I Use the Potty

First of all, I want to let you all know that I’m Very Officially switching to a Tuesday-Thursday schedule for posting here.  I ran it by the Board of Directors (me) and the CEO (me) and we all agreed that it was the best course since those are days I’m not looking after the Changeling all day and will be better able to write.

Second, on the topic of the Changeling, did you all know we’re so excited about potty training?  Except that the Changeling calls the potty the “teapot” (pot-ty; ty-pot; more easily spelled “teapot”).   And we aren’t exactly excited.  In fact, I think a more accurate word for my feelings is “resigned.”  As in, rather than spend another five minutes trying to cheerily encourage my daughter to wear underwear rather than diapers– I resign myself to changing diapers.  It’s not worth the time.  Or rather than find a dozen systems of entertainment to keep my daughter on the toilet (or potty, or teapot) for twenty full seconds before she declares, “I don’t have anything in my bum,” and jumps off– I resign myself to the fact that she’ll be back sobbing out, “I have a peepee!” within another two minutes.  I’m resigned.

And this is the part where I should declare cheerily– “Or I was resigned until I found this book which changed everything!!!”  And, well, I did find this awesome new book, and it is helpful.  It didn’t change everything, not really.  It does keep the Changeling sitting on the toilet (or potty, or teapot) for a good bit longer before she jumps off and says, “I don’t have anything in my bum” (and runs back two minutes later).  It does engage her interest.  It does make her smile and recite along with it.  I think, in a word, it empowers her.

But what really makes it worthwhile?  It’s affirming to both of us, not just her.  And who knew that parents needed the affirmation of potty books?  But apparently we do.

The book is I Use the Potty by Maria van Lieshout.  (Hi, Chronicle Books!  You’re still doing amazing stuff, aren’t you?)

I Use the Potty.jpg

And you see that cover?  That’s a truly magnificent representation of the sort of thing you’ll be seeing in this book.  The bright, warm yellow background with the strong lines of our protagonist standing out from the page, arms flung open victoriously, big smile– that’s the kind of energy that carries you all the way through the book.

In fact, look more closely at the cover: that limited palette (yellow, blue, white, and black) is the palette that’s used throughout the book, and I love it.  Much as I adore really rich illustrations (think about The Owl and the PussycatA Castle Full of CatsLittle Red Riding Hood— all of those have a wealth of colour, subtlety, and detail), I am coming more and more to appreciate the effect of a limited palette and simple, strong lines when done effectively.  And, to be clear, in this case it’s done really, really effectively.

How so?  Well, Maria van Lieshout has done something wonderfully well: she found the simple, core, essential message of her book, and stuck to it, both in the text and in the illustrations.  What’s the core message?  “Because I’m a big kid I can do it myself.”  (In this case “it” being “using the toilet”– or potty, or teapot.)  Every outflung arm and triumphantly smiling face, all in those strong, simple lines, emphasizes that same message: “I did it myself!” the pictures dance with glee.  Oh, hell, I’m going to show you another example and save myself a thousand words.  Check out this picture:


Simple colours and lines and textures, but every bit of it is closely directed towards the same message: “I do it myself!”

As for the text– conveying that message in the text looks so simple that I can only imagine it took a lot of work.  (Kudos, Maria van Lieshout!  I hail thee from the depths of editing hell.)  She follows a straight, chronological trajectory from babyhood to Big Kidhood (erm, as it were).  When our protagonist was a baby, he tells us, he drank a lot of milk and peed and pooped in diapers all the time– Yucky, Stinky Diapers!  (Yes, part of what attracts kids with this book is that it’s full of sound effects and gross descriptions.  It’s easy to emphasize those bits so that kids love it even more.  Or you can try to tone it down if it bothers you, but I warn you that you’re missing half the fun.)  But now our protagonist has grown up and become a Big Kid!  Big Kids use the potty, he tells us, and they wear underwear.  And he goes on to deliver a graphic illustration (graphically illustrated) of exactly how Big Kids use the potty.  Perhaps the most useful page to us is the one where he shows that “Sometimes it takes a while.  But then… PLOP!”  (See above re: getting the Changeling to sit for more than five seconds at a time.)

But I made the argument that this book is as useful to parents as to kids, and here I am describing gross potty humour clearly directed towards children.  Where’s the point for parents?  Or am I just arguing that what’s effective for kids will also be helpful for parents?  What a cop-out, Deb!

Please, no, have a little more faith than that.  Here’s the thing: this book is such an accurate representation of potty training and the struggles you face, the goals you set, and the milestones you achieve (“Good job, you sat still for a whole twenty seconds!”), that it makes you feel less alone, both as a child and as an adult.  Children say, “That’s me!”  Adults say, “That’s my child!  Hey… that child has a parent… maybe that parent’s going through the same thing I am!”  And the answer to both is this:

“Yes.  You’re here.  You’re not alone.  Potty training can be tricky and fragile and you do have to clean up poop from the floor occasionally, soothe tears, and calm frustrations, but this, too, will pass.  It has for others.  You’re not alone.”

And that’s why I recommend this book not just to encourage your kid– although it’s great for that, honestly– but also to calm yourself as a parent.  You’re really, truly part of a grand and splendid tradition of teaching your kids where to take a dump, and you should be proud of yourself, not just proud of your beautiful growing child who is so not a baby any longer.

A Squash and a Squeeze

Not just the book I’ll be talking about, but time over here: a squash and a squeeze!  Believe me, no one could be more disapproving of my delinquent status as a book enthusiast than I am over here– unless it be my cat, peering at me from under my hat stand.  See Penelope there?  “I waited all those years, patient and virtuous, for my husband to return from Troy, and you can’t write about a picture book?”


Ah, Penny.  Always so reassuring.  Here’s the story: I’ve had a feverish child on my hands since Friday.  In fact, I’ll be having the Changeling home with me every Friday from now on, so that will require some juggling in terms of blogging schedule, anyway, but this week was something else!  I had a cold, my husband had an ear infection, then my daughter had a fever.  I blame the hot weather, myself.  ’tain’t nat’ral, ‘s what I say.  In any case, I hope that’s the end of it and we’ll be back to something resembling normalcy soon.

In the meantime, a super-mini review of another one of the Changeling’s birthday presents: A Squash and a Squeeze, by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

A Squash and a Squeeze.jpg

How old is the story in this book?  I feel like I ought to know, but, being honest with you, I don’t.  I grew up with it as a Jewish legend, but I learned since then that there’s a variant for almost every culture out there: someone feels crowded in a tiny house, and goes to the wise man in the village.  He tells the person to bring in a farm animal, and that repeats itself until the house is completely full to bursting with animals and people.  Then the wise man says, “Take them all out,” and the person realizes how much room there was to begin with, and is thankful for what there is.

I’m going to admit that I never had much affection for this story growing up– maybe the version I heard was too preachy.  Maybe I thought it was too hard on the animals.  I don’t know, but I preferred reading up on the variants of Cinderella (somewhere my mother is muttering to herself: “I know you did, Deborah!!!“).  I wish I’d known this version, though.  With a perfect bouncy rhythm for lap reading and illustrations which make my daughter giggle on every page, this takes a potentially moralizing tale and brings out all the funny elements.

One last, quick note before I try to scavenge my house from under fever-related paraphernalia: We’re huge fans of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler over here.  Oddly enough, we first encountered them in Welsh: the Welsh translation of The Gruffalo (Y Gryffalo) is excellent, by the way.  Then we got Room on the Broom for Hallowe’en (I’m sure I’ll talk about that in October).  The partnership is obviously wonderful and successful and doesn’t need my endorsement, even though this is the season for endorsements, but here are my thoughts as to what makes the pairing of art and text work so well together:


The text bounces beautifully– all you need for proof of that is to read a page aloud, so I won’t belabour the point.  As for the art, just look at a page, almost any page!  Axel Scheffler has an almost George Cruikshank-esque knack for vigour on the page.  I don’t mean to suggest a stylistic influence from: Cruikshank the umbrella.jpg



All I want to note is the energy of the lines, the sense of motion barely stilled for a moment on the page.  It perfectly matches Julia Donaldson’s energetic text, which makes for a perfect pairing between the two.

Now, for the blog: certainly expect me back in full form later this week.  I’ve been contemplating a move to Tuesday-Thursday, just writing twice a week, to give myself a more spaced out schedule and more time for, you know, my dissertation, but you’ll find out what I decide on that front sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, I hope your time is less of a squash and a squeeze than it’s been over here!

How to Catch a Mouse

Dear readers, I am back from the family wedding, and slowly returning to sanity again.  Or something resembling it, in any case.  This will probably be a short blog again today.  The real news is that the Changeling has turned three years old (going on thirty-three, I sometimes think!), and what that means is that certain very thoughtful people were sweet enough to get books for… well.  For her.  For us.  For those of us who enjoy the reading of children’s literature, yes?  How about we just say that a non-zero group of humans in the house were excited by the books which arrived for the Changeling’s birthday.

There were some really, really good books, and I’ll probably be talking about a number of them over the next while, but there’s one which was just so cute, and so fun, and had such a funny kitty-cat in it that it immediately captured both of our hearts: How to Catch a Mouse by Philippa Leathers.  (Take a look at her site: once you’ve had a chance to poke around at her art, I’ll still be here.)

How to Catch a Mouse.jpg

The story runs like this: there’s a cat, and there’s a mouse.  The cat, Clemmie, is such an excellent little mouser, bless her heart, that she’s never even seen a mouse in the house.   She knows all about mice, and still she’s never seen one, so she knows that all the mice are afraid of her, and she’s doing her job brilliantly.  But– uh oh.  See that mouse on the cover?  Right behind Clemmie’s tail?  What’s that mouse doing there?

Yes, at the same time that Clemmie’s going around studying mouse diagrams and vigilantly ensuring that there are, to quote the refrain from the book, “no mice in this house,” there’s one little mouse scurrying around in a variety of disguises, nibbling tasty treats and stealing naps on comfy beds.  Clemmie ultimately discovers his mischievous ways, and learns from his methods: the last pages show her buttoned up in a coat as the mouse goes boldly by, then scampering after the mouse with a triumphant: “Miaow!”

The story is adorable: it’s sweet, it’s funny, but it’s ultimately true to the spirit of a house cat.  How many cats do you know who are regularly called on to do the work of a mouser?  I know very few– just some country cats, not city cats.  My cats– thankfully– haven’t been called on to be mousers as yet.  But they’re constantly on the look-out, hence the pursuit of anything dangly, as this page shows: 20160720_152411.jpg

(Sorry for the crappy picture: this was a hard book to balance open!)  You see the sweet balance between realism on the right-hand page and imaginative, slightly fantastical details on the left.  Any cat owner knows that look on a cat: “Oh, boy!  Dangly thing!  It’s a threat!  I must get it!”  (And any cat owner can also predict that the next page… well.  Things fall down.)

But the mouse, now.  The mouse represents the creative, the fantastical, as I said.  Mice do not normally dress up with pompoms hiding their tails and masks disguising their faces, in my limited experience.  But Clemmie’s mouse is doing just that.  It gets a giggle, for sure, but it also balances the book, gives it a bit more heft.  If we were just seeing a cat being a cat, it would be cute, but where would the story be?  The mouse being not-quite-a-real-mouse gives us something to think about.

Thus much for my in-depth, oh-so-serious analysis of the book.  What does the birthday girl think, though?  For her, the pictures were the gripping thing.  She loves watching Clemmie from page to page.  I’d thought she’d be enchanted by the mouse, personally, but I was wrong: it’s the cat who attracts her.  (“She looks like Telemachos!”  Our new cat is a marmalade kitty.)

And I completely sympathize.  The story is charming, absolutely adorable.  But it wouldn’t be anything without those lovely, soft, yet endlessly amusing illustrations.  Philippa Leathers does a beautiful and humorous job with the art.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any information about the media she uses, but she uses them well.  (I would hazard a guess that pencils and watercolours are involved, and also digital media, but I’m no more an art expert than an electrical engineer.)  The soft outlines and gentle colours make Clemmie’s brightness really stand out, and the mouse fade back… unless the ludicrous pink nose of the mouse’s disguise attracts our attention, of course!

All in all, this is a delightful read.  I recommend pairing it with a squishy toddler, a comfortable armchair, and a purring cat in the corner.  Enjoy!

The Owl and the Pussycat

Today I’m going to put up a very short post because I’m leaving town shortly.  (I know.  We travel too much.  Believe me, I hate travelling, so I’m very much aware that we need to cut down on it.)  I’m going away for a wedding, which means I’ll be extremely busy (and probably extremely uncomfortable) and may not even be able to post on the Monday we come back, so… this will have to make do for a little while.

It’s a travelling book, but it’s my dream travelling.  The travelling I wish I were doing, not the travelling I am doing.  When we travel, we rush and bustle to the airport, stand in long lines, and finally cram into a metal tube to hurtle through the air as quickly as possible to the other side of the state, country, continent, world– someplace definite and distant.

When The Owl and the Pussycat (here illustrated by Jan Brett) travel, they swing themselves into a pea green boat and sail away for a year and a day, dawdling and dallying over blue waters with, in Jan Brett’s version, fish swirling beneath them and a warm sun above them.

Owl and the Pussycat.jpg

There’s no fear of being told that a fish in a bowl of water might be a dangerous explosive and have to be left behind, no.  There’s no worry about whether “plenty of honey” is considered more than 3 oz of liquid or gel.  All there is is time with a loved one, sailing away at leisure.

A note here about my prejudices and their defeat: I am normally a purist when it comes to illustrations.  I love Edward Lear’s, in particular, and was deeply skeptical of any other illustrator tackling his poem when I felt he’d already made his vision very clear.  (My skepticism was bolstered by having seen some painfully bad illustrations of Lear’s work by others, but we won’t go into that.)  But then my sister told me about this one, and I looked at some of the illustrations online.  I loved them.  She proposed getting it for the Changeling for her birthday.  I agreed enthusiastically.  I just got the book (yes, I looked at my daughter’s birthday present, but don’t worry, I’ll wrap it for her!), and it’s even more beautiful than I’d imagined.

The thing about Lear’s drawings is that they support the nonsense in his verse.  They’re glorious little serious caricatures, and they’re sensible nonsense, just like his verses.  Jan Brett, however, doesn’t try to do what she knows Edward Lear already did perfectly.  She tells the story, and loads it with glorious pictorial detail.  It’s lush, it’s colourful, it’s a beautiful nonsensical love story in her hands, and I’m in love.  Purist though I am, I think everyone should have this version to read with little ones who aren’t quite ready for Edward Lear’s illustrations yet.  (Because I have to admit that his illustrations are a bit sparse for toddlers.)

So, that’s my mini-post for today.  There may be another mini-post on Monday, or you may see me again on Wednesday.  Either way, I wish you a weekend of glorious nonsense!

Lion Lessons

Who wants to hear about the adorablest book I’ve seen in the past, um, today?  You know how this story starts because you’ve heard it before.  So I went to my favourite bookstore– you know the one— and asked what recent books they’d recommend for a three-year-old boy.  The awesome lady there immediately pulled out this one: Lion Lessons by Jon Agee.

Lion Lessons.jpg

Confession: I have a terrible tendency to read books I’m giving to people as presents.  Sometimes I leave the bookmark in the spot where I left off.  Obviously, this isn’t a problem with picture books like this one, but, yeah, so I’m writing a blog post on a book I’m going to then give as a present.  Mea culpa.  (I wonder if this is a habit I learned from my mother, like keeping a stack of books resembling that tower in Pisa on my bedside table, and bringing an extra suitcase for books on trips.  Or is it just me?)

OK, dammit, here’s the problem with my approach.  I just saw, just this minute, that this is a signed copy.  Have we talked about my problem with signed copies of books I love?  No?  Yes?  Yes, I think.  I am going to have to work really hard to give this book to the little cousin I adore, and who is destined to love this book.  Give it up, Deb.  Give it up.  There will be other lovely signed books in your future.

“So,” you ask, “what is this book you’ve decided you love so much you’re going to have trouble relinquishing it into eager childish hands?”

I’m so glad you asked.  Let me tell you about it.  The story is simple, as so many of the best picture books out there are: A little boy wants to learn to be a lion, so he takes lessons.  Ultimately, he gets his diploma.  Simple, right?  Except you’re probably blinking a little and saying, “Lion… diploma?  Uh…”  Here’s the thing: it’s a totally logical book if you only accept the initial premise that you can learn to be a lion.  And, well, who doesn’t want to learn to be a lion, right?  Right.  Oh, you don’t want to?  Well, then, you’re not a three-year-old.

If you hang out with three-year-olds at all, and my Changeling is almost three, then you learn very quickly that they can be whatever they want to be.  Sometimes the Changeling is a bird, sometimes a ballerina, sometimes a cat– and sometimes a big girl!  Her imagination is elastic, fluid, and I quite frankly envy her for her ability to envision how hugs and kisses fly up, up, up through the ceiling to the sky.  (Yes, that’s how she sees them.  She told me so and I believe her.)  So as soon as I saw Lion Lessons, I knew it was perfect for any child her age with that kind of faith in the world’s plasticity: why shouldn’t you be able to learn to be a lion?

The question is this, then: is it easy to become a lion?  Oh no, our little boy hero has some trouble, I’m afraid.  There are Seven Steps to becoming a lion, and he has terrible issues with the first six steps.  He can’t roar loud enough, he asks for spaghetti, and when he prowls around his tail always peeks out.  Oof, what trials and tribulations our poor little lion-in-training endures!  (God, he’s cute.)  When he tries out his pouncing, the old lady he tries to frighten responds: “What a cute little kitty-cat!  Are you lost?”

But then we come to Step Seven: Looking Out for Your Friends.  Our young lion spots a kitten and declares it his friend.  Then he sees the big, strong dog chasing after the white fluffy little kitten and instantly knows what to do: he RROWL!s a tremendous roar, bares his claws, gnashes his teeth, sprints across the field, AND POUNCES!  The next thing you know, the poor little dog is running away, terrified, the kitten’s life is saved, and our young protagonist is a certified lion…

And renowned protector of cats.

It’s a remarkably sweet story, and I’m sure you can already spot a few reasons for that.  First of all, of course, is the story of the imagination I already outlined.  It gives that stamp of approval to flights of fancy which I adore.  But the second thing I love is that it’s not just imagination, but the power, genuine power, behind imagination which is legitimized here.  Our young lion stumbles a bit while trying to learn the skills, but as soon as he sees a genuine reason to truly become a lion, wholly and completely, his imagination kicks into overdrive and becomes, essentially, reality.  Once he perceives a need to be a lion, in other words, well, the lion in him comes out.

If you’ve read Alan Moore’s Promethea, you may have seen something like this with the manifestation of Promethea in the material world.  But if you’re not a dork like me, you probably haven’t read Promethea, and in that case you’d better either ignore me or get yourself to your local comic book store and find a copy.  Tell them that a children’s book review blog called The Children’s Bookroom sent you and they’ll be wholly confused, and I’ll be deliciously entertained.

Excuse my little digression.  The point here is that Jon Agee accomplishes some wonderful things with the imagination in this book: a) he tells children it’s not only OK to imagine yourself to be someone or something else, but that it’s actually a wonderful thing to do; b) he tells kids that sometimes we face stumbling blocks in acquiring that skill, and that’s OK, you don’t have to be perfect at everything all at once; c) he tells us all that sometimes you just need a little motivation, the right button to be pressed, and then our instinctive imagination will take over and actually change reality.

Now I need your help.  Imagine something with me: Close your eyes and visualize me taking this signed copy of a book which tells me and my child something I really want us both to hear… visualize me wrapping it in pretty paper and writing a card for it.  Visualize me handing it over to the recipient.  Visualize me giving this up, and then going back to the store for another copy.  OK?  Got that?  Help me out here.  I’m going to need your support.

(P.S. Thanks, everyone.  I think I can do it.)

Twelve Kinds of Ice (and giveaway)

“Yes, but it’s not actually poetry,” I scold myself.

“OK, but…”

“Just because it sounds and feels exactly like poetry by times doesn’t make it poetry, you know!  There’s rules!”

“Methinks the blogger doth protest too much,” I give in drily.

This is the mental debate I’ve been having over one of the kindest gifts I’ve ever received, a signed copy of Twelve Kinds of Ice written by Ellen Bryan Obed (author of Borrowed Black), and illustrated by Barbara McClintock.  Ellen Bryan Obed generously sent me a copy of Twelve Kinds of Ice, a book of hers I hadn’t yet read, and receiving it was just like getting a steaming cup of hot cocoa after you come inside from tobogganing or, of course!, skating on a cold winter day.  The same grateful feeling, the same comfort.  (And read to the end: since I got this for free, I’ll be giving away a copy myself to pass on the kindness.)

Twelve Kinds of Ice.jpg

Despite the comfort of reading it, though, I had, and continue to have, this internal debate: Why does it feel so much like reading poetry?

Well, all right, I grudgingly allow that part of that is due to expectation.  I grew up with Borrowed Black and Wind in my Pocket and they formed me as much as, by contrast, Neil Gaiman tells us that he was by Doctor Who and Batman in his own childhood.  Which is to say: they shaped me.  And they were poetry.  Going back to Ellen Bryan Obed, it’s very logical that I should expect more poetry.  Yes, very logical.

That’s the easy explanation.  The harder one to pin down is the experience of the first page:

The First Ice

The first ice came on the sheep pails in the barn– a skim of ice so thin that it broke when we touched it.

Read that aloud (go on, you’re probably alone in the house and your cat won’t tell on you; never feel ashamed to read aloud), and tell me for sure that you aren’t reading poetry.  You aren’t sure, are you?  It seems to have some metre to it, but you aren’t sure what it is, is that it?  Are you trying to scan it, but you’re stumbling over whether “first” or “ice” is stressed?

I hope you’re experiencing some befuddlement or other, because I don’t want to be entirely alone here.

It’s like when you’re reading Dickens and suddenly stumble onto a passage which feels a little out of sync with the rest, and then you realize it’s basically in iambic pentameter.  “Oh, well, that explains it,” murmurs a voice in my brain.  Except that there’s no iambic pentameter up there: well, there could be if you rewrote it a little–

The first ice came on sheep pails in the barn

A skim of ice so thin it broke when touched

Which would ruin the whole thing.  That beautiful caesura of the m-dash!  And with that thought, it clicked.  It’s not (quite) accentual-syllabic poetry.  It could be.  Ellen Bryan Obed has proven again and again that she’s very happily in league with our modern English poetic muse, whoever she is these days.  Yes, if she wanted to, the author of Borrowed Black could absolutely write a perfect poetic sequence in praise of ice.  But that’s not what she wanted to do.  She wrote something more like a story-saga in praise of ice, something with room for dashes of humour and dreams of silver (whoops, there I slipped into Borrowed Black territory again).

I want to take a little aside here to apologize to Ellen Bryan Obed if I’m being too much of a poetry geek, and veering too far off from what your actual intentions were.  This is just how it reads to me, and I tend to be immersed up to my ears in poetry most days of the week.  Mea culpa.

This story-saga of the winter months to me recalls older poetry, accentual verse.  Yes, it’s written in prose, I acknowledge that, and that’s why you don’t have the syllabic line structure of formal modern English poetry (iambic pentameter and so on), but you definitely do have accented words: “ice,” “pails,” “barn,” “skim,” “broke.”  And just read aloud, again, these lines:

We sped to silver speeds at which lungs and legs, clouds and sun, wind and cold, raced together.  Our blades spit silver.  Our lungs breathed out silver.  Our minds burst with silver while the winter sun danced silver down our bending backs.

But I’ve failed if I don’t give some sense of what this story-saga is about: what are the twelve kinds of ice?  Well, Ellen Bryan Obed takes us on a winter stroll through the cold months of the year.  These are marked for her not by months, but by how the weather spoke to them.  I remember thinking of October as the First Cold Month: the question was whether it would be too cold for Hallowe’en costumes without coats on.

For our young narrator, winter speaks through ice.  You’ve met the First Ice.  The Second Ice can be picked out of the pails like panes of glass and shattered on the frozen ground.  The Third Ice stays firm.  But after these ices of anticipation come the ices that the children (and, we soon learn, not just the children) truly waited for: the various ices you could skate on.  There’s Field Ice, and Stream Ice: both ices for skating on various places around home.  There’s Black Ice on the Great Pond, too.  But most of all for the children there’s the ice in their own garden, Garden Ice, their very own ice rink in their very own yard, maintained by the whole family, especially the father.  Ice they share with the neighbourhood, ice that endures through the winter and ultimately gave rise to the Rules of the Rink and, after the Perfect Ice came, the Skating Party.

These are just some of the ices which Ellen Bryan Obed reminisces about in this slim volume.  And I find myself reminiscing about my own ice: Marsh Ice.  When there was a January thaw and then a hard freeze, then it was safe enough to trek out into the backyard and clumsily put on our skates (we weren’t such expert skaters as the skaters of Bryan Gardens in the book!), and go skating on our own patch of marsh.  We’d carefully weave in and out of the frozen bulrushes, not going too far out in case the ice did break, and would eventually run back inside for hot chocolate, thrilled at getting the better of the ice rink in town: we’d gone skating in our own yard, wow!

If you have any memories of your own types of winter ice, then expect them to be awakened by this read.  The lilting almost-certainly-prose-really will wheedle open your oldest memories of ice and winter and skating, and you will fall in love with winter again as you close your eyes and dream of ice.  Then make some hot chocolate.  Do you have dreams of winter and ice?  Feel free to leave them in the comments!

As I said at the top of the post, this beautiful book was a gift, and I want to pass on the kindness.  If you want a copy, email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and the first to write will win the giveaway.  First come, first served, for readers in the USA and Canada. It’s a beautiful book, so I promise you, you do want this book.

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

My parents really love murder mysteries.  I admit that it’s a little beyond me, but then they seem politely perplexed by my love of Star Trek.  But there’s one murder mystery show we all enjoy: Foyle’s War.  If you don’t know it, it’s set in WWII England, with the detective, Foyle, solving all kinds of mysteries during the years of the war: some involving German spies in England, many more involving English bureaucrats or problems within the British system.  Each episode is like a short, exquisitely-crafted war movie.

The odd thing is that I don’t really like war movies.  That said, I do like “exquisitely-crafted” works of art.  This also goes to explain why I so enjoyed The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, written by Janet Fox.

Charmed Children Rookskill Castle.jpg

As you know by now, my dear and dedicated reader, I rarely write about novels.  (The exceptions have been Moominland MidwinterThe Secret Garden, Fairylandand Marvels.)  Why?  Well, basically, I’m mostly reading picture books with the Changeling right now, and rarely have time for novels.  I absolutely love a good children’s novel, though, and this is a good one.

Given that I’m out of touch with what’s going on in the world of children’s novels, though, it took a lucky bit of happenstance to put me onto this one.  You will be unsurprised to learn that this lucky bit of happenstance occurred at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline.  The shop owner has some of the best taste in children’s literature I’ve ever met.  (“What’s that book up there?”  I asked.  “Oh, that’s the shop owner’s recommendation.  It’s–” “I’ll buy it,” I interrupted.)

OK, so, if you haven’t been to the Children’s Book Shop, and don’t know the owner, then you may require a bit more explanation about what the book involves than I did in order to be persuaded to give it a shot.  First things first, though, a warning: This reads like the first book in a series.  If you do not want to be hooked on a series and waiting impatiently for the next books to come out, then I heartily recommend not reading this one.  I am living proof of what happens if you do: “What happens to–?   What happens next?”  I walk around whispering.  I am spooked, electrified, jumping at small noises– utterly hooked.  And, also?  It’s a fast read.  I read it in a day, easily.  And without even neglecting my other responsibilities!  (I promise.  I even made salmon croquettes for supper.)

OK, enough of all that.  By now you want to know, “Yes, but what’s the book about?”  It’s about a girl and her family in wartime England.  They’re being broken up by the war: Katherine (Kat) Bateson and her brother (Robert) and sister (Amelie) are being sent away from the London bombs into Scotland; their father is doing something very mysterious; and their mother is staying in London with their great-aunt, Margaret.  Before the children leave, Great-Aunt Margaret gives Kat a chatelaine (an old tool for keeping useful tokens close by in the days before women got pockets), and also gives her a warning: these are times, she tells Kat, which call for the imagination and for hope.  Don’t be too pragmatic.  For Kat Bateson, the warning not to be too pragmatic is difficult to process.  She’s wholly pragmatic, her father’s “logical girl.”  It’s her sister, Amelie (Ame), who’s the imaginative, lovely, dreamy one, and even Robbie has dreams of being knightly and engaging in daring deeds against the Jerries once he’s in the castle in Scotland.  Kat just wants to make sure they’ll all have warm clothes.  (I love Kat.)

But once they’re in the castle in Scotland, strange things start to happen.  The Lady of the castle, Lady Eleanor, seems cold and remote, although she certainly feeds them well.  But her hands are so cold when she greets them!  And who are these children Kat keeps glimpsing– a poor-looking girl in a summer dress, trying to fish in a dried-out pond?  A boy with cats?  How come she can never reach them or speak to them, and why does Lady Eleanor deny all knowledge of them?  Things feel… strange, spooky… dare I say haunted?

Let me note that I’m being crueler than the book here.  The book isn’t one of those absurd novels which torments you with hints of magic while dragging on and on a pretext that there is none.  There’s magic aplenty, and it’s entirely and wholly acknowledged by the narrator from the beginning.  The difficulty is with Kat: how to get practical Kat to acknowledge the magic and solve the problem of the children.

And, of course, Kat has help: her two siblings, and their friend, Peter, who is her own age, and brave and clever.  The children are all individuals, all strikingly well-drawn characters, and some of them (little Amelie, my favourite) are particularly lovable.  But I think the main strength of the book comes from Kat and the Lady, both standing together, an uneasy couple, at the centre of a web of history.  Who is this Lady? we wonder.  Where does she come from?  The book tells us a story dated to the 18th C… and then brings us back to 1940.  And only Kat and the Lady, each with her own chatelaine, seem stable in that shuttling back and forth.  The web of seeming chaos around them teams with frightening dreams of claw-like hands, secret passageways, drugged hot chocolate, and, always, children disappearing, one at a time.

Finely drawn characters, spooky atmosphere, intricate plot structure– I refer you back to what I was saying about Foyle’s War above: this is an exquisitely-crafted work of literature.  Kat Bateson is brave, intelligent, and heart-breakingly human.  Her siblings are lovable and Peter catches our interest from the beginning.  And the plot is terrifying without being quite chilling.  It’s very much in the Gothic tradition, filled with suspense, mysteries, horror-filled dreams, and a double-helping of black magic.  The difference is that instead of having a female protagonist who faints a lot and “lets fall a tear” so often that her eyes can’t ever be dry, Kat does a lot of math, solves a lot of puzzles, and finally has a face-off with the lady which is easily one of the best scenes of the kind I’ve read:

“But,” Kat said as the blood rushed into her ears and her voice became faint, “but why?”

“Why?  Why?  Because I was once a helpless child, not nearly so privileged as you.  Because I was once a powerless woman in a man’s world.  Because all I asked for was love and shelter.  And instead I got bruises and misery and heartbreak. […]”

I had to cut it off where I did for your own good, but believe me it gets even better.  But notice a few things: this is extremely traditional, this face-off moment.  It’s particularly Gothic, if you’ve read any Ann Radcliffe.  And yet– it’s different.  This is between two women, and Kat truly is a woman at this time, not a child any longer.  And they’re both strong.  And we feel sympathy for both, but are rooting for Kat, and– well, it’s powerful, powerful storytelling.

A word about age-appropriateness: Be aware, there is some graphic stuff that goes on here.  A hand gets crushed, a woman describes being beaten by her father, body parts are dismembered.  It’s not terribly graphic, the magic is far spookier than the real stuff, but I would recommend maybe Grade 6 and above.

So, be prepared: it’s a fast, addicting read.  It’s spooky and special.  It gave me nightmares (I’m an easy mark for nightmares).  It has wonderful, lovable characters.  It has evil, terrifying characters.  It is spectacular.  Be prepared to be hooked.

One Little Two Little Three Little Children

I’ve been working on what my supervisor and I agree is probably the dullest, dreariest section of my dissertation, but one which I have to push through.  (That’s what’s been taking me away from here, mostly.)  It’s meticulous work.  Delicate to perform, dull to read.  Believe me, you’d rather I do it than do it yourself.  It’s the neurosurgery of the academic world: Tedious, precise, and deadly if you get it wrong.  (Well, no.  Not really.  That may be the anxiety talking.)  But I am a little tired and may be less than totally articulate today.

That’s why I decided I wanted something light, happy, a little soppy, and a little frivolous to take my mind off of things.  One Little Two Little Three Little Children by Kelly DiPucchio (whom we met already from Gaston) and Mary Lundquist, fits the bill. One Little Two Little Three Little Children.png

This was a discovery from my wonderful Children’s Book Shop in Brookline.  Remember that place?  I may have mentioned it a few times.  Well, it’s so good that when my husband and I decided we were owed a date before he begins his new job, I suggested we go to the Children’s Book Shop, and because my husband is a respectful and lovely man who understands what makes his wife happy, he said he thought that was a wonderful idea.  (We also went to a movie, don’t worry: Love and Friendship— it’s excellent, and you should definitely go.)  While we were there, my husband picked this up and flipped through it: “This is a bit too lovey for me,” he said, “but I think you’ll like it.”

He knows me well, dear reader.  I do like it, and I think you will, too.  Here’s why.

Kelly DiPucchio and Mary Lundquist totally revolutionize an old, rather, well… um… we just don’t do that sort of thing anymore song (you can search “Ten Little Indians” if you want, but I’m not doing any links for it because it makes me feel squirmy and uncomfortable).  They do it so thoroughly that in the new version nothing is left of the old but the chanting rhythm of “One little, Two little, Three little…”

Nothing?  Well, no, not nothing.  What they do is take the bouncy, wonderful rhythm from an old song and use it as the vehicle for a strong, loving story.  The combination results in a bounce-on-your-knee read with your child which also has the benefit of introducing your child to, well, everything in the world.

OK, maybe not everything.  Your child won’t learn quantum mechanics from this book.  But your child will see everything they’re likely to meet out on the playground: children crying, children smiling, parents of all genders and all colours, children who are cheerful and children who are shy.  And they’re going to hear sounds and voices which are both familiar and secure as you go through the book.  It’s both broadening and comforting at the same time: in short, it’s a wonderful way to absorb a diverse world in a quiet, gentle way.  (I admit: I love the idea of taking a basically racist old song and revamping it into a message of acceptance and diversity.)

Let’s take a look at a spread from this book:

First of all, at a glance you see different ages of children, different colours, different genders.  But I want to point out something else: you also see different moods.  As the mother of a girl who can be pretty shy sometimes, I have to say that I’m glad to finally see shyness represented in a book.  I’m not saying that the shy are a minority who are discriminated against, or anything like that– I’m just saying that I think cheerfulness is the baseline of what we expect from children, and that’s what we tend to see in picture books.  Seeing crying, shy children is something of a relief, honestly.

The words, though, are the real reason I chose this page for you: “Loved little, hugged little, snugged little children.  Cry little, shy little, my little children.”

Isn’t it perfect?  It’s a shame my daughter’s in bed right now because typing that out made me want to grab her up and give her a cuddle.  Also, I tend to pine for my daughter at around 9:30 or 10 pm, after she’s been in bed just long enough so that I have a chance to forget the day’s trials and tribulations.  But that’s where this book came in for me: trials and tribulations.

You see, the Changeling and I were having some trials and tribulations.  Perhaps they involved putting on clothes.  So often they do seem to involve putting on clothes.  (Why am I so unreasonable as to wish to clothe my child?  It’s strange, isn’t it?)  I took a deep breath.  I picked up this book and said, “Hey, I bought you a new book!”  The tears stopped.  New book?  Oh!  We sat on the couch and arrived at this page pretty quickly.  Soon we were giggling and cuddling.  (And ready to put on clothes.  Thank God.)  Look, I’m not saying it’s magical or that it’s going to solve all your parenting problems, but I am saying it helped me out when things were pretty stormy at Château Changeling.

But let’s sum up.  I feel that I’ve perhaps been somewhat scattered today, and I don’t want to lose the thread of what makes this book special.  It’s a beautiful book, thanks to Mary Lundquist’s gentle and warm pencil and watercolour illustrations, but what really marks it out is the diversity which comes through both the text and illustration: that warm message of absolute acceptance.  The text represents all children as worth loving, and all parents as capable of loving.  The images show all families as being in the business of parenting and growing up together.  Like Mary Lundquist’s art, it all comes through with gentleness and warmth, and that very gentleness makes it comforting to read.

If you’re lucky enough to have a child who likes sitting on laps, please do yourself a favour and find a copy of this book.  Then go bounce-bounce-bounce… “One little, Two little, Three little chil-dren!”  Cuddle and giggle and let your child find the interesting bits of the pictures.  And enjoy!

Monthly Retrospective for July

I wondered, as I was scrolling through the past month, whether this month even had a theme.  But then it clicked: some of my own anxiety about my work and whether I was Doing the Right Thing (a PhD dissertation, even if you have as wonderful an advisor as mine, is an excellent vehicle for anxiety) must have crept in.  This month has had a lot of contemplative books: books about finding yourself, finding your place in the world, loving yourself and others for who they truly are, or just about voice, whether listening to another’s voice or finding your own.  That means we have a real range of books!  Some are old (Mrs. Tittlemouse) and some are very new (Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig), some are religious (Dear Pope Francis) and others have a more universal feel (Gaston).  But I find all of them uplifting– perhaps the most explicitly uplifting being Beatrix Potter and her Paint Box and, above all, The Monk and the White Cat.

This is a shorter month than usual since I took a little working vacation: my vacation posts with all of the excellent book links in them are here– The Perils of ProcrastinationVacationChecking in from TorontoChecking in from Toronto II.  But short or not, I still found it agonizing to choose books to spotlight for the month.  Here they are, in the end, and I hope you find them as inspiring as I do!

Pangur BanThe White Cat and the Monk: Based on the Old Irish poem Pangur Bán, a monk lives with his white cat, each pursuing his own craft: scholarship or hunting.  This is a particularly inspirational and uplifting book.  The illustrations reflect the contents, moving from darkness to light as the monk’s thoughts likewise become enlightened.  Children will love hunting for the hidden animals in the manuscript pages, and parents will be awestruck by the glorious illustrations.  This is wonderful for toddlers and up, and when I say “up” I mean all the way up to parents, who will find themselves saying with me, “How about this cat book again?”


Dear Pope Francis

Dear Pope Francis: Pope Francis receives, and delights in receiving, letters from children all around the world.  In this book, he answers questions from these letters: questions ranging from the religious (How did Jesus walk on water?) to the secular (Do you enjoy dancing?).  Everything from the title to the layout gives the children’s questions the privileged place in this volume: they’re in colour, they’re transcribed for easy readability, and let’s not forget that the Pope’s answers make sure we take every child’s voice seriously.  A must-read for the religious, but I think everyone can appreciate this book.

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig: This might be my absolute favourite book of the month.  Striking a perfect balance between nostalgia and originality, Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake evoke Beatrix Potter’s own tales while presenting a wholly new one which gives readers a flavour of the famous author-illustrator’s childhood and personality.  Children will love the illustrations of animals and emphasis on the pets she kept.  (Parents may be forced to come up with an answer to requests for snakes and lizards!)  Parents and children alike will love the humour and honesty of both the story and the illustrations.  And let’s not forget that it’s just an excellent story.

Finally, here is my list of all pieces for the month of June:

  • Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig (I’d recommend for ages 5+, although the Changeling, who’s nearly 3, already enjoys it.)
  • Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box (Lyrical, with watercolour text to match the images.  The Changeling requests it a lot, so toddler and up is probably fine.)
  • Mrs. Tittlemouse (Toddler and up, especially for parents and anyone who frets about housekeeping.)
  • Dear Pope Francis (Grade 1 and up.  If your kids have big questions, they’ll probably enjoy the validation.)
  • Gaston (Toddler and up.  Being a story about love and family, this is a great one for snuggles between parents and children, and for conversations about loving someone for who they are.)
  • The White Cat and the Monk (Toddler and up.  A story about finding and understanding your place in the world.)