John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)

I never thought I would say something like that about a Harry Potter book but this one left me “meh”. It sure isn’t awful but there’s nothing to rave about either. Mostly, it felt a bit pointless. The Deathly Hallows offered to all fans a climax and a closure; it’s really tough to have anything come after that.

So what can The Cursed Child offer? A revisit to best loved characters, almost twenty years later. Time is not kind to anyone, and fans probably hate to see the kind of adults Harry, Hermione, Ron and the others have become. I don’t mind so much, but the whole thing about parenting is hard felt rather heavy-handed.

It offers also a new visit into famous moments of the canon, thanks to time-travel devices. But after the first moment of surprise the whole time-travel thing feels more like a gimmick. (And we all know that I’m not allergic on principles to time-travel in literature) Even my son commented that there was enough back-and-forth to give you motion sickness. The plot itself was not really what I expected of J.K. Rowling. There are really implausible parts (I don’t want to go into spoilers, but there’s a particular awkward detail that really beggars belief), inconsistencies and some predictability, which does not make for a good cocktail.

I love the Harry Potter series (still love it despite this one, which I don’t really consider part of the story), and I transmitted this love to my elder son, so that was only logical that I would buy him this book. It was perhaps a fault of mine that I didn’t read it before giving it to me. My son rather enjoyed it (but not to the degree of the rest) and when he told me to read it, I added it to the pile… for a full year and then more (to my shame). I picked it up for the Summer reading challenge (#20BooksofSummer organized by Cathy from 746 Books) because I wanted to something easy and light. In that respect it was alright, and it was entertaining in a fully nostalgic way, plus it was a good opportunity to talk again about Harry Potter with my rapidly-growing teenager.

I have a mild curiosity about how all this magic and time travel translates onto the stage but I surely wouldn’t pay a fortune to get tickets.

The One from the Tiny Hole to the Mountain Top

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)

I can’t recall how old I was when I first read the Hobbit, but I know my father read it aloud to me (in a shortened version, I guess). So for me, it was the umpteenth re-read, but for my second son, it was the very first time and it was precious! (No pun intended, my precious… ?)

My last reread of the Hobbit was in 2014 when I was pregnant with my second son, and this year I read it aloud to him. We started end of last year if I recall well (it seems a lifetime ago), and we stopped for awhile because the mood was not on fantasy worlds and dragons (and also the forest of Mirkwood really gave my son the creeps). The summer was a great time to finish Bilbo’s quest, as we were both eager to see the dragon defeated and Bilbo safely back at home.

When my elder son was at that stage, we started the Harry Potter series and it was a great experience together. Funnily enough, my elder son never got round to read the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, but there’s still time!

First of all, my son loved it! (that’s the main point I guess) He wants to go on with the Lord of the Rings but it is quite an ambitious read-aloud project, I’m not fully ready to commit.

Secondly, there are definitely some lengths in the story, and reading aloud through these parts to a 6 year-old contributed to our fatigue. Also, the ending felt awfully rushed. I’m sorry if saying anything against Tolkien seems like a blasphemy, but I am growing a critical eye (what a silly image!) by presenting it to my kids instead of just consuming it and relishing the comfy glow of old childhood memories.

My boy is a great fan of Gandalf, and really didn’t get why the wizard left the group of dwarves and the hobbit in the middle of the book, before entering the forest of Mirkwood. “He has other things to do” didn’t really cut it, and to me neither. When we approached the end, we had the feeling that Tolkien was stuck with his stalemate of dwarves, men and elves, and that he really hurried the end with a deus ex machina – and the return of Gandalf.

What’s his favorite part? I asked. He replied that it was when Bilbo and the dwarves encounter a group of three stupid trolls. It has a comedic effect that was mostly missed later in the book when the geopolitics and diplomacy of dwarves, men and elves really went way above my boy’s head. He also enjoyed very much Gollum, and the idea to decide something with a game of riddles. We had a lengthy discussion if Bilbo did play fair or not.

I might wait another year or two before trying The Lord of the Rings, considering the darker themes. In the mean time, we will watch the Hobbit’s movie trilogy by Peter Jackson. It will be fun!

The One with the Corgi Lady

Loïc Clément, Anne Montel, Chaussette (2017)

One awesome thing (among others) about having a tween child is that we can really begin to talk about books. This comic book was recommended to me by my son. I think it’s the first time he did so unprompted, and he was totally right, I really did enjoy it, which makes me proud to have a son who understands his mother’s taste! (well, not on all topics, but we’ll get there, eventually)

Chaussette is a large format comics full of big feelings and tenderness (not unlike my tween boy!). Chaussette is the nickname (meaning socks) of Josette, an old lady who lives in the narrator’s neighborhood. Chaussette is a lonely, quirky oddball with an adorable little dog, Dagobert, but she adheres to a strict daily routine. Merlin, the little boy who tells the story, knows exactly what shops Chaussette visits and what she buys every day. Until one day, when Chaussette goes out without her dog and starts behaving uncharacteristically.

It’s a heart-breaking story about grief and loneliness, but it’s not depressing at all. It made me smile and hope, a bit like the movie Amélie. The art is large watercolor full of details and tiny characters, the text is naive, loopy handwriting, it’s really delightful for all ages. (I was hoping to insert some pictures of it here, but WordPress is throwing a fit, so here’s the publisher’s page instead). I hope my son gives me many more recommendations like this one!

PS. I used to have a category tagged “Read Aloud”, but as the kids are growing up I’m renaming it “Read with the kids”, sign of a new season!

Kids Lit Special: 3 Choices

As much as I have read big books with difficult grown-up themes recently, I have also fallen in love with beautiful picture books for kids. Pictures draw you in first, and then the short texts need to be straightforward and powerful. In stressful, busy times, picture books offer a moment of beauty and escapism to the tired, frazzled brain, and it works equally well on parents and children.

I still read aloud to my youngest son every night before he goes to sleep, and I enjoy my weekly trip to the library to stock up on 15 picture books of every genre. Of course, some are just twaddle, but others are pure gems of art and poetry. I am quite good at not buying adult books, but weirdly enough I can’t resist buying beautiful picture books! These are my latest discoveries:

How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson (1995) both for text and illustrations. It’s a magical book for any book lover: imagine a secret world that lives on a library shelf! tiny characters who live inside books! book spines shaped like doll houses! Because the pages are so full of books and details, you can literally spend hours poring over the tiny houses made of books with whimsical titles (inspired by real books, with so many puns). The story itself is a melancholy quest by young hero Peter who wants to find the only book missing from the shelves, and who actually bears the same title as the book you have in hand (oh, metafiction for kids!) A bit like Mirrorstone by Michael Palin, the story is less interesting than the world and the unforgettable images that the author has built. It was quite a hit for mother and son alike.

Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats (1964). I was seduced first by the vivid colors, not only on the cover but on each page. Having a black child as a main character is also unusual (I learnt online that Keats was one of the first writers to do it) and I loved the effectiveness of the story that only requires a few words to build a plot. For anyone who has seen his/her child frustrated with whistling, the story, simple as it is, rings very true. It’s one of those skills that you don’t know how to explain, until they know how to do it by themselves.

Le Bois dormait by Rébecca Dautremer (2016) is a splendid variation on Sleeping Beauty. In French we say “the beauty of the sleeping grove”, highlighting the villagers who are asleep because of the evil curse. This book’s title is “The grove slept” (only one letter away from “the sleeping grove”) and in this version, the beautiful princess is not the focus of the story, but the whole village, stuck in a beginning-of-the-20th-century slumber.The book alternates between a white page with only two characters etched with a simple pencil line on the left, and the opposite page in colorful , luscious painting. On the left, two men are walking and speaking about what they discover on the right page. We only get to hear what the funny, plump character say to his genteel companion, who might well be a prince (wink wink). The paintings are so atmospheric and full of melancholy, and the text is both poetic and slightly ironic. This one is a keeper!

The Start of the Never End

It’s been a while since I was looking for a successor to Harry Potter. And I finally might have found one.

I didn’t look for myself, but for my son who is hooked (who am I kidding here? for my son and myself!). The deal for my son is that he has to read the book before he watches the movie, but I’m not sure it’s exactly an incentive, because he wants to read all of Harry Potter all the time. We started when he was 7, and I read aloud part of the book, letting him read a few pages during the day before I picked up the book again at bedtime. The second book of Harry Potter was for Christmas, and the third came with his 8th birthday in June. The book was finished midway into our trip to Scotland (bringing an anxious discussion about what should he read next, and what kind of French book for kids is available in Scotland – answer: none, so we tricked our way to downloading some titles on my Kindle!)

The road leading to the 4th tome of Harry Potter will be long, so I was looking for sagas and bestsellers appropriate for him, but then a few days ago, when I opened my internet browser at work, Google had a Doodle celebrating the 37th anniversary of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. I knew I was on to something big!

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a pair of chubby little hands

Anyway, I just couldn’t wait for the next trip to the library, where I grabbed a copy of The Neverending Story, and I started reading it to my boys. It was an instant hit! Dragons, boys on a quest, creatures of all kinds and dimensions (my little one was fascinated by the tiny people who ride on racing snails and beat up the other delegations – clearly a personal fantasy of revenge).

We have been reading every night, and as I don’t know the story myself it’s also fun for me to discover new adventures (I don’t know where I was in the 1980s when the movie came out… mmh, I bet I was immersed into The Hobbit). We love it so much that, before returning the book to the library tomorrow, I had to buy the book (hardback no less, since the paperback is no longer available).

A few descriptions are a bit too long for the kids and the little one often interrupts to make sure he understands which character is good and which one is evil, but my 8-year-old is riveted. He clearly projects himself into Bastian and Atreju. We’re about one third into the book and it has done miracles to our evening routines so far.

Have you read it as a child or later? Do you remember the movie?

 

Reading Aloud with my Oldest: The Big Adventure Starts

We have embarked on an adventure.

Not yet the big trip across the Atlantic, but an equally fantastic one, and one that will take us for a far longer journey together. We have embarked on an adventure that starts on Privet Drive, and we’re very soon going to board a train to Hogwarts School.

Yes, you guessed it, my son and I have started reading Harry Potter together. He had his 7th birthday last month (just a blink of an eye) and I gave him the book, for a mother-son readaloud project.

It’s really the first time we tackle such a big chapter book, except Kipling’s Just so Stories, which were, well, just stories. So I kind of braced myself for the transition (especially after listening to the Readaloud podcast where they advise simpler chapter books first), and I waited quite a while before getting the book even though he’d asked for it, having heard about it at school. One thing that decided me is that I absolutely wanted to read to him the book before he’d watch the movie, because to me it would be spoiling the imaginary world that the book would build in his mind. Although he has already seen the movies posters everywhere in town, I don’t want him to see Harry Potter only as Daniel Radcliffe.

The first chapter was a little tough, as it took a few pages to just set the decor of Privet Drive and of the Dursleys boring routine. My son really wanted to get to Harry, and preferably not Harry-the-baby, but Harry-the-boy-with-awesome-powers. (Can you tell he already identifies himself?).

From the second chapter on I could tell he was hooked. He really tried to understand the minutiae of Harry’s life among the Dursleys, and was not rolling his eyes when I asked if he understood a difficult word or two (which he didn’t, of course, but then as I read aloud I sometimes switch to simpler vocabulary. No offense, J.K. Rowling, but considering I’m already reading a translated book, where Hogwarts is known as Poudlard, I don’t really mind). I caught him reading by himself in-between evening read-aloud sessions, which is clearly a sign of success, but kind of difficult for me to follow.

He can’t wait to see the moment when Harry meets his friends Ron and Hermione. I can’t wait to see him discover the trio. I have suitcases to fill and endless lists to check-off before our departure to America, but as a matter of books for my oldest, I think we’re all set. What do you think?

Reading Aloud with my Oldest: Twaddle

I discovered this word while listening to family-centered podcasts. May I bother you to repeat once more how much I love podcasts? Love, love, love them. Ok, I’m done on the subject (for now).

I didn’t even know what twaddle meant, and judging only by the sound it made me think of a duck. But the disapproving tone of the conversation and the context made it clear enough that it was something… bad. The context was a conversation about libraries and how to steer the kids towards the good books and avoid the twaddle. Although I’m sure that the (American, Christian, homeschooling) podcasters and I (European, non-Christian, full-time working mother) wouldn’t quite share the definition of what is a good book, I totally relate to their concern.

Before my older son got to school, I felt that twaddle was rather easy to control: it came as Disney spinoff cardboard books or dumb ultra-gendered books with cars. They seemed rather harmless and we could always offer an alternative. If Baby Smithereens insisted we would give in and that would take 5 minutes at most.

But as my kid grew up, he became a bit more opinionated, and also more influenced by the marketing sirens, although we don’t have a tv connexion in order to avoid the nastiest commercials.

Pikachu via Wikipedia

Enter Pokemon. If you have a vague notion of it, you’d think Pikachu is a kind of cute cuddly toy. Big mistake! I am being surrounded by obsessed 6-7 years old (and you might remember that obsession takes a whole new meaning at this age), and  Pokemon’s merchandising has branched out into probably every daily life activity, including books!

I feel lucky because French libraries don’t stock twaddle in general, and Pokemon in particular, acting as a guardian with superpowers: if it doesn’t exist, you can’t have it. But…

But supermarkets’ books aisles have it, and bookshops have it… One day or the next I was doomed to give in. I refused flat-out to pay good money for having twaddle in my home. I have principles! So much to my shame, I got on to Bookmooch to exchange one for free.

Perhaps there was a huge relief sigh at the other end of the barter when twaddle left the home of the Bookmooch giver.

I refused flat-out to read twaddle aloud. I have principles! Now you’re a big boy, you’re 6 3/4, you can read alone!

Unfortunately the book was in English, sigh, I gave in (parenting is about compromises, isn’t it?) because having a book and not being able to read it is probably the worst frustration ever.

I swear I didn’t understand what I was reading and translating. Even Ellroy’s Perfidia has a clarity that a Pokemon book hasn’t. My son, next to me, was glued to the words that came out of my mouth. I sort of understood the Greek Pythia who delivered oracles without being aware of what she’d say.

I quit after Chapter 3. There’s a limit to my patience. Even my son said it was better to catch episodes on Youtube. He later got another book in French via grandparents (ah, twaddle, if you chase it out the door, it will come back through the window), but he got the lesson: he’s reading it all by himself.

That policy suits me fine. I want him to discover great books, and I plan to read aloud as long as he’s interested (and some more?) but I won’t control every single book that goes through his hands.

What do you think? Am I too passive and fatalist about twaddle?

A New Series: Reading Aloud With My Oldest

I have vivid memories of being read to as a child, so I always knew that reading aloud would be important to me as a parent, hoping that my child(ren) would love it too. It is therefore no surprise that in the evening routine, the reading aloud part comes to me. My husband has never disputed me that (although he loves reading too, obviously).

I have sometimes posted about picture books here, but now that my oldest is 6 (and starting reading, this is soooo sweet!), we are now turning to chapter books, which is a new territory for both of us.

The oldest son typically wants to be a big boy in all matters and read big boy’s books, but he still loves to have his share of pictures, so he loves poring over comic books that are much too difficult for him in terms of content (Tintin, Lucky Luke, Asterix are familiar heroes around here). I read them aloud to him, but it’s tedious for me, and we get both frustrated when I read jokes that only I can laugh at.

One of my long-time dreams has been to re-read with my kids those books that I loved as a child: The Just-So Stories, for example, and The Hobbit (obviously at different ages). And more recent books have added themselves naturally to the list, like Harry Potter. It’s really important for me to be there by his side when he’ll get to discover those new worlds.

In the meantime, I have started to explore this new territory of chapter books for elementary school readers and beyond (because I don’t want to limit myself to books that he will soon be able read by himself.) You will hear about the best ones over here!

As I love both family-centered blogs and podcasts (huge distraction and procrastination from reading and writing, I know…), I discovered through the Art of Simple website a podcast: The Read-Aloud Revival Podcast by Sarah Mackenzie, which is always a delight to listen to. I am absolutely not in the homeschooling, religious tribe, her primary target audience I guess, but I enjoy it and I love hearing about new titles from distant horizons (to me).

One of the advantages of reading-aloud is to give my son access to books in English, which I translate aloud (given that he will be able to read French books by himself soon enough). And not only to limit myself to books I have read myself as a child, but discover new books and have as much fun as my son.

I hope that you will follow me in this new exploration!

As a book-loving parent, what books do you (did you) love reading aloud to your kids?