Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

I couldn’t leave off my month of older picture books– or, to be more precise, thinking about picture books as they would work for older children– without going in for some of my personal passions: girls in science.  Well, let’s be more precise.  Today’s blog is all about precision.  I’m not just for girls in science– I’m a bleeding heart Canadian liberal and am for girls in whatever the hell suits them best, honestly.  I’m for liberating the humanities from the current view of them as fluffy leftovers, and I’m for seeing the hard honest edges around science: what works and what doesn’t and why we should be suspicious of the current Big Data craze.  There’s a lot to talk about in the academic world these days, and that’s why I’m for bringing girls into the conversation.

Just as Ada Lovelace was.  And this book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (credit where it’s due: for once Amazon brought up a book I wanted, so I’m rewarding it with a link) by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by April Chu, cleverly and succinctly shows just how Ada became such a mathematician, and, frankly, why she was so very awesome.  If you do not think that Ada Lovelace is awesome already, then you will after reading this book.

Ada Byron Lovelace.jpg

OK, OK, it has been brought to my attention by my brain that my gushing calls for explanation: I am a total fangirl for Ada Lovelace.  I adore her.  I feel sorry for everything she went through in her life, I feel proud for all she accomplished, I am a total, complete fangirl.  As for what she went through in her life?  It can maybe most succinctly be represented by this little comic from Kate Beaton (remember her?) about young Ada Lovelace:

Kate Beaton Young Ada Lovelace

That’s it in a nutshell.  It’s explained somewhat more delicately in Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, but Lord and Lady Byron, well, why they ever got married is beyond me, but they did, and had young Ada.  It wasn’t long before Lady Byron left with Ada, and, wanting to combat any tendency towards poetry in her daughter, she instilled math assiduously.  Lady Byron herself had an affinity for math, and young Ada caught onto it quickly and eagerly.  Despite not seeing either of her parents very often– her mother was not particularly maternal and Ada was kept far away from Lord Byron– and probably being very lonely, she enjoyed her math lessons and became quite remarkably skilled.

The defining moment for her, as is drawn out beautifully in this book, is her meeting with Charles Babbage and the moment he shows her his Difference Engine, a new and powerful mechanical calculator.

DSC_0491

Damn, I’m sorry.  It’s awfully hard to get good pictures of glossy book pages with my limited setup here.  Hey– do yourselves a favour and get your own copy of the book so you can see better!  Anyway, what you want to see here is the following:

a) Charles Babbage is talking to Ada as to a colleague.  To quote the text from the previous page: “He treated her like the fellow mathematician and inventor she already was.”

b) Look at Ada’s stance: she’s completely unselfconscious and poised.  She is unembarrassed, talking ably and intelligently to a colleague.  She sees no need to apologize or explain: she’s simply good at what she does and is doing it.  (Any jealousy you detect in my typing must be in your own imagination.)

c) The focus of the page is the machine, the work they mutually understand and enjoy and are striving to expand to the level of a true “thinking machine” (a programmable computer).

Ada goes off with her head full of ideas and continues to correspond and work with Charles Babbage.  She develops an algorithm to test his thinking machine when it will be built– which, alas, it never is.  But that algorithm is seen as the world’s first computer program.

This is why I love Ada so much, can’t you see?  She wasn’t just a brilliant mathematician.  She wasn’t meek.  She wasn’t particularly pushy, either.  She just was.  She did her thing.  She shared it, unapologetically, unashamedly, unselfconsciously… she worked and thought and worked and did her math things brilliantly.  She was herself, Ada Byron Lovelace, to the fullest.

That’s the Ada who comes across so beautifully in Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, and that’s why I love this book so much.  Laurie Wallmark tells her story simply, elegantly, and cleanly: I think Ada would have appreciated the precision with which it’s pared down and tidy and runs in smooth lines.  April Chu’s illustrations highlight the key moments, such as Ada’s first encounter with the Difference Engine shown above, and they do so with beauty and elegance, like cleanly written code.  Together they make a stellar team for bringing to life such an important story.

“Important?” you ask.  “Interesting, certainly… but important?”

Yes, important.  I stand by that word.  Remember we’re talking about schoolchildren here.  Remember that I said I envied Ada’s stance on that page– poised and vigorous in presenting her views, not at all worried about putting herself forward.

I’m going to start a new paragraph for emphasis here.  Quite as important as finding your field and pursuing it is the ability to pursue it with confidence and self-reliance.  Being able to do the work is one thing, absolutely.  Being strong enough to share your ideas with your fellows as an equal and being able to speak confidently and clearly is also important.  And that’s the image which comes through strongly in this book, and that is why I strongly recommend this book to everyone, male and female, from kindergarten up.  Without in any fashion being preachy, it teaches you to be strong, be confident, be smart, be competent.  Ada Lovelace was, and you can be, too.

Folks?  I dare you to read this book and not love Ada as much as I do.  Go on, try it.  Here’s the link again: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Advertisements

Have You Seen My Dragon?

I’m breaking my own mental rules here.  Look, no, I don’t understand how I can have mental rules about what to write on my own blog, either, but I thought that writing about Steve Light twice so quickly, and writing about an earlier book of his, too, so soon after writing about Swap! and spotlighting it in Best of the Blog so far… OK, let me clarify: I am in no way related to, affiliated with, or compensated for writing about Steve Light.  I’m just a really big fan, and, more to the point, so is my daughter.

Let me back up a little.  I love dragons.  I study Welsh literature, you know, and it sort of comes with the territory, I think.  I love them so much that, you know, I want to share them with my Changeling.  So I got books about dragons, of course!  As one does.  But she was not so sure.  Maybe they were scary.  Maybe… I dunno, let’s read I Have to Go! instead, OK?  Until I got a lightbulb moment: “The Changeling loves Swap!,” I thought, “and Steve Light is a genius author and illustrator and wrote a book about a dragon not long ago.”  So, naturally, I procured Have You Seen My Dragon? from my brilliant local bookstore, and now, every single night, the Changeling says, “Let’s read about where’s my dragon before I go to bed.”  And, here’s the thing: I’m still not bored.  And I’ve read this, shall we say, a lot of times.  I prefer not to think that I am very simple, so let’s instead go back to what I said about Steve Light above: the man’s a genius with his art and writing.

Have You Seen My Dragon

This has many of the features the Changeling and I both loved about Swap!:  The text is simple and the art is rich.  Before, I thought only about how reading the simple text worked so well for me with my daughter.  Reading the book ran along very smoothly while we picked out objects in the art from pelicans to watching for that mermaid to pop up again.

I want to look at Have You Seen My Dragon? from a slightly different perspective.  Let me emphasize immediately that it is, truly, a hell of a fun book, because I’m going to utter a word which I normally take as a warning sign: pedagogical.  This is an excellent book from a pedagogical perspective.  In other words, kids can learn from it without even knowing or caring that they’re learning.  Folks, dear and darling readers, I know and you know that reading should be fun and enjoyable and who even cares about learning except as a side-effect which happens to be awfully nice when you’re reading… but we feel that way because we’re readers, and readers have to be indoctrinated into our sublime order I mean they have to learn to love reading at some point.  Slip of the tongue there.

The point is that Steve Light writes the kind of book which enriches children, rather like another current favourite of the family, Peter Sís, and I have no idea whether it’s at all conscious in either case.

Have You Seen My Dragon? is an adventure story and a counting book all in one.  It’s got a lot going on in very few words.  Here’s the plot: a child has lost his dragon and he goes on a hunt across New York to find said dragon until– spoiler alert– he finds the dragon in Chinatown.

But the fun is in the illustrations.  There are two features of the illustrations which engage… OK, I was going to say “engage your child,” but it’s time to admit that I am also entertained.  Let’s look at a two-page spread here (this is the Changeling’s favourite because of the boats):

20160525_124521

Note that the page, like Swap!, is mostly black and white.  (Steve Light, among his many other virtues, works in my favourite medium, pen and ink, using excellent fountain pens.  No, I’m not biased in favour of people who love the same pens I do, not at all.)  He picks out a few elements in colour.  This accomplishes our two features here.  a) There’s the counting game: in this case we have four sailboats in colour; b) the rest of the page becomes a “hunting” game:  Where’s the dragon?  What else do you see?  I find that part beyond fun.  I fully adore how some portion of the page will always be thrown into relief by the use of colour– OK, at this point I’m just going to taunt you: buy the book, and then look for the “Castle” page (10 Cans of Paint), that’s got some of the best use of colour I’ve seen in a picture book of any kind.

That said, my favourite part of the book for me, as the adult reader, is hunting through the page for little things: the different types of people represented, the different boats, all the little things that make the pictures so rich.  I especially love watching for how the dragon is incorporated in different ways on the different pages: there’s a level of humour and whimsy to Steve Light’s art in that respect which should really be awarded a “Medal of Fantastical Nonsense.”  (I’ve got the award all planned out: the prize would be a bust of Edward Lear.)  The dragon with his giant ice cream will win child and adult hearts everywhere, I know.

I love reading it with the Changeling, of course, because watching her scan the pages for the dragon, or count the sailboats is enormous fun.  But I know it can grow with her.  I watch my poor students with their little readers, and I imagine reading it with them.  They’re a bit older than my daughter, so I imagine them counting with, shall we say, greater accuracy.  I imagine them laughing over the absurd situations the dragon finds himself in (which my daughter accepts as entirely normal, of course, because that’s the magic of toddlers).  I imagine them really appreciating the art and the cleverness of it, in other words, and it makes me want to buy a copy for each and every student in the class.

But the greatest gift of this book, really?  The best part?  Thank you, Steve Light, for giving my daughter a dragon to love.

P.S. In other news, Telemachos finally came out of hiding for close on 30 whole seconds!20160525_123403.jpg

G. K. Chesterton

First of all, my apologies for the lack of a post on Friday.  Suffice it to say that the day was busy.  Second, well…

Yes, yes, I know this is called “The Children’s Bookroom” and here I have a post titled “G. K. Chesterton,” and Chesterton wasn’t known for his children’s literature, as it were, and what the hell am I doing?

Writing about G. K. Chesterton because this is my blog and I want to, that’s what I’m doing.

The thing is, I get obsessed sometimes.  Sometimes obsession is awful.  I can fixate for ages on why I’m lazy and no-good and then I spiral into depression and it’s no fun.  That is not good obsession.  But sometimes, oh sometimes… sometimes I read something.  Something like a reference to Chesterton in a book called Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  And then I fixate.  “These are two good authors,” I think, “and they both seem to really like this Chesterton.”  “But,” I argue, “isn’t there a risk here?  What if he writes something sort of depressing and I’m not in the best frame of mind and…” “CHESTERTON,” I reply.  “I cannot be an educated person without reading Chesterton.  I must read Chesterton.”  “But… I’m scared,” I admit to myself.  “Says here that he wrote funny things,” I soothe myself.  “And anyway, I’m at the library and have picked up everything they’ve got by him and put holds on everything else, so, frankly, you’d better get on board.”  “So be it,” I respond, and then the introductory phase of obsessive musings is over, and the full-on obsession begins.

So it goes.  I get obsessive, as I said.  And that’s why I just spent the past two days nicking time in between playing with the Changeling and doing, you know, my actual work to read The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, which Wikipedia tells me was Chesterton’s final collection of detective stories.  Well.  If they want to call them detective stories then I suppose no one need stop them.  I’m no Chesterton expert (yet… this bout of obsession has just begun), but I get the impression that Chesterton would prefer to have them called “anything but detective stories.”  He consciously teases detective stories, and he never, ever brings up a straight “detective story” in this collection.  In fact, Mr. Pond (who is given no first name) is not even a detective.  He is a “minor government official.”  Hm.

Yes, there’s the undoubted impression that Mr. Pond’s powers of deductive reasoning are respected by people in key positions, including his superior, Sir Hubert Wotton, but he’s no Sherlock Holmes.  Remember that Sherlock Holmes is marked by a few characteristics: a) People approach him to solve their problems; b) He’s conscious of his own powers as a problem-solver; c) He almost always solves the problem.  (I say “problem” because it’s not always a matter of deducing who the criminal was, although that’s usually the case somewhere along the line.)  In this case: a) Mr. Pond is not always being approached to solve a problem– in fact, the problem usually reaches him in a more roundabout way; b) It’s not altogether clear how aware Mr. Pond is of his own powers of deduction, since he’s a more humble and discreet sort of gentlemanly character; c) He doesn’t always solve the problem, definitely not in a timely fashion.  In fact, sometimes he resolves or explains the issue after it’s already over and done with.

So, what are we left with?  A collection of stories about a Mr. Pond, in which said Mr. Pond features heavily as the “problem-solver,” but in which he’s not always a key to solving the problem.  That’s a huge muddle if we’re expecting detective stories.  Fortunately, we’re not.  The title tells us what we’re expecting: Paradoxes.

And that’s what we get.  We get stories about paradoxes.

“That’s sort of odd,” you remark.  “How can you get stories about paradoxes?”  The same way, I would tell you, that you can get stories about golf.  I don’t know whether this is, perhaps, unfair to both of them, but then it can’t be more unfair than calling these stories detective stories, so– all right.  I’ve been dancing around this comparison long enough.  Wodehouse.  P. G. Wodehouse’s stories about the Oldest Member at the golf club.  He always features in his own stories, he’s considered slightly boring by his interlocutors, but is intensely amusing to the reader, and he always revolves around his point before coming to it.  A much better comparison, if I may say so, for our Mr. Pond than anyone out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie.

I can see you, now, grinding your teeth.   “Just tell us about the damned paradoxes and stories, already!”  Patience, grasshopper.  I was in one room while the book was in another.  I had to get it without disturbing the new, exceedingly shy, cat in the house.  But here we are, consider the following paradoxes: “I did know two men who came to agree so completely that one of them naturally murdered the other…”; “The whole thing went wrong because the discipline was too good.”; “The government had to consider the deporting of a desirable alien and it found that the difficulties were really quite insurmountable.”

And, yes, of course there’s an explanation to each of those statements.  And I’m not going to tell you what the explanation is.  You need to let Mr. Pond tell you.  But I’ll explain this much to you: The stories are both reasonable and fantastic– reasonableness taken to the verge of absurdity, if you like– in that peculiarly English way which, yes, brings Wodehouse to mind.  And which also explains Gaiman and Pratchett’s penchant for Chesterton.  A clue like a bent poker solves the crime in the most “detective” story of the collection– and yes, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would love it.  But would they include a clown on his way to entertain at a children’s Christmas party?  What about a  character like Peter Gahagan, who tells a story of seeing six sea serpents, each larger than the last?  And then involve the company in an analysis of why such a lie proves Gahagan’s ultimate truthfulness?

Absurdity and seriousness topple over each other in a paradox of its own kind in this collection, and it’s no wonder that, enmeshed in this type of paradox, I got obsessed.  Now, excuse me, I have a date with The Man Who Was Thursday.  Nothing need stand between me and Chesterton right now.

Jazz Day

When I work with my students at the local school, the teacher encourages me to make sure the students don’t just automatically go for the books they already know how to read– have them read something new.  I nod agreement, because this is one of those things which is so very obvious: it’s simply good pedagogy, and she’s doing her job well.  Except that I sympathize with the students on two grounds: a) the Red Rocket Readers they’re given are as boring as can be and all very similar to one another; b) I was once the kid who didn’t want to branch out from very circumscribed reading styles, and it took me a long time to figure out how to vary my reading while remaining true to my taste and myself.  And I still sometimes surprise myself.

I was stuck in the nineteenth century for a long time: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, even Ann Radcliffe.

But my teachers and even some of my family kept trying to get me to read more modern books.  I didn’t want to.  I felt bad– I was beginning to get the impression that there was some especial virtue attached to reading modern books– but they seemed so dreary to me.  I wanted something richer, something funnier, something more elegant.  I figured out how to find that through my close school friend, who knew my tastes very well and has a knack for matching books and people: she got me onto Sir Terry Pratchett, may his memory be for a blessing.  Not exactly what my teachers were going for, but his humour appealed to me, as did his depth of knowledge: if P. G. Wodehouse were angrier and a bit wilder, there wouldn’t be much difference between him and Pratchett.  As it is, thanks be to the Almighty, I get to read and enjoy them both.

But why do I ramble about this?  It’s to show you how tastes work: you can’t force taste.  There’s no virtue in preferring one type of book to another.  I recently read part of a book which I could tell was excellent, but didn’t appeal to me.  I put it down with a sigh.  It wasn’t for me, and I regretted that.  But sometimes we encounter surprises on the other side of the spectrum.  Or at least I do.

Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo, surprised me.

Jazz Day

I am no lover of jazz music.  The closest I come to loving jazz is in The Princess and the Frog, thank you Disney.  I love the music for that movie, but, apart from that, I’m afraid I just don’t listen to much jazz.  I’m a Classical music girl, and, as with my taste for the nineteenth century, I’m at peace with that.  That being the case, I was sure that Jazz Day wouldn’t be to my taste.  It might be good, I may be able to appreciate it, but would I love it?  Unlikely.  I put it aside, ignoring the tugging I felt.  Then I was at another bookstore, in that weakened state which proximity to children’s books always induces in me.  I saw it again.  I didn’t have much time.  I nabbed it to think about whether or not I really liked it later.  And think about it I did.  Jeepers, people, this is one excellent book, whether or not you love jazz.

It’s got jazz in it, sort of.  I mean, it would probably be cool to listen to jazz as you read this book, but it’s hardly obligatory.  I went for Berlioz instead because I had a hankering for some Berlioz.  I wasn’t struck by lightning.  But what it truly is– really and truly– is rich.  It’s full like a plum pudding.  It’s got history.  It’s got biography.  It’s got imagination.  It’s got rhythm.  It’s got music.  It’s got plenty of men and a few women, too.  Who could ask for anything more?  (Sorry, so sorry… I couldn’t resist.)  Well, if you do ask for something more, you’ll find it in the illustrations and imagination which Roxane Orgill and Francis Vallejo bring to the book in a perfect melding of fact and fiction.

But hang on, you say: tell me a bit more about what this book is.  Fair enough.  Back in 1958 a man named Art Kane put out a call to all jazz musicians who could to show up at a certain place in Harlem, by an “absolutely typical brownstone,” as he said.  He was going to take a photograph and have it printed in Esquire to show off the glory days of jazz music.  Here’s the photograph (thank you, Wikipedia):

Great_Day_in_Harlem

This book takes that photograph and, through a series of poems about the people in the photograph, it opens up the picture to let you inside the day: inside the history, and the clothing and the people and even the little kids who lined up on the sidewalk for a joke and weren’t shooed away.  It was only a semi-planned event: Art Kane had no way of knowing who’d show up, or how the shoot would go, or who would follow instructions.  He did little by way of shouting instructions and let people be themselves.  It’s an open, sincere, very candid sort of photograph, showing who came that day, and some of the kids who happened to be around.  The book is equally open and candid, equally sincere, and I can only imagine the kind of work that went into making it feel so semi-planned and “take it as it comes.”  Here’s an example of one of the two-page spreads, courtesy of Candlewick:

Scuffle

You can see how it’s taken from the photograph above, right?  The kids all in a row beside Count Basie, getting into a scuffle, as kids do.  There’s something ever so slightly unfinished feeling about the contours of the picture: the emphasis, they say, is on this part… we’ll get to the next portion when you turn a page or two, OK?  Fact and fiction, merging, blending.  Who knows much about that scuffle?  Well, says Roxane Orgill, if you do enough research, you can see it.  And if you read to the last pages of the book you’ll see she did plenty of research (her bibliography is most impressive).  But research isn’t enough: what Roxane Orgill and Francis Vallejo really provide is the imagination which brings that period, that spot in history to life.  You can see it, hear it, smell it, hum it as you read the poems– and, boy, do they read well aloud!– and look at the pictures.

Folks, it doesn’t matter what music you love.  It doesn’t matter where you think your tastes lie.  Give this book a chance.  Your kids will identify with the scuffling kids at the front of the picture and you’ll be enchanted by the Count or some of the other musicians– give it a chance, and see if you’re as taken by it as I am.  Let me know if you are.  I have a feeling I’m not alone on this one.

My Wild Family

What’s your family like?  And who are they like?  My father is smart and capable, and he’s good at building.  Maybe he’s like a beaver?  Maybe a bird, building his nest?  My mother is gentle and devoted to her family.   She reminds me of Mrs. Mallard.  My sister is elegant and graceful, like a swan.

Why am I thinking of that?  These are the conversations you’ll be having after you read, and, if you follow my advice you will read, My Wild Family by Laurent Moreau.

My Wild Family.jpg

I am very curious to know more about how Chronicle Books has been getting so many excellent books from France these days– remember Who Done It?  That was a great book, too.  I want to know which editors are in charge of getting these books and getting them so nicely translated, because I want to a) send them flowers, b) have their job.  Do you ever think about how there are all of these great books out there which you never get to see because they’re in another language or another country, and then you get sad?  And then you go looking around for them?  (Ahem: Bébé Balthazar.) Well, I think I want my job to be “editor in charge of reading amazing French kids’ books and getting them translated for the English-speaking market.”  Glorious.

Anyway, moving on: this beautiful book is possibly one of the most versatile in age I can imagine.  It’s incredibly simple, yet rich.  Let me show you a few pages:

My Older Brother

With the Changeling, the game is to look for the one who stands out: that’s very easy with this page.  The elephant is front and centre.  It’s a little more tricky for her with the little brother (a small bird, so you have to hunt for him), and even with one of my favourite pages…

My mother

But what I really, truly love?  I really love that this is a conversation which could grow.  I volunteer with early readers, in a Grade 1 classroom.  Those are slow readers (most of them are clever kids from other countries, so English is their second language), and I can see them being very engaged by a book like this one.  The text is so simple, so very simple that some of the more advanced kids in the class could probably handle it fairly well.   The ideas, though, are so much more interesting than the ones they have to handle in their abysmally stupid little readers.

Oh, those poor kids.  Allow me a tangent.  Do you know how I know those kids are bright?  It’s because I can see their book-hunger.  They flip through the little stacks of books I give them and choose eagerly, based on the topic they think will be in each book from the cover image.  They read three or four little booklets with me, then go through the (rather good) vocabulary lists in the back.  But the books!!!  They’re based on the curriculum, they’re required reading– I don’t blame the lovely teacher at all.  But they’re so boring I’m amazed the kids can endure them.  They do, although one bright little boy explained to me how the pictures of sandwiches in them made him feel sick (accompanied by a graphic demonstration of how sick he felt).  I didn’t blame him– bad food photography of a revolting school sandwich is nauseating, indeed.  And I sit there and repress my sigh of longing to bring this one in and see whether my more advanced readers can manage it.  They could, I know they could.

What, you wonder, do I think they could get out of it?  Well, this is a book where the text is simple but the visual context gives rise to more complex ideas.  My kids are students whose language is limited but whose minds are very sharp.  I think that would make for a great match.  Take that page with the giraffe I showed you above: the mother is tall and beautiful (“Is the giraffe tall and beautiful, honey?”  “She’s so tall, tall like this!” says the Changeling) but very shy and doesn’t want to stand out.  My Changeling gets that the giraffe is tall, and she knows what it is to be shy, but she’s too little to really get how the clever illustrations blend the giraffe in with the windows in the background.  She doesn’t understand the concept of camouflage, really.  Her engagement is with finding each animal and admiring them all.  It’s thrilling for her, and an absolutely satisfying read.

My students are old enough to do two things the Changeling, clever darling though she is, is too little to do:  a) I’m positive that they could pick up on the contextual clues in the illustrations, and I’m confident that with prompting they could talk about them (i.e. understand the concept of camouflage, if not get the word just yet); b) I’m equally confident they could relate the concept to themselves (“What is my father like?  Who am I like?”).  In other words, I see this– oh, lord, there goes my imagination again.  Fine, I’ll let my imagination fly.  I see this as a great basis for a unit.  You read it with the students, maybe in small groups, so the students can see the pictures and talk about them.  Then each student gets the chance to do their own “Wild Family” picture: Here’s my father, the owl.  He is very smart.  Here’s my aunt, the kangaroo.  She loves pockets.  Here’s my adorable sleepy baby brother, the sloth.  It all requires simple language, and a bit of clever thinking.  I bet my kids could do it, and it would be so much more fun than those little pink books of deathly boredom.

This is a clever book, a growing book, and I love it for all that I see that it does with the Changeling, and could do for us in a few more years.  But what I really, truly love it for?  It’s for that lesson I dream of.  I’ll never be able to teach it, but I wish to God I could.  I know those students would love it.

And, Chronicle Books?  Tell me where to send the flowers, and I’ll do it.  Maybe a fruit basket, too.  Bringing these books to the USA merits some reward.

Too young, too old

When I was eight years old, I read The Odyssey for the first time.  I’m not saying that to brag: it’s something I ended up feeling embarrassed about a lot of the time.  Hearing “You can’t really have understood it, though” often enough will do that.  When I was nine I first read Pride and Prejudice.  Again, not bragging.  I’ve had so many hosts of awkward conversations about both of these books that I stopped really talking about them so much.  I felt too embarrassed to say how young I was when I read them, so I just shut down those topics in my mind.  But I’m boldly confessing now: Yes, I read books which were “too old” for me, and, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.  I think I understood them at a basic level.

Did I pick up on every detail?  I mean, jeepers, there are PhD theses being written right now which express views so abstruse I might not understand them today.  Obviously I didn’t understand those when I was eight years old.  But did I understand the story?  Yes.  Did I pick up on points of repetition and ask for clarification about the point of the repetition?  Yes.  (Oral recitation, I was told.  Now that caught my fancy.)

But I felt embarrassed.  I felt embarrassed because I was caught in a world of “too young” and “too old.”  The books were “too old” for me.  I was “too young” to understand them.  But, at the same time, I was reading books which were “too young” for me.  If I was old enough for novels, wasn’t I “too old” for picture books?  (Let me hit pause for a minute: Mummy, no, I’m not talking about you.  You were great!)  It seems that the world just didn’t expect people to read and enjoy D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths at the same time as they’re reading Homer.

D'Aulaires

But why not?  D’Aulaires’ is a great read, Homer is a great read, and if you’re capable of reading both, then why not read both?

The problem is rooted in this fallacy of “too old” and “too young.”  I will grant you one thing: there are definitely topics which are beyond the reach of some younger readers (incest, rape, violence, etc.) and it’s important to keep these in mind when recommending books to younger readers.  I will also say boldly right now that sometimes it happens that a kid gets their hands on a book which has one of these topics in it (for me it was prostitution) and they might not know what to make of it.  That happens.  It’s OK.  I survived.  It was not my most enjoyable reading experience, but my mother was there to help explain things a bit, and I found other books which were better-suited to my age and my tastes.  And I’m glad I read that story when I did, in hindsight, because it made me aware that such things were out there.

But, “adult” topics aside, I want to boldly advocate for knocking down some pretty stupid barriers right now.  I want to point out that there are programmes for adults reading children’s literature, analyzing it, and enjoying it.  I want to point out that right here on this blog I’m a PhD student in medieval literature reading children’s books, mostly picture books, and, I think, drawing out some pretty interesting insights into what’s going on in them.  I want to point out that it’s pretty nasty to make children feel bad about what they’re reading, whatever level you think they should be going for: what matters is what they get out of it.  Your job is to help them find the meat in whatever they’re reading.

“Too old” and “too young” is a construct manufactured to foster anxiety around reading.  There’s enough anxiety out there as it is, don’t you think?  Do we really need to add anxiety to reading?  Can’t we let it be a space to safely explore the unsafe?  A space where we can securely venture forth for Ithaca?  A space to quietly rant about a man’s pride and unkindness and hope he’ll take those words to heart and grow into a better person?  We can’t do those things in real life, but we can do them in books, and think about how we maybe could get a bit more adventure in life, maybe… just maybe…  Literature can do all those things.  And, as I’ve taken pains to point out here before, children’s literature is no exception: Quackers, I maintain, has many of the same lessons as Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  

Books give us places to explore complicated topics (“Where do I belong?”) in the safety of words and closed worlds: a book is a closed system you can slip into, look around, and walk out of in safety.  The very best books, for any age, are the ones which have you leaving as a somewhat stronger, bigger, more thoughtful person than when you walked in.

The other day, the Changeling stood in the middle of our living room.  She looked around her at all the bookcases, and she said something which warmed my heart: “I like books.”  That thrilled me.  She didn’t say, “I like those books,” pointing at the children’s books.  She didn’t say she liked any specific book.  She liked books, books in general.  I hope she’ll continue to like books, and I hope I’ll continue to foster that love.

And I hope that when she’s ready to read The Odyssey, she’ll still be able to appreciate D’Aulaires’.

My rant is over, and another review will be up on Monday.  Thanks for indulging my need to get these feelings out.  (Do you have thoughts about “Too young” and “Too old”?)

P.S. The new kitty, Telemachos, is settling in well, but still hiding.

I got a cat

I can’t possibly write anything sensible today, because I just got a cat.  I’d post a picture, but you’d only see the dust under my futon with two points of light peering out, because that’s where the kitty is hidden.  His name is Telemachos, though, because my other kitty’s name is Penelope, and he’s a stripy orange beast.  He’s hiding because he’s very shy and in a new place.  It will take him time to get used to us and come out.  Right now I’m sitting very quietly, typing away in the same room as him, trying to project the right vibes towards him: “I’m OK!  Look!  I’m just sitting here quietly, totally nonthreatening.  I’m just fine.  Don’t worry about me, come on out and explore!”  But if he’s anything like Penelope, it will take him plenty of time to get used to the place and come out, and more time to get used to us and want to play.

And that’s OK.  We all need time to hide and read and have a little quiet space around us to get used to the world.  We need a library.  Right now, Telemachos is in his library.  When he comes out, I’ll be thrilled.  But until he does, that’s where he is, and that’s fine, too.  (When he comes out, I’ll get you a picture, I promise.  The internet loves cat pictures.)

In the meantime, I’ll try to get my brain back in order and come up with a nice book for you.  Right now, all my brain can hear is: “CAT!  I HAVE A NEW CAT!”

Welcome, Telemachos.  Once you get used to us, I think you’ll like it here.  In the meantime, enjoy your library.

Update: Still under the futon, but relaxed enough so I could get this shot:

20160511_163351

Willy’s Stories

Today I started sorting through the children’s bookshelves in our house.  I put away board books which we don’t read so much any longer and, well, tried to figure out whether to put away any of the picture books, fairy tale collections, children’s novels, etc.  Spoiler alert: I found that part almost impossible.  Board books were hard enough (not all of them made it into the box), but picture books and older books?  No.  I think this problem stems from what we can call my “acquisitions process.”

Here’s how I buy kids’ books: a) If I think the Changeling will really enjoy something; b) If I really love something; c) If I think that the Changeling will enjoy something sometime in the course of the next decade.

So, if I try to cull what goes on the shelf according to a principle of “what we’re reading with the Changeling right now,” that doesn’t line up with how things get there in the first place.  Frankly, I think even Marie Kondo would give up on me.  Today’s book is a prime example of a picture book I recently bought, haven’t yet read with the Changeling, probably won’t read with her for some time yet, but is definitely going to stay on my bookshelves in a prominent place.  It’s called Willy’s Stories by Anthony Browne, and I think that you and your early novel-readers are going to love it.

Willy's Stories

NB: Willy hasn’t started his literary life in Willy’s Stories, although that’s where I first met him.  Author-illustrator Anthony Browne has been writing about Willy for over thirty years now, but in the UK.  Candlewick Press brought Willy’s Stories to the USA in 2015, however, and I’m thrilled that they did.

The story goes like this: every week Willy walks through a set of apparently ordinary doors (i.e. he goes to the library), and every week he ends up in an extraordinary adventure.  Let him show you his adventures: He finds himself on an apparently deserted island until he sees a single footprint in the sand; He’s wearing a fine suit of clothes and needs to cross a stream, so he asks a merry priest for help; He goes through the doors and falls down a deep rabbit hole and sees a rabbit checking a pocket watch.  And so on and so forth, Willy guides you through your favourite classic stories and novels, books you’ll find at your own local library!

It’s a wonderfully simple idea, beautifully executed.  Each full-page accompanying illustration shows a vivid snapshot which matches the snapshot in the text: falling down the rabbit hole (book-lined shelves on all sides), crossing the stream (with an abbey made of books behind him), on the desert island (with a palm tree of stacked books).  The pictures sit right on the cusp between completely tumbling you into a whole new story and a glimmering awareness that this is a book, it’s a story, it’s not really, really happening… look, there’s a palm tree made of books!  It can’t be real.  (Oh, also, there’s a chimpanzee in a sweater vest.)  And yet… and yet… there’s Friar Tuck and Robin Hood, I’m sure of it!  It’s a lovely teasing pull.

In other words, the text and images do a truly fantastic job of emulating the feeling of total immersion in a story: You always know there’s words on the page in front of you, but you also know that you’re on a desert island or a pirate ship or are wearing a fine suit of Lincoln green as you hunt the deer of Sherwood Forest.

You might be wondering at this stage, “OK, so why aren’t you reading this with the Changeling just yet if you love it so much?”  Oh, I want to.  I may end up doing it, actually.  I can never resist sharing good books with her!  Here’s the thing, though: this book really isn’t for toddlers.  (Candlewick recommends it for 5+, and I think that’s right.)  For the ideal experience, in fact, the book wants you to have at least a basic familiarity with the stories it talks about.  Which is one of the reasons I love it so much.  It’s a picture book perfectly suited, I think, to the readers Betty Carter talked about in the Horn Book Magazine article I cited on Friday, “Escaping Series Mania.”  If you’ve read Treasure Island, you’ll love this book.  If you’ve read even a pared-down version of Alice in Wonderland or even watched The Wizard of Oz without reading the actual novel, then you’re ready for this book.  I don’t think a toddler would get it, although I can tell you the Changeling is enchanted by the pictures.

All right, you say.  So it’s aimed at kids who have already read these books, then.  So what’s left to interest them in this book?  Well, first of all, no: you don’t need to have read all the books, or even any of them– you just need to have the cultural background to get that these are stories you can find in your library.  Maybe, as I said above, you’ve only watched The Wizard of Oz, but never read it.  So then you flip delightedly through this book, enchanted by the vivid snapshots of text and illustration.  “Wait,” you think, “this is a book, too, from the library?  I should look into that…”  Or else, perhaps you’ve read Robinson Crusoe, but never  Treasure Island.  You read along through the book and are thrilled to find another thrilling adventure story.  “Wow,” you think, “that sounds fun…”  Or maybe you’ve never read any of them, but you’re old enough to have heard about the stories and these give you just a taste of them– you get where I’m going, don’t you?

My point is that this is like going out for tapas or mezze: you should be old enough to be eating more than mushed up bananas, and curious enough to give the beet salad a go, but you don’t need to have tried every single dish in advance (what’s the point of that?): you just need to have the appetite and spirit of adventure ready to sample.  And the best scenario is that you get really excited by the beet salad and decide to try to find out more about it later!  This book is a book of appetizers, and it gently directs you to the library for the full course.  I encourage you to hand it to smart youngsters ready for adventure, and remind them that the wonderful librarians of the world can give them a menu when they’re ready.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

It feels like an awfully long time since we’ve had a regular book chat, doesn’t it?  And yet it’s only a week!  But what a week: a week marked for me by some major family events (my husband defended his dissertation), by starting off my Monthly Newsletter (as fun as I thought it would be), and by the arrival of my Horn Book Magazine subscription for March/April and May/June.  I love browsing those magazines.  It’s like roaming through the bookstore, but you can do it in your pyjamas and you have a friend to chat with about the books all the time.

This time, though, what struck me was the article “Escaping Series Mania” by Betty Carter in the March/April edition.  Betty Carter tells us that the primary school students who attend her school library are bright kids, and passionate about novel series, and she argues that they would benefit from greater exposure to a variety of picture books.  (I painfully constrict her lovely article there– apologies.)  I was surprised to read this because I remember clearly that, for me, picture books were a highlight of my life through… oh.  Wait.  The present day, I suppose?  Point being, I read them voraciously in Grades 1-3, which are the years she’s talking about.

And so I thought to myself that, for the next few weeks, at least, instead of taking it for granted that everyone is going to see the benefit in reading these picture books with an older audience, why not try making it a bit more explicit?  Let’s ask questions like: How would an older child see these books?  How would they benefit from it?  What’s at stake for an 8-year-old as opposed to a 2-year-old or the parent to that toddler?

And what better book to start with than a book I truly consider an “All Ages” sort of book, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, by William Joyce and Joe Bluhm.

Fantastic Flying Books

One of the remarkable things about this book is that it’s actually based on a video, which you can and should watch here.   Seriously, folks.  Watch that movie.  It will give you back way more than the 15 minutes of your life you spend watching it, I promise.

How do you make a picture book out of a 15-minute short, though?  And what does it mean for the book when you do that?  What excellent questions you ask, and how I wish I could answer them adequately!  The honest truth is that I don’t know much about making a movie, but I do know something about picture books.  And the main aspect this book gains from the movie is animation.  The movie, of course, has action.  The book, of course, is printed on paper.  It can’t move.  Movies move, books don’t.  This is basic stuff.

But… do books really not move?  Hell, I’ve quoted Milton before, and I’ll do it again: “For books are not absolutely dead things,” he says in Areopagitica.  Books are inanimate, but they, well, they are animate.  They animate us.  In this case, though, there’s a more literal type of motion going on: no, the book isn’t animate, I’m sorry, but it does give the sense of animation.  It conveys that impression, the impression of vigour and jumping and motion from page to page.  Books fly, buildings crash, and Morris falls through a book in a torrent of letters gleefully spurting up from the page.  You can hardly believe the book isn’t growing and churning and spinning under your hands.

But what of the plot?  Well, here’s where we get to the question of age, and what different ages might gain from it.  OK, wait: May I remind you, right here and now, of my relationship to talking about ages?  Ages and Why I don’t mention them often.  Thank you.  That disclaimer aside, though, I think I can tell you one key thing about this book and the different ages of children and adults who will read it:  We’ll see it differently.

“Great, Deb,” you say drily.  “Care to tell us that water is wet?”

Patience, dear reader.  Give me a chance to explain.  What I mean here isn’t that, well, in Peter Rabbit a child sees a story about Peter running away from Mr. McGregor and getting home safe to Mrs. Rabbit.  An adult can see a bit more– Peter would have died, for a start.  Peter’s father wasn’t humiliated by being smooshed into a pie (yes, I thought that as a child); he was killed and cooked.  And then there’s the question of themes of the forbidden garden and so forth, if we want to get even further into things.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is different.  My toddler, I suspect knows it’s a story about a man who really loves books, but how much more does she see?  She picks up on the Humpty Dumpty book who accompanies Morris through the story.  She loves the library.  She adores the flying books, and the fantastical nature of the illustrations.  Story?  I’m not sure she sees it.

As an adult, I sometimes catch myself ferreting, I feel, too much at the story.  “What’s the Deep Significance of Humpty Dumpty?  Who is the lady who sends Morris Lessmore the Humpty Dumpty book?”

Here’s what I wonder: Is 8 years old, or thereabouts, maybe the perfect age for a book like this?  Oh, my daughter and I both adore the book–I don’t mean that it’s not good at other ages.  What I wonder is if a middling age might let you get this kind of reading:

Morris Lessmore is a man who loves books and is comfortable in his own set way of life, writing away daily in his own book.  One day, his life is turned up and over and he loses his entire comfortable life, including his books– and although he retains the book in which he writes, even that writing seems jumbled.  But, when he one day looks up from this depressed state, he’s guided by a kind of Book Angel to a library, where he makes a new life of tending to the books and sharing stories.  When he finally reaches the end of his life, happy and fulfilled, his own book joins the library, and begins a new cycle of sharing stories with new people.

In other words, I think that primary school children are exactly at an age where they can grasp the plot from out of the fantastical elements of the book– but aren’t yet at the age where they have to obsessively look for The Real Meaning of everything.

So, let me make a recommendation: Go to your favourite bookstore, buy a few copies of this book, and give your favourite Grade 1-3 kids a nice surprise present, give your local library a present, and donate one to your local school or a charity with a focus on literacy.  Let’s spread the picture book love!

Best of the Blog so far

I just want to remind you that for future retrospectives plus who knows what else (I have ideas, yes, I do…), you can now sign up for my monthly newsletter.

For this first retrospective, since we have so many books to cover (around 60!), I don’t want to limit myself to just three.  Instead, I’m giving you six spotlighted books, and we’ll lay out the others I’ve covered here so far in a nice, easy-to-skim format.  Believe me, oh my best beloveds, it was hard to narrow it down even to six.  How can I overlook brilliant classics like Outside Over There?  Or leave out Canadian classics like The Balloon Tree?  Or omit all board books– what about Here Babies, There Babies?  (Uh, so yes, I just cheated.  It’s my blog.  I can cheat if I want.)  But I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it’s just a blog post, and all books are going to be sorted out nicely at the end here.  But to make me feel better we can call these books “ones which popped out at me and hit me round the head even after quite a long time.”  It makes me feel better because I hate choosing favourites between my sweet paper babies.  (A Child’s Garden of Verses and Madlenka’s Dog.)

Now, let’s get to the best part of this: the books.  When I look over the past 6o-ish books we’ve talked about so far and think about what stands out to me, there are two elements that smack me right between the eyes.  Both of these come up repeatedly in my short list here: a) Either works by an author-illustrator, or by a combo of author and illustrator who are strikingly well-matched; b) The theme of a journey or travel, whether literal or figurative, which is navigated by ingenuity, perseverance, and inspiration.

These are obviously each very broad aspects of children’s literature, and I imagine they’ll continue to come up again and again.  Anyway, I’ve included three books where the author is also the illustrator: The MarvelsThe Fox and the StarSwap!.  They are each very different: One is a YA novel, one is an all-ages parable, and one is a humorous picture book for as young as you want to go.  What does this actually tell us?  Pretty big lessons, including that art and writing are two related means of communication, and there are few barriers that can’t be overcome by an excellent practitioner of either one.  You can produce a striking masterpiece as innovative in its way as Tristram Shandy, or you can be a second William Morris producing a second News from Nowhere, or you can stand on the shoulders of Edward Lear’s brilliant nonsense (and probably bounce, because nonsense always bounces).  And, in all of these schools, you can lay about you with pen and brush and explode everything done before.  If you’re good enough.  Brian Selznick, Coralie Bickford-Smith, and Steve Light are all good enough and to spare, and that’s why I chose them, and chose to spotlight author-illustrators.

All of them, of course, also talk about some kind of travel, some kind of journey through space or mind.  A mission, perhaps we can call it.  That makes sense: all books need to be propelled by a mission, a travel.  Some of the best examples of that drive, that journey through the book we’ve encountered so far are: SwanInstructions, and Fairyland.  Whether the journey is completely personal (Swan), figurative (Instructions), or painstakingly realistic (Fairyland), all of these are about some form of journey.  As I said, you have to have some kind of a journey from the first to last page of a book, but sometimes the journey is one you simply observe, and some journeys take you with them and return you a changed person.  All of these fall in the latter group.

Here are our spotlights for the month: Swan

Swan: This was my first post for a reason.  It’s really just that good.  It’s a biography, but it’s the biography that will teach children that the very best biographies will take you through someone else’s life and experience.  Anna teaches you how she lived and why– and inspires you to persevere as strongly, dream big, and dance through the difficulties of life.  Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad made a beautiful book, still one of the best I’ve seen since I started the blog.

The Fox and the StarThe Fox and the Star: I still think this is one of the most beautiful books I own.  It is also one of the most surprisingly accessible.  I read it with my Changeling and she loves it, but– forgive me for bragging– she’s quite a smart toddler.  And yet, so far, despite reading it with everyone I can lay my hands on, I haven’t seen it fail to enchant every single reader I meet.  Beautiful and wise, by the lovely Coralie Bickford-Smith, this is truly a special book.

Instructions

Instructions: Talk about a dream team of author and illustrator (Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess are at their best). This book lets you dream, and dream about stories.  I don’t know how else to put it: it’s a book which will take you with it, and then, when you come back, you’ll take it with you all your life and be glad of it.  It will change how you see stories, and, frankly, I just think a generation of children who grew up reading this will make the world a better place.  Read it with your children, and, on a rainy day, curl up with some tea and read it yourself.

Marvels

The Marvels: This book is the perfect synthesis of the two elements I mentioned above.  There’s the author-illustrator brilliance at work with Brian Selznick’s glorious pencils wreaking wonderful havoc with your expectations as you look and read, and then there’s the literal and figurative journeys throughout the book: sea travel, theatre as an analogue to the sea, and the characters’ own journeys as compared to both.  This is a lush and beautiful book to hold in your hands, and it’s just as lush an emotional experience to live through reading.  It will break your heart, but it will also heal it, and you will be glad of it.

Girl Who Circumnavigated FairylandFairyland: This is the only series I’ve written about, and I still feel I hardly began to touch on its true brilliance.  If you’ve ever felt that it was horribly unfair for all those authors to obliterate the magic at the end of their books and/or make the kids go home (C. S. Lewis, I’m looking at you), then these are for you.  Cat Valente takes you on a journey and is as anxious to get back to Fairyland as you are.  She doesn’t hide the longing or pass it off with some tired moral about how the real world is just as magical– she knows that, and she knows you know it, too.  We still want and need Fairyland, and she takes us there.  And what we find there surprises us: I found myself there.  Maybe you will, too.

Swap!

Swap!: I love a good laugh, and a good think, and this book provides both.  Once again, we see the best of author-illustrator work here.  We also see gleeful whimsy, and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s sometimes just what you need.  Going from nearly-nothing to something wonderful is a journey in itself in this book, and you just know it’s going to launch into a fantastic adventure as soon as the ship has sailed off of the last page.  I encourage you to stow away and sail with it.

So, that’s it for my “short” list of recommendations for the first of these retrospectives.  As I said above, future months will be shorter since I won’t be catching up from over three months’ reviews!  The last thing here is my list of all other reviews to date, which, again, is longer than it will be in future:

And that’s it for this month!  On Friday we’ll be back to reading new books.