The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

Yummers, by James Marshall June 19, 2011

This book has confounded me for a long time. The story starts off with a pig realizing she’s gaining weight, doesn’t know why, and should exercise. (I can empathize.) Her turtle friend shows up and suggests they go for a walk. Lovely, except everywhere they go on their walk, Emily Pig finds food to consume; she can’t help herself. By the end of the book, after she’s had dozens of treats, scones, ice cream, pizza samples, sandwiches, she’s so ill, Eugene the turtle calls her a taxi.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

Here’s where the book has confused me:

1) The turtle friend, Eugene – whose restrained appetite contrasts with Emily’s voraciousness throughout their excursion – he doesn’t stop her, in fact he encourages her. When she can’t choose between favorite sandwiches, he suggests she have more than one.

“I don’t want to make a pig of myself,” said Emily. “I’ll just have a tuna fish and a jelly delight.”

“That sounds sensible,” said Eugene.

But it’s not sensible, at all; she’s on a walk to lose weight, not gain it.

And the next day, after she makes herself sick overeating, Eugene visits.

“What do you suppose was the matter?” asked Eugene.

“It must have been all that walking,” replied his friend.

Eugene smiled. “Maybe you should stay in bed an eat plenty of good food.”

“Oh, yummers,” said Emily.

2) So, I’m baffled by the ignorance of the turtle (obviously, Emily’s lack of awareness is part of her problem). But even more so, I’m totally thrown that the above interaction IS THE END OF THE BOOK. There’s no moral to the story. There’s no resolution of the issue. It seems a strange tale for children (especially in the Land of the Obese).

What the heck?

Mystery Solved

We’ve had the book for a while, it’s always seemed strange to me, but we’ve enjoyed Marshall’s pictures, and I always appreciate how well he writes for children – funny characters, witty exchanges, but pared down verbiage so it’s not too dense or rambling. The George and Martha books are favorites. Still, never really got the point of Yummers.

Until last night.

When, while reading the book, I flashed to something I’d written the day before on my other blog, about body image:

As I try to understand myself as not in my body but as my body – I am my body – any idea of  it being wrong – any part of it being shaped “wrong” – is ridiculous, irrelevant. That would be like a tree wanting to bulk up or slim down, a pig feeling her figure needs to be an hourglass – well, it would seem silly, no? Why? Because they are the shape they are supposed to be, right? Can you apply that logic to yourself?

So I’m reading about Emily Pig wanting to lose weight, and when she says, “I don’t want to make a pig of myself,” – well, she IS a pig. Pigs are not supposed to be thin.

It struck me that the story of Yummers is exactly what I’ve been ruminating on regarding how we treat our bodies. The whole episode launches when Emily decides to try to be something she isn’t; it backfires on her. Isn’t this true for real people, too? I know it is for me. I almost experienced the very same thing. A month ago I went on a calorie-counting diet, and I weigh more now than I did before I started. Part of me rebelled against the whole idea of limiting my food and I overate to compensate for all the hunger I put myself through.

My two quandries about the story – Eugene’s support of Emily’s bingeing, and the seeming lack of a conclusion to the story – make sense when I view the story, not as a story about how the pig can’t stop eating and makes herself sick, but as a story about a pig who tries to go against her nature and makes herself sick. Eugene supports Emily following her gut (literally). And the conclusion/resolution of the conflict is that Emily goes back to being herself and not trying to lose weight, but eat. Ah – it all falls into place!

A moral did exist in the story – I just couldn’t see it, because it wasn’t the moral, even the story, I thought it must be.

Eating, Hunger, Kids: Sigh

It seems tricky to argue that the pig should eat if she wants to – we don’t want our kids to take that as a cue to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, without any self-control. So let’s turn to Eugene’s character – who slowly eats one scone while Emily has a couple of platters of them, who chooses skim milk while she has three ice creams, who gets jasmine tea at the supermarket while she feasts on pizza samples. Eugene is not trying to diet; he’s not trying to show up his friend, either. Eugene is making choices about what to eat and how much based on an internal sense of what makes sense to him. He is self-regulating. He is listening to himself.

If we teach our kids how to listen to their bodies, not to fight them, I think we will find that they can learn – over time – how to eat what they need. I mean, we have to trust our bodies. The more we fight with ourselves, try to control our hungers, the more we set up an endless internal war, where someone has to lose. This is not happiness or health. This is misery.

Following our nature, be it pig or turtle, we find inner peace. Yummers!

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Quirky Counting Story Worth Searching For November 5, 2010

Filed under: Animal books,Beautiful Books,Favorites,Read aloud,Uncategorized — snowbrice @ 5:13 pm

I usually find counting and sequential stories cumbersome to read.  My tongue gets dry and twisted constantly repeating the same sentences over and over.  But, An Invitation to the Butterfly Ball: A Counting Rhyme, by Jane Yolen is actually fun to read.  This quirky book is about a little elf who goes to the homes of woodland animals with an invitation to a butterfly ball.  Each animal in turn is frantic about not finding the perfect outfit or accessory to wear.  The mouse needs a “floor length dress”, the rabbits are frantically searching for “baubles and laces”, and the skunks are looking for “one clean suit.”  I also appreciate the use of descriptive vocabulary.  There are plenty of opportunities to discuss the meaning of words such as “mournful”, “crimson”, and “silken.”

The watercolor illustrations pay homage to Beatrix Potter without being direct copies.  Each painting incorporates intricate details that deserve more than a dismissive glance.  They each tell a story within the story with characters and plot.  Parents and older children will delight at the irony of skunks fighting over a pinstripe suit and turtles that wish to wear party slippers.

Unfortunately, this story is out of print and it will cost you upwards of $50 to buy a copy.  Thankfully, we have public libraries.  Or if enough of us harass her, maybe we can get Jane Yolen to publish it again.


 

Revisting Ella Sets Sail July 10, 2010

Several months ago, I gave two thumbs and several other fingers down on the latest Ella book. I felt like this installation of the little elephant’s adventures went awry, depicting her character as too foolhardy and rash to fit what the previous books had established.

After several rereadings, I’ve changed my mind.

In the first three books, Ella’s signature, lucky red hat comes in handy at the most desperate of moments to save the day. It’s a kind of talisman from her grandmother that supports an innate pluckiness that helps Ella overcome her shyness and supports her desire to help others.

Ella Sets Sail is different. It’s a story about what “lucky” means. And that meaning turns out to be much more complex here than I’d initially understood. The book questions Ella’s assumptions – and ours, as readers – about the element of luck inherent in the red hat – or in anything.

This is clear when Ella, trying to rescue the hat from stormy waters, uses it as a sail for the boat she’s borrowed in order to save it – the weather storms, and she ties the red hat up as a sail – “It’s never failed me before,” she says, with confidence.

But it does fail her. It comes undone from the boat and is lost. Then she, too, is lost, on an unknown island. It only comes back to her when a fisherman finds it in his net and gives it to his wife, who has taken Ella in. By the time Ella returns home, intact and reunited with the red hat, she feels lucky again – to have survived and to have made new friends with the fisher family.

At first, I didn’t appreciate this story line, because the motivations that led Ella into her adventures were not stemming from wanting to help put on a show or deliver a cake or save a bully – the plotlines of the other books. She was just riskily going after the hat.

The thing is, luck (“is not a lady”?!) in the form of the hat is – of course – fickle. And – not always apparent. The hat doesn’t save the day in the story. It’s actually completely random that Ella survives. Its loss leads her to risk her life and then to discover new friends – she calls herself unlucky the whole way through – and can only appreciate her gains at the end.

My own recent job search has felt much like a relationship with a red hat. One minute I thought I was going to get a job – the next, I didn’t. I felt tremendously unlucky – even cursed. Later, when I got an even better job, I found myself so glad I didn’t get that first job, which wouldn’t have paid enough at all.

The point is that luck is a trickster, and it’s about happenstance – not a sure thing. Which is why we worship it so – it’s not an act of god or an innate quality of an object that brings it – it just happens for no reason at all. Sometimes, it’s magical and transformative and seemingly miraculous. But sometimes, our lives involve loss – loss that may or may not result in anything found – though, more often than not, whatever we experience, however hard, offers us something to find in ourselves.

I think it’s one of the hardest things for us humans to wrap our heads around – that life is not only something we can’t totally control, but circumstances are also not scripted or planned or controlled by other outside forces, either. We live on stories that come into being from an author’s creative vision – it feels strange to think our lives are not similarly mapped. When things don’t go our way, we feel personally punished or responsible, when really, things just happen. Or don’t. And we just have to ride the waves.

Ella Sets Sail now feels like a symbolic story that resonates with my struggles to comprehend and accept the bad luck of winds and storms that have caused so much strife. “I am lucky,” says Ella, at the end of the story. The lucky red hat didn’t come to the rescue – her luck is not based on the hat or on her being special. She’s just filled with gratitude for what happened – for being alive, for finding friends, for what is. The fact that she is there is enough to warrant her sense of luckiness and – dare I say, being blessed.

A good thing for all of us to have a sense of – whether or not things go as we want them to. We can’t always determine what circumstances are lucky or not – and as contexts change, how we view events can change, as well. Luck is not about the events – it’s a state of being.

And I feel lucky to have found this other reading of what is turning out to be one of my favorite children’s books.

 

Lucky’s Choice by Susan Jeschke July 4, 2010

Filed under: Animal books,Friendship — Maiaoming @ 10:20 am
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A random book selected from a stack at the library book sale, Lucky’s Choice has turned out to be one of my favorite children’s books ever.

Not only does this nicely paced story run easy on the mouth – there’s just a couple places where I find myself wanting to skip words to keep the rhythm moving – it’s compelling and touching.

And cute. Lonely Lucky is a skinny cat whose owner calls him “lucky” because she keeps him and feeds him, unlike the ownerless alley cats outside the window who scrape for scraps. Yet, Lucky’s owner doesn’t cuddle or snuggle with him – she may meet his material needs, but she doesn’t provide any emotional attachment. When Lucky finds a friend who happens to be a mouse, Ezra, he’s in a predicament – owner wants the mouse dead, mouse is his one companion. Lucky chooses to escape to the alley with the mouse instead of staying safe in the loveless landscape of his owner’s apartment. He chooses love over safety, and at the end, both he and the mouse get rescued by “the cat lady,” a human who really does love and appreciate Lucky and his friendship with Ezra.

The classic tension between a safe, predictable world vs. a wild, dangerous one; the ironies of Lucky’s name and his friendship with a would-be prey; and the contrast between what it means to be owned vs. loved all play together to tell a story about real things, not just to get across a simple message or teach a lesson. The book allows the opportunity to ask children about what’s important to them and about making choices… and to ask yourself.

 

My Daughter Calls Out Eric Carle March 14, 2010

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle

Fairy Flight
Tracy Cane

The Rave: The Very Hungry Caterpillar one of those classically, well-proportioned children’s books that hits all the right notes:

  1. It teaches counting, as the steadily increasing numbers of fruit consumed by the caterpillar in question are tallied, using the tactile experience of actual holes in the pages, pictured as those eaten through each fruit – children love sticking their fingers through
  2. The contrast between the junk food – sausages and ice cream – that causes a tummy ache and the nice, green leaf that makes the caterpillar feel better promotes healthy eating
  3. The fact that the caterpillar still is nice and fat and becomes a butterfly even though it didn’t always choose the best sorts of food translates to a lesson that doesn’t chide, but shows how the learning process causes growth and change, not repudiation
  4. What a nice happy ending, a lovely butterfly. What a great story. Very satisfying. And the board game is fun for little ones, too.
  5. Also nice that in this story, Big is Beautiful.

The Problem: Eric Carle, yes, the Great Eric Carle, got his biology wrong.

My 4-year-old daughter identified this to me last week.

“That’s not a butterfly,” she said, when we got to the last page.

“Sorry?” I said, wondering if we were in some imaginary scheme all of a sudden (that can happen with this age group). “I’m pretty sure it is.”

“It came out of a cocoon,” Jo pointed out. “Only moths come out of cocoons. Butterflies have chrysalises. So it’s a moth.”

And yes. She is right. Eric Carle writes that the caterpillar makes a cocoon. And: according to Wikipedia and other sources, moths and maybe some other insects make cocoons. But butterflies – yep. Chrysalis all the way.

Dang, dude.

I have to say, we do read a lot of books featuring butterflies. Fairy Flight, a favorite with my kids right now, follows monarch caterpillars as they weave chrysalises, change to butterflies, and travel from Canada to California. I find the fact that the little girls in the book think butterflies are fairies or vice versa – and the images suggest this may be so – annoying – anthropomorphizing a creature in order to celebrate its wonder seems so egocentric –  but the story covers a wide landscape of imagery and science, geography and fantasy, and along with a couple other nonfiction books we have, obviously schooled my daughter in a few facts some adults – me and Eric, at least – didn’t know.

Dear Reader, Some Questions:

  • Have you or has your child ever found a factual error in a children’s book? How do you deal with it? Write the author a letter? Do we think Eric knows he made a mistake by now?
  • What do you think about fairies? I’ve always considered them harmless preschool lore (maybe not sexyified Tinkerbell). But they do point to a belief system that nature occurs only through tiny humanoids making things work – which a very religious person might find objectionable, but so does a person like me, who wants my kids to be able to see nature as working without magic at all…
  • Do boys get into fairies? Why just girls?

Funny how some very tiny books can bring out some very big questions!

 

Big Bear the Patient Parent January 26, 2010

Tonight, I read Let’s Go Home, Little Bear by Martin Waddel to my daughters.  Big Bear and Little Bear are on a walk in the snow in the forest, when Big Bear decides it is time to go home.  Little Bear starts off very confident, frolicking through the snow, but then he begins to hear strange sounds that cause him a bit of anxiety.  Big Bear reassures Little Bear by explaining to him that what he is hearing is just the sounds of the forest: snow from a tree plopping to the ground, water dripping from icicles, etc.  All the while patiently guiding Little Bear home.

I like this book because it reminds me to be patient with my children.  It reminds me that the world is new, and sometimes scary to them, and I need to reassure them that they are safe.  I must guide my children slowly and patiently.

My daughters seem to get the message that their parents will protect them.  We will be watching over them as they frolic along in front of us, and we will explain the world around them when they are scared, anxious, and confused.

 

Did the Gifts Do it For You? January 8, 2010

Filed under: Animal books,Female Characters — Maiaoming @ 2:25 pm
Tags: ,

ella sets sail book coverSo, due to my daughter Jo’s obsession with Ella the Elephant, and the limited number of copies in our local library, the fact that I enjoy reading the books over and over, I went ahead and bought three of the four available titles as a Christmas/Solstice gift. And I was so excited when I went to do so to see that a new one had been published, Ella Sets Sail.

Well, this Ella adventure was kind of a let down.

Reason One: In the other three Ella books, the plotlines are driven by Ella’s desire to be helpful.

– In the first book, she tries to save a bully’s life, risking her own life to do so, and her lucky hat saves her.

– In Ella Sets the Stage, she can’t figure out what to do for the talent show, so she works hard to put it on – and ends up saving the day for others and getting recognized at the end.

– In Ella Delivers the Cake, she helps her mother deliver a cake and runs into some challenges when she can’t say no to a bully taking advantage of her, but she pulls it all off in the end.

Ella’s characteristic of being helpful is complicated by her shyness, and this is what makes her loveable and interesting and causes tension in the plot. She gets into scrapes and almost into trouble by taking risks, saved by her hat, and we learn that her intentions are well-meant but that she does have to learn to set limits and boundaries. I certainly know what that’s like – when you want to be a nice person, it can be hard to say no.

In Ella Sets Sail, however, we don’t see the same Ella. Belinda the Bully manages to walk off with Ella’s money and hat at the fair – I don’t like Ella being SO passive – and when a storm starts up, the lucky red hat gets lost at sea.

Ella STEALS a boat to go rescue her hat. In a storm. By herself. Josephine actually finds this part pretty darn scary. And so do I! Ella can’t tell Belinda “no, you can’t have my money and my hat” but she’ll steal a boat and risk her life to go get the hat?? That’s not the Ella I know.

Second Reason: Ella’s boat gets stranded at another of the Elephant Islands, one she hasn’t visited before. She gets welcomed in by a family which has been drawn to look obviously poor. There’s a mother with a rack of kids in tattered clothes and Ella is startled that none of them have ever had pineapple cake. It’s kind of a cliched portrayal that does nothing for the plot or character development. The dad fisherdude shows up having rescued her hat and Ella goes home and eventually brings her new friends some cake.

But nowhere is the helpful Ella, trying to find herself or trying to fit in or trying be useful to her mother – no, there’s just wimpy Ella, idiot Ella, going after her hat and feeling sorry for some loser poor people.

And there’s something disturbing about the poor fisher elephant family. What are they doing in the story?

I’m hoping there will be more Ella books, and that they will get back on track with what is so tender and good about the first three stories. Ella Sets Sail definitely offers drama, but neither my daughter nor myself like it.