Literary Circles

You guys, I prefer to write in coffee shops or other public places where the bustle and noise help me zoom in and get less distracted that I would at my desk on a lunch break or in my house with dinner cooking. Coffee shop times have been few and far between this summer and I’m finding myself with lots to say but no reasonable place to get started.

We got the school supply list last week and along with the usual Montessori things (don’t forget your slippers and mug), we also have some fun and random things like, Three Colors of Acrylic Paint, Your Child’s Choice of Colors and Library Card. Which are great and lost. Also, asking my child to choose three colors will be a herculean effort as her mother and I try to corral her while she extols the virtues of Cadmium versus Pyrrole Orange.

Speaking of herculean efforts, we will also be trying to explain to RR the value of a Literary Circle and of books themselves as more than just vehicles for visual art. These small book discussion groups feature books that look good to me but are, at a glance, possibly torture. I imagine that, for RR, torture in the Montessori tradition involves book clubs. So, because she is no help at all in choosing her torture devices, I put them here in case one of you has read one and thinks a rising 4th graders with a large vocabulary but slow reading speed might find it at all interesting:

Brown Girl Dreaming
Hello, Universe
Inside Out and Back Again
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut
Joesephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine (also in Brazen!)
Babe Didrickson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion
Merci Suarez Changes Gears
Hurricane ForceL In the Path of America’s Deadliest Storms (this one is out)
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life
The Five Ancestors: Snake
The Night Diary
When You Reach Me
Turtle in Paradise
The Seven Tales of Trinket
The Heart of Everything That Is

Any recommendations welcome!

The Artist at School

Back to school involves choosing a historical character to represent, doing some research, and getting ready to write a report to present to the lower grades. Since RR is wholly uninterested in the task, I suggested we look at Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, a very excellent graphic novel, which joins the recent canon of Books About Women Who Changed Things. I love it for its inclusion of little known women and international figures. And of course, the story of Annette Kellerman, the first mermaid. So there I was, Brazen in hand, suggesting Nellie Bly (because she’s awesome) and I was informed with a substantial eye-roll that Georgia O’Keefe was not in that book.

Oh, I see. I was supposed to have read her mind and understood that she could not consider any other historical figure because Georgia. O’Keefe. Duh.

Is this what 12 will be like? Because I need my own eye-roll for that.

Books for 5 year olds, part 2

This is one of those posts very much about five-year-olds, fair warning!

So, we’ve taken on some books this month with varying success (list here). Zita the Space Girl was a tremendous hit as was Ozma of Oz. Both are parts of series, which is nice. Both are also graphic novels. That worries me a bit with reading comprehension but she has BANG (every fifth Zita page) and CREE CREE CREE (winding Tik Tok the robot) and KUT-KUT-KA-DAW-KUT (Billina, the chicken) down pat. I’m not giving her enough credit here. She’s reading, really reading which is a relief since many Montessori educated kids trail behind a bit for a few months when they enter public first grade. I just don’t think she can read much at once and get it which I suppose is normal for her age. So CREE CREE CREE can’t be the sum total of her evening reading experience, even if it is super cute to see her apply it in robot situations outside of reading time.

The Boxcar Children and Choose Your Own Adventure: Return to Atlantis were a little old for her or a little less interesting, hard to say. She did manage to survive an entire Choose Your Own Adventure thread on her first try which is pretty remarkable if you have any experience with them. I think we’ll come back to the Boxcar Children later, or she can come back to them on her own. At least, assuming she isn’t buried in a graphic novel the rest of her life.

We also gave Inky the Indigo Fairy a go (part of the Rainbow Fairy series). It had only line drawings on every other page but the subject matter is near and dear to RR’s heart so it was a hit. I know she adores fairies (almost as much as princesses) but I had forgotten how utterly passionate she is about the color indigo and its placement in the spectrum. She has loved The Rainbow Goblins since she was small and, if you start talking rainbows, you had better be correct on indigo and violet lest you get a lecture on science.

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde is up next because, come on, that title.


Books for 5 year olds

Well, those last two posts were kind of a downer. This whole operation is kind of a downer lately, what with the cancer and the crazy, and the general rockiness of life around here. So here’s a crowd-sourced young kids suggested reading list. Objective: find chapter books that my almost six-year-old (HOLY COW you guys) will dig. RR gives graphic novels a thumbs up and Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie a solid thumbs down. Me too. Seriously, do we need to haul out the axe and drowning dog within the first few chapters? Let’s build up to that shit.

My motivation to try anything is strong here. If I have to read Fairy Tale Comics again, I’ll…well, I’m sure there’s a funny fairy tale joke in here somewhere. So, because I thought you might also like to know what my friends think RR should try, here is the list: (annotated, because.)

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman – we’ve read this one and I’d say that an imaginative five-year-old would really dig listening to it. It’s not something RR could have undertaken reading on her own. Also, it’s more dinosaurs and aliens and less fairies and mermaids so,  depending on your angle, it might be a winner.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written by Eric Shanower, illustrated by Skottie Young – RR is a graphic novel aficionado and this read like a chapter book without relying too heavily on pictures alone. Lots of words to follow along with. There are others in the series and we’re taking on Ozma of Oz next.

Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke is another graphic novel. We opted to try it last night and while the story-line is great the words are few and far between. I tried sounding out her picture comprehension (did you get what just happened in those panels?) but she wasn’t really with me. I know she’s able to do that with the wordless Fairy Tale comics but perhaps space is just too…alien for her…

My friends are big fans of Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl (particularly James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, and Matilda), and Geronimo Stilton. For reasons known only to my mother, Ramona (Cleary) books were banned from my childhood but Dahl encouraged. Suffice to say I have no knowledge of Ramona except for a weird sort of apprehension.

Other series that got the thumbs up were:
Pippi Longstocking;
Noisy Village;
The Boxcar Children (with the caveat that this wasn’t too far from the Magic Treehouse series which I didn’t particularly care for);
Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants (both of which I’m a tad skeptical about with titles like “Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus” and “Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People.” On the other hand, they are both huge series so if she loved them there would be plenty of content to devour;
The Mouse and the Motorcycle which has some big name children’s authors associated with it;
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle which was heavily recommended by parents of 7-year-olds as books their kids had been reading two years earlier;
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh;
Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace which just sounds like something my mother would have axed; and,
Nancy Drew, which if she loved them, would keep her reading forever.

Graphic novels that were so special they got a call out by name were Summerland by Michael Chabon, Bone by Jeff Smith, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe illustrated by Robin Lawrie, and Princeless by Jeremy Whitley. The American Library Association also has a graphic novels reading list for K-2. I find it a little daunting, not because there are too many books (which is the case with some compilations) but because I’m not sure where to start. Speaking of huge compilations, A Mighty Girl also got a nod. My favorite Graphic Novels librarian recommends Toon Books, a publisher for getting The Youth These Days into graphic novels (also with reading lists).

Possibly the most awesome book in the children’s universe, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, got a recommendation but I’d been holding off because it seems a little old. Perhaps it’s time for another quick read through. Other single titles which I know very little about but obviously should are:

The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little by E.B. White, who I’m still trying to forgive for Charlotte’s Web;
Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice;
The Cricket in Times Square by George Seldon;
Mr Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater;
Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston; and
Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting

Outside of shouting congratulations for getting married, this is the most my friends have had to say about anything, ever. It helps that I know a lot of librarians, a lot of comic strip artists and illustrators, and a lot of parents. Furthermore, this doesn’t include the lists of picture books with a female focus I’ve got tucked into email folders.

So, if you got this far, feel free to add to my list. And let me know if you also have experience with these books. Are they too old for a five or six-year-old? Are there others? Where to start?

ETA (from comments):
The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye
Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon
Ivy and Bean’s Secret TreasuresLumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, illustrated by Brooke A Allen
Princess Pink and the Land of Fake Believe
Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
Fancy Nancy: Nancy Clancy

Norman Rockwell

On Saturday we were up earlier than usual (thanks, RR) and found ourselves wondering how to spend the morning. Usually we go to a music class and the park but, as fun as this is, I sometimes miss mornings spent wandering through the farmer’s market and coming home with a loaf of bread, a pint of strawberries and a bag of kale. We CAN of course, but we don’t. It’s crowded and smothering by the time we arrive at 10 and we aren’t ever out of the house in time to visit in the empty, early hours. Although RR doesn’t ride in an aisle-clogging stroller*, we still move pretty slowly. I just can’t bring myself to contribute to the congestion. Instead, we go to a music class less than a block away from the place that makes me feel 24 again, sun-kissed, in a sundress, my only responsibility a date that night.

Don’t worry, I married her.

So on Saturday, facing freedom for the first time in awhile, we found ourselves at a loss. With no errands to do and too much rain to work in the yard or go to the park, we were left staring at each other. In fact, RR would happily sit around engaging her crayons, grapes and toy lions in complex conversations. And while I’m happy to let her, that was on tap for the afternoon. So what would I do on a perfect morning that isn’t the farmer’s market? Turns out, what I’d do is pop RR into her bike seat and ride with her and my wife to the library, just a couple of miles away on neighborhood streets. Since it looked like rain,we stuck the books to return into plastic bags and set off. By the time we got to the top of our street (and I do mean top – the hardest part of a ride anywhere is getting up the Everest-esque hill), sporadic sprinkles had turned to rain and it remained persistant until we arrived.

I LIKE to be anywhere in the rain. I don’t mind getting soaked through. D prefers an umbrella. Something about glasses and raindrops. I’m happy to find out that RR doesn’t mind weather much either. Any query about her comfort level (we had her raincoat with us but not on her), was met with delighted shrieks: “go mama, yet’s catch mama!” and “I am going so fast!” and “mama would YOVE this!” (mama is right behind us baby, but yes, she does love this). We arrived wet but not at all miserable.

Our library is small and comfortable. The children’s section is as large as the adult section and is incredibly welcoming. RR noticed a dinosaur book on a tiny table and crawled right up on the chair to read. “This is just perfect, mama. Deeyiteful!” She played with wooden puzzles while I looked for new Madeline books and some old standards, including Where the Wild Things Are. I find Wild Things sad and a little scary although my sisters both loved the story (along with, apparently, the rest of the universe). I thought I’d give it another try. It must be good, RR didn’t even demand an encore reading of Madeline when I finished.

As were were leaving we ran into friends from the community. I’ve never lived anywhere else where this happens so consistently and, while it means I don’t honk at the cars who I think so justly deserve it, it does make me endlessly happy. We rode home in warm sunshine just in time for lunch. It could not have been a better morning. July marks our 5th anniversary here. It’s mornings like this that ensure we’ll be here for the 10th.

*There is some sort of space time continuum that ensure all strollers at this particular market take up three times their actual dimensions and move six times more slowly than actual speed.

Goodnight Moon

Someone has been reading my daughter Goodnight Moon. We read it sometimes, yes, but someone is reading it ALL the time because look. Memorized.

Also, the “quiet old lady” is generally delivered in the gravelly voice of a old woman from New Orleans as “an’ a quiiiiiiiiiet ole’ mahnyee whisparin’ HUSH”  

Where “mahnyee” = bunny and RR = Marie Laveau.


Oh, Once Upon a Potty.

I’m afraid this might be RR’s favorite book.  Which is good, right?  Because, hurrah for the potty!  But also, have you seen this book?

A pee-pee for making Wee-Wee”
A bottom for sitting and in it a little hole for making Poo-Poo”

RR loves the bright red, yellow and blue pages.  She also clearly loves Prudence, the little girl.  In fact, she loves everything about this book and asks ever so sweetly to read it again and again.  But you guys, the words.

I liberally edit as I read the book, substituting our own words for body parts and bathroom business.  Everyone uses something different, right?  It’s also very much a cultural thing, where you grew up and how.  So there’s definitely no consensus on when to start saying urethra and anus or, the even more fun, labia.  So we have our words and we sub them in but it doesn’t mean I don’t sigh a little in relief that my daughter cannot read the words to know that’s I’ve just skipped pee-pee and wee-wee*.

I hope I am hovering around somewhere that it is not such a leap to transition to adult appropriate words eventually.  After all, when she’s a badass dominatrix, I’d like her to skip the whole bit about wee-wee.  Unless that’s what brings in the dough.

Oh, come on.  Aren’t all two-year-olds potential dominatrixes?


*As an aside, my wife grew up in a different part of the country than I and she calls my daughter’s toes “pitties” while I call them “piggies” or, you know, toes.

I Want My Hat Back

I love children’s literature.  I spent hours immersed in the Evanston Public Library as a child, tucked among the stacks on the children’s floor (a whole floor!) reading wildly below or above my age level – anything that looked remotely interesting.  My mother ran the Scholastic Book sales at my elementary school and as such I sometimes wandered into my house to see boxes and boxes of Little House or Alice in Wonderland.

My mother recently reminded me that we had an 8pm bedtime until I was almost in high school.  Whether this is true or not (and I suspect it is), my childhood recollections of bedtime revolve mostly around laying in my peach canopy bed reading in the fading summer light from my window.  Also, I remember thinking that it’s horribly unjust that children have to go to bed before it’s dark in the summer.  As a parent, I completely get it.

Tangent!  This is about books!  One of the best things about being a librarian at a huge university in a town with a robust public library system is that there’s a goldmine of children’s literature at my fingertips.  And although we read tons of library books, it doesn’t stop me from picking up the occasional fantastic book at the bookstore.  I can’t help it.  The slim volumes, the perfect art, the clever words.  Seriously, it’s like I’m bewitched.  I pick something wonderful up and I know it’s wonderful because one minute I am reading by twilight in a grey and peach room and the next I am walking giddily to the car bag in hand.

I will admit to you that this happened even before I had a child.

Right now, we have a pretty standard go-to-sleep reading rotation.  Olivia.  Goodnight Moon.  One of the 17 billion books we have that have a mahn-yee (bunny) in it.  But now we have hat (I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen).  It’s a repetitive tale of a bear searching for his red hat among the neighborhood animals.  It’s stolen, turns out, by the resident mahn-yee.  Instead of the predictible hat shenanigans, the bear simply eats the rabbit and gets his damn hat back.

Best book ever.

It doesn’t actually show any gobbling but the bear does say, in the noticeable absence of the rabbit, “I would not eat a rabbit.”  That rabbit was SO lunch.  As much as I loved a good kid’s book before, I now love it a thousand times more.

As if that were even possible.


If you asked me what the most complicated thing in my life was, I’d tell you Books.  That’s probably unreasonable, I can hear you thinking it.  You’re probably skeptically wondering: What about that bathroom that you can barely squeeze your rear AND your left arm into?  Or how bout that pesky dichotomy between all the things you want to throw out and all the things she wants to save?  Or maybe the therapy.  Those things should be enough to win the Complicated Olympics but they are all sad sore losers compared to Books.

  • Once, a wall of bookshelves collapsed nearing smashing the cat.  Think cats have a sixth sense?  They do.
  • The government shipped 6000 lbs of my possessions back from Africa.  2900 lbs were books and their boxes/packing.  2900 POUNDS.
  • At one point we had eight different styles of bookshelves.
  • I have read all of these books multiple times, except for the two promotional draft copies my mother sent me of poorly written ghost-romance.
  • I am constantly getting rid of books.  CONSTANTLY.
  • Every childhood memory involves a book somewhere.  No, really.  that time my mother tried to show me how to shave my legs but gave up because she didn’t know how to shave her own?  I consoled myself with The Sick of Being Sick Book.  I was sick of something all right.
  • Every time my mother sends a threatening What Do You Want When I Die email, I panic thinking that I’ll forget a critical book and she’ll toss it.  Great great great grandfather’s school desk?  Forget it.  Wait…  did he leave a book in it?

And so on.

My wife gave me a Kindle for my birthday.  Before receiving one I thought that it would be a rarely used gadget.  I assumed my love for Books went beyond the words and slipped headlong into paper smells, pages fluttering.  It turns out, that it’s mostly words with me, at least now, and I’ve spent the last few months happily gathering another 2900 pounds of ebooks.  Look at me, I silently preened, I have broken the habit.


I didn’t account for the core of the addiction.  Not the caffeine, but the Sunday morning cup and paper.  I forgot the Children’s Books.  Want to stop me in my tracks?  Throw a children’s book down.  Make it a Caldecott and I’ll fall flat on my face trying to get to it.  Is it Make Way for Ducklings?  Holy shit.  Did I see you go past here with a vintage set of Ingalls books?  I had Blueberries for Sal on my birthday wish list years before I had a child.  And not in anticipation of one either.  When I visit my mother, I carefully sneak away copies of my own favorites and in the years when pennies were tighter than they are now (I can’t believe that’s even possible), my indulgence was The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Friends, I have a problem.

But when my wife suggested we veer into the bookstore on Sunday, I didn’t remind her about my problem.  And, like the junkie’s girlfriend who only wants him to be happy, we beelined for the kid’s section.  Before I knew it, RR and I were on the floor reading The Runaway Bunny and Hippos Go Berserk.   When I looked up long enough to drool over something else, I noticed we had company listening to the story.  I’d happily read all day if it means I can sit in a corner with a stack of children’s books while shy children peer around shelves and sneak closer to my voice.

Give me more books.  Unfortunately, RR’s bookshelf is full.  I’m going to need to take yours.