Sunday, February 25, 2007

By Request, I'm Chiming In

So, I've had many people request my opinion on the whole deal with the latest Newbery Medalist, The Higher Power of Lucky and its use of the word "scrotum" in the first chapter.

First, just let me say that the reason I haven't contributed anything about this topic previously is because I felt that so many other people were already writing things about it. You can read a summary of the affair here, and some other clever thoughts here and here. I just didn't think that people wanted more to read about dogs' bollocks. But apparently, I was wrong, and who am I to second-guess my readership? Plus, whenever I am ever specifically requested to blab about a topic, I'm usually happy to oblige. (And oblige and oblige.)

So: I think that anyone who has actually read the entire book would think that this knee-jerk censorship is rather silly. Librarians who have stated that they have seriously considered the book and still wouldn't purchase it under the softy excuse that "it just wouldn't be appropriate for our patrons" are wimps.

Come on, people! It's about a dog getting bit by a snake in the crotch! Do you think that your library patrons have never watched America's Funniest Home Videos? Sheesh!

But if you want to censor the book, fine. I guess I can't come over to your library and stop you. However, I can give you a slam-bangin' good plan for doing the said censoring of said book.

1. Find as many copies of The Higher Power of Lucky as you can.

2. Turn to the pages that contain the word "scrotum."

3. Black out the word and write the phrase "dirty pillows" above it.

As we all know from the book and movie Carrie, substituting all references to human and animal anatomy with non-descript guilt-inducing catchphrases will result in the spontaneous development of telekenesis.

That's right -- an entire generation of American children will grow up with the ability to move objects with their mind and be tormented ruthlessly by their classmates in high school, and then go on to wreak bloody havoc at their senior proms. No, really!

So, as a warning: don't chaperone the dances for the Class of 2015. Just to be on the safe side.

Forgotten Bookshelf: Chimney Sweeps Yesterday And Today

by James Cross Giblin, illus. Margot Tomes
Harper & Row, 1982

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen: my very first non-fiction book review for the Forgotten Bookshelf!


I sometimes think that non-fiction is the neglected sibling of the big kidlit family. I know of few people who have fond childhood memories of curling up with a non-fiction title and a flashlight after lights-out. And it's difficult for non-fiction titles to have staying power on library shelves because, with our ever-changing world, titles frequently become outdated and discarded. Usually only biographies, memoirs, and and the odd book about math have the chops to be For the Ages. And then there's the little gem about an overlooked, intriguing topic that is not only timeless but makes for a suberb read-aloud.

Chimney Sweeps, Yesterday and Today, is one of those books. Here's why: thanks to Mary Poppins, every kid (and most of the adults) I know absolutely loooooves chimney sweeps. James Cross Giblin manages to put together a set of facts and portraits about chimney sweep life that manages to be compelling, entertaining, and full of pathos as well. His writing is exceedingly well-paced and accessible, making this a great book for the middle grades (and perhaps a read-aloud for kids as young as second grade).

Now, here's the lowdown on the goodies that make this book so fabulous.

1. You find out why good luck will be yours when a sweep shakes hands with you, or why you can blow 'em a kiss, and that's lucky too.

2. The book features photographs of modern-day sweeps, who apparently still enjoy wearing top hats and tails as they go about their business. (Chapter 8 features a photo of a sweep in the act of jauntily leaping from a rooftop. Egads.)

3. Chapter 5 is devoted to the recreation of a day in the life of a 19th-century boy chimney sweep. This chapter reaches Dickens-levels of teearjerker-ness, yet manages to be fascinating. This is the one for teachers to pull out during Social Studies -- absolutely fabulous writing.

And the number-one reason why you should read this book . . .

From Chapter 7:

Farmers in England and Europe often used live geese as chimney sweeps, and many American colonists did also. A settler would climb up onto the roof of his one-story cabin or house and drop a large goose with a rope tied loosely around its feet down the flue. He raised and lowered the goose several times, and trusted that its flapping wings would remove most of the soot from the chimney. Then he gave the dirty, frightened bird a bath.
Whoa. I know that the PETA people will hate me for saying this, but hands-down, that is the BEST THING I've read in a children's book in a LONG, LONG TIME.

Go, people. Find this book at your library or used bookshop. Flip to Chapter 7 and read this paragraph to everybody and anybody you can find, and relish in the ensuing hilarity.

Goose in the chimney. Ah, it makes me happy.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Um . . . And Yet Another Video

Hello, dear bleaders -- I've dug up yet another little morsel for you on You Tube. This is an animated version of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll. Er . . .I would say "animated" using only the strictest definition of the word. This looks like it was put together with PowerPoint, but there's something oddly charming about it. Probably one of the few times you'll see the worlds of Alice and Elvis connect. Enjoy!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Because Romantic Math Allegories Are Good Any Time of Year

So . . . I wanted to post some lovely little romantic thingie here on Valentine's Day, but I couldn't find anything worthy . . until now. Here it is: the Oscar-winning animated short, "The Dot and the Line," based on the book by Norton Juster (yes, of "Phantom Tollbooth" fame -- hey, I even have the proper kidlit reference with this thing) and directed by Chuck Jones.

I don't think a cartoon can get a better pedigree than that. You'll need to turn on your computer's speakers to understand what's going on -- or just find the book, and read along. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Saturdays

by Elizabeth Enright

Henry Holt, 1941, reiss. 2002 $16.95

This is the kind of sweet, old-fashioned family novel that makes you insanely jealous of the characters. Oh, how I want to be them!

The Melendy family has four children – Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver – and in my opinion they have everything that’s good in life. They have a boisterous family with four creative, sophisticated children (aspiring actress Mona quotes Shakespeare, mischievious Rush plays piano, Randy paints, and Oliver . . . um, is six). They make their home in 1940s Manhattan, living in a rambling brownstone with a special kids-only clubhouse on the fourth floor. They have a ridiculously faithful housekeeper/nanny. Best of all, they have the cleverness and friendship necessary to create the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club.

What’s that, you say? One rainy afternoon in the clubhouse, the Melendy kids decide that once a week they will pool together their allowance and take turns allowing one of them to have an adventure all on their own in the city. The Saturdays follows each of them as they take their excursions all over the city – going to art museums, the circus, or to a salon for a manicure.

Why couldn’t my childhood have been like that?

Each outing leads to a surprising conclusion, whether that be discovering a new friend, adopting a lost dog, or simply feeling a little queasy at the end of a busy day.

There’s two things to get excited about with this book: first of all the Melendy kids are beautifully realized, down-to-earth kids. Their characters and conversations are sprinkled with just the right amount of bickering and cooperation to make the family seem ideal without being idealistic. It’s like Little Women with a few boys thrown in to the mix.

The second thing to enjoy here is the setting – 1940s New York – which was purely contemporary at the time of the book’s publication, but which has mellowed and aged into nostalgic perfection for today’s readers. Ah, a time when 50 cents was a generous allowance! When you could rely on friendly traffic cops to direct children through the city! When a family could develop a deep friendship with the furnace man! These are details that might go over some kids’ heads, or create a conversation about the Good Old Days for others.

Together, these elements create a marvelous introduction to the world of Elizabeth Enright; fans of the Cheaper By the Dozen books will feel right at home here. And then might stay a bit longer – there are three Melendy sequels.

Henry Holt reissued this book in 2002, with an odd new book jacket – it makes Mona and Rush look like they are in their mid-twenties – but the original ink drawings are preserved inside. . It’s the kind of book that would make great reading on a Saturday afternoon of your own.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Cybils Have Landed!

Yes, indeed. For those of you who have been reading this blog (or any other kidlit blog, for that matter), the first annual Cybils -- youth literature awards betstowed by the blogging community -- were announced yesterday afternoon. I was lucky enough to be on the judging committee for the Middle Grade Fiction category, and enjoyed it immensely.

I'll talk more about the Amusing Judging Experience tomorrow. For now, let's bring on the winners (or, as I term them, the "Cyblings").

Winner of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi Category:
Bartimaeus Trilogy #03: Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud

I've only read the first in this trilogy, and it was under Extremely Awful Reading Conditions -- in a dimly lit car, with a migraine -- and my experience was therefore sullied (i.e. I really hate remembering this book). But here's the lowdown: Stroud creates a world in which magic is used the way we might expect in reality: full of snobs, beaurocrats, and back-stabbing politics. Add to this mix a plucky-yet-sallow young wizard Nathaniel and the hard-rockin' all-powerful trickster djinn Bartimaeus, and you have a rip-roarin' good story. Start with the Amulet of Samarkand and strap yourself in for a good ride.

Winner of the Fiction Picture Book Category:
Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt

Aw, shucks -- I can't help but feel a twinge of disappointment that this book was the winner, simply because my favorite picture book of 2006 -- Emily's Balloon -- was one of the other finalists for the prize. Well, win some, loose some. Scaredy Squirrel is simply hilarious; this tale of a paranoid critter on an unexpected path to self-discovery is guaranteed to be a staple of storytimes everywhere. Probably the only picture book in existence that uses the phrase "antibacterial soap" to good effect.

Winner of the 12-and-Under Graphic Novels Category:
Amelia Rules! Vol 3: Superheroes by Jim Gownley

Hum. I haven't seen this book anywhere, and chances are you'll have a hard time finding it as well. But the everyday neighborhood antics of Amelia and her friends look simply charming. If you haven't stumbled upon the world of graphic novels for kids, you're missing out.

Winner of the 13-and-Up Graphic Novels Category:
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This also won the Printz Award -- the ALA's prize for young adult fiction -- so it comes as no suprise that it showed up here. This tale combines Chinese folklore with contemporary race and identity issues in a story that is simply stunning. And would you believe it started as a web comic? Ladies and gentlemen, we've come full circle.

Winner of the Middle Grade Fiction Category:
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

Yay! The one I helped win! I wrote the blurb about this book that currently resides on the Cybils website, so it's kinda hard to write something new. Hey, I know! Go here and read my original spiel; that way I can preserve my brain power for Higher Things like . . . er. . . quoting The Simpsons ad infinitum. You know. Stuff.

Winner of the Non-Fiction Category:
Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freeman

Freedman won the Newbery Medal some years ago for his stellar Lincoln: a Photobiography, so you can pretty much know what to expect here. Stellar, clear and concise writing plus scads of interesting photographs. Anything that breathes new life into the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott will be welcomed by teachers and schoolchildren everywhere.

Winner of the Non-Fiction Picture Book Category:
An Egg is Quiet by by Dianna Aston; illustrated by Sylvia Long

Quite frankly, one of the most beautiful non-fiction books out there. This collection of facts and stories about all kinds of eggs is paired with delicately colored watercolors and calligraphy -- it looks like pages dropped from a 19th-century naturalist's sketchbook. Perfect for slowly perusing while nestled in some woodsy thicket.

Winner of the Poetry Category:
Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes

This is the sequel to last year's Caldecott Honor book, Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems, which was illustrated by Beckie Prange. Both books feature mind-bogglingly gorgeous hand-colored woocut illustrations and whimsical poems that function as nature riddles. Pair this lil' beauty with An Egg is Quiet and you have a perfect set of books for camping, hiking, and backyard safaris.

Winner of the Young Adult Fiction Category:
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

A whirling, sexy he said/she said It Happened One Night with about a million music references. It seriously rocked my world when I read it last summer. Here's the thing: I really, really wish it had been written about twenty years ago, beacause this would have made the purr-fect pre-sellout John Hughes movie. You know: prep-rock Molly Ringwald as Norah and a punked-up John Cusack for Nick. Shut up, don't you even TRY to tell me that wouldn't be awesome.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Quote of the Day: Dirt

My four-year-old son, Jeffrey, has never sucked his thumb, or used a pacifier, or nibbled on the same corner of a favorite blanket. It is kind of a parenting freebee that I don’t have to wean him off of non-nutritive sucking needs, but the upshot of this is that Jeffrey puts every single other thing in the world in his mouth.

I thought it would stop when he turned three, but no: on an almost daily basis I find myself fishing buttons, chess pieces, pencils, fuzzy Mystery Candy, Fisher Price Little People, and – shudder – his sister’s shoes out of his mouth. Nothing is sacred.

This of course means that any amount of snowfall our fair city immediately turns into the Epic War of Mom vs. Jeffrey’s Snow-Laden Mouth.

Oooorgh, he’s always stuffing it in there, sometimes without really realizing that he’s doing it. And we’ve just been graced with a whopper of a snowstorm: four inches of snow followed by a thick layer of freezing rain, then topped off with four more inches of snow. It’s the tiramisu of blizzards – how can any preschooler resist digging in, much less my ridiculously orally-fixated kid?

The only strategy that has managed to penetrate his consciousness so far has been the constant warning that snow is filled with dirt.

“Jeffrey, that snow is filled with germs and dirt,” I say, to which he responds in amazement:

“What? Dirt is bad?”

And so I am frequently quizzed on the Impenetrable Mysteries of the Nature of Dirt. It’s as if he’s checking up so often just to make sure that there won’t be some wonderful chance in the future in which dirt will suddenly be okay to eat.

“Mom? Does dirt still make you sick if you eat it?”

“It sure does, honey. Very sick.” [internal monologue: Hurrah! It’s finally sinking in!!!]

“Sick? And then it will turn your body inside out and you’ll turn into an alien?”

“ . . . [pause] . . . I don’t know about that. Who told you that dirt will do that to you?”

“Pfft! Why, you did, Mommy! You’re so silly!”

Huh. So is this what I get for reading Mooncake aloud so often?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Great Minds Think Alike

About a week ago, MotherReader penned a delightful post about the formation of a new children's literature organization: Bloggers Against Celebrity Authors. Oh, happy day -- if there's ever any kind of sign-up sheet, I totally want my big John Hancock on it. The Madonnas of the world really, really need to be fenced in. Or picketed, whatever.

But the acronym "BACA" struck a chord that jingled and jangled through my mind for hours.

BACA. BACA. Where had I heard that before? Then I remembered:

Oh yeah, baby. Quite frankly, I think the two organizations could easily be combined, depending on whether or not you consider reading Judge Judy's Win or Lose By How You Choose! to a child constitutes child abuse. (I do.) Plus, this move could give the kidlit world some seriously needed street cred.

If the kitlitosphere were to form a biker gang, what would the name be?

Don't nobody mess with Hell's Bunnies.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Forgotten Bookshelf Review: Miss Jaster's Garden

Miss Jaster's Garden
by N. M. Bodecker
Golden Books, 1972 (reiss. 2001)

As I write this it is a whopping nine degrees outside, and I'm wearing about four layers of clothing while sitting inside my drafty old house. Two nights ago a case of Dr. Pepper froze and exploded in the trunk of my car, leaving a giant pile of what appeared to be brown dirty snow sitting on top of a collection of oddly punched-out cans.

Time for some spring? You betcha. And Miss Jaster has just what we need to get us through these winter doldrums.

Residing in Villa Pax, a charming English seaside home, Miss Jaster loves nothing more than to tend her spacious, flower-filled garden. She tends and cares for all of the garden's inhabitants, especially Hedgie, the hedgehog who lives quietly in a corner of the grounds and enjoys both saucers of milk and Strauss waltzes from his landlady.

Hedgie is so content with his life, that he does not even bother to wake when Miss Jaster is sprinkling seeds over the patch of ground where he is napping, nor when she combs a rake over him; "he rather enjoyed having his back scratched." Nobody is more pleased than Hedgie when flowers sprout and grow among his quills ("I believe I shall be quite handsome,") but when Hedgie wishes to skip and stroll far from home in a burst of springtime ecstacy, Miss Jaster is startled by the "runaway flower bed" and summons the constable to catch the "thief."

All a simple misunderstanding, of course, and readers will know from the start that this story will have a pleasant ending, but like any outing in the springtime, the journey is just as important as the arrival.

N. M. Bodecker is best known in the U. S. for his illustrations for Edward Eager's Half Magic books -- elegantly lined drawings of loose-limbed children with comically expressive faces. Miss Jaster's Garden was his first original story, and the illustrations are much more austere than in his other works. Miss Jaster is slim and wiry, with impossibly tiny feet, and her home is rendered with a wealth of fine-lined architectural detail -- each groove on every urn in the garden is given its due. The figures look almost motionless, giving the effect of statues carefully placed on a lush lawn, and in that sense the watercolors reminded me very much of Edward Gorey, only without the macabre sensibility. Think of the style as something like Gorey-Meets-Monet. One of the more appealing parts of the book is how the entire garden is lovingly rendered in the form of a colorful "horticultural survey" map on the endpapers, just begging to be explored by fingertip again and again.

If anything, this is a book to be savored -- the length and whimsical details of the text make it an excellent book to be read in one or more sessions. At the end, you'll be tempted to spend time as Miss Jaster and Hedgie do -- spending long afternoons outdoors, accompanied by a tray of tea and "nothing but peace and sunshine and a touch of Sweet William."