January 12, 2017
There is a whole subset of nursery rhymes that I never learned as a child, although I did know my Rockabye Babies and Pat-A-Cakes, and was fairly literate in most respects. But it turned out what I knew was only just scratching the surface of the enormous richness and history that nursery rhymes offer, the bulk of which has been passed down through the annals of time by, well, (at least in my experience), librarians at the Toronto Public Library—could they really be responsible for preservation of this cultural trove? In addition to the Opies, of course. Rhymes like See, Saw, Sacredown and Leg Over Leg the Doggie Went to Dover. I discovered these at the Baby Time circles at the library after Harriet was born in 2009, which was same time I discovered Mem Fox.
Mem Fox, author of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Harriet You’ll Drive Me Wild, Hattie and the Fox, Time for Bed, and most spectacularly, Where is the Green Sheep, which were mostly the books I read more than any other through 2009-12. A passionate advocate of early literacy, Fox is also author of Reading Magic, a book that has been fundamental to my practice as a parent, and which recommended children get on a necessary diet of at least a handful of nursery rhymes every day. And because of the TPL Librarians, I had nursery rhymes to spare, so it was handy.
For parents who do not have a plethora of librarians at their disposal, however, Mem Fox comes to their aid with her picture book, Good Night, Sleep Tight, illustrated by Judy Horacek. Fox has taken age-old nursery rhymes (“It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” “Round and Round the Garden,” This Little Piggie,” etc.) and linked them into a story featuring a rather dynamic babysitter called Skinny Doug whose mother must have been a TPL Librarian, because she’s taught him all the rhymes, which he’s now passing onto his babysitting charges, Bonnie and Ben. Who are definitely enjoying his performances—and not just because they’re delaying bedtime—because whenever he finishes another rhyme, this happens:
“‘We love it, we love it,’ said Bonnie and Ben. ‘How does it go? Will you say it again?'”
“‘Some other time,’ said Skinny Doug. ‘But I’ll tell you another. I heard it from my mother…'”
Which becomes, quite frankly, the most beloved rhyme in the whole book, so much so that when anything is regarded with great enthusiasm in our family, we take to chanting, “We love it, we love it, said Bonnie and Ben!!” in a way that’s a bit nonsensical. But then most nursery rhymes are.
We’ve had this book out of the library a million times, and it’s become such a part of our canon that I wanted to make sure that I wrote about it here. It’s a simple premise for a book, but it’s also quite profound, taking centuries-old rhymes and introducing them to new audiences—children, their parents from non-European cultures, or anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to learn these rhymes first time around. Through her story and Horacek’s illustrations, Fox conveys how these nursery rhyme works and how to use them, that this one book is not just one book but instead the product of generations’ cultural lore, ensuring literacy and a love of language for those who come after.
March 16, 2015
Our March Break plans are modest ones: museum, art gallery, library, visits with friends in the morning, and then Iris nap times in the afternoons while Harriet watches movies and I work. Unlike the previous years, Stuart doesn’t have the week off too, and I’m less interested in adventuring without him. Though tomorrow I am taking Iris on the streetcar untethered, with only Harriet for support, moral or otherwise, which might be more adventure than I’m bargaining for. Other good things about March Break are that spring temperatures are here and it’s glorious, and also that it’s the first March Break ever during which I’m not awaiting biopsy results—that was always really poor scheduling on my part.
Another good thing is that we got a fantastic library haul last week, which has meant it’s March Break, and the reading is splendid. And the best of the bunch is The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie. I’ve been championing anti-princess princess books for awhile now, but this one really takes the tiara. It’s in rhyming couplets, first, which is my definition of a picture book to die for. And tea and teacups and teapots recur throughout the narrative, which happens in most of my favourite books, and the children delight in pointing them out.
The Worst Princess is Sue, whose been waiting around for her life to begin, reading up on all the stories to find out just how one goes about landing a princess. She’s grown her hair to extraordinary lengths, kissed frogs, slept on peas, all for naught. She is lonely and terrifically bored, and then delighted when her prince finally comes. Except that he’s built her a tower and expects her to stay in it locked away from the world—it seems that the prince has read all the books too. But Princess Sue has no truck with that. When not long after, she spies a dragon in the distance, she flags him and down and makes a deal (over a cup of tea, of course). He blows down her tower, sets the prince’s pants on fire, and then Sue and Dragon take off on a series of adventures, “making mischief left and right/ for royal twits and naughty knights.”
January 27, 2015
I don’t know that a family can enforce literacy as much as create the space to let a love of reading just happen. Serendipity plays such a role in it all, as it does whenever anybody discovers a great book. I was thinking about this tonight as I was reading to Harriet from the big pile of books we signed out of the library this afternoon. I was reading Animal Masquerade by Marianne Dubuc, which has been lauded by the likes of Leonard Marcus AND Julie Booker. I’d never read it before, and was enjoying it, and so was Harriet, the animals in disguise quite funny and a twist every now and again but never quite where you’d expect it. And then Iris wandered in, and climbed up beside us, and Stuart followed soon after, intrigued by the sound of this strange book in which a starfish dresses up as a panther. And two thirds of the way in, we were all in love with the story, finding it wonderful and hilarious, all of us perhaps for very different reasons, but regardless, it worked. It’s hard to find a book that hooks 4 people whose ages range from 1 to 35, but this one did, and it was a wonderful moment. The perfect way to mark Family Literacy Day, and I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.
October 12, 2014
I love Pat Hutchins’ illustrations, their slightly ugly 1970s aesthetic. (Her book Bumpity Bump was the very first Best Book of the Library Haul, way back in 2011). And apparently Titch was part of a series, though You’ll Soon Grow into Them, Titch is the first of it I’ve encountered. (Titch was also subject of a TV series in the UK with the most poorly sung theme song in the history of music—has one voice ever been so flat?).
From page one, this book delighted us, poor Titch with his pants so absurdly small, his father with the waving teacup, the knitting and the cat.
Titch’s siblings’ solution to his sartorial woes is to pass down their clothes, in which poor Titch is swimming. Any complaints are dismissed: “You’ll grow unto them, Titch!” Until the matter gets entirely ridiculous and Titch’s father consents to take him to a department store for some new clothes of his own—that actually fit.
It’s a good story, but my favourite thing about it is the story going on in the background, the trees, garden and mama’s belly all, little-by-little, burgeoning with new life, the narrative of one boy’s growth linked to the whole wide world.
It ends with a tidy, if slightly evil resolution. Titch decides to foist his own old clothes on the newborn baby who, of course, does not fit into them. But no matter, decides Titch, finally coming into his own, the baby of the family no more: “He’ll soon grow into them.”
September 27, 2014
Here is a secret to living well in the city on a salary and a half—we buy all our children’s clothes at Value Village. Which is cheaper than even Wal-Mart, and this way we don’t have to go to Wal-Mart, plus my children get to wear clothes first purchased by people who valued quality, long-lasting, stylish children’s clothing (not Wal-Mart) as much as I do. Everybody wins, but us in particular (and with the money we saved, we go out and buy books).
So I was quite excited to encounter the picture book I Like Old Clothes by the wonderful Mary-Ann Hoberman, an reissued edition with gorgeous new illustrations by Patrice Barton. It’s a story about the delights of second-hand clothing and hand-me-downs, the treasures discovered and, most importantly, the stories these clothes carry in their threads about all the people who’ve ever worn them and all the places they’ve been.
“‘You lived in East Bend, / Blue Sweater,’ I say. / ‘Just think, you are living / in my town today.’”
It’s an empowering thrifter’s manifesto, a story that gets kids excited about the economical and ecologically sound practice of buying second-hand. A brilliant antidote to rampant messages of consumerism found elsewhere, and the just the thing to make parents and kids feel good about the choices their family makes.
July 3, 2014
Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game was on my foundational texts, one of the few books from my YA days that I still keep on my shelves. So it was a lovely surprise to discover her books in the picture book section once I started perusing the library with Harriet. Turns out that Raskin was a notable book designer and illustrator, in addition to being a writer. (She designed the first edition jacket for A Wrinkle in Time.) Her picture books are very visual, kind of psychedelic, whimsical and as tricky as The Westing Game. And this week we enjoyed reading Spectacles.
It is possibly true that we like Spectacles because it features a little girl called Iris. Who didn’t always have glasses, her poor eyesight having previously gotten her into a whole lot of trouble and causing misunderstandings.
For example, what she’d assumed to be a chestnut mare in the parlour (but of course!)…
…turns out to be her babysitter.
These visual tricks constitute most of the book, and does include a racist image of an Native American stereotype. Which is the point at which I point out to Harriet what racism and stereotypes are, and why I’m not comfortable with that page, so all is not lost, and we move on to chestnut mares.
At the end of the story, it all becomes clear, and Iris has a wide variety of frames to choose from on her visit to the opticians. “Would you like to look younger or older, sweeter or smarter, like a scholar or a movie star?”
It is unfortunate that Raskin’s picture books are out of print and that most of them are unavailable in our public library system (though they are kept in the archives of the Osborne Collection for Children’s Literature). Definitely books worth keeping an eye out for when cruising garage sales or second-hand bookshops.
*And by the way, I’m excited to welcome back the Best of the Library Haul feature, now that school is out and we once again have time for regular library visits. I’ve missed them. This is going to be fun.
March 25, 2014
The best thing about the Lillian H. Smith Library is that its collection was born out of the Toronto Library’s Boys and Girls House, which opened in 1923, and therefore a trip through the stacks reveals all kinds of vintage gems. Our favourite fruit of Saturday’s visit is How Little Lori Visited Times Square by Amos Vogel and illustrated my Maurice Sendak (which I came across whilst browsing for Viorst).
It’s a book with a warning label: “This is a very funny book and should not be read while drinking orange juice, or you will spill it!”
This is the only picture book by Vogel, who was known for his work in cinema and as author of the book, Film as a Subversive Art. Maurice Sendak is, of course, Maurice Sendak. And oh, this book is weird and terrific.
It’s about a little boy called Lori whose bedroom decor suggests a strong affinity for vehicles of all kinds. He decides one day to go to Times Square, but every route he takes brings him to somewhere different. This is a frustrating process for him–a helicopter delivers him to Idlewild Airport; the elevates subway to his Uncle’s house in Queens. The city in the background is a crowded place, populated by curious characters and decorated with billboards and signs whose words add a marvellous subtext and might be some kind of comment on consumerism but I can’t quite decide which. Potato Chip stores and Peanut butter stores, signs exclaiming, “Buy Now!”, and an ad on the side of the bus: “Don’t walk on the pigeons.”
He ends up crying on the 25th floor of Macy’s (after a trip up the elevator), but then is rescued by a slow-talking turtle who offers Lori a ride on his back. Lori agrees and off they go. But, um, that was four months ago.
“And nobody has heard from them since.”
The warning label is not unjustified then.
Another best thing? The book has been brought back into print where it remains. Because it’s totally totally brilliant.
January 29, 2014
Harriet is (sort of) beginning to learn how to read, and as Harriet balks at any activity that is remotely challenging or involves learning by rote, I have to tread very carefully in my exuberance for her acquiring literacy. A book like Mamoko, by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński, which I brought home from the library the other week, is a perfect reminder for both of us that books can be wonderful fun.
Think of Mamoko like Where’s Waldo, but for people who love stories. The book’s inside cover introduces us to a range of characters whose stories we will follow throughout the rest of the book in dynamic, busy, detailed, wordless illustrations. There are dramas experienced, mysteries to be solved, jokes shared, and something new discovered every time. You can pick a new character and “read” a new book in Mamoko over and over again, or else just pick peruse the illustrations for general entertainment. The stories in this book aren’t straightforward either, and we went back and forth a lot to try to understand what we missed, to figure out exactly what was going on. It was utterly engaging, the illustrations smart enough to make this very satisfying, and while we had lots of fun with this book together, it’s also nice to have a book that Harriet can “read” all by herself.
Another book by the same press and same authors is Maps, which was one of (too) many books I’ve picked up at Book City lately (sob). I’ve got such a thing for maps and atlases (my prized one is Atlas of Remote Islands, and I so want to get my hands on Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit), so I was excited to get a kids’ atlas. There is a world map, and about 50 others of individual countries. And as with Mamoko, the creators of this book know that story is what compels someone to open a book over and over again. And so each country’s map includes an image of a little boy and girl who might live there, and we learn their names, which is how these countries become more than just a shape on a page for young readers. And then we learn about that country’s wildlife, famous exports, cultural figures (fictional and otherwise), different cultures, national food and drink, industry and agriculture, all though adorable cartoon illustrations.
Pick a page, any page, and Maps will take you on a journey.
July 25, 2013
We go to the library every week or so, and I wander the stacks plucking books off the shelves with never an idea of which will “take”. Most of them are good or okay, some of them we read once and never read again, and then once in a while (and we never know when) there is a book we fall in love with. Ellen’s Lion by Crockett Johnson was such a book, though we came close to missing it altogether. It was small, old battered, and text-heavy, so Harriet never picked it up from the pile. We only started reading it when we learned that someone else had requested the book and therefore we couldn’t renew it, but it quickly became apparent that Ellen’s Lion is a book we had to own.
Published in 1959 and written and illustrated by Johnson (of Harold and the Purple Crayon fame), Ellen’s Lion is a book it is impossible to imagine that Mo Willems hadn’t been thinking about when he created his wonderful Amanda and her Alligator. The books are so similar in approach and tone, the story of a sparky girl and her strangely animated stuffed toy, dealing with the peculiar power dynamics between them. Though Johnson’s book is a little bit darker, Ellen’s stuffed lion a more complex character than Amanda’s alligator (and not always altogether kind). Johnson also plays interestingly with the fact that the lion’s animatedness is fuelled by Ellen’s imagination only (or is it?). There is a marvelous depth here that recalls what I love best about Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad.
There are few illustrations in the book, so it’s not going to appeal to everybody, but we were drawn in by the remarkable character of Ellen herself (who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Harold). The book begins with the story “Conversation and Song”, whose opening is:
Ellen sat on the footstool and looked down thoughtfully at the lion. He lay on his stomach on the floor at her feet.
“Whenever you and I have a conversation I do all the talking, don’t I?” she said.
The lion remained silent.
“I never let you say a single word,” Ellen said.
The lion did not say a word…
Finally, the lion talks, and Ellen tries to persuade him to join her in singing a round. Oddly, it doesn’t work. It seems that Ellen and her lion are incapable to singing two different parts at once.
In the other stories, Lion rides on Ellen’s train set all the way to Arabia. Ellen phones the police to report a lion in her room, and then must hide her lion when the (imaginary?) policeman arrives. In “Two Pairs of Eyes”, Ellen uses her lion’s button eyes to look for the things in the dark she can’t see behind her. In “Doctor’s Orders”, Ellen plays doctor and tries to convince Lion that he’s a poor, ill little lion who just can’t stop smoking. Ellen tries to convince the lion that he should be a tiger when he grows up. Ellen’s acting in a play in “Five Pointed Star”, and Lion must resist her efforts to involve him in the performance. In “Sad Interlude”, Ellen tries to project great melancholy onto her lion, but he’s not playing. In “Fairy Tale”, Ellen goes from game to game, imagining she’s a fairy, then a knight, then a princess, without transitions even, all the while she is eating a muffin with raspberry jam. Her imagination is inexhaustible. And in the final story “The Last Squirrel”, a new toy threatens to displace Ellen’s Lion, but the history between girl and plush creature proves a bond too strong to sever.
There is one moment, or one word, only when this book shows its datedness. “I’m going to be a lady fireman,” Ellen shouts as she explains to lion that he’s going to be a tiger when he grows up, not her. But even the sentiment of this demonstrates the kind of book that Ellen’s Lion is, that Ellen is a strong, feisty and spirited heroine whose gender is incidental to her character (and that’s why I loved Willems’ Amanda too). I might declare that Ellen was ahead of her time, though the fact of the matter is merely that contemporary female picture book characters in general are undergoing a bit of a regression.
I love this book. We bought a used copy from Amazon for a very low price, though it’s also currently in “print” as an e-book. The really cool news, which we discovered yesterday, is that Johnson wrote a sequel to Ellen’s Lion, called The Lion’s Own Story. However this cool news takes a tragic turn–the book is not available at the library and used copies sell for $300. Has anybody read it?
May 26, 2013
Pete Seeger’s The Foolish Frog is our best book from the library haul this week, which is lots of fun to read and apparently quite nice to have read to you, and we were very excited to see that it’s also a short film that you can watch too. Oh, we do love Pete Seeger at our house…