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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Date Night

There are so many different ways to parent. And it's so high stakes and personal that it's easy to have "right" and "wrong" take the place of different choices. Breastfeeding vs. formula, nanny vs. daycare, working mom vs. stay at home, oh the list does go on and it's surprisingly easy to feel judged by the choices you make. Also on this list is when parents feel comfortable leaving their baby with others. The range of experiences is as populated as the number of families out there.

For us, H started daycare at the tender age of 3 months. It was tremendously hard until (months later) I came to believe from experience that she was just fine in that environment. She's still at the same place (now on the "big kid side") and we've had nothing but positive experiences with it. On the other end of the spectrum, we've yet to employ a babysitter save my parents (who live close and are flexible and wonderful). And even with my parents nearby -- full disclosure here -- we've gone out alone together far fewer than 10 times in the two-and-a-half years we've been parents. That's not a lot. And, in several of those instances we scurried home quickly, set adrift by the separation. To me, it makes sense -- our work schedules keep us apart for so much of the week, we like to hang out together when we can. But grown-up alone time also makes sense, especially with the hope of maintaining a relationship that isn't purely based on being parents together (though goodness knows, she's still our main topic of conversation).

Last night we had a date night -- and it was fun. At first it seemed too complicated and crazy (I went from Manhattan to Brooklyn to pick her up and drop her at home with my parents, then back to Manhattan to meet up with David), but in the end we enjoyed dinner and a show and it felt, well, civilized. Maybe there's something to this whole date night thing. We're toying with the idea of making it monthly. That just seems decadent, but why not? Maybe it would be good for us and fun, too. I guess learning to be a good parent is just the same as learning to be a good and fulfilled person. It's a work in progress forever.

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Around the Kitchen Table

We’ve heard a lot about the proverbial “kitchen table” during two long years of political campaigning. Now there is a different reason to consider it the focal point of family life, and that idea is supported by some pretty convincing research. Here’s the not so surprising news: being there for family meals is important in a multitude of ways.

The Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), an esteemed interdisciplinary organization of scientists, has put together a published report about the benefits of family meals taken together; and the list is impressive.

Although the average family meal lasts a brief 20 minutes, showing up for it has a huge influence on child behavior and development. Here are some sample findings:

  • “Teens who eat 5 or more meals a week with their families are less likely to smoke or use marijuana or alcohol.”
  • “Children who take part in regular family mealtimes have more vocabulary growth and higher academic achievement than those who don’t.”
  • Family diners are also less likely to be obese or have eating disorders in the Tween years.
  • Eating together with family is positively associated with fewer behavior problems in young children.
  • Meals prepared at home tend to be lower in calories and fat than restaurant meals and to include more fruits and vegetables.
  • The positive effects of meal sharing are negatively affected by watching TV while eating.
  • Only about 50% of American families eat together 3-5 times a week and almost half of them have TV available in the eating area.
  • “Shared mealtimes, including conversation, rather than screen sharing, are …a barometer for” (not only individual members’ well being) but also” for the broader community’s health.


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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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Brotherly Love?

I figure that I am entitled to brag shamelessly about any or all of my grandchildren, let’s say every 10th blog.  In fact, such a ratio seems to demonstrate remarkable restraint.

So, this week, I am going to use that privilege with tidbits from the most recent visit of my two youngest grandsons, ages: 4 ¾ and 22 months. The brothers have a pretty predictable relationship---involving some territoriality, but they also enjoy a lot of amusement from each other and a readiness to engage each other in play. Are they competitive?  You bet. Do they get a great belly laugh from each other’s antics? No doubt about it. And not just the old “slipping on a banana peel” induced laughs. Sharing amusement is common for these two.

There is no question that the older boy sees it as his perogative to define the limits of individual rights and common turf; while the younger sticks to standing up for himself.  For example, one evening, a game got started involving combing Daddy’s hair. Each son had a comb and was defining his own territory in Daddy’s short short crown.  It didn’t need combing at all, it never does; but that’s beside the point. Things got a little rowdy, and later when the oldest was preparing for bed, he interpreted the event. “L thinks that you are just HIS Daddy. But you’re not.  You’re MY Daddy too”.

This observation assumes that the 4 year old had accepted the necessity of sharing Daddy. Or was he trying to get Daddy’s agreement that their father does indeed belong to both boys?

There is always a ratio of advantage, involving age, developmental markers, and the cuteness factor, generally favoring the little one. Some younger siblings are more stalwart and don’t easily succumb to teasing about their size, skills, non-primogeniture rights. So when C calls L a baby, L calmly corrects him: “I am not a baby; I am a Toddler”. And his tone is quite serious, suggesting pride. He hooks his thumbs to his overall straps and stands tall.

Can’t argue with that!

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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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