Day 1157: This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

Cover for This Is a Poem That Heals FishI read about This Is a Poem That Heals Fish on Brain Pickings and had to have it for my great nephew. It was difficult to find a copy (but no longer is).

Lolo at the bicycle shop

The book has a simple story. Arthur’s fish Leon is bored almost to death. When Arthur asks his mother what to do, she says, “Hurry, give him a poem!”

So, Arthur spends the rest of the book trying to find out what a poem is, getting advice from various people and animals in the neighborhood. For example, Lolo at the bicycle shop says “A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.” From everyone’s comments, Arthur makes his own poem at the end of the book.

This is a lovely book, with beautiful, modern illustrations and ideas that make you ponder. Although I am giving it to a four-year-old, I think it could be appreciated by any age.

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Day 946: The Story of the Treasure Seekers

Cover for The Story of the Treasure SeekersA while back, I read E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. Although I liked it well enough, I did not find it as delightful as the book I’m reviewing today, The Story of the Treasure Seekers. This first novel of Nesbit’s is about the Bastable children, Alice, Dicky, Dora, Horace Octavius (known as H. O.), and Oswald. The narrator keeps his identity secret, but we can tell fairly soon that it’s Oswald.

The Bastable’s mother died not long ago, and the children are vaguely aware that their father is having financial problems. He has removed them from school, and the house isn’t nicely kept up. So, the children have a council, and they each come up with a plan for finding treasure.

The novel is about what happens as the children try to raise money, their plans ranging from holding up people on the common to dowsing for gold. The novel is very funny, I think even more for adults than for children. Children will enjoy the kid’s adventures, but adults can understand an entire additional layer of information that the children in the book don’t, for example, that the Robber they find in their father’s study is probably not a Robber.

The naivety of the narration lends this novel a charm and humor that a straightforward third-person narrative would not. This is a lovely, funny book.

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Day 929: The Railway Children

Cover for The Railway ChildrenThe Railway Children is a classic British children’s story, written in 1906. At the beginning, Roberta (Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis live a happy and comfortable life with their parents in a suburb of London. Then one evening two men come to see their father, and they hear angry voices. Their father goes away with the men, and shortly afterward they move with their mother to a cottage in the country.

Here things are a bit more primitive. They only have one servant, a housekeeper, and a pump in the yard for water. They have to help their mother more, and Peter can’t go to school. Their mother can’t play with them, because she is busy writing stories for money. They are poor and have to be careful how much coal they use and what they eat.

Near their house is the railway, and they find lots to entertain themselves watching the trains and getting to know the men at the station. They wave to an old gentleman on the morning train every day, and they have adventures related to the railway.

I can see why children would love this story. Although the children’s adventures are all realistic, they would be exciting reading for children. There is also the mystery about their father. Character development is not a strong suit of the novel, but the children and their mother are sympathetic and the children behave like actual children.

Perhaps the novel does not have as much to offer adults, especially those who didn’t read and love the book as children. Still, it’s easy to see why the book is still popular.

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Day 924: Ballet Shoes

Cover for Ballet ShoesNoel Streatfeild was a writer of popular children’s books in the 1930’s. Her first novel, Ballet Shoes, was so popular that the U.S. publishers renamed several of her subsequent books to include the word “shoes,” even though they were not series books.

Ballet Shoes is about three girls, all adopted by Great Uncle Matthew, called Gum. Gum is a fossil hunter, but when his house becomes too full of fossils, his great-niece Sylvia’s nanny makes him give them away to a museum. Gum goes off on another fossil-hunting trip but brings back a baby instead, the unidentified survivor of a shipwreck. Over the course of five years, he brings back two more. These are Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, and he gives them the last name of Fossil.

Gum goes off on another trip, leaving Sylvia and the cook and nanny in charge. Sylvia does her best to bring up the girls, although she is only ten years older than Pauline. But Gum doesn’t return, and the money begins to run out. Sylvia is forced to remove the girls from school and try to teach them herself. Finally, she must take in boarders.

Sylvia is lucky in her boarders, because soon they are all involved in the girls’ education. Two retired university professors undertake to teach the girls at no cost, and Theo, who teaches ballet, gets them enrollment in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, which prepares children for a career in the arts.

At 11, Pauline shows promise as an actress, and none of them have any doubt that Posy will be a famous ballerina. Only Petrova does not feel any particular aptitude, except for her interests in motors and flying, and she is most happy on Sundays, when boarder Mr. Simpson lets her work in his garage.

The rest of the novel follows the girls’ careers as they struggle to make enough money to support themselves and study dancing and theatre.

Ballet Shoes is not a classic because of its writing style or literary attainment, at least in my opinion. The writing is workmanlike, and the narrative arc lacks the highs and lows of other classics. Instead, it is a classic because of Streatfeild’s knowledge of the arts and the details about classes and stage productions. I think this novel would be fascinating for any child interested in the arts, especially ballet. And the plot about the four orphans trying to make it in a difficult world should appeal to most other imaginative children.

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Day 907: Victorian Fairy Tales

Cover for Victorian Fairy TalesApparently, in Victorian times there was a fashion for fairy tales. Not only did some writers, especially of children’s books, concentrate on them, but many writers of other types of works wrote them as well. Although Victorian Fairy Tales is published as a scholarly work with notes and essays, the tales are well worth reading by anyone, and many of them are by well-known writers.

My favorite tale was “The Rose and the Ring,” by William Makepeace Thackeray. It is about a couple of usurping kings and the confusion that results when an enchanted ring and a rose that each make the wearer irresistible to the opposite sex are traded around among the characters. The story is very funny, with different types of humor to appeal to both adults and children, as well as silly names and repetition, which children love. The pictures by Thackeray from the original are wonderful.

“Prince Prigio” by Andrew Lang is another funny tale, about a prince who is so smart that he annoys everyone. Another outstanding tale is by E. Nesbit, “Melisande,” about a princess who is cursed by a wicked fairy to be bald. Her father gives her a wish, and as happens in fairy tales, she doesn’t wish wisely.

Other favorite stories are “The Queen Who Flew” by Ford Madox Ford and “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame. “The Reluctant Dragon” and “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde are the only stories in the volume I have read before, although I vaguely remember there being a copy of “The Little Lame Prince” by Dinah Mulock Craik around our house.

There is much to enjoy in this book, both for children and adults. I thought a couple of the stories were a bit ethereal and symbolic to be enjoyed much by children (or by me), but most of them were fun to read.

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Day 874: Two Picture Books by William Joyce

I saw some more cute books by William Joyce too late to send them for the holidays, so I’m saving them for next year for my youngest nephew.

Cover for Santa CallsSanta Calls

Art Atchison Ainsworth and his little sister Esther live in Abilene. One day Santa sends them an order to report to the North Pole in a flying machine. (He sends the flying machine, too.) Art is not always nice to Esther and doesn’t want her to come along. But they go together, taking along Art’s friend Spaulding Littlefeets. What mission does Santa have for the three children?

Cover for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris LessmoreThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Mr. Morris Lessmore is leading an ordinary life when he sees a woman with flying books. He wishes he has one, too, and then he finds a room of flying books. Lessmore writes his own book as he explores the joys of books. (This one is bound to appeal to me.)

* * *

Both of these books feature beautiful illustrations in Joyce’s classic retro style. The text of Santa Calls is a little more difficult than that of the other book. The weakest part of Joyce’s books is the text, I think. It is all right, but I have seen more clever writing in other children’s books. But I love the illustrations, and I think that most children won’t notice the quality of the text.

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Day 869: Snow

Cover for SnowSnow is a charming picture book I got for my nephew for Christmas. It is a Caldecott Medal winner with beautiful pictures.

A boy sees a snowflake and says it is snowing, but the adults dismiss it. The radio says it isn’t supposed to snow.

But the weather has other ideas. Soon snow is everywhere. The boy and his dog frolic in the snow, and some Mother Goose figures come down from a sign and frolic with them.

Written for little children or early readers, this is a delightful book with lovely pictures.

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Day 847: Two Picture Books

Cover for Dinosaur BobI went book crazy a couple months ago. In addition to three board books, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, I bought my great-nephew two picture books. (He got them for his birthday.)

Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo by William Joyce

If you’ve been reading my reviews of children’s books, you’ll know I’m a fan of William Joyce, not so much for his famous franchise (Guardians of the Galaxy) but for his books for younger kids. But I haven’t read Dinosaur Bob. After the enthusiastic recommendation of my friend Caroline, I had to try him.

dinosaur-bobThis book is about an adventuresome family who meet Bob on their travels and bring him home. All is well until Bob runs afoul of the mayor’s wife, Mrs. DeGlumly.

The book is beautifully illustrated in a colorful 50’s style. The pictures are absolutely striking. The plot is simple but fun. I’m sure my nephew will love Dinosaur Bob.

Cover for The Full Moon at the Napping HouseThe Full Moon at the Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood

Well, I ask you? Who can resist buying a book named The Full Moon at the Napping House? This book is written like The House That Jack Built, starting with a short phrase and adding on to it and repeating. It’s about a boy, a grandmother, a cat, a dog, and none of them can go to sleep.

The pictures are lovely and funny. This is another beautiful picture book with its own distinct style of illustration.

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Why Are Children’s Books So Tough on Parents?

Cover for Ballet ShoesIn which I take a break from my usual reviews and do a little musing.

This week I read Noel Streatfeild’s classic book Ballet Shoes for the first time, and that made me think about something I have often wondered. Why do the children in classic children’s books seldom have parents? Or if they have parents, why aren’t they there?

In Ballet Shoes, three little girls, Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, are adopted by Great Uncle Matthew. Then he goes off on a trip and doesn’t come back for a long time, leaving them with his great niece Sylvia, only sixteen, and the servants. To support themselves, the girls turn to dance and theatre.

Cover for The Invention of Hugo CabretBut the Fossil girls aren’t the only orphans in children’s classics. Anne Shirley is an orphan, although admittedly Marilla and Matthew are a lot more present than many parents in children’s books. The parents of Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden and Rose of Eight Cousins die, and they go to live in the house of uncles they’ve never met. Mary’s uncle is a recluse and Rose’s uncle is away at sea. Hugo Cabret is left with his uncle, too, but his uncle disappears, and he lives alone in a clock tower. Pippi Longstocking’s father is lost at sea. David Copperfield is a posthumous child whose mother dies, leaving him to the mercies of a despotic stepfather. Poor little Oliver Twist never knew either of his parents. Pollyanna goes to live with her aunt, and Heidi with her grandfather. David Balfour is not only an orphan, but his kidnapping is arranged by his own uncle! Karana’s father is killed and then she misses the boat to wait for her brother. No one ever tells us what happened to Dorothy’s parents. She lives with her aunt and uncle but flies off from them in a tornado. And there’s the most famous orphan of all, Harry Potter, who at first lives in a cubbyhole under the stairs at his uncle’s house and later discards his relatives altogether. Somehow, none of these guardians seem to be as present as actual parents would be, we assume.

Cover for KidnappedThen we have children who may as well be orphans. Wendy, John, and Michael Darling literally fly out the window with a sprite, so eager are they for adventure. Huckleberry Finn is a boy who would just as soon leave his father behind, and does. Although Marmee is home part of the time, she has to go off and nurse Mr. March for a good portion of the book, leaving Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy home alone. The boy in The Reluctant Dragon has a mother who wants him to come home, but he spends all his time hanging out with saints and dragons. Sara Crewe’s father leaves her at school and then disappears. Jim Hawkins runs off to sea to find treasure, leaving his mother behind to watch the tavern. Max from Where the Wild Things Are sails away to an island full of monsters. Cedric Errol’s mother gives her up to his grandfather so that he can have a better life. Meg Murray and her brother Charles Wallace travel off into time, although admittedly they are trying to rescue their father.

Cover for Harry PotterOf course, you’re probably thinking about other books where parents are present, the Little House books, for example. But think how many of your favorite books were about children who are alone or being taken care of by other relatives, strangers, or no one at all. Why is that?

One obvious thought is you can’t go fighting pirates when you’re being reminded to brush your teeth and put on your pajamas. As a budding author of 12, I was fully aware of how parents would stifle my creativity. My girlfriend and I spent each day writing under the tree in her back yard. After thinking about the problem for about five minutes, I ruthlessly killed off my main character’s parents.

Cover for Where the Wild Things AreBut maybe there is something to consider about the types of books we love as children. Maybe the books we love best are the ones where children learn to develop and take care of themselves. And of course, all good children’s books must have pathos. A lonely child appeals to our sympathies, even if she is a brat at first, like Mary Lennox. Danger is heightened without the protection of a parent, as we find with Jim on the Hispaniola or Oliver Twist in the clutches of Bill Sykes or Harry in the clutches of, well, everything. The children must find ways to survive using their wits.

Maybe it’s not so much that as children we don’t want parents in our books, but that those books are the ones we find more memorable. We can imagine how we would feel if our parents were gone and we had to go live with a scary uncle or a grumpy grandfather or Marilla Cuthbert, who seems very intimidating to a child. We can admire how resourceful the characters become when they have to fend for themselves. How great it is that Mary learns how to garden, make friends, and help heal her cousin Colin. How resourceful Huck is in protecting Jim. How cheerful Sara is even when she’s banished to the attic of her school and treated as a housemaid. How cleverly the boy helps work out the problems between St. George and the lazy, poetic dragon. How ingenious Hugo is at finding ways to support himself. How Pippi can do anything she wants, at any time!

And, of course, loneliness is a huge theme in most of these books (maybe Pippi excepted), and all children know what it is to feel lonely.

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Day 834: Three Board Books

As I often do when I buy my young relatives a book, I read it quickly to include a review on my blog. Today I have reviews of three board books I bought for my two-year-old great-nephew.

Cover of Hooray for FishHooray for Fish! by Lucy Cousins
Of the three, Hooray for Fish! has the simplest vocabulary. It seems intended for babies or new readers. It has cheerful pictures of different types of fish, but it doesn’t really have a plot.

Cover for TumfordTumford the Terrible by Nancy Tillman

Tumford is a cute, chubby cat who gets into trouble. This book contains a moral about saying you’re sorry for your mistakes. The text is a little more complicated than that of Hooray for Fish, including some short, rhyming paragraphs. The pictures are beautiful.

Cover for Secret SeahorseSecret Seahorse by Stella Blackstone and Clare Beaton
Secret Seahorse has cute, bright pictures and rhyming text. A seahorse is hidden in each picture, providing some extra fun. These undersea pictures are also bright and appear to be photographs of scenes made from cloth, buttons, and sequins.

 

The creativity of these books is more in the artwork than any originality or deftness of the story. I might compare these books to Little Bird, which had almost no words but is bright and funny. It’s true that Little Bird is a picture book rather than a board book, though. I have some pictures books to review at a later time, and the authors seem to be able to do more with them.

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