classic

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Some days you eat the bear. Some days the bear eats you

There are SO many “great” children’s books out there. Books that make you laugh, books that capture your interest, books that tell amazing stories – this blog is full of recommendations of “great books” that anyone should be able to enjoy either at home or at the library. However, there are far, far fewer children’s books that I would actually describe as “important.” Because “important books” are extremely rare. Important books are titles that deliver an experience that 99% of other books just can’t match. These are books that challenge worldviews, open eyes, or supply your children with some piece of essential social perspective or vocabulary that they will use for the rest of their lives. And, in my humble opinion, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz is a very “important” book.

Am I overdoing it a bit on my assessment of Alexander? Possibly. It’s a book that I enjoy a lot and remember fondly from my childhood, so there is a definite nostalgia element to my overall opinion of Alexander. But, my personal baggage aside, I really do think that Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is one of the top ten ESSENTIAL books that any kid just HAS to read. It’s a book that I think should be one of the cornerstones of any kid’s home library.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

100% essential reading for kids

Why? Because it’s one of the best books ever written for kids about what it’s like to be a kid. Most books that feature child characters have very set and established modes of storytelling. Some just try to be funny, some try to tell short, sweet adventures, some (more than some) are thinly veiled morality tales – Kid A made Mistake B, learned Lesson C, and never made Mistake B again. Young readers get hit with the same types of story structures again and again and again. They wait for the punchline, the end of the quest, or the very special message and, once everything is wrapped up per usual, they move on to the next title.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a very significant and unusual children’s book because it rejects a lot of those familiar storytelling tropes. There isn’t really a plot to Alexander – we essentially just watch Alexander suffer through having a really not-great day. Everything is narrated from Alexander’s perspective and, from dawn to dusk, we witness things not going Alexander’s way. His opening rant sets the stage perfectly:

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell that it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The very definition of "wrong side of the bed"

Alexander is a hilarious narrator, particularly because, thanks to Viorst’s clever prose, his rants often inadvertently reveal that Alexander isn’t just a victim of bad luck on his very bad day. Sometimes he’s the one creating his own bad luck. [read the rest of the post…]

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Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales

Strangely enough, this is NOT a great gift idea for a baby.

One of the most daunting tasks I’ve found in building a home library is figuring out some sort of comprehensive way to introduce fairy tales and folk tales to your child. Because I’m a completist. If I start a series of novels, I have to read ALL OF THEM, even if I start hating the series after volume three.  The same goes for TV shows, movie series, and comic books. And, if I do eventually abandon whatever series I’m reading or watching, I spend lazy afternoons on the internet keeping up with spoilers, so I know what’s going on, even if… you know, I now profess to hate it. (So many hours I’ve spent on Wikipedia reading Uncanny X-Men spoilers and I haven’t bought an issue since the 1990s.) It’s just how I’m wired.

So, as a completist, when I started buying books for my daughter before she was born, I was very cognizant of the fact that it was up to me, as her father, to introduce her to the world of folklore and I didn’t want to leave any gaps in her education. One of the THE first books I ever bought her was a copy of The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated by Josef Scharl, which was NUTS – literally nuts. That was an insane purchase for an unborn child. Because, while the volume is complete, it is also dense, dark, and academic, with teeny tiny text and annotations galore. It makes for a beautiful reference book, but, c’mon, a kid isn’t going to touch that book until they’re either a). an adult or b). a very, very lonely teenager.

Realizing my folly, I started searching for more accessible versions of classic folk and fairy tales to share with her. I had a checklist – do I have a Red Riding Hood for her? Check. Three Little Pigs? Check. Goldilocks? Check. And I thought I’d assembled a few very decent introductions to the world of folklore for our library. I was pleased.

Red Riding Hood

On the other hand, kids will love this one.

However, after she was born and we started reading books aloud more often, I realized that there were SO many holes in our collection. This became particularly apparent when reading the more modern fractured fairy tales – fractured fairy tales are the more meta, ironic takes on classic folklore. Many of these books – ranging from The Stinky Cheese Man to Each Peach Pear Plum to The Princess and the Pizza – have a lot of fun alluding to and referencing classic folklore, which is normally, in turn, great fun for the parents and kids reading at home. I’m a big, big child of the pop culture generation, so recognizing references is something deeply, deeply ingrained in my DNA. [read the rest of the post…]

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Reading Rainbow

Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high...

I was a huge Reading Rainbow fan when I was a kid. Heck, there’s a whole generation of bookish children from the 1980s that, thanks to the influence of the best reading-related series that PBS ever produced, would very quickly form a cult behind LeVar Burton if the world ever found itself dropped into a Mad Max/Stephen King’s The Stand-esque dystopian wasteland. So, after I wrote my post on David Small’s Imogene’s Antlers yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Reading Rainbow actually did a whole episode themed around Imogene’s Antlers back in the 1980s.

It opens with LeVar visiting the Philadelphia Zoo to discuss the differences between animals and humans and, around the 6:40 mark, they start talking about Imogene’s Antlers directly and even get the hilarious Imogene Coca (Get it? Har, har) to do a reading of the book. Check out the video here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhdZO8agUo4

Isn’t that such a great show? That video completely reminded me how wonderful Reading Rainbow was and I plan on spending tonight trying to locate some of the episodes on DVD to share with my daughter.

Oh, and, just FYI, if I ever met LeVar Burton in person, it would probably resemble something like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zweTtDGlK-c&feature=related

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This September has been an oddly momentous month for children’s literature – first, we got the publication of Bumble-Ardy, Maurice Sendak’s first new illustrated and authored children’s story in 30 years, and then, if that wasn’t enough, this week, we get the release of Every Thing On It, a brand-new collection of 130 previously unreleased poems and drawings from the late, great Shel Silverstein, only the second “new” collection of Silverstein’s work to be released since his death in 1999. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

Every Thing On It by Shel Silverstein

What a great September

My family is particularly excited about Every Thing On It. Shel Silverstein is a master of language, particularly in using language to speak directly into the brain stems of eager children. We started reading to my daughter from A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends when she was three years old and, at first, I really didn’t think that my daughter was going to have the patience to sit and listen to poetry being read to her. It just seemed very… abstract, esoteric, it didn’t seem to have the immediacy of a picture book. I thought she’d be bored. However, once we got started, I quickly realized a profound and universal truth – I get things wrong ALL THE TIME. (Take a note, dear readers. That truth is going to come up again and again on this blog.)

Me being horribly, pig-headedly, stupendously WRONG has occurred multiple times during my brief tenure as a parent so far, and it has almost always involved situations where I completely underestimate my kid. Reading Shel Silverstein was one of those situations. She LOVED the poems. She was quiet, attentive, enraptured. After the second night of reading a selection of Shel poems before bed, she had already MEMORIZED some of the shorter ones. It was uncanny, and it really speaks to Silverstein’s ninja-like virtuosity with words and images and how he was able to use that skill to engage whole generations of young readers. For an author with the, hands down, scariest back-cover photo in the history of children’s lit, Shel Silverstein was a tremendous friend and ally to kids all over the world, speaking to them – never speaking down to them – with such depth, sophistication, and a sense of fun that they couldn’t help but love the guy.

So, in honor of the publication of Every Thing On It, here are two classic videos of Shel doing what he does best, entertaining everyone around him.

The first video is an extremely cool  clip of Shel appearing on The Johnny Cash Show back in 1970 where he does a few songs, including a duet with Cash (Silverstein wrote the lyrics to one of Cash’s most famous songs “A Boy Named Sue”). The second video is an animated clip of Shel reading “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too” from Where the Sidewalk Ends, which is one of my daughter’s favorite poems. Enjoy.

 

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Cover of The Phantom Tollbooth, illustration by Jules Feiffer

I mention this on the site’s “About” page, but, when I first found out that I was going to be a father, the very next day, I went out and bought a copy of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth for my kid – my kid who wasn’t going to be born for another nine months. Why? Because, in many ways, I think it’s the perfect children’s book.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Seuss, Silverstein, and Dahl, but there’s just something about the story and the narrative world that Juster puts together in Phantom Tollbooth that just floors me every time I read it.

For those unfamiliar, The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of Milo, a bored, apathetic kid, who, one day, finds a tollbooth that has mysteriously appeared in his bedroom. With nothing better to do, Milo gets in an old toy car, drives through the tollbooth, and finds himself in The Lands Beyond in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a pastiche of a fairy tale-land built around knowledge, wordplay, and mathematical nonsense. Milo makes friends with a watchdog – a pooch named Tock with a real clock in his center – travels through lands like Dictionopolis and The Island of Conclusions, and eventually quests to the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason. (His travels are expertly illustrated by Jules Feiffer.)

The ironic wordplay and absurdism of The Phantom Tollbooth gets a lot of attention, and it should. My almost five-year-old daughter is currently getting  a lot of laughs out of the verbal misunderstandings in books like Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia series, which I’m hoping will act as gateway drugs for one day introducing her to Tollbooth – in terms of fun with language, Tollbooth is like a nuclear bomb compared to Parish’s firecrackers. (If you want a far more insightful – and better written – take on Juster’s way with words, read the great Michael Chabon’s essay on Phantom Tollbooth, which will accompany a new fiftieth anniversary edition of the book that comes out this October.)

However, while the allusions and puns are fast and furious, they’ve never been my absolute favorite part of the text. For me, The Phantom Tollbooth has, first and foremost, always been about Milo, who, I think, is one of the greatest protagonists in all of children’s literature. [read the rest of the post…]

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