In November, I reviewed the first two books in the Fairy Bell Sisters series, written by Margaret McNamara and illustrated by Julia Denos. We just finished books 3 and 4 in the series (Book 5 is due out in May), so I wanted to give a brief review of those two books.
As a reminder, these books are for the 6-10 age range (at least according to the cover). I’m reading these books to M (she’s six years old). M really wants to believe in fairies and most days, it seems, she thinks they are real. She’s never actually asked about whether fairies (or mermaids) are real; she just assumes they are. This is unlike many other things that she has specifically asked us about (and to which we give her the age-appropriate truth). I admit that I am not always certain of which side of the line I should be walking on here: her seeming desire and wish for hope in this kind of fantasy, or her—and definitely my—strong preference for concrete truths. Aside from all that, she loves these stories. Thus, we read them.
The third book, Golden at the Fancy Dress Party, was a story much like the first two, where one of the Fairy Bell sisters is the main character for the book (though the other sisters appear with frequency too). Golden is chosen to go to the mainland to participate in a fancy-dress making contest and party. She goes alone, which means that she does not have her sisters there as moral support. Some of the other fairies who are present for the party are threatened by Golden’s costume and dressmaking abilities, and try to thwart her ability to win the contest. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Golden makes do with what she’s been given, and ultimately kindness and good intentions prevail. I admit: I didn’t like the premise of the dressmaking contest and the idea of there having to be one winner (there’s too much of that in our culture, I think), but I do like the fact that it shows an interpersonal conflict that an initially uncertain Golden must resolve on her own. M needs to hear more of these stories, I think, because she is often so unsure of herself in similar situations. I liked the story for that reason alone.
The fourth book, however, I had a little more trouble with thematically, at least with respect to one of the subtexts and the age of my own daughter. Clara and the Magical Charms tells the story of Clara and her developing ability to use magical powers (in this case to heal an injured animal). She struggles with how to harness it and goes against the wishes of Queen Mab who had cautioned about using such powers before one was truly ready. I am OK with that part of the story and how it ultimately panned out.
The part that I was not really prepared for, and didn’t like, honestly, was the romantic undertones developing between Clara and Rowan (a male gnome who, with other gnomes, is visiting the fairies’ island for the Valentine’s Day games). It was subtle, but certainly noticeable. At the age of six, my daughter has not really seen too many movies (or read any books, insofar as I can remember) that involve romantic love. When compared to her friends of this age, she has seen far less of the Disney princess movies where these themes come up regularly (the reasons for not watching these movies are many, and not all of them are because of our prohibiting them at one time or another; she’s just not that interested). Of course, she sees us, her parents, loving each other in a romantic way, but outside of that, it’s just not on her radar.
I’m not prudish or afraid of her knowing about these kinds of relationships, but I got a little sad when this theme entered the book. Whether it would be appropriate for the ten year old reading in the recommended age group? Possibly. But it didn’t seem to fit for the six year old set. It just seems like an all too common default plot line, and one that you do not see in books geared more toward boys (though I try to avoid gender specific books, I don’t want to censor books she likes either, and so I don’t). Plus, because romantic love, crushes, and flirting are not on her radar, I had to explain what was going on between Clara and Rowan. She really didn’t understand why he was in the story. These are not concepts I necessarily want to discuss right before bedtime due to the number of other questions it leads to. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have read it had I known beforehand, but I guess I should have paid more attention to what was forthcoming so that I was better prepared. I will make sure I am more clear about what Book 5 is about before we decide to read it.
In a nutshell, these are fairly easy lifting kinds of books. They encompass the fun fluff of young children’s literature, but perhaps not likely among the ones she will remember many years from now.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I don’t have too many regrets in life, but one regret I do have is not taking any humanities classes while in college, save for one photography class. I was a biology major with hopes of becoming an ecologist (didn’t happen), and so I focused all of my attention on those kinds of labs and classes. At the time, I did not appreciate that the whole point of a liberal arts education is to actually take part in the diversity and range of classes available, including those outside your major. For this reason (and because I certainly didn’t pay attention during English classes in high school either), I often feel woefully lacking in an understanding and appreciation for literature and poetry. I have not read most classics. I have only a vague knowledge of some of the famous, long dead poets. Suffice it to say, you do not want me on your trivia team.
Yet, I find myself increasingly drawn to poetry lately, both writing and reading it. I’m not sure if it’s because of my 40th birthday (a month away) and having more clarity of what interests me, succumbing more to the writing life or even just my slow immersion into Twitter (saying so much with a pithy 140 characters!). Though I want to read more poetry, I often just don’t know where to start looking. Only certain “voices” and topics seem to speak to me yet there is just so much to sift through.
So, imagine my delight when, while at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair in November, I stumbled upon Urban Nature: Poems About Wildlife in the City, edited by Laure-Anne Bosselaar (2000). Even more exciting? It’s a signed copy (Ms. Bosselaar and several of the poets). Even more exciting than that? The bookseller personally knew (and has stayed with while on vacation) the editor. This kind of “closeness” to the players forces me accept the limits of my iPad and ebooks.
Aside from any regrets I have about not taking classes about poetry, I also live with a certain sense of occasional melancholy about living in an urban area rather than the wooded rural type of environment I grew up in as a child. Indeed, I think much of my appreciation for trees, birds and the awesome interconnectedness of ecosystems stems from living in upstate New York for the years that I did. I am equally drawn to the urban life as I am to solitude in the woods. At the moment, the city wins.
So for me this collection was, in a word, perfect. It introduced me to several new poets that I likely would not have otherwise come to know. The poems focus on subjects—cities and wildlife—that are near and dear to me. I often find myself looking for the wild in our built environment. It’s harder some days than others, but there is a whole world thriving right before our eyes. But we have to be receptive to it, just like these poets.
The poems are separated into several categories: Cityscape; Streets, Highways, Bridges, Rivers; Seasons and Skies; Backyards, Gardens, Parks, and Zoos; and Animals in the Cities. There were several that resonated with me and provided much beautiful imagery. Like the collage that Gerald Hausman describes in “September City” and the changing of foliage by Lloyd Schwartz in “Leaves”. In “Nocturne”, Ellen Bryant Voigt has a way of describing, if not pardoning, the violence that inevitably occurs in cities and nature alike.
In “Going Home Madly”, Brooke Wiese describes the night sky like this:
The moon was new, a sliver rising over
Queens. The sky was plush as crushed velvet—
a midnight blue wedding lapel purpling over
the East River like the inside of a clamshell.
I must have read “Outlook” by Crystal Bacon at least four times on the first pass. It seems to so aptly describe a feeling I often have about living in close proximity to other people and all that comes with it, including the sights and sounds. You hate it on the dreary days—the clutter, grey and detritus of modern life—but then you are in awe of the sunset or trees that also fill that vista. The first stanza is just beautiful:
I’ve begun to love the cold, the slick, bitter seed
of this life: brittle, brilliant. Even the bare trees
have embraced the ice: arms and fingers shelled
in diamond, in glass, and still they wave and click,
bend and freeze in the chill kiss of the wind.
Loving trees as much as I do, I felt the sense of loss and sorrow described by Robert Ayres in “The Neighbor’s Elm”, which had been cut down due to disease. Birds also permeate throughout many of these poems and they are another living species to which I feel connected on a deep level. I love the description of the owl taking flight in “A Death in Larkspur Canyon” by Richard Garcia:
Going out that evening with the garbage
I saw something crouched below me.
Then it rose—an owl, dark, silent
billowing like a silk scarf thrown in the air.
“Brave Sparrow” by Michael Collier is just lovely, and gives a much needed acknowledgment to one of the most ignored urban birds, the lowly sparrow. Cardinals are one of my all-time favorite birds, so I understood and appreciated “Red Bird” by Gerald Steen. The tenderness and mystery of eggs and nests are so apparent and heartbreaking in “The Nest” by Carol Moldaw.
I could go on. Indeed, there are many, many good poems in this collection. It seems like a book that is best read across different seasons or city vantage points, though so far I’ve only read it in the fall from the comfort of my living room. If you’re a city person who likes to notice the “unnoticed” among the bustle, this book will speak to you. If you’re a nature lover who happens to live in an urban environment and you feel the tug of a more pristine world that you cannot access right now, this book will give you a bit of hope and comfort that there is an abundance of beautiful wildlife even within the concrete jungle.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
This past summer M (just shy of six at the time) was interested in reading longer books like early chapter books. It can be a bit challenging, at times, to find the right books for her right now. She’s reading a few dozen sight words on her own, but the stories in books for early readers using many of those words are not that engaging to her. They have their importance in learning how to read (i.e. decode), but it’s really not what she wants. She wants a story. Picture books still hold a large part of her attention, but many of them are much shorter than she’d like. Comprehension and attention span wise, she is quite capable of listening to some pretty complex stories, and so we seem to be drifting into chapter book territory more and more. Though, quite honestly, I think the recommended age range for some of the books we’ve been reading has been for 6-8 or 7-9 year olds, and I’m probably pushing the envelope sometimes (more so with the subject matter than the language; sometimes you just don’t know until you’re halfway through a book that it probably could have waited another 6-12 months). She turned six on the first day of Kindergarten so, in many cases, she’s been having books read to her almost a full year more than many of her classmates, and has already gone through some that others might just be getting to. It’s a balance to find something that interests her but that is not inappropriate for her age.*
But, in an effort to start reading longer stories that appealed to her, we gave this book a try over the summer: The Fairy Bell Sisters: Rosy and the Secret Friend, written by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Julia Denos. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s actually the second book in the series, though it didn’t ultimately matter that we read it out of order.
Here’s the skinny. This series, which I now see has four books in total (the fourth will be released on 12/31/2013), tells the story about Tinker Bell’s five younger fairy sisters, one of which is toddler-aged, whom all live together on Sheepskerry Island. Each book in the series, it seems, highlights a predicament of one of the older, school-aged sisters and how they work it out. In Rosy and the Secret Friend, it tells the tale of Rosy befriending a human girl, which is a no-no for fairies. I won’t give away the story’s ending, but the book did hold M’s attention throughout the entire book and she begged often for “just one more chapter, please?”
Last week we started and finished the first book in the series, Sylva and the Fairy Ball. This one features Sylva, who’s about to turn eight (which, it so happens, is the age that a fairy must be to be invited to the Fairy Ball hosted by Queen Mab) and really wants to attend the Fairy Ball with her older sisters. The Fairy Ball, naturally, is the day before Sylva is supposed to turn eight, and so she is upset that she cannot go. You will have to read for yourself whether the age limit ultimately stops her from trying to attend.
The books are, in a word, cute. The story lines are pretty straightforward, with a conflict that must be resolved. As an adult, I knew exactly where the stories were headed, but M really did not. This tells me they are good for her age because they were interesting, entertaining and not predictable. The only minor hurdle for M, at the very beginning, was keeping the characters’ names straight because there are five speaking characters (which is a lot more than most books that kids at this age read up until this point). By the middle of the first book we read, she was able to keep them straight.
At the tender age of six, M is completely into the idea of fairies and I think this is why these stories ultimately appeal to her. Unlike Santa or the Easter Bunny, M has not once questioned whether fairies are real. Even if she has any doubt, she has not expressed it to us. I think this is because she really wants them to be real. Though I’m not sure how much longer that innocence and belief in fairies (and their magic) will last now that she’s being exposed to older, wiser kids in elementary school. We tell her the truth if she asks questions about these kinds of things, yet I think that even if the fairy myth becomes exposed before we finish the series (which we will), she will like these books nonetheless because the characters are very likeable and good-hearted. They are the kind of girls that I am positive M would love to have as friends.
The sketch illustrations are good but not anything remarkable because of how they are presented in the book, which is quite minimally. At best, they give the chapters and text a little break here and there, and let young, fairy-loving readers see that there is more than Disney’s version of a fairy out there (which I think is a good thing to let kids see in this Disney-loving culture). But, to be honest, they are hard to see very well under bedtime reading light. I really wish they were more substantial or in color in the book because I think this illustrator has some talent that is not being featured as it should be.
All in all, a nice beginning, so far, in a series that features fairies and stories about doing the right thing. The perfect kind of read for the colder, shorter days ahead.
* Full disclosure: we’ve read her five of the Captain Underpants books, which, I know, are totally geared toward slightly older kids. I also know that there has been some discord about these books, at least among some parents, but I personally just don’t buy into many of the arguments that those opponents have made. I think I will save my thoughts on those books for another post.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
There is so much that I love about When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams, that I fear that my review has the potential to become a rambling and verbose accolade, if not a series of bold block quotes and arrows that scream “YES! THIS! SEE HOW BEAUTIFUL AND PERFECT THAT IS!?”
Instead, I will try to stick to the two things that stand out most for me: the structure of the book, and the intense yet simple prose that had me underlining with fervor because, inevitably, I will be re-reading this book again and again. Considering that I am predominately a read-it-once kind of reader, that says something in and of itself.
Here is the backbone of the book: It is a memoir. The story opens when TTW is fifty-four years old. She is recalling a scene from the week before when her mother died, also at the age of fifty-four. Her mother told her that she was leaving her all of her journals, but that she could not look at them until after she had died.
When TTW got around to opening the journals after her mother’s death, three shelves worth of journals, she was shocked, if not disheartened to discover that all of her mother’s journals were blank. Every single one.
As TTW writes early in the book, “In Mormon culture, women are expected to do two things: keep a journal and bear children.” Later she explains,
“Mormon women write. This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happenings of our lives. Keeping a journal is keeping a record. . . . I cannot think without a pen in hand. If I don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist.”
I am not a Mormon, but as someone who blogs and writes regularly, I can very much relate to this sentiment. So, what did that blankness, in effect, her mother’s silence, mean? Or, asked another way, what does it mean to have a voice during life, to be heard?
For the next fifty-four chapters—some mere sentences long—we discover that this is a memoir primarily about a woman’s voice and what it means to have one. As she tries to reconcile the blank pages of her mother’s journals and the woman she came to know and love while she was alive, TTW shows us the various contexts where a woman’s voice is heard (or not): family, marriage, motherhood (in particular, the mother-daughter bond), and even the political sphere of grassroots environmental protection. Throughout it all, TTW weaves her own personal narrative about life with the possible meanings of her mother’s blank journals, which she does with italicized sentences after some relevant or thematic passages, like this:
“My Mother’s Journals are an act of defiance.” (p. 47)
“My Mother’s Journals are an act of aggression.” (p. 47)
“My Mother’s Journals are an act of modesty.” (p.47)
“My Mother’s Journals are a transgression.” (p. 63)
“My Mother’s Journals are a scandal of white.” (p. 63)
“My Mother’s Journals are a gesture and a vow.” (p. 77)
“My Mother’s Journals are written in code.” (p. 172)
This latter characterization of her mother’s journals is from Chapter XLV. I use it as but one example of how TTW discusses “voice” throughout the book. She eloquently weaves relevance to “voice” by referencing Nushu, the ancient, secret script among ancient Chinese women of a certain region in the Hunan Province. The Nushu script resembles bird tracks. It was “a way women could speak to themselves outside of the language of men.” She goes on to explain to the reader, in succinct prose, that special books written in Nushu were written by a mother to her daughter upon her daughter’s wedding. The mothers did this to “celebrate the union of the newly married couple, lovingly, yet at the same time grieved the separation from their daughter.” The power of that slayed me as I think about the fact that my own six-year old daughter may someday get married. Other village women also added their own words to this keepsake, and several blank pages were also included for the bride herself to add something in Nushu. In code, not decipherable by men. These women were using their voice.
In the next chapter, Chapter XLVI, we read a letter from TTW’s mother to TTW, written on the eve of TTW’s wedding. Of course it is not written in Nushu, but there is a bit of motherly advice about marriage and relating to husbands therein, telling TTW to “Always keep it exciting and vital and interesting.” Threads like this link chapter to chapter throughout the book. Then, in the same chapter, TTW weaves in her beautiful imagery about marriage, using words that so intensely capture the essence of what she is getting at:
Brooke [TTW's husband] and I have been married for almost four decades. A marriage is among the most private of landscapes. It is also the most demanding if both partners are to maintain their individuality and equipoise. How do you contain within a domestic arrangement a howling respect for the wild in each other?
TTW goes on a bit later to quote Rilke,
Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.
while almost in the same breath admitting
I have never been as lonely as I have been in my marriage. I have also never been more seen or more protected. Love has little to do with it. . . .
The depth of her introspection and understanding of herself, both inside and outside of a marriage, resonated deeply with me. I admit, I am still churning over much of this book in my mind, many of my thoughts still inarticulate because of the profundity of TTW’s words and message.
There were so many passages that I related with. Those from a writer’s point of view. Those from a conservationist’s point of view. I will save space and instead bring forth a favorite that relates to mothers and daughters, perhaps the theme (more so than marriage) that had me reading passages three or four times just to absorb what she was saying.
My favorite one is this, very early on in the book:
A mother and daughter are an edge. Edges are ecotones, transitional zones, places of danger or opportunity. House-dwelling tension. When I stand on the edge of the land and sea, I feel this tension, this fluid line of transition. High tide. Low tide. It is the sea’s reach and retreat that reminds me we have been human for only a very short time.
When she writes that about mothers and daughters in this way, as an “edge”, I understand immediately. Interestingly, TTW is talking about the connection with her mother here, not as a mother because, in fact, she does not have children of her own. I recall my own relationship with my mother, both during my childhood, particularly my teenage years, and now as a parent myself. There are many edges. I can also foresee the kinds of edges and ecotones I will encounter with my own daughter someday. There will be lots of ebb and flow in our relationship as well. I suppose this is because, as mere humans, it is impossible for us to harness the energy of the sea.
Another passage made time stand still when I read it,
Mother gave me my voice by withholding hers, both in life and in death. Her creativity presided in her home. She spoke through gestures, largely quiet and graceful. A letter. A meal. A walk together. Her touch. She lived on a private, elegant plain.
Without a doubt, that passage has more depth for me now that I am a mother myself. I can relate to it and understand the sacrifices my own mother made only now because I am a mother too. Indeed, this is one of the great gifts that children give us as mothers, and perhaps uniquely so: the ability to see what came before us, and, in some measure, at what cost. But I do not want to diminish TTW’s ability to understand the roles of mothers despite not being one herself. The fact that TTW can capture this essence so accurately without having walked that same path herself tells me she really understands the mother-daughter bond regardless. In other words, I do not see her own childlessness as detriment when she writes about this important bond; no, to read her words confirms that she truly knows the depths from where it grows.
I quite honestly could write thousands of words of praise about this wonderful and deeply moving book. I am still processing much of it and there are several passages I have underlined that I cannot wait to return to again, particularly those that capture the nature of silence:
I am afraid of silence. Silence creates a pathway to peace through pain, the pain of a distracted and frantic mind before it becomes still.
I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks that I listen. And in listening, I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort.
Silence—that is time you are hearing.
When I read these passages, I understand why I am now able to touch the stinging tentacles of stories I have long kept deep within me, and more importantly, to give them a voice on paper. I have let the silence, and therefore much of the uncomfortable feelings, surface and be felt. Whether my voice in these stories will move beyond private musings remains to be seen, but it is clear from this book that using one’s voice is a powerful tool inasmuch as one’s silence.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
Type of book? Picture book
Year published? 2013
First time reading this author? Yes (definitely not the last though!)
First time with this illustrator? Yes (again, not the last!)
The Breakdown – Mine
I was drawn in by the illustrations first, and the story second. A quick thumb through the book told me that it was, predictably, about a young boy who was afraid of the dark. But the illustrations, which were so, well, dark, interested me quite a bit because so much of children’s book illustrations is so, well, light. I like contrasts and wide range in subjects and illustration, especially for young readers who are figuring out what they like (and don’t like), and how to tell a good book (written and/or drawn) from a not so good one. This was one of only a few darkly illustrated books that I’ve found for her age range, so I was excited to see it on the shelf.
I admit I was hesitant to get this book because, knock on wood, M has not ever seemed afraid of the dark. Sure, she goes to sleep with a very dim night light on, but we shut it off after she falls asleep. That means when she wakes up to use the bathroom, which is every. single. night. it’s dark in her room. But I didn’t want to give her any ideas that she should be afraid of the dark, like so many children seem to be, so I was hesitant at first. In the end, I’m glad I got the book because she immediately took to it and its underlying theme, which is bravery.
The topic of bravery has been a prominent one in this house and for M in particular for the past year, and it is nice to provide some “new material” in this regard with books like this, if only to reinforce the concept. Laszlo, the main character (aside from “the dark”), must summons up some courage to rectify the darkness that has besieged his room when the night light goes out. Naturally, the extra night lights are stored in the basement. The dark basement. Dark makes its range known throughout the house—in closets, behind the shower curtain, beyond glass windows at night—but it is the basement that is the ultimate dark, especially to a child. Laszlo’s bravery is ultimately rewarded at the end of the story after he ventures down the stairs into the basement.
What I really loved about the story is that it personifies the dark as a friendly entity. I think this is a good message to embrace at a young age . . . yes, this coming from a grown woman months shy of forty who still must have a night light on somewhere upstairs in order to fall asleep. Ahem. But by giving the dark some dialogue in the story, it softens the bad rap that the dark usually gets. It also reminds us that we can find courage, or at least keep an open mind, to trust in the things that we cannot always “see” in bright light. I think this kind of reminder serves us well when it comes to encountering people or ideas that are unfamiliar to us, though I am not sure that that is what the author was going for ultimately. I recommend this book to children aged 4-8, and possibly older, especially if bravery and/or fears of the dark are common topics of conversation in your house too.
The Breakdown – Hers (edited slightly for typical 6 year old tangents)*
What did you think of the book?
I liked the name Laszlo. I liked that he finally went down [in the basement] because he thought it was too dark. I liked it because it was dark. I liked the pictures because they were dark.
What was the main idea of the story, do you think?
It was about a boy being afraid of the dark but then he wasn’t afraid after he tried going in the basement.
Are you afraid of the dark?
No. I’m not afraid.
Then why do you fall asleep with a night light on?
I like to make it brighter while I’m getting sleepy. And in case I have to use the bathroom before I fall asleep I won’t trip.
* M’s teacher is having the children explore identifying the “main idea” of stories this year. While it’s certainly (and arguably sadly) driven by a long-term need related to future standardized testing where this skill and reading comprehension will be tested, I think it is still important to develop this skill in its own right so that she becomes a critical reader and thinker. To that end, I have been asking her more and more about the books we read, and will periodically include her in book reviews so that you can get her takeaway from the stories as well.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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