Friday, January 21, 2011

Seven Books We Like a Lot

I admit it: I don't like Dr. Seuss.  Partly it's a matter of unsuitability to Ben's age: the books are really aimed at children just learning to read, and the repetitiveness that makes them accessible to beginning readers makes them extremely tedious to me.  And they're way too long.  I could take 20 or even 30 pages of in a box or with a fox, but 62 pages?  No way, man.  It's torture.  And the illustrations are hideous!  Sadly, many adults who haven't read aloud to children for thirty or forty years (mis-?)remember Dr. Seuss with fanatical fondness, so Ben gets a lot of his books as gifts.  I keep meaning to put them into storage until the kid is ready to sound them out on his own -- I can quite imagine considerable cuteness issuing therefrom, but until that time, I'd really rather not see them again.  But Ben does like them, and he likes sitting by himself and paging through them without involving me, and I'm not a total jerk, so I won't take them away.  I won't read them at bedtime, though.

Andy and I each read the kid a book before bedtime.  Ben gets to pick, but we exercise the veto: that one's too long, Dad doesn't like this one, Mom read that one five times already this week, etc.  He's generally very accepting of our prejudices, and we are generally amenable to reading books we dislike when he loves them.  He goes through phases of devotion and antipathy with various titles, but the following are long-standing favorites of his and ours, which means they have whatever mysterious qualities make them attractive to this particular two-and-a-half-year-old, plus they are attractively illustrated, quirky or funny or presenting of some unusual perspective, not patronizing or twee or saccharine, and mercifully brief.

InstructionsInstructions by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess

Typical Gaiman, mining myth and fairy tale and stringing together references in that slightly breathless voice that fools you into thinking he's deeper than he is.  I have a lot of affection for the man, but I also find him infuriating.  Anyway, his schtick works extremely well here, except for a few places where he gets tripped up in language that doesn't quite work, and the illustrations are marvelous.  Part of the fun is picking out all the characters and creatures in the backgrounds.  Ben, for instance, sees Tomtens everywhere.

The TomtenThe Tomten by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Harald Wiberg

My first notion of this book came from knitting: iconic knitting designer Elizabeth Zimmerman named one of her more famous children's sweaters after the gnomic protagonist.  I knit the sweater before I read the book.  Then friends gave us a copy, and it became a favorite.  It's a strange combination of unnerving and warm -- the benevolent little Tomten pads around the farm at night talking to and doing favors for the animals, and it's all very sweet, but he's also a little non-human creature creeping about at night, which can't help being a bit creepy.  It definitely has that timeless, northern European thing going for it: it could take place in pretty much any century including our own, and that seems to be an appealing element in children's books -- to me, at least.  As is, come to think of it, that combination of creepy and comforting.

Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale (Picture Puffins)Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott

On the whole, I like Anansi the Spider better, but I've already blogged about it.  And Arrow to the Sun is good, too.  Especially the Kiva of bees, which is Ben's favorite part.  It's not too often you see accusations of bastardy in children's books, and it's refreshing!  Not at all inappropriate!  Seriously, though, the way McDermott handles the strangeness of the cultures he presents (as if there's nothing strange about them, matter-of-factly, without oohing or pointing or -- worst of all -- explaining) and the sophistication of some of the concepts is masterful and positively awe-inspiring when you compare his work to the kind of multi-culti, Here Comes Hanukkah! drivel you generally see.

My Little Round House
My Little Round House, illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren, adapted by Helen Mixter

Speaking of multi-culti.  Mongolia isn't exactly a popular getting-to-know-you culture for toddlers, but this book is just terrific.  I can't express how gorgeous the illustrations are.  I know jack about Mongolian art, but the drawings manage to seem both entirely of their culture and yet thoroughly accessible to little kids, full of detail and yet not too literal.  The story is a bit shoehorned: the protagonist, born in spring, is crawling by summer and running at one year so that the tale fits into the one-year seasonal cycle, but I can suspend my disbelief on that one because the book is otherwise so charming.  ("Ger" rhymes with "bear," by the way.  Which I know because Andy corrected me.  He's been to Mongolia.  Show off.)

Angus and the DucksAngus and the Ducks, Angus and the Cat, and Angus Lost, written and illustrated by Marjorie Flack

No dog person could doubt for a moment that Angus was Marjorie Flack's actual dog.  He's as real a dog as I have ever seen presented in literature.  Possibly people who are not dog people will therefore find the appeal of these books limited, but I am bowled over again and again by their charm.  Part of the magic, too, is nostalgia for the kind of genteel, early twentieth century country life sketched in the margins: the milkman's horse, the chintz chairs, the tea service.  But it's mostly happy, dopey, having-of-dog-logic Angus and the scrapes he gets into and out of that make me smile whenever Ben pulls one of these books off the shelf.

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