Friday, May 16, 2008

Good-bye, National Children's Book Week

Sadly enough, National Children's Book Week is coming to an end. I'll highlight a few more of our favorites here. Also, disclaimer: even if you don't have kids? You should read all the books I've posted about this week. C.S. Lewis said that's the mark of a great children's book--that you like it just as much as an adult. I'm convinced the world would be a much better, happier place if everyone would read the Betsy-Tacy series (can I get an amen, Melanie?). I'm not claiming peace in the Middle East or anything, but people might be just a little more laid back and enjoy their lives. OK, I've dealt with that.

Now, here's a series you absolutely must check out--Sydney Taylor and her lovely semi-fictionalized memoirs of her childhood, the "All-of-a-Kind Family" books. The books take place during turn-of-the-century (the 19th to 20th century that is) lower East side in New York. They tell of a close-knit Orthodox Jewish family with five daughters. Each chapter is a little drama in itself--a lost library book, how Mama makes dusting the front room fun, planning a surprise birthday gift for Papa, how one of the sisters refuses to eat her rice soup at lunch (that's Lucy's favorite chapter), etc.--but throughout Taylor weaves Jewish tradition and religious rituals. Pretty much everything I know about Judaism I learned from these books. This is what motivated our family to start having a Seder every year. You learn about food and customs and traditions, but it's all so skillfully done that you don't even know you're learning. The first book covers Yom Kippur, Sabbath, Succos, and Purim (my favorite chapter!). Also, there are two majorly good happy cry moments near the end.

There are several other books in the series, including "All-of-a-Kind-Family Downtown," "All-of-a-Kind-Family Uptown," "Ella of All-of-a-Kind-Family," and "More-All-of-a-Kind Family." I especially love "More" because a Jewish wedding ceremony is celebrated (oh, there are some good happy cry moments in this one too). The books give a lot of good history of urban life in the U.S. at that time as well. Did you know that at that time when polio was so rampant that parents tied little bags of camphor around their children's necks in order to ward off disease-carrying flies? Yeah, me neither, until I read these books! The audiobooks are read by Suzanne Toren, who does a fantastic job. Lucy began listening to these when she was about 3 1/2. I thought they might be too old for her, but she really took to them. One day she was pretend grocery shopping around the house, and she told me, "I'm back from the store now. I picked up pizza, black olives, and hamen-taschen." Then not long after that we were at Target (in April), and the check-out lady said to her, "Bye-bye, honey," and Lucy replied, "Happy Hannukah!" I read these so many times in grade school I think I must have had one on permanent check-out from the library at any given time.

I can't let Book Week pass now without featuring something from Louisa May Alcott. I realized while being a literature major that people get snobby and sniffy about her. Not me. I applaud that she wrote in order to pay for carpet in the house and food for the table while her father whiled away his time being philosophical and not financially supporting his family. Her books are, as one of my co-workers says, "Literary chicken soup." A few years ago Darren and I went to Concord, MA, and visited the Alcott house. We had this grad student tour guide and a group of people who I don't even know why they were there because they didn't seem to know squat about Louisa or care. The guide was kind of droning on while we were in the living room, and I raised my hand and said, "Would it be OK if I threw myself down on the floor in front of the fireplace and said, 'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents?'" From that point on, he and I were the best of friends, and even though there was a No Touching rule in the house, he let me touch (with one finger) the desk where Louisa wrote. Where she wrote these books I adore so much, internets!! It was such a thrill.

Now of course everyone thinks immediately of "Little Women" or "Little Men" as soon as you say her name, but if you find a true Alcott fan, you'll hear them wax rhapsodic about "Rose in Bloom," "Eight Cousins," "Under the Lilacs," "Jack and Jill," and more. So without further ado, here is my hands-down favorite Alcott. There's something about Polly Milton and her adventures (and travails) within the wealthy Shaw family that keep bringing me back like no other. Alcott always gets preachy in her books, but I never resent her for it--she does it so warmly. Polly learns, among other things, to be true to herself, that money doesn't buy happiness or contentment, respect for the elderly, and the value of true friendship. That sounds so soppy written out, but somehow LMA can package it into a great book. And while I was never one of those people who was outraged that Jo didn't marry Laurie in LW, the ending to An Old-Fashioned Girl is one of the happiest, most satisfying ever. (In fact, I love the little blurb Louisa puts right in the text about how, due to reader outrage over one of her previous books, she nows plans to marry off everyone in sight.) The next time you're in the need of some literary chicken soup, grab this one.

I've had so much fun writing this week. I haven't even scratched the surface of our list of favorites. I didn't mention Laura Ingalls Wilder or L.M. Montgomery (which, quickly...hey, I know most people have read "Anne" but has anyone read "Emily"? Or "Pat"?) Another author I would have loved to highlight is E.L. Konigsburg. I guess there's always next year. I'm sorry our list leans so heavily toward girls' reading, but since I'm a girl and have two girls, that's the way it has to be. I know there are great boys' books out there--anything by Robert McCloskey (including "Homer Price," "Centerburg Tales," any of the "Henry Reed" books) is a sure thing, plus you get the added bonus of his drawings, which make me laugh out loud just to look at.

So, head off to the library, the bookstore, or amazon and pick up something for your child, yourself, or both. I'm sure you'll run into me at any of those three places if you do!


Melanie said...

Amen, sista! More list items, yay!

Juliet said...

Well I guess I'm okay...I read a child's book to my mother on Mother's Day and we both enjoyed it.

My mother and I both read books about Miss Alcott...what a life. So many things in her life that I never knew.