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Bread and Jam for Frances: An Appreciation

FrancesApologies for the long gap between posts – I have been writing offline, and this winter is making me want to just…blergh. There are no words.

Yesterday, in Entertainment Weekly, I read an appreciation of the great Harriet the Spy as it marks its fiftieth anniversary. I loved that book as a kid, and it will be one I will be sure to read with my boys, not only because it’s amazing, but because it also provides them with a great example of a heroine, as I want to encourage them to read books about the other sex as well.

The article also pointed out that Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Lillian Hoban, another story with another smart, crotchety heroine, is also turning fifty this year. And I just wanted to take a moment and profess my love for Frances.

I loved this book as a child, mostly because of the description of the elaborate lunches Albert and Frances (after she gets over her thing about bread and jam) have. They made me pine for a doily under my bologna sandwich, and wish I liked hard-boiled eggs so I could eat a lunch that came with it’s own miniature salt shaker —

“What do you have today?” said Frances.

“I have a cream-cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread,” said Albert. “And a pickle to go with it. And a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that. And a thermos bottle of milk.

And a bunch of grapes and a tangerine.

And a cup custard and a spoon to eat it with.

What do you have?”

The whole book is so elegant and funny, with Frances’ silly, proto-sarcastic made-up songs that she uses to express her displeasure, and baby sister Gloria who “liked to practice on a green bean when she could.” It captures the essence of childhood, when you are figuring out how the world won’t always bend to your super-sized will and expectations. And it handles a parenting quandary so cleverly, without preaching: if Frances will only eat bread and jam, then that’s what she shall have…until she can’t take it one moment longer. I wish I could be so cool as these cartoon parent badgers.

What I am

Is tired of jam.

Even if I find myself in the middle of a hurry-up bedtime at the end of a very long day, and just want to whip through some board books instead of tackling some of the more wordy, ponderous books in our collection (because sometimes, like this New York Times writer, I’m Tired of Reading Out Loud to My Son, OK?), I will always stop for Frances. She’s always fun to read. And Russell Hoban seems to be the predecessor of another great writer of complicated, endearing young females, Kevin Henkes (Chrysanthemum, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Julius, the Baby of the World). Hoban and Henkes, both men, write as though they must have had little daughters they love and understand well. And my boys love these books as much as I do, and face many of the same travails.

So to celebrate fifty years of Frances, I’m going to have a special lunch. Maybe my cracker-loving sons will take a note and join me:

“I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup,” she said.

“And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread.

I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives,

and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery.

And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries.

And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles

and a spoon to eat it with.”

Girl, you deserve it! Happy birthday, Frances!

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“The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli” over at Medium – check it out!

The blog has lain fallow for a while, mostly because I have been writing some things offline. I also wanted the opportunity to use “has lain” in a sentence.

One of the things I’ve been working on: my essay, “The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli” is now up in the Open Ticket collection over at Medium. Go there and read a tale of brigands, a baroness, library books, and things lost in translation. Go read it now! Please and thank you!

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My mother hates Dr Seuss! and other stories

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week my son brought home The Cat in the Hat from his school library, which is fitting because on March 2, Dr Seuss, the great children’s author and illustrator, would have been 109 years old.

He was great. Wasn’t he?

“Oh God, I hate Dr Seuss! He’s the worst!” my mother says. This jibes with my childhood memories; I had a ton of books at home growing up, but not a lot of Seuss. A few, yes: The Lorax, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (but not the first one), and that’s about it. On my mother’s list of forbidden childhood fun, Dr Seuss came in at number two, just beneath Santa Claus. Number three: Play-Doh. Number four: every other toy that was messy in any possible way. Number Five: Fun-Dip or Fun-any kind of candy. Funyuns also. No, she’s a great mom. Really.

Recently when my son took One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish out of the library I realized I had never read it before. At least as a child. After college I worked at Random House Children’s Books, which publishes the works of Seuss: the ones he wrote when he was living and the ones he wrote after he was dead. One of my tasks was tracking the sales of Seuss books. The top title, if I recall correctly, was Green Eggs and Ham.

I did not read that in my house. I did not read that with a mouse. I did not read it with my mother. She did not like it, so don’t bother!

“Why do I hate Dr Seuss?” she said, when I called to ask her. “Can’t it just be fun and simple? Why does he have to be a such a smarty-pants?”

This makes sense. If there is one thing my mother can’t abide, it’s a smarty-pants. “It’s like he’s trying to prove he’s so smart so he goes on and on and on. Sam I am Sam I am who cares? You know me, I want it short and to the point. Not impressed.”

Green Eggs and Ham

Sam I am enough already (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many years my mother worked in the library at our local kindergarten center, so she has a pretty good knowledge of kids’ books. What was your policy on Dr Seuss in the library? I asked.

“Of course kids took the books out, but I didn’t promote Dr Seuss, I didn’t read Dr Seuss. I didn’t tell them not to, but I wasn’t going to read that jibber-jabber out loud. The Lorax, and all that stupid stuff? There’s nothing about it that I like.”

All righty. So, who are your favorite kids’ authors, then? How about Maurice Sendak? “Nope, didn’t like him either.” I almost hung up. I think that Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most perfectly written books, for kids or adults, ever.

“But I love Little Bear [which is illustrated by Sendak but written by Else Holmelund Minarik],” she said. “It’s so sweet and charming. And what else? God, I can’t think, I’m out of the library business. Kevin Henkes [I agree, I love everything he writes]. And Rosemary Wells [Oh that Max and Ruby!]. The Arthur books. Tomie De Paola. I don’t know, something that made you feel happy and cozy and comforted. Or something really funny. I don’t find Dr Seuss comforting or funny.”

“So can I pin this dislike for Dr Seuss on your childhood?”

She pauses. “Yeah, probably.”

My mother was born and lived, until she emigrated at five, in the south of Italy, in a poor, rural, mountain village. It was not unlike the setting of Strega Nona, the Tomie De Paola book which is a favorite of hers. Strega Nona is set in a fictional, fairy-tale Calabria, the region she was from, with its rough edges softened: Catholic and hardscrabble and peopled with goats, stubborn country folk and witches, like her mother, my own Strega Nona, without all the smiling and kiss-blowing.

It’s the kind of upbringing that looks romantic and interesting only in retrospect, from our family’s new vantage point on the U.S. east coast. But at the time, there was little room for romance in a medieval house with no heating and dirt floors. There, I would imagine, you’d seek comfort. Coziness. A simple happiness found at the edge of a desperately practical existence.

Old school.

Old school. My mother’s village in Calabria.

As we were talking about Dr Seuss my aunt walked into my mother’s house. She immediately gets on the anti-Seuss bandwagon: “Oh, I never wanted to read Dr Seuss to the kids either,” she says. “Sam I am? I am Sam? Really?

“And The Cat in the Hat? In our house cleaning up was not an option.”

“Our mother never left the house, so we never got the chance to make a mess,” my mother added. “That’s for Americans with leisure time.” Oh, the zingers you’ll zing.

I will grant them their literary tastes. It’s a free country after all. You can have unusually strong opinions about whimsical children’s book authors if you want to. But I can’t let Dr Seuss go undefended on his birthday. Especially now as a parent, watching my five-year-old, newly-reading son, read Seuss books.

As fanciful as Seuss books are, it was Hop on Pop that introduced my son to reading in the most sensible way. The book repeats simple words and then switches the final letter, and encourages kids to note the differences as they are helped along by the bright, silly pictures.

Children’s books serve all sorts of purposes. The books published before Dr Seuss, were, in many cases, cozy and comforting, and those books, like Goodnight Moon, have their essential place. And there were those, too, like the work of the excellent Virginia Lee Burton (The Little House), which took on the real world is a wonderful, honest way.

On the other hand, Dr Seuss, smarty-pants extraordinaire, introduced twentieth-century children to a world beyond the comforts of hearth and home, a world that recognizes the importance of letting your imagination run amok. Yet, they are not just flights of fancy; many Seuss books have essential lessons that burst right through the silliness. Think of The Lorax, The Sneeches, the Grinch, on and on. These books were of little use for my mother and aunt whose imaginations were shaped back in the old country, where they pretty much lived in the sixteenth century.

A few minutes after we spoke, my mother called back. “Here’s another quote for your blog. Everyone says they love Dr Seuss, but do they really?” When we say we like Dr Seuss, are we all just pretending to like something that comes off a bit highbrow? Like jazz, or Champions League soccer? I asked my son when he got home from kindergarten.

“O darling child, may I ask you something? Please, finish your quinoa and locally-sourced beets first.”

“Hm?” Looks up from book of mazes.

“Do you like Dr Seuss books?”

“Yes,” he says, unreservedly.

“Why?”

“Because they’re funny.” (Take that, Mom!)

“Why else?”

“They’re cool.”

OK, I can see that this is going to be the typical cavalcade of one-word knee-jerk responses. Not the burst of enlightenment I thought my research would bring me. But suffice it to say, he likes the books. He wants to read them, or have them read to him. My two-year-old does, too. He even likes And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But he’s old school.

“What are else are you going to write about me?” my mother asked. “‘She didn’t bake, she didn’t play games, she didn’t do arts and crafts,’ right?” Well, she didn’t really. Those things aren’t in her bones. But listening is. And she talked to us. Candidly. And all the time. She still does.

So right now I’m going to call her back, for the fifth time today, and tell her: my grandparents schlepped all the way to America so that their descendants could sit around and enjoy piffle like Bartholomew and the Oobleck. So let’s, shall we? Oh, the places we can theoretically go!

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, s...

Happy birthday to you. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Girls’ books” — for boys

Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe in Anne of ...

A boy in a girl’s world: Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night, C was anxious to read a library book that his dad had gotten for him called All About Alfie, by Shirley Hughes. It is a longish picture book with four stories in it, so it satisfies both C’s love of picture books and his excitement to read big-kid chapter books. Alfie is an impish English boy of about three, who gets into little scrapes, like locking himself in the house as the neighborhood comes to his rescue outside, and being at home with a babysitter while a pipe bursts, and he worries, like Noah, he’ll be swept away.

C was engrossed as his dad came in, who remarked, “He loves books about little boys like himself.” And I said, “Right! So why do you hate Caillou so much? Do you not read my internationally-known blog?” I guess not (off my good list). I wrote a post a while back in which I yammered on a bit about the fact that though adults despise the small, bald Canadian, children love him because they can relate to him and his everyday childhood experiences.

It made me think back to when I was a kid, and when people asked me what kinds of books I liked to read (and I liked to read a lot), I would say, “books that are true to life.” Meaning, I did not really want to read fantasy, or science fiction, but books about girls, like me, and what they did and felt on their typical days.

Even now, I still feel that way about the books and TV I consume, to a certain extent – I guess that’s why I am so hesitant about Game of Thrones (even though I HEARD YOU it is supposedly awesome, once you get past all the murdering), and, of course, Star Wars, but I love Mad Men (not my time, but my tri-state area, and many relatable experiences). I can already hear my husband saying that although Game of Nerds, uh, Thrones and Star Wars take place in fictional worlds, there is a humanity to the characters that is relatable. OK, but I like a setting in which I can imagine myself, or someone like me. I’m sorry, I can’t imagine myself getting eaten by a Sarlacc (thank you to C for explaining, several times, what that is and how it burps). Look, it’s not scientific, OK? It’s just a preference. Some people like to get lost in fantasy worlds; I don’t like it. I’d rather get lost in the streets of London or New York.

So my girlhood favorites? Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik (an awkward, smart girl in Cambridge, Mass.), Constance C. Greene’s A Girl Called Al (awkward, smart, NYC), and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, of course (awkward, smart, Portland, Ore.). See what I’m getting at here? There are several others. Judy Blume, Harriet the Spy,  All-of-a-Kind Family. But the queen of them all is Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Awkward. Smart. Prince Edward Island, Canada. I went there twice; I reenacted crucial scenes. I saw the musical. I even got engaged there, to my own, real-life Gilbert Blythe, at the Inn at Bay Fortune, which is where Colleen Dewhurst lived when she was filming the miniseries.

I knew that C was going to be a boy, but when I was pregnant, I read Anne of Green Gables aloud to him. I’m not sure why. I think because I feel that book is such a part of me, that in some way, he would get to understand me through the book, if there was anything to even be understood at that point in his development. Or maybe, if I was going to be reading aloud to someone who may or may not even be listening, I might as well read out something I enjoy. Now that he and his little brother are here, and on my lap, wanting to be read to, I think I still will read them that book someday. For the reasons stated above.

I know Anne of Green Gables is considered a “girls’ book,” and I doubt that many boys read it, but why should that be? Initially, I thought: I can’t wait to share Anne with my nieces (Hi J & Z! Not that you are reading this — you are 6 years and 3 weeks old, respectively) But then I thought, says who? Why not the boys too? There are elements of the book that perhaps apply more to girlhood, and friendships amongst girls, but there is so much, too, that anyone would enjoy and learn from. About how to accept yourself the way that you are. How to celebrate the beauty and simplicity of life. How to find magic and wonder in nature. How to be a good friend, how to be a good student, how to forgive. And (dare I say it?) how to be a good boyfriend. They don’t come much better than Gilbert Blythe.

The same goes for Harriet the Spy, and Pippi Longstocking, and Ramona Quimby for sure – they will all be part of my boys’ canon, though they are thought of more as books for girls. But I am also seeking books in which boys take the leading roles. Books that celebrate boyhood. On Earth. What is the Caillou of books about boys? Which characters speak to the everyday experiences of boys? It seems that many of the books that men I know loved as children had a genre slant to them. They were mysteries, science fiction, or adventure books. The Phantom Tollbooth, for example. It’s an incredible book, and at the top of our reading list, but what are some equally well-written books that are just plain about growing up? For books that feature boys, I can only think of Encyclopedia Brown (good, but mystery – we’ll be reading those shortly). Then there is Captain Underpants (yeesh – but C already loves it). Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing by Judy Blume is the best example I can think of; it’s waiting in the wings. Speaking of Judy Blume, she wrote a book about a boy called Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. And when I think of reading that as a young girl and not understanding why he wore a raincoat to school, I think, then again, maybe I won’t read that out loud to my boys and leave that bit of literature up to them and their dad. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I have a seemingly endless list of books I want my boys to experience. But does anyone have any to add? Books in which C and T might see themselves reflected. And not eaten by a Sarlacc. Get on my good list and leave a comment.

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