Sunday, August 26, 2012

How to Name a Baby with Help from Dr. Seuss

In honor of my little sister, currently at the hospital having a baby, I dedicate this post.
In all the discussion of naming a baby, the best advice one can find comes from Dr. Seuss. I grew up with this story (really more of a poem) and loved it. We actually had the record version of this book. We wore that record smooth listening to it over and over!

The stories in this book, in particular the story of 23 Daves still provides good humor when read to my child, and/or my nieces and nephews.

Regrettably Poor Mrs. McCave, who had 23 sons, has named them all Dave (Dave McCave is a great name, but it would be difficult with 23 of them on hand). The names she ponders that she could have chosen are great. But as the poem says at the end, "but she didn't do it, and now it's too late". Good advice - don't name your children dumb names!!

I've currently been calling the unborn baby "Snimm". I think initially it was "Sunny Jim", but he seemed more like a Snimm to me. I'm sure once he is born, he will readily fit into the name he is given.

And once he is a bit older, I will scare him with the reading of "What was I Scared Of?"  - with the scary pale green pants with no one inside them (also found within this book).

From the book:
 The Sneetches and other Stories
by Dr. Seuss

Too Many Daves
by Dr. Seuss 

Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?
Well, she did. And that wasn’t a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, “Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!” she doesn’t get one.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!
This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves’
As you can imagine, with so many Daves.
And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn
And one of them Hoos-Foos. And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot. And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shadrack. And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy. And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt. Another one Moon Face.
Another one Marvin O’Gravel Balloon Face.
And one of them Ziggy. And one Soggy Muff.
One Buffalo Bill. And one Biffalo Buff.
And one of them Sneepy. And one Weepy Weed.
And one Paris Garters. And one Harris Tweed.
And one of them Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt
And one of them Oliver Boliver Butt
And one of them Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate …

But she didn’t do it. And now it’s too late.

The Magical Words

“Once upon a time," he said out loud to the darkness.
He said these words because they were the best,
the most powerful words that he knew
and just the saying of them comforted him.” 
“There is nothing sweeter in this sad world than the sound of someone you love calling your name.” 
The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread
by Kate DiCamillo
2004 Newbery Medal Award

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pondering The Graveyard Book and Being Raised by Wolves

Several days ago I finished reading:

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Newbery Medal, 2009

(the British cover, which I prefer. British covers are so often better.)

This book won the prestigious Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature. If you follow my blog, you know I am plugging away at reading all of these award winning books (a vast amount awarded since 1921).

Not only did this book win the 2009 Newbery Medal, but also spent weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list for Young Adults. It has been hotly discussed as it seems to be a departure for the Newbery Award. The consensus and reviews are abundant however, and the majority of people LOVE this book. It is raved about, it as adored, it is on "Top 100 Children's Novels" lists. I am not in this large group of readers who love this book.

In fact, I've been so bothered by this book, that I've had to mull on it before I could begin to write about it. Let's begin at the beginning (some spoilers included):

"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done. "

There you go, first paragraphs of the story -- terrifying and menacing. It wouldn't be uncommon to read an adult horror novel of someone breaking in, stabbing everyone in the house - including the children and babies -- leaving the handle of the razor sharp knife dripping wet with blood, but remember this is a book written for children.

The toddler escapes and makes his way to a graveyard where he is taken in and harbored by the resident ghosts of the graveyard. His new parents are ghosts, and his guardian, Silas, is described as not quite dead, and not quite living (a vampire). His eventual tutor is a werewolf, but the entire graveyard (a village) helps to raise the boy.

The book follows his adventures. He makes friends, has a scary encounter with ghouls, finds a hidden spirit in a burial mound, befriends a witch, goes to human school and deals with middle school bullies, and eventually deals with those (a fraternal order) that slaughtered his family and still wish to murder him.

The NY Times Sunday Book Review says, "Parents may worry about the violence, but they shouldn’t. The action isn’t described, and the fourth-grade class I read the book to had no problem whatsoever."

Again, I disagree. There seems to be quite a bit of the violence described. A tremendous amount in fact. I would have taken objection to my child being read this book in fourth-grade classroom.

Neil Gaiman has talked at length about his love of Kipling's The Jungle Book. He says that this book is directly influenced by Kipling, and this book is his retelling of The Jungle Book's tales. The chapters read as loosely linked stories, following the coming of age of this orphaned boy, similar to the way Kipling constructed his story.

If I had to point out something I liked, it would be the inclusion of mythological characters, and interesting historical notations of Romans. I particularly enjoyed where he found a hidden barrow guarded by an Indigo Man (an ancient Pict) where some Druid treasures are buried. These elements of spookiness I liked.

The ending finds Bod (the boy) grown up and having to live outside of the Graveyard. He no longer can pass and travel throughout it as he had while growing up.  The "village" had done their part, and find him ready to enter into the world of "man". The ending has some sweet moments similar to The Jungle Book.

Upon completion of the book, I felt an overwhelming sadness and a bit of ache in my stomach. I truly am not one that is overly zealous in the censoring of books. I am not concerned with  books that are spooky or mysterious. I don't take objection to vampires and witches (except that the genre has been flooded with poorly written drivel). I would also express my enjoyment of books with dystopian themes such as The Hunger Game series. This might be a book that an older teen might enjoy. But where is the age appropriateness? When I consider the Newbery, I think of children. I think middle elementary through middle school years.

Surely I would have a hard time luring a teen into reading some other Newbery winners such as
Sarah, Plan and Tall (1986)  or Dear Mr. Henshaw (1984)

I cannot fathom wanting to introduce my child to a story where someone terrorizes a family at night, slaughters them, and tries and fails to kill a baby in a crib.

When I read The Tale of Despereaux (Newbery Medal, 2004)
to my child (he was in fourth-grade, the same age as the children read the book in the review) he wiped tears away while we read the part where Despereaux is banished by his family to the dungeon of rats for breaking the mouse rules. I can't even begin to think how he would handle the knowledge of far greater travesties taking place in the world.

Children are little sponges. They absorb and retain. My desire and hope is that we would fill those children with things of delight and joy, fantasy, nature, adventure and beauty. There is such a vast trove out there for children to read. Save the advanced themes for when they are older. It will never hurt them to wait.

Here is more of the NY Times review. I am quite in the minority of people who disliked this book and really question the age appropriateness of the subject matter.
While “The Graveyard Book” will entertain people of all ages, it’s especially a tale for children. Gaiman’s remarkable cemetery is a place that children more than anyone would want to visit. They would certainly want to look for Silas in his chapel, maybe climb down (if they were as brave as Bod) to the oldest burial chamber, or (if they were as reckless) search for the ghoul gate. Children will appreciate Bod’s occasional mistakes and bad manners, and relish his good acts and eventual great ones. The story’s language and humor are sophisticated, but Gaiman respects his readers and trusts them to understand.

 An Alternate cover for the book:

Monday, August 20, 2012

1946 to 1994...A Small Step Forward or a Great Leap Backward?

As summer begins to wane, I'm still plowing through my stacks of award winners to read (and sometimes reread). Reading through the Caldecott Medal books is often a sheer joy for the eyes. The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. Today I read:

Timothy Turtle
by Al Graham
illustrated by Tony Palazzo
Caldecott Honor, 1946

First things first, much of the award books from the 1940's  have a more non-fiction feel to them. Some of them don't read like "storybooks" or your typical picture book at all. Of course, the 1940's were the war years, and I don't know the specific reason why things weren't being written that were fantastical, but I'm sure someone has studied it.

Timothy Turtle reads like a story. Timothy Turtle isn't happy with his daily life as a ferry service for other animals. Timothy makes enough money, has fruit by the bushel, and a stash of soda-pop and cake (what?) but he is still not content. Timothy's lament is that he isn't famous, and he wants to be noticed. Timothy sets off on an adventure where he will "Wander -- beyond even yonder incline". Of course everyone tells him not to be a "dunderhead" but he will not be swayed.
"Ho for the sport of the gallant and strong, Ho for the gallant and game!"
He goes on his wander, climbs up a hill, nearly gets hit by a rolling rock and finds himself stuck flat on his back. Well, I won't give away the ending, but he does make it "Home to a chorus of turtle-acclaim; Home to contentment -- and permanent fame".

The book itself isn't necessarily the greatest story, and the illustrations are alright, but monotone, nothing breathtaking. However the thing that stood out while reading this book was the language. The language of a child's picture book from the 1940's reads like something we would question a middle schooler of today sounding out. The text flows with cadence and rhythm, and the word choices are great. It's a fun book to read aloud.

After reading this, I'm stuck pondering the mystery of what has happened to children's literature? Why is a book from 1946 filled with vocabulary such as this? Why have many recent books been so "dumbed down"?

In startling comparison is another Caldecott Honor Award book from 1994:

Yo! Yes?
written and illustrated by Chris Raschka
Caldecott Honor, 1994

Jump ahead almost 50 years and see that an award winning book for children is full of simplistic one-syllable words. My critique isn't the story, it tells of two boys meeting, getting to know each and in the end being friends...nothing wrong with that, right? But again, SIMPLISTIC. Why have we jumped to the point where books are simple one-syllable words? Just something to ponder.

Again, my critique isn't this book, it's just in looking at the bigger picture, why do we think that children cannot understand, or follow, read or enjoy a book with stronger vocabulary? Are we cheating children by not challenging them to stretch their reading skills? What would the challenge be if a child had to use a dictionary to look up a word they didn't know?

I want to point out that I find Chris Raschka, the author and illustrator of this book, to be a great artist. He won the Caldecott Medal in 2006 for his illustrations for:

The Hello, Goodbye Window

(a book that I love!)

and again this year, 2012, with

A Ball for Daisy

which I wrote about here:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

If You Like Amelia Bedelia You are Insane and Other Annoying Characters in Children's Lit

I am dutifully reading young adult fiction. There is so much out there to read! I actually picked up Heidi today as it was sitting out in my living room. I had pulled it with the last stack of books to present to the boy that we could read (it wasn't chosen). I loved this book when I was young, but realized I hadn't read it since then, which doing the math equates to "a while". I was discussing the character Heidi this week with my ten-year old niece. I was honored to have her accompany me to the bookstore the other day. I am fascinated by her as she is a great reader and I am always interested in what she is reading. She is bright and well read and is delightful to discuss books with. I mentioned the book Pollyanna to her and asked her if she had ever read it.  I can not stand Pollyanna and think I would have hated knowing her. She was so chipper and sweet and I always found her unbearable. I recently passed this tidbit that Pollyanna was insufferable to my nine-year old niece. I didn't even remember bad mouthing Pollyanna but my sister-in-law mentioned to me that she had purchased Pollyanna for her daughter to read and was told that in no way would she read the book. Auntie Becky had told her Pollyanna was a ghastly book. Oops...sorry I muttered, but I felt as though I helped her dodge the Pollyanna bullet.

The ten-year old niece told me she wasn't so sure about Heidi in the same way. Was Heidi too perfect? Too sweet? Too good? I've never been bothered by Heidi, but in re-reading it today I can see why she questions her. She borders on the too sweet - but not insufferably so. Not like that dastardly Pollyanna.

I thought about other characters I loathed. Bella in Twilight springs to mind. I admit I read the first book in the series. The story itself wasn't horrific, I've always liked vampires, and the part where they play baseball I found interesting (I really like baseball). But the 498 page book should have been edited by about 400 pages. Reading it made me feel as though I was having a conversation with a fifteen-year old girl (a not so smart one who constantly uses the word "like"). I hated Bella. I really wished a real vampire, like good old Count Dracula would come in and drain her and we'd been done.

Pippy Longstocking is another character I abhor. Ugh, I hated Pippy. I never got past that fact that one of her socks never stayed up. Plus she had a horse in her house. She was so annoying!!!

Green Eggs and Ham, there's another one. I just hate that book. In real life someone would've placed a restraining order against Sam-I-Am. How long did those eggs get carted about or are we to think that he was constantly making new ones? By the end of the book, when they finally got eaten, they had to be cold at best, old and stinky is more probable. I don't let this book taint my opinion of Dr. Seuss however.

The Giving Tree, there's another book that is complete shite. That boy is a jerk. I hate that book and when people say it is a beautiful symbiotic relationship and shows the joy of total self-sacrifice I want to  buy them a gift card for therapy. It is similar to The Rainbow Fish. Another preachy stupid book.

I dislike the Berenstein Bears too. The dad is an idiot, and the children are horrific brats. The mother has so much to do to accommodate them that she can't even get around to taking her night cap off.

My sister always tells me how much she hates the Cat in the Hat book. She says she's the fish in the story, always saying "WHOA!! Clean that up! Stop doing that!" I find the book amusing, but I've always pictured the cat as more of a weird, crazy child-less uncle.

Amelia Bedelia is another character that I can't stomach. I don't see why her complete nincompoop-ness is something that is considered humorous or of any merit to read to children. I worked with a lady who told me those were her favorite books. She loved Amelia Bedelia and found her zany antics delightful and funny. I realized that the coworker must be insane.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Corpus Bones! Karen Cushman writes some Wonderful Historical Fiction

I am often amazed how things connect and collide without plan -- serendipity. Often times this miraculously happens to me while reading. Lately I have been reading much of Scottish and English history, including some historical fiction. I just finished reading a book that was set during the reign of King Edward I "Longshanks".

In my quest to continue to read all of the Newbery Award books, I picked up two by Karen Cushman. Serendipitously they both took place during the reign of Longshanks (and made mention to him).

Catherine, Called Birdy
Newbery Honor Medal, 1995

"Corpus Bones! I utterly loathe my life."

Catherine, also called Birdy, is a young girl of 14 who lives in a manor house in England in 1290. Her brother Edward has recently left home to become a monk. He had taught Catherine to read and write and instructs her to keep a journal of her daily activities. She obtains a book of saints and marks whose feast day it is, often with hilarious commentary, and this diary becomes the vehicle for the story.

“I have noticed lately how many male saints were bishops, popes, missionaries, great scholars and teachers while female saints get to be saints mostly by being someone’s mother...”

Her father is seeking to find a husband for her, a prospect that she despises. She cleverly comes up with impressive schemes to avoid these betrothals. She is stubborn and strong willed, and also despises much of the chores and duties of young girls.

“Instead I thought to make a list of all the things girls are not allowed to do: Go on crusades, be horse trainers, be monks, laugh very loud, wear breeches, drink in ale houses, cut their hair, piss in the fire to make it hiss, wear nothing, be alone..”

The great part of this book (and other books by Karen Cushman) is that she deftly incorporates different facets of medieval culture in her books. While Birdy details her life, she tells of the routines of young women, and chronicles village, castle and manor life. We attend fairs, funerals, weddings, and feast days at the monastery. We learn about superstitions, herbal medicines and medical practices, manners, and feudal life.  Cushman includes an afterword and references for further information.

I found Birdy to be delightfully refreshing and often time quite hysterical. My concern is that the reader will assume that this was a "typical" young girl in Medieval England. I don't believe that Catherine would have really been allowed to be so rambunctious or unsubmissive. It reads as humorous, as a young feminist who refuses to be bowled over, but I think it might be a tad contrived.

None-the-less, it is a delightful read, and I do think that Cushman has done a decent job of presenting the difficulties and differences of the time. Medieval life wasn't easy and this book doesn't gloss over that. The lack of hygiene, the abundance of fleas, the unsafe water, the asinine medical practices, the lack of education is all fairly well represented.

The Midwives Apprentice
Newbery Medal, 1996

“Just because you don't know everything don't mean you know nothing.”

I really loved this book. I found in empowering, promising and hope filled. Karen Cushman can pack a wonderful novel into a small package. A few pages into the book and I was captivated by the life of this young girl in Medieval England. In Birdy, we followed a higher class of life, whereas here, we have a glimpse into the world of an insignificant, nameless orphan who sleeps in a dung heap to protect herself from the bitter cold.

"Dung Beetle" (so named because of her choice of sleeping in the dung heap) is taken in by Jane, the midwife, where she is a hard worker and accompanies Jane to birthings. Little by little through many situations and circumstances Beetle changes her belief that she is unworthy, and opens herself up to believe in herself. This progression is often times painful and thought provoking. Yet while we observe her small steps to transforming herself, it is hard to not be flooded with hope, and filled with respect for her strength of spirit.

One of my favorite parts of the story is when Beetle is sent to the fair to buy supplies for the midwife and is mistaken for a girl named Alyce. She is so taken aback that someone could mistake her for someone with a name, a pretty name, that she renames herself Alyce.

Little by little she reworks herself into a new person. The chronicling of her learning to sing and make music, as well as her learning letters and small words are parts of the story which detail the beautiful transformation of this young girl.

One small side note is that there are two instances that could be considered of a bit more mature content. In one reference a couple is caught in the haystacks. The details are sparse and I believe it would not be obvious to a younger reader what had transpired. Another reference is to the midwife having an adulterous affair with the baker. Again the situation lacks detail, and Alyce exposes the guilty parties in an unusual fashion.

This books has quickly jumped onto my list of "must reads".

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tasha Tudor and the Celebration of a Wonderful Life

“Life isn't long enough to do all you could accomplish.
And what a privilege even to be alive.
In spite of all the pollutions and horrors,
how beautiful this world is.
Supposing you only saw the stars once every year.
Think what you would think.
The wonder of it!”
~~ Tasha Tudor

Ahhh Summer....blissful blissful days of summer. The joys of working in a school is that I have endless free days over summer...

I have been joyfully floating in my pool, reading books, and sewing.
The other day I popped into my local quilt shop and found some wonderful fabric of Tasha Tudor's prints. I was thrilled. I love Tasha Tudor's books and illustrations. It prompted me to return home and browse through my own beloved collection of Tasha Tudor.

Tasha Tudor was a quintessential New Englander. She lived on a beautiful farm in Vermont, where she raised four children, and wrote and illustrated more than 100 books.
Her website includes the following biography on her:

Her Vermont home, though only 30 years old, feels as though it was built in the 1830's, her favorite time period. Seth Tudor, one of Tasha's four children, built her home using hand tools when Tasha moved to Vermont in the 1970's. Tasha Tudor lived among period antiques, using them in her daily life. She was quite adept at 'Heirloom Crafts', though she detested the term, including candle dipping, weaving, soap making, doll making and knitting. She lived without running water until her youngest child was five years old.
From a young age Tasha Tudor was interested in the home arts. She excelled in cooking, canning, cheese-making, ice cream making and many other home skills. As anyone who has eaten at Tasha Tudor's would know, her cooking skills were unsurpassed. She collected eggs from her chickens in the evenings, cooked and baked with fresh goats milk, and used only fresh or dried herbs from her garden. Tasha Tudor was renowned for her Afternoon Tea parties.
Once summer arrives, Tasha Tudor would always leave her art table to spend the season tending her large, beautiful garden which surrounds her home.

She won two Caldecott Honor Medals for:

Mother Goose
Honor Medal 1945

1 is One
Honor Medal 1957

One of my favorites is
A Time to Keep
She presents a year of holidays and traditions from her own childhood. It is a nostalgic look of a by-gone era, accompanied by her beautiful watercolor illustrations.

Another favorite is
A is for Annabelle: A Doll's Alphabet
An alphabet book illustrated with Victorian dolls and each letter represents one of her favorite things. Another lovely glimpse into a beautiful by-gone era.