One weird thing about me is that I never really read picture books as a kid, at least not that I can remember. I seem to have been born with a chapter book in my hand. The earliest books I remember reading are Syd Hoff’s whimsical early readers about dinosaurs and other animals. Now, I’m quite sure my Mom read to me, and I have a picture of my oldest brother reading to me (he was only two and half years older), but I recall nothing from my toddler years about Wild Things, Cats in the Hats, or other classic picture books. I read a lot of Dr. Seuss only in my middle-grade years, out of curiosity, to see what the fuss was about (I liked them), and I may have read Where the Wild Things Are for the first time in college. When I finally collected a few picture books, after college, it was because I like the art work, particularly Leo Lionni’s collage style and the bright watercolors of Jean de Brunhoff and H.A. Ray.
So this month was a bit of a venture into unknown territory, rather than the nostalgia trip it would be for most people. I’ve been asked to do a reading for kids too young for my own stuff, and I ventured into the libraries and talked to librarians and browsed through stacks of books in search of a good read-aloud that doesn’t involve farting dogs or everybody pooping or the miscellaneous gross and scatological topics of Kids Books Anymore. I didn’t want anything dreadfully serious, either, since it’s not a dreadfully serious occasion.
My basic text in this venture ended up being You Read to Me & I’ll Read to You: Stories to Share from the 20th Century, featuring some very recognizable and reliable names like Jon Sciezka, William Steig (the guy who invented Shrek), Daniel Pinkwater, and Roald Dahl. Basically, writers I knew were witty and would be fun for me as well as the kids. I read several aloud, to the wife and the cats, worrying about the right length and stories that could appeal to a range of ages and not to heavy for the occasion, which is just a short reading before a baseball game. I won’t mention them all, but there were two nice discoveries.
First, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Catwings books, the first of which is in the volume mentioned above (I’ve since read the rest). It’s about tabby cats with wings, a premise I might have rolled my eyes at if it was a lesser fantasy writer than Ursula K. LeGuin. But Ursula K. LeGuin is Ursula K. LeGuin, and these books are lovely. Well written, gripping, touching, and sweet. I would already place these among the great animal books for kids, next to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Watership Down.
I love animal books where the animals are mostly in character, humanized just enough to talk amongst themselves and identify with, but living and acting as those animals do. The family of cats are just like that, perfectly feline, and true to their nature. The books are also excellent to read aloud, with a good mix of comedy and a touch of sadness in each book. I felt they were just a little too long and a little too serious for this occasion, but I would love to share these with my nieces, for example, where they can stop and ask questions and so forth.
Second, Crockett Johnson’s Ellen’s Lion, a collection of short stories that were originally three or four books and are now available only as an omnibus from Knopf Books for Young Readers. (Excellent taste, those Knopf people have.) These are mostly dialogs between a little girl and her stuffed lion, clearly written to be read aloud with the reader changing voices between the high, earnest Ellen and the low, patient Lion. The author has some fun with the reader. For example, one scene has the lion and the girl attempting to sing in unison, and never quite making it, since the author knows the reader can’t do that.
Crockett Johnson is best known for the wonderful picture books about a little boy named Harold, who draws his own world with a purple crayon. Ellen’s Lion has the same brand of kid-friendly post-modern sensibility, but emphasizes the text over the illustrations. This is what I’ll bring to the occasion. I’ve been working on my deep growly lion voice.
I also completed my Guys Read reading for the summer, though the discussions will continue throughout the summer. I read the Gary Paulsen historic novel, The Legend of Bass Reeves, and Diana Wynne Jones’ Conrad’s Fate. I quite enjoyed both, but I’ve read a lot of Paulsen and it’s the first time I’ve read Jones, even though I’ve been nudged to do so many times. It was quite good, very funny and clever in its treatment of magical possibilities. It’s actually a late installment in the Chrestomanci series, but stands alone just fine. I’ve picked up a couple more in the series anyway.