I just started reading The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins, 2007). This is notable because I haven't been reading many books that are just for grownups lately. First there were the finalists for the Cybils, then the Newbery Honor books, and I still have a stack of middle-grade novels I can't wait to start. I don't know if I'm going to finish The Post-Birthday World either (I think I've been spoiled by all those middle-grade novels). It does have an interesting parallel-universe structure; and the protagonist, Irina McGovern, is a children's book illustrator. I hope she gets some better assignments later in the novel, because this one doesn't sound promising: "Irina collaborated on a second children's book with Jude--the overt manipulativeness of the first, along the lines of I Love to Clean Up My Room!, appealed to parents as much as it repelled children, and had ensured that it sold well" (6).
I just finished The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little Brown, 2007; check out the book's website here). It took a lot longer than it should have--I kept leaving it upstairs where the children were sleeping, or downstairs after I went to bed myself, and at one point I had to return it to the library (it was overdue) and check out another copy. Maybe I just didn't want it to end. I love puzzle-mysteries, and this one has a great cast of characters, too. Here are the four gifted children who form the society, working on an assignment:
The children--all except Constance, who was too busy humphing--set to their notes. Sticky read so quickly that he seemed hardly to have started before he'd finished. He sat quietly, deep in thought, waiting for the others. Ten minutes later, Reynie had finished, too, and Kate, noting this, set aside her last few pages and asked the boys to fill her in (132).
Look at how Stewart identifies each of those characters in that one paragraph. My favorite of the four has to be the diminutive Constance Contraire. She felt familiar right away, although I didn't realize why until the end of the book [no spoilers here]. Here's a description of Constance:
Constance's face turned so red, her pale blue eyes glistened so brightly behind angry tears, and her wispy blond hair was in such a state of dishevelment that she looked more like a small child's painting of a person than an actual person herself (227).
I also love the ink and wash illustrations by Carson Ellis (on the cover, and at the beginning of each chapter). The second MBS book (The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey) will be out in May, with illustrations by Diana Sudyka. Can't wait. I wonder if Trenton Stewart Ellis is a fan of the Decemberists?
I have high hopes for this collection of Greek myths, retold by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Pep Montserrat (McElderry, 2008). Well, what I would really like is a companion volume of Roman myths (we're all about Ancient Rome over here right now), but perhaps if we all rush out to buy this one, the folks at McElderry will follow up. And I have been looking for a book of myths to read the kids (see this post about my search). It makes sense to start with the Greeks; almost everything else does.
It matters to me that the collection we choose be one that the kids and I will love to read and listen to, to look at and pore over. Not just because it will have to fight for shelf space (and the kids' attention) with a lot of other books, either: I think that knowing the myths is important, as important knowing the fairy tales or the Bible stories; and more to the point, I think that the book you first meet them in, the one where you visit them regularly, matters, too.
Do you remember a particular collection of myths or fairy tales from your childhood? You might even remember the words and pictures of a favorite story from that collection. If you do (please tell me if you do), then you know what I mean.
[See an excerpt of The McElderry Book of Greek Myths here.]
I've read three of the seven Fiction Picture Book finalists for the Cybils. All three of them are wonderful books (of course), but reading them together, I was struck by how different from one another they are, and how difficult the job of choosing one winner would be.
Leaves by David Ezra Stein (Putnam's, 2007)
For the littlest picture book readers (and listeners) on up; about the seasons of a bear's first year. Spare text and expressive art, created with bamboo pen and a warm palette of watercolors. This one feels timeless.
The Incredible Book-Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel, 2007)
Eating was a common medieval metaphor for reading. This boy, however, literally consumes his books. He could be forgiven for taking a bite of this one's creamy, krafty matte pages. I love the art, which was created with paint, pencil and Letraset "on pages from old books that libraries were getting rid of, the artist found, or people were throwing out."
Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Doug Chayka (Eerdmans, 2007)
This book is dedicated to Zanib, a refugee girl who asked for a book about children like her (read more about how it came to be written at the author's website). The girls who share the sandals in this story are living in a refugee camp outside of Peshawar, but the themes of friendship and separation are universal.
[Okay, I also read Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity by Mo Willems (Hyperion, 2007). You probably have (too). And did you hear it won a Caldecott Honor? Of course you did. So you don't need me to tell you how good it is, although I will if you want.]
How does one choose a winner from among these books? Hmm, maybe I need to take a closer look at the judging criteria for the Cybils.
One of the benefits of reading aloud to your kids that's sometimes overlooked is that it develops their sense of story. Plop Leo (and to a lesser extent, Milly) down in the middle of a new book and he'll get his bearings pretty quickly. He can tell you a good story, too.
The other night he had to answer this question about his leveled reader, Ski Patrol: "After you read page 5, did you think there would be an avalanche in the story? Why or why not?" I think the answer they were looking for was yes, because the weather conditions were right. Leo's answer was yes, because if they mention an avalanche on page 5, there will probably be one later in the story. It's a meteorological Chekhov's gun. (That last sentence is mine. Leo prefers Tolstoy. Kidding!)
Later that (same) night, Leo and I started reading Brian Selznick's brilliant (and Caldecott Award-winning, hooray!) The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007). At the end of chapter 2, Hugo looks into the Station Inspector's office: "[He] could see the Station Inspector's desk, and in the corner of the office, the cage of a small jail cell that sat waiting for any criminals caught in the station. Hugo had seen men and women locked up in there, and a few times he had even seen boys no older than himself in the cell, their eyes red from crying. Eventually, these people were taken away, and Hugo never saw them again" (80). We stopped reading there, turned out the light. In the darkness, Leo asked, "Will Hugo end up in that cage, Mommy?"
You don't need me to tell you that at the beginning of Chapter 10, he does.
[Given permission to read ahead, I happily finished the entire book. I think Hugo would have loved it himself, especially the ending. After all, "He thought every good story should end with a big, exciting chase" (202).]
I'm a museum person: I'll look at just about anything if it's behind glass and has a little plaque. Fortunately for me (and for the kids, who also get to go there on field trips), we live within frequent visiting distance of the Smithsonian Institution and its complex of wonderful--and free--museums. The 14 poems in Behind the Museum Door: Poems to Celebrate the Wonders of Museums, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen (Abrams, 2007), are framed by a school visit to a museum whose exhibits range from mummies to moccasins, fine art to fossils. My favorite (poem, if not exhibit) is Alice Schertle's "O Trilobite." Against a dark blue background teeming with the little critters, these are the opening lines:
O trilobite, there are a few,
here in the Fossil Room, of you.
Once billions strong, you ruled the sea,
a Cambrian Age majority.
In print, the left margin of the poem's lines forms a gentle convex curve, like the shape of a trilobite's shell.
I love Stacey Dressen-McQueen's rich and expressive artwork, made with acrylic paint, oil pastel, and colored pencils. The multicultural group of children she's painted here is clearly delighted with their trip to museum. I would be, too.
Look at this! A new book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace: Little Hoot (Chronicle, 2008). It was well-reviewed by Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production yesterday (1/16/08), but we would have wanted it anyway: we loved Little Pea, Milly especially. The two books do seem to have a parallel plot structure, don't they?
little Pea : little Hoot
must eat candy : must stay up late
prefers spinach : wants to go to bed
Well, it wasn't broken. And Little Hoot ups the ante with the adorable owls. Corace's illustrations (rendered in ink and watercolor) are more detailed here than in Pea, though there's still plenty of white space, and the book is beautifully designed. I think we may love it even more.
Is it possible to feel sorry for a pea?
[Milly has a small collection (it numbers 5, mostly noneditioned) of Jen Corace letterpress prints, which we started for her after we discovered Little Pea. Our favorites came from Mahar Drygoods; see also Tiny Showcase. Not affiliated, etc.]
We attended "An Elizabethan Festival" given by the Washington Revels ("Celebrating tradition through music, dance and drama") this morning. If you like this sort of thing, you'll love the Revels. Leo and Milly were enraptured. Their favorite part was the mummers' play of Saint George and the Dragon; so we read this classic edition, retold by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Little, Brown; 1984), when we got home. Hodges's text, adapted from Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, is lovely but a little wordy (can you blame her?). Hyman's illustrations, however, are magnificent. This book won the Caldecott in 1985.
I'm still looking for a picture book about Saint George and the Dragon that captures the comic feel of the mummers' play, though. Any suggestions?
[Updated to add: Many thanks to Debbie of the Washington Revels, who commented with a link (scroll down) to Saint George and the Dragon: A Mummer's Play by Revels founder John Langstaff with woodcuts by David Gentleman (Atheneum, 1973; OOP but available at the Revels Store). It includes the script with music, instructions for performing the sword dance (look out, Milly!), stage directions and costume suggestions. In short, exactly what I was looking for. Thanks again!]
Let's pretend that three-year-old Milly were guest-blogging here at bookstogether. She would definitely want to write up Little Neighbors on Sunnyside Street by Jessica Spanyol (Candlewick, 2007). With good reason: it's the perfect book for preschoolers. They get to meet some of the little neighbors who live at numbers 4, 5, 6, and 7 Sunnyside Street and drop in on them doing their everyday activities. Philip the cow lives at number 7; he likes making things. Kelly the pig likes messy play. The Bugs like driving. And Ian the dog likes to do lots of things (music, painting, cooking) with his little sister Baby Jade. Everybody likes reading, of course. At the end of the day, they all have a party at Ian's house (yeehaw!); then they go to bed. Night-night, little neighbors!
What we like best about Little Neighbors on Sunnyside Street (besides Spanyol's flat, candy-colored pen and gouache illustrations) are "all the different stories." Sunnyside Street itself is a little like the residential area of Richard Scarry's Busy Town. And from a preschooler (and her mom), there is probably no higher praise than that.