Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Holocaust in Children’s Literature



The Holocaust is probably one of the most difficult historical events to explain to children today. They know it was a horrible thing that happened a long time ago, but have no idea how it relates to them. Because it’s such a difficult subject to talk about, many children’s books have been written about it over the years that allow children to see what the Holocaust was like from a child’s perspective. Two of my favorites written on the subject are The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne and The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Continue reading

A Girl Named Cat



18th-century London. Full of gangs, thieves, slavers, aristocrats, business men, writers, political cartoonists, and radicals—and the orphan Cat Royal get to meet them all.

She was abandoned as a baby on the steps of the Royal Theater in Drury Lane, and grew up with the theater manager for a father, the costume mistress for a mother, the stage managers, conductors, musicians, players, and prompters for aunts and uncles; playwrights serving as her tutors, and members of Syd’s Butcher Boys (a Covent Garden gang) as her friends. Her life sounds amazing, right? Over the course of the series, Cat’s life gets even more incredible due to the fact that she’s a right plucky ‘un, as one might say, and is constantly getting into trouble, which leads her to meet and befriend some very interesting people. Continue reading

Tomboy Lady



Rites of passage from childhood to adulthood vary by era and culture. For some, a task must be accomplished; for others, a skill set must be learned; for yet others, an age limit must be passed. In pioneer America, a combination of age and acquired skills were required. Caddie Woodlawn explores one girl’s struggle to find her individuality while meeting her family’s expectations in a changing world. The book is a snapshot of a year in Caddie’s life as she transforms from a tomboy to an aspiring young lady with a vision beyond her own childish selfishness. Although Caddie is a protagonist who matures through the force of time and her own will, a thorough reading of the book reveals the masterful orchestration of her transformation by her father, who guides her (despite her sometime resistance) into pre-adulthood by offering her aptly timed periods of freedom, advice, and opportunity that let her transition willingly into the young woman her parents want her to become. Continue reading

The Melendys



When I first met the Melendys, Randy Melendy’s bike was carrying her out of control down a hill and into the back of a bus, resulting in an encounter with an alligator in a bathtub and a plateful of doughnuts. At the time (I was about seven), the doughnuts and the resulting scar on her forehead from the accident impressed me more than the alligator. Why shouldn’t there be an alligator in a bathtub, smiling away?

A few years later, I  read this chapter, previously isolated in an anthology of children’s stories, in its context in The Four-Story Mistake and met Randy (Miranda) and her siblings Mona, Rush, and Oliver properly, rather than at an accident scene, as it were. My older sister and I were captivated by the story of how the four children of the 1940s (not that we appreciated the era at the time) moved from New York City to a wacky house (called the Four-Story Mistake because it was supposed to have four stories and only had three and a stunted cupola) in the country. We read avidly as they encountered for the first time such staples of our own childhood as climbing trees, swimming in icy streams, sledding, ice skating, and secret rooms (I never actually had a secret room—except in my imagination). Continue reading

Little Women



Every girl remembers when she came across that literary heroine she connected personally with. My introduction occurred in the spring of 2000, at a church yard sale. My mother, sister and I were assisting with the sale and while we were there, we stumbled on a few interesting finds. One was a video with Little Women at the top and a picture of four smiling-faced girls and their mother splashed across the box. I’d never heard of the movie or the March sisters but the description sounded intriguing. We brought it home and popped it in the VCR that afternoon. Continue reading

A Historical Epic



Growing up in The Netherlands, I didn’t know of most of the books in this issue until I started reading English in my early twenties. We had our own array of children’s literature. Among those, the books of Thea Beckman were a very important part of my early teens. Mrs. Beckman (1923-2004) is one of the best-loved writers of children’s literature in The Netherlands. She wrote about 30 books of which the largest part had a historical setting, ranging from the 100-year war between France and England, the Eighty Year’s War in The Netherlands and the time of the Western Schism dividing Europe.

I largely have her to thank for my love of historical novels and maybe even history as a whole. I blame her for giving me a “Medieval period” in my teens in which my best friend and I watched and read everything about this period we could get our hands on, and even wrote our own stories about life in the Middle Ages. By telling the story from the point of view of children, she made history come alive; this is especially true in Crusade in Jeans. This novel, taking place during the Children’s Crusade in 1212, is told not just from the perspective of a child, but a modern child, the 20th century Dolf Wega. Continue reading

Becoming Jess



“That’s just a kid’s book.” I’ve heard this phrase uttered with contempt, as though the story hidden between the covers offers nothing but nonsense to anyone under the age of ten. But if you take a peek inside many children’s books, whether a picture book or a novel for teens, you can often find a special kind of magic too often missing in adult novels.

I first read Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson in the fifth grade. It touched me deeply, made me cry, and earned a place in my heart as one of my all-time favorite books. Rereading it as an adult, I hoped I wouldn’t cry but the magic is still there; as I read the final chapters, my eyes filled with tears as I felt Jess’s loss again. Continue reading

Scars & Cares: The Witches



The best of children’s literature has all the qualities of all good writing but also does something special. A truly great novel for children respects them. I don’t mean it’s appropriate for their age, though that’s true; the writing acknowledges the particular feelings of kids while not speaking down to them. Wonderful kid’s literature doesn’t dumb down or patronize. It recognizes that more than the morality of a story matters, the way it is presented also must appreciate a child’s imagination (and perhaps aid positively in their development). An author who consistently accomplished this was Roald Dahl, and one of the best examples of his work is The Witches. Its plotting and tone respects the intelligence and entertainment preferences of it’s young audience. Continue reading

Revisiting Narnia



All my life, I’ve recalled my summers by what I read. Every summer has its own “theme.” When I was seven it was Pride & Prejudice, eight was Anne of Green Gables, fourteen was Little Women. Many summers were devoted to Harry Potter and my most recent book-of-the-summer was The Hunger Games. If I had to pick a book or series that I spent a lot of time with pretty much every summer over the last several years, though, I’d have to pick The Chronicles of Narnia. I love those books like a favorite sweater; it’s cozy, familiar and holds good memories. Ironically, my first truly memorable encounter with Narnia happened right before my thirteenth summer, when my mom picked up the 2005 version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe at Costco so we could watch a “nice, classic, family story.” Prior to then, my only other Narnian experience was the 1980’s miniseries, which I recall as being nice, if not a little dry, so I was excited to see a new big-budget version. After watching the movie, I was inspired to read the novels, which started me not only on a series of books that I unfortunately missed as a child, but also on a life-long journey of learning and growth. Continue reading

Marilla, How Much You Miss



Children are encouraged at a young age to use their imaginations, be “themselves” and “follow their hearts.” But what does that really mean? These ambiguous phrases of supposed insight (often found in popular culture through such sources as Disney) lack substance and do little to actualize dream-fulfilling lives. This isn’t to say that modern entertainment and morality doesn’t offer anything positive, but the overarching messages aimed at children are vague at best and self-serving at worst. So, where can good examples offering wisdom and encouragement be found? The best place to start is with parents, grandparents, pastors, youth leaders, mentors and teachers. Another source of teaching and inspiration is in the stories often shared with children. Characters of strong ethics and their adventures of faith, trial and error, perseverance and personal growth are wonderful ways to learn from example and a child’s education through stories are often best remembered. Continue reading