The Dream Stealer by Sid Fleischman teams up again with Peter Sís, his illustrator for the Newbery award winner, The Whipping Boy. As with The Whipping Boy, Fleischman takes on a story with a fairy tale feel, this time setting it in Mexico instead of a kingdom in "long ago and far away." The Dream Stealer begins with the line, "Muchachos and Muchachas, boys and girls, do you know what happened to the fearless little girl who lives in the pink stucco house behind the plaza?" He goes on to tell the story of eight-year-old Susana, who is sad that she has fought with her best friend, Consuela Louisa, and they have not spoken since she moved away to Guadalajara. And, happily, he continues to use Spanish words and phrases with subtle translations when needed.
Outside the window of Susana's pink stucco house, the Dream Stealer, who goes by the name Zumpango, although it is not his true name, perches in a tree eating mild green peppers. Zumpango's job has been to lasso the bad dreams and nightmares of children with his spider silk rope and carry them off so that the children can have a peaceful sleep. However, Zumpango has become scared of these demons and cowardly in his work, stealing good dreams instead of bad. When Zumpango steals Susana's dream in which she is reunited with Consuela Louisa on a merry-go-round made of real horses, Susana knows there is something afoot and plots to get her dream back.
How Susana does this and the journey she embarks on make for an imaginative and sometimes suspenseful story. One of my favorite scenes involves a room in the house of Zumpango in which he keeps the good dreams that he has stolen. They float around the room like fireflies, the newer dreams shining more brightly than the older ones. It is here that Susana captures a dream that she hides in her pocket to take home as proof of her adventure, not realizing that it will be the weapon that saves her from Thunderdel, a two-headed giant who escapes Zumpango's dungeon and chases after him. Being Susana's only way back to her family, she races off after Thunderdel in an attempt to save Zumpango.
The Dream Stealer is a great bedtime read aloud or the perfect book for a new reader who is ready for chapter books. The folk/fairy tale feel of the story is rich with imagery that is as firmly rooted in fantasy as it is geography. After I read the book, I wondered if it could be set in any other country or culture and be as entertaining? Being the gifted writer he is, I have no doubt that Fleischman could have made it work anywhere, but, I think that setting it in Mexico was the perfect choice, especially after reading his author's note at the back of the book. While traveling in Mexico City, Fleischman spotted a "hand-carved figure of some wildly imaginative and dappled figure" that he learned was a Dream Stealer. As he says, "my writer's breath caught. A thief of dreams? What a lot of fun I could have with a character like that!" And he does...
Based on my feelings about violence and our growing desensitization to it as a nation, there is no way I should have read and loved Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book as much as I do.
Since I began studying and practicing Buddhism several years ago I have become more thoughtful about and sensitive to media violence. The other night I popped in a movie, Brendan Fraser's The Mummy, that my kids and I had enjoyed watching in the past. Twenty minutes into the movie the level of violence and human suffering, even though it was was "fantasy" violence, became overwhelming and we turned it off. The combination of seeing the violence being enacted on and watching the victim suffer was just too much. While I am a huge fan of Harry Potter and own all of the movies, the violence in these seems a few steps removed, although it is increasing as the movies reach the end of the series. Somehow the wand waving and blasts that produce less visible suffering and almost no blood seem less intense than what is shown in The Mummy and Indiana Jones franchises. Even the Star Wars movies, 4, 5 and 6, anyway, are easier to stomach because people are being cut down by pretty blue and green and red light sabers instead of being eaten alive by ancient beetles or chopped up by helicopter blades.
***the real review***
I share my feelings on violence and its various levels of gradation with you because, based on what I just wrote, there is no way, as I said above, I should have ever read and loved this book the way I do. And, hopefully by the time I get to the end of this review I will have found a way to make sense of, but not justify, the violent act that is at the heart of this book. Like Harry Potter and all of the great children's book heros before him, the main character of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (which is a sort of homage to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book) is an orphan being raised by surrogates, ghosts, not animals in this instance. And, like Harry Potter, he has been orphaned because of a prophecy that was made. While Harry's parents only suffered the green light of the unforgivable Avada Kedavra curse, the main character's family in The Graveyard Book suffer a more graphic, realistic death. The first line of the book, accompanied by a graphic novel-like illustration reads, "There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife." A mother, father and daughter are killed in the first pages of this book. It happens off the page and the act itself is not described in detail, only that the "knife had done almost everything it was brought to the house to do" and that the man holding the knife, Jack, had "left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, [and] the older child in her brightly colored bedroom." Yet, as adults, we have heard of many real life stories that end in this same way and it is upsetting no matter how Gaiman words it. But, it is also the engine that gets this story moving. I just have an easier time making sense of death, especially the ways in which it is represented in this book, than I do making sense of violence.
But, the important thing to remember is that Neil Gaiman made his name as a sci-fi/fantasy writer of novels and graphic novels for adults and his work is traditionally dark. However, he is also the co-author of the novel Good Omens along with the brilliantly hilarious sci-fi novelist Terry Pratchett as well as Don't Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a companion to the originals. He has also written Coraline, a ghost story for children and now a movie, and Stardust, originally a graphic novel, then a novel and now a movie. And, while I wish whole heartedly that the first chapter of The Graveyard Book (which can be listened to on Gaiman's website - as he toured for the book he read a chapter at every stop and had read the whole book out loud by the end of the tour) could be rewritten to suit my delicate sensibilities, the book that follows is one of the best young adult books published in 2008 and the main character, Nobody Owens, is one of the most compelling, sweetly innocent, profoundly thoughtful young characters I have had the good luck to know through reading about. I loved every minute of his presence on the page, from the saggy diapered toddler who has the good luck to be the "his mother's and father's despair and delight, for never was there such a boy for wandering, for climbing up things, for getting into and out of things," to the boy who emerges at the end of the book, looking forward to finding his way in the world of the living "with his eyes and heart wide open," a world that he himself has made safe to return to. As Nicola Turner says in her review of the book, "This is a story about the power of family - whatever form it takes - and the potential of a child who is raised with love and a sense of duty."
Nobody, or Bod as he is often called, wanders out of the open door of his house on the night of the murders, when he is about eighteen months old, and up the street to the local graveyard that is also a nature preserve. Bod is discovered by the ghost of Mrs Owens, a woman who was never able to have children in her lifetime some two hundred years ago, and is immediately taken under her wing. When the killer, using his ultra-keen sense of smell, tracks the baby down and enters the graveyard, the disembodied spirits of the baby's dead parents arrive to beg the ghosts to protect the baby from this killer. Mrs Owens takes this plea seriously and, when the Lady on the Gray, death herself, rides in to give her consent, the baby's fate is settled. He will become the child of Mr and Mrs Owens, granted "Freedom of the Graveyard," and he will be protected by the specters and Silas, a man who is neither alive nor dead and able to move in and out of both worlds and thus is able to supply the baby with food and other necessities. Silas is a member of the "Honor Guard" and can influence people's thoughts, among other things. It is implied, though never stated, that Silas is a vampire. While there is murder, death and violence in this book, there is also much humor and warmth. One of my favorite passages in the book concerns the naming of the baby Bod. Once it is decided that Mr and Mrs Owens will be his parents and he will be an Owens, the rest of the ghosts weigh in on a suitable first name. The baby resembles or reminds each ghost of someone else they once knew in life and the names and associations come flying out causing Mrs Owens to declare, "He looks like nobody but himself. He looks like nobody." "Then Nobody it is," says Silas, "Nobody Owens."
Each chapter of the book brings new characters and traditions amongst the ghosts as well as the occasional experience outside of the protective gates of the graveyard. Chapter two, "The New Friend," introduces five year old Scarlett Amber Perkins, who is allowed to roam freely through the preserve and graveyard while her mother and/or father read on a nearby bench. Although the ghosts have been schooling Bod in the arts of fading and haunting, he is seen by Scarlett and they become friends. When he tells her his name is Nobody, this results in her parents thinking she has an imaginary friend when she details her experiences. When Bod tries to prove to Scarlett that he is not making up the things he tells her about, he leads her down into a hidden tomb that is thousands of years old, older than Caius Pompeius, an invading Roman who chose to be buried near the tomb rather than have his body returned to his home country. Once in the tomb, they encounter the triple voice of the Sleer, an ancient force that guards a broach, cup and knife while awaiting the return of the Master. Bod uses his common sense, sense gained from being raised by ghosts, and the two children emerge from the tomb unharmed, but a search has been called out for the missing Scarlett. Scarlett is not allowed back in the nature preserve by her parents, but does get the chance to say good-bye to Bod before her family moves to Scotland.
Some of my favorite parts of this book are the attention and care that the other ghosts take with Bod and the love and consideration that he shows them in return. From teaching him to read and write to mending his wounds and giving him romantic advice - this is a very funny bit involving a very wordy, self-involved poet from the sixteen or seventeen hundreds - it's obvious that, as Audrey Niffenegger, author of the bestselling novel The Time Traveler's Wife, states in a blurb on the back of the book, "It takes a graveyard to raise a child." These ghosts are not vengeful or restless. They are simply going on about their business but, as one ghost points out to Bod late in the story when Bod says that he is not scared to die and will be happy to join his graveyard friends, they are without potential. Bod still has the ability to effect change, to make something happen and he should not waste that opportunity. As an adult, and definitely as someone who was once a child, what appeals to me most about The Graveyard Book, as well as with the Harry Potter books, is the unconditional love and regard that Bod (and Harry) are shown by some of the adults in his life. Gaiman's characters are superbly written and their lifetimes and personalities are rich with description, almost making this seem like a work of historical fiction. But, better than historical fiction, like Silas, the story floats between worlds - the past and the present, light and dark, death and life, good and evil.
And, despite Bod being safe, protected and loved inside the graveyard, there are dangers within he must take care to avoid. One misstep and Bod, now eight or nine, left in the care of Miss Lupescu, a "Hound of God" (werewolf) who has agreed to act as Bod's guardian while Silas is on an extended excursion, and Bod finds himself passing through a ghoul-gate in the company of these corpse-eating creatures. By far the creepiest chapter in the book, it is provides a little comic relief as well. The ghouls all go by the name of the first corpse they feasted on after becoming ghouls and are constantly referring to each other as the "33rd President of the United States,""writer, Victor Hugo," the "Emperor of China" and the "Lord Mayor of London," among others. Bod is able to keep himself alive with the lessons he has memorized with Miss Lupescu, but it is her appearance in the form of a wolf that truly saves him. Danger returns again when Bod leaves the graveyard to attend school in town and finally, when he is fifteen, with the return of Scarlett and the man Jack, back to finish the job he started.
My favorite chapter in the book is the fifth, titled, "Danse Macabre." I had the good luck to listen to the audio of this book, narrated fantastically by the author himself, and was interested to hear Gaiman pronounce "macabre" as "macabray," which is perhaps a colloquial old English pronunciation of the French word. In history, the danse macabre is an allegory on the universality of death and has been represented in paintings over the centuries as well as in music, most notably by Camille Saint-Saens in 1874. In the book, the danse macabre is a wonderful celebration that occurs when a certain tree in the cemetery blooms on a particular day. The mayor of the town collects the blossoms then walks to the town center where s/he pins them on the townspeople. Then, the Lady on the Gray arrives, preceded by a hauntingly beautiful melody, and the dead leave the graveyard to walk into the town center and dance with the living. The preparation among the dead and the joyous celebration of the dance are so festively described by Gaiman that I wanted to hop a plane and find that flower myself. I don't think I believe in ghosts, but, since I was a child I have found them fascinating and Gaiman has gone a long way towards sating that curiosity.
I have to end this review - hopefully I haven't given away the whole story, just enough to encourage you to give it a try - with comments on the book from some of my favorite authors who might convince you to read this book if I haven't. The grand (old) dame of British fantasy writing for children, Diana Wynne Jones, author of the Chronicles of Chrestomanci, among many others, writes of The Graveyard Book, "This is, quite frankly, the best book Neil Gaiman has ever written. How he has managed to combine fascinating, friendly, frightening and fearsome in one fantasy, I'll never know, but he has pulled it off magnificently." And, Garth Nix, author of the Abhorsen Trilogy for teens and the excellent Keys to the Kingdom series for younger readers says, "I wish my younger self could have had the opportunity to read and re-read this wonderful book, and my older self wishes that I had written it." I definitely wish I had read this book as a child. It reminds me of something Bruno Bettelheim said in his book on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. He wrote that, when children read books and identify with the characters they are not thinking, "who do I want to be," but "who do I want to be like." (italics mine.) I want to be like Nobody Owens - hopeful, thoughtful, loving, kind and brave.
Now that this book has won the Newbery for 2009 it will be getting a lot more attention. If you want to read beyond my thoughts, and read a much better written review that also includes some great additional info and links, check out Elizabeth Bird's review for the School Library Journal webstie written on August 6, 2008. And, one last thing, Gaiman just announced, the day after winning the Newbery, that The Graveyard Book will be made into a movie. It will be adapted and directed by Neil Jordan, best known the movies for The Crying Game and Interview with a Vampire and the adaptation of the Graham Greene novel starring Ralph Feinnes and Julianne Moore, End of the Affair.
Below is the cover of the British (children's) edition of the book with illustrations by a favorite of mine, Chris Riddell.
Let me start this by confessing that, prior to seeing the movie version from a few years back, I had not read or listened to any of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books or radio programs. However, my husband and son (the one who does not normally read fiction but has read this complete series) are fans. The happy coincidence of Eoin Colfer being asked to write Part Six of Three in the series (Douglas Adams died in 2001 while in the process of writing notes for the book) brought Colfer to San Diego on a book tour this weekend and we got the chance to listen to him speak - for a whole glorious hour in a very, very small bookstore- and get some books signed.
Even though Colfer is here mostly to talk about the Hitchhiker book, he is happy to share stories about Artemis Fowl. He started off his talk by commenting on the handful of kids in the audience and how he was going to read from the new book but there were a few swears in it so he wouldn't. In spite of this, perhaps because he is Irish and has the gift of storytelling, he was totally entertaining and shared stories about parenting, writing, singing with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of authors (including Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and Matt Groening) and a very inebriated, mouth organ playing Frank McCourt, growing up with four brothers, trying to write scary books for kids and being thwarted by Saturday morning cartoons that are even scarier than what he was writing. He told a story about how, after his first dismal performance with the Remainders, they told him to go home and learn a U2 (also Irish) song for the next performance. He was complaining about this over the phone to a friend one day when his friend asked him to hold a moment while he passed of the phone. A man got on the phone and told him that "Angel of Harlem" was one of the easiest U2 songs to learn, to which Colfer responded, "Who are you to be telling me this?" and the man answered, "The Edge." Ha! Colfer also told a great story about how, being rubbish at sports, he took to reading as a teen. If he was engrossed in a book and put it down to tend to something else, one of his four brothers would find it, rip out the last few pages and force Eoin to pay to get them back.
I highly recommend you attend one of Colfer's signings if you leave nearby. Because of his gifts for humor and story telling combined with his wonderful accent, I could have listened to him talk about actuary tables for an hour. It looks like he's mostly on the West Coast for now and in decent sized venues - including an Apple Store in San Francisco. Here is a link to his tour schedule.
Eoin & me at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. He is truly an elfin sort of guy. I think we are the same height (he's sitting on a stool) and I am only 5 feet tall...
My uncle called this New Yorker article to my attention recently. For those of you who have been reading picture books out loud for the last decade or so, I think you will find it very enlightening. In his article titled, The Defiant Ones, Daniel Zalewksi, a features editor at the magazine, takes a look at the depictions of discipline and the portrayal of parents in contemporary picture books. As a parent who struggles to be disciplined and provide discipline for my children, I found it intriguing. I am very curious to hear what the rest of you think about his perspetive and hope you will read and comment.
Pictured above is the one book that he singled out for praise. Finn Throws a Fit, written by David Elliott and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering, published by Candlewick. For those of you who are interested, a podcast of a conversation between Zalewski and Rebbeca Mead, who wrote a very interesting article titled, The Gossip Mill, about the production company that churns out the Gossip Girl and other series of books for teens, click here.
I read Coraline by Neil Gaiman in 2002 when it was first published it and it did not leave a deep impression on me. In all fairness, while I loved ghost stories as a child, scary stories are not my preferred genre. It took reading and listening to the phenomenal The Graveyard Book, sublimely narrated by Neil Gaiman, to nudge me to give it another try. I thought I'd make a week of it and read and review Stardust, which was originally published as a graphic novel with beautiful artwork by Charles Vess, but I am finding there are one too many racy bits (that are not in the movie, in case you would like to watch it with your kids) to make it appropriate for young readers.
Coraline has been compared to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, much as similarities to The Graveyard Book and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book have been noted, and this is accurate to a degree. Like Alice, Coraline is bored when her adventure begins. And, like Alice, a talking animal, in this case, a black cat who proves to be her secret weapon in the end, guides her through a magic portal between words into Wonderland, or Horrorland, in Gaiman's case. If you do not already know this about Gaiman, his preferred genre is, to be completely simplistic, scary stories. Spooky, creepy, compelling, grotesque, ghostly, malevolent and maybe even fantasmagoric are adjectives that can be ascribed to his work. Coraline abounds with various odors, dark, dank spaces, rats, mice and gelatinous, maggoty, pod like things that must be poked and prodded by the heroine. There is also the Stepford-like "other mother" with big, shiny black button eyes who gradually transforms from a being resembling Coraline's mother to a beetle-eating, snake haired, spiky nailed, soul stealing wraith who is often referred to as "the beldam." But, at its heart, Coraline is, like all other children's stories, a book about overcoming fear and confronting something larger than yourself.
During summer break, Coraline and her family move into an old apartment building that was once a house and has now been divided up in curious ways. Her upstairs neighbor is a man from an unnamed foreign country who is training a mouse circus which he will not let anyone see. All the songs he has written go "oompah oompah" and the mice will only play "toodle oodle." Below Coraline live the round and aging Miss Spink and Miss Forcible and several Highland terriers with names like Andrew, Hamish and Jock. Although Coraline introduces herself to her neighbors over the course of several visits, all of them continually refer to her as "Caroline" instead of Coraline in an ominous portend of the alternate reality that is on the verge of taking over.
One day while exploring her flat, Coraline enters the drawing room, which is furnished sparsely with uncomfortable old furniture inherited from a grandmother, Coraline discovers a locked door. Her mother gamely opens it to reveal a brick wall that now serves as a boundary between apartments. After a few odd happenings and omens in the form of tea leaves and rat songs, Coraline finds the door unlocked and enters, passing through a dark hallway into an apartment that mirrors her own. There she finds her other mother and other father who, unlike her real parents, are waiting to play with her and fix her foods that agree with her picky palette. Coraline returns home safely after this first visit, excited by this happening in her boring life. However, things change quickly. Corline's parents disappear and she is forced to make another trip through the tunnel to the other world where menace and danger have begun to creep in at the edges. In an effort to escape this alternate world and find absent her parents, Coraline suggests a hide-and-seek game through the landscape of the other world that could cost her her life. But, if she wins she will save herself, her parents and the souls of three other victims of the Other Mother, who Gaiman sometimes refers to as the beldam, which is a word for an old woman who is believed to be evil. And, like a scary story, it's not over when you think it's over. But, perhaps because this is a children's book, Gaiman does not shock his readers with the reappearance of the beldam. Coraline is warned of this in a dream where she shares a delightful picnic in a meadow with the three souls she has freed, one of whom turns out to be a fairy. After thanking her for releasing them they warn her that the beldam will not let her go and she should be prepared for another fight. In a perfectly childlike, determined manner, Coraline sets a trap for the beldam and finds she is able to return to her boring life, which she now appreciates, and embark on a new term at a new school without any anxieties. After all, what could be scarier than what she's just been through?
The existance of an "other world" allows Gaiman to create some eerily familar creepy crawlies that, while weird and dark are never too terribly scary. Of course any parent who has a sensitive child will not give her or him this book to read. But, if your child has a healthy fascination with skeletons, ghosts, slugs and the like, this book will be a great treat. The brilliant Henry Selick, director of Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach has made a wonderful, spot on movie of Gaiman's book. The Coraline movie website is almost as good as the movie itself. But, don't check out the website or movie if you want to read Coraline and visualize the setting and characters with your own imagination. Selick does such an amazing job of bringing the world of Gaiman's book to life that you will never see the book any other way once you have seen his version of it...
For those of you wondering if the movie Coraline (or the book, or any book for that matter) might be right/age appropriate for your child, Neil Gaiman has the perfect, succinct, response to this question in a post on his online journal titled Is Coraline right for (insert age here)?.
Based on my review of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books that posted on 10/12/09, I was asked to participate in an interview with Michele Norris, one of the hosts of the NPR show All Things Considered. First, Jeff Kinney was interviewed and fielded questions from kids, then I came on to talk about some of the aspects of the books parents might find unsavory. It was an amazing experience. I was so nervous I thought I was going to vomit, but Michele put me at ease right away and I was quickly rambling on like we were sitting at a Starbucks chatting over a cappuccino, which is exactly what she suggested I envision at the outset of our conversation.
I have my local public radio station on all day when I am home and all the time in the car and have for all of my adult life. It has been a surreal, amazing, incredible experience to be asked to come on to this show that I have great respect for and speak knowledgeably about an aspect of my passion, children's literature. And I made Michele Norris laugh!!!
So, now you can hear what I sound like by clicking this link.
Originally started as a web comic on Funbrain, where book one can still be read for free, and conceived as an adult nostalgia piece, Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a hugely popular series that has gotten kids, boys especially, reading. I almost didn't write this review because these books are so ubiquitous that I figured there were very few parents and kids who didn't know about them. However, after reading the first two in the series I thought that maybe I did have something of value to say about the series for those of you who are unfamiliar with it. *For an addendum to this review written after listening to an interview with Jeff Kinney in which he was asked some very pointed questions, see below. To listen to the interview before reading my review so that you can form an opinion of your own, click here.
The diary keeper of the title is Greg Heffley and he is on the verge of starting middle school, which, in his opinion is, "the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven't hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day. And they wonder why bullying is such a big problem in middle school." The diary, or JOURNAL, as Greg insists on calling it, was given to him by his mom and he is only writing in it for later when he is rich and famous and too busy to answer questions about his past. Greg has an older brother, Roderick, who is in high school and drives a van with his band's name painted on the side. The name of the band is Löded Diper, the correct spelling of which Greg is sure his brother is oblivious to. Roderick treats Greg pretty badly, which could be part of the reason he sees himself as a wimp. Roderick plays jokes on him constantly. Some are funny, moslty harmless jokes, like coming into Greg's room at 3 am (in the middle of the summer) dressed for school and telling Greg to hurry up and get ready for the first day of school. When his dad comes downstairs yelling at him for making so much noise at three in the morning as he eats his cereal, Greg gets the joke. Roderick covers his tracks and avoids punishment. There is definitely a trickle down effect going on as Greg repeats the jokes on his friend by default (as in, there is no one better around to play with), Rowley. Greg heads to Rowley's house to play video games whenever his dad makes him go outdoors to get exercise, despite the fact that Rowley's dad won't allow the boys to play games with fighting or violence in them. Greg finds a way around this rule by bringing his unacceptable games over to Rowley's hidden in the cases of his baby brother's educational games. Finally, there is Greg's baby brother Manny, who, to his deepest embarrassment, calls him "Bubby." Manny is both a burden Greg must tend to and a blabbermouth, telling their parents about some of Greg's transgressions.
There are some very funny, realistic parts of this book, like the whole story line with the "cheese touch," which involves an old piece of fossilized cheese on the blacktop of the playground that, when touched, gives you the "cheese touch" and ensures immediate ostracization for possessing said touch. Some of the events, though, can get a little uncomfortable and involve lying to adults and subjecting other kids to violence or frightening situations. So, of course, as a parent I have a different view of these kids and their antics than a young reader will. Greg is a character who makes his choices based on whatever is most convenient for him with little thought to others. Some of the plot points that caused me to cringe and have second thoughts about recommending this to younger kids are: The pay-per-view haunted house that Rowley and Greg set up. It turns out to be such a lame version of their original plan that they cut short the attraction after their first customer curls up in the fetal position and refuses to leave the "Hall of Screams." Then there is the time that Manny finds one of Roderick's contraband Heavy Metal magazines and brings a picture of a bikini-clad girl draped across the hood of a car for show and tell at preschool. Roderick's punishment is to answer in writing pointed questions posed by his mother regarding shame, being a better person and apologizing to all women for owning something of that nature. There is also the time when, disappointed with the Big Wheel Rowley gives him for Christmas, Greg finds a way to have fun with it by trying to bean Rowley in the head with a football as he rides by on it, causing him to crash and break his arm. Finally, there is the time when Greg takes Rowley's route on the safety patrol and chases a group of kindergartners with a worm on a stick, sending them screaming. Rowley is blamed for terrorizing the kids and Greg lets him take the fall. Greg loses his position on the safety patrol and Rowley's friendship (for a time) over that one. While I laughed and shared Greg's point of view once in a while, I was left with an uneasy feeling above all because of the humor at other people's expense that is a regular aspect of the book, as well as a continual disregard for others that exists in Greg and his brother Roderick. I think that these books are so widely popular, in part, because of the easy to read diary format, the cartoonish illustrations and the brightly colored covers. I think that this is also what attracts readers as young as seven or eight and what leads parents to believe that these books, about a seventh grader, are acceptable to give to a second or third grader. I have no doubt that there are younger readers who can consume this series without being aversely affected or acting out, however, because there is no moral presence in the books, I think that parents who read the books with their kids can provide that moral touchstone outside of the text by reading and talking to their kids about the stories.
I have to confess that I am a book snob. I sometimes shudder when I think about what I am required to place on the shelves and sell at the bookstore where I work. I am also somewhat reformed in my snobbery. Several years ago I volunteered as a reading coach at the elementary school my son was attending. Twice a week I went to second and fifth grade classrooms and read with a handful of kids, mostly boys. What I learned from working with those kids is that a book has intrinsic value if it inspires a child to pick it up and read it, regardless of the plot or content (within reason, of course.) I learned to appreciate Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants and even RL Stine's Goosebumps books. So, while I definitely value the way that Jeff Kinney and his books have inspired reluctant and non-readers to crack a spine on a book for a change, I do have one small reservation about these books. They remind me a bit of the television show The Simpsons, which has definite kid appeal in the character of Bart, but also plays on a very adult level, dropping in adult references and themes from time to time. Probably most kids don't pick up on it and it remains benign. But, seems like one thing to watch Bart Simpson misbehave and disregard others on television for twenty-one minutes at a time and a whole other thing to read about it over and over in a book series. Some kids pick up on this stuff, get ideas and do or say things that are inappropriate. Some don't. I am not in any way advocating censorship, however. Instead, I hope to provide parents with a useful tool for determining whether or not these books are well suited for their child. I have talked to some parents who have told me that reading Junie B Jones led to undesired behaviors in their kids and I suspect that the Wimpy Kid series could have the same effect on a small number of readers, especially the younger ones, as well, and I know that kids as young as third grade are reading this series.
Renaissance Learning, a company that produces computer based comprehension tests on children's books that schools use to monitor and encourage students' reading, rates the Wimpy Kid books at a 5th grade reading level. The Lexile framework for reading, which is used more by academics, ranks the third book in the series at a 970L. According to Lexile, The Last Straw is comparable with Philip Pullman's book The Golden Compass, a very complex book with foreign names and words, which Renaissance Learning ranks as a 7th grade reading level book. Confusing as this is, I want to make the point that, while many third graders and younger are reading this series, they are, in most cases, probably too young for it, whether due to maturity or ability. I think young kids are drawn in by the very funny, entertaining comic illustrations and jokes and gags in the books and end up reading about a kid who is in middle school and has a teenage brother who throws parties while their parents are out of town.
In a perfect world of books, reluctant readers would be drawn to a series with more redeeming qualities and less general meanness than the Wimpy Kid book. But, in a perfect world of books everyone would grow into adults who like to read Shakespeare, Jhumpa Lahiri, Henry James and Walt Whitman. Nothing is perfect, reading is important and all things require some give and take since we are all different with different tastes. Diary of a Wimpy Kid certainly isn't the worst book on the shelf by any means. I just think it needs to be read with a sense of distance on the part of the reader and caution on the part of the parents. And, for all I know, maybe over the course of this series Greg develops the conscience and sense of responsibility we all hope our children will acquire as they mature. I have only read the first two books in the series. But, as a friend and co-worker said when we were discussing the possible merits of reading this book, "Why don't kids just read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?"
**Ok. Ok. I knew I was being a censorious adult when I wrote the review and I really, really didn't want to do anyone's thinking for them by spouting my opinion. As uncomfortable as I felt writing the review, after listening to this interview on the NPR radio show Here and Now, I stand by my word. I learned that Kinney originally wrote this on-line comic as a nostalgia piece for adults and that makes perfect sense to me when I reflect on the humor and content of the books. Kinney describes his main character as a "half-formed person," his moral code being "whatever is most convenient for him." Kinney defends this by saying that we were all a bit unsavory at this age and Greg is just being a kid. Kinney feels that his books are so popular with kids because readers can't "smell the adult behind the pen," meaning that the voice of authority, the moral adult, never arrives on the scene to set things right. Kinney says that all of the humor in the books comes from Greg's shortcomings, which is fair, but it seems like kids need, deserve even, to see Greg grow as a person. During the interview it was mentioned that a reviewer said that Greg Heffley is like what Larry David, writer for the Seinfeld television show and now writer and curmudgeonly, antisocial star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, must have been like as a child. That may be accurate, but adults watch and appreciate Larry David's show and understand the subtleties of the character and what he is losing by persisting in his attitude. I doubt that very few young readers can step back and look at Greg, after laughing at his misfortunes that arise because his "moral backbone is as thin as his stick-figure character," as interviewer Robin Young describes him, and think, "Ha ha. He's funny. Sure glad I'm not like him!" Instead, they most likely walk away from the books like Jeff Kinney's son did, thinking that there is nothing wrong with being like Greg. Kinney admitted that, when his mom when she invited him to go bike riding, his son responded with Greg's words, saying that he is more of an "indoor person." After revealing this, Kinney admitted that he might keep his books away from his six year old for a while.
As I was writing my review of Mary Ann Hoberman's debut novel for young adults, Strawberry Hill, I just had to mention Seven Silly Eaters, a long time favorite of mine and my children. Rather than stick this mention in at the end of the review of the novel, I decided to honor it with one of it's own and call attention, again, a brilliant poet and essential contributor to the world of children's literature over the last 50+ years.
In the fall of 2008, in honor of Mary Ann Hoberman being named the second ever national Children's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation (on the heels of Jack Prelutsky) I reviewed her excellent series of books for new readers (and a friend) titledYou Read to Me and I'll Read to You, of which there are now four. Author of over 45 books, only one of which is not in verse, Hoberman might be best known for her 1978 winner of the National Book Award, A House is a House for Me, illustrated by frequent collaborator, Betty Fraser. Fraser also provided the illustrations for The Llama Had No Pajama, a collection of 100 of Hoberman's favorite poems she has written for children. If you do not own this book, which is available in paperback, you must rush out and buy it today. Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky have dominated the shelves of the children's poetry section for long enough! Published in 1997 and available in paperback as well, Seven Silly Eaters is illustrated by one of my all-time favorite illustrators/authors, Marla Frazee. Frazee is winner of the Caldecott Honor medal in 2009 for her excellent book, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, which made it onto my Best Picture Books of 2008 review. Frazee's illustrations not only enhance the story of the Peters family, but the detail rich pictures sometimes tell a story of their own.
Wether you have a house full of children or just one, all parents who have aimed to please at one time or another will appreciate the plot of Seven Silly Eaters, which is the story of one mother, her
seven children and their particular eating habits, told in rhyme. Frazzled by meeting the needs of her warm milk, homemade bread, pink lemonade, poached egg, non-lumpy oatmeal, applesauce loving children, she forgets her birthday. But, the children don't. In their efforts to treat her by preparing their favorite foods for her breakfast, they instead end up with a messy kitchen and a pot filled to the top with all their favorite foods. They hide it in the oven, which they forget is still hot, and return to bed. In the morning there is an amazing birthday cake made from all their favorite foods and - best of all - all seven children like it! It turns out that Hoberman has spent quite a bit of time and energy creating a recipe that actually bakes up into a delicious cake. Mrs Peters' Birthday Cake can now be made by kids and parents at home!
Mary Ann Hoberman's most recent book, All Kinds of Families, illustrated by Marc Boutavant, is another great parade of rhymes. While the title and timing may make it sounds like a book about diversity and acceptance, which it certainly could be read as, at its heart it is about a child's natural inclination to group objects. A knife, a fork and a spoon, the sun, the stars and the moon, pebbles and dolls and letters and numbers, we have all watched our children sort things out and Hoberman goes the extra, important step of calling these groups families.