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jdee

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organized.jpgSee that? Up there on the top of the right hand column!

That’s right — I’ve decided to keep a small compendium of my favorite snippets of info gleaned from the kidlitosphere from the past few days. Doesn’t it look all lovely, streamlined, and alphabetized?  (Just like those numerical binders!)

Alas, figuring out how to make that thing ate up my alloted blogging time for the day. And . . . someone has stolen my copy of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin off my desk, so I can’t write about it tonight as planned. Is someone sabotaging my blog? Or do I just need to clean my desk off more often?

(Don’t answer that.)

In Other News, I feel it would be remiss unless I mention the main reason why my work on this blog has been shortened to weekends only: I’ve started a second blog about my family. I’m just figuring that, thirty years from now, I’ll be happier that I spent more time recording The Tale of Eleanor vs. The Blue Marker, or The Tale of the Embalming of My Glasses, or The Tale of the Lamest Game of Charades Ever than, say, my thoughts on How the Hangman Lost His Heart (and, for the record — it’s pretty swell).

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Ooooooh. It’s only February, and I already know what I want for Christmas:

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“Yeah,” you may say. “I’ve seen tabletop theaters before.” Take a closer gander:

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Those are tiny little marionettes! With spiffy little 3D pop-up scenery! You can do your own rendition of the “Lonely Herdsman” from The Sound of Music! Also:

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It does shadow puppets, too. A feature after my own heart. Pretty, although a bit pricey.

Learn more here. Thanks to Planet Esme for the info.

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groundhog.jpgAs a Pittsburgher, Groundhog Day is something of a Big Deal — admittedly, not a tremendously big deal — something on a scale between President’s Day and a Steelers Super Bowl win. We’re the closest major city to Punxutawney, the home of Groundhog Phil, who is the designated rodent for predicting the weather via shadow. (Yes, I know you probably knew that. But there are many who don’t. My father once spent a Feb. 2nd on an airplane next to a British gent. Said gent listened to my father’s explanation of the day and seriously thought he was getting his leg pulled. If you really need to know All the Facts, go to groundhog.org, where you can find interesting tidbits such as the fact that Phil was, until the reign of King Philip, once known simply as “Br’er Groundhog.” Huh.)

I meant to pull together a full Baker’s Dozen booklist of the best Groundhog Day books, but to tell the truth, there really aren’t that many worth getting excited about. My library system buys every single Groundhog Day-related book it can get its paws on, and Lo, many are lame. There’s one that actually called — I kid you not — “Andrew McGroundhog and His Shady Shadow.”  (Can a shadow be anything besides shady?  The word makes it sound as if the shadow was up to dodgy dealings in some dark alley.)  But here’s what is worth taking a gander at:

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Note: A common theme I’ve noticed with these books is that the plot usually goes like this: Joe Groundhog is about to predict the weather.  An Obstacle prevents him from doing this.  Joe racks brain, overcomes Obstacle via Clever Solution, does/doesn’t see shadow and Life is Good.  I understand that there’s only so much a person can do with this nutty wannabe holiday, but really.  The repetition made me a little jaded at the end of writing this booklist, and I’m only annotating five books.

Substitute Groundhog by Pat Miller —   In this case, the groundhog is sick and must interview other animals to take his place for the Big Day.  But I’m not complaining in this case — the text is funny and interesting enough to get a roomful of preschoolers to engage in some creative thinking about what animal they would choose for the job.

Gregory’s Shadow by Don Freeman — This title was published posthumously by Freeman’s estate, and as a result, the illustrations look a little sketchy and unfinished, but I don’t mind.  He who gave the world Corduroy can do little wrong, in my opinion.  In this sweet story, Gregory’s best friend and confidante is his shadow, but when Greg accidentally leaves his shadow on a friend’s doorstep, it disappears.  How will Gregory do his weather forecast without it?  There’s a sweet solution, but the what’s appealing to me is the whole notion that a shadow can be lost — as I child, I encountered this idea in Peter Pan and Jack Kent’s The Biggest Shadow in the Zoo.  Chances are, your kids will think it interesting, too.

Go to Sleep, Groundhog! by Judy Cox, illus. Paul Meisel — Hibernation takes a holiday — three of them, in fact — when Groundhog decides to wake up earlier than Feb. 2nd and experiences Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas for the first time.  Fearing that he will be too tired to predict the weather (see what I mean by this pattern?) various holiday characters — Santa, a witch, etc. — take turns tucking groundhog back in.  Meisel’s acrylics are colorful, bold, and full of fun details — who wouldn’t want to be sung lullabyes by a Thanksgiving turkey?

The Secret of the First One Up by Lois Hiskey, illus. Renee Graef — the story gets cuteseyfied in this book, and by that, I mean that the illustrations feature a groundhog sporting a waistcoat and bow tie.  Which I think is pretty wonderful.  All groundhogs should, by law, be required to wear bow ties.  But, anyway, in this story, a young groundhog discovers why her Uncle Wilbur is always the first to rise on Groundhog’s Day (I, uh, won’t give away the obvious reason why).  But it’s neat to see the Groundhog Ur-Story done over as a passing-of-the-torch kind of family tradition.  Besides, most little kids I know wake up at the crack o’ dawn anyway, and this book does a good job at capturing that bit of magic at being the first one up and about in the house.

Punxutawney Phyllis by Susanna Leonard Hill, illus. Jeffrey Ebbeler — Phyllis wants to predict the weather — BUT — her family won’t let her because she’s a girl.  When she decides to take up the job anyway, she proves to be superior to her Uncle Phil (the current official forecaster) and proves that Girls Can Too.  Okay, okay — I do seem a little jaded with this book.  But you read the note at the beginning, right?  The redeeming part of this book are Ebbeler’s illustrations.  Oh, how I loves them cute groundhog clothes.  They really are adorable lil’ cuddly animals.

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peter-rabbit-cover.jpgPeter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.

Here’s why I love this book: it uses the word “implored.” Also “dreadfully,” “fortnight,” and “chamomile.” There are a lot of abominable dumbed-down versions of this story on the market, and I detest them all. Not just because it marrs with perfection, but because I’ve learned that the prose of Beatrix Potter has a similar-yet-gentler effect as that of Shakespeare: when you read it out loud, you sound like an embroidered-tongued GENIUS. Even the bunnies’ names ring out with a simple rhythm that I love: “Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”

This book is the Big One — the Potter story that just about every kid in the English-speaking world is somewhat familiar with; if not with the story, then with the cartoon, the film, the puppet show (my library puts on one of these every spring), or the various P.R. merchandise that was invariably given to their parents at a baby shower. (The levels of Peter merchandise is astounding — almost reaching Pooh-levels of stuff.)

It’s also one of the few Potter books that I have a strong memory of being read to by my mother. I still remember dutifully repeating the Moral of the Story afterwards to her, and feeling awfully lucky that I wasn’t as naughty as poor Peter. There’s something to be said for that little feeling of smugness that comes with a book wherein the protagonist is far, far dumber than you are.

Let’s start with the pie, shall we? I love how specific Mother Rabbit is with her warning: not to stay away from Mr. McGregor’s garden because of “danger” or “Because I Told You To,” but because “your father had an accident there; he was put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” And yet — “accident.” As if — whoops! — Mrs. McGregor mixed up her bunnies and cherries and put Father Rabbit in a pie by mistake. Silly misunderstanding, that.

Peter, one of the great dim bulbs of children’s literature, runs off to the garden the secondpeter-rabbit.jpg Ma makes for the bakery (oh, how I love the way his jacket turns up at the edges when he ignores his mum!). He then proceeds to stuff his bunny belly until he is sick, setting an odd custom in the Potter books — characters who eat lots of vegetables almost always end up getting sick. Alert the pediatric nutritionists, if you will.

Then — the exciting part of the book! Mr. McGregor pops up from behind a cucumber frame and proceeds to chase our hero until he’s in naught but his nuddy-pants, but then — just gives up. No, he doesn’t fall down a cliff like a Disney villain, or get outwitted by Peter, he’s just “tired of running after Peter” and goes back to his work.

It’s here that I really notice what makes the Potter books different from other stories with anthropomorphized animals — although they walk, talk, and wear clothes, humans and animals tend to have the same kinds of relationships as they would in the real world — that of hunter/prey, or bandit/gardener, in this case. Mr. McGregor responds to Peter in the way that any middle-aged gardener would — he chases him for a while, then gives up — and Peter is very bunnyish in that he spends most of the book randomly running around scared without any sense of direction.

It’s that lack of direction that makes the middle of this story sag a bit; Peter runs in random circles around the garden before finding his way out (again, not through wit or cleverness, but by randomly passing the gate through which he came in). Every kid I’ve read this story to tends to get bored during this part. But perhaps Edwardian children knew more about the various pitfalls lurking in an English kitchen garden. Beware the white cat! Look out for that gooseberry net! The SIEVE! Stay away from the SIEVE!!!

Finally, Peter escapes, his clothes are scarecrow-ed, and once at home he is punished with — oh no . . . I can’t even type it! Camomile tea.

Nooooo! Er, well . . . I suppose I’d yell “noooo!” if I’d ever drunk camomile tea.

Again, this is something that I think the children of 1902 would appreciate more than the kids of today. Except maybe the children of hippie herbal tea enthusiasts.

However, every kid, Edwardian or not, can appreciate the good bunnies’ reward: “Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper.” That’s good eatin’, folks.

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A few days ago, Fuse #8 posted a bit of news saying that Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed was going to be shown at a theater in Brooklyn.  It made me so happy — as some of you may know from this previous post, I’m something of a shadow puppet enthusiast and a definite fan of Reiniger’s work.

Case in point: this past Saturday I did a shadow puppet production of Hansel & Gretel at my library.  I think it turned out rather cute, so I thought I’d share a few images with you.

The first show our hero and heroine (volunteer kids from the audience) talking to their father in the forest.

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Here the kids look hungrily at the fabulous gingerbread house.

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Lastly, the evil witch casts a spell on Hansel.  See that green glow?  That’s the magic spell.  Green is always the color of magic, right?

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The more astute among you will see the great debt I owe to David Wisniewski’s Worlds of Shadow for this production.  If you’re interested in shadow puppetry, I highly recommend picking up a copy.

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This was how the holiday bake-o-rama turned out:

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Not bad, if I do say so myself.  It wasn’t as complicated as it looks — all of these cookies came from the same batch of dough, believe it or not.  The orange cookies with the chocolate drizzle are what the spritz cookies turned into.  Delicious to the hilt; I sure hope my neighbors like ’em as much as I do.

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