Giant: or Waiting for the Thursday Boat

This is a very Canadian one.  It’s Canadian in so many ways because it’s written by Bob Munsch and illustrated by Gilles Tibo and the story is about Ireland, the original homeland of so many Canadians, or ancestors of Canadians today.  That’s why I’m writing about it here today, on St. Patrick’s Day.  I want to give a little bow to the day, and so, to do honour to the saint, I’m writing about the giant who fought with him and the child who gently mediated between them, as told in a book you’re going to have a hard time tracking down: Giant: or Waiting for the Thursday Boat.  (That’s an AbeBooks link for you– the easiest place to find this book.)

Giant

This is a perfect St. Patrick’s Day story: it’s not preachy or silly and there’s no bloody huge shamrocks anywhere in sight.  Instead, it’s a story about knowing who you are, understanding others, and getting along with each other.  St. Patrick isn’t perfect in this story– except that he’s a perfect saint.  The giant, McKeon, isn’t perfect, either– except that he’s a perfect giant.  And, in the story, they have to learn this, about themselves and each other, and, once they do, they can be reconciled.

But what is the story?  I’ll give you an overview since it’s so hard to find, and St. Patrick’s Day is the perfect day for storytelling, anyway, as I think Synge would agree.

McKeon, the giant, has gotten angry for the first time in his life.  St. Patrick has been throwing the snakes, elves, and other giants out of Ireland, and they were McKeon’s friends.  McKeon decides to confront St. Patrick, and off he goes.  St. Patrick puts up church bells, and McKeon tears them down, until one day all the church bells are gone and St. Patrick warns McKeon that God is angry and will be coming on the Thursday boat.  So McKeon goes to wait for the boat.  First, a little fishing boat with a little girl in it comes in.  McKeon asks the girl if she’s seen God, because he wants to pound Him into applesauce.

“I’ve never seen God pounded into applesauce,” said the little girl. “I think I’ll stay and watch,” and she sat down beside McKeon.

Well, I think you know who she is, don’t you?  But McKeon doesn’t.  So, then three other boats come in succession: each bears a man richer and more powerful than the last, but none are God.  McKeon is disappointed, but the little girl tells him,

“Mr. McKeon, […] it looks like God is not going to fight.  You’re the world’s best giant and even God would have to agree with that.  Why don’t you stop pounding people and go back to being friendly?”

Well, McKeon agrees, since he never liked being angry, anyway.

The next day the little girl tells him that St. Patrick has gone to heaven and is throwing out all the giants and elves and snakes and filling the place up with church bells.  McKeon picks up the little girl and jumps into heaven.  He lands right beside St. Patrick and starts throwing out church bells.  St. Patrick is upset, and starts running up to the biggest, fanciest houses he can find in heaven, looking for God.  McKeon points out that the smallest house has an angel out front, and suggests they go there to complain about each other.  They go in, and find– you guessed it, right?  Yes, the little girl, sitting with all the elves, giants, and snakes.  And then:

She looked at them and said, “Saints are for hanging up church bells and giants are for tearing them down.  That’s just the way it is.  Why don’t you two try getting along?”

And they all agree to that.

It’s a great story.  More importantly, the emphasis is on the story itself, and on its characters, not on messages or Irishness or anything else which would distract from the greatness of the story.  This book has all the qualities of the best novels without in any fashion compromising its accessibility to children.  Most striking is its subtlety.  It never goes into any religious issues, but they’re there: “I’m just doing what God wants,” St. Patrick tells McKeon– ooh, boy, big can of worms!  It never says that the little girl is God, but it’s pretty clear she is: I remember being so proud of myself for recognizing that when I was little.  It never says whether McKeon or St. Patrick is right— and we never do know.  They both are.  Neither is.  And that open question is the whole point: we don’t always have to know what’s right, but we should try to get along despite our differences (remember when I said this was a really Canadian book?).

That’s big stuff to hand to a child.  But, as I said, the book is accessible.  Bob Munsch’s writing is at its best here: open and clever and honest.  You can see that from the quotes I embedded above.  But what really helps with this book’s tone and accessibility is the art.  Gilles Tibo, who used airbrush painting and coloured pencils in this book, is a genius at his work.  He combines precision and subtlety in equal measure here, echoing the story perfectly.  The lines of his work have vigour and precision– look at McKeon’s jaw in the cover above, or at the rugged line of the tree trunk.  But the misty background, or the nubbly texture of the characters’ clothing, or the light-and-dark play of the apple leaves, all show a certain relaxation of rules: when is this book taking place? what is the law here? what is religion here? what is right here?  The art echoes the story, again without preaching: by showing, not telling.  And it does it all with engaging colours and figures and apples and fish, so that even my toddler knows and loves the pictures.

I was so happy to find a copy of this book so I could read it with my Changeling on St. Patrick’s Day, but on reading it again I found myself thinking that I should read it more often with her.  It’s fun, it’s engaging, but it’s also smart and beautiful and has good things to say.  And, frankly?  I enjoyed reading it as an adult.  So, child or not, maybe try to get your hands on this one, if you can.

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Feathers: Not Just for Flying

I am delighted to report that we have all made it back from South Carolina in one piece, and that apparently I know how to use the post scheduling thingamajig on WordPress.  (Also, my computer recognizes “thingamajig” as a word, but not “WordPress.”)  And now that we’re back I can tell you that yesterday the Changeling and I were on a farm, Old McCaskill’s, both of us nearly out of our minds with glee.  There were sheep (Dorset, if you’re like me and would want to know), chickens (Buff Orpingtons, again, the sort of thing I like to know), ducks, goats, horses, cats and dogs galore (including a Border Collie and two Great Pyrenees), and probably more I’m forgetting right now.  We were in hog heaven– oh, there were pigs, too.  Anyway, we nearly got our fill of animal company, by which I mean we agreed we wanted to go live on a farm and my husband nearly had to drag us out of there.  (He liked it, too, but didn’t want to end up with a farm in Cambridge, MA, I think).

Also, a baby duck had just hatched and Kathy, who runs the B&B and helps run the farm, let us hold her– well, my husband was too chicken, if you’ll forgive me the pun, but the Changeling and I did.  I was so proud of how gentle the Changeling was.  I took the new duckling first, feeling the prick of tiny feet, watching the bright little black eyes take in the world (it’s amazing that such a tiny, new bird really does take it all in), and stroking the soft, brand-new neck.  Then I taught the Changeling to lay her own small hands open almost flat together and take the tiny bird in her own only-just-not-a-baby-any-longer hands.  It really was a special moment.  It was both of our first time actually touching a bird, and, given our love of birds, having that first experience together was something to tuck away in my memory and cherish.

Unsurprisingly, by the time we were ready for bed that night the Changeling requested A Bird Is a Bird and we’d already read a new favourite in our house, Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah Brannen.  (By the way, you’ll find good teaching materials at that link under “Downloadables.”)

feathers-hires

You remember how we found Feathers, via the not-unaccustomed route of our children’s librarian and our children’s book shop?  Well, it’s proven popular: it hasn’t had the time A Bird Is a Bird has had to completely meld into our daily lives, but the Changeling has already mentally aligned the two, she loves Feathers, and, as the readers, we parents welcome the addition to our bird-oriented repertoire.  What I noticed, though, was that we felt a particular intimacy in reading these books after having held a bird in our own two hands.  I found they went from being pleasant, interesting, useful books I enjoyed with my daughter to being actually exciting.

I’ve already said that Feathers is excellent if you’re looking for a book to follow A Bird Is a Bird, but I can also tell you that it’s a beautiful book in its own right, particularly if you find yourself with a child who has just found out that her love of birds is really exciting when she’s touching a bird’s feathers with her bare hands.  The book’s style is finely balanced between an old-fashioned naturalist’s notebook (think of Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s books, or, if you insist on reality, of John James Audubon) and a child’s scrapbook.  Each page has a broad description of a feather’s function in large type as a title: “Feathers can shade out the sun like an umbrella,” for example.  Then it gives the naturalist’s notes on a particular bird which uses that function: the tricolored heron (illustrated on the facing page in a large, beautifully detailed watercolour) lifts its wings to shade the water so it can find fish and frogs more easily.  Ah, like an umbrella?  The page adds little paper umbrellas, the kind you get in your drink or for favours at a child’s birthday party, to the scrapbook.  Wouldn’t a naturalist provide a closeup of the heron’s wings?  You get that, too.  A frog?  Wouldn’t a child giggle and add a picture of a frog?  You get that, too.  It’s all there, but all done with those gentle, precise, and lovely watercolours: both Sarah Brennan and Melissa Stewart took their job seriously.  Each page appeals to the child, but doesn’t talk down to anyone.  My toddler knew she was being talked to, not being talked at, and if you work with children at all you know that they can tell the difference.

As a parent reader, I loved the style.  I loved the vintage feel of the book (emphasized by the yellowed backgrounds, like old paper) and how each page is laid out differently, really like a scrapbook.  Some pages show clippings being “taped” in (Sarah Brennan is good at her job– have you ever tried to draw a page being taped to another page?), but others show a framed large-scale painting of a bird, for example.  There’s freshness whenever you turn the page, but it always has the feeling of flipping through something a bit old-fashioned… only with bright little details like a sunblock label (for how feathers can protect a bird’s skin from the sun), or seeds trailing out of a photo of a bird feeder across the page.  In other words, the layout is consistent in its vintage feel, it takes its job seriously, it takes the reader seriously, and yet, brilliantly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  I love a book with a sense of humour, as does my daughter, and this one does.

Altogether, the result for the reader is fun and beautiful, but also extremely useful.  Reading it for the first time with my two-and-a-half-year-old, I didn’t go into the full, rich detail this book provides: I read the headings, gave a brief summary of how it applied to the bird in the picture, and we looked at some of the pictures.  (Note that these facts were easily skimmed at a first reading; that’s evidence enough of good, clear writing!)  That was enough for her for the first, impatient reading.  On subsequent, more leisurely, readings, we’ve read each paragraph carefully and found a lot to talk about.  In other words, this is what I think of as an “elastic” book: it’s very malleable to the needs of the moment.  I love that adaptability, and what’s most exciting is that it’s obvious it suits a wide age range and should be useful for a good few years.

I want to end by saying a word about non-fiction books here.  I’m a fiction girl, and I always have been.  (Hey, when I had to think of a naturalist, my first thought was Stephen Maturin, not Audubon.)  I don’t remember loving many non-fiction books growing up.  But this bird adventure with my daughter is bright and exciting for me: I’m discovering so many fun, readable, and informative non-fiction books with her, which is enriching both of our lives a great deal, and Feathers is definitely one of the best.

I’m looking forward to getting outside with our book this spring and summer.  I want to look at birds and talk about what the feathers might be doing.  I think you might enjoy doing the same thing with your child.

Peter’s Chair

I love Ezra Jack Keats– jeepers, who doesn’t?  This year is his hundredth birthday, and I knew I wanted to write about him at some point.  Snowy Day is a favourite around here, and I thought I’d do that.  But then we didn’t have very many snowy days this winter, and a lesser-known, although still well-known and wonderful, story of his became the flavour of the week in our house.  I’ve been very happy to read it over and over again for two reasons: a) I love it and, of course, the writing and art stand up to rereadings; b) I’ve been finding it a tough nut to crack, in terms of the in-depth philosophical and theoretical analyses to which you’ve all become so accustomed from me.  The book is Peter’s Chair, written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats (our copy was selected by the toddler Changeling all by her very own self at Porter Square Books, a favourite around here).  And let me say up front that Ezra Jack Keats is the author and artist I most revere for the truthfulness and honesty which permeates his work.

Peter's Chair

You know, normally what you all get from me are the private thoughts I’ve worked up about children’s literature over the years, often drawn out of me by conversations with my daughter, who’s often much more perceptive than I am; her emphasis on flight in Swan, for example, recently impressed me.  In this case, I was struggling: I knew I loved this book madly, I knew I was ready to talk about that, but I didn’t know where to start and my Changeling was in bed.  Desperate, I asked my husband what most struck him about the book: “Its sense of place,” he immediately said.  (Why don’t I ask him more often?  He’s smart, that guy.)  I was mulling that over, when I got into a conversation with my mother about Keats: “You know he was Jewish,” she casually mentioned.  I was struck dumb (a rare event), not by the newsflash, but by the fact that I’d loved his books so deeply, found them so true and honest, and had never bothered to learn about him.  I never knew he’d changed his name, for example, in reaction to anti-Semitism.  Let me save you the trouble: read here about his fascinating life and the work he did and bridges he built.

I suppose this unfamiliarity was partly because, in a rare turn of events, these were classics I didn’t read often growing up, except for Snowy Day (how I longed for a red peaked snowsuit!).  The others, including Peter’s Chair, I’ve enjoyed finding with the Changeling more than I can say.  I’m almost grateful not to have read them before so that I could have the wonderful experience of reading them for the first time with my own child, discovering them together, and, in some cases, together with my mother.  One day last summer we were visiting my parents and went to the library with my mother.  While there, my mother found lovely videos of the books animated and read aloud (look for the Weston Woods link on that page).  We watched them together, and the memory is one I’ll treasure for a long time, I can tell you that.  My daughter was kneeling on the ground in front of the sofa, mesmerized by the snow falling around the little peaked red hood we all three knew and loved so well.  I sat behind her, occasionally touching her soft, curly hair (Her: “Stop it!” Me: “Sorry, bunny.”).  And that’s the day we first found Peter’s Chair.

So, well, you could say the book has a pretty special history for me.  But there I was, still learning a lot about it before I wrote this.  And that, to me, perfectly encapsulates the book: even one reading gives you such a strong sense of familiarity with the characters and Peter’s world, but even multiple readings leave so much to ferret out.  And that’s what I mean when I say that Keats is truthful and honest.  How often have you sat with an old friend, chatting away, and then had your mind totally blown away when they say, “I grew up there, you know,” or, “I dated him once,” or, “I’ve been struggling with depression for years.”  “Oh, wow,” you think: “I had no idea.”  That experience is exactly the one you’ll have over and over again with these books.

In this case, we see Peter’s home, his treasured possessions, his beloved dog, his warm and loving family, the new baby coming into this environment– and the hurt it engenders in Peter.  We see him hurt that all of his baby furniture is being repainted for his baby sister, Susie.  We see him being shushed as she sleeps.  We see him finally find his old blue chair, and his decision to protect his last little piece of babyhood (perhaps sense of self?) as he packs a bag to run away with Willie.  Finally, we see him discover that his old chair’s too small, and we see him go back home.  But what are his feelings?  Why does he leave home?  What finally makes him go back home?  When he does go back home, why does he tease his mother by pretending to be behind the curtains, but then jumping out from behind the chest?  What makes him finally decide to repaint the chair for Susie?

Oh, yes, these are honest books, books which give you a place, give you people, and give you such perfectly human representations that you don’t always know the answers to your questions; a rare virtue.  This perfect incompleteness comes through both in words and images: Keats’ use of collage is just beyond perfect, and it perfectly complements his collage of words.  Not every conversation is complete, and, by definition, every piece of the collage is individually incomplete.  And yet, built up together, he creates a vivid world: he gives you enough to tell you who people are, to give you a really strong sense of their home, and to make you feel like you could walk right through the pages and be at home.  That’s his genius: he teaches us, adults and children together, that you will never know everything about anyone’s feelings or motivations, but you can still appreciate them and be friends.  And all that without ever preaching at you.

What do I think about the answers to my questions?  I don’t want to tell you too much of what I think.  The whole point of the story is to think it through while sitting with your own Changeling on your knee.  But I’m not as strong a person as Keats, so I’ll tell you I enjoy watching Peter take charge.  He feels powerless, I think, supplanted by his sister: hurt that she’s getting his place.  When he leaves, he gets a breather, a chance to realize that he’s still his own person and can make his own place.  He chooses his place behind the chest instead of the curtain, teasing his mother.  He chooses to sit in an adult chair and repaint his little chair for Susie.  He becomes his own person deliberately, instead of by default: a decision we all have to make again and again, as Keats himself knew full well.

His genius is in showing us that.  “Show, don’t tell,” we’re always told when we’re writing.  He doesn’t tell us that.  He shows us how.

I’m so glad that I’ve still got so much more of him to discover.  Whoever you are, however much Keats you’ve read, I know you have more to discover, too.

The Secret Garden

Do you remember long, long ago when I was talking about seasonal books, back in the context of Moominland Midwinter?  Well, I have many seasonal books– do you?  I have one for Christmas and one for fall, although, oddly, I can’t currently think of one for summer.  But my springtime reading is the strongest, the oldest, the most persistent: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Secret Garden

In one sense, it’s perfectly obvious, isn’t it?  There’s Tasha Tudor’s iconic cover page right there, and you can see the early roses clambering around the barely waking garden, with Mary looking prettier than she has any right to look based on the description in the book.  And yet, what strikes me as I read it this time around is how early in spring I always feel the urge to read this book.  I don’t read it when the grass has sprouted anew or the flowers are budding or blooming; I read it when I make that first trip to the hardware store to replace the wrecked or disappeared pruning shears from last year.  I read it when I pause and see the seed display and impulsively snatch up a few packets.  I read it when I frown at the ground, so recently covered by snow, now covered by the winter’s trash, and think, “Dear God in heaven, we’ve got to clean that up.”  And that got me thinking about the book and its relation to the seasons, and, in turn, what that means to the book.  (Hey, if you got that I just drew a little circle of arrows with words, and that makes it sort of a cycle, and the seasons form a cycle, you win my undying love.)

Let’s think about the plot a bit: there’s a girl, Mary Lennox.  I have no evidence that she’s from the British branch of the family which won’t acknowledge the breakaway American branch, Lenox, which emigrated to America and started selling china, but neither do I have any evidence to the contrary, so I choose to believe that.  (I’m terribly, terribly sorry.  Now you’ll never be able to unthink that.  I do apologize.)  The British branch always did the Right and Proper thing, and so Mary’s father shouldered the White Man’s Burden and went off to India while her aunt married a man of excellent property, even if he was (gasp or horror!) a hunchback, and therefore lived at lovely, gloomy Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire.  Your guess is as good as mine as to why we’re supposed to care that he’s a hunchback, but I feel awfully sorry for the fuss everyone made about it.  No wonder he suffered from depression.

Back to Mary: her parents might be very Right and Proper, but they’re simply awful parents and neglect her so badly that I always want to step through the pages and give them a talking-to.  It’s to nobody’s surprise that with no example of good behaviour and no example of how to love, she doesn’t learn to behave well or to love well.  She’s lonely and sour and I want to give her a big hug.  It’s sad to say, but the best thing to happen to her is when her parents die and she’s sent to England to learn how to love.  That isn’t how the book puts it, but it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?  The first person to smile at her properly is Martha, the maid, who looks after her a bit.  Well, Mary starts to like Martha.  The first person to care enough to entertain her when he didn’t have to is the robin.  Mary loves the robin.  The first person to go out of his way for her sake and be himself with her, care for her, and take an interest in her interests is Dickon.  And she loves him.*  And of course there’s darling, curmudgeonly Ben Weatherstaff who’s a pea from her own pod: feigning uncaring while truly caring a great deal for her.  (My favourite is still the robin, personally.)  All of these people teach her enough about love so that when she finally meets Colin she is capable of caring for him, and by caring for him she teaches him that he’s really important.

Let’s pause for a parenting lesson for a moment.  You may be saying to yourselves, “Did Deborah say he needed to be taught he was important?  But, Deborah, are you sure we’re reading the same book?  The boy was like a prince, a Rajah, remember?”  And how often do princes or Rajah’s truly have anyone caring about them, or feel that they are important in and of themselves?  Colin needed someone to say, “You’re so important I want you to be alive and healthy.  I care about you.”  And Mary needed someone to say, “Your happiness is important to me.”  As soon as Dickon and Martha and the robin did that– and each helped the other, of course– they came to life.  Let that be a lesson to you: find your child and say, “I love you.  You’re important to me.  I care about your happiness.”  That won’t spoil them, but neglect will.  I say this from a whole two and a half years of flying by the seat of my pants, so you know it’s true.

And there we are.  Two children who had been alive long enough, but were like dormant seeds, sickly in storage.  They got soaked for a bit to perk them up: one in the Yorkshire rains, the other in salt tears from his anxious hypochondria.  Then they went out in the sun and woke up.  They grew, they stood strong, they came to life.  And so did the gardens around them.  But here’s the thing: they needed to start in that dirty stage: the clean-up, getting their hands dirty, softening the ground, overcoming their tantrums and stumbling into politeness.  That’s where spring starts, really.  You need to do the ground work (get it? get it?) before you can reach the flowers and the prettiness.  You need to tell the ground and the seeds that they’re important.  You need to feed them.  You need to get your hands and feet dirty and do a bit of pruning.  And you need to do this regularly, every year.  After all, back when he was married Archibald Craven had been awake, but then he shrivelled up, didn’t he?  Why yes, he did.  But in the fall, a late bloomer, he woke up again, because he’d figured out he was important: Mrs. Sowerby told him he was.**

Every spring I need my own reminder, is what I’m guessing, and that’s why I read The Secret Garden again.  Oh, it has its flaws (I do feel bad about the emphasis on poor Mr. Craven’s hunchback, and I wish that we saw more of Dickon at the end), but it tells us all that we deserve our own bit of the orange, to extend Mrs. Sowerby’s metaphor.  It tells us we deserve to be alive and happy and healthy.  It tells us that we matter.  And it always gets me out of doors, getting my hands dirty, and feeling hopeful for what the spring will bring.  I never know which flowers will be the prettiest, but they all get their bit of earth, and that’s what matters.

I should be in South Carolina when this goes up (I hope my scheduled posts work), and will be feeling a bit like Mr. Craven, seeing a new part of the world and finding new beauty spots.  I hope you’re enjoying your early spring wherever you are, and be sure to tell your garden you care about it, OK?  Get your rake and your spade and get your hands dirty.  Then go inside, wash your hands, and find your own spring reading.

*So, my pet wish: I think that Mary and Dickon or Mary and Martha should end up together, but I know the class distinction would be a barrier.  But this is later in the 19th C so maybe Mary will come over all rebellious and reject social norms?  It would be weird for her to end up with Colin, anyway.  But I think that’s why Frances Hodgson Burnett quietly cuts Dickon, and even Mary, from the story towards the end, don’t you?  Maybe they’ll run away to the Lennox branch of the family!

**Wait, wait!  Is there a Mr. Sowerby?  We never hear of him, do we?  What if Mr. Craven and Mrs. Sowerby get married???

Ages and Why I don’t mention them often

Today’s a bit of a departure from the norm since I won’t be talking about a specific book so much as a theme: Ages.  Not the Ages of the World, but the age to which a book might, in general, be best-suited.

As a bit of background, I was nine years old, I think, when I first read The Odyssey.  I snuck it from my mother’s study, if I remember correctly.  It’s a fair guess, anyway.  My mother and I have an ongoing war of who’s stolen more books from whom.  (Mum, I swear I cleared all of yours from my room on the last visit, OK?)  The point is, I didn’t ask anyone if I could: I just went and did it, and loved it.  I read it through, images in sepia colours coursing through my head (probably due to that classic faded orange cover of Richmond Lattimore’s translation).  Let me quickly add: no, of course I’m not saying I understood it at the level a college student might, much less Lattimore himself.  That said, I was happy. I just went and did it without asking questions or permission or even thinking whether I “should” or “shouldn’t,” and I enjoyed it immensely.  I was on a Classical mythology kick, and this was one of my discoveries.

Sometimes this approach failed.  I remember reading a story which, as an adult, I know was about a vulnerable young man, homosexual, who hired an escort to pose as his girlfriend or fiancée (I forget which) when he went home to visit his parents.  I completely, 100% missed the entire plot when I read this story at age ten, perhaps.  I remember my poor mother coming up to me, cautiously asking if I had any questions.  I think I said something like, “It was sort of an odd story.  I’m not sure I got it.”  She nodded, and said she thought I might like this other one better (which I did).

My point?  I’m the world’s worst person to ask about the age to which a particular book is suited.  I have general mental guidelines: novels are not for toddlers.  (Except, apparently, Moominland Midwinter?)  Picture books are not for adults.  (Except I write this blog, so, well.)  But God bless people like my mother, who always knows the appropriate age for a book.  “Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory good for Grade 2?” I ask her.  “Well, I’d normally say Grade 4, in general,” she replies.  How does she know these things? I marvel. (Answer: years’ experience as an excellent English teacher, probably.)

But let’s think about some books which are normally way out of the age range I seem to have fallen into for this blog.  I’ll roughly arrange them from “OK for younger age” to “Not for children at all ever.”  I was just at Cat Valente’s book signing for her last Fairyland novel.  While there, they had her book Six-Gun Snow White for sale.

Six-Gun Snow White.jpg

Of course I bought it.  I love Cat Valente.  This is a wonderful book.  It’s the story of Snow White as set in the Wild West.  Snow White’s father is a silver baron, her mother was a Crow woman who was effectively forced to marry him.  When the young wife dies soon after Snow White was born, the man, Mr. H, remarries, taking for his new wife a blonde New England woman who mockingly names Snow White for what she will never be.  You can tell from this brief overview two things: a) This is a fascinating book and you should read it; b) This book has some themes which do require a certain amount of age and experience: implications of sexual exploitation, racism, violence, blood, psychological manipulation.  These aren’t light topics.  And yet there’s little by way of anything actually graphic going on, so you can, to an extent, engage at your own level.  I’d have been a bit embarrassed by it until university, but I was shy of violence and sex in books.  Maybe most high school kids could handle it?  After all, if you can handle The Turn of the Screw, this should be fine.  (In fact, my fellow students were fine with every aspect of The Turn of the Screw except for the somewhat high-level language– they’d have preferred this, I think.  Maybe high schools should take note of it!)

What about illustrations?  How do they play into this game?  Stardust by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess (one of my favourite artists working today) is about at the same level as Six-Gun Snow White: there’s one tiny swear word, one sex scene, and themes of slavery, sexuality, violence, and murder.  Throughout the book, a witch is trying to catch a star who has fallen to earth in the shape of a girl– and the witch wants to cut out her heart.  And yet, the whole thing is as delicate and lovely as a falling star.  The violence is muted. The sex is gentle and hardly noticeable.

Stardust

Well, who is this aimed at?  I’d say it’s aimed at lovers of fairy tales (same for Six-Gun Snow White, of course, but that’s more of a Western, in some ways).  If you love the delicacy, beauty, and brutality of Grimm and Perrault, you will love this, too.  But maybe you have to be a bit older to understand that.  Again, I think high school kids should be able to read this, but it depends so much on taste.  I’m glad I waited, for my part, until I was 28 and had a better appreciation for the structure and artistry of the book.  I’d have been too nervous about the (limited) sexuality when I was in high school (“Am I supposed to be reading this?” I’d have wondered) to enjoy the beauty of the book.  And yet I strongly suspect that there are those who could read it even younger, at even 11 or 12.  (NB: Don’t take this as advice.  We’ve already established I suck at this.)

Those who know Neil Gaiman probably think first of his seminal graphic novel Sandman.

Sandman

What about that?  Most people tend to think of it as older– there are lots of high school students who are obsessed with it, but I didn’t embark on it until very recently (I’m almost 29) and, once again, I wouldn’t have been a happy camper reading it in high school.  There’s very explicit– and graphic– violence in these books, although they’re not books about violence.  That said, I’d say the violence would be more of a concern for me in handing it to a youngster than the sex in this particular series.  Nevertheless, as with Stardust and Six-Gun Snow White, there are themes which could make a kid feel less alone, better grounded: for me it would have been the mythology and fairy tales, which both feature heavily in these books.  That said, someone encountering their own sexuality would find a place in this series.  So would anyone of any colour.  So would anyone simply feeling a bit lonely, a bit of an outsider, or, perhaps, coping with some weighty issue from their past, which is a major theme in these books.  Would those benefits outweigh strict “age-appropriateness” rules?  I’d need to know the kid to gauge that, for sure.

Let’s crank it way up here: Neil Gaiman’s friend Alan Moore wrote an equally cult-famous graphic novel, gorgeously illustrated by Melinda Gebbie: Lost Girls.

Lost Girls

Once again, we’re drawing on literature traditionally associated with children, but this is erotica.  Make no mistake: we’re talking about explicit sex, drawn with the grace and beauty of a George Barbier painting.  We’re talking incest, rape, and drugs, so do be careful of what works for you in your reading.  The theme here is dealing with three lost girls: Alice (Alice in Wonderland), Dorothy (Wizard of Oz), and Wendy (Peter Pan).  Alan Moore takes it that each has unfinished sexual trauma from their youth, and he draws them together in pre-WWI Austria to sort out their traumatic pasts, share their stories, and grow to feel more in control of themselves, their bodies, and their lives.  It is a beautiful book.  Never, ever, ever show it to a child!  Find it, as I did, in your own time and place and way.

What do we take away from this?  All of these books draw to some extent on stories we read with kids.  In fact, all of that stuff (the sex, violence, brutality) is there for the kids to see, if they’re ready, right in the Brothers Grimm, right in Perrault.  These books play with those themes to greater or lesser extents.  Am I saying “therefore hand these older books to younger kids”?  Absolutely not: I note right here, as above, that I, the girl who read The Odyssey when I was 9, wouldn’t have been ready for any of these books until university.  I might have handled them, but I did way better reading them at an older age.

My point is that ages for book-reading are highly personal.  I have deep respect for my mother or anyone who’s good at gauging the right general age-audience for the right book.  Myself, I read too widely and wackily too young to know what was right for what age, and I lack any experience as an adult to rectify those impressions, so I’m not good at that.  But what I can say is that we all mess around a bit: so much of reading is trial and error of taste, and age plays into that, too.  For parents, I’d say we make things up a lot in parenting, and finding the right books for our kids is part of that.

What do I do by way of a guideline, if I don’t watch age too carefully?  I watch the books.  Books find other books.  Notice that above I chose four very different, very related, groups of books.  Anyone who likes one of those will probably enjoy any of the others.  Or not, but it’s worth a try.  You could easily grow from one to the other as you get older.  Or you could enjoy them all as an adult. Or you could ditch them and read The Fox and the Star or The Tea Party in the Woods instead.

After all, it’s your choice what you read!

(NB: In this blog I note my daughter’s age and how she responds to books.  Make of that what you will– I don’t want to mess you up by giving a “wrong” age group.)

Little Bear

Today is one of the days I get to keep my Changeling at home.  I feel a bit guilty about how happy this makes me, but not much.  She’s normally in daycare, among kids her own age, happily learning how to communicate with them, “do bunny-hops,” socialize, and “do jump-jacks.”  While she’s gone, I diligently work.  I even enjoy the peace and quiet and how the floor will stay clear of Calico Critters after I put them away.  (I decline to comment on how long it takes to put them away and whether this is related to any dressing of tiny panda bears which may or may not occur.)  My days working alone while my daughter’s off with her own age group are often fun and rewarding for both of us.  It’s a good arrangement.  And I miss her.  I miss her voice.  I miss occasional feelings of frustration as I patiently wait for her to sort something oh-so-simple out, and more frequent explosions of amazement at how adept she’s become at something (like identifying a blue jay in a tree today!).  So, when I do get her at home, I’m thrilled.

And I have a book to share with you, courtesy of the Changeling.  “What book should I write about?” I asked her.  She thought seriously.  (She always thinks very seriously.) “A Bird Is a Bird,” she suggested.  “That’s a wonderful book!  I already wrote about it, though.  Can you think of another?”  She sorted through her mental library and turned up… “Little Bear.”  “Thank you!” I said.  “What a wonderful idea!”

Little Bear

And so, here we are.  Little Bear, by Else Holmelunk Minarik, pictures by Maurice Sendak, is one of the first books my Changeling selected herself at the Children’s Book Shop.  I’d say most of the books I talk about here fall into two groups: a) the very new; b) the Canadian or otherwise “hidden” classic.  I rarely get to talk about books we all read, and all will read with our children and grandchildren, and so onward through the ages, amen.  I need to thank the Changeling for giving me the nudge and permission to talk about some of these really good books– the ones which are popular for a really good reason.

The difference for me, of course, is that you all know what I’m talking about.  Instead of trying to give you the feel and texture of an unfamiliar story, or pinpoint the big idea of a book you probably haven’t read, here I am in new territory: we’ve got something we all know, so what can I tell you about it?  So I’m going to shift focus to the reading process.  These books, after all, are all about the process– the process of reading with your child.  Sometimes the Changeling likes to sit on the floor while we read to her, but that can’t be done with these: “These are lap books,” I tell her.  You have to read these together, as a partnership, so I’m going to tell you all about these books as a partnership.

“Books?” you query.  “But you said… Little Bear, not Bears or Little Bear Series or…”  Ah, yes, fair point.  As I said, I’m talking about these books as a partnership.  When my daughter says “Little Bear,” she means all the Little Bear books.  And that’s one of the great things about this series I want to draw attention to here.  In general– and there are major, major exceptions to this rule, so I’m making an easily-punctured generalization here– young children’s books tend to be singles whereas young novel-readers expect series.  I’m talking Each, Peach, Pear, Plum vs. Harry Potter here.  That is: when a picture book author starts a book, my impression is rarely that they’re planning from the first to start the Curious George franchise.  They wouldn’t mind if people want another book with Babar in it, but it’s a bit different from a 7-book series proposal.  Very generally speaking.

So, for young readers like my Changeling, who are used to getting very contained books (Annabel lives in Extra Yarn, not elsewhere), it’s exciting to get your first taste of books where the characters go on to live out more adventures in a number of books.    You meet a little bear cub who’s cold and goes through all kinds of clothes before settling on his own fur coat, and you want to know more about him.  Well, it turns out he likes to visit his grandparents (Little Bear’s Visit), and he misses his father and looks forward to seeing him when he comes home (Father Bear Comes Home) and he really, really loves mermaids (likewise in Father Bear Comes Home).  My Changeling loves to stand there with all the books in front of her and make a choice.  (I will note that she has a very similar response to the Harold books, which makes sense; it’s a similar structure and dynamic.)  Often she heads straight for the story of Mother Bear and the Robin (from Little Bear’s Visit), but sometimes she prefers a mermaid story (Father Bear Comes Home), or “Birthday Soup” (Little Bear).

The choice rests with her, and that’s the genius of this series.  They’re constructed around getting kids interested in reading, and every element works towards that: of course there are the glorious illustrations by Maurice Sendak (which are minutely examined on a near-daily basis in this house), and there’s the simple, repetitive, but not at all boring text.  Of course there are the stories themselves: the topics are familiar (hiccups, pets, birthdays), but the stories are adventurous enough in being set out of our world, in a warm parallel plane inhabited by animals rather like us.  Yes, these are all very successful elements.  But the gentle structure of being almost a series, where you’re learning to engage with a character and care about him and his family and friends as you move from story to story, getting pulled into a whole world– that’s something I haven’t seen remarked on (I  may simply have missed it), and after reading these stories over and over again with my daughter, it’s something I’ve learned to notice and greatly appreciate.  I’m not saying these books are a gateway drug to the big series out there right now– anything from Little House to Harry Potter to Cat Valente’s Fairyland and all the others out there.  I’m not saying it’s like that.  No, I’m not saying that.

I am saying it’s wonderful to watch my child learn to engage not just with a particular story, but with a character and a world.  In other words, to learn to engage with how a story’s made, what a book really is: world and character and words.  All of those elements that go to make a novel, and to make a series.

These books aren’t a gateway drug to series at all.  They’re a gateway drug to reading in general, to books with more complex groups of characters, and richer worlds.  And, sorry, Nancy, we aren’t saying no.  We’re saying: “I love this so much I want my Emeh to write about it.”  Now, that’s getting kids into reading.

P.S. She said she’s going to write about another book all by herself.  A book about stories, she said.  I’ll keep you posted.  Can you tell I’m happy I have my girl home with me?  (Not that I’m sorry she’s been taking a good nap!)

The Little Bookroom

Did you have a little bookroom growing up?  I bet you did.  Maybe it was a corner in a library.  Maybe it was, um, your mother’s study.  (Sorry, Mummy.)  Maybe it was a bookstore.  Maybe it was a state of mind, which drew everything into a bookroom in your head.  Maybe it was a state of fingers which drew all books into a bookroom in your bedroom.  (Sorry, Mummy.)  Maybe it was all of the above.  I know I still live in a little bookroom in my mind, and I never feel this more than when I’m anticipating a trip to one of my physical little bookrooms.  The Cambridge Public Library with its brilliant children’s librarians is one such place:

“Hi,” say I, “you were responsible for my child’s obsession with A Bird Is a Bird…”

“Oh, great!” they chirp.  “Here’s more by the same author and if it’s birds she’s after here’s three other books she may love.”

I look them over and in half-a-second at best I know which one is going to steal the Changeling’s heart next.  I sigh and decide to get ahead of the game.  I call the physical location on this earth which most closely resembles the little bookroom in my soul.  “Dear Children’s Book Shop, please put a copy of Feathers aside for me.”  That’s where I’m going today, and I know, I just know, I won’t only be leaving with Feathers.  It’s my little bookroom on this earth, and I love it oh so much.

Unsurprisingly, the Children’s Book Shop is the place where I first encountered The Little Bookroom, by Eleanor Farjeon, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, the book which is my namesake for this blog.  I want to say right here and now: it’s wholly unfair I won’t be talking about Ardizzone today when he did so much for that book: just believe me that his illustrations are lovely and I have an embarrassing crush on him and his work.  I simply need to talk about stories today– sorry, Edward, I still love you!  Just look at this cover and know that the line drawings inside are even lovelier.

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The Little Bookroom is the first book I bought at the Children’s Book Shop, I think.  I had always loved Eleanor Farjeon, whose Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard taught me what stories could do.  I can’t think of another way to put it than that: that book does things with stories which make them sing and dance with glee to know that someone out there gave them such lovely new places to grow and games to play.  (Oh, I did figure out another way to put it.  How lucid I am!)  Martin Pippin was the first time I lent a book to someone and she simply couldn’t get into the book.  I urged her to try.  She refused to give it a second chance.  We stared at each other, perplexed by our respective positions.  I look back at it and smile ruefully: that book was just a bit too old and a bit too peculiar for my friend.  I’d been living in a little bookroom for at least two years at that point (I was about nine or ten), but my friend, a clever, even brilliant girl, simply wasn’t used to such a range of story-play.  I wonder, now, how she would have done with The Little Bookroom?  Would she do better with either one now?

For myself, I nearly cried when I first read it.  I’m not sure that I didn’t.  Granted, I was pregnant, and discovering new-to-me Eleanor Farjeon was enough to get me crying.  But the stories– oh, the stories.  The very first one had me hooked in that special, Eleanor Farjeon way: I hadn’t expected that.  What was going on?  What sort of stories was I in for?  Gradually, as story by story unfolded for me and I had to pause between each one to digest a new explosion of “I didn’t know a story could do that!” I decided that it was a compendium of newness.  After I closed the book, I paused and thought: “I know I’ve read these.  Where have I read them before?”  The thought popped up that it was a compendium of oldness, of the traditional in stories.  And then I realized: if the collection has a pattern to it, it’s that the stories each give you that feeling that somewhere, somewhere you’ve read something like this before… and yet you haven’t.  It’s entirely new: it’s one of the children of Eleanor Farjeon’s internal bookroom.  In her bookroom she housed all the old stories, and they’ve danced and played and gossiped together until, one by one, they made something wholly new.  And up it popped, danced onto paper through her fingers, and, thank God, she made them available to us to read.

That’s the best way I can figure to give you a theoretical description of what you’re getting into.  Expect to have your whole notion of how a story works exploded, at the same time as being deeply reassured by how very traditional they are– all with Eleanor Farjeon’s characteristic quirk and charm.  (No, no, I’m not at all teary, thinking about this.)  Apart from that, the best I can do is tell you to read them and figure out your own way of thinking about these stories.  And that goes for you, too, however old you are.  I’m not entirely sure, in fact, that these are children’s stories at all.  Except that they are– everything about the style and fairytaleness of them proclaims that.  In fact, when my Changeling was fussy I read her one of them when she was six weeks old.  But they really aren’t for children, not precisely, not as such– just try one and see.  Wait a second while I categorize this post as “All Ages.”

Old stories and new stories, for adults and for children– are you seeing a pattern here? These stories cover ground. Eleanor Farjeon defies description and I’m done trying.  Let’s talk about one of the stories instead.  That’s what she’d really like.  Let’s talk about “The Clumber Pup.”  A young man, left alone in the world, heads forth to make his fortune.  Along the way he rescues a pup and her mother from being drowned.  After he becomes a royal woodcutter, the pup helps him to succeed in three tasks set by the princess, ultimately winning her hand in marriage.  What a fairy tale!  Rather boring, almost, right?

No.  Dear readers, the depth of love I have for this story cannot be measured in pint pots.  The young man is left in distressing, real poverty when his father dies, and he has to leave behind the one thing he cares for: his father’s chair.  He’s cheated when he rescues the pup, but he doesn’t care, because the pup needs saving and they bond so deeply together. How can I put it?  I believe that even my father, notoriously impervious to any animal’s charms, would be forced to admit that the bond described in this book is lovely and true.  The circumstances of his advent to Royal Woodcutter are mysterious: did the previous woodcutter come back as an apparition to help him?  Did his father’s spirit move things?  How and why did things happen as they did?  We never quite know.  As for the three tasks– the princess is no austere and distant figure in a tower.  She’s a girl who lost her kitten, saw the nice man who brought the kitten back, and started to pine to know him better.  The tasks are traditional: a ring, a note, a gift.  And yet they are almost comic: the note reads: “My love!  I love you because you are as lovely as my clumber pup.”  After all, would a woodcutter be able to write an elegant epistle?  And each of them, princess and woodcutter, loves their animal: he his pup, she her kitten.  And they love each other.  And he doesn’t just move into the castle when they wed: they are happy to stay half the time in the woodcutter’s cabin, especially once he gets his father’s chair there, which is, in the end, his only request.

Do you see what Eleanor Farjeon’s done?  She’s made people.  Real, warm, flesh-and-blood people.  People you love.  Not in a cynical way (so many “modern fairy tales” are just a smidgen too gritty for my taste), but in a way deeply steeped in the fairytaleness of the fairy tale, and also steeped in her own English countryside, and also steeped in stories beyond fairy tales, and finally sprinkled with a healthy pinch of her own humorous and charming style.

I did read this one to my Changeling.  It was too old.  She loved it, though, for the story about the kitten and the pup.  She loved the narrative voice– the charming styles of speech peculiar to each character.  These are wonderful stories to read aloud, and a toddler responds to that.  And, one day, she’ll see the story’s place in the wider Realm of Story, and she’ll be charmed by that, too.  I hope by then she’ll have her own little bookroom, and will be able to roam around it, puzzling out the traditional and the new, and how exactly Eleanor Farjeon did talk a story into trying that little trick.  Maybe she’ll even try her hand at dancing with a few new stories of her own.

It’s been over a month I’ve been writing this blog, and making my own bookroom here has been more fun and more rewarding than I could have imagined.  So, well, I thought it was time to tell you about this blog’s namesake, and if anyone reading this wants to celebrate a month of The Children’s Bookroom, why don’t you find The Little Bookroom and read a story?  Then tell me what you think of it.  I’m off to my own bookroom to find some more material to talk about here.

I Will Keep You Safe and Sound

Yesterday, the Changeling and I were headed to the library.  We were both happy.  The Changeling was prancing along in front of the stroller, dancing and singing.  The birds were singing.  The Great Writer Who Wrote that first Word was pouring the loveliness of the heavens on us because that’s what writers do when they want to give a real sense of Impending Doom™, don’t they?  Impending Doom™ just doesn’t work when things are already pretty shitty.  Things have to be really idyllic to get that Impending Doom™ feeling rolling.

Well, sure enough, next thing you know, right in the middle of a tinkling rendition of “The ABCDs,” the Changeling goes flying: first her knees hit the ground, then her middle, then her face.  All I remember is thinking: a) “Crap, I can’t reach her in time”; b) “Thank God her legs and stomach hit the ground before her face: she’s probably fine.”  Fine she was (just a scratch on her upper lip, for those of you who are related to her and are probably worried right now), and we were right near a real, very good pharmacy, so we got her cleaned up and checked over in no time flat, but we were all shocked and scared for a bit.  The library gave us balm in the form of a few bird books I’ve already reserved at my favourite children’s book shop.  (Don’t give me that look, I’m investing in my child’s education.)

But it got me thinking about a book I’ve read to the Changeling fairly regularly for a long time now.  It was a baby present from the same lovely person who gave us The Itsy Bitsy Spider, an old friend with excellent taste in books, and who actually keeps up with new releases.  (Protip: Foster such friendships.)  The book is I Will Keep You Safe and Sound, by Lori Haskins Houran, illustrated by Petra Brown, and it is as much of an antidote to nasty falls as the title suggests.  This book is equivalent to a kiss on a booboo, a hug to the soul, or a Mickey Mouse bandaid to your courage.

I will keep you safe and sound

When I watched my darling baby falling, I stifled my screams so I wouldn’t scare her even more, but those screams sort of cut me up inside a little.  Well, she needed cuddles, and those cuddles helped me, too, but reading stories?  Stories are the best medicine, I think we can all agree.  (I mean, we’re on a blog about stories, so I’m assuming we’re on the same page here: stories are awesome, right?)  But sometimes you need le conte juste, as it were.  I am here to tell you that when you’ve just experienced a nasty invasion of safety and soundness, this is le conte juste to restore peace and harmony of spirit.

The first thing I noticed about this book was that it’s infused with a golden light.  That comes first as a visual impact, through the lovely watercolor, gouache, and brown pencil illustrations by Petra Brown.  (Petra Brown?  I just want to check, would you maybe have time to do murals in my Changeling’s room?  Or… uh… maybe my room?  Please?)  I think, in this case, it’s the brown pencil which really does it: each page has a very soft, very subtle golden glow.  That means that each page glows with warmth, and that warmth means security.  This creates a perfect harmony with the warmth and security and reliability of the text itself.  The brown pencil of the text, as it were, is the security and reliability of the metre.  Each page has a lilting verse about an animal, and each triplet of animals culminates in the chorus: “I will keep you safe and sound.”

Note the trochaic tetrametre catalectic of the chorus– excuse the jargon, I’m afraid poetry is my stock in trade: the point here is that the line both begins and ends on a stressed note.  That’s what gives it that feeling of strength and firmness.  The repetition from triplet to triplet reinforces that, and provides the backbone of the book.  Safety is strong.  The lilt of the old, familiar metre softens that strength (check your books of Romantic poetry for more of trochaic tetrametre: Blake, Wordsworth, and the rest of them use it), as do the gentle intermediary lines: “Brown bears in the den / While the first buds peep / Rabbits in the field / While the crickets cheep.”   The softness both contrasts and merges with the strong yet gentle chorus line: “I will keep you safe and sound.”  There’s an underlying complexity, or at least thoughtfulness, that goes into building the simplicity of the text.

I’m so sorry, but, as I said, I do study poetry.  It was inevitable that I’d break into analysis of the poetic form at some point.  I suggest breathing a prayer of gratitude that it’s over and wasn’t all that bad (hey, I could have done “Hoppity,” you know).  Let’s move on to the story.  After all, the metre is the vehicle for the story, yes, but the story, as I said, is the real medicine here.  You’ve already met the bears and rabbits.  That’s essentially our pattern: we meet robins and dolphins and beavers and squirrels.  Each has a story to tell about the safety the parents provide for their young in the face of the world’s dangers.  The illustrations glow with love: they’re precise drawings of each animal in its own habitat, and the realism is balanced by the softness of the watercolours and that lovely underlying glow.  (Petra Brown, I wasn’t kidding.  Let’s talk murals!)

At the end, we come to the key reason this book is loved in this family: “Kitten in the moonlight / Lost…” (“Oh no, where’s his mummy?”)  “… then found” (“There she is!  Oh, he found his mummy!  He’s so happy!”) “I will keep you safe and sound.”  (“There’s so many kittens!  They’re so happy!  Let’s count them! One, two, three, four kittens!”)  Hey, folks?  Did you know we’re cat people here?  Surprise!

Such is the Changeling’s glow of happiness.  I agree with it, but for an additional reason.  Without that problem, climax, and dénouement the story would be saccharine.  It comes just to the edge of the overly sweet, and this keeps it from crossing the line.  More than that, this problem highlights our dilemma as parents: Our child will get lost, or fall down and scrape her lip, or fall from a swing, or… or… sorry, I need a moment.  OK, the fact is this: we cannot prevent all dangers from occurring– nor, dare I say, should we necessarily.  If we could keep our children from all problems and dangers, they’ll certainly crop up for our kids as adults, so they’ll need to learn to cope at some point.  What we and they need to know is that, when push comes to shove, we’re there for them.  We’ll listen, we’ll hand the tissues over, we’ll take them in and love them and support them, no matter who, no matter what… no matter how dumb they were to date that guy who was obviously a jerk, or how cruel that kid at school was, or how manipulative that first boss was.  We love them, and even if the world is nasty, they will always have us.  We’re there.

That’s what I want the Changeling to get out of this book, and that’s why I was so glad to have it after that tumble hurt me so badly (and her, too, of course): it reminded me that while I can’t prevent pain, I can be there afterwards; and I hope it reminded my Changeling of the same thing.

My First Winnie-the-Pooh

Yesterday, you will of course recall, was the day I went to Catherynne M. Valente’s event at the Brookline Booksmith and got to actually meet her and have her sign a large stack of books for me while I stammered out profuse thanks for her work.  It was wonderful: I’ve never been so happy to be embarrassed in my life as when I finally stepped up to hand my books to the lovely and kind Cat Valente.  As I stood there I thought, “If there’s anything as wonderful as being in a room just for book-lovers, I don’t know what it is.”  Partly, of course, because book-lovers will leave you alone.  They aren’t nosy and won’t talk at you just when you’re at a good part, and won’t be insulted if you flip through a book in their presence.  They may smile and say, “I love that one, too,” but they’ll leave you your space.  For the anxiety-prone, book parties are the best parties.  (Also, they tend to be nice about kids.)

Then I came home and picked up a book I’d just bought for my daughter at our lovely local toy store, Stellabella Toys, and I cracked up.  Stellabella has a really nice section of the store devoted to good books for gifts.  You won’t find the rarest of the rare books there, being that this is a toy store, not a bookstore, but it’s wonderful for little gifts, and I often find things there that I’d overlook when I’m absorbed in the new releases at a bookstore. (You will find the rarest of the rare in toys and games there, and the best of the best, too.  If you’re in Boston, go there.) In this case, the book was My First Winnie-the-Pooh, a board book version of A. A. Milne poems with the original Ernest H. Shepard illustrations.  (I’ve linked you to Barnes and Noble just because the Stellabella website doesn’t include this, sorry!)

My first winnie-the-pooh

You’re probably wondering why all of this charming stuff about a lovely little book discovered in an enchanting local toy store would have me cracking up.  This is why:

“What’s this for?” [said Bertie Wooster]

“You recite them at the concert.  The ones marked with a cross.  I was to have recited them, Madeline making a great point of it– you know how fond she is of the Christopher Robin poems– but now, of course, we have switched acts.  And I don’t mind telling you that I feel extremely relieved.  There’s one about the little blighter going hoppity-hoppity-hop which… Well, as I say, I feel extremely relieved.” [said Gussie Fink-Nottle.]

The Mating Season, by P. G. Wodehouse, from The Collector’s Wodehouse, Overlook Press, p. 106.

You see, P. G. Wodehouse and A. A. Milne, both extraordinary book-lovers and prolific authors of their generation, had a bit of a feud.  Personally, I rather take Wodehouse’s side, but then I’m a passionate Wodehouse fan.  I even see his point about “Hoppity”:

Christopher Robin goes

Hoppity, hoppity,

Hoppity, hoppity, hop.

And so on.  (It does get better, though.)  There’s a certain part of myself I have to talk to firmly in order to read that poem out loud without unseemly mirth.  That might be Wodehouse’s fault for pointing out the funny side of it, though.

That being said, I adore this book, and I think that Wodehouse (as you see at the end of the article I linked to above) saw a lot to love in Milne’s books, too.  My personal favourite of Milne’s poems, “The King’s Breakfast,” is not in this collection, but it’s in every sense Wodehousian: nonsensical and sensible at the same time; rather idyllic, but with absurd problems.  It would fit perfectly with The Mating Season.  I’ll get back to that, but first I want to say a few words about this particular book and why I love it so much.

I grew up with Winnie-the-Pooh, of course, and with Now We are Six, and with When We Were Very Young, and so much else by Milne.  And when my mother started reciting “The King’s Breakfast” to the Changeling, who was enchanted, I realized it was high time to bring out the Milne for her.  (Granted, my mother could recite a grocery list to the Changeling and enchant her: a) my mother has a great voice for children, and b) my Changeling loves her.)  So I got a few volumes.  They’re lovely, and I only ever ended up reading “The King’s Breakfast.”  The format of the book is simply intended for an older child: Shepard’s exquisite black-and-white line drawings, smallish print, etc.  They’re just a bit hard to flip through and find the best poem for right now with a toddler on your knee.

This board book is perfect for right now with a toddler.  Larger print, a few colour illustrations (still Shepard, though, no worries!), shorter, or shortened, poems.  I do miss some of the longer ones (such as “The King’s Breakfast”) but the other books are still there, after all.  This is better for regular use right now: toddlers are all about right now, after all.  It’s great, and I’m never turning my nose up at the novelty section of bookstores again.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’d thought of this sort of thing as “dumbing it down.”  Nope.  The poems are the same, but the format is so much more inviting for a toddler it makes a world of difference in introducing really good stuff at the right time in the right way.  It took my excellent toy store, though, to break my habit of walking past those displays, though.  (Thanks, Stellabella!  And I love that you keep the stickers right near the books, now, too: one stop shopping.)

So let’s get back to my earlier point: that the Wodehousian pattern of disrupting the idyllic with an absurd but profound dilemma is apparent in Milne, at least in “The King’s Breakfast” (will the King get that butter for his bread?).  Yes, you get poems like “Pooh’s Song” and “Hoppity” which really are just small observations of the life of a child… and in some cases they can be a bit inane, yes, I admit.  This particular collection is largely made up of these descriptive poems, and, at their best, they are truly special: “Us Two” and “Halfway Down” are among my favourites.  There’s no plot; they simply describe a child’s very specific situation with a rather lovely precision and grace.

But take a look at “Forgiven” (granted, granted, it’s abbreviated in this collection): Christopher Robin catches a beetle and puts him in a match-box; Nanny lets it out, but helps him catch it again.  The horror the poor boy endures over this small-to-us, big-to-him matter is quite as acute as Wooster’s pain over having to read the poem in public.  It’s a little absurd, it elicits a chuckle, but an affectionate one.  It carries the very best of Milne in the sympathetic description of a childhood moment, and the very best of Wodehouse in the sweet silliness of the problem, which is perfectly and painlessly resolved in the end.

It makes me think of how I started out this post: Milne and Wodehouse are both book-lovers, and, setting that feud to one side for the moment, they do share something, I think.  That article I linked to quoted Wodehouse saying, in the end, “I loved his stuff.”  I suspect, if you caught him at a moment when he wasn’t right at a good part and just wanted to be left alone, Milne may have confessed that he loved Wodehouse’s stuff, too.

And the Changeling and I?  Well, I know I love them both, and she loves Milne already.  I suspect that Milne will simply be paving the way for Wodehouse.

Arctic Dreams

First of all: Would the person who misplaced every book I own and simply cannot find please step forward?  Thank you. I promise I will be merciful, I would just like my books to be returned where I can find them.

See, it goes like this: the Changeling and I get really into a book and read it all the time.  It’s usually left out on the sofa or side table because we’re probably just going to read it in another five minutes, anyway.  Then… it disappears.  Then the Changeling really wants to find the Arctic hare in Arctic Dreams by Carol Gerber, illustrated by Marty Husted, and the book is nowhere to be found.  Her lip jumps.  I quickly explain that the book will come back and can she be a brave girl and choose another book until it comes back?  She stiffens her upper lip and nods and says that there’s an Arctic hare in her animal book.  What a brave girl, thank you!  I breathe a private sigh of relief.  And then, a week later, Arctic Dreams is back, and I have no idea how or where it was.

Arctic Dreams

So, I know someone out there’s playing tricks in here, and it’s driving me up the wall.  Oooh, that’s what you want, isn’t it?  Well, the bad news is that you let me find Arctic Dreams again, and so long as I’m reading this book, it’s impossible to feel anything other than perfect serenity.  This is, I’m positive, the Buddha’s favourite book.  If we could just give every world leader a copy of this book and persuade them to read it every morning, we’d have world peace by next Tuesday at noon.  This is the book Gandhi read before he decided on his personal Credo of nonviolence.  This is, in a word, serenity encapsulated between the covers of one of the best bedtime books I really hope lots of parents know about, because, seriously, it will relax your kids, I promise.  Or, if it doesn’t?  You won’t care, because your blood pressure will have relaxed, at least.

Now, my previous standard for “super-relaxing bedtime book” was Goodnight Moon, that basic staple of the children’s bookshelf.  I wasn’t even looking for other “bedtime books” because, c’mon, I have Goodnight Moon.  This makes about as much sense as not trying lemon-strawberry sorbet because you already have a really good vanilla ice cream.  They’re both delicious, both frozen desserts, but sometimes you’re in the mood for rich and creamy, sometimes for lighter and tangier.  This book is, at one and the same time, more complex and simpler than Goodnight Moon.  Goodnight Moon is vanilla ice cream: rich and deeply loved and lovable, you always love it, you had it when you were a child and you know your grandchildren will have it, too.  It’s reliable, a little old-fashioned.  And then you stumble across lemon-strawberry sorbet on a day you need a bit more of a change, and it’s also lovely on a hot day, also wonderful for chilling you out, but there’s a bit more variety going on, and it really hits the spot.

Or at least that’s how I felt when I found Arctic Dreams.  It’s not that recent (published in 1999), but it was new to me, and it may likewise be new to you.  The text of the book is very simple, lilting and rhythmic, but the vocabulary is a bit more complex than in Goodnight Moon, partly because it draws on a particular cultural background, the Inuit culture (well, so Canadians would say– the book says Eskimos, but I was brought up Not To Do That in the Canadian school system).  And so you have a mixture of the simple, repetitive “Snuggle deep, my little one. / Snuggle deep. […]  Dream in peace, my little one. /  Dream in peace,” and textured, occasionally surprising passages such as, “Let sleep surround you as silently as a snowdrift… and cover you as softly as the fur of nanook, the large white bear.”  The gentle, soothing rhythm is still there, but I find my brain suddenly feels that soft, warm blanket of fur in a quiet snowfall.  (Fate?  Please note: I do not actually wish to be flumped on by a hungry polar bear in an Arctic snowstorm.  That sounds like a terrible, if memorable, way to die.  Memorable for everyone else, that is.  I’d be dead.)

Marty Husted’s pencil and watercolour illustrations, however, take this book from lovely and relaxing, to utter serenity.  We begin with the mother murmuring to the child in his bed, and then enter the child’s mental dreamscape, where his mother’s words and his dreaming imagination take us to world’s we couldn’t really inhabit awake.  See my above memo re: death by polar bear in a snowstorm.  However, who doesn’t want to, in some absurd, dreamy level of their mind, snuggle with a polar bear in a gentle snowfall?  How lovely!… in the dreaming imagination.

That dreaming imagination is what we see in these warm yet dreamy images (the precision of the pencils is offset by the softness of the watercolour), and it pulls your mind halfway into sleep, just like cuddling a kitty taking her nap: that sleepy serenity is contagious.  We none of us are really going to snuggle up with a group of walruses (or at least I hope we aren’t), but wouldn’t you sort of like to be on a wild rock, surrounded by the sea, roaring with the walrus?  No, you wouldn’t, says your logical mind: that would be smelly, uncomfortable, and deadly.  Yes! screams your idiot imagination. What a breathtaking experience.  “Exactly,” says your logic, dryly. “Breathtaking, indeed.”  [Huh, apparently we don’t write “drily” any longer.  It’s “dryly” now.– Ed.]  I’m not even going to go into my favourite page: diving down deep in the blue ocean on the back of a bluer whale, surrounded by orangey-gold squid and seals, and schools of silvery fish.  How gloriously impossible!

This book is dreamy in every sense of the word: it conveys dreams, draws you into dreams, and is a dream to read with a droopy, dreamy child.  Also, pipes up the Changeling, “it has so many animals!”  Yeah, that’s the only issue: you may be headed into dreamland– but then your toddler may pop up her eyes again to say, “That’s a tern!  And a puffin!  A puffin!”  Go to sleep, my little one.  Go to sleep.