Children’s Books

Having a 4-year old, I have a standing routine where we read two stories before bed every night. She always tries to con me into “one more book, mommy”. 

 

I try to keep the books educational, appropriate, and when I can get away with it, good literature. As far as the good literature goes, I’ve succeeded with A.A.Milne books about Winnie the Pooh, and Peter Pan. By succeeded I mean that she allows me to read these to her, even though the copies I have contain minimum to nil pictures. She actually listens and asks intelligent questions when something goes over her head.

 

I have failed with a number of other books, including Alice in Wonderland (and Lewis Carrol’s other stories), A Little Princess, and I even tried once (with utter and complete failure to my dismay) Harry Potter.

 

There is hope, though. Some of the picture books I read to her are actually pretty great for little bibliophiles. She really enjoys this version of The Princess and the Pea, the Strega Nona books, which I mostly bought out of nostalgia, and a lot of the Dr Seuss books that were my favorites as a kid (Oh, the Places you’ll go, McElligot’s Pool, and others). 

 

She memorizes certain books, which fascinates me. She will recite entire books from memory if you get her on a roll. Her favorites are pretty much anything in the Pete the Cat series. I get it. They are sort of song-y and have a certain melodic flow about them. They are not my personal favorites, because the hundredth time you hear a shrill toddler voice belting out “I’m Rockin’ in my School Shoes!”, your brain begins to eat itself. However, the messages of the books are not something I can argue with. They are pretty educational and she’s learned certain skills (counting backwards, associating names of places with the function of that place, the books are very clever and engaging to toddlers), and they all have an “it’s all good” sort of message that I guess is supposed to help little ones not see small problems as the end of the world. 

 

Anyway, bad books, good books, annoying books, whatever; What I really enjoy is spending that time with her. It makes me so happy and so proud that my little girl loves reading and books as much as I do. I didn’t really get bedtime stories as a child, I think my mom was probably too busy just trying to keep the rent paid and food on the table. When I read to her, its a way for us both to communicate and also give me some background material to reference when I can’t quite understand what she’s saying – for example, when I can’t understand her words (she still has some trouble pronouncing certain things) she often goes to books as a reference point because she knows that it will help me to understand as we both experienced the story together. She knows that I’ll be able to find the connection that way. It’s amazing to me how much our little routine means to her, and it’s something we share, just us. I didn’t think it would become such a special and treasured time for me, and I was pleasantly surprised.

 

Here is an Article detailing the many benefits of reading to children. 

 

And a quote, to end with:

 

“When it comes down to it, I don’t have much in the way of advice to offer you, but here it is: Read to children. Vote. And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.” 
― Mary Doria RussellDreamers of the Day

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Jitterbug Perfume: a (late) review

So I thought that in the spirit of the sort-of original intention of this blog, that I might as well do an actual book review, eh?

Since I’m in the middle of a project right now, my reading has been put off to the wayside, as I love to read between projects, but if I read while I’m in the middle of writing something, my head gets too full of ideas, and it’s hard for me to differentiate between my own, and others. 

So I’m going to be reviewing a book I read years ago, and to this day I recommend it to anyone interested in reading a million miles off of the beaten track. Really, any of Tom Robbins’ novels will take you that million miles, but my personal favorite has always been Jitterbug PerfumeMaybe that’s because it was the first of his novels that I read. Maybe it’s because that particular writing style is so underutilized, probably because not a lot of people make it work. Robbins does. Here is what the book has to say about itself, a type of synopsis not uncommon for all his novels, and yet so fitting:

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“Jitterbug Perfume 
is an epic.

Which is to say, it begins in the forests of ancient Bohemia and doesn’t conclude until nine o’clock tonight (Paris time).

It is a saga, as well. A saga must have a hero, and the hero of this one is a janitor with a missing bottle.

The bottle is blue, very, very old, and embossed with the image of a goat-horned god. 

If the liquid in the bottle actually is the secret essence of the universe, as some folks seem to think, it had better be discovered soon because it is leaking and there is only a drop or two left.”

It’s actually incredibly difficult to try and explain to someone what this book is about. It’s about immortality, and perfume, and a very smelly god. Oh, and beets. I know, right?

The characters are fantastic and memorable, the dialogue is carefully and lovingly crafted. Alobar, I think, is the main protagonist. He is the king of an ancient pagan tribe who, by custom, kill their leader once he begins to show signs of aging, replacing him with a younger, stronger leader. Alobar is not okay with that, and worries once he sees one gray hair. He makes his escape, with his favorite wife, and thus begins a wild ride around the world, through the ages. 

Robbins is a talented writer, who does not fly through writing a book. Nor should one fly through reading any of his books. They are something to take your time with, to savor each clever, hilarious, (and more often than one might think) incredibly wise and insightful word. He is a wizard with metaphors, and this book is full of them. 

“Life is too small a container for certain individuals. Some of them, such as Alobar, huff and puff and try to expand the container. Others, such as Kudra, seek to pry the lid off and hop out.” 
― Tom RobbinsJitterbug Perfume

And:

“I do not fear death. I resent it. Everything must die, apparently, and I am no exception. But I want to be consulted. You know what I mean? Death is impatient and thoughtless. It barges into your room when you are right in the middle of something, and it doesn’t bother to wipe its boots. I have a new passion, my darlings, a passion for being myself, and for being more than previously has been manifested for a single lifetime. I am determined to die at my own convenience. Therefore, I journey to the east, where, I have been told, there are men who have taught death some manners.” 
― Tom RobbinsJitterbug Perfume

And I think art of the brilliance of Robbins’ writing is his masterful use of words. His sentences work into his tapestry of paragraphs, and every word, every thread of thought, used in a way that I can only describe as just-so. In my head I see his stories as comparable to a carefully layered painting, a perfectly timed photograph, a sculpture which takes the viewers breath away. Robbins is an artist with words. 

“There are no such things as synonyms!” he practically shouted. “Deluge is not the same as flood.” 
― Tom RobbinsJitterbug Perfume

 

 

The absorbing power of books (and alienating people)

I love Harry Potter.

Yeah. You heard it. I don’t care about the movies – they were “meh”, and I really don’t care what Rowling gets up to these days, that’s her business. I don’t troll paparazzi and news sites to find out what Daniel Radcliffe is up to, don’t care. 

When I was 10, the first Harry Potter book hit the shelves. I lived in backwoods nowhere and didn’t start reading them until the third book came out, because BACKWOODS NOWHERE.

It didn’t deter me that I was behind everyone else because it actually worked out awesomely for me. I got to read book 1, then the next two books in rapid succession, and it only took me about a week to finish all three of them. I was hooked, and BOY did it take forever for Goblet of Fire to come out. 

Anyway, I grew up with those books. Every time a new one was set to come out, I would count down the days, practically salivating, waiting to get my hands on it. It would drive me into a frenzy of anxious waiting. The moment I had it in my hands, the rest of the world disappeared and all that existed was the story. I once waited at B&N for  Half Blood Prince to come out with my friend, and we had a lovely time, drinking butterbeer, hanging out with other Potterheads, finding interesting ways to pass the time. I’m afraid, though, that once I had that magical tome in my hands it was all over as far as my socializing skills. She had been nice enough to drive us to B&N, so I slid into the passenger seat, book cradled in my arms, and cracked open to the first page. I realized it was totally illogical, it was 2am, super dark out, and I couldn’t reasonably ask her to keep the dome light on for the hour long drive back to backwoods nowhere. Also, and this registered with me (barely) that it would be rude for me to begin reading while she was right there, just as much a fan as me, and couldn’t. 

Friend: Are you really going to start reading that right now?

Me: Yes.

An incredulous look is exchanged.

Me: No?

(I am going to note here that I remember the almost physical pain of closing the book.)

Friend: Seriously.

Is that verbatim? Pretty sure it’s not. Give me credit, it was a while ago . I don’t remember every single word, but that was the gist of it.

Yeah, I’m a selfish dork.

I’ve realized that my unhealthy absorption of books alienates the people around me, and that’s a bad thing.  I try not to do it, but even today I’ve been known to ignore the world around me when I’m reading. It makes me feel like a total jerk when I’ve been reading and I suddenly realize that someone is mad at me for it, because they’ve been talking to me for the past 10 minutes and I haven’t heard a single word. 

Anyway, books are awesome, reading is fantastic, but it can easily become an escape attempt from the real world. If that’s what you are doing in your reading; stop. The world is  going to be right where you left it when you look up from those pages. If you’re looking to escape, you should probably look at solving some life problems first. Don’t worry, your books will always be there when you get back. 

Old Books

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Does anyone remember how really old books look, smell, and feel?

There used to be a standard sort of look to books. Textured, raised spines, beautiful colors, sometimes gold-flake lettering. I adore this look. It certainly makes a bookshelf very attractive. 

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A lot of old books had cloth covers, or even leather. It’s a different sensory experience than picking up a paperback book and flipping through it, or even a modern hardcover with those detestable dust-jackets. An old book has sophistication, elegance, and charm that cannot be matched by any modern printing.

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And then there is smell, the culmination of what makes old books wonderful. The sans pareil, if you will. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t love the smell of an old book. And if I did, I suspect that I would instinctively dislike them.

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I collect these old books. One of the shelves in my little home library is dedicated entirely to books we have found which were printed before the year 1900. I really think there is a priceless value on something so fragile which has somehow survived for over 100 years. It suggest to me that someone cared very deeply for these books, and in some cases it’s proven by handwritten inscriptions inside the covers; I have one copy of the complete works of Shakespeare with the inscription “(Name), Dec 25, 1895”. Someone got this book as a christmas gift almost 120 years ago, how awesome is that?!?

The book itself is in pretty gorgeous shape. The gold leafing on the cover is age-faded, but intact, all of the very delicate (lightweight offset paper – the type used for bibles and dictionaries) pages are in perfect shape – no markings, no dog-ears, gold leafing around the edges – again faded, but still shining through. The spine and binding are still in wonderful shape, no loose pages, no cracking or falling apart.  The wording on the spine is of that same faded gold leafing, still very legible.

It’s a beautiful book. But the clincher for me is that short inscription. It enhances my love for the book, and also makes me feel responsible for it somehow, like I’m an adopted mother. Someone else loved this book so much that they took the time to mark it as theirs, and now it’s fallen to me to decide its fate.

You might wonder if I am telling you all this to make you jealous. Maybe, a little. I’m very proud of my collection. However, what I really want to do is make other people care as much as I do. Then maybe some of these treasures will still be around in another 100 years. I hope so.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

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Of all the books in all the world, of every book I’ve read, heard of, and haven’t read yet, I have one that is simply nearest and dearest to my heart. I have read it dozens and dozens of times, I will read it many, many more times, and sometimes I pick it up and flip to the middle just to absorb the beautiful words. I’ve read it to my daughter, it was the first book I ever read to her. She was still an infant then, and didn’t understand a word of it, but I didn’t care. I wanted her to have heard every word so that somewhere, this book would always be somewhere in her heart, even if she doesn’t know it.

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This book is Peter Pan, or Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie. I have multiple copies of this book, and have even gone so far in my obsession as to owning two of the first U.S. prints of this book, from 1911 and 1912. They are some of my dearest treasures.

This book has some of the most well-written passages I’ve ever read:

“I don’t know if you have ever seem a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less and island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.”
― J.M. BarriePeter Pan

“Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this and you would find it very interesting to watch. It’s quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on Earth you picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek, as if it were a nice kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out the prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”
― J.M. BarriePeter Pan

“She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner.”
― J.M. BarriePeter Pan

There is something brilliant and simple and honest about Barrie’s writing that I can just never get over. There is something very admirable about Wendy’s decision to grow up, and something very romantic about the notion that there was ever a choice. Also, Neverland is just so perfectly described. That is exactly the place I lived and played and had adventures in as a child. “When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real. That is why there are night-lights. ”

The Neverland is now the place in my mind from which I draw inspiration to write. It’s the place where all my characters live, where the rivers and waterfalls are made up of  words, flowing freely through a lush and busy landscape.

I think we often forget that place when we grow up. We are so busy with work, school, family, life in general that the doorway becomes neglected and overgrown, ivy or kudzu taking it over completely.

Don’t let that happen. Prune the door to your imagination, and walk through. The door may stick at first, and the hinges may squeak, but keep pushing until you’ve rediscovered your Neverland. You’ll realize it’s been waiting for you a long, long time.