Friday, June 29, 2007

This guy is good . . .

Minh Le has a blog Bottom Shelf Books giving an alternative view of many of the classics of children's literature. I suspect he will be frequently quoted here.

Frog and Toad are friends who (judging by their clothing) both teach in the Philosophy Department at the University of Vermont.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Well the things you learn. . .

Evaline Ness was the illustrator of Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine for which she won the 1967 Caldecott Medal. It was a popular story with our children when they were younger and I read it many times to them over the years.

What I did not know was that the Ness part of her name was from her marriage to Eliot Ness, of Treasury Department/Al Capone/Untouchables fame. I don't know quite what to make of that, but it is oddly fascinating to me.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Summer Camp(ing)

It is that time of year here in America where children are already or soon will be heading off for camp. I don't know that we realize that among many other distinctive national/cultural traits, summer camping for kids is one of those things that occurs here in the US but is uncommon or absent in most other countries. Part of it is because compared to many countries, America has very long school summer breaks, of between two and three months depending on the state and the school system.

With children underfoot for that long a period, I think it is natural that over time, the tradition has arisen of sending the kids off to summer camp. It is emotionally beneficial for both kids and parents. There is such a multiplicity of camps ranging from a simple one week session to camps lasting most of the summer. Some camps are focused on a single activity such as sailing or riding or archery. Others cover a range of activities. Most camps are single sex, some are coed. Most camps are out in the country and include camping out as part of their activities; a few are set in urban locations.

But regardless of the variety, with this tradition of summer camps comes a corollary litany of camp issues such as leaving home, homesickness, kids that are frightened of nature and the sounds of nature, the kid that doesn't fit in, the child that has no 'skills' (the dearth of which Napoleon Dynamite warned), broken limbs, poison ivy, etc. And yet for all these issues, I think the camp and camping experiences are hugely valuable to most children and probably one of the most underrated factors in the storing up of rich experiences in a child's life. It is not impossible that a child learns more about what is important for them to know in a long summer camp session than in the school year that preceded it.

A big part of the experience is simply having to make their own way in a social environment where they cannot draw upon the support of their parents. It is not quite sink-or-swim but they are thrown on their own resources in a fashion that they never could be at home. Children are brutally efficient at socializing their peers. They have norms of behavior that they expect of one another (which are not necessarily even close to the behaviors expected of them by their parents) and a range of techniques for exacting those behaviors that create much of the tension and dynamic of childhood experience and stories. Lord of the Flies sometimes doesn't seem all that extreme compared to real life.

I have fond memories of my camping experiences which seem exotic having been overseas but which at their core are much of a like with any child's camping experience: the interaction of a bunch of children for a specific period of time within a managed structure but with loose supervision and plenty of opportunity to stretch one's wings of autonomy. The pleasure of learning to braid a lanyard, paint a pottery jug, to be the first one to get the greased watermelon to shore, to hit a bulls-eye with your arrow, to have your crab win the crab race, and on and on far outweigh the mortification of having to learn a skit and perform it or whatever other drawback there was to camp.

For me the greatest pleasure, though, was the interaction with nature. The books I most treasured were those that told the stories of children learning how to survive and live off the land - camping was the closest proxy to experiencing what I was reading. Cooking the hot dogs Mom packed in a Tupperware box over a fire might not have been in the same league as killing and dressing some wild beast for your meal; but it was close enough.

What are some good books to read about camp and camping? Well, interestingly, there are a lot more books about the experience of camping (as in hiking and sleeping out in the open) than there are about camp. Here are a selection that we have organized by type. For younger members of the family perhaps heading off to camp for the first time, there are a selection of picture books that introduce the idea of camps and camping.

We have included some series books of which we are not especially wild but which might be useful if your child is already familiar with and a fan of.

Independent Reader books include some early Learn to Read type books as well as independent reader chapter books covering the experience of camp, camping, adventures in the wild, etc. These books are more for third to sixth grade level introducing them to a context of camping and hopefully by reading the experiences of others allay concerns they might have.

Survival Stories/YA is a group of stories more to do with survival camping than the experience of camp per se. Gripping tales for those that are either very much into camping, or may be thinking of themselves as above it and need to have their interest reignited.

In the Reference category we have a mix of the type of book you want to reference before a camp out (songs, bad jokes and worse riddles, etc.) as well as books for those that are interested in the mechanics of camping out (how to rig a lean-to, how to build a saddle pack for your dog). Our dog Merlin has so far barely avoided the fate of becoming a pack dog but our youngest boy keeps pulling out the instructions so I am not sure Merlin is free and clear yet.

And for those that need the frisson of disaster, we have Camping Gone Wrong featuring a couple of the less ghoulish and sensationalist accounts of the Donner Party as well as a fascinating but tragic tale by Jon Krakauer. The first two are appropriate for independent readers/Young Adult while the last is really more for the Young Adult.

We haven't included the stories, but think about using camping as a great opportunity to introduce some of the pioneers in American history in a way that provides context - Lewis & Clark, Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, etc. When kids are doing something that is concrete, it makes those stories not so much a lesson in history and more of a story they can experience.

Books introducing the idea of camp for young ones

Bear Hug by Laurence P. Pringle & Kate Salley Palmer
Franklin's Canoe Trip by Sharon Jennings & Sean Jeffrey
In the Bush by Roland Harvey
Just Me and My Dad by Mercer Mayer
Mog in the Dark by Judith Kerr
Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale
Quiet Night by Marilyn Singer & John Manders
S Is for S'mores by Helen Foster James & Lita Judge
The Berenstain Bears and the Ghost of the Forest by Stan Berenstain & Jan Berenstain
The Lost Lake by Allen Say

Series/Learn to Read Books

Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping by Peggy Parish & Lynn Sweat
Angelina And Henry by Katharine Holabird & Helen Craig
Arthur's Camp-Out by Lillian Hoban
Babar's Rescue (by the son, not the father) by Laurent de Brunhoff
Bailey Goes Camping by Kevin Henkes
Camping Out (Little Critters) by Mercer Mayer
Cam Jansen and the Summer Camp Mysteries by David A. Adler & Joy Allen
Curious George Goes Camping (by the wife, not the husband) Margret Rey & H. A. Rey
Henry and Mudge and the Starry Night by Cynthia Rylant & Sucie Stevenson
Maisy Goes Camping by Lucy Cousins

Independent Reader

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Donald McKay
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Steven Kellogg
Chasing Bears by Earl Fleck
Chasing Fire by Earl Fleck
Eight Cousins or the Aunt-Hill by Louisa May Alcott
Ellie McDoodle by Ruth Mcnally Barshaw
Holes by Louis Sachar
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
Let's Get Primitive by Heather Menicucci & Susie Ghahremani
Little Horse on His Own by Betsy Cromer Byars & David McPhail
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Riding Camp by Bonnie Bryant
Sally Goes to the Mountains by Stephen Huneck
Sammy Keyes and the Wild Things by Wendelin Van Draanen & Brian Biggs
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain & Donald (ILT) McKay
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
The Summer Camp Mystery by Gertrude Chandler Warner & Hodges Soileau
The Night Before Summer Camp by Natasha Wing & Mindy Pierce
Werewolves Don't Go to Summer Camp by Debbie Dadey

Survival stories/YA

A Journey Through Texas by Frederick Law Olmsted & Witold Rybczynski
A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clements
Brian's Winter by Gary Paulsen
Death Mountain by Sherry Shahan
Far North by Will Hobbs
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell & Ted Lewin
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat & Charles Geer
Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Donn Fendler & Joseph B. Egan
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe & W. J. Linton & W. J. Linton
Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss & Lynd Kendall Ward
The Cay by Theodore Taylor
The Cay (audio book) by Theodore Taylor narrated by Michael Boatman
The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss & Louis John Rhead & Louis John Rhead


Riddles and More Riddles! by Bennett Cerf & Debbie (ILT) Palen
Camp-Lore And Woodcraft by Dan Beard
Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart
Camping for Dummies by Michael Hodgson
How to Stay Alive in the Woods by Bradford Angier & Vena Angier
SAS Survival Handbook by John Wiseman
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell
The American Boy's Handy Book by Daniel Carter Beard
The American Girl's Handy Book by Lina Beard & Adelia Beard
The Foxfire Book by Eliot Wigginton
The Kids Campfire Book by Jane Drake & Ann Love & Heather Collins
The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven & David Borgenicht
Toasting Marshmallows by Kristine O'Connell George & Kate Kiesler
Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children by Tom Brown & Judy Brown & Heather Bolyn & Trip Becker
Woodcraft and Indian Lore by Ernest Thompson Seton
Worst Case Scenario Book Of Survival Questions by Joshua Piven & David Borgenicht & Brenda Brown

Camping Gone Wrong

The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party by Marian Calabro
Snowbound by David Lavender
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Barbara Helen Berger

In contrast to last week's featured author/illustrator, Wanda Gag, who worked primarily in black and white, one of the more notable attributes of Barbara Helen Berger's illustrated stories is just how lush the colors are.

Ms. Berger was born March 1st, 1945 in the Mojave Desert but was raised in Seattle, Washington. Her father was a medical doctor and artist who made his living as a medical illustrator, her mother a nurse with a great love of poetry. With the combined influences of full time immersion in art from her father and her mother's storytelling and love of words, perhaps there is some element of inevitability in her becoming an author/illustrator though for many years that outcome was not an obvious one.

In one of her writing's Ms Berger describes her early experience:

As a child, of course, any distinction between fine art and illustration was totally irrelevant. I simply loved looking at pictures. On walls, or in books. Especially in books. We didn't have so many children's picture books then, nothing like nowadays, but there were illustrated books. My mother, a poet, was great at reading out loud. With her voice providing the music of words, I would gaze at every part of every picture on every page. I did the same with my Dad's big art books, which I pulled from the bottom shelf of the bookcase in the living room. No one was reading out loud to me then, and what child would enjoy all that dry art history anyway? None of that mattered to me. I simply loved sitting there on the sofa alone, legs sticking straight out, the heavy book open across my lap, losing myself in the pictures. Most of them had stories in them, I could tell from the faces and gestures of the people. I recognized some: David and Goliath, Mary and her baby, Venus stepping from her shell. But even when I didn't know what the story was, I could still "read" the picture for itself. And that's what I loved.

She took her degree in Fine Arts from the University of Washington which included a year of art study in Italy. For ten years after her studies, Ms. Berger pursued her avocation as an artist. In the late seventies, she took a course on writing with Jane Yolen (another wonderful writer whom we will be featuring down the road).

In 1980, Ms. Berger's first children's book appeared, as the illustrator of a story by Jane Yolen, "Brothers of the Wind".

Her own first book as the author/illustrator, "Animalia", was released in 1982. This book, a collection of thirteen retold folk tales, was heavily influenced by Ms. Berger's studies in medieval illuminated manuscripts (please see her excerpt from a speech, Illustration: Shedding Light.)

This was followed in turn in 1984 by her book which I regard as one of the long-term classics, "Grandfather Twilight" to which I will return in a moment. Also in her oeuvre are "The Donkey's Dream" (1985), "When the Sun Rose" (1986), "Gwinna" (1990), "The Jewel Heart" (1994), "A Lot of Otters" (1997), "Angels on a Pin" (2000), and "All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet" (2002). She has had a new book out recently, "Thunder Bunny".

Most of her work incorporates styles and themes from the modern era as well as the medieval Renaissance, from Christian and Eastern religious thought and always in rich colors. In her stories, Ms. Berger writes for the child but she incorporates many story and visual hooks that allow you to explore much deeper themes should you wish. Sometimes there is a little bit of a tug-of-war between the lusciousness of the pictures and the potential weightiness of the themes (for example with "Angels on a Pin") which leaves some people with a sense of imbalance. But where the balance is well-struck, it can be simply wonderful and, at all times, for a child, the richness of her artistic style will over-ride any issues related to the story.

For my money, "Grandfather Twilight" is in a class of its own and destined to enter the canon of all-time favorite children's stories. Please see the TTMD review for all the details but suffice to say that this was a favorite of all three of our children with their very different personalities. We used this primarily as a bedtime story, not only because of the story-line (Grandfather Twilight and his evening routine) but also because of the melodic, gently rippling cadence of the story. It is in this book where I think the gentle cadence of the story is most perfectly married with the enveloping comfort of the illustrations. It is a gift to send a child off to sleep with such wonderful images drifting into their unconsciousness.


Brothers of the Wind, by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Barbara Helen Berger, 1981.
Animalia, 1982.
Grandfather Twilight, 1984.
The Donkey's Dream, 1985.
When the Sun Rose, 1986.
Gwinna, 1990.
The Jewel Heart, 1994.
A Lot of Otters, 1997.
Angels on a Pin, 2000.
All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet, 2002.
Thunder Bunny, 2007


"Barbara (Helen) Berger." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2005

"Barbara Helen Berger." Penguin Books 2006

"Bio." Barbara Helen Berger. 6 August, 2006.

Navasky, Bruno. "Children's Books." The New York Times. 19 January 2003. 6 August, 2006.

Seniuk, Jake. "The Bud of Wisdom." On Center. Spring, 1997. 7 August, 2006.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Chronicles of Narnia

Having read the C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia as a child and enjoyed them immensely (one of those stories that take you away from your present reality and then has the courtesy to repeat the favor over several books), I anticipated the release of the movie version in 2005 with some trepidation. Your interaction with a book is often so unique that any movie version has to be a disappointment. Occasionally there are real successes where the new movie carves out its own distinct character but somehow, and often unaccountably, remains true to the source. It is then that you end up with two separate enjoyments, the movie and the book, separate but related.

More often though, the movie is more or less derivative of the original story and then you are left debating about how the weighting of this theme was overdone, how that sub-plot was overlooked altogether, how a secondary character was portrayed inconsistently with your reading of them, etc. Your judgment of the movie becomes a function of the extent to which it is closely correlated or not (Cheaper by the Dozen) to the original book.
You look forward to those occasions when the derivative movie reinforces your reading experience, often serving as the catalyst to go back and re-enjoy the book. You dread when the celluloid rendition besmirches a recollected story by its ham-fisted rendition.
And yet it is a little more complicated than that. I was struck by this last night.
When the Chronicles movie came out a couple of years ago we took all three kids to see it as they had all read and enjoyed the books. The net of the post-viewing discussion was that the filming was beautiful and that while the producers had clearly made the effort to adhere to a pretty nuanced and layered story as closely as possible and had done a fair job of doing so, it was definitely a derivative movie and that the power of the memory of the books would definitely outweigh that of the movie.
Last night the Chronicles were on TV and my daughter very much wanted to see it again and so we re-watched. Nothing in the second viewing changed my assessment from the first. However, I was struck by just how visually powerful some of the scenes were. Lucy stumbling through the closet into Narnia's winter, the lamp post, the Edwardian decorations of Mr. Tumnus' home, the wretchedly drained-of-color forecourt of the White Witches palace, the rich panoply of Aslan's army.
So I end up with the original story line and pleasure from the books intact. That is the memory carried, not the version of the movie. And yet now, in thinking of the parts of the story, there is a visual picture that supplements the reading experience. The producers have rendered a snapshot of those scenes consistent with that which I had created in my head, but theirs has an immediacy and detail which adds one more pleasure.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lines from Dashiell Hammett

The Big Knockover

". . . no more warmth in him than a hangman's rope."

"The room was as black as an honest politician's prospects."

"She didn't seem to know what it was all about, but she couldn't help knowing that it was about something."

Clive James

As he describes his site "At the moment, the contraption, built in a garden shed and first tested off the tops of small hills, is more like a free university having a love affair with a space station. Another useful analogy might be with a clearing in the jungle. The web is certainly a jungle, and without a few clearings it is hard to see how the innocent can stay sane in there, and it might soon be hard to see anything at all. There have to be at least a few areas that unashamedly represent civilized achievement, if only because there are so many that represent the exact opposite, all fangs bared."

He can be a little much to take sometimes but is almost always worth reading.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Nothing like having the wind taken out of your imperial sails

from King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Having just survived crossing a desert, then climbing and descending a mountain range into new country cut off from the rest of the world, Alan Quartermain and his companions encounter a group of threatening inhabitants of this new world, whose custom it is to put to death all intruders. They speak an archaic form of Zulu and Quartermain is able to communicate with them in that tongue.

. . . "Nay, ye shall know the truth. We come from another world, though we are men such as ye; we come," I went on, "from the biggest star that shines at night."

"Oh! oh!" groaned the chorus of astonished aborigines.

"Yes," I went on, "we do, indeed"; and again I smiled benignly, as I uttered that amazing lie. "We come to stay with you a little while, and to bless you by our sojourn. Ye will see, O friends, that I have prepared myself for this visit by the learning of your language."

"It is so, it is so," said the chorus.

"Only, my lord," put in the old gentleman, "thou hast learnt it very badly."

As a non-fiction reader I'm not so sympathetic to this research

Reading Novels Linked with Increased Empathy

Sunday, June 17, 2007

RG Herge

There is a good article on Herge, the author/illustrator of the long running Tintin stories. Unfortunately available only in abstract on-line, it can be found in full in the May 28, 2007 edition in an article titled A Boy's World. It is written by Anthony Lane. Among the other tid-bits he explains the origins of the nome-de-plume, Herge.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

They're creepy and they're kooky


Years ago, at Georgetown's Lauinger Library, while avoiding some study assignment or another by trawling the stacks, I stumbled across Charles Addams, a cartoonist from the thirties and fourties. His dark humor was definitely creepy and kooky and led to the famous Addams Family TV series in the sixties plus a couple of spin off movies. Some of his work has recently been re-released including even The Charles Addams Mother Goose, a rendition unlike most others to which a child will be exposed. The humor is really more off-beat rather than gruesome, somewhat in the vein of Edward Gorey. It will appeal to most children but especially to twelve year olds of the Y chromosome persuasion.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Words, words, words

This caught my eye in an otherwise also interesting article, Marriage in America, in the The Economist magazine from the May 31st issue.

Research also suggests that middle- and working-class parents approach child-rearing in different ways. Professional parents shuttle their kids from choir practice to baseball camp and check that they are doing their homework. They also talk to them more. One study found that a college professor's kids hear an average of 2,150 words per hour in the first years of life. Working-class children hear 1,250 and those in welfare families only 620.