Monday, October 18, 2010

J, K, L, M, N, O, P, and Q

Book 2: Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard turn seventy next year. When they first landed at the Boston Public Garden in 1941, little did they know they'd be raising more than just their ducklings Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack, and Quack. They would, and continue to, help raise thousands if not millions of future readers and there is a very good reason why this story is timeless. Well, many good reasons, actually, and while I can't quack for the millions of other readers who love the story, for me I'm never quite sure the Mallard family is going to make it across the street safely.  Oh I know, there is the theme of family and all sorts of other underlying messages. But, when I read a children's story I want to read it through the eyes of a child and grown up stuff, like the afore mentioned thematic items, for the most sail right over a child's head. Don't get me wrong, they will (unconsciously) note the idea of family and that the Mallard's are doing everything they can to make sure their ducklings are raised safely. But, they (meaning children) are not going to stop and think, "Now, what is the author really trying to say."

I don't want to get bogged down in grown-up stuff. One of the many purposes of books for kids is to entertain and Make Way for Ducklings has it all. The opening scene draws you right in...where on earth are Mr. and Mrs. Mallard going to land for the night. A young reader or listener is hooked right from the beginning...wondering what's going to happen next. Will they find food? Will they find a place to lay their eggs? And how on earth are they going to get across the street to meet Mr. Mallard on the pond at the Public Garden.

That is the child equivalent of whether Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy will work out their differences and marry. No matter how many times I read Make Way for Ducklings, I'm never quite convinced it's going to work out.  That the family isn't going to make it across the streets and into the pond at the Public Garden to a waiting Mr. Mallard. And this is one reason why it is such a beloved and classic story. Because they DO arrive safely, and everyone, no matter how old, needs that reassurance that things can work out just fine...that happy endings aren't just the stuff of fairy tales.

The other magical aspect of the story is the illustrations. Secretly, I wanted one of the ducklings for my own. McCloskey captured their physical and behavioral antics perfectly. Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack, and Quack come alive with every reading. Anyone looking at the pictures can't help but feel as if they're standing on the sidewalk, too, waiting to cross the street or floating with Mr. and Mrs. Mallard in the air scouting out a place to land.

Everyone, no matter their age, enjoys a good story. Stories invite the imagination to run wild, to laugh, to cry, to work out what worries us. And there's no better place to begin doing that than the pond at the Boston Public Garden.  Quack!

Historical Note: In order to capture the ducks as perfectly as he did, McCloskey lived with ten mallard ducks and their chicks in his New York apartment for about a year to get them just right.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Skippery Boo

What is it about kids that they enjoy a good, scary story...and at the same time shriek, "STOP!" Such was the effect of "The Skippery Boo" by Earl L. Newton on me. I hated that story (I think of poems as stories, just in a slightly different format) and loved it at the same time. My mom would read it to me once in awhile.  Not content, however, to simply read it to me, she had to be the Skippery Boo.

The impact of this was twofold. One, I would squeal and scream with both delight and terror. Two, it made the literature come alive. It wasn't a poem. It was a true story for that brief moment in time she was reading it to me. There really was a hunter wandering in the wood (I always pictured him dressed in Robin Hood-type garb) humming along and stopping for drink along a sparkling, rippling stream. Perhaps there were fish mingling about the surface. I could picture the tall tall pines surrounding his camp offering him shade and perhaps a bit of protection from the elements.

Of course, this meant, too, that the Skippery Boo really existed, a creature that in my mind was a cross between a lion, mermaid, bat, "a grizzly hare/And webfoot bear/A goof and a bumble-cat" that could shatter a tree like a toothpick. "Nooooo!  Stooooooop!" I'd wail as the Skippery Boo came  to life at the foot of my bed. I'd try to run away down the hall, but my mom would chase me--albeit good naturedly--still reading.   I was convinced for those few glorious, terrifying, exhilarating, and enchanting minutes that I was the hunter (or huntress in this case) running from the Skippery Boo.  Isn't that what any good four year old huntress would do? Arguing with Mr. Boo just didn't seem like a worthwhile pursuit.

But, isn't this what stories are supposed to do? To bring pretend worlds to life even for just a little while? To transport us to a realm with magical creatures and let our imaginations run wild down the hall?  "So as you wade/This vale of shade/And jog life's journey through/At day, at night,/Be it dark or light,/Watch out for the Skippery Boo."  Oh that wonderful warty-toed Skippery Boo. Has he met you?

Monday, August 30, 2010

I think I can, I think I can

Book 1: The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper (published by Platt & Munk, 1930)

I remember my dad reading this to me almost every night as a child. I remember the sound of his voice as it changed with each character. Deep and resonating as the little red train chug-chug-chugged and puff-puff-puffed along the tracks in the beginning.  Arrogant for the Shiny New Engine pulling its passenger cars.  Grumpy for the Big Strong Engine pulling its load of big machines. Sleepy for the Rusty Old Engine. And, of course, cheerful for the Little Engine That Could. 

I loved the pictures, too. They pulled me in...I was in the story.  I was enthralled with the toys and I remember putting several of them in my letter to Santa.  I wanted the baby elephant.  I had to have the doll with the blue dress and yellow bow.  And who could possibly resist the ABC book, the tractor, or the fire engine with the extension ladder.  Don't even get me started on the illustration of the peppermint balls and lollipops. I mentioned to Santa those would make great stocking stuffers. I mean, no Christmas stocking is complete without matter what the age of its owner.  It's a rule.  Anyway, it was (still is) a magical story and I could forget all about my four year old troubles.

Most of all, I loved the happy, friendly little blue Little Engine That Could. She was so nice to everyone. Not rude, or grouchy, or indifferent...all of which bothered me. I didn't like that the other trains wouldn't help the little red broken down train and always asked WHY they were so mean to it, and my dad would try his best to explain.  Of course, what I didn't understand then was that if they didn't there wouldn't have been a story. But, what that red train went through always stuck with me and I think even at the young age four I made a decision to do my best not to treat people that matter how they treated me.

The Little Engine had a strength in her even she was unaware of in the beginning. She didn't know if she could make it up the hill and into town. But, she was willing to give it a shot, to try despite an obstacle. Maybe she could overcome it, maybe she couldn't. At least she'd know. "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."  Those are words I've referred back to anytime life decided to throw a hill in my way. No one has a crystal ball to see an outcome. If we did, there would be no adventure and or stories to tell.  It is cheerfully attempting the hill, win or lose, that is important.

"I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could." Powerful words.

Historical Note: Watty Piper is the pseudonym for Mabel Caroline Bragg (1870-1945) who was a teacher and writer. The origin of the story is unknown as several similar stories existed before Piper's version.  In Bragg's original version (The Little Pony Engine, 1916) the setting was Christmas. But, when Platt & Munk republished in its current incarnation, they dropped the holiday element. 2010 marks the 80th anniversary of this timeless classic. (Source:  Schaefer, Pat. "Little Engine That Could."  The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 30 August 2010.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I have a blog. Now what?

I've wanted to start a blog for awhile, but had no clue about what. I'd come up with one, and then seconds later scrunch my nose and think, "Nah. I don't want to do that. I'll be bored within weeks." Anything I came up with felt like work. Work, like having to memorize multiplication tables...which, since math and I never got along very well in school, hurt. It hurt more than a bee sting, more than cracking your chin on the ice, more than accidentally snorting soda through your nose in a fit of giggles.  You get the idea.

What I do know is that I have always loved a good story.  Good Night Moon, Nancy Drew (my heroine!) and The Boxcar Children, Anne of Green Gables, Alex Rider....The list is long, but distinguished.  But, how to turn my love of a good tale into a blog.  I enjoy writing, but I do have to have an idea in mind, even a purpose.  For the blog, all of that eluded me.  That is, until yesterday, when I was visiting my favorite bookstore (which has a cat, by the way, named Index...or Dexie for short).  There I ran across the book 1001Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, edited by Julia Eccleshare, and had a the-spaghetti-is-done-because-it's-stuck-to-the-ceiling moment. How fun would it be to read all 1001 books? This was quickly followed by, "And, I could blog about it." Ding ding ding ding ding! We have a winner!

I loved Julie/Julia by Julie Powell and think her blog idea was yes, part of my inspiration is probably thanks to her. It's also thanks to my parents, who began reading to me long before I could walk and always made sure there was a Nancy Drew book waiting in the wings for when I finished the one I was reading at the moment. It will be interesting to see what books I'm already familiar with and what I'm not. But, that will be part of the adventure. Do I have any idea what I'll write about? Nope.

On that note, I'd better get reading (and replenish the chocolate chip cookies)!