Magnificent Children

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

LeSieg, Theo: Wacky Wednesday

(Originally posted May 24, 2006.)

One of the very first things I did when Helena was born was sign her up for the Beginning Readers’ Program book club. As a first-time mother who had done absolutely no research about parenting, didn't consort much with other parents, and basically had no idea what she had gotten herself into, it was obvious to me that a steady supply of children's books for the preverbal infant was the utmost priority.

Needless to say, in only a few short months my ideas about parenting were turned upside-down. However, three and a half years later, those few dozen book-club books have found a comfortable place in our lives, though the spines of a couple of them have yet to be cracked.

About once a week (though only rarely on Wednesdays) for the last few months, with a certain mischievous twinkle Helena pulls out Wacky Wednesday, by Theo LeSieg (yes, the good doctor), illustrated by George Booth.

She loves pointing out all the crazy things going on in these pictures — shoes on walls, trees growing out of chimneys, people without heads (she can't yet identify the spelling mistakes in the signage). But this:

— this is the funniest thing Helena has ever seen. This is the page she keeps coming back to. This is the page that prompts hysterical, sometimes maniacal, laughter.

As we go about our daily business, this is the page that keeps coming to her mind. She'll suddenly remember, "Il y a un arbre dans la toilette." Wait, she says, she'll show me, and she rushes off to retrieve the book. Book in hand, she makes a great show it, are you ready?, because this is the funniest thing you'll ever see. She laughs and laughs, and I laugh, and eventually we settle into exploring the relative subwackiness of the rest of the book.

Every week. She still thinks it's funny.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Ibbotson, Eva: The Star of Kazan

(Originally posted Septeber 15, 2005)

The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson. I read a review of this book more than a year ago. I often save reviews, but not this one. I don't recall a thing the review said, but it must've been good. I jotted down the title, and, finally, early last week it arrived on my doorstep.

(It came in a box with a large assortment of other literary delights. Embarrassingly large. I ripped through the cardboard, stashed the contents under my side of the bed, and dismantled the box, hurriedly stuffing it and the wrapping material in the recycle bin, which fortunately was already on the curb awaiting pick-up — all traces gone, before J-F returned home from work.)

The Star of Kazan has all the classic elements of a classic children's tale, and then some:
  • An orphan foundling
  • Eccentric professors
  • Horses (Lippizaner, no less)
  • Pastries (Viennese, of course)
  • Aging chorus girls
  • Fabulous jewels
  • Castles (dank)
  • Gypsies
  • Crippled dogs
  • Boarding schools (severe and punishing)

Perhaps most importantly, it features a cast of kindly characters with imagination and dreams, and a love and respect for truth and books. And some villains who are pretty nasty. What's not to love!?

This is an adventure showcasing courage in the face of great adversity.

In brief (from School Library Journal):
Abandoned as a baby, Annika is found and adopted by Ellie and Sigrid, cook and housemaid for three professors. Growing up in early-20th-century Vienna, she learns to cook and clean and is perfectly happy until a beautiful aristocrat appears and claims to be her mother, sweeping her off to a new life in a crumbling castle in northern Germany. Annika is determined to make the best of things, and it takes a while for her to realize that her new "family" has many secrets, most of them nasty.

It seems to me that the best children's books feature orphans. At the very least, the parents are out of sight. What child doesn't sometimes wonder what it'd be like if their parents weren't their real parents? These stories allow kids to explore the idea, taste the freedom of it, while giving them control to come to their own conclusions about their condition.

The point of this story, succintly expressed in regard to a horse: "People belong to the people who care for them."

The title alludes to the name of a jewel, about which there is some mystery and for which there is a quest of sorts. I'm not convinced it's the most appropriate title for this book, but it does have a marvelously exotic flavour. It hardly matters.

The story was somewhat, but not entirely, predictable — though I doubt it would be tranparent to a 9-year-old — and I kept turning pages regardless. It's so lovingly told.

What I love best is that none of Ibbotson's inhabitants are one-dimensional caricatures of good or evil. They are morally nuanced. Very few decisions are black and white or to be taken lightly. For example, "Disobeying one's mother was difficult... But what if it had to be done?"

One of Annika's friends destroys the music professor's treasured and very expensive harp, for the greater good, of course. I shed a tear when Stefan admits to the deliberateness with which he acted, and Professor Gertrude assures him he did the right thing.

Even our story's villain, acting despicably and valuing the superficial, is shown to be capable of love; the deeds are the result of misplaced priorities and loyalty to tradition.

The language is simple but rich, conveying a different culture and time, while explaining to young readers the nature of spas and Swiss bank accounts.

My hardcover edition has nice black-and-white illustrations by Kevin Hawkes, but, frankly, they do nothing for me — the text paints far richer pictures. I love that a map of central Europe, 1908, sprawls across the inside covers.

The Guardian on Eva Ibbotson, who spent her early years in Vienna and whose parents separated when she was 2, and the experience that informed The Star of Kazan:

Ibbotson, as loving as she is sharp, lives now surrounded by children and grandchildren but her childhood was a recurring search for mothering.

Her mother went to Paris, while she stayed in Edinburgh with her father - a scientist who pioneered artificial insemination - and a governess. Does she remember what her eight-year-old self felt? "I think I expected things to be chaotic. I was always wanting my mother to come, waiting and rushing out into the street, looking at people with hats like hers. Thirties hat, velour, very sort of clochey.

"She was wonderful when she came. But I think it was just too soon for her to be a mother."

School Library Journal Best Book of the Year 2004.
Booklist Editor's Choice 2004.
ALA Notable Book 2005.

This book belongs on every young girl's shelf.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Martin, Bill Jr: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Introduced to Helena (age 17 months) April 2004.

Bill Martin Jr dies August 2004.

Loved by Helena, July 2005.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Fox, Mem: Where Is the Green Sheep?

(Originally posted June 17, 2005.)

Where Is the Green Sheep?, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Judy Horacek.

I'm not familiar with any of Mem Fox's other children's books, but her interest in teaching and promoting literacy (as expressed on her website) is in full evidence in the fine crafting of this sheepish little tale.

We love this book!

Illustrations © 2004 Judy Horacek. Posted by Hello

(Compare the covers of the US and Australian editions.)

Helena received this book as a gift about a month ago. While it would've entertained and captivated her from birth, I'm certain it will be a staple to be read in various ways and on different levels for years still to come.

[Warning: spoilers ahead.]

Helena is developing a fine sense of intertextuality. At 32 pages, the simplicity of this book, and the assumed brief time it takes to read it, is deceptive.

Blue sheep and red sheep recall both black sheep (Have you any wool?) and brown bear (What do you see?). We follow the tangents.

Just a few pages in, bed sheep provides a Borgesian touch to our reading experience. Aside from the fact that bed sheep is a sheep and Helena is a little girl, our bedroom scenes are near identical. What book is bed sheep reading?

A host of varied creatures peers from the windows of train sheep's train, not so exotic or endangered as Burningham's menagerie, but each on his own journey to an unknown destination.

Moon sheep never fails to inspire a few bars of Au clair de la lune. It is striking that moon sheep is on the moon, in contrast to the many of our other books featuring a cow over the moon. Different still from kitten's moon, which is full, whereas this is a crescent — a partial moon, but one that is "owned," not merely aspired to.

Similarly star sheep gives us pause. Helena sings a little Mozart, but is well aware that star sheep's star is not so little and with no worlds in sight of it. Could this star possibly be caught?

Eventually we find green sheep, asleep. I expect a straight reading of this book has a deliberately sleep-inducing lilt; it asks us to turn the page quietly, intoning the subliminal suggestion, "Sleeeep, little one. Sleep." We should find both green sheep and tot asleep at the end.

Not so in this household. Helena is invigorated, and with a resounding blast of a pop-cultural reference invokes Joe, singing "Wake up, Green Sheep, wake up!"

Now that we know how the book ends, Helena insists we begin each reading in hushed tones, so as not to disturb Green Sheep until it's time.

Helena "reads" the book back to me, in French, a remarkably fluid and accurate translation. (Perhaps we could get a contract for publication?)

Each reading provides fresh insight into the backstory of the minor characters such as train escargot and hillside-picknicker sheep.


The book has already been successfully adapted for the stage.

Where Is the Green Sheep? is getting constant play these days, resting only for very short bits of time on the shelf. "Ssshhhh! Green Sheep fait do-do..."

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Rathman, Peggy: Bootsie Barker Bites

(Originally posted January 18, 2005.)

We're reading Bootsie Barker Bites, illustrated by Peggy Rathmann. Although it's recommended for ages 4—8, it's perfect read-aloud material.

This book, a delight. The narrator — a five year-old would-be scientist — is tortured by Bootsie, who keeps claiming she is a dinosaur and will eat the narrator. Finally, our heroine thinks of a new game: paleontology. Dinosaur-Bootsie is frightened, and runs away, hopefully never to return.

I love how unapologetic it is. You don't have to play with kids you don't like. You don't have to understand where they're coming from. You don't have to learn that they are human and really nice on the inside. What you have to do is stand up for yourself.

Helena loves it. She says "Bootsie" with a charming French accent. My only concern is that Helena seems to identify more with Bootsie than with the intended protagonist, the terrorized narrator. (Our fault, I guess, for encouraging Horrible Noisy All-Devouring Monster games.)

The pictures of Bootsie's out-of-control menace for the time being elicit puzzlement from Helena. How to explain that it's not "sad," and it's more complicated than "angry"?

This book is recommended for helping youngsters resolve conflicts and deal with bullies. I don't believe Helena will have issues on either side of that coin. Regardless, Bootsie Barker is lots of fun.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Burningham, John: Oi! Get Off Our Train

(Originally posted January 14, 2005.)

Way back when we were embarking a train journey, we bought a book for Helena, hoping to keep her fascinated and occupied. About a train! (It was actually J-F who picked it out, but he can't have read it or he would've mocked its strong environmental message.)

Oi! Get off our Train, by John Burningham.

Helena had no interest in this book until very recently. It's a mystery to me what draws her to any particular book and how her attachment to it then borders on obsessive to the exclusion of all else, at least temporarily.

We've only read the story in its entirety a couple of times. Helena gets stuck on page 5. The 2-page spread closes in on our hero's toy train as it churns to life. In the background, but taking up a lot of space, is the boy's bedside table, fronted with a cabinet door.

Helena needs to open that door.

She reaches into the page, grasping about for the knob. She knocks. She tries my keys, as if by this magic object she can shrink herself down to step through the looking glass, as it were, to unlock the mysteries that lie therein. Occasionally she looks around to the next page, but on her face is always disappointment, as if she's been cheated.

(I ended up housebound the other day, as I couldn't find my keys. They were last seen being used by Helena to unlock the door to her space capsule underneath the kitchen sink.)

I find this to be odd behaviour, but I can only assume it to be a common manifestation of a child's imagination in a particular phase of cognitive development, grappling with spatial perception, switching between 2 dimensions and 3, and the concept of representation.

Similarly, Helena shares her milk and cookies with the creatures of Jamberry, flicks bugs away from Kitten, and pets and kisses all her book friends.

It's as if she slips into another realm between the pages, literally being "lost in a good book."

That's a neat trick. Are we born with the ability to cross over, to give ourselves over, to suspend disbelief? Do we lose it (in varying degrees, from individual to individual) as we gain our footing in the material world?

Friday, December 10, 2004

Jeffers, Oliver: How to Catch a Star

(Originally posted December 10, 2004.)

One of the books Helena received for her birthday is How to Catch a Star, by Oliver Jeffers, published by HarperCollins. Delightful.

It reminds me a lot of Kitten's First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes (which is extraordinary, by the way, and finding a place on lots of year-end best-children's-books lists), in the naive attempts, and failures, of our heroes to reach the sky.

The text is little meatier for this boy-hero than in kitten's adventures: "He thought he could fly up in his spaceship and just grab the star. But his spaceship had run out of petrol last Tuesday when he flew to the moon."

 Posted by Hello

The illustrations are a complete contrast to Henkes'. They're wacky and modern, but without being jarring or busy.

While the Henkes book is romantic, the Jeffers is adventurous. How to Catch a Star recounts a serious expedition, not a whimsical dream of a notion.

It's been generally well reviewed, and I like it.