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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Sign on Rosie's Door: "I'm the biggest red firecracker in the whole world and here I go! BOOMM-BOOMM-aWHISHHHH!

The Sign on Rosie's Door. Story and pictures by Maurice Sendak.
Harper, 1960.

To listen to the way we read The Sign on Rosie's Door, click here:

The other day we watched for the umpteenth time, but the first in a while, the wonderful little film Really Rosie, written and directed by Maurice Sendak, with music by Carole King and broadcast for the first time by CBS in 1975: 

The film is based on the book that is the subject of this post, The Sign on Rosie's Door, and on the four little books contained in the Nutshell Library (1962). Rosie is the prima donna of the show, giving each of the others an "audition" (each of the numbers is based on one of the books of the Nutshell Library) to determine whether they are good enough to act in her film. 

Watching Really Rosie, I remembered something I had thought the first time we read The Sign on Rosie's Door, which was how marvellously well Sendak portrays relationships between kids, specifically power relations of children at play, on the one hand, and on the other, the harmony and tension between fiction and reality in relationships among children and between children and adults.  

I also thought of how uncommon it is to see portraits of children playing with other children in picture books today, and even how relatively uncommon it is to find picture books showing interesting and significant relationships between children. I was speaking about this with a bunch of kidslit friends, and we had rather a lot of trouble coming up with examples. In fact, when I asked what picture books they could think of about children playing, all of them, without exception thought of The Sign on Rosie's Door without me saying anything beforehand and then, racking our brains a bit more, we all thought, also without prompting, of Stian Hole's Garmann books. (Conceded, I have children's literature-y friends who have similar influences and interests to mine, but I thought it was funny that we had such a hard time coming up with many other names).

The other thing that caught my attention was the part where the kids play choking to death, as naturally as they'd play anything else. And I thought, that's what's missing from most children's literature! This is the kind of thing nobody dares do! Kids playing matter-of-factly at such 'awful' things with no consequence, no moral lesson to be drawn. A faithful portrait of kids when they play freely: they are irreverent, they are subversive rogues and they have a whale of a time being just so. What is more important, they are perfectly able to distinguish play from reality. So go on then! There is nothing wrong with playing at choking on a chicken bone stuck in your throat and dying as a group with your friends. It can even be rather fun, as we can see in this drawing done as a study for the film:

Rosie explains to Kathy that she's really Alinda. 
But I'll get on with it, after this rather long introduction. The Sign on Rosie's Door is a costumbrista portrait of a child's Brooklyn in the late 50s. It s also a wonderful, faithful, 'harsh' and fun portrait of play and relationships among children. It has a wonderful opening:
"There was a sign on Rosie's door. It read, "If you want to know a secret, knock three times". Kathy knocked three times and Rosie opened the door. "Hello, Kathy". "Hello, Rosie. What's the secret?" "I'm not Rosie any more," said Rosie. "That's the secret." "Then who are you?" asked Kathy. "I'm Alinda, the lovely lady singer." "Oh," said Kathy.  

What follows is typical make-believe children's play, where Rosie pretends to be Alinda and is determined to offer a show for all her fans.

On the left, Rosie/Alinda tells Kathy she can be one of her dancers.
On the right, Sal, Pudgy and Dolly wait patiently for the stars of the show to appear. 

To start with, everything seems to be going well, but soon another member of the gang, Lenny, interrupts with a fireman's outfit and offers them all a chance to go and put out fires with him.

"Can I play too?," he asked. "We're not playing," Alinda shouted.  

There's a bit of a power struggle between Lenny and Rosie until it gets really late and they all have to go home.
"I caught it, it's mine" shouted Rosie. "Hooray for me!"

Rosie/Alinda is left all alone and she quietly sings the song she had wanted to sing before her audience from beginning to end.
Before singing, Rosie/Alinda introduces herself in a whisper.
"Ladies and Gentlemen..."

The following day starts off with scenes of all the children's houses, starting by Rosie's, where all the kids are complaining there's nothing to do.  

There was nothing to do. "I have nothing to do, Mama," said Rosie.
"Well, do something," her mother said.  

They eventually all end up at Rosie's place, where another game awaits them. This time they'll all have to sit still and quiet and wait for Magic Man to arrive. He will tell them what they can do. They sit still and quiet for a long time, until Dolly announced it's late and she has to go home. "Me too", says Pudgy. Before they all leave, they agree to meet again on the following day, in the same place, at the same time.
"I guess Magic Man isn't coming today," said Kathy.
"I guess not," said Alinda. 

That evening, whent heir mothers asked them what they had done all afternoon, they said they had done so much there wasn't even enough time to do it in and they were going to do it all over again tomorrow. "Good!,", all their mothers said.  

A typical evening in Brooklyn in the late 1950s.  

The following day is the Fourth of July. Rosie wakes up and asks her mother for a firecracker, which her mother denies her. And here's one of my favourite dialogues in the book: 

"They are dangerous and I do not want my little girl to get hurt." 
"I'm not your little girl," said Rosie. "I'm a big girl and everybody else has firecrackers."
"I don't believe that," her mother said. 
Rosie didn't say a word. 
"Play with your cat Buttermilk," said her mother. "That would be much nicer." 
"I don't believe that," said Rosie.  

And so the time comes to go and wait for Magic Man again. They all turned up.

They whispered and waited still, with their eyes closed. Lenny comes all dressed up as a cowboy, but they persuade him too to sit and wait with his eyes closed. And then they hear Alinda say:

"Hello, Magic Man -Oh, how nice- thank you so much. 
"Good-by, and please give my regards to your wife."

They remain quiet until one of them asks if they can open their eyes. "Did he wear a cowboy hat?", asks Lenny. And a mask? And wings? And earmuffs? They were all keen to know more. Alinda confirms all their questions and they all agree that if he wore all those things, it must have indeed been Magic Man.

But what did the Magic Man tell Alinda she could do? "He told me that I could be a big red firecracker!" Alinda tells them. "And he told me that all of you could be little silver firecrackers".

And boom! boom! boom! the party gets started:

Sal stood on his head and said, "I didn't go off yet"


At this age, you may be forbidden to have a firecracker, but nobody can stop you from being one! And they all went home as exhausted as happy, straight to bed:
In a little while her mother went up to see if they were asleep. She opened the door
and saw Buttermilk in bed with the blanket pulled up to his chin and Rosie curled up
on the rug. "Rosie!", she said. "Shhh!", said Rosie."Buttermilk is asleep." "Why are
you on the floor, dear?", her mother whispered. "Because I'm a sleepy cat", answered
Rosie. "¡Oh!, said her mother, and she tiptoed out of the room. "Good night", she
whispered as she closed the door. "Meow", answered Rosie. 

Reading The Sign on Rosie's Door out loud
The Sign on Rosie's Door is written as a narrated play. It is almost all dialogue (a natural, elastic, living dialogue that shows what an ear and what powers of observation Sendak had). Reading it, therefore, has to be rather theatrical. In our case it's also quite physical, with the movements of the clumsy Arabian dancer, the diva body language of the lovely lady singer Alinda, the BOOMS and the WHISHHHES of the firecrackers and their jumping and landing.

It is a story with a fair amount of text (somewhere between a picture book and a short novel for children). It takes approxiately 15 minutes to read, but because there is so much dialogue, it never drags, even for very young children. We have been reading it to our son since he was three and he loved it from the word go.

The Sign on Rosie's Door also contains wonderful whispering, sudden shouting, lots of voices and plenty of play. It's a real please both to read it out loud and to listed to it being read out loud.

What we like about The Sign on Rosie's Door
There are so many things we like about this book that it is difficult to know where to start.

My son sees himself very clearly reflected in these children. Some kids play make-believe more than others (my son in particular spends around three quarters of his day being anyone but himself and roping his parents in on the act too), and this book is particularly attractive for kids who enjoy imaginative play. But not only for them. It is a book that portrays the dynamics of play among children like no other book I know and children catch on to the authenticity of the portrait and are rather grateful for it.

My son loves looking at the little parallel goings on in the images. He likes to look at the way Alinda glares at Lenny when he interrupts her, how Sal and Pudgy look at each other as if they hated each other when they are playing not talking to each other.

I love the way the book portrays the power relations among children, the decision making process involved in what game to play, how the bossy organiser of the game causes fascination and irritation in equal measure, but ultimately an acceptance of the fact that she is rather good at what she does. I like the way it portrays children's pain as bi-directional: Rosie bosses others about and denies others the right to join in the game, but she also cries, singing her song alone. My son does a lot of smiling out of experiential recognition when we read this book.

Like much of Sendak's work, The Sign on Rosie's Door is about how children survive in their daily lives: in this case, how they survive boredom, how they make do with what they have and how they are not at all bad at doing it, if left to their own devices.

To go back to the start of this post, and of what crossed my mind while watching the fantastic Really Rosie film, based on The Sign on Rosie's Door and on the four books contained in The Nutshell Library, I'd like to summarise my thoughts:  

1. Sendak portrays relationships between kids better than anyone. Specifically, power relations of children at play, on the one hand, and on the other, the harmony and tension between fiction and reality in relationships among children and between children and adults.  

2. How important it is to know how to observe! This is not meant as an invitation to picture-book authors to run and get a pen and take down everything their charming children/nieces or nephews say and then turn it into a picture book. (Although it isn't a bad thing for them to spend time with kids, watching and listening). But it is essential to learn how to observe, to know what to extract from what you observe and then to know how to recreate it, of course, with the same artfulness Rosie used in order to make her fantasies credible to her audience and Sendak used to heighten the reality he observed so that it would continue to seem real once it had been passed onto paper.  

3. Why are there so few picture books that portray children playing with other children, and show interesting and significant relationships among children? More examples welcome in the comments to this post.  

4. Where are the scenes of kids playing choking to death on chicken bones in current picture books?

One last thing about the book. I love the dialogue, which makes you feel you are spying on a group of kids without them seeing you.

The anecdote
And this ties in with the last part of this review: The Sign on Rosie's Door is based on a Real Rosie from the Brooklyn neighbourhood Sendak grew up in. Sendak would spend his hours looking out of the window, watching, drawing the kids at play and writing down some of what they said.  

Maurice Sendak himself tells the anecdote in the 2003 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Descent into Limbo (minute 56:34 to 1:03:29)  

"I'm obsessed with childhood and no good for anything else," admits Sendak before introducing his story about the real Rosie: "I want to relate some anecdotes concerning children which have permanently coloured my view of human nature."
"This is a story about Rosie. Rosie was this kid in Brooklyn, who became prototypical. She was everything I ever did. [...] It was 1943. I studied Rosie for about a year, 43 to 44. During the War, my brother was missing in the Philippines. Those were the darkest days of the Holocaust, and the only way I could survive was to take a bench, put it by the window and stare at Rosie, who was just right in front of me ... and she performed in the street. She seemed completely oblivious of me, which was good. And she would come down every day, and she would be all dressed up, and she would have this gigantic yellow hat, and a big feather, and a short of scruffy, fuzzy, fluffy shawl, stole or scarf, and a red dress, a long red dress with her feet sticking out. And I would just watch. I filled about maybe 14 to 20 large sketchpads: what Rosie said, what Rosie did, how Rosie looked, all the other kids in the street, what happened between them. A lot of it I did use later. Anyway, this one particular incident, it was a very hot day, and her job, she knew that, was to keep the whole thing going, cause the rest of the group were a bunch of lumpy, moribund kids, and they both adored and hated her because they knew she had that something, and when she gave it to them, an imaginary story or whatever, they adored her. If she failed, they hated her. ... And she took her job very seriously. And to watch her start, to watch her get the engine going... And there was this day, it was very hot, in June, hanging on the stoop, and she was there with her brother, Pudgy, who was much younger than her, was her football and best friend. And she sat there, and said, after a long silence, (it had to begin soon), and she said: "Did you hear who died?" Well, everybody looked up. Best line in the world. I looked up. As well as I knew her, I fell for it all the time. And they looked up: "Who?". She said: "Grandma, my grandmother died. In the dawn. And Pudgy pushes her and says: "Grandma..:" and she says "Shut up". And he knew his place. And here's what happened. And it was full of details that I could recognise and she was so clever an artist that she had thought of every possible detail to enrich and make real this totally bizarre fantasy. So I looked out of the window, I lived in a four family house and Rosie lived in a one family house. And on the top floor, in the attic part of the house her grandmother lived. She was a very corpulent, coarse woman. And what she did and what my mother did and what other women did is you had to hang the pillows out of the window and then you had this straw thing and you bashed them, and the dust goes flying. Everybody did it. What happened on this dawn is Rosie heard the swatting and wondered why was her grandmother doing it so early, and her room and Pudgy's room were just under the attic apartment, and she heard this creaking and this groaning and this gasping and and this huge woman fell. She heard this crash. And Pudgy woke up and said "What do you think...?" and Rosie said "Shhhh. Don't wake Mamma and Pappa. They'll just get nervous." So by herself, she went up the stairs, and there was Grandma, struggling to breathe, dying. And Rosie, knowing what to do, because she'd seen all these Irene Dunne and Bette Davis movies, jumped on top of her grandmother, punched her in the chest and then when it didn't look too good, or her grandma didn't look too good, she leaned over and gave her the big kiss of life. She had to do it three times. To no avail. Grandma was dead. She sushed Pudgy up. She went to the phone. And she called the place where dead people go. And the place where dead people go came, and the first thing they did was put a chicken on her toe, so she would be identifiable in the dead place. And then they took her away. (And the kids said: "Nobody heard? Did nobody..?" "Nobody heard. I did not want to upset my parents"). And the dead people wagon came and they were taking her away and towards the end of the story... you have to imagine these kids were glued, as was I... her Grandma comes walking up the street. Two big, heavy shopping bags, wearing  heavy slippers, and sort of sloppering over, terrifying woman, terrifying. She spoke only Italian and she sounded like she was cursing everything in the world. And when she got to the stoop, she glared and all the kids parted like the red sea, they all just went like that. And she went schlumping up the stairs, gave a black look to Rosie and something with her teeth and her thumb, like she was saying, or I interpreted like that, when you get upstairs, you'll get killed! She slams the door, chumping up the stairs, and all the kids crowd in again and one of them says: "Rosie, tell us how your Grandma died". 
The second anecdote Sendak relates right after this one, told with no less spark, is about how he actually found the real Rosie again, as a middle aged woman, many years later. (Descent into Limbo min 1:03:30 to 1:11:03). It really is worth listening to it too.  

A final gift

Dummy of In Rosie's Backyard, which would eventually become
The Sign on Rosie's Door, Rosenbach Museum. 

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Maurice Sendak, 1960. 
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. You may copy this or reproduce it, but please be nice and credit the author and the site. 

Many Happy Returns, Where the Wild Things Are!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

2nd YOU READ IT LIKE WHAT?! Read-Aloud Recording Competition

We Read it Like This presents....

The 2nd Read-Aloud Recording Competition: YOU READ IT LIKE WHAT?! 
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for
Jewish Book Month, (Jewish Book Council), 1985
Last year, to celebrate We Read it Like This' second anniversary, we held the First You Read it Like What?! read-aloud recording competition.

After the success the first time round and many inquiries as to whether we were going organise the competition again this year, we have decided to launch the Second You Read it Like What?! competition. The prize? Two books of your choice from those reviewed on this site (books out of print not included; see list at the bottom of this post).

1. Choose one of your favourite picture books
2. Practise reading it out loud (if you need to). 
3. Record it either with video or sound only
4. Upload it onto a site like dropbox or soundcloud.
5. Share the link with us in a comment at the end of this post and...
6. Send an email to youreaditlikewhat@gmail.com telling us a bit about yourself or yourselves, a photo if you like, and why you chose that book in particular. Please include the link to the recording in the email too. 
7. Recordings should be in English or in Spanish (if in Spanish please visit We Read it Like This' sister blog, Lo Leemos Así and enter the competition through that site). 
8. The recording can either be:
  • of a parent or other carer reading to a child or several children or 
  • of a teacher reading to a child or several children 
  • of a child reading to another child or parent or in a classroom to their friends.
9. Excitement encouraged and interaction (ooh¡ aaaah!) more than welcome.
10. The deadline for receiving entries is May 31st, 2014. No entries received after this date shall be considered. 
11.  Worldwide entries accepted. The only restrictions apply to language: English or Spanish (through Lo leemos así) only. 
12. All ages welcome.  
13. The winner will get a glamourous post featuring their prize recording plus 2 books to choose from the following books reviewed on We Read it Like This
14. Prize books chosen by winner will be sent to the address provided by them by email following the notification of the winner. 
15. Good luck!
16. The decision regarding the winner will be necessarily subjective and final.   

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Fable Game: a game to read; a thousand books to play

The Fable Game, Enzo Mari (1965)
Our edition: Corraini Edizioni, 2011.

A fabulous suggestion for a rainy Saturday morning: a game to read; a thousand books to play. 

For those of you who don't know it, the simply complex The Fable Game by Enzo Mari is comprised of six thick, large cards, printed on both sides.

Each side has a central scene and two side scenes which can be combined as one chooses, by means of a slot at the top and a slot at the bottom, composing suggested narrative routes, a succession of rooms or stages for navigating, going forwards, backwards and jumping from one to the other as needed, as the story unfolds in our minds and through our words while we play.  

The cards contain representations of approximately seventy fable motifs; forty five animals, the sun, the moon, an umbrella, a cage, trees, a boot, a tree trunk, bamboo, rocks, an apple, a pile of earth, a nest, two eggs. 

Hedgehog, apple, cage, crow, fox, stork.

Moon, night, cow, frog. 

Skull, lion with cub, big rock, small rock, another rock, a rifle.

What I always find fascinating about this kind of book-game is to see the way design -when it's good- makes magic without the need to give any instructions. The Fable Game was a gift for my son. I gave it to him this morning, about three hours ago. We took it out of its folded box, checked to see how the cards slotted together. Then we made our first random composition. All I said was that The Fable Game was great for telling lots of different stories. Immediately, he said "let me do it! let me do it!", and he started with a story about the lion, who was angry with the rat because... and for the next few minutes built his story, first following the order of the visual sequences in place, but then gradually jumping from scene to scene, moving around the table, incorporating motifs as required for his story. When he finished, he wanted to disassemble it and reassemble it differently. And that's just what we did. And away he went again. This time the fox went out for a walk and bumped into a... And we've been at it all morning, with fights between the different animals, problems to be solved, solutions to be sought, and endings to be reached.

The first few times we put the cards together randomly and created stories from the suggested sequences. But then we started organising the cards to suit the story we fancied telling.  

To add yet another layer of fun, very much in the We Read it Like This style, we switched on our recorder while we were making up the stories and then listened to them. We have been having a great time all morning.

Then I came to write this post and my son continued to play with The Fable Game, this time using the stages as a doll's house for the figurines -in this case a set of smurfs- he spends all day playing with, making up stories and inventing dialogue. "It's like a doll's house, but with more characters and many more dangers", he said, very chuffed indeed.

A truly fabulous morning. One of many, I suspect.

The Fable Game is published by the Italian publisher Corraini Edizioni, with an introductory text in Italian, English, Spanish and Japanese.

(c) of the illustrations, Enzo Mari, 1965, Corraini Edizioni, 2011.
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie, 2014. By all means copy it or reproduce it, but please be nice and quote your source (author and blog).  

Monday, 20 January 2014

Happy 25th Birthday, We're Going on a Bear Hunt!

This year it is twenty five years since the publication of the now classic We're Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen, with illustrations by Helen Oxenbury.

It hardly comes as a surprise to me that it is precisely the review of this must-have picture book that receives, by far, the most visits of all the reviews on this site. Both in the original English, and in the wonderful Spanish translation, this is a story to share, to recite, to move about to, to act out and to chant. It's lots and lots of fun. Happy Birthday! And many many happy returns to the bookshelves.

Read our review of We're Going on a Bear Hunt here.

Listen to how we read it here:

For readers of Spanish: 
Read our review of the translated version (¡Vamos a cazar un oso!) here.

Read about how we used ¡Vamos a cazar un oso! in a philosophy for preschoolers session on fear here.

And click on how we read it in Spanish, here:

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Many Happy Returns, Where the Wild Things Are!

This month it is 50 years since Maurice Sendak gave children of then, now and tomorrow Where the Wild Things Are: a paper mirror for children to walk through in wonder and see portrayed their inner conflict between frustration, anger and incomprehension, on the one hand, and the need to accommodate a formally illogical but emotionally necessary mutual forgiveness, on the other.

Where the Wild Things Are is an ode to fantasy as a fundamental emotional and intellectual tool and to literature as a journey of flight which, far from leading to escapism, always returns us to land, sometimes with a bit of a bump.

Here is how Harper & Row announced the publication of the book back in 1963:
PDF taken from http://www.philnel.com/2013/10/15/wildthings/

[By the way, don't you just love a publisher addressing adults and talking of "any children who happen to be your friends"].  

Almost three years ago, this blog started out precisely with a review of Where the Wild Things Are. Back then, we described it as one of our absolute favourites, and said it had "a delightfully dreamlike, gripping text, with terrific pace, rhythm and musicality, combined with stunning pen and ink and watercolour illustrations that draw you into Max's world and make you want to leap up an dance the wild rumpus every time. It is a joy to read out loud".

My son was not yet two and at the time, and reading Where the Wild Things Are was all about the incredible resonance of the text. This is what we said: "It is one of those texts that flows effortlessly out of your mouth from the very first time you read it. Even as a very young baby, our son seemed to enjoy it, perking up with each exclamation mark and listening to the soft rolling musicality of other parts. The first bits that caught his attention and made him laugh were of course the "BE STILL!" and the "NOW STOP!" accompanied by suitably exaggerated authoritarian hand gestures and facial expressions from his parents, and, obviously, the wild rumpus, for which we made interesting drumming sounds, drawing it it out for a bit longer than usual. By the time he had learnt how to ask us to read bits again, he was into the monsters roaring their terrible roars and gnashing their terrible teeth and rolling their terrible eyes and showing their terrible claws again and again and again."  

Now, at the age of four and a half, all these elements are still very much present, but it is fascinating to see how he goes adding layer upon layer of understanding, and how his relationship with the book evolves. 

It is now that those other elements, more related to Sendak's subtle and mesmerising appeals to the unconscious, begin to appear. It is now that we start seeing and marvelling at how much Where the Wild Things Are manages to contain. It is not easy to overcome adult-imposed constraints that are often incomprehensible from a child's perspective. It is not easy for a child to strike a healthy balance between the struggle for their will and identity and their need to love and feel loved. We're not saying that Where the Wild Things Are provides solutions to these difficulties, but it certainly touches on them, and in ways that speak directly to children. Of course, a bit of a wild rumpus every now and then never hurts either!

Happy birthday, Where the Wild Things Are! And many, many, many Happy Returns!

Here is our recording of Where the Wild Things Are, with music and all. Enjoy!

More about Sendak on We Read it Like This

Pippi Longstocking: a Character that Transcends Gender

One of the clearest indications that a children's literature character is well-developed and "good" is that the character makes children want to "play" being him or her. That the child reader wishes to take the character from their reading experience to an active play experience. "Shall we play X?"

I have always known that Pippi Longstocking is a fantastic character, but yesterday my son made me see that Pippi is so much more than just a well crafted character. She manages to transcend even gender barriers, making a boy who is just at the age where he is defining his gender identity and who has for some time now rejected the very idea of playing a female character, stop on the way to school on a cold and frosty winter morning and suggest: "Mummy, shall we play Pippi? I'll be Pippi and you can be Mr. Nilsson!" And so we played Pippi all the way to school, for the entire half hour it takes us to walk there every morning. I was instructed to play different roles every now and then. I was sometimes Mr. Nilsson, sometimes Tommy and sometimes Annika, but my son insisted on being Pippi from start to finish. 

When a character is so good, so interesting and so complex, gender becomes as secondary as hair colour. 

This came a day after my philosophy session with four year olds [in Spanish] where we spoke about wishes. We all talked about our greatest wishes. Almost without exception (there was one or two), every single girl in the group (16 of them) wanted to become a fairy or a princess and every single boy in the group wanted to be given a Lightning McQueen car as a present. (I quickly scheduled in an urgent session on gender identity!)   

And I suddenly thought of what I want for Christmas:

Children's literature publishers: please, please, please refrain from actively or passively contributing to the horrendous "genderisation" of childhood and look out for well crafted, interesting, complex characters beyond their gender instead. There is no excuse. Genderising literature should be a punishable offence. 

To children's bookshops: please, please, please do not even think of classifying books by gender, with the excuse that it's "what the market wants". There is no excuse for it either and it should also be a punishable offence. 

Parents: please take a closer look at the false claim that girls are genetically determined to like pink and make-up and boys are genetically determined to like cars, speed and competing. Give them a chance to focus on who they really are and who they'd really like to become. Give them plenty of chances to read about characters of their gender and the opposite gender behaving in non-stereotyped ways. Plenty of chances, lots of them, because you'll need them to counteract the bombarding of stereotypes they are subjected to every single day. 

In brief, all I want for Christmas is: 

A literature with interesting characters, beyond gender stereotypes (well, seeing as I'm asking, I might as well say beyond stereotypes full stop). 

A world of interesting people, with interesting personalities, above and beyond their gender.

That's what I want for Christmas, but I'm likely to get a big wet raspberry instead, I know. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

Varying quality: when dark and stormy nights are enlightening

Many interesting things have been written about the benefits of bad literature (check out this, for example) and I'm not about to write an essay about it myself, but today I had the chance to see a live example of how it can be good for children to be exposed to literature of varying quality. Exposing children to a few bad books among the wonderful books one buys or one tends to pay attention to in libraries can help them develop their judgement.

When I say bad literature I refer to literature whose author objectively and evidently  ignores the basic principles of story building, character development and narration. I mean literature whose author has said: 'Writing for children? That's easy. I can do that'. There is much, much, much more of this kind of literature than of the good stuff of course. But what I wanted to say today was that some of it might be beneficial (every now and then).

At home we are very lucky, because we read books that are very good, a lot of fun, very entertaining and well constructed. But recently we have another source of books apart from the family: the school library. I have to say it is a school library badly in need of new acquisitions, the last great purchase seemingly dating back to the late seventies or early eighties (fortunately, this was one of the golden ages of children's publishing in Spain, so we can't complain, I suppose).

This weekend we brought home the first school library book of this school year. I don't normally write negative reviews. Life's too short and I don't really believe in reviling other people's work. But I don't know if we can call this a negative review exactly, given the positive consequence of reading the book.

The book -I'll forget the title- is about a boy who'd rather be in the clouds than play with his friends. He closes his eyes and travels away to the clouds and has fun imagining, dreaming and building imaginary castles. One day another boy appears in the clouds and they become friends. But then the sun starts shining stronger and stronger and the clouds go gradually disappearing. The two children start fighting because there is not enough room for them both and the main character slips down to his room. Time goes by and the boy no longer wants to close his eyes and go up to the clouds. He prefers going to the beach and building sand castles. One day on the beach a boy goes up to him and asks him if he'd like to play. The main character turns and sees it is his friend from the clouds. From that day on they always play together on the beach and they prefer it to the clouds because there are also other children they can play with there.

My son is normally positively predisposed towards any book (unless something extraliterary on the front cover switches his interest off automatically). This case was no exception. 'Can you read it to me?' he asked. 'Of course', I said. We read it once. 'Do you like it?' I asked. 'Yes', he said. He told me he liked the illustrations (there were lots of animals in them, made out of clouds), and he thought it amusing that the boy closed his eyes and let his imagination soar.

This morning before going to school, he asked to read it one more time. But this time his reaction was very different. When we finished it, he said: "Mummy, this is a very strange book". I asked him why. "Because the boys don't say anything. They don't think anything either. I don't know what they are like". 'Do you mean their personality?' I asked. "Yes, he said, I don't know anything about their personality. The writer just tells us some things that happen."

He asked to read it once more. This time he asked why several times. "Why do the boys start fighting?". I tried to answer him, but the truth is his question was a very good one. I didn't understand why the boys started fighting either. Even so, I tried to answer him according to the logic of the book's author. "Well, the book says it is because they don't have as much room, because the clouds are disappearing". But my son looked at me and said: "that's not a very good reason. I don't know what they are thinking, so I don't understand why they fight".

And it was time to go to school, so we had to stop the conversation. But it struck me that a four-year old boy had just managed to point out very accurately what was wrong with the book: No real characters and false causality resorted to in order to advance a narration heading straight to a forced metaphor.

Of course he could not have detected it without the baggage of all those good books we read every day, but it suddenly struck me that it was important and interesting to read so-so things and bad things too. I thought it was important to expose children to varying quality precisely because it helps them tell one from the other.

The recipe seems easy then: read, read, read and then read a bit more. Read a lot of good stuff and some rubbish too. And think about it every now and then.

If it works for a four-year old, it should work for preschool and primary teachers, and people thinking of writing children's literature too.

We can't go around recommending children's literature without having read a lot of it. We can't begin to think of writing children's literature without having read a lot of it. A lot of the really good stuff, and bit of the bad stuff for good measure.

(c) of the text: Ellen Duthie. By all means copy it or reproduce it but please be kind and cite your source (author and blog).