Books Are Pretty

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

A bus driver is taking a break, and asks your child to watch the bus for him. "Whatever you do," he warns, "Don't let the pigeon drive the bus!"

As soon as he leaves, the pigeon pops up and the begging begins, starting with polite wheedling and finishing in a full blown toddler temper tantrum.

Like Kevin Henke, author and Emmy-winning Sesame Street writer Mo Willems has a gift for creating excellent children's books. Pigeon, with its thick pencil outlines and quick colored pencil illustrations, seems at first as if it's drawn with haste, but upon closer inspection, Willems' gift of using simplicity to create more complex emotions and humor is obvious. The pigeon is yet another in a long line of uptight, slightly control-freakish characters that Sesame Street has perfected.

Children think the continued and growing frustration of these characters, who often have their hearts set on ridiculous things, is hilarious, and there is nothing Christopher likes better than shouting, "NO!" each time the pigeon begs to drive a city bus around the block.

Finally, the bus driver returns, and asks the child directly if s/he has allowed the pigeon to drive.

This book is just perfect for toddlers. It puts the car keys in their hands and gives them the chance to frustrate the demands of someone else - toddlers like holding the reins for a change, and instead of showing mercy, they often become as big a party pooper as mom or dad. Willems also knows the key of comedy is portraying an element of one's own self into the characters. Children know all too well what it's like to want to drive a car, or take a sip of coffee, or walk around the block by themselves, and how frustrating it is to hear "no" in response to their requests. Pigeon shows them that recognizable part, and teaches them to have a sense of humor about it.

Age appropriate for ages 1½ years to 3.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.

Susan Jane Gilman's first book, 2001's Kiss My Tiara!, was the first book on feminism that I ever read. I enjoyed it tremendously, but at that time the only other feminists I knew were reading MacKinnon and lobbing words like "epistemology" and "phallocentric" back and forth to each other while deconstructing Derrida and Judith Butler, whose work read like a dissertation on tax law even when the topic was something as flamboyantly outrageous as transgenderism. Meanwhile, I'm puffing alongside them with Gilman, trying to keep up as I read things like "you will not get a raise unless you ask for one."

"I'd like to discuss this new book I'm reading," I offered. No one bit. I tried again. "Has anybody read it? Nobody wants to discuss it? I'm finding it really helpful."

Finally, someone responded, "That's so nice that you've found a book that's helping you," she said patronizingly (matronizingly?), "but we're discussing things that are a little more advanced."

I see.

A few months later my friend Lisa and I were on State Street, crossing the Chicago River. I'd met her for lunch and was walking her back to her office.

"I'm making less money than anyone in my department," she complained, "and I'm working twice as hard. My boss says I'm doing the best job there, so I don't understand why she hasn't given me a raise."

"Have you asked for one?"

"No, but...I don't think I could just walk in there and ask for more money."

"Why not? That's what men do. And they get it. If you don't tell her you want more money, she'll tell herself you don't really want it."

Two weeks later Lisa asked for, and got, a raise.

Judith Butler may deconstruct transexuals, but Gilman was the one that got Lisa the money she deserved. When Gilman's latest book, a memoir called Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress came out at the beginning of this year, I happily bought it.

I picked it up after We Need to Talk About Kevin, because that book freaked me right out, and I needed a funnier, more light-hearted book to read by the pool.

Gilman came through for me again, writing of a New York City bohemian childhood spent among hippies. Hypocrite roars right out of the starting gate with a hilarious tale of a socialist camp in upstate New York where she spent her fourth summer with her parents and two dozen hippies and their children, making an avant garde film called Camp.

The morning that Camp was to begin filming, I woke up so excited, I didn't want to eat breakfast. But there wasn't any breakfast to be had - my mother was already down at the lake, watching Alice shoot the first scene.

"Come take a look, sweetie," said my dad. "It's really something." Until that moment, it hadn't occurred to me that there might actually be other people in the movie besides [...] me. Following my father down to the lake, I didn't know what to expect: perhaps Alice would be seated in a director's chair while a few colonists milled around in sparkly costumes, awaiting my arrival. Maybe there'd be people practicing tap-dancing, or a collie with a red ribbon around its neck, being groomed to appear as my sidekick.
What I did not expect to see was twenty-seven hippies cramming themselves into a pink and purple VW Bug.

Gilman becomes disgruntled watching the hippies fold themselves in the beetle like origami chickens dipped Day-Glo paint, and wandered over to a grove of trees with the other children, who begin to pass the time playing a game in which one person farted into a paper bag, then everyone else took turns sniffing it.

The stories of her formative years go hilariously onward as Gilman confesses to changing her name to Sapphire and her ethnic background from Jewish to Puerto Rican. Once she lured me into this light breezy memoir, she sucker punched me hard with describing her trip to Auschwitz, on assignment as a reporter for the Jewish Weekly. As she walks from the rooms full of glasses and shoes, to the gas chamber, to the crematoriums with their "human-sized spatulas" protruding from them, she realizes she is "out of jokes; [she is] utterly alone." Gilman breaks down and cries, and I cried, too, right there under the bright summer sun at the water park, sitting in a beach chair as Alex flumed down the giant water slide over and over.

Hypocrite read a lot like a waltz in many ways, joke, joke, punch; joke, joke, punch; but I was taken by surprise every time she allowed a moment of anger or sadness bubble through.

In many ways, I feel like I imprinted on Gilman as a feminist mentor just like a duckling will follow around the first person she sees. Kiss My Tiara! gave me good practical advice for making my way through the world without losing my sense of humor, and Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress allowed me to feel good about that.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Skippyjon Jones

This is not a bedtime story. Skippyjon Jones is a story you read to children to get them all whipped up before you turn them loose on the playground. Or on Grandma and Grandpa. Written by Judy Schachner, the story revolves around a Siamese kitten who has been banished to his room by his mother for pretending he is a bird.

"Think about just what it means," she scolds, "to be a Siamese cat!"

While bouncing on his bed and singing songs to himself as a way to wait out his punishment, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. With his overly large head on a small body and even larger ears, Skippy Jon Jones is amazed at his resemblance to a chihuahua. Thus inspired, he imagines himself to be in Old Mexico at the turn of the 20th century, leading a pack of sword-fighting chihuahua banditos against the evil bean-stealing Bumblebito.

Full of Spanish phrases and songs, this book is impossible for me to read out loud without sounding like Speedy Gonzales. I had no idea Warner Brothers had sunk into my consciousness so thoroughly, but now that I think about it, my French accent does sound quite a bit like Pepe LePeu. le purr! le hissss! le row-rowrrr!

But Alex doesn't know who Speedy Gonzales is, so as far as he's concerned the outrageous accent is all mine. And he gets totally engrossed in the story of the great little swordfighter versus the evil bean-stealer, and enjoys looking at the slightly surrealistic, vividly colored illustrations, too.

Skippyjon Jones is such a great read aloud, I actually think it would be better read in front of a Kindergarten class. Elementary school teachers, knock yourselves out.

Buy the book!
Age Appropriate for ages 5-8

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

I'll Give You Kisses.

Originally titled "Smile for Auntie" when it was first published in 1976, Diane Paterson's I'll Give You Kisses lets you visit the golden age of 70's cartoons in all its glorious urban chic.

The plot: Auntie, dressed in a shapeless purple coat, tan boots, and a polka-dotted babushka knotted tightly around her head, tries to coax a smile from her Uncle-Festerish nephew, who ain't havin' it.

The story is best read with the storyteller taking on the role of Auntie and the listener taking on the role of the baby. As we progress through the story - "I'll tickle your tummy! I'll tickle your toes! I'll tickle you all over!" I mimic the action in the book with Christopher. He has yet to make it through the entire book without at least one belly laugh.

The illustrations are reminiscent of old school Sesame Street cartoons and they carry us happily along as Auntie twists herself in knots to get Junior to flash his pearly white. Junior gets more and more visibly agitated all the way up to the surprise ending.

Christopher has been crazy for this book for the past week. He understands that there's a punchline at the end, and he's trying very hard to not only grok what the words mean and how they relate to the drawings, but also why the joke at the end is funny.

After I've read the story through at least twice, we discuss what happened, and why things turned out the way they did, and what the ending could have meant.

Most authors go through their entire career's without having a book as rigorously discussed as Paterson's. If you judge a book's quality by its ability to provoke thought, I'll Kive You Kisses is a triumph of modern literature!

Appropriate for ages Birth to 3 years.

Buy the book!

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