The Children's Book Garden

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

Favorite Children’s Books: Gender-Skewed Selections? July 19, 2011

I’m lucky; I work with people who read. It’s not unusual to find us chatting about things we’re reading, but especially, it seems, the books we remember reading as kids.

A bonus of having children: I get to reread my favorites to or with them at some point, including:

  • A Wrinkle in Time trilogy (though there’s actually four or five in that line)
  • the Ramona Quimby books
  • Trixie Belden
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Beverly Cleary books
  • Lois Duncan books
  • Chronicles of Narnia
As I look at the list, I notice something. Something really obvious. They are all – mostly – about girls.
Now, I happen to be a girl, so it’s no surprise, but what I wonder is, are there amazing, awesome, meaningful, captivating books for the pre and emerging adolescent about boys that I somehow missed?
My brain scrambles. A few titles surface:
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • The Hardy Boys
  • On the Run
But, that’s all I got.
Because my son is a boy – go figure – and I’m going to want to give him and my daughter a balanced view of things:
Any Suggestions? 

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.


Love in The Secret Garden January 11, 2010

Regrettably, I never read The Secret Garden as a child and I missed out on one of the best books ever written for children.   Maybe if I had, I would have had a more positive outlook on life.  The author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, was a follower of New Thought, and believed that positive thinking could heal everything.  And while I do not subscribe wholly to the same beliefs, I do feel that a positive outlook makes for a much more enjoyable and fulfilling life.

The main character, Mary Lennox, is often described in book reviews as a spoiled child who learns to to be good and giving .  While I will agree that Mary is spoiled, I don’t believe that she “learns” to be a good girl.  I believe that she is as good as any child, but she has been neglected and needs to love and be loved to to bring out her own goodness.  In the first few pages of the book, I was gripped by my motherly desire, to reach down into the words and pages and pull Mary to me.

Mary has spent the first ten years of her life in India being tended to by her “ayah”.  She never sees her parents, who, although they live in the same household, are more concerned with their social engagements than their daughter.  Her mother is vain and never wanted a child.  She never interacts with Mary, who only gets to spy on her mother from afar.

When her parents and ayah die in a cholera outbreak, Mary is sent to live with her previously unknown uncle in England.  He lives in the austere Misslethwaite Manor in Yorkshire.  Mary is struck at once with the gray and dismal appearance of the Manor and the surrounding moor.

However, it is here that Mary experiences her first acts of love and kindness.  First from her chambermaid, Martha, who refuses to dress Mary but chatter away with stories about her family in her most “broad Yorkshire”.  It is Martha who is so concerned with the sad, skinny, sallow Mary that she gives her a skipping rope.  Martha tells Mary she must go outside and breathe the fresh air and get lots of excercise.

Then, it is Dickon, Martha’s brother who shows Mary kindness.  He helps her in the secret garden.  He shows her how to plant seeds and tend to growing things.  Dickon has an uncanny ability to befriend every bird and mammal he meets on the moor.  Mary believes him to be magical, and is enchanted by his magic.

When Mary learns of her cousin, Colin, the biggest secret of Misselthwaite Manor, she learns to love.  Colin, much like Mary, has been pampered and spoiled his whole life.  Because his mother died while giving birth to him, everyone believes that he is ill and will surely die before reaching adulthood.  Colin, who has heard this his whole life, believes it as well.  Mary does not, and does everything she can to convince him.  She shows her love for him by bringing him to the garden where he also gains health and strength from fresh air and exercise.

Through their love, Mary, Colin, and Dickon bring life and love to everyone at Misselthwaite Manor.  Love and happiness spread as quickly as the cholera that took Mary’s parents.  But this virus heals the deepest and oldest wounds.

I recommend this book as a read-aloud for seven years and up and as a read-alone for children eleven years and up.  The author uses Yorkshire dialect, which could be hard for some children to read and/or understand.

One warning about this book: Indian people are referred to as “blacks”.  I was thrown by this initially and contemplated not continuing to read it to my daughter.  However, I used this as a teaching moment instead.  My daughter and I discussed how the term is used and how people in the nineteenth century used it.  We also talked about prejudice and how to deal with people who think that one group of people is better than another.

Overall, I love The Secret Garden because it reminds us that this life that we have is a magical and wonderful gift that we should be thankful for every moment.


Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman December 22, 2009

A sweet lullaby of a book, Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman lyrically weaves a prayerful blessing to what seem to be goddesses for the protection and self-fulfillment of a little girl, who is pictured in various iterations of diversity and age.

Words can be worrisome,

people complex,

motives and manners unclear

Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right,

free from unkindness and fear.

Illustrated in big, abundant strokes by Charles Vess, each page’s pictures swell from the paper with the music of the words. The book enchants my daughter, and it would make a great gift for any little girl or for a newborn.

And again, the British are ahead of the game – as I said, the girl is sometimes white-skinned, sometimes not.

The only question I have is what the heck is a blueberry girl? If anyone figures this out, or talks to Neil Gaiman anytime soon, let me know.


Goldilocks with Dreds

Filed under: Books for Girls,Diversity — Maiaoming @ 8:00 pm
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For some reason, the British seem a little bit further along with integrating children’s books regarding race. Not that I’ve done some large-scale survey contrasting US vs. UK books, but I am taking donations if you’d like to pay for one…

I’ve become a huge fan of Nick Sharratt, British children’s book author, for his colorful, interactive art and accessible language. This particular version of Goldilocks, part of a series of fairy tales by MacMillan, follows the traditional plot line in funny, rhymed quatrains.

And it’s just nice that the main character’s gold locks are in dreds, and her skin is not white.

I’m glad for my kids to have fairy tale characters imprinted on their imagination in a range of styles and a variety of colors, to reflect the world we live in, not Germany in the 1800s.

Another book with a contemporary and folkloric feel is Madlenka by Peter Sis. If you’re familiar with Sis’s work, you know he’s created a beautifully illustrated panoramic work, whatever the subject. In this story, a little girl goes around her New York city block telling all her neighbors about her loose tooth, each of whom hails from another geographic part of the world – India, China, Germany – so that by the end of the story, when her parents ask her where she’s been, Madlenka very honestly replies, “I’ve been around the world!” Quite an accurate reflection of New York.

My fellow blog author, Mary Beth, pointed out something that bothered her in this story – Madlenka’s little friend, who is African American, says “Cool, baby,” and Mary Beth felt that was a bit dismissive (she can correct my portrayal of her discomfort)… And yes, it seems like an odd representation of the African continent – all of the other characters speak the language of their home country – this girl kind of sticks out. But I actually like that her roots, however long past, receive the same kind of treatment as the others’ –

Of course, living in Charlottesville is nothing like living in New York (and don’t get me started on that issue – you people who think it’s the same need to check yourselves before you annoy me further) so I’m not sure how much sense this story makes to my four year old. I mean, she recognizes where Virginia and China and England are on the globe – which I guess means she’s ready to graduate high school – and she’s learning Spanish at school – but the concept of different locations and languages is still challenging to her, I believe.

Which is why I do think books like Madlenka and Goldilocks are important for developing a child’s worldview. We need our books to introduce us to a world broader than that on our street or little town.


Five for Under Five: Amy’s Top Holiday Gift Ideas December 16, 2009

Take a book and make it a package! For the younger set, here’s books that make great gifts:

Princess Smartypants and Princess Smartypants Rules
Prince Cinders and King Change-a-Lot
Babette Cole
Make a package: Pair these pairs – or mix and match – of irreverent, romping tales with the usual royal dress-up gear – frilly dress, a crown – mixed in with some dragony dinosaur pets and some cowgirl boots for a complete package to widen a young girl’s imagination about the reinvention of princess-hood and a young boy’s burgeoning conceptualization of masculine desire.

Fancy Nancy Splendiforous Christmas
by Jane O’connor and Robin Preiss Glasser
Just published in October, this pleasing treat makes a fancy girl think.
The Complete Treat: Spend an hour in a thrift store stuffing a bag of lace, fake pearls, and other Punky Brewster-esque trimmings; for an extra dash of class, a book about France, some French music, and/or an introduction to learning French will tie learning into the story.

Harold and the Purple Crayon 50th Anniversary Edition
Crockett Johnson
A classic juicer for the imagination.
The Kit: Obviously – crayons. You can never go wrong with a lovely new package of crayons. And paper. No – don’t get that new stuff that doesn’t stain anything or that you erase. Go old fashioned. It’s a classic combo and perfect for the kid who has everything.

Mad About Madeline
Ludwig Bemelmans
Fun, adventurous, and French, this complete collection of the Madeline series will be a favorite. And the rhymes are fun to read over and over and over… a must for any book you actually purchase, unlike those library books you can dump off when you, the reader, can’t take it anymore…

More merriment: There’s the “learn about France” route, as mentioned above; there’s the dolls, the video, the accessories.

The Story of Ferdinand
Munro Leaf
The classic tale with simple drawings that inspires us all with an appreciation for a strong, masculine figure who prefers smelling flowers to violent displays. Buy it in English AND Spanish for those enterprising kids who are bilingual already and showing you up.
The Hilarious Combo: A bull chia pet! Or a miniature herb garden. I always think simple, easy-to-grow plants are amazing presents for little kids. They’ll enjoy getting their hands dirty, and they won’t stress when the thing dies.


Stand Tall December 9, 2009

Filed under: Books for Girls — Maiaoming @ 11:51 pm
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My daughter is only four years old, and already I am sick to death of princesses.

So thank goodness for those rare books you find with miniature heroines who achieve confident and happy lives while retaining a sense of humanity and without the accessories of crowns and dippy princes.

One of those surprise finds at the JMRL book sale, Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell with fun pics by David Gatrow both delights my daughter’s love of a teeny-tiny people and heartens my desire for book characters who learn to embrace their differences and individuality.

Molly Lou, we learn, is very small, has buck-teethed, tends to be clumsy, and has a horrible singing voice. But her grandmother has told her to stand tall and sing with all her heart and do everything with gusto, “and the world will sing with you.”

When Molly Lou moves to a new town and a new school, an older boy starts bullying her, making fun of her “problems.” Molly Lou keeps on doing things with all her might – and her efforts shine to the point where the boy’s taunts wilt. She may have buck teeth, but she can balance pennies on them; she may be small, but it her stature helps her duck defenders and score a touchdown.

At the end, Molly Lou writes a thank-you letter to her grandmother, who, we finally see, is as small as Molly Lou herself.

What a great lesson to learn – take whatever you have and instead of labeling them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘normal’ or ‘ugly’ or what have you – just use them to do and be completely yourself.

Even I feel like standing a little taller with an inspiration like Molly Lou Melon.