Ghosts in the House!

Let’s get back to Hallowe’en chat with a wonderful little board book for younger Hallowe’en enthusiasts!

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I was reminded of Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara when the owner of my lovely Children’s Book Shop in Brookline said, “Oh, I need to get in that wonderful little board book for Hallowe’en!” and I said, “THAT ONE, YES!” and she said, “Exactly.”

We talked about it in this post, back in 2016, and I still love it today. It lingers on the very brink of potentially being spooky, without ever making that leap. It’s about the domesticity of Hallowe’en and makes you giggle rather than shiver. The ghosts have enormous personality despite never speaking, the witch is clever and practical, and the cat is just a cat. Cats are like that.

Note that Macmillan lists it as being for ages 3-6. You might be thinking, “A board book for a six-year-old? Pshaw!” Please open your mind! This is a brilliant story, and even if your kid’s reading independently, why shouldn’t they enjoy a good board book? My Changeling is reading Ramona and lots of marsupial nonfiction, but I know I plan to pull this out this Hallowe’en for her.

Now, then, my little plea for easy reading is over, and I want to ask what you’re reading for autumn? I’m re-reading Cat Valente’s Fairyland books! I eat them up, I love them so, and they’re perfect for the fall, which is why you should expect a post about them again next week…

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Truman

I felt so bad after realizing yesterday that I’d never reviewed Truman by Jean Reidy and Lucy Ruth Cummins that I’m going to take a quick break from talking Hallowe’en to talk about a little tortoise named Truman.

IMG_20190801_152709 (1).jpgThat’s Truman and Sarah, smiling at each other. Aren’t they cute?

Yes, yes they are.

Truman is a rare gem of a story: managing to be sweet without ever becoming cloying. The story is of the friendship between Truman (the tortoise) and Sarah (a little girl), told from the perspective of Truman when Sarah is gone for longer than usual (you know, because she’s gone to her first day of school). Truman is distraught and realizes he has to go after Sarah, but, well, he’s a small tortoise in a tank. How can he do that?

Being a tortoise of unusual grit and determination he makes it pretty far before Sarah finally returns and they find each other again with full joy!

So it’s a story of separation anxiety, of the pain of losing your friend and the joy of finding each other again. There’s the wistfulness of Truman missing Sarah, and the silliness of thinking about a tortoise climbing out of his tank to go find a girl, and my favourite moment of all: Truman’s BRAVE DETERMINATION TO GO AFTER SARAH!!!

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(Yeah, that’s Queen of the Sea back there… it was a good book day, I admit.)

But ultimately, the story is about love and reunification, not about the ache of separation. Sarah comes back. Sarah will always come back. And Truman will always be there for her.

How, I ask myself, does such a sweet story manage not to be cloying?

Well, in large part it’s because of the tenderness and realism of the story. The love is there, but it’s grounded in realistic moments: Sarah kissing her finger and touching it to Truman’s shell is lovely and entirely plausible. While Truman’s daring escape and bravery are anthropomorphic, for sure, Jean Reidy never has him doing anything a tortoise can’t do. It’s all very grounded and sensible, just part of a story.

But I also credit Lucy Ruth Cummins’s art with creating an atmosphere that is perfectly child-friendly and perfectly unsentimental. You see above that I couldn’t help but capture that moment of Truman’s bravery for you. I almost feel bad about that– I cracked up the first time I flipped the page and saw that picture, and I worry I’m spoiling the moment for you!– but I had to show you the glorious determination that overtakes Truman!

I’ve got to run (to the book shop) but I couldn’t let another day go by without giving you a heads-up about this sweet, cuddly, warm-hearted book. Read it with your four-year-old, then try to resist their proposal to get a pet.

Good luck!

(Get a pet. Pets are good for kids.)

Stumpkin Redux

I had so much fun talking Hallowe’en yesterday that I want to come back with an older book my daughter and I enjoyed last year! I wrote about it at the time, but it’s worth revisiting and reminding everyone how good it was.

Stumpkin

Stumpkin is by the stupendously good Lucy Ruth Cummins. Clever and sweet with a vintage feel, Stumpkin became an instant favourite with both me and my daughter. This is a great book for kids who adore Hallowe’en but aren’t so much with the scary story thing yet.

What I love about it, personally? To me Hallowe’en is all about everyone fitting in. Everyone can be someone else on Hallowe’en. And by being someone else, you can be yourself. And find a place. EVEN A STUMPKIN CAN FIT IN, GET IT? Yes, you get it.

So does Lucy Ruth Cummins, and your kid, reading this story, will get it, too, and feel reassured.

And the art? Warm, timeless, cuddly– it’s so good. If you have a kid (or a neighbour’s kid, or whoever) who feels a little out of place or scared or just needs a tad bit of reassurance, get them this book.

(And a note that Lucy Ruth Cummins also illustrated one of the loveliest recent books I should have reviewed, but somehow haven’t gotten around to? Truman, by Jean Reidy. Get that one, too, while you’re at it– and apologies to both author and illustrator for neglecting to review it yet. I’ll get there! I will!)

Alfred’s Book of Monsters

Are you ready for Hallowe’en? My Changeling certainly is! (And I love Hallowe’en, always have, always will.)

So I thought I’d try to hit some new and classic notes for Hallowe’en in the next month and a half before Hallowe’en actually arrives. That means you might get some shorter posts like this one to highlight some books we’ve seen before, some new ones, so that you can have some time to do some thinking and shopping for your own little monsters– or yourselves!

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Now, this is a very new one, from one of my favourite independent Boston-based publishers, Charlesbridge: Alfred’s Book of Monsters by Sam Streed. (You’ve seen Charlesbridge often here before, but usually in the context of nonfiction books– here’s proof they do amazing fiction, too.)

Now, Alfred would hate for me to say this, but it’s a perfectly delightful story!

You see, Alfred lives with his aunt, who wants him to have tea with her. Alfred, on the other hand, wants to read about monsters in his big old Book of Monsters in the study. So what happens when Alfred loses his patience with tea parties and delightful things altogether and decides he just has to meet the monsters…?

Well, I’m not going to tell you!

What I will tell you is that quickly shuttling back and forth between the pages of the Book of Monsters and the aunt’s tea parties will shake your child up and get them to adjust quickly to new fonts and new images. Alfred’s antics are amusing and just a little bit shocking, spooky without being altogether scary. In other words, a perfect Hallowe’en story for the pre-scary-story crowd! I think the sweet spot is probably for 5 years old, but an adventurous 3-year-old could certainly handle it, and I know my unadventurous 6-year-old will also enjoy it.

Being absolutely honest: I know that I’m hoping my Changeling gets really into the book so I can organize a Perfectly Terrible Monster Tea Party for her to go with the story…

So let’s get ready for Hallowe’en with monsters galore!

Small in the City

There is an event for this book. If you live in or near Toronto, you should go. I can’t, since I live in Boston, so I called the store and ordered a signed, personalized copy. They were very, very nice about it. 

Then I got the call from my local shop that the copy I’d preordered there had come in, so I picked it up.

Yes, all of this was sight unseen for this book. But, listen: Sydney Smith, right? Remember The White Cat and the Monk? Remember Town Is by the Sea?

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See that cover? Yes, I knew it was an important book.

Because Sydney Smith, that’s why. I knew him as an illustrator, yes, but I had a hunch that he’d be equally as important as an author.

I wasn’t wrong. I was more than right.

This is a book everyone needs, child or adult. It is wise and straightforward, advice from a child to someone close to that child who needs help.

Who is that someone? I’m not going to tell you that. Buy a copy (or two) and find out.

But it’s about vulnerability. The child is small in a big city. That makes the child vulnerable, in some sense. But also wise: able to give advice to someone else who is small in a big city. That makes the child strong, in some sense.

Now, I’m not going to tell you much more about the book itself, for fear of spoiling its beauty as a first read for you. But I’m going to tell you a secret:

I was once a small child in a big city and felt very vulnerable. I would wager a considerable number of precious books that I’m not alone in that feeling. It took me a while to feel strong and wise, and one of the defining events for me was locating “safe spots”: my favourite libraries and book shops and cafés near libraries where I could sit and read my books. Then I was able to recommend these spots to other people. Then I felt wise and strong.

But I will always, always feel heartbroken for the child I was: small in the city.

If you, too, were that person? And I’d wager many of you were? You will feel connected to this book.

But I also recognize, sitting here now, relating my story, how fortunate I was. The people I advised on lovely book shops were strong and wise in turn. They were not small and vulnerable.

And now, as an adult, looking around me– it’s the small and the vulnerable who break my heart.

And so, if you were once small in a big city. If you feel heartache for others who are small in a big city. If you were or are vulnerable and want to reach a hand to those who were or are vulnerable…

This book is for you.

This is where I’m desperately, desperately trying to find a page of artwork to show you Sydney Smith’s glorious ink and watercolour and gouache art… but I don’t want to spoil any of the surprising twists in this beautiful story for you. So I’m going to keep this short.

Just trust me, OK? And trust Sydney Smith. It is beautiful. You need it. You will love it.

And it will probably make you cry, in the best way possible.

Please write to me about it!

Hungry Jim

First things first because I’m so happy with you all:

To those of you who wrote to me about Joan Aiken? THANK YOU. I knew you were out there, but having the opportunity to hear from others, on the blog and in my inbox, that, yes, she really is that great– what a priceless opportunity. I’ve sent out most of your books, but the rest will be going out early this week. You have no idea how happy you made me. Please, keep writing!

As for today’s book? This is a new one, and one I suspect will stick around for a while.

Hungry Jim.jpg

Laurel Snyder occupies a soft spot in my heart as the author of the first book I reviewed for this blog. Go on, search for it– it’s a good one. (Hint: Swan) (We still read it, it still makes me cry.)

Well, her new book, Hungry Jim, illustrated by Chuck Groenink, shows her breadth and dynamic range as an author: where Swan was lyrical, quiet, and constantly striving for the next great aesthetic moment, Hungry Jim is at war with itself: angry, scared of its own anger, and growling for the next meal.

Also? Swan is not funny. Hungry Jim is very, very funny.

Both are high achievements, but Swan made me cry and think and Hungry Jim made me laugh and think.

But to focus in on Hungry Jim as the book we’re actually talking about today, I want to first give you a sense of what the book’s about, and then we can talk about why it’s on this blog today.

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while, because a) Chronicle Makes Good Books; b) Laurel Snyder Writes Good Books, and c) Chuck Groenink Illustrates Good Books. But I went in with no preconceptions– completely uncertain of the story. And since I think that’s the way to go I’m going to try not to spoil much for you. But.

Well, Jim wakes up one morning and he’s hungry. Good: His mother is calling out that pancakes are read! But he’s not hungry for pancakes. After a war between his sense of being Jim and the desires of his stomach… his stomach seems to win, and Jim runs for it, into the forest. So, Jim has to sort out Who He Is, and when he does– he’s sated. He returns home to the town from the forest… and everything is just the way it was (sort of) and he has pancakes.

Great. What a simple story. (Sort of.)

But there’s more to it, of course. It’s hard to relate what makes it so special without spoiling it all, so I’m going to let my daughter’s reaction speak for me here. When I read it to the Changeling tonight, she giggled, at one point she hid behind my shoulder, and then she snuggled into me at the end. I closed the book and she said, “That was a good book, wasn’t it?”

I agreed, and said, “It reminded me of another book, did you feel the same way?”

She said, “Yes! Jim is like Max and he runs into the forest in the same way.” (Referring to Where the Wild Things Are.)

And, yes, there is a very not-so-subtle poking into the Maurice Sendak aesthetic and humour at work here. It’s done without any gentleness and yet with great sensitivity. The activity of anger and primordial hunger as almost independent forces– that’s Sendak. The war of the wild against quiet domesticity– totally Sendak. The enactment of the bestial in the safe space of the wilderness– Sendak again!

This isn’t my daughter just being brilliant: the book is consciously dedicated to Sendak, for crying out loud; it’s all in the open and I’m not spoiling anything for anyone. (Sort of.)

But it could be a disaster, couldn’t it? If someone had told me before reading, “This book is a conscious homage to Sendak,” I’d have hesitated. Sendak is sort of hard to do, he was so original.

That’s where Laurel Snyder and Chuck Groening come in, though: they don’t try to “do Sendak.” They do themselves, but they themselves love Sendak so ardently that Sendak just… comes through, and because they understand Sendak so very well, he comes through without timidity, without false delicacy, and yet taken very seriously.

In short, read it yourselves and see: there are pages that whisper “is this a bit like Sendak?” (for me the opening felt like that) and there are pages that scream “OK WE’RE TALKING ABOUT SENDAK HERE,” and those are both done brilliantly, right down to the glorious bold line- and colourwork of the art.

But, you know, folks: ignore me on this one.

If the fact that I told you that my 6-year-old daughter read it with me, giggling and hiding and ultimately snuggling up and contemplatively comparing it to Sendak hasn’t sold you on the book? Well, I don’t know what I can say.

Except that this is a book kids will love and identify with– and so will adults.

GROWL. GO READ.

Happy Birthday, Joan Aiken!

Well, we’ve talked about Joan Aiken before: beloved author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels, and of numerous short stories, including my personal favourite collection, A Necklace of Raindrops. (Fuzzy image grabbed from the web. Sigh.)

A Necklace of Raindrops.jpg

But I don’t think I’ve ever said in public what I’ve said to numerous people in private: She and Trina Schart Hyman are the two people in children’s literature I most regret never writing to while they were alive.

(In the opera world, I most regret never writing to Dame Joan Sutherland.)

If she were alive today, this might be what I could write to her:

Dear Joan Aiken,

When I first read A Necklace of Raindrops as a child of perhaps nine or ten, I thought they must be written long, long ago and far, far away by someone today or merely yesterday in a neighbouring town. I was terribly confused by timing and place (I hadn’t yet learned to just read the copyright page for information on when or where a book was written), and terribly excited to learn that fairy tales could be written about kids like me and animals I loved.

Today, at age 32, this still excites me when I read your stories over again.

Just this past month, while I was on a family trip to England, I discovered a copy of your first novel when I was at Hatchard’s, and accordingly bought it, as I have an unbreakable rule of never passing up a book of yours which is new to me. So I read The Kingdom and the Cave. It’s not a very long book, but it took me a while to read it as a I put it down repeatedly to mutter to myself about how you were “only seventeen!” and “it’s just impossible!” I may even have gone on a mini-rant to my husband regarding how I didn’t know whether I “should hand in my pen or sit down straightaway and use it.”

Then I calmed down a bit, thought it through, and knew that you would tell me to “sit down straightaway and use it,” so I shall. Because fairy tales are out there for the telling, and so are realist stories (which are, I think, just fairy tales with the fairies well-hidden, honestly) and all other stories, too, whether on Tuesdays or on Mondays. [Note to blog readers: if you don’t catch the reference, read The Serial Garden.]

The point of all of that isn’t just that you inspire me, both by your life and by your writing, but that your stories seem to run through my veins, probably because I’ve read them since I was very young– but also perhaps because you pick up on something universal and human. Your characters aren’t “flawed and human,” in the way that newspaper articles gleefully write about unlikable modern characters I was forced to read in middle school and high school. They’re just… people. People who might have unicorns in the garden, or who have names like Dido, or who can speak UAL, but are somehow the most human people I’ve ever met and whom I love like dear friends.

And I want to write people like that into being. If I ever manage? It will be because of your example and your mentorship, even though I never had the sense to write to you while you were alive.

So my pledge on your 95th birthday, even though you can’t celebrate it on the corporeal plane, is to help maintain your memory and get more people reading your books.

Thank you for all the stories, and for all the friends.

Deborah Furchtgott

And so, here I am, dear readers, back to you again. As I said, I want to encourage people to read Joan Aiken’s books. How? I’m going to do what I do: give them away!

I happen to have on my table by me a copy of the Joan Aiken which started it all for me (A Necklace of Raindrops) and the first Joan Aiken novel I ever read as an adult (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase). I also pledge to buy The Serial Garden and Black Hearts in Battersea.

Here’s what you have to know:

a) I will give you a copy of A Necklace of Raindrops or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or The Serial Garden or Black Hearts in Battersea. That’s right: four books. First come, first served.

b) Write to me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com. Say which book you want. If your first choice is taken, I will reply and give you a second shot. (If there are a lot of you, and/or if you’re REALLY REALLY REALLY nice? Maybe I’ll get an additional copy of the one you want most. This is a 95th birthday party, after all. Kind of a big deal.)

c) Giveaway is open NOW. If you tell me what you want today, it may go in the mail as soon as tomorrow or Friday. It will stay open until all four books are claimed.

d) As usual, I will ship anywhere in the world. I will pay shipping.

What’s the catch? YOU MUST PROMISE TO READ IT. That’s it. All I want is for people to read Joan Aiken books.

So don’t delay– wish Joan Aiken a happy birthday by reading one of her books!

Postcard from London

 in London and not going to spend much time on you because, um, did I mention I’m in London? BUT: On the plane on the way over to London (which is where I am) I read one of the most delightful books I’ve read in a while. I acquired my copy at my local Children’s Book Shop, and I recommend you do the same. 

Actually I don’t. You see, I went in only to discuss how to buy foreign language books, and I left with this beautiful book. Going into excellent, friendly, well-curated indie book shops will do BAD THINGS to your wallet, I warn you!

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In posting this picture for you, I realized something dreadful: Grace Lin seems to have written two other books I’ll now have to read.

What’s the book about? Stories. Stories about stories are among my favourite sorts of stories, and this one is not only beautifully written, but exquisitely illustrated (in colour, no less!) and creatively typeset.

You may want to see some charming books from London, and I’ll be going to Hatchard’s on Sunday, but so far I only got to visit Librairie La Page in South Kensington (I was with others and didn’t get to see their children’s books, more’s the pity!) and a few very beautiful books at the Victoria and Albert Museum:

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And some beautiful glossed Bibles I don’t have time to share with you because they require editing– and did I mention I’m in London? More later.

International Cat Day

Twitter tells me very prominently that today is International Cat Day. This gives me an excuse to boost some truly excellent books we haven’t discussed in a while!

Limited text today– but I’ll give you links!

A Castle Full of Cats by the incredible Ruth Sanderson

Castle Full of Cats

Trina Schart Hyman’s exquisite, cat-heavy, retelling of Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood TSH

The White Cat and the Monk still gives me shivers and smiles in equal measure.

Pangur Ban

And Big Cat, Little Cat still makes me cry! (Sorry, that link is to IndieBound because I can’t find my post quickly enough…)

Big Cat little cat

They All Saw A Cat will change how you look at cats forever…

They All Saw A Cat

And Catwings will change how you look at life, the world, and others (typical Ursula Le Guin!)

Catwings

And if I Am a Cat doesn’t make you smile, at least once, go to the doctor.

I Am a Cat

What about you? Do you have any International Cat Day plans?

(Every day is Cat Day in our house, so let me diversify by showing you Weo the Wombat, latest denizen of our house, wearing… sunglasses…? Probably better not to ask.)

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Queen of the Sea

I know, I know, I promised you a Charles Darwin book list, and first I give you the Liddy family and now this– don’t worry, you’ll get it! (I still love those books, but I’m easily distracted, as we all know.)

But I just read the most fantastic graphic novel and I have to tell you about it while it’s: a) fresh in my mind, and b) NEW. AVAILABLE. BUY IT NOW. (I got it at my local Children’s Book Shop, you can surely buy it at yours!)

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I’m still pretty new to the graphic novel medium, but, boy do I love it! Especially done so well as Dylan Meconis’s Queen of the Sea is: it feels fresh, new, yet timeless. It will last. Graphic novels done properly have everything I love about really good picture books, but on steroids. (Or maybe picture books done properly are like perfect graphic novels pared down to the pristine essentials. I don’t know which way it really goes, but they’re obviously related.)

The point is this: Dylan Meconis, in this case, is both verbal and visual storyteller and she gets it on point in both regards. This is perfect and you need it in your life. I’ll tell you why.

So, the story is set in Albion at the end of the reign of King Edmund, who leaves behind him two daughters: Eleanor, who ought to take the throne, and Catherine, who does take the throne, and rules with a high and bloody hand. The story is a loosely-veiled alternate history of the early days of Queen Elizabeth I, in fact, and it’s really got everything in it: folklore, mystery, history, a recipe for Truly Terrible Gruel, allegory, A FREAKING EMBROIDERY LESSON– I kid you not, this book is packed… and it never, for a fraction of an instant, feels overwhelming.

The story is gripping and moves along at a beautiful, measured pace, doubtless in part because the text is pared down to move quickly, but the art is so dynamic and blossoms so vividly on each page that it slows you down to catch each glorious detail. And the interjections about the monastic life, embroidery, and folklore simultaneously slow things down a bit more (“ah,” you catch yourself thinking, “what an interesting side note!”) and enrich the text (“oh,” you think ten pages further along, “that’s what that was for!”).

It’s a feat of storytelling genius, in other words. If Alan Moore could possibly have written for children, it might look something like this. OK, if you know Alan Moore’s work I just blew your mind, and if you don’t, you’re confused. Let me explain: a) To fans of Alan Moore: I know, the thought of Moore writing for kids is laughable, and the idea of comparing anyone to his genius is sacrilege. Stay with me a moment. b) To the uninitiated: Alan Moore pushes boundaries with his storytelling (the whole fictionalized history thing makes me think of that) and he also creates verbal mosaics of different styles, voices, and ideas. Dylan Meconis does this brilliantly with her wide array of characters and formats, from hagiography to history to witty and biting dialogue about chess, and so much more.

One of the overarching feats of Queen of the Sea is that it’s fresh and new, and a lot of that is down to the voice. It’s so easy for history books to get it wrong, but this is written very specifically for children without talking down to children, on the one hand, or speaking to adults while pretending to be for children, on the other hand.

The story is thrilling, the art is beautiful, and my six-year-old daughter is fascinated by it to a degree I find unfathomable. (It’s way, way too old for her and all she know is that it’s about a girl beside the sea. She’ll get there in four years, approximately.) That’s the attraction of the art at work. But the attraction of the words is just as strong: my brother-in-law was visiting, and he must have gotten about halfway through it, just drawn in by the story and the art, in the few hours he was in the house, while simultaneously being a charming guest. That’s how quickly the magic works.

And that’s the other wonderful thing about this graphic novel, although I feel sort of bad saying so: It’s so quick and easy to read. I don’t mean it’s “easy” as in “light” or “fluffy.” It’s just that it took me about two hours to read the whole thing. That’s it. Then I thought about it and went back over it and am now gushing to you, so it stayed with me. But graphic novels move. They move fast.

That makes me think about audience. This is obviously– perfectly– a book for nerds. I’d have loved it as a history nerd in middle school. (Around age 9 or 10, probably, or any age over that.) But I wonder whether it wouldn’t also entice a reluctant historian? “Who are these dead people I have to learn about?” I imagine someone whining. “Well,” says Dylan Meconis, “let’s talk about that, shall we?” It’s a hook into another world, just like any great work of fiction, but it’s also a hook into the world of history.

And that’s why I think it’s going to last. It’s not just a work of fiction, it’s also a work of history. And a good one. Good histories and good novels last. This is both, and I think it will prove timeless as a representation of how a brilliant twenty-first century mind grappled with the sixteenth century. I hope it does. And I hope for two other outcomes: a) That others will look at Dylan Meconis’s groundbreaking work and decide to follow in her footsteps in their own way, and b) that Dylan Meconis will continue writing and drawing for children. We need her work!

Here’s the catalogue link again.