More than pictures, more than words

There are certain personal benefits one finds after spending a rainy Irish summer out of work. 

Thanks to my mom, I love reading, and especially children’s and young adult literature. As I mentioned in a previous post, since moving to Drogheda nearly four years ago, I’ve set myself a yearly goal of reading 10 new books. This seems easily doable but can actually be challenging if I’m busy or if the books are dense. This year, however, I’ve been taking advantage of my time off and my love for “kids’ stories” to blast through my goal, and ta-da! I’m just starting book number 10.

This post is specifically about those children’s books I’ve been reading.  As you can imagine, there are lots of books I would never include on my actual list because they are far too  easy! These are the books I read Evelyn over and over, for better or worse.  🙂 But, all this reading to her stirs my own thoughts about what my favourite books as a kid were and what I feel makes a “good” story now. It seems the tales that resonate with me the most, even after all this time, are the ones that aren’t clean and simple. They’re the ones with a sharp edge of truth to them.

Who could forget the eerie ruins of Miss Havisham’s mansion in “Great Expectations?”  Or the tragic death of Beth in “Little Women?”  Or the despair in “On the Banks of Plum Creek” when the grasshoppers devour the entire landscape? Or the grotesque imagery of the woodcutter killing the wolf and rescuing Grandma in “Little Red Riding Hood?” Even the original Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” had a stepmother as evil as the witch herself.

With or without realizing it, I still turn to these grittier kinds of stories for kids. Don’t even get me started on the literal cuccoon from which I emerged after reading all the Harry Potter novels, thanks to Frank who convinced me to give them a try when I moved here! 

That said, even I have limits to what my reading psyche can take, and I find myself slogging through some of the truly dark stuff.  Mostly, I just love using my imagination. I’m a big fan of happy endings, don’t get me wrong, but feel free to throw in some ghosts and betrayal and humour and surprises. I’d rather get a little uncomfortable in the journey than float through a magical fairydust world where everything is clear and easy.  At least, that’s what my friends Dickens and Twain have taught me. 🙂

So here are a few of my recent favs, some from Ireland and some from abroad.

Oliver JeffersThe Heart and the Bottle

The Heart and the Bottle

 Oliver Jeffers is a genius.  An author and artist from Northern Ireland, his books in particular are some of our very, very favourites. Frank bought me one of the first, “Lost and Found,” when I moved here and was feeling a bit lost in this new country. The subsequent stories he’s written have all struck a chord with our family, even Evelyn. “The Heart and the Bottle” actually brought me to tears the first time I read it in the bookstore. It’s simple and true and I think kids and adults will learn more and more about themselves with each reading of it. Brilliant book.

Oh, and we love his illustrations so much, Frank painted murals of them on Evelyn’s bedroom walls before she was ever even born!

Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games

I am such a late-comer to “The Hunger Games!” When I was in Montana earlier this year, a girl at my sister’s wedding gave me the first book, knowing I had a long overseas flight ahead. She explained that it wasn’t the type of book she’d ever pick up, but that it was incredible and she stop reading it. I couldn’t have said it better myself! I’m definitely not usually into this teenage survival adventure type genre, and it took some convincing to get past the first couple chapters, but then I was hooked! I’ve now read the second book, “Catching Fire,” and I’m taking a breather before I treat myself with the third and final book, “Mockingjay.” Can’t wait! Really good, really unique stuff. 

Also, in case you didn’t know, the first movie of the three is due to come out in March.

Kate DiCamilloThe Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

I will always have this mental image of Kate DiCamillo as being sweet and quiet and girly and her books following suit. I don’t know why – I remember meeting her when we showed the film of “Because of Winn-Dixie” at the Heartland Film Festival when I worked there, and she was an intelligent, fascinating woman who wrote great stories.  All I have to do is pick up one of her books and I’m reminded that there’s so much more to them than just a “nice” story. “The Tale of Despereaux” is a classic example of her style. But last night I finished “Edward Tulane” in the tub and wow – what a complex and touching saga she crafted for him. It was poetic and sincere and said so much about the meaning of love. She proved yet again that her writing is for children, but she never, ever underestimates the degree of their deep understanding of the world. Beautiful book.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book

I know everyone’s a fan of Neil Gaiman already, but “The Graveyard Book”  hasn’t gotten (in my opinion) the attention it deserves – yet! It’s the kind of story that sort of blows your mind – like, how in the world did he even think of it? It’s touching and creepy at the same time, in true Gaiman form. 🙂

I remember hearing a Q&A with Gaiman after a screening of the film “Coraline” at the Dublin Film Festival. He mentioned then how much he loved being frightened as a kid, and how much it played with his imagination. He went on to say it’s important for kids to feel that thrill, that excitement of being just a little bit scared, in growing up. I could definitely relate!  Raise your hand if you remember being giddy with fear as a kid when you watched some crazy old Halloween horror picture!?!

This book is also set to be made into a film by Ireland’s own Neil Jordan, who incidentally was also at the screening that night.

Chris Judge – The Lonely Beast


Last, but certainly not least, is “The Lonely Beast.” Evelyn loves this book almost as much as Frank does. 🙂  Dublin-based writer/illustrator Chris Judge has hit gold with this witty picture book and it’s not-so-scary protagonist. Even just looking at the cover makes me smile all over. Frank found this in a little bookstore in Temple Bar, Dublin, and it was even signed! I hope to see more of Judge’s stuff soon, and more widespread! I think even a cynic would be impressed by the cleverness and heart in this sweet story.

Books have such an irreplaceable effect on us, especially when we’re young. They’re like the threads and glue to who we are, in many, many ways. That’s why I wanted to share this post with you – I’m really excited about what I’ve been reading these last months, and I can’t wait to see what definitive stories are just around the corner. I’m glad Evelyn will be spoilt for choice of great reading material as she grows up. Lucky girl. 🙂

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Copyright Maryann Koopman Kelly September 2011

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One thought on “More than pictures, more than words

  1. Kids’ books are definitely still the best — and I keep buying them! I love the sounds of the words, the illustrations, and the closeness of reading them aloud with a little person on my lap. I’m going to walk to the library right now and look for some of these titles.

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