A mind of her own

A mind of her own

Well, it was a very different Fourth of July holiday. A friend whom we had seen now and then over the years was our invited houseguest. A well-read, educated and sophisticated New Yorker, as much a devotee of the Tuesday Science section of the New York Times as I am and a wonderful storyteller, she was a delightful guest who helped out unceremoniously.

We enjoyed her company. But we were astonished by her revolutionary ideas about health practices, considering her awareness of media reports about health issues. She just recently quit smoking and only because it was no longer allowed inside her office, in most restaurants, and most public buildings. So her giving up cigarettes had little if anything to do with the health warnings that are an old story by now. She also made it clear that she is absolutely opposed to root canals—has so advised her dentist, saying “out with the tooth” rather than undergo that treatment.

She won’t hear of budging on that position, or on her dictum, “No colonoscopy, ever!" Virtually every grandparent/reader of the Science Times and many who are not so well informed on the preventative benefits of undergoing that unpleasant experience every 5 or 7 years accept their doctor’s recommendation. “It’ll never happen!” insists my recalcitrant friend. She is also opposed to exercise and hates skimmed milk, vegetables, and fish.

But perhaps the biggest “No-No” she presented to us: She will have "nothing to do with seat belts, hates 'em." So in driving around our small town and even the long highway trip to get here, she was seatbelt-less. She buckles the thing, and sits on it, then makes it clear, this too is non-negotiable.

Of course, she is vibrant, the picture of good health. We couldn’t reform her diet or her position on medical and dental procedures, but what about driving her around without a seatbelt? I was glad when the three of us were in the car, so she could at least sit in the back; but it’s the law and we’re responsible, are we not? At least when my grandchildren are guests, I can insist on our rules!

What do you do with a mentally alert, energetic, and rebellious grandparent other than tighten your own belt and drive carefully?

July 29, 2008

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Long May They Squeak: A Scurry of Mouse Books

Long May They Squeak: A Scurry of Mouse Books 

Last week, after going on something of a tear about free-choice reading for kids, I opened my new New Yorker and found this fascinating article about the genesis of Stuart Little, and its opposition by venerable librarian Anne Carroll Moore. (If I’d waited, I would’ve been pointed to it as well by several online reflections on the piece.)

Miss Moore, who more or less invented the children’s library and certainly revolutionized children’s literature with her influence, wrote a scathing 14-page letter to author E.B. White in which she objected to the mouse protagonist “staggering out of scale” and to the “mix[ing] up” of the two realms of fantasy and reality. Then she did her best to discourage libraries from purchasing the book. 

But generations of children and parents and librarians disagreed, and of course the rest is history.

In a way, Moore was onto something: that discrepancy of scale, and the enticing mix of fantasy and reality, are two of the elements that make Stuart Little and other books about mice so inviting to young readers. There’s something about the nature of mice that seems to appeal to children’s authors and to children themselves: a small, powerless creature, scurrying through the corners and undersides of the big peoples’ world, quick and cute and often in danger of being stepped on. It’s how kids must feel, sometimes, surrounded by us huge adult lummoxes.

In any case, when I started to work up a list of Famous Mice in Children’s Literature, I had no trouble at all. A few that popped their pointy little heads above the crowd right away, noses and ears twitching:

  • Ralph S. Mouse, hero of The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary, and its two sequels. Like Stuart Little, Ralph is a mouse navigating his way through a world of humans. And like Stuart, Ralph has a stylin’ vehicle for his journeys.
  • Geronimo Stilton, the plucky crime-fighting rodent who is steadily taking over the paperback aisles at a bookstore or library near you. Kids at that early chapter-book age take to this guy like…well, like a mouse to cheddar cheese.
  • Babymouse. Or rather, Babymouse! Lover of cupcakes and books! Master of living inside      her own head, because it is so much more interesting and exciting than dull old everyday reality! Cartoon heroine for the ages! Or at least, for about ages 6-9, especially those who like graphic novels. By Jennifer and Matthew Holm. 
  • And my favorite new mice on the literary scene, the simply but elegantly named Mouse and her daughter Mouse Mouse, who brave danger and possible censure to befriend two generations of human girls in Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, by Beverly Donofrio, with meticulously      period-detailed illustrations by Barbara McClintock. Unlike the others listed above, this book stands alone: I don’t expect to see any sequels starring a grandchild named Mouse Mouse Mouse. But there’s no need; Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary has a satisfying completeness all by itself.

And that’s just one whisker of the whole mouse-in-children’s-literature picture. For picture-book mouse fans, there’s also Angelina Ballerina, and Frederick the poet, and Dr. De Soto the dentist, and Horace and his friend Morris (but, mostly, Delores), and Maisy, not to mention the nameless but memorable protagonist of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

If chapter books are your slice of cheese, a surprising number of mice show up in longer works, too. For starters, there are Mrs. Frisby and Miss Bianca, two dauntless mice whose respective stories were eventually adapted into the popular movies “The Secret of Nimh” and “The Rescuers”; not to mention the warriors of the Redwall saga, the dapper detective Hermux Tantamoq, Poppy the deer mouse, and last (in this list, anyway), but certainly not least, the miniscule, large-eared, valiant Despereaux Tilling. 

And there are more than those, even; many more than I could list here.

Not a bad showing, for a creature only a couple of inches long.

July 24, 2008


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Nine Out of Ten Kids Surveyed: A Rant, of Sorts

Nine Out of Ten Kids Surveyed: A Rant, of Sorts 

When I was a school librarian, a regular feature of my job was the worried parent who would ask me what to do about their child who would only read…well, you fill in the blank: comic books, sports books, magazines, nonfiction, Captain Underpants books, Disney books, series books, books way too easy for him/her, books way to hard for him/her, “trashy” books of any description…basically, any kind of book that didn’t fit the parent’s idea of what a “good” book—or even a good mix of books—might be.

Now, I had some sympathy for these parents; how could I not feel for someone who wants their kids to love good books? And indeed, lots of what I did as part of my job was to try to gently expose kids to genres, authors, and kinds of books they might not otherwise have thought of; to help them not be stuck in a rut, to expand their literary horizons. (And as a parent myself, I’ve certainly had my own literary run-ins with my kid.) 

But basically, more than anything, I wanted the kids to love reading. I know, and knew, that research was on my side: kids read better, and do better in school, who read recreationally and enjoy reading. And kids enjoy reading more when they get to choose what they read. Who enjoys something that feels like a chore?

I thought of those anxious parents, and those book-loving kids, when I read the Kids and Family Reading Report published recently by Scholastic. While the focus of the report is on the future of the printed book in an online age, one particular finding stuck out for me: 

89% of kids say their favorite books are the ones they picked out themselves.

89%! Nine out of ten kids! And of course, when kids enjoy reading, they read more, and enjoy it more, etc. etc. in an endless loop that makes librarians weep with happiness. 

So why do so many schools distribute (and often require) summer reading lists that seem designed to subvert that feeling of ownership, to make reading into a chore, to do the very opposite of what we know turns kids on to reading? This is a question that’s been consuming children’s literature bloggers in recent weeks, resulting in masterful rants like this one at The Reading Zone and elsewhere (thanks to Jen Robinson’s Book Blog for the link to the discussion).

Conversely, there’s a neat article on the Scholastic website celebrating the importance of “bad” books—really, it’s a paean to free choice in kids’ reading, especially over the summer. The types of books the author suggests—graphic novels, series, how-to books—are genres that kids often get into for themselves, not because someone told them the books are good for them. 

I know many of the people reading this already believe in the importance of free book choice for kids. And of course—as is also documented in the Scholastic report—parents can help their children find and choose good and enjoyable books. But it’s just been something that’s struck me over and over, how important it is for kids to find their own reading paths. I was at the same school long enough to see it happen in front of me: year after year I saw kids dive headlong into series books or specialized genres that their parents (and I) might think of as vacuous, only to move on to more sophisticated and varied fare once they felt ready or when something else sparked their interest. Many of these kids grow into thoughtful, sophisticated readers and thinkers. They felt like books were something that belonged to them, not their parents or teachers or even their librarian.

And getting out of their way and letting it happen, was, ironically, something I was really proud of.

July 16, 2008

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It's a girl!

It's a girl!

Birth is on my mind these days. That's easily explained. First of all my birthday was a few days ago, and I got loads of cards, calls, emails, many more than are warranted on a not very significant birthday number. But I loved the attention and the genuineness of the warm wishes.

The big reward came 19 minutes after my birthday when a new great-niece was born. It's big in our family to be born on a relative’s birthday. I am one of the few who until now, had no family member to (almost) share my birthday. Three hundred and sixty-five possible days and yet many of my extended family members do have a relative birthday partner; and I’m not counting twin nieces who do, as a matter of fact, share a birthday with yet another cousin. Not only does it seem to be fashionable to share a birthday in our extended family, but it is also cool to be born on a holiday or very close. We have claimants for the Fourth of July, Valentines’ Day, Christmas, among others. Rather than feeling superseded by the shared holiday, our family’s birthday celebrants seem to enjoy the holidays’ fanfare, as if it were part of the celebrating of them. Why not!

For this grandmom and great-aunt, nothing is more joyous than the arrival of a completely new and unique person in our midst. So I formally welcome our Ella, all seven pounds nine onces and 21 inches of her. She’s a beauty with rosy cheeks, a sweet cry and a shock of black hair (enough for a pony tail, though it is not likely to last in quantity or that uncharacteristic color for her gene pool). She has a chance for a wonderful life, with loving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and most of all, two big brothers, who, so far, are in awe of her.

No wonder. Welcoming a new baby is as awesome as it gets for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and, of course, sisters and brothers.

July 13, 2008

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Getting Lost In a Book

Getting Lost In a Book

We're about to go on vacation. The campground is booked, the catsitter is scheduled, the packing is underway (well, almost underway)…and I've been combing the shelves during recent reference desk shifts, in search of good reading material.

The truth is, though I love camping, I'm not much of a nature girl. The true luxury of camping for me is the chance to stretch out on the beach or in the tent or the camper van, unfettered by the beckoning call of email and blogs and radio and all the myriad to-do's that pile up in a grownup's life, and read and read and read for hours. It's like a visit back to childhood, when summer meant sleeping late and taking a book out to the backyard and just losing myself in it until it was done.

When I'm camping, or on vacation, I'm able to allow myself to sink into a long, satisfying book, the kind that requires more focus than I often have during the hustle-bustle of the working week, the kind that draw you into their world, let you linger there for a while, and stay with you afterwards, sometimes for years. It's been on camping trips or long vacations that I've discovered some of my favorite books, books like The Sea of Trolls, Airborn, and A Drowned Maiden's Hair.

This year, I have a couple of grownup mysteries in my camping bag, plus a few kids' books I've been hearing about and wanting to read: Waiting for Normal, by Leslie Connor, How to Steal a Dog, by Barbara O'Connor, and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall.

But I'm still looking for that chunky, thick, oopmhy kids' book to take with me. What will it be, I wonder?

Happy 4th of July, and happy vacation to all who are setting out!


July 4, 2008
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Three cheers for four

Three cheers for four

There is something special about the age of four. That's a silly thing to say, since there is something special about every age to observers of children's growth and development — particularly those who also happen to be grandparents. Obviously, my love and devotion don't lessen as my grandchildren graduate to kindergarten or middle school. But four is such a fun age for grown-ups who love whimsy and marvel at the emergence of verbal play and other signs of mental expansion.

Fours' premises may be not always be realistic, but after a whimsical starting point, their thinking strides are astonishing. All this is a prologue to a story about my currently 4-year-old grandson, who "got to thinking."

He's the same guy who tries to straighten out his 15-month-old brother's seeming confusion about names. Well, our 4 year old had obviously been thinking about how well he was succeeding in the tutelage of the “baby,” who is now sort of walking and certainly talking, relating, interacting, and making his feelings well known to all.

Big brother clearly noticed. In fact, he approached his mom one day and said, "I think we need to have another baby now." When Mommy inquired about what had led him to that conclusion, he said, "Well [he often starts sentences with "Well" lately], I think I have taught our baby everything I know. So now I need another littler baby to teach." In other words, "My work is done here; this guy has become a person in his own right."

Mommy couldn’t resist asking where the family would get another baby. The 4 year old confidently responded, "From your tummy, of course." Mommy was impressed, but so far, not persuaded. Stay tuned!

July 1, 2008

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