Sunday, August 23, 2009

Summer Reading: a review

As promised, I’m giving you my top five summer children’s lit reads. Given my propensity for emotional additives and lengthy back-story it’s a bit of a blended post. Some of these books are brand new and one is an old favorite but they are all now on my permanent list. I hope they might make their way onto yours, too.

1) How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz.

This book is already all over this blog. I mentioned it in my last post, added it to my book list on my profile, and am deeming it the first title to discuss. It won the Caldecott Medal and is based on Schulevitz’s own experience as a young boy. Yes, there was an actual war. Yes, there was an actual map. And, yes, the young boy did grow up to explore the whole, big, great world.

How I Learned Geography is about a young boy living in a war-town country. One day his father goes to the bazaar to buy bread but instead of returning with dinner he comes home with a map. The boy is furious and believes he will never forgive his father but the map goes up on the wall, a brilliant blast of color, and the boy (like the reader) is inevitably drawn in. He begins to explore the map and likewise the world, as if by lying down next to its massive canvas he is in fact inhabiting the countries he is looking up at. He is led away by the map to far-off, exotic lands. He runs his toes in dazzling, golden sand at the edge of oceans, reclines peacefully under fruit trees and gazes up at impossibly lofty sky-scrapers. In the end, he forgives his father.

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about this book. In my opinion it does what every good children’s book should do: makes the most complicated concept simple and beautiful without ever stating the fact. There is a lesson, of course, but the real magic is in the exploration itself. We don’t need to hear that a sense of possibility is more important than a full stomach, we intuit it. The book’s power comes from it’s example--- the magnificent gift of an accessible world passed from father to son.

2) There by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick.

Consider this book the Waiting for Godot for the young. The book is about “There,” you know, that magical place that once inhabited renders all of life complete. The zone in which we are constantly referring to with our jobs, relationships, finances and figures. There.

Our young hero is wary of the “there.” He is not sure what he will find once he goes. Will there be dragons? Will there be signs pointing the way? How will he know what is looks like? Does everyone have to go there? As I was reading I couldn’t help asking the same questions. This book is not only a great one to read aloud with children but it’s also, I think, a great reminder for adults as well. We all know that “there” does not exist, that it is a fictional state characterized primarily by the fact that it is absolutely, without fail, completely unattainable. Why then do we pursue it with such gusto? Forgive me for the momentary Gilbert-lingo, but: why are we so concerned with constantly being somewhere we’re not?
I closed the book thinking what the young hero does, “I’m busy today, I’ll go there tomorrow.”

3) Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson with drawings by Hilary Knight.

This one requires a bit of back-story...

I first fell in love with Eloise because my best friend in the second grade, Bethany Berman Brady was in love with Eloise and Bethany could read. In time on this blog I will share with you my own journey to the written word and how I didn’t learn to read until almost the third grade (it turned out OK in the end) but for now let’s just say Bethany was my hero. And likewise, so was Eloise.

I remember long afternoons spent under the jacardanda tree in her (Bethany’s) backyard, lying on a hammock listening to her read. Bethany did a great impression of Eloise (brisk tone, snobbish but lovable) and an even better one of Nanny and when I read the books today I still imagine her little voice, holding my fingers with one hand and turning the pages with the other.

About two years ago I had the privledge of spending two months in Paris. It came at the tail end of a year in Europe (mostly in Edinburgh, Scotland). I was doing a lot of writing at the time (trying to, anyway) and consequently spent many days loitering around Shakespeare and Company, the infamous English-speaking bookstore in Paris. The store is exactly what one would want out of a bookstore: the appearance of friendly clutter while being systematically organized with oodles of character and a splash of dusty-attic charm. The store has a little loft that serves as a third floor and is only accessible by a small ladder. It’s one of my favorite places in all of Paris. It always struck me as a bit strange, however, that the loft was where the children’s section is. I know many a mother who would have very little interest in seeing her child climb a tall, rickety ladder (and many a shop-owner who would feel the same) but I suppose they are all American. Ah, French sensibility.

Anyway my last day in Paris I ended up in the loft to spend a few quiet moments writing when I saw a copy of Eloise in Paris discarded on a table. I picked it up at once and I have to say, it is my favorite Eloise of them all. Eloise’s Paris is the Paris we all know and adore. It is the Paris of the movies, the wonderful, impossibly romantic, never-changing, iconic, epic city of lights. I bought the copy on the spot (had them stamp a Shakespeare and Company tattoo inside) and consider it to be, hands down, one of my most favorite books on my shelf. I treasure it and if you or your youngster haven’t yet been introduced to Eloise, by all means, let me now make introductions.

4) Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen, illustrations by Kevin Hawk.

I love this book. I really do. It’s simple and straightforward and boy does it have heart. The book is about a lion that one day wanders into the library and makes noise. He is told by Miss Merriweather, the librarian, that the library is a quiet place and if he wants to remain he must not roar. The lion obeys until one day Miss Merriweather falls and the lion must go get help and therefore, must make noise. The book has a kind of no-nonsense sensibility that springs from Miss Merriweather’s unaplolgetic persona and had me laughing. It is also deliciously rebellious in it’s lesson: sometimes, the best thing to possibly do is break all the rules.


5) The Curious Garden by Peter Brown.

My last pick won me over for a variety of reasons. First of all, the artwork is superb. Subtle and poignant and thematically excellent it presents the overgrowth of nature in the most tidy way. Truly a grand feat. Secondly, I read this review by the venerable Betsy Bird and it swayed me in the friendly direction, to put it mildly. And thirdly, well, I’m a sucker for what this book has to say.

Liam, our protagonist, is a young boy living in an overly grey, industrial city. One day he comes across a small and dying garden above some railway tracks and decides to tend to the greenery. As Liam grows as a gardener, the garden itself grows and begins to take over the city. There are wonderful, full-page illustrations of the garden and its personified plants reaching into all kinds of far-off nooks and crannies and lovely images of all the city dwellers in their sunhats and gardening gear getting to work as well. My favorite picture is of Liam in full disguise, dropping off some garden somewhere it doesn’t belong. It’s a smart, sharp book with a soft message and I think one you all will really enjoy.

Well there you have it, my top five summer reads. Now, off to fall!

*Head on over to Mrs. P's corner of the web and check out her storybook contest for young writers. The entry dates are September 1st- October 15th so get writing!

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