Friday, March 30, 2012

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012

New reviews this weekend- I am trying to decide what I think of audio books. Generally pro, of course, but is anything especially valuable lost in the translation? Does actually seeing the words matter to you? Is it ok that my children shush me so that they can hear the exciting part of the Witch of Blackbird Pond? (It is not *that* exciting) (and I thought my exposition on the history of mass public transportation was very interesting, thankyouverymuch)

Probably I am too morose and thoughtful this week, with the passing of Adrienne Rich. Have you all heard of her? Her stuff was all over my college political science/feminist what-have-you courses, lo these many years ago. Here's an excerpt from her New York Times obit-

Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work — distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity — brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century, died on Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis, with which she had lived for most of her adult life, her family said.

Widely read, widely anthologized, widely interviewed and widely taught, Ms. Rich was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose; the poetry alone has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to W. W. Norton & Company, her publisher since the mid-1960s.

Triply marginalized — as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew — Ms. Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined.

As it happens I have a poetry loving daughter. Claire Helen adores Emily Dickinson with a passion that makes my postmodern novel loving head tilt and smile bemusedly, and though I try gamely to do read my part of Poems for Two Voices, it's hard to say I care quite as much as she does. Claire Helen is too young for Rich, I think, but her poet's heart caused me to notice Rich's passing when I might not really have otherwise. Rich was 82; it's not that she was young, but that she was so great.

Diving Into the Wreck

I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently about the wreck
we dive into the hold. ...
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

--Adrienne Rich, 1973

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place and The Witches

This week for Claire Helen types, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: the Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood, and for Simon types, The Witches, by the inimitable Roald Dahl.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place


Fountas and Pinnell: not given

Lexile level: 1000L

Found running wild in the forest of Ashton Place, the Incorrigibles are no ordinary children: Alexander, age ten or thereabouts, keeps his siblings in line with gentle nips; Cassiopeia has a bark that's (usually) worse than her bite, and Beowulf, age somewhere-in-the-middle, is alarmingly adept at chasing squirrels. 
Luckily Peneleope Lumley is no ordinary governess. Only fifteen years old and a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope embraces the challenge of her new position. Though she is eager to instruct the children in Latin verbs and the proper use of globes, first she must help them overcome their canine tendencies. 


I first noticed this book, oh, a year or two ago. It was first published in hardback in 2010, so I suppose not as long ago as I imagine, but perhaps it took up so much space in my mind that it feels like I've known about it a long time. Claire Helen was going through a mildly gothic phase; the main character's name is Penelope, and I have a soft spot for all things British. It's a series now- 3 books I think- but it wasn't at the time. I pitched it to Claire Helen (resounding no), then to our mother daughter book club (preferred something with more anthropomorphic animals and fewer spikey fences), before giving up for a while. Several months ago, we saw the whole series at a friend's house, and the little girl was so breathless in her enthusiasm that Claire Helen wanted to read it immediately.

It's good! Of course I think it's good. See above, re: main character, goth, and Britishness. As the Amazon blurb says, Penelope Lumley arrives at Ashton Place to be the new governess for three feral children who have mysteriously appeared in Lord Ashton's care. Over the course of the book, she helps the (very sweet and well intentioned) children transform from childish puppies to puppy-ish children. Penelope is a great heroine- naively righteous and strong willed, hopeful and clever.

We read this book partly aloud, and she read it partly to herself. That lexile level is usually about right for her, but I think it might be underestimated here. The language- especially the first 25 pages or so- is very hard. There is a lot of context setting about the time and place (early 20th century England), and clues we are supposed to use to learn about the characters' various classes and history which were too subtle for Claire Helen. The plot and character outlines are very appropriate for precocious early elementary readers, but the class commentary flew pretty straight over her head. It was a very enjoyable readaloud, and I know Claire Helen really enjoyed the parts she got, but it might be better suited to an older child with more context for the satirical elements and maybe some more experience with the time and place.

The Witches


This Roald Dahl classic tells the scary, funny and imaginative tale of a seven-year-old boy who has a run-in with some real-life witches! "In fairy tales witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs. That is why they are so hard to catch." Witches, as our hero learns, hate children. With the help of a friend and his somewhat-magical grandmother, our hero tries to expose the witches before they dispose of him. Ages 7-12.

Fountas and Pinnell: R

Lexile level: 740L

Every time a child goes to kindergarten in this house, I take them to California for a special trip. One of my favorite stops in their town is a tiny little used book store called Toad Hall, which still takes only cash, is at least half children's books, and the other half is mostly behind glass, seemingly deemed "too special" by the owners, for sale. A true labor of love. On this trip Simon finished the books we brought from home, I needed to get him something to get us through our car and plane trip home.

Simon is a chatty sort of person, so hit the owner up for suggestions pretty quickly. She pointed us toward a lot of great comic and picture books, which I am sure he would have loved, but I needed something to occupy him for the whole plane flight so I could do some work. He went back and forth over Hardy Boys and the Fantastic Five series, but finally settled on the Roald Dahl section. He ended up with the Witches, and I'm pleased to say it did its job. He read it on the trip home, interspersed with periods of my reading pages when it got "too scary," and then I read it myself after we got home to see if Claire Helen might also like it (no).

Anyway. The review.

It's not like you don't know who Roald Dahl is- he is an amazing storyteller, and this book is no exception. A young boy and his cigar smoking, aphorism spouting grandmother go on vacation and discover that all the witches in England are attending a convention at their hotel and are hatching a plan to rid the world of children (who smell like poop to them) by using a potion which turns children into mice. Most dastardly of all- they are putting this potion in candy, as many of them are candy shop owners. 

Roald Dahl stories are also very often gruesome, and this one is as gruesome as the come. Our narrator (never given a name) is turned into a mouse at one point, and it sounds like it hurts. The witches are terrifying creatures. The narrator is an orphan (not that unusual in the world of children's literature, but a flashpoint for many young readers). Some children die in very horrifying, tragic sorts of ways. Simon is one of those kids who is not really affected by scariness, and even he had me read bits to him so he wouldn't have to read it himself. I would not give this book to Claire Helen- the vivid descriptions of scary things would be too much for her. Still, this was a really great book that he loved reading. Despite the scary plot points, Dahl always manages to keep enough humor in the telling so that it's enjoyable for the right kid. I love the way Dahl ends books, and I won't spoil it for you, but it's the best kind of sigh. Not entirely happy, but not what you could ever call sad, either.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time and Nicholas

This week I'm reviewing for Claire Helen- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle and for Simon, Nicholas by Rene Goscinny.

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet)

Here's the Amazon blurb-

It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.
"Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I'll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract."
A tesseract (in case the reader doesn't know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L'Engle's unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O'Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg's father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.
A Wrinkle in Time is the winner of the 1963 Newbery Medal.

Fountas and Pinnell level- V
Lexile level- 740L

I am reviewing this because I thought this would be too hard, theme-wise, for Claire Helen, but it was not. If the kid can handle pretty standard adventure plotlines with a little bit of emotion (Harry Potter, Narnia), this will be a walk in the park. I would say by the time a child can understand the book well enough to have it read to them, they can probably read it on their own. I wouldn't let Claire Helen read it until she understood exponents- just how big things can be, and how small- so that the distances between galaxies and bits about black holes and points would have some meaning. At that point the vocabulary and narrative structure is not really hard.

I have a hard time relating to people who do not feel this book is special, even if they did not like it. Meg is a quintessential identity seeking smart girl discovering that adults are just people too. Charles Wallace's takeover by It(the giant, evil, pulsating brain) is so convincing you can almost see it. All three witches are archetypal. It is supposedly a story about a young girl in search of her father, who has been lost to the great evil It. "It" robs us of our free will by lulling us with the rhythm of his/Its thoughts. She is aided by three supernatural beings who can travel through tesseracts- wrinkles in time. She visits a paradise and the bowels of evil, nearly losing her innocent young brother along the way. Really it is about a girl being introduced to the mystery of the universe and all our tiny places in it. It's wonderful. 5 stars. Thumbs and big toes up. Claire Helen read it in under a day, bouncing from foot to foot to tell us what had just happened whenever she came up from her reading reverie.

Way back in the 80's, I thought that It and the way it used technology to take over the denizens of Camazotz was incredibly creepy. However, also creepily, this is completely not scary to the youth of today. Not too dark at all, but certainly more depth than early grade series.



Here's the Amazon blurb:

Nicholas is the first of five books that bring to life the day to day adventures of a young school boy - amusing, endearing and always in trouble. An only child, Nicholas, appears older at school than he does as home and his touchingly naive reaction to situations, cut through the preconceptions of adults and result in a formidable sequence of escapades. This first book in the series contains a collection of nineteen individual stories where, in spite of trying to be good, Nicholas and his friends always seem to end up in some kind of mischief. Whether in the school room, at home, or in the playground, their exuberance often takes over and the results are calamitous – at least for their teachers and parents. Whether confusing the photographer hired to take the class picture, dealing with having to wear glasses for the first time, or trying desperately to help the teacher when the school inspector pays a visit, Nicholas always manages to make matters worse. Nicholas was awarded the 2006 Batchelder Honor Award, which recognizes outstanding children's books published in a foreign language and translated into English. Nicholas was also recognized by The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) as a 2006 Notable Children's Book.

Fountas and Pinnell- no idea.
Lexile level- 1070L

Why is this book not more popular?? This book is fabulous almost as much for what it is as the actual book. A positive, clever boy character not going to war, written by the author of the Asterix comics, illustrated by the New Yorker cartoonist Jean-Jacque Sempe. It's 19 stories about things that happen to any child anywhere- Class Picture Day, soccer games, school inspection- but with Nicholas around seem to happen with a bit more chaos and fun. Nicholas is always cheerful and tries very hard, even in the face of annoying schoolmates and difficult grown-ups. I like it very much, as does Simon. It's the tone that really draws you in- Nicholas seems to clever to be so naive, but you charming you believe he is. Simon has read all 5, and rereads parts frequently.

Someday I will post less than candy coated, fawning reviews, but not tonight. Best, happiest foot forward.

Message in a bottle

Hi there!

It has been a long time. This weekend I am going to go pick up supplies for the third incarnation of the egg hunt pictured below. That picture looks more like Penny now than Claire, and Penny will probably wear that same dress to the hunt.

Here is Penny feeding the penguins at the zoo today:

Those are some well fed penguins.

She only likes her hair done in ways which copy particular American Girl dolls. Here we have "Molly." I probably don't need to tell you that our oldest child had no idea what an American Girl dolls was at this age. She also likes zombies, and told me the other day, thinks one of the popular zombie jobs is to paint the sky every night, to make it that "annoying blue" color it is when there are no clouds.

She is definitely our weirdest child, and we have a lot of weird to choose from.

I don't know why I dropped off blogging. Lots of reasons. I lost the camera cord to upload pictures. I got busy with lawyering work. Other stuff. I fell into reading only economic nonfiction and 19th century Slavic literature and immediately became depressed (kid-ding! Who doesn't love Notes from the Underground on a Saturday night?).

I probably wouldn't have picked it back up again, but I think if you have a thing you talk too much about for polite society you should just get a blog. This is why new mothers and devoted fans of Twilight everywhere need to have them. Right now my thing is children's literature. I got asked 3 times last week where I get all those book recommendations, I don't think so much complimentarily as...bemused. The way you look at an old great aunt who always manages to return the subject to the happenings of her feline companions..

I often (and loudly) accuse Mat of being a hoarder. I believe he has a FULL collection of junior high school science notebooks circa 1988 somewhere in our basement, whereas I had to be bodily stopped from throwing away a 100 year old teacup collection that was irritating me by being on a shelf I might have preferred empty. It's not so much that I hate clutter. A house with teetering stacks of books and coats a bit asunder feels flexible and rich, where priorities are straight and adventurous plans are hatched. That is a place where people come and go to exciting enough things that they don't have time to perseverate over right angles and rug placement. But I hate having to care for things- it makes me feel owned by objects, instead of the other way round. So I like to get rid of them whenever I can. Take that, old pair of shoes. I'm onto you, outdated iPod. Sayonara, old flower pots for plants we will never have in our house. Enjoy your new home at Goodwill. They can categorize you and dust you off and recharge whatever needs recharging. I am going to go read my children a book.

If he wants to mutter something about pots and kettles, though, Mat can just point at the children's bookshelves. I don't think it's an exaggeration to guess that our house contains a thousand children's books. Maybe more? Maybe more. Bookshelves and bookshelves of picture books and chapter books, and then rows of chapter books on top of the bookshelves. "I just go to the library, lady," you are thinking. I do! The big two bring home 10 a week from their school library. We bring home books from our large urban library by the shopping bag full on a regular basis.

But still I want more. We can't possibly not have Phantom Tollbooth within reach; what boy can survive all of childhood without the first three Hardy Boys at least? Someday when they stop being heathens the children will finally appreciate Nesbit, and I will hand them House of Arden with only the merest hint of a smirk.

I have a lot of opinions about kids' books, I am saying.

It's not completely clear to me why. I did not read a lot of children's books when I was an actual child. Around 7 I discovered Agatha Christie and Stephen King, and apparently I felt the time had come to set aside childish things never having read Mary Poppins. Because Needful Things is surely where life's meaning will be revealed? But now that I have kids I read a lot of it, and I think a lot about what they will like and what I want them to read while I still have a little influence.

Anyway, now that the kids are off and running with reading, I find that I don't have time or energy to preread everything they are going to read. If Mat wants to get into those Star Wars novels Simon devours he is welcome to, but I'm not gonna. They are both better readers than they are emotionally mature, which narrows the field. So I scour the internet and our library for reviews, levelled books by topic, if-you-like-this-try-this's, and though there is a lot of help out there, there could be more. I keep wishing there were lists out there for kids with closer to their tastes, at close to both their reading and maturity level. But there are not, so I am going to try adding something to the great collective. I am hoping to review books for the two types of kids they are- generally advanced readers with pretty average emotional content ability. Claire Helen can probably take more historical context than average and can deal with more complicated plots than average. Simon has a high scariness tolerance and can deal with complicated fantastical settings. I hope as I review more books the "types" will become clear, and you'll know whether Claire Helen type books or Simon type books might be good for your kids, too.

I think my goal will be to review at least a book a week for each of them (and who knows, when Penny starts reading more than Elephant and Piggie, maybe one for her). I like the Fountas and Pinnell guides, so I'll post that too, whenever I can, but it's not always available. So I'll add the Lexile number, which I think kind of stinks, generally, but are better than nothing.

Here are the captains of our little ship:

Claire Helen, the oldest.

Claire Helen likes- strong female characters, fantasy elements (especially time travel), mysteries, good dialogue. Dislikes- battles, scatalogically funny, too many descriptions (especially of "olden time life"), things I suggest too often. Emotional tension scares her; death- even the serial killer in Egypt Game!- does not. Her favorite books are Harriet the Spy (Fitzhugh) and The Secret of Platform 13 (Ibbotson). She also still adores the Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows, which she read in kindergarten, and I wish I could find something like it at her level now.

Simon, (always in) the middle.

Simon likes- boy leads (but not exclusively), funny, anything funny, will tolerate fantasy if it is clever enough (or Star Wars), action. Likes to read a lot about what the main character is thinking. Nothing scares him. Nothing. I think I need 3 favorite books- Homer Price (McCloskey), Nicholas (Goscinny), and the How to Train Your Dragon Series (Cowell).

I'm going to leave this post separately as an introduction, and make the next post the first reviews.