Six Books That Make Me Happy: Part 2

My last post (i.e. Six Books That Make Me Happy, Part 1) garnered a comment from Charlotte, who tagged me for this Six Things meme in the first place, and was baffled that I named The Greengage Summer as a book that makes me happy, when the book itself--it's true--is not particularly cheerful. She had a good point, and I had to think about it: Do depressing books make me happy? Well, sometimes, if in addition to being depressing they're also (like The Greengage Summer) gorgeously written and so engaging that I forget myself and all the things I have to do and settle in to read them again. Doing that makes me happy.

But some cheerful books make me happy too! Honest! Like, say:

4) The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett. How can anyone be unhappy when reading or even thinking about a book that features a 9-year-old witch named Tiffany Aching, and her cheesemaking family, and a troupe of tiny blue men who speak in a Scottish brogue and mainly go in for "Stealing! and drinking! and fighting!" and ally themselves with Tiffany against the forces of evil? No one, that's who.

5) The Tall Book of Make-Believe. Full of stories and poems about, well, make-believe: wee little men and everlasting lollipops and the magical Land of Counterpane and a wonderful story about a day when everything goes wrong for one family, including one girl getting squashed flat and being perfectly fine, except that since she's flat she can't see anything round, so she burns the peas they were going to have for lunch. Some of the pieces are fantasy, and some are just about the wonders of the imagination, and it's all illustrated by early Garth Williams--before he did the Laura Ingalls Wilder books--with just the right respect for magic, very little cutesiness at all. I'm grateful to still have my childhood copy of this strange, obscure, and now out-of-print anthology. If you ever find a copy, please snatch it up if you can. It is worth it. (Here's a site that has a few pictures.)

6) Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones. Okay, maybe it's not particularly cheerful at the beginning, when Cat and his sister Gwendolen are left orphaned in a sudden boating disaster. But after that, things pick up, especially after the enchanter Chrestomanci shows up and whisks the siblings off to the Castle to live with him and his terrifically crabby and powerfully magical family, and Gwendolen uses her magical abilities to work a series of unauthorized spells that take peevish wanton mischief to new levels, and then various things are revealed and somewhere in there poor Cat gets challenged to meet Will Suggins in the form of a tiger, on account of accidentally and temporarily turning Will's girlfriend into a frog. Also there is Janet, who has so much common sense, you feel like she could deal with anything even if she just up and landed in another world without any warning. Which she has. And that is all I'm going to say about THAT, just in case you haven't read it.

Hmm. All of these last three are fantasy. So I guess you could say that fantasy stories, as well as gloomy coming-of-age novels, make me happy. But the truth is, so many books do; these three just happened to all remind me of each other.

I'm not going to tag anyone for this, but if you have a book, or books, that make you happy, feel free to share in comments below, or write it on your own blog and let me know.

Thanks, Charlotte! This was fun.

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Six Books that Make Me Happy: Part 1

The lovely Charlotte of the lovely book blog Charlotte's Library has made me terrifically happy by tagging me with a lovely meme, which she altered from the "Six Things that Make Me Happy" meme.

So I hereby give you Six Books that Make Me Happy:

1. I Love My New Toy! by Mo Willems. This book makes me happy because 1) It's a succinct and hilarious story of friendship, with an unexpected twist; 2) It's a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to kids looking for *really* easy readers that they will genuinely enjoy; 3) The expressions on Gerald and Piggie's faces always crack me up; 4) It just won the Cybil Award in the first-ever Easy Reader Category, and I got to help choose it, and now that it's announced I can finally tell people! (Click here and/or here to see all the fabulous Cybils winners!)

2. Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeiffer. I feel a bit weird putting this book on a "makes me happy" list, as it is a dystopic story of one family's increasing privation and misery after a cataclysmic worldwide disaster. But the truth is, I'm listening to it on CD in the car, and it is so gripping and the narrator's (literal and figurative) voice is so personable that I've been looking forward to getting into the car, even for otherwise dreary tasks like driving to work or to the airport. This also helps me stop procrastinating and get places on time, which makes everyone else in my life happy as well!

3. The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Have I ever blogged about this book? And if not, why not?? (Oh, wait, yes, I have.) Anyway. It's one of my very favorite coming-of-age stories ever, and one of the few that does justice to the messy, scary, complex process of coming into an understanding of adult sexuality. It's also a compelling and chilling mystery story, and a portrait of a family of kids as believable and varied and quirky as any you'll find in children's literature. Plus: set in the French countryside! What's not to like? One of those books I reach for over and over. I first came to it as an adult, but like A Tree Grows in Booklyn, another coming-of-age story, it's a good choice for sensitive, thoughtful teens, too.

Books # 4 through 6 coming soon...

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From Cooties to Love Stories

My daughter made her own valentines this year. I offered to buy her a box of valentines for her class, the kind she’s distributed ever since she was in preschool, but she refused.


“I’m going to write, “To Whoever, Happy Valentine’s Day, From Me”, she stated, cutting out a passable heart shape from her stash of construction paper. Apparently I am a hopeless helicopter parent, because I was unable to resist making helpful suggestions, like, “Don’t you want to put, like, a car sticker on it, and write something funny like, “VROOM! Be My Valentine?”


“NO.” She shot me a disgusted look. “THAT’S why I don’t want the box ones, because they ALL say things like that. And I don’t want to give valentines to the BOYS that say BE MY VALENTINE and anything funny. I just want to say HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY and that’s IT.”


Ahh, right. The boys. Heaven forefend she should give them the idea she actually likes them. For now, the opposite sex pretty much has cooties for her and her classmates, and she blows off the idea of love and romance—for herself, anyway. “I’m not going to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend,” she’s been known to declare.


Whether or not my own daughter changes her mind about that, chances are that in the next six or seven years, most of her classmates will. And the books in the Teen sections of libraries and bookstores will have books aplenty to reflect their interests.  When I was a teenager, “Young Adult Fiction” pretty much meant formulaic romance novels of one kind or another—blissful romance, or problematic romance. These days, the selection is much more varied, but are still plenty of stories of first love. Many of them, though, are anything but formulaic.


Take Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr. In elementary school, Cameron was Jennifer’s best friend—actually, he was her only friend. They were picked-on outsiders together. And they shared a secret about Cameron’s family that shamed them both. Then Cameron disappeared, and never wrote. Certain he’d died, Jennifer grieved alone, and then reinvented herself: by the time she was sixteen, she’d become popular, successful, cheerful Jenna. And that’s when Cameron came back. Sweethearts is  a love story, but not a romance;  I read it in one sitting last week and it has stayed with me, just under my skin, for days.


A few more first-love tales that turn teen romance convention on its ear:


What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell. Taut, suspenseful noir meets coming-of-age story in a rundown Palm Beach hotel just after the Second World War.


Debbie Harry Sings in French, by Meagan Brothers. Sometimes people are complicated, and not so easily labeled. Johnny’s not sure what it means that he seems to want to dress like Debbie Harry, but it doesn’t seem to bother his new girlfriend.


Paper Towns, by John Green. Can one person ever really know another? Quentin has adored Margo Roth Spiegelman since they were kids. But her disappearance sets him off on a quest rife with derring-do, mishap, and uncomfortable revelations.


None of these titles are for young kids. But they’re all thoughtful, layered explorations of the complex feelings behind that phenomenon we call romantic love. I hope that when my daughter’s old enough to experience some of those complex feelings first-hand (and probably not telling me about it, if I know my kid), she’ll have literary companions like the ones in these books, and in these other young adult books about love and friendship, to help her know that she’s not alone, and give her a wider view.


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Ladies, Gentlemen, and Children of All Ages: Thoughts About Crossovers

It’s been quite a week for Neil Gaiman, what with the release of the movie based on his deliciously creepy delicious children’s novel Coraline, and the Newbery Committee awarding highest honors to The Graveyard Book (which I STILL haven’t read; my spouse nabbed it off my To Be Read pile before I could stow it safely away), and all. I do the holds-pull list at work, and just about every day I’ve gone in there’s been something by Gaiman on the list, meaning someone wants it enough to go to the trouble of reserving it: an audiobook of Coraline, one of his grownup novels like Anansi Boys, or—my own favorite—his surreal, deadpan picture book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.

One thing that makes Gaiman so amazing—and his Newbery medal so newsworthy—is that he’s a writer who crosses genres, and audiences. Horror, graphic novels, kids’ novels, picture books, blogging—he does it all, and does it all well. (Plus, by all accounts, he’s just a super-nice guy.)

It’s unusual to find someone who’s so comfortable, and so well-accepted, among both the children’s and grownup literati. In our culture, we like to put people and things—literary or otherwise—into well-defined and exclusive categories: THIS is science fiction; THAT is literary fiction; THESE authors are for kids; THOSE OVER THERE are strictly for the R-rated-movie crowd. But the truth is, both life and literature are less definable and more complicated. So many adults (and not just teachers and children’s librarians) read and love kids’ books, and many kids dip into supposedly grownup books, both fiction and nonfiction.

Among authors who write for both kids and adults, many try to separate their children’s-author and adult-author personas with different websites or even by using pseudonyms, like Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy, who also wrote dozens of paperback romances and hard-boiled detective novels using various pen names, or the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, who published them under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, and uses his real name, Daniel Handler, for his adult novels and musical recordings.

Then there are those who cross over from one audience to another. I admit, I occasionally get testy when writers who have made names for themselves in the world of adult literature venture into children’s books. And the truth is, often their kidlit efforts are awkward and embarrassing: most often, because they haven’t studied the genre, but make the assumption that because it’s for kids it’s easy. Sometimes, though, they hit it just right: I really liked Adam Gopnik’s kids’ book, The King in the Window, and when underground-cartoonist Art Spiegelman started focusing his talents on graphic novels for kids, I danced a virtual jig in excitement and delight.

As for authors and illustrators known primarily for children’s books, they can get caught up by ghettoization too: it’s surprisingly easy to find people who assume that people who work for, or with, children must be childlike, when the truth is, most children’s book authors and illustrators are, in fact, adults, and as interested in adult stuff as anyone else, regardless of their day (or second) job. So it’s a welcome surprise to see children’s author/illustrator Maira Kalman’s exultant New York Times piece on the Obama inauguration, which captured the excitement of “being there” as no video clip could. Another picture book artist, Christoph Niemann, just used kids’ toys to illustrate an ode to the sights of New York City in lego format on the New York Times blog.

As someone who loves working with kids and their books, but has been known to socialize with adults and even read adult literature, I get a big thrill out of crossover moves like these, or like Gaiman’s Newbery. They remind me (though I shouldn’t read reminding) that creativity didn’t get that way by scrupulously respecting boundaries, age-based or otherwise.

What’s a kids’ book? What’s a grownup book? Sometimes, that distinction is just irrelevant and all you’ve got in front of you is an awesome book, and an equally awesome author or artist.

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