Nightmares and Beasts for Children

The 2012 “Books That Made Me Love Reading” Challenge: February Edition

Hello all! It’s been a while since the last time I posted anything on the blog. I’m sorry I’ve been so absent, but I’m seriously drowning in work right now. BUT, I decided to give myself a bit of a break today. I’ve caught up on a tv show a started watching a few weeks ago, called Lost Girl (totally fun show, by the way), and I made myself an enormous sub sandwich for lunch, and now I’m taking the time to write a couple blog posts.

For today, I have two more books for the “Books That Made Me Love Reading” Challenge.  Like last time, they are picture books (they’re short and quick to read in what little spare time I have, and I just love them).

Fore info on the Challenge, see Emlyn Chand’s post: “The Books That Made Me Love Reading Challenge.”

For January’s edition, see “How Alexander and Garfield’s Terrible Days Made Me a Writer.”

First, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer:

Let’s be honest: EVERYTHING Mercer Mayer does is completely awesome. I love every picture book he has ever done.  But I think this one might be my favorite.  My mother read it to me so many times when I was growing up, I could probably STILL recite most of it.  This book, about a boy who decides to confront the scary monster in his closet only to discover it’s as scared as he is, is so easy for children to relate to, and so adorably illustrated, how could you HELP but love it?

The funny thing is, I don’t remember EVER being afraid of monsters in my closet or under my bed.  Maybe it’s because my mother read it to me at a young enough age that I learned that monsters were scared of me before I was even old enough to be scared of them first?  I have no idea.  I was, admittedly, always scared of the possibility of things being right outside my window (and still am, quite frankly), the whole monster-under-the-bed (or in the closet or basement) thing never really occurred to me.  *shrug*

I just sat down to read this book again (I bought a copy at Barnes & Noble recently expressly for this purpose, as my mother’s original copy was destroyed in a flood, like many of our books, a few years ago), and it’s as wonderful as I remember it.  I like to think that this book has helped many children learn to not be afraid at night over the years.  It’s hard to tell how much a book really helps with things like that.  Maybe it’s more about how the parents deal with such situations.  But it’s still nice to think books like this help.  In any case, this book still makes me smile.

With pictures like this, is it any wonder?

For the curious, Mercer Mayer also wrote There’s An Alligator Under My Bed, and There’s Something in the Attic, which are along the same vein, and both equally adorable.

Second, Beauty and the Beast, retold and illustrated by Jan Brett:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love fairy tales.  I’ve read many, many versions of Beauty and the Beast (and seen many film and tv versions as well), but Jan Brett’s rendition is still one of my favorites.  Brett was mainly inspired by the version of the tale as told by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, which was published in 1910.  The story itself doesn’t change too much from the version most people are familiar with (merchant cuts a rose from the beast’s garden and Beauty goes back in his place, etc etc etc).  What really makes this version so special are the illustrations.

For me, a picture book is ALL about the illustrations (it’s a PICTURE book for cryin’ out loud!).  Obviously, the story should be good or cute or easy for kids to relate to, but I will not by a picture book that doesn’t have outstanding art.  And this one (like everything Jan Brett does) has it.

Don’t believe me? Here:

Picture books like this, with detailed, luscious, colorful, elegant, BEAUTIFUL art, opens my mind up to joy and wonder and possibility just as much as a story does.  A good picture book reminds me of the wonders and beauties of the world, of people, of imagination.  This picture book (as well as many others) is the reason I really wish my artistic skills were more up-to-par.  I really want to write and illustrate a picture book someday.  My drawing skills are… okay… but not great, and finding the time to improve (on top of the million-and-one other things I do) has proven difficult.  I’ll probably have to cave in and collaborate with an artist if I ever want to get that picture book idea off the ground.

But I guess we’ll see.

So, there a couple more of my favorite children’s picture books.  There’s plenty more where that came from, but I think these are the last ones I’ll do for the “Books That Made Me Love Reading” Challenge.  Maybe I’ll get around to sharing more from my picture book collection one of these days.  In the mean time, which picture books do you still love?

How Alexander and Garfield’s Terrible Days Made Me A Writer

January Entry for the “Books That Made Me Love Reading” Challenge:

As you may recall, I joined two reading challenges this year, the 2012 TBR Pile Reading Challenge, and the “Books That Made Me Love Reading” Challenge (click the image above to go to the info page for that challenge).  I posted my first review for the TBR Pile Reading Challenge last week, which you can read here: “A Review of Angela Kulig’s Skeleton Lake #1.”

Now, it’s time for my first post for the second challenge.  I decided to start from the beginning, with some of the picture books that were particularly special to me as a child.

And I’m starting with Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz.

“What’s so special about this book?” you might ask.  Well, beside that fact that it is a wonderful, fun, beautifully-illustrated picture book, it was one of the first things that ever contributed to my path toward being a writer.

In second grade, each class had a mascot.  In my class, that mascot was Garfield.  Drawings of him littered the room, we had a stuff doll of Garfield, and everyone took turns taking him home for weekends to “babysit,” for which we all wrote little journals about the things we did together.

Now, in second grade, we read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day in class in one.  And we all enjoyed it so much, that we decided as a class to write our own version of the book with Garfield as the star.  Each student was in charge of writing and drawing a single page.  We worked on these for at least two weeks, in between our other classroom assignments.  And I worked diligently to make sure every word was spelled correctly, every letter was written with perfectly straight, neat lines, and my drawing was as close to the real Garfield as possible.  It was my pride and joy.

At my elementary school (the third elementary school I was at, actually), Montclair Elementary School in Virginia, the school had an ABSOLUTELY wonderful program unlike most schools I’ve been to (and I’ve been to many), called Quill and Scroll.  First: the school had a program for which we could by small hand-bound, cloth-covered booklets with blank pages, and write our own little stories in them.  They would also take already written pages to laminate and then bind them with wire rings.  And THEN, once a month, the library hosted a Quill and Scroll Night, during which any student could read what they had written to an audience of students, teachers, and parents.

Our class had our book, Garfield and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, laminated and bound.  And then, in a vote, I was given the honor to read the whole book at Quill and Scroll Night in front of my mother, my friends, the teachers, the other parents.  I was horribly nervous (I didn’t then, and still don’t, do well in front of audiences of any size), but also ridiculously proud.

The book stayed in the second grade classroom, to be shown as an example to future students.  I can’t really remember what my page look liked, or what we all wrote exactly.  But I remember that experience to this day, and always will.

Reading Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day again this morning (yes, I own a copy – I’m working a collection of picture books, in fact), makes me remember with vividness the hilarity and joy we got from the book in second grade.  As Alexander awakens to gum in his hair, stubs his toe, is forced to eat lima beans, and endures all manner of other horrible things, we could all relate to his plight.  Because who among us didn’t hate eating lima beans (and probably still DO hate them)?  Who among us hasn’t had one of those days when absolutely everything manages to go wrong?  And that’s the joy of writing: even when you write things that are strange, unique, or absolutely off-the-wall, you can find a way to make it relatable for people.

That’s what a good book does.  That’s what makes me love reading.  And what makes me love writing.

So, does anybody else remember that book with fondness?  What picture books really inspired you? Or made you extra-happy?  I’d love to hear about them!

My Heart Has Joined the Thousand: Watership Down

Bookworm Wednesday: Watership Down

“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”

— Lapine Mourning for the Dead, Richard Adams, Watership Down

(I would like to take just a moment to once again thank the WordPress admin people for featuring my post about Literary Tattoos on Freshly Pressed, and to thank all the lovely people who liked my post, left wonderful thoughtful comments, or even subscribed to the blog.  Thank you all.)

Last Friday, in my post about literary tattoos, I mentioned that I was thinking about getting a tattoo based on Richard Adam’s novel Watership Down, and it occurred to me that I’ve never written a blog about that book.  Which is a travesty that must be rectified, as it is not only one of my favorite books but also an absolute classic.

Fiver and Hazel

Watership Down, by British author Richard Adams (1920–), tells the story of a group of rabbits who escape the destruction of their warren by a humans and must face a number of trials and dangers in order to find a safe place to live.  The main characters are the rabbits Hazel and Fiver.  Hazel is the leader of the group of rabbits who escape the warren, though he is not the biggest or strongest, he is loyal, brave, and clever.  Fiver is Hazel’s brother and a runt; he is a seer who has visions of danger, is highly intelligent and intuitive.  (Fiver is also my favorite character.  I identify with him quite strongly.)

It is Fiver’s warning that allows the rabbits to escape the destruction of their warren at the beginning of the book, as well as several other dangers throughout their epic journey.  Some of these dangers include hunters and dogs, but the largest threat is from another warren.  The main antagonist of the novel is General Woundwort, the tyrannical leader of the Efrafa warren, who rules his warren with brutal efficiency, and kills any dissenters.

El-Ahrairah and Frith

While the rabbits live in the wild (and Adams based much of their behavior on The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley), they are obviously anthropomorphized.  They have a system of government, language, poetry, proverbs, and religion.  Their god is Frith (meaning ‘sun’ in Lapine); their mythical founder El-Ahrairah, The Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and their grim reaper is The Black Rabbit of Inle (Inle meaning either ‘moon’ or ‘darkness’ in Lapine).

The name of the novel comes from the place the rabbits are trying to reach, Watership Down (down as in hill) a real hill in the north of Hampshire, England, near where Adams grew up.  In fact, several of the locations described in the novel, including the farm, are based upon real locations.

According to an audio interview with Richard Adams (found here), the novel began as a series of stories he told to his two daughters, based on some of the struggles he and his friends encountered in the Battle of Oosterbeek, Amhem, the Netherlands, in 1944.  His daughters insisted her write the stories down, but the resultant novel was rejected 13 times before it was finally got picked up in 1972 by a small publisher who could not even afford to give Adams an advance.

Now, it has been made into a movie (1978) and a television show (1999-2001), and it is Penguin Books’ best-selling novel of all time.

Watership Down follows many of the tropes of classic epic storytelling, exploring themes of exile, survival, heroism, political responsibility, and the “making of a hero and a community.”  Many critics have drawn comparisons between Watership Down and the Aeneid or the Odyssey.  And many of the themes of the novel were, without a doubt, influenced by Adams’ reading of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

Watership Down is incredibly touching, suspenseful, intense, and beautiful.  Adams ability to balance a wide range of main and secondary characters, a adventurous plot, and lyrical almost philosophical prose is downright magical.  It is one of those novels that will never leave me, and I hope I may one day be able to read it to my children (or my friends’ children, which is more likely).

If you’ve only seen the movie, or if you’ve never even heard of it before now (though that’s probably unlikely), you definitely need to read this book.  In my opinion, everyone over the age of 10 needs to read this book.

“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

Richard Adams, Watership Down

If you have read it, please feel free to chime in!  Favorite characters?  Favorite scenes?  Favorite lines?  I’ll be honest, if you didn’t like the book, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it.  You might break my heart.