F O L K L O R E
C H I L D R E N S' B O O K S
P O E T R Y
Emily Temple on the web site Literary Hub writes that Wanda Gág’s 1928 picture book Millions of Cats is the oldest American picture book still in print. It won the Newbery Award. Not the Caldecott, which seems more logical. The Caldecott Award hadn’t been created yet. The words of Millions of Cats are, of course, unforgettable.
I adored Millions of Cats. I first discovered the vast world of picture books when I was officially too old for them. I was ten, and my father took me, one evening each week, to the main children’s room of the Washington D.C. Central Library. He ordered me not to leave until he returned. The children’s room had long tables made especially for reading picture books, slanted downwards, with a ledge across the bottom to keep them from slipping off. I read my favorites from front to back, and from back to front, asking myself, “How did they ever make this book? What was the process exactly?” Millions of Cats was a favorite, partly because I could see the pen strokes, and the words were hand-lettered. I could aspire to make a book like this.
I don’t know how many weeks I pursued my study of picture books. I recall that no other child ever entered that vast room. It was all mine. From time to time a friendly librarian led me to the books for children my age, but I would just return to my spot at the slanted table. One librarian showed me how to use the card catalog so that I could find all the books by one illustrator.
I read Wanda Gág’s other picture books. I tried to like them but didn’t. Then I discovered her Grimm collections. I wondered why the Grimm stories in her books sounded better in my head than the ones in my Grimms’ Fairy Tales at home. The reason was that she had translated them herself, imbuing them with the same read-aloud magic she brought to Millions of Cats.
This week I received an email from the mother of two boys who love The Great Dictionary Caper. They were so excited, she wrote, to discover palindromes, and began to look for them everywhere.
Here are some palindromes at their family reunion (art by Eric Comstock):
I didn’t have space in The Great Dictionary Caper for the palindrome’s cousin, the semordnilap (yes, it’s very hard to pronounce or type). These are word pairs that are backwards spellings of one another. My favorites are evil/live (plus devil/lived) and stressed/desserts.
And of course there had to be an online semordnilap generator.
It's the 100th birthday of Children's Book Week, sponsored by the Children’s Book Council. Children's Book Week is the longest-running national literacy initiative in the U.S. The Library of Congress celebrates the occasion with an online exhibit of one hundred old and rare children's books. Perri Klass gives a nice overview in her New York Times article. I'm so jealous of the Library of Congress rare books librarians who actually get to hold these books.
I consumed this collection (well, part of it) as if it was a box of chocolates. It's fun to imagine children's first encounters with these books in the days before television, etc.
The titles themselves are fascinating, including outlandishly long ones in early books, like this classic from publisher John Newbery.
A little pretty pocket-book : intended for the instruction and amusement of little Master Tommy, and pretty Miss Polly : with two letters from Jack the giant-killer, as also a ball and pincushion, the use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good boy, and Polly a good girl : to which is added, A little song-book, being a new attempt to teach children the use of the English alphabet, by way of diversion.
The illustrated primer, or, The first book for children : designed for home or parental instruction : embellished with numerous engravings, and pretty stories, which will please the children amazingly!
A reprint of Newbery's A Pretty Little Pocket Book is part of the Library of Congress collection. I've always wanted to read those two letters from Jack the giant-killer, and now I wish I hadn't. Jack the giant-killer became a prudish scold after his adventures were done. And that pincushion? It was designed to keep score of Polly's good and bad behavior.
Publishers appealed to adult book buyers and child readers by hiring the very best illustrators, or by creating novelty formats like Peter Newell's The Rocket Book (1912), which has an actual hole through each page marking the rocket's path upward through an apartment building. (Dr. Seuss was inspired by another of Peter Newell's cut-out capers, The Hole Book, which, like The Rocket Book, was written in rhyme.)
For easier reading, you can download a full replica of any of the books.
Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
2019 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
What happens when a poet/journalist encounters a community torn apart by fracking? A powerful and memorable story that is also a very readable primer on the subject. It would be useful to parents and teachers who need to answer children's questions on the controversy over fossil fuels and pipelines.
I listened to the excellent audiobook, narrated by Tavia Gilbert.
It feels better now, to know that she is only partly gone. When I lived in Paris, I used to sit on sunny mornings in a little park behind Notre Dame. It was the quietest place to read and write and get away from my living space chez Shakespeare and Company bookstore, where for several months it was my job to supervise the itinerant writers and artists who traded a few nights' stay for cleaning duties. My bunk was in the children's book cubby—I think it's still there, with its little curtain. And I am so happy that Notre Dame's rose windows, those luminous creatures, are also still there, not just memories. My favorite gargoyle? I am afraid to google it.
Five Translators on the Joys and Challenges of Translating Children’s Books
Words without Borders (April 3, 2019)
Emma Ramadan interviewed five translators of children’s books into English—from Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Italian, and Dutch. According to the translators, their job is the best job in the world. I always thought being a children's librarian was the best job in the world. I guess it depends on whether you prefer solitude or hubbub.
Emma Ramadan: I had translated rhyming poetry before and was up for the challenge of a rhyming picture book. But with rhyming poetry, you can generally permit yourself to adjust a particular image or word choice to maintain the rhyme scheme, while in picture books, the original images correspond to the original text in ways that you might disrupt with even a minor change in translation.”
May there always be a melodious multitude of human languages, if only because translating children’s books sounds like such a wonderful occupation. Could it require such nuanced skills that it won’t be taken over by AI? Puns? Wordplay? Nicknames? Invented languages? Most adults are terrible at these, never mind robots. And wherever book publishing puts profit first, a sameness of content and style evolves. A children’s book from a different country, language, culture can provide readers with new ways of seeing and understanding.
Still, I wonder if a translation of a rhyming picture book can ever be more than a best effort. My rhyming picture book Antarctic Antics was translated from U.S. to British English, seven words changed in all. I agreed to the changes but I’m not happy about the results. My voice, along with subtleties of rhythm, plunge off tiny cliffs. Therefore it’s probably best that I can’t completely appreciate—or even read—the translations of my picture books into other languages. When I receive author copies in Spanish or Danish or Japanese or Korean, I set one copy on a shelf and donate the others to the library.
in The Conversation
March 18, 2019 6.47am EDT
Cora Lynn Deibler
The University of Connecticut Archives houses the Maurice Sendak Collection of original sketches, book dummies, artwork and final drafts —nearly 10,000 items in all. In this article, UConn professors Capshaw and Deibler trace the evolution of Where the Wild Things Are, beginning with a 1955 dummy (title: Where the Wild Horses Are) to early trial versions of the book’s jacket. In the 1955 dummy, a child pulls the tail of a horse, and the horse kicks him right out of his clothes, foreshadowing a later book, In the Night Kitchen).
The online article features reproductions of Sendak’s early artwork for the book.
I read Where the Wild Things Are aloud hundreds of times to all sorts of groups, and I wound up loving Sendak’s writing as much as his art. The text is so dramatic. And it’s a composition in verse, with a mesmerizing slow beat, repetition, alliteration. Like any good poem, the text of the book inscribes itself in memory. When you read a picture book aloud, it’s so nice to be able to “read” your audience rather than always focusing your eyes on the page.
For terrific rhyming Sendak, of course, you can’t beat Pierre, which is also easy to learn by heart.
This new study from University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and involving 37 parent/toddler pairs, found that adults and children interacted with one another less with e-books than with print books. The research was published in the journal Pediatrics, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and has gotten a lot of media attention, including Perri Klass' article in the New York Times.
I guess you could file this study under D for "Duh!" but it can't be said enough times. Picture books are the very best way for an adult to have an interesting conversation with a toddler.
Todd Bol, the founder of the Little Free Library movement, has passed away, and far too soon. The Little Free Libraries—75,000 of them worldwide—are a tribute to the power of one good person with one good idea.
My Portland neighborhood is blessed with at least five Little Free Libraries. There is the tiny Tardis that plays the Dr. Who theme when you open the door (apparently one of many such Tardii, a reminder that books are time travelers). There are two little libraries on the main business street of our Multnomah Village neighborhood. Hopeful children check them often, although these boxes frequently offer only religious screeds and adult self-help titles. I try to add picture books whenever I can.
Our poodle Keiko is fond of the Little Free Library that includes a drawer filled with canine treats. Another library, a miniature replica of the owner's house, offers a water dish for dogs.
These little book stands have vastly expanded the promise of all libraries and bookstores, that a book you find there might change your life!
I am an author and folklorist based in Portland, Oregon.
Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote 'The Cat in the Hat"
(Random House, 2017). Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
*Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Kirkus.
The Great Dictionary Caper, illustrated by Eric Comstock (Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster, 2018)
**Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.
Wild About Books, illustrated by Marc Brown. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004). New York Times Bestseller, ALA Notable Book, and winner of the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award.