Children’s Books

A Responsible Freedom: Patti Smith on ‘Little Women’

24 September 2018

From The Paris Review:

Perhaps no other book provided a greater guide, as I set out on my youthful path, than Louisa May Alcott’s most beloved novel, Little Women. I was a wiry daydreamer, just ten years old. Life was already presenting challenges for an awkward tomboy growing up in the gender-defined 1950s. Uninterested in preordained activities, I would take off on my blue bicycle, to a secluded place in the woods, and read the books I had checked out, often over and over again, from the local library. I could hardly be found without book in hand and sacrificed sleep and hours at play to enter wholeheartedly each of their unique worlds.

Many wonderful books captured my imagination, but in Little Women something extraordinary happened. I recognized myself, as if in a mirror, the lanky headstrong girl, who raced on foot, ripped her skirts climbing trees, spoke in common slang, and denounced social pretensions. A girl who could be found leaning against a great oak with a book, or at her desk in the attic bowed over a manuscript. She was Josephine March. Even her name breathed freedom, a girl called Jo. Louisa May Alcott had wrapped herself in her glory cloak, labored at her own desk, and penned a new kind of heroine. A stubbornly modern nineteenth-century American girl. A girl who wrote. Like countless girls before me, I found a model in one who was not like everyone else, who possessed a revolutionary soul yet also a sense of responsibility. Her dedication to her craft provided my first window into the process of the writer and I was moved with the desire to embrace this vocation as my own. Her missteps, comic to bold, were enviable, giving permission for my own.

Set in New England in the mid-nineteenth century, in the throes of the Civil War, Little Women is not a sweeping epic. Instead we are drawn into the lively, combative, and caring atmosphere of the March family parlor. There we are introduced to the four young sisters, each with intriguing personalities, processing an energy specifically their own. We become privy to their dreams and disappointments, their squabbles and collective imagination, the immediate world they learn to maneuver. Each struggling with their lot, but accountable to the expectations placed upon them.

. . . .

Alcott vowed to find a way to support her family, draw them out of poverty, just as Jo strived to support hers. A vow I also uttered, privy to my own family’s postwar financial struggles.

Louisa desired and eventually insisted on a room of her own, and her father built an oval desk, with an inkstand, that stood between two windows. It is here she penned her first attempts at pulp fiction under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, providing bread for the family. Like Walt Whitman, she had risked her life volunteering as a nurse during the Civil War and published Hospital Sketches, receiving popular acclaim. But it was the publication of Little Women that provided, almost instantly, national success, financial security, and a legion of devoted readers.

The success of Little Women cleared the course she had set for herself for the rest of her life. Alcott refused to marry and embrace the social conventions of the day. She wrote and traveled extensively in Europe. As did her character Jo, she found her method for following her creative path while still attentive to crucial domestic matters, remaining the breadwinner, ever responsible for the needs of her family. And as Jo, within her work, she conveyed the joy of her wild imagination, her terrible longing, and ultimately the tragedy of loss. Through the March girls I came to know extreme poverty and the cost of war. I learned from Jo’s example that art is not produced solely by dreaming but through discipline, steadfast and confident application, and the willingness to accept and grow from astute criticism. Jo, as her creator, was always scribing, littering the floor with her failures, until such skins were shed and she connected with the core of self-expression.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG recalls reading and loving Little Women when he was in elementary school. He followed that book up with Little Men, which was not quite as good.

During this time period, PG’s family of origin was living in a small house at an altitude of about 10,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

There was not a lot of money available to purchase books. The closest real library was over an hour away and required traveling on a narrow and winding mountain road that was more than a little intimidating when PG drove it as an adult.

PG will be forever grateful for his mother’s efforts to provide lots of reading material for her children, regardless of the cost in time, money and energy on her part.

The House With a Clock In Its Walls

23 September 2018

And the book

Why ‘Little Women’ Endures 150 Years Later

19 September 2018

From Smithsonian:

When Louisa May Alcott lifted her pen after writing the last line of Little Women, she never would have believed that this piece of autobiographical fiction would remain in print throughout the 150 years after its September 30, 1868 publication. Alcott’s masterpiece is a 19th-century time capsule that still draws young readers and has spawned four movies, more than ten TV adaptations, a Broadway drama, a Broadway musical, an opera, a museum, a series of dolls, and countless stories and books built around the same characters. Earlier this year, PBS broadcast a two-night, three-hour Little Women film produced by the BBC. A modern retelling of the classic will arrive in theaters September 28, director Greta Gerwig is planning another film for late 2019.

A new book by Anne Boyd Rioux—Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy—explores the cultural significance of Alcott’s most successful work. Rioux says she was surprised by “the incredibly widespread impact that the book has had on women writers, in particular.” Little Women’s most flamboyant character, the high-tempered and ambitious Jo March, is an aspiring author and an independent soul, much like Alcott. Her nascent feminism has touched many who have admired her challenges to societal norms while embracing its virtues. Over the years, Jo has fed the ambitions of writers as diverse as Gloria Steinem, Helen Keller, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gertrude Stein, Danielle Steel, J.K. Rowling, Simone de Beauvoir and national Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Little Women . . . has never been out of print.

. . . .

Louisa May Alcott by George Kendall Warren Studio, c. 1872

. . . .

When a publisher asked Alcott to write a book for girls, the already-published author procrastinated. “I think the thought of a girls’ book was stifling to her,” Rioux says. In fact, Alcott once commented that she “never liked girls or knew many except my sisters.” When she finally wrote the book, she composed it quickly and with little deliberation, basing the characters on her own family.

Little Women triumphed immediately, selling the initial run of 2,000 books in just days. The original publication represented the first 23 chapters of what would become a 47-chapter book. Soon, her publisher was shipping tens of thousands of books, so he ordered a second installment, which would complete the classic. “Spinning out her fantasies on paper, Louisa was transported, and liberated. Her imagination freed her to escape the confines of ordinary life to be flirtatious, scheming, materialistic, violent, rich, worldly, or a different gender,” writes Alcott’s biographer Harriet Reisen.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian

The Practical Magic of Joan Aiken, the Greatest Children’s Writer You’ve Likely Never Read

31 August 2018

From The New Yorker:

In the early nineteen-fifties, before she published any of the novels that established her as one of the twentieth century’s great children’s-book writers, Joan Aiken lived on a bus. Aiken and her husband, the journalist Ronald Brown, had acquired a piece of land on which they meant to build a house. But building licenses in England could take years to be approved. To continue renting an apartment seemed wasteful, and since food was still being rationed—this was only a few years after the war—they wanted to start a garden right away. The obvious solution was some sort of temporary residence, a structure that could be brought onto their new plot and then dismantled or moved away once the house was done. But where could they find a home like that?

“We wanted something roomy enough to accommodate two adults, a typewriter, wireless, gramophone and records, sewing machine, a mass of books, a cat and an extremely lively eighteen-month-old baby,” Aiken wrote. “A bus seemed to answer those requirements. The one which we got was a lucky buy—a single-decker (some local authorities object to double-deckers), recently overhauled. We bought it for less than a hundred pounds, complete.”

They outfitted it with water and electricity. They put in a stove for heat. Brown, who worked at Reuters, commuted to London, by train. Aiken painted furniture, worked in the garden, and wrote stories and poems on the typewriter. Her first book, a collection of short fiction called “All You’ve Ever Wanted,” included material written during the bus phase; it was published in 1953.

Aiken wrote a brief essay, probably in 1952, about her unconventional living arrangements. She published it in Housewife magazine. The piece is called, with cheerful straightforwardness, “Our Home Is a One-Decker Bus.” What’s remarkable about it is how Aiken treats her (intimately personal, yet also odd and whimsical) material. That is, she doesn’t “treat” it at all—she reports, with brisk efficiency. Living on a bus comes across as a practical problem, to be managed without fuss. Here is where we built our airing cupboard, above the hot-water tank. Near the clothes horse we keep the baby’s folding bath.

As the article moves along, though, something strange starts to occur. Aiken’s unsentimental accounting begins to acquire a glow of magic. A slow accumulation of increasingly fanciful detail deposits us, almost without our noticing, on the threshold of a fairy tale:

Space is certainly confined. We have to be tidy, which comes hard, and our visitors must sleep in a tin hut which also contains gardening equipment and tea-chests full of papers. But the bus isour own. We can hammer in nails or saw holes wherever we want to, paint the walls red and green, and draw pictures on the doors. We have done all these things, and we add some new embellishment every week.

Aiken wrote more than a hundred novels over the course of her long career, and many of them manage something like this transformation. An absurd premise (we live on a bus; the Glorious Revolution never happened; a queen claims that her lake has been stolen) is treated with deadpan seriousness, allowing its latent magical possibilities to emerge in an atmosphere that’s half ironic, half enchanted—or, rather, in an atmosphere that’s entirely ironic and entirely enchanted, at the same time.

. . . .

Consider “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,” Aiken’s best-known novel, which she published in 1962. The book, the first in her Wolves Chronicles series, take place in an alternate historical timeline in which James II was never deposed; in the eighteen-thirties of the books, James III is the King of England and the target of Hanoverian conspirators’ countless plots to overthrow him. A tunnel has been dug under the English Channel, between Dover and Calais, and as a result—and here is the magic sneaking in through the bizarre premise—England has been overrun by wolves, thousands of which have migrated through the tunnel after a string of brutal winters in Europe and Russia.

. . . .

In the deep winter, the river in the woods surrounding Willoughby Chase, the enormous, rambling manor of Sir Willoughby Green, has frozen solid. Lady Green, Sir Willoughby’s wife, has mysteriously taken ill, so the couple have departed on a long ocean voyage that they hope will restore her to health. (That’s three literary clichés—a manor in the woods, a mysterious illness, a sailing voyage—before the novel has even really begun.) They have left their young daughter, Bonnie Green, in the care of a governess (four), Letitia Slighcarp, who also claims to be Sir Willoughby’s estranged fourth cousin (five). To keep Bonnie company, her cousin Sylvia, an orphan (six) being raised in London by their kindly but impoverished Aunt Jane (seven), has made the dangerous train journey north to Willoughby Chase. The little girls have never met before, and their temperaments are opposite—Bonnie is robust and headstrong; Sylvia is modest and delicate—but they immediately become fast friends (eight).

The scene I am thinking of is one in which the girls decide to go ice skating. The forest is full of wolves, but the wolves won’t venture onto the ice, Bonnie says, so as long as the girls stick to the river they will be safe. While they’re skating, they see Miss Slighcarp making her way through the woods. She is clearly up to no good (they can spy on her through a secret compartment in a wall—I’ll stop counting, but you get the idea), and they attempt to follow her, but in doing so they skate farther than they had intended. Now night is approaching, and they are a long way from the house. Bonnie isn’t tired, but Sylvia, who has never skated before, can’t go on any longer. As they try to decide what to do, they begin to hear, from somewhere in the distance, the baying of wolves.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

10 Little-Known Children’s Books by Famous Writers

23 August 2018

From The Literary Hub:

This week, Duke University Press is reissuing James Baldwin’s children’s book, Little Man, Little Man. If you had no idea that James Baldwin ever wrote a children’s book, you’re not alone. In fact, quite a number of established literary writers have dabbled in kids lit. Most people know about the children’s books of writers like Ian Fleming (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Salman Rushdie (Haroun and the Sea of Stories), T.S. Eliot (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), Toni Morrison (The Book of Mean People, etc) and even Mark Twain (Advice to Little Girls). But others are more obscure, and in honor of the republication of James Baldwin’s only children’s book, here are a few of these, all of them children’s books (even if made into them after the fact) and all written by writers more famous for their grown-up fiction.

. . . .

Langston Hughes, The First Book of Jazz (1955)

In 1955, Langston Hughes, arguably the most important poet of the Harlem Renaissance, published a jazz explainer book for children! It was the first children’s book to tackle the subject, and it’s a good one: a history of the art form—in sections with titles like  “African Drums,” “Old New Orleans,” “Work Songs,” “Jubilees,” “The Blues,” “Ragtime,” and “Boogie-woogie”—and an explanation of the terms, from syncopation to riff. “A part of American music is jazz, born in the South,” Hughes writes. “Woven into it in the Deep South were the rhythms of African drums that today make jazz music different from any other music in the world. Nobody else ever made jazz before we did. Jazz is American music.” NB that The First Book of Jazz was actually the third children’s book written by Hughes. The first was The First Book of Negroes and the second was The First Book of Rhythms.

. . . .

William Faulkner, The Wishing Tree (1927)

William Faulkner only wrote one children’s book—which Maria Popova calls “a sort of grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In WonderlandDon Quixote, and To Kill a Mockingbird, about a girl who embarks upon a strange adventure on her birthday only to realize the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration and kindness”—and it was really only meant for one child: Victoria Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart Estelle Oldham. Estelle was still married to Victoria’s father, but Faulkner hoped she would cast him off and remarry him instead, which she did two years later—maybe in part because of this book, which Faulkner illustrated and lovingly bound himself. On the first page, he wrote:

For his dear friend
on her eighth birthday
Bill he made
this Book

Anyone would marry such a gentleman! That said, as Popova points out, Faulkner made copies of the book for at least three more children. Not a problem until Victoria Franklin tried to publish hers—which she eventually did, with Random House, in 1964.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Teens Today Spend More Time on Digital Media, Less Time Reading

21 August 2018

From The American Psychological Association:

If you can’t remember the last time you saw a teenager reading a book, newspaper or magazine, you’re not alone. In recent years, less than 20 percent of U.S. teens report reading a book, magazine or newspaper daily for pleasure, while more than 80 percent say they use social media every day, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“Compared with previous generations, teens in the 2010s spent more time online and less time with traditional media, such as books, magazines and television,” said lead author Jean M. Twenge, PhD, author of the book iGen and professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “Time on digital media has displaced time once spent enjoying a book or watching TV.”

The research was published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture®.

. . . .

“Think about how difficult it must be to read even five pages of an 800-page college textbook,” Twenge says, “when you’ve been used to spending most of your time switching between one digital activity and another in a matter of seconds. It really highlights the challenges students and faculty both face in the current era.”

In the article, Twenge says that she and her fellow researchers were surprised to see how dramatic a decline in reading their study revealed. “It’s so convenient to read books and magazines on electronic devices like tablets,” she says. “There’s no more going to the mailbox or the bookstore—you just download the magazine issue or book and start reading. Yet reading has still declined precipitously.”

And in a telling comment, she points out that “Blockbuster and VCRs didn’t kill going to the movies—but streaming videos apparently did.”

. . . .

Use of digital media increased substantially from 2006 to 2016. Among 12th-graders, internet use during leisure time doubled from one to two hours per day during that period. It also increased 75 percent for 10th graders and 68 percent for eighth-graders. Usage rates and increases were fairly uniform across gender, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, according to Twenge.

“In the mid-2010s, the average American 12th-grader reported spending approximately two hours a day texting, just over two hours a day on the internet — which included gaming — and just under two hours a day on social media,” said Twenge. “That’s a total of about six hours per day on just three digital media activities during their leisure time.”

In comparison, 10th-graders reported a total of five hours per day and eighth-graders reported four hours per day on those three digital activities. And all that time in the digital world is seriously degrading the time they spend on more traditional media, according to Twenge.

The decline in reading print media was especially steep. In the early 1990s, 33 percent of 10th-graders said they read a newspaper almost every day. By 2016, that number was only 2 percent. In the late 1970s, 60 percent of 12th-graders said they read a book or magazine almost every day; by 2016, only 16 percent did. Twelfth-graders also reported reading two fewer books each year in 2016 compared with 1976, and approximately one-third did not read a book (including e-books) for pleasure in the year prior to the 2016 survey, nearly triple the number reported in the 1970s.

. . . .

“There’s no lack of intelligence among young people,” Twenge now says in the APA article, “but they do have less experience focusing for longer periods of time and reading long-form text.

“Being able to read long-form text is crucial for understanding complex issues and developing critical thinking skills.”

Link to the rest at The American Psychological Association

Changing the Picture Book Shelves

18 July 2018

From Publishers Weekly:

We’ve been struggling with our picture book section at the shop for some time now, and by “struggling” I mean that while the category is selling well once we locate the suggested title, often the finding of that exact book has been a bit of a challenge for frontline booksellers in a hurry. The last two years have seen big growth in nonfiction sales, and while some of these fit nicely in that “Who Was….” spinner from Penguin, there’s a LOT happening outside those charming little biographies. We have seen an uptick in interest in nonfiction all over the store, from coding books to germ science, sports to baking. Feminist girl power books, yoga how-to’s (I’m still waiting for someone to do “Can Your Mama Asana?”) and lots of history are getting picture book treatment; our increased sales show that these subjects are definitely in our customers’ bedtime story rotation.

Currently, we have nonfiction sections scattered around the store: Biography, History, Science (which is actually several bookshelves, including anatomy, weather and natural disasters, physical sciences and then project type books), Space (which gets its own shelf), Vehicles and Transportation (there is nothing as powerful as a digger in a children’s bookstore), Dinosaurs, Spy, Magic (this is the how-to section, versus the magical fiction category), Cooking, Animals (arranged alphabetically by species, not author) and then general parenting and bibliotherapy: Potty Training, New Baby, and Big Sibling – the holy trinity of the preschool parents.

. . . .

Specific childhood issues from sleeping to school issues are grouped by age, and there’s a good-sized section of books about puberty, sexuality and personal health.  All of those sections are ideally next to non-book displays that cross-sell well with those titles, (like the volcano kits near Natural Disasters, although I could make a case for those to be placed by potty training, too, I suppose)

. . . .

Most of these nonfiction sections are a mixture of early readers, small paperbacks, and larger hardcovers, relying more on their subject similarity for grouping than reading level. This is a particularly “kid lit land” kind of problem – in a general bookstore, all the animal books are grouped together, regardless of text difficulty. In kids’ stores, we have whole sections devoted just to a particular reading level and/or format – so, does Bears Are Curious go in the animal section, or on the early reader spinner (top two tiers for Level One) and if a second grader who is working on a report about grizzlies comes in, where do we direct him first?

Picture books, however, have always had their own long wall, and while they are the #3 selling category by quantity for us, they are the biggest seller in dollars.

. . . .

Late last Friday afternoon (where all good inspiration lives, between gift wrapping birthday presents for the weekend and debating the staff pizza order) we decided that we would just pull all the nonfiction titles out of picture books that were not already classified and give them their own section. We’d not only pull them, but we’d create a “nonfiction picture book” category in the POS system for these titles that allowed staffers to find them easily, and change all the shelf location fields in their description.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG very rarely visits physical bookstores these days, but back in the time when he did visit bookstores, he had a mindmap of the location of sections he would consult for new reading materials. Perhaps he’s an outlier, but he would not have appreciated his preferred books being scattered around the store.

OTOH, it’s been a long time since PG has been a kid, so he might enjoy running all over a bookstore to find things.

How Should Children’s Books Deal with the Holocaust?

16 July 2018

From The New Yorker:

As a child, I was obsessed with Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Like Anne, I wanted to grow up to be a writer; like her, I kept a diary (though less faithfully), which for a time I addressed, following her model, as Kitty; like her, I agonized over how little my mother understood me and longed to swoon in a boy’s arms. My obsession peaked at the age of eight with a visit to the Secret Annexe, in Amsterdam—the warren of rooms where the Frank family hid from the Nazis. I had imagined it countless times and had the floor plan memorized, but seeing it was a shock: it was so much smaller than I had pictured.

That may have been the moment I began to understand how great was the distance between Anne’s world and my own. As a girl from a family of survivors, coming of age in nineteen-eighties America, I felt the Holocaust as a tangible presence, simultaneously inescapable and unknowable. My grandparents, Jews from Lodz who fled east when the Nazis began their advance into Poland, had better luck than many: taken prisoner by the Soviets, they spent much of the war in a Siberian labor camp. Some of their family had already made it to Palestine, but most of those who remained behind were sent first to the Lodz ghetto and then to Auschwitz. My great-grandmother died there, but my great-aunt survived.

The enormity of the losses my relatives had suffered was palpable in the deep lines around their mouths, the tremors in their hands, the sighs they heaved every time the war years came up. Once, my great-aunt, who had Alzheimer’s disease by the time I came to know her, even grabbed my arm in search of the tattoo that she thought she would find there. But they didn’t often talk in detail about their experiences. When they did, the stories they told were confusing and full of gaps, and I’d complain at having to hear them. I was terrified of my relatives’ emotion and of the crushing responsibility it inflicted on me: the paradox of being charged with remembering something I hadn’t experienced.

Reading about the Holocaust was my way of trying to fulfill that obligation. But the gaps remained. I pored over the final pages of my edition of Anne’s diary, where the facts of what happened after the police raided the Secret Annexe were stated tersely: deportation to Westerbork, Auschwitz, and, finally, Bergen-Belsen. Searching for more, I came upon a book in which Hanneli Goslar, a childhood friend of Anne’s who was interned in another section of Bergen-Belsen, recalled having caught a glimpse of her, almost unrecognizable, through a fence. She returned a few days later with a package of food, but when she threw it over the fence another woman caught it and ran away as Anne screamed. The chatty, cheerful girl had become a person I couldn’t identify with at all: skeletal, desperate, scrabbling for food. She had gone to a place I couldn’t follow, not even in my imagination.

Those who died in the camps left no testimonies, and, when I was growing up, the idea of writing imaginative literature for children about the death camps was considered almost sacrilegious.

. . . .

Why, [Eric A.] Kimmel wondered, had no writer for children broached “the ultimate tragedy”? He concluded that it had to do with the irreconcilable tension between the subject and our assumptions about children’s literature. To write about the Holocaust realistically, in all its horror, violates the tacit promise of writing for young readers, he maintained: “not to be too violent, too accusing, too depressing.” At the same time, a story that won’t keep young readers up at night contradicts the historical reality. Kimmel continued, “To put it simply, is mass murder a subject for a children’s novel? Five years ago, we might have said no; ten years ago we certainly would have. Now, however, I think the appearance of a novel set in the center of the lowest circle is only a matter of time.”

. . . .

When the novel opens, Hannah is complaining about having to go to a Seder hosted by her survivor relatives. “I’m tired of remembering,” she says. Her grandfather Will frightens her by yelling at the TV set whenever footage of the camps comes on; once, when she used a ballpoint pen to ink a copy of his tattoo on her arm, thinking it would please him, he screamed at her in Yiddish. At the Seder, a little tipsy from the watered-down wine she has been allowed to drink, Hannah opens the apartment door to welcome the prophet Elijah—a key moment in the Seder ritual—and finds herself transported to Poland in 1942. Suddenly, she’s Chaya, the niece of Gitl and Shmuel, siblings who have taken her in after the death of her parents. At first, Hannah/Chaya thinks she’s stumbled onto a movie set or become the victim of an elaborate joke. There’s even some humor in her interactions with other shtetl girls, who are puzzled by her references to pizza and “General Hospital.” But when the guests arrive for Shmuel’s wedding to Fayge, a rabbi’s daughter from a nearby village, Nazis are waiting at the synagogue to transport them all for “resettlement.” To Hannah’s mounting frustration, no one will listen to her warnings:

“The men down there,” she cried out desperately, “they’re not wedding guests. They’re Nazis. Nazis! Do you understand? They kill people. They killed—kill—will kill Jews. . . . Six million of them! I know. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do. We have to turn the wagons around. We have to run!”

Reb Boruch shook his head. “There are not six million Jews in all of Poland, my child.”

“No, Rabbi, six million in Poland and Germany and Holland and France and . . .”

“My child, such a number.” He shook his head and smiled, but the corners of his mouth turned down instead of up. “And as for running—where would we run to? God is everywhere. There will always be Nazis among us.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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