October 25, 2018 § 6 Comments
Last month, Northern Virginia saw twenty-four days of rain. Adding insult to injury, this deluge of wet, gloomy weather happened during the one month each year when our family barely holds it together in the first place. Where the ensuing chaos of back-to-school transitions is trumped only by the fact that both my children once upon a time insisted on entering the world within two weeks of one another (and have since insisted that their celebrations never overlap).
Fortunately, we are not strangers to the salvation of the right chapter book series for back-to-school season (see here). Still, I have never been as thankful for one particular set of literary characters as I was last month.
Exhibit A begins when my (almost) eleven year old came upon me at the kitchen counter, surveying a spread of Tupperware containers.
“Can you read Penderwicks to me and Emily?” he blurted out.
(Um, do I look like I am available for reading, you good-for-nothing…) “I have to make dinner.”
“Oh. Right. What are we having?”
“I’m going to turn these various leftover vegetables into quesadillas.”
“Wait, can I make the dinner instead? Then you could sit and read to us, and I could listen while I cook.”
You are going to WHAT?! (As much as I’d like to tell you I have kids who regularly help out with cooking, I do not have kids who regularly help out with cooking. Getting them to trim green beans can be a knock-down-drag-out fight.)
And yet, as I took my place on the couch next to my daughter, ours backs to the ensuing sounds of banging and clattering coming from the kitchen, the incredible happened. My son sautéed vegetables. He grated cheese. He filled tortillas and then flipped each one on a cast-iron skillet until it was perfectly browned. He used the pizza cutter to make equal wedge-like slices. All the time, I read from The Penderwicks in Spring. Together, we laughed and leaned in and pretended it wasn’t pouring rain outside for the umpteenth day in a row, pretended that spring was springing outside our window like it was outside the Penderwicks’ house.
The Penderwicks: a family so fun, so funny, so well-meaning, so deliciously and perfectly flawed, that they cannot fail to bring out the best in everyone who knows them.
“Are you ready for us?” I asked, turning to see three heaping plates on the counter.
“No, keep going,” JP replied. “I want to make the table look extra nice before we sit down.”
I give myself a tiny bit of credit for this. I always knew we would want to binge read The Penderwicks books (Ages 8-12), by award-winning Jeanne Birdsall, so I not only waited until the last one in the series came out (this past spring), I also waited until my kids were almost eight and eleven—the perfect ages for a series whose later books take on increasingly mature terrain, as the characters themselves age (romantic pitfalls and all).
We flew through The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street over the summer, then finished The Penderwicks at Point Mouette during the first week of school, yearning nostalgically for our own travels to Maine (Maine’s Point Mouette being the site of the Penderwicks’ two-week, unplugged summer vacation.). That left The Penderwicks in Spring and The Penderwicks at Last for September and October.
Who are these infectious creatures? While the Penderwicks family (spoiler alert) picks up some new additions as the series goes on, the spotlight initially focuses on four sisters and their affable, eccentric single father. Rosalind, the eldest, can be bossy, but she’s also fiercely protective of her younger siblings, having stepped up to care for them after their mother died of cancer (four years before the start of the first book).
Skye, next in line, may resemble her late mother’s conventionally beautifully features, but her tomboy personality, infuriating stubbornness, fondness for the soccer field, and astute mathematical mind sometimes make her feel like the “black sheep” of the family.
Then there’s hopelessly romantic Jane—the sibling who regularly elicits the most giggles from my brood—who, as an aspiring author, sees everything around her as potential fodder for her fictional series about a heroine named Sabrina Starr (although don’t count her out on the soccer field, either).
Finally, there’s Batty, just four years old when the series begins (but who stars as a fifth grader and college student in the final two books), and whose devotion to fairy wings, mishaps, and animals—including her beloved dog, Hound—wins over everyone she meets.
Who is our favorite? That answer changes faster than I can turn the page. Birdsall continuously develops her characters: they ebb and flow and keep us guessing, all the while taking up residence inside our hearts. The cast of supporting characters—most of them boys—is equally memorable.
If this is a book whose main characters are girls, does that mean it’s a girl book? YOU HUSH UP RIGHT NOW. True, my daughter now claims The Penderwicks as her second favorite series of all time, after Harry Potter. BUT ALSO, my son will tell you it is now his third favorite series, after HP and Percy Jackson. That my son’s enthusiasm matches his sister’s isn’t just high praise: it is proof positive that author Shannon Hale (a.k.a. Princess in Black) knows what she’s talking about when she says there is absolutely nothing about being a boy that predisposes you to enjoy only stories about boys—and that we as parents better stop pushing our own bias on our children.
Besides being filled with fleshed-out characters, what makes this realistic fiction so enticing, so worthy of sitting your mother down and cooking for her?! While The Penderwicks books are set in today’s time, largely in a fictional Boston suburb named Cameron, they have a charm—especially against a backdrop of increasingly “heavy” middle-grade fiction—which feels refreshingly old-fashioned. They feel like the timeless tales we remember from our own childhood, the ones which kept us warm during winter nights, which helped us pass lazy summer days on a porch swing.
Sure, the Penderwick siblings get into scrapes—but they are scrapes with bulls, or runaway rabbits, or with the prickly mother of their best friend (and “honorary sibling”) Jeffrey. These are girls who climb trees to sneak into the bedroom of a friend in need; who run off brooding to throw rocks into the ocean and almost drown trying to save a dog; who sneak into golf courses in the early dawn to spy on moose.
Sure, the Penderwick siblings are not perfect. They squander; they dig in their heels; they let misunderstandings brew and nearly swallow them up. Their relationships with one another change over time, alliances form and break apart. But they continue to abide by what they call Penderwick Family Honor. They continue to call MOPS (Meeting of the Penderwick Sisters) to formulate Great Plans, like how to keep their beloved father from marrying again, or how to stop a fellow sibling from running away. They continue to act with the conviction that they are stronger together.
Sure, their adventures are crafted, often hilariously so, to keep us breathless with excitement—but they are also adventures which feel alluringly like the simple, pure, pared-down essence of childhood. For our children reading these books, the Penderwicks are a harbinger of all that is good and true in this world: of curiosity, of kindness, of laughter, of resilience, of familial bonds which stand strong against the currents of time.
In short, they are exactly the thing to read when life—or twenty-four days of rain—has got you down.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.
Books published by Alfred A. Knopf. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.
Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.
As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)
What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:
…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.
Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.
As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)
I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.
All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.
But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.
Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.
Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.
Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.
…and Jenny’s head fell off.
I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.
I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.
The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.
The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.
While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?
Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)
A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.
This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.
We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.
With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:
Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.
So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.
You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.
And, of course, the most blood.
The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.
Review copy of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment
On our first full day of summer break, I was stopped at a red light when I heard what could only be described as vigorous huffing and puffing from the backseat. My son headed off my own curiosity, turning to his sister in the seat next to him. “What in the WORLD, Emily?”
“I am blowing the red light,” she replied matter-of-factly, between huffs. “To get it to turn green.”
Her brother, never one to pass up an opportunity for correction, pounced on this. “That is NOT what it means to ‘blow a red light,’” JP said. “It means to drive through the light when it’s red.”
There were exactly two beats of silence, as my seven-year-old daughter presumably took in this information. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet but firm.
“I choose to live in a world with magic, JP.”
Cue eye roll from big brother, and a big smile from me. You see, while my youngest has always been a free spirit (“Your daughter lives in a world of her own,” my own mother is fond of saying), she has never had much patience for magic wands or fairy godmothers, for Tinker Bell or Cinderella’s mice. “I do not like fairies,” she is fond of telling me, though I am equally fond of reminding her that, while she may always trade in fairy wings for dinosaur costumes, she has also loved listening to me read The Night Fairy, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, and Snow and Rose. Her fondness for Disneyworld’s rides aside, Emily seems to object to a gendered, princess-y, commercialized depiction of magic. What she actually loves is the idea that—upon close, quiet, intimate examination—the natural world might be found to be tinged with the supernatural.
In his final line of his final children’s book, The Minpins, Roald Dahl wrote:
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
Our job as parents might be to teach our children to brush their own teeth and pack their own *$%! lunches, but it is also to nurture the believer in them. If we accomplish nothing but that our children choose to see magic in the world, I think we can rightfully throw ourselves a party.
It is likely no coincidence that this backseat exchange between my kids took place on the heels of finishing two chapter books with my daughter. Perhaps if her older brother had been on the receiving end of Granted (Ages 8-11), by John David Anderson, and Bob (Ages 7-10), co-written by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, he would not have been surprised by Emily’s newly-pronounced world view. The two storylines couldn’t be more different; and yet, in overlaying a touch of the fantastical onto real, everyday life, the books beg their readers to look more closely at the world around them, to question whether there might be more going on than meets the eye.
Granted opens with a question—“The last time you blew out your birthday candles, what did you wish for?”—and then, across 322 spell-binding pages, proceeds to give us a “backstage pass” as to what actually happens when we humans offer up a silent wish into the universe, be it by birthday candle or fallen eyelash or shooting star. If our wish subsequently comes true, it could be coincidence. Or it could be the daring, painstaking, high-stakes work of a fairy—work so essential, the feydom’s very existence depends on it.
Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is a fairy, with hair “as cobalt blue as the flower she was born from.” She lives, as all North American Fairies do, in the Haven, a mostly secreted place teeming with tree-top houses and bowing to its own complex set of laws, orders, and ceremonies. From their earliest age, fairies are assigned a guild to which they dedicate their lives. In Ophelia’s case—owing to her speed, her meticulousness, and her generally type A personality—she has the most coveted job: she’s a certified field agent, otherwise known as a Granter, which means she will be called upon to move surreptitiously among humans on a mission to grant a particular wish. Each day, a lottery in the Haven decides which of the millions of human wishes from the past 24 hours will be granted. Unfortunately, the Haven’s supply of magic has been rapidly dwindling over the years, owing to fewer and fewer human believers.
On the morning the story opens, there is only enough magic to grant a shocking twelve wishes. The good news is that Ophelia is assigned to one of the wishes, a chance to put her training into action at last. The wish is for a new bicycle, made by an Ohio girl named Kasarah Quinn, whose previous bike was stolen.
Protocol requires that, in order for a wish to come true, the Grantor has to retrieve the wished-upon object—in this case, a nickel tossed into a fountain—before she (or he, because male fairies are just as prevalent, including Ophelia’s pink-haired BFF) sprinkles on the precious 100% pure fairy dust and utters the magic words. Ophelia has twelve hours (“tocks,” in fey speak) to complete her mission and get back to the Haven. She is not, under any circumstance, to become distracted by anything she sees or hears (beyond the supersonic ringing of the wished-upon object), or emotionally invested in any of the creatures she encounters.
When you are a pint-sized creature with delicate fairy wings, journeying hundreds of miles without being seen or crushed can present unlimited challenges (planes! trucks! automatic sliding doors!)—even when armed with a thermal flight suit, camouflage spray, and various miniaturized weapons cooked up by a team of Builders, Makers, and Alchemists. Even more, attempting to chase down a coin, which seems to change hands more quickly than we can say Ophelia’s full name, means that Ophelia becomes an unwitting pawn in several humans’ lives (and one adorably hapless dog’s). As Ophelia quickly discovers, the wealth of printed information about the human world, which she has poured over for years in the Haven’s Archives, doesn’t scratch the surface. As it turns out, humans (and dogs) have a unique knack for getting others to care for them. And where there is caring, there are complications.
Granted proved the perfect antidote for my fairy-skeptical daughter. In nearly every chapter, author Anderson manages to build up to a breathless cliff-hanger specific to Ophelia’s mission, while simultaneously disclosing fascinating new details about the inner-workings of the feyworld at large. Much like J.K. Rowling’s richly textured Hogwarts, it seems there is nothing that Anderson hasn’t considered. Several times while I was reading the book, I thought, “But wait…,” only to have this suspected hole filled by a subsequent chapter. (The book addresses, for example, what happens if someone were to wish for world peace…or for something criminal.)
Ironically, it is precisely her perfectly-ordered world that Ophelia begins to rebel against. By decree of fairy law, wish fulfillment must be arbitrary; and yet, aren’t some wishes more important than others? What are the consequences for valuing one person’s life over another? What should the role of magic be? And what if we’ve been doing something the same way for so long that we’ve forgotten how to question it? Ironically, it’s Ophelia’s passionate rebellion that might just be the key to rekindling the believer in all of us.
In Bob, a chapter book my daughter and I finished in two days (being both short and deliciously addictive), there may not be any wish-granting fairies, but there is a mysterious green creature wearing a clumsily-fashioned chicken suit, whose destiny turns out to be directly linked to the wish of an entire community. When ten-year-old Livy finds this creature, who calls himself Bob, in her bedroom closet at her Australian grandmother’s farmhouse, she doesn’t remember him from the last time she visited that distant continent, five years earlier. In fact, she doesn’t remember many specifics about her last visit. Bob, however, has spent the past five years shut up in a closet thinking of little else but Livy, wondering when she was going return and doing his best to stay entertained with only a LEGO pirate ship and a dictionary. (Pause. I always thought it was just me who found the name Bob amusing to pronounce when I was a child—the way it kind of blurts out of the mouth—until I caught my daughter giggling and repeating it the first few times I read it. Or maybe it’s genetic? No offense to any Bobs out there reading this.)
Who and what is this adorably eccentric Bob creature? Where did he come from, and where if not the closet is he supposed to be? Bob and Livy are equally puzzled. Bob initially worries he might be a zombie, but Livy quickly puts an end to that with the help of the dictionary. When Livy determines that no one else seems able to see or hear Bob, she questions whether he might be an imaginary friend from her younger years; and yet, how can an imaginary friend eat actual potato chips? Through chapters that alternate between Livy’s and Bob’s perspective, we begin to piece together a picture, not only of the individual backgrounds and personalities, but why their friendship was once so important to both of them—and why it still is.
Livy is a quiet, perceptive child, caught in that sticky gap between little kid and big kid. She’s too old to play with dolls—or is she? She’s too old to be nervous about her mother leaving her for two weeks with her grandmother—or is she? She’s too old to remember how Bob first came to live in her closet—or is she? Even the format of the book echoes this duality, with short chapters and the occasional sepia-toned illustration (beautifully rendered by Nicholas Gannon), exactly halfway between an early chapter book and a middle-grade novel.
Certainly, Livy is old enough to sense the sadness, worry, and helplessness in the adults around her, all of whom are struggling to support farms in the midst of a severe years-long drought. She feels equally powerless to help—that is, until the neighbor’s son goes missing. When Livy and Bob journey deep into the woods to search for the boy, they not only find him, they also discover that Bob is a clue to the drought plaguing the land. It’s a journey that no adult would understand or believe, but it’s a journey that reminds us readers that the natural world is rich with intrigue, with hidden currents, with a tinge of the supernatural. Whether Bob is real or a figment of Livy’s imagination may always be open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: occasionally, in life, there may not be a logical explanation for the amazing things we witness.
This summer, I invite you: choose a world with magic for your children. Grant some wishes. And maybe not just for them. I know a lot of adults who could use a little bit of magic right about now.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.
Books published by Walden Pond Press (Harper Collins) and Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), respectively. Review copies purchased by me! All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
March 8, 2018 § Leave a comment
When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?
When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp?
I am halfway through one of the most compelling parenting books I’ve ever read. In The Self-Driven Child, clinical neuropsychologist, William Stixrud, along with motivational coach, Ned Johnson, make a convincing case for what our children need most from us. Drawing from personal experience and brain science, they argue that the main driver behind children’s well-being isn’t grades, or where they go to school, or what things they have. Rather, it’s how much control children perceive as having over their lives. Do they feel they can direct their lives in a meaningful way? Do they have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?
“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being,” the book puts forth.
Perhaps more than we realize, we parents get in the way of our children developing their agency. We don’t mean to, of course. It’s just incredibly hard to sit back and watch our kids potentially sabotage friendships, tests, or the chance for future success. Maybe we want them to do what we did because it worked out so well, or maybe we’re hoping to save them from making the same mistakes we did. In any case, Stixrud and Johnson write:
So often, parents want to play Edward Scissorhands and start pruning their child like a tree, but the reality is that your tree has just begun to grow, and you don’t even know what kind of tree it is.
Sometimes, I would add, we “prune” our children without ever saying a word.
A few weeks ago, I attended my seven-year-old daughter’s “student-led conference” at her Montessori school, where she presented some of her recent work. To kick off the night, she shared a written “self-assessment,” in which she had noted her temperament, values, and interests. On one page was a list of “strong likes” and “strong dislikes.” Under the likes column, she had listed her brother, her father, and me (phew)—along with chocolate cake, polar bears, Helen Keller, and a few other things I couldn’t make out. Under dislikes, she had put “peppers.”
“Like spicy peppers?” I asked.
“No, like the peppers I eat for lunch.”
Ok, wait. My daughter packs her own lunch every morning. More often than not, she puts in red peppers. “You don’t like the red peppers you pack for lunch everyday?”
“I hate them,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“Then why do you pack them?” I had to ask.
“You put them on the counter, so I know you want me to. It seems important to you.”
Clearly, in their book, Stixrud and Johnson are talking about bigger things than bringing peppers for lunch. Or are they? What would have happened if my daughter had complained about packing peppers for lunch one morning? Would I have interpreted it as whining and glared at her in exasperation? Would I have passive-aggressively suggested she pack carrots instead, knowing how little she cares for those? Would I have barked, “They’re already out. Just pack them so you can hurry up and eat your breakfast.” Did she have any choice but to wait until we were on her turf to deliver this information?
I immediately thought about the heroine in Princess Cora and the Crocodile (Ages 5-9), the delightfully funny but astutely provocative early chapter book by award-winners Laura Amy Schlitz (three words: The Night Fairy) and Brian Floca. Published last year and enjoyed countless times in our house since then, Princess Cora and the Crocodile suddenly seems like the perfect, if hyperbolic, meditation on what it means to give our kids agency—before they have to go and unleash their inner crocodile.
You might say our protagonist, Princess Cora, has an agency problem. Meaning she has none. Her well-meaning royal parents have micromanaged every aspect of her life, beginning moments after her birth, as soon as they remember she will someday be queen. “They stopped thinking she was perfect and started worrying about what might be wrong with her. By the time she was seven years old, there wasn’t a single minute when Princess Cora wasn’t being trained.” Training, pruning: in this case, it’s the same thing.
As it turns out, Cora has grown increasingly resentful about her life in the royal castle. The nanny insists she takes, not one, but three baths a day. (“The nanny thought that being clean was the most important thing in the world.”) The King, determined that Cora grow up to be physically strong, stands over her with a stop watch, while she jumps rope in circles across the floor of the dungeon-now-gym. (“Princess Cora knew that skipping rope was good for her, but that didn’t make her like it any better.”) And the Queen only allows her to read books about running a successful kingdom. (“The books were so dull that Princess Cora yawned until her eyes were full of tears.”)
Why doesn’t Cora say something? Well, she tries. Sometimes, while reading books, she “asked silly questions, just to liven things up.” But then she’s criticized for being “inappropriate.” Sometimes, while asked to jump rope, she starts to protest. But then her father puts on a sad face and asks her, “Princess Cora, are you being a good girl?” To which it is assumed there should be only one answer.
Where questions of agency are concerned, it seems girls have it all the harder, feeling pressure to bend not only to parental demands, but also to society’s expectations. Girls, after all, are supposed to be “good.” To be polite and well-mannered. To never be loud or bossy or messy or angry. To never hurt feelings.
So, Cora does one of the few things allowed of heroines in fairy tales. She writes to her fairy godmother. In this case, the protocol for contacting one’s fairy godmother—my daughter loves this part—is to write a letter, tear it up, and leave it on the window ledge, where each of the scraps turns into a white butterfly and flies away.
Cora writes specifically of her wish for a dog (“a dog wouldn’t tell her what to do”), but she finds something much larger at the foot of her bed the next morning. A crocodile. And not just any crocodile. A crocodile who triumphantly exclaims, “I’ve come to rescue you from your awful parents and your mean nanny.” A crocodile who seems every bit the opposite of the neat, quiet, polite princess. (Or is he?) Did I mention this crocodile bites? That he leaves a wake of destruction in his path? That he says things which are very, very rude? That he demands cream puffs all day and night?
The princess and the crocodile hatch a plan: Cora will run away and experience life outside the castle walls, while the crocodile will stand in for her, donning a dress and a mop for hair. (Cora assures him her parents aren’t very observant.)
What follows is a most entertaining juxtaposition: the sweet revelations of Cora’s tromp through nature, interspersed with the uproarious physical comedy of the crocodile wreaking havoc back home. While we might guess where this is going, the delight comes from the delicious details in Schlitz’s narrative and the whimsy of Floca’s drawings.
Cora climbs trees, stuffs herself full of freshly-picked strawberries, and walks barefoot through cow patties (at first thought, “Ew ew ew;” at second thought, “I’m having an adventure!”). Her petticoats rip and her cheeks pink up.
Back at the castle, the crocodile starts by turning the bathroom into a water slide and tossing Nanny into the bath. Later, bored of his reading lesson (the Queen initially assumes she is talking to Cora), he balances the ink pot on his nose until black splotches cover the table; swings from the chandelier; taunts the Queen with “bad rhymes;” and nips at her ankles. Finally, he chases the King around in circles and ties him up with the skipping rope.
“I don’t want to be a good little girl,” the crocodile declares. “I want to be a bad crocodile. And what’s more, I am one!” And that, of course, is when we realize that the crocodile is none other than a metaphor for the anger and rebellion—the maleness, if you will—which good girl Cora has tried so many years to repress.
As we expect, Cora eventually realizes that she misses her parents, and she decides to return to the castle. Only this time, it’s on her terms. As it turns out, the King and Queen and Nanny have also had a change of heart. (After getting locked in the library, the Queen realizes just how boring her books are and throws them out the window.) The grown-ups begin to do something they have never done before: they begin to listen to Cora. This time, she talks clearly, convincingly, and assertively. (“This time Cora didn’t hang her head or turn red or burst into tears.”) Cora speaks of her interest in reading about “sharks and tigers and fairies”; in climbing trees and learning how to juggle; in taking baths but only after getting very, very dirty. To their surprise, her parents discover that Cora’s overall goals for herself aren’t dramatically different from the ones they have for her; it’s only that she has different ideas about how to achieve them.
The Self-Driven Child raises the unsettling question, “If we’re unable to accept our kids as they are, how can we expect them to accept themselves?” The authors challenge us to listen, really listen to our children. They suggest, what if instead of steering our children down a path we deem best, we begin seeing our job as one of “consultant”—helping our children see the pros and cons of a decision but then, ultimately, leaving that decision up to them? After all, if we accept our children as they are, perhaps they won’t feel the need to unleash their inner crocodile just to get our attention. Perhaps they can embrace all aspects of their personality, not just the ones society tells them are most “appropriate.”
After a brief hiatus, Emily has started packing peppers again in her lunch. Maybe her hatred is softening, or maybe it’s just on her terms now.
(And no, I’m not going to tell you what becomes of the crocodile.)
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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
January 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
In a somewhat bittersweet turn of events, JP was less interested in listening to me read than he was in reading his own book (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, the sequel to Tim Federle’s fabulous Better Nate Than Ever, which I can at least take credit for introducing to him last fall, on our trip to New York City to catch his first Broadway musical). Emily, however, was game to join me each day on the couch and insisted we read Emily Winfield Martin’s newly-published and ohhhh-so-lovely Snow and Rose (Ages 8-12, slightly younger if reading aloud).
When the winter doldrums threaten to take over, we fantasize about escape. But who needs a tropical beach vacation when you have the mysterious, enchanted, dangerous woods of our imagination? (Um, still me. But that’s a different post.)
It doesn’t happen often that my kids get to a book before I do. But when I opened the box from Random House to reveal Snow and Rose’s stunning black cover, with its raised gold lettering and cloaked girls—one in pale blue and one in red—Emily exclaimed, “Oh, that’s the book we just finished in school!” Say what? (After my shock wore off, I delighted that her teachers have their pulse on contemporary children’s literature.) At once, Emily decided this would be our winter break read. “Are you sure you don’t want to hear something new?” I asked.
“Actually, Mommy, I think this is one of those books that feels even more magical the second time you read it. Plus, I’ll be able to spot all the clues, because I know what’s going to happen.” (She didn’t need to add, And you don’t.)
Across nineteen exquisite chapters and gorgeous full-color illustrations normally reserved for the likes of picture books, Snow and Rose concerns itself with re-telling The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red”: the story of two impoverished, fatherless girls, who live with their mother in a cottage at the edge of an enchanted woods—and whose chance encounters with a giant bear and an unsettling dwarf set their destinies into motion.
In the academic study of children’s literature, much has been made about why fairy tales—dark, twisted, fantastical stories of long ago—get retold and reread with such frequency (apart from the electrifying shivers they send down our spines). One of the best explanations comes from Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, which proffers, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue…”
That is to say, while the settings and dramatic action of fairy tales might be (sometimes ridiculously) far-fetched, the world view they offer our children is not. Rather, these stories put forth a reassuringly familiar account of what it feels like to be young, helpless, even afflicted in a world presided over by adult authority figures, whose motivations are often neither evident nor well-meaning. Remember Hansel and Gretel’s father, manipulated by his new wife to leave his children in the woods to die? Remember the witch, disguised by the sugary treats of her gingerbread house?
And yet, these fairy tales also offer hope: what their young protagonists lack in power, they more than make up for in wit, creativity, kindness, and loyalty. In fact, often through a combination of these qualities, these characters figure out how to step outside the adult shadows, how to tease out light from dark, and how to reverse their own fortunes into a kind of Happy Ending. Bettelheim explains:
The unrealistic nature of these tales…is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.
In Snow and Rose, Martin puts the “inner processes” of her heroines on full display, exploring and building on an emotional awareness and growth in the two sisters only hinted at in the original fairy tale. Snow, named for her white hair, is spirited, wild, and impulsive. Rose, with “hair like threads of black silk and cheeks like two red petals,” is rational, determined, and fiercely loyal. And yet, Martin resists setting these personalities in stone. The girls’ temperaments evolve, even bend, at different opportunities, particularly when the other needs her most.
If there is one thing we can count on in fairy tales, it’s that things are rarely as they seem. Martin has expanded on this premise with a story that also resists labels and boxes, which seems to exist in the very grey shadows of the trees through which the girls traverse, seeking answers to questions life has so unwittingly hurled at them.
When we first meet the sisters, they are mourning the life they once knew. Most significantly, they are facing the loss of their beloved father, who wandered into the woods one day and never returned. Because we’re in the language of fairy tales, he did not “die;” he “was taken.” In fact, people have been mysteriously disappearing in these woods for years.
The wondering burned inside [Snow and Rose] but took different shapes because of what they believed: Rose wanted to know why their father had been taken, and Snow wanted to know how to get him back. Their wondering touched the edges of things they could never know, about this place that had changed their fortunes once and would change them again.
If our children ever needed inspiration to confront their fears head on, they need look no further. In order to find answers to their “burning” questions, Snow and Rose venture boldly into the very woods whose mysteries have been their family’s greatest downfall.
Fortunately (by now you might need some reassurance that all is not dark, dreary, and bone-chilling in these 205 pages), Martin populates these enchanted woods with just as many wonderful, wondrous things—many of them unique to her version of the story—as she does the bandits, the howling wolves, the knife-teethed fish, and the trees with watching eyes. Of all the beauty to be found, not the least of which are the seasonal transformations: the woods a silent “palace of ice” after a snowstorm, a “carpet of violets” in the spring.
There’s the “mushroom boy,” Ivo, who lives with his family in an underground house, accessible only by a long chute beneath the roots of a tree, and who becomes a treasured companion to the sisters.
There is the mysterious Library: a small house in a clearing flanked by white flowers, on whose shelves rest, not books, but thousands of boxed and jarred objects, all of them found in the woods and all of them with stories waiting to impart to their borrower, though not in any predictable way.
And there is the larger-than-life bear, a creature feared and suspected by many as the culprit behind the humans’ disappearances—but whom the sisters believe innocent. The girls free the beast’s leg from a huntsman trap, shelter him from winter’s fury in front of their fireplace, and later reap the benefits of their kindness in spades.
While the girls may be right about the bear, they are wrong about the Little Man: the white-bearded, red-pointy-hat-clad fellow, who speaks in riddles and proves immune to the sisters’ kindness. In Little Man lies the story’s duplicitous villain, a cruel and calculating creature, but even here Martin seems to tug at the universality of fairy tales. When asked to identify himself, the Little Man mischievously taunts the girls:
“Sometimes I’m the Dwarf and sometimes I’m the Tomten…Or sometimes the Brownie or Boggart or Gnome…And to some very rude people, I’ve been the Goblin…But these are just names… Many names have I, child. But none have guessed what I am.”
Exactly “what” the Little Man personifies can be debated at length. Evil? Greed? Loneliness? Misunderstanding? Older children might even pick up on how the sisters actually share red and white attributes with the Little Man. Perhaps Martin wishes to suggest that, in the making of our own fate and fortune, we must begin by confronting our own demons.
If I was impressed with how Martin remodels the interior of her fairy tale, I was slayed by her ending, a deeply gratifying departure from the original. In the Brothers Grimm’s telling, the fairy tale ends when the bear turns into a prince and marries one of the sisters. In Martin’s version, there is a different transformation altogether, one much more suited to the hearts’ desire of our heroines. No spoilers here but, ultimately, the story ends with a celebration of familial bonds—particularly those of sisterhood—and the reassuring reminder that our own courage and wit and will to survive in the wild woods are made stronger by the love we have at our backs.
Always, when we return from the woods, we are changed in the best of ways.
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Review copy provided by Random House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
December 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
These are some of the questions posed quietly but provocatively in Wishtree (Ages 7-12), the latest chapter book by Katherine Applegate, award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan and Crenshaw (yes, you will cry in this new one, too). In today’s installment of my Gift Guide, I’m giving Wishtree its own due—deliberately not bundling it in my forthcoming post on middle-grade reads—because it lends itself so beautifully, so ardently, to sharing aloud. (Said differently: it’s not action-packed, so if your children are like mine, they may not pick it up on their own.) At just over 200 pages, with 51 short chapters, it’s not a long or difficult read. But its smaller-than-usual trim size gives it immediate intimacy, and the discussions it encourages—about what we want our community to look like and what we’re prepared to do about it—may just make change agents of us all.
Unconventionally, Wishtree is narrated by a tree. An enormous 216-year old red oak tree, who goes by the name Red. If you thought trees couldn’t talk, that’s because you haven’t been listening. (Trees have a rather complicated relationship with people, after all. One minute you’re hugging us. The next minute you’re turning us into tables and tongue depressors.) But it’s also because trees, like animals, abide by a central governing rule to talk out of human earshot (a frog once broke this rule and talked to a mail carrier, and it did not go well).
But don’t be fooled: trees see everything.
With age and size on her side, Red is perfectly situated to reflect on the changing community around her, not only the litany of animals that reside in her branches and hollows, but also the row of (human dwelling) townhouses she shelters. She is a self-proclaimed busy body (a “buttinski,” as her best friend, the mischievous crow Bongo, teases her); a lover of terrible puns; and, above all, an optimist. She is also a wishtree, which means that once a year, on May Day, people of all ages come from near and far to affix to her branches pieces of paper and scraps of fabric bearing single wishes (everything from “flying skateboards” to “I wish I weren’t hungry sometimes”). Wishtrees, incidentally, are not fictional: a dear friend has one on her vineyard in Sonoma, and my children long to visit and tie on their wishes.
Red presides over a community long populated with immigrant American families. Francesca, the owner of the plot on which Red herself sits, is the great-great-granddaughter of an Irish immigrant, whose cures for the sick meant people would leave small thank-you gifts for her in the oak’s hollows. Francesca has since rented out her townhouse—most recently, to a Muslim-American family with a school-aged daughter named Samar. It is presumably to this family that the anonymous, chilling, hand-carved message, which appears one morning on Red’s trunk, is directed: LEAVE.
People are under the impression that trees don’t mind being carved into, especially if hearts are involved.
For the record, we mind.
I’d never seen the boy before. He was big, maybe a high schooler. It’s hard to know with people. With a tree, I can sense to the month, sometimes to the day, its age.
I couldn’t tell what he was carving, of course. But I could tell from the determined way he moved that it was meant to hurt.
As is often the case, this single purposeful deed sets into motion a chain of events much wider than its intended recipient. For starters, Francesca, the property owner, who admits to “lack[ing] a sentimental bone in my body,” decides time is long overdue to take down Red. The oak’s roots are destroying the walkways, the clean-up every year following Wishing Day is immense, and now the tree appears to be Ground Zero for xenophobia. But would chain sawing Red to the ground erase the intention behind that single loaded word? Certainly, it would destroy one of the most beautiful slices of nature for miles. It would obliterate a centuries-old tradition designed to nurture hope among neighbors. Say nothing of the skunk, opossum, and raccoon families who have long managed—against all odds—to co-exist peacefully under Red’s matronly protection.
In light of her pending execution (via Timber Terminators corporation), Red decides to overstep her place in the natural order of things and try herself to grant one of the wishes on her tree. She wants to meddle, but only “to make a difference, just a little difference, before I left this lovely world.”
In the short time they have known one another, Red has taken a special interest in the quiet new resident Samar, whose own wish hanging on the tree reads “I wish for a friend.” The family living next door to Samar has a boy in Samar’s class, and Red has often caught him sneaking shy glances at his new neighbor, despite his parents making it clear that the two families will never fraternize. With the help of her animal friends, Red stages a plan—comically misguided at times, but admittedly well-intentioned—to kindle a friendship between Samar and Stephen. Along the way, new questions arise: what is friendship? How does it begin? How much power can one friendship have?
And then, as her plan threatens to fail, Red steps up her game. She speaks up. She SPEAKS.
Let me say it like this. Before I even got my hands on this book, my daughter was listening to it read aloud by her teachers, a few chapters every day. I was enjoying hearing her updates at dinner (always the sign of a winning book when she can’t stop talking about it). At pick-up one day, she jumped into the car with dramatic flourish; apparently, she wasn’t going to wait until dinner. “Mom, the tree TALKED. She BROKE THE RULE. The Don’t Talk to People RULE!” Her response was part horror, part fascination.
(Up to this point, my daughter’s favorite part of the story had been Applegate’s delightfully imagined rules governing the Natural World. There’s the trees-don’t-talk-to-humans rule. But there are plentiful others, including how trees and animals name themselves. All opossums, for example, adopt the names of things that frighten them, like Hairy Spiders and Flashlight. Skunks are named after pleasant smells (“I am not sure if this is because they’re a bit defensive about their reputation, or if they just have a sly sense of humor,” says Red); while raccoons—my son found this especially funny—are all named You, because it’s easier for their mothers to remember.)
So, yes, Red breaks what she calls, “the biggie.” She comes right out and addresses (a very shocked) Stephen and Samar, as they sit beneath her one night, and she tells them the story of the very first wish tied onto her branches. It’s a wish that came true, that set into motion a diverse, loving community, now threatened by closed doors, narrow mindedness, and even hate.
Red immediately regrets her transgression and chides herself for overstepping. But, like the hateful deed that started it all, this one too has repercussions which stretch far beyond. Only this time, to drastically different ends.
You thought I was going to tell you what happens? Bah. In the words of one wise tree:
After two hundred and sixteen rings, I thought I’d seen it all.
Turns out you’re never too old to be surprised.
Reading this story, your children might chuckle their way through the various animals’ names. They might wonder at the banter between a tree and a crow. They might relate to Samar and Stephen and take another look at a new student or neighbor in their own neck of the woods. They might think up wishes of their own. But, with any luck, they’ll also be internalizing what happens when someone isn’t afraid to speak up—and when their voice inspires a whole lot of other people to do the same.
This is how we wish the communities of our dreams into reality.
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Book published by Macmillan. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
November 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
Because my Emily loves nothing more than a spirited, emotive, somewhat out-of-sorts heroine who reminds her of a hyperbolic version of herself, I always knew she was going to fall head over heels in love with Clementine. It’s why I waited until now to read the seven books in Sara Pennypacker’s laugh-out-loud but astutely heart-tugging chapter series set in Boston—first published ten years ago (Ages 6-9)—about a third grade girl with “spectacularful ideas” and difficulty paying attention in class. I wanted my Emily to be close enough to Clementine’s age to relate to her. And yet, I wanted her to be just young enough that the reading level was a liiiiiitle beyond her, so she’d perhaps pick up the books again on her own in another year. Which she will—I’m now sure of it.
I was tempted to embark on the Clementine books two years ago after our enormous success with Ramona. (Suffice it to say that when we finished the Ramona books, we had to read all the Henry Huggins titles, simply because Ramona would make occasional appearances.) I was again tempted to start Clementine every time Emily begged me to read Dory Fantasmagory or one of its sequels (I credit the third, about Dory’s struggle to learn to read, with convincing Emily to put forth more effort on the subject herself). Or Lulu’s Mysterious Mission. Or the Cody books. But I bided my time, because I knew I was saving the best for last.
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading aloud anything this much. I mean, quite literally, that reading aloud these books—narrated in Clementine’s insistently dramatic, alternately confident and bewildered voice—is beyond entertaining. Clementine is the kid who talks with such gumption, such purity of heart, that adults have to do all they can to keep from laughing (or maybe, if they’re related to her, bury their face in their hands).
“I’d better not go to school today,” I told my mom on Wednesday as soon as I woke her up. “I have cracked toes.” I put my foot right up on the pillow next to her face so she could see without getting up. This is called Being Thoughtful.
“Nope,” she said, without even opening her eyes to see if it was true.
“Well, that’s not all,” I said. “I also have the heartbreak of sore irises.”
“Nope,” she said again, and she still didn’t open her eyes.
“Actually, I think I have arthritis,” I said. “Mrs. Jacobi was breathing on me in the elevator the other day, and I must have caught it.”
“Oh, please,” she said, but this time she opened one eye. And then she made exactly the sound Polka Dottie used to make when she had a hairball.
There’s no question that Emily’s own tangible excitement (dare I say obsession?) also enhanced my enjoyment. She even created a secret Clementine signal. When she’d curve her fingers to make the letter “c” at me from across the dinner table, I knew she was thinking about Clementine. On weekend morning, when she’d climb into bed with me and make a “c” with her hands, I knew she was about to procure the book from underneath the covers. “Oh, Mommy, I think about her all day long,” she said one day after school. “I just can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next.”
After all, these books are full of trouble. Of mistakes, of misunderstandings, of escapades that go terribly, often hilariously wrong. Only Clementine would overhear her parents discussing a surprise party—complete with a cake reading “Goodbye and Good Riddance!”—and assume they were plotting to get rid of her. (In fact, they’re celebrating Clementine’s clever solution for relocating the hordes of pigeons sprawled across the stoop of their apartment building.) Only Clementine, in an effort to ensure her favorite teacher won’t win a sabbatical in Egypt and leave her, would submit a letter to the judges filled with fabricated criminal accusations. Only Clementine would turn shoe shopping into such a prolonged calamity of indecision that her parents would begin bribing one another for the chance to avoid taking her shopping ever again.
There’s undeniable appeal in watching life play out from the safe confines of a book’s pages. But I’d argue that the appeal of Clementine goes deeper than simply watching a third grader navigate the shifting expectations of academic, social, and family life.
What author Sara Pennypacker does so brilliantly (and with more than a little help from Marla Frazee’s expressive pencil sketches) is to create a window into the inner-workings of the mind of a girl who is often judged prematurely or incorrectly or unfairly. When Clementine is sent to the principal’s office for not paying attention in class again, we know—because she’s our narrator, after all—that she was paying excellent attention, just not to what her teacher was saying. In fact, she never stops paying attention: to pointy things (which freak her out); to the fourth graders playing outside her class window (as a future fourth grader herself, it’s imperative she understands their “rules”); to devising a list of excuses to get out of performing at the school talent show.
I remember a friend telling me she abandoned the first book after Clementine chops off her friend’s hair, then her own, then colors both scalps with permanent marker. “I don’t need my daughter getting any ideas. That girl is a pain in the you know what!” she relayed to me in horror (only she didn’t say “you know what”). But if we don’t read on, we miss the chance—like most of the adults around Clementine—to understand why she did what she did: how she was trying to help her friend, who had accidentally gotten her hair caught in the scissors in art class. How when she saw that her own actions had made her friend feel even worse, she did the same to herself in solidarity. How she chose the permanent markers because they were the most special thing in her artist mother’s supply closet. Clementine doesn’t understand why the principal, not to mention the two mothers, can’t see this. Heck, she doesn’t understand why they aren’t impressed that she could sheer someone’s head with a pair of plastic scissors in the first place.
[Also] it is very hard to color hair with a marker, let me tell you. But I did it. I colored all of Margaret’s hair chunks Flaming Sunset, and then another really great idea popped into my head and I drew Flaming Sunset curls all over her forehead and the back of her neck so her hair would look more like mine. It looked beautiful, like a giant tattoo of tangled-up worms. When I am a grown-up, I will have hundreds of tattoos.
Here’s what we come to understand about Clementine: she may be the Curious George of chapter books, igniting chaos at every turn, but it’s only because she is trying her very best to put things right, to connect with others, to save the day. She wants so badly to be understood, to have people look at her with that awe-filled “I must be dreaming” expression, as she puts it.
Throughout the books, more and more adults come to see Clementine for the kind, passionate, perceptive soul she is. They take her most infuriating qualities—her impulsivity, her stubbornness, her inattention—and recognize the strengths they belie. She has an eye for things most people miss. She has conviction to take down life’s injustices. She is resourceful. She’s an artist, a writer, a pigeon tamer, a kitten rescuer, and a whiz with numbers. When people, like her beloved teacher Mr. DeMatz, give her a chance to rise to the occasion and put their confidence behind her, she rarely disappoints.
Hands down, my favorite non-Clementine character is her father. As facilities manager for the apartment building where the family lives in the basement, he’s usually around when Clementine returns from school. He takes his daughter’s mood swings or mis-steps and approaches them with calm and humor. You can feel the mutual affection and respect, even while Clementine reminds him that “fathers aren’t supposed to be comedians.” When she’s in a funk, he gives her the keys to the service elevator and lets her ride it up and down. When she pitches a fit upon discovering her parents are having a third baby, he stages Project Pentagon, and the two covertly build a five-sided kitchen table so no one will ever be squished.
Over the course of the six books, which span Clementine’s entire third grade year into summer, we witness significant emotional maturity in her, albeit in realistic fits and starts. She learns to “press her mouth together in a pencil line” rather than to say something inappropriate or hurtful. She learns to stand up to peer pressure; and to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. She realizes that, as much as she detests her name (and insists on calling her brother by different vegetable names, so he can experience what it’s like to have a “food name”), she’s like a clementine in one fundamental way: she is made up of different sections. Sometimes those sections are in harmony with one another and sometimes they are not. Because life—and people—are rarely that straightforward.
This is series writing at its best. The kind of writing where the characters seep into your consciousness, where just when you think you can predict what is going to happen, someone does something so unexpected, so vulnerable, so thrilling, it pulls the rug out from underneath you. Did I mention that every one of the book’s endings left my eyes more than just a little watery?
Ultimately, these pages are testimony that there are often complicated motivations and feelings at work behind outwardly “difficult” behaviors. Daydreamers have rich interior lives. Disruptors have important things to stew about. Indecisive children don’t want to miss out on anything. Impulsivity means someone hasn’t learned to control her passions. If we get rid of labels and try to see the whole of our child, we might begin looking at her or him the way Clementine’s parents do, as if she was “the winning ticket in the kid lottery.”
P.S. Sara Pennypacker is currently through book two of a new series titled Waylon, about a science-loving boy in Clementine’s class who may or may not have actual superhero powers. Obviously, we’ll be reading that…because it’s rumored that our favorite gal makes the occasional appearance.