The Newbery and Caldecott Winners

Newbery: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
Caldecott: Flotsam by David Wiesner

For the top two books of the year, they sure are repetitive with other things we've seen.

Patron's title captures the only original element, which is her inclusion of a child's eye view of 12-step programs. The rest is fun, breezy, and even amusing at parts, but predictable. Girl without mom worries guardian won't keep her, runs away, saves the day in the meantime, and is rewarded with her guardian's promise of love forever. The "higher power" references are sprinkled throughout, but this theme is dropped at the end. The opening scene that (quite effectively) draws the reader in involves spying at a crack to the town meeting place for 12-step programs. In the end, with no particular explanation, the protagonist seals the crack. Yes, it's the right thing to do. But yawn.

Wiesner is outstanding at creating wordless picture books, but this one is less effective than (my personal favorite) Tuesday, because it's less thematically connected. The 2 "plots" involve imaginative undersea life and a photo of a photo of a photo... etc. of children dating back to the beginning of photography. Actually, as I write about this it strikes me that a magic camera is an interesting metaphor for children's relationship with digital media now. So, I say this book is okay. I would give it thumbs up. But some of the drawings are truly stilted, which is striking in a bad way for a Caldecott book.

storytelling, story hearing, story gathering

(Thanks to Mary and Julie, who have let me know they are reading along! It inspires me to keep posting).

Today I'm writing about something I read aloud, to a group of children yesterday at BTW school, as a prompt to get them to talk about their own stories. The book was A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. It was interesting to try this... first we were in absolutely the wrong space for little ones to pay attention, a raucous and noisy auditorium. So I asked that we move, and we did, to the library. Then we had the problem that some children had already read the book, so I asked them to keep it secret for the others. In the middle of the book, one girl blurted out "then their house burned," and I leaned to her and said, yes, that's the story inside the story that we'll keep secret for now. So she kept the secret, and felt proud instead of out of line for her enthusiastic outburst.

In a context where a group is divided into those above the age 9 (who went with Rosie to do the Smart Moves program, an anti-gang/drug program) and those below, the 8 year olds become the jaded teenagers. The 5 and 6 year olds become the centers of attention, because they are willing to speak, and they are joined by those 7 year olds still willing to regress a bit and shout out their tales. The 8 year olds look blase, bored beyond belief, slumping in the back of the story circle. I took it in stride. I just spoke to the children.

After I read, we talked about disasters. When bad things happen... This was meant to be an exercise in Community Funds of Knowledge, but ended up being 3/4 fantasy stories. A remarkable number of children had experienced "fires" as disasters, immediate after hearing the story about a fire. The coincidence suggested that children's imaginations were still engaged with the story rather than indicating a rash of arsonists in the neighboorhood. I think the only real one among the group of younger children was "The Big Ketchup Bottle Disaster," which involved a bottle of ketchup plummeting to the floor ("kablooie").

Among the larger group of children which included those ages 9-13 or so, I was told 2 stories of real disasters. One was of an aunt and cousin's house that had been hit by a tree in a tornado. I stopped and talked with this girl, the one who drew this picture with a tree bending in to the window of her aunt's house. She was in earnest about her experience, and it was a story of safety and getting to the basement on time. Another boy had a story about his trip to Mexico when he was 7, when he had been hit in the stomach by a goat. His picture was so vivid. Using only the colors orange and green, he drew a goat, complete with ram's horns, with its head down. He drew himself lifted slightly up in the air, with an "X" and a circle on his belly where the goat hit him. He told me he was in the hospital for 3 weeks.

These experiences make me believe in the power of story. I don't always know if it matters whether stories are true or not. I'm convinced that the power lies somewhere in the telling. If they are real, then they are cautionary or informative. If imagined, they are a testament to the creative reworking we all do of narratives around us, which we weave into the story in which we cloak ourselves from morning to night.

quick funny quote from Hawthorne's Wonder Book

This comes from the story "The Gorgon's Head," about Perseus killing Medusa with the aid of "Quicksilver" (Mercury). After the part of the quest where Perseus has had to confront The Three Gray Ladies who share a single eye between them, Hawthorne writes...

"As a general rule, I would advise all people, whether sisters or brothers, old or young, who chance to have but one eye amongst them, to cultivate forbearance, and not all insist upon peeping through it at once." (p.20, 1885 edition)

An Old Fashioned Girl, continued

Well, costumes do become an even more significant part of the narrative near the end, when Polly dresses up to go to the opera, and garners the attention of a young man whom she doesn't love. This dressing up comes on the heels of a scene in which Fan's friends are discussing how they dislike to see their servants in finery unbecoming their station. The attention of Mr. Syd is drawn, it seems, as much by the dress itself as by Polly's actions. Alcott writes it as a near-ruinous turn of events.

If I had read this book when I was younger, I might have put it down in disgust at that point. The idea that girls needed to reign in their energy was anathema to my younger self, as I felt I had been reigned-in all my life up to that point. Alcott's moral would have seemed sour indeed. Now I see it differently. I still think there's an inherent sexism to Alcott's writing (historically appropriate, but sexist nonetheless) in blaming Polly for attracting Mr. Syd's affections rather than blaming Mr. Syd for his own actions. But I do think people should be aware of the implicit messages they send to others, and try to be mindful of both their intention and their words and actions, despite not being able to control all effects. At any rate, I didn't end up putting the book down in disgust.

In fact, I read it through to the end with great enjoyment. I liked that Alcott differed from Austin in that, as she set up the all-get-married ending, she did so selfconsciously and directly. It struck me as a very American way to write an ending:

"... I now yield to the amiable desire of giving
satisfaction, and, at the risk of outraging all
the unities, intend to pair off everybody I can
lay my hands on." (first paragraph of chpt XIX)

Now I'm looking into other articles about Alcott's work, although I'm doing it slowly because these musings have to take backseat to the dissertation work of looking at what books librarians were recommending for children in the 1880s. Alcott's works were among them, as was another book to be featured in a blog posting coming soon: Hawthorne's Wonder Book, which consists of his adaptations of myths and legends for a then-contemporary audience of children.

costumes in An Old Fashioned Girl

I'm reading Alcott's An Old Fashioned Girl, and noticing connections to the Jo-Topsy article as well as a general use of costume. These are notes toward a paper on Costume and Transgressive Dressing in An Old Fashioned Girl.

Chpt V: Scrapes features Tom cross-dressing and thereby turning into a monster, injuring poor Polly. Check out the language, here framing cross-dressing as so transgressive as to be beyond words.
"It [Fan's bureau] was covered with all sorts of finery, for she
had dressed in a hurry, and left everything topsy-turvy.
A well-conducted boy would have let things alone, or a moral brother
would have put things to rights; being neither, Tom rummaged to
his hearts content, till Fan's drawers looked as if some one had
been making hay in them. He tried the effect of ear-rings, ribbons,
and collars; wound up the watch, though it was n't time; burnt his
inquisitive nose with smelling-salts; deluged his grimy
handkerchief with Fan's best cologne; anointed his curly crop with
her hair-oil; powdered his face with her violet-powder; and
finished off by pinning on a bunch of false ringlets, which Fanny
tried, to keep a profound secret. The ravages committed by this
bad boy are beyond the power of language to describe, as he
revelled in the interesting drawers, boxes, and cases, which held
his sister's treasures."

Then in Chpt VI: Grandma, there's an actual reference to topsy, again made to a girl who is acting out beyond belief. This is from Grandma's girlhood story about a child Sallly who snuck out from boarding school in the evening to buy treats for all the girls. First she dresses up to celebrate her exploits:
"Sally was in high feather at the success of her exploit, and danced
about like an elf, as she put her night-gown on over her frock,
braided her hair in funny little tails all over her head, and fastened
the great red pin-cushion on her bosom for a breastpin in honor of
the feast."

Then she is caught by the headmistress:
"With sudden energy the old lady plucked off the cover, and there
lay Sally with her hair dressed . la Topsy, her absurd breast-pin
and her dusty boots, among papers of candy, bits of pie and cake,
oranges and apples, and a candle upside down burning a hole in
the sheet."

But really, the whole book is about costumed city girls dressing up as women, with boys dressed as men, and going to the theater where Polly is shocked by the revealing French dress and another instance of cross-dressing, women in men's clothing. This is from Chpt 1: Polly Arrives, when she is taken to the theater.
"When four-and-twenty girls,
dressed as jockeys, came prancing on to the stage, cracking their
whips, stamping the heels of their topboots, and winking at the
audience, Polly did not think it at all funny, but looked disgusted,
and was glad when they were gone; but when another set appeared
in a costume consisting of gauze wings, and a bit of gold fringe
round the waist, poor unfashionable Polly did n't know what to do;
for she felt both frightened and indignant, and sat with her eyes on
her play-bill, and her cheeks getting hotter and hotter every
minute."

And, of course, Chapter II is called New Fashions, and features Polly confusion over Fanny's being so fancy just to go to school. And Chapter III is Polly's Troubles, which is again all about dress.

More on this after I finish reading the book! I'm only on chpt VII or so (keywords to find my place "rumple, sherry").

(I'm working from ProjGutenberg, so I don't have page #s yet. Might be nice to get a vintage edition from the Rare Books Room to get original pagination)

Jo March and Topsy

Topsy and Topsy-Turvy Jo: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and/in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women by Michelle Ann Abate, in Children's Literature v. 34, 2006, p. 59-82

Abate shows that Alcott was, like millons of others, influenced by Stowe, and more specifically that the two writers were in some minimal contact. More importantly, she shows how Jo March can be read as connected to the character Topsy. While careful not to overgeneralize, she shows some interesting similarities between the two, drawing on Toni Morrison's "American Africanist" ideas of ways whites use the fictional image of blacks. Topsy is, after all, a stereotype of a Minstrel show performer.

Favorite quote that shows how Abate is specific in delineating similarities:
"Although Louisa May Alcott's Jo March emerges from a profoundly different social, economic, geographical, racial, and cultural milieu, she possesses and array of personal, physical, and psychological similarities to those of Stowe's character." (p. 65)

Digital Storytime

The Digital and Traditional Storytimes Research Project. By: Collen, Lauren. Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, Winter2006, Vol. 4 Issue 3, p8-18, 11p

Fascinating article on using books from the International Children's Digital Library in storytimes, but there were a few things I left the article wondering... First, the comparison of size was page-to-monitor, but no info was given about the size of the projection in front of the children. How did it compare to standard big books?

Second, the comparison was between a standard storytime with a reader and book in the front of the room and a storytime with a projection of a book from the ICDL with a reader sitting "in the audience" with the children. Collen concludes that children pay better attention to the digital story, but she doesn't account for this major difference. Children, given a storyteller who is a live and interesting person, will invariably ask questions of the teller/reader. They are more active, and therefore less "attentive" according to Collen. Given a screen and no person, sure the kids ask less questions. But why would this be considered "more attentive" than the times when kids are asking questions? So there are two problems... one, the placement of the adult, and two the definition of "attentive."

The Norton (the cat) Books

Peter Gethers wrote 3 books about his Scottish Fold cat Norton: The Cat Who Went to Paris, A Cat Abroad, and The Cat Who'll Live Forever. For me, this series was extremely welcome easy holiday reading. It was also pertinent because my parents had my childhood cat, Tristan, put to sleep on Dec. 26, 2006. He lived to be almost 21. During my teenage years it meant the world to me to have one creature in the house who didn't blame or judge me, who accepted me as I was. He was a very shy creature, but after much coaxing I was able to teach him to nap on my belly. Last I saw him was last Christmas, when he looked very frail. He got sweeter as he got older, and loved to be held and petted.

But this is supposed to be about books, not about my childhood cat. The three books by Gethers are must-reads for cat lovers. That said, the writing is choppy, and the stories typically focus more on Pete, the human, than on Norton, the cat. In my mind, Pete's saving grace is his love for Norton. He's a reasonably entertaining person (and I love that he gets explicit in the 2nd and 3rd books about not being religious), and his gags about how Norton gets more attention than he does are funny for awhile. The books themselves are somewhat repetitive. All that said, they were wonderfully soothing holiday reading.

Be warned: the last one is about Norton's death. It's cathartic if you're suffering a loss yourself, and it was the book of the three that made me really like Pete after all. The care he showed and his capacity to grow in love as Norton needed him were really touching. I sobbed openly through most of the last 3rd, partly over the loss of Tristan but more over remember our last days with Ben's cat Cinnamon. We still have a photo of Cinnamon in our kitchen. He was one of those extraordinarily, almost eerily intelligent cats. His personality was quite different from Norton's, but Cinnamon did exhibit some of the patient behavior around his medical care at the end that made me feel that he trusted me and even understood, at times, that I was helping him by giving him medications. Norton apparently hated pills too, and would only take them with peanut butter. Gethers describes him hiding them in his mouth and then spitting them back out in some obvious place, as if to say "so there!" After Cinnamon died, Ben and I found that he had been hiding his pills in his mouth and spitting them quite regularly into one of the heating vents in the floor. It made us laugh and cry to find a stash of maybe 30 pills, each of them carefully cut into little half moons, down in that vent.

You see how cat lovers can't stay on the subject of the books without talking about their cats? If you've ever owned and loved a cat, you'll enjoy reading these with all their flaws, because they honor an extraordinary feline creature.