Tag Archives: Children’s Books

Phoebe Furbright – Chapter One

I’ve provisionally finished the chapter book I was writing for my daughter and will finally read it with her this weekend. She’s thrilled. Hopefully she’ll still be thrilled when we’re done. The project has taken me three months and quite a few cups of coffee, working at it two nights per week between 9pm and 2am. The manuscript clocks in at just fewer than 18,000 words and I feel pretty good about it.

As mentioned before, my daughter wanted a book about cats, so that’s what I’ve given her. Phoebe Furbright is the story a girl cat who wants to be an ornithologist and who, accompanied by her brother, launches a research expedition in a homemade hot air balloon.

I don’t know if the story will have much appeal beyond its specially intended audience, but I know what my own children like in a book. They like to laugh. They like adventure and suspense. They like to catch references and inside jokes. They like books that challenge their vocabulary and treat them like “miniature adults.” They do not like to be talked down to by their reading materials.

Among the chief joys of raising children is reading children’s books. My personal favorites include The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, James Marshall’s George and Martha books, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series. I’m an equally great admirer of William Steig (Doctor De Soto, Svlvester and the Magic Pebble and Abel’s Island especially) and Bernard Waber (for Lyle the Crocodile and A Lion Named Shirley Williamson).

I don’t expect that Phoebe Furbright will ever find its way into any pantheon of children’s literature, but I do think it’s fun. And since I’ve got nothing better to post here today I’m going to share the first chapter. The story opens with a dinner table conversation:

CHAP. I.
Our heroine divulges her eccentric professional
ambitions over dinner and Father delivers a misbegotten
lecture on the subject of ‘True Cat Nature.’

Phoebe Furbright’s father said that it was uncatlike to study birds rather than hunt and kill them. They were sitting at the dinner table over steaming plates of poached herring in wine sauce: Father, Mother, her brother Alexander, and Phoebe herself, who had just informed them that she would be an ornithologist when she grew up.

“Birds,” Father said in the voice he always used when he wanted Phoebe to get over some silly notion of hers and be realistic for once in her life, “are for hunting. It’s simply not cat nature to study birds. It’s cat nature to stalk and to strike! Anyone would tell you the same, Phoebe. Why it’s preposterous, really! The very idea of a feline ornithologist!”

“But you work at an office,” said Phoebe, who was a slim gray tabby with big yellow eyes, “and we buy all our food at the grocery store like other civilized cats. We’re not tigers or leopards. When was the last time you went hunting, Father?”

“Why – I’ve been hunting plenty of times… Plenty!” he said, frowning. “But that’s irrelevant… It’s the principle of the thing! The hunter’s instinct is a part of the feline soul! A cat is meant to be fierce.”

Father went on to tell Phoebe and Alexander – for the hundredth time – about the day that True Cat Nature was once and for all revealed to him.  It was winter and he was walking round the block near his office, in deep contemplation of some intractable business problem, when he looked up and saw a sparrow perched on the leafless branch of a tree that had recently been planted by the city authorities. His life changed forever.

“Why, I got an itchy feeling all over,” he said, “and before I knew it I was snarling like a savage! I crouched down on all fours with my ears turned back. I was actually stalking the thing! I lunged at it – and missed, unfortunately… But what a thrill! I didn’t give a fig what the other toms walking by in their suits and ties thought of me. Civilization has its limits. You can only hold down cat nature so long before it comes yowling back. That’s what I say!”

Phoebe pursed her lips. She loved her father very much. He was a good fellow, hard-working, and he provided well for the family. But she wasn’t sure she agreed with his philosophy on this particular point.

Mother explained, with a wink, that Father clung to this sense of essential wildness because it made him feel less constrained by work, marriage, parenthood, and cat society in general. Deep down, Father simply knew that he was a bird killer – even if he had never actually killed a bird before – and the thought made him feel warm and comfortable inside. “It reconciles him to civilized life,” she said.

Father knew when he was being teased, of course. Not that he minded much when Mother teased him, but he batted the air in her direction as if she were nothing but a bit of string dangling there.

“Now, now, beloved spouse,” said Mother, patting Father on the head and emitting a soothing purr. “You are a wonderful tom and the love of my lives, with more than your share of excellent qualities, but you know very well that you are no Uncle Jackson-Harris.”

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Illus by Jan Marcin Szancer for Brzechwa Dzieciom 2 1955

“Everyone likes a foxy cook.”

Illus. Jan Marcin Szancer, Brzechwa Dzieciom (1955).

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On Children’s Books

One of the richer returns of parenthood is the welcome excuse to reacquaint oneself with children’s books. There are the old crowd-pleasers, of course, like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Kipling’s Just So Stories, Dr Seuss, Curious George, Madeline, Babar and all the wonderful little books by Beatrix Potter (my daughter sleeps with a copy of Mister Jeremy Fisher every night). There are other books too, some of which you may only vaguely recall or never read as a child, but which specially impress you now that you’ve trudged a certain distance into the long fog of adulthood.

Among these I would include Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances stories, several of Margaret Wise Brown’s books (including Little Fur Family, The Runaway Bunny, and her Noisy books), Wanda Gág’s marvelously illustrated Millions of Cats and The Funny Thing, some of Sendak’s more obscure pieces, Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, all of William Steig’s books, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, and James Marshall’s George and Martha collection.

The children’s books you are happiest to read now that you’re an adult aren’t always the books your children prefer to hear, however. Steig’s child protagonists (in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Amazing Bone, and Zeke Pippin, for example) are always being abducted by bandits or prepared for supper, or transformed unexpectedly into dumb boulders atop which the wolves howl hungrily through the winter snows. Which is scary stuff. And when it comes to books of poetry, they had better be illustrated. Luckily, my copy of Stevenson is chock-full of pictures, so that when I get to my favorite lines in ‘Travels’:

There I’ll come when I’m a man
With a camel caravan;
Light a fire in the gloom
Of some dusty dining room;
See the pictures on the walls,
Heroes, fights and festivals;
And in a corner find the toys
Of the old Egyptian boys,

they’re nicely matched with an ink line drawing of infant Victorians in dresses yanking the beard of Pharaoh and hugging a mummified cat. It’s sufficiently weird, anyway, for a three-year-old to puzzle over awhile as you appreciatively reread the lines.

James Marshall’s George and Martha books are as much fun for my son and daughter as they are for me, and they deserve to be more widely known. George and Martha are hippos named, curiously, after Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -only they get along much better. Each of the several George and Martha books contains five small vignettes, some of which are no longer than a couple pages. Each makes a fine little monument to the author/illustrator’s genius. My kids’ favorites include one in which George practices his fibbing, and another in which Martha attempts, with mixed results, to guilt George into giving up sweets by taking up cigar smoking herself. Marshall, it happens, was one of Maurice Sendak’s friends and was only fifty years old when he died of a brain tumor in 1992. I wish I had known his books when I was a kid.

I knew Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, however, and loved them as a child almost as much as I do now that I’m approaching fogeydom. When my kids were younger I had the opportunity to read Frog and Toad stories several times a week. My favorites include one in which Frog is ill in bed and Toad offers to keep him company and tell him a story. Frog likes the idea, but Toad can’t think of a story to tell. In an attempt to cure what sounds like a bad case of writer’s block, Toad walks back and forth on the porch, without any luck. Then he stands on his head, but still no luck. Then he pours cup after cup of cold water over his face. Finally, enraged, he rams his head into the wall. By now Frog is feeling better and Toad is feeling terrible. So they swap places and Frog asks if Toad would like a story. “Yes, Frog, if you know one,” says Toad. Frog then proceeds to tell him a funny story about someone who wanted to tell his friend a story but couldn’t think of one…

In another story, Frog gives Toad an envelope full of seeds so that he can plant a garden. Toad drops them into the soil and tells the seeds to start growing. He stands there awhile but the seeds don’t seem to be listening. He repeats himself, louder: “Now seeds, start growing!” Still nothing. This goes on until, his patience exhausted, Toad screams at the seeds and jumps up and down, commanding them to start growing. Frog comes running and explains that Toad’s seeds are probably too scared to grow and that he needs to give them time and let the rain and sun do their work. Toad feels wretched to think he might have scared his seeds, so he tries a different tack:

— He reads them stories and poems
— He sings to them
— He plays music for them
— He stays up with them night and day, which is hard work

and eventually his seeds begin to grow all on their own.  Which, it occurs to me, is a pretty good description of parenthood.

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