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.
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.)
December 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
For the next few weeks (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.
“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!
February 1, 2018 § 8 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.
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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!
May 25, 2017 § 3 Comments
It never fails to astonish me how long my kids can withstand a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Earlier this spring, we waited in line for three hours to get tickets to an art exhibit, and they entertained themselves for at least an hour playing this hand game. Long after myself—and every adult around us—was ready to banish the words “rock,” ‘paper,” and “scissors” from the English language, my kids kept going. Alas, this is not a quiet game.
Perhaps when I could have been pondering nobler pursuits, I have instead been asking myself: What is it about this highly repetitive game (“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot! Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”) that lends itself to such welcome repetition? The answer, I’ve decided, is larger than simply immediate gratification or the apparent thrill of saying “shoot” over and over. RPS is the perfect game of chance. Rock trumps scissors trumps paper trumps rock. (That’s all the Trumps you’ll get out of me.) It’s an equilateral triangle—a closed system, if you will–where each opponent has an equal shot at winning and losing. (Apparently, this is not strictly true, as some professional players—yup, they exist—are able to “recognize and exploit unconscious patterns in their opponents’ play.”)
Apparently, I am not the only one spending quality time contemplating a greater meaning behind this mundane game. Two of the cleverest, funniest, and most subversive children’s book creators—Drew Daywalt (author of the wildly popular The Day the Crayons Quit) and Adam Rex (illustrator of Chloe and the Lion and How This Book Was Made, to name a few musts)—have teamed up to imagine what the backstory to this age-old game might look (and sound) like. Let’s just say it didn’t take me more than half a second to decide we needed to own The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors (Ages 5-10). (It’s also a beautiful reminder that elementary children are not too old for picture books.)
Long before they make one another’s acquaintance, the anthropomorphized Rock, Paper, and Scissors have a taste for battle. Each spends his or her days seeking out opponents. Rock, for example, who lives “in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard,” baits a clothespin on the laundry line: “Drop that underwear and battle me, you ridiculous wooden clip-man!” To which the clothespin replies, “I will pinch you and make you cry, Rock Warrior!”
A battle ensues—and yet, despite Clothespin’s big talk, Rock is quickly victorious.
As we quickly understand, no matter whose buttons Rock pushes (“You, sir, look like a fuzzy little butt,” he says to an apricot, to which the latter responds, “What?! I challenge you to a duel!”), Rock always dominates. And yet—as anyone who has antagonized a younger sibling will understand—rather than feeling satisfied with this predictable turn of events, Rock finds himself disheartened by what he realizes are not “worthy challenges.” “Smooshing you has brought me no joy,” he mutters atop a squashed apricot.
A similar search for a worthy foe is simultaneously taking place in both the “Empire of Mom’s Home Office” and the “tiny village of Junk Drawer,” where Paper and Scissors respectively take on computer printers (“Noooo! Not a paper jam! Paper is victorious!”) and adhesive tape.
Probably because I’m always asking my children to lower their voices, they think my reading a book which demands shouting and taunting and battle noises is absolutely hysterical (puts me in mind of this). But I must admit: with writing like this, I kinda do, too. If you can’t beat ‘em, sometimes you have to join ‘em. (Plus, the scene where Scissors forges into “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer” and refuses to bow down before a bag of cocky dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets—she spears them to bits instead—is sheer brilliance.)
Like mine, your children will relish the anticipation of the inevitable: Rock, Paper, and Scissors at last meet (in the “great cavern of Two-Car Garage”) and discover worthy opponents in one another. The battles are “epic and legendary” and the trash talk even better. Says Scissors, “I hope you’re wearing your battle pants, rock warrior.” Replies Rock: “If by ‘battle plants’ you mean ‘no pants, but I’m willing to fight you,’ then yes…yes, I am wearing my battle pants, weird scissory one!”
The surprise comes when each in turn is finally beaten. Where we might expect sorrow from the defeated, instead there is elation. “You have made me so happy by beating me!” cries Scissors to Rock. The latter (not having challenged Paper yet, to whom he will fall) responds, “I wish I felt your joy, Scissors, for I have yet to meet a warrior who can beat me.”
There’s pride to be taken in a hard-fought loss to a worthy opponent. And perhaps this message is not all that foreign to our children. After all, they beg and plead for “one more minute” of playtime—sweaty and grassy, they chase each other back and forth across the backyard—but when we bring down the parental “That’s enough,” when we guide them through the front door and into the bathroom and over to the dinner table and into the bath and into bed, they know they’ve lost. They’re free at last to give up the good fight and surrender—with a sleepy smile on their face.
And prepare for Round Two tomorrow.
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Book published by Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperColllins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
February 2, 2017 § 1 Comment
Robert Frost wrote, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Given the headlines of the past two weeks, it’s getting increasingly difficult to laugh at ourselves. Thankfully, we can turn to literature and art to restore our sanity.
When it comes to choosing reading (or television) material, my husband is fond of reminding me that he “only wants a laugh.” Such proclivity doesn’t exist in me. True to form, I began January by losing myself in Adam Haslett’s devastating (if devastatingly beautiful) novel, Imagine Me Gone, where at one point a manic-depressive father sits across from his recently teenaged son and laments silently, “If I ever had the care of his soul, I don’t anymore.” I couldn’t look at my own (rapidly-aging) children for the rest of the day without crying—much less handle reading the news—so I traded in that book for Tina Fey’s performance of Bossypants, which I listened to for the next two weeks in the car. Doubling over the steering wheel in convulsive laughter feels like more appropriate self-care for the times.
Interjecting giggles into our family life came more easily with John Patrick Green’s Hippopotamister (Thank you, Betsy Bird, for rounding up your favorite 2016 graphic novels). An entrée into the graphic novel format for newly independent readers (Ages 5-10), Hippopotamister juxtaposes simple panels with full-page illustrations—each one executed with pitch-perfect timing, laugh-out-loud silliness, and heartfelt emotion. (There are even “how to” drawing instructions for the main characters at the end, should anyone wish to try his hands at comics creation.) We read it thirty two times last month.
The book stars two animals who live at a city zoo which has fallen on hard times. The ticket counter is covered in cobwebs; the office is a mountain of abandoned paperwork; the habitats are dilapidated; and the residents sport mangy manes, lackluster teeth, and dampened spirits.
Take-charge Red Panda is the first to jump ship: “I’ve decided to leave the zoo and live amongst the humans,” he announces, claw in air. As he returns with salivating tales of the “outside world,” he quickly wins over his loyal pal, Hippo, although Red Panda suggests he change his name to Hippopotamister, so he will be taken more seriously by the humans. (Try finding a name that’s more fun to read aloud.) The two set off to find fame and fortune—or, at least, to land a job.
Author-illustrator Green is a whiz at letting his pictures reveal gags which his text does not. Observant readers discover that, for each job the duo attempts—construction worker, hair stylist, chef, banker, dentist, fire fighter, paleontologist, and so on—the prideful Red Panda fails spectacularly, while the modest Hippopotamister succeeds brilliantly.
Which is funnier—the epic fails or the unlikely successes—is hard to say when your kids are giggling their pants off.
One salon client loves his hippo-styled coiffure; another is horrified by her sudden resemblance to a red-and-black striped panda.
At an upscale trattoria, the Hippopasta Primavera (complete with “sprinkling of parmesan over sautéed onions”) looks mouth-watering, while the Antipasto A La Red Panda is an absurd assortment of insects, pebbles, lint, Red Vine licorice, and car keys. In my kids’ favorite scene (OK, mine), the restaurant is promptly shut down by the Board of Health for “serving rocks” and the two friends are sent packing.
Even more absurd, the two friends appear oblivious to the stark contrast in their on-the-job performance. That is, neither friend overtly acknowledges what is obvious to us: Hippopotamister could make a career in any of these professions, while Red Panda doesn’t seem suited for any of them (with one hilarious exception, but I won’t ruin that for you). Following each trial or audition, the two simply pick up and move on without looking back. Is the former hopelessly clueless while the latter stubbornly self-absorbed?
Or is there something else at work?
Here’s where my kids and I venture to suggest that there’s more to Green’s story than surface silliness: Hippopotamister isn’t about to embrace a job that would leave his best pal out in the cold. “Don’t worry, Red Panda! I know you can find us an even better job!” is Hippopotamister’s refrain of solidarity after each failure, followed by the latter’s insistence, “This [next job] is going to be the best job ever!” The two are a team, determined to succeed together or not at all.
This teamwork culminates in the delightful feel-good ending, where Hippopotamister returns to the zoo and puts each of his new skills to work restoring it to its former glory (See, kids, no job is ever a waste of time!). With joyful pride, Hippopotamister balances the books, styles the lion’s mane, makes gourmet meals to perk up the monkeys, and builds sturdy enclosures.
Even better, for all his newfound abilities, Hippopotamister recognizes a shortcoming which only Red Panda can fill: that of entertainer. Red Panda has a quirkiness which adults find maddening, but which kids (as evidenced by the way they hang all over him at the daycare stint) find irresistible. A diligent zookeeper with a magnetic head of Customer Relations? Now that’s a winning duo.
Red Panda and Hippopotamister’s antics are a welcome comedic break from the stresses of the real world. But they also remind us that if we keep on laughing through every failure and piece of bad news, we might keep our sanity intact long enough to succeed. What success looks like may not be clear, but so long as we’re willing to don different hats and surround ourselves with loyal friends, we’re bound to find out.
Other Laugh-Out-Loud Favorites from the Past:
Penguin Problems, by Lane Smith
Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, by Bob Shea & Lane Smith
Goodnight, Already! by Jory John & Benji Davies
A Visitor for Bear, by Bonny Becker & Kady MacDonald Denton
Mother Bruce, by Ryan T. Higgins
Dory Fantasmagory series, by Abby Hanlon
Arnie the Doughnut series, by Laurie Keller
Mr. Pants series, by Scott McCormick & R.H. Lazzell
Battle Bunny, by Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, by R.A. Spratt & Dan Santat
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Book published by First Second, an imprint of Roaring Book 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!
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!
December 15, 2016 § 2 Comments
Perhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve read on the Internet lately is BookRiot’s series of interviews with middle-grade authors regarding a renewed commitment—in response to the misogynistic rhetoric that seemed to win out in this past election—to writing strong female protagonists, of giving our daughters literary role models of persistence, resilience, compassion, and action. The future can only be bright if our girls see themselves as integral to every part of it. Or, in the more poetic words of Lindsay Egan, author of Hour of Bees (on my list to read):
“We writers are implored to write characters with goals, characters who want things, characters who act to move forward. But in light of the current political climate, I feel it’s a real imperative now for me to write female characters who do things. Girls who speak up, girls who defend others, girls who make mistakes and ask for forgiveness, girls who dream and think and work for the world they wish they had. Girls who don’t accept hate or unfairness and fight to make things better. Girls who sacrifice their own comforts for the safety of others. Girls who know that showing kindness is never weakness. Girls who DO things. The future is coming, and I want the girls of the future to remember that change is in their hands.”
Fortunately, this trend is already underway in middle-grade literature, as evidenced by the fantastic female-dominated novels that came out earlier this year. I cannot rave enough about the titles I promoted over the summer in this guest post, of which Natalie Llyod’s The Key to Extraordinary, Ally Condie’s Summerlost, and Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow feature heroines that live up in every way to Egan’s directive (Ages 10-15 for all).
But today I want to focus on Gertie’s Leap to Greatness (Ages 8-12), a debut novel by Southern writer Kate Beasley (sister to Cassie Beasley of Circus Mirandus, see my post here), which I just finished and whose female star has left me positively giddy. While squarely a middle-grade chapter book, it is also, arguably, more accessible to a slightly younger audience than the books I mentioned above (in this, it reminds me of another favorite, A Tangle of Knots).
Just read the zinger of the book’s opener and tell me you aren’t hooked: The bullfrog was only half dead, which was perfect.
Gertie, our fifth-grade protagonist, is a girl of action in every sense of the word. (And, yes, she resuscitates a bullfrog with a turkey baster.) Each morning, when Gertie runs out of her Alabama house to board the school bus, two Twinkies in hand, her aunt calls after her, “Give ‘em hell, baby!” And indeed, Gertie continually refuses to accept the hand she is dealt: not the pretentious Hollywood newcomer, who steals Gertie’s seat at the front of the class and makes it her point to outdo Gertie whenever she can; not the school’s Clean Earth Club, which feels to Gertie like an attack on her father who works on an oil rig; and not her mother, who abandoned Gertie as an infant and whom Gertie is convinced she can win back. The force of righteousness is strong in this one.
Gertie’s running internal dialogue—fresh, indignant, and outrageously funny—organizes itself along the lines of “missions” and “phases,” which are passionately hyperbolic, often misguided, and always genuine. She, Gertie Reece Foy, was going to be the greatest fifth grader in the whole school, world, and universe! And that was just Phase One.
Some critics and readers have criticized Beasley’s novel for a lack of originality, calling Gertie a modern Ramona Quimby, or an older, Southern version of Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine. In response to that—and to quote Gertie’s aunt—I say, What in the Sam Hill is the matter with that?! Don’t we want more of those characters? Ramona and Clementine endure, not just because they are girls of action, but because they, like Gertie, create the kinds of big, beautiful messes from which they grow.
Gertie fails constantly in this book. As in, ear-splitting train wrecks. She fails at being the smartest, despite staying up all night studying. She fails at landing the leading role in the play, despite channeling Evangelina Who Would Not Eat Her Vegetables all day long.
She fails at being a best friend, when she bulldozes her way through a mission with no regard for others’ feelings. She fails to listen, when her father explains his own conflicted feelings surrounding his work on the oil rig. She fails to see what’s right in front of her nose: that her aunt is a better mother to her than her biological mother would ever be.
But, for every failure, Gertie picks herself up and tries again. She works until she gets it right, or until she—sometimes the truer sign of growing up—adjusts the questions she’s asking. Her gumption is as beautiful as it is raw. If there was ever a character you wanted to strangle one minute and wrap your arms around the next (assuming she’d hold still long enough), this is her. And that’s exactly as it should be. (Props to Jillian Tamaki’s occasional pencil sketches, which further endear us to Gertie, with her bulldog expression and messy ponytail.)
When I read books like Gertie’s Leap to Greatness and the others mentioned above; when I imagine my daughter and her friends reading them in a few years; when I consider reading them aloud to my son if he won’t pick them up himself, I feel momentarily reassured: the present may be a hot mess, but the future is bright.
Book published by Farrar Straus Giroux. 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!