Friday, October 31, 2008

Nibble Nibble Mousekin

Nibble Nibble Mousekin
Joan Walsh Anglund
~ Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962

Honestly, my boy won't go near this book, so despite the cherub faced cuties and the happy ending, this famous old witch happens to be the most feared literary character in the house. Maybe it is the abandonment he has issue with, but me thinks it be the fact that she wants to eat children that freaks him out. I bought this book six months ago, and we've only had one reading. Whenever I pull it out, the boy turns his head away and screams NO!

I never had a problem with Hansel and Gretel when I was wee. I rather liked the romance of the children being lost in the woods and finding a candy house and then the outsmarting and ultimate escape. But maybe three years old is a little too young for this sort of spooky mystery. Still, as usual, the pictures are excellent and the retelling of this classic tale highly effective in the creeeeeepy department.

The wicked witch yanked Hansel out of bed with one bony hand and dragged him off to a cage. There she locked him up and left him, although he shook the bars and screamed loudly to be let out. Then she came back and shook Gretel roughly. "Get up, little lazy bones, and cook something for your brother. He's much too thin, but if we feed him well, what a plump, tasty meal he will make.

I always loved the imagery of Hansel sticking out the chicken bone when the witch wanted to see how fat he'd grow. For some reason, I always though that moment so wise and tricky, and it made me beam with pride for the little boy and his smarts. Perhaps someday soon, my son will grow up just enough to understand the moral here, but until then... Happy Halloween folks!

Also by:
Love is a Special Way of Feeling
The Cowboy's Christmas

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Outside Over There

Outside Over There
Maurice Sendak ~ Harper & Row, 1981

Another one in our top five favorites of all time*... ya'll know I am a Sendak junkie, so humor me for a minute. One of my son's current faves is In the Night Kitchen which is pure genius really, but seeing as I am still featuring spooky titles... our little blog shall journey here instead. Since my son was one, his heart has belonged to Outside Over There.

The '86 Jim Henson cult favorite Labyrinth stole much from the storyline of this book, and if you look closely enough, you'll see a copy tucked away on the main character's bookshelf in the film. But, that is hardly why I adore this book. I adore this book because it is everything a children's book shouldn't be and yet is. The plot is horrifying. We meet a girl. Her father is away at sea, and her mother is distant-in-mind at best. The girl is in charge of watching over her baby sister, until one night the goblins come and steal the baby away... leaving another child made of ice in her place. That alone seems enough to give a kid nightmares for life.

Poor Ida, never knowing, hugged the changeling
and she murmured: "How I love you."
The ice thing only dripped and stared,
and Ida mad knew goblins had been there.
"They stole my sister away!" she cried,
"To be a nasty goblin's bride!"
Now Ida in a hurry
snatched her Mama's yellow rain cloak,
tucked her horn safe in pocket,
and made a serious mistake.
She climbed backwards out her window
into outside over there.

Got goosebumps yet? Immaculate is what this book is; perfect and mysterious in every possible, glorious way. Really, I could slap some peanut butter on the spine and nibble away for hours. Savouring every impeccable brush stroke, reflection and expression. I know I sound like a lovesick tween, but come on... Goblins disguised as naked little cherub babies? Poetry that reads like this?

"If Ida backwards in the rain
would only turn around again
and catch those goblins with a tune
she'd spoil their kidnap honeymoon!"

Take me out of the "Mickey oven" people, cause I'm done!!!

*You know, if I culled back through this blog and tallied the amount of times I've written those words, my "top five favorites" would probably run over 50.

Also by:
A Very Special House
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present
Moon Jumpers
What Do You Say, Dear?
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale
Some Swell Pup
Let's Be Enemies
Chicken Soup with Rice
Lullabies and Night Songs
I'll Be You and You Be Me
The Juniper Tree
Where the Wild Things Are
Seven Little Monsters
The Giant Story

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Sneetches and Other Stories

The Sneetches and Other Stories
Dr. Seuss ~ Random House, 1961

Everyone is pretty familiar with The Sneetches (the story of the bird-like animals with stars and the ones with none upon thars), but one of my favorite Seuss stories (and one of the silly-spookiest) is tucked away in the back as part of the "and Other Stories". What Was I Scared of? was republished separately in '97 as a wee "Little Dipper Book"... I have to assume with the notion that it be given as a graduation present.

So there's this little yellow creature, out and about, minding his own bizwax... when he see a pair of personless pants... He tries to escape them, but time and again, they keep finding him...

I said, "I do not fear those pants
With nobody inside them."
I said, and said, and said those words.
I said them. But I lied them.

Eventually, he overcomes his fears and faces the pants, befriending them after all. So, I suppose some could see this as a cautionary tale for adulthood to not fear the unknown. But hey, if I ran into some free floating pants, I think I might hightail it in the opposite direction as well... courage be damned.

Also by:
McElligot's Pool
The Lorax
Come Over to My House
Bartholomew and the Oobleck
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Holiday Song Book

Holiday Song Book
Robert Quackenbush ~ Harry Buch ~ Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1977

In the last of my aforementioned songbook selections, again, Mr. Quackenbush is one of those authors that I love and hate equally. If you are a thrift book shopper like myself, you are bound to come across his titles almost more than any others. Why? I have no idea. He's just one of those guys that always seems to be hanging around. The name of any one of his books escapes me now (Henry the duck?), but if you peruse his website, you're bound to recognize more than a few.

So why the love/hate you say? Well, his illustrations kind of ride me. They are somewhat crude (which sometimes I find appealing), and they are somewhat crude (which sometimes drives me insane.) In this case, he makes me smile though, as he has thoughtfully taken time to find (and sometimes add to) a large collection of well-loved holiday tunes all sorted chronologically. Here the illustrations add to the sectional narrations and frame the chapters quite nicely. It is an indispensable resource, really, for traditional and fun singalongs and includes arrangements for both piano and guitar by Mr. Buch.

Notice how I am keeping the Halloween theme going here...

Skeleton Bones
Oh, those bones/ oh, those bones/
oh, those skeleton bones/
Oh, those bones/ oh, those bones/
oh, those skeleton bones/
Oh, those bones/ oh, those bones/
oh, those skeleton bones/
Oh, goodness, they scare!

With the toe bone connected to the foot bone/
and the foot bone connected to the ankle bone/
and the ankle bone connected to the leg bone/
Oh, goodness, they scare!

Seeing as Robert has hung around this long and is still making books today, there must be something about him that transcends time and keeps our children coming back for more. When I figure out exactly what it is, I'll let you know! In the meantime, this Thanksgiving day, don't forget...

Over the river and thro' the woods/
To grandmother's house we go/
The horse knows the way/
to carry the sleigh/
Thro' the white and drifted snow!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lullabies and Night Songs

Lullabies and Night Songs
music, Alec Wilder ~ pics, Maurice Sendak ~ Harper, 1965

The first time I set eyes on Lullabies and Night Songs was at my son's godmother's house. She has a son who is a composer and currently attends college at Julliard, and my son is forever begging him to play a few ditties on their Yamaha upright. On one visit in particular, the son was away at school, so the boy's dad whipped out this book and started tinkling on the ivories. The moment I saw the cover, I knew I had to have it. Pure love at first sight, even before I opened the cover. One of the rare times when I paid more than a pittance for a book, copies of this out-of-print songbook can get pretty pricey, but I think I was able to find this UK edition on eBay for under $20.

Forty-eight lullabies that set to music poems by Lewis Carroll, William Blake, James Thurber, Robert Lewis Stevenson and more. The dedication in front says it all...

Many of these poems have been set to music for the first time, as they seem to ask to be sung as well as read. Some of the rollicking ones are not strictly lullabies, but aim to end the day with laughter and delight. These we call night songs. The collection does not pretend to be definitive; it simply celebrates the magic world of a happy, sleepy child.

A few selections...

Night by Lois W. McKay
My kitten walks on velvet shoes/
and makes no sound at all/
And in the doorway nightly sits/
to watch the darkness fall

Evening is a Little Boy by Francis Frost
Evening is a little boy/
with dark wind-ruffled hair/
Who skips the stars like stone across/
the darkling pond of air.

Infant Innocence by A.E. Housman
The grizzly bear is huge and wild/
He had devoured the infant child/
The infant child is not aware/
It has been eaten by the bear.

As with most everything Mr. Sendak touches, this oversized collection is a real treasure. If you are thinking of having your child learn the piano or even like to hum a few bars now and then, seek and ye shall find magic here in abundance.

Also by:
A Very Special House
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present
Moon Jumpers
What Do You Say, Dear?
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale
Some Swell Pup
Let's Be Enemies
Chicken Soup with Rice
Outside Over There
I'll Be You and You Be Me
The Juniper Tree
Where the Wild Things Are
Seven Little Monsters
The Giant Story

Great Monday Give: The Little Tiny Rooster

This week's Great Monday Give is awesome in the best possible way. It is one of my all time favorite discoveries of the books I've found as a mom that I didn't know as a girl. A nice, gently-used hardcover of the out-of-print wonder-book The Little Tiny Rooster by Will and Nicolas. All you have to do to be entered to win is comment on this post before Sunday ~ November 2 ~ midnight. Really, if you've never left a comment before, do so now. This tiny rooster rocks!

As for last week's winner, let's give a big hand to Anne who will be recieving a copy of Calico the Wonder Horse or the Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virginia Lee Burton as soon as she sends her mailing info to webe(at)soon(dot)com. Believe it sister!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hoagy Carmichael's Songs for Children

Hoagy Carmichael's SONGS FOR CHILDREN
Hoagy Carmichael ~ pics by J.P. Miller ~ Golden Press, 1957

Not that I need to spend even more time obsessing over this blog, but I've made the executive decision to begin including more than one scan of a book when I have time or deem it worthy. So that said, I've been collecting songbooks for the boy and have come across three in particular that I absolutely love. Now, we all know Hoagy Carmichael to be one of the all time great jazz men... best known for composing "Stardust", Heart and Soul", "The Nearness of You", "Georgia On My Mind", and my all-time favorite "Small Fry". But what I didn't know was that he was crazy for kids and often wrote for children... thus this little ditty full of wonderful ballads for the wee ones. Illustrated by the much-worshipped J.P. Miller, it is full of captivating tiny tunes like...

The Whale
Wouldn't you like to be a whale and sail serenely by/
An eighty foot whale from your tip to your tail/
and a tiny briny eye.

Rocket Ship
Step into my rocket ship and zoom away with me/
We'll fly to the moon a million miles above the sea/
Earth and sky will disappear as we climb into space/
You will be my rocketeer and I will be your ace.

Three Little Witches
Three little witches/ pranced in the garden/
Three little witches/ scratched at the moon/
One held a polecat/ one held a pussy cat/
One with a snag tooth/ whistled a tune.

All the songs are catchy and fun, and though I have yet to break out the guitar and begin strumming the notes, the boy still loves their bouncy vibe. Dig it man. (Stay tuned Monday and Tuesday for the aforementioned other two songbooks.)

Also by:
The Little Red Hen
Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather
Little Peewee
The Around the Year Storybook

Thursday, October 23, 2008

McBroom's Ghost

McBroom's Ghost
Sid Fleischman ~ pics by Robert Frankenberg ~ WW Norton, 1971

Perhaps the original "slack-jawed yokel", the overbites (underbites?) of McBroom and his clan are practically the focal points of this strangely-illustrated series. Later reillustrated and still in print, the story is a good one about the winter when McBroom's family (wife and 80 kids) was visited by a supposed specter, one that mimics voices and farmyard sounds. That said, I'm all about a book where everybody talks hillbilly. My mom would label this kind of verbal jibber jabber "crazy talk"... because it sounds like...

You never heard such a howling! And didn't those hogs stop in their tracks! I tell you they near jumped out of their skins. That ghost kept yipping and howling from every quarter. Heck Jones didn't have a chance to hee and to haw. Those razorbacks turned on their heels. They trampled him in the mud and kept running -- though one of them did come back for the shoofly pie. My, they did run! I heard later they didn't stop until they arrived back in Arkansas where they were mistaken for guinea pigs. They had run off that much weight.

Yep, this is a book where the young 'uns pass the time flipping through the mail order catalog or listening at the talking machine. The good old days, yes sirree. Even though the word ghost is in the title and there is a ghost (kind of) in the story, McBroom's Ghost is way more funny than scary and odds are your kid will spend the entire time asking questions like... "Why are all those children in that house? Is it a school or something?"... "What's a razorback?"... "Why are you reading the story in that silly voice, mama?"... "Why does that bad guy look like the man on the chicken bucket?"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Comic Epitaphs and Thanks

Well folks, my mom's surgery is done, and tomorrow I'll be back. In the meantime, please help me in thanking gef for the time we spent together. She really saved my butt and then proceeded to kick it with her great book selections. Slaughterhouse is the book I'll be sneaking into her house to zoink while she's away on vacation... but don't tell her I told you that!

In celebration of the return home, I wanted to mention this little book as an aside. I found Comic Epitaphs from the Very Best Old Graveyards (gathered by Peter Pauper Press with illustrations by Henry R. Martin, 1957) on the shelf at an amazing thrift/junk store here in Tidewater Virginia, and recognized it as a title that was always around the house when I was wee. Even though it technically isn't a children's book, I was obsessed with it throughout my adolescence and thought the selections both funny and outrageous... with a mild hint of the hallowed.

Even more than the book, the store really blew my mind. It was as if someone took all the contents of my childhood home and dumped them in one cheaply-priced place. They had mint condition school supplies from the 70s and 80s (some of which I actually remember) plus toys, board games, Fisher Price Little People sets, books and albums... all from when I was little. Literally, I almost freaked out in there and blew every last dime I had. However, I remained calm and only bought a few things: some Burl Ives, vintage Disney and Smurfs on LP... a mid-century recipe spiral... a handful of books... and I couldn't resist this Great Space Coaster Super Fun Pad for 25 cents. You know you want it!

Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor

guest blogger gef ~ The Kindergarten Diaries and Lost in Texas

Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor
Mervyn Peake ~ 1939 ~ Reissued Candlewick Press, 2001

Modernist novelist/poet/artist Mervyn Peake is one of those writers who sounds amazingly cool in theory — he’s often compared to Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Edwin Lear, R. Crumb — but when you get around to trying to read him, well, he’s a little daunting. Or maybe I’m just lame. The furthest I got with Peake was watching about 20 minutes of the Jonathan Rhys Myers-starring BBC miniseries version of his unfinished magnum opus, The Gormenghast Trilogy.

Happily, my husband found a copy of Peake’s long-out-of-print-then-reissued-then-out-of-print-again Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a twisted pirate yarn and fantastical picture book that is much, much shorter than The Gormenghast Trilogy.

As the mother of girls, I don’t have to deal with Pirates of the Caribbean easy-reader books (love Johnny Depp, but come on), but I’m imagining this might be welcome relief for the parents of sword-brandishing, eye-patch-wearing boys.

Captain Slaughterboard (who resembles a buff Tom Waits) is a bloodthirsty pirate presiding over a colorful crew of n’er-do-wells, including Billy Bottle the Bos’n, the effete Timothy Twitch and Peter Poop, the cook who “had a cork nose” (really, he has a cork for a nose—presumably, the original was sliced off in battle). One afternoon, Charlie Choke (who is “covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink”) spies a pink island on the horizon. Turns out that despite his sociopathic inclinations, deep down, Slaughterboard is something of a gentle aesthete, or so it turns out by the end of the story.

“Pink!” shouted the Captain, leaping to his feet. “That’s just the sort I like. Sail me there and hurry up or I’ll chop you all up into mincemeat.”

Once ashore this pink Eden populated with purple creatures (like the “lonely Mousterache who was sensitive and didn’t make friends very easily”), they discover “a creature as bright as butter.”

“Just the sort I’ve been wanting,” yelled Captain Slaughterboard as he charged over the fruit and turtles that covered the ground. “After him, you dogs!”

There’s so much wonderful to say about Peake’s intricate line drawings, the washes of purple, yellow, brown and blue, the delightful hand lettering and whimsical narration, but it’s this throwaway, almost non sequitur-ish detail — “charging over fruit and turtles” — that I love most about this book.

The Yellow Creature (who was described with un-toppable accuracy in a New York Times review as looking like a cross between Bob Dylan and cocker spaniel) is all too happy to leave since he was a social outcast on this purple creature-populated island. Once on board The Black Tiger, Captain Slaughterboard treats him like a king (or, uh, a queen), making the crew wait on him, lodging him in the best , etc.

Every morning the Yellow Creature was placed in front of the ship where he looked lovely against the sparkling blue sea. Captain Slaughterboard would sit upon a barrel of rum, and watch the Yellow Creature for hours on end.

His pirates had to watch the Yellow Creature too, but they got rather tired of it sometimes…

Eventually—well, “one starry night at twenty-three minutes to twelve” to be precise—the Captain heaves up the anchor and sets off on adventures which claim the lives of all of the crew (none of this is shown, of course, it’s a children’s book!), leaving this odd couple alone together at last. They practice pirate dances by moonlight, throw “plums and peaches to a dark speckly fish” and eventually the Captain decides to move back to the pink island. The Yellow Creature, apparently homesick, is so overjoyed he dances “in a wild sort of way shouting, ‘Yo-ho! Yo-ho! Yo-ho!’” (Yo-ho is the only pirate lingo the creature learns, and it became something of a catchphrase around my house. Along with “That’s just the sort I like.”) Slaughterboard is so blissed out by their life of quiet domesticity, he decides to hang up his cutlass and retire with his domestic partner, the Yellow Creature.

Captain Slaughterboard finished up his all his bullets long ago, but they have both become very good with bows and arrows, and can hit things a long way off.

But most of the time they are dreadfully lazy and eat fruit.

My older daughter Dale loved this book from ages two to four, but then abandoned it. Pirates are for boys, she said, to my infinite disappointment. If and when my second daughter forsakes this book — she hasn’t tried it yet — it will migrate to one of the grown-up bookcases. They can always revisit when they’re old enough to understand the subtext. Then again, Dale just saw the book lying open on my desk and is at this moment clamoring for me to read it to her right now. “Why have you abandoned it for more than a year?” I asked her. To which she responded, “Why haven’t read you it to me? I wanted to read it, I just forgot about it.”


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Birds Do the Strangest Things

Birds Do the Strangest Things
guest blogger
gef ~ The Kindergarten Diaries and Lost in Texas

Leonora and Arthur Hornblow
pictures by Michael K. Frith
Random House, 1965

You know, one of the fun things about revisiting touchstones of your youth in this age of the Internets is finding out all kinds of cool stuff that you never would have known or cared about when you were seven years old. So I discovered this copy of Birds Do the Strangest Things on the clearance shelf at Half-Price Books (great used-book chain where I often consider getting a job just so I can lay my hands on the best books before they hit the shelves — and Scribbler gets them!). I was thrilled to see it, like running into a dearly remembered friend from second grade. I LOVED this book, which is one of a series of four recounting the oddities and eccentricities of birds, insects, fish and animals. This is where I first encountered the bower bird, the platypus and the hog-nose snake, and I credit these engaging books with fueling my ambition, sadly unrealized, to become a zoologist (that and Wild Kingdom).

Anyway, the thing that I’m amazed to discover is that Arthur Hornblow Jr., who co-wrote the series with his (third) wife Leonora, was some old-time Hollywood dude who was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar four freaking times (including Gaslight and Witness for the Prosecution). According to legend, he gave Billy Wilder his first job, he was married to one of my all-time favorite actresses Myrna Loy, and he named Veronica Lake (prior to that she was Constance Ockelman — even with that curtain of platinum hair, don’t think she would have cut it as a noir star with that handle). To top it off, he loaned his own name to C.S. Forester for the Horatio Hornblower books. How much wonderfulness can be stuffed into a single biography?

I know all that is kind of irrelevant, but maybe not, since the guy obviously had a great sense of story, which is apparent in almost all of the little narratives accompanying each bird, each of which also gets a catchy title: the cuckoo is “The Fooler,” the herring gull is “The Beach Cleaner”; the hornbill is “The Hide-away Bird’: the mynah is “The Marvelous Mimic” and the shrike is “The Lone Bandit.”

Nobody likes a shrike — probably not even other shrikes. He is a small bird with a hooked beak. He has a band of black feathers around his eyes. This makes him look like a bandit. He acts like a bandit too.

It goes on to describe how shrikes will hang up their slain pray (which include other shrikes) on barbed-wire fences like a butcher stringing up a carcass. Oooh, creepy. I mean, how cinematic an image is that? A better name for the shrike might be the Hannibal Lecter of the Ornithological Kingdom.

Also by:
Prehistoric Monsters Did the Strangest Things

Monday, October 20, 2008

Great Monday Give Update

Just a reminder that this week's Great Monday Give is an extension of last week's Great Monday Give. So for those of you interested in winning your very own copy of Calico the Wonder Horse or The Saga of Stewy Stinker, you now have until midnight ~ Sunday the 26th to comment on the original post located here!

The Funny Thing

guest blogger Thingummery

The Funny Thing
Wanda Gág ~ Coward-McCann, 1928

Wanda Gág was some kind of crazy genius, there is no doubt about it. Some people take issue with the dark undertones of her stories — witness the cannibalistic feline massacre in Millions of Cats or the existential crisis of the invisible puppy in Nothing at All — but I beg to differ. My favorite children’s stories serve up whimsy and charm with a healthy undercurrent of menace (hello, Brothers Grimm, which Gág illustrated in a beauteous 1947 edition). I’m dying to read a biography because she was clearly a pretty interesting lady (gee, I think there’s been one on my Amazon wish list for a while…). I haven’t read all of her books yet — I don’t like to order them, I like to find them at used book stores and estate sales, the thrill of the hunt, you know — but it’s hard to imagine any of them top The Funny Thing.

A kindly little mountain gentleman named Bobo devotes his life to feeding squirrels, birds, rabbits and mice. One day he encounters a beast who seems to be part dragon part dog and part giraffe — a vain, ill-mannered, preening creature who points out that he is NOT an “animal” but an “aminal.” Ever cordial Bobo offers him a meal, but the Funny Thing turns up his nose at all the nut cakes, fine seed puddings, little cheeses and cabbage salads. The frustrated host finally asks his rude guest what he would like to eat and is horrified at the answer: dolls.

“But it is not kind to eat up little children’s dolls,” said Bobo. “I should think it would make them very unhappy.”

“So it does,” said the Funny Thing, smiling pleasantly “but very good they are — dolls.”

This throws Bobo into a tizzy, and he wracks his brain till he comes up with a plan: flattery. He fawns over the Funny Thing’s “lovely tail,” “pretty black eyebrows” and the “row of blue points” down its back. As the creature writhes with pleasure, Bobo asks him if his beauty secret is the “jum-jills” in his diet and of course, the Funny Thing takes the bait.

“Jum-jills?” he asked eagerly. “What is a jum-jill — is it a kind of doll?”

“Oh no,” said Bobo. “Jum-jills are funny little cakes which make blue points more beautiful and little tails grow into big ones.”

(On a side note, it was amusing to find out that when my husband and I would read this book to our daughter, we were both channeling Charles Nelson Reilly for the Funny Thing’s voice.)

Of course the Funny Thing demands some of those tail-enhancing cakes, so Bobo whips up a batch of nutcake-seedcake-cabbage-balls and pronounces them jum-jills. The funny thing scarfs all the jum-jills and every day returns for more until his tail grows so long he can hardly move. At which point he relocates to the top of the mountain, letting his long tail curl down around it, while the birds fly him a steady supply of jum-jills and thus keep the world’s population of dolls safe from harm. Moral of the story: flattery will get you everywhere, especially if you can think on the fly (and have a few really good recipes at your disposal).

Here I would like to mention that at the height of my daughter’s obsession with this book, my husband rather ingeniously made jum-jills for her. They tasted pretty good—a lot like tabbouleh — and it really did make her tail grow longer. Ha.

(Scribbler's note... Esme posted on a great Gág bio for kids here.)

Also by:
Millions of Cats
Nothing At All
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


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Friday, October 17, 2008

Library Sale Finds

I don't usually do this sort of thing but this is what I love about book hunting in rural Virginia. This whole load for $2.50. YES!!! Many of these are doubles for me, so be expecting some to find their way into the Great Monday Give rotation... I'm not even gonna mention the other non-Beginner Books I found. I have to save some surprises for later. (Plus, it would drive gef insane!) See you next week.

Blaze and the Gray Spotted Pony

guest blogger gef ~ The Kindergarten Diaries and Lost in Texas

Blaze and the Gray Spotted Pony
C.W. Anderson — Macmillan, 1968

I’ve had a lifelong passion for horses. Sadly, I’ve never owned one, but like many a lovelorn girl, I made up for it in horse books. These days the horsey fiction genre is very much geared toward chicks (the popular Thoroughbred YA series, all things pretty and pony), and I’m not sure why or when that happened. I’ve even noted an attitude among some parents of sons that riding horses — particularly riding English — is somehow unmanly. Maybe not on the level of boys taking ballet or figure skating, but something like that. Well, it wasn’t always that way.

Two of the best equine children’s book series — Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books (and Little Black books) and C.W. Anderson’s Billy and Blaze series — date from the 1940s–60s and focus on English-riding boys and their horse pals. When I was a kid, I adored C.W. Anderson’s nonfiction stuff, his gorgeous, anatomically perfect pencil drawings of famous thoroughbreds. (Twenty Gallant Horses is a must for racing fans — I checked it out from the library on a weekly basis until I had the brilliant idea of photocopying the whole thing at 10¢ per page.) I never encountered Anderson’s Billy and Blaze series until I got lucky at a few library sales. My older daughter loved their simple, straightforward narratives, and of course those beautiful illustrations until she got all preoccupied with princesses and fairy tales, and started moving on to chapter books.

The upshot is this: Billy is a wholesome, upstanding lad of around 12 who rides his chestnut pony Blaze in horse shows and in and out of various scrapes with mountain lions, forest fires, etc. I haven’t read the whole series but know that most are classic adventure stories. Blaze and the Spotted Pony is a little quieter; it focuses on Billy’s younger neighbor, Tommy, another horse nut, who dreams about horses (a gray spotted one in particular), who gets toy horses for Christmas, who builds a makeshift barn in his backyard in hopes that his parents will finally get the hint and give him a REAL horse.

Once Tommy got a beautiful horse for his birthday. It was almost as big as a pony, and he could ride it. Its mane and coat felt real. It wasn’t alive of course —but almost.

Sweet-natured Billy sympathizes with Tommy’s unrequited horse passion (in the first book of the series, Billy is in the same boat). He teaches Tommy how to groom Blaze, and teaches him how to ride. Sometimes Tommy runs alongside Billy and Blaze till he gets tired, which, frankly, is a little bit sad. Finally, Tommy’s parents enlist Billy’s aid in surprising Billy with a pony for his birthday, and after an arduous search they find him the gray spotted pony of his dreams.

When Tommy rode his pony beside Blaze through the woods he knew he was the happiest boy in the world. This was his very own pony — gray, with spots, and alive.

I just think these books are really sweet — for girls and boys — the lovely black-and-white illustrations are a welcome respite from a mostly pink-and-purple Pretty Pony world (though my older daughter would probably disagree on the latter point — I’ve got another daughter who will soon be old enough for these books, so I’m hopeful I’ll get to read them again).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Fairy Church in the Woods

guest blogger gef ~ The Kindergarten Diaries and Lost in Texas

The Fairy Church in the Woods
Ellen Fenlon ~ The Saalfiield Publishing Company, 1962

This is one of a series of four stapled booklets, three of which — Signs of the Fairies, The Fairy Church in the Woods, A Woodland Circus — my mother gave to me when I was 9 or 10 and I absolutely cherished (hence I still have them), and the fourth, Little Birds in a Nest, which my husband procured for me recently on eBay when I rediscovered them. I love all four but choose to focus on this one since it’s my daughter’s favorite.

The series (which sold for 29¢ apiece — can you imagine buying anything for 29¢ these days, let alone something so awesome?) was written and photographed by one Ellen Fenlon, a native of Akron, Ohio, according to the biographical note on the back page, which, in an age before stalkers and identity theft, helpfully includes her home address:

She is helping to save the woods from being cut down so that all the little animals and plants won’t be chased out of their homes. That way your children and grandchildren will have a place where they can go visit them.

Ellen Fenlon, whoever she was (is?), had a gift for making the mundane magical. She invites us into her world as if we already know everyone in it. Each book begins with an unidentified first person narrator (Fenlon, presumably) striking out into the woods with a few children:

Emily, Toby, and I went for a walk in a deep green woods. We saw a tall spruce tree.

Toby said, “Why, you know, that looks like a church steeple.”

And Emily said, “Let’s go to the bottom of that tree-steeple and see if we can find a fairy church.”

The fairy church is the raised, moss-covered roots of a spruce tree, something you might easily pass on a hike without noticing, but the narrator and the children don’t just notice it, they conjure a world within it, where lichens are doormats, mushrooms are lamps, fungi are seats for deacons, star moss are carpets, a calopogan orchid is a fairy throne, a twinleaf seed pod is a communion cup, and Jack delivers a sermon from his Pulpit. Fenlon’s strikingly surreal but not at all literal photographs make the story they spin out of the details utterly convincing.

I think most kids already see the natural world this way — every pine needle, clump of moss is an occasion for amazement and wonder and storytelling— or at least they have the capacity to do so until they get lazy, corrupted by too much media. I’m not being high and mighty here — I’ve got a plasma TV, three Macs and two kids hooked on “The Little Einsteins.” But my older daughter treats these books with great reverence, as if they contain Important Secrets, and I play this up by keeping them on a high shelf in my office. Thank you Ms. Fenlon, for your remarkable imagination, and here’s hoping the woodlands of Akron, Ohio, have not all fallen victim to sprawling shopping centers and subdivisions.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Humbug Witch

Humbug Witch
Lorna Balian ~ Humbug Books, 1965

I always blanch at books offered up by vanity presses of the same name, so several times, I passed Humbug Witchover at library sales. I suppose because it was nearing Halloween last month, and I was feeling generous, I gave it a second look... and I have to say, it is kinda cute (even if the large, red nose is a little on the creepy, drunken uncle side).

The story is about a witch with absolutely no magical powers whatsoever... which as a concept all its own is pretty riotous.

When she wanted to turn Fred into an alligator,
Or a hippopotamus,
Or a candy bar,
She would get down on her hands and knees
And look Fred square in the eye
And say all kinds of magic words,
And wait...
And wait...
But Fred just stayed a cat!

It isn't until the end that her true colors shine through and you can see the little ghoul for who she really is. Surprise, surprise. The drawings here are all red and black and yellow and do have a nice holiday quality, and the story is a happy change from some of the less-than-happy witch books out there. My son gets a little spooked by pointy hats and crooked noses, so the upbeat note on which this witch ends has gone a long way to dispel the myths about mistresses of the night always being bad. Not all good witches have to look as hot as Glenda, ya know.

Two More Things

FIRST: I have a dastardly surprize for you all. Because I will be in Virginia until next week, I am skipping next week's Great Monday Give and dragging out this week's Great Monday Give until next week... Confused? So for those of you interested in winning your very own copy of Calico the Wonder Horse or The Saga of Stewy Stinker, you now have until midnight ~ Sunday the 26th to comment on the original post located here!

SECOND: Please help me in welcoming guest blogger gef from The Kindergarten Diaries and Lost in Texas. Starting tomorrow, she'll be covering for me over the next week while I am away doing my daughterly duties... She will NOT however be posting on spooky inspired stories, just some of her kid's favorites... of which there are volumes and volumes and volumes. The only person I know who may have more vintage kids' books than me (or at least more valuable vintage kids' books than me), please comment at will and give her the love while I'm away!

(Yes, that is our two book lovers in an after swim embrace.)
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