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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Random Children’s Book Recommendations

One of the benefits of having young children is that it gives me a chance to learn about some terrific children’s literature.  While I’m a big fan of many of the children’s books that Hollywood has also discovered (e.g., Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Holes, and Where the Wild Things Are) there are some great stories that don’t get that kind of exposure.  I thought I’d post a few of my favorites in the hope that I could get recommendations from some of you in return:

1.    Margaret Mahy’s The Horribly Haunted School and The Mixed-Up Pirate Voyage.

Margaret Mahy is a wonderfully imaginative children’s author from New Zealand who has written many great books for toddlers, 18-year olds, and every age group in between.  She likes to weave some philosophy into her stories.  In The Horribly Haunted School, a young boy who is allergic to ghosts must try to explain his predicament to teachers at a school premised on the empiricist notion that the only things real or relevant are those which you can see, hear, smell or taste (The Brinsley Codd School for Sensible Thought).  Fortunately, he gets some help from a closeted romantic among the school’s administrators, and from the ghost of the school’s founder and former headmaster, Brinsley Codd.  He also gets some unexpected aid along the way from a haunted car, a vendor of food and wisdom, as well as his jig saw puzzle solving champion mother, and his dad, who is a philosopher employed with the government’s Department of National Despair.  In The Mixed-Up Pirate Voyage, a group of waiters and chefs at a floating pirate-themed restaurant decide to become a real pirate ship, and sail into a group of mysterious islands to pursue a life of adventure and romance, arguing all the while with a parrot committed to a dark and deterministic vision of the universe.

2.    Edith Nesbit’s The Complete Book of Dragons

Edith Nesbit lived from 1858 to 1924 and she and her husband were founders of, and major figures in, the Fabian Society.  She’s probably most famous for The Railway Children and a trilogy consisting of Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet.  My favorite works of hers are her short stories. “The Complete Book of Dragons” in particular has some intriguing tales, including one where an island’s counterclockwise geological formation has caused many things to happen counter to our normal experience of them: The guinea pigs are mammoth-sized while elephants can be held in one’s hand; people grow bread and pudding on trees or farms, but must combine and cook ingredients to create tomatoes or carrots.  In another tale, a forward-looking princess, whose old-fashioned father, the king, insists she be rescued from a dragon by a valiant prince, neither wants to be rescued nor have the dragon slain, and fortunately finds an intellectual prince, who prefers studying mathematics to slaying things and shares her skepticism about gender stereotypes and about killing endangered species (like the last dragon in England).

3.    David Wiesner’s Flotsam and Sector 7

Two stories told entirely with pictures.  Flotsam celebrates discovery by a group of young explorers who, like the scientific community, engage in an intellectual adventure that spans generations and unites them with fellow explorers in different times and countries.  Sector 7 celebrates creativity and non-conformity. 
In Flotsam, a boy examining shells and small sea creatures on a beach discovers an underwater camera filled with pictures of fantastic sea monsters, mermaid kingdoms and other underwater civilizations.  He also discovers that, for generations, each young discoverer of the camera has left a record of his or her own encounter with the camera and its contents.    In Sector 7, a boy befriends a cloud on the top of the Empire State Building during a school field trip.  After riding that cloud to the factory where clouds are given their shape and launched into the sky, he uses his artistic skill to foment a rebellion of sorts against the standard boring shapes into which the factory moulds the poor clouds.

4.    Colin Thompson, The Last Alchemist

I’d be remiss not to include this one – given what’s happening on Wall Street and Washington these days.  It’s about an alchemist named Spinifex who – being a committed alchemist – tries to create gold where there is none, with disastrous results (which fortunately teaches others the folly of the alchemists’ designs).   The illustrations are strange, colorful, and somehow remind me of The Codex Seraphinianus. Fallen Angels – about a girl who discovers that children are born with, but usually quickly lose, the capacity to fly – is another great book by Colin Thompson.

Posted by Marc Blitz on September 25, 2008 at 11:57 AM in Culture | Permalink


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A series or an author that a child gets hooked on is a blessing. In our house, the Berenstain Bears, the Boxcar Children and the Magic Treehouse series have lead into the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series (and of course Harry Potter), and anything by Lois Lowry. And then hundreds of books by all sorts of authors. In my mind, some books are great books in and of themselves, and some are not so much, but what really matters is that they leave a child eager to pick up another book.

Posted by: dwk | Sep 27, 2008 12:14:55 AM

Hmmm. LSD in the organic chemistry lab. That sounds intriguing, but like it might have to wait until my daughters' respective 35th birthdays. But thanks for the terrific recommendations so far! I've heard about the John Lithgow story (as well as another one from him, not entirely unlike the story of the movie, Ratatouille, about a Central Park squirrel that secretly pursues its love of painting). I'll definitely check out all of the above, and possibly let my daughters read some of them too!

Posted by: Marc Blitz | Sep 26, 2008 2:28:28 PM

QL - there is only one "r" in Newbery. Sorry, coudn't help myself.

I love that book. Konigsburg also has an extremely strange book called George about a younger gifted student realizing that older kids are making LSD in the high school organic chemistry lab.

Posted by: keitht | Sep 26, 2008 11:23:57 AM

My son liked "The Mysterious Benedict Society," by Trenton Lee Stewart. Here's the description from Amazon: After Reynie Muldoon responds to an advertisement recruiting "gifted children looking for special opportunities," he finds himself in a world of mystery and adventure. The 11-year-old orphan is one of four children to complete a series of challenging and creative tasks, and he, Kate, Constance, and Sticky become the Mysterious Benedict Society. After being trained by Mr. Benedict and his assistants, the four travel to an isolated school where children are being trained by a criminal mastermind to participate in his schemes to take over the world. The young investigators need to use their special talents and abilities in order to discover Mr. Curtain's secrets, and their only chance to defeat him is through working together. Readers will challenge their own abilities as they work with the Society members to solve clues and put together the pieces of Mr. Curtain's plan. In spite of a variety of coincidences, Stewart's unusual characters, threatening villains, and dramatic plot twists will grab and hold readers' attention. Fans of Roald Dahl or Blue Balliett will find a familiar blend of kid power, clues, and adventure in Society, though its length may daunt reluctant or less-secure readers. Underlying themes about the power of media messages and the value of education add to this book's appeal, and a happy ending with hints of more adventures to come make this first-time author one to remember.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Sep 26, 2008 11:02:04 AM

For the 1-year-old set, my son heartily recommends "Elmo's Big Lift-and-Look Book" and "Peek-a-Moo!"

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Sep 26, 2008 10:11:15 AM

One of my all-time childhood favorites is "The 21 Balloons," the 1948 Newberry Medal winner by William Pene DuBois. (Wikipedia summary at http://tinyurl.com/3rkree.) It's about a man in the 1880s who has a giant balloon built to carry aloft a tiny bamboo house, so he can spend a whole year in the air. Instead, he crashes on the island of Krakatoa, discovers an incredibly wealthy society organized around restaurants, and survives the largest explosion in history. The illustrations are wonderful, too. (If you like it, try "Peter Graves" by the same author.)

Or how about "From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," by E.L. Konigsburg? Also a Newberry Medal winner (1968), it's about two children who run away to live (secretly) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Wikipedia summary at http://tinyurl.com/asmcv.)

For humor, I love the Bagthorpe Saga, by Helen Cresswell. (Wikipedia summary at http://tinyurl.com/3fghuo.) The Bagthorpes are an eccentric family of geniuses in who live in constant competition with each other. The best books are the second and third in the series -- Absolute Zero and Bagthorpes Unlimited. The series slides from there, I think, but it's still enjoyable.

Posted by: The Quiet Lawyer | Sep 26, 2008 2:37:42 AM

I'll add a couple of toddler-appropriate books: Leo Lionni's A Color of His Own is a simple, beautiful story. It has a gay pride subtext, but its romantic vision should appeal to all. For parents who seek to have their children emerge from the womb doing algebra, two cautionary tales are in order: Simon James' Baby Brains, and Oliver Jeffers' The Incredible Book Eating Boy. Finally, my two-year-old can't get enough of John Lithgow's Marsupial Sue, about a kangaroo who learns to love the kangaroo life; the book comes with a CD in which John Lithgow sings the text to a waltz-like tune. Highly infectious!

Posted by: Amy | Sep 26, 2008 12:09:16 AM

I thoroughly enjoy the Skippy Jon Jones series of books. Nothing quite as high fallutin as those you have listed but very creative use of language, illustrations, and imagination. Skippy Jon Jones is a siamese cat who fancies himself a chihuahua and goes on wild adventures in his closet. A great opportunity to practice a south of the border accent, even if it is a horrible accent.

Posted by: Jim Green | Sep 25, 2008 8:51:26 PM

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