More Oldests, a Library Encounter, and a Bunch of Vacation Books

We are heading out of town for vacation! In the midst of trip-preparation frenzy, here are a few notes I’ve been gathering:

1. Older Siblings Redux: Thanks for the comments and suggestions on the Fictional Oldest Siblings front. Very soon after I finished that post, I had a complete “d’oh” moment as I remembered that I’d just checked out Gregor the Overlander to see if my daughter might like it, and it suddenly dawned on me that Gregor is exactly the kind of character I was trying to think of! A responsible older sibling who dives down into an underground city, rather than lose track of his little sister, and the hero of a whole series.

Also: Ruby Lu of Ruby Lu, Brave and True. I’ve never read the book, have been meaning to for years, came across it at work today and realized that Ruby is an oldest kid as well, and checked it out on the spot to bring on vacation with me. So go, Gregor and Ruby! Do us oldest children proud!

2. Living Legends Dept.: Elizabeth Bird, proprietrix of the blog Fuse #8, is a librarian at the main branch of the New York Public Library and so has more encounters with authors than most of us working in the hinterlands. I expect they get kind of routine after a while. But the other day she wrote about a visit that awed even her. I still remember my mother reading me that book when I was three or four years old, and how it was so exciting that once when she stopped for the night I begged her to go on reading “just until the next little dot.” That was the first chapter book I ever experienced. Oh, I can’t imagine the author just showing up at my library. I got all choked up even just reading about it.

3. Books I am taking on vacation with me (aside from Ruby Lu): The Red Necklace, by Sally Gardner (I’ve been reading it bit by bit for weeks now—maybe I’ll finally finish it!); Candyfloss, by Jacqueline Wilson, whose books I keep wanting to read; and a grownup book, Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, which I read about on Bookshelves of Doom and promptly checked out at my library, where it was just sitting on the shelf, as if it had been waiting for me all along.

Anyone have any more good vacation reading to recommend? We’re going on one more trip after this one!

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The Responsible Ones

So after I posted last week, I had the weirdest feeling that I’d forgotten something. Then I got an e-mail from my cousin Ellen that reminded me about a story she’d written in the new anthology, Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales, which is a collection of stories about fairy-tale villains. So there’s one about the giant’s wife in Jack and the Beanstalk, and one about Cinderella’s wicked stepsister (or stepbrother, in this case), and like that, by renowned kids’ fantasy writers like Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, Neil Gaiman, and Nancy Farmer.

Ellen’s story is about the oldest of the twelve dancing princesses—the one who leads all her sisters into the hidden cavern where they dance their shoes to pieces every night. I’d never thought of the oldest sister as a villain before, but I guess in the traditional version of the story she is the instigator of all the trouble. In this version, she’s just trying to keep an eye on her sisters, but she gets blamed. Ellen kindly dedicates the story to “all oldest children everywhere, who are responsible whether they want to be or not.”

I’d read the story a few weeks ago, and smiled in recognition as a fellow oldest-child in our extended family, and then got busy and forgot to write and tell her how much I liked it (Ellen! I liked it a lot!) but aside from that, I’d forgotten that I’d written a whole post about fictional youngest children and here was this swell story about an oldest child and how could I have neglected to write about books that feature oldest children and wouldn’t that be a nice balance?

Except… there is, as I mentioned earlier, a whole raft of series about those endearing, charming, mischievous youngests, but when I try to come up with series focused on oldest kids I mostly draw a blank. Oh, sure, there are lots of big-sibling-little sibling picture books, like Julius, the Baby of the World and the incomparable Max and Ruby (though even in Max and Ruby, who always prevails? Who, I ask you? Not big-sister Ruby, that’s for sure), but as protagonists of novels, especially series of novels, oldest siblings seem to get short shrift.

Well, there is Clementine. Regular readers might have noticed that I have a soft spot for Clementine, with her good intentions and her helpful problem-solving (which is sometimes truly helpful, sometimes, well, not so much) and even the ingenious vegetable-based nicknames she keeps coming up with for her little brother. I have to admit that sometimes I describe Clementine to potential <strike>converts</strike> readers as “like Ramona, but less bratty.” Which isn’t quite fair because Ramona isn’t really bratty. But she is, recognizably, a little sister: cute, demanding, used to being noticed and looked after. And in Clementine, who works so hard to make everything Okay for everyone—her parents, her neighbors, her baffling and persnickety friend Margaret—I recognize a fellow oldest child: responsible, whether she wants to be or not. And Clementine’s parents don’t lay that on her; she just takes it on, as oldest kids so often do.

A couple other fictional kids who take on—or chafe under—the burden of being oldest:

  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s Claudia Kinkaid, who famously runs away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art partly in protest against the chores and responsibilities she feels are heaped unjustly upon her in her suburban home. Of course, she takes one of her little brothers along, so you could argue that maybe she’s not so dead-set against big-sisterhood overall—one of author E.L. Konigsburg’s many sly touches.
  • Catherine, heroine of Rules, by Cynthia Lord. Catherine is a model big sibling in so many ways: loving, responsible, concerned about her little brother even as his autism makes her life way more complicated than she’d like.

I’m sure there are more…can anyone think of any? And maybe some big brothers to keep those responsible big sisters company?

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When the Littles Take Over

In a burst of summer self-indulgence, I kicked back last week and re-read the entire Casson Family series by Hilary McKay: Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, and Forever Rose. I know I’ve written about this series before – they are among my favorite books in the world. What struck me this time around, though, was the way that Rose, the youngest Casson sibling, takes over the series starting somewhere in the middle of book #2. All the Casson family members are distinct and terrific characters, but Rose really stands out: she is fierce, intelligent, principled, artistically brilliant, loyal, and complicated. Also, she’s funny (often unintentionally). One of the things that happens in Indigo’s Star is that it slowly becomes clear that the dad of the family is drifting away and has moved to London permanently. The four kids and the mom each deals with this in his/her own way. Rose copes by writing a series of letters to her dad in which she hints at various household disasters, in hopes that her father will panic and come home to fix everything. Unfortunately for Rose, he just finds the letters hilarious (as did I).

Anyway, by the third book, the series is unabashedly centered on Rose. Even Caddy Ever After, which supposedly chronicles the romantic vicissitudes of Caddy, the oldest sister, is really about how Rose saves the day.

What is it about little siblings in children’s fiction? They do this a lot--take over the books, even if they weren’t the hero to start with. Just like in real life, older siblings (like me!) might start out with all the attention, but their little sibs get a lot of mileage out of being charming, or quirky, or funny…and before you know it, they’re running the show.

The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary is a prime example: in the earliest books about the children of Klickitat Street, Ramona barely has a walk-on part—she’s Henry Huggins’s friend Beezus’s little sister, that’s all. But soon she’s taken center stage, and the rest is history—a series of eight long-lasting and internationally beloved books, with spin-offs to stage and screen.

Then there’s Fudge, that force of nature, first encountered in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. Like Ramona, he starts as a very minor character—Sheila’s beleagured neighbor Peter’s little brother. But starting in Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, he does a Ramona on us: his irrepressible character all but demands that he become the hero of his very own series, and these days the average kid barely knows who Sheila the Great is, but can tell you all about Superfudge, Double Fudge, and Fudge-a-Mania.

Not to mention Anastasia Krupnik’s little brother, Sam, who wasn’t even born yet in the first Anastasia book—in fact, the book is mostly about Anastasia’s furious reaction to the prospect of getting a little sibling at the advanced age of ten. If I remember right, she’s afraid that the new baby will change everything and take over all the attention. Looking at the proliferation of “Sam” books— All About Sam, Attaboy, Sam, Zooman Sam… I can see her point.

On the other hand, the Anastasia of these later books—and all the other older brothers and sisters, eventually—seem pretty resigned, even happy, about having those attention-grabbing littles around. After all, they are quite charming. And quirky. And funny.

As an older sibling myself, I can relate. And as a reader, I’m happy to have them around, too.

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Little Comments Go A Long Way

I stress keeping things as simple as possible because raising kids is very complicated these days.   From pregnancy complications to an increase in childhood disorders, moms can literally make themselves sick with worry.   And, believe me, I have.  I am one of those moms that looks up everything on-line.  I’m constantly researching the web for information and advice about my kids.  Even without the internet, worrying about every aspect of your child is a natural state of motherhood.   As a result, I have begun to cherish some of the simple comments I've heard over the years that have helped me have a little more perspective, and a little less worry.  I’m a big fan of these one-liners because they have served to remind me to keep it simple.  If you have a friend, or you yourself, are feeling overwhelmed by motherhood, here are two "keep-it-simple" comments that might help.   

“He’s the picture of health and happiness.”  This was said by my husband’s grandfather about Sam when he was 8 months old.  I totally recommend it and think it’s the best compliment you could possibly give to a mother about her child.  Moms are constantly wiping hands, sterilizing toys, distributing healthy snacks, etc., Every mother works hard to keep her kids healthy.  We fault ourselves if we don’t put on enough sunscreen, or we weren’t quick enough in preventing something dirty from entering their mouths.  Yes, we dress our kids as cute as possible, and love hearing how adorable they look.  But let’s face it, it’s making sure they are physically and emotionally healthy that keeps us up at night.  Since Sam was a preemie, this comment was especially meaningful to me.  Born at 3 lbs 3 oz, Sam spent the first six weeks of his life in intensive care.  A sight I will never forget.  I vowed to do everything in my power to prevent him from stepping foot in a hospital again.  I was completely germa-phobic when it came to him.  This simple, casual comment from Great Grandpa, filled me with a sense of relief that all my efforts in caring for Sam actually showed.  Something clicked after he said that and I became a little less obsessive from that point forward.  We always hear babies described as cute, pudgy, adorable, big, and small, etc.  Try telling a new mom her baby looks healthy and happy… I guarantee she’ll beam with pride.  

“If you’re looking for a disorder, you’ll find one.”  This comment came from Sam and Bari’s speech therapist.  When I met her for the first time, I brought with me a list of diagnosis’ I thought might be applicable to some of Sam’s speech delays.  Having pulled an all-nighter in front of my computer- just me, my worries, and the internet late at night, I had spiraled down a black hole into a complete state of panic over how to help Sam .   I did the same thing a couple of months ago before Bari's speech evaluation.   This one-liner put all my hours of research and worry in perspective and calmed me down instantly. In addition, my husband threatened to put a lock on my computer so I can’t get internet access after 10 pm any more!   This simple statement taught me not to let my concerns overwhelm me.   Most of all, she reminded me to enjoy my children.  Simple and yet, I still had to be reminded of that...twice!  

There’s nothing wrong with learning as much as you can about how to keep your kids, healthy, happy, and developmentally on target.  Do realize, though, that there is only so much you can control. The most important thing is t to take in the pertinent information, address each of your children's needs, and try not to worry too much about the big picture.  Just keep it as simple as possible, maintain your perspective, and  make sure you are enjoying your kids the whole way through. 

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Fantasy Kidlit Road Trip: The Final Chapter

I've been writing a multi-post series about a Fantasy Kidlit Road Trip. Part one is here; part two is here.

I’d start the last leg of my Kidlit Tour of North America by crossing the border to Canada, specifically to Buxton, Ontario, the setting of Christopher Paul Curtis’s Newbery Honor- and TD Canadian-Children’s-Literature and Coretta-Scott-King-awarded Elijah of Buxton. Although the book is fiction and Elijah is a made-up character, Buxton itself is a real place, and was home to the actual Elgin Settlement of escaped slaves. There was even a real Liberty Bell that was rung whenever someone new reached freedom in Buxton. After the settlement was disbanded in 1872, many of the inhabitants returned to the Southern United States, but many others stayed in Buxton, which is to this day a predominantly African-American/Canadian village. The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum exhibits buildings and artifacts from the Elgin Settlement, and conducts living history tours. Their website is pretty amazing—the more I browse through it, the more I want to see the museum in person.

From Buxton, I’d drive for a few days through New England, ending up in Maine. Where I'd really like to go is Scott Island, where author/illustrator Robert McCloskey lived for a while, and where he set Time of Wonder, his beautiful picture book about a summer in Maine. But after some online research, I concluded that that’s not really practical; Scott Island, an island Penobscot Bay, is very, very, very small, and isn’t served by any public transit that I can see. If I couldn’t find someone with a private boat to take me there, the best I’d be able to do, I think, is to go to Stonington and take the Isle au Haut ferry, which passes Scott Island. Then I’d spend a day in Isle au Haut itself, taking in its remoteness and natural beauty before heading back to the mainland and the end of the trip. 

Of course, there are dozens of other places that could be incorporated into a Children’s Literature tour: Prince Edward Island, where Anne of Green Gables is famously set; the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Dicey and her family make their home at the end of their trek in Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming; several of the spots where Laura Ingalls and her family lived, and…well, a kidlit tour is a pilgrimage that could go on indefinitely.

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Free-Range Kids, in Fact and Fiction

Yesterday, my eight-and-a-half-year-old daughter walked the four blocks to her friend’s house sort of on her own—“sort of” because I was trailing a half-block behind her the whole way; she got out the door before I had a chance to put my shoes on to walk her there, and, since I knew the route was familiar to her, and had the sense that she was testing out her wings, I didn’t try too hard to catch up. So I had the chance to see her demonstrate good judgment and safety awareness when crossing streets, and also to make sure that she was okay. And she was; she was fine. I think I might be ready to let her walk there on her own next time.

On the one hand, this feels like a huge step. On the other…well, when I was my daughter’s age, growing up in a comparable neighborhood, I regularly walked the half-mile to school by myself, made my own after-school social arrangements and went up and down the suburban streets to visit various friends, and even rode my bike several blocks to the milk store to buy milk and doughnuts for the family. There’s been a gigantic cultural shift in the thirty-some years between my childhood and hers, and it’s not necessarily a good thing.

I’m definitely not the only parent out there with reservations about how little autonomy the bulk of kids are allowed these days.  Last week I read Free-Range Kids, a manifesto calling for more kid freedom and less parental catastrophizing. Author Leonore Skenazy. makes some good points about the importance of giving kids the chance to test their independence, and also provides hard figures demonstrating that kids are at least as safe now as they were when most of us parents were growing up in the 1960’s,’70’s, and 80’s.

Coincidentally, I’ve also been re-reading one of my favorite recent children’s novels, Saffy’s Angel, by Hilary McKay, first in her series about the Casson family. The four Casson kids are definitely free-range, so much so that they appear to be being neglected: the 11-year-old son regularly sits in the second-floor window to try to cure himself of his fear of heights; the 13-year-old protagonist goes into town one day and gets herself a nose piercing. The siblings grapple with meals, school issues, and bigger problems in the course of the book, which they mostly solve on their own. Their mother, Eve, spends much of her time in the shed, painting (she’s a professional artist), and the narrative gives the very strong impression that she lives in her own world and doesn’t have any idea what’s going on with her children.

That impression turns out to be not entirely accurate. Near the end of the book, there’s a brief but revelatory passage from Eve’s point of view:

“Eve had, as far as possible, always let [the children] do exactly as they liked. Sometimes she found it difficult to let them do exactly as they liked, when Indigo, for instance, took to climbing out of his bedroom window…or Caddy…failed all her school exams. However, Eve always stuck out these grim times as bravely as she could. After all, she would tell herself, she had known from the day the children were born that they were in every way more talented, intelligent, and wise than she would ever be. Remembering this was always a great comfort to Eve.”

I wouldn’t advocate, or be personally comfortable with, such a total hands-off approach. It’s great fun to read about the Cassons, but one big difference between children’s fiction and real-life parenting is that, as a parent, a big part of one’s job is to try to ensure that not too much plot—at least not serious, dangerous, plot—happens to one’s kids.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for Eve Casson’s respect for her children’s choices, and her faith in their ultimate good sense. I’ll be keeping that passage in mind next time I’m trying to decide whether my daughter is ready to take another step out into the world on her own.

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