Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Xander's Panda Party

Xander’s Panda Party, by Newbery Award winning, Linda Sue Park, and illustrated by Matt Phelan is a little gem of a book. Written in wonderfully mesmerising rhyme, it is a delight to read aloud.
Xander’s original idea is to plan his birthday party for pandas only, but he quickly realizes that would make it a party of one. So ....
Xander adds all the bears to the list … but … Koala protests. She’s a marsupial! Does that mean she isn’t invited? This leads to his expanding the guest list to include all of the mammals in the zoo.
But then:
"Soon Rhinoceros sent word:
'It may sound a bit absurd,
but I won't come without my bird.'"

'Xander felt a little blue. He chewed bamboo, a stalk or two. He fidgeted
and paced the floor, then scratched an itch and paced some more.
Finally, a firm decision: Xander's brand-new party vision.'
(The double page wordless spread of Xander delivering invitations to all the animals in the zoo is wonderful. )
The essential mathematical and scientific concepts of identifying, sorting, grouping and classifying are introduced in a very clever, engaging way.  It is also a story about inclusiveness and diversity shown in a format which is gentle, amusing and appealing.
"What a party! What a ball! Lots of new friends, tall and small! Every creature at the zoo…"
As folk singer Bill Staines sang, "All God's critters got a place in the choir!".
As ‘”Xander's party plans went from grand to even grander”, this story has got me thinking about the trend in children’s birthday parties in general.  When my children were growing up, these were simple affairs by today’s standards; cake, balloons, presents, games like pin the tail on the donkey. We generally adhered to the one guest per child’s age idea. My sons both celebrate their birthdays in mid-August so their parties were always held outside in our back yard; apple bobbing, the slip n’ slide, three legged races, sack (pillow case) races and the like.  A couple times we had a piƱata; kids adore candy raining down from above.
My daughter is a January baby so her parties were held indoors, but consisted of some similar activities, games and also crafts like creating friendship bracelets. The party she remembers best is her seventh, which featured dressing-up. For this, I merely placed a huge box filled with an assortment of old clothes; primarily ladies’ dresses, shoes and hats for the girls to dress up in, in the center of our rec-room, alongside a basket filled with costume jewellery. I also set up a large standing mirror so they could see themselves, and preen and prance before it. It was a huge hit, and Sarah-Beth remembers it with delight.
In those days my children felt that McDonald’s parties were the ultimate in sophistication and were thrilled to receive an invitation to one. Our family didn’t visit McDonald’s often, so for them, this was a real treat and a novel idea. Gradually, children’s birthday parties seem to have become elaborately themed galas with custom cakes, expensive gift bags and party favours, solar powered bouncy castles, petting zoos, and over-the-top activities.  Parents feel a lot of pressure and competition to provide the ‘perfect’ experience.
Last year we were invited to a first birthday party for the one year old granddaughter of a friend. It was princess themed and there were at least sixty people in attendance. At one point, the sweet little thing was dressed in a multi-layered, frilly tutu and tiara and placed on a plastic sheet by herself with a large whipped cream cake especially made for her to attack and ruin while a professional photographer took pictures. The amount of gifts was unbelievable, and the food fabulous enough for an Oscars Party! By the end of the event, the little princess was in tears and her parents looked frazzled.

The cake below is a far cry from one of my own typical kids' birthday cake efforts which usually consisted of a home-made slab cake of some sort, slathered in icing and decorated with smarties.
                                                   (from Google images.)
I pray the day will prevail that this trend will reverse and simpler birthday parties become in vogue once more.  
In Xander’s words:
“A celebration invitation – food, fun and conversation!”

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Wind in the Willows


The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Published in 1908, this book is a great literary treasure.  I first became entranced by its gorgeous prose and imagery when I was eleven years old, and my teacher, Mr. Ballard, read it aloud to our class. Nominally a children’s book, it actually continues to grow in depth and beauty as we age. Indeed, it is one of those rare books that grows with the child into adulthood.

This is a book which speaks to that place within us which can be defined as holy. Its sense of the mystical, the unnamed, the unknown, that in us which responds to beauty and deep, unfettered joy, permeates the whole of the book. Gradually we come to know that when awe, reverence and beauty defines our lives, we possess the transcendent ability to overcome limiting margins. There is also a delicious humour throughout which delights all the senses.    
The Wind in the Willows is a tale of seeking the meaning of happiness, of friendship, of honour and of peace. Mole, bored with spring-cleaning and infected with humdrum, decides to go on a holiday. He encounters the River:

"Never in his life had he seen a river before -- this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh .....  All was a-shake and a-shiver -- glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”  

Mole then meets Rat, who invites him to go boating on the river and share a picnic.

“There he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger's origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.”

Along the way they encounter Badger, Toad and Otter. Each character is gradually honed and distilled and refined through their conversation, actions and the way they experience every aspect of the day’s adventures. Toad’s manic search for happiness is a foil for the others who each define and seek it differently. What constitutes sanity, happiness, peace? There are so many layers of redemption, forgiveness, fulfillment and transcendence in this tale.

“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”

Kenneth Grahame is the grand master of alliteration and word play. His coupling of words is brilliant; “chatter and bubble”, rustle and swirl” as they meander along the river "chasing, chuckling," "gurgling, glints and gleams." The words are truly bewitching. We are entranced by them.  Our senses "a-shake, a-shiver” as we become alive to his gorgeous passages of prose.
"This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward. He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them."

All you who love the art of the word, whether it be written, spoken, composed, sang, painted, sculpted, photographed, prayed, eaten, danced … please read the wonder that is ‘ The Wind in the Willows.’