Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Big Words for Little People

Granted, Dr. Seuss worked miracles using limited vocabulary to create The Cat in the Hat and other classics, but there's something to be said for authors who aren't afraid to deploy difficult words when writing for children. My favorite example comes from an early practitioner of the picture book, Beatrix Potter. In her The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, she famously begins:

"It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific."

Now soporific is quite the word to chew on, and I suspect that many adults aren't exactly sure of its meaning. Luckily, Potter was at heart a reading specialist because in her next two sentences she provides a context clue and then repeats the unfamiliar word, reinforcing its meaning.

"I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuce; but then I am not a rabbit. They certainly had a very soporific effect on the Flopsy Bunnies!"

Bravo, Ms. Potter!

Another master of the picture book, Tomi Ungerer, liberally sprinkles his prose with challenging words. One of my favorite of his books, The Beast of Monsieur Racine, contains the following words: secluded, predator, marauder, cavalry, cuirass, avenger, frolicked, conglomerate, meticulous, and amphitheater. In an interview, Ungerer had the following to say about his decision not to talk down to young readers: "I think children have to be respected. They understand the world, in their way. They understand adult language. There should not be a limit of vocabulary. In The Three Robbers I don't use the word gun. I say blunderbuss. My goodness, isn't it more poetic?"

Yes, Mr. Ungerer, it certainly is.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Gallimaufry Friday

As weeks go, this one has been kind of blah. Not bad, but not great either. I did manage to get a ton of work done, which definitely goes in the good column. Here are some scraps of interest I found this week while trolling the Web.

National Geographic posted a list of Ten Top Literary Cities. Edinburgh, Scotland, tops the list, followed by Dublin, London, Paris, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Portland, Washington, D.C., Melbourne, and Santiago, Chile. Sad to say, I've been to only one, London (where I visited Dickens House). My hubby, thanks to all his business travel, has visited half the list, having just returned from Dublin, where he viewed The Book of Kells, a lifelong dream. Which places have you been to?

Last month Maurice Sendak appeared in a two-part "Colbert Report" and if you haven't yet seen it, please do. It was laugh aloud funny. In the show, Colbert shows Sendak a children's book he wrote, entitled: I Am a Pole (And So Can You). Sendak dismissed the book as "terribly ordinary" (and he was being generous), but admitted, "The sad thing is I liked it." Well, hold on to your hats, I Am a Pole will be published in May by Grand Central Publishing.

And get this, according to a survey of 2,000 UK parents, one in five have put the kibosh of reading fairy tales to their young ones. The reason? They're too scary--and not politically correct. Hansel and Gretel? Abandoned children. Snow White? Dwarves aren't a nice term for little people. Cinderella? Too much housework done by a female. Rapunzel? Kidnapping. Goldilocks? The kid's a thief. Have these people never read Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment? Apparently not. My daughter's favorite tale hands down was "The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids". Little goats left alone get tricked and swallowed up by a wolf, except for the youngest one. He tells his mother what has happened and she springs into action, using her smarts and sewing basket to free her kids and kill the wolf. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the story's appeal to a small child. No matter what happens, Mom's got your back. I feel sorry for the children of these parents who won't be able to resolve their fears because they never got the chance to hear these timeless stories.

This week saw my 1,000th tweet. I started Twitter a little over a year ago, not expecting to like it. Instead, I've found it an amazing resource, especially for people interested in children's literature. If you have a Twitter account (and if you don't, why not test the waters?), feel free to follow me @TheCathInTheHat. Happy tweeting!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pat the Bunny Spoofs

For Christmas, one of my stocking stuffers (put there by my amazing daughter) was a copy of Pat the Zombie, subtitled: A Cruel Adult Spoof. And cruel it is. Paul and Judy torture a poor zombie bunny, gutting it (Now YOU gut the zombie.) and perform other nasty activities, each one mimicking the original. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, and of course this book wouldn't sell without thousands of adults like myself who remember Pat the Bunny with such fondness. Growing up, there always seemed to be a copy about, no doubt because our household contained four children spaced seven years apart.

The original touch-and-feel book, Pat the Bunny, written by Dorothy Kunhardt (who created the book for her three-year-old daughter Edith), was published in 1940 and so far has sold more than 7 million copies. There's even an app for it, surprise, surprise. Edith, paid tribute to her mom by writing and illustrating her own book, Pat the Cat, as well as several others.

Besides the authors of the recent Pat the Zombie, other writers have sharpened their quills and taken aim at the classic. There's Pat the Yuppie (1986), Pat the Politician (2004), Pat the Husband (2008), Pat the Bride (2009), and Pat the Daddy (2010).

My all-time favorite parody is Henrik Drescher's Pat the Beastie (1993). Unlike the other spoofs, this one is meant for kids, and along with the inventive activities (kids get to scratch and sniff Beastie's stinky feet, play peekaboo with Beastie behind a shower curtain, and poke his boogers), little ones learn a subtle message: it's not a good idea to mistreat animals. I'll say no more.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Duck, Death and the Tulip

My sister was staying with me last weekend and she asked what was that strange picture book in my office. Displayed on my shelves are The Long Journey of Mister Poop, Pat the Beastie, and The Festival of Bones, among others, so I needed a bit more than that to answer her. Turns out she was referring to Duck, Death and the Tulip, a book I intended to review but hadn't gotten around to yet.

The reason is that it's not your usual picture book, and I wanted to do it justice. The story is simple. Death, wearing a fashionably long plaid coat and bearing a black tulip, comes to stay with Duck. Understandably nervous, Duck asks, "Are you going to make something happen?" But no. "Life takes care of that," Death tells her. The two pal around, going to the pond, perching high in a tree. Duck wonders about dying and Death listens to her speculate. Winter comes, and one night Duck lies down. She does not get up. Death gently places her body in the river, the tulip resting on her chest.

The last lines are:

For a long time he watched her.
When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.
"But that's life," thought Death.

Written and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch, a German author, (and beautifully translated by Catherine Chidgey), the book's simple text and sparse, elegant illustrations combine to create a moving yet unsentimental treatise on death. It also has a sly, deadpan humor throughout, as when Duck first notices Death's presence. "Duck was scared stiff, and who could blame her?"

The book is not for every child, but I so wish it was around when my daughter was six or so. She went through a stage when the thought of death panicked her, just looking at her reflection in the mirror could set her off. This book, with its calm, unblinking look at death, might have eased her fears and helped our discussions. Who knows? She may still get a copy.

Duck, Death and the Tulip
by Wolf Erlbruch
Gecko Press, 38 pages
Published: 2008

Friday, February 17, 2012

Gallimaufry Friday

What a week it's been! Valentine's Day, the Westminster dog show, and the Cybils awards crammed into seven days (and all overlapping on the 14th). Here's my take on the week that was.

Release the hounds! The Westminster started on Monday with the hound breed and ended the following night with Best in Show. The winner? Malachy the Pekingese from the Toy Group took top honors. I watched the annual event with my faithful pug by my side, who was unimpressed with the competition. He's secure in the knowledge he won my heart long ago.

The Cybils announced the winners of their Best in Show. As I mentioned in a previous post, among the expected favorites, there were a few welcome surprises.

Scholastic's Parent & Child listed their picks for the 100 Greatest Books for Kids. Except for the first ten books (with Charlotte's Web leading the way), the rest of the list seemed arbitrary. Good books all, but I doubt many will stand the test of time. According to the editor, the list is supposed to stir up controversy. All it provoked in me was "eh". What do you think?

Pinterest is a hot new media site, one worth checking out. The New York Times had an interesting article about the free Web pinboard that allows you to scrapbook photos you come across while trolling sites. Here's my board on books. Don't you just love the reading tub?

This week I received a letter from a third-grader. I posted the following on my Twitter account: "A nine-year-old fan wrote me a letter saying he liked my books and requesting my autograph. How sweet!" All three of my sisters responded.

NC sister: "That's really cool"
NYC sister: "That's great!"
CT sister: "Cougar"

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

2011 Cybils Announced!

Happy V Day to All! And here's another reason to celebrate a holiday devoted to love. The Cybils judges have made their final pick. Huge congrats to all the winners.

As a first round judge in the Easy Readers/Short Chapter Books category, I am especially pleased to see Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke selected for top chapter book. This is a wonderful story about a young African girl leaving her extended family to visit her grandmother in Canada. Atinuke is a natural storyteller who will have you cheering for Anna as she navigates this new, snowy world, so different from her native Africa.

And Mo Willems does it again. I Broke My Trunk!, a laugh-aloud romp that has Gerald explaining to Piggie the reason why his poor trunk is bandaged, is the winner in the Easy Readers category.

Be sure to check out the full list of winners. There are some surprises, along with books that have appeared on other yearend roundups. Anya's Ghost, a graphic novel, is now at the top of my TBR list.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gallimaufry Friday

Gallimaufry Friday is a new feature at the Cath in the Hat. As word buffs probably know, gallimaufry, which originally referred to stew, means a motley assortment, and that's what I'll be offering at the end of each week, a collection of odds and ends that made me purr.

What the Dickens! Tuesday, February 7th, was Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. You can join in the celebration by visiting the British Museum's site for original source material concerning one of the greatest novelists of all time. If you feel up to the challenge, you can also take this quiz from the Guardian, but beware, to do well you really have to know your Dickens.

For Dr. Seuss fans (of which I am one), take a gander at this collection of some of his advertisements. I'm especially partial to his rendering of hell. Doesn't Satan look a bit like the Grinch?

Garth William's illustrations for Charlotte's Web can't be separated from the text, at least not for me. Here are some of his original sketchesThe image of Fern cradling Wilbur has been my favorite ever since I first read that amazing book as a child. Naturally I wanted my own little pig. I think it's the reason I so love pugs. They remind me of piglets.

Janice Voss, a space shuttle astronaut and scientist, died on Monday at the age of 55. Among her many accomplishments, she was one of only six women to venture into space five times. As I was reading her obit in the New York Times, I learned that what inspired her career in science was Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which she first read as a six-year-old. What a fitting tribute to this remarkable book, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

I'll end with a bit of fun. My sister was visiting last weekend and she turned me on to "What's Your Blues Name?" Mine is Sticky Fingers Thomkins. What's yours?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ivy + Bean: No News Is Good News

And even better news is that Annie Barrows's eighth book in her series is as fresh as her first. Ivy and Bean are back and this time the two best friends are obsessed with cheese. Well, not cheese exactly, more with the red wax that covers "lowfat Belldeloon cheese in a special just-for-you serving size". The peeled off wax can be squished and molded into any number of shapes, such as a unicorn horn, a soccer ball, or a fake mustache. Every student in the lunchroom brings the cheese tidbits to school. Everyone, that is, except Ivy and Bean.

Barrows clearly hasn't lost her feel for what it's like to be a child. She understands the yearning the girls have to get their hands on that wax. When their parents refuse to buy them the treats, the girls decide to earn money and buy their own. Bean's father mentions that when he was a boy he wrote a newspaper and sold subscriptions. Ivy and Bean are off and running.

The newspaper they produce, The Flipping Pancake, has more in common with the National Enquirer than the New York Times. The two friends spy on their neighbors in order to get the real scoop on what's happening on Pancake Court. They even print a nudie photo of a neighbor (as a baby). Of course, eventually the neighbors receive their copies of the scandal sheet. As revenge comes a-knockin', Ivy and Bean put their heads together and come up with a solution that allows them to escape harm. Hint: It involves cheese rind.

No News Is Good News is another hilarious triumph for Barrows. Young readers will keep flipping the pages to find out what new plan the girls come up with next. Sophie Blackall's delightful illustrations add to the fun.

Ivy + Bean: No News Is Good News
by Annie Barrows
illustrations by Sophie Blackall
Chronicle Books, 128 pages
Published: November 2011

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bad Kitty for President

A candidate from the Right Side of the Street who:

Wants to throw those without homes into a volcano
Tries to buy votes (with a dead fish)
Goes ballistic on the opposing candidate
Uses a 527 Group to run attack ads
Refuses to debate on the issues

No, faithful readers, the candidate is not Newt Gingrich. It's Bad Kitty. Nick Bruel's feisty feline is back and this time she's running for office. After years of faithful service, Old Kitty is giving up his position as the President of the Neighborhood Cat Club. Bad Kitty is motivated to run for his position when stray cats from another area wander into her domain. Instead of erecting a giant fence to keep them out, Bad Kitty wants to toss the freeloaders into an active volcano.

The book's seven chapters are broken down into the steps of the electoral process, from the primaries to the results. Along the way, Bad Kitty does her best to upend the proceedings as she seeks endorsements, goes on the campaign trail, takes on the media, and debates her opponent, Big Kitty. When election day rolls around, the results are surprising, but satisfying. As Bruel tells Bad Kitty, "Democracy makes sure that EVERYONE has a chance to participate, that EVERYONE has a chance to win, and that EVERYONE has a chance to someday become the leader of his or her community." Let's hope he's right.

Once again, Bruel delivers a laugh-aloud chapter book that kids are sure to love. Besides telling a good story, the book provides a lot of factual information that goes down easy. For the most part, kids won't realize that they're learning a lot about the electoral process. The exceptions are the two Fun Facts spreads. Although Uncle Murray (Bad Kitty's backer) attempts to enliven things up, the presentation is a little heavy handed, especially for kids in the primary grades. Still, the story itself does an excellent job of showing how the system works. Bad Kitty for President gets my vote!

Here's GalleyCat's interview with Nick Bruel, along with a trailer for Bad Kitty for President.

Bad Kitty for President
by Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press, 144 pages
Published: January 2012