Archive for the ‘Children's Books’ Category

if-i-were-a-book_9781452121444_largeIf I Were a Book

Jose Jeorge Letria, illustrated by Andre Letria

San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014.

This was my Mother’s Day gift to myself on our trip to Type Books.   Though this was housed in the children’s section, and though it appears to be a picture book, it really does appeal to book lovers of all ages.  In fact, it probably appeals more to adults than to kids.  While the illustrations by Andre Letria are marvellously accessible, the simple words by his father Jose Jeorge Letria are almost too gnomic to be perfectly suited to children.

“If I were a book, I wouldn’t want people to only pretend to have read me.”

Then again, if only the adults can pick up the irony, anyone can understand the sentiment, “If I were a book, I’d crush violence with knowledge.”

As for me, if I were a book, I’d want someone to read me and love me and write a blog post about me.



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heroineHow to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much

Samantha Ellis

London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Was there ever a book so meant for me to read?  It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book and wanted to get right to the computer to write about it, but this book gave me that wonderful sense of urgency.  I must spread the word.  Others must know how wonderful this book is. 

I heard Samantha Ellis read from and discuss her book on The Guardian books podcast.  I ordered the book right away, but had to wait for its publication date in Canada.  It arrived this week.  I devoured it in a day.

Ellis begins the book on the Yorkshire moors, with her best friend Emma, and they are arguing about who they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw.  (Emma and I agree; Jane Eyre, of course.)  Ellis is adamant that Cathy Earnshaw is the heroine for her.  Emma has made her think, though, that she should revisit the question.

…. when we reached Top Withins, the skies cleared.  The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation.  Which it was.  I was wrong.

My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.

As we leaned against the warm stone, basking–actually basking–in the sun, drinking flasks of tea, I wondered why I’d written Jane off.  She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she really does stay true to herself.  And while Cathy ends up a wandering ghost, Jane ends up happily married.  The brilliant sunshine was very Jane weather, I thought; pleasant, clear and rational.  It would have rained for Cathy, there would have been thunder and lightning.  And (said a small, but firm Jane voice) we would have shivered and eaten soggy sandwiches hunched under the hoods of our waterproofs. …

I decided that when I got back to London, I would dig out my copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and read them again, with more scrutiny and less sentiment.  I would find out how I really felt about Cathy and Jane.  But maybe that wouldn’t be the end of it.  After all, if I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about my other heroines too?

And so begins 18 months of re-reading and writing about all of her favourite books and heroines.   Ellis begins with fairy tales and works her way through children’s books, racy reads, “the classics” and classics of first and second wave feminism; from The Little Mermaid, to Anne of Green Gables, from Lizzy Bennet and Flora Poste, from Esther Greenwood to Lucy Honeychurch.  She revisits, among many others, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Angela Carter.  Having read and relied on these books and their heroines to shape her growing self, who, she asks, is the heroine she needs today.

The title is a nod to Louis May Alcott’s “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” and this idea of reading spoiling not just one’s eyes and brain, but marriage prospects too, comes up often in the book.  As an Iraqi Jew, whose parents fled to England as refugees, the marriage plot features heavily in Ellis’s own life.  Her parents want her to settle down with a nice Iraqi Jewish boy, but Ellis chafes against the marriage plot both in life and in literature.  She wants adventure, independence, a model for a writing life.  Ellis herself is a playwright, and a huge appeal of her book is that she traces the fates of women writing in fiction.

There is a perfect balance of autobiographical material and discussion of the books on hand.  Ellis is not just well read, she has a genuine desire to right by books and their authors.  She is a generous reader, but totally unafraid of calling herself out or her beloved writers out for failing their own heroines.  I loved her arguments with her younger self and with the authors who let their women writers sacrifice writing to marriage and children.

I loved every minute of reading this book.  It went too quickly.  I gobbled, as I often do, but this book sent me back for seconds, it sent me to my own bookshelves to pull down my own copies of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Cold Comfort Farm, The Bloody Chamber, To the Lighthouse, I Capture the Castle, and and and.  It also sent me looking for books I haven’t yet read: Lolly Willowes and South Riding.  It did, in other words, what all great books about books should do: it gave me the pleasure of revisiting old favourites and the joy of anticipating new reads.

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coverThe Serif Fairy: Explorations in the World of Letters

by René Siegfried (translated by Joel Mann)

New York: Mark Batty, 2007.

In a last-minute bid to improve the ratio of books read to books bought for 2013, I am using the glory that is the post-Christmas pajama party  to knock a few slim volumes off of my TBR shelves.  I reorganized those shelves today, putting on the new books that were under the tree, and it felt great to handle all the bookish goodness that still awaits me.  I had forgotten this lovely little book, too, so I am especially glad to have used precious pajama time organizing.

The Serif Fairy has lost her wing.  Her left wing.  Her magical wing, to be precise.  She cannot fly without it, so she must journey on foot through forest, town and country to find it.  Each location is built out of its own font, and the author matches perfectly the font to the setting.  I marvel at his work on the Futura City:


Look at that helicopter!

This book was originally made as a project for a course in communications design, and the author’s design cred shines through.  With remarkably little else in the way of colour or illustration, Siegfried populates and illustrates each page with images made entirely of letters in different sizes.  At the end of the book, there is an answer key of sorts that tells you which letters are used in each image.  Part of the fun of the illustrations, of course, is to figure that out for yourself.  Adding to the fun, little critters hide on each page, and there is a prompt at the end of the book to go back and look for them.

But a delighted reader, young or old, will need no invitation to go back and look at these illustrations again and again and again.

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397799Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter

Alison Lurie

London: Chatto and Windus, 2003.

I went book shopping yesterday and came home with a book I already own.  This is happening with more frequency.  Can full-blown senility be far behind my dotty bibliophilia?  Luckily the book was Boys and Girls Forever, so I can enjoy telling you about a marvelous book before they cart me off to the seniors’ home.

Many of the essays collected in this book first appeared in The New York Review of Books.   I’ve been away from this kind of leisurely book review for far too long, and one of the primary pleasures of this collection for me was to read an unhurried essay, not a review that would determine a sale.  Of course, I am more than happy to be persuaded to buy a book, but there was such delight in reading an expert’s take on children’s classics that eventually came around to a contemporary occasion for its discussion: a new film of Little Women, the centenary of The Wizard of Oz, a new biography of the author.  Parenthood has brought with it many joys, among them (re)reading children’s books, but time in which to read the likes of The New York Review of Books of a weekend morning is in scarce supply.  Oddly, I raced through this book precisely because it was so wonderful to enjoy again the pleasure of a leisurely-paced essay.

The central theme of this collection, as stated in its brief introduction, is that many children’s authors failed to grow up.  It’s a bit forced, this argument, as well as being a bit facile, and the forced nature of the introduction really does not do justice to the wonderful work done in the individual essays.  I see no reason to apologise for reprinting essays in book form and so have little patience for false pretenses.  In the essays, Lurie does tell us how the authors’ lives and times informed their creations, so there was a common biographical thread throughout, but they were also so much more than that, and I found that in almost every instance my appreciation of the works under discussion deepened.

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, but I am a huge fan of her fans, which is to say that I find enthusiasm about books ever so infectious, and I delight in others’ delight of her work.  Lurie is definitely one of Jansson’s admirers, and she revels in the Moomin books’ complexity and darkness.  I love Jansson’s language, especially her names for her characters, and I’ve collected all of the beautiful Drawn & Quarterly editions of her books, but the reading of the books always falls flat for me somehow.  What I love about Lurie’s chapter on Jansson is that it makes me want to go back and give the Moomintrolls another go.  (Tove is pronounced Tova, and in both the hardcover and paperback editions of Lurie’s book, her name is misspelled several times as Tova, as if the author had slipped up between sound and spelling.  There are also several other glaring errors, like Patrick rather than Philip Pullman, that made me feel a bit less alone in my absent-mindedness.  I may buy multiple copies of books by mistake, people, but at least my spel-ckeck wroks.)

Not all of the essays are full of praise.  Lurie, while largely enthusiastic about Theodor Seuss Geisel, has nothing much good to say about Dr. Seuss’s all-American, fame-and wealth-driven definition of success to be found in Oh! The Places You’ll Go!:

Who is buying this book, and why?  Apparently it is a very popular college-graduation gift, and also often given to people who are changing jobs or careers.  It is a pep talk, and meets the same need that is satisfied by those stiffly smiling financial experts who declare on television that any glitch in America’s prosperity is a Gunk that will soon be unthunk, to be followed-On Beyond Zebra!- by even greater success.  (104)

So, there’s a bit of spit and vinegar in this collection, too.

The  book ends with an essay on nature in children’s literature that begins with a wonderful piece of memoir:

When I was seven years old, my family moved to the country, and my perception of the world entirely altered.  I had been used to regular, ordered spaces: labeled city and suburban streets and apartment buildings and parks with flat rectangular lawns and beds of bright “Do Not Touch” flowers behind wire fencing.  Suddenly I found myself in a landscape of thrilling disorder, variety, and surprise.

As the child of modern, enlightened parents I had been told that many of the most interesting characters in my favourite stories were not real: there were no witches or fairies or dragons or giants.  It had been easy for me to believe this; clearly, there was no room for them in a New York City apartment building.  But the house we moved to was deep in the country, surrounded by fields and woods, and there were cows in the meadow across the road.  Well, I thought, if there were cows, which I’d seen before only in pictures, why shouldn’t there be fairies and elves in the woods behind our house?  Why shouldn’t there be a troll stamping and fuming in the loud, mossy darkness under the bridge that crossed the brook?  There might even be one or two small hissing and smoking dragons–the size of teakettles, as my favourite children’s author, E. Nesbit, described them–in the impenetrable thicket of blackberry briars and skunk cabbage beyond our garden.  (171-172)

I adore this retreat from urban rationality to rural possibility.  The child she was sees the natural world for the first time through eyes educated by story.

Though nowhere near as transformative, Lurie’s book took me on a pleasurable tour of my own bookshelves and gave me new eyes through which to see some of the books perched there.  Really, the only problem with books about books like these, books that make you want to go back to your shelves and pull down great piles of things, is that they bring home the fact, yet again, that there are so many books and so little time.

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A Tale Dark and Grimm.  New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2010.imagesCA1ULPSW

In a Glass Grimmly.  New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2012.

by Adam Gidwitz

In each of these books, Gidwitz has cleverly linked several fairy tales into a continuous narrative, starring siblings Hansel and Gretel in the Tale and cousins Jack and Jill in Glass.  The pairs battle their way through adversity (hunger, homelessness, goblins, dragons) to arrive at (spoiler alert) a suitably happy ending.  They go at a rollicking pace, and I read them with relish, albeit with occasional difficulty suspending disbelief.

I love an intrusive narrator and, in fact, all narrative techniques that break the barrier between life and fiction.  Embedded texts, stories that circle back on themselves, meta-narratives, books about books (!).  The more the better.  In this case, while I very much enjoyed the narrator’s voice (comparisons to Lemony Snickett’s narrator are inevitable), I found other self-referential aspects of the telling tried too hard.

glassThe acknowledgements indicate that the author thinks these books are ground-breaking because they re-introduce violence into the stories, and he expresses gratitude to those who assured him that kids can handle it.  There is plenty of gore, but there is also a very intrusive narrator who, in bold print, will occasionally interrupt his telling of the stories to suggest that we clear the room of little children.  The gore, in other words, is simultaneously highlighted and robbed of its ability to truly frighten with the comedic interruptions.  For some reason, the narrator also finds it necessary to claim that these are the real, true versions of the stories, as if we should treat them as historical fact.  Retelling and playing with the original tales becomes a kind of assertion of primacy on the basis of truth, an odd stance in books that feature magic, conversations with the devil and confronting a dragon.  I found that particular rhetorical technique distracted from my enjoyment of the stories.

In both books, it is the children who really come to the fore as the heroes and heroines of the tales, and it’s a role that is celebrated with much pomp and ceremony.  In handing back the spine-chilling gore of the original Grimms’ tales, he is also handing children their right to star in their own adventures, often in spite of adult interference.  Each book ends with a fairly heavy-handed moral about the importance of valuing yourself and your own point of view, but somehow the stories do call for that extra bit of didacticism at the end.

I bought these to read to my middle son, who is having a year of Grimm.  He’s immersed in the fairy tales, he did a drama production with the Canadian Opera Company about the Grimms’ tales, and we are reading several versions of the classic tales each week and comparing tellings and illustrations.  The thing is, I am so back-logged with the books I want to read to him.  I just jumped ahead and read these myself to clear some space on the TBR shelf.  They will now sit on the kids’ bookshelf and wait for him to read them to himself when he’s ready.

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found on etsy

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The first of my advent calendar posts for 2012.  In years past, I’ve just done a month of wonderful bookish pictures, but there has been such an explosion of readily available bookish gifts, so this year’s posts are more …. commercial.    If you are shopping for the bibliophiles in your lives, this should help.  (Ted, any and all of these may be taken as hints towards a wish list….)

Behold the Children’s Literature Map of Britain.  Via The Literary Gift Company.

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I love this idea for an advent calendar for the kids (and me!): wrap up Christmas books, your own and borrowed from the library, and unwrap and read one aloud each night.  I think this will become a new family tradition.  from ohdeedoh

We celebrate a secular Christmas, so we are light on the story of the first Christmas.  This is our list:

  1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by P.J. Lynch (December 1 is a Saturday, but even so, this is an ambitious start.  We’ll see if it takes and do a chapter a night thereafter.)
  2. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (I’d like to take the kids to see the movie with the Toronto Symphony accompanying.)
  3. It’s Christmas, David by David Shannon
  4. The Lump of Coal by Lemony Snicket
  5. Merry Christmas, Mouse by Laura Numeroff
  6. Names for Snow by Judi K. Beach
  7. The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. Bob by Sandra Boynton (I can recite it from memory.)
  9. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  10. The Big Snow Berta Hader
  11. The Christmas Treasury including the letter from the editor of the New York Sun in 1897 assuring us that, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
  12. Coyote Solstice Tale by Thomas King (Squee!)
  13. Snow by Uri Shulevitz
  14. The Olden Days Coat by Margaret Laurence
  15. The Christmas Miracle of Johnathan Toomey, Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
  16. The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming by Lemony Snicket
  17. Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton
  18. Snow by P.D. Eastman
  19. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
  20. Stick Man by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
  21. Olivia Helps at Christmas by Ian Falconer
  22. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
  23. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  24.  ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore, illustrated by Tomi de Paola

What would you add?

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image credit

This week’s fairy tale in our house is “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”  (Each week, we borrow several versions of the same fairy tale from the library and compare tellings and illustrations.)  There weren’t many copies of this one on the shelves, but for some reason it spoke to me and we brought it home.  As I read it to the kids, I realized it would make a great selection for my planned Christmas Book Advent Calendar, so I hopped on the computer to buy one.  (In spite of a book-buying hiatus.  It’s been one week.  At least it’s not shoes, at least it’s not shoes, at least it’s not shoes….)

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but SHOES.  Specifically, Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Manolo Blahnik and the Elves and the Shoemaker by Camilla Morton.

It is part of a new series of fairy tales: Fashion Fairy Tale Memoirs.  From Harper Collins:

Each book in this inspired series from fashion writer Camilla Morton inventively reimagines one of our favorite “Once Upon a Time” stories, blending with it the real-life story of a famed fashion designer. Lushly illustrated by the designers themselves, these tales illuminate each iconic individual’s creative magic while celebrating his unique life and career. The result is an intriguing combination of whimsy and memoir.

So there you have it.  We’ve got Pride and Prejudice for the toddler set, now fairy tales for fashionistas.  I love the elasticity of story.

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Show Me a Story!  Why Picture Books Matter

Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators

Ed. Leonard S. Marcus

Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2012.

The decision to design the cover of this book with a Mo Willem’s illustration was pure genius.  It’s brilliant, and, though I admit it does not take much to make me buy a book, the fact that this one had a Mo Willems cover sealed the deal.  As one of the illustrators interviewed in this collection, his was the interview I most wanted to read, and, predictably, it endeared him to me even more.  Here he is on bookmaking:

I’d rather be a craftsman than an artist.  An artist waits for an audience to understand his or her work.  But a craftsman tries to understand the audience.  (266)

In our family’s reading experience, Willems is a consummate craftsman.  He gets kids, and they see themselves in his world.  They can also recreate his world.  He says that it’s important to him that “a five-year-old be able to reasonably draw the characters in my stories.  The books themselves should be merely a point of entry for their own creations based on copying my characters.” (269)  Again, be still my beating heart.

This book was a delight to read from beginning to end.  I met illustrators I’d never heard of before (Mitsumasa Anno, Chris Raschka), and learned fascinating things about old favourites.  Maurice Sendak was predictably glum and insightful about the terrors of being a child, but there was wonderful new material about his last book Bumble Ardy.  William Steig was surprisingly prickly, and I’m impressed at how hard Marcus worked to get answers out of him.  James Marshall, whose books I love, but whose photograph I’d never seen, looks remarkably like Viola Swamp, and his interview is worth the price of admission alone.

A surprising number of illustrators stressed the importance of imperfection, mistakes, and inadequacy.  In response to a question about her tendency to show parents in unguarded moments, Helen Oxenbury says,

It’s almost the opposite to a television commercial, where everything is perfect and the mother produces white clothes out of the washing machine.  I find that awful because it’s not true, and because it makes people dissatisfied and feel inadequate.  In We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, when the bear is finally found, it’s the dad who runs like hell to get away, ahead of the children, which of course is meant to be comical.  I think it’s very important to show the child that parents are only human.  To show that they have weaknesses is perhaps not a bad thing. (160)

This is a wonderful note in the books vs. digital entertainment debate, especially given that many of these illustrators also trained in design: commercial art.  The questions posed about process and training and inspiration are intelligent, and I think that sums up my joy about the book.  The interviewer and illustrators speak to each other as professionals, and the reader gets a glimpse into the professional side of picture book making, into the enormous amount of work that goes in to making the apparently effortless images that fill our children’s book world.

We had, sadly, to cancel a planned trip to Boston in the spring, but, as fate would have it, this book has given me more to add to the agenda when we do eventually get there.  My reason for wanting to take the trip was 95% to get to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, but thanks to the interview with Robert McCloskey, I now know that there is a statue of his Ducklings in the Boston Public Garden to add to our itinerary.

The interview with Carle, though, is dated from 1996, with a postscript from 2009, when the museum was still being planned, and if I have a criticism of this collection of interviews, it is that some of them are quite dated.  Given that many of the interviews do have postscripts, it would have been better to have all of those postscripts as up to date as possible.

Nevertheless, this collection, and the illustrations from the artists’ sketchbooks, taught me an enormous amount about picture book illustration, and, most importantly, has led to many trips to the library to seek out more from old favourites and discoveries of illustrators who are new to us.

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