Friday, December 12, 2014

Tis the Season

Baking, entertaining, shopping, wrapping, decorating, cleaning, driving...   My Christmas To Do List just keeps getting longer. The frenzied chaos of the holiday season can make me so frazzled that I neglect to enjoy the time with my friends and family. I have to remind myself that my most cherished Christmas memories do not involve parties, expensive gifts, or sitting on some fat stranger's lap. As you probably know from my other posts, I am a huge dork so when I was a kid I loved to read Christmas stories and watch old holiday movies with my mom. Now I get the pleasure of recreating these special memories with my own children.

Most people are familiar with How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but if you haven't shared this classic with your kids read it first (because you should always read the book first) and then watch the animated version. I do not recommend watching the live action film, especially with little kids. Don't get me wrong, Jim Carrey is a comedic genius, but his portrayal of the Grinch is just creepy. Actually the whole movie is creepy and so is the live action Cat in the Hat. The weirdly wonderful imagination of Dr. Seuss really only works with animation at least in my opinion).

Speaking of classic Christmas stories that I love to reread every year, Cranberry Christmas is one of my favorites. Does anyone else remember the Cranberry series by Harry and Wende Devlin? The first book, Cranberry Thanksgiving, was published in 1971 and it was followed by a slew of other books featuring Maggie, Grandmother, and Mr. Whiskers in the town of Cranberryport. Cranberry Christmas came out in 1984 and I must have read it a few hundred times. I adored Mr. Whiskers and I even tried cranberries for the first time because of this book.

I am probably the only that remembers this one too, but I don't care. It is still one of the all time greatest Christmas stories ever written and subsequently turned into a movie featuring Jim Henson's Muppets. Have you guessed or is the suspense killing you? It's Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas!!! Russell and Lillian Hoban are probably best known for the adorable Frances Series, but in my opinion, Emmet Otter is their greatest collaboration. Believe it or not (and no doubt you will if you know me because I then you know how weird I am) I still have my Weekly Reader edition of this book. Yes, I got Weekly Reader books as a kid!

The book was first published in 1971 and Jim Henson (one of my idols) directed the television special in 1977. Words cannot express how much I love Emmet Otter's  Jug-Band Christmas, both the book and the muppet version. I used to have Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas on VHS, but  (HOORAY) now I have it on DVD! The last few years my daughter (who is now 13) has given me the eye roll and snotty "Do we have to watch this again?" I still make all three of my kids watch Emmet Otter with me, though. It's a Christmas tradition (whether they want it to be or not-Mwaahhaaahaaa!).

Another childhood favorite is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Who could ever forget the Herdmans who terrorize the neighborhood, but ultimately teach the community the true meaning of Christmas after they take over the annual church Christmas Pageant. I have read this a couple of times to my kids and we have also watched the made for television movie starring Loretta Swift (from MASH). A couple of years ago Harper Collins came out with a picture book version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, but the original 1971 chapter book is still the best.

I am not even sure if it qualifies as a Christmas book, but The Velveteen Rabbit always puts me in a Christmasy state of mind. After all, when we are first introduced to the toy rabbit he is in a little boy's Christmas stocking.
I would describe William's beautiful, heartstrings-tugging book as the original Toy Story.

I have already mentioned some Christmas movies based on books that I love, but there are a few others that I cannot leave out.

 Maybe you haven't read the original version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but you have to have seen at least one of the 50,000 film adaptations. As you know, Jim Henson is my hero so I adore The Muppet Christmas Carol in which Bob Cratchit is portrayed by Kermit the Frog and Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew are collecting donations for the poor. I am amazed that the impeccable, two-time Oscar Winner Michael Caine manages to keep a straight face while playing Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Since Chris Van Allsburg is a Michigan native I have to talk about The Polar Express. This visually stunning picture book was made into an equally beautiful CGI animated film in 2004. Van Allsburg is an extraordinary author/illustrator and all of his books (Zathura, Jumanji, The Stranger, etc. are magical and unique.

If you visit the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan you can ride the real Polar Express, the Pere Marquette 1225. The 1225 provided the sound effects and was used as the model for the film The Polar Express. You can purchase tickets to ride the 1225 year round, but every winter the Polar Express travels to the North Pole where kids can meet Santa, and enjoy rides, games, and other Christmas activities.

Once your kids are older it is time to introduce them to classic holiday films. Personally, I only watch the original movies and certain ones have to be in black and white. For some reason Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and It's a Wonderful Life are just not as good in color. Now, White Christmas was filmed in color so that one is okay.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Top 100: 41-50

And the countdown goes on:

50. The Borrows by Mary Norton
Another oldie, but, hey, classics are classics because they are good and stand the test of time. At least most of the time. There are those horrible classics that you had to read for school that you always wonder why someone even published them (i.e. The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, No self-flagellation and visions of Hell for me thank you very much).

So back to The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I do not remember a book capturing my imagination the way the story of Pod, Homily, and Arietty did.  I went so far as to creating little furniture out of matchboxes, thimbles, etc. and putting them in a shoebox. It was actually my love of the cartoon Here Come the Littles that made me first want to read The Borrowers.

Incidentally the cartoon was based on a series of books written in the 6os and 70s by American author, James Peterson. The Littles were inspired by English author, Mary Norton, who published The Borrowers in 1952, The Borrowers Afield in 1955, The Borrowers Afloat in 1959, The Borrowers Aloft in 1961, and, finally, The Borrowers Avenged in 1982. If you are interested in reading this series it was just re-released in paperback and I just ordered it for the library. We also have many of The Littles books, which are much shorter and simpler chapter books.

The Borrowers has been adapted into several film versions, both live action and animated. I haven't watched any of them so if you particularly enjoyed any of them let me know.

49. Stuart Little by E.B. White
From a mute swan who plays the trumpet to a sweet and sensitive mouse born to a human family.  As I mentioned in my previous post, part of White's genius is the way he creates such a believable cast of human and animal creatures. In Stuart Little it never seems strange that this New York couple's second son is a mouse, the reader just goes along for the adventure.

Stuart Little also has a great message for all of us overprotective parents who want to encase our children in bubble wrap. Mr. and Mrs. Little love their mouse son and only want him to be safe, but they don't allow him to experience anything for himself. Granted the situation is slightly different since most of us do not have to worry about the family cat eating our child.

The movie version of Stuart Little is pretty darn cute. Not only does Michael J. Fox perform the voice of Stuart, Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie (pre-House) play his parents. To blow the top off of the cuteness meter, the movie has Jonathan Lipnicki, the Jerry Maguire kid.

48. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
I really wish that this book had a different title, because "Princess Academy" sounds so prissy and girly and this book is anything but those things. As with all of Hale's books, Princess Academy features a strong female lead and explores the themes of feminism, prejudice, and gender roles.

When the priests of Danland determine that the crown prince's future bride must come from isolated Mount Eskel, the princess academy is established. The academy is meant to educate the girls so that they may be suitable potential brides, but the impact of the school is much more profound. I love how Miri uses her  brain to dramatically improve the lives of everyone in her village.

47. Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie

"All children, except one, grow up." Whether or not you have read the original book by J.M. Barrie you are more than likely familiar with the story of Peter, Wendy, the Lost Boys, and Tinkerbell. After all, there have been how many movies about Peter Pan? Not to mention, that there have been continuous performances of the play or variations of it since it first premiered in 1904.

 Speaking of the play, specifically the Broadway Musical, I first read the book Peter Pan after my family saw it performed at DeVos Hall. Peter was played by former gymnast, Kathy Rigby, and I remember thinking how cool it was when she flew out over the audience. I must admit that I still think it is strange that the character of Peter is always played by an adult woman. I understand that an adult has a bigger voice for the songs and and an adult woman is going to look and sound more like a boy than an adult man, but it is still a little creepy.

Barrie is such a magical storyteller; reading the book just makes you feel like you are covered in pixie dust and flying above London. I always imagined myself as Tigerlily, but if I were Wendy I would have stayed in Neverland.

46. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

I am a Michigan girl so, of course, Bud, Not Buddy is on my top 100 list. All joking aside (even though I am very proud to claim that Christopher Paul Curtis is from my home state) Bud, Not Buddy is a truly exceptional book about one boys quest across Michigan to find his father during the Great Depression. An orphan during the Depression may sound, well, depressing but Bud , Not Buddy is a heart-warming, sincere, and also funny book.

Bud, Not Buddy has been adapted into a very successful stage play, that  I would love to see one day.  I think that the story would translate magnificently to the stage, since Bud's father is a musician. Whenever music plays a significant role in a book it always adds to the story to be able to listen to it being performed.

45. Homecoming by Cynthia Voight
Once upon a time I was a bratty, self-centered, know-it-all tween and Homecoming was the book that made me realize how blessed and just plain lucky I was.

Life with their unstable, mentally ill mother has never been easy for Dicey Tillerman and her three younger siblings. Nothing could prepare them, though, for being abandoned in a shopping center parking lot. Fear of foster care and being separated from one another prompts Dicey to lead her siblings on a trek from Connecticut to Maine in search of an unknown relative.

As someone who was raised in a safe and secure home by two loving parents, it was difficult for me to even imagine the fortitude Dicey needed to keep her siblings together and moving. Forget Hermione Granger, Jo March, or Lizzie Bennet; Dicey Tillerman is a true literary heroine.

44. Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Lisa Shurtliff

Twisted fairy tales seem to be a current, popular trend in children's chapter books. Most of these, however, seem to be geared more towards girls and feature princesses, fairies, etc. For example: The Everafter High series by Shannon Hale; the Whatever After series by Sarah Mlynowski; or the Tales of the Wide-Awake Princess by E.D. Baker.

 These are all great books and series, but what I love about Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin is that it is NOT about a princess. Who knew that Rumpelstiltskin wasn't some evil baby-stealing troll, but just a young boy cursed by magic and searching for his true destiny. Rump is so clever and unique and pee-your-pants hilarious. Love, love, love, loved it!! What more can I say!

43. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

I know that the title makes it sound like a horror novel, but Hatchet is the captivating survival story of a boy alone in the Canadian wilderness.

Hatchet is a book that even the most reluctant boy readers love. It is almost like magic. A mom or dad will come in with their son who "hates reading" and after they read Hatchet they cannot wait to read Paulsen's other books. Paulsen just seems to be the tween/teen boy whisperer.

Don't think that girls cannot enjoy Hatchet, though, because I am a girl and I loved it. Hatchet is a simple yet extremely powerful and gutsy story.

42. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

If you have only watched the movie Hugo, then I insist that you go to a library or bookstore immediately to get a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There is no possible way for a film to capture how stunningly beautiful this book is. It is simply not the same story unless it is accompanied by Selznick's mesmerizing illustrations. I know some people think that it is just the pictures that make The Invention of Hugo Cabret a wonderful book. After all, it won the Caldecott not the Newbery.  I think that the text and illustrations work perfectly in tandem, though, to create a story that is pure magic.

41. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Aagghhhhhh! Why do there have to be so many gut-wrenching books about animals? Why do they have to be so good, but completely horrible at the same time. I promise that this is the last "dog" book on my list, but Where the Red Fern Grows is no doubt the best one (even though I sobbed buckets).

Billy is just so sweet and he is totally devoted to his coonhounds, Little Ann and Ol' Dan. They in turn are completely devoted to their young master as well as each other. 

Ok, I am tearing up just thinking about this book so I am happy to finish off this post. I will go grab a box of tissues now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Top 100:51-60

Ok, I wrote a couple of posts on different topics and went on vacation. Throw in a couple of sick kids and then me catching whatever they had, but now I am finally getting back to my Top 100 Children's Chapter Books. We are almost halfway through, and maybe I will even reach number one before 2015.

60. By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Everyone has their favorite Little House books and  By the Shores of Silver Lake is one of mine. Although this is the fifth book in the Little House series it is the first to focus primarily on Laura rather than the family as a whole. Instead of just chronicling events as the Ingalls family steadily heads west,  By the Shores of Silver Lake is a book about Laura growing up. You get to really see Laura's free spirited personality as well as her unwavering devotion to her family. Also, for girls that are obsessed with horses (like I was as a kid) Laura gets to ride a horse for the first time.

59. Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry

 I had been afraid that perhaps in Call It Courage, the concept of spiritual courage might be too adult for children, but the reception of this book has reaffirmed a belief I have long held: that children have imagination enough to grasp any idea, and respond to it, if it is put to them honestly and without a patronizing pat on the head.-Armstrong Sperry

 I agree with Sperry that the most successful children's books are not overly sanitized or dumbed down. Call it Courage is an amazing story of survival, inner strength, and self-discovery that strikes a chord with young readers because those are all parts of growing up.

Sperry not only wrote Call it Courage he created 10 gorgeous full-page, blue and white illustrations that were inspired by Polynesian tapas cloths.

I actually remember reading this in school and then watching the movie. Mafatu's compelling story has always stuck with me. The movie was made by Disney and filmed in 1974 so it is quite dated. You should definitely read the book first, which though published in 1940, feels timeless.

58. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

E.B. White's books are some of the most beloved animal stories ever written and for good reason. Each one exudes warmth and humor without being overly precious. What I especially love about The Trumpet of the Swan and White's other books is the way he creates a complete cast of animal and human characters that are unique and seamlessly blended together. A mute swan playing a trumpet does not come across as ridiculous, but beautiful and sincere. It is impossible not to fall in love with Louis and his endearing parents. Especially his proud, but thick-witted father who loves his son so much he steals a trumpet so that Louis can woo a mate.

In 2011 The Trumpet of the Swan was adapted into a "novel symphony for actors and orchestra" that features the voice talents of John Lithgow, Kathy Bates, Martin Short, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.You should definitely read the book, but this CD is amazing!!! It really enhances White's story with the different voices and, of course, spectacular music.

Under no circumstances, though, watch the 2001 animated version of The Trumpet of the Swan because it was atrocious! It did nothing to capture the magic and charm of the book.

57. The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

The Ruins of Gorlan is the first book in the Ranger's Apprentice series which is one of my all time favorite adventure/fantasy series for tweens. I say tweens because the Ranger's Apprentice books are probably better for upper elementary kids, tweens, teens, and even adults (because I read them and thought that they were Awesome!).

Boys (or girls for that matter) that are interested in tracking, hunting, bows, nature, etc. and love nonstop action will not be able to resist the adventures of Halt, the legendary Ranger, and his young apprentice, Will.  The website below contains a video of author, John Flanagan, talking about the various weapons featured in the Ranger's Apprentice such as the long bow and the saxe knife

John Flanagan has also written a spin-off series that focuses on the Skandians (who are kind of like Vikings) called The Brotherband Chronicles. Check out Flanagan's website to read about all of the books in both series as well as download apps and activities.

56. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
There are many books in which children suffer at the hands of an evil stepmother, cruel governess, sadistic headmaster, etc. What makes The Wolves of Willoughby Chase such a standout is the unique setting. The book takes place in 19th century England, but this is an altered reality in which the English countryside is plagued by vicious wolves that have migrated to Great Britain from Russia and Europe via a "channel tunnel". Willoughby Chase is the secluded family estate of Sir Willoughby, Lady Green, and their daughter, Bonnie. After her parents go on a sea voyage, Bonnie and her orphaned cousin, Sylvia, are tyrannized by the malicious Letitia Slighcarp and trapped inside Willoughby Chase by ferocious wolves.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is an exciting mix of scariness, adventure, and mystery.  It is the first book in the Wolves Chronicles , so if you enjoy The Wolves of Willoughby Chase you should take a look at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken.

55. Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody
I am a total sucker for a Robin Hood story and Will in Scarlet is a hugely entertaining and unique spin on the on the legendary archer and thief.

Will Shackley is the 13 year old heir of Lord Shackley who is off fighting with King Richard the Lionheart in the Crusades. During Prince John's treasonous quest to usurp the throne of England Will is forced to flee his ancestral home and seek sanctuary in Sherwood Forest. There Will encounters a drunken Rob, an orphaned girl disguising herself as a young boy, and several other degenerate criminals. Shedding his life of entitlement and wealth, Will Scarlet and a gang of other unlikely heroes take on the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham, Prince John, and Guy of Gisbourne.

Will in Scarlet is full of twists, turns, and action, but I do want to caution parents that there are mature elements in the book. Obviously, there is violence (sword fights, arrows through the heart, fierce battles, etc.) and Robin Hood is a broken hearted drunk. However, Cody does a spectacular job of transforming the legend of Robin Hood into something new and exciting. I loved it!

54. Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Doesn't every child dream of finding an abandoned, secret place to claim as their own?  While exploring the New York countryside, ten year old Portia and her cousin, Julian come across what appears to be a deserted town on the shore of a giant bog. Portia and Julian learn that the bog used to be a gorgeous lake and the crumbling and empty Victorian mansions once composed a resort community.

Gone-Away Lake is a simple, yet beautifully written book that captures exactly what it means to be a curious and imaginative child. This was one of my favorite books as a kid, because I loved to pretend that I was the one who found this mysterious town and got to explore all of its hidden rooms and corners.

Enright wrote a sequel, Return to Gone-Away Lake, in which Portia's family buys and restores one of the abandoned homes. I think this is when I first started to dream of living in a huge, old Victorian mansion filled with antiques.

53. Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Let me confess that I was incredibly hesitant to read this book. Why? Well, first off I am a huge, huge crier and I knew from the book trailer that Wonder was going to set off my water works.  In addition to weeping uncontrollably, I was worried that I would end up angry and disgusted. I cannot abide cruelty in any form. Seriously, I think that I would be more outraged and upset to hear that my kid was being a bully than if they were actually being bullied. Thirdly, I was concerned that Wonder would be so sappy that it would read more like a Hallmark card than a realistic novel.

So how did I feel after I actually read Wonder. I did cry (a lot) and I definitely wanted to slap a couple of the characters.  As for the book being too sappy, though, I could not have been more wrong. Wonder is so superbly written that you never doubt the authenticity of the plot or the characters. Palacio has different characters (Julian, his sister, his sister's boyfriend, his best friend, etc.) narrate various chapters and each voice comes across as honest and true.

Wonder is a book that should be required reading in every school. There could be no better class motto than, “Kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.”

52. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
 Looking at the cover to the left, I must say that Black Beauty is not only "the most famous horse story every written" it also the most beautiful and best written.  Sadly, Sewell wrote Black Beauty as an invalid and died a mere five months after the books was published in 1877.

You will laugh, yell, and weep as Black Beauty plays in the meadow as an energetic colt, is abused by cruel owners, overworked as hansom cab horse, and finally rediscovered by a beloved caretaker who lets him live out his final years in peace.

Nearly 140 years after it was first published Black Beauty still stands as a earnest and heart-wrenching testimony to the mistreatment of animals.

Usually, I prefer the old, original film, but for once I am going to recommend the most recent version. I absolutely love the 1994 film adaptation of Black Beauty starring Sean Bean with the incomparable Alan Cumming providing the voice for Black Beauty.

51. The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew by Margaret Sidney
Don't you just adore these old covers:)
This one is for my Mom because The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew is one of her childhood favorites. In fact, it was my Mom's old copy of the book that I actually read as a kid.  This is the first book in a series that chronicles the lives of the five Pepper children and their Mamsie. When we first meet the five little Peppers they live an impoverished, yet happy life in a rural, little brown house.

Okay, the whole rags to riches plot is somewhat contrived and ridiculous, but The Five Little Peppers just ooze love and happiness.  Who wouldn't want to feel like a part of their family?