How to Make Friends with a Ghost

Dear Readers,

I am super swamped right now, so I’m going to try to be brief, but Hallowe’en is upon us and I simply couldn’t justify letting the holiday go by without recommending the one really good new Hallowe’en book I found this year (thanks for the tip, Mummy!).  I got it through my local children’s book shop, where, apparently, it’s been selling extremely well.  OK, to be honest, I first got the book at Type in Toronto (but I gave that copy away to someone who was lacking in good Hallowe’en books), then I got it through The Children’s Book Shop, and now I have another copy on the way to the Harvard Book Store because my little neighbour downstairs needs a copy, too, in my opinion.  So, basically, this is one of those books: the ones that just sort of become… around a lot.  After all, when you find a book you love, you want to share it with your friends.  But I am remiss!  I haven’t told you what book this is yet:

Today we’re looking at How to Make Friends with a Ghost, by Rebecca Green, who did the fabulous illustrations for The Glass Town Game, and is rapidly becoming a favourite illustrator of mine.

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In How to Make Friends with a Ghost, however, Rebecca Green shows that she not only has great skill and talent as an illustrator (working with a limited palette in gouache and coloured pencils), but she also is an accomplished writer.  She balances her text between humour and sweetness with a dash of spookiness and just enough grossness to make a youngster squeal a few times throughout the story (remember: don’t let your ghost be used as a tissue, because booger removal is never easy!).

In brief, this is a guidebook for how to make, and maintain, a friendship with a ghost.  It has an Introduction (how to find a ghost– hint: let the ghost find you), Part 1: Ghost Basics (Dos and Don’ts), Part 2: Ghost Care (feeding, activities, and bedtime), and Part 3: Growing Together (with tips such as making sure your new home isn’t haunted, because ghosts don’t like competition).  The structure is wonderful for taking what could be a really text-heavy book and breaking it down into bite sized chunks of valuable information, including advice from the well-known expert Dr. Phantoneous Spookel.  What’s ingenious, however, is how it still hangs together in a nice package, like any really well-written guidebook.

But while everyone I’ve spoken to has enjoyed the journey through the book (the recipe for Floating Spaghetti and Mudballs is generally popular– although, warning, I sort of gagged while reading it!), the universal response is, and I paraphrase: “I really didn’t expect that ending.”  And I’m about to spoil that ending for you, so if you care about that sort of thing, stop reading here.

Ready?

You see, this is a guidebook to a lifelong friendship with a ghost: it gives tips and recipes and suggests activities, but, in a nutshell, it also covers the enduring nature of friendship with a ghost– unto death and beyond.  The ending is so touching, in fact, that I choked up reading it.

In itself, I wouldn’t really find the presence of death in a picture book too startling: I’m not too sensitive to that sort of thing so long as it’s handled appropriately, and Rebecca Green handles it with sensitivity, grace, and even humour.  No child would be disturbed by it, and many might learn from it.  (I wonder if she read the section on the death of the squirrel in Moominland Midwinter?  That was also handled beautifully.)

In fact, while she did a beautiful job of that, what I really admired was the more universal message of friendship through old age.  Take this line, accompanying the picture of the ghost’s friend grown old: “And even if you can’t remember jokes, your ghost can.  It will be there to make you laugh.”  That’s the part where I choked up.  I remembered visiting elderly friends and relatives, some whose memories had started to slip, and I remembered talking with them about favourite books, and I remembered laughing with them.  Those are memories I wouldn’t trade for anything, and I love the thought that in this book for children there’s a message about the value of friendship even through old age and beyond.

Sure, this might be a simple, funny story smiling at its own improbability (I hate to break it to you, but you’re unlikely to find a ghost, especially one who’ll become a real, lifelong– and beyond– companion).  More than that, it’s a message about enduring friendship, and sharing kindness throughout one’s life.  And it conveys that without ever, at any point, saying, “It’s a kind and charitable act to visit the elderly.”  That?  That is truly accomplished writing.

So, folks, this Hallowe’en, why not snuggle up with a slightly spooky, slightly macabre, and very sweet story?  Go forth and purchase yourself a copy of How to Make Friends with a Ghost!

Other Hallowe’en books you might enjoy: Hallowe’en Trio.  Or why not go for a creepy read for older children (MG, but, well, you’ll love it, too!): The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.  And if you have any great spooky books for Hallowe’en in your arsenal, share them in the comments!

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The Glass Town Game

This post took me longer to write than usual.  Mostly because this book took me longer to read than usual.  Partly that would be because I read it at a family gathering in Toronto where I knew I’d be unable to write my dissertation, and it’s a long book (535 pages).  Since I was at this gathering I didn’t have the unlimited time to really plunge into a story the way I used to.  I had to pick my times and read a few pages here and a few pages there in between other tasks and visits.  (Aside 1: I really did enjoy the family gathering.  It’s just that it did cut into my reading time.)  (Aside 2: When I was a kid and I saw grown-ups reading like that I was totally appalled; how could you put down Harry Potter without just reading it straight through?  Now, I’ve become one of those appalling adults myself.  So it goes.)

But the other reason I was reading so slowly is because this is a book which asks you to think.  Don’t get me wrong: this is a fun, MG novel and it’s easy to get caught up in the plot and, particularly, in the characters– I’d have enjoyed reading it straight through in a gulp when I was a kid.  But it’s also a thinking book, and reading a thinking book slowly has its advantages.  To be honest, I actually considered reading it through a second time before writing it up, but you all need to know about it NOW, not whenever I’m able to get through a second reading.

And so, now that I have read it through and thought it through, let’s talk about The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Rebecca Green.  (Hint: we’re going to see more of Rebecca Green shortly.)

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Folks, this is absolutely one of the best MG novels I’ve read since… oh, probably since Fairyland.  (Yes, we’ve already noted many times over that I have a tendency to fangirl over Cat Valente.)  It’s filled with what I consider traditional features of Cat Valente’s writing, including her fascinating tendency towards allusiveness, her beautiful prose (if I could figure out how she combines such lyricism with a fun, conversational tone I’d be a very happy lady), and, perhaps most strikingly, her innovative, distinctive characters, each with a unique and believable voice.  In other words, the quality of the book is very much in line with what you expect from Cat Valente.  What stands out in this book and makes it different from all other Valente books I’ve read is really in the subject matter.  Whereas Fairyland and Deathless, for example, are well-researched books in their own rights, they derive from a mishmash of sources.  Glass Town, by contrast, while it does have its diverse sources (I defy you to identify every allusion to English, and, to an extent, French, literary, military, and scientific history in the book), is largely faithful to one work: the Brontë children’s games.

“Games?” I hear you ask.  I know, I too, was stunned to hear that the Brontë children were engaged in extensive and in-depth imaginative games together, games which they wrote about in detail.  I was even more stunned to learn that there has already been a children’s book published about the children and their games, The Return of the Twelves, which I briefly wrote about over here: Saturdays.  I’m not going to go into the history of those games here, as I’m no expert on the subject, but I will point you to Cat Valente’s article describing what those games were like, and how a modern audience might understand them: The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente  Read it, please.  I’ll be here when you’re done.

Ready?  Good.

Now that we know a bit more about the children’s games and the children themselves (believe me, I’m thrilled that Branwell and Anne get some stage time as well as Charlotte and Emily), let’s talk a bit about what happens in the book.  Without giving too much away, what happens is that the children, traumatized as they are by the terror of returning to the school which effectively killed their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, somehow end up in the world they had created: a world containing Glass Town, Gondal, Angria, and all the other regions and bits and pieces they’d imagined into being.  And among those “bits and pieces” are the inhabitants of Glass Town and its environs, particularly the twelve wooden soldiers who were their favourite toys at Haworth (the home of the Brontës) and were effectively the conduits for the children’s imaginative games.  All of them had names (Crashey, Gravey, Rogue, etc.) and all were alive and real in Glass Town.  The children, of course, were the odd ones out in this world: in Glass Town, everyone was of something, whether wood or cloth or metal or books or something else entirely, and the children, being of flesh and blood, were called “Breathers,” and, having invented this world, now had to learn how to live in it and work with its rules.

But the incredible cast of characters isn’t limited to the twelve soldiers.  No.  If you read Cat Valente’s essay (linked to above– but you did read it, didn’t you?), then you’ll know just how amazingly detailed these games were, and, yes, Cat weaves in a huge assortment of the characters the children invent or people they encountered in their lives, including editors (Mr. Bud and Mr. Tree), Napoleon and Wellington (whose conflict is at the heart of the novel), Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Young Soult the Rhymer and so forth.  In true Cat Valente form, as these characters are formed, form themselves, and form the book, I can’t quite tell what is historical, what is derived from the children’s writings, and what is hers: it’s all been stewed together over the fires of her imagination until it has become something wonderful and original, but, again, without ever losing the true Brontë flavour at the heart of the text.  There is a source at the heart of this book, and that’s the Brontë’s writings, and she remains fully, wholly faithful to that source.

To step back from the analysis a bit, I just want to tell you that I can’t remember the last time I savoured a book so completely, read it as slowly and carefully as I could so as to glean the sense from each word and each sentence.  And I can’t remember a time I encountered a MG novel so wholly trusting of its audience.  Is Branwell bad?  (Oh man, I could write a whole other post comparing him to Edmund in Narnia, but I’ll spare you my thoughts on that for now.)  Is he a traitor?  Is Napoleon the Bad Guy and Wellington the Good Guy?  What do we make of Anne’s favourite: the young princess Victoria?  Cat doesn’t tell you what to think at all.  She trusts her readers, young and old, to engage in conversation with the Brontë children and see what they think for themselves.

In other words, folks: when you get a chance, read this book.  Choose a time when you think you’ll really be able to lose yourself in its prose and characters and ideas, and then surrender to the pleasure of just reading, as you did before you grew up and became a poky adult with responsibilities.

Warning: it’s a bit compulsively shareable.  I’ve already purchased four copies because I keep giving them away so as to increase the chances of having someone else to talk to about it.

They All Saw A Cat

I’ve been running this blog for a while now, and I love writing on it.  When I get a chance to write in between deadlines, I’m always thrilled.  One thing I love is that perfectly poised moment in time before I choose a book to write about.  I ask myself the question: What do I love so much I can’t not write about it?  And there are always a million and four books which pop to mind before the choice plops into my head.  And then there are days like today.  Days when I’m forcefully reminded of the world outside of my deadlines and my family and my blog– days when I’m reminded that All Is Not Well.  I won’t go into all of the news of the past few days– but the devastation around us can’t be ignored: the hurricanes, the strained relations with other countries, the shooting.  How do we respond to these crises, beyond opening our hearts and our hands and giving where we can?  How do we learn to relate to them without either trying to ignore the bad news or crumbling into a depressed and anxious mass?

Warning: this is a slightly irritable post because I am anxious and scared about the state of the USA right now.  I’m also writing from a café, without really editing properly, so please be aware that I’m writing off the top of my head slightly, and cut me some slack accordingly, please.

I am probably the world’s worst person to give advice on such matters:  my usual response is either to stop checking the news or, as after the Sandy Hook school shooting, which happened when I was pregnant, I collapse.  Today I thought I’d try something different.  I thought I’d seek wisdom in my considerable library of excellent books: was there something in there which would help me attenuate my fear and anxiety without repressing the ugly truth?

I was reminded of the book my Changeling and I were reading last night before bed: They All Saw a Cat, by Brendan Wenzel.  (This is his first book, I believe, which makes me rather jealous– it’s a beautiful first effort!)

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This is an ingenious little book, where we see the cat walking through the world with his whiskers, ears, and paws, and then we see how each of the creatures the cat encounters, from a child to a goldfish to a bat, sees the cat differently.  The cat, we are reminded, is always himself, with his whiskers, ears, and paws, but a dog will see him one way while a bird will see him another way.  And, in the end, we’re asked to imagine how the cat sees himself.

There’s more than a little reminiscence of Kipling in here (“But still I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”), but the perspective isn’t the cat’s, whom I can imagine saying, “The dog sees me as a ranging danger, but still I walk through the world with my whiskers, ears, and paws.”  No, the perspective isn’t even the dog’s, who might say, “There walks my enemy the cat with his whiskers, ears, and paws.”  The perspective is the omniscient third person narrator’s, which is to say, our author-illustrator, which is to say, the one creature who sees how we all see differently: bat, earthworm, and snake.

Remember, this is not a “Charlesbridge book,” it’s a “Chronicle Books book.”  What do I mean by that?  I mean that the publication style is different.  If this had been published by Charlesbridge it would have had back matter including lots of excellent information about how different creatures see things differently, coming from a scientific point of view.  There would have been a page of resources for children and one for instructors.  It would have been an excellent book in that way, and you’d know that the very best fact-checking had gone into each illustration.  (I love Charlesbridge, people.)

Coming from Chronicle Books, however, it has none of that– and, in this particular case, I don’t feel the lack.  (I did read a review where one reader did lament the lack of back matter, but I disagree.)  The book, as it comes to us from Chronicle Books, is instead about the subtler message of our own perspectives: how do we all see things differently, and what does that mean?  Just as I can imagine two different publishers handling the same manuscript in two different ways which would have produced two radically different books, and each would be a valid take– well, our narrator sees how all different creatures can see the same animal, a cat, in all different ways, each valid to his own experience, and we come away with a kind of “hodgepodge” cat of different perspectives.  And we wonder, further, how does the cat see himself?

Leaving it here, you might be thinking, “Deborah, this all sounds terribly flaky and, frankly, like you’re saying that everyone’s perspective is valid– no matter how violent and awful it might be.  And didn’t you start out saying that you lamented the violence and awfulness out there?”

Trust in Chronicle Books, my friends.  Have a little faith.  (I love Chronicle Books, too.)

No, this isn’t a primer in what we might describe as moral relativism.  This is simply a book about how we all see a cat– and how that cat sees himself.  If there’s a deeper message to that, it’s not about moral relativism; it’s about empathy.  The book doesn’t tell us “Everyone’s position is valid,” but, very simply, “How does this creature see this other creature?  Can I understand him?”

For example, I am deeply and profoundly convinced that the dog’s perspective on our cat is WRONG.  That dog is completely off in every imaginable way.  But when my heart is finished flooding with anger over the dog’s essential wrongness, I am capable of absorbing what his perspective is, and I know the breadth and the limits of that perspective.  What does it teach our children when we read this book together?  The hope is that it teaches them the following: “This dog sees the cat as dangerous, and he’s scared of it.  He’s also incorrect because I know that cat isn’t dangerous.”  That might lead us to wonder, “Is there a way to help attenuate his fear of the cat?”

Maybe.  That’s the hope.

I could go on into a discussion of how adults could apply these lessons– how I intend to apply these lessons– but let’s stick mostly to children and general lessons here, and refrain from wandering into the sticky region of gun laws, etc.  And I think the general lesson here is to remember the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would be treated yourself.  Think of their fears as you think of your own fears.  This doesn’t mean you have to accept their positions, but it does remind you of their humanity.  And a child who remembers that is less apt to smack a friend and take her truck away; we can extrapolate how an adult who absorbs these lessons might behave.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of being told either: “You have to accept this other person’s perspective because it’s equally valid,” which feels irritating and, frankly, stupid; or “Fear and hate anyone who is Other,” which sits badly with my bleeding-heart Canadian liberalism.  I’m sick of it all, and I want a new perspective.  Brendan Wenzel recommends standing back, taking a deep breath, and absorbing others’ perspectives.  Well, I think it’s worth a try, isn’t it?  How do we cope with the depth of destruction going on around here?  We remember that our fellows are our fellows, and we try our best to treat them with respect, even when we violently disagree about the path forward.

If you think this sounds a little simplistic and airy-fairy, that’s fair criticism.  I’m arguing that with myself, too.  But remember that my particular argument here is how to respond to tragedies without either collapsing under the nastiness or denying it.  And, yes, I think that remembering that we’re all in this together is at least the first step forward.   Arguing comes next.

These are just some quick thoughts, top-of-my-head style, but thank you, Brendan Wenzel, for the reminder to think and feel with others– and ultimately to come back to: How does the cat see himself?

(But the dog is wrong.)

That other post…

I wrote a beautiful post earlier on.  In it, I told you that when I was really little I had a Thing about fairy tales.  I read all of them that I could, and I even, when I was about eight, tried to track the development of different versions of fairy tales from culture to culture, and to figure out whether they sprang up independently of each other or whether they travelled from one place to another.  I was, in a word, somewhat obsessed.  I was also rather smug: I thought that no fairy tale could surprise me, given how well-read I was.

Hah.

Take a look at this, Snow White by Matt Phelan:

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Yes, in that other post I told you that this book came out a year ago and it surprised and delighted me to such an extent that I’m completely unable to account for why I let a year pass by without telling you about it.  (Well, that’s not completely true.  I’m kinda busy with my dissertation, but, well.  All the same.  Mea culpa.)

In that other post I went on to tell you about what made this book so special and distinctive.  I told you that it was a graphic novel set around and about 1928, and that it had a distinctly film noir vibe and beautiful art.  In fact it’s so beautiful that part of me wishes that it were in a larger format so that I could display it on the coffee table I don’t have.  Or maybe it could be made into an actual film noir-style movie somehow?  Basically, I want to wrap myself up in the art in some fashion or other.  In the meantime, while I’m figuring out how to get this art onto highway billboards in place of pointless ads for fast food joints, let’s enjoy its current format for Middle Grade readers, who will enjoy its sleek sophistication (the website recommends it for Grade 5+, which is about right).

This is the point in that other post where I explained to you how exactly Matt Phelan had gone about transposing the story of Snow White into Depression-era New York City.  I explained how all seems well for little Samantha, nicknamed Snow by her loving and beloved mother and her wealthy businessman father, until her mother dies (probably of tuberculosis, since we’re shown her coughing up blood), her father marries the “Queen” of Ziegfeld Follies, and Snow is sent away to school.  By the time she gets back, her father is mysteriously dead (after her stepmother had given him a nighttime drink– the first hint of her affinity for poisons), and her father’s lawyer is explaining that, a few weeks before he died, her father had changed his will so that he left the greater part of his property to Snow when she turned eighteen.  This, naturally, puts Snow’s life in danger, so she runs away, only to be rescued by a band of street boys who call themselves the Seven (they refuse to give their real names… at that time).  After she fails to have Snow killed by Mr. Hunt, the stepmother turns to her poisons again, and, disguising herself, gives Snow a poisoned apple.  Unable to rescue her in time, the Seven place her in a window display at Macy’s where a detective finds her and pronounces, “I’ve seen a lot of stiffs, McChesney.  And that’s not one of them.”  He wakes her with a kiss (chastely, on the cheek), and she, the Seven (who have now told her their names), and the detective live happily ever after.

In that other post, I told you that what was interesting about this book wasn’t just the transposition from traditional fairy tale to Depression-era New York City.  It was the whole work of art, and I think we can almost refer, in this case, to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk: the art, the lettering, the text, the colouring… the whole shebang is thought out and executed beautifully.  (Yes, I really want it to be made into an animated film…)  Let’s take a look at an example of what makes this book so distinctive.  I want to start with the limited text, and for that we’re going to take a look at a not-so-great picture of this two-page spread (I highly recommend that you buy the book in order to get a better view of what we’re talking about!).

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Note that we have no word balloons here.  Yes, there are sound effects: the “click” of the key in the lock, the “shhh” of the knife being withdrawn from the knife block– but there’s no actual dialogue.  Now, in that other post, I indicated to you that this left the speech to the thousands of words expressed by the images, and we chatted for a bit about how in the original fairy tale the heart in question was usually a deer or pig’s heart, but here we have no idea where the heart comes from… and Matt Phelan isn’t telling.

We also talked, in that other post, about the art.  I mentioned the loose, deceptively easy lines and how they reminded me of Edward Ardizzone and Charlotte Voake, but a bit more grown up in feeling, and we talked at length about the limited palette.  The black and white with every shade of grey (Matt Phelan worked in pencil, ink, and watercolour) are remarkably flexible in his hands: in the beginning, as Snow plays with her mother, they’re gentle and muted and dreamy; they become moody and mysterious after her mother’s death; and they become frankly frightening as he zooms in on her stepmother’s furious eyes or the harsh geometric lines of her angry profile.  I’m having a hard time thinking of another illustrator who can make such limited colours and lines cover such a range in a single book.

If the black-and-white images can do a lot, however, the colours do even more.  First, it’s the colour red: Snow’s cheeks are rosy from playing outside, but we’re soon shocked to see the red of the blood her mother spits out.  All is dark again until we see the bloody heart at the butcher’s, and the red of the poisoned apple.  We’re once again plunged into unrelieved darkness until Snow is behind the glass at Macy’s: and then we have our first new colour, a delicate, ethereal blue-washed background.  The colour deepens as Snow wakes, and then, finally, as we look in on her new home, we get full colour, like Dorothy in Oz.  It’s warm, light, slightly vintage in feel, but after the pages of darkness it suffuses the story, even without words, with a sense of home.

As for the ending?  In that other post I told you the happily ever after was a little ambiguous: Snow ends up taking in the Seven, and she ends up with the detective, but it’s not quite clear if they’re married or just courting.  He does bring her flowers (as I forgot to tell you in that other post).  The ending is warm and satisfying, especially as the stepmother has met an end I won’t tell you about.  You need the element of surprise to fully appreciate it.  (She doesn’t dance to death in red hot shoes.)

In that other post I told you that I thought this book merited a place of honour, right beside Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White on one side and Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell’s The Sleeper and the Spindle on the other– which, in the other post, brought me to the revelation that I actually had encountered quite a number of surprising fairy tale books, more than I had previously thought.

I really wish you could have read that other post.  I thought it was pretty good and it told you about an amazing book.  You should really check it out.

Just to let you know…

If you’re subscribed to me, you’ll have gotten an empty email with the headline “Snow White.”  That’s because I wrote a beautiful, insightful post about a book I was really hoping to share with you– and when I pressed “Publish,” WordPress ate it all up.  It poisoned my post and shut it in a glass coffin, and apparently I’m not a handsome prince because when I tried to kiss it (i.e. searched the entire site and cajoled it nicely), it didn’t wake up.  It’s gone.  Sorry about that!

I just wanted to let you know why you got an empty email, but check back later!  I may (if I have time) try to rewrite this.

Let’s hope this posts…

Saturdays

Do you have a special reading time?  I do.  I mean, I read a lot– it’s kind of my job, along with writing about what I read, but what I read tends to be abstruse scholarship on fourteenth-century poetry, or the fourteenth-century poetry itself.  While I love doing that, the result is that by the end of the week my brain sometimes feels like oatmeal porridge without even maple syrup to sweeten it.  Then Saturdays come along.

Saturdays are Shabbat for me (the Jewish Sabbath), and, as such, computers are off, cell phones are off, and my work is put to the side.  That means that I usually have a few hours (when the Changeling is napping, for example) when I can pull out something and read.  My one criterion is that they must be novels I can swallow in a single day; I don’t have the patience or self-restraint to keep a book from Saturday to Saturday without reading it in between, so Saturday books are Single-Serving Saturday Books.  Often, that means middle grade or YA novels.  (Sometimes it means Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett.)  But since you might also be looking for some good, easy going reading material, let me list some of my Saturday reading for you:

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Rumer Godden (I’m linking you to a fascinating obituary of her in The Independent) is one of my favourite authors to read on Shabbat.  I’m afraid I’ve run out of new-to-me books available from The Children’s Book Shop, but I spent some very happy hours with Miss Happiness and Miss FlowerLittle PlumThe Fairy Doll and The Story of Holly and Ivy.  There are more, but they’re harder to access.  All of those I read are decidedly quick reads, with a lot going on beyond the pages of the books.  All are about dolls, but these are not your garden variety sweet dolls who sit still and think sweet thoughts of the sweet little girls who hold them.  There’s genuine anxiety embedded in these stories: will the children look after the dolls?  What happens if Belinda, for example, is naughty towards the dolls?  What if there’s a mismatch between doll and child?  The implications of these questions can go pretty deep: it’s up to the children because adults in these books aren’t always benevolent, and they don’t always make the right decisions.  If Belinda hadn’t been so left out, would she have been so naughty, we ask ourselves– and should the parents have been on the lookout for that eventuality?  Rumer Godden isn’t afraid to stick you with the tough questions at the same time as you skim right through her lovely prose.  I wish I’d read these as a doll-obsessed 9-year-old, but even at 30 I love to read about these dolls! (And, yes, I still love my own dolls: Beatrice being particularly dear to me.  Don’t tell on me, OK?  I’m pretending to be an adult.)

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Judith Rossell, author and illustrator of Withering-by-Sea, was something of a revelation to me.  I stumbled across Withering-by-Sea at Tidewater Books, the excellent little town bookstore in Sackville, New Brunswick.  I had run out of reading material, and they happened to have this delightful mixture of Gothic horror and dark magic on their shelves.  The novel, and its sequel, Wormwood Mire, tell the story of Stella Montgomery, a young girl who lives with her three dreadful aunts.  She escapes from their tyranny of propriety in reading a beautiful atlas, but one day has to leave it hidden in the conservatory.  When she goes to find it, she finds herself embroiled in something much darker, more complex, and more magical than she’d been bargaining for…  As she tries to protect herself and a mysterious glass phial from a dangerous magician, she meets not only terrifying villains, but loyal friends, including the spunky Gert (a dancer for the circus) and Ben, who teaches her something about herself… is she fully human, as she’d always thought, or are her aunts hiding something about herself and her family from her?  Wormwood Mire is a worthy successor to Withering-by-Sea: it raises a whole set of new characters (delightful, mysterious characters– although I did miss Gert and Ben) and new dangers.  Stella grows a little by the end, too.  Both are illustrated by the unfairly talented author of the novels, Judith Rossell, and I love knowing that the art really shows you what the author has in mind for the characters.  I impatiently await the third book, and warn you that if you start Withering-by-Sea, you, too, will go about mumbling, “But what about her parents?” and other questions I’ll let you discover by yourself.

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My dear and darling readers, and you’re all very dear and darling to me, this series is another one recommended by Terri at The Children’s Book Shop, who I’m beginning to think doesn’t have my best interests at heart.  I am hooked on The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood (begin with The Mysterious Howling), absolutely hooked.  I ration them out, Saturday by Saturday, but there are only five of them out currently, and I don’t know what I’ll do without them.  Like Withering-by-Sea, they play with Gothic elements and Victoriana, as reflected in Jon Klassen’s marvellous illustrations, but, also as reflected in the illustrations, they don’t take themselves at all seriously.  The story is of three children raised by wolves in the forest near Ashton Place and captured by Sir Frederick Ashton, the unbelievably wealthy heir to that family.  His young bridge, Lady Constance, hires Miss Penelope Lumley, recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, to be their governess.  Armed with Agatha Swanburne’s pithy sayings and her own good sense, Miss Lumley (“Lumawooo!” to the children) wades in with a will and takes the children under her wing.  These books touch with skill on certain problems (the plight of governesses, the poor of Victorian London, the incredible power of the aristocracy, etc.) without ever getting bogged down in the issues.  For example, the children’s vulnerability in Ashton Place is constantly at play, always acknowledged, but manages never to disrupt the lightheartedness of the novels.  I’ve laughed more while reading these novels than over any other recent book, but never without a twinge of sympathy for the parentless three children and Penelope Lumley.

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The last time I was in Brookline at The Children’s Book Shop I told Terri how excited I was about Cat Valente’s upcoming novel, The Glass Town Game.  A novel about the Brontë children?  I haven’t even got my hands on it and I’m positively twitching with excitement.  Terri agreed, and asked whether I’d read Pauline Clarke’s The Return of the Twelves (now sadly out of print, but there are plenty of copies around on the internet), also about the Brontë children.  I snaffled a copy from AbeBooks as soon as I could and as soon as Saturday came around I delved into 1962 Yorkshire, where young Max discovered a set of twelve little wooden soldiers who walked and talked and told him all about the four Genii who had played with them years ago.  Max gradually discovers that the four Genii were the Brontë children, and quickly falls in love with the soldiers himself.  Alas, scholars hover around menacingly, threatening to ruin his relationship with the little fellows.  It’s up to Max to see them march safely to Haworth to be protected from being whisked across to America, where they certainly don’t belong.  The novel moves at a beautifully measured pace, and instead of focusing on the next dramatic event it allows the character and personality of each person in the novel (including the soldiers) to come through fully and completely.  I loved it, and my appetite is thoroughly whetted for Cat Valente’s contribution to the world of children’s novels about the Brontës, which is apparently a bigger pool of literature than I’d previously thought!

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The last novel I’m going to talk about here is The Invention of Hugo Cabret by the brilliant Brian Selznick.  Remember his book The Marvels?  I kinda liked that one, so when I was in a pinch between Wormwood Mire and before I was introduced to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, I got Hugo Cabret.  Here’s the thing: It took me a long time to get around to reading it.  First of all, I was worried I wouldn’t love it as much as Marvels, and I couldn’t bear to be disappointed.  (A perfectly stupid worry– a) trust Brian Selznick, and b) Terri promised me it was as good or better.)  The second worry was that I wouldn’t be able to read it in one go– it’s a thick book!  But here’s the thing: a huge proportion of the book is devoted to Brian Selznick’s glorious illustrations which interleave his equally glorious text, and make the story move along very quickly indeed.  I read it in a couple of hours, maximum, and that was without hurrying.  I remember struggling with giving a sense of the book without betraying the story with Marvels, and I have the same issue right now.  Suffice to say that it follows a boy named Hugo Cabret as he strives to resolve his pain at the tragedies he’s undergone and form a new life for himself.  He has to learn to open up to the few people who can help him and take cautious steps out of his own shell into the new world opening up to him.  It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful book, both physically and emotionally, and if there’s one author who I really think is doing something new in modern novels, it’s Brian Selznick.  The intersection of art and text is closer in his books than in any since the illuminated manuscript.

And so, dear readers, this list should provide enough books to keep you occupied for a few Saturdays.  And what about you?  Do you have special “you” reading times?  What’s engaging you now?

The Golden Age

Today’s post is brought to you by a rather severe bout of insomnia last night.  My apologies both for length and for any incoherence as a result; I got a little carried away.  But I think you’ll love this book, so I’m posting it anyway.

The last time I was at the Library of Alexandria II– by which I mean, of course, The Children’s Book Shop, I had an interesting chat with the owner about the life of a bookseller and book shop owner.  It sounded to me half exalted fun of the highest order, and half a life of such anxieties whereof a brain surgeon or a nuclear physicist knows nothing.  Our chat being concluded, I walked away with, among other treasures, this little book: The Golden Age, by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard.  I’m not linking you to anything, because you really do want to make sure you get a copy illustrated by Shepard, and I can’t find a decent link to that.  Just promise me you’ll get a properly illustrated edition, not the first random result Amazon throws up for you.  Go to a good independent bookstore and ask for their help finding the right thing.  I mean, just look at this lovely cover:

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Now, I first came across The Golden Age in a reference Neil Gaiman made to it years ago on his online journal– this is the entry in question.  It’s not much, but it doesn’t take much to intrigue me.  In particular, I was caught by the line: “[…] The Golden Age and Dream Days, Grahame’s beautiful, gentle tales of Victorian childhood, are long forgotten.”  Forgotten golden days of Victorian childhood?  What an appealing vision!  For several years, that was all I knew about it: I never ran into a copy at any book shop or library, and, I confess, busy with my work, I didn’t seek it out.  And then, chatting with Terri at the Children’s Book Shop, I was saying something like, “I think I really need a collection of stories to read, not a novel, something I can put down easily while I’m writing, but can pick up and read a page or two here and there when I have time…”  And then I glanced over, our eyes met, and The Golden Age whispered, “Here I am!”

So, I bought it, and I’ve been slowly reading it over the past few weeks, doling out paragraphs and pages and stories like particularly good chocolates you want to savour a bit at a time.

And what do I think of those “beautiful, gentle tales of Victorian childhood”?  Well, here’s the thing.  I’d still like to read them, because I haven’t yet.  I loved the book I read, and I adore and even revere Neil Gaiman, but I don’t think that he and I read the same book.  In fact, I’d go so far as to ask whether the book I read was even a children’s book.

An aside here: Kenneth Grahame’s (currently) more famous book, The Wind in the Willows might be a children’s book (it is), but I think it’s a children’s book which should come with a requirement that it be re-read at least once after the child reader has grown to adulthood.  I think the same thing is true of everything I’ve read by Eleanor Farjeon (author of The Little Bookroom, and, well, she’s the person I want to be when I grow up).  So, it’s possible that a book require reading both as a child and an adult.  But my question is whether The Golden Age even be a good read for a child, or at what age it becomes a good read.  (Caveat as expressed in two old posts: Ages and Why I don’t mention them oftenToo young, too old)

So, with all those asides tickling the corner of our minds, let’s return to the question: Is The Golden Age a children’s book?  By the same token, and on a somewhat related note, are they “beautiful, gentle tales of Victorian childhood”?  Let’s go through the reasons “yes” and “no” for each.

First of all, let’s have a think about the world our stories are set in.  Here: think about Rey after leaving Jakku looking out of the Millennium Falcon at her first sight of Takodana: “I didn’t know there was so much green in all the galaxy,” she breathes, face filled with wonder.  (Yes, I’m mixing my genres.  I have my reasons.  My reasons might possibly include affection both for children’s literature and Star Wars.)  The Golden Age is like that: lush green, pastoral– I might go so far as to say idyllic.  It’s the kind of world you think about as being purely English: the creeping green mist which fills the world of The Secret Garden in the spring, the greenery of which the Greenwitch is built in Greenwitch, and Mr. McGregor’s garden in Peter Rabbit all come to mind.  Maybe J. J. Abrams was on a British literature kick when he wrote that line; I haven’t yet had the opportunity to ask him.  But The Golden Age definitely belongs to a long line of lush, pastoral books set in the British countryside.

Of course, The Secret Garden also deals with everything from an outbreak of cholera to a neglected and overprotected boy-turned-invalid (and I haven’t even mentioned Mary); Greenwitch fights off the Dark with the overwhelming and impersonal powers of the natural world who care nothing for good or evil and threaten to overrun the entire human world; and Peter Rabbit narrowly escapes being baked into a pie.

Idyllic?  Maybe not.

I mentioned Rey before.  Young and relatively innocent, if no fool, she’s thrilled to see greenery in a new part of the galaxy.  That is, the adventure is thrilling until, not long after, she touches Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, it calls to her, and she finds herself unwillingly propelled into a war she hadn’t thought was hers.

Idyllic?  Definitely not.  But then we don’t expect an idyll in Star Wars, you might remind me.

True enough.  But then why do we expect an idyll, or gentleness, from the author of The Wind in the Willows?  Is it the greenery, the livestock, the rabbits, the sweetness of an English spring?  And is it really gentle?

Answer: No, not really.  Don’t get me wrong: there is beauty, and there is some gentleness.  There’s a darling story, for example, of the youngest girl out playing with her two dolls.  She can’t get them to sit together quite right, and finally a dog springs out and seizes one of her dolls and runs away.  But, we’re given to understand throughout, that doll had thoroughly deserved its fate: it was a most badly-behaved Japanese boy-doll who had been mercilessly, well, to be blunt, hitting on the proper English girl-doll, even harassing her by tumbling over face-first into her lap– the horror!

Or think of another story where the eldest of the brood, Edward, finds he has a passionate affection for a little girl who lives nearby.  His brother, our narrator, is horrified by this crush and sets himself to seriously thinking through how to remedy matters.  The situation, however, is taken out of his hands when his Aunt Eliza carelessly mentions in front of the little girl how Edward is rather ungentlemanly in his dislike for girls.  The young object of Edward’s love takes the next opportunity to stick her tongue out at him in retaliation for his cruelty to her sex, thus shattering his love and causing him to break out into shenanigans such as smoking a deserted cigar he finds in the road.

Hilarious, yes, but gentle and beautiful?  Neil, if you’re reading this, I’d absolutely love to hear you defend your position: tell me how you think these stories are gentle.  (Also, if you’re reading this, Neil, I just want to tell you that I think your writing has made the world a better place, and I wish you continued success.)  In my view, gentleness is raised only to be continually crushed: in fact, the entire premise of the work is bloodthirsty.  There is continual combat between “the Olympians” (the grownups) and the children.  The children are tricksy and clever, but the Olympians have the advantages of rule and order.  Almost every story at some point revolves around disobeying the Olympians in another little battle over, say, the times tables or attending lessons.  And the great overarching anxiety of the stories?  Ah, well, that’s the onrushing of time… one day the children, too, will enter the realm of the Olympians.

All right, I think I’ve made my point that the stories aren’t so gentle.  But I also said above that I wondered whether they were even for children.  Why did I say that?  And, no, I don’t think it’s the bloodthirstiness: kids love that sort of thing.  But the end of childhood I mentioned above?  That might prove a bit mysterious and obscure to them.

Here’s the thing: I’m used to reading stories which reveal more and more as you grow older and older, but which are still children’s stories at heart.  The classic example is Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), but I tend to think of the Moomin stories (quaint stories about cute creatures when you’re a kid, but dealing with issues like depression and hypochondria from an adult point of view) or, yes, The Secret Garden (where does Mary disappear to towards the end?) in that regard.  So my question is whether The Golden Age fits into this category of story, or whether it’s altogether pitched to an older audience.  And my answer is that I’m just not sure.

I think it takes us back to my conversation with Terri at the Children’s Book Shop: What’s the life of a bookseller or book shop owner like?  Half joy at sharing books with others, with matching the right book to the right person; half anxiety upon the shoulders of other anxieties.  The right kid at the right age will probably find a lot to enjoy in The Golden Age: the pranks and games the kids get up to are amusing– playing at being Argonauts, sneaking out to try to find a battle to watch, and scaring their new tutor in the night by re-enacting a murder as they look for biscuits in the night.  And yet, so much of the humour of these stories lies either in obscure stories and Greek and Latin phrases, or else in the perspective of the adult in writing these stories: the inexorable motion of time in drawing the delights and dangers of childhood to an end, as the eldest boy, Edward, moves steadily closer to the day which will at last see him sent out to school.

So, what’s the final verdict on The Golden Age?  In case I hadn’t made it clear, this is a delightful book of stories, and you should absolutely read it.  What I’m not so sure of is whether it’s good bedtime reading for, say, a six-year-old.  Try it, maybe, with an 8-10-year-old instead.  Or just enjoy reading it by yourself first and make your own judgment.  Or do what my parents did with books– leave them scattered around and see what attracts your nosy children.  Kids have an almost unerring instinct for what book is right for them.

And if any of you do have a child who reads these stories, please tell me what they think.  I’d be fascinated to know.

What Color Is My World?

I know, I know.  I’m up against a deadline and I really have no time to spare.  But here’s the thing: I’ve had two very good writing days in a row, I firmly believe that writing begets more writing (of any kind), and, putting it bluntly, I knew I needed to write about this book so I could get the pesky blog post I was writing out of my brain and onto the computer screen.  So, deadline or no deadline, you’re getting a blog post, written quickly and unrevised.

What book was so steadfastly occupying a corner of my brain?  Well, do you remember back when I wrote about I, Too, Am America?  That same day I picked up another book on a whim.  I’ll be honest: I bought it because I was so fascinated that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (I’m linking you to an excellent article about him) had written a children’s book.  Also, it was published by Candlewick and Candlewick doesn’t publish crap.  But it sat unread for a while as I got caught up in other things and, well, I’ll be honest again: what if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had written a crappy book?  I was nervous I’d be disappointed.

Turns out I should have had a bit more faith.  As I said, Candlewick doesn’t publish crap, and I’m pretty sure Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is incapable of giving the world a poor performance.  (Caveat: I know nothing about basketball, but I hear he was pretty good at that as well as at writing.)  What Color Is My World?  by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld, illustrated by Ben Boos and A. G. Ford is intelligent, vibrant, and beautifully laid-out.

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Let’s start with a question.  Have you ever heard of James West?  Or Dr. Percy Julian?

Have you ever heard of Thomas Edison?

Which question(s) got a “yes” from you?  (If you say all three I will be super impressed and also feel a little stupid.  I had only heard of Edison.)

Here’s the thing: I had never heard of a single one of the inventors or innovators presented in this book.  Not one of them.  And we’re not talking about small potatoes!  Each person in this book deserves his or her place there: James West invented the microphone in your cell phone and Dr. Percy Julian synthesized cortisone from soy.  I bought this book on a whim, expecting to be entertained, perhaps, or expecting something that would help balance out the Changeling’s education in a few more years, and instead I found myself saying, “Wow, how did I never hear this story?” on every page.

And let me be clear: I should have heard of Dr. Percy Julian, for example.  And everyone who knows the names of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell should also know the name of Lewis Howard Latimer, who worked for both of them and was instrumental in the success of their work.  (In my defense, I’m afraid my knowledge of white inventors doesn’t extend much beyond Edison and Bell, but still: Latimer was clearly important.)

So how do Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld bring together so many disparate inventors and keep you turning the pages?  And how do they prevent such an educational book from turning into an encyclopedia?

The story is told through the eyes of twin siblings, Ella and Herbie, who are moving into a new house– but the house is old and needs a lot of work before they can move in. Herbie is a lovable nerd and his sister, Ella, is a sassy young lady.  Their mother finds a friend, Roger Edward Mital, to help fix the place up and while she’s out getting supplies, Mr. Mital enthralls the children by telling them stories derived from the commonest things around them.  Ella, of course, is initially reluctant to listen to Mr. Mital’s crazy stories, but is eventually sucked in as thoroughly as her brother.  (I think they’d be attractive to middle grade readers– Candlewick recommends the book for Grades 3-7, which sounds about right to me.)

As for Mr. Mital, he’s a veritable font of information.  Looking at a lightbulb leads him to Lewis Latimer, electricity leads him to Dr. Henry T. Sampson (inventor of the gamma electric cell), and mention of Edison leads him to “the Black Thomas Edison,” Granville T. Woods, inventor of the induction telegraph.

Each story is accompanied by a flap to turn: the front of the flap has the inventor’s name, picture, and invention, accompanied by “Ella’s Fast Facts,” a set of quick facts about the key moments in the inventor’s life.  The back of the flap tells the story in more detail.  The flaps are carefully laid out so as to be convenient without in any way derailing the story of Mr. Mital and the children.

The thing is, that could have been all, and it would have been a very nice book indeed.  Kids would be interested in Ella and Herbie and might be inspired by some of the inventors.  But there’s something else which permeates the book, and that’s passion.  These inventors, you can feel the book telling you, without ever interrupting the story, should be remembered.  They did great things for the world as we know it, and the authors are passionate about preventing them from being altogether forgotten.  More than that, and without preaching, they’re passionate about ensuring that children like Herbie and Ella should have role models to live up to: we’ve all had Edison and Bell, yes, but it’s time for Latimer’s name and picture to be up there, too.

I’m going to say something I don’t think I’ve said in any other post over here: I felt humbled by this book.  I didn’t expect a children’s book to have such an effect on me; at most I suspected I’d learn a new name or two.  Instead, I realized just how narrow and sterile and, well, white my knowledge of history was.  And if that’s the case in one field, I ask myself, what does that mean for my knowledge in other areas?  (OK, I think I have a pretty good handle on Wales in the fourteenth century, but that’s about it.)

In fact, I’m going to speak to parents as well as children here and say that if you want to challenge yourself, find a copy of this book.  You might just find that you learn something– about history, or about yourself.

Choosing Baby Presents

Dear Blog,

I know, I know– writing again so soon?  An embarrassment of riches, isn’t it?  Here’s the thing: a) I’ve found that writing here is very effective at getting my general writing muscles moving, which is good news for the old dissertation; b) I went to the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline today, which means that I’m bubbling over with inspiration.

Why was I in Brookline?  Well, you see, I have five babies who were either very recently born or are coming into my life imminently.  The Changeling’s birthday is also coming up soon, and I elected to give the four kids coming to her party books instead of loot bags (easier and more fun for me, and hopefully more lasting on the other end than the usual ephemera in loot bags).  So that meant I had nine people in my life in dire need of picture books.  Which means I basically got to go to the bookstore and have a complete blowout.  It was fantastic.  There’s no way that buying online would have been half as fun as browsing those shelves, seeing what was new, and recklessly adding everything that hit my “I love this” button to the pile.

And so, having recently exercised it, I want to share my baby-present-buying process with you.  First of all, is there an older sibling in the picture?  If so, I almost always give the family Here Babies, There Babies because I think it’s great for introducing a toddler or little kid to the wonderful world of babies.  Another book I like to give pretty much every family is A Child’s Garden of Verses, just because it lasts so well: it’s useful from babyhood up to reading it to your own baby.

But apart from those two staunch comrades there’s the rest of the world of books.  My philosophy of books for baby presents is to get books which will speak to the parent, because, well, honestly, anything you’re reading to a newborn you’re reading for yourself, really: the baby just wants to hear your voice.  I remember reading Eleanor Farjeon and Shakespeare to the Changeling.  She didn’t care, but it was fun for me and the cadence soothed her.  So get books the parents will like and will grow with the kid.  That meant that I got an animal-loving family Big Cat, little cat and Madlenka’s Dog, for example.  Another family is getting The Way Home in the Night.

Let’s take a look, though, at a few of the new-to-me books which struck me as being perfect for families to grow into together.

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Consider Emily’s Balloon by Komako Sakai.  The story goes like this: Emily gets a balloon, and she plays with the balloon all day.  When the wind blows the balloon into a tree, Emily is heartbroken.  She had planned to eat supper, brush her teeth, and go to bed with the balloon– what will she do without it?  Her mother promises they’ll get the balloon tomorrow, but Emily isn’t comforted until she sees the balloon is still in the tree waiting for her, gleaming like the moon.  It’s a tender, ever so slightly sentimental story of childhood love for something so simple as a balloon, but what hooked me was the wistful longing at the end: few children’s books dare to have such unresolved endings, leaving you on the note of her hope for tomorrow.  And then there’s the love between mother and daughter, too, perfect for a new mother to read.

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If you want something that sits right on the boundary between funny and sweet, then Love Is by Diane Adams and illustrated by Claire Keane is the book for you or that new baby in your life.  The illustrations tell the story of a little girl who finds a homeless duckling and raises it for a year, but the accompanying text can be applied to so much more.  It begins a bit more specifically: “Love is holding something fragile, tiny wings and downy head,” which nevertheless seems as applicable to a downy new baby as to a duckling, and carries on to the much more general, “Love is in familiar voices, feeling lost, and being found.”  Every line, however has something to tell us about love, both to the new parent and to the child.  I love imagining an older child reading it to a younger sibling, too.  And the funny pictures of the duckling’s antics will keep children of any age enthralled.

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This one isn’t going to be a baby present– it’s going to be an instead-of-loot-bag treat: Rain! by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Christian Robinson.  This is exactly the kind of story that’s perfect for Christian Robinson to illustrate: witty and clever with lots of room for the child’s personality to come out.  And he does a stellar job here.  We have two main characters: an elderly gentleman and a little child.  The grumpy gentleman is quite miffed with the rain, while the child is thrilled to get to be a frog in the rain.  The two go their own ways until they literally run into each other in the coffee shop, where the gentleman’s encounter with the child makes him rethink his approach to a rainy day.  Funny and sweet, I can’t wait to see how my Changeling’s friend enjoys it!  (Maybe I’ll read it to the Changeling first, just to give it a test drive– what do you think?)

So that’s how today’s shopping trip went.  How was your day?

And I just realized– there are three birthdays coming up, and all those kids need presents.  What could make a better present than a book?  I wonder what I could find…

Town Is by the Sea

Do you remember The White Cat and the Monk?  It’s possible you don’t, so I won’t mind at all if you take a moment to refresh your memory, paying particular attention to the wonderful illustrations by Sydney Smith.

Well, today I happened to have a few minutes to spare while I was waiting to meet a friend in Harvard Square, so I happened to saunter into the Harvard Book Store, and I happened to end up in the picture book section where I happened across this book: Town Is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by the said Sydney Smith.  And then I happened to find myself at the cash register, buying it.  That sort of thing happens to happen.

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Dear readers, I have so much work to do, but I couldn’t resist telling you about this book, so bear with me if I rhapsodize a little and turn a bit Canadian on you.  I’ll be brief.

Have you read any stories by Alistair MacLeod, the great Canadian novelist and short story author?  If you haven’t, I’m really, terribly sorry.  Start with any of his short stories– I remember enjoying his collection Island.  If you have, believe me when I say that if Alistair MacLeod had written a picture book, it would have been something like this one, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay anyone.  This book shares his literary qualities: it has the same beautiful blurring of light and dark, joy and sadness you find in his work: not something you normally expect to find in a children’s picture book, and requiring extra skill to navigate without completely bypassing a child’s comprehension.  Joanne Schwartz, originally from Cape Breton and now living in Toronto, has that extra skill.

Let me tell you a little bit about Town Is by the Sea.  First of all, it’s a Cape Breton story, dealing with the sea and with the coal mines.  It’s told from the perspective of a little boy running through his summer day: all day he enjoys the sun sparkling on the sea while his father is deep in the darkness of the mines.  There are moments of homelike peace (his lunch, the chicken stew for supper), and moments of childlike joy (swinging with his friend at the ramshackle playground).

And there’s poetry.  Take the opening: “From my house I can see the sea.  It goes like this– house, road, grassy cliff, sea.”  Read that aloud and tell me that Joanne Schwartz wasn’t paying some attention to the cadence of her words.  Apparently she’s a children’s librarian, and I swear it comes through; she has the ear of someone who’s read lots of children’s books aloud in her day.  That poetry of sound binds together the book, both the light of the boy’s day and the darkness of the father’s, and then, at the end of the day, the peace of the family sitting together, overlooking the sea.  Until the ending: “I think about the sea, and I think about my father.  I think about the bright days of summer and the dark tunnels underground.  One day, it will be my turn.  I’m a miner’s son.  In my town, that’s the way it goes.”

I swear I choked up when I was reading that to the Changeling.  Times turned and things changed, but, as the author’s note at the end of the book says, “Even into the 1950s, around the time when this story takes place, boys of high-school age, carrying on the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, continued to see their future working in the mines.  This was the legacy of a mining town.”  And we know how dark, grueling, and unhealthy that work was.

If the poetry of the language draws together the light and dark of the book, the illustrations both delicately highlight the distinctions and pull the book together into a harmonious whole.  Sydney Smith was the ideal illustrator for this task: his rough, sketchy style deliberately resists romanticizing the scenes he’s depicting, and his palette for the home scenes is even a little muted, I could even say drab– until he gets to the sea and the flowers at the grave of the boy’s grandfather.  Those stand out in warm colour.  The mining scenes, by contrast, are completely, unapologetically dark.  Black, relieved only by the light from the miner’s helmets.  And yet, even the muted home scenes and the black mines have a beauty under his brush (“ink, watercolor, and a bit of gouache,” according to the book’s notes).

Altogether, then, this is a book of genius.  This tender, but unrelentingly realistic, Canadian story is not just for Canadians, and I was thrilled to see it in a Boston store.  It’s a story for anyone who’s grown up by the sea, or loves the sea.  It’s a story for anyone who knows the grim story behind a coal mine.  It’s a story for any child who misses a parent at work.  It’s a story for anyone who loves to see the beauty emerge from a realistic story.  It’s Hard Times or North and South, but aimed at children.

My recommendation?  Grab some Alistair MacLeod for yourself and a copy of Town Is by the Sea for your children, then go for a vacation to Cape Breton, or, if you can’t make it to Cape Breton, a seashore of your choice.  And then lie on the sand and read.  Enjoy.

(Note: This book was way too old for the Changeling, who’s nearly four years old, although she enjoyed it.  I just read it to her because I wanted to read it aloud and hear the words sing.  I think six or seven might be a better age for this book, or, of course, just read it for yourself.  I’m thirty, and it was perfect for me!)