Keeping the Bails Up

February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids.

When my husband and I, long finished with our own plates, start staring holes into the heads of our children, whose food only seems to multiply the longer we sit at the table, I start fantasizing about bedtime. And then I think, Be Present!, and decide, enough with the small talk which is going nowhere, and throw out, “Let’s talk about gender stereotypes!” At which point, both children shoot me a look which plainly says, Please go back to yelling at us about our manners.

And so, this is what I have decided. My kids are getting on in years (even if you can’t tell by their table manners), and it’s getting harder to find a daily time when they are both available for me to read to them. So why not make dinner time our read aloud time?

That’s right. We have cast our conversation skills to the wind, and now, the second I put down my fork, I pick up whatever book we’re reading, and we get to it. This is how we came to fall in love with Gary D. Schmidt’s new middle-grade novel, Pay Attention, Carter Jones (Ages 10-14). Not only is it tears-in-the-eyes funny and tears-in-the-eyes moving, it’s the very best distraction from the drudgery of dinnertime you could ask for.

Also, it permits me to do a British accent. Truly, any day can be improved by donning a British accent.

When an English butler shows up without warning one morning at the door of the Jones’ American house—a “portly” Mary Poppins character, minus the magic but with the umbrella—he is hardly met with a warm welcome, at least from Carter Jones, who is trying to steel himself for the first day of sixth grade. Allow me to share the story’s opening paragraph, so splendidly does it establish Carter’s narrative voice, with its infectious flair for the dramatic, its hefty dose of teenage skepticism bordering on disdain, and its fabulous dry wit.

If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm—and I’ve been in one, so I know what’s like—and if the last quart of one percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house.

Carter doesn’t know how his mother can be sure the Butler isn’t a serial killer, even after he explains that his services are paid for by a generous endowment left in the will of Carter’s recently-deceased grandfather, for whom the Butler has worked all his life.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean my grandfather, like, left you to us in his will?”

“Crudely articulated, but true in the most generous sense.”

“Like, we own you?”

The guy carefully tied shut the folds of his umbrella. “Young Master Jones, indentured servanthood having been abolished even in your own country, no. You do not, like, own me.”

Come on. This book just begs to be read aloud.

Even though “you never know what a serial killer might do to throw you off guard,” Carter’s mother allows the Butler to enter the morning chaos of their household, to help the girls with their unruly hair and their missing socks, to pack school lunches, and to load all four children into his giant eggplant-colored Bentley (steering wheel on the right) and drop them at their first day of school.

As it turns out, the Jones family—Carter, his three younger sisters, their mother, and their prone-to-puking dachshund, Ned—needs saving from more than the drudgery of daily life. Though we don’t discover this until midway through the story, the family is still raw from the tragic loss of Carter’s young brother, Currier, who died from a rare illness a little over a year ago. Carter misses his brother terribly, but he misses his father even more—a deployed Captain in the Army, from whom the only correspondence during the story is a heart-wrenching letter to Carter’s mother, announcing that he is leaving the family for another woman in Germany. Coming to terms with the fickleness of death is one thing; coming to terms with the fickleness of human behavior, especially from someone you have always idolized, someone you have always trusted, seems nearly impossible.

The Butler, whose full name is August Paul Bowles-Fitzpatrick, is careful not to step into the shoes abandoned by Carter’s father—and yet, he becomes every bit the observant, compassionate, supportive, consistent, present adult figure Carter needs him to be. Even while extolling the superior virtues of British culture. Even while dispensing unwelcome mugs of tea with milk and sugar. Even while being, as Carter chides him, a “pain in the glutes.” The Butler may not be able to perform magic, but he seems somehow to be everywhere at once, offering the right—if enigmatic—words at the right time, always two steps ahead of those he is sworn to serve.

The Butler is also an ardent fan of both the metaphor and the sport of cricket, and these two converge in some of the most entertaining and poignant scenes in the book. Much like the Butler aims to do with Carter and his classmates at the Longfellow Middle School, this book will make a cricket fan out of every one of its readers. (Not to worry if you don’t know the first thing about the sport: every chapter begins with a different rule.) The hilarity of the Butler descending on the Minutemen’s Football Field, sporting his cricket whites and carrying a set of stumps and bails, is matched only by the way he successfully woos Carter, his neighbor, and the entire cross-county team into joining him. (“Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, what are you supposed to be?” said Annie. The Butler rummaged around in the long case again and took out two huge gloves—white again—and he handed them to Billy…“Miss Anne, I am not supposed to be anything. I am a cricketer.”)

Cricket instills focus (“Pay attention, Master Jones!”) and hand-eye coordination, but it also imparts invaluable life skills, like teamwork, patience, resilience, and communication. It is a “gentleman’s” sport, marked by dignity and respect. Most critically for our young protagonist, it offers a space for self-discovery; for belonging; even for healing. In the metaphorical sense, cricket teaches us to “keep the bails up,” even during the roughest, most disorienting times in our lives.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones celebrates family. Maybe not the one Carter thought he had, maybe not even the one he wanted, but the one he’s building for himself, each time he sits through a ballet performance for his sister, or walks the dog for his mom, or give voice to his deepest, darkest fears without the risk of judgment. Each time he invites this quirky, old-fashioned British cricketer into his heart.

There’s nothing that brings a family together more than sharing a laugh or a heartwarming story. Here at our dinner table, we were lucky to have found both.

 

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 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy from Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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!

There’s A New Pippi in Town

February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one.

I have fond memories of reading Astrid Lindgren’s The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking to my kids four years ago, all three of us laughing ourselves silly. Free-spirited Pippi, committed to living life with wild abandon, is one of those characters who cuts straight to the heart. She calls things as they are. She takes up space. She isn’t afraid of living or loving too largely. It’s downright refreshing. Some days, it seems there aren’t enough Pippis.

Well, good news! Pippi’s spirit is alive and well in Maria Parr’s delightful Norwegian novel (perhaps named for Pippi’s creator?), Astrid the Unstoppable (Ages 7-10), about a plucky, red-headed nine year old living in a Scandinavian mountain village. Originally published in 2009 and later translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey, the book arrived on our American shores this past November…and not a moment too soon. Nicknamed “the little thunderbolt of Glimmerdal,” Astrid is Exactly What This Winter Needs.

The parallels to Pippi abound, well beyond the red hair and boisterous personality. In lieu of a pet monkey, Astrid bestows  affections on one Snorri the Seagull, who shares her home and perches atop her helmet on bicycle rides. Astrid doesn’t live entirely alone as Pippi does—she has her quiet but attentive father—but she does mourn the absence of her scientist mother, who is on an extended excursion to Greenland to study rising water levels, akin to Pippi’s legendary father off captaining the seas. Like Pippi, Astrid is left mainly on her own, with large stretches of time in which to entertain herself. As her father tells people, “I let her out every morning and hope she’ll come back in the evening.”

It is what Astrid does with her open-ended days that makes reading about her so much fun. In the two months leading up to her tenth birthday, which happens to fall on Easter, Astrid is determined to make the most of every minute in her teeny, tiny remote mountain village, whose snowy peaks and frozen rivers, sheep farms and “enchanted forests,” are Astrid’s playgrounds. She attempts to somersault on skis while singing to herself. She makes a giant gingerbread castle for Snorri. She charms her way on and off the ferry without every paying a fare. She faces off with an angry ram. Always, she uses her innocent frankness and contagious wit to talk herself out of the messes she inadvertently creates. (During most of the story, Astrid’s school in the neighboring village is off for “February half term.”)

Until now, Astrid—much like Pippi—has spent little playtime with children her own age. She is the only child in her village, and visiting children are forbidden by the unimaginative Mr. Hagen, who runs the Wellness Retreat at the base of the mountain (and is the only adult whom Astrid seems incapable of winning over, despite her best efforts).

Astrid’s best friend is her seventy-four-year-old godfather, a strikingly large sheep farmer rich in contradictions. Gunnvald is part cantankerous “troll” (as Astrid affectionately calls him) and part lively fiddle player. He is at once hardened from a bruised past and possessed with a soft spot for Astrid (“She was sharp as a starling, Gunnvald thought…”). When the story begins, Gunnvald’s favorite pastime is rigging up prototype sledges for Astrid to race down the mountain. (One can tell something about how these sledge runs go by chapter titles like, “In which Sledge Test No. 1 is launched, and Astrid is threatened with a call to the police.”)

For as much as Pippi’s spirit may infuse these colorful scenes, Astrid the Unstoppable also packs a substantial emotional punch, the likes of which we do not see in Astrid Lindgren’s classic. This Astrid’s is a true coming-of-age story. The novel spans mere weeks, but a series of dramatic happenings firmly alters the way Astrid sees herself, her loved ones, and the larger world.

Most significantly, Astrid begins to sense the presence of looming secrets in the lives of her grownups. Secrets which suggest life is inherently more complicated than skiing somersaults. Secrets which reveal failings in the people she idolizes. Secrets which inspire Astrid to think less about her own entertainment and more about helping others—perhaps a fitting progression for someone on the verge of double digits.

The most significant of these secrets involves Gunnvald. When Astrid discovers Gunnvald has an estranged daughter, one whom Gunnvald lovingly raised for several years before letting her leave with her mother and never come back, Astrid is flabbergasted that such a truth was kept from her. Now an acclaimed violinist with a monstrously huge dog, Heidi (the reference to another literary classic is purposeful) abruptly returns home after receiving a desperate letter from Gunnvald, who mistakenly believes he is on death’s door after taking a spill over a coffee pot and landing in the hospital. It turns out Gunnvald is a long way from dying—he happens to be as prone to the dramatic as Astrid—and now must confront the pain of his past head on.

Astrid’s role in her best friend’s saga is wildly entertaining and touchingly genuine, as she attempts to do what children do and presume all questions have straightforward answers. Grown ups, Astrid comes to realize, are capable of making terribly stupid and hurtful mistakes. Sometimes it takes the voice of a child to call things as they are. To remind people of the presence of today, the power of music, and the possibilities in forgiveness.

Astrid the Unstoppable is the best distraction we could ask for in these final weeks of winter, bringing a welcome smile to our faces, at the same time that it leaves a tiny little thunderbolt on our hearts.

 

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 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Published by Walker 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!

Gift Guide 2018: The Best for Last?

December 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

Shhhhh. The final post for my 2018 Gift Guide is here, but I don’t want my husband to know. (And not just because he would like me to start doing things around the house again—sheesh.) You see, I’ve written to Santa and asked him to put this book into my husband’s stocking. (And not just because the kids would fight over it.) If there was ever a guaranteed Christmas Morning Crowd Pleaser, this book is it. I simply cannot wait to read this (oh right, let my husband read this) to our group as the tissue paper flies. Mwahahaha!

Adam Rex is hands down one of the cleverest and funniest contemporary picture book creators. (Our family’s favorites are too numerous to list here, but The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors and Chloe and the Lion would be at the top.) But taking on Darth Vader? Now that seems a bit risky. Or gimmicky. Or, at least, not worth time on a blog about fine literature.

WRONG.

Turns out it was a risk worth taking. Are You Scared, Darth Vader? (Ages 5-100) wasn’t even on my radar until a week ago, when the great Betsy Bird included it on her list of 2018 Funny Picture Books, describing it as Darth Vader meets The Monster at the End of This Book (remember that throw-back Little Golden Book with everyone’s favorite Sesame Street monster on the cover?). Well. I took the bait and got my hands on it.

Are You Scared, Darth Vader? is not just one of the funniest books of the year. I would venture to say it is the funniest. You can almost hear Adam Rex cracking himself up as he writes it. Darth Vader emerges every bit the Scrooge we love to hate.

An off-page narrator heckles Darth Vader, determined to find something which scares him. (“I DO NOT GET SCARED. NO ONE HAS THE POWER TO FRIGHTEN LORD VADER.”) Oh yeah? How about a vampire? Or a ghost? How about a wolfman? (“I AM NOT AFRAID OF A WOLF, AND I AM NOT AFRAID OF A MAN. SO NO, I AM NOT AFRAID OF A WOLFMAN.” “It could bite you.” “IT COULD NOT. I AM WEARING ARMOR.”)

Well then, a witch. A witch could curse you. (So sorry, but I’m about to give up the best spread.) Wait for it…

The Dark Lord may have a deadpan comeback for all the usual suspects our narrator puts in front of him, but he fails to anticipate the oldest trick in the book. Who can topple such surliness, such moroseness, such darkness? An entourage of exuberant kids, of course.

Especially the kid (or husband) reading the book. After all, reading is its own form of the Force.

Published by Disney and Lucasfilm Press. 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!

That concludes my 2018 Gift Guide! I’ll see you one more time next week (when I tell you about the chapter book we’re reading aloud this holiday break) and then I’ll take a few weeks off before seeing you again in the New Year. In the meantime, I always stay active on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and as of today (!) Instagram (@thebookmommy). Happy gift giving, and I hope you’ve found what you needed in my posts! (If not, do let me know.)

Gift Guide 2018: An Early Reader to Celebrate

December 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.)

Never underestimate the power of humor to captivate a budding reader. I credit Mo Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series with kindling my older son’s desire to learn to read, but its seduction was largely lost on my daughter, who by the time it was her turn had been hearing those books read aloud (by her brother) for years. Thankfully, Willems went on to create an imprint of similarly-toned readers; and funny, offbeat stories by the likes of Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, and Dan Santat did bring a novel respite to my daughter’s gripes.

When I received a copy of Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories (Ages 5-7) earlier this year, my daughter—now a mature and prolific reader—snatched it up and announced, “Where was this book when I was learning to read? Mommy, do you remember how I told you there were NO funny early readers?” Yes, honey. Yes, I do.

As an early reader masquerading as a picture book, Fox and Chick has just about everything going for it: three short stories are illustrated as comic strips with occasional double-page spreads; the text is delivered entirely through speech bubbles; the vocabulary is largely phonetic; there’s sufficient repetition; and, best of all, it’s ripe with dry humor. (I would recommend it for a child who has been learning to read for a little while, but isn’t ready to move into early chapter books.) It also stars a pair of anthropomorphized animals every bit as quirky and different from one another as some of children’s literature most memorable duos (after all, before there were Elephant and Piggie, there were Frog and Toad and George and Martha).

The first story, “The Party,” serves as a perfect introduction to Fox and Chick’s personalities, best showcased when played off one another. Fox—restrained, meticulous, and borderline cantankerous—is less than thrilled when his book reading is interrupted by Chick’s incessant knocking. Chick—exuberant, impulsive, and stater of the obvious (“How can you be reading that book if you are talking to me?”)—is merely asking if he can use the bathroom. “Of course you may.” “Thank you, Fox. Very kind of you.”

Fox attempts to lose himself in his reading once again, though he can’t help but notice the ticking of the clock: Chick has been in the bathroom for some time. “Chick, are you okay?…Chick, I am coming in!” Fox is horrified by the chaos he finds on the other side of the door. It turns out “May I use your bathroom?” meant “May I use your bathroom to have a party with my friends?” “In my bathroom?!” roars Fox. Chick responds, “Oh, I see…,” and he and his pals quickly exit stage left.

Though he may play the part of the party pooper, later stories reveal Fox has a wonderfully droll sense of humor. My favorite story has to be “Good Soup,” where Chick follows Fox around his garden as the latter collects vegetables for soup. Fox’s vegetarianism offends Chick’s world order. “Fox, foxes are supposed to eat field mice, not carrots!” To which Fox responds, “I don’t like to eat field mice.”

The more exotic the vegetable, the more adamant Chick’s protests become, until he walks himself straight into the trap which a clever reader will have been anticipating all along: “And they’re supposed to eat squirrels…lizards…and little birds.” “Little birds?” says Fox (is that a sly grin?). “Yes, Fox, little bir…Uh-oh.” Later, the two sit down to enjoy Fox’s soup. “I’m glad you don’t like to eat little birds, Fox.” To which Fox responds, “At least not today.”

If the success of series like Elephant and Piggie are any indication, there’s huge appeal in early reader texts that make use of conversational banter to tell their story. Kids like knowing that the hard-earned words coming out of their mouth have entertainment, even comedic, value. Now add in Ruzzier’s always charming, expressive illustrations, and I say, thank goodness Fox and Chick are only getting started.

 

Review copy by Chronicle 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!

Marvelously Macabre

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.

Really.

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.

 

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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!

Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

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.)

 

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 2-4 times a month.

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!

Weathering the Oopses

February 1, 2018 § 9 Comments

Compared to last week, this week’s book may a lighter pick, but it will do no less to make better parents out of us. In fact, it’s possible I needed this reality check more than my kids.

There are days when it feels like my children leave a trail of oopses in their wake. Days when my daughter—at seven, I tell you!—can’t seem to get a single forkful to her mouth without losing some of it down her shirt and onto the floor. When my son leaves his aircraft carrier outside his sister’s door and she steps on it with bare, now-bloodied feet. When just-poured glasses are knocked over by careless elbows; when Christmas ornaments become dislodged and shatter to pieces on the floor as running feet whiz by; when HOW ABOUT NO ONE MOVE BECAUSE THE HOUSE WAS JUST CLEANED AND I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!

Of course, I exaggerate. My children are calm, careful, tidy little people who are aware of how much space they take up. Just not all/most/much of the time.

Cartoonist Andrea Tsurumi’s new picture book, Accident! (Ages 5-8), explodes with hyperbole on every page, gently poking fun at the way we—children and parents alike—invoke unnecessary drama around the most common occurrences in life: oopses. By the time we are finish the story, Tsurumi has us wondering, what if we take the emphasis off the mistake itself and ask instead, how do we make it better? It is not an exaggeration to say that this book has become something of a rallying cry for our family in recent weeks.

In order to write a book illustrating how life doesn’t have to fall to pieces every time we unintentionally break, bump, or spill something, it is necessary to fill pages with breaks, bumps, and spills. Tsurumi accomplishes this with a chain-of-events storyline which begins small—cleverly, on the title page itself—and crescendos into complete chaos. A young, high-energy, anthropomorphized armadillo (named Lola) cartwheels across the floor and inadvertently knocks over a pitcher of orange liquid, which spills to cover nearly every inch of an upholstered white chair. Her reaction is one of sheer horror: “Oh No! I’ve ruined everything!”

Presumably fearing the wrath of her parent, the armadillo quickly decides she will run away to her public library (“they have books and bathrooms”) and “stay there until I’m a grownup.” As Lola races headfirst down the block, all she knows is that she’s running from her problem. What she doesn’t yet realize—but what our wise narrator informs us—is that she’s running “right into everyone else’s.”

Sure enough, everywhere Lola turns, there are cries of “Oh no!” A bear sits on a swing and breaks it. An anteater runs her grocery cart into a lamb, who flies up and lands in a freshly-baked cake being delivered by a blowfish. A giraffe slips while carrying a tray of hot cookies. A hairdresser momentarily looks away and ends up scissoring off the entirety of her (equine) client’s mane. Cars crash. Garden hoses get pointed in the wrong direction. Baseballs smash through windows. Both the absurd and the commonplace intersect in visual abundance.

I’ll admit I suffered from a case of visual overload when I first read this book. It took my daughter taking me back through the different pages, pointing out and chuckling over sub-plots too numerous to count, that sold me on the endless opportunities for creative engagement and repeated perusal. (Once again, I am reminded of what visual learners this generation is.)

The cries of dismay and outrage on all sides—victim and offender—become more extreme with every page: “We’re so unlucky!” “Ruined!” “Disaster!” “Big bad trouble!” “Mayhem!” “Fiasco!” “Calamity!” “Catastrophe!” (Talk about a fun lesson on synonyms.) Perhaps the expletive to ring the truest with our little ones—and, if you’re anything like me, may elicit a tiny twinge of guilt: “I AM THE WORST!”

As Lola races through the chaos erupting around her, she pauses three times to invite others facing similar retribution or retaliation to join her in escaping to the library. Soon, she and four others are storming the library doors.

Here, author-illustrator Tsurumi does something wittily unexpected. Conventional literature has taught us to see libraries as sanctuaries: indeed, that’s precisely why Lola has chosen to go to one. And yet—perhaps reminding us readers just how pervasive, how common, accidents are—Tsurumi extends the very chaos of the outside world into the library itself. Shelves tumble like dominoes, and books and office supplies soar into the air. (My favorite detail: the owl, meant to be stamping books, is instead stamping someone’s head.)

Lola again flees the scene, more frantic than ever. Until she comes face to face with a small reddish-orange bird—coincidentally (or not?) the same hue as the liquid spilled in the story’s opener. Repeated readings will reveal that the bird has been there all along, witnessing Lola’s oops and then trailing alongside her, like a quiet guardian. The bird lands on the armadillo’s tail and seems to call a kind of forced time out. In response to Lola’s insistence of “Disaster! Fiasco! Mayhem! Calamity! Cat-as-tro-phe!” the bird replies, simply, “Accident.”

Under the curious gaze of what has now become a crowd of onlookers, the bird gently nudges, “And now we make it better.” At once, brooms and mops are procured, helping hands are offered, and sincere apologies are delivered. Our children are given a road map for what to do following their inevitable oopses: what comes next? and how do you say it?

When Lola returns home, cleaning supplies in hand, she finds her mother has just provoked a minor catastrophe of her own: she is surrounded by scattered papers, an overturned coffee mug, and spilled doughnuts. This time, Lola is able to offer some perspective. “An accident,” she reassures her mother. And, as Lola removes a doughnut from her mother’s ear, the latter responds, “Exactly.”

I remember a particular dinner at our house. It took place years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Dinner preparation had run long, bedtime loomed, my husband was traveling, and all I wanted was to sit and enjoy the steaming plate of pasta I held in my hands. But, as I carried my plate and glass into the dining room, where my children already sat bent over their food, my socked foot slipped on the hardwood floor and my glass tumbled to the ground. The glass (because I have learned) was super-duper thick and didn’t break, but the water spilled everywhere. I think I must have looked like I was going to cry, because my son jumped up from the table and said without hesitating, “You sit down, Mommy. I will wipe it up.” Oh, how many times I have remembered this incident too late, after I have already barked at one of my children to “Be careful!” “Pay attention!” “Look where you’re going!”

When the pitcher overturns, when the ornament falls, when they mess up the world around them, our children don’t need fingers pointed at them. They don’t need eyes rolled, voices raised, or insults thrown. What they need is the opportunity to “make it better.” And sometimes they even need us to roll up our sleeves and get down in the trenches with them. After all, what goes around comes around, and goodness knows we all make mistakes.

 

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 2-4 times a month.

Book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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!

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