Darkly Dahl

Roald Dahl is an author of controversy. He’s lauded for being a brilliant writer; he’s shunned because of his 1920’s upbringing and racist and antisemitic writings and comments. His children’s books are considered classics of literature; his children’s books are ignored by some who complain they are too dark for children’s literature.

Too dark? Let’s look at this.

Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother was eaten by a predatory wolf, Cinderella’s stepmother made her into a slave, Hansel and Gretl were abandoned (twice!) by their parents and taken in by a cannibalistic hag; the Little Match Girl freezes to death all alone. Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda darker than that? Not quite.  

There is some truth to it – in many of Dahl’s stories, parents, if not most adults, are seen as evil, or cruel, or incompetent providers – mean teachers, poor and ever-working parents, buffoonish adults who cannot see the plight of the child (Wonka is most definitely – well, Wonky). There are elements of racial bigotry (the tiny black (yes, they were black in the book) oompa loompas living on grubs; Germans always being fat gluttons, etc). But is this so far from other children’s stories? Not so much. Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events is also darkly humorous, and few are crying foul. Dr. Doolittle bleaches a man’s skin, rather than let a black man marry a white woman. Peter Pan’s stereotypical depiction of Native Americans is downright painful and offensive on many levels. Bigotry and stereotyping is nothing new, only that fact that we now call it what it is. 

One point to remember is that parents, quite frankly, are a pain in the neck to children. They love them, while at the same time resent them for setting limits, saying no, and dragging children kicking and screaming through the process of growing up. For Dahl – and millions of others – who grew up in British boarding schools, at the mercy of bullies they couldn’t escape and teachers who were allowed to whip children, the experience left a more lasting impression (Pink Floyd, anyone?). For those in Britain who grew up in World War II, who as children hid during the Blitz or were shipped out to board with strangers, it lends another level of abandonment and trust issues to children’s literature. There’s a reason behind a lot of the dark – and for British children, it’s a shared cultural memory. Is Fantastic Mr. Fox an allegory for the war? Possibly. 

Another point to consider is children are the hero of their own story. It’s fine if Daddy vanquishes the dragon, but children would much rather be the ones doing it. Tween and Pre-tween children desperately want to be seen as competent, able to impress grown ups with their abilities. Children want to be the hero, and they can’t do that if Mummy and Daddy are with them telling them no – hence the number of orphan stories, or children alone. They can’t rely on the adults with them, or the story won’t work. A story about a child who tried and failed, who gave up and lived with their perceived oppression, isn’t a story a child wants to read about. There’s no role model there, no hero, no inspiration, no one to pretend to be. So of course Matilda has to shine, and the Peach must kill James’s wicked aunts, even if he has to find kinship with a bunch of insects, and even wacky Mr. Wonka can’t miss the good that dwells in Charlie. 

Darkness, shmarkness. The world is a dark place, and childhood a relatively new invention. In too many places, children are still locked in war-torn places, famines, camps, drug violence, and abusive situations. Our lauded fairy tales of yore – right down to Mother Goose and Aesop’s Fables – hark back to far darker times.

 Let them read. If nothing else, darker literature provides the perfect chance to discuss empathy, fantasy vs. reality, and handling tough situations – including some of the tough times we’ve been through in the past year.

The Magic Finger

Danny the Champion of the World

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Witches

The BFG

Matilda

James and the Giant Peach

Fantastic Mr. Fox

It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week!

Teacher Appreciation Week is celebrated during the first full week of May each year. In 2021, it’s May 3-7, with Teacher Appreciation Day falling on Tuesday May 4. As anyone who’s  tried to teach their kids during times when the schools were closed, or has observed the many hoops teachers must jump through to keep their students engaged and learning remotely will surely agreed, TEACHERS ROCK!

Educators have had to hit the ground running during the pandemic, re-inventing the way they teach on the fly, so to speak. Let your teachers know how much you appreciate all they do – here are some ideas:

  • Write an email to your child’s teacher expressing your gratitude for all they’ve done this year, especially while adapting to so many changes in the way they teach.
  • Write an email to the principal, letting them know how much you appreciate your teacher.
  • Show appreciation on Social Media, use the social media hashtag #ThankATeacher from the National PTA and share how educators have brightened your or your child’s life.
  • Donate books for your teacher’s classroom library.
  • Send your teacher a gift card for food or classroom supplies.
  • Have your child a write special letter, e-mail, recorded video message, or drawing to send to their teacher.

Teacher Appreciation Week also brings to mind some of our favorite fictional teacher like:

  1. Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus series
  2. Miss Clavel from the Madeline books
  3. Miss Nelson in Miss Nelson is Missing!
  4. Mr Falker in Thank you, Mr. Falker
  5. Mr. Browne from Wonder
  6. Miss Honey from Matilda
  7. Mr. Terupt from Because of Mr. Terupt
  8. Minerva McGonagall from the Harry Potter series
  9. Miss Stacy from Anne of Green Gables

Who are some of your favorite teachers from fiction? Let us know in the comments!

11 Books for Young Climate Activists

Earth Day is upon us once again, and I don’t know about you, but mine are looking different lately. Gone are the days when this millennial would spend April 22nd learning about endangered species in school. Now I spend Earth Day, and all of April, and pretty much every day of my life, really, worrying about the changing climate we’re experiencing here on our home planet. I think about greenhouse gas emissions every time I crave a bacon cheeseburger, wonder if the plastic containers from last night’s takeout are truly recyclable, and whenever I buy new clothing, I picture the dried-up Aral Sea or the mass of garbage floating in the Pacific.

It’s exhausting to think about all the ways that we contribute to climate change simply by existing. But instead of spending all our time in a near-paralytic state of worry, there are things we can do to slow down and perhaps even reverse climate change. And by “we,” I mean every one of us: guilt-addled tofu-munching Ziploc-reusing urban dwellers like myself, homeowners with roofs to solarize and garage outlets that can charge plug-in vehicles, all the way down to kids who are going to inherit this growing problem. Yep. Kids. They can absolutely fight against climate change, and the following book titles will help empower them to work for a brighter, more optimistic future.

Baby Loves Green Energy! Accurate enough to satisfy an expert, yet simple enough for baby, this clever board book explores the science of global warming and shows how we can use green energy to help combat climate change.

The Last Straw : Kids Vs. Plastics
There’s no doubt about it: plastic is in almost everything. From our phones and computers to our toys and utensils, plastic is everywhere. But the amount of plastic we throw away is hurting the health of our planet. With this book, readers will be fascinated as they learn about the growing plastic problem and meet just a few of the young activists who are standing up and speaking out for change.

Stand Up! Speak Up! : A Story Inspired by the Climate Change Revolution
After attending a climate march, a young activist is motivated to make an effort and do her part to help the planet by organizing volunteers to work to make green changes in their community. Here is an uplifting picture book that is an important reminder that no change is too small–and no person is too young–to make a difference.

Greta Thunberg
When young Greta learned of the climate crisis, she stopped talking. She couldn’t understand why people in power were not doing anything to save our Earth. One day she started protesting outside the Swedish Parliament, creating the “School Strike for Climate.” Soon, lots more young people joined her in a global movement that shook adults and politicians alike. She had found her voice and uses it to inspire humans to action with her powerful message: “No one is too small to make a difference.”

Kids Who Are Saving the Planet
You can make a difference, no matter how old you are! These kids are helping to save honeybees, teaching people the importance of clean air and water, raising money to help endangered birds, and writing petitions to raise awareness of climate change. You should meet these kids who are saving the planet!

What a Waste

Did you know that every single plastic toothbrush ever made still exists? Or that there’s a floating mass of garbage larger than the USA drifting around the Pacific Ocean? It’s not all bad news though. As well as explaining where we’re going wrong, this book shows what we’re doing right! Discover plans already in motion to save our seas, how countries are implementing schemes that are having a positive impact, and how your waste can be turned into something useful. Every small change helps our planet!

Recycle and Remake: Creative Projects for Eco Kids

Kids are on a mission to save the Earth! This book is the hands-on, practical guide you need to get started. Each of the activities directly relates to an environmental hot topic, such as plastic pollution, food waste, or deforestation. Budding environmentalists all over the world are feeling inspired to do their bit for our unique planet.

Old Enough to Save the Planet

As people saw in the youth climate strike in September 2019, kids will not stay silent about this subject: they’re going to make a change. Meet 12 young activists from around the world who are speaking out and taking action against climate change. Learn about the work they do and the challenges they face, and discover how the future of our planet starts with each and every one of us.

Climate Action: What Happened and What We Can Do
Did you know that the past five years have been the hottest ever recorded? Or that over seven million people participated in the global Climate Strike? We’re facing a very real problem, but there’s hope. Learn how our behavior and actions have led us to this point, hear from kids around the world dealing with extreme storms, wildfires, and sea level rise, and discover what scientists, youth activists, and ordinary citizens are doing to protect their communities.

This Book Will (Help) Cool the Climate: 50 Ways to Cut Pollution and Protect Our Planet!
Our planet is heating up, and it needs your help! If you want to learn to reduce your carbon footprint and cool the Earth, here are practical tips and projects that make a difference.

This Book Is Not Garbage: 50 Ways to Ditch Plastic, Reduce Trash, and Save the World!
Do you worry about the world’s waste? The bad news is, humans throw away too much trash. But the good news is, there are lots of easy ways you can get involved and make a difference! From ditching straws and banning glitter to hosting a plastic-free birthday party, helping to save the planet is not as difficult as you think. So, take control of your future! Become an eco-warrior instead of an eco-worrier and do your part to save the world from GARBAGE!

Bonus book: if your young activist is already following Greta’s Twitter account and policing your recycling bin for contraband, they could probably use a story about how we humans have managed to fix our mistakes. I adore Bringing Back the Wolves: How a Predator Restored an Ecosystem for its uplifting true story featuring one of our iconic national parks, its inviting illustrations, and its generous serving of scientific info. Plus wolves are awesome.

Books for Budding Chefs

I used to enjoy cooking and baking once, but life happened (as it does), and over the years it evolved from a fun hobby into a chore. I’ve bounced back from my low point of lockdown-era frozen buffalo chicken strips, but cooking is still not something that brings me joy. Even when I try new recipes. No, especially when I try new recipes. There’s too much thinking, too many variables, not enough autopilot. I groan whenever my produce subscription boxes send me yet another unidentifiable root vegetable that requires a consultation with the internet. And if a new recipe starts going sideways – I’m looking at you, butternut squash gnocchi that I made for Christmas – I tend to season the cooking process with a heaping spoonful of expletives.

Luckily, my attempts at culinary novelty usually turn out pretty good. But I still prefer to fall back on my tried-and-true recipes: the ones I could do in my sleep, without sounding like I’m performing a read-aloud from the recipe section of Bad Manners. I applaud the home cooks who enjoy tackling new kitchen adventures. And I especially applaud those who can do it with little ones running around. If you need to clear some table space for creativity, or if you’re just trying to cook off this week’s mystery veg without introducing young ears to – ahem – new vocabulary, why not keep your kids safely occupied with a book? These fun and engaging stories cover some of our favorite foods, from nachos to chocolate chip cookies. They might even inspire your kids to go beyond the role of Brownie Batter Bowl Licker and move up to Chef-in-Training… even if the position is only open on low-stress dinner nights where the only duty is arranging the frozen buffalo chicken strips (or more likely, dinosaur chicken nuggets) on a baking sheet.

Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando.   Every day, Ando Momofuku would retire to his lab–a little shed in his backyard. For years, he’d dreamed about making a new kind of ramen noodle soup that was quick, convenient, and tasty to feed the hungry people he’d seen in line for a bowl on the black market following World War II. “Peace follows from a full stomach,” he believed.  With persistence, creativity, and a little inspiration, Ando prevailed. This is the true story behind one of the world’s most popular foods.

How the Cookie Crumbled: The True (and Not-So-True) Stories of the Invention of the Chocolate Chip Cookie.   Everyone loves chocolate chip cookies! But not everyone knows where they came from. Meet Ruth Wakefield, the talented chef and entrepreneur who started a restaurant, wrote a cookbook, and invented this delicious dessert. But just how did she do it, you ask? That’s where things get messy!

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix.  For Chef Roy Choi, food means love. It also means culture, not only of Korea where he was born, but the many cultures that make up the streets of Los Angeles, where he was raised. So remixing food from the streets, just like good music—and serving it up from a truck—is true to L.A. food culture. People smiled and talked as they waited in line. Won’t you join him as he makes good food smiles?

Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen Brought the Dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge.
A rhyming introduction to the life and influence of famous chef Joyce Chen describes how she immigrated to America from communist China and how she helped popularize Chinese food in the northeastern United States.

The Hole Story of the Doughnut.  In 1843, 14-year old Hanson Gregory left his family home in Rockport, Maine and set sail as a cabin boy on the schooner Achorn, looking for high stakes adventure on the high seas. Little did he know that a boat load of hungry sailors, coupled with his knack for creative problem-solving, would yield one of the world’s most prized pastries.

Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat. While Julia is in the kitchen learning to master delicious French dishes, the only feast Minette is truly interested in is that of fresh mouse!

Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack.   Celebrating 80 Years of Nachos, this book introduces young readers to Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya and tells the true story of how he invented the world’s most beloved snack in a moment of culinary inspiration.

And because my editor would be very unhappy if I got this far without mentioning at least one cookbook, here’s our newest titles to help your Chef-in-Training build their skills:

The Big, Fun Kids Cookbook.   Each recipe is totally foolproof and easy to follow, with color photos and tips to help beginners get excited about cooking. The book includes recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and dessert — all from the trusted chefs in Food Network’s test kitchen.

Kitchen Explorers! 60+ Recipes, Experiments, and Games for Young Chefs.    What makes fizzy drinks fizzy? Can you create beautiful art using salt? Or prove the power of smell with jelly beans? Kitchen Explorers brings the kitchen alive with kid-tested and kid-approved recipes, fun science experiments, hands-on activities, plus puzzles, word games, and more.

Grandma and Me in the Kitchen.   This cookbook, made just for Grandma and her little chefs, is full of foods they will both love to cook together! Along with recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts are tips for creating traditions and finding ways to celebrate the everyday wonderfulness of just being together.

 

We have tons more cookbooks in the children’s and adults sections of the library. What are you planning to cook up in 2021?

8 Mars Novels for Fans of the Red Planet

Were you glued to your screen on Feb. 18, 2021, when NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover made its final descent to the Mars?  This is the first rover mission designed to seek signs of past microbial life. Earlier rovers first focused on and confirmed that Mars once had habitable conditions. The goals of this mission are:

  1. Determine whether life ever existed on Mars
  2. Characterize the Climate of Mars
  3. Characterize the Geology of Mars
  4. Prepare for Human Exploration

If you’re caught a touch of Martian Fever, or just wondered what it might be like to be on Mars yourself, we’ve got a reading list for you:

Kids’ Fiction

The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm. Bell has spent his whole life – all eleven years of it – on Mars. When a virus breaks out and the grown-ups all fall ill, Bell and the other children are the only ones who can help.

We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey. After a year on Mars, a young boy and his family migrate to the planet Choom, but the inhabitants of Choom, who look like giant mosquitoes, don’t really like humans and it is up to the boy and his family to change their minds if they hope to survive.

Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson. While waiting to leave Mars before it burns up just like the Earth before it, Liam and his friend Phoebe discover some facts about time and space and realize that the human race is just one of the races trying to survive in space.

In the Red by Christopher Swiedler. When a massive solar flare hits their Mars colony, friends Michael and Lilith are stranded with no protection from the sun, a quickly dwindling supply of air, food, and water, and little hope for rescue.

Adult/YA Fiction

Red Rising by Pierce Brown. A tale set in a bleak future society torn by class divisions follows the experiences of secret revolutionary Darrow, who after witnessing his wife’s execution by an oppressive government joins a revolutionary cell and attempts to infiltrate an elite military academy.

The Martian by Andy Weir. Stranded on Mars by a dust-storm that compromised his space suit and forced his crew to leave him behind, astronaut Mark Watney struggles to survive in spite of minimal supplies and environmental challenges that test his ingenuity.

The Sky So Big and Black by John Barnes. Accompanying her eco-prospector father on a tour through the Martian wilderness, Terry finds herself having to guide the trip’s young survivors back home after a terrible accident.

Mars Life by Ben Bova. Discovering proof that intelligent life had existed on Mars millions of years earlier, scientists Jamie Waterman and Carter Carleton struggle to protect Mars funding in the face of ultra-conservatives who fear the discovery will compromise their religious beliefs.