Books about Children's Books and Their Authors.

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. tart of StatCounter Code -->

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Last Updated 12/08/05


J.M. Barrie: The Magic Behind Peter Pan by Susan Bivan Aller. Lerner, 1994 (0-8225-4918-2)

The life and career of the man most remembered as the creator of Peter Pan is enjoyable described in this solid, nicely detailed biography. Aller's affection portrayal covers Barrie's life from birth to death, with special emphasis on the elemtns that would influence his career: his close relationship with his ambitious mother; his disinclination to give up the games and toys of his childhood; and especially, his friendship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her five sons, who allowerd him to relive the exciting adventure games he loved. The stories and games he shared with the Davies boys would lead to the creation of Peter Pan, the boy who never wanted to grow up--perhaps a portrait of the childhood-loving Barrie himself.

Although thorough in most details, Aller is evasive about some of the more controversial aspects of Barries life, commenting very little on why his marriage failed and touching only briefly on the negative side of his relatipnship with the Davies boys, who felt stifled by his possesive affection as they got older. (The strong resemblance that his character Captain Hook also had to Barrie indicates that he may not have been unaware of his desire "to possess the people he most loved.") This biography is certainly not a complete portrait: the possibly pathological side of Barrie's obsession with not growing up is not explored at all. However, it is well-written, attractively illustaated with black & white photoigraphs, and quite enjoyable. Includes an index and bibliography.

Kindred Spirit by Catherine M. Andronik. Atheneum, 1993 (0-689-31671-2) $14.95

This competent, if uninspired, biography of L.M. Montgomery (author of the much loved "Anne of Green Gables" series) gives a straight-forward description of her life: from her childhood, raised mainly by her grandparents on Prince Edward Island, through her struggles to keep writing, despite lack of support and time-consuming family obligations, to her sad death at the age of 67, when she was by no means finished as a writer. Enlivened by many photographs and snippets from Montgomerey's journal, Kindred Spirit is also rewarding reading for fans of Montgomery's work for the background it gives to her stories, many of which originated in incidents from her life. (10 & up)

Maud: the Life of L.M. Montgomery by Harry Bruce. Bantam-Seal, 1994 (0-553-56584-2) $4.99 pb

Like her most famous creation, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery was a bright, imaginative and opinionated person. This entertaining biography is a treat for fans of her work, creating a lively picture of young Maud: romantic yet practical, hardworking yet mischievous, sensitive yet somewhat snobby and conceited, she is an intriguing and memorable character in her own right.

Maud describes Montgomery's childhood, young adulthood, and the writing which became her strongest interest in life. Her determined struggle to succeed as a writer makes a good story, but probably most interesting to her readers are the descriptions of her lonely childhood and escapes into fantasy and self-expression, many of which would be later immortalized in the "Anne" and "Emily" books. Although Montgomery insisted that none of her characters were based on real people, Anne of Green Gables is almost a rewriting of her own childhood, one that gives her creation the loving home she never had.

Despite a startlingly abrupt beginning which plunges the reader without introduction into an episode from Montgomery's romantic life, Maud is a highly readable book, filled with odd anecdotes and interesting snippets from Montgomery's journal. Although it could be used for schoolwork, it is equally enjoyable leisure reading for anyone who'd like to get better acquainted with a beloved author. (12 & up)

King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher. Greenwillow, 2003 (0-06-050249-5) $16.99

I've written before about how disappointing the author memoirs of my childhood were, so distant in tone, so oddly silent on the subject of the author's actual work. You could never accuse Crutcher of either flaw: this chatty memoir lets most of it hang out, even to the point of breaking a 40 year old vow of silence to describe an unbelievably lurid club initiation. (Crutcher admits in a disclaimer to a penchant for exaggeration and one can only pray it came into play here.) And he also talks about how his life inspired his work: from the goofy real-life details, like the "magic tooth" in Stotan!, to the more somber ones that influenced his distinctive themes.

Crutcher veers effortlessly between comic memories of himself as a highly gullible "bawlbaby" to serious thoughts on life as he has learned to understand it. One particularly effective chapter describes Crutcher's frequent encounters with death: "A student asked me recently why somebody always dies in my books. I said, because somebody is always dying in my life." At a young age, learning about death led to fear and an effort to be good: "Got the stealing down to about a third, though the swearing remained about the same. Shit." As he became older, it grew into the inevitable need to understand why bad things happen, as well as bringing him into contact with grieving people, a first taste of the skills he would later use as a family therapist.

King of the Mild Frontier will of course interest fans of Crutcher's books, but it potentially has a much wider audience: of readers who might like to know that not every author adored books in the cradle (Crutcher on To Kill a Mockingbird: "I couldn't believe this was a book. It didn't even give me a headache.") And that a highschool freshman with "all the muscle definition of a chalk outline" can train himself into an athlete. And that even a foolish bawlbaby can grow up to be wise. (12 & up)

When I was Your Age: Volume Two edited by Amy Ehrlich. Candlewick, 1999 (0-7636-0407-0)

The companion volume to When I Was Your Age features more stories from the childhoods of popular authors--illuminating glimpses of some of the events and emotions that helped turn them into writers. Norma Fox Mazer describes the exact moment that she stopped being a crybaby, "In the Blink of an Eye"; Paul Fleischman gives a comical "Interview with a Shrimp," describing the lifelong effects of childhood CSD, "Chronic Stture Deficiency"; Kyoko Mori tells a stunningly dramatic and moving story about her mother, which readers will recognize as part of the inspiration for her novel Shizuko's Daughter. Perhaps the brightest note is Rita Williams-Garcia's "Food from the Outside," an expose of her mother's cooking which she notes it one story of hers her mother will never get to read; you can't help but relish the awfulness of what Rita and her siblings suffered through, and the ending is sheer comic horror. (10 & up)

The Abracadabra Kid: a Writer's Life by Sid Fleischman. Beech Tree, 1998 (0-688-15855-2) $4.95 pb

Even readers who didn't grow up with Fleischman's children's books will enjoy this sparkling autobiography. As fast-paced and colorful as his novels, it describes his lifelong love affair with magic tricks and the many odd adventures which later became ingredients in his stories; especially important was his first introduction to the Tall Tale. (10 & up)

Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher. Henry Holt, 2005 (0-8050-7242-X) $16.95

Anyone's who's read Fletcher's Fig Pudding won't be surprised to learn that, like his narrator Cliff, he grew up in a very large, loving family. This memoir is a series of short vignettes about his small town boyhood, in a time when there was a new baby every year like clockwork, when he and his friends loved to play "war" and practiced dying well ("For years I had studied Larry's technique... I'd never be able to die like Larry"), and when behaving properly at church was extremely important--not just to have a clean, sin-free soul, but to earn a box of lemon-filled doughnuts on the way home. On sadder notes, there is the death of pets, the shock having to move, and the sudden, inexplicable loss of his father's routine goodnight kiss. Numerous photographs help bring the crowded cast to life, and a Lois-Lenski style map of Ralph's neighborhood will have readers wishing they could leap in to play in the woods, swamp and "mud puppy place." (8 & up)

Presenting Richard Peck by Donald R. Gallo. G.K. Hall, 1989; Laurel-Leaf, 1993 (0-440-21888-8) $4.99 pb

Anyone involved with young adult literature will benefit from reading this thorough, well-documented look at the career of one of the most popular writers for young adults today. Extensive quotes from interviews and Peck's writing reveal his methods, opinions, and motivations as a writer, while discussions of his books point out recurring themes and perspectives. Highly recommended for library purchase. (14 & up)

Writers in the Kitchen compiled by Tricia Gardella. Boyds Mill, 1998 (1-56397-713-3) $14.95

I love cookbooks created by people who aren't serious, gourmet cooks: the recipes aren't persnickety and the fare is usually hearty and inviting, the sort of dishes people always like to eat. This collection of favorite recipes, contributed by children's book authors such as Jerry Spinelli, Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Ruth Heller, is no exception; every recipe cries out to be made, though you might get tired of so many chocolate brownies. For us weird souls who like to read cookbooks, there are also short reminiscences about the history of the recipes: Joanne Rocklin tells how she turns into her grandmother when she makes potato latkes, Betsy Duffy recalls how her sons used cooking to keep their grades up (her contribution, made for Mr. Ioannides the geometry teacher, is called "Extra-Credit Baklava") and Carmen Bredeson muses on the mysterious fate of her birthday pork chops and beans. It's another cookbook that's more for adults than children--but hey, why shouldn't we have fun too? One warning: the recipes have been printed as submitted and don't seem to have been tested: I found Lisa Desimini's Pierogies recipe utterly impossible. (10 & up)

E.B. White: Some Writer! by Beverly Gherman. Atheneum, 1992; Beech Tree, 1994 (0-688-12826-2) $4.95

The title may be the most inspired part of this biography of E.B. White, which although very readable is not particularly fascinating. It is a simple, well-researched description of White's life from boyhood to death, telling many facts, yet rarely giving much of a feeling for White as a person: he briefly comes to life only through snatches of his journals and poems. Still, it did make me want to read more of White's work, a worthy achievement in itself. Suitable for schoolwork, with an extensive notes section, bibliography and index. (8-13)

Lenten Lands by Douglas H. Gresham. Macmillan, 1988 (0-0-545570-2) $5.98 trade

This memoir by C.S. Lewis' stepson is really only peripherally related to children's literature, and fans will find it more tantalizing that satisfying in that respect. But Gresham is a thoughtful, compassionate writer and his memoir is well worth reading for its details of an English boyhood, as well as its glimpses of the inner life of the man beloved for the Narnia books. (12 & up)

The Zena Sutherland Lectures 1983-1992 edited by Betsy Hearne. Clarion, 1993 (0-395-64504-2) $18.95; (0-395-64987-0) $9.95

The Zena Sutherland Lecture Series, named in honor of one of the most distinguished contributors to the study of children's literature, is a wonderful opportunity to hear some of the most beloved authors and illustrators of children's books discuss the genre in whatever way they choose. This attractively produced collection of the first ten lectures (including talks by Lloyd Alexander, Virginia Hamilton and Paula Fox) is a treat for any children's literature enthusiast: a short, fascinating glimpse into the hearts and minds of the people who make the books we love, describing what they think is important about children's books and what inspires them to create. Their honest, funny, insightful and beautifully humanistic words are an enlightening and stimulating read.

Louisa May: the World and Works of Louisa May Alcott by Norma Johnston. Four Winds, 1991; Beech Tree, 1995 (0-688-12696-0) $4.95 pb

Most fans of Little Women know that the four March sisters were based on the author's own family, with Louisa May, of course, the model for the exuberant, tomboyish Jo. But as this fascinating biography shows, to know the picture perfect Marches is by no means to know the Alcotts. Nor is Jo, who gradually submitted to being tamed into little womanhood, entirely Louisa--who remained far more independent and rebellious than her creation.

Johnston begins the book by examining the personalities that shaped the Alcott family: Louisa's father, Bronson, one of those rare, extraordinarily committed idealists whose most intense relationships would always be "the one between them and the visions and ideas in their own heads" and her mother, Abba May, a passionate, moody person who passed much of her emotional temperament--and her conscientious struggle to control it--on to her daughter. The real history of Louisa's early life--forget the charming myth of Orchard House--is a story that is surprisingly resonant today: a history of numerous experiments in unconventional ways of living that were (as is true in any time period) very hard on the children involved. With a father who was never capable of putting aside his ideals in order to earn a living, Louisa early on became the family's economic mainstay, not only writing but teaching, sewing and cleaning in order to support them. Her adult years were a constant struggle with ill health, yet she accomplished much of what she wanted from life, taking care of her family while maintaining an independent life for herself.

Although it has less information about Louisa's thoughts and feelings as a child than I'd like to see, this admirably researched biography recreates Alcott's life in a lively, highly readable fashion that will hold the interest of any admirer of her work. It's especially gratifying that, in telling the truth behind Little Women, Louisa May in no way spoils that beloved book: despite some entertaining discrepancies between fact and fiction, such as Louisa's understandable decision to write her father and his social experiments out completely, the best elements of the story--the unique personalities of the characters and their tender love for one another--were very true indeed. (11 & up)

Cicely Mary Barker and Her Art by Jane Laing. Warne, 1995 (0-7232-4051-5) $35.00

This lavishly illustrated volume looks at the life and work of one of the most popular artists of the Edwardian era. Most beloved for her "Flower Fairy" paintings, which romantically combine fantasy images and accurate natural detail, Barker was also known for her fresh and innocent portraits of young children and her religious works. All of these are represented in the many color plates, with commentary by Laing about Barker's techniques and influences that aptly shows why her paintings are still highly regarded, although their subject matter and style are no longer in fashion. If romantic pictures of children and fairies strike you as pretty but inconsequential, this book will make you take a second look--start by noticing the way the dress of the "Rose Fairy" curls at the edges, just like petals.

No Pretty Pictures: a Child of War by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 1998 (0-685-15935-4) $16.00; (0380-73285-8) $4.99 pb

"I was born in Krakow, Poland. In a wrong place at a wrong time." These simple words begin illustrator Lobel's harrowing memoir of her childhood under Nazi rule, and I found myself remembering them throughout the book. They are the accepting, unashamed words of an adult--a far cry from the child she once was, facing a world of fear and loss painfully accompanied by shame.

For young Lobel, the invasion of Poland meant the gradual destruction of a comfortable, cosseted life. First her father disappeared, then the family goods were taken by the Nazis. When she and her brother were sent to the country with their Niania, their nanny, it was the beginning of years of being either a refugee or a prisoner, of years in which daily life was constantly being "reshaped" by external forces.

Using sometimes terribly vivid images, Lobel tells her story through the eyes of the child she once was, with memories of being disguised with a bandage so tight, it soon resulted in a genuine eye infection; of lying for hours in a hiding place so cramped and stifling, "we were like the contents of a boiling pot on the stove"; of waking up covered in diarrhea and having to desperately clean herself with her soiled clothes, knowing that the concentration camp hospital must be avoided at all costs. We see the anger and suspicion bred of her experiences, the sad distortion of her childhood--because how can childhood really exist when there are no caregivers?--and the pitiful self-hatred that haunted her, instilled by the anti-Jew prejudices of her loving but fanatical Niania, and heightened by the belief that none of this would have happened if she were not a "verfluchte, schmutzige Juden,". a dirty, filthy Jew. The main flaw in No Pretty Pictures is that this issue is left unresolved, leaving me to wonder if Lobel ever accepted being Jewish, or if she spent the rest of her life trying to put her ethnic heritage behind her. I would like to know more about how she grew from an angry, suspicious, ashamed child into the positive, unselfpitying adult she now is.

Even with this gap, the story is by no means purely tragic. As the prologue states: "I have spent many, many more years living well, occupied with doing happy and interesting things, than I spent ducking the Nazis or being a refugee." And despite the tile, the book manages to show at least one very pretty picture: a photograph of Lobel and her brother, joyously smiling at each other after their rescue from a concentration camp. It's a pertinent reminder that even such terrible events don't have to destroy lives forever, a message reinforced in the epilogue. "My life has been good," Lobel writes. "I want more."

Looking Back: a Book of Memories by Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin, 1998 (0-395-89543-X) $16.00; Delacorte, 2000 (0-385-32699-8) $12.95 trade pb

I don't remember ever enjoying an autobiography by a children's writer when I was a kid. They were often in the third person, sometimes fictionalized, always distant. And strangely enough, the writers never seemed to talk about what most interested me: The relationship between their lives and their books.

Autobiographies have improved a lot since then, but this one takes the prize as the book I would probably most have liked then, as well as being a book I love now. It's not the usual straightforward telling of events from childhood to adulthood; as Lowry writes, "It has no plot. It is about moment, memories, fragments, falsehoods and fantasies. It is about things that happened, which caused other things to happen, so that eventually stories emerged." Lowry, twice winner of the Newbery Medal for Number the Stars and The Giver (if I ruled the world, she would have won for Anastasia Krupnik), was lucky enough to be born into a family given to taking photographs. This book is based around those photographs, which are grouped together to suggest and illustrate stories from Lowry's life. The groupings are used to great effect; in several, Lowry juxtaposes a picture of herself with one of her mother taken at the same age, and imagines the conversation they might have had, if they could only have met when they were both twelve, or both eighteen. Another collection shows three of the Lowry family babies, all "with our faces folded up and our hands making a little church steeple because we haven't yet figured out how to wave or grab or poke or point." Perhaps the most affecting grouping shows Lowry's son Grey with his wife; the following year shows him with his barely toddling baby; the year after that shows his grave. Lowry again imagines talking to her dead mother, who had lost a daughter at almost the same age:

'What was it like for you?' I ask her. `How could you bear it?'

'It was a piece of my life ripped away,' she replies. `But I still had a family left. So I put one foot in front of the other and went on.'

'You looked ahead,' I said, knowing that's what I would have to do.

She nodded. And she smiled. 'But I looked back all the time, too.' she explained."

Lowry introduces each grouping with an evocative title and a quote from one of her books, tying them together and showing how her own emotions were expressed in her stories. She also writes about the incidents in her books that came directly from her own life, like deciding to change her "stodgy, dull, and completely unromantic" name for a while, just as her character Enid Crowley in Taking Care of Terrific later would. Anyone who loves Lowry's work will be intrigued by this look at the author's heart. But even those who have never read another word by her could love this book, as an honest, poignant, wryly funny look back, on a thoroughly-lived life.

Understanding Comics written and illustrated by Scott McCloud. Kitchen Sink Press, 1993 (0-87816-243-7) $19.95

Although its connection to children's books isn't immediately apparent, this utterly fascinating discussion of the history, artistry and psychology of comics--told in a comic book format that convincingly and amusingly demonstrates its points--is indispensable reading to anyone interested in another art form which mixes pictures and text: picture books.

Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom edited by Leonard S. Marcus. HarperCollins, 1998 (0-06-023625-6) $22.95; 2000 (0-06-446235-8) $16.95 trade pb

She wrote only one book herself... but according to historian Leonard Marcus, Ursula Nordstrom was "the single most creative force for innovation in children's book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century." I'd say that this collection of letters easily proves his point.

The director of Harper's juvenile department from 1940 to 1973, Nordstrom was involved in the creation of many of the greatest books from that Golden Age of children's publishing: Charlotte's Web, Harriet the Spy, the "Little House" books, among countless others. As her letters show, her job went far beyond choosing the best books and gently rejecting those that didn't measure up ("If I can resist a book, I resist it," was her motto, one I wish more editors would employ.) She was also the person who cajoled depressed writers and convinced them to keep trying, who passionately discussed their work and helped them to improve it, who sought out just the right illustrators to make characters stay in our minds forever, who intelligently and compassionately answered complaints, and who generally did everything she could to make sure children got the more wonderful, alive, real books possible.

For anyone interested in children's literature, Dear Genius is utterly compelling as a collection of historical documents. So much of children's literature as we know it today had its roots in Nordstrom's work, in the way she fought to open doors and break new ground and to preserve artistic vision, as seen in this impassioned response to concerns about a controversial book:

"...I bleed at every pore when I read your plaintive statement to the Sales Manager: `I wonder if the book couldn't stand a little editing if it isn't too late." ...if we want to publish Ruth Krauss AND WE DO we have to publish 100% pure Krauss. She knows something we don't know... and most grown-ups don't know... I respect her instinct and her final judgements and when she decides that there is nothing more she can honestly do to a book I have to respect her knowledge and trust her. Because she is the one with talent--and I'm only someone who recognizes and loves creative talent."

Without Nordstrom, who often said she liked to publish "good books for bad children," many of the things we take for granted--even expect--in children's books today--innovative uses of language, unpretty illustrations, realistic depictions of "bad" behavior--might still be considered unpublishable. Her influence on the genre can't be calculated.

But there is a also special pleasure in reading Dear Genius for anyone who, like me, grew up with the children's literature that Nordstrom contributed so much to... it is a chance to read wise, witty,intimate comments about my favorite books from someone who loved them as much as I do. *

Goodnight Moon: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective by Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Clement Hurd. Retrospective by Leonard S. Marcus. Harpercollins, 1947; 1997 (0-06-027504-9) $19.95

I must have been one of the few children in America who was not brought up on Goodnight Moon; even so, just reading the words "And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush/And a quiet old lady who was whispering 'hush,'" puts me immediately under its spell. With its cozy illustrations, quiet verses and gentle mystery, it's no wonder that this bedtime book has been a perennial favorite for 50 years. This new anniversary edition includes the complete book--with thankfully, no "improvements" such as coloring in the black & white sections. For adult readers and collectors, the story is followed by a short, well-illustrated retrospective which describes how the book came to be written; one of its most fascinating details is an early study by Hurd with a human grandmother instead of a rabbit, which was his preference for the pictures. Fortunately, Brown and her editor Ursula Nordstrom won the argument in favor of rabbit characters. There's also a look at the significance of Goodnight Moon in American culture, including some amusing reprints of cartoons that parody the book. This edition is nicely designed, with the story appropriately printed on slightly rough, old-fashioned looking off-white paper and the retrospective on glossy. It looks more like a collectors edition than a children's book however, and for simple bedtime reading, the plain original is probably best. This would make a lovely gift for an adult who loved the book as a child, though.

The retrospective is also available as a separate softcover edition: The Making of Goodnight Moon by Leonard S. Marcus. HarperTrophy, 1997 (0-06-446192-0) $5.95 pb.

How Angel Peterson Got His Name by Gary Paulsen. Random House, 2003 (0-385-72949-9) $12.95; Dell Yearling, 2004 (0-440-22935-9) $5.50 pb

There is a fate that sometimes protects idiots, writes Paulsen, and it certainly seems so. This amusing memoir describes times that he and his friends were adolescent daredevil idiots and yet somehow lived to tell the tale. Paulsen writes in a friendly tone, straightforwardly describing the different world of his time without being overly cute, or condescending to modern readers. But it's the little touches of tall tale--Carl Peterson, breaking a speed record on skis behind a car, hears the angels singing your cheatin' heart--that make this story so much fun. (10 & up)

The Annotated Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. Annotated by Peter F. Neumeyer. HarperCollins, 1994 (0-06-024387-2) $35.00

No one who hasn't already read Charlotte's Web should encounter it for the first time in this massive volume, but those who have known and cherished it for years will find this an entertaining, if somewhat top-heavy, examination of the classic story. Unlike the Alice books, Charlotte's Web does not contain a wealth of cultural, historic or satiric reference, so the annotations are largely about White's writing process as shown in eight preserved drafts of Charlotte's Web. These, in showing the carefully planned craftsmanship that went into the book, are very interesting, as are the comments on the literary effects used in the story. However, many of the annotations seem to be merely filler, some vainly reaching for relevancy to the topic, others incessantly imposing Neumeyer's own views of the characters and events upon the reader. The introduction and appendices, which include other pieces of White's writing and snippets of some of the more curious criticisms that have been made of Charlotte's Web over the years, show excellent research but haphazard organization, with far too many repetitions. All in all, The Annotated Charlotte's Web offers fun browsing in an attractive package, but is not nearly as meaty a work as its size and price would indicate.

A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson. Plume/Penguin, 1995 (0-452-27476-1) $12.95 pb

Whatever you do, don't read this book when you're alone: not being able to quote passages from it aloud will drive you crazy with frustration. This collection of speeches, essays and book reviews, originally published as Gates of Excellence and The Spying Heart, is overflowing with wise, thoughtful and caring words about reading, writing, children, and the amazing craft which brings those three vital elements together.

"I do believe that those of us who have grown up have something of value to offer the young," Paterson writes. But she also has something to offer others who have grown up, and does so with great generosity, sharing with us her experiences: as w "weird little kid," an acclaimed author, a victim of censorship, a failed foster mother. Several pieces are about the real life tragedy that led to the writing of the Newbery winner Bridge to Terabithia--very personal and revealing looks at how reality is translated into fiction. Another piece, one of my favorites, describes how Paterson's mother asked why she didn't write a story about the horrible time when she didn't get any valentines. "But, Mother," Paterson replied, "all my stories are about the time I didn't get any valentines."

There is, inevitably, some repetition of themes and stories in these articles, and readers might want to read it in two or more chunks rather than all at once. But you certainly don't to be a fan, or even to have to have read any of Patterson's work to appreciate these pieces: just being interested in children's books--or writing--or people--is enough.

Bill Peet: an Autobiography written and illustrated by Bill Peet. Houghton Mifflin, 1989; 1994 (0-3956-8982-1) $6.98 trade

I'm tempted to write "and how!" after "illustrated by Bill Peet"; not too many 190 page autobiographies are Caldecott Honor books, but this volume must be 75 percent pictures. Peet's black & white sketches illustrate every bit of his life story, from his first memories of the pigs his family raised, to his description of his book Chester the Wordly Pig, in which those early memories--and quite a few others--are put to good use. Even children too young to read could be happily absorbed by this treasure-trove of lively, action-filled drawings, especially since many illustrated Peet's years as an artist working for Walt Disney. The text may interest them less: Peet's very short, simple paragraphs have such an abrupt rhythm, they never really flow together as a story. Recommended for children interested in art and adults intrigued by inside stories about Disney. (8 & up)

Oddballs by William Sleator. Puffin, 1995 (0-14037-428-8) $5.99 pb

Oddballs reminded me a bit of a classic family story--expect in this case, it's a classic story gone to the bad. The basic set-up is the same: a group of brothers and sisters who have a lot of unsupervised freedom together. But instead of enjoying innocent, carefree adventures, these siblings delight in tormenting each other and other people, and their subversive childhood escapades are wickedly funny, often disgusting, and even occasionally shocking. But Oddballs isn't a parody; it's a collection of true or mostly-ture stories about Sleator's own childhood. And although the stories are humorous, they have a core of thoughtfullness to them about what it means to grow up having the freedom to be different.

Brought up by relaxed, free-thinking parents, Bill, his sister Vicky, and their brothers Danny and Tycho have no problems learning how to just be themselves. From their earliest childhood, when Bill and Vicky discover that "a human baby with a brain was a lot more fun to play with than a stupid doll," to high school, where they specialized in dramatic games designed to freak out innocent bystanders, the Sleator kids were allowed to do pretty much what they wanted. Not suprisingly, what they wanted to do was often morbid or gross or even cruel, but still they thrived in the atmosphere of freedom--and although their high school non-conformity may have had more to do with snobbishness than with genuine indifference to the opinions of others, all of them grew up to be people who don't care what other people think--"the kind of oddballs that mom and dad like."

I have a special fondness for books about growing up unconventionally, and this is certainly a very interesting one, but there was a lot about Oddballs that bothered me. As a much-abused younger sibling, I found it hard to enjoy Sleator's descriptions of the routine torture of the younger kids by the older ones, and I found the descriptions of his sister's elaborate mind-games funny, but ultimately rather sickening. The best thing about the book is his stories abuot his group of friends, an intelligent and appealing bunch whose non-conformity seems based on real differentness, rather than arrogance. (13 & up)

Off With Their Heads!: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood by Maria Tatar. Princeton University Press, 1992 (0-691-06943-3) $24.95; 1993 (0-691-00088-3) $33.50 trade pb

Off With Their Heads is a scholarly yet very readable analysis of the cultural context of fairy tales, particularly the ways they have been rewritten to reflect societal attitudes about child-rearing. Tatar shows how tales which were once meant for adults (Little Red Riding Hood doing a bawdy strip tease far pre-dated Tex Avery's cartoons) were transformed into stories meant to socialize children, with moral messages deliberately superimposed, violent messages often exaggerated to the point of gratuitous cruelty in the name of morality, and psychosexual messages excised--often incompletely.

The primary value of this book is Tatar's insistance that analyses be based on what really, literally happens in fairy tales, especially in historical context. She argues that most interpretations of fairy tales take an adult perspective which makes children the villains of the story, rather than victims: Bettelheim, for example, sees Hansel and Gretel as a story about children engaging in "'denial and regression' in their effort to remain 'dependent' on their parents". According to Tatar, this viewpoint helps adults avoid facing unpleasant realities, such as the fact that child abondonment rates "probably ranged from 15 to 20 percent of registered births" in eighteenth-century Europe and is still common today.

Tatar also shows how fairy-tale heroines "are slotted into many of the same roles occupied by children" and receive the same treatment in the hands of psycholgical interpretors, becoming villains rather than victims. Like Freud's infamous rejection of his patient's stories of childhood sexual abuse, the story "the Maiden Without Hands" (in which a father tried to force his daughter to marry him and cuts off her hands when she refuses) is interpreted by Alan Dundes as "a girl who wants to marry her father. . . it is the girl who is guilty of the original incestuous thought, it is appropriate that it is the girl who is punished for this thought." This is a deeply disturbing viewpoint and Tatar's exposure and rebuttal of this and other twisted analyses is extremely important.

Unfortunately, Tatar's rebuttals are incomplete because she does not attempt to provide what Bettelheim and others have, however well or badly, provided: a reason why children are drawn to fairy tales. This omission is almost certainly a reflection of Tatar's belief that children have no real choices about stories: as she correctly points out, virtually every aspect of producing children's books and introducing them to children is handled by adults; and it is certainly true that many adults use this power for their own purposes. But children do have a choice, the choice of what they will pay attention to, what they will enjoy, what they will ask to hear again--and again--and again. Although Tatar's points about the deliberate yet hodge-podge origins of fairy tales are well-taken (particularly those about the confused messages engendered by the sumperimposition of violent moral lessons on psychosexual folk tales), the fact that many children do like fairy tales is absolutely undeniable; Tatar's rebuttals lose force because they do not acknowledge that reality. And her argument in favor of continuing to rewrite the stories suffers: Although there is something to be said for omitting elements which were the products of an outmoded and ill-advised system of child-rearing, reinterpreted fairy tales will only work if they also have the qualities which attract children, whatever those qualities may be.

Aside from this drawback, Off With Their Heads is a fascinating, often disturbing book and an important contribution to the study of children's literature and fairy tales.

The Story of Ourselves: Teaching History Through Children's Literature edited by Michael O. Tunnell and Richard Ammon. Heinemann, 1993 (0-435-08725-8) $17.50 pb, 196 pp.

"Rather than castor oil, history should be thought of as a tonic. It should wake us up, because it is the story of ourselves." -- Russell Freedman

Ask any American student what their most boring subject is, and the answer will probably be History. Yet it is not the subject itself that's boring, but the way in which it's presented: a vast collection of lifeless, tedious facts and dates. This book is a resource for educators who want to go beyond the traditional teaching of history in North America, and bring it to life for their students as the sometimes exciting, sometimes horrifying story it truly is.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, establishing the spirit of the text, is a collection of articles by authors of historical fiction for children. Their discussions of the art demonstrate the way trade books can bring meaning to dry facts.

Section two, "Research and Other Considerations," backs up that theory with an article offering a very convincing analysis of the many important differences between text and trade books which make trade books "more captivating and more instructive for students than history textbooks." Some of the issues covered are the "historical empathy" created by trade books, and the limited space available in textbooks, which can lead to overly shallow treatment (in one popular text, the Holocaust is summed up in five sentences). Issues of style are explored in an article called "I Wanted to Be There: the Impact of Narrative on Children's Historical Thinking" which shows the strong value of narrative form in absorbing and understanding history. A third article discusses the changes in nonfiction books from the boring, formulaic works of the past to the well-written, interesting and above all, honest trade books available today - changes which make teaching history with these books not only possible but advantageous.

The point having been strongly made, section three covers the practical application of the information, with four articles by teachers experienced in using trade books to teach history and social studies. These articles recommend specific books and projects, and suggest ways to integrate them into the curriculum.

The Story of Ourselves presents convincing arguments in favor of using children's literature in the classroom. The practical advice given, and the concise annotated bibliography on American historical literature, will make this book indispensable to motivated teachers.

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