I reviewed four middle grade books for the latest special children’s book section of the New York Times Book Review: My Father’s Words by Patricia MacLachlan; Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech; Squirm by Carl Hiassen; Winnie’s Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut. You can read the reviews HERE.
Who is this extraordinary book for, exactly? It’s hard to say.
Sy Montgomery is a renowned nature writer who’s authored more than ten adult nonfiction books, including The Soul of an Octopus, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2015. Over her impressive career she’s swum with piranhas and electric eels in the Amazon, searched for tree kangaroos in New Guinea, and experienced near-death experiences studying gorillas in Zaire. Montgomery is also the author of 16 books for kids, including a fantastic biography of Temple Grandin aimed at middle graders.
Her latest, How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals is one of the rare non-fiction books that you could arguably call middle grade, YA or adult. The advance copy I was sent came to me via from The Houghton Mifflin young readers PR team. And the very sweet cover art by Rebecca Green and large-point type didn’t exactly fight the impression that this was a book intended for 10 and 12 year-olds. It’s a memoir organized by animal: Thirteen chapters covering thirteen animals (from dogs and pigs to tree kangaroos), each offering insight into the creatures and also Sy’s growth as an individual.
But as I read it, I started to wonder.
There was a lot of dark stuff in there about the author’s depression, career crises and parental discord. There was even one stomach-turning incident involving the author’s mother and a virginity check.* But mostly, the book was about the wonder of these incredible animals. As I plowed through the book I kept thinking to myself that I wanted to share these fascinating stories with my own kids.
Throughout the book Montgomery befriends the unlikeliest of creatures, including a tarantula in French Guiana and an octopus at the New England Aquarium (I know the word “befriend” sounds ridiculous, but it happens). And her passion for her calling is totally inspiring — at age 26, she’s sleeping in a tent in South Australia wilderness, mapping the burrows of wombats, digging through emu droppings and having the time of her life. For a young person dreaming about what they will be when they grow up, it may be totally eye opening.
So, who is this book for, really? As it turns out, it’s officially an adult non-fiction book. But I would hand it to any teenager with an appreciation for nature, animals or gorgeously written confessional personal essays.
*NB: For most 8-12 year-olds, there’s probably too much meditative midlife-crises stuff to keep them interested all the way through. But the chapters on the pig (“Christopher Hogwood,” chapter 3), the tarantula (“Clarabelle,” chapter 4), and the octopus (“Octavia,” chapter 9) will be totally captivating.
I loved working on this story for Architectural Digest. The concept was super simple: I asked a dozen top interior designers and architects to name a favorite book from childhood that somehow influenced them in their work today. Thank you to India Mahdavi, Ellie Cullman, Miles Redd, Sheila Bridges, Stephen Alesch, Mara Miller, Alex Papachristidis, David Alhadeff, Deborah Berke, Barbara Bestor, Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Brian Sawyer, who took the time to give such thoughtful responses.
Some of these books I had never even heard of! Mara Miller of Carrier & Company said her favorite book growing up was something called The Fourteen Bears: Summer and Winter. This book, by Evelyn Scott, was originally published in 1973 and is now out of print.
I found it at the library and I could immediately see its appeal. Each bear has a home in a distinct decorating style. One bear has decorated her quarters in French Empire style, another has gone full Gustavian, another does American Colonial. It’s so good!
In case you’re curious, here’s one of Mara’s interiors. (In fact, it’s Jessica Chastain’s home, shot for Arch Digest.)
I also loved architect Deborah Berke’s book choice, Mistress Masham’s Repose. This 1946 middle-grade novel by T.H. White (The Sword in the Stone) describes the adventures of an English girl who discovers a group of Lilliputians living on her family’s derelict country estate. Berke, who is dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, is probably best known for her modernist architecture, but she has also done a lot of incredible work reimagining old buildings. Here’s one example below, her transformation of the Richardson Olmstead Complex in Buffalo, NY (a 140-year-old hospital with National Historic Landmark status), into a gorgeous hotel.
“I think my appreciation of a building’s patina and how materials change over time began with [Mistress Masham’s Repose],” she says.
More proof that the books you read as a kid stick with you for life.
You can read the full story at architecturaldigest.com HERE
This is exactly how James Comey felt when Donald Trump tried to hug him in front of all the other law enforcement officials in the Blue Room.
You know, that moment when Comey tried to hide in the drapes? And Donald pulled him close with all his might so they could be photographed in an embrace?
The Humbug is a liar, a name dropper, and a tacky dresser. “A very dislikable fellow,” as the Spelling Bee puts it.
Maybe because I grew up in a household where we ate fruit for dessert, I didn’t have a lot of experience with cake. Classic all-American, Betty Crocker-style layer cakes —as high and round as a hatbox, thickly iced on the top and sides — to me, these desserts existed in the realm of the slightly unreal. I saw them on TV, under glass domes at diners, and most of all, in picture books. For the most part, these weren’t books about cakes. These exuberant confections — often pink, with a wiggly decorated border — were usually there as plot punctuation, existing somewhere in the background, maybe rounding out the scene of a party. But the page with the cake picture inevitably became my favorite part of the entire book.
I was recently reminded of this when I heard that Maira Kalman’s newest book was called, quite simply, Cake. It’s a combination of memoir, art book and cookbook that’s very Maira. After all, she’s been lovingly illustrating cakes — many in her children’s books — for years now.
Here are some of my favorite cakes in children’s books:
BIG MAX by Kin Platt, illustrated by Robert Lopshire (1965)
In the I Can Read book by Kin Platt, the King of Pooka Pooka’s pet elephant goes missing and it’s up to detective Big Max to find him. I was enthralled as much by Max’s sleuthing skills as by the birthday cake served at the end. This cake is about as big as a Goodyear tire and to my adult eyes now, looks about as tasty as one. But I know I dreamed about this confection and treasured the near-final scene showing Big Max licking frosting off his finger.
Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman (1961)
Then there’s the dog party scene in P.D. Eastman’s classic. I loved reading this book to my kids and we would always linger over the insane canine free-for-all at the end. At this tree-top party there are presents, a trampoline, a canon (!), a trapeeze and, of course, the main attraction: the layer cake (again, frosted pink). This one is the size of a wading pool and you could only describe the pieces being served as wedges (not slices). The dogs are literally leaping towards this cake from all directions.
Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak (1962)
As a kid I loved the idea that you could bring a snowman inside your house, no problem. And it all made perfect sense, as long as you didn’t let the hot soup melt the snowman. I thought about what I’d do if I were in the house: I would first eat the soup, and then (duh) the cake.
Lyle and the Birthday Party by Bernard Waber (1966)
In this installation of the Lyle series, our favorite adopted crocodile starts to feel “mean, green jealous,” when he realizes he’s missing out on the inalienable right to a birthday party. In his fantasies, Mrs. Primm is lovingly decorating a homemade birthday cake for him. You have to love the way Lyle is clutching his hands and looking upon the thing in joyful disbelief. I feel like this is what it would be like to have Ina Garten making your cake.
A Birthday for Frances by Russell Hoban (1968)
Frances is seething with jealousy over her little sister Gloria’s birthday. Lillian Hoban gives us another giant pink-frosted cake (why were so many of these cakes pink?!) so big it takes two badgers to hoist it. Frances refuses to sing “Happy Birthday” with everybody else and sings her own version: Happy Chompo to me/ Is how it ought to be/ Happy Chompo to Frances/ Happy Chompo to me. (Chompo is the candy bar she was planning to give Gloria as a gift).
Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco (1997)
Jumping ahead a few decades, there is this strawberry-topped chocolate cake that a grandmother and granddaughter bake during a thunderstorm in Patricia Polacco’s book. The combination of chocolate with “three overripe tomatoes” is so strange I need to imagine that it’s actually good, like green tomato pie a la Ma Ingalls. Polacco includes a recipe as well.
Thirteen Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman (2010)
And now we come full circle. Illustrated by Maira Kalman, this not very plot-driven but totally delightful play on a word book creates a narrative about friendship based on thirteen key words: Bird, Despondent, Dog, Busy, Convertible, Goat, Hat, Haberdashery, Scarlet, Baby, Panache, Mezzo-Soprano, and, of course, Cake. This spread alone is worth the price of admission.
I know I’m missing some important cakes in books. What am I forgetting??? Please tell me in the comments!
Don’t expect your kids to be as taken with The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan as they might be with Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin. But this Beatrix Potter story — #17 in her Peter Rabbit series — is my new personal favorite Potter.
The story is about Ribby, a cat, who invites her friend Duchess, a dog, for tea. Duchess is “dreadfully afraid” that Ribby plans to serve mouse pie (which she absolutely cannot eat) and so comes up with a cockamamie plan. She will sneak into Ribby’s kitchen with a replacement pie, swap the two without Ribby knowing, and then enjoy the party, all without causing offense. Of course, Duchess’s plan goes all screwy. She unknowingly eats the mouse pie, thinking it’s her veal-and-ham pie. And when she sees there’s no patty pan left inside the pie dish (I had to look up what a patty pan is — a tin pan inside a pie that helps hold up the crust), she goes into a nervous fit, thinking she’s swallowed it. The doctor is called, the whole neighborhood hears about it, etc, etc.
At heart, this is a story about two bored gentlewomen who fill their empty days by planning and attending tea parties over which they make unnecessary fuss. Their social engagements are as artificial and prescribed as a formal dance. The morning of the event, the two friends, rushing to get ready, pass each other on the street but don’t even greet each other.
“They only bowed to each other; they did not speak, because they were going to have a party.”
Ribby madly dusts, polishes and puts out her “best china tea-set.” Duchess (after breaking into Ribby’s house and swapping pies) brushes her fur and “passed the time until the clock struck four,” because she has clearly nothing else to do. Then, she arrives a bit too early and she must “wait a little while in the lane” so she may arrive fashionably late at a quarter past four.
The friends exchange rehearsed pleasantries:
“Is Mrs. Ribson at home?” inquired Duchess.
“Come in! and how do you do, my dear Duchess?” cried Ribby. “I hope I see you well?”
“Quite well, I thank you, and how do you do, my dear Ribby?”
and put on a show of gracious congeniality while secretly judging each other.
“How fast Duchess ie eating!” thought Ribby to herself.
The comedy is as sharp as in any Barbara Pym novel. These friends would rather lie to each other than risk a social misstep. And the whole afternoon devolves into chaos and hysteria because neither of them say what they really think.
And the illustrations —with the profusion of garden flowers, exquisite interiors and Ribby’s lilac silk gown and embroidered apron — are some of the most beautiful of all of Beatrix Potter’s works.
You could tell from the trailer that Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time was going to be painful. The colors were way too bright. The special effects —for a $100 million movie — were weirdly cheap looking. Storm Reid was much too pretty, with none of Meg’s awkwardness. And I felt frankly embarrassed for Mindy Kaling every time I had to see her totter across the field in that goofy dress.
Still, I dragged the family to see it because I had hope and because I was influenced by the grudgingly positive review from A.O. Scott (“Fans of the book … can breathe a sigh of relief, and some may also find that their breath has been taken away.” Really?)
Of course it was much worse than we had feared. Where the tone should have been mysterious and tense, it was cute and sitcom-y. The camera lingered way too long on the kids’ open-mouthed expressions of awe. Reese Witherspoon’s transformation into a giant cabbage was mortifying. There were too many closeups of Oprah where you could practically see the dots of glue used to stick the rhinestones on her face. The actor playing Charles Wallace had zero charisma. The pacing was off (like, how did Meg free her dad so quickly?) I could go on and on.
So … here is some advice. If you’re a fan of Madeline L’Engle’s novel and want another taste of it, look for the fantastic graphic novel adaptation by Hope Larson, which came out in 2012. Unlike DuVernay’s film, Larson’s take is very close to Madeline L’Engle’s novel in both spirit and plot. Here’s a look at the opening spread:
I love that she starts with the opening words of the novel: “It was a dark and stormy night.” And the way Larson plays with layers, scale, and moody tones of black, white, and blue support the story beautifully.
Purists will be happy to know that she includes all the memorable scenes that DuVernay didn’t, like the snack of liverwurst sandwiches and hot cocoa, meeting Aunt Beast, and the episode with the little kid whose ball didn’t bounce in time with the others. Larson’s drawings also offer a welcome clarity when it comes to the conceptual discussions of space and time. My kids loved it — I suspect perhaps even more than the actual novel, but let’s not dwell on that. P.S. Larson has a new graphic novel coming out this May titled All Summer Long, about a thirteen-year-old girl facing a summer vacation of guitar playing, boredom, strained friendships and new friendships. Here’s the cover, which I already love:
This week I review four excellent new middle grade novels in the NYTBR: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani (who actually lives in my town, though I don’t know her); Checked by Cynthia Kadohata; The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis; and The Heart and Mind of Frances Pauley by April Stevens. They are all very different from one another but all great in their own way. I am tempted to explain how, but that would be silly. You can read the reviews here.
In case you’re wondering (and people have asked me), I did read a bunch of other spring releases that I did NOT end up reviewing. The thinking at the NYTBR seems to be that they’d rather use the limited space they have for children’s books on recommendations (as opposed to lukewarm responses or take downs). Makes sense to me.
Right now, the world’s cameras are focused on Pyeongchang (Go Chloe Kim!). But guess what? The hills of Pyeongchang are supposedly nothing compared to Korea’s most famous mountain range just 90 miles away —the Kumgang mountains. This stunning landscape of jagged granite peaks and crystalline waterfalls is the setting for many of Korea’s classic legends and has inspired artists for more than a millennium. The catch is, the Kumgang mountains (aka the Diamond Mountains) are located in North Korea, and it has been impossible for outsiders to visit there for the last decade.
Just a week ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened “Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art,” an exhibit dedicated to art inspired by the region, featuring about 30 works dating from the 18th century to present day. Honestly, I’ve grown up looking at Korean art all my life (the typical stuff: creaky painted screens, boring ceramics, etc) and I had never been the least bit interested in Korean paintings until seeing this show. The works, some of them never before shown in the U.S., have a fantastical quality that takes you out of time and place. They bring to mind Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole — but also what Tina Fey’s daughter once said about fairyland (or whatever):
So I went back and found a picture book I bought my kids some years ago: The Tigers of the Kumgang Mountains (2005) by Kim So-un with illustrations by Jeong Kyoung-Sim, based on a Korean folktale.
It’s about a young man who journeys to the Kumgang mountains to hunt down the god-like tiger that killed his father. The young man first has to undergo a series of near-impossible tests to prove he is up to the challenge; once he finally confronts the tiger (who is, by the way, the size of a whale), the creature swallows him. Inside the tiger’s belly he meets the daughter of a king (remember this is a folk tale!) and they hatch a sneaky way to escape (involving a giant bear).
The story is pretty strange, even for a folk tale. But younger children willing to overlook the holes in logic will find it mesmerizing. And the illustrations, based on traditional Korean painting techniques, capture a lot of the magic and mystery of the Diamond Mountains.
P.S. THANK YOU, CHLOE KIM!!! KOREAN-AMERICAN PRIDE!!!!
I absolutely loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread. So controlled, so funny, so sumptuous, so mysterious. Paul Thomas Anderson was talking about it the other day on Fresh Air and when Terry Gross mentioned it had the feeling of a “fairy-tale” (think: magical gowns, good and bad “witches”) he said that he was inspired in part by the gothic Christmas horror stories of M.R. James and also … The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter.
Evidently, Daniel Day-Lewis used to read the book to his children every Christmas Eve. And then Anderson started doing the same with his own kids.
If you don’t recall, this is the story about a poor tailor who has been hired to make an elaborate coat for the mayor’s wedding. He falls extremely ill before it’s finished and isn’t able to finish the garment. But then, the little mice who live in his house come to the rescue: They finish sewing the suit, all while fending off the tailor’s cat, Simpkin, who is trying to eat them. And when the coat is finished, everybody marvels at the incredible craftsmanship of the buttonholes. (Such tiny stitches, “they looked as if they had been made by little mice!”)
When PTA mentioned the book, what immediately came to mind was the palette of the book’s illustrations. Just like in the movie, there are a lot of gorgeous pinks:
And also jewel-colored blues and greens. (Remember the wallpaper in the movie’s breakfast room? Unfortunately, I can’t find a photo of it.)
Aside from the visual aspects, there is a very PTA element of obsession in Potter’s story. Just like couturier Reynolds Woodcock, the tailor of Gloucester is an obsessed artist and perfectionist. In his fevered delirium the tailor keeps repeating: “No more twist! No more twist!” (As a kid reading the book, this stuck with me because I had never heard of twist — turns out it’s a special kind of silk thread for button holes.)
And of course there are those scenes of the feverish Daniel Day-Lewis lying in bed, just like Potter shows the tailor sick in his own bed:
Here’s the transcript from Fresh Air:
ANDERSON: “I don’t know if it’s a fairy tale, but there’s a great book by Beatrix Potter called “The Tale Of Gloucester.” Do you know that one?
TERRY GROSS: “I don’t.”
ANDERSON: “That is about a tailor who is meant to build a suit for the mayor in town. And the night before, he gets sick, and he can’t finish the suit. He’s so sick he can’t finish the suit. So all the mice come out to help finish the suit while fending off the cat that’s trying to kill them. And it’s a beautiful story. And Daniel always liked to read it to his kids Christmas Eve, and I’ve sort of started to do the same thing for a while and – yeah, there you go.”