Make Way for Eight Candles!

Dear Book Lovers,

Today is the first day of Chanukah! As I’m homeschooling my Changeling this year, we get to do stuff our way. To us, this means the bookish way. Have you ever noticed that there are 8 ducklings and 1 Mama Duck in the Make Way for Ducklings statue at the Boston Public Garden, created by the excellent sculptor, Nancy Schön, who, incidentally, is Jewish? And who just loves it when people interact with and (respectfully) enjoy and dress up those ducks!

So we did.

Happy Chanukah, one and all!

(Mama Duck carries the shamash in her beak to light all those duckling candles.)

(Yep, that’s the Changeling! Can’t see her face, so I feel ok posting this. She has loved this statue, well. All 9 years of her life, basically!)

If you like seeing ducks dressed up, may I recommend Nancy Schön’s book, Ducks on Parade? If you buy it at that link, you’ll get a signed copy!

On Kids Reading Terrible Books

This isn’t really a review at all, or even so much about kids or any specific book. It’s about how people read, and how to deal with people (kids included) when they like awful books. As usual, if you want titles or gossip about books I’m convinced are terrible, you’ll have to take me out for coffee. I don’t do that here. (And, if you comment, you don’t, either.)

But this is a topic I’m asked about and seems worth discussing: what do I do if my kids are reading godawful books which should never have been printed, so help me?

Well, the simple answer is: unless it’s empirically objectionable, let them, and leave better books lying around. {Yes, empirically objectionable is hard to define: I trust you to navigate that on your own. I’m not going into that here.}

There tend to be two strongly opposed ways of thinking about book quality: a) books are not inherently good or bad: every book has its audience, and if you don’t like a book, then you simply aren’t the right audience; b) books are good or bad quality according to certain principles of writing, and if you don’t like a good quality book then you should be deeply ashamed and learn better.

Both of these positions are utterly incorrect.

There are, certainly, good and bad books, but they are based entirely on taste, which is to say, and here’s the rule, If I like a book, it is a good book, and if I dislike a book, it is a bad book.

The difficult part is that, secretly, almost everyone agrees with that rule but doesn’t agree that the pronoun is in reference to me; they persist in thinking it applies to their taste. Of course, you are all wrong. That series of books falls apart completely in the final half of the final book, and yet, bafflingly, you think it’s great. I’m right, you’re wrong, but I can hear you sanctimoniously mouthing the first position specified (“oh, how sad, I guess you aren’t the right audience, indeed, too bad…”) while harbouring, deep in your heart, the firm belief that If you like a book, it is a good book, which means that you (incorrectly) think I’m wrong. Meanwhile, don’t be smug, you over there are pulling out your pen to start a Letter to the Editor of Whatever Publication regarding why I’m wrong and you can prove it based on the following rules of whichever stylist or author you admire.

And, despite both of you, my conviction is unshakable– except, maybe, by the passage of time and development of my views as time goes on, but at any point in time I’m correct.

Right. So here’s the point.

Children aren’t exempt from this. They have taste, too, and, all too frequently, they don’t understand any of the debates above, haven’t learned to mouth any rules nor do they pen outraged, huffy op eds about Declining Quality in Literature (well, thank God someone isn’t writing one) but they do jump straight to liking what they like and firmly believing that what they like is good, and, no, you will not be able to reason them into liking my taste. Or even yours, though mine is better, so you should probably stick to mine.

But actually, you shouldn’t, so don’t try.

This does, to an extent, depend on age and exposure, however. Here are examples, and, yes, this whole post is very light on titles for the reasons stated above, but I’ll slip in some good ones as I go:

The Changeling is now age 9. She really likes, well, a lot of books: nonfiction, folk tales, slice of life novels, and, among everything, novels that retell fairy tales in topsy turvy ways. I flipped through one volume in a series in that style, from a battered volume read half to death, dropped in the bath but dried again, and by then lying on the bathroom floor. A book which was certainly loved, and yet I found the writing so banal and forced that I wondered the printing hadn’t gotten tired of holding itself to the page and tumbled into the bathtub while she read it.

It took force of will not to poke my head, incredulous, into her room: “you really like these?” But I knew it was a useless question. So I took a deep breath, told my husband what I thought, and texted friends. Meanwhile, the Changeling and I talk about books we do like: Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series and Osmo. She’s also a massive fan of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon trilogy, so we sometimes do fun activities based on those. We can discuss plenty of books we do both love forever and if she’s telling a bookseller what she likes, the ones I’ve named here are some of the titles she lists. I hope, fervently, she’ll forget the others with time, but I have to admit, sorrowfully, that my ability to get her to acknowledge the rules of good literature is as limited as my ability to get my husband to see the truth. (I had to walk him page by page through a picture book once– it was devastating. Why is the world at large so slow to accept my taste as law?)

Toddlers are, to some extent, easier. With very small babies, before they can move too much, you can read them anything you like. I’ve had great success with Eleanor Farjeon, John Milton, Oscar Wilde, and so on. Toddlers are tougher critics and will grab books from your hand and throw them aside saying “no no no BUGS BUGS” and you have to figure out of they’re saying “no, stop it with the bugs” or “no, not that, I want bugs,” not to mention ascertaining what “bugs” is in reference to. It can take a while, and they can be really determined for you to get it exactly right.

Of course, the flip side is that toddlers are great because they’ll let you read In the Night Kitchen as often as you like. (As I’ve stated with firmness elsewhere on this blog, and in any other venue which still tolerates my presence, if you don’t like that book, you are wrong.) In my case, the Spriggan and I have yet to hit an upper limit on our mutual tolerance for repeat readings of that masterpiece. (Has it occurred to you that the bakers are, in an odd way, presented as house spirits, like brownies or domovoi or lares or penates…? They are threatening yet important to the home comfort, but in a bafflingly unreal way.)

But what if your toddler starts going to daycare and is surrounded by other kids who like trucks and you, sensible reader, notice that: a) it’s a bit absurd to have so many books for toddlers and small kids glorifying the internal combustion engine while the world is burning, and, more importantly, b) every book about trucks and so on is written in an abuse of the iamb so severe that you can’t read it without stumbling over the unscansion and then flopping into to rhymes that make you feel like you should thank the ceiling for not caving in from sheer misery at having to listen to that.

I’ve been lucky with the Spriggan. They probably have those at daycare, but I just don’t buy them. He certainly plays with the cars and trucks there, though the kitchen is always a favourite and let’s not forget the enchantment of the broom the daycare keeps to clean up after them. Oh, the broom! Glorious broom.

But so far it hasn’t transitioned to our house beyond identifying vehicles in books we have, so we’re simply sticking to the ever-wonderful Freight Train by Donald Crews. He has many other interests at home: animals, of course, and kitchens and brooms and, now, The Snowy Day is relevant as December is here, and so I bring out old favourites anew. He’s learning lots of things: shapes, colours, animal noises, and that he’ll absolutely get me to laugh if he answers “moooo” to every question about what various animals say. Then I say “I know what you’re doing! You KNOW what a horse says!” And he cackles.

And I’m treasuring this time when, although he can toss a book aside if he’s done with it (and then pick it back up with equal eagerness 37 seconds later), I don’t yet have to remind myself that a ranting lecture on why If I like a book, it is a good book, and if I don’t like a book, it is a bad book will be incredibly counterproductive, so I absolutely must not try…

Even though, deep down, I know I’m right.

So, I know this early reader…

I’ve noticed something, basically ever since the Changeling turned about 4 years old. Every adult hits this point with a kid who knows how to read but isn’t reading full on novels and basically– the adult in that position flips out. We aren’t prepared. It happens to all of us, it happened to me. I was lucky when it happened to me– honestly, I think every adult in that situation needs someone to hold their hand through this difficult stage, and they should make us board books. You know: “using the potty,” “giving up your pacifier,” “transitioning to a big kid bed,” and “helping a new reader find books they enjoy reading.”

The Changeling’s favourite author at that stage was Cynthia Rylant, and then Hilary McKay (oh blessed Hilary, how I love everything you write!) and her Lulu books. I still highly recommend all of those (although I’m extremely upset that Albert Whitman is putting the Lulu books out of print, so you may need to get those secondhand). I found both of those by walking up to the (sorely lamented) Children’s Book Shop and asking Terri what I should get. She recommended those: “you’ll enjoy them, too.” After I had flipped through them, “and,” she added, “she’ll still enjoy picture books, you know.” Which cheered me up enormously because I, too, enjoy picture books.

That’s something I think every adult needs to hear. When I did my brief stint in the library, all of the kids were fighting over the same Judy Moody books and I’d say, “why don’t you look at the picture books?” Most of them ignored me. Sometimes I’d just start reading one aloud and they’d gravitate to it and fight over that, instead. A lot of them basically said outright that they were expected to read early chapter books, and they found a series that hit the spot, so they’d stay with that until separated by a crowbar. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. It’s really not. They find a groove, a sweet spot, and practice reading until they’re comfortable. What I don’t like is the expectation they feel to read those chapter books when they may, very well, really enjoy a tough, beautiful, extraordinary picture book biography like The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby, which I read to a Kindergarten class and they told me was “a hard book but somehow they liked it from start to end.” And, indeed, it was really something to see a whole group of kids that young (I was nervous, they were a big group of normally excitable littles) staying engaged with a book of that caliber for so long while I read it.

So, since I’ve had a number of people bringing this up to me recently, this post is designed to be that hand you hold while facing that quandary: “This kid can read pretty well, but maybe they need confidence, or maybe they’re just not used to it, or maybe they don’t know what to look for, or maybe I don’t know what to look for– can you help?” I will tell you one thing: you can absolutely always ask me for specific recommendations (though my first instinct will be to help you find a good local-to-you indie book shop), and I’ll always be happy to help if I can. But the books I’m going to write about here are all ones that have gotten kids absolutely thrilled and gripped– and, at least as importantly, they are ones that adults enjoy reading maybe even more than they enjoy reading dreary and austere Sophisticated Adult Literature. Why is that important? Because it’s important that kids and adults can enjoy the same books, particularly at this critical, tender point of early reading. If you and the kids in your life can talk about the books, you’ll be able to help find the next book. And, incidentally, my Changeling has more than once helped me find my next book…

One of the great things about early reading is that kids and adults can enjoy nonfiction together on any topic they find interesting. That’s when, for me, I started learning an almost incredible amount about marsupials. My daughter has been keen on wombats for about six years now, and I can’t even tell you how much fun it was to share that joy of discovery with her as she lugged big picture books home from the library and wept over returning them and I’d end up at the book shop asking them to get us in a copy of a particularly beloved one. So I’m going to start with a few large, gorgeous, beautifully written nonfiction books, biographies or natural history, you may want to share, and let’s start with a link back to this beauty: A Walk Through the Rain Forest. If you read that review, you’ll understand what I mean about not needing a specifically designed chapter book. Look through my archives and you’ll find a ton of exciting, interesting picture books that are wonderful to share with a new reader.

Another wonderful book by that same author, Martin Jenkins, with art by Jenni Desmond, is Puffin. An engaging, informative, almost confiding book about puffins, I had a wonderful time reading it and quickly made a list of young people in my life I knew would love it. They ranged from a young friend age 4 years to a sneaking suspicion this book would end up in my 9-year-old Changeling’s room. I was right. I’m captivated by Martin Jenkins’s method of writing nonfiction for young children. I keep wanting to say “his storytelling,” or “how he tells the story,” and only stop myself because if I do so I know it will confuse readers into thinking the books are somehow fictionalized. They aren’t, but the narrative feel is personal and conversational. If you’ve ever had a coffee with a friend who, for example, is obsessed with, ooh I don’t know– picture books, maybe? And they get on the topic and blurt out the full history of the picture book in America, maybe, then I want you to imagine that passion and excitement distilled and edited into a really clear, succinct picture book. In other words, it talks the same way a really enthusiastic little kid who just loves a given animal talks about that animal, but is very clear, gorgeously illustrated, and laid out to perfection. I’m a new fan of Martin Jenkins, with immense thanks to Candlewick for the review copies. I requested them specifically because I knew that for my homeschooling adventure I would need more nonfiction resources, and I can’t recommend these highly enough for both new and more established readers: they’re simply good.

One splendid new picture book biography is by the dream team Carter Higgins with art by Isabelle Arsenault, A Story Is to Share. Like The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown, A Story Is to Share is a straightforward, pleasant to read, not too complex, and honestly gripping account of a really important figure to children, though they may not yet know it. (Oh hey, remember that friend who’s passionate about picture books? Here we go…) Ruth Krauss is theirs. Ruth Krauss is one of the most important picture book authors many people don’t realize is likely part of their storytelling vocabulary. One of Ursula Nordstrom’s authors, she and her husband Crockett Johnson (yes, the creator of Harold with his purple crayon) was also as much mentor as friend and collaborator to a young Maurice Sendak. She, like Margaret Wise Brown, would just talk with and listen to children and absorb who they were and how they talked and understood the world in order to write for them; the result was that she never wrote at them, was never preachy or cutesy or patronizing or– oh, that cardinal sin– earnest. (Why does no one realize that The Importance of Being Earnest was a comedy, a joke, not a genuine hashtag life goal?) I’m sure you have read some of her books: The Carrot Seed or Roar Like a Dandelion if not A Hole Is to Dig, but even if you haven’t, you’ve felt her influence, and reading this with a child, or handing it to a new reader, with its deliciously fun art and its entertaining and informative writing, at the crossroads of prose and lyricism, will leave them feeling understood by a friend across the years, and will surely ignite their own ideas. There’s a strong possibility I’m doing my picture book creation after school class with another group this year, and this is a book that’s definitely getting shown to those kids. A younger reader will enjoy going through slowly, absorbing the art and words together, and will probably find much that a faster reader won’t as they go, bit by bit, through the brief phrases, each adding up to another angle on stories about them. (Carter Higgins is an author you’ve seen here before, a true favourite, and as much illustrator as author, though in this case the scintillating Isabelle Arsenault, be still my beating heart, took the text and breathed into it with her art.)

Mentioning Roar Like a Dandelion, which was published posthumously with art by the incomparable Sergio Ruzzier, reminds me that he is a perfect author for young readers. Many of his books are pitched ever so slightly younger than Hilary McKay’s Lulu books, and whether you’re reading his picture books or his young reader graphic novels, you always get his breathtakingly beautiful ink and watercolour drawings. He is my standard example of why sticking with a particular method does not necessarily mean an artist or author is stagnating: everything out of Sergio Ruzzier is fresh, new, and original; his imagination is exploring every use of his visual and narrative wit. I could weep for the beauty of his art in the unutterably silly and deeply wise No! Said Custard the Squirrel. The book is ridiculous and I will not try to define it: an unnamed rodent persists in insisting that Custard the Squirrel is a duck, and asking Custard the Squirrel to quack (instead of playing the organ, which Custard the Squirrel prefers) and swim in the lake (rather than going for a sail in a boat) and it’s the most amusing new read-aloud I’ve had in the past year, and one that many young readers have turned around to read to me instead, or taken over to read to themselves for a little giggle. Meanwhile, I just gaze in awe at the beautiful organ or Custard the Squirrel’s decadently revolting 1950’s style feast. Who is the rodent? We don’t know; they’re far too busy being an asshole to Custard the Squirrel to introduce themself. I feel sympathy for the asshole rodent I cheerfully named Tiramisu the Sturgeon. How many people do you know who just can’t get over the barrier of their perceptions not lining up to what they’re told? Sergio Ruzzier’s art and storytelling are direct: we’re on team Custard the Squirrel, and the rodent is irritating and should accept Custard the Squirrel unconditionally. And yet we feel sympathy. Certainly any adult who hears “No, no, no” twenty times a day feels sympathy! The book reminds me more of Sendak than any I’ve read recently: it is not a treatise, it’s cathartic. It gives me patience, and, like Sendak, I can read it 20 times over without getting tired of it. And I’m happy to have it read back to me by any youngsters getting ready to read.

But if you want a more authorized early reader, you can’t do better than Ruzzier’s Level 1 “I Can Read!” comics, Fish and Wave and Fish and Sun (with more to come: I believe he’s working on Fish and Worm at this time). The text is simple and heavily illustrated, of course, but it’s never banal. The humour is honest and direct: the talking fish wants friends and makes friends with the sun, but then the sun sets. There is angst, but, of course, the sun also rises (wait, wrong author). But Ruzzier, who understands this the way a kid does, is not turning this into a dull lesson or a cutesy joke: the whole point is that while sympathizing with the sad fish, the kid reader knows the joke and, sheesh, we all know the sun knows it (“oh wait, the sun can’t talk, either”), and, eventually the fish learns, too. Sendak (yes, I know, “Deb, shut up about Sendak,” and “No!” says Custard the Squirrel) writes in an essay reflecting on Caldecott that his illustration of the cow jumping over the moon was perfect because he caught the cow at an angle and perspective so that we realize the cow only appears to be jumping over the moon and we think “oh, how logical!”– and then realize that the dish is running away with the spoon in the most absurd way, but it feels logical. Ruzzier has that same knack and it catches us perfectly every time.

This is why (and no this post isn’t only about Sergio Ruzzier but honestly he’s just so good for this age group) his series of Fox + Chick comics are so pitch perfect at all points. I don’t think I’ve seen a series with a pair of characters riffing off of each other carried on so successfully since Frog and Toad, with every volume working so well and never fading in originality, freshness, or just plain funny storytelling. No one else is doing it this well, and I really think it’s because Ruzzier, I’m convinced, has them talking in his mind. He knows them. He probably sees them. I know I do, when I think about a birthday party (“hah, remember when Chick…” or I’m looking for a hammer (“well, maybe Fox can tell me what to do about that!”) and, as with Frog and Toad, the stories are slim and fast and live with you for a long, long time (“I love this book, Fox,” says Chick, “I might even read it one day.”). There is no old or young: there is truth and laugh-out-loud giggles and extraordinary art.

Moving on (reluctantly) from Sergio Ruzzier… to realizing with absolute delight that I’m going to be talking about Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris! (My job is fun.) The most joyful graphic novel read of the year for me, bar none, was The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza. Originally created as a live cartoon on YouTube between the two friends, Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris, during the early days of the pandemic, it got published as a book– and I hear there’s more to come. Reading level? I know quite young kids who enjoy it. Especially if you watch it online, you can read it easily on your own. And you, the adult, will love it and you may very well end up planning a family Halloween costume by next October.

Despite the ease of the language, this is a slightly higher reading level than Fox + Chick in that it’s a longer single story: a full graphic novel, adding up to one package of gloriously baffling absurdity which is nevertheless cohesive. It’s nonsense of the highest order: you feel like you’re reading this ludicrous story about a cat sent to the moon to save it from being eaten by rats, and the cat is accompanied by a toenail-clipping robot who’s stowed away on the spaceship– because, in fact, that’s what you’re reading. I’m finding it hard to define what precisely makes it so good in itself: it’s a quest narrative, a rescue story, with funny characters with vivid voices and personalities. Listed, that would make you think “well, I can find that elsewhere.” But the result is a Bill Watterson-level humour in a full, rich story.

I loved it so much I sent a copy to the South Pole.

I think I’m cutting myself off here. I have more to tell you about, always, but I think this covers quite a lot and you’ll let me know if there’s something you specifically need, won’t you? And I’m hoping, soon, to give you some good recommendations for the holidays so you get as nice a thank you as Chick gave Fox.

Same, Chick, you and me both.