Category Archives: Children’s Literature

Maria Tatar on Fantasy Worlds Then and Now

I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan.  Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman,  Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.

While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”

She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”

For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar,  “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

A very interesting read.



Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Fantasy, Fantasy Worlds, His Dark Materials, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman

Literary Feral Children

Reading this Roger Moorhouse piece on the eighteenth century German feral child, Peter of Hanover, reminded me of Victor of Aveyron who showed up a few decades later in France and became a tabla rasa for thinkers of the period as they contemplated what it meant to be human.  And then I started thinking about literary feral children and, especially, the mad crushes I had on two of them.  Yes, I confess that as a young reader Mowgli and Peter Pan made my heart race. I found those two feral boys to be brave, headstrong, and delightfully free, free, free.  But as I tried to think of more recent feral children in children’s fiction I came up short. A search came up with this broad list which included Karen Hesse’s The Music of Dolphins and Jane Yolen’s Passenger, but that seemed to be it.  Can you think of others?


Filed under Children's Literature

Middle-Grade Favorites

Stacy over at Welcome to my Tweendom has asked:

So, I have a question that I ‘ve been wondering about for the past while.  I’ve been thinking deeply about tween reads and what makes them great.  I’ve also been thinking about the idea of tween / middle grade as a category.  My question(s) to you are as follows…What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of the past 10 years (and why).  What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of ALL time (and why)?

Since I teach 4th grade I’m smack dab in the middle of that tween/middle grade group* all the time and figured it would be easy to answer Stacy’s question.  But actually, it is hard.  First of all, no way can I do just one. Secondly, I have very particular tastes which mean my favorites are not necessarily the most popular among the intended age group (and they are mostly novels).  That said, I couldn’t resist coming up with a FEW (of many I’m having to leave out) favorite titles to help Stacy.

For her first part of her question (although I’m cheating as several of these are more than ten years old):

  • Rita Williams-Gracia’s One Crazy Summer because Delphine’s voice is spot-on and all three sisters are beautifully rendered.  The sentence-level writing is gorgeous and I love the way Williams-Garcia tells history, but doesn’t overdo it.  Yes, it is a time and place many readers are unfamiliar with, but she keeps the story of the sisters and their mother front and center.
  • Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me because it is captivating, original, and set within a place that is very familiar to middle-grade readers.  Trying to untangle the mystery even as Miranda tries to is right up their alley.  The writing is clear, accessible, and elegant — I think it is a book that will stand the test of time, an instant classic.
  • Kate Dicamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux because it is beautifully written, moving, funny and still works well for this age group.  I read it aloud last year for the first time in years and it was as fresh as ever.
  • Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic is a recent favorite.  I’ve read this aloud for the past four years and will probably again this year.  Kids of both genders love this book and often go read it again on their own.  The kids, their relationships with each other, the thoughtful-but-not-heavy-handed exploration of what it means to be a father, the fun aspects of preparing and experiencing space travel, and Liam’s emotional growth (moving into his physical growth) works beautifully for this age group.
  • Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck.  These are both unique and absolutely riveting reads.  I’m listing both because as of this writing Wonderstruck isn’t out yet and so I have not yet seen middle grade readers engage with it. However, I have seen kids over the years read with great pleasure Hugo Cabret and had a great time reading it aloud to them last year.
  • More than ten years old is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which may be for the stronger readers in the age range, but nothing beats it for a fun and exciting adventure.  The books may go up in age range as the series goes on, but this first one feels solidly middle grade to me.
  • Also more than ten years old is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; creepy indeed, but for those middle grade kids who like spooky this one is terrific.
  • Jon Sciezcka’s Science Verse or Knucklehead, can’t decide, but he’s got an instinctual feel for a particular sense of humor that works perfectly for this age group.
  • Another more-than-ten-years title is Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, still my favorite of all his books. It is moving, hysterically funny in spots, and disturbing too.

And for the second part — my all-time favorite?  There I can go with just one,  E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  I’ve been teaching it since 1990 and I’m just more wowed by it every year.  As are the kids.  The writing, the themes, the characterizations, it is one of the most perfect books ever.

*I’d define it as grades 4-6 more or less.


Filed under Charlotte's Web, Children's Literature, Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman


Good Boston Globe article on the protection impulse: “When we shield our children from scary stories, who are we really trying to protect?”  via Kay Kosko on child_lit.

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The Story Museum

I was a collecting child which no doubt partially explains my interest in museums.  At one point during my many years trying to figure out how to tell Sarah Margru Kinson‘s story, I seriously contemplated doing it as an exhibition complete with a curator and rooms for each part of her life.  I especially like the cabinet-of-curiosities-sorts-of-museums, those with cases and rooms filled to the brink with things,  say London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum*.  I also adore the idea of museums that are sly and totally unlike anything else, say  The Museum of Jurassic Technology  or  Dennis Severs’ House (both of which I yearn to see).  And when it comes to children and museums, the more experiential and hands-on, the better.

Which is why I’m excited about Oxford’s Story Museum.  It is truly an original idea — blending art, performance, telling, viewing, and pretty much everything else story-related in imaginative ways.  While the physical museum will not be open for a while yet, they’ve been working in schools and doing all sorts of programs featuring their ideas about stories.  Some of these include:

  • Schools programme  “Since 2005 the Story Museum has been working with teachers to harness the power of stories to inspire and support children’s learning. An important strand of this work is oral storytelling: learning to tell stories from memory.”  Some of the schools they work with center their whole curricula around storytelling, Storytelling Schools.
  • Alice’s Day.  As you might guess given the name of this blog, I wish I could have been at this year’s event, just a few weeks back and am thinking I’ve got to get there next year as it is a very important anniversary for Alice.
  • 1001 stories  That’s right. “Inspired by this ancient Arabic tale we have set ourselves the challenge of gathering and sharing 1001 stories for everyone to enjoy.”  They’ve got a bunch there already.

Yesterday, Philip Pullman who is, unsurprisingly, one of their patrons took me to the museum where we got a fascinating tour with co-director Kim Pickin.  The physical space is a remarkable warren of rooms of all sizes with a fascinating history and, if they do even a smidgen of what they dream to do, it will be extraordinary. They’ve got some massive Alice cut-outs peering out of the windows, a dinosaur, some scary vaults (part of the space used to be the post office and there are rumors that gold bullion was stored there at one point), some very old printing presses, and lots of energy .  Outside they’ve a few sly touches to intrigue passersby.

The sign says “Rochester’s Story Supplies” and the objects are witty and clever story references.  I wasn’t able to get a very good shot of the window so you must just go yourself to see it! Below is another small and even more subversive window with three bowls— for what story, do you think?  They’ve got a third in the works being created by Mini Grey that is going to be equally clever.

And then there is this phone box that I noticed as we drove in, wondering about the chain. To give you a feel of their sensibility, they’ve toyed with it being a museum entrance.

* I visited the Pitt Rivers Museum today for the first time and I’m in love — the way they’ve maintained the original sense of the place is fantastic.  One of the best museum experience I’ve had in some while.  I also enjoyed very much the Oxford University Museum of Natural History which is in front of it — what a gorgeous Victorian space!


Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Other, Philip Pullman, Teaching

Lush Animation of Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life

In my youth I fell for Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and sometime later Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  Having followed the furor and then read The Satanic Verses I was very moved by Haroun knowing some of the history that caused Rushdie to write it.  I also was enchanted by the lush language, the folkloric play, and the homage to The Wizard of Oz (which Rushdie first wrote about as an article for  The New Yorker and then expanded as a monograph for the British Film Institute).  And while last year’s Luka and the Sea of Fire did not feel as strong as those earlier works I still enjoyed Rushdie’s unique and wild imaginative style.

For me Rushdie’s writing is so much about language and imagery expressed in words so I was fascinated to come across this article in the Guardian about a competition among animation students at London’s Kingston University to come up with a concept for a film from the book.

Students from the University’s faculty of art, design and architecture visited the book’s publisher Random House to meet the author and present their ideas for visual concepts. Four of these concepts were selected to be made into four animations, which then went to a panel of judges including Rushdie and Milan, to whom the book is dedicated, to select an overall winner.

The results are fabulous and may make you want to check out the book if you haven’t already.

The winning video is by Han Byul Lee, Sam Falconer, Irsiz Heathershaw, So Hewi Lee and Dawn Smit

The first runner-up is by Zach Ellams, Moira Lam, Tim O’Leary, Sophie Powell

The second runner-up is by Frank Burgess, Angus Dick, James Lancett, Ben Tobitt, Sean Weston

The third runner-up is by John Balallo, Jun Hyoung Chun, Katie Robson, Yao Xiang

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Filed under animation, Children's Literature

Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web

My personally annotated copy of Charlotte’s Web is a sad-looking thing, a paperback edition that was already showing its age in 1990 when I plucked it off my classroom library shelf to use at a Princeton University summer seminar on classical children’s literature. Having never particularly cared for the book (too soppy), I figured an old copy would do me just fine. Twenty-one years later I’m still sorry. By way of a close reading, the brilliant Uli Knoepfmacher showed me just what an extraordinary book Charlotte’s Web is and, using that tattered paperback, I’ve been doing the same for my fourth grade students ever since.

This long personal history with one of America’s great children’s books caused me to approach Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web with a great deal of trepidation. I was somewhat assuaged after seeing that Sims had previously annotated one of White’s and my favorite poetry collections, Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel, but still wary.  What, I wondered, could anyone bring to White’s opus that hadn’t already been said elsewhere and, most likely, better?  Having read it I can now answer: plenty.  Sims gives White and his story a bright new light —- refurbishing known information in an engaging way and adding in here and there new (at least to me) bits as well.  Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone’s time, not just those already acquainted with Charlotte’s Web and its author.

Sims makes clear his path from the start — his focus is on the aspects of White’s life that connect to Charlotte’s Web. It may be that those more well-versed in his biography than I will feel there are missing parts, but I was most satisfied with the way Sims brought in details I knew such as White’s childhood love of nature and writing, his family, and his early love of Maine. And I enjoyed tremendously the small elements that were new to me, say  Sims’ careful consideration of what the young Andy would have read — reviewing, for example, what else was in the editions of the well-known-at-the-time St. Nicholas Magazine to which the young White contributed. And his overview of the debate going on nature writing between those who were more scientifically-inclined (e.g. John Muir) versus those who went for a more dramatic and fictionalized approach (e.g William J. Long) was new and fascinating to me.

Slowly building toward the creation of the book itself, Sims gives us White’s development as a writer at The New Yorker, his writing of Stuart Little, his family life, and his experiences as a farmer in Maine.  He also gives us a lot about spiders, both general information and a history of White’s particular fascination with them. As for the actual writing, publication, and reception of Charlotte’s Web — even though much of it was familiar to me,  I was engrossed in Sims’ telling.

And so here I am, chip off my shoulder, to recommend this book without reservations.  Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web is not only for  E. B. White fans and lovers of Charlotte’s Web, but for anyone who enjoys a thoughtfully researched and written work of literary nonfiction.


Filed under Charlotte's Web, Children's Literature, Classic

Tolkien, Carroll, and Other Bits and Pieces

Tony DiTerlizzi recently attempted to track down the details of a tantalizing story that Sendak was considered and rejected by Tolkien as an illustrator for a new edition of The Hobbit.  Tony makes a couple of statements in his article that I wonder about.

Each generation should have an edition of these timeless stories that speaks directly to them in a style and design that they are familiar with. If you don’t believe me, ask a group of fourth-graders to put down their iPhones and Wii game controllers and see what they think of Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for [Lewis] Carroll’s first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

While I agree wholeheartedly that it is wonderful to have new versions of old stories,  in my experience, fourth graders enjoy Tenniel’s illustrations just as much as more recent renderings of Carroll’s story.  (I’ve been doing a unit on Alice and her illustrators for several decades now so I do, ahem, know about this, probably better than anyone. See here, here, and here for a taste of what I do with Alice and fourth graders.)  I’m still waiting for a children’s film adaptation that really fits the wit and humor I see in Carroll’s tale, but have found numerous more recent illustrators who have done some very cool things with it — say Anthony Browne, Helen Oxenbury, and Robert Inkpen.

I also was curious about this from Tony:

As those years passed and the book’s fame grew, Tolkien despised the fact that it was considered by many to be a children’s story, as indicated in a letter from 1959, “I am not specially interested in children, and certainly not in writing for them.”

I’d always thought that Tolkien considered The Hobbit a story for children and  The Lord of the Rings for adults.  Not so?  I used to love reading it aloud to my fourth grade classes — felt very much a book for children to me.


Filed under Children's Literature

The Problem with Protection

Whenever I read about another effort to protect the young from historical nastiness (the latest being the new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with “the pejorative racial labels” removed), I think of Roald Dahl’s “Pig” a very creepy story for adults.  In it a child is raised in isolation as a vegetarian and has an epiphany as an adult when first encountering meat.  Wanting to know more about this wonderful new food he goes to a slaughter house and….well, go find and read the story if you want to know what happens.  Suffice it to say it is a cautionary tale about keeping hard realities from children.

The Twain flap also makes me think of Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s They Called Themselves the K.K.K., a book for children that is full of those “pejorative racial labels” in the oral histories, interviews, and other primary sources that Bartoletti employs with extraordinary heft and power.

History ain’t pretty, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be known.


Filed under Children's Literature, History, Huffington Post

Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac

With the start of a new year how about a Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac?  This new-kid-on-the-blog-block from children’s literature expert Anita Silvey is an elegant and informative site for anyone looking for smart children’s book recommendations with a little something extra. As befits an almanac Anita begins each post with an intriguing fact about the day, goes on to provide a concise and clear description of the featured book (and when applicable something about the authors or publishing history) along with a quote or image, and ends with recommendations of related books. For example, she introduced Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats last month by noting that it was Cat Herding Day. I mean, who knew? As for the books themselves, they run a range from those recently published to old favorites.  Picture books, nonfiction, books for a wide range of ages  — Anita offers breadth and depth.  A cleanly designed and easy-to-navigate environment, there is a sidebar with a few more tidbits about the day as well as various ways to search for books of particular interest.

Curious to know more about the project I asked Anita a few questions:

What gave you the idea for doing an almanac?  It is a terrific structure, but challenging in that you have to post every day.

The Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac was entirely the brainchild of Simon Boughton of Roaring Brook Press. He was considering a very ambitious book proposal of mine and also looking at almanacs for children. It occurred to him that the two ideas could be combined. Simon suggested that I post my essays on line as I developed them. As any journalist or blogger knows, daily publication forces you to read, research, write, and edit every day – no time for indecision or dallying. To some degree all my reference books – Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, 100 Best Books for Children, and 500 Great Books for Teens – have demanded a rigorous schedule. But in the case of the Almanac, I must produce a coherent essay each day.

The daily facts are fascinating — where do you find them?  Do you start with a particular book and then look for a daily fact to go with it or vice versa?

All kinds of data bases exist for holidays; as any good reference librarian can probably guess, I keep a copy of Chase’s Calendar of Events by my desk. Sometimes the events of a day or month suggest a book to me; I also have scores of titles that I want to work into the Almanac during the year.

I’m loving the range of books, especially those good and decent ones from not-that-long-ago that may be a bit overlooked today.  Books like Andrew Clement’s Frindle.  What is your thinking behind these book choices?

I always stress the classics because I don’t want children to miss them. But I am keeping my eye out for great titles of the last twenty years. I have already taught, lectured about, or written about many of my selections; however, sometimes my thoughts about a book appear for the first time on the website. My passion for these books remains the consistent factor; I love every one of them.

I’m interested in your definition of “children.” So far the books featured seem directed toward ages ten and younger. Any thought about also doing books for kids at a slightly older age, say that tricky “through fourteen” criteria that the Newbery award uses?

I am selecting books for infants through age 14. Each month I make sure that each age group – babies, preschool, elementary, and middle school — has suggestions for reading.

Is there anything you want to point out about the site for new visitors?

My mantra throughout my forty professional years has been Walter de la Mare’s quote, “only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” I just hope that readers of the website enjoy learning about these books and the amazing people who created them.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Huffington Post