Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Charlotte's Web

When Ben and I first embarked on our foray into chapter books, I expressed my excitement about sharing Charlotte's Web with him.  An elementary school teacher friend of mine warned me that he would probably be required to read it in second grade, and that I shouldn't spoil the wonder of it all for him now.  I definitely took that advice into consideration.  But then I discarded it, perhaps for the selfish reason that I wanted to re-read the book.  But, also because Ben has been fascinated and confused by death lately, and I thought perhaps Charlotte's circle of life wisdom might be helpful to him.  Plus, I figure whatever we read now he is unlikely to remember four years from now.

And so we began the story of little Fern saving the runt Wilbur from certain death.  Right away, Ben enjoyed the talking animals and was quite interested in how Wilbur would be saved from death, why the farmers wanted to kill him, and why they planned to eat him later in the year. These weren't all questions I was prepared to answer - I had forgotten just how much death was truly part of this story.  But, we soldiered on.

Despite the focus on Wilbur and Charlotte and Fern's constant presence on a stool observing their lives, Ben was most interested in Avery, Fern's older brother, and Templeton, the rat.  Ben really enjoyed Avery's misbehavior, the fact that he keeps frogs in his pocket, and his attempt to capture Charlotte for his collection.  Ben had many questions about Templeton's collection of garbage, and truly enjoyed the scene involved Templeton's rotten egg.  I liked seeing all the fun Ben was having with the various characters, even though his questions about what was going on in the book sometimes took more time to answer than the time we actually spent reading the book on a given night.

And then we neared the end.  I started to feel myself fearing Charlotte's death - wondering how Ben would react and whether he would be upset by it all.  I knew it was coming and I started to brace myself.  What I did not remember was that Wilbur first had to be saved and win his special prize at the county fair.  I was more than a little annoyed to find out that after all the time, and having bottle-fed Wilbur since birth, that Fern could not be bothered to attend the prize ceremony - because she was off riding the ferris wheel with a boy.  It was so disappointing.  I know Fern's actions were just another example of how the world moves on and people change and can't always stick around when you need them to, but it just seemed so sad that she dropped in a second someone she had loved for years.  And for a boy.  Of course, I reminded myself that this book was written in 1952, but the scene has really stuck with me and overshadowed everything else about this book - and made me doubt that I will introduce my girls to the story when they get older.  They can wait until they have to read it in elementary school - and are better equipped to discuss and deal with my tirades against this sterotypical depiction of young girls in literature.

Then Charlotte died.  Like I said, I knew it was coming - but I still cried.  A genuine tear slid down my cheek. Ben noticed and we had the following exchange:

  • Ben:  Mom, why did Charlotte die?
  • Me: Because it was her time.
  • Ben: That means she won't go back to the farm with Wilbur?
  • Me: That's right, but Wilbur brought all her eggs back so her children will be born there.
  • Ben:  But why are you sad?
  • Me:  Because Charlotte died and when things die, sometimes we feel sad.
  • Ben:  But Mom, Charlotte is a spider!
And then I realized with that conversation what should have been obvious from the beginning of trying to explain and deal with death - that all kinds of deaths are different and trying to create analogies among them doesn't always work.  There are some nice messages about death in Charlotte's Web for sure - and I am sure they will translate for some kids to the death of a human relative - or perhaps they would be more closely appropriate for the death of a beloved family companion animal.  Then it made me think more about dealing with death with children - and how there are so many more complexities involved than simply trying to explain why people die or where people go when they die.  There is the death of a parent which is different than the death of a sibling which is different that the death of an uncle or the death of someone after a prolonged illness or a sudden accident.  Which is all to say that there can't be one universal way of introducing this topic to your child or getting them to understand it.  But, also to say that I guess we just keep talking about it - in a way that is comforting but hopefully not obsessive.

So, in the end, while I was angry with Fern for ditching Wilbur in his finest hour, I still think there was so much value in sharing this book with Ben at this time.  Not just for the information it gave me about death which will come in handy as our discussions evolve, but because of the fun he had hearing the stories of the animals and Avery over the week it took us to read the book.  I suppose that's ultimately what makes a book a classic - something we can fall in love with in the moment, but that also keeps us wondering and thinking for a long time to come.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Children's Author of the Week: Oliver Jeffers

I first heard of Oliver Jeffers back in 2010, at my baby shower for Ben, when I received his book Up and Down from my wonderful friend, Eleanor.  I fell in love immediately with the illustrations and the story of two best friends, a little boy and a penguin.  When the penguin becomes determined to fly, the two are separated, and must find their way back to each other.  Ben and I then went back to read Lost and Found where the little boy and penguin are first introduced.

Then one day while shopping for a birthday gift for one of Ben's classmates, I came across The Day the Crayons Quit, a really fun book about a box of crayons that decides it time to go on vacation.  Each color writes a letter to the boy who normally draws with them to let him know why they need a break.  Each letter is colorful and clever, though I have to admit I had a bit of a problem with some of the gender assumptions of some of the colors (like pink, as one would expect).  But, all in all, it is a really cute book - a fun story for my older son, and a nice way to learn colors for my younger girls.

This week we borrowed The Way Back Home about a boy and a martian who run into each other on their respective trips to the moon.  It is, again, a cute story of friendship with delightful illustrations.  I was happy to learn that Jeffers has about ten more picture books for us to explore and enjoy.  I do wish he had a few with little girl main characters on adventures, but I'm hopeful that they're in the works!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Everything England

In a little less than two weeks, our family is headed to England for a little adventure.  Assuming we survive the flight, we are looking forward to spending about twelve days in a small town located about an hour outside of London.  Whenever I travel, I like to immerse myself in books set in the place where I'm traveling.  When it comes to England, of course, this makes for a very broad reading selection.  Here are just a few I've enjoyed over the years.
As we prepare for our trip, I have also been seeking out children's books by British authors.  This week we've been reading:
  • Beatrix Potter's Stories
  • All things Roald Dahl (after finishing James and the Giant Peach, we've just moved on to Danny the Champion of the World)
  • Winnie the Pooh - A.A. Milne

I'm hoping our trip will bring me some quiet time to curl up with a blanket, a warm cup of tea, and a wonderfully British novel.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Japanese Children's Stories

When I was a child, we had a number of books in our house that were collections of children's stories from different parts of the world.  My favorite was Japanese Children's Favorite Stories.  I read the stories over and over - and like all folktales from no matter the region, they were about goblins and animals and strange people learning the values of kindness.  The characters ate delicious foods and traveled to far away places.  Everything about the stories and pictures was magical to me.  Along with this book, we also had two other books of Japanese Children's stories:  Kintaro's Adventures and Urashima Taro.
When I read to Ben before bed, we usually read a couple chapters from whatever chapter book we're on, and then if he's still awake, I let him pick out a book from his bookshelf.  For the past couple nights, he has picked Kintaro's Adventures - and asked specifically for the "story about the rice cakes" - which is the story of an old man who shares his rice cakes with some very hungry mice who in return for his kindness present him with a magic bag of rice.  I think Ben likes the idea of the rice cakes rolling down into the mouse hole, but it's been fun to see him laugh and get excited about stories that I really enjoyed myself as a child.  I'm looking forward to digging out some of my other folklore collections to share with him.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Come on Get Happy!

Back in 2010, I read Gretchen Rubin's inspiring book, The Happiness Project - a memoir about one woman's quest to become happier.  I loved it - the book itself and all the specific ideas proposed, but mostly  I loved the idea of it - the thought that happiness is something we work on everyday, something we deserve to cultivate in our lives, and something that means different things to different people.  In 2012, I read Rubin's book, Happiness at Home, an extension on the original Happiness idea, but focused on things that one can do at home.  I also am a frequent visitor to Rubin's blog at http://www.gretchenrubin.com/ where she includes daily thoughts on happiness, thinking about how we each achieve it, and remembering that we are all entitled to it.

Each month, Rubin suggests three books to read - one about happiness, one children's book, and one eccentric pick.  I don't read one of her suggestions every month, but her happiness pick back in April stood out to me for some reason, so I checked it out.  Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin is the story of a woman, Polly, who always does what is expected of her.  She is the only daughter in a prominent family, who married the right guy, and had two nearly perfect children.  She has a job, but always puts her husband's needs before her own.  Until the day she finds herself swept up in an affair with a local artist.  The book tracks Polly's confusion as she tries to figure out what it means to follow her own heart, and to figure out the right line to tow between duty and independence.

I was a bit surprised to learn this book was published in 2000.  It might have just been the worn and yellowed copy I borrowed from the library, but something about the way it was written seemed old-timey to me.  Or maybe it was just the idea of a prominent family and a daughter doing her duty.  At times, as one might expect, Polly becomes annoying.  Her inability to make choices, and the potential effects of her affair on her family are disconcerting (her relationship with her children is also quite strange) - but I liked this book more for the overall idea of it - trying to figure out what one wants in life, independent of what one is conditioned to want or what one feels they should want is no easy task.  But, it is certainly one worth exploring.

Mad About Madeline

As a little girl, I loved the Madeline books.  So, I was thrilled a couple years ago when Ben took interest in my copy of Mad About Madeline, a collection of six Madeline stories.  At the time, the only other books Ben would read were ones about cars, trucks, or trains, so any departure from the norm was much appreciated.  Well, it didn't take long to realize that he wasn't actually THAT interested in Madeline, so much as had noticed that several of the stories included illustrations of cars, trucks, and trains - and of course, as few double-decker buses in Madeline in London.  But since then we have continued to come back to Madeline, slowly but surely gaining an appreciation for the sories themselves.  The stories are written in fun rhyme and while some of the portrayals of children are a bit dated, the illustrations are wonderful and have served as a jumping off point for discussions about the Eiffel Tower, visiting London, the Spanish Ambassador, and what happens when you go to the hospital to get your appendix out.

The Madeline series includes the following books:
  • Madeline (1939)
  • Madeline's Rescuse (1953)
  • Madeline and the Bad Hat (1956)
  • Madeline and the Gypsies (1959)
  • Madeline in London (1961)
  • Madeline's Christmas (1985)
There is also a book (which we have not read) titled Madeline in America and other Holiday Tales which was published after the author's death and features a collection of Christmas stories, only one of which is about Madeline.  We will definitely check it out soon!

This week, a new exhibit opens in New York titled Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans.  It features original artwork, cover sketches, and paintings by the wonderful creator of Madeline.  When reading about the exhibit, I also learned that there is such thing as The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.  While we won't be in New York or Massachusetts anytime soon, it's so nice to be able to visit the exhibit and this museum on line and view the beautiful artwork we've come to know and love through books.  

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Children's Author of the Week: Tomie dePaola

The other day, I suggested to Ben that we have a big bowl of spaghetti for dinner.  He responded, "like Strega Nona!" (who he had apparently been introduced to at school).  Well, I happened to have a copy of Strega Nona on hand for us to read together, and the next day, we went to the library and checked out enough books for a Strega Nona marathon.

I loved Strega Nona when I was a little kid - well, I loved spaghetti - and a book about a pot that made so much spaghetti it took over the town square and people had to just eat and eat and eat in order to save Strega Nona's house?  Well, it was hilarious to me back then.  And, it sounded delicious.  I had no idea that in the nearly thirty-five years since I first read Strega Nona, author Tomie dePaola has been hard at work creating a whole series of books about the wonderful witch and her bumbling helper Big Anthony.  Kids these days are so lucky!  And Ben and me (well, maybe especially me) have enjoyed making our way through these over the past couple weeks.  In addition to the original Strega Nona published in 1975, dePaola's series includes the following:
  • Big Anthony and the Magic Ring (1979)
  • Strega Nona's Magic Lessons (1982)
  • Merry Christmas, Strega Nona (1986)
  • Strega Nona Meets Her Match (1993)
  • Strega Nona: Her Story (1996)
  • Big Anthony, His Story (1998)
  • Strega Nona Takes a Vacation (2000)
  • Brava, Strega Nona! A Heartwarming Pop-Up Book (2008)
  • Strega Nona's Harvest (2009)
  • Strega Nona's Gift (2011)
  • Strega Nona Does it Again (2013)
I find dePaola's illustrations so warm and inviting - kind of like a trip to Italy!  I think the magic is fun for kids - and Ben enjoys trying to figure out why Big Anthony's spells aren't quite working out the way they are supposed to.  I love tying food and books together (more on this in future posts), so this is an easy one -  boil up a big pot of pasta and burrow in for a delicious night of reading!