Sunday, December 17

The Amazing Life of Birds

(The Twenty-Day Puberty Journal of Duane Homer Leech)
as discovered by Gary Paulsen
Wendy Lamb Books/Random House 2006

Male puberty in all it's onset glory. The zits. The changing voice. The embarrassment of having to force yourself to think of something because the rest of your body thinks you want sex that instant. The unexplainable attraction to girls. All of it, just as I remembered, and just as I don't remember it, all at once.

Were it not for the construct of the journal it is likely Duane wouldn't remember any of this as well. Filled with moment after moment of harsh human developmental reality, I believe most of us forget these details of the early onset either by choice or design. Living so close to the moment you're sure a major zit or repeated episodes of clumsiness last forever, year upon year, but as the journal points out in a nice but oblique way, what's twenty days in the grand scheme of things?

Unlike most boys going through a pubescent overhaul, few would have the opportunity to watch a hatchling bird on their windowsill go from newborn to adolescent during those same days. As Duane watches and records the baby bird's progress he is treated to an overview (of sorts) of his own life to that point. The early days of constant eating, the parental exasperation of child-rearing, weaning children away from their dependence and, eventually, tossing them from the nest to fly. For the most part Duane sees but does not observe. It isn't until he's taken a fell spills of his own that he understand what his best friend means when he tells Duane that you have to act like you're not surprised by any of it. Sure, you can't go around ignoring the possibility of embarrassing erection in public, but the stammering and other social missteps can easily be shrugged off as just another one of those things everyone goes through.

Paulsen's book is a breezy read, just perfect for a target audience that is, when you think about it, both small and limited. No boy going through puberty is going to want to read about Duane's exploits. No matter how extreme Duane's zits (or mistaken ringworm) are the book would scare the hell out of any kid in the throes of change. Boys that have already passed puberty aren't going to want to look back until they're long out of range, and younger boys might just be confused about just what exactly Duane is talking about when he mentions replacing the word ELBOW in his mind when thoughts of female anatomy suddenly spring forth.

So the book is squarely aimed at the boy within spitting distance of puberty... or, and this might be a little off, perhaps it's aimed at girls. While sex education will lay out the basics of what it means physically to go through puberty it does little to explain what is going on inside the mind. Perhaps this book then makes a better handbook for pubescent girls who are trying to understand things from the other side. Boys aren't likely to hunt down clues about girls -- when they get that interested they jump (or are forced by peer pressure) to the misinformation and misogyny provided by Maxim and FHM magazine -- but for any girl who's curious to know what the flip side of the menstrual equation looks like, this could be a good window into that world.

Not that there's any comparison, mind you.

Thursday, December 14

Sins of the Fathers

by Chris Lynch
HarperTeen 2006

Drew, Hector and Skitz are an inseparable trio who have known each other since they first started attending Catholic school. They're the kind of misfits who are drawn together: Hector the Good with anger management issues, Skitz the Human Dog lacking the ability to feel physical pain, and Drew the Glue that holds them together, their voice of reason, their collective conscious, and the story's narrator.

Entering their teens the boys are starting to skew off track. Hector's fits of rage and violence seem to grow proportionately with his rise as Alter Boy of the Year. Skitz seems to recognize that everyone considers him a lost cause so the increase in his irrational anti-social behavior goes practically unnoticed. At first blush Drew appears the most normal, but it's clear that the more he sees happening around him the more drawn he is toward repressing his own anger and disapproval. And all three of think nothing of sneaking out of their houses for a late-night meet up to down handfuls of St. Joseph's children's aspirin and RC cola, presumable for caffeine jolt.

The arrival of a street priest, a Jesuit nicknamed Father Mularky, jolts the boys out of their complacency as he appears to be unlike the interchangeable roster of priests they have seen over the years. He looks like a biker and is still hooked on 70's rock and roll -- on vinyl if you please -- and prefers things a little more worldly (like drinking beer) than the church might otherwise like. Monsignor Blarney runs the show with an iron fist so it's no surprise when tensions lead to a showdown between the two.

Everything comes to a head when Hector becomes ill and is hospitalized. Suffering from a stomach ulcer the boys think it's related to their aspirin and cola habits while the church spins it as the result of Hector's father ditching his family. The truth is more sinister as just below the surface of the narrative, hinted at but never said directly, Hector appears to be a victim of sexual abuse by one of the priests. Skitz has jumped from aspirin munching to glue sniffing and Drew is finally forced to take a stand against the priests, to pull his boys together and remain united and strong.

Lynch tells a story that seems familiar all the way through -- familiar characters, familiar scenes of weak families and weaker priests, familiar hang-outs and familiar conversations -- yet it all fits together in a way that still feels like you're reading about it for the first time. Actually, as I was reading I got the sense that Lynch was filling in the details left out of the news accounts, the sort of details investigative reporters would have included or reconstructed when writing up stories for Rolling Stone back when Rolling Stone was a relevant source of cultural reportage. There's no glorifying or demonizing of any character within the narrative beyond the thoughts and comments of those involved.

Except for the less-than-subtle title, of course.

The absence of fathers, or decent father-figure replacements, is the real indictment here and it's difficult to say whether or not Drew and his boys can actually break the cycle of disfunction that characterizes all their interactions. It would be nice to think that once the boys take their stand that they grow stronger, but the confrontation takes place literally on the last page and it's just as easy to imagine that they form one of those tight-knit units that defines their strength by the secrets that bond them.

One more chapter would have done it, one more chapter to let us know that the boys weren't just circling the wagons. Or would that have been providing the reader with too much hope?

Wednesday, December 13

...And the Children Are All Above Average

It's the closing line Garrison Keillor uses whenever he delivers one of his homilies about his beloved Lake Wobegon. It's that idea that people often think higher of themselves (and their loved ones by extension) than is statistically possible. It even rates a Wikipedia entry, Lake Wobegon effect, with a couple of reasonable examples in support.

My favorite version is the oft reported story where around 18% of Americans polled believe they're in the top 1% tax bracket and the next 18% believe they're in the top 10%. So nearly 40% of polled Americans believe they're in the top 10%, which explains why talk of tax cuts for the upper income brackets is so embraced. It also supports the Great American Delusion that people are better off then previous generations. I know for a fact that my father earned a higher salary than I ever have -- that's not even adjusting for inflation -- and he never went to college.

But my least favorite version of the Lake Wobegon effect, and the more relevant one here, is actually the one Keillor uses. As a former teacher, and as a bookseller, the number of people who claim their children are above average would topple any bell curve you'd care to draw up.

Lately, working as a bookseller again and with the holidays upon us, the number of people with children reading "well above average" is staggering. Additionally, these children are "precocious", "sophisticated", and have interests far above most of the "mundane subject matter" that comprises most of the books available to kids their age.


So here are some questions these adults have been unable to answer about their above-average, precocious, sophisticated and clearly superior children when pressed.
  • What's the last book the child read and enjoyed?
  • What's the last book the child requested be purchased for them?
  • How many books a week (or month) do they read, on average?
  • Do they prefer realistic fiction or fantasy?
  • What's the last book they didn't enjoy, and what didn't they like about it?
  • What sort of books are they reading in school?
In short, exactly how well do you really know this child? It's amazing how many parents just stare blankly at me with any single one of these questions. It's a rare parent/adult who looks me in the eye and says "You know, that's a really good question. That would probably be useful information to know." Actually, the one parent who did say that left the store, came back a few days later and we set about getting their kids books they'll actually read.

What occurred to me recently is that with all these parental units -- caregivers and grandparents and other adults buying for children -- pushing more sophisticated, above grade level reading onto their kids, are we not seeing a partial cause to the problem of children growing up too fast? I'm thinking back to how Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials books were originally shelved in with Sci-Fi and Fantasy in the larger bookstores, then migrated to the teen section, and now can be found as a boxed gift set with the middle grade readers. The argument for their shift in placement was the success of Harry Potter, and the interest in all things British and vaguely connected to sorcery, among the younger set.

But just because a ten year old can read those books, should they?

I often find myself biting my tongue when, after exhaustively suggesting over a dozen titles and having them rejected as either "too young" or "too lightweight" or as "already read", sending people up the street to the larger bookstore that carries adult titles. Clearly, if these kids are so sophisticated and so easily bored of books aimed at their age level then they really ought to delve into the real classics and build themselves a more solid literary foundation.

There comes a point for every child when what is written for them feels too much like pandering. It isn't that the books for their age level are no longer relevant, but that desire to start exploring the adult world becomes too strong a pull to ignore. Where parents may feel reluctant to delve into more mature ideas and themes in the home (or allow it in the literature) kids will go looking elsewhere. Occasionally this is referred to as "the street", as in "where did you get that information, on the street?" and is, in fact, as integral a part of a child's education and development as their formal schooling. To be book smart is well and good and necessary, but there comes a time when it has to work in the real world. Short of hitting the streets and learning the hard way, adult books can offer up a window into the real world situations without cutting them off from their last reaming years of childhood.

The trickiest part of this balancing act is not foisting a book onto a child that either reminds them of school or in any way smacks of education. A fourteen year old boy whose interest in reading has waned isn't really going to enjoy The Three Muskateers as much as he would some vintage Vonnegut. I'm speaking from experience on this one. Not that I wouldn't eventually come around to the French classic (and others, Victor Hugo especially) but that what I needed at the time was a cockeyed world reflected through a satirist's prism to comfort me and let me know that it was alright, that adults didn't really have all the answers, and that we're all in this together.

Yes, and after I read Breakfast of Champions I dove headlong into Portnoy's Complaint and Catch 22. And I don't recall my parents ever describing me as above average, precocious or sophisticated -- though I did have to hide what I was reading once they took a look through Vonnegut. Should I have been reading my Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain for school instead of these fine examples of mid-twentieth century American literature? Absolutely. Would I have wanted to be a writer if I have given up reading at age fourteen and started doing poorly in school? No. (Actually, the reading didn't improve my grades, but I did start to view school with new eyes once it became my social observation laboratory.)

My hope is that adults stop describing their children in terms that make them feel good about themselves when shopping for books. To be honest, the booksellers neither care, and rarely does it help in recommending a book for a child. If you absolutely must give a book as a gift, then do the only thing a child wants from you in the first place, whether they admit it or not: ask them outright. Children don't like to receive bad gifts any more than adults do, and in buying them what they want you reduce the risk of viewing the gift through adult eyes, with all the associated faults and pitfalls. If you honestly do know what they want by all means purchase that book, but if you need recommendations from a bookseller who's never met your child and whom you don't know personally, better do your homework.

As far as gift cards are concerned, if you're going to give one for a bookstore it should be in an amount equal to several average-priced hardcover books. I'm not saying that to boost sales, the fact is that kids with a short spending leash don't enjoy the process of trying to match their interests with a set price. You give them lots of freedom and not only will they be less stressed about the purchase but they may also feel the latitude to expand their horizons beyond the books they know. Better still, take them to the bookstore for a shopping spree (with a set limit of books, not dollars) and teach them how to utilize the help of booksellers, show them how to enlist the advice of total strangers and learn how to communicate their ideas and desires effectively with others.

Now that might help make them truly above average.

Tuesday, December 12

Sounds of Rain

Poems of the Amazon
by David L. Harrison
photographs by Doug Duncan
Boyds Mills 2006

Do you like to laugh at bad poetry? Do you want to turn children off to poetry? Do you like to hurl books across the room in fury?

Do you like to read poetry that fails to evoke any sense of its inspiration? Do you enjoy conflicting similes and simplistic observations? Perhaps you enjoy free verse as cold and tasteless as noodles made of sawdust, yes?

Do you hate the Amazon? Would you like to read poems about the Amazon that makes it seem like a Florida backwater? Honestly?

And do you like poor photography, grainy pictures of chickens taken from a distance so great they almost look like specters or heat shadows? And do you like photos of people happily floating in a river against a poem about a nocturnal predator? How about a photo of a splotch on a tree branch, meant to represent some unnamed and generically described Amazon River Basin animal, would you like to see that?

Do you like to be confused and perplexed, wondering aloud if there was any editorial oversight involved in the making of the book at hand? Do you like to thumb through 24 glossy pages of a hardback book of poetry wondering what semi-conscious being would enjoy what could easily be held up as the nadir of good taste?

Do you have enemies or relatives whom you would like to put on the spot by making them gush and thank you for putting such wonderful thought and consideration into such a lovely gift (though we all know better)?

If so, the this is the book for you!

Monday, December 11

Exploding Gravy

Poems to Make You Laugh
by X. J. Kennedy
illustrated by Joy Allen
Little Brown 2002

How and why this hasn't crossed my threshold before, I don't know. In out house we have an avid poetry reader (age 8) who has read and reread all of Shel Silverstien's oeuvre, most if not all Jack Prelutsky's offerings, a good deal of James Stevenson's corn, a much-loved Karla Kuskin collection, a handful of Douglas Florian's imaginings and a variety of others. Her love of a particular Silverstien poem - The Rain in my Head -- is bolstered by her having memorized it back in kindergarden and to this day is still her favorite poem to recite.

It would seem that in all of her scouring of the poetry shelves we'd have seen this offering by X. J. Kennedy. It has the same feel a Silverstien collection with poems designed to entertain and illustrations to match. The poems are grouped (some more loosely than others) by subjects kids generally enjoy: far-out families, giants and dinosaurs, unlikely doings, and so on.

I stumbled onto this while shopping for the holidays, so I'm hoping my 8 year old poetess hasn't already read it, but even if she has poetry are the books she returns to over and over. It's one of those things kids do that somehow gets lost in the transition into adulthood. It's one of those mysteries I ponder, why it is that we drink in poetry as kids when we know nothing of poetic forms and structure, but feel as adults that we can't "understand" poetry because we feel a certain need to appreciate it on some higher level. Same problem with art museums I fear, but I digress.

In reading through the book I was sold once I reached a poem called "Italian Noodles":
Whenever I
Eat ravioli
I fork it fast
And chew it slowli
The poem's other rhymes follow suit: spaghetti/rhetti, ziti/priti, pasta/fasta (and the less impressive lasanga/on ya) and it's that love of goofy language that flies well in this house.

Thursday, December 7

Adele & Simon

by Barbara McClintock
FSG/Francis Foster Books 2006

Adele's mission is to pick up her younger brother Simon and bring him home in tact, that is, without having misplaced his clothing and other personal items along the way. Naturally, as they drift through central Paris there are many distractions, and Simon manages to lose something at every stop. A drawing here, a scarf there, mittens and cap, arriving home unburdened nearly by half of what Simon possess on the cover of the book. In the end the items are delivered to their door by the friendly Parisians they met along the way who seem familiar with Simon's forgetful ways.

The look and feel of the book is pure mid-20th century, the soft watercolor glow of a Paris long gone. The double-page spreads of each locale are rich with detail begging the observant reader to try and locate Simon's misplaced items. The endpapers even provide a map of the city with each of Adele and Simon's stops numbered so you can follow their meandering route from school to home.

The nostalgia of the setting gives the book an air of unforced innocence, a balancing act that McClintock carries off with deceptive ease. It's a hard book not to like. Which is to say, I really enjoyed this little adventure.

Wednesday, December 6

Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Difference

poems and drawings by
Richard Wilbur
Harcourt 1973, 1991 & 2000

In fifth grade I discovered the Complete Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear and the world changed for me. It was the fattest book I had ever seen in the children's library at my school -- a squat little four-by-six hardcover with a bright yellow cover showing signs of grubby hands and corner drops. Despite being a book of poetry, mostly limericks, it was shelved among the humor books. I was probably looking for a book of jokes and the fattest book in the section looked promising.

I don't recall being surprised that I had stumbled onto a book of poetry, and perhaps I wasn't, but I do recall a certain feeling of having walked into a new door and being bathed in a sort of ethereal delight. These little five-lined poems, one to a page accompanied by an absurd and naive little drawing, sang to me. I don't think I came across the word cadence until high school, but I recognized it instantly in fifth grade.

The limerick is a kid-sized song, the kind that can be repeated over and over (because that's what kids do, that's how they learn to master language) with each of Lear's limericks a story unto itself, a seed for fantasy. Ischia. Rheims. Dargle. El Hums. Did the place names in these limericks really exist or where they the fancy of the poet fitting the rhyme? Did it matter?

Naturally, a discovery this huge required me to strike out on my own, to attempt my hand at the limerick. Inspiration was everywhere: classmates, teachers and school administrators all became citizens of strange lands invented to fit the punchlines of my bold rhymes (and I did see them as punchlines, I was looking for a joke book as you may recall). Just as naturally, when I shared my efforts with friends and led them my source book, my Rosetta Stone, a fad swept like a wildfire in dry Southern California scrub. I'm sure I wasn't the first as I'm sure every teacher at El Marino Elementary had witnessed that particular fad annually. Their bold little fifth grade language explorers had stumbled into the same linguistic jungle and claimed it for their own.

Occasionally I stumble across a book, story or poem whose wordplay catches the same spirit as those fifth grade days. Richard Wilbur's collection of two previously published books (and a few addenda marked as differences) is such a book. Each of the pages contains a poem, numbered as if each described set of opposites was a rule, and a small illustrative naive drawing. The poems themselves adhere to AABBCC rhyme patterns and vary in length. Decidedly not limerick, they are also far more sophisticated in their wordplay but simple enough to be appreciated by a child (or childlike adult) who enjoys letting words dance around the tongue and mouth.
Because what's present doesn't last,
The opposite of it is past.
Or if you choose to look ahead,
Future's the opposite instead.
Or look around to see what's here,
And absent things will not appear.
There's one more opposite of present
That's really almost too unpleasant:
It is when someone takes away
Something with which you like to play.

I would like to think that had I discovered the first of these collected poems in the early 1970's that I might have been equally inspired but I suspect I wouldn't have been as successful. Where limericks invite invention opposites demand precision, which runs counter to a lifelong struggle I've had with my own impatience. Still, It is fun to read through page after page of extremely clever examinations of what is essentially the yin and yang of the English language.
What is the opposite of flying?
For birds, it would be just not trying.
Perhaps the opposite for us
Would be to take a train or bus.

Lately I've felt that there's too much rhyming text in children's books, bad and unimaginative rhyming text, I should add. Yes, children respond to rhyme for a variety of reasons, the most basic of which is that they have a rhythm, a song, a chime that rings deep in the brain. But aside from that does the rhyming do more than entertain? I don't mean in the pedagogic sense -- I'm sure there are studies showing that rhyming text yields better readers, develops cognitive skills, &c. -- but is a book in rhyme an easier sell, to a publisher, to a parent, to a child devouring books?

My general feeling is that too often I find rhymed text that does little but sit limp on the page, perhaps dulling the senses of children who will grow up thinking that all poetry is rhyme, all rhyme is stagnant, and life's too short for stagnant reading. Clever rhyming poetry hardly seems to rhyme at all, the sonic parity is merely the icing on the cake; there isn't any sense in icing Brussels sprouts, which to my mind are the opposite of cake and about as unpleasant as poetry with forced rhyme and no soul.

No, I don't expect every poet writing for children to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning former U.S. poet laureate, as Richard Wilbur is, but I would hope that they don't suck all the fun and joy out of reading through mediocrity.