of a book for me than for her for the moment, whereas a book like The Tea Party in the Wood spoke to both of us differently and more-or-less equally.  This one is here for both of us to enjoy, but is waiting patiently for the Changeling to grow and find certain jokes and plot points click as the months go by.  I can tell that’s going to happen.  So, we both do enjoy it, but this is largely my perspective right now.

The basic story goes as follows: A king and queen live together in a charming castle.  The year appears to be, perhaps, 1779.  I think we can assume we’re living in a parallel universe France where the tiers état is happy and satisfied and we needn’t worry about what would happen to aristocratic cats come the Revolution.  This is a calm, lovely, happy, watercolour Baroque world, one where you just want to fall in through the pages of the book, stroke the cats, and run loving fingers across the soft damasked upholstery.

But I digress: the king and queen are living happily, and the king presents the queen with a pair of charming kittens.  She is delighted, and, when you turn the page, you see the whole castle swarming with cats.  The cats know the queen adores them, and she provides them with fish for every meal, right at the table with her and the king (who would maybe appreciate a filet mignon from time to time).  She paints portraits of them, she cuddles them, and they’re happy, except… except they’re concerned that the king might not love them.  They leave him gifts, play games and frolic, but somehow they don’t seem to be able to win him over– until one day the king loses patience: “That’s it! I’ve had enough! / He dropped his spoon. / He grabbed his cane. / He marched off in a huff!”  Allow me to relieve you of your terror: He does return, but what can he do to make all well and resolve the problem in the castle so that he, the queen, and the cats can all live happily together?  Dare I tell you?

Oh, I’m awful at keeping secrets!  He brings them all presents: flowers for the queen and a big, beautiful, cuddly dog for the cats.  They’re all thrilled, and the cats are so busy playing with their new friend that the king and queen are even seen to be dining (on chicken– he must be thrilled!) by themselves.  And they all live happily ever after.

The story itself is, in a word, charming.  The cats’ behaviour is generally catlike: it’s not falsely sweet (as in every silly boardbook), and it’s not falsely evil (as in every adult book).  It’s true, and real, and translated for human readers so that we can chuckle along and sympathize as kittens investigate instruments, knock over books, and leave mice in the king’s shoes.  It’s not so ploddingly realistic as to be boring, I hasten to add, anticipating cat-lovers’ corrections: has anyone seen dozens of cats gathered at a table eating out of bowls?  Right.  But it’s realistic enough to give you that chuckle of recognition: two of the kittens hop right up  on the table to help themselves from a platter or nibble from another cat’s bowl.

All of this is rendered in gorgeous watercolour, with sufficient authentic Baroque detail to make the adult reader’s heart go pitter-pat, but with enough kittenish antics to make pet-lovers of all ages smile and laugh.  As I said, the Changeling can excitedly pore over the pictures with for ages, pointing out who “looks like Remy” and who “looks like Penny” and declaring “let’s find Guinness!”  She also enjoys the gentle, rhyming rhythm of the text.  I, for my part, secretly analyze the furniture and clothes and admire the lush textures Ruth Sanderson manages to get across with her glorious watercolours (I didn’t see any prints from this book for sale on her website, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be later– this book is pretty new).  And, of course, I love the cats’ antics and the gentle, joyous surprise of the dog’s arrival.

And for everyone, cat-lover or not, adult or child, I think the story is valuable: without didactic baggage or getting too heavy, here’s a gentle story of love, friendship, and how compromise can lead to greater happiness for all, not lesser happiness for some.  As the Changeling grows to click with more and more of the little jokes in the book, I hope that’s another note that will click.

OK, husband of mine: Now can I have another cat, and also a dog?  It works so well in the book…

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The Baby in the Hat

This morning, as the Changeling was eating a grapefruit with her customary intensity and seriousness, I popped the question: “Which books do you like best of all?”  The question was chewed over with as much seriousness as the grapefruit.  “A Bird Is a Bird,” came first, of course, but we soon got to The Baby in the Hat, by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated in gouache by André Amstutz.  “What do you like about The Baby in the Hat?” I asked.  Her face glowed, bouncing right out of that seriousness: “The ships!”

Baby in the Hat

Ah, my plan continues apace.  One day, I tell you, one day in the future, the Changeling and I will run away to sea in a tall ship and sail far and wide, see remarkable things, and return, baked by the sun and beaten by the wind, to see our old world with new eyes.  (My husband is welcome, too, I promise, but he seems to be less fond of boats than my daughter and I.  It’s the only thing about him I find truly odd.  How can you not love boats?)  Anyway, yes, I have read all of Patrick O’Brian’s books, and I love them truly, madly, deeply.  Well, The Baby in the Hat is like Patrick O’Brian on training wheels: same world, same time period, but without the, ahem, scandals, and aimed at… oh, crap, I really need to write up a post about why I’m bad at gauging age.  The School Library Journal puts this as Kindergarten to Grade 2, and Barnes and Noble says 5+.  That sounds OK to me, except the Changeling is two and a half and she loves this book with a pretty fierce passion.  And I’m nearly 29 and I love this book with equal passion.  Maybe she’s precocious and I’m a slow bloomer?  I dunno.

I have one burning question about this book: the US edition was published by Candlewick in 2008.  It is now 2016 and you’ll note that I linked you to AbeBooks above (you can also find many copies on the Amazon Marketplace and elsewhere).  You will not find it at your local bookstore.  It seems to have… disappeared.  My burning question?  Why?  My Candlewick, my Candlewick, why hast thou forsaken me?  I love you, Candlewick: why not let me buy copies for everyone, bankrupt my family, endure a foreclosure on our condo, anything but let this book go out of print?  OK, maybe not all of that, but I will say that sometimes the vagaries of the book market astonish me, and I think this book is a gem that will hopefully get itself the cult following it deserves.  Please do me the honour of allowing me to prove to you why it deserves at least a visit from you at the library, if not tear-soaked letters to Candlewick to bring it back into print if at all possible.

Let’s start with the glorious illustrations.  You’ve been to an art gallery, right?  Seen some 19th C masterpieces?  This book is not composed of 19th C masterpieces.  Instead, the vivid and charming pictures evoke J. M. W. Turner (think The Fighting Temeraire) and Jacques-Louis David, but with humour, affection, and sensitivity.  You get the wonderful ships, of course, the gently curling Romantic-era hair, the sweeping cloth and dramatically outstretched arms in battle scenes.  You also get cats chasing mice across the ship, tumbling sailors, and humorous faces.

One of the sweetest and funniest aspects of the illustrations is woven directly in with the story, however, so let’s get to that.  The story is told in the first person by the friend of the main character.  Think of The Great Gatsby, only good.  (Sorry, I know I just drowned my credibility in the stormy sea, but I stand by my position, as I stand by my dislike of The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.)  Our narrator is a serious, bespectacled youth, who grows to be a serious, bespectacled man.  Serious, as my daughter is serious in eating her grapefruit, but equally apt to break into a warm, glowing smile as the main character achieves great things: catches a baby in his hat, uses his reward money to go to London, falls onto a ship and ends up at sea, rises in the ranks as he battles pirates and the French (NB: if you don’t hum or sing La Marseillaise at this point then, I’m sorry, but you’re reading the book wrong), and ultimately returns home, a wealthy captain, to fall in love with a lovely young woman who… oh, dare I spoil the ending for you?  No, I can’t do it.  Go read the book.

But didn’t I tell you that there was some aspect of the illustration which was woven into this thrilling tale with sweetness and humour?  That comes through the commentary.  At various points throughout the story, we get little word bubbles of commentary.  At first, these come directly from our narrator, who might poke his smiling face around the edge of the page to say, “Believe me!” in a fine script, but, as our main character is swept away to sea, others take on the same role: a seagull, sailors, a mermaid in the Southern Seas– everyone joins in, and this mischievous and lovely chorus of voices brings together text and illustration in a wonderful way.  It’s a picture book, not a graphic novel (the story itself is told in plain text), but it has that same quality of interaction between the characters and the story and the reader that you find in the very best graphic novels.  I imagine, for example, that Charles Vess and Neil Gaiman would love this book.

The swashbuckling tale, the romance, the soft but vivid illustrations, the humour and whimsy– the best overall word I can think of for this book is lively.  It bounces right off the page, it makes you smile and laugh and sing martial or nautical songs and national anthems, and sends you straight to harbour to choose yourself a ship.

Ahoy there, readers!  Grab yourself a copy, and be not tardy or I’ll cut down yer hammock!  See you on deck at six bells.

Little Red Riding Hood

“Remy has big eyes!”

“The better to see you with, my dear.”

“Woofy has big ears!”

“The better to hear you with, my dear.” (transcribed from a conversation with the Changeling)

Yes, Little Red Riding Hood: it’s become automatic, hasn’t it?  It’s as much a part of our language as the King James translation of the Bible: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,” “Be strong and of good courage,” and so on.  The way we use them might be, shall we say, frequently divorced from the original context, but, Lord Almighty, the Bible has permeated our daily speech to the point that we talk about our “daily bread” even when we’re on a carbs-free or gluten-free diet.

Fairy tales have also made their way into the collective fabric of our thought (sorry about the grandiose language there), but more through tropes than through language: everything comes in groups of threes; if you lose a shoe, it’s made of glass; if you kill a giant, your name’s probably Jack.  And (shhh… don’t tell God) I think I’m even crazier about fairy tale infiltration of our word-world than the Bible’s, pretty as that often is (try this: “Many waters cannot quench love,” from Song of Songs– lovely, right?).  As I said, however, what fascinates me is that while both literature groups have become so familiar to us, the Bible’s language seems to have had a profound effect on the words we use, whereas in folk and fairy tales it’s the tropes which have achieved that level of familiarity.   What I mean here is that, in fairy tales, tropes remain consistent from tale to tale, whereas language can change radically between retellings.  To put it as plainly as possible: three sons are familiar to us, but the precise words they use are not.

Let me stop you right now: Yes, I am generalizing so badly that they’re going to call me up any minute now and revoke my academic permit, I know this, so bear with me a while longer.  Also, I want to put in a few caveats here: a) I’m just musing here based on what I’ve noticed and strikes me as curious, so forgive me for the lack of footnotes or proper research; b) My credentials?  Um… well, I read a lot of fairy tales and have spent many years doing so.  By no means am I an Opie or Zipes or Ziolkowski, and I by no means claim to be anywhere near their level here.  I humbly bow to anyone else’s greater knowledge or experience.  (If you are Jan Ziolkowski?  Hey, call me, let’s talk fairy tales!)

See, I told you it wouldn’t take long, because right here is where I am immediately going to overturn what I just said about tropes vs. language by referring you upwards: Little Red Riding Hood.  Generally, I stand by what I said: there are certain patterns from fairy tales which you can casually reference almost anywhere and your audience will get you (three sons, where the youngest succeeds).  But Little Red Riding Hood is a bit different.  First of all, by no means are wolves generally bad or little old ladies generally innocent in fairy tales.  By no means is there even a clear, consistent lesson between all tellings of Red Riding Hood except, probably, “don’t trust strangers.”  Is the wolf representing creepy, predatory men you should avoid?  Or is the message to listen to your mother’s instructions?  That part isn’t so consistent.  Well, what is consistent in this story from version to version?  Or, to put it another way: What has endured in the collective Western memory of this story?*  I’d answer: the very conversation I started you out with, and the wording it came from: “Grandmother!  What big, hairy ears you have grown!”

Now, I want to point something out to you.  What edition or version of Little Red Riding Hood did I just quote?  Anyone, anyone?  You in the back?  Oh, you were just scratching your ear.  You don’t know, do you?  That said, everyone recognized the line, right?  Yes, you did.  In other words, the words have made it into our memories.  Wolves could mean a lot of things: in some stories, wolves save the hero, but in this story, the wolf is dangerous.  What rings comfortable familiarity for us in this case is the wording, of all things, despite the fact that I just conclusively and exhaustively proved that the familiarity of fairy tales comes from tropes, not languages.**  OK, let me spare you the suspense and, at the same time, clear my own head of excitement: I’m quoting, and plan to discuss, Little Red Riding Hood retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.  I am here to tell you that it gets across both the weird and wonderful richness of fairy tale trope and the familiarity of language we know and expect.  These are woven together in both text and illustration as only Trina Schart Hyman is capable of.

Little Red Riding Hood TSH

Right here, right now, I’m going to apologize to my father.  He is probably reading along saying, “Hmmm, clever enough.  I wish you’d actually cite something, Deborah, but you’re doing quite well… wait, now you’re going to talk about cats?  For crying out loud, Deb, still with the cats?”  Yes, I’m sorry.  I’m really sorry, but we’re switching gears from high criticism to… cats.  Why?  Because I firmly believe that Trina Schart Hyman, in her endless genius, uses cats to excellent effect in her illustrations here: they tumble playfully, kittens and cats together, at her mother’s home; one sleek, black creature follows Red Riding Hood through the woods, just to the side of her encounter with the wolf; the grandmother has a cat who observes the wolf, while Red Riding Hood’s cat pursues the huntsman until he finally goes to check on the grandmother; and both cats joyfully greet the grandmother and Red Riding Hood once they are saved.

These cats never turn up in the text.  They are wild, walk by themselves, unacknowledged by the author, but intimate with the illustrator.  They add immensely to our understanding of the story, but never, ever in the text.  Well, I ask you: Is the wolf a creepy man or a beast?  Is a wolf bad or good?  Is an old woman in a cottage an innocent or a witch?  Is Red Riding Hood a child or on the verge of womanhood?  Is sex involved or not?***  With all these unanswered questions about this story, why not add: Are there any cats in this story?  And are the cats signs of domesticity and comfort, or of an element of wildness half-tamed?  To me, they are like words that are as familiar as our daily bread, and yet make our skin prickle ever so slightly with discomfort.

If there is one woman out there it guts me to think I will never meet, it’s Trina Schart Hyman.  She died in 2004, as I found out two years ago, and I cried when I read that.  I wanted so badly to be able to say “thank you” to her, and now I knew I never could.  It was her Snow White and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins I knew growing up, and I only saw Little Red Riding Hood recently when my sister gave me this book for my birthday (she knows me well).  When I read it, it felt like someone had pulled the story out of my brain and put it on paper.  Familiar and strange, knowing more than I’d known I knew, it glowed with shadows on the page (sorry, sorry, I’ll cut out the grandiloquence).

Do yourself a favour, and get yourself a loaf of new bread, some sweet butter, and a glass of wine.  Then shut the doors to strangers and friends, and quietly read this book with your cat winking at you from the shadows.

*Jeepers, can you tell I’ve got my academic coat on today?  Get me talking about language, tropes, versions, retellings, etc. and I suddenly start getting very choosy with my language!  I could have just said, “What’s familiar to us?” but I had to go all fancy and precise.

**OK, I can’t help it.  There is one other case I can think of where the wording in a fairy tale means familiarity: Hansel and Gretel, when the witch says, “Nibble, nibble, little mouse. Who is nibbling at my house?”  If you can think of anything else, let me know, but these are the only two instances which occur to me.

***The Opies say there ain’t no sex involved, absolutely not, and I’m going with them because the thought creeps me out just a bit too much.  On the other hand, a part of me suspects they’re probably wrong.  Oh God, I hope they’re right….

 

The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs

Today is most unusual in this little corner of children’s book blogging.  Normally I choose books to write about by a carefully honed algorithm of “oh, this book’s great, I really feel like talking about this one!”  Yesterday, Annabelle inspired me.  “Yes,” thought I, “she’s so amazing!  Who’s another kick-ass female protagonist in children’s books?”  And my absolute favourite, bar none, popped right into my head: Jillian Jiggs.  There are a number of books about Jillian Jiggs, but the one that was easiest to hand today, and which I truly believe best illustrates her as a kick-ass female protagonist is The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs, written and illustrated by Phoebe Gilman.  Note that I linked you to AbeBooks, because that’s the easiest place to get it these days (oh boy, anger’s bubbling…).  Here’s the Scholastic Canada page, but how you actually order it is a mystery to me.  You basically can’t find it in the United States (growl…), and if I don’t stop myself right here I’m going to end up using language most unsuitable for a mild-mannered blogger of charming children’s books because holy fuck why is it so hard to find this book south of the border?  Someone, please, get to marketing this book pronto or I may have to start a cross-border march: “Bring Us Jillian!”  (Note that these are pictures from my camera, since it’s hard to find good pictures online.)

DSC_0455

OK, let’s start off by thinking about those words “kick-ass female protagonist.”  I want to be clear right here, right now: I’m not talking about a trying-so-hard didactic book about how “a girl can do that, too, you know!”  That’s boring and insulting to everyone.  Of course a girl can “do that, too” (except in exceedingly specialized cases inappropriate for children’s books), and I don’t admire patronizing dreck.  I’m talking about a good book: a book which is about a kid who has crazy ideas, follows through on them, grapples with challenges, and comes out triumphant.  Her name is Jillian Jiggs, and I love her.  I love that she’s a little bit crazy and thoughtless (what kid isn’t?), I love that she reminds me of some of my favourite people rolled into one (crazy ideas like my sister, bubbly like my best friend, problem-solver like another one of my friends…), and I love that she cheerfully pitches into her projects head-first because what could possibly go wrong?  I love that she acts quickly and faces consequences later– and there are consequences, because this is life.  I love that she is, in every way, a real child, but maybe does some of the things we dream of, as children, but don’t quite dare to do.  When I was little, I know that I dreamed through Jillian Jiggs, much as I did through Pippi Longstocking, later.

So, what are her crazy ideas?  Well, one day, Jillian Jiggs cleans up her room (wonder of wonders!), and, in the process she finds a jar full of buttons that look just like the noses of pigs.  She makes little pigs out of tights and plans to sell them.  She makes all kinds of little pigs, in all kinds of outfits– lady pigs in old-fashioned lace, vampires, pirates, and babies.  She even names them!  (Oh, you know where this is going, don’t you?)  She and her crew (her little sister and her friends, Rachel and Peter) gather all the pigs and march down the street to sell the pigs.  Her customers line up with dimes in hand, ready to buy her entire stock… and then crisis hits: Jillian Jiggs loves her pigs.  How can she sell them?  But the mind of the truly creative entrepreneur finds a way!  How about selling a how-to lesson, instead?  (Seriously, someone get Craftsy on the phone with Jillian Jiggs!  This could be big…)  The disappointed and angry customers (and Phoebe, genius that she was, shows you the whole range of emotions on those little faces) become happy customers, and everyone’s satisfied.

That’s the basic story, and I think you can see how plucky and creative Jillian is.  But that doesn’t nearly get across the exuberance and joy of the book: that comes through the lovely rhyming  couplets, Phoebe Gilman’s extraordinary art, and the unspoken message, reinforced by a tutorial at the end, that you can do it, too.  Go on, give it a try!  Even without being able to understand the tutorial page, my Changeling announced that she wanted to make a pig, too: Jillian’s excitement is palpable throughout the book, the gleam of the next great idea fairly bounces from page to page, and it inspires you without ever directly instructing you to be inspired.  How about a doctor? or robots! or maybe a princess.

DSC_0460

Each page murmurs quietly, “How could you dress a pig to get that idea across?”  And then the illustrations fill in the gaps: the stub of a pencil becomes the pirate’s wooden leg, while pipe cleaners make robot antennae.  Anything is possible in the world of “Jillian, Jillian, Jillian Jiggs,/ Maker of wonderful, marvelous pigs!”  And, you know, she gets caught up in her own work, too: “She might still be sitting there, sewing away,/ Except Rachel and Peter came over to play.”  We all love the pigs.

OK, scroll back up and read those lines aloud.  Then tell me: doesn’t that feel and sound good?  The whole book is that fun to read, especially when you get to do Jillian’s voice: “‘I simply can’t do it.  It’s over. I’m through…’/ Then all of a sudden she knew what to do./ Step right up, friends! Have lots of fun!/ Sew your own pigs! Learn how it’s done!'”  And, with that, Jillian takes her disappointed customers and turns the situation around.  (Note that, as with Here Babies, There Babies, you and your child should be able to find someone who looks like you at some point in the book; it just reflects life honestly, without making a fuss.)  A very successful startup, run by a creative and charming CEO, indeed, and one of Canada’s foremost proponents of the textile arts.  I love it.

I don’t know if I even think this is the very, very best of Phoebe Gilman’s books.  I have a special soft spot for Grandma and the Pirates, and for The Balloon Tree, and the original Jillian Jiggs book is fantastic, too, and then there’s the one book which did make it south of the border: Something from Nothing.  How to quantify which is the best?  Oy.  Look, give me a break, I am but a humble kids’ book blogger.  Another day I’ll write about another of her books, and then you can amiably argue over which is better– I sure as hell don’t know.  But, right now, while I was thinking about Annabelle, about tough girls who can go for it and do great things?  Jillian’s pig project reminded me a lot of the first day I sat down to write here for the first time: “Hey, here’s an idea!  Let’s go for it.”  And I hope the Changeling will have her own moments of “Hey, why not?” too.

Oh, and don’t let me forget– I need to rustle up some pig components.  I don’t think I have any spare tights in the house…

Extra Yarn

I have a friend.  Not just any friend; I hope we all have a fair few friends.  But I hope everyone also has a friend like my friend: when I was pregnant, this friend brought me a baby present.  This present was a book, which is already a good start.  The book was called Extra Yarn, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen.  What this demonstrates is that my friend Knows Me, with those uppercase letters used consciously.  It’s wonderful when people provide you with good and useful things before you have a baby– soft blankets, sturdy burp cloths, pretty clothes.  It’s lovely, and I’m touched and grateful.  But when someone looks around and says, “Deborah would not want to bring her baby into a house without a charming new book about yarn and knitting for that child,” then?  Then you know that you should make that person the executor of your will (thanks, lady!).

Extra Yarn

Have you ever knit something?  Let me tell you: there’s nothing quite so terrifying as the moment when you’ve been knitting merrily along, feel your ball of yarn, and get an “uh oh…” feeling, as in, “That feels a bit… small?”  Maybe you weigh it to see if you have enough left.  Maybe you knit faster, trying to outrun the yarn.  Maybe you knit more slowly, on the basis that “haste makes waste.”  But there’s nothing like the sinking feeling when you’re sure, oh so sure, your yarn is going to run out!  But way on the other side of the spectrum is the placid security that comes with an assurance that you’ve got Extra Yarn.  Maybe enough for a matching hat?  Or matching socks for your baby?  You feel peaceful, at ease, even a little smug.  And that’s the peace we see in Annabelle, one of the most confident protagonists I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet in a book.  Let me tell you: I want to be Annabelle when I grow up.

The story is one of the most engaging I’ve written about here: Annabelle lives in a colourless town, but one day she finds a box filled with yarn of every colour.  She knits herself a sweater, but has extra yarn.  So she ends up knitting sweaters for everyone she knows.  Then for the animals, then for buildings and cars, and, through it all, she never runs out of yarn, she just carries on placidly knitting.  It’s a knitter’s fantasy.  Then an evil Archduke comes and steals the box!  Only, when he gets to his castle, he opens the box… and it’s empty.  He throws it out the window with a curse, but the box ignores the curse and goes back where it was always meant to be– with Annabelle.

I think this marks the first time I’ve written here about a book where the plot and character were the driving force in what made me fall in love.  (OK, yes, and the yarn.)  Annabelle, throughout the book, runs into mild to forceful opposition.  And yet she never talks back.  She never whines.  She never raises her voice.  She never caves.  She just carries on knitting.  You can see in Jon Klassen’s wonderful drawings: her face maintains a slight smile, and perfect repose.  To put it in a somewhat more blunt fashion, she shares John Scalzi’s Christmas gift from this year (I promise you want to click the link).  When her friend Nate laughs at her sweater, she says, “You’re just jealous,” and knits him one, too.  That shuts him up.  At school, her teacher scolds her for distracting the other students with her colourful sweater, so she just knits them all sweaters, too (and, I hope, teaches Mr. Norman a lesson– dude, don’t tell your students “You can’t.”).  And when the Archduke tries to buy her beloved yarn, she just calmly turns him down, over and over again, and sends him away.  As my sister would have said when she was little, Annabelle is a “big strong girl.”  More than that, she’s tough.  She’s resilient.

And that’s where I truly love this book.  Annabelle is the model here.  The adults don’t teach her; she teaches them, if they care to learn.  Some of the adults she meets are fun and give you a good chuckle (“Mr. Crabtree […] never wore sweaters or even long pants, and […] would stand in his shorts with the snow up to his knees.  ‘No sweater for me, thanks,’ said Mr. Crabtree.  So she made Mr. Crabtree a hat.”), but more often they’re minor obstacles.  I’ve mentioned Mr. Norman, the teacher who tells her off for distracting the class by quietly wearing her sweater, and who, when she proposes to rectify the situation by knitting everyone sweaters, expostulates, “Impossible!  […]  You can’t.”  Annabelle doesn’t answer back; she just does it.  And as for the spoiled, petulant, domineering Archduke?  Annabelle quietly carries on doing her own thing, sticking up for herself, and the yarn chooses her in the end.  He throws a temper tantrum, but she just carries on carrying on, and is happy.

This is just a story about a girl doing her knitting.  From Annabelle’s perspective, I think the world around her is just full of big opportunities and minor nuisances.  I picture her, if the book were turned into a movie (Oh my God, Mac and Jon?  Can you make that happen???  This would be such a good animated short!), occasionally sighing, or flashing that slight smile at Mr. Norman as she casts on a new sweater.  Perhaps the Archduke would elicit so much as a little shrug, as thought to say, “Dude, just leave me alone, OK?”  But her focus is on what makes life fun for her, not on the nuisances, and, in the end, she gets more of what she pays attention to: knitting.

The Changeling took to this book immediately.  “Read me Extra Yarn,” she’ll beg.  Or she’ll add it to the pile of books to take with us when we travel.  One of my very favourite moments was when she took it over to my friend, now her friend, too, and clambered onto her lap.  “Read it to me, please?”  And, as they went through the book, the Changeling did what she always does: “And she knit a sweater for the doggie!  And that’s a cat!  I see a bunny, and a bird, and is that the birdie’s house?  They all have sweaters!”  It’s enthralling.

I love seeing her admire Annabelle’s handiwork.  I hope, as she grows up with Annabelle, she’ll also learn just to do, and keep on doing, awesome things, no matter who tries to persuade her that she can’t or shouldn’t.  Just go for it, kiddo!

Jamberry

Do you ever get something in your head and end up chanting or singing and dancing your way around your empty house, possibly scooping up your poor, defenseless kitty in the process?  Don’t worry, I won’t make you answer that.  But I will reveal the full depths of my own embarrassment: for me, this morning, it was Jamberry, written and illustrated by Bruce Degen (I link to Porter Square Books, the marvellous, well-curated store where I bought my copy).  After reading it to the Changeling a few times this weekend, I couldn’t get it out of my head and spent the morning dancing around the living room, stumbling over Calico Critters, and swinging my patient cat through the air while chanting: “One berry/ Two Berry/ Pick me a blueberry!”

Jamberry

This was when I had a “click” moment.  I should know by now never to doubt my mother when she makes a remark about a children’s book, but when she compared Here Babies, There Babies to Jamberry I confess that my thought was, “Really?  I mean, they’re both rhyming stories, but so is Jillian Jiggs, for example, and, well, I just don’t see it.”  But after I read Here Babies, There Babies to the Changeling last week we spent a few days, as usual, chanting about babies in the most random places.  “I see a baby!” the Changeling would call from her stroller.  “Here babies, there babies…” and off she’d go.  That’s when Jamberry ever so gently started to nudge my brain again.

Then the Changeling started to play “going under the bridge” as she ducked under her stroller handlebar.  “And over the dam,” I went on, “Looking for berries, berries for jam!”  Next thing you know, we’re in full-on Jamberry mode: we read it a few times, and our natural mode of discourse seamlessly moved from Here Babies, There Babies to Jamberry.  We speak in berry rhymes (Merry rhymes, fairy rhymes, prattle in berry rhymes!  Sorry, folks, that one wasn’t even any good, was it?), we sing strawberries, we dance in meadows of strawberry jam… um, I mean in the living room.  It’s jubilantly moved in and taken over.

What is it about these books?  Why do they take over in a way that other charmingly rhyming books don’t?  There are lovely rhyming books, such as Each, Peach, Pear, Plum or Jillian Jiggs, books I desperately want to write about here.  They entertain when you read them, and then nestle nicely back onto the shelf when you’re through.  They don’t take over your tongue and make you dance in your sheepy pyjamas for the next day.

Partly, of course, it may be a question of metre: Jamberry‘s initial dactyls (“One berry/ Two berry/ Pick me a blueberry.”) rumble along like a folk dance to a drum, but then swap out for longer lines, most of which end with a bouncy stressed syllable: “Under the bridge/ And over the dam/ Looking for berries/ Berries for jam.”  This slight shift sweeps you along with the canoe in the picture, and if you don’t find yourself swinging your child on your knees?  Well, that probably means you decided to swing your child in your arms instead, right?  Right?  You’ve gotta move with this one, you really have.

And that’s because this little story here isn’t about the story.  Like Here Babies, There Babies where the emphasis is on the babies around you, not on a specific tale, Jamberry does have characters and a plot of sorts, but the emphasis is elsewhere: on jammy jubilation.  I don’t think I’ve ever read it without laughing at least a little at one point or another.  The beat and the song of it, the increasingly zany pictures, the berry-stained fingers and mouths, and the sudden urge to grab a pail and find some berries… well, that’s what this is about.  You read it and feel celebratory.  You read it and feel warm sun and sweet berries.  You read it and sing.  You read it and dance.

Oh, and there’s also a boy in there, and he meets a bear and they pick some berries.  Not really sure about how the bear has a hat, but he seems like a nice bear.  And I think that maybe CPS should check on the kid’s family because he seems to be seeing elephants skating on raspberry jam, which is, in my experience, unusual.

You see?  This is not a book where you should, as it were, focus on the story.  Sing it, move to it, dance your kid around to it– but, for the love of God, check your logic at the door.  (Which is, of course, where it differs from Here Babies, There Babies, initially leading me to doubt the wisdom of my mother.  That book feels intensely real, leading its own singsong verses to blend into the world around it.)

I’d add one last note here: Jamberry‘s fantastical celebration of berries is so very zany, so ebullient, and so jubilant that it really has a tendency to break through barriers and take over.  As I said, it takes over language and makes you hum it over and over.  It makes you use words like “ebullient.”  It also takes over seasons.  It might be February (albeit a very warm February), but it feels like June when you read Jamberry.  It’s really the polar opposite of Moominland Midwinter, which, as I noted feels like the epitome of winter.  Moominland Midwinter I only ever feel like reading when it’s starkly, icily, snowily cold.  Jamberry?  It makes February into June and has me wondering where I can get strawberries that taste like something.

What does the Changeling think?  “Berries for jam!” she cries, flinging her hands up.  Does she eat jam?  No, absolutely not.  Never, ever, ever.  (She won’t touch ice cream or candy, either.  I’m thinking of asking the doctor if she’s OK, and what else we can use as bribery.)  But she does love the pictures, and she does love the words, and the animals, and berries.

So, what can I say?  Even if you don’t have a kid handy, get out your copy, and start dancing at your own Jamberry bacchanal!

The Tea Party in the Woods

I sometimes wonder if other people grew up in families with a favourite time period.  Ours was the Romantic period, I often think.  Let me explain: I don’t mean that my family’s house was furnished in a particular way (although our living room furniture is lovely) or that my parents dressed us in replica 19th C clothes, or that they dressed up.  They’re very practical, sensible people and would raise their eyebrows at the suggestion (or will send me a caustic email if they read this).  What I mean is that living in our house was an immersion course in love of the Romantics: there was an awful lot of Romantic music and literature around, and I grew up knowing that if you were talking about the “fantastic” in Romantic literature then there are certain rules or keys to look out for.  My favourite was always that when the fantastic episode was over, it could almost never have happened… almost, except that there might be one sign which would raise doubt: a rose in the wrong place, for example.  Did it, or did it not?  (Hey, if I got this wrong, Daddy, you can correct me.  After all, I never studied this stuff, I just grew up hearing you talk about it!)

The Tea Party in the Woods, written and illustrated by Akiko Miyakoshi could almost be a starter story in the fantastic.  Almost, except that it defies adult expectations.  This book, the other Kids Can Press book I found at the Harvard Book Store, is translated from the Japanese, with the English edition edited by Yvette Ghione and Katie Scott.  It is beautiful to read, and beautiful to look at.

Tea Party in the Woods

The story goes that a girl, Kikko, realizes that her father has left the house without the pie he meant to bring to her grandmother.  She runs after him with the pie only to realize, at last, that she has followed a bear, not her father, and has ended up at a strange tea party of animals in the woods.  In her rush, she had crushed the original pie, so the animals provide her with a new one assembled from the tea party, and guide her safely to her grandmother’s house.  The illustrations are all a soft, dreamlike black and white, with pops of vibrant colour in Kikko’s red hat and mittens and yellow hair, as well as occasional red and yellow sparks among the animals.

Any adult reader, educated by the experience of reading Alice in Wonderland, watching The Nutcracker, or just spending five minutes talking to my parents, would go in with certain expectations.  The animals are evidently a quasi-dream sequence: maybe they are there, maybe they aren’t!  We know this because the soft, charcoal-like dreaminess of the forest tells us that we’re in for dreams here.  Of course this is going to be your child’s first book about the fantastic and she’s going to learn the rules of that type of story.  (Let me note that the Kids Can Press page I linked to above even says, “The ambiguous ending — in which it is not clear whether Kikko imagined the tea party or if the animals simply disappeared back into the woods — provides a terrific opportunity for children to weigh in on what they think happened.”  I think it’s lovely that they let parents think that!)  Well, the thing is that Kikko is very clear at the end about what happened:

“You’re never alone in the woods,” Kikko answered, smiling.

She was sure her new friends were listening.

I love that ending, fiercely and passionately.  She knows what’s going on.  This is no Alice waking up and having a curious dream.  This is no poor, messed-up Dorothy.  Kikko is confident, she’s clear on what’s happened, and she’s moving forward, smiling, surrounded by friends.  She shares her red and yellow with the animals in the woods, and they all share the dreamy black and white.  Kikko, the animals, your children reading this–all of them know the rules here: what you think has happened, has happened.  Don’t doubt, don’t be scared, it’s fine.  The bear is a bear, even if he is wearing a coat and hat.  The parents?  We’re the ones at sea.  We, lured on by years of reading ambiguities and dreams, expect doubts, distrust straightforwardness.  Kikko surprises us, and I have never, ever been happier to be surprised.

I thought this was going to be a lovely, sweet book.  I expected a fairytale tenderness and shyness, maybe with just that special tinge of the strange and fantastic.  I got that, but I got something more: I got a confidence in dreams and reliance on the fantastic which I hadn’t experienced since… oh, I don’t know.  I guess maybe I had that when I first heard La symphonie fantastique?  Before I got really sick of the second movement when 96.3 FM in Toronto played only the second movement every single day of the week, blast them.  In any case, The Tea Party in the Woods restored a sense that strange things really can have happened for sure, that children really can rely on their senses– and that sense and nonsense aren’t so far apart.

What’s really special, though, is that reading it with the Changeling made it so clear that we were each reading with our own, very different, experiences.  I noticed no surprise in her: talking bears aren’t so unusual, and so she went along with Kikko very happily, and the whole thing made sense.  Her only concern was in accurately identifying every single blasted animal in the book, and there are a lot of them (note to parents: maybe spend some time looking up the animals first so that you can answer questions readily and actually get through the story in under an hour); she didn’t mind about the ending at all.  I was the one who felt surprise.  I was the one who had my world shaken up.  She was on solid ground, among her own kind.

That’s a special moment to experience, watching your child’s confidence while you learn something.  This book puts the power in the child’s hands, and that?  That’s truly fantastic.

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Do you hate Itsy Bitsy Spider as much as I do?  The boring, slightly droning, melody, the pointless story, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it… the protagonist, an eight-legged beastie?  Not that I’m particularly scared of spiders.  My sister always was, but I was the one who killed the spiders: Deborah Spider-Slayer, you might call me.  In point of fact, I’d say that I have more cause to be afraid of spiders than she does, because if there were a conference of spiders (ick), then they’d probably look at me, with the blood of countless innocent spiders on my hands, and instantly slap a price on my head, while they’d never give her a second glance.  But the point is: no, I’m not really scared of spiders, I just don’t like them, and if you make me sing songs about them over and over again I may want to throttle you.  The YouTube videos are the worst– watching these stupid cartoon spiders which are supposed to be cute (nice try, people) scuttle around… they make me itch.  Itch to plant my fist in the computer screen and stop that tinny music, that stupid spider, that… pardon me.  I hate those videos.

Which is why I completely and totally adore Itsy Bitsy Spider by Richard Egielski.

Itsy Bitsy Spider.jpg

This book takes a boring song about a freaking spider and, to my frank astonishment, makes it charming.  What differentiates it from all of those trying-and-failing YouTube videos?  Oh, and believe me, believe me, I have done the research here.  I have sobbed my way silently and patiently through “the purple itsy bitsy spider,” “the pink itsy bitsy spider,” and even, God help me, “the blue itsy bitsy spider.”  They are not cute.  I’m sorry, Changeling, I know you like them, and you somehow even like the song without the aid of any additional media, but on that point our taste differs– sharply.

But Richard Egielski takes what I consider to be unpromising ingredients in the extreme and comes up with something frankly beautiful.  What does he do?  He makes a pop-up book.  I know, I know: I don’t like the song, I don’t like spiders, so why would I want it in a touchable, moving, 3D form?  Well, there’s the one major advantage of the book: you don’t have to hear the melody at all… until your kid learns to sing it by herself, that is, but at least even then it will be more pleasant to hear her than a tinny electronic rendition on YouTube.  Even so, I wouldn’t have expected to like a 3D spider wriggling out of a book, but it turns out that I was delighted to be surprised.

It’s not easy to define exactly how Richard Egielski’s Itsy Bitsy Spider works but the YouTube videos (in my view) fail, because it all comes down to illustration; the text and melody, of course, remain the same, and they are, again of course, a dead loss.  Illustration is the only real variable at play, and one easy way out is to say it’s all a matter of taste.  The Changeling likes the videos, right?  So maybe they’re actually OK and it’s just that they’re not to my taste.  OK, sure, that’s a valid point.  A totally valid cop-out if you want to take it, I say cheekily.  But I think there’s a real difference between the two types of illustration at play here, and not just of quality (the difference between a Caldecott Medalist who’s paid to do good work and whichever poor uncredited artist animated those videos), but of conception.  Egielski put immense powers of imagination into developing a whole world for this little song, and the videos really just want to, as it were, make it cute.

Shall I illustrate the point, as it were?  Well, take a pen.  Draw a circle with a smiley face on it.  Add eight straight lines around it, and one straight line going up.  Colour it your favourite colour.  Congratulations!  You’ve made your very own Cute [Insert Colour Here] Itsy Bitsy Spider!  Richard Egielski, by contrast, clearly sat down and thought out a world as nuanced as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  (Perhaps I exaggerate slightly.)  The spider is a little creature who lives in a world which is much larger than he is (a toddler can relate), and his friends are the other little creatures of his itsy bitsy world: beetles and dragonflies and so on.  Ordinary objects to us (cans, tea pots, and salt shakers, for example) are large to an itsy bitsy spider, so they become schools and shops and homes.  The creatures are dressed charmingly for their peregrinations around the town: top hats, canes, and bowties on an elderly beetle, and caps and overalls for our little protagonist.  One charming fellow gets a waistcoat: I approve.  The detail lends character and substance to an otherwise vapid story.  And the sturdy pop-ups?  Dear Lord, they’re charming.  Our little innocent climbs up the waterspout to “peek-a-boo!” (the Changeling says) from the top.  His mother is knitting a web behind the window to the side.  The rain unfolds downward, showing clouds above, each face on each rain drop individual in character, and then the itsy bits spider truly cascades out of the spout on the next page.  It’s almost dramatic in feeling, and the setting is, again, vivid in detail and texture.

I can’t say that the book has made me like the song, but it has made singing it with the Changeling much more pleasurable.  Of course, she has to sing the whole song for each page (Dear God: please let her learn to sing it verse by verse with each page speedily in our days, Amen.), but at least there’s plenty to look at and a world to learn as we slowly leaf through.  Compared to the lackluster dramatizations on YouTube, the genuine drama of learning a small creature’s life, world, and story is charming and almost exciting.

I still don’t like spiders, itsy bitsy or otherwise, and I’d still rather hear the Changeling sing almost anything else (well, maybe not “The Wheels on the Bus”), but I consider this little spider a buddy, and he has nothing to fear from Deborah Spider-Slayer.

Here Babies, There Babies

I recently learned that a former colleague of mine, a good friend, had just had a baby girl.  I was thrilled; this is a young woman who will make a wonderful mother, and I wish her and her new family all the best.  If you’re the sort to believe in auras, then I’m almost positive that the cloud around my head would have looked like fluffy pink bunny rabbits and woolly lambkins with baby kittens purring on their backs as I walked over to my dresser drawer and pulled it open.  A new baby!  Then I sighed.  Darn, I was down to only one copy of Here Babies, There Babies, by Nancy Cohen, illustrated by Carmen Mok and I needed… let’s see: there was a birthday present coming up, and then another two new babies (second babies in the family, so even more important), so that makes four total.  I decided to order four copies so I’d still have one in reserve.

Here Babies There Babies.jpg

To express myself more plainly, Here Babies, There Babies is one of my go-to baby present books, particularly for parents expecting a second baby.  But first, a note: Yes, I do know the author, Nancy Cohen, quite well.  In point of fact, I think she’s seen me crawling around in diapers, although I don’t remember my diaper days with particular clarity.  That said, I knew her both as a family friend and as a wonderful children’s librarian.  I knew her as my mother’s collaborator when they rewrote children’s stories as little plays for us to act out.  I knew her, basically, in her role as Person Who Knows About Kids’ Books.  She and my mother had, and have, a lot to talk about in that regard, and are probably jointly responsible for the sinking foundations of this house as I fill it with ever-increasing numbers of children’s books.

So, yes, I do know and like her.  I also happen to really, really like this book– more importantly, the Changeling really, really likes this book.  And I want to think about why we like it so much that it has rapidly became a book I need to have to hand in my dresser the way I need flour in my pantry.  I mean, really, this is what they need at the grocery store, right?  Imagine being able to call your husband and say, “Yes, I’m down to two eggs, so please get another dozen and a big bag of flour.  Oh, and a few potatoes, and I’ve only got one copy of Here Babies, There Babies, so could you get another two of that?  Thanks, see you at 5:30, then!”  Aren’t grocery stores supposed to stock essentials, after all?  If they can branch out to light bulbs, why not kids’ books?  While I’m dreaming, they could start putting all the cheese in the same place and stop putting the eggs where toddlers can reach them.  (I can never go back to that grocery store again.)

Wait, we were talking about the book, right?  Well, here’s the thing.  The book is exactly like that.  It’s about life: life with babies.  Babies are part of our ordinary life and the world as it is, even if the people who stick poles precisely in the centre of the sidewalk so that there’s no way that the leanest of umbrella strollers could possibly fit around them don’t see it that way, and this book crystallizes that very basic concept into simple rhymes and soft, lovely images.  We start by opening up to a slice of a street: we see babies and toddlers in a few different locations (café, bus, bike) and are told that babies are everywhere: “Here babies, there babies/ See them everywhere babies.”  (Read that aloud: the charming lilt you hear and feel continues through the book, and really is that lovely to read throughout.)  Then it gets more specific as we watch babies in various common places: stores, libraries, strollers, one reading stories with Daddy, two taking naps… and then back to the bird’s-eye view of town seeing babies everywhere!  The premise is absurdly practical and simple, and one I honestly haven’t seen in any other book: we live in a world that includes babies.

If you’re a small child, particularly a child in a very adult world (I speak feelingly: we live near Cambridge, MA), you may well want to see yourself as part of the world you live in, and a book like this is a great way to do that.  It just tells you that you belong: you belong in the grocery store, you belong on the street, you belong in the café, you belong in the town!  (As a parent, I can sometimes use the reminder, too… yes, I am allowed to have my child in the café with me, thanks.)  The pictures are a perfect accompaniment, showing babies from tiny little ones to toddlers, babies in carriers, strollers, cars, bikes, etc.  Boys or girls of any race should be able to find themselves and their families in here.  It’s a lovely mirror of the text: we live in a world that includes babies, all babies– oh look, here you are, too!  A word of warning on that point, though: I was, as usual, flipping through the book I was writing about here to think about the interaction between illustration and text, and I kept pausing to sigh, murmur about the cuteness, and basically feel my heart melt over and over again.  For female readers: I don’t think this book can induce ovulation, but I’m also not 100% sure it can’t.  Studies so far are inconclusive on that point.  For all readers: if your heart doesn’t melt at any point as you read this book then you may want to check your pulse– are you sure you’re alive?

Before I stop, I just want to highlight a couple of points already mentioned.  First, the lovely rhythm.  That rhythm makes it fun to read aloud to extremely young children, rocking in a chair while they coo at the pictures.  It also makes it fun for older toddlers, 18 months and up.  The Changeling loves to engage with the text: she recites it, she also builds on it: “Babies in the bath!  Babies play with ducks!”  And so on.  It’s a simple rhythm, but lively, and it’s one of the first books which got the Changeling playing with adding to the text that was there already.  (Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie is also good for this… another Canadian, too.)

The second point I wanted to bring forward was why I so frequently give this as a gift to parents expecting a second baby.  As I said, this is the only book I know which has its basic message that we live in a world with babies.  It’s just natural to have babies around!  That’s our world.  I think that’s a great concept for first babies to get used to when they’re expecting the next one to come along.  This is our world, a world with babies… and soon we’ll be adding one more.

This is a book I’d love to see around more.  It’s from Nimbus, a Canadian publisher, and if Kids Can Press could just give them a few tips on getting their books onto those nice displays at the Harvard Book Store that would be fantastic, thanks so much!  You’ll note that I, unusually for me, linked to Amazon up there.  That’s because it really is the easiest way to get this one, but do call up your local bookstore and ask them to order it in.  Ask for three copies, because you just don’t know when you may need an extra one.  And ask them to stock it because there really are babies everywhere, and it’s good to talk about that.

A Bird Is a Bird

Dear Reader, do you ever get the feeling that you couldn’t recognize a hint from the universe even if it sent all the birds of the worlds to crap it straight onto your head?

First thing this morning the Changeling reminded me of my promise to take her to the museum today: “To see the snowy owl!”  I wrangled her into her clothes (the owl dress) and tried to think about a book to write about when we got back home.  After the museum (she begged for a sheet of bird stickers at the shop) we met her daddy for a snack at the lab: “And I saw the cardinal and the puffins and Great! Blue! Heron!  It eats fish!”   (And what was I going to write about?)  As an extra treat, the Changeling and I went to paint pottery!  She wanted to paint an owl.  (But what to write about?)  At home from our packed day, we had a nice supper, then story and bedtime.  The Changeling wanted A Bird Is a Bird, and as we snuggled before bed she listed all the birds she’d seen that day: owls, cardinals, tanagers, buntings (she asked me to sing “Bye, baby bunting”), herons, pelicans, puffins…

I left her room, slumped in a chair, and my husband rubbed my shoulder.  “I just can’t settle on a book to write about today, for some reason,” I complained.  “Write about A Bird Is a Bird,” he said promptly.

Oh.

A Bird Is a Bird.jpg

Birds have really become part of the fabric of our days, and have been for so long at this point that it’s small wonder I didn’t really think of A Bird Is a Bird, text and illustrations by Lizzy Rockwell, in the same way that I don’t often think about my dearly beloved bathtub. Let’s see: I knew this was a book as essential to the Changeling as The Joy of Cooking is to my kitchen from the first moment the Changeling jubilantly snatched it straight from the hands of our brilliant children’s librarian (God bless all children’s librarians) who was saying, “Oh, if she likes birds…”   It just fit.  I’d bought our own copy before the book was due back to the library.  That was nearly a year ago (the Changeling wasn’t yet two years old), and it’s been rare that a week has gone by since then when we haven’t read this book at least once.

The same question comes to mind with this one as with Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds: is this a natural history book, and, if so, what makes this different from all other natural history books?  In this case, the clear answer is, yes, it’s a natural history book.  It doesn’t have a fictional narrative arc; its purpose is evidently to educate the young reader about birds; it’s plain, straightforward natural history.  There’s no whimsy here, not even a hint of the fantastic.  What distinguishes it from others is the more interesting question.

In this case, I think it’s a rather subtle point: the sheer, quiet pleasure the book takes in talking to you.  This book could have been written for my Changeling.  She’s a quiet, passionate sort, and takes her interests very seriously.  A Bird Is a Bird loves birds, and really, really wants to tell you about them in a careful, logical and very precise way.  The Changeling likewise loves birds, and sits (wriggles?) as a disciple to receive the book’s teachings.  We start with a general framework (“A bird may be tall.  A bird may be small.” p.5.), and build to more specific points: birds have beaks, wings, and start out in eggs.  But then what about the platypus, or flies, or snakes?  What is it that’s truly specific to birds?  Feathers!  (Bounce! goes the disciple.)  As I said, there’s no fictional narrative arc to carry you through this book, but the arc is there, nonetheless, and it builds slowly and steadily to its logical climax: Feathers!  It’s remarkably clear, satisfying, and, the word I keep coming back to, precise.  This is a book which will teach you that delightful feeling of satisfaction in fact-based research.  If you like building blocks of discovery, and think it can be beautiful, this is the book for you and your child.

The logic and precision are exactly why this book has lasted so well: even a year ago, the Changeling was able to keep up with the limited prose, and the exquisite, clear illustrations (Audubon, eat your heart out!).  These past few months she’s been able to see the link between the birds she sees at the museum and the birds she sees in the book.  In fact, she associates the two so strongly that she asked why they didn’t have A Bird Is a Bird at the gift shop (excellent question, oh Harvard Museum of Natural History!).  I expect that in another year, if she remains interested in birds, she’ll be able to pick up on some more complex details, perhaps the differences between males and females, since she was already pretty excited to see “Mr. and Mrs. Mallard” in here.  I don’t see this being a book for a particularly limited range of ages.  The publisher recommends it for ages 3-7.  Well, as we’ve seen you can go younger (we started reading it at 18 months, for the record).  I’m no expert at the older range there, but I’d say 7 sounds about the upper limit I’d expect.  (Caveat: I’m terrible at thinking about age limits for books.  Maybe I’ll write more about that another time.)

There’s one more thing I want to emphasize here: I’ve come back a few times to dwelling on how lovely this book is, and how serious it is.  I’ve seen a number of natural history books out there for children which either have illustrations which could belong in Nature, Science, Cell, or Scientific American.  They’re, well, scientific.  Often they’re photographs or photo-realism.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course– it’s science!  The books are often excellent and the illustrations suit them perfectly.  But I can’t say they speak to me, and the Changeling doesn’t seem to find them so stimulating either.  Others, often pitched towards younger children, have cartoon-like pictures.  They’re also fine, even if they aren’t particularly precise.  They can be very cute.  They don’t do much for me, either, and none have had staying power with the Changeling.  This one, though, is simply beautiful.  The illustrations are lovely, accurate, and take the reader seriously.  The reader, here represented by the Changeling, responds by taking the book and the subject seriously.  I plead, falling on my knees, for more children’s science or natural science books to take both the subject and the audience seriously, and to try to convey the natural beauty of the topic with both sensitivity and accuracy.  In short: why the hell can’t more science books be pretty to look at, dammit?