The Children's Book Garden

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

Lucky’s Choice by Susan Jeschke July 4, 2010

Filed under: Animal books,Friendship — Maiaoming @ 10:20 am

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.


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.


Lessons in Friendship: Frog and Toad December 22, 2009

Filed under: Friendship — Maiaoming @ 8:18 pm
Tags: , ,

I’m an adult, but I feel like the friendship illustrated by Frog and Toad in the series by Arnold Lobel is as much an instruction and charge to me about how to be a good friend and parent as it is a good story for my kids.

In Frog and Toad Together, for instance, Toad gets it into his head to make a to-do list for his day. He’s being totally anal and the list is completely irrelevant, with items like “put on clothes” and “take a walk with Frog,” but he derives a great deal of satisfaction from following the list and crossing items out once accomplished.

If Toad were one of my friends, I think I would probably be inclined to scoff and tell him to shove the list. Frog, however, amiably accepts Toad’s list, and when it blows off, he exerts a great deal of energy to find it for his disappointed friend.

He doesn’t find it, and the sad Toad concludes that without his list to tell him what to do next, “‘I will just have to sit and do nothing.'”

Again, if I were Frog, I’d be like, “Okay you have lost your mind.”

Frog, however, sits with Toad. They sit for a long time.

There’s something very Zen-like in this sitting, and something very sweet about Frog supporting his friend Toad, without judgment or condescension.

I hope I can learn to sit with my friends when they feel lost and sad, instead of trying to make them do or be something else.

All of these sweet stories hum with similar themes of friendship so wide and deep that it stretches to hold whatever silliness or sadness or foibles the two of them encounter. I highly recommend them – to people of any age.


Mice and Magic December 18, 2009

Filed under: Animal books,Favorites,Friendship,Uncategorized — snowbrice @ 3:46 am

Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse by Leo Lionni is one of my all time favorite books.  Alexander is a mouse who is lonely until he meets Willie, a toy wind-up mouse.  Alexander wants to be just like Willie because Willie is loved by everyone.  Alexander hears about a lizard in the garden who can grant wishes, so he goes to meet him so that he can become a beloved wind-up mouse just like Willie.  The lizard tells him to bring him a purple pebble “when the moon is round.”  Alexander goes on a mad search for a purple pebble, but to no avail.  He returns to the house to find Willie in a box of toys ready to be thrown out.  The little girl who owned Willie has just celebrated a birthday and has no use for her old toys.  As Alexander listens to Willie’s tale of woe, he spots a purple pebble.  He runs to the lizard in the garden.  When the lizard asks him what he wishes to change into, Alexander surprisingly asks the lizard to change Willie into a real mouse.  The lizard grants the wish and the two mice dance off happily ever after.

This book has always captured my imagination.  As a child I was entranced by the magic, and I am still today.  I love how Alexander goes in search of a magic lizard to solve his problems.  It is a kind of mouse “Aladdin” story.

I also love that Alexander puts his friend before himself.  In the beginning he is jealous of Willie and all the attention he gets.  He wants to be loved just like Willie.  In the end, he realizes that he is loved…by Willie.

I am also fascinated by the lizard.  Why a magic lizard?  Is it just because it rhymes with wizard?  Are lizards thought to have magical powers?  I have always felt that there was something deep and mystical about the lizard.  When I read his parts I try to sound mysterious and commanding.  Sort of like the Wizard of Oz.

Leo Lionni was a master at creating deep and intricate stories for children.  Somehow, his books are at one time quick to read, but loaded with values and morality.  They are all magic in their own way.