Dudes, safe to say I have lived a life, am I right? It has been a whirlwind, girlfriend. First, I was born. Whoah. When was the last time you guys did that? Holy smokes, and it was less than two years ago! Total out-of-body experience (literally!) if you know what I mean and I think you do. And then someone else was born, and now he’s my best pal. Yeah, the Chach! And in between all that we moved, the basement flooded (so I heard, boy did I hear about it. The kvetching! Oy!). And I’ve been getting older pretty quickly. At one point, I was doubling my age every few days! (I’m told that technically that could only happen once. Math is not my strong suit. Have you met my dad?) Who does that? You? Don’t kid yourself, that hadn’t happened to most of you since Eisenhower! (I don’t know what “Eisenhower” means — he may have been the dude in Breaking Bad — but I hear a lot of people say that such and such hasn’t happened since Eisenhower, so I used it.) Anyway, as I was explaining, it’s been a rich and compelling 20-some months, but nothing could compare to what happened to me tonight. Just look at these photos! Yeah! My own slice of pizza, compliments of Jen and Andy Rubin, and their totally bitchin’ family. Glenview’s where it’s at, kids, at least that part of G’View that has Jen and Andy’s house and that sweet slice of heaven with mozzarella and tomato paste in my sweet little mouth! So anyway, just wanted to extend my family’s thanks to the Rubinses for making my taste buds the most excellent place to be tonight. (p.s. I’ve still got some of that mozzarella in my mouth, and I plan to keep it in there ’til I get my driver’s license at least.). Oh and by the way, I had blueberries with my slice. I sh*t you not. It’s how I’ve rolled since ’14. Reese out!
So the other day, I’m practicing my fake cry that morphs into a hyena laugh and back again when I notice the estimable C. Richard Marsh bawling like nobody’s beeswax. If anyone has two thumbs and knows a real cry, it’s this gal (you have to imagine me pointing at myself with my thumbs. I saw it on Scrubs once.), so I go over to him, and I’m like, “Hey bud, what’s wrong?” He looks at me and kind of shakes his head, and he goes, “I just learned the Doobie Brothers broke up”. I go, “Come on, Chaz, I know you got that from that scene in “Romancing the Stone” where Michael Douglas gets all pissed that the Doobies broke up because he’s been in the wild for so long.” So the little guy just looks at me like I’m crazy, and he goes, “Dude, I’m like three months old. I can barely hold my neck up. When am I going to see a Michael Douglas movie?” Which I thought was a good point. But then I was like, “Wait a minute, then how do you know about the Doobie Brothers in the first place?” So he shrugs and goes — get this — “I don’t know, from around, I guess.” What the hell does that mean? He sounds like a teenager. So I said, “Do you even know what a Doobie is?” He goes, “Well, I guess when one member of the band is on his own, like in a record shop or something. Then he’s just a Doobie.” Which was a ridiculous thing to say, but before I could respond, he spontaneously spit up, signaling that the conversation was over. I could only sit and marvel at the audacity of youth. Well played, Cha-Cha. Well played.
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!