Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"The Chronicles of Narnia": A Review

Illustration by Pauline Baynes for The Silver Chair, Chapter 5: Puddleglum
“And now,” said Aslan presently, “to business.  I feel I am going to roar.  You had better put your fingers in your ears.”
~ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis,
 Chapter 15: Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time, pg. 164

There is a saying on TV Tropes, covers always lie.  And never is that maxim so true as it is with the spines of the volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia.  I am a firm proponent for reading this series in the order in which C.S. Lewis originally wrote and published them, which means none of this sissy “chronological order” nonsense. 



Why do I care so much? Perhaps I wouldn’t in different circumstances.  But with Narnia I feel that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the most important one to read, and therefore should be volume one.  Anyone who has read the books—or seen the movies, or some other vicarious knowledge of the series—knows that C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian apologist, wrote Narnia as an allegory of Biblical doctrines. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the most obvious, being an allegory of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Aslan is Jesus, the Witch is Satan, and the four Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) represent humanity. 

The symbolism doesn’t stop there, although I admit some of the overarching themes of the subsequent books are harder to pin down.  If anyone has any simple, clear-cut explanation of what Prince Caspian and The Horse and His Boy is presenting, I’d jump at the chance to hear it.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader deals with the problem of temptation.  The Silver Chair—which by the way is my favorite of the series—emphasizes the importance of memorizing what the Bible says.   The Magician’s Nephew presents the Creation story (as in Genesis), and The Last Battle is a story of the End Times (Revelation). 

In addition to this being a very good introduction to Christianity (and even if you’re not a Christian, and never intend to become one, it would be worth your while to know what Christianity stands for), The Chronicles of Narnia is a classic example of children’s literature.  The moods of the series run the gamut of emotion, from fear and sorrow to exultation and hilarity.  As I’ve said before, you know you have a good book in your hands when you can’t pick a favorite character because you love so many.  The reader will be hard-pressed to choose between Puddleglum and Reepicheep, Lucy, Diggory, Mr. Tumnus, the Beavers, Shasta, Fledge, and of course Aslan himself.  One of my personal favorites is Edmund, but Eustace Scrubb is also great in all his beastly obnoxiousness. 

I said a few moments ago that The Silver Chair is my favorite.  Part of the reason is because of Puddleglum and Eustace being in it.  But the majority of the reason is Chapter Twelve: The Queen of Underland.  My summarizing it (because the passage I love is too long to quote here) would pale in comparison to reading the actual thing. 


PARENTAL NOTES: The reason for my recommending it to ages eight and up is not because younger children won’t enjoy it, but because with things like witches and wer-wolves and dragons and sea-serpents and…well, Tash, it could be too scary.  There is no swearing aside from Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew saying the “dem.”

AVAILABILITY: One of the things I love about this segment of my blog is it’s basically an excuse to shop for books.  The “celebration of the first edition” The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe looks fantastic.  Sadly because Borders is gone there is a distinct lack of hardcover/dust-jacketed volumes, but I can suggest some standards for buying the entire series:

1.      You’re going to want to get individual volumes, not a collection of all seven novels together.  This is because all the novels in one volume is very thick and too hard on the spine for the book’s longevity.

2.      This should go without saying, but I’m going to say it: Don’t get abridged or picture book version.  That’s cheating and doesn’t count.

3.      Get the illustrations from Pauline Baynes.  This should not be hard since I think she’s the default illustrator.

4.      Get hardcover.  Seriously people, I’ve said it enough that you should have this down by now!

ADAPTATIONS: Another argument for the original order of the books as opposed to the chronological order is that if you make the movies in the order the books were written, the child actors age in perfect harmony (since by The Last Battle all the children are adults, and by the time you make seven movies the child actors have grown up) There are two sets of adaptations, neither of which are complete.  There is an older BBC series that goes through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair. The more recent films by WaldenMedia have only gotten up to Dawn Treader.  There is also an animated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from the 70’s complete with bell-bottom clad Pevensies.  Yeahhh…that happened.
ALSO!!!  There's an album by 2nd Chapter of Acts that's basically a musical waiting to be made, based on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  It's called The Roar of Love and incredible.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How Cartoons Sometimes Lie

Image obviously from the Disney cartoon. 
So talking about the book Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne and how all the characters are awesome—a hallmark sign of whether a story is great is if you can’t quite decide which character is your favorite—reminded me that Gopher is not there. 

And that, as he admits in the movie The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, is because he’s “not in the book!”  Which is kind of a shame since I like his work ethic and spankin’ miner’s helmet.
Here is a small clip from Disney's The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, although according to the all-knowing and always-right Wikipedia this is not Gopher's first appearance. Unfortunately this clip does not feature the mining helmet.

Not only is Gopher not in the book.  He’s not in THE UNITED KINGDOM.  The small burrowing rodent is indigenous to the Americas, not Europe.  How do I know this?  Well, aside from Wikipedia,* it says so on pp. 271-272 of the WORLD Book “G” Encyclopedia (1996 edition). 

I also know it because some family friends from the UK came to visit once and we went hiking.  A striped gopher (also called the thirteen-lined ground squirrel) skittered across the path right in front of me, startling me and causing me to shout “GOPHER!” in a very high-pitched and wimpy voice.  This is the socially-accepted custom when greeting a gopher here in America.

For all who have never had to deal with them digging up your begonias, this is a striped gopher.
The family friends looked at me like I had just spewed some unknown swear-word.  When I explained, pointing at the culprit (who was off giggling at me under a bush), they pointed at it and oohed and aahed like they were seeing a zebra on safari. 

So, yeah.  There are no gophers in the U.K.  So there could never have been a Gopher in the oh-so-British Hundred Acre Wood. 

Also there are no skunks in France, which makes Pep√© Le Pew a lie as well.  Just thought I’d get that off my chest because it’s been bugging me to no end.

*Which is a totally reliable source.

Monday, June 24, 2013

"Winnie-the-Pooh" and "The House at Pooh Corner": A Double-Feature Review

Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard from Winnie-the-Pooh Chapter X

Sing Ho! For the life of a Bear!
Sing Ho! For the life of a Bear!
I don’t much mind if it rains or snows,
‘Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice new nose,
I don’t much care if it snows or thaws,
‘Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice clean paws!
Sing Ho! For a Bear!
And I’ll have a little something in an hour or two!

~ The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne Chapter VIII: In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole, pg. 111

Once upon a time there was a bear named Edward.  Sound familiar?  Well it isn’t.  But if I reminded you that this bear was later given the nickname of Winnie-the-Pooh…well, things are a little clearer now, aren’t they?  And if some of you out there wonder why a boy bear has a feminine name of Winnie…then, as Christopher Robin himself points out, his name is “Winnie-THER-Pooh.”  Don’t you know what ther is?*  Of course.  It all makes sense now.

Anyone who says that Winnie-the-Pooh is for children, or is just some Disney franchise gimmick, should pretty much just shut up and read the book before making such scurrilous remarks.

Because Winnie-the-Pooh is Awesome.  Here are the reasons why:
1.      Winnie-the-Pooh is a Bear with Very Little Brain but a ton of heart.  In today’s cynical and “smart” society, we need more people like Pooh.

2.      Piglet is a very small and Timid animal who overcomes his fears and jealousies (even though he doesn’t have a forward devoted to him). 

3.      Eeyore. 

4.      Tigger is unique and jumps on everyone.

5.      Kanga forces treacle stuff down everyone’s throat.  Roo is super.

6.      Rabbit has nifty catchphrases like “why oh why oh why” and “A-ha!” and is super-paranoid. 
7.      Owl acts smarter than he actually is, and therefore is relatable to pretty much everyone in the universe.

8.      As you can see from this entry’s opening quotation, they find the North Pole.  Have YOU found the North Pole?!!!  I didn't think so.

9.      There are awesome wordplays like the broken trespassing sign being mistaken by Piglet as a sign of his grandfather’s name.  Obviously the sign which now reads “TRESPASSERS WILL” used to say “TRESPASSERS WILLIAM.”

10.  When you read Winnie-the-Pooh, you learn how to capitalize Important Words.
11.  There are plenty of poems.

12.  The book is oh-so-quotable.  If you have read it, then you are justified in looking up at dark skies from under an umbrella and exclaiming, “Tut tut, it looks like rain.”
13.  Unlike the entertainment for “kids these days,” there is a lack of meanness in the tone of Milne’s writing.  His writing invites one to delight in the characters rather than sneer at them.

14.  Also unlike the entertainment for younger kids—and many ways unlike the Disneyfied Pooh—the characters are all sympathetic, but all flawed.  Even Pooh is not above pride or selfishness at times, but these flaws in the characters are something that make them more relatable and, when they overcome such deficiencies, more admirable.

15.  Make no mistake.  Just because there’s a cartoon based on the book does not mean that these books are not Poignant.  I dare you to read the part where BOTH of Eeyore’s presents are ruined, or when Owl thinks Piglet’s house is his and Piglet generously lets him take it, and not sob your eyelids off.**  In addition to this specific example of my personal trauma, there is a dichotomy in the tone of these books: a sweetness of childhood and a sadness at growing up; a sense of transience as even Christopher Robin knows that he can’t stay in the Hundred Acre Wood forever, and yet at the same time there’s a sense that all these adventures will echo forever throughout history.

*A.A. Milne doesn’t explain this, but my theory is that it’s a grammatical male “the” like the German “der.” OHCOMEONITMAKESSENSEDON’TGIVEMETHATLOOK.

** I know that’s so gross.  But it’s also a really good description of how I felt at the time so it stays in.

RECOMMENDED READING AGE: As soon as possible.  I’m not kidding.  Do it now.  And there is no age cap for this one: even if you’re a curmudgeon you should read this book.


AVAILABILITY: Lucky for you there are tons of hardcover collectible copies with my preferred illustrator Ernest H. Shepard included.  Or, if you prefer having the books separate (and would like Milne’s two poetry collections including poems about a Certain Bear, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six—which are both really good and I’ll probably discuss those in a future entry), then you can be like me and have the four-volume Library Binding edition.

ADAPTATIONS:  There’s this one by a little-known animator named Walt Disney that has not gotten much press at all….  In all seriousness, the movie The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh  contains a lot of the events from the books.   And to be fair the animated series, The New Adventures ofWinnie-the-Pooh, while not based on the books, wasn’t all that bad.

Monday, June 17, 2013

See The Book. The Book is Good. (A little bit about Easy Readers)

I suppose I should move on from picture books at this point and talk about Easy Readers.  It’s harder for me to recommend a bevy of Easy Readers because I honestly don’t remember reading that many.  My first concrete memories of reading to myself were from chapter books, which led me to suspect that I had almost “skipped” the Reader phase.

Easy Readers fall into that “in-between” niche of a child’s life, between having an adult read to you and fluently reading to yourself.  A lot of children aren’t sure this is a smart move.  So Easy Reader publishers tend to capitalize on trends: popular picture books, graphic novels, and movies are adapted into Reader form.  A lot of the most popular Easy Readers are entitled along the lines of “Meet Batman,” “I am a Jedi,” series based on the picture books of Pinkalicious and Fancy Nancy.  Therefore you can probably go through the picture books I’ve recommended and find a corresponding Reader.  And, as a result, while I recommend a lot of those continuations from picture book to Reader, there aren’t that many independent Reader series that I remember enjoying off the top of my head.  In fact, there are only three titles that come to mind:

My Top Three Easy Readers:

The Read-It-Yourself Storybook, edited by Leland B. Jacobs 

In “third place” comes this collection of Readers published by Golden Book.  While I don’t recall reading many Easy Readers as a youngster, I distinctly remember reading and rereading the stories in this volume.  I remember liking the variety of tones, senses of humor, and the style of illustration.

Seahorse by Robert A. Morris, illustrated by Arnold Lobel

Another book I remember reading over and over until maybe I wasn’t so much “reading” it as “reciting” it.  Yet it just might be the first nonfiction book I ever read, and fittingly reflects my interest in animals.

My Minnie is a Jewel by Tricia Springstubb, pictures by Jim LaMarche 


And last but most beloved of my three memorable Easy Readers is this lovely, funny, heartwarming and imaginative story about an elderly couple.  Minnie is the absent-minded wife who constantly makes mistakes while trying to do something thoughtful for her husband.  Her husband Alfred is hard-working and understanding and loves Minnie even when things don’t go as she expects.  There’s a bit of fairy-tale element to this book when Minnie encounters two spoiled sisters and their mother as the three travel to a palace.  This book is just plain wonderful and you need to go and find it and read it if it is the next thing you do which it should be because that’s how great it truly is I kid you not.

Other Great Easy Readers:

The Dr. Seuss Books 

Naturally.  A few years ago I read The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats by Philip Nell, and it was fascinating to learn how Theodor Geisel (the mild-mannered alter ego of Dr. Seuss) designed his stories to help children make connections in how phonics create words through rhymes and nonsense-words. 

These were, I think, after my time.  My younger brother devoured them, however, whenever we could get them from the library.  They’re very simple readers and great for beginners.  They are also in high demand.

The Dan Frontier series by William Hurley and Jack Boyd

Another of my brother’s favorite readers, Dan Frontier is basically Daniel Boone.  Any boys who are fans of American history, pioneers, or westerns will love Dan’s myriad of adventures. 

The Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parish

This is another "duh" recommendation.  Of COURSE Amelia Bedelia deserves special mention on an list of recommended Easy Readers!  Lately I’ve seen tons of sequels to the original Peggy Parish books, even picture books, about the beloved yet homonym-challenged maid.  Yet in my opinion nothing beats the originals.

The Nate the Great books by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat

Another Reader series that has been continued by relatives of Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, Nate the Great is a boy detective with a nose for sniffing out clues and pancakes.  This would be a good segue for a child who loves to solve puzzles, and parents and teachers could easily work up to chapter books like Encyclopedia Brown from here.  But I think I’m getting ahead of myself….

The Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel  

I must have read this book when I was little, but the first time I really remember it is hearing my little sister sounding it out when she was first beginning to read.  I particularly remember Frog and Toad are Friends because she also had that on cassette and would listen to that over and over.  And over.  It’s a testament to how good this series is that I didn’t get thoroughly sick of it.

The Fox books by James Marshall

There is something endearingly hilarious about James Marshall’s illustrations and the characterization of the ambitious, arrogant, and thoroughly silly Fox. While I best remember Fox on the Job and Fox in Love, I would recommend any of this series to young readers.  Boys and girls alike should enjoy Fox’s fun and fantastic adventures.

*Although nothing could prepare me for how awesome actual reading feels.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tried-and-True Babysitting Books

The clich√© of babysitting is of teen-aged girls who park their charges in front of a TV and then commence raiding the fridge and calling their boyfriends.  I always saw babysitting as an opportunity to read picture books, not just because I personally enjoy them, but also because it might share my joy of reading to a younger generation.  When I babysit, there are a set of books I habitually take along, which have been tried-and-true to entertain and engage kids in the stories.  I would suggest these books not only to babysitters, but to anyone who might have kids come and visit their homes (such as grandparents or other relatives).
Whenever I babysit, my go-to books are the following:

-          Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James 

A little girl writes to her teacher Mr. Blueberry for advice when she finds a whale lost in her pool. 

Note: Apparently Mr. Blueberry has a German accent, according to the children I was reading it to.

-          If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff, Illustrated by Felicia Bond 

As you can probably gather from the title, a boy gives a mouse a cookie, and hijinks ensue.  Why that boy didn’t just eat the cookie himself I don’t know.

-          The Lady with the Ship on Her Head by Deborah Nourse Lattimore 

Madame Pompenstance is in despair of ever winning the hair-decorating contest at the ball.  Unbeknownst to her, as she leans over on the beach to put on some shells, a tiny ship docks on her head.  Great illustrations are full of color and details.

 -          Library Lil by Suzanne Williams, Illustrated by Steven Kellogg 

Super-strong Library Lil goes against the tempting distraction of TV-couch-potatoism and a gang of motorcycle goons. 

-          Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch by Trinka Hakes Noble, pictures by Tony Ross 

Rancher Hicks goes to town.  His wife Elna stays home.  The story vacillates between the ho-hum life of town and all the events that happen meanwhile back at the ranch.  This is a fun book to read with varied speeds: read as slow and sleepy as you can when reading the town scenes, then read as fast as you can during the ranch scenes.

-          Oscar’s Book by Jeffrey Moss, pictures of Michael Gross  
The illustrator’s name is “Gross” and he’s drawing Oscar the Grouch?  Coincidence?  I think not.

-          Outrageous, Bodacious, Boliver Boggs! By Jo Harper, pictures by JoAnn Adinolfi 

Any book that encourages reading aloud in a Southern Twang is fine by me.

-          What Do You Do With A Kangaroo? By Mercer Mayer 

After a long day of reading nice, sweet girl characters like Fancy Nancy or Ladybug Girl, it’s nice to even things out by reading about a girl bossing around various wild animals who are trying to steal her toothbrush.   Now THAT’S a girl I can relate to!

The virtue of these Sesame Street books is that they are for the most part interactive: the characters in the books ask the reader questions, give instructions, and otherwise engage children with the story as it unfolds. 

My other favorites include:

-          A Little House of Your Own by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and Irene Haas 

It is a dire tragedy that I do not own this book.  I think I’ll have to steal it from my mom.
Note: Contrary to what this illustration might seem to say out of context,
this book does not actually promote hoboism.
-          Julius, the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes    

Stroke!  Admire!  Kiss! This is the book of the world! 

I’ve read a few of these books, about a child adjusting to the arrival of a new baby in the family.  However no one can usurp Lilly the Mouse’s way of dealing with it.    I’ve read this book so many times I can even understand the Spanish version Julius, El Rey De La Casa, even though the only Spanish I know is from Veggietales’ Dance of the Cucumber and the phrase “no comprende”*
-          Ollie Forgot by Tedd Arnold 

Ollie is a forgetful boy whose mother sends him to market for some food.  In order to remember the list of items, he repeats them to himself.  He also tends to repeat the last words anyone says to him, which soon replaces his grocery list in his memory and sends him on a meandering adventure through the village. 

-          The Cheerful Quiet by Betty Horvath

Like A Little House of Your Own, this is the sort of quiet story that makes a good bed-time book, about the small pleasant things that make you feel safe and happy when you are a child.

-          Melisande by E. Nesbit, illustrated by P.J. Lynch 

Melisande is like a cross between Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and a math lesson.  E. Nesbit is well-known for her stories that teach “be careful what you wish for,” and this one is no exception. 

-          The Obadiah books by Brinton Turkle (such as The Adventures of Obadiah) 

Think Quakers are “plain” and boring?  Think again.  Obadiah is constantly being carried away by his imagination and dreams. 

-          The Cranberry books by Wende and Harry Devlin (such as Cranberry Thanksgiving)

With illustrations that have clean, crisp lines and vivid colors, as well as a cast of characters peopling a small town that seems so real and inviting, how can you resist the holiday-themed adventures of Mr. Whiskers, Grandmother, and Maggie?  If that doesn’t sell you, how about the cranberry recipes included in the back of each book?

-          George Shrinks by William Joyce 

A little boy wakes up to find he’s shrunk, his parents have gone, and he has a list of chores to do.  While perhaps not P.C. by modern standards (who leaves their kids to watch their baby brother?  This is even worse than The Cat in the Hat!  Report these fictional parents already!), I can’t help but like this book, and kind of want George to enlist as one of the sailors on that ship that was on Lady Pompenstance’s head.

-          The Frank and Ernest books by Alexandra Day

These are the stories of an elephant and bear who take on odd jobs where they have to learn the specific jargon, such as diner-speak in Frank and Ernest and baseball lingo in Frank and Ernest Play Ball. 

-          The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea by Tony Johnston and Warren Ludwig

Another book that’s fun to read aloud just because you can do Southern accents, this is a hilarious, flip-flop retelling of The Princess and the Pea.

-          The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper 

Apparently this was one of the books I made my parents read to me over and over and over and over…you get the point.  Don’t worry; I stopped demanding it as a bed-time story eventually…about two years ago, in fact. 

*Which, I have been informed, is grammatically incorrect.  Which pretty much proves my point that I don’t speak Spanish.