A Cute Owl and the Beautiful Colorful

WOW! Said the Owl, by Tim Hopgood. Farrar, 2009.

Dr. V.’s take:51wemv1mrul

My youngest kid has previously used “beautiful colorful” as a noun. As in, “look at what I drew! It’s a beautiful colorful!” He also does this with “warm” to describe the cozy sensation of being under a blanket with someone; as soon as I grab my tea and an afghan I have come to expect an inevitable, “ooooh, can be in the warm too???”

Blithely playing fast and loose with grammar is the young human’s only appeal to Darwinism. Though our young are oblivious and possessed of terrible survival skills, adult humans put in the work to keep them alive and healthy and sometimes even sort of clean because they are sincere and effusive and warm in both senses of the word, and they phrase things in ways that can startle our jaded old souls back from the brink of abject bitterness.

Because when you’re guiding a tiny human through this life, you are continually faced with difficult moments and conversations, but so too are you constantly confronted with a parade of beautiful colorfuls that can’t be taken away by a tight budget or horrifying governmental action. Sometimes the world looks flatly depraved, but a little goober brings you into the warm and reminds you of things that are always, always yours, that life is a full and flawed container of multitudes.

I’m a documented fan of Hopgood’s illustration style, and here it’s combined with his own words, a tale of an absurdly cute owl (possibly irresistible even to those with owl fatigue leftover from 2011) who leans in to her curiosity about the day time. She is delighted by what she discovers in the noonday sun, so much so that one wonders if perhaps she will decide to leave her nocturnal ways behind forever—-but, happily, she brings what she learns from the experience back to her natural rhythm and lets it enrich her viewpoint of the night she had been taking for granted.

Wow! Said the Owl is a quick, bright read that’s the perfect inauguration to fall, in that chronicles the colors in much the same fun, holistic way as Jorge Lujan’s Colors! ¡Colores! and serves as a happy little break in the middle of the day or before bedtime. Plus, the title and refrain is fun to say out loud. Wins all around.


Dr. V’s favorite classics: Bea and Mr. Jones

After the other day’s ranty post about an overrated classic, today let’s celebrate an underrated one!

Bea and Mr. Jones, by Amy Schwartz. Harcourt, 1982. 51qxvu6uetl

Dr. V’s take:

We’re familiar with the Freaky Friday plot: two people switch places (or even bodies) for a finite period of time and live life in each other’s shoes. Bonus points if the two people butt heads or appear to be opposites in any way at the beginning of the story, because the journey to mutual respect by the end is all the more gratifying.

Besides Freaky Friday‘s many (many!) remakes—-so many that people don’t realize that the original Freaky Friday was a young adult book from 1972—-this plot device has been employed by such illustrious works as Olsen twins movie It Takes Two, Eddie Murphy/Dan Akroyd movie Trading Places, the candy-maker episode of I Love Lucy, and multiple Disney Channel Original Movies.

The Freaky Friday genre peaked early, you guys. I give you Bea and Her Father—-one of the world’s most underrated children’s books that has everything great about this trading-places plot but also turns the tables on it. As I’ve noted before, pulling off a surprise ending in a children’s book is a rare, beautiful skill; this one will make you “HA!” out loud.

In addition to the adorable premise that Bea would be just as tired of pasting things on other things in kindergarten as her father is of meetings and paperwork, the illustrations—-in that classic line-y textured style*—-of five-year-old Bea in a suit at business meetings are hilarious and the ease with which everyone accepts their swap is delightfully weird.

Bea and Mr. Jones is also refreshingly 1980s about Bea being a girl. Compare these LEGO ads that circulated a few years ago with this one, and you can kind of see what I mean. Bea and Mr. Jones imagines a world in which a five-year-old girl is readily accepted as an executive with no resistance whatsoever, and she finds that it suits her well, even though there are no princesses in sight. We’ve made progress since the 1980s in many ways, but its possible that we’ve lost some things, too: if you’re weary of the constant drumbeat of princesses and sparkles, a girl protagonist for whom the “girl” part doesn’t have to be expressed in that exact way, and who feels no need to explain herself to anyone, is a great find.

But the surprise ending is really the best part. Go read the book before you read anymore of this post, because I really don’t want to ruin it for you.

Go on!

Did you do it?


****spoiler warning****

We know how this story was supposed to go: everybody was supposed to learn a Very Important Lesson about how it feels to be someone other than yourself. Or, as we used to hear it phrased back when we had a POTUS who knew how to do sentences, how it feels to “climb into [another’s] skin and walk around in it.” Empathy, compassion, blah blah blah.

But Bea and her father are like, eh. Instead of learning to appreciate their own lives and respect each other’s struggles more, Bea and her father find that they really like being an ad exec/kindergartner. It turns out that bosses at ad advertising firms are on the same wavelength as strong-willed five-year-olds, while the values of kindergarten skew more toward cooperation and sharing (and of course, the ability to reach things is highly coveted). Bea and her father declare the swap a permanent success and everybody lives happily ever after. It is silly and charming and brilliant and a perfect book.




*I tried to find out if this style has a name, but came up empty. If you know about it, leave a comment or shoot me message!

UGH: Rainbow Fish

Awww, a book about a fish who learns to share! Or a book about a bunch of other nonspecial fish who learn to ostracize others until they receive the bribe they feel they so richly deserve. One of those.

Inquisitive mop-top: But why does the Rainbow Fish give away all of his scales, Dr. V?

Dr. V: Because, darling, the community surrounding Rainbow Fish was so petty and resentful of anybody different from them that they actually demanded that he decimate his literal body and give it to them as an offering before they would accept him. It’s a garbage book and it belongs in the garbage.

Inquisitive mop-top (who is astonishingly precocious and definitely not imaginary): But Dr. V, Rainbow Fish seems like a book you would love! It’s got all of your favorite things: beautiful full-page pictures, a misfit protagonist, and socialism!

Dr. V: True, wee nugget. Also true: Rainbow Fish began the book hella obnoxious. Flitting around marveling at how beautiful you are is lowkey rude and it also makes you very, very boring. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Kim Kardashian’s Instagram.

Im-t(wiapadni): And isn’t this book about [streams of pure light] [angel choir] ~*~*~*sharing~*~*~*~???

Dr. V: No, my dear baby musk ox, it is about a perversion of sharing: the lack of respect for anybody’s boundaries.

If the story of Rainbow Fish depicted its title character learning how to give the world something other than his shallow self-importance, and in so doing, making connections with others that eases his loneliness, I’d be on board.

If the story of Rainbow Fish depicted its title character learning how to show compassion for those less fortunate than he is, or returning the kindness of the those around him by sharing his beautiful scales, I’d be able to overcome the this-is-part-of-his-actual-body aspect of it and get on board.


The story of Rainbow Fish depicts a mildly obnoxious gifted fish getting denigrated and brought down by all of the jealous uggos around him. One of them has the nerve to come up and ask Rainbow Fish to give him one of his scales. When RF refuses to remove a piece of his body and give it to him, Mr. Entitled-Fins gets angry with him, and all of the other fish side with Mr. E-F. Rainbow Fish caves, and this is a Valuable Lesson because it teaches children the universal virtues of recognizing the fact that everyone else is entitled to anything they ask for, so you should never hesitate to dismember yourself to suit others’ desires.

Rainbow Fish ends the book with lots of friends, of course, which teaches a second no less important lesson that if nobody likes you, you should give them stuff until they do; and that being special is bad, so if you’re special, make sure you unspecial yourself until everybody is the same.


The real lesson to be learned here, children, is that jerks deserve each other. #classic

Let us leave them to their dysfunction forever and go be cool to each other elsewhere.

Author Spotlight: Sara Varon

This has gone on long enough. It is high time we discussed Sara Varon.


Last year, Varon released a collection of short stories, comics, and journal entries that discuss her creative process called Sweaterweather (First Second, 2016); part of the inspiration for starting this blog was so that I would have somebody to talk to about my love for writers like Sara Varon. Varon is less prolific than some of the other writers I’ve covered in the spotlights, but literally every last project she’s been involved with is delightful.

Graphic novels for middle-grade readers are kind of a big thing right now. We’re getting graphic-novel adaptations of classics, like Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale’s Rapunzel/Jack and the Beanstalk reboots, autobiographical stories like Raina Telgemeir’s work, and even strip comics collected into books, like Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate series.

Respectfully, I submit that Sara Varon is the indisputable world champion of this cohort, and this is for two reasons:

1. In a world of reboots and the lamentable Everykid phenomenon I mentioned here, Varon’s characters are new, interesting, and a special blend of weird and relatable.

Sometimes this characterization is explicit, as in Odd Duck, which was written by Cecil Castellucci but illustrated with Varon’s signature whimsy, about the friendship of two ducks who don’t quite fit in with the other ducks, or anybody else either, and who aren’t even that much alike between themselves. But affection for the “odd duck” is a cornerstone of Varon’s milieu even when she’s not illustrating literally odd actual ducks. Her characters are all animals, anthropomorphic desserts, or robots, but they are somehow really believable, and her worldbuilding always makes a strange sort of sense. The anteater family in Robot Dreams eats ants, because obviously, but they also enjoy snowball fights and sledding, because obviously. Similarly, the robot shouldn’t swim, because hello rust, but it does enjoy dancing and books, because who doesn’t?

What’s more, Varon’s books explore the task that so often eludes the odd duck: how to forge real, genuine connections in a society that doesn’t seem to have set itself up to quite welcome you, personally. In Odd Duck‘s example, the ups and downs of Theodora and Chad’s friendship teaches them how to discern when differences are superficial and how they can coexist with connections that run much deeper.  Chad may not share Theodora’s preference for tidyness and she may not care for his favorite music, but they share an appreciation for the notion that the world is much bigger than them and support each other’s instincts to be curious.  e1f2720d93d86f791c27a982181c5d00odd59

In Robot Dreams, a graphic novel with a more literal take on the title of an Isaac Asimov short story, Robot and Dog are unable to circumvent the obstacles, both coincidental and self-inflicted, that separated them; they both end up moving on with others. But this more bittersweet ending is okay, too, because sometimes the stars just don’t align for particular relationships to work out, and sometimes that’s okay, too. And in Bake Sale, Cupcake learns how to balance her solitary pursuits with maintaining her relationships with others.

These lessons are thorny and complicated, but Varon presents them with warmth and fun and subtle humor.

2. Her books are genre-bending in ways that they don’t get credit for.

Her books are marketed to children and housed in children’s sections because of their pastel color palettes, ultra-G-rated content, and tenor of kindness and warmth. But they are the best example I have ever seen of media that is truly for “all ages,” if only we can get the heck over our need to categorize books by their shape and size.

Because Robot Dreams is a graphic novel with no text, the reader plays a significant role in infusing the story—-whose ending isn’t unhappy, but it’s not of the straightforward “and then everybody got exactly what they thought they wanted after all” variety—-with meaning and nuance. An eight-year-old can certainly read it, and sit with it, and discuss it from his perspective, but it was also pretty universally embraced by the college students I assigned it to in my university teaching days, and it’s a personal favorite of mine. (Side note: Robot Dreams‘s publisher, First Second, is pretty dope generally if you’re into graphic novels; I highly recommend checking them out.) Odd Duck works as a read-aloud if you skip the talk bubbles and stick with the narration in the captions, but is even better read silently to oneself.

Bake Sale and Chicken and Cat are perhaps Varon’s most early- and middle-grade-reader-specific titles, but these, like the aforementioned Justin Case books, are of the type that one can read as an adult concurrently with one’s child and still find engaging and fun.

If you have never read a book by Sara Varon, your life is more tragic than you know. Get thee to a library or a local bookstore and give her a try!

All ages
Robot Dreams, First Second, 2007.
Odd Duck (illust.; written by Cecil Castellucci), First Second, 2013.

Early- to middle-grade readers
Bake Sale, First Second, 2011.
Chicken and Cat, First Second, 2006.


Grumpy Goat and What to Do with the Sad that You Feel

Grumpy Goat, by Brett Helquist. HarperCollins, 2013.61ticg-ri6l-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Dr V.’s take:

One thing people like about kids is how damn happy they can be. Extremely medium jokes about interrupting cows are the height of hilarity in their worldview—-and never (ever!) get old!—-and they can turn pretty much anything into irrational amounts of joy: crunchy leaves, the existence of squirrels, their own butts. If you can get past the mysterious perpetual stickiness, it’s hard not to laugh when you’re around a little kid for any extended period of time. I’ve often tried to remember what it felt like to have a heart so open, but I can’t get back there with any significant lucidity.

Open hearts, however, are also susceptible to disappointment (see: tantrums; the flip side of the ability to act like a basic trip to the park is a party in your honor is the inability to control your devastation at being asked to wear a coat because it is winter.)

And small, young people experience loss, too, and grief and sadness.

Less gravely, they also sometimes just wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and want to try out cantankerousness for awhile and see how it suits them.

For these days, as in all days, we need books.

Enter Grumpy Goat, a very sweet book about cantankerousness and grief.

When Goat first arrives at the farm, he’s similar to a contestant on The Bachelor in that he’s not there to make friends: “He just kept his head down, scowled, and ate.” (Goat’s hunger, and his inability to feel satiated, may ring familiar, which is brilliant or awful, depending on how much you’re in the mood for a children’s picture book to gaze into your termite-infested soul). hqdefaultBut when he comes across something that strikes him as beautiful, his impulse to care for it disrupts his glare-eat-glare routine, and makes room for some pretty cool games of tag and companionship with his peers.

In many—-maybe even most—-children’s books, this would be the end of the story. And Goat lived happily ever after.

Grumpy Goat takes us a little further, however: the bright days don’t last forever. But when Goat finds himself grieving a loss, his new friends’ response is itself beautiful, too: the pigs “sit with him awhile”; Cow brings him dinner; and “the sheep don’t know what to do, so they stay nearby.” And when Goat is ready to be happy again, so are they.

Helquist packs this model for how to feel hard feelings, and how to help a friend who is feeling hard feelings, into a concise, perfectly paced story—-a sentence or two per page against soothing, full-size illustrations.

* * * * * * *


Check this video of Mr. Rogers explaining why PBS matters to a Senate subcommittee, using his song “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?”

The Virtues of Forgoing Universality: The Case of Justin Case

We (I) here at Dr. V dot com enterprises (my house) have thus far focused mainly on read-alouds for the preschool set for this blog, mostly because there are bazillions and bazillions of them and also you have to read them out loud so it seems worthwhile to keep a running tally of the standouts.

The problem of bazillions and bazillions is less of a thing with books for the older-but-only-so-much-older-than-preschool set, however. Call it the Mean of Eight category: books for those six- to ten-year-olds who have been reading for a while and are way too grown-up to have picture books read to them and yet are actually not very old as far as human beings go. There are still one bazillion, probably, in my very scientific guess, but….a lot of the aren’t very good.

You can’t go wrong turning to that renaissance we seemed to have in the 1960s and 1970s, with the likes of Cleary (I think Strider is underrated), Dahl, and Blume (ditto her weirdo story Freckle Juice). But, as relatable as they somehow remain, these books do present needlepoint as a common hobby and act like going to the corner store by oneself as a 7-year-old is normal; modern books as good as these classics can seem hard to come by.

But not impossible! and we’re going to start talking about more of them around here. Starting with:

The Justin Case books, by Rachel Vail. (Illust. by  Matthew Cordell). Feiwel and Friends (imprint of MacMillan), since 2010.justincase

Dr. V.’s take:

Justin Krzeszewski (he’s half-Jewish; everybody always messes up his name) is just about the nicest kid I’ve ever met. And yet he’s a great example of how being eight means that sometimes your good intentions aren’t quite in line with your social skills, and situations can kind of get away from you.

jc2_04Justin is precocious but also kind of strangely worrywart-y for a kid his age—-hence his nickname, Justin Case. He frets about the largeness of his friend’s head (turns out to be a nonissue, believe it or not), whether there will be sharks at the beach (shockingly, there aren’t), and he takes the liberty of searching the classifieds for new jobs for his parents in New Jersey so he can avoid starting a new school year in third grade (“no movement…, despite all my arguments”).

Justin’s uniqueness is one of my favorite things about him as a character, and Vail makes him totally believable. In my view, too many books aimed at kids this age try to create these Everyboy/Everygirl protagonists (and heaven forfend the ‘twain should meet); the medium-looking, medium-talented, medium kid, who accidentally does some shenanigans and along the way learns the True Meaning of Friendship or other family value.  It’s bland, and it’s also a bummer, because in order to work it relies on certain common ground with readers that may or may not actually exist (see, for example, the stuff I said about apartments in this post).

Justin, however, is his own person. And even though Justin’s natural nervousness might not be something everyone feels themselves, it makes him real. Real characters are always better than imitations of “universality,” which is imaginary; and interesting is always better than familiar. What’s more, Justin’s lack of “runny-aroundy”-ness, as he puts it, is kind of refreshing, considering how quickly people tend to assume that boys are always rambunctious.  And anyway, he has the most important thing in common with other eight-year-olds, which is the fact that he is a goober, and they are all without exception goobers. Though the hijinx in the Justin Case books are pretty tame, they’re paced well and recounted with humor.

These are the kinds of books I can read myself without being miserably bored; this is something I look for in books for my older kid, because it’s fun to be able to chat over chores about what “we’ve” been reading lately. It’s okay if we don’t directly identify with every facet of Justin’s personality—-the important thing is that he has one, and he’s learning how it meshes and doesn’t mesh with those of others. What’s more relatable than that? jc2_05

UGH: The Little Red Hen

By the fiftieth time of reading this, I have a few choice words for one Ms. Hen.

But why didn’t the Little Red Hen share her bread, Dr. V?

DR. V.:
Because the Little Red Hen believes that she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and did all of the work of making the bread herself and is therefore entitled eat all of it herself, an act which is evidently made all the better for her if she can do so ceremoniously for an audience of contrite ne’er-do-wells. The lesson is, apparently, that the Little Red Hen deserves ALL THE BREAD and her neighbors deserve NO BREAD and also MOCKERY. However, the Little Red Hen is forgetting:

  1. she didn’t earn that wheat by being the most virtuous. She completely lucked into it—-and she got it for free, as a side effect of some anonymous wheat-picker’s labor! It was an actual hand-out! Is she chasing whoever dropped the grain of wheat to hand them a piece of her venerable Bread of Industriousness?
  2. the miller? Hello? Kind of an unsung hero here? Little Red Hen acts like taking the wheat to the mill is some astonishing act of determination, but surely the actual milling of the wheat entails some labor? I assume she must be planning to go down to the mill and pass out next-day croutons in the sequel.
  3. just because she decides she wants to undertake a project doesn’t obligate her neighbors to drop everything they’re doing to help her. If she asks for a favor, she needs to take “no” for an answer, and if she doesn’t want to give anybody any bread, she can just keep it to herself and nobody will care. She really cedes a good deal of moral high ground with the “PSYCH!” maneuver. RUDE.
  4. watering one plant is not that serious. It’s really not the kind of thing that anybody needs help with. It’s more like the kind of thing your friends do with you because they like your company and chatting with a person you like in a garden is nice.

So the real lesson, my little darlings, is that the Little Red Hen has no friends, probably because she’s the worst and nags everyone incessantly. If you ever find a free seed, you should try not assuming it entitles you to others’ free labor as well, and instead have fun with it.

With any luck your plant will provide you with something pretty and/or delicious, and you’ll want to pay it forward.

Nancy Drew and Book History 103: Some Speculations on Kelsey McKinney’s Mystery

51fumcek9jl-_sx314_bo1204203200_Kelsey McKinney wrote a fabulous piece that’s on Elle.com right now (via Lenny) about the one and only–or rather, many and proliferating–Nancy Drew(s). Her first-person story of encountering one Nancy Drew in a 1930s edition of The Hidden Staircase and then revised, toned-down Drew in a later edition (my guess is this 2007 version, based on the cover description) is illuminating and, for me, completely relatable: when I picked up a copy of Ramona the Pest a few years ago, I was very displeased to find the illustrations updated to give Ramona and Beezus big eyes and shiny hair.




Left: 1968, Louis Darling. I particularly enjoy the untied shoelaces.
Right: mid-2000s, Tracy Dockeray. With butterflies as stars and doe-eyes added, because….who knows why.
(Note: the illustrations were updated again in 2013 by Jacqueline Rogers.)


So, though my personal affinity for Nancy Drew was never more than casual: I get it.

A few things I want to point out about the article, though. One, in trying to make sense of the tonal shift in Nancy Drew’s character, McKinney throws out some pretty broad generalizations about cultural shifts in particular decades. Two, I want to make some tweaks to the narrative she presents of Nancy Drew’s evolution. Of the 1930s Nancy Drew, McKinney writes:

Wirt was writing just on the heels of the Roaring 20s, and she invented a heroine to match. Wirt’s Nancy Drew was assertive, aggressive, and willing to contradict any adult who kept her from solving mysteries. Through the character, Wirt was doing what all young American women in the 1930s were trying to do: bridge Victorian and modern sensibilities about what a girl (and a woman) could be. In her books, Nancy drove a car; she existed in a public sphere. Women in the First World War had directed movies, flown airplanes, and been newspaper reporters. Nancy Drew, a self-sufficient girl detective, was a book those modern women could buy proudly for their daughters.

Of the late-1950s revision, she writes:

But if Wirt wrote a Nancy Drew of and for the women of the 1930s, Adams wrote her Nancy for the 1950s, when post-war American culture encouraged docility, sweetness, and deference. When Nancy Drew debuted in 1930, 46 percent of US college students were women. By the time she was rewritten in 1959, women made up only 38 percent of college students. The post-war prosperity sent the 1950s woman out of the office place and back into domesticity, and Nancy Drew went with her.

To the first point: McKinney isn’t wrong. Studies show that post-WWII American culture had a sort of obsession with normalizing heterosexual nuclear families with women as homemakers. But I want to add some context to her statistics here a bit. The G. I. Bill had a tremendous impact on those college attendance statistics; because of it, young men who would have been unable to afford college in decades past enrolled—-but there was no complementary measure for the women who were their peers on the lower socio-economic rungs. While this, plus the unprecedented single-family home loans offered to veterans through the bill, did result in women being herded into homes as wives and mothers, many of them were women who would have otherwise been occupying low-wage jobs in other, richer people’s homes, not the high-powered careers that seem to be implied here. Further, studies have also shown that the backlash to the attempts to quash the Rosie the Riveter mentality exploited by the federal government during wartime was pretty swift; after all, 1959 only barely precedes the rise in a mainstream, middle-class narrative of second-wave feminism (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out four short years later).

To the second point: true, Nancy Drew was indeed a Stratemeyer creation, and as was often his practice for the series he published, he hired a ghostwriter to turn his basic idea and outlines into full stories. However, Stratemeyer died soon after Nancy Drew when on the market in 1930, which means that Harriet Adams had creative control over the character not only in 1959, but for almost her entire existence. A shift in power from Wirt to Adams can’t be the culprit here, because that’s just not how Wirt’s employment as a ghostwriter worked.

My best guess is that the rewrite of Nancy has to do with what was happening in American publishing in general. 1930 was indeed right on the heels of the roaring 20s, but it was also right on the heels of a renaissance in American publishing unlike any other since the Civil War. After 150 years of industry dominance by a handful of family-owned houses (think Harper and Brothers), the mid-1920s and years directly following saw an explosion in new startups headed by young college graduates–and though these were often officially headed by young men, the crucial roles played by women in these startups were something of an open secret (think Viking, Random House). These houses sought to take chances on new, modern writers: female protagonists who drove cars and “exist[ed] in the public sphere” were practically their mascot.

Stratemeyer, meanwhile, was an independent, genre-specific publisher, who operated on the fringes of this movement, but his Nancy Drew fit right in—-it’s little wonder that Grosset and Dunlap leaped at a partnership with his syndicate to distribute her books.

By 1959, this period of high innovation in the large publishers was coming to a close. The industry was starting to condense into fewer, larger companies as publishing houses began to acquire one another. Meanwhile, however, mass-market paperbacks were on the rise—-and these publishers (like Gold Medal), used a development process much more similar to Stratemeyer’s than the prestigious presses of the 1920s: outline some stories, find some writers to work under pseudonyms, and churn them out, assembly-line style. Thus, in 1959, the market was far more saturated with ghostwritten, assembly-line books than it had been in 1930—-and mystery books in particular. (Indeed, by 1970, Adams sought to move Nancy Drew herself to paperback format).

So when Adams was tasked with updating the Nancy Drew series, it was within this new publishing climate—-which meant that, along with excising the racism and outdated idioms, Adams would need to create a protagonist that represented high-school-agers in the late 1950s and early 1960s in order to continue to have a niche (thus the prom date as the main occupation and detective work on the side, instead of being hired as a detective by an adult woman).

For me, the shame isn’t that publishers in 1959 realized that the Nancy Drew books would be better if they were less racist. It’s more that they have tried to pretend that the 1959 Drew is the only one that exists. The earlier versions aren’t valued in the way they should be—-as artifacts key to the development of a cultural icon. Like the 1968 version of Ramona the Pest, the 1930s Nancy Drew has been effectively thrown out, and you’ll only find her in used book sales.

Mrs. Crump’s Cat and the Non-Issue of TL;DWR(A)

Mrs. Crump’s Cat, by Linda Smith (author) and David Roberts (illust.). HarperCollins, 2006.51hfqh0mwel

Dr. V’s take:

Mrs. Crump’s Cat is just the charmingest.

I found this little gem at an otherwise underwhelming used book sale and almost didn’t pick it up. The book is ten years old, I’d never heard of it,and most of all: it was kinda long.

Let’s talk about long children’s books for a sec. When I’m in scholar/teacher mode, I have zero patience for fretting about the length of a piece of writing: it should be as long or as short as it needs to be, and I don’t want to hear one single other damn thing about it.

When I’m in parent mode, asked to read a fourth book aloud in between whatever other tedious domestic crap I have to do….suddenly the length of a book matters a lot more. It’s not that I don’t like reading to my kids—-I certainly didn’t use my extremely minimal free time to start a blog about it because it sucks—-but reading aloud can be fatiguing, and even though I respect and appreciate my pre-literate kid’s desire to hear all stories, any stories, any time, his curiosity far outweighs my stamina and quickly taps out my roster of funny voices.

The formula is actually pretty straightforward: the longer a children’s book is, the more opportunities there are for readers to get bored. And being bored is the worst—especially when you’re trying to hang out with your kid. Reading books together shouldn’t be another errand to be tolerated for everybody’s own good, like check-ups at the doctor or shopping for new khakis to wear at Christmas or whatever.

It’s kind of surprising there aren’t more old ladies with glasses chains and enormous bosoms in children’s books, tbh.

Mrs. Crump’s Cat had a few multi-paragraph pages—-I almost put it down in a fit of TL;DWR(A) (too long; don’t wanna read (aloud)). But I was so charmed by David Roberts’s ultra-modern illustrations (particularly his portrayal of the title character) that I took the 33-cent leap, and I was so glad, because this story about a stray cat wriggling its way into the life of Mrs. Crump, who, though she insists she  has “no use for a cat,” is obviously smitten with the creature at first sight, is subtle and funny and warm and beautiful to look at—-I really can’t say enough about what Roberts’s illustrations add to the story. We’ve read it probably a dozen times within a couple of days, but because the contrast between Mrs. Crump’s words and actions is so great, it’s possible to read it a slightly different way each time.

Sadly, author Linda Smith died six years before Mrs. Crump’s Cat was published by HarperCollins; a friend or family member must have had her manuscripts published on her behalf. It’s not possible to purchase new copies of the book anymore, which makes me appreciate its permanent place on our shelf at home even more. I’m so glad I didn’t put it back in the pile over a few extra words.

On Roald Dahl.

Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday (or would-have been-birthday—-why do we celebrate these? Surely there is some other more meaningful anniversary for Mr. Dahl we could celebrate other than the one where he entered the world he is no longer in? Anyway.)  and the internet had some thoughts, some better than others.

The ones in the BBC article, “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” (is there any other side?) by Hephzibah Anderson were a mixed bag. The article description looked fantastic,

Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.

and the article content eventually lives up to it. But first 3/4 of the article adopts an unfortunate, though common (and as writer, really tempting!) strategy: it spends most of its words arguing against itself, before finally becoming convinced of its own thesis in the final paragraph. It’s supposed to seem Socratic, and it feels that way while it’s being written. The result, however, is almost always a vaguely confusing reading experience, and this is especially true in the BBC article’s case.

The worst is the stuff that’s just…..inaccurate, like the generalizations that “teachers tend to be villainous” in Dahl’s books and “fail to impart any real wisdom”—-sure, Matilda has the Trunchbull, but what about Miss Honey? She’s not brave, but she shows Matilda that life can sometimes be different, that it’s possible to carve out spaces of softness and affection despite external forces that push the opposite; what’s wiser than that?—-and, even worse, “female characters tend to be either warm or wicked and nothing in between”—-again, Matilda herself would so often have been a boy in the hands of another writer, and it means a lot that she wasn’t; but really there are quite many counterexamples (off the top of my head, Miss Spider, the Queen, Mrs. Fox).

we haven’t even TALKED about Quentin Blake’s illustrations. let’s do it now: I ❤ Quentin Blake. ok done.

But suggesting that Dahl’s legacy is morally dicey, and characterizing his commercial success as a not-entirely-positive oddity, strikes me as an unfair place to start talking about Dahl, even if that’s not where the discussion ends up. Anderson attributes Dahl’s darkness to his own deeply unpleasant childhood, reportedly teeming with precisely the kind of trauma he wrote about in his books: abuse, abandonment, and anti-sociality. Yet, strangely, though the article uses this biographical information to explain how Dahl got to be “unpleasant” person he was, it doesn’t take the obvious next step, which is to connect it to the life experience of his audience, until much later, and never explicitly.

Nancy Ekholm Berkert was pretty cool too

Because childhood is often dark as hell: Dahl was not alone in his. Writing books for children that express dark childhoods, and reading books about dark childhoods, isn’t a sign that someone is warped and antisocial, but just the opposite: it’s an attempt at enfranchisement, at connecting.

We here at Dr. V’s Children’s Book List dot com enterprises heap praise on books about being kind, about rainbows and how wonderful things often are. But not everything is wonderful, or rainbows, all the time, and we need books for our darker days, too. We need books for the abandoned, abused, and ostracized: they deserve to imagine themselves floating above the city on a giant peach, or teaming up with a friendly giant and making life better for both of them, or encountering a truly kind person amidst the disappointing mess and using their gifts of the mind to create their own families.roald_dahls_bfg_movie-642-380

Those at the BBC are likely to have a different relationship with Dahl than an American, and indeed, I can’t speak to some of Dahl’s less-ubiquitous works, such as The Witches, mentioned in the article. Anderson’s point about racism in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dahl’s own anti-Semitism is an important one (and an angle I wish we saw more of in recaps of the careers of, say, Dr. Seuss). But balanced against the many, many paragraphs of reductive plot summaries and repudiations, only a few of which were even accurate, Anderson’s excellent final paragraph gets buried:

But it’s also worth recalling this: though childlike has come to refer to positive qualities associated with children, at its most basic, it simply means resembling a child. And as the magnificent Maurice Sendak observed, “In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy. There’s a cruelty to childhood, there’s an anger.” If Dahl’s books contain just one message for us adults, it’s the reminder that a child’s world isn’t all sweetness and light, it contains shadows too – extravagant, scary, wickedly entertaining ones.

Which is a shame, because, for me, this is where any conversation about Roald Dahl should start, not begrudgingly conclude. Because Dahl’s books are more than a curious, perhaps mildly unfortunate, phase in children’s book history. They’re important, because being brutally honest about the darkness while still inspiring belief in light is one of the most complicated tasks a writer can take on, and Dahl did it with more cleverness than most, for an audience that is often denied the opportunity to witness it.

Berkert, you guys.