My Grandmother’s Teacups

003When Nathalie first proposed the topic for this week – how a single object recounts some part of our family history – I knew this was a simplified project for me.  This is because there are only two older objects in my possession to choose from.  One is a batik sarong from my mother’s eldest sister; the other is a set of teacups from my maternal grandmother, who I saw for the last time as a four year old, and who I don’t remember.

I’ve opted to tell you about the teacups. A few years after my mother immigrated to Canada with me and my two siblings, she received word that my grandmother was dying.  My mother got on a plane for a final goodbye, too late in the end, and these teacups eventually came back with her.

There are five of them, blue and white.  I think they are made of porcelain. I don’t know whether they were once accompanied by a teapot; neither does my mother remember.

I don’t know if they were used for drinking, either for everyday or for special tea ceremonies, or whether they were ornamental items.  I don’t know whether they were treasures handed down to my grandmother or whether she bought them at the corner stall.  I don’t know where they were made, or the meaning behind the images on them, and have never tried to learn.  I have no idea if they are valuable or not, and couldn’t be less interested.

I do know that my mother has let me have them.  They sit atop a high ledge that surrounds my dining room, about a foot away from each other, and high enough that they are as secure as they can be from my three playful boys. Even so, it’s possible that a ball or plane or other projectile could shatter one (but hopefully not the others as they are interspersed). While the children are young, the only truly safe alternative is to put them away, out of view, and this I will not do.

When my mother came to Canada with her three kids and little else, she left quite a lot in Malaysia:  a large, close-knit family, a career as a nurse/midwife, a good standard of living, a life she built with her husband before he suddenly died.  For reasons only she will really know, she doesn’t, or can’t, talk much about the things she left behind.  I used to wonder about this, question it, evaluate it, because I so much wanted to know something, anything, more.

I don’t do this much anymore. I have my grandmother’s teacups, and I will be careful with them.  And if I’m not mistaken, it gave my mother some pleasure when I put them up on my dining room ledge.

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Best of The Blogosphere

office-625893_640We’ve scoured the Internet and brought you some of our favourite posts from the blogosphere. Do you have something to share? A must-see blog, a must-read article or a must-share video clip? Let us know about it! Send us an email or leave a message in the comment section.

From Beth-Anne:

My life with my three boys can best be described as a whirlwind. They never stop moving. They’re loud. They’re physical. Someone bleeds every day. I once visited the emergency room three times in one month (one visit per boy) and by coincidence had the same doctor twice. He informed me that I should have purchased a monthly parking pass. I would have saved myself money. Holly Pevzner wrote 10 things I wish I’d known about raising a boy but my heady first-time pregnant self would’ve never heeded the advice. Sometimes you just have to live it.

Last year I discovered What If Famous Paintings Were Photoshopped to Look Like Fashion Models? Lauren Wade took iconic paintings featuring nude females and morphed their bodies to reflect the current body image en vogue. My reaction surprised me – what do you think?

And while we are talking women’s bodies, Christine Burke writes about a hilarious conversation she had with her toddler about her naked body. Oh, from the mouths of babes!

To finish off my round up, in the spirit of humour month, here’s Jerry Seinfeld’s take on trying to sleep with kids in your bed.

From Nathalie:

If, like me, you cannot get enough of children’s books, check out this list of 100 Great Children’s Books from The Guardian.  There were many on here I’d never seen.

If you are a mother of a teen or nearly teen, I can’t recommend this article on parenting teens by Rachel Cusk enough.  Her memoir of early motherhood, A Life’s Work, is one of my all-time favourite reads.

Be forewarned, there is adult content in this next link, which takes “book lover” to its literal extreme.  An animated felt short film set in the famed Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company in which books come to life.

April is Poetry Month, and if you live in Toronto, you can locate yourself poetically with this poetry map from the Toronto Public Library.

And here’s a poem about motherhood by Chantel Lavoie that’s not yet on the map: “The Lane.”  It riffs on this poem by bpNichol that’s inscribed into the pavement on bpNichol Lane.

Father Christmas

Raymond Briggs’ 1973 portrayal of a decidedly human Santa Claus, Father Christmas gets 71PDRDWHJVL._SS500_.gifmy vote as my favourite Christmas book ever. In this graphic novella, Briggs turns the traditional stereotypical view of Santa — jolly, benevolent, good natured — on its head.

Awoken from a dream about sunning himself on a tropical beach, Santa greets Christmas Eve with a mild curse: “Bloomin’ Christmas here again!”. This a very modern Santa, who grumbles about the weather (“bloomin’ snow!”) his herd (“bloomin’ deer!) and the demands of his work (“gettin’ a bloomin’ cold, now!”).  He’s a one-man show: with only a couple of reindeer to help him, and no mention of Mrs. Claus, we follow our man as he readies himself for the biggest day of the year: Christmas.   He flies around the United Kingdom delivering presents, visiting cottages and caravans, and ending, appropriately, at Buckingham Palace.  Gifts delivered, he settles down to a nice dinner, a lovely nip of brandy, a cigar (I know!) and peruses travel catalogs for warmer climes,  which is just what you’d probably want to do too, if you were in his boots.

There are few words in this book (and most of them are the word “bloomin’!”) but Briggs’ colourful and evocative illustrations more than make up for the absence of text.  I’ve blogged about this book before, at least in its movie form, so great is my affection for it.  Father Christmas appears to be out of print here in Canada, but it is available from Amazon.com.uk. and abebooks.com

Thank you, Mr. Sendak

We learned today that Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of such children’s classics as Where the Wild Things Are  passed away this morning, as a result of a stroke on Friday. He was 83.

It’s rare to find someone of my generation who did not read at least one of Sendak’s books as a child. I still have, from my childhood,  a hard-backed, well-worn copy of Else Homelund Minarik’s Little Bear. Little Bear was one of my first favourite books. I adored Sendak’s illustrations and spent hours looking at his drawings as I tried to decipher the words that accompanied them.  Sendak’s illustrations are  warm, and funny without being sentimental. There was a comfort in those drawings; a gentle reassurance that despite Little Bear’s (and our own, by extension) foibles, he would always be loved and cherished. I’m sure I couldn’t have articulated that thought, then; I just knew that something about those drawings made me happy.

Years later, I read that book to each of my boys, together pausing to giggle over the predicament of the bear who was too cold to play outside without snow pants, but who found his own pelt warmest of all; and rejoicing at the kind surprise of a birthday cake. Likewise, when the boys were small I found myself turning the tables on my own little Wild Things, threatening each that given the chance, I would eat them up, I love them so, only to have each flee to their rooms in mock horror, shouting “No!”.

It is the darker, harsher Sendak with whom most of us are more familiar: the disobedient Max and the petulant Pierre, whose only words are “I don’t care!” It is this version of which many of us are most fond. Sendak recognized that childhood is not all sunshine and happiness. It’s really a place of uncertainty. Children lack power, and they know that. Sendak’s best work illustrates what happens to a child in a fantasy world where they are in charge, safe in the knowledge that when things get out of hand, there is a safe place for them, and their food will still be hot when they return to it. Said Sendak:

“And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.”

It’s a testament to his gift that so many of us revisit his work time and time again now with our own children, encouraging them to tame their own wild things.

Wild Things Mural in the Children’s Section of the Richland County Library, Columbia, SC. Photo credit : Gerald Brazell on Flickr,  2011.

Free to Be, You and Me, Replayed

I’ll ‘fess up – I don’t remember being aware of picture books as a child.  I assume this is because my parents didn’t read to me.  I must have been read to at school, and I do remember sitting cross-legged on a thin carpet looking up at teachers holding books, but I can’t recall what I was seeing.  And though I was a voracious reader, what I mostly remember are words on the page, not pictures and most unhelpfully, not titles.

With such limited fodder, I’m allowing myself an exception to the requirements of this week’s issue and will highlight a movie I loved as a child:  Free to Be, You and MeThis exception isn’t so very big since the movie was inspired a book which I now own:  a wonderful collection of stories, poems, songs, and other vignettes for children.  There’s also a CD recording, although I preferred to snap up a used album version soon after becoming a mom.

Marlo Thomas (along with many celebrities like Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Mel Brooks, Carol Channing, Shirley Jones and Diana Ross) created Free to Be, You and Me.  On the back cover of the album, Thomas wrote:

Making records is not my usual business, but this is not a business project.  It’s personal; as personal to me as my niece Dionne who started the whole thing.  She wanted a bedtime story read to her, and I was saddened to find that all of her books did just that; put her and her mind to sleep.  I started to look through stores and found, with few exceptions, shelf and shelf of books and records, for boys and girls, which charmingly dictated who and what they must be, colorfully directing new minds away from their own uniqueness.

I found that many of my friends felt the same frustration for the children they loved, and happily donated their talents to this idea – an album of stories and songs to help girls and boys feel free to be who they are and who they want to be.

Marlo Thomas was one of the founders of Ms. magazine, and even as a girl, I recognized and drank in the messages of affirmation for girls.  But what is lovely about this collection is that it features a world in which there is harmony between both boys and girls, where the interests of one group are not set against the other, but depicted as intertwined and interdependent, which of course they are in real life.  There are no losers when equal respect and opportunity are afforded to the girls, nor  when boys can be real people with feelings.

As a mother of three boys, I find myself loving these messages again albeit from a somewhat different perspective, since now my responsibility is to help my boys-and-future-men be like the ones I wish I’d known.  While it’s easier now than it was in the ’70’s to find depictions of boys who respect girls as a matter of course, it can still be a challenge to find stories of boys who interact with girls while enjoying a full range of experience and emotion.

In these ways, Free to Be, You and Me is as relevant today as it was forty years ago.  Here you’ll find Atalanta, a princess who defeats all prospective husbands in a running race except for John who finished in a tie with her.  Although Atalanta’s father purports to give John the privilege to marry Atalanta, John respects her desire to see the world before she decides whether or not she will marry at all (we presume John’s actions prevent Atalanta from having to take on her daddy’s dictactorial ways).

Some stories are told memorably through song, and I distinctly remember William’s Doll (based on the this book), where a boy is teased for wanting to play with a doll, has a father who tries to steer him toward sports instead, and finally benefits from a grandmother who gives him a doll and shows everyone how to value William’s instinct to nurture.  It’s Alright to Cry is sung by a man (Rosey Grier) and features many shots of crying faces (different ages, different races, both genders – I remember most a picture of a crying professional basketball player).  I loved this song, because this message was nowhere else to be found in my world. And in the sweet, silky voice she is famed for, Diana Ross tells her male friend in When We Grow Up:

When we grow up, will I be pretty?
Will you be big and strong?
Will I wear dresses that show off my knees?
Will you wear trousers twice as long?
Well, I don’t care if I’m pretty at all.
And I don’t care if you never get tall.
I like what I look like, and you’re nice small.
We don’t have to change at all.

When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy and do what I like to do,
Like making noise and making faces and making friends like you.
And when we grow up, do you think we’ll see
That I’m still like you and you’re still like me?
I might be pretty; you might grow tall.
But we don’t have to change at all.

Then she speaks:  I don’t want to change, see, ’cause I still want to be your friend, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.

If I really listen to this song, basically I become misty-eyed.  But that’s just me.

Except maybe it’s not.  A while bac, my husband and I hosted a dinner party with a couple and their son.  Free to Be, You and Me made it to the turntable and my husband stood blinking while the three women in the room belted out every word to the theme song.  My husband may not quite know how or why, but I feel he’s likely benefitted from the generation of women and men who caught the Free to Be, You and Me wave when it first aired.  My boys will benefit too, just more directly.  Because I’m going to make them learn the words verbatim and sing them back to me on road trips and my birthday.

Looking for a Good Book?

Oh, the joy of a good book!  I mean a really good book, the kind that makes you grin from ear to ear, the kind that makes you want to drop everything just so that you can get back to it, the kind that you want to press on dear friends so that they, too, can have a taste of the bliss between its pages.

The kids and I have found lots of that kind of book through this one: 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.  Julia Eccleshare, who is currently the children’s book editor at The Guardian, is the general editor of this doorstop of a resource, which clocks in at nearly 1000 pages, with dozens of contributors.  The biggest surprise about this book is how uniformly well-written the entries for each recommended book are.  From picture books to young adult, from classic to contemproary, this resource spans centuries and continents.  It includes a few classics from outside of the western tradition, like Momotaro from Japan, and in many cases, the editors have taken the care to find the original cover art for each book, in its language of publication.  Organized by age group, the recommendations appear in order of the date of publication, and so you can see, even at a glance, how the tradition unfolds.  (It was published in 2009, and contains many suggestions from the 21st century!)

This book was a gift from my sons (and their dear father) last Christmas, and it is one of those gifts that keep on giving.  I keep dipping into it, looking for the next great read, and I am never disappointed.  I recommend it highly, for yourselves or for your kids’ teachers, it is a wonderful resource.

Snarky Poems for Leftie Parents

I Can Say Interpellation by Stephen Cain

I Can Say Interpellation

Stephen Cain

Illustrated by Clelia Scala

Bookthug, 2011.

If you loved the dark humour of Go the Fuck to Sleep, and if you have fond memories of staying up late into the night debating the material from your literary and political theory courses, then this is a book for you.

My husband was given this book as a gift this weekend (thank you, Greg and Lisa!), and I think it’s one of my all-time favourite parodies. In I Can Say Interpellation Stephen Cain uses the familiar rhymes and rhythms of children’s books to make exquisitely barbed comments on contemporary politics.  The children’s texts themselves do not come under attack; rather the author uses our deep familiarity with their rhythms to lull then startle us.  “Marx on Box,” for example, is a wonderful riff on Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, set in the streets of Seattle during the WTO riots.  (He reads it in the video below, but he is far too modest a reader.  I am giddy with admiration for the book and I would like to be able to share a clip of a much more animated reading.)

In “The Very Hungry Capitalist,” the capitalist’s feast climaxes thusly:

On Friday he ate up all the funding for social housing, public transportation, feminist research, environmental initiatives, unemployment insurance, universal daycare, Native land claims, and all the funding for the arts.

That night he felt a little guilty.

If you recognize the original and you sympathize with the sentiment, then this book is meant for you. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and even Go the Fuck to Sleep, gave me a chuckle, but the joke wears out quickly; it’s novelty comedy.  Parody is the frame for what Stephen Cain is doing here, but the value of the satirical commentary in the poems is far deeper and far more resonant.  This is a book for adults, particularly left-leaning adults with children to whom they have read the originals of these poems over and over and over again.  Parody with a healthy dose of moral outrage.

The illustrations by Clelia Scala work perfectly with the text, with collages that pair familiar images from fifties domestic scenes and Victorian illustration, with memento mori that highlight the theme of death and destruction in so many of the poems. 

Stephen Cain’s modest demeanour does not do justice to how fantastic I think this book is, but if you want to hear the author read some of the poems, here he is reading from the collection

and here is in an interview about the book.

Thanks again, Greg and Lisa, for doing my holiday shopping for me.  I will be buying multiple copies of this book for gifts this year.

(This post is cross-posted at Nathalie Foy on Books about Books.)

Names that Tether Our Selves to the World

I have always liked my name.  Nathalie is not a common name, nor is it unfamiliar to most people.  This is a balance that gives me a deep sense of rightness.  It just fits. 

I was named by my father after a song sung by Gilbert Becaud about a Russian tour guide

La place Rouge était vide
Devant moi marchait Nathalie
Il avait un joli nom, mon guide
Nathalie

La place Rouge était blanche
La neige faisait un tapis
Et je suivais par ce froid dimanche
Nathalie

I grew up hearing my name sung by both Becaud and my father.  Sunday mornings, the record player crooned my name.  My father liked to sing ahead of the song by a few bars, so I’d hear him sing it first.  I liked that, too. 

When Ted and I browsed the baby books, our criteria were similar.  We wanted names that were not unheard of, but also not common.  Our sons are named Griffin, Rowan and Gavin.  Their middle names honour our fathers and forefathers, but their first names are theirs alone. 

One of the criteria that also began to form itself as we chose the names was that we liked names that had concrete references: a thing outside of the name to which the name points.  The Griffin is a mythical beast, the Rowan a tree with thick bunches of red berries, and Gavin means “white hawk.”   

For Gavin, we claim most birds of prey as his avatar, white hawks being sometimes hard to come by.  When we see a hawk, white or not, we name it and our earthbound world is momentarily expanded.  And, of course, Gawain and the Green Knight is his incarnation on the page.

For Rowan, the streets of our city are filled with rowan trees which are just now beginning to fruit, and he can see and touch and find shade under a tree that bears his name.  In David Wiesner’s The Loathsome Dragon, the hero rescues his sister with the aid of a ship with a magic keel made of rowan wood.  It really does make the story more exciting when Rowan can partake of that magic. 

When we named Griffin, we did not know that Maurice Sendak had been to the Lillian H. Smith library in Toronto and had been inspired by the griffin guarding its doors.  His griffin has appeared in several of his books, books we read regularly in these parts, and we rejoice at the connection.  I have collected all of the griffin paraphernalia from the library, including book plates and the griffin brooch, and that, too, gives me a deep sense of happiness.  Our Griffin: my son, our library, and one of our favourite illustrators all rolled into one.  Griffin himself gets a thrill of recognition whenever he encounters a mention of the mythical beast, as he did just this evening when we were reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  I was reading aloud, and he stopped me and asked how it was spelled, and when I said, g-r-i-f-f-i-n, he pumped his fist in celebration. 

What is it that he and I celebrate in seeing, hearing, and feeling our boys’ names in other contexts?  I think it is a joy at hearing something so deeply personal as a name in a context outside of ourselves, and in feeling ourselves tethered to the world.

On the Canadian Flyer for Adventure

My boys really enjoyed the popular Magic Tree House series written by American author Mary Pope Osborne. In it, brother and sister Jack and Annie travel back in time through the conveyance of a mysterious, magical treehouse.  The series captures the interests of children between the ages of six and nine (dinosaurs! pirates! princesses! ninjas!) and teaches them about both world and American history in a fun (for a child) and engaging way.

My only regret while sharing these books with my children, and this is not a criticism of the series per se, was that the series is so focused on American history.  So I was pleased to find a similarly-themed series of Canadian books, called the Canadian Flyer Adventures series. Like the kids in the Magic Tree House series, the protagonists of the Canadian Flyer Adventures series use a magical conveyance (this time, an antique sled that had belonged to one character’s grandmother) to travel back in time to places and events of importance in Canadian history: through these books, we’ve visited L’Anse aux Meadows, what is now the Alberta Badlands during the time of the dinosaurs, and Alexander Graham Bell’s home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. We’ve learned about the Underground Railroad and what it was like in to live in Canada during the second World War.   Each book provides the reader with a series of quick facts about each topic, as well. While not quite as comprehensive as the Magic Tree House series, the Canadian Flyer Adventure series books provide an adventure-filled and interesting introduction to Canadian history for the junior school set. I recommend them to your budding Canadian historians.

Kids’ Books about Books

Over at my other blog, I review books about books: books about bookstores, libraries, book collecting, publishing, dictionaries.  Like that.  I collect them, and I started blogging about them as a way to structure and speed up my reading of my increasingly unmanageable collection.  It hasn’t really slowed the collecting, but it has given it structure and my blog has given me a lovely sense of a bookish community.

And because my love for books about books does not stop with my own collection, I always have a sharp eye out for kids’ books about books.  Last week, we got two new books.

Lane Smith’s It’s a Book is a book I’ve been looking forward to getting for several months, now, since reading about it over at Curious Pages.  The premise is that a book-loving monkey is repeatedly distracted from his reading by an obnoxious techie Jackass, who keeps mistaking the book for a computer/e-reader/i-phone.  (Much ink has been spilt about the “scandal” of having a character called Jackass.  Come on, people.) 

Jackass: Does it tweet?

Monkey: No, it’s a book.

Here is the book trailer.

Now I am firmly in favour of books in their paper form, and I have yet to be convinced of the joy of reading on an e-reader.  I am a prime audience member for monkey’s simple refrain: It’s a book.  The premise, the illustrations and the dialogue all tickled me pink, and I love the book. 

The boys?  Meh.  They don’t really know about tweeting and Kindles and such.  It did not grab Rowan’s attention, he’s five, and Griffin, who is nine and gets the references to the technology, is too old for this picture book format.  (He’s now reading The Hunger Games.) 

The other book about books was a much bigger hit: Mo Willems’s We Are in a Book!, part of the Elephant and Piggie early reader series.  Mo Willems is one of my favourite children’s author-illustrators, and the Elephant and Piggie books are, hands down, the most entertaining and engaging early readers I have come across.  The challenge for the author is enormous: a very limited vocabulary with which to tell an entertaining story that adults and children will want to read multiple times.  Willems’s books fairly overflow with personality, and each book stands up to dozens of rereadings.  This one is exceptionally good, and, in fact, explicitly invites multiple readings per sitting.  This is, after all, a goal when the idea is for the early reader to master the words in the book. 

Elephant and Piggie begin to realize that someone is watching them, and when they get up close and look out of the book, they discover that that someone is a reader!

Well, imagine the delight when your little reader is so-named by the very book s/he’s reading!  Rowan was just flush with pride and delight.

Once they know they have a captive audience, Elephant and Piggie get up to all kinds of tricks, and they had me in belly laughs.  Willems’s illustrations of the usually serious and worried Elephant in hysterical laughter are simply marvelous.  The hilarity is infectious, and we all, even Gavin, 2, had long, deep draughts of laughter. 

A clever meta-textual element to the story, lots and lots of laughs, and a built-in inducement to read it again, and again, and again.  A very big hit.  With all of us.

It holds a special place in my heart, too, because this is the first book that Rowan has read (almost) independently.  He’s a reader.

If you like the idea of kids’ books about books, here are some other picture book titles:

The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, in which the pigs escape the story itself and not just the big, bad wolf.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, in which a fairy tale does not end in marriage.

The Incredible Book-Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers, in which a boy learns the contents of books by eating them, and then comes a cropper.

And for older readers:

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, in which the characters in books come to life when the books are read aloud.

Do you have any favourite kids’ books about books?