Sunday, September 25, 2011

Some Old Favorites

I've been trying to get through a pile of new books that I've accumulated; sadly, many are so dreadful they are practically unreadable.  My progress has also been hampered by obligations at work and home, school having shifted into high gear once more.  Therefore, I've decided to designate this post as an addendum to this one, and write about some books that were (and in some cases, still are) favorites of mine.

  • I'm going to begin this list with E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan.  These, to my mind, are the quintessential American children's novels.  Both books focus on animals with very human attributes, and there's a secondary focus on the humans around them, sympathetic and not.  I recently read a new (adult level) book about White and the creation of Charlotte's Web; quite fascinating, really.
  • No new reader should be denied a chance to read Pippi Longstocking.  This Swedish character is incorrigibly everything a good girl should not be, and yet she is one of the most lovable protagonists in children's literature.  Astrid Lindgren, the author of the Pippi books, wrote others that are not widely available.  Mio, My Son is one that I didn't really get into, but I loved Ronia, The Robber's Daughter.  Targeted to a more mature audience, (11-12 years) this book pulls the reader into another world completely.
  • Jean Little was a very popular author when I was growing up; many of her books focus on children with disabilities.  She has also written some impressive autobiographical books.  From Anna is one of the former, and it focuses on a little German immigrant to Canada who discovers that her stupidity and clumsiness are really a result of her extremely poor eyesight.  I'll confess that I still sometimes take it out of the library and read it, and I always cry at the end.  Another favorite of mine is Stand In The Wind, which does not have her usual disabled character; it deals with the children of two families and some ruined summer plans.
  • I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who didn't like The Secret Garden.  Its mysteriousness, its spoiled brat protagonist, the dramatic denouement, all combine to make the perfect story.  If it gets a little sappy occasionally, who can blame Burnett?  That's most likely what her contemporary audience was looking for.
  • My children recently discovered that the movie The Parent Trap was based on a book, long out of print.  As a child, I read this book multiple times, so I was happy to buy a used copy for them.  If you've never read Lisa And Lottie, you'll enjoy this story of twins separated at birth.  Originally published in German in 1949, it's been adapted for film many times, twice in English.  (Side note:  The author, Erich Kastner, had many of his books burned by the Nazis, and effectively was banned from publishing any of his material throughout the time of the Third Reich).
  • The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, is a book I've read countless times and has recently come back into print.  A Great Depression Era book, this novel was probably the first coming-of-age type story that I ever read.  Robin, the protagonist, is really the perfect character for a girl in her early teens to relate to as she reads.  Snyder writes about feelings very well, and manages to be emotional without being cloying.  Other books I've enjoyed by Snyder include Below the Root (fantasy) and The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case.
  • Most avid readers have heard of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and it's hard to find a reader who didn't like this unusual book.  E.L. Konigsberg writes here of every child's deepest and darkest wish -- to run away, but not just anywhere;  to run away to somewhere special.  In this case, it's the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the story's mood alternates from suspenseful, to humorous, to businesslike, all in a few chapters.  A prolific writer, Konigsberg has written some other excellent books (such as The View From Saturday) but because of certain poor choices in language I don't feel comfortable recommending them to a wider audience.
  • The Secret Language was the only book written by Ursula Nordstrom, who was for many years editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row.  This book shows such a deep knowledge of how the minds of children operate that no reader can help but be moved.  The illustrations are also wonderful.
  • As a final pick, I'll mention the inimitable Encyclopedia Brown.  This series, by Donald Sobol, seems to have grown by several volumes since I last read it.  It's enjoyable even for adults to read the short mysteries and try to guess the solutions before turning to the back of the book where all is made clear.
  • I'd like to wish all my readers a sweet Jewish New Year, with good fortune, good health, and only happy occasions.  My next post should be some time after we've emerged from the holidays, and I hope I'll have read several noteworthy books by that time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rite of Spring?

After a long wait, I finally got a hold of The Hunger Games, which everyone on the hold list seems to have been reading.  Classified as a Young Adult book, this is a strange futuristic tale of a country (ours, in a future I hope doesn't come) in which a terrible yearly rite is carried out.  Each year, every district is required to select two young people to participate in the nationwide Hunger Games, which seems similar to Survivors but without the scruples.  In the Hunger Games, the last one alive wins.

This book is quite dark, but engrossing.  It put me in mind of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, a story I read in high school, about a contemporary community which still practices something like the pagan rite of spring sacrifice.  I won't say too much more; I don't like spoilers.  This isn't a book I'd give to my young teen, but it is a well-constructed story with an unexpected ending.  Even better, it begins a series, and I'm waiting now for the second installment, Catching Fire.

Switching genres entirely now, I would like to recommend an excellent nonfiction book recently published.  1493, by Charles C. Mann, is subtitled Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, and could just as easily have been called The Columbian Exchange.  Mann's sizable tome covers all populated continents, as he documents the ripple effect (in some places, more of a tsunami effect) that the European conquest of the Americas caused.
Mann also published 1491, about the Americas before Columbus.  I enjoyed this book, but not quite as much as 1493.  In 1493, he spends some time on the devastating effect of European diseases on the local people, whose populations were decimated by smallpox, measles, and other diseases they had never experienced, and writes at length of the effect of the malarial mosquito on Europeans.  Anyone who is interested in food will find interesting the chapters on origins of certain fruits, vegetables, and grains we take for granted as native to our lands today.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Smart Reader's Kids

I often get requests for book recommendations for children; nowadays it's so difficult to find books for kids that have literary merit.  Another issue is the fact that one doesn't want one's children picking up, say, bad language from the books he/she is reading.  It's also hard to pinpoint which books reflect the values one is trying to inculcate in one's family.

Although this may sound like a pain in the neck, I pre-read nearly every book my children take out from the library.  This isn't really as hard as it sounds, because I spent most of my childhood reading every book in existence; it only remains for me to read the newer ones.  Also, I read faster than the average person (practice makes perfect! Read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers if you don't believe me).

In this post, I offer a short list of recommended reading for emerging readers and onward.  If you are looking for good books in a particular genre for your child, you can request those in the comments and I'll do another post later this month.

Emerging readers:  These are the children who are just beginning to read on their own and are moving beyond read-aloud; there is usually a special section in the library for these readers.  Unfortunately, each publisher has its own leveling system, so it takes some time to figure out what is what, but you can't go wrong with:

  • Dr. Seuss; Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham are perfect for young independent readers.
  • Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series
  • David Adler's Young Cam Jansen, and when they are ready they can move on to the regular Cam Jansen series.
  • I was very fond of Amelia Bedelia when I was very young; I've noticed, however, that today's children often don't grasp the double meanings of the words the way we used to.  A lot of those words are not in common use today, and it just doesn't seem as funny.  Take them out anyway; it's worth a little bit of explanation.
Intermediate readers:  These are children who read well on their own, and can deal with real chapter books that have lots of words.  The subject matter is usually straightforward and the plot is generally uncomplicated.  Vocabulary is on or slightly above level.

  • I don't really like series books, but this one is actually not bad (although it's a tad commercial for my taste).  The American Girl books, with each series focusing on a child growing up during a particular era in American history, are nicely done, well-written, and comfortingly predictable.  The values are quite nice, and each book features an appendix that tells the reader more about the period in history.  If you can restrain yourself from purchasing any of the merchandise, you should be fine.  The authors vary.  These are usually most suitable for ages 7-10.
  • A good author for children ages 8-11 is Eleanor Estes; her Moffat family series is charming and funny.  Other good authors for these ages are Elizabeth Enright, whose '50's era books are all now being reprinted, and Edward Eager.  Eager is an E.Nesbit wannabe, and for those of you who have never heard of Nesbit, she was an English children's author who was very well known and is still widely read.  I would recommend her books to older children, though, because the language is quite British, if you get my meaning.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are a good place to start for a girl who is ready for a book that is a bit longer.  The series officially begins with Little House in the Big Woods, and moves onward.  The last two might not be appropriate to children younger than 11 or 12; the last book is actually a bit tragic.
  • Andrew Clements skyrocketed to fame with his bestseller, Frindle, and seems to have been consistently churning out entertaining novels since then.  I particularly enjoyed A Week in the Woods, as well as Room One.  Parents should be aware, however, that Clements also published several Young Adult books that are not targeted to this age level.
  • Of course, it's impossible to look for books for intermediate readers without mentioning Beverly Cleary.  One thing (out of many) that is appealing about her books is how they are so suited both to boys and girls.  Ramona is a character girls love and boys find hilarious.  Ralph S. Mouse has universal appeal.  
  • Noel Streatfeild was a great favorite of mine growing up.  Her "Shoe" books (Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Theater Shoes) are endearing and beautifully written.
Older and advanced readers:  Children aged 11 and over are often looking for books with more complex plots, abstract themes, that don't unfold predictably.  However, this age and level is difficult because much of the fiction marketed to this group depicts values and behaviors parents don't want their children immersed in.  Here I offer a short list of some suitable reading material, but it is very important here to know what your child can handle, and what you do/do not want him/her exposed to.
  • Zilpha Keatley Snyder:  One of my favorite books, even now, is Snyder's Velvet Room.  One of her several books set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Snyder's story carries a lesson but does it so gently that the reader delights in learning it.  I didn't love all her books, but she's definitely an author to acquaint yourself with.
  • L.M. Montgomery was the creator of Anne of Green Gables and published oodles of similar books.  There's no real middle ground with Montgomery -- either you love her or she sickens you.
  • Newbery Medal books:  Click on this link to get a full listing of all the Newbery winners I have read and reviewed.
If you post your requests in the comments section for this post, I will take up this thread in my next post as well.  For example, if you have a child who likes fantasy, or mysteries, I would be happy to publish a separate post for that genre.  Be sure to check out my quasi-kid post on this page.