Netflix Meets the Children’s Shelf (or Why Big Brother Watching You Isn’t Always Such a Bad Thing)

I admit it: I just love it when I visit a website like Amazon or Netflix and up pops a window with special recommendations, “just for you.”  I know I should probably be a little creeped out or offended that they’re keeping tabs on me, but honestly, I’m just tickled by it.  I won’t say their algorithms are always accurate (I usually get a flood of particularly random “recommendations” right after buying gifts during the holidays), but occasionally I’ll discover something new and genuinely interesting.  Perhaps even more fascinating than the recommendations themselves is the science that goes into them.  What exactly is it about my interest in Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” that makes me more likely to enjoy “Upstairs, Downstairs”?

I sometimes find myself creating my own informal version of these “recommended for you” algorithms when I talk about books with children.  If you ask a child wandering aimlessly through the library what kind of book you can help them find, the answer will typically be “you know … a … good book.”  It’s more fruitful to start by narrowing down genres.  A picture book?  Nonfiction?  Fiction?  Do they want a book with talking animals?  A realistic fiction book?  How about a fantasy book?  But even with all those categories, the final key is often something like a Netflix-style rating: “Tell me about a book you just loved.  Maybe we can find something like it.”  Or, if you want to be more focused in your questioning: “When you say you want a funny book, do you mean funny like Judy Moody or funny like Captain Underpants?”  With the right keystone book, you can often find a recommendation that shares just enough qualities to hook in a reader.  (“You know, if you’re looking for something really silly and a little gross, with funny pictures like Captain Underpants, how about …”)

A Series of Unfortunate Events

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mind you, marketers try this kind of thing all the time with children’s books, but often with varying degrees of accuracy.  After the blockbuster success of A Series of Unfortunate Events there was a sudden flood of novels with dark, depressing stories about orphans with an Edward Gorey style cover.  In order for that kind of marketing to work, however, the connections between the old and new have to be more than skin-deep.

We can help children to make some of these connections themselves by starting to recognize ideas about genre, or pick up on elements of an author’s style that pulls them back again and again to that author.  Still, it never hurts to have a few “connected texts” in our back pockets as adults, ready to offer to wandering readers when needed.  As an adult, one of the great pleasures of continuing to explore new children’s books is finding ways that new texts connect back to a story from my childhood, or ways that a fan of a more recent novel can be led back through it to an older book.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be offering up some of my own “If you like … then you’ll love …” pairings.  Coming up next week will be a true old favorite and a book I consider a new classic: I believe that fans of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne will just love Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins.  While you’re waiting to hear my pitch for this great combination, feel free to share your own “If you like … then you’ll love …” pairs in the comments section.  Happy reading!

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Literary Mice

If you should ever be faced with a mouse sighting while in a room full of children, you may found, as I have, that you have a tricky diplomatic situation on your hands.  (I should say before I go any further that I have always been lucky enough to work at very nice, well-maintained schools.  However, kids drop crumbs, and crumbs attract mice, so there you go.)  First of all, some of the natural adult reactions to a mouse – shrieking, fleeing, calling an exterminator – would involve a certain loss of dignity if done in front of a class.  But just as tricky is the fact that the majority of the children in the room are often cooing at the mouse and squealing in delight.  You see, for most elementary students, mice are familiar friends from literature.  Often at least one child will declare, “Look, it’s Ralph!”  And you wouldn’t want to hurt Ralph, now, would you?  Of course not.

I’m sure there are all sorts of psychological reasons why children might identify with mice and why mice make such excellent characters in books for young children.  Rather than delving deeper into that, I’m going to restrict myself to commenting on a few of my personal favorites (with a write-in candidate on behalf of my students).

Cover of "The Mouse and the Motorcycle"

Cover of The Mouse and the Motorcycle

Ralph from The Mouse and the Motorcycle (written by Beverly Cleary).  Ralph is my own personal childhood favorite mouse.  In the first book in his series, Ralph, a resident of a tumbledown hotel, meets a boy named Keith who comes to stay at the hotel … and, more importantly, meets Keith’s toy motorcycle, which is perfectly sized for a mouse to ride.  He finds that if you make a “pb-pb-b-b-b” noise with your mouth, the motorcycle actually runs.  Ralph and Keith slowly build a realistic friendship, and in the end, Ralph’s driving skills give him the chance to help his new friend.  I absolutely loved this book as a child, and it holds up well to rereading as an adult.  Cleary has developed a remarkably textured world, and her descriptions from a mouse-eye’s view makes me wonder how much time she spent crawling around on the floor to get the details just right.  She also walks the tricky line of animal fantasy beautifully: her mouse has recognizable human traits like curiosity and stubbornness without losing his mousy qualities.  Children who are longing to be taken seriously themselves often connect to the seriousness mixed with humor with which this book is written.  I will say that the vocabulary is denser than I had remembered as a child – within the first few chapters readers will find the words “chromium,” “momentum,” and “antimacassar” – so it’s a good chance to talk to children about using context to figure out words or making a list of words to investigate later.

Cover of "Time Stops for No Mouse (Hermux...

Cover via Amazon

Hermux Tantamoq from Time Stops for No Mouse (written by Michael Hoeye).  Hermux is a more recent entry to the world of mousey literature, featured in a series of four books.  In Time Stops for No Mouse, Hermux, a mild-mannered watchmaker who lives in a town filled with rodents, finds his quiet world turned upside down when a beautiful aviatrix named Linka Perflinger drops off a watch to be repaired at his shop … then disappears.  His quest to find her brings him into contact with all kinds of shady characters, including the menacing Dr. Mennus (ha ha) who is searching for the Fountain of Youth.  I often sell this book to readers by describing it as a “mousey Indiana Jones.”  I also have to reassure them that the action really will pick up eventually, since they are sometimes a bit skeptical after a few chapters.  The book starts with some incredibly descriptive chapters that I found charming and well-written but that children find a bit … slow.  This story makes a fantastic read aloud: the chapters are very short and often end with cliffhangers.  Adults will enjoy the references to common adventure/mystery clichés (the diary of a lost Amazon adventurer! a doomsday machine! multiple secret identities!), and I have particularly enjoyed watching children encounter some of those clichés for the first time.  The anthropomorphized mice and other rodents are well-developed, and Hermux makes a very appealing underdog (or undermouse?) to root for.

Frontispiece from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, sh...

Frontispiece from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, showing Tom Thumb smashing the plaster food while his wife Hunca Munca watches. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca from The Tale of Two Bad Mice (written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter)This was one of my very favorite Beatrix Potter books as a child; I remember the lovely illustrations so well that I must have read this book hundreds of times.  Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca come out from their home in the walls of a house to discover a dollhouse conveniently stocked with lots of food.  Much to their disappointment, the food is all just pretend, and they proceed to ransack the house out of a mixture of curiosity and pure mischief.  I remember feeling a secret kinship with Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca’s naughtiness when I would look at my grandmother’s Victorian dollhouse as a child: everything was so appealing, but so untouchable and unreal that some little part of me wanted to try pulling the food off the plates just like the little mice.  (In fact, I’m fairly sure that as a child I had the confused idea that this book was written about my grandmother’s dollhouse.)  The paintings in this book are truly beautiful, and, although some of the references will be a little obscure for children, they will still find the naughty little mice genuinely funny and appealing.  Although I think this book is best enjoyed in the classic Beatrix Potter format of a tiny hardcover, you can also find the entire text of this book online (see, for example, this link).

Geronimo Stilton Race Across America

Geronimo Stilton Race Across America (Photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious)

Geronimo Stilton from the Geronimo Stilton series.  On behalf of my students, I feel I must mention a current very popular entry to the world of literary mice: Geronimo Stilton, the star of over fifty books (not counting special editions and spin-off series).  Geronimo is a reporter at the Rodent’s Gazette.  Despite his shy and skittish personality, he is constantly pulled into fur-raising adventures.  My third graders absolutely love these books.  They have literally read most of the copies in my classroom to pieces (several are barely held together with tape), and Geronimo Stilton books are among the most popular choices from our book orders.  The students assure me that these books are exciting and hilarious.  Unfortunately, I cannot speak to those points very clearly because I have never made it all the way through one.  The mouse-related puns, hyperactive plots, and incessant word art (the word big is printed BIG! the word scared is shivering!) all give me a migraine.  Still, I will put on my Sympathetic Teacher hat and say that the word art is probably good decoding support, the repetitive structure is probably reassuring to new readers, and anything that gets kids reading is all for the best.  Nevertheless, I would recommend buying this series for the children in your life, then just letting them summarize the story for you rather than trying to read it for yourself.

Visiting the Recent Past

One of the great pleasures of reading children’s books as part of my work (and one of the inspirations behind this blog) is the chance to reread books with a kind of double vision.  Whenever I come back to a book I read as a child, I can look at it with my adult eyes, imposing all my adult sensibilities, knowledge, and perspectives … but I can also still see  the ghostly impressions and opinions of my voracious child-reader self.  Rereading is one of the surest ways I know to re-engage with that childhood self.  But there’s another funny phenomenon I sometimes stumble on.  Occasionally I’ll read a book that I didn’t read as a child that still manages to make me feel nostalgic for some piece of my childhood.  It feels a bit like reaching back the other way, handing a book from my end back to that child reader to get her reaction.

One of my favorite examples of a book that can evoke “faux nostalgia” for me  is  Meet M and M (written by Pat Ross, pictures by Marylin Hafner).  This is not a book I remember reading as a child, though it certainly could have been – the series was first published in 1980.  I discovered it when searching for something that would be accessible for my less confident readers.  (It’s at the same reading level as Frog and Toad but qualifies as a “real” book in the minds of third graders because it has “real” chapters and it’s usually not a book they’ve seen before.)  The story is about Mandy and Mimi, two best friends who are so similar that they pretend to be twins.  One day they have a a terrible fight, perfectly realistic in the way it starts over nothing and explodes into insults and warfare.  The girls finally resolve their argument and the book ends on a note that is both uplifting and realistic.

So what is it about this story that fills me with such  longing for the books of my childhood?  Primarily it’s the setting, in all senses of the word, and the way it’s charmingly evoked by Hafner’s illustrations.  The story takes place in the apartment building where the girls live one floor away from each other.  Their environment is untidy but not messy – “lived in,” as my mother would say – and their relationships with each other and their families are positive but realistic.  They engage in real play, the kind of unstructured play I wish all kids had more time for: making crafts, role playing, dressing up, and lots of time spent with guinea pigs and other pets.  Hafner (who illustrated more than 100 picture books, including one of my childhood favorites, Germs Make Me Sick!) creates pictures of this environment that are somehow both detailed and simple, with human characters that are realistic but with a cartoonish element to them.  The illustrations pull me right back to that friendly/realistic city environment that was part of the Sesame Street episodes of the early eighties.

The other element of this story that feels nostalgic to me is the role of adults … or rather, the relative unimportance of their role.  We do see the girls’ parents, and they never feel entirely unsupervised, but this relationship belongs entirely to them.  Their parents aren’t arranging playdates or suggesting activities.  When the girls fight, there are no kindly suggestions from the adults or social coaching about how to repair the relationship.  Ultimately, the solution to the fight (a bucket sent down from the window of one apartment to the other with an offered gift) comes entirely from the girls.  At a time when adult anxiety about children’s relationships can reach fever pitch (and sometimes with good reason), there’s something comforting and empowering to children about the idea that relationships can break and be put back together again.

Of course, my students don’t pick up on the gamma rays of nostalgia that this book sends out to me.  There are no particular references or elements of style that make this book feel “old” to them.  As far as they’re concerned, it’s just another book group book (and a “real chapter book,” at that), with lots of opportunities to talk about conflict and resolution, character comparisons, and personal connections.  My teacher-self loves that about this book.  My child-self loves the chance to revisit a not-so-distant time period that somehow feels old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.