Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of visiting the new main library in Vancouver, WA. Sublime. Superb. Glorious. I felt like I was in New York City with the advanced architecture, features, technology and details. I went with my younger sister and three of my biblio-wee-ones and headed straight to the children's floor. Oh my goodness, this was a far cry from the library I grew up with in this same city long ago. I think it may be a good thing that we don't live in Vancouver anymore because I'm not sure I'd ever leave that place! I'd pack up my older boys' homeschooling books and we'd trek to the library each day and let my toddlers run amok while we did our work surrounded by infinite resources to support our learning.

The second we got to the children's floor (yes, floor... it's on it's own level), my sister tried to take me to the back area to look at all the infinte details with their excellent interactive play area... but I stopped like a kid in a candy store just looking at their massive amounts of children's books. She thought I was right behind her but I'd dropped to my knees and started pulling books off the shelf to preview. See, we are blessed to live within walking distance to our community library and I'm ever grateful for that. But it really is rather dinky. And comparing it to this library would be like comparing a little league T-Ball team to the New York Yankees. I tried not to feel envy. I saw so many authors that my own library system doesn't carry and such a delightful method of organizing books too. I was in hog heaven.

On top of this, there was indeed a wonderful variety of children's games, features (the community was asked to donate some items to contribute and my dear late grandmother's pressed flowers are imbedded in this giant tent for the kids to play in... and my nephew has a rusty, railroad spike he found and contributed--it's now encased in a clear box with other trinkets and the like) and super innovative educational activities that really were rocket science compared to the 4 or 5 wooden puzzles that my own library branch offers. I know, I know... envy is the big green monster. I have to keep my eyes on my own stack of books, truly. But if you ever are travelling north or south on the I-5 corridor through the Vancouver/Portland area, you really MUST stop and see this library downtown. It would be an excellent place to stop and let the kids get a bit of energy out without resorting to a McDonald's play area... this is no ordinary library.

The Best Christmas Gift Under the Tree

... well in my opinion anyway. So I've been holding out for the oh so unattainable but superb, entire, original Peter Rabbit Collectionby Beatrix Potter for a long time. I've resisted picking up these wee books piecemeal at thrift stores because I was bound and determined to have the whole collection in prime condition in order to pass on to future generations. Somehow a spare $100 was never to be found to splurge on the collection. Then I went to Costco and found the next best thing: the same collection, books 1-23, complete and boxed for $25. (This is what it looks like on Amazon.) I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. There are only a couple differences (and they are only significant for true bibliozealots): the size of the books and the formatting of the illustrations are changed. (The original has text on one page and picture on the other-- these stack them up like contemporary story books.) Miss Potter published the original books in a small size for a few reasons:
  1. Less ink means cheaper to print, making the books affordable to the public.

  2. It was the ideal size for small hands; Potter wanted children to feel that intimacy and ownership.

  3. She followed in the style trend of the very popular (and now controversial) "Little Black Sambo" book (part of the Dumpy Book Collection published at the turn of the 19th century)
The small format books are indeed still superior; it's always good to read a book in the way the author intended it to be read, but since the hundred dollar collection just wasn't happening anytime before my kids went to college, I was willing to sacrifice the size and stilted formatting for a $75 discount on a collection that was still worthy to be called "heirloom." We gifted this collection to my young daughter in hopes that she will grow up knowing and loving the world of Peter Rabbit.

Considering Peter Rabbit is among the bestselling books of all time, I'm pretty sure most of you are familiar with the stories. Some brief elaboration for the rest of you:

Beatrix Potter was a writer, artist and naturalist who initially wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit for the son of her former governess. The story is probably the first children's book written with a sort of imperfect protagonist as the star: Peter Rabbit is a rather naughty rabbit who gets into mischief in the garden and subsequently into trouble with his mother. The artwork is charming, intimate and drawn from a perspective that brings children into the fear of Mr. McGregor etc.

The books in Potter's collection are indeed curl-up-and-read style... they aren't the quick "git-r-done" books you would go to for a brief story that just needs to get-read-in-order-to-placate-a-child-but-you-don't-have-a-lot-of-time-or-patience. (Though, truth be told, there IS a place in children's literature for such stories and maybe I'll humor us with a Top Ten list of quickie books at some point.) No, Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima Puddle-Duck must be slowly savored and never rushed. All children should know these characters. I admit that mine aren't very familiar with the Potter world, due to my insistence on acquiring the full collection before indulging in any of them. But their appetites have been duly whetted ever since a good friend came over and showed them this video telling the frightening Roly Poly Pudding story. Now, they are eager for more on this world. And now, $25 later, I can share it in abundance. Check your Costco out; it may still have this bargain available! Otherwise, save up for the original set. Or get this condensed versionif you must (but ONLY if you must because as a rule, consolidated books are inherently inferior). Either which way, get some Beatrix Potter in your collection!

"Don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor."

-Mother Rabbit in The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The Odd Marriage of P.J. Lynch

When a children's book has an excellent story and poor illustrations or a poor story and excellent illustrations... I call this an odd marriage. It really can ruin the overall effect for readers; I'd rather have not read those delightful words only to have an ugly picture of them put in my brain. Or I'd rather not see those exquisite drawings paired up to such lame text... what a waste!

In this vein, I present to you a book published this year called No One But Youby Douglas Wood. I grabbed the book at the library because I was attracted to the artwork and thought I might recognize it, and indeed P.J. Lynch does not disappoint! Lynch is the artist behind many other books, some of which I love very much, including the excellent Christmas stories:The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomeyand The Gift of the Magi... not to mention the classic (though obviously intended for slightly older readers) A Christmas Carol.

In No One But You, Lynch's work is superb. You can see the canvas and the realism in each page and the perspective with which he paints is a treat also. Use the "Look Inside Book" feature on amazon to get a taste of what I mean. The disappointing part is that he's paired up with a text that is pure cotton candy. It offers no substance. Now, many people are great fans of books which aren't really "stories" insomuch as they are esteem boosters for children... think of Sam McBratney books for a good example of what I mean. Of course, there is nothing wrong with books that tell children how loved they are and how special they are, but let's be clear: these aren't story books. And quite often, these are books parents love more than kids and these types are especially given as gifts... as if they are an extended greeting card trying to express what a parent wishes he or she could say. I rant on this topic in slightly more depth here.

So, may it be it known, I am not a fan of such books. I usually find them dull and patronizing. No One But You is such a book. Like McBratney's books, it'll probably get very high reviews as more people read it. And I'm not going to be a total curmudgeon and say it's worthless; it just leaves so much to be desired for me by way of wishing those beautiful, beautiful illustrations were paired with as striking of a story as Jonathan Toomeyfor example. (Incidentally, we just borrowed the film version of this book from the library and were pleasantly surprised at how well done it was for a family movie.) Instead the text that matches the page in the above image is this: "Only one person can notice the hum of a bumblebee on a lazy afternoon as he buzzes past your ear on his way to a clover patch, and that someone is no one but you." Meh. The words are lovely, sure. But the whole book is variations of this: "No one but you can feel the rain kiss your skin or the wind ruffle your hair. And no one but you can walk through a rain puddle in your bare feet."

It makes me wonder Well, why not anyone else but me? Other people can feel the rain and walk through puddles too... but I suspect I'm over thinking what Douglas Wood is trying to get across. Lastly, I've noticed that Candlewick Press publishes a lot of feel-good books like this. A lot. In fact, if I see that a children's book is produced by this publisher, I already have an idea of what to expect. I'm not totally prejudiced here, I'm just saying it's a trend I've noticed. But a publisher is, after all, in the business of making money... not necessarily producing excellent literature. And it's clear that there is a market for books of the "You Are Special!" breed.

So, if you like these feel-good, non-substantial books, No One But You would be an excellent choice. It'll make a great gift after all! But if you want the whole enchilada of goodness, seek out P.J Lynch's other works.

something good

You know you're doing something right on the bibliozealous front when you wake up in the morning and your three oldest sons are all bundled under a blanket together reading random pages in this:

“Happy is he who has laid up in his youth, and held fast in all fortune, a genuine and passionate love of reading.”
-Rufus Choate

How To Build Your Home Library

What should be on our bookshelves?

The answer to that title question is in other questions:

With what do you want to fill your child's brain? What kinds of things do you want your children to be thinking about, dreaming of, reflecting on, or trying to figure out? For me, it's always the same: I want my kids to be offered as much of the world's goodness, nobility, truth and beauty as possible. So I hope my bookshelves reflect that.

I found a quote that I plan on writing a whole essay on soon for Soul Gardening... but in the meantime, I'll share the gist of it here:

"Let nothing be in your homes that is not useful or that you do not find to be beautiful."

Let that sink in my friends. This is slowly changing my world and it affects every. single. aspect of that beautiful, evocative word: home. Not just stuff like knick-knacks or furniture... but wardrobes, kitchenware, jewelry, toys, and books!

As I've been reflecting on this quote, I thought it would be a good, seasonal time to go through my bookshelves again to begin culling out the items that do not fit this definition. In so doing, I realize that there are a few categories of books that might help me to make some choices:

  • Useful-Beautiful books. This would include non-fiction titles like Paul Revere's Ride which exposes a child to history, excellent poetry, and lovely illustrations all at once. It also includes fiction books that teach a subtle character lesson or virtue that you want to cultivate in your child, e.g. The Empty Pot which offers a lesson in honesty, the Chinese culture, and superb art. I would also classify certain Reader books in this category like: The Frog and Toad series which feature the talented author/illustrator, Arnold Lobel. Reader books are especially difficult to find in this category since so many of them are dull or uninspired. Useful and Beautiful books should always be collected and treasured more than any other type.
  • Useful-Unremarkable books. These include many titles for homeschoolers. I have noticed that the popular publisher Usborne Books has a ton of titles in this category. They offer good information for children, are interesting to read... but usually feature uninspiring illustrations. Don't get me wrong; I love our Usborne Time Traveler but there is nothing aesthetically superior here.
  • Useful-Ugly books. The beginning reader books fill out this category more than any other. For some reason, writers and publishers think simple text needs to necessarily equate to banal story lines... if there's a story at all. Parents may do well to wonder if their child's resistance to reading has to do with the quality of what they 're offered. Indeed, what child would ever WANT to learn to read when the stuff they're reading is dull as dirt?! I'd also include heavily commercialized literature in this category like this (*shudder*) or this (*blech*).
  • Beautiful books. These are books that delight you or your child (preferably both) and are simultaneously original, inspiring, or clever. There are hundreds of books in this category but one that comes immediately to my mind (which captures the whole trifecta of "original, inspiring and clever") is from my all-time favorite author illustrator, Doris Burn: Andrew Henry's Meadow. Now "beautiful books" need not always be serious or beautifully illustrated per se. Character development defines beauty (as in the case of the dignified animals in most of William Steig's books, e.g., Doctor De Soto). Clever rhymes define beauty (like the fun A House is a House for Me) and of course inspiring art--even without text-- defines beauty a la Tuesday style... These types of stories will be the things your children remember well into adulthood. They will influence play, dreams, and creative thinking. They will teach children to foster an appreciation for good, beautiful and wholesome literature. Yes, Beautiful books should live in abundance on your shelves.
  • Unremarkable books. Most of the parents I know-- and whose bookshelves I've chanced to peruse-- have books of only this type and the type I'll be mentioning next. Occasionally, parents fill their shelves with these books and have a few Beautiful books scattered in there. They're on the right track! Unremarkable books have lived in my shelves off and on for my whole parenting career. These are books which are essentially harmless, have mediocre art and/or story lines and which children generally like. But there is nothing that really resonates "beauty" or "delight" in them. We get a lot of unremarkable books from the library that seem to interest the children, like Library Mouse, or The Magic Hat. You may find yourself protesting at what I'd consider an "unremarkable book." That's okay. This is my blog. And your mileage may vary on when Beautiful ends and Unremarkable begins... I'll not deny that some books of this sort are "good books." But once you get a taste of "excellent books"... good books simply won't suffice anymore. If it's all you've got, stick with 'em... "good" or "unremarkable" books are better than no books! But do try to improve your collection over time.
  • Ugly books. There is no excuse for ugly books on anyone's shelves. Most American parents have ugly books on their shelves. These books are the lowest in both art and text. They are often banal, commercialized or even offensive. You may feel conflicted because your children LIKE these books! Well, my kids like Oreos and Cotton Candy. I'm certainly not going to feed them these things often if I can help it. They'll soon learn that the "beautiful books" are even sweeter than these ones. And one day, you'll be at your little downtown library and your nine year old will come up to you with an exquisite book and say excitedly: "Mom, look at these illustrations! Aren't they awesome?" And you'll let out a gentle, contented sigh as you delight in knowing that you've raised a discerning child who can recognize goodness when he sees it. Believe me the psychology of this goes far beyond books and art... So anyway, get rid of all your ugly books! Go to the Goodwill and buy a few unremarkable books at least! And if you don't have any money, get rid of your ugly books anyway and get a free library card; begin enjoying some quality literature.
So these are the general categories of children's literature. Have an abundance of Beautiful-Useful books. Have an abundance of Useful-Unremarkable books. Have an abundance of Beautiful books. And then the real estate space on your shelf needs to be closely monitored. I grudgingly have to allow for a small space to Unremarkable books that were gifts to the kids which I feel guilty getting rid of just yet. I don't however, ever feel guilty about getting rid of any gifted ugly books. I'm the mom and I refuse to be guilted into making bad choices for my kids.

I am currently culling out Unremarkable books. I never have Ugly books and I never have Useful-Ugly books. They just aren't worth my space. I've finally gotten to a point in my home library where I can be more and more discerning about what we are keeping. Since I now have a healthy number of children's books, I can now start getting rid of whatever has been falling to the bottom of the totem pole. A few years ago, I couldn't get rid of them because I didn't have much of a selection. Now, I only want to keep the best of the best. I do presently allow books which I personally consider to be Unremarkable because my children like them so much (e.g. many books in the Lyle, Lyle Crocodile series) but I suspect that with time and the addition of more truly exquisite books, these will eventually leave the home too. It is better to have a small collection of quality books than a large mixed-bag collection. The bonus to this is that when you are exclusive with owning only a modest number of the best books possible, your appreciation for what you have deepens (I've found this to be true of the types of toys we allow in the house too). And thankfully, with time and and patience and a bit of money here and there... you can have a superb home library which will be loved by every family member. It'll be so worth it to look at your bookshelves and think that every title on there is either useful and/or beautiful.

on a side note...

I agree and appreciate these sentiments on the Rough Side of Reading... it can be applied to children's books too. Go ahead. I give you permission to stop in the middle of a story and say "Sorry kids, this story is lame... go pick another book." They'll protest, but it's for their own good and if you are matter of fact and can communicate your point in just the right way (blending charity, cheerfulness, patience and firmness coupled with an excited willingness to read something else) they'll be fine. Besides, it teaches them to be their own good stewards of time.

Because the truth is a fact and the fact is that there are so many good books... and so little time.


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