Tags: children's lit


Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

The first Ivy + Bean book, which I did not find nearly as enchanting as I hoped. Ivy and Bean are just such - twerps, I think is the only word for it; the crowning moment of the book is when they throw worms in Bean’s sister’s face, and you know, I have an older sibling, and he could be very frustrating when I was seven, but somehow I managed to refrain from throwing worms in his face.

On a cheerier note, I also read Thomas Mallon’s Yours Ever: People and Their Letters, which is absolutely charming. I love letters and books about letters and letters between famous people, and Mallon packs lots of characterization into his brief portraits of these famous letter-writers.

Of course it helps that the letter-writers are so very characteristically themselves: Byron, for instance, bragging of his “Don Juan,” “Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world? - and fooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney-coach? in a gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis-a-vis? on a table? and under it?” He probably expired filled with dismay that he never managed to do it in a hot air balloon.

Or Richard Nixon, paranoid, thin-skinned, obsessed with his legacy. His neediness is actually rather touching, at least as long as you don’t think about the fact that he had the power to turn that thin-skinned paranoia into quite a lot of damage.

What I’m Reading Now

I’m reading Blinky Bill, which is Australia’s answer to Beatrix Potter. Like Beatrix Potter, it is full of adorable pictures of anthropomorphized animals looking cute, and also like Beatrix Potter, when you actually read the text you discover that the adorable animal illustrations are a thin veneer over ANARCHY. Blinky Bill is forever narrowly escaping death and also accidentally (or not-so-accidentally) squashing other critters and there is nary a moral in sight.

I don’t know about Blinky Bill’s reputation in Australia, but it occurs to me that Beatrix Potter, like early Disney, has a reputation for treacliness that is totally at odds with the actual content of her stories. Maybe it’s just because we associate these stories with early childhood and assume that they must therefore be sweet and anodyne.

What I Plan to Read Next

Well, I’m giving the second Ivy + Bean book a go. We’ll see if it’s an improvement.

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Picture Book Monday: Square Cat

I almost mended a copy of Olivia today, but at the last minute we decided its condition was too poor for repairing, so into the recycling it went. :( Hopefully another Olivia will show up soon; I really want to read this book.

I did read Elizabeth Schoonmacher's Square Cat, which is about Euly, a square cat in a world of round cats. It's a hard life, being a square cat. She looks silly in stripes. She's invisible in rooms with lots of right angles. She tips over, and - being square - she's just kind of stuck there. At first Euly's friends try to make her feel more round, so she'll feel like she fits in; when that doesn't work, they put on cardboard boxes, and they all experience the square cat life together, at which point Euly realizes that being square has its advantages. At the end, they all flop down together and look at the sky, which is, the book tells us, a view "only a square cat could have."

I guess maybe the round cats would roll away if they tried to lie down and look at the sky. Or something.

There are many things I love about picture books, but one of the things I find irritating about them is that they can be so relentlessly upbeat. Every cloud has a silver lining. When one door closes, a vast panoramic window with a view of the Grand Canyon opens. The ugly duckling will always turn into a swan, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer will always save the day in the end.

And I like upbeat stories, I do. But in the aggregate, this relentless positivity begins to feel emotionally dishonest. I realize that picture book authors don't want to discourage the three-year-olds of the world, many of whom will in fact outgrow their ugly duckling stages and do just fine, but at the same time, I feel like it would be good if these books would occasionally allow disappointments to actually be disappointing.

Maybe being a square cat is tough, but Euly has managed to acquire two awesome cat friends who want nothing more than to cheer her up. Isn't that happy ending enough without pretending that round cats are incapable of looking up at the sky?

100 Books that Influenced Me, #42: Caddie Woodlawn

”A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well. I don’t want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners whom folks sometimes call a lady. No, that is not what I want for you, my little girl. I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind. Do you think you would like to be growing up into that woman now? How about it, Caddie, have we run with the colts long enough?”...

Suddenly Caddie flung herself into Mr. Woodlawn’s arms.

“Father! Father!”

When I was a little girl, I was convinced I was a tomboy, despite the fact that I didn’t like sports, physical exertion, boys, or pretty much any of the other things that young tomboys are supposed to love. Mostly I just wanted to sit around and read all the time, but in between the Little House books and Caddie Woodlawn, my reading led to the conclusion that girls were supposed to be tomboys.

I should perhaps put “supposed” in quotes, because these are books at war with their own subtext. On the one hand, the explicit message - and this is especially clear in Caddie Woodlawn, which spells its message out the passage I quoted above (which is one of the few parts of the book I remembered all these years later) - is that tomboys have to grow up, and put aside childish things, and become good quiet housekeepers who learn all those girly things they’ve scorned.

But on the other hand, and all words about “fine and noble” callings aside, man does Caddie Woodlawn make proper ladyhood look unattractive. Caddie’s older sister Clara has been so subsumed by ladyhood that she barely has a personality. She’s the only one in the family who votes to go to England when her father inherits an estate, because only she is blinded by the glitz of the English peerage to the true beauty of the rough frontiers of America.

(Clara does not lose her entire family to a train accident, but nonetheless I think she and Susan Pevensie have something in common.)

Who wouldn’t rather be a tomboy? Tomboys are honest and brave and true and have their own opinions about things rather than just parroting out of the Godey’s Lady’s Book.

I loved Caddie Woodlawn as a girl, and I still love lots of it - there’s a marvelous scene where Caddie tries to fix a clock, for instance, and ends up getting taken under her father’s wing as his clock-fixing apprentice. The nature descriptions are marvelous. (The Indian plotlines are of their time - neither particularly noxious nor particularly progressive for the the thirties, but uncomfortable reading today. I’m sure someone has written about this at length elsewhere.)

But reading it now, what it really draws out for me is how two-faced our cultural vision of how girls are supposed to be is. For a long time, the explicit message - the conduct-book message, one might call it - was that girls should be quiet and polite and thoughtful and ladylike, while the message in books (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Caddie Woodlawn) was that ladylike girls are the most boring thing to ever bore, and girls ought to be exciting and sprightly and tomboyish.

And at some point (gradually, although it was quite common in books I read growing in the nineties), that implicit message became explicit. Girls should be tomboys. They should be fearless! and feisty! and loud! and able to keep up with the boys.

Or - if it’s a story that isn’t specifically aimed at girls - maybe only almost able to keep up. Not too fearless. Not too loud. Not so set in their opinions that it’s annoying, and God forbid not right.

Pretty much the only thing on which there is cultural consensus is that girls had damn well better be pretty.

How is it Thursday Already? Reading Meme

What I've Just Finished Reading

Who has two thumbs and has finished reading The Gulag Archipelago? That's right, me! I think that most of the meat of the trilogy is contained within the first volume - not that the second and third books aren't worth reading, because they are, but they are in a sense supplemental material to Solzhenitsyn's thesis, which he expounds in volume one, "that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil."

And therefore any and all attempts to clean or perfect humanity by killing the portion of it that you deem evil are not only evil in themselves, but useless at the outset. If you want to kill the evil portion of humanity, then you'd have to kill all humans.

There is this one quote, though, from the third volume, which I've been turning over like a stone in my hand - about forgiveness. It's a long one, so Collapse )

I also read Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which I really enjoyed. It's a series of case studies about unusual neurological disorders that have come through Sacks' office over the years, some of which are a bit nightmarish (I suspect which cases one finds most upsetting will change from person to person; the one about the woman who lost her proprioception, her sense of her own body - who now feels literally disembodied, like a ghost - really got to me), but all of which are thought-provoking. Some of his terminology is a bit dated - the book was published in 1984; I don't believe anyone uses "moron" as a diagnostic term anymore - but Sacks is nonetheless a thoughtful, compassionate writer.

I also finished Annie Jacobsen's Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, which is a book that is interesting more for its subject matter than for its treatment of it. Jacobsen lays out a convincing case that the US Department of Defense willfully turned a blind eye to the Nazi pasts of many German scientists it brought to the US - up to and including scientists who committed human experimentation at concentration camps - but somehow all the details slipped through my mind like water through a sieve. The subject is clearly worth exploring, but I can't quite recommend this particular book.

In less heavy (both in size and in subject matter) reading material, I read the latest Penderwick book, The Penderwicks in Spring, which I enjoyed but not as much as the earlier books in the series.

What I'm Reading Now

I've returned to Sarah Rees Brennan's Unmade. I am determined to finish this book, but my progress is dragging because of two seemingly contradictory reasons. First, because I've heard that a character (I don't know which character, but apparently someone everyone likes, because all the reviews I've seen were annoyed) is going to die; and secondly, because the supposedly wicked murderous sorcerer now in charge of Sorry-in-the-Vale has failed to kill any of the characters we like, which makes it hard to take his wicked murderousness seriously.

Possibly when I get to the death, that will make him seem like a slightly more formidable antagonist, but so many characters have escaped certain death already, I suspect that it's going to make the authorial intervention when someone finally bites the dust seem very obvious. You've taken care of everyone else so far, so why didn't so-and-so deserve your protection too, Brennan?

What I Plan to Read Next

Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia.

Book Review: Hold Fast

by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

In Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast the heroine Early’s life is disintegrating. First her father disappears. Then gangsters, possibly connected to his disappearance, destroy the family’s apartment and steal almost all their belongings. Early, her mother, and her little brother are forced to move into a homeless shelter, and Early’s mother begins to sink into despair.

Faced with this domino-line of catastrophes, “hold fast,” a quote from one of her missing father’s favorite poems, becomes Early’s mantra. Hold fast, because otherwise life will carry you away and drown you.

Literary and historical allusions weave through all of Blue Balliett’s work. But in her earlier books, particularly Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3, these allusions seemed to be the point of the book: as if the book were a puzzle, intellectually stimulating but not very emotionally engaging. The characters were conduits for information about Vermeer and Frank Lloyd Wright.

But as Balliett’s career has progressed, her work has gained more emotional power. The intellectual puzzles have high personal stakes for the characters, and the characters themselves feel more fleshed out. In Hold Fast, Early and her family are as important - no, even more important - than Langston Hughes’ poetry.

In fact, Early’s family is the most appealing part of the book. The immense stress of their situation bends their immense love for each other almost to the breaking point. Eleven-year-old Early becomes the keystone holding the family together. Despite her strength, the job is almost too much for her to handle: but nonetheless, she holds fast.

An excellent book. I definitely recommend this one.

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer, which is about a group of children who spend a few weeks in a French hotel, alone because their mother has fallen ill and is in the hospital. Nothing much happens for most of the book: it’s a slow exploration of the hotel, and the routine of the hotel and the routine the children make for themselves while they’re there, and the complicated intersecting relationships of the people who run the hotel.

And then, having set up so many dominoes, Godden gently flicks them down. It’s rather fascinating to watch.

This is an adult book about children rather than a children’s book. This isn't so much about content as about, how shall I put it - underlying worldview. The first word that came to mind is bleak or possibly jaded, but that's not quite right. The book is not jaded, but many of the characters are, and their actions are driven by pettiness in a way that is uncommon in children's books.

I think perhaps in children's books, evil usually has a cause deeper than shallowness? I'll have to think about this more.

What I’m Reading Now

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, which is amazingly awesome. I like the main characters a lot, particularly Puck (Sean took more time to grow on me, because he doesn’t like anyone except his stallion), but I love, love, love the island setting. I love the way its customs unfold as we, through Puck, learn more about the titular Scorpio Races. Every year, humans capture, train (not tame. Water horses are never tame), and race the deadly water horses which rise from the sea and occasionally eat people.

Because obviously if your island is beset by deadly flesh-eating horses of dooooom, the thing to do is to capture them and race them. Obviously.

And I love also that, although the deadly doom horses of the deeps are clearly the most important thing, Stiefvater remembers to flesh out other aspects of the islands as well. I would really, really like to eat a November cake.

Oh, oh! And I love the sibling relationships in this book, particularly Puck's friendship with her little brother Finn. Basically I like this book a lot.

What I Plan to Read Next

Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord is next, but after that I’m not sure. You guys, I have so many books that I’m planning to read over break, I don’t even know where to start.

But I've finished all my course work, so now I have time to read AS MUCH AS I WANT!
friends, shoes

Perfect children's or YA novel

Via sineala, from the ask me questions meme - btw, you should all go ask me questions, because you know you’ve always secretly yearned to know all my thoughts about Golden Age Hollywood or girls’ series books or caramel or goodness knows what else.

Ahem. Sineala said: Describe your perfect children's/YA novel. (Bonus question: Does it exist in reality? If not, what comes closest?)

The heroine is a clever and imaginative girl, and the book focuses on her adventures with her best friend (who is, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, the patron saint of all these heroines, a kindred spirit)

She lives in a large and atmospheric house, possibly in modern times, possibly in history (as long as the author isn't using history to teach us a Very Important Lesson), or possibly in a fantasy world. There is an awesome garden and/or frightening but amazing forest nearby. Preferably, the house contains an awesome library that is somewhat eerie but so full of awesome books that she overcomes the anxiety that the massive mask and/or doll collection causes her.

The masks and/or dolls may turn out to be enchanted. I like all values of enchanted, from actual magic to gentle magical realism to the Frances Hodgson Burnett style of magic, where nothing technically magical happens except for people imagining glorious feasts. (Incidentally, glorious feasts are always a plus. All books are improved by cake.)

I have many such books listed on my 100 books list - seriously, half the books listed probably fit a loose version of this description - but probably the best examples that I've reviewed are The Egypt Game, The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang, and Becoming Rosemary. And clearly I need to write a review of A Little Princess.

The YA novel chronicles the adventures of the clever and imaginative heroine with her bestest best friend ever - or possibly, given that a longer YA book allows greater complexity, a whole posse of friends. Romance, if it's there at all, is subsidiary to the main plot: quite probably they're beset by political intrigue or war, and the book focuses on that.

It may also tackle the big questions, particularly questions of good and evil. Children's books do this too, but a slightly older audience allows for a more sophisticated discussion - teenagers are not necessarily going to get bored if someone quotes a couple lines of Locke or Arendt.

Code Name Verity, The Montmaray Journals, and Enchantress from the Stars (despite the fact that Elana does not have a bestest best friend ever) all strike me as good examples of this sort of story.

Book Review: Crispin: The Cross of Lead

Drumroll, please! For I have completed the final book in the Newbery project: Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead!!!!

This is exciting because the project is done, but otherwise the book is pretty underwhelming. Possibly I would have liked it more if I hadn’t read it so soon after Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, which evokes the medieval period with twice the grace and ten times the economy. (And in poetry, too!)

Indeed, I find a lot of Avi’s work underwhelming. I had to read Nothing But the Truth in sixth grade and I am still, still indignant about the ultimate hollow pointlessness of that book, in which a horrid little boy wrecks his teacher’s career by claiming she won’t let him say the Pledge of Allegiance, but it turns out he doesn’t even know the words. Oh it made me so mad!

So, fair warning, I am clearly biased against Avi’s work. But Crispin isn’t unfair or infuriating, just...well, it has a lot of tics that annoy me in historical fiction. There’s some clunky exposition, like the scene where Crispin looks down on his village from a hilltop and is all, “Let me explain the layout of my village and also medieval farming practices,” and some even clunkier important life lessons about Freedom.

Characters in children’s historical fiction frequently learn important life lessons about Racism (bad), Sexism (bad), or Freedom (good) - as if these are discreet things that one can learn about all at once and never worry about again. Racism is not like smallpox, it’s not like you get an inoculation and then are safe from ever catching it again.

Admittedly, Crispin learns a lesson about Freedom and not Racism, but the sequel - there is a whole Crispin trilogy - is called Crispin: At the Edge of the World, so I daresay he will learn an important lesson about xenophobia if not racism.

And, again, this is something that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! does much better: one of the vignettes involves a Jewish boy and a Christian girl who meet unexpectedly on opposite sides of a stream. She raises her arm to cast a stone at him, but ends up skipping the stone instead; they skip stones together, remember themselves, and leave in a hurry.

They haven’t learned an important lesson about anti-Semitism: they’re just left a little uneasy about the way that society works. It’s much more subtle and less sledge-hammery.

In summary: read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! instead of Crispin.

The Dark is Rising

One other thing I did on the camping trip is finally finish The Dark is Rising sequence, which was great fun even if it did take the series a few books to get going. I liked the first book’s jolly English adventure story air, thought the second and third were rather a slog, and quite enjoyed the final two even though Will Stanton remains as dull as two posts.

And even though the ending is the worst ending ever, OMG, disapprove times a million, I intend to pretend the last two pages never occurred.

Collapse )

So yeah. I’m glad I finally read the Dark is Rising sequence, if only because I’ve been meaning to for lo these many years, but they aren’t a patch on The Boggart or King of Shadows for my favorite Susan Cooper books.
friends, shoes

100 Books, #30: The Egypt Game

I love Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that she captures the magic of imaginative games. The Changeling does this beautifully too, but her finest book on this score has to be The Egypt Game, which follows new friends April Hall and Melanie Ross as they build a complicated game based on - though swiftly spiraling out from - ancient Egypt.

I love the descriptions of the game, and the book gives them their full due: it describes the backyard of the local antique store that they slowly take over as a stage set for Egypt, the household items that they manage to spruce up into Egypt wear, the way that the game slowly adds new subplots, new characters - and new players - and evolves over the course of its run.

I also love April and Melanie's friendship, which evolves from prickly beginnings into a steadfast thing. April can be difficult and prickly and not so much attention-seeking as attention-demanding; when she and Melanie first meet, April is wearing a massive feather boa, even larger fake eyebrows, and a "I'm from Hollywood and know everything" attitude. She's putting on a front: her feckless mother has just sent her to live with her grandmother, and April feels insecure and unwanted and damned if she's going to show it.

But she and Melanie manage to work past that through their mutual love of story-telling and ancient Egypt. (I suspect that taking care of her little brother Marshall, who is also a rather odd kettle of fish, has given Melanie some extra maturity for her age.)

Another thing I appreciate about Snyder's writing, more now that I'm older and rereading, is how gracefully she incorporates diversity and changing social mores into her stories. Melanie and her little brother Marshall are black, April is white, their neighbor Elizabeth Chung is Chinese-American - and also a lot younger than Melanie and April; I like how the book has a mix of ages - Ken Kamata is Japanese-American (and also kind of a dumb jock type: he can never lose himself in the game but retains always an awareness of how kookie they all look, walking around casting ashes on their heads), and Toby Alvillar is...complicated?

And it all seems very natural. Snyder introduces this diversity so gracefully that it just seems like the way things are in the Casa Rosada, where April and Melanie live, and not at all as if she's teaching a lesson or making a point.


This gracefulness is part of why The Egypt Game's belated sequel, The Gypsy Game, so disappointing: where The Egypt Game is light-handed, The Gypsy Game is as subtle as a brick. It would be bad even if it weren't a sequel, but the comparison makes its faults especially glaring. Clearly at some point Snyder realized that making a game about gypsies would be just as bad as making, say, the Jewish Game.

Which is true, but unfortunately social insight alone does not a good novel make. The book becomes not so much a novel as a PSA: a very dull PSA where nothing imaginative happens at all. And when I first read it, in 1997 when the book came out, I was too busy being bitter about its failure as a novel to retain any of its social messages.