A few weeks ago I caught myself staring at the JC Penney Father’s Day advertisement. It shows a happy family: Two playful kids and their proud, smiling dads. I thought, wow, wouldn’t this family make a great story? Having two dads can create interesting complications, especially if the story takes place long ago or in a contemporary setting where people aren’t so open minded. And even though the story wouldn’t be about the dads, their presence would add a unique element to our main characters’ lives.
Authors of middle-grade novels often struggle with how to get the parents out of the picture so that the main characters, the kids, can go have their adventure without being bothered by finger-wagging, bossy adults. Roald Dahl said, “Kill the parents!” But, we don’t always want our parents to be eaten by rhinos in broad daylight, do we? So, in light of Father’s Day coming up, I thought I’d write about how parents, especially dads, play an important role in some of my own favorite books in children’s literature. These stories would be completely different without the dads.
1. One of my all-time favorite middle-grade novels is Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect. I adore Zoe’s sweet and loving
dad in spite of his quirky fears and inhibitions about leaving the house. Zoe, who dreams of someday performing in Carnegie Hall, asks for a piano. But to her horror, her dad buys her an organ instead. I felt Zoe’s pain, but I also appreciated and admired the way she protected her father’s feelings and never let on that learning to play the organ was making her miserable. She understood her father’s fragility and left her dream and ambition by the wayside to keep from hurting him. Seeing this side of our protagonist made my heart go out to her from the very beginning of the story.
2. Opal Buloni in Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie also has one of the kindest and gentlest dads in children’s literature. But he’s no
Atticus Finch; in fact, Opal refers to him as a turtle retreating into his shell. He’s deeply saddened and scarred by the loss of Opal’s mother and he doesn’t seem to want to deal with his emotions. We see the strength in Opal as she moves forward with her life and the ending scene with her father is absolutely heart wrenching. The novel works so beautifully because of Winn-Dixie, yes, but also because of Opal’s father.
3. Then there are the scary dads.
I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett many times as a child and then I read it to my own kids several years ago. Every time I read it I was creeped out by Archibald Craven, the father of “sick” and bed-ridden Colin. I could understand Craven’s pain and I could sympathize with his hollowness after the death of his wife, but still, I was like, “Dude! You’ve got a kid! And for years he’s been lying in a dark room day and night, screaming in pain, and the only time you ever go near him is when he’s asleep!” Thank goodness Mary Lennox comes along and saves poor little Colin or I would have had to call social services.
4. The abusive fathers in children’s literature make us love our main character more than ever. We want to protect the kids from harm and see
them get the happy ending they deserve. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that the father and child walk off into the sunset hand in hand. Pap Finn never does a good thing for poor ol’ Huckleberry. And there’s Doug Swieteck’s dad in Gary Schmidt’s beautifully written Okay For Now. I just have to hang all my hopes on the title and believe that Doug will indeed be okay.
5. I don’t want to end this post on a sad note, it is almost Father’s Day, after all. So let’s make a list of the dads we love. I’ll start, and you can add to the list by way of the comments section. Here are just a few:
Pa – Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Mr. Quimby – Ramona and Her Dad by Beverly Cleary
Moses’ dad – Crow by Barbara Wright
Mr. Krupnik – Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
William – Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Mr. Watson – The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of The Secret of Ferrell Savage and Mary Vittles, Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), 2014.
We of the Mixed-Up Files believe that a visit to an independent children’s bookstore can’t be matched online or even in the best chain store’s children’s department. What you get online is the lowest price, but what you get in an independent bookstore is priceless.
I’m talking today with Joanna Parzakonis, one of the parent founders of Bookbug bookstore in Kalamazoo, Michigan (www.bookbugkalamazoo.com) who describes the place as “four walls, dozens of shelves, thousands of books, one quirky playhouse, and several spots to read, talk, play, and discover great reads.” Bookbug opened in 2008 with support from a community of parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, and kids, and it has recently expanded to become a full-service independent bookstore.
Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: Joanna, you and your partners at Bookbug have gone into the book business fairly recently, at a time when many old favorite children’s bookstores across the country have been closing their doors. That takes determination, and you certainly can’t be afraid of giants! You must do this because you believe it’s important, and that it’s serious fun, right?
Joanna for Bookbug: I actually believe that the opening of our store well into the “Amazon/BigBox book selling age” gave us an advantage that other pre-existing independent bookstores didn’t necessarily have: an assumption that our business would be primarily about creating a cultural hub for our community and not about “selling books” alone. We have always been committed to hosting a wide variety of book and arts-related events, seeking community partnerships, and having a continuous and meaningful conversation (in both broad and direct ways) with our customers. Of course this business was built out of our love of books, but also from our love of and belief in the spirit of community. ”Fun”? Yep, it’s our business to make it–and have it.
MUF: Please describe the kind of atmosphere you try to create at Bookbug and how you do that? Who frequents your store?
Joanna: I very much want every person who enters Bookbug to have a feeling akin to what they may feel while reading one of their favorite books. We have taken great care to design our space to be playful, comfortable, and celebratory of great art and literature. Our book-shingled playhouse is a favorite among younger children, and many adults love our book-page papered walls and seating throughout. We also have handwritten chalkboards throughout the store, not only displaying each section, but also ones that “talk” to our customers about our favorite books or ideas we want them to remember/think about.
MUF: Describe a good day at Bookbug?
Joanna: We’ve chosen an industry of not just books, but of service–and customers’ expectations and appreciation of that service vary widely. They are not all, as may be imagined, kind and appreciative of the work we do. A good day for me is made by one single person–young or old–offering his/her sincere gratitude for the work we do/ the book we recommended and/oor the “gift” we’ve given to our community. I’m fortunate that this happens often, but I never, ever take it for granted.
MUF: How do you go about deciding what books to carry and feature at Bookbug? Do you follow reviews and journals?
Joanna: We do follow many reviewers and journals and each keep towering stacks of ARC’s on our nightstands. We stock what we love and what has come highly recommended from trusted sources. We also encourage our customers to talk to us about books and/or series that we may not carry, and we take their recommendations to do so very seriously.
MUF: As Middle Grade authors, we just have to ask: what is your favorite book of fiction for ages 9-12? Of nonfiction?
Joanna: This has to come with the obligatory “it’s impossible to choose just one” qualifier, right? I will tell you the standouts of 2011 for me personally, however, were Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt for fiction and Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson for nonfiction. (If I have it my way, each of these book covers will have shiny medals on them).
MUF: Well, Heart and Soul now does! ( I loved Okay for Now, too).
Your monthly Teen/Tween Book Night sounds great! How does that work? Do you have regulars participating ?
Joanna: We offer pizza, usually discuss one book and/or make it an “open discussion night” and let kids bring in whatever they’ve been reading and loved. Our most well-attended and animated discussions have been for popular series, like the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson.
MUF: Do you have an event or events coming up at Bookbug that you’re especially looking forward to?
Joanna: Author Beth Neff and her newly published YA book Getting Somewhere will be with us on Saturday, January 28 for a reading/signing and writing workshop. We’ve had lots of hopeful authors sign up to get advice and tips from Beth and to hear more about where she got her inspiration for this great new book. Denise Brennan-Nelson will also visit next month. I’m particularly interested to hear her as well since she’s the creator of one of my all-time favorite picture book characters, “Willow.”
MUF: Since not every town has a children’s bookstore, we want to encourage families from out of town to make Bookbug in Kalamazoo a daytrip destination and return home with some wonderful book souvenirs! Can you recommend a nearby family-friendly, local restaurant where they could get a bite if they’re hungry from book-browsing?
Joanna: Among my favorite spots are: Food Dance (for downtown family dining at its fresh/local-inspired best) and Cosmos, a quirky, wonderful gem in the Vine neighborhood that cooks up some of the yummiest food I’ve ever had.
MUF: And if they can stay all day or even the weekend, are there other unique sights or activities in Kalamazoo that would help make this family trip and experience to remember?
Joanna: Yes, Kalamazoo is a wonderfully culturally-rich community with plenty of great things to do with kids. Other sights/spots:
The Kalamazoo Valley Museum (FREE)–wonderful interactive science and history exhibits here.
The Kalamazoo Institute of Art– a small but amazing art museum that brings many of the best works of art from around the globe.
The Air Zoo–a celebration of all-things-aviation for kids and grown-ups alike
MUF: Thank you so much, Joanna, for sharing your thoughts and work with us!
Now readers, if you have been to Bookbug and have good memories of it, or if reading about the place makes you think you’d like to visit, please let them know here!
And if you agree with us that children’s bookstores are treasures to seek out and enjoy, please tell us your favorites for possible future posts.
Coming next month: Portland, Oregon’s Green Bean Books, with its rather unusual vending machines. . .