Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Ballad of the Alamo

The Battle of the Alamo

The Ballad of the Alamo

A hundred and eighty were challenged by Travis to die

By a line that he drew with his sword as the battle drew nigh

A man that crossed over the line was for glory

And he that was left better fly

And over the line crossed 179

Hey Up Santa Anna, they're killing your soldiers below
So the rest of Texas will know
And remember the Alamo

Jim Bowie lay dying, his blood and his powder were dry
But his knife at the ready to take him a few in reply
Young Davy Crocket lay laughing and dying
The blood and the sweat in his eyes
For Texas and freedom no man was more willing to die

Hey Up Santa Anna, they're killing your soldiers below
So the rest of Texas will know
And remember the Alamo

A courier came to a battle once bloody and loud
And found only skin and bones where he once left a crowd
Fear not little darling of dying
If this world be sovereign and free
For we'll fight to the last for as long as liberty be

Hey Up Santa Anna, they're killing your soldiers below
So the rest of Texas will know
And remember the Alamo

Libraries, bookstores and the depths of winter

As we trudge our way into February, that wicked and most treacherous month of winter, family members serially fall prey to cabin fever.

One of the things we do is to make an expedition to our local used bookstores or libraries. If you are not in the habit of doing so (and even if you are) it is a great way to break up the monotony of winter. It's a wonderful feeling getting home like a band of pirates, everyone smuggling in their booty and headed off to the various rooms to read their hoped for as well as unexpected finds.

Here in Atlanta we have a couple of really good libraries. One that we favor is the Decatur Library in downtown Decatur (just east of Atlanta). It looks like a library, feels like a library, is always busy with patrons but never feels crowded or frantic - just a low hum of reading pleasure. It is a happy place of reading with a quality collection of children's books.

It is easy to overlook the treasures we take for granted. There are a lot of changes afoot over at the NYPL Donnell Library in mid-town Manhattan. Make sure you get the kids over to their Central Children's Room while everything is in place. It is a storied resource in one of the most literate and literary cities. In May, the Donnell Library will be closing and the disposition of the Central Children's Room is uncertain at this point. Elizabeth Bird, at her School Library Journal blog, has the details.

One of the resources I am creating for TTMD is a register of used bookstores and public libraries that have a particular focus on children's books and are especially welcoming of children. Please use the comments to suggest favorites you might have.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


We are far safer, from diseases, from violence, from accidents than we have ever been in our history. We live increasingly longer and healthier lives. Yet we seem to feel far more in danger - or perhaps it is that we have more vocally fearful people. Even on the international front, where very grave dangers lurk and need to be addressed or forestalled, even there I don't think anything we currently face comes near to the long threatening shadow of nuclear war, the prospect of which so darkened the youth of a couple of generations.

There is a topic here for a different essay, fear versus fear mongering and how to teach our children constructive skepticism that allows them to judge information in balance and arrive at their own conclusions about the danger of some thing rather than simply being swayed by the loudest and most panicky voice.

But what of courage, what is it? Courage - The mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. A more parochial definition, but one perhaps more pertinent to children, might be to do the right thing when it needs to be done despite how difficult it might be. Regardless of the exact definition one chooses to use, all times call for courage and the celebration of courage. We need individuals to exercise courage themselves and as a community we need to celebrate those acts of courage which set a standard of value for all of us.

Children's literature is rich in tales of courage but it tends to fall into two categories. One, and by far the more ancient, is a celebration of courage through tales of heroes which goes back to Beowulf and beyond to Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, which, old as they are, are whipper-snappers to the oldest epic on the block, Gilgamesh.

I love these tales of derring-do, struggles against titanic forces, the testing of one's mettle against worthy adversaries whether they be man, nature, beast or the supernatural. The only draw-back to these tales is that they do sort of involve a lot of violence. While the effort, and often sacrifice, so prevalent in these stories are important things for children to see and hear, that issue of violence is one that needs to be handled with some consideration. Both a positive and a negative is that these stories are fortunately distant from the circumstances of most children's lives. This is beneficial in that the distance makes them somewhat unreal but that, of course, is also the drawback.

The second category of courage tales are more personal and internal and build in frequency in children's literature from the 1900's onwards. Those much maligned believers in progress and improvement, the Victorians, were in part responsible for this infusion of personal, internal courage into children's stories. Their bedrock belief in the potential for man (and child) to improve drove the Victorian writers first to hero-lite stories such as Tom Brown's Schooldays, Treasure Island, David Copperfield, or Peter Pan where the child protagonist is still battling some villain or evil circumstances and triumphs but on a smaller stage. However it did not stop there and the object lessons of courage continued to evolve and you began getting stories like The Secret Garden, The Would-Be-Goods and The Railway Children, where children are wrestling not so much with an external evil but with their own consciences and very local circumstances.

For those of us who like unambiguous morals, this was a heyday of clarity. While there are still many wonderful tales of child courage being newly written, it is hard not feel like it is a dwindling portion of output that seems to have more and more tales of self-indulgence and cultivated victimhood rather than self-reliant courage.

"Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes."

Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1860-1937. 'Courage", Rectorial Address, St. Andrews, 3 May, 1922

Fortunately for us, there is a vast reservoir of books that help children consider the nature of courage, how to build it, and how to use it. These stories give children not only examples of courage on the part of others but by making it more pertinent to them, allow them to see through the eyes of others that courage is not an instinctive thing you just do but is the result of deliberate intention. You choose to do the right thing. You choose to be courageous.

We will be doing a later essay on courage and heroism. While there are a few such stories thrown into the mix below, the primary focus of this list of books emphasizing courage are stories wherein the protagonist confronts decisions and actions they need to take that are more in the ken of children of today. For those hungering for a little bit of more traditional, rousing tales of courage, see some of the Thing-Finder entries. Lots of good ballads here -

The Ballad of the Alamo

The Birkenhead Drill

He Fell Among Thieves

Barbara Frietchie

Molly Pitcher

Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Picture Books

Lou Gehrig by David A. Adler and illustrated by Terry Widener Suggested

The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright by Stan Berenstain Suggested

The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and illustrated by George Ford Recommended

The Yellow Star by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Henri Sorensen Highly Recommended

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest and illustrated by P. J. Lynch Recommended

The Leaf Men by William Joyce Recommended

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King and illustrated by a variety of artists Recommended

Hansel and Gretel by Rika Lesser and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Recommended

Jack And the Beanstalk by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by Matt Tavares Suggested

Little Red Caboose by Marian Potter and illustrated by Tibor Gergely Recommended

Kate Shelley Bound for Legend by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Max Ginsburg Suggested

Pappy's Handkerchief by Devin Scillian and illustrated by Chris Ellison Highly Recommended

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Recommended

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss Recommended

The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward Recommended

Independent Reader

Turn Homeward, Hannalee by Patricia Beatty Suggested

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard Recommended

The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds and illustrated by Paul Lantz Suggested

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and illustrated by Lynd Ward Recommended

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George Highly Recommended

Belles on Their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey Recommended

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes Highly Recommended

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended

The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean Suggested

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Michael Foreman Suggested

A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon Suggested

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell and illustrated by Ted Lewin Recommended

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park Suggested

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen Recommended

Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman Recommended

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney Suggested

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare Recommended

Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry Recommended

The Cay by Theodore Taylor Recommended

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee Highly Recommended

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and illustrated by Barry Moser Highly Recommended

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and illustrated by Steven Kellogg Highly Recommended

Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells Highly Recommended

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Young Adult

Watership Down by Richard Adams Recommended

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley Suggested

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane Recommended

Lord of the Flies by William Golding and illustrated by Ben Gibson Recommended

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer Highly Recommended

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Highly Recommended

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig by Charles Lamb

I came across this essay by the author Charles Lamb, more famous for retelling the Shakespeare stories for children (Tales from Shakespeare).

In a completely different vein, this essay, A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, is one that has a couple of good guffaws in it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Knock Knock

One of the privileges and pleasures of being a parent is that you get to watch one of the most delicate and unpredictable forms of growth: that of a child's sense of humor. It is sort of like that old chemistry experiment you did in the high-school lab growing copper sulphate crystals or some such. Unpredictable, amazing, and beautiful all at the same time.

And no doubt painful as well, as would be attested to by any parent pursued around the house by a child happily clutching a new book of riddles, puns, and one-liners, full of the child-like confidence that your happiness is very contingent on their reading out a seemingly unending number of hoary groan-inducing "jokes".

Why did the doughnut shop close?
The owner got tired of the hole business!

What's round and bad-tempered?
A vicious circle.

If your parents never had children, chances are you won't either.

What do you call the best butter on the farm?
The goat.

What do you get when you cross poison ivy with a four-leaf clover?
A rash of good luck.

A child's emerging sense of humor is delicate as a snowflake, as unique as a fingerprint, as unpredictable as their taste in food and more rewarding than any chest of treasure. To see a child "get it", their face worked over by laughter, is one of those ephemeral delights to which parents in particular are uniquely privileged.

What can I write about humor in children's books, which, in the writing, doesn't bludgeon it beyond recognition?

I guess the first important thing to say is that just because humor is a virtually impossible thing to define, categorize, and consciously develop, doesn't mean that we shouldn't encourage our children at least in the appreciation of a good joke, if not also the ability to tell one.

Humor is substantially dependent on recognizing that something is out of place, a pattern not complete, that some trick has been played on the brain and then the appreciation of the verbal sleight of hand. It requires attention to detail and an ability to imagine things different from what they are and an ability to see things from a different perspective.

Encouraging children to play with words and language and humor are essential ingredients to building the skills of story-telling and communication. Humor depends on the set-up, the twist, a sense of timing, and very much on reading one's audience. If you become good at joke telling and being a humorous raconteur, you will de facto have become a good story-teller.

Among the tightest ties that bind a family are the shared jokes that accumulate over the years, usually self-deprecatory, and often only a single step away from "you had to be there" in the capacity to be understood by others.

There is little that is as affirming, joyful and rewarding as sitting around with those nearest and dearest, sharing stories of our shared past and highlighting with gentle humor our respective roles. Emphasis on gentle.

One of the things that makes humor such a pivotal skill is that it often takes you to the frontier of the acceptable. How far can you go in pushing the buttons of a sibling? Just this far and they are laughing till they cry. A couple of buttons more and you have cut them to the quick, injured their feelings, or unleashed a volcano of retaliatory anger. The furnace of the family is where you first begin to learn how to be alert to all those subtle signals that help you navigate the frontier of appropriateness.

Which touches on one of the other burdens that parents endure: scatology as an endless source of humor, particularly for boys. Of course children need their boundaries of what are and are not socially acceptable topics of humor. We have usually given our children pretty simple guidelines - nothing that is intentionally hurtful and nothing scatological. What this means in practice is that when we are buying books (or checking them out of the library), I will pretty much buy anything they evince a genuine interest or enthusiasm for. If it is a book I think is pretty cretinous, I will still allow them to purchase it with their own money. The only ones I will neither purchase myself nor allow them to purchase themselves are those that either glorify malicious behavior or are scatological. How can our publishers so glibly put out some of these titles? Walter the Farting Dog, Captain Underpants, Attack of the Mutant Underwear, and on and on. If your child will read nothing other than these, so be it, but that would be pretty rare I would think.

In this first, general, collection of humorous books, our focus is on gentle humor that engages a child. There are a selection of jokes, narrative stories that keep you laughing, as well as some CD's from Prairie Home Companion that have both collections of jokes as well Garrison Keillor's superbly rendered humorous stories. Let us know your favorite books that bring a smile to the face of your child.

Picture Books

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet Ahlberg and Allan Ahlberg Highly Recommended

Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman Recommendation

What Do You Do, Dear? by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

What Do You Say, Dear by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater and Florence Atwater and illustrated by Robert Lawson Highly Recommended

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume and illustrated by Roy Doty Suggested

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum Highly Recommended

Riddles and More Riddles! by Bennett Cerf and illustrated by Debbie Palen Suggested

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen Recommended

The Twits by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Recommended

Matilda by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Recommended

My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards and illustrated by Shirley Hughes Recommended

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey Highly Recommended

The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris and illustrated by Barbara McClintock, Richard Chase and A. B. Frost Highly Recommended

Hoot by Carl Hiassen Recommended

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster Highly Recommended

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth Highly Recommended

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay Highly Recommended

Hello Mrs. Piggy-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald Recommendation

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey Recommendation

How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully Suggested

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber Highly Recommended

Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks and illustrated by Kurt Wiese Recommended

Young Adult

How to Attract the Wombat by Will Cuppy

How to Become Extinct by Will Cuppy

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell Highly Recommended

Antrobus Complete by Lawrence Durrell Highly Recommended

Pretty Good Joke Book by Garrison Keillor Recommended

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat Suggested

The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber Recommended

Spoken Word

A Few More Pretty Good Jokes by Garrison Keillor and Calvin Trillin Recommended

Humor by Garrison Keillor Recommended

Lake Wobegon USA by Garrison Keillor Recommended

Plenty Of Pretty Good Jokes by Garrison Keillor Recommended

News from Lake Wobegon by Garrison Keillor Recommended