Sunday, October 11, 2009

Everyone's a critic

Every once in a while I get a message from Facebook reminding me that I’ve been invited to sign up by numerous friends, and implying that I’m missing out on all the fun by not taking advantage. Guilty as charged. When I first heard of Facebook a few years ago, I shied away because I’d heard horror stories about compromised personal info and computer worms sending themselves to everyone on your Friend list. Now, those kinds of horrors are kind of a dime a dozen. As much as I love the idea of reconnecting with old friends with whom I’ve lost touch, the chief reason I still haven’t gotten around to it is the time it would take. I would feel pressure to come up with regular updates that are actually worth reading, and I have enough trouble doing that here. Doc has a page, which he used to frequent avidly, and for the first few months he was having daily online encounters with high school and college friends whom he hadn’t seen in ages. Since then, though, he’s found that reading through the daily updates from his hundreds of friends eats up a lot of time, and doesn’t often provide much new info. And he doesn’t have much new to add either, at least on a day-to-day basis. But some people do post gems now and then, and every once in a while he calls me over to share a chuckle. Friending vicariously is great fun and takes much less time.

So today’s chuckle is the ultimate in vicarious friending…it actually was posted by my own brother. It’s a link to an article by a brave soul who makes a passionate case for deploring one of the most popular children’s authors of all time, Eric Carle. (Find the whole story here:

I found the article hilarious, not least because I agree with most of it. I remember being quite fond as a child of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and was pleased to get a copy as part of a teacher’s conference I went to while working as a museum educator right about the time my first child was born. And though it’s not a terribly enthralling story, it is cute, has marvelous pictures, is good counting practice for a toddler, and all my kids have loved it, so I won’t pick too much on that one. Now that I have almost nine years of experience reading to my own kids, though, I’ve come to have a special place in my heart for those children’s books that are especially fun to read. Some may be cleverly written, having fun with the language, or may boast a truly original and engaging story. A few manage to slip in quirks that are obviously meant for the parents while still holding on to the attention of the child they were ostensibly written for. (It’s not a book, but the VeggieTales are really good at this last one also.)

Eric Carle, in my opinion, doesn’t really do any of these. Before the hate mail flies, let me protest that I’m still a fan of the stupid caterpillar, and I also rather like The Very Lonely Firefly, which actually has a bit of story to it. And I can’t think of a single one in which I didn’t think the pictures were fabulous. But when it comes to being fun to read…well, they do tend to be a bit dull. Their appeal to my kids often seems to center on whatever novelty gizmo is on the final page.

Case in point: I was already thinking about writing something on this tonight when Buzz, age 6, walks in with 10 Little Rubber Ducks for her before-bed book. I sigh, as even before the article I had already recognized that this one is not one of my favorites to read. It was a gift for Buzz for her 2nd birthday, and not to worry, Nana, she still loves it. According to the first page, it was inspired by a newspaper report of a shipment of bath toys that fell off a container ship in 1992 and, years later, were found to have washed up in locations as varied as Alaska, Greenland, and on into the Atlantic. So Carle tells the story of a shipment of rubber ducks being put on a boat, then having a box wash overboard, and 10 ducks float off in 10 different directions. I have to offer a little praise here: the pictures of the 10 ducks with the creatures encountered by each during its voyage are some of my favorite Carle art ever. And Buzz does like to count the ducks, so chalk up another one for counting practice. But the narrative is stilted, with a lot of repeated lines that I usually don’t bother to repeat (sorry, but I can only say “10 little rubber ducks” so many times before I just get tired of it, and end up trying to make it sound like one word just to get it over with.) And after you’ve followed 9 ducks to colorful portraits with interesting creatures, you end up tagging along while the 10th duck runs into…a mother duck. And ducklings. Nine ducklings. And this odd number is obviously a serious problem for this group, because I can’t see any other reason why they would be dense enough to take the rubber duck home with them. You get two pages of the ducks quacking at the rubber duck, apparently unfazed by the lack of response. But at the end of the book, you learn that the rubber duck’s silence must have been deliberate, because no duck, however dense, would have wanted to have anything to do with a creature that makes the horrible noise you are met with on the final page, when you are told that the rubber duck finally speaks up with a “Squeak!” and are then directed to press a button to activate the sound chip embedded in the back cover. And you hear…a very rubber-duck-like squeak. And you hear it again as your delighted toddler…wait, she’s six now…presses the button over and over, giggling, until it’s all you can do not to rip the sound chip out and try to engage her interest in electronics by disassembling it. Why do the batteries in such things always last so long?!

To Buzz’s credit, she’s learning to be more discerning in her literary analysis. She had some comments tonight (we haven’t read this one in a while…I don’t recall hiding it on purpose, but maybe I blocked it out). When we got to the part about the boat taking the ducks “across the wide sea to faraway countries, to faraway countries…” she wanted to know why…don’t they have rubber ducks in any other countries? And when the ducks started to float in different directions, even she seemed to realize the difficulty Carle had in coming up with 10 different directions. After you’ve knocked off the compass points and left, right, up, and down (which I guess weren’t in the same direction as any compass point, and the duck who floats down still seems to be on the surface to me) then you get to “this way” and “that way.” Buzz was somewhat disdainful of these; I’m sure she could have thought of some other places to send them. I should have asked, but I was already dreading the approaching squeakfest.

So, after allowing myself to actually commit this opinion to paper, I found myself curious what other people have to say about Carle, and I just had to pull up Amazon’s comments on The Very Hungry Caterpillar just to see what was there. The majority, of course, were very positive, but when I’m reading any reviews on Amazon I always read some of the 1-star ones too just to see what those with a beef had to say. These didn’t disappoint. Most of those posting critical reviews were doing so as the result of poor service or a gripe about the particular edition they’d received, but the last two were priceless:

Posted Feb. 19, 2008

A beautifully illustrated book based on poor scientific knowledge. Butterflies do not come from cocoons - moths do. When butterfly caterpillars pupate, they do not spin silk to make a cocoon. If you want your child to learn inaccurate science, use this book with them.

And not least…posted in 2004

“This book has to be one of the greatest sagas ever told, the story of a caterpillar who eats his way to becoming a beautiful butterfly. I think it's a story we can all relate to. I'm going to give it one star anyway because I just stubbed my toe really hard and damn it, I blame this book.”

So, having gone through this tirade, I decided I had to find something nice to say, because I really do love reading with my children, and there are some amazing children’s books out there. So, without having actually gone downstairs to look through the shelf, I have tried off the top of my head to come up with a few of my favorites, the ones I still love to read and am more likely to be talked into reading over and over. So here’s my list, in no particular order:

1. Any of the books in the Bear Snores On series by Karma Wilson. My personal favorite is probably Bear Feels Sick, in which Bear’s friends nurse Bear through a cold and then, not surprisingly, come down with it, and he in turn takes care of his friends. I also love Bear Stays Up for Christmas, in which Bear’s friends haul him out of bed so that he doesn’t miss the fun, then he does them one better by staying awake when they all doze off and putting together Christmas surprises for everyone. The rhymes are fun to read and hold the kids’ interest, the pictures are beautiful, and the stories are sweet.

2. Library Lion, by Michelle Knudsen. This is one of Aslan’s faves, of course. It’s a great story about a lion who starts coming to storytime at the library, and is allowed by the librarian to stay as long as he doesn’t break any rules. When the librarian takes a fall and the lion breaks the rule against loud noises in order to roar for help, the lion is so ashamed he leaves the library and doesn’t come back...and everyone in the library realizes how much they miss him. There are a number of wonderful messages here, and it’s another great set of pictures.

3. The Hello-Goodbye Window by Norton Juster. A fun read, and really captures the perspective of a toddler without having to talk down. Plus I can’t resist having a book to share with my kids about grandparents called Nanna and Poppy, even if the spelling is questionable.

4. The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson. Another great rhyming story, and another one that’s original and interesting enough that it’s fun to read over and over. And it’s a great one for reading aloud, with animal characters like Snake and Owl for whom it is pretty easy to come up with distinctive voices.

5. Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow (of course) and definitely get the edition with the CD. Though it’s also fun to either read or sing along to without the music. But the great thing about this book is the story it tells. Sure, we all know the song, and though I loved it as a kid I always thought the poor dragon kind of got a bum deal. His best friend grew up and moved on, and he got ditched. But Yarrow comes up with a different ending without changing a word of the classic song. As you get to the last chorus, the heartbroken Puff is shown raising his sorrow-bent head to meet the gaze of a curious little girl, a bright and friendly creature who would make a wonderful new friend. As they scamper off together, we notice that the scene is being watched from a short distance away by a man dressed in the same colors as Puff’s former playmate...Jackie Paper, having returned to introduce his daughter to his old pal. We got this book, as with many others from our collection, as a birthday gift for one of the girls from Nana, and it completely reduced me to tears the first several times I read it. I would have loved sharing this interpretation of the story with the Peter, Paul and Mary-singing Dad who introduced me to so many of my favorite literary friends.

Ok, I’m going to invite comments this time: who’s got a favorite or five to share? I’m always glad to find new ones. And it would be great to have a counter-offer available the next time someone brings me 10 Little Rubber Ducks.

1 comment:

  1. The repetition is the reason kids like these stories.

    In no particular order
    Poky Little Puppy
    Ferdinand the Bull
    Are You My Mother?
    The Value of Believing in Yourself (about Louis Pasteur and the discovery of the cure for rabies)
    The Little Engine and Could as retold by Watty Piper

    The next to last time we were in Colorado I was about to choke on Green Eggs and Ham so I went to our designated sleeping area and lay down on the bed to rest my eyes. It was Belle followed me, climbed up on the bed and asked me to read a story. There was a forgettable book in the play area. After the first reading she asked me to read it again. I told her I was too tired to read but I would tell her a story. I started with the Little Red Hen she asked for another and another and another. After Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Ginger Bread Man, Goldy Locks and the Three Bears, and the Three Little Pigs I made up a story about her day and our time together.

    The last time we were there she invited me to lay on the bed next to her and read, meaning tell, her a story. While story books are great retold stories give the opportunity to make up for whatever might be lacking in the printed word. I think Belle's personal story was her favorite but I think there is a lot more going on than the words that are said. There is something warm and special that makes story telling so special.