Sunday, March 11, 2007

How to Find a Lost Love

No, this is not going to be an advertisement for one of those services that helps you find that guy you thought was cute in 9th grade. This is about true love - the love you feel for a really great book.
Now, sometimes you can remember the face of that cute kid from 9th grade math class, but you can't actually remember his name. Books can be like that too. That is one of the reasons I am writing this blog - as premature senility creeps in and I lose my memory, it helps me to keep track of my reading. But what about the books I loved as a child? Sometimes I can remember the plot or a character, but have no memory of the title of the book or the author.
So, somehow I stumbled upon the Loganberry Books website. They have a section called "Stump the Bookseller." For a fee of $2, you send in a note with all the information you remember about your favorite, forgotten childhood book. Then you wait, to see if somebody can identify your book from the measly clues you provide.
Well, I quickly signed into Paypal and sent in my clues - "Three generations of a family, maybe in Pennsylvania. First generation builds log cabin, makes soap. Second generation sees stagecoach go by. Kids ride on steam train, boy gets cinder in eye." Sadly, these were all the specifics I could remember.
I waited about a week to check back in - and found that two people had identified my book, days earlier! So I ordered my book, received it, and sure enough it is the exact book that I remember. As I flipped through the pages, every illustration made me say, "Yes! I remember this! And that! And oh yeah that one too!" It takes place in Indiana, not Pennsylvania, but the boy does get a cinder in his eye. There are plenty of other events in the book, so I have no idea why the cinder is what I remembered.
The cute boy from math class is probably an alcoholic with anger management issues and an ulcer, but this book is still the same book that I loved back in elementary school. It's not great literature, but it is somewhat similar to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, in that it shows you what life was like for families living long ago. It is full of details about how they made their own soap, and what everyone wore and ate at a wedding, and of course the famous steam train ride.
I'm having a great time reuniting with my old love. Who is this long-lost darling? It is "Smiling Hill Farm" by Miriam E. Mason, copyright 1937. Many thanks to the helpful readers who brought us back together. May we never part again!

Peter and the Starcatchers

Have you ever wondered why Peter Pan never grows up? Or why Captain Hook hates him? Where did that giant crocodile come from? And why are the mermaids jealous of Wendy?
We were able to answer those questions by reading "Peter and the Starcatchers" by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. We just finished it, all 79 chapters. We've read about two chapters per night, so we've been working on this for quite a while. My six-year-old daughter loved it. She said her favorite part was when (*SPOILER ALERT!*) the good guys finally beat the bad guys. She found this book endlessly exciting, often wailing that we couldn't stop reading with the heroes in peril. However, when almost every chapter ends with a cliff hanger, you never get to stop at a boring place.
For me, the book had a lot of drama and humor, as you would expect from this combination of authors. It was fun to see the plot twist around to set everything up for the original "Peter Pan" story (this is a good time to admit that I've never actually read "Peter Pan", but I am well acquainted with the Disney movie.) Some of the humor went over my daughter's head, for example when a pirate ship puts up its special, high-speed sails referred to as "the ladies" and the illustration shows sails that resemble an enormous corset with huge bosoms.
In general, this book is probably more appropriate for older children than six years olds. The children in the story are frequently in mortal danger, threatened with whips, swords, and the aforementioned giant crocodile. A pirate asks for his cabin boy and is reminded that he made the boy walk the plank. There is a lot of talk about children and other people being beaten or killed. I thought this would be disturbing to my daughter, but she seemed to completely trust that the "good guys" would all be fine at the end of the book. But for some younger children, I think this book could be very scary.
For me, the most irritating part of this book was also a part of the movie "Peter Pan" that always bothered me. Why are all the female characters competing with each other for Peter's attention? I found the "humorous" comments about female jealousy to be annoying, not funny. But, as I said, this female jealousy theme is in the "Peter Pan" movie also, so maybe Barry and Pearson were just duplicating that part of the story.
So, anyway, I had some issues with this book, but my daughter did not. She thought it was great fun and very exciting. For kids who love action and adventure on the high seas, this could be a great read.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Signs in Our World

Two nights in a row, my son has asked me to read "Signs in Our World" by DK Publishing. Notice that there is no author. It is not that kind of book.
My son opens this book and points to a color photograph of a street sign and says, "What this sign say, mommy?" and I say, "No U-turn" or "Truck Route" or "Kangaroo Crossing." If I try to point to signs, my hand is gently brushed away and my son says, "No, I do that." There is a strict protocol for reading this kind of book. He points, I name.
Reading this kind of book bores me silly. I have no chance for dramatic reading or funny accents, because nothing happens and there are no characters. Because I am bored, my mind wanders to thoughts like, "Why does my son like this boring book? Is this a sign of Asperger's syndrome? But if he had that, wouldn't he be smarter?" and of course these are not helpful thoughts to have so soon before my own bedtime. I don't need to lie back and fret more than I would anyway.
But of course the reason I let the kids pick their own bedtime stories is so they can pick the books they are interested in. Sometimes those aren't the same ones that I am interested in, because my kids are not me. And I don't want them to be me, or just like me. I just want them to learn to read so they can get through these boring books without me.

Monday, March 5, 2007

It's So Amazing!

Recently, my six-year-old daughter has been asking a lot of questions about where babies come from, and the old "from mommies' tummies" line wasn't cutting it anymore. Based on referrals from two good sources (Asha Dornfest at Parenthacks and Marjorie Ingall at The Jewish Daily Forward I ordered "It's So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families" by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley.
Well, this book answers every question my daughter had and a few she hadn't thought of yet. This really is a soup-to-nuts book that covers everything: anatomy, puberty, sexual intercourse, fetal development, "not okay touches", adoption, birth control, masturbation, and AIDS. I have to admit, I skipped over the last two topics because I was a little overwhelmed over the amount of information we covered in a short time. My daughter, on the other hand, took it all in stride. The book is for ages seven and up, but it seemed like it would be at the right level for any early elementary student.
The cute, cartoon-style illustrations show everything from the anatomy differences between males and females of various ages to a syringe shooting a sterilized egg into the uterus after artificial insemination. And Emberley makes that look cute! My three-year-old son is endlessly fascinated by the illustrations of the sperm speeding through the vas deferens, but I'm not sure he has any idea what the book is actually about. His time will come soon enough!
I would consider myself a pretty open, non-repressed person, so I was surprised that it was difficult to talk about reproduction with my kids before we got this book. I wasn't sure how much information my kids needed to know. I wanted my daughter to have honest information, but I didn't want a vagina monologue at the dinner table. This book really helped me. It provides enough information to answer a young child's questions, and presents it in a cheerful, matter-of-fact way.
Like I said, I did skip a few sections, but I'll go back and cover those soon. And this book will make it a lot easier. I'm hoping that by starting the conversation now, my kids will feel comfortable talking to me about all of these topics as they grow older.
The same team has written a book for ages 4 and up called, "It's Not the Stork" and a book for ages 10 and up called, "It's Perfectly Normal." I'm eagerly waiting for their adult books, "It's Not Hot in Here -- You're Having a Hot Flash" and "It's Perfectly Normal to Need Viagra at Your Age."

Sunday, March 4, 2007

All Aboard!

Tonight's bedtime story was "All Aboard!" by James Stevenson. This is a comic-book style story with panels and dialogue balloons, but the artwork has a loose, watercolor look using muted colors, not superhero brights. The story takes place in 1939, as Hubie and his family take a train to New York City to see the World's Fair. Hubie accidentally gets on the wrong train, then falls off that train, gets lost in a sandstorm, and has lots of wild adventures before finally meeting back up with his family at the World's Fair. Hubie and his family are mice, a friendly train conductor is a pig, and Miss Betty Beagle, the famous aviatrix, is of course a beagle. This is a fun, exciting story, made even better for my audience by the TRAINS.
Tonight I noticed for the first time that there are two more Hubie stories, so I've ordered "The Stowaway" from the library. I'll probably be blogging about it soon!
Also coming soon will be a full report on "Peter and the Starcatchers," as we have only a couple more chapters to go.
I have no books to report on myself, because between window shopping on Etsy, baking brownies and graham crackers, and reading the Sunday New York Times, I just haven't gotten much (other) reading done.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Story of the Three Little Pigs

My son chose this classic tale by Joseph Jacobs for his bedtime story - and this is definitely a classic version, not a sweetly modernized and non-violent version where the three little pigs end up making friends with the wolf.
On the title page, the mother pig (referred to as "an old sow" in the book) is shown throwing up her hands because her cupboard is bare. As the story begins, she sends her little pigs out to seek their fortunes as she cannot keep them. The first two little pigs make their houses out of straw and furze, and are promptly eaten by the wolf. The wolf, of course, cannot blow down the third little pig's brick house, so instead he tries to lure the pig out by offering to show him fields of turnips and apple trees. The pig is more clever than the wolf, and outwits him at every turn. When at last the wolf comes down the chimney, the little pigs boils and eats him. The final illustration shows a satisfied pig with a big round tummy, ready to live happy ever after. It's a lovely picture, complete with crackling fire, steaming mug, quilt, and houseplant. All the illustrations, by Lorinda Bryan Cauley, are pretty and rather old-fashioned looking.
I personally love the classic fairy tales, complete with gory punishments for the bad guys. I would hate to read a version where the pigs convinced the wolf to be their friend. What kind of a weird lesson does that teach kids? Next they'd be telling me that our gecko should make friends with the crickets we toss in her cage every week, instead of eating them. I prefer that we continue to enjoy watching her snap those crickets up with grace and speed.
There is a fun, updated version of the three little pigs story that we liked, called "The Three Little Rigs" by David Gordon. Instead of pigs, there are little trucks sent off to build their own garages, where they are threatened by the mean magnet, the cruel cutter, and the wrecking ball. And no, they don't learn to be friends - the bad guys end up in the melting pot. Good riddance!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Larry's Party

"Larry's Party," by Carol Shields, is about the life of a guy named Larry. Larry seems to think he has a pretty ordinary life, but as you get to know the various characters and hear all the anecdotes, it adds up to a very rich and interesting life. Larry's parents immigrate to Canada (for a reason which is so awful and yet so funny that I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you) and raise him and his sister in lower-middle-class neighborhood. His mother orders a brochure from the community college about "Furnace Repair" but by accident receives one about "Floral Arts" instead. So Larry gets a degree in Floral Arts. As Larry sees it, much of his life involves stumbling into various places and relationships without really intending to go in that direction. Larry literally stumbles through a maze on his honeymoon, and develops an obsession with mazes that turns into a career.
There is a lot of humor in this book (how seriously can you take a book with a chapter titled, "Larry's Penis"?) but the characters and situations seem very real. Larry has a tendency to look at his life and think, "how the heck did I end up here, doing this?" which I have often wondered about myself. But the pieces of Larry 's life really do fit together in a fascinating way. I liked this book a lot.

Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile

My son doesn't just like trains. He also likes crocodiles. On a recent trip to the library, he picked out "Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile" by Tomie dePaola. Now I know dePaola is a famous author who has written and illustrated tons of books, but somehow we haven't read many. However, this book is so fun that we will look for more.
Bill is the crocodile and Pete is his friend and his toothbrush (remember those birds that clean the crocodile's teeth?). They go to school and learn all about their neighborhood, the Nile river. The class is thrilled to go on a field trip to see mummies, pyramids, and the Sphinx (which Bill calls the "Stinks" until Pete corrects him). Then Bill and Pete get to catch a Bad Guy who is trying to steal from the museum. It is simple, charming little story. My kids love how the little crocodiles all say, "OOOOOO" as they see each famous site. The illustrations are adorable - the page showing all the little crocodiles in a line climbing up the side of a pyramid makes me laugh every time I see it.
This book has been a particular hit at our house because while my son likes the crocodiles, my daughter is crazy about ancient Egypt. But I think most kids age 3-7 or so would enjoy it. It is cute, funny, and beautifully illustrated. And I've just discovered on that there are other Bill and Pete books! Off to the library we go...

Possibly the best train books ever

I can't tell you how many times, over the last year, I have read stories from "The Little Red Train Storybook: Four Fabulous Adventures" by Benedict Blathwayt. I picked it up in the Bargain Books section of Borders for my son, the train fanatic. Cost per read, it may have been the best bargain I have ever gotten.
The Little Red Train is a small steam engine that, unlike Thomas the Tank Engine, does not have a face and is never cheeky. The most human thing this engine ever does is sigh, using its whistle. This engine is too busy pulling passengers and freight through the English countryside to worry about dragons and ghosts and all the other issues Thomas has.
And what a countryside! In the author's bio, it says he loves pictures that you can 'go for a walk in' and he must love his own illustrations. They are so charming, and so detailed that you can find new sights even after reading a story many times. We just recently noticed that in the story "Little Red Train to the Rescue," various animals climb on the train as it stops in different places, and then you can find them scattered across the illustration of the train's final destination.
The text is readable and enjoyable for both kids and parents. Several of the stories include repetitive elements so kids can chime in with their parents after a few readings. My son will read almost any book about trains, but even my six-year-old daughter likes the Little Red Train stories and will complain if we start while she is still brushing her teeth. Her favorite is "Green Light for the Little Red Train" in which the little red train is accidentally sent through the Channel tunnel and drives through France, Spain, Italy, and several Scandinavian countries before arriving home. Because the pictures are so detailed, my son can happily sit and "read" the stories to himself if I am busy.
I would highly recommend these stories for any kids age 3-8, and to any parent who is a little tired of all the engines on the island of Sodor and needs some new train reading material.