Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Some Made-Up Awards for Books We Read This Summer

            We read a lot as a general rule. Pip and Polly will both settle in for an hour or so at a time with a book, and Pip has recently been devouring the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. In addition, we read out loud for fifteen or twenty minutes before bed each night and often for half an hour or so before that. But this summer we added another layer to all of this by turning our lunch times into story time. This is something I’d done with Polly while she was home with me, but I had avoided doing it when both kids were home, reasoning we had plenty to talk about. As it turns out those lunchtime conversations tended to devolve into silliness and getting through the meal was becoming a chore. So one day in June I brought out a book to read to them while we ate. This turned out to be very popular. The kids enjoyed having something new to listen to while we ate and it even led them to hang around and eat a bit more than they had before. It also led us to motor through a significant number of books through the last six weeks or so of summer.
            As it has been a slower week here – another average week of school, Polly a bit under the weather over the weekend – and I was interested in shaking things up for a week, I thought I’d look back at some of the books we read over the summer and hand out some made-up awards as a way to talk about them. So without further ado:

The “Daddy, keep reading!” award: The Pirate’s Coin by Marianne Malone

            This award goes to the book I enjoyed reading out loud the most. The Pirate’s Coin is the third book in Marianne Malone’s 68 Rooms Adventure series about Jack and Ruthie, two kids who through various magical discoveries explore the Thorne Rooms – a group of 68 miniature rooms displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago – and travel back in time to the periods each room represents. The first two books in the series are very good as well, but they spend a great deal of time developing the infrastructure of the magical properties and the how and why the two kids are able to manage their explorations. In The Pirate’s Coin Malone strikes boldly out into the worlds beyond the rooms. The kids encounter Jack’s pirate ancestor and accidently change the course of his family’s history. They also make friends with a slave girl whose descendant winds up attending the same school as them. This book was fun to read out loud for two reasons: 1) Malone plays with the implications of their time traveling in a well-crafted and sophisticated way; and 2) you get to do the voice of a pirate.

The “You’re on your own with this one” award: Geronimo Stilton’s Field Trip to Niagara Falls

            This award goes to the book I could not get through. My kids like the Geronimo Stilton series. First of all, all the characters are mice. Second, these mice do silly, slap-stick type things that make them laugh. Third, the books are colorful and full of crazy graphics. I think of them as the literary equivalent to Halloween candy. I read two of them out loud to Pip and Polly before deciding I couldn’t do any more.
I stopped reading them to the kids because I’ve found that underlying the silliness is a tone that is mean-spirited and ugly. There is a fine line between slap-stick/sarcasm and out-right meanness, and I felt like the Geronimo Stilton books crossed that line a few too many times for my comfort. Also, the books are chock full of dubious behavior that I in no way want my children to emulate. For example, in the Niagara Falls book the main action is set in motion when Geronimo gets hot and bothered for his little nephew’s school teacher and attempts to wow her by whisking her away on a trip to Niagara Falls. She thinks he is proposing a class field trip and the plot proceeds from there. It was a touch like reading a porn script gone awry.

The Balloon Rocket Award: Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

            Pip and Polly love playing with balloons. They like to blow them up and turn them loose to shoot around over the place. Its fun. It’s a touch magical. The balloon goes everywhere – up, down, all around – listening to its own logic, its own spirit. It makes the kids laugh deliriously. Then when the air is all gone, it collapses to the ground, shriveled and dead. The magic seems to have gone all out of it.
            This is how I felt after reading Chasing Vermeer. The book begins with mysterious letters being delivered to three unnamed people. It develops a set of wonderfully imagined characters who have to parse through the realms of coincidence and pattern, gut-feelings and logical analysis, as they try to pinpoint the location of a stolen painting. This build-up leads one to expect that some kind of revelatory wonder will emerge at the end, some kind of idea about the world that, whether it’s true or not, tickles the imagination in the way, for example, The DaVinci Code leads one to imagine that there might actually be a real descendent of Jesus in the world. Unfortunately, then the air runs out of the balloon. Once the kids find the painting and intercept the perpetrator it all turns out to be an ordinary con job. The mysterious letters were a diversion. The coincidences were just that.
As a family we really enjoyed reading this book, and the two subsequent ones featuring the same characters. I just wish Balliett’s resolutions were not so ordinary and mundane. They made what could have been mind-blowing books into just good stories.

The “Chicken again for dinner tonight? Oh, okay.” Award: Soccer on Sunday by Mary Pope Osborne

            We have read all fifty of the Magic Tree House books at least once over the last two years, and several of the volumes have passed our way multiple times. As with any series that long, there are ones you like more than others, but in general the books are reliably consistent in their structure, form, and characterization. The two main characters, Jack and Annie, are kind and adventuresome without being overly dramatic or reckless. They care for each other and approach the world with a bright-eyed sense of wonder. Pip and Polly relate to them and I find them to be decent models for the way I’d like Pip and Polly to make choices. I’ve even used Jack and Annie to help me explain things in a way they understand. Pip and Polly also tend to remember the different places Jack and Annie have traveled in the books and I have used this more than once as a way to create a more intimate connection with a place we are talking about on a map or in the news.
            The soccer book takes Annie and Jack to Mexico City for the 1970 World Cup. Along the way they meet a local kid who is also going to the final and wind up sharing the experience through his eyes. Later, using some magic, all three kids get to play a fantastic and uplifting game of soccer against some other local kids. It’s pretty run of the mill stuff for the series and Pip and Polly did not feel compelled to read it another time through. I’m not sure whether this is a sign of the average quality of the book or that the kids are beginning to grow out of the Magic Tree House series altogether. Either way, that’s okay.

The “Kids, this is literature” award: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

            This book earns the literature award for two reasons: First, it is incredibly well-written. As I read the text out loud to the kids, I found myself making mental notes of passages I wanted to go back and read again. Jeanne Birdsall is very skilled at structuring a scene and creating an emotional response through anticipation and well-chosen phrases. Second, this book about a middle class father and his four girls taking their summer vacation in a rental house on the estate of a very wealthy widower comes straight out of the tradition of the great English novels. All the class tensions and questions about family honor and identity feel right at home with the works of the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy.
            Most of the action surrounds the relationships that emerge between the son of the widower and the three youngest girls. They’re all too young for amorous tensions so concerns chiefly build around the girls’ bad influence on their new friend’s behavior – he sneaks out his window several times to go play – and how the girls might save the boy from having to go off to military school at the end of the summer. The action is decidedly small-scale and the drama is driven by escaped pet rabbits, a garden club competition gone awry, and kids venturing into places they are not supposed to be. The characters form the real meat of the story, and they were compelling enough that my children really enjoyed the book. I haven’t read the next books in the Penderwick series to them because they’re not old enough – or I’m not ready – to get into the nuances of first loves and parents going on dates. I hope I get the chance before Polly and Pip grow out of listening to me read to them.

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