Matilda: The Book For Book Lovers

Roald Dahl was born 100 years ago today. He delighted so much in absolutes and extremes, I think he would have loved reaching such a nice, round, very-old age. Or maybe he just knew how delightful children find absolutes and extremes: so many of his characters are the worst (like Miss Trunchbull) or the best (Miss Honey) or otherwise the tallest or luckiest or poorest or … I don’t know, adrift in a giant peach, for example. Point is, nobody is ordinary or middling in the world of Roald Dahl. One of Dahl’s most extraordinary creations is Matilda Wormwood, the mischievous, telekinetic child genius of Matilda.

It’s funny: Matilda is unlike any child or adult I’ve encountered, but among my closest friends and favorite people I count a disproportionate number who once felt that they were just like her. I longed to be acknowledged as a kindergarten super-genius like Matilda, but something about her character made me feel seen.  If you identified with Matilda too, then you can already guess what I loved about her: not the mischief or the magic, but the transformative power of reading. Matilda is about belonging and overcoming, but it is above all a book for book lovers.

Matilda was the only character I remember putting voice to that frustration most child bookworms have: not being allowed to read enough. Matilda’s parents don’t think reading is important, but they also don’t think that Matilda is important; Matilda’s trips to the library are the largesse of their negligence. Mrs. Phelps, an elderly librarian who is just trying her best, directs Matilda to the children’s books then is astonished when Matilda makes her way through all of them in weeks.

When I was 7, I saw this as evidence that I was just as special as Matilda. I despaired during every second grade library trip. We were only supposed to get books from the picture book area, yet outside of school I had already blown through the Baby-Sitters Club and Nancy Drew and was on to Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. Now I realize that Matilda’s frustration is common to a certain type of kid. Almost every child who loves to read feels dismissed by teachers or parents who confine them to the “baby” books that are appropriate to their grade. I still remember my grandmother telling me that she used to check out so many books from the library that the librarian confronted her mother, insisting no child that small could be reading that much. This was in the early 1930s. Matilda was singular, but there sure are a lot of Matildas.

If you identified with Matilda as a young book lover, you probably related to her take on material that was a little out of her grasp. Look at her opinion of Hemingway:

Mr. Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand, especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.

When I was re-reading Matilda I had to stop and go back over that sentence, because that was it. That was exactly how it was reading adult books as a small child. Sure, I followed the basic plot of Emma and Jane Eyre in fourth grade, but sometimes the adult’s motives and experiences were beyond my reach. I was good at reading, but I still hadn’t lived more than nine years. Still, isn’t that also how LIFE was when you were a small child? You couldn’t make sense of adults’ actions all of the time, but you still observed them.  It was so validating to read about another kid who could comprehend all of the words on a page, but not really get the subtext – yet still love what she was reading.  Plenty of A Midsummer Night’s Dream didn’t make sense when I was very young, but I knew enough to know that it was beautiful. It’s why Matilda whispered “it’s like music” after Miss Honey recited Dylan Thomas.

In the film adaptation of Matilda, the narrator says that authors cast out their books “like ships onto the sea.” I love that simile – authors work and dream and agonize, but they have little say over the fate of their books once they’re published. But like Matilda – and THROUGH Matilda – sometimes the right one drifts to you and takes you along:

The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.

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Mama From ‘All-Of-A-Kind Family’ Was Some Kind Of Genius: C+S Book Club

Sweep out the sukkah and check the china shepherdess for buttons, because it’s time for another edition of C+S Book Club! Rather than lamenting that Amy March is a total bitch, or revealing that Marilla Cuthbert was, in fact, a creepy church hag, today we’re going to talk about someone who is better than you and I could ever dream of being: Mama from Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-A-Kind Family. Mama was so clever and calculating that I almost wanted to call her an evil genius, but she was also the kindest, most chill mother in RL-4 chapter book history.

Look. I don’t have children. But I did read that one book about how our children would be classier if we raised them like French children, and I’ve seen some episodes of SuperNanny, which is a show about how our children would be classier if we raised them like British children from 1905. Plus I’ve read those articles that Facebook friends post about why children shouldn’t have technology and fast food, as well as those other articles that Facebook friends post about why children should have technology and fast food. And let me tell you: not a ONE of those so-called experts had anything on Mama. Case in point: her dusting scheme.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then chances are you didn’t read All-Of-A-Kind Family. If you did read it, the dusting ploy is seared in your memory along with chocolate babies and that time Henny got lost in Coney Island. (FREAKING HENNY, am I right?) The chapter was titled Dusting Is Fun, because it was 1951 and Sydney Taylor didn’t really have to try (honestly, what was her competition in children’s entertainment? The show Lassie. That’s it.). By the end of that chapter you, a grubby-faced 90s kid wearing a t-shirt decorated with puff paint, wished you were an old-fashioned child in the Lower East Side dusting for free. And for fun. That is how powerful Mama’s dusting plot was.

Ready for the scheme IN ITS ENTIRITY? Hold on to your pinafore. Mama hid buttons around the front parlor. By the way, their house only had like 4 rooms and one of them was a parlor used strictly for fancy decorations and pianos, that’s how high-class Mama was. Okay, so then the dusting girl had to find all of the buttons while she was dusting. Also Mama got straight-up sneaky with it, like those buttons were under table legs and piano keys. You had to DUST. IT. UP. If you found all of the buttons, you had done a good job dusting.

All right, let’s talk about the genius parts of this plan:

  1. The girls never knew how many buttons there were. Say you’ve found 5 buttons. You couldn’t just call it quits at that point, because maybe there were 9 buttons that day. You had to dust every damn thing, and only then could you be sure you had all of the buttons.
  2. Mama kept it fresh. Sometimes she’d bring out the buttons a few times a week, and sometimes she’d wait two weeks because what did she care, she had those little dusting girls under her spell and they would WAIT FOR IT. They’d wait for those buttons.
  3. In case you missed it, the prize was that you had done a good job dusting. Mama raised her kids to want to do a very good job at something because it feels good to know that you’ve done a very good job. Mama quarantined four children with scarlet fever in a spotless 4-room apartment during Passover; she knew that you didn’t get a ticker tape parade every time you did a damn chore.
  4. But Mama was the best ever because one week she hid a penny every day. Judging by how much candy the girls could buy for a penny, it was basically a dollar. Do you know how great it is to find a dollar when you’re cleaning? Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie sure do.

Mama wasn’t all dusting and parlors, though. She also was really good looking. The girls introduced her to the Library Lady and they were so proud because even though she had, at the time, 5 children, she didn’t look like the other women in the neighborhood: “like mattresses tied about the middle.” Which admittedly sounds harsh, but you know exactly what they mean. I’m sure they’d all love Mama just as much if she were a lumpy mattress-lady, but the point is Mama had a whole bunch of kids and her figure and outfits were still on point.

While Mama enforced rules, she was lenient when it mattered. When Sarah made that big fuss about not eating her rice soup that one day, Mama stuck to her guns, but once Sarah had a few bites of the gross congealed soup she let her move onto something more appetizing. (I loved re-reading that chapter, because it so reminded me of when you’d get stubborn about something or throw a fit as a kid, and you wouldn’t even know why you were doing it, but you couldn’t will yourself to stop.) And when Gertie and Charlotte used their pennies to buy candy and crackers and ate them in bed, Mama played it like she had no clue, just because it makes kids feel smart and important having a secret.

The All-Of-A-Kind Family was medium-poor. They were second generation-ish Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1912 long before their neighborhood became some sort of real estate holding for foreign billionaires. However, Papa had a scrap shop and they lived on one floor of a house instead of in a crowded tenement, so they were doing pretty okay. Mama was really good at being medium-poor. She was frugal where it counted, but she still allowed for splurges like a trip to Coney Island, or a treat when they went to the market.

If I can have one quibble about Mama, it’s that she finally had a boy and she named it Charlie. Look. One of my favorite real-life little boys is named Charley. It’s a great name. PLUS Adult Charlie from the book is such a cool grownup. You spend the whole time hoping that he and the Library Lady will meet and hit it off and … well. You know the rest. (Also: another post about the Library Lady, maybe?). So it’s great that Mama names a kid after him. It’s just … Mama. Did you forget you already have a Charlotte? She’s going to have so much Middle Child Syndrome. On the whole Mama picked good names – Library Lady even said! – so I can’t be too annoyed. And at least she didn’t name him after Uncle Hyman.

Library Lady = the Miss Honey of this series.

If I have kids, I’m going to skip the parenting guide telling me to make my children be more French. I’ll bypass the naughty step. I’ll steer clear of the Facebook click-bait. As far as I’m concerned, the best parenting guide there is this one weird old chapter book with no real plot. If I am even 1/10th of the benevolent evil genius Mama is, I think my kids would turn out just fine.

 

When Heaven Was A Scholastic Book Order

“Take one and pass the rest back.” In elementary school in the 1990s, those seven words were the key to every bookworm’s dream world. It was a Friday afternoon, your teacher didn’t care anymore, and you had 15 minutes to leaf through four very filmy pages of the Scholastic Book Order — which was like the Sears Wish Book for a very specific type of kid.

When I think back on it, the whole thing was so 90s, and not in that cute fake way of tumblr fashion blogs.  We had to mark the books we wanted in pen, copy the order numbers onto the form on the back, and then ask for a check from our parents. An honest-to-goodness CHECK, like they probably have in history museums now.

In hindsight, the whole system seems fraught with error and it almost feels like a miracle that any of us got the books we asked for. But one day a few weeks later you’d spot those Scholastic boxes in the front of the classroom, and sure enough there was the 3-pack of Ella Enchanted, Catherine Called Birdy, and The Witch Of Blackbird Pond, just like you ordered. I imagine this trio was called The Future NPR Listeners Sampler, or the Someday You’ll Own Cats Club Pack.

The real Cadillac of the Scholastic order was the club subscription (usually located on the back page, lower right, if memory serves). You’d get a new book every month and a pointless academic accessory like a pencil topper. Pencil toppers were cool then, okay? They were like the iPhone covers of 1996. Plus there were special bonuses, like a cassette tape featuring an interview with Ann M. Martin if you joined the Baby-Sitters Club Club (I assume it had a better name, but honestly maybe not). Let that sink in for a while. Before internet,if you wanted to learn about an author who wasn’t in the encyclopedia, you had to fill out a paper order, send a check, and then listen to an audio cassette.

Ann M. Martin had cats too, by the way.

The Scholastic order was also the number-one source for hot celebrity gossip, full of Unauthorized Biographies With 8 Pages Of Full-Color Photos. Sure, children these days have celebs’ actual Twitter and Instagram accounts at their fingertips, but back then it was enough to read that JTT’s favorite dessert was apple pie a la mode, or that Tay, Zac and Ike share a bedroom.

Doesn’t it feel like just yesterday that you were reading those factoids? Well, Tay, Zac, and Ike now have a cumulative nine children. That’s 3 Hansons. Or an Mmm Mmm Mmm Bop.

You would think that now, when I could find any book on Amazon in seconds, the Scholastic orders wouldn’t seem like such a big deal. But I found a few Troll and Arrow Book Club catalogs online, and I can almost smell the new book smell … and feel the papercuts. That thin-ply book order paper was for some reason notorious for paper cuts.

This has everything I remember about 90s book orders. There are pencils that, even 20 years ago, you could have bought for far less at a grocery store. Athlete bios. An inside look at the cast of 90210 with a RAP ROUNDUP (not sure what that is). I especially like how they call it “book club news,” as though they aren’t trying to sell us stuff, just keeping us informed that Midnight In The Dollhouse is only $.95.

Friends, we truly lived in a magical time. On the same page, you have Hook and Addams Family novelizations, Laura Ingalls, American Girl, and Babysitters Club. This is calling up more childhood memories than looking at family photos (because when the photos were taken, I was probably somewhere reading a book).

Ah, yes. 1991. When all the kids were clamoring for a paperback about Nelson Mandela. The Room Upstairs, an Anne Frank-y tale of World War II peril, contains a surprising number of exclamation marks in the blurb. And that pig eraser… just me, or did those gummy jumbo erasers never actually erase anything?

Lincoln, MLK, Edgar Allan Poe, medical mysteries … just some chill light reading for 9-year-olds. Boomers can knock millennials all they want, but don’t they see that we spent our childhoods heavy-burdened by their hopes, dreams, and expectations? As well as by a complete set of Boxcar Children books? That series was dope. Henry, Jessie, Violet, and the other one, right?

It’s so weird to think that most of us got these orders regularly as kids, and then one day – and you didn’t even know it was the day – you read your last one. You started buying your books at stores, and eventually the internet. You recorded over the Ann M. Martin tape doing fake commercials in Austin Powers voices at a slumber party. I haven’t seen a pencil topper in decades. But the memories live on … as do the large stack of unauthorized biographies sitting somewhere in your parents’ attic.

Books That Should Be Banned Because I Hate Them

It’s Banned Books Week – the time every year when the academic and bookworm communities team up and tell meddlesome parent associations that they can suck it. And of course, they can and should: banning books is not cool. It usually happens because parents pressure schools and libraries to get rid of things they don’t want their kids to see. That would be fine if it was because these books were truly awful, like A Child’s Guide To Excluding Other Religions or Racism 4 Kidz. But that’s usually not the case.

Here’s the thing, though. If books can be banned simply because folks don’t want their kids exposed to the greater world, I think it’s only fair that the rest of us should get to arbitrarily have books banned too – because we hated them. I was in the AP/Honors track in high school, and in our particular school that meant that just about all we read were “the classics.” Now, don’t get me wrong, those dead white men can write. But some of those books were so dull and dusty that – even though I can see their value from an educational perspective – I wouldn’t mind banning them … because I hated them. Welcome to a very special edition of C+S Book Club, in which we become an anti-book club.

Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

In this book, we high school juniors learned about Africa from the perspective that really matters — this one white guy who is dead (see what I mean?). I couldn’t even get through the Wikipedia entry on this to refresh my memory, because even that was too boring. But the point is, a bunch of European dudes went through the Congo River on a boat getting obsessed with each other. There were definitely heads on sticks and some kind of a “native” rebellion and a melodramatic death scene. YAWN.

The Once And Future King by T.H. White

This was part of our summer reading before Freshman year of high school – and let me tell you, there’s no better way to stifle a lifelong love of reading than to assign seven books, including a 700-page Arthurian fantasy, to be read over the course of two months (read: the last two weeks before vacation ends), so that the kids don’t even have time to read of their own volition. But hey, high school is when you start to learn a lot about yourself — and this is when I learned that apparently, I hate Arthurian fantasy. The copy on the Barnes and Noble website says that this is a tale “of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war.”

You know what else is that kind of tale of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war? Harry Potter, which – fun fact! – did not ruin my fourteenth summer.

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

It’s important for kids to understand that life in a Soviet gulag was tedious as hell, but even as a 15-year-old, I could have figured it out without having to read Ivan Denisovich’s boring day in prison develop in real time. When I discovered my study sheet from my AP English exam, I had subtitled this book something like “(more like 100 years in the life of me).”

I learned 1000% more about prison life by watching Orange Is The New Black, so maybe that can replace this 200-page snoozefest in the high school curriculum.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Unfair grudge? Maybe.  I’m shooting for reading 50 books this year, and Gone With The Wind, with its 1000-page count and twerpy protagonist, singlehandedly threw off my timeline. I know of people who read this in high school, but we didn’t because a white guy didn’t write it* (Margaret Mitchell is a white lady). Still, I figured I should see what the fuss was about.

I still don’t get it. People are obsessed with this book. I usually am able to view books as  a product of their time, but GWTW really tested my patience. Rhett and Scarlett and the gang being racist? Totally unsurprising, and it would be unrealistic if they weren’t. But Mitchell portrayed all of the Black characters as simplistic, childlike dumb-dumbs who, even after emancipation, truly needed the guidance and protection of the good white people. Guys. The “mammy” is literally called Mammy. Mind you, this was written in 1936, not during the Civil War era.

There’s also a truly cringey “no means yes” rape scene (it’s totally fine, they were married and Scarlett wanted it UGH).

Finally, the book is only so long because the author takes about 200 pages to describe scenarios like “Scarlett goes to a barbeque and learns that this guy is engaged.”

If schools want to teach a civil-war era novel that also has inspired a feature film (because you can fill like a week of class days watching the movie), let’s go with Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years A Slave. Please.

* We did read To Kill A Mockingbird and Black Boy, so there’s two. Oh! And Wuthering Heights.

Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

Okay, I don’t really want this banned, and I didn’t hate it. But is there some way to short-list who gets to read it? I’m thinking about those earnest high school boys who think they’re deeper than everyone else, were born in the wrong era, and probably have Bob Dylan posters tacked up in their rooms. Give them one dose of Catcher and they become positively insufferable, because it reinforces their idea that they’re the only one who’s not a “phony” (except ol’ Phoebe, etc). Honestly, a great book, but teens who think they know everything don’t need more ammo. Let’s assign them Franny and Zooey instead, until they’re old enough to have a balanced perspective on the Holden Caulfield character.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, But Only For Some People

A few years ago I went on a huge Lost Generation reading kick, and I’m still so fascinated by the era they lived in, the style of writing, all of it. However, like Catcher In The Rye, some kids don’t  have the perspective to read these critically. I don’t really want these on the banned list. These are exactly the kind of books I want kids reading, even if some kids don’t understand it at an adult level. It’s just that from my own high school and college days, I remember a lot of people reading these books and feeling so much admiration and awe for the very people who were being criticized in them. It’s like watching Mean Girls and coming away with the message “man, those Plastics really were the coolest kids out there, weren’t they?”

I guess I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t read Catcher In The Rye or books about high society written by the Lost Generation. I’m just saying we should teach them to read critically or, barring that, teach them to shut the heck up.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Story time: we read this book in Honors English my Freshman year. I enjoyed it, but sometimes didn’t do awesome at the pop reading quizzes we had because I was more into binge reading on weekends than reading two chapters a night or whatever. When it got time to write the essay at the end of the unit, I killed it. A friend’s computer was broken, so I offered to type hers up too – not fixing the little mistakes I found because that would be dishonest and I was almost compulsively honorable at that stage of life.

When we got the graded papers back, I was ready to see the big fat A at the top of my page – and saw a 65%. WHAT. THE. HELL. 65% was a grade I’d only heard about before, from other people, unfortunate people whose lives weren’t like mine. My friend, whose paper I knew wasn’t as good, had like a 97%. All throughout my paper the teacher had scribbled snide little comments like “your words??” (next to the word “enamored” which is not even a weird word for a 14-year-old to know). So I went to the teacher to see what was up, and she scheduled a meeting with my parents and a vice principal because she thought it was plagiarized. The school was on a plagiarism witch hunt because some kids had been kicked out for it the year before. She claims she marked my paper down 30 points but that can’t even be right, because it was still 2 points less than my friend’s error-ridden paper. She obviously just failed it because she didn’t think I was smart enough to turn in something so good.

Anyway. I got the grade restored, in part because the vice principal vouched that she’d see me pour over Dickens when I was a third grader stuck at my brothers’ basketball games, and in part because my partial rough draft was still in my notebook, complete with crossouts and doodles. Only by the grace of God had I not written something embarrassing like “Mrs. Pacey Witter” or “Jack Dawson 4 lyfe” in the margins.

Point is: I liked this book initially, but thanks to that teacher (Mrs. Hammerton, Honors English, Aquinas Institute 2000, what’s up?) – well, if you can just have books banned willy-nilly because they give you uncomfy feelings, then I’d like to do that here, please.


 

I enjoyed just about everything I had to read in school: from Greek drama to ancient myths to Shakespeare to 19th century romanticism. But there were still those books that I just could not get into. How about you all – any books you wouldn’t lose sleep over the banning of, because you hated them so much?

 

 

Life Lessons From Harriet The Spy: C+S Book Club

Welcome back to C+S Book Club! Last time around we focused on that total bitch Amy March, and now we’re celebrating another childhood favorite — Harriet The Spy.

Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet The Spy feels so current – controversial, even – that it’s hard to believe it turns 50 this year. Whether you were a nosy kid, an aspiring writer, or just fascinated by the world around you, Harriet The Spy spoke to a lot of us. Like all the best children’s books, Harriet The Spy was banned by adults couldn’t deal with how awesome it was, probably because it contained real talk contains real talk that adults don’t think 9-year-olds are ready for. In the case of Harriet The Spy, the lessons were lifelong.

Sometimes The Whole Truth Isn’t The Kindest Thing

This lesson is the hardest thing for Harriet – and it’s one that I’m still working on when I write. The sixth-grade jerks find some awful things about themselves when they read Harriet’s notebook (never have I been so indignant on a character’s behalf!). Harriet just wrote what she saw, but the unflinching honesty was a little unkind.

I discovered censorship in first grade. I was writing a story about two siblings fighting, and had the sister scream “I hate you!” at her brother during the argument. My teacher changed it to “I dislike you!”  I was furious – who, in a fit of childhood rage, has ever screamed “I dislike you!” at their sibling? I still believe that good writing requires honesty and authenticity. But when talking about real people, sometimes you have to soften your “I hate yous” into “I dislike yous” for the sake of real feelings.

Fitzhugh said it best: “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. But to yourself you must tell the truth.” Observe honestly, think honestly – but smooth out the truth with little lies when you need to.

“There Is As Many Ways To Live As There Are People On The Earth”

One thing that huffy moms didn’t like about Harriet The Spy was the cast of wacky characters that Harriet spies on – people who resemble the weirdos and quirks that bona fide children run across all the time. There was the cat man, the family who owns the Chinese grocery, the grand Agatha K. Plummer.  Even your most mundane-looking families are all different from each other if you just watch them. Maybe it’s not so much these characters that set parents ill-at-ease, but rather Harriet’s assessment of them:

“Ole Golly says there is as many ways to live as there are people on the earth and I shouldn’t go round with blinders but should see every way I can. Then I’ll know what way I want to live and not just live like my family.”

See Everything. Write Everything.

We’ve all heard the advice to write what you know. It follows that the more you know about the more you can write about. If you want to be a writer, like Harriet, you have to keep your eyes and ears open so you can learn about all the ways there are to live. A book full of characters who live the way you do – because that’s all you know – just wouldn’t be very good.

Harriet didn’t just see everything, she wrote everything – on Ole Golly’s advice. Really, what a great thing to tell an 11-year-old (or an adult!) who wants to write. You may have a lot of faith in your memory, but it’s fallible. You have to write everything because you never know what details you might want to use someday. Besides, everyday practice – something we recommend for kids who want to master a sport or an instrument – is necessary for writing, too.

Know What You Like

Harriet eats tomato sandwiches every day. She wears her same weird spy outfit every day, too. And how about the Boy With The Purple Socks? It’s not good to be bullheaded and resistant to change. But if you like tomato sandwiches, you don’t have to switch to egg salad just because people think you should.

Be A Harriet. Be a Janie. Be a Sport.

Harriet broke and entered into homes with a notebook in hand, pretending to be an 11-year-old Mata Hari. Janie set up a science lab in her bedroom, conducting weird experiments and learning everything she could about chemistry and physics. Sport lived with his dad and singlehandedly ran the household – including the finances – while dreaming of becoming a baseball player. Harriet, Janie and Sport all do things.

There’s nothing more annoying – even in adulthood – than people who expect you to be impressed by what they plan to do. You know, the people who talk ad nauseum about how they’ll open a restaurant or write a great book, but don’t take the boring, grueling baby steps to actually get there?  People who want to do things aren’t impressive, people who do them are – even if they try and fail.  I’m impressed by the people who take those awful boring writing assignments in the hopes that they’ll learn something they can apply later, or the people working the grueling lab job on a hunch that it will put them into contact with the best researchers. Harriet, Janie and Sport were just sixth-graders, but already they were the type of people who did things. They did things that might look weird to other people, simply because it’s what they wanted to do.

Do NOT Be A Marion Hawthorne. Do Not Be a Rachel Hennessy.

Harriet said “If Marion Hawthorne doesn’t watch out she’s going to grow up into a lady Hitler.” Harsh words, but Marion wanted the entire sixth-grade class to follow her blindly. One blind follower was Rachel Hennessy, who hosts the Spy Catcher Club (and who kids only like because her mom makes good cake). There was a whole pack of kids who followed Marion, and unlike Harriet, Jane, and Sport, they didn’t actually do things – other than try to bring Harriet down.

Change Is Hard

Ugh. Remember how painful it was when Ole Golly left? Even before that happened, Harriet was mighty jealous that her nanny was palling around with the bicycle man. Harriet reacted to these situations like a normal kid would – she pouted and threw a fit. When you grow up, you get a little better at covering it up, but this was one of the most honest parts of the book and a good lesson: change is really hard, and over time your new situation becomes normal to you.

The City Is Your Friend

Harriet The Spy is a distinctly New York City book, but it describes life that’s familiar to any city child. When you grow up in an urban neighborhood, all you have to do is walk out your front door to find all kinds of life to observe. The city itself – the sidewalks, corner stores, and most of all the people – is a character in Harriet’s life.

More broadly, Fitzhugh speaks to finding the fascinating things wherever you are. I thought my city childhood was compelling, and like Harriet I found that the most ordinary-seeming neighbors were extraordinary if I looked closer.  Wherever you live as a child or an adult – a big city or a small town or the suburbs in between – there are a million things to notice if you just open your eyes, close your mouth and grab a notebook.

You Might Screw Everything Up And Lose All Your Friends

… and you’ll still be okay. This probably doesn’t happen so much when you get older (though it’s still possible), but remember those times in elementary school when you’d do one thing wrong, or have an argument with one friend, and all of a sudden it seemed like everyone was mad at you? When you get older, you can still screw up other things – there’s always something you can ruin, whether it’s a project at work or your tax return. If you give most things enough time, they’ll work out. In the meantime you have to fold up your pride, stick it in your back pocket, and try to make things right – and know that just because things went wrong doesn’t mean the world stops turning.

 

Man Crush Monday: LeVar Burton

Today’s Monday man crush is a fellow you may not have thought about since you were reading books written and illustrated by Jan Brett*. I’m talking about the one and only LeVar Burton, the pot of gold at the end of the reading rainbow.

Before we get started, let me just tell you that if you’re looking for a post about liking LeVar Burton ironically, or any 90s nostalgic millennial nonsense like that, this isn’t the post you should be reading**. Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, Jr. is almost absurdly man-crushable – but you don’t have to take my word for it!***

Bringing Reading To Public Television

I know, I know. Public television is already the books of TV. But let’s go back to 1983, when Reading Rainbow started. Most people didn’t have 1000 channels***. They had, like 5 or so, and one of them was probably the local PBS affiliate. Most of the stations were showing 80s mom television during the day (meaning soap operas and talk shows by people who weren’t Oprah). PBS was basically it for kids programming, so this little show about books had a huge potential audience.

The producers of Sesame Street intended for their show to reach kids who weren’t necessarily getting pre-preschool learning prep at home. Reading Rainbow filled a similar role for older kids whose parents weren’t big into books, or maybe just didn’t have the time or language skills to promote reading.

Reading Rainbow had a lot going for it. The awesome celebrity guests – Eartha Kitt, anyone? – kept parents from changing the channel. The show format was almost genius in its simplicity, and the theme song was crazy-good – but the real draw was LeVar as a host. He was upbeat but didn’t use that stupid “talking to kids voice,” and he was enthusiastic about the theme of the episode, but never pedantic. Burton had the same quality as Mister Rogers (and, I’d argue, Amy Poehler in her Smart Girls series) – an adult who recognizes kids as full people.

Bringing Diversity To Public Television

Think about most of the men on children’s programs. So many white guys, right? Look, some of my best friends are white guys. But it’s really important for all kids out there to have a man on TV who actually looks like he could be their dad or uncle.

It’s not only that TV has an over-abundance of white people. People of color are also less likely to be represented positively.  Negative representation does a number on kids’ self-concepts. Remember that bummer of a social experiment where kids choose between white dolls and Black dolls, and all of the kids pick the white doll because they’ve internalized that the Black doll is “bad” and “stupid?” That’s what I’m talking about here. But for 30 years, kids at least had LeVar Burton on PBS – an affable, smart, cool relative- or neighbor-type.

White kids needed LeVar too, especially white kids growing up in predominantly white communities. Familiarity breeds … well, familiarity. That’s why my  inner-city childhood was so great – I didn’t grow up thinking of white people as the default humans. Watching LeVar Burton talk about Chris Van Allsburg books isn’t going to stop racism, but it at least helped white kids grow up thinking of one man of color as a nice, friendly guy who’s into books — and it might be some of the only exposure to that kind of representation that those kids have.

KUNTA KINTE, EVERYBODY

As two ladies who might like Event Television more than actual events, it’s a bummer that we missed out on the huge TV sensation that was Alex Haley’s Roots. But having seen it on cable later on, it really was a miniseries worth the hype.

Burton played the young Kunta Kinte, a young man who is kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery in the United States. He was only 20 at the time, but Burton was such a pro — perfectly expressing the transition from a young warrior-in-training to a man struggling against the slave system by trying to escape and resisting a name change.

For my generation, LeVar Burton is the man from Reading Rainbow, but for people a little older than us, he’s Kunta Kinte. If you only know Burton from PBS, I suggest you find a copy of Roots and give it a watch.

Star Trek, If You’re Into That

We’re not into Star Trek. Like, at all. But we have it on good authority that people who are into Star Trek are real into Star Trek. So for those people, Burton’s tenure on the sci-fi show is probably one of their favorite things about him. Even if you’re not into space shows, you’ve got to admit that having a career portfolio that spans children’s television, science fiction and historical drama is pretty fantastic.

LeVar Burton Is Totally Cool With Himself

Some of the stuff LeVar did for Reading Rainbow was straight-up silly, which is awesome. He wore medieval regalia and got transformed into a troll, all for the sake of reading. What is more attractive a guy who is so comfortable with himself that he’d rather have fun than look cool? Burton even said “I fly my geek flag proudly.” Honestly, that’s the coolest ever.

Everyone Loves LeVar

When was the last time you heard anyone talk smack about LeVar Burton? NEVER. And as children who grew up with Reading Rainbow become adults, Burton is in big demand. In the past few years alone he has made guest appearances in The Colbert Report, Community, and Wish I Was Here.

There’s An App For That

Do you really think that someone as awesome as LeVar Burton would get left behind the current wave of technology? Please. In the 80s, meeting kids where they were meant going to public television, but in the 2010s, kids are on the iPad. Seriously, if you ever have trouble doing something on your iPad, give it to the nearest three-year-old and they will be able to fix it for you. And then they will refuse to give it back for hours because toddlers LOVE tablets. The Reading Rainbow app promotes reading to kids who are less exposed than ever to tangible books – you know, the kind with pages and covers and stuff. You can read more about it here, but this app – like LeVar himself – is basically a huge deal.

 

* I get that Reading Rainbow repped all childrens’ books, but why did it always seem like it was Jan Brett’s Scandinavian kinder in knit woolens? Did my first-grade teacher just have one videocassette? Going forward, please realize that my memories of Reading Rainbow might be from one episode watched multiple times.

** DON’T LEAVE. You can still read our other posts. Here’s a Baby-Sitters Club musical libretto, and here’s a live-blog of Sharknado. AND THAT’S JUST TWO OF OUR THINGS.

*** Here’s where I ask you to take my word for it. Actually.

****  ⅔ of which are somehow the same channel listed multiple times. Be better, Time Warner.

 

Amy March Was A Total Bitch

Growing up in the 1990s, it was sort of normal for a girl to be into the 1800s. The American Girl catalog was in your mailbox, the Little House books were in your Scholastic orders, and everyone had a mom or grandma who was really into Dr. Quinn. The 1994 film adaptation of Little Women was right in the zeitgeist. When I saw that it was on tv around Christmas, nostalgia got the better of me. I had to watch. And, umm… something jumped out at me that didn’t when I was a kid. So, I decided to re-read the book on my bus rides to and from work, and it was confirmed.

Amy March was a huge freaking bitch.

I accepted early on that Amy was my March counterpart. While I loved writing and piano, I was neither a free-spirited tomboy like Jo nor a gentle, shy dead girl like Beth. And Meg — seriously, did anyone ever want to be Meg? Leave a comment if you did. No, I was an Amy. I’m also the youngest of four, and I – like many youngest children – am kind of hammy and want everyone to love me. Like the youngest March sister,  I’m even the only one of my siblings to miss out on getting a nickname. Alcott never mentioned it, but I just know that Amy felt like she got the shaft there.

So,while it does pain me to say this, let me repeat: Amy March was a total bitch. Let’s discuss:

Nobody Cares About Your Nose, Amy.

Amy hates her nose, which is described as a small, flat snub nose. Oh, so an adorable nose? A nose that is too cute? What a trial that must be – like those girls who complain about being “too pretty.”

Amy wants a “Roman Nose,” which according to Wikipedia, is “a human nose with a prominent bridge, giving it the appearance of being curved or slightly bent.” Wow, March. Have you ever got shit taste in noses. That’s probably what my nose looks like, and you know how I got it? Not by sleeping with a clothespin on it – no, I  broke it. Twice.

Oh, You’re Too Good for Hand-Me-Downs? Can it, Amy.amy-little-women-helen-page

The hardest thing in Beth’s life was dying of scarlet fever and the hardest thing in Jo’s life was having a dumb-bitch little sister who stole her manuscript, Eurotrip, and Laurie, but Amy — the hardest thing in her life was having a tiny, cute nose and having to wear hand-me-downs.

Alcott writes: “Amy was in a fair way to be spoiled, for everyone petted her, and her small vanities and selfishness were growing nicely. One thing, however, rather quenched the vanities. She had to wear her cousin’s clothes. Now Florence’s mama hadn’t a particle of taste, and Amy suffered deeply at having to wear a red instead of a blue bonnet, unbecoming gowns, and fussy aprons that did not fit. Everything was good, well made, and little worn, but Amy’s artistic eyes were much afflicted, especially this winter, when her school dress was a dull purple with yellow dots and no trimming.”

Look, I had a cousin who was an only child, and her mom shopped at the good stores. The day I’d get the big black trash bag of her hand-me-downs was like a freaking holiday. Oh, Florence’s mama sent you a red bonnet? Well my cousin’s mama sent me skorts and shortalls, and I was happy to have them.

Amy. Limes Are Stupid.

Poor thing. Always thwarted in her search for citrus fruits.

Pickled limes were the fashion at Amy’s school, because apparently she was educated with a bunch of other little dummies. So, Meg gave Amy the rag money to buy some limes, and I’m not even completely clear on what “rag money” is, but I’m pretty sure that if your family is poor enough to rely on something called rag money to supplement your income, safe to say you’re pretty hard up and shouldn’t be wasting your money on preserved citrus fruits.

Limes were outlawed in Amy’s classroom, but obviously all of the kids still brought them in, kind of like tamagochis in my school, circa 1998. [Sidenote: the spell-check suggestion for tamagochis is “masochists,” which is pretty apropos. What were we doing to ourselves? At least when limes are the 6th-grade trend, you don’t have to sneak off to feed it every 3 hours.] But, Amy wouldn’t give this girl Jenny a lime because Jenny was being a total bitch, so Dumb Bitch Jenny told the teacher that Amy had limes. He made Amy throw the limes into the snow and Amy had a fit even though a citrus fruit will do just fine in the snow. As a matter of fact, Amy couldn’t have known this, but in like 70 years they’ll invent this magical box that keeps food cold all of the time and – will wonders never cease – the food lasts longer. Also Amy’s limes are PICKLED, which admittedly is gross, but it means they can stay outside for a minute. [However, the limes do get stolen. We’ll go there later.]

Oh, and then the teacher hit Amy’s hand, which was majorly not cool. Our biggest bitches in this story are really the teacher and Dumb Bitch Jenny. Still, Amy’s a bit at fault for squandering the family’s rag money on some stupid limes.

Amy March Hates Irish People. This Irish Person Says Amy March Can Suck It.

The Republic of Ireland has retaliated by naming its least-appealing souvenir porcelain doll after Amy March.

When Amy’s limes got thrown into the snow, she wasn’t upset because she lost her limes – she was upset because the limes were “exulted over by the little Irish children, who were their sworn foes.” Yep, Amy March’s sworn foes were anonymous Irish street urchins. You bet your sweet bippy that one didn’t make the Winona Ryder movie. It wasn’t losing the limes that made Amy cry like – forgive me – a little bitch, it was the Irish kids getting the limes.

Amy. You live in Boston. Concord, whatever. You know those little Irish street children? They’re going to run your city. In 100 years, the descendants of one of those lime-eating Boston Street Micks is going to be our nation’s president. Your city’s basketball team is literally going to be called the Celtics. Don’t worry about what basketball is. If your grandchildren ever get arrested, you know who’s going to do it? An Irish cop. But you don’t even have to wait 100 years. Even in the 1860s, every one of those Irish kids has a pack of 14 siblings to back them up in a fight. And those kids are scary. They have been working in silk mills since they were 5. You know how my great-great-great grandmother survived the Potato Famine? By eating GRASS. Honestly, poor Irish children from Boston in the 1860s are probably the worst “sworn foes” you could make.

So, on behalf of Irish and part-Irish Americans, let me just tell Amy March that she can suck it. Know what she can’t suck, though? A lime – because the Irish kids got them. Booyah, March.

Ruining the ONE THING Your Sister Loves? Pretty Bitchy.

Remember when Amy was a little piss who burned her sister’s manuscript because Jo dared to have fun without her? God. What is your beef with Jo, Amy? Tell me. Because it’s sort of a recurring theme throughout the book.

On the plus side, I’d like to thank Amy March for the world’s first lesson that you should always, always back up your work.

You’re Using It Wrong, Ames.

I just cannot with this basic girl and her five-cent vocabulary. Honestly, though, Amy is 12 when the book starts, and that’s an 1860s 12. In 1860s Massachusetts, you could be a six-year veteran of the mills at 12. You could be betrothed at 12. But no, Marmee sent Amy to the ol’ schoolhouse instead, probably because of the child’s demonstrated inability to speak the English language. Look, Amy wasn’t spending her time watching tv or instagramming. The only thing to do was read books and learn how to use words properly, yet she was somehow incapable of doing it. For instance: “label” for “libel” (when she actually meant slander) and “vocabilary” for “vocabulary.” You just know this bitch says “liberry” and “pisgetti.”

I’m not saying I’m glad her teacher beat her at school, because I’m not, I’m just saying that if any of the March sisters deserved a formal education, it wasn’t Amy. All I know is, if Amy March lived today, she’d be that little cousin of yours whose tweets and Facebook posts are so incomprehensible that you basically have to do an English-to-English translation every time you read them.

She’s not even that good at art so maybe she should just shut up about it.

Amy March isn’t a real person, but she was somewhat based on Louisa May Alcott’s sister Abigail May. May probably had a lot of gifts and talents, but art wasn’t one of them. Here are some of her drawings:

Compare the scale of Marmee(?) in the chair with the girl to the right. It’s like a Cabbage Patch doll next to a Barbie.

My favorite part is the floating table.

May died young, and that’s sad, but you know what else is sad? These sketches.

I Ain’t Sayin’ She’s A Gold Digger (Yes, I am. Yes, she is.)

So, first Amy gold-digs her way into Fred Vaughn’s heart. Then, she sees the opportunity to get with Laurie, who in addition to being wealthy, also provides her with the opportunity to ruin Jo’s life. So, she does that instead. Either way, she’s a gold-digger.

Steals Jo’s Trip

Eyes on the prize, Li’l Amy. Eyes on the prize.

Jo put up with Aunt March’s Crappy Plumfield Storytime every day, with the understanding that at some point she’d get a Eurotrip out of the deal. Look, for a 20-year-old girl in the 1800s, it wasn’t as easy as just finding a college with a good study abroad program.

Then, Amy – freaking Amy – swoops in, befriends Aunt March, and gets the trip. As an indirect result, Jo had to move to a boarding house and marry an old German man.

Steals Jo’s Man

Jo and Laurie were endgame. I refuse to hear differently. Sure, Jo shot down Laurie’s proposal, but I think it was just the wrong time — she was coming back for him later, and that’s all there is to it.

So, when Laurie proposed to Amy — because she was the next-closest thing to Jo — Amy should have had the decency to know that Laurie was Jo’s one true love.

Instead, Amy was a total bitch, so she married him.

Conclusion

After all that, here’s the truth: now that I’m an adult, Amy is my favorite. Beth does nothing, gets scarlet fever, then dies. [Also, please don’t stone me, but did anyone else think Beth wasn’t exactly playing with a full deck?] Meg does nothing, twists her ankle, then gets married. Jo ruins her chance at true love, and acts so obtuse about how to behave in human society that I think she’s just doing it to get on her sisters’ nerves. She’s like that one girl in college who tried to be unconventional just for the sake of it, and you were always like “you know what? You’re not Amelie. Stop trying to be Amelie.”

Whether or not you think Amy is a huge freaking bitch (and don’t get me wrong, she is), that girl knew how to go after what she wanted. Somehow, she was ridiculously well-liked, but at the same time, you sure as hell didn’t walk all over Amy March. But, if I ever ended up with an Amy March of my own, I would need to make like Marmee and send her to live with a great-aunt for her teenage years – because honestly, what a little bitch.