June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment
On our first full day of summer break, I was stopped at a red light when I heard what could only be described as vigorous huffing and puffing from the backseat. My son headed off my own curiosity, turning to his sister in the seat next to him. “What in the WORLD, Emily?”
“I am blowing the red light,” she replied matter-of-factly, between huffs. “To get it to turn green.”
Her brother, never one to pass up an opportunity for correction, pounced on this. “That is NOT what it means to ‘blow a red light,’” JP said. “It means to drive through the light when it’s red.”
There were exactly two beats of silence, as my seven-year-old daughter presumably took in this information. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet but firm.
“I choose to live in a world with magic, JP.”
Cue eye roll from big brother, and a big smile from me. You see, while my youngest has always been a free spirit (“Your daughter lives in a world of her own,” my own mother is fond of saying), she has never had much patience for magic wands or fairy godmothers, for Tinker Bell or Cinderella’s mice. “I do not like fairies,” she is fond of telling me, though I am equally fond of reminding her that, while she may always trade in fairy wings for dinosaur costumes, she has also loved listening to me read The Night Fairy, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, and Snow and Rose. Her fondness for Disneyworld’s rides aside, Emily seems to object to a gendered, princess-y, commercialized depiction of magic. What she actually loves is the idea that—upon close, quiet, intimate examination—the natural world might be found to be tinged with the supernatural.
In his final line of his final children’s book, The Minpins, Roald Dahl wrote:
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
Our job as parents might be to teach our children to brush their own teeth and pack their own *$%! lunches, but it is also to nurture the believer in them. If we accomplish nothing but that our children choose to see magic in the world, I think we can rightfully throw ourselves a party.
It is likely no coincidence that this backseat exchange between my kids took place on the heels of finishing two chapter books with my daughter. Perhaps if her older brother had been on the receiving end of Granted (Ages 8-11), by John David Anderson, and Bob (Ages 7-10), co-written by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, he would not have been surprised by Emily’s newly-pronounced world view. The two storylines couldn’t be more different; and yet, in overlaying a touch of the fantastical onto real, everyday life, the books beg their readers to look more closely at the world around them, to question whether there might be more going on than meets the eye.
Granted opens with a question—“The last time you blew out your birthday candles, what did you wish for?”—and then, across 322 spell-binding pages, proceeds to give us a “backstage pass” as to what actually happens when we humans offer up a silent wish into the universe, be it by birthday candle or fallen eyelash or shooting star. If our wish subsequently comes true, it could be coincidence. Or it could be the daring, painstaking, high-stakes work of a fairy—work so essential, the feydom’s very existence depends on it.
Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is a fairy, with hair “as cobalt blue as the flower she was born from.” She lives, as all North American Fairies do, in the Haven, a mostly secreted place teeming with tree-top houses and bowing to its own complex set of laws, orders, and ceremonies. From their earliest age, fairies are assigned a guild to which they dedicate their lives. In Ophelia’s case—owing to her speed, her meticulousness, and her generally type A personality—she has the most coveted job: she’s a certified field agent, otherwise known as a Granter, which means she will be called upon to move surreptitiously among humans on a mission to grant a particular wish. Each day, a lottery in the Haven decides which of the millions of human wishes from the past 24 hours will be granted. Unfortunately, the Haven’s supply of magic has been rapidly dwindling over the years, owing to fewer and fewer human believers.
On the morning the story opens, there is only enough magic to grant a shocking twelve wishes. The good news is that Ophelia is assigned to one of the wishes, a chance to put her training into action at last. The wish is for a new bicycle, made by an Ohio girl named Kasarah Quinn, whose previous bike was stolen.
Protocol requires that, in order for a wish to come true, the Grantor has to retrieve the wished-upon object—in this case, a nickel tossed into a fountain—before she (or he, because male fairies are just as prevalent, including Ophelia’s pink-haired BFF) sprinkles on the precious 100% pure fairy dust and utters the magic words. Ophelia has twelve hours (“tocks,” in fey speak) to complete her mission and get back to the Haven. She is not, under any circumstance, to become distracted by anything she sees or hears (beyond the supersonic ringing of the wished-upon object), or emotionally invested in any of the creatures she encounters.
When you are a pint-sized creature with delicate fairy wings, journeying hundreds of miles without being seen or crushed can present unlimited challenges (planes! trucks! automatic sliding doors!)—even when armed with a thermal flight suit, camouflage spray, and various miniaturized weapons cooked up by a team of Builders, Makers, and Alchemists. Even more, attempting to chase down a coin, which seems to change hands more quickly than we can say Ophelia’s full name, means that Ophelia becomes an unwitting pawn in several humans’ lives (and one adorably hapless dog’s). As Ophelia quickly discovers, the wealth of printed information about the human world, which she has poured over for years in the Haven’s Archives, doesn’t scratch the surface. As it turns out, humans (and dogs) have a unique knack for getting others to care for them. And where there is caring, there are complications.
Granted proved the perfect antidote for my fairy-skeptical daughter. In nearly every chapter, author Anderson manages to build up to a breathless cliff-hanger specific to Ophelia’s mission, while simultaneously disclosing fascinating new details about the inner-workings of the feyworld at large. Much like J.K. Rowling’s richly textured Hogwarts, it seems there is nothing that Anderson hasn’t considered. Several times while I was reading the book, I thought, “But wait…,” only to have this suspected hole filled by a subsequent chapter. (The book addresses, for example, what happens if someone were to wish for world peace…or for something criminal.)
Ironically, it is precisely her perfectly-ordered world that Ophelia begins to rebel against. By decree of fairy law, wish fulfillment must be arbitrary; and yet, aren’t some wishes more important than others? What are the consequences for valuing one person’s life over another? What should the role of magic be? And what if we’ve been doing something the same way for so long that we’ve forgotten how to question it? Ironically, it’s Ophelia’s passionate rebellion that might just be the key to rekindling the believer in all of us.
In Bob, a chapter book my daughter and I finished in two days (being both short and deliciously addictive), there may not be any wish-granting fairies, but there is a mysterious green creature wearing a clumsily-fashioned chicken suit, whose destiny turns out to be directly linked to the wish of an entire community. When ten-year-old Livy finds this creature, who calls himself Bob, in her bedroom closet at her Australian grandmother’s farmhouse, she doesn’t remember him from the last time she visited that distant continent, five years earlier. In fact, she doesn’t remember many specifics about her last visit. Bob, however, has spent the past five years shut up in a closet thinking of little else but Livy, wondering when she was going return and doing his best to stay entertained with only a LEGO pirate ship and a dictionary. (Pause. I always thought it was just me who found the name Bob amusing to pronounce when I was a child—the way it kind of blurts out of the mouth—until I caught my daughter giggling and repeating it the first few times I read it. Or maybe it’s genetic? No offense to any Bobs out there reading this.)
Who and what is this adorably eccentric Bob creature? Where did he come from, and where if not the closet is he supposed to be? Bob and Livy are equally puzzled. Bob initially worries he might be a zombie, but Livy quickly puts an end to that with the help of the dictionary. When Livy determines that no one else seems able to see or hear Bob, she questions whether he might be an imaginary friend from her younger years; and yet, how can an imaginary friend eat actual potato chips? Through chapters that alternate between Livy’s and Bob’s perspective, we begin to piece together a picture, not only of the individual backgrounds and personalities, but why their friendship was once so important to both of them—and why it still is.
Livy is a quiet, perceptive child, caught in that sticky gap between little kid and big kid. She’s too old to play with dolls—or is she? She’s too old to be nervous about her mother leaving her for two weeks with her grandmother—or is she? She’s too old to remember how Bob first came to live in her closet—or is she? Even the format of the book echoes this duality, with short chapters and the occasional sepia-toned illustration (beautifully rendered by Nicholas Gannon), exactly halfway between an early chapter book and a middle-grade novel.
Certainly, Livy is old enough to sense the sadness, worry, and helplessness in the adults around her, all of whom are struggling to support farms in the midst of a severe years-long drought. She feels equally powerless to help—that is, until the neighbor’s son goes missing. When Livy and Bob journey deep into the woods to search for the boy, they not only find him, they also discover that Bob is a clue to the drought plaguing the land. It’s a journey that no adult would understand or believe, but it’s a journey that reminds us readers that the natural world is rich with intrigue, with hidden currents, with a tinge of the supernatural. Whether Bob is real or a figment of Livy’s imagination may always be open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: occasionally, in life, there may not be a logical explanation for the amazing things we witness.
This summer, I invite you: choose a world with magic for your children. Grant some wishes. And maybe not just for them. I know a lot of adults who could use a little bit of magic right about now.
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Books published by Walden Pond Press (Harper Collins) and Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), respectively. Review copies purchased by me! All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)
Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation.
Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes (Ages 4-8) is told entirely though illustrated panels. (If you have doubts about the value of wordless books, read this.) I first fell in love with MacKay’s acclaimed cut-paper dioramas in Fall Leaves—but, wow, has she outdone herself here. Her art seems actually to dance off the page. It’s as if we were watching the ballet unfold from the same velvet seats as the story’s young heroine, who is attending the show for the first time with her grandmother. In fact, it’s precisely the experience of watching “The Nutcracker” to which McKay brings our attention.
The girl in the story is not as easily seduced as us readers by the prospect of going to the theater. In fact, she isn’t keen on leaving her house at all. Especially not to venture out into the rain and across town with her Gran, who surprises her with Nutcracker tickets. The girl looks stiff and miserable while getting her long hair brushed and her frilly dress on.
MacKay’s washes of browns and greys perfectly echo the dreariness of the cold, wet night. (I know we’re supposed to feel their contrast with the splendor of what’s to come, but there’s something just as beautiful for me about these pictures.)
Despite not getting the response from her granddaughter which she (likely) desires, Gran’s enthusiasm never wavers. She bounces along with a swing in her step and no umbrella.
When the pair enters the theater, it becomes clear the girl thinks her bad luck is only worsening. A boy around her age sticks out his tongue at her as she walks by. When they climb the stairs to the balcony, he turns out to have the seat next to her.
But then, the violinists begin, and the magic happens. Swirls of color sweep into view, and the dismal palette of the previous pages is juxtaposed by the vibrant reds, oranges, greens, and blues of the characters and sets on stage.
If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, those familiar with the ballet will have fun recognizing the different scenes as they flash by. Equally fun is identifying expressions on both the girl’s and boy’s faces, as they take in the performance for the first time. There’s anxiety at the nutcracker’s battle with the mouse king, for starters. And then relief—accompanied by a playful “I was never actually worried” glance at her neighbor—when Clara intercedes on stage to stop the mouse king.
What we begin to realize is that, much as we love seeing our favorite scenes from the ballet rendered so incredibly beautifully on paper, it’s actually just as much fun to watch the shifting relationship between the girl and boy in their seats. In their collective experiencing of the show, they become something more than strangers. Tentative at first, but with increasing warmth, they become playful, even a little flirty, with one another. It’s as if the magic on stage reaches out and holds them in its spell. Clearly, we are meant to draw parallels between the young children’s camaraderie and the relationship between Clara and the nutcracker prince. (McKay paints both the main characters and the dancers with refreshing racial diversity, adding another element of beauty to these relationships.)
Did I mention that by the time the show lets out, the rain has turned to snow?
Take away the stage lights, the lavish costumes, the festive sets, and the ethereal dancing, and there is still something magical about E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which long ago inspired “The Nutcracker” ballet. It’s a story about handmade gifts that grow in size and come alive on Christmas Eve, when the night is ripe for the unexpected and the impossible seems possible.
T.E. McMorrow (a former stagehand himself) taps into the spirit behind this timeless Christmas Eve tale in The Nutcracker in Harlem (Ages 4-8), which stars a young African-American girl named Marie, living at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the artist-rich Sugar Hill neighborhood of New York City. If Waltz of the Snowflakes has us hearing the classical music in our heads, The Nutcracker in Harlem has us conjuring up the soulful sounds of jazz—voices accompanied by trumpets, saxophones, and women dancing in head scarves and feathered boas. Brilliantly illustrated by the accomplished James Ransome, the story stays true to the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, right down to the sweet potato pie.
Our heroine, Marie, loves “the sound of Christmas,” but she doesn’t participate in it. Despite others’ encouragement to “let it out,” the shy, serious girl cannot bring herself to sing alongside her gregarious family and friends. In the pictures, she stands watchful and stiff on the sides. “She wished she could sing, but Marie was afraid she wasn’t any good.”
Like Clara in “The Nutcracker,” Marie gets a nutcracker doll from her Uncle Cab. It is carved, her uncle tells her, from “magical wood” and carries a drum around its neck. After everyone else has gone to bed, Marie sits in the dark beside the twinkling Christmas tree and rocks the nutcracker in her arms. In Ransome’s watercolor, we feel tenderness and affection, but we also identify a palpable sadness in Marie’s solitude.
When Marie awakens after briefly dozing off, the tree has doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size, and the glass ornaments have come to life. So, too, have the dolls and the wooden soldiers, the latter now an army led by the nutcracker himself. In sweeps a second, equally formidable army made up of enchanted mice and led by a mouse general, who charges ahead with cries of “Candy Cane!” and “Marzipan!”
The battle rages on, until it’s time for Marie, like Clara before her, to intercede before the mouse general destroys the nutcracker. But instead of kicking or throwing a shoe at him, Marie picks up the fallen nutcracker’s drum and begins to play. Marie’s power comes from within, but it comes in the form of music.
At once, the mice return to normal size and scamper away, and Marie is left with the nutcracker prince, with whom she dances beneath falling snowflakes. Marie does what we’ve been hoping she will do from the moment we meet her: she closes her eyes and sings. Her entire face softens, and her eyes sparkle.
When Marie wakes again, she is in her bed. It is Christmas morning, and she is surrounded by her smiling parents and her brother. Only an extra drum under the tree suggests that perhaps Marie wasn’t dreaming after all. That and the fact that later in the day, when the guests gather again in her house to sing, Marie joins in.
In McMorrow’s Author’s Note, he says about the story’s ending: “Just as the memory of The Nutcracker remained with Marie, so too did the memory of the Harlem Renaissance remain in the American soul.” Music and art have incredible power to transport and transform. Another reason why next year, you’ll find us in the audience of “The Nutcracker,” relishing once again the magic of the season.
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Review copy of Waltz of the Snowflakes provided by Running Press Kids. The Nutcracker in Harlem published by Harper Collins Children’s. 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.
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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.
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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!
November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment
I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).
Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year.
Secondly, my husband and I started taking our kids to the Washington Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Warner Theater in DC, a deliciously accessible performance for young children, where twinkling lights and perfect tutus send shivers of excitement down our dressed-up spines (and whose creative liberties involving a Mouse King cast in a Revolutionary War battle scene ensures my son is every bit as enchanted as his sister).
Now that we are Nutcracker enthusiasts—and now that Tchaikovsky’s music officially marks for us the start of the holiday season—I decided that this year we were ready to explore the darker, more mysterious intonations of the ballet.
And, just like that, the Thailand-born British illustrator Niroot Puttapipat launched the most breathtaking children’s edition of The Nutcracker that I have ever seen. Inspired by the sets from Marius Petipa’s original production in Saint Petersburg on December 18, 1892, the sophisticated adaptation not only hearkens back to the origins of the story, but it nudges at our dreamy subconscious in the same way that, say, Grimm fairy tales do. Puttapipat’s book isn’t scary, but it has an element of mystery and magic that feels just the tiniest bit unsettling—and leaves us wanting more.
If Alison Jay’s book is sugary and sweet and makes us want to twirl across the living room, Puttapipat’s keeps us squarely transfixed on the page. My kids and I cannot stop looking at this book. Some of you may already know Puttapipat’s unique artistic style from his previous Jingle Bells and The Night Before Christmas (clearly, I’m late to jump on this bandwagon).
In The Nutcracker, delicate black silhouetted figures—almost haunting in their absence of detail and expression—are set against sumptuous swaths of color. Expanses of black set pieces are juxtaposed with meticulous fine-point detailing, like the embroidery on the Nutcracker Prince’s coat or the ornaments on the Christmas tree.
Think of these like the landscapes of our dreams, where certain things take shape but others are shrouded in darkness.
It’s not just the unexpectedness of these visuals that entices; it’s also the emotion that radiates from every page. There’s no expression on young Clara’s face, yet we feel her heartbreak as she crouches beside her broken nutcracker.
We feel Clara’s worry as she watches the battle between the come-to-life nutcracker and the evil Mouse King (before she chucks her slipper at him to end things once and for all).
The text, which runs along sidebars on each spread, is adapted by Kate Davies and closely based on the original texts by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexandre Dumas. Yet, rather than feeling stiff or outdated, it too soars with drama and lyricism, aiding and embedding Clara’s magical journey alongside the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Sweets.
They traveled by swan over gold-flecked oceans and silver-edged cities. Clara held her breath, her eyes wide. As she gazed at the twinkling lights far below, snowflakes pirouetted past. The prince caught one and gave it to Clara. “Try it,” he said.
Clara let the snowflake dissolve on her tongue. “Mmm. Rosebuds and raspberries!” she said.
“Mine is peppermint and honey,” said her prince. “Every snowflake tastes unique.”
The Land of Sweets does not disappoint. While the text describes lemonade flowing from fountains and lollipops growing in flower beds, Puttapipat’s magical picture (it might be my favorite) delivers us a castle whose dark spires stand bold against a shimmering night sky; a moss-draped walking bridge that’s fit for starry romance; and a Sugar Plum Fairy whose wings look like they have been cast in sugary ice. It is enough to make Believers out of the most hardened of us.
Oh, but there’s more. As Clara and the Prince prepare to enter the castle, the page turns to reveal a pop-up spread of cut-paper art that might be one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen in a children’s book. This is a castle that delivers: a castle at once light and dark, at once festive and mysterious. The silhouetted figures that flank the scene are nods to the different styles of international dance that follow in the actual ballet.
What happens inside the castle is largely left to the imagination (until we go to the ballet, that is). The book—somewhat abruptly—concludes on the next page, with Clara waking up back home with the wooden nutcracker in her arms. “What a wonderful dream, she thought. But she could still taste lime and mint…”
And then something happens that is not in the Alison Jay version and which elicited an audible shudder from my daughter (“Ooooh, Mommy, that’s so mysterious!”). I’ll let your children discover that surprise on their own.
Traditions have the best chance of standing the test of time if fresh life can occasionally be breathed into them. Niroot Puttapipat reminds us that our family has only scratched the surface of enjoying this 125-year-old ballet.
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Review copy provided by Candlewick 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!
June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
Last year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.
But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.”
I’ve seen what my kids can do with a pile of stuffed animals and two sheets—heck, I’ve even watched them play Tic Tac Toe on the living room floor with masking tape and kitchen cutlery—so I should know that they can do this. Heck, I do know it. They can battle boredom. I’ve seen it time and time again. And yet, the mere thought of little hands hanging on me and little voices whining for another snack and little feet pattering on my heels as I try and straighten the house—all of these the predictable precursors to the creative process—make me want to get out my wallet and head to Target.
Stop the madness. Summer should be my children’s time to plug fully and uninterruptedly into their imaginations. I need to resist staging; I need to resist meddling; I need to turn them loose in the backyard and shut the door behind them.
Thankfully, we have books like Elizabeth Orton Jones’ Twig (Ages 7-9, or younger if read aloud) to remind us of what fun can be made out of what is already on hand—that is to say, out of almost nothing at all.
Originally published in 1942, re-released in 1970, and then updated with an introduction from the author in 2001, Twig has every ounce of the nostalgia, charm, and quirkiness that we would expect from a 70-year-old chapter book (although, arguably, it does romanticize poverty to a fault). Hilarious blog posts like this one aside, we should perhaps take a page out of the parenting books of our own childhood, when we tromped around the backyard with skinned knees and itchy bug bites and our parents seemed almost surprised to see us at the end of the day. Magic almost always happens in children’s stories when the parents turn their backs.
Parents of fairy lovers rejoice! I have a found you another chapter book, which—like our beloved The Night Fairy—is based in the natural world, is beautifully told, and stars characters every bit as innocent and genuine and likeable and funny. Take a look at Twig‘s Table of Contents and tell me you don’t want to start this story at bedtime tonight.
The author never comes out and says it directly, but Twig, the little girl at the heart of the story, is clearly poor. She lives on the “fourth floor of a high sort of house in the city,” has safety pins for buttons, and wears a piece of grocery string around one of her shoes to keep it from falling apart. She doesn’t appear to have any siblings, nor any fellow children as neighbors. She also doesn’t appear to have a single toy.
What she does have is a backyard, which she shares with two sparrows, a cat, an ice-wagon horse, a leaky drainpipe, and a single dandelion. It is out of these things—as well as discarded household objects—that Twig constructs and stars in the most fanciful and amusing of adventures.
The story begins with a fairy house. Not the fairy house of our children’s imaginations, with mossy rocks and grassy beds and twigs tied with twine. This is a strictly urban fairy house, made from an empty, overturned can of tomatoes with a slit down the front (“where somebody’s can opener had made a mistake”). Twig furnishes the house with a thimble (cooking pot), a bottletop (which makes a table when balanced on the thimble), a piece of shiny paper (mirror), and an old feather (a broom to sweep the floors). And then she waits for a fairy to move in.
A fairy does move in, although not the “pretty little fairy” Twig was expecting. Elf is an eager, mischievous, cap-sporting boy fairy with a potato skin for clothing and a high-pitched voice (“like the tiny little squeak which was in Twig’s Papa’s Sunday shoes”). We later learn that he has escaped from the Grimms’ tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and is eager to try his hand at magic in “real life.” As far as Twig is concerned, Elf exceeds expectations the moment he tries out a magic spell from his trusty red book and ends up miniaturizing her. Suddenly, the two are keeping house together inside the tomato can, and it isn’t long before they are bantering like an old married couple.
Seen through the eyes of Twig’s new miniaturized self, the backyard becomes a place of wonder and excitement. She swings from the leaves of the lone dandelion. She drinks tea out of old toothpaste tops. Along with Elf, she climbs up the ice-wagon horse’s tail and takes a siesta nestled inside the horse’s ears. (Of course, transforming the mundane into the extraordinary is not without its limits: Twig has to draw the line when Elf brings a cockroach into the tomato can and attempts to endear him to Twig as a pet named Chummie.)
But my daughter’s favorite adventures come when, perched on the back of Mrs. Sparrow, Twig and Elf take trips up to the nest to help the mother-to-be sit on her eggs. For one, the four eggs end up hatching on their watch, and Twig and Elf are beside themselves trying to figure out how to hush the endless “squa-a-a-a-w-w-w-w-k” of the ravenous babies (many giggles here). Secondly, the page-long description of the nest is itself fascinating—a regular archaeology site of discarded treasures. In addition to straw and horse hair and old feathers, there is “a piece of silver tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree,” a burnt match, the first six inches of a tape measure, and “a little limp piece of rubber from an old balloon” (“Oh! Twig had never seen such a mess!”)
Anyone hoping for some conventional fairy lore will not be disappointed, as the last third of the story brings the arrival of the Fairy Queen, who descends from Fairyland “with a long pink dress on, and hair that was as yellow as Twig’s Papa’s taxi, and wings you could see right through—like cellophane.” She is followed shortly by the quirkiest character in the book: a white-haired, wizened fairy named Lord Buzzle Cobb-Webb, who arrives on the Royal Magical Cobb-Webb Kerchief, addresses Twig as “young whipper-snapper,” and prepares to escort the Fairy Queen, Elf, and Twig if she so desires back to Fairyland.
So commences my favorite scene, as Twig wrestles with her understanding of what is real, what is pretend, and who is the true mastermind behind these events. Of course, the savvy reader has suspected the answer all along: the book’s story is Twig’s creation—and, as such, Twig has the power to tell it again, tell it differently, or tell a new one altogether.
It’s the Fairy Queen who reveals Twig’s power to her. When Twig complains that she can’t make the trip to Fairyland on account of her “ordinary old dress,” the Queen assures her that it’s not what lies on the outside that matters, but what lies within.
The Queen looked up at the little round bud at the top of the dandelion stalk. “Do you know what is inside of that plain ordinary little round bud?” she asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” answered Twig. “A beautiful flower.”
“There is something just as beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen.
“Something—beautiful! Inside of—me!” said Twig. “Honestly, Your Majesty! How could there be?”
“How could there be a beautiful little flower inside of the little round bud?” asked the Queen.
Twig lifted her shoulder several times. “I don’t know!” she said. “There just is, that’s all.”
“And there ‘just is’ something beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen. “It’s called imagination.”
“Is that so?” said Twig. “What can it do?”
“It can do magic,” said the Queen.
“Magic!” squeaked Twig. “What kind of magic?”
“Any kind of magic you wish,” said the Queen.
“Well, for goodness sakes!” said Twig.
Imagination—the most precious childhood companion—doesn’t cost a cent.
My children have built their fair share of fairy houses in our backyard over the years. Here’s hoping that this summer, they will go one step further and allow their imaginations to take up residence front and center, to see their surroundings with fresh eyes, and to create new stories that will be no one’s but their own. The next time my kids tell me what to buy this summer, I’m going to tell them to take out the recycling. That should be everything they need to get busy.
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 31, 2016 § 1 Comment
Earlier this year, the third title came out in the now wildly popular series, “The Princess in Black,” written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (the first is here, the second is here). The newest installment, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde (Ages 4-7), features all the characters we’ve come to adore, plus a fleet of purple bunnies every bit as deadly in behavior as they are gentle on the eyes (even the PIB is initially fooled by their “language of Cuteness”).
What continues to make this series so much fun isn’t just the “princess pounces” and “scepter spanks” (although I do love me some alliterative fighting), but the tantalizing way in which the story lines turn traditional princess lore on its head. Princess Magnolia might be upholding the pretty in pink image back home at the castle, but outside where there are monsters threatening innocent goats and goat herds, she and her unicorn-turned-black-stallion are 100% kick-butt.
There’s just one problem. While Team Hale is working on cranking out these titles—originally developed to fill a void in the early chapter book market—our kids are getting older. I’m not suggesting that we as parents need to replace the PIB (never!); I’m merely announcing that if your child (my son would like me to point out that these books are not “just for girls”) is ready for meatier stuff, there’s a longer, more sophisticated series waiting in the wings. A series every bit as charming. Every bit as deliciously unsubtle with its feminist message. But also one that trades some of the full-color cuteness for a hefty dose of caustic wit.
Princess in Black, meet Harriet Hamsterbone: the clever, fearless, fractions-obsessed, never-take-no-for-an-answer star of Ursula Vernon’s “Hamster Princess” series (of which the second was just released, and the third will follow this October). When she’s not fighting cat-ogres or diving off cliffs, Harriet is working on breaking curses placed by wicked witches (or fairy god mice)—curses which her male contemporaries, ahem, have not been able to crack.
Yes, this is a rodent whom we can all get behind. A gal breaking down traditional barriers and exploding gender stereotypes wherever she rides (on the back of her trusty quail, Mumphrey).
I need to come clean about something before we go any further. The “Hamster Princess” series (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud) follows in the wake of Ursula Vernon’s popular “Dragonbreath” series, which shares with it the same novel-that’s-heavy-on-graphics format frequently marketed towards “reluctant readers.” I’m not sure whether it’s this marketing, or the prolific speech bubbles and blunt-tipped monochromatic illustrations, but I have always lumped “Dragonbreath” in the category of Literary Dribble. Without so much as reading a word. I know, this is terrible. I have secretly rolled my eyes at kids reading the “Dragonbreath” books, and the only reason I decided to pick up the first “Hamster Princess” title was because I had heard rumblings about its blatant feminism—and the world can always use more of that.
SHAME ON ME. Because Ursula Vernon’s writing is smart, sharp, and sarcastic. Not to mention wildly absurd in ALL THE BEST WAYS. I loved every minute of my reading Harriet the Invincible and Of Mice and Magic to my five and eight year old. We blew past bedtimes because we were laughing ourselves silly (sometimes I was laughing alone, as there’s no shortage of humor geared towards the older reader). After we finished, I immediately went out and bought Dragonbreath for my son to read on his own.
Because the “Hamster Princess” series is aimed at an older audience and can take on more complex plots than the PIB stories, it’s not just the princess persona that gets exploited—although Harriet was once grounded for a month after shoving a book into the mouth of her deportment teacher, who was attempting to improve her posture by having her walk in circles with said book on her head.
The “Hamster Princess” books also twist around fairy tales themselves (proving, once again, that the best reason to read the original fairy tales is so that we can appreciate the fractured versions!). In Harriet the Invincible, Harriet is supposed to be the victim of the Sleeping Beauty curse, only she knocks the evil sorceress into the poisoned spindle (well, hamster wheel) and inadvertently unleashes eternal sleep onto everyone in the castle except herself. (“Oh, Man…Dad is gonna kill me.”) Forced to embark on a quest to find a prince who can bestow some cure-all kisses on the slumbering victims, Harriet ends up finding one that needs rescuing of his own—from a five-headed hydra and an impoverished kingdom.
The second book, Of Mice and Magic, takes on The Brothers Grimm’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses, only here the twelve princesses are mice, each named after a different month of the year by their OCD father (who, I might add, has also color coded his entire castle). Harriet, never one to resist an adventure, is called to the scene to succeed where for seven years the more obvious (male) contenders have failed. The mouse princesses are under a curse which has them mysteriously escaping the locked castle every night and dancing their way through the soles of their silk shoes. Unlike the princesses in the original story, these mouse princesses are not dancing of their own accord (that all girls should be expected to love dancing is pure “tyranny,” according to Harriet). Nor are the tuxedo-clad moles, the princesses’ dance partners, keen on this forced matchmaking: they’re only doing the bidding of their witch mother and hoping to get out of doing dishes. Are you keeping up? Because this, my friends, is only the beginning of the mayhem.
For a princess, Harriet is—as one crone admirably calls her—“a singularly bloody-minded little thug.” Still, swords and threats, spells of invincibility and a Poncho of Invisibility, can get you only so far. In all her adventures, Harriet’s greatest triumphs come, not from her physical prowess, but from her intellect, her compassion, and sometimes even her patience. Time and again, to avoid certain peril (or, at the very least, gender type casting), she is forced to think on her feet—and what she comes up with is consistent: the best way to beat the nay-sayers is to beat them at their own game. This hamster never misses a beat. She finds a way to turn every insult, every promise, every opportunity to her advantage.
Tonight, as I was putting the kids to bed, the subject of this blog post came up. “You know, Mommy,” my eight year old son began, “if someone forced me into a conversation about princesses, I would have to say that Harriet Hamsterbone is my favorite.” (He has learned to run the other way screaming when his sister and her friends start donning Disney princess costumes.)
“Oh yeah? And why is that?” I asked.
“Well, even though she’s a princess, she’s a princess who breaks a lot of rules. And she’s never helpless. And she goes on exciting adventures that are fun to read about.”
“Yeah,” JP’s five-year-old sister piped in. “She doesn’t sit around waiting for someone to write a story about her. She just begins her own story!”
Wow. Perhaps it’s time I turned over the authorship of this blog to my kids. Thank you, Shannon & Dean Hale and Ursula Vernon, for giving us spunky opportunists who are helping remake our children’s ideas of Happily Ever After.
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Review copies provided by Candlewick and Penguin, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!