Tag Archives: children’s literature

The Grinch-Hating Grinch

Don’t get me wrong. I love Dr. Seuss. But I think the latest adaptation of the Grinch makes two too many.

I used to check out his works from the Bookmobile until my mother insisted that I get at least one book by another author at every visit. Although my all-time favorite was Green Eggs and Ham, I had a soft spot in my heart for How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

I was young enough to be thrilled when the book was made into a cartoon that was shown every Christmas from 1966 on. Who could possibly be better than Boris Karloff to narrate and voice the Grinch? And the uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft to sing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (Trivia note: You may know Ravenscroft as the voice of Tony the Tiger in all those cereal commercials.) It was perfect just the way it was.

Since then there have been two other versions, both big-screen adaptations, a live-action version in 2000 starring Jim Carrey, and the other this year, a CGI animated movie with the main character voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. I have not been to see either one and have no intention of seeing them when they are shown on TV. I am a total Grinch about any version except the real Grinch.

There were difficulties in making the 1966 version. The original Grinch was a poem of only 32 lines. To make it into a cartoon that would run 30 minutes (or however long it was without commercials) required some creative stretches. The Ravenscroft song was added, of course, plus a lot of comic bits featuring the dog Max, the Whos singing around the tree, and extended visualizations of the Grinch preparing his Santa suit and maneuvering down Mt. Crumpet. They all fit neatly into the narrative. Not one moment seemed out of place.

The Jim Carrey live-action version ran 105 minutes and Benedict Cumberbatch’s, 86 minutes. No matter how clever their additions to the basic plot, they could only serve to clutter Seuss’s simple plot and spot-on characterizations. At over an hour each, that’s a lot of stretching.

That’s the problem with remakes or reboots or reloads or whatever they want to call them. They almost never live up to the original. Bedazzled, for example, was a perfect little gem starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I didn’t mind the gender-swapping of having Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil (with Brendan Fraser as her hapless foil), but the broader style of humor, including throwing away one of the best gags in the original, was in no way better.

There are other examples. Think of The Thomas Crown Affair, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or any of the Inspector Clouseau movies. None of those were necessary. The movies were just fine the way they were. (The only really good update – and it was an adaptation, not a straight remake – was when the ultra-serious Zero Hour was morphed into the uber-comic classic Airplane!)

I do understand the motivations behind these remakes, primarily money. Proven classics should be proven box office hits the second or third or fourth time around, and the producers, directors, and writers don’t even have to think up new plots and characters.

Then there’s the excuse of “introducing a new generation of young people to a classic film using stars they’re familiar with.” Jimmy Stewart and Gene Tierney stand the test of time and so do many others. It’s too bad that most people only see their work if they take a film class in college.

At any rate, I boycotted the Jim Carrey Grinch and will do the same for Benedict Cumberbatch’s. If that makes me a Grinch, so be it. I realize that my singular protest will affect them and their box office prospects not in the slightest. I shall do it anyway.

For the memory of Dr. Seuss, if nothing else.

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

Mysteries Change, and So Do I

I grew up reading mysteries. I still remember a book of short mystery stories for children. One was set at a circus and involved a missing snake. After looking in baskets and anywhere a coiled snake might be, the children notice that an acrobat’s pole falls to the ground with a dull thud instead of a metallic clang. Suddenly they realize that the missing snake is stretched out full-length inside the pole! Ta-da! (I also remember that the book was missing a few pages, which made one of the stories even more mysterious,)

That of course lead to Nancy Drew, the go-to mysteries for tween girls at the time. So they were written decades before. So the characters were unbelievable stereotypes. They were mysteries and I read them anyway. And collected them relentlessly, out of order because I usually got them in used book stores.

Murder Letterpress

I got my first taste of the real thing at my grandmother’s house in Florida, when I was 11. DisneyWorld didn’t exist yet (yes, I’m old), and the attractions near Orlando were limited. There was the zoo in Kissimmee, St. Augustine, Busch Gardens, and an alligator farm. Not much else. In between road trips to the attractions, I discovered Grandma Rose’s shelf of real, grown-up murder mysteries. Agatha Christie and Rex Stout provided my introduction into the world of real mystery literature. (Recently I’ve reread a few Nero Wolfe classics like Some Buried Caesar. They still take me back.)

Over the years that followed, I came up with several categories of mystery authors – those whose books I would borrow from the library or buy used, those I would buy in paperback, and those rare, special authors whose work I would buy in hardback. Authors sometimes moved from one category to another, depending on whether the quality of the books stayed high.

Robert Parker, for example, started out as a paperback author, moved to hardback, then back to paperback when it seemed like he was only phoning them in – for example, when he spent too much time detailing what color athletic shoes and their swooshes Spenser and Hawk had on. When he branched out into other series with other lead characters, I stopped reading him altogether.

Since the advent of ebooks, I no longer buy hardbacks or paperbacks, but the categories still exist in terms of price. Sue Grafton is on my buy-immediately, read-immediately list. Sara Paretsky used to be, but I found the last two of her novels unsatisfying because of the endings – which involved silly stunts to trap the villain.

I’ve mostly given up on cozy mysteries, too. For a while I did read Diane Mott Davidson, Charlotte MacLeod, Rita Mae Brown, and a few others, but somehow I lost interest. Now I understand there is debate in the cozy mystery world over whether cat characters should talk or not. I prefer not to get involved.

I find that I am reading fewer mysteries these days, because many of them seem excessively formulaic – lead character is pursuing a serial killer who has targeted said character’s friends or relatives. Cozy mysteries have been really reaching for odd occupations for the detective character – librarians, innkeepers, golfers, crossword puzzle enthusiasts (are there really that many murderers who leave crossword clues?), and many, many cooks. It used to be interesting to get an inside peek at the workings of professions, but the thrill is gone.

I still like books in other genres that have mystery elements. One of these is the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. Her lead character, who is part fairy, pursues quests usually involving stolen children or murdered fairies (or various other supernatural species).

Since I have cut back on reading mysteries and have been finding them less satisfactory lately, I’ve decided that what I need to do is write the kind of mystery that I want to read. I have begun to do so. I have 15,000 words already, plus a rough and fluid outline, which sometimes changes when my characters don’t do or say what I thought they would. (I’ve heard writers describe this phenomenon many times, but it’s interesting to see it happening in my own work.)

My working title is Cold as Stone. Wish me luck. Perhaps someday I will make it into someone else’s borrow, paperback, or hardback categories.

A Story From the Art

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Usually you think of a writer writing and then an artist creating illustrations or a piece of art for the cover – one on every page, if it’s a children’s picture book. And usually that’s the way it goes.

But every once in a while the natural order of things goes awry. Every now and then, a writer must take a piece of art and shape a story to fit it.

Once it happened to me, when I was writing and editing reading passages for children’s textbooks. The tasks assigned were annoying enough – stories that were required to have certain numbers of parts of speech or phonological items, with restricted vocabulary and very specific reading levels.

Then one day we were given an already existing children’s story, one that had seven or eight illustrations that had been drawn specifically to go with the text. We were told to select four or five of those pictures and write completely new text to go with them. We could rearrange the pictures – put them in a different order – and we could choose which ones to use or eliminate. But that was the assignment: Take the pictures and then write the story. If it seems totally backward to you, it did to us as well. Of course the stories still had to have certain lexical  components, be entertaining, and provide a message or lesson for the readers.

I remember the set of pictures I was given. The illustrations showed a young girl in a tropical setting, at one point with her sitting on a throne. In my story, the little girl claimed that she could speak to animals. No one believed her and she was thrown in jail for lying.

The little girl really could speak to animals, however, and she called upon jungle friends to rescue her. The people who had jailed her discovered that she really had this unusual ability all along. They apologized profusely and threw a big party for her and she sat in the seat of honor.

It was a particularly difficult story to write. The pictures did not lend themselves to any story other than the obvious one about a jungle princess and her animal-filled realm. It was even harder to think of a tale that would convey a message.

What I tried to show in my story was that just because something had never been done, that didn’t mean it was impossible. And if someone made a claim, it was better to test the claim than merely assume the person was lying. I thought the idea of speaking to animals and having the animals rescue the little girl would also appeal to children.

One thing that is particularly frustrating about writing for textbooks and  other sorts of publications is that one never knows what happens to the fruits of one’s labor (at least until the internet, with number of views and “like” buttons and comments fields). Was the story accepted by the higher-up textbook folks? Did it get changed in the editing process? Did they even like what I had done with the illustrations? Did it make it into print? Most of all, I wondered whether any children read my story, perhaps enjoyed it, or understood what I was trying to say. To this day, I have no clue.

Writing in those circumstances is like dropping your work down a well. You never hear the splash, or even know if there is a bottom to the well.

I like to think that somewhere, some child liked my little stories, whether or not they learned about diphthongs or consonant clusters from them.

I also wonder about the illustrations. Did they get passed along to yet another writer who had to invent yet another story to go with them? If they did, I would certainly like to have seen what they came up with. It was an interesting exercise. But did it result in something educational or entertaining or even interesting?

Personally, I believe that children’s books should be written first and illustrated later. I also believe that requiring writers to abide by rigid rules makes it less likely that the story will be appealing. And if the story isn’t appealing, I believe it is less likely that the children who read it (or are supposed to read it) will get anything from it.

To me that’s not the way children’s literature should be written. But then textbooks aren’t really literature, are they?

Should Kids Be Taught to Read?

For years now, the debate has raged: How should children be taught to read? Some people are saying that the real question is whether children be taught to read.

What do we actually know about learning to read? How do children learn to read? The answer is a bit fuzzy at this point. Phonics, whole language, and natural reading all have their proponents.

But with brain imaging improving seemingly every day, neuroscience is starting to clue us in on how the brain processes language, in both speech and reading.  “A study in the Journal of Neuroscience,” testube tells us, “found that the area in the brain that reads words is right next to the part of the visual cortex that recognizes faces. So just as one area of the brain can quickly identify a face, another can quickly read a word.”

Not that that really helps solve the problem of reading instruction. It will likely be quite a while until info from brain imaging makes its way to the classroom.

The common wisdom is that speaking is a natural process that children learn automatically, for the most part. Reading, however, is another story. Learning to recognize meaning in squiggly marks on paper or a computer screen is much less intuitive. Not all children accomplish it. Not all adults have either. The Department of Education reports that 32 million American adults can’t read.

Naturally, not all children learn to read at the same rate. Some pick it up by age four and others not until the later elementary grades. Teachers suggest that students only really begin to read for meaning in about the 5th grade. Until then, the work of decoding words, sounding them out, or memorizing them has simply taken too much of the brain’s attention.

Still, everyone agrees that reading is important. Children who learn to read have distinct advantages over those who don’t, and adults who can’t read are at a real disadvantage in society.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the advantages of reading are not what you might expect. While reading certainly develops the vocabulary and entertains children with imaginative stories, some have suggested that reading offers other benefits as well. An article in Bustle says, “According to a the British Cohort Study, kids who read for pleasure at a young age tend to test better than their peers in all sorts of subjects… yes, including math.”

Other benefits include greater understanding and empathy for people of other lands, cultures, races, and so forth. If children read books or articles about people and cultures different from themselves, they have a better basis for openness and tolerance.

Now, however, some people are saying that children do not have to be taught to read: that they “pick it up” on their own. One name for this is the “unschooling” movement. Interesting articles on the subject, particularly by Dr. Peter Gray of Freedom to Learn, have appeared in Psychology Today‘s blogs.

As Gray describes it, “precocious readers appear to be children who grow up in a literate home and, for some unknown reason (unlike even their siblings in the same home), develop an intense early interest in reading.  Interest, not unusual brain development, is what distinguishes them from others.”

According to the theory, learning to read can best be done in a mixed age group where children can see the benefits that older students get from reading, get some informal help from those older students, and at some point discover that they need to read on their own in order to accomplish something they want to do.

Another of his suggestions is that, far from being detriments to reading, electronic devices and practices such as texting and emailing give children lots of practice and lots of motivation to develop their reading skills.

Most important is allowing children to learn to read at their own pace, in their own good time – not to push them. If a child likes phonics word games – great! If she doesn’t, find another way to make reading enjoyable and necessary, or, better yet, let her discover her own.

Admittedly, this version of learning to read does not fit in well with the current educational system. It is mostly being tried by homeschoolers and alternative schools. It is possible that it could work in today’s classrooms, but not without significantly modifying them.

Lots of various kinds of reading material – preferably high- interest – should be readily available and most likely chosen by the students rather than assigned. This would of course play hell with the teacher’s role, standardized textbooks with stories carefully calculated to introduce only certain letters or words at a time, and high-stakes testing for reading ability.

Given that, it’s unlikely that this new style of reading education will spread very far very fast. But schools are still turning out many adults – graduates or drop-outs – who are functionally illiterate. Until more is known, teaching reading may well remain guesswork in large part. but if you worry that your child is not learning to read quickly enough to suit you or the school system, the usual teaching methods may not be the answer.

Some children seem to need to follow their hearts and their interests when they are ready and have a need to read. This is not likely to be the solution for all children, just as phonics and whole language are not. If children are going to read as adults, for fun, for business, or just for daily life, they must develop the idea that reading is a worthwhile activity and not a chore.

And maybe formal teaching isn’t always the best way to do that.

References:

https://testtube.com/dnews/how-does-your-brain-learn-to-read/?

http://www.bustle.com/articles/111990-9-ways-people-who-read-as-kids-have-an-advantage-over-everyone-else

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201002/children-teach-themselves-read

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201311/the-reading-wars-why-natural-learning-fails-in-classrooms

 

Books, etc.: Creating a Lifelong Reader

The other day I saw an article on the web, “Raise Lifelong Readers With These Handy Tips.” (http://blog.theliteracysite.com/raising-readers/?utm_source=social&utm_medium=trnfan&utm_campaign=raising-readers&utm_term=20150713)

It was a good article, and I had to admire the author’s pseudonym, Paige Turner. She (or he) said:

Booklovers are not born. An interest in reading and a delight for stories found within the pages of a book is something that has to be carefully fostered.

For kids who learn an early appreciation for reading, the benefits can be extraordinary … readers have a huge advantage from early on!

 

The advice in the article was all good: Read to your children, take them to libraries, be a role model, etc.

My mother didn’t know how to teach reading. But she read to me and my sister, as far as I can recall, every day, one on each side of her, nestled on the sofa. We went on frequent trips to the “bookmobile,” a library outreach trailer, and on special occasions to the library itself – even the big one downtown. This ample supply of reading material was supplemented with trips to a favorite used book store. We grew up surrounded by print.

Paige offered good advice, as far as it went, but it omitted one important point, in my opinion:

Love of reading starts before a child can read.

If you wait for your child to learn to read before you share reading experiences with him or her, it may be too late. It takes reading together to make a non-reading child into a reader.

I honestly can’t remember a time when I was a non-reader. Despite Paige Turner’s statement, I was very nearly a born booklover.

My mother didn’t follow all Paige’s good advice. I never remember either her or my father reading for pleasure. (My father did, much later, when he was ill with bone cancer and couldn’t get out of bed. Again the library outreach stepped in, and a dear friend who worked for them, brought him stacks of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.)

To me, print is important. Picture books are good, but I think one thing (among many) that my mother did right, was to expose us to print at an early age. Even though we couldn’t read the black marks on the white paper, she read them for us. One thing this promoted was consistency. The story was the same every time, and that lead to the idea that the little black letters had something to do with how the story went.

Without being told, we were learning what reading was, even if we weren’t yet being taught how to do it. The words stood for something – something familiar and delightful, a magic so enticing I couldn’t wait to learn how to create it myself. So I didn’t wait.

Many years later I worked in a bookstore. Often a parent would come in and ask, “How can I get my child to read?”

“How old is the child?” I would ask.

If the child was a teenager, I would offer some suggestions, but inwardly shake my head. For most of them, I knew, it was too late.

That’s one of the reasons I adore the Harry Potter books, flawed as they are – they made reading cool, provided an experience so enthralling that even non-readers, pre-teen, teen, or even adult, would make the effort for a chance to experience the wonder.

(It’s also why I’m glad that the movies didn’t come out until years after the books began their epic sweep.)

Alas, reading is growing more difficult for me. I’ve had eyeglasses since the age of three and my eyes are now on a definite downswing. All the books I collected when my vision was more reliable are becoming blurs to me now.

I certainly need new glasses, and as soon as I can afford them, I will get some. (That’s another thing my parents did right that Paige didn’t mention – regular vision checkups and new glasses as needed.) And I’m intensely grateful that e-readers let you change the type size all the way up to humongous.

But if I’m truly going to be a lifelong reader, I probably ought to start learning braille now.

 

 

 

Books, etc.: Revisiting the Old School

Sarah Seltzer recently wrote on Flavorwire that, as the title of her article says, “We re-read our favorite books as kids and why do we stop as adults?” (http://flavorwire.com/518840/why-do-we-re-read-our-favorite-books-as-kids-and-why-do-we-stop-when-we-get-older)

She says, “[A]ll the reading I do is for a different homework — the social kind. Even popular series like The Hunger Games and the Sookie Stackhouse series make my reading list at least partly to keep me ‘up on the conversation.’”

My experience has been different.

Reading is never homework for me, and really wasn’t when I was a child either. If a friend has read a book that I haven’t, I simply ask what it’s about and what they thought of it. Voilà – conversation.

I certainly did re-read more as a child than as a grown-up. My mother had to insist that when I went to the library, I take out something new in addition to Green Eggs and Ham.

But I – and many of my adult friends – continue to re-read books. Sometimes it’s books we loved as children, and other times it’s children’s literature we’ve just discovered, and still others it’s books we’ve recently encountered. Without even a book group to keep us up to date, my friends and I pass around recommendations. Right now I’m reading Libriomancer on a friend’s advice. Do I care if it’s less trendy than Grey? I do not. Will it make my re-reading list? I won’t know until I finish it.

A while back, I wrote in this blog about “comfort books” – books we return to again and again, for familiarity, for memories, for new insights, for reminders, for nostalgia, or for just plain fun.

We each have our own list of comfort books. My friend Leslie and I both go back to anything by Lois McMaster Bujold (at least yearly) and Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. I go back to Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and David Sedaris, and even nonfiction like The Hot Zone and Angela’s Ashes None of these are beloved books from my childhood, but touchstones of my adult life. (Some of them don’t fit the usual definition of “comfort,” but it is, in a way, comforting to me that they retain that spark of awe when revisited.)

When my tastes change (as they have over the years), my re-reading list changes too, though my old favorites remain there for me. Recently I’ve grown tired of the mediocre memoirs and formulaic novels that sell for $1.99 on B&N, and gone looking for books that fill me with wonder when I first read them and are worth a second – or third or fifth – reading. And I’ve found some. Life of Pi (which I just re-read). The Book Thief. Egg and Spoon.

(Do you have any suggestions for books of similar quality? Please, please leave them in the comments section.)

Not that revisiting one’s childhood reading is a bad thing, for as Seltzer notes, there lurk new insights and a mature appreciation of the author’s craft.

Two books from my earlier reading days recently crossed my path again. These are books that endured multiple readings in my teen years – To Sir, With Love and Up the Down Staircase – both tributes to my enduring interest in education (as I would now say) or (at the time) my desire to become a teacher.

Neither book was a waste of time to re-read, and neither, although familiar, spoke to me in the same way it did all those years ago. Re-reading them was both comforting and newly challenging. They stood up to their repeat performances.

Both startled me by their references to high school students as “children.” I suppose to the school system they may be, but I think of many if not most of them as young adults, or at least kids or teens. (I also was taken aback by the word “pupil.” Is that still used in some parts of the country? To me, they are students.)

Some aspects were new to me. As a teen (raised in a lily-white suburb and attending a lily-white school), I noticed but missed the depth of the comments on race in To Sir, With Love. While I understood that Up the Down Staircase highlighted the bureaucracy of the education system in a large city high school, I was clueless about the application of that to all schools, even mine.

“Re-reading offers something that few other cultural experiences do, really: a mix of gentle stability and sharp new insight,” Seltzer says. “Taking the time to re-experience the art we loved best in our past can be a way of spending time with ourselves, and though its rewards are mostly unseen, that may make them all the more important to seek out.”

Now that I can’t argue with.

But I would add that my re-read list keeps growing longer as I grow older. It’s not just childhood favorites that are worth re-reading, but any book that has become beloved to me. And falling in love with a book is definitely not something I’ve left behind. New love can happen at any age.

Now where did I put my copy of Green Eggs and Ham? Ah, there it is – right next to the Lois Bujold.

Books, Etc.: But Where’s the Wonder?

It Hurts When I Poop!(1) That is the actual title of an actual children’s book, though not, I’m sorry to say, the sequel to the classic Everyone Poops.(2)

No, it is an instructive children’s book meant to help youngsters through the trauma of – I don’t know – toilet training? Constipation? Hemorrhoids? At any rate, some kind of fundamental difficulty.

This seems to be the way of children’s books these days. Take a look at your local bookstore (if you still have one) or the wares at Amazon. Book after book in the children’s section are of a genre “How to Get Through the Difficulty of X.” X can be nearly anything.

In particular, The Berenstain Bears seem to have a lot of difficulties. Their books include The Berenstain Bears…
…and the Bully
…Visit the Dentist
…Learn About Strangers
…and Too Much TV
…and Too Much Junk Food
…and Too Much Teasing
…and The Bad Dream
…and the Bad Habit

…to name but a few.

And while the Bears have a bad habit of eating too much junk food and then dread visiting the dentist, other children and anthropomorphized animals cope with still other plights:
Maggie Goes on a Diet
Wilma Jean the Worry Machine
Hooway for Wodney Wat (3)
Mean Jean Recess Queen
Lacey Walker, Non Stop Talker
Olivia Acts Out (4)
The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark

Still other books seem problematic. I haven’t read Don’t Squeal Unless it’s a Big Deal, but I wonder how they expect children to differentiate. What’s a “big deal” to a kid and to a grown-up can be quite far apart on the scale of secrets.

Then there are the really problematic books. Awful Library Books (5) has singled these out for their questionable topics and premises, unpleasant underlying assumptions, and creepy illustrations:

Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy: A child’s book about satanic ritual abuse (6)
For Your Own Good (foster care)
I Know The World’s Worst Secret (alcoholic mother)
Please Come Home: A child’s book about divorce (7)

These are not issues that can be made “all better” with a quick “real-life” scenario and a flimsy moral.

Granted, issue-oriented children’s books have important uses, but they’re not kid lit. Parents choose them because they think the lessons will be helpful. But such books lack the essential qualities of literature: engaging, complex characters; adventurous or truly touching plot lines; satisfying stories. In a word – imagination. Good children’s literature is fun.

Think about the Harry Potter books, for example. They contain underlying messages about friendship, loyalty, and bravery, as well as standing up to bullies, dealing with disappointment and grief, and defying prejudice. All without titles like Harry Potter and the Dead Godfather.

Children clamored for these books, obsessed about them, mentally dwelt in them. When was the last time you heard a child say, “Oh, Mommy, please, please, please buy me Olivia Acts Out“? How long a waiting list does the library have for Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy?

Think about Green Eggs and Ham – a simple book with a simple story that does not explicitly say, “Kids, try new foods. You might like them.” It does not portray an ordinary kid-just-like-you dealing with a problem. It captures the imagination with silliness, propels the minimalist plot along with kid-friendly repetition and rhyme, and reaches a satisfying conclusion. No wonder I checked it out at the bookmobile every single time I went.(8)

There is plenty of good children’s literature for all ages, from the classics (Treasure Island, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are) to more modern tales (Harold and the Purple Crayon, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Gregor the Overlander).

Michael Longcor said it in his song “Imagination”:

“Imagination is a friend to help you through a friendless land.
Imagination can take you to the stars and back again.
Imagination can make you more than what you thought you’d be.
It can raise a world from ashes. It can set the spirit free.” (9)

Children’s literature crafted with imagination can free the spirit in adults as well as children. It’s something we all need.

(1) No, it doesn’t, I’m glad to say.
(2) A book I always give to new parents of my acquaintance, along with Shel Silverstein’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book.
(3) A book about rhotacism. Think Bawwy Kwipke. Or Rodney Rat. Now you’ve learned a new word. You’re welcome.
(4) Is it just me, or do a lot of these problem children seem to be girls?
(5) awfullibrarybooks.net
(6) No, really. awfullibrarybooks.net/satan-for-kids/
(7) Described by Awful Library Books as “Daddy left because you were bad.”
(8) It’s still my all-time favorite book. Ever.
(9) Michael Longcor http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Longcor, “Imagination,” Kitchen Junk Drawer. Available at http://www.firebirdarts.com/product_info.php?products_id=147

The Worst Sex-Ed Book. Ever.

Dr. Seuss is my all-time favorite author of children’s rhyming books. He did not write a sex education book.(1)

Shel Silverstein took over from Seuss as my favorite children’s poet. He did not write a sex-ed book either.(2)

IMHO, no one has equaled those two in writing rhyming books for children, though many have tried. Lord, how they’ve tried. And for the most part, failed miserably.

I once edited a magazine called Early Childhood News, which was intended for an audience of child care center owners, directors, and possibly staff. It was occasionally entertaining.(3) I got a lot of children’s books to review.(4)

Which is where the sex-ed and the poetry come in.(5)

One day an amazing book came across my desk. It was titled How Dad and Mother Made Your Brother, which should have been my first clue.

The book was obviously self-published. To say that it lacked the services of a professional editor and a professional illustrator would be a charming understatement.

The text was written (and illustrated) by a real medical doctor, so I guess that was one up on Dr. Seuss, but it didn’t help. The main characters were – I’m not kidding – Stanley Sperm and Essie Egg.

One memorable illustration(6) showed Stanley and Essie sitting on a bench, courting, I suppose. As I recall Essie had long eyelashes and Stanley had either a top hat or a bow tie. Maybe both. Behind them was the gate to a park, with a sign identifying the location as “Cervix.”

You can probably tell from the bow tie and the park bench that scientific accuracy was not the author’s primary concern. Also, Essie and Stanley were the same size.(7)

And now we get to the poetry. Here’s a sample. The author was attempting to tell where Stanley Sperm had lived, before he met the coy and comely Miss Essie. Somewhat confusingly, it seemed that Stanley had come from one or the other of two towns:

The towns are both named “Testicle”
and they look like two round eggs.
They’re not located on a map,
but between your Daddy’s legs.(8)

Do I have to say I did not review the book? (I thought not.)

I kept it for a time, though, to show disbelieving friends. And possibly as the basis for a party game, with each person reading aloud from it until exploding with laughter, when it would be passed on to the next reader.(9)

Of course, given the sex-ed books currently used in schools, there may be other texts out there that are just as bad, or at least as inaccurate. But for sheer unintentional awfulness, How Dad and Mother Made Your Brother has won its place in the annals of scary books that will make kids never want to have sex. Ever. That being the point of most sex education in schools anyway, as far as I can tell.

(1) That we know of. He did write advertising, so who really knows where he drew the line?
(2) Though he certainly could have. He’s the author/artist of Different Dances and the songwriter of “Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love Most.”
(3) The ad sales department once insisted I add a column about food, as they desperately wanted to attract Lunchables as a client. Yeah, right. Lunchables. For child care centers. I had no choice in the matter, except for the title of the column, which I made as repulsive as possible – “Food Digest.” Well, it amused me, anyway, even if no one else noticed.
(4) Also, sometimes companies sent me samples of toys they hoped I would promote in the magazine. Not sex toys, though. I also received, for some reason, an anti-circumcision newsletter. I used to count the number of times the word “foreskin” appeared in it, just to look busy.
(5) You were starting to wonder, weren’t you? Go on, admit it.
(6) I’ve been told that only shock treatment will erase it from my memory.
(7) Reminder: The author went to medical school and, presumably, graduated.
(8) I hope that’s enough of a sample, since it is the only verse I memorized. I do recall that the conception scene would have been a real production number, had the book ever made the transition to film.
(9) With bonus points awarded for imitating the voice of Bullwinkle the Moose or possibly Daffy Duck.