Saturday, April 29, 2017

Reading Through History: Magic Maize by Mary and Conrad Buff (1953)

Magic Maize is a short novel about Fabian, a Maya boy in 20th century Guatemala who is caught between his father's love for the old ways and traditional Mayan beliefs and his peddler brother Quin's sympathy for "gringos" (white people) and his willingness to accept the supposed superiority of the white man's brand of maize. As Fabian struggles to reconcile these two opposing worldviews, he grows some of his brother's "magic maize" in secret and also discovers a rare jade earplug that he does not realize may lead to good fortune for his whole family.

This book gives the young reader a bit of insight into the Mayan way of life and the tensions between the Mayas and the white Spaniards. Unlike the Goodreads reviewers of this book, I did not find the authors' treatment of this subject matter to be inherently racist. For the most part, in fact, the attitude of the story is fairly neutral toward the Mayan belief system. It is clear that Fabian's father sincerely believes in the prayers and rituals he performs before planting or harvesting his maize, and though the book ultimately introduces other ways of doing things, it does not ridicule Fabian's parents and neighbors for the way they practice their religion. Fabian and Quin seem to decide - and to convince their father - that perhaps not all new ways are bad ways, but there is nothing overt to suggest that they do this by abandoning their entire way of life.

There is a passage fairly early in the book where Quin articulates quite clearly the book's true message about race:

"I know, I know," answered Quin, "but I see many things as I carry bananas from the jungles to the highlands and maize from the highlands to the jungle. I have known many kinds of people, Fabian, and now I know that they are much alike. Whether they are Indians or gringos, they are alike. Some are good, others are bad. But most of them are neither all good or all bad. It is easy to see why Father hates the gringos. The Spaniards were cruel to the Indians for as long as anyone can remember. But those days are going." 

I much prefer this message over the simplistic contemporary notion that to be white is to be evil. Honestly, those who push for diversity in books because it exposes readers to many different types of people and situations ought to appreciate Quin's realization that the diverse people he meets show him how very much alike all human beings really are. I thought that was the point.

In any case, I don't see the value in excoriating authors of old books for not writing according to contemporary standards, and I'm tired of feeling like I need to become an "old books apologist" in every review I write. This book is over 60 years old, and it is a product of its time. If I think of it that way and ignore all the politics of children's book publishing in the 21st century, I can say that it is well-written, makes great use of storytelling as a device within the story itself, and teaches young readers about a culture and time period with which they may not otherwise be very familiar. I also like the sepia-toned illustrations, many of which take up full pages, and all of which help readers to picture and contextualize what is presented in the text. I will admit that the story was a little bland for me, but I would still not hesitate to share it with my kids. It's interesting, memorable, and well-written, and to me, that's really all that matters.

Friday, April 28, 2017

April Link-Up: Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2017 (Fantasy)

Today marks the end of the fourth month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, which focused on Fantasy.

I read three books for the challenge this month:

If you reviewed or otherwise posted about an "Old School" fantasy book from the decade of your birth or before, please leave a comment below with a link so other participants can see what you read. Thanks!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, April 2017

It's been a bit of a crazy month. We traveled to New York for a family trip, then less than a week later I went back to New York alone to help with a family emergency. I came home after two days, but I'm basically "on call" and may need to return again on short notice. So our reading has been pretty sporadic, but we have been reading lots of different things. Here are some of the girls' recent favorite reads:

Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz and Brian Floca

I requested a review copy of this book based on the author and illustrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed.  I had pretty high expectations to begin with, but I'm happy to say the book completely exceeded them. Princess Cora is an over-scheduled and overly-coddled princess whose entire life is dictated by the desires of her overzealous parents to make her as smart, clean, and healthy as possible. When she writes a letter to her fairy godmother asking for help, Cora isn't quite sure what to expect, but an ill-behaved crocodile with a penchant for biting is definitely not it. After Cora and the crocodile switch places for a day, however, Cora's family is finally willing to listen to what she wants.

What I like about this book so much is that it does not use Cora to teach a very special feminist lesson about spunk and misbehavior and "persistence." Instead, this book adheres to the true conventions of a fairy tale and empowers Cora within that context. This book neither preaches nor promotes misbehavior; indeed, it does not seem to have any agenda at all other than to entertain young readers. How refreshing! There are many laugh-out-loud moments that had me giggling during out read-aloud, and Miss Muffet loved how heavily illustrated the book is. At 3 years 5 months, she's a little young for chapter books, but this one was short and engaging enough that we read it all in one sitting.

Play With Me by Marie Hall Ets

Though both girls have been enjoying this 1956 Caldecott Honor picture book about a little girl who pleads with different animals to play with her, it has become a particular favorite of Bo Peep (19 mos.) She brings it to me frequently, eager to hop into my lap and enjoy a few pages. The full story seems to be a bit too long for what she is willing to tolerate, but we've made it a quarter of the way through a few times. She seems to especially like the frog and turtle.

Gossie & Friends Say Good Night by Olivier Dunrea

We came home from Grandma's house with this touch-and-feel Gossie and Friends book, and both girls love it. Bo Peep especially likes the page where Boo Boo's noodles feel sticky, and Miss Muffet likes to "read" the story aloud based on the illustrations. I haven't even bothered putting the book away in a basket or anything since we've been home since one or the other of them is always reading it. I try to get Bo Peep to let me read it aloud to her, but so far, she hasn't taken me up on the offer. 

Lullaby and Good Night: Songs for Sweet Dreams by Julie Downing 

We bought a used copy of this lullaby songbook a while back after Miss Muffet became obsessed with a library copy, and now it's Bo Peep's turn. All the talk about her becoming a big sister in October has ramped up her interest in babies and there are lots of them in the illustrations. She especially likes the pictures that accompany the songs "El Coqui" and "Golden Slumbers." She makes a big production of shouting "no!" if I start to sing a song she doesn't want to hear, but she will usually let me get through those two. I look forward to both girls singing these lullabies to their new sibling this Fall.

Nope! by Drew Sheneman

In this picture book, a young bird is scared to fly, but his mother persists in getting him to take the necessary leap toward independence. We received a review copy of this in the mail, and because it is mostly wordless, I knew it would be a good one for Miss Muffet. She loves to tell her own stories based on illustrations and after we read it together the first time, I heard her retelling it to her sister throughout the next couple of days. One of Bo Peep's newest words is "bird" so she also enjoys this one and has even been known to echo her sister and me saying, "Nope nope nope."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Racketty-Packetty House by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1906)

Once upon a time, the dolls of Racketty-Packetty House - Ridikilis, Meg, Peg, Kilmanskeg, and Peter Piper - lived in a beautiful dollhouse and had elegant names to suit their lovely clothes and handsome faces. But then Cynthia received Tidy Castle as a gift, and she hid Racketty-Packetty House out of sight behind her door and quite forgot about it. Despite being forgotten and neglected, however, the dolls of Racketty-Packetty House remain cheerful, enjoying observing the goings-on at the neighboring castle and making time every day to join hands and dance. Things become a bit complicated, however, when first, Peter Piper falls in love with a lady from Tidy Castle, and then it looks as though Racketty-Packetty House might be tossed out and burned.

Just as the Toy Story films and Doll People books have done in recent years, this charming 1906 novella taps into kids' fascination with the notion that their toys might come to life when no one is watching. Burnett creates a believable situation in which many children find themselves - feeling tired of an old toy and ashamed by its drabness when a newer and more attractive model appears - and she uses it to demonstrate important truths about class differences, both in wealth and attitude. The residents of Racketty-Packetty house have many problems that could bog them down in sadness and self-pity, but they never indulge in either, whereas those who live at Tidy Castle have many material possessions but seem not to enjoy life. Using the dollhouses to represent two ways of life makes it easy for kids to discuss larger issues about wealth and poverty within a context that is familiar to them.

I have never read The Secret Garden all the way through, so I couldn't say how The Racketty-Packetty House compares, but I did enjoy the writing style, descriptions, and overall moral of the story. I don't think my three-year-old is quite ready to hear this as a read-aloud just yet, but I wouldn't hesitate to share it with a six- or seven-year-old, especially if that child was a big doll lover, as I was at that age. Perhaps this is because my copy of the book is the 100th anniversary edition, but I also feel that the story is very accessible and contemporary-sounding, despite being published in the early 1900s. The updated illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin probably contribute to this a little bit, but even without them, I think the story still holds up really well. I look forward to reading this again with my girls in a few years!

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards (1974)

When the three Potter children, Ben, Tom, and Lindy, visit the zoo one October afternoon, they make an unusual friend in Professor Savant, who speaks to them about an unusual creature known as the Whangdoodle. After they meet the professor again on Halloween, the children begin spending all their free time at his house, learning how to observe the world around them and preparing to travel to Whangdoodleland to meet the last remaining Whangdoodle. Before they can get anywhere near the Whangdoodle, however, the Potters and Professor Savant will have to face such fearsome and unusual creatures as the Prock, Gazooks, Sidewinders, the Splintercat, and the Gyascutus.

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was read aloud to my third grade class in the 1989-1990 school year. Until this week, I had never read it a second time. To my surprise, it turns out that this book is not just a frivolous fantasy novel, but an interesting meditation on imagination, youth, faith, scientific discovery and, of all things, genetics. At 8 years old, I experienced this story primarily as a quest through a fantastical land that seemed to be part-Oz, part-Fantastica. Now, as an adult, I appreciate all the big questions this story really explores, including whether it is appropriate for human beings to manipulate DNA to create life.

I'm not certain that this book's view about "playing G.O.D." (as Professor Savant calls it) necessarily meshes with my values as a Catholic, but because the story is purely fantasy, I would feel comfortable reading it to my kids in order to prompt a discussion about the issues involved and why we may or may not be called to do something other than what the professor decides to do. The rest of the book's message, about being open-minded to scientific exploration, and learning to pay closer attention to the world, does mesh perfectly with the values I try to instill in my children. I don't think the moral grayness surrounding the genetics issue is quite troubling enough to cause me to write off the rest of the valuable material in the book.

Overall, this is a solid fantasy novel, though much different than I remembered. I think third grade is actually a bit young to absorb everything this book offers; I'd be more inclined to wait until fifth or even sixth grade. Kids on the higher end of the elementary years will be better able to understand the scientific references in the story, and they will also be more likely to understand the word play of characters like The Whiffle Bird and to recognize the duplicity of characters like the Prock and the Splintercat.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson (1967)

Anna struggles to make friends and frequently gets into trouble at her boarding school, which troubles her foster mother, Mrs. Preston. In order to help Anna, Mrs. Preston, whom Anna calls "Auntie," sends her for an extended summer holiday to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Pegg in Norfolk. While exploring the marshes surrounding the Peggs' house, Anna discovers The Marsh House, and eventually meets Marnie, a young girl always dressed in fine clothing who lives in the house and comes to meet Anna in secret at night. Anna and Marnie become fast friends, spending many evenings together on the water and in the dunes. One terrible night, though, their wonderful secret friendship comes to a sad and sudden end, and Marnie says a tearful goodbye as she tells Anna her family is making her go away. Once Marnie is gone, Anna slowly begins to bounce back from the intensity of their friendship, even convincing herself that Marnie may never have existed. When a new family moves into The Marsh House, however, it becomes clear that Anna doesn't yet fully understand her connection to Marnie.

My husband selected the audiobook version of When Marnie Was There for a recent family road trip, and I knew nothing about the book until we started listening. Despite having no plot summary or anything to orient me, I was hooked on the story instantly because I love 1960s novels about female friendship. As I listened, though, it became clear that this book was a cut above others of its type, and I understood why my husband was so adamant about having me hear it.

Robinson is a wonderfully descriptive writer, and I feel as though I can picture every person and location she depicts in this novel as clearly as though I have seen them myself. She also does a wonderful job of blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and she makes it possible (though admittedly not very likely) that a reader could discover the truth about Marnie before Anna does. Though the threads of the plot are somewhat complicated, the telling of the story is straightforward, simple, and therefore beautiful, and the writing speaks to child readers without talking down to them or over-explaining the events of the story.

I drew many parallels between When Marnie Was There and Tom's Midnight Garden, and both books are among some of the most perfect children's stories I have ever read. At first, I was adamant that Tom's Midnight Garden was the superior book, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Robinson's story is every bit as sophisticated and emotional, and whereas Tom's Midnight Garden relies on the magical element of the clock to connect the world of the past and the present, Robinson forgoes any bridge between  reality and fantasy and simply allows the two worlds to exist side-by-side. Both are remarkable books, and anyone who enjoys one should also fall easily in love with the other.

When we returned home from our trip, my husband and I watched the 2014 anime film based on this book. I am not an anime watcher in general, but I mostly enjoyed the film. It had a different feeling from the book, and changed a variety of things, including the setting, and other minor details about Anna's life, but it still felt mostly faithful to the story Robinson was trying to tell. I would definitely not see the movie without reading the book, however. The best way to read the novel is with no prior knowledge and no preconceived notions because then the reader feels as mystified by Marnie as Anna does.

I highly recommend this book to kids ages 10-14 and to adults who appreciate great children's literature.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Book Review: Here Come the Elephants! by Alice E. Goudey, illustrated by Garry Mackenzie (1955)

Lately, Miss Muffet has taken a real liking to nonfiction, so I've been reading factual books aloud to her at lunch time, or after lunch when her sister is asleep. Recently, we started working our way through a stack of books from Alice E. Goudey's vintage Here Come the Animals series. Published in 1955, Here Come the Elephants is one of the first books of the series.

The text of Here Come the Elephants! is divided into two parts. The first focuses on African Elephants in Tanganyika (now Tanzania)  and the second on Asian Elephants in Burma. In both sections, the reader follows the life story of a baby elephant from his birth through his adulthood, witnessing through his eyes the behavior of elephants in the wild and their interactions with man.

Though this book presents factual information, its narrative reads like fiction. Instead of simply listing facts about elephants in a professorial third person voice, the text allows kids to experience life in the wild alongside the baby elephants. The baby elephants are called Little Elephant, and their mothers Mother Elephant, which helps young readers sympathize with them. I like that the animals are given descriptive names rather than cutesy ones, and that they become characters without having to take on any human traits. I think this is what has drawn Miss Muffet to this series; everything is described realistically, and in the context of the animal's natural habitat.

There is also no sugar-coating of the facts. For example, in the section about African elephants, a male elephant called The Wicked One attacks Old Grandfather Elephant, sending him away from the herd. Later, after fighting Father Elephant and becoming leader of the herd, The Wicked One recklessly gets himself killed when he raids the natives' crops.  This information is delivered matter-of-factly, without assigning any emotions to the situation. As we are very frank with Miss Muffet about subjects like death, I was glad to see this book simply presenting what happens in nature without commenting on how sad or scary it might seem. I can't stand it when authors (or anyone, really) ascribes human intelligence and emotion to animals, and I was thrilled not to have to contend with that in this book.

Despite its age, this book is the best nonfiction title for kids that I have read in a long time. Some information about hunting elephants for ivory and training elephants to do tricks may be outdated, and there are similar minor outdated details in the other books we have read from the series as well, but it's easy to point those out and look up the updated information. On the whole, this book is well-written, utterly engrossing for a preschooler, and unsentimental in its portrayal of nature. For me, that makes it a five-star read.