As Clint Eastwood said in Magnum Force: A man’s got to know his limitations. A more prudent person in my shoes would hesitate drafting a recommended reading list of Childrens’ Literature. After all, I have no kids of my own, and the last time I lived with minors was during the first term of the Clinton administration. Additionally, I have not read any of the Harry Potter books. Nor have I read Charlotte’s Web. My taste in books leans heavily towards the old timey, and not just because I have personal memories of the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew, for all you wags).
So, with the caution that hip hop happening groovy cats from Nowsville may very well be disappointed, here are my Fabulous “Fifteen” Books (Kids’ Edition):
1. Best in Show: Mr. Mysterious & Company, by Sid Fleischman
Mr. Sid Fleschman does not get the attention he deserves. He has written a very charming series of picture books about a “Farmer” named McBroom, who has a one acre farm that grows anything, and in about half an hour. Several of his books have been made in television movies by Walt Disney--Bullwhip Griffin, for example—and the stories are so good, not even Disney can screw them up (well, not completely). I am a fan of Mr. Fleischman for the same reason I’m a fan of any author. After all, what makes a good kid book is the same thing that makes a good non-kid book: good characters and good writing.
I should include a caveat, though. The book was written in 1962, and the portrayal of Native Americans is quite dated. Aside from that, there are strong girl characters, and the youngest child (also a girl) holds her own. Unfortunately, this book is often out of print, and can be hard to find.
2. Favorite Son Award for Book Probably Only I Would Love: The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek, by Evelyn Lampman
This was the first book I ever read that made me cry—even though I KNEW there was no creek, and no stegosaurus that spoke English and wagged his tale like a dog. That just plain did not matter.
This is a story about a boy and a girl, living in the southwestern United States, whose family runs a motel (I think they run a motel. I could be wrong) that is on the edge of going out of business. The only thing that can save the proverbial family farm is to find some evidence of dinosaurs in the area, thus creating an incoming swarm of paleontologists, all needing motel accommodations. Surprisingly, the kids find a living stegosaurus, who insists he is so shy, he would die if he met anyone else.
I am especially impressed with a conversation that the kids have with the stegosaurus about the morality of digging up the bones of ancestors, and putting them on public display (the stegosaurus is offended by the practice).
While the ending is sad, the stegosaurus does not die (no one dies).
3. Book with Highest Positive Rating By Kids—and Highest Negative Rating by Parents: The “Butt Wars” Trilogy, by Andy Griffiths
These books were written for people who find most pee and poop jokes too intellectually demanding.
I got into a fairly heated argument with a friend of mine, before he finally agreed to give his son (who was refusing to read any books) a copy of The Day My Butt Went Psycho. Later, my friend told me that weekend, his son had a friend spend the night, and for the first time, the two boys read a book (this book) under the covers with a flashlight. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his wife was decidedly unhappy, about my friend giving their child a copy of this book.
The premise of this modern tour de force is that your butt is a separate entity, with its own consciousness, and is able to jump off your body and run around. Jake, the chief protagonist, is upset because his butt not only repeatedly runs away, but is organizing other butts to take over the world. I thought the first book, The Day My Butt Went Psycho, was the best. But the consensus of the cognoscenti is that the second book, Zombie Butts from Uranus, is the best of the bunch. However, we all agree that the third book, Butt Wars: The Final Conflict, is still well worth reading.
The picture book winner of this award is The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit, by Werner Holzwarth. This book involves a nearsighted mole, who as he was coming out of his hole, suffered some unknown animal doing “that,” and having “that” land on top of the Mole’s head. The book is much better than it sounds.
Forget The Tao of Pooh or The Te of Piglet. Just my personal opinion, but those books stink. And forget about When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Those poems also stink. Instead, read the Stephen Mitchell transliteration of theDao te Ching, and then go to the source.
Unfortunately, the Christopher Robin character may get on your nerves (he does mine)—and the Walt Disney version manages to lose about two-thirds the charm—but the Bear still brings it. Here’s what I mean. Pooh and Piglet are out walking one afternoon, and a big storm blows in. Piglet starts to get scared, and says to Pooh “What if the wind blows, breaks one of those big branches off a tree, and the branch falls on us?” Pooh thinks about this for awhile, and says “But what if that doesn’t happen?” Piglet thinks about that, and then feels much better.
Rinpoche Winnie the Pooh: nunca te olvidamos.
5. The Batman Award for Kid Power: The Baudelaire Orphans Saga, by Lemony Snicket
If you are too young to have seen the original Batman television series, starring Adam West (which at this point is going to be pretty much all of you), go rent it. The show is very funny. However, watching the show as a kid, I didn’t see any of the humour, and thought I was watching just another serious police drama, like Kojak, Adam 12, or Dragnet (ask your grandparents).
6. Award for Book that You Know In Your Heart Is Really True, Even If You Hotly Deny that You Believe It: The Borrowers Series, by Mary Norton
The “Borrowers” are a species of people who are less than six inches high, and live inside the walls of homes in England (and probably your home as well, but don’t talk about it, or your parents will think you are strange. Don’t ask how I know this). The borrowers survive by (ahem) BORROWERING stuff from the people whose houses they share. The central family are two parents and a daughter. The daughter is lonely, and cannot accept that Borrowers and big people cannot be friends. The books are well written, and the family goes through an amazing series of adventures in The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, and The Borrowers Aloft. In 1982, Ms. Norton wrote another volume, The Borrowers Avenged, but I have not read that book.
I have not see the John Goodman film, so I have no opinion on it—other than I am almost always bitterly disappointed at the complete incompetence of filmmakers trying to make even a decent movie out of great kid books. However, there was a wonderful episode of Chicago Public Radio's This American Life about these books that is well worth listening to.
7. Best Award for Bestest Body of Work: Roald Dahl.
I feel like an idiot even listing Mr. Dahl--that’s like saying ocean water has a salty flavor or that the sun is on the warm side. What do I mean? I was talking to one of my neighbors about children’s literature, and my neighbor told me her daughter had read everything Mr. Dahl had written—so far as my neighbor knew. “Oh yeah?” I said, and turning to the daughter in question, and asked her which was the better story: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Great Glass Elevator? This child paused, and said “That is a very difficult question.” Indeed it is.
Just my personal opinion: any parent who does not provide their children with copies of BOTH Charlie and the Chocolate Factory AND the sequel, The Great Glass Elevator, should be immediately reported to Children’s Protective Services. Again—forget the movies, both books are just great reads.
Where Mr. Dahl really shines, though, is in his poetry. Now, I am poetry clod from the word odd. For example, I don’t care for ee cummings—because I don’t get it. I not being snobby here; just stupid. So understand that when I tell you that Revolting Rhymes is one of the best books I have ever read, Mr. Dahl has accomplished the impossible. Revolting Rhymes is a retelling of schmaltzy fairy tales, in the spirit of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales (ask your grandparents). For example, the “dwarfs” in Snow White are all retired jockeys, who lose their money betting on horse racing. Snow White steals the magic mirror, which the dwarfs use to pick the winners of horse races. The story concludes: “Gambling’s not a sin/Provided that you always win.”
8. The Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit Award: The True Story of The Three Little Pigs, by A. Wolf, by Jon Scieszka
This is one of my favorite books, period. Mr. Scieszka's book is a re-telling of the story of the Three Little Pigs, but told by the Big Bad Wolf, from his jail cell. Alexander T. (for “The”) Wolf’s story is a brilliant example of an unreliable narrator, with bizarre rationales as to why the wolf had to go to the Pigs’ houses. The destruction of the houses made of straw and twigs are easily explained accidents, with the deaths of the pigs mere happenstance. The Wolf equates his eating the pigs with the reader finding a cheeseburger, sitting there on the floor ready to be eaten.
I gave this book to a friend of mine, who later told he she had to tell her son the book was “lost,” because after reading it to her son every day for over two months, she had to find something else to read, or risked losing her mind.
Unfortunately, not all of Mr. Scieszka's books are as good. For example, I love the premise of The Stinky Cheese Man, but found the story disappointing.
9. How to Have Children Do What They Don’t Want to Do Award:Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, by mo williams
My first marriage came as a package set, with a five year old boy and an eight year old girl. I had not spent any time around kids, and was completely flabbergasted to discover my stepson flatly refused to believe in the concept of linear time, as well as cause and effect. For this five year old, life was one endless series of random phenomena—and it was great! Unfortunately, I had no language to communicate pretty much anything to someone embracing that philosophy. Nothing I said made the slightest sense to him—and that was okay too. Well, okay for him. I lost my mind—but we digress.
If I had those books back in the day, telling my stepson “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus” would have made sense to him—as opposed to “Don’t climb the ladder. You might fall off and crack your head open, because that’s what happened last time,” which was just a meaningless murmur in the wind.
Unfortunately, not all of Mr. Williams’s books are as good as these two. I was particularly disappointed with The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog. My advice is to read the books before you buy them.
10. The Best Book with the Worst Movie Award: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming
This book is just an enigma. Another one of my favorite books as a kid, I was completely shocked by the Disney adaptation, starring Dick Van Dyke. What the film shared with the book was 1) the title and 2) the main character restored an old car. I remember being so outraged at the time—I was sure it was somehow illegal (not just immoral) to produce a film CLAIMING to be about a book, but having nothing to do with the actual STORY. Perhaps fortunately, I lacked the ability to explain this to my dad (who had taken my sisters and me to the movie—one of the rare times we saw a film inside a theater), because no good can come from conservations like that.
In this story, the father buys and restores a wrecked car, and as part of the restoration, the car develops consciousness (but in a good way. Not like Sky-Net, in the Terminator movies). The family is surprised to discover the car can not only communicate (sort of), but also fly and travel as a form of hovercraft over water. Just for kicks, the family (who lives in England) decides to go to France. This is just another great story about a family. Sure, they have a flying car that’s also a sentient being—but the main point still is this is a good story about a family.
11. The You Sure Put Us In Our Place Award: Aliens for Breakfast, by Jonathan Etra
I need to give credit to my mother for this book. When my stepson started school, he just decided that he was not going to learn to read. No special reason why not; he certainly was capable. He just didn’t see any need for reading. Again, I was completely baffled.
Aliens for Breakfast begins with a boy who wishes he was popular—like the new kid in his class. Unfortunately, the new kid is a space alien, preparing to take over the planet. The main character discovers this fact, when he’s eating a new cereal, and the “prize” turns out to be a miniature “Space Ranger.” The Space Ranger explains to the boy how earth is in danger, and the boy has to help. Why? Because there are so many planets in the universe, and so many species attacking each planet, the Space Patrol budget only allows about eighty cents per planet needing to be saved. Consequently, the Space Rangers have to travel “fourth class” inside boxes of cereal.
There are at least two other books in this series, named (predictably) Aliens for Lunchand Aliens for Dinner. I was disappointed with Aliens for Lunch (the story just wasn’t interesting), and have not tried to read Dinner. But Aliens for Breakfast rocks (IMHO, as we said back in the day).
Don’t get me wrong: I love the comics. Pretty much all comics. But I hate Garfield. Just my personal opinion, but I think Garfield is boring, repetitive, and the art is terrible. And while I am not proud of this, just to give you perspective: I still laugh out loud at Blondie.
Kids (as a rule) think Garfield is hilarious. I’ll never understand why. If you know a kid who won’t read, or has trouble reading, based on my experience—they will read Garfield cartoons, before they’ll read anything else.
But because of my strong aversion to Garfield, I’d suggest (if you can) taking your problem reader to your local bookstore, and having the kid look at not only Garfield, but also Baby Blues, MAD Magazine collections, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes—anything. But based on my experience, they will invariably be entranced by that stupid cat. Buy the damn book anyway. You can always have the book covered in a plain, brown wrapper, so you can everyone you’re buying porno (that’s what I do).
13. The “What Are You? A Hundred?” Award: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
I’m sorry—but there is a reason why this book is on every baby boomer’s favorite reading list: the writing is wonderful. A few years ago, I was listening to National Public Radio when author Daniel Pinkwater and Journalist Scott Simon were trashing the Walt Disney empire. Now, I hate Walt Disney for reasons too silly to go into just now, so Mr. Simon and Mr. Pinkwater had my attention. The specific focus of the Pinkwater-Simon ire was the Disney “adaptation” of The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a “children’s” book, based on the crappy Disney film. Mr. Pinkwater was particularly incensed over the fact that “bad books” by Disney were pushing “good books” out of the market. By way of illustration, Simon and Pinkwater read an excerpt from the Disney version of Victor Hugo’s classic. The writing was just boring. Boring—that’s all you can say. In contrast, they opened The Wind and the Willows to a random page, and just picked a few sentences. There is a reason why this Kenneth Grahame classic has legs: the writing is fun.
The Garfield conundrum notwithstanding, even more than “adult” books, kids demand (and deserve) good writing.
Speaking of which…
Disclosure time: I love Daniel Pinkwater. And while some of his books are better than others, I still love all his books—if only because he wrote them.
But even Mr. Pinkwater will tell you that his best book is Lizard Music, the first book he wrote. What’s Lizard Music about? If I tried to tell you, you wouldn’t believe me. But no matter; it’s a damn good book.
15. The Dag! Don’t You Read any New Books? Award: Olivia Saves the Circus, by Ian Falconer
This is another cheesy pick, because everyone knows and loves this book. This book (which I feel is easily the best of the “Olivia” books) is a good story with the central character a girl (granted, a girl pig—but it still counts), who describes a wild adventure during “Show & Tell” at school. The artwork also deserves special praise. Besides--all little girls are the Queen of the Trampoline.
16. Multiculturalism Award For Something Probably Only I Think is Award-Winning Multiculturalism: The Cat in the Hat in English and Spanish, by Dr. Seuss (translated by Carlos Rivera)
Not just another boomer icon, the Cat in the hat is unquestionably The Man. Much as I love that book (I even love the far weaker The Cat in the Hat Comes Back), I was stunned when I first saw the edition with English on the left hand page, and Spanish translation on the right hand page.
Again: this is just my personal opinion, but I think you can say things in Spanish that are just plain wilder and more fun than they sound in English. For example—just my personal opinion—but while Fidel Castro’s speeches are inspiring in Spanish, I think they sound kind of dumb in English. So for me, reading The Cat in the Hat in Spanish just gives the book more flavor.
I don’t know how to explain this without sounding culturally demeaning, or implying that The Cat is Mexico’s answer to Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fetchit. I am saying nothing of the sort. What I am saying is that reading the story in English, I think a body jumps up and down on a beach ball, while balancing a fish bowl on the end of an umbrella, just because you can. It’s a test of skill. But in Spanish--for me, you jump up and down on the beach ball (balancing a fishbowl on the end of an umbrella), because there is no reason why you shouldn’t: Why WOULDN’T you choose to squeeze every bit of joy you can out of life? So what if the person jumping happens to be a talking cat wearing an outlandish hat? The point is, you don’t live your life by half measures—even if you need a strange cat to tell you.
I am also enamored with the P.D. Eastman classic Are You My Mother? (Eres Tu Mi Mama?)—despite the fact that Spanish version does not call the steam shovel “Snort”—which is just unforgiveable.
There are a series of these books, but I have only read the one about the Grand Canyon. The premise of the stories is a little boy has an adventure on one page, and at the end of the page, the narrator concludes "...and that's bad." But you turn the page, and the narrator says "No, that's good!" and goes on to explain why that's good. So that page ends with with the statement "...and that's good." Of course, you turn the page, and the narrator says "No, that's bad!" With a new adventure every page for thirty odd pages, each adventure that seems good is is actually bad, and vice versa--this is one weird book. I like it!
18. The It's Bad Enough You're a Nerd--Now You Want Kids to Be Nerds Too? Award: MEANWHILE... and A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, both by Mr. Jules Feiffer
Go ahead. Call me names. I don't care. I love Jules Feiffer. I love him when he is smart ( Jules Feiffer's America, from Eisenhower to Reagan). I love him when he's stupid (Tantrum). How could I not love his kids' books?
MEANWHILE...is about a boy who discovers he can change his reality, just by using the device MEANWHILE made famous in comic books. A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears is about a Prince who goes on a long quest that has both--well, you know.
19. A Moron Says What? Award: Mad Libs, by Roger Price and Leonard Stern
I wanted to have at least one pick that was off the beaten path, and this is about as far off reservation as I'm likely to wander. For those of your fortunate enough not to know what Mad Libs are, they are a brief story with several key words left out. A person is the writer, who asks the guesser (I don't know what the titles actually are) to name a verb (for example). Or an adjective. An adverb. The name of a boy in the room. The name of a girl in the room. (You get the idea). The guesser has no idea what the title or "theme" of the story is, until the very end. The "writer" then announces the "theme" or title of the story, and reads the story with all the words suggested by the talker. If this does not sound like much fun--it's not.
So, if I thought then (and still do today) that Mad Libs were just a boring and stupid fad (despite lasting for COUGH COUGH years), why I am I listing them as recommended books for kids? Because if you think I learned what the difference between an adverb and an adjective is by memorizing some rote phrase about "modifying"--guess again. I learned more about parts of speech by watching others playing Mad Libs than I ever learned from big fat books ostensively on "English."
To sum up: if you love your children's command of grammar more than your own sanity (Let's go parents: Stand and Deliver!), don't rely on the idiocy of your children's acquaintances (like my parents did. They were just lucky, end of story), pony up a few bucks for Mad Libs (and a few more for extra strength Excedrin), and just keep telling yourself how proud you'll be, when little Scooter grows up and starts kicking ass and taking names in AP English.
I first heard Ms. Judson on National Public Radio (pretty much everything I know, I had to learn from NPR). She is (apparently) a very talented evolutionary biologist—but so what? She’s a hilarious writer. This book is written in the form of advice of the lovelorn, with praying mantises, fig wasps, dolphins, etc etc all writing to “Dr. Tatiana” about strange behaviors. For example, the female praying mantis signs her letter “I Like ‘Em Headless in Lisbon.”
Is this book porno? No (despite the fact the cover features a drawing of two beetles copulating—there are no other pictures). The bottom line is this book is a well-written and interesting book on nature. And is very funny.
Now, if you haven’t told your kids about the proverbial birds & bees, will this book help break that ice? I have no idea, and (trust me on this) my guess is much worse than yours. I will say that I first gave my niece this book when she was in junior high (and while she will hotly deny it), she found the subject matter too “embarrassing,” and put the book aside until she was in high school—and became much more interested in the “nature” aspect than the “sex.”
I am a child of Apollo. My generation thought I Dream of Jeannie was a documentary (except for the “genie” part). A friend of mine runs away every time she sees me, because I always (and I do mean always) tell that same old, tired story about how when we were in the fourth grade, I was certain sure she was going to grow up and be a honcho at NASA. Why? Because out of the entire class, only she and one other girl were able to take home a piece of paper with dittoed math problems, solve the problems, and bring the paper back to school the following day (that particular skill continues to elude me).
You’d think having such great material would make writing a snap—but you’d be wrong. Bad books about Apollo are called “legion,” for they are many. Andrew Chaikin’s 1994 classic, on the other hand, is a wonderful book that summarizes all the Apollo missions, and includes charming pictures of great characters, like Charlie Duke, John Young, Alan Bean--big bang the whole gang. I was especially moved by the stories of the later moon flights: Apollo 15, 16 and 17.
Are there books out there with more information? Sure. If you’re trying to be king of the moon geology nerds, there’s Don E. WilhelmsTo a Rocky Moon. Despite (IMHO) Harrison Schmitt’s idiotic politics about the “private sector” paying for space flight, I enjoyed his Return to the Moon. Because of my own struggles with chronic depression, Buzz Aldrin’s books will always be my personal favorites. The best (as in “most informative”) single volume I’ve seen is Richard Orlof and David Harland’s Apollo, The Definitive Sourcebook. Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, I have not even looked at (nor saw the movie of) Tom Wolf’s book on the Mercury astronauts The Right Stuff (I just don’t like Tom Wolf, so you’ll have to ask someone else about that one).
But if you’re looking for a ripping good story about Apollo, this is it. This is a long book (the text alone is almost 600 pages), but Mr. Chakin stays focused, and keeps the story moving. For example, had I written this book, there would be another hundred pages alone on the idiotic hypocrisy of the Nixon administration giving Apollo unqualified praise—and then cutting the final moon shots in the name of economy, despite the fact those trips to the moon would have been laughably inexpensive.
No—A Man on the Moon is about the excitement and sheer joy that was Apollo, and nothing more; if only because anything else would not add to (and probably detract from) the story.
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As always: suggestions, comments, criticisms, and vicious personal attacks are not only welcome, but strongly encouraged.
Ms. Trish Flanagan assisted in the creation of this story, but prefers to have her contribution remain anonymous.