The Children's Book Garden

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

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.


Red Sings from Treetops July 4, 2010

Filed under: Beautiful Books,Favorites,Read aloud — Maiaoming @ 10:27 am

Red Sings From TreetopsThis gorgeous book by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski sings,res are as the title suggests, with colorful lyricism. It is a pleasure to read aloud – to taste the words, with images that often surprise and delight – this is a real poem as much as it is a book for children, with the kind of rich density that makes poems re-readable, endlessly. The pictures are equally enchanting. And the way the colors move through the seasons keeps my four and two-year-old coming back for more.

The descriptions are accurate to the imagination:


White clinks in drinks.

Yellow melts

everything it touches…

smells like butter,

tastes like salt.


Makes a great gift.


Lucky’s Choice by Susan Jeschke

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.


Readability and Angst Against Licensed Characters Disease (AALCD) April 7, 2010

Don’t get me wrong. If you suffer from AALCD, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with you. I just worry that you’ve caught a disease instead of rationally considering your choices. Kind of like when people stopped eating carbs because they heard they made you fat; it was more a trend than it was a rational health choice, and for a few years there were some people walking around a little looney from the onset of ketosis affecting their carb-hungry brain functions. (“I just ate three pork loins and a pound bacon for breakfast! And I’m on a diet! I’m losing weight as we speak! No problem!”)

I’m alert to AALCD because of interactions like the following. I ran into a fellow mother and her kids one day on the Downtown Mall, and we were chatting about books our kids loved, like the Mr. Putter series by Cynthia Rylant. Mr. Putter, in case you don’t know, is a senior citizen who lives with a cat.

“I’m just worried,” the nameless parent said. “My daughter recognizes Mr. Putter now. I don’t let her read licensed character books – UGH – but what do you think? What about Mr. Putter?”

“Um,” I said. “I think the problem with licensed characters isn’t about them being recognized, exactly.”

“Well, they’re just awful,” the mother said. “But Mr. Putter is good. He’s not licensed, is he?”

So this wonderful mother knew that her kid needed to have a Sigg water bottle and ride a bike with no wheels and go to Montessori and play with wooden toys – according to the script of the Charlottesvillian, eco-conscious, elite, liberal code by which many in this town quite dutifully comply – but her choices were about that script, not about thinking through options for herself. And to me, that’s just as bad as herding along with the Walmart – plastic shoe – Disney princess – Dora yogurt crowd.

But, to the books. One of the main factors I consider when deciding whether or not I like a children’s book is readability – which I judge by the following criteria:

1) How fun to read is this book for kids? How easy to follow, yet challenging and interesting and clever?


2) How fun is it for me as a parent to read? Does the text work on the adult level at all? Is it a pleasure to speak the words aloud? Can I stand to do so more than twice?

Not all books score well on both counts – it can be quite tricky to find that golden balance. But those that do are the ones I adore.

A recent good example is One of a Kind, by Mary Ann Hoberman. This book, as well as her others, is fun to read aloud – really good poetry, clever, witty, fun, and it’s a pleasure to hear, too. The concepts explored are just interesting enough to have a double meaning to them – a symbolic level that actually speaks to me as an adult, as well as being simple and straightforward enough to interest my kids. It’s an excellent work. (Quick summary: The protagonist, Oliver Tolliver the dog, has a house with one item of everything in it. But he needs to be able to have friends over! The last line about how sharing his fruit so that, while his guests couldn’t each have a whole peach but every guest could have some – has socialist implications that piqued my interest.)

What’s not excellent is a book my son got for Christmas, a “look and find” Elmo book. I don’t particularly object to all “licensed” characters, on the basis of whether they have a license or not. But I do object to badly written books – and most of the Disney or other mass-produced books like this, whether it’s Dora or Sesame Street, tend to be:

a) Not written by a single author, which is a clear clue that they are produced for the purposes of making money by marketing a brand to kids, to get them and their parents to feel okay about the same characters on their peas or a video – ie, not written by an author burning to write something beautiful or interesting or to tell a story – not from an original creative mind or perspective –

b) Definitely not written with any delight imbedded for adults. This book is simplistic, straightforward, and terribly dull. Stupid. I mean, sure, it’s written for a toddler – “Elmo can wash his hands – you can, too!” but good god, the fun of the old Bert and Ernie used to be that the humor could appeal to adults. I remember my dad imitating Ernie doing the pigeon walk. It was funny stuff. This new crap doesn’t have any winks or nods to anything of interest – not in the language, rhythms of speech, not in the interplay of words and pictures – nothing. There’s no question, no investigation, no ambiguity, and definitely NO linguistic beauty. There is nothing lovely about the words. It is a degrading and insulting “book” – or advertisement, really. And a bad ad at that.

Another example of bad books: The Disney princess “books” that are basically badly written plot summaries of the movies. Again, no author, and really, no point to the book, other than to work as a brochure for other media.

Do I have a problem with a princess per say? With Disney? No. But do I have a problem with mass-produced drivel? Yes. Do I have a problem with people treating the context of a book with such insulting disregard? Oh, yes. And do I have a problem with stories that rely on stereotypes and overused tropes to move the dramatic action along – most of which treat women like mannequins? Why, glad you asked – yes, yes I definitely do.

When it comes to objecting to what kinds of characters our kids are exposed to, and what books we read to them, I believe the criteria should be applied to whatever the book is, licensed characters included or not:

-Is it readable, is it beautiful and interesting, for both adults and kids? Did it require intelligence to create? (I would like to note here that a few Disney films, like The Fox and the Hound, and The Aristocrats, are old favorites of mine; I don’t dismiss Disney out of hand because of gems like these.)

– Does it challenge old stereotypes, instead of reinforcing old ones?

– Does it engage the imagination, invoke the asking of questions?

Fancy Nancy, or Charlie and Lola, Arthur, Madeleine, Thomas the Tank Engine, Little Bear, or Angelina Ballerina, these are characters one might start viewing as questionable because they have television shows as well as books and/or might appear on gear (I saw Lola on a kid shirt at Target once). I think you can buy Fancy Nancy outfits and dolls. Etc. It is hard to discriminate about these things, because my son, for example, LOVES having Santa Claus on his pajamas. My daughter loves a fairy on her shirt. And if it’s one they know the name of, it’s even better. There’s fun and delight in that experience. My little boy’s imagination has been caught by images of male heroes – Superman and Spiderman – and I can see why. These figures have caught our culture’s thirst for heroes – they resurrect Greek and Roman gods – they are larger-than-life figures of magic and power – and I don’t find anything anti-human or problematic with that – per say.

We like having heroines and heros – Give me a t-shirt with Emma Goldman, Mae West, Margaret Sanger, Margaret Atwood… or a goddess… I’d wear it…

Which is why marketing works – and why figuring out when it’s going too far with the items your child has with the stamp of a particular character – the character now a brand, not a character in a book – can be so challenging. We want our heroes holy – not hawking sodas or life insurance (why, o why is Snoopy selling life insurance???).

I myself feel that most of the books featuring the characters above do meet the criteria I’ve established. And to be honest, if there were an Elmo or a Little Mermaid book that did so, as well, they would be welcome in my house, too. I don’t want any brand to dominate my children’s creative choices, whether produced by PBS or Disney or whomever. The damage does not come from the licensing per say – the damage comes from the simplistic nature of the characters and the stories that create them. The stories they represent. And the damage comes when our love for a princess or a frog becomes part of how we are manipulated by the mass media.

So, suffering from AALCD? You’re not alone. It’s a tough world to sift through, for any of us, let alone in wanting to protect our kids. Let us have high standards for what we want our kids to value, emulate, read, and adore – let us choose our gods – and our books – wisely.


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!


Good Books by Demi February 22, 2010

Yes, this is a rebuttal to Amy’s post about Rumi by Demi.  While I agree that particular book is not so great for kids, one should not write Demi off completely.  We own two books by her, The Empty Pot and Liang and the Magic Paintbrush.  Both of these are wonderful stories that teach children about morals and integrity without being too preachy.  Both stories are adaptations of Chinese folk-tales.  Demi’s illustrations look like ancient paintings on silk.  They have the look and feel of authentic Chinese art.

We also have a book of poetry illustrated by Demi.  The poems are all about insects and feature a variety of poets from Rumi to Shakespeare.  The illustrations are vibrant and iridescent.  The insects are more beautiful on the pages than they are in reality.

So, please , read Demi’s books to your children.


Toni Morrison’s Cool Grandma February 9, 2010

There are several reasons to love this book by Toni Morrison and her son Slade Morrison, not the least of which is that you get a recipe in the back for the peanut-butter fudge for which the book is named. I love that!

It’s also a really fun book about a grandmother babysitting her daughter’s kids – and instead of following the mother’s planned activities (watch tv, go to playground, etc.), she reads to the kids, leads them in a sack race, lets them play doctor on her, conducts a dance party, makes them awesome food, and gets the kitchen messy with fudge. The mother returns home and is at first shocked and angry at the mess, only to smell the fudge and recall her childhood and all is forgiven.

And of course, the book gets points for featuring a single, working mother, an energetic senior citizen, and people of color without being about any of these things. My four and two year old children loved the colorful images and the simple rhyming.