Sunday, August 2, 2009

Putting a Match to Candlewick

I've finally been forced to open some of the packages of review copies that accumulated while we were off on vacation. In addition to all the packages I never opened since before we left, there were now roughly two weeks worth of new ones that had to be fetched from the Post Office. I said I would do this, but didn't. Dear A. went and rescued our mail. I have been negligent in my duties as a committee member. I have actively avoided the boxes and mailers that have been coming now in a steady stream for some months. I simply could not face all that required reading, all those plunges into the first fifty pages at least of bad, self-published supernatural novels, boating memoirs, local sports histories and the rest. I've put the whole thing off as long as I possibly could this year, after being an awfully good boy last. Then I read some of everything as it came to the mailbox or landed on my porch. I made notes. I cast early ballots, I was studious and careful. No more. Instead I have chucked each delivery into my office unopened. I've made a pile on the daybed and ignored it until it threatened to sink the mattress. But now, my vacation is truly over. I am back at work. I'm am writing again here. The first meeting of my committee is only a month away. I must begin.

So, I decided that whatever package I opened first, I would read the entire contents, as a penance. I would not select the likeliest looking mailer, or open the box from the recognized publisher, I would just grab up the top piece and tear into it. The Fates smiled at me, sorta. The first package was from Candlewick Press, a respected children's publisher. Oh dear.

I do not read children's books I did not read and love first in childhood. I do not look at children's picture books. I do not recommend or sell kid's books at the bookstore because there is an expert and enthusiastic staff of booksellers working in the Children's Department who are eager to talk to children, teachers, librarians, parents and all their ilk. I do not approve of the endlessly cranking presses of the publishers of children's books, collectively producing more useless pulp, seemingly every day, if not by the hour, than the rest of publishing combined. I do not subscribe to the theory of necessity promoted by children's publishers, authors, librarians and teachers, that all this rubbishy publishing is absolutely required if future generations are to read and appreciate literature. Please. I should think, based on even the most casual, all but unintentional observation, that the volume of children's books has never been higher. The effect? Well, I'm sure all those nine year olds are busy tweeting about Little Women.

Now, knowing a little of my prejudices, you might be amused to read that I rather liked all three of the Candlewick Press books in that first box.

Zelda and Ivy: Keeping Secrets, by Laura McGee Kvasnosky, was my first experience of what evidently is a long established series. The eponymous heroines are two, rather heartless little bourgeois vixens, charmingly drawn in the standard pinafores of some imaginary near past, who play in a rather bitchy way with one another, and also occasionally involve some other little neighbor mammal in their sibling rivalry. Neither little fox is good. Neither is quite nice. I liked that. In this book, there are three, distinct, unrelated little stories, a chapter each. The first is "Keeping Secrets", in which the elder sister intentionally tells her little sister and the sister's friend the same lie, "Your Mom is the tooth fairy," knowing that neither will be able to refrain from revealing the secret for long. As in all three of these stories, the consequences are slight, and the satisfaction for the reader is in knowing, even before the practical joker does, that her joke will, indeed, pay off. The gossips agree, "Let's only tell Zelda." This is a world without adults, evidently, so there would seem to be little chance of anyone being taught a lesson of any kind, other than the obvious one of not trusting information received from older siblings. Quite right. The next story is the most predicable, and least interesting of the three, "April Fool." In it, some uninspired, if harmless jokes are played out between the sisters through the course of the day. None quite come off, but then, none would have been specially funny or humiliating if they had. From this, I assume, children are meant to learn that this sort of thing requires considerably more planning to really burn the intended victim. Again, very true. Finally, in the last little story, "Madame Butterfly," all semblance of civility is abandoned amongst the little ones, and an ego-maniacal sister, I forget now which, completely undoes a butterfly hunt, insisting instead that she intends to perform, impromptu, an opera of her own composition, starring herself, and requiring anyone to hand to drop whatever they may have been doing, in order to provide her with the appropriate tragic foils and chorus. They submit to being bullied, thus learning the invaluable lesson that exploitation is, sadly, the lot in life for most of us. Better they learn it now, I say.

Higher! Higher!, by Leslie Patricelli, uses very few words indeed, two by my count, and rather moony cartoons, painted in bright colors on rough canvas, to show the fantastic consequences of being pushed in a swing. The little girl in the swing is eventually sent soaring up and up until she encounters airplanes, a mountain climber, and eventually, swung up entirely out of the atmosphere, she's pleasantly shocked to meet an alien child on a swing, pushed to the same extremity. "Again!" is her cry, when she inevitably returns to earth. Just so, little girl, just so. The author resides in Ketchum, Idaho, with her two year old, and the book is the result of having played just such a game. I can not blame either mother or child for being eager to escape the atmosphere of Ketchum, Idaho.

Finally, A Birthday for Bear, by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, is a sequel to a similar story, A Visitor for Bear, the collaborators produced just last year I think. In the earlier book, a mouse relentlessly stalked a much put upon, rather neurotically neat bear, insisting on imposing until the poor bear seemed to relent and humor the crazed little creature as much from exhaustion as affection. Seattle author, Bonny Becker's sympathies seemed then all but entirely with the bear, but I thought finally refused the most obvious option of the larger animal simply killing the little pest. The quite amusing drawings in the books rather lighten the psychological creepiness of the stories, and the illustrator is owed much of the credit, particularly in this second outing, for making the wee stalker, and his larger, antisocial victim seem less mad than the text indicates.

I do worry, just a bit, as the intended readers of this last are listed as "5 to 7", that little kids will take away from the book the erroneous idea that friendship is the result of relentless, unwanted attention and or the accommodation of lunatics. Sounds more like good preparation for working a Holiday in retail, rather than a recipe for long term companionship.

Still, I can't say I was unhappy to have opened the box from Candlewick Press first. Think of the children's books I've still to read! At least the first three were all slightly mad.

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