cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (jack skellington)
We've been bad at getting Tweetie to bed on time, but we've been good about remembering the Advent books.

Last night, we read The Poky Little Puppy's First Christmas, which really has nothing going for it except readers' fond feelings for the titular character. The roly-poly, pell-mell language is near nonexistent in this Little Golden Book. I don't much care for Clifford's Christmas, either, but it's a holdover from Tweetie's toddler years, and I believe she's still got a soft spot for the big red dog, so it will probably stay in rotation.

Two very simple books that went over well were The Gingerbread Man with pics by Ed Arno (1967 paperback from Scholastic) and Santa's Crash-Bang Christmas by Steven Kroll and illustrated by Tomie De Paola (1977 paperback from Weekly Reader). Tweetie and I really love the bad gingerbread man and his merciless death in the jaws of the fox. The illos are two-tone ink drawings, deceptively primitive until one looks closer and sees how much of a character Arno seems to have drawn without lifting his pen from the paper once. And as graceful as this family isn't, it was funny to read in Kroll's book how Santa blunders his way through one Christmas.

The more challenging reads were The Fright Before Christmas by James Howe, pics by Leslie Morrill, which features the family from the Bunnicula books, and Winter Hut by Cynthia Jameson and illustrated by Ray Cruz (1973 hardcover from Weekly Reader). Winter Hut is described as a retelling of a Russian tale, but it reminds me in the first half of The Little Red Hen, as Bull goes around trying to convince his fellow runaway farm animals to build a shelter before winter, and in the second half of The Brementown Musicians, with a bear and wolf trying to break into the shelter and getting attacked by a weird chimera-like creature, which is, of course, the amalgamation of the farm animals fighting for their lives.

As I write up these summaries, I am more and more grateful to publishers like Scholastic and Weekly Reader. When I was in grade school, my mother (bless her) always scrounged up a few dollars to buy me a book or two from the paper catalogs, and those books were passed down to my brother and sister, then probably donated to the Children's Home. Now that I'm an adult (yes I am, shut up!), I've inherited a lot of these books, which were cheap enough to enter homes like ours and then to be passed on without much thought, but also sturdy enough to last through the years. Many of them relied on two-color illos and simple line drawings, no doubt for stylistic reasons, but also for economy. I get misty-eyed thinking of how many hands have held these books, and how much good these cheap things have done for so many.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (jack skellington)

Our family's advent tradition is for Tweetie to unwrap a book every night until Christmas. Some of them are winter books, others are holiday-related, most are secondhand and rewrapped every year until Tweetie ages out of them. Then we donate them and search for a replacement to keep our stock at 24.

This year our first book was A Silly, Snowy Day by Michael Coleman and Gwyneth Williamson. This book, about a young turtle who refuses to hibernate when winter comes, has happy memories associated with it, since it was a gift from Tweetie's preschool. I get a soft, fuzzy feeling every time I see the "Happy Holidays!" sticker with the school name on it. Tweetie likes it because of the refrain: we each get to scoff "Ridiculous!" at some point in the story.

Our second book was The Animals' Christmas Carol by Jerry Smath, a fairly tepid retelling of the Dickens' tale. What's marvelous about the book, though, is the illustrations, which are quite detailed and endearing. I like making up stories about the background characters in the pictures, such as the very proper panda or the clumsy kangaroo who don't get speaking roles but nevertheless seem to be characters living their own stories.

The third book was The Yule Lads by Brian Pilkington. This book was a gift from [ profile] sarah_create and reminds me of the old Gnomes book by Wil Huygen. The book profiles each of the Yule Lads of Icelandic folklore, as well as their mother Grylla, her spouses, and even a Yule Cat. Speculative sidenotes ponder how the Lads have adapted to modern times: What does the Bowl Licker do now, when few families leave their dishes on the floor, and most homes have dishwashers? The illustrations are wonderfully grotesque, as befits old fairy tales. Tweetie found them unnerving the first year, but now pores over them with fascination.  

I wonder what we'll unwrap tonight!


cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)

I've been reading The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban to Tweetie. It's only a children's book the way most fairy tales are considered "for" children; were the main characters not tin toys and talking animals, I don't know where this book would end up in the stacks. For a synopsis of the events thus far, we can refer to father mouse:

"War," muttered the father. "The trash can, the dump, murder, robbery, and war."

Recently I finished reading Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. It employs two formulas I'm familiar with. One is the typical zombie narrative, believe it or not: we begin with status quo, but quickly note something is amiss, illness is identified, epidemic rages, civilizations breaks down, hero must form alliances, search for and secure basic resources (food, water, shelter) all while avoiding contagion and attack, until the sun rises/a miracle occurs and we start all over again.

The other formula at work: young person pitched into unimaginable hardship endures insult and injury until s/he simply cannot go on, at which point the sun rises/a miracle occurs. cf The Devil's Arithmetic by J Yolen, Life as We Knew It by SB Pfeffer, maybe Catching Fire by S Collins. (I don't think it's any accident that in these examples, the main characters are female and their only escape is self-sacrifice.)

Right now I'm reading The Cloud Sketcher by Richard Rayner. This line about 1890s Finland struck me as sadly applicable to the current United States:

"It was still a time when any kind of change in the arrangement of wealth seemed to the rich unimaginable..."

But I'm not reading for the political or historical elements, just for the story of a man who thinks if he builds a skyscraper beautiful enough, he will somehow win the heart of the woman he loves.

Next up are Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (coffee addicted)
parody of goodnight moon cover reading "Fuck you Sun"

I don't understand how the sun can wake me up in the morning when it exudes approximately the same brightness as a banana, but it's still not appreciated. Morning should start later in the day, when I'm better equipped to handle it.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (so tired)

Man, who do I have to sacrifice to get a decent night's sleep?


The latest book I've given up on: Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, the first in the Dark Is Rising series. I picked this one up as a sort of self-protective measure. So many folks have recommended it to me over the years, I figured I should give it a shot. I made it about halfway through before deciding I cared about the Drew children about as much as I care about these kids:

cheesy image of golden-haired guardian angel watching over two chubby blonde kids that don't know better than to use a rickety old bridge

Which is to say, not at all. In fact, I started to actively hope for their demise. The kids are wholesomely blank slates: Simon likes ships, Barney likes King Arthur stories, and Jane only exists to alert the reader when something is hinky.

It didn't help that halfway through the novel, there was still no sign of speculative element. Granted, the story deals with the Holy Grail, but when I left off, the story was still in treasure map mode. The Drew kids might've found anything, eventually. (Well, something wholesome, I'm sure. Not anything of interest to *me*.)

What's more, the book is about Good versus Evil. And the Evil is Dark. And Heathen. And from the East. All of which earns a big (if weary) FU from me.

I think Good and Evil are complicated, difficult things, and I'm not interested in morality tales that skate along the surface of convention, even if those stories are ostensibly for children. Which is why Tweetie and I will be reading more of The Hobbit as soon as my voice stops sounding like I've gargled with rocks.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (thinking bros)

So, last week or so, I found out that Leo Lionni, who wrote and illustrated my beloved Frederick:

also illustrated a cover for Camus's The Stranger:

And this weekend I realized that David Shannon, the author/illustrator of the David books:
illustrated the beautiful, tho problematic, Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin:

Talk about range!


cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
Debbie Reese ([ profile] debreese_nambe ) has critiqued Syd Hoff's classic easy-reader Danny and the Dinosaur (1958). Because I constantly need to perform damage control after others "educate" Tweetie about American Indian tribes ("You know Indians still exist, right? They're not extinct. They are us. We're part Ojibwe.") I found Debbie's analysis particularly valuable. An excerpt:

The University of Michigan took a lot of heat for their decision to remove the dioramas [about American Indians] from their museum. How many of those people, I wonder, remember Danny's visit to the museum? How many of them got their introduction to Indians in museums from the much-loved Danny and the Dinosaur? Is Danny and the Dinosaur in your collection?

The book is not in our collection, although not for this particular reason. We do, however, have a copy of Aliki's My Visit to the Dinosaurs (1969) that has been converted into a spiralbound journal for Tweetie to write and draw in. So far as I can see, there are no Indians behind glass in Aliki's book. Or Tweetie's scribbles.


Apr. 30th, 2010 09:31 am
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (dingo ate my baby crazy)


gummi bear parts
strewn over the table
"we can rebuild him"


J and Tweetie have been known to perform heart transplants on Gummi Bears. And, just for fun, here's a vid of the Supernatural boys set to the Gummi Bears theme song.

I'm reading through the March/April ish of American Poetry Review, and the five poems by Matthew Lippman have been the standouts so far. "Marriage Pants" begins:

I don't know when the shitstorm of failed marriage
took off.

He writes personally without being self-absorbed. His language is "American" and accessible but not prosaic. He's honest without being hurtful. The poems dig into such particular sweet spots for me, I'm reminded how subjective this whole poetry thing is.

We write and we send our poems off into the world, and we hope they find their perfect readers. Even just one person who properly responds is a joy and relief.

In other news, I finished reading The Attic Mice by Ethel Pochaki and have concluded that I just like mice books. I like them because they are obsessed with "things." Bottlecaps and pins and caraway seeds and matchboxes and labels and bolts and...just things. I love things. I stuff as many as I can into my own stories.

What kinds of "things" have you used in your writing lately?

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (happy pug tongue)


sunbathing squirrel
does a rotisserie roll
to cool his belly


I wrote this 'ku the other day when I was sitting under a tree with my feet happy in the cool grass, but the squirrel I describe is one I saw many years ago. So zany, he was unforgettable. In contrast, last night the angriest squirrel in Iowa sat on our deck and barked at us for over an hour. J thinks it's because of the yard work he did the other day; he disturbed a nut stash by the rhubarb.

Yesterday I finished reading The Thief by Megan W. Turner. I loved the main character, and as soon as I was done reading, I wanted to start over, to pat all the shiny clues. I thought the end was kind of a muddle though. Now I'm reading The Attic Mice by Ethel Pochocki, which is a fun bit of fluff, and I've also got The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

Tweetie is rolling through the Junie B. Jones books and the Magic Treehouse series. I didn't see the appeal of the Junie books until I read one aloud with Tweetie, and I realized Barbara Park has an excellent ear for a five-year-old's idiosyncratic speech. Like not grokking the past tense for fly but throwing around actually and adopting grownup idioms such as  what do you think it's there for, my health? I still find the Treehouse books tedious, but Tweetie's learning about Shakespeare and Plato and bear fighting, so I guess it's all good.

Last night I watched one of the worst episodes of "Supernatural" in a LONG time ("our gods are better than your gods") and the second half of Disturbia. The movie wasn't bad for a remake of Rear Window, but it wasn't great either. Toward the end, there was no subtext, no dovetailing of action with theme, no sense that these events could not have happened to anyone other than the main character. Which perhaps is the difference between a thriller and horror.

cafenowhere: abby from TV show NCIS, eyes closed, listening to music (abby dreaming)
The girl's seventh wish in Nine Magic Wishes is for a silver ship with sails of red to carry her through the sky, "and everybody on the ground thought that I was a bird." Her eighth wish is for a little box and inside that is another little box and on and on until "and inside that is an elephant." The girl, prompted for her ninth wish, decides she has all she needs and she leaves the ninth wish for someone else to find. And here are my corresponding wishes.

Wish seven is for a silver sphere to hang from my Christmas tree
and when I peer into its reflection, I see not the room behind me
but a carousel of my other lives, and none compare to this one.

Wish eight: a Moebius map to my favorite dream haunts.
Unfold once for the house on the river of falling stars,
again for the Parisian cafe, again for the dolphins, and on and on...

The last wish I shall leave in a box and set adrift
on the pond among the browning lily pads like frilled
desert lizards. And someone will find it and learn to swim.

cafenowhere: abby from TV show NCIS, eyes closed, listening to music (abby dreaming)
In Nine Magic Wishes, the girl's fourth wish is for a garden of flowers all made of candy. Her fifth wish is for a snowman with a black hat and eyes of coal. Sixth, she wishes for a tiny zoo with a tiger and a lion and a bear so small she could put them in her pocket. Here are my wishful sijo-esque poems in response.

I wish for the single key to a garden, secret, silent,
hushed to hear at its center the lush, infant-skin-thin blossoms
of a prickly pear cactus singing epiphanies forgotten.

My fifth wish: to shiver in Snowflake Bentley's lab and stable
helping capture, photograph, catalog the ephemeral crystals,
fleeting infinities that dissolve in the heat of our awe.

Wish six is for a glass-slick stone I can hold to see people's auras
so I'd know when smiles are real, tears true, cross words merely ripples
of illness or fear, and I'd keep the stone in my pocket, always.

cafenowhere: abby from TV show NCIS, eyes closed, listening to music (abby dreaming)
Shirley Jackson's birthday was on December 14th. Were she still alive, she would be ninety years old. My love of Jackson's work is profound, and the best way I knew to introduce my daughter to the author's work--without psychologically scarring my daughter forever--was to get her a copy of Jackson's children's story Nine Magic Wishes, illustrated by Jackson's grandson Miles Hyman.

In the story, a little girl is granted nine wishes. My goal is to write a sijo-esque poem inspired by each of the nine magic wishes. The girl's first wish is for an orange pony with a purple tail, her second for a squirrel holding a nut with a Christmas tree inside, and the third is for a round little clown who does tricks while a butterfly rests on his nose. Below are my corresponding three sijo.


I wish to catch a glimpse of the unicorns my daughter sees
the golden horns and crimson hooves, the cedar nests described to me
in technicolor, Mutual-of-Omaha clarity.


I wish for a dapper squirrel and inside his acorn is curled
a burgeoning lexicon, a Berlitz for the animal world
so I can barter with chipmunks and placate crows who scold.


Wish three is for a round little clown, a tuxedoed pug to be my page
and when I stumble over him--as I shall--he'll remain unfazed.
He'll fetch my slippers, bring me smiles, and pant peppermint in my face.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)

On Saturday, I attended the first annual Iowa City Book Festival. I moderated a panel on writers' groups, with [profile] sarah_prineas as one of my panelists. Except for the part when a beetle tried to give me a hickey and I thought I'd killed it in self-defense, I would do it all again.

I managed to restrain myself at the fest, and I only bought two books. The first was Choose Your Own Moral Code, A Coloring Book. This weirdly wonderful, wonderfully weird, little chapbook ($2!) is produced by Heroes and Criminal Press, which also makes these prints, which I've long admired in local shops.

Then I discovered African Images in Juvenile Literature, Commentaries on Neocolonialist Fiction, by Yulisa Amadu Maddy and Donnarae MacCann, published by Image and Idea International. Image and Idea's mission statement reads, in part: "Image & Idea International seeks to expand circulation of new voices and ideas from Africa and Latin America within their US diaspora communities where these markets are underserved by mainstream publishers." I met the publisher, Lucille Hernandez Gregory, and chatted with her for a bit about MammothFail.

Cool books, cool people, cool weather --> awesome book fest!

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (Yummy!)
I found a fun book to read to Tweetie: The Tamarindo Puppy and Other Poems, by Charlotte Pomerantz, illustrated by Byron Barton. The book is bilingual, English and Spanish, but the poems are not translations from one language to the other. The book just kind of layers the two languages very comfortably, much like my family did. We primarily spoke English at home, but with Spanish (or Tex-Mex) a constant undercurrent to our natural speech, if not in the form of actual Spanish words, then in the lilt of our dialect (which I still slip into, get homesick for, and blame for my inability to write proper sonnets).

Tweetie is intrigued by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. No, I'm not reading it to her, or letting her read it, but she sees the cover and studies it intently. The first time she said, "That picture is quite eerie, isn't it?" Yesterday, it prompted a discussion of what happens to a person's skin after s/he dies and what our culture does for/with dead bodies. And today we talked about spoofs and transformative works. I didn't use those words, of course. Not yet. Maybe tomorrow, when I'm not trying to rush her into her shoes and out the door.

What are you reading? And is anyone reading over your shoulder?

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
When I think about books that really hued my childhood, I mostly remember books I read after age 8. And it's easy to see how these stories affected me as a writer.

The first story I remember reading was "The Tell-Tale Heart." My mom showed it to me, and I was flabbergasted. A story about a crazy person? From the crazy person's point of view? Is that allowed? And I had no doubt this guy was crazy from line one. Look at that punctuation! And he killed someone! And then he admitted it! I had no idea fiction could do what Poe made it do. And once he showed me, I was ruined forever.

The next book I remember was Frankenstein's Aunt by Allan Pettersson. It's a YA comedy translated from Swedish. The aunt in question smoked cigars, and she frightened Frankenstein's monster. This was the first story I'd read wherein the monster was sympathetically portrayed, and pitiful even. Obviously, an important lesson for a future horror writer.

Another book, the title of which I cannot remember, was a bio of Mother Teresa. I was both intrigued and repelled by the descriptions of poverty in India. I couldn't quite fathom the squalor of those streets, and I marvelled that the author was "allowed" to tell those truths to children. I'm still impressed by books that tell ugly truths elegantly.

Speaking of books that engrossed and revolted me at the same time, my great-aunt had an awesome collection of pulp fiction with titles like "The Naked Corpse." I spent many an afternoon just reading the titles with reverence and glee. But also on this bookshelf was a copy of Alice in Wonderland, with the original illos. This book I had permission to read, but I couldn't understand why. I always felt like I was getting away with something. The illos thrilled me like a freak show.

I read a lot of Judy Blume books, and I was a fast enough reader that I read a lot of crappy middle-grade books just because they were there. The one that sticks with me though is Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade by Barthe DeClements. This was the first book I read that admitted some parents just suck, and they don't really love their children, and those kids need to find new families. I'm probably remembering a story the book doesn't tell, but that's what I came away with. Again, ugly truths told effectively.

The Wrinkle in Time Series is the first SF I remember reading, probably because the main character is female with a genius little brother. (My younger brother is/was scary smart.) I talked about these books a lot with my mom, since they had so much in common with the paranormal romances and time-travel stories that she and my aunts filled their bookshelves with. Pulp philosophy.

Last but not least, not by a long shot!, I must mention The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce. If Frankenstein's Aunt taught me that we can feel sorry for and even giggle at the monster, Darkangel taught me that the monster can be downright hawt. So hot, you'd tear out your heart for him. Yes, it's really just a paranormal romance, but it was the first one I'd ever read, and it incorporated the Icarus myth, and the darkangel was a VAMPIRE, and the story was set on the MOON.

The MOON, I tell you.


It's no wonder I ended up this way.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (drink me)
Taking a cue from [ profile] selfavowedgeek, I've been thinking about the books I remember from my childhood. My mother taught me to read early, and maybe because of that I've always read things out of order, by which I mean, as I kid I always read at least three grades beyond my own. So I only remember picture books from the second time around, when I read them with/to my baby brother. His favorite picture books (thus the ones I remember):

The Cat in the Hat
Green Eggs and Ham
The Monster at the End of this Book
Where the Wild Things Are
Whose Mouse Are You? by Robert Kraus
Goggles, by Ezra Jack Keats

We'd listen to Seuss on tapes, and to this day I can recite good chunks in the same intonation as the narrator. We'd read the Grover book with all due melodrama, even hysteria. My brother was very much a Wild Thing, a Max. He had his melancholy moments though, which is where the utter pathos of Whose Mouse Are You? came in--not to mention, it served as wish fulfillment for kids of divorced parents. Goggles was also a book on tape, and the narrator was just kooky. His oddball pronunciation of "goggles" may be the only reason we loved the book--altho as an adult I admire Keats a hellalot.

Evidently, the *sound* of books was really important to us as kids. The right narrator could make or break a book.

I'm not aware of any of these books being a particular influence on my own writing. The Monster comes closest, because it's a strangely "meta" book (hence its unfortunate role in season 4 of Supernatural). Clearly Sendak's Wild Things is a masterpiece, but perhaps because I'm not a Max, it's not my favorite Sendak book. As an adult, I've felt a much more profound connection with the almost arbitrary horror of Outside, Over There and the surreal zany-ness of In the Night Kitchen--which I just decided is like a kid version of The Big Lebowski.

What about you? What are the books you remember from your childhood? Which kids' books do you wish you'd had as a child?


May. 13th, 2009 09:45 am
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)

The loveliest, most marvelous picture book I've read with Tweetie this year has been Sigueme! written by Jose Campanari and illustrated by Roger Olmos, published by Oqo Editora.

Sigueme! (Follow Me!) is about a grey elephant with purple moles who falls in love with a black, wasp-waisted ant. When she coos, "Follow me," he does--into the ant hole, through a sewing kit, into a bottle, and all the way to the ocean.  The book as an object is lovely, the illustrations are bright odd and absorbing, the story is wild and completely true to the storytelling voices of my childhood.

Oqo has an English version available, but I haven't read it, and I couldn't love it more than the Spanish version. I found this book by chance in the Spanish-language picture books section of our local library.

Look for it! If you find it in Spanish and need a translation, JJ and I would be happy to provide one!

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (raccoon)

What's your favorite Seuss book?

I'm thinking Horton Hears a Who...

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (wishing)
Yesterday we started our Countdown to Christmas basket.  Tweetie gets to pick one of the 24 wrapped, winter-themed books every night until Christmas.  Some are books we already owned, just rewrapped in recycled wrapping paper for excitement.  Others are new, like the collection of Icelandic folktales and traditions--thanks SarahJ!  And others are new to us, carefully selected from a local resale shop.  (All the nativity books had dark, depressing, even gruesome artwork.  And I have a psychological block against The Little Drummer Boy.  And the Nutcracker and Babes in Toyland are too scary for Tweetie still.  And, and...)  Last night our family read The Christmas Cub.  Actually, Tweetie did most of the reading.  J has done an amazing job of teaching her.

Today Tweetie and I went outside with colored water in squirt bottles and jazzed up the snow on the lawn.

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (Default)
Last week my daughter and I pulled out our Halloween box. Stuffed in with all the decorations were her autumn picture books. By far my favorite of the bunch is Eve Bunting's _Scary, Scary Halloween_, with illustrations by Jan Brett. I inherited this book from a friend, and I fell in love with it from the first lines.

"I peer outside, there's something there
That makes me shiver, spikes my hair.
It must be Halloween."

The story unfolds in verse, and though the text rhymes, it feels like a chain of stand-alone haiku. The illustrations are lovely, featuring seasonal elements like chinese lantern plants, and reassuring in their portrayal of the "monsters."

There's a lot of crummy Halloween books for kids--we have some of them. What are your favorite Halloween picture books? What should we look for?


cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (Default)

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