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peter panI was shocked recently when a friend asked me to clarify a plot point in Peter Pan, and I realized I’d never read J. M. Barrie’s book. It got me thinking about all the other classic children’s books I’d never read, or read so long ago I barely remember anything about them. And while I may have gotten over my guilt of not reading certain adult books, I don’t mind catching up on classic kids’ books. Here’s a partial list of what I plan to tackle:

Peter Pan--never read

The Jungle Book--never read

Anne of Green Gables–never read

Charlotte’s Web–last read in elementary school. I only remember the basic plot and some of the characters’ names.

The Secret Garden–all I remember is the existence of a garden behind a locked gate, and a grumpy kid who may or may not be sick.

I should probably add Alice in Wonderland to this list, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. It was just so boring and confusing. Alice fans, feel free to convince me otherwise.

The Matter of Gravity

Alternate title: I think I’ll try/defining/Gravity (performed by Adele Dazeem)

Jason Chin‘s latest picture book, Gravity, caught my eye because it got dinged by a review in The Horn Book Magazine (May/June 2014) for simplifying the science “to the point of inaccuracy.” But let’s be honest, without an advanced understanding of calculus and physics, we’re all getting the simplified version of gravity.

“Everything has gravity,” writes Chin to his pre-K audience, prompting Roger Sutton to complain:

Despite the text’s assertion, objects, whether the sun or a banana, do not ‘have gravity'; they have mass (which affects gravity). And to say ‘without gravity, everything would float away’ misses the rather more essential point that without gravity there would be no anything to float anywhere.

According to Newton, gravity is a fundamental force that depends both on the mass of objects and distance between them. The more mass objects have, the greater the gravity; the farther apart they are, the weaker their attraction. Chin makes this connection for young readers by saying “massive things have more gravity” and drawing bold pictures of outer space that depict size* and scale in a really fun way. Now if gravity is a property of matter, and all objects have mass (which Sutton correctly points out they do), then surely they have gravity.

Einstein updated Newton’s definition by scrapping the idea of gravity as a force. Instead, his theory explains gravity as the distortion of space-time geometry in response to matter and energy. (For example, the topology of space-time around the sun dictates the earth’s orbit around it.) With this in mind, if Sutton wanted to criticize Gravity for the inaccuracy of the everything would float away line, he should have nitpicked that floating away implies force.

Instead, Sutton’s second assertion–that without gravity, nothing would exist–is more of a chicken-and-egg quibble. Matter and gravity are intrinsically related, but good luck proving causality.

It’s gutsy of Chin to tackle a tricky subject for a young age in such a vivid, memorable way. When I asked physicists with PhDs how they’d explain gravity to five-year-olds, they wouldn’t stop laughing.

 

*We all know size matters not, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s pretend mass and size have a positive relationship

 

chaldeaI’m no expert on Diana Wynne Jones, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize she was a cat person. Felines–especially the magical, clever sort–regularly get starring roles in her books, whether it’s Plug-Ugly in The Islands of Chaldea or Midnight and Whippersnapper in Castle in the Air. No matter how powerful the cats are, they inevitably behave like cats, by turns hungry, opinionated and irritatingly indecisive.

Patricia MacLachlan, on the other hand, is definitely a dog person. Her canines tend to be loyal and slightly magical. They comfort the dying in Kindred Souls, help rescue people in The Truth of Me, and even counsel parents in Waiting for the Magic (to be fair, there’s a cat in this book too, but the canine:feline ratio stands at 4:1).

Other authors have non-animal hobbies and/or obsessions that reliably appear in their stories. I suspect Gary D. Schmidt is quite the baseball fan, as evidenced by The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now. Madeleine L’Engle probably loved classical music, since there’s a lot of singers (mostly of church music) and pianists in her books. In The Young Unicorns, music literally saves lives.

Elizabeth Wein, obviously, is a pilot, and flying is crucial in both Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity, not to mention her short stories. And it seems her next book is about pilots-in-training (Ethiopia and airplanes–what a way to combine her two series)!

Redwall_CookbookNo Brian Jacques book is complete without mouth-watering feasts. I’ve heard he took great care with his descriptions because he started out writing for kids at a school for the blind. Whatever his reasons were, he’s inspired countless readers to attempt cooking his woodland fare…with mixed results.

Like Jacques, Laura Ingalls Wilder liked writing about food, but it usually comes across as gratuitous or slightly desperate (do we really need a description of every meal eaten by Almanzo in Farmer Boy?) Of course, it all makes sense when you consider the author’s childhood of near-starvation (remember her gaping incredulity when she got peppermint candy and a heart-shaped cake for Christmas in Little House on the Prairie? Meanwhile, Almanzo’s mother kept her house regularly stocked with home-made doughnuts). No wonder Laura found such joy describing her husband’s privileged upbringing.

You know how it is: first you notice one thing, then another example of the same thing, and pretty soon you’re convinced this trend is taking over the world.

Lately, it seems, I can’t seem to escape middle grade books starring orphans–not just any orphans, but orphans in 19th century London, sneaking through grimy, secretive places and doing things adults can’t (or wouldn’t) do. Here are just a few examples:

index1. The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud. In a world where England is attacked by vengeful zombie-ghosts that can only be seen by children, orphans are routinely hired by terrified adults to get rid of the threat–often with deadly results (for the orphans). It’s a brilliant story, but not recommended for the claustrophobic (too many trapped-in-a-cobwebbed-room-with-monster scenes).

2. How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks–19th century London with supernatural predators. This time, it’s an adult using kids as bogle-bait, with yet more sewers, chimneys and cramped quarters.

3. Black Ice by Andrew Lane–in one disgusting scene, young Sherlock Holmes is saved by London street kids who know how to navigate the sewers (again with the filth and tight spaces!)

howtocatchabogle4. Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell–this one takes place in Paris instead of London, but the main character is British (and a presumed orphan), and she ends up joining a group of French orphans who live on rooftops and trees, never stepping foot into the street. Less claustrophobia, more acrophobia.

5. The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson–I haven’t read this yet, but it’s about “mudlarks”–Victorian London orphans scrounging for stuff to sell from the River Thames. This is playing out during the cholera epidemic, so expect plenty of unhygienic conditions.

What did I miss? I’m sure there are plenty of other recent books with plucky orphans not afraid of a little dirt.

I just discovered The Guardian’s delightful series, How to draw…, where children’s books illustrators teach you how to draw characters from their books. Today’s model: Weasel Leader and friends, of Elys Dolan’s Weasels (which I haven’t read.)

That didn’t stop me from drawing some weasels, though.

Swan Lake weasel pas de deux (paws de huit?)

Swan Lake weasel pas de deux (paws de huit?)

After stalling on the Newbery Challenge for quite some time (The White Stag of 1939 was an offensive read), I decided to dive back in with the 1940 winner, Daniel Boone by James Daugherty. Let’s just say it rivals its predecessor in terms of offensiveness.

Billed as a biography, Daugherty spins the yarns of Daniel Boone’s life with the artistic license of a tall tale teller. Or a biographer who lack objectivity. Boone’s arrival into this world, not to mention chapter one of this book, doesn’t even come with a date. (A quick visit to the History channel reveals Boone was born in 1734.) Instead, we get snippets of Real Historical Events (without context) at sporadic times. And an allusion that compares Boone’s boyhood home of Yadkin, North Carolina, to “the kingdom of a man in a world almost as new as Genesis.”

Indeed, Daugherty all but props Boone up as a god, or at the very least as someone instated by God to do whatever the heck he pleases. “The splendor and the brightness came upon his spirit like the rushing of mighty wings,” writes Daugherty, “and the voice of mighty thunderings [said], ‘Enter into a promised land such as no man has known, a new born creation all your own; drink deep, O Daniel, of the mysterious wine of the wilderness.'”

Even worse is Daugherty’s depiction of Indians as “savages,” “dogs,” and even “varmints.” When Boone uses deceit and treachery to outwit the Indians in one of their many violent conflicts, he is praised as clever and wily. When the Indians employ the same tactics, they lack common decency. Ironically–and I’m quite sure, unintentionally–one of the few first-hand accounts included by Daugherty shows the Seneca Indians to be one of the most reasonable and kind characters in this book.

I suppose Daugherty’s folksy writing style could be considered a plus, but that’s negated a hundred times over by his troubling content. And he structures his story with all the focus of a puppy teased by squirrels. Honestly, I’m completely baffled why the Newbery committee thought this book was “distinguished” enough to deserve a medal. I guess they didn’t learn from their epic failure (excuse the pun) in taste the year before.

A Refreshing Reminder

Once in awhile I succumb to the guilt of trying to be more knowledgeable about Literature. And thus, a few weeks ago I slogged through 300 pages of prose from a Very Important Author, re-affirming, in the process, why I read children’s books:

PLOT: if there was a plot to this Famous Book Which Shall Remain Nameless, it was too subtle for me to catch. I like stories where something happens. But there was no sense of progression in this book, just random slices-of-life that never quite strung together.

CHARACTER: everyone, it seemed, was either a quivering mess of low self-esteem or just plain cruel. I don’t need all the characters to be likeable, yet the constant unvarying doom was uninspiring. If there’s no discernible plot, at least give me someone to root for.

WRITING: the prose was fairly straightforward and not at all interested in showing off. I only wish it had been used to tell a better story.

From now on, I think I’ll stick with the adult books that work for me, like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or nonfiction. (Why is it that nonfiction reads so much better? Is it because the authors feel they have to work harder to make the story shine?) And the next time I get a guilty twinge, this post should cure any inclination to act on that impulse.

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