In creating this online diary of the books N and I read together, I have often blogged about old treasures like The Secret Garden and The House at Pooh Corner. But some of our favourites are quite new. Annie Barrows‘ Ivy and Bean books make N laugh as hard as she did reading Pippi Longstocking, which is saying a lot. Sometimes the illustrations, by Sophie Blackall, can do it all on their own — showing Bean in the strange contortions her body forms when she tries to sit still reading.
A warning! This series will teach your little one how to narrow her eyes to convey boredom. It will also teach her about potent potions and breaking world records by sticking spoons to your face or singing loud enough to (almost) break glass and digging for fossils in honour of Mary Anning and finding only chicken bones and using worms to cast magic spells that (should) make mean big sisters dance forever. As a little sister, as well as a mom, I love these books.
The series begins when Ivy moves into Bean’s street, Pancake Court, and the girls’ moms urge their daughters to play together. But Bean is completely uninterested in Ivy, because Ivy sits across the way on her porch with her nose in a book, and Bean is convinced books are boring. Just looking at Ivy, with her hairband and her dresses and her buckle shoes, makes wild Bean yawn. Bean is barefoot and tom-boyish and always on the go. She itches to play evil practical jokes on her pre-teen sister Nancy — the one who narrows her eyes at every ridiculous thing Bean does.
Much to Bean’s surprise, Ivy turns out to be interesting, with her linty-but-star-studded bathrobe and her gold-stick wand and her bedroom portioned by chalk marks on the floor. All the books she devours have filled her head with fabulous ideas, and she’s been waiting for someone like Bean to come along to set her imagination loose on the world.
Reading through, I am often reminded of N’s “playdates” with A, a friend who lives up the street — their favourite activity is making potions with anything and everything they can find. Old coffee grinds, bits of orange peel, years-old condiments from the fridge, egg shells, spices, herbs and maybe food colouring for a special treat. They like to spy, too, with magnifying glass and notebook, and they can sometimes be heard speaking in a secret language. The last time A visited, I found the big old Raggedy Ann doll I’d passed down to N stuffed in the closet with about fifty barrettes clipped tight to her red yarn hair — some form of barrette torture, I was told.
I didn’t make the connection until today that Annie Barrows of Ivy-Bean fame is also Annie Barrows of Guernsey-Peel fame. The epistolary novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was begun by her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, but when her health began to decline, she asked her niece Annie to help her finish the book. Of course it went on to become a great success. Having collaborated with my sister on The Occupied Garden, the story intrigues me.