Tag Archives: clarice bean

No longer required but impossible to give away

Batty Bat, as black as night, loves to give his friends a fright....

Well before N reached her first birthday, we were reading to her on a regular basis. The story we read most in those early days, when she was still pretty much toothless and drooly, was Batty Bat: a snuggle book. It had a purple fuzzy cover with a bat sewn on to it, upside down. The bat’s sparkly wings were attached only at the body, so a baby’s hands could reach out and grab them. I don’t think she understood a word we were saying, but we read that book oodles of times every day. I used my best spooky Count Dracula voice, and N’s dad, ever the film buff, sounded strangely like Peter Lorre. When we got to the last page, shown here, she’d wedge her little finger into the bat’s mouth to feel his fuzzy pink tongue. And then we’d read it again.

But board books, fuzzy or not, are pretty quickly outgrown. Eventually Batty Bat was tucked in the bottom drawer, with N’s first shoes, the duckie sleeper she wore home from the hospital, and an assortment of other keepsakes, no longer required but impossible to give away.

When I recently came upon the book again, I was right away reminded of those first months of reading to N, her snuggled in my lap and me pointing to the pictures as Spider, Wolf and Mouse joined the story. I remember the feeling of her wispy hair against my cheek, and the wonderful baby smell that surrounded her. In this case, the book has more sentimental value for me and N’s dad than it does for her. So what will be her bookshelf treasures in the years to come — those stories that are like portals to an earlier time?

I had a note from a subscriber the other day, who told me that he still has his favourite childhood book, given to him by his aunt when he was three years old — and that was 77 years ago! When he looks through the book now, with its torn cover and his little sister’s crayon scribblings, he can still hear his father’s voice reading the words. Which makes me think that books have power not just for the stories they contain. The books themselves — as containers, as cherished objects — can take us back to the days they first effected us. With the onset of ebooks, will people stop reading paper books with children? I don’t mind the new technology, though I don’t yet use it myself. But I can’t help thinking it will be quite a loss not to have those books on our bookshelves through a lifetime, because spotting them, pulling them out, flipping through them, and even smelling them connects us to our pasts. The thing about a paper book is that it ages with you, and the yellowed pages, the coffee stains, the worn covers, become part of its beauty.

My mom has her old copies of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea on the bottom shelf of  a little table that sits at the top of the stairs, so that each time you walk upstairs, you notice them. I suspect that’s just why she keeps them there, not far from a great old picture of her parents among many at a company picnic back in the 1930s, before they’d officially met. (Perhaps this was even the day they met? There I go, inventing stories.) The picture sits right on the floor of the landing, and when I asked my mom why she didn’t hang it up on the wall, she told me she thinks she’s more aware of it there, at eye level as she climbs the steps several times a day. Passing it this way keeps the connection fresh, as with the Anne books.

All that said, I don’t know what’s become of my own copies of Anne over the years, or whether I even had them with me when I began my jaunts from city to city in my 20s. Books are heavy things to carry. Had they been available, I might have embraced an e-reader in those days when I was happily unsettled.

Although I don’t have my old Anne books, I do remember buying them. Several were purchased on a Maritime holiday we took when I was a child. We went to Anne’s pretend house, the Green Gables tourist attraction in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, and I picked a fern from the Haunted Wood, pasted it into my photo album, and labeled it with swirly handwriting. We went to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s birthplace as well, and I remember thinking that it felt sad and old and dead, but that there was something amazing, too, about staring into these roped-off sets, knowing that they had once contained real people living real lives.

"There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting."

Anne of Green Gables has been around for more than 100 years. The recent Puffin versions of the series have covers illustrated by Lauren Child, who is one of N’s favourite writers, and in a roundabout way (at least in N’s mind), a pen pal. She wrote to Child to tell her how much she loved the Clarice Bean books (see The Worst Worry and A’ll Wright Soon), and fairly soon after, Child’s assistant Alex wrote back to thank her for the letter. N then wrote back to Child and Alex to thank them for the letter, and Alex (who is a little less prompt of a pen pal than N) has just written back to thank N for the letter. To which, yes, N has immediately responded with a thank you, as well as a picture of herself reading Child’s new book, the much anticipated Ruby Redfort.

"Dear Lauren and Alex. I'm extreamley exitid to read the Ruby Redfort books. Yes, I have enjoyed my summer. Holidays whent well....."

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The harry scaries

At long last, we’ve found ourselves in the magnificent world of Harry Potter, with its moving photographs, talking hats, invisibility cloaks, nearly headless ghosts, flying cars, magic-less muggles, and wizards. We’re on book two, and N is addicted. She pays close attention to the fine details — notice above how she’s drawn patches on Ron’s clothes to illustrate that the Weasleys don’t have much money; and how Harry’s scar forms a lightning shape on his forehead. Hermione, ever studious, holds a pencil and paper.

We whipped through the first book in record time, and then watched the movie. N, following the advice of her auntie, who traveled the Potter road with her son years ago, viewed many scenes through the holes of an afghan, as if that barrier could protect her from the likes of  Severus Snape, Argus Filch, or the evil Lord Voldemort, who lurks who knows where — maybe everywhere. Her auntie, alongside us for the show, was as excited as we were, partly because it’s such a good story, I think, but also because of the memories she has of moving through the Potter series with her son, who’s off to college this fall.

This is something I’ve noticed when I mention these books to parents with children of a certain age: they absolutely glow when they recall reading them with their kids. One friend recently wrote that her daughters were a perfect age for Harry Potter when the first book appeared.

“Since the books usually came out in June or July, we would take them up to the cottage with us and I can remember reading aloud for hours during long summer afternoons and evenings, none of us wanting to stop the wonder and excitement of the story or the warm relaxed feeling of connection as the three of us sat cuddled together…. Reading and long lazy summers, and my girls. My version of heaven.”

As a writer, I have mixed feelings about phenomenal sensations like Harry Potter. The books are really good, but it’s frustrating to see how such successes put everything else in shadow. Wikipedia states that, “The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, became the fastest selling book in history, moving 11 million units in the first twenty-four hours of release.” Those sorts of crazes rub me the wrong way — not just for books, but for Cabbage Patch Dolls and Silly Bandz. But nonetheless, here I find myself, a Muggle, totally absorbed in this magical world.

The books are especially intense for N. I have to regularly remind her that “He’s probably going to be okay. There are five more books, after all, and he’s in all of them.” Still, when reading, we have to follow up with a chaser of Ivy and Bean or Clarice — “to take the Harry Scaries away.” I understand the books get increasingly dark as the series goes along, so I’m not sure how quickly we’ll move through them. Just last night, we had to stop reading altogether because, along with Harry, Hermione, and Ron, we were rushing past flaming torches down a Hogwarts corridor and we came upon Argus Filch’s cat Mrs Norris hanging by her tail, “stiff as a board, her eyes wide and shining.” An ominous message had been scrawled on the wall: “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir, beware.”

It was too much for N; she needed a break. As we closed Harry and opened Clarice, she whispered, “Good thing Harry doesn’t die. Because there are five more books, right?”

Yet it’s obvious we’ve entered a different phase, and though from a writer’s point of view the stories we read are becoming increasingly complex and exciting, from a mother’s point of view, the transition is bittersweet.

Recently we were visiting my mom, and on the first night we settled in with Harry to read another chapter. We laid in the bed facing the dresser, which held all the things it has always held: a tiny candle; a silhouette picture of me from Disneyland; three sets of children’s books each contained in boxes.

These are the stories we’ve always read at Grandma’s house — AA Milne, Beatrix Potter, and Mother Goose; fairy tales and abridged versions of Dorothy and Alice. There’s something about boxed sets that N loves. I suppose they feel like little gifts; the stories themselves are elevated, somehow, by this special presentation.

Just as I opened Harry Potter, N interrupted me and said “Wait!”

She jumped out of bed, rushed to the dresser, and grabbed one of the book sets, easing a book free. She opened to a random page, held the book to her face and breathed in.

“Mmmm,” she said. “I love these books. Smelling them gives me old memories.”

How wonderful to know that at seven, she already has a cache of memories about reading. It reminds me of Rosemary Wells saying, “Reading to your little one is just like putting gold coins in the bank. It will pay you back tenfold.”

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The worst worry

"One thing I do know is, the more you worry, the more worries there are, and just when you get used to things, they change."

N recently made a delightful literary discovery by accident. She and her dad went to the library, and she picked Clarice Bean: Don’t Look Now because of the cover. Clarice, with her wispy hair and sideways glance and little squiggle of a nose, looks startlingly like another of English author Lauren Child’s creations, Lola, of the Charlie & Lola series (great picture books and also a very sweet TV show about a big brother caring for his wildly imaginative little sister). N didn’t realize this was a different book altogether.

Don’t Look Now is actually the third in a series of novels, after Utterly Me and Spells Trouble, and we loved it so much that we bought the set. To N’s delight, the books come in a little box. (She often loves the packaging as much as the stuff it contains.) There are few illustrations, but the ones that are there made me miss my old Spirograph.

Night after night, we’ve stayed up late reading these books. As Clarice might say, each one is an utterly and exceptionordinarily good read. The main character, Clarice Bean Tuesday, is a bright spark of a girl with a brimming imagination and a best friend named Betty Moody.

Both Betty and Clarice are obsessed with a series of books about a brilliant girl detective named Ruby Redfort. (N kept asking if the Ruby Redfort books were real, and I kept telling her no, they’re a story within a story, but apparently Child has indeed been commissioned to write a Ruby series.)

Betty is great in school and never gets in trouble, but Clarice’s mind wanders. And her teacher, Mrs. Wilberton, is mean — not a good combination.

More than any other children’s books I’ve read, these ones took me back to the complexities of the child’s perspective — how kids work so hard to put what they learn into context, and thereby grasp the meanings of everything from ordinary to terrifying occurrences. And how there are so many things that aren’t pindownable. For instance, Clarice wonders Why isn’t why spelled y? And why isn’t you spelled u? And she’s alarmed by the notion of infinity.

But it isn’t her worst worry.

Clarice is devastated to discover that “the worst worry in the world, the worry you never even thought to worry about,” is much worse than moving house, or the fact that you can see into the kitchen from a hole in the bathroom floor. In fact her worst worry is so bad, she can’t even bring herself to write it down in her list of worries, because seeing it in writing somehow makes it more real.

These books are funny, surprising, and also touching. Each one has a steady plot that kept us rushing through, but also so many threads running this way and that, that we never lost interest. In the final book, the best of the three, the scene in which Clarice learns Betty is moving away almost brought me to tears, and N, beside me, was riveted. Kudos to Lauren Child for creating a character who stands tall beside the likes of Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables.

“How does she draw flowers like that, Mom? I wish I could.”

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