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Monday, May 25, 2015

The Past Binds to the Present

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is a haunting book about memory and uncovering the past.  I feel it was a literary fiction “sleeper” because I had not heard of it through any of my usual book sources. I selected it through my affiliation with Blogging for Books. I was entranced by this novel and read the last three-quarters this past rainy Saturday afternoon. This book combined a historical mystery with a modern tragedy. The plot felt a bit thin at times, but it propelled me along enough to stay interested. 

An archivist in a small London museum, Jane Standen, becomes interested in a Victorian asylum and an old estate separated by woods she had wandered in as a teenager.  For the second half of the book, she is re-visiting this spot outside of London as her past and her present come together. The Victorian era mystery is linked to the modern tragedy through a chorus of ghost like creatures that lurk alongside Jane throughout the novel.  These spirits from the past floating in Jane’s life fascinated me and helped hold together the story. Aislinn Hunter has published stories, poetry and a novel previously in the UK, but this is her first U.S. publication. I look forward to seeing more from her. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Friday, May 15, 2015

More Books Fed to Me as A Child

As a child, manners were important in my home.  My mother tried, as best she could, to teach us how to act in the different situations we would face in life. Two of the children’s books that best prepared me for life were SesyleJoslin’s two classics – What Do You Do, Dear? (Subtitled: Proper Conduct for All Occasions) and What Do You Say, Dear? (A Book of Manners for All Occasions).  What Do You Say Dear was a Caldecott Medal Honor book in 1959, the year I was born. What Do You Do gives such wonderful advice as the following:

You are in the library reading a book when suddenly you are lassoed by Bad-Nose Bill. “I’ve got you,” he says, “and I’m taking you to my ranch, pronto. Now get moving.” What do you do, dear?

Walk through the library quietly.

Each situation is wildly improbable but the reader is given practical advice like “wash you hands before you eat” or “cover your mouth when you cough.”  I can still remember as a child the awe I felt at the crazy situations described with such handy solutions. Both books are called “A Handbook of Etiquette for Young Ladies and Gentlemen to be Used as a Guide for Everyday Social Behavior.” With illustrations by Maurice Sendak, the books are delightful and very useful for teaching manners and how to act in different situations, even the Princess’ ball or London to see the Queen. I used the Queen scenario with my children so much that they believed that they were actually going to London to see Queen Elizabeth. Sadly, we never have met the Queen.

Another book that really stands out from my childhood is Big Susan by the wonderful children’s book author, Elizabeth Orton Jones (Prayer for A Child and Twig). Even after I became a teenager, I would re-read the book every Christmas Eve. First published in 1947, Big Susan was out of print for many years and I had to really search to find a copy for my own children when they were small. I think it frightened by girls with the thought that their dolls came alive every Christmas Eve, but it always enchanted me. The book Big Susan made me believe that miracles can happen anytime if only we believe.

Lastly, I cannot pay tribute to my favorite children’s books without recognizing Charlotte Zolotow. I have already written about her on this blog when she died in late 2013 at age 98. But two of my childhood favorites (still on my shelves along with all the others mentioned here) are The Sky Was Blue (out of print) and Over and Over. I received them in 1963 and 1962 respectively. My mother read to these books to me over and over. I still hear her voice when I re-read them and see the timeless illustrations by Garth Williams.  Both books give reassuring stories of how life goes on and the same values remain through the seasons of the year and through the generations.

Zolotow herself said, “All of my books are based on an adult emotion that connects with a similar emotion that I had as a child. I like each of my books for a different reason, because each comes out of a different emotion. If a book succeeds in bringing an emotion into focus, then I like that book very much. “  I think that is why Zolotow’s books, as well as my other beloved books, are so special to me as an adult. These books helped me understand emotions.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Books Fed to Me as a Child

“Stories are the natural soul-food of children.”- G. Stanley Hall

My mother reading to my older
 brother and sister.
My love of books definitely came from many hours spent leaning on my mother’s shoulder while she read to me from the time I was a very small child. In fact, Emilie Buchwald said, "Children are made readers on the laps of their parents."  I also know much of my understanding about the world came from those pages. Recently I read an article on Marie Popova’s wonderful Brain Pickings about picture books that celebrate the lives of great creators. And I started thinking about children’s books in general and how what we read as small children helps form our personalities and values. Much research has been done on fiction in the development of personality.  So I began to do my own exploring on the earliest books I was given.

All I had to do was go upstairs to my own children’s book nook and see what stories I was fed as a child.  You see I adore children’s books. My mother read to me and my older brother and sister on a daily basis and I still have most of those books. I also have all the books I read to my own daughters as well as more recent purchases. So I walked upstairs to see what books stand out the most in my memories…

One the earliest books my mother read to me was The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. Ours was a Silver Anniversary Edition and was given to my older sister in 1955 on her second birthday.   First published in 1930, the story was about being positive and working hard. I was raised to remember the words of the little engine who made it over the mountain by just saying, “I think I can-I think I can-I think I can-I think I can” over and over.   The theme that a good attitude can get you over the toughest obstacles was definitely taught to me at my mother’s knee.

Another beloved book from my childhood was Edith &Mr. Bear, A Lonely Doll Story by Dare Wright. First published in 1957, photographer and author Dare Wright went on to publish at least eight more in the series. I still have The Lonely Doll and A Gift from the Lonely Doll and The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson. I read those books over and over. The main thing I remember is the scene where Mr. Bear spanks Edith for misbehaving. The books slightly creep me out now and my daughters never loved them like I did. I think the photo of Wright on the book jackets were what attracted me to the books. I was more influenced by the author than the main character, Edith. I imagined being a photographer and writer in New York City like Dare Wright. I recently read a biography The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: Dare Wright by Jean Nathan.  Her bizarre life was definitely not what I imagined when I read her books as a child. 

One book character that definitely influenced me was Pippi Longstocking. The wonderful books by Astrid Lindren filled me with joy. My copy of the first book, Pippi Longstocking, is dated on my birthday in 1967. So I must have been eight years old when I discovered this carefree tomboy. Pippi has no grown ups in her life and her funny adventures and creative spirit inspired me and children everywhere. I once read that she was the Junie B. Jones of her day. Her refreshing disrespect of adults and willingness to break the rules created my own distrust of authority figures. Pippi has always been a role model with her great physical strength and inventiveness. A few years ago, I was able to visit the statue of Astrid Lindren outside the Junibacken, museum devoted to Swedish children's literature (especially the beloved Pippi) in Stockholm, Sweden. It was a thrill, as you can see.

In my next post, I will share more books that I loved as a child that influenced me as an adult.  What were your favorites?