vol. 1, #19, December, 1996
Gee, November 19th already. Christmas is almost here. So, for those of you with children, I have a gift suggestion. Buy them books. (O.K., big surprise, what did you think a librarian is going to suggest you buy? Barbie dolls?) The books are their present. But your present is: you get to read them out loud to your kids. I can think of few things in life as rewarding and as cozy as sitting with a child in your lap, sharing a favorite book.
You see, children, and the people who love them and read to them, get to live in a magical world that is closed to other grownups. It is a world of fantasy, of vivid colors, of absolutes--the meanies are surreally mean, the good guys are perfectly strong and certain in the right. The children in these stories make mistakes, but they are forgiven and loved. And in this world, even children can be heroes.
Here are some of my very favorite books--books that are so funny or enchanting that they are a reason all by themselves to have children, or at least to go out and grab the nearest child, set him on your lap, and thereby have an excuse for reading them.
When We Were Very Young:You start really little kids with books that play with sound and rhythm, books that have to be read aloud to be appreciated. They love verse, like A.A. Milne's charming poems in Now We Are Six and When We Were Very Young, and they adore books like Wanda Gag's Millions of Cats, a story about a man who sets out to get one cat, but can't possibly choose from "hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats." There's not a child alive who won't be chanting that chorus along with you. This is also why children love Dr. Seuss so much--even more than for the very funny creatures he draws. Green Eggs and Ham is simple and repetitive and rhyming: "I do not like green eggs and ham/I do not like them, Sam I Am." Even grownups without children have been taken by the charm of Shel Silverstein's verse in Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic--who can read the words "Listen to the mustn'ts, child" and not instantly go back in time? The poems are funny and deeply subversive of the adult world.
Books for Children under 7:
But far fewer people know about Judith Viorst's wonderful books of verse for children, If I Were in Charge of the World and Sad Underwear. If Judith Viorst were in charge, the world would have "brighter night lights, healthier hamsters, and basketball baskets forty-eight inches lower," and "a chocolate sundae with whipped cream and nuts would be a vegetable" (hear, hear!). To give you a flavor of her verse, here's "Some Things Don't Make Any Sense at All"
My mom says I'm her sugarplum. My mom says I'm her lamb. My mom says I'm completely perfect Just the way I am She says I'm a super-special wonderful terrific little guy My mom just had another baby.
Another book for children and grownups alike, is Alastair Reid's Ounce, Dice Trice. Reid, of course, is a poet, and this is a book about the sound of words, the feel of them rolling around inside your mouth. He starts with naming things, with lists of names for cats and names for whales [he's right, Sump is an excellent whale name]; he goes on to the story behind the title--as shepherds used to count their sheep, the standard number words got boring, so they made other words do duty as numbers, as in ounce, dice, trice, quartz, and so forth. He then goes on to made up words--and hamburglar is an excellent word for someone stealing into the kitchen for a late night snack; then he gives us word garlands--an unusual word in one sentence, leading to an equally odd word in the next sentence, and so on until you arrive back at the original word.
These books are also silly. And children love silliness. Right around the time they're three, they're starting to figure out the rules the world operates by, and they are hugely amused by characters who break the rules or totally miss the point of them. They've also begun to notice that English doesn't always make sense, so they love Peggy Parrish's books about Amelia Bedelia, the literal-minded maid who, when told to be sure to draw the drapes, sits down and draws a picture of them. Amelia Bedelia is always getting mixed up about words that sound the same but somehow aren't. The same charm attaches to Fred Gwynne's books. You may remember Fred Gwynne from Car 54 Where Are You?; I think of Fred Gwynne as the man who wrote The King Who Rained and A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, books that are illustrated with the pictures that any normal child would have in her head on hearing phrases like these.
By the time they're three, children also have begun to realize that they're being judged and found wanting. We all have a way of comparing our kids with other people's kids, who talked sooner, walked sooner, and did all kinds of precocious things early--and don't think our kids don't notice this. That's why everyone should read their child Robert Kraus' book, Leo, the Late Bloomer. It's a book to make our kids feel they're lovable just the way they are, and that their own rate of speed is just fine.
Many children's books use animals as honorary children, making the standard sorts of mistakes that children make, and being gently, lovingly shown their errors. It's not that kids don't understand these books are really talking about them, it's just that doing it with animals gives a safe distance to the mistakes. Big Bird, Ernie, and Cookie Monster operate on the same principle. Some of the very best of these books are Russell Hoban's Frances books (Bread and Jam for Frances, Bedtime for Frances, etc.), Lillian Moore's Little Raccoon books (Little Raccoon and the Thing in the Pool), and Steven Kellogg's books. Steven Kellogg is one of those fortunate people who never forgot what it's like to be a kid; indeed, as an illustrator, he often shows you exactly what's going on inside the child's mind. In Can I Keep Him?, the child progresses from having it gently explained to him, in real life, why he can't have a cat or dog, to, in his own mind, having it explained why he can't have a baby tiger--and the pictures are a hoot. In Won't Somebody Play with Me, a child can't find a soul who's willing to play with him, and is feeling rejected and vengeful (again, great pictures) until he finds out that they were all going to a surprise party for him.
Even very young children have a moral sense that can be appealed to, and there are books that can teach them important values. Dr. Seuss' The Sneetches is a profound story about racism. There are two groups, the star-belly sneetches, and the plain-belly sneetches, and don't you just know that the star-belly sneetches are convinced they are better? Until somebody comes along with a machine to put stars on the plain-belly sneetches and confuses everybody, because, if they look alike, how can anybody know that you're really better, because you're an original star-belly? His elephant, Horton, teaches kids about steadfastness and honor: "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent." And Dr. Seuss also shows children what happens to our world when we don't take care of it in The Lorax, in which a world of ditsily blissful beauty is transformed into a barren wilderness by someone who cuts all the trees and pollutes the pools and drives away the birds and kills the fish. (The book was banned in a logging community in Oregon. Even children's books can be dangerous.) Bill Peete's The Wump World tells a similar story.
And of course there are books of purest fantasy. There's a reason I named my web page Where the Wild Things Are; Maurice Sendak's magical adventure is an essential childhood experience. Dav Pilkey's When Cats Dream is a surreally beautiful book not only about a cat's adventures in its dreams, but also about modern art; the cat who is sleeping on Whistler's mother's lap at the beginning, wanders through landscapes that resemble Chagall, Rousseau, Picasso, even Maurice Sendak.
By the time they're four or five, kids are old enough to read longer books to, in installments, so you can start them on the Oz books. No, not just the ones by L. Frank Baum--and he wrote 14 of them, all now re-issued in paperback. There are also another 20 or more by Ruth Plumly Thompson. In all of these, there is wonderful adventure, comic misadventure, amazing characters like the Gnome King and the Patchwork Girl and Jack Pumpkinhead, and, running throughout, puns and wordplay of all kinds. One of the greatest pleasures of childrearing for me was re-reading the Oz books and finding out that they were even more wonderful than I remembered.
Books for Ages 7-11:Once they're old enough to read for themselves, they decide that books with pictures in them are for really little kids, and it's downright embarrassing to be caught reading them. Before they get to that stage, make sure you've read them Judith Viorst's picture books, especially Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day and My Mama Says There Aren't Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins, or Things. By the time they're seven or so, kids understand that bad days don't last forever, and it's already dawned on them that in fact, mama doesn't know quite everything, so they'll be able to appreciate these.
By this time, kids can remember from one episode to the last, so you can read them longer books--there are still a lot of Oz books out there, remember. But you can also try them on something like Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmatians--and do it before, they see the movie. Give them a chance to imagine their own Cruella DeVil before they are stuck forever with Disney's version. The animated version is charming, but the book is still better.
I also enjoyed reading my son the Edward Eager books [Half-Magic, Seven-Day Magic, Knight's Castle, etc.]. These are books about a group of enterprising children who journey back in time into the world of Ivanhoe, taking part in adventures and rescues. When my boy was about eight, I read him The Hobbit and the complete Lord of the Rings. Yes, it did take a while, but he was rapt throughout. Frodo and Bilbo, after all, are honorary children, desperately uncertain they are up to the task they've been given, but courageous and determined in spite of everything.
Other children who become heroes in spite of themselves may be found in Jay Williams' The Hero from Otherwhere, in which two boys who are very different and don't much like each other have to draw on each other's strengths to save themselves from evil in the strange fantasy world they've gotten caught in. Then there's Dorothy Gilman's wonderful The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. It begins "Colin was sixteen, a golden boy, when his mother and father died both on the same day." He asks the Grand Odlum to tell him why such a horrible thing should have happened, and the Odlum sends him through the maze to seek his answer. In a kind of modern-day Pilgrim's Progress, he faces temptations to an easier life and fights them off. He loves and trusts and finds he has been betrayed. Only after learning to rescue himself can he learn to care enough to rescue someone else. It's a beautifully written book a child will keep in her memory for years.
Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth is an allegory about how the mind works, but it's so much fun your child doesn't need to notice. Miles is a hopelessly bored 10 year old who goes through the gates of the tollbooth that has appeared in his room, and finds himself in the fallen kingdom of Wisdom. The old king has died, and his two sons have fallen to warring among themselves; each has established his own city, Digitopolis, where thought is done with numbers, and Dictionopolis, where words are both king and plaything. Meanwhile, the king's daughters, Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned, and it is up to Miles to rescue them and reunite the warring brothers. This is a lot of fun, a great book for people who love to see words at play.
Then there's Diana Wynne Jones' delightful Archer's Goon. A family arrives home one day to find an 8 foot tall giant parked in their kitchen. He is Archer's servant, and he won't leave until they give him something that they have that belongs to Archer. Trouble is, of course, they don't have any idea who Archer is and what it is he thinks they have. As it turns out, these are not just ordinary people; there's magic about them. By the time they find out what Archer wants, a lot of magic and a lot of adventure have happened. This is a very funny book.
Speaking of funny, Gordon Korman should come into your child's life about at the age of ten. Korman began writing books (and publishing them) when he was 13, and I am pleased to say that, some 18 years later, he hasn't grown up yet. Many of his books center around a boys' boarding school in Canada, where an endlessly imaginative Bruno drags his protesting, responsible roommate Boots, and all his other classmates, into trouble. The best of these books is probably The War with Mr. Wizzle. But Korman's triumphs are No Coins, Please and I Want To Go Home. In No Coins, a pair of young men escort a group of Canadian pre-teens on a trip across America, little knowing that in their midst is a 10-year-old budding entrepreneur who at every stop sets up a small business--selling attack jelly in New York City, no-frills milk in Utah (here's the cow, here's a container, so just go to it, why don't you?) and other unusual businesses. All the young chaperones can do is watch in amazement and try to clean up the messes afterwards. In I Want To Go Home, a similarly enterprising ten-year-old at camp refuses to be caught up in the planned activities, and instead forces the camp to revolve around his activities. Korman's typical approach is to set a situation up, then let the farce develop at an ever-increasing pace. He's hysterically funny, and I wonder that his mother survived his childhood. After all, if he could imagine these children, he must have been one of them himself.
At this age, kids should also appreciate Marjorie Sharmat's Maggie Marmelstein books. The first was Getting Something on Maggie Marmelstein. Maggie has learned something highly embarrassing about her friend Thad, and he doesn't trust her to keep it a secret. He needs to find out something equally embarrassing about her to hold over her head. If this sounds like a parable of mutually assured nuclear destruction, that's probably because it is, but a funny one.
Well, that should wear out your vocal cords and get you at least part way through until they're twelve. If you still want to read to them at that point--and I still read to my son--check out some of my other reading lists on BookBytes, starting with the Books Young Adults Will Like. Also, try them on the funny science fiction, or the humor books. And keep in mind that Gordon Korman wrote even better books for young adults than he did for 10-year-olds. Make sure you read them (or read to yourself if need be), Don't Care High and Son of Interflux. They're as funny as anything Korman ever did, and thought-provoking at the same time.
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