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I am a walking, talking compendium of books, stories, puppet shows, Random Facts of Interest, and a silly song or two. In other words, I'm a children's librarian. I work for a grand old gilded library here in Pittsburgh (although the ideas here are my own and do not reflect the library's).
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Fed up with the capricious nature of the Blogger template, the Brookeshelf can now be found at:


Greener pastures, my friends. Greener pastures.

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Forgotten Bookshelf: The Fairy Tales

illustrated by Jan Pieńkowski
translated from Grimm and Perrault by David Walser
William Heinemann Ltd. and Gallery Five Ltd., 1977
Reissued in the U.S. 2006 by Viking

Here are my requirements for a good anthology of traditional folklore: the translations have got to be good, but most importantly, the illustrations have to be GORGEOUS. And there must be lots of them. On every page. In all of these aspects, Pieńkowski's treasure of a book fits the bill. This is the kind of book that seems to radiate magic.

Pieńkowski is known for a wide variety of illustration, including pop-up books, but I think he is most celebrated for his evocative use of sihouettes. In addition to fairy tales, Pieńkowski has illustrated books about Easter and the Nativity using silhouettes. In the religious works, the lack of direct facial details gives a sense of pagentry and grandeur. In these fairy tales -- "Sleeping Beauty," "Snow White," "Hansel and Gretel" and "Cinderella" -- the same form casts a spell of mystery and strangeness that is truly befitting of these stories. Exquisite scenes, either black-and-white or appearing on swirls of marbled color, present the stories in an extraordinarily unique way.

In order to add dramatic power to the scenes, Pieńkowski places the human figures in extravagantly emotional poses -- drooping to the ground to weep, flinging their arms into the air in joy -- characters are frequently given reams of twisty, flyaway hair or delicately lacy clothes to add layers of texture and interest. (Likewise, comic characters are amply supplied with knobby elbows and big teeth.) Frequently Pieńkowski sends spirals of vines, thorns, or flowers cascading across a page spread, on which the characters from the tales delicately act out their scenes.

Pieńkowski also makes no bones about some of the gruesome aspects of these stories -- the thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty's castle are littered with skeletons, and hostile animals peer down at Hansel and Gretel as they wander through the forest. However, the effect is more spellbinding and old-fashioned than repulsive. Large illuminated capitals and a typeface reminiscent of Wanda Gág's completes the look of a book that seems ages-old and yet ageless.

A bit of biographical information about the Grimms, Charles Perrault, and both Pieńkowski and Walser are given at the front of the book, but I do admit that it would have been nice to have a bit more information about the textual sources of the translations. But that seems a minor quibble -- this is a book designed for pure reading enjoyment, not academic folklorists.

May I also say a few words about the lavish construction of the book? The pages here are thick and lie marvellously flat, begging to be thumbed and stroked by fingers over and over again. The printwork is sharp and clear, allowing the tiniest holes in Snow White's basket, the lace on Sleeping Beauty's dress, or the curled tail of the tiniest of Cinderella's mice to appear. And while the book is satisfyingly heavy, it isn't unwieldy -- at 9.7 x 8 inches, it is just the right side for propping up on your chest while reading in bed.

And yes, you certainly must read it in bed. Books like this are bound to inspire some lovely, big dreams.

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New Book Micro-Reviews

The Baptism by Shelia P. Moses

Many weeks ago, Fuse#8 created a list of books that she think might be Newbery contenders for this year (and, alas, I cannot find the original post). This book was on the list, citing the excellence of The Baptism's prequels: The Legend of Buddy Bush and The Return of Buddy Bush. The main question was if a reader unfamiliar with the prequels would be able to read The Baptism as a stand-alone. Where oh where could such a reader be found?

Twa-ta-ta-taaaaa! Brooke to the rescue!

And here's the bad news: The Baptism does not work as a stand-alone. It could have -- ohhh, it could have, if Moses had not been so intent on connecting this book to its two predecessors.

Here's the premise: twelve-year-old Luke lives in North Carolina, circa the 1940s. His mother wants him to get baptized at the local church in one week. The book chronicles Luke's musings and misdeeds during that week, including scrapes with the local landowner's son, feelings of enmity against his stepfather, and the guilt over pulling his twin, Leon, into constant "sinnin."

The story is almost a play-by-play of Luke's thoughts, so the narrative tends to ramble and go off on tangents. I was fine with that -- Moses' grasp of the Southern vernacular is masterful -- although some young readers might find it frustrating. The thing I found strange was the long passages Moses devotes to having Luke recap the events of the first two books in the trilogy. It seemed tacked on, and had no apparent relation to what was presently going on in Luke's life. Luke's summary of Buddy Bush's adventures don't have much dramatic power in truncated form; it's obvious that Luke thinks they were important, but it's unclear to readers why. Then you get to the end, where there is a bit of a surprise twist, and I wonder if the whole reason for the back story was to lead up to it. Because I didn't have any particular feeling for the stories in the first two books, the ending came off as more random than surprising.

Personally, I think the book would have been better if it had stuck to Luke's story and left Buddy Bush out of it. Luke is a funny, picaresque character, and his ruminations on life, race, and spirituality could easily have stood on their own.

Okay . . . that review was not a micro-review. Time to change gears . . .

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

One of my Rules of Thumb for rating the merits of a book for young readers is if it describes child experiences in such an authentic way that it immediately brings to mind memories from my own childhood. Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Tarshis has done the job right in this regard. This story presents the perspectives (in alternating chapters) of two very different girls: Emma-Jean, who is analytical to the point of being completely detatched from her classmates, and Colleen, who is sweet, kind, and cares more about her relationships with others than anything else. What happens when Emma-Jean decides to start connecting with Colleen and other fellow seventh-graders (using a letter-writing scheme worthy of Anastasia Krupnik) is both funny and heartbreaking; both girls are incredibly, believably innocent in their own ways. Part of the journey to friendship for these girls -- to seeing and accepting yourself and others for what they are -- involves falling a bit, and being better off because of it. Tarshis gives us an excellent portrait of life on both sides of the popularity fence, and I think girls everywhere would benefit from giving it a good read.

Dimity Dumpty by Bob Graham

Okay, here are the reasons why you need to read this book:

1. It's about Humpty's little sister, who exhibits some serious quick thinking and you-go-girl-ness when it comes to rescuing her brother from his famous fall-off-the-wall.

2. The writing is concise and gorgeous, just like in Graham's other books.

3. The illustrations are to-die-for cute (the Dumpty family travels in a wagon made out of an egg carton! Which is pulled by a chicken! SWEET!).

4. The name "Dimity" is cool. Just admit it, people.

Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman

A boy is stuck indoors on a rainy day, when he finds a key under an old chair. After a bit of hunting, he finds that the key unlocks a chest that leads him to a sunny, idyllic world, with a bunch of kids to play with.

Over at the excelsior file, Elzey wonders if this book might be exhibiting a little bit of classism -- the protagonist (a white boy) seems trapped in a mansion, complete with servants and teacups, while the kids in the trunk are multicultural and barefoot. Eh, I don't quite agree. I think that Lehman simply wanted to portray the environment least appealing to a kid (gloomy, stuffy mansion) and the escape to a kid's idea of the ultimate fun place (barefoot on the beach!). What I found disappointing is the lack of brilliant originality that we've seen in Lehman's other picture books (Museum Trip and The Red Book). The whole bored-kid-finds-escape-into-magical-world trope has been around forever. There was none of the mystery and excitement, the sense that some strange Other Powers might be at work, that were in her other books. But hey, you can't win 'em all.

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The Piper at the Gates of the 21st Century

So, last week Monica Edinger, who writes the most excellent blog, Educating Alice, gave her opinions on the new BBC production of The Wind in the Willows, but moved on to broader questions as to the relevancy of the book in today's kidlit world:

The story has such a dated feel; it is very much about a bunch of old boys (in the British public school tradition) and no girls “messing about,” there is some ugly class commentary (when you get to those inhabitants of the Wild Wood), one of the oddest odes to paganism or something ever, and there is hardly a female to be seen (not surprising since it sort of replicates a boys’ school).
I don't quite get the connection between Grahame's characters and British public schools -- unless Edinger meant to point out that the four main animal characters come off as wealthy upper-crust Brits. But to answer the question: how relevant are the adventures of Mole, Badger, Ratty, and Toad today?

First, I'll be the first to admit that Grahame's novel is not for every kid. There's some pretty fancy prose on display in this book, and the fact that we are given two completely different storylines -- the lyrical forest adventures of Mole and Rat, and the comic adventures of Mr. Toad -- with different moods and pacing. There are action-packed chapters followed by sequences in which almost nothing happens. The effect can be jarring, especially for kids listening to the story aloud.

And yeah, it's a shame that there aren't any assertive female characters, but to tell the truth, when I read this as a kid, I didn't see the characters as being particularly male or female, but as animals. Androgynous animals, whose gender didn't seem to apply to them as it does to humans.

I don't quite get Edinger's connection between Grahame's characters and British public schools -- unless Edinger meant to point out that the four main animal characters come off as wealthy, clubby upper-crust Brits. I don't know if Grahame intended for the four animal characters to come off as quite so snobbish as they might to some readers. Keep in mind that there is more economic diversity between them than you might think -- Mole, with his almost-abandoned burrow, seems solidly middle-class, while Mr. Toad is the quintissential foppish aristocrat. As for me, I never got the impression that the animals were anything but old-fashioned, close friends.

I am fortunate to have a own copy of First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows, edited by Grahame's wife Elspeth, which contains all of the letters that Grahame wrote to his son, Alistair, in which the book's stories were first created. Naturally, there aren't nearly as many descriptive passages in the letters as in the book, and in the beginning there are far more animal characters, including a sty of silly pigs.

Rereading these letters, I personally get the impression that Grahame was more interested in creating a fantasic world of talking animals for his son than he was in replicating upper class Edwardian life. The notion that there may be a hidden world of genteel forest creatures is part of what still makes this book appealing. It's the same feeling that I think is still echoed in a lot of today's animal fantasies, such as Russel Erickson's A Toad for Tuesday, Cynthia Rylant's Thimbleberry Stories and perhaps even Kate DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux. Likewise, I think the lyrical sequences of the book have a direct descendant in Randall Jarrell's The Animal Family.

However, the crux of the matter over the book's relevancy seems to lie in this: Grahame's skill at evoking the beauties of nature, the comforts and connections to one's own home, and the a fascination with forest animals, is still as evocative now as it was in 1908. In an increasingly nature-deprived world, I think there's nothing better for kids than to revel in a description of woods, rivers, and the luxury of getting absorbed in the outdoors.

Likewise, whenever I find a child -- or myself -- coveting the latest technological gadget, I'm always of a mind to sit us down for a ride on Mr. Toad's motorcar. In an era in which we are increasingly encouraged to upgrade our material lives, the misadventures of Mr. Toad seems more necessary than ever. The next time you experience a power failure, and find yourself tearing out your hair from e-mail deprivation, get out the candles and spend some time "messing about in boats." It'll do you good.

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Ten Things About Brian Selznick

First of all, my apologies for not writing more posts this week. I had family visiting from out of town, and blogging somehow didn't get on the agenda. But I'm back, and with a special treat: Hot Man of Children's Literature #8, Brian Selznick, came to my library today to give a lecture, and I was able to slip in for it. The talk was given in conjunction with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' fabulous kidlit series, Black, White, and Read All Over. If any of you reading this are in the area for these great lil' features, I highly recommend coming on down for them. These lectures are always rather fabulous -- and we usually have punch and cookies in the children's non-fiction room afterwards. But let's get to the good stuff -- here are the best tidbits from the Selznick lecture, and I'm givin' 'em to you factoid style:

Pifft! Stop thinking about drinking punch and cookies in the non-fiction room! Focus! Focus!

1. Selznick began the lecture with a "reading" from The Invention of Hugo Cabret -- that is, he had the images from the opening sequence of the book projected on the lecture hall's big screen, then asked for the lights to be dimmed. While the black-and-white pictures of 1930s Paris flickered on the screen, Selznick played old-fashioned movie music on the lecture hall's sound system. It was absolutely thrilling, and I don't know if I've ever said that about a Power Point presentation. If anything, Selznick definitely has a flair for the theatrical -- something that I think has been reflected in many of his books.

2. Due to his love of drawing monsters and dinosaurs as a kid, Selznick was often told that he should illustrate children's books when he grew up. This, of course, lead to an intense dislike of the idea on his part. So, when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, he refused to take courses on children's illustration -- even though those classes were taught by the likes of David Macaulay and Chris Van Allsburgh.

Oooh, doesn't it make you wince? Just wince?

3. When Selznick did decide he wanted to illustrate for kids, he got a job at Eyeore's, a children's bookshop in NYC. While there, he re-discovered a book he had loved as a child:

In Fortunately, Selznick loved the way that the action of the story was directly controlled by page turns -- how that made the reader an active participant in the storytelling. This, of course, fed into the development of the style of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, one of the first illustrated novels ever created for kids -- where turning the pages creates an interactive-yet-cinematic experience. (Selznick now counts the creator of Fortunately, Remy Charlip, as his mentor.)

Now, I'm going to insert a disclaimer here. I'm not going to bother describing The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or synopsize the plot, or talk about why this book is so innovative. If you want that, read the Fuse#8 review. Because I think there's enough redundancy in the world. Enough.

4. The chief inspiration for the book was the work of Georges Méliès, the Victorian French filmmaker -- who also appears in Hugo Cabret. But Selznick also spent a lot of time looking at other French filmmakers from the 1930s -- especially the film Under the Roofs of Paris by René Clair. Clair wasn't that fond of the (then-new) addition of sound to films -- like books and paintings, Clair thought that film was best appreciated as a solely visual medium. So he would use sound, but in unconventional ways -- usually bursts of sound after long silences. Selznick took this idea to shape the format for Hugo Cabret -- in which there are bursts of text after many pages of illustration.

5. Oh -- Selznick liked the look of Clair's films so much, that he lifted several scenes from Under the Roofs of Paris for the illustrations in Hugo Cabret. Also, Selznick said that when he created the pictures for Hugo Cabret, he made them at 1/4 scale, and then had them enlarged for the book. He said that he liked the way the enlargement made the pictures "airier," and that it helped him work faster, even though he had to do most of the work under a magnifying glass.

Hey, all you illustrators out there: how common is this? Usually, I hear complaints from illustrators about how they dislike having their work shrunk or blown up, because it distorts the vision they had for the book. What gives?

6. Automation is also a big part of Hugo Cabret. Selznick spent a lot of time studying the automata at the Franklin Institute in Philedelphia:

When Selznick arrived at the Institute, he found that the automata was broken (and had been for some time). Selznick had an engineering friend, Andy Barron, who he was also consulting for Hugo Cabret. When told about the broken machine, Barron offered to fix it for the Institute. The automata will be the centerpiece of an exhibit on machines produced by the FI in 2008, and Selznick has been invited to do a presentation on Hugo Cabret as part of the festivities. Oh, and be sure to read more about this very cool machine right here.

7. When drawing human characters for his books, Selznick says that he gets an idea of what the character looks like in his head, and then keeps an eye out for real people who match that image, and then asks them to model for his book. So, for Hugo Cabret, he met a kid named Garret at the National History Museum in NYC who looked just like his idea of Hugo. Fortunately, said Selznick, his mom was keen on the idea of going over to Selznick's apartment for a photo shoot. The girl who modeled for Etienne was found in a pizza parlor.

Kind of amazing -- when I was a kid, I would have loved for that to have happened to me! It's like those Hollywood stories of starlets being "discovered" in Woolworth's, or whatever. Only, for me, being captured in a book seems so much cooler. Kind of an anonymous celebrity.

8. As a sidenote to this, Selznick asked Remy Charlip to do the modeling for the illustrations of Georges Méliès. You gotta admit, the two of them look very similar. Here's Charlip:

And here's Méliès:

Just . . . a little . . . eerie, no? You may also note that the book is co-dedicated to Charlip. (Awwww.)

9. Hugo wasn't originally intended to be an orphan when Selznick began writing Hugo Cabret; it wasn't until the passing of Selznick's own father that he realized that it would be a necessary part of the book.

10. OH -- and as if creating beautiful books weren't enough, Selznick also does toy-theatre-style puppet shows in his spare time. He created one about The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins a few years ago, which featured tiny antique cabinets containing scenes from Hawkins' life:

So, here's my request for Mr. Selznick: Is there any way, any way you could get footage of these puppet shows up online to be enjoyed by One and All? There's a load of fresh cupcakes in it for you . . .

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New Book Micro-Reviews

Time for some finger-lickin' fiction!

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson
This is the book I've been recommending the most lately; it's as sprightly and fresh as a springtime breeze. J.J. Liddy is the 15-year-old member of an Irish family with a long heritage of music. When his harried mother requests "more time" as a birthday present, he finds himself journeying to Tír na n'Óg, a.k.a. fairyland, a.k.a. The Land of Eternal Youth (rendered by Thompson in a subtly original way). In between meetings with figures from Irish folklore, J.J. discovers that time is leaking from our world into theirs, and also uncovers the answers to many Liddy family mysteries. This book is so winningly Irish, it makes me want to take a shower and start cutting up my soap with a pocketknife. I love the dialect, the intriguing characters, and the fact that Thompson gives us the sheet music for a different Irish melody at the end of each chapter. Plus, for bonus points, you can sing the title to the melody of Beck's "The New Pollution." Go ahead, sing it: "Sheeee's a-looone in the / Neeew Po-liiiiceman." Pretty apt description of my time spent absorbed in this book.

By the way, I don't know why this novel is being described as for "ages 11-15." There's nothing in here that would be inappropriate for younger kids -- J.J. could easily have been written as a ten-year-old, a la Susan Cooper. Perhaps it's the length that's kicking it up to YA? Eh, I have no idea.

Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
Yes! A solid middle-grade novel set in Bangladesh! With a strong female protagonist! And information about microcredit programs in the back! It's short and easy to read! It makes for a good classroom read-aloud! Ms. Perkins, this book could be the answer to about a jillion questions on the reference desk. THANK YOU SO MUCH. And for all of you non-library types reading this: Perkins' tale of spunky Naima and her quest to earn money for her family is fun, colorful, and full of heart. And you gotta have heart.

Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce
Oo-er. This is the kind of fantasy novel with so many creative sparkles that it makes me feel as if my imagination were broken in comparison. Flora, the youngest member of a declining family with a rich military heritage, lives in a crumbling mansion with 11,000 rooms. And then . . . geez, I'm not going to bother explaining it. Just click on the link and read the synopsis there. The lowdown from my perspective? 1. The plot is interesting but a little convoluted, yet fun to read anyway. 2. This is the first fantasy novel I've seen in a while that takes inspiration from Latin American culture. The characters eat tamales, have a coming of age ceremony called a "Catorcena" (like a quinceañera), and the enemy empire to the south sounds a lot like the Aztecs, complete with chile-spiced cocoa, jaguar-skin bandoliers, and bloody sacrifice rituals. Oh, and there's a tiny floating matador merman that chatters in Spanish at our heroine. Cool. 3. Okay, okay, I like this novel -- quite a bit -- but it uses the word "magick." Eeeerg, that gets on my nerves, along with "faeries" and "dragyns" instead of "fairies" and "dragons." It's like parents who name their son "Myechkell." It's still "Michael," like it's still just "magic." So, I was kind of wincing on every other page of this book. But still. I'm a twit that way. Pretty good reading.

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7. Off Topic Celebration

So, you may have noticed that I've failed to create a new Forgotten Book review as well as a Online Exhibit tour.

Do you know why?

It's because I finished the first draft of my novel this week! Hurrah! 340 pages of turgent, craptastic prose! But still. All done.

To celebrate, I'm going to indulge in a little nepotism. The above clip is from a Jonathan Coulton concert at The Cutting Room in NYC. You may or may not be familiar with Coulton's goofy-yet-awesome music, but the important thing to see here is the presence of my sister-in-law, Kristen, playing the ukulele. Ain't she awesome?

Enjoy "Creepy Doll" and take it easy.

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For When You Hanker For A Hunk of Harry

My husband and I spent a bit of our free time this evening looking at the new cover for the U.S. version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I had already seen it; he hadn't, and while I chose to make comments on the fact that Harry and Voldemort look as if they are engaging in a good round of Tai Chi, my far more analytically minded husband became obsessed with one thing and one thing only: how to use these pictures to guess how thick the book will be.

See, here's the full wraparound:

You can compare it to the front cover image to estimate where the spine will lay. After measuring the dimensions of our copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and doing some quick calculations, Brian has come up with an educated guess about the length of Book 7.

His guess: 1,086 pages. In other words, the book is a little over half as thick as it is wide.

Dude, this book could kill a squirrel!

I, personally, enjoy really thick books like this. When I get them new, I enjoy lifting them up into the air as if they were well-aged chunks of Gruyere cheese, and regarding them heavily as if I could already taste creamy dialogue and sharp descriptions that go down so well with a big wheat cracker.


I've got to stop writing these posts when I'm hungry.

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Tuesday evening is usually the time when I present another "Our Life in Books" entry, about my experiences raising young readers. But you know what, folks? This evening featured some legendary patience-testing moments of motherhood. I'm not going to go into details, only to say that the main event will hitherto be referred to as "The Great Poop Incident of '07."

Yes. Now, to shake that all out of your heads, I'm going to take refuge in presenting some delightful lil' clips from YouTube.

The clip here is a trailder for the Tom Davenport production of Bearskin. Not familiar with Davenport? In the '70s and '80s, he made a series of films for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting depicting Grimm Brothers folktales in various American settings. These films left none of the original gore or violence from the tales, so they were kind of controversial when they were first released, but audiences liked them. They remain pretty provacative and psycholocigally charged today as they were decades ago (albeit still pretty low-budget-looking, but I think that's part of the charm).

If you think "Bearskin" is spiffy (and I do), be sure to check out the trailers for Hansel and Gretel, Soldier Jack, and Ashpet (those last two are set during the WWII era -- cuteness!). Take note of the presence of legendary African-American storyteller Louise Anderson as the fairy godmother in Ashpet. Dude, she rocks.

Davenport Films has recently released all twenty-odd folktale films on DVD, but at $40 a pop, it looks like the sort of thing that only libraries could afford to buy. (Hint, hint, if you are a collections development librarian -- buy these and you won't be sorry!)

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New Book Micro-Reviews

It's Monday night -- do you know what that means? Teeny tiny reviews of new books! This week, I'm indulging in Non-Fiction-O-Rama. Sit back and let the information just wash over you!

Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures on Earth
by Nicola Davies; illustrated by Neal Layton
This book's kind of like a funky Guiness Book of World Records for the animal world, with the basic premise being "humans are wimps." Through this, Davies gives wonderfully consice, clear descriptions of how animals are tough -- how camels store water, how frogs can turn themselves into "popsicles," how thermophiles can co-exist with undersea volcanoes. Layton's loopy illustrations add just the touch of goofiness to this text to make it fun -- his multimedia creations look like groovy doodles someone left behind in a science textbook. Perfect for zoo nerds of all ages.

John Smith Escapes Again!
by Rosalyn Schanzer
Armchair travellers, hie ye hence to Schanzer's book! This book attempts to give a historically balanced, accurate depiction of early American explorer John Smith's life without beating around the bush about his 17th-century outlook on life. This book has "classic adventure tale" written all over it: pirates, wars, shipwrecks, and -- of course -- daring escapes. Best of all, it features a portrait of Pocahontas as she probably was: ten years old, nearly naked, and with a shaved-and-painted-red-head. Thank you, National Geographic Press. Keep 'em coming.

Great Estimations
by Bruce Goldstone
When you were a kid, did you ever enter those "guess how many beans are in the jar" contests? And take them really seriously -- trying to make a good guess of how many were in the jar? Jeez, what am I saying, "were a kid?" I still can't resist the urge to make a good estimate. In this lovely book, Goldstone explains the math behind estimations, plus why certain professionals -- like field biologists -- need to make them, and how to train yourself to make better ones. The pages are filled with photographs featuring clusters of small objects just perfect for the I Spy set -- can you tell if there are a hundred Gummi Bears? Five hundred pennies? Two thousand pieces of macaroni? The brain games here are addictive; give this number a read, and you'll find yourself estimating people in crowds, flower petals, and the words in this blog.

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Geez, Why Didn't I Think of This?

For the past few weeks, I've been following Elzey's excellent blog, the excelsior file, and its fabulous idea to read about a different fairytale from the Brothers Grimm once a day, and then create a post about a particular story once a week. Elzey calls them Grimmoires (oh, scrumptious word!) and they never fail to amuse. From the latest, "The Twelve Brothers" (you know . . . where the brothers get turned into swans, and Little Sister has to rescue them all without saying a word for seven years) Elzey writes:

One day a King -- some other generic king, different from the girl's father -- is hunting in the woods and his dogs find a girl sitting in a tree. My, but she's a beauty! he thinks I must have this mute girl sitting in the tree for my bride! An without a thought that she might be a dangerous environmental activist they agree to be married.
Yeah, why don't fairytale princes ever do background checks? It would save them ever so much trouble.

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Forgotten Book of the Week: Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain

by Edward Ardizzone
Oxford University Press, 1936
reissued: Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2006

Kids are famous for their obsessions. Dinosaurs, trains, princesses, natural disasters, Vikings, what have you -- I know several small people who are more than willing to spill all sorts of knowledge about their pet topic into a willing ear. What better topic for a picture book than a story of a kid whose favorite-thing wishes are fulfilled?

Enter Little Tim. He loves all things nautical, having grown up along the shore, and spends his time playing on boats on the beach and visiting his friend, the retired Captain McFee. How deep does his love of boats go? "Sometimes Tim would astonish his parents by saying, 'That's a Cunarder' or 'Look at that barquentine on the port bow.'" Tim, who appears to be about five or six years old, is crushed to be informed by his parents that he cannot become a sailor until he is an adult. However, when Tim is given the chance to visit onboard a steamer, he stows away until the ship is out to sea, but then works his way into the good graces of the crew and captain. When the steamer is shipwrecked, Tim bravely stays with the ship's captain until they are rescued, leading to a satisfying conclusion (complete with medals of honor).

There's a charming simplicity to the level of fantasy in this book -- it reads almost like a child's backyard pretend play. Tim heads off to sea without ever worrying if he will be missed, and when he returns home, Mother and Father greet him as complacently and cheerfully as if he had just skipped home from school. The steamer captain gives Tim a good scolding for stowing away (and -- horrors! -- makes him scrub the deck) but underneath, the captain is an old softy who doesn't mind slipping our hero the occasional cup of cocoa. Dangers lurk beneath the ocean waves, but there's always a lifeboat within easy reach to take Tim back to shore. It's just the sort of adventure that I would have relished -- and believed in -- when I was Tim's age.

Let's not forget the illustrations -- it's what Ardizzone is best known for (he was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1956). The scenes in this book are good and salty, as all sea stories should be. Color spreads alternate with black-and-white ink drawings, and all of them manage to properly convey the briny air and slapping waves apropos to sea travel. Even the tones Ardizzone picked for the color illustrations look appropriately washed out, with plenty of greys and blues. The pictures already look as if they've been two years before the mast. Tim's figure is always lithe and big-headed, conveying the perfect blend of innocence and pluck necessary for his character.

This is but one of many "Little Tim" adventures, but is the only one that has been recently reissued. With luck, Frances Lincoln will choose to send out some more, for nobody deserves more adventures and outings than Tim and his very lucky readers.

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13. Makes You Appreciate StoveTop So Much More

Take a gander at this lil' lovely I dug up a few days ago. It's an animated version of Edward Lear's poem "Two Old Bachelors." Apparently, this was done as a graduation project by an animation student named Doug Wilson. I don't know the man, but you must give Mad Props to his sense of taste. (Take note of the mugging-via-baguette segment in this flick.) Mr. Wilson, I tip my hat to you.

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Our Life In Books: Herbs Ride Again

Ooooooooo! Today, Eleanor and I went thrifting together, and do you know what I found? This:

That's right! A Moulinex herb grater!

Well . . . ours is the 1970s version of this model, so it's bright orange, but basically still the same. If anything, this is certainly a reflection of the awsome effect that Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky is having on my culinary soul. Good grief, the descriptions of food were awesome in that book -- and they weren't necessarily all descriptions of good food, mind you. Lucky has descriptions of dishes from the entire Food Spectrum, from the cheese-in-a-box fried in bacon grease, to diner food to tartes aux pommes. Bar none, the passage that intrigued me the most was the description of the Frenchwoman Brigitte's use of a hand-held herb grater like the one above to sprinkle just about everything with parsley.

It sounded delicious to me when I read this; how the sprinkled parsley gave everything "a freshness, and herb-ness to it." But what I couldn't visualize was how it was possible to hold the grater with one hand, turn the crank with the other, and manage somehow to not have the herbs fall right out of the little feeder on top.

I mean, come on -- you have to manually push cheese into a rotary cheese grater. And onions into a food processor. Did Brigitte have to prop the grater up on the counter with her elbow to keep a hand free to shove the parsley into the grater? Did she jam it all down deep into the feeder? If so, wouldn't the grater jam up? What gives?!?

Sheesh. I mean, I trully can not believe there was such a kerfuffle over the word "scrotum" in this book when there was also THIS conundrum to figure out.

So, you can see why -- no matter what the current state of our overstuffed kitchen cabinets -- buying an herb grater became an Intellectual Imperative. You know. Up there with finding out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

Upon arriving home, we stuck the grater in the dishwasher and waited breathlessly for it to get clean, and once it did so I stuck some parsley in to try it out.

And then . . . drumroll, please . . .

The parsley got completely jammed up in the grater's teeth! Awwww, nuts!

But then . . . my son tipped the grater's cardboard box upside down. Out of the box floated a tiny scrap of paper with about five different languages in it. One of them was in English, and instructed us to turn the grater's handle in a pattern of two forward turns followed by a backwards turn. Whoa. Wax on, wax off, Daniel-san.

The new method worked! As I type this, we have an entire kitchen sink covered with charmingly miniscule flakes of parsley. Now all we need is a kitchen sink full of garlic bread to go with it, and we're set.

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New Book Micro-Reviews

Okay, okay. So I had this goal of doing a whole bunch of mini-reviews of new books once a week. But do you know what happened? The mini-reviews turned into mega-reviews. I mean, take a gander at the last one I did. It took me three flippin' hours to write, mainly because I had to do a quick scan of each book so I could remember what I wanted to say about it. Too much information.

So. I'm going to take inspiration from a favorite website of mine, which reviews Pittsburgh restaurants in just a few sentences. It's kind of like a Whitman's Sampler of book reviews. Hopefully, these little tates will tantalize you enough to learn more about these brand-new babes of children's literature.

Let it Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals
Adapted and illustrated by Ashley Bryan
Is it to early to state that this is the book I want to win the Caldecott Medal next year? Bryant's exuberantly colorful paper collages just makes you wanna stand up on a pew somewhere and belt out some tunes. Or better yet, hear Bryan sing 'em himself, 'cause that man is a big ol' walking ball of glad-eyed charisma. This book gives us pitch-perfect rainbow renditions of "This Little Light of Mine," "When the Saints go Marching In," and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." It won't be hard to find this book in a store or library; you need sunglasses just to look at the pages. Golly, it makes my mouth water.

So Sleepy Story
Written and illustrated by Uri Schulevitz
A boy drifts off to sleep amongst the anthropormorphic objects in his room, but when a mysterious melody drifts through the window, everything wakes up and begins to dance for a while before snoozing once more. I love the sombre blue-and-grey palette of the illustrations, and the cute faces given to the chairs and plates reminded me a little of Remi Charlip's Sleepytime Rhyme. But the text! It seems great when you read it silently, but if you're roped into repeat out-loud readings with a child? So, so uninteresting ("sleepy cuckoo-clock/by sleepy dishes/on sleepy shelves/and a sleepy cat/on a sleepy chair"). Kind of a disappointment after the minimalist magic of his Caldecott Honor-winning Snow. But still. It's purty.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls
Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks; illustrated by Faith Ringgold
Revered poet Brooks wrote this collection back in the 1950s in homage to the kids she observed in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. The poems are as fresh and universal a portrait of childhood today as they were then -- we are given glimpses into tea parties, snow games, and the pleasures of sitting alone and dreaming; all the good stuff of childhood. Best of all, now these poems have supremely divine illustrations by Ringgold. Better yet, this is the first Ringgold work I've seen in a while that doesn't appear to be . . . um, Dali-esque. (Cough.) Ringgold gives the poems a world of glorious, thick-lined paintings that make you want to feel the summer heat on your back while you play hopscotch in the street. What could be better than that?

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Online Exhibit of the Week: The Pop-Up World of Ann Montanaro

Ann Montanaro is the head of Systems and Bibliographic Database Management at Rutgers University, which is all fine and good, but she's also something else. She's someone who has done something about which I (and perhaps many others) secretly dream: her personal library of children's books was made into a special collection of a major university library. And they named it after her! Wow! Now that's what I call immortality.

Montanaro's special interest in the world of children's literature is pop-up books. No big surprise there -- I know lots of people who collect them -- but Montanaro's expertise in the history of the genre is stellar. Not only did she publish a book-length bibliography of pop-up books of yesterday and today, but she also founded the Moveable Book Society, which not only produces a quarterly journal, but a biennial conference -- the perfect resource for anybody looking to collect these fragile yet fascinating works of art.

Pop-ups are one of the few kinds of literature that I find can entrance adults just as wholeheartedly as kids. There has been many a time that I've passed by my library's little shelf of pop-ups to find parents on the floor with their kids and One Red Dot, eagerly peering around the paper structures, gleefully lifting flaps and pulling arrows. I think it is both the transient nature of these books as well as the clever architecture that captures our imaginations: like a soap bubble or a butterfly, we all know that pop-up books don't last very long, and should be enjoyed whole-heartedly while they are around.

The collection on display in the online exhibit does a good job of giving a survey of pop-up books from the 1880s to the 1990s, with books organized into somewhat whimsical themes ("The Birds and the Bees," "The Beautiful and the Bizzare," "Man, You Gotta Move!") inviting armchair tourists to click through the collection at a leisurely pace. The books range from the charmingly Victorian to the bizzarre -- including a pop-up homage to the British royal family.

Each image is given a lengthy annotation describing the context of the book, the artist's other works, and what any visible tabs or flaps are for. Best of all, Montanaro has also contributed a brief history of pop-up books to the exhibit.

Apparently, this was the first online exhibit created for Rutgers, and it shows -- the design of the website is woefully dated, with an ugly grey background. Worst of all, the images of the books were all created with old-style film photography, then scanned to create JPEGs. Although the website provides detailed instructions on how to set your monitor to optimize clarity, the images still come off as grainy and blurred, as you can see from the images I have posted here.

The biggest oversight, of course, is the conspicuous abscence of the works of Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. Only one Sabuda book, The Christmas Alphabet, is shown in the exhibit, and the list of pop-up book websites does not include a link to the Sabuda/Reinhart workshop, which is arguably one of the best resources on the Web about contemporary pop-ups.

Obviously, these oversights are due to the fact that this exhibit hasn't been touched since its creation in the 1990s. So what? one might ask. It's only an online exhibit.

Yes, but there's something to be said for making collections like these accessible to the public, and that includes the online public. There's nothing wrong with the occasional update, folks. You know, at least one a decade or so. I wouldn't be surprised to see this website showing up on bilbliographies for college courses about children's literature, and if a resource is being used in that way, it deserves to be kept up so it can remain a good source of information.

Okay, okay. I'll just put way my pop-up soapbox for now. (Wouldn't it be handy to have one of those?)

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Forgotten Book of the Week: The Duchess Bakes a Cake

by Virginia Kahl
Scribners & Sons, 1955
Reissued: Purple House Press, 1983

Baking mishaps seem like a recurring motif in children's literature, from "The Gingerbread Man" to "In the Night Kitchen" and onwards, and yet I don't ever seem to tire of it. I'm betting that a lot of kids don't, either. Which, of course, brings me to the delightful dottiness of Virginia Kahl's The Duchess Bakes a Cake. Here's how the book begins:

A long time ago there lived over the waters
A Duchess, A Duke, and their family of daughters --
Madeleine, Gwendolyn, Jane and Clothilde,
Caroline, Genevive, Maude and Mathilde,
Willibald, Guinevere, Joan and Brunhilde,
And the youngest of all was the baby, Gunhilde.
Whenever I read this intro, I can't help but be reminded of that other book from the 1950s about twelve little girls in two straight lines. But the similarity ends there. Kahl's story about the Duke and Duchess' prodigious family is set in a world given over to silliness, where adults and children alike play the fool. "They couldn't think often, and hadn't thought much."

The story begins with the angular, Olive-Oyl-Goes-Medieval-style Duchess, who usually likes to spend her time "reading and writing," growing bored and deciding to bake a cake. Being a noblewoman, she hasn't the faintest idea of how to go about making "a lovely light luscious delectable cake," but simply adds ingredients helter-skelter into the bowl:
In went the almonds, the raisins, the suet;
She added some vinegar and dropped in the cruet.
She added the yeast, six times for good measure.
(A light fluffy cake is really a pleasure.)
Predictibly, the cake rises to immense proportions, trapping the Duchess in the air on an enormous mound of dough. "I fear an improper proportion of leaven / Is taking my dear Duchess right up to Heaven," cries the Duke. How will she get back down? The castle folk all have ludicrously impractical ideas, but, of course, it is the Duchess's own children who create the best solution.

Kahl was a librarian, and you can tell: her rhyming text and clever rhymes beg for this book to be read out loud. As for her three-color illustrations, they seem like a cross between Lois Lenski and James Thurber. Thick lines delineate the characters and scenery, and Kahl uses little details to give the characters charm. The palace cook, with his long, upturned nose and spoon on his hip, looks like he fell straight out of a vintage New Yorker cartoon. The thirteen daughters, meanwhile, are simply adorable with their little red caps, white dresses and pudgy green arms. If I had read this book as a child, I would have loved to have a set of dolls that looked just like them.

Kahl wrote several books about the Duke and Duchess' family; this is the most well-known and is the only one that has ever been reissued. This loopy castle community is addictive; if The Duchess Bakes a Cake falls into the hands of any young readers you know, you may find yourself scouring used book markets to collect the whole set.

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Aristotle vs. Children's Literature: Tragic Heroes

Over at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, there's a bit of interesting hash going on about the possibility of tragic heroes existing in children's literature. Apparently, this was a question posited by a library patron, and both Liz and the readers who posted comments are in a bit of a disagreement as to whether or not tragic heroes even exist in books for young readers. (Does the tree in The Giving Tree count as a tragic hero? Or just the kid who has to listen to that story?) A commenter named Andrew asked:

I wonder if it's possible to have a strictly Aristotelian tragic hero in a children's book. Do the flaws of even YA protagonists rise to the level of tragedy? I'm not making a qualitative judgment at all--a tragic hero isn't innately any better than another kind of hero. It's just that most YA flaws aren't fatal or insurmountable, and they don't tend to lead to a great reversal of fortune (i.e., death, eyes ripped from sockets, etc.). The flaws aren't but-for-this-he-would-have-been-a-great-King-of-Denmark type flaws. I think if YA had "tragic heroes," the books would have higher body counts.
First question: Andrew, do you want to reconsider The Chocolate War? Does a high body count alone merit a story as "tragic"?

But I'm going to put aside the discussion of YA literature for a bit to go over a bit of how we define "tragic heroes" today. And to do that, I'm going to reference a delightful interview of Ken Gros Louis, who teaches a college course about heroes through the ages at Indiana University Bloomington. About defining what a "tragic hero" is, he writes:

The phrase "tragic hero" has been interpreted differently at different times of history; indeed, the definition often depends on one's interpretation of what history is.

Thus, in classical times, the tragic hero was one who had a tragic flaw that inevitably led to his downfall. But in medieval times, bad things happened to good people, and in a sense, because of the deep belief in resurrection and the afterlife, things that happened in this world didn't matter that much. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the tragic hero, like Hamlet or MacBeth or Othello, was one whose passions often overruled reason--or, put another way, one whose three parts of the soul were not in harmony. I could go on and on because the definition has really not been constant. Think of Job, for example--I'm not sure he would have been considered a tragic hero.

And does the classical definition of tragic heroes still apply in modern times?
The classical definition may work in certain circumstances, although I don't think the phrase "tragic hero" would necessarily apply. Thus, Bill Clinton may have a tragic flaw, but I doubt if most people would put him in the same category as the classical tragic heroes.
With this flexibility in mind, I'm going be a little bold and say that tragic heroes in children's literature can only exist in stories that end badly -- that are true tragedies. So, what are those?
In books for children, stories with truly unhappy endings tend to be tempered with that ever-pervasive "sense of hope" that leads us to believe that something good still exists for the protagonist in the future. Also, with the rise of realism in literature for kids, most disasters happen as a result of chance, or the consequences of a social system gone wrong. So, we have stories like Kira-Kira, Out of the Dust, Bridge to Terabithia, or even The Red Rose Box. In these stories, bad stuff simply happens. To find true tragic heroes, I think, you'd have to go back to a time before modernism hit the kidlit world. When the sensibility of the average children's book was still infused with the heady vapors of Romanticism.

That's right: I'm talking about Hans Christian Andersen. You want tragedy? Take a good gander at The Little Mermaid, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier. In terms of the Shakespearean tragic hero, these tales have protagonists whose passions truly rule over their reason and lead to their downfall. And yet, they are gorgeous, timeless stories. In Ruth Sawyer's classic novel, Roller Skates, tragic stories are explained to the ten-year-old protagonist as being something bad held within something incredibly beautiful, so we can stand looking such sadness in the face, and deal with it. In other words, tragic story is something that we need to psychically survive-- and that includes kids. Makes you think twice about throwing a singing crab into an Andersen tale, doesn't it?

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Our Life in Books: "Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People"

It's time once again, for a few true-life stories of kid-on-book action! See: the spines bent and splintered! See: the insistence of 300 repeat readings! See: the drool-stained pages!

Lately, my almost-two-year-old, Eleanor, has been going through an Identity Crisis.

Well . . . "crisis" is not the right word. Perhaps I should say "Identity Calm" or whatever the true opposite of "crisis" might be. Eleanor, in true toddler fashion, has been very firm and insistent on identifying herself as often and in as many ways as possible. When she catches a glimpse of her reflection, she says, "Nor-Nor." When she spots her be-strollered self on closed-circuit security television, she says, "Nor-Nor." And when her little shadow flits on the grass beside her? "Nor-Nor."

So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that my girl, this budding bibliophile, should find herself in all of the books she reads. She's identified herself as the bouncy toddler protagonist of Caroline Uff's Lulu's Busy Day, and also as the boy in Peter McCarty's quiet masterpiece Moon Plane.

The last few weeks, however, Eleanor has extended this book-identification to include her entire family. Especially when we are reading any kind of Mother Goose anthology. Eleanor is always Mary Mary Quite Contrary, or the good king's daughter in "Grey Goose and Gander." But my husband? He's Humpty Dumpty.

Yeah, Humpty Dumpty. Now, lest you immediately get the impression that Brian is a round, pale, bald guy, let me present a comparison. Here's Humpty:

And here's Brian:

Well . . . they're both in close proximity to a wall. Beyond that, I have NO IDEA why Eleanor thinks her Daddy is Humpty. (Although Daddy Humpty sounds like a great name for a rap star.)

And me? I'm always the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe:

Now, that might not seem such a stretch. The Shoe Lady is always pictured with a bunch of kids, so I can understand why she'd make the connection there. But Eleanor also makes sure to inform me that that I am also The Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket:

When Eleanor made this little assertion, it hit me: she thinks I'm old. Mother-Goose-style old. That means being the kind of lady who wears a bonnet. And lives in non-traditional houses. Oldy-old-old. And to a two-year-old, that makes sense. I can't help but think of Paul Fleischman's poem, "Mayflies," when I think of a toddler regarding her ancient parents. "Your minute / Mayfly day / Your hour / Mayfly year." To her, someone capable of doing magical things like peeling a banana or turning on a night light must certainly be an Ancient Source of Cosmic Wisdom.

While my inner Narcissus is hurting, hurting over the comparison ("Noooooo! I'm only 29!!!) I can't help but be a little touched by this very real, honest perception of a child for her parents: as being something so safe, so strong, that they seem to have existed forever.

Like. . . sigh . . . Stonehenge.

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"Could his later cognitive struggles be the result of a type of Shaken Bear Syndrome?"

I'm a children's librarian; my husband is a medical student. What happens when our worlds collide? This:

Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: a neurodevelopmental perspective on A.A. Milne

It was published as a lark back in 2000 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). Yeah, it's a joke that seems a bit tired, but what's impressive here is the lengths the authors went to to make this look like a legit journal article. The footnotes! The table! The bizarre suggestion that Kanga buy up the Hundred Acre Wood and turn it into a gated community!

And the medical perspective on all this folderol? My husband responds:

"It seems clear to me that Pooh is perfectly developmentally appropriate for a stuffed bear of his age and that he is a very high functioning individual in his sphere of activity, his eating habits and body morphology are also appropriate for his nature as an imaginary/stuffed bear. This is true for all of the diagnoses given. Whoever says Piglet has failure to thrive has never looked at the standardized growth chart for stuffed/imaginary pigs. "

"Owl is labeled as having a reading disorder from in this chart, but it is clear to all the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood and to me that he has advanced reading skill for any owl, living or stuffed. Show me another owl that can even get close to misspelling his name that well, and I will show you a well trained bird. Sure, if these individuals were adult humans they might have the diagnoses suggested in the article, but as clinicians we will have to wait until they are visited by the Blue Fairy, turned into real people, have problems adjusting, obtain health insurance or medical assistance, and visit us in the clinic to give them these or any other diagnoses."

Yeah, that's the man I love.

For further medicine-meets-kidlit fun, check out "Cinderology: The Cinderella of Academic Medicine," which analyzes doctors' use of the Cinderella story as a medical metaphor.

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Where's Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer?

Over at Read Roger, there's a stunningly intelligent discussion about the latest spat of kidlit which features girls who disguise themselves as boys. (Let's see . . . Alphabet of Dreams. Check. The Secret of the Rose. Check . . . ) Sutton calls it a "defining trope" or even a "motif" of children's literature. Responding to Kelly Harold, he writes:

I would argue that what you mean instead is that "in most eras and cultures, girls whom we wish to commemorate for our own culture and era have had to dress as boys, etc." What I mean is, did as high a percentage of Colonial era girls have as much trouble with their sewing as our historical fiction about them would have it?
Amen, brother! I'm sure there's a wealth of debate over the historical evidence of girls' relationships with the gender roles from ages past, but to tell the truth, whenever I come across a historical novel for kids that features girls who actually do attempt to fit into their society, it comes as a breath of fresh air. I think Joan Blos' A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal 1830-32 is one of the best examples of historical fiction with a female protagonist who is smart and strong, but exhibits these traits in a matter fitting her time and place.

Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy, on the other hand -- and which I really love and enjoy -- has a protagonist whose personality is so strong that it comes off as anachronistic. Yeah, girls like Catherine may have thought those things back in the Middle Ages, but would they have said them?

As for "girls whom we wish to commemorate for our own culture and era," let's not forget that stories of girls and gender-bending is a motif that stretches far beyond our own culture and era. Lousia May Alcott sent Jo out to shear her hair as part of a war effort (not quite the same as donning pants, but shocking to Victorians nonetheless). And during Alcott's time and before, the story of Joan of Arc -- one of the original cross-dressing hair-shearers -- made for popular reading among girls.

Speaking of Alcott, I think an interesting close to my post on this topic is to be found in Jo's Boys. Interested in how Alcott -- whom many view as a proto-feminist -- dealt with the balance between being smart and independent vs. domesticity? Read her description of the sewing circle created for female college students:
Mrs Meg was the first to propose enlarging this little circle; for as
she went her motherly rounds among the young women she found a sad
lack of order, skill, and industry in this branch of education.
Latin, Greek, the higher mathematics, and science of all sorts
prospered finely; but the dust gathered on the work-baskets, frayed
elbows went unheeded, and some of the blue stockings sadly needed
mending. Anxious lest the usual sneer at learned women should apply
to 'our girls', she gently lured two or three of the most untidy to
her house, and made the hour so pleasant, the lesson so kindly, that
they took the hint, were grateful for the favour, and asked to come
again. Others soon begged to make the detested weekly duty lighter by
joining the party, and soon it was a privilege so much desired that
the old museum was refitted with sewing-machines, tables,
rocking-chair, and a cheerful fireplace, so that, rain or shine, the
needles might go on undisturbed.
Needles undisturbed, indeed.

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Online Exhibit of the Week: The Charlotte M. Smith Collection of Miniature Books

Here's the first entry of what (I hope) is a regular Thursday night feature on this blog. I adore perusing rare and unusual children's books. I spent a fair share of my time in library school nosing my way through the Elizabeth Nesbitt Room, and it was always like some delightful combination of treasure hunt and picnic. The handpainted colors! The gilded binding! The fact that I had my very own pair of little white gloves!

Naturally, I still crave such moments (children and work now occupy my once-abundant research time), and I'm sure there's a goodly number of folks out there who do too.

Therefore -- once a week, I will highlight fun, interesting, and delicious online exhibits about children's books and media.

This week, I bring you "Tiny Tomes," otherwise known as the Charlotte M. Smith Collection of Miniature Books.

The story of the collection's origins will resonate with any bibliophile -- Smith was such an avid collector of antique books that her shelves sagged with the weight of them all. She made a deal with her husband that she would limit her collection to books that would fit in a "bookroom" in their house. Clever woman: because of the space limitation, she decided to focus her collection on teeny tiny books. She ended up with over three thousand of them, all less than three inches high. Now the collection is in the hands of the University of Iowa, where it is cherished and enjoyed.

Back in 2001, I had the opportunity to sit next to the lovely Leo and Diane Dillon at a conference lunch. I asked them what direction children's illustration would be headed next. They (naturally) had two answers: first, they said that they thought graphic novels would be huge (check), but that they personally were very interested in minature books and printmaking.

The Smith exhibit highlights why two world-class illustrators would find this so. The collection (which includes a fine portion of children's books and abecedarians, as well as other kinds of books) includes a wealth of different kinds of printmaking and bookbinding. The challenge of making a tiny book seems to beckon bookmakers and book artists into using the most exotic papers, handmade calligraphy, and detailed embossing possible. (Be sure to check out the image below of the spectacular 3"x2 1/4" pop-up book about the Great Fire of London.) Not all of the books are necessarily "antiques" -- there are miniatures that date up through the 1980s, showing how this art form has appealed to bookmakers through the ages. In fact, you can't help looking at a few of them without developing the itch to make a few tiny books yourself.

As for the online exhibit itself, it's extensive and informative but a tad disorganized; the only way to view the books is to flip through the exhibit pages like you would a catalog. Unlike a catalog, there is no linked table of contents or index, which makes it difficult to find particular books. The exhibit is best enjoyed, therefore, if you have some time to kill and don't mind loading a lot of images that you might not care to see.

Interested in creating your own collection of tiny tomes at home? Besides making your own, I'd highly recommend starting out by purchasing Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library, or Trina Schart Hyman's A Little Alphabet. Oh -- and the miniature version of Margaret Wise Brown's Little Fur Family is especially amusing, as the book itself is bound with plush fabric (my copy has spent many hours being cuddled by small children).

It's difficult to find tiny books at libraries, or even big-chain bookstores, so I'd recommend hunting for them at independent bookstores or independent online retailers (make note of the book's dimensions before purchasing). Bring along a tiny magnifying glass, and happy hunting!

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Forgotten Bookshelf: The Space Child's Mother Goose

by Frederick Winsor, illus. Marian Parry
Simon & Schuster, 1956
Reissued 2001 by Purple House Press

Hey, did anybody notice that today is Pi Day? You know -- March 14 -- 3.14. A perfect day to celebrate all things clever and mathematical. Of course, it also makes an excellent reason to go out and eat some pie. Here's a treat to celebrate this rather irrational day:

Probable-Possible, my black hen,
She lays eggs in the Relative When.
he doesn't lay eggs in the Positive Now

Because she's unable to Postulate How.

In the 1950s, architecht Frederick Winsor frequently contributed light verse to the Atlantic Monthly about science, math, and philosophy. In 1956, these and a few more were compiled to make The Space Child's Mother Goose. In an inspired move, the illustrator Marian Parry was asked to contribute to the book what she calls her "own peculiar drawings." Together, they created a world of whimsy just perfect for anyone with a love of word games, questions, and puzzles. Winsor has been described as kind of a distant cousin from the White Knight in Alice in Wonderland, and it shows. Almost all of the verses in this collection are parodies of familiar nursery rhymes, like this one:

Flappity, Floppity, Flip!
The Mouse on the Mobius Strip.

The Strip revolved,
The Mouse dissolved,
In a chronodimensional skip.

Or this one:

Spin along in spatial night,
Artificial Satellite;
Monitor, with blip and beep,

The Universe -- and Baby's sleep.

Other verse sounds familiar, although it's all pure Winsor:

There was an old man in a Time Machine
Who borrowed a Tuesday all painted in green.

His pockets with rockets he used to jam

And he said, "I
have thunk, so I cannot am!"

As you can see from this example, not all of the verses make particular sense, but sparkle instead with lovely rhythms and clever twists of language. Longer poems are included too, such as the science satire "The Theory That Jack Built" ("This is the Flaw/Based on the Mummery/Hiding the Flaw/The lay in th Theory Jack Built") and "A Space Child Would Exploring Go" ("With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach/Heigh Ho! says Anthony Rowley"). Oh, and did I mention that the "Probable-Possible" verse at the beginning of this review is presented in several different languages throughout the book? It's there in French, Greek, Chinese, and even one using Egyptian hieroglyphics. Egads.

(The Greek translation includes the line "She lays eggs in concept, being a sophist-bird.")

Feeling dazzled? Winsor includes footnotes to many of his verses, but even these exist as bits of doggerel -- to define "cortex" and "vortex," he gives us this: "[t]he cortex wraps around a core/Alas! there isn't any vore." For readers wanting some down-to-earth information, there is also an appendix called "Answers."

There are many verses about time travel in this book, and I can't help but wonder if that is part of the reason why this book has aged so well, despite the fact that it is fifty-plus years old. Yes, there are a few references to outdated technology (such as a "Hi-Fi") and one poem, "The Hydrogen Dog and the Cobalt Cat," is a vintage Cold War-era bit about nuclear paranoia. (It's also the most heavyhanded poem in the book.) But most of them, since they deal with timeless concepts, are still as fresh and fun today as they were fifty years ago.

Let's not forget the illustrations! Parry decorates each and every page of this book -- including the gorgeous indigo endpapers, and they are just as amusing as the poems they accompany. She uses delicate lines to create mawkish, birdlike people in old-fashioned dress.
Sheep float in parallel lines into another dimension, elaborate, button-lovely machines rattle and bang while mischiveous, wide-eyed children look on. A few pictures include figures created entirely out of curlicues. It's rare that you see an author and illustrator so happily matched.

The big question is, of course, who is this book for? Initially, I thought that nursery-aged children might be a bit young for these rhymes, but really, the nonsense here makes as much sense as the nonsense in any other Mother Goose anthology. Older children, especially middle-schoolers and up -- will certainly get a kick out of some of these, perhaps even more when introduced by a teacher or other adult friend.

Think twice about passing up this book -- it's true that these verses may not be for everybody, but as the culture of childhood is becoming more and more math-phobic (especially among girls), it's good to pass along something that makes thinking seem merry.

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Most Beautified Ophelia

In my last post, I waxed enthusiastic about the gorgeous cover of Lisa Fielder's new novel, Romeo's Ex. Didn't see it? Scroll down and get a gander o' that lil' beauty. Just after writing that post, I get on Amazon.com, and do you know what? Fiedler's other book, Dating Hamlet, has gotten a face-lift in paperback form, so the two books match.

Here' s before:
Here's after:

See? I mean, there isn't anything particularly awful about the first cover. It's cute and stylized and included lots of details from the novel. But in terms of catching a wandering eye hovering over the shelves of a bookstore or library? Not so great. Plus, look at the picture of Hamlet up there. He's a total square. You'd never expect that guy to say something enigmatic, melancholy, or romantic. And Ophelia looks like she's experiencing some serous neck cramps.

The second cover, on the other hand, does a perfect job at setting the tone of this frequently comic, dishy novel (although it looks like that dress is about to fall right off of the shoulders there). I'm also awarding bonus points for the phrase "Ophelia Spilleth the Beans!"

Well played, Henry Holt. Well played.

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Fat Lit Rides Again

A Utah-based fantasy author named Brandon Sanderson recently scored some dough in the kidlit market:

Sanderson recently received a six-figure advance from Scholastic, the "Harry Potter"-series publisher, for a children's fantasy series about a boy named Alcatraz who does battle with a cult of evil librarians.
Yeah, you read it correctly. Evil librarians. I don't know if this is hurting or helping the general image problem we librarians face. But the book's coming out in early October, and if it's any good, it might mean that I might have my Halloween costume problems solved right now.

Read the whole story here. And thanks to Justin for the link.

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