A Child of Books

I’d say that I have a definite “type” of picture book I particularly love.  “Yes,” say my devoted readers, “ones with words and pictures.”  OK, granted, it doesn’t take much to attract me to a fancy new book.  But within the realm of the picture book, there’s a type which really hits me in a vulnerable spot– which makes me choke up and get emotional as I read it: the books about books.  We’ve already touched on some of those: Willy’s StoriesThis Is Not a Picture Book!This is SadieThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  All of those are about books and stories, and I love them all.

If you’re like me and you love books about books, I have got a book right here which is going to have a very special place in your heart.  It made me choke up right in public the first time I read it.  It’s called A Child of Booksby Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston, recently published by Candlewick Press.


The story is of a child of books who is showing another child around her world: she guides him over mountains of make-believe, they lose themselves in forests of fairy tales, and they escape monsters in haunted castles.  The child of books is a guide to her friend, but they also work together: they both participate in and experience the world they made from stories.  They both live in the “home of invention,” to which, ultimately, “anyone at all can come, for imagination is free.”  (God, I’m choking up again.)

I could go on forever about the beauty of this book, from the design to the text to the illustrations (which are done beautifully in watercolour, pencil, and digital collage).  I could talk about the end-papers which are an elegant wallpaper of book titles and authors.  I could talk about the subtle use of words to shape clouds of song for the children to sleep on and mountains of make-believe for them to climb over.  I could go on forever about the gentle beauty of the language which both evokes the world of the imagination built by others and creates a new imaginative landscape for its readers.  And we will talk about that.  (I mean, I just did, in my sneaky little way.)

But I also want to talk about how I came to find this book, and about children of books and homes of invention.  You see, maybe you’re a child of books yourself, and maybe you know some homes of invention.  This is my story:

I’ve bragged a bit to you all before about my local children’s book store, The Children’s Book Shop.  Well, I went in earlier this week and one of the lovely employees said, “We just got in a shipment of books and one of them is the new Oliver Jeffers.  You’re going to want to see it.”  I had to rush away before it was unpacked because, well, sometimes I have things to do other than hang around good books, but I made a special trip back there today, I was so excited to see this book.  As soon as I stepped through the door she handed it to me with a smile.  And that’s where I first read it, and, as mentioned, sort of choked up in public as I flipped through it.  (I also bought a few other books because it would have been irresponsible to make a special trip to Brookline for just one book.)

After I had a chance to read A Child of Books properly, by which I mean reading it aloud to the Changeling at bedtime, I got to thinking: Who is the child of books?  In the illustrations, she’s a little girl guiding her friend.  But who is she?  I thought of all the guides I’ve had to the world of stories– friends, teachers, my husband, my family… my world of stories would be much poorer without these guides to the mountains of make-believe and the forests of fairy tales.  I thought, too, about the “home of invention” where the child of books lives with her friend.  Surely you’ve encountered “homes of invention.”  Growing up, there were libraries where I spent hours browsing the fairy tale shelves, and there was also my mother’s library which I plundered mercilessly (sorry, Mummy).

And as I thought it occurred to me that there was a beautiful symmetry between how I came to find this book and its contents– The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline is a “home of invention” if any place in the world is, and the staff there are all “children of books,” guides to the stories which line its shelves.  I’ve always been passionate about the value of good libraries and independent book stores, but this book illustrates exactly why these “homes of invention” are so valuable.  They can be good guides to others, as countless librarians and book store staff have been to me, and, in guiding future readers, they can help form future “children of books.”  In fact, I know that as the Changeling becomes a “child of books”, I’m partly responsible, but all of the guidance I’ve had from librarians and The Children’s Book Shop must also be given their due credit.  I’d never have found half the books I’ve talked about here, for example, without help from my guides and the libraries and book shops I’ve had the great good fortune to visit.

To come back to the story at hand more particularly, its genius, as I’ve tried to show, is in evoking the world of stories which surrounds it: the gentle lines of words which form its illustrations are built of other stories (Alice in WonderlandBeauty and the Beast, and so on), all in a landscape of words.  Words from other stories form seas and trees and clouds.  The whole basis of the story is to glory in the world of literature which surrounds it, and the illustrations gently draw our attention outward, to the intertextual world in which all stories live.  That draws us, as I’ve demonstrated, to our own literary lives and our own literary experiences.  Despite drawing so much attention to the world of stories, however, A Child of Books hangs together perfectly as a story all its own with characters all its own and, especially, an aesthetic all its own.  We care deeply about the girl, the child of books, and the young friend she’s guiding, even as they remind us of ourselves and our own lives.  We lose ourselves in their world of stories, even as we find our own world of stories in there with them.

This is a book which will make you grateful for books, their readers, and their homes.  This is a book which is a love letter to all the books and readers of books out there, and I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t help guide more young pre-readers and young readers (and their parents) to “the mountains of make-believe.”

So I want to say a little thank you here.  Thank you to Sam Winston and Oliver Jeffers for writing and illustrating this book.  Thank you to Candlewick for doing such a beautiful job of publishing it.  Thank you to The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline for making sure it made its way into my hands.  And thank you to the Changeling for giving me the opportunity to read it aloud and enjoy it the way it’s meant to be enjoyed, as a shared moment between two children of books.

Peter Pan

I have a confession: I may look pretty well-read in children’s books from the posts you see here, but I have some embarrassing gaps in my reading history.  For example, I’ve never read The Wizard of Oz, and until this past weekend I’d never read Peter Pan, either the play or the novel.  Well, last week I was in Harvard Square and, moth to a candle, I walked into the Harvard Book Store, which has quite a well-curated children’s book section.  I picked up King Baby for the Changeling, and paused in front of the luxury edition section (a terrible idea, really).  That’s when I saw Peter Pan as illustrated by the design studio MinaLima.

Peter Pan.jpg

Sometimes all it takes is a fancypants new edition to lure you into reading that one book you’d always meant to read.  Thankfully there wasn’t a fancy edition of The Wizard of Oz right there, or else who knows what would have happened?  (Well, I mean, we all know what would have happened.)

So I read it over Shabbat, and I think you don’t need me to tell you that it was good, do you?  It’s a fairly well-established fact by now that it’s a pretty decent book and you should all read it.  In fact, I’m probably one of the few children’s book nerds around who hasn’t read it, so let’s cut past the “is it good?” part and swing forward to “what do you notice reading it for the first time as an adult?  Did it defy expectations?  How?”

The answer?  It defied all of my expectations.  Let’s take a quick glance at the blurb on the back of my edition and talk about the “how”:

“Let your imagination take flight as you journey with Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, and the Darling children to the magical island of Neverland…”

Oh.  Well, the words “light” and “innocent” don’t actually occur in that quote, but that’s sort of the impression I’d ended up receiving over time: that it would be light, innocent, and magical.  I knew it had been interpreted in darker ways from articles and reviews I’d read at various points (I know, weird that I’d have read movie and play reviews without having read the novel– indefensible, I’d go so far as to say).  But somehow I expected a charming tale of childhood innocence.

The more fool I.  (A quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, another tale of innocence which isn’t so innocent.)

Who says childhood is innocent?  Not J. M. Barrie, in any case.

Think about the basic plot structure: a boy creeps in at the nursery window to find his shadow, which had been stolen from him (by the way: I’m pretty sure a stolen shadow turns up in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales), and ends up persuading the children in the nursery, who are left completely unattended that night, to run away with him to his home.  His home is under constant threat of violence, and all of the children live in the wild, fending for themselves, until they finally end up fighting a dangerous battle and returning home at last.

Severely reduced, that is what happens.  And that’s without getting into the frankly bizarre age situation: Peter Pan’s obstinate refusal to grow up, but Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily’s evident interest in him.  Then there’s Wendy’s burning desire to be a mother and play at being Mother and Father with Peter.  And then there’s the Lost Boys’ burning desire to have a mother, although they have only the vaguest notion of what a mother is. Even the pirate Smee wants Wendy for his mother.  We’re also told that only children who are young enough can enter the Neverland, and as soon as they’re too old, Peter sends them “away,” wherever that means.  That being said, all of the children except for Peter show signs of “growing up,” which is to say, of being on the very fringe of pubescence, of the desire to get older and initiate some family life.  All of the Lost Boys do, in fact, end up growing up and going to school and, presumably, like Wendy, having families.

But to return to, the Neverland: their games there show a tug-of-war between wild independence, led by Peter, and cozy dependence, championed by Wendy.  Either they’re fighting with the (so help me God, I’ve never typed this word before and it galls me to do so now) “redskins” and the pirates with Peter or they’re being tucked into bed by Wendy.  And Peter and Wendy are joint leaders, a kind of “Mother and Father,” in the Neverland (Peter always being a bit more in charge).  The desire for family life, therefore, is central to the novel, even though on another level it’s about rejecting family for a never-ending state of childhood.  The Neverland is an island of permissiveness, where childhood dreams are true, and a bit scary.

And there’s a darkness in that.  Clinging to childhood as a state of independence means that make-believe can be real, or almost real.  Peter believes his make-believe so deeply that a pretend meal is the equivalent of a real meal to him, and the other children sometimes go hungry as a consequence.  Death is really death in the Neverland: Captain Hook is truly eaten by a crocodile and truly dies and is never heard from again.  In battles, people die.  It’s gruesome.  So what about this theme of motherhood, of family relationships, of tucking into bed and mending stockings?  Where’s the reality of make-believe in Wendy’s games?  I think the words which are never spoken there but are so important to her story are “marriage” (her love of Peter) and “sex” (where the babies she so longs for come from).

Fundamentally, there’s a  pull between the heartless, independent pleasures of childhood (“I don’t want to grow up and be stuck with a job and family!”) and the more social pleasures of developing pubescence (“I want a mother/to be a mother and to be looked after and to have a family!”).  No wonder the generations get mixed up: Wendy is their age but is playing at being their mother, and is playing at being the wife (though that word is never used) of Peter, who’s the youngest and the oldest of them simultaneously.

In a lot of ways, then, this book is incredibly bizarre.   This play at family life, of innocent stocking-darning, takes our nursery games of mothering baby dolls and puts it into a strangely realistic setting: what happens if there was a real island somewhere where all of our nursery games came true? asks J. M. Barrie.  And the answer is this brilliant, disturbing, and beautiful novel.

I wonder what I’ll find when I finally read The Wizard of Oz?

King Baby

I think we have covered my admiration of Kate Beaton before now when we talked about The Princess and the Pony.  In a nutshell, I completely and unabashedly fangirl over her, and when I went to the Harvard Book Store recently and saw that they had her new book, King Baby, in a beautiful face-out display… well, I don’t altogether know what happened next except that I somehow was at home with a copy of the book (and a receipt to prove that, yes, I did remember to stop at the cash register and pay for it) and the Changeling on my knees asking me to “Read it again!”

King Baby.jpg

Let’s cut to the chase: I love this book, and so does the Changeling.  I bought it on Wednesday, and since then it has been read aloud countless times and I’m still not sick of it.  By all rights I should be, but I’m not.  Why is it so great for both of us?  Two reasons come to mind: a) Kate Beaton is damned good at her job; b) the combination of witty text and engaging art is enthralling to both adults and children.  I suppose those really come to one reason, when you think about it, but that reason bears being broken down to its component parts.

Let’s start by looking at the cover.  What do we see?  The first thing to jump out at me was the brilliant, bold colour scheme.  It screams “children!” to me: a bright blue cover with big blocks of yellow, purple, and orange.  The colours are in no way subtle or restrained, and if that’s all that was involved it would be appealing to children and get no more than an indulgent smile from adults.  But then there’s the chair: restrained white outlines trace a beautiful Baroque throne for our King Baby, who reclines on it with a kingly expression of what I would describe as “hauteur” on his face.  Our King Baby is decidedly aware that he merits such an elegant chair, and he suffers us to draw near and admire him.  That cleverness engages all of our interest.  Or at least the Changeling shrieked “Baby!” when she saw the cover, and I chuckled over the elaborate throne supporting the king’s little egg-like form.

That combination of wit and accessibility marks the entire rest of the book.  The images are decidedly geared towards engaging children: there are the baby’s toys, his family, and all kinds of goofy situations for children to mull over.  And let’s not forget King Baby himself!  The Changeling loves to see what he’s doing on each page: eating, burping, playing and so on.  But then there are King Baby’s parents for the adult readers to watch.  Their pride, excitement, and exhaustion are all clearly visible and will get a sympathetic chuckle from any parent reading.  More than that, there are Kate Beaton’s clever layouts: when King Baby is introduced, it’s in the form of a court scene.  King Baby reclines graciously in his cradle, his parents standing proudly at his side, and a long line of grateful subjects coming to pay homage to the infant king.  I will not tell you how long I giggled over that page; such mirth is unbecoming to your Serious Book Reviewer.  I will, however, share a glimpse of that page with you:


Thus much for the art, but what of the story, what of the text?  Well, the story is that King Baby has arrived, and is a gracious but firm monarch.  He bestows many favours: kisses and giggles and coos.  (Imagine the illustrations.  Yeah, they’re great.)  However, he also expects his subjects to fulfill their duties: feeding and burping and bouncing their infant monarch.  This can sometimes be hard on the subjects, but it’s good to be the king.  Then one day he issues an order which his subjects are too witless to interpret: they don’t bring him the toy he wants, and he’s forced to undertake serious measures… King Baby crawls to get the toy himself!  That’s the beginning of the end of his reign as King Baby, for the gracious monarch has now become an independent, walking, talking Big Boy.  But who will reign over his loyal subjects now?  Never fear.  Here comes… Queen Baby!

As for Kate Beaton’s prose?  Well, let me put it this way: while I was summarizing her story, I had a foolish little grin on my face.  It’s great, and, like her pictures, spans multiple age groups.  It’s perfectly pitched for children: my three-year-old daughter listened very happily and was soon reciting her favourite lines (“King Baby will get the thing HIMSELF!”).  And yet it’s in no way toned down for them; instead, it’s witty and fun for adults to read, too.  Take the page I showed you above, the opening court scene, as King Baby greets his loyal subjects: “I will give you many blessings, for King Baby is generous.”  I’m guessing your toddlers probably don’t often use “for” structures in their day to day speech.  My daughter doesn’t.  And yet she had no difficulty in understanding what was going on, and the line gave me a chuckle.  And as the book progresses, we begin to hear not only King Baby’s narrative voice, but his actual voice in speech bubbles: “ehh bpp,” he says, and, “wrehh!” So much more expressive than the banal “gaga-goo” noises that you usually see, in my opinion.  Well done transcribing actual baby noises, Kate Beaton!

The upshot is that we have a book which talks to everyone.  King Baby, or Queen Baby, is all of our babies: needy and charming and endlessly surprising and rewarding.  They do, indeed, grant us many blessings, even as they ask a lot of us.  And the parents are all of us, too: devoted, exhausted, enchanted, and loving even when covered in baby goo.  We all see our children and our parents and ourselves in King Baby and his family, I think, and that’s the genius of this book.  When talking about This is Sadie, I stressed the importance of imaginative play for children.  I think that this book is exactly the kind which gives you the impetus you need to play “let’s pretend”: the first step is to identify with a story, and every child should be able to see him or herself in King Baby and his transition to a Big Boy.

In fact, if we could somehow wangle universal access to the two books (King Baby and This is Sadie) I think the world would become a warmer, kinder, and more sympathetic place to live.  So, do your bit and find a chance to read this book, and maybe pass it along to your friends, too!


This is Sadie

“What are you doing?” I ask her.

“I’m catching a cloud,” she replies.

“What are you going to do with the cloud?” I ask.

“I’m going to give one to you and one to Daddy.”

This is my Changeling.  And I know she’s not alone.

How do I know that she’s not alone?  Well, first of all, I’ve read excerpts from my own baby book, although I have to say that I wasn’t nearly as poetic as my daughter is.  I’ve also met other children.  But most of all I know she’s not alone because of a beautiful book which made its way into my heart almost as soon as I read it: This is Sadie, by Sara O’Leary and illustrated in gouache, watercolour, and pencil crayon by Julie Morstad.  Like so many books I love, I found this one at The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline.  I found this one, though, through my husband, who handed it to me with the words, “This is from Tundra Books and I think you’ll like it…”  By that point I’d already seen the cover illustration and I liked it.  You know that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”?  I have found many lovely books by their covers alone, and this is one of them.  Take a look.

This is Sadie.jpg

To get back to our topic here, though, how do children develop the imaginations that surprise us so much?  How do they catch clouds and walk with the moon to the yarn store?  (If you know me, it’s about as surprising to you that the yarn store features in the Changeling’s imaginative play as that water is wet.)  Frankly, I have no idea how imagination develops; that’s a huge area of research which is ongoing and which I find practically impenetrable.  What’s more to the point here is that children are imaginative beings, and that it’s really worth it for us to treat that development with love and with respect.  This is Sadie shows us accurately how a child’s imagination works, and shows it not with amusement or condescension, but with warmth, admiration, and respect.  That’s why I love it so much, and that’s why I wholeheartedly recommend it here.

The story is of a girl named Sadie.  Sadie starts out the book in a box, but it only looks like a box– it’s actually “an enormous boat, crossing a wide, wide sea.”  Sailing in it, she’s “looking for land.  Only she’s not looking too hard.”  By the time she’s finished sailing all the way around her room, it’s still early in the day, not even time for breakfast.  So she has plenty of time for all of her other adventures, spent both with the friends who live on her street and the friends who live in her books.  What kinds of adventures does Sadie have?  She goes under the sea as a mermaid, she’s a boy raised by wolves, she goes to Wonderland, she’s a hero in fairy tales, she’s a bird in a tree (of course she has wings, you know).  Sadie’s imagination fills all her days to the bursting point, but although she loves her imaginative games, most of all she “likes stories, because you can make them from nothing at all.”

Do you remember when we talked about Leo: A Ghost Story?  If you liked the sound of that book, you’ll love this one.  You could see Leo as the specific story, and This is Sadie as the background.  Jane from Leo and Sadie could have been best friends, is what I’m saying here.  Whereas Leo tells the story of how an imaginative child looks from the outside, This is Sadie tells the story from her perspective.  Jane in Leo lives in a world with a mother who doesn’t think imaginary friends are worthwhile; Sadie stands alone in her story and flings herself into her games wholeheartedly.  Both books take imagination and imaginative play seriously, and both have great respect for children who blur the line between the real and the imaginary.  I can’t even tell you how thrilled I am to find more and more picture books which draw out imaginative play without patronizing it.

But what really distinguishes Sadie, what makes me say that she shows me that the Changeling isn’t alone?  I think it comes back to what I said about the story being told from Sadie’s perspective.  In it, you see how very completely her imagination imbues her whole life.  She gets up before breakfast and plays at sailing around her room in a ship, yes, but she also dives fully into the stories she reads: she’s a boy raised by wolves and she journeys into Wonderland.  (I love those moments because they remind me of how deeply I dived into the books I read when I was growing up… and, yes, I still do.)  Sadie grows wings to take her wherever she wants to go, but they always bring her home again.  Sadie’s imagination is gloriously free, but we get to see the specific places it takes her, and where it takes her is almost anywhere.  We go with Sadie, rather than expecting her to come to us.

One of the wonderful things about these imaginative journeys is that they cross age barriers: how old is Sadie?  I’m not sure.  She’s young, but she knows Alice in Wonderland, which suggests that she’s old enough to read chapter books.  And yet playing at having wings is one of the earliest pieces of imaginative play I remember from my Changeling– that and rocking her plushies to sleep.  The Changeling identifies with Sadie now, but I can imagine her continuing to identify with Sadie for years to come as she starts to read stories on her own.  And I look forward to reading it and talking about it with the Changeling for many years to come.

Sadie, in other words, shows us just how far and how deep the imagination can run, and how much it can add to our everyday lives.  She shows us that if you can imagine the little things– flying and boats and stories– that you can imagine the big things– mercy and compassion and what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes– and that’s how human beings make progress.  That’s why I try to treat the Changeling’s imagination with respect, and that’s why I’m so thrilled to find books which back us up.

Now it’s time for us all to pause for a moment– pause and imagine a story.  As Sadie tells us, you can make one from nothing at all.

And Then Comes Halloween

The other day I was standing in my local yarn and fabric shop– you know, the one where I spend so much of my time that they apparently know me by name.  (It’s called Gather Here and they’re incredibly kid-friendly, just by the way.)  Anyway, there I was and I suddenly found myself thinking about costumes.  After all, the Changeling is 3 years old now and planning a Halloween costume seems suddenly exciting, a radical change from dressing up a baby as a pumpkin, which was fun but a little one-sided.  And as I thought about the fun ahead of her, I began to feel nostalgic for my own years of plotting and planning costumes as the red and yellow leaves fell from the trees… and then I got home and pulled out this book: And Then Comes Halloween, by Tom Brenner, illustrated by Holly Meade.

And Then Comes Halloween.jpg

Do you remember dressing up for Halloween when you were very little?  What was the best part for you– choosing your costume, figuring out how to make it, actually making it, or joining in with a group of kids, all dressed up, while wearing your costume?  Or something else?

I have extremely warm childhood memories of Halloween.  Well, the memories are warm– the Halloweens were cold, sometimes even snowy, in the town where I grew up.  One of the criteria for a good costume involved the question: “Can I wear this over a sweater or coat, or can I otherwise keep warm in this?”  There was one Halloween when my ingenious sister came up with a brilliant idea: she and I and our friend would be a three-headed monster.  It was fantastic.  We all three decorated two huge lengths of lurid broadcloth sewn together with spaces for our heads to come out of it.  We also decorated our faces and hair.  It was a chance to just go crazy with expressing ourselves through art in whatever way we liked.  And under that huge canopy of broadcloth we could wear whatever we liked.  We were comfortable, warm, and extraordinarily creative.  Other years my sister and I were mermaids; the Queen of the Night and the dragon from Mozart’s Magic Flute; Cupid and Psyche– the list goes on and on and really only gets nerdier.  Halloween in my little town was magical, spooky, friendly, and invariably tasty (we could trust our neighbours so some of them baked treats for Halloween).

All of these memories and more came flooding back when I read this book with my daughter.  Frankly, I got a little choked up as I watched the kids in this book and compared them with my own memories.  Proust’s madeleine ain’t got nothin’ on a picture book like this one.

But let’s get into the actual contents of the book.  It starts out with a lovely description of autumn: “When nighttime creeps closer to suppertime, when red and gold seep into green leaves, and blackberries shrivel on the vine…”  And it goes on to describe what you do in the fall: hang dried corn, cut out paper witches and decorate the house for Halloween, jump into leaf piles, and so on.  But the ultimate Halloween preparation is this: “decide what to be.”

I love that line: “Then it’s time to decide what to be.”  Perfect.  Absolutely perfect.  All of the other stuff is fall fun, and part of the autumnal experience of the year.  For me, I knew it was fall when I jumped in a leaf pile and got poked by that one stick which was always in the pile and always poked me in the stomach.  Argh!  But the best part of the fall, the most serious and integral part of the fall, was this: deciding what to be.  It defined the season.  And once the kids decide what to be, the next part of the fun is the grand making of the costumes.

Let me show you the illustration for that page:20160914_132704.jpg

That’s the moment in the book when I get a little choked up, and the beautiful watercolour and collage illustrations really get it across, I think.  Putting together a costume was the highlight of the season for two reasons, I think, and both of them come through here: a) it was a hell of a lot of fun; b) the more we put into making the costume, the more we were becoming our costumed identity.  That one night in the year we got to reshape reality to our own liking, we got to decide who we wanted to be, and the sky wasn’t the limit– just ask the kids who dressed up as astronauts if the sky was the limit for them.  No, outer space was the limit.  Imagination was the limit.  For me and my sister, I’d say that art and mythology were our limits.  We were anything and anyone we wanted to be.  And I loved how Halloween costumes were gleefully semi-competitive: we each wanted to be the best we could be.  We each had friendly interest and enjoyment in each other’s costumes, and enormous satisfaction in knowing that ours was really the best.

That friendliness, that communal aspect of Halloween comes through perfectly as the children, now they’re in their costumes, pace the room waiting for the rest of the gang to show up so that they can go from house to house and show off their new identities.  No longer children, but Ballerina, Buckaroo, and Dragon, they twirl and swirl through the night, visiting houses:

Dart past bushes casting spooky shadows, sweep past clumps of moaning monsters, and lug your bursting bag to the next house, and the next.

Is there a better description of how Halloween can feel?  The only thing missing, to my mind, is the part of Halloween where you read Walter de la Mare’s spooky poems with your mother.  (Look, I said we were nerds, and I meant it.  We were champion Halloween nerds, and we revelled in it.)

And then, the end of the book tells us, it’s back home to trade candies with your friends and start to dream about next year… what will you be?

As you can tell, this book was a total nostalgia trip for me.  Obviously, reading it with a child is a different experience.  To the Changeling, Halloween doesn’t have much meaning, much of a memory yet, although she is old enough to love dressing up.  As we read, she loves to ask about the children in their costumes, eagerly asking what they’re doing on each page and examining all of the Halloweeny details in the illustrations.  In other words, to me this book is a retrospective glance on all of the glorious fun from my childhood; to her, it’s an introduction.  Both ways of reading are marvellous.  Both ways of reading really get to the heart of Halloween: the endless possibilities of deciding who to be, and of sharing that joyous lawlessness with your friends.  For her, it’s in the future; for me, it’s in my past– and I look forward to watching it happen all over again for the Changeling, who will truly be a Changeling on Halloween.  (Hmmmm… having typed that: how would you make a Changeling costume for a three year old?  Any ideas, folks?)

So why don’t you find a copy for yourself and have some fun exploring what Halloween means, either with your memories or with your own Changelings?

Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard

I’ve said before that I have certain seasonal books: Moominland Midwinterfor example, being a strong one for me, and The Secret Garden being another.  Well, for late summer or the very beginnings of fall, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard always pops to mind, and usually into my hands for reading.  Just this past week I noticed the first leaves drifting down from the trees while the air was still warm, and on Labour Day we took the Changeling to pick apples, and… and… well.  Do you know Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard, by Eleanor Farjeon?  (You want the one with Richard Kennedy’s illustrations when you search AbeBooks or your local second-hand bookstores.  Sorry this one’s a little harder to find, but there are plenty of copies online and around.)  (Also, you may remember me gushing about Eleanor Farjeon before, when I wrote about The Little Bookroom.)

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Well, it’s one of the half-lost treasures of the literary world.  When our civilization collapses and a new generation of humans (or whatever comes after us) is excavating our world, one of the books I hope they find intact is Martin Pippin.  I want to know what they’d make of us and how they’d interpret a world which could produce such a beautiful work.  But what bothers me now is that, well, as I said– it’s half lost.

You see, mostly what I post here is news of the new books, picture books, mostly.  Ones you’ll find in most bookstores, often with a nice, neat face-out display.  Ones which are winning awards.  Oh, I look for the quirky ones, the ones which have a twinkle in their eyes, and wink at you roguishly as you walk past them, but, still, they’re not hard to find.  But every once in a while some old excellence tugs at me and that’s when I bring you the quirky books of days long gone, whether or not they’re still easy to find.

Martin Pippin has always been my secret friend.  I remember when I was a day-dreaming, awkward little pipsqueak of around nine or ten, I somehow was introduced to Martin.  My copy of the book (unceremoniously lifted from my mother’s library– sorry, Mum, although I think I did ask permission for this one) has stamps saying that it was withdrawn from the Middle Sackville School Library, so my mother probably got it at some book sale.  And I think my sister read it and gave it to me.  I fell completely and wholeheartedly in love, so I did what any book-lover does: I shared the love.  The lot of us are very into free love, I’ve always thought.  Well, I lent it to my one friend who was a big reader at the time.  She completely, totally, entirely didn’t get it.  She barely read enough to decide she didn’t get it, in fact, which wounded me to the quick.  I don’t know what the issue was– a bad match between book and reader?  or maybe she was just too young?  I didn’t know and I don’t know, but what I do know is that I was pretty crushed by that.  Crushed, and also relieved.  I got the book back, you see, and I wanted to read it again myself.  Maybe it was good I didn’t have to share Martin, I thought.  After all, since he was rejected by my friend, well, maybe that meant that he and I had something special we were sharing, something a bit unique.  Martin wanted to tell me his stories, not other people.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s probably true: Martin Pippin was basically my first boyfriend.  (Also the best boyfriend I had until I met my now-husband.)  But you’re also thinking something like this: “Deborah, your personal history with this Martin fellow is certainly enlightening and fascinating, but do you mind shutting up about it and giving me some idea of what this book’s about?”  And, yes, I can do that.  It’s pretty pointless until you just read the book, but it’s a slightly less accessible book than most, so I’ll do my best to be clear.

The whole premise of the book is that stories matter.  They live and breathe and tell us something about yesterday, something about today, and something more than either.  Martin Pippin, often called the Singer or the Wandering Singer or the Minstrel, wanders into Adversane in Sussex on one spring day where he sees an unhappy young man, Robin Rue, who’s bewailing the loss of his lady love, trapped in the well-house in an orchard.  Martin offers to be of service and brings the lovelorn youth a primrose from her hair.  It’s all very chivalric– the squire who helps his master to gain the lady’s favour, and yet it’s also entirely new and original, set in the idyllic countryside in a time which feels like it was always just a bit nostalgically gone by.  Well, again in the summer Martin comes by and is of service.  And finally when the apples are ripe he comes by and finally offers to free the girl, whose name is Gillian, from the orchard so that the two can be married.

The problem is that Gillian is guarded by six young women, all sworn virgins and enemies of men, each with a key to the well-house, and Martin needs the time to persuade them to each give up her key, so he dupes them into believing that if he tells them six new love stories which have never before been heard, Gillian will be cured of her sorrow and her love.  So he’s admitted to the apple orchard where each day he devises new fun for the six guardians, and each evening he tells a new story.  And yet each day’s fun is a story in itself, and each night’s story is somehow part of the fun and entertainment, and is somehow tailored perfectly to suit each maiden…  The craftsmanship of these stories is exquisite is what I’m saying.  As each story is told, each little milkmaid hears the underlying message aimed at her, relents, and gives Martin her key.

Needless to say, Gillian is ultimately freed, but Robin Rue, as useless and rueful as ever in his dependence on Martin, can’t bring himself to marry her– he’s not good enough, he claims (and we agree with him!).  So Martin goes to Gillian himself and, in their own distinct fashions, each confesses to the love which has grown between them during those days of stories in the orchard.  And so the season and the stories are all wrapped up and the Wandering Singer marries Gillian.

I just read over what I wrote, and realized how bare it sounds, even though I was as clear and diffuse as I could be.  I haven’t told you how distinctly each girl in the orchard is drawn, or how funny, sympathetic, and complex Martin is.  I haven’t told you about little Joan, the smallest of the milkmaids, and the dearest.  I haven’t told you about Gillian’s grey eyes, or about how, despite being trapped in the well-house, she manages not to be stripped of all agency, but to be a full character in her own right.  I haven’t told you any of that, nor have I told you about the full range of stories Martin tells, including a tale at sea, a fairy tale tale, a rather spooky story about a golden rose– and even so all of these stories are strongly rooted in Sussex itself, just like the overarching story of Martin and Gillian.

You have to read the book yourself to get those details, I’m afraid.  But what you’ll also be getting is this: a sense of particular intimacy with stories and storytelling.  You’ll fall in love with the craft and art of it.  You’ll fall in love with the characters, with the apples, with the girls and the fun they have playing away each day with Martin in Arcadian simplicity and joy.  You’ll fall in love with how old the stories feel, and yet how new– stories as old as mythology, dressed up in England’s finest folkloric garb, and brought forward a little in time.  You’ll fall in love with Martin and little Joan and even, in the end, with Joscelyn (the tallest and the sternest of the maids).  And you’ll be happy in their ultimate happiness.

So, I beg you, find time this autumn to find a copy of this book and read it.  It’s old, it’s a bit archaic (purposefully so), but you’ll feel initiated into a delicious secret when you read it.  And maybe, if enough of us still read and love it, enough copies will be around so that even when we’re long gone, Martin’s stories will still live on.  I think he’d like that.

Monthly Retrospective

We’ve had Labour Day weekend and now we’re rounding the corner back to school.  It’s funny how that Means Something even in families like mine: my husband’s still working the same job, I’m maintaining the same schedule, and my daughter’s continuing her daycare program just the same.  Nothing is changing, and yet… and yet…

And so my little family decided to heed that little voice of the turning year and turning seasons, and we took a little trip to Northampton to visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, just as a way to say, “Yes, the seasons are changing and we’re going to mark that transition.”  If you’re a little family like mine, a family of tremendous book dorks, this is the museum for you.  If you ever walk around a bit diffidently with your small child, worried about letting her run free in a very adult world, this museum is for you.  If your idea of fun is watching your child’s face light up when she sees a giant Very Hungry Caterpillar bench, this museum is for you.

Basically, this is a great place for families to visit: it’s aimed at children, but has plenty to engage adult visitors, too.  There’s an art studio for children to explore new techniques (e.g. making patterns with crayon and painting over them with watercolours).  There’s an auditorium to watch videos of storybooks (when we were there it was a wonderful Ezra Jack Keats film from Weston Woods).  There are also traditional exhibits with lots of good, yet engaging, information about illustrators.  The ones we saw were on Robert McCloskey, Louis Darling, and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

It was particularly special for me to visit a museum pitched exactly towards my interests both as a parent and as a person with a passion for children’s literature, and turned out to be exactly suited to the season: I found out that my daughter is a bit older and a bit more mature than I expected.  Maybe she’s getting ready for a preschool program, I don’t know… but in celebration of transitions, here are three books we’ve recently talked about on the blog, each about transitions in one way or another.

Will's WordsWill’s Words: What greater transition is there than the transition of the whole English language?  This book is about both the fluidity and the staying power of language: it tells us all about how Shakespeare’s world worked, and how his language emanated from his world.  At the same time, it emphasizes elements which endured, how phrases like “dead as a doornail,” which originated with Shakespeare, can’t apply to him as long as his contributions to the English language endure.


This Is Not a Picture BookThis Is Not a Picture Book!: Another great transition is, of course, from admiring the illustrations in a book to seeing the book as a whole– to accepting the words in it.  A child might not see that whole process clearly at first, but a parent watches for it.  And that’s why this book is so perfect for both parents and children.  It draws children into seeing the book as a physical object: beautiful illustrations, fitting words, fly-leaves and end-papers and all.  It draws parents into the story of watching their children grow to love those books, end-papers and fly-leaves and all.  It’s hard to find a book more suited to the transition of children into readers than this one.


Shackleton's JourneyShackleton’s Journey: What’s more transitional than an actual journey?  This book, in documenting the journey Shackleton took across Antarctica, also documents the characteristics necessary to make it through a journey, or transition, of any magnitude: patience, courage, and endurance.  It’s not just a painstakingly careful and beautiful documentation of Shackleton’s heroic and honourable exploration of the Antarctic, although it is that; it’s also a strong and beautiful account of the qualities that go to make Shackleton a hero– his honesty and courage and patience.  It focuses quite as much on the courage and patience of the men as of their leader, and is altogether an excellent manual of how to endure tough journeys– and transitions!

Thus much for our little spotlights.  Here are all of the books we looked at in the last month:

  • King of Shadows: A short novel, good for middle school and above, possibly even younger.  Readers will identify with the young protagonist and fully immerse themselves in his experiences.
  • Shackleton’s Journey: Good for early readers and above.  If you don’t already love nonfiction, this will get you to love it.
  • Bob the Artist: Toddlers and above.  An engaging read about discovering who you really are and how to assert your identity.
  • This Is Not a Picture Book!: Toddlers and above.  What is a book and what does it mean?  This book can tell all of us, children and adults, about that.
  • The Great Journey: Toddlers and above.  A book about imagination, perceptions, and what really might be out there, if you had but eyes to see…
  • Little Red Writing: Early readers and above.  An exciting story about how to write a story and the perils you might encounter on the way.
  • Will’s Words: For early readers and above.   Who is this Shakespeare and why should we care?  This is an engaging book read about his world and language and why you might have more in common than you thought.

That’s it for this month!  Unless– do you want to know what the Changeling is reading now?  Well, of course you do: we’re once again back to Little Bear.

King of Shadows

I was going to write about a new book today, but then I noticed something on the cover of my old copy of King of Shadows, by Susan Cooper, and, well, I wanted to talk about that.  See, I love Publishers Weekly as much as any book nerd, but sometimes they’re prone to serious understatement.  Like this, on the cover of King of Shadows: “A masterful novel.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review.  Oh, phooey, Publishers Weekly!  Come on!  Would you also say that it’s pretty nice to get a cup of hot chocolate after coming in from the cold, or that it was awfully convenient for someone struggling across a burning desert to find a fountain of cool, fresh water?  “Masterful,” indeed.  I’ll try to explain why it irks me so much, and why, even though it irks me, I don’t really know if they could do that much better.

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(This cover, pulled from Amazon, has a better blurb from Booklist.  A bit trite, but much better.)

King of Shadows, for those who don’t know, is the story of a South Carolina boy, Nat Field, who is put into a period-style production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a strange but brilliant director, Arby, who takes his production to London to perform at the Globe Theatre.  Nat, Puck in this production, has a fierce need to act.  Partly this seems to be from a very real and natural inclination, but he seems to have unlocked this inclination by a need to hide from his personal distress.  First his mother died of cancer, and then his father, traumatized by her death, killed himself.  Nat found his father’s body and blamed himself for not being enough for his father.  He hides his pain in his driven passion for acting.

One night in London, however, Nat falls asleep and wakes up in Shakespeare’s London, a young actor from St. Paul’s School, on loan to the Globe Theatre to play Puck in their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The experience takes Nat the full gamut of his emotions: first he feels disorientation and loss.  He is the new boy, new and different in more ways than the company can comprehend.  He is teased and neglected, but, ultimately, he proves his worth to the company, and, in particular, finds a friend in Will Shakespeare himself, who notices the boy’s distress and gently helps him open up about his parents’ deaths.  Just when he is finally happy in Shakespeare’s world, however– well, he wakes up back in his original world, and is thrown right back into his original disorientation.  The book concludes tentatively but hopefully: can Nat endure and overcome the loss of yet another father-figure in Shakespeare?  Will he bring the relief he got from Shakespeare with him into the twentieth century?  We’re left hoping that he will.

Let’s start with my personal note here: this book meant the world to me when I was growing up.  I felt awkward and out of place, although, thank God, with nothing close to Nat’s level of personal trauma.  Still, I could identify with Nat’s desire to hide in acting; that’s what I did, too, and I particularly had a love for Shakespeare, and for acting Shakespeare.  I was, frankly, obsessed.  So, finding a book which validated those feelings was nothing short of miraculous for me.

But I think there’s more to it than that, as a brilliantly-constructed book and as a cathartic reading experience for children and young adults.  And, let’s face it, for adults, too.  I still love rereading this book.  Let’s start by talking a bit about that construction, then.

Look, it can’t be easy to write a book where there’s tossing back and forth in time, especially when you have to account for Nat Field’s loss in 20th-century London by, unbeknownst to him, sending another Nat Field forward in time to be cured of the bubonic plague by 20th-century doctors– you see what I mean?  There’s a lot to keep straight.  And Susan Cooper makes it look so damned easy that I want to go and kneel at her feet: “Teach me thy ways, oh Mistress of Letters, so that I, too, may be called ‘masterful’ by Publishers Weekly.”  It’s all smoothly, elegantly done.

But, again, there’s more to this business of construction than that, and that’s where I begin to find PW‘s little blurb, well, insufficient.  Where do you end Nat’s distress?, is the question I’d have had, writing this book.  Does he stay in Elizabethan England?  Not really possible, I guess, he needs to come home where he honestly does belong.  But how does he react when he comes home?  Is he, well, cured?  Did Shakespeare do it?  Oh, it would have been so easy to cop out like that.  And the book would suck.  You could also take it the opposite extreme: leave Nat unhappy forever, and then I would be furious because we have enough “dark and gritty” books out there, don’t we?  Now, walking the tightrope in between, representing real grief, real depression, real emotions– and, ultimately, real hope?  That’s what Susan Cooper does so beautifully it makes me want to weep.

And– get this, you writer-types out there– she does it successfully in the first person.  I am picky about writing in the first person, in case I haven’t shared that particular idiosyncrasy yet: I think it’s really hard to do it properly.  Susan Cooper does, and she’s able to use it to convey genuine emotions in a time-travel story which she makes deeply realistic.  That’s skill which already goes beyond “masterful” right there.

I also called it cathartic, though.  And that takes me back to my personal note up above.  Reading this for me, as a child, was an opportunity for me to work through my own loneliness and anxiety.  I know I would have been a good deal lonelier without Nat Field beside me, that’s for sure.  I think, though, that it goes further.  Anyone who suffers grief can relate to Nat.  Anyone with loneliness, with burning passion, with a drive to overcome, but with a dragging secret trauma– anyone who’s human, in other words, can relate to Nat, and can, I think, be helped by his story, and be moved by how beautifully it’s told.

And that’s why I think any blurb on the cover would irk me a little.  Even my best attempt: “A humane story, beautifully told.”  It just won’t do.  Instead– read the book, people, just read the book.  Once you have, I think you’ll also find blurbing a difficult task.