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Archive for October, 2011

Author and illustrator Tomie dePaola was a staple of my early childhood, as he was for many children of the ’80s, with titles like “Strega Nona” and “The Art Lesson.” But he also created a lesser-known picture book called “Marianna May and Nursey,” that remains, to this day, one of my all-time favorites.

Unlike much of his other work, which is typically autobiographical or based on age-old folk tales, “Marianna May and Nursey” is the story of a young girl who is the only child of a very wealthy, Victorian-era family. Because her parents are so very important and very busy, Marianna May is cared for by a prim, white-haired woman named Nursey.

True to the period and their socioeconomic class, Nursey, Marianna May and her parents wear white, all white, all of the time, especially during the summer. This wardrobe, unfortunately, doesn’t exactly suit Marianna May’s favorite activities.

“Nursey didn’t like it when Marianna May rolled in the grass, made mud pies, ate orange ice, or strawberry ice cream.”

As a result, Marianna May is often relegated to the front porch swing and instructed to keep her white dress clean.

 “Even though Marianna May was very rich, she was also very sad.”

DePaola’s moral resides in this single sentence. What little girl – and for that matter, what adult – doesn’t dream of life with all the fineries of the wealthy and privileged? But Marianna May’s experiences demonstrate that life isn’t always greener on the other side.

Fortunately for Marianna May, her unhappiness does not go unnoticed. One afternoon, Mr Talbot, the ice deliveryman, sees the dejected look on her face and sets out to consult with the house staff, determined to remedy the situation. Spurred by Mr. Talbot’s brilliant idea, Nanny, the cook, the cook’s helper and the laundress work all day to transform Marianna May’s white frocks into something more appropriate for a playful, young girl.

The illustrations that follow of Marianna May in her many-colored dresses are an absolute delight and have remained in my memory for nearly 20 years.

As a whole, I would compare dePaola’s book to your favorite dessert – little nutritional value, but oh-so delicious. Published in 1983, its references to wealth are a bit of a children’s-book faux paux today, but I do enjoy the historically accurate details dePaola carefully incorporated. The style of the clothing, architecture and manicured gardens all reflect the Victorian era.

The ice delivery sign hanging in the window of Marianna May’s house particularly caught my attention. I noticed that three corners of the diamond-shaped sign contained numbers. According to historical information about ice delivery, the sign was positioned so that the number pointing upward indicated how many pounds of ice a customer wanted the deliveryman to cut from his block.

Just as ice delivery has long gone by the wayside, so too has this beautiful book. You won’t find it at your local Barnes & Noble, but copies can be found in various conditions for widely varying prices from online booksellers. My mom, ever indulgent of my literary obsessions, tracked down a copy for me on eBay several Christmases ago. But for those of you in the Ames area, you’re in luck! The Ames Public Library has a copy – possibly the exact same book that enchanted me so many years ago.

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At Fellows Elementary School in the early ‘90s, “chicken butt” jokes were the height of hilarity. So, I suppose it was out of nostalgia that I first picked up a copy of Erica S. Perl’s boldly titled children’s book, “Chicken Butt.” But Perl’s rollicking version of the question-and-answer standoff, in this case between a son and his reluctant father, had me laughing like an 8 year old in no time.

I find it hard to imagine that there’s a person on the face of the English-speaking earth who hasn’t participated in some version of this classic schoolyard exchange, either uttering it themselves or being duped into it by an overly exuberant grade-schooler. But for cheap laughs, I’ll share the rendition I remember:

Guess what?

What?

Chicken butt!

Guess why?

Why?

Cow pie!

Guess where?

Where?

In your underwear!

Perl is unapologetic about her sophomoric humor. In fact, it’s a large part of what led her to a career in writing after a stint as a public defender.

“You can’t be all that funny as a lawyer,” she said in an interview for her alma mater, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. “I mean, you can, but it’s not always such a great idea.”

Perl’s chicken butt jokes strike just the right chord with her 4- to 8-year-old audience. Simply say the word “butt” and you’ll have every kindergartner within a square mile in hysterics.

Although Perl reports she’s never had a complaint, I suspect not all parents will find this a redeeming quality in a children’s book. For the skeptics, I must expound of the book’s exceptional educational values. As a former journalist, I couldn’t have been more proud when my not-yet 2 year old mastered her five W’s and an H (who, what, where, when, why and how) in response to the book’s Q-and-A format. And Perl also uses the book as a tool to teach rhyme and tempo.

“I always pause between the page turns and ask kids to guess the rhymes,” she tells Maw Books Blog. “I’ve gotten some great ones, like ‘chicken stew!’ and ‘chicken hair.’”

The opportunities the book offers for a child to participate in its narration are among the book’s best qualities. This spread has proven particularly popular at our house when read with out-of-control goofiness and a little couch jumping.

But my personal favorite is the illustration that immediately follows this outburst:

It doesn’t take a word of text for young readers to understand that the boy and his fowl sidekick are in BIG trouble.

Where Perl’s verse is spare, relying nearly entirely on the classic lines of the joke, Henry Cole’s frenetic artwork fleshes out the story in vibrant acrylics and colored pencil. Early illustrations on the title and dedication pages reveal how the joke-telling mayhem begins. It appears the chicken instigated the bedlam, sharing his wisecrack with the impressionable young boy after following him home from the newsstand.

Paired with a different but equally talented illustrator, Julia Denos, I nearly missed the fact that Perl had authored another of my favorite finds. “Dotty,” like “Chicken Butt,” is a shining example of Perl’s talent for capturing common childhood experiences and distilling them in perfect storybook form.

In this case, Perl gives treatment to imaginary friends, a sentimental subject for both the author and myself. As a first-grader, I had a zoo of imaginary animals, each with its own imaginary leash, all of whom I dragged along to the pool and on long car trips. In Perl’s case, it was a set of twins named Sahti and Dahti who kept her 4-year-old self company and, later, at age 8, an imaginary pet sheep.

“By then I was pretty sure that I’d get teased if anyone found out about my imaginary sheep, so I didn’t tell anyone,” she told the blog “Mishaps and Adventures,” which offers an amazing behind the scenes look at Dotty’s artistic creation.

Perl rolled her experiences into “Dotty,” an endearing story about a girl named Ida whose spotted and horned friend Dotty (think pink rhino) tags along on her first day of school. As it turns out, Ida isn’t the only one with an imaginary pet. She’s introduced to the fanciful creatures of her classmates, each one embodying some of the social struggles of its owner.

“Dotty occasionally poked people with her horns when she got restless. Pete and Repeat occasionally refused to share. Spike occasionally growled when she missed her nap. And Keekoo occasionally had to be told to let someone else have a turn talking.”

As the seasons pass, however, Ida’s friends begin to leave behind or altogether forget their imaginary friends. Soon, Ida is the only student still toting a leash to school and some of her peers take the opportunity to ridicule her. But, as Ida tells it, Dotty comes to her defense.

Both Ida and her classmate are reprimanded by their teacher, but Ms. Raymond proves to be sympathetic to Ida’s plight. It’s revealed that she, too, has an imaginary friend she’s never forgotten.

In fact, on second reading, you’ll find that Gert’s been hiding in the background all along.

Perl says she hoped the book’s message would help children understand that imagination and imaginary friends aren’t things they have to outgrow.

“I also see it as a book about the pressures kids sometimes feel to give up ‘babyish’ things, especially when they start school,” she told The Happy Nappy Bookseller. “I firmly believe that growing up doesn’t have to mean letting go of all the things that comforted you when you were little. In fact, I still have my old dog-earred teddy in my office.”

Ida’s exchange with Katya certainly brings to mind conversations that arose about Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the like in the later years of elementary school. I clung to my belief in these magical people even when others mocked me.

Perl’s treatment of this topic is elegantly sensitive and flawless. Ida’s experiences – both good and bad – mirror the excitements and challenges my newly-anointed preschooler is encountering this fall.

My daughters’ affection for both “Dotty” and “Chicken Butt” make Perl a frequent request around our house. We didn’t find “Chicken Butt’s” sequel, “Chicken Butt’s Back!.” quite as hilarious as its predecessor but we’re eagerly awaiting Perl’s next picture book project.

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