Tons of Fun

George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends
Written and Illustrated by: James Marshall

"A good book should be shared with friends."

        Sometimes cultural artifacts become icons of the different eras in our lives.  Hearing "Smells like Teen Spirit" on the radio immediately places me on a crowded school bus during my eighth grade year, a pair of headphones split with a neighborhood friend, the smell of sticky green vinyl and Dentyne settling on our shoulders like an old blanket.  It would be at least another year before we were able to let go of the conformity we clung to like life preservers in middle school, truly embrace Cobain's outcast anthem of disenchantment, and get swept away in the nineties zeitgeist, but hearing those muffled lyrics will always bring me back to the dingy yellow school bus in eighth grade.

       Similarly, the George and Martha books are fossils from my childhood.  They are my mom reading to me after a bath and before bed; they are me reading to my little sisters as I grew older; they are my mom, sisters and I quoting our favorite lines and giggling.  

        "There is such a thing as privacy!"

        "Oh dear me!"


        "For shame!"   ...are just a few of the George and Martha-isms that still tickle my funny bone.  
        I have to admit, I had forgotten about these two adorable hippos until my sister recently mentioned them.  The effect was like listening to one of those seminal songs on the radio.  All of my favorite stories opened before me: the one where George spies on Martha in the bathtub, the one where Martha takes up cigar smoking, the one where George starts a secret club.  Every tiny story was shelved in my past, waiting to be dusted off and opened.  

        James Marshall has been a staple in children's literature for decades.  Most adults from my generation remember the infamous Ms. Viola Swamp from the classic Miss Nelson is Missing!.  His characters are lively and complex--and many of them have secrets.  George is the sweet and bumbling friend who loves to play pranks.  His loyalty is as wide as his tubby hippo bottom.  Martha is the hot tamale who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it.  This saucy hippo is usually too spirited to take "no" for an answer; still, she always knows exactly what to say to cheer up her best friend when he stumbles.  While I love both of these hippos unconditionally, Martha's headstrong liveliness has always maintained a special seat in my heart.

        To be honest, I cheated a bit.  When faced with having to choose one of the seven George and Martha books to review, I could not make up my mind, so I chose this collector's edition of their complete works instead.  Every George and Martha book is divided into five brief stories.  Marshall is a master of brevity.  He is the Hemingway of children's literature.  A nuance of true friendship that may take another author an entire book to convey is often expressed in one unadorned sentence in a George and Martha story.  

        When Martha gets a horrible sunburn after cavorting at the seashore without sun block, George could be self-congratulatory.  He did, after all, warn her of the consequences.  "But George never said 'I told you so,'" Marshall writes, "Because that's not what friends are for."  Don't we all need to be reminded of that?  The stories are all so delightful that it's hard to highlight a favorite, but "The Sweet Tooth" (from George and Martha: Tons of Fun) particularly calls my name.  George's affinity for sweets is rivaled only by my own.  He begins sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night to raid the refrigerator.  A concerned Martha cautions him that he is eating too much sugar and gaining too much weight.  "Let's not discuss it," George responds over and over--a response many of us have encountered when trying to get a loved one to kick a bad habit.  So what does the tenacious Martha do?  She ups the ante.  On the next page, we see that Martha has taken up cigar smoking. 

        Her response is perfect, and so is Marshall's illustration.  Chain smoking cigars is a perfectly obnoxious way to highlight the destructive nature of bad habits.  This image of Martha all fire and brimstone, her eyes angry slits and her head resting below a noxious cloud of black cigar smoke, conveys the depth of her concern for George.  "Let's not discuss it," she replies when George pleads with her to stop in the interest of her health.  And after Martha turns "a peculiar color" from smoking too many cigars--but before she kicks the bucket--George goes down on his knees and promises to cut back on sweets.  

       The story of "The Tub" (from George and Martha) is only thirty-two words long, yet it is one of the most memorable ones from my childhood.  George spies on Martha while she is taking a bath.  On the last page of the story, you see Martha has dumped the entire bath tub on top of his head and is beating him with a brush.  "We are friends," she says, "but there is such a thing as privacy!"  It is a hilarious way to address boundaries and how--no matter how close you are to someone--there are certain things that are just not your business.  I was reading reviews of this book on Barnes and Noble.com one afternoon and ran across one incensed reader who wrote "The story called 'The Tub' is totally inappropriate for children and I'm very surprised that it was allowed in a children's book."  Thank God Marshall and the people over at Houghton Mifflin had a better sense of humor.  

       I will close with my favorite George and Martha illustration.  It is from the story "The Surprise" in George and Martha Round and Round.  George and Martha, upon making up after a wet prank George played on his friend, sit and watch the autumn leaves fall from the trees.  "'Good friends just can't stay cross for long,' said George.  'You can say that again,' said Martha.  And together they watched the autumn arrive."  It's the perfect ending to a tale about two friends.

        Except it's not the ending.

        And that is exactly what readers love about the George and Martha stories.

"Trust me: they fit your face perfectly."


The Pink Menace

 Olivia and the Fairy Princesses
Written and Illustrated by: Ian Falconer
"The old saying is actually false...one can have too much pink tulle."

You know what’s funny?  Despite the popularity of fairy, princess, and fairy princess costumes, I don’t remember ever dressing as one of that pink trifecta for Halloween.  My guess is that I escaped them because when I was a wee one, my mother made all of my Halloween costumes from things we already owned.  If it couldn’t be made with a paper plate, a hanger, or a pillowcase, forget it.  Case and point, this little gem:

There are so many provocative discussions waged in the war against gender stereotypes.  We want to give our daughters the independence to build their own identities and display those identities as they choose, but what if our daughters want to dress in pink ruffles and sparkles?  Or hot pants?  Do we let them aspire to be Barbie look-alikes, or do we steer them towards flannel shirts and crossbows instead?  We want to teach our daughters that the damsel in distress role is the least they can aspire to, and it stings when they want to emulate a person whose only shot at a productive life hinges on a handsome man on horseback rescuing her from a tower.  I am not eager for the day to arrive when I have to decide how to handle princess mania.  

In the meantime, I have decided to let books do the talking.  Little A and I love Ian Falconer’s Olivia books.  Little A enjoys the adorably drawn little piglet with her distinctive ears and red accessories, and I enjoy Olivia’s perpetual quest to stand out from the crowd.  Each book in this delightful series is a treat, but Olivia and the Fairy Princesses is my favorite.  The entire story centers around a bedtime discussion Olivia has with her mother after Olivia marches into the kitchen and announces, “I think I am having an identity crisis.”  The precocious pig then goes on to explain that all of the girls (and even some of the boys) want to be the same thing: a pink fairy princess.  

You have to love a children’s book in which the young protagonist not only has an identity crisis, but knows it and openly discloses it.  As the short timeline unwinds, Olivia touches on birthday parties, Halloween celebrations, and dance recitals--all popular haunts for cotton-candied little girls.  In each memory, she boldly stands apart from the pack in her signature style, illustrating through her attire and actions that fun is not always pretty, and pretty is not always pink.

Falconer doesn’t forget to take some gentle jabs at the fairy tale archetype, as the spunky little swine begs her mother to skip the story where the prince kisses his damsel and turns her into a princess, requesting instead Little Red Riding Hood-- but “just the parts where everyone gets eaten.”  As mother and daughter wrestle with her bedtime at the end of the book, readers spy a poster of American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham--clearly Olivia’s latest inspiration as she tries to develop “a more stark, modern style"--on the wall behind her bed. Little A and I always look forward to the poster on Olivia’s bedroom wall, as it changes from book to book.  Our favorite is still Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Saves the Circus), but this one is a close second.  

Barbara Morgan - Martha Graham, Lamentation
This image is from: http://www.vintageworks.net/exhibit/full_image.php/154/1/1/0/20451/9931_Barbara_Morgan.jpg

Olivia’s mother finally tires of the pink fairy princess discussion and leaves her little one to drift off to sleep.  Of course, Olivia’s mind is racing.  I won’t spoil the sweet epiphany she reaches at the close of the book, but I promise it’s worth discovering for yourself.  
Of course, Little A is a bit young to truly grasp the larger message in the book right now, so it is more entertaining for me.  We, however, will be reading it again and again over the next few years, and we will have a pink fairy princess discussion of our own one day.  Hopefully it’s not while we are standing in the costume aisle of Target.  Although, is there really any harm in letting a little girl feel like a princess once in a while?  The jury’s still out.  All I know is that next Halloween, I still get to choose the costume, and I can’t wait for Little A to be Amelia Earhart.

For more inspirational costume ideas for little girls that break the sparkle ceiling, check out this post on Jaime C. Moore's blog right now.

For further discussion on the pink menace, check out Emily McNally's article "My Problem with Pink."

A girl after my own heart...


My Baby Reads Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice: A Counting Primer
Written by: Jennifer Adams & Illustrated By: Allison Oliver
"A lady must think carefully before choosing a man."
      In case you are reading this blog for the sole purpose of cyber-punching me in the face, let me begin by clarifying that my baby doesn’t really read Jane Austen.  And if you are reading this blog because you are looking for tips on how to get your five-month-old to read Jane Austen, stop.  Shame on you.  Let that kid enjoy a few more months of slobbering on herself and pooping in public without humility before using her to make the rest of us feel like Neanderthals. 
     This week, Little A and I have been enjoying the baby board book Pride and Prejudice: A Counting Primer (with a clever nod to Little Miss Austen).  It is just one of a collection of classics available in baby portions via the BabyLit series from Gibbs Smith Publishers.  Others in the series include Moby Dick: An Ocean Primer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Camping Primer, Anna Karenina: A Fashion Primer, and Wuthering Heights: A Weather Primer. 

Being the bibliophile that I am, I must profess my love for this series.  While we currently only own two of the books in the collection, I hope to one day own them all.  Parents who read regularly with their children can probably relate to the mind-numbing I-Want-to-Scratch-My-Eyeballs-Out daze that settles over one after reading a particularly banal children’s book for the seven billionth time.  When I was a kid, one of my favorite books to check out from the library was called New Blue Shoes, and the extent of the plotline was literally a little girl who needed new shoes, wanted blue shoes, bought blue shoes, and went home.  Something about it really spoke to me: maybe my future penchant for a good pair of shoes or the especially pleasing shade of blue of her new shoes.  I don’t know.  Actually, upon Googling that book, I see it is now something of an out of print cult classic.  Go figure.  Now I kind of want to read it again. 

But I digress. 

My point is that my poor mother had to read that book with me over and over and over again when I was a youngster, vainly hoping that maybe just once something surprising would happen—the little girl would instead settle on a nice pair of brown penny loafers or get hit by a bus—but it was always the same.  What I enjoy about the BabyLit books is that there are novels of possibilities contained between Allison Oliver's whimsically illustrated pages.  While the book may simply prompt Little A and me to count English villages, ball gowns and marriage proposals, I can embellish with my personal insights into Lizzy and Mr. Darcy.  The illustrations offer brilliant windows into the world of the book, with occasionally humorous pokes at the characters.  The concepts behind the books sometimes touch on complex characteristics of the originals (let’s face it; the weather really is a character in Wuthering Heights).  Best of all, the most horrifying elements from the original stories are absent.  In Anna Karenina: A Fashion Primer, no one tosses herself in front of a speeding train, and the lovely protagonist goes on to wear fashionable hats in perpetuity.

            Whether you are looking for something creative to give to the child of book lovers or simply a collector of quirky literary finds, the BabyLit series is sure to delight.  The books are so beautiful, they look stunning simply sitting on display on a prominent bookshelf.  These board books may be the closest I come to reading anything literary between now and when Little A goes off to college.  So I can at least guarantee a rudimentary understanding of the various plotlines as conveyed through fifty-eight words or less.  And that is something.  

Sometimes the photo shoot goes off the rails.
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