It’s Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday!

April 12, 2016

Dear Beverly Cleary,

Happy one hundredth birthday! I hope this letter finds you in good health.

I’ve been your fan for over forty years. It all got started when I was in second grade and Mom checked Beezus and Ramona out of the library to read to me.  I was very skeptical.  It was a thick book with pages crowded with words.  Mom said I might want to start reading these on my own sometime.  Ridiculous.  It looked super hard, like something you’d be able to read in college.

So I humored Mom in this experiment.  Did I get into it the first read aloud session?  I’m not sure, but before long I was hooked.  It was rip-roaring funny.   I couldn’t have told you at the time, but what made the book wonderful were great characters, funny situations, perfect story-telling, and the illustrations by Louis Darling.

That first book set the stage for me to start reading them on my own.  I roared through the books about Ramona and Beezus Quimby and. of course, Henry Huggins.  I just ate it up.  Henry and Beezus were great friends of mine.  Ramona’s antics were so hilarious I couldn’t imagine anyone funnier.  I like how as Ramona gets older, she gets more complicated and sympathetic.  When I first read Ramona the Brave about her first grade year, I was missing the big guffaws from younger Ramona.  Now I see the whole Ramona series as a compelling, utterly real, sometimes uproarious story of growing up.

As an adult, I’ve enjoyed reading your memoirs (Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet) and reading your children’s books to my classes as a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teacher. My wife Jen and I have read almost every book to our daughter and son.  They’ve loved it all.  My twelve year old recently realized we’d never read Emily’s Runaway Imagination and read it on her own.

When I moved to Oregon from Indiana, I had no clue most of your books were set in Northeast Portland.  It was a pleasant surprise when I got here to find out that Klicktat Street was a real place.  In the mid-‘90s it was a treat to join the hoopla at the unveiling of the statues at Grant Park:  Ramona, Henry, and his good old dog Ribsy.

You continue to be my favorite children’s author.  I read children’s books widely and there’s so much wonderful stuff out there.  But I virtually never find any slice of life fiction for kids with the level of humor, storytelling, and psychological insight that I get from so many of your books including all the Henry Huggins and all the Ramona books.  Often when I finish one of your books, I think, wow, that one must be her very best.

We have about 20 of your books on our shelves.  When my wife was pregnant, she read a big pile of them.  And I suspect when I don’t have anyone around “age-appropriate” to read them to anymore, I’ll just savor reading them to myself.

Congratulations on your staying power!  Since it’s been 66 years since Henry Huggins first came out, may your books be widely popular for another 66 years at least.

With gratitude and good wishes,

Dan Patterson

 

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Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Chapter Books

What’s new-ish in Fox Lit

Have you been making time for fox stories in your life recently?  If not it’s time to track down two fabulous newish fox fables.  One is Outfoxed by Mike Twohy (2013) and the other is That is Not a Good Idea by the famous Mo Willems (also 2013).

Willems is well loved for his Pigeon books (starting with the hilarious, so-original Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus, Knuffle Bunny, and the super fun beginning reader series Elephant and Piggie which is all dialogue and is the 21st century’s brilliant answer to Dr. Seuss).

That is Not a Good Idea is staged like a silent movie with the fox dressed as a sneaky villain.  Its conceit is black pages with white words like at a silent movie.  A fox sees a goose who he imagines for dinner.  And she seems willing to go along naively with his proposals such as “would you care to go for a stroll?”  The little goslings are watching this unfold and exclaiming with building urgency “that is not a good idea!”

The way Mo Willems gets to the surprise ending is fun and satisfying.

A book that is even more fun is Outfoxed.  Don’t look now, but we have another sneaky fox on the scene and he has just raided the hen house.  Uh-oh, but when he gets home he finds that what he stuffed in his coat appears to be a duck instead.  “Honestly- I felt more like chicken,” he says, “but a duck will do.”

Sounds like this duck’s goose is cooked, so to speak.  But with a little quick thinking the duck sets out to convince the fox that he is really a dog.  He sniffs Fox’s leg, slobbers all over him, and even pees on his carpet.  As the story goes along, we see fox struggling to decide whether he has a duck or a dog.

The book is illustrated simply and perfectly with very little background detail.  It is hilarious to the very end.  Preschool and first grader classes I’ve shared it with have loved it, but adults chortle hard too.

 

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Substitute Creacher

Have you seen Chris Gall’s books?  They are so striking.  The first time I saw Dear Fish (2006) at the library it practically reached out and yanked me over to it.  It’s a wacky book that has been compared to Tuesday by David Wiesner (you know, the floating frogs on a random Tuesday night).  Looking on his website I see he gets lots of commissions for posters, magazine covers etc.  Another title I admire is There’s Nothing To Do on Mars (2008).

           Substitute Creacher (2011) tells the story behind a green cyclops with lots of snake-like feet.  The story starts off a bit like the classic Miss Nelson is Missing.  It’s almost Halloween and the regular teacher has had it with an out-of-control class.  She leaves a note that she has a “rather special” sub coming in.  Turns out the substitute “creacher” was once a boy himself who stole candy from other kids.  He sets the class straight with his cautionary tales.  The book has all sorts of split pages like a comic.  You’re probably wondering about Gall’s art medium and so I investigated on the title page.  “The artwork was created using bat wings, toad juice, and the bundled whiskers of a black cat.”

Substitute Creacher even squeezes a happy ending out at the last page.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Preschool, Holidays: Halloween, Picture Books, Reviews

Halloween books are waiting for you!

Ack!   Shivers down my back—is that a black widow going on a stroll on my tingling neck?!  Oh no, it’s just happy shivers because it’s the month of Halloween.  It’s a time that brings out some wonderful picture books, some creepy and some just wacky fun.

From the Patterson Picks archives, don’t forget about The Halloween Kid and Dying to Meet You in the 43     series.The Hallo-Wiener is a family favorite by Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame. Oscar, a dachshund, is dressed up by his mom as a giant hot dog in a bun.  His mom is so excited about the costume he doesn’t have the heart to say no to this awful getup.  So his friends tease him on Halloween night.  Worse yet, he can’t keep up with them in his cumbersome costume.  But then a hideous black monster with a pumpkin head chases all his dog friends into a lake.  Naturally Oscar saves the day.  I can’t tell you the ending.  But suffice it to say a couple sneaky cats are brought to justice.

Ready to move around?  It’s time to Shake Dem Halloween Bones!  This is a 1997 Scholastic paperback written oh-so-infectiously by W. Nikola-Lisa and illustrated in big, bright oils by Mike Reed.  It seemed like a nice book in my 2nd grade classroom, but it got a life of its own being read aloud at home.   The refrain goes

Shake, shake,

Shake dem bones now.

Shake, shake,

Shake dem bones now.

Shake, shake,

Shake dem bones

At the hip-hop Halloween ball.

A whole cast of characters parade through like “Li’l Red” (Little Red Riding Hood), Tom Thumb and Goldilocks.

The rhythm and drive of it is irresistible.  Excuse me, I have some shaking to do!

Have you ever been to a doctor’s or dentist’s office?  If so, you’ve probably seen the little hardcover Popcorn with tear-out cards inside to buy books in the series.  In fact our copy says on the cover

WAITING ROOM COPY

PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE

It’s a 1979 book and I’m happy to say we acquired our copy by honest means.  Popcorn is subtitled A Frank Asch Bear Story.  Sam the Bear on the cover is dressed in his Indian Halloween costume, a headband with a feather.  Behind him is a huge kettle overflowing with popcorn.  His parents have left him alone on Halloween night (remember it’s 1979) and he has a costume party of his own.  Turns out everyone brings popcorn. I’ve read this countless times and I pledge to you it’s still fun when the popcorn fills up every cubic centimeter in the house.  What can you do but chow down?

The illustrations are super simple.  All the better to survey the popcorn spilling off the pages.  The gag at the end is obvious but perfect.

What kind of Halloween season would it be without a mutant pumpkin as big as a truck hurtling downhill and mowing down anything in its path?  Fortunately we have The Runaway Pumpkin (2003) written with fiendishly catchy rhythm by Kevin Lewis and illustrated in exhilarating cartoon style by S. D. Schindler.

Somehow at the top of a hill two kids manage to budge it.  And then it just builds up speed.  Listen:

“Round and ‘round across the ground

Makin’ a thumpin’ bumpin’ sound

Came that thumpety bumpety thumpin’ bumpin’

Round and roll-y RUNAWAY PUMPKIN!

As it knocks down fences and pigsties, the adults stand frozen watching, thinking of pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread.  Some visual highlights are pigs and squirrels hanging from tree branches and a chicken flattened and sticking to the pumpkin.  Don’t worry, she’ll be fine.  And so will you if you pick up The Runaway Pumpkin.

The Pumpkin Man is an unassuming little beginning reader from 1998 written in a pleasant rhyming style by Judith Moffatt.  Moffatt illustrates the text with bright cut paper scenes  with a nice sense of shadow and depth.  It’s a nice little narrative that tells how to make a pumpkin man with a pumpkin head and old clothes and boots you stuff with leaves.  Through absolutely no initiative on my part it has inspired pumpkin men on our front porch several different Halloweens.

Thank you Ms. Moffatt and  original Pumpkin Man.

Aren’t we just about due for a little vacation getaway?  Why not make it a trip to Monster Town?  Welcome to Monster Town by Ryan Heshka is a 2010 paperback issued by Scholastic, but it might as well have been put out by the Monster Town Chamber of Commerce.  It’s got it all.  The cover is a postcard-style design highlighting friendly skulls, bats and mummies.  At the bottom of the cover, a friendly green boy about age six or seven waves to us.

Things get started when the sun goes down, zombies stumbling to work and green kids hopping on the Ghoul Bus with their lunchboxes.  Each spread is an ingenious scene.  My favorite is “Giant Squid serves the best midnight brunch in town.”  He’s behind a round lunch counter doing it all with seven of his legs, like pouring coffee, flipping a green egg, stirring green slime.

Even if you don’t book a tour to Monster Town read the book for the cheeriest spooky scenes you’ve ever seen.

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Filed under Age: All, Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Preschool, Age: Young Adult, Holidays: Halloween

Anastasia Krupnik

I just finished Anastasia Krupnik, Lois Lowry’s first book in the Anastasia series (1979).  I had nifty incentive to read it because Anastasia was my wife’s childhood favorite for a time.  She and our daughter just read this first one out loud together.  I had to catch up on my own.

It’s brilliant!  I’ve read some slice-of-life DOGS in my time about kids.  But this one is good from the start.  Her 4th grade teacher has the kids write poems.  Anastasia is ecstatic- her dad is a poet and lit professor.  How can she miss?  But it turns out the teacher only likes rhyming, sing-song poetry.  Anastasia non-rhyming free verse will be poorly received.  So it’s no wonder when, “Anastasia had begun to feel a little funny, as if she had ginger ale inside her knees”.

Poor Anastasia gets an F and Mrs. Westvessel goes on the bad side of Anastasia’s list of things she loves and hates.  We see the list at the end of each chapter, and it’s undergoing constant change.

It’s a short book filled with birth, life, death, and lots of laughs and empathy.  At the ripe old age of ten she gets a sibling, her little brother who her parents have rashly promised her she can name.

Can’t wait to read the next Anastasia in the series,even if it is my wife’s turf for story-reading with our daughter.

Lois Lowry is one of our most honored living children’s author, and maybe the most versatile.  She’s won two Newbery Medals.  Gotta admit I couldn’t make much sense out of The Giver, but everyone tells me it’s brilliant and profound.  I believe them.

But I did have a ball reading The Willoughbys (2008) with the kids while Jen was gone to Peru.  It’s a super-fun, wacky parody of the apparently-orphaned kids facing one trial after another.  Sounds like A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, but somehow those didn’t tickle me.  After Willoughbys, my daughter and I read the delicious Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken which must have inspired Lowry.

Lowry performs an amazing feat by having it be very tongue-in-cheek, with lots of references to the kids being old-fashioned, deserving kids and comparing their plight to  situations in Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and James and the Giant Peach while at the same time having it feel real and vivid.  We care about Tim, Barnaby A and B, and Jane. An appendix at the back capsulizes thirteen classics the book touches on.

I loved that Lowry did her own pictures for The Willoughbys.  Its author bio, which she must have written herself, says “Today she is a wizened, reclusive old woman who sits hushed over her desk thinking obsessively about the placement of commas.”  It’s great that Lois Lowry covers so much ground, and that her early heroine still reads so well thirty years later.

So Anastasia, nice to meet you this weekend and hear about your brother Sam, born when you’re already 10.  And Sam Krupnik, maybe I’ll read the series about you sometime.  In fact:  Jen, I hereby reserve that series for reading to our son when the time comes!

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Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Fiction, Reviews

Play Ball!

Batter up!  The Major League baseball season is about a quarter over and none of my three teams have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs!  Go Baltimore, Cincy and the Cubs!  (And Cubs, you might want to strive a little harder.)  Don’t you think we should talk some baseball here and promise to recommend a few kids’ books at the end?  After all, baseball has inspired more great book writing than any other American sport.

I recently came back from an 18 year hiatus.  I gave up on baseball in about 1994.  Labor strife that year, greed, steroids, etc.  But now the Kid is back.   And his top two teams have been riding high.

I got back kind of sudden.  My book club read Moneyball by Michael Lewis.  I’d not heard of it and I didn’t even know it was a recent and well-regarded movie with Brad Pitt.  But man, it sucked me in.  Lewis carts us away with him to the world of Billy Beane, a can’t-miss big league prospect in the ‘80s, who missed.

Beane decides the scouts blew it on picking Beane, that they went on gut instinct and not the right kind of data.  So he reinvents the art of managing a baseball franchise and becomes a crazy successful general manager of the Oakland A’s.  And he turns into a scientist of statistics, climbing up the metaphorical shoulders of the shunned genius Bill James.  (James has finally gained respect from the baseball establishment and helped the Red Sox win their first two World Series championships since 1918 in 2004 and 2007.)

Somehow Beane has the smallest payroll and the best teams circa 2001, gathering a team of discards that don’t look right to the baseball scouts.  Moneyball:  an enthralling book about the baseball world being willfully clueless and finally getting outsmarted.

And now on October 3, 2012, his A’s have done it again:  they’ve come from 13 games out and won their division in the 162nd and last regular season game in a feat with only four precedents in history (1914 Boston Braves, ’51 New York Giants in Willie Mays rookie year, the ’78 Yanks and the ’95 Mariners.)  With the smallest payroll in the majors!  Ouch, Texas Rangers, that’s gotta hurt!

Moneyball was so fun to read and talk about that- shazam! I was a fan again. Just in the nick of time for my teams.  (And just as my brother in Atlanta was coming into the fold again. Nice wild card entry for the Braves, bro.)

So here I am:  Dan Patterson, baseball fan.  And it’s time to reassimilate.  News items:

1. There are now 6 divisions instead of four.

2. There are now 30 teams including ones in Denver, Phoenix, Washington D.C., Tampa Bay, and Miami.  Sorry, Montreal.

3. The  Brewers have switched to the National League.

4. I know the names of few players.

…time to get back to speed!

I became a fan in 1976.  I bought hundreds of ’75 and ’76 baseball cards.  (It was all Topps then.)  I read the sports pages every day.  And there was a writeup for every game (unlike now when the Oregonian only writes up two or three games).  I spent my spring afternoons in 4th grade gazing out the classroom windows, thinking about playing when I got out.

Pretty soon I was expert.  I could name some complete lineups.  I’d guess within a year I could name 10 players easy off the top of my head for any of the 26 teams (by the time Seattle and Toronto joined in ’77).

And you want statistics?  I was brimming with home run numbers, RBI’s, ERA and win totals for people like Joe Morgan, George Foster, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Fred Lynn, Dave Parker, Amos Otis, Dave Concepcion and Ken Singleton.

I guess in 2012 I just expected it to all come back to me.  Except I can’t afford baseball cards anymore.  (Come to think of it, 1994 was about the time cards turned crazy expensive.  In ’76 it was $.10 for seven cards plus a horrible piece of bubble gum.) And my dad no longer subscribes to Sports Illustrated and anyway, he’s 2000 miles away.  (And when the O’s are on the cover, it’s hard to even find it on the newsstand.)  And the paper doesn’t cover baseball too well.  And I don’t have cable TV.

Wish I could learn the players.  The names that stay with me have familiar surnames like Prince Fielder.  I remember his slugging dad Cecil.  And Matt Kemp, who I guess isn’t related to the Tiger’s old star Steve Kemp, but at least the name jogs my memory.  Plus there’s a guy or two that’s still around, like Chipper Jones who’s retiring this fall at the age of 40.

So here I am, a clueless baseball fan, enjoying it all again but wondering how I’ll ever learn a new generation of names so I can feel good about my teams and about myself.  Shouldn’t there be internet-era ditto pages I can download and cut out, nine players to a page?

Well, if you’re still with me, thank you very much.  And now I’ll mention some juvenile baseball books.  At Powell’s I just picked up a perfect book for a middle grade or 47 year old baseball fan. A 2010 Scholastic paperback called Ultimate Guide to Baseball:  Facts, Stats, Stars and Stuff by James Buckley, Jr.  Great history as well as a spread about all 30 teams.  Indispensable to Dan!

           And now let’s go to some dustier places.  We had a battered, corny-looking old paperback on our shelf in about 1979 that my brother-in-law got me to read.  And he was right, The Kid Comes Back by John R. Tunis was really engaging.  So was the previous book, The Kid From Tomkinsville.  (And a quick search shows Tunis was a revered writer and a New Yorker regular.)

Suddenly I remember loving a novel from my dad’s era, Safe! By Harold Sherman (1928).  Corny but delectable.

The series that enthralled me as a kid was Major League Library by Random House.  They were these handsome hardcover books I think I paid $3.00 for at B. Dalton.  I loved Baseball’s Zaniest Stars and several others.

Recently I polished off Great Hitters of  the Major Leagues by Frank Graham (1969).  Willie Mays is on the cover and it has a chapter on 11 greats going back to Ty Cobb.  Still very entertaining.

I tried recently to re-read Strange But True Baseball Stories by Furman Bisher.  Promising topic, but disjointed, incompetent story-telling.  Far superior is More Strange But True Baseball Stories by Howard Liss.  You read about a catcher trying to catch a throw off the top of the Washington Monument and other great stuff.

Have you ever had that bedtime problem when it seems WHATEVER you read over-stimulates you and gets your heart pumping?  For some reason, these baseball books are my antidote.  Fun but neutral.

Excuse me, I have Third Base is My Home by Brooks Robinson right here beside me.  Time to unwind.  (blogmaster’s note: Patterson’s copy of Third Base is My Home is signed by Brooks Robinson!)

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All Star: Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever

Batter up!  Baseball is in full swing.  Isn’t it high time for big, beautiful picture book with a giant helping of Americana?  All Star:  Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever (2010) is written by Jane Yolen and illustrated with Jim Burke’s intensively-researched paintings.  The inside flaps are decorated with memorabilia including the Honus Wagner card that sold in 2007 for almost three million dollars.

Yolen is known for her hundreds of books.  In this title, Yolen performs a marvelous feat, condensing his life from being born into a poor German immigrant family in Pennsylvania, working in the coal mines, and then making his way into pro baseball, all in just a few hundred words.  Yolen’s prose is super-efficient, dense with meaning, like a poem.

Even though he had a big nose and large head, his parents thought their fourth son was gorgeous.  His hometown had dark skies from the steel and iron mills. At age 12 Honus was loading two tons of coal a day for seventy-nine cents a day.  He worked six days a week, but fortunately he was off on Sunday and could play baseball.  We read about his  eventual rise into the greatest of shortstops, “with legs like hunting bows”.

Honus Wagner loved kids and didn’t want them using tobacco, so his cards were taken off the market.  Ironically the card’s rarity makes it valuable and helps Wagner be remembered.

All Star is a compelling look at this athlete who was at his peak a century ago.  But Yolen and Burke make Wagner much more than a face on an ancient baseball card.  So dust off your mitt and give old Honus a look.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews, Uncategorized