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Children's Books : FAMILY LIFE AND COMING OF AGE : Growing Up Almost Happy

June 04, 1989|Patricia MacLachlan | MacLachlan won the 1986 Newbery Medal for "Sarah, Plain and Tall." Her latest book is "The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt" (Harper & Row).

At a time when families seem fragmented--when there do not seem to be many clear-cut ways to adulthood--it is heartening to find books that

celebrate family and the connections of people. Good children's literature can be both a window and a mirror, and a number of new books offer both the child and the adult reader insights into the wonderful and often-familiar eccentricities and foibles of family life. We see ourselves in these books.

Mrs. Goose's Baby by Charlotte Voake (Joy Street Books--Little, Brown and Company: $12.95; 20 pp.) is a bare-boned and lovely mystery, but a mystery only to the main characters. Mrs. Goose, quite simply waiting for a child to love, finds an egg and makes a nest for it. She cares for it with that age-old nurturing instinct. When the egg hatches, it is immediately clear to all but Mrs. Goose that her own welcoming "honk" and her baby's answering "cheep" are not biologically connected. But Mrs. Goose doesn't care. Mrs. Goose loves her baby in spite of the differences in feathers and feet. "Mrs. Goose's Baby" is about the enormous power of love, in this case mother love, and how the differences of origin do not matter. We have much to learn from Mrs. Goose. From the look of it, Mrs. Goose may well find another egg to hatch when this baby is grown. Mrs. Goose is made for loving. May she have many more babies to love, whether they be in a gaggle or a clutch.

Shy Charles by Rosemary Wells (Dial Books: $11.95; 32 pp.) is a humorous, poignant and wise book about shyness, and about young mouse Charles who teaches his parents that shyness does not imply cowardice or lack of purpose. Charles' parents, tender yet bewildered by their son, foolishly hope that football or ballet may "cure" his shyness. Shuffled off to Madame LaFleur's "Ecole de la Danse" (in tights!) Charles does not become immediately outgoing. "For a week he pretended to be asleep" may be one of the funniest lines in a long time, but it is also touching and powerful. This is an honest book. While Charles becomes a hero, tenderly and efficiently caring for his baby-sitter, he does not change. He demonstrates that he can be caring, intelligent and heroic--and still be shy. It is OK to play alone. It is all right to be shy. "Shy Charles," in its own way, celebrates individual differences.

Two books, though different in style and content, reaffirm the power and comfort of stories. When I was a child, each night at bedtime, I coaxed my father to tell the same story over and over again. Though he often embroidered the story with fanciful variations, it was always our story--a part of our cultural respiration. Tales for a Winter's Eve by Wendy Watson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $10.95; 32 pp.) has this familiar flavor, a loving group of family and friends telling stories until the injured Freddie Fox warms up and is comforted. Grammer tells of Weedie Woodchuck's "famous lighter-than-air muffins" that cause greedy Mr. Raccoon to float up and out the door so that he has to be brought in and tied to a bedpost. The prose is a wonderful mixture of country folk and poetry:

"The windows of Vinegar Lane were dark now. Bare trees marched up over snow-covered hills, row after row. Overhead, the pale moon floated high."

When Smart the Weasel (a great name) is asked about the winter weather, he answers in a line I plan to use one day some winter. "Like a miser's heart, and growing colder," he says.

The illustrations have the dreamy yet firmly grounded quality of the New England winter landscape, and the last picture of four little foxes in four small beds almost makes you wish that you were there in a fifth bed so that you, like Freddie, could say, "Another tale would help." And be given the gift of one last story before sleep.

If "Tales for a Winter's Eve" reflects comfort, Dancing Teepees: Poems of American Indian Youth, selected by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illus. by Stephen Gammell (Holiday House: $14.95; 32 pp.) shows us the power of words and of the past. The author, who spent her childhood on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, writes that "to the American Indians, the spoken word was sacred." Children heard stories from parents and grandparents that they, in turn, passed down to their children. The power of the oral tradition passed down through poetry, prayers and chants is movingly stated by Four Guns, a Lakota tribal judge: "The Indian needs no writings; words that are true sink deep into his heart where they remain; he never forgets them."

The theme of the book centers around youth, particularly Indian youth, and each poem has the heartbeat of the past. Sun, Moon, Stars, a poem from an Omaha ceremony for the newborn is eloquent:

You that move in the heavens,

Hear this mother!

A new life has come among you.

Make its life smooth.

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