Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Read-Aloud Pick of the Week

Any day now, Peter Jackson's movie treatment of THE HOBBIT will be upon us. I'm sure I'll like it just fine. But what I love, and loved beyond measure as a child, was Tolkien's riveting novel, which I'm shocked to realize I read to myself only once. I read it out loud to Ada this summer, just before she turned nine. It was one of those rare instances of hitting precisely the right book at the right time, and I'm crossing my fingers that she lets me read it to her again one day extremely soon.

My favorite HOBBIT cover

It's not that Ada, or any book-loving kid of her age, couldn't read this book for herself. But reading it aloud was a total pleasure for both of us, for the simple, crucial reason that Tolkien was a master of language and pacing and suspense—you feel the full force of these gifts when you utter his words out loud (or hear them read to you). There are few writers to match him in this regard, no matter what detractors like Phillip Pullman eventually made of his "simplistic" moralism (which, in fairness, I believe applies more to the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy).

The cover of THE HOBBIT I read as a kid

Once I got started reading, I almost never wanted to stop, even when I began to go hoarse. So it was that I managed to read the entire book to Ada in about four days. I sped through the thing, then was sorry I hadn't made it last forever. And once the book was finished, I couldn't think of another book I wanted to read out loud half so much. In fact, I'm still trying to come up with reasonable read-aloud sequel. I've hit on something pretty close, though—more about that next week.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A New York-Centric Pick of the Week

It's not a coincidence that I selected this week's pick directly on the heels of last week's pick. When Ada and I first read ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY by Sydney Taylor

(shown here – small. Sorry – with its most recent reprint jacket), my first reaction was that it was like a LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE of New York. The book and its four sequels follow the lives and adventures of five – count 'em – Jewish sisters (and eventually, one brother) growing up in the early years of the 20th century, and are heavily based on Taylor's own girlhood. 

Throughout this series, as in the LITTLE HOUSE series, there are illnesses (the dreaded scarlet fever); big moves (from the largest Jewish neighborhood in the world at that time, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, uptown to a more integrated and swank locale); celebrations of holidays (Purim, for one notable example); the saving of pennies for highly coveted candy; detailed and fascinating descriptions of everyday life and various childhood mishaps and triumphs. Here is micro-history, not of the American plains but of urban streets, and every bit as engrossing and unfamiliar when contemplated now, over a hundred years later. There's a dwindling number of New Yorkers who remember, say, street-side pickle merchants, or buying crackers by the pound out of a barrel (broken crackers were cheaper). 

AOAKF was another book that captivated Ada so thoroughly that she could not tease out her favorite parts. As for me, I loved the sisters' Friday visits to the library (a perfect happenstance, since the book was originally recommended to me by a librarian). The highly anticipated recurring event is a thread that stitches some otherwise anecdotal chapters together. It's also a great reminder of the beauty and importance of books, which were once so rare and valuable that, for all but the privileged, owning one was almost unthinkable. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A (Late) Pick of the Week

It was another strange and dire week of weather as a Nor'easter blew through the five boroughs, dumping snow on an already beleaguered landscape. You know who else knew from extreme weather? The Ingalls family. 

Of all the seven books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have two favorites (I can't speak for Ada; I just know that's she's read the entire series three times):

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (this is the original cover), and 

ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK (another original cover here).
It's a testament to the incredible vividness of Wilder's writing that when I first read these books aloud to Ada about four years ago, I remembered certain passages almost scene for scene from when I'd read them to myself as a child. Oddly, two of them have to do with the weather. 

The first is the passage in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE in which Mr. Edwards braves raging rivers and freezing rain to bring Christmas to the Ingalls girls: 

When he saw the creek rising, Mr. Edwards said, he had known that Santa Claus could not get across it. (But you crossed it, Laura said. "Yes," Mr. Edwards replied, "but Santa Claus is too old and fat. He couldn't make it, where a long, lean razorback like me could do so.") And Mr. Edwards reasoned that if Santa Claus couldn't cross the creak, likely he would come no further south than Independence. Why should he come forty miles across the prairie only to be turned back? Of course he would't do that!

So Mr. Edwards had walked to Independence. ("In the rain?" Mary asked. Mr. Edwards said he wore his rubber coat.) And there, coming down the street in Independence, he had met Santa Claus. ("In the daylight?" Laura asked She hadn't thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime. No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.)

On and on Mr. Edwards goes with his story and at the end of it, there are stockings full of Christmas for Mary and Laura and the contents are so overwhelming to them that they can't quite believe their eyes, or their luck: tin cups, peppermint candy, white-sugar cakes, and to top it all off, a penny for each. And 72 years after the book was first published, this still, thanks to the pacing of the words on the pages, seems like the most incredible bounty.

The second weather-related passage is in ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK, when Pa is expected back from town during a raging, blinding snowstorm. He's been missing for three days – as it turns out, camped practically right beside the house, which he couldn't see through the driving snow. He's had to eat the oyster crackers he'd been bringing home for Christmas dinner, as well as all the girls' Christmas candy, in order to survive. Not that anyone begrudges him.

There's plenty more weather in all the books: searing heat, choking winds, snow and rain storms by the dozens, in addition to drought, plagues, and fires. But the passage that haunts me, in the best possible way, and which I could barely read aloud all the way through because the emotion of it was so great, is not weather-related in the slightest. It's the long-drawn-out scene in LHOTP in which Laura, after weeks of being kept awake by "Indians" crying for war down by the creek, watches them finally depart the region in a long stream, by horse and by foot, right past her house. 

The pony was very near now, and Laura's heart beat faster and faster. She looked up at the Indian's beaded moccasin, she looked along the fringed legging that clung to the pony's bare side. A bright-colored blanket was wrapped around the Indian. One bare brown-red arm carried a rifle lightly across the pony's naked shoulders. Then Laura looked up and saw the Indian's fierce, still, brown face. It was a proud, still face. No matter what happened, it would always be like that. Nothing would change it. Only the eyes were alive on that face, and they gazed steadily far away to the west. They did not move. Nothing moved or changed, except the eagle feathers standing straight up from the scalplock on the shaved head. The long feathers swayed and dipped, waving and spinning in the wind as the tall Indian on the black pony passed on into the distance.

There is the most palpable longing in Laura, who wishes to be one of the passing throng and who is left with a sense of tragic emptiness once they've gone. But more than that, the reader can't help but realize, in flashes, that this is not fiction; it is, in fact, history, laid out richly before us as though the moment were still upon us, by someone who experienced it herself. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pick(s) of the Week for a Little Reading Pick-Me-Up

Here in Brooklyn, it's been a sad, strange and highly inspirational week. Sad, of course, because a large number of neighborhoods in this borough and others were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, including Red Hook, the neighborhood just adjacent to ours. Inspirational, because so many members of our community (including tons of kids) have come together day after day after day to help where help was needed and the efforts continue, virtually unabated. And strange, well, for a lot of reasons, one of which has been the unprecedented closing of public schools for the last five days. In addition to volunteer work, this has meant a lot of READING.

Our house, even in a usual sort of week, sees a lot of binge reading of books by favorite authors, especially if there are sequels to be had. The current top of the heap is Grace Lin, first for her highly autobiographical Pacy Lin trilogy:




in which young Chinese-American Grace (Pacy) struggles to come to terms with what it means to be neither one thing nor the other, or maybe two things at once, or maybe something in between. 

And also these two, slightly more advanced novels:



These are fables that veer frequently off to present even more fables.  They function very well as read-alouds, especially to children who are crazy for all things Chinese (as my daughter is), and have the patience for breaks in the central story. And also for children, and grown-ups, who are ready for a little reminder that even the smallest, youngest, most seemingly inconsequential person can triumph over adversity.