Thursday, January 21, 2010

Classic Monday, Now onThursday! (Or Why George and Martha Got a Little Sidetracked...)

Bookivore had every intention of posting on Monday, but Thursday and Friday of last week we got buried in snow. Then the kids were off for MLK's birthday, and then, after only ONE DAY back at school, we got covered with this:

Yes, that's ice.

So, we had yet another snow day. We're up to 5 now. It's looking like we'll be making up snow days until mid-June. Anyway, with all three of my children home, I have gotten precisely nothing done. Until today.

And George and Martha, by James Marshall, deserve my undivided attention.

These books have been around since the 70s and early 80s and they are family favorites around here. What's great about them is that they work on two levels: first as excellent read-aloud stories, and second as good books for early readers.

Two of the truly charming things about George and Martha are their friendship and the dry, witty humor that often underlies their activities. The writing is for children, but it's good children's writing: writing that doesn't talk down to them or over-simplify things. Kids get the humor in George and Martha.

Each book is divided in to 5 short stories, which qualifies them as "chapter books" on the same order as the Henry and Mudge books. Sometimes the stories are connected, but often they are not. In George and Martha:Back in Town, the story "The Big Scare" has George leaping out at Martha and shouting "Boo!" The startled and annoyed Martha warns him that she's going to scare him next. The rest of the story is George saying to himself, "Any minute now, Martha is going to scare the pants off me!" and looking for her in unlikely places, such as beneath the kitchen sink, where she patently would not fit. He spends the rest of the story in paranoid anticipation until Martha, calmly reading in her hammock, finally says, "Oh, I'm sorry --I forgot to scare you." The following story, "The Amusement Park," has George and Martha enjoying the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel and the bumper cars before finally taking a trip through the tunnel of love. THAT'S when Martha yells "BOO!" and George screams "Have Mercy!" Martha remarks, "I guess I didn't forget after all."

Sometimes their friendship is strained, as when George, the new lifeguard, has to give Martha a bawling out for misbehaving on the beach and she beans him with his megaphone. "This is a tough job," he says as she storms off.

Other times, they are quick to come to each other's rescue, as when George attempts to go off the high-dive and panics at the very top. "I'm coming!" shouts Martha (who earlier said you wouldn't catch her up there!). She climbs to the top and does a cannonball and in the huge splash that follows, George is able to get down without anyone seeing him or making fun of him.

Another favorite of ours is from One Fine Day. George decides in "The Icky Story," to tell an icky story while he and Martha are eating. "Have some consideration!" Martha says. But he tells it anyway. In revenge, Martha tells her own icky story and George is too grossed out to eat his dessert. "You win," says George. "Don't make me do it again," says Martha.

This is no sappy My Little Pony love, it's the portrait of a friendship between two imperfect characters who nonetheless love each other and are committed to taking care of each other.

There are 7 books in the series, as well as a new collection of early readers. I can't comment on those, but I would have my doubts about anything that played fast and loose with Marshall's excellent prose. Likewise it was made into a series for HBO, but since we are probably the only family in America without cable, I can't comment on that either, other than to say that cartoons based on really excellent books seldom capture the essence of what makes the books so good.

Read them to your preschoolers, then get your first and second graders to read them to you. Either way, they're getting a serving of great kids' literature.

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