Picks from the Profs

 Jerry Griswold, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the National Center for the Study of Children's Literature, offers his opinion on the books for children and teens that every shelf should have.

Summer Reading and Reading for Fun
–by Jerry Griswold

The current buzzword in literacy circles is “reading for fun.” Experts have found a correlation between the amount of time youngsters spend reading voluntarily and their success in school in all subject areas (including math and science). Moreover, researchers have noted that those who acquire the habit of reading for pleasure when they are young are more likely to do well in the world of work (finding employment, earning higher salaries, winning advancement) and are more likely to be involved in their communities. Indeed, voluntary reading produces so many great results that–if it weren’t illogical to do so–we ought to require it.

The most useful advice given to parents who want to encourage this kind of reading is to let their youngsters’ interests lead them where they will. There’s nothing wrong with comic books, in other words. And instead of disapproving, say, their taking up a book in the Sweet Valley High series, buy them the next one.

Summer is an optimal time to do this. September through May, youngsters may come to associate reading with homework and chores. But when school is out, given the chance, they just might discover reading can be fun. That was my own experience.

Ruminating about that got me wondering what books I would choose if my major principle of selection was “fun reading”?  What books would I have lying about the house during the summer where an idle kid might lay his or her hands upon them? Here is my 4X4 list: four books for four different age groups from kindergarten through high school.

Kindergarten to Grade 3. In recommending the four picture books below, I must confess that I had to skip over Madeline and Olivia, Babar and Ferdinand, Frog and Toad, as well as George and Martha. Tears were wept at my shortchanging Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Millions of Cats. Alas. Here, nonetheless, are the glorious survivors of my culling:

Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss

Grades 4 to 6. This is the age to discover Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and Heidi. Bright boys will love Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and plucky girls will fall in love with Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. But if I had to choose four . . .

The Tale of Desperaux, by Kate DiCamillo
The Borrowers, by Mary Norton
Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers
Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White
Grades 7 to 8. The middle-school years, generally speaking, amount to a shift in interests from fantasy to “real life.” With this comes a fascination with history (works like Little Women and Tom Sawyer) and a love of adventure (which may lead boys to Jack London’s books and girls to Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins). Real life, history, and adventure can be found in these four choices:

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Grades 9 to 12. Though it often happens in earlier years, high school summers seem an especially good time for series books: Harry Potter comes to mind, but I prefer Philip Pullman. Another part of adolescence is the book about the loner; while I grew up with Camus’ The Stranger and my sisters curled up with The Diary of Anne Frank, the classic for everyone has still got to be that one by J. D. Salinger. Then there are those books that are revelations of disenchantment and that point out that the world is not all rosy: Animal Farm and Brave New World bring political scepticism to the teen in summer, To Kill a Mockingbird makes injustice plain in our country, but Golding’s famous book brings that nihilism closer to home in its account of characters still in school. Finally, from the current popularity of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to the dog-eared copy of James Hilton’s Lost Horizons passed among my high-school friends, there always seems to be in this age group a hunger for alternative worlds; to my mind, Lois Lowry stands at the head of this pack.

His Dark Materials (a series of three novels: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass), by Philip Pullman
Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Finally, a personal note. Making a list like this is a thankless task. Looking over my shoulder at my book shelves, I can see volumes glaring at me like unacknowledged friends: “Where are we?” they ask. And I can hear colleagues joining them with accusations: Where is Peter Pan, Shaun Tan, Wind in the Willows, Sherman Alexie, Esperanza Rising, The Jungle Book, The Yearling, Tarzan, Huckleberry Finn, Weetzie Bat, A Wrinkle in Time, the Oz books, Kitchen, William Steig, the fairy tales, The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler, and the many offerings of Roald Dahl? The roll call goes on and on while I hang my head in shame.

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Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: Recent Children’s Books
–Jerry Griswold

In commencement speeches, graduates are typically encouraged to “Hitch their wagon to a star.” While those words are meant to inspire ambition, I want to hijack that phrase for another purpose because it provides an apt description for a group of this season’s children’s books–a number of offerings that attach themselves to prior successes.

Lost and Found
By Shaun Tan
NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2011. ISBN: 978-0545229241. $21.99 hardcover. Ages 9 & up.

Shaun Tan is a genuine star. This young Australian artist has won an Academy Award (for Best Short Animated Film) and the Astrid Lindgren Award (sometimes called the Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature). The wagon that was recently attached to his star is the book Lost and Found, a collection of three graphic novels published previously in Australia but not widely known here. Those who liked Tan’s The Arrival and Tales from Outer Suburbia, young adults and others keen on graphic novels, will love these.

The first, The Red Tree, seems an early experiment in Tan’s signature combination of magical realism and art nouveau. While not a picture book, it is still not quite a graphic novel since it lacks an overarching narrative. Instead, this seems a notebook of drawings or, as Tan himself describes them, meditations on a feeling--in this case, the emotions of alienation and displacement. I am partial to one picture where a huge trout seems to menacingly float over a downtown.

On the other hand, The Lost Thing, the second in the series, does have a coherent narrative; in fact, this is the story that was made into Tan’s Academy-Award-Winning animated short that can now be viewed on the internet. It is an account of an “objet trouv√©” [a found object], a creature that might have been imagined by Salvador Dali or Hieronymous Bosch, a kind of huge and living metal teapot with worm-like tentacles. Throughout the story, the curious thing is how no one seems to pay much attention to this conspicuous oddity--except for the young boy who takes it home.

John Marsden supplies the words to the final story, The Rabbits, which tells about the settling of Australia from the perspective of its indigenous peoples; in mythic language, we are told how
the Rabbit People took over a continent already occupied by others. For this legend, Tan provides weird sci-fi and steampunk drawings that seem to show events as if unfolding before the baffled eyes of the bush people; at the same time, the exotic foreignness of the pictures universalizes this archetypal story of colonization. I’d say it’s my favorite of the three graphic novellas found in Lost and Found.
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The Crows of Pearblossom
By Aldous Huxley; illustrated by Sophie Blackall
NY: Abrams Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-0810997301. $16.95 hardcover. Ages 4 & up.

Here, illustrator Sophie Blackall hitches her wagon to a story by a world famous author: Aldous Huxley, the British novelist perhaps best known for his dystopian classic Brave New World. Before the outbreak of World War II, Huxley relocated to California’s Mojave Desert where, in 1944, he presented his six-year-old niece Olivia with a children’s story. The Crows of Pearblossom relates how Mrs. Crow is troubled by an egg-gobbling rattlesnake who lives at the base of her tree and how her husband and Old Man Owl solve the problem by tricking the serpent. Out of print since it was first published in 1967, the story is now available again thanks to Sophie Blackall and her illustrations: vivid color drawings and amusingly conceived scenes that wonderfully shorten the distance between readers and her in-your-face subjects.
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Charlie Russell: Tale-Telling Cowboy Artist
By Lois V. Harris
Pelican Publishing, 2010. ISBN: 978-1589807587. $16.99 hardcover. Ages 7 & up.

In this book, Lois V. Harris hitches what I guess is her chuck wagon to the star of Charlie Russell. A cowboy artist, Russell is represented here by a sampling of his recognizable sketches of settlers, Indians, broncos, buffalos, and warriors. Harris attaches a biography to this museum catalog, telling of a young man who came to Montana and stayed. A near dead ringer for Will Rogers, the young Russell earned his keep in the saddle and sketched on the side, but by middle age his reputation for capturing Western Americana was such that he could mosey off the trail to set up a studio in Great Falls and marry.
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Diego Rivera: His World and Ours
By Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-0810997318. $16.95 hardcover. Ages 5 & up.

For a long time, Latino children’s books seem to have been stuck in a cookie-cutter “folklorico” style. In Diego Rivera, Duncan Tonatiuh makes a departure by using well known figures by painter Diego Rivera (where personae from ancient Mayan and Aztec murals were reshaped by Rivera and his modernist sensibility) and then goes them one better by reshaping them once more into figures for children. In his second departure, Tonatiuh then takes scenarios from Rivera’s well known paintings and reimagines them in contemporary times: so, for example, Rivera’s early twentieth-century scene of four factory workers on a production line gets re-envisioned (in visually similar terms) as four kids at computer terminals in a school library. This is twice clever. As its title suggests, the book hitches its wagon to Rivera’s star and offers an homage to the famous Mexican muralist. But this offering goes one step further: It shows that Tonatiuh has brilliance enough to unhitch his wagon and go off on his own.
About the Author
Jerry Griswold was the Director of San Diego State University's National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His most recent book is Feeling Like a Kid.

[First serial rights.]