The Perils of Procrastination

Normally, I feel that my habit of procrastination isn’t so much procrastination as, well, gracefully waiting for the golden words within me to come bubbling up and spill onto the eagerly waiting paper.

Or something like that.

Sometimes this backfires.  It generally backfires when I have three (3) (III) THREE different writing projects waiting for me– one of which is only my freaking PhD dissertation, y’know– all on similar deadlines, and then I realize that I have travel plans which, shall we say, put the seal on this deadline.  That would be this week.

So let’s relieve some of this pressure, shall we?  I still have to sort out exactly what I’m going to be able to manage for the rest of this week, but for today, well, I’m going to wing it.  I’m going to talk a bit about the Changeling and her literary tastes at the moment.  Some of this is going to take us back into older territory (books we’ve already read) and some into newer territory, but we’re going to take it a little bit easier today, because, for crying out loud, I have a lot of writing to do and basically no time left.  (Why do I do this to myself, people?  Why?)  (Don’t answer that question.)

First, let’s talk about one of the unsung trials of potty training.  Please don’t be squeamish: you know I have a toddler, right?  That means talking about poop at some point.  Right, so, here’s the thing.  Sometimes your toddler will make it very clear they need to go on the potty.  They will volunteer to go.  Then they’ll sit down, get bored, and say, “Hey, I wanna go do something else!”  So, how do you keep them sitting long enough to find out if something’s going to happen or not?  Obviously, you read a book, right?  Right, that’s what I thought, too.  Our book?  Here Babies, There Babies.  It’s short, zippy, and entertaining.  Most of all, it’s become ritualistic.  And there’s something about the rhythm which does seem to, ahem, help move things along…

But what else is she reading these days?  My Wild Family has become a favourite bedtime book, and Robert Munsch’s Good Families Don’t (that’s a Canadian link; you can listen to the book for free over here) has, by virtue of the similarities between the titles, also become popular.  It’s funny because the two books couldn’t be more dissimilar.  My Wild Family, as we’ve discussed, is an elegant, slightly humorous, and gentle book about the characteristics of different people in a family.  Good Families Don’t is about a fart.  It’s funny, chaotic, zany, it’s cheerfully inelegant.  Where My Wild Family teaches you to look inside yourself to see what makes you special, Good Families Don’t, if it has a lesson, teaches you that, actually, good families sometimes do.  Sometimes you should just embrace the farts, because they can be there, and there’s no use in denying them.

And, of course, it has every Canadian’s favourite line in a book: “Good Canadians don’t have farts!  What would the Americans say?”

And that’s what we’re reading over here these days.  And now that I’ve scandalized all of my readers (I am so terribly sorry), I have to try to meet my other deadlines.  Wish me luck!

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

My very dear readers, yesterday I offered you something simple and perfect: a very pared-down biography.  Basically, I gave you the perfect rice pudding: creamy, smooth, wholesome, and altogether dreamy.  Today, I’m giving you the reverse: I’m giving you ice cream with everything in it and on it, right down to the chocolate fudge sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry on top.  It’s fun, it’s intelligent, it’s beautifully illustrated by one of my very favourite artists working today– it’s Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Charlotte Voake.  (Be careful: that link includes this, along with other art by the genius.  I wantsss it, my precioussss…  One day, one day.)

Actually let’s take this out of the parentheses.  Have I told you my dream?  My dream is that one day I’ll have a study for writing and reading.  A perfect, strong desk for writing and doodling.  A perfect, deep armchair for curling up with a book.  And walls lined with two things: Books, of course, but also art.  Art from Charlotte Voake.  Art from Charles Vess.  Art from Edward Ardizzone.  Art from Steve Light and Liz Wong and Paul O. Zelinsky and all the people who do such marvellous, beautiful work every day out there.  Art is one area where I just never learned the ropes, but looking at it helps me work, and my dream-study isn’t complete without lovingly-framed gorgeous art from the people who inspire me on a daily basis.

Which brings me back to this beautiful ice cream sundae of a book, which is just like my perfect dream-room: it has everything, and something for everyone.

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I mentioned yesterday that I felt the dangers of writing a book about Beatrix Potter aimed at children, particularly one illustrated in watercolours, was that you might end up with something derivative and a little cheap.  I am so impressed by the different ways David McPhail, Deborah Hopkinson, and Charlotte Voake all worked to make their books consistent and individual masterpieces.  In this case, I want to draw an apologetic analogy to Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.  Like The Force Awakens, Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake had to do two things: a) play into a history of nostalgia and affectionate memories; b) create a new story with both new and old characters, good dialogue, and a full, consistent tale of its own.  And, in my humble opinion, like The Force Awakens, they succeeded in both aims extremely well.  As you can see from the cover posted above, the style, font, and format remind readers of the Beatrix Potter books, but the rich story is very much Deborah Hopkinson’s own, and Charlotte Voake’s art is definitively in her own style.

Let’s get into more detail.  The story is aimed a little bit older and has a slightly broader focus than Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box.  Two key differences are: a) It has a richer and punchier narrative, as opposed to the soft and delicate walk through Beatrix’s life David McPhail provides; b) Instead of the very close story of Beatrix’s art, Deborah Hopkinson talks a lot about her more varied interests, including both her art, nature, animals, stories, and her friends.  I’d say that the plushier story gives a more rounded and fuller picture of Beatrix from this book, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The story goes like this: Young Beatrix and her brother lived in a house in London with their family, but also with a complete menagerie of pets.  This complete menagerie is laid out very fully in the first few pages of the book, and just look at these illustrations:

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Now, what Beatrix does not have is a guinea pig.  And she dearly would love to paint a picture of one.  Therefore, she betakes herself to a neighbour’s house to ask for the loan of one of her loveliest guinea pigs so that she can draw it.  The loan is granted, and off goes young Beatrix with the guinea pig.  (Can you guess what’s going to happen?  I bet you can.)  Beatrix sets to work and everything is going along splendidly until she’s called away from her work.  She leaves the guinea pig on the work area, rather unwisely.  The guinea pig looks around, and begins what Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman term a “crude forensic examination” (Good Omens) of the materials on the table.  Paste, paper, everything is nibbled up.  These prove unhealthy for the poor beast, who expires.  Beatrix is shocked and heartbroken, but brings the painting of the poor, dead guinea pig to her neighbour, who is not notably mollified.  The book ends with an appeal to the neighbour to find out whether she has kept the illustration, and indicating that it would have been a very good idea if she had held onto it since it has decidedly appreciated in value since the time it was drawn.

We must all agree that it’s not often that you hear me talking about a funny story where a little girl killed her neighbour’s pet, so you can tell from this that the story is extremely well-told.  What helps here is perspective.  David McPhail had an extremely sympathetic narrator, but it was a third-person omniscient narrator talking about a little girl named Beatrix, for all that.  Talking sympathetically, talking lovingly, but talking about her.  Deborah Hopkinson works differently.  Her narrator is constantly looking through Beatrix’s eyes.  When Beatrix wants a guinea pig, so does the narrator, and so do we.  When Beatrix realizes what’s gone wrong, we’re all horrified together.  It’s an extremely close relationship, and what distance comes into the relationship works like Charlotte Voake’s elegant pen strokes: it’s in the outline.  Any distance is in the author delineating the lines of the story, and giving the historical perspective.  That’s where the affectionate humour comes in, that’s where the bright, dark lines of the story are drawn, and of course these appear in the introduction and conclusion, especially.

I want to conclude with just a word more about Charlotte Voake’s illustrations, which I love almost too much to dare to talk about.  She works in a style uniquely her own, but in a British tradition of pen and watercolour which goes back pretty far.  I mentioned Edward Ardizzone above, but there’s also Marcia Brown, who comes to mind.  I, personally, associate Charlotte Voake with Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep, and thus with Eleanor Farjeon, but her work goes far beyond that.  What I’m saying is that she’s a host in her own right: part of a tradition, but her own unique force.  What her style lends this book?  Oh, Lord.  It brings a softness and a richness at the same time: the warm sweetness of watercolour, much as Beatrix Potter herself worked, bolsters the warmth and gentleness of the tale.  But the pen and ink lends vigour and activity, humour and spirit.  I cannot think of a more perfect accompaniment to Deborah Hopkinson’s text.

I’ve been told I should practice writing pull quotes, and it’s something I’m terrible at, but I’ll try here for once, mostly because I really want to give you all a message to walk away with: For warmth and humour equal to Beatrix Potter’s own, this is a perfect book for parents and children to share.

And that’s it, folks.  One story of Beatrix Potter’s own, and two perfect little gems about her, each for a different age group.  Go forth and read, and have a wonderful weekend!

Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box

The bad news: Remember that poor, shy kitty I got a month ago?  Telemachos by name?  He’s still really shy and hiding under the rather dusty, dirty futon.

The good news: While I was dealing with my writer’s block yesterday, I stood playing with a cat dancer, and he finally batted at it from under said futon.  This is a new development, and I’m delighted.  Then he came out and chased it!  A lot!  My poor, semi-feral cat actually played with me.  This is very, very good news.  Here he is out of the sofa, but not quite being playful yet (ignore the mess, please):

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The burning desire of my heart: To get rid of that blasted futon between me and the cat.  I know it’s unreasonable– the abovementioned futon gives Telemachos a safe space to hide and it’s probably best to leave it for him for a little longer, at least.  (I still hate the damned futon, though, and intend to replace it with a cozy armchair, the kind you can really curl up in, though.  For reading purposes.)

Further bad news: This means I’ve been severely delayed in posting.  I spent my writing time playing with my kitty.  Mea culpa.

Further good news: I did, however, have an enjoyable time socializing a semi-feral kitty and also talking with a charming and intelligent friend who showed me a very good new-to-me book.  (The other distraction yesterday.  Mea culpa again.)

So, lots of quiet but excellent developments in my head and my house– but it does mean I was around here a bit less.  My apologies for that.

Oh, blast it, sorry… wait, no.  I was going to apologize for rambling about my cat for so long, but here are two reasons for me not to apologize: a) This is the internet.  On the internet we ramble about cats; b) I’m about to talk about a lady so obsessed with her pets that she spent her spare time painting them.  If Beatrix Potter had had a smartphone and the internet, she’d have had the world’s most popular Instagram account, or a website called “My Cute Wild Animals.”  The book is Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box, by David McPhail, and it is all about how an ardent admirer of the natural world learned the art to share her vision with her fellow humans.

Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box

If I were to lay my finger on one thing which makes this book distinct from other books I’ve seen about Beatrix Potter, it’s that it’s not just a biography: it’s the biography of an artist, and is focused directly on how Beatrix Potter grew to be an artist.  As such, it’s an inspiration to other children to see how she worked and how she became an artist– a quiet “you can, too.”

The story goes that young Beatrix has always loved art.  One day, her mother gives her her paint box, and Beatrix goes from admiring art to making her own art.  She paints pictures of everything– including, and, perhaps, especially her pets!  (The book doesn’t focus on her pets to any great extent, but if you know about Beatrix, you know that there were pets of all kinds.  We’ll get to the pets in our next book in this series.)  She painted rabbits and mice and even, when she went to the countryside with her family, toadstools and other natural scenes.  As she grew older, she only painted more, and, finally, this transitioned into her career of illustrating her own stories about the animals she knew, becoming the books we know and love so well today.

There are a few elements that make this book special, and I want to single them out briefly:

a) How, very quietly, painting is shown to be therapeutic to the young Beatrix.  The book doesn’t say in so many words that Beatrix was lonely, but it gets it across.  She didn’t see so much of her parents as of nannies and tutors, we are told.  She missed her brother when he went away to school, and then she painted more, McPhail says.  As adults we can fill in the gaps– and children might intuit, or tuck it away to figure out later: Beatrix didn’t have a warm, active family life, except, perhaps, when her family was together in the country.  Painting seems, in the picture we’re shown here, to have been a hobby and a therapy for her, a healthy way of coping with otherwise empty time or feelings that had no other outlet.  I love this.  It’s a “show-don’t-tell” way of indicating to children what they might do if they find themselves in a similar situation.  Feeling lonely?  Make something.  Time on your hands?  Get creative.

b) I admit: I was worried about the art.  Watercolours, to talk about Beatrix Potter?  Was it going to be derivative?  Hah, no!  David McPhail is a highly experienced and excellent artist in his own right, and here he strikes the right balance of capturing the late Victorian spirit you need to illustrate a story about Beatrix Potter without going so far as to be timidly imitative or, on the other side of the risk bracket, too bold to seem relevant at all.  An illustrated story about an illustrator brings up its own difficulties, and what David McPhail does is very wise: he cannot be Beatrix Potter, so he’s simply David McPhail.  He renders beautiful watercolours of Beatrix Potter’s house and surroundings growing up, and shows her at work, painting, in all the places she was likely to do so: her schoolroom, London, and outside in various parts of the countryside where her family spent the summers.  All are softly done in rather dreamy tone-on-tone colours which blur the line between story and history, just as the text draws out the artist without needing to involve every detail of Beatrix’s life.  In other words, the illustrations are perfectly appropriate to David McPhail’s story of Beatrix, to her childhood and upbringing, and elicit all the right tones from the text.

This is a lovely story, and both the illustrations and text charmingly draw out a picture of a young girl growing into an artist, step by step through her life.  I’d venture to guess that this would be a good book for early readers, too.  The words aren’t too difficult, although some (“tutors” for example) would be unfamiliar for modern American children.  The nice thing about it, I think, is that it’s a great accompaniment to the Beatrix Potter stories.  If you can read one, you can read the other.  My Changeling loves this book, for example, and it will only become more relevant to her as she grows older and learns that, oh, hey!  This ties into that, I get it!  (The charm of toddlers is that they have rather fluid notions of history and biography…)

So, forgive me for the lateness of this post, and check in tomorrow (if I don’t get distracted again) for the last installment of this little series…

Mrs. Tittlemouse

Let’s begin by finishing off that bird contest: Congratulations, Janet, on winning!  Congratulations, also, to April and Laura, winners of the Gaston and Quackers giveaway.  Let me just note that it felt awfully good, in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, to have my own quiet way of saying “no” to hate and “yes” to love.  Thanks to those of you who participated or wrote in to affirm that you felt the same way.  If you have older readers who need something to read and you want to give them something that says “yes” to all the right things, can I just recommend Marvels, by Brian Selznick?

Moving forward, this week is going to be dedicated to Beatrix Potter.  I’ve noticed several new and beautiful books about our Lady of the Lake District, and since I’ve, erm, acquired a few favourites, we can have a week composed of one Beatrix Potter original and a couple of books about the lady herself.  We’ll be experts by the time the week is out.  (Well, no, but I hope it will be fun.)

Have you read The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse?Mrs. Tittlemouse.jpg

I ask because I get the distinct impression that not everyone has– it’s not Peter Rabbit or Tom Kitten.  Neither is it Pigling Bland, but it’s still not one of the most popular books, and I wonder why.  I think, if I may anticipate my own conclusions, that it might be because this one really feels like it’s written for the parents rather than the children (although, well, the Changeling currently loves it).  It’s definitely not one of the books I remember well from my own childhood.  But, reading it these days, I find myself thinking that Mrs. Tittlemouse reflects life very truly: sometimes she seems a representation of my aspirations, sometimes a reflection of my own life, sometimes of my fears, sometimes of my hopes.  But let’s talk about the plot a bit now.

Mrs. Tittlemouse (who is, by the way, a recurring character in the Beatrix Potter universe– she also appears in the Flopsy Bunnies) is “a most terribly tidy particular little mouse” (p. 12).  She is forever cleaning her little house and resents any signs of “little dirty feet,” as she repeatedly describes them throughout the book.  One day she notices little footprints in her house and smells some honey where it shouldn’t be.  It turns out that one Babbitty Bumble has moved into her house uninvited, accompanied by her family, and filled a storeroom with “untidy” dry moss (“untidiness” being the ultimate crime, of course).  A certain Mr. Jackson, a particularly untidy personage, who “lived in a drain below the hedge, in a very dirty wet ditch” then turns up in search of the honey he’s smelled from the house, due to the intrusion of Babbitty Bumble.  Mrs. Tittlemouse handles the additional intrusion as politely as she feels she must, but clearly objects to Mr. Jackson’s large wet footprints and dripping coat tails.  (She goes around with a mop, of course.)  Ultimately, following the scent of the honey, Mr. Jackson evicts Babbitty Bumble, Mrs. Tittlemouse is left with her tidy house in an utterly ruinous state, and her spirits in the depths of misery.  She reduces the size of her doorway (“I will make it too small for Mr Jackson!”) and spends two weeks cleaning her house to perfection.  And that’s the story.

I see two things about this story: a) Like many of Beatrix Potter’s stories, I think a modern editor would sniff and say, “Not much story here.”; b) At the same time, it’s a pretty substantial mouthful of a plot once you accept the premise that a messy house is a story.  That is to say, the plot really is that a housewife is made miserable when her house is messed up, and spends a long time cleaning it again.  Not much story there, no.  But when you get into the emotions of the thing, it is really, really quite rich, and even a little disquieting.  It’s about a housewife who sets her heart on a clean house, but whose peace of mind is disturbed when her house is invaded consistently by a sequence of uninvited intruders.  The final intruder evicts all the others, but leaves her house, and, consequently, her feelings, in a complete shambles in the process.  She then obsessively cleans and puts everything back in order, and, in the process, rediscovers her peace of mind, particularly by tightening her home security against the intruders.

I hope you’re beginning to see why I think this is a book which is pitched at adults in a very real way, and also, perhaps, why I think it’s so reflective of reality: of hopes, aspirations, and, perhaps most of all, fears.

“Aspirations” is easy: hell, don’t you wish that you had a tidy house?  Don’t you want to be tidy and particular and live in harmonious cleanliness?  (Answer: yes, but not enough to actually clean properly.  Also, I know that at least a few of you reading this are puzzled: you already are “tidy” and I salute you!  I, alas, am not.)

“Fears” is also easy: Fear of disruption of all you love.  Fear of intruders into your personal space.  Fear of having your routine disturbed and your life left a shambles.  Mrs. Tittlemouse is not the only book to represent this so well, although maybe it’s one of the best books describing it at the intersection of children and adult literature.  A good adult book describing that fear is The Man Who Was Thursday, by Chesterton.

“Hopes” maybe throws you off a little, but I still think it’s in there.  We all hope for a response to disruption and intrusion, I think.  “But what are you going to do?” we shrug wearily.  “Shit happens,” we say.  Mrs. Tittlemouse doesn’t.  She gathers twigs and tightens her door.  She doesn’t completely cut off contact with Mr. Jackson, but she does, definitely, deny him further access to her house.  She, in other words, figures out a resolution to her problem.  She doesn’t say, “Shit happens.”  (I can’t imagine bad language in Mrs. Tittlemouse’s mouth!)  She just figures it out, and, once she has, she holds a party.

Hopes, fears, and aspirations: I think this is a great, underappreciated book.  I think it shows Beatrix Potter at her best, both in terms of representing animal life, and in her shrewd reflections on human relationships.  I hope more people, adults and children, will give it a real chance.

And, as my Changeling says, “Tiddly-widdly-widdly!  Bizzz wizzzz!  That’s funny!”  (In other words, there’s a lot of good sound effects in this book.)

Dear Pope Francis

First things first: I still have two giveaways running with time to enter both, so read on over here and enter!  Please share with your friends and family and let’s get good books into eager little hands: Bird contest + book giveaway reminders

Now for today’s book.  I’m going to acknowledge right up front here that this is a very unusual book for me to write about.  Let’s count the ways: a) I normally do picture books my daughter enjoys; b) I don’t normally do books aimed at specific audiences; c) I’m, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I am Jewish.  But there you have it: I did write about Esther’s Story at Purim, right?  So why not write about Dear Pope Francis when I admire it quite as much, as a book of its own kind?

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The premise of the book is very simple: Pope Francis welcomes letters from children all over the world.  (Well, he welcomes messages from everyone worldwide, but we’re focusing on children, here.)  Children write to him, and he wants to respond.  This book is a collection of messages from children, each with a question and a picture, accompanied by his responses.  Yes, some are very Catholic: one child asks about bearing witness and bringing others to Christ.  (Fair enough, too, that is a Catholic teaching!)  But others are much more universal, such as the child who asks about what to do if your parents argue.  Others are sweet and even a little funny: one asks the Pope about dancing (the Pope strongly supports dancing).  The Pope takes each question seriously and warmly and responds carefully and precisely.  The whole ensemble is a little gem: a blend of the child and the mentor, and a true witness to the value of dialogue between the two.

The question is this, though: I bought the book even though I’m a Jew and don’t really need Catholic teaching for my child.  Do I think this is a book other non-Catholics can use, and, if so, why?  The answer is this: I think anyone can find value in this book, although whether you want it in your home is really up to you and your own value system.  That said, I’m going to write here to people who are open to the concept of an overall moral system in the world, because those are the people who are most likely to see something special here.  In other words: Yes, absolutely, there is a lot in this book which is for everyone, but there is also the absolute assumption that if you care enough to be looking at the book, you believe in God.  (If you truly are an atheist this probably isn’t for you– probably, but not 100% certainly… oh, you’re the best judge of what’s right for you.)  Read on for more specifics.

What makes this book so special, regardless of whether or not you are Catholic, is the voice that it gives to the children.  They occupy half the book.  They lay out the overall premise.  The Pope is merely responding to them.  What makes it more special, and more about the child is this: the Pope’s responses give yet more voice to the child by virtue of the attention he pays to each voice.  It’s a lesson in attentiveness, in good childcare, and reminds me of my favourite parenting book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk.  The premise of that book is that it’s important not to shut down children, but to give them room and attention so that they’ll be able to express themselves.  Pope Francis listens and attends so carefully that each voice is heard and each child will surely feel like continuing the conversation.

Take João: he tells the Pope that he felt great joy when he saw the Pope, and asks him what he feels when he sees children.  First of all, can we pause to say: “Wow, what a great question!”  I wouldn’t have thought to ask that, yet it’s simple, sincere, and important.  Second, the Pope’s response: he tells João that he feels great tenderness when he sees children, but also great hope, as he knows that children are the future.  (He says it better than I paraphrase, so read him, not me.)  In other words, he reads, pays attention, thinks, and responds carefully and precisely.  More than that, he responds with words that show equal faith and affection to João’s own: he says, in effect, “You love me– and I love you, too, and I have faith and trust in you to do wonderful things in this world.”  I’m guessing that João’s answer is something like this: “Thank you!  This is what I want to do…”  And I find myself wondering: what is it that João is going to do next?  What’s the next step in this story?

And that’s the way for each page.  Each page is a little snippet of a story.  The child who wonders how Jesus walked on water.  The child who wants to know where the Pope likes to pray.  The child who asks whether our deceased relatives can continue to see us.  All of these are beginnings of stories.  If you take them seriously– as the Pope does– then you want to know more: Where did that question come from?  Who is this child?  What does he or she think of the Pope’s answer?  And that– look, that’s why this book is so wonderful.  Because it makes sure we care.  We care about these children and these questions and these snippets of their stories.  The book isn’t called “Love, Pope Francis,” it’s called “Dear Pope Francis.”  Questions to Pope Francis from children around the world.  And Pope Francis is showing us how to take them seriously, listen to them, encourage them to talk.

And that’s why I think that this is a book that has value for anyone who cares about children.  Because this is a book of their voices, and a book which shows how to care for the small people who ask such wonderful questions.  They deserve our care and attention, and the Pope shows us how to offer it.

And, with that, uh… Shabbat Shalom!  I’ll be back to non-faith-specific programming next week, but I hope that you enjoyed this little trip into an interesting side-area as much as I did.

Bird contest + book giveaway reminders

Hi, everyone, since overlap often = confusion, this is just a quick reminder of my two giveaways/contests going on right now:

a) The rules for the Apples and Robins contest are right here: About that contest…  Just tell me a bit about a bird near you (“I have a blue jay in my yard right now” is sufficient) and you’re entered;

b) Let’s fight hate with love!  Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and tell me the first name of the child who will be reading the book, and I’ll send you a copy of Quackers, one of the most loving books out there.

Gaston (+giveaway)

(Read to the bottom of the post for a giveaway of today’s book and of Quackers.)

I think the closest I’ve come to discussing real-world events here is when I injured my finger.  But I can’t pass over the attack in Orlando, and I feel like if you read my blog you probably understand that.  You know I have a daughter, and, frankly, you probably either have or know children yourself.  And at the word “shooting” I always feel more than usual like holding onto my daughter, as though holding her could protect her against whatever it is that makes shootings happen.

And that’s the real point, isn’t it?  Politicians, pundits, lawmakers, police– and ordinary people like you and me– everyone’s going to be talking and talking about this shooting.  But all the talk comes down to an essential point: “What made this happen?”  How is it that a person was capable of taking firearms and shooting his fellow brothers and sister– how is it that someone can ask “Am I my brother’s keeper?” instead of stating “I am my brother’s keeper.”  How is it that he couldn’t hear his brothers’ blood calling out to him from the ground?

Obviously, if you catch those heavy-handed biblical allusions, this is an old, old question.  None of the politicians, pundits, lawmakers, neither you nor I… none of us will be able to answer it.  Even the shooter wouldn’t be able to, were he still alive.  But, being that I am who I am, I still have another question:

So many schools these days try to teach us about each other, in the hopes of promoting understanding and love of our fellow human beings.  Others, of course, don’t.  So many homes do the same.  Others, of course, don’t.  But, as part of that climate of love and understanding, we have so many books which try to teach us love and understanding.  Some are preachy or pedantic, others are marvellous.  We’ve encountered some here: Leo: A Ghost StoryThe GiftQuackers.  All of these are great books for reminding us of the humanity of our fellows.  But did the shooter read these?  If he had, would it have helped?  Did he, in a word, read Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Christian Robinson?

Gaston.jpg

(NB two things: a) Christian Robinson is the wonderful illustrator who did Leo, and b) My husband firmly believes it should be Kelly DiPoochio, not DiPucchio.  I’m sorry about that.)

Why do I ask whether the shooter had read Gaston?  Well, here’s the thing: the story of Gaston is fundamentally about love across differences of all kinds.  I think anyone who grows up reading Gaston must grow up with laughter and love and sympathy.  Here’s the story:

Gaston is a member of the Poodle family.  He and his sisters, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La are raised to be proper pooches.  They’re tidy and graceful and look pretty in pink.  But Gaston, as the family soon discovers, looks different… he looks like a bulldog.  When they meet the Bulldog family in the park and see that one of the tough little bulldog puppies (Antoinette) looks an awful lot like a poodle, Gaston and Antoinette swap places.  Everyone is sad: the dog mummies miss their own puppies, and the puppies miss their proper families.  The next day everyone resumes their proper places and the two families decide to be friends.  Ultimately, Gaston and Antoinette marry, and all is harmonious: looks don’t matter, it’s what’s inside that counts.

As a writer, I’ve been told not to use vague words like “charming,” but sometimes that’s the only word that will do, and this is one of those times.  Take a look, for example, at this:20160615_131213.jpg

You see here exactly the best points of both Kelly DiPucchio’s text and Christian Robinson’s art.  There’s the lilting prose: “pretty in pink,” “nibble their kibble,” “ride in style,” all lead up to the three superlatives describing Gaston: “worked the hardest, practiced the longest, and smiled the biggest.”  There’s the way the names are all highlighted in the text to look extra-elegant and extra-emphatic: Gaston has to stand out!

There’s also the art.  Christian Robinson is at his best here: each little puppy is distinct, one in a scarf, one in a bow, one in sunglasses, and Gaston in a bow-tie.  The cuteness makes you want to squeal.  But it’s not just the sweetness.  There’s his vintage colours: that slightly dusty shade of rose, that slightly sage shade of green, those off-white pearls which harmonize with the green dress… and let’s not miss that the gentleman’s own bow-tie works beautifully with the pink bags and bows of the little puppies, right?  Everything is just slightly vintage, just a bit old-fashioned, and yet so very perfect for today, too.

But why does that matter for the book?  Here’s the thing: a book of this kind, so very fashionable, so very sweet, right down to little pooches riding in handbags, runs the risk of becoming a little bit too much “of the moment.”  And yet, by making the style just a little bit retro, Christian Robinson says, “Not just today.  Yesterday, too.”  And we complete the thought, “Tomorrow would be nice, too.”

And it’s not just the style which gains an extended lifespan, but the message, too.  Remember the message?  “It’s not just about where you look like fitting in.  It’s what’s inside that counts.  It’s where you feel like fitting in.  Love is love.”  Personally, I stand by that, and I’m hoping that this is a book that lasts, and that it’s a book which gets around.  It may be silly and idealistic, but I still believe that books like Gaston and Quackers can help us stand against horrors like the Orlando attacks.

And that’s why I’m hosting a little giveaway here for a free copy of this book and one free copy of Quackers.

RULES:
The first person to email me with a) which book they want, and b) the first name of the child who will be reading this book will get it.  That’s it.  That simple.  Just write to me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and tell me who will be reading it, and I will rejoice that the message of love is getting around and send you a copy.

If a lot of people email me, I may send more than one copy, so don’t hesitate to write.

And, of course, don’t forget About that contest…

The White Cat and the Monk

First of all, a few notes: a) Remember the contest!  Click right here for the rules, please, and share them, and get your entries in.  You cannot see me bouncing excitedly, but I assure you that embarrassing excited dancing is happening.  b) I am going to be away this weekend for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and while I normally plan ahead for holidays so you won’t go without the wonder I add to your days, this time I, well, I was working on my dissertation.  I know, I know, sometimes I cheat on you with my day job.  It happens to the best relationships.  That’s why I’m posting late, too.  I’m sorry, I really am, but the good news is that, while I’m late posting this book ramble, and won’t post at all on Friday or Monday, I was inspired to write about this story, a gift from my supervisor, who loves the Changeling.  (Please note my beautiful transition from introductory notes to substantive post; I’m proud of how that happened to work out.)

That shouldn’t really be a parenthetical note, except that it should.  The story we’re about to look at is, itself, apparently a parenthetical note, or based on one… except that it’s not.  It’s a comment, except that it’s more of a commentary than a comment… it’s… it’s time for me to tell you what the hell I’m talking about.  Excuse me: please remember that I’ve been being an academic.  I’m talking about The White Cat and the Monk, text by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith.

Pangur Ban

People, let’s go over a few basics here.  This is a visually stunning and spiritually uplifting book.  I do not care which religion you practice, or whether you don’t practice any religion: you’ll find this a reassuring, inspirational, and somehow exalting book to read.  But let’s talk a bit about what this book is.  (It’s Canadian.)

It’s based on an Old Irish poem called Pangur Bán, written in the 9th C.  The book is not a translation of the poem, but a simplified adaptation of it.  Let me put it this way: I can be awfully pedantic, and my supervisor has very strong and definite tastes in translations of poetry.  (Seriously, her views on translation are beyond excellent.)   We each separately picked up this book with skepticism, loving the original poem as we do.  And we each were surprised by how much we loved this adaptation.

I’m not going to go into the original poem here.  This isn’t a place for academic navel-gazing or for worrying about being sufficiently precise or presenting the correct analysis.  This is my place for talking about good kids’ books.  I do recommend reading Pangur Bán (look for Paul Muldoon’s translation, although there are also nice ones by Seamus Heaney and Auden), but I’m not going to go into the years and years of academic analysis which surround it.  Let’s just say that it’s a poem a monk wrote about how he and his white cat live together, each pursuing their own tasks, and each achieving all he can within the bounds of his own nature.  It’s a lovely poem, but not one I’d have arrived at on my own as a poem for children.

Well, that proves me for a fool.  It’s perfect for children– and adults.  Here’s the thing: it’s a smart book, but it’s not an intellectual book.  The poem is, or has become, intellectual.  It asks you to think with it, to think about it, to take it very seriously… or academics do, anyway.  The book, though, asks you to read and enjoy it, and, if you like, to think a little farther, a little deeper.  Let’s talk about how the Changeling enjoys it, for example.

The Changeling follows the cat.  The cat first appears outside the cloisters, and then jumps in through a window and trots down a long hallway, down stairs and through passageways until he finds the cell with the light glowing under the doorway… the monk’s cell.  All of this is wordless and almost monochromatic, dark shades of grey and occasional browns, illuminated only by the white cat until the yellow light glows under that door.  Then, after that light appears, colour gradually floods the book.

First you see the cat’s pink nose (the Changeling loves that) and the monk’s warm face, and the first words, all at once: “I, monk and scholar, share my room” and the page turns… “with my white cat, Pangur.”  Then the story, as it were, begins.  Again, seeing it from the Changeling’s perspective, we follow the cat: the monk reads and writes books, but the cat is chasing a mouse.  Now, the monk tells us that each of them does their job– the monk chases understanding, the cat chases the mouse.  And each has, as it were, job satisfaction.  But I don’t think this is what appeals to the Changeling.

Yes, the monk chases meaning, the cat chases the mouse… the Changeling chases the cat.  And I, mother and book-prattler, chase the Changeling.  What does she think?  What does she love?  And the answer I come up with is that in this book, pace the anonymous scribe and poet of the 9th C., she loves Sydney Smith’s imaginative illustrations, weaving the white cat, Pangur, in with his imaginative take on medieval manuscripts.

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Do you see the white cat anywhere?  Keep looking… he’s around there.  (Tell me in the comments how many you see and I’ll enter you for that book giveaway!)

That’s the glory of this book.  Nothing is reduced, nothing is toned “down,” nothing is “made accessible for younger readers!”  (You have to read that in a bright, chirpy voice.)  It just is accessible, it just is a bit simpler.  The art is quite as deep and quite as intelligent as the words are: both owe a lot to that poet over a millennium ago.  And yet this genius duo of author and illustrator manage to make it talk to children as well as to adults.  I am frankly in awe of them.

About that contest…

I just wanted to create a separate contest post for easier visibility and to make it easier to share.  And please do share widely!  I want to hear all your bird stories, see your bird pictures, or just chat about apples and robins.

Apples and Robins
Here are the rules:

Write to me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com by Friday, June 17 with a story about a bird near you (it doesn’t have to be a robin– I have a blue jay nesting near me!) for a chance to win a copy of Apples and Robins.  

One submission per person.  One winner.  Deadline is June 17, and I will choose a winner by a random number generator on Monday, June 20.  I’m afraid you do have to be in the USA or Canada.  Apart from that, have fun!  Share widely, and anyone can submit so long as you’re in the USA or Canada.