“Mama, how does the sperm reach the egg?” and other questions + giveaway!

I recently heard some very good news from a member of my family, and was permitted to share this news with my little family. From my husband, it prompted a “Mazal tov, I’m so happy to hear that!” From my daughter it prompted a pleased wriggle, “Will I get to hold the baby?” and then some Other Questions.

Now, this isn’t the first time the Changeling has Asked Questions. When she was a little over three, maybe closer to four, she started exploring her anatomy and asked some Questions. Questions like: “Mama, what does this do? Why do I have a bum over here” patting her behind “and a smaller bum over here?” patting in front of her. So I accordingly did what I always do– I went to the library and talked to the librarians. I was shocked to discover that most of the books explaining bodies to young children were somewhat older, but they’re actually pretty darned good. So I bought two of them: Amazing You! by Gail Saltz, illustrated by Lynne Cravath, and, thinking ahead, What’s the Big Secret? by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. I was very proud of myself for thinking ahead, too. And it was great! We talked a bit about anatomy and where babies come from and how and why, and it was fabulous and I was so proud of myself for handling tricky territory with grace and openness.

And then a year passed. And now the Changeling has started asking New Questions, Questions which are more pointed, more detailed, and don’t let me get away with answers like, “Well, maybe we can discuss that in a year or two, what do you think?” Questions like, “If the daddy has the sperm and the mummy has the egg, how does the sperm get to the egg?” and “What does sex look like?” and the follow-up “Then how old do you have to be to see sex happen?”

I did some additional research (which is to say, I consulted the expert– Erika Moen –NSFW– Erika’s site is wonderful and educational, but save that link for a private space), and she directed me to It’s So Amazing! by Robie S. Harris and Michael Emberley, which is for ages 7 and up.

So the Changeling and I have talked and talked, she comfortably, and I calming down as I become more comfortable, and it’s all gone so much more smoothly than I thought it would. Partly, I realized, because I know more than I thought I did, partly because librarians and Erika are wonderful and directed me to great resources, and partly because the Changeling is teaching me more than I am teaching her!

So I thought, after talking to a few friends and family members who also had curious youngsters, or anticipated some curiosity in future– maybe a brief exploration of these resources would help you all out, too– and provide a forum for people to share their stories, experiences, and helpful resources.

Amazing You!.jpg

Amazing You! is a lovely early book for explaining the basics: what your body is, what it looks like, and how it’s private and individual to YOU. It really emphasizes anatomy and privacy and is wonderful, I think, starting at about age 3. It has excellent basic diagrams and is packed with accurate information reframed for a foundational level. My daughter has moved past it at age 5, but, as I said, she is perhaps unusually curious, so your experience may vary.

What's the Big Secret.jpg

What’s the Big Secret? is a great next step: it’s more explicit about sex, sexuality, and, particularly, about being open and unembarrassed with your questions in the face of a society which casts shame on these subjects. It still emphasizes privacy and bodily autonomy for both boys and girls. My daughter still had more questions than were answered here– we have homosexual friends she didn’t see represented in here, for example– but for the basics of explaining how sex works, this is more direct and a little bit older than Amazing You! I’d say the target age here is around 5 or 6.

It's So Amazing.jpg

For questions that go beyond just “how are babies made?” and into questions about love, sexuality, and, basically, living life beyond childhood, It’s So Amazing! is a wonderful introduction to what an adult universe looks like. It still affirms basic facts about anatomy, biology, and science. It also talks about loving relationships (of all kinds– this is where my daughter was able to see our homosexual friends represented), families, and where sex figures into that. It even has some basic information about sexually transmitted diseases, which I was certain would confuse the Changeling, but was so well presented that it hasn’t. I love the graphic novel + text format: some pages are funny discussions between the bird and the bee in a standard graphic novel page, which engages a new child reader, and some are laid out in a more “picture book” page, but more text-heavy and informative. As it says right on the cover, it’s for ages 7+, but even before I got to it the Changeling (now aged 5 and a half) zoomed to it and I decided to let her. She was absorbed in about five seconds flat and had only lucid questions. It’s very basic, very clear, and very engaging.

So, these are three stepping-stone books for you all! The only “complaint” I have is that they are all rather old. That said, the books are excellent, and have served me well. I have no problem with these books and recommend them without reservation, but I do question why no new child-oriented books about sex are being published in this era. I’d have thought it a topic which could use updating on a regular basis.

So, dear readers, since I understand that I’m not the only parent with a curious child, I want to present this information to you with a little giveaway treat, and here’s the only rule:

Tell me (in the comments or at deborah@childrensbookroom.com) your story about your kid’s sex ed question (the funniest, cleverest, or just most thought-provoking question) and I’ll enter your name in the hat!

I will use a random number generator to pick one of you and you can choose which of these three books you prefer for your child. If you have questions about the books, I’ll happily answer. Open to anywhere in the world. You have ONE WEEK (March 1-7) to get your entry in!

Enjoy!

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Gittel’s Journey

I’m up against a thousand deadlines, each breathing a further blazing flame against the back of my neck, but–

This morning I got a call from the Children’s Book Shop that a new book had come in, one I’d been waiting for, and I went in, glanced through it, and immediately bought two copies (not gratuitously– one for me, one for a friend who I decided needed it). Which book prompted this rapid response from me? Bought today, blogged today?

Gittel’s Journey, by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates.

Gittel's Journey.jpg

We’ve read about Lesléa Newman here before, and also about Amy June Bates, since they’re the duo who brought the world the amazing Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed. To be perfectly honest, when I read that Amy June Bates would also be doing Gittel’s Journey, I was simultaneously thrilled (“I love her work!”) and nervous (“But this is such a different story– will she suit it?”). Why did I worry? Her work is as adept, and I can give no higher praise, as Trina Schart Hyman’s on Little Red Riding HoodAnd I don’t think it’s any coincidence I was reminded of that book: There’s the same painterly style, the same splash of red that pulls Gittel right off the page, and the same windswept grace to the style.

And when we consider the story– well, here let’s pause and talk about the story.

Gittel and her mother have to leave their home, which isn’t safe for them, to journey to America. Leaving much they love behind them, including Gittel’s beloved goat, Frieda, they travel to the shore to board a boat to America, but there they’re stopped– Mama has an eye infection and isn’t allowed to accompany her nine-year-old daughter onto the boat. Gittel must go alone on a long, arduous journey to a distant relative, whose address Mama has written on a piece of paper for her. Gittel bravely goes forward, only to find in America that her terrified grip on this piece of paper has smudged the address until it’s unreadable! A kind interpreter helps her find her cousin, and, ultimately, Mama is able to join her, too. All ends happily– on the surface.

Except that we all know more. If we look to Little Red Riding Hood here, the little girl travels by boat instead of through a forest, but she does meet a wolf, yes. But the wolf in Gittel’s story isn’t any particular person, no. The wolf is the threat of pogroms in the Old Country (Russia, Poland– as Newman makes clear in the excellent backmatter, borders shifted). The wolf is also the health inspector who separates Gittel from her mother. The wolf also rears his head in the threat posed to Gittel, who has no English, at Ellis Island before the kind interpreter appears and saves her, quite literally, from being lost in, if not the woods or the wolf’s belly, a new country with no home and no prospects. The wolf was– and still is– all around for immigrants with few resources available to them. (For a beautiful modern story of immigration to America, check out, I’ve said it before and will say it again, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.)

Like Ketzel— and like Dreamers, for that matter– the story is ultimately hopeful and very beautiful. But unlike them, the wolf is around the corner in every page. My daughter noticed this when she read it alone before I could get to read it to her (the little scamp!). I asked her if she liked it. “Yes,” she said, “it was a very good book. But it was sad.” Coming from the Changeling, that means that something in it worried her. And, after reading it with her, I saw what it was. If I had to guess, if I had to put my finger on one page that made her sad, I’d guess it was the two page spread where on one side you see Mama on Shabbat, holding her candles, and on the other page you see Gittel, weeping over her Mama’s candlesticks: “Candles and candlesticks belonged together just as she and Mama belonged together. Gittel shut her eyes and sang the Sabbath blessing softly to herself. It only made her sadder.” Note that, absent the illustrations, these words lose much of their poignancy: in context, my eyes prickled as I read them aloud to the Changeling, and I held her a little closer.

But, in the end, Gittel prevails over the wolf: she arrives and is brave, and, ultimately, her mother arrives, too. “Come, Mama. […] Let’s go home. The sun is about to set, and it’s time to light the candles for Shabbos.”

I don’t know what else to tell you. The illustrations are exquisite. The story is heartbreaking but beautiful. If you have a heart, you will feel. If you don’t, this is a book which could make you grow one. If I gave starred reviews here, this would get one. I bought two books on an impulse– I knew this book was something special. But after reading this with the Changeling tonight? I know I’ll be getting more. I’m not going to use a word like “timely” here and make reference to current affairs: this book is more than that. It’s history, it’s the present, and we have the power, if we want to make it so, to ensure that we can edit out the wolf for the future.

Please, do me a favour. Call your local bookstore and reserve two copies: one for yourself, and one for a friend or for a donation.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This is more of a postcard than a post, but Happy Valentine’s Day, my dear readers! Here are three books for you– we’ve seen all of them before, but why not revisit them?

I recommended Love Is by Diane Adams, illustrated by Claire Keane, as a baby present before, but it would also be a beautiful Valentine’s Day gift.

Love Is.jpg

Funny and sweet with a spice of zest in the form of messy bath times and wakeful nights, Love Is shows the universality of love: children will see themselves in both the duckling (the one being cared for) and the child (the caretaker), while parents will identify with the child as caretaker and maybe learn a thing or two about themselves in the process…

always love Steve Light and Lucky Lazlo is no exception!

lucky-lazlo

For young children and up to adults, this is a zany, lovelorn adventure at the theatre, and theatrical it is! Parents will appreciate the funny allusions to theatre, children will enjoy the slapstick elements, and who doesn’t enjoy a romantic comedy ending with a rose and a kiss? As for the detailed, crazy, pops-of-colour art… that’s Steve Light in a nutshell, and always a delight!

And finally, check out This Is Not a Valentine by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins.

This Is Not a Valentine

An unfluffy, not-too-sweet book of romance, this is about loving your own person on your terms in your own way. No glitter and sugary hearts here! The art is deliberately sketchy, but, in its very roughness, exquisitely beautiful (I see in my post I compared it to Christian Robinson; astute of me!). Likewise, the text rebels against jewellery and roses… but only if you want to. It’s a book that’s sweet in its own way, on its own terms, and teaches you to do the same.

So that’s a set of three good books for today– all sweet, but not saccharine. Tell me, what’s your favourite Valentine’s Day book?

The House of Lost and Found

(A note about the giveaway is at the bottom of the post, but first I want you to read about this gorgeous book.)

You know, I didn’t plan to write about this book. I didn’t plan to write about anything tonight, honestly, and if I had planned to, it would have been about one of the really recent books I found and love– some are very new, and some I’ve been meaning to write about for several weeks, in fact… including the exquisitely beautiful Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales, which I only just bought but have loved since it came out in September. And then something happened.

I’ve been tired, honestly– happy tired, but tired. Work, family, and life have sort of ganged up on me and I haven’t had much time for anything but getting by, day to day. So there are a lot of things which have slipped by me: things I love, including knitting for my daughter, and even reading and writing. Oh, I manage to get both in, or else you’d only find me in jail. If I don’t knit, write, or read– I go bonkers. But I’m doing a base level of these to get by, and I miss keeping up with new books and making beautiful things.

Please, don’t worry about me! I’m doing good work and I’m excited about it. I know that after I finish my dissertation I’ll be back on the knitting, reading, writing horses and as productive as ever. But I admit that I was feeling a little melancholy.

And then my daughter, the little Changeling I live with, pulled this book off of my shelf tonight: The House of Lost and Found by Martin Widmark and Emilia Dziubak. I bought this book about a year ago (I see it came out September of last year, which sounds about right). And when I first bought it I flipped through it a few times, admiring it, but deeming it too old for my daughter. Then this child, this Changeling, pulled it off the shelf tonight and I read it to her and narrowly avoided tears.

The House of Lost and Found.jpg

This is, without a word of a lie, one of the most exquisite books, visually and intellectually, I’ve ever read.

The story is of an old man, Niles, who lives alone– his wife is dead, his children have grown up and moved away, and even his cat has wandered off: “Just as well, thought Niles. That’s one less thing to worry about.” Whereat this cat-lover’s chest tightened and eyes prickled. He turns off the lights in his house, one by one, saying good-bye to everything he used to love, one by one, as dreariness sets in.

And then his doorbell rings, and a small boy is there holding a flowerpot full of dirt, and asking Niles to look after his flower while he’s away. Niles is left with the flowerpot and no desire to look after any living thing.

But he waters the dirt in the pot.

And he finds himself wondering, as the seed sprouts and a tendril of a leaf pushes through the dirt, “What kind of flower is it?”

And as the plant grows and grows and our curiosity increases, so does his excitement increase– and his interest in life revives: he cleans the house, the cat comes back (YAY!!!), and he reads again (there go the tears again…). And the flower grows and grows until…

I’m not going to spoil the ending for you. It’s too beautiful.

But the story might sound a little familiar to fans of folklore out there. The story is decidedly similar to that of the traveller who brings something of some apparent value, but dingy, to a family in dire need and asks them to look after it for him. The family is virtuous, and with every act of goodness their fortune increases and the dingy item brightens. The traveller returns and sees how their goodness has polished the cup or horn or whatever the item was and says something about how good they are and they can look after the item for the rest of their lives. And so they live on in prosperity and virtue for the rest of their lives. I’m sure I could look it up in Aarne and Thompson and find something there– it’s an old story!

There are key differences: here it seems like the tender growth of the flower fuels the revival of life in the old man, rather than the virtue of the man fuelling the growth of the flower. (There are other differences but you can discover them when you read the story!) But the symbiotic relationship between the protagonist and the special object is key to the soul of the story and it’s a thing of beauty: both the beauty of the flower and the beauty of spiritual heart of the book.

I want to add something here about the illustrations, while we’re talking about beauty. First of all, Polish illustrator Emilia Dziubak is new to me, and I’m both sad about that (what have I been missing?) and happy (I’ve discovered someone new and amazing!). She might be the only one out there so able to convey the dinginess and gloom of Niles’s house while at the same time rendering it with visible tenderness and love: he’s not slovenly, her art seems to tell us, he’s just old and sad. And as light and air and cleanliness and the cat creep back into the house, the tenderness and love remain but the dinginess and gloom flee the scene; her skill is glorious and if, like me, you’ve been missing out, you may want to rectify that.

All in all, this was a lesson for me in many things:

a) Listen to the Changeling, for she is wise;

b) Read new and poignant books, for they will open your heart and soul and render you more fit for future work;

c) Hug your cats and water your plants, for who knows what the future will bring?

So that’s the story of an unexpected book creeping in and changing the course of my evening.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for participating in the Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones giveaway! For those of you who participated: I have ordered the books into the Children’s Book Shop and they should be arriving this week. It might be the third week of February before I get them to the post office, but I promise I will email you as soon as they go into the mail! Thanks again.

February Giveaway: Final Call!

A real post with a real review will be coming soon (I promise!) but this is a final reminder that TOMORROW is the last day to get a free book from me! Thank you so much to those who have participated so far, and I’ll be sending out all books as soon as the Children’s Book Shop has gotten in all of the copies I’ve asked them to order in (probably the second week of February).

Also note: I am happy to giftwrap and include a gift note if you ask me to– books make great surprise gifts, as we all know.

Here’s a reminder of the rules:

a) I will, if you email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

To sum up: Please don’t be shy! Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and get a free Joan Aiken or Diana Wynne Jones book! I will be buying the books locally and shipping via USPS. Happy reading, and happy February!

Launching the February Giveaway!

This isn’t a real post, just a reminder of my giveaway for the beginning of February (that’s now!). Here’s a reminder of the rules:

a) I will, if you email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

To sum up: Please don’t be shy! Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and get a free Joan Aiken or Diana Wynne Jones book! I will be buying the books locally and shipping via USPS. Happy reading, and happy February!

More about those old books! (+giveaway)

When I last wrote to you, it was about a few old books. It has recently come to my attention that many well-educated, bookish people I know have not Heard the Good Word of Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones. I don’t judge (much) because although I knew of Diana Wynne Jones growing up, I hadn’t read Howl’s Moving Castle until very recently myself. Frankly, I innocently asked Terri at my local book shop whether it was really worth reading and she nearly keeled over backward when she realized I hadn’t yet read it.

And now I feel evangelical myself, so when I was talking to a family friend (hi, there!) who hadn’t read either Aiken or Wynne Jones and– oh my God, I was texting with him and had to delete several texts because they either read: “WHAT NO YOU’RE A PRINCETONIAN HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE” or “LET ME IN I’M OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT WITH MY COPIES READ THEM NOW.” So I thought it would be better to write up a useful post and help people figure out whether they want to read them (OF COURSE YOU DO) and if so where to start. To that end, read to the end and you’ll see my bit about a giveaway. Because apparently I’m a Book Evangelist.

 

 

Let’s start with Joan Aiken. First of all, are you sure you’ve never read any Joan Aiken? She’s written a lot of short stories, for starters. I grew up with A Necklace of Raindrops, now sadly out of print, for example, which I still consider to be among the finest examples of the short story ever written. They, like Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom, combine a deep knowledge of the fairy and folk tale with a remarkable level of originality. Think of Ruskin, The King of the Golden River, and you’re not too far off. (If you decide to hunt it down, make sure you get a copy with Jan Pieńkowski’s glorious illustrations. And, yes, I only mentioned that here after I found a copy for myself.)

Moving on to her novels, the same level of originality rooted in tradition is at play. For example, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase features an evil governess whose ploy to overtake her employers’ estate must be thwarted; Black Hearts in Battersea features children with mysterious pasts who must find their families. And yet– everything is fresh and new, and I think it comes down to two particular skills: a) Her characters: Aiken absolutely mastered the art of creating warm, believable, flawed-yet-lovable characters whose stories you want to read; b) Her prose: Without ever wasting a word (these books are short!), Aiken writes description which brings streets and islands and boats and hot air balloons vividly to life. This same skillset keeps you turning pages because you know the place and you’re familiar with the characters, so you want to know what happens next.

Word of warning: I was heartbroken by the end of Battersea, for many reasons. THERE ARE MORE BOOKS! They’re just out of print. Terri tells me they’re wonderful, too, and I believe her.

So, Diana Wynne Jones. As I said in my earlier post, Diana Wynne Jones writes very much in the same tradition as Joan Aiken. Indeed, they were both English, born only a decade apart. Diana Wynne Jones, too, plays with fairy tales and folklore. She too is strikingly original in her treatment thereof.

Where they differ is voice. They wouldn’t be original if they shared the same voice, now, would they? (Boy, do I love to state the obvious!) Both write character-drive, beautifully composed page-turners. Both have warmth, humanity, wisdom, and humour. But there’s something sepia toned about Joan Aiken, and jewel toned about Diana Wynne Jones. That, of course, doesn’t make one jot of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the books, and perhaps only makes sense to me, ever. (Read the books and find out!)

But take Howl’s Moving Castle, for example: The colours and fabrics and sensory experience of the book just explodes off the page. Silks and flowers and the chink of gold coins respectively run softly through your fingers, tickle your nose, and clink richly in your ears. The characters meet you powerfully and really, to borrow a phrase from an editor of my acquaintance, “make you sit up and take notice.” Even mousy Sophie, before her transformation, is vivid.

Not that Joan Aiken lacks colour! This is not to the detriment of my beloved childhood hero. No. But where Joan Aiken privileges the warmth of her characters, Diana Wynne Jones features their spiciness. Joan Aiken has flawed characters, to be sure, and ones we dearly love, but Diana Wynne Jones has very few flawless characters. The sensory richness that comes with Howl’s Moving Castle is what I recall most powerfully about the story; the humanity of Simon and Dido is what lives with me after Battersea.

Now, I hope I’ve inspired you to try out a few of these books, so I have a limited time offer for you and your friends. I want to give you a book to read!

HERE ARE THE PARAMETERS! READ THEM!

a) I will, if you email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

Some Old Books

Dear fellow readers, I’m positively swamped. Just… swamped. But my head is full of books I want to share with you! So I’m going to put down a sentence about some oldies but goodies you can explore until I’m back. (I hasten to add: Things are GOOD busy. I’m getting writing done! Just… past-every-deadline busy.) These are books I’ve noticed a lot of Americans haven’t read, even among really deep, good readers, and they all fall into the “have you got a treat in store for you!” set of books.

These two come sort of as a set. They’re in the same world by Joan Aiken, who is one of my all-time favourite authors. We’ll talk more about her another day. While they’re loosely connected, they each can stand alone, and they’re short beauties. The prose is beautiful, but they’re very character-driven with powerful, lovable protagonists. You can read each of them in a day, or an evening, and I urge you, if you haven’t already, to do so.

Howl's Moving Castle.jpg

Diana Wynne Jones writes in the same tradition, I feel, as Joan Aiken. Her stories are deeply imbued with tradition, history, and folklore and fairy tales, but entirely, beautifully, richly original. Her protagonists are flawed, human, and lovable (I dare you to try not to love Sophie), and her prose wastes nary a word. Again, like Joan Aiken, she’s an author to learn from. I like to read good authors before I start writing, just to get the word-blood pumping, and Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones are good authors for that.

Wishing for Tomorrow.jpg

This one is a little more recent than Howl or the Joan Aiken novels, but it’s written in response to a true oldie but goodie: A Little Princess. Hilary McKay is an author to trust, so I trusted her and read this even though I’d never have read it if written by anyone else. After all, I thought suspiciously, what else is there to be done with A Little Princess now that the story is over? Who can finish it, truly? But then I thought the fatal question: “What happens next, after all…?” And, well, I read it. Well. What happens next is funny, poignant, and strangely beautiful. It’s a page-turner, because the side characters of A Little Princess come to the forefront here (Ermengarde, Lavinia, even the Miss Minchins become more lifelike), and you do want to know… what happens next to them? Note: Hilary McKay is too smart to try to write Frances Hodgson Burnett’s sequel. No, she writes her own, and it’s very safe to read it.

So there are a few books for you to enjoy until I can return to reading and writing about new releases! I have got my eye on more than a few I’m excited about– there’s a new Segio Ruzzier coming in March— but until now these old ones are probably new to more than a few of you, and they’re wonderfully well worth reading. In the meantime, talk to me in the comments or by email (deborah@childrensbookroom.com)! What are you reading?

Itch!

Hi, folks!

So, today’s post is a little unusual, and I’ll explain why.

(Don’t let this distract you from the review; scroll down a bit to read about the book– it’s a good one– if you want to skip the blog blatherings…)

You see, I pride myself on only ever reviewing books I find and love on my own or with the help of friends. I gladly take recommendations from any and all sources, but I don’t accept payment or recompense in any form for my reviews. This little blog is just me and my books, and that’s it!

But, I sometimes am asked, what if an author, editor, or publisher approaches you? That sometimes happens, and I treat it like any other recommendation: sure, sometimes they send me the book, and then I read it. Then I treat it like any other book: if I don’t like it, I keep quiet. And then there’s all the degrees of stuff that have to happen before I write about it. I have a ton of great books I’ve never told you about, you know, because if I tried to tell you about every good book then I’d have no time for anything else. And I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation, too. So, perforce, my selections are somewhat arbitrary– but only somewhat.

If a book is good but I have nothing I think I can add, analytically, then I probably won’t write about it. If I love it but don’t have time, I won’t write about it. But often, if I love it and have something to say about it and have time to write about it (increasingly short supply these days)– and if I feel the COMPULSION to write about it– why, then I’ll tell you about it.

That hasn’t happened before with a book I’ve been sent by the author, though– until today. She’s an author I happen to really like, so I was already intrigued, and she sent me her book, and I loved it a lot, and think I have what to say about it– and it gave me an opening to explain to you up here a bit about my policy on being sent books! So, yay, here we go– and now you know.

In sum: Feel free to contact me about sending me a book, I’d love to see it, but be aware that I’ll treat it like any other recommendation I may get. Don’t take it personally, and if I don’t review it– don’t assume that I didn’t like it. I may well have liked it a lot! I just was busy, didn’t have time, or didn’t have anything I felt that I personally could add in my review.

But today’s book? I loved it, I really want to tell you about it, and, gloriously, I have half an hour to start writing a post right now, with another hour later in the day to probably finish it! HURRAH!

Our book? Itch! by Anita Sanchez, illustrated by Gilbert Ford.

Itch!.jpg

You probably remember Anita Sanchez from the blog before. As I said, she’s an author I like a lot, and you’ve seen me write about her book with Charlesbridge, Karl, Get Out of the Garden! several thousand times before.

Itch! does something I love: it shows me another side of an author I already enjoy. I read and re-read Karl!, so I know she can do biography beautifully. I know she can write an advanced picture book which speaks to many levels of children, too. But I did not know that Anita could write an informative, intriguing, delightfully tactile-seeming advanced picture book/MG book about everything that makes you itch. But now I do!

I’m going to admit up-front that if it hadn’t been coming from Anita Sanchez, whose prose I knew I liked, I may have skipped this book. I don’t like itchiness, I’m squicked out by lots of insects, and my daughter’s in kindergarten so I’ve had enough of lice for a lifetime– believe me! But this book goes to show that stepping out of your comfort zone can be an excellent thing: I didn’t want to be provoked to scratch my head as I read, but my hands were so busy turning the pages that I barely scratched at all.

(There, Anita, is a blurb for you: “Deborah Furchtgott writes: ‘My hands were so busy turning the pages that I barely scratched at all!'” People, you can be sure that they don’t send me books for the blurbs…)

While it’s an evocative book, and, yes, you may feel an uncomfortable tickle as you read about tarantula setae, I assure you that it’s worth it to learn about the triple-decker sandwich that goes to make our skin, and the anesthetic properties of mosquito saliva. Who knew, right? Apparently, Anita Sanchez.

A word about the illustrations: my primary anxiety in receiving this book was that the illustrations would revolt me. As I said above, I don’t love insects, and I’m not into being grossed out or made uncomfortable for the hell of it. I have a pretty low threshold for being irritated by by insect illustrations, but I also really don’t like “cartoony” science illustrations; I like them to represent reality. (You know I love Charlesbridge, and my love of accuracy probably comes from my healthy respect for their rigorously researched books.) Gilbert Ford hits this balance perfectly. On the one hand, the illustrations of insects are pretty darned cute. I actually smiled at the mosquito, and I’m a Maritimer, so that’s the first time in my life I can say that. On the other hand, the science diagrams, such as the skin sandwich I mentioned above, are clear, well-organized, and the relevant bits are not at all cartoony (the skin sandwich is posed beside a pickle, yes, but the skin itself is a good representation of what we’re looking for). There are no distractions from getting nice, accurate information– while at the same time the illustrations aren’t too gross, and are amusing to the eye. (If you’re looking for gross… you may see things differently. Other reviewers have praised it for its grossness. Flip through the book, your mileage may vary!)

To me, this was a real learning experience– not just to figure out exactly why it’s been so difficult to get and keep lice out of my daughter’s classroom (Kindergarten parents: Read this book!), but also to learn that I can still broaden my mind into areas I may have expected to make me uncomfortable. I think this is a great introduction to entomology, botany, natural history in general, and the more hands-on medical sciences, and will help both parents and children avert some anxieties about what insects are, how they behave, and why they behave as they do. I highly recommend it for kids aged about 7 or 8 and up. Amazon says 7-10. I personally think you could go a fair bit higher in that range– 12- to 14-year-olds would love it, too, I’m positive.

And this is why it’s great to hear from authors directly sometimes! I don’t know anyone who knows me who would have handed me this book, but clearly that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy it or learn from it. I had a wonderful time reading it, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the Changeling when she grows older. Or maybe I’ll show her the section on lice now, so she understands what’s happening in her class! Knowledge, after all, is power.

Wakestone Hall

Folks, a miracle occurred this Channukah– after some months of limited reading time I did, in fact, read a book I bought! (I say this quietly so that the other books teetering on my bedside table don’t get jealous.) OK, when you get a book mailed to you from Australia, you actually do feel an obligation to spend a little quality time with it. I was looking after a dog for a bit, so Claire and I hung out for a few hours while she snored and I read Wakestone Hall.

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So I am now in a position to tell you that Judith Rossell brings this series to a strong, courageous finish. I love you too much to tell you too much more about the ending– it is, as the title page proclaims, an “intrigue,” so it really would spoil things if I gave away the ending, but I want to tell you a bit about what to expect, and why it’s worth paying the shipping costs from Australia. (Well, apart from the fact that the shipping is incredibly efficient, the book is beautifully produced, and if you’ve read the first two volumes then you know you can trust Judith Rossell to deliver a fine story.)

First of all, let’s chat about characters. I love characters who grow and develop and unfold in unexpected ways. Judith Rossell does this, but she does so with care, never letting the development happen too violently or leaving you blinking your eyes and wondering where the hell that outburst came from. Stella is brave and resourceful– but we know that as of Withering-by-Sea, so watching her courage develop is not unanticipated; her skills, as they grow, are just that– skills being exercised– not wonky changes that leave us wondering where the original Stella went.

I’m harping on about this because I think it’s a very tenuous line, drawing a believable character who nevertheless grows and changes. Not that a character has to grow to be believable and readable, either. Consider Dickens: his caricatures are quite as fascinating as his more “realistic” characters. Uriah Heep, for example, is as memorable or more so than, for example, Emily, or even David himself. Well, Wakestone Hall abounds in delicious characters who are crystallized in their own literary form: wait until you meet the Garnets, or Miss Mangan! They are (alas) unredeemable, but you don’t want them to be; they are as they are.

Judith Rossell is skillful enough to handle both styles of character, and these characters interact in a world both familiar and strange, old-fashioned yet startlingly original, magical but eerily realistic. As the reader, you get to know the characters and the world, and the plot is simply a byproduct of what must necessarily occur as these characters move through their world. Stella is not a girl who would let a cat cry outside her window without seeking to comfort it. Ottilie may be small, but her courage is big– of course she would seek help when– enh, I won’t say more. You’ll find out.

What I hope I’m conveying here is the organic, natural evolution of Stella’s character and her story. Yes, this is genre fiction, not “realist” fiction (whatever that may be– a debate for another day), but it unfolds as realistically and logically as Dickens or Tolstoy. Or as any other great children’s book– The Incorrigibles or Penderwicks or Cassons, or many other novels. Why not? The rules of the Stella Montgomery universe are there, and the author obeys them; isn’t that exactly what an author should do, magic or not?

I’ll sum up (I’m writing briefly today both to keep myself from spoiling the plot and because I need to bike home!): Judith Rossell has written one of the most compelling and believable fantasy narratives I’ve read lately. And I’ve read many good ones– so many that I feel a Fantasy Post coming on. This trilogy is exceptional, well worth ordering the final installment from Australia. The characters will live with you, the world and its environment are eerie and just a little too close to our reality to be entirely comfortable, and the plot will keep you turning the pages. Read them all, in order, and really– this note is directed to my husband– DO NOT skip ahead!

And if you do read them, please tell me what you think! Happy reading.