Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"The Chronicles of Narnia": A Review

“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. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How Cartoons Sometimes Lie

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.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "The House at Pooh Corner": A Double-Feature Review

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 word-plays 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.

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

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:

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tried-and-True Babysitting Books

The cliché 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:

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Illustrious Art of Children’s Picture Books

I’m an adult, I read picture books, and I am not ashamed.* Picture book authors and illustrators not only have to be skilled storytellers (and keep the attention of some very attention-deficit individuals…and sometimes also their children, too), they have to condense that storytelling quality into very few pages. All the character development, relationships, plot points, conflict—in short, all the good storytelling qualities you find in an adult-length novel—have to be established in maybe a few dozen pages at the most. For that, if nothing else, picture books are to be commended.