In Praise of Tintin

So Garfield has been banned from the house. There comes a time in most families with boys where the comics get ripped out of the Sunday paper before the parents even wake up... so giddy they are to read the fresh strips from Peanuts, Garfield, The Family Circus and the like. This translated to my children checking out full collections of comic books at the library which I've tolerated for the past 6-7 months or so. One can resist twaddle only so much after all...

But once the kids started mimicking Garfield's bad attitude, and laughing about John's busty girlfriend commenting about the need to shave her legs, and seeing "Shut up!" in there, I've put the kibosh on that cat being allowed in our house anymore.

Thankfully there's The Adventures of Tinitinto fill in the void. The boys have had a growing interest in Tintin for close to a year now and it's coming to a full apex where they read each adventure from start to finish in one sitting, wide eyed and willing to sacrifice sleep and play in order to finish whichever new comic they've checked out. For those who are unfamiliar with Tintin, here's a brief excerpt from Wikipedia to fill you in:

Set during a largely realistic 20th century, the hero of the series is Tintin, a young Belgian reporter. He is aided in his adventures from the beginning by his faithful fox terrier dog Snowy (Milou in French). Later, popular additions to the cast included the brash, cynical and grumpy Captain Haddock, the highly intelligent but hearing-impaired Professor Calculus (Professeur Tournesol) and other supporting characters such as the incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson (Dupont et Dupond). Hergé himself features in several of the comics as a background character, as do his assistants in some instances.

The comic strip series has long been admired for its clean, expressive drawings in Hergé's signature ligne claire style. Its "engaging",well-researched plots straddle a variety of genres: swashbuckling adventures with elements of fantasy, mysteries, political thrillers, and science fiction. The stories within the Tintin series always feature slapstick humour, accompanied in later albums by satire, and political and cultural commentary.
These are true, blue adventures with great characters and great endings... the kind of stuff with which boys should grow up (though the PC police will have their objections to the stark "good guys" vs. "bad guys" dichotomy, period-typical prejudices and use of weaponry). For all this and more, I am still happy to welcome Tintin into our home.

On December 23rd of this year, Steven Spielberg is releasing an animated Tintin movie in 3D which looks very promising and exciting. Certainly it needs a preview before the littles are allowed to watch it (Reading about gun fights and watching gun fights on a sensory overloaded movie screen are two different things.) but I am hoping it'll be fine for my 7 and 9 year olds to see with their father.

One should absolutely NOT consider seeing the movie without first becoming familiar with the beloved comics themselves first! (I feel the same way about almost all book-to-movie adaptations... but especially important stories like Narnia, Lord of the Rings, The Little Princess, etc.) Watching the trailer I can't help but think, "Thundering Typhoons! Look at that phenomenal animation!"

Loving and Hating the Truth

This book by Arthur Geisert is not what you'd expect. I picked it up at the library because I was initially attracted to the illustration style. But I was in for a surprise. In fact, in the seemingly hundreds of farm books or scenes I've seen in children's stories, I've never seen anything like this. At first I hated it. Then I thought I kind of liked it. Today, I am decidedly ambivalent. Farm scenes in children's books are idyllic places; there is a big, red barn and happy, healthy animals wandering about while Farmer Bob in his overalls, tips his hat from his old John Deere tractor. Farm-life is a common thing to encounter in the world of children's literature because we present it as such a lovely, interesting place and ripe for learning opportunities. Country Road ABC does not do that. It tells it like it is. Most of American farmers--those who make a living by farming anyway-- are more like agro-industrial scientists and less like Old MacDonald. What would make for some good words in a Country Road ABC book? A is for... what? Apples? Animals? Autumn? No. A is for Ammonia fertilizer. How about G is for Grinding Feed or I is for Inoculate? Not your typical farm words. But real and important nonetheless. The book contains a glossary explaining more about these words. On the M is for milking page, forget the sweet idea of a plump Mrs. MacDonald sitting on a stool with her hair in a bun and a smile on her face as she milks a cow. Instead see a man hooking up industrial milking machines to a cow that's secured in a steel harnessed area. Disarming as this all is, I think it's useful information. Why not let kids know the truth about where their food comes from? Most of us don't have the resources to allow us to buy from local, organic, sustainable farms all the time. So this is reality folks! And while it may be less pleasant than a "Quack, quack here and a quack, quack there" I think reality does have its place in a children's book.
However if you remain unconvinced and prefer the traditional farm imagery, here are some favorite titles off the top of my head, just for kicks:

Rosie's Walk
The Little Farm
A Farmer's Alphabet
The Little Red Hen
Ox-Cart Man
Big Red Barn

Top 10 Best Summer Books

This Top 10 list was almost impossible for me to make. Not only does summer encompass so many great topics, there are inumerable books which aren't season specific that COULD be summer books. I am purposely leaving out some of my very favorite summer-toned books because they can be in a category by themselves. So hopefully we can look forward to a "Top 10 Beach Books" and "Top 10 Historical Fiction Books" and "Top 10 Baseball Books" etc. There are so many great titles out there, but I had to narrow it down somehow. The great news is that while I was perusing Amazon to refresh my brain and get the links for these books (click on pictures), I came across at good dozen or so books that I'd never heard of but which seemed very, very promising. So I'll be checking those out at the library. For now though, I love the challenge of thinking "If I had only 10 summer books on my shelf, what would they be?" So in no particular order I offer these titles:

 Jamberry by Bruce Degan. This is an ode to the little children again as this book is full of fun rhymes and exciting berries... an excellent accompaniment to any berry-picking, canning, or pie making adventure.

 On a Summer Day by Lois Lenski.  There's just no two ways about it, Lenski's seasonal titles are perfect in every way.  I wish so much that these would be reissued; too many good books get lost in the out of print bins.

 Fireflies! by Julie Brinckloe. This book just captures the essence of summer all around. You can feel the warm night air and the excitement induced by the fireflies. Included is a great lesson in respect for nature.

 Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey. This was my very favorite book as a little girl. I wasn't alone in that sentiment as this book has delighted children for a few generations now. It really is a must-have.

 Summer Story by Jill Barklem. You can expect a Brambly Hedge book in each of my seasonal Top 10 lists simply because they are so great at telling a lovely story, hilighting the season, and delighting the eyes with intricate, detailed artwork. I am sad that I don't actually OWN any Jill Barklem titles yet. She's one of those authors who rarely turns up in second-hand sales.

 Thundercake by Patricia Polacco. Now that my friend pointed out a troublesome title by Polacco I will refrain from singing her glories, but she still does have some great books that shouldn't be missed. Polacco is famous for her pastoral scenes of Russian peasantry. This particular book has all the great suspense of a pending thunderstorm and dealing with the fear that accompanies it. A bonus for including the real recipe for cake too! (I've never tried it; it includes tomatoes and I just can't wrap my brain around that.)

 The Raft by Jim LaMarche. Jim LaMarche is a superb illustrator. The story in this book isn't exactly full of wonder and magic but I chose this title because it has some excellent points that I like to emphasize with my own children. Nicky is sent to spend the summer with his grandmother who lives on the river. He is a bored, probably spoiled child who thinks it's going to be boring. His world is opened up to all the wildlife on the river and the concept of drawing. This book is an excellent one for introducing the idea of nature journaling to children. Probably better for the over 6 crowd.

*****So these next three titles WERE going to be included in a whole 'nother post featuring narrative style books. What this means is that these titles don't tell a story in the traditional sense but they are the author's memories or just sort of meander through a moment or season without a particular apex. This doesn't mean they are bad stories, but they are to be appreciated on a different level I think... and there are more where this came from.*****

 Roxaboxen by Alice McClerran. I love this book. I love the sentiments it evokes and the memories from my own childhood it conjures up. I love how superbly 'dead-of-summer' it is. I love the ode to free, unconstructed play and imagination. Summer in our house this year is regrettably FULL of plans and structured activities and events. I'll be sure not to overschedule next year as I long for those long, free open days when children have to figure out what to do...

 Island Boy by Barbara Cooney. My dear friend gave us this book when we were living on Whidbey Island and it's struck a chord in my heart ever since. There is something different about island life and I love the history in this particular book. That, and the fact that I adore anything that Barbara Cooney has ever been a part of, make this a winner.

 Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey. I suppose this isn't strictly summer since it spans several seasons but the climax does sort of hit with a hurricane. This book is a delight and McCloskey is one of my favorites for a good reason!

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.

~Wallace Stevens

For the Littles

When your family starts growing up, it's very easy to adjust all the family read-alouds to the levels of the oldest. This is fine and good in some respects but I've noticed recently that the meaty, in-depth stories are getting far more readings around here than the simple ones suited for the 4 and under bracket. One way that I've remedied this in my own home is that when our family breaks for quiet time (we all split up into separate rooms and some of us nap, others read or play very quietly) I take 10 minutes or so with each of my youngest two children, my nearly 5 year old son and my 2 year old daughter. They each get individual attention to spend reading one or two of those "forgotten books" that were everyday fare here once upon a time. While my little ones are pretty good sports about listening to great myths or picture book biographies, they really do delight in those simple, simple stories that have their place in a child's mind forever. I'll share with you some of those titles in a bit but I first want to say a word about repetition.

I used to get annoyed when a child would say "Read it again!" or when they'd keep choosing the same volume every single day at reading time. I'd think "How boring! Let's read something new for once!" Then I wised up a bit and read a bit and researched a bit and learned that repetition is so important for wee little brains. Children thrive on knowing a story. They love memorizing it and being able to tell you what happens next. I think it somehow reinforces their view of the world that life is secure and predictable... and the familiarity found in an old book is a great source of comfort to them... especially when coupled with a warm lap and loving voice.

Maybe I'm overanalyzing it, but that's what a bibliozealot does with books.

As it is, every home with toddlers should have a rich collection of basic books that are known and loved and read often. I won't bother to state that these are the BEST OF THE BEST (since there are many "bests" in this particular category). But I will give you an idea of some titles on our bookshelf (and we've a few hundred children's books I think) that get repeated many, many times. I think I'll eventually make a Top 10 Board Books post in which a couple of these will be repeated but for now I just wanted to offer 10 books that have been read cumulatively 100 times or more in our home:

 Curious George. I never really wanted to love this monkey but every one of my kids has and they never, ever tire of his adventures. I can recite to you how every story begins: "This is George. He is a good little monkey but always very curious..." I'm now convinced that no childhood would be complete without getting to know Curious George.
 Bear Snores On. This original by Karma Wilson is by far the best of the Bear books. Something about the cadence in the book is great fun for the children. This makes especially good Autumn reading.
We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Again it's all about the cadence here and children eat up the suspense of the hunt and the frantic voice of the reader once the bears are found. (It's all in HOW a story is read, see...)
Dogs Don't Wear Sneakers. This and Chimps Don't Wear Glasses by Laura Numeroff are big hits here. Laura Numeroff is probably best known for her If You Give a Mouse a Cookiebooks (which we like but the sequels just kinda went downhill) but these books are even better in my opinion. Kids crack up over the silly, detailed illustrations and want to point out all the fun things in the story...
How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? Jane Yolen is one of those "gray area" authors I referenced before but this book is great (Sequels again, not so great in my opinion. This is mildly controversial to say but in the How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? book I bristled at the line "Doctor knows best." And in the How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? I don't like that good little dinos are supposed to eat everything on their plates and then ask for more. But I digress.) I always read this in a "Can you believe he would do that?!" voice and the children smile and giggle along.
Pat the Bunny. Now, to be fair, I was gifted with this book when I was in the hospital with my firstborn son and didn't think much of it. And it was a gift-collector's edition which according to the package included all the original activities and textures. (There have since been many interactive books published but most aren't particularly notable. I'm especially annoyed with the Touch and Feel animal books that include 5 different animals with the same synthetic shag rug carpet material for each one.) I'm not sure that present editions contain the original activities... and some parents complain about the plastic comb binding. But this book was well loved in our home through three children before it finally bit the dust for good. It's a pity my daughter has never seen it; she'd love it... must make a mental note to repurchase. It was the best "first book" I could offer the boys since it was interactive and just right for little wigglers who wouldn't have otherwise wanted to sit still through a story.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? I think every parent knows this one... and for good reason. It achieves fame and greatness in its sheer simplicity. This is the first book my kids memorize and the first one my pre-readers "read" to their younger siblings. Plus, unlike so many books with sequels, the sequels to this are also good... just more of the same great illustrations and familiar rhyming.
Where the Wild Things Are. The book is a classic for a reason... and it has a longer lifespan than something like Brown Bear does too. My 2 year old loves this book and my almost 9 year old still loves it too... now that is money well spent.
 Caps for Sale. It just doesn't get old. Those silly monkeys win the heart of every child to whom I've ever been privileged to read this.
Freight Train. This is one of those books that I'd never have known would be so popular with my children. Upon first glance there's nothing particularly special about this book but something about the simple sharp colors and easy, almost haunting text makes it a winner.

You know, it's funny the books that enchant children. You can plant all the books you love best in their lives and many will take, but there are some books that aren't necessarily YOUR favorites that you must endure with a smile and willing heart because it is so loved to littles. And when you make a child smile with a great book, how can you possibly not love the story too?

"A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." C.S. Lewis


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