Holiday Gifts

Hi, folks!

This is one of my favourite times of year: I love buying books, in case you couldn’t tell, and I particularly enjoy giving people books which seem like the perfect match for them. Like Penelope Lumley in The Mysterious Howling, I believe that there’s always a book for every person and every occasion; you just have to find the right one. Thus, when the holidays roll around, I get the particular pleasure of going into a book shop and buying ALL THE BOOKS for my friends and relatives.

But what do I buy? In particular, what do I buy for children? This year I’m going to tell you about some of the best books I’ve been getting for the kids on my Chanukkah or Christmas lists. Some of these will be books you’ve seen on here before, some will be new, but all come highly, highly recommended. By me, that is. If, you know, you care about my opinion, which is what you find at this here blog. Also, a warning: This list is long. I’ll try to go from youngest to oldest, though, and mark age groups so that you don’t have to read all the way through if you don’t want to.

One little note: I’m going to be linking to Amazon here, at least sometimes, for your convenience (they have a lot of info) and mine (one easy place to search). Please, please, please consider buying from your local bookstore, however: they are irreplaceable, and the joy and security of flipping through a book before buying it cannot be overestimated. OK, that’s my little pitch.

Each Peach Pear Plum

For the babies of my acquaintance (and right now there are so many babies!!!), I continue to give them my very favourite early books: the Ahlbergs’ Each Peach Pear Plum and Peek-a-Boo. You’ve all seen Each Peach Pear Plum a long time ago, so I won’t go into it much here, but I will say that both of these books are entertaining to parent and child. There is so much to see and unpack in the illustrations, the rhymes and rhythms are so perfectly balanced, and the stories and characters are developed to such an incredible extent that even the most cynical parent and most distracted child will be engaged.

Here Babies There Babies

 

For one notch older, maybe early toddlerhood, I’ll link you to Here Babies, There Babies. I give this book out a lot, both to babies/toddlers and to little ones anticipating a new arrival in the family. I think it’s great for teaching kids about their place in a world full of other kids just like them, and the diversity of the text is subtly matched by the diversity in the illustrations, which I also love.

 

For, say, three- or four-year-olds this year I want to recommend one that I recently reviewed here: Night Train, Night Train and a beautiful new alphabet book which I have yet to review, Animalphabet by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Sharon King-Chai.

Night Train
Night Train, Night Train
is stunningly beautiful (parents will admire the art as much as the children will) but is also a great train book, and have you ever noticed how fascinated three- or four-year-olds are by vehicles of all kinds? I’m so excited to hear how the kids of my acquaintance respond to this beautiful book.

 

Animalphabet

 

Animalphabet is another visually stunning book. It’s a lift-the-flap book taken to the next level, with exquisite die-cut flaps with little peek-a-boo holes and visual jokes as you go from ant to zebra! I have absolutely no reason to own a copy of this book. None. And I’m determined that the copies I’ve purchased are all going to children of the right age to enjoy them and learn from them. And yet I know it’s going to be a wrench, I love the art so much.

 

For story picture books for kids one notch up from preschool, I’m going to present a few options for you to consider as you think about the kid in question’s tastes.

For the serious-minded or artistic child in your acquaintance, think about The Dam or Town Is by the Sea, which I tend to think of in the same breath, honestly. Both are exquisite, both deal obliquely with deep social or ecological issues– which never really disrupt the text or illustration, and yet somehow inform the atmosphere in a gentle, mournful sort of way. The Changeling loves both of these books, even though she’s far too young to understand the real implications of the story. Both are so beautiful in the pairing between text and art that I get a little choked up reading them.

Shelter

 

Shelter is another book we’ve talked about fairly often, and, in fact, I love it so much that we even did a giveaway over here– and I still love it just as deeply. It’s beautiful, meaningful, gently opens the door to all kinds of great conversations about generosity and kindness… but it’s never, ever preachy. I think it’s a perfect book for the holidays: times of giving and deep reflection. And did I mention that it’s beautiful?

 

Captain's Log Snowbound

Captain’s Log: Snowbound by Erin Dionne, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbler is a great choice for a kid with a taste for adventure and a great sense of humour! Besides, if you live in a snowy region, as I do, you just know that you’re going to need a good, funny story to read on a snowy day– and who better to think about as a blizzard whirls by your window than Ernest Shackleton Jr.?

Lights Camera Alice

 

Lights! Camera! Alice! is another recent masterpiece. Written by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Simona Ciraolo, it is a good book for anyone with an interest in film, the role of women in the arts, or just a good story with wonderful characters. And the amazing thing is that it’s all true! Full to the brim with interesting facts, high drama, and adventure, this is one of the most gripping picture books I’ve read in 2018.

Next, I want to talk about the three best early reader series I’ve encountered since my daughter started to read.

First up are Catwings by Ursula Le Guin, illustrated by S. D. Schindler and The Cobble Street Cousins by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. I’ve written about both before, right here, so I’ll be brief.

Catwings is a beautiful series, poignant to the core; you follow the winged cats as they look for people they can trust and homes they can call their own. The Cobble Street Cousins, by contrast, are homey and domestic to the core; the cousins already have family and home and love in spades, but the series revels in that domesticity. What both series have in common is an eye for detail and perfect pacing for little readers. These are probably my five-year-old’s favourite books to read solo, and yet if she asks me to read them with her, I find them as delightful and thoughtful as she does.

Lulu

The next series I want to tell you about is new to the blog, but the author is not. Do you remember the Casson family books I wrote about here? Well, Hilary McKay has books for younger readers, too, so please consider welcoming Lulu into your life! Lulu is spunky, warm, and quick. Most of all, though, she’s an animal-lover, and if you have any animal-lovers in your life, they will relate to Lulu. Lulu rescues a duck egg, Lulu saves a dog, Lulu finds a good home for a cat and her two kittens– what doesn’t Lulu do for an animal? And all the way along, she finds herself in comical yet completely logical adventures. (I admit, the Changeling hasn’t read all of these yet… but I have…)

As for middle grade novels, here are three series and one stand-alone novel covering a variety of genres, but all with great heart, adventure, and brilliant characters.

Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

I have to begin with the Fairyland series from Catherynne M. Valente. (You’re not surprised? That only proves that you know me by now.) September is one of the most powerful heroines I’ve encountered in MG fiction, the narrator is tricksy and vivid, and the range of side characters is second to none. They’ve peeled open my heart, made me laugh, made me cry– and always made me think. I need more people to read these so that I can have more people to talk to about them.

 

left-handed-fate


The Left-Handed Fate
 by Kate Milford is a book I want to make more of a fuss about than I have to date. I stumbled across it (erm, hunting a book down is the same as stumbling across it… right?) on John Scalzi’s blog and was instantly hooked. As soon as I got my hands on it, I opened it and fell in love. Readers of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series will delight in the historical aspect of this novel, readers of fantasy and/or detective novels with love the dramatic tension of the plot, and readers in general will love the relationships between the characters and clear, beautiful writing.

Finally, here are two series I always think of in the same breath:

Two family-based MG series: Hilary McKay’s Casson family novels, and Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick family novels. The key to both series is that neither takes itself too seriously, but they both take their characters very seriously. That is to say, the characters’ lives, their concerns, their loves and heartbreaks– all of these are handled with gentleness and generosity, but the narrators never lose their senses of humour. From Rose Casson learning to love reading to Batty Penderwick recovering from her deep grief, neither series makes light of its characters’ challenges, but both let you know that it will be all right.

So! That’s as short a list as I could manage to help you with your holiday shopping! Did I miss anything fabulous? Let us know in the comments!

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Help? Help!

Dear readers, this was going to be a sad story, a plea for your help– but don’t worry, it is now a happy story. See these two books?

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Do you remember when I wrote briefly about Withering-by-Sea and Wormwood Mire by the very talented Judith Rossell? It was a while back, right over here (scroll down that post).

The third and final book in the series, Wakestone Hall, has just come out in Australia– and won’t be published in the USA!!! I know, I know. You just gasped a little, didn’t you? I’m furiously angry on the author’s behalf, and was positively in throes of agony (“WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?”) on my own account.

I roved all over the internet looking for a way to get this book. Even Amazon.com.au wouldn’t deliver to me, at any price. I checked out every option I could (seriously, even the Book Depository wouldn’t ship it to me???)– nothing came up. I asked at my local shop and they agreed that the best and cheapest option was for me to fly to Australia and get it myself, but I don’t have time for that until after I’ve finished my dissertation and I don’t want to wait that long to find out how Stella’s story ends.

So. There I was, miserable, heartbroken, when an angel came to the rescue. Her name: Judith Rossell! I had written to her of my despair and inability to find a store which would ship her book to the USA, and she replied very kindly (she’s a lovely person) directing me right here: Boomerang Books!

As she shared with me, I now share with you: If you, too, have been on tenterhooks waiting for the rest of Stella’s story, and if you, too, were heartbroken to find that it’s not coming to the USA– this is how you can get the last book! And I promise you that I’ll do my part; as soon as I’ve received and read the book, I’ll tell you my thoughts. Watch this space!

Two Books

I tend to get my books in chunks, here and there, as they come in to the shops I frequent. That means that my blogging here tends to go in fits and starts for a few reasons: a) blogging comes and goes as my work dictates; b) it also comes and goes as my book acquisition dictates. Today I have two books for you both because I got them at the same time and because, once I read them together, I saw a link between them: they share a madcap, frenetic energy– an impulse towards adventure which I hope you’ll all enjoy.

Let’s start with Captain’s Log: Snowbound, by Erin Dionne, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler.

Captain's Log Snowbound.jpg

The story of how this book came into being is almost as great as the book itself: During the legendary snowstorms of 2015, author Erin Dionne entertained herself by writing on Facebook of her life as a marooned captain sequestered with her two mutinous children. Charlesbridge editor extraordinaire, Karen Boss, spotted these posts and the two of them made a book happen!

And, heading into another winter, am I ever glad they did. Right now, the Changeling is at the stage where she’s looking forward to snow. But I’m a seasoned explorer of the ice and snow (that is, I grew up in the Canadian Maritimes and I know winter) and I fully expect to see that excitement turn to misery mid-February, which is when I’ll pull out this book and turn the winter blues into warm chuckles.

I don’t want to undersell this book by saying it’s just a funny book about being cooped up indoors during a harsh winter. That’s all true, and parents and children can both relate to the feelings involved in an upset schedule and gloomy weather. On that account alone, this book is a winner.

But there’s more going on or I wouldn’t be writing about it here: Erin Dionne invokes the great name of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his ship Endurance. We’ve talked about Shackleton before: Shackleton’s JourneyWell, in this book, the young protagonist (our Captain) has a presentation to give on Ernest Shackleton and is wildly excited to do so… until the storm hits…

Soon, the young Captain is embroiled in adventure after adventure as the scallywag (the Captain’s younger sibling) causes trouble, the Captain’s belongings start to go missing, and the supply of hardtack begins to dwindle. Mutiny rears its ugly head and morale is low– until the sun comes out, the snowstorm abates, and a Captain with a renewed store of experience (and endurance!) prepares once more to deliver a presentation on the thrilling life of Shackleton.

The double layers to the story, interweaving bits about Shackleton’s life and adventures with the Captain’s, is a brilliant touch. It takes a funny story and gives it added depth and flavour, and gives motivation to the Captain’s zeal for adventure. The earnest Captain is always looking for the next opportunity to do the right thing, take the necessary next step, while the reader, looking on, sees madcap energy boiling all around him. The contrast between the honorable Sir Ernest Shackleton, our protagonist’s hero, and the craziness of being trapped indoors for several days running is consistently, and hilariously, in the reader’s mind.

Let me put it this way: if you’re a parent in a soon-to-be-snowy area, you definitely need this book. Get yourself a store of hardtack, grog, and this book, and feel smug about the impending snow.

Lights Camera Alice.jpg

Our next adventure is far, far removed from Antarctica– let’s journey to France, instead, where at the dawning of the age of film we meet Alice Guy-Blaché. In Lights! Camera! Alice!, author Mara Rockliff and illustrator Simona Ciraolo introduce us to one of the first filmmakers, period, and the very first woman filmmaker.

Alice Guy-Blaché, they teach us, was, first and foremost, a storyteller. She started out life in comfort with a loving family and a great store of books. Disaster struck, her beloved father died, and Alice had to go to work. She learned to type and went to work at a camera company– where she was introduced to a new type of camera, and to moving pictures. Her mind was filled with the potential of these new cameras, and soon she was combining her love of narrative with her work, demonstrating the capabilities of the cameras with moving stories. Soon her films took off: she wasn’t just selling the cameras, she was selling the stories! She made film after film… until she fell in love with a young cameraman and they headed off to America. In America, she was stunned to find that movie-making was far behind what she had known in France, but, nevertheless, she got to work and carried on doing what she did: making films, telling stories. Sadly, once again fate took a turn: both her business and her husband left her for Hollywood, and she was left to return to France with her children. There, once again, she turned to storytelling– this time in the form of her own memoirs.

It’s a breathtaking story, and fills a very necessary hole in our understanding of how history works. This isn’t just the history of cinema or women’s history: it is our history, in a global sense, and Alice Guy-Blaché has been left out of it. It’s outrageous to think that so many of us grew up on film as The Story of Edison, when, in point of fact, Alice was the teller of so many tales, and in such a dramatic fashion, before he entered the scene. How has she been forgotten? Indeed, how was she neglected in her own day?

I was going to answer those questions, but I think we all know the answers already, so I’ll leave it unspoken.

The point is: Alice Guy-Blaché was a truly remarkable, innovative, unstoppable innovator and filmmaker. She was one great adventure after the next, she had boundless energy, and a remarkable spirit of endurance (to bring us back to Shackleton). As my own daughter begins to explore the world of storytelling (no, seriously, she wrote a very cute little storybook!) it thrills me to think that she has someone so brilliant and feisty, so accomplished and innovative, so full of madcap energy, behind her. If we stand on the shoulders of giants, Alice Guy-Blaché can lift the next generation to the stars.

So there you have it: two wonderful, utterly different stories. We have fiction and nonfiction, yes, but we also have two zany, adventurous, energetic tales which bring us, I think, closer to where we need to be as humans. They teach us persistence, innovation, and endurance, and they never, ever let us lose our sense of humour.

Night Train, Night Train

Dear fellow readers, it’s been a while since I settled down for a chat with you all about just a beautiful picture book. I’ve missed that! So let’s rectify that situation, shall we?

Night Train.jpg

Meet Night Train, Night Train by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor. It’s quite a new book, just published in October by the ever-fabulous Charlesbridge. It has been a while since I have met with such a visually stunning book and I am eager to share it with you.

This is quite a young picture book, geared towards toddlers and up (the Charlesbridge website says ages 2-5, and I defer to their expertise), but that doesn’t make it any less sophisticated, particularly to the adult eye.

The book itself is a nostalgia trip: it’s set, as the illustrator’s note in the back explains, in the 30’s or 40’s, with a small child riding a Dreyfuss Hudson locomotive. The child, accompanied by a teddy bear, rides the train through the night, all in black and white and shades of grey, occasionally punctuated by a gleam of colour. (Long-time readers of the blog will recollect exactly how much I love a muted grey-black-white palette punctuated by the occasional bright splash of colour: The Tea Party in the Woods and First Snow spring to mind.) As the train and the child dash along through the night they witness, among other sights, a “big blue window like an eye,” and as the night progresses and the child is lulled to sleep, “Eyelids flutter. Nod. Lean back. RattleRumble. Down the track.” Finally, as the child sleeps, the light and colour gradually increase until, with morning, the train pulls into the station, and the child and teddy step out at their destination in a bright world of colour.

As I emphasized above, the gradual transition from dark, greyscale night, whisking through splashes of colour, and on into a world of soft yet brilliant colours will captivate any child’s eye and be appealing to every adult reading with them.

But the strength of the book isn’t only visual; it’s aural, as well. Just as the illustrations are muted yet brilliant, the words are quiet yet potent. I want to say that it’s “poetic,” but I don’t want to be misunderstood. The book isn’t exactly a unified, narrative poem; it’s not even a Jamberry. But rhythm, rhyme, and plain old sound effects mark it strongly and attract the tongue and the ear as much as the not-quite-black-and-white pictures attract the eye. Together, sound and sight make this book an absolute treat, and I want to bring back the word I used above to emphasize the point: this book is sophisticated. Instead of carving away everything of essence about trains to make it “childlike,” this book takes the child audience seriously and carries the reader right into the essence of the train ride. It’s like Freight Train (a childhood favourite of mine) at an art show.

Simply put, I adore this book. It’s fresh, new, original– and yet it’s a total nostalgia trip for a world I never knew yet somehow remember through its pages. It’s a joy to read: exquisite to the eye and a dream for the ear.

The copy I bought today is earmarked for someone else, and I’m so sad about that that I just know what’s going to happen… and I bet so do you. Freight Train has earned itself a companion on the bookshelf!

A few “early reader” books

OK, I admit it.

I’m stressed. I can’t work properly. This last day before the election (ARE YOU VOTING? VOTE!) is dragging me down and I need to fight that off.

The antidote to stress is books, in my experience. So let’s talk books. Specifically, let’s talk about my ignorance and learning curve when it comes to “early reader” books.

You see, my Changeling has learned to read pretty well, and is having a glorious time investigating anything in print. She’s having fun, and she has a lot of good picture books, so that part’s fine. I thought we were set. But I started laying in a few other books I thought she’d grow into, and she found them and started reading them, too, which sort of surprised me so I figured I should investigate a bit and get her some more challenging books.

Which is when I discovered that there’s a whole world of books between “high-level picture books” and “MG Fiction” of which I was shockingly ignorant. Those were the books I needed for the Changeling, and I didn’t know which ones were any good.

I happily threw myself into research and am sharing the results with you.

First of all– as you know, something I never do here is criticize books. I find the ones I consider the best, whether old or new, and I share them here, and I never point a finger at the books I consider… less stellar. If you want criticism and negativity, may I introduce you to the internet? But I don’t do that here.

And I’m not about to change that.

That said, I can’t stop myself from one little exclamation here: OH DEAR GOD, there are a LOT of… lackluster… early reading books out there! And, yes, the only reason the language I used was polite is because I know my mother reads this blog. I actually found it difficult to winnow through the early books to find ones I was content to pay for. Thank God for well-curated book shops run by intelligent, thoughtful women at 237 Washington St. in Brookline and here’s the website again in case you missed it the last twenty million times I’ve plugged them. Seriously, if you’re looking to sort through a whole whack of books to find the good ones: enlist help!

Let’s start with the books that started it all: Catwings, by the remarkable Ursula Le Guin, whose work I am now learning to love– sadly, too late to write to tell her so. I really regret that. (Let this be a lesson to you: read early and often and always write to tell the author so.)

Catwings.jpg

I found Catwings quite by accident at the Harvard Book Store. I asked a young woman there whether she’d recommend it for my five-year-old daughter and she hesitated and said, “Wait a couple of years.” So of course I bought it… for… some… reason…? I don’t know, don’t judge me. I’m sure you’ve done the same.

That evening I walked into my room and found the Changeling had rummaged through my bag and found it and was now fully immersed in the story. I quietly left the room and sat down, wondering what to say. After supper I asked her whether it was good, and she said that it was very good but Chapter 2 had sad and scary bits.

Once I recovered from the shock of discovering that my baby girl was reading Ursula Le Guin books I’d never read (I read it that night, and, yep, there are sad and scary bits in Chapter 2), I went out and got her the rest of the series.

People, these books are good. They’re solid, well-written stories, succinct without feeling truncated, and beautifully crafted. That goes without saying. But in addition to the beautiful structure and writing, these books talk about feeling excluded or included, finding your tribe, and what it’s like to be a misfit– all without preaching or being in any way didactic. The books, and there are four of them, are slender, but they sure aren’t thin: if you have, say, a Grade 4-aged child who’s feeling out of place in class, this is the book I’d choose to give them. It won’t change human dynamics, but it will help an outsider feel less alone.

In Aunt Lucy's Kitchen.jpg

This next series, The Cobble Street Cousins by Cynthia Rylant, came to me directly through Terri at The Children’s Book Shop. I told her that my Changeling had read all of the Catwings books and needed something similar in skill level, but it couldn’t be more dramatic or intense than Catwings or she’d get scared. (Seriously, the Changeling is a darling but has been known to hide during the more intense bits of “Elmo’s World.”) Terri said, “But of course she’s read Cynthia Rylant’s books…” I replied, “Um…” and the next thing I knew I was watching my little daughter bury her delighted (and delightful) little nose in the pages of In Aunt Lucy’s Kitchen.

Like Catwings, these books are slim, very quick to read, but more sophisticated than other books of similar girth. Unlike Catwings, there’s no shade of darkness. That said, Cynthia Rylant isn’t anodyne or boring. The tension and excitement of the books is a product of three little girls living and scheming together in their aunt’s home. Aunt Lucy is everyone’s dream aunt: sweet, encouraging, and wise (hi, Auntie Janet!). The girls are friends, and their complementary characteristics help them take their plans to the next level, but without danger of embarrassing failure. Altogether, the books are sweet and dreamlike, but with enough spice of personality to keep them funny and warm, not pretty and saccharine. And there are six of them! (These are probably the Changeling’s current favourites.)

The Hundred Dresses.jpg

I’m including this last book, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, not because I think it’s at the same level as Catwings and The Cobble Street Cousins (it’s a notch older), but because of how the Changeling and I learned of it and loved it together, so I think it’s a good “read together” book for this age.

I didn’t read this when I was younger, which is astonishing because I knew of it through my mother, who loves it and used it with her Grade 4 classes, and I really ought to have read it. But when my daughter first made mention of teasing at school, I remembered my mother’s words about The Hundred Dresses and immediately got it to read with the Changeling, and we curled up together on our comfy, cat-clawed green sofa, and accordingly read it.

It was better than I’d ever expected. Take a look at the cover up there: the illustrations exactly capture the book. They’re warm, somewhat fuzzy in detail, but nevertheless convey a sharp picture of events. Likewise, the book doesn’t say “the girls were bad and mean to poor Wanda,” but Maddie’s perspective conveys their casual callousness towards her, and makes it painfully clear how Wanda was driven away by the relentless teasing she experienced.

How much did the Changeling understand? Enough. She didn’t get the nuance of Maddie’s position, for example, being both inside and outside the teasing. But she did understand that teasing is cruel and that standing up against it is the right thing to do.

But, you know, that’s not the point. The point is literature. The point is that she was caught up in the girls’ stories and experiences and loved it enough to go back and start to read it on her own the next day. (I’m not sure how much of it she was able to get through on her own, but I was pleased to see her engrossed in it.)

So, there you are. Two series and one standalone book for early-to-middle-range readers. Books with depth but no preachiness, books with stellar illustrations and nuance, books with a touch of humour and/or thoughtfulness. I have more to tell you about later, but these are all books to carry us through the next few days, no matter how the midterms go. And these are all books that, in my view, stand against the tide of infantilizing our children. I recommend them all with all my heart, and I hope your children enjoy them as much as the Changeling does!

And, you know, I’m still looking for good books for her– especially new ones. Any suggestions are welcome!