“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.


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.

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (ages 8 and up) is a novel in words and pictures, an intriguing mystery set in 1930s Paris about an orphan, a salvaged clockwork invention, and a celebrated filmmaker.  It takes the illustrated novel to a whole new level.  Or it puts a spin on the current resurgence of graphic novels.  I’m not sure exactly which one.  Not that it matters because it’s a bit of a quiet masterpiece.

Once you open this book, you”ll understand how it can become addictive.  You want to pick it up over and over, paging back and forth, studying the illustrations, scanning the details and searching the character’s faces.

It’s the story of orphan boy, clock keeper, and thief named Hugo who lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life and his most precious secret are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

The result is somewhat similar to a graphic novel, but experiencing its mix of silvery pencil drawings and narrative interludes is ultimately more akin to watching a silent film.  This hybrid creation, which also includes movie stills and archival photographs, is unexpected and often poignant.

It’s no surprise that movie titan Martin Scorsese is directing the film adaptation to be released next year.  Please don’t tell Mr. Scorsese that I said this, but I sort of doubt even he can do cinematic justice to this fanciful tale.   Either which way, please please please read the book before you see the film.

“Loser” by Jerry Spinelli

The Arabic Cover. Yes, you can get it in English too, if you must

Poor Donald Zinkoff. He’s such a loser — messy, clumsy, slow. And he’s giggly — an all-purpose laugher, whether it’s appropriate or not. Sad really.  He can’t win for losing.  And everybody knows it.

Everybody except Donald.

With regard to his exuberance for life, his second-grade teacher writes on the back of his report card, Donald “is one happy child! And he certainly does love school!”  Donald, it seems, loves everything; he’s a sunshine bottle.  Using a present-tense, omniscient narrative voice, Spinelli charts Donald’s star-crossed course, from his troubled first day of school to an act of heroism that arguably earns him acceptance in sixth grade.

It’s impossible to dislike sunny, sweet-spirited Donald, and readers will doubtlessly be pleased by his victory.  I also applaud Spinelli for choosing to make Donald’s parents a compassionate and accepting pair when it comes to their misfit but utterly earnest son.

The British Cover

Nevertheless, Spinelli creates no idealistic ending here; instead, with a near tragedy, the author demonstrates the differences between those who can continue to see with the compassion of child-like eyes, and those who lose sight of what is truly important. An endearing tale with heart to spare.  If you’re a big person who sometimes likes small person books, do not miss this one.

A Bunch of Things You Didn’t Know You Needed to Know About Nancy Drew

The first Nancy Drew book

1.  The fantastic Nancy Drew, girl detective, was created in 1930 by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate book packaging firm. Stratemeyer had created the Hardy Boys series in 1926 (although the first volumes were not published until 1927). The series had been such a success that he decided to create a similar series for girls, with an amateur girl detective as the heroine.  The books have been ghostwritten by a number of authors and are published under the collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene.

2. Early on, a blonde (!) Nancy Drew was accompanied by a character named Helen Corning on adventures, but soon Helen was replaced by the classic foil characters, Bess Marvin and George Fayne. Bess and George are cousins and help Nancy, whose hair was suddenly described as Titian, solve her mysteries.

3.Nancy Drew made her cinema debut in 1938 and 1939 when Bonita Granville starred in four movies about the teenage detective. Forty years later, Nancy appeared on television in weekly mystery episodes starring Pamela Sue Martin, and later, Janet Louise Johnson.

4.While solving some 500 mysteries since 1930, Nancy Drew’s car has been yellow, green and even maroon.  (Which is funny since I remember it being blue)

Someone buy me a mug!

5. What’s your feeling on a series starring Diana Dare, Stella Strong, Nan Nelson or Helen Hale?  Those are a few names creator Edward Stratemeyer pitched before landing on Nancy Drew. To make matters worse, the first choice was Nan Drew, but his wise editors thought lengthening the name to “Nancy” made it roll off the tongue a little better.

6. Stratemeyer allegedly wrote all of the plot outlines, but he hired someone else to do the actual story writing.  I remember being stunned to discover that Carolyn Keene was a psudenom.  The original writer’s name was Mildred Wirt and she was paid $125 to $250 for each book she wrote. She also received one fifth of the royalties from any book she had written. She didn’t write all of them, but Wirt is largely regarded as having the most influence on how the series was developed.

7. Many very influential, powerful and intelligent women (as well as yours truly) have cited Nancy Drew as one of their favorite book series and even go so far as to say that the character helped them realize that women could do anything. This includes Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor, Hilary Clinton, Laura Bush, Barbara Walters and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  All this despite the fact that Stratemeyer firmly stated that a woman’s place was in the home.  Ironically, his two daughters grew up to have controlling stakes in Stratemeyer Syndicate and wrote for various Stratemeyer’s book series, including the Hardy Boys.  Sorry daddy.

8. Stratemeyer Syndicate was responsible for several children’s book series.  So if certain series from the era seem rather formulaic… well, you get the point.  Other Stratemeyer Syndicate series included The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, The Dana Girls Mystery Stories and The Kay Tracey Mysteries.

9. In France, Nancy Drew was renamed Alice Roy; Kitty Drew in Sweden; Paula Drew in Finland; Miss Detective in Norway, although inside the book she’s still known as Nancy.  Strangely in Germany, Nancy is a law student who goes by the name Susanne Langen — uh, shouldn’t that just be a different series?

10. Some guys just can’t take a hint.  Poor Ned Nickerson spends all of his time pining after Nancy, who isn’t nearly as invested in him.  In the first Nancy Drew silver screen adaptation (1938), even his name wasn’t good enough – screenwriters thought the name “Ned” was dated and renamed him “Ted.”  And when Nancy finally goes to college in 1995 in the”Nancy Drew on Campus” series, readers were invited to call a 1-800 number to vote on whether Nancy should keep dating Ned or start playing the field.  Readers overwhelmingly voted for a new boyfriend and the rest of the series featured a new beau named Jake.  Aw, poor Ned.

11. Russell Tandy was the illustrator of the original series, creating dust jackets and internal illustrations for the first 26 books. But that was just one of his gigs: he also drew six Hardy Boys covers, served as a fashion illustrator for high-end department stores, illustrated for Butterick Patterns and also designed the Jantzen swimwear logo. Plus, he had friends in high places: he counted Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali and Norman Rockwell among his nearest and dearest.

12. Of all of the Nancy Drew books, sales show that the second book in the series, “The Hidden Staircase”, is the fan favorite. As of 2001, it had sold 1,821,457 copies, making it #68 on a list of top 100 all-time bestselling children’s books. This puts Team Nancy ahead of Eloise, Charlotte’s Web, Yertle the Turtle and Curious George.

13. If you love Nancy Drew you can attend the 2011 Nancy Drew Convention in Charlottesville VA.    You can get more info at http://www.ndsleuths.com/ndsconventions.html

I'm a medium.

14.  If you’re looking for ideas for my Christmas gift, check out Nancy Drew Cafepress store for tons of fun Nancy Drew stuff.  http://www.cafepress.com/nancydrewshop.

Great websites and my sources.

The Nancy Drew SleuthsAround the World with Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew Heaven, The Unofficial Nancy Drew Homepage, Nancy Drew on MysteryNet.com, Mentalfloss  


“The Willoughbys” by Lois Lowry

Reviewed by my good friend and guest blogger Lemony Snicket.  (Okay fine…he really wrote this review for Publisher’s Weekly… mainly cause, you know, he’s never actually met me)

Lois Lowry, who casts her noble and enviable shadow wide across the landscape of children’s literature, from fantasy to realism, here turns her quick, sly gaze to parody, a word which in this case means “a short novel mocking the conventions of old-fashioned children’s books stuffed with orphans, nannies and long-lost heirs.”

These clichés are ripe if familiar targets, but Ms. Lowry knocks off these barrel-dwelling fish with admirable aplomb in The Willoughbys, in which two wicked parents cannot wait to rid themselves of their four precocious children, and vice versa, and vice versa versa, and so on. The nanny adds a spoonful of sugar and a neighboring candy magnate a side order of Dahl, if you follow me, as the book’s lightning pace traipses through the hallmarks of classic orphan literature helpfully listed in the bibliography, from the baby on the doorstep to the tardy yet timely arrival of a crucial piece of correspondence.

The poor Willoughby orphans

The characters, too, find these tropes familiar-“What would good old-fashioned people do in this situation?” one asks-as does the omniscient, woolgathery narrator, who begins with “Once upon a time” and announces an epilogue with “Oh, what is there to say at the happy conclusion of an old-fashioned story?” This critic even vaguely recognizes the stratagem of a glossary, in which the more toothsome words are defined unreliably and digressively. (He cannot put his finger on it, at least not in public.)

The Useful Glossary

Never you mind. The novel does make a few gambits for anachronistic musings (“Oh goodness, do we have to walk them into a dark forest? I don’t have the right shoes for that”) and even wry commentary (“That is how we billionaires exist,” says the man who is not Willy Wonka. “We profit on the misfortune of others”) but mostly the book plays us for laughs, closer to the Brothers Zucker than the Brothers Grimm, and by my count the hits (mock German dialogue, e.g., “It makesch me vant to womit”) far outnumber the misses (an infant named Baby Ruth, oy).

There are those who will find that this novel pales in comparison to Ms. Lowry’s more straight-faced efforts, such as The Giver. Such people are invited to take tea with the Bobbsey Twins. Ms. Lowry and I will be across town downing something stronger mixed by Anastasia Krupnik, whom one suspects of sneaking sips of Ms. Lowry’s bewitching brew. Tchin-tchin!

Mr. Snicket


Lemony Snicket is the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events.


Is Origami Yoda real or not?

The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger (ages 8 -12) is a funny, uncannily wise portrait of the dynamics of a sixth-grade class, as well as a look at greatness that sometimes comes in unlikely packages.

It seems Dwight, a loser, talks to his classmates via an origami finger puppet of Yoda.  If that weren’t strange enough, the puppet is uncannily wise and prescient. Origami Yoda predicts the date of a pop quiz, guesses who stole the classroom Shakespeare bust, and saves a classmate from popularity-crushing embarrassment with some well-timed advice.

Dwight’s classmate and reluctant friend Tommy wonders how Yoda can be so smart when Dwight himself is so totally clueless. With contributions from his puzzled classmates, Tommy assembles the “case file” that forms this novel.

There’s something undeniably intriguing about the metaphysical dilemma the premise of this book raises. If Origami Yoda gives good advice does it matter if that advice is coming from Dwight the loser or from the manifestation of Lord Yoda himself?

Make your own Yoda!

It’s a question that kids understand. Is Christmas morning any less special if Santa isn’t real? Why do we avoid the crack if we know we won’t actually break our mother’s back?

I found this quirky little book to be a complete joy and read it in two quick sittings, yet I wouldn’t quite go so far as to recommend it to grown ups. However, every kid I know that has read it (okay that’s only 3) has found it nearly impossible to put down once they began reading.  Origami Yoda pulls a sort of  Jedi-mind-trick on its readers sucking them in and making them want to devour the story.

Hey c’mon, isn’t that exactly what we parents want from a kids book!

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