Oliver Jeffers, funny guy

Here’s a great little video about Oliver Jeffers, creator of many picture books such as Lost and Found. It’s entertaining but also gives a glimpse into what goes into the making of a children’s picture book.

Charming video, and yet… I can’t wait until filmmakers stop doing all those distracting out/in focus pulls. (In the good old days camera operators checked the focus before starting to shoot!)

You can check out his website here.

Lost and Found (book)


8 Life Lessons to be learned from Jane Austen

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait by her sister Cassandra, 1810 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great post on Huffington: 8 Life Lessons from Jane Austen. A lot has changed in the last 200 years or so, but love and relationships remain constant, it would seem. Not to mention flirtation, attraction and deception. And the allure of dashing young ne’er-do-wells.

I did not read Austen as a young person, sadly, but this post reminded me how relevant these books can be for romantically addled teenagers. If they can get a grip on the language and persevere through the slow parts, they will come away with a sense of the social rules of Austen’s time (“Oh, man! It would suck to live back then!”) as well as some pertinent love advice for their own era.

Maurice Sendak (1928 – 2012)

Maurice Sendak has died at the age of 83 due to complications from a recent stroke.

There is a wonderful obituary on the New York Times site by Margalit Fox, which includes this lovely description:

A largely self-taught illustrator, Mr. Sendak was at his finest a shtetl Blake, portraying a luminous world, at once lovely and dreadful, suspended between wakefulness and dreaming. In so doing, he was able to convey both the propulsive abandon and the pervasive melancholy of children’s interior lives.

He did have a rather dark vision of the world, yet not without sympathy and understanding. Here’s a quote from Sendak himself, from his Caldecott acceptance speech:

… from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disruptive emotions… fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives… (and) they continually cope with frustration as best they can.

His was always a refreshing antidote to the unrelenting sunshine and cheer of the majority of children’s books, and – like the traditional fairy tales he drew inspiration from – his works grip the imagination more tenaciously than the floaty bits of fluff that pass for children’s entertainment these days.

Related posts on this blog:

Book reviews…

Where the Wild Things Are

Outside Over There

Higglety Pigglety Pop!


Oh Maurice, You Old Curmudgeon…

Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules

New Sendak Book!

Margaret Wise Brown

Here’s an interesting Slate article about Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown, “Do Childish People Write Better Children’s Books?” by Katie Roiphe.

Re. Roiphe’s question, I’d have to read more about Brown to find out how she did it*, but it seems to me that being truly childish would help in the inspiration and writing part, but the attendant lack of discipline and application would make financial/career success  kind of unlikely.

Especially today. The market for children’s content is massive, as Print and Media toil in service of the great god Merchandising. As the dollars flow in, writing for children is no longer seen as a less-than-serious pursuit. Lucre leads to respect, et voilà! Suddenly everyone has an idea for a picture book or fantasy series. This intense competition makes it less likely that any but the most driven and ambitious (ie. least child-like) might actually succeed in having a children’s book published.

At any rate, Ms. Brown was a real character – read the article. Despite her bunny books she enjoyed rabbit hunting, and once told a Life reporter:

Well, I don’t especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.

– Margaret Wise Brown


* Another interesting question would be: how do we, as adults, define “childishness”? (Flighty? Selfish? Innocent? Silly?) Another can of worms for another day…

Jan Berenstain, RIP

Jan Berenstain, co-creator of the Berenstain Bears with her husband Stan, has died at the age of 88.

When she was 3 and 4 my daughter couldn’t get enough of the retro-Berenstain collection at Grandma and Grandpa’s, the books I read long ago in the 60s and 70s. Even though she asked for them a gazillion times, even at my weariest I appreciated how zippy these books are – not too many words on a page, and lots of action. At nearly-six the boss is still quite entertained by them, though these old titles are a lot more alarming than the newer ones. (Papa Bear gets banged up pretty good, thanks to his own boneheadedness!)

    Actually, Homer Simpson, the quintessential dufus dad, has a definite predecessor in Papa Bear, and his habit of carelessly endangering everyone around him. (Check out The Bike Lesson, wherein Papa rides down the wrong side of the road and causes a hilarious multi-car pileup.)

The later books and cartoon series, which added a girl cleverly named “Sister”, dialled down Papa’s recklessness and amped up the educational content. (Previously the main lessons to be learned were things like “don’t stick your hand into a beehive” and “don’t ride your bike off a cliff”.)

    When Stan died in 2005, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote a rather negative article about the legacy of the Berenstain Bears:

The Berenstains’ rigid problem-solution plots, and problem-solving prescriptions, are straightforward and without nuance, cut and dried, spinach with a dash of sugar. … Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.

Pretty harsh, with some truth to it, but this same criticism can also be levelled at many (all?) of the major children’s book/cartoon franchises around today. As he thoughtfully puts it, shows and books of this nature are more successful at reassuring anxious parents than kids.

Another point he makes is the undermining of parental authority with the old dad-as-dummy plots, which I don’t quite buy. When the first books came out, in the early 1960s, dufus dad wasn’t quite the cliché that he is in today’s sitcom culture. He was probably even a bit of a new thing back then. And besides, children have been entertained for decades by stories about adult authority figures who are dumber than the kids. In these early books little cub manages just fine despite his dad’s ineptitude, even rescuing the old man from time to time, and that only heightens the delight of young readers.

Whether or not you agree with Farhi, his article is aimed squarely at the latter books and tv series. My recommendation is this: for sheer Roadrunneresque anarchy, dig out the old books! Whether stealing a boat, getting struck by lightning, or breaking nearly every bone in his body at scout camp, Papa Bear is always good for a laugh.

As a parent I’m not a huge fan of the Berenstain Bears, though I do remember finding those old books pretty funny. These days my favourite title doesn’t have much to do with the iconic bear family at all. Bears in the Night features a family of numerous small bears who sneak out of bed to investigate a mysterious noise and get a good (harmless) scare. A great ‘first reader’ with a repetitive pattern that kids will enjoy (“out the window, down the tree, over the fence, around the lake, through the woods…”, that kind of thing).

on Dickens and school reading

Here’s a good article, it made me want to run out immediately and get Nicholas Nickleby to read to my five-year-old. Hmm, perhaps better to work our way up to it…

“Let’s give our children great expectations” by Allison Pearson in The Telegraph

I’ve jotted down a couple of her suggestions for younger-age introductions to Dickens, namely:

The Muppet Christmas Carol – “admittedly a great work in its own right, but slightly lacking the moral heft of, say, Bleak House” – This is a lighter, funny presentation of the classic story that, nonetheless, doesn’t omit any of the hard stuff… the frightening appearance of the last ghost, Scrooge’s visions of his own death … And Michael Caine holds his own amidst a host of fuzzy muppets.

Oliver! – of course, the lively, fantastic musical by Lionel Bart brought to the screen in full splendour by Richard Lester.

“Gill Tavner’s excellent condensed Dickens Real Reads” – will definitely look these up. (Here’s an amazon search.)

And now that I’m at it, here are a few more suggestions off the top of my head:

A Christmas Carol movie – look up the more classic versions of it, if you don’t want to “muppet” it up. The story is gripping enough to keep young viewers engaged throughout, even without Kermit. Perhaps the most famous is the Alastair Sim version from 1951 (aka Scrooge), though there are many others. (Be aware that the 2009 film with Jim Carrey I’ve heard described as terrifying, so other versions may be better for young ones.)

Christmas Carol readings – once they know the basic plot, going to a live reading of the original may be fun. (Plus it’s usually for charity.) I took my four-year-old to one a couple Christmases ago. She only lasted halfway through, but seemed to get the drift, and enjoyed the acting and language of it all.

The Magic Fishbone – a children’s story by Dickens. Funny and odd.

A Tale of Two Cities – if you’re child goes crazy for adventure stories, don’t forget about this one! Also a fascinating introduction to the history of the French Revolution.

It just so happens I’ve been reading a book about children’s literature and culture that had the following to say about Dickens:

Like many other books written expressly for adults, these biographical novels [David Cooperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist] became children’s classics, prescribed on children’s school curriculum because of the lucidity and sensitivity with which Dickens treated problems of youth. His writing seemed to dredge from the collective depths of youthful memory a way of characterizing early experience that contained a new sympathy for the child’s struggle to achieve understanding and control unruly feelings. In Dickens’s time this was a radical point of view.

– Kline, Stephen. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of TV Marketing. (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993), p. 94

Dickens’ novels provide a perfect entry point for the study of other historical times. What child wouldn’t be interested in finding out how children used to live, ie. working in mines and factories? What child wouldn’t be immediately sympathetic to Oliver Twist and his plight?

As Allison Pearson points out, we often forget that in his day Dickens wrote what was regarded as rather “trashy” reads – cliffhanging, melodramatic serials. The strength of his books are the bare-bones of the stories, the wildly gripping plots, and this is what makes them so loved by so many after all these years. How fantastic it would be to introduce our children to his books in the year of the 200th anniversary of his birth!




Oh Maurice, you Old Curmudgeon…

Maurice Sendak gives an interview and, as always, speaks pretty candidly. (The interview was done for TateShots in the UK and I came across it via writerswrite.com.)

A Roald Dahl Reading List

The wonderful world of Roald Dahl is sharp, irreverent, sometimes violent, sometimes gross, and nearly always funny as hell. I’ve been reading all the Dahl I can get my mitts on lately. Here they are in the order I’d recommend reading them, from younger listeners to older.


Top 5: Beginner Dahl

Roald Dahl’s books are notoriously violent, scary, rude, gross, full of extremely bad behaviour and insulting language, and above all tremendously funny. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, especially not when the stories are so well-written and inventive, but parents may prefer to start with some of the more ‘benign’ Dahl titles, before working their way up to James and the Giant Peach, or Matilda, or The Witches.

Lately I’ve been working my way through all of Dahl’s children’s books (he also wrote for adult audiences), and while I haven’t quite finished my “Dahl-Readathon”, I have found five titles that are more suitable for younger ages.  (A more complete Roald Dahl Overview to come once I’ve finished all the books.)

Here they are, in order of mildness…

1. Esio Trot (1990) – 62 pp.- Ages 4 +

The gentlest tale of all. No violence, no nastiness whatsoever. The story of how a shy older gentleman wins the lady of his dreams with ingenuity, patience, and a lot of tortoises. (This title on amazon.)

2. The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me (1985) – 80 pp. – Ages 4 +

A boy befriends the new window-washers in town – a rather magical team of Giraffe, Pelican and Monkey. During their first job they capture a burglar, impressing the Duke of Hampshire and securing great success for all. Generally happy and peaceful, except for one incident: burglar shoots off a gun while captured in the Pelican’s beak, creating a hole but not harming anybody. (This title on amazon.)

3. The Magic Finger (1964) – 63 pp. – Ages 4 +

A little girl teaches a family of hunters to see things from another point of view, by having them trade places with the birds they shoot at every day. Very funny. (This title on amazon.)

4. The Enormous Crocodile (1978) – 42 pp. – Ages 4 +

Very short and readable story about a crocodile with “secret plans and clever tricks.” Or so he thinks. The crocodile steals into the town intending to munch on children for lunch but the other jungle animals always call the alarm before he can succeed. In the end the elephant forcibly ejects the crocodile by flinging him all the way to the sun, where he is “sizzled up like sausage!” (The crocodile’s talk about crunching up small children might be too much for some, but it is all talk.)  (This title on amazon.)

5. Danny the Champion of the World (1975) – 196 pp, 22 chapters – Ages 5 +

A lesser known, totally sweet story of a boy with a wonderful single father who teaches him the secrets of poaching. The boy, Danny, devises a fantastic plan for the biggest pheasant heist ever, with unexpected and hilarious results. Unusual topic, yes, with a little class warfare thrown in. Much suspense during the poaching adventures, but without violence or rudeness.  Highly recommended. (This title on amazon.)

Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules

Great article in the New York Times – Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules (Sendak, Silverstein, Geisel).

There are other, older examples of outrageous books for children (Brothers Grimm, Struwwelpeter, etc.) but in the “modern era” (ie. 1900s onward) it’s still pretty rare to find picture books with challenging material. Particularly in North America. Judy Blume and Roald Dahl dished the dirt to older kids, but everyone is extra careful about the content given to pre-readers in picture books.

Currently there are a lot of out there picture book authors, but not many as thoughtful, deep and profoundly rebellious as these three. (Depicting a same-sex couple – human or penguin – may get you banned in many states, but it’s not exactly intellectually daring.)

Coincidentally I just took Sendak’s Outside Over There out of the library yesterday. Looking forward to reading it – review to come soon!

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