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Stories of My Childhood: Just Grandma and Me

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good too. This month’s choice is a special pick for Grandparents’ Day.

What is the book about?

This is a simple little story about Little Critter and his grandmother. Together, they have many adventures at the beach. Narrated by Little Critter, it tells all about their day from morning until he falls asleep on the bus ride home.

How did I discover it?

It was part of Grandma’s book basket–more on that below. It was a staple whenever I came for a visit, usually on my own. It did, after all, feature a grandmother and one grandchild.

What do I like about the book?

It’s a simple story about grandparent appreciation. I don’t remember most of the things that Little Critter actually does, but there are events that you’d often see at a typical beach day…but the focus is on the grandmother. It’s a different approach to family stories. I remember there being some nice illustrations, too. One particular two-page drawing featured lots of animals and little critters having fun at the beach, and I remember being intrigued by a plane carrying a “sign” behind it that said “Work for Peace.” This may have been because I was used to seeing so many “planes with signs” at the Jersey shore as a kid.

Favorite memory involving the books

Grandma used to have a book basket–pretty much an Easter basket with books inside. Titles included things like “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” “If You Give a Pig a Pancake,” “Nina Nina Star Ballerina,” “The Berenstain Bears’ Week at Grandma’s,” and the books about the Westie terrier whose name I can’t recall. But by far the most fun to read was Just Grandma and Me. Sometimes Grandma would even read it from her perspective instead of from Little Critter’s. It was especially funny at the end, where Little Critter insisted his grandmother fell asleep on the bus ride home even though it was he who did so.

Not that I don’t give the Berenstain Bears book any credit; that too was a good grandparent book. It showed Brother and Sister Bear going to their grandparents’ home for a week while their parents took a second honeymoon. I never understood why they were disappointed about it; going to Grandma and Grandpa’s was fun! But they learned to have fun too, through baking and ship building and square dancing. That was almost my choice for this month’s Childhood Stories post. Both are great.

Digging deeper into the fandom

Little Critter had “grown up” books too. In second grade, I was delighted to discover a series for young elementary school students starring him, now called LC. He and his friends had many adventures, and while I don’t remember what they were, I do know that I loved checking them out for silent reading time. They’re very hard to find now it seems. I may have outgrown Just Grandma and Me, but it was fun to continue the series later on.

My thoughts on the book now

Just Grandma and Me probably isn’t as popular as it used to be, but it does bring back memories. I’m sad I don’t remember too much about it, but it is what it is. If I can remember the happy times it brought, it must be a good story.

Happy Grandparents’ Day to all!

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Elite Eight: Fictional Teachers

As back-to-school season is upon us, sometimes it’s hard to think about going back and leaving summer behind, especially not always knowing what you’re getting into. But one thing that can truly make the difference between a good year and a bad one are the teachers. So today I’ll be talking about what teachers I love…in books! Most of these teachers will be from kids and YA books, since after all, kids are the ones in school–and I find that most of the teachers in adult novels I’ve read haven’t been very good so far!

Do you love any of the teachers I mention? Did I miss any other good ones? Let me know in the comments.

Mrs., Junie B. Jones

While everyone else is worrying about what the note in Pam’s teapot said or what Penny’s last name was in the Big Bang Theory, I’m over here wondering about what Mrs.’ last name was. (Seriously, what was it?) Not always patient with rambunctious Junie B, Mrs. was nevertheless a great teacher. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Junie B; in fact, Mrs. was often supportive, sticking up for her when she brought in a fish stick for Pet Day and celebrating with her when she got the biggest Valentine in the class. She also isn’t afraid of a little wrongdoing, like testing grapes in the grocery store. It was then that we learned that teachers are real people (who don’t live at school). And when Junie B. moved on to first grade, I found myself missing Mrs. in the same way I always missed my old teacher on the first day of a new year.

Professor Lupin; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

There are many teachers to choose from here-McGonagall, Hagrid, and are other contenders, but Professor Remus Lupin wins out. He’s a great, supportive teacher whose class you actually look forward to during the week because you get to do super fun things in that class period, like fight actual magical creatures. He doesn’t let other teachers harass his students (coughSNAPEcough), but instead lets the unassuming, shy students be recognized. He’s also not afraid to get to know his students, though having a connection to Harry likely helped with that.

Mr. Gianini; The Princess Diaries

Normally your algebra teacher coming to live at your house would be a nightmare, especially for Mia and I (words people). But after a while, having Frank Gianini as her stepfather wasn’t so bad. Sure, it came with some downsides–extra practice at home, anyone? But hey, it was all in the name of helping Mia try to get good grades. Soon, he became a cool drum-playing member of the family, though it probably helped matters when Mia was no longer taking high school algebra too.

Mrs. Claire Shawcourt; The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris

At first glance, Claire Shawcourt may seem like your average French teacher. Anna takes her class and doesn’t take much away from it…or does she? When the two reunite, Claire suggests that Anna go to France, and helps her brush up on her French skills even as adults. It’s revealed that Claire has an ulterior motive to have Anna help reunite her with a long-lost love, but the adventures they have together are those of two friends. Who says you can’t be friends with your teacher? Mrs. Shawcourt proves that you really can use high school skills later in life.

Bill; Perks of Being a Wallflower

Sometimes it’s hard to share your thoughts in front of the whole class. Charlie knows, but so does his advanced English teacher, Bill. Seeing potential and passion in one of his shy students, the two often talk about books that he assigns Charlie in private. He automatically gives Charlie As, because he likes him, but gives him the real grades in private. Seems sketchy? Not really, considering that Charlie is getting a good education. And it’s nice that the two can become genuine friends. Bill gives lots of advice to Charlie about putting himself out there, and it seems to pay off.

Ms. Bunder; Amazing Days of Abby Hayes

Not even an official teacher, Ms. Bunder still proves that learning should be fun. A friend of Abby’s real fifth grade teacher, Ms. Kantor, she came in once a week to share creative writing exercises. How cool is that? She encouraged Abby, and the rest of the class, to be creative in their work. She often let the students decide writing topics. And when Abby was less than thrilled about being the class advice columnist, Ms. Bunder gave her advice to reach her full potential. The two had such a special bond that Ms. Bunder gave Abby her business card at graduation. We’d all love to have a class, and teacher, like Ms. Bunder, even if you don’t love creative writing. As for me, the whole thing would be a dream come true.

Miss Winston; Kirsten Learns A Lesson (American Girl)

It must be terrifying to move to a new country and have to speak the native language only at school. For Kirsten, it was. And Miss Winston expected not just English only, but for her to recite a poem in English. Although Miss Winston seemed strict, she was able to assist Kirsten in learning the poem and even helped her choose one that reminded her of home in Sweden. She’s what we need in teachers: she expects hard work, but is willing to help you through it all.

Mr. Ratburn; Arthur

Because Arthur originated as picture books and had a chapter book series, I’m including Mr. Ratburn here too. A feared teacher by Arthur’s new third grade class, he does have a reputation for giving a considerable amount of homework. In some episodes, we see Arthur look longingly at Miss Sweetwater’s class, who are often singing songs and telling jokes. But when it comes down to it, Mr. Ratburn is truly a great teacher. He helps his students study for tests and spelling bees and genuinely wants them to succeed. He takes them on actually fun field trips and is a great puppeteer too. And if you want to find an excuse to have a class party, Mr. Ratburn is almost always game (he LOVES cake). If you want to see some examples, just watch some Arthur (it’s actually a great show and not just for nostalgia purposes). I see many more instances of Mr. Ratburn’s good side than his bad one. And we all know this: Miss Sweetwater’s class will fail fourth grade, but Mr. Ratburn’s class will be prepared for anything.

Who is your favorite fictional teacher? Did I miss any?

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Stories of My Childhood: American Girl’s Kirsten series

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good as well.

What are the books about?

It’s the 1850s, pioneering time in America. Families want farms of their own, including Kirsten’s, so their family makes the journey by boat from Sweden to America. But the journey is anything but smooth, and Kirsten’s best friend doesn’t even make it there alive. Throughout the series, and with the help of her aunt, uncle, and cousins, Kirsten moves to a new land, befriends a Native American girl, attends American school, has a barn-raising birthday party, and ultimately overcomes disaster to move to a brand new house of her own.

What do I like about the books?

The American Girl series were brilliant–a six-story series for each character, taking you through a year in the life of each. There was an introductory story, a school story, a holiday story, a birthday story, a summer story, and then a story that introduced big changes in the character’s life. At least, that was the format when I was a girl. They also came with their own doll and other spinoff books to add to your collection.

Favorite memory involving the books

I was in kindergarten when I received Kirsten as a gift. It was one of my favorite presents, and launched the American Girl era in my house (my sisters and I each had a few dolls). But my mom and I would sit on the piano bench in the living room, reading a chapter of one of the books each night. This was followed by a reading of one of the mini packets that came with Kirsten’s outfits. These tiny booklets had information about the clothes it came with, how Kirsten used them, and how they were important to the story.

Of course, playing with the doll was fun too–my sister and I came up with all sorts of stories, though I rarely played with her as Kirsten. She did have a toy doll that would come to life when our dolls were having sleepovers. And of course, who could forget bringing Kirsten to the American Girl store in New York and having a cafe dinner and getting her frizzy hair fixed?

How the books inspired me

There was a story writing kit that I think came with some type of American Girl product. Like the name stated, it allowed you to create your own American Girl character and tales. I don’t remember any of it, but I do remember that I had trouble settling on a girl to create and develop. There was a lot of text crossed out and space taken up!

My thoughts on the books today

I still love the idea of dolls with their own series, and I’m glad that this tradition continues. It did make me sad that she was retired before even getting her own movie like Kit, Molly, and Samantha did. I do hope that they continue to make diverse dolls from different time periods–the current dolls seem to be mostly more modern. Although I ultimately came to like Molly and Samantha’s stories better (their lives were more fun, and I couldn’t imagine myself living as a pioneer woman where life basically consisted of farm work), Kirsten will always have a special place on my bookshelf.

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Stories of My Childhood: Chrysanthemum

Chrystanthemum cover

What is the book about?

Chrysanthemum loves her name. She loves it written on a birthday cake, on an envelope, or whispered to her at bedtime. Then she starts school and the other children begin to make fun of her name.,…and she wishes she was named anything else! She begins to wilt, like a flower. What will it take to make her bloom again?

How did I discover it?

It was in my home bookshelf for a while, but this was a first grade read aloud as well. It works very well in that respect (see below).

What do I love about the book?

Henkes’ illustrations hands down make this book. The little mice are adorable and expressive. We get glimpses of their lives into little bits of dialogue that appear in some illustrations. Sometimes there are multiple on one page, rather than a full-page drawing. The lyrical prose isn’t to be overlooked, though. The repetition of the writing will have readers also falling in love with Chrysanthemum’s name, as well as driving the point home in the end that it’s good to be unique.

The same can actually be said for the rest of Henkes’ books. I especially love Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse as well, but Chrysanthemum was my first venture into this world, so it’s my choice for this series.

Digging deeper into the fandom

I read a lot of Henkes’ other mouse books after this one. A favorite was Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, but others includes Julius, the Baby of the World; Owen; Sheila Rae the Brave; and A Weekend with Wendell. I adore how they take place in one universe and how characters overlap.

Favorite memory involving the book

Listening to my teacher read the book aloud. Chrysanthemum really does have a nice ring to it!

My thoughts on the book now

Admittedly, I do think the moral is a little sketchy looking back at it, or the lesson for bullies anyway. Basically one of Chrysanthemum’s teachers comes out announcing her own very long name. The bullies are shocked and decide that they love Chrysanthemum’s name, too. So the lesson here is to have the teacher subtly threaten the kids with the fact that she shares a characteristic with the bullied student so they won’t say mean things in her presence again? What happens when that teacher leaves to have her baby? Will the bullies get going again? Anyway, despite this, it’s still a really cute story and a great starting point for the Henkes mouse universe. It’s still a cute story, let’s be honest.

Check out more books from my childhood:

Pig William
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Go Dog Go 
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (+ series)
The Adventures of Captain Underpants (+ series)

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The Hobbes Debate: Is “Calvin and Hobbes” ‘ Stuffed Protagonist Real?

Who else here loves Calvin and Hobbes?

I do. I began the series in fourth grade. One of my earliest memories, though not the first, is reading a collection during fourth grade silent reading time. I was trying my very hardest not to burst out laughing when Calvin flooded the bathroom and had to go find buckets, attracting the attention of his parents.

Watterson had said that Calvin sees what it real to him and that everyone else saw what was real to them. So wouldn’t that mean that Hobbes is fake? After all, something can’t be real to just one person, right?

Yet, most of the strip revolves around Hobbes being a talking, thinking character. What’s really real here?

Evidence for Being Real

*There is a moment in the very beginning of the strip where Calvin goes to check his tiger trap, which he sets with a tuna fish sandwich. Hobbes then gets trapped, and that’s presumably how they meet.

*There are many instances that can’t happen without Hobbes being real.

-Calvin gets pummeled when he walks in the front door constantly. His mom acknowledges how dirty he gets, but it would be difficult to do so on his own.

-Likewise, Hobbes always hits Calvin with snowballs and we, and other characters, often see that he was hit.

-Hobbes eats a sandwich at the bus stop, and when Calvin gets on the bus, he realizes how light his lunchbox is. Could Calvin have gotten hungry and just used his imagination to show that he regretted eating lunch way too early? Perhaps, but that seems like a lot of work.

-At Susie Derkins’ birthday party, Calvin isn’t aware that someone cut Susie’s cake too early. It’s then that Hobbes informs him that the cake is chocolate.

-One of the most famous instances that vouches for Hobbes’ existence is a scene where Calvin gets tied to a chair and can’t get out. He would never have been able to tie himself up like that. It’s also highly unlikely that Calvin has a friend who conveniently disappears and likely jumps out the window whenever Calvin’s parents come to investigate what their son is up to.

-Calvin has Hobbes take a photo of him while sneezing. Judging by Calvin’s position and the fact that both his hands are in the image, he wouldn’t have been able to do it himself.

-In G.R.O.S.S. club meetings that require a password, Hobbes throws down a rope ladder for Calvin to climb. Calvin wouldn’t be able to climb up himself without the ladder being tossed down to him.

-While playing hide and seek at one point, Calvin sits and waits for a long time for Hobbes to find him. Turns out that Hobbes found an opportunity to go read Calvin’s comic books. He is in Calvin’s room when Calvin goes to find him from outside. So how did he get there? (ARGUMENT: Calvin’s mom could have taken him in, but then again, why would she have done so before Calvin was done outside?)

-Calvin puts Crisco in his hair for school picture day to give it a “fancy” style, but Mom makes him comb it out. At the bus stop, Hobbes styles it to make Calvin look like “Astro Boy.” People notice Calvin’s wacky new hairdo, especially Susie.

*Hobbes tends to be a bit more logical than Calvin. So would Calvin actually be able to think from Hobbes’ perspective sometimes? It might be difficult.

*Scenes from Calvin’s imagination would be hard to pull off. When he builds his duplicator and uses it to produce a “good” version of himself, we can see him hiding in his room and being thrilled about not going to school after the duplicate leaves the house. It’s very plausible his cardboard box technology was real, because it would be unlikely that Calvin could change his hairstyle that quickly in between scenes (the “good Calvin” had it combed. Calvin meets Susie very soon after the duplicate gave her a Valentine and he then has spiky hair.) If he can duplicate himself, why can’t he have a talking tiger buddy?

*To add to the above, we can see that Hobbes has unique thoughts even when Calvin isn’t in the picture. When Calvin goes to recite a poem about Hobbes, he then leaves the room. We can see Hobbes thinking (with Calvin gone): “This is why I try to sleep through most of the afternoon.”

*If Calvin didn’t want mustaches drawn on the superheroes in his comics, why are they there?

Evidence for Not Being Real

*The most important one is that Hobbes is stuffed whenever someone else…a parent, Susie, etc. is around. Nobody has ever seen Hobbes move or have been confused when they hear someone else in their house speak. Even in photos, Calvin’s parents see him as stuffed. Calvin knows that Hobbes is about to pounce on him walking through the front door in one strip, so Calvin whips out his camera and snaps a photo. To his dad, and the reader, Hobbes is a stuffed tiger that has been tossed in the air. But as anyone who follows a religion will tell you…just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not real.

*Would Hobbes, who often appears stuffed, really be wandering around in suburban woods when Calvin built his tiger trap?

*Although Hobbes is more logical and mature than Calvin, it’s possible that he could just be Calvin’s conscience. We know that Calvin has a good side once in a while and thinks deeply about issues, too. They share the same opinions on many big issues…except maybe what qualifies as being on Santa’s good list.

*Susie clearly isn’t aware that Hobbes is a live, talking being when she runs into them during an argument. When the two were up in the tree house having an argument, Susie asks Calvin, “Who are you talking to up there?” implying that nobody else is speaking.

*Hobbes doesn’t seem able to move around himself. When Calvin tries to run to the Yukon, he runs back home leaving Hobbes in the woods. Hobbes tells Calvin he walked back himself, but it is revealed to the reader that Dad went out and got him.

*It’s easy to believe in most cases that Hobbes is imaginary, like all our former stuffed pals. They play Monopoly and read comics together, things that a kid could easily do “with” a stuffed animal or imaginary friend.

*A final theory is that Calvin could be suffering from multiple personality disorder with Hobbes as another manifestation of himself.

Here’s my theory: Hobbes is, in fact, a real tiger. He simply reverts back to his stuffed self whenever anyone else is nearby or within earshot. Simply arguing that “most of the events are in Calvin’s imagination” makes the strip redundant, since it is, after all, a comic strip. Considering the talking cats, dogs, and inanimate objects we’ve seen in comics, it’s not hard to believe that Hobbes is real too. I personally feel that this view makes the strip so much more interesting!

In making my list, I also noticed something interesting: most of the “evidence” against Hobbes is theory-based or based on what is easiest to believe, rather than stemming from actual happenings in the strip. There is a lack of concrete evidence. Hmm…A lot of evidence also suggests that Hobbes isn’t real to anyone else, making my theory work.

Sometimes, imagination is important. And this time, I choose to believe that something implausible is real. That’s part of the magic of reading.