Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

The Letter Z (A-to-Z Challenge)

May 1, 2015

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Toward the end of the alphabet I manipulated some of the letters pretty excessively so today I thought I’d better pull myself together and end on an honest and upstanding note. To this end I Googled “list of authors beginning with the letter Z.”

And here I found Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.


Here I could kill two birds with one stone.  The Book Thief became popular just as my youngest was aging out of the target audience and so we missed it.  I was always sorry about that so I was delighted that today I had an excuse to buy it and spend the time to read it.  I took out my phone and went right over to Amazon and searched “The Book Thief Kindle edition.”  First offer was a special movie edition with video clips included and that’s a little fancy for me.  Then a Sparknotes type thing, and next several unrelated books with the word “Thief” in the title.  Finally halfway down the page there was a book plainly labelled “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” for $2.99.  I bought it with one-click.

Then I had to charge my kindle because it was dead. While I waited I paced around doing housework in a desultory and slipshod way because I was so excited about reading a wonderful new book.  Eventually the Kindle burst into light and I seized it and settled myself and opened the book to the title page, which read “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Review.”


I think that was a little deceptive, to put in huge letters on the cover “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” and make “a review” in tiny print, but that’s really beside the point.  That was really my own fault for trying to read small print on my phone. That’s not why I’m walking around the house breathing heavily through my nose and slamming the laundry baskets around.

It’s because when I went back to Amazon to return the review for a refund and leave a nasty one-star review, I looked at the “The Book Thief Kindle edition” search results list again saw that it was absolutely clotted with these “summaries,” these trashy little cheat-sheets that you run out and buy the night before the test if you were too lazy to read the book.

I am not talking about study guides, those useful enrichment exercises which are designed to enhance a student’s understanding of a book he has already read through thought questions, vocab review and character studies.  I am talking about summaries, which are designed to enable the ‘reader’ to fake a one page book report or eke out a B minus on a test if they had been too busy playing video games or texting or watching whole seasons of stuff on Netflix or painting their nails or whatever to bother with reading something marvelous which had been written just for them, which would not only have entertained them but made them into a better person.

Isn’t anybody paying attention to what’s going on out there?  Does not anyone see a problem?  Do you not see the irony? Fine.  I’ll spell it out for you.

This is a story** about a girl who copes with the hell of Nazi Germany by painstakingly and with difficulty, with her adopted father’s help, learning to read at a later than usual age, and then over a period of years risks imprisonment or death to one by one acquire by stealth a library of books that you could count on your digits with some toes left over.  A magnificent writer has taken years of his life to craft this plot into an irresistibly readable story for young people and someone has the effrontery to write and sell a pamphlet* the only purpose of which is to enable these young people to get by with not bothering to read it.  It makes me so angry I could spit.

Now, this is not Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  This is not Paradise Lost or even War and Peace.  This book is written at the fourth grade reading level; it is aimed at young people in grades seven through twelve. This is a book that I want to read because I see fifteen-year olds talking about it in hushed, rhapsodic whispers so as not to spoil the ending for their friends who haven’t read it yet. It is not only readable, it is magical.  As I discovered between 4 pm and midnight yesterday, it is a book that cannot be put down, even to make dinner.

This is why I cannot be a classroom teacher.

If I gave my students the privilege of reading a book such as this and found out that they had declined to do so and had instead read a summary, I would not only give them a Zero – Zip, Zilch*** – for that assignment, I would also take away all the credit for all the work they had done on anything else and then throw them out of my classroom.  Then the school board would want to have a word with me, and I’d resign. I can feel myself getting overheated already, so enough of this.****

I know you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

This is beyond that.  This is like try to stuff hundred dollar bills into someone’s pockets and they yank them out and tear them up and throw them on the ground. This is like giving your kid a Porsche for his sixteenth birthday and him rolling his eyes in disgust and asking if he couldn’t just ride his old tricycle instead. This is like the dwarves sitting in a circle convinced that they are eating stable litter, refusing to see the glory of New Narnia all around them.

What on earth is going on here?

Why are adults writing these summaries?  Why is Amazon – of all ironies – selling them? There should be an analogy for that too but I’m just too angry to think of one.

I’m truly sorry to end the A-to-Z Challenge on this note.

I’ve got a busy weekend, but I hope I’ll see some of you on Monday for the reflection post,



*It’s almost beside the point that the person who wrote this review could not manage to make it through a single sentence without changing tenses.  I don’t mean from one sentence to the next; I mean, changing tenses within the sentence. Practically every sentence. Look it up and read a sample if you don’t believe me.

**Yes, I understand that it is fiction.

***There are some honest Zs for you.

***I gave myself twenty-four hours and I hope I’ve been able to tone it down some.  Lately I read an article by someone who was so angry at people who stupidly insist on putting two spaces instead of just one after a period that she was practically choking on her own spit.  It seemed excessive and, I thought, a little tasteless, and I was hoping to avoid the same kind of thing here, but I’m afraid I may have crossed the same line.


The Letter R (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 21, 2015

The Beginning of the Armadillos, by Rudyard Kipling

In Rudyard Kipling’s tale The Beginning of the Armadillos,* two friends named Slow-and-Solid Tortoise and Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog live and play together in a very Frog-and-Toad-like way along the banks of the turbid Amazon.  One morning a young and hungry Painted Jaguar approaches them with the idea of breakfast and the animals are able to thwart him, at first by Slow-Solid by retreating into his shell and by Stickly-Prickly shoving spines into the big kitten’s paw.  Then they confuse him with a mixture of distorted truth and outright deception, baffle him with twisted and clever back chat and finally tie him up in a tangle of semantics.  Frustrated and still hungry, Painted Jaguar runs crying to his Mummy.

The two friends eavesdrop on their conversation and are horrified to hear Mummy providing Painted Jaguar with detailed, species-specific instructions on how to kill and eat tortoises and hedgehogs.  It is obvious that Painted Jaguar now knows exactly what’s what and the two friends are resigned to the fact that he will be back to get them in the morning and that this time he will be armed with a fatally accurate knowledge of their respective weaknesses.

“I do not like this old lady at all — at all,” said Slow-and-Solid Tortoise.  “Even Painted Jaguar can’t forget those directions.  It’s a great pity you can’t swim, Stickly-Prickly.

“Don’t talk to me,” said Stickly-Prickly.  “Just think how much better it would be if you could curl up.  This is a mess!”

But forewarned is forearmed, and the animals do not panic but instead calmly set to work to save themselves, working through the night as each shares with the other the skills of bending and of swimming, conversing all the while in the fun, finicky language of old bachelors.

Stickly-Prickly helped to unlace Tortoise’s back plates, so that by twisting and straining Slow-and-Solid actually managed to curl up a tiddy wee bit.

“Excellent!” said Stickly-Prickly; “but I shouldn’t do any more just now.  It’s making you black in the face.  Kindly lead me into the water once again and I’ll practice that sidestroke which you say is so easy.”  And so Stickly-Prickly practiced, and Slow-Solid swam alongside.

“Excellent!” said Slow-Solid. “A little more practice will make you a regular whale.  Now, if I may trouble you to unlace my back and front plates two holes more, I’ll try that fascinating bend that you say is so easy.  Won’t Painted Jaguar be surprised!”

“Excellent!” said Stickly-Prickly, all wet from the Turbid Amazon.  “I declare, I shouldn’t know you from one of my own family.  Two holes, I think, you said? A little more expression, please, and don’t grunt quite so much, or Painted Jaguar may hear us.  When you’ve finished, I want to try that long dive which you say is so easy.  Won’t Painted Jaguar be surprised!”

And so Stickly-Prickly dived, and Slow-and-Solid dived alongside.

Kipling must surely have been a big Homer fan and most certainly The Beginning of the Armadillos was intended to be read aloud since, much like the wine dark seas and the rosy-fingered dawns of the Odyssey, Kipling’s repeated addictive and soothing references to the Turbid Amazon and the High and Far Off Times and the periodic addressing of the story to O Best Beloved build and weave an irresistible rhythm that lulls both parent and child to settle deeply into the gentle tale.

Is this a traditional fable retold or a story from Kipling’s imagination?  I do not know.  It’s a good one though.  I hope your mother read it to you and if she didn’t, I hope you will read it to someone yourself.

See you tomorrow for Letter S,


*quotes from Kipling, Rudyard, and Lorinda Bryan Cauley. The Beginning of the Armadillos. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. Print.

The Letter O (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 17, 2015

I’m going out on a limb here (har har – you’ll get it in a minute) and choosing for the Letter O my favourite character from A.A. Milne’s The World of Pooh and The World of Christopher Robin, and that would be Owl.  Poor Owl, loving the big words but generally misusing or misspelling them, or when he happens to use them correctly his friends think he’s sneezing.  Living in his tree house with his books and his paper and pen, painstakingly writing speeches which he is never allowed to finish, unfailingly gracious and generous with using his literary skills to decipher letters for his little friends, always available to provide the ink-spattered and originally spelt signage necessary for their adventures, sagely dispensing wisdom and carefully considered advice to all the creatures of the Hundred Acre Wood.

And in another attenuated and awkward* leap here I am going to post a link to something which made me suddenly and thoughtlessly laugh out loud in a very percussive manner in the middle of the night, badly startling the Patient Man.  It is in honor of Owl.

I hope you enjoyed that and I hope it more than makes up for the very thoughtful analysis I was planning on Homer’s Odyssey.

Wait for Letter P, though.  It’s gonna be a good one!

Working hard to catch up, thank you for reading!


*My my, I seem to be quite into alliteration today, do I not?  Or is still alliteration when the words start with vowels?  

The Letter F (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 7, 2015

Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel

  • Days With Frog and Toad
  • Frog and Toad are Friends
  • Frog and Toad Together
  • Frog and Toad All Year

When it comes to children’s ‘literature’ there is so much crap out there.  I’m sorry, I don’t usually say ‘crap,’ but I’m afraid it applies here and I must just say it.

Go to the ‘early reader’ section of any bookstore and take a look at some of the books available which are meant to entice children to make the effort to learn to read. The fact that I find so many of these books to be irritating and stupid* is totally beside the point; the point is that I’ve never known any children to find them appealing either.  I can’t tell you how much money I spent on a certain book collection whose title purports to encourage children by telling them that they can read.**  I guess it was my fault they didn’t like them.  I had been snobbishly cramming good books down their throats – books like Charlotte’s Web, the Narnia books, the Little House books, Heidi, Caddie Woodlawn, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy – and apparently this did the children the disservice of turning them into little critics who thought they were too good for a storyline that included a second grader who by dint of believing in himself was able to transform into a flying superhero with special abilities which enabled him to tame the dinosaur that was stealing everybody’s lunches.  Sorry, but I’m afraid I’m not sorry.

And then we discovered Frog and Toad.

The miracle of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books is that they are actually literature.

Using only understated, simple language, Mr. Lobel created tiny, elegant gems of stories told in words of one or two syllables.***  In these stories the short, fat Toad and the tall, thin Frog play together and work together and make plans which do or do not work out.  Toad is shortsighted and impetuous and a little bit lazy and largely ruled by his emotions, while his best friend, Frog, is sensible and kind and patient and helpful.  In some stories, Toad, who does not always think things through, does something a little thoughtless and then the kindly Frog demonstrates entirely by his own actions a more reasonable way to act.****  No calamity befalls Toad, he simply gets it and Frog tactfully pretends not to notice.  How kind.  But in most of the stories they just have fun together.

I am a fan of the occasional use of biggish words in books for small children as long as the words are used simply and naturally**** and not in a condescending, instructive sort of way.  In Frog and Toad, however, the fact that the words are all tiny and simple is a big part of the attraction.  It creates an appealing rhythm and style that is a work of art.  We didn’t use these books as reading primers.  We read them because we loved them and we read them again and again and again and they never stopped being funny and profound.  That is the miracle of Frog and Toad.

If you can read the ice cream story***** aloud without whooping and shrieking and gasping and without tears and snot running down your temples into your ears (assuming you are lying down reading aloud to a child) then you are a stronger person than I.

If you can read the dream story****** without choking up, you are cold-hearted and unfeeling.

If you have any children in your life, you must immediately go and buy them the Frog and Toad series as a gift, and be sure to claim the read-aloud privileges for yourself.

See you tomorrow for Letter G,


*I am not going to name any titles, but they include books about child superheroes, books whose only raison d’etre is a trendy politically correct theme or character, books based on tv shows, cartoons or movies, books about monsters (I don’t think children actually worry about monsters until they are told they do by adults), books where they use the word ‘wacky’ or stupid made up words like ‘fudgelicious’ and books full of daringly outrageous potty humour because the author thinks that children think that bodily function jokes are really hilarious.  Children may may think so, when they’re the ones making the jokes, but when adults do it children are perceptive enough to realize that it’s both inappropriate and pandering.

**I can read, yes, but if this is all that’s available why would I bother to?

***In all of the four books I don’t believe there is even one word that a child would need to sound out more than once or have to ask the meaning of.  In one story of fewer than four hundred words I looked at this morning, there is only one word (“remember”) which is longer than two syllables.  I would give you a more accurate word count but I kept getting caught up in the story as I was counting.

****But gently!  And Frog never lets on that he notices.  And there’s no adult figure hovering and waiting to break in and stop all the fun and preachily reiterate the lesson.

*****Beatrix Potter’s use of the words ‘soporific’ and ‘alighted’ comes to mind.

*****”Ice Cream,” from Frog and Toad All Year.

******”The Dream,” from Frog and Toad Together.