Friday, September 11, 2009

"God bless the gargoyles. God bless us all."

On September 11th, eight years ago, I was preparing for the first day of school: setting up the classroom, meeting students, calling parents…

At the time I was teaching during the week and bookselling on weekends. The school opted to postpone the first day until the following week to allow families time together and to allow the staff time to develop strategies to address the questions and comments our preschool students would surely have. Similarly, the bookstore instituted additional storytimes—a place to allow families to gather and relax, for parents to search for titles that might help them talk to their children, and for kids to be in a familiar place outside of their home.

The store compiled a list of titles to read and to suggest to families, but of course the booksellers added additional books which had personal meaning or which gave us comfort. There were a lot of titles about love and forgiveness, about families and home, about peace and understanding. Terrific titles, meaningful and important books all.

But it surprised me to find that the title which gave me the most comfort during this time was one I added to our suggested titles list — Dav Pilkey’s GOD BLESS THE GARGOYLES. Yes, that Dav Pilkey. Dav Pilkey the creator of Captain Underpants and The Dumb Bunnies.

GOD BLESS THE GARGOYLES tells the tale of how and why gargoyles perch on churches and cathedrals— that they were placed there to look over and protect us, to scare evil away. Yet over the centuries, our relationship with them changed, and people began to worry over these creatures, concerned that their frightening appearance reflected an unsavory soul. The gargoyles took this to heart and were devastated. Soon angels heard their crying and flew down to comfort them and to work with them to watch over mankind. To this day, whether we know it or not, accept it or not, they still look over us.

I first encountered the book when it was released in 1996 and it quickly became a favorite. But it was never an easy book to handsell. My passion for it worked during the Halloween season, but it’s not a book that is an easy one to suggest for birthdays or bookreports. It is not a book likely to become an obvious favorite.

After the events of 9/11, I realized what an important book this had become to me. Now it is among the first I turn to when I need comfort. It makes me weep and it brings me peace. And now that it is the reason I suggest it to others.

God bless the hearts and the souls who are grieving:
For those who have left, and for those who are leaving.
God bless each perishing body and mind
God bless all creatures remaining behind.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Facing Fears with THE THREE ROBBERS

There are very few books from my childhood that were ever ‘lost’ to me. I have a half-dozen younger siblings, I taught nursery school, I was a bookseller… when my peers were ‘setting aside childhood things’, I was still encountering them on a daily basis.

But despite this, there are a handful of books which have slipped through the cracks. Some are obscure and long out of print and I’m sure they’ll never surface, some are remembered but I can’t find them (anyone else remember a staple-bound, die-cut Golden Book THE FRIENDLY LION?), and a few I’ve been lucky enough to run across at unexpected times.

Years ago when I was bookselling, I was straightening the shelves in paperback picture books when I came across a book which was just oversized enough to stand out… I pulled it off the shelf and gasped. A dark, almost sinister cover was before me. Three tall black hats, six gleaming eyes, a frightening red axe… I grinned and sighed and felt a rush of glee. I sat on the floor to get reacquainted with Tomi Ungerer’s THE THREE ROBBERS, a friend I’d not seen in decades.

The book follows the exploits of three robbers, cloaked in black, who torment their victims with an axe, a pepper blower, and a blunderbuss. Citizens are terrified—to the point that ‘Women fainted. Brave men ran. Dogs fled.’ Their horrible reign continues until the night they stop a carriage wherein the only thing of value is an orphan. They take Tiffany back to their lair where she convinces them to do some good with their plundered wealth, and they open an orphanage. Over the years, an idyllic town springs up around the orphanage and the citizens erect towers in honor of these unlikely foster parents.

While the story does have a happy ending, the bulk of the tale isn’t comforting. Here is a fierce trio, taking what they want at will and with a measure of violence. They chop up carriage wheels and threaten people. I’m sure my exasperated childhood self exclaimed, ‘They’re even mean to the horses!’ They take a small child because there’s no other treasure to steal.

The illustrations don’t soften the story in any way. They are dark in both mood and appearance. An image early in the story shows the robbers in silhouette, their weapons brandished and threatening against the night sky. Even the final image of the town is heavy with a swath of black and many others are easily 2/3 solid black ink.

Finishing the book as an adult, I was confused. And worried. And concerned. What was I reading? Was this really a childhood favorite? Why did I ever connect with this book? And how could something so scary resonate with me— I’m a chicken who can’t even watch previews for horror movies. I don’t think I wanted to escape my family until my tween years. I doubt harbored a secret wish to be a robber. And yet, this was a book I checked out from the library repeatedly as a child.

The recent Phaidon hardcover edition is open on my desk as I write this and another read still hasn’t helped me understand why I like it so much. Unfortunately, I’m too tied up in the memories to look at the book objectively. I don’t think figuring out the book’s appeal would unlock any mystery of my personality, but I would like to know what the draw was to my five-year-old self. But the confusion my adult self feels wouldn’t keep me from sharing the book. It’s not a title I’d give as a gift to just any kid, but the right child might just find it appealing—and maybe even draw on it to face their real-life fears.

THE THREE ROBBERS by Tomi Ungerer, ISBN 978-07148-4877-8, picture book

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Greetings and Salutations!

One habit people have long teased me about—whether I’m visiting family and friends or touring a historic home—is scanning the bookshelves. It’s a habit I’ve had most of my life and I choose to believe it’s done me a service. My curiosity opened conversations with my grandparents about our family history, sparked debate with close friends about what did or didn’t work in a novel, reminded me of forgotten favorites, and introduced me to titles and authors I’d never have found otherwise.

And while I’m happy to discuss my love of Tom Robbins or debate which Brontë is the strongest writer or share which translation of Don Quixote I prefer, my biggest literary passion has always been children’s books—that all encompassing category that covers books published for those from birth to somewhere into young adulthood. This love has influenced my work and personal life and absolutely informs how I view much of the world.

For years, I’ve had friends from all around the country ask me if I would share my thoughts about children’s literature via blog or newsletter. I’m finally answering, “Yes.”

Aunt Feather’s Bookshelf is a place for me to share some of my favorite books, to remind you of things you may have forgotten, and to explore titles I overlooked (or stubbornly refused to read) when I was the target audience. I also hope that it becomes a place for discussion about what is and isn’t working in children’s literature and what we—as publishers, parents, librarians, educators, aunties and uncles—can do to keep children of all ages vibrant and interested readers.

So, welcome. There’s limeade in the fridge, that big green bowl has snacks in it, the chair in the corner is the comfiest, and the shelves are yours to explore…