“Chester Cricket’s Tale of the City” by David Ulin

From David Ulin’s LATIMES blog.  January 5, 2011 |  6:00 am.  My mom sent me this review when it was reprinted in the Chicago Tribune. It reminded me how much I love both Cricket in Time Square and Charlotte’s Web by Garth Williams.  It’s a classic that stands the test of time from generation to generation.  Perfect bedtime reading for you and your kidlets.

CrickettimessqMy favorite books for kids are those that start out naturalistically and then go quietly, gently off the rails. “Charlotte’s Web” is a perfect example: E.B. White’s descriptions of New England farm life are so precise, so deftly rendered, that it seems entirely believable when the animals start talking and Charlotte begins to spell out words in her web.

This, of course, is one of the wonders of children’s literature, its sense of the world as mysterious, even magical, its recognition that there is much in daily life beyond our reach. At its best, childhood is like that also, although more often, it can be a landscape of arbitrary rules and inexplicable adult tension, in which too much happens (literally and figuratively) above our heads.

George Selden’s “The Cricket in Times Square,”which celebrated a quiet 50th anniversary in  October, is another book that, like Charlotte’s Web, takes place in a recognizable universe that has been tweaked to make a place for the wondrous alongside the mundane. It hasn’t been overlooked exactly — it won a Newbery in 1961 and was made into a 1973 animated film by Chuck Jones — but somehow, I think, it’s never quite received its due.

Maybe that’s because of its similarities to “Charlotte’s Web” — both are evocatively illustrated byGarth Williams, and both involve, in part, a child developing an intense relationship with a creative insect — or maybe that it takes place in Manhattan, where I grew up. It’s hard, as a kid, to see the miraculous in the familiar, or at least that’s how it seems to me.

Either way, “The Cricket in Times Square” is a subtle masterpiece, a story that unfolds almost entirely in the Times Square subway station, where a family named Bellini owns a small, beleaguered newsstand. One evening, the Bellinis’ young son Mario hears the chirping of a cricket and makes the displaced insect his pet. We see the development of a bond between them, as well as the growing friendship between the cricket, whose name is Chester, and two other animals who call the station home: Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat. The first time, Chester sees Harry, he is terrified that the cat is after Tucker, but the two city-dwellers set him straight.

“Hello,” said Chester. He was sort of ashamed because of all the fuss he’d made. “I wasn’t scared for myself. But I thought cats and mice were enemies.”

“In the country, maybe,” said Tucker. “But in New York we gave up those old habits long ago. Harry is my oldest friend. He lives with me over in the drain pipe.”

This is my favorite scene in the book, with its understanding of the urban promise, the idea that in the city, we can (must) somehow set our tribalism aside. It’s as hopeful a moment as can be imagined, because if cats and mice can get along, why not human beings?

The same is true of the rest of the book, which is expansive, optimistic, marked by a sense of New York as a place of wonder, “full of the roar of traffic and the hum of human beings,” in which “Times Square were a kind of shell with colors and noises breaking in great waves inside it.”

That’s great writing, concrete enough for kids yet nuanced enough for adults, and each time I read it, I fall in love with Manhattan all over again. How could I not, especially after Chester begins to play arias and pop standards that draw hundreds of customers to the Bellinis’ newsstand? Fifty years later, the message remains consistent: Everything is possible, after all.

— David L. Ulin

Image: A Garth Williams illustration from “The Cricket in Times Square,” in a limited-edition lithograph available from Every Picture Tells a Story. Credit: Used with permission of Every Picture Tells a Story.

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Why Judy Blume is Still Awesome

We must, we must, we must increase our bust!

It’s true.  Judy Blume is kind of my hero.  I remember stalking the shelves of Arlington Heights public school library when I was in third grade hoping to find “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” so I could check it out for, like, the twenty-fifth time.  The librarian, seeing what book I was attempting to check out, yet again, would cheerfully suggest other titles that she hoped would inspire me to broaden my literary horizons.  I would listen, smiling and nodding, then thank her for her input and shoved “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” into my backpack.

Unlike many other beloved titles from a childhood long ago and far away, Judy Blume’s books continue to hold up.  Why?  Other than well-rounded characters and excellent plotting, one might posture that it’s actually because she dares to tackle controversial topics that pique kids’ interest like racism (Iggie’s House), menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), divorce (It’s Not the End of the WorldJust As Long As We’re Together), bullying (Blubber), masturbation (DeenieThen Again, Maybe I Won’t) and teen sex (Forever).

Ms. Blume has written 21 some novels with sales exceeding 80 million copies that have been translated into 31 languages.  Considering her brave approach to “controversial” topics, it shouldn’t be a surprise that she is one of the most censored authors of all time.  I say good for you, Judy Blume!  In fact, on the list of the top 100 most challenged books between 1990 and 1999 at the American Library Association, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, comes in at number sixty.

This book tells the tale of an eleven year old girl, Margaret Simon, who is growing up with no organized religion (her father is Jewish and her mother Christian).  She, nevertheless, has a close personal relationship with God who she sees as her friend and confidant, someone she talks to when she cannot seem to talk to anyone else about important issues in her life.  When assigned a yearlong independent project at school, Margaret chooses the weighty task of studying people’s beliefs.  Through serious yet sometimes comical situations, the book also deals with several other taboo topics: Margaret having to buy her very first bra; having her first period; jealousy over other girls having more curvaceous figures; and, of course, boys.

Apparently the book lands on the “most censored” list because it deals openly with sexuality and religion.

The Judy Blume books are awesome Christmas gifts.  If you have emerging readers, then start with “Freckle Juice.”  The publishers put together some excellent boxed sets for the holidays for slightly older readers.

“I Can Read” Books with the Wonderful Arnold Lobel

I was at a friend’s house the other day and her first grader was reading Arnold Lobel’s “Mouse Tales.”  (Ages 4 – 8 )   I couldn’t help but be reminded how enchanting I find both Mr. Lobel’s stories and illustrations.   As any parent can tell you, there are a ton of “learn-to-read” books out there, but for my money you just can’t go wrong with these timeless, quaint, engaging stories.

Frog and Toad

So who was this Lobel guy, you ask?  Hey, that’s what I’m here for!

Uncle Elephant

Born in 1933,  Arnold Lobel wrote and/or illustrated over 70 books for children during his distinguished career. To his illustrating credit, he had a Caldecott Medal book — Fables (1981) — and two Caldecott Honor Books-his own Frog and Toad are Friends (1971) and Hildilid’s Night by Cheli Duran Ryan (1972).  He has a Caldecott Honor for Frog and Toad Together.

Owl at Home

Mr. Lobel passed away in 1987, but to his greatest credit, he had a following of literally millions of young children with whom he shared the warmth and humor of his unpretentious vision of life.

Here are a few excellent choices if you have a book baby who’s just getting the hang of this whole reading thing.  But there are many more to choose from as well.

Uncle Elephant

Owl At Home

The Frog and Toad Collection

Grasshopper on the Road

The Ten Best Kids Books Ages 8 -12 from the The Guardian

Some familiar titles, some not so recognizable, but The Guardian’s list is an excellent resource.  Once again, you could have trouble finding a couple of these titles on Amazon, so you may have to actually check your local library.

From the small genius of The Borrowers to the giants of children’s books, the Narnia stories, Lucy Mangan and Imogen Russell-Williams pick their must-reads for 8-12 year-olds by Lucy Mangan and Imogen Russell Williams

Stig of the Dump: Clive King

This was the first original Puffin published in 1963. The story of eight-year-old loner Barney who befriends Stig, a remnant of the Stone Age hidden in the local chalk pit, has not been out of print since. The two boys grow to appreciate each other’s eras and skills as they contrive ingenious solutions to Stig’s various problems living out of the junk that is thrown into the pit. A modern classic.

Charlotte’s Web: EB White

“‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother” is probably the most famous opening line of any children’s book. He is going to dispatch Wilbur, the runt of the litter, until Fern pleads for clemency. With the help of Wilbur’s wise and devoted friend, Charlotte, the spider is able to live out the rest of his days in safety. You may feel like warning your child that Charlotte dies “as spiders do” at the end of the summer. You should resist. It’s a book that teaches you that characters can be made to live for ever simply by turning back to the first page and starting again.

The Family from One End Street: Eve Garnett

This episodic collection of the adventures (in the late 1930s) of the multitudinous Ruggles family (seven children, two parents) was one of the first books for this age group to take working-class life as its central theme and to depict it with charm and without condescension. They remain as fresh as the day they were penned. More