December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.
Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.
Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.
While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.
There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.
And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.
Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”
I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.
Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.
I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.
AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).
Review copy by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 17, 2015 § 3 Comments
The Greatest Thing has happened. The Richard Scarry book that I most loved as a child is BACK IN PRINT! That’s right, I no longer have to lie awake at night, debating whether to drop $100 on eBay so that my kids can share in my childhood nostalgia. There I was, casually browsing the aisles of my neighborhood bookstore, when I caught sight of a double decker London bus, packed with a menagerie of dressed-up animals. I let out an audible squeal, snatched up every copy on the shelf, and ran directly to the counter to buy them all. (Yes, I have a problem, but there are worse addictions to have…right?)
You might think you already have enough Richard Scarry in your life. Sure, I get it. You might have read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go so many times (like I did, when my son was two and waking up at 5:15am every single day), that you have had to “misplace” it on occasion. Or, you might feel like you have already lost years of your life talking about a certain worm who lives in a Busy, Busy Town and walks upright wearing a single shoe.
But you might also remember that, sometimes, the only reason you can answer your child’s 700 daily questions stems from your proficient readings of What Do People Do All Day? (After all, when you became a parent, you didn’t know you would need a working knowledge of how streets are paved and houses are built and paper is made and a mailed letter gets from one place to another.) You might also take a moment to reflect how, when your children were younger and people commented on their impressive vocabulary, you might owe more than you think to the hours you spent—at their request, of course—pointing at items on supermarket shelves in the Best Word Book Ever.
In the spirit of outing my children’s addiction within my addiction, I am here to confess to you that we own TWENTY NINE different Richard Scarry books (calm down, I’ve only listed my favorites at the end of this post). For the past eight years, Richard Scarry has topped our “most often read” lists more than any other books. I trip over them more than any Lego or baby doll. Yes, I have sometimes buried my face in my hands and lamented to my children that I just don’t have it in me to read another 72-page book that’s heavy on words and light on plot. But, most of the time, I oblige. Because it makes them so darn happy.
And because I remember how much I adored these books as a child.
Which brings me to the recent republication (in honor of its 50th anniversary) of Busy, Busy World (Ages 4-8), one more Richard Scarry title that you ABSOLUTELY WILL NEED TO ADD TO YOUR COLLECTION. As I’ve said, my love affair with this anthology of 33 internationally-themed two-page stories—think of it as Busy, Busy Town goes global—began as a child myself.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that my love of travel originated with this book, which makes pit stops in cities like London, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo, and in countries like India, Israel, Mexico, and Egypt.
As a child, the colorful settings captivated me: the spires of castles in Denmark, the dikes in Holland, the palm trees in Rio de Janeiro. How I wanted to ride that double decker bus across the London bridge, or sail in a gondola down the canals of Venice. I was even fascinated by the different international flags on the book’s back cover.
I remember, at the beginning of each story, flipping to the map inside the book’s cover to pinpoint exactly where that particular story took place. (Incidentally, my children immediately started doing this same thing the first time we read the book, with no prompting from me.)
Of course, as any fan of Richard Scarry’s stories knows, the eclectic, goofy, sometimes downright absurd cast of anthropomorphic animals are wherein lies the real irresistible charm. STARTING WITH THEIR NAMES. (For the record, I’m not oblivious to the overt 1960s cultural stereotyping implicit in names like “Schmudge, the German Chimney Sweep” or “Ukulele Louie, the Hawaiian Fisherman,” or “Dr. Krunchchew, the Russian Dentist”…I’m simply pointing out that these names are tremendously entertaining to read aloud.)
These animal-people are forever getting themselves into pickles (I’m referring to both meanings of the word). Despite their best intentions, these characters are virtually unstoppable in their ability to get into trouble. They crash into pie trucks, they drive off raised drawbridges, and they hide in pots of soup.
Richard Scarry was forever embedding his stories with morals and lessons (manners are first and foremost)—and here is no exception. Know someone who doesn’t like to clean up? Perhaps you should introduce them to Schtoompah, the Austrian tuba player, who “was not very tidy. Instead of putting things away neatly, he would just throw things in a closet.” In preparation for a concert, Schtoompah spends two days looking through his closet for his tuba. Once on stage, his first blow unearths a plethora of forgotten household items and appliances, sending them raining down into the audience. (My kids die over this one.)
Slapstick humor aside, some of the best laughs come from misunderstandings that the characters fail to see but which are obvious to the reader. It took a a minute for my kids to get the pun in one of my personal favorites, “Professor Dig and His Egyptian Mummy.” Fresh off excavating an ancient mummy, Professor Dig stops at a restaurant and asks the proprietor to “watch my mummy for a few minutes while I sit and drink a cold glass of lemonade.” The restaurant owner mistakes the mummy for the professor’s mommy—and proceeds to spend the next hour trying to get her to talk and ballroom dance with him. (I die over this one.)
OK, moment of truth: When I’m reading this book to my kids, can I honestly separate my own visceral reaction—the wash of memories it brings back to me—from my ability to weigh this book objectively against more contemporary offerings? Perhaps not. Are the stories at times bizarre, chauvinist, and culturally stereotyped? Yup. Does the writing occasionally fall flat or feel tedious or actually make no sense at all? Afraid so.
Does any of that matter in terms of the sheer enjoyment this book provides? Not for a second.
In the six weeks that we’ve had Busy, Busy World, my kids have relished flipping through it, picking out which stories they want me to read, and arguing over which ones are their favorites. It has been a joyful trip down memory lane and around the world for all of us; and I only hope that my kids will hang on to this new copy so that their own little ones can enjoy it someday.
Other Favorites by Richard Scarry:
Best Word Book Ever (Ages 1-3)
Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (Ages 2-5)
Busy, Busy Town (Ages 2-6)
A Day at the Airport (Ages 2-5; this book has inspired many a rainy afternoon hanging out at the airport)
A Day at the Police Station (Ages 2-5)
A Day at the Fire Station (Ages 2-5)
Please and Thank You Book (Ages 2-5)
What Do People Do All Day? (Ages 3-6)
The Animals’ Merry Christmas (Ages 4-10)
The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries (Ages 4-8; yes, Richard Scarry did something for older kids!)
Finally, did I mention how much we love the Busytown: Eye Found It cooperative board game? See, just a little obsessed…
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments
Many of us remember the first novels we read, the ones that instilled in us a love of reading (off the top of my head: A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, anything written by Ruth Chew…). Earlier this year, the prolific writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote a beautiful defense of fiction, which I absolutely love. Fiction, he claims, is not only our best entry into literacy (the what-will-happen-next phenomenon being utterly addictive), but it teaches, above all, the power of empathy:
“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk. This story, along with the others discussed below, would be gift-worthy in their own right; but all three books benefit from the bonus of illustration. Like the energetic pen-and-ink sketches that Skottie Young did for Fortunately, the Milk, art makes these chapter books accessible to a younger audience (like my JP), while still introducing the child to mature subjects and a rich vocabulary. These books are a gateway, not only to the imagination but—as Gaiman so eloquently reminds us—to opening up our children’s eyes to different perspectives. They take us back in time. They take us around the world. They let us see the world through the eyes of others, be it ambitious mice or misunderstood yetis.
In Richard Peck’s The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (Ages 9-12, younger if reading aloud), we travel back in history to Queen Victoria’s London, where we are privy not only to the happenings in Buckingham Palace, but also (and most importantly) to Britain’s underground world: a parallel society of mice, engaged in their own hierarchy of power and bound to the same traditions as the British humans surrounding them. Peck is no stranger to fantasy (nor to writing about mice—check out last year’s Secrets at Sea), and his brilliance lies in the sheer detail with which he constructs his imaginative worlds. Consider a world whose very existence is so secretive that you have to hide your intelligence, your ability to speak—heck, you even have to shed your clothes—each time you’re in the presence of a human. At the heart of the story is a young mouse, adopted as a baby, who runs away to find out the truth about himself and his heritage. Amidst harrowing adventures with cats, bats, punch bowls, and the Yeomice of the Guard, our protagonist discovers, not only his courage and intelligence, but also that he’s next in line to the throne! Like any great fantasy, no matter how strange or comical the situations (and some of these had JP and I in stitches), the feelings of the characters are deeply familiar to the reader. “Squeak up,” our young hero is constantly told—only it’s hard to be brave when you’re just a tiny creature living in an adult-centric world! A few months ago, when I was nearly finished reading the book to JP, my husband took a business trip to London. One night he called and asked to be put on speakerphone. “I ran by the Mews this morning! They’re right where the book says they are!” (The Mews are the stables for Buckingham Palace and the place where much of the mice action takes place.) I watched JP’s eyes grow wide like saucers. Later, as I was tucking him into bed, he said: “It really could have happened, you know. I mean, Mommy, if we can’t see the mice, we don’t really know for sure that they aren’t doing those things.” Who can argue with that?
One definitely can’t argue with the convincing premise of Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which reveals yetis as some of the kindest, most compassionate, most smiley creatures on earth—and not, in fact, the terrifying, child-eating monsters that most humans assume they are. So when the tourist industry threatens to encroach upon a family of yetis living peacefully in a secret valley of the Himalayas, two human children take it into their hands to smuggle the yetis across Asia and Europe (readers can track their progress on the map inside the cover) to a safer life in Jolly Old England. (For those who don’t know, the late Ibbotson was a hugely successful British children’s author—but one whom I’d not read until now. After reading this extraordinary book, which was published posthumously this year, I must read everything she wrote!) While the children, along with the help of an accomplice “lorry” driver, are the ones transporting the abominable snowmen across continents in a giant crate, it is the big-hearted yetis that emerge the real heroes of the book, offering valuable life lessons at every turn. We are gently schooled on animal rights, on caring for the environment, and on never turning your back on someone who needs help. At times, the outcry against animal cruelty reminded me of the incredibly moving but deeply sad 2013 Newberry-Award winner, The One and Only Ivan (I think I cried for a week). Better suited for a younger audience, The Abominables managed to keep JP and I smiling amidst its powerful message. After all, there is something infinitely charming about enormous, fur-covered creatures, whose faces sport horns and whose toes point backwards, trying to navigate the human world: apologizing to the plants they eat, powdering their faces in hotel suites, or asking to hear another story about “that bear called Winnie” (a.k.a. Winnie the Pooh). But I think what impressed me most about this story is its profound insistence that, quite often, life’s Most Important Work is done by children. It’s children, after all, who possess the innate ability to see past differences, to find hope in the most unlikely places, and to keep on trying against all odds to get their way. Sometimes, it drives us batty. But sometimes, it actually makes the world a better place.