October 18, 2018 § Leave a 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!
October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments
Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
Recently, I was chatting with a dad who wanted book recommendations for his newly independent reader. He looked at me, conspiratorially, and said with a chuckle, “I mean, this is it, right? I give him the books and he goes off and reads them. My work is done!”
To which I had to refrain from falling on the sidewalk and wailing, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
I hear this all the time. There seems to exist a parental myth that reading aloud is like toilet training. That once our kids can pull down their own underwear, we should herald their independence and get out of the way. That it’s our job as parents to instill a thirst for literature in our children by reading to them when they’re young—but once they’re reading on their own, we should just leave them to it. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s the most wonderful sight in the world to see our children curled up with their nose in a book, even when they ignore our pleas to come to dinner or go to sleep. To watch them develop their own tastes for certain genres. Even to have them roll their eyes and reply, “Oh, Mom, you wouldn’t understand,” when we ask, “What’s so funny?”
But there are a multitude of benefits—even for us—in continuing to read aloud to our children for years and years after they’ve built their own independent relationship with reading. And not the least of which is: the books you get to read get better.
#10: Reading aloud pushes our children outside their comfort zones.
Sure, they’re reading, but what are they reading? If it’s my ten-year-old, he’s reading plot-driven adventures by Rick Riordan or graphic novels like Mighty Jack or funny comics like Calvin and Hobbes. He likes what he likes, he rarely heeds my suggestions, and he often rereads favorites more than he picks up new things. But he reads voraciously, and I love it.
When I read to him, I deliberately choose books I know he won’t choose himself (see #9, #8, and #4). Books where, after a few pages, he’d likely deem them too hard, too boring, too slow. I read him the kind of books I hope he will someday choose himself: books with beautiful descriptive passages, with complex characters, with nuanced interpretations of the world. And never do I close the book for the night without him saying, “Oh, I wish you would keep reading.” (Shhh, he thinks I don’t know, but he’ll often pick up the book and continue reading after I leave the room.)
Our children’s world is only as expansive as their exposure. The same goes for vocabulary. Furthermore, children can’t know how a word is pronounced unless they hear it spoken aloud. I thought about this over the summer, as we made our way through all four books in The Familiars series (Ages 10-14, younger if reading aloud), by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobsen. For a fast-paced, episodic fantasy series starring three spell-casting animals (I chose it because I was looking for something to tide over my magic-obsessed children in between Harry Potter books, see #2), it incorporates challenging vocabulary. Take this passage from the third installment, Circle of Heroes:
Unfortunately, a penchant for self-indulgence was not all that afflicted the golden toad’s owner. The Baroness seemed to be paranoid as well. There were hippo soldiers in the watchtowers, and more patrolling the perimeter of the grounds with their blowguns. A Fjord Guard, a giant with blue-tinted skin and armpit hair that hung to his elbow, stalked the premises, making sure that no one broke in…or out.
Were my kids to attempt these books on their own, they’d likely skip over the big words, perhaps ignore entire passages in favor of the action or funny bits (of which there is plenty). Hearing these stories read aloud gives them a chance to absorb deliciously descriptive language in ways they otherwise wouldn’t (“armpit hair” and all).
In as much as I choose books relating to my children’s interests or studies, I also use reading aloud as a preview of coming attractions. Nothing enhances a family trip to a museum or a foreign country or even a local nature preserve than some fun advance reading. Before we headed to Boston this past summer, where we knew we wanted to take the kids on The Freedom Trail, I read to my son a book my father read to me: Esther Forbes’ 1943 Newbery Medal winner, Johnny Tremain (Ages 10-14), an historical novel about the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. It’s a difficult book for kids to read on their own, not least because of the 18th century vocabulary. In short, it’s a perfect read aloud.
Johnny Tremain is a fictional character: a silversmith whose apprenticeship abruptly ends when he disfigures his hand, landing him instead a job as a news carrier for the Sons of Liberty. And yet, many of the people with whom Johnny spends his days, as well as the events he witnesses, are straight out of the history books. My son was enraptured from start to finish, and we devoted one entire day of our trip to tracing Johnny’s steps through Boston. We stood in front of the Old South Meeting House, where Johnny awaited the signal from Sam Adams to rush the British ships. We threw crates of tea overboard in a re-enactment at the Boston Tea Party Museum. And we visited Paul Revere’s house, where Johnny watched the silversmith ride off to warn the Yankees of the British descent on Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the loveliest days we’ve ever spent as a family.
Alas, the time has come: my children now meet my explanations about the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. But seeing something in print? Now that’s an authority they still find worthy of genuine respect. (Next up: teaching them how to spot fake news.)
Did you know that if sharks become extinct, the ocean will eventually dry up? This is my new favorite revelation, straight from the pages of Lily Williams’ non-fiction picture book, If Sharks Disappeared (Ages 6-10), which we were inspired to purchase after attending a National Geographic show about sharks this summer. There is so much to love about this book (beginning with the fact that the little girl happens to have brown skin), which simply and elegantly showcases ecological concepts like food chains, “trophic cascades,” and conservation, all as they relate to the over-fishing of sharks. If we follow Williams’ researched logic—and it’s hard not to—then the extinction of sharks is something we should all be working to prevent.
Never underestimate the power of humor to impress children. I love it when my children think I’m funny (as opposed to grumpy or cross or serious or indifferent). As it turns out, they think I’m especially funny when we read funny things (bonus if I read them in funny voices). Some of you will remember my children’s deep fondness for the antics of a porcine caretaker by the name of Nanny Piggins. This summer, it was another British gem—Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Ages 7-10), the first of four books originally written in the 1950s by Catherine Storr and recently reissued in a single volume by The New York Review—which slayed my daughter.
If Little Red Riding Hood were to get a feminist makeover, it might look something like this. Because while young Polly might seem to the anthropomorphized wolf to be the perfect unsuspecting victim, she outsmarts him every single time. Despite an increasing fondness for the hapless beast, Polly never fails to beat him at his own game, twisting the wolf’s words back onto himself until he staggers off as befuddled as unsatiated. Did my Emily ever grow tired of Polly’s somewhat formulaic approach? Of course not. She was laughing too hard.
#5: Reading aloud builds empathy.
As Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Much has been made about the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy (it’s why R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy bullied for his facial deformity, is being taught in schools around the country). Can our kids get the benefit of empathy from reading on their own? Absolutely. But they are limited by what they choose to read (see #10).
Two years ago, when my daughter was first introduced to the world of American Girl, she wanted nothing to do with the “historical” dolls. I tried to steer her towards Kaya, the Native American doll whose fictional backstory sets her in 1764, with long black braids and a suede fringe dress (I may have been seduced by the idea of adding a horse and a tepee). “Mommy, I just don’t like the look of that doll,” she kept insisting—and I suspected some racially-motivated undertones.
Fast forward to this past summer, when—at a friend’s insistent recommendation, because I have always been skeptical—I started reading some of the early American Girl book series to my daughter, beginning with the six books starring Kaya (Ages 8-12). I was surprisingly impressed, not only by the sophisticated, sometimes daring content, but also by the way in which the stories incorporate actual history. Emily was riveted by Kaya’s life, which looked nothing like her own: undressing each morning to bathe in icy rivers; riding through brush fires on horseback; and escaping captivity. At the end of the summer, Emily came to me and announced she wanted a Kaya doll for her birthday. “You know, Mommy, I really didn’t think I liked Kaya when I first saw her, but now that I know so much about her, I realize she’s totally awesome!”
(Quick note about the American Girl books, of which Kaya, Kit, and Josephina are our favs. It pays to track down the original single books at the library (or buy them used), because the new reissued collections lack not only the color plates but the fantastic afterwards with historical context. Come on, American Girl. Why did you mess with a good thing?)
For the most part, when I’m reading to my children, I read up. I choose things that are slightly beyond what they can or should read themselves, not only in reading level but also in emotional content. Part of this is purely selfish: I will always prefer reading the juicier stuff to the Magic Tree Houses of the world. But part of this is because I believe there is immense value in children first learning about the big, scary, messy parts of life in the security of our embrace. Literature helps to nudge and shape these conversations.
I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t technically read aloud Jack Cheng’s new middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos (Ages 10-14); we listened to it in the car. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of performance art, in large part thanks to Kivlighan de Montebello’s poignant narration as eleven-year-old Alex Petrokski, who records journal-like accounts of his daily life on a “golden iPod” which he intends to launch into space for the benefit of aliens (a la his idol, Carl Sagan). And yet, what Alex understands about his own life on Earth gets called into question when he begins to confront his single mother’s struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia and the borderline negligence under which he has been living.
It’s a difficult story to stomach at times—made more intense by the audio performances—and I might not have had my seven year old in tow had I screened it in advance (note to self). And yet, my kids and I had conversations while listening to this book which I will never forget. Conversations about mental illness. About why our society attaches a stigma to it, often at the expense of helping. About what it means to be a parent and what happens when a parent can no longer handle that responsibility. And my favorite: about Alex’s unrelenting drive—as inspiring as it is risky—to see the best in people, even when their behavior suggests otherwise. About how this fervent belief in someone’s potential can be exactly what that someone needs to rise to the occasion.
When asked in an interview why she writes for children versus adults, Newberry award-winner Kate DiCamillo replied that when you write for children, there’s an unspoken understanding that you will end your stories with hope. Perhaps it’s this undercurrent of optimism that seduces me, too. As much as children’s literature informs or delights, it creates a lens through which our children see the world. And if we’re lucky, some of that perspective rubs off on our own (more jaded) selves.
Take Kit (Ages 8-12), another of our favorite heroines from the American Girl books. Set during the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge’s story begins with her father’s inability to find a job. Quickly, the comforts of her middle-class life disappear. But what personal resentment Kit feels is overshadowed by the starving, tattered bodies she notices at her local soup kitchen, or the “hobo jungles” on the outskirts of the rail yards. Not content to stand on the sidelines, Kit pitches in at home and in her community, even channeling her passion for writing into newspaper columns debunking stereotypes associated with poverty and homelessness. As in the best children’s literature, hardship yields opportunity, pain yields compassion, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I’ll admit it. As my children get older, I sometimes feel a little left out of their lives. They come home from school, and where they used to want to linger over snacks and show me their art projects, they now run to join the neighbors in a nerf gun battle. It’s exactly what they should be doing, but a part of me longs for the days when having fun meant hanging around me. This is where reading aloud has never failed me: when I’m reading to my children, we are bonding over a shared experience. We’re having fun together. We laugh, we gasp, we lean in. Sometimes we cry (or, as my daughter likes to point out, my son and I usually do the crying).
Of course, it’s a big plus if the book is as enjoyable for me as it is for them. And it’s an even bigger plus if we can get Dad to join in. On vacation this summer, my husband and I alternated reading aloud chapters from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ages 8-12), the second in J.K. Rowling’s series. There is perhaps nothing in the world better than listening to these books read aloud, and I am doing my darndest to limit my children’s exposure to one per year (they are free to re-read what we’ve read as many times as they want). As Rowling herself intended, I want my kids to age alongside their pals Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Furthermore, I want them to remember hearing each book for the first time out of the mouths of their kooky, dramatic parents, whose love for these books only grows when they catch sight of the amazement reflected back at them.
And that brings me to my last point.
#1: Reading aloud slows down time.
How often do we slow down and savor time with our children? How often do we stop feeling overwhelmed or wrestle ourselves out from under the weight of our responsibilities, even for a few minutes? Well, duh, we all know that answer. Reading aloud is my breather. It’s my pause button. It’s the moment when I get to gather my babes into my arms, to sniff the tops of their heads, and to engage alongside them. To read paragraphs that give us chills, that make us erupt into laughter, that transport us out of the mundane and into the magical.
And maybe, just maybe, if I keep reading to them, they won’t grow up quite so fast.
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 receive a new post in your inbox each week.
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!
September 7, 2017 § 3 Comments
Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.
So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.
Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes.
For those yet to expose their kids to audio books, let me offer a thought. Oftentimes, what my children enjoy most—and what tends to be easiest for them to follow (after all, the road can be distracting)—is listening to books they have already read (or have listened to me read). Speaking from personal experience, kids forget much of what they’ve heard in the past, and they listen with the fresh ears of whichever emotional milestone they’re encountering right now. In other words, great books are great each and every time they’re read.
One last thing before we begin: it so happens that this list is almost exclusively classics—or, at least, most are published over forty years ago. Trust me when I say that we listened to plenty of contemporary selections this past year. It’s just that the ones below rose to the top, both in content and in performance, and perhaps that’s no coincidence. There’s something about these books that, even the first time we hear them, feels like old friends.
Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery, Howliday Inn, The Celery Strikes at Midnight, Nighty Nightmare, Return to Howliday Inn, and Bunnicula Strikes Again! written by James Howe, read by Victor Garber (Ages 8-12)
Vampire bunnies, mysterious night happenings, and haunted hotels—all with a healthy dose of misunderstanding and mayhem? A better series for October you won’t find. The only reason we didn’t keep going with the series after the first six (!) books is because Broadway actor Victor Garber stopped reading them. At that point, we were so invested, so enamored, so used to laughing our heads off at the banter—there’s Harold, the pragmatic middle-aged canine narrator; Chester, the hyper-paranoid cat (Woody Allen’s “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after me” comes to mind); and Howie, the gullible sidekick puppy—that the new reader’s voices felt ALL WRONG, and we all three started yelling, “Turn it off! Turn it off!”
At one point last year, my son turned to me and said, “Mommy, you are getting really good at making food that I like.” I realize this was (probably?) intended as a compliment and not a backhanded nod at my servitude, but I still thought my children might benefit from listening to stories about families for whom everyday life is about making ends meet, sharing workloads, and prioritizing family togetherness. There is perhaps no sweeter cure for entitlement than Sydney Taylor’s classic about a Jewish-American immigrant family (think five daughters with another on the way), living in turn-of-the-century New York City. These are stories about penny-pinching, but they’re also stories about growing up in a time when being tall enough to reach the letterbox was a thrill worth savoring, when a single lost library book could lead to weeks of hard work and sisterly collaboration. As a bonus, my kids got a primer on Jewish traditions and holidays, and Toren’s rendition of the father’s Yiddish accent is pretty awesome.
Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones (Ages 6-12)
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s loosely autobiographical stories have inspired some of the best hours I’ve spent with my children this year—and not just listening to them, but discussing them. I had read the first five books to my children years ago and they loved them then, but what we lose in Garth Williams’ warm pencil sketches is more than made up for with the addition of real fiddle music, which opens and closes chapters and which Pa delights in sharing with his girls. Cherry Jones is a masterful reader, quiet and understated, conjuring up young Laura’s wide eyes as much as Pa’s seasoned chuckling ones, and enfolding us in her storytelling like we were all snuggled up under a warm quilt. We are now seven books in and gearing up to finish with Laura’s “grown-up” years in These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years.
HOLD UP, people. I need to say two things to the nay-sayers (among them, my husband, who playfully teases us, “So what happened in the book today? Did they paint the house and sit around for four hours watching it dry?”). For those who think the Little House books are boringly old-fashioned or (horror) just for girls, I offer up my nine year son as proof: no one gets in the car faster to listen to the next installment than him—not even his younger sister, who talks about Laura, Mary, and Carrie as if they were her own siblings. Pioneer life is fraught with hardship and ruin at every turn, be it blizzards or bears or fire or swarming grasshoppers. It’s the very essence of grit.
For those who think the Little House books are racist: you’re right. The treatment of Native Americans, while realistic for the period in which the stories are set, is grossly stereotypical, often uncomfortable, and certainly—as with many classics—demanding of discussion and supplemental reading (I strongly suggest the historically accurate Kaya series by American Girl, about a Nez Perce girl living in the 1700s).
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, performed by Anne Hathaway (Ages 6-12)
This recording alone might be enough to justify an Audible subscription (Audible likes to put out exclusive recordings by Hollywood celebs). Before listening to Anne Hathaway perform L. Frank Baum’s original text—more lighthearted, humorous, and fabulously weird than the Judy Garland movie, with a vast and ever-changing cast of characters—I would not have thought it possible for one person to create so many unique voices. How Hathaway manages to do just that, then seamlessly bounce back and forth between them all, I’ll never know, but I guess that’s why she gets paid the Big Bucks. Here’s another case where we had read the book together as a family a few years ago, but it was like falling in love all over again.
The Witches, written by Roald Dahl, performed by Miranda Richardson (Ages 8-12)
While we’re on the subject of witches (and celebrities), let’s talk about my favorite Roald Dahl book from when I was a child (yup, here I go, telling you once again to share Roald Dahl with your children). True, this one is not for the faint of heart, being about real witches lurking under the disguise of regular-looking people, but the breathless terror with which I turned its pages as a child no doubt contributed to my love of reading today. How then could I resist a performance by Miranda Richardson, whose voice for the Grand High Witch will come dangerously close to blowing out your car speakers, at the same time that her soft, matter-of-fact delivery of the protagonist’s Grandmamma will make you wish you had a Norwegian grandmother of your own? As with all Dahl’s stories, the cleverness of a hapless young child outsmarts the lot of them.
(Whatever you do, don’t let your kids listen to Roald Dahl’s The Twits. It’s a liability. I simply cannot endorse it. I mean, you would be setting a bad example—your children might laugh at such disgusting, despicable behavior. Heck, they might even start making up their own stories about beards that never get washed or gluing furniture to the ceiling. Ok, fine, I can see some of you are going to do it anyway. Just don’t say you did it on my advice.)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien, read by Barbara Caruso (Ages 8-12)
Of all the stories listed here, this is the most complex: a fantastical tale of a group of escaped, highly intelligent lab rats, who build a high-tech civilization under a stretch of farmland, and an ordinary field mouse, who discovers their secret on her quest to save her children. But it might also be the most intellectually rewarding. It won the Newberry Medal in 1971, and it was another favorite of mine as a child (I remember thinking Mrs. Frisby was the bravest mother in the world). What I didn’t remember are the fascinating ethical questions raised by the novel. What is intelligence? What if every species could learn to read? What is community? How should we treat one another—and at what expense?
I’ve already alluded to the joy of listening to these stories in a previous post, so I’ll just leave it at this: if you ever have the chance to listen to E.B. White read his own prose, seize it with open ears.
Boredom can be good, certainly it is necessary, but it doesn’t have to happen in the car. I promise my next list will include more contemporary reads, but in the meantime, happy back-to-school season and happy listening.
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 receive a new post in your inbox each week.
All opinions are my own. Amazon.com (Audible) 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 18, 2017 § 2 Comments
When I was around the same age my children are now, my father used to play Kick the Can with my sister and me in the backyard after dinner on summer nights. Sweaty and exhausted—and probably owing to the giant glass of milk my mother insisted we drink with dinner—the time would predictably come when I would have to go to the bathroom. I would be crouched in my hiding position behind a bush, trying to keep quiet, but mostly trying not to pee. I could easily have run inside, used the bathroom, and come out again. But I didn’t dare. I would rather have hopped about, wincing with every step, risking an accident (and there were some)—all because I never wanted these moments to end. I never wanted to break the spell. The only thing better than the anticipation of my father coming home was the joy of being with him.
I lost my father when I was eighteen—much too young, by all accounts. And yet, the experience of being with my dad still feels as tangible to me as if it took place yesterday. As a parent now myself—one more tired and distracted and grumpy than I sometimes care to admit—what impresses most upon me is how my father seemed when he was with us. He was not merely present when we were together. He delighted in our presence.
My father’s eyes would twinkle as he’d sit across from us over grilled cheeses at the pavilion in the park, and they would widen when we brought him handfuls of chestnuts. His head would lean in as I described every detail of my day and roll back only for a conspiratorial chuckle. He genuinely seemed as excited to read aloud each night as I was to listen (to this day, I cannot read the Little House on the Prairie series with my children without thinking of him). Though I knew sometimes his work would take him overseas or far into the night, I never questioned for a second that he would rather be with us.
Of course, such is the bias of a child who loves her father and thinks he can do no wrong.
“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.” So begins the second chapter of Danny the Champion of the World (Ages 8-12), a story by Roald Dahl starring quite possibly the sweetest and most unusual father-son relationship in children’s literature. (Am I really still talking about Roald Dahl? YES. Yes, I am. And that is because, while at first our favorite was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, then it was Matilda, and then it was James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and The Witches, the thing about Roald Dahl is that every one becomes the new favorite. Plus, I’m frantic to think you might not know about Danny the Champion of the World—because I didn’t. And it is FABULOUS. And outlandish. And hysterical. And heartwarming beyond words.)
The first few chapters of Danny the Champion of the World read as an incredibly touching tribute to a single father—something rarely dwelt on in children’s literature—as seen through the eyes of his adoring son. The two share an intimate world, both physically and emotionally. They live in a single-roomed, 150-year-old gypsy caravan, parked behind the filling station which serves as the family business (Danny’s mother died when he was just four months old). Rather than complain of his scanty, isolated accommodations, Danny relishes the closeness his house brings him to his “smiling-eyes” father—and to the wildly entertaining stories which his father spins for him each night (including one your kids will be quick to recognize from a previous Roald Dahl book).
It is impossible to tell you how much I loved my father. When he was sitting close to me on my bunk, I would reach out and slide my hand into his, and then he would fold his long fingers around my fist, holding it tight.
Danny’s father isn’t just a comforting presence and a keen storyteller: he’s also an eccentric, unpredictable, and endlessly fascinating plotter—and it is this quality which endears him as fervently to us readers as it does to our young hero. Who wouldn’t like to imagine himself the son of this quirky, fun-loving man? “It was impossible to be bored in my father’s company…plots and plans and new ideas came flying off him like sparks from a grindstone.” Danny’s father trains Danny “from birth” to be a mechanic, to take apart engines and put them back together. They make and fly kites which soar miles above the ground and “fire balloons” which levitate like lanterns in the dark night. With only the materials around them, they make tree houses and stilts and boomerangs and even a giant soapbox car with a real working engine. And all this before Danny turns nine and our real story begins.
While they may be narrated through Danny’s adoring eyes, these scenes create the unmistakable impression that Danny’s father enjoys being with his son every bit as much as his son enjoys being with him. He delights in tinkering, inventing, playing, and laughing alongside him. This is what makes him so special as a father.
This is also what makes him decide to let Danny in on “the deepest, darkest secret of my whole life”—and here is where a seemingly simple story about a father and son takes a wild and wacky turn (lest you forget this is a Roald Dahl book). The father, as it turns out, has a long history with—and a very heated passion for—the sublegal sport of pheasant poaching. What the what, you say? Pheasant poaching (which, I might add, is a real thing in Britain, even to this day) involves sneaking onto the property of wealthy, stuffy landowners, who stock their backyard trees with expensive pheasants for fancy-pants shooting parties, and stealthily making off with said pheasants in the dead of night. (Roald Dahl never misses an opportunity to subvert the Upperclass.)
“You mean stealing them?” I said, aghast.
“We don’t look at it that way,” my father said. “Poaching is an art. A great poacher is a great artist.”
…I was shocked. My own father a thief! This gentle, lovely man! I couldn’t believe he would go creeping into the woods at night to poach valuable birds belonging to somebody else.
Danny is even more horrified to discover this sport is also highly dangerous, bringing with it the risk of “poacher’s bottom” from the armed “keepers” hired to guard the pheasants. (Again, only in a Roald Dahl book.)
…”You’ve missed the point, Danny boy! You’ve missed the whole point! Poaching is such a fabulous and exciting sport that once you start doing it, it gets into your blood and you can’t give it up.”
In subsequent chapters, as Danny’s father invokes his storytelling prowess to describe the “secret methods” used by him and his own father over the years to catch pheasants—one called “The Horsehair Stopper,” involving soaked raisins strung on single strands of horsehair, another aimed at getting a pheasant to stick its beak into a sticky paper hat—we understand all too well why Danny begins to soften to the idea. Heck, we are softening. My kids are looking at me out of the corner of their eyes like, Mom, are you really reading this to us? Is this even OK? And PLEASE GO ON.
(Don’t worry: no pheasants suffer in the telling of this book. I’m not saying they don’t end up as dinner.)
Ultimately, though, Danny becomes determined to join the fun when he discovers the target of his father’s next pheasant poaching plot. The wealthy landowner Mr. Victor Hazell is not only a “roaring snob,” but he has a history of making nasty, disparaging comments to Danny and his father when bringing his Rolls-Royce to the filling station for a tune up. What’s worse, Mr. Hazell has been plotting to drive Danny and his father out of town for years, desperate to get his hands on their tiny piece of land to complete his massive estate.
Oh, so he’s a bad guy. That’s why it’s OK to steal his pheasants. Heck, it’s better than OK. Let’s get on with it! (This is classic Roald Dahl logic. We can’t help it. We’re all in.)
The last 150 pages—three fourths of the novel—are equal parts hilarious and hair-raising, as father and son cook up and attempt to carry out the most elaborate, unlikely, and daring (nonviolent) plot to poach Mr. Hazell’s 120 pheasants and share them with their working-class neighbors. I would never dare spoil the spoils for you and your children. All I will say is: you will never see it coming.
But amidst pheasants swaddled in baby carriages and our own Danny high tailing an “Austin 7” in a police chase, it remains the relationship between Danny and his father which steals the show: this beautiful, joyful dance between two people who love each other unconditionally, who would journey to the moon and back if it meant being together.
Pheasant poaching might seem a hard act to follow, but Danny wants us to know it’s just one of many wondrous things comprising daily life with his dad (it just happens to make a particularly great story). As the two come down from the high of their mission, dangling their feet off the front step of their cozy caravan (which, by the way, my kids haven’t stopped talking about wanting to live in), they dream about catching trout in a nearby stream and buying an electric oven and making sandwiches for lunch.
And after that?
There would be something else after that.
And after that?
Ah yes, and something else again.
Because what I am trying to tell you…
What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without a doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.
When our parent delights in us as much as we delight in him (or her)—well, we feel for a moment like the Champion of the World. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who share their craftiness, their playfulness, their goofiness, and their mischief-making with their children. And to my own dad, I’ll never forget how much fun we had.
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 receive a new post in your inbox each week.
Book published by Penguin Young Readers Group. 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 2, 2017 § Leave a comment
My oldest lost his first tooth on a playground zip line. He dismounted victoriously, grinned zealously, accepted congrats from strangers, and posed for photographs. Had he taken a bow, it would have felt fitting.
When my daughter lost hers, two days ago, it played out very differently. In the preceding weeks, she had boasted about her “wiggly tooth.” We thought she was down with the program, having watched her brother embark on this rite of passage. As a parent, I see now that I may have committed an all-too-common slight against the youngest: I failed to give her, well, any information.
After a post-school snack of sugar snap peas, mass hysteria erupted. My daughter’s bottom tooth, my son quickly explained, was hanging by a thread, pointing not up, but straight out the front of her mouth. “This is exciting!” I exclaimed. “It’s about to fall out!” Emily, on the other hand, seemed convinced an alien life form had just invaded her mouth. “I don’t like this!” she wailed, tears streaming down her face. Surely, I thought, it will help if I just remove the protruding tooth, which I did. At which point she began running to and from the bathroom, screaming like a banshee. “MY MOUTH IS WRONG! MY MOUTH IS WRONG! SOMETHING IS WRONG IN MY MOUTH!”
It turns out not everyone is quick to embrace the sudden gap that appears in our mouth when we lose a tooth.
Perhaps this reaction would have been different had I remembered, weeks ago, to get out one of the most treasured books from my own childhood (and, yes, one I read to my son numerous times prior to his losing a tooth). I am referring to the quietly delightful and tenderly reassuring, Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth (Ages 4-8), written by Lucy Bate and illustrated by Diane de Groat. Originally published in 1975, the book went out of print for a spell until it was reissued in 2010, at which point I experienced a delicious wave of nostalgia upon walking into a bookstore.
It’s probably impossible for me to untangle my own childhood memories of being read this story—tied up, as they are, with parental affection—from any objective contemporary evaluation. And yet, I can offer this proof of the story’s timelessness: my Emily absolutely loved it. Before long, she was marching across the street to our neighbor’s house to show off her gummy gap. And, of course, the rest of the evening was spent discussing the business of what to expect from the tooth fairy.
When Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth opens, a bunny girl is sitting around the dinner table with her parents, posturing that her wiggly tooth makes it impossible for her to eat the carrots and beans on her plate, that she should probably just move on to the strawberries she knows are in the fridge. So begins a series of conversations which will feel as intimately familiar to children of 2017 as they did in the 70s.
“You can have strawberries for dessert,” said Mother Rabbit. ‘And you can chew the carrots and beans with your other teeth.”
“Are you sure?” said Little Rabbit.
“I’m sure,” said Mother Rabbit.
“Are you sure, Daddy?” asked Little Rabbit.
“I’m sure,” said Father Rabbit. “I’ve done it myself.”
Turning the page reveals a days-of-the-week spread—in de Groat’s softly shaded artistic style—which has stayed with me in much the same way as Eric Carle’s lineup of food for the hungry caterpillar. (It’s also possible I just like food…and bubble letters.) Foods that Little Rabbit eats with her loose tooth (oranges on Tuesday, watermelon on Wednesday) are contrasted with those she eats with her “other teeth” (cucumbers on Tuesday, lettuce on Wednesday). Finally, on Friday—and the alarmed look on Little Rabbit’s face says it all—she “chewed spinach with her other teeth and chocolate ice cream with her loose tooth, and the loose tooth came right out in the chocolate ice cream.”
Again, the conversation is preciously matter-of-fact:
“I have a tooth in my chocolate ice cream,” said Little Rabbit.
“That’s wonderful,” said Mother Rabbit.
“It’s about time,” said Father Rabbit.
“What should I do with it?” said Little Rabbit.
“You should take it out of your chocolate ice cream,” answered Mother Rabbit.
Little Rabbit goes on to delight in the “window in my mouth,” sticking her tongue into it and filling it with chocolate ice cream to make a “chocolate tooth” (“‘How tasty!’ said Father Rabbit.’”). She gives her tooth a bath and carries it around the house.
But now what? Little Rabbit isn’t convinced she believes in the tooth fairy, nor is she sure she wants the tooth fairy to take away her prized tooth. Perhaps she should make it into a necklace, or use it in a craft project, or take it to the candy shop and pretend it’s a penny? But no, these ideas quickly lose their appeal; and once again, Little Rabbit turns to her mother:
“Mommy,” she said, “what if I believe in the tooth fairy?”
Mother Rabbit put down her flute. “Then you’d better put your tooth under your pillow before you lose it. You can put it in an envelope if you want.”
Putting her tooth under her pillow doesn’t stop her from continuing to ruminate on the existence of the tooth fairy, speculating as to what she does with the teeth she collects (maybe she gives them to new babies?) or—most troubling—what might happen if Little Rabbit wakes up the next morning and her tooth is still there.
This is where some adult readers have taken issue with Bate’s story, suggesting that it might introduce doubt into the minds of young children about this magical being we parents work so hard to conjure up. Even the ending of the story, where Little Rabbit discovers a dime under her pillow the next morning, is somewhat ambiguous, given that Little Rabbit appealed to her parents with a backup plan the night before: “After I’m asleep, could you sneak and look under my pillow and look in the envelope? And if there isn’t a present, could you leave one?…You don’t have to tell me…You could just sneak.”
Let me go on record as saying that both of my children still believe in the tooth fairy after reading this story; if anything, Little Rabbit’s questioning feels to them like a natural reaction. (The better question might be: when did our children stop expecting dimes for their teeth and start expecting one or two or five dollar bills?!) At the end of the day, we can’t definitively know whether the dime was left by the tooth fairy or by a parent, but we can predict with certainty Little Rabbit’s relief and excitement upon its discovery.
Ultimately, the lasting appeal of Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth comes, not from semantics about the tooth fairy, but from the love which emits from every page—from the readily apparent joy (and subdued amusement) which Mother and Father Rabbit take in their daughter, as well as from the comfort and reassurance she takes in them.
While it may be nature’s course, having a part of your body protrude, dangle, and then fall off, feels anything but natural. Thank you, Little Rabbit, for helping me help my Little Emily to find joy in her New Normal.
Book published by Dragonfly Books. 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!
February 9, 2017 § 10 Comments
In keeping with my tradition of recommending friendship-themed stories for Valentine’s Day (see past posts here and here and here, last year’s exception aside), I am hearkening back to a cherished series from my own childhood. If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, it’s as resonant as ever.
When I was six years old—a quiet girl with mouse-brown hair held neatly between two plastic barrettes—I rode a school bus to my first day at public school in the inner-city of Milwaukee. I remember nothing about the bus ride, nothing about what was on the aluminum lunch box and Thermos which I remember being proud to have in my backpack, and nothing about the inside of my classroom.
What I remember is the playground: a vast sea of grey concrete and black asphalt, populated by masses of children who towered over me, whose games of kickball and double-dutch and hopscotch seemed enshrined in the shouts and shrieks of a coded language. I stood trembling along the edge. Large red rubber balls whizzed by the side of my face.
Probably I wouldn’t remember those details—they would have faded like the colorful posters that probably adorned my classroom walls—would it not have been for what happened next. A girl of roughly my same size—a girl with similar brown hair and softly dimpled cheeks—approached me. I don’t remember the exact words she used when she asked me to be her friend, but I do remember the tenacity, the directness of her voice. I remember thinking she was doing something I would never have been brave enough to do.
And then she put her hand in mine, and I wanted to die of happiness. I wanted to hold that hand forever, to savor the touch of someone who wasn’t family, but whom I knew immediately and with certainty would make leaving my family each day tolerable, even delightful. Our first real true friend is a lifeline to our future, a taste of the joy that intimacy holds for us when we are lucky enough to find it.
My daughter has been lucky to have such a friend since she was one year old. I marvel at the bond between these two girls: one sturdy boned, the other spritelike, the two bonded by their own fanciful imaginations, pressed together in incessant, giggly chatter since before either of them said much to anyone (“Is it possible they are having actual conversations?” I used to wonder. “About what?”). Last spring, on the sorrowful occasion of Emily’s friend moving, I made each girl a photo book with five years of memories. It wasn’t until I laid out the photos that I realized the girls were touching in almost every single one. When they weren’t deliberately holding hands, they were leaning into one another, resting a hand casually, maybe unaware, on the other’s arm.
It is this frequent, gentle touch that so often distinguishes young female friendships. And it threatens every time to bring me to my knees when I consider, as a parent who was once a young friend herself, the sweetness of it.
It is this sweetness that shines through every delicious page of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved series, published in the 1940s and set in turn-of-the-century Mankato, Minneapolis, where two five-year-old girls living across the street from one another strike up a lifelong friendship. This friendship renders them, not Betsy, not Tacy, but Betsy-Tacy, a collective entity greater than the sum of its parts. Together, these girls embark upon daily adventures, both real and imaginative, which not only shape their personalities but which challenge them to be better than they could be on their own. Oh, and did I mention they are almost always holding hands?
The only thing more gratifying than sharing with my six year old a favorite series from my own childhood was watching her fall madly in love with it. And I mean madly. Her mounting adoration (getting out of bed each morning, she would cry, “I can’t wait for you to read more Betsy Tacy tonight!”) surpassed even my most ardent expectations. I’ve noticed something about my Emily: for all the animal characters and fantasy themes we enjoy together, it is the stories with reality-based girl characters—those who engage in the same kind of daily activities she does—which rise to the top (Ramona Cleary, Pippi Longstocking, Matilda, Dory Fantasmagory, Nancy and Plum). Add to that a friendship between two girls with big imaginations and even bigger hearts (three, once the girls befriend newcomer Tib), who spend their days huddled together making up stories about what it would be like to live in the clouds, establishing secret clubs, and performing plays about flying girls in the circus—and I should have known we were destined for a Big Win.
Admittedly, I almost didn’t read the Betsy-Tacy books aloud to Emily. Because I really do credit them with sparking my own independent love affair with reading, I initially thought Emily should wait to read them on her own. And yet, I’ve noticed that children today are often reluctant to pick up the classics we loved as kids. The pacing and the character development can be slower than much contemporary literature for young readers, which seems written with a “grab-‘em-out-of-the-gate” mandate. And then there is the enigma of old-fashioned settings: would my daughter know what a hitching post was? Or why the girls return home for “dinner” in the middle of the day?
Call me a control freak (you would not be the first), but I simply couldn’t risk my daughter missing out on these books. And so I read them to her. And I swear to you: she has never pressed her little body into mine so fervently, as if willing herself into the stories, or at least into the bond we were building around them. “Tell me again, Mommy, about how these were your favorite books when you were my age?” she would ask. (But seriously, with everything going on in our country right now, is it really so terrible to want to escape to a time when little girls spent their days picnicking under giant oak trees, when their biggest mistakes were lopping off each other’s braids to wear in pillboxes around their necks?)
Reading the books aloud meant I could justify purchasing The Betsy-Tacy Treasury, which contains the first four books in the series (with Lois Lenski’s original black-and-white illustrations), beginning when the girls are five and continuing through their tenth year: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. The anthology also boasts forwards by Ann M. Martin, Judy Blume, and Johanna Hurwitz, all of whom gush about the bond they felt as children with Betsy and Tacy. (Anna Quindlen goes so far as to put Maud Hart Lovelace on the same pedestal as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, so clearly I am not alone in my affection.) And the anthology contains a fascinating Afterward, which points out which events and characters in the books were derived from Lovelace’s own childhood, with the inventive young Betsy—who pens her own stories while perched in a tree—a stand in for Lovelace herself.
Betsy and Tacy are largely what one would consider “good girls”: joyful in their approach to life, models of inclusion in their play, regular participants in family chores, and eager to listen, comfort, share with, and praise one another. But lest you think the Betsy-Tacy stories are mere sugar and spice and all things nice, I assure you there is a healthy dose of mischief, mistakes, and drama, which grows in complexity as the books advance. (After the first four, the series continues with six more books in three subsequent treasuries, spanning high school, college, marriage, and Betsy’s writing career, though I told Emily we should probably wait until she’s a wee bit older to read those.)
When they are six, the girls take advantage of being alone in Betsy’s house by cooking (and then forcing themselves to eat) “Everything Pudding,” using all the ingredients they can reach in the kitchen. When they are only slightly older, to the later horror of their mothers, they pretend to be poor beggars at a stranger’s house, simply because they run out of snacks on a walk. And when they are ten years old, they sink to insincere tactics to convince a classmate to take them with her to the Opera House, an undergoing that comes at a price and with a good old fashioned lesson on how we treat others.
How we treat others is perhaps the most enduring theme throughout Betsy, Tacy, and Tib’s friendship. And it’s one that feels especially topical today. The girls aren’t only developing their appreciation for one another’s differences, they are also opening their eyes to the differences of others. On several occasions, Lovelace reminds us that children are often the first to see past the stereotypes of race and class. Betsy and Tacy’s zeal to earn signatures on a contest sheet might be what initially lures them into the small immigrant settlement on the other side of the hill, known to their mistrusting neighbors as “Little Syria”; but it’s their ability to connect with the wide-eyed, giggly Syrian girl whom they find there that begins to bridge the two communities (how’s that for topical?). Later, in the fourth book, Betsy inadvertently brings about a reunion between her mother and her estranged uncle, all because of her kindness towards a wealthy old widow whom Betsy alone recognizes as lonely.
Long before there were television, video games, and giant trampoline parks, there were backyard sheds and grassy knolls and trees to climb. To be sure, the Betsy-Tacy stories are a specific portrayal of white middle-class suburban America in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Tib is the first in her town to ride in a “horseless carriage”!). And yet, Lovelace’s transcendent themes of friendship and adventure, resourcefulness and optimism, will find a warm place in the hearts of many of our daughters today. At least, they did in my daughter.
Happy Valentine’s Day to the girls who are lucky enough to have someone to hold their hands; to the girls brave enough to initiate these special friendships; and to the girls who have them to look forward to.
(P.S. My nine-year-old son would like me to add that he stole the book several times while Emily and I were reading it and that he found the stories “very good,” especially the third and fourth books.)
(P.P.S. If you still aren’t buying the friendship-book-for-Valentine’s-Day gift, go ahead and check out this romantic beauty. That may or may not be what Emily is getting this year, seeing as we’ve already read the above recommendation. Or I may cave and get her this.)
Book published by Harper Perennial. 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, 2017 § 4 Comments
Back when my children were nearing three and six years old, I started a family tradition which might be considered creatively brilliant or utterly insane. You can be the judge. This was during a time when my daughter liked to pretend she was a dog during mealtimes, bowing her chin to her food and licking her plate. I can’t remember what my son was doing across the table, because I’ve evidently blocked it out. What I do know is that no pontification on the importance of table manners seemed to make a speck of difference.
And so, one evening, I announced to my children (and my skeptical husband) that, once per season, we were going to have Bad Manners Dinner, whereupon everyone at the table could eat with wild abandon.
The only catch was that, during all the other days of the year, they had to show appropriate table manners.
From that day forward, every transgression at the table was met with “Save that for Bad Manners Dinner!” or “I think that belongs at Bad Manners Dinner!” IT WAS LIKE YIELDING A MAGIC WAND: the respective horror would disappear as quickly as it had surfaced. The children even began policing themselves, in anticipation of what quickly became a beloved, hilarious, and admittedly bizarre family ritual. Four times a year, during Bad Manners Dinner, we would slurp, burp, and gurgle; we would eat with our feet on the table; we would get up and dance around just because we could. We would drum our forks and knives; we would pretend to snore with our head on our arm; we would whine and complain and insult every morsel on our plate.
Over the years, perhaps as the novelty has worn off and laziness has set in—or maybe because my kids’ manners are now mostly passable, at least by American standards—we remember less frequently to plan Bad Manners Dinner. Today, we are going on almost a year without it. (This may or may not be owing to my husband tearing off his shirt and beating his chest during the last one; there are certain things we cannot un-see—and this also goes for the woman who was walking her dog by our dining room window that day.)
But it occurs to me that this deviation from Standard Parenting Procedure was exactly what our family needed at the time—and probably what it needs a whole lot more often than I can muster up the creativity. It is perhaps the closest I have come to dishing up a “cure” in the likes of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Betty MacDonald’s literary heroine from the 1950s, who dotes lovingly on the children in her small town, while simultaneously administering magical solutions to their bad habits and ill-manners. Your child has a chronic case of Bath Avoidance? Not to worry: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle will give you a packet of radish seeds which, when sprinkled on your child’s dirt-encrusted skin at night, will begin sprouting plants in the morning. In a matter of days, regular bath time will be welcomed with open arms.
A few years ago on a road trip, we listened to every single one of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, read by Karen White. I was perfectly content to stop after the first one (the episodic chapters quickly feel derivative, say nothing of the 1950s gender stereotypes, where Dad puffs cigars while reading the evening paper and Mom frantically preps dinner while placing desperate phone calls to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle). But I was passionately out-voted. The kids were obsessed. They’d strain forward in their seats to hear every word and then throw their heads back in laughter. It turns out they were as charmed by this magical woman—who lives in an Upside-Down House with her eccentric pets and a backyard of buried treasure—as were the children who swallowed her potions and befell the most outlandish (but always effective) consequences.
So I knew we were going to hit gold when I heard that children’s author Ann M. Martin (yup, the same Ann M. Martin I just wrote about) had teamed up with Annie Parnell, MacDonald’s great-granddaughter, to launch a modern-day series starring Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s youthful great niece, Missy Piggle-Wiggle. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the chapter series is illustrated by comics-master Ben Hatke, who can do no wrong in our family’s eyes—and who has endowed his sketches of Missy with much of the same effervescent generosity as Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.
Missy is, like her great aunt, versed in magic formulas. She is also happy to take up temporary residence in the Upside-Down House, after receiving a beseeching letter from Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who has mysteriously departed to search for her missing pirate husband. Missy’s mission is two-fold: she must care for Wag the dog, Lightfoot the cat, Lester the (exceedingly polite) pig, Penelope the parrot, and the temperamental house (which has a mind of its own)—while also answering stressed-out calls from parents who are losing battles with entitlement, sibling rivalry, junk food, talking back, or dinners that never end.
The first book in the new series, Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), was indeed a raging success in our household when I debuted it during Winter Break. (We haven’t laughed that hard since Nanny Piggins, and we’re all very disappointed that we have to wait until next fall for Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Won’t-Walk-the-Dog Cure.)
Contrary to what the title suggests, the first book is ripe with many different behavioral malaises and their cures. After an admittedly somewhat slow start, the new book also maintains the episodic chapter format—each chapter focusing on one child—only this time with refreshing connectivity among the characters, including a budding love interest between Missy and the town’s bachelor bibliophile. (My only wish is that the authors had spun more diversity into this predominantly white small town.)
At the center of Missy’s challenges in the first book is the Freeforall family (you’re going to love the names in this book), including nine-year-old Petulance (who suffers from greediness), her twin sister Honoriah (a premier Know It All), their younger brother Frankfort (whose default response is “Whatever”), and their workaholic parents, Mr. and Mrs. Freeforall, who seem more interested in their lap tops than their children.
But there is also little Melody, who moves in just down the street from the Upside-Down House and suffers from extreme shyness. There’s Heavenly Earwig (seriously, you can’t beat these names), a dear sweet child who is, alas, late to everything. And there’s the previously-health-conscious Linden Pettigrew, whose grating new habit of smacking his giant wads of bubblegum can be heard across town. And that’s just a start.
To Missy’s credit—and I might do well to take a page from her book—she is rarely alarmed by such behaviors, nor does she allow them to cloud her vision of the goodness she believes lies at the heart of every child. Missy’s willingness to bake cookies for any child that shows up at her doorstep makes her a friend and accomplice to all.
Naturally, the reader’s plainest delights come from witnessing Missy’s most fantastical cures. Missy bestows on Heavenly a watch that emits a piercing alarm which only she can hear—the cacophonous compilation of every smoke detector, church gong, and iphone ring in the world–each time she is about to utter “just one more minute” to her waiting parents and teachers.
After Missy slips a powder into Petulance’s glass of milk, whatever object she grabs at or attempts to hoard immediately shrinks to the size of a pea.
Hands down my kids’ favorite antidote: the giant globe-like gum ball that Missy gives Linden, which goes from tasting of apple cinnamon and raspberry one moment to anchovy and dirty sponge the next. (We had some serious family conversations about what “dirty sponge” would taste like. Bleh.)
The quieter delights of the book come from the least outlandish cures—indeed, those involving no magic at all. Missy’s play dates in her backyard, where children bond over digging holes in search of pirate treasure, become the impetus that shy Melody needs to start speaking to others.
And my personal favorite? Well, let’s just say there was not a dry eye in the house during the scene where Missy facilitates a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Freeforall and their children, after the parents overhear the kids say to Missy, “I don’t think they care about us. We aren’t as important as their work.” (As Missy proclaims earlier to her great aunt’s pig, “If only grown-ups were as easy to cure as children.”) All is well that ends well, but sob, that may have hit a little too close to home.
As the New Year begins, my kids may still be hooting over Frankfort, who winds up temporarily trapped in a giant floating bubble after saying “whatever” one too many times, but I am resolving to take inspiration from Missy Piggle-Wiggle. I am resolving to suppress the urge to lecture or threaten or yell (or escape into Facebook) and instead to bring some much-needed levity back into my parenting. I am resolving to listen with compassion, to try the unexpected, and to laugh at ourselves, even if it means standing on our heads while eating spaghetti with our fingers at our next Bad Manners Dinner (is this even possible?). Join me if you dare.
Book published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of 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!