Hey, guys. You know that thing of when you’re young, like really young but not crazy young like my brother Chuck, but, like, you know, 19 months old, and every day brings a new discovery? Well recently I discovered that my parents have an Eames chair! Who knew? I certainly didn’t, as you can see by this post. In all the months preceding the day I realized Mom and Dad had this sweet mid-century treasure, I never dreamed that I would be so cool as to have parents who were cool enough to have an Eames. All I need now is a pipe and the DVD boxed sets of The Brady Bunch and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and I’m golden, baby! Golden!
Anyway, here are some shots of The Chuckster and me Eamesing it up. Love you guys, stay decent.
A (very) critical examination of the narrative structure (as if) of A Crack in the Track featuring Thomas the Tank Engine.
So let’s talk Thomas. You know him, the ubiquitous nerdy talking train with the eternal puppy dog personality. I’m not sure why I’m so into Thomas books, the same way I’m not sure why I like Elmo so much. I think it’s insidious, but then I’m a natural cynic, so I don’t even trust yogurt, even though I eat it like McEnroe ate up the line judges. Anyhoo, despite my confounding attraction to Thomas and his exploits, I constantly find myself distracted by the inconsistent narrative structure of the stories, especially “A Crack in the Track”, released in 2001. Like a small child — a topic on which I have some expertise — this story doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up, or even what its identity is now. It starts out with Henry the Green Engine having a boiler ache. Fine. I can suspend disbelief as easy as the next guy. Henry the Green Engine had a boiler ache, it begins. Okay, we think as we settle down with some warmed up milk on mom’s lap: a straightforward factual prose book. Fair enough, let’s do this. And it continues like this for a few pages, as Thomas unsurprisingly offers to take the people where they want to go. (No explanation why Thomas was free to sub for Henry– maybe his day off, or maybe he’s just a floater, but a little mystery is always a good thing in fiction.)
Anyway, things are going fine for Ol’ Thomas until clouds gather, the sky turns dark, and Plip plop. CLUNK! Hail began to fall! Nice! The story has taken a dark turn, and now we want to know what happens. Does Thomas make a detour into a tunnel to get out of the storm and meet a comely she-engine (maybe a cross-over cameo from a Boynton book, but that would have to be a goat or something, and Thomas’ readers probably aren’t sophisticated enough to handle that type of storyline, although I’d be game for it if was handled maturely. Who am I kidding, I’m always up for some Boynton.)
Anyway, despite the harrowing new development, as you can see, we’re still in basic prose. That is, until this: Suddenly, Thomas stopped. (Wait for it.) The hail had made a crack in the track!
Wait, so…..was that an incidental rhyme, or are we changing the format of the narrative? See, this is what bugs me. We’ve stopped caring about what happens to Thomas and all of the passengers who depend on him to get them where they need to go because we’re thinking about the mechanics of the language. You never see this in a Boynton book.
The next section is straight prose, so maybe the crack in the track was just incidental, although it still demonstrates a disturbing lack of quality control in a fairly mainstream publication.
So because of the cracked track, the passengers have all de-trained and climbed aboard Bertie the bus, until [s]uddenly, Bertie stopped. There in the road was a bright green toad.
Seriously? Another random rhyme? Is this amateur time!? (Okay, that was me being funny.) The travesty continues: Bertie’s driver called out, ‘There’s a toad in the road! We will have to unload.’ (That toad in the road caused a fuss on the bus.).
Like an intoxicated fraternity member, the story is veering wildly between prose and rhyme. And then back to prose: The people walked to another train station. But the trains were not running.
And to add insult to injury, now we’re halting an entire trip because of a toad in the road? I know we’re young, but we’re not idiots. No one can suspend that much disbelief, even at 16 months. Come on, guys. How hard is it to kick that toad off that road?
In prose, we read that the people walked to another train station. But the trains were not running. First of all, this prose is worse than watching grass grow. Clunky, boring, blecch! But then we’re treated to a nice rhyming section that contains a pleasant rhythm:
Thomas was still stuck at the crack in the track/Percy was stuck at Thomas’ back/Gordon was stuck behind Thomas and Percy/James, with two freight cars, was in quite a hurry.
Nice, right? We can even forgive the rough Percy/hurry non-rhyme that wants to be a rhyme.
But then things go terribly awry:
The foolish freight cars refused to back up/’No, no, no!’ they said/We will not go!’ they said.
So now we’re at a Vietnam protest rally? Just brutal and completely inconsistent with the previous rhyming structure. It’s cheap, is what it is. There, I said it.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Let’s get something straight: We’re kids, we’re not morons. We have certain baseline expectations, and also, kids’ books can be really good. Like, really good. So let’s keep in mind as we peruse the virtual bookshelves on Amazon or the real ones at B & N that quality books are out there for kids, and quality books make for quality kids. We shouldn’t have to eat the Thomas gruel when we can have Filet of Boynton. Know what I mean, jelly bean?
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time! Go Bears!
Hey all, sorry it’s been awhile. As most of you know by now, I’m not the only wacky pre-teen in the house anymore. That’s right mofos, a big shout-out to Carlos Ricardo, aka Charlie Richard Marsh, my new little brother! At first I thought he was my grandfather, because he was all wrinkly and had that I haven’t been regular since the war look on his face. But now his skin is smoothed out, and his hair is red for some reason (uh, mom? got something to tell me and Dad?), and he has turned into a delightfully immobile source of easy-to-steal pacis and target practice for the head-smack game. Seriously, though, he’s a good kid. Solid.
But that’s not why I’m writing. As regular followers of this page are aware, I’m a big reader, primarily of crime novels — Elmore Leonard is a big fave. But I also like the kids’ books, with their stiff, colorful pages, and big fonts and sturdy bindings. There’s nothing more fun, once you’ve really digested a good Sandra Boynton novel (more on her as we go), than discussing it with others. So without further adieu, welcome to Ava’s Book Nook!
So let’s discuss my admittedly limited knowledge of the universe of kids’ books. Let me say this first: these books target a vulnerable and easily swayed demographic: Parents, and those who give to parents for their kids. Seriously, these people are among society’s most gullible populations. “Oh look at the bright colors and the multiple pages! My Stuart would just love it. I’ll take two, please!” They don’t notice the slight smirk from the Barnes & Noble lady as she rings up the purchase, or the almost imperceptible chuckle from the laptop as the purchase is processed on Amazon Prime, along with the 899th wubanub they purchased on a whim (Free delivery! It’s like I’m gettin’ paid for this!), and the Betty’s Chocolate Delights Sampler Pak.
But I digress. The point is that there’s a wide variety of children’s books, and like anything, there’s a range of quality. You have to start with the Godfather, the Boynton ouvre. This lady can write like she’s on fire, but more importantly, she has a plan. She’s either telling a story or just having fun with words and pictures, but either way, you know she had a thought in her head that she’s executing. The first Boynton I read was Barnyard Dance. I’m going to just go ahead and say that BD made me the kid I am. There, I said it. It’s a song, a poem, an elegy (I have no idea what an elegy is other than it sounds like it’s a speech for a dead person but it’s not), but most important, it’s got a cow wearing sunglasses playing a violin. Seriously, it’s a little depressing, knowing the highlight of your life occurred when you were 8 months old when you first saw this cow. Life will never get better than that moment, except for when you get to eat pizza and look at that cow. That’s the best!
We could do an entire series of ABN just on the “Boynton Idea,” as I call it. But today is just an informal gathering of Ava’s literary thoughts, so we have to move on. While we’re throwing out some of the greats, let me throw some your way: Is there a more adorable example of early-onset senility in the public safety profession in children’s literature (chil-lit) than the hilariously incompetent security guard in Rathmann’s Good Night Gorilla? Such a cute story, such fun zoo animals, and such a rock of a wife, but what pre-toddler hasn’t been distracted by the possibility of a much darker ending? of course, the beauty of GNG which you really can’t appreciate until you’re at least 14 months old, is that it can also be read as a cautionary allegory about NATO’s role in the post WWII world. But you really want to hold off on that aspect for as long as you can. Kids should be kids.
Then there’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Rosen and Oxenbury, the ridiculous story of a father and his kids literally going on a bear hunt. We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one, opens the book. Seriously. It’s a father, his maybe two-year old son, an older daughter, and another boy and girl who look to be seven or eight. And they’re going to catch a bear. Why? To kill it? Cook it? Never explained. But (Spoiler Alert), they find the bear, alright, and they high-tail it home. Ha ha! My dad almost killed us all! What perfect fodder for little children’s dreams! Here’s something telling about this wretched nightmare of a book: there’s no mom in sight. And she’s not there when the family gets back to the house. You don’t have to read between the lines much here to see this for what it is: an irresponsibly passive-aggressive move by newly divorced dad to get back at his ex by endangering the kids and playing the Fun Dad. WGOABH sends all the wrong messages. Ava Reese says Thumbs Down.
And then there’s Welcome to the Mouse House, an enticingly enchanted book in every way that, tragically, leaves the reader at the edge of a cliff and then just goes away. First off, WTTMH is a larger board book with strong, solid colors. It takes place in a big house with an extended mouse family, telling the story of the second-generation immigrant mouse experience. The story proceeds jauntily, as the narrator describes — in rhyme — the goings on of the house. It ends, however, quite suddenly: Uncle’s in the attic, watching the sky. Pete is painting, while Gemma jumps high. At dinnertime Mom shouts, There may be delay…the children are cooking pies today! And then….. and then… nothing. That’s the end. What does Uncle Mouse see in the sky? How does Pete’s painting turn out? Does Gemma hit the ceiling? Does hilarity ensue? Or is there a tense scene at the mouspital? We don’t know, because the story’s over. Makes a kid say, WTF (Where’s The Followthrough)? This, unfortunately, is the fate of far too many children’s books. Which is how you can separate the jelly beans from the broccoli: a good children’s book, like any good book, has a plan. It either has a strong narrative arc, like Goodnight Gorilla (don’t get me started), or presents a number of compelling examples of a concept, such as dinosaurs, in Boynton’s Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs (but let’s face it, Boynton could do the phone book and we’d all read it), or moods and colors, as expressed in Dr. Suess’ surprisingly dark My Many Colored Days (with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Rancher).
Here’s an extreme example, and perhaps it’s unfair to compare the teasingly compelling yet negligently executed Mouse House with one of the best children’s books ever, but for the sake of illustration, I’m going to talk about Martin and Archambault’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Yes, I’m going there. Never mind Lois Ehlert’s powerful and haunting illustrations, and even the irresistible repeating chorus, Chicka-Chicka Boom Boom, Will There Be Enough Room?. I’m just talking about plot structure here. The letters decide to meet at the top of the coconut tree. Already we’re sucked in. How are letters supposed to get to the top of a tree? And not just any tree, but a coconut tree? Coconuts! Fun, and yet potentially hazardous. We want more! And with CCBB, we get it. Vive la difference! There’s so much more to CCBB, but I’ll just leave it at that. (If you don’t have CCBB,click here to whet your appetite.)
My point here is just to hint at the incredible diversity of the kid-lit genre, and to say, also, that it takes more than a few cute animal characters and a few colorful board pages to make a good kids’ book. But unfortunately, we’re not the most discerning consumers we can be. So let’s think about quality as we go forward in our attempts to entertain and educate our little ones. And please pass the pepperoni.
Okay, so I’m no genius; I pee in my diaper just like the next guy, but I think I’m smart enough to recognize when something works. And I think this thing worked. Check out the photos below. This is me “eating dog food” (as if). My mom and her boyfriend (who wants me to call him “Daddy”, how creepy is that) went all lady gaga and posted these pics on the Facebook, “Look at our baby eating dog food, how funny is that blah blah blah”.
Ha ha! Yuck it up, guys, but what happened last night? Check out the last photo. That’s right, America. The Kid finally reached the Promised Land. Pizza! But not just pizza. Pizzeria Due pizza. How do you like me now? Not even a year old and I’m gulpin’ down the ‘Za like a true Paisan. Like a Bat Mitzvah for the taste buds. I guess they figured if the Kid could handle Purina Beneful Original Recipe, she could handle some Classic Chi-Town Deep Dish. Game, set, match. Bam! More Mozzarella, please!
Hey, kids: Want to get some leverage in the baby-child relationship? It’s a classic question. “Who’s in charge here?” On one hand, you can dictate when they go to sleep, and when they wake up (i.e. when you do). You can make them walk you around, at night, then you close your eyes and start snoring. As soon as you sense the relief from up above, BAM. Open your eyes, all innocent and awake and ready for a round-robin racquetball tournament at the club. You know what I’m saying? I think you do. So there’s that. Also, YOU decide when you start eating solids, and which solids you’ll accept. Anything you don’t love, you can make your point and be artistic at the same time, turn that Fisher-Price Dishwasher-Safe High Chair tray into a Jackson Pollock painting. It can be as simple as this: You laugh, they’re thrilled. You cry, they panic. It’s truly an awesome power. On the other hand, with no warning, your parents will decide to remove you from the activity mat where you were happily trying to put literally everything in the world into your mouth, and put you in the car seat and strap you up so that every one of your moveable extremities are (is?) useless. This technique was banned by the Geneva Convention in 1972 for prisoners of war (look it up), but still legal, and REQUIRED, for perfectly pleasant and non-homicidal babies to be transported by car in 2014. I kid you not, my junior friends. Point is, you have no control over this. Then they can take you anywhere they want, to see anyone they want: Grandma (yay), a periodontist (boo), Idi Amin (yikes), a Julia Roberts movie (shudder), IKEA (get yer saws ‘n hammers), whatever. (Reminds me of a joke I heard once in the East Village: “What do you get when you buy bookshelves at IKEA? A saw and directions to a forest.” Classic, and spot-on!) Now, you could always throw a wicked tantrum any time your parents restrict your freedom of movement, and here at Ava Reese is a Kick-Ass Baby, we don’t judge you, and we agree that the “Tasmanian Devil” approach can be extremely useful in the right situations. But you don’t want to go to that well too often, or you’ll get labeled as “colicky”, or just a dick. Either way, you have an interest in maintaining the good will of the people who feed you and keep you from being fed to the wolves and from entering you in the Republican Presidential Primary, where you’d have to debate Rick Perry, which would just make you sad about the world. So be careful about employing what we call the Nuclear Option. But there are things you can do to get what the Seinfeld folks referred to as “the hand” (see below). So here it is, folks: Use your noises. For instance, there’s a noise you can make that starts neutral, but depending on the reaction you get, you can take it in several possible directions. You can make it a laugh, then a cry, or vice versa, then go back and forth. Or, if you’re particularly advanced, when only one parent is in the room, and you’re giggling or gurgling or making generally-accepted baby noises, then you say, “Tuesday’s not good enough,” or “The South Will Rise Again,” or, “Caspar Weinberger.” The key to this is to NEVER NEVER EVER say it when the other parent is present. This is how you get some hand.
Today is my mom’s birthday, and it’s her first birthday as a mom. And what a mom she is. Seriously, do you have any idea the sh*t she put up with to bring me into this world? Either do I, but I’ve heard the rumors, and boy, if even half of them are true, yikes. I mean, I don’t have much of a frame of reference, being only almost eight months old (speaking of birthdays, yo!), but it sure sounds dramatic to me. But it doesn’t end there. She thinks of me 24/7: is my diaper bag stocked, is it time for solids, what’s the funniest way to combine the words “potato” and “avocado”. When Dad comes from from his cushy office job in the city, he’s like, Oh, where’s my girl, there she is! and of course I smile like crazy, and he gets all warm inside and then I kind of lose respect for him a little bit, because, like, Come on, man, don’t be so mushy, but I don’t let on, I just keep smiling, and he loves it.
But my mom has been with me all day, trying to keep me occupied and happy and fed and nutriated and bathed and de-feced (that means she cleans my poop), and let’s face it, I’m still a young kid, I don’t do much on my own. I play in only the most primitive ways. And she’s been up since whatever time I decided to get up, and she can’t exactly send me out to a sleepover with my gal pals or have me play in my room by myself, because I’m barely over zero. I mean, I think technically I am zero, because I’m not one yet, and what’s less than one, am I right? But the point is she’s pretty much on all day, and she doesn’t get much nap time, because frankly, I’m not a big fan of long naps, which means she doesn’t get them either. And I’ll tell you what, my mom loves to get her nap on. But it just ain’t happenin’ with ol’ Ava Reese. And yet with all she does, with all the sleep deprivation I cause, with everything she dealt with when she was carrying me in her girl parts, and then the not-uneventful birth (I’m told), she still never ceases to love me like nobody’s business. She lets me sleep on her even if her arm falls asleep (a concept I don’t really get but I’m told it happens). She’s everything you could ever want in a mom, and she’s MY mom. She sings Over the Rainbow to me over and over until I fall asleep. Who else would do that for me? (And she can carry a tune, which is more than I can say for her boyfriend.) And yes, I will admit I’m the cutest thing to land in these parts since I don’t know what, but cute don’t buy the groceries, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. So anyway, long story short, I just want to give a shout out to my beautiful mother Stephanie Crane Marsh on her birthday. I don’t even know the word yet, but I know I love you to death, and that will have to be enough until I get into MIT with my big brain in my big head and make millions as a hedge fund manager before going into the non-profit sector and saving the whales. A girl’s gotta have plans, right? Now who’s ordering the pizza?
Let’s recap: I’m a baby. That much we know. I just got here recently, but it feels like I’ve been here all my life. I don’t do much, but what I do, I’m pretty good at. Like sitting on my parents’ lap and drinking formula from Target and staring at that same exact painting on the wall I’ve been looking at, it feels like, my whole life. It’s like a Jazz Age scene with waiters and lots of action. I mean, I’m no expert on the Jazz Age, but that’s what it seems like to me.
Also, I’m doing a lot of good things with saliva lately. Really incorporating it into all aspects of my life. Admittedly, there’s not a lot of aspects of my life right now, so it’s not that much of a feat, but you can only play the teams on your schedule, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Hey, so here’s something annoying: I’ll be making random sounds, and my dad will say something about That’s great, Ava, but I’m not available Tuesday, and laugh. But the thing is, I wasn’t even talking about getting together. Why would I ever say that? We live in the same house. And whenever I’ve seen him out of the house, he’s been with me the whole time, so I’m like, What gives with this. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what I was saying in the first place, but I sincerely doubt that it involved Tuesday. But he’s my pops and it makes him happy, so I don’t correct him. (Which if I did point it out, he’d probably say something random like, Denver? I don’t think so, or whatever. I just do not understand that generation.)
Speaking of magazines, I see all these US Weekly magazines lying around. And in all candor, I can’t read them yet. But I have a feeling that when I am able to read them, I still won’t understand why anyone cares about the Kardashians. Or, more importantly, how Bruce Jenner got involved in all the mishegoss. What happened to him, anyway? And then I see the New Yorker lying around the house, and I try to look interested – I’m as curious about the Sudan-Liberia conflict as anyone – but between you and me, I pretty much just look for the cartoons.
Appearance-wise, my dad likes to say that I resemble one or more of several deceased British men, such as Sir Winston Churchill, Benny Hill, and Mr. Magoo, especially with my eyes closed. I don’t take this as a compliment, and I’m not even sure Mr. Magoo was British. But as long as I’m getting six squares a day, I keep it to myself.
Speaking of food, I was very excited recently when my parents announced that they would start to add solids to my diet. Fans of this page are well aware of my preferences in this regard, and so I said, in my own way, How about sausage and pepperoni? Or even, because I’m young, start with cheese? (To which my Dad, of course, said that thing about Tuesday. I just don’t know about that guy.)
So long story short, I end up with some kind of pasty oatmeal concoction – no thanks, guys — and then at Target (where else?) I saw Mom put pureed peas into the shopping cart. “Pureed Peas” doesn’t sound bad on paper. It even has a certain alliterative ring to it. But seriously, have you seen this stuff? I think they give it to prisoners. And I bet it violates the Lake Geneva Convention. But I’ll be honest, it kind of tastes good. (Same thing with formula: smells like ass, but I’ll be darned if it doesn’t go down easy, like a good chocolate malted.) I’ll tell you this, though: This vegetarian diet will not stand for much longer. Baby needs some meat.
Here’s something I like to do to mess with my parents: I call it “poop-confusion”. I thought about calling it “Poop-Fusion,” but that sounded too much like some kind of fancy dinner you’d get at a downtown restaurant. Maybe, poosion? Anyway, I like to scrunch up my face and make noises and act like I’m pushing something out. I’ll even make the appropriate noises with my butt. Yet when they take off my diaper, expectantly…NADA. Sike! Conversely, I have perfected the art of smiling sweetly and making cute sounds in my parents’ faces, all the while producing, unbeknownst to them, a wave of fecal matter requiring the intervention of no fewer than three Federal agencies and an out-of-state Hazmat team. I mean, this stuff goes EVERYwhere. And yet, you’d never know it by looking at me. Check out the picture of me hanging out with my dad. Nice scene, right? You should have seen the sheets afterwards. Gross, I tell you. i.e. Awesome!
Anyway, that’s pretty much me at six months(ish). Check in later for future (hopefully pizza-related) updates. Happy Hannukah, everyone!