Michael Sims

Why should adults be the only ones with beach books to entertain them when they aren't cavorting in the surf? This summer the kids, too, have plenty of books to choose from. Four examples demonstrate the feast available, beginning with books for toddlers and preschoolers and working our way up to preteen readers.

Younger children will appreciate the sand and surf more if they are prepared for it with a charming picture book by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Barbara Lavallee, All You Need for a Beach. What do you need for a beach? Lively illustrations portray young children acting out the process of adding one element at a time to the beach experience sand, sunlight, umbrella, seagulls and the ocean itself. The story builds well to prove that the book's reader is also an essential part of the perfect beach.

Preschoolers and early graders will enjoy a gorgeous book, My Life with the Wave, based on a story by the Mexican Nobelist Octavio Paz. The lively translation and adaptation for children is by Catherine Cowan, and the luscious illustrations are by Mark Buehner. This is a lyrical, highly imaginative story. One day a boy is playing in the surf. As he departs, one of the waves escapes the ocean and accompanies him. On the train ride home he hides her in the water cooler. At his house she creates as much delight and trouble as the Cat in the Hat. Pulled by moon and sun, the wave is moody. The boy brings her fish, but he becomes jealous of how long she plays with them. As winter approaches, the wave begins to have nightmares. A double-page panoply of these demons will give children a delicious shiver, but a closer look will reveal that the funnel cloud wears spectacles and the sea serpent has a red bow on its tentacle. The story takes a sad turn, but the ending is clever and upbeat.

Another new book reminds us that at any age nonfiction can be as compelling as fiction. Young readers will enjoy One Small Place by the Sea, by Barbara Brenner and illustrated by Tom Leonard. This is the story of the teeming life of a tidepool, "no bigger than a bathtub," among weedy rocks at the sea's edge. "Tides make it and unmake it twice a day." The book begins with a child standing beside the pool and looking at what is visible to the naked eye. Slowly the text and illustrations help us sort out the various plants and animals. Gradually we go beneath the surface and see the multitude of turban snails, blue mussels, hermit crabs, anemones and other wonders. The text is crisp and vivid, the illustrations bright and detailed. The child scoops water into a jar and the illustrations zoom in and magnify its denizens. Then we look more closely at each creature, at the cycles of life and death repeating daily in this miniature ecosystem, this exquisite microcosm.

Friends beneath the waves

Proving that there is a smart beach book for children of every age, Candlewick Press has published the lively and suspenseful The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler. This first novel, by an English journalist, is already becoming something of an international sensation, and is being published in at least 10 countries. The book begins with Emily Windsnap, our narrator and heroine, asking an irresistible question: "Can you keep a secret?" We aren't revealing plot twists by telling you, because the book jacket does so: Emily is a mermaid. She doesn't know this tidbit about her family legacy when the book opens, but she finds out soon in a compelling scene that draws the reader into the story.

Emily has a convincingly tangled life even without her fishy tendencies. Her father abandoned the family and her mother has long hidden away traumatic memories that will prove crucial to her family's future. Soon Emily is sneaking away in the night to cavort far beneath the waves with newfound marine friends. Naturally the two stories come together in a satisfying ending.

Why should adults be the only ones with beach books to entertain them when they aren't cavorting in the surf? This summer the kids, too, have plenty of books to choose from. Four examples demonstrate the feast available, beginning with books for toddlers and preschoolers and working our way up to preteen readers.

"Let joy be unconfined!" cries Charles the rooster in the children's book Freddy the Detective. Fans of the Freddy the Pig books, by Walter R. Brooks, are echoing Charles' exclamation. In 1997 Overlook Press began reissuing the much-loved but long unavailable series. Thirteen are now back in print, with several more per year coming in the near future. Soon the entire series will be restored to its proper status in the pantheon of immortal children's books. Everyone from the New York Times to USA Today has hailed the resurrection of the literate and witty Freddy books. Recently even CBS News taped material for an upcoming broadcast.

In Freddy the Detective, poor henpecked Charles has been appointed judge of the animals on Bean Farm. To escape his sharp-tongued wife Henrietta, Charles sentences himself to jail time, claiming he feels guilty about a secret past offense. Freddy applies his best detective skills to searching for Charles only to find the rooster in Freddy's own makeshift jail, leading a dance with the above-quoted exclamation.

This is a typical occurrence in the world of Walter R. Brooks. Imagine Charlotte's Web meets Animal Farm; throw in an ensemble cast and affectionately satirical tone worthy of The Andy Griffith Show; and spice with adventures that would impress Indiana Jones. "Some pig," a spider named Charlotte once wrote of Wilbur. She would have said the same of Freddy. Poet, newspaper publisher, detective, pilot, politician, Freddy is, as the New York Times once noted, a "Renaissance pig." Walter R. Brooks has the distinction of having invented two of the 20th century's enduring animal characters. He also created Mr. Ed, the talking horse who first appeared in a short story Brooks wrote for The Saturday Evening Post. Freddy, and his comrades at the Bean Farm in upstate New York, first appeared in a novel published in 1927. Twenty-five more volumes followed before the author's death in 1958.

Brooks had a wonderfully unfettered imagination. Take, for example, the adventures in Freddy the Pilot. A villainous comic book publisher named Watson P. Condiment is terrorizing Mr. Boomschmidt's Stupendous and Unexcelled Circus. To help, Freddy must learn to fly a plane. Along the way he also disguises himself in a woman's garden party dress and a veil, and speaks with a high-pitched Spanish accent. The dialogue is pure Walter Brooks when the famously multisyllabic hotel owner discovers Freddy under the veil and says, "Well now ain't this an unanticipated gratification! And these modish habiliments! Well, well; command me, duchess." Not that most of the characters speak that way. That's why Freddy replies, "I wish I had time to swap polysyllables with you, Mr. Groper, but I've got a lot to do." Walter R. Brooks loved words.

In their initial outing, first published under the uninspired title of To and Again (and later republished as you'll find it in the new reprints, as Freddy Goes to Florida), the characters decide to be the first farm animals to migrate. Naturally they have wonderful adventures on their way southward. In the second book, Freddy Goes to the North Pole, the ever-entrepreneurial pig launches a travel service for animals. The Bean Farm gang heads northward.

Later adventures include Freddy the Detective (one of the best in the series, full of nonstop adventure), Freddy the Pilot (also just about perfect, and one of the funniest children's books around) and Freddy the Politician (which preceded Orwell's Animal Farm by several years in its satire of political chicanery). Incidentally, unlike Orwell's characters, the animals of Bean Farm never have to revolt and overthrow Mr. Bean. That broad-minded farmer has the sense to permit his extraordinary animals great freedom, and they respond with affection and loyalty. One of the triumphs of the series is the way human beings are only mildly surprised to find that the animals speak. Mr. and Mrs. Bean accept that their pig not only talks and walks upright, but also prints a newspaper, learns to fly a plane and becomes famous for his many adventures.

The jacket and interior artwork of recent children's books have metamorphosed Tom Sawyer into a millennial brat and recreated Alice as a blonde moppet in sneakers. Overlook Press understands that the ageless Freddy requires no such cosmetic surgery. They have brought back our porcine hero exactly as he was in his prime. No small part of the series' charm comes from the witty illustrations by Kurt Wiese. Seldom do authors find such a perfect match. The illustrator of everything from Bambi to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Wiese was especially fond of the Freddy books. He was to Walter Brooks what Garth Williams was to the children's books of E. B. White, or what Ernest H. Shepard was to Pooh. Apparently the facsimile reprints were also a labor of love. The jackets look and feel exactly right. The lovely old two-color endpapers have been precisely recreated. The cloth (not cardboard) bindings are stamped with charming illustrations. Text is printed in its original friendly Baskerville typeface, a look that almost brings a tear to the eye of the bookish child that lurks inside many bookish adults.

If you were a Freddyphile in your youth, these lovingly resurrected books will make you curl up on the sofa with Freddy and renounce the adult world's shallow distractions. There is also a brand-new volume to add to your Freddy shelf. No, Overlook Press hasn't stooped to farming out new adventures. They have wisely limited themselves to fashioning an anthology of greatest witticisms from the famously epigrammatical canon, supplemented with many amusing Wiese drawings. The collaboration of several editors, some of them quite young, The Wit and Wisdom of Freddy the Pig and His Friends distills the best remarks of the characters Mrs. Wiggins, the modestly commonsensical cow who both runs for president and becomes Freddy's partner in the detective business; Jinx, the skeptical cat; Charles, the vain rooster; and of course Freddy himself and many others. A second new volume, a collection of Freddy's delightful poetry and songs, is in the works.

Most of all, the books are about friendship. "Why should we have to put up with his nonsense," Jinx asks Freddy of one character, "just because you think that way down inside him there's some good qualities?" And the good-hearted and (usually) patient Freddy explains: "It's like digging for buried treasure." Not that Freddy is perfect. He is lazy, vain and occasionally short-tempered. But he is also courageous, inventive and devoted to his comrades. As a result, he and his friends have wonderful adventures adventures that finally are available to a new generation of readers.

A total of 13 Freddy titles are now available from Overlook Press. Each one is $23.95.
Freddy and the Bean Home News
Freddy Goes to the North Pole
Freddy and the Space Ship
Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans
Freddy and the Baseball Team From Mars
Freddy and the Dragon
Freddy the Politician
Freddy Goes to Florida
Freddy the Detective
Freddy and the Ignormus
Freddy and Mr. Camphor
Freddy the Pilot
The Wit and Wisdom of Freddy and His Friends

 

Michael Sims writes about animals both real and fictional, but few mean as much to him as Freddy.

"Let joy be unconfined!" cries Charles the rooster in the children's book Freddy the Detective. Fans of the Freddy the Pig books, by Walter R. Brooks, are echoing Charles' exclamation. In 1997 Overlook Press began reissuing the much-loved but long unavailable series. Thirteen are now back in print, with several more per year coming in the […]

If you want to take your children to an exotic planet and show them alien monsters worthy of Jurassic Park, you don't need to go back in time or book a family jaunt to Alpha Centauri. You don't even have to visit a movie theater. All you need to do is aim a magnifying glass at any insect on its home turf. Grains of sand become boulders; mosses tower like Cretaceous ferns; and wonderful, terrible creatures prowl for prey.

Four recent books for young children—three nonfiction and one story—capture this Lilliputian world in all its glory. The largest, bearing a frightening close-up of a grasshopper's big-eyed face, is Theresa Greenaway's Big Book of Bugs. In this oversized hardback, children will learn some fascinating tidbits queen bumblebees frequently nest in the abandoned burrows of voles (common mouse-like rodents); even the tiny shield bug has enough maternal instinct to guard its own children; the water boatman clings upside down to the surface film of ponds. The photo and text about the flower mantis alone are enough to impress the reader. This camouflaged killing machine is a praying mantis whose body is mottled pink and green to blend with flowers, while its front legs resemble an unopened bud. All of the photos, as usual with DK's books, are excellent, lushly textured against crisp white backgrounds.

Another hardback stuffed with color photographs zooms in even more closely and stares bugs right in the eye. Darlyne A. Murawski's Bug Faces. It begins, "Chances are you've seen a bug today." Yes, the odds are good. But you've probably never been this close to them before. All those compound eyes and viselike mandibles can be pretty scary and, for that reason, fascinating. Many children will find this book irresistible.

Slightly older readers will enjoy a paperback that is illustrated with handsome line drawings, Sally Kneidel's StinkBugs, Stick Insects, and Stag Beetles. By examining 21 insects or kinds of insects from burying beetles to army ants, from tsetse flies to the Madagascan giant hissing cockroach Kneidel provides a comprehensive introduction to the insect world. She uses recurring sidebars in categories such as "That's Strange!" and "Why Do They Do That?" to compare various kinds of insects. Perhaps the most fun is each insect's treatment in the category "What You Can See and Do." This is a perfect hands-on way for children to learn how to listen to musical insects such as cicadas and katydids or how to watch for "a parade of ants carrying green parasols." And now for the fiction among the facts. Janell Cannon, author and illustrator of such beloved picture books as Stellaluna and Verdi, is back with a suspenseful and amusing new tail, the story of a cockroach named Crickwing. Barely escaping from a hungry toad, a young cockroach is left with a twisted wing and the nickname Crickwing. (We never learn what his name was before his disfiguring accident. Bob? Irving?) Despising his nickname, he becomes reclusive, avoiding his acquaintances and spending his time creating sculpture out of parts of plants. A root here, a leaf there and voila another Crickwing masterpiece. As always with Janell Cannon, the illustrations made with acrylics and colored pencils on illustration board are splendid, bursting with color, life and energy. No wonder both children and adults love her books.

At first Crickwing is not a pleasant fellow and seeks revenge on creatures smaller than himself. In time, of course, like a certain glowing-nosed reindeer and other misunderstood outcasts, Crickwing redeems himself and turns his talent to the good of his comrades. The most realistic aspect of this book might be Crickwing's constant near-death experiences with monkeys, ocelots and other creatures determined to either eat him or torment him. The lesson of all of these insect books is clear: It's a jungle out there.

And these books also pose a question: Are entomologists just children at heart, people who never lost their fascination with insects? Or are children natural-born entomologists who eventually lose their sense of wonder and become accountants?

If you want to take your children to an exotic planet and show them alien monsters worthy of Jurassic Park, you don't need to go back in time or book a family jaunt to Alpha Centauri. You don't even have to visit a movie theater. All you need to do is aim a magnifying glass at […]

Part of the fun of reading is being surprised, whether by an author you thought you knew or a story whose next step you thought you could predict. I was surprised in both ways when I read The Stamp Collector. Before I ran across this inspired picture book, I had read Jennifer Lanthier’s stylish and action-packed series of young adult mystery novels starring an intrepid 12-year-old named Hazel Frump, which began with The Mystery of the Martello Tower. Except for also being very well written, Lanthier’s new book could not be more different from its predecessors.

“This is the story of not long ago,” Lanthier begins, “and not far away. It is the story of a boy who loves stamps and a boy who loves words.” François Thisdale’s delicately colorful paintings match the fable-like simplicity of Lanthier’s prose. If you know a child who wants to write or paint or otherwise find expression in the arts, this book might be just the inspirational nudge you’re looking for. It is very much a story about yearning to communicate.

The Stamp Collector is a thoughtful, lyrical tale about how imagination and empathy take hold in different ways in the mind of a city boy and a country boy—and speak across all barriers. The book’s resonant central image is a stamp on a letter that the poor boy finds on the street. “In his dreams, the stamp is a kite,” writes Lanthier, “a paper jewel from the crown of a wise old king.”

The city boy becomes a prison guard. The country boy becomes a writer whose too-realistic stories draw the ire of the country’s repressive political regime. “Words are dangerous,” snarl the officers who arrest the writer in the night. The two boys, now men, meet across the bars of the prison doors. But they are not allowed to speak.

Then the writer begins to receive letters in response to his book, which is banned in his own country—letters from all over the world, adorned with exotic stamps. The guard can’t pass the letters to the writer, but finally he begins to read them himself. And slowly he begins to pass the stamps to the writer as coded messages of hope.

For this new direction in her writing career, Lanthier was inspired by the story of Chinese writers Nurmuhemmet Yasin and Jiang Weiping, during her work with the international organization PEN (Poets, Editors, Novelists). In many hands this tale would have become a screed about repression or free speech. By concentrating on the basic human need to communicate, and by expressing much of her story through the poignant symbolism of the stamps, Lanthier avoids sermonizing. Together she and Thisdale turn The Stamp Collector into a poignant fable.

Michael Sims’ most recent book is The Story of Charlotte’s Web.

Part of the fun of reading is being surprised, whether by an author you thought you knew or a story whose next step you thought you could predict. I was surprised in both ways when I read The Stamp Collector. Before I ran across this inspired picture book, I had read Jennifer Lanthier’s stylish and […]

“Would you like to edit a vampire anthology?” the editor asked me.

“Vampires?”

Victorian vampires,” George clarified.

“I’m your man.” Fresh from writing my fourth book about natural science, I jumped at the thought of a holiday jaunt across misty moors.

The whole project was fun, but the best part was merging the two channels of my career: writing about nature and editing anthologies of fiction. After two collections of Victorian and Edwardian crime stories, this was my first venture into supernatural tales. I planned to include the stories that mark the moment when European writers turned folklore into a mythology of aristocratic decadence and the betrayal of innocence. In the vampire Bible, this collection would be Genesis.

To make this work I realized I had to write a natural history of vampires. So cousin Fritz is coming back from the grave to drink the blood of his widow— This idea did not come out of nowhere. Which natural phenomena were misinterpreted as supernatural evidence of vampires?

First, what can we say about vampires?

1) They’re dead.
2) Despite this considerable obstacle, they’re coming back from the grave.
3) So therefore they’re not really, exactly, precisely dead—not, you know, totally dead dead.
4) They vant to drink your blood.

All the rest varies. Some vampires are very pale, but then so is Taylor Swift, and she’s not a vampire. Probably. Some flee from a cross the way Superman dodges kryptonite, but others could march into a Baptist revival and not blink an eye. Many have a serious case of death breath, but clearly some sparkly tousled young boy vamps do not, or moody teenage girls would not be so eager to kiss them.

Death now is sanitized. How often do you see a dead body except on CSI? But until the last century this wasn’t the case. Often a vigil was held over the dear departed before the corpse—in those days before embalming—was hustled off to the grave. Traitors and murders were executed in public and their bodies left hanging on a gibbet. Rival religious factions might dig up each other’s dead and feed them to their dogs. Back then practically everybody could have whispered, “I see dead people.”

Often they saw corpses again after burial. Cemeteries were overcrowded, bodies stacked and spilling out, causing rampant disease, as well as insomnia-inspiring glimpses of your deceased Aunt Inga. People had strong ideas about what was normal in the grave, but like most of our ideas they had very little basis in reality. Any variation from this mythical norm was weighed as possible evidence of vampirism, in a thoughtful analysis reminiscent of this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What if you saw blood around a corpse’s lips? Often bodies were buried upside down, and because they were buried soon after death the blood pooled at the lowest points, which included the mouth. What about skin that seems to be glowing with life? Decomposition can cause skin to look flushed again after it loses its outer layer. What if you knew someone who couldn’t take sunlight? Perhaps he had porphyria, some kinds of which cause light sensitivity. What if dead hands looked like claws? Skin pulls away from the nails, making them look longer. The list goes on and on.

The most important thing I learned—feel free to take notes—is how to predict who might come back as a vampire. The list includes murderers, their victims, battlefield dead, the drowned, stroke victims, the first person to fall in an epidemic, heretics, wizards, and people who talk to themselves. And alcoholics. And grumpy people. And don’t forget women of ill repute. Oh, and redheads.

Michael Sims collects tales of the vampires throughout literature in the anthology Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. He has brown hair.

 

 

“Would you like to edit a vampire anthology?” the editor asked me. “Vampires?” “Victorian vampires,” George clarified. “I’m your man.” Fresh from writing my fourth book about natural science, I jumped at the thought of a holiday jaunt across misty moors. The whole project was fun, but the best part was merging the two channels […]

In his new book, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen looks back at his childhood and adolescence near Chicago in the 1960s and '70s. I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class, he writes.

A brilliantly talented author, Franzen is more aware than most Americans of the ironies of individuality and citizenship. There are many moments here that bring together the individual and group experience of being American, from Franzen's brother and father fighting over the National Guard shootings at Kent State to the mix of compassion and annoyance experienced by those beseeched for donations in the days following Hurricane Katrina.

Winner of the National Book Award in 2001 for The Corrections, Franzen is perhaps best known for his own discomfort about taking part in Oprah's TV book club. In his memoir, Franzen's story moves between his adult life as a relatively famous novelist and his childhood as a nerdy and insecure child and teen. The Discomfort Zone provides page after page of clear-eyed observation and disconcertingly candid emotion. Many readers will identify with the ongoing argument between Franzen's father and mother over where to set the thermostat in their house, a struggle that gives the book its title.

Sometimes Franzen seems to be galloping off on a tangent, but readers who stay with him will find that he has kept his topic in mind all along. For example, in exploring what he admired about Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, he examines Schulz's life and the curious way that his cartoons appealed to both squares and hippies in the 1960s. By the time Franzen gets to the kitsch and sentimentality of later Peanuts strips, he has analyzed an era and his own parents. By the time he reaches the end of this book, he has immortalized a country and a family blithely unaware of their own decline.

Michael Sims is the editor of
The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel.

 

In his new book, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen looks back at his childhood and adolescence near Chicago in the 1960s and '70s. I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class, he writes. A brilliantly talented author, […]

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