Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Such was Archimedes

Doesn't this sound like Doyle's depiction of Watson describing his own response to Sherlock Holmes? This quote is Plutarch describing Archimedes.

Some ascribe this to his natural genius; while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlabored results. No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it - by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion . . . Such was Archimedes.

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances by Alexander McCall Smith

From the opening paragraph:

Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld's birthday fell on the first of May. He would not always have remembered it had the anniversary not occurred on May Day itself; as a small boy he had been convinced that the newspaper photographs of parades in Red Square, those intimidating displays of missiles, and the grim-faced line-up of Politburo officials, all had something to do with the fact that he was turning six or seven, or whatever birthday it was. Such is the complete confidence of childhood that we are each of us at the centre of the world - a conviction out of which not all of us grow, and those who do grow out of it sometimes do so only with difficulty. And this is so very understandable; as Auden remarked, how fascinating is that class of which I am the only member.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Feline Memoriam

She was just an American mutt cat. People hardly noticed at first, but she was a calico. White across most her body, she had a splash of black on the crown of her head, lapping up on one ear, a splash of gold on her cheek and a smudge of gold by her nose and then a beautiful gold and black tail. She had the tiniest, daintiest, and the most beautifully pink paw pads you could imagine.

She joined us as a kitten, in October 1994. At church, a semi-feral mother cat had had a litter of kittens which, for reasons unclear, she had nested in a trellis, twenty feet above ground. Daily, she would, one by one, carry the kittens down to the ground and then back up the trellis. Eventually, the church staff began capturing the kittens as they became old enough and found homes for them among the parishioners. We took one. But still there were more kittens. With a two and a half year old boy and a two month old girl, and two other cats at home, Sally did not feel like there was quite enough going on and thought that if one kitten was good then two would obviously be better.

The call came one week while I was away on business. Sally trekked down to church, children in tow and in hand. Another kitten was available. "She doesn't seem at all friendly, I don't think you will want her with small children in the house" she was told. Sally instructed our boy to sit down against the wall and to be quiet and still. He sat as infinitely flexible children sit: back straight up, legs straight out in front. "Open the cage. Let's see what happens." Bennett jumped out, trotted over to Price, lay down in his lap and started purring loudly. That was all that was required to secure a place in Sally's heart and a new home.

So she joined us. Late Friday, I returned home, digesting the week's events, writing reports in my mind, figuring out how to analyze a client's business problems. Washing up before joining the family for dinner, I registered that there was a cat litter box in our bathroom. Hmmm. Wonder why that's there? But I just registered it. Other more important things to think about.

At dinner, Price could hardly contain himself. Despite coaching from Sally to not say anything and to see how long it would take before I noticed that the cat population of the house had increased by fifty percent, after two or three bites of dinner he burst out, "Daddy, did you see what was in your bathroom?" I could only look at Sally, "You didn't."

But she had. And so Bennett joined us and became a part of our family adventures. Quiet, shy and self-effacing, she was hardly to be seen when visitors were about. But when we were on our own, she would find whoever was still, snuggle up to them and softly purr contentedly. She took to jumping into the crib with baby Sarah, always curling up in the crook of her arm, two little lives bound together from the beginning. It has been one of those cherished small pleasures in my life to come into a room and find one of the kids reading and there, no matter what posture they were in, would be Bennett. Lying in their lap, snuggled up by their face, on their back, crouched on their legs. Somewhere. And purring.

She was a well travelled cat, one of not too many that circumnavigated the globe. She moved with us from Atlanta to Australia. There in that wonderfully strange land, she stalked geckos and huntsman spiders in the house, chased mynah birds out of the kitchen and fended off Australian possums trying to climb through Price's louvered windows.

She came with us from Australia to England where she had to reside in quarantine for two or three months. Fortunately she was relatively close to us and Sally and the kids could visit her periodically. They would be shown down the hall of large cages, somehow squeeze all of themselves into her cage and then be left for an hour to commune and share their ham sandwiches. Never aggressive, Bennett could be forward when there was a whiff of ham in the air.

Then back to Atlanta. Around the globe and with a world full of experiences, she was back where she began, back to the familiar.

The family has grown. The two and a half year old is now sixteen, towering above Bennett's visual horizon. The baby girl is a lovely young woman with a tender heart. Another boy came along, noisy and energetic but capable of gentleness where an aging cat is concerned. There have been other pets, a magnificent Boxer dog, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, frogs, etc. They have come and they have gone but Bennett was the quiet mistress of the pet world in the house.

This last year, age crept up on her. She slowed down. Always petite, she lost weight. Always stalking, this past month, she was now being stalked. In the past week it was clear the time had come. And now she is gone.

She was just an American mutt cat, but she was loved. She was one of those small, gentle, quiet, ornaments of life. She brought her own measure of grace, beauty and contentment. Rest in Peace.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sometimes the solution is just waiting to be found.

One of the issues with which we have wrestled at Through the Magic Door is the incorporation of an appropriate rating system for books. One that is meaningful, descriptive, reliable and not subject to gaming. A rating system that addresses the world as we find it, rather than the world as we might want it to be.

In the next iteration of our advanced search database on the site, we will be incorporating a rating system that we hope meets these criteria.

There has, however, been one unresolved issue. We have Highly Recommended (HR) books (with appropriate descriptions and examples of what that means), Recommended (R) books and Suggested (S) books. We even have a category of books, Possible (P). P books are those that are pretty pedestrian or flawed in some way and are unlikely to appeal to the average reader but might be happily read by individuals with a strong interest in the topic or genre.

But what to do about those books towards which we as parents raise a skeptical eyebrow? Books which our children may enthusiastically want to read but of which we are deeply suspicious in terms of taste or values? Books about gastrically impaired canines (Walter the Farting Dog), sartorially challenged kids (The Adventures of Captain Underpants), trans-species (?) romance (Twilight), socially twisted mean girls (Baby-Sitters club), the linguistically challenged (Junie B. Jones), etc.

Books which under most circumstances we would definitely not recommend except that they are books which kids love to read at a certain age. Books that, in their own fashion, do help build the habit of reading despite their content or nature. Which is the greater good, more reading or reading fewer, "better" books? Of course that is a false dichotomy. In fact, the raison detre for Through the Magic Door is in part to make sure parents can easily find the really good books that are likely to appeal to their children in place of the aesthetically challenged fare being hawked so indiscriminately. None-the-less, no matter how many good books you may make available to your child, like as not, there will be a phase (or two or three) when your child wants to read something that is highly suspect in terms of either aesthetic quality or in terms of behavioral norms that are being advanced.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we only review books we believe are likely to be worthwhile to some child and parent. We don't invest time in reading or reviewing a book in order to trash it. De facto, if there is no review then we either haven't read the book or we have read it and it is not one we would recommend.

So how to deal with books that we have read and don't recommend but recognize that children will want to read anyway because it is the hot item on the publishing circuit and being heavily promoted or because their friends are reading it or because it touches on the inappropriate? "Eskimo", to use Mrs. Gilbraith's euphemism in the wonderful Cheaper By The Dozen.

We don't want to necessarily promote these books by drawing attention to them but it is not appropriate to stick one's head in the sand and just pretend that they don't exist and aren't effective in getting some children to keep reading? That is the problem we have been wrestling with.

In this quarter's ever delightful Slightly Foxed, (the literary magazine that is dedicated to bringing attention to wonderful books from the past few years or century that have drifted from the limelight), there is an article, Nobody Ever Writes to Me, by David Spiller regarding the six volume collection of the correspondence, The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, 1955- 1962, between those classic old-school literary figures George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. Their very names evoke a lost age that was only a blink of the eye ago.

As an aside, I should warn readers that Slightly Foxed is an incideous magazine for anyone infected with even the mildest strain of bibliophilia. In a house bursting at the seams with books and no place to put even the normal volume of new acquisitions that I make, the last thing I need is to be lured into new purchases. Collected correspondence between literati from fifty years ago, is, in the normal course of events, virtually at the bottom of my list of books to watch out for. More than at the bottom. Down the well. Way down.

And yet Spiller has done what all the writers in Slightly Foxed do. He has piqued my interest. He has ignited a spark. I know that, should I come across this set of books in my visit to bookstores, there is a high likelihood that, despite my prejudices, other interests and lack of space, those books will be coming home with me. Subscribe to Slightly Foxed if you wish but beware.

In his article, Spiller comments on how Lyttelton and Harte-Davis corresponded about many things but among other items, they wrote of literature and of books and how despite the differences in their ages, there was a high degree of agreement and judgement. He mentions:

Both men read Ian Fleming, whom Lyttelton described as 'bad and at the same time compellingly readable'.

I think we have there the answer to our rating dilemma. To HR, R, S, and P we can now add BBCR - Bad But Compellingly Readable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Magical Toys

We are entering that period of the year when magic is in the air and there is hope in many little hearts for toys under the tree. We don't usually think about it in this way but this is the time when the imaginative juices are primed. There are unfamiliar and intriguing smells from the kitchen, sparkling and enchanting decorations about the house, lights of rarely encountered hues are to be seen around the neighborhood, songsheets of music new to young ears and for whom Joy to the World or Little Town of Bethlehem are still fresh and have no whiff of nostalgia. There is an unusual inward turning, the building up of time with family, a reknitting together of strands that might have become frayed through a busy year. Traditions and family rituals, unfamiliar or forgotten by young minds, are given new life.

Some of our most powerful children's stories bring together the elements of this season - hope, imagination, magic, and toys. It is worth recollecting these powerful stories because they also become part of our future lives and those treasures that we in turn hand to our children.

E.T.A. Hoffman, a German author (1776-1822), was born in that geographically quixotic city of Konigsberg, Prussia, now known as the exclave of Russia, Kaliningrad. He was a leading exemplar of German Romanticism and suffered from a surfeit of talent. He earned his living primarily as a lawyer/jurist but wrote music, plays and poetry as well as painted. The work for which he is best known today is his Nussknacker und Mausekonig; Nutcracker and Mouse King written in 1816. The Nutcracker received a new lease on life through the magic of Tchaikovsky who accepted a commission to translate Hoffman's work into a two act fantasy ballet which premiered December 1892 (seventy years after Hoffman's death).

Since the original work is long out of copyright, there are many, many different versions floating around. Indeed, the French author, Alexandre Dumas (of Three Musketeers fame) did an adaptation of the original in 1847 and it was in fact that version that served as the basis for Tchaikovsky's work. The best retellings, while simplifying the story line somewhat, capture the sense of magic and imagination in the original as well as the element of mystery, suspense and danger. There is a certain darkness in the tale which characterizes some of the other deep classics that appeal to young children generation after generation. Think of motherless Peter Pan and the Lost Boys; of the tragic fate of Andersen's Little Mermaid; of the immolation of the Steadfast Tin Soldier.

The story of the Nutcracker is that of Maria Stahlbaum, a young girl in Frankfurt, eagerly awaiting the Christmas Eve party to which family (including her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer) and friends are invited. She and her brother Fritz are given a beautiful nutcracker in the shape of a soldier by their godfather Drosselmeyer. That night, Christmas Eve night, the nutcracker appears to come to life to fight the evil mice, enchant Maria, whisk her to his far away kingdom (for after defeating the Mouse King he assumes his real form as a Prince upon whom a spell had been placed), and then, before dawn, resumes his shape as a nutcracker so that he might always be with her.

After all the phantasmagorical scenes and activities, the story ends (in Daniel Walden's retelling) with Maria's mother telling her:

"If Nutcracker came alive, it was because you like him so well. If you love something very much it is always alive . . . What a funny child you are today! Now get washed and dressed and have your breakfast. I'll light the fire."

Thus is achieved that close juxtaposition of magic and the quotidian which is inherent to every child discovering the world for the first time. And like all masterpieces of this nature, you are left wondering what really happened - what was real and what was imagined.

The Nutcracker is a wonderful tale but it is deep and it is dark and can be interpreted at many different levels. It is often better suited for slightly older children, perhaps six or eight years old. For young adults, it is actually a very interesting case study for trying to tie what was going on in the author's world (Napoleonic invasions of Prussia where Hoffman was living, Hoffman's personal careening between careers, etc.) to the text that he then created.

The final lines of Nutcracker are the central premise of Margery Williams Bianco's The Velveteen Rabbit, that love is not only a transformative experience but can actually transform things. A child receives a toy rabbit for Christmas but quickly sets him aside for other baubles. Later he takes up with the toy rabbit again and comes to love it deeply, so deeply that the rabbit is his critical companion as he suffers through a life threatening illness. He recovers but the toy rabbit is set aside to be burned as part of the general sanitization after the illness. It is then that the rabbit discovers that he has been so well loved that he becomes real. No simple summary of this tale can really capture, though, how much it touches the heart.

The transformative power of love is similarly central to the Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Steadfast Tin Soldier of which there are a number of excellent versions.

The Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy stories are simple masterpieces of delight for young boys and girls, relating the adventures of Ann and Andy who are stoical and immobile when people are about but play and have numerous adventures and misadventures with the other toys when left unwatched. Written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle and based on a real doll he had given his own daughter, the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories were written in the 1910's through the 1920's and there is a whiff of the era in the books but largely they exist in that timeless world of a child's imagination.

The Adventures of Pinnocchio is yet another in these tales where a toy comes to life but differs in that, for most of the book, Pinnocchio is not a real little boy but an animated marionette. The Adventures of Pinnocchio is recognizable to many because of the Walt Disney version, but as is often the case, the original is much deeper and with more dark elements than managed to make it into the cartoon. This is not a bad thing. The story has more substance and less froth than the cartoon and keeps a child gripped when hearing the tale and coming back to it again and again.

One of my personal favorites, partly for the story, but mostly for the pictures is the perennial childhood favorite, The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, a house name for the original publisher, Platt & Munk. There have been subsequent releases illustrated by others but I think for sheer magical inspiration, none of them hold a candle to the original version illustrated by George and Doris Hauman.

Moving a little further afield from the magical toy theme you have others such as Winnie the Pooh and Polar the Titanic Bear in which there is no claim of magic per se. Instead you have a much loved toy that has a life of its own (Pooh) or some consciousness (Polar). Polar the Titanic Bear is based on a true story and is tremendously poignant, one of a good handful of discoveries I have made of newer books when reading to my children when they were young.

What I think is most wonderful about these type of stories is that, while often poignant and touching, they are also fun and affirming. Take a look at the list of books below and let us know which ones you enjoy or others you might recommend.

Picture Books

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper and illustrated by George and Doris Hauman Highly Recommended

Raggedy Andy Stories written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle Highly Recommended

Raggedy Ann Stories written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle Highly Recommended

The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen and illustrated by P. J. Lynch Recommended

Corduroy written and illustrated by Don Freeman Recommended

The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann and illustrated by Don Daily Recommended

Santa Calls written and illustrated by William Joyce Recommended

Polar the Titanic Bear by Daisy Corning Stone Spedden and illustrated by Laurie McGraw Recommended

Arthur's Honey Bear by Lillian Hoban Suggested

The Nutcracker by Stephanie Spinner and illustrated by Peter Malone Suggested

Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson and illustrated by Daniel Kirk Suggested

Independent Reader

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco and illustrated by William Nicholson Highly Recommended

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco and illustrated by Michael Hague Highly Recommended

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline Recommended

Hitty by Rachel Field Recommended

The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and illustrated by Roberto Innocenti Recommended

The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Recommended

Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence Suggested

The Doll People by Ann M. Martin and illustrated by Laura Godwin and Brian Selznick Suggested

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The House of Christmas by G.K. Chesterton

The House of Christmas
G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

P.D. Eastman

Born November 25, 1909 in Amherst, Massachusetts

Died January 7, 1986 in Cresskill, New Jersey

It is perhaps ironical that an author noted for using few words to tell stories that children love, should have had so few words written about him. P.D. Eastman at first glance seems something of a cipher but instead is, I think, just a simple victim of circumstance.

The reason he seems a cipher is that is that there is not much information about him, the books that he wrote won no major awards and are rarely if ever critically acclaimed, and in fact, many if not most people don't even believe he existed, assuming instead that P.D. Eastman was a pseudonym for Dr. Seuss or was a syndicate house name such as Watty Piper, Frank Dixon or Nancy Keane.

So who was this man of mystery and what exactly did he write? And why doesn't anyone know about him?

First, let it be said, Philip Dey Eastman was a real person. He was born in 1909 in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was educated at Phillips Academy and then at Amherst College and pursued a career in animation, working for Walt Disney productions in the 1930's. It was at Disney that Eastman met Mary Louise Whitman whom he wed in 1941. With the advent of World War II, Eastman joined the Army in 1942 and served as an illustrator in the Signal Corps. in the film division headed by Frank Capra, creating animated training films and writing and storyboarding a film series, "Private Snafu." Also in this unit was the author/illustrator Munro Leaf, most famous for his book, The Story of Ferdinand. The head of the animation unit, and to whom Eastman reported, was one Theodore Geisel, later to attain fame as Dr. Seuss.

After the war, Eastman went back into animation, joining United Productions of America where he helped create the cartoon character and series, Mr. Magoo. Eastman also co-authored with Theodore Geisel the film script for Gerald McBoing-Boing, winner of the 1950 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Animated).

In 1954, the Eastmans, now with two sons, moved to Westport, Connecticut. This was the period when a movement gathered force in the US to reinvigorate children's literature in general and in particular to revitalize early readers. In May, 1954 Life Magazine published an article by John Hersey (author of the classic Hiroshima), "Why Do Students Bog Down on the First R?" that lit in to school readers for their "insipid illustrations" and their "abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls." In the article, Hersey suggested that a more engaging and dynamic form of illustration was needed to capture students and specifically alluded to the effectiveness of Walt Disney illustrations and to Dr. Seuss in particular. In 1955, Rudolf Flesch came out with the book Why Johnny Can't Read further fueling the push for more creative, and engaging early readers.

Responding to this quintessentially American manufactured, but well-intentioned hoo-hah to improve, William Spaulding of Houghton Mifflin's educational division issued a challenge to Dr. Seuss to write an engaging early reader for children using fewer than 225 distinct words (from a list drawn up by Spaulding) and which would replace the anemic Dick and Jane readers used in schools. Seuss undertook the dare, thinking to dash out the story but soon discovered that fewer words meant much more work. A year and a half later, in 1957 and at only 236 words, he was ready with the book that marked children's literature forever. Watch out Dick and Jane; make way for The Cat in the Hat.

Seuss had written nine children's books prior to The Cat in the Hat but the Cat is what really started things rolling. Working with Random House, Seuss initiated a series of Beginning Books that were to follow a similar model - colorful, cartoon illustrations, lots of imagination, large fonts, simple texts based on a restricted range of words, much use of repetition and usually having a distinctive cadence and rhythm to the text. Seuss of course wrote many of the books in the series but by no means all of them. He reached out to former colleagues in the Signal Corps.' Animation Unit, including Eastman, to solicit their participation in this new reading venture.

In 1958 Eastman, while still working as an illustrator and animator, published his first book, Sam and the Firefly, which was respectably received. His next book did not come out until 1960 but then he started a four year run in which he produced five books (he only wrote or illustrated fifteen in all) each of which were unique classics and which have remained in print ever since.

The run started with Are You My Mother? (1960), followed by Go, Dog, Go! (1961), A Fish Out of Water (1961, written by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman), The Cat in the Hat Dictionary (1964, co-authored by Eastman and Seuss and illustrated by Eastman) and finally Robert, the Rose Horse also in 1964, written by Joan K. Heilbroner and illustrated by Eastman. Interestingly, Helen Palmer was actually Helen Palmer Geisel, Theodore Geisel's wife.

Whenever you gather together enthusiastic readers from five to fifty-five years old, if they start to reminisce of favorite books of childhood, virtually every one of them will mention at least one of these titles as an early favorite.

So why isn't Eastman better known? Certainly one reason is that many people, if not most, have assumed that P.D. Eastman was just another pseudonym for Theodore Geisel, who wrote primarily under the name of Dr. Seuss but also penned a number of titles in the Beginner Book series as Theo LeSieg. This would have been reinforced as there were some strong similarities between the illustration styles of Geisel, Eastman, McKie and Lopshire; all author/illustrators in the series. Many people assume all are the same person.

Further confusing authorship is the fact that the popular The Cat in the Hat Dictionary was authored, per the cover, by The Cat Himself and P.D. Eastman; an oblique way of saying that it was co-authored by Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and P.D. Eastman and illustrated by Eastman. Finally, the fact that two of the books for which he is famous were written by other's while he illustrated them, further muddies the waters.

Are You My Mother? is the story of a hatchling wandering about querying all and sundry, regardless of shape and size, as to whether they are his mother, until at last he is reunited with his mother. Go, Dog, Go! is the mother of all concept books. At 64 pages it is much longer than your standard concept book and the whole story is moved along by all sorts of comparative and action concepts - big dogs, little dogs, red dogs, green dogs, one dog going in, three dogs coming out.

A Fish Out of Water was one of my favorites as a child and is the story of a boy who ignores what he is told to do and feeds his little fish not just the pinch of food that is needed but instead the whole bottle of fish food and the consequences arising from that simple act of disobedience. A wonderfully improbable but engaging story.

The Cat in the Hat Dictionary is exactly what it sounds like - a child's dictionary of a thousand or so words, each defined in a comprehendible fashion but always with humor and an element of improbability not characteristic of Webster of Johnson. Robert, the Rose Horse is the tale of a horse that loves roses but is allergic to them.

A couple of later books by Eastman, Flap Your Wings and The Best Nest are also frequent favorites. Flap Your Wings in particular is pretty entertaining as a couple of birds attempt to raise a toothy off-spring when an alligator hatches from the egg that a boy mistakenly put in their nest. You can make all or as little as you want out of the metaphor of being yourself and of parents having to let go - it is still a pretty entertaining story.

What makes this small handful of books so durable? That is a little hard to say. Certainly, Eastman just simply tells a good story. These are books that move forward despite their restricted vocabulary; there is always something amusing going on. The fact that there is a cadence to the sentences helps. These are easy stories for parents to read to a child and that is part of the attraction - children know these stories from listening to them, just at that stage in life when they are also beginning to pick up the skill of reading themselves. The fact that Eastman's books are longer and busier than most early readers would, at first blush, seem to be a problem for a new reader. I think, though, that because there is a lot going on, it means that a parent is more likely to be willing to continually re-read these books to their children as parents are so often requested to do. That frequency brings greater familiarity and therefore an easier transition from being read to towards independent reading.

Eastman as an illustrator, relied somewhat less than Seuss on antic fantasy in his drawings. While in the cartoon style, there is a greater expression and use of motion to convey and elaborate on the story being told by the text. For first readers, I think those subtle clues make a material difference and therefore are part of what make Eastman's works so engaging and useful to a new reader. Similarly for the books that he wrote himself, Eastman is characterized by more "real" material: in and out, up and down, behind and in front. These are tough concepts for the early learner and reader and while Seuss' imagination for the fantastic is entertaining, it can be distracting and confusing as well.

However he achieved it, there is the simple fact that Eastman wrote and illustrated a series of books that have marked each group of new readers for the past two or three generations. Though not frequently mentioned in children's literature textbooks, or on many classics lists, or winners of prizes, his books pass the highest test of all - they are well loved and perennial favorites by each wave of new readers.

Though he never became a big author/illustrator of children's books, Eastman did end up writing and/or illustrating fifteen books between 1958 and 1979. Remarkably, all but two of those books are still in print some forty years later. That might be said to be the ultimate tribute to the creative powers of an author and illustrator.

Picture Books

Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman Highly Recommended

Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman
Highly Recommended

A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman Highly Recommended

Robert the Rose Horse by Joan Heilbroner and illustrated by P. D. Eastman Highly Recommended

Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary by P. D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss and illustrated by P.D. Eastman Recommended

Flap Your Wings by P. D. Eastman Recommended

Sam and the Firefly by P. D. Eastman Suggested

Snow by Roy McKie and P. D. Eastman Suggested

The Best Nest by P. D. Eastman Suggested

Big Dog Little Dog by P. D. Eastman Suggested

I'll Teach My Dog 100 Words by Michael Frith and illustrated by P. D. Eastman Suggested

The Alphabet Book by P. D. Eastman Recommendation

Red, Stop! Green, Go by P. D. Eastman Suggested

P.D. Eastman Bibliography

Sam and the Firefly by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1958

Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1960

Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1961

Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1961

Snow by P.D. Eastman and Roy McKie 1962

The Cat in the Hat Dictionary by P.D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1964

Robert, the Rose Horse by Joan K. Heilbroner and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1964

Everything Happens to Aaron in the Autumn by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1967

The Best Nest by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1968

Flap Your Wings by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1969

Big Dog . . . Little Dog: A Bedtime Story by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1973

I'll Teach My Dog One Hundred Words by Michael K. Frith and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1973

The Alphabet Book by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1974

What Time Is It? by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1979

Red, Stop! Green, Go! by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Thunderstruck is Erik Larson's most recent book. Previously, he has written among others, The Devil in the White City, which I have not read, and Isaac's Storm, which I have read and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in history and/or natural disasters.

I similarly recommend Thunderstruck. Larson adopts a particular story-telling stratagem which does take a little getting used to, but it does work in the end. He has two stories to tell, one of the development of wireless telegraphy by Guglielmo Marconi and the second of a mild mannered wife murderer, Dr. Hawley Crippen. Larson tells these two stories as separate but interleaved tales and for the first half of the book this is a little distracting but as you approach midway, the logical connection becomes more compelling. It works. Larson is a storyteller in the old fashioned, strong narrative style of Walter Lord.

I have had this book for some while, repining in various stacks around the house. I kept putting off reading it because I have in the past read two, three or maybe even four chapter length accounts of Dr. Crippen's crime and I knew of its significance in terms of wireless telegraphy. I am glad I did eventually pick up Thunderstruck and begin reading though. Larson is a masterful story-teller and brings to life this fascinating period of technological progress and social change. A sample paragraph of his very evocative writing style:

Despite the war Hawley enjoyed a childhood of privilege. He grew up in a house at 66 North Monroe, one block north of Chicago Street, at the edge of an avenue columned with straight-trunked trees having canopies as dense and green as broccoli. In summer sunlight filtered to the ground and left a paisley of blue shadow that cooled the mind as well as the air.

Frontiersman and Native American Interactions

American children's literature is rich in stories about the interaction between early settlers/pioneers and the Native American peoples already in place. What makes this arena of storytelling so fascinating is that we have not collectively yet settled on a narrative structure. We don't know how the story goes or even how we want it to go.

It is easy in hindsight to believe that our present is the ineluctable result of the past. It did not appear so to those at the time though. Some of our most popular narratives, current and recent past, are simply poor didactic fictions crafted from an inability to imagine what life was like then.

Folktales, biblical stories and classical texts were more deeply and pervasively known then than now and helped shape an interpretation of all new encounters. On the other hand, current information of what was going on around them was notably sparse and slow to disseminate. In fact, the population of knowledge was pretty much just the opposite of today when one can count less and less on people sharing a common literary or cultural knowledge but can anticipate much greater awareness of the score of last night's game or the latest twist in some Hollywood celebrity's love life. We bring to our view of people of the past an expectation that we know how they thought and judge them by our current standards without allowing for our privileged position of knowing how particular stories ended.

In the very earliest days of the settlement of the America's there was a tendency to demonize Native Americans. They were the element out there beyond the settled boundaries where danger lurked. They raided settlements, butchered settlers and carried off women and children. They were savage and unpredictable.

Later, by the middle of the last century, these savage devils had morphed in popular representation into two dimensional characters in head-dresses and smoking peace-pipes. No longer relevant or a present danger, they were not represented in a malicious way or demonized; simply dismissed as quixotic, amusing, and irrelevant.

In the past twenty-five years, this imaging has morphed yet again, this time, either intentionally or accidentally, representing Native Americans as victims of a concerted ethnic cleansing. There is a greater inclination to attempt to understand this period of history from the Native American perspective, which is a worthwhile counterbalance to what came before which was mostly from the pioneers' perspective. It is ironic, though, that this contemporary storytelling is as ethnically insensitive and stereotyping as its predecessors but equally blind to that fact. In the modern telling, the Native Americans still lack agency - the capacity to demonstrate that they are individuals responsible for themselves and capable of crafting a life of dignity that may or may not, like everyone else, be marked with the outward trimmings of success.

It is all in how you view things. Most people are now aware that Leif Ericson and other Vikings made it to North America in 1000 AD and established an early, albeit in the event, temporary, settlement in Newfoundland. In fact, temporary settlements scattered along the northwestern coast of Canada continued for more than a decade before contact eventually dwindled away. While there were many likely reasons that this initial European discovery of and early settlement in North America failed, one significant reason is clear from the Vikings own writings; the resistance of the native skraelings, Native Americans. I think most people simply dismiss this first interaction as a simple false-start of settlement by Northern Europeans and think no further of it. The other way of considering this particular historical interlude is to view it as the first successful defeat of a new migratory invasion into North America. The Vikings were at the tail end of horrendously long "supply" line of several thousand miles. The technology differential between Native Americans and Europeans was not as dramatically wide in 1000 as it would be in 1500. Never-the-less, the Vikings were no pushovers. Viking raids, conquests and settlements extended over much of Europe (the British Isles, Russia, France, Germany, Poland, into Spain, etc.). The resistance and effective casting out of the Viking invaders from North America is a little recognized accomplishment in the pioneer history of North America.

The later discovery and settlement of North America by Europeans was a messy and uncoordinated affair with many cultures (on the European side) encountering many cultures (on the Native American side) and elements within each group seeking to align with elements of the other to wrest advantage over their traditional enemies: British seeking alliances with Native American tribes to contest incursions by the French and vice versa. Likewise between the British and the Spanish. Various elements of the Algonquin tribes sought alliances with the British against other traditional Native American tribes. Everyone viewed the other players as pawns to continue the battles with which they were already familiar.

Further, there was the complication of not only nationality but religion also. Protestants versus Catholics in this New World and even sect against sect such as Protestant Calvinists versus Church of England Protestants. The interaction between Plains Indians and settlers was not simply that between Native Americans and Europeans but the still more ancient contest between nomads and farmers.

Native Americans were decimated by the hidden enemy of new pathogens introduced into the continent by the new arrivals: smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, measles, etc. all took their massive toll. The technological gap was a gulf this time around compared to the 1000s. The numbers were different too - and they had to be for history to have taken the course it took.

We too quickly forget the simple numbers. Mortality rates of 10-30% per voyage by the early settlers were not unusual. Annual mortality rates in most settlements were 30-70% in the early years. Native American tribes, devastated as they were by diseases, were frighteningly effective in their early and continued resistance. They demonstrated remarkable flexibility in trying to navigate the tumultuous political waters created by the new invaders. The Indian Massacre of 1622 (resurrected in Ivan Noel Hume's book, Martin's Hundred), fifteen years after the settlement of Jamestown, repulsed English settlement in the vicinity for another generation.

King Phillip's War in 1675, effectively a coordinated alliance between numerous previously contentious Native American tribes to reverse the tide of immigration, was disastrous for both sides, but might easily have succeeded given slightly different circumstances. Native American raids on New England settlements were still occurring with some regularity into the middle 1700s.

Similarly, we lose perspective on time as we move west. Custer's Last Stand is so iconic that it is hard to realize that it occurred in the lifetime of grandparents of people alive today. The last Native American to come out of the hills, Ishi, did so as recently as 1911.

The interactions between Native Americans and Pioneers/Frontiersmen were complex and occurred in vastly different circumstances and time periods. When you begin thinking about it, we have all sorts of sub-narratives including:

* The almost completely overlooked but frequently fascinating interactions of Native Americans and the Spanish in the 1500 -1700s in the Southeast and Southwest

* The traditional New England fighting and trading in the 1600 and 1700s

* The cooperative but delicately contentious interactions of the mountain men and fur traders in the 1700s

* The contending but respectful foes a la Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in the 1700 and 1800s

* The often overlooked frontiers and settlers of the Midwest in the 1700 and 1800s and,

* All those corresponding interactions in Canada, Mexico and Central and South America.

The history of the world is one of different groups of people intruding themselves for various reasons into the territories of others. The consequences of those intrusions span the spectrum of obliteration of the invader or the invaded, the establishment of both groups in some tense but stable symbiosis, the peaceful absorption of one group by the other (it not always being predictable as to which will occur; think of the successfully conquering Vandals in Spain and North Africa or the Normans in Britain, each militarily successful but each being subsequently subsumed by their conquered population), etc. The globe is a big place and the corners only finally got filled up in the past five hundred years or so (with the Maoris settling in New Zealand in the fourteen hundreds as being perhaps the last significant land mass to be reached.)

The world has been filled for centuries with contiguous migrations within continents but that is a somewhat different affair. The cultural, technological, political, economic, and biological (pathogens) differences are more a matter of degree than of kind when the migration is from within a confined area. The less familiar and difficult story to tell is that more recent one of the past five hundred years where migration has been freed from contiguous movements of people to the transformative shifts in populations from continent to continent and where the gulf of differences can be so great. We have some fascinating object lessons out there such as Abyssinia, Lesotho and the Kingdoms of Swaziland and of Thailand all managing to maintain their independence in the face of European colonization when others all around fell. We have seen some migrations (Europe into North America, South America and Australasia) succeed while corresponding movements into Africa and South Asia failed.

This is fascinating material from an historical and sociological perspective. Fascinating, in part, because we still don't know quite what to make of it. Who were the "good" guys, who were the "bad"?

So we continue to struggle collectively to figure out what kind of story to tell our children of our own past. We now know that European settlement into North America succeeded at the expense of the Native Americans but it was not always obvious that it would succeed and many had reason to believe that it couldn't succeed.

The three major trends of describing Native Americans (and particularly their interactions with pioneers), characterized as demonization, shallow stereotyping and victimization, all have deep flaws, most especially that they do not capture anywhere near the diversity and particularity of those interactions.

Below are a number of stories in which we hope a flavor of some of that variety of experience comes through. Reading about particular periods such as Thanksgiving, Westward Expansion, the Colonial Period, all have elements that capture some of the complex interactions between pioneers/frontiersman and Native Americans. This booklist is an attempt to gather some of that wide range into a single place to give a bit of the feel of complexity that actually existed.

Let us know which books you might recommend for children to learn about and experience through their imagination this particularly fascinating event.

Picture Books

A Picture Book of Sacagawea by David A. Adler and illustrated by Dan Brown Suggested

Children of the Wild West by Russell Freedman

This Land Is My Land by George Littlechild Suggested

Independent Reader

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink Highly Recommended

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder Highly Recommended

Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling Recommended

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare Recommended

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George Recommended

Pocahontas by Joseph Bruchac Recommended

Geronimo by Joseph Bruchac Suggested

Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla Suggested

Morning Girl by Michael Dorris Suggested

Guests by Michael Dorris Suggested

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich Suggested

The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich Suggested

The Life and Death of Crazy Horse by Russell Freedman and photographs by Amos Bad Heart Bull Suggested

Indian Chiefs by Russell Freedman Suggested

The Talking Earth by Jean Craighead George Suggested

Death of the Iron Horse by Paul Goble Suggested

The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman Suggested

Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw Suggested

Rachel's Journal by Marissa Moss Suggested

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell & Ted (ILT) Lewin Suggested

Streams to the River, River to the Sea by Scott O'Dell Suggested

Standing in the Light by Mary Pope Osborne Suggested

Mr. Tucket by Gary Paulsen Suggested

Sequoyah by James Rumford Suggested

Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith Suggested

Trappers & Mountain Men by Anastasia Suen Recommendation

Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen and photographs by James Watling & James Suggested

Night of the Full Moon by Gloria Whelan and illustrated by Leslie Bowman and Tony Meers Suggested

Young Adult

The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos
Highly Recommended

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz Recommended

Give Your Heart to the Hawks by Winfred Blevins Suggested

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown Suggested

Jim Thorpe, Original All-American by Joseph Bruchac Suggested

Across America on an Emigrant Train by Jim Murphy Suggested

Native American Testimony edited by Peter Nabokov Suggested

Crooked River by Shelley Pearsall Suggested