BOOK REVIEW: Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds

Children's Literature: A Very Short IntroductionChildren’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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To make an ineloquent (and possibly disturbing) comparison, what’s been said to be true of pornography is also true of children’s literature – i.e. we take for granted that we’ll know it when we see it, but trying to define its boundaries runs into difficulties at every turn. One imagines an illustrated book, simple of language and subject matter, featuring a child as protagonist, and avoiding the most traumatic or shocking subjects and themes, but none of those conditions has proven necessary and / or sufficient. Reynolds presents a landscape of children’s literature (and the debates swirling about it) through history, one that keeps in mind that the subject is slippery.

The book consists of six chapters and some ancillary matter. The first chapter sketches an overview of the history of children’s literature [restricted to English language books.] Here we see the changing face of kid’s lit over time, and learn how children’s literature only gradually became a distinct field, moving from the earliest English translation of “Aesop’s Fables” in the 15th century to the multimedia literary experiences of today.

Chapter 2 is the longest chapter and it investigates the many ways children’s books have been studied, and to what ends. As with adult literature, there are many different perspectives by which literary works can be analyzed, and many that apply to adult books are also seen here with their own child-oriented considerations: e.g. psychoanalytical, gender-centric, linguistic, stylistic, and historical. There are also some uniquely child-applicable considerations that are presented as well, such as how well adults can write in ways which optimally resonate with kids.

Chapter 3 investigates how the field has moved beyond the book to convey stories – old and new – in ways that might be more effective in reaching a diverse body of children. Emphasis is given to how the story experience can be more interactive and flexible to the needs of a broad audience.

The fourth chapter is about genre. In one sense, children’s books are considered a genre, but then there are many cross-genre books such as science fiction or fantasy books directed at a youthful readership. Special focus is given to the family story. The advantage of the family story genre is that it’s one area in which the child can be expected to have some level of experience. [Even orphans will have some sense of interpersonal dynamics by which they can relate.]

The penultimate chapter is about children’s literature as a means to prepare children for a future, from personal level considerations of mortality to societal level issues like ecological tragedy. Children’s fiction that looks to the future has become an increasing trend in the modern era.

The final chapter is where Reynolds gets to the most controversial aspect of children’s literature, which is whether (and, if so, how) subject matter should (or shouldn’t) be limited. One worrying concern is that children’s stories can become thinly-veiled means of indoctrination into political or religious (or anti-religious) dogma. It’s not just a matter of adults having greater discernment, but also that they have greater freedom to choose what books are available to them. The other major issue is to what degree children should be protected from traumatic, complex, or controversial subject matter, e.g. sex, suicide, etc.

The ancillary matter mostly consists of graphics (often historic art / artifacts of relevance) as well as a references / further reading section that is arranged by chapter.

If you’re looking for a concise overview of children’s literature and the debates and challenges that exist around it, this book provides a quick outline of the subject which references many exemplary works that can be looked into for more in-depth investigation.


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BOOK REVIEW: Hanuman by Anant Pai

Hanuman (1)Hanuman by Anant Pai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This comic book is one volume in a huge collection of graphic depictions of Indian mythology (not only Hindu, but also Buddhist, Jain, secular folklore, etc.) Having lived in India for the better part of a decade now, I must admit that, sadly, my understanding the country’s mythology and folklore is not up to snuff. In my defense, I have often found that my Indian friends tend to have a varied and or tenuous grasp of the subject, a given person might know about some story or deity in considerable detail, but know virtually nothing about others – even if they are relatively popular tales. It’s just such a huge and disparate collection of stories that only experts are capable of both a breadth and depth of understanding of the topic. Even those books that attempt to simplify, making the subject comprehensible to a layman, often get bogged down in the vast number of characters and stories. Having stumbled upon this series on Amazon Prime, I thus decided to change tack and take in Indian Myth and Folklore in the chewable (if child-centric) bites offered by these comic books.

This book tells the story of the monkey-god, Hanuman, particularly his role in the story told in the “Ramayana.” If one is looking for a broader story than that, you may be disappointed. Anyway, this tale seemed like a good place to start because I already knew the story, at least in broad brush strokes. Thus, I had some basis for comparison of how this series tells the story. In a nutshell, the story revolves around the conflict between Rama and Ravana. Ravana has absconded with Rama’s wife, Sita, and is holding her hostage at his stronghold in Lanka, attempting unsuccessfully to woo her. (Though the latter part is not addressed, herein.) Hanuman enters the scene because he allies with Rama, and the monkey-god is sufficiently superpowered to leap the sea from coastal India to Sri Lanka. Hanuman, therefore, goes to Ravana’s territory to reconnoiter. When discovered, Hanuman makes a daring (if mischievous) escape to report back to Rama. The monkey-god then plays a crucial role in Rama’s battle against Ravana.

The only part of the story that I remembered from before that wasn’t addressed was the bit about Rama wrongly accusing Sita of infidelity and her response. I suspect this was primarily because the story is directed at children, and marital unfaithfulness was considered to be too intense of a topic. However, it might have also been the case that this bit of the story was deemed to be too big a can of worms to open in a Hanuman-centric telling of the story.

I enjoyed the book. With superpowered characters and heroic deeds, it’s not all that much different from the superhero tales of modern comic books – which, themselves, are sometimes rooted in varied mythologies. The art is simple and clear (if a bit dated in approach,) and I found the text surprisingly devoid of the clumsy exposition that has historically plagued comic books. If you’re interested in taking in mythology and folklore in bite-sized chunks, it’s worth checking this one out – particularly if you don’t mind that some simplifications are made to make the story more kid-friendly.

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BOOK REVIEW: Matilda by Roald Dahl

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[The Sarah Walsh illustrated edition comes out October 13, 2020.]

 

Matilda is a precocious child with parents who are negligent and verbally abusive. The story picks up shortly before Matilda is set to begin kindergarten, presumably so that we can learn that she is a preschool autodidact and that she has crappy parents. We also witness how she takes to “punishing” her parents whenever one or both of them behave in a particularly vile manner, using what might best be described as pranks. The empowerment of children, girls, and bookish people is the central theme of the book

Matilda begins school and is at once delighted to find a kind and caring teacher, Ms. Honey, and dismayed to find that the Principal, Mrs. Trunchbull, is a horrible woman. While Ms. Honey recognizes Matilda’s brilliance, she cannot get the girl advanced to a suitable grade because both Matilda’s parents and Trunchbull refuse to recognize the girl’s intellect. Dahl takes on both the cause of feminism and the plight of nerds. In the case of the former, we see how Matilda is disregarded by both her parents because she is a girl and they don’t see much value in her education and can’t fathom that she would be good at learning. While Matilda’s brother doesn’t exactly get top-notch parenting, at least some effort is made to advance his education. In the case of the latter, Dahl shows the derision for reading and studiousness that is all too common in society.

I won’t delve into the details of the balance of the story except to say that when Matilda discovers that Ms. Honey’s life is even more harrowing than her own, the young girl resolves to use her talents and capabilities to help improve Honey’s lot.

I read the version of the book, illustrated by Sarah Walsh, that is coming out in the autumn of 2020. Dahl’s story is the same, but the art is different. Having seen the Quentin Blake illustrated books, I’m aware of the difference between the two. However, as a non-artist, I don’t have much vocabulary to give a detailed description of said difference. I can say the Blake art is more reminiscent of old comic strips and the Walsh work was more cleanly drawn and “realistic,” while maintaining a general sense of whimsy and a bright color palette. I enjoyed the artwork, though I don’t claim a particular eye for such things.

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. It’s written for children, but if you’ve gotten to adulthood without checking it out, it’s worth going back to read it. While the villainy maybe over-the-top for adult readers (i.e. there aren’t any nuanced characters,) the story has emotional resonance and is satisfyingly concluded. As to the question of the age of children it is good for, I don’t have much expertise in that either. However, as a litmus test, ask yourself if you think the kid can assimilate the image of Trunchbull swinging a girl by her ponytails – as in the hammer-throw – and tossing her over a fence.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop

The Dolphins, the Whales and the GudgeonThe Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This tiny book is part of a series put out by Penguin called Little Black Classics. This one collects about 55 of Aesop’s fables together. These are all short fables, few longer than a page and many of only a few lines.

The title is an interesting choice in that that fable isn’t among the most well-known of those assembled. However, some oft the most famous have rather banal titles like: “The Fox and the Goat” or “The Wolf and the Lamb.” [Though “The Frogs Who Demanded a King” is also among the most well-known of the included stories.]

I found the collected fables to be thought-provoking, as well as being a broad sample (not a lot of the same moral repeating.) My favorites, for their cleverness, were: “The Stag at the Spring and the Lion,” “The Field Mouse and the Town Mouse,” “The Woodcutter and Hermes,” and “The Ass Carrying Salt.” Your results may vary.

I like that they’ve embraced the short format with these books. It often used to be the case that they would pad out a 50- or 60-page book like this to 120 pages, using filler, forwards, needless illustrations, and useless epilogues. This book is just the fables. (Most, but not all the fables, include a single line summation of the fable’s moral. While I don’t think this is necessary for adult readers, it might be helpful in explaining the story to children.)

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BOOK REVIEW: The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFGThe BFG by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an excellent, little story about a big, friendly Giant [hence, BFG.] The main characters are the BFG and an orphan named Sophie. The former abducts the later from her bed, which sounds terrible, but he’s conflicted about it. He snatches her because she saw him during his late-night work delivering good dreams to children, and he can’t have any witnesses lest the townspeople get pitch-forky with him. Sophie has no parents or siblings to miss her, and she doesn’t mind being away from the orphanage and making a Giant new friend, but she doesn’t wish to live out her life in Giant Country. While the BFG is a kind and delightful character, he’s the exception to the rule when it comes to Giants. Furthermore, because he lives off the snozzcumber [a repulsive vegetable] rather than dining on people, he’s a runt among his human-eating species. Therefore, he’s no match for his nine mischievous fellow residents of Giant Country. Sophie and the BFG work together to try to achieve an end that is pleasing for all parties concerned—well, except for the nine human-eating giants.

The story is clever, and the BFG character is well-developed and interesting. BFG is wise, but he has trouble with language owing to his lack of formal education and he often mixes it up in whimsical ways. He’s also conscientious about his work of catching dreams and delivering them into the bedrooms of sleeping children so they can have delightful dreams. He also takes bad dreams out of commission by catching them in a jar and keeping them on shelves in his cave. Sophie is smart and likable—if not as interesting than BFG.

The book is illustrated by Quentin Blake in the same style as the other Dahl books. The version I have has black-and-white line drawings, but there is color edition that may be more appealing to children.

This is a great story presented with humor, and I recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Boy by Roald Dahl

Boy: Tales of ChildhoodBoy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first of a two-volume autobiography of the writer of children’s books, Roald Dahl. You probably know of Dahl from his fictional works such as: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “The BFG,” “The Twits,” or “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

I initially picked up the second part, “Going Solo,” which is about Dahl’s adult life–particularly his early post-school years in which he was an expat serving with Shell Corporation in Africa and—when the war broke out—a fighter pilot. I figured I should read the first part first because it’s short, readable, and might have bearing on his later life. I’m glad that I did, but not because it’s necessary to make sense of “Going Solo.” Rather, because this volume provides great insight into Dahl’s body of work.

Dahl was Norwegian, but spent his school years in Britain, attending boys’ schools and a boarding school. The English schools provided much inspiration for Dahl’s villains and fueled his adversarial view of the child-adult interaction—a view that serves writers of children’s literature well. While I suspect the teachers and administers were just strict and reserved as one might expect at a prestigious school in Britain, it’s easy to see how this lack of affection becomes villainy in the mind of a child. (Not to mention the upperclassmen, who too easily become like the kapos from Nazi concentration camps.)

One feels this child’s perspective throughout the book. The book is written for an audience of children, not so much in the language [which is approachable for young readers] as in the attitude. Dahl presents the world from a kid’s-eye view. He also makes occasional notes to emphasize to children the ways in which the world was changed. Travel and communication for today’s youth are completely different enterprises than they were in the interwar years.

Besides seeing how the teachers, administrators, and upperclassman provided Dahl with villains for books like “Matilda,” one also learns about the origins of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl and his classmates were given sampler boxes of prototype chocolates from Cadbury in exchange for a product review. This started Dahl thinking about laboratories and research facilities inside a chocolate factory, and a book and movie enterprise was born.

Quentin Blake, illustrator for most of Dahl’s books, provides numerous illustrations in the style of the other books. However, there are also many photos and notes from Dahl’s personal archives. The back of the edition that I have has a number of short ancillary features that are oriented toward kids.

I’d recommend this for anyone who is interested in Dahl’s life specifically, but also for anyone who’s interested in writing for children. I think writers can learn a lot from how Dahl presents his childhood in this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: What Does Fear Do To You? by J. Krishnamurti

What does fear do to you?What does fear do to you? by Jiddu Krishnamurti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book is one in a series called “Krishnamurti for the Young.” It deals with an important subject: fear and the adverse consequences of fear unchecked. Jiddu Krishnamurti was an Indian philosopher who was being groomed for a leadership position in the Theosophical Society as a young man, but he withdrew from that organization to pursue a more independent-thinking and non-sectarian philosophy.

Judging from the fact that the first edition of this book is dated 2004 and Krishnamurti passed away in 1986, it’s safe to say that this work is cobbled together from a combination of unpublished and previously published speeches and writings. There’s a page of sources and acknowledgements that provides the citations for the previously published writings. This is presented in end-note format.

The first half of the book is a story from Krishnamurti’s life that transitions into the basic theme of the book. The second half is presented in the form of questions and answers. The questions are clearly of the type children would ask, and so they may have been from school visits and the like.

It’s a short book of fewer than 30 pages–appropriate in length for kids. It has simple child-friendly drawings that were based on originals drawn by children. While the text is edited to a readability level suitable for children, as I’ll explain below, the material by-and-large isn’t presented in manner conducive to reaching children.

The book is a bit cerebral for young children in places–both in terms of the approach to delivering the material and the concepts presented. It may be of use to older children (but they may feel it’s targeted for younger kids based on the graphics.) The central message is sound: that one can watch one’s fear and see that it’s a mental product and then one can figure out how to respond to the emotion without acting impulsively or destructively. However, a more story-centric approached would better serve kids. There’s a story at the beginning about Krishnamurti walking close to a rattlesnake, but after that it becomes much more of a philosophy and psychology lesson. Krishnamurti frequently uses Socratic Method (asking questions instead of lecturing to help the reader discover a conclusion.) This method is of greater benefit to adults and young adults than young children.

I also felt that this was clearly an adults-eye view that could have benefited from a more child-eyed worldview. There’s an assumption that kids are afraid of everything and everybody and that adults are the experts in being fearless who can teach kids everything they need to know. Only an adult whose inner-child had been brutally murdered could think something so inherently ridiculous. As someone who’s taught kids yoga and martial arts, I can tell you that this is clearly not the case. In some domains, kids are far more expert fearlessness than are adults. This is something that could be tapped into to better make the point.

It seems to me that this book might be most productively read by someone who’s going to teach kids about fear and how to manage their fears. It’s great information, but it’s not presented in a manner that seems likely to grab a child’s attention. It’s not presented in an interesting fashion, and it deals in topics like conscious and consciousness that are heady for a youngster.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl

The Enormous CrocodileThe Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The story arc of “The Enormous Crocodile” is a familiar one. It’s a variation on a theme seen in “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Three Little Pigs” to name a couple of well-known examples. First, there is a bad guy who wants to eat some helpless and / or unwitting victims. In this case, the enormous crocodile is the gluttonous cad—rather than a wolf–and the helpless victims are the local children. Second, the villain is thwarted at the last possible moment.

While it’s a tale that’s been told many times in many ways, Dahl does a good job adding his own imprint to it. An important element of the story is that the crocodile angers, alienates, and attacks several of the other jungle creatures on his way into town to find a victim or victims. Because of this, these animals conspire to thwart the crocodile’s clever plots, and this ultimately contributes to his downfall. It’s with the crocodile’s clever plots that Dahl most fully engages the imagination. The croc uses various disguises to try to lure children to within snapping distance.

It should be pointed out that the illustrations by Quentin Blake are as crucial as Dahl’s words. The color drawings really bring the book to life, and serve to make feasible the clever plots of the crocodile. (e.g. When the croc scoops up coconuts and fronds and stands on his tail in mimicry of a coconut tree, it’s the illustration that makes this seem believable—not to mention capable of being visualized by a small child.)

If you’re looking for a short young children’s story that can be read in 15 minutes or so, this is a good one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Just So StoriesJust So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Just So Stories” is a collection of 12 children’s stories. The theme that runs through the dozen stories is that they are mostly tall-tale answers for questions that children might have. All but two of them focus on animals and nature, and the two divergent stories deal with the origin of written language. Since it’s such a small collection and the titles tend to synopsize the stories, I’ll include the table of contents below, which may give one greater insight into the nature of the stories.

1.) How the Whale Got his Throat
2.) How the Camel Got his Hump
3.) How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin
4.) How the Leopard Got his Spots
5.) The Elephant’s Child
6.) The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo
7.) The Beginning of the Armadillos
8.) How the First Letter Was Made
9.) How the Alphabet Was Made
10.) The Crab that Played with the Sea
11.) The Cat that Walked by Himself
12.) The Butterfly that Stamped

The edition that I have (i.e. 2006 Scholastic Junior Classics Edition) has a number of black-and-white graphics (block print and line drawn style)—one or two per story. Given the genre, I imagine most editions have some kind of pictures, but your edition’s graphics may vary. A number of the stories include short poetry—usually at the end. The poetry is part of the original Kipling product and so are likely included in all unabridged editions.

I’d recommend this book for those looking for short stories that are relatable to young children.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery

The Little PrinceThe Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A pilot crash lands in the middle of the desert and meets a little traveler who came from a tiny planet. As this “Little Prince” tells of his travels, he shares his child-like (not to be confused with “childish”) wisdom on friendship and how adults misunderstand what are “matters of consequence.” While the Little Prince takes a child’s perspective, one’s responsibility to others is an important theme. Of course, that may just be the theme intended for children. At the same time, the lesson for adults may be to reevaluate what one considers important. (The reader may be familiar with the controversy as to whether this is really a work of children’s literature.)

The book is humorous and light-hearted, but with some serious themes and moments. There are many though-provoking ideas in this classic. Some quotes that struck me as profound are:

“The thing that is important is the thing that is not seen.”

“One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets oneself be tamed.”

“’Then you shall judge yourself,’ the king answered. ‘That is the most difficult thing of all.’”

“For it is possible for a man to be faithful and lazy at the same time.”

It’s a tiny book—less than 100 pages, including the many color drawings that feature throughout the book.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who hasn’t read it at least once. (There may be a couple of you out there.)

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