Category Archives: Middle Grade Reads

Harriet’s Bullying Solution Method?

If you look for the Japanese translation of Harriet the Spy you can find this treasure:

 

And if you put the title (スパイになりたいハリエットのいじめ解決法) through Google Translate, it results in some curious gobbledygook: HARRIET’S BULLYING SOLUTION METHOD WANTING TO BE A SPY. A crude, not to mention gramatically problematic translation, to be sure. But it does me wonder how it’s really translated and what it says about the Japanese publisher’s interpretation of the novel. Anyone out there able to shed some light?

It’s surely not as straightforward as the Italian translation:

Or the German translation:

Or the French translation:

 

Jenny Slate is my Children’s Books Guru

There are so many reasons to love Jenny Slate. The 35-year-old comedian-actress is funny, sexy, fiercely feminist, and just goofy enough that you feel like she could be someone you know. I loved her in Obvious Child (the 2014 indie film that flaunted both her ingenue radiance and raunchy potty mouth) and to this day I cannot order a sandwich without thinking about Catherine, her bizarre 12-part web series that is either totally unwatchable or the best thing you’ve ever seen on YouTube. (I guess you could call it normcore. Please try it!) Of course, Slate is also co-creator of the genius Marcel the Shell web series (and children’s books).

But what really sealed my fandom is that Jenny Slate is a vintage children’s book nerd. How did I learn this? Instagram.

Here’s her shout-out to the Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs. Which I only vaguely remembered and immediately ordered from the library because most of them are out of print:

Here’s a post with her childhood copy of Elmer and the Dragon:

Here, with Tomi Ungerer

A page from Sarah, Plain and Tall:

I have no idea what book this little mouse is from, so if anybody knows, please tell me in the comments:

Ok, I am clearly obsessed. I also did some Googling.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, she says she loves the 1980 book Emma by Wendy Kesselman so much she has it on display in her house where she can see it when she wakes up. (I still have to get my hands on a copy):

“It’s about an old woman who doesn’t love how she’s alone, and then learns to make herself not alone through art, and draws people into her life through art. It’s the fucking best thing.”

She told Jezebel she loves Ox-Cart Man and Miss Rumphius, both also illustrated by Barbara Cooney (I’ve written about Ox-Cart Man here).


And also a book called I’m Telling You Now, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (of Bread and Jam for Frances fame):

She describes it as “this beautiful watercolor book about this boy who did all these things that he wasn’t supposed to do … but he was only curious.”

She kind of sums it all up in this interview with Vogue:

“I always wanted to be a children’s author and I have a really big library of children’s books. All the ones from when I was little, they are just so beautiful. I read kids’ books and they calm me down … I love all the Lyle the Crocodile books. I like Robert McCloskey’s books—One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings. I like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, all the Barbara Cooney books, like Miss Rumphius and The Ox-Cart Man are really good. And I like Chris Van Allsburg, those books like Just a Dream and The Polar Express. I like the classics. They’re classics for a reason.”

In short, friends, she’s one of us.

Frederick Douglass 101

Leo came home the other day with a new school project. The assignment was to pick a biography of a famous African-American figure, take notes, and put together a report.

This is the book he picked out:  

“How did you choose this book?” I asked him.

“It looks like it has a lot of action!” he said. “The guy has a gun!”

I had to agree.

But I also had to overrule.

If Leo was going to learn about one person for Black History Month this year, it was going to be Frederick Douglass. No disrespect to Reeves (the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi who is said to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger) but come on! Douglass was back in the news thanks to Trump’s strange remark implying that the abolitionist was still walking among us. Also, the book Leo had chosen was a picture book. Nice try, Leo.

Our library had several biographies appropriate for a 4th grader. But as soon as I spotted Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom by Margaret Davidson (1968), it was no contest.

And not just because the cover illustration of young Douglass has a smoldering quality, like an African-American Mr. Darcy on the BBC. The author, Margaret Davidson, wrote some of my favorite non-fiction books of my elementary school days. I still have a few of the slim paperbacks (all Scholastic titles) that I read and re-read — including Nine True Dolphin Stories, Five True Dog Stories, Five True Horse Stories (ok, the titles weren’t that creative … but such terrific stories!), and her biographies of Louis Braille, Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

Davidson had a brilliant way of telling a true story simply, but with intense human (or —as the case may be —dolphin or dog) drama. The book gets in all the important milestones of Douglass’s life, but it never feels tedious, jargony or or in any way like “a book for school.” Davidson knew how to play up the little moments that her readers would latch onto. Leo loved the part about how little Frederick persuaded some poor white kids to teach him how to read by trading “a piece of bread spread thick with butter.” And he loved knowing how much money Frederick had to slowly save up to buy his very first book (fifty cents).

Leo read the book happily, put together his poster (see below), and I daresay he now knows a lot more about Douglass than our own prez.

Amazingly, most of my favorite Margaret Davidson books still seem to be in print. You can find them on the Scholastic website and they’re all priced at, like, $3.99 — so there’s no excuse!

Last Sunday: My NYT Book Review Debut

Writing about kids books has been a hobby of mine for a few years now but with this review for the NYT Book Review I feel weirdly legit. Too bad my own children refuse to take my advice (read it here) and read Kate Milford’s epic middle grade, Miyazaki-esque, seafaring adventure fantasy novel.nytreview

 

Time for one last summer read? My Top 10 Kid Classics

top-10-kid-classics-1024x1024

To my precious handful of Mrs. Little readers:

It’s been a long time, I know. I took an extended hiatus from blogging (reasons: work, kids, laziness, sloth) but I’m determined to get back on track. I’ve got some ideas cooking and I’ll be posting more regularly this fall.

In the meantime, I wanted to link to this round-up of classic kids’ books, which I put together a couple years ago for Jenny Rosenstrach’s blog, Dinner, A Love Story. It’s got my suggestions for ten classic summer reads. If your kids are up for one last good book before school starts, check it out here.

9780804176309By the way, the amazing Jenny has just written a new book: How to Celebrate Everything. I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet but if it’s anything like her others, it’s going to be one of my go-tos. I don’t know how I would feed my family without her.

Most Endearing Windbag: The Old Cob in Trumpet of the Swan

Trumpet_of_the_Swan_CoverWhile Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little get all the glory, E.B. White’s third children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan (1970), is relatively overlooked. And this is a crying shame! I loved it when I was eight, and now, reading it again, I realize there’s even more to admire.

As you may recall, the story is about Louis, a trumpeter swan who, born mute, compensates by learning to read, write and play an actual trumpet. Because he is a swan of honor, Louis feels obligated to pay for his instrument, which his father stole for him. So he takes on a string of jobs, including a camp counselor gig in Maine and a nightclub stint in Philly. Although the plot is admittedly daffy, White’s prose is at its most eloquent and luminous and the book is just very … soulful. John Updike, who reviewed the book for the Times(!), said it was “the most spacious and serene of the three [E.B. White novels] … the one most imbued with the author’s sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature.”

Trumpet_stealBut what was my favorite discovery upon re-reading the book? The hilarious character of Louis’s father, a blustery cob who never uses one word when he could use ten. Here’s what he tells little Louis after he steals him the trumpet:

“I have been on a journey to the haunts of men. I visited a great city teeming with life and commerce. Whilst there, I picked up a gift for you, which I bestow upon you with my love and my blessing… Learn to play it Louis, and life will be smoother and richer and gayer for you!”

Trumpet_AmbulanceEven when he talks to himself, he’s dramatic and bombastic. This is from his over-the-top soliloquy toward the end of the book:

“Man, in his folly, has given me a mortal wound. The red blood flows in a steady trickle from my veins. My strength fails. But even in death’s final hour, I shall deliver the money for the trumpet. Good-bye, life! Good-bye, beautiful world! … I, who am about to die, salute you. I must die gracefully as only a swan can.”

Every time the bird opens his beak, it’s priceless. And when you remember that White co-wrote The Elements of Style — the writer’s handbook that commanded “Omit needless words” — it’s even better.

Thanksgiving Special! 5 Yummiest Food Moments from Children’s Books

all-of-a-kind-family-table

All-of-a-Kind Family did for Jewish-American cuisine what the Little House books did for pioneer cooking.

I grew up in a household where we didn’t give food much thought. We didn’t make pilgrimages to particular restaurants or rhapsodize about long-deceased relatives’ signature dishes. I don’t have aromatic memories of cozy cooking lessons with my mother, peppered with life advice. For my parents, practical-minded immigrants from Korea, the purpose of food was wholly unromantic: you ate so you wouldn’t be hungry.

The idea that food was more than something to fill your stomach came to me through books. There would be a moment in a novel where the characters ate some exotic (or exotic to me, at least), delicious-sounding morsel and I’d become entranced. I’m not just talking about the roasted pig’s tail and the green pumpkin pie from the Little House books. Or the cold meat pie from Danny the Champion of the World. Those books were just the start.

1) The mulligan stew from The Boxcar Children

boxcar_stewWhen we first meet the plucky orphans, all they have to eat are a couple of loaves of bread. But as their fortunes improve, they go from eating just bread, to bread and milk, to bread, milk, “fine yellow cheese” and wild blueberries. Each humble new addition to their pantry is an occasion for celebration. And when scrappy 12-year-old chef Jessie manages to cook a stew from some scrounged up carrots, onions and turnips and a piece of dried meat, it signifies that the boxcar has become a true home.

Jessie cut the tops off the vegetables and washed them in the brook. “I’ll put them in after the meat has cooked awhile,” she said. Soon the water began to boil, and the stew began to smell good. Watch sat down and looked at it. He sniffed hungrily at it and barked and barked. The children sat around the fireplace, eating bread and milk. Now and then Jessie stirred the stew with a big spoon. “It will make a good meal,” said Henry.

2) The goat’s milk cheese in Heidi 

Heidi_cheeseThese days a lot of people will tell you that that dairy (like wheat) is the devil. But Heidi seems awfully healthy. The only food her iracible, goat-herding grandfather seems to feed her is bread with toasted cheese, but it’s magical stuff.

As the pot began to sing, he put a large piece of cheese on a toasting fork and moved it to and fro in front of the fire until it became golden yellow all over. She ate her bread and cheese, which tasted delicious, and every now and then she took a drink. She looked as happy and contented as anyone could be.

And the bubbly, fresh milk! Heidi declares it “the best milk I’ve ever drunk” and guzzles it by the mugful. (It’s always a mug, never a glass.)

Clara had never tasted goat’s milk, and she sniffed at it uncertainly, but when she saw how quickly Heidi was emptying her mug, she began to drink too, and thought the milk tasted as sweet and spicy as if it had sugar and cinnamon in it. “Tomorrow we shall drink two mugfuls,” said Uncle Alp.

Toward the end of the book, the clean mountain air and all-dairy diet even cures Heidi’s sickly city friend, Clara.

3) The roasted chickpeas in All-of-a-Kind Family

All-of-a-Kind-Family-marketTo this day anything I know about gefilte fish, hamentashen or teiglach I learned not from my Jewish in-laws but from author Sydney Taylor. It’s hard to choose just one food moment from this series, as all five of the All-of-a-Kind Family books are filled with mouthwatering descriptions of meals. But the first book has a vivid chapter where Mama takes the girls food shopping at the Rivington Street market. The road is choked with pushcart peddlers and “the delicious odor of sour pickles mingled with the smell of sauerkraut and pickled tomatoes and watermelon rind.” Each girl gets to spend a penny on a treat; Sarah chooses the roasted chickpeas:

Everyone watched as he fished out the peas. First he took a small square of white paper from a little compartment on one side of the oven. He twirled the paper about his fingers to form the shape of a cone and then skillfully twisted the pointed end so that the container would not fall apart. He lifted the wagon cover on one side revealing a large white enamel pot. The steam from the pot blew its hot breath in the little girls’ faces so they stepped back a bit while the peas were ladled out with a big soup spoon. The wagon cover was dropped back into place and the paper cup handed over to Sarah. The peas were spicy with pepper and salt, and how good they were!

When I first read this, I didn’t have the faintest idea what a chickpea even was. But I was mesmerized.

4) The toasted bread with butter and sugar in The Great Brain

breat-brain-bread-butter-sugarMy brother and I were obsessed with The Great Brain series, which was set in a small town in Utah in the 1890s. All that mysterious tension between the Gentiles vs the Mormons and the boys constantly telling each other “I’ll whip you good!” (these kids were always beating each other to a pulp) was utterly fascinating. I was also struck by how simple yet delicious all the food always sounded. Mamma was always cooking and baking, and the three boys were constantly “gorging themselves” on fried chicken, roast beef sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and pie. But this description of the toasted bread, butter and sugar was the ultimate:

Mamma made fresh bread that day. If there was anything my two brothers liked the most, it was to take the heel of a fresh-baked loaf of bread, smother it with butter and sugar, and then put it in the oven until the sugar turned brown. It was better than candy. I entered the bedroom with a heel of bread covered with butter and toasted sugar.

“I thought I’d have a little snack before going out to play,” I said as I waved the heel of bread back and forth so they could smell it. Then I took a bite out of it. “Boy is this delicious. Don’t you wish you could have a bite?”

My brother and I would often try to replicate this treat using a heel of store-bought “French Bread” from the supermarket, but it never came out the way we imagined it should.

5) The beaver family’s fish dinner in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

beavers-lion-witch-wardrobeThat enchanted Turkish Delight (“each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious”) is what sets the plot in action. But it’s the earthy, peasant-y feast of fresh trout and boiled potatoes served by the Beavers that is the book’s crowning food moment. Mr. Beaver cuts a hole in the ice, whisks out some still-wriggling trout, and then brings it inside to Mrs. Beaver:

Just as the frying-pan was nicely hissing, Peter and Mr. Beaver came in with the fish which Mr. Beaver had already opened with his knife and cleaned out in the open air. You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr. Beaver said, “Now we’re nearly ready.” Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs. Beaver to dish up the trout … There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought — and I agree with them — that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago.”

Mind you, the meal concludes with a “gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot” and it’s all served up in a cozy beaver’s den where there are “hams and strings of onions hanging from the roof,” and strung along the walls are “gum boots and oilskins and hatchets, and pairs of shears and spades and trowels and things for carrying mortar in and fishing-rods and fishing-nets.” In short, it feels like the prototype for every Brooklyn restaurant serving farm-to-table food.

Dearest readers: What are some of your favorite references to food from children’s books? (Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwiches and egg creams? Rat and Mole’s picnic in Wind in the Willows?) Click on “leave a reply” and share in the comments!

 

Double Fudge by Judy Blume: A Novel for Adults

Double FudgeDouble Fudge has no sex scenes and not even a single stuffed bra. But the fifth installation in Judy Blume’s Fudge series has something grownups can appreciate: A realistic view of what it’s like trying to raise three kids in Manhattan on a not-astronomical income.

Blume has never hesitated to spell out the Hatcher family’s precise economic situation. In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, we learn that the family lives in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom on 25 W. 68th St, where Fudge sleeps in the converted den. Throughout the series, money and real estate are the engines that drive the plots (Fudgie’s antics aside). In Fourth Grade Nothing, Peter’s dad, who works in advertising, is fired from the Juicy-O account after he makes the mistake of inviting his boss for an overnight visit; later, Peter’s dad only allows Fudge to appear in the Toddle Bike commercial because he can’t afford to lose another account. In Superfudge, baby Tootsie is born and the family temporarily decamps to Princeton, NJ, where Peter’s dad, apparently having a mid-career crisis, attempts to write a book; we also learn that Peter’s mom, a dental hygenist, dreams of going back to school for art history. In Fudge-a-Mania, the family must share a cramped summer house with Sheila’s family because neither can afford to rent their own houses.

The Hatcher family is said to live at 25 W. 68th St

Double Fudge was published a full three decades after Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and the city Blume portrays has the distinct feeling of a boom-era New York. Peter’s friend’s dad, the formerly struggling artist Frank Fargo, is at a career high, and moves to a big loft in SoHo. Frank’s paintings, Peter realizes, are now too expensive for the Hatchers to afford.  And then there’s Fudgie’s new friend, six-year-old Richie Potter. Richie is a child of privilege and a masterful underminer. When Fudge and Peter’s mom tells Richie she’s a dental hygenist, he informs her, “One of my grandpas is a very famous neurosurgeon.” When the mom tells Richie they don’t have a cook, he says, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were poor.” Later he tells the family about his own mother: “She’s a designer. You can get clothes with her name on it.” There is also his discussion of their summer house (clearly in the Hamptons). “We have a house at the beach. Do you? … Our house is on the ocean side but we keep our boat at the bay.” We’ve all met a Richie Potter — maybe our kids have even gone to school with one — and we all want to slap him.

In the midst of all this, Blume introduces the characters of Howie Hatcher and his family, whose defiantly bohemian lifestyle is a direct repudiation to the New York City rat race. These Hatchers live in Hawaii, home-school their daughters (the “Natural Beauties”) and distain television. But they are insufferable, moralizing mooches who turn out to be weak and hypocritical.

My kids loved Double Fudge, as they loved every one of the Fudge books. They snickered at Richie Rich, howled at the “Natural Beauties” and practically cheered when the overbearing relatives finally moved on. But by the end of Double Fudge, I must say I felt a little bit sad. Their mom has stopped talking about getting that art history degree and the family is still sharing the one bathroom. (What will happen when Tootsie gets potty trained?)

I can only hope that Judy Blume pulls out another Fudge book in a couple of years. In this one, an elderly neighbor in their building could die and leave the family her classic six, which the Hatchers combine with their apartment. That’s the New York dream, right?

If Your Son Sleeps With a Light Saber: The Novelization Worth Seeking Out

I would not go as far as to say that Star Wars is sacred in our household. But let’s just put it this way. I never made the slightest effort to keep S and L from the truth about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. But I was PISSED when someone told them that Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

Star Wars coverAt any rate, now that the kids have seen the first couple films (Episodes IV and V, that is) I’ve been looking for some good Star Wars books. Most bookstores have the usual: the Clone War novelizations, the ubiquitous Lego Star Wars almanac, the sticker books. But in our school library I found exactly what I was hoping for: a chapter book adaptation that faithfully retells the plot of the 1977 movie in easy language, scene by scene, with tons of color stills. This 1985 adaptation by Larry Weinberg is part of a now defunct series from Random House called Step-Up Movie Adventures. It’s perfect, because even a really obsessed seven-year-old most likely misses some plot points from the film. But this book spells out everything — for instance, Ben’s last moment:

Just then Obi-Wan Kenobi turned his head. He seemed to be looking straight at Luke. A smile was on his face. This was Vader’s chance. With the speed of light he slashed at Ben. The blow should have cut the old man in half. It sliced right through his robe. But the Jedi was gone … Luke thought he heard a voice whispering in his ear. Ben’s voice. “Run, Luke,” it said. “Run!”

Star Wars spread Star Wars spread - LukeAlthough the book is out of print, there seem to be plenty of inexpensive copies available online. And it’s got to be better than this:

Jabba

 

 

A Dream Vacation a la Roald Dahl

Fjord_OsloI have to admit, it was Hugh Jackman who turned me on to what has become my favorite Roald Dahl book. A few years ago Jackman told InStyle (where I was working at the time) that he was so taken with Dahl’s 1984 memoir Boy: Tales of Childhood and the description of the Norwegian islands where Dahl spent summers as a youth that he was planning a vacation there with his own children. (See the page here.)

boycover1 I eventually got hold of the memoir and all I have to say is: Hugh, I’ve never quite understood your appeal, I don’t care about X-Men, and you could not pay me to sit through Les Mis — but you are so on the money about Boy! The book covers Dahl’s years from ages 7 to 20, much of it focusing on his terrifying experiences at English boarding schools. The book is hilarious, dark and poetic all at once.

S & L were practically screaming with excitement when I read them the parts about Dahl’s boyhood pranks (one involving a dead mouse and a candy shop owner) and the whippings he endured at the hands of his school’s headmaster. But like my friend Hugh, the chapter of Boy I love best is “The Magic Island,” in which Dahl describes the summers he, his Norwegian mother and his five siblings Continue reading