Book review: “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth

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The theme for July in my Facebook Reading Challenge was an American novel. It was a tough choice as I wanted to select something that captured the American ‘story’. I at first thought about The Color Purple, which had been on my shortlist for February (a work by a feminist writer) but I felt it was too similar to June’s choice of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I also thought about The Bonfire of the Vanities, but decided it was a bit long and my fellow readers on the Challenge would not thank me! So, I finally alighted on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which seemed appropriate in terms of both subject matter and timing, since Roth died just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure how other readers on the challenge got on, but I’m afraid I failed to complete it within the month – it’s not overly long at 423 pages, but the writing is so rich that it was almost impossible to read at any pace. I had to (and wanted to!) savour every word. That gives you an idea of my overall feeling about the book – it is tremendous, epic, glorious and tragic. If you want to understand anything about the American experience, especially the immigrant experience over the last hundred years or so and the effect that has had on the mindset of American-born second and third generation immigrants, it is essential reading.

2018-07-23 16.19.23The plot is not complicated: ‘Swede’ Levov is a third generation Jewish immigrant whose grandfather came to America from Europe. He was a glovemaker and set up a business in Newark, New Jersey which became highly successful. Swede’s father continued the business, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s when glove-wearing for respectable women was the norm and most would have several pairs. (There is more information on gloves in this book than you will ever need to know, but it’s fascinating!) Swede inherited the business from his father, while his more wayward brother became a cardiac surgeon.

Swede Levov pursued the quintessential ‘American dream’ – he excelled in sports at school, served in the military, followed his father into the business, and learned the glove trade, married an Irish-American Catholic former beauty queen, with whom he had a daughter, Merry. From the outside everything seems perfect except for one small flaw – Merry has a stammer, which no amount of expensive medical or therapeutic treatment seems to be able to fix. This is the first indication that Merry perhaps represents some flaw which will undermine the Levovs and all that they represent.

Slight spoiler alert (though not really because you learn of the event quite early in the book): as a teenager Merry becomes obsessed with opposition to the Vietnam war. She becomes increasingly frustrated and rebellious. Her parents lose control and it culminates in her planting a bomb in the general store of Old Rimrock, the solid New Jersey semi-rural idyll in which the family has settled. The bomb kills the local doctor.

Swede’s world begins to fall apart; he cannot accept that his daughter has committed this crime, believing that she must have been put up to it by others, or indeed that others did it and are allowing her to take the blame. For a number of years Swede lives in the hope that he will be able to find his daughter, that the truth will come out and that she will be exonerated, and that their life will return to ‘normal’. For a time, it appears that he might find be able to find Merry, when a woman known as Rita Cohen contacts him saying she knows Merry’s whereabouts. Swede becomes convinced that she is in fact the real bomber because she is cruel and threatening and extorts money from him.

The Rita Cohen thread is all part of Swede’s self-deception, however, and this is the central theme of the book – Swede, his wife and his family, represent the ‘American dream’, which is in fact, just that, a fantasy, a mirage. Merry’s actions put Swede on a path where everything he held dear, which he believed to be real, unravels and is exposed as a sham.

As I have already said, the plot is not complex because it is not a novel so much about events as it is a deep exploration of the American psyche. The structure of the book is quite complex, however, but so brilliantly done that it is not hard to follow. It flits effortlessly between different stages, between different characters and their individual stories and the handling can only be described as masterful. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize (1998)! It explores notions of religion in America, particularly the Jewish experience as told through the Levov family, and through the eyes of our first narrator, former schoolmate of Swede’s and now author Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, the Catholic experience (through Dawn Levov) and the American Protestant experience through the residents of Old Rimrock. The decline of the glove industry and its craft, and also the city of Newark where the Levov family business was based, is a metaphor for the gradual collapse of the concept of the American dream which now seems to lie degraded and in ruins. A further metaphor is the Garden of Eden story, itself Old Testament fiction. The book is written in three parts (Paradise Remembered, The Fall and Paradise Lost) echoing Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, because for Swede Levov the experience is truly a destruction of all that he once understood to be real and to be good.

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In American Pastoral Roth explodes the idea of the ‘American dream’.

This is the longest review I’ve written in a while and yet I feel I have only scratched the surface in telling you about this book. I have only just completed it so I may write more in a few weeks once it has had a chance to sit with me! Truly, as I savoured the last few pages I was open-mouthed at the unravelling. It is truly an American tragedy (the title is a kind of oxymoron), and it reminded me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf similar examples of the collapse of an American dream happening in slow motion before our very eyes. The final dinner party scene is quite spectacular.

Needless to say I recommend this book highly. It’s not an easy read but it rewards in spades.

If you have read this book I would love to hear your thoughts.

Hot new reads for the Summer

As Britain swelters under a seemingly relentless heatwave, thoughts are turning to holidays, even though perhaps that fortnight in the sun could just as easily be had at home at the moment! So, if you are looking for ideas for your holiday reading list here are some new titles that you might look out for. It’s quite an international list so if you are outside the UK you should be able to find most of these too.

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse – I haven’t read any Kate Mosse but having just finished The Birth of Venus I am in the mood for historical fiction! Set in 16th century Carcassonne, France, it concerns an elderly bookseller and his family and the impact of the religious wars on their lives.

The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi – already a best-seller in Dubai and the UAE, this novel, set in the time of the first Gulf war in 1991, looks at how the conflict affected the ordinary people of the city of Baghdad. When our television screens are full of images of refugees caught up in war, of bodies and of bombed-out buildings, I hope this novel will give us an insight into the reality of the lives of people just like us.

Lala  by Jacek Dehnel – an elderly woman recounts her extraordinary life to her grandson. Born in Poland in 1875 she lived through two world wars, life under communism and then liberation. This book has already won prizes in the author’s native Poland.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton – set in New York city this novel concerns the increasingly oppressive friendship between two young women, aspiring writer Louise and wealthy social butterfly Lavinia. The two women meet when Louise goes to tutor Lavinia’s younger sister. Their friendship becomes necessary to both of them, but for different reasons, and is characterised by deceit, jealousy and an unhealthy dependency.

The Hour of Separation by Katharine McMahon – McMahon’s The Rose of Sebastapol is one of my all-time favourite books. I haven’t read anything she has written since, but I really like the sound of this novel. Another novel about friendship between two women, Christa and Estelle, this time set in 1939, who have in common Fleur – Fleur was the Belgian Resistance fighter who saved Christa’s father in the Great War. She was also Estelle’s mother. The two women meet just before the outbreak of World War Two.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – I loved Moshfegh’s thriller Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Her new novel, published in the UK this week, promises to be equally dark and thrilling. Set in 2000, around the corner in time from 9/11, our narrator is a wealthy young New Yorker. The deaths of her parents while she was studying at Columbia university, a sense of the pointlessness of her own life, and dysfunctional relationships with her so-called best friend and her Wall Street boyfriend, lead her to take a ‘narcotic hibernation’. It is not without consequence.

The Temptation of Gracie by Santa Montefiore – the cover tells you this is going to be perfect for poolside! Gracie Burton blows all her savings on a week-long cookery course in Tuscany, much to the consternation of her daughter Carina and granddaughter Anastasia. The trip turns out to be about more than just mid-life crisis, however, and aspects of Gracie’s past that her family were not aware of, are revealed. Tantalising!

Some of these books are only just out and so may only be available in Hardback, or e-reader – perfect for holiday packing!

What are your recommendations for the summer?

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Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

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“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Book review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings imgI chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.

I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.

I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.

I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.

Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.

If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?

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Book review: “The Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant

I first knew Sarah Dunant as a broadcaster on late-night arts shows in the late 1990s. It’s funny how you remember some people – she always had very distinctive glasses. I was conscious that she seemed to disappear off the scene and for a while there I got her mixed up with Sarah Waters…until I saw Sarah W speak at the Manchester Literature Festival a few years ago and realised they were not the same! But Sarah D had in fact reinvented herself as an author, as I was to discover a year or so ago when I saw her speak at a writer’s conference. (I should add that 2000-2012 were lean reading years for me – I was knee-deep in children and totally out of the literary loop).

I’ve read a few historical novels, notably Deborah Moggach and Tracy Chevalier, and loved them, though it’s not a genre I often choose. I decided on this as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2018, and when I saw The Birth of Venus in my local Oxfam bookshop it seemed an obvious choice. It’s wonderful, I loved it, and it seems to have gone down pretty well with the other participants on the Reading Challenge.

The Birth of Venus imgThe novel is set in Renaissance Florence; the sense of time and place is profound. You can almost smell the streets wafting from the pages! Dunant is a meticulous researcher and the novel feels very authentic. The central character is Alessandra, the fifteen year-old daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. Much to the frustration of her family Alessandra is a precociously intelligent young woman, a talented artist, a strong personality and has a deep desire to be out in the world. These are all traits which are highly inconvenient for the family and not compatible with the kind of life she will be expected to lead.

As a mark of their wealth, Alessandro’s parents commission a Flemish artist to paint the chapel in their home, incorporating the family’s portraits. Though she has very limited opportunity to communicate with him, his presence produces a stirring effect in Alessandra. She is attracted both by his artistic ability and his mysterious nocturnal wanderings into the city.

Alessandra is destined to be married off as soon as she starts menstruating and the husband selected for her is an older man, a long-standing family acquaintance. At first it seems the marriage will set Alessandra on the same path that her mother and sister before her have followed – moving from one zone of subjugation to another and endless child-bearing. In fact, Alessandra’s husband, Cristoforo, is the lover of her brother Tomaso and the marriage is merely one of convenience to provide him with the cover of a wife and child. At first, Alessandra is distraught and feels betrayed, but it soon becomes apparent that this frees her more than she could ever have imagined, to pursue some of her own dreams, to be more sexually liberated, and to be mistress of her own time and activity. In the background to the domestic tumult is the political upheaval in the city; first, the invasion of the French, then the rule of Savonarola, a fierce reactionary monk who preaches a severe brand of Christianity. The old certainties of corruption, sleaze and vice in the Church and politics are being brutally flushed out in favour of a strict religious fervour, and a new atmosphere of fear, surveillance, severe torture and punishment for misdemeanours has replaced it.

I will say no more as it’s a cracking story and events unfold dramatically. The plot is so well thought-through and maintains momentum right to the end. The characters are well-rounded and believable, not just Alessandra, but her mother and husband, her brother and sister, the painter and her loyal maid, African slave Erila.

The book is ambitious in scope, in its portrayal of the period and the way it weaves the political upheavals and realities of the era into what is essentially one young woman’s story of coming of age, of emotional and sexual maturing and of finding fulfilment in the most constrained of circumstances.

Highly recommended, great for any holidays you might have coming up and I’ll certainly be looking out for more Sarah Dunant for future reads.

Do you enjoy historical fiction? What are your recommendations?

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What are your favourite films of kids’ books?

I am currently compiling a list of books that every child’s bookshelf should contain (look out for a future post). There are a lot of kids out there who love to read and the only problem their parents have is keeping up with consumption. But for many of us, keeping our kids reading in the face of so many other assaults on their time is like waging a war on multiple fronts and it’s not always easy to keep them interested in books once they get past 11 or 12 years old.

If you recognise this, then a film adaptation can be a good way of sustaining their interest, supplementing the act of reading with some visual stimulation and sharing the engagement with them (some kids just need more social interaction and books generally mean being on your own). So here are my top picks. They may not be the best film adaptations (such a list would be incomplete without The Wizard of Oz, in my view, but the L Frank Baum book on which it is based would not top most people’s reading lists), rather it is a list where I think both the film and the book complement each other and which may help kids with or lead them to the book. The order is in roughly increasing age appropriateness (my opinion).

  1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  by Roald Dahl – I could probably populate a whole list with Roald Dahl adaptations, but the two films that have been made of this book are both superb and very different, which just goes to show how differently books can be interpreted. Personally, I prefer the 1971 version Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, but the 2005 version with Johnny Depp is also excellent.
  2.  Matilda by Roald Dahl – the 1996 film stars Danny DeVito and his wife Rhea Perlman as Matilda’s appalling parents.
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – there have been many film and television adaptations of this and its follow-up Alice Through the Looking Glass.  I love the 2010 version by Tim Burton which stars Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp.
  4. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis – again, there have been many adaptations of the five books in the series. I love the big 2005 production which stars Tilda Swinton as the White Witch and Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan.
  5. How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell – the three films (2010-17) may be rather more well-known than the books, but if your kids liked the films try and get them into the books.
  6. The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith – you can’t not love the 1995 film Babe based on this book.
  7. Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine – Robin Williams is on classic form in the 1994 film version Mrs Doubtfire.
  8. The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DeTerlizzi and Holly Black – my son loved the movie and then went on to read all the books.
  9. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – a classic book, and the 1933 film version with Katharine Hepburn is a classic also. There is also a 1994 film with Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst, among other big names.
  10. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – The Golden Compass (2007) is based on the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy and stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Ian McKellen among others.
  11. Coraline by Neil Gaiman – I haven’t read the book, but I love the 2009 movie. Gaiman will appeal to a certain kind of child who likes dark fantasy.
  12. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett – I love the 2004 film starring Jim Carrey.
  13. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – a challenging book and a challenging film, released in 2013, but well worth the effort. Recommended for 11-13 year olds. Younger kids will need you to watch this with them.
  14. The Fault in our Stars by John Green – my daughters, aged, 12 and 14, love John Green. They love the high emotion! The film is pretty good, but a weepie, so tissues at the ready.
  15. Holes by Louis Sachar – a superb book. The film is rather more comic than the book, in my view, but a good one for teenage boys I would suggest.
  16. Watership Down by Richard Adams – another classic weepie the 1978 film was voiced by a big-name cast and who could forget the score and theme song, Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel. Written in 1972, teenagers will recognise the issue of environmental destruction.

Have you spotted the glaring omission? Yes, the Harry Potter series. Left out simply because it needs no introduction. Most kids, it seems to me, have read or watched all of them, or both.

Are there any that you would add to this list? I would love to hear of your favourites.

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What’s new in the children’s library

read-2841722_1920I am a passionate supporter of public libraries, it’s where my reading journey started as child and I have never lost my fascination with them. With so much pressure on local council budgets, our libraries are under constant threat of closure. Many have already succumbed. Those that have survived have had to innovate, and this is great to see, becoming information and community hubs, putting on more and more events even becoming tourist information centres as well, but for me, their role as first-line guardians of our reading lives is foremost.

I love going into my local library and just browsing the shelves; I almost never leave without borrowing another book. I have stacks of library books around the house and I confess I sometimes lose track of what’s due back when. Thankfully for me, Trafford libraries recently abolished library fines (well done Trafford!) – whilst I have always paid my dues, I wouldn’t say ‘happily’ but always with a sense of ‘it’s a fair cop’, a few hefty fines, inadvertently accrued, can certainly dull one’s borrowing appetite. And when you are a busy parent, it is inevitable that you are going to miss renewal dates from time to time. Sometimes, I have paid fines which have equalled the price of a book! There are online renewals of course, so there is really no defence, but….the dropping of fines is great news and takes the shame out of library borrowing.

Children’s libraries are great and even if the most up to date titles are not on the shelf when you visit you can usually go online to reserve them when they are returned or from another branch. What’s not to love? A library card costs nothing (my children all got theirs virtually from birth, not least because baby books can be repetitive so the more variety the better) and if you are on a budget, offer a much more economical way of feeding your kids’ reading habits, fines or not. A library visit is also a cheap half day out during school holidays, especially combined with a walk there and back and an ice cream thrown in (though not in the library of course!)

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Here’s some kids books I picked up from my local library last week, all newly published, and picked out from the ‘What’s New’ section of Trafford Libraries website and reserved online:

Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

Could not have been easier. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing these over the coming weeks, so look out for my thoughts and recommendations.

Support your local library by taking your kids along this half term.

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