Picture Books · Reading

Cornucopia: Picture Books for Autumn

It’s been a while since I’ve done a picture book blog, and since a-something like twenty of my former students had babies in the last year and b-I love fall, I’ve decided to collect some seasonal books that don’t have snowfolk or reindeer as protagonists.

  1. “Little Tree” by Loren Long. When all the trees are little, everything is great, but when fall comes, one won’t let his leaves fall because he’s afraid of the cold. The problem is that stunts his growth, and once he establishes the pattern of holding on to stuff too long, it’s hard to break. I feel personally called out by this picture book, so I love it and need to share.
  2. “Room on the Broom” by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler. This is such a great book: it’s Halloweeny, but just because the character is a witch. It’s mostly about finding your tribe and protecting your homies. And when your homies are all adorable critters, that’s awesome.
  3.  “John Pig’s Halloween” by Jan L. Waldron and David McPhail is the first Halloween book my son had, and we all loved it. I’m a sucker for good verse, and John overcomes his fear by making friends with monsters, so I feel like that is a win all around. The verse is so catchy we practically memorized the whole thing, and 18 years later, we still find ourselves using a line or two in conversation when it’s appropriate, which is more often than you’d think.
  4. “Thanks for Thanksgiving” by Julie Markes and Doris Barrette is our requisite Turkey Day book, in part because of the wonderful fall-toned illustrations that include wonderful family moments but also school and play. It also includes a blank page at the end for families to write in what they’re thankful for, which makes my Bullet Journaling heart happy. Train ‘em young, I say. You want them to read? Then read. You want them to be grateful? Then be grateful. And write that stuff down, so you can remember what it was like to be grateful for Thomas trains and Fairy Fudge.
  5. “The Giant Cabbage” by Chérie B. Stihler and Jeremiah Trammell. This one is adorably illustrated by Trammell and a sweet fable about coming together for a common purpose, then sharing in the fruits (or vegetables) of that labor. Fall is all about abundance, after all.
  6. “Persephone” by Sally Pomme Clayton and Virginia Lee, speaking of abundance… and what comes after the harvest.  This is a solid version of the myth of Persephone and her mom, about seasons and sorrows and cycles and the bond between life and death.
  7. “Georgie and the Robbers” by Robert Bright is not overtly a fall book, but it must take place in the fall, if one uses the illustrations as a guide. And since it’s about a ghost and an owl and a cat, it has an autumnal feel to it. It remains, after thousands of books, my very favorite book to read aloud. Part of that may be nostalgia. I had it as a kid and remember reading it when I was little, and then I read it to my kids. But when I read it to my kids, I realized how delightful the music and drama and character building is when you read it aloud. It’s amazing. It’s hard to find now, but if you want to borrow mine, or even better—ask me to read it to you—I’m down.

Happy Fall y’all.

Picture Books

Holiday Picture Book Extravaganza

Ok, maybe it’s not an extravaganza, but it’s one more than the last two years. Yay!
I haul out all our holiday picture books from the rec room for the month of December every year. When the kids were little, it meant we read holiday picture books almost exclusively for story time. Now that they’re big, it means we all sort of steal one and snuggle down surreptitiously for ten minutes of delight and nostalgia before going back to whatever homework/grading/finals sort of demand we’re facing.
This year I have a mix of old favorites and new treasures—from the traditional 12 Days of Christmas to the Sugar Plum Fairy who happens to have two dads. And then there’s the happy pagan winter tale, slightly updated, of Lucia, the little girl who faces down trolls to bring back the light.
Whether you have someone young to share these with or not, I promise they’re all worth your time.
1. Laurel Long’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is far and away the most visually stunning version I have ever seen. I have loved her work for years, especially her fairy tales “The Lady and the Lion” and “The Magic Nesting Doll,” but this one tops everything she’s ever done in my opinion. She includes each of the previous list of element in every page, so you can search for the partridge in every spread and the two turtle doves after the second, and all of them—ALL OF THEM—in the last spread. In the tradition of Graeme Base, this is amazing work.
2. “Lucia and the Light” is a rework of the trickster tale where the hero goes to fetch the sun from thieves. In Phyllis Root’s version, illustrated with big-eyed wonder by Mary Grandpré, the hero is a little girl whose name means ‘light,’ and the thieves are giant rock trolls. Lucia is loving and clever and brave, and she has a milk-white cat who is part sidekick, part familiar, and all delightful. My daughter was four when we got this, and she still reads it when I pull it out.
3. Do you know I love bunnies? And Nordic things? Especially gnomes, or as the Swedes call them, tomten? Ulf Stark and Eva Eriksson have a couple books out about “The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits” and one for Midsummer as well. The stories are sweet, and the illustrations are precious. They’re aimed at little ones, maybe 3-7 years, but I enjoy them both.
4. This year’s new discovery was “Plum: How the Sugar Plum Fairy Got Her Wings” by Sean Hayes and Scott Icenogle of Will and Grace fame, illustrated by Robin Thompson. This is the little-known backstory of the plucky orphan who becomes the princess of the Land of Sweets, and, when she’s learned to be generous of spirit, she earns her fairy wings. Pretty sweet.
5. Finally, there is “Auntie Claus” by Elise Primavera, another of my favorites from reading with the kids. Auntie Claus is Santa’s sister, and little Sophie sneaks out and stows away to learn the family secrets. This is imaginative and funny, and there’s a rule-spouting elf named Mr. Pudding.  I’m thinking that should be enough. If it’s not, the illustrations are delightful, and once or twice you have to turn the book sideways because the text and illustration demand it, so that’s always a plus.
There you have it: this year’s five picture books for the holidays. I hope you find time to check them out. I’ll happily read them, I mean loan them, to you if you like.
Merry merry, everyone.
Reading · Uncategorized

The Meta Blog, or How Reading About Reading Is Making Me a Better Reader

So this is a “Reading About Reading” sort of musing. I’ve recently read Maryanne Wolf’s marvelous new book, Reader, Come Home, which is part Neuroscientist Explaining For Lay Persons How Reading on the Internet is Changing Our Brains, and part Clever Plan to Evolve Purposefully in the Face of a New Shift in Text and Literacy.

I’ll say a bit about this book, a bit about where I’m going from here, and then offer a reading list I’ve given myself and would love to talk about with similarly interested humans.
Reader, Come Homeis a written as a set of letters, a real, old-fashioned epistolary book, evocative of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. It is also a series of love letters to the genre of the novel, which she worries may be in danger. But mostly in this book, the author explains the science of reading.
In a brilliant metaphor of the circus, Wolf illustrates the multiple centers of the brain involved in reading, and shows how they represent an adaptation of using multiple centers in quick succession and simultaneously. Reading involves the “circus rings” of the Vision, Language, and Cognition centers in the brain, but also Motor Functions and the Affective center. Suddenly those memes about your brain on television (barely any activity) vs. your brain on books (huge chunks of your brain lighting up) become clear. It takes a lot of work to read, especially to read deeply.
This is enough, frankly, to set my mind whirring for days, but thankfully she’s got a trajectory that kept me moving forward. She’s discovered that our reading patterns have shifted in response to all those hours skimming news on the Internet, zipping from article to vine to clickbait, and that while we are capable of reading much more, we are losing our ability to read deeply.
Reading deeply (she shows a serious predilection for novels that this medievalist finds limited, but forgivable) has been linked to increased empathy, to stress reduction, to critical thinking, and even to happiness, but our ability to sustain deep reading is waning. Even people who have been excellent deep readers are becoming less so in the onslaught of internet reading.
But she offers some hope, too. She advocates training up the next generation as “bi-literate” by which she means able to switch modes given the medium. Little children should be read to from print picture books, and in school they should learn how to use and manage electronic texts, while continuing to develop a relationship with print. (There are lots of reasons to love print, but I think that’s for a different blog.) In this way we can grow readers who navigate the internet without losing their ability to read deeply, for there are simply too many benefits to being able to read deeply.
You can imagine, for a person who writes a blog on reading, that this book has been a bit of a head cannon. I am puzzled by the idea that we’re not able to read deeply, given the publishing world’s continued success, and my English majors’ habits, but maybe we’re reading “lighter” fare? (Maybe not. I need to be convinced of this. Someone quick—do a study for me.) I am comforted, too, by her findings on children reading print books, as someone whose very favorite moments of child-rearing involved storytime. And I find comfort as a literature professor who aims every year to get more young people intoxicated by the stories of the Middle Ages.
Science now says we need to read. And we need to give it our full attention.
So, naturally, I’ve started another list of books to read in my copious spare time:The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr

Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Why Read? By Mark Edmundson
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.
Apparently I’m not alone in my interest here. But before I get to these, I have a mystery novel I’ve been putting off for too long. Happy reading, y’all.
Picture Books · Reading

The Glorious, Oft-Sung Art of Word-Collecting

I can remember always loving words. The first big word I learned to spell was ‘elephant,’ and because I ran around for maybe half an hour singing the letters, I still have an audio memory of their order. I grouped them in to e-l-e, p-h, a-n-t mostly because of the sound of those letters together, but 4th grade me thought younger me was clever keeping the p-h together, since it spelled a single sound.

And that song evoked an elephant for me—every elephant tiny me could imagine, which included Dumbo and Pooh’s heffalumps, as well as more real ones I’d seen in books. As I sang, heffalumps danced in my mind’s eye with African elephants to the rhythm of my song.
That was just the first word I fell in love with.
Since then there have been so many wonderful words that have enchanted me—and I mean enchanted. They sing and they chant and they cast a spell. Mellifluous. Defenestrate. Nefarious.
Then I learned more languages. Éclat, mariposa, Kunst, grembo, uppivözlumaðr. I am an addict.
But I am not alone. And this is actually a blog about picture books.
In the last several years, there have been two picture books entitled “The Word Collector.” The first one was published in Spain in 2011 (La coleccionista de palabras) by Sonja Wimmer and features a girl named Luna, who lives “high, high up in the sky,” above people, apart from them, either in a lighthouse or in the clouds (or in a lighthouse in the clouds—the illustrations are delightfully ambiguous.)
The second book is by Peter H. Reynolds and features an African-American boy named Jerome (although the title is gender-neutral in English, of course—for just a second I had imagined another girl), who lives among people and draws the words he collects from his environment. He writes down words he hears, words he sees in the world, and words he reads in books on strips of paper and puts them away carefully.
Both of these children collect words of all different types, for all different kinds of affinities. Sometimes they like what the word means; sometimes they like how it sounds. But they also like words that seem to fit their referent—‘molasses’ tends to be drawn out, like a slow pour. That’s really a response to the inherent order of the universe, to my eye—to form following function.  And sometimes they just like how the words make them feel.
Their crises differ, though. Luna notices the world has become too busy to use—let alone appreciate—words, so she contrives to redistribute the ones she has collected like a benevolent goddess, sowing, weaving, and scattering words like seeds. She gifts the world with the fertile imagination that a substantial vocabulary fosters so well.
Jerome’s journey is both smaller and bigger than Luna’s. He drops his scrapbooks and boxes, in which he’d stored his sorted words, and ends up putting them back together in new, unexpected combinations, discovering poetry and music and seeing that they are good. He thinks about words, learning that sometimes the simplest are the most powerful—“I’m sorry” and “You matter.”
Finally, he comes to realize that his big word collection has improved his ability to understand who he is and to share his ideas and dreams with the world, and he wants that for others too. He releases his words from the top of a hill, and children below scramble to gather them.
Jerome’s story is about self-empowerment and paying it forward. Luna’s, with its visual artistry of the text as well as images, is more about sharing the gifts of beauty and connection to others. But they both begin with a sense of wonder at words and end with sharing their beloved words with the world.
Why do they both feel like gods to me when they dispense their words? Is that what Little Me was responding to—the power that words confer on their wielders? Maybe. That is old magic, as we know from lots of traditions (the songs of Orpheus, the logos of the New Testament, the runes of Germanic paganism, or the tradition of true names that can be used to control people or entities).
But so much of the appeal for me is wonder and joy at the music of a word or the perfect capturing of an idea, or—as Jerome discovers—the serendipitous collision of a few words that make something new, unexpected, and utterly splendiferous.
The Anglo-Saxons referred to language as their “word hoards.” (First—obviously—that’s that’s why I fell in love at first sight with Anglo-Saxon.) Second—I am heartened to know this glorious tradition has not lost any ground in the intervening centuries. Words are still gemstones to be marveled at, collected, and shared.
E-l-e… p-h… a-n-t. I dare you not to see one dancing in your head.

Reading to Teenagers—the retro experiment

I have read to my kids for years, and we certainly have our favorites.  When they were little, we read several picture books every night, and I bought new books tirelessly.  We amassed a pretty impressive library of picture books, if I do say so myself.  In fact, now that they are 14 and 16, I have gone through the picture books several times to cull from them books we no longer need.  Part of my agreement with myself to buy ALL THE BOOKS requires me to share those we’re truly done with; I give them to teachers to pass on to their students who don’t have enough books.  Just recently, though, I went through for what turned out to be the last time.  We have reached a point where I can’t part with any more picture books.  All that are left, I adore, either because of the story on its own merit, or for some happy memory reading it to my kids.
For a few years after they outgrew picture books, we’d still occasionally read some on one night, just to be retro and remember what those stories were and who we were when we first encountered them.  But mostly we’ve moved on (well, they have.  I’m seriously not letting another picture book out of my house.  The ones we have left are all required.)  We moved through “chapter books” to what I regard as real novels, and as they got older, I started reading them adult literature as well.  Beowulf.  The Ramayana.  The Lord of the Rings.  The Iliadand the OdysseyA Tale of Two Cities.  Somewhere after our Homer-fest, we decided it was time to revisit a children’s classic and take things down a notch.  We chose The Wind in the Willows.
You may not be surprised to learn the person who decides to hang on to 400-odd picture books might be in the market for the most delightful edition of such a classic as The Wind in the Willows.  In fact, I occasionally troll Amazon.com for new editions of many favorites, especially those which are or can be illustrated.  Such a find was this:  last year for my birthday I bought myself the Collector’s Edition 2014 reprint of this book in a charming, small, hardback edition with gilt edges and the real feature—illustrations by Arthur Rackham.  (You may also not be surprised to learn I have favorite illustrators and a propensity to track down their work like a bloodhound.)  This particular edition also includes an introduction by A. A. Milne—another treasure—and I read it aloud to my kids too.  I reproduce the best part here:
“One can argue over the merits of most books, and in arguing understand the point of view of one’s opponent.  One may even come to the conclusion that possibly he is right after all.  One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows.  The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters.  The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly.  The book is a test of character.” (10)
With that daunting description in mind, we returned to a book we (fortunately) all remembered loving.  But this time it was quite a different experience.  The first time I read it they were too young—maybe 5 and 7—and couldn’t follow the British expressions very well.  The second time was perfect—around 8 and 10—and everyone adored it.  They giggled in all the right places and loved the characters like real friends… like Christopher Robin loved Pooh and Piglet, now I think of it.  But this time they were big, and the book, we thought, had stayed little.  This was a return.
We began by remembering favorite scenes and characters.  Dad’s favorite characters were Ratty and Otter.  (Dad cares very much about character and less about symbolism or plot or setting.)  The girly remembered the least, being the youngest, and encouraged us to read the story and not reminisce.  The story begins with Mole, as he becomes disgruntled with spring cleaning and bursts out of his hole in to the sunshine, on the riverbank where the rest of the story will take place.  The girly was all over this.  “Oh my gosh, mom.  You’re so Moley.”  I don’t disagree with this statement, but I was curious.  Was it my lack of interest in housework or my jubilation in nature, as Mole “jump[s] off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living, and the delight of spring without its cleaning” (12), or something else she was responding to?  “All of it. Mostly your happy willingness to do stuff and to make everything an adventure.  Everything makes him happy.  That’s you.”  This was not going to be a reading like last time.
From that scene on, every time a new character was introduced, he (yes, all the characters are he’s) was immediately claimed or ascribed to another member of the family.  Dad IS Otter.  The girly thought she was Badger—an introvert who hides with his books in his little, cozy cave was what first attracted her, and as we got deeper she did not disown the problem-solving, authority-bearing figure Badger becomes.  She embraced it and took it as a logical corollary of the first description.  My son identified with Ratty—very much in the moment, deeply involved in his interests (“Ratty’s just a river-geek!”), and a kind and thoughtful friend.  No one owned up to Toady. J
This desire to find themselves in the text was not present when we read years ago.  There may have been an occasional acknowledgement that someone did something you admired, but not this kind of sustained argument.  My daughter was treating it like a thesis, hoping the character comparison would hold up for the entire book, so she wouldn’t be proven wrong and have to choose a new approach.  Every scene was potential evidence for her claim—or threatened to unravel it.
Along with that, I found both kids quick to censure Toad.  It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to identify with him; they thought he was a jerk, and from time to time got so exasperated with him, they wanted to skip scenes or at least a few lines.  I did not accommodate them this time.  Closer to the end, they found they still liked Toad, despite him being so hard to deal with, and through Toad’s friends’ patience with him, they learned to take him as he was too.  But they were not having any of his proclaimed “reformation” at the end.  They had made their peace with Toad and accepted his foibles better than his own friends.  They were better friends to Toad than Ratty or Badger in the end, and in some way their assimilation to characters in the book was complete.  This was a much more involved, much more personally engaged, and much more intellectually challenging experience than reading it had been six years ago.  I was delighted by the whole thing, and found new reasons to love an old favorite, as well as the process of reading together.  This was the last novel we read together, and we went out with a bang.  Our reading now will be sporadic, not religious, but we have had a glorious run.
      Kenneth Grahame.  The Wind in the Willows.  1908.  Arthur Rackham, illus.  The Collector’s Library Edition.  London:  CRW Publishing Limited, 2014.
Picture Books

Picture Books for the Holidays

It’s the Week Before Christmas and Hanukkah too,
And I’m thinking of books that I’d offer to you.

Storybooks have played a huge roll in my family’s holidays.  When I was a child, my dad read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on Christmas Eve until he thought I’d outgrown it, and then I started reading it.  One of my favorite picture books of all time was “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes,” by DeBose Heyward, which I faithfully read at Easter but also throughout the year.  When my husband and I were ready to start a family, one of our most precious preparations was deciding which books our children needed immediately and all through their childhood.  And as the years went by, our collection grew faster than the kids, which is saying something.
The kids are way past picture book age, being appropriately surly teenagers, but I still haul out the holiday books for the month of December.  Some of them are tattered, some are duplicates (we must have half a dozen versions of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”), but they are still good.  I thought I’d share a few favorites here, especially since some are off the beaten track of the regular classics.  Yes, we have and love the Grinch.  But there are others.
The first pictured here is a Hanukkah book.  Eric Kimmel has written several, but the one we keep going back to is “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins.”  First—what a great title.  I just like to say it.  (I’m kind of kooky, though.)  Second, this edition is illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, whose work I adore, and third, it’s a lovely folktale about outsmarting the demons and restoring celebration and worship to a dark place.  And there are goblins—silly goblins, creepy goblins, and a really, really scary goblin.  When the goblins are outsmarted, the light returns.  What a lovely message for the winter holiday—just keep your wits about you, and you can survive anything.
The rest are Christmas books.  “The Jolly Christmas Postman” is the sequel to the Ahlbergs’ “The Jolly Postman,” and they both follow the postman as he delivers mail around the forest, to Little Red Riding Hood, Humpty Dumpty, and the Big, Bad Wolf, among others.  Each letter is interactive in some way—the letter comes out of the envelope-page, and there are games and puzzles and extra, interactive tidbits along the way.  It’s a delightful, witty little book.
“Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve?”  is Jan Brett’s retelling of a Scandinavian folktale about a house that always gets invaded by trolls when they smell the Christmas goodies, and how a clever houseguest with his tame polar bear (oh, we can only dream, here in Southern California) scares them away for good, leaving the family in peace as they celebrate and share their good cheer.  If I were a cynic, I’d point out that they share with the boy, but don’t share willingly with the trolls, but I’m not, so I won’t.  The trolls are hoodlums and thieves, of course, cute as they may be, drawn by the generous hand of Jan Brett.  The bear is awesome–categorically.  Who doesn’t want an ice bear for a pet?
The last book I’ll mention today is “Santa Calls,” by William Joyce, whose greatest genius, I think, lies in negotiating the different media his stories take (I’m thinking of his Guardians of Childhood series, which contains picture books, novels, and a movie, all with the same storyline or universe.) This one, though, is a Christmas book.  It’s also an adventure, and also a sibling book.  The younger sister wants to be taken seriously by the older brother, and Santa arranges not so much a gift as an experience–an adventure, and an opportunity for them to bond.  It’s not about getting presents; it’s about love.
And that’s a good place to end—with love.  All of the winter holidays celebrate a return of the light after the dark winter, a new commitment to life and a celebration of love, whether it comes from a deity, a jolly elf, or our fellow humans.  Whatever and however you celebrate the turning of the year and the return of the light, I wish you joy, love, and wonderful stories to keep you warm.  Happy Holidays!