Tag Archives: Charlotte’s Web

2014 Q1 Reading Report

Now that the first quarter of the reading year is firmly over, it’s time for a Quarterly Reading Report. This year, the reports will also serve as an index for the Re-Reading Project posts from the previous quarter. The Re-Reading Project is adding an extra dimension to my reading this year, as I am re-reading selected books from my childhood and early teen years. But it’s also making me want to re-read many more books (I’ve been hankering to re-read the whole Song of Ice and Fire series, which I only read last year). It’s making me think about the books I’m reading for the first time in a new way. And it’s making me want to catch up with series and authors I might have taken a break on lately. I’m not done reading memoirs and nonfiction by any means, but fiction is calling my name in a big way. It will be interesting to see what the rest of the year brings in terms of reading surprises and epiphanies.

January

The Boxcar Children, Gertrude Chandler Warner – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Bones, Cassandra Clare – This is another example of me seeing a movie and being intrigued by the source material. This time, I was intrigued because the movie was so spectacularly bad. It shouldn’t have been that bad, since it had good actors and decent visual effects. Without reading the books, I could feel that the story was off. It didn’t make any sense, the characters were inconsistent and the story logic betrayed itself several times. Once I read City of Bones, I was blown away by how much better the book was than its film adaptation (to be fair, this is particularly difficult book to adapt to film, partly because of subject material and partly because of length). I quickly got over my initial reason for reading (the intrigue about what went wrong with the film) and was completely hooked on the Mortal Instruments series. These books feel Biblical, like Shakespeare and all of the towering giants of canonical literature, but totally modern and relevant, juicy and funny.

Maniac Magee, Jerry Spinelli – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Sixth Grade Secrets, Louis Sachar – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Ashes, Cassandra Clare – About two chapters into City of Ashes, I requested the next two books in the series from the library. I could just tell that it was going to be one of those experiences where I wouldn’t be content with having just plowed through a massive 500+ page book. I was going to still want more. I was going to want to know what happened next, need to know, as quickly as possible.

Snot Stew, Bill Wallace – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Matilda, Roald Dahl – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Glass, Cassandra Clare – Just to torture me, the fourth book arrived at the library before the third one did, but the third one arrived right on time anyway, right as I was returning the second book. And here’s where I have to make a confession. I could’ve read a few more children’s books for the first month of The Re-Reading Project (I considered Harriet the Spy and The Secret Garden, among others), but between packing for my move and wanting to dive into this book, it just wasn’t going to happen. Plus, I felt like I’d covered enough ground with the eight books I read to justify getting absorbed in this book.

The 2013 Best American Essays, edited by Cheryl Strayed – As I did with the 2012 Best American Essays, I read one essay per day, every day (except for one day I missed), usually first thing in the morning. Even if I wanted to read more, I forced myself to read just one, so that I could think about it throughout the day. After I finished 2012, I couldn’t wait for 2013 and now that I’ve finished 2013, I feel the same way. I’ve collected 2011 and 2003 and I’ll probably do the same with them while I await 2014 later this year.

Sammy the Seal and Danny and the Dinosaur, Syd Hoff – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Some Nerve, Patty Chang Anker – This book came up in about a dozen conversations and magazines around the same time and it seemed like precisely the kind of book I needed to be reading as research for my memoir. I’ve gotten pretty good at listening to that “this is a book for you, now” voice. It’s a conversational book, based on experiences Anker wrote about on her blog, but for all the ease with which I sunk into the book, it was also one that challenged me, taught me a lot about voice and being honest.

Alice in Charge, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – I mentioned Alice in one of my re-reading posts and it made me go check to see how long it had been since I’d caught up with Alice, especially since I’d read recently that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor had published the last Alice book.  It was 2009, but I only had four books to catch up on, including the last one. So I checked them out from the library and dug in. Alice is such a strange mix between naïve and mature, a tiny bit sanctimonious but always well-intentioned. I think this is why readers have responded to her for so long, why I feel compelled to finish the series.

February

Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher, Wendelin van Draanen – Ditto with Sammy Keyes. I’d last read one of these titles in 2009 as well, around the same time as my last Alice book, and I also recently mentioned her in a re-reading post. One thing I really enjoyed about this book was seeing Sammy’s relationships change as she’s gotten older. Watching plucky, tomboyish Sammy with a boyfriend is really cool, because while she is growing up, the relationship isn’t changing her essential nature. She’s a younger, way less proper Nancy Drew, mixed with a bit of Harriet the Spy.

Incredibly Alice, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – It was really interesting to read this book now, since the series is set in a suburb of DC and I knew I was visiting DC soon. In fact, I’m returning from my trip as I write this. The whole time I was visiting, I would occasionally think, “This is Alice’s stomping grounds. That could be her and her girlfriends over there walking down the street.” This was the first time I connected with Alice in quite that way, as a girl I might meet walking down the street, since I was already mostly grown by the time I started reading the books and didn’t grow up anywhere near DC.

Sammy Keyes and the Night of the Skulls, Wendelin van Draanen –This book dealt with the Day of the Dead and Sammy spends a significant amount of time in the cemetery, where both hijinks and healing occur. It makes me wonder if Sammy’s grandmother is going to survive many more books. Not that she’s sick or anything, but if she did die, it would completely destabilize Sammy’s existence. In this book, Sammy’s friendship with Marissa was further tested, as well as her relationship with Casey. It’s cool to see Sammy staying true to herself no matter what else changes.

City of Fallen Angels, Cassandra Clare – So… how to say this without spoiling anything? Something big went down in the last book that made me wonder how there was going to be another book in the series, let alone two more (I only knew there were five, the sixth book is published at the end of May). So I was intrigued to read this book, see how the story would continue after evil was pretty well vanquished in the last book (there’s a slight spoiler for you). I’m always impressed with series authors who can build a full and satisfying narrative arc in each book and find creative paths for the ongoing story.

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh – While this book seems (on the surface) nothing like graphic novels like Maus and Allison Bechdel’s memoirs, I’d say that it’s not that far apart. The art is pretty basic and deceptively shallow, would be easy to dismiss except Brosh is a genius at pairing this simple art with universal themes and the perfect words and expression. In what seems like silly, funny comics (and are, on one level), Brosh tackles the curse of creativity, as well as mental health and depression. I enjoyed the webcomics and while I found the book very funny, I also found it a pretty painful read as well.

Dragon Sword & Wind Child, Noriko Ogiwara and translated by Cathy Hirano – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Ronlyn DomingueReview in 225 Magazine.

March

The Priority List, David Menasche – I saw David Menasche speak at Words & Music last year and while the subject matter of his book (going on a road trip to visit his former students while dealing with the side effects and symptoms of a terminal brain tumor) is pretty grim, he was full of life and good humor. I doubt many people left the room without a desire to read this book. It’s a quick read, sometimes almost too light, considering the subject matter. I admire the instinct to be positive and inspire rather than dwell in negativity, and the book is very powerful.

The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Bookstore, Deborah Meyler – I saw this book while working at the bookstore, ironically enough, and liked the idea of a Cheers-like indie bookstore being the center of this book. At first, I thought it might be too silly to hold my interest, but that was mostly me judging a book by its cover. I was quickly absorbed and read this book so quickly, invested so much in the characters, that I was disappointed when it was over. I could have read another 100 pages, easily.

The Show Must Go On! and The Greatest Show on Earth, Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise – I got an ARC of the second book in this series from the bookstore, so I checked out the first one from the library and read them both in an afternoon. I’m always interested to see how the circus is depicted in popular culture, especially for kids. It was Hilary Knight’s The Circus is Coming!, a picture book, that probably first sparked my own lifelong fascination with the circus. These are charming books, preposterous and goofy, and perfect for kids. They’re  written and illustrated by a pair of sister, which I love too, because Aimee and I always said we’d write and illustrate books together.

Alice on Board, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – During the summer after they graduate high school, Alice and her gang of girlfriends all work on a cruise ship together. She’s still apart from Patrick, stressed out by the distance in their relationship and worried about their future, but having fun and adventures on the cruise ship. Sometimes, I really want Alice to be more assertive that that she’s older, but then I have to remind myself that just like any friend I have high expectations for, I have to let Alice just be herself. It’s not fair to expect her to be anything else.

Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack, Wendelin van Draanen – This book reminded me a little of the Kick Ass movies (I’d just watched the second one), because Sammy is confronted by an adult man trying to be a superhero, who is both inspired by her sleuthing and hoping to make her his sidekick. Sammy’s struggles, with other people and with her own conscience, feel very real to me and I think that’s something I really like about the books. Best of all, it’s amazing to see how far she’s come since the first book, when no one knew her secret living situation and she didn’t trust anybody. She’s brought together a community, a network of support for herself. Which really builds on my suspicion that her grandmother might die soon, or go into the hospital for a while. Something is going to happen that will force Sammy to count on the community around her. She’s resourceful, but the most amazing part of the books is when she lets others help her.

So that was my first quarter in reading for 2014. The second quarter is already pretty strong and I can’t wait to share the report with you. But first, I have to read all the books I’ll be reporting on, which is the best part of all.

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The Re-Reading Project: Sammy the Seal and Danny and the Dinosaur

It was feeding time at the zoo.

All the animals

were getting their food.

– Sammy the Seal

One day Danny went

to the museum.

He wanted to see what was inside.

-Danny and the Dinosaur

I’m pretty sure that Sammy the Seal by Syd Hoff was the first book I ever read myself, followed quickly by Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur. But, I keep changing my mind about which one was actually my first book, so they stand together as my first books. They’re probably a lot of kids’ first reads, as they’re both Level 1 books in the I Can Read! series, the first of which was 1957’s Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. So the I Can Read! series was already 30 years old by the time I was reading.

Danny and the Dinosaur was published first, in 1958 and then Sammy the Seal in 1959. Each book is 64 pages of simple text and represents one day of freedom and fun. Danny meets the dinosaur at the museum and they hang out in the city together, most often helping out its citizens (kinda like a Superman version of Godzilla), then the dinosaur goes back to the museum rather than be Danny’s pet. They have further adventures together in later books. Sammy the Seal is given a day pass of sorts from the zoo, because he asks the seal feeder, Mr. Johnson, nicely. He also explores the city (one of my favorite pages shows a local man saying, “That seal must be from out of town.”), though he spends about half the day hanging out in a classroom with a bunch of schoolchildren and a redheaded teacher. He takes a cab back to the zoo just in time for dinner.

I was inspired to re-read these earliest of books when I mentioned them in my Charlotte’s Web post and Hoff’s niece Carol responded. I still have my original copies, but they’re in storage at my parents’ house, so I checked them out from my local library, where I’m a well-known patron. One of the librarians joked with me when I picked them up, saying the librarians were speculating on whether I’d meant to request them, since they varied a bit from my usual reading tastes. “Well,” she conceded, “All of your reading is a bit odd, so I told them this was actually pretty normal for you.” I told her about the Re-Reading Project and she told me about her favorite Syd Hoff book, Lengthy. I’d never even heard of it before and I was engrossed for several minutes while she narrated it for me. It’s apparently out of print, which is unfortunate because it sounds like a sweet story.

Sammy the SealDanny and the DinosaurIt just takes me about 5 minutes to read these books now, since there’s only a line of text on each page and the language is very easy, which is what makes them great Level 1 books and the reason why they were the first books I was able to read myself, every word. What struck me most re-reading them now is how absolutely dated the books are, and already were in the 80s when I first read them. Which strangely makes them feel timeless. Kinda like Indiana Jones. And they were utterly familiar: I must’ve read these books so many times as a kid that I all but memorized them.

Syd Hoff did more than write some of the most influential kid’s books ever, which would be a lot on its own. He sold almost 600 cartoons to The New Yorker, had two long-running syndicated comic strips and wrote books for adults as well. He was even the host of a t.v. show, called Tales of Hoff. Which, from the description on Wikipedia, kinda sounds like Bob Ross’s show combined with Roald Dahl’s. Here’s a clip of Hoff drawing and narrating, but I’m not sure if it’s a clip from Tales of Hoff.

I think it’s fitting to end this first month of re-reading where I began my reading odyssey. I didn’t originally intend to re-read so many books this month. I thought I’d maybe re-read four, but I had so much trouble narrowing it down that I re-read eight instead! I had a lot of fun, but moving forward, I’ll only be re-reading one title each month (August is ambitious, with three).

However, a nice side effect of this first month of re-reading has been the conversations I’ve had about great reading experiences, here on the blog and with friends and family off the internet. I’ve invited some of them to re-read an influential title from their life and write a guest post for the blog. February will kick off with one of these guest blogs. Some of you may also like to join me in the Re-Reading Project, so send me a message and let me know.

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The Re-Reading Project: Snot Stew

Our mama was the best mama in the whole wide world. She did all sorts of stuff for us. She gave us milk so we would grow up to be big and strong. And she gave us baths with her tongue, which was dry and rough, but it felt good anyway.

You can probably guess that the narrator of Bill Wallace’s Snot Stew is not human, but is instead Kikki the kitten, who is left alone with her brother Toby when first mama cat abandons them and the rest of their siblings leave the barn where they were born. Kikki and Toby are adopted by a family of “people things” and Snot Stew is the story of how they adjust to domestic life. Toby is more adventurous and adapts easily, while Kikki spends a lot of time cowering underneath The Couch.

But they both love the stew that The Mother feeds them, so they feel tricked with their people things Ben and Sarah start playing what they come to recognize as the Snot Stew game. But Toby is also playing a game with Butch the outside dog, which becomes treacherous and allows Kikki to be brave and save the day.

Snot Stew coverSnot Stew is a silly book that, as an adult, I flew through. Like Charlotte’s Web, it has really clever and amusing illustrations that enhance the book. I don’t know how many times I read this book as a kid – my book fair copy is battered and worn – but I know I haven’t read it once since I started recording my reading at thirteen. It’s funny that it’s impossible for the adult in me not to see the clear takeaway message that Wallace, a former schoolteacher, built into the book (it’s better to share, especially with siblings), but as a kid, I think I was way too distracted by the silliness and the adventure to consciously realize it was there.

The only other book of Wallace’s that I read was Buffalo Gal, a Western adventure with a female protagonist, that I also must’ve read before I was thirteen, because it’s not on my reading record. I was pretty sad when I saw during my research that January 30th will be the two-year anniversary of Bill Wallace’s death. Though it’s been about twenty years since I read either one of these books, they were integral to making me the person and reader that I am today.

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The Re-Reading Project: Charlotte’s Web

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.

And so begins Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, a children’s book that is both surprisingly brutal and extremely sentimental. The big brutal moments (for the child audience) are in Chapter 5, when Wilbur meets Charlotte trapping and eating a fly, Chapter 6 when one of the goose eggs doesn’t hatch and is given to Templeton the rat, and in Chapter 7, appropriately titled “Bad News,” when the oldest sheep tells Wilbur he is being fattened up so that he may be consumed for Christmas dinner. Yet, the descriptions of life on the farm and the passing seasons are bucolic and flowery, and the main premise of the book, Charlotte’s mission to save Wilbur, is emotional, hopeful and a bit naive.

Weaving together the hard practicality of farm life and the tenderhearted, empathetic nature of children, White’s second children’s novel, originally published in 1952, is a contradictory doozy of a little book. Some book, as Charlotte might write in her web.

At times, I felt like I was wading through product placement: Shredded Wheat, Ford, Chevy, Buick, GMC, Plymouth, Studebaker, Packard, De Soto, Frigidaire and Pontiac all get a shout-out. I feel like I missed some. It’s a little annoying that Fern is only 8, but first she’s setting the table for breakfast while her brother is sleeping late and then later, she’s being encouraged to spend more time with the boy Henry Fussy rather than with animals in the barn. During the section when Fern’s mother visits the family doctor to ask if there’s something wrong with her daughter, I really wanted him to say: hey, she might want to be a vet one day. While Charlotte saves Wilbur from becoming Christmas ham, nothing is said about Uncle’s fate after he wins the blue ribbon at the fair, or whether the Zuckermans had goose for Christmas or another ham entirely. But all of that is my cynical adult self’s impression of the book, struggling with the patronizing and slightly inconsistent tone and the moral ambiguity of animal slaughter verses personification of animals for children’s books. I think what my child self latched onto is that both Fern and Charlotte are the heroes of the story. Fern saves the day by speaking up against what she perceives as injustice. Charlotte uses her ability to write to save her friend’s life. Sure, Charlotte dies (spoiler?) and Fern goes off to play with Henry Fussy instead of the animals, but their actions did save Wilbur.

With all the descriptions of communal living among the animals in the barn, I’ll be interested to see how Charlotte’s Web compares to a book I’ll re-read later in this project: Animal Farm.

Unlike with the previous two installments of The Re-Reading Project, I re-read my childhood copy of Charlotte’s Web. It’s a 1980 reprint, covered in smudges and stains. The edges are battered and worn. Inside the cover, one of my early bookplates mostly covers up where I’d originally written my name and address.

Notice the first 'n' in my middle name looks more like an 'm.' I was still practicing my handwriting.

Notice the first ‘n’ in my middle name looks more like an ‘m.’ I was still practicing my handwriting.

I don’t remember any single experience of reading Charlotte’s Web, but like with Sarah, Plain and Tall, every bit of the story was familiar to me and from the worn condition of my book, I can only conclude that I re-read Charlotte’s Web obsessively between the ages of maybe 5 and 10. I’ve had it on my bookshelves since I moved out of the dorms, but I never read it in any of the years I’ve been documenting my reading (since the age of 13). I know it wasn’t the first book I ever read (that was either Sammy the Seal or Danny and the Dinosaur, both by Syd Hoff), but I must’ve read it pretty young.

In the years I wasn’t re-reading Charlotte’s Web, I was rediscovering White through Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (also still on my bookshelf, along with notecards stuck in pages and highlighting). I remember realizing that the tiny textbook was written by the same guy who’d written one of the first books I read as a child. In fact, doing a little research on White for this review, I’m reminded of what a multi-genre writer he was: he published poetry, essays, children’s books, adult novels, letters and textbooks on writing. He was considered one of the most important contributors to The New Yorker during his lifetime and Charlotte’s Web was considered the top children’s novel (for readers 9-12) in a 2012 School Library Journal poll. Well-rounded and long-lasting.

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