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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

Sweet Reading

Pictures books can be a great medium to introduce traditions to children, especially those that a child isn’t likely to encounter at all, or experience only partially.

Take Diwali, for instance. My mother’s vivid stories of the festivities when she was a child herself differ considerably from my own Diwali experiences. Living in another country where the festival does not warrant a public holiday, my own rendering of Diwali is so modified, that I suspect my son might never really feel the Diwali spirit, which is very like, and yet very unlike, the mood that prevails during Christmas in the West. I know that a scrapbook of photos and notes could tell the story much much better than I ever can. It would begin on the eve of Diwali, with the shikakai paste and sesame oil being set aside for the next day’s ritual hair wash; with the new clothes being neatly laid out, ready for tomorrow; with buttery goodies being lovingly made, some sweet and others savory; with the traditional deepavali leghiyam being prepared, a digestive intended to offset the effects of over indulgence. Details that would require artful illustrations. And there is a lot more to Diwali than the firecrackers, really.

Maple Syrup Season written by Ann Purmell and illustrated by Jill Weber is much like a scrapbook. The story is set in the Brockwell family’s sugar bush and follows the enthusiastic aunts, uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers and cousins as they get busy one maple syrup season tapping, collecting and boiling sap into sweet, thick syrup. There really isn’t much of a plot, except to follow the various members of the family as they harmoniously work to make syrup and reap the sweet rewards of their hard work. It does make the point that making syrup is hard, hard work that requires many hands, many early mornings and late nights in snowy winter and early spring. The illustrations are cheerful and busy with lots of details. My two and a half year old  enjoyed spotting and naming our winter friends, some that he has see in his own backyard: robins, cardinals, blue jays, squirrels, and deer, red foxes, owls and chipmunks. He may not have understood the syrup making process down to the last detail, but he does know that sap comes from trees, which is then cooked to make the maple syrup and treats that he so enjoys. He knows that holes are made in trees and spouts inserted, so that the sap can drip into buckets. When we followed-up our many book-reading sessions with a maple sugaring event on a windy afternoon, he got to see it all: sap, spouts and buckets. He can now make a connection between the food that he eats and the trees that he sees during summer walks

He was not the only one that learned a thing or two. I’ll be the first to admit that Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. Well, many things. I learned about maple sugaring terminology, while my son learned  a new word: hibernation. He might have also learned to appreciate winter fashion and the different styles of winter hats. Maybe he will reject his blue trapper hat and demand a beanie. Maybe.

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Remember when iconic, fictional Carrie Bradshaw decides to pay Big’s ex a visit? When Carrie discovers that Barbara is part of a children’s book publishing unit, she famously makes up a story, about dear Little Cathy.

Barbara: What makes Little Cathy special?

Carrie: Well, she’s got these magic cigarettes….Little Cathy and her magic cigarettes. Whenever she lights up, she can go anywhere in the whole wide world…Arabia, New Jersey…

Barbara: You want to write a children’s book about smoking?

Carrie: It’s a children’s book for adults.

Barbara: You’re outrageous. I love it!

Jeff Kinney has probably without doubt succeeded where Carrie failed. Wimpy kid, Greg Heffley is a hit, among the kids.

I saw my first Wimpy Kid book in an eight year old’s book shelf. He was a collector and was looking forward to the release of the latest book in the series. I spent a few seconds flipping through the book and decided the format looked interesting. I was also curious about eight year olds’ reading preferences (the parent in me speaking). And so when I saw a rare Wimpy Kid book lurking on the bookshelves of the local library, I considered myself fortunate that it was not on hold for some kid, and checked it out right away. I happen to like sardonic humor, and all the cynicism and sarcasm was not totally lost on me. Middle school, high school or even college, tend not to be the shiniest years for many adults, and (for some) it can perhaps be funny reminiscing about all the fun times when some of us were pimply, gauche adolescents trying desperately to be cool (or not to be uncool).

While I found the book funny, funny enough that I would consider reading another book in the series, I also felt uncomfortable that this was being marketed as a children’s book. I can’t really put my finger on it – there is nothing that screams ‘inappropriate’ to me, but somehow an adult’s recollection of middle school misery, funny as it may be, may not necessarily be suitable for middle schoolers. I can imagine that many kids would ‘identify’ with Greg – who doesn’t like to read ‘classics’ like Little Women, likes to spend most of his time either playing video games or sleeping, is socially awkward, is beginning to find the opposite sex attractive, who is lazy and doesn’t like to eat his vegetables. In other words, he is not particularly likeable. He, however, does seem to be wise beyond his years (not in a very good way) and has a dry sense of humor that is perhaps somewhat unusual for kids his age (or not?).

I found out the reason Mom took us to the water park today: It was half price for families.

I don’t believe that protagonists have to be particularly pleasant – in fact wicked can be spectacularly funny. I also don’t believe that all books have to dole out life lessons. But I am an adult.

I understand that my memories of being a child are from over a decade ago, and that reading and other entertainment preferences for children have since then evolved. But I am not sure I want my child to appreciate this kind of dry humor so early in life – it seems that it would be tantamount to losing one’s childhood. I would be very sad indeed if children these days bid a premature farewell to childhood even before they hit their tenth birthdays. Though the book does deal with real feelings that many of us go through: wanting to be popular, being aware of what one has and what one does not have, wanting to go up against parental authority, feeling misunderstood; I am not sure if the book would really help a child deal with these feelings, other than reinforce the idea that unpleasantness and laziness can be cool.

On the other hand, if I was a kid growing up today, I’m sure I would feel that the adult in me was being unjustifiably paranoid. After all, the book is funny.

The series is certainly a good candidate for summer reading for young adults (I am still not sure it is suitable for children), especially if they are not a big fan of the Reading is Fun club. They might not read their Little Women, but they’ll gladly read the Diary.

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This week I was introduced to a Canadian Toddler, Caillou (pronounced kye-you), via a board book – Caillou Bad Dreams. Caillou does not have hair and Chouette Publishing says:

Caillou stands for all children. He doesn’t have curly blond hair, a carrot-top, brown hair, glasses, or ethnic features, because he represents all children. We wanted to make Caillou universal so every child could identify with him. And they do! Caillou’s baldness may make him different, but we hope it’s helping children understand that being different isn’t just okay, it’s normal.

In this book, Caillou wakes up scared and crying one night because he has a bad dream. He calls for his mother who rushes to comfort him. She cuddles and rocks Caillou and when he is feeling better, she tucks him in and returns to her bed. After this episode, Caillou wakes up every night and his mommy rocks him to sleep every time he wakes up crying. Except when one night, daddy comes. Daddy, however, does not rock Caillou like mommy does. Instead, he asks Caillou to rock his tired teddy bear to sleep and goes back to his own bed. Caillou cries a bit , but soon feels comforted by teddy’s cozy hug that reminds him of mommy. He soon feels better and falls asleep. The assumption is that he stops having bad dreams.

Mommy is sweet, but daddy is smart, isn’t he? An adult version of Caillou, might look into how mommy and daddy react when they hear their son calling out for them (or for mommy) in the middle of the night.

But tonight, mommy was very tired. She hadn’t slept for four nights in a row. She looked at daddy sleeping beside her, shook him gently and said, “Maybe you should try comforting him today. I had a long day at work. I am really tired.” Daddy was tired too. He said, “But Caillou asked for his mommy.” Nevertheless, he got up and shuffled slowly next door.

Or maybe Caillou’s mother was angrier and grumpier. Or maybe not.

This time, Caillou’s daddy jumped out of the bed. “Wait”, he said to mommy who was getting ready to go comfort Caillou. “Today, I’ll handle it”. “But”, mommy said, “he asked for me.”. “He is getting into this habit and knows you will go to him every night if he cries for you. You didn’t let me go yesterday, but today I’m going to take care of this.” Daddy took determined steps towards Caillou’s room.

My 2 year old loves Caillou Bad Dreams. But no amount of coaxing can make him sleep in his own bed with teddy. Maybe it’s time daddy worked his magic.

Update: Caillou has been quite a happy discovery for me and my son. He has enjoyed watching Caillou take a road trip, pick strawberries and apples, and celebrate his birthday. I am still not sure I understand his baldness though, because everyone else in his family is white and has a mop of red-brown hair, so his ethnicity is quite obvious.

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