Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor (1995)

Just a quick note. I'm reading The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor (1995), another Gordianus murder mystery set Rome at the end of the Republic; so far it looks like a good one. I'm curious to see if Saylor's portrayal of Publius Clodius matches the oafish thug portrayed by John Maddox Roberts; certainly Clodia is still the sensuous schemer. I don't recall Roberts exploring the incestual relationship between brother and sister!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Why We're Still In Love With Picture Books

Marla Frazee - a southern California illustrator and author, and Allyn Johnston, a publisher of children's books, have written a wonderful anti-memorial to the picture books in The Horn BookMay/June 2011 "Why We're Still In Love with Picture Books (Even Though They Are Supposed to Be Dead)." In the past six months or so, The New York Times wrote an almost obituary for the picture book - families (read: New York urban upper crust families) were buying readers for younger and younger children in place of picture books, dooming picture books to the scrap heap. Like Mark Twain's famous quote, the reports of the demise of the picture book, at least according to Frazee and Johnston, have been greatly exaggerated.

They have some awesomely beautiful descriptions of what exactly constitutes a picture book and why they have been and will be beloved and cherished by all ages. "What is a picture book anyway?" they write. "In the most basic, classic, and very best sense, you could say it's a story for young children told in both words and pictures that unfolds over 32 or so printed pages that are sewn together at the spine and housed within hard cardboard covers." And then, the beautiful part: "And this story, when read aloud, will cast a spell over all who are present to hear it and look at it; and, with luck, it will go straight into their hearts and never be forgotten."

The image of the circle comes up, both as a circle gathered around a teacher or librarian reading aloud, but also picture books as circular in heart and mind: "It is a simple circle -- if the adult reading the story loves the story, that adult will love reading it aloud, and because he or she is having such a positive experience, the child experiences love for the story, and by extension, love for the person reading it. And when this happens, a space is created - a holy space, if you will -- where the book, the child, and the adult are under a spell together. It may be a quiet, dramatic, or wildly raucous spell, but it is a spell nonetheless."

I love this image too, from "a harried lawyer-mother-of-a-toddler" who said "Reading picture books with my son is the only calm time of our days He calms down and I calm down. It knits together our frayed edges." Wow. To me, that was a powerful image, and also for me, described not just picture books but books in general and how they fit into my life. Books knit together my frayed edges.

Persons of Consquence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle by Louis Auchincloss (1979)

I read Persons of Consquence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle by Louis Auchincloss (1979), and overall I found it quite enjoyable. I didn't especially learn anything new, but I really liked Auchincloss's conversational style - it was almost like you were sitting with him, having a cup of coffee (or better yet, a martini) and discussing Queen Victoria.

I'm wasn't sure the title was absolutely correct - "circle" implies something more intimate to me, and having a chapter on Gladstone (who she hated) and not a chapter on Brown (who she clearly loved and adored) seemed not quite right. Even so, the chapter on Gladstone was still pretty good, and explored the poisonous relationship between the two, if not in some detail, at least in the same martinis after dinner manner.

Auchincloss is American nobility himself, from an upper crust Long Island family that goes way way back into New York society. He was dimly related in marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy. He died last year. From what I gathered from the internet, his fiction is being compared to Edith Wharton and Henry James, which certainly further sparked my interest in reading more of his works.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dorothy Parker and Winnie-the-Pooh

I wanted to read the famous review Dorothy Parker wrote (as Constant Reader) in 1928 in The New Yorker of The House at Pooh Corner - the one where at the end she writes "And it is that word "hummy" my darlings that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up."

Funny. Definitely so.

Bitchy. Beyond. Like the very best kind of drag queen.

In another part, she writes "Oh darn -- there I've gone and given away the plot. Oh, I could bite my tongue out."

Her sharp, sharp tongue.

It's a little much to make fun of a book that's clearly written for children. I don't think it would be done in quite the same way now; although I don't know -- comedians have taken on Barney, Dr. Seuss, etc.

In 1928, were the Pooh books written specifically for children? A.A. Milne before that was a well respected playwright, perhaps even could have been part of the vicious circle if he lived in New York, so maybe he was considered fair game. I don't know.

Ferber: A Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle by Julie Goldsmith Gilbert (1978)

I tried to read Ferber: A Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle by Julie Goldsmith Gilbert (1978) who is Ms. Ferber's niece (and obviously trying to cash in on that fact). The book was weirdly nonlinear (backwardsly linear?) out, starting at Ferber's death and working its way back, which was annoying (and probably some sort of 1970s post-post modernism). I also thought it was way too tongue in cheek wink wink "I'm in the know" which I personally detest in a biography.

You what annoyed me most about this book? It's a library book, and I probably saved it from being weeded.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (2009)


I listened to The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (2009) on audio. I hadn't listened to an audio book in several years; my attention usually wonders too much to listen too long. This audio kept my attention for the entire time; I wanted to keep listening, but rationed it out to make it last longer. It was so good!

I probably last read Winnie-the-Pooh in grade school - so a long time ago. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed listening as an adult. Milne's characters are really classic; they hold up remarkably well. I didn't like each story equally well, but overall I was enchanted. That may be because the actors who read each voice were perfect. Rabbit sounded exactly like the busy body, slightly bigoted small town politician that you know he is; Eeyore is a self absorbed sad sack; Owl sounds like a flustered know it all Oxford don. Stephen Fry as Pooh and Jane Horrocks as Piglet are both excellent. I loved Tigger too; I read another review of this audio that complained about Sandi Toksvig's Tigger, but I thought it was a marvelously different Tigger - he sounds a little more crazy and unpredictable and a little less bouncily lovable. I laughed out loud when Tigger and Roo climbed the tree together; she perfectly captured his bravado turned to terror.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)



I read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911), which I first read in college (I think). For a book that's turning 100 years old this year, it's remarkably fresh. It's so tragic you ache inside, and because I vaguely remembered the end was going to be bad, I ached even more. I don't think I understood this as well as a young, formless twenty-something with my whole life and relationships ahead of me as I do as an (almost?) middle-aged man with a history. Ethan is only 28, his cold wife Zeena is six years older than him - both were not exactly catches when they married under the direst of circumstances. She's aged into a bitter, ugly hypochondriac, and he's become old-before-his-time and taciturn. Mattie Silver comes into Ethan's life - the names are chosen with great care - and brightens up his existence. Not all secret romances go so very wrong - especially today, when divorce means you can keep finding and marrying that special someone over and over again - but people still stay coldly and bitterly married for a variety of reasons; people are still crushing on people they aren't married to and resenting their husbands and wives for not being silver tongued and gloriously shining. The original New York Times review called the novel "grim," in a setting with mores based on "dour theology" (Calvinism was still strong even 100 years ago), "the remorseless spirit of the Greek tragic muse." "It is a cruel story." It is. "It is a compelling and haunting story." Even after a century of reading - and literary criticism, and being forced to read this in classes around the country - it still is compelling and haunting. It's not exactly a pleasant read - especially if, like me, you fall head over heels in love with characters, ache with them, cry with them, feel their pain. But it's well worth the journey.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fiction and Nonfiction

The art of fiction is making up facts; the art of nonfiction is using facts to make up a form.
-- Jean Fritz

Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis (2001)

I tried to read Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis (2001), and I guess I should have heeded the very long subtitle Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players because it ended up just not being my kind of book. I don't know what I expected - the subtitle told me exactly what the book was going to be about. But I guess I expected something different, a bit frothier and light-hearted maybe. The obsessed Scrabble people were annoying and kind of vulgar (you could smell them from here...) and obnoxiously obsessed. I just didn't care enough about them to finish. VERY WELL WRITTEN though, just not my kind of book.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America by Beth L. Bailey (1988)

I tried to read From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America by Beth L. Bailey (1988) because I heard her speak on a podcast Back Story Radio's Valentine's Day edition. Beth Bailey the speaker was fascinating (or I wouldn't have picked up her book). Beth Bailey the writer - not so fascinating. If she's ever speaking nearby, I'll definitely go. But I wish she'd actually interviewed and quoted real people - her book was mostly made up of research from the girl's magazines of the times. Not very interesting.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (2010)

I read Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (2010), a bestseller with rave reviews that was actually quite difficult to get hold of (I hardly ever buy books, so I must wait patiently, or not, for a library copy to come back). I feel like something must be wrong with me, because I am not going to rave over this book. It was really, really well-written - Stacy Schiff has a definite way with words, with funny twists and turns in almost every sentence, and clever, almost tongue in cheek, occasionally droll descriptions and asides. The romance and mystery of Cleopatra was certainly there, or as much as Schiff could manage with a woman we know almost nothing about. So it should have been this page-turner that I couldn't put down; I should have finished it in just a few days - but I didn't. By the middle, I found it harder and harder to pick up, and by the end I was waiting to get finished and start something else. I'm not sure why - maybe it was the fact that there isn't any really new here, or if there was, I missed it. Schiff style of writing was new -- but the story is old and tried and true, and maybe that is why fictional accounts of Cleopatra are always more interesting. They aren't stuck to the facts (or lack of them) and can manipulate Cleopatra more than Schiff is able to do (although even as a historian she's done some manipulation - Cleopatra for the 21st century so to speak, less a vamp and a tramp and more of a savvy politician). One thing I disliked was the habit of dropping people from the sky into the action - Cleopatra's sister Arsinoe suddenly appears, and almost as quickly disappears with not introduction. Charmian and Iras were similarly dropped on to the stage (although Charmian does get the best line in all books). Caesar and Marc Antony get little to no introduction either - who are these people and why are they here? If I didn't know already, I'm not sure I would have understood exactly what was going on. Cleopatra didn't exist in a vacuum - she was surrounded by events, and while Schiff did an excellent job of placing her squarely in Egyptian and Ptolemaic history, I wasn't as pleased as how Schiff hit Cleopatra fit into the puzzle of Roman politics. Even so, I finished the book, which says something - I wasn't ever really bored with the book, maybe just frustrated.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)

I read The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) - actually, a re-read; I probably first read The Giver back when I was wee baby children's librarian in the mid1990's (when it was a relatively new and newly awarded the Newbery). I vaguely remember being shocked by my first reading of The Giver, but now of course, it's like re-watching The Sixth Sense - you know all about the dead people everywhere.

I was trying to read The Giver with more of a critical eye this time, instead of an eye for booktalking or finding a hook. My first impression is that the character building and plot are kind of weak - it wasn't as interesting this time around, and particularly after finishing Major Pettigrew where the characters are so carefully built from the ground up to become towering skyscrapers of character development, Jonas and Co. seem pretty flat. Part of me wants to excuse this because it's a book written for children, but I'm not so sure that's a good reason. It's probably just a difference in writing style - Lowry has every character placed in book space and time for reasons that enhance the plot, and their flatness (and to be honest, they aren't that flat) is secondary to the action and/or message of the plot.

There is definitely a slough of thoughtful, discussion inducing points throughout the book. There seems to be an almost libertarian mind at work behind the book: this dystopia (a word I'm going to use but I'm sick to death of) is the end result of years (centuries) of political correctness, of a society unable to express itself freely or make personal choices not based on what the government wants, needs, or desires. Is Lois Lowry a libertarian? Amazon.com has a booklist created by user called The Library for Little Libertarians, and The Giver is front and center.

I wonder if Lois Lowry was discussing death panels last year when that became front and center in the health care fight - because that's certainly a central theme of The Giver.

Conversely, there are some more liberal leanings in the book - particularly that unexpressed sexuality is a bad thing. The denizens (prisoners?) of the The Giver communities are completely unable to express themselves sexually and have to take a pill to stave off all emotions, including "the stirrings" of sexual longing. Is Lowry saying that wanting sex is a good thing (I would hope she is saying that) and that if a society continues to drill down at sexual desire that the end result is a ultra-structured society without any sex. Again, back to libertarianism - a free society based on liberty should be sexually free as well?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (2010)

I read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (2010), given to me by a colleague on a non-profit I serve on in the city in which I work. This colleague (a brassy, funny female - honestly, not someone I would have pegged for a lover of this type of fiction) - had previously given me The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which I devoured in about three sittings (maybe two, and probably would have been one if given unlimited free time, which doesn't exist very often). I found Major Pettigrew to be of that same quality - maybe even better. Because the styles are so different, they can't really be compared well - very apples and oranges. Simonson's skill in building the major and minor characters slowly but surely is like the building of a DIY backyard brick wall, one brick with a slather of mortar at a time. I think this is probably the reason that when I love or loathe a particular work of fiction, it's because the characters become so absolutely real to me. I tend to tell people I don't like fiction - which isn't exactly true. I like fiction so much that when bad things happen to people in fiction that I like - or conversely, when a book is filled with really ugly or stupid or vulgar or awful characters, anti-heroes - then I just can't finish the book. I get so disturbed. I certainly, almost always, read ahead to see what's going to happen to characters I am growing to love, and Major Pettigrew was no except. I didn't exactly read ahead, more scanned pages towards the back to see if people were still alive or still in love - I wanted things to turn out RIGHT in the end (and you will have to read to see if that indeed happened).

Major Pettigrew was a complex character - incredibly unlikable at many points, and understandable at the same time. He is surrounded by such awful people that you soon begin to wonder if he's really the awful one. Again, the slow building of character by Simonson builds up your interest in him - she drops clue after clue about him and his relationships (romantic, family, friends, neighbors, etc.). He's a puzzle waiting to be solved by you the reader. Mrs. Ali is a delight, and very similar - again, Simonson's brilliant building. I liked trying to find the parallels between Mrs. Ali and Nancy Pettigrew (they are there, but very subtle). Perhaps all really well written books are full of mysteries that you get to solve. Connect the dots and at the end is there a wedding or a funeral?

It's stupid, I know, but Major Pettigrew reminded me of the movie Mean Girls. Maybe all small towns and high schools are sociologically the same - cut throat, gossipy, but with some heart and goodness as well. Certainly, my small town upbringing made me no stranger to the back biting biddies of Edgecombe St. Mary (isn't that where Miss Marple was from?), although we certainly weren't grand enough to have a country club. But we had all sorts of characters who were forced to interact with one another whether they liked it or not, outsiders and insiders, mean girls and fat girls, conservatives and liberals, rich people and poor people.

I loved the fact that to widowed people were allowed to have a grandly romantic and passionate affair.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (2010),

I am reading Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (2010) and really enjoying it, even thought it is adult contemporary fiction - not my favorite genre. I like it because it's slow and steady, a sort of comedy of manners (I guess) that slowly builds up the character of Major Pettigew and those around him, adding bits here and pieces there, almost like some sort painting that started out as dabs of paint in an unrecognizable - or boring - shape, but with additions of reds and blues and purples soon take the shape of a man. Not a wholly likable man either - the people Major Pettigrew is surrounded by all seem to ugly and vulgar, that it's making me slowly realize (again, that delicious word "slow") that perhaps he is the really unpleasant one in the bunch. Just because - it's written in third person limited, which means we can see into Major Pettigrew's mind but no one else - we have to guess what they are thinking and feeling by what the author has them say and/or do. Which is like a delightful puzzle!

A successful marriage...

"A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted... all leavened by the occasional orgasm." Dan Savage

Virginia Lee Burton

"Books for children are among the most powerful influence sin shaping their lives and tastes. In this sense these books are important means of advancing to a better world, for the future lies to some extent in the hands of the children of today." "Taste begins with first impressions... children are taught reading by seeing, that is, by associating a picture with a word. If the picture is well drawn and finely designed they learn more than a literal definition. They acquire a sense of good design, they learn to appreciate beauty, and they take the first step in the development of good taste. Primitive man thought in pictures, not in words, and this visual conception of the outside world is much more natural and far more fundamental than its sophisticated translation into verbal modes of thought." from her 1943 Caldecott speech.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Collected Stories of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne (2009)

I am still listening to the audio The Collected Stories of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne (2009), and I'm still enchanted. I don't recall my parents reading aloud to us very much - although I'm sure they did. I remember my father reading Thornton W. Burgess wildlife stories aloud on occasion, although which ones I don't recall. My mother has said that she hated reading aloud Dr. Seuss, which we always seemed to ask for - and I can't say I blame her for those sentiments. Dr. Seuss is one of my least favorite read-alouds for kids as well. I did have a storybook with some old fashioned Pooh stories; the one I remember the best was when Piglet gets flooded out, but how he is eventually saved I don't remember at all - something to do with an umbrella? (anyway, that will have to wait until I come to that part). Probably at some point or another, that storybook was read aloud, but those stories were pretty long, and my brother was pretty wiggly. I've never read aloud Winnie the Pooh, and I don't think I've read the stories as an adult. So it's been a pleasant surprise at how - I don't know - deep, these stories are. They really work on several levels. They are nominally stories for a child, but they have deep meaning attached. On purpose, I don't know. But the Deep Meaning is there. Or at least there is in these first stories. I noticed this particularly in the story In Which Kanga and Baby Roo Come to the Forest and Piglet Has A Bath. I'm fairly certain - granted without doing any sort of research - that a British reader in 1920something might recognize some stock British types masquerading as stuffed animals in Winnie the Pooh. I already wrote that Winnie the Pooh felt like the bumbling old English gentleman in a murder mystery. Those types become crystal clear in the Kanga and Roo story. Rabbit seems to represent a type of bigoted busybody that's certainly not exclusive to Britain. The story itself is fairly disturbing, particularly if looked at in the lens of 1920s, the rise of the KKK in the US, lynchings, hatred of the other. Kanga and Roo - the other - move to the forest, and Rabbit whips up paranoia and fear, convincing Pooh and Piglet they need to kidnap Roo, which will somehow drive Kanga from the forest. Like all paranoid xenophobes, Rabbit's logic is a little fuzzy (as Piglet, often the voice of reasoned cowardice, gamely points out), but no matter - Kanga and Roo (those blacks, those Asians, those others) need to be driven from the neighborhood. The kidnapping ends up being a humorous Pooh episode - and Rabbit, by spending the afternoon with Roo, discovers a fondness for him - another truism, which is that the "other" can be erased by easy familiarity. I'm sure none of this is a new idea - but it was new to me, and I'm listening to the audio version with new ears.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes (2001)

I did not read Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes (2001) although I gave it a shot because I enjoyed Search and Destroy so much. Not enough plot and too much action. Still, I would definitely suggest this to teen and preteen boys , especially if they are forced to read a historical fiction - I think the combat scenes will have appeal. I was disappointed - because of the subject matter (World War II), I wanted this to be really good!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (2010)

I am reading Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (2010), a book that I wasn't so sure I liked at first. I'm still not... but I'm started to get into it more and more. On page 79, Schiff points out an interesting comparision between the modern world and the ancient world: "The centuries felt closer than they do to us today. Alexander the Great was further from Cleopatra than 1776 is to our own century, yet Alexander remained always, vividly, urgently present. While 1,120 years seperated Cleopatra from the greatest story of her time, the fall of Troy remained a steadfast point of reference. The past was at all times within reach, a nearly religious awe aimed in its direction." She goes on to point out that Egypt hadn't really changed all that much in two thousand years. "There was a good reason why Cleopatra's subjected viewed time as a coil of endless repetitions. Recent events only enforced that notion. Ptolemaic advisors had persuaded earlier boy-kings to murder their immediate families. Previous queens had fled Egypt to muster armies. Much that could be said of the conquering Romans in 47 could have been said three centuries earler of Cleopatra's Macedonian ancestors." Perhaps that is why 1776 seems to distant to us now, and Cleopatra's time seems even more alien -- because so much has changed in the last two hundred years or so. In two thousand years Egypt hardly changed; in two hundred years the entire world has tipped over and become a new place.

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand (2007, 2010)

I tried to read Illyria by Elizabeth Hand (2007, 2010) and just could not get into it. It was too weird for me. My second or third attempt at reading an Elizabeth Hand book, and I'm done - no more. She's comparable to Joyce Carol Oates or A. S. Byatt to me - insufferably dense; I know I should like their books, but I just don't. I don't even remember why I picked this one up - it must have had an interesting review somewhere. The perils of reviews, huh?!

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster (1905)

I read Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster (1905) which was Forster's first novel. Like Athena, Forster the writer arrived fully grown; although certainly not the best Forster (in the world according to me, that's still Howard's End, followed closely by A Room With A View; I still haven't read A Passage to India or The Longest Journey), it's still amusingly melodramatic. The characters are what make the book so enjoyable. The Herritons are created like spun sugar, only mixed with habanero peppers - Mrs. Herriton sitting back in respectable Sawston like an upper middle class spider, pulling webs and making flies feel guilty; weak Philip who falls back on beauty and love and Italy; funny, prim, religious Harriet; vulgar Lilia (the characters in the book are preoccupied by the varying degrees of vulgarity found in both English and Italian society). Gino is sexy and sly - to make two women (and one man) fall in love with him, he must have it - the eyes, the hair, the charisma, the butt - although that's never altogether clear. He's appealing probably because their Sawston world is so boring. Caroline Abbott is the first of those stock Forster heroines that he creates so well - boring and staid and dull maids that are changed into sexy or alive or aware or liberated women. The plot that all of these characters dance through is melodramatic to say the least (purposely?), but that makes it even more humorous - and then, to be completely honest, incredibly sad. These upper middle class snoots are so caught up in what's vulgar and what's not and their superiority (particularly to Italians) that everything that happens to them seems almost fated. If the idea of good fiction is to experiment with people and ideas in a controlled setting - sort of like a science experiment is to the study of science - then E.M. Forster is an alchemist of the highest order.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman (2002)

I read Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman (2002) because I also read Mike Mulligan and More: A Virginia Lee Burton Treasury (four of Burton's most loved books), and this was because I saw 10 minutes of a documentary of Burton's life and thought "what a fascinating woman." After finishing the biography, she truly is fascinating and amazing. The artist's guild she founded, Folly Cove Designers, was a throwback to the arts and crafts movement but with a mid century flair - I want some of those designs in my home. Burton was an artistic genius - NOT JUST a children's book author and illustrator (as if there is such a thing) but an artist. If you read Mike Mulligan or Katy or especially The Little House with a designer's or artist's eye, you'll see true genius. It's very clear that to Burton, a book was art. Her life was a mix of uncovential and covential - she was an almost traditionalist small town 1930s wife and mother who gardened and canned, raised chickens - and then also danced, sculpted, painted, and founded and managed a successful guild of artists. Almost every book - certainly the four I read and studied - hark back to a need for a simpler time and respond to a nostalgic need for rural simplicity and idealized country living - this in the early part of the 20th century, a time for us now that seems both simple and ruralfied. New often means scary - Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne displaced, The Little House sadder and sadder surrounded by the big, bad old city, Maybelle the Cable Car in a battle with the new and improved bus. But in Burton's world, the old way always triumphs - MaryAnne CAN dig the new cellar of the town hall in one day; Maybelle kicks bus butt (and makes a new friend in the process); The Little House is moved from Gotham to Smallville. "In allowing her heroine to escape the urban chaos," Elleman writes. "Burton embodied a theme common in American literature and left the Little House with the values she treasured in her earlier pastoral environment. When asked if the story's point was that the further away we get from nature and the simple way of life the less happy we are, Burton said that she was quite willing to let this be its message." For all of Burton's unconventional conventional lifestyle, she certainly championed women in her books, at least the four that I read. Note that in her most famous books Mike Mulligan, Katy, Maybelle, The Little House, Calico - the main characters are all females, but not traditionally so. MaryAnne is a steam shovel, Maybelle is a cable car, Calico (which I haven't yet read; I'm waiting on a copy from my local library) is a heroine horse, Katy is a snow shovel. This is a grand mix of things that boys like (cars and trucks and things that go - even The Little House is chock full of pictures of various kinds of transportation) with femininity and feminine values (hearth and home). The storytelling is superb. Art is storytelling as well in even the least of Virginia Lee Burton's work. In her Caldecott speech for The Little House, Burton said "The basic things are always the most important, and good art, certainly a basic thing, impressed on young minds through the medium of children's books, is without a doubt one of the best possible ways of giving children a true conception of the world they live in." True in the 1940s and true now (and for grown ups too!). Every line, every color, every single picture placed on the page in Virginia Lee Burton add to the who story, draws the readers eye around into the action. These are still great read-alouds by the way - kids will sit, mesmerized - I think because the pictures are very active and the stories are still -- with some explanation - relevant and fun.

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