The generous and highly intelligent (and talented, modest, gifted, amazing…) Madame Webb gifted me a copy after I left a comment on her online book release. She even addressed the inscription to my mother, whom I gave the book to today.
The book is about what activities the grandparents look forward to doing with their grandchildren.
A sound of polite, incredulous aversion comes from the backseat. “No….”
I’m driving my male horde home from elementary school, plus the three children of a family friend. Their children and mine share a few interests, the main one being a love of reading.
The older girl pipes up, “We don’t read picture books.”
Her sister: “Yeah; I’m reading chapter books now.”
Which is fine, of course, seeing as how she is in second grade. She is the baby of their four children and they are all precocious. The only boy has already moved up a grade and is 2-3 grades ahead in mathematics.
“I love picture books,” I say. “There are a lot of really good ones out there, so I like to go back and read them again.”
“Yes, that’s true,” the older girl acquiesces. I often feel I’m sitting at a British tea party with her, although she’s midway through fourth grade.
My boys, meanwhile, are each immersed in reading something educational like Captain Underpants or Magic Pickle. I’m not a fan of the graphic novels, but am fine with their perusal if mixed with a range of literature. That, and graphic novels include everything from less-than-desirable illustrations and potty humor to really well-done works like The Cardboard Kingdom.
I drop the friends off. Their mother comes out for a quick chat. “Your girls say you don’t have any picture books around anymore,” I say, in a friendly way.
“Oh. Yeah.” She laughs. She’s extremely intelligent, an excellent quilter, and one who does not seem to mind being a stay-at-home mother. I’m always in awe of her. “I unintentionally donated ours to the classroom and haven’t replaced them.” She sighs a bit, which is usually her way of segue. “They don’t really seem interested, so I probably won’t.”
To each her own, of course, but a little bit of me cries inside to hear it. Like my music preferences, my reading tastes cover many genres. -Except romance. Ugh.
Besides that, my collection of books is …sizeable. When I read Fahrenheit 451 in school, I wanted to be the old lady with the enormous library. I would feel torn between saving myself or my books. I …have a bit of a problem with control whenever I shop the book department in thrift stores.
Which leads me back to picture books. I love picture books. I cannot imagine not having any in my house. I read to my children from them, and then from novels as they age (time permitting).
I also enjoy reading to other children. Last year I offered to read to my son’s fourth grade class once a week, to give the teacher a few minutes of preparation time at the end of the day. What did I read? The Jolly Postman; The Sweetest Fig; Bark, George; and Oh, Were They Ever Happy!
I remember visiting with the teacher once after we finished up. “Thank you for coming in every week,” she said. “It gives me time to get ready and I really appreciate it.”
I smiled. “Oh, you’re welcome.” Then, I hesitated, knowing most of these kids were beyond the target age for the books I shared. “Are you okay with me reading picture books? I know they might be a little young for them.”
“Of course!” she said. “They love them! I don’t think they’re too young for them at all.”
You may think I will ask whether you agree or disagree, but I know you are all smarter than that. Instead, what are a few of your favorite children’s stories? They can be picture books, graphic novels, beginning chapter books, or Harry Potter-sized novels. Which do you love, and why?
After fondly reminiscing, read what I posted this past week: Wednesday, April 3: Encouraged cathartic ranting over bad bosses in “Just Another Perk of Working.”
It’s time to really let the fur fly around here, because I am going to ask the question no one ever should: Is Harry Potter a good book?
If you have been living in a bubble or under the age of twenty for the past 21.5 years, you might not know what I am referring to. In that case, I speak of a book series published by an unknown woman (at the time) that EXPLODED into ultimately selling more than 450 million copies worldwide.
I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the recommendation of my former sixth-grade teacher. I really liked the book. It had interesting characters, magic, an unseen parallel world, and enough British elements to tickle my anglophiliac bones.
I purchased and devoured each subsequent book as it came out, and cried on opening night of the first film.
A few years after that point, however, my English professor in (my return to) college ran us through an interesting exercise. “What makes a good book?” he asked, and wrote our responses on the white board. After looking over the items listed, he announced, “Harry Potter is not a good book.”
Since I do not live in a bubble and am not under the age of twenty, I was also not completely ignorant to the idea that others didn’t love Harry Potter as much as a large pocket of Potterheads. As a consequence, I was not floored at my teacher’s conclusions.
I instead experienced a wider perspective. His announcement released me from the godlike worship I had for authors everywhere and allowed me to acknowledge the series as one written by a human, with flaws. It was written by the first and only billionaire author human, granted, but still had flaws.
In turn, I was able to grasp the hope that someone like me could write. Someone like me could even write something that another person might read, or purchase.
Which is all very interesting, but doesn’t answer the main question of this post.
Is Harry Potter a good book? Why or why not?
My own husband dislikes that J.K. Rowling neglects a basic rules structure for her magic system, that Dobby exists, and that most of the stories are just not interesting.
For myself; I notice some literary no-no’s in her writing like adverbs, POV changes, and …say, a rule she introduces about non-verbal magic spells that she seems to abandon in later novels. I also think (and thought) that it’s really not feasible for a young wizard who can shout two spells to consistently beat someone who literally murdered older, gifted wizards.
But maybe I’m being nit-picky with that last one.
Ever the devil’s devil’s advocate, though, I say that J.K. Rowling’s series could be considered perfection. She hit the sweet spot across age, race, gender, nationality, and class. She wrote characters REALLY well. I’m just a medium-level admirer and would gladly jump on a train, attend Hogwarts, marry one of the Weasley twins, and go out to lunch with Tonks.
As a final thought to any still in the haters camp: last year, my son’s doctor complimented my son because he was sitting in the waiting room reading a novel. I believe it was Magician: Apprentice. “When Harry Potter first came out,” the doctor noted, “I used to come out and find kids’ noses stuck in books. I haven’t seen that since.”
Say what you will, but I’d love to bring that sort of book love back. Wouldn’t you? Perhaps there’s a spell for that.
Until then, do you say it is a good book? Do you only say so because you love it?
Whilst considering my favorite children’s books, I realized that most made the list based on favorites of my childhood. Not to become set in my old ways, however, I have found several excellent additions in seeking out books for the children I have since produced.
Such is the case with The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds.
It tells the very simple story of a young girl named Vashti who is determined that she cannot do art. Her teacher, meanwhile, is just as certain that Vashti can.
I love how we get an idea of the personalities of the characters in a few lines of actions: Vashti’s practical stabbing of a dot onto paper shows her attitude, and her teacher’s encouragement and action of framing that first dot demonstrate understanding.
Teaching is, and has always been, a career plagued by under-appreciation. Teachers are responsible for connecting with a classroom or more of children, dumping information into little brains, and somehow still maintaining order. They also care for their students, cry about poor life situations, and think about hundreds to thousands of past lives they’ve been touched by.
The Dot is not just about a young girl finding courage to express herself. It is also the story of what every teacher aims for: a lesson learned, a life improved, and the benefits passed on to others.
It’s short, simple, sweet, artistic, and touching. If you haven’t, spend a minute reading it. Since it’s more recent, I even found readings of it online.
Ah, Dr. Suess. What a fantastic writer! Many know that his real name was Theodor Suess Geisel, and that he drew political cartoons and even produced several short films before the fame of The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham. If not, I taught you something new.
Dr. Suess is the best poet for young children. Believe me: I have children and was once a child myself. Because of those two things, I have read some terribly crappy attempts at rhymes in books geared toward kids. Suess, on the other hand, wrote simple poetry with simple words and simple illustrations long before sight word/level reading stuff. And Suess didn’t suck.
As a parent, I say the true sign of excellence in youth material is whether I can watch or read it and not want to gnaw my own arm off just to get away. I can read Suess’ books repeatedly and enjoy them.
The Sneetches is no exception. The story follows a group of creatures who all look the same -except some have a star on their bellies. “…(B)ecause they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches/Would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.'” Meanwhile, the Plain-Belly Sneetches are excluded, spending their time together feeling sad at being left out.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.
Why didn’t the Plain-Bellies just hold their own frankfurter roasts and ball games? Well, we get some clue as to the common sense of these yellow, birdlike animals when a stranger comes to their beaches and specifically addresses the left-out group:
“My friends,” he announced in a voice clear and keen,
“My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
And I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-it-Up Chappie.”
McBean builds a machine that can put stars on bellies, and charges $3 apiece. Then, when the original group is upset over the class-leveling, he builds another machine that removes stars (for $10 each!). Chaos ensues, expressed in my favorite stanza of the tale:
They kept paying money. They kept running through
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one . . . or that one was this one
Or which one was what one . . . or what one was who.
It pleasantly tickles a literary nerve, doesn’t it? Sigh.
The last literary element that makes Dr. Suess the best is teaching a moral. The Lorax and such are more heavy-handed than I like, but The Sneetches gives us a gentle tap of reprimand.
After McBean literally takes all their money, he leaves. “They never will learn,” he laughs. “No. You can’t teach a Sneetch.” Seuss, meanwhile, tells us a different message:
But McBean was quiet wrong. I’m quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day….
Read Suess, even for yourself. Share this story with others. Then, perhaps, the world will remember that “…Sneetches are Sneetches/And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”
After putting four rambunctious children to bed -and again, then two once more, and now one I need to carry up because he fell asleep on the couch- I somehow felt inspired to talk about Just Go to Bed, by Mercer Mayer.
Some books hit the golden mark for me: perfect word flow, good illustrations, appeal to their audience, and great message. This picture book, published waaay back in 1983, is just such a one for me.
In fact, it’s another nostalgic work because I owned it as a child. I listened to it on audiocassette, with the *ding* to turn the page, and the occasional audio effects that went with each page’s pictures. Reading that same copy (sans cassette) as an adult, I find it even more appealing.
The book begins with Little Critter outside. He’s playing dress-up. “I’m a cowboy and I round up cows,” he says. A calm father, with the toy lasso round his person, says, “It’s time for the cowboy to come inside and get ready for bed.”
Each page spread shows yet another step and/or excuse Little Critter has to get through, with Dad’s help. Dad, meanwhile, is clearly getting less and less playful and patient.
By the end, we see poor Daddy in his chair with his newspaper, exasperatingly pointing and saying the book’s title, “Just go to bed!” Mom is opening the door to see what’s up, bearing a look of surprise but understanding -or, maybe I just project myself into her furry critter feet now that I have experience.
It’s a very simple book. I mean, it is a children’s picture book. In a few pages and with a few penciled cartoon expressions, Mayer gives us an entertaining story for both children and adults.
If you’ve ever had to wrestle a cowboy, general, race car driver, bandit, space cadet, zookeeper, and bunny through bedtime routines, this was written for you. And, it was written for your own little critter(s).
Now, I’ve got to pull one of my bunnies off the couch and hoist him up to bed. Good night.
On December 27, I was faced with one of the greatest dilemmas for a bibliophile: picking a favorite book. The choice was to be made for my local book group, and had the further condition of being from the children’s category.
Today I drove past an unusual sign. I’d have taken a picture, but that’s rather irresponsible driving while ferrying small children.
That’s why I did the safe thing and dug up this picture I took nearly three years ago.
At the sight, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to my childhood and to one of the best books of poetry ever: Where The Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein.
“Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.”
My mother read to us as children. She did so frequently enough that I remember, though not so much that I could say it was every night or even every month. Besides Ramona Quimby, Age 8, All Creatures Great and Small, The Water Babies, and Twig, she read quite a bit of poetry. Her favorites were The Cremation of Sam McGee, Bessie’s Boil, many of Ogden Nash’s shorter quips, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and many Shel Silverstein poems.
My favorite thing about the greatest children’s book authors is their ability to convey deep feelings and ideas in succinct, clever passages -passages even a child can understand. I respect their mastery of language. It is a great talent to funnel grand ideas down to fit neatly in the small spaces of a young mind.
I have acquired all of Shel Silverstein’s books of poetry over time, but Where the Sidewalk Ends is my nostalgic favorite for two reasons:
1. My family of origin owned only this book of his and we read it for years and years. It’s like the first dog we owned, and will always hold a special place in my heart for it.
2. Along with the text, we had an audiocassette of Shel Silverstein himself reading/singing/chanting his prose. When I read them to my children today, I hear his laughing voice and his background guitar strumming.
My children can’t hear him, poor things. Thank heavens for YouTube, in this case:
Not all of them were on the recording we had growing up, and fewer than those are currently on YouTube.
The man clearly had a wonderfully twisted sense of humor, and an amusing way of mixing and churning out rhymes. If you have not heard of Shel Silverstein, or only know of a few of his books, check out some of his others.
Runny Babbit is good. Or, The Missing Piece. Many people also like The Giving Tree. I go for his poetry the most: A Light in the Attic, Falling Up, and Every Thing On It.
He was an adult, of course, so don’t let any audio program just run wild with everything he’s ever written and performed. That’s your parental advisory right there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Wikipedia just told me he wrote a few things for Playboy. 😉
A full three posts ago, I mentioned favorite children’s picture books. I had a list of seventeen titles.
Although in near-anguish over which one to select for sharing, I found an inner-child delight during the process. Young Chelsea skipped happily through the bookshelf of her mind, one of the most satisfying places a bibliophile may visit.
I also realized a great need: to share why each of these books made my favorites list.
In true personal fashion of impatience, I will begin sharing tonight by discussing King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, by Audrey and Don Wood.
First, if I may, this author and illustrator couple is GENIUS. I find myself disappointed in many current authors and illustrators (looking at you, Mo Willems) because their artistry sucks (still looking at you, Mo).
Before the story of King Bidgood actually begins, on the page of acknowledgements and printing date that everyone usually skips, there’s a beautiful picture of a young boy hefting a dripping barrel up very small, stone steps. The load is clearly heavy, the boy is pulling a sort of amused/resigned expression, and steam and a bathing silhouette can be seen in the background tower.
What a setup.
My mother read us this story as children and we LOVED IT. I don’t even own it (yet), and can recite it by heart.
“Help! Help!” Cried the Page, when the sun came up. “King Bidgood’s in the bathtub and he won’t get out! Oh, who knows what to do?”
Beginning at sunrise, the Page begs the court with the same plea. Each time, someone comes forward with a new suggestion. And, in response, the king beckons that person to come and do that activity IN THE BATHTUB.
This sounds oddly erotic for a children’s book, you may think. It’s not. The proposed activities are: to battle, lunch, fish, and join a masquerade ball. The king does each of these in his half of the bathtub, with only his upper half exposed, with his poor court members getting soaked (and, out-battled and out-fished).
The illustrations -oh! The illustrations! I remember poring over the pictures as a child. Just as you think you’ve seen everything, you find: the knight’s toy soldiers wandering in opposite directions, the entire court on the lunchtime cake, and the duke’s bait crawling away down the side of the tub.
Each page is an exquisite, well-drawn, hilarious game of I Spy -with the quality of a Classical-era Norman Rockwell.
This book, of course, is not complete without its narrative. Here steps the literary magic of Audrey Wood. I also find myself continually disappointed in the text of current picture books (here’s where you shine, Laura Joffe Numeroff’s publishing house). Audrey, however, weaves a simple, funny, repetitive, ridiculous tale even young children can follow.
But, how does the king finally leave? You wonder. Who knows what to do?
I do! (I type, as the day grows late.) Read it, and find out for yourself!
Although, I don’t feel pressure to show off in my selection of a favorite children’s book. Instead, I feel an anxious inability to limit myself to just one.
I’ve even told myself I’ll only choose from picture books. Still, I’d have an easier time if, say, I’d been told to choose my favorite child (yes, I have a favorite).
After looking over our two bookshelves of children’s picture books, I’ve narrowed things down to a paltry 17 titles.
Dinotopia, by James Gurney The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Suess The Adventures of TinTin, by Hergé The Jolly Postman or Other People’s Letters, by Janet & Allan Ahlberg Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein There’s a Nightmare in my Closet, by Mercer Mayer Magical Hands, by Marjorie Barker and Yoshi Oh, Were They Ever Happy, by Peter Spier Le Livre de Bruits, by Soledad Bravi Just Go to Bed, by Mercer Mayer The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf The Napping House, by Audrey and Don Wood Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, by Don and Audrey Wood (sadly, not pictured); and Tuesday, by David Wiesner (also, sadly, not pictured).
This would be a long post, indeed, if I were to tell why each of these is significant to me.
The short answer is that I have an emotional connection with each: humorous, happy, relatable, impressed by quality, familiar -and all, save two, nostalgic.
I now realize I’ll need to devote an article to these, one at a time, in the future. They deserve nothing less.
In the meantime, how do I choose?
Once the hour arrives, shall I close my eyes and Eeny, Meeny, Miny Moe it? Point? Pick a number?
Well… what would YOU do if your (bookgroup) asked YOU?