It was fabulous when my son became a full-fledged independent reader, but it created some problems, too. No more writing down notes about upcoming surprises, no more spelling things aloud to keep him guessing, and no more Mama-editing as we were reading stories together. The biggest problem, though, was finding good material for him to read. He still enjoyed picture books just fine, as long as they were for school or something I was reading to him. When he wanted to read on his own, though, he wanted chapter books, just like grown-ups read. The problem there, though, was finding something that would challenge him as a reader but would also be appropriate for him to read. 26 Fairmount Avenue (and the other seven books in the series) was a wonderful answer for us!
Tomie dePaola is known and loved by kids (and adults!) everywhere for his picture books and illustrations. I loved his books when I was a child and Bill and Pete and Jamie O’Rourke and the Pooka were some of my son’s favorites, so it was nice to step into chapter books with someone who was familiar to us both. 26 Fairmount Avenue, dePaola’s first chapter book, is a memoir of his childhood, beginning when he was four years old and waiting for his family to build their new home—which was exactly what was going on in my son’s life at that age.
Each of the chapters in 26 Fairmount Avenue reads like a short story for children. Many of the chapters tell a bit about what was going on with the process of building the home, but they also tell about important events in young Tomie’s life: a hurricane, seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the first time, starting kindergarten. As you meet the different members of Tomie’s family, some, like Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, may already be familiar to you from dePaola’s other picture books.
I love that this book has such a gentle tone. Tomie’s family seems to genuinely care for each other and it shows in the way they work together to get their home built and in the way they enjoy spending time together. When little Tomie goes to his grandparents’ house each Sunday, he can’t wait to see his 94 year old great-grandmother, saying, “I loved her, and every Sunday I spent all my time with her.” This sweetness seems to be missing in so many books today.
I’m guessing that Tomie and the other kids were not always perfect in real life, but as a parent, I appreciate that dePaola has shown the children treating the adults respectfully. He notes that they “always called grown-ups Miss, Mr., or Mrs.”—even when referring to celebrities such as Miss Mae West. When Tomie leaves kindergarten because they won’t be learning to read—his whole reason for going to school—he simply says he’ll “be back next year” and leaves because he doesn’t see the point. When his mother explains to him that going to school isn’t really a choice, he doesn’t argue, even though he doesn’t want to go. It shows that he is a person who does things that he shouldn’t, just like we all do, but that he can be reasonable about it when necessary.
Throughout the book, dePaola’s distinctive pictures bring the story to life. His artwork is the picture book equivalent of comfort food to me, instantly bringing to mind memories of snuggling down next to the floor vents to read as a child. The simple style complements the straightforward storytelling and reflects a time when life was simpler—or at least seemed to be.
26 Fairmount Avenue was a Newbery Honor Book in 2000 and was eventually followed by seven other books, each covering about a year of Tomie’s life. We enjoyed all of these books and even purchased the last one, rather than waiting on inter-library loan. The stories do become more complex as World War II begins and ultimately, Tomie has to deal with a death in the family due to the war. Though they are more serious, my son, who was six when he read these, still enjoyed them and could not wait to read on. If your reader is particularly sensitive, you may want to pre-read these.
I am so glad we found 26 Fairmount Avenue. It was the perfect beginning to many more chapter books!