Sculptor's Daughter: A Childhood Memoir by Tove Jansson

Books I Want is apparently becoming a regular feature here. This week, I'm wanting Tove Jansson's first book for adults, which is actually a collection of stories called Sculptor's Daughter: A Childhood Memoir. It's been re-released by Sort Of Books in a deluxe edition that includes rare images from the Jansson family archives ("a perfect Christmas gift," says the publisher), such as the one of eight-year-old Tove on the cover. I've not read any of Jansson's adult fiction, but Sculptor's Daughter seems like a good place to start, despite the title. Why do so many books about women identify them as someone else's--usually a man's--daughter or wife? In this case, the sculptor is Jansson's father, Viktor. For the record, her mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jannson, was an illustrator and graphic designer. Also probably just as influential on Tove.

One of the stories in this collection, "The Iceberg," is available to read online (The Independent, November 3, 2013), and it is lovely, keenly observed (lived, really) and true to a child's experiences and emotions. The whole collection, in paperback and with a more anonymous cover photograph of a snowy landscape, will be published in the US by William Morrow in January 2014. If you can wait that long.


Almost Betsy-Tacy and Tib Dolls

If only someone at Land of Nod had read the Betsy-Tacy books! The Knit Crowd dolls are almost perfect replicas of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib as they look in Lois Lenski's illustrations for the first four books. Just switch the hair color on the brown and yellow-haired dolls and shorten the braids, and you have Betsy and Tib (the ballet dress is better on Tib anyway). And Tacy's red (orange) ringlets are exactly right. Sadly, all three dolls are sold out til early February, but that just means you have time to reread the books, conveniently reprinted in the The Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart Lovelace (William Morrow, 2011). I still have my 1970s Harper Trophy editions; judging from their condition, Betsy-Tacy and Tib was my favorite. This image is from Chapter II, Learning to Fly. 

[I am not affiliated with Land of Nod! Although maybe if I had been the dolls, otherwise adorable, would have had the right color hair. I might have to buy the Tacy one anyway. For Milly (ahem).]


Three Caldecott Hopefuls Written and Illustrated by Women

There's been a lot of discussion about the disproportionate number of picture books illustrated by men on "Best of" lists this year (not to mention in the history of the Caldecott) and why that might be. I'd already noticed that both of the Caldecott Hopefuls I've posted about this fall (all three if you count Journey) are written and illustrated by men: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and Building Our House. So in the interest of drawing attention to books written and illustrated by women, I put together an equivalent list of Caldecott Hopefuls--not because each book doesn't deserve its own post (I worried that someone might think I thought that), but because there is strength in numbers, and people like lists. 

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook). Yuyi Morales is a force to be reckoned with. I'm not entirely sure she's still eligible for the Caldecott--she may have moved to Mexico--but I think she should win it anyway: Niño is the real deal. Do not miss KT Horning's detailed argument for its greatness on Calling Caldecott ("Niño wrestles the Caldecott Committee", 10/23/2013). That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done. 

Little Red Writing by Joan Holub; illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Chronicle). Melissa Sweet has not one but three Caldecott contenders this year (the other two are Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and A Splash of Red by Jen Bryant), but this one is my favorite, on account of the Wolf 3000 pencil sharpener. 

This Is Our House by Hyewon Yum (Frances Foster Books/FSG). This is a sentimental favorite: I live with my family on the same street where I grew up, just like the mom in this book. Even the house number is almost the same! (We were at 855.) I still think Yum's The Twins' Blanket (FSG) was one of the best books of 2011, and the same is true of last year's Mom, It's My First Day of Kindergarten! (also FSG): she's an author and illustrator to look out for.

There are more, of course. My daughter would add The Story of Fish and Snail by Deborah Freedman (Viking) to this list, for example (I'm not convinced). Any others?


Books I Want: The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

The publisher's description of the 1962 Dutch children's classic The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, available now for the first time in English (translated by Laura Watkinson; Pushkin Press, 2013), is practically irresistible: 

It is the dead of night. Sixteen-year-old Tiuri must spend hours locked in a chapel in silent contemplation if he is to be knighted the next day. But, as he waits by the light of a flickering candle, he hears a knock at the door and a voice desperately asking for help. A secret letter must be delivered to King Unauwen across the Great Mountains – a letter upon which the fate of the entire kingdom depends.

[Me.] Now that's an evocative premise. Tiuri must open the door, because that's what a knight would do--but then he won't be knighted, so he may as well deliver the letter....

Tiuri’s journey will take him through dark, menacing forests, across treacherous rivers, to sinister castles and strange cities. He will encounter enemies who would kill to get the letter, but also the best of friends in the most unexpected places. He must trust no one. He must keep his true identity secret. Above all, he must never reveal what is in the letter…

[Me again.] What is in the letter? I must know. Thank goodness for Book Depository.

[Here's a review in the Irish Times comparing The Letter to the King to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, 11/3/2013].


The Mystery of Fairy Oak

I am so curious about Fairy Oak. Why haven't the Fairy Oak books--a trilogy, followed by a series of four mysteries, by Italian author Elisabetta Gnone--made it to the United States? They seem to have been widely available in Italian and Spanish (not to mention Basque, Catalan, and Galician--Fairy Oak must be very popular in Spain) since the first book, Il Segretto delle Gemelle, was published in 2005. There's even an English translation (The Twins' Secret) by Alastair McEwen, but it's nearly impossible to find. I know, because I've been looking for it since I saw the Fairy Oak books at the airport in Rome two years ago.

Fortunately, I've been able to find out more about Fairy Oak via the Italian site and, in English, the Fairyoakpedia. The trilogy is the story of twin sisters Vanilla and Lavender Periwinkle, who turn out to be Witches of Light and Dark respectively, and together with their magical friends (I love all the character descriptions) must save Fairy Oak from its old enemy, the Terrible 21st. The world of Fairy Oak might be more interesting than the war, actually: it looks like something Studio Ghibli might have made, only frillier (actually, Gnone worked for Disney). Maybe I will have to locate an Italian edition after all, though that won't help my American nine-year-old. Who would probably love it.


Captain Cat and the Count of Monte Cristo

There are lots of cats at sea this year, many of them on board the Carlotta in Captain Cat by Inga Moore (Candlewick, 2013). This is a rambling retelling (I mean that in the best possible way--I like a little rambling) of an Italian tale about a trader who arrives on an island overrun by rats only to be richly rewarded for his cargo of cats. Other traders follow, expecting more of the same, but in turn they are rewarded...with kittens! Moore's illustrations of captain and cats of all colors are charming, although I could have done without the neat rows of rat corpses lined up on the Royal Palace floor.

This is one of my favorite folktales: I first ran across it in The Thread of Life: Twelve Old Italian Tales retold by Domenico Vittorini and illustrated by Mary GrandPre (Running Press Kids, 1995). I was working on my own retelling, since abandoned, when Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss retold it as Priceless Gifts (illustrated by John Kanzler; August House, 2007). I wish everyone had better source notes for it, though (Hamilton and Weiss cite Vittorini, and Moore doesn't cite anyone at all). Apparently, islands overrun by rats are quite common in folktales.

And in real life, too: recently the island of Montecristo (see: Count of), in the Tuscan Archipelago, attempted to eradicate its population of black rats. Only now they use rat poison.

 It looks a lot like the rocky, remote island in Captain Cat, actually!



We're all watching Merlin, the BBC series (on NBC and Syfy in the US, and now via Netflix), and enjoying it immensely. It has politics and intrigue; swordplay, romance, and magic: something for everyone (I'm not saying who likes what best, but my thirteen year old son and nine year old daughter are equally taken with it. Their parents, too). It's also sent me on a quest of sorts, for Arthurian reading material to suit each of us. An excuse to revisit old favorites, really (White and Stewart, for me, and probably Gerald Morris's Knights' Tales for the kids), but I hope to discover some new ones. Any recommendations?



I don't think if I can wait til Christmas to read Hild by Nicola Griffith (FSG, 2013), a novel set in seventh-century Britain about the girl who becomes Saint Hilda of Whitby. Griffith wrote about Hild and genre (Fantasy or history?, 11/12/2013) for, and Amal El-Mohtar reviewed the book for NPR in the context of conversations about women in historical fiction--and historical fantasy (Hild Destroys Myths of Medieval Womanhood, 11/14/2013). The early medieval world, historical fantasy, women (and children--Hild is just three at the beginning of the  novel), warriors and saints: I have a deep and abiding interest in them all. And lo, today is the feast day of Saint Hilda!

[That gorgeous cover is by Italian twins Anna and Elena Balbusso.]


More Jonathan Bean: Big Snow

A little bonus post to go with Caldecott Hopefuls: Building Our House. This is Jonathan Bean's Big Snow (FSG, 2013), and the forecast is warm and cozy (there's cookie baking, but also bathroom cleaning, which one doesn't see so often in picture books), with occasional flurries and the exciting possibility, real or imagined, of big snow.

I don't have as much to say about Big Snow (although it is a perfectly fine book, exemplary even) as I did about Building Our House, which is really the point of this post: only one of these books feels like a Caldecott contender to me. Would comparing them help to articulate why that is? Or maybe I'm wrong and Bean will pull off another Klassen!


Caldecott Hopefuls: Building Our House

With a publication date of January 8, Building Our House by Jonathan Bean (FSG) might have been the very first Caldecott-eligible picture book I read in 2013. I had it in the house when my Mini Mock Caldecott Committee met later that month, and it was all I could do to resist sharing it with them. My fondness for Building Our House has only grown stronger with time, and this morning I had the pleasure of reading it again with my daughter, after she had a chance to discuss it at Caldecott Club (this one is run by her elementary school librarian).

Here's what we think: Part of what makes Building Our House such a satisfying book is the way it's made. As it should be, since the book itself is about building something to last. Everything from the trim size (taller than average) to the creamy, matte paper it's printed on speaks to this point. And the Author's Note includes vintage 1970s photographs of the Bean family at work on building their house, rounding out the reader's experience, too.

Of course, the illustrations themselves are full of satisfying details and subplots, continuity and change. There's also plenty to learn about construction, from setting the corners of the foundation by the North Star to machines and tools and good old-fashioned hard work. Check out Mom on the cover with a circular saw.

One thing we were curious about was the evergreen branch visible at the peak of the house on framing day (and for a few months after, until the cold rains fall). We did a little research: apparently, when the last beam is placed at the top of a building there is a ceremony called topping out--on skyscrapers, even!

I could go on and on (I sort of already have). Building Our House. It's our favorite.

[See Laying the Foundation for a Great Picture Book at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast for so.much.MORE. Thank you, Jules and Jonathan!]